Monthly Archives: July 2010

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I guess I should have learned my lesson by now — don’t judge a book by its movie.  Girl, Interrupted came out when I was in high school.  Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen.  She portrayed Susanna as a relatively normal woman who managed to be railroaded into a stay in McLean Hospital for mental health treatment, while Angelina Jolie played Lisa, another girl in the institution, as a complete nut.  The true story Kaysen tells about her own life is more nuanced than that, which I am thankful for.  It doesn’t, however, make her story more interesting to me.

First, the good part:  Kaysen writes a lot about what she thought about — and still thinks about.  It’s amazing to see what goes through her mind.  It’s also surprising that we’re allowed in there, since the movie led me to believe she was in McLean simply because of a series of misunderstandings.  From reading her exposition, however, it’s obvious that’s not the case.  Kaysen has some seriously abnormal mental processes.  Her thoughts are scattered and, at some points, downright frightening to read.

The upside of this, though, is that she has wonderful insight into the nature of what is considered sane and insane.  She makes the point that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, listed in the DSM, and implies that she hopes borderline personality disorder (her diagnosis) will at some point be removed, as well.  I think this is doubtful.

Another part of the book that drove me nuts was the claim she was railroaded into institutionalized treatment.  I found this hard to believe after learning how she, along with the rest of the patients, spent time manipulating and lying to the staff of the hospital.  My experience is that, if a person is good at manipulating others, they are also good at spotting when they themselves are being manipulated.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know where she was going or why she was going.  I find it even harder to believe that she couldn’t figure a way out of it had she not, somewhere inside her, wanted to go.

The one other thing that drove me nuts was Kaysen’s story structure.  She tells her tale in a mostly-linear fashion, but some stories occur that feature someone as a background character after we have read the story about their death or their release.  I didn’t care for that.  I suspect she might have experienced these stories, or remembers them, in the same order she presents them.  It’s part of her reality that I don’t care to share.

With that said, I did really like most of the substance of her book.  I enjoyed greatly her character studies of the other patients and of staff members.  I thought the recounted tales of their exploits, both large (Lisa’s escapes) and small (lying about sexual behavior to the psychiatrist) were both entertaining and telling about what life in a mental institution can do to someone.  Her insight into so many different aspects of mental illness, relationships, and the society of the 1960s is so good.  I wish she were able to do a better job with how much control she gives her mental illness and a more consistent stance on whether it does or does not impair her behavior.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

What a shame it is I never read anything by Robert Cormier when I was a young adult.  I am, instead, forced to read his books as an adult, and lament the fact that I didn’t have the pleasure of reading his stories a long time ago.  I Am the Cheese is an excellent story for tweens and teens that has lost none of its edge since its first publication over thirty years ago.

The first book of Cormier’s I read, The Chocolate War, was good, even if it is what I would consider a boys’ book, with a plot that is exotic in its strangeness to this woman’s brain.  I Am the Cheese has, I think, a more universal appeal.  Adam, the protagonist, faces challenges that are more compelling for a wider audience, which makes it better, in my opinion.

Cormier goes back and forth between two separate parts of Adam’s life.  One is told in straightforward prose, recounting the events of his bicycle ride through three states to visit his father and deliver a package to him.  The other is told through interview transcripts, in which an official of unknown training and origin asks and guides Adam’s exploration of his family’s past.

The lovely thing about Cormier’s telling of Adam’s story is that you feel as though you are learning about Adam slowly.  You know he has things that he is keeping hidden, and you can guess at some of them.  The really delightful thing is that I was wrong a couple of times, so I was still surprised despite my attempts to be ahead of the author’s pacing.

Adam’s story ends up being very interesting, indeed.  I don’t think it’s inappropriate to compare I Am the Cheese to something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of Catch-22 for both complexity and the fact that the story involves, in a very integral way, the question of the protagonist’s sanity.  Adam’s life story leads him to question who his parents are and, consequently, who he is.  Worse yet, he finds himself in a situation where he is constantly being asked questions about his family and who they truly are.  This questioning is done in an institution that does not make itself clear to Adam; he’s not sure if he’s in a mental hospital, he’s not sure whether his interrogator is a psychiatrist, and he really doesn’t know how long he’s been where he is.

If there is any drawback to I Am the Cheese, it probably is the loose ends Cormier leaves in the story.  We never find out what happens to Amy, Adam’s best friend.  The story about his bike journey falls apart at the end, as well.  While this might be a case of deliberate stylistic choice on Cormier’s part, I found it a little odd and, at the end, sad.  I wasn’t quite sure what he was attempting to convey through how Adam’s trek concluded, but I didn’t find it all that satisfying.

Overall, I found Adam’s story to be one that kept my interest and kept me guessing.  I’d imagine I Am the Cheese still pleases a young adult audience quite well, despite the lack of vampires or shallow cliques — or, worse yet, the lack of shallow vampire cliques.  For the reader who likes realistic and intelligent fiction aimed at a slightly younger audience, one could do a lot worse, and not a lot better.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane

Until recently, my only experience with Stephen Crane was, as is likely the case for most people, with The Red Badge of Courage, which I read during the summer between my ninth and tenth grades.  As a teenage girl, I didn’t really get into the Civil War novel, which is regretful.  After rediscovering him through his poetry, I think I’ll have to go back and reread it, because his poems are most delightful.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always especially liked poetry.  Why this is, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was my public school education.  My English classes never featured units on poetry, unless one counts writing haiku one day out of the year.  Or maybe it was my household.  My parents aren’t poetry people, so there weren’t books of verse around.  Or I could blame society — we don’t really appreciate poetry in our modern culture.  Ultimately, though, the blame lies with me for ruling out a whole category of literature wholesale without considering the fact that, while some might not be for me, other works might well be sublime.

I won’t go so far as to claim that Crane’s poetry is the pinnacle of literary works.  A lot of the poems included here are short — so short that they either don’t feel finished or feel as if  they have not been thought out fully.  Some of them are also Christian-themed, which is not my favorite of topics.

Crane also tends to be pessimistic and dark.  This is neither a good nor bad thing, in my opinion.  Beauty and truth can come from the depths just as easily as from sweetness and light.  I do admit, however, that he is probably less palatable to more people because of his verse’s lack of froth.

With that said, this book contains one of my favorite poems ever, “In the Desert”, which I can share, since he’s way out of copyright:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

I find that amazingly beautiful with its truth.  When our hearts are bitter, when we have ill feelings toward the world, we become that bitterness.  The longer we are that way, the harder it is to imagine ourselves as not that way, and the more frightening it is for us to accept that life doesn’t have to be that way.  At the same time, our humanity to others is lessened by the petty and miserable ways of our bitterness.

Another one of my favorites, “Places Among the Stars,” hits me as both a stylized piece almost in the same vein as some Romantic poetry and a stretching of the poem’s topic so that, instead of speaking of idealized beauty and love, Crane chooses to talk of a beloved who is decidedly imperfect and the resulting refusals he must make to the model of love the previous generations have presented:

Places among the stars,
Soft gardens near the sun,
Keep your distant beauty;
Shed no beams upon my weak heart.
Since she is here
In a place of blackness,
Not your golden days
Nor your silver nights
Can call me to you.
Since  she is here
In a place of blackness,
Here I stay and wait.

I simply think that his work is some of the most emotionally honest poetry I’ve read.  It’s not without its flaws, but the clarity of his vision in the best of his work makes this collection worth reading.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman

Like many people, I’m on a budget.  Entertainment is one of the things I cut first when money gets tight, so I was happy to find The Painted Darkness as a free eBook.  The plot sounded interesting, and, though I’d not heard of the author, I thought I would give it a shot.  Unfortunately, Freeman’s novel fell flat for me.

The main issue I have with The Painted Darkness is that I don’t feel like Henry, the main character, is well-constructed.  Freeman doesn’t even give him a last name, as far as I can see.  We don’t see him interact with people, for the most part.  We find out that he’s an artist, but other than that, there’s nothing that gives us insight into the character until, arguably, the very end.  Whether the reader feels that the little he gives us there is satisfactory is up to them; for me, it was not.  Henry feels generic in the extreme.

A secondary problem with The Painted Darkness is the split structure.  Freeman takes us back and forth between Henry at five years old and Henry today.  While some books employ this tactic in an effective way, the present-day plot line, in my opinion, relies too much on what happened while Henry was a child.  Spending more time with the childhood story before starting to intersperse the adult Henry would have been a much more satisfactory way to present the novel as a whole.

The Painted Darkness also has a problem with predictability.  I was able to guess at a lot of the events before they occurred.  While that might mean I’m a genius, I somehow doubt it.  I like to be able to feel sometimes clever by being able to predict one or two things ahead of the reveals.  I don’t like knowing the ending when I’m a good ways away from it.

The last main drawback to the book is the overall quality of the writing.  I feel bad for saying this, but, for someone who has apparently published at least one other novel and several short stories, his word usage is not good.  While I was reading, I noticed a lot of things that prevented me from enjoying the book.  This is not a good thing.

I’m not saying I could do better — on the contrary, I don’t think I’d fare much better if I were writing a piece of fiction.  I just don’t think I have that in me, no matter how much I wish the opposite were true.  As the old adage says, however, I don’t need to be a chicken to know what an egg is.  I have a feeling that Freeman is, like a lot of us, full of great ideas.  His execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 0.5/5.

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The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Historical fiction, unless it specifically centers around politics or military campaigns, seems to be a feminine genre.  Hence, there tends to be quite a few books labeled as historical fiction that are, for all intents and purposes, truly romance novels.  Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus rises above that tendency.  The reader is allowed to explore art, religion, and politics in a fifteenth-century Italian city-state, as well as enjoy a rather tense coming-of-age story.

The Birth of Venus tells the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the younger daughter of a well-to-do Florentine cloth merchant.  Unlike her sister, Plautilla, Alessandra is not a cheerfully conventional girl; unlike her brother Luca, she is intelligent and loves learning.  But it is her brother Tomaso who is truly her adversary, all the more dangerous for his cleverness.  They go back and forth, exchanging cruelties, until their rivalry reaches a pinnacle that threatens both of them.

Alessandra is also a very curious girl.  She’s educated and sharp.  She also enjoys sketching and painting, which, at the time of her early childhood in Florence, meant that she was not exactly encouraged, but not forbidden it, either.  The Medicis have encouraged the arts, and, in truth, it has become a decadent city.

This is one of the things I enjoyed about this book — the political and religious climate of the city very much shapes the options and behaviors of the characters.  Alessandra’s art is tolerated in her childhood, but by the time she is married, most art by people of either sex is condemned for its ostentatious and heretical nature.  Women, under Savonarola’s regime, are restricted in what they are allowed to do.  For someone like Alessandra, who is driven to learn and to do, this is an unbearable way to live.

She also becomes hampered in other ways.  Her rivalry with Tomaso, combined with the perceived threat invading French troops cause for the city’s young virgins, leads her to a loveless marriage with Tomaso’s older gay lover.  Though they get along and appreciate each other in an intellectual sense, Tomaso holds Alessandra’s husband’s heart, which hurts her deeply.  The hasty marriage also causes the loss of her beloved, a painter who was a former monk.

It’s a fantastic plot, for the most part.  Granted, it is a little like a romance novel, but it reads like an intelligent one.  My main problem with the book is that it tends to toss things in and not tie them together in satisfactory ways.  There is a subplot, for example, about gruesome murders taking place within the city in or near churches.  While it’s interesting, and provides some mood, it’s puzzling as to why Alessandra would come to find out about them in all their grisly glory when she was deemed too innocent to learn about sex.  Was there something about the Florentine culture that made violence more acceptable to expose to teenage girls?  Perhaps sex was considered more dangerous.  I have no idea, but it’s just one of the little things that made me furrow my brow a bit.

I also was a little taken aback by the African slave, Erila.  I liked the fact that she was an intelligent, savvy individual who was a steadfast and loyal friend.  What made me so surprised was that, while the Cecchi family owned slaves, they treated them the same or better than their servants.  It struck me as a little uncommon, to say the least.

While there are these shortcomings, I thought The Birth of Venus to be a rather good piece of lighter fiction.  It gives just enough substance to make you think a little bit, but not so much that it’s inappropriate for summer poolside reading (which is what I used it for).

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

Looking Backward is not a book that was on my reading list.  I had a book lined up to read, and then realized that I wouldn’t get through it, or, worse, finish it and not be fair to it.  I found myself in a rare situation — I was without a book, and I needed something before I went to the gym the next morning, before the library opened.  Luckily, my fiancé had a book from one of his college classes he thought I might like.  He handed me Looking Backward, and I’m glad he did.  It’s an interesting piece of speculative fiction with a Utopian bent.

Bellamy starts off his book in 1887, telling the story of Julian West, a resident of Boston, in the first person.  He talks about his life as a young man of the upper class, building a house and preparing for marriage.  One night, he goes home and heads down to the basement chamber he’s created for sleep when insomnia is affecting him.  He manages to fall asleep, only to find his chamber opened from above and strange people looking at him.

It turns out West has been asleep for over one hundred years.  Dr. Leete, his wife, and his daughter, Edith, have stumbled upon his room after digging for a construction project.  West originally expects that what Dr. Leete tells him about the date is a joke, but slowly comes to understand that his Boston is gone and that a new one is in its place.

What follows from here is a long exposition on what a socialist utopia would be like.  It was fascinating in the extreme to read what Bellamy planned for almost all aspects of life for future residents of the world.  He had an educational system worked out, a political system set up, international relations figured out, employment was straightened out, and even the (somewhat) equal sharing of labor between the sexes.  He thought of almost everything.

I found it especially intriguing that Bellamy had thought of some things that have come to pass.  He had a credit card system that, while it had more of a chit feature than the magnetic strip we use today, functioned in a similar way to our debit cards.  He also had a radio system with published guides that sounded to me like a mix of our radio and television system.  It’s neat that he hit some things right from so far back.

There were two things about the book that I disliked.  The first was the tendency for Dr. Leete’s dialogue to become paragraph-upon-paragraph description of his own time and criticism of the past.  No actual person, besides college professors, gets to talk at people like that.  The whole point of something being a conversation is that there’s at least two people involved.  As a result, the book is very noticeably a piece of hopeful propaganda.

The second thing I didn’t like was the development of the relationships between the Leetes, and Edith in particular, and West.  It did not feel organic, most likely because they were constructed in order to provide some sort of plot to create a vehicle for the political views Bellamy held.  A more solid fiction would have made it a more compelling and interesting read from a pleasure standpoint.

Overall, I thought Looking Backward was a neat piece of history.  I liked being able to see what people in the Progressive Era were thinking about their society.  I learned a lot, and I am thus grateful to my fiancé for lending it to me.  I almost can’t wait until I run out of reading material again to see what he turns up.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve already read the entire Chronicles of Prydain series.  I loved it, so I picked up a matching copy of this book, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  I’m not quite sure what I was expecting — maybe a story about Taran’s early childhood mixed in with some more traditional background lore — but what I got was perfectly delightful.

The book is made up of eight short stories.  The first, “The Foundling,” is not, as I had expected, about Taran’s origin or early childhood.  It is, rather, about Dallben’s early years.  It turns out that he has some interesting foster parents — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, the three fate-like figures who seem to know all (or cause all) events in Prydain.  We also learn how Dallben became so wise, the story of which echoes how Finn MacCool earned his intelligence in Celtic mythology.  Finally, we also get to find out how Dallben obtained The Book of Three and what consequences he had to face for owning it.

The second story, “The Stone,” is modeled on a traditional folktale frame; we do have Doli, but it’s not really a story about him.  He merely serves as the fairy-world representative for the main character, Maibon.  In exchange for helping Doli out of a jam, Maibon compels Doli to honor the rule of granting a boon to a human who comes to a Fair Folk’s aid.  Maibon wishes for something foolish, and we get to see the result.

“The True Enchanter” feels both familiar and new.  Drawing from both the Western fairy tale structure and the plot of at least one Greek myth I can think of, Alexander writes of an enchantress princess, Angharad, and her difficulty with the rules placed on her regarding her choice of a husband.  Told by her mother she must only choose from the pool of enchanters, Angharad quickly decides that the first two suitors, based on their magical performances, are not for her.  The third suitor, however, turns out to be more interesting.

“The Rascal Crow” truly reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables.  I think it could fit right in with his canon.  After the animals of Prydain learn of the evilness of King Arawn, Kadwyr the crow disparages the offers of help the other species bring to the defense.  Insisting, teasingly, that he can carry out all the tasks better than the other animals, he sets off to protect the land.  Alexander shows us the consequences of believing only oneself to be competent and the value of learning to trust and rely on others.

For the fifth story, “The Sword,” Alexander writes about the origin of the great sword Dyrnwyn and of how it became tainted.  Rhytta, the King of Prydain, inherited the sword.  Through his arrogant and dismissive behavior toward his subjects, Rhytta commits a terrible act.  From there, the sword changes slowly from shining to stained as the king makes further and further mistakes, yet refuses to change his behavior.

“The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper,” explains how a disguised Arawn managed to take the forging and weaving knowledge of Prydain away from its artisans.  Neither the smith nor the weaver Arawn tricks manage to realize that something for nothing is never really for nothing — there is always a cost.  The harper, however, manages to see what his fellow tradesmen were not, and confronts the true face of Arawn.

The penultimate story, “Coll and his White Pig,” is, delightfully, about Coll.  We still don’t learn how Coll happened to own Hen Wen.  Alexander does, however, show us Coll’s nature through the actions he takes while attempting to rescue Hen Wen after she is captured by Arawn’s henchmen.  Not one to leave us completely hanging, Alexander also tells us how Coll and Dallben came to be living together in Caer Dallben.

The last story is about Fflewddur Fflam, our favorite truth-bending bard.  “The Truthful Harp” begins with Fflewddur’s study to become a bard, and how that didn’t go so well.  After failing his test, Fflam is given a new harp by the Chief Bard.  Fflam goes through several adventures (and several harp strings) before arriving back to the Chief Bard and reporting on his exploits, first through fibbing and later by telling the truth.

I love the lessons Alexander imparts to the readers of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  He takes inspiration from several different traditional folklore and mythological traditions while keeping Wales in the forefront of his mind.  While the stories can stand on their own, they are, I suspect, easier to understand and enjoy if one has first read the books in the Chronicles of Prydain series.  That’s the only reason I can’t give it a 5; some younger readers, especially, are likely to be a little lost coming in to some of the stories.  Overall, however, I think most children, young adults, and, yes, adults, will enjoy what Alexander can tell them about the goings-on in Prydain.

Rating: 4/5

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