The Giver

thegiver

Sometimes I need a book for a specific purpose and I’m forced to splurge. After college, I got a job tutoring writing for middle school students. I came up with prompts teaching techniques of literature analysis and went seeking a book that would hopefully inspire ideas and get them excited about the project. Okay, honesty moment? I bought Lois Lowry’s The Giver for five dollars at my favorite used book store “Book Off”. I used it a little in my tutoring, but ended up switching to The Hunger Games.

Even though The Giver has a slower buildup and payoff for a dystopian fable, I didn’t regret the purchase. I hadn’t read it myself. In sixth grade, my teacher read it to me but looking back this is absolutely the wrong book to read aloud. The transitions between past and present bleed into each other, and if you’re only half-listening it can get rather confusing. Luckily, rediscovering the young adult novel in my twenties gave me a new opportunity to appreciate the message of the story. Plus, catch up before the new movie comes out! (We’ll get to that later…)

In One Sentence: In a “perfect” new world, a young boy is assigned to become the new host for all of society’s memories.

Favorite Line: “I liked the feeling of love,” [Jonas] confessed… “Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.'” – p. 126

Review: Looking at dystopia through the eyes of a twelve year old is interesting because that time of your life is all about the transition from accepting the world as it is and questioning it. This book has a clear message on the importance of memory, that it is something to be treasured, but takes a different turn when it can only be harnessed by one person. Most of the book is just defining the rules of this world and the underbelly that the main character Jonas discovers to be less than perfect. Because it’s a complete new society, and a lot of the work is in integrating the reader into the world, I found the characters very awkward with each other. BUT as Jonas gained more wisdom, he became less awkward — less formal — more confident in lying. It’s an unlikely future, but begs the reader to think about ‘what if?’ The ending isn’t totally satisfying, but I recommend it as a Bucket List classic. Then, you can switch to Hunger Games.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jonas’s father decided not to nurse baby Gabriel at home.

Coming to Theaters:

Thoughts:

1. Why is most of this movie in color?!

2. Jeff Bridges. Phew.

3. Did they just show a possible ending?

4. Prediction: the rules of the world will be like the book, but they’ll add lots more conflict.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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I’d like to introduce a new tenet into bargain book hunting — the borrowed book. No, not from a library. Borrowed books from friends, relatives, or even colleagues are great finds not only for the added recommendation of a book, but also for the excitement of being able to talk with someone about a book after you finish it (well, if you finish it.) Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was lent to me by my aunt and shared with others in my family.

The best books to borrow — or on the other hand, to lend — are those that invite discussion on complicated issues. Skloot’s nonfiction book is at once a biography, mystery, and exploration of many ethical questions surrounding scientific research and ownership. Is science truly an endeavor to better mankind or has it become too profit driven? I’m not sure. Maybe both.

In One Sentence: Writer seeks to discover the true story behind the first immortal HeLa cells.

Favorite Line: “I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.” – p. 238

Review: It’s books like these that make you realize how important writers are. Rebecca Skloot tells the story not only of Henrietta Lacks as a poor black woman in the 1950s getting her cells reproduced and sold without her knowledge, but also follows the story of the cells themselves as they become involved in the development of vaccines, cancer research, and more. I’ll be honest, science is not my favorite topic but somehow Skloot is able to take advantage of narrative structure and pacing to deliver the tension that has really come about with the Lacks family as well as the contamination of cells in the science community. Truly well balanced prose. I also loved the point of view of this story. Unlike Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, Skloot places herself in the story. She shared what inspired her to pursue these questions and included her struggles to gain the trust of the Lacks family. The writing really got me thinking about my own beliefs related to scientific research and how those ideas change constantly. I recommend this book mostly because I need more people to talk about it with!

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: The Lacks family never responded to the author’s calls.

“Borrowing” from Rebecca Skloot: On her website, there’s a page devoted to “What Rebecca’s Reading.” I explored and found very interesting science articles in the similar vein of exploring things otherwise less often explored. Topics include why doctors don’t die like the rest of us, experiments gone wrong, the ethos of Twitter/ Facebook, and takes on meta-nonfiction. Check it out:

http://rebeccaskloot.com/about/what-rebeccas-reading/

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Love Story

lovestory

Before Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, there was Erich Segal’s Love Story: the tragic story about Oliver and Jenny. Tragic because Jenny dies. That’s not a spoiler. It’s the first line of the novel – What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl that died?” It’s almost comical how simple the story is. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. She dies. The end. BUT THE PEOPLE LOVED IT. You’ll never find this book as a major discussion point in any English class, but does its own simplicity have something valuable to say about story-telling?

I found a 1970s copy of the book at Goodwill for two dollars. The funny thing is the original price from 1977 was still printed on the front – $1.75. I guess not everything at Goodwill is a good deal. I hadn’t seen the film and though the story wasn’t very exciting for my tastes, the novel seemed like a quick read. Plus, the story of how Love Story came to be is quite interesting from a writing perspective. Erich Segal wrote the screenplay first. In hoping to market the film, Paramount wanted a novel to be released before the film. Maybe this is a lesson for all screenwriters today. Once you finish the original screenplay, create a backup novel version. I mean, what’s the last film you saw that wasn’t based on something else?

In One Sentence: It’s a love story.

Favorite Line: “She closed her book softly, put it down, then placed her hands on the sides of my neck. ‘Oliver — wouldja please.’ It all happened at once. Everything.” pg. 34

Review: The novel reminds me of Twilight. I liked it more than Twilight, it’s a better love story than Twilight, but it has the same literary lore of being a bit too sentimental and plot-less. I had a screenwriting professor who when her students bemoaned the success of the vampire series, she made us reevaluate the discussion. She said, “You don’t have to like it, but you have to understand it.” This seems to me to be the same strategy of how to approach Love Story. Even though I knew the ending, it was a page-turner. Even though the prose is short and to the point, lacking description and quite honestly written like a screenplay, it’s effective. There’s no fluff, besides perhaps what happens in the scenes. I read this over two days, and I enjoyed the pacing, but was left dissatisfied with the ending. Why was this book and film so successful? Because when we read it, we could relate to that feeling of loving someone so completely you can accept them for who they are. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is a terrible relationship lesson on the surface, but what it really means is that we can make mistakes and be ourselves and the point isn’t to never make mistakes, but to grow up through them and with each other. I recommend this book, not as a great work of literary genius or even much structural merit, but it won’t take up much time. Plus, even if you don’t like it, it’s important to ask yourself by the end – why did others?

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jenny and Oliver had never gotten coffee.

Let’s jam instead: I was going to mention the sequel Oliver’s Story, but this seemed like a more important find.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

absolutelytrue

There’s a reason why coming-of-age stories remain staples in literature. Whether it is through classic like Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Outsiders or modern tales such as Youth in Revolt — we read these books early or late in life, and either way when we are finished they stay preserved on our bookshelves. They are the books you read, and you see yourself. 

Did you know there are Goodwills EXCLUSIVELY for books? No clothes. No VCRs. Just books. I drove by one with my family off of Foothill Blvd between the Walmart shopping center and a closed tavern. I found about four or five books that cost about ten dollars total. One was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I had recognized the name from writer’s quotes and short stories, but had not read any of his novels.  It seemed like an interesting find – a funny novel filled with comics like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, except with more awards and, hopefully, poignancy.

In One Sentence: A junior high cartoonist leaves his Indian Reservation school for better opportunities at an all-white school.

Favorite Line: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” – pg 13

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Review: A young boy has to deal with the natural struggle of identity but with the added complications of being the only Indian in an all-white school. He becomes the outcast not only in his new school, but also to his friends back home who see him as a  “part-time Indian.” Hilarious. Hard to put down. Totally inspiring in its ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time. This novel is all about voice. It masterfully captures the voice of the narrator and main protagonist, Junior. “Literary fiction” usually sets a certain expectation for a caliber of language, but there is also so much control and craft in a writer’s ability to create a convincing voice. Part of this success in Sherman Alexie’s novel is due to his own admittance that much of the text is auto-biographical, from his experience growing up on an Indian Reservation. I’ve come to discover that the best forms of art are not necessarily about a central theme or overall impact on society, but about honesty. Even in fiction, if I can feel a writer’s true intention and honesty – I’ll likely remember that book for the rest of my life. Everyone should read this book. Most importantly at schools where, unfortunately, it has been banned.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner if: People were more willing to look for things they had in common, rather than what made them different.

Banned: Throughout the country this book has been introduced into middle school curriculum, cursed by parents, and then swiftly banned (sometimes removed as required reading, other times taken out of libraries all together.) Why? The narrator, as a prepubescent boy, talks about masturbation. Watch Sherman Alexie’s reaction:

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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If a book has mass amounts of hype around it, there is one guarantee. In a year’s timeit will be in Goodwill or a thrifty used book store with five duplicate copies. I had friends, relatives, and Entertainment Weekly toting the quality, addictive-ness, and tension working like magic in the “Millennium Trilogy.” While I wasn’t as much interested in the series at the time, when I saw a few copies in Goodwill (it was nice to be able to pick the book with less tattered pages) I thought, why not?

The awkward thing about loving to read is that many times, when speaking with another reader, you end up in a back and forth of: Have you read this? Have you read this?  searching for where your explorations diverge. Books aren’t like movies or TV shows where with one sitting you can catch up and join in on water cooler conversation. Hopefully, by finally catching up on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ll have more in common with my fellow reader.

In One Sentence: Ruined reporter/editor sent on an investigation into a family mystery, gets a cool sidekick, and drinks lots of coffee.

Favorite Line: “She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately society was not very smart or understanding; she had to protect herself from social authorities, child welfare authorities, guardianship authorities, tax authorities, police, curators, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, and bouncers, who (apart from the guys watching the door at Kvarnen, who by this time knew who she was) would never let her into the bar even though she was twenty-five. There was a whole army of people who seemed not to have anything better to do than to try and disrupt her life, and, if they were given the opportunity, to correct the way she had chosen to live it.” – pg 393 – 394

Review: As a first book in a series, it’s satisfying enough to enjoy without needing to continue. I may continue, but the point is that it isn’t necessary. This book is more or less a great episode of Law and Order: SVU. It had a slow start, but once the mystery was presented I kept turning the pages until it was solved. While I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing, I was disappointed with the character relationships and I don’t see this book as being a very good re-read. Don’t get me wrong. The characters are interesting (though I did have to refer to the family chart a few times to keep track of everyone) but as they delved deeper into relationships or severed ties, it became easy come – easy go. No one does any work. All of the bonds are created through circumstance and not challenged beyond that. Maybe it changes in the later books; I may never know. This is a great one-time read, but I would recommend Tami Hoag’s Dark Horse as an alternative to get both the gripping mystery and lasting character bonds.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: There had been a coffee shortage on Hedeby.

Seriously.

Why so much coffee.

It actually became a part of the plot.

Actual Favorite Line: He had drunk more coffee during the past twenty-four hours than at any time in his life, but by now he had learned that in Norrland it was rude to say no.” – p. 365

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Rosemary’s Baby

RosemarysBabyBook

This is one I have been excited about. I found the book in a child’s wagon outside of a dual book and jewelry store on the island of Molokai. All of the books in the wagon were only twenty-five cents (a bit more expensive than my dime-book finds, but still a deal.) Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is known not only as a classic film but a great story. I love horror, tension, and the best part is when “evil” is not the true villain of the story.

I’ll be totally honest. I did see the film before I found the book and loved it. When I found the book, I wasn’t sure it could be better. I mean, we are talking about Roman Polanski, aren’t we? But after reading this book and thinking about how it succeeded in a completely different way than the film, I realized that the best stories aren’t exclusive to one form. In fact, each form brings out something new to the experience and it’s not fair to call one better than the other.

In One Sentence: Housewife gives birth to Satan’s baby. (Well… it’s her baby too.  Hence, the title.)

Favorite Line: “… she wished that no motive and no number of drinks could have enabled him to take her that way, taking only her body without her soul or self or she-ness — whatever it was he presumably loved. Now, looking back over the past weeks and months, she felt a disturbing presence of overlooked signals just beyond memory, signals of a shortcoming in his love for her, of a disparity between what he said and what he felt. He was an actor; could anyone know when an actor was true and not acting?” – p. 94

Review: As I was skimming through the book to look back at quotes and scenes, I found myself becoming immersed in this world once again. Ira Levin is a master-page-turner. Rosemary’s Baby is enjoyable for two reasons. One, the most horrifying element of the story has nothing to do with Satan. This story takes us to what we fear most (not in a snakes and monsters way, but what do we fear will happen now? tomorrow? the next day?) and adds a supernatural twist. Second, Ira Levin. Since reading this novel, I am addicted to Ira Levin. It’s no wonder his books easily get turned into films. Every sentence propels the story forward. THIS IS NOT VICTOR HUGO, PEOPLE. I’ve read a few of Ira Levin’s novels now, and the only shortcoming I can see is a product of his time. His women characters turn quickly to silly putty in the face of danger and all his male characters use sex as a weapon… but with that said, I can’t stop reading.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: Actors weren’t self-involved.

On Ira Levin:

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House Rules

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Whenever I’m feeling slightly stressed or anxiety-prone, I stop by a Goodwill for a quick hit of book buying. At Goodwill, there will be a two copies of New Moon, some Grisham book, and if you’re lucky a slightly torn up hard cover Harry Potter. Once in awhile, if I am careful and read through each title and paragraph description, I’ll find something I never knew existed.

House Rules by Rachel Sontag interested me immediately as a memoir on the premise of emotional abuse from her parents rather than the more radical, probable, and comprehensible physical abuse. Not only that, but the author’s description toted an MFA from the New School. I was in the process for applying to grad schools (not on the east coast, really, but in the general sense) and thought it was worth looking into how her background influenced her writing.

In One Sentence: A girl growing up is chastised for growing up.

Favorite Line: “It came out almost shyly. And I thought he’d come to a stop, realizing he was killing a certain part of me, and I thought that Mom was going to blow the whistle, declare that we’d gone too far. But Dad looked up from the carpet, into my eyes, and said, ‘I mean that, Rachel. I really do. I wish you were never born. I really, really do.'” – p. 158

Review: This is essentially a coming of age story. This story works wonderfully on the level of laying out the context and instances of emotional abuse through clear, matter-of-fact style. The greatest moments of any memoir is when the author takes time to reflect on their own involvement and growth in the piece, and Sontag succeeds in keeping those moments genuine and well-placed. While her father comes across as controlling (a patriarch on a power trip), the betrayal she feels from her mother, her family, her friends is more heartbreaking. This book brings up a great question about writing non-fiction: how do you write your story without hurting the people you love? Someone once told me in a workshop something they had heard from someone else, and has likely travelled from writer to writer since. You are allowed to write your story, because it’s yours. If people get upset, they can write their version, but don’t let it stop you. This book is a must-read, unless you’ve had more serious life problems where this might come off as first world problems (see: Anne Frank).

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: Adults did not act so openly like children.

In Other News: In a strange turn of events, after the book was published the parents decided to “set things right” and created a website posting their story along with an abundance of notes, recordings, and odd poetry. In another example of I-think-you-just-proved-my-point, enjoy:

http://www.sontaghouserules.com/

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