Ally Condie – Matched

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Describing Matched will make you run away. It’s the serious person’s worst nightmare. Think of every recent Young Adult cliche, and it’s here. Matched Is a story of an ordinary girl in an oppressive-benign society caught between the Stable Guy and Mysterious Dude. There isn’t even something underneath all these cliches to justify it. The novel doesn’t use these tropes in a new, original way.

Yet it’s charming and a pleasant read. Instead of being a chore, that type of novel that makes you visibly angry it’s fun. It’s as if someone stripped City of Bones of the overwriting and Divergent from the pretense. Matched never, for a second, pretends it’s important. It’s a band that gets on stage, kicks some catchy riffs for half an hour and gets off.

Is that worthy of praise? I don’t know. The novel’s roots are in a genre driven by meaning and depth. Dystopian literature doesn’t exist to romanticize revolutionary and shooting people. Dystopian is a genre of ideas. Matched isn’t interested in exploring its ideas even if the big organization is given a few moments to express itself. It cares more about its love story and the excitement of being a teenager.

Condie’s strength is that she never, for a second, pretends it’s anything other than a love story filled with teenage silliness. Every idea and symbol are explained, and it feels like Condie strips the wrappers to show us there isn’t a new idea here. It helps to refocus us, to remind us we’re not in here to explore the dystopia.

She can’t even come up with unique names. Her big organization is called the Society and everyone already said that its idea is basically The Giver. To her credit, it’s a better version of that book. That one was anti-communist agitprop. The Society in Matched still has plenty of inequality. Its flaws aren’t just sentimental, ‘equality makes us all boring’. It shows that in order for some people to live well, others have to sacrifice themselves.

Don’t let it fool you. These little bits are nothing like the romance which is the novel’s true purpose. Oddly, no matter how cliched it is, it’s successful. The story is focused and well-paced. Since it never pretends to be meaningful, it devotes all it sources to capturing those stupid feelings when you’re first in half.

The writing, if not unique, gets the point. There is a youthful energy and sentimentality to it. Cassia may not be developed or unique, but the writing does make her a believable teenager. In fact, the cliched ideas contribute to it. Teenagers are ignorant and their deep thoughts are often more passionate than deep. The writing has all this passion and none of the depth. Perhaps it’s an accident, but it’s fairly realistic.

Since Condie is concerned more with teenage life, the novel doesn’t punish the reader with action scenes. Action scenes rarely work in novels. They’re mostly vague descriptions about bullets flying and people screaming from pain. The story in Matched is more personal, more concerned with relationships developing and changing. That gives it a little humanity and puts it above novels like Divergent. Condie may not be able to develop these characters, but at least she treats them like human beings and let them act like ones. The novel’s focus on the characters’ emotions makes it more thrilling and engrossing than a long-winded blow-by-blow account of a fight.

It could’ve been profound, but it’s shallow. No one actually has a personality. The situation she creates rely on character interactions, though. So with enough passionate writing, she manages to create the illusion of character-driven story. At least it’s a better way to progress the story. Instead of jumping from action scene to action scene, each scene is a clear progression in the relationships.

The romance itself is the strongest part, but I’m not sure if it’s praiseworthy. Common criticism of teen romance don’t apply here. The two dudes are decent people. The mysterious guy is mysterious in a benign way. He knows more about the outside and he likes poetry, but he’s never aggressive or stalking. The love triangle almost makes sense. Cassia has a reason to be attracted to both of them since both have different, but good traits.

Is it good though? It’s fun and the youthful exciting is charming, but that’s all it has. The characters have no personality whatsoever. The world is slightly better than The Giver, but not by much. The storytelling is focused and not rambling, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere.

The charm of Matched is good enough to make it bearable. It’s a novel that takes all the YA tropes and knows how to make them work just enough. If you want a pure, silly YA novel with no depth that’s not annoying this is it. But, in a way, it feels like we’re praising the novel more for not being City of Bones.

3 dystopias out of 5

Jennifer Niven – All the Bright Places

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I read plenty of crappy books. The world is, after all, a crappy place (That’s why people kill themselves). Never have I read a book that offended me as much as this. I’d rather read the file about the crimes of Ian Watkins.

Suicide is close to me. My relationship with it is special. I’m passionate about it. I hope to either die by suicide, or make assisted suicide a reality and help the community. It frames my life.

Let me be clear. I do not want to live. I live only because I have to. I live only because assisted suicide isn’t available. Nothing can change it, except perhaps becoming a godlike celebrity. The reasons for this aren’t just ‘depression’ or whatever.

Suicide isn’t the result of simple chemical imbalance. Suicide is a choice. There is a lot of philosophical depth to it. The communities are rife with ideas and arguments why do it. Reading what these people left behind, they’re hardly irrational. Calling them ‘depressed’ and therefore irrational is calling a woman irrational because her skin bleeds when her husband hits her. No one chooses to be born. People should at least be able to choose to die. What kind of sick world is it that people live in it against their will?

Niven lost a person to suicide. The subject is close to her. I’m sorry for her loss, but it doesn’t excuse how horrible the novel is. Her lack of understanding of the suicidal mind is in every page. That’s not surprising since understanding suicide is extremely difficult unless you’re there. People are hard-wired to survive. “Life is good” is an idea that exists in our genes. Thinking otherwise is rebellion against nature itself.

The main principle behind suicide is that life isn’t good, in and of itself. Death has its benefits, like the end of all needs and all suffering. I talked to many people about suicide and each of them thought we all operate around the same idea. They all thought suicidal people love life and simply feel terrible in this moment. Yet all the writings in alt.suicide.holiday says a different thing. These people value freedom and not life.

Niven can’t understand this, and that’s why her main character isn’t really suicidal. In order for him to be suicidal, I need to see these thoughts in action. I need to see the despair, the hatred, the failure and the lack of connection with the world, Nothing about Finch resembles a suicidal person. Even pro-life psychologists – who fool themselves into thinking they understand us – know a little about that mind. Another quality of it is that it feels trapped.

In fact, many of the people in suicide communities would kill to be Theodore Finch. He plays guitar and writes songs. There’s a rock bar where people know him and he’s been in bands. He had a lot of sex. He aggressively pursue a hot girl and instead of getting accused of harassment, he wins her. Clearly, Finch is in the beautiful and free. Perhaps he was abused, but a lot of people are abused without killing themselves. Perhaps his mother is absent, but that gives him so much freedom.

A lot of people also lead great lives and still kill themselves. Just look at Robin Williams or Ian Curtis. Despite being ultimate alpha males in the eyes of society, they decided to exit. This happens occasionally in my suicide forum. Someone mentions how, despite having everything they still want to die. I do believe them – they still feel a sense of pointless or trapped-ness or hopelessness.

Where is it in Finch? He pursues Violet with the confidence of a jock. He travels around and has a lot of fun. Niven is good at writing the ‘manic’ side of Finch. She’s just as in love with life, so she uses the character to escape to a teenage fantasy – Manic Pixie Dream Boy acts like a sex offender (Hot, so forgiven) and teaches a depressed (But popular and hot) girl how to live while travelin’ ’round.

We hardly get any moment of Finch’s ‘depressed’ side. Pessimism and optimism are weird things. It’s possible to find negatives and positives in everything and that’s how Digimon Tamers presented a good argument against suicide. Niven doesn’t present any arguments for suicide at all. Where’s the sense of hopeless? Of no direction? Where’s the feeling that no matter what happens, it will never get better?

Suicidal people often have a psychological need the can’t satisfy. They tend to have specific issues they want to live without. The fear of these striking again is why they prefer dying over living (If it can get worse, it can also get better). Finch doesn’t have that psychological need. He’s a male version of the females from John Green books. Despite being pretty bummed over life, we never get a reason why. Niven can’t even imagine a reason like “I will never be enough for that girl”. Niven can’t even give Finch a reason to die that suicidal people will frown upon.

So no, Finch isn’t mentally ill. He’s always manic and always full of life. Something in Williams’ and Curtis’ lives wasn’t enough. Despite being a big shot comedian and the frontman of Post-Punk’s top band, life still wasn’t good enough. There isn’t a single moment where Niven shows she understands what it’s like when everything is not enough.

As for Violet, she mostly follows Finch around and gives in to Finch’s aggressive pursuit. I didn’t mention Ian Watkins in the beginning for nothing. Finch pursues Violent with so much force that if he continued to live he’d probably end up like Watkins. Assuming, of course, he’ll have a hit song. Considering he’s hot I bet he has a good chance.

John Green is also a good comparison point. The book follows a nearly identical structure. The shared ingredients include two lovers who are meant to be weirdos, but are in fact total badasses. There are quirky best friends and a lot of traveling around. To Niven’s credit, she doesn’t focus too much on those so-called ‘best friends’.

There are also few and brief moments where Niven understands suicide. If you ever wanted to kill yourself you probably heard help is available and people care. They don’t. People are shocked by suicide and won’t care about you when you’re alive. Many people are afraid to acknowledge this and I’m glad Niven gets that. The character of Amanda also makes me hope that if Niven only read a bit in alt.suicide.holiday, she might’ve understood the concept of “Everything is never enough”. She’s the most realistic and fascinating character – a popular girl so trapped in her popularity she can’t imagine a way out but death.

If you hope to read this and gain an understanding of suicide, you will be disappointed. Worse, you might be fooled. Suicidal people aren’t illnesses. They aren’t thoughtcriminals who need to be re-educated. No one chooses to live and therefore people should be allowed to die. The anti-suicide attitude is in fact what drives many people to suicide. A lot of suicidal people aren’t fighting suicidal thoughts. They’re fighting life. Life is the problem, not the desire to die.

The novel is terrible for deeper reasons than a creepy romance and ripping off a ‘meh’ author. It takes an important and rich subject and doesn’t even simplify it. Suicide happens in the book, but the story is really about two hot teenage badasses being hot teenage badasses. If I lived like Finch I would’ve loved life. I really hope Niven – and anyone else who lost someone to suicide – finds support and continues to take care of themselves. It won’t suicide any less valid though.

zero stars

Stephen King – Carrie

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It’s odd to read this now. King is a behemoth. People who don’t read books probably know his name and he’s synonymous with Horror fiction. It doesn’t feel like he wanted to be a horror writer in his first novel. There’s blood, cruelty and a general depressive tone. What defines a story is more than these techniques.

At its heart, this is a psychological novel. Its main concern is not with horrifying, but exploring different viewpoints. A lot of characters are pushed to the extreme, especially Carrie’s mother. It doesn’t make them any less understandable. King just makes everyone equally exaggerated.

Carrie’s mom is terrible, but she has reasons for what she does. While she’s an exaggerated portrait of an overprotective mother, she never becomes a strawman. King writes events that make her personality understandable. She was already predisposed to extreme religious views. When so many things happen that only strengthen that position, her already narrow view becomes narrower.

It’s weird to see King forgive his antagonist like this. He didn’t do it in other stories, where someone was evil because of something in the past and ruined the fun for everyone. Margaret White is more of a warning, showing us how we can become so protective (and thus dangerous).

The Evil Hot Girl gets a worse treatment, but it’s still there. Things make sense from her point of view. She’s used to getting what she wants easily. Such people react with anger when people challenge them, especially if it’s to protect a weirdo. Chris was raised in praise of normality. Her cruelty comes from hatred towards Carrie, but the hatred doesn’t come out of nowhere. Carrie was a challenge, a weirdo who made her presence known and that people sided with. Of course Chris will feel threatened.

The novel isn’t about horrifying readers. It’s about bullying. It doesn’t even use this controversial subject as an instigator to spill blood. The first half of the book is concerned with what bullying is and how it can affect people.

There’s an irony here. Parents want to protect their children, especially from bullies. This overprotectiveness can become bullying. Margaret has good intentions, but she still bullies Carrie. Confining, locking away and limiting a person’s freedom is a form of bullying. It’s just as harmful as insults. It’s a form of violence. Margaret tried to protect Carrie from the world, but her overprotectiveness made the world more dangerous since she never taught Carrie how to handle the world.

Bullying doesn’t start from pure sadism. A person becomes a target for bullying when he’s odd enough and don’t know how to react. This what makes the locker room scene so effective. The whole blood-from-vagina thing isn’t an a horror thing. It’s just texture. The purpose of that scene is to show what makes kids bully another. Carrie was a weirdo, getting her period late and not knowing what it is. It’s something the kids can use for their entertainment.

Yes, bullying is that cruel. There was nothing very exaggerated about it. Bullying escelates from insults to such acts of violence, complete with the crowd cheering. Not everyone is going to jump in, though. This is a surprising insight from King. Instead of painting everyone as just out to make Carrie miserable, he recognizes not all of them are evil.

Some of them may even regret. Some of the popular kids are probably busy having too much fun to care. That is far more realistic. Some people will get drunk with power being at the top of the popularity chain. Others will have too much confidence, enjoy their life too much to make time to make someone else miserable.

It’s hard to trust them when you’re used to bullying so much. When you’re a nail, everything looks like a hammer. Carrie isn’t an antagonist but a tragic character. She was pushed around so much that she couldn’t believe a good thing was happening. She is quick to look for how other people will hurt her and jump to conclusions.

The most horrifying thing about the explosion at the end is not all the blood and the damage. It’s the fact we understand Carrie and that her reaction seems reasonable.

There are excerpts from various fictional texts scattered around the novel, and they further emphasize that people were acting based on what they know and what seems reasonable to them. It’s not just a way to show off writing styles. The focus is how each text treats the case – an autobiography with a personal tone a cold interview and an academic text that remains skeptic of everything.

This causes King to spoil his own book. He would continue doing it in later novels, but it doesn’t matter here. The novel relies more in its exploration of viewpoints than withholding information. The fact King already dispenses How It Ends and the Secret Power allows him to spend the rest of the pages developing characters.

It does take a nose-dive in the climax. While it remains fun, all the depth is gone. It’s a typical King climax where everything goes batshit crazy. Gas stations explode, people die, blood pours like rivers and so on. It’s not scary anymore. It’s just one disaster after the next. It moves in brisk pace, but there’s nothing to it.

At least it never becomes too pornographic. King doesn’t waste two paragraphs on drop of blood and keeps the events moving. Still, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have any of King’s weirdness which lifted his weird stories. It doesn’t develop the characters furhter. The editor went AWOL in that section and it shows.

Overall, it’s a tight book. I guess the reason King’s later works are so unfocused is because he was beyond editors. Here,

3 periods out of 5

Cassandra Clare – City of Bones

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Other reviewers listed the stories that this novel borrows from. Characters are, apparently, plucked from someone else’s movie or book, given a different name and a slightly different attire. I’m not familiar with the Big Things of teen fiction. I’ve never watched Buffy and never immersed myself in Harry Potter. This still felt so derivative.

This is another book that came out of fan fiction. You’d expect it to have more verve, more energy. Copy your favorite story, but at least show the passion you have for it. If the novel had the rabid energy fans express over Harry Potter or Star Wars then the unoriginal story wouldn’t matter so much. It’d at least have excitement.

City of Bones feels tired all the way. It’s written by an amateur author who has little experience with what stories can be. It never imagines stories can do other thing than just become more convoluted. We all had this phase when we thought that plot twists was proof the writer was clever, but I thought we’d outgrown it. Surely, even the overrated Nolan proved thrillers have more than just “Surprise!”.

Clary does nothing. Calling her a ‘weak female protagonist’ would at least means she has some sort of role. A female whose role is only to help the main male character at least does something, active in some way. Clary is an observer. She stands around and things happen.

It’s amazing how many events rain down the characters and how little of them are instigated by them. It’s not the examination of “life is out of control” idea. The events have nothing to do with the characters and Clare doesn’t examine their reactions. She introduces a conflict, the characters solve it because of brute force and then they wait until something else happens.

If Clary helped solving the cases, it’d add some intensity. She tends to sit back and look at everyone do their thing, Shadowhunters shadowhuntin’.

There’s something tempting about such protagonists. They’re easy to write and they give the reader (or more important, the author) a hole to insert themselves in. This way, you can watch the story happen through someone’s eyes.

This character is never actually a part of the story though. The camera is never a part of the film’s plot. Some stories deliberately create such characters, but this ‘observer’ nature is addressed in the story and a part of the personality. Clary’s personality is never meant to be a shy observer.

Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of sassy heroine. She sometimes slap people or gets mad at them, but that’s not enough for a character. A character’s personality is established by multiple incidents that can be connected. More importantly, how the character reacts needs to be connected to the personality. Even if all your characters are cruel, they each need to do it in their own way (something Future Diary does well, for example). Clary just gets angry.

The other characters don’t have much going for them. The other female is supposed to be much prettier (although Clary gets the red head), there’s a gay dude who could have been interesting and the Nice Guy/Brooding Assole dualism. Is daddy issues a new thing in this type of fiction?

You know these characters are different because the characters themselves say it. Somehow, they see things that Clare didn’t write or left off. Everyone talks in the same way. Everyone makes the same sarcastic jokes. I know sarcasm seemed like the newest thing when you’re at your teens but isn’t it a little old? So the books are set at a time when sarcasm is still new. There’s no way everyone is witty.

Her world borrows every fantasy staple. She adds nothing we haven’t seen before and none of the staples she uses are interesting. Vampires still suck blood and have pale skin. Werewolves learn to control their shape-shifting, mostly because one of the good characters is a werewolf and that would be inconvenient. Warlocks are more interesting. They’re hedonistic party animals who dress like they’re in a rave. Here’s a way to modernize a fantasy staple. Too bad that the warlock only appears for one scene and his role is (like everyone else’s) to give us more exposition.

It always happens with such books. The side-characters end up being more interesting because they’re more conflicting. Even Alec, who gets little page-time is a more interesting idea. He’s a gay who’s into a straight dude. That’s a worthwhile situation to write about, but that would require focusing on psychology and character interaction. Such a story couldn’t rely on events just happening.

Using Biblical names and fantasy staples doesn’t make your fiction fantastical. The world here is so familiar, so ordinary and I’m not even well-versed in fantasy. I also watched High School DXD while reading this and the whole devils ‘n’ angels things kept getting mixed up. The difference between the two is that Clare has no purpose for what she does. DXD knows it’s just an overblown ecchi show.

We also get an evil character who wants to purify the world and kills what he considers bad. As Fallout 3 displayed, this idea is still worthwhile. It can be used to explore racism and bigotry by giving the bigot some reasonable basis for his beliefs. Clare had a potential here because the creatures the bad guy wants to kill are a bit in the morally grey area.

Instead of showing the issue from different perspectives, we just have the bad guy laugh maniacally and dream of strength. Then again, halfway through the book or so it’s revealed the series is named after a series of plot coupons.

Clare’s writing isn’t too dense, but it’s also not smooth enough. There are a lot of similes, many of which are pointless. Clare doesn’t overdo descriptions. She lingers on the odd details, the type that stick out to the eye. Her description of a party room is great, pointing out all the colors and odd shapes.

Her way of writing is devoid of personality. The smilies are random, exists mainly because Clare can’t think of describing something without a simile. At first, the huge variety of them is fun. After about fifty of them it gets tiring. It’s a sign Clare has no interesting way of looking at things or of writing about them.

The novel relies mainly on things happening. Werewolves arrive, parties are getting rocked, someone turns into a rat, swords clash and blood pours. This can be exciting even if your characters have no reason to exist but enact these events. Clare’s writing isn’t exciting. It doesn’t drag the scenes down but doesn’t add energy to them because she has no interesting phrases. The event themselves can’t stand on their own. It’s mostly blood pouring and swords clashing.

There’s some fun to be had in this novel, but I expected more. Even as just a Young Adult adventure about hot brooding guys, paranormal beings and saving the world this could’ve been more fun. Clare writes like she’s just trying to please herself. I hope she’s passionate about generic werewolves and passive heroines because it sucks to write about things that bore you. Still, if only a little passion leaked to the page it’d elevate the story. The only remarkable thing about this is the controversy surrounding it.

2 cities out of 5 bones

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Is this novel really about Black people?

Can a Black person write a novel whose novel about a character who happens to be dark-skinned, and make it about things other than the Experience of Living as an African-American? It’s pretty racist to expect every book written by a Black to be about this. They have more in their life than just being dark-skinned. Women can also write about things that are not Being a Woman.

I’m not American, so I may have missed the part where it revealed truths about the African-American Experience. Then again, I didn’t miss it in that Chinua Achebe novel. What drives the story, the grand theme that connects it is love.

People often ask what is love (no references to the song please). The novel is an examination of that idea. It’s not an easy question. A Jewish proverb claims that not disciplining your son equals hate. It’s often a defense of hitting your kids.

Nanny thinks that mere survival is enough for happiness. She’s the mom who pushes her son to make sure he’ll have enough money to survive, which she defines as ‘rich’. The problem is, humans often need some sort of reason to survive. There are also other ways to survive other than being rich.

Some think love is protection. Yet protection can often slip into prevention. We all know these protective parents who think keeping their children away from things is good parenting. Then their kids reach their 20’s with depression and having no idea where to go. Joe Starks had good intentions. He did love and tried hard to make Janie happy, yet how could she happy if she’s being kept away from life?

This examination ends with Tea Cake. Tea Cake is a character whose role often feels like wish-fulfillment. He’s almost an ideal. There’s a wifebeating thing going on, but it’s addressed and then pushed away. Whether it’s pushed away because they didn’t take it seriously back then, or because Zora forgives Tea Cake is unclear. He doesn’t have a major flaw, but the pushing away goes in Janie’s head. She pushes it away because she was raised in a society where women are second class and she can’t think in any other way.

Janie is a little better. This is where Zora resembles other feminist writers. Then again, race is a pseudoscientific idea while sex is biological, so it’ll be harder to escape it. Janie isn’t a 3rd-waver who travelled back in time. She wants the ordinary dreams of loving husband who’ll define her world.

You can’t expect her to want anything else since that’s all she knows. What Zora recognizes is that you can still give this character an agency. Janie’s life may revolve around husbands, but she never gives up on looking for the husband that suits her. There’s a reason behind every action she does, even if she realizes it was wrong.

This adds some realism, but Zora doesn’t do enough with it. When Tea Cake appears, all development stops. The romance scenes are well-written but the only conclusion is a tragedy that comes out of nowhere. Too many realist authors add a surprising disaster for the climax. Something is happening, but it’s disconnected from what the story is about. Since Zora doesn’t deal with the randomness of tragedy, the climax only exists to be climatic.

It’s weird to see Zora descends into this cliche. Up until then she’s a talented author. The dialect prose takes some time to get used to, but it’s not used to obscure the dialogue. She manages to give different characters their own speech patterns. The men’s ‘I love you’ monologues are dead-on. Every time a character explains themselves, even when they’re obviously wrong their dialogue makes it clear they see themselves in the right. No one comes off as a caricature.

Zora’s prose is also pretty. It’s poetic, but precise. Her description of the disaster are a highlight. The disaster may have been pointless, but the scene is powerful enough because Zora’s description focuses on how it feels like, rather than give a shopping list of what happens. All her descriptions rely on pointing out the unique details that define a scene. The prose also has a great rhythm. The title comes from a paragraph in the novel, not a poem. If this is supposed to be an influence from the oral tradition, it’s more convincing than Chinua Achebe’s novel.

It’s an enjoyable novel. It’s well-written and realistic enough. Zora avoids the main pitfalls of realism – structurless events and dull characters most of the way. Her poetic prose is pretty and helps to emphasize the reality, rather than exaggerate it too much. She fails in conclusing her ideas, and only her good prose carries the ending. It’s good, but not very remarkable.

3 eyes on God out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

claudius

Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5