The Giver Series: Learning from Fictional Societies

The GiverThank you to Milka for recommending The Giver series by Lois Lowry. I enjoyed The Giver so much that I launched into the next three: Gathering BlueMessenger, and Son. All four young adult novels are short, easy reads so they’re great for those of us most likely to fall behind on reading challenges.

Different communities are described in each book and it’s fun to compare them with each other, and then with our own society. The Giver shows a futuristic society that at first seems perfect. There are no wars. There’s no such thing as pollution, poverty, or hunger. Everyone rides bicycles to get anywhere within the community and there’s never any reason to leave.

But the characters never make any choices, which leads to having no real emotions, including love. A council decides everything: a person’s future career, spouse, children, meals. Individualism is discouraged. They think they’re content, but they’ve never known anything else.

Gathering Blue is then a surprise because the community is completely different. It’s a rougher place, with people living in huts and squabbling over territory. People act more on instinct or their own desires. They occupy themselves mostly with finding food through farming or hunting, though there is never enough food. Possibly because of this, they think nothing of ostracizing those with physical deformities, leaving them to die.

Messenger shows another, more balanced society. This one is based on welcoming outsiders, people who had to escape other places. Everyone finds a way to contribute to the community and it feels more like a family.

Then someone called the Trademaster appears. He has things people have never seen before, materialistic things, and they begin to trade the best part of themselves for those things. Materialism makes them more individualistic and they begin to worry that, with all the outsiders coming in, there won’t be enough resources for everyone. They vote to build a wall around the community. Outsiders are turned away. They don’t notice the connection between the Trademaster and the changes in their society.

Son ties everything up, with characters appearing from all three books like long lost friends. My favorites were The Giver and Messenger, mostly because of the unique communities but also because I loved Matty, the main character in Messenger.

Speaking of communities, I’m thankful for the friends I’ve found here. Milka (who recommended these books to me) has two great blogs: Perfecting Motherhood, a humorous look at parenthood with reviews of adult and children’s books, and a nature photography site where she finds beauty everywhere.

What do you think a perfect community would be like? Can we learn from fictional societies like these?

Thoughts on The Book Thief and Colors

the book thiefI kept hearing about The Book Thief. It stayed on my to-read list for a long time, probably because I’d hear it described like this:

It’s about a little girl living in Nazi Germany. Her family hides a Jewish man in their basement and they become friends. The story is narrated by Death.

I thought it sounded too depressing. Strangely though, it’s not.

That’s the basic story, but it’s also about the survival and growth of love in the harshest environments. It’s about the effects of books on our lives, the power of words, and the importance of friendship and hope. More than that even, it’s about colors.

Markus Zusak paints with words and he doesn’t just paint pictures. He paints feelings into those pictures. His father painted houses and that must have influenced his descriptions because the colors come through in such a vibrant and unique way. A sense of wonder and amazement for life can be felt along with the colors and words.

When I read a book, I want to feel and experience everything. Reading The Book Thief feels like this:

sunset

Yes, there’s darkness and sadness in it. But there’s also light and so many glowing colors. And the light does have a way of shining through.

Memorable Characters in Books and in Life

characterI spent most of January with the Brothers Karamazov. They discussed philosophy and psychology while I just sat there and listened. Sometimes we laughed together.

I still think about them and that makes me wonder why. What makes some characters so memorable? The Brothers Karamazov were pretty strange and they did contradict themselves a lot. They didn’t know who to love or what to believe in and while trying to figure these things out, they ended up tormenting themselves. It seemed like Dostoevsky was making fun of his characters and that made the whole story more interesting and even laughable at times.

Not all characters can be strange, but they should be unique in some way. It also helps if something about a character is a little mysterious so that the reader will want to figure that character out. Death in The Book Thief is memorable for that reason, but maybe also just because he’s Death.

Other memorable book characters have been Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath or Scarlett O’Hara (so memorable that I don’t have to name the book for that one). Their struggles become our struggles as we see them fight against starvation and a changing society. Atticus Finch has his own obstacles to overcome, but he’s known more for his patience and ability to explain complicated issues.

In real life, any characters I’ve known aren’t as memorable for their struggles as they are for their personalities. They’re either funny or adventurous or different in some way, and they help me see the world in a different way too.

What are some of your favorite book or real-life characters? Why are they memorable?

The Wrong Way to Start a Reading Challenge

With the new year stretching out before us, anything seems possible. Because of that, I’m challenging myself to read 50 books this year.Last year was my first attempt at counting the number of books and I might have lost count, but it came to less than 50. It’s possible that I’ve never read anything close to that in a year. It wouldn’t be much of a challenge though if I tried for an easy number like 10 or 20, so I decided to go for 50.

Then I started reading The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve enjoyed it so far, but couldn’t help nodding off two or three times while reading it last weekend. I could blame the dog. She gets blamed for most things anyway and she kept me warm while making a quick nap look like a great idea at the time.

hibernating

Still, I managed to get through 70 or so pages. While feeling pretty good about that, I checked to see the total number of pages in the book: 770. That means I’ve only got 700 pages to go before finishing my first book of a 50-book challenge. I’m feeling challenged already.

How many books can you read in a year? Will you be doing a reading challenge? Do you know of any easy reads that should be added to my list?

The Booker Award: Favorite Books

We become friends with book characters. We wonder what they’re doing during those times when we’re not reading. They are real to us. The Booker Award is “for those who refuse to live in the real world,” which is a perfect description of all readers everywhere.

There hasn’t been enough time to tackle awards lately, but I felt compelled to post this one because its focus is favorite books. The Booker Award was given to me by Amira. She lives in Maldives and writes from the heart about life. I’m glad we’ve gotten to know each other this way. From one living outside of the real world to another, thank you for thinking of me for this.

The rules are to list five favorite books and to include why we loved them before passing the award on to five others. Most of my all-time favorites are classics, but I’ve tried to think of more modern or obscure favorites for this.

The Passion Dream Book by Whitney Otto

This book is about the passion of art and artists during different renaissance periods. It opens with the Italian Renaissance and a woman who spies on Michelangelo while he creates David. At one point, she picks up a curl of marble from the floor of his studio and pockets it. Then in 1918, her descendant carries the marble curl with her without knowing its history. This main character, Romy, lets her art consume her as she moves from place to place based on the art scene at the time (Hollywood, Harlem, Paris, San Francisco). Here’s one of the many excerpts I love: “Romy has always been what might be called a private rebel, that is, her contrary manner is not apparent but hidden, dormant, closeted until the day arrives when it expresses itself and everyone says, shocked, ‘What’s gotten into her?’ When, of course, it was there all along.”

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card

I read this a long time ago but it’s stayed with me because of its futuristic and historic vision. In the future, people learn history by watching the past. Once they devise a way to travel back in time, they decide to correct history with the goal of creating a better world. The focus is on Columbus and what would have happened if Europeans hadn’t been able to decimate the New World cultures. I loved everything about this book.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

This is set in Boston after World War I and shows the time period so well that by the end, I felt like I had lived through all of it with the characters. They struggle with industrialization, class, and race issues while trying to make a difference in an increasingly complicated world.

The book opens with Babe Ruth and he becomes a fun side character. Descriptions of the Great Molasses Flood alone are worth the read.

As It Is In Heaven by Niall Williams

This book has some of the best descriptions of love and loneliness that I’ve ever read. The main character is transformed when he hears a woman play the violin at a small concert in Ireland. Here’s an excerpt describing the main character’s father: “For the measure of his pain in losing Anne Nolan was the measure of his love; perhaps if he had loved her less he might have endured the world better afterwards; perhaps it was never intended that we give ourselves so much to one person that the vanishing of their face makes us feel the world is only a shadow. So, as he sat there in his armchair looking towards the street, he prayed that his son would feel the emptiness of the kitchen like a pain, and somehow realize he must not love too deeply.”

The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy

I just read this one a little while ago. It’s about an archaeologist who sees the shadows of ancient people everywhere around her. While researching a Mayan field site in Mexico, the shadows become more real to her than the people in her life. Here’s an excerpt: “Do not look for revelations in the ancient ruins. You will find here only what you bring: bits of memory, wisps of the past as thin as clouds in the summer, fragments of stone that are carved with symbols that sometimes almost make sense.”

Now it’s time to pass the award to:

4am Writer
Carrie Rubin
JMMcDowell
Kasia James
The Edmonton Tourist

I’m always looking for more book suggestions…

What are some books that have stayed with you through the years? Have you read any of the books listed here? What did you think of them?

One Hundred Fifty Years Later, Charles Dickens Is Making Me Laugh

Dickens’ Dream photo courtesy of Wikipedia

It amazes me that anyone can pick up a book and read the words and thoughts of someone who lived hundreds of years ago.

Classic literature isn’t always treated with the reverence it deserves. Some may describe it as boring or outdated. Yet it can teach us so much, not only about history, but about ourselves.

I didn’t think A Tale of Two Cities would make me laugh as much as it has so far. But it does make me laugh because much of what Dickens describes is still relevant today. He shows that people can be funny, whether they know it or not (and whether they want to admit it or not). To show you what I mean, here are a few passages:

“Except on the crown, which was raggedly bald, he had stiff, black hair, standing jaggedly all over it, and growing downhill almost to his broad, blunt nose. It was so like Smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over.”

“The mildewy inside of the coach, with its damp and dirty straw, its disagreeable smell, and its obscurity, was rather like a larger dog kennel. Mr. Lorry, the passenger, shaking himself out of it in chains of straw, a tangle of shaggy wrapper, flapping hat, and muddy legs, was rather like a larger sort of dog.”

“Cramped in all kinds of dun cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of men carried on the business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books…”

Dickens is famous for his characters. For any writers who might be struggling with character description, I’d recommend reading one of his books. Not only is he entertaining, but he tackles the “show, don’t tell” rule in a very fun way.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Luckily, we can still laugh with and learn from people who lived hundreds of years ago.

What are some of your favorite classics? Which authors make you laugh?

Book Review: The Artemis Effect

I knew right away this would be a novel I’d enjoy. It starts out generally talking about Earth and all the creatures that inhabit it. Then it zooms in on three groups of people from Australia, Britain, and America. We get a brief look into their lives before the introduction states they have no idea that something is about to happen.

The characters from Australia are members of a group called the Society for the Watching for Alien Presences (SWAP). The dialogue is realistic, to the point where their discussions reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my friends. They enjoy each other’s company and joke around a lot, which makes it fun to read.

One of the things I loved about this book is that author Kasia James shows tenuous connections between the characters living on different continents. The characters don’t always recognize these connections, but they are there.

As we get involved in the lives of the characters, the moon begins to change. This has global effects that aren’t noticed at first as people go on with their lives. When communication systems break down, transportation stops, and food isn’t readily available, everyone is forced into making changes in order to survive.

At times The Artemis Effect reminded me of The Stand or Earth Abides and those are some of my favorite books. The Artemis Effect has its own personality though, complete with quirky characters that readers will want to cheer on and keep visiting.

This novel is worth more than the $2.99 Kindle price. It kept me thoroughly entertained and left me wondering what might happen next until the end. A paperback version is due to be published in the future. For more information on author Kasia James, please visit her website at: http://kasiajames.wordpress.com/

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus is a beautifully written book. From the very beginning, the author invites you into the circus and it feels as if you’re there, breathing in the cotton-candy atmosphere, amazed by all the magic.

Descriptions of wonders like the Cloud Maze, Ice Garden or Wishing Tree will make you want to construct your own creations out in the backyard somehow.

I love how this book shows that creativity can be a collaboration and that people can build off of each other to make each other better. The main characters, Celia and Marco, enter into a vague competition as children. At the heart of this competition is a unique love story. The story illustrates the effects of this love, not only on the characters involved but on everyone they come in contact with and the circus itself, rejuvenating all with the magic love creates.

Yes, this book is heavy on description (something writers are told not to do), but the writing is so lyrical that I ended up enjoying those descriptions possibly more than the actual story. Reading The Night Circus is like indulging in rich chocolate and licking it off your fingers while it oozes uncontrollably everywhere. And that kind of thing is fine with me. In fact, it should happen more often.

There are too few books like this these days, books that pay attention to the sound of the words and sentences. Many don’t bother in favor of the plot. The Night Circus gives us both an exciting story and a beautifully written one while showing that such things, and many others, are still possible.

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Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Even cat people will love The Art of Racing in the Rain. Sure, it’s narrated by a dog named Enzo. But it’s about family and companionship and the friends we will always carry around in our hearts. Especially if one of those friends is a dog.

I’m a dog person so I found it easy to relate to Enzo and his view of the world. My dog is 13 now and she still acts like a crazed puppy most of the time. I almost didn’t want to read this book because of my dog’s age, but I’m glad I did.

We meet Enzo at the end of his life so we already know it’s going to be sad. Through most of the book, he’s looking back on his life with Denny, a race car driver. Enzo adores Denny and stands by him while he goes through too many hardships that would probably make most people give up. He gives Denny strength when he needs it and he’s a constant friend. Denny talks to him as a friend and Enzo is at times frustrated that he can’t talk back simply because of the shape of his mouth. But they still find ways to communicate.

While looking back, Enzo looks forward to his next life. He knows he will be a man because he saw a documentary that said dogs will be reincarnated as men if they’re ready. Enzo is ready. In his next life, he wants to find Denny, shake his hand, and tell him Enzo said hello.

I expected this book to be sad but there’s joy in it too. Enzo knows how to live and love. He appreciates as much as possible, as dogs tend to do. Also, I love the ending.

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Book Review: American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 by H.W. Brands

Just the fact that H.W. Brands attempts to make sense of recent American and world history should earn him accolades. I think he comes as close as anyone can to accomplishing that goal in less than 400 pages.

It’s an extreme overview, but that worked well for me since I read it as research for the 1940s-80s. Many parts were emotional to read, especially the 1960s. These days that time period is romanticized for its hippies and music, yet it was also a time of deep dissension and division. Heroes were gunned down too often. We can’t help but wonder what the world might be like now if people like Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy hadn’t been killed. Those deaths caused a lot of people to retract from the world in a way, or to simply give up. Brands shows this and ties it in well with the history that follows.

It was fun to read about the more recent history that I remember living through like the Cold War and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The 9/11 tragedy was another emotional event to read about as history. Brands seems to be pretty objective through most of the book, which is always tough to do when discussing politics. At one point, he mentions that President Obama was elected for economic reasons. Dreamer that I am, I believe he was elected for peace.

Near the end, Brands states that an odd inversion in the nature of American dreams occurred between 1945 and the present day. He says, “The dreams of 1945 had been collectively ambitious but individually modest; those of 2010 were collectively modest but individually ambitious.”

While that may be true overall, it’s also very sad whenever a back is turned on the world in favor of individual pursuits. As history continues and the world faces more environmental challenges, I hope we’ll learn that we all share this one world and that we need to take better care of it and each other.

Hibernation, reading, and reading challenges

It’s tempting to join in on the craziness of the 50/50 Challenge, but I’m not so sure I’m really that crazy. Accepting the challenge would mean trying to watch 50 movies and read 50 books by the end of this year. Since there are only 10 months left to go, that’s five books every month. I just don’t think I could read that many books and still pay attention to them.

It might be possible if I lived in Alaska  or some other arctic place. As it is though, I’ve hardly made a dent in my winter reading list. I blame that on the lack of snow and snow days so far. Now it seems as if spring is on the way. Trees are blooming (well, maybe just one tree is blooming so far but I did take this picture yesterday). If I’m not going to be able to hibernate, I just might need some sort of a challenge to read as many books as possible.

So maybe instead of 50, I’ll wimp out and try for 30 books by the end of the year. Then I might at least have a chance. I’m a slow reader. I like to try to absorb the words and really experience the book. Sometimes if a sentence strikes me enough, I’ll even copy it into a notebook along with the author and book title (yes I know that’s a geeky thing to do). Here are some of the books I’d like to read soon – hopefully by the fire during a spring snowstorm:

11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman
London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

and many more…

Are you doing any book reading challenges this year? What books will you be reading?

Oh – and in case you’re crazy enough to join the 50/50 Challenge, here’s the link:
http://www.fiftyfifty.me/2011/12/introduction.html

A Few Favorite Books and Why I Love Them

Melk Benedictine Abbey Library

Image via Wikipedia

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks / And all the sweet serenity of books.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”  
– Jorge Luis Borges

Libraries are filled with endless possibilities. Whenever I walk into one, I wish I could read every book. Yet no matter how many books I manage to read, my list of all-time favorites has stayed pretty much the same for a while now. Here’s the list so far:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Stand by Stephen King
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Contact by Carl Sagan
Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney
Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card
The Given Day: A Novel by Dennis Lehane
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Even though they’re fiction, I’ve learned something from all of these books. Others have been entertaining to read but it’s always a little disappointing to me if I feel like I haven’t learned anything by the end of a book, whether it’s something about a certain time period or the universe or people or even myself.

I love books that pay attention to language and the sound of language. One of the pleasures of reading is to stumble on a perfect sentence or paragraph that illuminates everything. The Grapes of Wrath and All the King’s Men are full of phrases like that. They’re masterpieces and I’m in awe of the authors every time I read those books. Cannery Row is much shorter but it’s still a masterpiece. I love the descriptions of people, from the very first paragraph on.

Maybe I’m a little obsessed with the apocalypse, but Earth Abides is a book that helped me learn more about myself. Different traditions or customs slip away in the post-apocalyptic world, and I was surprised at how upset I’d get whenever the characters let that happen. Then I’d catch myself and wonder why it was so upsetting. It made me realize how ingrained a culture can become. The Stand is also about the apocalypse but its greatness is more in the way the characters are described.

I love Contact for everything it says about the universe and people. Ireland: A Novel weaves history and myths into an already interesting story and the storyteller character is perfect. Pastwatch shows the effects history has on people while imagining a different world if only some events could be revisited and corrected. The Given Day: A Novel describes the time period after World War I so well that I felt like I lived through it with the characters. The descriptions of the Great Molasses Flood alone are worth the read.

People seem to either love or hate A Confederacy of Dunces. I thought it was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Everyone in this book is a true character and I love how they all affect each other in different ways.

What are some of your favorites and what kinds of things do you look for in a favorite book?