Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (Literary Fiction)

Firstly, I apologize for annotating the same book as Heather. I had desperately wanted to read Khaled Hosseini’s first bestseller The Kite Runner, but none of the three libraries I checked had it, much to my frustration. By the time she posted her annotation, I had already chosen this as my alternative and has already started reading it. I haven’t read her annotation yet in the hopes that mine is based solely on my own reading experiences.

Of all the genres, literary fiction is by far the one I read most often. I’ve always valued character over plot, although I think that engaging the emotions is just as important as engaging the mind. Also, the English major in me can’t help but be critical of an author’s writing style, so I gravitate toward literary fiction because I know I will be able to appreciate the writing and the themes explored. Likewise, the cynic in me has little patience for light-hearted material—I personally much prefer to read about serious issues and to be challenged by universal dilemmas.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women of two different generations whose only connection initially is that they share their husband. The older wife is Mariam, born as the illegitimate child of her wealthy father Jalil and raised by her bitter, unwed mother in a tiny country house. When her mother dies, fifteen-year-old Mariam is all but sold to Rasheed, a portly shoemaker several years her senior. Laila, the younger wife, is contrastingly raised in a loving family in the bustling city of Kabul. Her brothers are killed in combat, and she becomes an orphan at age fourteen after one of the Taliban’s raids on Kabul. Laila is then taken in by her neighbor Rasheed, who is still unhappily married to the childless Mariam. He persuades Laila to become his second wife, and her youth and beauty, as well as her ability to bear him children, earns her Rasheed’s adoration and Mariam’s contempt.

However, it isn’t long before Laila also falls out of favor with their husband, starting with her unforgivable act of bearing him a daughter instead of a son. Rasheed reveals his true nature, and Mariam and Laila are both victims of his physical and mental abuse. Contempt and jealousy between the two women eventually give way to their shared sorrow and compassion, and the two form a bond that enables them to survive the violence inflicted on them by the war and by their husband.

A Thousand Splendid Suns has everything I typically look for in literary fiction. Hosseini’s prose is not particularly experimental in language or style; it is rather simple and accessible to readers of most ages and backgrounds. Yet he demonstrates eloquence throughout, especially in his descriptions of the landscape of today’s Afghanistan and the cultural practices of the people. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book are the details of daily life, depicted in both peaceful times and the days of turmoil that soon pervade the country when it is taken over by the Taliban.

Hosseini successfully establishes a strong emotional connection between the reader and his two female protagonists—so successfully, in fact, that if this book was written by a woman, I would not hesitate to classify it in the Women’s Lives and Relationships genre. As a female myself, Hosseini definitely moved me to reconsider my own trivial problems and to be thankful for the many privileges I have by merely being born in the United States. This book allows readers a glimpse into the lives of these suffering yet admirable women who live for nothing but each other and their children, and who are willing to sacrifice everything for their loved ones.

I would highly recommend this book to those who, like me, enjoy reading and learning about other cultures through the lens of a fictional yet realistic and structured plot with highly engaging characters. Hosseini confronts some of the most devastating realities faced by the Afghan people on a daily basis, focusing on the injustices committed against women regarding issues of marriage, religion, war, and education, among others.

Book information:
Title: A Thousand Splendid Suns (hardcover version)
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publication date: 2007
Number of pages: 372
Setting: Afghanistan
Time period: 1960’s through 2003
Subject headings: Families—Fiction, Afghanistan—Fiction

Monday, February 8, 2010

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (Horror)

Regrettably, I have never had the pleasure of reading anything by Ray Bradbury; Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t assigned in any of my classes, and I have never delved comprehensively into the Science Fiction or Horror genres.  It turns out that this is my loss, for as his horror classic Something Wicked This Way Comes shows, Bradbury is considered among the most well-loved authors of our time for good reason.

When choosing genres, I decided early on that I wanted to read a classic horror.  Having already read a vampire book for my science fiction choice, Dracula was out, so I researched some of the other classics and came across the intriguingly titled Something Wicked This Way Comes, with an even more intriguing summary:

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are simultaneously best friends and polar opposites, one born just before and the other just after midnight of October 31st.  In the fall of their thirteenth year, a mysterious carnival arrives in their small town in Illinois, bringing with it a foreboding sense of darkness that unnerves most, but entices those vulnerable to its offerings—including the troubled and adventurous Jim, who yearns to escape childhood and quickly grow up.  As the boys soon discover, this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill carnival, but rather a supernatural operation run by corrupted beings who feed off the fears of the townspeople.  Mr. Dark, the ringleader of this freakshow, is a truly terrifying, yet alluring villain; he expertly manipulates people’s emotions to gain power over them, and seems all-knowing and practically invincible.

The premise may sound like a Goosebumps book, but I found Bradbury's novel to be very adult-oriented and complex.  The prose is beautiful and poetic, using elaborate imagery to create a vividly imagined setting and creepy atmosphere.  Based on the plethora of themes Bradbury explores, I would go so far as to call this book profoundly philosophical.  Such themes include the loss of innocence, secret desires, the world’s constant state of corruption, and holding on to youth vs. longing for adulthood.  However, for those who don’t want to slog through the allegory and who are just looking for a good story, this is at its core a story about good triumphing over evil, and about the incredible strength of human bonds, which I think almost anyone can relate to.

One of the strongest points of this book are the characters, some realistic and well-developed, like the boys, and others imaginative and terrifying, like Mr. Dark and his crew of freaks.  The dark tone that characteristically pervades horror novels is present here, yet Bradbury still maintains a sense of optimism as well.  Beneath all of the doom and gloom exists a hope that good can defeat evil—that the demons and sins of humanity constantly corrupting the world can be overcome through the power of human love and compassion.

I would recommend this book, without hesitation, to anyone who is willing to wrestle with some cryptic language, metaphors, and thought-provoking ideas about the nature of evil.  I think just about anyone who enjoys horror and/or fantasy would find this classic an enjoyable read.

Book information:

Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Publication date: 1962 (original)
Number of pages: 293
Setting: Small town in Illinois
Time period: Not specified, but probably mid-twentieth century
Subject headings: Horror tales—Fiction, Male friendship—Fiction, Fathers and sons—Fiction.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Topic 1: What is a "good" book?

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion in class on Thursday, as intense as it was at certain points. I was especially inspired by Andrea’s points about the individual patron’s experience and how it relates to Readers’ Advisory. I think it is vital that we as librarians—as advocates of literacy and oftentimes liaisions into the world of reading—take our jobs seriously and use caution with new or inexperienced readers. We cannot make judgments or assumptions. Because many of us are avid readers ourselves and gobble up all kinds of reading material every chance we get, I think we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that we know the difference between “good” read and a “bad” one.

The truth is that even books that are highly praised by literary critics or which are considered “classics” are not going to appeal to everyone. People want to read something that they will enjoy; some will desire something intellectually stimulating, while others are looking for entertainment that doesn’t require an analytical approach. As I have discovered myself, what people want to read depends heavily on their mood; sometimes I like to read material that will force me to think and apply skills I’ve gained through my education, while other times I just want something that will engage me without a whole lot of effort on my part.

I’ve noticed that when I sit down to write annotations, I tend to start out with a critical literary analysis. I evaluate the quality of writing, the plot’s originality, and the profundity of the book’s themes. That’s the English Literature major in me, I suppose. But then, about halfway through my feverous scrutiny of the material, I remember what Readers’ Advisory is about, and I have to erase everything I’ve written so far. Because it’s not about identifying a book’s faults, or comparing a book to literary “classics,” or expecting readers to appreciate the same qualities I appreciate in books. I can’t be pretentious and reject books that I don’t like for whatever reasons. There’s no room for my personal opinions. I have to remind myself to focus instead on the unique characteristics of the book and the appeal that it might have for others.  The last thing I want to do is act superior.

Like this guy.

That said, my goal as a librarian is to become someone who won’t make judgments or assumptions, or have expectations of people who simply want to find a “good” book. I don’t want to be the librarian who just recommends my favorite books without regard for the patron’s own experiences, interests, and tastes. With that kind of attitude, I think I can be more successful at pleasing the patron, and maybe eventually taking the next step and offering suggestions that will lead the reader to a new genre or type of book which might help expand their reading interests and experiences.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides ('Kirkus' Style Review)

Eugenides, Jeffrey

Review Date: FEBRUARY 01, 2010
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 529
Price (paperback): $13.95
Publication Date: 09/16/2003
ISBN: 978-0312422158
Classification: NOVEL

Jeffery Eugenides, critically acclaimed author of The Virgin Suicides, expertly weaves a modern story of epic proportions and creates a fascinatingly complex yet relatable character who transcends societal norms.

Cal, originally named Calliope by his parents, is an adult male who was once assumed to be a female at birth and raised as such by his Greek-American family. Cal spends the first half of the novel narrating the momentous story of his grandparents’ incestuous relationship and subsequent escape from war-torn Greece, as well as his parents’ early lives in the turbulent era of 1960’s Detroit. He then looks back on his former life as a young girl and the gender transition he made in his teens, which he believes is a direct result of a gene which existed within his grandparents and which, through a series of fateful events, was passed on to him. What ensues is a strange and psychologically complicated tale which Eugenides manages to successfully tie in with Greek history and myth. Cal is essentially a sexual outcast—he defies chemical, biological, sexual, and psychological norms. Cal’s gender confusion makes for a truly thought-provoking, stereotype-defying read, and his journey of self-discovery begs the reader to question the way that society conditions us to view gender classification. Perhaps the most significant achievement of this novel is the author’s ability to use a nearly genderless voice to express the same character in both male and female roles. Eugenides transcends the stereotypes of gender by enabling the reader to accept the narrator as both male and female.
Not intended for a narrow-minded audience, and not a light read by any means, this novel is provocative, intelligent, and humorous, featuring a narrator deserving of a place among the classic characters of literature. Highly recommended.