Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Unexpected Miss Bennet'

The Book: The Unexpected Miss Bennet

The Author: Patrice Sarath

How I Found It: This review at Smart Bitches prompted me to take a closer look; I'm always intrigued by Sarah's opinions! Thanks to my local library!

The Review: I was really curious to read a book focusing on Mary Bennet, the stuffy, oft-ignored Bennet sister who's received some shoddy treatment in spinoffs. Lizzy, Jane, Lydia, all of them have gotten their own books, but Kitty and Mary are passed over and treated as plot points if anything. In recent years, Mary got most of the focus of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, but the former was much maligned and the latter's not to the taste of most Janeites. Thankfully, for those curious, Patrice Sarath has taken up Mary's story in a more conventional manner.

When the novel starts, Mary has no say in her future--Mrs. Bennet has declared that she shall be her and Mr. Bennet's companion in their old age, and foisted onto Jane and Bingley after that. Jane is pained to see Mary's future chances so neglected as a result of her plainness and Mrs. Bennet's unconcern now she and Lizzy have made good matches, and writes to Lizzy at Pemberley to propose a plan to guide Kitty and Mary into good society.

Mary is quickly taken under the wing of the Darcy family, and at Pemberley she comes to a better understanding of herself. What if Fordyce's Sermons aren't as helpful as she once thought (gasp!)? Can she and Lizzy finally come to understand each other, and might not Georgiana be a suitable friend? How will she react to the frequent company of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins? And what about Mr. Aikens, a potential suitor from Meryton who seems determined to know her better?

I will give Ms. Sarath credit for taking an angle on Pride and Prejudice sequels that many do not, but overall, I think this sequel was good for the curiosity of a Mary-centric story and not much else. Sarath does a nice job of sticking to Austen's lightly comic tone; Mary's friendship with Georgiana in particular is tinged with a light brush of metafiction in regards to their reading choices. The little glimpses we get of Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage are sweet, and I particularly liked seeing Georgiana as more of a standard teenager than one normally sees in variations and sequels. Darcy is the standard overprotective brother, but Lizzy has called him out and softened him a bit, as is evident in this amusing exchange: "Darcy raised a brow at his sister. ‘You have Lizzy to thank for that, Georgiana. She persuaded me that locking you up in the tower as you deserve would only give you delusions of persecution. Henceforth I ignore you for your own good.’" (70).

Mary's self-discovery was fun to read about; I enjoyed seeing her cast off her pursuits from the original novel when she realizes how they dissatisfy her. She learns to dance. She reads horrid novels. She becomes more courageous and confident--a little like Lizzy, but all her own--by learning to stand up to Lady Catherine and finally coming to see Mr. Collins for the odious man he is. But while I think Sarath did a good job at keeping to characterizations for the most part, her tale occasionally suffered from exaggeration of traits to the point that characters started verging on hyperbole. Lady Catherine is just outright rude and wants revenge against Elizabeth for marrying Darcy--while I could buy a tranquil fury at Elizabeth, I think she'd have a bit more tact than to want revenge. This is one of those books where Anne is secretly a bit  manipulative and mean, a trope I'm not a fan of. One of my biggest problems was an offhand line about Darcy wanting "less to avenge Lydia than to have reason at last to avenge Georgiana's near disgrace" (174). I admittedly did an eyebrow raise there; Darcy also didn't strike me as the type to want to avenge Georgiana's honor (and one would've thought he took care of that both times he saw our friend Wickham entangled in elopements). Some of Austen's original characters were kind of warped into weird exaggerations of their original selves, which made for occasional groans while reading.

Anyone going into the book expecting a romance along the lines of most sequels will be disappointed. I was surprised to see just how minor a subplot Mr. Aikens really was. Mary's search for fulfillment and better self-knowledge somewhat pushes Aikens to the side, which makes their attraction feel a bit rushed by the time he becomes a more major player. He had been in three scenes, total, when he started claiming to know Mary better than Lizzy and Darcy, which irked me. Had the novel been longer than a scant 250 pages, I would've appreciated Mary's self-discovery getting all the time it did, but giving Aikens' courtship of her about fifty or sixty more pages, to properly flesh him out as a love interest.

Sarath's major problem was telling and not showing. Granted, we get a lot of that in Austen, where major conflicts like Lydia eloping or Tom Bertram's illness are conveyed through letters, but Sarath was not quite so skilled. We actually do see Kitty coming to stay with Jane, but everything we hear after that is through letters to Lizzy, even things that would've made interesting reading--including a scandalous drunken visit to a tiger cage (yes, you read that right). I wanted to see the incidents described, or at least the more interesting ones, not just hear them glossed over in a sentence or two as though they were part of a story outline. Even if the book is focused on Mary, if you're going to give me drunk people and tigers, I want the full show, not just a tease!

Overall, if one's dying for an unconventional Pride and Prejudice sequel, Sarath's focus on Mary is a nice, light read. If one doesn't mind some hyperbole in the characters and a lot of telling and not showing, this is a nice look into Mary getting a backbone and becoming less pretentious than she was in the original and coming in to the Bennet name.

Friday, July 13, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Princess of Mars' and 'John Carter'

The Book: A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, Book 1)

The Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

How I Found It: My father was a great fan of the books, and I was really intrigued by the movie trailer last summer. This book is in the public domain and can be read for free!

The Review: I am finally back, with a review that might be slightly muddled thanks to how long a hiatus I had to end up taking--so long that I read this book in February and March and am only just reviewing it now! I apologize greatly for the hiatus; my semester ended up busier than planned and I was not only unable to read as much as I would have liked, I had absolutely no time to put my thoughts down in reviews.

John Carter's story really begins with someone else--that someone being Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. A trusted nephew of Carter's, Burroughs receives word when he dies and goes to Carter's estate, only to be greeted with strange instructions in his uncle's will. He is not to be embalmed, and wishes to be laid in an open coffin in a specially built tomb... one that opens from the inside. He has also entrusted to Burrough's care a manuscript that must be read only after eleven years have passed, and only divulged to the masses after another twenty-one. The manuscript left behind is the story we're reading.

The story is, as one might expect, every bit as strange as the instructions John Carter left behind him. It begins with reminiscences on John Carter's experiences in Arizona, and with these words:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred,possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as othermen, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I havealways been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I didforty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on livingforever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there isno resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who havedied twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it asyou who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, Ibelieve, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

John has an out of body experience shortly after seeing his friend and business partner brutally murdered by Native Americans on the Arizona hills, and ends up in a mysterious cave. His spirit, his soul, is transported off Earth when he stretches his arms out to Mars, or Barsoom, which he can see in the sky.

Mars is a strange and dangerous new experience for our hero, who doesn't quite do himself any favors by landing near a hatchery for martian young. He is quickly captured by green Martians, or Tharks, and valued as a warrior thanks to Mars' reduced gravity affording him the ability to jump unnaturally high and his experience as a veteran giving him superior combat skills. But John Carter is not the only prisoner of the Tharks--soon there is Dejah Thoris, the red princess of the martians of Helium, whom Carter swears to protect and return to her people. Along the way, he will evade and be captured by many races of martian, but his love for Dejah Thoris and his desire to protect her remains his primary goal.

I was eager to read this not only after seeing the trailer for the film, but when I learned it was one of the most influential works of science fiction there is, and the first work to really explore and flesh out a planet besides our own. Sometimes, while reading it, I was stunned to realize that a work of science fiction written in the 1800s could have so influenced our depictions of Mars and martians today. For a two hundred year old book, the language was accessible and easily understood, and I was pleased by how quickly it read.

Of course, having been written two hundred years ago, by today's standards it might not be considered quite so polished. Yes, it has colonialist undertones. Yes, John's a bit too perfect, and frequently describes himself in terms of his own importance. And yes, to me, it did eventually read as a catalogue of "John gets kidnapped by this alien race, and this alien race, and this alien race..." But I took all these things with a grain of salt--it was pulpy and fun and just nice to read about another planet as a fun, exciting escape whenever I could squeeze in a few pages on TARDIS.

I think the thing that ended up grabbing me most about the story was the characters. While, yes, John is a bit perfect, he's an engaging narrator and relates the differences of Mars in terms a reader can easily picture--I read a reviewer who stated it bothered him that John would preface a description with how we had nothing like this creature/plant/etc. on Earth, but then would go on to equate it to an Earth something, but honestly, it worked better for me than having to picture something based on a bizarre description. Dejah Thoris' dynamic with John, driven by their different attitudes towards courtship (John's ignorance of martian norms, Dejah Thoris' bristling at Earth customs), had me looking forward to their scenes together. Woola, the martian watchdog, was priceless and touchingly devoted to John. Sola, the female Thark assigned to guard John in the beginning of the story, has an interesting backstory and a strong presence as a female character--indeed, between her and Dejah Thoris, I was pleased to see women play such important roles in a story (a science fiction story, no less!) written so long ago.

While, like I said, the plot sometimes dragged due to John's endless captures, the action scenes are stirring and vividly depicted, the characters are strong, and the book is really easy to read--although it does end on a cliffhanger, as I'm sure was typical of fiction back then that was meant to be serialized, written by authors who earned their bread and butter on such stories.

By now nearly everyone knows that John Carter, the movie, was a flop financially, one of the biggest of this year. Many agree that the movie's flop was not indicative of poor quality, however, but of poor promotion and marketing. I read an article sometime around the movie's release where John Carters in all fifty states were called and asked if they were going to see the movie. Thanks to the title not including John's "of Mars" suffix, many of the men asked if it was the same John Carter they'd read about as a kid. If the title had been kept, the movie would perhaps have appealed more to those who'd heard about it but hadn't looked it up to verify just what it was about.

The movie trims down John's numerous captures and focuses on the war between the Tharks, the Helium red martians, and the Zodangan red martians, therefore eliminating one of the elements of the book that didn't work for me. Some elements are changed or refocused, but the essential story remains the same, and the cast performs admirably. Taylor Kitsch's John Carter is given a more heartrending backstory, and makes the most of his comedic early attempts to move on Mars and then, later, of being an action hero. Lynn Collins' Dejah Thoris gets many chances to fight and move in on the action. Dominic West, as Sab Than, is more of a threat here, thanks to weaponry bestowed on him by the film. I really enjoyed Samantha Morton's voice work as Sola, who remained true to the complex character I'd liked in the book. But the real standout is Woola, the martian watchdog I mentioned earlier--he's a riot!

Overall, both the film and the book are worth giving a chance if you've not heard of them and are interested in the beginnings of science fiction. Many critics said that the movie has a little bit of every science fiction hero you've ever loved, and that's part of the fun of both the book and the movie. Reading it, you'll see where so much of our martian lore and depictions came from. And aren't we all a little bit curious about life on Mars?

Friday, March 30, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'Red'

The Book: Red

The Author: John Logan

How I Found It: I've recently become enamored of the actor Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Ken, Rothko's assistant, in 2010. I was curious about the play's subject manner and his role in it, and decided to give it a look.

The Review: New York City, 1958 and 1959. Ken is the new assistant hired by Mark Rothko, famous painter of the 1930s and onwards. Rothko is abrasive, demanding, and very, very vocal. Ken is young, reserved, and not educated in the way Rothko would like. Still, he takes Ken--who is an artist himself--on as his assistant and lets him help around the studio, letting him do things like picking up takeout or helping with canvas priming (which, and he is adamant about this, is not painting).

As a year or so passes, Ken and Rothko, uneasy around each other at first, grow accustomed to each other's presence. Ken begins to educate himself with the texts Rothko constantly mentions, and takes it upon himself to challenge Rothko's firmly held notions about art and perception, while Rothko begins to draw Ken out and learn about his difficult past. As tensions reach a boiling point, Ken forces Rothko to reconsider his commission to paint wall murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, while Rothko begins to wonder if Ken is not, perhaps, what the future of art might look like.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this play. Was I going to enjoy it? More importantly, was I going to understand it? I don't know very much about art, and I was never particularly good at it. (I make pictures with words, I explain to those who ask if I can draw.) If I didn't understand much of anything about art, would I understand the message of this play? Would I be able to appreciate it?

As it turned out, I could, and so much more than I thought. Like Proof, a play about math that I had equal reservations in approaching, I didn't have to understand the subject matter in order to appreciate the very human, very affecting drama that played out here.

This is a play about two men that sounds all too familiar. It's an old trope, the young assistant who challenges the ideas of the old pro. Too often, the young assistant and the old pro form some sort of bond to compensate for a lack of parental presence on the young assistant's part. In some ways, Logan's play adheres to this trope--Ken's parents were indeed absent, though not of their own choosing, as becomes heartbreakingly clear in one of Ken's biggest moments--but in others, it's brilliantly subverted. Rothko and Ken's bond is never entirely easy; the volatility of Rothko's temper makes this impossible, and who says that Ken wouldn't want to unsettle him, provoke him into deeper thought, in any way he could? The play even sneers at the notion that Rothko is meant to be a father figure for Ken. Their relationship is deeper and more complicated than that trite summation.

Even if I didn't know much about art, I was surprised at how absorbed I became in its concerns. An intensely described scene of canvas priming (35-8) had me longing to have seen the play on stage; it's beautifully choreographed and must be a wonder to see staged in front of your eyes. I don't have much of an eye for color, and yet I was deeply moved by the scenes in which Rothko and Ken meditate on what meanings certain colors hold for them. For Ken, white is linked with the trauma of his past; for Rothko, red is what he clings to.
[on Matisse's "The Red Studio"]
Rothko: ... Such plains of red he made, such energetic blocks of color, such emotion! [Beat.] That was a long time ago.
Ken: It's still there.
Rothko: I can't look at it now.
Ken: Why?
Rothko: It's too depressing.
Ken: How can all that red be depressing?
Rothko: I don't see the red anymore... Even in that painting, that total and profound emersion in red... it's there. The mantel above a dresser, just over the centerline, set off by yellow of all goddamn things. He wanted it inescapable.
Ken: What?
Rothko: Black.
Ken: The color black?
Rothko: The thing black. [Beat.] There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red. (28)
That imagery of colors, of what color could do to a person, really moved me--it's the same relationship I have with words, as a writer and a reader. Much as I could understand what math meant to Proof's Catherine by thinking of my own relationship to my work, I could understand how the color white could transport Ken back to a horrible time in his past. I could understand Rothko's fears of no longer seeing the red for the black.

And even if the Ken and Rothko plot could be considered a cliche, I found myself taking the arguments the two men had, the points both of them would raise, and applying them to my own life. To me, this wasn't just some story of a young man pushing an older one's boundaries; it said something. This early speech of Rothko's had me almost embarrassed, as I could realize how true it was almost immediately after reading it:
Rothko: But do you like it?
Ken: Mm.
Rothko: Speak up.
Ken: Yes.
Rothko: Of course you like it - how can you not like it? Everyone likes everything nowadays. They like the television and the phonograph and the soda pop and the shampoo and the Cracker Jack. Everything becomes everything else and it's all nice and pretty and likable. Everything is fun in the sun! Where's the discernment? Where's the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect, what I deem worthy, what has... listen to me now... significance. (10)
How many times have I run into this problem? How many times have I used the same word to express a multitude of feelings, an opinion that should be expressed in terms of greater variety? Hell, how often do I run into that sort of problem in these reviews? The fictional Rothko's words have stayed with me in the days since I read the play. I've tried to choose my words more carefully since then. I haven't thought this consciously about a work I've read and applied its lessons to my real life in a long time.

The tension between Rothko and Ken builds to an intensely emotional final scene, where Rothko's own vulnerabilities finally come to the surface. Ken has seen that Rothko is sometimes unstable, but never before has Rothko so openly admitted his fears about his life and his work. Ken has pushed him to a breaking point and it is all Rothko can do to be honest with him. I was moved to tears in a way I hadn't thought I could be other than by imagery of profound sorrow--mourning, really--or happiness. I closed the book and had to sit for a moment. To think, in the way we leave Rothko, just standing there, studying his paintings.

The play won acclaim in both the West End and Broadway, and even having just read the play, I feel that acclaim is well-deserved. It's beautifully written, thought-provoking, and avoids all those irritating little cliches that tend to turn one off of mentor/mentoree stories. If you're at all curious about this play or its subject matter, give it a shot. It's not that long; you could read it in about an hour. But hopefully, as I have, you'll be thinking about it for a whole lot longer.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest'

The Book: He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest

The Author:
P.O. Dixon

How I Found It: I think it was an Amazon recommendation (you should see when I log in; it's the weirdest mix of Jane Austen sequels and Doctor Who tie-ins). I checked out the summary and was intrigued by the notion of Darcy interacting with Elizabeth Bennet's young son; as I've said before, I love books that feature child characters, so I wanted to give it a try.

The Review: Elizabeth Bennet did one thing she thought she'd never do: go against her father's wishes. She married young to a man she loved and who loved her, and as a result found herself cut off from her family. Not long after her marriage to Mr. Carlton, he is killed in an accident, and Elizabeth is left pregnant and alone. Her son, Bennet Carlton, grows up with Elizabeth and his loving grandfather, until his grandfather dies as well and Elizabeth is forced to return to Longbourn. Mr. Bennet, wanting the best for Jane and his remaining unmarried daughters, presses Lizzy to consent to an engagement with Geoffrey Collins, Mr. Collins' surprisingly agreeable elder brother. Feeling obliged to accept him, Lizzy agrees.

Bennet, meanwhile, is stifled by the almost entirely female atmosphere at Longbourn and longs for an escape. Whilst roaming in the nearby fields, he is nearly trampled by a horse and his rider--and that rider is Mr. Darcy. Ben is an imaginative child who is particularly taken by the legends of King Arthur, and declares himself to be Lancelot. Darcy, playing along, calls himself King Arthur, and quickly becomes Ben's friend. Darcy recognizes the boy's isolation and does his best to keep engage Ben's active imagination, and delves further into Meryton society during his time away from his young friend.

Darcy is particularly taken with Mrs. Elizabeth Carlton, thinking she is married and not a widow, and that his suit is, thus, hopeless. Elizabeth is likewise interested in Darcy, but knows she is bound to her fiance. Despite this, their respective connections to Ben could eventually end up bringing them closer--and bringing each of them into conflict with the bounds of propriety and their own hearts.

Dixon did a lot of interesting things here, and it was certainly one of the more original alternate takes on Pride and Prejudice I'd ever read. First off, Elizabeth as a widow? What? You mean she wasn't involved with Mr. Darcy, at all, ever? Second, Mr. Bennet cold and distant to Elizabeth? How can this be? Third, is that Lady Catherine being nice?

These were the questions that I was excited to find answers to as I started and kept reading. And no, you didn't read that last sentence up above wrong; Lady Catherine is actually portrayed in a sometimes positive light in Dixon's tale. Recently, I was reading a post on Austen Authors about how your perspective on Austen's characters can change as you grow older. I was most interested by those people who condemned Mr. Bennet as they grew up, saying that they came to realize that he was not the warm and witty character adaptations would have us believe, that he was instead a disrespectful, irresponsible, and inattentive father. (Upon rereading Pride and Prejudice for my English Literature class, I kept this perspective in mind, and noticed that it aligned more closely with the man Austen presents us than I'd thought, though I am a little more forgiving of the man than most.) I wondered if Dixon had this sort of perspective in mind as she wrote her tale. Her characterizations are certainly interesting.

Lizzy and Darcy are slightly altered--Lizzy is more mature, slightly older than in the original; she has more regard for the consequences of her actions. Rather than turning down Geoffrey Collins, as she does his younger brother in the original story, Elizabeth keenly feels her obligation to her family (though the estate is not entailed, in this story) and makes her decision based on their considerations, not her own. Darcy, meanwhile, is openly caring and affectionate to Ben--a soft side that is, in most variations, only seen by Lizzy. I really appreciated Dixon's take on Darcy; he recognizes a little boy lost without male guidance, a boy who must doubtless remind him of himself upon losing his parents. Darcy's scenes with Ben frequently had me smiling, and I was pleased to see an original way to bring out Darcy's kindness and somewhat heroic nature.

The more drastic changes come in the characterizations of Mr. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Anne, and Charlotte. Mr. Bennet, as mentioned before, is colder and more vindictive, almost, than commonly portrayed, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that Lizzy, once his favorite, had entirely sunk in his regard, with barely any hope for redemption. Lady Catherine is kind to Elizabeth, having known the elder Carltons, and it was funny to see Lady Catherine's usual impertinence warring with her desire to be nice to Elizabeth. Anne and Charlotte's characterizations, however, struck me as mildly problematic. Both are portrayed as fairly scheming in their pursuit of a match--not to comedic extent, as is Mrs. Bennet in the original, but almost coldly calculating their chances at a good match. This, along with a pivotal change to Jane's fortunes, made me most uncomfortable about the story. Antiquated stereotypes of femininity were sometimes adhered to, to an almost hyperbolic extent--the scheming woman who wants only marriage, the passive woman who ends up domineered by her husband--and I just wished, I suppose, for characterizations that didn't hinge on stereotypes that are today uncomfortable. The style of the story is also sometimes rough--there is frequent repetition of phrases like "taken leave of his/her senses" that I wish had been cut down upon--but these are minor distractions from an otherwise well-told story.

Those issues with characterization and minor stylistic annoyances are minor blips in a tale I otherwise greatly enjoyed. Is it cheesy? Yes, sometimes, but there are few stories that feature child characters that aren't. I give Dixon credit for experimenting with her story, excising elements of the original (for example, Lydia and Mr. Wickham) in order to create a story that focuses on Lizzy and Darcy alone--and Darcy's rival, Geoffrey Collins. Some won't like that Dixon strays far from the original, but as for me, who loves the variations market but sometimes gets tired of all of them hinging on the same points (what if Mr. Bennet died? what if Darcy spoke up about Wickham sooner? what if something or other happened to make Lizzy and Darcy anticipate their marriage and engage in some sort of sexual activity?), I was pleased by her choice to create original characters and situations. Geoffrey Collins was someone I was so eager to pick apart; his good qualities and his flaws are gradually revealed to the reader, so that for a while, one wonders if Darcy is perhaps doing wrong by separating Lizzy from a man who seems so amiable, a man who wants to be a father to her son and who wants Lizzy to help him mother his daughters. Of course, we all know how it's going to end up, but the fun is in the ride, isn't it?

And oh, it was a fun ride. Darcy's rivalry with Collins was hugely entertaining, as was Ben's part in the whole tangled mess. Ben, for his part, is not amused with Collins, and indeed assigns him the name of a Camelot villain. He'd much rather his mama, Guinevere, fall in love with King Arthur. King Arthur would love that, too. But Guinevere needs convincing, and so convince her he must. It was nice to see a Darcy who was slightly more open about his affections--this Darcy does not reveal himself in a letter; he instead proves himself to Elizabeth through his kindnesses to her son and his steadfast devotion to them both.

For those who aren't purists, who are curious about a take on Austen that strays far from the well-beaten path, but does so through new perspectives and intriguing original characters, I would not hesitate to recommend this story. And for those who want more, should you finish the story and crave it, Dixon's holiday story The Mission, featuring the characters, is available through most ebook retailers. It helped smooth out some of the minor quibbles I had with the ending as well as gave me more time with Elizabeth, Darcy, and Ben, and for that I was quite pleased.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'

I apologize for the incredibly long break, everyone--as often happens, I am a college student with little time to read, let alone sit down and review, as new semesters start, and I had to save my backlog for when I had more time (namely, now!). Here we go!

The Book: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The Author: Jonathan Safran Foer (husband of Nicole Krauss, whose book A History of Love I reviewed in 2010)

How I Found It: I was interested in the film adaptation, and curious to read the book when I learned that Krauss, whose book I'd really liked, and Foer were a literary power couple! And thank you to the fine folks at Kobo who offered the ebook at a discount during a sale, which prompted my purchase! :)

The Review: Oskar Schell is an interesting young boy. Others might call him odd. He can be socially tone deaf and perhaps too imaginative for others. Tests to figure out whether he has Asperger's proved inconclusive, and Oskar's parents and grandmother were left to figure out how to engage with and teach their child about the world.

Oskar's dad, Thomas Schell, seems to have found the perfect ways. He engages with Oskar through games (such as "reconnaissance expedition") and imaginary stories, like when he tells Oskar that New York once had a sixth borough. As a result, Oskar is closest to his father, a jeweler whose own father left the family before he was born.

Oskar and his mother are devastated when Thomas is killed in the 9/11 attacks, leaving his mother and grandmother grieving and Thomas adrift without his touchstone. An accident in his father's closet one day leads him to discover a key in an envelope marked BLACK. Oskar is mystified by this key and convinced that it is a clue in a last expedition set up by his father. He then decides to go to see every Black in the five boroughs, searching for the truth behind the key, wondering what it could possibly mean.

This book is not for everyone, I think I'll say right off. It can be construed as gimmicky. There are pages upon pages of pictures taken by Oskar in his journeys interspersed with the narrative. There's a numerical cypher that goes on for pages and pages that I tried valiantly to read (not even to decode!), only to stop when I thought my eyeballs would bleed. There's even the general premise of a post-9/11 story, which some argued was too soon to be taking on when Foer published the book in 2005. Those who think the book sounds too cutesy or like a cheap gimmick had better stay away; you'll probably feel exactly that if you were to read it.

I was somewhere in the middle. I sometimes wasn't a fan of Foer's technique (the pictures got tiring, especially when the same ones came up several times, and the aforementioned numerical cypher was too clever for me), but I appreciated the story and found it ultimately touching, if mostly sad. The book had a deep emotional core that resonated with me. Interspersed with Oskar's narrative is the tale of his grandparents--Thomas' father explaining why he left his son before he was even born; Thomas' mother telling her side of the story, her history with Thomas' father. Their story is one of love and loss, just like Oskar's. Both stories are about fathers and sons, about the search for human connection.

The importance of human relationships really struck me as I read through the book. Oskar has difficulty relating with people, but his quest to find every Black in the five boroughs brings him in contact with all manner of people. There's a Mr. Black not far from him who has a card catalogue of every person he's ever known with a one-word description of them. That alone showcases the importance of human relationships--that one Mr. Black goes so far as to catalogue every person he's ever formed a relationship with or felt connected to in some way. Mr. Black joins Oskar for part of his quest, and one Black they come to has passed away--she was a waitress at the Windows on the World restaurant who perished in 9/11, just like Oskar's father. It was episodes like this that served to show just how connected people can be in such a large city, a theme the movie played up.

If the book is not for everyone, the movie isn't, either. It was condemned by some critics as maudlin and overdone. For me, it was one of those rare movies I preferred to the book. The movie did away with some of those gimmicky things that bothered me about the book, and made some adaptational choices I felt streamlined the story and made it work a bit better than Foer's occasionally overstuffed tale.

For a start, Thomas Horn's turn as Oskar was touching as well as exceptionally forceful and driven. I'm really curious to see where this kid goes in the future. Eric Roth, the writer of the screenplay, chose to downplay the more noticeable of Oskar's characteristics that could indicate Asperger's. He was portrayed more as having anxiety in social situations and being slightly phobic of certain triggering things (briefcases, foreigners, etc.) after 9/11. The elements were there, but not dwelt on; Oskar's personality is left to stand on its own, without harping on a possible diagnosis. Horn was both charming and touching, and gave Oskar life that didn't always come off on page, for me, as Oskar in the book was sometimes a bit too outrageous and unbelievable. Paring down his character a bit was a wise choice, in my opinion.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock did extraordinarily well. Tom Hanks' scenes with Horn were full of warmth and you could really see the bond between Oskar and Thomas. Thomas' games are here shown to be a bit more than Oskar's narration in the book has us believe; they are Thomas' way of getting his son out into the world to talk to people. Hanks has few scenes with his on-screen wife, but the best is undoubtedly the emotional phone call between them where Linda realizes Thomas is at the World Trade Center. We don't see all that much of Linda, but her scenes with Oskar are well-played, if sometimes tough to watch, as both of them lash out in their grief. The increased focus on Oskar's mother as opposed to her role in the novel was something I appreciated, especially towards the end of the film; I felt she was portrayed in a slightly more forgiving light, and that her and Oskar were shown to have potential for a better future understanding of each other.

(I thank Roth for taking out the subplot involving Linda dating again; as it was portrayed in Foer's novel, it contributed to the unfortunate portrayals of moving on after grief wherein children are hostile and cannot accept that their parent has found someone else. It is realistic, but often is the only type of situation shown, and often portrayed as somewhat insurmountable, with tensions remaining between the second partner and the child[ren]. This was the case with Foer's novel and it was one of the things I wasn't happy with.)

Oskar's grandparents' story is not shown at all, but elements of the presence of elders in the story still remain. The scene where Oskar's grandmother lies on the floor with him following the 9/11 attacks made me cry; Zoe Caldwell did well. Mr. Black, he of the card catalogue, is conflated with the grandmother's mysteriously silent lodger, played excellently by Max von Sydow. He never speaks a word, but his expressive face and scribblings on a notepad are enough to get his message across. von Sydow's Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

Overall, I preferred the movie to the book, as it toned down the more hyperbolic elements of Foer's story, and let the more human, realistic elements speak for themselves. The book, however, is not without merit; I recommend that anyone who saw the film without reading the book give the book a try, as the story of Oskar's grandparents lends greater depth to the story, a half without which Oskar's story isn't whole. Though the book and movie are not for everyone, I recommend them to anyone who wants to read about grief and recovery, and about the human connections that bind us all together.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Thorn and The Blossom'

The Book: The Thorn and The Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story

The Author: Theodora Goss

How I Found It: Quirk Books was kind enough to provide me and other bloggers with an advance copy; thanks muchly! The book is officially out today!

The Review: This book has to be seen to be believed, really: it's a book without a spine. Seriously. I will direct you to this Youtube video to show you how it works (but be sure to come back here!). This way, you can choose whose side of the two lovers' story you want to read first: Brendan's or Evelyn's. I always love the innovations Quirk Books and their authors come up with, and this one had me seriously intrigued. I mentioned it to several friends out of excitement when I first got the email calling for interested bloggers, and all of them were curious--a book without a spine? How would that work? Could I show it to them once it was in my possession? I can't know for sure if this book will spread to the masses and fascinate them as it did my friends, but I certainly hope it will. It's genius.

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of books about books and reading, as well as a shameless Anglophile. One of my all-time favorite books is A.S. Byatt's Possession, a story of two poetry scholars seeking the truth behind an affair that may or may not have happened between their respective poets, all through lost love letters and clues hidden in poems and stories. Another book about books I'd read was 84, Charing Cross Road (review here), where two book lovers kept up a correspondence for many years, learning more about each other all the while. I think fans of either would really enjoy this story. There's an enduring and eternal love, like in Possession, and a modern day couple of scholars seeking the truth behind that love in their own individual ways. The relationship between individuals here is romantic, unlike the relationship in Charing Cross, but there's still that sense of distance, chronologically and geographically, a gap that's eventually bridged by books and stories.

I won't spoil the occurences unique to each side of the story, but the basic premise is this: Evelyn is a student visiting the town of Clews, in Cornwall, England, for the first time. Brendan is a native of Clews, the son of a local book merchant. Both are poets in their own way: Evelyn likes writing about fairies and other fantastical creatures, something her thesis adviser at Oxford highly discourages; Brendan has an intense interest in an old Cornish poem, the tale of Gawan and Elowen, a possible basis for the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as we know it today. When Evelyn walks into Thorne and Son, Brendan offers to show her around Clews, and tells her the story of Gawan and Elowen, lovers whose connection could not be thwarted even by death--if not for the curse of an evil sorceress, who doomed their love to a wait of a thousand years...

Evelyn and Brendan might just be falling in love themselves, but mutual secrets threaten their relationship and might even sink it before it begins. Brendan hasn't revealed to Evelyn that he's a student of poetry as well; a dark secret from Evelyn's troubled past threatens to surface in the woods of Cornwall. Will their relationship be doomed to time and distance, like Gawan and Elowen's, or will these lovers fight their way back to each other and craft a new story of their own?

I started with Brendan's story first, because I wanted to shake it up a little: in most of the romances I've read, you start out in the woman's point of view, rarely if ever getting the guy's first or at all. I wanted to see what the story would be like through his eyes, and it turned out that his eyes were very much like my own. He's an English literature scholar, and while I have no strict focus, I'm an English major; he loves books and bookstores, like me; he always felt a little out of place in his hometown due to his interest in literature, something I also felt, as an English-loving, disinterested-in-sports girl who grew up in an athletic town. Brendan's viewpoint resonated with me, and it drew me in immediately. When I flipped to Evelyn, I knew her through Brendan's eyes, which you think would have taken some of the interest away, but it didn't. Evelyn remembers things differently than Brendan at times. She has a past Brendan never quite learns about. Their separation is compellingly played on both ends, and I give Goss credit for making a tale with two very distinct sides that form one cohesive whole.

This book was a really magical experience for me. I always have an intense interest in how academics do things, and there were just enough details about the researching, publishing, etc. process to keep me interested, but not enough that others not interested in such processes would get bogged down. That aside, this book was really a love letter to the stories that bring us together and the stories that last for generations. The story of Gawan and Elowen is the story that Brendan's father told him; it is the story that comes to link Brendan and Elowen together in their academic careers and onwards. Who wouldn't love a story of a love that lasts a thousand years?

The book wasn't without a fault or two; it's only 82 pages total, so naturally, it does feel like some of the loose ends aren't quite tied up. Were Brendan and Elowen perhaps meant to be reincarnations of Gawan and Elowen, as I thought? Did other characters figure into the tale as well--was one, as I'd thought, the reincarnation of the evil sorceress? What was the import of Evelyn's secret, and did it mean what I thought it did? I wanted these questions to be answered, but as I usually do with novellas, I handwaved them away with the knowledge that the author had done the best she could in a short space. Although that being said, I certainly wouldn't mind a longer book in this vein from Goss. She knows how to write a romance, she knows how to write a literary mystery... I'd buy it, for sure.

This is a book I can recommend on the merits of both its presentation and its content. The book itself is brilliantly made and a great conversation piece, as I learned, and it's really a testament to why we still need physical books. As much as I love my eReader TARDIS, books like this remind me of why I still buy physical books. And never mind the presentation, this is a brilliant story of love lost and found again, and of the stories that bring us all together. Highly recommended!