Wait, Wha? Did I Miss Something? A Review of Divergent by Veronica Roth (Caution: Spoilers!)

13335037I will undoubtedly anger some folks out there with this less than positive review, although I am wary of criticizing harshly the work of other authors, one, out of fear that I will rightly be called a hypocrite for judging others while making plenty of my own mistakes, and two, out of compassion because I know how difficult it is to write a logically consistent book. Nevertheless, I cannot keep silent when such a clearly bad book continues to get such applause among those who should know better, namely, the Children’s Choice Book Award Nominee for Teen Choice Book of the Year (2012), Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2014), and the DABWAHA Romance Tournament for Best Young Adult Romance (2012).

Let’s start with the positive. This was an easy, fast-paced read. I found it exciting and attention-grabbing, and I kind of liked Tris and Four. It was action-packed and suspenseful enough that I wanted to keep reading it. I think I actually enjoyed it; however, this fact is still inexplicable to me.

Now to the problems in this novel. Honestly, everything about this book was pretty unbelievable, beginning with the whole premise of being Divergent. The book takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago of the future, where to achieve order and peace, it is thought best to segregate everyone according to five personality types: Candor (the obnoxiously honest), Amity (the friendly), Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), and Abnegation (the self-sacrificing). Each faction has certain jobs in society for which they are responsible. More about that later. Anyone who does not pass the initiation into one of these factions becomes factionless, which basically means homeless and on the street. If someone falls into more than one personality type, they are labeled “Divergent” and targeted for assassination. Roth writes:

“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”

 Although the idea that some future generation of people would actually think this given our history is, well, okay, I can believe that. I don’t want to, but I can. We seem to repeat history. However, where the suspension of disbelief breaks down is the “Choosing Ceremony” and the testing that precedes it. Roth asks us to believe that a society that requires strict adherence to membership in a faction with the only alternative being death or homelessness actually lets their citizens choose a faction other than the one for which they tested compatible. This makes no sense. Really. Think about it. A person takes a test, which consists, by the way, of entering a simulation wherein the tester can see what you are experiencing and the results are recorded, they give you the result, say it’s Abnegation, but the person says, I really feel like a Dauntless. We are expected to believe that they are freely allowed to violate the whole purpose of the factions, thus proving themselves Divergent, and upsetting the whole peace-keeping plan? Another thing Roth asks us to fathom is that Tris and Four are the minority, that almost everybody else just has one personality trait. Seriously? Maybe I could buy this if she bothered to explain how we’d evolutionarily changed since the present time, or if she put forth some explanation of being genetically altered, drugged, brain-washed, or any explanation at all.

Okay, the next problem is that the Divergent can’t be controlled like everyone else. The Erudite want to take over leadership from the Abnegation, so they come up with a mind-controlling chip of some kind that is injected into the Dauntless to make them a zombie army, but Divergent people are completely unaffected. This is not explained either. Somehow having more than one personality trait makes them immune. The others are weak-minded for being good at one thing? I need explanation. I mean, isn’t their biology the same?

While I’m on the subject of the robotic army of the Dauntless, let’s talk about one of the biggest logic problems in the book. Tris finds out that the Erudite are creating a new simulation, the purpose of which is to trick the Dauntless into thinking they are doing the right thing by attacking the Abnegation. They will do this by projecting images into the minds of the Dauntless of Abnegation doing horrible things, but when the simulation is turned on, the Dauntless just become robots, obeying the command of the chip. What, then, is the purpose of the simulation? You are right; there isn’t one. The movie leaves this part out, by the way, so someone must have finally noticed the illogical nature of this plot development.

Moving on, let’s take a look at the Dauntless faction. This group is supposed to be responsible for keeping order as the military and police presence in the city. Yet, their training consists of mostly child-like, dangerous “YOLO” behavior like jumping off buildings, zip-lining, and beating each other unconscious. There is no disciplined basic training and respect taught. If anything, the Dauntless seem like hoodlums from which the citizens would need protection. The only thing in their training that really made sense was the fear simulations to face their greatest terrors. But even this has problems. At one point, the leaders get to watch Tris’s simulation. Wouldn’t one of her greatest fears be that they would find out she was Divergent? How could she hide it?

In the book, Tris overcomes her fear simulation by changing it through her thoughts–basically telling herself it isn’t real. Well, I don’t know why only Divergent people could do that; they all know they are in a simulation, but her simulations have to be erased over and over by people helping her so that she is not discovered. In the movie, Four tells her to face her fears like a Dauntless, looking for tools to use to find a way out, which would basically be Erudite, not Dauntless. Neither makes sense. For example, in the book when she is in Four’s simulation, they face walls closing in on them. Her answer in the book is to face it by making herself as small as possible, so the walls come even closer. In the movie, she shoves nails in the cracks to stop the walls, which isn’t really facing the fear.  In the movie, Four makes a point of telling her to hide her divergence in the simulations, but she doesn’t even try in the book.

Another thing that drove me crazy in the book was the explanation of the factionless. Roth writes: “Because they failed to complete initiation into whatever faction they chose, they live in poverty, doing the work that no one else wants to do. They are janitors and construction workers and garbage collectors; they make fabric and operate trains and drive buses. In return for their work they get food and clothing, but, as my mother says, not enough of either” (p. 25). But every time the factionless are mentioned, they are portrayed as homeless and starving. The Erudite want to completely destroy the factionless. Why? Do they want to collect the garbage and drive the buses? Do they want a person, fainting from hunger and not getting a good night’s sleep driving them around? It is a very insulting way to depict these careers as well, but it makes no sense to try and get rid of or not care for your working class. No one else wants to pick up the trash, I’m assuming. Why are they homeless and starving? Don’t they get paid, at least in food and shelter, for driving the buses and trains? If they are, why are they starving? If they don’t get enough, why do they do it? By the way, what’s up with the trains? They run them day and night only for the Dauntless to jump on and off of?

Speaking of jobs, don’t most jobs require one to be Divergent? For example, in the book the Abnegation are the medical personnel. Although I can see how selflessness would be nice in this profession, I would think intelligence or even a friendly bedside manner would be more important. Why are the Amity farmers? How does being friendly qualify one for agriculture? Doesn’t the military need intelligence and selflessness? I certainly think so. Seriously, how did this get past a professional editor?

This is what bothers me most. This is not a self-published book with no editor. This book has been professionally proofread, edited, and marketed. Why didn’t any of the number of people reading this before it came out catch this stuff and send it back to Roth, saying, “Fix this!?” Her publisher should have spent as much money on the editor as she did on the marketing crew. Again, I worry about being a hypocrite. My book isn’t perfect. There are things an editor, had I had one, would have insisted I change. But at least it makes sense in the world I created. It is logical. I don’t ask the reader to believe things with no explanation. “You’re just jealous,” you may say, “because her book is wildly successful and yours is not.” Maybe I am, but I don’t think so. I love when a good book wins awards, becomes successful, gets the attention it earns. But the fact that many writers like me work very hard to write a consistently believable book that doesn’t insult the readers’ intelligence, and a book like this sells millions and gets a movie deal is annoying. I am not at all annoyed when great books get the accolades they deserve.

One thing I won’t do is criticize Divergent for being a copy of The Hunger Games. It is nothing like The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games was good, really good, but beyond that, all dystopian novels can trace their roots back to either Brave New World or 1984. I don’t hear anyone criticizing Fahrenheit 451 for being derivative of Brave New World even though it is. It is a phenomenal book with its own original take on the dystopian world, and it can stand alone. Knowing how long it takes for a book to go through the publication process, I doubt that Roth even had the chance to read The Hunger Games before beginning to write her trilogy. By the way, check out Stephen King’s The Long Walk or The Running Man, both written long before the YA craze of dystopian science fiction came about,if you want similar to The Hunger Games.

I will attempt to end on a high note. Even though there are abundant problems with the whole premise of this dystopian world and numerous plot points that make absolutely no sense, the action and suspense in this novel are enough to make the reader forget about the lack of logic through much of the book. Much to my astonishment, I still enjoyed this book. I wanted to finish it and finish it quickly. I didn’t want to put it down, and I looked forward to picking it up. So, I know Roth has a talent for storytelling and decent prose; she just needs to slow down, think it through, and then get a good editor.

The movie, on the other hand, was not even entertaining. Although the movie tried to avoid some of the logic flaws by leaving out certain errors, it still did not make sense, and it was slow. Without the first person narrative of what Tris is thinking as she tries to work her way through the fear simulations and survive the Dauntless initiation, there is not enough to keep the viewer engaged or to divert the reader from the glaring illogic of the story. 2 out of 5 stars for the novel and 1 out of 5 for the movie.–Christina Knowles

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Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223Finally– I finally finished the 771 page novel that is The Goldfinch.  I have never taken so long to finish a book before. Not just because this book was soooo long. I have read many long books, but this book had to be read slowly, absorbed. I do admit that it was not really a page-turner. This is an understatement. In fact, every time I had to put it down, I had no trouble at all. I actually looked forward to putting it down and had a hard time picking it back up. It’s not that it was a bad book, or even boring.  Actually, I found it very profound and am glad I read it. But let me start at the beginning.

This book is about a boy named Theo with an absent and alcoholic father and a loving mother, who is trying to raise him on her own.  While visiting an art museum, he and his mother get caught in a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed, he survives, and through a series of seemingly providential events, he meets an old man and his grand-daughter, steals a famous small painting called “The Goldfinch” in a confused and concussed stupor, and manages to find his way out of the carnage unnoticed in the chaos.

Theo experiences and suffers numerous things in the proceeding years, but always manages to hold on to the painting, maniacally attached to the famous and priceless work of art. He soon realizes what he’s done, but is both unwilling and afraid to give it up. The rest of the very lengthy book chronicles his life, living with post-traumatic stress, guilt, and fear, recording one bad decision after another in an almost ridiculous hyperbole.

As a reader I became somewhat fond of Theo, but who wouldn’t be after spending 771 pages with him? Still, after 771 pages, I would think I would be more attached to him. The characterization in this story is all right, but nothing to really speak of. The prose are eloquent, the descriptions striking and pictorial. The plot is wonderful. So what’s wrong with this book? Why did I look forward to putting it down and dread picking it up? Is it bleak, disheartening, cynical? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but that’s not it either. This book is dragged down with the weight of details, details, details. Endless details. I swear that this author takes thirty pages to say what most people could say in five. And I’m sorry; I don’t care how beautifully it is said, there comes a time when you just have to get to the point. Sometimes I would find myself dying to find out how something turned out or what someone said, but by the time five, ten, or fifteen pages went by, I would forget what it was I was waiting for. I was tempted over and over again to skim it, but a force seemed to hold me back, telling me that in all these details there had to be a purpose, a message that I was sure to miss if I half-heartedly scanned the pages.

It finally came. I must say the profundity of the last thirty pages made enduring the whole over-written story worth the reading. But even the ending was at least fifteen pages too long. When I finally achieved the nirvana of the story’s thematic message, I floated on this cloud for only a page or two when the repetitive, albeit beautiful, drone numbed my mind once again.

Still I marvel at the incredible perspicacity of Tartt. She paints this crazy, chaotic, hyperbolic story with its deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist, into an Impressionistic masterpiece that can only be fully understood as one backs up and takes in the whole picture, the whole really long, laboriously large picture. (Forgive the “artsy” metaphor-no pun intended.) And the irony of the depressing events Theo endures finally coming to a usable point through the philosophical ruminations of Theo’s drug-addled, abused, trouble-attracting, poor-decision-making childhood friend, Boris, was just superb. In one sublime page, the entire seemingly pointless suffering all seems to make sense. The book should have ended there, but no, Tartt needs to go on and on and on, almost condescendingly assuming that we didn’t quite “get it” yet. The book could easily have been done, and done well, in my humble opinion, in half the pages. One must ask, “What was her editor thinking?” Isn’t it the editor’s job to demand cuts where extraneous material invades? I can only assume that her editor must have been infatuated with Tartt’s beautifully descriptive and intelligent writing style.

The Goldfinch evokes such ambivalence in me that I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I will say this: I am so grateful that I read it, but I will never be reading it again. I am giving it 4 out 5 stars–5 stars for its deeply meaningful insight, but subtracting one for making me suffer so long to receive it.–Christina Knowles

On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves

 15505346I’ll be honest. This was my book club’s pick one month, and I was not thrilled at first.  I was hesitant to read this book because of the subject matter: a young teacher takes on a summer job of tutoring a high school boy with cancer, their airplane crashes, they are the sole survivors forced to live on a remote and deserted island for years and fall in love; however, I was hooked on the first page. It was completely believable, tasteful, and nothing inappropriate happened (until years had passed, and the boy was an adult).
I think my favorite thing about this book was the characterization of Anna and TJ. Anna was done so right, full of conscience and true compassion. Their relationship was handled so well too. The fact that they lived and survived together day in and day out for the first couple of years as only friends really helped. When the book started, I thought, “No way am I ever going to be okay with this relationship.” But before Anna even starts entertaining romantic feelings for TJ, I was already on board and wanting it to happen. Part of this acceptance was due to the fact that TJ is old beyond his years, and this is completely believable in light of his life experiences. Another reason was that Anna was completely ethical and appropriate with TJ and the relationship happened gradually as he grew up and became a man, and because they knew they were likely to never see another human soul in their lives. Also, the fact that she never actually was his teacher helped too. By the end of this novel, I was in love with the idea of TJ and Anna and wanted to see them overcome the very realistic obstacles they encountered. That’s all I can say without adding too many spoilers.
This book is beautiful and poignant, at times exciting, and at times heartbreaking. I loved every page of it. 5 out of 5 stars.—Christina Knowles

Book Review: Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx

I was very impressed with the beginning of this book. Marx does an excellent job, in Part I: Bourgeois and Proletarians, analyzing and explaining the historical anthropological cycle of the plutocracy and the downward spiral of the working class in the free market. The way Marx describes the corruption and greed of the business owner is prophetic of the crony Capitalism of corporate America today.  I believe he was spot-on in his interpretation of this cycle of abuse and profit and the devaluation of the blue-collar worker; however, his solution to the problem (Part II: Proletarians and Communists) is entirely too radical, and quite frankly, scary. Marx’s vision of Communism assumes an honest and benevolent leadership, which is not likely if we look at historical evidence.

For example, Marx calls for the complete abolishment of land ownership, including personal homes, not just private businesses, “centralization of credit in the hands of the state,” and “centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.” The last two, in particular, sound like nothing more than a means of controlling the population. But what I really don’t understand is why Marx thinks that the abolishment of land ownership and private wealth will automatically result in the dissolution of religion and the family unit. This makes no sense to me since neither is dependent on wealth or ownership for their survival. Marx does not specify that the state be required to raise the children as part of the manifesto. He does state that there should be a free public school system, which we have, and which hasn’t dissolved the family unit. I think modern Socialists and possibly even Communists would be horrified at this “Brave New World.” However, in the next section, Marx criticizes the Socialist movements of the day, including the German Socialism, which led to Nazi control. He even predicts, to some extent, the brutality of this movement.

Finally, in Part IV, Marx encourages a violent uprising to achieve these changes, which modern Socialists, at least Democratic Socialists, condemn. I can see why many Socialists today do not align themselves with Marx.

Even though much of this manifesto is repulsive, I give the work 3 out of 5 stars for the insight and explanation of the social problems inherent in a free market run by the wealthy elite.–Christina Knowles

Review: Lost December by Richard Paul Evans

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At first I thought this book would be another story like A Winter Dream by the same author (a re-telling of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors) but based on The Prodigal Son instead; however, this prodigal son tale was pretty original for a re-telling. I thoroughly enjoyed it and actually had sympathy for Luke, the son who left home, squandered a million dollar trust fund, and ended up homeless on the streets. Luke didn’t actually spend all the money himself, which helped in the sympathy department; he trusted the wrong people who took advantage of him. Nevertheless, Evans does an excellent job of showing how gradually one’s values and priorities, and even personality can change in the right (or wrong) environment.

This feel-good “riches to rags” story operates well on another level as well. Not only does it remind us to remember what is really important in our lives and that the source of true happiness is not found in material possessions and in short-lived experiences, but it shows how impossible it is to break out of the cycle of poverty and homelessness without help, while still emphasizing the value of hard work and determination. Maybe a little too much on the side of ambition.

Evans builds up Luke’s father to angelic heights as a decent, caring, and ethical corporate executive, which I guess is understandable since he would be “God” allegorically speaking since the father in the original represents God. Kind of an allegory within an allegory in this case. Evans seems to idealize the honest businessman, but at the same time, he acknowledges the all-too-familiar greedy and immoral tycoon. Of course, Luke realizes the value of an honest day’s work and sacrifice, but once on the street, he isn’t given a chance until a charitable do-gooder gives him a hand up. Evans does a great job of showing the reader the hopelessness of the plight of many.

You probably know the story of The Prodigal Son, so it won’t be a spoiler to let you know that Luke finds his way home into the forgiving and open arms of his father. It’s not as corny as it sounds. This book was a wonderful holiday read without being too preachy or saccharin. It thoroughly delivered on Christmas spirit. 4 out 5 stars.

Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

15753740 The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult hooked me from the beginning. Sage, the grand-daughter of Minka, a Holocaust survivor, befriends an old man in a grief group. Sage is battling guilt of her own when she meets 95 year old Josef, who is dealing with his own demons. When he confesses he was a Nazi war criminal in his previous life, she is torn between helping him die as he requests, or turning him in to the FBI. Her real struggle, of course, is dealing with her own ideas of guilt, forgiveness, and moving on with life. I loved the alternating narration from the different characters, the voices from the past, as well as the interweaving of Minka’s vampire story told by her character, Ania. Coming from the standpoint of an author, I can’t imagine what kind of planning, research, and editing this book required to achieve this flawless final product.

My favorite aspect of this book was the allegory of the vampire story-within-the-story, which attempted to work out the complicated moral issues of Aleks, the vampire, who was evil, not by his own choice, but because of circumstances which paralleled Josef’s life experiences. The almost supernatural way, Minka, recognized these issues when everything in her experience should have closed her off to these nuances of character dilemmas, and how she incorporated them into her story almost unconsciously was a nice touch. However, the suggestion that Aleks could not help his murderous instincts, and relating this to boys who were recruited by the Nazis being conditioned to become killers against their wills, was a disturbing, and I’m not sure fair, comparison.

I also liked how the detailed description of the baking of bread was a metaphor for life, love, and even death. The love Minka’s father exhibited in his careful baking for Minka, how he fed the community, the community’s soul-starvation when he is gone, despite the presence of other food, the actual physical need for bread as sustenance, paralleled with Sage’s own drive to express what is going on in her heart and soul with her baking all serve as a beautiful, and at times subliminal, undercurrent of meaning in the story.

Minka’s narrative section in the novel was difficult to read. It took me a long time to get through it because it was so well-told and intense that I had to take frequent breaks from it. Picoult does, however, handle this narrative with sensitivity, insight, and respect. The plot twists are done smoothly and can be predicted if the reader is paying attention, but are no less satisfying in the end.

All in all, I appreciate the literary value of this novel. It asks important questions such as what creates a monster? Can they be redeemed? Should they be forgiven? Or is that disrespectful to their victims? What is justice? Is it in our hands? How do we move on from tragedy? How do we dispense justice without becoming the monster ourselves? Is everyone both good and evil? This book requires an honest look at these issues, and frankly, may muddy the water more than clarify it, but it accomplishes what great literature should do; it makes you think about it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Review: The Appeal by John Grisham (Warning: Spoilers)

 

I w1248179as very disappointed in this book. I love John Grisham, but I did not like this book at all. It was nothing more than a political statement, which would have been far better received had he just written it in essay form.

The novel explores the seedy underbelly of Supreme Court judicial elections and, of course, corporate greed. A large, conscious-less organization irresponsibly, and downright villainously, destroys the water supply of a small town, resulting in numerous cases of cancer and deaths of innocent residents. When the lower courts stick it, deservedly so, to the corporation, they pick a suitably naive candidate to run for Supreme Court justice and buy the election to insure the judgement is overturned.

This all sounds typically Grisham, and it usually results in an action-packed legal thriller. However, there is no action, no thrills, no heroic defeating of the bad guys, just boredom. Grisham reduced this plot to nothing but a rant against the corporate elite and their ability to control the political arena, and do whatever they want. And I agree with everything Grisham had to say, but I still couldn’t stand his blatant proselytizing.

The book ended horribly, just to further emphasize his point. It was very disappointing. I am really anticipating “Sycamore Row,” the sequel to ” A Time to Kill,” in hopes of restoring my faith in Grisham’s ability to hook me on the first page and hold me captive until his normally satisfying and righteous endings, unlike “The Appeal,” which left me confused and frustrated, wondering if the last chapter had somehow been left out of my copy. 2 out of 5 stars.

Review: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

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I loved reading this book again after so many years. I did not realize how much of his analyses I have stolen for use in my classes I teach. I have learned so much about not only literature from Stephen King, but about writing as well. What I would have given to be sitting in one of those few classes he taught. But that is what this book is-it is sitting in a Stephen King lecture on the horror/science fiction/fantasy genres. It may even be a film class as well. His insight into the socio-political messages in these works, and his relating it to the current social situation of the times add so much more depth to understanding this genre.

I did, however, find myself disappointed that this book had not been updated in more than just the foreword though. It seemed very dated and, of course, did not include analyses of more modern works. I can certainly understand why King only added the foreword, rather than re-writing the whole book. That would have been an undertaking. My only other complaint about this novel, and the reason it did not receive a 5-star rating, is that King is quite repetitive throughout the novel. It seemed like he belabored his points on many occasions. I think this book could have been much shorter, even with King’s tangents and asides (which I love by the way). All in all, it is a grade read and even an education. Four out of five stars.

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