Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

11870085Superb! I absolutely love this book, but before extolling its literary excellence, a brief synopsis: Three teenagers with cancer, Hazel Grace, Augustus, and Isaac, meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace is terminal, Augustus is in remission (but had one leg amputated), and Isaac must have his second eye removed due to his cancer returning, leaving him blind. It sounds depressing, but it is filled with humor, beautiful dialogue, numerous allusions to my favorite authors, and more importantly, profound truths.

Hazel and Augustus share the same sense of humor, ask the same questions of the universe, love the same book, and rival each other’s incredible vocabulary and IQ level. Isaac becomes a sort of lovable third wheel when his girlfriend leaves him because he is now blind after promising him “always.”

Hazel fears being a “grenade” in the lives of her friends and family. She knows it is inevitable that her parents will be inconsolable when she dies, but she hesitates to get involved with Augustus because she is afraid of breaking his heart, which she sees as avoidable. Augustus fears dying and fading into oblivion. He just wants to be remembered, and he wants his death to have a purpose. He longs to be a hero, but of course, dying of cancer is pretty purposeless.

Augustus spends his cancer-perk-wish on Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten, and finding out the unwritten ending to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a girl dying of cancer, which stops abruptly without any resolution. Hazel and Augustus have a romantic Dutch holiday even though Van Houten is a jerk. That’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers.

Although most people I know love this book, I’ve run across a few who have various complaints, and some who downright hate the book, so I’d like to address these criticisms and get them out of the way.

The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written, some say too beautifully. Yes, it may seem corny to certain readers that Augustus speaks in long romantic monologues, and waxes philosophical, and that Hazel and Augustus are far too mature, and it is incredibly unlikely that too super-geniuses with terminal cancer would meet and fall in love, but so what? All these things actually make the book more interesting, in my opinion. Who wants to read a book with boring, ordinary, emotionally immature, and illiterate cancer patients? It is unlikely that people in Shakespeare’s day spoke in rhyming iambic pentameter, but we appreciate the art and beauty of it, and the truths that matter are there, as they are in The Fault in Our Stars. These truths are even more abundant because they are so eloquently delivered via metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. However, I will admit that I do agree with some readers that Augustus and Hazel are too similar, almost the same character. Hazel is more serious and more selfless, but it is strangely narcissistic that they fall in love.

Another grievance among the disparagers of this novel is that it is not comforting to cancer patients or their families. Well, it is my belief that this book is not primarily written for either cancer patients, or those they leave behind. I believe it is written mainly for the obliviously healthy, those living their lives appreciating little, caring for less, and noticing naught around them, to see life through the eyes of a terminal cancer patient and wake up. Reading TFiOS is contemplating the universe vicariously through the eyes of those that have the luxury of knowing this is all the time they have, the here and now, and it is short, way too short. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by calling it luxury–cancer is horrible, senseless, cruel, but in some ways Green is saying that it is a gift, a gift to know how much time you have left and how valuable that time is. The book’s existential message is that we give life whatever meaning we want to give it, and it is beautiful and worth living to the fullest, every minute of it. Hazel and Augustus are lucky in that they know they don’t have much time left. They realize the tragedy of their impending death; therefore; they live abundantly, “sucking the marrow out of life” as Thoreau put it. We don’t do that because we don’t know we are dying; we don’t know tomorrow could be our last day.

However, the most amazing thing about this novel is all the allusion to wonderful pieces of literature. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he quotes Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” names the hamster in Van Houten’s novel, Sisyphus, refers to Walt Whitman’s philosophical ideas, and he quotes my all-time, absolute personal favorite, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, among many others. Being a book nerd, these allusions transported me to literary heaven. But Green does not quote and namedrop for no reason.

The title of the novel comes from Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius tells Brutus that it is not fate that is responsible for our misery, but our own failings are responsible for the tragedy in our lives. But when Van Houten writes in his letter to Augustus, “Never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you are a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, p. 111-112). By titling the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Green emphasizes his point that cancer is a purposeless disease that chooses its victims with no rhyme or reason. I LOVE the title.

I also love the allusion to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” for a similar reason:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay. –Robert Frost

 

Again Green highlights the fact that everything is temporary, especially what is most beautiful, but that only makes us appreciate it more. Because this line is also associated with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which would be familiar to most teens, I think Green means to bring in the totality of meaning that S.E. Hinton intended in her novel. Hazel Grace and Augustus, like Pony Boy in The Outsiders, need to “Stay gold” even though they are losing their innocence while facing a cruel world.

The hamster in Hazel Grace and Augustus’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (the meaning of this title is self-explanatory), is named Sisyphus. Sisyphus is an obvious allusion to the mythological Sisyphus who was required to roll a boulder up a hill over and over, just to watch it roll down again. Albert Camus’s essay, Myth of Sisyphus, uses Sisyphus as an example to put forth his philosophy of the Absurd. Camus tells of Sisyphus’s meaningless task to show how humans search for meaning where there is none. According to Camus, Sisyphus was happy because, to him, this meaningless activity had meaning. In other words, humans create our own meaning (Existentialism) and this quest to find meaning in meaningless things gives people meaning. Hazel Grace and Augustus realize this; they see the absurdity of the world. They don’t try to explain their illnesses or find meaning in it. It just sucks. They are not comforted by platitudes, even though Augustus commonly creates his own in his lengthy monologues; however, they do grudgingly accept the value in them to those who will be left behind.

Finally, I think it was pure brilliance to include the allusions to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This most beautifully rhythmic and meaningful poem is a Modernist work, which by definition is cynical, self-reflective, and anti-traditional. Augustus is afraid to become Prufrock. Prufrock is fading into oblivion, not from disease, but from age. Nevertheless there are many similarities between Augustus and Prufrock. Prufrock has desires, but sees himself and his life as unremarkable, too unremarkable to reach out for the love for which he longs and has let slip away throughout his life. He is too careful, too reserved, a minor character–“no Prince Hamlet.” He asks the big questions, but is afraid to find the answer to his “overwhelming question.” At one point he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (This blog is named for this poem, in case you didn’t know.) Augustus wants to disturb the universe, needs to disturb the universe before he goes. His biggest fear is being like Prufrock, letting love slip away, life slip away, unnoticed, unremarkable, and for no heroic reason. One of the first lines Hazel quotes shows the bleak reality of life and the emptiness of searching for significance where there is none: “Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/ Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question . . ./ Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit” (Eliot, quoted from Green, p. 153). It is relevant that Augustus’s response to her delivering this quote is: “I’m in love with you” (p. 153). Augustus sees in Hazel a soul-mate, who recognizes the futility of asking that question. This book made it in to my top ten favorite books right then and there.

I love this book because it is the kind of book that makes me reconsider, makes me contemplate the big questions, and then encourages me to put all that aside and just live fully. It encourages me, but like Prufrock, I am constantly led to ask that question. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that stays with me, but if it fades, I will read it again and again. It occurred to me that this book is saying the opposite of the providential message of The Goldfinch, which I also found extremely profound. Truthfully, I’ll never stop looking for answers, but it is important to be reminded to live in the spaces between questions.

So, I really don’t care if it isn’t probable that two brilliant cancer patients like Hazel Grace and Augustus would have their stars cross in real life because there are truths more important than how large the vocabulary of the average teenager is likely to be. Truths like cancer sucks, bad things happen for no reason, and life is a gift to be lived and cherished every minute without fear because no one is promised tomorrow, and we don’t have to figure it all out; we just get to live it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Book Review: Covet by Tracey Garvis-Graves

13481759I bought this book when it first came out because I absolutely loved Garvis-Graves’ book, On the Island. I hadn’t had time to read it, but then my book club chose it to read for the month of May. I eagerly anticipated getting lost in another intense story by Garvis-Graves and imagined that I would love the characters as I did in her first book.

That didn’t happen. This book was a bit disappointing. The first half of this book was quite boring as it slowly, very slowly, painted a picture of a suburban couple, Claire and Chris, whose marriage was falling apart due to Chris’s emotional issues and unwillingness to communicate after losing his lucrative job and his inability to find another for over a year. Claire meets a good looking police officer, Daniel, and a seemingly innocent friendship develops as Daniel meets Claire’s emotional needs in a way that Chris refuses to.  This sounds like a decent plot, full of possibility for conflict, but there really isn’t much. Even Claire’s internal conflict–there’s hardly any; she’s mostly in denial.

One reason I found this book rather unexciting, I think, is because I am not really interested in suburban housewives’ first world problems, such as boredom, vodka lunches, and not getting to shop at designer stores, and there was way too much of that in this book for my taste. It seemed very Desperate Housewives to me at first (without the quirky characters and conflict), and I didn’t like any of the characters, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it did get better.

However, one of the most annoying things about the book to me, and this is just a matter of taste, was the present tense narration. I find books written in the present tense very awkward, and because of this, I am constantly reminded that I am reading a story rather than experiencing the characters’ lives. Maybe it’s just because I am used to being told a story in the past tense. I’m not sure. Also, I really did not enjoy the first person alternating points of view. Most chapters were Claire’s, but every once in a while, we would get the perspective of Chris or Daniel. There was not enough from them to feel like I really got to know them, and I think it would have been better just to stick with Claire’s point of view if the others’ perspectives weren’t going to be well-developed.  For me, this is what really interfered with the character development.

Garvis-Graves’ character development in On the Island was probably my favorite thing about that book, but Covet really lacked in this area. It was not until after the first 200 pages that I actually began to have sympathy for Claire, and strangely, this sympathy came not from her own point of view, but from Daniel’s. And even then, it was through her dialogue and actions with Daniel that I started to care more about Claire, and the same was true for Daniel. When Claire spoke in the first person about her feelings, I was left cold and emotionless. They didn’t ring true for me, or somehow, she just didn’t seem like a real person. I felt the same thing when I read Daniel’s perspective. He seemed like an opportunistic creep when speaking in his own perspective, but seemed better in conversation with Claire and in his actions toward her. However, I never cared one whit for Chris, Claire’s husband, and for the remainder of the last half of the book, I just wanted her to divorce him. His perspective was always incredibly brief and uninformative. I felt like the author didn’t even know who he was, so how could I? And his behavior toward Claire just seemed childish and selfish. The author did not do an adequate job of making Chris sympathetic or justifying his behavior enough to make me want to see them work things out, or even care, for that matter. As for the minor characters, too much seemingly irrelevant information was given about them that just seemed superfluous.

The most interesting thing about the book to me was Claire’s Type 1 Diabetes. More than just a plot device, it made her a little more real to me. In addition to Claire’s diabetes, I liked the realism in which the gradual shift from friendship to romantic feelings that Claire and Daniel shared was portrayed. This made the whole book worth reading.  Although Claire should have clearly known better than to become so close to another man if she wanted to save her marriage, most affairs do start out this way.

I did end up kind of liking this book because I did like the message. This book clearly demonstrates the need for one’s spouse to be one’s best friend, to look for that companionship, conversation, emotional connection, and comfort from the person who should be closest. We need to constantly see our spouse as our best friend and share those things that we wouldn’t share with anyone else. We need transparency and vulnerability if we want true intimacy. Garvis-Graves did an excellent job of showing this in Claire and Chris’s life together.

However disappointing this book was to me, I will definitely look forward to more from this writer simply because On the Island was THAT good. Any writer who can pull me into a book as quickly and immerse me into the characters’ lives to the point where I miss them when they are gone, as I did when I finished On the Island, deserves another chance. 3 out of 5 stars. –Christina Knowles

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

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

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