Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I'd say I don't remember the last time I read a young-adult book, only I do. Just the other day: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I liked it, maybe a little more than I'd expected, enough to read in one sitting. So I read a book by an author who so often gets mentioned in the same breath as John Green. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is another YA book that comes highly recommended. And this, I loved!

Summary: (from Amazon) Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she's never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn't stick out more if she tried. Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and, in Eleanor's eyes, impossibly cool, Park's worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by. Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits: smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Rating: 3.5/5 - I only do ratings when the review is kind of a rant, and doesn't really make it clear just how exactly much I liked the book.

Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. 
So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers. 
I'm not kidding, he says
You should be, she says, we're 16. 
What about Romeo and Juliet? 
Shallow, confused, then dead. 
I love you, Park says. 
Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers. 
I'm not kidding, he says. 
You should be.

My thoughts: The story is so cheesy. I know: it's got two misfits falling in love over a bunch of 80's songs, which they can't help quoting from every three seconds. There's a lot of gooey dialogue that made me roll my eyes for being just so... teen. Of course, my teenage years were some of the most ridiculous times of my life, where I did and said the craziest things and had high school smack me in the face a lot, so there were times when I felt the characters in the book just needed to grow up, already. All their immaturities and insecurities are frustrating and maudlin. But then that's the point, Eleanor & Park captures exactly what it is to be a teenager. Illogical and overloaded on touchy-feelies; even the smart kid sometimes thinks the stupidest things, the usually no-nonsense girl acts all silly around the boy she likes, even the biggest bully can abruptly turn nice. Anyone who asks for explanations has forgotten what it's like to be sixteen. 

Eleanor's real problems - her creepy step-dad, her abused careless mother, her must-wear-mens'-clothes poverty - and Park's troubles with his dad, who finds him too girly, are frequently taken somewhat casually. But it was this subtlety that I actually liked, the writer has this almost lighthearted way of dealing with and writing about big issues. I mean all the concerns stared me right in face. But I felt like Eleanor was doing the best she could when she sneaked out to meet Park in the middle of the night risking so much, because if it's ever justified to do something shallow, it's when you're a smitten sixteen-year old. I didn't expect Park to understand Eleanor's broken family or realize the extent of her troubles, because to him family meant something simpler; he had parents who were completely in love with other. Making rash decisions, not giving every action a thought is what kept them innocent teenagers, and Rowell lets them live in their little bubble, if only for a while. This makes their breakthrough moments even sweeter. A well written book manages to be dead serious without monologues of philosophizing. I think Rowell pulls it off.

The sentences are crisp, the dialogue snippy and the narration flits between Park and Eleanor. There are times when the point of view changes thrice on the same page, which is distracting and a little lazy, not much effort goes into seamlessly moving from scene to scene. Rowell does have an eye for detail and is a good describer, but she is awfully repetitive. (Red hair, red hair, freckles, big, Eleanor = not conventionally pretty.) It's a YA novel and probably couldn't resist its few typical gimmicks. Basically, I suppose it's no great work of literature (although, what is?, really) but it's a charming book. Worth a shot, at least.

A couple of favourite quotes (descriptions) that aren't snappy chit chat:

When Eleanor was a little girl, she'd thought her mom looked like a queen, like the star of some fairy tale. Not a princess – princesses are just pretty. Eleanor's mother was beautiful. She was tall and stately, with broad shoulders and an elegant waist. All of her bones seemed more purposeful than other people's. Like they weren't just there to hold her up, they were there to make a point.
Eleanor looked a lot like her. But not enough.
Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy. Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged.

(Eleanor, on herself)

But Park didn't have any luck – or status – to spare on that dumb redhead. He had just enough to keep himself out of trouble. And he knew it was crappy, but he was kind of grateful that people like that girl existed. Because people like Steve and Mikey and Tina existed, too, and they needed to be fed. If it wasn't that redhead, it was going to be somebody else. And if it wasn't somebody else, it was going to be Park.

(Park, initially, on being nice to Eleanor)

P.S. Here's a link to John Green's review of Eleanor & Park. Interesting, huh? Do you read any author reviews of books? I only trust recommendations that I find on Neil Gaiman's blog.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I'd highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn't you like to know where all those words came from?

I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.

The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It's a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 

Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I'm no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word 'east.' The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both 'fauna' and 'faun.' Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!

In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was "Achilles heel." But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you've seen any of these used, "the apple of discord," "to sulk like Achilles in his tent," "I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts." Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included "to cut the Gordian knot" from a story of Alexander the Great, "to throw a sop to Cerberus" inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.

Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can't wait to get my hands on that! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson

My next read for R.I.P. IX. Thanks, Delia, for the recommendation. I loved the book.

He started as a fire brand seemed to burst forth from nowhere. He saw it moving in the darkness like a flaming insect. 
Then the bonfire was ignited and its stacked wood flamed up with a crackling roar.
Now he could see the Apaches gathered in a giant circle around the mounting fire, all of them seated  cross- legged, their faces reflecting the flames like burnished oak, their dark eyes glowing as they stared at the fire. Who were they? he wondered. What were they thinking? Once again, he felt completely foreign to the moment, trapped in some unearthly vision.

Summary: Southwest Arizona, a century ago. An uneasy true exists between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger, who is incredibly strong, looks neither white nor Injun, who has a scar around his neck, a stranger who may not be entirely human.

My thoughts: I've always felt that all horror works on suspense, not knowing what comes next, not being able to understand what happens; that causes fear. Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson shows the difference between suspense and intrigue.

The plot of this western, as you can see, is fairly straightforward. About six pages in, and with one glance at that first cover, you can guess what should have been the biggest mystery of all – what mauled the two young men and how is it related to that strange man with the scar around his neck? But that’s the thing about this book. Knowing who is behind the killings, knowing how a man is able to brutally mangle his victims, the knowledge that the crux of the mystery lies in Native American mythology doesn't make the story any less scary. Suspense - uncertainty of fact - is one quality of horror. If wielded effectively, intrigue is a much better tool. You have all the answers you could ask for and yet, every time the stranger steps onto the page with his scornful smile you find yourself shuddering. 

Shadow on the Sun is about a clash of cultures. About the suspicion with which we view every new thing, the evil inhuman intentions, the capacity to swiftly lay blame, the misplaced high mindedness that lies at the heart of every colonization. That the young Harvard graduate officer Boutelle, or the vengeful brother of the two victims believe the murders are the work of the savage Indians shows a terrible conviction that humans are capable of every bit as much horror as a supernatural demon. It makes you wonder how we think so little of ourselves.

(Spoiler!) Billjohn Finley is the bridge between the two cultures and you can see him struggling to make sense of the savagery to the sceptical Boutelle - the fact that Little Owl died of fear, that his remains would be burnt inside his house, that Braided Feather and his tribe would perform a cleansing ceremony to dispel the work of evil forces. The dreamlike scene when Boutelle witnesses the ceremony and learns the story of the son of Vandaih, the man-eagle, is important because that's when a part of his mind opens up to the possibility of some truth in the myth, because all the details start falling neatly in place, the man and his scar, the shaman, the Night Doctor, the mutilated bodies, the Indians' obvious uncontrollable fear of the stranger, the inhuman shrieks in the forest. (end of Spoiler!) 

The stranger, the tall large man with the scar around his neck, from his physical description and his alienated behaviour, his desperation, his unthinking ruthlessness, is reminiscent of Frankenstein's monster. The fact that he's looking for a Night Doctor only strengthens the impression. Whether he carries the blame for what he was turned into is not a question to address in this story, but the likeness could not be unintentional.

The thing that makes this book special, like the other two I've read by Matheson, is the clean-cut precision of the story. It begins mid-action and ends on just the right note, leaving us to conjure up a suitable tying up of loose ends. The plot is crisp, the mood evocative, and every word seems deliberately chosen to make you shiver. A nice, short read by a great writer - recommended by Stephen King as the author who influenced him the most as a writer - what more could you want?