July 23, 2012

In One Person - John Irving

This book is vintage John Irving, and since I love John Irving, I loved this book.  Unfortunately it took me more weeks to get through than I had hoped.  I started reading this book back in June, but then got sidetracked by a Little House marathon in June, the Hunger Games Trilogy on the July long weekend, and finally Quiet which I couldn't wait any longer to read.

My reading then slowed down again as I got 3/4 of the way through this book as it was set in the New York City gay scene in the early '80s at the start of the AIDS epidemic.  The writing was so vivid that even though I wanted to know what happened, it was tough going.  I have some experience working as a physiotherapist with people living with AIDS and being able to put real faces to the story being told made it difficult to read.

And finally, just a chapter or two before the end, my 5-year-old nephew was staying with me for a week.  It was a fun week, but it didn't leave much time for reading!  So last night, after my sister and her two younger kids had come up for the weekend, picked up the eldest, and flown back to southern Ontario, I finally had a chance to sit down and finally finish this book.

As I said, it is vintage Irving.  All of the themes, familiar from his previous books, were present.  Relationships between people who, on the surface, appear inappropriate.  Misfits trying to fit into society before accepting themselves for who they are.  The rigid New England class society of last century.  Dysfunctional families.

I found the protagonist, Billy, to be quite like-able.  Growing up as a boy in small town Vermont in the 1950s, he spends his adolescence questioning his sexuality.  "Crushes on the wrong people" is how he puts it, including Miss Frost, the town librarian, his stepfather Richard, and Kittredge, the school wrestling team star.  He then goes on to have a series of relationships with people that would be considered to be inappropriate by the society of the day, including the aforementioned Miss Frost, a classmate Tom, a rising opera star Esmerelda who he meets in Vienna, a much older poet Larry who was also his professor, a transgendered woman Donna, a much younger teacher Amanda, his sometimes lover and always best friend Elaine, and a series of short-term relationships and one-night stands.

He eventually comes to accept himself for who he is, and even to embrace his role as he moves back to his home-town and eventually becomes a teacher at the school he had attended as a boy.  I was a little bit disappointed with the ending when I first read it, but with 24 hours reflection, I do like it.  It wraps up the loose end that had haunted the whole novel.  "My dear boy, please don't put a label on me - don't make me a category before you get to know me!"  That is the take-home message.

So yes, I enjoyed this book.  If you are a fan of John Irving, definitely pick it up.  If his writing annoys you (as it does, some), don't bother since as I said before, it is vintage Irving.  If you are interested in reading a novel set in the heart of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, give this book a try since the section in that era is particularly vividly written.  I didn't love it as much as A Prayer for Owen Meany (one of my favourite books of all times!), but it is one that I will probably re-read at some point in the future.

July 9, 2012

Quiet - Susan Cain

Let me confess from the beginning that I am an introvert.  I have done the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, and both times I scored almost as far to the introvert end of the spectrum as it is possible to score.  And yet when I mentioned this (or mentioned this book) to several people that I haven't known for very long, they were shocked to learn that I am an introvert.  So I guess that I am an introvert who has learned to "pass" in this extroverted society in which we live.

I heard this author interviewed twice this spring on CBC radio, and knew that I would have to read her book.  I forwarded a link to one of the interviews to an introverted high school student that I know - she has an extroverted grandmother who has, frequently, pushed both of us to speak in a group when we would rather listen, absorb, reflect, and when we have something that we would like to share we will.  But please don't force us to speak if we don't have anything that we consider valuable to share!

Reading this book, I saw myself reflected on every page.  So that is why I feel that way!  That's what's going on!  I have also caught myself being much more aware of my introverted moments.  I am very sensitive to noises - someone's cell phone rings and I jump; I was doing a phone interview along with my boss this morning and the speaker phone volume was a bit too loud for me to be comfortable with; the kids playing at the back of the church during the sermon drove me crazy.  But I can accept that about myself now.

The book talks about coping strategies for introverts; since our society really is geared towards extroverts (the subtitle of the book is The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking).  It is OK to give myself permission to stay home if I don't feel like going out and socializing.  Introverts can act like extroverts at times (my recent experiences as being mistaken for an extrovert prove that point), but it is important to carve out time to recharge by being alone or taking part in solitary activities.  I especially appreciated the chapter sub-titled Public Speaking for Introverts, since I am terrified of public speaking.  I already partially overcame my fear by doing a lot of public speaking (teaching, preaching etc) in Swahili (not my first language) while living in Tanzania.  I knew that people would be surprised enough to hear a white girl speaking Swahili fluently that they would be more forgiving about the content of what I was saying!  But this book had some more tips for me - the more passionate I am about a topic, the easier it will be to speak about it (I think that I already had a sense of this); the more prepared I am, the better (don't expect myself to be able to speak "off the cuff"); and treat each public speaking expectation as a personal project - dig, create, and relish the challenge.

At the same time, this book helped me to understand my extroverted co-workers, friends, acquaintances better.  They aren't just speaking to hear their own voice.  Maybe silence and stillness are as scary to them as loudness and busy-ness are to me.

I do think that this book is good reading for everyone, introvert or extrovert.  Introverts - as it is written by an introvert, it will help you to understand yourself better and how you interact with the world around you.  Extroverts - it will help you understand your introverted family members, friends, and co-workers better, as well as how they relate to the world around them (including you).

Now, if only we can convince that extroverted grandmother to read this book...

July 3, 2012

Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

OK - I had to put this book down last night, 100 pages from the end, in order to get some sleep before work today (but if today had been a holiday too, I would have stayed up last night until I was done!).

I think that this was my favourite of the trilogy, even though one of my friends today told me that she didn't like this book as much of the previous books (and I think that many fans of the series feel that way as well).  It lived up to my expectations at the end of Catching Fire that it was going to be focused on the dystopian world that the author created, and unlike the previous books, I wasn't sure how this one was going to end.  It also gripped me the same way as the first book (though not the second) - I had trouble putting it down since I wanted to know what happens next.

I honestly thought that either Peeta or Gale was going to die.  I'm not entirely satisfied the way that Gale's character ended up at the end of the book - he just seemed to fade off into the background, not really caring what happens to Katniss.  I did like the line at the end of the book though, "...what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred.  I have plenty of fire myself.  What I need is the dandelion in the spring.  The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.  The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses.  That it can be good again.  And only Peeta can give me that."  I agree with her.

Katniss grew through the series of books, forced for the main part by circumstances.  Given the choice, she acknowledges that she would have rather not been a tribute with all that followed; and yet she grows from a relatively sheltered girl to a ruthless killer to a symbol to a woman who knows her own mind.

I can't help, given the years that these books were written, to compare the fighting and wars in the books to the wars that were (are) fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The books do a very good job of portraying the psychological after-effects of fighting and killing; and I can't help but compare the Victors of the book to returning soldiers.  I wonder if this political statement was intended by the author - pointed at governments that better after care that what is currently provided is essential.  After all, many soldiers aren't that much older than the Tributes in these books.

They are books that left me thinking - always a good sign in a book.  They bring up issues of media and propaganda, right versus wrong, justice and equality, war versus pacifism, accepting the status quo versus taking a stand.  I suspect that they will stay with me longer than other recent "teen hits".  The plots of the Harry Potter books are already fuzzy in my mind despite at least 2 readings of each plus the movies; I have tried to forget Twilight; and yet the Hunger Games feel like they made an impression.

I'm glad that I read these books.  I liked the main character, despite her flaws, right up until the very end.  I think that the author has created a believable and consistent world for these books.  I do want to see the movies now to see how they compare to the books.  The descriptions in the books are so vivid that I hope that the movies live up.  I also love the cover art on the books, showing the mockingjay transform from the pin to a bird to breaking free on her own.  I especially love that they ended up on an upbeat note - the hope that things can be better this time around, that humankind won't be bent on destroying ourselves this time around.  And I'm glad that I read all 3 books after the full trilogy was released so that I didn't have to wait a year or so for the next one!

July 2, 2012

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

So a couple of hours later and I've finished the second book in the trilogy.  Still a fast engaging read, but I don't think that I liked it as much as the first one.

I found the love triangle thing to be a bit overplayed so that I was starting to get tired of it.  Oh, be quiet Katniss - it's not all about you.  And I was a bit disappointed that time rushed forward until we were back in the Hunger Games again - a bit of a recycled plot point.  And they weren't as brilliantly written as in the first book where the suspense was really getting to me - a little ho hum and let me wait for the ending.

But what I did really like about this book was some of the background into the dystopian world that it takes place in.  There were hints of it in the first book, but much more of the back story was given in this book.  A little bit Margaret Atwood-ian at times - think of the world of The Handmaid's Tale or the MaddAdam books (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and the book yet to be released).  The author has taken things that are happening today and spinning them out of control into the future.  Genetic engineering, nuclear technology, climate change, reality television, increasing gap between rich/poor and powerful/powerless.

And given the ending of this book (which I'm not going to give away here!), I have hopes that the third book will continue to explore this dystopian world.  Now on to Mockingjay - I'm not sure that I will get it done by bedtime though - that post may need to wait a day or two.  I do love long weekends!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I decided a while back that I would have to read these books.  Ever since the whole Twilight fiasco, I have been a bit skeptical of "runaway teen bestsellers" but enough people persuaded me that The Hunger Games were very different from Twilight.  Fortunately, I agree!

Having heard that these books would suck me in and not let me get anything else done until I was finished, I had to wait until the end of June before being able to let myself start.  And so I borrowed copies of the three books from a friend (thank you, Rachel, if you are reading this!) and decided that the Canada Day long weekend would be devoted to the trilogy.  Well, not quite completely devoted - I didn't get started until Saturday evening, and did do my usual double-header church thing on Sunday morning, but I still finished the first book (The Hunger Games) while eating my supper on Sunday, and am now half way through the second book (Catching Fire).  A very pleasant long-weekend diversion.

What did I like about this book?  The description is so vivid that I was there with Katniss.  The action is non-stop, and even though I was pretty sure that I knew how the book would end, I didn't know how the characters would get there.  The concept is unique.  The main character is likable, but human with her own faults at the same time.  She is stubborn, independent, fiercely loving of her family, and loyal.  I hope that she doesn't lose these traits in the next books.

I'm not going to bother with a plot summary - unless you have been deliberately avoiding this book, I suspect that you already know the basic plot.  I'm a bit curious to see the movie now to see how they handle a plot that is essentially about forcing teens to kill one another without making it so graphic as to be unwatchable.

OK - enough about the first book.  I should be able to finish the second book this afternoon, so watch for more posts upcoming.