Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

When I started my goal to read 40-50 books in 2012, I found that the majority of the books I started reading early in the year were written by non-American authors.  I seemed to be on a World Literature kick, if you will.  As I review my list of completed readings, I have discovered that the last six books I have read were written by American authors.  The sixth, and latest, book I have read is the John Steinbeck class, The Pearl.  A shorter novel, The Pearl is nonetheless a powerful novel that speaks to all readers of all generations in all cultures.

Unlike many of his other books, The Pearl is not a period piece in the classic Steinbeck fashion.  While the main character is poor, just like many of Steinbeck's protagonists, he is not poor because of the Great Depression or any other life catastrophe.  Kino is poor because his people are oppressed and that is the way it has always been for him.  A Native American, Kino and his family are often times cheated and taken advantage of by the white men who run the town.

Kino's troubles seem to be over when he finds the largest pearl ever discovered.  For a moment, it seems that all the good things that Kino and his wife, Juana, thought were impossible all of sudden came within their grasp.  However, with the hope and joy that comes with unanticipated wealth also comes evil and jealousy.  While Kino dreams of providing for Juana and their son, Coyotito, others plot how to steal his happiness from him.

The beautiful thing about The Pearl is that the Pearl of the World can be a symbol for any goal, any dream, or any ambition that any person might have.  A dream can be desirable up until the moment it is realized; after that, well, one must face the bad along with the good.  The pursuit of the dream can bring more trials than one realizes at first, and things more precious than the dream can be lost.  Kino learns this lesson the hard way, and the reader cannot help but feel an unsatisfying connection to him; unsatisfying because the reader identifies his own weaknesses in Kino.  The differences are not subtle, they are like flares firing into the sky on a clear, dark night.

It is because of this connection that the reader must keep reading Steinbeck's parable; it is so easy to identify with Kino that one must find out if he is going to realize his hopes and ambitions.  The reader pulls so hard for Kino because he feels that if Kino is able to succeed despite his weaknesses, then the reader will be able to also.

That is, however, not possible.  As Steinbeck so plainly shows us, one needs to realize personal weakness before success is possible.  Facing weaknesses in yourself leads to growth, and growth is what will lead to success.  There can be no shortcuts, even if the shortcuts seem sent by heaven.

Steinbeck's prose is brilliantly simple, in that it is complex yet easy to read.  It is complicated, but easy to understand.  Parents can read this story to their children and they will be able to understand.  This facet, this talent that is presented in all of Steinbeck's novels leave no doubt as to his place among the great American writers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: The Great Gatzby

My resolution to read 40-50 books in this calendar year led me to read a book that, frankly, I should have read a couple years ago, The Great Gatzby.  An American classic, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most famous literary works written in the twentieth century and is required reading in numerous high school and college literary classes.  Due to this, a wide variety of papers, articles, and criticism has been written about this book, and I am sure that anything I have to add will be nothing more than redundant rambling to anyone who has studied it in depth.  However, as many people have not read the book and as I cannot but help give my opinions and criticisms, here I am giving my two cents.

The Great Gatzby is a novel about Nick Carraway, who, trying to make a name for himself in New York, meets and becomes well acquainted with Jay Gatzby, a mysterious multimillionaire with a secretive past.  Gatzby is known for throwing wild parties at his mansion, parties that start on Friday nights and go until Sunday morning.  This is, of course, contrary to what is expected of people who are of such means as Gatzby, and most of New York's elite scoff at him publicly (although they secretly enjoy attending his parties).  Among other things, Fitzgerald's novel is a harsh criticism of America's upper class in the 1920's, evident by the distaste Carraway (the narrator) has for most of the people he meets through his adventures with Gatzby.  Fitzgerald does such a brilliant job at showing the absolute worst personality traits of the rich (snobbery, self-contempt, superiority, etc.) that the reader at times also feels the same disdain.

Perhaps the most famous and, therefore, most over-taught themes of The Great Gatzby is the theme of colors.  Fitzgerald's use of colors to describe lights, nature, clothes, and various everyday objects symbolize various virtues, vices, and other subtle themes.  As noted, this is a subject that, I feel, is so overly touched upon that I can add no original thoughts to it, so I will not.  If this is a topic that interests you, it would be worth your time to look into some scholarly literary journals for articles and papers that are dedicated to it.

The theme that I think is the main idea of the novel is the idea that one cannot recreate the past, and that once one realizes it, one can either give up on life altogether or make the best of the situation.  Throughout the book, Gatzby is trying to revisit and rekindle his romance with his beloved Daisy (Nick Carraway's second cousin, twice removed), whom he had fallen in love with right before he had to leave and fight in World War I.  While he was gone, Daisy married Tom Buchanan, a burly member of her high society who epitomizes everything Fitzgerald feels is wrong with the upper class.  When Gatzby is unable to relive the same feelings he felt years before, and is unable to make her feel them as well, he basically gives up on achieving any happiness in life.  As it turns out, Gatzby spent so much time living in the past that he was unable to sustain any real friendships, and no one shows up for his funeral except his father and Carraway.

The Great Gatzby is truly one of the great American novels and will continue to be studied and read for many years to come.  One reason for this, in addition to all of the literary themes, is that the author's own life was very similar to those of his characters.  It would be well worth one's time to research and draw comparisons between events in the book with events in Fitzgerald's life.  In any case, it is a great culture piece as it depicts what life was like in the American 1920's, an age many find intriguing.  It is a short novel, easily read in two or three days; it is, however, full of subtle messages that take much longer to comprehend and understand.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Calico Joe by John Grisham

For those of you that know me, and I mean really know me, when asked if you knew who my favorite author was, you say something like: "pssh... that John Grisham guy."  You would, no doubt, have a tinge of exasperation in your voice as you have more than likely heard me recommend his books to you on countless occasions.  Sadly, however, many of you have not taken my advice to read his books and experience the brilliance with which he tells his stories.  Perhaps it was because you do not like crime or lawyer type books, and that is not a terrible position to have.  However, Grisham has now released Calico Joe, a novel that involves baseball, family, and forgiveness.  If you could not identify with any of my recommendations before, believe me that if you are interested in or have a passion for any of those three topics just mentioned, you will adore this book.

Calico Joe is the story of a boy, Paul Tracey, the son of fictional New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, a below average, mean-spirited, child-beating drunk who happens to have enough raw talent to make a major league roster.  As most 11 year-old boys do, Paul idolizes the best players in the game of baseball.  In 1973, when the book takes place, these players include Willie Mays, Catfish Hunter, Tom Seaver, and Hank Aaron.  All of a sudden, a Chicago Cub first baseman named Joe Castle is brought up mid-season and starts breaking all kinds of records.  Joe, who is from Calico, Arkansas, becomes young Paul's new hero.  When Warren Tracey and Joe Castle finally meet in a game, something happens that will change the lives of both men and that of young Paul Tracey.

Compared to his other novels, Calico Joe is relatively short, a little less than 200 pages.  However, while the book is roughly half the length of his usual work, Grisham is able to convey twice the amount of emotion and internal conflict than in any of his previous work.  Perhaps it is because readers can relate more to baseball, broken families, and crushed dreams better than they can a young lawyer who is caught up in a multi-million dollar conspiracy, but there is just something about Calico Joe that I feel speaks to every individual person, whether they are a baseball fan or not.

The book is formatted so that it is told from both the first and third person points of view.  Paul Tracey recalls what happens on that fateful summer day in 1973 as he deals with his father's approaching death and the feelings (or lack there of) that he experiences as a result.  The experience of the reader, then, is a phenomena of reading a sort of story within a story as they anxiously await knowledge of both what has happened and what will happen.  Right from the onset, the reader is aware that something awful is going to, or rather, has already happened.  One story has already happened and is being revealed to the reader at the narrator's discretion; the other unfolds in "real time" and the reader finds out what happens along with the characters.  It appears to be so simple when presented on the page, but quite brilliant when one sits down and thinks about it.

The aspect of the book that I found most impressive was the degree to which I felt Paul's hatred and anger towards his father right along with him.  It is not difficult, I suppose, for a reader to dislike or hate a character who is cruel, abusive, and downright mean.  However, Grisham tells his story in such a way that I felt that Warren had not only hurt Paul, but also me... personally.  The deep, unforgiving execration Paul felt towards his father is something I found myself feeling as well.  No book has provided me with that kind of experience, feeling along with a character as if I was the character.

Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because baseball season is just started and I am feeling nostalgic about the many happy memories I have watching, playing and cheering with my own dad, while Warren completely ruins the game for his son.  To me, baseball is one of the staples of my childhood, something that I don't remember not liking or playing.  To see a father take what is, in a word, sacred to me and my memories of my dad and ruin it for his son offends me to an astounding degree.  It takes a special storyteller to provoke such connections, and Grisham does this for anyone who has baseball memories with his/her parent.

This book was released to the public today and I finished it in roughly three hours.  It is not a long and complicated read; it is not simple either.  I am sure people who have had poor relationships with their fathers may find this a hard book to read.  However, the story is easy to follow and beautifully told, showing once again why John Grisham is the best storyteller in America.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Review: Hugo

Even though the Academy Awards have come and gone, I still have a lot of the nominated movies to watch before I can render opinions as to whether or not the academy got it right (note: it is likely that they didn't because they never really do; Hollywood is so political it picks the "best" movies and actors about as well as Obama's administration balances a checkbook).  This process will take a long time as there were dozens of movies nominated, and to be honest I have no desire to see some of them.  However, I do intend to see all of the movies nominated for Best Picture and all the movies in which the actors and actresses who received nominations for their performances.

Going into the ceremony, I had only seen of the nominations for Best Picture The Artist (which won the award) and Midnight in Paris.  The movie that intrigued me the most of all the others that I had not seen was HugoHugo is the story of a orphaned boy living in a Paris train station who is trying to fix a complex machine he and his father had begun to repair before his father was killed in a fire.  Throughout the movie, Hugo is challenged to find his purpose in life and is lead to help other people he encounters to find theirs as well.

As a huge Scorsese fan, I held high expectations for the movie; however, I also reserved some doubt due to the fact that it is a much different kind of movie than any the director has ever taken part of prior.  As I watched Hugo, I witnessed the brilliance and genius of Scorsese manifest itself once again in the way that his characters not only told a story, but made the viewer contemplate the deeper, underlying messages of the movie.  It takes a special director to both entertain and challenge audiences, and Scorsese once again showed why he should be considered one of the best directors of all time in his depiction of Hugo.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hugo is the intense graphics, visuals, and effects the movie contains.  Not surprisingly, of the five Oscars that the movie won, three of them had to do with visuals and camera work (Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects; the other two were for sound: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing).  Scorsese, who is always willing to try something new with the camera, employed various camera tricks and ploys that made scenes more exciting and real to the viewer.  In a movie that examines and praises all that is good about movies, Hugo especially emphasizes the wonders that good camera work can bring to a film.

What I enjoyed most about Hugo, as I do in all of Scorsese's movies, is the underlying theme/message that the director is trying to convey to his audience.  It is well known that Scorsese does not do a movie that he doesn't feel is important or shares a thought-provoking message.  In Hugo, Scorsese takes on the question of purpose and whether or not each person has a purpose in this world.  The scene in which Hugo compares the world to a machine and explains that no machine has extra parts that it doesn't need, and therefore there are no extra people who serve no purpose, is perhaps one of the deepest scenes ever to involve a child actor.  It was absolutely brilliant.

The main question now is whether or not I think that Hugo should have won the Best Picture award over The Artist.  The answer to that question is a difficult one to reach.  However, as much as I enjoyed Hugo and look forward to watching it over and over again, I must admit that I agree that the academy was correct in awarding it to The Artist over Hugo (whether it deserves it over all of the others is yet to be determined).  That being said, I do think Scorsese was passed over once again for Best Director (this is a stance that might also change once I see more of the nominated movies).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining and brilliant series of books that I have ever read.  When the movie was announced, I was both excited and skeptical at the same time.  Excited because I could not wait to see certain events and objects portrayed on the big screen; skeptical because Hollywood has a tendency to change many aspects of a book's plot and enrage anyone who has read the book before seeing the movie.  After seeing the movie, both my excitement and skepticism were confirmed.  The movie was nowhere close to being as entertaining as the book, nor (I think) could it.

Do not get me wrong, as far as a movie goes, The Hunger Games was entertaining enough.  I think the movie makers did an exceptional job dulling down the violence (as much as is possible in a post apocalyptic world in which 24 children fight to the death) while getting the point across that this is an incredibly violent society.  However, while it was entertaining enough, there were so many parts of the games that were left out of the movie that I felt made the book as entertaining as it was.  The movie, like almost all movies based off of books, was inferior to the book because it eliminated so many aspects that made the book's plot famous.  I don't understand why they change these things, since it is these things that helped the book so popular that they could make it into a movie.

The casualties of the movie version were not limited to just parts of the plot.  Characters who played a significant role in the first Hunger Games book (and, furthermore, are of more importance in the later books) were not present in this movie or had their roles reduced to those of nonspeaking parts or insignificant cameo appearances.  For example, in the book Katniss receives her mockingjay pin from Madge, the mayor's daughter, after she is volunteers for the games.  This is an important component of her own character development and feelings in the later books.  In the movie, Madge does not even make an appearance; instead, Katniss gets the pin for her sister at the Hob (a kind of black market) and her sister gives it back to her when she leaves.  Another example is that of her prep team, who are obnoxious to her at first in the book, but become very important parts of her resistance in the second and third books.  When the next two movies are released, I will be very interested to see how they remedy the decision to diminish their parts in this first movie.

I do, however, realize that some things needed to be cut.  The movie is almost two and a half hours long as is and including everything would be near impossible (although they could pull a Twilight/Harry Potter deal and divide each book into two movies, but that of course is probably out of the realm of possibilities).  A few things that they did not cut that I found to be striking in the movie were the costumes that Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's stylist, designed for them.  While the computer animation of these costumes was painfully obvious, I enjoyed seeing the effects on the big screen because my limited imagination had a hard time picturing them while I read the book.

Perhaps the greatest part of the movie was the character development, an aspect of the book that I feel is its greatest quality as well.  This is sometimes hard to portray in a movie because it requires incredible talent on the part of the actors to bring it out.  Very rarely do I see a movie like The Hunger Games and feel like there is no weak actor in the cast.  There was absolutely no weakness in the actors of The Hunger Games; I felt that it was quite possibly the strongest cast they could have assembled for this movie.  While there are not many big-name actors (Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson are the biggest names in the cast), the young actors in the cast create  believable and stunning depictions of Suzanne Collins's characters.

Overall, I give the movie a 6.5/10.  I cannot overlook things that I feel are vital to the overall plot of the trilogy that were left out.  However, the action was solid and the character development was strong.  I certainly would watch the movie again, but the book is so much better than the movie and I will not be able to watch the movie without constantly critiquing and comparing it to the book.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay

So rarely is there any trilogy in which the books get better as the series goes on.  Usually trilogies tend to become boring, redundant, and drawn out past the point of being able to detect any trace of entertainment.  That being said, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining trilogies I have ever read.  Not only did it keep me up at night, turning page after page because I could not rest until my inquiries were resolved, it also made me ponder social issues, political beliefs, and the concept of human morality.

All of these themes come to a head in Mockingjay, the third book of the trilogy.  The rebellion has begun, Katniss is being asked to be the rebels' symbol, Peeta has been captured by the capitol, and the reader is led on a winding and twisting adventure of a young person coming to understand who she is and what is really most important in life.  This is a struggle that everyone can identify with on some level, although not everyone (hopefully) has gone through what Katniss has faced.

Admittedly, I did not like Katniss for 99% of the trilogy.  I have always thought she was a brilliant character in that her personality and development are masterfully portrayed throughout the series.  However, I always found her to be selfish, cold, distant, and cruel.  She, of course, has been through a great deal of tribulation, but I could not help but dislike her because she could not admit her flaws to herself.  It was always her against the world, a world that included everyone from the government to her own family at times.  In Mockingjay, she finally is able to admit that she needs help from others, that she has hurt people in ways that she never thought possible, and that she needs to change.  I feel like I could finally like her at the end.

The plot of this third book is not much different than the others.  There is no Hunger Games, but Collins portrays the war as a Hunger Games in and of itself.  The result is a fairly humanitarian view of war.  Mockingjay is also anti-Machiavellian, in that Collins makes it clear that she does not believe that the end justifies the means.  She also portrays the horrors and psychological affects of war in such masterful reality that the reader cannot help but feel sorry for anyone who has had to be in war.

I could go on forever about the positive aspects of this book, the depth of the characters, and the complexity of the themes.  However, such a post would turn out to be another book in and of itself.   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire

Last year, my literary world literally exploded when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I had not read a book that was so gripping, violent (yet not gory), disturbing (but not overly), and complicated all at the same time.  One might ask, "What's so complicated?  She takes her sister's place, the boy falls in love with her, kids kill kids, and she defies the government."  This is all true, but Collins captures a depth, a complexity in the character of Katniss Everdene that is rarely achieved by any author, ever.  In the first book, the reader was intrigued and drawn into Katniss's struggle.  Not only her struggle for survival, but for identity.  Due to the horrible situation that she is in, it is easy to forget that she is only a 16 year old girl (in the first book); she is still trying to find out who she really is.  As the second book, Catching Fire, begins, the reader is led further down the path she is traveling towards adulthood and maturity.

That being said, I HATE Katniss Everdene!  Let me explain: I do not hate her existence and I do not hate that she is the way she is.  In order for this series to be as entertaining as it is, Katniss must enrage the reader (or cause the reader to sympathize with her).  I am sure more female readers who are attracted to or can identify with the choices Katniss must make between two boys that she has feelings for will be more apt to sympathize with her.  But as a male, I cannot help but detest her.  I think she is selfish, rash, uncaring, and too impulsive. 

I realize, of course, that she is going through a difficult situation that I cannot by any means identify with; I have never been the face of a national rebellion nor have I had to fight to death.  Such a situation would certainly have psychological effects on a person, and while Collins does not mention them specifically, she portrays them in the character of Katniss (and the other tributes) masterfully.

Why then do I hate her?  I cannot help but feel that any friend she has, any selfless action she does, or any action left undone has an ulterior, selfish motive.  When she has to choose which boy to be with (and she will have to make that choice), she cannot choose and plays both of them like a set of fiddles.  Again, I know the circumstances; I know she did not choose for one of them to come into her life.  But he did, and she reciprocated his feelings, made him believe she loved him too.

Catching Fire is engrossing, entertaining, and simply a master piece.  All of these emotions the reader has about the characters are extended and built upon in the second book.  This is not a one chapter a day book; this is a "I must finish this book in at least two days or I will not be able to live on" books.

I realize I spent a lot of time on Katniss, and even though I don't like her, I love the fact the she exists in literature.  I am looking forward to finishing the trilogy so that I can better and more completely understand her.  When I do, watch out for the blog/essay that compares Katniss Everdene with Lisabeth Salander.