Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread this book for my book club, as it was this month's very apt pick. I first read it when I was a freshman in high school, so I remembered only the most distinct images and themes. It was a pleasure to reread as an adult.

On a dark night in October, at precisely 3 AM, the carnival comes to Green Town, Illinois. Two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, watch its magical arrival, but find the next day that it looks as ordinary as any traveling show, but for the mirror maze. The boys return at night to find it's as sinister as they remember, to Will's horror and Jim's delight. They enlist Will's father, Charles Halloway, to help them escape its clutches. Halloway has to confront his own mortality, which, at 54, he feels nipping at his heels.

It's a quick read. The mystery draws you in swiftly, and the chapters are short. It's easy to keep turning pages, thinking, one more chapter, until there's nothing left. The language can get bogged down in places, but it still rolls along at a nice clip. Bradbury needn't have waxed so poetic about libraries and their contents, for instance, but that might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Though the story is told mostly from the boys' perspective, Halloway is the true hero of the story. He's the one who finds the antidote to the fear the carnival sows, who gives Will the answer for saving his friend. The fears the carnival inspires are most horrific to Halloway, who has to overcome the most to confront them.

The book will resonate most with older readers, but can still be enjoyed by younger ones as a chilling tale. There's a lot of depth and subtlety that would be lost on too young a reader, and it may be too scary for some.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was adapted into a movie by Disney, back in their creepy as heck phase in the 80's, between The Watcher in the Woods and Return to Oz. I'll have to rewatch it, to see if it holds up half as well as the book to my childhood experience.

I'll just make sure I watch it during the day, in case it does.

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Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I was convinced I'd read years ago. The way people spoke of it, it sounded like my school couldn't possibly have overlooked assigning it. But the plot points people spoke of sparked no memory whatever, so I had to read it for myself.

There are two versions of this story: a shorter version written for magazine publication, and this longer edition. I may have read the short story, which would explain my certainty I'd read this. I still didn't remember the plot.

Flowers for Algernon follows Charlie Gordon, a young man with intellectual disabilities. He has an IQ of 68, and, while he can write and holds down a job, wishes he could be smarter. He is given an opportunity to receive a treatment that will increase his intelligence; they've already had a successful trial on a mouse named Algernon.

The trial works, and Charlie's life begins to change. He earns greater respect from Alice Kinnian, the attractive teacher who recommended him for the trial, but he also starts to scare his co-workers with his newfound intelligence, and he learns they were making fun of him before. Then, the mouse's intelligence begins to decay, and he dies. Charlie experiments to find the cause before the same happens to him.

The book was published in 1966, so, fortunately, many aspects of Charlie's story would've changed in a more modern setting. He wouldn't have risked being locked up in a state institution if not for his job, though homelessness would certainly have been a concern, if he didn't have access to the resources he'd need just to know what's available to help him. One would hope his enrollment at Ms. Kinnian's school might connect him with those resources, but many still fall through the cracks.

I wish I could say that Charlie's co-workers are a relic of an earlier time, but such people are still around. People with disabilities are better integrated into their communities these days, but that doesn't mean that all of the community members are supportive and accepting.

This story is hard to read. Not necessarily because of Charlie's struggles with spelling and grammar, and his later overly intellectual writings, though that doesn't help. Charlie's struggles inspire a lot of empathy, and it's hard not to want things to work out in his favor. The ending leaves some questions as to his eventual fate, but it's clear that he's worse off for having undergone this treatment. As his intelligence declines, he can't simply be proud of all he's accomplished, because now he knows what he's missing. He can never return to his days of blissful innocence.

While the approach taken in this book somewhat romanticizes the notion of simple, innocent people like Charlie, it also highlights how people without disabilities can make the lives of those with different needs easier, or harder. The book isn't perfect, by any means, but I strongly recommend giving it a read.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of course we're all familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's: the sprightly, adorable protagonist, her impish ways, and the cast of characters she draws to her like moths to a guttering flame. The movie is adored, revered, had songs written about how it's one thing a fighting couple can agree on. But if you've only seen the movie without reading the book, you have a very different view of the story.

The Holly Golightly our unnamed narrator follows about is a darker creature than the one portrayed by Audrey Hepburn. She's not mean, precisely, but she has a carefully constructed detachment that amounts to the same thing. The narrator watches her push away those who care about her, and embrace those who see only the persona she projects. The movie Holly seems to charm the money right out of mens' wallets; the one in the book has to work for it. The Holly in the movie projects an aura of cool sophistication, while the narrator of the book sees through his Holly as the young woman playing dress-up, putting on a personality as readily as she wears her expensive dresses.

There are also plenty of parallels; the book and movie aren't totally indistinguishable. Still, with the context "Fred," the unnamed narrator, provides, we're given a very different picture in the character study that is this novella. He sees through a lot of her pretenses, and shows how much he cares by never challenging her illusions.

Unlike in the movie, Fred's love remains platonic. Others have noted that there are clues in the text that he's gay, bolstered by the notion he's an author insert, and that Capote, himself, was openly homosexual. I missed all of the hints within the text, though, and would have to reread to provide any evidence. It's not outside the realm of possibility. But, as the story spends very little effort on fleshing out the narrator, it's easy to overlook.

If you've seen the movie based on this book and think you know the story, I recommend you read the novella. They're two very different creatures. As much as I enjoy every role Audrey Hepburn inhabits, I'd been missing out on this fine prose all along. It's not even very long, so, even if you don't agree that it's a lovely, bittersweet story, you haven't wasted a lot of time on it.

I listened to an audio version of this book, narrated by Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame. Though he's played several gay characters, I felt his narration masked the question of the narrator's sexuality. But he was a treat to listen to for a few hours. He was an excellent choice for this one.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Why I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with AutismThe Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many of the books about children with disabilities are written by the parents or caretakers. It's difficult to find a variation of the theme of "people with disabilities are so inspiring," which is patronizing and unhelpful if you actually want to learn their perspectives. Thus far, my only source of the autistic perspective was Temple Grandin, who grew up in a different time and can tell us all about looking back on her experiences, but not the current experience of growing up in a world that considers autism worse than polio.

Why I Jump is written by a boy who has autism, and who's able to verbalize many of the frustrations he experiences. Some of the issues are cultural; his Japanese upbringing has less pride of individualism. But many of his experiences are universal. The social subtleties and seeming contradictions would confuse him no matter where he'd grown up.

Because the book was originally written in Japanese, it's difficult to tell if the stilted style is due to translation, or because that's how the author comes across. While many people with autism do avoid contractions, others speak far more smoothly. I've often heard the halting, near-stuttered language in other works translated from Japanese. It's too bad I couldn't read this perspective in its native language.

Much of the book is taken up by a question-and-answer format, which makes it difficult as a narrative. Nonetheless, as an audio book, the listening time passes quickly, with the author never belaboring a point or lecturing the reader. The book wraps up with a story written by the author that gives some insight into how his mind works and what he fantasizes about.

In the end, this book is only one perspective from one boy with autism. He falls short of several stereotypes, and comes across as a whole person the reader can empathize with (and who, the reader will realize, has empathy of his own). It's a start, certainly. I would like to read more like this book, Most especially, I would like to know books like this are being more widely read. An awful lot of the problems described in this book wouldn't be problems with a more understanding populace.

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