Friday, June 27, 2014

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Friendships can be wrought under the most unusual circumstances. Take Evelyn Couch for example. She never expected to befriend Ninny Threadgoode while visiting her mother-in-law at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in Birmingham, Alabama. She certainly didn’t expect to care for and eventually love the women who would tell her stories every visitors day about the life that she lived in a small railroad town miles away known as Whistle Stop. But that’s exactly what happened. As Evelyn began going through the depression and hormonal changes that were overwhelming her in the midst of menopause, Ninny would relay bits of her history during the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Evelyn began looking forward to the tales told of Idgie Threadgood, Ruth Jamison and the people who frequented Whistle Stop Café. She could imagine living in that time and being friends with the people who meant so much to Ninny. The months passed and the friendship blossomed all because of the memories of the Whistle Stop Café.
Sometimes it is all about the history and the stories people share. They can get you through those rough patches in life and make you look forward to the years to come. This is the case with Ninny and Evelyn. Evelyn was at one of the worst places she had ever been in her life. She was a forty eight years old, overweight, empty nester in an unhappy marriage in the beginning stages of menopause. Then an old woman, desperate for a friend, began telling Evelyn these stories of a time she had never imagined and it changed her life. It changed both of their lives. Evelyn and Ninny sparked new lives in each other with the help of the residents of Whistle Stop.

I have loved the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” since I was a young girl and recently stumbled upon Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. I had high expectations when I began this novel, expectations that were exceeded. I absolutely loved this novel. Flagg created a story filled with characters that you would want to know personally and stories your grandma would tell you while you sat on the porch. It was obvious with every story told the love and history of Whistle Stop and the sense of community that existed in that time. Evelyn represented every insecurity a woman fears, while Ninny held all the persistence and strength that you would want to have as an elderly woman. Idgie, Ruth, Stump and Big George became the people you would want to know and whose friendship you would cherish. Each character was so full of depth and integrity that you couldn’t help feeling like these were people that really existed and really had these adventures. This novel spanned over an extensive timeline but nothing was lost in translation. Each reflection was a welcome trip back in time, often comical but many were stories of courage and love, race and inequality, but most of all strength. I give this novel 5 out of 5 stars. If you liked the movie, you’ll love the book. It’s an incredible feat of storytelling that I think most people would really enjoy.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Banned Books: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Kira is lucky to be alive. Even luckier still to be granted a place by the Council of the Guardians. Her mother has died from an unknown illness and her father was killed by beast while her mother was pregnant with her. Kira was born with a twisted leg, and if not for the prestige and position of her maternal grandfather she would have been discarded. She has lived and she is strong, though not as physically capable as others. Now she is an orphan. An orphan gifted with immense skill with a needle and thread. It is because of that gift that she has been given a home and protection. But things aren’t always as they seem. As time passes she begins seeing clues to the life she will have to live forever. Kira is meant to design the future and there is much in her world that needs to be changed.
Gathering Blue is a dystopian young adult novel that follows the struggles of Kira, a girl who in this community would have been left for dead because of her disfigurement. Her mother, Katrina, has always fought for her daughter and for them to survive, but now she is gone. Kira has no one and learns very quickly that other people are willing to watch her suffer and possibly die if it means that they will benefit from her loss. Unknowingly, those in positions of power have been observing her skills and growing talents. Kira’s life now changes for the better and she is moved into circumstances she had never imagined. But there are things she isn’t being told and she wants answers. She wants the truth about her family and to understand how this world came to be after The Ruin.
Gathering Blue is a dark glimpse into what our society can become. The old and disfigured can be disregarded without a second glance. Jealousy and envy are the motivations of the majority. Children are raising themselves. Fear runs rampant. Yet there is this one girl who has nothing and is tasked with repairing and eventually designing a piece of revered art. This is a story about strength and overcoming all of the tribulations and hardships one may experience. Life isn’t fair and Kira is an obvious example of that. I enjoyed this novel. Lowry is a gifted writer who is great at producing a well-developed and completely imagined world. Her characters are full of depth, dimension and compassion. Gathering Blue was an intense novel that I found easy to immerse myself in.

Lowry wrote Gathering Blue as a companion to her previous novel, The Giver. I’ve found both books to be extremely imaginative dystopians with rather grave outlooks on what the future can become. Life can be disregarded easily and people are manipulated and controlled in both novels. The Giver showcased an ideal Utopia that was actually a world filled with sameness where no one has an identity or any degree of individuality. In Gathering Blue however there is very little organization and loads of chaos. They are two different representations of worlds after a collapse but they deal with a lot of the same themes. I find it interesting that The Giver has been banned numerous times for violence, sexuality, and infanticide while Gathering Blue includes all of this as well and I can’t find any records of it being challenged or banned. I even contacted the American Library Association regarding Gathering Blue to make sure I hadn’t missed any references and there is nothing. So why am I including a book that has no record of being banned or challenged in my Banned Books theme? It all goes back to the question of why books are banned. These two novels, part of the same series, the predecessor more successful than the sequel but dealing with the same issues and only one is banned. Why is that? Why was it not okay to discuss these issues in the first novel but acceptable to reintroduce these ideas in the second? This is something that needs to be included in our discussions when books are banned. Novels like Gathering Blue can be used to defend the notion of exploring these themes in novels and in questioning the process of banning or challenging books all together. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

On the morning of August 10, 2009 a gray Mercedes-Benz SL500 plowed into a crowd of people lined up outside of the City Center, waiting for the doors to open for a job fair. The driver killed eight people, paralyzed three and injured countless others. The killer parked the car blocks away, leaving only a clown mask and the vehicle as evidence. There were no leads and no suspects, only the many victims. When Detective K. William Hodges retired months later the case was still open. Now months have passed since his retirement and his somewhat dull existence has caused him to contemplate suicide. Then he receives a letter in the mail from the Mercedes Killer. A letter both taunting and inviting. The killer has been watching and he knows that Hodges has nothing to live for and he wants to push him over the edge.
                Mr. Mercedes is a fast paced, thriller focused on the actions and psychosis of a mass murder, Brady Hartfield and his new target, Retired Detective Hodges. The novel opens with the massacre and catapults from there into Hodges’ life and his plain, daytime TV filled being. Brady Hartfield, who is identified to the reader early on in the novel as the Mercedes Killer, is a psychopath who sees Hodges as a new challenge. He is proud of the fact that he got away with the murders and though unsure whether or not he will commit another massacre of that magnitude, he wants to manipulate Hodges simply because he thinks he can. Now it’s all about the hunt and the chase. Hartfield leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that he doesn’t believe Hodges will be able to uncover, while Hodges tries to rattle Hartfield’s cage to get him to make a mistake and reveal himself or unravel.

                The first chapter of Mr. Mercedes is exactly why I love reading Stephen King novels. Within that first chapter he set a precedent for the rest of the novel. King is an amazing writer. He can easily engage a reader, introduce the setting, completely demolish it and then you are hooked. You have to finish the story. You have to ride the adrenaline rush that you just received in the first ten pages of the novel. This was a classic suspense novel, with characters full of depth, and an interesting storyline that was constantly evolving. I found myself breezing through the pages, trying to get two steps ahead of an unpredictable story while looking for references to what may come. If you are a fan of King then this is a novel that you will enjoy. If you have never read King before than this would be a good introduction. This isn’t his best novel but it is still pretty damn good. It’s not filled with horror and gore but it is intense. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. I definitely got the Stephen King fix and rush I was looking for. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Banned Books: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Jonas is reaching a very important moment in his life. Soon he will be a Twelve and will receive his Assignment. Some girls may be assigned the role of a Birthmother, giving birth to children for three years before living the rest of her life as a Laborer. Some Twelves may be assigned to the House of Old caring for those too old to care for themselves until they are released into Elsewhere. Others may be given assignments to become Doctors or Instructors. No one knows for sure what they will be assigned and there are many different possibilities. The Elders monitor and observe children for years in order to make the best assignments possible. Jonas wasn’t given an assignment. He was selected to be the next Receiver of Memory, the most honored position in his community. A position that requires intelligence, integrity, courage and the acquisition of wisdom. Wisdom would be bestowed upon Jonas by the current Receiver who he refers to as the Giver. The knowledge of the memories reveals the truth behind the sameness he has encountered and accepted his entire life.
Lowry created an amazingly simple, yet detailed novel of a young boy encountering the truth. Jonas is just like everyone else which is exactly what the elders want. They have created a world of sameness where every person has a role and a place. No one steps a toe out of line, fearful of disgracing their family unit, or of being released. A ceremony takes place every year for children until the age of twelve, at which point they are assigned and begin training for their position in life so they can contribute. Selections to become a Receiver of Memory are very rare. No one really understands what the position entails except for the current Receiver. He holds the memory and provides wisdom to the Elders when necessary for them to make decisions. People no longer have choices. Those have been taken away long before Jonas was ever born but no one knows that, because all they know is the sameness they have encountered their entire life. The revelations made with each discovery changes Jonas and the way he views the world.
I read The Giver a few years back for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I actually loved it more the second time around. Since I was familiar with the plot, I was able to fully immerse myself in the beautiful imagery even more and fully relish in the world that Lowry created. I had no idea that this novel had ever been banned or challenged. In 1995 it was banned in Kansas after a parent objected to themes of murder, suicide and its interpretation of motherhood and adolescence. Most of the objections in the late 20th century were due to references to euthanasia, infanticide and violence. The list of objections, challenges, and banned instances are numerous. I found this novel tasteful and moving. The story unfolds beautifully and each issue that most people referenced when objecting to this novel was handled extremely tastefully. Most importantly each moment, each revelation, each discovery was meant to draw a reaction out of you. It was meant to make you think of this world of sameness and how this could possibly ever happen. Novels like this, written for younger audiences, are meant to challenge their minds. Children need to learn to question the world around them and this novel should make more people think about the questions they are asking.

“Banned Book Awareness: The Giver by Lois Lowry” R. Wolf Baldassarro

Friday, June 13, 2014

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

At Sacred Hearts Orphanage all of the boys celebrate their birthday on the same day. On this day Sister Briganti will share information with each boy about their family and take them to the theatre for a show. It’s at this show in 1934, after living in the orphanage for five years that William Eng, now twelve years old, sees his mother on the screen. Her name was Liu Song but now she goes by Willow Frost. William knew her as his Ah-ma. Now he has to find her. He has to know why she left him all those years ago in the care of the nuns of the orphanage. William makes plans to find his mother, with the help of his friend Charlotte. But is William prepared to learn the truth of his mother, his father and the life they lived? Memories swirl through his mind as he sets off to find his mother and to uncover the answers to all the questions that have been lingering throughout the years.
                Songs of Willow Frost is a well written novel full of the somber realities of inequalities and hardships of the 1920’s and 1930’s. William has always seen himself as different from the other children, mostly because he is the only Chinese child in the orphanage. He has no hopes of ever being adopted because he knows, and has been told repeatedly, that no one wants to adopt a Chinese boy. His only hope of ever leaving the orphanage is for his mother to claim him. Willow’s story is a complicated one as well, full of hardships and abuse. The revelations that William learns when finding out the truth open up a realm of understanding that he could never imagine. What choices do you make to care for the ones you love?

                Jamie Ford, in my opinion, is a very talented author. Songs of Willow Frost showcases that talent. This is an easy to read novel, full of emotion and authenticity. It deals with issues of family and tradition, pursuing passions regardless of how you are viewed in society and how we measure success. This wasn’t a feel good story but it was intriguing and interesting. I found myself drawn to the majority of the characters. I was easily invested in the story from the start. I would definitely recommend this novel, as well as his first novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I give this novel 4 out of 5 stars. A page turner with twists and turns that pull at your emotions. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Banned Books: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

A plane filled with school boys has crashed on an island. Slowly the boys began to gather with the assistance of the sound from a conch shell. The shell would begin to represent order and civility for the boys who would choose a leader in Ralph and eventually begin setting up shelters and a fire to signal a rescue. The oldest boys were around twelve with the younger children only six years old. Together they have to find a way to survive without the assistance of any grownups. Food was an issue of course. One could only survive off so much fruit. Hunters were established, under the leadership of Jack, who was once the head of the boys’ choir in what seems like a lifetime ago. Survival is the key until they are rescued. But fear slowly begins to take over. The younger children fear a beast in the forest. Nightmares haunt their sleep and the fear is spreading to some of the older boys. Discord between two of the leaders takes place and it becomes a struggle for them to work together. As time passes nothing gets easier for the group and their innocence slowly starts to fade away.
                Lord of the Flies is a cunning and brilliant examination of the loss of innocence. Take a group of school boys, drop them in the middle of nowhere, and watch what happens. How will they interact? Who will take responsibility for the actions of the group as a whole? Who will care for the younger children who don’t know how to care for themselves? This novel starts off with the best of intentions but human nature starts to take over. The characters start to value their own lives over the lives of the group as a whole. The only voice of reason, found in an overweight boy called Piggy, is criticized from the very start and ignored by the majority of the other boys. The lack of respect causes the boys to start fighting among themselves, choosing sides and causing deeper divides. These boys are so young that you can blame most of their decision making on immaturity but their actions prove otherwise. The worst is coming as the mob mentality takes over and things start taking a turn for the worst.
                Golding produced an amazing novel full of depth and beautiful writing in an unimaginable situation. I was immediately enveloped into this world and full of concern, shock and disbelief. I’ve read this book before, years ago, and I don’t think I fully understood the weight these young boys carried. Now I understand how easily they could have cracked under the pressure and made some of the horrible decisions they made. This observation of the true nature of people and how easily one can revert back to being savage is disturbing to say the least. I want to describe this novel as raw and ruthless. Regardless of its level of intensity this novel has never been successfully banned but it has been challenged numerous times at many different high schools across the US. The American Library Association list reasons for the challenges ranging from being demoralizing, excessive violence and bad language. In my opinion, this is the kind of book, that makes you analyze the type of people in your life to try and decipher their true character. These boys shed their skin and presented themselves at their worst. The revelation found in each character was eye opening and absolutely amazing. High school should be exposed to that kind of exploitation.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor is the new girl in school. Her stepfather, Richie, kicked her out of the house a year ago and now her mom, Sabrina, has finally come and claimed her from the friends who have been harboring her. Eleanor now shares a room with all four of her siblings in a two bedroom home that has been in Richie’s family for years. Eleanor’s father is alive but not at all involved in the lives of any of his children. Now Eleanor is entering a new high school of hell with her curly red hair, baggy clothes and larger figure. That is until Park. Park is one of the only cool kids at school who happens to be half Korean. In an act of pity, on Eleanor’s first day taking the bus to school, Park forced her to sit next to him in order to save her from the humiliation he knew was in store for her. They kept sitting next to each other, not exchanging any words. Then they begin to read comics together, listen to music together and somehow, be together, filling each other completely in ways neither imagined.
Taking place in 1986, Eleanor & Park, takes a look at teenage angst in an extremely believable, heart wrenching, gut dropping, and embarrassing, make-me-feel-like-a-nervous-teenager-again type of way. Eleanor is a character that you automatically feel sorry for because of her circumstances. She is an abandoned, unloved child, coming from a relationship where a mother is abused and she isn’t very well taken care of. She is target for bullies and has little self-confidence but her honesty is so captivating. Park on the other hand is somewhat popular but an oddball in his own right because he is an obvious minority in Omaha, Nebraska. He harbors his own insecurities. Then everything changes and they become each other’s security blanket. It doesn’t happen overnight but over time, with experiences that help each other trust and began to understand one another until they can be completely honest with one another.

So this was not at all what I expected. I had heard great things about Rowell’s second novel butI wasn’t sure what to expect. Talk about falling right back into my teenage angst, with butterflies in my stomach over the simplest things! I couldn’t put it down. It was tragic and yet lovely. It was nerve wracking and endearing. It was incredibly sad and yet there were moments of hope where I was certain they would get through this. Rowell has a way with words and delivering the emotions of youth. I feel like the uncertainty and anxiety she was able to put in her novel translated beautifully. It struck a chord with the teenage girl that I used to be. How would these characters fit into my old life? Would I recognize their struggles, their passions, and their hardships? Could I ever have been in a relationship with such intensity and stress? I highly recommend this novel. I give this novel a 5 out of 5 stars. I keep looking for reasons to mark it lower and the fact that I literally couldn’t stop reaching for this novel tells me how much I really did enjoy it. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Banned Books: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

                Humbert Humbert is in love with Lolita and has fantasized about loving her for months. Lolita, at twelve years old, is not yet a woman and he lovingly refers to her as a nymphet. His nymphet. His love for her spawns from his love of another in his youth, one who was taking him from him at the age of thirteen. When Humbert first laid eyes on Lolita, it was his first love that came to mind, and so the obsession began. A man of his age lusting for a nymphet was maddening, sickening, he knew. But he could not resist anything about her. He would do anything to have and to keep his Lolita.
                Nabokov created a very intense, unsettling, disturbing rendition of a love story with his novel Lolita. Humbert is a maniac possessed with “knowing” in a biblical sense, a young girl. The most important thing to realize is that he adores her because she is a young girl. He finds her youth and undeveloped body extremely attractive. He is drawn to the fact that she is not yet a woman and he is willing to do many unbelievable, unimaginable things to possess her. Love is what he calls it and to him it truly is love that he feels. Lolita chronicles Humberts passion, through the narration of Humbert, as he confesses his crime.
                I’ll be the first to admit that I was struggling through the pages of this novel when I first began. The idea of reading a novel about a man’s unhealthy obsession with a young girl was troubling. I was trying to make a sense of where a novel of this nature could possibly be going. It wasn’t until I was half way through this book that things start to come together to me. It was at this point that it can became less about desire and more about the admission of maniac tendencies, Lolita as a person and a growing adolescent, and the fear that encapsulated the (for lack of better word) couple. Humbert recognized his flaw and pedophilic nature from the beginning of the novel and admitted, whole heartedly, his faults but that didn’t make him a likeable character. I began to sympathize with him later in the book and though I could never understand him, he was trying to make more sense. Could I ever believe that he did what he did in the name of love? I don’t know. He definitely tried to plead his case within these pages but the crime itself could give any reader pause.
                Lolita to me is the most obvious example of a banned book. People are very sensitive to the idea of rape and pedophilia. It is most people’s worst nightmare. I can imagine many parents berating a school board over this book being on any school list. As history will show, this book was banned in France, Argentina, England and New Zealand, because of its obscene nature. Here in the United States it has been banned as well from high schools. All of the bans mentioned have been lifted at this time. The subjects present in Lolita deal with a lot of psychological issues. This was not in any way a light hearted read. By dealing with pedophilia, incest, and rape you are automatically swimming through sensitive subject matter. What this book did do very successfully is divulge the mind of a madman and the lasting effects he had on a young girl. Everyone won’t want to read this book. Those that want to try to understand and comprehend this types of situations, by reading this novel, should be allowed to. There are men out there with the perverted mind frame described in these pages. These people exists. Banning a book about them won’t change what is happening every day in our society.