Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This may be incredibly pathetic and just a smidgen anti-feminist, but if there was one thing I could choose to be right now, it would be the Doctor's Companion. The possibility of this was the only thing that made me okay with applying for retail jobs during my long post-college employment drought. I had a vision of a nice British man in a duster whisking me off to the stars in his spaceship. Of course, the problem with being the companion is how replaceable you are. The Universe opens up to you, but only for a little while. Then you are left behind and everything else is so utterly ordinary.

The Magicians reminds me of being the Doctor's Companion. In it, an ordinary overachiever set for the Ivy League and a corporate career is recruited by Brakebills, a college to train magicians. The majority of the book occurs while Quentin Clearwater is in school. Once he graduates, he is flung back to earth as ungracefully as any Companion. He gets lazy, drinks, puts off plans and the future. Fortunately, though, the magic comes back into play in the form of a quest. Quentin thinks this is the thing that will change his life forever, fix everything and put it back on track.

The character of Quentin is obviously one of those who will never be happy. He thinks Brakebills will make him happier than Brooklyn, he thinks his relationship with Alice will make him happier, he thinks the quest will make him happier. Ultimately, you're still you wherever you go. You can't choose to be happy, but you can choose to be miserable.

I thought this book would be Harry Potter in college. In a lot of ways, it was that. There were adult situations all over the place. The students had sex and drank like fishies. Harry Potter also never had so much angst. They never showed the time between when the kids left Hogwarts and the prologue where they were all grown up. Maybe The Magicians is what we would have seen.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One night, a man named Jack set out to kill a family. He killed the father and the mother and the young daughter. When he went to kill the 2-year-old son, he found the child missing. The boy had left his crib, escaped from the house, and made his way to a nearby graveyard. The ghosts of the people buried in the graveyard protected the boy from the man Jack. Then they banded together to raise him.
This is the beginning of the story of Nobody Owens. He is son to Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a proper dead couple and under the guardianship of the mysterious Silas. Nobody has the power of the graveyard, an ability to see all the ghosts, to see in the dark, and to enter anyplace that live people normally cannot.

The Graveyard Book tells several stories that occur as Nobody grows. Inside the cemetery, he meets another living child named Scarlett, whom he encounters later on in the book, and he gets into some trouble with a group of ghouls. Later on, he faces troubles from the world outside the graveyard. There's a scrape with danger inside of a consignment shop and a load of trouble stems from attempts to attend school. Throughout all of these adventures, the man Jack is still alive and still hunting for Nobody. Jack is the reason Nobody is never safe outside of the graveyard, but a living boy cannot remain among the dead forever.

I was a little nervous to read The Graveyard Book for the same reason I get nervous watching "Dead Like Me": I don't like thinking about death. The Graveyard Book was far more focused on living, though:
You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.

I enjoyed the book a lot, though I like every Neil Gaiman book I have read. I considered the Jacks to be really intriguing and kind of wish we knew more about them. I also recommend hearing the book from the author himself. Neil Gaiman read a chapter when he spoke in my city recently. I'm definitely a Gaiman fan and look forward to reading lots more of his work.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a bleak post-apocalyptic tale. It portrays a world overrun by the undead, known as unconsecrated in the book. The main character, Mary, and her village are separated from the flesh eaters, the masses that form the forest of hands and teeth, by fences and gates. The fences and gates don't just protect them from the unconsecrated, though, they also isolate them from whatever is outside of the gates. Still, life in the village continues even with the constant threat of a breach. Mary should be getting married, having children, and being part of that life, but she can't settle for a happy existence. She dreams beyond the walls, dreams of following the literally forbidden path out of the village, and dreams of the ocean her mother has told her about her whole life.
Mary's father left the village years ago. Her mother keeps constant vigil at the fence, searching for her husband and never losing hope that he will return unharmed, a hope long abandoned by Mary and her brother Jed. One day Mary is delayed from attending her mother. This is the day she wanders too close to the fence after presumably spotting their father. She is bitten and becomes infected. She asks to be allowed to turn into an unconsecrated, let out of the gate to join her husband. Jed blames Mary for not being with their mother and for allowing her to become unconsecrated, for not killing her and saving her soul.
After being turned out of her house by Jed and rejected by her sole romantic suitor, Mary is taken in by the Sisterhood. The Sisters control every aspect of life in the village. They hold the knowledge that noone else knows, protect the village, and make sure life continues. While under the Sisters' wing, Mary learns of a visitor from outside the gates, a woman named Gabrielle, a woman wearing a strange red vest, a woman who has seen the ocean. A woman who soon becoms the fastest unconsecrated of them all and the eventual downfall of the village, the one who forces them down the forbidden path.
Like all zombie stories, this is a story about futility. Anyone who dies doesn't stay that way, but comes back, creating an unending enemy. This is a story of dreaming beyond the walls of your ordinary life. There isn't anything left to hope for, but that doesn't mean giving up hope. The messages of following your own path, dreaming, growing up are all very heavy and anvil-like in their impact. Mary's romantic triangle doesn't help make her sympathetic when honestly she is a little dull and dumb-witted. It was a fairly easy read and there were moments of suspense that made you fear for the characters even when you knew there was no hope left.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

I was watching "American Idol" a couple weeks ago. Everyone kind of sucks this season, which is kind of awesome. Anyways, one of the contestants sang:

This is a man's world/But it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl

I particularly remember that song because its sentiment intrigued me. I could see it as a feminist statement, that men can't get anything done by themselves. Conversely, it can be interpreted that the guys get everything done while us womenfolks just stand there and look pretty, maybe fetch some beverages. That brings me to my ninth read, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can see Frankie agreeing with both of these interpretations.

Frankie comes back to Alabaster Preparatory School for her sophomore year with bigger..."tracts of land" as Monty Python put it. She soon nets popular Senior Matthew Livingston as her boyfriend and enters his world, a world where women are expected to stand around the golf course while the boys have their parties, where they are expected to give the menfolks space when they cancel dates or make excuses to run off for mysterious male bonding sessions. So far, we're really leaning towards the anti-feminist interpretation.

Here enters the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. The Bassets are a secret all-male society at Alabaster that basically bond and drink and occasionally play pranks. Frankie's father has been telling her stories of the society for years, and through a little light detective work, she finds out that this is to where her boyfriend and most of his friends have been disappearing. Frankie is jealous of the Bassets, not because they are taking Matthew away from her, but because she wants to be a part of the bonding. Unfortunately, that path seems blocked.

Then, after the retrieval of the long-lost Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of Basset Hounds and a gmail account impersonating one of the Bassets, Frankie actually becomes one of them. Almost. She turns the lackadaisical society around. She comes up with actual awesome pranks and the pranks actually have points and they even effect change. "Wouldn't mean nothing without a woman," indeed!

The only problem with the entire scheme is that Frankie gets tired of being anonymous. She gets tired of someone else taking the credit for what she orchestrated. Nobody suspects her to be capable of such things. Her parents call her Bunny Rabbit and her boyfriend calls her adorable.

In some ways, we can see Frankie Landau-Banks as a neglected positive*. A buried word.
A word inside another word that's getting all the attention.
A mind inside a body that's getting all the attention.

I love Frankie Landau-Banks because I love that there is a character in young adult literature who doesn't just conform to everyone around her. She likes having Matthew as her boyfriend, but she still wants more. She doesn't just let him call her adorable and be done with it. She has issues with girls going off to do girly things instead of taking the opportunity of mingling with the guys. She theorizes that if girls stay home enough times baking crumbles, (Book's example) then soon the guys will no longer invite them and further more, will expect freshly baked goodies when they come back. The door will have closed. Frankie detests a closed door.
Simply put, she wants more.

It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people.
She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her she should be. That Bunny Rabbit is dead.

*For those who do not know, the neglected positive is a root word that is not commonly used except with a prefix. For example, using "petuous" for careful as the opposite of impetuous, or "nocuous" for offensive as the opposite of innocuous. Frankie Landau-Banks takes pleasure in using the neglected positive. It's only a little bit annoying.