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Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 2 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Birth House by Ami McKay

June 28, 2011 2 comments

White bench against a blue wall.Summary:
Dora Rare is rare indeed.  She is the first female born to the Rare family Scots Bay, Canada in generations.  Her dark hair and brownish skin reflecting the family’s Micmac heritage make her stick out like a sore thumb in the area.  However, Scots Bay’s midwife, Miss B., has always taken a shining to Dorrie, and she trains her in the ways of midwifery.  The early 1900s are a tough time for midwives and women, though.  Soon the area is threatened by World War I and male obstetricians, not to mention all the obstacles rural women have always had to face from violent, drunk husbands to too many children.

Review:
This book was quite honestly painful to read, for it lays out so clearly what it is that makes being a woman difficult in society.  Although some things in modern day have improved, for instance we western women have the right to birth control, in other ways things have remained painfully the same.  There are still areas of the world where men have more control over women’s bodies than they do.  It is often still expected for women to be pure when men are not.  Women often feel that they must put up with the wrongdoings of their husband simply to keep the home and family life that they so desperately desire, and on and on.

The book itself is told as a mix of third person narrative and Dora’s journal with clippings from the various newspapers.  This style suits the story well, as we are allowed to see Dora from both outside and inside her own head.  The characters are fairly well-rounded, although the motivations of those who are not Dora are not always the clearest or the most sympathetic, but as most things are from her perspective, that is understandable.

Of particular interest to me, especially with my knowledge of psychology, was the portions of the book dealing with how women are often accused of being insane simply for reacting to the injustices foisted upon them.  I discussed this topic at length in multiple women’s studies and feminism classes.  The idea that the just rage of the trodden upon is often depicted by the rulers as insanity.  This is beautifully depicted in this book for Dora, struggling against many injustices and feeling rightfully irritated and angry, is informed by a male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria–a peculiarly female ailment resulting from female organs.  Her anger and fighting back is thus tagged with a name that let’s others dismiss it as an illness, rather than a just reaction.  McKay eloquently depicts this entire issue without being too heavy-handed.

I was also surprised and delighted to see a portion of the story take place in Boston during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  I’m assuming McKay must have visited my city, for she perfectly describes the North End from the buildings to the atmosphere of walking those streets.  This accuracy allowed me to travel back in time to a period of injustices in my own city, not to mention the molasses flood.  It was indeed a delight to read of Boston from a women’s rights perspective for once instead of always reading of the Irish mafia.

The main point of the book comes across throughout it in a gentle way.  The idea that we must continue to struggle and give but not give up or the oppressors will win.

Never let someone take what’s rightfully yours. You can give all you want in life, but don’t give up. (page 337)

It is simultaneously encouraging, uplifting, and depressing to realize that women throughout time have struggled with similar issues.  Yet things are gradually improving, and thus we must not give up for the sake of future generations of women.

This book beautifully depicts the history of women’s rights in the early 1900s.  It is a painfully beautiful read that I recommend all women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly (Graphic Novel)

June 22, 2011 1 comment

Green-tinted girl pointing at herself against red background.Summary:
Barbara is a middle school student with one intense focus–she must learn how to kill giants before it is too late.  She doesn’t fit in much at school or have many friends, but she doesn’t really care, because she needs to be ready for the giant.  The giant is connected to a secret at home, you see, and this secret takes over her life too much to care about all those silly things the other girls talk about.

Review:
I picked up this graphic novel because it was getting tons of buzz as being an excellent graphic novel.  I also wanted to know what this big secret was in Barbara’s life.  Does the graphic novel address something that isn’t discussed much in polite society but is still an issue for many middle schoolers out there?  I was dying to know!  Unfortunately, I found myself incredibly disappointed with this graphic novel.  I can’t discuss why without spoiling what the giant is, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip this review.

I was expecting the giant Barbara is facing at home to be something like abuse or incest.  Instead, it turns out Barbara’s mother is dying of cancer.  Um. Ok.  I’m sorry, a big scary giant doesn’t seem to be quite the right metaphor for a dying parent.  What makes this little girl think she can fight death?  I guess I just don’t get it.

Additionally, I just really didn’t like Barbara.  I honestly get tired of graphic novel writers always making the main character a geek.  This little girl–shocker–plays D&D.  She is cruel to her classmates.  She judges them.  She’s even mean to the one girl who for some unearthly reason shows an interest in Barbara and what she likes to do.  She, quite frankly, rubs me the wrong way, and I don’t think she’s supposed to.

Then there’s the art.  I also didn’t like that, especially how he drew Barbara.  Why does she have bunny ears?  What’s up with that?  The drawing style never feels artistic.  Not once did I find myself sucked into the pictures to get further into Barbara’s world.  They felt more like badly-done newspaper comic strips than a graphic novel.

Overall, I’m disappointed that I even bothered with this book.  It’s one of those few instances when if I’d known the spoiler ahead of time, I’d have saved myself some time.  I can’t even imagine handing this over to a middle schooler dealing with a terminally ill relative, because I don’t think it particularly presents healthy coping mechanisms or solutions to unhealthy ones.  Why this book is so popular remains a mystery to me.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: His Father’s Son by Bentley Little

June 21, 2011 2 comments

Man walking down dirty hospital hallway.Summary:
Steven’s life in California is so typical it borders on boring.  He writes for AlumniMedia.  He’s engaged to a librarian named Sherry.  He goes out for happy hour every Friday night with his three buddies.  Then one day his mother calls him and informs him his father tried to kill her.  His father has had strokes and dementia, but in a moment of absolute clarity in the VA hospital, his father whispers to Steven, “I killed her.”  Thus begins Steven’s tailspin into a world of darkness and ever-changing morality.

Review:
I believe this book succeeds in serving its purpose–it’s a page-turner with chills.  If someone asked me for a simple thriller for the beach, I’d have no qualms handing this over.  I cannot rid myself of the vibe though that the idea of this book could have led to a thriller of excellent quality instead of beach read quality, and that is a bit disappointing.

The set-up is excellent.  Here we have an ordinary guy with some issues with his parents, but he still tries to live up to his family obligations.  Then his father has an episode that makes mortality something Steve is no longer able to ignore.  Steve then starts this quest that could easily be read as a metaphor for adults dealing with the increased fragility of their parents.  However, about two-thirds of the way through, the plot takes an unexpected twist that then essentially nose-dives off a cliff into a scenario that is jarring and rather insulting to the reader.  The book is not at all about what it at first appeared to be, and honestly, the original concept was much more intriguing than the final answer.  The resolution is cliche, whereas the original set-up was not.

Other than the plot, Little sets scenes fairly well.  It is easy to envision both the simpler scenes as well as the more complex scenes of violence.  His writing style is not particularly memorable though.  I didn’t once feel the need to write down a quote or dog-ear a page.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is that Steven is a writer, and his short stories pepper the book to give you an idea of his mental state at the time.  I honestly enjoyed the short stories more than the actual book itself.  I could easily see myself reading a collection of Little short stories in the future.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, if forgettable, thriller ideally suited to summer beach reading.  I recommend it to fans of thrillers looking for an easy read.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (Series, #2)

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

White and gold letters on red background.Summary:
Lestat, the maker of Louis and Claudia, takes center stage here to tell his own origin story, as well as explain why he has chosen to come out as a vampire rock star in the 1980s.  Starting with his beginnings as a rural member of the ruling class prior to the French Revolution, we discover the origins of the Vampire Theater, as well as the origins of vampires themselves.

Review:
The Vampire Lestat is an excellent example of an incredibly well-executed character study.  Although we learn things about vampires and their origins, the real crux of the story is who Lestat is.  Why he acts the way he acts.  How his innate personality affects his life and the lives of those around him.  We see how over the course of time he may adapt to new ages and customs, but he is still Lestat.  What makes him who he is does not change in spite of all his experiences.  This doesn’t mean he doesn’t learn anything, but instead it simply means he is who he is.  It is a remarkable example of how people are simply who they are.

Lestat is much more sympathetic a character than Louis.  Whereas Louis mostly sits around pouting about what happens to him, Lestat is a fighter.

I never despair! Others do that, not me. I go on fighting no matter what happens. Always.  (page 199)

He’s more than a fighter though; he’s also desperate for love.  He did not choose to become a vampire.  It happened to him, and now he is conflicted as to how to find love when he is essentially a monster.

You sense…my bitterness that I’m evil, that I don’t deserve to be loved and yet I need love hungrily.   (page 355)

What truly makes Lestat Lestat though is his impulsivity.  Lestat just does things because they feel like something he absolutely must do.  He does not concern himself with consequences; he simply acts.   This makes those vampires who love him simultaneously frustrated and amazed.  They love him for his lack of restraint, but they also worry for him and themselves.

Beyond the great example of studying a character at length, though, Rice’s writing is simply beautiful to read.  There as an elegance and a flow to it that pairs up perfectly with the story of a centuries old rock star vampire.  I actually read about three pages aloud on skype to a friend simply to revel in how beautiful the language is.  For example:

Laughter. That insane music. That din, that dissonance, that never ending shrill articulation of the meaninglessness.  (page 358)

This is the type of writing that is a pleasure to read.  It feels like treating yourself to a glass of fine wine for your brain.  I highly recommend it to all.  You do not have to be a fan of vampires to appreciate the language and rich character study it contains.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Previous Books in Series:
Interview with the Vampire, review

Friday Fun! (Stanley Cup FTW!)

June 17, 2011 3 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Ok, so I know most of you aren’t from Boston and thus don’t really care, but OMG THE BRUINS WON!!!!!

Here’s the thing.  I fucking love hockey.  Love it.  It’s my absolute favorite sport.  Perhaps because this is I grew up practically on the Canadian border (our signs were in French and English).  I suspect, however, that it’s more because hockey is one of the few sports that is still not a pussy sport.  The players routinely get into fights with each other on the ice, and they don’t even get put in the penalty box for it.  Most of the time.  Plus they do this physically difficult sport on ice.  We all know everything’s harder on ice.  (Ok, ok, not everything *wink wink, nudge nudge*)

Anyway, so this past week was the championship between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks.  If you don’t know, there are 7 games played, and the winning team is the best of 7.  My past week thus largely consisted of watching hockey.  Last Friday I went out to a local dive bar (that has free popcorn) to do so with one of my friends.  Alas, we lost that game.  Monday night I watched at home after a tough gym session and kept my dad, who works second shift, posted on the score via text message.  Our win Monday meant we were tied at 3/3, which meant a game 7! Ahhhhhh!!!  Now the Bruins hadn’t won since 1972.  Clearly such an event demanded a night out.

I ended up going out to a local very packed bar with friends.  Watching the game in a bar full of fellow fans was one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had in a while.  We drank. We yelled.  We celebrated.  There was music.  Strangers were randomly high-fiving and hugging each other.  It was the loudest I’ve ever been outside of a concert.  In fact, my voice is a bit off today.  And the best part is we won!! We won the Stanley Cup!!!  Take that, Canada.  Hockey ain’t just your sport. :-P

Now, if I can just actually manage to make it to a game at the Garden next season…….

Book Review: Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #2)

June 13, 2011 2 comments

Red sword on cloudy background.Summary:
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference.  She deals with her emotions by cutting herself.  She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed.  One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option.  Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War.  Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.

Review:
Speaking as someone who knows a lot about mental illness, self-injury is one of the illnesses that people who don’t have it have the most difficulty understanding.  It seems bizarre to those who don’t self-injure, even as for the self-injurer those moments of cutting or burning or whatever chosen method are the best coping mechanism they can come up with.  It’s not easy for those who don’t self-injure to understand, which is why I am so impressed at how well Morse Kessler has grasped the inner workings of the self-injurer in order to write such a well-rounded, sympathetic character as Missy.

Missy is simultaneously relatable as a typical teenager, for instance she gets horribly embarrassed at a party one night, but she also has this deep, dark, misunderstood secret.  Gradually other teens find out and are either concerned or lash out at her due to their fear and lack of understanding, but Missy feels that she can’t confide in even the sympathetic ones.  In perhaps one of the most powerful passages, the reader gets to see exactly why Missy cuts, while she simultaneously explains why she can’t explain it to her sister.

She could tell her that she turned to the blade because she wanted to live and sometimes pain was the only thing that kept her alive. She could tell her that she was terrified of things she couldn’t even begin to name, that friends could be fickle and lovers could be false. She could try to explain all of that and more, and maybe her sister would understand. But trust was as fragile and cutting as a crystal sword. (page 100)

That is perhaps the most clear, succinct explanation of self-injury I’ve seen outside of nonfiction clinical books.  Missy’s reasons for cutting are clear, even as it becomes more and more evident to the reader that this coping mechanism is not truly addressing Missy’s real problems.

Of course, the fantasy element comes to play here again, and it works perhaps even better this time around.  Giving the fantasy personas for Missy to talk to and express herself to gives her a safe space to think out her emotions instead of cutting them out.  There are also a few cameos from Famine, which is fun to see after reading the first book.  The fantasy also works here because it  helps give the book a distance that makes it less triggering.  There are intense emotional moments, but then Death shows up with a humorous quip to lighten the situation.  It addresses the real problems without getting bogged down in over-emotionality.

This book will give self-injuring teens a way to see themselves reflected in literature and accepted and loved for who they are.  It will give them a chance to maybe address their own emotions and issues.  Similarly, non-self-injuring teens will hopefully become more empathetic to their peers who struggle with it.  It’s a book that is simultaneously enlightening but not preachy.  I highly recommend it to teens and those who work in mental health or with teenagers.

5 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
Hunger, review

Counts For:
Pile of books.

Friday Fun! (On Health)

June 10, 2011 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  I hope you all enjoyed your first full week of June.  Here in Boston, we’ve been having quite the little heat-wave….with accompanying short tempers to go with it.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about health.  What makes a person physically and emotionally healthy.  It seems like such a simple concept, but there are incredibly wide and varied opinions on what exactly it takes to give someone good health and what the signs of good health are.  For instance, personally I don’t eat meat, partly for beliefs and partly because I feel healthier when I don’t.  Yet there are people who swear they need red meat to feel healthy or fish or whatever.  If we can’t even agree on simple guidelines for physical health, how can we possibly agree on them for the more complex world of mental and emotional health?  So here we all are trying to sort our way through all the different advice out there and find what works for us.  For some people with more hurdles or baggage to get over, it’s a longer process than for others.  I think what matters the most is that the person is trying, but unfortunately some people don’t give a whole lot of credit to trying.  But if someone is trying to be healthy and it’s hard for them, why should they get less credit than someone who is naturally pretty healthy?  Perhaps I’ve just become more empathetic because I work at a hospital.  I see people truly struggling just to be functioning members of society, and then I see the stigma they face on top of it, and it just makes me sad.  Being a healthy person in the modern world is hard and stacking stigma on top of it isn’t going to help or fix anything.

It reminds me of an usher I met when I was out at the Boston Ballet this year.  She was chatting with my friend and me, and she said, “Sometimes you just gotta get really drunk and forget about your problems for one night.”  I think that’s something some people who’ve been dealt a better hand in life forget.  Sometimes people who’ve been dealt a bad hand get tired.  Sometimes they choose an unhealthy coping mechanism because the reward is immediate and easy to see whereas the negatives aren’t.  Maybe that overweight girl you see on the bus reaches for comfort foods because she was abused.  You don’t know.  It’s not easy to constantly try.  It’s not easy to swim against the stream all the time, and most Americans don’t know the best coping mechanisms for when they’re down or sad or just simply tired.  Maybe I’m too optimistic, but it does seem to me that our culture uses a lot of negative reinforcement instead of positive.  Somebody gets depressed or overweight or whatever and culture tells them it’s their fault for being lazy for being sad just get happy, etc…. when what those people really need are some encouragement.  Yes, you can do it.  Yes, it’s ok to take a night off and relax sometimes.  Yes, it will be ok in the end.  Just keep trying.  You’re doing great.

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

June 8, 2011 1 comment

Wolf.Summary:
White Fang is born in the wild 1/4 dog and 3/4 wolf.  He soon finds himself back in the realm of man when his mother returns to the Indian camp she had left.  Thus begins the struggle between White Fang’s desire for the companionship of the human gods and the call of the wild inside him.

Review:
This companion novel to The Call of the Wild flips the original story on its head.  Instead of it being a dog feeling the call of the wild, we have a wolf feeling the call of the companionship of man, in spite of mistreatment.  The story doesn’t quite work as well when reversed in that way, though.

Both White Fang and Buck suffer mistreatment at the hands of men that is incredibly painful for an animal lover to read about.  Whereas this served to make it understandable why Buck leaves for the wild, though, it makes it difficult to understand why White Fang doesn’t do the same.  Yes, eventually he meets a master who loves him and cares for him, but for years prior that is not the case.  Perhaps London is attempting to demonstrate the intense loyalty of dogs to their masters whether or not they deserve it.  It is true that animal rights workers see this sort of situation over and over again, yet White Fang is mostly wolf.  It is difficult to believe his wild nature would not take over at some point, particularly when being mistreated.    If this story was told of a dog and not a wolf, it would make more sense.

That said, London’s strength at delving into the animal world without personifying them to be more human than they are is still incredibly strong here.  The animals are not personified but they are humanized.  By that I mean, their personalities and instincts are clear and understandable.  It is difficult to imagine anyone reading this book then proceeding to abuse an animal.  They are truly remarkable creatures, London excels at demonstrating this.

Overall, this book is not as amazing as The Call of the Wild but it is well-worth the read for more time spent seeing animals through Jack London’s eyes.  Recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It

Companion Book:
The Call of the Wild, review

The Book Apocalypse!

June 7, 2011 2 comments

Today the awesome Cass of Bonjour Cass! is featuring me in her very cool Book Apocalypse challenge.  Check it out to see what books from my TBR pile would accompany me into the bunker during an apocalypse.

Categories: Just for fun
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