Quote of the Week

We had to have humor. It is human nature. No matter how bad the situation is, if you can’t find any humor then life is not worth it.

– Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng & Benjamin Ajak, They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky

They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky is a true story about a group of three boys who were a part of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of children who faced extraordinary odds (starvation, the loss of their parents and families, disease, animal attacks, and war) during the war in Sudan in the late 1990s. The book chronicles how they managed to survive the horrors of war and follows them as they seek (and eventually find) asylum in America. 

When I read this book a couple of months ago I gave it five stars. It is quite extraordinary, as I had to keep reminding myself that these were just little boys going through these horrific experiences, not adults. I also found myself checking the boys’ picture on the back flap to constantly reassure myself that they are indeed still alive and that many years have passed since the events described in the book. The resilience of this book is inspiring, that children can rely on humor during the worst time of their lives is nothing short of awesome.

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Review: Vinegar Hill

  
Review for A. Manette Ansay’s “Vinegar Hill” (1994)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am going to start this review by saying that the fact that “Vinegar Hill” was an Oprah’s Book Club pick didn’t deter me from reading it. I think a lot of people are passing up some great books because of the stigma of bad quality that surrounds her book club, even to this day. I’ve read several of her club offerings and found them to be hit or miss–much in the same fashion as any random book you’d find in literary fiction. Do people seriously expect EVERY book that Oprah recommends will be great? Perhaps, due to her larger than life persona, we expect too much of Oprah. Books are still a matter of personal preference, and Oprah’s tastes don’t always have to match mine. Lol, please…

Anyway, I actually really liked this book. A lot of reviewers use the words “bleak” and “depressing” to describe the tone of this book, and these words are very accurate. The story centers on Ellen and James, a married couple with two children, who fall on hard financial times and are forced to move in with James’ parents. Their home is a harsh, loveless place, where secrets are kept and Fritz (James’ father) rules through cruelty and intimidation. The whole time I read this I could feel the tension in the house building and building until Ellen makes a drastic choice and you’re able to find some sense of relief at the end. 

I also thought Ms. Ansay did an excellent job with the setting of this book. Religion, specifically the family’s strict, traditional Catholic faith, also played an important role in this story. Back in 1972, people simply did not divorce. Women were responsible for maintaining their household, no matter how miserable they were and that was it. This book explores this dynamic, and it affected me deeply, even though some parts were tough to read. I’m glad the author made this a short book, if it were 50 pages longer I couldn’t see myself continuing to endure the character’s suffering. 

Quote of the Week

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.  

– Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls, p.64

I remember when I was in high school and I visited this Buddhist temple on a field trip. When one of my classmates raised his hand to ask about whether Buddhists believe in the concept of original sin, the monk who was guiding the tour smiled and replied that “people aren’t born bad or born good. They’re just born.” 

I think about the response the monk gave a lot in my adult life because I think it’s only natural for us to characterize the people we encounter on a daily basis as good or bad. For example, a relationship ends bitterly and we immediately deem that person as “bad.” Although it appears that way according to our perspective, that’s just what it is: your individual perspective. People are ultimately flawed. Good and evil can and does coexist within us all.

Review: We Are All Completely Fine

  
Review for “We Are All Completely Fine” by Daryl Gregory (2014)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Every now and then I need a good horror story. I just want to pick up a book and be whisked away to a dark place that no one likes to talk about. I don’t care if the horror is supernatural or a reality-based psychological freak out. I just, well…every so often, like to be scared. And who doesn’t? 

This book somewhat delivers on this. I want to give this a higher rating but I can’t. The idea of this book is a great one: a therapy support for survivors of traumatic events. No one really talks about the people who survive trauma, just the event itself or the inner workings of people who are guilty of doing it. I also like that Daryl Gregory manages to discuss each character’s horrific experience without depressing us too much. 

The execution of this, however, is not so great. The point of view of each of the therapy group members shifted entirely too much, almost to where I couldn’t tell from one section to the next which person was talking. One moment it’s Jan, the group director, the next was Harrison, a group member, so on and so forth. I didn’t get the ending either. Way too abrupt and convoluted. Certain questions are never answered, too many plot strings left dangling. But maybe it’s just me.

I understand that this is a novella, but I think this topic would have fit better into a novel format. I still feel like it’s unfinished, like Mr. Gregory only gave us half of a cup when the glass should have been full. You never really get to know the characters, because it’s time to move on to another perspective, another time, another place. It’s quick read for people who enjoy horror books, or people who have survived horrific events.

Ode to Unfinished Books

The other day I happened to stumble upon an article in The Atlantic in which the author maintains that if you start a book, you must, by all means, finish it. She goes on to chide those (like myself) who are so uninspired after 50 pages that we give up on reading the book altogether:

To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully. If you consider yourself a literary person, you shouldn’t just embrace the intellectual cachet that starting books gives you. 

I completely disagree with this. If you are reading for pleasure (reading that is completely outside of a class assignment, and I’ll assume that you are) then the reading experience should be, in some way, pleasurable to you. If you aren’t having fun, you shouldn’t be reading it. 

When I was younger I used to follow this policy, finishing every single book I picked up whether I wanted to or not. Then I stopped my nightly ritual of pleasure reading for over a year, because it just became another tedious chore. After slogging my way through many an unimpressive chick lit novel, I began to ask myself: why am I doing this? To prove something to myself? There is nothing I have to prove to myself as a reader, I do this activity simply because I want to. If the reading experience isn’t entertaining for you, as in, inspiring your life, or doesn’t prompt you to put your pencil to paper in any kind of thoughtful response–then why waste your time on books you don’t like? Books are like people, and life is far too short for crap.

There are plenty of reasons I’ve abandoned my intentions of finishing a book. Bad writing is one. Uninspiring character narration (think: Ferris Bueller’s history teacher), slow plot development is another. No plot at all, or gaping plot holes. Plot twists that lack any credibility and refuse to allow me to suspend disbelief. Too much going on in the plot, or a plot with too many “blank” spaces. If I have to read a paragraph three and four times to “get” it, reading it will get old really quick. Sometimes I can’t finish a book because the character’s behavior is so objectionable that I simply do not care to muck my brain up to read it any further. Sapphire’s novel The Kid comes to mind here, if anyone cares to read 300+ pages of graphic descriptions of rape scenes and the thoughts of an adolescent sex offender, please be my guest…

We all know some books start off slow, then pick up steam later in the reading. While this may be true, if the “steam” doesn’t begin in the first 50-75 pages, I reserve the right to put it down. I’ve left many books unfinished in my lifetime and before I leave this earth I’m sure I will leave many more in this fashion. It’s fine. I owe no one any apologies for my act and you don’t owe anyone (or yourself) any apologies, either.