Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

Rating: PG-13; 4 stars

Summary: Natalia is a doctor in a Balkan country decimated by years of civil war. While journeying across the border to bring vaccinations to orphans, Natalia finds out that her grandfather has died. While working with these children, Natalia cannot help but recollect on her grandfather and the stories he told, namely those of the tiger's wife and the deathless man. These thoughts lead her to investigate the roots of these stories and then lead her to a surprising conclusion.

Opinions: I don't generally read literary fiction, like this book. I want to, but something keeps bringing me back to genre fiction (specifically fantasy). So when I got this book from the library, I made a point of reading it. Being a poet at heart, I really appreciate beautiful writing. This book was beautifully written. Obreht does an excellent job at crafting a setting that feels both familiar and foreign at the same time. However, being a reader mostly of genre fiction, I need a compelling plot too, and for the most part, The Tiger's Wife provided that.

I think perhaps my favorite thing about this book was its meandering nature. Obreht took her time to get to each plot point, and it really worked well in this book. Storytelling and folklore are essential to the plot, so the fact that Obreht was able to weave that style into the narrative is exceptional. I'd say that the book jumps around from the tiger's wife to the deathless man, to the war, to the present day, but that isn't really the case. The book shifts quite a lot, but it doesn't have that jumping feel; it truly is meandering.

The setting of this book is another remarkable thing to notice. Obreht truly places the reader in the setting. While reading, I felt the effects of the war that Natalia had lived through. The names and bits of foreign language that were slipped in felt mostly natural; there were only a few times that I wished I had an exact meaning. For the most part, Obreht did an excellent job at making meaning clear through context.

So then, if this book was so technically great, why only 4 stars? Maybe it's because I don't read a lot of literary fiction, but there were parts where I pretty much had to force myself to continue. They were few and far between, but the fact that they were they, that parts made reading feel like a chore, was a sizable detriment to me. From a technical aspect, I'd say this book is darn near flawless. Since I finished it, obviously it interested me too; I'd say it interested me quite a bit. But I couldn't help but knock it down a star for the periods of boredom and disinterest. I gave it a PG-13 for violence. I don't recall any obscene language or explicit sexual content, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. The nature of the plot almost made me rate the book an R, but it's really somewhere between PG-13 and R.

This book isn't light reading. If you relax too much while reading it, you're likely to miss something. That being said, it is an excellent book. I wouldn't say enjoyable; that's not really the right way to convey it. However, it's safe to say that it is something. If you want a mentally stimulating book, I wholeheartedly recommend this. It isn't much of a summer read, where books are typically as light and fluffy as cotton candy, but that doesn't mean that it isn't good.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velvde

Rating: PG; 3 ½ stars

Summary: Cloaked in Red is a collection of short stories that retell the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” All the stories were written by Vande Velde. There's not much to summarize other than that, without giving too much away. The introduction to the collection goes into a bit of detail about how the collection came about, including examining exactly how ridiculous the original story is, even by fairy tale standards. Other than that, the stories are really all just variations on the original tale.

Opinions: Which isn't to say I didn't like them. As is often the case with short fiction collections, not all the pieces were stand-out amazing. However, I did think that they all twisted the original story very well. I enjoyed the humor in each piece and the variety of characters. I have to say that my two favorite stories in the book are “Granny and the Wolf” and “Deems the Wood Gatherer.” I also enjoyed “Little Red Headache.” I liked that the stories weren't the “typical” retelling which, in my experience, retells the story, but with the same protagonist as the original (example: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine). Instead, these stories had a variety of protagonists: the grandmother, the wolf, Red, the wood-cutter. Characters from other stories even have a couple of cameos, as well as the Brothers Grimm, themselves.

One of the things that makes this collection so great is its sense of humor. Vande Velde managed to find humor in some really weird places, and it hits the mark pretty much every time (I'd say all the time, but I don't like using definite articles unless I'm 100% certain). And even when the stories aren't outright funny, there's just this tongue-in-cheek tone that makes me believe Vande Velde had a great time writing this.

Now of course, I did only give this book 3 ½ stars, so obviously it wasn't perfect. One of the things that lowered its rating was the fact that not all the stories were enjoyable, at least to me. And in a collection of stories that barely over a hundred pages, every story needs to count for something. The other thing I really didn't like about this book is more of a formatting thing: each story has a little illustration alongside the title. Now, this is a good idea conceptually, but I found that most of the illustrations were really generic, like someone Google searched for stock photos. Some of them are better than others, but in general they were just annoying. The book rated a PG because while there wasn't anything really objectionable, the nature of any sort of closer look at “Little Red Riding Hood” merits more than a G rating.

This book is a really quick read, so if you have an afternoon to spare, it's probably worth your time. Some of the stories weren't to my taste, but that doesn't mean that everyone shares that opinion. The writing is sound, and the characters are well-developed. It just wasn't as much of my cup of tea as I had hoped.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

Rating: PG-13; 5 stars

Summary: Connor Grennan wanted to travel the world. To kick things off, he volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal. Little did he know that the Little Princes orphanage would change his life forever. While volunteering, Grennan learned that the civil war in Nepal had led to families in remote regions selling their children, in the hopes that better lives would be available elsewhere. Though the parents had good intentions, they were actually endangering their children. Grennan decided that he needed to help, and so he did.

Opinions: This book is what I wanted the book Three Cups of Tea to be: focused on the kids. I understand that the books' respective organizations have different goals, but the end result in both cases is for the kids. Little Princes was wonderful in its focus on the children, how they lived, how they changed, their hardships and triumphs.

This story is a sad one: parents and children separated in a third world country, assuming they will never see each other again. In many cases, the assumption was that the children or the parents were dead. I probably spent close to half of this book in or near tears. That being said, there was actually a lot of humor in this book. Children are resilient creatures, and the kids Conor Grennan was involved with are no exception. Despite hardship in their lives, their still children. They play and wrestle and do anything that kids do. I found myself either laughing or crying for the majority of the book.

I also loved how honest Grennan was. He admitted from the beginning of the book that his motives for going to Nepal weren't great. He wanted to volunteer for a few months so that when he traveled the world vacation-style, his friends wouldn't give him funny looks for being wasteful. He admitted that he knew next to nothing about working with kids. And yet...and yet he was successful. His honesty from the get-go made this book seem all the closer to me, although I have never been to Nepal.

I loved learning about Nepali culture. I realize that there are probably a million books in the world that are specifically about Nepali culture, and not focused on children, but I loved it anyway. I took Hindi a couple of years ago, and I get very excited about anything I can connect to what I learned. I recognized many Nepalese words as variants on words I knew in Hindi. I also enjoyed all the Buddhism references in the book; I took a course on Buddhism last fall, and ever since, it seems as though I can't get away from it. Neither Hindi or Buddhism are things that other readers would necessarily care about, but they made the book a little more personal for me.

I gave this book 5 stars because I just really enjoyed it. I have this feeling that because now that I'm at college and don't have time to read for pleasure as much, I'm being really lenient on book ratings. I don't really care about this, but I just figured I'd warn people. I loved this book, and if a sequel comes out for whatever reason, I'll definitely read it. This merited a PG-13 for two reasons: the subject matter can be difficult, both to grasp as reality, and just to understand. This book is also definitely written for an older crowd; I believe that younger readers would find themselves bored very quickly. I normally don't rate books based on certain age groups getting bored or not understanding, because everyone develops at their own pace. However, since this is non-fiction, I figured I'd include it in the rating.

In general, I'd say if you like kids and learning about different places and cultures, this is an excellent book. Nonfiction isn't everyone's cup of tea (no pun intended), but if you like it, this is definitely a worthwhile read.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fairy Tales in Electri-City by Francesca Lia Block

Fairy Tales in Electri-City by Francesca Lia Block

Rating: R; 5 stars

Summary: This is a collection of poetry. As such, there isn't really much to summarize. All the poems share the common theme of some element from folklore, fairy tales, or mythology. The degree of that varies. While one poem strongly alludes to The Tempest, another only invokes the fantastic by personifying love. In general, though, they all contain some grain of the fantastic.

Opinions: Ok, I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a huge Francesca Lia Block fan, and I have been for a a few years now. That being said, I haven't read nearly as much of her poetry as I should. She has such a way with words, and it seems like she's never at a loss for a new interpretation of some fairy tale or mythical creature. I will say that I'm generally not a fan of poems with no capitalization, mostly because I went through a phase where I hated capitalization and punctuation, and it didn't really work. However, I find that I don't even notice it in Block's poetry. Her work speaks well beyond the words and letters on the page.

I read this entire book (little though it may be) in one sitting, sitting out in the sun on one of the first really warm days of this year. Sunny spot=good poetry reading spot. I shared all the good parts with my friend sitting next to me.

So, seeing as this is poetry, there isn't much to say on the book as a whole. I guess all that's left is to comment on some of my favorite poems in the book. To start, I loved the first poem in this book (the title poem, as well): “fairy tales in electri-city.” It's a longer piece, and some of it is very dark, but I loved the narrative flow of the poem. I wouldn't consider most of the poems in this book narrative, although I'm sure others would disagree, so this is one of the few that is narrative in nature. There's such a sense of wonder to this piece, but also a sense of knowing. I can't help but wonder if parts of it (the happier parts) are semi-autobiographical. But that's just a theory.

I love “centaur” for the sheer sensuality of it. And I would argue that it's a humorous poem, even if the topic isn't very funny. The language lends itself to humor (and there's just something about internally rhyming priapic with d***...). I loved “bear and deer,” and I can't even say why. I just loved it. “Fox girl speaks” spoke to me on a personal level; it reminded me of some friends I have. Those are just my personal favorites.

I rated this book R for sexual content and possibly language—I can't recall offhand if there's swearing in it, but it wouldn't surprise me. This definitely isn't a book for kids. However, I also gave it 5 stars, because I love it. I suppose I could be biased—I love poetry, and I love Francesca Lia Block. This is both of those. I'm sticking by my 5 star rating, though.

In short, if you like poetry, this is a good read. If you don't...I'd recommend giving it a try anyway.