Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (21 December — 22 December)

I… didn’t get this book. At all. I even did something crazy and went and read the SparkNotes after I was done with it to attempt to figure out what the heck had happened, but I’m still not satisfied. I didn’t not like the book, but after reading it I just had absolutely no idea what I was meant to have taken away, and now that I know what I’m meant to have taken away, I’m disappointed.

See, the plot of this book… well, there’s not really a plot. But there’s a protagonist, so that’s good, and he’s called Okonkwo and he lives in Africa and he aspires to great things. His father was a loser, so Okonkwo fashioned himself a winner, to good results. But then he kills this kid that was sent to live with him and who called him “father” and who liked living with Okonkwo, and then things seem to start falling apart, as they do.

And I thought that maybe that was the point of the book, because it’s pretty emphasized — that Okonkwo did a bad thing by killing a boy he thought of as a son, and now he gets to be punished. And he does get punished, in various ways, including being exiled for seven years for inadvertantly killing some other guy’s son. But then Achebe completely ignores all of that and starts in with some missionaries, who come to the villages and start converting people to Christianity, and then things seem to start falling apart, as they do.

Wait, what? Okay, fine, so things are falling apart for a different reason now, that has nothing to do with Okonkwo. But Okonkwo, whose life was already falling apart, doesn’t want it to fall apart anymore so he tries to bring an uprising against the missionaries, which totally fails, and [ending alert] then he kills his real son (who’s a convert and who is “not his son anymore” and cetera) and then he kills himself. Or is said to have killed himself. And SparkNotes says he did it. But I don’t believe that.

Anyway, so I finish reading the book and I’m like, okay, this plotline that I’ve just outlined makes sense, but I’ve only included, like, less than half of the scenes in the book and what were those supposed to be for? So I ask SparkNotes, and it tells me that this book is really about showing the Western world that Africa is a real place with real people with real emotions and religions and languages and customs and such and that colonization sort of makes those things fall apart and also the colonial nations are pretty stupid for not realizing that Africa is a real place etc.

And then I go, oh. That makes sense. I get that. I would feel stupid for not seeing that while reading it, except that I was too busy trying to follow the story Achebe was telling, and not the one he was implying, which is unfortunate. I guess if I had known in advance that the written story was merely a vehicle for a bigger statement, I would have liked it better. As it stands, I am just confused and disappointed.

Rating: 5/10
(Back to School Challenge)

See also:
an adventure in reading
Books ‘N Border Collies
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (15 December — 18 December)

The Kite Runner is one of those books whose name I have been hearing since it came out, but which I have also managed to avoid reading or even knowing anything about. I’m just talented like that, I guess? So when I saw it on my Back to School Challenge list, I was like, “Eh, okay, I guess I can read this.”

Unfortunately, that’s sort of still how I feel. The cover blurbs promised adjectives like powerful, haunting, riveting, extraordinary, unexpected… I’m not convinced. I called most of the plot “twists” ages before they happened, and even though they weren’t really presented as twists, per se, they felt imbued with a sense of “Look at what I wrote! Isn’t it ironic and also incredibly clever of me?” whether Hosseini intended it or not.

The story was interesting, at least. It follows the life of our protagonist, Amir, from his childhood in Kabul through his emigration to America in the midst of Russian occupation and on to his return to Kabul to atone for past sins. These sins were against Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant, who considered Amir his best friend and stood up for him against bullies but whose friendship was never quite reciprocated. When Amir witnesses an atrocity against Hassan, he takes the coward’s way out; running away from the scene and later running away from his guilt by getting Hassan and his father sent away. This event becomes a big old rock that weighs Amir down for the rest of his life, as we get to read!

I loved how Hosseini handled the friendship between Amir and Hassan — how they were friends by circumstance and how the power dynamic between them kept Amir from really accepting Hassan’s friendship. I thought all of the childhood scenes in Kabul were really well-written and believable. It was the rest of the book I was not so enamored with; the move to America and Amir’s marriage and difficulty having children took a long time to read but still seemed to be superficially written so that Hosseini could get his story back to Kabul, where Amir goes to find Hassan’s son and do that atoning thing. And then from there everything seemed to fall apart; it takes only a chapter or two for the son to be found, and then an entirely implausible scene occurs that gets the son into Amir’s hands, and then the process of getting the two of them back to America is meant to take forever but then is conveniently sped up, but then we have to keep reading to get to the kite running tie-in from the beginning of the novel.

Certainly the themes of the novel are good; friendship and betrayal and how our lives are so based on our childhoods. But I’ve seen these in other places and I found nothing unexpected or haunting or extraordinary about this treatment.

Rating: 6/10
(Back to School Challenge, My Year of Reading Dangerously, Countdown Challenge: 2003)

See also:
The Bluestocking Society
Blue Archipelago

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar (2 December — 3 December)

I would never have picked this book up except that it was on my Back to School Challenge list, but I am really glad I did! Super cute.

Scott Hudson is a new freshman at a slightly stereotypical high school — the upperclassmen are bullies and lunch money thieves, the gym teacher is brutal, the Spanish teacher doesn’t speak English. That’s fine, because Scott is a pretty actual-typical guy. He’s moderately into sports, he has a few close guy friends, and he loves to read lots of wonderful books. I like him already! The story follows Scott’s escapades through freshman year, starting with a failed attempt or two or three at getting close to his crush, Julia, and also includes some diary entries written to Scott’s unborn new sibling, Smelly (not its real name), on how to survive high school.

While it’s true that Scott gets into a few more weird situations during his first year in high school than most people get into in four years, I liked that he kept a level head about all of them and dealt with them in a very adult manner. A few times that he acts like an idiot about things, but he figures that out pretty quickly. This is the kind of book I might get for my little brother in the future to keep him from getting in trouble. 🙂

And, of course, the best part of the book is all the English stuff! Scott’s got a very “O Captain, my Captain” English teacher who is awesome and whom Scott also enjoys, so Scott gets into writing newspaper articles in various styles, from Tom Swifties to a diary entry, and Lubar works a lot of book references and name-dropping (The Princess Bride, anyone?) into the story.

I feel like this is one of those books that even people that don’t like to read would get into as well, which is probably why it’s on my high school’s 9th-grade reading list. Perhaps we should experiment on a few non-readers… anyone know a fourteen-year-old with too much time on his hands?

Rating: 8/10
(Back to School Challenge, Countdown Challenge: 2005)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon (19 November)

Okay, people, why weren’t all of you telling me to read this book before?? I remember seeing this all over the place a while back (probably, say, six years ago, based on the publication date!), but apparently I never even stopped to read the jacket flap, because if I had I would totally have read this book already!

Said flap (or, at least, the back cover of the paperback): “Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.”

You know I’m a sucker for a prime number.

But I shouldn’t make too much of the flap copy, because the book isn’t really about the fact that Christopher knows a lot of things. Or really about the dog. But the dog is important.

The book opens with Christopher finding the dog, his neighbor’s poodle, in his neighbor’s front yard. The dog is not just dead, it’s murdered, as it has a garden fork sticking straight through it into the ground. When the neighbor comes out of her house and finds Christopher cradling her dead dog, she calls the cops, and a misunderstanding between the cop (trying to pry the boy away) and Christopher (an autistic boy who doesn’t like to be touched) leads to the latter spending a little time in a jail cell. Christopher decides that he is going to be a detective like his favorite, Sherlock Holmes, and solve the mystery of the dead poodle, even though his dad doesn’t like him poking into other people’s business (a phrase that Christopher doesn’t even understand), but soon enough more mysteries turn up and Christopher is left to sort them all out.

I really loved Christopher; he is a fairly high-functioning autistic who is prone to some violent outbursts, which is bad, but who has some really insightful takes on humans and their silly emotions, like so: “All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though that is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs. But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry around a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobahn, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they hae special needs.”

He may like his run-on sentences, but they are so good I will forgive them! There are also footnotes. And diagrams. And an appendix. It is a good time.

The story is really about how Christopher can reconcile the truths he knows with the lies that everyone else tells. Christopher doesn’t lie — well, he has perfected the fine art of omission, but he doesn’t outright lie — and even metaphors and novels leave him incredibly confused. So when certain truths pop up that contradict truths he thought he knew, well, that’s no good. Time to count to fifty or groan or hit something.

I thought the autism aspect was really interesting; Haddon has apparently worked with autistic kids, so I’m going to assume that he’s got a bit of an “in” to the autistic mind. And Christopher’s thoughts aren’t really different from the ones I might have, except that they aren’t as fine-tuned to other people’s emotions or to the dance of politeness that we tend to play. I could totally empathize with his confusion about what was going on in his world, and at the same time I could totally empathize with his father and the other people in his life who simply could not understand why he couldn’t understand.

Such a great book. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it!

Rating: 10/10
(Back to School Challenge, Countdown Challenge: 2003)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Back to School Challenge

I was never a big fan of required reading in school (nor are some teachers, it seems), but I did read some excellent books that way, like The Giver and To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man and okay, maybe I did like required reading. But not Return of the Native. I hated that book.

Anyway. All this is to say that now I’m older and wiser and like common reading, and also that now there is a whole challenge devoted to it! You know I’m a sucker for challenges.

The “Back to School” Challenge asks of its participants the following:

1. Choose! Any four reading-list books [ones you never got around to reading or ones you want to re-read].
2. Sign up! Sign the Mr. Linky, grab a button, and write a post detailing the books you have chosen for this challenge. If you don’t have a blog, leave a comment here!
3. Read! Between September 1, 2009, and December 31, 2009 [only one book a month!].
4. Post! Your comments/reviews on your blog or in the comment section of this post.
5. Check back! Read other blogs and discover what others have to say.

Right, so, totally easy!

Because I could, I found my high school’s current summer reading list on the internets and I’m going to read from there. The books on this list that I haven’t read are…

1. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar (9th grade)
2. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (9th grade)
3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (11th grade)
4. On Writing, by Stephen King (11th grade AP)
5. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (12th grade)
6. Atonement, by Ian McEwan (12th grade honors)
7. The Face of Battle, by John Keegan (12th grade honors)
8. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (12th grade AP)

That looks like a good list to me!

Books read:
1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (Review)
2. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar (Review)
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Review)
4. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (Review)