Thursday, September 23, 2010

Which came first: the fall of society or the burning of books?

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

***Mild Spoilers***

The concept of Bradbury's opus is quite simple: a dystopian society exists in which books are burned by "firemen" - firemen with hoses that douse everything with kerosene instead of fire-quenching water. Guy Montag is one such fireman; he believes in the unearthing of hidden literature and the burning of entire homes and their contents in order to punish those who broke the law. He traveled through life never questioning these societal rules, until he begins to question why reading is so disastrous and a book, almost magically, find it's way into his hands...then his coat...then his home.

The story itself is not complex, nor are the characters that populate the dystopian society. However, the underlying themes are quite complex and really made me pause to think about the society in which we live. In Fahrenheit 451, the government did not decide to suppress reading and literature by banning books; instead, the government simply responded to the pressure of society to sensor literature that illicited a negative feeling in anyone. In Bradbury's own words re: the story, "every minority...feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse."

This alone didn't initiate the ban on books that turned neighbor on neighbor, brother on sister, and husband on wife. The censorship by minorities combined with society's ever-increasing infatuation and reliance on television, shortened attention spans that demanded instant gratification, and a believe that every individual has the inherent right to be happy every second of the day is what led to loss of free-thought, critical thinking, and literature.

These 165 short pages had me thinking more than a book has made me think in a long time! Written in 1953, it is almost scary how Bradbury created a dystopian society that so closely resembles today's culture. No, we don't burn books but we are encompassing many of the fictional cultural norms that he hypothesized would lead to the obsolescence of books and reading. Many children and adults are more quick to turn on a television show for two hours instead of pick up a book; topics involving minorities (any kind of minority, not only race) can rarely be spoken without some group becoming outraged and demanding censorship, and the controversial topics that do persist seem to be of political mindset; and a sense of entitlement is permeating the younger generations. I'm not claiming to have answers, and I'm not saying that all of society is going to hell in a hand-basket - I'm just illustrating some chilling parallels.

A wonderfully thought-provoking book that will definitely remain with me for some time. The 0.5 star reduction in my rating actually stems for the extra afterword, coda, and interview with the author: in Bradbury's interview, he comes off as kind of a narrow-minded, judgmental person...the exact opposite of what he was attempting to promote in his book!

How far would you go to uncover the biggest discovery in the history of mankind?

The Ice Limit
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

How far would you go to uncover the scientific discovery of the century? Perhaps the biggest discovery in the history of mankind?

Sam McFarlane is a renegade scientist - he finds and studies meteorites but refuses to conform to the typical research realm of academia and instead travels the world looking for evidence to support his theory of an interstellar meteorite. He has recently lost face with the scientific community, lost his research partner and best friend, and his marriage ended in divorce. When Palmer Lloyd, the seventh richest man in the world, asks McFarlane to be the chief scientist on an expedition to retrieve a previously undiscovered meteorite in extreme South America - the largest meteorite ever discovered - McFarlane reluctantly agrees. Under the cloak of secrecy, a team of engineering and scientific experts set off on the most dangerous trip of their lives; a trip that leads them to The Ice Limit.

The Ice Limit was action-packed and full of great nerdy science facts, intermixed science fact and fiction, brought in a bit of engineering foresight....and then totally lost me. I'm still not completely sure what happened at the end, am pretty sure that I didn't understand the big reveal about Puppup, and just am not engineering-inclined enough to fully appreciate some of the details. In addition, I have now read several Preston/Child books and while I always enjoy them for what they are - thrillers with a touch of science - I find that they all have a kind of odd flow that doesn't sit well with me.

Overall, a good story with a slightly disappointing ending but the aspects of science kept my attention when it otherwise might have faltered.

Please, slay me. Put me out of my misery.

You Slay Me (Aisling Grey, Guardian: Book 1)
Katie MacAlister

Aisling Grey has been sent to Paris as a courier to deliver a valuable gold dragon statue to a woman; however, when she arrives at the woman's apartment, the woman is found murdered and her statue is stolen - by Drake Vireo. Aisling is now stuck in Paris, the main suspect for murder, and is determined to steal the statue back from the incredibly sexy Drake, who happens to be the powerful leader of the green dragon sept, present at a series of murders but claims his innocence, and is determined to seduce Aisling (you can guess to whether she puts up much of a fight on that one). She is joined by a collection of odd characters including Amelie, a healer; Rene, a taxi driver; and Jim, a demon dog.

This book was just not good, I don't know any other way to state it. The lead character was annoying, her attempts at humor failed miserably and she came off and a rambling idiot; the storyline was convoluted at best and so painfully single-minded that I was begging for a small side storyline; and the supporting characters were all pretty much the same person with a different name. Yeah, the lead male was sexy but other than that had few redeeming characteristics and sexy can only take you so far. Jim was by far the best character, his snarky sense of humor was the only dialogue that got the smallest of smirks from me.

Needless to say, I will not be continuing this series

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An epic saga that is well worth every word on each page

Gone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell

5 stars + heart + many tears + my undying love

I decided to tackle this intimidating antebellum epic novel this month and patiently spent most of one day making a reading schedule so I could finish it by September 30th. I shouldn't have wasted my time. Instead of trudging from milestone to milestone, I flew through GWTW, devouring every word on each page and becoming completely immersed in the life of Scarlett O'Hara. Without a doubt, this book is one of my top 5 favorites of all time and has made a good case for itself for the #1 position. Many of you probably know the story of Scarlett and Rhett, star-crossed lovers of the South before, during, and after the Civil War, but I had only the faintest idea of the storyline prior to diving in - there was something about a plantation, right? I think my complete lack of knowledge made me love the story because I was constantly being surprised by what came next.

As the story opens, Scarlett O'Hara is the 15 year old daughter of plantation owners in the South. She lives at Tara and is easily the most beautiful young woman in the area...and she knows it. She has every eligible man in the county wrapped around her finger, gets everything she asks for, and carefully keeps her cool even though her temper betrays her Irish roots. Scarlett cares nothing of politics or business, these are men's jobs, but as she has single-minded focus on making the best marriage possible, the rest of the county is abuzz with rumors that the South is succeeding and may go to war against the north in order to protect their way of life...including the owning of slaves.

As war breaks out, Scarlett finds her life completely changed; she spends her time between Tara and (mainly) Atlanta as she struggles to survive and not starve to death in the brutal times. The end of the war brings no relief to her struggles but she finds herself unwillingly responsible for several friends, family members, and servants. In and out of her life is the disreputable Rhett Butler who was banned from the societal life of a gentleman and has made his fortune doing any number of ill-advised jobs. He is obviously completely in love with Scarlett but she is preoccupied with making a living for herself to prove her nay-sayers wrong about her fast ways. As the years after the Civil War progress, Scarlett and Rhett's lives unfold in ways they never foresaw.

Scarlett was a most unlikely heroine whom I alternating between admiring and loathing. She did what she had to do, often with no thought to how her actions affected those around her, and did many things with an apparent lack of conscience. She was mean, manipulative, destructive, and superficially selfish though her actions often benefited many people. I loved her. She made no apologies, did not backtrack, and realized that the conventions of women at that time were too silly for her to worry about following. Ultimately, her bull-headedness was her downfall and during the last 1/4 of the book I wanted to shake her and force her to realize what was right in front of her face.

Rhett was equally as stubborn and manipulative but I admired him for being the one person in Scarlett's life her knew her innermost thoughts and loved her despite them. His mannerisms were perfect for a scoundrel of the time and the whole time that I was half in love with his character, I also realized that he was mishandling the largest event of his life. My surprise favorite character was Melly; she was the polar opposite of Scarlett and, while I first thought she was weak and apprehensible, I quickly realized that she was completely aware of all situations and truly was the most pure and upstanding person in the book - a soft shell of a southern woman with an iron core.

Aside from the engrossing story and complex characters, GWTW provided an interesting background of the Civil War as told from a Southerner's perspective. I am by no means a proponent of slavery, but this provided a view of slave-owning and treatment that greatly varied from the horror stories of abuse and degradation that permeate main-stream media. In the case of this book, and I am completely aware that this is a fictionalized account, the behavior of the Yankees who wanted to free the slaves and provided lip-service to them being equal while treating them with contempt was equally as abhorrent as Scarlett's view that slaves were a lesser people than whites but actually treated many of them with love and respect. As Mitchell tells the story, you question what it was the south was really fighting for.

Whether the theme was love of land, love of a way of live, love of a spouse, or love of self, GWTW encompasses all of these and tells one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful stories I have ever read.