Friday, April 30, 2010

The Dark Side of Perfection

I usually review books as I read them but I have been thinking about some past books I enjoyed so I'm going to group them by subject. Enjoy!

As long as people have been living together they have been trying to figure out the best way to govern themselves. And throughout all that time, they still haven't perfected it. Winston Churchill observed, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Dystopias imagine possible attempts at perfect government and explore how they could go wrong. In these books, as in real life government, there is a struggle to balance the rights of the individual with needs of the communities. Dystopias often have a sci-fi bent but in the best ones, this blends seamlessly into the background and the characters take center stage.

Here are some of my favorite dystopias for readers of all ages. If you have a suggestion for one I should read, let me know in the comments!

The Giver, Lois Lowry (juvenile/young adult)
Jonas is an intelligent, thoughtful eleven year old who is apprehensive about his birthday. In his community, when you turn 12 you are assigned to the profession you will hold for the rest of your life. In a community where sameness is valued, Jonas doesn't know what to think when he is singled out to be the community's "Receiver of Memories," the only person who remembers everything that happened in the past. He meets an old man, the Giver, and learns that much of what he has been taught is not true and that there may be value in difference.

, Scott Westerfield (young adult)
I just read this first novel in a trilogy after hearing a lot about it, and the moment I closed it I was ready to read the next one. In this world, everyone receives plastic surgery when they turn 16 so that they are beautiful. Before the surgery they are "uglies" and after they are "pretties." Tally is a rebellious young ugly who can't wait to have her surgery. When she learns that her new friend Shay doesn't want the surgery and plans to escape, Tally can't understand why. She ends up having to make tough choices to protect her friend and in the process learns that there is more to the surgery than she ever knew.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (adult)
The story in Never Let Me Go unfolds slowly and deliberately, revealing its secrets in due time. It tells the story of Kathy, who at first seems a normal young girl at boarding school in Britain. Over time we learn that Kathy and the other children at her school are clones who have been created to be organ donors. Kathy and her friends struggle to live normally and find meaning in their lives. They are encouraged to create art and the best pieces are selected by a mysterious "Madame," who later in the story offers a unique perspective on Kathy's life. This novel is much more introverted and emotionally focused than some of the other action oriented books on my list, but it is more compelling because of that.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (adult)
This is probably one of the most well known dystopias in English literature. Offred, the main character, is a handmaiden for a well placed commander and his wife in the Republic of Gilead (located in the former United States). She has this role because she is still fertile and as such is quite valuable. However, when she has a child it will belong to her mistress and be treated as though Offred had no relation to it. Offred remembers the time before the theocratic Republic of Gilead was formed, when women had rights. The commander remembers this time as well and begins to do forbidden things with Offred, such as playing Scrabble and taking her to secret parties. I remember the first time I finished reading this closing the book and simply sitting and thinking for quite a while. Margaret Atwood has written several other dystopian novels but this is by far my favorite.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I Liked This Alot

When I was young I always had trouble remembering whether "a lot" was one word or two. Maybe that's why, now that I'm an adult, it's one of the many errors that really drive me nuts. I wince when I see a misplaced apostrophe or a misused their/there/they're; I sigh when someone writes "c u l8r!" But it's when I see "alot" that I get steamed. Of course, that was all before I learned to love the alot, a large, snuggly animal which is found all over the internet. Friends, let me introduce you to my new pal the Alot!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tax Day Follow Up

My Tax Day post garnered a great comment from Becca...check it out! I thought this cartoon from Paul Krugman's blog sums up a lot of the contradictions Tea Partiers are spouting.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day!

Unless you've been living under a rock lately you've probably heard of the Tea Party movement. It will come as no surprise to most people reading this that I strongly disagree with them. That said, it can definitely be hard to explain to people why I don't mind paying taxes (which explains why you will never hear a politician say "Taxes aren't so bad.")

So with all that in mind, I adored this article about how and why a writer learned to love Tax Day.

Happy April 15!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Potent Potpourri of Recent Reading

The Scarlet Lion, Elizabeth Chadwick
This is the sequel to The Greatest Knight, which I really enjoyed. It did not disappoint. While much of the first book covers William's rise to prominence, in the sequel he is already extremely powerful and no longer young. He learns that the political battlefield can be more stressful and even as dangerous as the traditional battlefield. William struggles to maintain his character and morals in a world which is increasingly filled with shades of gray. Unlike many sequels I felt the quality didn't drop off between the books. I hope Chadwick continues to write more about that time period.

, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager, Diana Gabaldon
I had heard of the popular Outlander series a number of times but didn't know much about it except that it was a "bodice ripper," aka a historical fiction romance. That was enough to keep me on the other side of the fence until Kasia of Good Finking, whose taste I generally share, said she tried it and was totally sucked in. I picked up Outlander, the first book in the series, just before I got the new day bed for the library. I spent all day that Sunday reading it and was totally hooked. The series tells the story of Claire Beauchamp, a nurse during World War II. While in Scotland she visits a stone circle and is pulled back in time to 200 years earlier, where she meets Jamie Fraser and falls in love. The book definitely has some romance aspects but I really enjoyed both the character development between Claire and Jamie as well as the modern view of historical daily life. I ended up getting the next two books (Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager) as well and they were fun reads but not as great as the first. Still, I'll probably check out the remaining volumes from the library just to find out where the story goes. These would be great vacation books.

House Rules
, Jodi Picoult
I bought this because Heather had read Jodi Picoult's most recent book and highly recommended it. Unfortunately I didn't realize Heather had the most recent paperback and I got the most recent hardback. Fortunately this was a lucky mistake as I really enjoyed it and now the two of us can trade and each read some more! I won't go too much into the details of the book except to stay that it's typical Jodi Picoult, which I've written about before. That said, I enjoyed it and learned a lot about Asperger's syndrome. If you've liked her books before I'd recommend this although it's not in my top 3.

Princess Academy, Shannon Hale
The new blog I wrote about earlier this week is written by an elementary school librarian, so she reads (and recommends) a lot of young adult literature. I've been hearing a lot about the great quality of YA books out there these days so I thought it would be worth checking out. Princess Academy was a great start. It tells the story of Miri, a teenager who lives in a small village high on a mountain where everyone quarries stone to sell to the "lowlanders." Miri is petite and her father has never let her work in the quarry. She feels useless and frustrated at her inability to help. One day a messenger from the king comes to the village to announce that the prophets in the capital have seen that the next princess will come from Miri's mountain. All the young girls are taken away to learn how to be princesses at the princess academy. When Miri is taken away from her family and home she learns things that could change life for her whole village. Miri was a great character who made me chuckle. I enjoyed watching her grow and try to decide what was really important to her. Two teenage thumbs up!

Journeys to Space

The Big Picture has a great entry today with lots of space pictures including the International Space Station (ISS), shuttle, Russian Soyuz rockets, and more. Enjoy!

The Big Picture in Space

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Kid in a Candy Shop

For the past week I've been working nights on console supporting the current shuttle mission. The good news is that it's been going well, so I haven't been too busy on console. The bad news is that I have had more free time than I usually want at 3 am. As a result I was browsing through some blogs last night and stumbled upon Everyday Reading. By the end of the shift, I had this list of books to read.

Library here I come!*

*once I'm awake during business hours, of course.