25 February 2010

Our Bodies Get Bigger, but Our Hearts Get Torn Up

#13 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Throughout reading High Fidelity, I realized I'm a lot like Rob Fleming aside from a few glaring differences (I'm a 22 year old woman, not a 35 year old man). He likes lists (he starts off the novel by naming the top 5 girls who broke his heart). He's pretty good at being an asshole when he wants to be. He's a music elitist. He enjoys mocking people. He's in a bit of a rut. Check, check, check, check and check.

This is somewhat worrying to me, because I don't want to be like Rob. He's a great character, an interesting fictional person to read about in a book. But to be the female version of him? No, thanks. If I wanted to model myself after a certain character, I don't think Rob Fleming would be at the top of my list. (Now I'm thinking about who I'd want to be... Elizabeth Bennett, Hermione Granger, Elinor Dashwood... that's all I got. Apparently the characters of books I read have unhappy endings.)

The book revolves around his break up with Laura, a woman he's been seeing for a couple of years. They break up because they seem to have grown out of each other, they want different things, but there's a lot of backstory to it, too. Rob owns a small music store and has two employees, Dick and Barry, who end up being his close friends. There's a lot that goes on in the novel, as well as a good amount of past incidents to help us understand Rob and Laura's relationship. But the plot is pretty simple: we're watching Rob grow up. Even though he's 35 years old, he's got a lot of growing up to do. It's not just about committing to his relationship with Laura, but also acting like an adult and getting out of his rut. His music business is failing, but he doesn't do anything about it.

There's a thought raised by Rob in the early goings of the book when he considers the relationship between his love life and music - what came first, the music or the misery? It was pretty clear I would adore this book upon reading that line. I started thinking to myself, when did I truly start appreciating music about relationships and unrequited love and all that sad crap? Does he mean misery as a whole? Or misery regarding a certain event? What was the event that made me disregard happy pop music and turn to Fiona Apple, Bon Iver, etc etc.? You can argue it a part of growing up, but why is it that some people don't need listen to the sad stuff? What do my musical tastes say about my life?

I feel like I can't properly put this book into words because it's too personal. I can't really describe my feelings for it without making this my own therapy session. So I'll end my review with this: The book had good timing and I needed to read it at this time in my life.

23 February 2010

108 Days to the World Cup

#12 Soccer Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper

Ah, yes, another book about sports. I couldn't resist.

"How the world's most popular sport starts and fuels revolutions and keeps dictators in power" is the book's main idea. Kuper spent 1992 traveling the world, interviewing people involved in soccer in order to show how soccer, as a global sport, is affected by politics and culture. Dream job right there. He spends hours on trains and planes and finds himself in countries that the State Department would advise one not visit. Traveling and soccer. Totally my kind of thing. To be 23 years old and say "Okay, I'm gonna write a book about soccer, politics and culture, travel the world and meet some cool people." Well, I bow down to you, Mr. Kuper.

Kuper speaks both to people actively involved in professional soccer and the sport's fans. While I thought that his interviews with soccer officials/players were intriguing, it's when he interacts with fans that the book is at its strongest. It's probably because I, too, am a fan of soccer. I obviously have no experience in running a soccer club or playing professionally (or even recreationally), but I could definitely relate with the fan's perspective. I also saw how politics and culture can intervene with the way someone supports their club.

For one thing, I think the timing of Kuper's investigation was spot on. The Cold War was over by 1992, but the countries were still getting acclimated to their new situations. After the Cold War, the USSR became 11 countries. Who do the national players play for now? Once Croatia became independent, there was plenty of controversy over the names of its clubs (Dinamo Zagreb to Dinamo Croatia and back to Dinamo Zagreb).

There's a chapter on East Germany - how the Stasi kept tabs on East Germans who liked West German soccer clubs. I mean, we all know that the Stasi were bad people who ruined people's lives, but to be monitored and considered a risk to the East German state because you like Hertha Berlin (West) instead of Dynamo Berlin (East)? That, of all things, makes you a bad comrade?

Kuper also tackles the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers - the Catholics and the Protestants. Soccer and religion? This is heavy stuff, friends. Kuper tells the story of a group of fans who don't count goals scored by players who play for the wrong team, religion-wise. Um, ok, fools. I'm all for soccer fanaticism, but that's just damn ridiculous. A goal is a goal and if it determines the win, then I'd think it a good idea to count it. There's a lot of players I don't like, but if they score to my club or country's benefit, I'd still want to give them a high-five.

One of the most important sections of the book focuses on football in Africa. The section means a lot more than it probably did back then as the World Cup is taking place in an African nation for the first time. Despite the fact that the book is 15 years old, it still has relevance. It's interesting to reflect on expectations from back then and see how they sized up in reality. Soccer people in Africa expected that an African nation would have won a World Cup by now. Still no dice (and I don't really see it happening this July, either).

I've said it in papers (yes, I wrote college essays on soccer) and even in my review for Soccernomics, but I'll say it again. Soccer is so much more than just a sport. It's a beautiful game, but remains compelling after those 90 minutes are over. You can go on and on about how much better any other sport is, but try to write a politics paper on its vast global impact and then we can talk.

I liked this book a lot (duh), but I had one problem with it - the US version calls American football (NFL) American soccer. Bad! First, I was confused when Kuper made comparisons between soccer and "American soccer." And then I finally got it. Whoever did the editing needs a talking to. There's a new edition coming out in April. Hopefully that'll get fixed.

I Can Go the Distance Till I Find My Hero's Welcome

#11 The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Hmm. I could have sworn I've read this before. Misunderstood boy labeled as "troubled" when he's actually "special." Enlists the help of his two friends (smart girl and a boy who provides the laughs) to fight the baddies and save the world. Wait, his name isn't Harry Potter? He's not a wizard but a demigod? Oh and his parents are alive this time? Okay.

I'm part of the Harry Potter generation. I pretty much grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron. I started reading the books when I was in sixth grade and the final book came out a few days after my 20th birthday. I'll be reading them until my eyes can no longer see. When that time comes, I'll listen to the audiobooks (I already have The Deathly Hallows). The books are that precious to me.

I'm not trying to be bitchy or put Riordan down, but I don't think the Percy Jackson series will ever reach such heights, despite its glaring similarities to the Harry Potter series. The novel lacked depth. J.K. Rowling spoiled us. Sure, kids can still grow up reading Harry Potter, but he's "ours" as one of my friends put it. Kids no longer have to wait for the next installment of the series. Who dies in what book is no longer the biggest secret ever. It's just different.

Maybe I don't understand this generation's young readers. Perhaps they're all sufferers of ADHD who can't deal with a build-up, it's just action action action. Do they like predictability and lack of emotion? I hope not.

But wait, I'm reviewing The Lightning Thief. My bad.

Percy Jackson has never lasted more than one year in the same school. He's a troublemaker. He's dyslexic and has ADHD (or so he thinks) and has thus decided he's not cut out for academics so no use in trying. After a series of events, he discovers that he is a demigod and finds himself at Camp Half-Blood where all the bastard offspring of gods and humans reside and train for quests that will make them heroes. Of course Percy is a little more special than the rest of these demigod children because his daddy is one of the more important and powerful gods. So within a few weeks in Camp Half-Blood, Percy goes out on a quest to halt World War III.

There were parts I liked and didn't like. I give Riordan low marks (I've been watching too much of the Olympics) for failing to invoke any kind of emotion within me. There are some pretty traumatizing events in the book, but they didn't mean anything to me. I hate to draw comparisons to Harry Potter again, but that series had the ability to turn me into a blubbering mess. The action sequences were fun, but I still held doubts over Percy's ability to fight big mean monsters after just a few weeks of training at camp. He's 12 years old. I don't care whether he's a demigod or not, but 12 year olds shouldn't just be like "WHAM PAM MONSTER I'LL KILL YOU."

The book is quick and painless. I never found myself cringing or screaming at the book. It's a good read if you're 10, even though we are dealing with bastard offspring of gods and humans. Alas, I'm 22 and the book just doesn't have the ability to transcend age groups (unlike Harry Potter, yet again). I'm semi-interested in reading the rest of the series for entertainment's sake and also to see how the whole gods and humans story unfolds. BUT I know there are better books out there and I don't think I need this series in my life.

I've already got Harry Potter to fill the void for kids with special abilities who get themselves into mischief. And it fills the void quite well.

11 February 2010

"C'est quelqu'un qui m'a dit que tu m'aimais encore"

#10 The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's The Awakening caused quite the uproar when it was first published in 1899. Sacre bleu!, a wife and mother who does not want to bear the responsibility of being a wife and mother in turn of the century New Orleans.

I love this book because my AP English teacher shared it with my class in 12th grade. She told us how she broke up with her long-term boyfriend after reading this book because she, too, wanted an awakening such as Edna Pontellier's. My teacher eventually got married to this boyfriend and had a bunch of kids, but that goes to say that this book instilled feminist feelings within me too.

Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother who is vacationing with her family off the coast of New Orleans. She's not like every other doting wife and mother in 1899 New Orleans. There she meets Robert Lebrun, the resort owner's son. And while her way thinking is already different from all the other wives and mothers of the time, she has an awakening during her time with Robert. She doesn't want to bear the burden of having a family. She wants to be able to love Robert, freely.

Once Edna starts to think about Robert more, she tells her friend, Adele Ratignolle, that she would never sacrifice herself for her children. Adele, the quintessential wife and mother, vehemently disagrees with her. Edna says that she would gladly sacrifice the "unessential" - her life, money, material things, but not the essential. Well what is essential if life is considered unessential? I took it as her livelihood, her happiness. I suppose it's one thing to give your life for your children's well being as opposed to suffering in a loveless marriage for them. It's a fine line and even though I think I understand Edna's point of view, I'm not entirely sure of it.

While the book is fairly short at 150 pages, it still manages to convey plenty of emotions and vivid descriptions. The book made me think both times I read it, as a high school senior and five years later as a 22 year old. It makes you wonder about your role as a woman (wife, mother), and even though this book is more than a century old, there's still plenty to draw from it. Sure, it's considered socially acceptable if you choose not to get married and pop out kids every few years. But I'll be damned if I'm the only one who has been told "I was married and already pregnant at your age!" or that I should have a man in my life because it's "right" and it's what I "need" as a woman.

I know a few people who hate this book and the hatred is largely manifested in the book's ending. I liked it and thought it was appropriate. I guess that's what separates the Edna Pontelliers from the Adele Ratignolles.

10 February 2010

The Destination / We Reached It Now We're Feeling Worse

#9 The Have-Nots (Die Habenichtse) by Katharina Hacker

I expected a lot of things out of this book and finished it feeling empty.

The Have-Nots received the 2006 German Book Award for best novel and I found it difficult to see why. With every turn of the page, I kept thinking to myself, "Okay, it's gonna get good now." Then the book was done. It never got good. It never seemed worthy of a prize to me. Fine, it's well written, I'll give it that much, but it surely did not live up to my expectations.

Perhaps I misinterpreted the synopsis when it told me that the novel focused on how the characters' lives were affected by September 11, 2001. How 9/11 changed how they looked at the world. Maybe it's because I live less than 10 miles from New York City, but 9/11 affected me far more than it did the characters. It's background noise to them. Mentioning a terrorist alert or being more observant of Arabs made it a stretch to show how 9/11 altered their perceptions.

The book is more of a commentary on those who have and those who don't. There are three plot lines that eventually interweave with one another. There's Isabelle and Jakob, a yuppie couple from Berlin who move to London for Jakob's career. They go to London instead of Jakob's colleague because he dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. In that respect, you can say that 9/11 is a catalyst for Jakob and Isabelle. Their first date just so happens to be on 9/11. 9/11 happens to be the reason why they move to London and their lives change. But I feel as though their lives change on their own accord. The other two story lines focus on a drug dealer and a violent family with an autistic child - Isabella and Jakob's neighbors in London.

I found the book infuriating. The characters were frustrating and unlikeable. Just when I thought a character could be redeemed, something else went awry. I didn't understand what was going on at times because of the descriptions. Hacker (or the english translator) doesn't mind beating around the bush. And this may sound off, but the book was very German. I've decided I can say this because I'm half-German and have spent a considerable amount of time in Germany. There's a kind of... unapologetic bluntness surrounded the characters. They're not good people and Hacker doesn't try to make them seem like good people.

For instance, Isabelle is an enigma and not in a good way. She follows Jakob to London because why not go with Jakob to London? There's one moment toward the end of the novel when another character says to her, "You're like a black hole, anything can be poured into you and it vanishes without a trace. Nothing shows in your face..." to show how unaffected she is by everything. She's going through the motions in a manner that's so frustrating. She does what she does because... well... why not?

I've been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. I thought it would be a commentary on 9/11 and how it affected those outside of the NYC/Washington DC bubble. How 9/11 was viewed from an international perspective. But it wasn't. It was just a novel about stupid people. Whether or not they're privileged, they lead ugly lives.

Very disappointed.