Thursday, January 31, 2008

Holes, by Louis Sachar

This was another book that I started out not liking and ended up really enjoying. So far I'm impressed with the selections for this year's reading. I'm even more encouraged about what's to come at this rate!

This is the story of Stanley Yelnats, a falsely accused teen who is sentenced to Camp Green Lake to "serve time" for the offense of stealing a pair of tennis shoes. In this camp, the going philosophy is that digging holes will build up a man's character in a boy and so each boy is required to dig one hole a day. The conditions are harsh and the authority figures harsher. None of the boys seems particularly enviable.

I think part of the motivation behind this book was to draw attention to boy's "prison camps." Certainly by presenting a likable character, the author does a good job at pulling your heart strings and making you think ill of the Texas department of juvenile corrections. The camp "Warden" is particularly loathsome and spiteful as you could predict her to be right from the get-go. Everything about the court system seems to be a joke and intends to motivate the reader to want a complete overhaul. While I do recognize the fact that prison camps are not all that they are cracked up to be, and, in fact, abuses does happen - I still think that there is a place for them. Anyone who holds a position of power has the means of abusing their position at any place and at any time. There are no exceptions. Just because we've had some examples of abuse in prison camps like the one described in Holes, we should not be driven to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." I may not personally be settled on "the ultimate solution" but right now we must use the options available to us . . . one of them being prison camps.

Aside from that emotional focus, the book also weaves a good western mystery into the plot involving ancient curses and a really fun mysterious outlaw. I enjoyed the mystery aspect of the book a great deal. I thought the author did a fabulous job weaving together two separate stories into something relevant to our main character. Very well done!

I would encourage anyone to read this book. I'm curious to know if anyone has seen the movie version that came out recently? If so, please do share your thoughts on it. I can't imagine that I would enjoy it as a political statement, but I would enjoy the western outlaw bit.

I thought this book was imaginative and creative and despite it's somewhat depressing scenery, really had a lot of heart and enthusiasm. It's not one I think I'd want to own but it is worth a read.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--W.B. Yeats, 1920--

(I got this one done early, so I thought I'd post my comments on it now.)

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is one of those stories that seems deceptively simple at the start, but then unwinds itself into a rich, complex story that can't be easily defined or categorized. In brief, this is the story of Okonkwo, a man who is entrenched in his own cultural heritage (and more importantly, in his level of success within that culture) and in unable to accept the changes that inevitably come when tribal Africa meets industrialized Europe. What makes Okonkwo such a difficult protagonist is that he really isn't one throughout a good portion of the story. He is stubborn, arrogant, narrow-minded, and difficult to like at times. He is also hard-working, ambitious to improve himself, surprisingly gentle at unexpected moments, and thoroughly in love with his homeland. He is at all times a fascinating character and one that demonstrates the complexity of human beings. Perhaps to undercut any European expectation of the African as simplistic, Achebe presents a character who is far too complex to ignore. He is not always likable, but he is always real and struggles with very real. Yes, Okonkwo appears easy to categorize at times, but he is not. He is the image of a dying way of life, and shows readers that--for Okonkwo, at least--so much is lost when that way of life fades into obscurity.

The passing of one way and the emergence of another lies at the heart of the challenge in reading this book. Central to all of the conflict is the appearance of the Christian missionary into Okonkwo's village and the gradual conversion of many of the tribe's members. There is a temptation to read this book and to assume that Achebe is anti-Christian and anti-West, because Western Christianity destroyed the traditional way of life in Nigeria. And yet such a comment fails to tak the big picture into account. For one, Achebe himself is a product of the Western influence in Nigeria, having been very well educated. What is more, the Christians are not necessarily portrayed badly; in fact, Achebe makes it clear that the first people they reach out to are those who have been rejected by the village. An example is a woman who runs from her husband during her fifth pregnancy because each of the previous pregnancies has resulted in twins--a very bad omen. The children had been abandoned to the wild, and the woman feared losing her babies again if she gave birth to yet another set of twins. The missionaries slowly but surely make progress, bringing much good to the people. But with this good comes the defeat of the traditional gods, which also means the defeat of a huge part of the village's cultural history. It's an interesting problem and one that doesn't have an easy solution. I think that Achebe's goal is not to much to mourn the loss of something as it is to explore what happens when this loss occurs. It is the loss of an identity for many people, in particular Okonkwo.

In the end, Okonkwo cannot accept the changes, and the book ends rather surprisingly on a negative note. But what this does is remind the reader that the story has not been fully told, even today. The story of Africa and Europe (and America, I suppose) is being written every day. Much can still be changed in the perception of "the West" toward Africa, and that--I think--is what Achebe is trying to say. I do recommend this book, because it is definitely a classic but also because it is a nice change from the typical "classics" that fill the canon of Western literature. I'm certainly not going to suggest that it replace anyone but rather that it be added for its qualities as a piece of literature.

As a final note, the poem quoted at the beginning explains the title of the book. Yeats is a tough nut to crack, and I wouldn't say that the poem properly conveys the tone of the book toward Christianity. Nevertheless, it does offer a glimpse of how great a conflict occurred when Christianity appeared in Okonkwo's village.

Cross-posted to Dwell in Possibility.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis

Having recently read Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, by George Sayer, I found Surprised by Joy very enlightening and a nice "filler" (although, perhaps, I should have read them in the opposite order). I am still finishing a book about Lewis thinking that I would like to have been friends with him while knowing that that would not be remotely possible due to the wide gap in our intellects. To put it simply, he would not have liked me and I think I would have a.) frustrated or b.) bored him. I, on the other hand, would have been fascinated -- I AM fascinated.

Lewis was definitely "brainy" in every sense of the word. I used to think that anyone that intense was really overblown but now I think that the world needs one or two Lewis' to give us all something to think about. Without the Lewises God has placed on this planet, I'm quite certain that most of us wouldn't think at all. So I've concluded that although such personality types are frequently snobby and lofty in their view of the world and others, they serve a great purpose (as much as I generally don't appreciate the attitude). Does that make sense?

In this particular work, Lewis spends his time explaining how he mentally came to the place where he believed in God. It is a story of his conversion. According to Sayer in Jack, Lewis wrote so as to work things out in his own mind. If that truly was the case, then I think Surprised by Joy was Lewis' attempt to walk through his own conversion experience and see how God worked all things together for good. It was a self-serving purpose which educated his foes and colleagues as to his mental processes. It's an interesting read, but more so to get a taste for his childhood and personality quirks than to hear what changed his mind.

I realize more and more how much I love to pay attention (and poke fun at) people's personality quirks. I confess it! I do! Lewis certainly had a boat load, but then, we all do! My favorite quirk of his is one that I share. He hated playing games. SO DO I! Of course, he words thing so nicely (in referring, particularly, to sporting games - but I feel it with all games). . .

"Not, indeed, that I allow to games any of the moral and almost mystical virtues which schoolmasters claim for them; they seem to me to lead to ambition, jealousy, and embittered partisan feeling, quite as often as to anything else. Yet not to like them is a misfortune, because it cuts you off from companionship with many excellent people who can be approached in no other way. A misfortune, not a vice; for it is involuntary. I had tried to like games and failed. That impulse had been left out of my make-up; I was to games, as the proverb has it, like an ass to the harp." (page 129-130)

As a non-gamer who married into a family of intense gamers, I found this particularly hilarious.

Sky suggested this book and then blessed me with my own copy (which I, surprisingly, did not own). I really don't know why it is taking me so long to get to Lewis' writings. You'd think if I were willing to name my son after him, I'd have taken some time to get to know Lewis better first. All the same, I'm happy with what I do know, what I have discovered, and what I know I will continue to discover. Lewis was an amazing man and an interesting one. I look forward to meeting him someday!