Sunday, February 27, 2011

Penelopiad / Margaret Atwood / 199 p.

Margaret Atwood has taken a troubling scene out of Homer's Odyssey--the hanging of Penelope's maids--and woven a modern, feminist story behind this seemingly senseless and violent act. This subject matter is a departure from her usual science fiction that I've read before. Since I am a fan or her other works, my gamble that I would enjoy this one also worked.

I found myself appreciating this short book just as much, if not more, than her other novels. The concept itself is brilliant--how many lines/scenes from classical texts have confused our modern sensibilities but we just shrug and plow on, not feeling we have the luxury of time to dwell on the passage. What if we took it a step beyond and wove our own derivative story from these scenes?

Atwood tells a very abbreviated version of The Odyssey (the subtitle is "The myth of Penelope and Odysseus") from Penelope's view. This retelling reminds me of reverse fairytales: such as when Snow White is told from the viewpoint of the "evil" stepmother. In this retelling, Odysseus' hero reputation becomes a little lackluster under Penelope's perspective.

The story also incorporates the chorus (a convention from Greek plays) to permit the maids to tell their story. However, the chorus not only challenges Penelope's version but even implies she herself is not as virtuous as we are led to believe. Sowing this doubt introduces a multi-layered complexity for the reader to puzzle over in their attempt to understand what really happened.

MERLIN    DBRL   Amazon

Testimony / Anita Shreve / 307 p.

When an author's name appears in bigger print than the title, it's a good clue that the author has reached some bar of success. To be honest, my purchase of this book at at a local library book sale was motivated by the fact that I've enjoyed reading other titles by Anita Shreve.

I did find this book's topic matter to be a little grim, which is all summarized in the first chapter--sexual misconduct by teenagers at a private boarding school. The novel starts at the viewing of a videotape by the headmaster and then flashes back to the past, showing the viewpoints of the myriad characters involved. The chapters carry the name of the characters under observation. The reader is also shown the devastating consequences suffered by nearly all the characters.

At the beginning, I didn't exactly look forward to reading this novel as it was similar to watching a train wreck slowly unfold. Not just any train wreck, but a seemingly preventable one that was caused by bad judgement. The author's narrative style pulled me in, though, and I became progressively more invested in the characters. The story does hold a few surprise revelations.

Overall, I would recommend Testimony. I found it to be a thought-provoking exploration into the complex origins of misjudgements.

MOBIUS       DBRL        Amazon

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Daybreakers / L. L'Amour / 204 p.

Tye and Orrin Sackett, fast guns and close brothers, make up for transgressions out east by forging their way out West and bringing law and order with them. Written by the Danielle Steele of the western genre, Louis L’Amour doesn’t disappoint in his sixth installment of the Sackett saga.

L’Amour brings the reader right into the story--you feel the tension as an impending fast draw takes place, smell the gunsmoke, and (eventually) relax into the wonderfully described western big sky splendor. This is a fast read, and one that won’t disappoint. This is a great introduction to the genre too, if you’re unfamiliar.

Firecrackers: A Realistic Novel / C. Van Vechten / 186 p.


Fireworks is a story that wraps around the energy of a young gentleman by name of Gunnar O’Grady. Man of many trades (though the story seems to focus on his talents as an acrobat), he captures the attention of Paul Moody. Paul, his friends, family and associates are wrapped into the personality of Mr. O’Grady who changes them all--before ultimately extinguishing himself in an unusually abrupt downward spiral.

“You must think of a group of people in terms of a packet of firecrackers. You ignite the first...the flash fires the fuse of the second...after a series of crackling detonations...nothing survives but a few torn and scattered bits...”

If you’re looking to appreciate irony in literature, this book is a must read. This was an obscure title recommended to me by an avid Carl Van Vechten fan. The book was written around the same time as the Great Gatsy. The book will parallel Fitzgerald’s work as familiar to the era, but that’s where the similarities end. I believe there is a copy held at the depository. My copy was purchased on Google’s bookstore.

The Emperor of All Maladies / S. Muhkerjee / 592 p.

Siddartha Muhkerjee, Oncologist and Professor, needed to have a pet project to keep him sane during his residency. He chose to write a biography of cancer.

Written in a linear fashion, Muhkerjee takes us through the earliest discoveries and the earliest attempts to cure cancer to the present day. As we proceed through the timeline, the story takes frequent breaks to focus on a character or discovery or breakthrough before weaving back into the main plot. Sidney Farber and his folic acid antagonists on children diagnosed with ALL, Halsted and his compulsion to perform extreme mastectomies in hopes of ridding malignancies in breast cancer patients, Mary Lasker and her efforts to defeat cancer using her incredible fund-raising and political strengths--these characters allow their desire to emerge victorious to consume them, characteristic of the very malady itself.

I can appreciate how the author understands that I am not an Oncologist--drug combinations, surgery, even arcane dates in time are broken down into lay details and even repeated later on for benefit of the reader. These helpful explanations and clarifications do not take away from the momentum of the story. I found myself engaged as patients anxiously enrolled in experimental clinical trials in hopes of eventual remission, and I found myself cheerless when cancer fought back.

Muhkerjee has an exceptional talent for writing. This book is a treasure.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks / E. Lockhart / 342 p.

Frankie Landau-Banks has gone in one year from being the slightly geeky little sister of a senior to being an attractive sophomore with a heart-throb boyfriend.  Who knew so much could change over a summer? Certainly not Frankie. She’s always felt that her family underestimates her, so when everyone at school starts treating her with more respect because of her looks and her boyfriend, instead of being happy, Frankie is nonplussed and a little offended. So when she finds out that her boyfriend is a member of a secret society that excludes women, of course she will not rest until she infiltrates it. . .
The humorous tone and mischievous antics that fill this book make it a light an enjoyable read, but the struggles of a young woman who is smart but overlooked because of her sex makes this book more than just high school fluff.        

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Zeitoun / Dave Eggers / 337 p.

What to say about Zeitoun, other than, "Read it, the sooner, the better?"

This book was an incredibly good read.  The first part introduces you to Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy and their children.  They're an all-American family.  He was born in Syria, she in Baton Rouge, an American convert to Islam before she met her husband.  They and their children live in New Orleans where they run a frenetic and thriving family business.  They have lots of relatives in Louisiana and across the world, with whom they are in various degrees and qualities of relationship.  As Hurricane Katrina approaches New Orleans, they talk about whether to stay or go.

After the hurricane hits, the levees break, and all the systems in which the Zeitoun family lives are tested: the family system, the communication system, the media networks, the physical systems of the city infrastructure, the bureaucratic, police and judicial infastructure, and in essence, everyone's ability to talk, to listen and to trust.  I will say nothing else about what happens, but if you are like me, you will feel a wide range of emotions as events unfold, and you will learn some things that will shake your faith in humanity, and other things that will strengthen your belief in the human spirit.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking / Malcolm Gladwell / 286 p.

I've heard several people talk about this book since its publication five years ago, but I just now got around to picking it up myself.  I have a certain prejudice against the idea that we make our best decisions when we do not analyze or make a point of bringing additional information to the question.  Knowing about the recent psychological experiments that show how our instantaneous reactions to photos of people of various ages and races are usually painfully ageist and anti-nonwhite makes me extremely suspicious about any argument extolling the virtue of such instant reactions as the best means of decision making.

For the first chapter or so, this is precisely the idea that the book seems to advance.  However, before very long, Gladwell introduces complications to the idea.  Alongside the many examples of elegantly correct intuition, he shows counterexamples of intuition clouded or distorted by exactly the kind of prejudices I was thinking of; at one point, he even cites the very studies I had read, and in the end, he has some interesting ideas about reducing the impact of prejudice on decision making. He also comes to make a key distinction between the quick judgment of experts and that of non-experts, which addresses another objection of mine.

As with Gladwell's other books, there are parts of the book where the connections among the examples seem stretched, but overall, the book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Mockingbirds / Daisy Whiteny / 335p.

When Alex wakes up in a boy's bed, she struggles with the reality of the situation.  She doesn't really know the boy (she knows who he is but he's not a friend...barely an acquaintance.  She doesn't remember last all.  As she struggles with the reality that she was date-raped, something she spends most of the book coming to terms with, she must decide how to deal with it.  Her older sister and close friends convince her to take her case to the Mockingbirds, the schools only real justice system for students.  They are a group of students that hear various cases brought to them by students and exact their own form of justice.  I won't go into details about the whole process and the trial here, so as to not spoil anything for potential readers!

Whitney handles the issue of date rape well.  I was initially worried that I would constantly be comparing  this novel to Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.  However, Whitney held her own in addressing the issue at hand and helping her main character through the coping process.  Many readers will question the vigilante nature of the Mockingbirds and wonder why the main character doesn't go to the police.  However, I felt that the author did well approaching the issue as a high schooler might--the fear, the guilt, the innocence.  Of course you don't want your parents to find out.

This books offers a portrayal of high school as a party atmosphere, which I think is sometimes a little over done in YA literature.  The "normal" high schoolers don't make quite as phenomenal stories (I suppose or at least that's the perception).  However, I wouldn't let that stop you from enjoying this book. It is a good reflection on the difficulties of dealing with rape.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Margaret Truman/Murder in the House/344 pp.

When I was a sophomore in college, in a class about The Detective Novel, I wrote a paper contrasting the works of Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry Truman, and Eliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. If memory serves, I liked Roosevelt's mysteries better back then, and this book by Truman did nothing to change my opinion. Written in 1997, the book attempts to deal with the world of post-Soviet Russia, where the Communists, capitalists and criminals are fighting for control. Congressman Paul Latham is murdered in the US Capitol building; we know pretty much from the outset "whodunit", and the rest of the book seems to consist of the police and other characters catching up with us. Add to this a Congressional page with a really bad southern drawl, and a highly illogical, anticlimactic "climax" on the floor of the House of Representatives. The one enjoyable part of the book was the Congressman's friend, law professor Mackensie Smith, who as the story's hero tries to uncover the killer and clean up Latham's name. But even he doesn't solve the crime; the murderer is revealed while Smith is off having a nice dinner (and getting shot at) with his wife.

The Martian Chronicles/Ray Bradbury/181 pp.

This is one of those books I've always told myself I should read, one of the classics of science fiction. I finally got around to reading it, and I was very happy with it. In a chronological series of short pieces, Bradbury details Earth's colonization of Mars, from our first encounters with the planet's inhabitants, to our eventual destruction of the planet's natural beauty. Parts of the book were written as early as 1946, and it shows an uncanny understanding of how we, as Earthlings, can't take care of our own planet, let alone be guardians of another world's development. I read the piece "There Will Come Soft Rains" for the first time in junior high, as a short story, and its tale of an automated house that continues on even after its inhabitants have been killed in nuclear war was just as enjoyable the second time around.
Bradbury's easy prose and the shortness of the chapters make for easy reading.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sky is Everywhere / Jandy Nelson / 272 p.

I picked this book up (or rather put it on hold) after I saw it on an NPR book list by Gayle Foreman titled "Oh, To Be Young: The Year's Best Teen Reads." It is an interesting view into death and the grieving process of those "left behind."  When Lennie's older sister, Bailey, dies unexpectedly, Lennie is tossed into a world unknown--where she is noticed, no longer in the shadow of her vibrant sister.  Lennie always considered herself the "companion pony" to Bailey's racehorse, so her grief is explosive, as you might imagine.  Nelson presents in a stunningly well-written narrative the emotional process that Lennie experiences--denial, guilt, passion, sorrow--all packaged in a coming-of-age type of story that will touch readers.

This story is truly in a league of its own.  In my opinion, it's a must read.  The language is beautiful.  The main character is incredibly compelling and nuanced (even if other characters seem to fall flat--this one makes up for it).  The storyline is realistic.  It's beautiful. Read it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Iron King / Julie Kagawa / 363 p.

In Julie Kagawa's debut novel, she introduces readers to a world where faeries are created through imagination and creative efforts of the "real" world.  Megan Chase, our main character, discovers on her 16th birthday that there is a whole other realm that exists when her brother is kidnapped and traded for a changeling.  Megan enters the world of faery politics should had never dreamed of, becoming the pawn of the courts and wanted by a power neither know exist.  

This book promised adventure, and I felt that it delivered on that promise.  Kagawa's knowledge of faery lore and etiquette clearly exceeds my own, but I felt that those familiar with such topics wouldn't be disappointed.  She pulls from the realms of well established characters, such as Queen Mab and Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck) and weaves the characters with a modern day coming of age story of a half-blood faery.  

I very much enjoyed the Megan's character.  She was a strong-willed female who persevered through many trials along the journey to save her brother.  Every once in awhile I would cringe when she would start making deals left and right with faeries, something the reader learns fairly early on is not always the best idea.  On the whole, I thought she was a strong, possibly slightly underdeveloped, character.  Kagawa also gives her readers the classic good guy vs. bad boy dilemma from the start, with Puck and Ash.  Puck is Megan's long-time best friend and servant of the king (her father), while Ash is the prince of the other court (technically her enemy).  You gets hints throughout of Puck's feelings for Megan and in the end, there are most definitely sparks flying between Megan and Ash.  Only time (and the rest of the series) will tell which "team" readers, and ultimately Megan, choose. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Clash of Kings / George R.R. Martin / 728 p.

Since I hate spoiling information about the second book in a series when most readers of this blog haven’t read the first, see below for my review of the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones (which is going to be a series on HBO in April!); my thoughts on the second book are listed after it.

Don't mistake the two 'R.R.'s in this author's name for someone similar to Tolkien. While Tolkien's fantasy is about beauty and yearning and the desire for the restoration of a broken world, Martin's is about exploring the depths of (in)humanity. Don't expect the beautifully bittersweet Lorien, prepare for the gutters and sewers of King's Landing. This book is very gritty and dark.

Martin creates a host of realistic characters, warts and all. (Literally. You'll find boils, and open sores, and all other kinds of nastiness.)There are certainly characters who live by honor, or duty, or family, but they are just as likely to come to a bad end as those who are petty, selfish, or cruel. The world is brutal, justice is unfair, and prophecies exist but are just as likely to fail as come true. . .

And yet, this world is so compelling that it's impossible to look away. The characters defy categorization; you have many of the typical characters of fantasy: the noble lord who seeks justice, the bastard with no place, exiled royalty, the plucky tomboy, the cunning dwarf, the sinister queen, but if you think that means you can predict what will happen, think again.

And while nobles play their game of thrones, darkness creeps back at the edges of the world. . .

                At the end of A Game of Thrones, surprising deaths and political backstabbing has left Westeros with a power vacuum that many noble houses are anxious to fill. The Lannisters control the Iron Throne, but Robb Stark has sworn vengeance for his father’s death and rides as King in the North.  Both of King Robert’s brothers have claimed the right to rule, and raised armies to back them. The sea raiders of Pyke have decided to use this opportunity to carve out a kingdom for themselves.  But the series is not called A Song of Ice and Fire for nothing; two of the characters we care about the most are Jon Snow, whose duties take him beyond the Wall, as more disturbing truths about the undead wights glimmer at the edge of knowledge, and Daenerys Targaryen, the queen in exile who has awoken the first dragons to appear in hundreds of years.  

                With the addition of two new points of view, Davos Seaworth and Theon Greyjoy, the number of different characters we follow hovers at just below ten, with chapters alternating between their stories.  Sometimes it feels like characters are moved around just so we can get live journalists, as it were, on the scene to let us see all the events that are taking place, but as always, Martin’s masterful storytelling ability makes all the plot lines compelling.  The series is truly epic in scope, but the characters are flawed and fallible people with a depth of character development not often found in fantasy.  Your sympathies might be with the Starks and you might hate the Lannisters, but Tyrion Lannister remains one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters in the series.  Martin refuses to let you take sides completely, always shading the characters or the situation so that there is no obvious way out. This is one fantasy series that you won’t be able to put down with an “eh” after the first book, and the second leaves you desperate to start the third.         

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Amish Grace / Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, & David Weaver-Zercher / 220 p.

I picked this book up as part of a church group reading program, but I must admit that I chose it because I truly have a fascination with Amish life and culture.  This book tackles the 2006 school shooting in the Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse.  On 2 October 2006, gunman Charles Roberts took ten young Amish girls hostage and opened fire on them shortly before killing himself. Five of the young girls died that day.  The book deals with Amish forgiveness in the face of tragedy and the widespread media attention that their actions received.  The authors attempt to give a thorough examination of the motivations behind forgiveness, while revealing much about the culture of the Amish along the way.

The book gives a very thorough examination of Amish beliefs in regards to forgiveness.  While the examination started out very interesting, there were definitely parts that began to feel repetitive as the book continued on.  I found it, on the whole, a very informative book and an interesting read.  The interview with the gunman's mother at the end was very moving and probably one of my favorite parts of the book.  I was also pleased that the authors included an appendix section that gave a brief history of Anabaptist religions, the Amish, and their basic religious belief system and way of life.  As someone who passes Amish horse and buggies on a daily basis, it intrigues me to learn more about their way of life.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk/David Sedaris/159 pp.

This little volume took me all of one day to read. It consists of sixteen short tales, fables really, populated by talking animals and meant to comment on various human foibles and shortcomings. A parrot tabloid reporter interviews a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig, and uses the resulting article to stir up feelings among Vietnam-war vets. The pig, in contrast, is only upset because the reporter referred to him as "pot-bellied". A crow convinces a mother sheep to try meditation, so that the crow can attack a baby lamb without the ewe being aware of it. A toad, a turtle and a duck wait in a government-office line, complaining to each other about bureaucracy and government inefficiency. Various animals take part in an AA meeting in prison, including a mink who had swapped his pelt for a bottle of Kahlua.
All of these stories are good for a chuckle. Although I prefer it when Sedaris is telling stories about his own family, his dry wit makes these tales enjoyable. The text is accompanied by illustrations drawn by Ian Falconer (author of the "Olivia" series of children's books).

The Charioteer/Mary Renault/380 pp.

A lot of the books I read and review (including this one) are what I've referred to as MULSA book sale rejects. This simply means that the book has gone through the book sale shelves (Ellis copy service area, by the way) and, for whatever reason, have not been purchased. I grab some of them, read them, review them, and return them to be run through the sale again.
Most of Mary Renault's novels have been on classical history themes - Alexander the Great, Greek mythology, etc. In contrast, this story takes place in World War II-era Britain. Laurie Odell is a British soldier, injured at Dunkirk and recovering in a military hospital. He becomes friends with Andrew, a young conscientious objector who is working at the hospital; as their friendship progresses, Laurie begins to find himself attracted to Andrew, but is afraid to act on his feelings; in 1940s Britain, being a homosexual is still against the law, and he would face court-martial if his sexuality were discovered. Laurie is sent to a hospital in a neighboring town to undergo medical treatment; while there he becomes reacquainted with Ralph, a classmate from his public-school days. Ralph had been kicked out of school under a cloud of suspicion, and Laurie discovers that the reason for his expulsion was that he had been in a relationship with another male student. Laurie is torn between his feelings for Ralph and his affections for Andrew. The novel also deals with feelings toward homosexuals in the mid-20th century, and shows the fine line that gays (in and out of uniform) had to walk during this time.
While I enjoyed reading this book, there are parts that were confusing to me. Some of the slang that was used by various groups in the book (public-school students, soldiers, gays) and even, to some extent, everyday British speech were difficult to understand, and made for slow going at the beginning of the book. The very British habit of not speaking of "difficult" subjects leads to a lot of vague and confusing conversations; I tried to work some of these things out through the surrounding context, but in some instances I was left wondering what was being discussed. One of Laurie's fellow patients attempts to let Laurie know that he's aware of Laurie's sexuality and his relationship with Andrew, and that he's OK with it, but I only figured this out a couple chapters later, by other conversations they have. In fact, the reasons for Laurie's final decision between his two suitors is still a bit cloudy for me due to the vagueness of dialogue.
Overall, though, I did enjoy this book, for the way it tackled such difficult subjects as homosexuality and conscientious objection.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The People of Sparks / Jean DuPrau / 338 p.

In this sequel to the juvenile fiction book The City of Ember, Jean DuPrau explores the post-apocalyptic world that is Earth after multiple wars and plagues have struck.  The "Emberites," having discovered a way out of their underground, dying city, must now find their way in a bright, hot world that they know nothing about. The former citizens of Ember stumble into the village of Sparks, a small town that has finally managed to begin flourishing on its own after the great disasters of the past.  The villagers graciously agree to take the Emberites into their village and help them learn how to build and farm for six months.  Tensions grow between the two groups sparking conflict and accusations on both sides.  As tension mounts, violence escalates until disaster strikes.

This series follows a very straightforward, post-apocalyptic world storyline.  The author does, I believe, a fantastic job in presenting such a topic in a way that young readers can grasp.  The main characters and heros are pre-teens who make tough decisions; it is easy to identify with their struggles for acceptance among peers and to make difficult decisions. I enjoyed this novel as an audiobook.  The narrator was very pleasing to listen to on my daily commute.  The recording company has included small sound effects in the background here and there, which are a pleasant addition that don't deter from the reading/listening experience.  The only problem I had was the the copy I borrowed from the public library had a lot of scratches and skipped frequently. Not a single disk was left unscathed! I suppose this is an expected occurrence when borrowing children's audiobooks, but I would recommend either reading the book or obtaining the audio from elsewhere (DBRL also offers the downloadable audio version of this--I suppose that would have been a better choice.)

The Lost Saint / Bree Despain / 404 p.

This is the second "Dark Divine" series by Bree DeSpain (preceded by The Dark Divine" and to be followed with Book 3 in December).  This series falls into the current young adult trend in publishing books with somewhat mopey female leads and exceptionally good looking "bad boy" male leads...who are generally supernatural in some way.  In this case, Despain has entered the world of werewolves and in her new take on the supernatural world, our main character, Grace, "cured" her boyfriend (in book 1), Daniel, of being a werewolf and has now inherited the powers herself. The second books opens with her struggle to control her new-found powers.  When a new Urbat (Despain's term for werewolves -- "Hounds of Heaven") comes to town and offers to train Grace to use her powers to fight evil, her relationship with her boyfriend and family are threatened as well as her grip on humanity.  Her new "trainer," Talbot, teaches her to access her powers through fear and anger and leads her down a dark path she doesn't even know she is on--one where she will eventually lose herself to the wolf and fall into the trap of those she is trying to stop.

I enjoy the world that Despain has created and find her writing style captivating.  The story pulled me in and genuinely kept my attention (which has been a difficult task as of late).  This book fits well into the currently popular werewolf/vampire literature for young adults. It is definitely a book where you need to read the first to understand/follow the second.  Despain has also ended this with quite the cliffhanger. You can't finish this book and not immediately want to pick up the next book. I won't say that this is the most enticing YA book that I've read in the last year, but it is definitely worth the time of readers who enjoy YA paranormal romance stories (and are slightly sick of sparkly vampires).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Ugly Little Boy / Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg / 387 p.

This novel is a 1992 expansion of Isaac Asimov's 1958 short story by the same name, by Asimov and equally famous sci-fi author Robert Silverberg.  The premise is that a private company has found a way to take a Neanderthal boy 40,000 years into the future, which in this case is around 2100, and it rapidly becomes clear that there are, well, issues with that, to use a properly 1990's word.  Most of the story is narrated by one Miss Fellowes, the woman hired to be a sort of full-time nurse for the boy.  There are also "interchapters" from the perspective of the Neanderthal group from which the boy is plucked.

I found the book a bit of a curiosity.  The authors' attempts to reconcile 1958 and 1992 gender norms in the ways the 21st-century characters relate to one another in thought, word and deed ranged from semi-believable to amusing to downright unmotivated.  And speaking of gender and unmotivated, what is the deal with Dr. Marianne Levien?  Her character raises a good many unanswered questions in the first chapter, and she resurfaces, tantalizingly, toward the end, only to play no role whatsoever in what eventually happens. Is her entire function in the novel to embody the "cold bitch" stereotype?  Seriously?  The themes of ugliness and other-ness and the rarity and value of humans' ability to comprehend one another accurately are still themes that shine through and help make up for some of this weirdness, though.

The remake I'd really like to see of this story would involve reconstructing a Neanderthal child genetically, rather than actually grabbing him from the past.  That would eliminate some of the problems that the fictional scientists inexplicably (to me) fail to plan for, in this story while allowing other, more subtle and interesting issues to arise.

Monday, February 7, 2011

No Exit and Three Other Plays/Jean-Paul Sartre/281 pp.

A friend saw that I was reading this book and asked, "Why are you reading Sartre? Life too pleasant for you right now?" I responded that I'd heard a lot about Sartre, but had never read any of his work and wanted to try him out. This volume left me with mixed feelings toward the author.
This collection consists of four plays written by Sartre: The first, No Exit is a conversation among three people who have recently died and found themselves in hell. However, instead of the whips and torture they expected, their punishment is to sit in a locked drawing room and talk with each other for eternity. The second play, The Flies, takes us to the ancient Greek city of Argos, where Orestes has returned to take his vengeance on his stepfather and mother for killing his father, Agamemnon. He meets his sister, Electra, the Furies, and even Zeus himself. The third play, Dirty Hands, takes place in a small Eastern European country during World War II; a member of the local Communist group is given the mission of assassinating a fellow party member. Finally, in the fourth piece, The Respectful Prostitute, a young woman in the 1940s American South is asked to testify that a black man tried to rape her. If she doesn't, she will be exposed as a prostitute and run out of town.
Of the four works, I enjoyed No Exit the most. All the action takes place in one room, as the three characters reveal the causes of their deaths, and the actions that have led them to their punishment in hell. The play that I least liked was The Flies; the concept that the residents of Argos are ritually punishing themselves for the murder of their king, and that Zeus and the Furies are feeding off of their self-loathing and depression, was disturbing to me. Also, the play assumes a familiarity with the Orestes/Electra story that I didn't already have.
Two of the works (The Flies and The Respectful Prostitute) mention specifically that they were translated by others; if Sartre himself translated the other two plays, or if he wrote them in English, both he and the other translators did a good job of putting them into language that fits well with the locale and personalities of the characters.