by Lois Lowry

Messenger is the third book in a futuristic trilogy by Lois Lowry that includes The Giver and Gathering Blue. After having read Messenger, I have concluded that The Giver is the strongest of the trilogy — it has, I think, the most accessible and interesting message, and I didn’t feel it was quite as heavy-handed as the other two. I think Messenger was a bit stronger than Gathering Blue, but it still lacked some sort of cohesiveness. The story didn’t feel to me that it was completely told.

It was really good to see Jonas again, but I found it implausible that even given his gift of “seeing beyond” that he would lead a community at his age. I cannot recall where I read this, but at least one reader questioned why people in the society might have these supernatural powers — what had changed on Earth to enable people to, for instance, see across vast distances to others in trouble, to heal grievous wounds? This didn’t really bother me as I sort of decided these books were science fiction. They take place after an apparent nuclear holocaust. The survivors built different communities. We don’t really know what effect such radiation might have on people, but I am OK with the notion that some of them developed strange super-human powers. At any rate, lots of comic book heroes received their powers in such ways.

I found the society in The Giver to be the most believable. The people in that community created what they thought was a utopian society, but in reality turned into a dystopia. The society in Messenger was also utopian. Completely communist, the group helped each other and found shelter and food for newcomers. Then the society voted to close and strange things were happened when they went to “Trade Mart.” Exactly what were they trading away for the luxuries and better lives they desired? Even nature around the village started to poison and attack. I found the book to be somewhat of an indictment against how present-day Americans treat newcomers to our shores and a criticism of our materialism. One member of the community makes a Christ-like sacrifice, and things appear to be as they were before the group wanted to close — the utopia is restored.

I don’t feel I wasted my time in reading Gathering Blue or Messenger, but I wouldn’t read them again — I would read The Giver again — and I think the story was strongest when it was left at that. However, I sense that Lowry is not done with her futuristic society, and I sense an attachment between Kira and Jonas is in the works for a future book. If you read one book of the trilogy, make it The Giver and rest in the notion that the ending is happy for Jonas and Gabe.

Gathering Blue

OK, what did you think happened at the end of The Giver? If you haven’t read that book and you want to, you probably shouldn’t read any further. You were warned.

I was sure that Jonas and Gabe died in the snow — that the house with the lights was a trick of Jonas’s imagination as he succumbed to hypothermia. I guess I’m a bit of a pessimist, then? However, Lois Lowry answers this question in her FAQ:

What happened at the end of THE GIVER?
I made the ending ambiguous on purpose. “Ambiguous” means that it can have different explanations. I like to leave it that way so that each reader can use his or her imagination and decide what is happening. But I do think it is a happy ending.

I fail to see how Lowry might consider Jonas and Gabe dying a “happy ending,” so that must mean the light was real and they were rescued. I did some digging online and found out that there is now a trilogy. I had heard of Gathering Blue, but not Messenger. With the teaser that Gathering Blue mentions Jonas in an oblique way and that he would be a character in Messenger, I decided to pick up these two books.

I have just finished Gathering Blue. I think overall that it is a weaker story than The Giver, which I enjoyed much more. This novel, like The Giver, is set in some future time after an apparent nuclear holocaust. In Kira’s village, people live in primitive fashion — disabled people are left to die in “the Field,” children are abused, and mysterious “beasts” lurk in the woods and will attack anyone who strays too far.

Kira has a gift for needlework and is spared death despite the fact that she has a physical disability. When her mother dies, the Council of Guardians taps her for a special job — she will restore and complete the Singer’s robe. Like the Giver in the first book, the Singer memorized the account of life up to and through the Ruin, when man was nearly destroyed.

I did not find that I sympathized as much with these characters as I did the characters in The Giver. I think I just identified more with Jonas. I could “see” the setting in The Giver. The contrast between a supposedly civlized society with barbaric practices — Release — seemed much more poignant. It was much easier to imagine Kira’s society did awful things to its citizens when they themselves treated each other so poorly on a regular basis.

Still, if you want to be reassured about Jonas, you’ll probably want to read this bridge book so you can understand Messenger — my next project.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir quite like Reading Lolita in Tehran. Azar Nafisi’s book is part recollection of her hardships and those of her students while living in an Islamic “republic,” and part recollection of the novels they read together and the meanings of those novels — how they resonated for each of them. The author/teacher has come to see the two as inextricably linked. As her “magician” says, “You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you’ll see.”

Nafisi divides her recollection across her experiences with four books: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Daisy Miller (Henry James), and Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen). When I began this book several months ago, I had not read Lolita, and in fact, picked it up because of this book (I had read all the others). I found several passages in the section about Gatsby that I intend to ask at least my Honors students to read. I actually came to have a new appreciation for Daisy Miller, which I didn’t remember liking very much when I read it in college.

Nafisi began a literature class for women out of her home after being fired from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil. I found her accounts of teaching Gatsby in the university to be more interesting than her accounts of the secret literature class. To be honest, I found it difficult to keep up with all the characters. I’m not sure if this was due to the non-Western names or some other lack of mine or whether it was a failing of Nafisi’s. Perhaps other readers can comment with their thoughts on this.

In the Epilogue, Nafisi writes, “I left Tehran on June 24, 1997, for the green light that Gatsby once believed in.” It seems as if Nafisi’s characters have a love/hate relationship with the West. Many see it as a haven, while others revile it for its secularism and sinfulness, but most feel some sort of complex mixture of the two. In many ways, Nafisi’s relationship with Iran may be viewed the same way. She describes her homeland with sensuality one moment and disgust the next. Probably the most memorable passage recalled when Nafisi remarked to her husband that “living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe… you make your mind blank — you pretend to be somewhere else, you tend to forget your body, you hate your body.” It seems that books helped Nafisi escape. Books are the “somewhere else” that Nafisi went went real life became too much.

I think this book should be required reading for anyone who loves literature, especially literature teachers. It is a passionate defense of reading for the sake of reading, but also for the impact that literature can have on one’s life.

Note: I’m aware that the review image looks wonky with the hover hyperlink. I’ve been playing with the CSS, but I can’t keep it from working on the review image unless I take it off the rest of the site, and frankly, that would involve lots of color changes, because you can’t tell the text is a link without an underline. I’ve asked for help, so hopefully I can fix it soon. I decided it would be the lesser of two evils to let the review look wonky until I can fix it rather than make the links too hard to find.

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail : A Play
by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee

I am finishing up a unit on the Transcendentalists, and I thought this year, I would try The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail with one of my classes. We are getting ready to start studying it. I just finished it yesterday. I have to say that if you want a good introduction to Thoreau, this is perfect. I am wondering if my students will find it a little hard to follow, because it’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style as Thoreau spends his night in jail, thinking back on important life moments. I liked it, but it did take some getting used to. It was also a very quick read. Some of Thoreau’s lines in the play were taken directly from his writings.

I found I was very curious about how this was staged. If you have seen it performed, I’d love for you to describe it in the comments. It seems that it could be difficult to convey the notion that we are seeing inside Thoreau’s head on a stage. Movies have camera tricks and edits that accomplish the “dream sequence” type feeling, but I’m not sure how it would work on stage.

If you like Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists, you’ll probably like this play. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee also wrote Inherit the Wind, a play based on the Scopes Monkey Trial (and also my ex-husband’s favorite play).


If at times Lolita is difficult to wade through, I suppose the reader can chalk that up to the narrator’s admitted psychiatric problems. This book was hard to finish on many levels. First of all, the language itself is dense and beautiful, but requires the constant attention of the reader. I was unable to simply flip through pages, and I often had to go back and re-read things I’d missed. I wish I had a footnoted copy of this book in order to translate all the French I’ve forgotten since high school, as Humbert was so fond of throwing French speech into the narrative. Second, the narrator is absolutely despicable and reprehensible. I have to say that anyone who uses the term “Lolita” to refer to a sexually-aggressive female adolescent probably has not read this book. It is clear that poor Lolita is very much a victim of Humbert Humbert — a point made clear even though it is told only through his point of view. He is an unreliable narrator. His language, his intelligence are meant to beautify his actions and evoke sympathy from the reader, and a quick glance at several Amazon reviews for this book demonstrate that many readers do fall for his story. Humbert Humbert is a creepy pedophile, even if he is gifted with language. He admits to hanging out in places where he is likely to see girls in his target “attraction range,” which is a trait common to pedophiles. He is unattracted to girls or women of any other age range.

Interestingly, Nabokov’s allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s work really made me see Poe in a new light — a sort of Humbert Humbert, if you will. As an American Literature teacher, I know Poe married his pubescent cousin. I always thought it was weird. After reading this novel, I see it as weird on a whole new level. Humbert excuses his lust for Lolita through allusions to other times, when grown men took child brides. I had always excused Poe’s behavior that way, but I find now that I don’t. Poe’s behavior was pedophiliac. Humbert christens his first love Annabel Leigh (a clear reference to Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee”). I do think a familiarity with Poe is helpful to readers of this novel.

I think this novel is open to both a literal and symbolic interpretation, which is one of the reasons it was stimulating intellectually. Humbert represents Europe — jaded, cynical, refined, intelligent, formal, but also corrupt. Lolita, on the other hand, represents America — young, uncouth, unrefined, naive. America raped and corrupted by the Old World. I think that it is an interesting way to look at the novel, and it works. As Nabokov emigrated to America, I have to wonder if the clash in cultures he experienced didn’t contribute to some of the ideas expressed in the novel.

I am glad I read this book. In a way, I feel like an initiate into a special literature club. It was really hard, though, and I wanted to smack the narrator constantly. He’s very clever, but he’s evil. I argue with the notion that this is an erotic novel. Humbert’s pedophilia is anything but erotic. I don’t see how readers could walk away from this book and feel that Nabokov was endorsing the idea that a grown man and a girl child can have a normal sexual relationship. In other words, Nabokov does not glamorize pedophilia or make it seem in any way romantic — quite the reverse. I am, however, no longer surprised that it is controversial — it astonishes me that Nabokov found a publisher for such fare in the 1950’s. The novel is beautifully written, and even funny in places, but ultimately, it is so sad — even Humbert eventually acknowledges that he ruined Lolita’s life. I think Lolita is a very good study of the mindset of a pedophile, and I shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that psychologists might study it for that reason.

Blackbird House

Alice Hoffman’s book Blackbird House is subtitled “A Novel,” but it really isn’t. It is more accurately described as a series of vignettes, as the chapters do not feel complete enough to even be called short stories. Blackbird House, set on Cape Cod, takes place at different times between the pre-Revolutionary period to the present, tracing the stories of various owners of the home across over 200 years. San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Irene Wanner accurately described Hoffman’s narrative:

For the most part, these episodes operate without the formal short-fiction structure of conflict, climax and resolution; the book isn’t a story collection. Neither is it a traditional novel centered on a main character’s problem. Instead, setting and time serve as the book’s linking device.

I thought the idea was very intriguing, which is what caused me to purchase the book. In execution, it doesn’t work, largely because just as the reader gets to know the characters, the narrative moves on to the next story, most often introducing new characters with new stories. The reader never seems to find out the endings of any of the stories that Hoffman starts.

Hoffman weaves her narrative together with several symbols — the color red, the white blackbird, the red pear tree, and the sweet peas, most of which make an appearance in each story. I started to dread the sight of that white blackbird. In the apt words of Houston Chronicle writer Sharan McBride:

The trouble with Hoffman’s linked narrative is that tragedy and losses that seem moving and affecting early in the book begin to feel manipulative and programmed by the 12th story. And when a white blackbird appears or someone smells the wild sweet peas in the field, you know a loved one is going to get whacked as surely as you do when the camera looks up into the cold eyes of Tony Soprano.

There is too much sadness and grief, and perhaps because the reader never gets the whole story in any one of the vignettes, it is easy to wonder what purpose there is in so much tragedy. I think I just wanted more from this book, as a reader, than it felt like it was willing to give. Perhaps that was Hoffman’s goal. In the end, it seemed that the only permanent aspect of life was the house, which outlived each of her occupants, and was ultimately more interesting than all of them.

The Ghost Writer

I finished The Ghost Writer by John Harwood this evening, and it’s probably one of the creepiest, most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The story centers around Gerard Freeman, an Australian librarian who lives with his mother — a clingy, obsessive woman afraid above all that Gerard will leave her. His only real friend is a pen-friend, Alice Jessell, an English woman with an injury which confines her to a wheelchair. Though the two have never met, they have been corresponding since they were 13 and eventually fall in love.

Gerard is intensely curious about his mother’s past in England at a country manor called Staplefield, where she lived with her grandmother Viola, who raised her. Gerard finds a photo of a strange woman and a Victorian ghost story written by V.H., who turns out to be Viola.

Gerard eventually makes his way to England, where he begins to unravel his mother’s past, meanwhile discovering more ghost stories written by his great-grandmother which oddly seem to intertwine with the lives of her descedants.

John Harwood does a masterful job creating suspense in the manner of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, to which he alludes in the name of Gerard’s penfriend — “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?” Viola’s Victorian ghost stories are interwoven with the plot in a rather impressive plot construction; it would have been all too easy in the hands of a less-gifted writer, for the plot to go astray when the ghost stories “interrupt” the action of the novel. As it is, they hardly seem like interruptions, and indeed, they are so good that they might stand on their own. “The Gift of Flight” was terrifying and reminded me a Twilight Zone episode I once saw called “The Living Doll.” You’ve probably seen it… “My name is Talky Tina… and I’m going to kill you.” *Shivers*

This isn’t Stephen King. This is much, much better. If you liked the Victorian creepiness of The Turn of the Screw, Great Expectations (also alluded to in The Ghost Writer), or even A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which was both very different and very similar in subject matter (which I know makes no sense), then you’ll enjoy this book. Gerard’s mother’s home in England reminded me of the house in The Others. Once you pick this book up, you may find it hard to put down. The ending is a bit confusing. I had to read it twice, and I still think what I think happened is very much open to interpretation. Then again, the best scary stories are like that.

Read more…

The Egyptologist

The EgyptologistI have spent an entertaining few days reading The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips. Phillips walks the fine line between humor and pathos quite successfully, and he manages to pull off a bit of a mystery that will keep you turning pages — not so much because you won’t figure out what happened, but, as reviewer Barbara Mertz in The Washington Post concluded, how it happened. The story is told through letters and the journal of his main character, Ralph M. Trilipush, a man I loved to hate and hated to love — self-absorbed and exceedingly arrogant, but naive — and you just have to admire his determination (or obsession? you decide). One of the major themes of the novel is the legacy we leave behind and our quest to become immortal — a different method for each character, yet somehow it all comes down to the same conclusion. What that conclusion is, I’ll leave you to discover. The ending is probably one of the most tragicomic things I’ve ever read. I wanted to laugh and cry at the absurdity of it. Indeed, one could accuse Phillips of bathos, but then, I think that’s what he was really after. That’s kind of what life is, in the end.

A warning to the reader: this book will require patience. It unfolds slowly, layer by layer, through the words of two irritating narrators. However, it is the preciseness with which Phillips captures “that sort of person” that makes the outlandish events believable. I enjoyed the writer’s style, but it might not appeal to everyone. Of course, you can always read a few pages at Amazon or check out an excerpt at the book’s website.

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of VenusI’ve just finished Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus. Renaissance Italy is such fascinating subject matter that I wonder I’ve not read much about it before. I absolutely devour any history programs about the Medici and the Borgias. One of my colleagues teaches a class entitled “Dante and the Medieval World.” Yes, in a high school — isn’t that cool? Anyway, I thought of her often as I read, because Dante is frequently alluded to in this novel.

The novel begins in 1490s Florence, just as Lorenzo de’ Medici dies and the city comes under the control of Savonarola. To Alessandra Cecchi, the main character, it is a frightening time, as the rebirth and flowering of the Renaissance seems perilously close to being snuffed out forever. Alessandra is strong-willed. She has a fine mind and the latent talent of an artist, but she is often discouraged in using both. Alas, she is a free-spirited woman in a harshly patriarchal society.

Alessandra is married off to politically astute and sensitive Cristoforo. The marriage allows Alessandra to have certain freedoms that she craves, but it also stifles her — Cristoforo is homosexual, and he cannot feel passion for Alessandra. Instead, Alessandra is captivated by the young painter employed to create frescoes for her family’s chapel.

The book was well-written, and I definitely felt as if characters were rendered honestly, with special attention given to the times in which they lived. Amazon recommended this book to me because I bought books by Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland, whom they considered similar. If you reduce Dunant’s book to simply being a novel about art, then yes, they are similar. However, while Vreeland and Chevalier write about well-known artists and/or works of art and their backstories, Dunant has created a fictional art world. None of her characters are famous, and we cannot be sure that anything they created is today the admired creation of an unknown artist, but they do live in fascinating times, and I was easily swept into their story.