29 April 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl



     Special Topics in Calamity Physics has many of the elements I don’t like in a story. Bratty teens, teen drinking, teen sex, teens doing drugs, possibly sketchy student-teacher interactions, and a teacher who committed suicide (or DID she!? Dun dun DUNNN), but I’m getting ahead of myself.
     Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of 17 year old highly intelligent, and somewhat precocious Blue Van Meer (so named by her late mother who was interested in butterflies and could only seem to catch Blue Morphos). Blue and her unpleasant father (lecturer, professor, womanizer, and well rounded intellectual) have been leading a transient life since Blue’s mother died. She’s been in and out of schools all her life, until her senior year when they decide to spend one whole year at a high school in Stockton, North Carolina in order to get Blue into Harvard. Blue finds herself sucked up into a strange small social group by the maneuverings of the enigmatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when Hannah Schneider is found dead (allegedly a suicide), Blue takes on the mysterious life and death of her former teacher armed only with her wit and cultural lexicon (I actually have no idea what “cultural lexicon” really means, I merely stole it from the back of the book)
     Ok, this is an exciting story. As I mentioned at the beginning it’s not a clean story. It’s also a weird story. I can’t get over Blue and her father’s relationship and conversation. He sounds excruciatingly impressed with himself and their overly witty repartee doesn’t sound natural to me. 
     So, why did I read this book you might ask? Well, wouldn’t you read a book with that name? I think I picked it up (at Goodwill) and bought it because the title of the book gripped me. I mean, isn’t that just the craziest title you’ve ever heard?
     You may want to know why I kept reading it. Well, so do I. I guess because the mystery was so gripping. If the mystery is mysterious enough I have a compulsion to know the end. At the end; however, I’m not sure I knew much more than I did at the beginning, though there were some serious surprises. I mean, you know why Hannah died, and you know the people involved in her death, but the story leaves you feeling a little incomplete. So, I can't say it was a fulfilling read.
     The one good thing about this book was the interesting main character and her relationship with her father. Though it was hard for the author to convince me that this was an actual seventeen year old interacting with her father, I did somewhat enjoy their wordplay. I did find her a little bratty at times, but the father was so unpleasant I couldn’t quite find it in my heart to feel sorry for him. It's not a relationship I would want to have with my own parents, but it was oddly fascinating.
     Overall, I think it was one to skip despite the interesting title and pretty catchy mystery. 



26 April 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins



     April is at an end? Already? Well, thankfully I did finish No Name by Wilkie Collins in time to participate in the Reading To Know bookclub. The book was chosen by Tim at Diary of an Autodidact. This review will contain spoilers. 

Reading to Know - Book Club
 
     This was my first Wilkie Collins book, and I hope it won’t be my last. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Being a contemporary and close friend of Charles Dickens, there shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when I tell you that the two authors are similar in style. I do think Dickens is the more masterful (and also more verbose) of the two, but that is a personal preference thing. Also, I’m not fully qualified to make that judgment since I’ve read countless Dickens books and only one Collins book. Anyway, I loved it. I rated it five stars on Goodreads, so that should say something.
     There is something wonderful about reading “the classics.” It might just be in my head or it might be just a purely emotional attachment, but I feel wholesome while reading it. I feel like I’m reading a great story, written by someone who has withstood the test of time. I feel like the book is adding to my life and bolstering my soul. I tightly cling to a (perhaps mystical, but perhaps not) belief that the things on earth that we find Beautiful or True or Good (note the capital letters) are teeny insights into the joy we will experience in heaven. So, I hope I’m not being too unorthodox when I say I believe reading a great novel, is a little bit like being in heaven.
     No Name is part revenge thriller and part social commentary. Collins spends a fair amount of time exploring the theme of illegitimate children, and how the law is particularly harsh on innocent children for the sins of their parents. I do think Collins deserves credit for not being too preachy on this theme. He is definitely exploring the social aspect of the illegitimacy laws, but folding it into a very fascinating story of a young girl seeking revenge for herself and her sister.
     Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah find out very early on in the book, so I don’t feel bad about revealing it, that their mother and father were only very recently married, and died before they could make a will leaving their money to their children. Thus, their father’s fortune was given to their cruel uncle, who only gave the girls a pittance to help them start their lives. Norah, the elder sister, resigns herself to her fate and goes to work at once in order to support herself. Magdalen, the younger sister, steels up her heart and works toward revenge at any cost. And I mean, ANY cost.
     Now, I don’t think the treatment of illegitimate children in this age was very good; however, these days we have way more illegitimate children. In fact, more than half of the children born to women under 30 are illegitimate. So, in actuality, illegitimacy is the norm. Perhaps if the consequences of illegitimacy were harsher, there would be less illegitimacy? Please don’t hear me saying that Magdalen and Norah deserved what they got. I don’t believe they did. But I don’t think we in the 21st century have the right to look down on the laws of the 19th  and assume we have progressed as a society. Yes, we don’t necessarily have a problem of innocent children being stripped of their inheritance by heartless uncles, but we have fatherless children and high rates of abortion and kids who don’t even know their family background. I think when looking at the past we often fall into two ways of thinking that are unhelpful. We either think, “Wow, things were SO much better back in the day. That’s the simple life. Things have seriously gone downhill.” Or we think, “Wow, things were SO much worse back then. It’s a good thing we’ve progressed so much further than our backwards ancestors.” In the historical profession these two ways of thinking are Nostalgia and Progressivism. From now on I want all my readers to avoid these two ways of thinking. Got it? Great.
     This story kind of reminded me, in a way, of Rebekah trying to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son. God had already told her that the “older will serve the younger” in chapter 25 of Genesis, but instead of trusting God to bring His own plans to fruition, Rebekah goes through an elaborate scheme to make sure her younger son is given the blessing. Jacob, the younger son, goes along with his mother’s schemes and lies to his father and supplants his older brother. Now, the analogy falls apart because we do know that was how God intended things to work out and Esau wasn’t exactly a model citizen, but in No Name we see the younger sister lying and manipulating and ruining her reputation to try and claim what is “rightfully hers.” Whereas Norah, the older sister, takes her fate in stride and sets out in gentleness and humility to make her way in the world. As it turns out, the injustice is set to rights mainly by Norah’s quiet humility and less by Magdalen’s striving and conniving.
     This was a wonderful story and accomplished author to add to my “Completed” list, and I’m grateful to Tim and Reading to Know for the opportunity.   
     I’m sad to report there weren’t any funny reviews on Goodreads to add to this one, but instead I’ll point out that No Name is actually the name of my favorite doughnut from Voodoo Doughnuts, a popular doughnut shop in Portland, OR. It’s just a chocolate frosted doughnut, but with rice krispies and peanut butter on the top. It’s delicious. I actually thought it would be fitting to eat one of the donuts while I read the book, but this never actually came together, sadly.
     Anyway, I have every intention of reading another. Blogger EmmyD put it bluntly by commanding me “Get thee to A Woman in White.” I will definitely comply.

17 April 2013

Hushing Gosnell

     I don't always put up political posts, but when I do it's about something entirely unethical. There is a murder trial happening that I just found out about. Just found out. Like, this morning. The only reason I found out was because I read Christian blogs. Apparently when people who claim Christianity blow up abortion clinics it's a huge deal (it is, by the way, please don't claim to bear Christ's name and try to kill people), but when an abortionist commits atrocities we like to pretend to not notice.

     The last two days I've seen running commentary about the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. It's heartbreaking and horrible, and I cried over some of the stories coming out of there, but more people were killed by Kermit Gosnell than were killed at the Marathon. President Obama declined to comment about the trials since it was an open trial. Who is shocked? Any hands? No? No one?

     There are pro-choicers who are trying to turn this around by saying things like, "Yeah, well, see, this is where women will go if they have no access to a safe and legal abortion." (Cause you know...safe and abortion totally make sense in the same sentence...no) But oddly enough there had been complaints and investigations into Gosnell's clinic, all the way back to the 80s. No one did anything about them. This shouldn't be a big surprise since this was a clinic for minority and lower income women. Since abortion rights were strongly endorsed by a major eugenicist and racist, I don't imagine things have changed that much. No one really cares if poor minority women and babies are dying. No amount of regulations or money will make anyone care, or will make abortions safe for anyone.

     I don't know how obvious it is, but I'm seriously bent out of shape over this. I mean, the fact that I know Gosnell isn't a rarity. The fact that women are being sold their "rights" when actually they are being victimized. The fact that abortion is really just a way to get rid of poor minorities and no one understands that, and the fact that I saw Casey Anthony's face every day for nearly two years on the news or online for killing one child. This man kills countless children and a woman in horrifying ways, and I'm just now hearing about this and this is the 5th week of this trial.

     Trevin Wax from The Gospel Coalition posted 8 chilling reasons why we are ignoring this story.

"Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the clinic must be portrayed as a “refuge” for women in distress, not a "house of horrors," where women are taken advantage of. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that keeps “abortion clinic” away from negative connotations...Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the discussion must be framed in terms of providing “access” for low-income, minority women. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that keeps people from wondering if perhaps some abortion providers are “targeting” low-income, minority women." (Read more here)

    Another blog post by Ann Voskamp was particularly touching and inspiring to me while thinking about this tragedy.

"And hear me, Son — our voice about women’s abortions lacks authenticity unless we speak of male promiscuity. Male promiscuity is about power and pleasure and no presence. Male promiscuity is about sensuality and fertility and no responsibility...And the truth is — We turn away from Gosnell because it’s our high school friends and it’s our sisters, its our daughters and our sons, and our children, our stained hands. It’s our grief of loss and our sins of neglect and our failure as a community. The tender mourning of it is that: Abortion is a sign of failure of community." (Read more here)