"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Children's/YA: Pathfinder

Card, Orson Scott. Pathfinder. New York: Simon Pulse, 2010. 657 pages.

"Rigg is well trained at keeping secrets. Only his father knows the truth about Rigg's strange talent for seeing the paths of people's pasts. But when his father dies, Rigg is stunned to learn just how many secrets Father had kept from him -- secrets about Rigg's own past, his identity, his destiny. And when Rigg discovers that he has the power not only to see the past, but also to change it, his future suddenly becomes anything but certain.
Rigg's birthright set him on a path that leaves him caught between two factions, one that wants him crowned, and one that wants him dead. He will be forced to question everything he thinks he knows, choose who to trust, and push the limits of his talent...or forfeit control of his destiny." (description from back cover of book)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Richness of Plot. It takes a great deal of talent to successfully combine to seemingly disparate stories in one novel, and reveal just enough about each that by the end of the book, the reader can see clearly how they are connected.  Not only that, but each plot is fully essential to the understanding of the other.
  • Writing. It can be difficult to find novels that combine excellent writing that can appeal to, or even challenge, advanced readers with a plot that will still appeal to a young adult audience.  Think of it as the general theme of the first Harry Potter book, a young person learning about an unknown heritage and exploring a new, but with the complexity of storytelling and general writing style present in the later Harry Potter books.

  • Characters.  While the characters are fascinating and fun to read about, readers might find Rigg, the main character, difficult to relate to.  Though his father has died and sent him off into an increasingly hostile world, he is something of a know-it-all who is in control of almost every situation.  Given the way the book ends, I can only assume that will change in the next book. It is a minor flaw, but one that might bother some readers.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Grant, Mira. Feed. New York: Orbit, 2010. 608 pages
(I read it as an e-book)

Set about 26 years after the Rising, the book takes place in a world where zombies are certainly still dangerous, but they are also a fact of life.  Bloggers, such as Georgia and Shaun Mason, are serious journalists, and journalism requires weapons testing and licensing.  It's a recognizable yet irretrievably different world.  Blood test are as common as washing your hands, and Alaska has been lost to the undead. The entire world population is infected with Kellis-Amberlee, the unintentional hybrid of the cure for cancer and the cure for the common cold that raises the dead.  While covering presidential candidate Peter Ryman, Georgia, Shaun and their blogging team discover a political conspiracy involving people who are not afraid to use Kellis-Amberlee as a weapon.

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Rich Woldbuilding.  The world of the U.S. in 2040 is not only a believable projection of what our world would be like if we combined modern technology and society with a world where zombies are the norm, but it is described with a richness that makes it real.  Comments from the characters about life "pre-Rising" helps the reader understand just how drastically the zombies have changed many aspects of life that we would take for granted.
  • Plot.  In exploring a world that has reached a sense of equilibrium with zombies, rather than one suddenly hit by a zombie apocalypse, Grant has the freedom to write a book where zombies are integral to the plot without actually being the plot. For anyone who likes meaty political conspiracy thrillers, this is definitely a book for you.
  • Scientific Grounding.  Kellis-Amberlee, the hybrid virus that causes zombies, is extremely well created.  The basis of this book in virology, how viruses behave and spread, and how society might deal with worldwide epidemic, are excellently portrayed.
  • Characterizations.  At points during the book, some of the characters are just a bit flat and static.  This is not frequent, and is usually compensated for by the quality of the plot and the other characters.  This is mostly related to Senator Ryman, as he frankly seems too good to be true at times.  As this is a fact recognized by the other characters as well, it is clearly an intentional choice, and is easy enough to overlook.
Warnings: Extreme violence and profanity, both of which are understandable when confronting zombies, but an FYI that there's a lot of both.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Film Friday pt. 2: 10 Things I Hate About You

Okay, so, we've talked about reading it and seeing the play.  But there have been plenty of movies based on The Taming of the Shrew, and the one I've chosen to talk about is 10 Things I Hate About You.  Obviously, the most important thing about the movie is that Heath Ledger wonderfully serenades Julia Styles with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."  Well, to some of us anyway.  The movie deals with the complication of the play by eliminating it.  Patrick Verona (Petruchio) does not starve or sleep deprive Kat (Kate).  He is just very nice to her.  Though, when Petruchio first meets Kate, he does the same thing.  He spend the entire time complementing her, no matter how "shrewish" she is.  The Bianca (aptly named Bianca) is much more likable in the movie, and since we actually see her relationship develop with Cameron (Lucentio), it is more believable that they will actually be happy together.

It may seem unlikely that a Shakespeare play set in a contemporary high school in California would be successful, but the general plot suits teenagers well.  It works well as an adaptation of a classic work for a modern audience.  Kat's father actually likes her, he's simply paranoid about teenage pregnancy, so he uses Kat's disinclination to date to keep Bianca at home.  And this is something I particularly like about the movie: it focuses much more on the family relationship.  We see both daughters interacting with their father, and we actually see more interaction between Kat and Bianca.  Because they actually care about each other, when they admit difficult things to each other, it makes it all more meaningful. 

Naturally, in simplifying the play and smoothing off the rough edges, the movie loses some of the richness of the play.  But it maintains much of the essence, acting as an excellent interpretation of the play.  And, of course, if it inspires more people to explore Shakespeare, then it has done an excellent job.

Theater Week/Film Friday: The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. New York: Barnes and Noble Shakespeare. 291 pages.

The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic and complex play, and is all the more enjoyable for both of these qualities. Before this summer, I'd seen it twice, but I'd never read it.  Reading it not only reminded me how much I enjoy reading Shakespeare, but it also reminded me just how rich and rewarding this play is, as long as you are willing to think about it.  To begin with, Bianca has much more of a role in the play than I remembered.  It is easy to think of the play as the Kate and Petruchio show, but it is equally about Bianca and her suitors. I also noticed how Kate's father seems to prefer Bianca to her, and one has to wonder if Kate is a shrew because her father prefers Bianca, or if her father prefers Bianca because because Kate is a shrew.  Either way, Kate does not seem to have the happiest home life, and it seems to have embittered her (just a bit).  Kate's speech at the end is certainly infamous, but it is important to notice that Kate and Petruchio seem to have formed a working partnership, whereas Bianca and her husband have not.

I'm used to reading Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays, but for this one I had to get the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare, and I found it to be both informative and user friendly, not just a Folger Shakespeare knock-off.  The notes not only explained words and phraseology that have become anachronistic, but it also placed certain comments in the context of the play itself, such as what Shakespeare might have meant by giving Lucentio such flowery lines ("I burn, I pine, I perish") when he first sees Bianca.  For anyone looking to delve into Shakespeare for the first time, I highly recommend these editions.

As for the play, the director obviously had a clear interpretation of the play.  For him, the "taming" of Kate was less an act of domination and more an act of compassion. Petruchio wanted to mold Kate into, not a more traditional woman, but one who could function in society without being a mean person.  Shakespeare does not take away Kate's snarky tongue, since at the end Petruchio encourages Kate to bring the widow down a peg.  Rather, Petruchio wants Kate to trust him, and he wants to prove to her that he will be there for her. I confess, I care less about whether I agree with a director's interpretation of Shakespeare than whether the vision is strong enough to carry the play (because I have seen instances where it wasn't).  But the director didn't just focus on Kate and Petruchio.  He also had ideas about Bianca and her suitors, and about Lucentio and Tranio. The whole play had a cohesive feel, and every character was important.  When Kate made her speech at the end, with utmost sincerity, it may have begun as a lecture to Bianca and the widow, but it turned into a demonstration to Petruchio of how much she loved and trusted him.

What helped illuminate the production and open new insights onto the director's view of the play was one of a series of podcasts produced by APT this season, called Behind the Curtain.  If for no other reason than it presents interesting views of the play, I'd highly recommend listening to it.  You can listen to the podcasts online here, or you can download them from iTunes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theater Week: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was the only play I hadn't read before seeing it this past weekend, and I think it may have worked best that way.  The program labeled the setting of the play as "the Mind of Raskolnikov," which gave the play a more stream of consciousness feel than could come from a traditional linear plot.  It had three actors: one for Raskolnikov, a second as Sonia and all the other women, and a third as Porfiry and Sonia's father.  The play flowed the way life usually does, with something Porfiry says triggering Raskolnikov's memories, which he steps back into, before coming back to the present.  For those who don't know, I'm not spoiling anything by saying that  Raskonikov commits two murders. I assume they happen near the beginning of the novel, but we don't see them in the play until half or two-thirds of the way through.

The structure of the play, combined with all of the supporting characters being played by two actors serves to focus on Raskolnikov's mental state, and its decline from guilt. The acting required to carry all of this off was absolutely superb.  While playing multiple characters successfully is certainly impressive, it was the changes in individual characters (specifically Raskolnikov and Porfiry) that were the most impressive. When Porfiry came clean to Raskolnikov about what he knew, at was as if a switch had been flipped. He was a different person, though he maintained the same core of compassion throughout. Raskolnikov's decline was raw and absolutely excruciating.

The play took place in APTs indoor theater, a small, extremely intimate space that served to concentrate all of the emotions from the play, making them stronger and more intense. It also created a deeper relationship between the audience and what was taking place on stage.  That made it extremely powerful when Raskolnikov broke the fourth wall and tried to justify his actions to the audience and himself. When the lights went out at the end, I am sure I'm not the only person in the theater crying (including the actors).  It was an experience that will stay withe me for a long time. I definitely want to read the book now, but I find it hard to imagine that it can be any more powerful than the show.  When I read it, I'll be sure to let you know :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Theater Week: Of Mice and Men

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 1964. 71 pages.

I know I said in my post last week that I hadn't read Of Mice and Men. Well, I picked up a copy of the script on the trip and read it before seeing it.

Now, before I begin, I ought to confess that I have never liked John Steinbeck. I read The Pearl in seventh grade and  The Grapes of Wrath in my junior year of high school, and I did not like either of them. In fact, I strongly disliked both of them. So I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about seeing a Steinbeck play. After I read the script, however, things began to look up. I found the plot and characters to be more engaging and sympathetic than in my previous experiences with his writing. And the ending was heartbreaking. I found it interesting that the stage directions explicitly say that there's no need to be realistic with the set and some of the props (such as Candy's dog and Lennie's puppy). Nothing in the play, no bit of action or line of dialogue was unnecessary. Everything moved toward the final tragedy.

So, I was finally looking forward to seeing the play by the time we sat down. For the second evening in a row, I found myself crying at the curtain call. The play was extraordinarily moving, with absolutely fabulous acting from the entire cast. George was less angry and antagonistic toward Lennie than suggested  by the notes in the play, which made the ending even more poignant. I also appreciated the portrayal of Lennie. It would be easy to make Lennie a caricature of stupidity, but instead he was just simple and sweet-natured, with an absolute devotion to George. George and Lennie's effect on the ranch is profound, and they spread hope and make some friends, and a few enemies.  When the dangerous naivety of Curly's wife brings everything down, the tragedy seems inevitable.

The set design was fairly realistic, with a small rive cut into the stage for the opening scenes. Curly's dog never appeared on stage, which worked just fine. Not surprisingly, the stage being outdoors was absolutely perfect for the play, adding the right touch of verisimilitude. It was a beautiful ensemble cast with absolutely wonderful chemistry. I think it has even started changing mind toward Steinbeck...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Theater Week: Blithe Spirit

Coward, Noel. Blithe Spirit in Three Plays. New York: Vintage International. 102 pages (for just Blithe Spirit).

Let's start off the week with one of the comedies, though it was the third play I saw this weekend: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward.  Since I will be focusing on comparisons between reading the plays and seeing them, my posts this week won't follow the normal structure of my book reviews.

In my copy of Blithe Spirit, the play is referred to as an "improbable farce," which is a fairly apt description. A novelist (Charles) and his wife (Ruth) invite a medium to preform a seance for themselves and some guests, as research for Charles's new book. The medium ends up summoning the ghost of Charles's first wife (Elvira). As Charles is the only one who can see her, hijinks not surprisingly ensue. Noel Coward's strength is certainly his dialogue ("Surely even a protoplasmic manifestation has the right to expect a little of the milk of human kindness."), which certainly comes across in reading the play, as of course does the general ridiculousness of the plot. None of the three main characters is close to perfect, but each of them thinks they are perfectly in the right.

When reading the play, I assumed that the humor would come almost entirely from the dialogue. What I discovered from actually seeing the play were all of the possibilities for physical humor. The majority of it comes from Madame Arcati (the medium) and Elvira.  The production at APT took full advantage of these possibilities, with Madame Arcati's seances played to their fullest possible extents. And Elvira took full advantage of being unseen to flop all over the furniture and play tricks on people, such as watching people talk to thin air where they think she's standing. And that was one of the most impressive things of the whole show: the other characters' ability to not see her. They weren't ignoring her, that would have been obvious. They simply weren't seeing her.

The show also had one of those joys of live theater: ad-libbing. The main stage (Up-the-Hill) theater at APT is outdoors in a beautiful natural amphitheater. This means that the outside world can intrude on the play. During this performance, there was a particularly loud and annoying plane that seemed to be circling overhead. Charles told his doctor that he was planning on going into town, to which the doctor replied "I hope not by plane." It got one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon.  It's moments like that, creating that connection between the audience and the actors, that is truly the biggest difference between reading a play and seeing it live.

If you are interested in learning more about APT, check out their website: http://americanplayers.org/