The Judas Strain – 12.12.11

Saturday morning, I finished reading James Rollins’ The Judas Strain, book four of his Sigma Force series starring the bad-ass Gray Pierce.

No, it’s not high brow literature, but it sure was a good time!  This is the third Rollins book I’ve read (somehow I missed the first one in the series) and while they definitely fall under the thriller/action/adventure category, I have to say I’ve also gotten a bit attached to the main characters.  It’s really a “you know these characters all have to survive everything” situation, which to be fair is a bit unrealistic, but that’s sort of the point – to get lost in a world where the heroes always win.

A lot of people I talk to haven’t heard of James Rollins, and I usually end up comparing him to Dan Brown – his books are similar roller coaster rides through history – but with better writing.  The story line is still fast-paced with plenty of cliffhangers that keep you reading “just a few more pages” but as both the chapters and sections are longer than Brown’s, it gives you a bit more time to inhabit that part of the story, focus on it, before you’re torn away to a different scene.

My dad first got me hooked on Rollins a couple years ago with Map of Bones and in addition to the thrill ride through history, we both really loved that the books start off in D.C.  Our heroes work for a secret government organization whose headquarters are under the Smithsonian Castle.  Needless to say, the other summer when we went into the city for a museum day, when we stopped by the Castle we had a good laugh about what Gray Pierce might be up to underground.

Dad with the American Idol judges’ desk in the Castle… Sigma Forces hard at work below us!

I have to say, though, silliness aside, I really did enjoy this book, and this series so far.  Without giving too much away, ‘The Judas Strain’ is about a deadly virus spreading from Christmas Island that could destroy humanity.  As Sigma steps up to protect the world and face off against their number one enemy, a terrorist organization known as The Guild, who wants to use the virus as biological warfare, the reader is taken on a journey through history back to Marco Polo, whose secrets hold the key to a cure.  No, it’s not historically accurate.  It’s historically inspired.  But it does inspire me to learn more about the actual history.  When I read books like this I’m constantly thinking “I know this is fiction, but some of it is inspired by history… I wonder what actually happened?”  It makes me want to know more.  When I finish reading my massive fiction list, I’m thinking of starting a history list.  I might just add Marco to it.

The Hunger Games – 12.21.11

After much pressure and much falling asleep because my eyes were so tired from grading, I have finally caught up with the rest of the world and finished it.

I do realize I’ve probably set a new world record for taking the longest amount of time to get through this book.  But let’s see you do better with five stacks of papers to grade, four stacks of final exams to grade, and headaches every night!

Despite my snail’s pace (it was savoring… I was savoring the story), I did really enjoy this just as much as I had hoped I would.  Quite a few friends told me it would take a while to get into, but I didn’t really find that.  It’s the same reason I love the first Harry Potter book and the first of The Lord of the Rings:  I enjoy meeting a new world, meeting characters, and going on that initial tour that sets up the story.  I never found any part of this book tedious, even the games themselves, and the fairly simple prose didn’t frustrate me; I know this series is meant to be accessible to a variety of ages.  I think we adults fill in the feelings and details that are not written.

What did frustrate me a bit was how the relationship between Kat and Peeta seemed to be a bit forced… by the author, not the story.  The situation made sense in the context of The Hunger Games, but I couldn’t help thinking “Oh how convenient – they have to pretend to be in love!  What a way to give your audience a romantic storyline.”

But that minor frustration led me to a bigger question: What would I have done in that situation?  In the entire situation?  And maybe that’s part of the draw of this series.  What would you do, reader?  Would you be as strong, as cunning, as fast?  I always notice the things that linger with me after reading a book and this time, that was it.

Have any of you read this series?  What stuck with you?

Side note: I’m about 60 pages into the next one!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – 1.19.12

It took me way too long to read The Hunger Games.  While my roommate Ben blasted through it in a day, it took me a week.  A WEEK.  I’m so ashamed.  Read about my excuses here.

I’m happy to report that I have since redeemed myself by zooming through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I almost didn’t even bother, because I had heard from everyone that the first two hundred pages would put me to sleep and that I should probably just skip them.

False, friends.  False.

Admittedly, the whole background story on Wennerstrom was a bit tedious, but I thought that hearing the story Mikael heard that started him on his adventure just served to develop him as a character and help the reader see what he was all about.  Having said that, once I got about 250 pages in (and suffered through a more horrific rape scene than even Alice Sebold’s), I could not put the book down.  I read so much (300 pages in a night) I gave myself a splitting headache.

Without spoiling too much, I want to bring up an interesting point my friend Clarissa brought to my attention tonight as we sat over coffee and pastries at Buzz Bakery in Arlington.  (Btw, if you live in D.C., go there.)  When Lisbeth is raped, we are horrified, nauseated, pained; when she turns the tables and repays her attacker, we’re cheering.  He deserves it, surely.  She’s reclaimed herself, shown him what it’s like.

But wait…

Aren’t we celebrating rape now?  In cheering her on, aren’t we justifying that as a kind of punishment?  And if we are, is it because we see her as taking revenge on all of rape culture and not just her attacker?  Is that a solution?

I had honestly never even thought of this before tonight, so I’m still sorting through my feelings on it, and I’m curious to know what you think.  If you’ve read the book or seen either of the film versions, what do you make of Lisbeth’s revenge?  Is she taking back the night or just creating another one?

Wuthering Heights – 2.10.12

I stopped by Chipotle on the way home from work yesterday for a veggie bowl (side note: I seem to be unconsciously turning into a mostly-vegetarian again.) and was so hungry I had to sit there and eat.  Seriously, I was starving.  I never really mind sitting somewhere like that and eating by myself because I always have a book with me.  Of course, yesterday I only had a stack of papers and my iPad.  Good thing the iPad has this:

So I decided to read while I ate.  And I didn’t just read anything.  I read a book you probably hate, which just happens to be my favorite…

Yep.  Wuthering Heights.  All-time favorite.  Let me explain.

Most people seem to think that the Brontës’ writing is much like Jane Austen’s – sentimental love stories that are funny and pretty silly and always have happy endings.

… No.

I won’t take up your time talking about Charlotte and Anne – they’ll likely make an appearance at some point on this blog – but I will tell you all about Miss Emily.  Wuthering Heights is about as far from Pride and Prejudice as you could hope to get.  Maybe that’s why a lot of women don’t like it as much.  I mean, just look at what’s inside:

  • Violence
  • Alcoholic rage
  • Unrequited love
  • Revenge
  • Torment
  • Untimely death
  • Almost-incest
  • Blood
  • Abuse

Okay, I think I’ve made my point.  So, now the question becomes: why do I like this?

  • First, because when it was published, it was shocking.  Charlotte Brontë really had her feathers ruffled when her sister created this violent character called Heathcliff.  But as a wise woman once said, “It’s useful being top banana in the shock department.” (It was Holly Golightly.  You know where my brain’s been the last few weeks… New York, 1960.)
  • Cathy, pre-Linton, was a firecracker.  She wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, break the rules.  She’s driven by passion and isn’t afraid to stand up to anyone.
  • Heathcliff.  Oh, Heathcliff.  We don’t know where he comes from or what his story is, but he too is driven by passion and, later in the text, by revenge.  People often think of him as an evil character, but I maintain that his ‘evil’ actions are just motivated by how everyone treated him… like dirt.
  • The narrative structure.  Bear with me while I geek out.  The story begins at the end with Mr. Lockwood moving into Thrushcross Grange, the house next to the Heights.  He meets Heathcliff & co. and starts asking questions of his housekeeper, a Mrs. Nelly Dean.  She then tells him the story of Cathy and Heathcliff as she remembers it.  So we readers hear the story from Lockwood, who hears it from Nelly.  When I read this book, I sometimes forget Lockwood is even there.  But it makes you really question each narrator – how much of what they’re saying is true?  It’s like a puzzle!
  • Names.  To most, frustrating.  To me, a roller coaster.  (One that would not make me motion sick.)  In the beginning, there’s Catherine Earnshaw.  Then she gets married and becomes Catherine Linton and Heathcliff goes crazy.  Years down the road, he kidnaps her daughter Catherine and forces her to marry his son so that there is a Catherine Heathcliff.  Then the son dies and she marries her cousin, whose last name is Earnshaw and we’re back where we started.  Whoa.  When you get to know these characters, each name change represents something pretty significant and even shocking.  With the return of the name Catherine Earnshaw at the end, and things sort of coming full circle, it made me wonder if something like this would happen to this family again.
  • Some of the most intense declarations of love I’ve ever read:

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!  He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself, but as my own being” (Cathy)

“Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes!  I forgive what you have done to me.  I love my murderer – but yours!  How can I?” (Heathcliff)

“And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you – haunt me, then!” (Heathcliff)

I could go on about this for days… but I won’t.  I may re-read this soon though.  I’ll leave you with a picture of the best film representation of Heathcliff I’ve seen, with apologies to Mr. Olivier… Heathcliff wasn’t that nice.

That’s more like it.  Ralph Fiennes ftw.

Side note: Last year, I saw a book in Barnes and Noble called Wuthering Bites – one of those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies types that recast Heathcliff as a vampire.  Too bad scholars had already thought of that and it’s not actually something new.  😛


The Help – 8.14.12

I’ve just finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help this week.  I’m not a huge bestseller follower, although I did read Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.  Over about ten years though, that’s not too many book fads I’ve followed.

I picked up The Help on a whim for a beach read a couple months ago and upon returning home, lost it in the shuffle of summer school.  After summer semester ended in mid-July, I got an offer to work as a private tutor.  My student and I have met a few times and picked The Help as a book to read critically together.

We are still working through analyzing it in our sessions, but I ran ahead and finished it this past weekend.  Once I got about a hundred pages in, I couldn’t put it down!  The novel is told from three points of view – Aibileen and Minny are both black maids, and Skeeter is a white woman writing a book about their lives. I really appreciated the pattern the book followed of giving a narrator two or three chapters and then cycling through them.  It kept the story from being about just one character’s experience and instead focused the story on all black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.

What was really fulfilling about this format was that it allowed me to hear the maids’ stories in their own words.  This is exactly what Skeeter’s book was written to do, so it offers a taste of the final product, which is fun and gratifying for the reader who has gone along on the journey with the characters.  The importance of writing is emphasized throughout the novel, and not just because of how much the book of interviews with these maids could shake things up once published.  Aibileen writes her prayers every day rather than say them, and she finds that can write her stories for Skeeter easier than she can speak them.  The book is about civil rights, but it is also about the power of the written word.

Speaking of the written word, I’ve always been told not to use dialect unless I’m 100% sure of what I’m doing, and I’m happy to report that Stockett nailed it.  The dialect brings the characters’ voices to life and is consistent throughout.  There’s no doubt that the author’s Mississippi roots are responsible for this, but she gets it down on the page really well.

I enjoyed the comfortable and familiar Southern accents, the motivation of the maids, both to work hard and to tell their stories, and Skeeter’s willingness to stand up for what she knew to be right, to give a voice to those who couldn’t speak up for themselves.  There’s not a flat character to be seen in these pages.  You will love this book.

2 Responses to “Books”

  1. Itihas Shetty January 10, 2012 at 5:01 am #

    I haven’t read the series, but good review Erin. I’ll be back to know more about what you are reading.

    • erinlizzie January 10, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

      Thanks! I have a couple of books I just finished that I need to write up posts for – look for them in the next few days. It seems like once I got into the habit of reading regularly, I got out of the habit of blogging regularly!

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