Wednesday, January 27, 2010


J. K Rowling has capped off her remarkable series with the most thrilling book yet, saving the best for last. Harry, Hermione, and Ron launch a quest, at Dumbledore's urging, to destroy the splintered pieces of Voldemort's soul, without any idea where to start. Frustration and bickering ensue, threatening their friendship, as well as the success of their mission. Dumbledore has left each of them an enigmatic gift that must provide some clue, but Harry has to take the heat from the other two for not having a plan. I think that this book, more than the others, is about the relationships of the characters, and that makes it so much more memorable. Harry really has no one to lean on anymore, except his army of loyal classmates. I must say that the heft of this book makes it somewhat daunting, but I found myself almost skimming it at times, because I couldn't turn the pages fast enough in my lust to find out what happened. At the same time, speculation about the ending gave me trepidation so that I had procrastinated about reading it. Needless to say, my fears were totally unfounded. After all, this is a kids' book. My only complaint is that there are many characters that I couldn't remember from the previous books. Still, this and the inscrutable plot intricacies don't detract from the overall experience that is the joy of reading this book. Don't let the kids have all the fun.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood takes place basically in the same time and place as Oryx and Crake. The two books, with several overlapping characters, are almost like two halves of a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that interlock. I definitely recommend reading Oryx and Crake first. Although The Year of the Flood can stand on its own, there were many "Aha!" moments when I recognized a character or incident from the earlier book. One reviewer wrote that you could read them in either order, but The Year of the Flood is more hopeful, and the two female narrators are so much more heroic and likeable than Jimmy/Snowman was in Oryx and Crake. In The Year of the Flood, Ren and Toby are members of a group called God's Gardeners who are eschewing the lifestyle of the rest of the population in favor of trying to preserve what's left of Earth's dwindling resources. Their leader has predicted a Waterless Flood, and that's exactly what transpires when the plague hits. Atwood's projections of what the world could be like in the not-too-distant future is chilling and depressing, but she peppers the story with vivid descriptions of the landscape and sometimes colorful hybrid animals. I have to admit that I was somewhat grossed out by the various purposes that maggots serve in the God's Gardeners community, but the group's reliance on nature is what characterizes them and prepares the survivors for the resourcefulness that they'll need after the plague. I hope there's a third book in the offing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's vision of a post-apocalyptic world includes a docile, diminutive, genetically-engineered species whose caretaker is human. The human is Snowman, formerly Jimmy, and the genetic engineer is Crake, Snowman's former best friend who is now dead. Oryx, also deceased, is a saintly, beautiful woman and Snowman's former love interest. Much of the story is in flashback to tell us what happened to Oryx and Crake, how the human race happened to be mostly annihilated, and how Snowman survived. In the pre-apocalyptic world everyone lived in either a company-run Compound or in pleebland. Oryx, an illiterate plebe, was sold as a child and then performed in child-porn movies, one of which was viewed by Jimmy and Crake. Jimmy and Crake met as adolescents in a Compound, but it became clear early on that Crake's cold, scientific mind would serve him better than Jimmy's more sensitive, word-oriented mind. The main event in the novel is Snowman's journey back to scene of the crime, so to speak--the compound where the three main characters were working at the time of the apocalypse. Certainly one of Atwood's most chilling revelations is that the drug companies are lacing their cures with newly invented diseases to preserve the consumer's need for more drugs. The book's ending is enigmatic, with Snowman being faced with a choice. I would vastly have preferred that the author not leave the outcome to my imagination. Hers is exceedingly more vivid.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Each chapter in this book is a vignette about a different person or family in a small coastal Maine town. Olive Kitteridge is the larger-than-life constant thread through all of them, although sometimes tangentially. Through her interactions with other members of the community, we gradually get a clear picture of who she is. She is a bulky math teacher, feared by her students and kept at arms-length by her grown son. She's also blunt, opinionated, unapologetic and sometimes given to eruptions of anger. I loved her straightforwardness and her acceptance that life isn't fair. She also has moments of great compassion, comforting former students, one contemplating suicide and another ruled by anorexia. Like all the characters in the book, Olive is multifaceted—neither completely good nor completely evil but some of both. The book also has several laugh-out-loud moments. One of my favorites is when she absconds with one of her bossy daughter-in-law's shoes. Olive is also a vehement Bush-hater and lets loose a hilarious tirade on a Republican suitor. The book is full of heartbreaks of just about every variety as well—a cheating spouse, death of a loved one, wayward offspring, a canceled wedding. What I didn't like was that starting a new chapter was like starting a new book with a new set of characters. I kept wanting to go back to the previous set of characters and find out what happened. The author leaves a lot of loose ends dangling, but at least we know Olive's story.