Tag Archive | great prose

Sarah Negovetich’s “Rite of Rejection”

51PgU1YZfUL._UY250_[1]Sarah Negovetich’s Rite of Rejection is a YA novel set in an imaginary society ruled by a leader named “Cardinal” with absolute power. The author masterfully depicts a country with a totalitarian regime (reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany) where its citizens are so brainwashed that they follow their leader unconsciously, like sheep. Not because they don’t have a mind of their own, but because they’re so enamored by Cardinal’s personality and his ideas that they wholeheartedly trust his “wisdom” and his supposed “devotion” to the well-being of the nation. (Here’s a classic example of the personality cult for you.) When, in an attempt to cleanse the country of criminals, the government designs a machine capable of sorting out the “good” citizens from the “bad” ones and sending the latter to a penal colony for the rest of their lives, no one has any doubt in the faultlessness of the Machine. Even those “rejects” who have never done anything wrong sincerely believe that they might have a propensity for committing a crime, just like the Machine has “predicted.”

That’s how sixteen-year-old Rebecca Collins feels when she, a good girl, is ripped from her family and home and exiled to the PIT, a place of no return. It happens right before the Acceptance ceremony, the biggest event in her life, when she’s about to be welcomed into the society as an adult. After she goes through the Machine (which is just a routine procedure in her mind), she will attend a celebratory ball, where she will dance with eligible bachelors, and, hopefully, with her future husband. (Yes, in this country, a woman’s role is limited to being a wife and mother.)

But Rebecca’s high expectations are crushed when the Machine rejects her. She’s in the PIT now, living in wretched conditions, among “criminals” like herself and actual hardcore criminals. She is confused and scared. How will she survive? Will she survive? Fortunately, she meets other teens who become her friends and who reveal the truth about the Cardinal’s “just” and indisputable policies.

There’s yet another test for Rebecca to go through, this time in order to prove her worthiness and loyalty to her new friends; there’s a love triangle; there’s an attempt to escape; there’s a vital-for-survival friendship and there’s an unfathomable betrayal… And, of course, there’s nail-biting tension all throughout the novel.

Will Rebecca and her friends free themselves of the abject existence in this hellhole? And if they do, where will they go? They can’t go back to their home after all.

Rite of Rejection is so interesting that I read it in one setting. I was disappointed with it ending on a cliffhanger, but I assumed Sarah Negovetich would write a sequel. I do hope that she will.

Favorite line: “There’s freedom that comes with words that don’t fall into perfect measurements or even stitches.”

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Brian Winter’s “Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien”

61fT6UbTSFL[1]Argentine tango. It’s rhythmic and pulse-quickening. It’s melancholic, nostalgic, and soulful. It’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s beautiful. And it’s addictive.

So addictive that my daughter became obsessed with it just after a few beginner classes. I was envious. And became obsessed too—with watching tango on YouTube. 🙂

Then I looked for a book on this dance, and I found a treasure.

Brian Winter’s Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a memoir describing his obsession with tango during the four years that he spent in Buenos Aires after his graduation from college.

How does he end up in Buenos Aires? Well, unlike his classmates landing sixty-hour jobs at big corporations, Brian wants “to measure himself as a man by putting himself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it.” He wants to move to a place where “things still happened,” things like rallies and riots and revolutions. See, his ambition is to become a journalist—someday. So maybe he’ll find the material worth reporting—someplace. He chooses Argentina for his adventure, and that’s what he gets—an adventure.

Since the economy in Argentina is at its lowest in the year 2000, Brian can’t find employment at an American corporation or at school as an English instructor, so he spends his days wandering around Buenos Aires, exploring. That is, until he meets a man passionate about tango. When Brian gets acquainted with other people, he discovers that all Argentines are passionate about tango. It is their dance! It is the soul of their country! Shouldn’t Brian give it a try, too? After all, when you go to another country, don’t “you look for the soul of that country, for the roots?” Hell, yes!

So Brian, presumably with no talent for dance, picks up tango and falls in love with it. He dances his feet off in a bar called Nino Bien, night after night after night.

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is filled with accounts of milongas, as well as descriptions of Brian’s private lessons he took from a beautiful instructor, Mariela.

Brian becomes so obsessed with tango that he buys books galore, researching its origin and evolution.

Which makes this memoir so remarkable. In it, Winter draws parallels between the destiny of tango and political life in Argentina throughout history, pointing out that tango’s popularity or decline depended heavily on the country’s prosperity or turbulence. Still, Argentines have always loved their dance so much that their milongas were impervious to the crisis. Each time tango went nearly extinct, it was resurrected like a phoenix from ashes.

Winter also dwells on the reaction to the dance in other countries—whether it was loved or spurned. The Catholic Church of New York, for instance, called tango “wild and shameless.” In the French port of Marseille, in 1906, where the crew of an Argentine frigate performed their dance, “the tango was immediately denounced as criminal, lascivious, and immoral; in other words, it was an instant sensation.” 🙂

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a fun read, filled with fascinating facts about Argentina, its history, people, and tango. Winter tells his story with self-deprecating humor. His love for tango and the country made me want to go to Argentina. But I can’t dance! Why don’t I learn how? I’ve learned these beautiful terms—cabaceo and barrida and gancho—for starters.

So I signed up for tango classes. 🙂

My favorite lines: “The tango is not an athletic competition. It depends above all on your ability as a man to show the woman what to do, to guide her, to make her feel comfortable, to make her feel like a woman.” 53

“Against all odds, people kept coming back to the tango, a century-old dance that had gone out of style in the 1950s. There was no logical way to explain it. It must have been that damn embrace.” 233

Alan Brennert’s “Moloka’i”

Pix_Molokai_Rev_6.2011[1]We didn’t have the scare of Ebola last year yet, but as if by premonition, someone in my book club suggested that we discuss Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i this year. How timely, because as I was reading Brennert’s novel about people suffering and dying from leprosy, and the overall fright and panic at the possibility of being infected by the terrible disease, I couldn’t help but think about the fear of Ebola that the world is now experiencing.

Moloka’i is a riveting saga of the life of Rachel Kalama, a Honolulu native, from 1891 till her death in 1970. She is the daughter of a sailor who spends several months at a time in far-away countries, from where he brings her exotic dolls as gifts. A precocious child interested in geography, Rachel dreams about visiting those places someday, too. But this is not to be. In 1891, at the age of seven, she contracts leprosy. She is ripped out of her home and shipped to a quarantined colony for leprosy patients on the island of Moloka’i. Thus not only are her dreams crushed, but her very existence is now precarious: Will she be cured and leave this place someday, or will she share the fate of her unfortunate friends who are dying young from the disease?

But there is no cure, because “leprosy at present eludes doctors’ understanding.” Since it is contagious, there’s panic among the population. And stigma against the unlucky ones. But the sick aren’t the only victims. This horrible disease takes its toll on their families, too. Siblings of a sick child are shunned at school and in the neighborhood, parents and relatives lose their jobs and are ostracized.

Parents’ sacrifices! One mother chooses to give up on her sick child in order to save her other children, uprooting them from their home and moving to another town where the stigma won’t ruin their lives. Another mother leaves her children with their grandparents, practically abandoning them for good, so that she could tend to her sick husband in the colony, thus sacrificing herself. A father desperately wishes to be a leper so that he can join his daughter on the island.

Can you judge one or another? Not really. You understand each of them, for each one makes their decision out of love and out of despondency.

Alan Brennert describes in vivid detail the tragedy that has befallen the sick in the settlement—their deplorable living conditions, their meager provisions, their deteriorating health, their shattered lives, and worst of all, their isolation from the outside world. They feel even more disadvantaged than prisoners who are jailed for life, because they can’t have visitors.

If doctors are helpless in understanding the causes of leprosy, then how can the sick comprehend the reason why they’re stricken with it? They wonder if “the sickness comes from the soul, from a person’s past actions and state of mind.” 180 Yet, they cling to life, despite death staring into their faces, and their zest for life, perseverance, faith, and strength are admirable.

Alan Brennert is a very gifted writer. Moloka’i is rich in memorable characters, beautiful description of the scenery, and historical information based on extensive research.

Highly recommend.

Paulo Coelho’s “Adultery”

9781101874097.225x225-75[1]Paulo Coelho’s Adultery is a story of a woman in her thirties who has everything—head-turning looks, a good education, a successful career as a journalist, a loving husband and two children. Her husband is one of the richest people in Switzerland and, after ten years of marriage, he is still “madly in love with her.” They eat at expensive restaurants, they travel abroad, and they socialize with the crème de la crème of Geneva’s society. In short, Linda has everything any other woman would kill for. Yet she doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and get going. What’s the matter?

Linda is depressed.

However, she doesn’t understand the nature of her problem until she interviews a writer who admits that he prefers a life of passion and danger to a life of happiness and satisfaction. This admission makes Linda realize that the root of her dissatisfaction with her life is her boring routine—going through the same things every day over and over and over again. It occurs to her that she never takes risks; she always goes with the flow. That has to stop. She has to shake things up. Yes, she loves her husband, and he loves her, but is love alone enough? She needs a change. She wants a change. Desperately.

What happens next is obvious—even the novel’s title suggests the obvious.

Adultery.

For the first hundred pages you commiserate with Linda, because she’s suffering and she isn’t passively accepting her condition but trying to understand it and to find the cure. She makes appointments with one psychiatrist after another, explaining to them what is happening to her, “begging them to help her control the monster that is rising up and threatening to escape her control.” 139

You sympathize with her because her dissatisfaction with the sameness, her need to question her role in life, and her search for the meaning of life, resonate with many of us. Especially with those of us who are, or have been, depressed. We may condemn adultery, but we still try to understand the reason behind it. Especially if we find the person committing it sympathetic.

Well…

After a hundred pages, my attitude toward Linda changed drastically. I disliked her for her actions, and then, after I learned about a certain streak in her personality, I hated her.

Linda justifies her actions (other than adultery) by examples from history and literature, saying that “…good and evil coexist in all people….when we release our dark side, it will completely overshadow the best in us…. That is how dictators are born.” 136

“Everyone has a dark side. Everyone wants a taste of absolute power. I read stories of torture and war and see that those who inflict suffering are driven by an unknown monster when they’re able to exert power, but turn into docile fathers, servants of the homeland, and excellent husbands when they return home.” 130

She’s right about the inherent duality in all of us. But not all of us act on our dark side, especially those of us who are as educated and well-read as she is, and are capable of assessing the situation.

Practically all writers claim that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist sympathetic, he won’t be interested in reading the story. I totally agree. Once I started to despise Linda, I stopped caring about her “suffering.”

I kept reading Adultery only because Paulo Coelho  is a fine writer, and I like his philosophical take on love, life, marriage, and values. And because I love his novels The Alchemist and The Zahir.

Favorite line: “Love isn’t just a feeling; it’s an art. And like any art, it takes not only inspiration, but also a lot of work.” 187

Karen Essex’s “Leonardo’s Swans”

leonardoswansbook[1]When I read the last paragraph of Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex, I said one word: Wow!

But when I first read the opening of the prologue, I thought, Huh? The ending is not just predictable, but revealed—in the first paragraph! So why should I read further?

Ah, but I’m a sucker for a beautiful language, and Karen Essex‘s  language shines—in the first lines!

So I kept reading.

The prologue describes a scene of mourning, taking place in the noble family’s crypt. Leaning over a marble figure of her sister, who died a few years ago at the age of twenty-one, Isabella is whispering to Beatrice about the things that she, Isabella, has endured and has yet to endure, calling herself “a figure on a chessboard of poison.” She reminds her deceased sister about the games they used to play and about their fierce rivalry both in games and in love. Isabella mentions Beatrice’s husband, Ludovico, rotting in a French prison, and the French now “tramping Italy,” and her own plan to attend King Louis’s ball tonight—thus telling me the reader not only about their personal problems but about the drama of their country. The fact that she’s whispering, afraid of being overheard and reported as a traitor, underscores the point that the danger is still present.

Isabella’s revelation grabbed my attention. I was intrigued by the sisters’ contradictory relationship. I wanted to learn about their lives and the events leading to this sad, tragic point. I wanted to know why Beatrice died so young, and why Isabella, while mourning her death, still considers it a blessing—for Beatrice. And of course, the Renaissance period in Italy, where the world greatest artists created, has always interested me, as well as the intrigues in kings’ courts.

I was hooked.

So I kept reading Leonardo’s Swans, this fascinating story of two incredible women, two sisters of the Renaissance, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, both young, beautiful, bright, ambitious, well-educated, accomplished, strong-willed, and pretty famous and influential in Italy in the 15th-16th centuries.

The novel is filled with intrigue, suspense, love, lust, and verbal sparring. Karen Essex masterfully draws the image of Leonardo da Vinci—as a painter, a scientist, and as a person. I was lost in the 15th century Italy, which wasn’t a unified country as we know it now, but a numerous separate lands feuding with each other. But what fascinated me most, however, was the maturity of Isabel and Beatrice. With a short lifespan (40 years on the average), girls were betrothed at the age of 5 or 6, to be married ten years later. But young maidens from noble families were so accomplished by the time they became wives—speaking several languages, writing and reciting poetry, playing musical instruments, acquiring equestrian skills, as well as oratory ones, and whatnot–I thought that the level of education during the Renaissance, for nobility at least, was quite impressive.

Anyway, I enjoyed Leonardo’s Swans immensely and I’d like to add to my aforementioned word, Wow, this: If you like historical fiction, this novel will appeal to you; if you like historical fiction portraying a renowned Renaissance artist, this novel will certainly satisfy your interest; but if you like historical fiction portraying a renowned artist and strong-willed women (actual historical figures), you will absolutely love this novel!

Strongly recommend!

 

Author Interview: John Green

How do you use humor while describing a sad situation? Does an author who has tasted publishing success think of the market while choosing his next project? How does it feel to have your readers? How do you publicize your work on the net?

These are the questions (and more) that John Green, the author of the bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars, answers in the interview below.

My favorite quote:  “It’s a great gift to have readers and to know that your next book will have readers. It’s a blessing.” Oh, I’m so envious! I wish I’ll be able to say just that–someday. 🙂

Well, meet John Green, my friends!

John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”

200px-The_Fault_in_Our_Stars[1]Mortality. It’s natural to think about it in old age, especially if elders become seriously ill. What’s not natural is when young children and teenagers think about dying. Not hypothetically thinking, but for real, while looking death in the face. It is heartbreaking when teenagers who are supposed to have many years ahead of them plan their own funerals—with eulogies, caskets, dress, the works.

That’s what John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars is about: teenagers, whose bodies are being eaten by cancer and who, despite their struggle to beat it, very often lose.

Hazel is only sixteen, but her thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs prevents her from having a normal life as a teen. The oxygen tank that she carries with her at all times makes her the object of curiosity for people wherever she goes. She says, “That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. We were irreconcilably other…” 144

At the meeting of cancer patients’ support group, Hazel meets Augustus, a seventeen-year-old cancer survivor. Like any star-crossed lovers, they’re immediately attracted. They talk, text each other, and visit. They’re both well-read and sharp-witted. Their verbal exchange is a treat for the reader. They are smitten. But Hazel shuns away from love. She’s thinks of herself as a “grenade” that will eventually go off, so she wants “to minimize the casualties.” 99

Still, Hazel and Augustus can’t stay away from each other. They swap books they love. Hazel gives him her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, about a teenager Anna, afflicted by cancer, whose life mirrors her own. The book ends abruptly, and Hazel has been obsessed with finding out what happened to Anna and her mother. But the author has moved to Amsterdam and doesn’t respond to Hazel’s letters of inquiry.

Together Hazel and Augustus embark on a journey to Amsterdam to meet the author and get answers to their questions. Their trip is an adventure filled with both exciting and heartrending discoveries.

The Fault in Our Stars touches a painful subject, yes, because it’s hard to read about doomed kids dying way before their time. Yet this story is uplifting too, because it shows the courage of these kids, their early maturity. Their suffering and fighting the disease, their will to live, can put us to shame when we whine about some mundane problems in our lives.

Favorite lines: “The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.” 167

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” 157

Strongly recommend!