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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is definitely one of "those books." The books you always find on best of lists and must read lists, especially if you are from Louisiana (the state that brought you both Robert Penn Warren and Huey Long). I've heard about this book practically my entire reading life and while I never fully dismissed it, I often judged it as being too Southern or too political for my tastes. I will admit to you now - I was way off base.

The story centers around Willie Stark (sometimes Talos) and his right hand man, narrator, Jack Burden. Everyone knows that Stark is a depiction of Louisiana governor Huey Long, but that fact becomes irrelevant once you enter the story. Personally, I know little about Long's career, but I think this served to enhance my appreciation of the novel. I wasn't constantly questioning which actions were historical and which were fictional. I was absorbed in the world of the characters, which is exactly what a good novel should do for you.

The novel is driven by a cast of characters that evolve continually until all are virtually unrecognizable as the people encountered in the beginning of the story, and that is not to say that the changes are not believable. The absolute best thing about this book is how true it is to the characters and the pressures they have. You cannot say that these are black and white / good or bad people as most of the characters come in varying shades of grey.

Most fascinating is Stark himself, who begins as an idealistic young man that grew up on a small family farm and is virtually without vices. He moves from idealistic dupe to charismatic leader to political slime in short order. The beginning of this transformation, and one of my favorite parts of the novel, comes when Stark is being pushed to change his speeches. His staff has to explain that no one wants to hear about his plans for tax reform; they just want to feel something:
They don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, or make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak and erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-a-Mighty. Or make 'em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir 'em up.
And soon there after the Stark we know was born. I think it's poignant, especially in today's political climate, to note that politics has most assuredly always been theater. This is the theater of a well oiled machine that churns people out and eats them up and very often its leavings are dead or broken. In Warren's novel absolutely everyone is broken, either they were from the start or they fell prey to the machine.

All the King's Men is a great novel and it is not too Southern or too political. It is without place or time, a novel about people and humanity, our follies and foibles.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse’s new novel Safekeeping is called “a novel of tomorrow” and the future is bleak. Hesse imagines a world in which the suspicion and distrust roiling in the United States today boils over into a chaotic state of martial law and suppression. Her novel follows a young girl making her way to safety as she traverses this new world.

Radley Parker-Hughes has travelled to Haiti to volunteer in an orphanage in a disaster ridden area. Shortly after her arrival the president of the United States is assassinated. After days of worry and no communication with her parents, she makes it home to Vermont only to find that her parents are not there waiting for her. Radley quickly realizes that staying alone in her own home is no longer safe, as the government has authorized roving bands of looters as their muscle in a battle to terrify and subdue the populous. Radley makes the decision to head north to Canada so that she may live there in exile until peace and normalcy are restored and she can reach her parents.

Radley’s story is told in very short chapters, each with its own photograph to illustrate the bleakness that has become her life. The story is a sad one, but ultimately it is full of hope and will give its teenage audience plenty to think about. Even young people, who often tend to not be very politically aware, are feeling the dissent and divisiveness currently manifest in our nation. Books like Hesse’s can provide a way to work through those feelings and help the youth decide where they stand. This is an important type of story to tell in a disheartening time in the history of our nation. The ultimate message of Safekeeping is one that bears repeating: we need only to be good to one another and understanding, happiness, and prosperity will come.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock

I am not a crier, but I must tell you Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock made me cry. I read this wonderful middle grade novel in one sitting, one late night actually, because no matter how late it got I could not put it down to go to sleep. This is a very sweet novel about adoption; it is never trite, often both sad and inspiring, and it tells the truth about adoption, especially adoption of older children.

Wen is an eleven year old girl who has spent most of her life in a Chinese orphanage. She has waited for years to be adopted and when it finally happens she is overcome with ambivalence. The idea of leaving her home, the younger children she provides care and much needed affection for, and most of all her best friend Shu Ling, terrifies her. Shu Ling is not only an unwanted daughter, she is crippled. It is a simple and terrible truth to both girls that Shu Ling will not be adopted due to her physical disabilities.

What makes this book so special is the devotion the girls have to one another. When Wen makes it to America, she vows to get Shu Ling a family. As Wen struggles for her friend, she and her family are working to understand each other. The awkwardness, confusion, and missteps on both sides is described wonderfully by Peacock. As a reader, you ache for this family, but you also believe in their ability to meld into a loving family unit.

This is a fantastic book for middle readers. It is honest about the difficulties of adoption and the problems people often have relating to and communicating with one another. Peacock has written a novel about resiliency and hope, but even more importantly, about the undying strength that comes from the bonds of friendship.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Books at the Movies

I am smack in the middle of Anna Karenina, which is the best novel of all time. It is wonderful, beautiful, so sad, and utterly timeless. Lemme tell ya, in the 100+ years since Tolstoy wrote the novel, people have not changed. Relationships and emotional depths have been as turbulent as they are today since the dawn of time. Couple that with all of the discussion of the difficulties amongst the lower classes and you have a modern drama to please the 99%.

All of this is to say that I am ready to talk about the books that I am looking forward to reading before seeing their cinematic versions this fall. I wrote a few weeks ago about some of my old favorites that are being released as movies, but now it’s time to talk about the TBR list of movie-books.

Wuthering Heights

Life of Pi

Anna Karenina

Les Miserables

Cloud Atlas (a bit of a cheat because I actually did read this one a few weeks ago. Spoiler: it’s amazing)


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