Saturday, August 29, 2009

12. Hannibal by Thomas Harris

Hannibal was recommended by The Grammarphile. I can safely say that I would not have read this book if not for this project. I've never really been interested in the tales of Hannibal Lecter, less so after my freshman year roommates forced me to watch The Silence of the Lambs -- with the lights off! It was mean. It's really the horror aspect that puts me off; otherwise, this sort of thing is right up my alley. I like mysteries, psychology was one of my majors in college, and there's a strong female protaganist to root for.

Hannibal takes place seven years after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling's FBI career has been somewhat stalled after her successful capture of the serial killer Jame Gumb, and she's poised to take the fall after a drug raid gone bad. Her mentor manages to save her job with an important assignment connected to the infamous Dr. Lecter. One of his earliest victims survived Lecter's brutal attack, and has managed to track down a clue that he needs the FBI to verify. Mason Verger has tracked Lecter to Italy, using the immense resources that his wealth affords him. His source, disgraced Italian detective Rinaldo Pazzi, plans to "sell" Lecter to Verger rather than turn him in. Verger's men arrive in Florence to kidnap Lecter, but he manages to escape after killing Pazzi and another conspirator. Lecter makes his way back to the United States to settle his score with Verger and reacquaint himself with Starling.

When I first started the book, something about the rhythm threw me off for the first few chapters. I quickly became immersed in the story, and I'm sure what felt different at first. This is the kind of book that you put down for awhile and try to do something else, but you can't stay away for long. Un-put-down-able, I think they call it.

My favorite part was Pazzi's pursuit of Lecter. I liked reading about his fall from grace and how he pieced together the true identity of the man known in Florence as Dr. Fell. It wasn't hard to understand (and maybe empathize with) him and his decision to "sell" Dr. Lecter rather than turn him in to the authorities. He was definitely someone that I rooted for, and even though his demise wasn't difficult to see coming, it still made me a bit sad.

The parts that I didn't like? Anything having to do with Mason Verger. From his family's history in the meat packing industry, to his own sadistic childhood and adult behavior, to his plans for Dr. Lecter. There's no sympathy to be had for this son of a bitch. Everything he says and does makes me uncomfortable in some fundamental way. I can't stand reading about people being hurt the way that Verger delights in hurting them. Skin, commence crawling. It's almost to the point where I don't get anything out of the reading except feeling disgusted.

I didn't love the parts about Clarice Starling, but that may be because I haven't read The Silence of the Lambs. While you don't need to be familiar with the story before reading Hannibal, I think it would have been helpful in feeling more toward Starling. You can't help but admire her resourcefulness in pursuing Dr. Lecter and her composure in the face of being screwed by the good ole boys politicking in Washington. But the ending really threw me for a loop. I don't feel like I knew Starling well enough to understand where she ended up.

Hannibal is pretty dark and twisty, so don't pick it up unless you're prepared for it to haunt you for awhile after you put it down. It's a good read, though, and I recommend it to you.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

11. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I had never heard of Watchmen before people (read: Colin) started talking about the movie adaptation. All I really knew about the story was that superhero vigilantes were outlawed and the murder of one such former hero was the catalyst that set the plot in motion. Colin was really excited for the movie and even went to a midnight showing when it came out. We talked about going to see Watchmen with his mom and brother during one of their visits, but Colin thought it would be too violent for the ladies, so we went to see Taken instead. (Which is kind of funny, because it's plenty violent and features someone taking the law into their own hands.)

At any rate, it sounded interesting. I read a lot of mysteries and am drawn to procedurals on TV, and the theme of vigilantism pops up over and over again. I loved the idea of the public asking "Who watches the Watchmen?" Yes, they watch over us but who keeps them in check? Who prevents abuse of that power? I lean toward the left, and the idea of taking away someone's civil rights is despicable to me. I honestly believe that even though out current legal system has its problems, we need to operate within it. And yet... can it really be that black and white? Or are there shades of grey? That's why this theme is recurring in pop culture; you can examine the issue from different angles and come up with a different answer each time.

Having never read a graphic novel before, I had no idea what to expect. While I was excited to read it, I think I was also a little nervous. What was I getting myself into? As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. I work as a proofreader and copy editor, and work has been extremely busy lately. Watchmen came along at the exact right moment -- not only was the story interesting, but because the medium was completely different, fresh and new, it held my attention better than a traditional novel would have.It was a relief.

Dude, I really liked it.

Okay, I liked some parts better than others. Rorschach was certainly the most compelling character to me, and the way he broke down his psychiatrist was one of the things that I kept thinking about long after that part of the story was over. I liked the way that the past was woven into the present via flashbacks and the supplemental back stories at the end of each chapter. When Laurie realized that The Comedian was her father, it kind of knocked my socks off. But what really got me was the very end, when Rorschach's journal was finally about to be discovered at the right-wing newspaper office. As Colin was saying, even the smartest man in the world couldn't pull off a flawless plan. But I didn't love The Black Freighter, and I thought the younger Nite Owl was a complete wet noodle. Also, Doc Manhattan on Mars? It didn't really speak to me. I was more interested in the interactions of the characters and what they learned from each other.

Watchmen definitely takes you on a journey, and it's funny to realize that it only takes place over a few days. The world that these characters live in is drawn, pun intended, so completely and convincingly that you kind of forget about everything else while you're there. I love how you get so many different perspectives on the events that take place, and they're all valid. You may not agree with Veidt or Rorschach, but you can't write them off. Not a lot of fiction is that fair to its characters, and it really worked. I think it showed a level of respect for the audience and I appreciated it.

10. All Other Nights by Dara Horn

My friend Adriana recommended some websites to me when I asked for book suggestions. I found the description of All Other Nights on one of those websites, and immediately requested it from the library.

This is the story of Jacob, a young Jewish soldier in the American Civil War. He is recruited to act as a spy for the Union, and his missions include killing his uncle who plotted to assassinate Lincoln, and marrying a young Jewish woman doing spy work for the Confederacy. He unexpectedly falls in love with his wife while he is supposed to be collecting evidence against her, but they are separated when her sister turns him in just as Jacob reports his sister-in-law to his superiors. Jacob reads of his wife's death in prison, and later suffers devastating injuries during a Confederate raid. After returning home to New York, he learns of the possibility that his wife is alive and well. He sets out to find her, and eventually meets their daughter.

This book was interesting with detailed, engaging story-telling. The experiences of Jewish Americans during this era was something that I had never thought about. Although this was a novel, the author was inspired by many actual people (detailed in an Author's Note at the end) and I came away feeling as though I may have learned something new.

I had a couple of problems with the novel, though. Throughout his story, Jacob is unable to say no to people. His parents arrange a marriage for him, and instead of refusing he runs away and joins the army. His superiors order him to murder his uncle, and he does it despite his doubts about it. He is asked to marry a stranger in order to collect evidence, and he goes through with it. We don't really get any insight into why he does this, especially when he is racked with guilt over his actions. Also, the novel ended somewhat abruptly. During a chaotic attack on the southern town in which he found his wife alive and well, Jacob is attempting to flee to the north. It's quite suspenseful, and you're not sure what's going to happen. It feels very much like the middle of the story. Then Jacob's wife shows up and he sees his daughter for the first time and it just... ends. It's just over. While it was an enjoyable read, I just didn't know what to make of the ending.

9. In the Woods by Tana French

This book was recommended to me by Fat Bridesmaid. I'm definitely going to have to read her other suggestions too, because I really liked this one.

I read In the Woods on a Sunday, and after I told Colin about it, he decided to read it too. This post has been on hold for awhile, because there's no way I can write it without spoilers and I didn't want to spoil it for him. So everyone has their fair warning, right?


This story centers around a young detective named Adam Robert Ryan, who tells us about working to solve a young girl's murder. Rob has a very close relationship with his partner, Cassie, and she knows more about him than any of their colleagues. As a child, Rob was known as Adam to his best friends Jamie and Peter. He can remember almost nothing of their childhood together, nor of the day that they disappeared in the woods by their town and he was found clutching a tree, with blood soaked through his shoes. No trace of Jamie or Peter has ever been found. However, Rob does not consider his story to be especially tragic, and leads his life in relative anonymity. Until the Katy Devlin case lands on his desk. Katy's body is found at the site of an archaeological dig in the town where Rob lived until Jamie and Peter (and Adam) disappeared. Throughout the investigation, Rob and Cassie begin to suspect that something was wrong in Katy's home. Her sisters seem troubled and the detectives focus on the nature of the father's relationships with his daughters. The case takes on a life of its own and Rob and Cassie's friendship begins to dissolve after a night of unexpected passion. After some twists and turns, it's revealed that Katy's older sister Rosalind orchestrated her murder, using a worker from the dig as her patsy. As Cassie was able to suss out, but Rob wasn't, Rosalind was a classic sociopath and had no qualms about eliminating her "uppity" little sister by using her wiles to convince a young man to do her bidding.

Rob tells us the story of working this case after the fact, which is very effective. He's gained some insight and perspective, and alludes to things he could have done differently without giving away the ending. Clues were dropped in subtly throughout the story so that the end surprised you, but didn't come out of nowhere. Had you been paying attention to the right parts, you could have put the puzzle pieces together. I think that's what makes for a great mystery. You can feel as though the author is speaking to you on your level, even if you didn't guess the outcome.

Rob's story is amazing. He has vague bits and pieces of memory of this idyllic childhood with great friends. He knows something terrible and tragic happened to the three of them, but has never been able to remember what. He was sent away to boarding school afterward and his parents moved to another town, so he's never truly had to revisit the events of the past. During the Devlin case, Rob is forced to confront the past, and he comes to terms with the enormity of what he has lost. He has been robbed of his life with Jamie and Peter, and is able to finally realize that and mourn for it.

Let's get to the frustrating part. Although Rob starts to regain some memories of his childhood while working the case (the Devlin father turns out to be a teenager that Rob knew of as a child), he never remembers what happened to Jamie and Peter.

You never find out what happened to Jamie and Peter!

I can understand why the author might have felt it would have been a cop-out to reveal what happened -- she had set up the promise of an unsolved, unsolvable mystery. But when Rob started to piece together things that he hadn't been able to remember, you naturally assume that he'll be able to figure out the events of that day. The two parallel mysteries from Rob's past and present unfold simultaneously, and when you find out what happened to Katy, you naturally assume that you'll find out what happened to Jamie and Peter. You just naturally assume that there will be some sort of pay-off at the end, and you're totally left hanging.

When Colin was about halfway through, he shared a theory with me. He thought that Peter killed Jamie and traumatized Adam on that fateful day, and now killed Katy as an adult. It killed me to not react, because I was thinking that while I enjoyed In the Woods tremendously, I want to read that book!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quick update!

Hello, faithful readers!

It has been too long, for a couple of reasons:

1. Work has been soul-crushingly busy. 

(I know, I know. I shouldn't complain, because I have a good job with a good, GROWING company in these trying economic times. As an American, I reserve the right to complain.)

2. I loved In the Woods by Tana French so much, and read it so quickly, that Colin decided to read it. I cannot post a spoiler-free response to this one, so I purposefully held off on posting anything until he was done. I'm a good wife. 

Colin is done with In the Woods, so you can expect a post soon. I also finished a novel by the name of All Other Nights by Dara Horn, so that response is forth-coming as well. As you can see from the Currently Reading section, I'm on to my first graphic novel, Watchmen. It's new and different, and interesting -- which frankly, is just what my tired eyes need at the moment!

So even though the blog looks neglected, I am still very much enjoying the Magnolia Reads project. Please stay tuned!  

Sunday, August 2, 2009

8. Columbine by Dave Cullen

On April 20, 1999 I was a senior in a suburban high school. After school let out that day, I went to my regular baby-sitting job. My two pre-teen girl charges and I had bonded over boy bands and movies like She's All That, and this afternoon started like any other. We were watching Carson Daly on MTV's Total Request Live and I vaguely remember breaking news reports about the shooting on the program – I think they had a reporter (or VJ or whatever) on the scene, and checked in with him. I can't recall if they showed music videos that day, or if they focused only on the shooting. I definitely remember footage of kids escaping.
In reading the book Columbine, it was almost shocking to realize just how little I knew about what really happened at Columbine.

Ten years later, most remember the basics: the widely accepted theory of bullied outcasts who snapped, getting revenge on jocks, Christians and minorities; the killers’ membership in the "trench coat mafia;" the existence of a hit list; and especially the story of Cassie Bernall, the girl who said "yes" when her killer asked her if she believed in God, sealing her fate.
Cullen gracefully dispels these myths and gives us a complete history of before, during and after. He is perhaps the foremost expert on the tragedy among the media, having filed his first story as a journalist nine hours after the shootings began and stayed with the story for the next ten years. The events have been pieced together from thousands of pages of police reports, home videos and journals of the killers, and countless interviews with survivors. The information Cullen has to relay is exhaustive, and yet one does not feel overwhelmed reading the book. It's engrossing, and difficult to put down and walk away from.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are exposed as shockingly normal teens, albeit ones who both suffered from mental illness. Klebold's suicidal depression left him vulnerable to the persuasion of the psychopathic Harris. Their intention was never to perpetrate a simple school shooting; a year’s worth of careful planning and preparation failed in its ultimate goal of mass murder via bombing. Cullen is able to describe their three-act plan in detail, Harris having left documentation for posterity, and it is chilling. Harris and Klebold aimed to top both the death count and long-lasting effect on the American psyche of the Oklahoma City bombing a few years earlier. Had they been successful with their explosives, more than 500 people would certainly have perished. Although Harris had published a hit list on his website, none of the people listed were killed – the intent was mass, indiscriminate murder, something infinitely harder for most to understand or accept.

The truth behind Cassie Bernall’s supposed martyrdom is particularly fascinating, an incredible example of how quickly misinformation spread and was accepted as absolute truth. So much of what we “know” about Columbine is the result of unreliable eyewitness accounts and repetitious media coverage thereof. Many of the 2,000 students in Columbine High School did not know Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, yet their tales of bullied outcasts were immediately accepted by media outlets and reported as fact, reinforcing those students’ opinions.
The stories in this book will get to you. There was – and still is – a great deal of suffering, and Cullen does not mince words. Reading about the events of the day of the killings, I began to cry and couldn’t stop for almost an hour. Yet I could not put the book down. It’s too valuable to learn the truths of this tragedy after so many years of persistent myths.