Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CBRIII Book 4: Matched by Ally Condie

If there's anything that's evident from my CBR last year, it's that I have no qualms about reading YA novels. In fact, reflecting upon everything I've read in the last 10 years since I turned 18 and became an adult (at least legally), some of the best novels I've read have been YA - the Hunger Games trilogy, His Dark Materials trilogy, and, of course, the Harry Potter series. So when I heard about a new novel called "Matched" that appeared to be in the future dystopia vein like the Hunger Games, I couldn't resist.

Cassia Reyes lives in the Society, a totalitarian state. The author is pretty vague about the Society, not mentioning where it is located (there are provinces that are named, but no countries) or how it came to be. All we're told is that it exists, it controls the lives of its people in order to give them long-lasting lives free of struggle or problems, and it values adherence to strict rules above all. Cassia's whole life is monitored, from how she performs in school to how she works out on a treadmill at home to how she works as a "sorter," and this data is compiled and used to plan out her life - what job she will be assigned, where she will live, and who she will marry. Her entire life is controlled right down to her possessions - she is allowed one "artifact," an item from a time before the Society existed. In her case, she has a golden compact handed down to her from her Grandmother. Even her meals are controlled - all citizens are given specially-delivered meals that have been nutritionally-balanced for each specific person, in order to make sure they are as healthy as can be.

At the beginning of the story, Cassia is on her way to her Matching banquet, at which she and dozens of other teens will be introduced to their future mates. When it is her turn, she is surprised to learn that her future husband will be none other than her lifelong friend Xander. Xander and Cassia are given special microcards to read on their "ports" (computers) at home that will tell them all about what to expect now that they are Matched. Cassia returns home and excitedly puts the card into the port, expecting to see all she needs to know about Xander. But instead, a completely different face flashes on her screen and then it goes black. Cassia is stunned - could the Society have made a mistake? Was she given the wrong Match?

Matched follows the basic storyline of a person in a so-called "perfect" society who slowly begins to realize that things aren't as they seem. After she sees the other face, which happens to be that of another friend, Ky (not a spoiler to mention this), she begins to question what the Society really is doing by controlling its citizens lives. By taking away their ability to make choices, is the Society helping them or hurting them? And why did she see Ky's face - what is the explanation for that?

While the story does unfold in a somewhat predictable way, I was thrown a bit by the reasoning behind the microcard error. I won't spoil it here, but I will just say that I thought the author was going one route with it and the explanation given was not what I was expecting. Overall, the story is entertaining, but frustratingly vague. I wanted to know more about the Society, but the story is definitely more about Cassia's awakening and, of course, her love life, since she's torn between two boys. Still, the author leaves the ending open for another book, and if there is a sequel, I will pick it up to see what happens next.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

CBRIII Book 3: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex is a sprawling coming-of-age tale of Cal Stephanides, a Greek-American who was born and raised in Detroit in the 1960s. That's the simplest description of the book that I can come up with. But there's more to the novel, and more to the protagonist as well: Cal is a hermaphrodite (this isn't spoiling anything to mention it) who was raised as a girl named Callie. In order to tell his life story, Cal has to start at the very beginning - when his grandparents Lefty and Desdemona fled Smyrna in the 1920s to start a new life in America (while guarding a dark secret). His story continues with his parents Tessie and Milton and their struggles to conceive a daughter, which leads to his own story of growing up and trying to figure out exactly who and what he is.

It's going to be hard to discuss this book without mentioning more specific details. So I'm going to go ahead and state that if you have not read it, be warned: spoilers abound from here on.


I could not put this book down. That's the highest praise I can give for any book - well, that and the fact that phrases from it have stuck with me. Eugenides takes a fascinating subject - hermaphroditism - and sets it in a fully-fleshed-out world of Greek immigrants and middle class Detroit denizens. The book could have easily veered into "freak-of-the-week" territory, but Eugenides avoids that by making Cal a very realistic character. You feel his sense of wonder as he ponders about his grandparents - about the choice they made and the repercussions of that choice that echo down the generations in Cal's very genes.

And that choice I mention is, of course, their decision to hide the fact that they are brother and sister. They marry and begin a family together, despite Desdemona's fears that their children will be punished for their sin. I've always been fascinated by moral quandaries - what keeps someone from doing something that's wrong or bad? In this case, Lefty & his wife were tempted by the fact that no one would ever know the truth.

Like I said, the book is more than just a coming-of-age tale. It presents a good depiction of the life of immigrants in the early 20th century, and it frames the story of the Stephanides family in the story of the rise and fall of Detroit. But beyond all of that, i's also a discussion of nature vs. nurture. Obviously, genetics plays a major role in Cal's intersexed condition. (I don't think "condition" is the right word I'm looking for, but I'm at a loss.) But nurture is very important too. Cal was raised as a girl, and he faces a tough decision - does he ignore everything that science would tell him and continue as Callie, or does he embrace his genetic destiny at the cost of changing everything he's ever known?

My one qualm with the book would be the revelation of Lefty and Desdemona's incest. It's implied that this is the reason for the genetic anomaly that causes Cal's hermaphroditism, which makes it a big deal, in my opinion. I was expecting a big dramatic scene where Desdemona confesses her secret to the family, but she only mentions it to Cal, and it's revealed and then dropped over a few paragraphs. But maybe I missed the point of it all. Maybe that was what Eugenides was trying to say - that in the end, it wasn't very important because it wasn't the only influence in Cal's life - he wasn't bound to his genetic destiny any more than his grandmother was bound to her shameful secret. He was free to live his life as he chose, no matter what his karyotype might say. Or maybe I'm finding answers that aren't really there. Either way, I think that Cal's story is going to stay with me for a while.

CBR III Book 2: I Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson

Everyone is familiar with Richard Matheson's best known work, "I Am Legend." It's the subject of three different movies, each a slightly different take on the story of the last man alive after the rest of the world has been turned into monsters. Reading the original tale, it's no wonder so many people have wanted to bring it to the big screen. It's an excellent tale of one man's lonely struggle to remain sane while the monsters outside cry for his blood.

Matheson's writing is dark and forboding, and he's fond of twists, so it's no wonder he used to write for the Twilight Zone series. The second half of this book is a collection of his short stories. Two in particular stand out in my memory: "Mad House," in which a man's anger at his deteriorating marriage and stalled career has an unexpected effect on his home; and "Person to Person," the last story in the collection. In "Person to Person," a man wakes one night to hear a phone ringing in his own head. He finally answers it, only to have another voice speak to him. Who is it? Is it really a man who claims to work for the government running an experiment, or is it something more sinister and close to home?

I really enjoyed reading Matheson's short stories. I might have to seek out his other works. It's easy to see his influence now in Stephen King's work. I recommend him to anyone looking for some good old fashioned horror.

CBR III Book 1: Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Death is an inevitability that most of us prefer not to dwell upon. Even less pleasant to consider is what to do with the remains of the deceased. It is this subject that Mary Roach decided to research and write about with her usual wit in her novel "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." Roach, never one to shy away from the weird or unpleasant, brings her dark sense of humor to a topic that covers everything from the typical ways of dealing with corpses - burying or cremating - to donating your remains to science, medicine, or the military, to other more interesting and lesser known options - such as composting or dissolving the remains in lye.

I had no idea there were so many choices for what to do with your body after you've passed on. I knew the obvious choices - be buried/cremated or donate your remains - but beyond that, I knew very little. Roach not only discusses all the different ways corpses can be handled, she delves into the history of how we've handled our dead, and looks to how it may change in the future. One current option that is gaining traction in Sweden is composting cadavers. People who choose this path would be used to help a ceremonial tree or bush planted in their honor to grow. Frankly, I think that's a lovely idea, and in this day of growing environmental concerns, who wouldn't want to go on helping the earth after they're gone? Of course, ideas like that are only beginning to bud (sorry) - as a species we're still fairly uneasy about death and handling corpses. We still have far to go before such an option becomes widely accepted. Roach encourages her readers to think about what to do with their own bodies, and I like the idea of donating myself to science, in the hopes that someone might be able to use me to help others.