Why did I decide to read Beautiful Creatures? Two words: Emma Thompson. She’d adorably played Professor Sybil Trelawney in the Harry Potter series, and, the truth is, I’d watch her in a movie about the drying of paint. I found myself hopeful that if Thompson had signed on to this project it might be worth my time. Well, I learned that was tantamount to reading a book that promised to be the new Hunger Games—I should learn my lesson.
To Creature’s credit, the narrator and primary protagonist is a boy, by the name of Ethan, which hasn’t been a common feature, in my experience, in the new genre of Teen Supernatural Romance. (It’s official: I saw the label at Barnes & Noble.) As the story opens, Ethan’s been dreaming of a mysterious girl, who he can’t seem to save from falling away. He later meets the niece of the town recluse, and realizes she’s the girl in (of?) his dreams, Lena Duchannes. After a dupe by Lena’s uncle, Macon, Ethan learns that Lena is a caster—a word her family uses because they aren’t fond of the word witch. (Fact is, they are witches. No wands, though. Magic that can be done by thought or slight of hand, manipulation of the elements or other people, and so on.) The catch? Lena’s family can go Jedi or Darkside, and the girls have no choice in the matter because—wait for it—you ready? Because of a curse! GASP! Lena’s counting down the days until her Claiming, and she and Ethan embark on an investigation: how to break the curse, how to make sure Lena doesn’t go Darkside, and to keep the crazy inhabitants of the fictional Gatlin, South Carolina at bay.
I think the easiest way for me to review what I disliked about this books is to recount the ways in which the movie fixed the wrongs and got it right.
In the book, Lena and Ethan are psychically linked, and the reader is subjected to their silent communications—during most of which I found myself thinking, “This girl makes Bella Swan sound like she had real problems.” Lena whines. Lena whines incessantly. Lena whines bout something every time she speaks. As if that weren’t obnoxious enough, she sits about waiting for Ethan to find all her answers. She wants her future to change, but she won’t do anything about it. What have we got? Another girl who waits around for a man to save her. Thank God she wasn’t the narrator. (And thanks to Richard LaGravenese, the director of the movie, for leaving that out altogether.)
The reader learns throughout the course of the book that a special library full of Caster books and materials is kept under Gatlin, and across the United States. In the movie, the woman who has kept house, and helped to raise Ethan, a woman named Amma, is the librarian and keeper of the secret, an editorial choice that made so much more sense than the unnecessary character of Marian who is one of the librarians in the book. Marian is rather useless and spends most of her time spouting quotes instead of actually communicating. I found absolutely nothing remarkable about this woman or why she should be around. Amma, on the other hand, had the ability to commune with spirits, someone able to help the Casters.
Marian isn’t, or, at least, wasn’t the only Caster librarian: Ethan’s mother had been one as well. Prior to the book’s opening, Lila Wate is killed in a car wreck, before she ever has a chance to tell Ethan about this part of her life. For some reason (either I don’t remember the specific reason, or it was never stated in the book), Lila Wate had been researching the Curse than hangs over Lena’s head, and left a note reading, “CLAIM YOURSELF.” This scene and circumstance were so odd and felt so out of place while I was reading it that I still feel really baffled. Maybe there are secrets that I don’t know because they aren’t revealed in this book, but I just stumbled all over this scene. Why did Lila care about Lena? Did she somehow know that Ethan would fall in love with Lena—is that why the clue was hidden in her house? Why didn’t she pass the clue on to Macon? Why is it she, who is not a Caster, not known to have any supernatural talents whatsoever, why is it she who figures this out? Why is it in Mitchell Wate’s office and not some pile of notes in the library? As you can see, there are a number of things I couldn’t work my way past when it came to Lila’s involvement in this story. Again, movie director to the rescue: the viewer is never told that Ethan’s mother was involved with the keeping of the library.
As to a place where both the movie and the book irritated and failed me: the using of Christians as ignorant, intolerant douche bags who use their so-called faith as an excuse to ostracize someone new and different. Take a leap and allow them to be who they should be: love and acceptance. (Something author Cinda Williams Chima did in The Heir Chronicles. Something I meant to talk about some time ago. Her handling of the topic of being magically talented and Christian was something that gave the books an original twist… Okay, not the post for that. I’ll come back to it eventually.)
Under the guise of their Christian faith, the singly-dimensional antagonist female characters, Savannah and Emily, do their best to attack and exclude Lena, because, hey, this is a small southern town and new comers cannot be tolerated, right? Another point of personal annoyance: I moved into a small southern town at the age of 14, half-way through my freshman year of high school, where all of my classmates had grown up together (some of them literally since daycare). My experience, and the experiences I’ve gathered from others with similar experiences, is that you’re treated more like an object of fascination than anything else. More, well, more like Bella Swan’s arrival in Forks. Logic, to me, says that given the mystery around Macon Ravenwood, Lena’s uncle, her classmates would be more intrigued by a girl who has an inside line on the town recluse and the inside of his house, than to try to run her out of their social circles immediately. I suppose, however, that’s a personal irk and not really an ill mark against the authors.
Back to the writing. Ethan spends a good three-quarters of the book reminding us that Gatlin is a small town and that Jackson High is so preposterously staid that he just can’t stand it. After about the third time of the reiteration, I wanted to scream, “ENOUGH! I get it!” I don’t need to be browbeaten by how bored you are with your hometown, kid. I’ve been there. Most of the readers of this book live in the same kind of town. Say it once. Move along, sugarpop, we all want out of our hometowns, and there’s only so many ways to say it.
Sarafine, the character portrayed by my beacon of hope, Emma Thompson, is said to be the most powerful, most dangerous Dark caster of all time. She is also Lena’s mother. Throughout the novel, she makes attempts to pull Lena in the direction of the Darkness, by dressing herself up as a religious zealot, making attempts on Ethan’s life, as well as outright attacking Lena herself. The thing of it is: it takes a long time before Lena finds out that she can undo the curse. She doesn’t know she can until it is very near her birthday. Sarafine is trailing her from early on in the novel. So, either there’s a discrepancy here, or Sarafine knows about the curse and that it can be undone and she’s being proactive. (I believe this was something corrected by the movie.) It is possible that the later part is the truth and the reader isn’t let in on it, but the movie viewer is because we’re given information not privy to Ethan, who is the first person narrator of the novel.
To be honest, the only reason I finished this novel is that I spent Christmas money on it. (Thankfully it had been on sale for the Nook and it only cost me $5.) Lena was a constant source of irk and ire, and I wanted nothing more than for her birthday to come along so that I no longer had to listen her whining. I have no desire whatsoever to continue with the series. Part of me hopes Lena goes Darkside and Ethan makes better choices for future girlfriends. But, then, how could the book compete with Twilight? At least there’s no insipid love triangle happening. At least there was that?
Another ball in the court for the movie? It was a lot more funny than the book. Well, at least it was intentionally funny.
Now what’s Twilight’s excuse?
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a book that has enjoyed much time on both banned book lists and required reading-book lists. Published in the early 1950s, the book was controversial given the language used by the narrator, Holden Caulfield, as well as the narrator’s somewhat frank treatment of the topic of sex. The book also examines adolescence in terms of identity and loneliness, and, to an extent, aggression, during a time in which these things were not discussed period, let alone in regards to teenagers.
I went to high school in Louisiana—where I was, more often than not, assigned books that I had read, or at least been introduced to, in middle school. If anyone in my class read Catcher in the Rye, it was of their own volition. (No one that I know of was assigned this book.) A few months ago a friend of mine was rather surprised that this had been the case and suggested Catcher to me, saying that she thought I would really enjoy the narrator’s sarcasm. (I breathe sarcasm. It is my main form of communication.) To be perfectly honest, though I had heard of the book, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. (I googled the synopsis after I bought the book.) Going on the friend’s suggestion, I went ahead with the read.
It took me longer than it should have to finish the book considering how short it is—just over 200 pages. I should have finished that in 2-4 days, tops! But as I read further into the book, I found that I was having a very difficult time identifying with the narrator or establishing any kind of ethos for him or his would-be plight, and, thus, it actually took me a couple of weeks to finish the book. And when I reached the last page I found myself somewhat relieved to have done with it.
A synopsis would help, n’est pas? The protagonist, and antihero, Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of yet another private school. The book follows the adventures he has over a three day period as he avoids going home before his scheduled arrival, so as not to raise the suspicion of his parents. He does quite a bit of drinking, and taking taxis, and thinking about where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter.
Holden is angry. He is angry about everything and nothing much seems to give him pleasure. Why? Well, to be honest, I can’t say I was ever able to put my finger on why. Holden unquestionably has some serious psychological issues that don’t seem to have been addressed prior to the beginning of the novel. I think I would have rather read and examined this novel as a project for a psychology course than to have read it as a literary must-read. (Preliminary thoughts: Holden is probably experiencing the early stages of a first manic episode and may also be dealing with symptoms of ADHD, though these could simply be symptoms of bipolar disorder. Furthermore, I feel that Holden exemplifies symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Alas, I digress.)
The reader finds out that Holden had a younger brother who died of cancer at the age of 12, and while that unquestionably has affected him, and possibly his mental state, the reader is never given a clear enough picture of the relationship between Holden and his brother, Allie, to really understand how the loss truly affected him. It was my experience that, yes, Holden was affected by his brother’s death. Yes, it may play into his character, but I can’t say how or why, and I felt that to be a failing on the part of the author.
Catcher only covers a three day period in the narrator’s life; however, when one considers the idea that life can change in an instant—if you’ll pardon the cliché—three days is plenty of time for a change to happen. Holden’s life is a bit of a mess when we are introduced to him and it remains that way at the end. He seems to be exactly the same person by the end of the novel as he was in the very beginning, and, while this may be how life in the real world happens, in stories a character should undergo some sort of change due to the course of events throughout the story. (See Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing.) I don’t feel as though Holden undergoes any kind of change. And, if he has, the reader is not allowed to know about it because Holden stops talking, telling the reader he doesn’t want to say anything else. I felt failed by this novel as I was left with so many questions that could have been easily answered. Alas, I must also accept that this may have been a stylistic choice by Salinger.
When one thinks of the time that this novel was written (post-World War II), and published, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that Holden would be seen as a sort of rebel, or bad boy. He’s running around New York, drinking, talking to dancers and pimps, carelessly spending money that (assumedly) comes from his (wealthy) parents, and smoking like a forest fire. Just prior to leaving his school, Holden gets into a fight with his roommate that leaves him with a bloodied face. These sorts of events, in addition to Holden’s copious use of the word “goddam”, were surely enough to scandalize readers at the time of the book’s publication. However, much of what Holden gets himself into seems like par for the course for today’s adolescents; which, I believe, is the underlying reason behind my inability to really care about Holden Caulfield or his so-called problems. My doctor and I were discussing the book and how he (my doc) had a hard time truly getting into the book or establishing concern for the narrator. We discussed how, here you have a kid who has a decent life: his parents are comfortable financially, Holden is the captain of an athletic team, has attended several costly private boarding schools, and we—my doctor and I—both felt that Holden Caulfield essentially suffered from a case of poor-little-rich-boy (other psychological concerns notwithstanding). Salinger gives the reader no reason to have compassion for Holden.
Adolescents of this generation are faced with so much worse: rampant drug use and availability, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, to say the least. And most disconcerting of adolescence over the last twenty years is the amount of bullying and violence being seen in American schools. Catcher in the Rye may have been quite the cautionary tale 60 years ago, but I cannot see how it could possibly be so to this generation. Aside from being expelled from his school for his poor grades and skipping class, Holden is never shown to have faced consequences for his expulsion or unsupervised romping about New York. An impending punishment is suggested by Holden’s younger sister, Phoebe, who tells Holden, “Daddy’s going to kill you!” when she realizes he’s been kicked out of another school. What is there to be gleaned from this novel, then? I’m not quite sure. For all the novels that I didn’t read until after high school (that I should have, purportedly, been assigned in high school), I don’t feel as though I was robbed of anything having missed out on this one.
Maybe I’m crazy for saying this, but I’m not sure Holden Caulfield is relevant any more. And I’m left to wonder who, then, is the antihero of my generation?
For a very long time I managed to avoid Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It was one of those books that I picked up, read the synopsis, and replaced on the shelf, thinking, “Nope, can’t do it.” The cover blurb tells the would-be reader that the story contained within is about Oskar, whose father died during the attacks on September 11th in New York. Oskar has discovered a key among his father’s belongings and he sets out to search for the lock to which the key belongs. This synopsis, quite simply, does the story no true justice.
What was I saying? Ah, yes, I had avoided this book. September 11th was something affected every American (and many around the world) in some way or another. On that day, once I finally admitted to myself that my country was, in fact, under attack, I began to panic. I was overcome with the feeling that my dad would be recalled to the Navy and that I would lose him to another middle-eastern war. (My dad went to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm in the early 90s.) I believed that reading this book would force me to go back to those feelings. And it did. However, the book was handed to me by a friend. She told me how much she had loved it. She’s an English teacher. If she loved it, and tells you she thinks you’ll love it, too—well, I had to finally cave in.
First, to say that this book is about 9/11 gives it an unfair coloring. Yes, Oskar’s father dies during the attacks. Yes, it sets Oskar’s adventures in motion. But the book in total is about so, so much more than that day—Oskar calls it The Worst Day. As Catherine, the friend who loaned me the book, says, “The book is about language.” Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about communication, and the lack thereof, before, during, and after immense tragedies in our lives.
There is a second plot in this book that revolves around Oskar’s paternal grandparents, who were living in Dresden, Germany during the fire-bombings of the Second World War. For me, their story was more interesting, and more compelling, than that of Oskar. Sadly, it would be giving away something key to the plot to discuss much about them. Their story is so painful and beautiful, the book is worth reading if only for their story alone.
Oskar can be funny at times, and possess a clarity that’s hard to believe of a kid his age. But it’s worth overlooking that fact while reading this story.
As I said before, this book often recalled feelings of seeing my dad go to war. Remembering what life was like just after 9/11. I often found that after 20-30 pages, I would have to walk away from the book for a stretch of time. It took me quite a while to finish this because of that, but I’m glad I made it through. This book isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s despairingly sad. Don’t expect a happy ending. Undoubtedly worth reading, nonetheless.