Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Good Soldiers

David Finkel, 2009, 304 pgs.

The best book I have read in a long time. Please read this book.

Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, lived for fifteen months with the army infantry soldiers of the 2-16 “Ranger” battalion, from January 2007 – April 2008, as they fought in the Rusamiyah, Fediliyah, and Kamaliyah neighborhoods of Bagdad as part of President George W. Bush’s counterinsurgency mission called “the surge.” The book he has written chronicling their work in Iraq surpasses much of the best fiction I have read. Finkel privides the reader with an incredible depth of characterization, an amazing eye for detail, a nuanced and honest depiction of moral and physical conflict, and intricate plotting that makes the chapters seethe with suspense, wonder, and horror.

I could not put this book down and read it in two long sittings. I cared deeply for the soldiers, their colonel, the Iraqi interpreters, the Iraqi citizens, and the soldiers’ families in the U.S. I cared—and care—deeply about this war, and still have huge questions about insurgency, counterinsurgency tactics, and the meaning of war and democracy. This book sparked my thinking in many crucial ways, since it put a heartwrenchingly human face on a conflict which is so often made “macro” by politicians and the media.

I predict that this will emerge as the classroom book for the Iraq war, just as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the classroom book about the Vietnam War. I felt much of the same bewilderment and grief while reading both books, but this one became more intense for me—Iraq is a war of my adulthood, whereas Vietnam was over when I was two.

My only criticism is that Finkel has not balanced his narrative in terms of the gender and race of the six-to-eight soldiers he has chosen to profile in depth. The first 2-16 soldier to die, Jay Cajimat, was Filipino-American, but this fact is not mentioned in the text. Of the other thirteen male soldiers of 2-16 who eventually died, two were African-American, but they’re not mentioned either. A female Iraqi interpreter is portrayed in one chapter, but no others are noted. I understand that journalists have complicated editorial decisions to make as they shape their narratives, and that factors outside their control often shape their choices (access, permissions), but because this promises to become a seminal text of this war, it is unfortunate that most of the heroes here are young white men.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein, 2008, 321 pgs.

Oh no, another book in which the dog dies. But what a life the dog has! Enzo, our narrator, has a great dad who is a race car driver, and who initiates Enzo into the thrilling world of competitive racing. Enzo is perceptive, and has a fine eye and ear for the nuances of human interaction, both verbal and physical. He is loyal to his dad, dad’s wife, and dad’s little daughter. He always tries to do right, but is stymied by his inability to communicate in human language and annoyed that he does not have opposable thumbs with which to open doors. His efforts at communicating are misunderstood at times, but the silent comfort he gives his human companions is very real and touching. Enzo sees his family through tough times, and dies having had a very happy life.

A heartwarming story with plenty of heartbreak. Cancer, bitter custody battles, betrayal, and death plague Enzo’s family. I liked the race car scenes, but didn’t care for all the family drama. The dog-as-narrator trick was refreshing at first, but got old fast as it tried to be too clever. I can see why this has been a bestseller, but I didn’t love it.

The House of the Scorpion

Nancy Farmer, 2002, 380 pgs.

YA science fiction

A National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Award, and a Printz Honor Award. Holy cow, there are so many awards on the cover that the reader runs the risk of setting his/her expectations too high. This is a big, sprawling, dystopian thriller—The Giver meets Harry Potter meets Holes meets Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It takes place in the future on a strip of land on the Texas / Mexico border. Matteo Alacrán, also known as El Patrón, the drug lord over this opium estate, captures and computer chips people who attempt to cross the border so that they become zombie-like “eejit” slaves who will tend to his fields and manufacture his crop. The narrator is young Matt, El Patrón’s clone, who has been created to . . .(SPOILER ALERT). . .supply organs to the boss when his own fail.

Matt is scrappy and good, and gets into many epic adventures. People treat him badly, and he suffers much. He has a rag-tag group of “Lost Boys” who follow him as he escapes over the border into Mexico. He has a true love.

The northern Mexico of the future is called “Aztlán” here—is this not offensive to Chicano/a readers? Farmer, born in 1941, seems to be a white super-progressive Californian; is it okay for caucasian writers to use a place name that has such deep ancestral and spiritual roots for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans?

I found the book tedious. The world Farmer creates is not nearly as fascinating and rich as Harry Potter’s world, nor is the long-winded family saga as compelling as those of Marquez. The gritty borderland atmospherics cannot come close to McCarthy. But the pacing, characterization, and tenor is very similar to Holes, and I guess this is where I confess that I am not a lover of young adult fiction. I think I need to learn that this style of writing is quite fitting in terms of meeting the cognitive development and attentional needs of younger readers. It is just not my thing as an adult reader.

Stormbreaker

Anthony Horowitz, 2000, 192 pgs.

YA spy novel

The first in the Alex Rider series. If I had this series when I was 12 or 13, I would have swallowed it up. Alex Rider is a 14 year-old British boy, handsome and athletic, whose mysterious uncle has just been killed, leaving him newly orphaned. Soon, Alex is swept into his first assignment as a spy with the M16, and he learns that his uncle had been training him all along to finish the job he started—tracking down and stopping a Lebanese millionaire from unleashing a deadly virus hidden in the gift of computers for all British schoolchildren.

This book is full of MacGyver-like gadgets–zit cream that eats through metal, a yo-yo with string strong enough to carry a boy. It has motorcycle racing scenes, airplane chasing and jumping scenes, and mineshaft crawling scenes. It has bad guys shooting at Alex, but Alex never uses a gun–instead he uses karate and his gadgets to disable the bad guys and escape capture.

On the last page, a contract killer says to Alex, “Killing is for grown-ups and you’re still a child.” Um, what? I guess this is the moral line that young adult authors must straddle when writing thrillers that include lots of people being killed–their adolescent protagonists should not be killing, but the killing happens anyway. Plus, do we really still have to be writing books in which the bad guys are Middle Eastern, with names like Yassen and Herod?

Heist Society

Ally Carter, 2010, 287 pgs.

YA heist novel

Yuck. This book was recommended by teens on the New York Public Library blog, and the idea of an art heist thriller with teen characters appeals to me, but YUCK. Disney publishes this book, and it seems ready-made for a Disney movie with the usual merchandising roll-out. Picture a teen Julia Roberts in a black turtleneck, tight pants, a mini-mag flashlight, and Audrey Hepburn shades. She has a rich and infamous art thief dad who has been accused of stealing from a really bad guy, who then gives her two weeks to get him back his paintings. . . or else. Plug in scenes at a posh private school, posh hotel rooms, limousines, cute guys, and museums in Paris and Rome, and you’ve got the gist of it.

What happens next? I have no idea. I couldn’t stomach it anymore, so I stopped reading.

Living Dead Girl

Elizabeth Scott, 2008, 170 pgs.

Starkly written, swiftly moving, and totally disturbing. Alice was kidnapped by Ray when she was ten and is kept as a sexual slave in his trailer home. Now she is 15, and he sends her to a playground to find a new little girl for him, since she is growing curves that he despises. There are many scenes of forced sex, and his verbal abuse and control over her is disgustingly real. She has a survivor’s spirit, though, and begins to plan her escape. The lost and horny teenaged boy she enlists as her aid adds another depressing layer to the plot.

If this book were in my library, would I feel compelled to put a warning on it? I am not usually disturbed by texts and images that haunt many of my peers, but the violence here was shocking and unrelenting. Since sexual violence towards children and adolescents does exist, however, this compelling and well-written book deserves to be on library shelves for high school students to read.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith, 2009, 317 pgs.

This was a let-down. I think the idea of a novel-length mashup has a ton of potential; this one’s a thrilling concept because it takes “the classic regency romance” and adds a modern fan’s obsessions—zombies and ninjas. But the execution is lackluster. Smith keeps Austen’s plot structure, chapter by chapter, with most of Austen’s narration and dialogue intact, but inserts about 6-10 brief action scenes of zombie slaying, mostly while en route on countryside roads (the ninjas make a minor appearance as Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s minions). These scenes are tacked on rather than integrated into the plot.

Smith does make some character changes by inserting weak strands of feminism and humor. Mr. Bennett has sent all five of his daughters to China for childhood training in the “deadly arts,” so they can defend England from the “unmentionables” and keep their minds engaged in killing rather than “clouded with dreams of marriage and fortune.” This gives Elizabeth and the rest the opportunity to drop the names, weapons, and fighting poses of “Oriental” masters throughout, and Mr. Darcy the opportunity to say that he prefers a woman to be “well trained in the fighting styles of the Kyoto masters and the modern tactics and weaponry of Europe.” Elizabeth spends much time cleaning muskets and sharpening sword blades, but I prefer her headstrong nature in the original, where feminism is shown not by battle acumen but nuanced self-reflection and courageous interpersonal speech and action.

I chuckled a few times, but overall I found the book humorless. There is the running sexual innuendo revolving around the word “balls.” There is Charlotte Lucas, who is bitten by a zombie and then disintegrates bit by bit, slurring her words and acting silly. There are Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham, the cads of the story, who are made to suffer more for their bad behavior than in the original, and it is meant to be funny. Finally, Smith can’t help but get creative in the ways Mr. Bennett verbally abuses his “silly, ignorant” wife.

Pass on this one, and hope that better mashups are in the works.