Book Journal: Cormac McCarthy's The Road

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy

A man and his son struggle to survive in a violent and barren post-apocalyptic world. They scavenge for food and shelter, hide from predators, and journey south to beat the winter and their impending deaths.

Some themes at play within the novel: trust, hunger, fear, significance of dreams, cannibalism, violence, love, hope

Some Thoughts (Spoiler-ish, fair warning):
It took me nearly 100 pages to realize I actually like this novel. The book starts off with dreary descriptions of their ever-fearful walks along the Road and their time hiding and scavenging in the wooden wasteland. It was hard to get used to the lack of conversational quotation marks. No one gets a name. Everything is the man said, the boy said, he said, he said, he said. Too many he saids. The dialogue is very sparse and repetitive: Are we going to be okay? It’s alright. We’ll be alright. Don’t ever leave me. I’m scared. It’s alright. I’m right here. Nothing even happens until page 63. And yet…

I really do like this book. I acutely felt the isolation, the desperation, the desolation… honestly, the book down-right depressed me. The world is gray and ashy and utterly hopeless. There is no food anywhere, and they are constantly on the brink of starvation. The only people the man and boy come in contact with are murderous rapist cannibals. Every human encounter they had sent chills of terror through me. This book is subtle and incredibly horrifying all at the same time.

There isn’t much of a set-up as to how this world has ended; there’s just one ambiguous mention of widespread firestorms that happen out of seemingly nowhere. For a long time, the lack of explanation bothered me; I like to know why. But eventually I asked myself, does it really matter how the world ended up like this? It’s been years since the apocalypse hit, and all that matters is how people survive. In this case, all that’s left of humanity is a depraved group of slavers and rapists. Fear and hunger and mob mentalities make people do horrible things to each other. The story didn’t let me doubt that reality for one second.

A powerful and disturbing element of the story is the father’s morbid rationalization of suicide and murder-suicide. Whenever he fears that they are discovered and that his son will be taken (to be raped and eaten), he contemplates killing his son out of kindness and then himself because his son is his only reason for living. The sheer force of that blew me away. Reading this book is like a form of self-abuse, since I always take what I read to heart. [Side note: interesting article I read on what I now know is called reader’s transference.]

If the story was nothing but violence and death, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but there are just enough profound and moving moments for me to appreciate just how brilliant the novel is. The son, experienced yet still very innocent, wants nothing more than to find people and help them, “Because we are the good guys. And we’re carrying the fire.” Even when a man robs them of all their food and clothing while they are bathing, the boy cries when his father catches him and makes the thief strip to leave him as bare as the thief left them. The man explains to his son that by taking the thief’s clothes, he only did to the thief what the thief did to them: “I wasn’t going to kill him … after a while the boy said: But we did kill him.”

The ending is tragic yet somewhat hopeful. Hopeful enough that I didn’t curse the day I decided to pick up the book. It’s not a favorite of mine, but I can see why it won a Pulitzer, and though I was very skeptical in the beginning, I’m glad I pushed through and finished it, heavy heart and all.

Favorite Quotes:
“Just remember the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that. … You forget some things, don’t you? … Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget” (12).

“He mistrusted all that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death” (18).

“They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.” (114).

“He thought about each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not” (131).

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Information about my copy for my own records:
Publication:  Paperback, First Vintage International Edition, 2006
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopian, Survival
ISBN: 978-0-307-38789-9

Book Journal: Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book One

The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book One
By Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief is the first book of a YA fantasy series that puts a modern spin on ancient Greek mythology. The plot revolves around the Odyssey-like quest that half-blood Perseus Jackson, son of Poseidon, takes to retrieve Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt.  Along the way, he makes new friends and squares off against foes, all with mythical powers.

Some themes at play within the novel: identity, alienation, bullying, familial struggles, learning disabilities, rebellion, parental acceptance, heroism, power and corruption, nature as beauty

Some Thoughts (Spoiler-ish, fair warning):
This series (at least from what I can tell from the first book alone) is an incredibly interesting take on Greek mythology, from the modern-day interpretations of the gods, demigods, and monsters, to the taste of the ambrosia and nectar. I was constantly thinking, “Wow, that’s so creative. Medusa as a curator of a stone lawn sculpture emporium...” The pacing is fast and exciting. Action takes place within all 22 chapters. The chapter titles are clever and hilarious, e.g. I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher, I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom, I Ruin a Perfectly Good Bus, and A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers.

The book is obviously much, much better than the movie that I saw when it first came out a few years ago. The movie only adapted the basic premise and some of the action scenes and ran with it in the wrong direction.

 I couldn’t help but notice some obvious parallels to the Harry Potter series.  Names in this book have a lot of power and significance. Similar to the universal agreement about the rules of not talking about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Percy is scolded and the sky darkens whenever he directly criticizes Zeus, or whenever he mentions the Furies, etc. Percy has one goofy but brave male best friend and one wise and quick-witted female best friend. He starts off young in the series, with a troubled home life around people who don’t want him, and unexplained, magical things happen to him. He is only just realizing that he has paranormal powers and that he is a part of a world that humans can’t really see or understand. I suppose that’s just a formula for young adult lit. gold.

I do have one issue with a detail in the book, or lack thereof. The gods fall in love and mate with mortals, and that’s how the half-bloods are born.  It is clear that Poseidon fathered Percy, and Percy’s mother birthed and raised him. However, the process is very unclear in AnnaBeth’s case—her father is mortal and her mother is Athena. She claims that as an infant, she was left in a golden cradle on the doorstep of her father’s house. So my question is: did Athena walk around with a big belly knocked up with some human’s baby up in Olympus?  Do the female gods have to carry and birth their own half-blood babies, or are they found in the Olympian cabbage patch? According to the book, the gods don’t want or rarely care about or acknowledge their offspring. I mean, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had to make a pact not to father any half-blood children. So what is it like for the goddesses? Maybe this is something the author didn’t want the reader to think about too deeply, so he glossed over it. But it stuck out for me and bothered me, especially because AnnaBeth makes it a point to tell Percy that he shouldn’t be sexist—of course the female gods like mixing with mortal men just as much as their male counterparts do with mortal women. 

A few other minor complaints:
  • Percy’s stepfather’s name had me rolling my eyes-- Gabe Ugliano. He is dirty and cruel, but he doesn’t need Ugliano for a last name for the reader to understand he is an ugly character.
  • Why did Cerberus, the evil three-headed dog of the Underworld, have to be a Rottweiler? Rottys are always getting a bad rep and the stereotype shouldn’t be reinforced in a children’s book.
  • Ares, the god of war, has a very casual and corny way of speaking. Too casual. His colloquialisms annoyed me. For example: “How would you like to get smashed: classic or modern? … That’s cool, dead boy. Classic it is"

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but not enough to continue the series. This book bordered between children’s and young adult literature, and the content made it hard for me to ignore that I’m not really a part of the target audience. I completely understand why the series is so popular, and I recommend it to Harry Potter fans, Greek mythology buffs (who don’t take themselves too seriously) looking for some light reading, and people who want something  adventurous and carefree to read on the beach.

Favorite Quotes:
“Mrs. Dodds was a sand castle in a power fan. She exploded into yellow powder, vaporized on the spot, leaving nothing but the smell of sulfur and a dying screech and a chill of evil in the air, as if those two glowing red eyes were still watching me” (13).

“My mother was gone. The whole world should be black and cold. Nothing should look beautiful” (59).

“What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might say they are the force of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated” (72).

“Your mother is a queen among women… I had not met such a mortal woman in a thousand years. Still, I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic” (346).

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Information about my copy for my own records:
Publication:  First Disney, Hyperion paperback edition, 2006
Genre: Children’s/Young Adult, Fantasy, Greek mythology, Adventure
ISBN: 978-0-7868-3865-3

Book Journal: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants: A Novel
By  Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is a historical novel that delves into the experiences of a man during the elderly and youthful stages of his life. The central action of the novel takes place in a current-day nursing home and in a Depression-era circus, respectively.  As a young man, Jacob runs away and joins a circus as a veterinarian to the exotic animals.  He befriends and champions many disenfranchised characters, both animal and human, as he struggles with personal loss and star-crossed love.

Some themes at play within the novel:  poverty, working class struggles, unexpected friendship, loss of loved ones, marital violence, mental illness, animal cruelty, and bigotry  (to name a few).

Some Thoughts (Spoiler-ish, fair warning):
I was enamored with the book by the second chapter. Elderly Jacob won my heart right away; he is so witty and charismatic, and he is also quite the sage. His musings on age and physical deterioration touched me deeply. Gruen does a stellar job of getting the reader to understand and sympathize with the trials that elderly people go through in an assisted living/nursing home environment. Jacob fights to maintain his own mental clarity, and he asks for nothing more than his own dignity and some human decency from the detached and jaded nurses. Jacob begins to think of Rosemary as his “angel”, and I couldn’t help but view her in the same light. She is both empathetic towards Jacob’s suffering and sensitive of his pride. The character of Rosemary really defines what a good nurse in elderly care should be—firm in her own stance, but gentle with her patients. 

My main complaint with the novel is Marlena, the “heroine” and Jacob’s love interest. I think Gruen’s characterization of Marlena is poorly shaped. We are told through Jacob that she is beautiful, a talented performer, and has an intuitive understanding of her animals. She doesn’t get very much dialogue to win me over with her personality. When she does talk, she is saying either “No, I can’t, I’m married!” or “No, you can’t, they’re my animals!”   After a while, I stopped caring about her or her destructive marriage to August. She is constantly described as having a strained expression or tapping her feet nervously time and time again (must be Gruen’s authorial tic?). I don’t see anything more to her than good looks and a talent for performing—which makes for a flat character. She is uncommunicative, weak, and tiresome. Honestly, I liked Barbara “the cooch girl” more than Marlena. It’s a shame, because Jacob’s obsession with her takes up much of the book.

Walter, or Kinko, is a favorite of mine. His loneliness is palpable. His love for his Queenie is so sweet and touching and terribly sad all at the same time. When he thought he lost her, my heart actually ached for him. Walter’s character helped open my eyes to the cruelty little people faced through the ages and still face today. Walter’s options are very limited; even his position in the circus is precarious.  His tragic end reflects his tragic life. Though he is often bitter and resentful through much of the book, when he opens up to Jacob and begins to nurse Camel, I could see a very endearing side to a person who deals with nothing but hate and malice from others in his life. He is one character Gruen wrote extraordinarily well. His mortifying “eight-pager” scene sent me into a fit of guilty giggles, though I think that was the point, heh.

There were many surprisingly dark and violent ins and outs of the circus biz at the height of its “glamour” and popularity.  Overall, Gruen paces the novel well, which is paramount in my enjoyment of a book, and the ending is very satisfying and full of redemption. I should add that I simply fell in love with the clever and mischievous Rosie, and not just because she is my namesake. I am animal rights oriented, so this book is extremely hard to get through during the abuse scenes, but a book that evokes a strong feeling, whether good or bad, is a book worth recognizing.

Favorite Quotes:
“When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it’s decades before you admit it” (Gruen 5).

“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse” (Gruen 12).

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Information about my copy for my own records:
Publication: First paperback edition, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, April 2007
Genre: Historical Fiction, Depression Era, Circus Lit.
ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-560-5
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