Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Book Review - Allegiant

The third book in a trilogy is tricky. I've been reading a long time and I've read a lot of series and a lot of endings to series. For example, I love both Return of the King and Deathly Hallows. Both novels wrap ups series and characters that I grew to love over the course of reading all of the books. They conclude the series in a logical way while also giving the reader just enough information to believe that the characters one has grown to love have a fruitful future ahead of them. Life will not be perfect. life may not even be easy, but they have a future that will be more positive than negative. I remember my disappointment after finishing Mockingjay, the conclusion to the Hunger Games series. While not the greatest of literary achievements, I did enjoy the series. However, Mockingjay was a letdown after the action packed, character driven Catching Fire. I wanted to see where their story ended up, but it was kind of slow and predicable. I guess that's what happens when an author has a vision of the dystopia but he or she has to figure out how to get his or her characters out of the dystopian universe. Maybe that's what makes the ending to Orwell's 1984 so perfect. He doesn't let his protagonist out of the dystopia. The dystopia never ends. The dystopia wins. Winston is dead and has finally fully given himself to the ideology of "Big Brother."

It is with those thoughts that I begin my review of Allegiant. Like the other books, I enjoyed it. Possibly more than Divergent, but not as much as Insurgent. At the end of Insurgent the reason for the Chicago colony is revealed, as well as a possible answer to what is outside of the city. At the beginning of Allegiant, Tris, Tobias, and a handful of others rebel against Tobias's mother and leave the city to discover what is truly outside. What they discover is a high tech community stationed at the former O'Hare Airport that has the responsibility of overseeing the activity inside Chicago. It is a modern society that has continued outside of the city. A society where "divergence" is the desired norm. Where "divergence" indicates genetic healing. Many years before scientists attempted to correct the ills of society by playing with genes correcting their mistakes as they went along. What resulted was generations of "Genetically Damaged" individuals. In the "Purity Wars" that followed, pitting "Genetically Damaged" (GD) against "Genetically Pure" (GP), society finally determined that GDs needed to be separated from society in city experiments that would wait to see what would happen to the gene pool if people were left alone long enough to correct the genetic problems that scientists had caused.

A lot happens in the final book and I do not want to reveal too much. It is good but not great. Characters die but I didn't mourn their deaths. I just didn't care enough. There are many twists, but the twists are not completely unexpected even if I didn't predict them. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out on film in the next couple years, and I suppose I should be happy that Tris, while not necessarily a role model I would want my daughter to follow, is certainly a much stronger female character than we are finding in other popular teen fiction.

In many ways I feel that the dystopian genre is starting to suffer a decline due to mainstream marketing. One of the first books of the new era, at least for young adults, was The Giver. I loved the book. I loved teaching the book. I feel it has important themes that children and young adults can discuss. That is the purpose of dystopian fiction, and perhaps it is the purist in me, but I feel that the misfortune of these current mainstream books is that the central message is being lost in favor of romance and action.

Overall the series is a good story with decent writing. I don't believe that is should become mainstream classroom reading, as there are plenty of other choices out there that are better writing and more thought provoking, but the series does make one consider what the end result could be if we continue to insist on playing with genes in the quest to fix our imperfections. Where is the line? And what will happen if or when we cross it? Unlike more serious classics in the genre, I believe the series is more interested in exploring teen relationships and coming of age than it is the greater issues I alluded to above. I believe that the best dystopian fiction is meant to scare us and force us to think about very real current societal issues. I guess I'm just waiting for something that will not just entertain me but challenge me to think about the future. Until then, I'll just have to unhappily settle for ok.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Zombies and Steinbeck Collide

I am not a fan of horror fiction. As a child and pre-teen I didn't get into the Goosebumps series or Christopher Pike books. I like mysteries, but I still don't like horror films. I can handle a good psychological thriller (like Silence of the Lambs) but I hate slasher films. They are gross, purposelessly violent, and make me afraid of the dark. To this day I still have not seen any of the Friday the 13th films or any related to that genre from my childhood. The closest I have come is seeing Gremlins, and let's be honest, that is child's play next to Chucky.

But I love fiction that speculates on what could be. Fiction that looks at our sinful human nature and explores what would happen in the face of any kind of worldwide disaster. So when a new show was being advertised during the early seasons of Mad Men, my husband encouraged me to watch. I have never liked zombie fiction, but within the first couple episodes of The Walking Dead I was hooked. It wasn't the zombies. It was the human struggle for survival, a theme that I love to explore as both a reader and a teacher. A theme that was a favorite of John Steinbeck's. And a theme that runs through one of my favorite books to teach, Of Mice and Men.

Last night, my love of The Walking Dead and Of Mice and Men violently collided in such a way that I was left going to bed emotionally distraught.

I have taught Of Mice and Men nearly ever year of my teaching career and I reread it every year that I teach it. It follows Lennie, a large man with a low IQ who approaches the world with a childlike innocence wrapped in a dangerously large and strong adult body, and George, a quick, intelligent man who simultaneously tolerates and cares for Lennie. They are migrant workers who travel from ranch to ranch, earning money and dreaming of a time when they will have a farm of their own. Lennie believes in the dream. He believes that someday they will have a farm and he will have his very own rabbits that will be his responsibility. He will be able to pet them and love them and no one will stop him. But the dream is a mirage designed to keep a Great Depression induced desperation at bay. Lennie is too loving, too unaware of his own strength. We first see him kill mice because he is too rough with them while he pets their soft skin. Then we see him kill a puppy when his rough handling causes the puppy to bite him and Lennie to inadvertently kills the puppy with his bare hands. Finally we see him pet Curly's wife's hair so hard that it panics her. Her panic causes him to fearfully overreact, resulting in her snapped neck. Curly vows a painful revenge and George takes off to find Lennie before the other ranch hands can hurt him. When George finds him, he has Lennie look off into the distance while George recounts their dream and shoots Lennie in the head before Curly can torture the gentle giant to death. The ending is moving and terrible and shocking and leaves me reeling every time.

It is one of my favorite novels to teach, mostly because in 100 pages Steinbeck is able to evoke a rare, strong reaction from my students. They love Lennie and can't understand why George would kill his friend. I teach in a Christian culture that celebrates the sanctity of life, and in that setting the novel brings up a powerful discussion of the value of life. It challenges my students (and me) to consider what makes life valuable. My students want to know why George couldn't just help Lennie escape, all the while remembering that Lennie has proven that he is a danger to himself and others. They also have to ask themselves if it is better for George to kill Lennie as opposed to letting the sadistic Curly torture and kill him. The answer is never easy, and we often leave the discussion without an absolute conclusion, but they love to hate the book that sucked them in and left them distraught.

Last night's grotesquely beautiful re-rendering of Steinbeck's classic tale was also moving and terrible and shocking. But the difference is that while Lennie operates with a childlike innocence, Lizzie operates with a sociopathic ignorance. Lennie plays with mice and accidentally kills them as he pets them. Lizzie finds rats so that she can feed them to zombies that she believes are actually still alive. Lenny kills the puppy because he doesn't know his strength. Lizzie tortures and kills rabbits (an animal with which Lennie is obsessed) for fun. Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife out of fear that he will have his dream of rabbits taken away. Lizzie kills her sister because she mistakenly believes that it is the only way to prove to Carol and Tyrese that the "walkers" are not as dangerous as everyone believes. Lennie tells George that he has done a bad thing. Lizzie apologizes, not for killing her innocent little sister, but for pointing a gun at Carol when Carol tries to take care of Mika's body. When Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers as Carol tearfully raises her gun, she is not killing an innocent. She is killing a child killer with no awareness that she has done anything wrong.

In the last 24 hours the blogosphere has exploded. The Internet is abuzz with fans and foes alike debating last night's episode. Did they go to far? Did it come from nowhere? Why, with two episodes left, did they go there?

Was I shocked? Yes. Am I distraught? Yes. I understand that these are fictional characters with fictional lives but it was difficult to watch. It was difficult for me to watch as a fan and as a mother. Do I feel they went too far? No.

I struggle with Lennie's death because in 100 pages I learn again and again to love the man-child whose only dream is to live off "the fat o' the lan'." I struggle with Lizzie's death because I hate to see her executioner suffer the death of the dream that she could save two girls to replace the daughter she lost. The moment Carol pulls the trigger she has to trade one dream for a new one. Lizzie destroyed any hope she and Mika had for survival in this post-apocalyptic world. Carol understands that things happen for a reason, a belief that Mika reiterates as they find the house in the middle of the woods, unknowingly foreshadowing her own death. Now Carol has to hope that she can do better for Judith. She couldn't save her own daughter. She couldn't save two girls who, for different reasons, were not made for this life. But maybe she can save Lori's daughter. A little girl born into this world. In Of Mice and Men George must walk away from his friend's body while being reminded by Slim that he "hadda." There is no chance for personal redemption and forgiveness for George, just more of the same as he wanders from one ranch to the next, only now without a companion who keeps the dream alive. But Carol has one more chance to do it right, and I look forward to watching her do it.