Life in a 11′ x 11′ Room

Wow.  Room was an amazing read and the author’s style and approach to the story is incredibly interesting and provocative.  The novel takes place through the eyes of 5-year old Jack, a boy who’s never known a world outside of Room, a 11′ x 11′ space.  When I first started reading, I was a bit thrown off by the style.  I wasn’t really sure what was going on.  But soon I realized that the book would lose its power if not told through the eyes of a child.

This novel took me through an emotional roller coaster ride.  The book begins with Jack happily talking about all the fun stuff he does in Room.  Told through the eyes of a child, the 11′ x 11′ room take a life of his own, with meals, physical education, reading, and playing – a pretty normal, happy childhood.  Even though it struck me that something was weird, especially since the boy never talked about anything outside the room, it didn’t really click.  At one point, I was under the delusion that Jack was actually a robot who was “put to sleep” every night in the wardrobe (I know, I’ve read too many science fiction stories). But as the story continues, details continue to leak out that seem a bit out of place.  The strict bedtime, the fact that nothing leaves or enters the room except Old Nick, the fact that Old Nick comes every night around 9 pm and the bed creaks and creaks and creaks.   It’s easy to overlook these details though, because when they’re told through the eyes of a young child, it’s all suffused with a sense of innocence.  You realize something’s weird, but Jack seems so happy, seems like a normal 5 year old boy with an active imagination, like so many other 5 year old boys.

When the details began to unravel, there is nothing but horror.  You realize how much a child who grows up completely cut off from the world doesn’t know – for example, that the TV world isn’t just in the TV – that it’s images of “the outside”.   You realize the horrible situation Jack’s mother is in, and how strong she is to keep it together for so many years.  Ms. Donoghue does a great job of really helping the reader learn about Jack, building a believable character as he encounters experiences that are everyday to us, but obviously very new to a child who has never seen the outside of a Room.

I highly recommend this book.  It will really take you on an emotional journey as only a book written from the point of view of a 5 year old child can.  By showing the world through a 5 year old’s eyes, it turns a horrible, emotionally traumatic situation into something that is at least palatable, although still only barely so.  And in this way, she really brings to light the trauma that results from an abduction. and the love of a mother, pushed to her limits but keeping it together for the sake of her child.

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The Trials and Tribulations of a Reluctant Chef

After reading the book “Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton I’ll be honest – I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, I really admire her.  It takes a lot of guts, hard work, and determination to build your own restaurant from the ground up.  It is no small feat and I really respect her for it.  On the other hand, I have a really hard time relating to her story.  I think a lot of it relates to her youth- all the drugs, stealing, and vagrancy.  It’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that she basically wandered around aimlessly and grew up to be a success.  I’m not saying that she doesn’t deserve her success – she really, really does. But her case is one in a million.   A lot of people who have her childhood don’t grow up to be successes  – a lot of them end up on the street.  A lot of these people are the same people that end up on social programs that are paid for by people who took a more traditional route, studying hard and working hard.

And to be honest, I am a bit jealous.  Jealous of her figuring out what she wants to do and pursuing it so wholeheartedly.  I think most people spend their lives working in jobs that they like but aren’t their passion, their true calling.  I know I do.  I like my work, but I like other things at least equally well if not more.  I could not spend 18 hours a day pouring my life and soul into my job and still be happy, the way Ms. Hamilton does with her restaurant.  I am also jealous of her guts and her fighter instinct.  Being abandoned at such a young age to essentially fend for yourself can’t be easy for anyone.   And she does what it takes to survive.  This same drive and fighter instinct is what drives her to be the success she is today.  And she realizes her “bad-assness”, although I’m not sure I agree with how she portrays it.

“At thirteen, when I was stealing cars and smoking cigarettes I wanted to be badass.  I was cultivating badass.  At sixteen, coked out of my head and  slinging chili at the Lone Star Cafe , I was the understudy to badass, and I knew all her lines and cues.  At twenty-five, blow-torching my way through warehouse catering kitchens, cranking out back-to-back doubles, and napping in between on the office floor with my head on a pile of aprons and checked pants, I was authentically badass.” (P. 200).  I don’t know that I would paint her childhood and young adult exploits as badass.  Or cultivating badass.  In fact I think it was all a bit stupid and I feel weird about her glorifying that type of behavior.  I think what made her badass all those years was her ability to survive.  To figure out how to feed herself, take care of herself, lay the foundations to be something in her future life.  Not the stealing. Not the smoking. Not the drugs.

I think one of my favorite parts of the book is her experience as a panelist for a conference called “Where Are the Women?”  I think it brings to light an issue that you don’t only see in the kitchen, but also in society as a whole.  Women are rarely at the top.  Sure, women are in the workforce.  We hold jobs, do well, and are productive members of society.  But when you look at the numbers – where are the women CEOs? The women chefs? The women in positions of power? “Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder…”(206).  It’s much the same way in industry, where women are often not the CEOs, partially because we give birth and are often the ones to raise the kids – the ones expected to raise the kids. And because it’s a boy’s club up there at the top.  Being at the top doesn’t really cater to people who can’t eat, breathe, and sleep their job.  And this makes me sad because I do believe that women can fulfill these roles just as well as men.  There are many women who are driven to be in these positions of power but keep bumping up against the glass ceiling, apparently prevalent in all industries.  And the advice is still the same, work hard – as hard if not harder than men – and you’ll succeed.  Would I recommend this book? Yes.  Her life is definitely an interesting one.

Dragons, Dragons Everywhere!

Book 4 of the Fablehaven series – “Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary” –  takes us to Wyrmroost, one of the most dangerous dragon sanctuaries.  Once again the Fablehaven team (along with assorted fellow adventurers) are on a desperate quest to beat the Society of the Evening Star to the five artifacts that, together, will release the evil demon Zzyzx.

Mr. Mull continues to develop the characters, giving Seth magical abilities to talk to demons and other shadow dwellers.  He also makes Seth a more likable character – making him a boy who takes calculated risks versus allowing his curiosity to get the better of him.   I find it great that Mr. Mull is able to develop such cool new characters with every new book.  My favorite new character in this book is, without a doubt, Raxtus, a not so big, and not so scary dragon.  Although he can be a bit of a whiner, he’s a comical character, capable of witty banter and flashes of courage.  I can only hope he plays a bigger and bigger role in the last and final novel, “Keys to the Demon Prison.”

The ending of this book, to be honest, seems to be a bit of a cop out, although I can’t come up with a better way for the book to end.  Although I’ve enjoyed the adventure up through now, I think I’m ready for them to end.  It is possible to have too much of a  good thing and I think this series is reaching that point.

I’m rooting for the good guys to win!

Random Acts of Kindness

As I was walking through Times Square today I saw an older man across the street fall.  He looked in pain, and had a hard time getting up.  He reached out his arms to a random stranger who quickly came over, helped heft him up on his feet, picked up the fallen man’s stuff off the ground, gave him a pat on the back and a smile, and, after making sure he was okay, walked away.

A few months ago I was walking to catch a subway and saw an old Asian woman sitting in the corner.  There were no signs asking for food or money, in fact I barely saw her.  But she clearly needed help.  She was emaciated and had no visible sign of family or friends around her.  She must have been at least 70 or 80.  A man stopped, bent down, spoke to her, gave her some food.  He was trying to do what he could to help her.

Everyday I’m amazed by the random acts of kindness I see all around me.

…And Continue! (The Adventures in Fablehaven that is)

These books just keep on getting better and better –  I can’t seem to put them down! I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical after the first book, but now I’m embroiled in the adventure and can’t wait to find out what happens next! (Good thing I have the rest of the series sitting on my bookshelf!) From now on I’m going to view the first book as a new TV show pilot – something you have to push your way through even though it’s often somewhat crappy.  The pilot is necessary, to set the scene and introduce the characters.  I’m hoping the Beyonders trilogy will follow the same trajectory.

So as I said before, “Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague” continues from book 2 as Kendra, Seth, and other members of Fablehaven continue their battle against the Society of the Evening Star.  Once again we meet a slew of new characters with cool new powers and interesting back stories.  We also get to take a journey to another of the super secret preserve and get a better understanding of the story’s universe.  The main plot of this book centers around further conflict with the Society of the Evening Star and Fablehaven’s fight against a mysterious plague that turns good things into evil ones.  And that’s all I’ll say about that (I don’t want to give anything away!)

What I do enjoy (and in a lot of cases dread) about this series is that Mr. Mull has no compunction when it comes to killing off characters. It reminds me a bit of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” series, but not quite as extreme.  I’m always a bit on edge every time the characters go on an adventure or face danger because I’m never quite sure who’s going to come back alive, and I think this gives the books a sense of….not urgency but reality that a lot of books (and movies) don’t have.  In a lot of ways, this makes the books far more complex than I originally thought – which also makes it far more enjoyable than I originally thought.  Back to reading!

The Adventures in Fablehaven Continue!

I have to say that I found “Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star” far more entertaining than the first book.  Mr. Mull remedied many of what I thought were the weaker points of book 1 in book 2.  The characters were less one dimensional having “learned their lessons” from the adventures in book 1, and the plot is much more, well, adventurous.

In “Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star” you get what the title promises.  The Society of the Evening Star, a somewhat amorphous behind the scenes group in book 1, takes an increasingly active role in book 2, although still in deviously mysterious ways.

Mr. Mull also introduces a slew of new characters that make the landscape of Fablehaven richer and more entertaining. You get to meet Vanessa, the mystical creature trapper, Tanu, the poison master, and Coulter, the magic relics collector – all characters that are featured prominently in book 2, and continue to have a presence in book 3 (at least as far as I’ve read – which isn’t very). These characters start off with more depth and intrigue than Kendra and Seth did, possibly because of their exotic professions but also because of their distinct knowledge and personalities.

What I find interesting in this book, as well as the Harry Potter series for that matter, is that in both cases the main characters are, well, not that interesting.  Take Harry Potter for example.  Sure he always defeats Voldemort (I know, spoiler, but seriously, if you didn’t know he defeats Voldemort over and over, have you been living under a rock?!) but his character is just not interesting.  It’s not because he’s a particularly great (or even average) magician, or because he’s wily and cunning with loads of street smarts – it’s because he’s protected by his mother’s love and he has a combination of luck and bravery.  Now don’t get me wrong, luck and bravery are very important in most adventure stories.  But the most interesting characters are so much more than that.

And I feel about Kendra and Seth the same way that I feel about Harry Potter.  They’re just not that interesting.  Luckily though, like for Harry Potter, the plot and the surrounding characters are more than enough to keep the story fun, interesting, and adventurous.

Re-examining the Wild West with Doc

When I think of the Wild, Wild West I imagine bar fights, prostitution, gambling, and dust.  A lot of dust.  The women are pretty, the men are ornery, and the dangers are plentiful.  And there’s definitely all that in Mary Doria Russell’s book “Doc” but it’s so much more than that. In fact, all those things you think about when you think about the Wild, Wild West? All those things are drastically downplayed.  What you do get, is a brilliant character portrayal of some of the notorious characters of that time period  – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  You get to see them as real people – not as the notorious gunslingers forever remembered for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which, by the way, barely gets mentioned at all).

I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up this book.  In fact, I didn’t even really know what the book was about.  Mary Doria Russell wrote “The Sparrow” and “The Children of God” – two incredibly well written and incredibly moving books.  So of course, when I found out that she had written a new book I immediately put myself on the waiting list for it.

So I guess what I was expecting was far off lands and new alien cultures and perhaps a priest.  Well, I guess I got one of the three.  Really, though, I should have expected a Wild West story given the cover features an upright piano and a cowboy hat.

What I love is that she paints all the characters incredibly sympathetically.  You see Doc Holliday as a sickly man, playing up a rough guy image to survive in the Wild West.  You see Wyatt Earp as a man deeply driven by moral right and wrong.   You feel like you really understand the characters and why they behave the way they do.   She also introduces Kate, a prostitute who is Doc’s constant companion (well, as constant as she can be, given her flighty personality). But once again, you don’t see her as merely a whore – you see her as a woman, trying to protect herself and survive.

Would I recommend the book? I’m not sure.  If you’re interested in really getting to know people, then yes, I think it’s great.  If you’re interested in a typical Wild West story? I’m not so sure.  What I wholeheartedly recommend, however, is “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”.