A Long Way Home

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A Long Way Home (Photo: Penguin)When I first saw Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home on a table at the bookstore, I knew it was a story that I needed to read.

This book has been getting a lot of great buzz since it came out (most recently, a film deal off the back of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Looks like the movie will be called Lion and production will begin in August). All you need to do is skim the back to know that it’s a captivating story.

Saroo had become lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.

Despite being happy in his new family, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. When he was a young man the advent of Google Earth led him to pore over satellite images of the country for landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for.

How can you pass this kind of story up?

I think what drew me in – aside from the fact that Brierley’s circumstances and story are extraordinary – is that we’re nearly the same age. I’m 29, Brierley is in his early 30s. We grew up (mostly) with the same sense of Western privilege, the same access to technology. But I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my family, to not know where I came from.

This is a really quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone. I polished it off on a single flight to Nova Scotia (Matt and I are spending a couple of weeks on the east coast of Canada, visiting his family, catching up with friends and getting my Anne of Green Gables fix on Prince Edward Island), and I was struck by Brierley’s self-awareness, resourcefulness and tenacity.

Anyone who has a fascination with technology – especially Google – survival stories, resilience and the ‘smallness’ of our very big world needs to read A Long Way Home. I’m so glad I did.

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Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner (Photo: Random House)I knew it. I knew that eventually in 2014, I would stumble across a book I did not like. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I was hoping that with a streak of 10 really excellent reads in January and February, March would continue to be awesome.

Enter The Maze Runner, which I actually finished last week but am just getting around to posting about now. Next Wednesday is my last day of classes before a long-ish field placement that will take up most of the month of April, so it’s deadlines galore round these parts.

A couple of weeks ago, my English specialization class (I’m a pre-service secondary English language arts teacher) spent some time at the University of Calgary’s Doucette Library of Teacher Resources, which is a fantastic place full of knowledgeable staff who love talking about books for children and young adults. I had heard The Maze Runner was a popular read for kids who liked The Hunger Games series, and with a male protagonist, boys seem quite drawn to this series. So at the end of the seminar, I signed it out.

Maybe the problem is that I’m not a teenage boy, but of all the teenage dystopian fiction out there, I’d say this one is comparatively pretty weak. Yes, we’ve got the familiar theme of teenagers being thrust into uncomfortable situations of leadership as they are manipulated by corrupt adults, and yes, we have lots of pacey, semi-violent combat and strategizing, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The basic premise of The Maze Runner is that 16-ish-year-old Thomas (nobody is really sure how old he is) wakes up in an elevator, which deposits him at a place called the Glade. The Glade is home to several other teenage boys – no girls. Like all the boys, he has no memory of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a maze that is populated at night by creatures called Grievers, which are basically cow-sized slugs covered in saw blades that sting you and/or kill you, depending on their mood. Oh, and the walls close in on the Glade every night, while the walls of the maze outside rearrange themselves into repeating patterns. The boys have been living in the Glade, trying to solve the puzzle of the maze, for two years.

So far, so good, right? Except that where Thomas falls flat is his complete lack of personality. The thing that makes The Hunger Games a bestseller and draws teenagers (and adults) in like moths to a flame is Katniss’s complex range of emotions as she handles truly appalling situations. Katniss is a sharp tack who plays her cards close to her chest. She’s loyal and selfless, but also selfish. She’s confused about love. She’s brave and scared and pragmatic and resourceful and funny and beautiful and complicated. She makes considered decisions sometimes and rash ones at other times. In short, Katniss is human. (This is why the first movie in The Hunger Games series was met with some criticism by fans, because you don’t see a lot of what is going on inside Katniss’s head. However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did a really, really good job of capturing the spirit of the book.)

By contrast, Thomas tends to feel one emotion – frustration. Thomas is frustrated when he can’t remember anything, frustrated when he can’t do the jobs he likes to do, frustrated when nobody will listen to him when he is new. He isn’t lonely, he’s sort of passively protective, he’s brave out of necessity, and he’s kind of a jerk, taking on a leadership role that nobody wants him to have after two days when all the other kids have been there for two years. When a girl shows up, she’s described rather flatly as black-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful. Oddly, she’s telepathic, too. (Perhaps James Dashner  was watching Star Trek: TNG reruns when he wrote this, because she’s kind of the equivalent of an early Counselor Troi before they gave her actual stuff to do.) Descriptions of the girl, Teresa, never move beyond how beautiful she is, how Thomas feels protective of her, and a couple of times, how she is ‘smart’ (without getting into any specifics about how she is smart, like she might be really good at reading maps or doing math or something). It actually really bothers me that some teachers use this book in junior highs and high schools, because it confirms all kinds of gender stereotypes that I don’t think are fair.

To make matters worse, all the kids in the Glade speak in an absolutely hideous made-up slang-language, which they apparently developed after only two years of living in isolation from the rest of their society.

Because we don’t know anything about these characters, it’s very difficult to care about them. Like all good dystopian YA trilogies, this one ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, there’s no emotional connection to anyone. I hate to admit it, but I kind of don’t really care about what happens to Thomas or any of the other kids in this book. They’re really irritating and flat. After I read The Hunger Games and Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequels, but I think I’ll pass on The Scorch Trials.

I’ll also pass on the movie. Even these poor actors in the trailer hate all the slang they’ve been forced into saying. And Teresa isn’t blonde in the book. I feel like they’re likely to make a bad thing worse.

*UPDATE* Whoops, thanks to Mariana, who noticed that the trailer below is the book trailer, not the movie trailer (in which case, I’m still not sure why Theresa is blonde? Though it does explain the acting…). The movie trailer comes out next week, so that is something to look at!

Books on Film: Catching Fire

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Catching Fire (Photo: Lionsgate Films)I went to see the second instalment of The Hunger Games series this weekend in IMAX with my dad. First reaction? YES YES YES!

I’m a big Hunger Games fan. They’re the first books I ever bought on my Kindle without any kind of recommendation from a friend or reading a review in the newspaper. Amazon included The Hunger Games in a list of recommended titles for me on my Kindle based on my previous purchases. I was in an airport flying back to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in July 2011 and thought why not? It was under $10 and looked pretty interesting.

By the time the flight touched down in Sydney an hour later, I was hooked. I was more than hooked. I immediately downloaded Catching Fire and Mockingjay and devoured them on the ferry on my commute to work over the next week. Katniss is one of the best things to happen to girls in teen fiction in a long, long time. She’s smart and sassy and badass. She is sort of like the hunter-gatherer dystopian Veronica Mars without the mystery-solving (no? Is that just me?). I think I might dress up like Katniss for Halloween next year.

I saw the first Hunger Games movie on opening night. As a standalone film, I loved it. I loved Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Actually, the casting is pretty perfect across the board, especially Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz and Donald Sutherland (did you know that I am pretty sure I saw Donald Sutherland at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010? It was either him or just a nice older French man). I loved seeing the Capitol and the arena brought to life. But there were some really important scenes that they either downplayed or that weren’t as important in the movie as in the book. The Katniss/Rue dynamic, for example, was much more moving in the book, and there wasn’t much in the way of backstory in terms of the Everdeen family, etc. There were times where I felt like the movie sacrificed heart and emotion for action. I know I’m not alone in this critique, and so I hoped that for Catching Fire, they were able to find a way to make a movie that was more faithful to the spirit of the book, as well as the events of the book.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Catching Fire is great. Like, really great. There are a few things that go unexplained or are downplayed – the impact of Peeta painting a detailed picture of Rue on the floor during his skills demonstration, for example, never really gets a lot of explanation – but for the most part, it’s very faithful to the book. Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair is pretty much perfect, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee was a really excellent surprise. Elizabeth Banks does a nice job of bringing some sympathetic humanity to Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch is even better than he was the first time around.

Catching Fire is one of those infuriating middle child books like Insurgent and the Girl Who Played With Fire, where the story ends on a cliffhanger.  The movie ends with just enough closure that I’ll be able to sleep at night until Mockingjay: Part 1 next November, but only just. If you haven’t seen it, go. Go now.

(Also, make sure you’re there early enough for the previews, because March 2014 is the new Divergent movie and this was my first look at what it’s going to be like. The trailer looks pretty spectacular. Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews? Yes please! But is it just me or does Four look a little older than he was in my mind? At any rate, this might be an outing for my book club in a few months. Divergent was the first book we read together last spring!)