Best of 2014

I’ve never done a best-of-the-year list before, but I love reading them, and I’ve consumed a lot of really good stories this year. So here’s a list of my favorite things of the year.

Favorite Books Read

As of today, December 20, I’ve read 96 books towards my goal of 100 for the year. Eleven days to read 4 more books? No problem! But of those 96, some were fun, some were mediocre, and some were so shockingly wonderful.

woolWool by Hugh Howey

I honestly don’t know if I have enough words to praise this book! My friend Micah told me a couple of years ago to read it, and since then, two other highly respected book friends have recommended it to me, and I finally got around to it a few weeks ago (and have since read the second book in the trilogy). Howey self-published Wool several years ago, and it gained ground quickly, for good reason.

In the first novel, we’re introduced to the residents of a silo, which is a self-contained civilization. There’s a distinct class system, perfectly delineated by the levels of the silo, and everything seems to run as it should. But in the very first chapter of the book, we’re introduced to a sheriff who elects to go to a “cleaning,” in which he is put into a kind of biohazard suit and sent outside the silo to clean the windows…and then to die. Through his perspective, we learn that all is not well within the silo, but this main character is gone before he really gets to narrate any of the story. In the aftermath of his cleaning, the mayor and deputy must appoint a new sheriff, and I won’t tell you anymore because that would strip away all the joy you’ll get in reading this thought-provoking, fascinating dystopian series. The second book, Shift, isn’t as strong as the first one was, but I’m nonetheless eagerly looking forward to the conclusion to the story, Dust.

fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Everyone loves Rainbow Rowell. With Eleanor & Park, she (deservedly) made a huge name for herself in the YA world. And as wonderful as Eleanor & Park is, her second YA novel Fangirl is far and above my favorite of all the books she’s written (and I’ve read them all this year!). Fangirl, in fact, is the only book I actually read twice this year, and I’m already itching to read it again.

Fangirl is the book I needed long ago, and probably still need now. Cath is beginning her freshman year at college and trying to balance a class load (including a Serious Writing Class) and writing Harry Potter-esque fanfiction. She struggles to maintain her relationship with her twin sister and her father, but she also struggles to define who she is and what she wants. And there’s a great guy named Levi who loves Cath because of her geeky, fangirl ways, and my gosh, doesn’t every fangirl dream of that?

A lot of my less-geeky friends didn’t enjoy Fangirl as much because Rowell blends the story of Cath with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow stories as well as excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction. It’s such a great love story–both between Cath and Levi as well as for Cath and the worlds of fiction that she loves so much.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I wrote about this in my last blog post about Interstellar, so I won’t summarize or reflect here. But this science fiction novel about Jesuits traveling to space in search of extraterrestrial life is one of the most profoundly moving explorations of faith I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I love it when science fiction, which is often overlooked as being trivial or unworthy, can so accurately depict issues of the human condition. This is a heavy book to read, but it’s a book that has never left me, that I’ll carry with me always.

hawkeyeThe Hawkeye comics by Matt Fraction

I LOVE HAWKEYE. I loved Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of him in The Avengers, obviously, but Matt Fraction has done incredible things with Marvel Now’s Hawkeye series. I bought a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, which allows me access to comics on my tablet, and I burned through all the Hawkeye comics available very quickly. They are funny and moving and just so wonderful. And the best thing about them is that the Hawkeye name is shared–by both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, who is part of the Young Avengers. The fact that both a male and female can share the name and the responsibility of working with the Avengers is wonderful. There is just so much right about these stories, and the artwork, relying on lots of purple illustrations, is beautiful!

Favorite Movies Watched

grootbabyFavorite Superhero Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

I mean, really. I saw this four times (as many times as I watched The Avengers in theaters) and had to talk myself out of seeing it at least a dozen more times. It’s funny. And snarky. And super weird and sci-fi. With a great soundtrack. And Chris Pratt. And Groot. My gracious, I love this movie. And as much as I loved X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: Winter Soldier (which were both better than their predecessors), Guardians was definitely my favorite superhero movie released this year.

And everyone needs more dancing baby Groot in her life.

snowpiercerFavorite Dystopian Film: Snowpiercer

All the survivors of the world after a major climate disaster are placed upon a train that continually travels and sustains the life on board. Eighteen years have passed since the disaster, and Chris Evans leads a revolution that reveals the class struggles on board the train. He begins his fight at the end of the train, where he works and lives with all the other lower-class people who must help to power the train. He fights his way through all the classes on board to the very front, where he confronts the leader of the train, played by Ed Harris. It’s violent and gripping and highly revelatory of Marxist class struggles: everything that I look for in a dystopian film. I can’t believe how good this movie is.

grand budapestFavorite Comedy: The Grand Budapest Hotel

To be fair, I don’t watch a lot of comedies, so this one was by far the easiest pick. But this was also one of my favorite movies of the whole year. It’s the first Wes Anderson movie I’ve ever watched (please don’t stone me–I’m a fan now and I’ll make up for it, I promise!), and I laughed out loud through the whole thing. Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H and Zero Moustafa as his Lobby Boy are just the kind of weird characters I wish I could find at hotels. (And the supporting cast: Tilda Swinton and Adrian Brody and Owen Wilson and all the other Wes Anderson regulars!) They fight off Nazis and steal artwork and have grand adventures, and this movie is just so wonderful and wacky and fabulous and lovely.

Favorite Classic Movie that I Should Have Watched Years Ago: 2001: A Space Odyssey2001

I really have no excuse. I’ve even owned this for two or three years. But after Interstellar, which relies heavily on imagery that reflects 2001: A Space Odyssey, I finally watched it–and loved it, of course. The monoliths and Hal 9000 and Dave the Astronaut–it’s such a pivotal, important sci-fi story, and I was riveted through the whole movie. The imagery of space travel is lovely, and the cinematography is astonishing. I mean, the scene of Frank running onboard the round spacecraft! It’s so good! I’m glad I finally watched it, if only to understand jokes about getting shoved out of an airlock.

Favorite Movie About Space: Interstellar

I love Matthew McConaughey. And time travel. And black holes. And this movie.

Favorite Animated MovieThe Lego Movie

An everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) is summoned to save the world from a terrible dictator. It’s a dystopian movie! And it’s funny! And cute! And, yes, it might have some feminist issues, but I had a lot of fun watching this. And Lego Batman is delightful.

‘Mastery of small, telling gestures’: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.Favorite Movie Starring Tom Hardy: Locke

It was hard to choose between this one and The Drop, but ultimately, Locke has to win on the sheer basis that Tom Hardy is THE ONLY PERSON IN THE MOVIE. I mean, sure, we get the voices on the other end of the phone, but the movie is literally just Tom Hardy driving from one place to another, trying to solve a crisis at work, take responsibility for a personal problem that he has, and fix his family life. It’s hard to watch, and Tom Hardy is stellar at telling a story using his voice and facial expressions and reactions to the people on the phone. I was riveted by a movie that literally involves one guy driving down the road the whole time. Tom Hardy is a freaking genius actor, and I wish more people realized that. (Also, he’s beautiful. There’s that.)

In 2014, I saw almost as many movies as the number of books I read. And, honestly, I saw more great movies than read great books. I read books that disappointed me, or angered me, or were just intended to be light, fluffy reads. But with films, I’m drawn to superhero films, sure, but also well-made dramas and insightful, if violent, movies. And there were so many great films that I watched this year that I had a hard time narrowing it down to just these 6. I’m very eager to see what my reading/viewing habits look like in 2015.

As for reading, I found this great reading challenge on Tumblr this morning that I’m going to try. I’m thinking about revising it for a movie-watching challenge, too, for the first time, so stay tuned for that!

reading challenge

On to 2015! 

More Than This

Ask me what my favorite book is, and I’ll pause because, for some reason, my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME isn’t all that popular in the United States. Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go should be the most famous dystopian young adult novel of all time. It’s far better written, way more thought-provoking, and definitely more relevant than The Hunger Games (which I liked a lot, so no offense there). It inspired me to write my M.A. thesis (I even borrowed a quote for the title of my thesis), and it gets better every time I read it (four times now). Ness’ follow-up young adult novel, called A Monster Calls, was beautiful and haunting and award-winning and NOTHING like his Chaos Walking trilogy. Ness is brilliant. He is versatile. And he breaks my heart every flipping time.

I’ve finally finished his newest book More Than This.

* * *

More-Than-This-Patrick-Ness-628x1024“‘People see stories everywhere,’ Regine says. ‘That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.’ She glances back at Seth. ‘We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.'”

* * *

More Than This was released last month, and I’ve been reading it for the better part of a month, only because it’s impossible to read when one is a writing teacher, not because the book wasn’t utterly engrossing.

The book begins hauntingly: “Here is the boy, drowning.” No pretense. Seth dies before we’ve even reached the official first chapter. Seth, our protagonist, wakes up in a desolate wasteland in the town in England where he lived as a child. He is alone, naked, and covered in metallic bandages. The head injury the he sustained before drowning seems to have no bearing on this reality in which he exists now. And he’s got to figure out what’s going on.

He thinks he’s in hell, that this is the afterlife: alone, transported to a place where his life was utterly different. He believes he has to pay penance for the choices he made as both a child and a teenager. Then, he meets Regine, a large, sassy, black girl, and Tomasz, an intelligent, sweet, brave Polish boy. And his understanding–as well as our understanding–of reality completely shifts.

I can’t really say anything more than that. This book is a whole lot of things that have to be experienced on one’s own. It’s terrifying; I wouldn’t let myself read when I was home alone at night. I seriously tried to read as much as possible during daylight hours. This book is unnerving, constantly challenging my expectations of where the story was heading. This books is confrontational, as if it and I were in constant conversation; it kept subverting my understanding of the story and throwing ideas and philosophies in my face. If this book were a person, it and I would have some spectacular verbal fights. And maybe throw a few fists, too. And we would respect each other for our differences.

Terrifying, unnerving, and confrontational are good qualities for this story to have. It’s an existential journey through a desperate world; the characters and the readers will both question reality and push against the constraints of what is and ought to be. It’s a story about people who face a desolate future and know that there has to be more than this; they are the few who get the chance to find out what this is or might be, and they fight to find the truth and to discover what really matters.

That being said, the ending made me angry. I closed the book, closed my eyes, and said audibly, “What are you doing to me, Patrick Ness?” This book affected me differently than all his other books. I wanted a different ending; I wanted confirmation, closure, but the book wouldn’t give that to me. I don’t think the book is capable of giving that to me; everything contained within the story led to this conclusion. I just didn’t want to accept it.

Ugh, this is so vague. I can’t give you any more than this, though. (Did you see what I did there?) This book was fantastic, and Ness is still the genius I always thought him to be. When I read Ness’ books, I have to suspend my expectations, put my trust in his storytelling abilities, and hold on for the ride. It’s worth it every time, for the way he makes me perceive the world in which I live, for the way he makes me hope for better things in the face of adversity, for the way he makes me want to fight oppression and negativity. For the way I get absorbed in a story that engages my mind and my heart. For the way I want to yell at him for what he does to the story and then hug him for making my life better.

Patrick Ness is amazing. I have so much respect for him. And I’m doing my level best to convince everyone I know to read his stuff. Get to it, people!

A Reading Roundup

I’ve been a wretched blogger lately. Let me be honest: when I was writing my thesis, I got out of the habit. It happens; maybe there are only so many words in me, and most of those needed to be devoted to that glorious monstrosity. I would like to declare that, now that I’m an M.A. without half the responsibilities of a few months ago, I’ll be a better blogger. That might not be true, so I’m not making promises. But here’s the second post of June, so that’s at least some semblance of progress.

I last posted a book review two months ago, when I finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, I’ve read quite a few stellar books, so here’s a quick review:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I began this novel on a road trip from Williamsburg, VA. My friend Jenna was driving the whole almost-8-hour trip on that rainy Sunday, and I finished the first 200 pages before we arrived home. What a perfect way to begin a book that is, at least in part, the story of a road trip across America. The protagonist of the novel, named Shadow, meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as an assistant/bodyguard. Shadow, an ex-con and recent widower, joins Mr. Wednesday in what becomes a battle of mythological forces across America. This novel is a fascinating tale of what happens to gods and goddesses when their worshipers immigrate to America as well as the way in which new gods and goddesses form as society evolves. In the midst of searching for the gods of America and preparing for a coming war, Shadow is also on a quest to discover life after the life he once cherished dissolves. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style (across genres–in novels, movie/TV scripts, short stories, comic books, and books for children), and this book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative of American culture (from a man who is, natively, a Brit). Hopefully, I’ll soon read the companion novel Anansi Boys, and according to Gaiman’s Twitter feed, he is currently adapting the novel for a script for a television show.

China Mieville’s Railsea

Mieville is one of the three authors I studied for my thesis. He is quite prolific, turning out a book a year for at least the past four years, all of which have been incredibly well-written and thought-provoking and distinct. This novel, his first young adult novel in several years, is a retelling of Moby Dick. Instead of ships, however, the crew travel on trains along the railsea, in a fascinating world that Mieville has created. The protagonist of the novel is Sham ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice who longs to salvage the wrecks of trains along the railsea. His captain, instead of hunting a great white whale, is searching for a great Southern moldywarpe, with whom she had battled (and lost) years before. One fabulous aspect of this novel, as my thesis advisor pointed out in our conversations about the book, is that, instead of allowing the beast to act as metaphor (as Melville did in Moby Dick), Mieville jumps straight to the point: each captain is in search of a “philosophy” that drives his or her journeys across the railsea. The moldywarpe becomes this captain’s obsession, but Sham soon discovers his own philosophy after finding a photo memory card in a trainwreck. The results of his search are fantastic and fascinating. One downside to this book, however, is that those not familiar with Mieville’s style might have a hard time with his language use and the sci-fi content of the book. Mieville is part of a movement of sci-fi writers called the “New Weird,” and his novels definitely are not written for every audience (but what book is?). My suggestion: if you want to try reading Mieville, start with his detective novel The City & the City (the book I wrote my thesis on), an work your way through the rest of his books from there.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

I knew as soon as I picked this novel up that I would love it–the title, the steampunk cover, and, of course, the dystopian premise. Also, even though I haven’t heard much about it (as with, say, The Hunger Games), the novel did win the Michael L. Printz Award (sort of like the Newbery for young adult literature) and was a National Book Award finalist. Prestigious. The book follows Nailer, one of the titular ship breakers, who is part of a “light crew” responsible for crawling through the bowels of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge for copper and other materials to sell. After a vicious storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, where the novel is set, Nailer is scavenging aboard a clipper and discovers a wealthy young girl alive in the wreckage. Eventually, Nailer and “Lucky Girl,” as she comes to be called, must flee the coast in an effort to reunite her with her father’s people and also escape from people who want both Nailer and Lucky Girl dead. The novel, as most dystopian novels are, is an interesting portrayal of society; following whatever disaster wrecked the country, cities have been destroyed and people fight for survival, yet, still, the wealthy remain powerful and the poor remain powerless. Like so many other dystopias, this novel focuses on class consciousness in a prominent way, and I, personally, am glad to see the social commentary take the focus instead of a love triangle in which a girl must both decide whom she loves as well as overthrow a government. In this novel, Nailer and Lucky Girl really do have to fight really hard for survival, and the consequences of that fight are revealed throughout the novel.


Most of the rest of my planned summer reading follows this sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian theme, unsurprisingly. I’m currently about halfway through Max Brooks’ fascinating novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I’ve just checked out the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which is called The Drowned Cities. Soon, too, I plan to delve into a lengthy novel called 1Q84, which has been both critically acclaimed and bestselling, a rare feat in the publishing world these days. That novel is 925 pages, though, and I’ll be honest and say I’m a bit intimidated by the sheer size and weight of that book. Still, I’m told it’s a worthy conquest. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll have more wonderful books to write about!

Nietzsche and Me

I spent about two hours total of my afternoon reading “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche. Because I’m addressing the issue of language use and its ties to religion in dystopias, my office mate Tim recommended this essay to me on Thursday. On Friday, as I was reading a research guide to theorists with application to dystopia, I found another mention of this essay. So I read it.

Nietzsche is seen as a precursor to postmodernism, and that’s abundantly clear in this essay. He believes that man constructs a conceptual framework that is far removed from the original idea that it seeks to represent. Over time, this framework is presented as truth, and so man equates the concept with the truth. We tend to follow this method because of the natural laws of the universe. We can all agree to perceive that red is red, a tree is a tree. Thus, when society agrees that a concept or metaphor is true, man believes it to be so. Moreover, man constructs truth only in relation to himself, not to the universe as a whole because his perception is only one of myriad perceptions within the universe. The entire construction of concepts is a deception, but man has no qualms with deception so long as he is not being injured by the deception. Man hates a lie only because of the harsh consequences accompanying that lie.

Nietzsche goes a lot more in-depth, obviously, and he also goes on to discuss how science replaces language as the creator of the conceptual framework. But as I’m reading and attempting to grasp his ideology, I’m recognizing truth within his argument. Yes, we do construct truth that is based on our own experiences and perceptions. I cannot create a concept of a tree based on a bird’s perception. I can’t create a concept of a tree based on my brother’s perception.

My worldview, however, is vastly different than Nietzsche’s. I do not believe that God is dead (and we have killed him). Instead, I see, within humanity’s creation of a conceptual framework, the results of the Fall. Perhaps in Eden, Adam and Eve had the exact same perception of God and nature and truth and reality. But with original sin came difficulty and confusion. God may not be the author of confusion, but humanity is, and in seeking to control the universe in which we live (through the creation of metaphor and concept), humanity seeks to wrestle control away from God.

Yet the nature of God is not totally absent from this creation of metaphor and concept. Nietzsche argues that we create metaphor following the pattern of the creation of nature. As a Christian, I have to believe that we create because God created, and because we are created in His image, we, too, must create as a reflection of His nature. We fall short, however. We miss the mark; we get it wrong. Thus, we are left with metaphors and concepts that can only reflect the original idea, not innovate.

Maybe this post makes sense, or maybe it doesn’t. Right now, my brain is full of Nietzsche’s ideas, so my own argument might be convoluted as a direct result. But as I’m researching and reading and pondering the nature of British dystopian fiction, I’m learning about myself as a scholar and a Christian. My faith in a God of truth and light is strengthened when I am confronted by a world of lies and darkness.

In Mumford & Son’s “After the Storm,” Marcus sings, “You must know life to see decay.” Huxley and Orwell and the others created worlds in which darkness and chaos reign. And I certainly believe that our society, like the natural world, is moving toward entropy, becoming less ordered and more chaotic–this is a result of the Fall, after all. More and more I understand that I cannot store up my treasures on earth, for society is fallible and oppressive. But the ability to recognize truth within the darkness, and to sense the nature of God in philosophy that directly opposes even the presence of God, is a marvelous thing. I love that I can read Nietzsche and attempt to understand his philosophy and see truth in his perception of the world while simultaneously believing in and worshiping a God whose kingdom does not engage with chaos and deception.

“O brave new world that has such people in it”

Mustapha Mond checked him. “But [God] manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that’s described in these books. Now . . . ”

“How does he manifest himself now?” asked the Savage.

“Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all.”

“That’s your fault.”

“Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice.”

-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

This morning, I finished reading, for the first time ever, Brave New World. Because the novel is such a pivotal text for dystopian literature, I knew I needed to be very familiar with the story. In fact, in reading this book, particular the last few chapters (including the above quote), I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t adjust my theories about dystopian literature to include the overwhelming absence and perversion of religious ideology in dystopian settings. After reading Brave New World (as well as P.D. James’ The Children of Men and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier in the summer), I just don’t think I can ignore the fact that writers of dystopian fiction, in some way, must inevitably deal with religious identity in these futuristic societies.

Finishing Brave New World almost made me sick. When I read of Huxley’s fictional society shoving God out of every aspect of civilization–hiding Bibles in safes, removing the word “God” and the cross and the person of Jesus from the collective consciousness of its people–and when that society managed to finally abolish the very last remnant of Christianity in the form of a boy named John, I was enraged. I haven’t felt so much tension at the finish of a book in a long time (maybe since reading V for Vendetta, even).

Tension can be good, though. Tension involves wrestling with ideas and strengthening one’s faith. I guess I never imagined that writing my thesis on such a dark topic would be easy, but I certainly didn’t imagine that just reading a novel would so strongly affect my mood this early on. I’ll be immersed in this topic until April. I’m just beginning this road to the end.

Once more, though, I’m reminded of why I can choose to study such texts. I serve a loving God whose Kingdom is not of this world. Even if I face a future society from which God is utterly removed, I know Truth and the Author of Truth. The brave new world that I can anticipate is certainly not an earthly world, and it is certainly a place where Huxley’s dystopian civilization with never reign.

Life As We Knew It

This is the first book in a trilogy called the Moon Crash Trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I had heard nothing of it until I picked up the third book in B&N one day, intrigued by the cover (all 3 books have a large moon prominently featured). After I discovered that it was a trilogy, I was excited to find that B&N had the first book for $1.99 in a large online sale a few weeks ago.

The story begins in Spring–school is ending for Miranda and her classmates, and their teachers keep assigning homework related to astronomy because the news has been reporting that an asteroid is on collision course with the moon. No one is worried about the crash, just intrigued, until the night of the collision. The asteroid is denser than astronomers realize, knocking the moon closer to Earth and resetting the gravitational field. Of course, tsunamis wipe out the coastlines of America, earthquakes rumble all over the world, and long-dormant volcanoes begin erupting.

The story is told by 16-year-old Miranda through her diary as she, her mother, and her brothers struggle to survive the aftermath. Pfeffer does a great job of lending a sense of isolation to the setting–isolation that frustrates them, but eventually saves their lives. Miranda is also a good protagonist, I think–sometimes, she’s a selfish teenager, but other times, she’s a fighter, just as she needs to be.

I only had a few issues with the books, and those were mostly with writing style. First, I don’t think Pfeffer wrote urgently enough for the initial crash. It was a very quick scene–block party atmosphere with neighbors watching the sky, crash, oh-know-the-moon-is-closer, panic, sing national anthem, go inside to listen to the news. Maybe I was reading too fast, but the catastrophic event needed a few more pages of description.

Other times, specific details would have been nice. For example, Miranda burns pages of her textbook at one point, and she goes through the thought process of whether she should burn them or not before deciding to. But she never writes down which textbooks she chose. All the thought process involved, and she should have at least said something like. “I hate science. That will be the first to burn.” There’s beauty in the details.

All in all, though, I found this to be quite enjoyable. I started reading yesterday afternoon and finished this morning, so it’s a quick read, as well as being engrossing. The second book, The Dead and the Gone, is actually a companion novel, with characters in New York City who experience the aftereffects of the moon crash. Then, the final book, which was released in April brings those characters to Pennsylvania to meet Miranda. I’m very much looking forward to the final two books (and I’ll probably leave soon to go buy the second one!).

Monsters of Men preview

Two of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read (and two of my favorites from last year’s reads) are Patrick Ness’ epic dystopian novels The Knife of Never Letting Go and its sequel The Ask and the Answer. These two books are the first two in the Chaos Walking trilogy, and the last book Monsters of Men was released in the UK this week. Mr. Ness posted the trailer for the book on his blog, and it’s really awesome:

The only problem is the book won’t be released in the US until September. I have to wait five more months to get my hands on an authentic US copy. I’m seriously considering eBay–I might be able to order a copy from the UK, for far more money than I would pay if I waited until September. It might be worth it, though…especially since I’ve seen this trailer.

Dreams are fading out.

When my alarm went off this morning, I woke up from a really disturbing dream. The kind of dream that made me afraid to go back to sleep, even for those 15 minutes until my next alarm. The kind of dream that made me want to squeeze my eyes shut and never open them again. The kind of dream that made me afraid that life had altered irrevocably in the eight hours I’d been asleep.

I wasn’t the main character in the dream, but I felt everything he was feeling. I only remember brief snatches of the dream, fortunately. A man and his son were in some sort of large shopping center or department store (subconsciously pulling in the shopping cart from The Road, perhaps?). It wasn’t a store any longer, though. Some sort of disaster had occurred (i.e. the apocalypse or something), and groups of people were waging a war against each other. I can’t even describe the terror of just moving through the aisles of this store. Anyway, a group of evil men were hunting for this man and his son, and they kidnapped the boy. The man had tried to flee with his son, but to no avail. He dashed into the parking lot, searching in vain for the vehicle they could have escaped in. The parking lot was pitch black dark, with rows and rows of empty vehicles. The man knew that he had arrived at the store in a minivan of some kind, but he couldn’t even remember what specific vehicle was his or where he had parked it. He was desperate and hopeless. When I woke up, he was standing in an empty parking lot, with no one around, absolutely certain his son had already been killed, and knowing that nothing remained that was worth living for.

Dramatic? You bet. My first thought? I’ve got to stop reading dystopian literature.

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of dystopian novels and seen a lot of dystopian films: the book and film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend; Patrick Ness’ young adult novels The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer; other children’s books like The Giver and The Last Book in the Universe; Alan Moore’s graphic novels Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Books and films that have impacted me greatly–enough so that out of all the books I read and films I’ve seen, these made it into blog posts within the last year or so.

I enjoy dystopian literature and films, in a very strange way. Dystopian texts, and post-apocalyptic texts, remind me that, right now, life is worth fighting for. I have hope in a God who cares for me and for this world, and I’m blessed in immeasurable ways as a result of that. Dystopian settings, depressing and often empty of any higher power, are an other that I can’t really understand outside of my own faith. You can’t understand darkness until you understand light.

I never really realized how much it affected me. Sure, some of my favorite books are dystopian novels that make me feel angry while realizing the power of love. Yes, I wept during the film adaptation of  The Road. Now, my dreams are taking place in a dystopian society, full of fear, hatred, and anger? Maybe I don’t need to see The Book of Eli just yet, even though I’m so intrigued by it.

Maybe I also need to read happier books. I’m working on L.M. Montgomery’s The Story Girl, happy, light reading. But next up on the list is Dickins’ Hard Times for the class on the Victorian Period that I’m auditing. Not so much happy.

At least this dream is making me realize what those books and films do, as well: I have a God who’s in control of everything–my own life, the lives of my students, the lives of baseball players who take steroids, and the lives of poor people in Haiti. I may not live in a utopia, but I certainly don’t live in anything resembling dystopia, either.

“In a way you’ll live forever.”

“But I know who the real hero is, and it isn’t me or even the brave Lanaya. It’s an old man with a white beard and a walking stick and a heart so big it won’t let him stop thinking he can change the world by writing things down in a book that no one will ever read.”

-Rodman Philbrick, The Last Book in the Universe

* * *

In this dystopian novel, books no longer exist. No one reads. No one remembers what life was like before the Big Shake that destroyed civilization. One old man named Ryter is writing the last book in the universe, recording memories from his ancestors and a record of life as it exists now.

Spaz, the protagonist, lives in what’s called a “latch,” a sort of chaotic community run by a latchboss. He needs help getting back to the latch where he once lived, where his adopted sister Bean is dying of leukemia because the cure has been lost. Ryter insists that he go with Spaz, to record this last adventure before he dies.

Other characters in this story are “proovs,” genetically improved people. They’ve been programmed to resist diseases and cancer, so they have no need of chemotherapy that can cure Bean’s disease. Spaz meets a proov named Lanaya, and the three of them fight off gangs of evil people to get to Bean. All the while, Ryter spouts poetry and discusses events that took place before the Big Shake, drilling into Spaz the importance of keeping a written record, of writing down one’s story.

A beautiful moment happens toward the end of the story. Bean asks Ryter why he constantly makes references to being old and dying. Ryter worries that he won’t have time to finish his book. Bean’s response reveals that she understands the importance of story: “”But would it ever really be finished?’ she asks. ‘I thought the book was your life, and it would only end when your life ends. Except it won’t really end, because people will read it and remember, so in a way you’ll live forever.'”

This book is a dystopian novel, set in a chaotic world. It’s not as dark as many other dystopian novels I’ve read, making it suitable for younger readers. Just as with other dystopian stories, Philbrick has established a jargon for his world. Fortunately, this jargon either explained or easy to figure out.

It’s really a great story. Ryter quotes Frost and Yeats, which had me cheering internally as I read. He’s a great character, wise and intelligent and courageous, inspiring Spaz to be more than just a slave to the latchboss and to fight for the things that are right and good. This is a re-read for me, but it’s definitely one I would go back to again and again.

“We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”

“Do you love me?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”

“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.

“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.

Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory.

“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,'” his mother said.

“Or,” his father suggested, “‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.'”

“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.

Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.

It was the first lie to his parents.

* * *

This excerpt from The Giver by Lois Lowry comes just after Jonas receives a memory of Christmas and family. It’s the first time he’s ever experienced real love, and it transforms him. This passage gives me chills–to think that such a society could exist with the absence of love.

In case you’ve been living under a rock and have never heard of this book, I’ll give you a brief summary. This novel takes place in a dystopian society in which every citizen conforms to the same concept of Sameness. As each child approaches the Ceremony of Twelve, he or she is given an assignment–a career choice, if you will, although a committee decides for each child based on his or her aptitude and interests. Jonas is chosen as the Receiver of Memories. He alone will receive the collective memory of society (collective unconscious, anyone?). He must carry the burden of all the emotions–happiness, love, pain, fear. He experiences poverty, war, hunger, sunshine, snow, Christmas, family, joy. No one else in the community ever knows that such extremes existed.

This is a world with color. Without art. Without music.

Without love.

It’s chilling in its portrayal. The novel beautifully explores notions of freedom. It made me realize that freedom of choice–in what I’ll wear, in where I’ll go to school, in whom I’ll marry–is something I often take for granted. What if that choice were taken away from me? Would I miss choice if I’d grown up without it?

I re-read this book this week because I was working on a paper for adolescent literature on how to use literature to teach social justice to secondary students. I chose this book and The Knife of Never Letting Go as examples of dystopian literature that can be used in the classroom. Dystopian literature is so intriguing and thought-provoking because it shows the extremes to which society could go if preventative action isn’t taken. Will we fight against those who remove choice? Will we fight for the oppressed? Can we make a change and avoid a bleak future?

Something to think about.