Tuesday, December 27, 2011

SAT vocabulary

Before I started listening to audiobooks, I was a one-book-at-a-time reader (and, of course, I finished that book before starting the next). Now, I'm a tad more loose; but I got a little mixed up this past week listening to the dystopian Chicago of Veronica Roth's Divergent, while reading about dystopian Los Angeles in Marie Lu's Legend. Occasional muddling ensued, as did occasional amusement. Divergent, which ran away with Goodreads' Choice Award for Favorite Book of 2011, has that Hunger Games magic mix of bleak, maybe totalitarian, environment; girl with no future who triumphs over grueling physical and mental challenges, and ... oh yeah! finds romance.

Beatrice Pryor's 16th birthday is approaching, the day when she will evaluate the results of her aptitude test and formally choose which faction in which she will spend the rest of her life. Beatrice has been raised in Abnegation, one of five factions making up society in a future Chicago, and the only faction to hold political power (since they won't be swayed by its privileges). Each faction believes that it is the true path to solving the society's problems, and they live in uneasy coexistence. The test results tell the teens which faction is the place where their personalities will work best, but the society does not insist that a student select that faction on their Choosing Day. Beatrice, however, does not get a clear result on her aptitude test. She is told that she is Divergent, that she has aptitude for Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless (but not Amity or Candor). And that under no circumstances should she share the results of her test with anyone. "Divergence is extremely dangerous."

On Choosing Day, Beatrice rejects her family and chooses Dauntless. Her older brother also leaves, choosing Erudite. Beatrice is plunged (literally) into an initiation that values physical power and "bravery" as a means of fixing society. (The quotes are mine, I didn't like this part.) When the month-long training is over, initiates will have endured countless episodes of physical violence, as well as a series of simulations where they are forced to face their deepest fears. Those who do not make the cut are severed from Dauntless and join the ranks of the factionless, doomed to live their lives in isolation and poverty. Beatrice becomes Tris, gets a few tattoos, bonds with some of her fellow initiates (and makes enemies of others) and her instructor, Four, and stumbles upon a plot designed to bring other factions to power.

The story is more complex than I've described -- and it thoughtfully addresses adolescent issues of community, family and where to belong -- but I found the violence deeply disturbing. It's clearly a military approach of break them down/build them up, and the novel reveals to us that Dauntless training was not always this way, but its glorification bothered me. I felt like I was meeting all the District One and Two tributes in training for The Hunger Games. Tris and her friends are sympathetic, but on the whole I didn't like any of them. When the plot to destroy Abnegation kicks in, the story became more of a thrill and I enjoyed the last pages. The romance is very sweet as well. And, in case you didn't know, Tris and Four will return.

Dystopian Chicago was very interesting to me, as Roth refers to various landmarks (the Bean, the Hancock Tower, I even think that Dauntless headquarters was at Wrigley Field?) familiar to almost everyone. Their decay and dilapidation leant an air of eerie horror to the novel, the feeling that our society today is just a disaster or two removed from Tris's.

Divergent is narrated by Emma Galvin, a new-to-me narrator (here's a short interview). She has a lovely reading voice, low and quiet with enough youthfulness to make you believe that she's a teenager. She brings a lot of intensity to her narration, which is perfectly in line with the character of Tris. She doesn't attempt to identify characters with vastly different voices, but uses speech rhythms, volume and changes in register so that following dialogue is easy. When Tris is frightened or excited, or making the decision to kill someone she knows, the emotions are easy to hear in Galvin's narration. She made the long hours of violent training mostly bearable and brought the novel to its exciting close. I'd listen to her read again.

I received Divergent as a gift from Bewitched Bookworms, for participating in their 2011 challenge, Whisper Stories in My Ear. I thank them, especially because I rejected their offerings the month I won and asked for Divergent instead. Since I had no trouble meeting their minimum -- one audiobook per month! -- there wasn't much challenge for me. I had my little fun this year out there on the wide prairie of the internet, but I think I'll return to my sod cabin and soldier on alone. Listening, always listening.

[The watercolor of the "HMS Dauntless in a following wind, November 17, 1950" is by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles and is in the public domain. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and the original is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.]

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Narrated by Emma Galvin
Harper Audio, 2011. 11:11

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