Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rereading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsLate in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really).

The Fault in Our Stars is definitely my favorite John Green novel. It's so wise, and so funny, and so heartbreaking, and it's not full of obscenities unlike Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Here is what I said in my original, very short review: "I really enjoyed reading this novel. At times it was really sad, and at other times it was humorous. It is about Hazel, a sixteen year old with cancer. She is resigned to dying sometime in the near future, despite a tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years. But then, at the Cancer Support group she meets Augustus Waters, and finds herself drawn to him. Suddenly she does not want to die at all! It was a very thought-provoking book, and like I said, it had funny and sad moments. There is this fictional book, An Imperial Affliction, that both Hazel and "Gus" really love. The Imperial Affliction sounds like it would be an interesting book to actually read. Maybe John Green should write it under the pen name Peter Van Houten (the supposed author of the book.) It would be cool. But anyway, I loved this book. Hazel doesn't really want to get involved with Augustus because she knows that they will have no future, as she is probably going to die-she'd rather hurt him now than later with her death. But they do sort of get involved. It is a bittersweet kind of romance. It is a sad novel, but not without hope too, and I liked it, if not LOVED it."

My opinion of The Fault in Our Stars definitely has changed for the better since then. As you may or may not have noticed, I was reading a lot of Becky's reviews at that time, and my reviews were heavily influenced by her. Now, I think I've developed my own style. 

At any rate, as I said this is by far John Green's best novel in my opinion. Looking For Alaska was good, but rough and not as well thought out. The Fault in Our Stars, his most recent novel, is amazing and lyrical, and I couldn't love it enough. Maybe such teenagers as Hazel and Augustus are not realistic, but I loved them. John Green has almost created this new character of teenager, who reads literature and discusses intellectual things but also does everything that teenagers are thought of as doing. And John Green is really good at writing about them. I've also recently started watching the Vlogbrothers from the beginning. I loved the idea of An Imperial Affliction too, and I wish somebody would write it. Though I don't think that's going to happen.

John Green is so eloquent, makes his points so clearly and simply. This is what makes The Fault in Our Stars all the more moving. Personally, I didn't find any of his other books that moving, but this one is. It packs some hard punches, and it doesn't soften any blows. I love the descriptions of the pseudo-sweetness that accompanies you whenever you have a serious illness like cancer. The way that people stare at you, and the semi-fake sympathy. 

I also love how The Fault in Our Stars is and is not a cancer book. It's about more than that, but obviously, cancer is a key subject.  There are so many amazing quotes and passages from the book, but I won't share them. Just read it yourself. There are different quotes that probably stand out to different people, but I would highly, highly recommend this amazing book. 

Read The Fault in Our Stars:

  • if you like John Green
  • if you like bittersweet/heartbreaking romance
313 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tales of the Unexpected, Roald Dahl

Tales of the UnexpectedFrom "Taste": There were six of us to dinner that night at Mike Schofield's house in London: Mike and his wife and daughter, my wife and I, and a man called Richard Pratt

I decided to forgo reading the 900 page volume of all of Roald Dahl's short stories and purchase a smaller collection to make sure I actually liked them first. And I did. Tales of the Unexpected is full of just that - tales with so many unexpected events. This is Roald Dahl at his morbid best. His children's books may be morbid, but they're nothing in comparison to his adult short stories. I particularly liked "Lamb to the Slaughter"; it was funny in a bleak sort of way. "Man From the South" is of course, genius. It's about a ridiculous bet that happens. "Taste" also deals with a huge, and plain foolish, bet. "Dip in the Pool" was really good too. There were more that I loved, but it would take too long to list them here. But Roald Dahl is a genius. In about 10 pages, he manages to make you drawn into the story, makes you feel chilled, and makes you gasp. All of the stories take place in the ordinary world, but what lurks beneath it is stunningly portrayed. Human nature is laid bare, events are laid bare, and Dahl draws heavily from his own childhood experiences in many of the stories.

The stories also never end in anything definitive; Dahl gives just enough of a conclusion to keep you wonder and guessing and thinking. In "Nunc Dimittis" for example, the ending is such a teaser. The story itself is wonderful, and at the end, you think you know what happened, but you can't be 100 % sure. Roald Dahl's tales really are unexpected; there were many instances when the story took a twist that I was shocked by, a twist that I hadn't expected at all. And that makes the stories all the more delicious. They're aptly named, that's for sure, and I loved them.

I don't know if I have a specific favorite story; they were all really good, and all really chilling and effective. Some of them were perhaps a bit too effective. "Parson's Pleasure" for example had me literally gasping out loud at the end. No, gasping isn't the right word; more like, exclaiming. It was just so...evil, the ending. I could almost hear Roald Dahl laughing as he wrote it.

Often (but not always), Roald Dahl writes from the first person, but the narrator is a witness to the events. "Man From the South", one of his most famous and chilling stories is narrated by someone who witnesses the sinister bet that takes place. They're not actually a main character in the events, but they just happen to see it all. However, not all of his stories are told like that.

I really, really loved this collection of stories, and Roald Dahl was really a genius writer. I've been reading a lot of morbid fiction lately (mostly Roald Dahl), so I think I might take a break and read something lighter. Still, I would highly recommend this one.

Read Tales of the Unexpected:
  • if you like Roald Dahl
  • if you like short stories
471 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Rereading True Grit by Charles Portis

True GritPeople do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood, but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

I read True Grit maybe two years ago, and just loved it. It's one of my favorite Westerns, with a great plot, and a great writing style. " It tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who sets out in the winter of eighteen seventy-something to avenge the murder of her father. Since not even Mattie (who is no self-doubter) would ride into Indian Territory alone, she "convinces" one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along with her. As Mattie outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path, as her performance under fire makes them eat their words, her indestructible vitality and harsh innocence by turns amuse, horrify, and touch the reader. What happens-to Mattie, to the gang of outlaws unfortunate enough to tangle with her-rings with the dramatic rightness of legend and the marvelous overtones, the continual surprises, of personality.  "True Grit" is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself, who tells the story a half-century later in a voice that sounds strong and sure enough to outlast us all." 

I love all of the characters in this great and funny novel. Mattie narrates in an amazingly honest voice, and I have a feeling we'd get along well. She's got spunk, and she's determined to avenge her father's death, no matter which deputy says she can't come along. She makes a lot of funny and remarkably wise comments that ring completely true. 

Besides Mattie, the other characters are all really well drawn too. There's Rooster Cogburn, the marshal who grudgingly begins to respect Mattie. Then there's LaBoeuf (or something like that), a mean Texan who comes along for the ride. I'd forgotten about him, though of course I remembered Cogburn. He doesn't turn out to be that bad in the end though.

The description in this book is also amazing. It's sparse, but you can still picture the landscape in the book. And not just the landscape; it's the whole atmosphere that's created so well. The dialogue, the events, and basically everything about this book is compelling. I loved True Grit, and would highly, highly recommend it. I may watch the 1969 movie, which looks pretty good from a few clips I've seen.

Read True Grit:
  • if you like Westerns
  • if you like books with spunky heroines
  • if you've seen the movie
215 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will GraysonWhen I was little, my dad used to tell me, "Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose." This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with,  you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper. 

Will Grayson, Will Grayson was a good book, but also probably one of the dirtiest books I've ever read. Really. Not only is it full of curse words, it's also peppered with references. I wasn't expecting that because most of John Green's books aren't that bad. But at the same time, the plot was really interesting, and a lot of the writing was really good too. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two people named Will Grayson who meet one another in an unlikely corner of Chicago. They're from very different walks of life, though both are high-schoolers, and they've both somehow ended up in a shop they wouldn't normally go to. Oh, and there's also a musical about being gay being put on by the first Will Grayson's friend and the second Will Grayson's boyfriend (for a while at least.) That's basically it, so there's not a whole lot that goes on in this book, but it was very good. Probably my second or third favorite of John Green's novels.

Of the two Wills, I liked the first one (written by John Green) better. The second Will Grayson (written by David Levithan) was interesting too though. He has a lot of problems at the beginning of the book, and doesn't use capitals in his writing, which was an interesting choice. Though it turns out that the first Will Grayson has plenty of issues too. He also narrates conversations in script format, which is not as off-putting as you might think it would be. It's actually pretty funny.

I feel like the cursing and the lewdness could have really been toned down a lot and the book could have been much, much better. As it was, it was still a really good book, and there was a lot of great writing in it. Everyone's always talking about all the meaningful writing in Looking For Alaska. But there was more of that here in my opinion. There were lots of parts that were so relatable and moving. And really true. The book got much better as it went on, and as the characters were developed. Both John Green and David Levithan are both really amazing writers, and this collaboration shows that.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson had a really great plot, and I ended up really liking it. It was thoughtful, and interesting, and funny, and I would highly recommend this one. Though The Fault in Our Stars is still my favorite John Green (I'm going to be rereading it soon).

Read Will Grayson, Will Grayson:
  • if you like John Green
  • if you like David Levithan
  • if you like realistic fiction
310 pages, 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons (Swallows and Amazons, #1)Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays. 

Swallows and Amazons was an interesting, but rather weird, book. It was entertaining, but also racist and really sexist. However, what can you expect from a book published in 1930? Swallows and Amazons is the quintessential British adventure tale...camping, sailing, fishing, etc. Four children set off to explore an island on their summer holiday and have all sorts of experiences. They call themselves the Swallows, after the name of their boat. The Walker children (a.k.a. the Swallows) encounter the two Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, and form an uneasy truce (punctuated by battles). There are lots of other characters who play the roles of "natives" and "savages" in their little game. See what I mean about the racism? The word native isn't inherently so, but the word savage certainly is. They're constantly talking about how the savages probably have eaten thousands of people. These so-called "savages" are indeed natives; natives of the area. The kids are just there for the summer.

I ended up enjoying Swallows and Amazons, but it was kind of difficult to relate to. Sure, we can all relish the excitement of adventure and exploration, but many aspects of the book felt so alien to me. John, the captain of the Swallow, is probably around twelve or thirteen, if that. The youngest of the crew is seven and doesn't know how to swim. Their mother just lets them sail off and camp out on an island for a seemingly indefinite period of time. And she says, "Oh, come back and check in every few days." Now, admittedly the place they're in isn't actually that dangerous whatever the kids may believe, but still, it felt strange, compared to our sheltered modern times. It might actually be a good thing, but that sort of thing doesn't happen now. I could hardly believe that the book was set in 1929; it felt like it was set in some timeless, idyllic place. But I suppose the years before World War II were idyllic in some sense.

You're probably wondering about the sexism. Well, the older girl's name is Susan, and her duties consist mainly of cooking their meals. Oh, and washing all of the dishes. She does have a helper, but it's the other girl of the family. While the girls are washing up, the boys get to do all the fun stuff. I might be being a bit unfair. Susan and Titty (yes, that's her name) get to do lots of interesting things as well. But every single meal is made by them. Which, as I said, was probably pretty typical of that period, but it was still annoying...It's kind of like Gone With the Wind; you just have to deal with the racism/sexism, get past it, and still enjoy the book. Putting aside the fact that the boys never do any menial work, Swallows and Amazons is a really good British adventure story. Incidentally, I love how I connect completely unrelated books with each other all the time. Swallows and Amazons, Gone With the Wind, really? The books have almost nothing in common. But I managed to find something. I also managed to get really hooked by this one; I couldn't wait to read more. I may try some of the subsequent books in the series.

Read Swallows and Amazons:
  • if you like adventure stories
  • if you like British fiction
351 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nobody's Princess, Esther Friesner

Nobody's Princess (Nobody's Princess, #1)
When I was four years old, my father, King Tynadareus of Sparta, dedicated a shrine to his favorite goddess, Aphrodite. 

Nobody's Princess was an interesting MG/YA book. I don't normally think of Helen as a sympathetic character, but in this one, she is. "She is beautiful, she is a princess, and Aphrodite is her favorite goddess, but something in Helen of Sparta just itches for more out of life. Not one to count on the gods—or her looks—to take care of her, Helen sets out to get what she wants with steely determination and a sassy attitude. That same attitude makes Helen a few enemies—such as the self-proclaimed "son of Zeus" Theseus—but it also intrigues, charms, and amuses those who become her friends, from the famed huntress Atalanta to the young priestess who is the Oracle of Delphi. In Nobody's Princess, author Esther Friesner deftly weaves together history and myth as she takes a new look at the girl who will become Helen of Troy. The resulting story offers up adventure, humor, and a fresh and engaging heroine you cannot help but root for." Nobody's Princess is set when Helen is a child, before the war of Troy is fought over her. 

I've always thought that Helen was a rather selfish character. She thoughtlessly runs away with Paris, and a brutal war is fought over her. But this book offered a new perspective, telling of her childhood. And in Nobody's Princess, I enjoyed Helen. She's determined, and she wants to be more than just a figurehead. She wants to be able to fend for herself. From her brothers' teacher, she learns basic sword-fighting, and then later, from the huntress Atalanta, she learns horseback riding. It seemed a bit unrealistic that horseback riding would be so difficult for Helen. But perhaps ancient Greek saddles don't have stirrups, which would make it really hard to ride. My favorite character was definitely Atalanta; I admired her so much. 

The writing in Nobody's Princess isn't super sophisticated or anything (far from it), but this is a really entertaining book, recommended to me by my cousin. I finally got around to it, and was not disappointed. I will say though that the book is written in a really modern style, so it's not at all realistic. And I still think that Helen is somewhat of a selfish person. Later on, she is really selfish. Of course, there are many different theories there; did Paris abduct her? What really happened? Just doing a tiny bit of research, one can see that there are all sorts of different versions of Helen's story. Nobody's Princess is more of a book that you would read for fun, and the portrayal of Helen probably wasn't right at all. But...

Regardless, Nobody's Princess was an entertaining (if not accurate) read. I would recommend it. 

Read Nobody's Princess:
  • if you like books based upon Greek mythology
  • if you like fantasy 
296 pages. 
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityI am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. 

Code Name Verity blew me away. Completely. Just like everyone else, I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll just go with the provided description: "Oct. 11th, 1943--A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.  When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?  A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called "a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel" in The New York Times, Code Name Verity is a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other."

Code Name Verify is one of those novels to which I cannot do justice. I wasn't expecting all that much, and I ended up loving this book so much. The first 50-100 pages move really slowly, but after that, you're completely immersed in Maddie and Queenie's (Verity's) story. I just kept reading, to see what happened. The book is a bit dense, with lots of technical details, but it just goes by so fast. 

I loved the characters; Maddie and Queenie are both so great, yet so different. Queenie is basically Scottish royalty, or at the very least, Scottish aristocracy, and Maddie's grandfather is a bike shop owner. They unexpectedly become friends when Queenie is summoned to communicate in German with someone. The friendship between them was portrayed so well: "meeting your best friend is like falling in love". I liked Queenie more, I think, but the most fascinating character was Hauptsturmf├╝rer von Linden, Queenie's capturer and torturer. He is, of course, evil, but also so complex. There are all these little things about him that are compiled, that add more to his character. Instead of just being your one-dimensional evil Nazi, he's fully fleshed out, and almost sympathetic at times, though at other times you really hate him. And obviously, he's really evil.

The style takes some getting used to. The story of Maddie and Queenie's friendship is told in the third person, kind of from Maddie's point of view, but when Queenie (a.k.a. Verity) is talking about her present situation, it's in the first person. Once you got the hang of it, it was quite effective, and quite distinctive. 

The premise of the book may have been a bit unreal; I doubt that Nazi torturers would let you ramble on and on about things that have no use whatsoever, but Linden, in this case does. When Engel, the woman who oversees Verity's writing, objects, he responds, "'Fraulein Engel,  you are not a student of literature...The English flight officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing.'" (pg. 57). To which Verity replies, '"I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT." She's got spunk, all right. 

Another thing that I loved about the book is that it's a YA novel, yet there's hardly a whiff of romance. That's so rare these days, and I loved it. No need for love triangles! And it was still an amazing novel, definitely deserving as one of the New York Times best YA books of the year. Other reviewers said they cried throughout the book. I almost never do that while reading, but I felt like doing it at the end. And that's saying something. 

There's one more element that the summary doesn't mention at all. The mystery. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say, it is awesome. And I predicted a large element of it beforehand. Yay for me! The part that I noticed beforehand was rather obvious though. I loved everything about this book, except for the cover; it could have been better. I found a much nicer cover. Check out Maggie Stiefvater's "review" here

The ending of Code Name Verity was so good, and so sad. I would highly, highly, highly recommend this one. Just read it. Please. It's definitely one of my all-time favorites. 

Read Code Name Verity:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like fiction set during WWII
  • if you like spy/espionage novels
  • if you like stories about friendship
332 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Watching Sense and Sensibility (1995)

I loved Sense and Sensibility so much, and wanted to watch a film version of it. I chose the 1995 version mainly because it was directed by Ang Lee (The Life of Pi). Of the three Austen adaptions I've seen ("Pride and Prejudice" (1995), "Emma" (2009) and this one), I think this was my least favorite. I still enjoyed it, but it was less entertaining.

However, I will give Ang Lee credits for managing to fit most of the novel's events into a little over two hours. "Pride and Prejudice" was six hours long, "Emma" four.

As with any film adaption,  many of the subtleties of the novel are lost. But in this case, much of the dialogue was snappy and refreshing. The movie was well-casted too, though it was really hard to get used to seeing the actor who plays Snape as Colonel Brandon, a romantic hero. I'm not overly fond of Colonel Brandon either.

However, if you enjoyed the novel, it's worth giving this film adaption a try. I might also have a look at the 2008 version. We'll see. I'm also planning to watch adaptions of other Jane Austen novels, like the 2007 version of Northanger Abbey.

4 stars.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

The OutsidersThe OutsidersWhen I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

I loved this book so much. I'm not sure what time period The Outsiders is set in, but it is set in Oklahoma. There are two types of people "Socs" and "greasers". Ponyboy (yes, that's his real name) is a greaser. He knows the rules: he can count on his brothers and his friends, but not much else. Fun for the Socs is beating up greasers, something Ponyboy's friend Johnny had to go through. But he does know what to expect. Then, something gets taken too far. I won't say what it is, but it is huge. The aftermath of this event will affect everyone in the story.

It's hard to pinpoint what was so great about this book. I suppose it's just the language and the writing. Halfway through the book, I glanced at the author bio and found out that S.E. Hinton (who is a woman incidentally) wrote this book when she was sixteen! Sixteen. And it's better than Eragon, which was written when the author was sixteen. The Outsiders was amazing. The book is so complicated, and narrated only by male characters. She must have infiltrated someone's mind, or just have a talent for character studies. Either way, The Outsiders is an outstanding book.

I love the names in the book too; Ponyboy, Sodapop, Dally...Yes, Ponyboy and Sodapop are their actual names; Ponyboy's deceased parents made them up.

Is the book strictly realistic? I don't know. Ponyboy likes to read literature and is good in school, yet he gets into "rumbles" with his gang, smokes, and does all these "greaser" things. It's kind of contradictory, and Ponyboy, despite his being a greaser, is such a sympathetic character. And a really thoughtful one, too. He waxes philosophical about many things.

This is one of those books where the world portrayed, despite being set in this very country, is so alien. It seems like a whole other universe; it's so hard for me to imagine. And yet, I can imagine it now, thanks to this book. The language of it may be rough (like the characters themselves), yet there were some really moving and some really sad parts.

I loved this one, and would highly, highly, recommend it.

Read The Outsiders:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like classics
  • if you like books set in the city
180 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Big, Big, Big, Big Book #2: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don QuixoteIn a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot quite recall, there lived not long ago one of those country gentlemen or hidalgos who keep a lance in a rack, an ancient leather shield, a scrawny hack and a greyhound for coursing.

The Result: Failure with a capital F. The book rambles on for 982 pages, 100 of which I read before I put the book down. Simply put, nothing ever happens. This book is in my opinion one of those works of scholarly value but little entertainment. It wasn't even thought-provoking to me. I can see why it's important; it's the first "modern" novel (by modern, 1605), but you could basically skip a hundred pages and keep reading and be fine. You wouldn't miss anything. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza basically go around fighting different perceived evils, and that's all. I realize this isn't a full review, but since I didn't finish the book or even get a quarter through, I think it's as much as I'm entitled to.

I'm not reselling my copy because it's a good work to have. Maybe when I'm older, I'll enjoy it more. Until then, I'm not going to waste my time trying to finish this one. I'm sure there's something redeeming about that I just couldn't get.

Next Big, Big, Big, Big Book will probably be The Origin of Species.

982 pages, 2 stars.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Big, Big, Big, Big Book #2: Don Quixote

Don QuixoteFor Big, Big, Big, Big Book #1 I read David Copperfield, and now I'm going to try Cervantes's Don Quixote.

"Don Quixote has become so entranced by reading chivalric romances, that he determines to become a knight-errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, his exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote's fancy often leads him astray -- he tilts at windmill's, imagining them to be giants -- Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together, and together they have haunted readers' imaginations for nearly four hundred years.

With its experimental form and literary playfulness, Don Quixotegenerally has been recognized as the first modern novel. The book has had enormous influence on a host of writers, from Fielding and Sterne to Flaubert, Dickens, Melville, and Faulkner, who reread it once a year, 'just as some people read the Bible.'"

Since I actually read this a week ago, I know how this project turned out, but you'll have to wait until tomorrow.

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.

I loved The Things They Carried. It was an excellent war novel about Vietnam, one that I had heard of before, but never tried. It didn't sound that interesting, but I wish I had read it sooner. "They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul."

In its format, The Things They Carried is somewhat similar to The Buddha in the Attic. It tries to speak of universalities (that's not a word, is it?), and in general terms. Particularly the first chapter, documenting the things the soldiers carried. But it also talks about specific soldiers, and experiences that befall them, or strange stories that they hear, which may or may not be true. 

The book is narrated from Tom O'Brien's point of view; I gather he fought in the war. However, I'm not sure how much of the book is actually "nonfiction", though obviously, everything is drawn from his experiences. However, for example, was Jimmy Cross really someone he fought with? I'm not sure. 

Whether they're true or not, these anecdotes are fascinating, and revealing. This is a book to be reread; I don't think you can fully absorb any of it without reading it over again. It's not exactly the lightest of reading; The Things They Carried is a really brutal book. But when one writes about war, one has to be brutal, right? 

There's plenty to say about this book, but I don't really want to say it. You know what? Just try it if it sounds interesting.

Read The Things They Carried:
  • if you like a mix between historical fiction and memoir
  • if you are interested in books set during the Vietnam war
  • if you like war stories
246 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Beloved, Toni Morrison

BelovedBeloved124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.

Beloved was one of the strangest novels I've ever read. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, and I ended up not finishing it, even though I thought that I would really like it. "Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison." 

This book was really, really strange, and I didn't find it a "towering achievement". It wasn't at all what I was expecting. It's kind of magic realism, I suppose, but not as good as other works of magic realism. If you call it historical fiction, it's certainly a really weird form of it. 

The writing and the metaphors were okay though strange, and the writing could be dense but interesting. However, the book was really confusing; it was hard to keep track of what was going on. The characters are all really odd too. I ended up putting it down; I had better things to read. I can see the appeal of it to some, but I don't think it deserved the Pulitzer Prize. I liked the font of the edition I read (on right), but somehow it fell flat for me, and I just couldn't connect with any of the characters. There's so much vagueness that goes on in the book, and I like mystery, but I don't like everything to be so strange.

Some may enjoy this novel, and I can see why. It's still worth a try, and who knows? You may love it. I guess the reason that I didn't finish it was that I was expecting something totally different. Like when you're expecting water and it's juice. You spit it out, even though it's not bad per se; just unexpected. Maybe I'll revisit it again, actually finish it, and enjoy it more. Though I don't think I'm ever going to love this one.

Read Beloved:
  • if you like Toni Morrison
  • if you like historical fiction of sorts
275 pages.
If the library doesn't have it, don't worry about reading it!


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a WallflowerAugust 25, 1991: Dear friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.

I really loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower  in most respects. I seem to be reading a lot of books lately where I love everything about them but for one element, and this was one of them too."Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor. This haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion marks the stunning debut of a provocative new voice in contemporary fiction: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is the story of what it's like to grow up in high school. More intimate than a diary, Charlie's letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating. We may not know where he lives. We may not know to whom he is writing. All we know is the world he shares. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it puts him on a strange course through uncharted territory. The world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends. The world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. Through Charlie, Stephen Chbosky has created a deeply affecting coming-of-age story, a powerful novel that will spirit you back to those wild and poignant roller coaster days known as growing up."

Sometimes it seemed as if Charlie was seven years old. He seems so childish sometimes. Yet he's fifteen. And most fifteen year old boys don't suddenly burst out crying...several times a day. All of his friends also frequently burst into tears. I know he has serious problems, but it still seems kind of unrealistic. He also narrates as if he's about seven years old. Simplicity is good in writing, but not too much simplicity. The format of the book was also really strange too. Who is this "friend" that Charlie is writing to?

Yet there are many moving passages in the book, parts that you can really connect to, parts that I loved. Though Charlie's life is kind of alien to me, and I'm grateful for that, some of the reflections that he makes are probably almost universal, and can certainly be enjoyed by all. 

The simplicity was a good thing, just a bit overdone. I did really like the plot and the characters though. I also loved the title. The wallflower. Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie becomes more than just someone standing on the edges of life. He has new experiences, meets new people. 

I may possibly see the movie (tie-in edition on left). Overall, this book was pretty good. I wanted to love it more than I did. I suppose I did love it anyway, but I just had to overlook the fact that it was not exactly realistic. Still, I would recommend this one.

Read The Perks of Being a Wallflower:
  • if you like semi-realistic fiction
  • if you like books about growing up
  • if you want to or have seen the movie
213 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan

MudboundHenry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me?

I wasn't expecting much from Mudbound; I picked it up at the airport because I had nothing else to read. But I ended up really loving it. It's an amazing book. "In Jordan's prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband's Mississippi Delta farm--a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family's struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura's brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not--charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion.  The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale." Mudbound was recommended to me by Goodreads, and I have to say, it was a great choice. I'm fond of Southern fiction, and this is a great work of Southern fiction.

Various characters take turns narrating the book. We have Laura, a city woman now living on a country farm with her husband Henry. The title refers to how much mud there is on the farm, and indeed, it is referred to as "Mudbound". Henry also narrates, and so does Jamie, Henry's much younger brother who returns from World War II deeply shaken. Then there's Hap Jackson and his wife Florence, two black sharecroppers, whose lives (and that of their educated son Ronsel) become entangled with the McAllans. Those are all the characters who narrate, I believe. But there's also Henry and Jamie's viciously racist father, who doesn't narrate but is very important. 

The one thing that I didn't like was Laura and Henry's relationship. Laura is afraid to stand up to him, and Henry doesn't seem to care all that much about her. I mean, he does in a large way, but not in the "small every day ways that mean so much to a woman." (pg. 215). But that was probably my only criticism. Other than that the Jacksons sometimes fall into the role of the proverbial downtrodden workers. 

I really loved the sections when Ronsel's experiences in the war are described. Being from Mississippi, he's used to being treated poorly, ,but suddenly in Europe he's lauded as a hero, and treated with no respect to his skin. It's quite a shock when he returns home and again has to use the back door. I loved the stark differences portrayed there. 

I was pleasantly surprised by this thought-provoking work of historical fiction based upon the author's grandmother's experiences, and would highly recommend it. Sometimes, I anticipate a book too much and it falls a bit flat. This time, I wasn't expecting much, and I was utterly amazed. 

Published in 2008, this was Jordan's debut novel, and I look forward to possibly reading more of her work.  

Read Mudbound:
  • if you like Southern fiction
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books dealing with racial issues
324 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Mango-Shaped Space, Wendy Mass

Freak. Freeeeeeak. I'll never forget the first time I heard the word, that day at the blackboard.

I find synesthesia such a fascinating condition, and this book is all about synesthesia. Some elements of it were very unrealistic, but it was also really skillfully written. "Mia Winchell appears to be a typical kid, but she's keeping a big secret—sounds, numbers, and words have color for her. No one knows, and Mia wants to keep it that way. But when trouble at school finally forces Mia to reveal her secret, she must learn to accept herself and embrace her ability, called synesthesia, a mingling of the senses." I've read a few other books by Wendy Mass, though not in the past few years. This was her first book, and I really enjoyed it.

The one thing that was unrealistic was that well, simply stated, this book is set in the present, and synesthesia was "discovered" sometime in the twentieth century, I believe. I found it just a tad bit unrealistic that Mia never hopped on the Internet to see if anyone else had a similar condition to her own. And then, when she does end up going to see a therapist, they seem to have no clue about synesthesia until they go to see a more advanced doctor. It may not be a very well-known thing, but I would think that doctors would know about it. And really, it's every artist's dream. I would love to be able to experience it for a day or two. Mia herself loves to paint while listening to music. Also, I think this book won an award for portraying a disability experience, but really, I wouldn't call synesthesia a disability. It seems really cool to me. I don't wish to offend any people who actually have synesthesia and hate it though... 

Still, I loved the cast of characters in this book, and loved the relationship between Mia and her cat, Mango. Here's a little snippet: "Everyone thinks I named my cat Mango because of his orange eyes, but that's not the case. I named him Mango because the sounds of his purrs and his wheezes and his meows are all various shades of yellow-orange..."

Some of Wendy Mass's later books may actually be better written; in this one, she's kind of just stretching her wings. It was still really good; just some things made me a little uneasy. I can imagine that since she doesn't have synesthesia herself, it would be difficult to write about. I was also surprised by how many reviewers hadn't heard of the condition before. Sorry, that sounded really mean. 

Overall, I enjoyed A Mango-Shaped Space, and would recommend giving it a try. I really loved some aspects of the book, including the premise. It didn't end up being a 5 star read for me, but it was still pretty compelling. I loved reading about how different sounds have different colors for Mia.

Incidentally, I know one person with synesthesia, for whom voices also have colors. My voice to her is the color of a caramel apple, caramel on the outside, and green on the inside. 

Read A Mango-Shaped Space:
  • if you like Wendy Mass
  • if you like realistic fiction
  • if you are interested in synesthesia
218 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Snow Falling on CedarsThe accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table - the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. 

I love historical fiction as well as mystery, so Snow Falling on Cedars sounded really interesting to me. "San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man's guilt. For on San Pedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries - memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo's wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric, Snow Falling on Cedars is a masterpiece of suspense - one that leaves us shaken and changed." 

I loved some elements of the novel; others, not so much. For example, there were way too many badly written graphic sex scenes in the book; completely unnecessary. Snow Falling on Cedars also tends to ramble; there's no really strong plotline. At the trial as each new person comes to the witness stand, a long reminiscence in their past is indulged in. We hear about the love affair, we hear about life as a Japanese strawberry picker. Some of the descriptions of the Pacific Northwest are beautiful, but somehow, the book's writing falls a little flat. The plot is a really great one, but it was annoying how the book flashed back and forth. And we didn't actually know why Kabuo is suspected of the murder until way into the novel. That was purposeful of course, keeping the reader in suspense, finding out as the audience in the courtroom finds out, but I would have liked to know a bit sooner. 

Still, I did enjoy this book. A lot of the landscapes felt really familiar to me, since I live not that far from the setting. Still, the book is set in the past, so parts of it were new to me. I liked the character of Hatsue, Kabuo's wife,  though she could have been developed a bit more. The writing was disjointed at times, but it wasn't too bad. 

In summary, this book could have been better, but it also could have been much worse. I did enjoy it, but the number of graphic scenes was way too much. They didn't even serve to add anything to the story, which is the whole point of doing something like that. I would actually recommend it if the plot sounds interesting, but it wasn't a favorite for me. 

Read Snow Falling on Cedars:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in the Pacific Northwest
  • if you like books dealing with the Japanese internment camps
460 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Rereading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyIn my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

The first time I read The Great Gatsby a few years ago, I didn't much like it. But I think that's because I didn't completely "get" it. And I still don't completely get it. But I really loved it the second time around. The Great Gatsby is the story of J. Gatz, who renames himself Jay Gatsby. He returns home from the war to discover that his sweetheart has married a wealthier man. He builds up a huge fortune, reinvents himself, and moves into a gigantic mansion across the bay from Daisy's home. He starts to throw huge parties which become very famous in the area; people flock from all over. The book is narrated by Nick Carraway, Gatsby's neighbor, and very possible the only non-muddled person in the book, though he has his own problems too. Gatsby meets him and solicits his help (Nick and Daisy are distant cousins), which Nick agrees to.

The book is short, but really thought-provoking, and I can see why it's a classic. The language that Fitzgerald uses is just amazing. It's lyrical, and really deep and thoughtful. The story itself is rather silly; it's the writing that makes it so great. I wasn't all that fond of Fitzgerald's short stories, and I erroneously came to the conclusion that I don't like F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing. But I loved The Great Gatsby so much.

Another really amazing element of the book is just the character sketches. I love how Daisy and her husband Tom are described: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..." I really loved that description of a carelessly wealthy couple. There are so many other great parts, but I can't include them all. You know what? Just read the book, and give it a try.

In the end, the rich are portrayed as...well, careless. Daisy really is not a good character, and though Gatsby is all right, he's totally misguided.  Nick is a bit of a coward, Tom I really hated, and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are kind of subject to the whims of the wealthier. The decadence of this period is portrayed so well. The decadence, and yet the deep sadness, and the urge to forget.

I recently watched the 2000 film version, and I think that helped me get into the book more. The film is very faithful to the book, and much of the dialogue and narration is the same, word-for-word. I would highly recommend this great twentieth century classic, and I may try Tender is the Night next.

Read The Great Gatsby:
  • if you like Scott Fitzgerald
  • if you like books set in the 1920's
  • if you like books set in Long Island and New York City
180 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Runaway King, Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy, #2)I had arrived early for my own assassination. 

What a great first line. Typical Sage/Jaron. He always makes really snarky comments, and the opening line of this book was no exception. The Runaway King is Book 2 of the Ascendance Trilogy. The first book is The False Prince, which I enjoyed. "A kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen's blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE! Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom? The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!"

What is it with trilogies? The False Prince was a great stand-alone book, but The Runaway King is a good sequel. I received a review copy from Scholastic, and I enjoyed this one just as much as the first book. In The Runaway King, the plot thickens. The first chapter was a bit confusing, but after that, I was quickly immersed into this world that I last visited in September. 

Some new characters are introduced, and old ones expanded upon and revisited. I do wish that in this series, the lands themselves had been more characterized; they're just kind of generic fantasy lands on a map. But that's not the most important think about a series, and this series is still pretty good.

Jaron is definitely my favorite character. He's smart, snarky, and really awesome to read about. I also like Imogen, and all of the other characters for that matter.

I love fantasy novels with lots of intrigue and politics, and that's one of the main topics of The Runaway King. All of the various regents and royalty and politicians are against Sage, from those of his own country to those of the neighboring Avenia. The political intrigue may not be as good as in some other books that I could mention, but it's pretty interesting (not to mention suspenseful). The book got better and better as it went on. It also ended on an infuriating cliff-hanger, and I'm now eagerly anticipating the last book (who knows when it's coming out).

Just like The False Prince, this one is absolutely full of surprising twists and turns. It was less good than the first book, in the beginning, but it got much much better later on. It didn't disappoint. I wasn't expecting it to be great, and it wasn't. But it is a good sequel, and I would recommend it if you liked the first book.

Read The Runaway King:
  • if you liked the first book (The False Prince)
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like books with political intrigue
352 pages. 
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. 

Cry, The Beloved Country was recommended to me by Mr. Gacek, and I enjoyed it. Set in South Africa, it is the story of Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, and also the deep racism and injustice that prevails in the land. As the name implies, the country and the land itself is really central to the story. It's a work of love, hope, courage, and endurance.

Some aspects of the book were less compelling than others. I didn't initially love the characters; I mean, I enjoyed reading about them, but I never deeply connected to them. At first. As I got deeper into the novel, however, they did come more to life for me. What I did love from the very beginning, the very first sentence, was the descriptions of the landscape, the country, and just the general sentiments prevailing in South Africa at the time.

I also got drawn up in the beginning in the story of Kumalo going to Johannesburg to try and find his son. I really wanted to see what would happen. Kumalo and a new-found friend are led all over the area, to boarding-house after boarding-house, trying to locate Absalom. There's this sense of helplessness in some ways throughout the novel, and it was really powerful. Kumalo has not heard news of his son for years, and now he's trying to find where he's gone. The book, published in 1948, is probably set before World War II (I'm guessing), so although there is some, there isn't that much technology. Everything is so distanced from everything else, knowledge (particularly  for the black man) so hard to come by. We have it so easy now in the digital age, with every bit of information at our fingertips. I was reminded of that while reading Cry, The Beloved Country.

I also really liked the chapters where Paton would shift away from Kumalo's story and just do a kind of general sketch of Johannesburg using dialogue. John Steinbeck uses this technique too in The Grapes of Wrath when he's trying to describe the Dust Bowl and the general feeling. It's quite effective, and really worked in this case as well. Especially the first chapter like this starting on page 82, dealing with the fact that everyone who has problems ends up in Johannesburg, trying to find a room to board in. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it's kind of just focusing on an individual story (in this case, Kumalo's) but then sometimes broadening your perception to include the whole. Rather than, like The Buddha in the Attic, trying to write a whole novel talking about the whole (inadvertent pun alert), or trying to just focus on one story without ever deviating. It seems to me that neither of those techniques works when writing in a historical setting, or even one in the present-day. You have to consider everything.

Cry, The Beloved Country was certainly an interesting and thought-provoking read, and I ended up really liking it.

Read Cry, The Beloved Country:
  • if you like African fiction
  • if you like Alan Paton
312 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!