The reading of this book happened thanks to two coinciding instances: 1) I read H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt and loved it; 2) I read...moreThe reading of this book happened thanks to two coinciding instances: 1) I read H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt and loved it; 2) I read Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography and was amazed by it--only sad that it left out his presidency. I wanted more (of both). Then I saw that Brands had done a biography on U.S. Grant. One of my favorite biographers--more information on one of my favorite presidents--BINGO!
In Grant’s autobiography, you get the sense of a humble, straight-forward guy, but you never know if that is just a canny politician putting on an act. After having read Brands’s excellent work, I can say that I feel confident that Grant has no guile within him. The man lived in truly humbling circumstances for a huge portion of his life before the Civil War. Interestingly, while the Civil War killed hundreds of thousands, it saved Grant’s life. He may have had bad luck, or shown incompetence in every endeavor of his life up until that point (excluding the Mexican-American War), but there is no doubt that he was born to lead soldiers successfully into battle. Grant knows that, but he also knows his own limits in other areas, including politics.
Brands gives a sweeping view of his life and major events, with special, gripping details abundantly offered for every phase of his involvement in the Civil War. Plus, Brands finally offers me the look into his presidency that I pined for. There I found Grant to be an anti-politician, just as I hoped for, though sometimes to a fault … he often found himself too trusting of individuals who took advantage of the soldier to their gain in what would emerge as a list of scandals. Scandals aside, however, among the great what-ifs of history asks what the Civil Rights situation in America would have been had the great General/President’s policies had been kept up after he left office. Likely, Brown vs. Board would not have been needed 100 years later--though at the price of a more powerful federal government.
Overall, though, I felt as if Brands was checking off boxes with this biography--efficiently and commendably--but not in a way that helped me to really get lost in the characters or events. I suppose part of that could be due to the nature of the person himself. Teddy Roosevelt is the kind of character who formed himself for history--he had that much ego awareness. Grant maybe had the awareness, but not the ego. If it weren’t for financial struggles, there never would have been an autobiography from him.
Still, though, part of it feels as if Brands’s heart was not in this one. He gave details on Grant that I would not of known otherwise, but he simply laid them out and moved on. Not a lot of background helped to create depth, and--surprisingly--very little of Grant’s personal feelings or character development were explored. Brands pretty much told what Grant did, but not a lot of his motivations for it, what he hoped for, how he (personally) got to the place he was at. This does not make for a poor biography, just a limited one. Informationally, the biography is superb, characteristically, it is lacking.
In the end, I can set aside a quibble for a historian who has impressed me in the past and will--hopefully--impress me in the future (Ben Franklin biography, I’m talking to you). And as far as Grant goes, I don’t think he and I are done. This so-called sphinx may have hid from the media and public of his time, but we the people in the future can be relentlessly nosey (sorry, sphinx pun); greatness, no matter how humble, can’t hide forever! (less)
Turns out this school year is when I have my (memoir-ish) reconciliation with my parents' taste in literature (see my review of And Then There Were No...moreTurns out this school year is when I have my (memoir-ish) reconciliation with my parents' taste in literature (see my review of And Then There Were None). Of course, I never quibbled with their taste in literature, and therefore that makes for a pretty lame memoir. Still, I can always make up pretended conflicts, which is what most memoirs do anyway with their pretentious, psuedo psychological explorations into--I'm sorry, did you want a review of The Power of One? Fine.
So, this story set in South Africa surrounding the WWII era, starts off the powerful memories of a brilliant boy isolated and bullied with horrifying effect. The careful detail to setting and events is so meticulous that, even if the story is fictional, it might as well have been real (my friend tells me that it is highly autobiographical, and it is these early events that convince me that my friend had to be right). The steps that the protagonist takes for survival (and make no mistake, in this child's mind, life itself is at stake several times) are as intense as they are heart-wrenching--though ultimately, the effect is one of beauty in the way that Courtenay captures the travails of an innocent person in a cruel world--something every child can tap into, to some degree, at some point in their life.
As the story transitions to a new phase in life, we are introduced to the protagonist's (Peekay) friendship with a local musician/botanist and we experience Peekay's desire to become the welter-weight boxing champion of the world. These passages are inspirational as they demonstrate his determination in training, the development of his intellect, and the bonds that he continually manages to create between fellow survivors, regardless of their background in a country that is fixated on racial distinctions, and the thrilling description of some early, underdog boxing matches.
It is after this point, when Peekay becomes a master of his dreams, that I feel the novel spreads itself thin. We follow his activities into his teenage years, but most of these, while interesting as individual anecdotes, are quite irrelevant to the parts of the story that we most cared about. There is no true conflict, and there is little new character development. Eventually, the climactic phase of the novel comes, where Peekay makes an entirely unexpected decision and once again becomes the underdog in a whole new system. The conclusion is abrupt, yet appropriate and neatly ties the beginning to the end.
On the whole, however, there are quite a few threads left hanging. Threads that are strong pieces of an entire narrative--themes introduced, but never explored. While I could spend time listing several of them, I already wasted a paragraph venting about memoirs at the beginning, so I'll just say The Power of One is packed with interesting idea starters, but only follows through, really, with one of them ... perhaps not even the most compelling one. Plus, in a couple spots, it got dangerously close to sounding like a self help novel disguised as a story (great for some people, irritating for me).
Still, The Power of One, even though it tinkers and does not follow through with its greatest ideas, is a powerful novel. It oozes of truth throughout and gives such a stark, multi-cultural view of a culturally and historically glittering region that you feel wiser, more humble, saddened, and hopeful by the time you stumble across the conclusion. Though it has strong language, some graphic violence, and deals with indirect sexual mores of a maturing teenager (though this is handled matter-of-factly, yet remotely enough to at least be readable), I feel that there are few people who would not be better after having read it.
So far my parents are two for two in their recommendations this year. That's a pretty pathetic track record for an interesting memoir (no less, review!), but at least it's made me want to go to them and see what else they've been hiding from me all these years. (Answer: nothing, I just didn't get around to reading these books until now.)(less)
I will forever love Tom Sawyer, if only because he brought me to one of my most cherished experiences in literature, which was reading...moreANOTHER READING
I will forever love Tom Sawyer, if only because he brought me to one of my most cherished experiences in literature, which was reading Huckleberry Finn. Oh, how I want to recreate that moment for my children so that they can see the power that literature can have. My dilemma, however, is that if give them the book and set it up as one of the greats, I will certainly ruin it. The most magical part of reading Huckleberry Finn was that I went into it innocently as a kid reading about another kid, on my own, without any clue as to the book's significance and regard in the world of American literature. I knew I could never hint to my children that they should read it, yet how else would they know to seek it out? The best I can do is to have them follow my same path and hope they would fill in the rest themselves. So, I read Tom Sawyer to them.
(P.S. I'm not under any pretenses. I am fully aware that even if my pseudo-manipulative method works, my kids may simply not connect to Huck Finn the way I did. Still, I prefer that they end up NOT reading Huck Finn due to a failed experiment than reading it because I told them to and thus missing out, forever, on that initial potential of a great reading experience. I'm kind of obsessive that way. No more questions please.)
And we found that Tom Sawyer was a great warm up for Mark Twain's unorthodox masterpiece, Huck Finn. Here, Mr. Clemens explores the fleeting world of youth with all of its temporary earnestness and frivolous passions. In setting up his character, Twain takes his time and meanders through this juvenile world like the … pardon the cliché … Mississippi's circuitous path to the sea. For the first half of the book, the experiences and events are episodic, with little importance placed on chronology or plot development. But the chapters are fun, even if they work like a short story collection. My kids giggled in crescendoes during the scene where Tom gives his medicine to the cat (thanks to my wife's initial chuckles) among with other delightful moments.
As the book progresses, eventually Mr. Twain settles into a story and sticks with it. There, I was surprised by how much weight is given to the events. While still seen from the perspective of frivolous kids, the plot takes some serious turns and some truly frightening events occur. Twain still manages to entertain throughout it all and keep his characters true to form while navigating the story's rougher waters. All of this would earn Tom Sawyer a hearty recommendation, but the tipping point that places it among my highest recommendations are, not the carefully balanced serious/frivolous events, but instead those moments where pure goodness of character rises above rough exteriors--something that, on an even more powerful level, I would connect with in Huckleberry Finn. They are subtle and un-extraordinary, but they are there and provide just the right touch of humanity to silly events.
Perhaps a more fitting recommendation is that as soon as I finished reading the book to my kids, my 7-year-old conjured the illustrated classic version of the story and read the whole book by the next day. I could not be more proud … but I won't tell her, because then she might read Huckleberry Finn to please me--which would foil my plans of having her read it for herself!(less)
After reading H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt, I knew that I wasn’t done with him. I needed more. And who better to go to than the horse...moreAfter reading H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt, I knew that I wasn’t done with him. I needed more. And who better to go to than the horse’s mouth? At first, I simply read some of his speeches and his account of the Rough Riders, but then I found his autobiography and decided to take a big bite.
As writers go, Roosevelt is engaging. It’s comforting to be able to recognize his own style and know that you’re not dealing with a ghost writer. That brash, sincere, and self-aware voice is no doubt the boomingly confident Teddy. Whether you agree with his politics and positions, Roosevelt will not be duplicated and will almost always demand attention.
Conveniently, if he doesn’t grab attention, then you can skip to the next chapter, which will take off on a new subject that may be of more interest. Of course, my reading ethics do not allow such an approach, but it was kind of nice to know that once you had your fill of one stage of Roosevelt’s life or take on a particular issue, then you would be given a sampling of a whole new, unexplored area.
Not surprising is the lack of information on Roosevelt’s involvement in the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party and his subsequent loss in the general election to Wilson. The only hint we get of that aspect of his life is his rebuttal to a piece that President Wilson wrote demeaning him and his party.
As far as Teddy’s politics go, he offers a lot of sound advice for anyone who is a level-headed, moderate-leaning person. And if you were unsure as to how he felt about any sort of policy, specific or ambiguous, rest assured he will clarify for you. For the most part, I found Roosevelt to have an anchor of common sense when it comes to political standings--something that make me envious when taking into account modern day politicians. Sometimes, he manages to simplify too much, and sometimes this unwavering man of principle is too quick to glorify his position as an absolute, when it is really just a matter of policy. But by and large, I will take a passionate man of principle tampered with common sense over a cool-headed man of opportunity driven by ambition.
And that leads into the final thing of note about Theodore Roosevelt: his character. Sure, he is strong-headed and perhaps overly-intense in some of his opinions, but in spite of these externally annoying traits, internally Roosevelt genuinely seems to be a good and pure man. Would that more politicians fell under that category. Would that all of us might. (less)
This review goes in conjunction with my review of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. A...moreThis review goes in conjunction with my review of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-time, and still-growing fan of William Shakespeare, I was interested in his contemporaries. We know that Shakespeare has managed to infiltrate the canon of English teachers for centuries much to the dismay (and occasional delight) of their students. But how come Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, well regarded contemporaries, are only mentions in a Wikipedia entry, while the Bard gets new print editions of every single play, quotes in common speech, and--heck--even high school and college courses dedicated to his writings--let alone continuing productions of his plays ranging from local youth theater groups to big budget, big name actor pieces from the top Hollywood studios? Well, I was going to investigate to see if someone missed something. I hunted out one of Mr. Marlowe and Jonson’s most well regarded plays, downloaded them onto my iPad (thanks, Gutenberg) and read. Here is the result:
Ben Jonson introduces what starts out as a vaguely interesting premise as a con-artist setting up shop in a disappeared master’s house, acting like an alchemist and gathering marks to be fleeced. But I didn’t care for any of the characters. I didn’t care for the main pro?tagonist, not for his compatriots, I didn’t even have a particular opinion on any of the victims. Not only that, but I found Jonson relying too much on low humor. Fart jokes? Wow. Men vying to take physical advantage of a dull but innocent woman? That’s entertainment?
But I wanted to read finish play. So I pushed forward. And then, for over nine months, I left it. Sorry, Ben. I was not invested. Then I had just finished The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and I thought that if I could finish Marlowe’s play, then surely Ben Jonson deserved another round. Luckily, by the time I got to the middle of Act III and through the rest of the play, the plot gained enough traction to get me through.
It was in the last half of the play that I got to enjoy Ben Jonson’s craft. All of his setting up managed to come crashing down on the characters in Act IV in grand, messy fashion, and I kept on wondering how they were going to get out of it. Granted, I didn’t care for them still, but I was curious to see the outcome. By the time the story finished, Jonson even, kind of, provided the much-needed character to connect to.
Whether written in the 17th century or the 21st, all con-artist stories face the same challenge: the characters are deliberately deceiving other characters so you have to somehow for the audience to empathize with the con artists or make the victim’s deserving of their fate. The victims are not deserving of their fate beyond being gullible and idiotic, and Ben Jonson eventually finds a con artist to semi-root for, but not nearly enough and certainly far too late in the game. Still, though, the play managed to have its entertaining moments in the last half, even if it took a lot of effort to drudge through the first half to get there.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, wastes no time in inserting admirable or despicable qualities within his characters. After a few lines, you have an idea of who to root for, who to root against and how the character will react to the play’s plot. Jonson here hoped that the plot would conquer all. For the 17th century audience, it must have. Go, enjoy the craziness, leave, forget the characters, go to Jonson’s next play. Shakespeare demanded a stronger bond through the plot AND the characters, making his the longer lasting. (My best guesses, at least.)
Am I done with Jonson? Naw. I’ll most likely forget the characters and most of the action from The Alchemist, but I’d like to see if another of his plays can provide similar (perhaps more clean?) entertainment, besides giving me characters to care about throughout the whole play. So far, though, Bard 1, Jonson 0.(less)
This review goes in conjunction with my review of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-ti...moreThis review goes in conjunction with my review of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-time, and still-growing fan of William Shakespeare, I was interested in his contemporaries. We know that Shakespeare has managed to infiltrate the canon of English teachers for centuries much to the dismay (and occasional delight) of their students. But how come Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, well regarded contemporaries, are only mentions in a Wikipedia entry, while the Bard gets new print editions of every single play, quotes in common speech, and--heck--even high school and college courses dedicated to his writings--let alone continuing productions of his plays ranging from local youth theater groups to big budget, big name actor pieces from the top Hollywood studios? Well, I was going to investigate to see if someone missed something. I hunted out one of Mr. Marlowe and Jonson’s most well regarded plays, downloaded them onto my iPad (thanks, Gutenberg) and read. Here is the result:
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is immediately, within the first Act, more overtly religious than all of Shakespeare’s plays put together (at least the ones that I’ve read). Interesting. While the religion practiced at the time is still, relatively, strong, you might wonder how that would manage to make a play less attractive to modern audiences. This is just a review from an amateur reader, so I can (and will!) only speculate, but I wonder if the change in religious focus has any part in that. Fire and brimstone seemed the popular means of motivation back then, whereas “love and peace, man,” appear to dominate the modern era of Christianity. Doctor Faustus definitely falls in the “fire and brimstone” category, though any religious person could still find the themes of mercy and forgiveness there if they looked for it.
As for the plot and the play itself (finally), it is marginally interesting, but not particularly engaging, even as a morality tale. Probably a lot of the draw to the play at the time were the visual aspects, which sounded like they would include cool/creepy costumes of demons and long dead historical figures, some fireworks, and possibly other tricks of appearing/disappearing, objects lifting, etcetera.
The moral to the story is, basically, don’t sell your soul to the devil (I’d say in all senses, both literal and figurative), yet Marlowe really delves into the perks of selling your soul to the devil for pretty much the whole play. Every now and then he sends in a good and bad angel to remind us of the wickedness of Faustus’s course, but then we’re back to the fun shenanigans that having the devil’s power gives you, you know, like crashing the Pope’s party (definitely entertaining, but morally questionable at best, even for a seventeenth century Protestant) or plopping some antlers on a guy that rightfully regards Faustus with distrust. It is not until the very end that Faustus has his moment of deep regret and panic which takes him through a surprisingly quick couple of monologues, before the play is over.
If Marlowe wanted me to learn something from this, I think that he should have manifested the perks of godliness to contrast with diabolical soul-selling. More than the occasional good angel coming in to make a brief, half-hearted appeal, perhaps Faustus could have seen another character at peace with their own, simple life of giving to those around him, loving and serving others. He could have shown acts of charity that … uh-oh, sounds like my modern day Christianity bias is shining through here--love and peace, man!
Oh well. It’s not a terrible play, and there are moments of interest. But I can see why Marlowe would have been a draw in his age, and I can definitely see why he is not as big a draw now. Will I read more from Marlowe? I think so. I’d like to see what he does when he’s not stuck trying to tell a religious story, but so far: Bard 1, Marlowe 0. (less)
This is one of those reading experiences that can never be duplicated. It’s also just the kind of thing that I thrive on. (If you wanted an actual rev...moreThis is one of those reading experiences that can never be duplicated. It’s also just the kind of thing that I thrive on. (If you wanted an actual review on the actual story--silly you--you’ll have to skip to the final paragraph. My story about reading this story is going to take a while!)
Looking to appease my regular Wodehouse fix, I decided to try something a bit different from those I’d already read. I did this as someone who completely respected, if not adored, Wodehouse’s response to a critic who accused him of using all his old characters under different name. In the preface to his next novel, he responded by saying, “I have outgeneraled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names.” The sameness of his stories is definitely a big part of the draw--I wanted to enter familiar, silly, pure Wodehouse territory.
At the same time, Project Gutenberg has a surprisingly small selection of Wodehouse’s titles available (considering he wrote nearly one-hundred). So, as I browsed the books available, one of them mentioned a prince. Huh. Royalty. That’s new for Wodehouse. I downloaded it and began reading.
I was pretty engaged right from the start. Suddenly, a combination of school and home business, and the fact that the story setting switched from an island in the Mediterranean to turn of the century New York City, brought my progress to an immediate halt. While I’ve yet to find a Wodehouse novel I haven’t liked, I think I have the least patience for his New York setting stories.
Finally, once things settled down externally, I decided that I really needed to finish that Wodehouse novel. I jumped into it with new resolve. The task was not easy. Not only did the story stubbornly stay in New York, but a lot of the plot began to feel really familiar. Again, I like the familiarity of Wodehouse’s works, but this bordered on self-plagiarism--even using some same side characters from another story I recalled, with those characters doing the same things. I plugged forward, determined to give Wodehouse the benefit of the doubt.
Suddenly, I found myself in a scene that I remembered as an exact replica of another one I had read, down to the dialogue and minute details of description. I had enough. Wodehouse, by jove, had gone too far! I searched my mind to remember the other story ole Plum was lifting passages out of and recalled Psmith, Journalist. I almost laughed, the main character, Psmith, directly correlated with a minor character who had suddenly become a main character in The Prince and Betty. Wodehouse named him “Smith.”
I appealed to the Internet to see if it knew of this outrageous bait and switch. Well, don’t let anyone tell you the Internet is completely useless, because not only did it verify my doubts, but it also dispelled my angst against my temporarily-fallen-from-his-pedestal comrade in literature, Wodehouse. The version of The Prince and Betty that I was reading was a compilation of two British stories Wodehouse had written (Psmith, Journalist being the other one) for an American audience. Okay, so he was stealing from himself to create a new story for a new audience: Wodehouse was now acquitted of all charges of deliberate fraud.
That did not change the fact that I had invested in a new story that I was truly interested in. Not only that, but my sources told me that the original story did not take place in New York, but in Britain … back to Wodehouse territory that I reveled in. I needed to find the original The Prince and Betty story. The game was afoot.
Gutenberg and Archive.org both came up empty (at first). They simply held the Frankensteined American version. Then I found out that the original had come out serialized in a couple magazines. The first magazine I tried to hunt down looked like I would only get a hold of through an inter-library loan--something I was not averse to accomplishing (it would not have been the first time I had used it to find a Wodehouse gem written while he was in a German prison camp for WWII). Luckily, the second magazine had been meticulously stored back at Archive.org. While I had to do some digging through issues (The Strand Magazine, 1912, Jan.-Jun. file, in case you wondered), eventually I got a PDF of what I wanted, and sliced out the unneeded portions (though I kept the fascinating article succeeding the story in the magazine, titled, “Which Is the Finest Race?”--thank you, 1912). Wha-la! Previous Wodehouse story restored as well as my faith in the great British successor to the Bard.
As for The Prince and Betty itself (the non-American version), it clips along at a good pace, proving to be a short, amusing read. The romance is engaging--it takes itself a bit more seriously than Wodehouse’s later novels, but it never becomes tedious or too unrealistic. My favorite parts were the politics of the silly island nation of Mervo, and then the return to England with its standard, upper class buffoonery, contrasted to satisfying effect by some American down-to-earth-ness. Was it worth all the trouble? That’s like asking someone if the action scenes in Indiana Jones were worth watching to see him get the Ark of the Covenant at the end (yes, I just compared finding Wodehouse’s original story to Indiana Jones’s finest action scenes--I’m a book nerd, okay?). Read it and enjoy it … if you can find it! (less)
The last, remaining plays of Shakespeare that have evaded my grasp are the Greek/Roman ones, though I have managed to knock off the obligatory Julius...moreThe last, remaining plays of Shakespeare that have evaded my grasp are the Greek/Roman ones, though I have managed to knock off the obligatory Julius Caesar and the lesser known (though fantastic, in my opinion), Pericles, Prince of Tyre. So as part of my Shakespeare team's endeavor to collectively read all things Shakespeare, I took a stab at (oooh, poor phrasing) the most Roman/Greek sounding one I could: Titus Andronicus.
This one pits the noble(ish) Roman general Titus Andronicus reluctantly against the new emperor of Rome, a messed up goth queen he captured--with her conniving moor--and even his own sons (in a disturbing scene). Things unravel pretty quickly at the beginning, and then they descend to ugliness for the middle part of the story. It is not until the very end that the story's ickiness redeems itself in a sweeping revenge blood bath. I was actually relieved by the ending, satisfied that most characters got their due, but I still think that the vast majority of the play gives very little motivation for pushing through to the small payoff. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that Titus is not a character I sympathize with much. Just when I start to feel like he is a guy I can invest myself into, he does or says something that puts me off. So even the payoff at the end is not as powerful as it could be. Still, I felt that his son, Lucius, with the little time he has, provided just that. If only the noble tragedy could occur in the middle, instead of the end, then I would be excited about following the aftermath and characters that appealed to me (like Lucius in this one or Mark Antony in Julius Caesar). This way, however, the characters are swept clean and those that remain have only a few lines of reflection, and then it's done.
Oh well. Definitely interesting. Definitely dark. Definitely not my favorite. Definitely not a waste of time. Most importantly? Definitely Roman … and I am definitely done.(less)
Sherman Alexie is a super funny guy. I've loved his previous stuff for its entertainment value plus a new and often poignant literary perspective. But...moreSherman Alexie is a super funny guy. I've loved his previous stuff for its entertainment value plus a new and often poignant literary perspective. But I also have cringed at a bunch of it. Some of it I haven't even had the stomach to finish. But none of that changes the fact that he is a funny and fresh voice in literature. Then I heard that he wrote a young adult novel. The amazing writer Sherman Alexie, but being forced to stay within certain grounds of decency … this was something that I had to read.
So I checked it out from the library and jumped into it. What I did not anticipate was that not only is Sherman Alexie restricted by language and situations, but also by the genre boundaries of teen fiction. In other words, this turns out to be a high school misfit tale. These are stories that really resonate with a lot of teens, but they never have for me. Because I'm not a misfit? I have plenty of high school classmates that will attest otherwise. I simply did not find high school to be as divisive, horrific, awesome, and/or exciting as most of these stories portray it. Of course, that does not mean that I can't relate with a character who truly does find it to be all these things, as Junior/Arnold does in this story. But the other turn off to these stories is that the storyline is basically a year of school. That works fine in Harry Potter, since there is usually a goal or high stakes conflict that everyone's working towards, but in realistic fiction this basically works out like a regular school year with its anticipated--definitely not gripping--ups and downs. And as someone who spends his life in school, I'm not looking for new ways to relive it in a meandering, short-story collection-ish, checklist of adolescent conflict/resolutions sort of way.
So, stuck in a genre that I'm not a fan of, with an author whose humor (which I usually find sharp) now descended to a sophisticated boys locker room level, plus the obligatory comments of sexual exploration that teen novels feel they must include for the sake of daring openness (?) or shock factor honesty (?) (or, if I were to be less generous, I'd say that it's included to ensure it gets some censorship publicity) … you would think that this would not bode well for the novel-reading experience. But if you thought that then you underestimate the underlying power behind Sherman Alexie's writing. This is a guy who, deep down, has a feel for the beauty and tragedy of life and cultures and people, regardless of the form it is presented in. He writes with a bit of angst, but he's also big enough to look past it. And he has a few memorable scenes that resound with raw, poignant truth.
I guess, in true teen fiction form, I had a love/hate relationship with this story--well, maybe not that strong (and therefore less teen fiction): like/dislike relationship. What helped tip the scale into the recommendation status? The fact that Alexie managed to make me cry a couple times. I cringed and yawned more, but the writing did make me cry. And, as the basketball coach in the story says at one point, "If you care about something enough, it's going to make you cry." Well, Mr. Alexie, you got me to care enough.(less)
It's that Shakespeare time of the year again, which means that I find out which plays I've yet to read and then dig in. As You Like It seemed to fit w...moreIt's that Shakespeare time of the year again, which means that I find out which plays I've yet to read and then dig in. As You Like It seemed to fit well to my tastes (it turns out that I prefer things as I like them, so...). My reasoning, however flawed it might seem, actually paid off. The story did turn out to be very much as I liked it.
As You Like It starts off intense enough: banishments, near-death wrestling matches, under-the-cover-of-night escapes, which leads to what else but merriment in the forest. As with most of Shakespeare's comedies, a lot of the humor comes from someone disguising themself as another person of the opposite sex. Throw in some clowns, a little bit of love triangles (or love polygons in this case) and wha-la! you have a delightful Shakespearian tale.
I don't know how you like it, but As You Like It is pretty much as I like it. (Sorry, I had to.)(less)
The timing for this book could not have been better. Just as I was dabbling with the idea of tapping into some more epic fantasy books, after a consid...moreThe timing for this book could not have been better. Just as I was dabbling with the idea of tapping into some more epic fantasy books, after a considerable sabbatical of several years, a friend of mine pointed out that he recently put his fantasy story on Amazon for the Kindle. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn first, only because the library would (and did) fine me for it being turned in late, but afterward I jumped into Wrath of Creator, ready to probe another take on epic fantasy.
This first effort from Furman shows that he definitely has a grip on mature, fantasy themes, and he has created an intricate, politically and geographically complex world for his story to play out in (residents of northern Utah might find themselves particularly pleased with the setting layout, as I did). Added to this are some intriguing possibilities with prophecies, magical abilities, and the ultimate fates of the characters. On the whole the characters are memorable, have their own personal development, and are enjoyable and interesting to be around. While some of their interactions and dialogue feel a bit contrived or too familiar, they still serve a purpose and still, more often than not, serve as unique and refreshing guides through their world.
Because this is the first of a trilogy, Furman does a great job in telling a story and bringing it to a satisfying resolution within volume one, but he also sets the groundwork for an even bigger conflict, leaving the characters (and audience) with a purpose and some still-unanswered questions.
While Wrath of the Creator has these things going for it, the reader should also bear in mind that, as a first effort, this is raw work, and little formatting or grammatical errors should not distract from the bigger work going on around it. Besides those little things, I did find that some of the structure and pacing, especially in the first half of the novel, made it difficult for me to follow the story and the setting, though I am often a very distracted reader to begin with.
On the whole, my foray back into epic fantasy territory returned me to some of the fun things that I had missed, but also reminded me that some aspects of it simply are not a draw for me--Furman, Sanderson, or otherwise. So I found Wrath of the Creator enjoyable and worthwhile, plus I will continue to read the series as it unfolds, but I also think I will need to supplement time in-between with some down-to-earth, boring classics!(less)
My only experience with Paul Fleischman before Seedfolks has been my own prejudice. He wrote Whirligig, which was a required reading for the sophomore...moreMy only experience with Paul Fleischman before Seedfolks has been my own prejudice. He wrote Whirligig, which was a required reading for the sophomores at my high school when I first started teaching. The other teachers talked about its non-linear structure and how it showed a boy figuring out how to deal with some tragic thing or another with this whirligig thing or something along those lines. Blegh. I immediately ignored that we were supposed to read it and ended up reading A Tale of Two Cities with my class instead. I still stand by my decision, but mainly because A Tale of Two Cities is great, not because I should have brushed off a book after judging it by its too-artsy-for-me-summary.
Nine years later, I am teaching a new literature course and the other teacher teaching it reads Seedfolks to the students as part of the curriculum. I would like to think that I have become more tolerant to seemingly-artsy literature, so I was willing to give Seedfolks a hearty effort. Good thing. It turns out that I enjoyed it.
Seedfolks is a simple tale of a community garden and the people that contributed to it. With the garden as the single, connecting literary device, I guess that confirms my previous preconception that Fleischman does like to use heavy metaphors. But his switching of perspectives for each chapter kept the tone from being heavy handed. The message is there, but not preachy. Plus, it made for perfect class discussions on what they could contribute to our “classroom community garden.” Oh, and it is super short. I think it makes a big difference that Fleischman does not overstay his welcome.
If I were to pit Seedfolks up against another Dickens, would it stand a chance? Well, no … not per se. Seedfolks barely has a plot beyond the main garden plot (!). And the characters are limited to a single chapter with occasional, oblique references by other characters. But, hey, I think even Fleishman would admit that his ambitions were appropriately modest. It’s a cool idea and a good writing exercise that benefits readers in a quick but thoughtful read. I think that there is room in this world for a Bleak House and Seedfolks … in fact, Seedfolks might be the perfect intermission after page 2,435 of Bleak House.
So, I guess what I’m saying, Paul Fleischman, is please accept my apologies. I was unduly critical. I might even try picking up that elusive Whirligig one of these days … though it will likely make David Copperfield jealous!(less)
After living in the world of fantasy books in my child and young adulthood, it has been years since I have picked up a genuine, epic fantasy novel. I...moreAfter living in the world of fantasy books in my child and young adulthood, it has been years since I have picked up a genuine, epic fantasy novel. I think my biggest hang up has been timing. Epic fantasy books do not have a reputation for being quick, light reads. Nor do you often find a single book … they are all a part of a series of growing word count behemoths. Although I loved them, that kind of commitment was becoming a less and less of a draw. I found my solace in shorter classics or large non-fiction biographies that would not tempt me into sequels.
But it had been too long. For some reason, I started to get a hankering to lose myself in yet another completely made up and complicated world of magic and adventure for pages upon pages of time. Yet I was so far removed from the world of fantasy writing, that I did not even know where to go. I vaguely remembered someone mentioning Brandon Sanderson as a great up-and-coming fantasy writer. So I looked him up at the library and checked out Mistborn.
I was immediately impressed. Sanderson is a great example of good fantasy writing. He is no Tolkein copycat (another frustration that pushed me away from fantasy over the years). He does not take magic for granted, it is earned and very real within its limits. He understands real culture, politics, and history as a means of creating a wholly plausible made up ones of his own. He has high stakes battles and good, old fashioned plot twists that will shock and impress. And finally, wisely (possibly with a good editor’s help), he formed his story around a believable character arc, even though it is obvious that he is pretty stoked about his fantasy idea.
The idea of “burning metals” or “allomancy” as his magic (a word he refrains from ever using--to my recollection), remains Sanderson’s strongest contribution to the world of fantasy writing. He understands this psuedo-science backwards and forwards--so much more than some blue flashing light meeting a red searing energy stream used in other ambiguous fantasy tales. Through this, we, as an audience, are allowed access to view the limits and possibilities of this world in the same ways the characters would.
For as much as I can say Sanderson gets right, I also have to admit that I was not terribly engaged while reading. I mean, I had a due date at the library, so that kept me reading, but I did not feel particularly invested in what was happening. Interested, yes, but invested, no. After seeing my lavish praise for the man, perhaps many of you wonder what could he possibly have done more? Maybe it’s not him but me! (Am I breaking up with epic fantasies?! Oh dear.)
While I appreciated the avoidance of fantasy writing cliches and the depth of the culture, science, and history manufactured for this story, I could not help but wonder if I would enjoy the story more if it simply showcased a group of people trying to take down an oppressive empire without any magic--just politics and strategy. Or perhaps if it boasted the fantastical element of allomancy on a smaller, more focused setting. Honestly, I don’t know. Part of me really feels that Sanderson had all the right pieces in place--including that elusive character development--but I still did not feel closely attached to the characters, even though they were carefully molded throughout. I connected to their minds and motives, but not--I think--their hearts. Many fantasy writers do not even get to the minds and motives part, so credit to Sanderson on that regard. And, again, it is also possible that I have burned out on epic fantasies and I need to give it some more time, so I can come back fresh.
Overall, though, the result is that I am encouraged by the maturity of Brandon Sanderson’s writing. I have no qualms recommending this fantasy to anyone, though especially those who have a fondness for epic fantasies. But I also have to admit that I will not be looking for the sequel--not unless it happens to magically appear before me in a puff of brilliant blue light. (less)
The great matriarch of the Reeder clan deserves most of the credit for my healthy addiction to books. So when she suggests that I HAVE to read a book...moreThe great matriarch of the Reeder clan deserves most of the credit for my healthy addiction to books. So when she suggests that I HAVE to read a book (even if she HATED The House of Seven Gables and I LOVED it), I cannot easily ignore such a powerful recommendation. The story: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.
I am not a mystery fan. Not because I don't like mystery novels, just because it feels like too overwhelming a field to enter. What's next, the 50+ Sherlock Holmes stories? The 40+ Mary Higgins Clark books? Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton and company? If my hammock would stop time when I lay down in it, by all means, but otherwise life moves gruelingly on. Thanks to Mom's urging, however, I finally picked up this classic Christie tale. My fears were justified. I had a delightful time.
Agatha Christie not only weaves a fascinating, yet plausible story, with distinguishable characters and a simple but carefully planned setting, but she also allowed this reluctant reader to keep guessing. You see, I determined to give up, right from the start, in guessing who the murderer was. I'm not particularly adept at figuring out even marginally clever mysteries, so I was determined to just be an outside observer and go along for the ride. In spite of my careful defenses, I found myself grabbing on to a couple perfectly brilliant possibilities, only to have them revealed and destroyed in front of my very eyes. Not fair, Ms. Christie, I didn't want to play in the first place! That shows Agatha Christie's capability to draw in an audience, though, because I couldn't resist it.
And when the reveal came, I had to admit that I had not been cheated. It fit. And even though there were plenty of loose ends and question marks dotted along the narrative, she kept the story tight and fairly brief and still managed to address them all. What a fun, entertaining read.
Well, Matriarch, you've done it again. I'll still resist the urge to plunge head on into the world of mystery writing, but I'll also be carefully exploring the time-stopping hammock option as well.(less)
I started to feel like my bedtime reading choices to my kids were leaning a bit much on the boy side. And since my 7-yearr-old daughter was basically...moreI started to feel like my bedtime reading choices to my kids were leaning a bit much on the boy side. And since my 7-yearr-old daughter was basically the only one understanding the stories I was reading, I figured it would only be fair to broaden horizons. So I chose a classic with a girl protagonist (thanks, Sis), thinking that it would be a pleasant enough story (though I'd be glad to get it out of the way).
For most of the book, my thinking was right on. The story, or--better said--collection of a year's worth of vignettes, were pleasant. They came, they were interesting, and they ended before becoming tedious. The description was minimal, but also beautiful and spot on. The stories within stories were probably the most fun to read.
The most valuable thing about the stories, however, was the way that they showed the simplicity of pioneer living. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this, it must have been good to have a reminder about the things that really mattered in life. How much more relevant is that lesson today!
I honestly love the technology that allows me to find and read books from all time periods and contact my distant relatives with a simple push of the button. Yet--and even if I sound like an old man in saying this I'm going to charge forward with it anyway--how quickly we lose sight of what really matters in life when we get stuck on the latest posts on social media or feel like we've been flogged when a teacher takes a student's cell phone away for five hours (hypothetical example only, of course). Little House in the Big Woods removes us from that. It shows how we can live without modern technology and how simple pleasures can be found with the nature that surrounds us. That's not to say that we should drop everything and huddle up by a candlestick all winter long. Pa says it best at the end when he approves of the thresher as good change. Let the good changes come, let's just not forget where we came from and how much hard work change required.
As fascinating as I found these reminders from days gone by, I still did not think the book was exceptionally engaging and was planning on giving it only a passable recommendation--until the end. The ending was nothing extraordinary, some might even read it and say, "Hey, Marty, what was the fuss all about?" Yet for me, Wilder concluded in a way that was so absolutely appropriate, connecting all those separate vignettes so effectively and even powerfully, that I had no choice but to be left in awe at the author's humble talents.
I don't know that Laura Ingalls Wilder could continue that sort of neat packaging of ideas in a sequel. But even if she doesn't, I'm fairly certain they are pleasant reads. We're reading Tom Sawyer next, but once I start overloading the boy literature again, I will turn back to Laura's world with a satisfying nostalgia.(less)