Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary DeMuth

I stumbled upon Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary DeMuth in an attempt to find a good "Christian" novel that was also literary. This book popped up on Google so I bought it. This was a few years ago when I was really desperate to find a book that came from a Christian worldview that was also written well and not shoving beliefs down the readers throat. It took me a long time to pick it up but I finally got to reading it.
When I first started reading this book, I really didn't like it. For some reason that I couldn't quite comprehend, I wanted to stop reading the book altogether. Part of me wondered if it was the graphic nature of the story but I'm not usually bothered by that sort of thing. The main character, Mara, is raped not even ten pages into the novel. DeMuth goes into great detail and I did feel a bit turned off but that didn't explain why I wanted to stop reading when all of it was said and done. I have since realized as I read on that it was the writing style that was a turn off. DeMuth is in no way a bad writer but her style made me feel nostalgia toward another writer and that writer was...well, my 17 year old self. Halfway through the book I was suddenly reminded of my writing style in high school since I wrote almost every day in study hall. If I had read this book back then, I bet I would have considered it a favorite. Now I'm not one to say you can't read a book that is below your age level...I'm actually very much against people accusing children's literature as being simple. However, I was a bit turned off by this realization.
As I said above, the book begins with our nine year old protagonist Mara being raped by a high school student, with a John Deer hat, nicknamed General. The book revolves around Mara's psychology after this incident as well as Mara's family history that she knows nothing about.
This book was a quicker read than expected. I became very engrossed in Mara's family mystery and desperately awaited the reveal to the community that General had been rapping Mara. The build up was excellent. The book surprisingly moved at a fast paced mixed with the slow nature of the story. I also had a bit of fun toward the end of the book when I began to guess outcomes and tried to figure out the ending based on clues given by characters and literary techniques that the author set up.
However, despite my enjoyment there was a huge low to this novel. While the book does an excellent job at keeping the reader invested and DeMuth perfectly illustrates Mara's psychology, the ending was a huge disaster. I don't mean it was a disaster in terms of the outcome; I mean disaster in terms of the ending execution. The entire novel drags the reader along wondering who Mara's family is and when will General's true identity be exposed. 320 pages out of the 346 sets this up! And all we get are simple info dumps and cliche moments. This technique isn't always bad. Harry Potter books often have info dumps at the end. But the big difference between this book and the Harry Potter books is that Harry Potter is fast paced and has tons and tons of explanations to give that the info dumps, while a tad bit on the easy side by the author, work. The ending of Watching the Tree Limbs was way too fast compared to what was set up. I would have liked to see Mara find out about her past in intervals over time, not in super small bits that don't make sense and then one huge info dump. Another problem I found was that DeMuth spent more time on a passage about Mara accepting Jesus (a passage I didn't quite understand) than on the real issues she set up to be resolved. In fact, this type of scene is what I was avoiding. It took the book from interesting mystery to cliche Christian stereotype. Mara's struggles throughout the novel were General, her past, and struggling with her own goodness. Yes Mara struggled with her faith but this book treated it as once Mara accepted Jesus, everything suddenly worked out and that is a very wrong and damaging tween idea of God. Finding faith doesn't mean our problems disappear. The climax became Mara accepting Christ instead of focusing on what the book had set up so nicely. In my opinion, many "Christian" books fall for this trap and this is why so many aren't considered literary. They are essentially Christian propaganda. 
Another big disappointment was Mr. Winningham. He has no character development what-so-ever yet DeMuth makes him a big part of the story. The book asks us to sympathize with him and while his back story helped with that, his character didn't give me any signs that I would like him. He never grew from this experience that he was going through. He should have been given more of a part to play in the present than simply playing a huge role in the past. 
Overall, this book was enjoyable. It wasn't exactly a stellar read but it was a good read. I would recommend it purely on the basis that Mara's character development is fantastically done. My rating is 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and studied it in college. Recently I have come in contact with several passages from the book and have fallen in love with the beautiful language and writing style. It occured to me that I should read another of Robinson's books to relive her excellence. Housekeeping certainly lived up to my high expectations.
The book is narrated by Ruthie, a quiet and contently lonely person. She is raised alongside her sister Lucille by a succession of relatives in Fingerbone, Idaho. Their house sits by a large glacial lake and above the lake are train tracks, the same tracks where their grandfather died in a train wreck. After their mother commits suicide by driving off into the same lake, their grandmother takes care of them. After her death they are raised by their two Aunts before Aunt Sylvie arrives and becomes their final guardian.
The title of this book is simply beautiful. When the book was first published it was said to be a feminist novel but I never got this impression at all. Part of me feels like when there is a story that consists entirely of female characters, it is automatically dubbed to be a feminist work. Not true. Obviously, housekeeping is a very traditional act that women, in the early 1900's and for as long as history can recall, have been taking part in. It is the act of making ones living space presentable and homely. In the case of this book, the title also talks about housekeeping on a deeper level, of rebuilding ones soul and keeping up a spiritual home for ones soul.
The theme of loneliness was also a wonderful aspect of this novel. Ruth is constantly lonely and her experiences and descriptions completely personify what it means to be lonely and why some people suffer from it.
Robinson has a beautiful way of tying literature with theology. What was by far my biggest take away from this book was Robinson's uncanny way of looking at the Bible as a story instead of merely a book of rules to follow. She refers to several areas of the Bible externally and also internally, specifically Ruth's name and her ties to the book of Ruth. The quality of her words is like eating the most gourmet, delicious food. She never ceases to satisfy.
To finalize this review I also want to touch on the ambiguity of the ending. This trope is one that I never grow tired of because it's interactive nature literally invites the reader to finish the story. It is truly beautiful.
Obviously I love this book. It was a quick and immensely enjoyable read. I will give it 5 out of 5 stars. Robinson is quickly becoming my favorite author!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

I didn’t know much about Jesse James. When I heard his name, I would think of the wild west and bank robberies and Billy the Kid. That was the extent of my knowledge before reading this book. I am not a historical reader. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. But I think history is more interesting for me when it is visual. I realize this trait is feeble. I went into this book hoping for the best but expecting something that would bore me to death. Essentially my expectations were correct…and at the same time, I came to realize that this book is not getting the credit it deserves.
What do I mean by that? To put it simply, this novel in its brilliance was boring. When I first began reading I found the characters and situations to be fascinating. Ron Hansen is a brilliant writer. His characterizations and descriptions resemble that of classic novelists such as John Steinbeck. In fact I was reminded of Steinbeck while reading and upon looking over the rave reviews for this book in the inside cover I saw that someone else made the same connection. Because of this comparison and Hansen’s brilliant writing, I find it odd that this book isn’t required reading in classrooms.  I think that if I had to read this book again then I would only do it if I was taking a class on it. Taking a class would help me understand the story more. I think this was one of the issues with the text while I was reading. I don’t want to say issue holds the book back but it will hold back certain readers, me being one of them. At its heart, this book is about Jesse James and his gang and gang stories are always formatted a certain way that confuses the heck out of me. For example, I recently watched a movie called American Hustle and I could not grasp the plot for the life of me. Yeah, I’m that bad. It was about a con-man and also mixed the mafia into the picture with confusing deals which kept me from enjoying the film and therefore understanding the film. Obviously this is a fault of my own intellect but I have a hard time enjoying a story when I can’t comprehend half of it. This was a major downfall for me as a reader.
The writing, as I said, was incredible. Hansen is slowly but surely becoming one of my favorite writers as I really enjoyed his other novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. While the story went over my head, the writing did not. If my rating was based on the writing alone, this would be a five star review. The psychological study on the relationship between Jesse James and Bob Ford is also enough to give this book five stars. The book’s title is really not the focus of the novel but the climax. A big theme the book tackles is fame in America and the obsessive nature in which people treat the rich and famous. This theme came across the most in the final part of the novel after Jesse’s death.
Overall, this book clashed for me between the excellent themes and writing style versus my lack of understanding con-men stories. I still feel really silly saying that. Toward the end of the novel I was so ready to be done and move on and I just felt bitter about the experience. So I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Reflection

When I was nine years old, Harry Potter was a growing phenomenon. Kids were going crazy for these books. I can still remember sitting with my friends at lunch time and laughing about how stupid it all was. I mean, c’mon. Who wants to read a book about a boy wizard? It seemed ridiculous.
Now it is almost 15 years later and I have just finished reading the first book for the seventh time. To some that may seem like a real accomplishment. To others it may seem like a small number compared to the number of times they have read it. And to the select few buzz kills, they think it is a waste of time. You know who you are.
Yes, I have read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone seven times (I now refuse to call it “Sorcerer’s” for reasons I will explain further along in this post). I began rereading the Harry Potter books in my sophomore year of high school, 2006. I reread them because I found I hardly remembered the books and was only accustomed to the movies. I reread the first three and didn’t return to them until the summer of 2009, two years after I read the seventh book, and the summer the sixth film released. Ever since that second reread, I have become acquainted to a specific feeling that only resonates when I read Harry Potter. If you are a reader than I am sure you know what I mean. It is a weird and specific feeling you get when you read a book that sometimes haunts you until you read the book again. For me, the urge to reread Harry Potter and relive that marvelous feeling comes about every summer. I kid you not. Sometimes the feeling is so strong that I crave the books like an ex-smoker craves a cigarette. I can’t really explain the feelings even to myself. Perhaps it is returning to my childhood that keeps me coming back, remembering the touch of the pages in my small hands and the smell of pumpkin space candles burning in autumn while the smell of burning leaves drifted through the open window. Sometimes I am brought back to the summer when the final book came out. My friends brought their copy to church camp in secret and when I finally ended up reading it, I was at my grandfather’s 100+ year old house in upstate New York.
Books have a way of staying with us. My mom asked me why I like to reread books when I already know what is going to happen. I explained to her that rereading is just as magical. I am able to spot clues that foreshadow to the book’s ending or even foreshadow future book events. I can look at character development and see how Rowling set up the trio to become the adults at the end of book seven. Rereading allows me to reread brilliant one liners from Dumbledore (and this book contains a lot of those) and relive the trio’s friendship in bloom. It is like reuniting with a friend who has moved away and now returned for a few weeks.
I contemplated writing another review for this book (which seemed appropriate since my views have changed on certain things) but felt it would be counterproductive. I’ve read the book seven times after all…it is no secret I love it. So instead of reviewing the book, I am going to talk about the memories I associate with reading the first book for the first time. This will be an ongoing series. The number seven is a prominent number in the Harry Potter series so it seems fitting to reminisce on this reread. This time around I won’t be rereading the books all at once. There are so many books that I haven’t read yet that I want to give a chance so I will reread at my own pace. Let the magic begin!
I want to first discuss the title. It really bothers me that Scholastic felt the need to change Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone. Not only are these two things very different, but the American name no longer carries as much intellect and weight. To some this may seem like a minuscule detail but in terms of Nicholas Flammel and what his title was, he was a philosopher and there was said to be a Philosopher’s Stone. The title change can be compared to Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, more commonly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The later title was dubbed for the English translation of the book but carries no weight for what the story is really about which is Notre Dame, not specifically the Hunchback, Quasimodo.
Two of my favorite chapters exist in this book as well as one of my least favorite chapters. My least favorite chapter is Chapter 14, Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback. This chapter contains a humorous line from Hermione (“Hagrid, you live in a wooden house” she exclaims after Hagrid says his dragon Norbert is going to live with him) but apart from that
not much else holds this chapter up. The un-believability of it all and out of character carelessness of Harry and Hermione bothers me to no end. My favorite chapters are Chapter 1, The Boy Who Lived and Ch.12, The Mirror of Erised. In regards to Chapter 1, I can’t say enough just how brilliant the first line is (pictured on right). Seriously, that has to be one of the greatest first lines in literature. The chapter is so fascinating because Harry is absent from most of it and asleep for the rest, defying the typical children’s book narrative style which really moved me as a young reader. Listening to the wizards interact about Voldemort’s defeat and the death of James and Lily and Harry’s miraculous survival is so engaging. Plus, seeing Harry’s beginnings always makes me smile with glee. Chapter 12 is a favorite of mine because of the mirror itself and what Harry sees. First of all, ring composition! Hello! Second of all, Harry’s longing for a family is so gut wrenchingly touching that you can’t help but sympathize with him. This boy has never known love and has now come to Hogwarts where he encounters love and his parents through the everyday things he does and now through this mysterious mirror. Seeing them makes them that much more real and it is terrible that all of this was taken from Harry.
Now let us travel back to the year 2000 when I first began reading about young Harry’s adventures. I will not go into why I changed my mind about the books. That will be for another time. My mom ordered me the first book through the Scholastic book order (remember those?), a paperback cover. When the book arrived, I remember gawking at how thick the book seemed and how small the font was. I felt very grown up reading this book. I carried it with me everywhere throughout the house. One night as my brother, who was 7, took a bath he called me into the bathroom for company. I laid down on the bathroom rug and continued reading Chapter 4, The Keeper of the Keys. My brother was splashing bath water and I kept telling him to stop. It was an accident waiting to happen. His splashes grew bigger and bigger until finally, SMACK! Water cascaded through the air and drenched my book. I can remember crying and my mom sitting me on her lap for comfort. That was only the beginning of my book’s ruin. Once I finished reading, which felt like a huge accomplishment, I lent the book to my brother who was desperate to read it. I didn’t see the book for a few months and when school ends and my brother emptied his backpack, the pages were covered with melted butterscotch candies. This was yet again another blow. I was very wary to lend my brother anything from this moment forward. I’m not sure what became of that copy. I think we donated it.
This ends my Philosopher’s Stone reflection blog. Join me next time when I remember the Chamber of Secrets!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tips for Upcoming English Majors

August is coming to a close and that means college freshman are buying their first books and packing their college dorm supplies for a brand new semester. Now that I have graduated and completed school, there are many epiphanies that I wish I would have had during my 4 years that would have helped me a lot as an English major. So in order to not let these realizations go to waste, I offer 3 essential must haves come upcoming English majors.

Number 1: Audiobooks! Audiobooks! Audiobooks!
Audiobooks are tools I wish I would have realized and taken advantage of. As an English major, your teachers will assign at least 3 to 5 books per class. That is super challenging, especially when you have all of your other homework to complete from general education classes (which are a waste) to complete. My advice would be to subscribe to some sort of audiobook service like Audible.com or Audiobooks.com. This will make your life less stressful and you will be able to at least keep up with the class…something I failed to do multiple times. Itunes also offers free audiobooks if you look around. They are usually offered as podcasts and a chapter is read every episode.

Number 2: Join a book swapping website.
Do you have a bunch of books lying around at home that you don’t want anymore and can’t seem to sell at garage sales? If not, you will son. When selling back novels at the end of the semester to your school bookstore, your school may not want to offer much but a pretty penny to buy it back. Stretch your dollars with a book swapping website. It is really simple. You list your books, someone claims them and you ship them out. In return, you earn points to put toward other books! It is a great money saver. Sure you have to pay for shipping but you can trade any book for any book. You could trade a $5 book and request a $20 book. This is also a great way to let books live out to their full potential instead of letting them sit at garage sales or get thrown in the trash. The two best book swapping websites are Paperbackswap.com (not limited to paperbacks) and BookMooch.com.

Number 3: Free E-Books
I have never been a fan of E-Books, but free speaks to me…and there are a lot of free E-Books out there for legal download. This is very helpful if you are reading classic books in your class. You can find free E-Books on iTunes and on the Goodreads App. Be sure to take advantage of these free offers!
Those are my 3 tips for English majors. English alum, do you agree with my tips? Disagree? Have more tips to offer? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin


For the past four books, George R. R. Matin has used a specific and visually appealing format to structure his chapters. There is always a character name about the text that represents which P.O.V we will be reading from (though this format was bent somewhat in A Feast for Crows) and there is always an elaborate floral looking banner at the top of the page. That hasn’t particularly changed in the fifth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. The P.O.V still remains and the floral banner still resides. What makes them different in A Dance with Dragons verses the other four books? Suddenly the P.O.V heading is smaller as well as the banner and there is a whole lot less page showing. I had to gulp in shock. Entering this book was intimidating already but this was icing on the cake. I knew I was in for a roller coaster of a book!
Indeed A Dance with Dragons is a roller coaster ride. There are tons of highs and many lows. To start off, and may I remind you that this review contains spoilers, I never guessed that Aegon freaking Targareyn was alive! I mean, wow! That blew me away. Looking back to the House of the Undying chapter from A Clash of Kings, I can now see the foreshadowing. Still, my mind is blown. But that wasn’t the only bit of excitement in this book. Speaking in broad terms, the book was avidly political, and very much mirrors our own current system, while also medieval and vulgar. Watching Jon Snow rebuilding the Wall and redefining what is right verses what the realm has come to believe was really fascinating. Equally fascinating was Dany. Jon and Dany, ice and fire, had very similar stories in a sense as they are bother leaders in a political fashion. And it was pretty amazing to finally see Dany ride one of her dragons! I literally cheered out loud when I read this part! Waiting for her fate after this point was like waiting for Bran’s fate in A Clash of Kings. But besides that, Dany’s arc was magnificently done and I can’t wait to see what is next for her. Her buddy Daario was pretty humorous throughout the book, dropping insults to Ser Barristan like calling him “Ser Grandfather.”
Bran’s journey was very intriguing. I have a hunch, with no evidence to back it up, that the “creature” who led them to the children of the forest may have been Benjan Stark. Again, just a hunch. Moving on though, I wish there would have been more Bran chapters in this book. This is another character that I can’t wait to return to. And finally, let me turn my attention to Tyrion. His story was very different than I expected but his adventures were always entertaining and the fact that he interacted with Jorah Mormont was freaking cool.
The epilogue was freaking amazing. Finally we know who Varys’s little birds are! We also know that words are wind from Martin having his characters say the line over ten times throughout this book. What we still don’t know is Jon’s mother, and I would argue that we don’t know if Jon is even dead. Martin made it seem like he died but he left it off in such a way that gave us no confirmation. I predict he lives!
Dany’s realization in the second to last chapter was refreshing. Finally I think she is ready to take her place as Queen on the Iron Throne! It is cool how Martin shows her hitting her lowest point so that she can realize her true destiny. This book also includes the famous quote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” I was pretty psyched when I read that.
There were a lot of great quotes actually. Many tied into the theme that I discussed in my A Feast for Crows review that everyone is on the same side. This theme shines across beautifully in this book, as it does in all five of the A Song of Ice and Fire books. “As the children splashed in the pools, Daenerys watched from amongst the orange trees, and a realization came to her. She could not tell the highborn from the low. Naked, they were only children. All innocent, all vulnerable, all deserving of long life, love, protection…It is an easy thing for a prince to call the spears, but in the end the children pay the price” / “Someone did [make peace], my lord. Many someone. We’ve had a hundred peaces with [this family], many sealed with marriages…The Old King’s Peace lasted half a century. But then some fresh quarrel broke out, and the old wounds opened and began to bleed again. That’s how it always happens…so long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last…there will never be an end to it.” (510/644)
After reading these last three books, I have come to learn that Varys and Little Finger are the true masters of the game of thrones which is super awesome! That being said, I’m not quite sure that this series is about them. I briefly thought the series was about Jon and Daenerys. Then I thought it was about Starks and Targareyns. Next I moved to the idea I also mentioned in my A Feast for Crows review that these books have no specific character focus which could mean that A Song of Ice and Fire is specifically talking about the realm as a character which stretches from extreme heat on one end, fire, all the way to the wall, ice.
I have another theory as well. My theory is that in the end this will be Aegon VI’s story. I have my reasons for thinking this…first off, I want him to be King. At the same time, I also want Dany to be Queen so ideally I want them to rule together. But I have a feeling this might not happen. Here are my reasons: 1. The House of the Undying chapter from A Clash of Kings. In this chapter, Dany sees her brother Rhaegar standing with his wife and holding baby Aegon. He specifically says, “He has a song. He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” The series name is used and I don’t think it was by accident. That is some fantastic foreshadowing, that is. 2. Dany’s full name, Daenerys, is the biblical name for coin which has Caesar’s picture on it. I wonder if this points to Dany being the Queen we want, but not the leader we need. Perhaps the true savior of the realm is Aegon.
The only complaint I have about this book is Victorian chapters. I seriously cannot stand that dude. But even that doesn’t hold back the book because Martin’s writing is so freaking fantastic and rich that you can’t give him marks for something as silly as not liking a P.O.V character.
Overall, this book was mind blowing. The suspense is great, the character arcs are believable and awesome and the writing is impeccable. Definitely giving this 5 out of 5 stars. I can’t wait to read the sixth book, The Winds of Winter! That being said, I can’t stand when people become angry at Martin for not writing faster. News flash, he isn’t your slave to write you books. Give him the time he needs to shape these books as he imagined! We will all be better for it in the end.

July Reader Recommends

Movies - The Normal Heart, The Way Way Back
Books - A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Matin, The Wisdom of Pixar by Robert Velarde, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
TV Shows - Rev. BBC2
Podcasts - The Relevant Podcast
Music - Andy Mineo's Neverland (You Can't Stop Me), Royal Tailor (Remain), Loud Harp (Take Heart), The Way Way Back Soundtrack (For the Time Being by Edie Brickell), Luminous City (Your Love Moves, Kingdom Come), Tenth Avenue North's Islands EP (For Those Who Can't Speak).