Friday, January 30, 2015

Top 10 Best and Worst Books of 2014: The Gourmet Reader

If you can not view the audio, please click HERE!

Bambi Review:
Bonjour Tristesse Review:
Disney After Dark Review:
The Gospel According to Disney Review:
Housekeeping Review:
Life of Pi Review:
Love Letters to the Dead:
The Moviegoer:
The Silver Linings Playbook Review:
The World According to Garp:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The World According to Garp by John Irving

I won't lie when I tell you that the death of actor Robin Williams really had an impact on me. That is a weird way to start off my review of The World According to Garp by John Irving but if you are a Robin Williams fan then you are probably aware that he starred in the film adaption of the acclaimed novel. I had never heard of the novel or film before Williams's death. In fact, I found there were many Robin Williams films that I was ignorant to. In an attempt to become more familiar with his film career, I added all of his film credits to my watch list. But Garp was different. Seeing as it was a novel, I added it to the top of my reading list although I can't say I was looking forward to the read. The book sounded okay, my library copy was old and worn and I just wasn't in the mood to read a huge book. I had to give myself a pep talk for that last reason because it is a long read. To my surprise, Garp immediately got my attention and I knew long before I finished that it would be a favorite.
The World According to Garp is a widely expansive novel that focuses on the life of writer T.S. Garp. The story begins with an in depth look at his mother Jenny Fields and how she came to conceive Garp. It would seem a bit curious that the story doesn't start with our main man but then again, there are many curious narrative choices made by author John Irving to tell Garp's story and all of the choices are particularly brilliant; for if we didn't hear Jenny Fields story then we wouldn't have such a good look at how Garp's mother impacted him and his life. The book focuses on many things in the midst of Garp's life. At once it is a commentary on list and politics and the next moment it is about writers and morality and parental paranoia. The book encompasses so many aspects of life and with most novels this would be a huge problem. But not with Garp. Irving seems very aware of the grandness of his tale and matches it with brilliant writing and deep reflections on life and diverse characters.
I feel compelled to compare the experience of reading this novel to reading Ian McEwan's Atonement when I was 17. While these novels are completely different in scope, they both focus on a similar theme and that is the theme of the writer. Both novels illustrate how reality becomes fiction and how fiction is not much different than reality and how the two bleed into one another for better or worse. This theme is captured so well in Garp.
My complaints are limited when it comes to this book. It was a bit boring at times but character development makes up for it. I had a love/hate relationship with Garp's writing. While it was awesome how he came to write a certain piece, I never truly enjoyed reading his writing. I appreciated it in the overall scope of the story but actually reading it was hard to get through. But I don't feel those complaints warrant me from not loving this book because man, did I love it. I'm so glad I read it and wish I could take a class on it and study it more! Definitely giving this 5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen Dubner

I don't listen to audiobooks often. I only listen when I feel I don't have time to read a book but want to comment on it or if I feel listening would be more beneficial. In the case of Freakonomics, listening definitely seemed more beneficial because I am a frequent listener of the podcast with the same name. I enjoy the podcast. It isn't my favorite but I enjoy it. I have also seen the documentary, complements to Netflix.
If you are like me and have this much experience with Freakonomics, I wouldn't recommend this book. Much of the text was old news to me. I've already heard the argument about less crime in the 90's having to do with legalized abortion, and I already know about the sumo wrestlers cheating. I've heard the same argument about names not deciding a person's fate over three times between the book, podcast, and documentary. So in that regard, the book was a bit repetitive and boring. However, if you are coming to this book for the first time and have no prior experience with the podcast or documentary than you will probably enjoy this book.
What I love about Freakonomics is that it makes connections is placed no one thinks to look. It isn't a biased program taking sides but just dishes the info and allows you to make your final call. The same can be said with this book. It presents the evidence very well but also leaves room for defiance.
Overall, it is a good book. It didn't really wow me so perhaps my review is biased since I already formed a relationship with Freakonomics. I will give the book a 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I Return to Harry Potter

When I tell people that I have read the Harry Potter books six times (the first book seven times), most are shocked that I would return to a series so many times. That equates to 43 books and over 25,000 pages (25, 479 to be exact). I'm shocked by those numbers myself. While those numbers are large, I never feel as if rereading the books is any sort of grand accomplishment. For me, rereading these books is a tradition. I return to them like I return to buying gifts at Christmas and eating pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. I return to them as an adult would return to their childhood home, just to take a peek back into their childhood even if it is a quick glimpse. Harry Potter, to me, is the same as returning to my elementary school or watching old home movies or eating a piece of pizza that tastes exactly like the kind from Chuckie Cheese where I had birthday parties often. I am filled with a sense of time travel that no Tardis will ever give me. In many ways the books are a key to my past. They are my very own pensieve. Each time I read I dip into a different memory, recalling my old self and my old perceptions. The books hold many pieces of me and in most cases I leave them a different person.
Books, in my opinion, are more than just simple words on a page. They are friends, experiences, and life lessons. They reveal truth to us in very subtle and unexpected ways. With them we learn new things and sometimes a book will raise more questions than answers, forcing us to look deeper into the text and deeper into our own lives. When I reread Harry Potter, it isn't only nostalgia that keeps me coming back. It is the sense that every time I return I will be gaining new insight not only in my life but into the text. Rereading forces me to notice different bits of dialogue that reveal character depth and allows me to notice foreshadowing which in turn reveals the brilliance of J.K. Rowling and helps me in my own writings. There is a lot to be gained from Harry Potter in terms of plot, mystery, character and setting for any writer.
Growing up with Harry always gave me a small sense of community. When I read about Harry visiting the Weasley house I was, and still am, reminded of family gatherings and nights spent with the youth group. The comradery provided a sense of relatability and provides a look back at childhood ethics similar to those found in the 1986 film Stand By Me. 
But I think what ultimately brings me back to Harry is my love of literature. Going back to analyze these books is such a treat and helps me when going to analyze other works of art. And I think Harry Potter provides this amazing element of story telling in that it raises more questions than it answers. The books continually force me to think critically and help me become a better critic, artist and writer. For that I am thankful!

Monday, December 22, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It was June 2007 and I had been assigned to read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for my summer reading homework before I started my junior year of high school. The book was one I had heard of as being a classic and a renowned piece of literature yet I had also heard from friends who had already read it that it was dreadfully boring and dumb. My assignment was simple. I had to find 15-20 quotes for three pre-chosen themes and then hand write three 150 word essays about the themes and integrate my quotes. It was a simple summer task but for most it was a complete buzz kill. I have always enjoyed summer reading. There was never any pressure for you to read the book fast or for peer interaction. It was just me and a book and my thoughts. I found that I enjoyed the assignment. In fact, it was this book in particular that changed the way I viewed books and literature and writing.
I loved this book. My 16 going on 17 year old self was mesmerized by Scout and her innocence and the adventures she had that so often reflected my own childhood although we were years and worlds apart. I loved the simplicity of the novel and it's call for justice. When I turned the final page I was confident that this book would be taking it's place on my favorites shelf.
I hadn't returned to the book since then and was curious to see if it would hold the same quality reading it a second time. I reread Where the Red Fern Grows almost ten years after reading it a first time and found I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as my 12 year old self did. This may be because Red Fern was my first experience with a subtle title. I remember thinking how brilliant it was that the author named the book after something so beautiful as the flowers that grew on the dog's graves. When I reread the book, I was experienced with so many books that did something similar and therefore Red Fern lost it's "wow" factor for me. Luckily, Mockingbird wasn't the same type of experience.
Mockingbird indeed introduced me to a lot of literary tropes but it also shaped the way I look at literature. My growth only stemmed from my first reading of this book. The second read was just as good. I definitely gained a better perspective on Atticus this time around and teared up after reading his speech at Tom Robinson's trial. 
I keep asking myself, why this book? Why is this the book that gained all of the attention? Well, of course it is written well and it's message is unlikely to be beaten. But I also think there is a timelessness to the story that resonates with many readers. Not much happens in Scout's day to day life. She goes to school or gets in an argument with her pubescent brother or gets reprimanded by an adult. She is a child in a mixed up world and Lee is able to capture this moment of all of our lives with stand out moments yet we still feel we can relate. We may not have had a mad dog roam the neighborhood street but we did have  moments that united the neighbors or scared the neighbors. We may not be teased because our father is defending a man who is racially discriminated against but we did get teased and were accused of things we shouldn't have been.
The book offers a unique look at childhood and though some call it didactic, I say it is a call to do what is right in the face of adversity. This speaks very loudly to recent events in the media. Make of that what you will. It is a call to return to innocence. This book is a 5 star book still. It still holds up to me and it will hold up as long as we continue to pick up books and seek knowledge and understanding.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Saint Nicholas by Joe Wheeler

Saint Nicholas has acquired many names over the centuries: Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Santa Claus. When we hear the name Santa we think of the man in the red suit with a jolly laugh and a large white beard. We think of Coca-cola bottles and reindeer and presents. Santa is generally seen as a jolly old soul whose mythical presence brings joy to every child on December 25th. But when it comes to the man Saint Nicholas, I think it is safe to say Santa is his secularized form. He is a pop icon with no more authenticity than a clown. And while the idea of Santa is a very nice one, I think it is safe to say that I am not the only person who is sick of his polarization. Santa has become more of a marketing tool...a way to suck kids in and make them behave this one time of the year. He is a pagan giant who supports department stores and malls all over the country. While Santa is fun as a kid, I really yearned to learn more about the man Saint Nicholas as I got older. When I saw this book at a bargain book store, I knew I needed to buy it for my own cause. I wanted to know who the really Saint Nicholas was.
I'm not a huge history reader so please forgive me when I say I found this book to be incredibly boring at times. While I am a huge reader I prefer to learn about history on the TV with visuals. That being said, this was a good book. Ir is a generally short read and is very to the point of who Saint Nicholas was and how he slowly molded into what he is today. I was very surprised to learn that Nick did more than simple anonymous giving while he was alive but had some involvement in politics of the church and was even imprisoned for his beliefs.
The author made sure to not skip over any detail about Nick's life, large or small. The first fourth of the book talks about Nicholas while he was alive while the rest discusses his impact over the centuries. The book does a great job at capturing how culture forms and how everything is connected. He talked about miracles surrounding the Saint (none of which I have heard of) and artwork and went into great detail about Saint Nicholas's transition from Saint to Santa. The book definitely has commentary on culture without being social commentary. This includes why people pray or why saints are so important and what it all means in the grand scheme of things. I also loved that the author explained how Saint Nicholas Day and the birth of Christ merged into one.
Overall, I was very touched by this book. I think it is a great read for the holidays yet can also be enjoyed as a religious or historical text. I learned a lot. I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Harry Potter's Bookshelf by John Granger

If you know me than you must know I love Harry Potter and am always seeking out new material to study about these books. One author/speaker you can never go wrong with is John Granger, also know as the Hogwarts Professor. Granger is a pretty big deal. He virtually changed how I look at these books with his ring composition theory and always wows my brain on the podcast, Mugglenet Academia.
I've always been fascinated by the influences Potter claims and was so excited to tackle this book. If you are a big follower of Granger then this book may come off as a bit repetitive at times but at others it is utterly brilliant! The book makes so many fantastic connections and really holds Potter in the high standards that it deserves to be held in.
The book's beginning chapters were very good. Then the book slowed down a bit and became a tad bit boring (and I will admit I considered not finishing the book) but I pressed on and the rest of the book was epic! Granger made connections to Austen and Dante and works that were unknown to me that I have now added to my reading list.
Jo Rowling is a fascinating person and I love how Granger studies her to gain more access to the Potter world. This is a must read for any Potter fan. I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars.