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

WARNING, SPOILERS ARE COMING

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).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis Mini Review

Bud, Not BuddyBud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bud lives in a home for kids who no longer have a home. He'd rather still be living with his mom but she died and his father is a mystery. After being sent to live with a terrible family, Bud decides to run away and find his father. Always at his side is his trusty suitcase which holds clues left by his mother as to who his father is and where he would be living.
I was first introduced to this book when I was ten because my fourth grade teacher was reading it. I never read it but bought the books for my brother as a gag gift one year for Christmas...it's a long story. Anyway, I've been completing a summer reading challenge and I figured this book would be a good pick for a historical read since it takes place during the Great Depression.
The book was pretty boring for me...at least the first 3/4. It was the final quarter that saved the day. I absolutely loved the ending of this book. It was so well thought out and creative and moving. I never saw it coming. The ending alone is enough to make me recommend this book. That being said I can't ignore the 3/4 that bored me to death which is why I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

WARNING - SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
It is hard to come to a book when you have been told it is the most boring book in the series, hard to get through, and said by many to be their least liked book to read. Those are the usual descriptions I read or hear when fans discuss the fourth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire titled A Feast for Crows. I felt a bit overwhelmed when I first started reading. It wasn't just the negativity that surrounds this book that weighed me down but the very idea that I knew I would be reading a great deal from the character perspectives that were new and unfamiliar and others that I outright disliked before they became a POV character. And I think my concerns are valid and have something to do with why many view this book poorly. But I think there is another factor at play that ultimately decides how fans would interpret this book and that is the book's predecessor, A Storm of Swords.
A Storm of Swords was jam packed with action, realizations, and events that made us fans squeal with glee. The guys we wanted to die were dying and they were epic deaths for the most part. There were surprising twists we hated but loved the dramatic robes they wore. There were prophecies and explanations to long unanswered questions. It seemed that 75% of what we hoped was happening and as for the 25% we didn't want to happen, it only made George R. R. Martin more bad ass. Needless to say, it is hard to top that. You see entertainment falling for this scenario all of the time. Creators releases something epic and when a sequel is announced, the journalists all ask the same question - can they do it again?
Journalists asked these questions with the Harry Potter books and Pixar films. They asked it with Zelda video games and spin off TV series like Girl Meets World.  And I'm inclined to think they must have questioned A Song of Ice and Fire. People are used to a pattern in entertainment where a series gets better and better with each new installment and perhaps A Feast for Crows let them down because it takes a whole step down from A Storm of Swords. I don't say "step down" to mean the book stepped down in quality or content, though many may mistake it for that. I say "step down" to mean Martin took a step back with this fourth book and decided to take a rest and reflect on the things that happened in the third book.
A Feast for Crows is indeed a reflective novel and what it lacks in action is made up for in mystery and wisdom. It is this book that has revealed to me the true nature of this series. I read from perspectives I could care less about. I had to deal with Cersei's bitching more than I cared to deal. And yet I became engrossed. I watched as characters I loved like Arya and Sansa as they had to learn to lose themselves in order to survive and I think there is something to be taken away by all of it. This isn't the book we necessarily wanted but it was necessary - such as life.  We didn't want to see Arya hide Needle or Maester Aemon die or Cersei get her way but it was all necessary. Too often authors are giving us what we want instead of harboring in on the reality of a situation. And I think the reality of this series is that no one is the focus. Instead, it is the world Martin has created that the story revolves around. One reader may be upset that Tyrion has no chapters but guess what, this isn't a series about Tyrion. Sure I missed his narration and yes he is a huge part of this story but he is only a stem of a bigger tree. Martin is known to be a lover of history and it definitely comes across in his narrative. He has not only managed to create a new fantasy world but he has created situations and characters that are fit to be in our own history books. The job of a historical writer is to present an unbiased look at history via the eyes of those involved. So we have Cersei who is clinging to the throne and doing everything in her power to ruin Margery Tyrell because of a prophecy. We have Jaime who is loyal to his Lannister name but questioning the loyalty he holds toward his sister. There is Arianne Martell who seems like a foolish girl looking for simple revenge for the Red Viper but wants to give Myrcella Lannister to the throne that should be her's.
All of these characters hold an important piece to the story and Martin uses them to beautifully illustrate the complexity of human existence. Martin's series depicts a world which very much mirrors our own, literally and metaphorically, and beautifully conveys that humans are their own worst enemy. While Cersei clings to the throne and tries to prevent a prophecy, she always wants no harm to come to her son. While Jaime will fight for his family and holding their titles, he only wants to protect the realm in the end, just as he did when he killed the Mad King. And while Arianne tries to sit Myrcella on the throne she is entitled to, she only wants what is right and for there to be peace in the end. It is the deepest desire in all of us to long for harmony and for others to understand us...to understand our way of thinking. Yet even though these characters are all essentially routing for the same thing, they fight for blood, old family ties and grudges, and stories they have heard from the grape vine and want to believe are true. If they just learned to let things go and forgive, they could end this war and their suffering. But it doesn't happen and Martin is touching a very universal piece of wisdom - we are our own worst enemies. Perhaps this points to putting trusting something bigger than ourselves, but this is not the volume to discuss such things.
If this novel is a reflection on world history and the human psyche than I can't call it worse than the previous three. They all do the same thing. They validly depict a war in an unbiased fashion. I can't discount this one for being a little less action packed as it's predecessors. This book captures the world Martin has created so perfectly. And the ironic twist midway through reading was that I began to enjoy Cersei's chapters! I still don't like her and was very happy with how Martin ended her storyline for the book by finally sending her to a cell and having outsiders see her for what she truly is - a monster. But what I really enjoyed about her chapters was seeing in her mind and why she wanted to hang onto the throne. The fact that her every action is based on preventing a prophecy is so Shakespearean and very much mirrors Macbeth and I love it. I also loved learning about the different religions in Westeros. I would be very interested to read a book talking about the biblical wisdom of these books, biblical influence, and what the various religions of Westeros are based off of.
Another thing I loved about this book, that sort of ties into biblical influence, was Sansa and Arya's chapters. I've always loved both of these characters and their journey's throughout this book always excited me, especially Sansa's. If you are wondering what makes their stories biblical, I believe it is the changing of their names. It isn't as apparent in Arya as in Sansa but often in the Bible name changes mean a person is being made new or reborn and I think Sansa is definitely growing and becoming a new woman. I can't wait to see where her story goes!
All of that being said in defense of this book, I can't say all of it wowed me. Chapters that focused on the iron born people were the worst parts of this reading experience. Nothing made me care about them. Sure their religion is fascinating and the priest was semi-interesting, but I can't get behind their cause when there really is none to be had. All the iron born's want to do, it seems, is fight to fight.
Overall this was a really solid addition to the series and I found myself pleasantly surprised after hearing so much negativity surrounding this book. It is not the boring and petty book people label it as but it is a soaring accomplishment on the part of Martin and his publishers. This book must have been a risk to release by it's very nature but I'm glad no one wavered on doing what Martin wanted to pursue his overall goal. I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars.