Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published in June of 1997 by Bloomsbury in London, England.  In 1998, Scholastic Corp. published the book in America, changing the name "Philosopher's" to "Sorcerer's" for fear that American readers were not familiar enough with the original term and sorcerer was more suggesting of magic.  The sales figures for the book were huge and the series rapidly became one of the most demanded among young readers.  What was even better was that the readers were not phased by the series increasing in length.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone created a generation that loved to read again.
I first read this book when I was ten years old.  The book was a big step up compared to the books I typically read which included the Little House books and the Magic Tree House series.  I distinctly remember crying when my brother splashed water on the copy my book when I was reading the fourth chapter, The Keeper of the Keys.  Finishing the book was a huge accomplishment for me.  Never had I read a book on such a large scale with such small print.  Little did I know that the series would remain with me for the rest of my life.
Reading Harry Potter has become an annual ritual for me.  I am now on my sixth re-read and loving every page of it!  This series has become a part of my life.  I can honestly say that I would not be the same person I am today without these seven books.  These books have helped me grow as a writer, as a reader, as a Christian, and as a human being.
Philosopher's Stone, in my opinion, is the weakest of the seven books.  The writing is good but not (yet) great and many of the plot points, such as bringing Norbert to the astronomy tower and having a Quidditch game during the evening when it is clear the games are always in the morning or early afternoon, seem forced and, dare I say, unrealistic.  Of course, Rowling grew as a writer and this problem didn't remain.  That being said, I love it this book.  The introduction to Harry's story is a magical one!  I won't give a recap because...well, you all know the story by now.  J.K. Rowling's debut book contains fantasy and mystery, history and alchemy.  It is clear from the very beginning that she knew what she was doing from the start.  The book plays cleverly with words, specifically when speaking about spells, locations, and character names.  It touches heavily on three big themes and these themes are consistent throughout the entire series and they are - death, choice, and love.  While this first book is very black and white in comparison to the later books, it still manages to accomplish an amazing feat.  Rowling combines the real with the mystical and creates an entirely new world that very much mirrors our own.  This book is only scratching the surface of what is yet to come.  She allows the reader to see this world through the eyes of an eleven year old - innocent, simplistic, and beautiful.
What do I love about this book?  I love the humor.  During this sixth re-read I genuinely laughed out
loud at several moments.  I think the funniest moment for me is when Hagrid is keeping Norbert the dragon in his hut and telling the trio it isn't a big deal, in which Hermione replies, "Hagrid, you live in a wooden house!"  There are also many poignant moments in this book, as is the same with the rest of series.  My favorite scene in the book is when Harry comes to the Mirror of Erised and sees his family staring back at him.  Harry has a longing to have a family and he yearns for them terribly more than anything else in the world.  It is truly heartbreaking to imagine growing up without any parents, let alone growing up only to realize that your parents were brutally murdered.  Rowling does a great job of foreshadowing in this scene by showing the reader that this is not something to be taken lightly and it is extremely important to the series. 
I guess it is obvious that I am going to rate this book 5 out of 5 stars.  Again, while I believe it is the weakest book in the series, I still love it...and it's Harry Potter.  How could I not love it?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thirsty Thursday: Ryan Seiler / Into the Wind

Ryan Seiler is most famous for his participation in the Harry Potter (wizard rock) band, Ministry of Magic - but his first solo record, Into the Wind, takes on an entirely new "adult" atmosphere full of folksy acoustic tracks that stack much higher compared to his past work in techno sounds and auto-tuned voices.  Into the Wind is a compilation of crisp, acoustic songs that all come together to form a unique album that seems to be a prayer of sorts.  Seiler does not forget his Harry Potter roots, nor does he forget his faith and does a great job combining the two.  Of course there is a lot less Harry Potter and a whole lot more spiritual elements on this record.
I chose this record for this edition of Thirsty Thursday because...well, because I love this album!  When the album first came out back in 2011, I bought a few tracks but the stand out track for me was a song titled Greener.  Greener is by far my favorite track on this record...among a few others.  I can't say I listened to it much at the time though...but my music preferences have changed a lot since then.  This past weekend, I sat at my computer and listened to this album straight through.  The album put me at peace.  I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom and the windows were open letting in a cool autumn breeze.  It felt like pure bliss and I didn't want the album to end.
Let's start off with the fantastic album artwork.  Good album artwork isn't a must but I always love seeing the artistic choices made by the artist that represents their particular body of music.  Into the Wind does just that.  The simple water color image of a ship alone at sea being blown in the wind really represents this album because Seiler is like a ship at sea, tossing and turning from the winds of life but always staying afloat through it all and learning and growing stronger with each hardship.  The title of the album, Into the Wind, seems to be saying that even though we are scared we must go out to sea and experience the rough waves in order to become true sailors.  We must not be afraid to go into the wind and experience life for the good and for the bad moments that will ultimately make us a better person because of said experiences.  Seiler's music on this album definitely reflects this theme.
What I love about this album, besides it being peaceful, is that each song is a prayer and by the end the album as a whole feels like a poetic reflection on spirituality.  The album starts off with the track July - a warm, simplistic tune that reflects on summer activities.  The second track pays homage to Seiler's Ministry of Magic days which I love.  He performs an acoustic track of the song Don't Leave, a song written about the final book in the HP series, Deathly Hallows.  I'm so glad Seiler chose this specific song to be on this record because it is one of my favorite Ministry of Magic songs.  The reason I love it so much is
because it isn't overly Harry Potter.  Taken out of context, the song seems to be about friendship and childhood innocence.  While I'm glad the song is on the record, it is the weakest track in my opinion for the fact that it contains stiffer lyrics compared to the rest.  The album continues the acoustic vibe with more heavily spiritual tracks that all hold up very nicely not only musically but lyrically.  If Seiler is recognized for anything with this record, it should be for his fantastic contemplative lyrics.  Stand out tracks for me include And We Sing, Greener, Run Home, and To See This.  Seiler also takes advantage of using repetition throughout this album.  He does this through his lyrics and through the themes he sings about.  The album ends with the song Cannonball Coming.  At first glance this song doesn't seem to stand out like the rest on the album but as I listened further I truly began to sense a state of finality to the song.  It is a perfect track to end the record and it, once again, pays homage to his Harry Potter roots.  Harry Potter fans will catch this reference since the song seems to be about moving on yet never forgetting how you became the person you are today and to savor every moment in life.
Into the Wind isn't the typical album you would see in a Christian book store and that is A-OKAY with me.  It dares to talk about God and spirituality in a fresh and raw way and Seiler's rugged voice combined with his beautiful lyrics make for a wonderfully refreshing album! It is a must buy!  You can pick it up on iTunes or listen free on Spotify.  Physical copies are also being sold on Amazon!
"Stay thirsty my friends!"

Similar albums to Ryan Seiler's Into the Wind: Wesley Blaylock; Wesley Blaylock, Charlie Simpson; Young Pilgrim

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reading: Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

Here I am with yet another Rob Bell book review.  Don't worry, this will be the last one for a while.  Also, unlike my last Rob Bell review, I'm hoping this review will actually be a good review instead of me just ranting about why Rob Bell confuses me.  Let's get started!
Velvet Elvis is another one of the books I listened to instead of actually reading.  I don't think I am going to be doing much with audiobooks any longer - mainly because the information doesn't stick with me and the impact doesn't feel as real as it would feel with reading words on pages.  Plus, I feel like I am cheating when I listen to audiobooks.  It isn't the same experience for me.
Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis has nothing to do with Elvis.  I mean, Bell mentions Elvis in the very beginning of the book but I'm not exactly sure what his excerpt had to do with anything the book talks about.  It makes for an interesting title though...I guess?  Anyway, in this book Bell talks about repainting the Christian faith.  The stand out analogy for me in this text was when Bell compared faith to jumping on a trampoline vs. building a brick wall.  When our faith is set firmly like bricks in a wall, we will always be unmoving and unchanging.  If one brick is taken out of the wall, we fall to the ground.  However, when our faith is like a trampoline, we find we as Christians are much more flexible.  Because faith and culture are always changing, we need to be open to new ideas that will spring us forward (or up higher).  This is one of the many analogy's Bell uses in this book and I must say, I find this one specifically to be quite poignant. 
As usual with Bell, we have the overly cheesy chapter titles and closing sentences.  Although I do not prefer audiobooks, Bell is a rare author that I like to listen to.  I don't think it is because he has a nice voice or that he brings his books to life.  His reading made the book seem more like an extra long sermon rather than a 100 page book.  I can't say this is a good thing but I say it more to justify me listening to the book instead of actually reading it.
Moving on...that is all I really have to say about Velvet Elvis.  Unfortunately I waited a long time to write this review so not only is my memory failing me but I also don't want to say too much about the book because that would make me write a ten page blog post.  There are a lot of topics that Bell touches upon in this book and I can't even come close to addressing them all.  I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars and I encourage you to read it (or at least listen to it).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reading: The Hogwarts Saga as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle by John Granger

Earlier this summer, as you may recall, I had the amazing opportunity to be a student guest on the wonderfully fantastic academic podcast titled Mugglenet Academia which looks at the Harry Potter books in a scholarly fashion.  Before the episode, host Keith Hawk sent me the subject material so that I could prepare my thoughts.  One of the subjects was ring composition.  I had never heard of ring composition before so I went online and started doing my research.  Right away I found out that Mugglenet Academia had done a bonus episode that focused on ring composition and co-host John Granger had written a book about it.  I decided to order the book and I listened to the podcast. 
Ever since that experience, my life has become all Potter.  It won't stay that way - I promise.  However, right now I feel a very strong connection to the books and studying the literary elements that go with them.  (Just a warning, there will be lots of Harry Potter posts for the next month or two).  After learning about ring composition, I no longer view the books in the same light as I used to.  It is so clear to me now that Rowling is in fact a genius and preplanned these books so well!  I mean, I always knew she was awesome but ring composition was the icing on the cake for me.
So now you are probably wondering - what is this ring composition (also known as ring cycle, ring theory, or circle theory)?  Ring composition is defined as a text coming into full circle.  The idea of a perfect circle is that it is perfectly round and closes perfectly.  There are no gaps.  One side of the circle will reflect the opposite side.  The same can be said about ring composition.  When a text contains these reflecting elements, where one scene is echoed later in the book or the series, it gives the reader a sense of closure and makes them feel as if they have come full circle.
Ring composition is not a new technique.  Many other fantasy writers have taken advantage of this style of writing including Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Suzanne Collins, etc.
In this book The Hogwarts Saga as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, John Granger presents us with the argument that these books are not on the bestseller list by accident.  There is a reason why people are drawn to Harry Potter and other fantasy series of the like.  Granger talks about Rowling's literary merit as well as her IQ level, using her score in the popular computer game, Minesweeper, as an example of her attention to detail and patterns.  The book is also full of many helpful charts that provide an in depth look not only at the ring structure that exists throughout the series but in each book as an individual novel.  The results are quite fascinating.
Overall, this book is a great addition to any avid Harry Potter fans library however it isn't a must buy.  It is the typical Potter academia book - published semi-sloppily with many typos throughout the text but the detail oriented nature makes up for that.  If I am not mistaken, I'm almost positive the charts in the book can be found online in PDF format for free.  Plus, as I said earlier, there is a podcast talking all about ring composition on the bonus episodes on Mugglenet Academia.  Everything John Granger writes in this book can be easily accessed through Granger's blogs (the Hogwarts Professor) and Mugglenet or any other Harry Potter based website.  The theory itself has completely changed the way I view this series of books and reminds me why I love them so much.  I only hope I can add to this discussion someday because I love Harry Potter and I love studying Harry Potter.  I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Reading: Quitter by Jon Acuff

And here we are with yet again another book I listened to by audiobook.  This review is rather late actually because I began listening to the book back in January and finished in July.  The reason in took me so long is because - well, I'm not a fan of audiobooks.  The only reason I possessed Jon Acuff's book on my iPod is because Noise Trade released it online for free and I figured I could listen to the book on my way to class every now and again.  I listened to the book inconsistently while I was in school.  It wasn't until I graduated and returned to my summer job that I listened to it chapter by chapter on a consistent basis.  I finished it in July.  Needless to say, this review is LONG overdue.
To start off, the premise of this book is great.  It is a topic that everyone and no one wants to talk about.  There is a conflicting ideology in our culture.  There is the idea of having a dream and some will encourage that dream and some will stomp on it.  Then there is the dreamer who wants to be a quitter.  They want to go from making their day job into a dream job.  Once again there will be strong advocates of this philosophy and strong disagree-rs.  Acuff comes at the situation carefully and skillfully.
With help from his own personal experience with fulfilling a dream, Acuff writes Quitter in a relaxing style with modern day tips that matter in our modern day world.  He tries to take the reader step by step into the process of becoming a quitter.
I don't have much to say about the book.  I thought it was really helpful, insightful, and interesting.  It didn't hold my interest 100% and (no offense to the author) I found Acuff to be very annoying reading the audiobook...particularly when he made a joke that was so obviously trying to make people like him.  I am giving the book 3 out of 5 stars.  It wasn't amazing but it was unique and something I believe everyone should read if they feel stuck in a job and never expected to be "stuck" there.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wasted Wednesday: My Thoughts on Syria

When I go to bed every night my usual routine is this - I read, do a sudoku puzzle, and then browse through twitter for a little bit.  I like browsing twitter because believe it or not it is my main source for news.  I feel very ashamed to say that I am not up with the worlds latest news.  My sources for news besides twitter are Tumblr, Relevant Magazine, the podcasts I listen to, etc.  The hype of last week was the VMA's and the crazy sexual and over the top performance put on by Miley Cyrus.  I'm not an MTV fan nor do I care for the VMA's so I did not see the performance and still have not seen it...I've only seen articles and lots of pictures.  While I would love to talk about my thoughts on the whole issue, there is another issue that is at stake that I feel I need to voice my opinion on and that is Syria.
As I scrolled through twitter gazing lazy eyed at all of the Miley Cyrus hate tweets (and some compassion tweets), I came across one tweet from Eugene Cho that said, "That so many would be outraged by Miley Cyrus and yet, so apathetic by what's going on in Syria, Congo, & North truly outrageous."  The tweet was the first that actually made me stop and think.  Why, you ask?  Well...mostly because I had not seen or heard anything about Syria and didn't even know there was an issue going on.  I immediately felt ashamed of myself.  Since that day, I've been doing my best to try and make sense of the situation and have been listening curiously to see what President Obama's plans are.  The more I learned, the more I knew I had to make Syria my next Wasted Wednesday topic over everything else.  In fact, Syria should be the top topic to everyone else too because the decisions that are soon to be made will affect us all in America.
This post will not explain to you what is going on in Syria.  This post will not explain why the U.S. is involved in it all.  This post is just my opinions on three topics that all relate to Syria: war, power, and weapons.
Let me outright state before I write anything else that I do not feel it is right to enter war with Syria.  This opinion of mine is not based on the facts and the history of America and Syria's history together.  This opinion comes from my years of taking history classes and learning about history everyday through the books I read, the podcasts I listen to, the movies I watch, the conversations I have with diverse groups of people, and the videos I watch on youtube.  I have learned that America has a way of pushing her ideals on other countries and that this has caused many of the conflicts that still exist today.  This idea is apparent when looking at the war on communism (The Cold War) and when looking at the war on terrorism.  The same idea can be compared to Hitler who imposed his views on a country that eventually spread around Europe.  America has become a global empire that wants control and in some ways she has gained it, however she has become too big headed and because of this it has also spun her out of control.  America wants to control everything and have wreaked havoc because of this.  I believe America should stick to America and not get involved (or crash the party) with another country's problems and here are my reasons why.
War: I hate war.  If history has taught us anything, war solves nothing.  It merely gives people an excuse to kill and harm each other over an issue that the government could talk out but have too much pride to do so.  I had a conversation with a friend about Syria the other day and I voiced my opinion that I stated above.  I told her I was sick of America getting involved in which she responded that this issue has to do with the U.N. and that other countries are not volunteering to do anything, making America the country to pick up the pieces.  Whether what she said was true or false, I'm not sure.  But her comment got me thinking; why must we, America, pick up the pieces at all?  Why is it always America who has to get involved?  The entire concept reminds me of the Christians who waged wars on other religions because they did not believe the same things.  Why is the answer to differing views always war?  Don't get me wrong, there are some things that people in other countries do that I think is just plain awful and wrong.  But there is a cultural barrier between us.  Just as I believe that they are doing many evil things, they could look at me and say the same exact thing.  Starting a war will only get both parties angry and will kill innocent people who aren't really fighting this battle and have virtually nothing to do with it. 
Power: After learning about plenty of wars in history classes, I have come to the conclusion that governments (and people in power) are what case wars.  Governments are always too headstrong to talk things out and always are fighting for having the upper hand - even if that means killing thousands to millions of innocent victims in the process - all to get what they want.  To bring in a pop culture reference, just look at the second book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire, A Clash of Kings (TV Show known as Game of Thrones).  In the book, we see Stannis and Renly Baratheon both claiming that they are the rightful king of the seven kingdoms.  Stannis feels inferior to Renly because Renly is beloved by all even though Stannis is the true king since he is the oldest brother.  At one point, the brothers come face to face and have an argument of wits as to who should sit on the iron throne, sending threats at each other every other sentence.  Finally, Catelyn Stark intervenes and lectures the two of them, saying that if they were her sons she would put them both in a room together and make them work things out.  The conversation is no longer about who is the rightful king.  The conversation is about family history and hurts that each of there brother's experienced growing up.  They each still have deep loathing for the other and are willing to risk many lives instead of forming an alliance together as brothers.  They are both too proud.  This plot is a perfect example at how each government has hurt one another in some way and instead of uniting and looking past petty differences, they wage war. 
Weapons: I bring weapons up last because they pose another threat entirely.  With war comes deadly weapons, mainly nuclear weapons.  The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor so America bombed them right back.  That is all war is - back and forth battles.  To this day, America still feels the hurt from the attack of Pearl Harbor and I imagine Japan feels the same because of what America did to them.  Haven't we learned out lesson?  Yes the atom bombed technically ended the second world war but it only ended the fighting.  There is still hostility in this relationship.  The war is not over and no war ever will be until there is legit peace and that means no more weapons.  Just look at the cold war.  Russia and America both were making bombs to prepare for an attack from the other.  They also wanted to see who could make the best.  Another example is the space race.  America put thousands of dollars into the space race, as did Russia...all because of differing political views about how a government should be run.  Instead of putting money toward things such as education, the homeless, etc., America spent millions on getting one man into space.  While it is an achievement, I can't help but think that our priorities are in jeopardy.  Creating weapons will not protect us but will put us at more risk. 
My basic conclusion is that we can all learn from a few sayings: Treat others as you would want to be treated; If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all; Two wrongs don't make a right.  I know my ideas in this post are a bit scattered and I apologize.  I had a hard time writing this and I know there is a lot more I could have said but didn't.  All I know is that America's priorities are mixed up and there needs to be another option before war.  We need to take the advice we give to our children - violence is not the answer.  And my most basic and innocent question is - why can't we all just get along?  I know the issue is very complex but when you think about it, it isn't that complex at all.  The answer is simple - it is human beings that make everything more complicated. 
I find it ironic that all of this cropped up into my life on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have A Dream speech.  A call for war arises on the anniversary for a speech that longed for peace...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Reading: Jesus Wants to Save Christians & What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

Two book reviews in one blog post!  I know!  It's intense but it has to be done.  I just can't separate these two books...much like I have a hard time separating all of Rob Bell's books but these two are special cases because I didn't like either of them and I am writing this review to tell you why.
To start off, I must remind you, the reader, that I am on the fence with Rob Bell.  I don't know what to think of the dude.  When I first heard of him I found his ideas to be earth shatteringly brilliant and complex.  Then his new book came out, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, and his publisher posted a book trailer on YouTube.  I had yet to read any of Bell's books and so I watched the trailer and after the three minutes went by, the video ended and I had no idea what Bell was talking about or, more importantly, what the book was about.  I then proceeded to read the comments for enlightenment, which was a bad choice in itself, and found that most commentors were against Bell.  I had always thought the Christian audience loved Bell.  Apparently not.  The commentors were tossing around insults which mostly included the word "heretic."  I wanted to come to Bell's defense but just couldn't bring myself to do so because after watching this book trailer and having not read any of his books, I had no idea who this guy was or what he was really trying to say.  Ever since then, I've never viewed him the same.  I thought reading his books would change things but the truth is, they haven't.  I've now read five of his six books.  Some were nearing excellence, some were terrible, and one was okay.  I feel crappy for saving the best one for last because I'm not sure I can take another Rob Bell book.
Let's start off with a basic assessment of these two books as a whole.  As per the usual with Bell, I can't say I quite understood the point that either of these books was trying to make once I reached the ends of both.  What do we talk about when we talk about God?  I don't know!  I guess I should mention that I listened to What We Talk About When We Talk About God instead of reading it.  Right now, I am searching my mind and trying to remember what it was that the book taught me and the answer is quite plain - nothing!  The book taught me absolutely nothing.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians I actually read and I can almost say the same thing for it because while it didn't teach me anything, there was one pretty great chapter that confirmed my beliefs about American Christianity and why it is so messed up.  That was the only past of the book that made sense at least.
Bell has a habit of talking in circles.  Yes he has some creative thoughts and seems to do a good job of painting familiar pictures in a new, relatable light that helps the reader understand concepts better but my problem is that these paintings need to be relevant to what the book is said to be about.  No lie - there is a chapter in JWtSC titled "Genital Free Africans."  No, I promise I am not lying.  What does a chapter title like that have to do with the idea that Jesus wants to save Christians?  This is Bell's way of trying to be abstract and unique and modern but the only thing that comes across to me is someone who is trying too hard and who is annoying.
Here is a brief summary of thoughts that I gathered while reading/listening to these two books.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians basically talked about how the old testament is still relevant in today's culture despite popular belief and What We Talk About When We Talk About God was about science and atoms and a bunch of other things.  I guess listening to the later book was a bad choice.
I know I am being very broad and harsh in my approach to reviewing these two books.  That was not originally my intention.  But I am looking back on my notes and finding that I just don't know what else to say other than that I was very disappointed with both of these texts.  Do I think they are worth reading?  In some cases, yes.  Bell has some good ideas but he needs to finalize what he is saying.  I frequently asked myself while reading, has this dude taken an English class?  WWTAWWTAG was the bigger disappointment for me.  I listened to that book all day and found myself thinking, what was the point?  That book taught me nothing and I have no idea what Bell was going for.
The only guess I can make is that I am not the person who fits into Bell's audience and that is okay.  I know tons of people get a lot out of his books and I respect him as a person.  Would I recommend these books to a literary person?  Absolutely.  I think it is important to read Bell's books because of the way he relates these mundane ideas to modern day examples.  Is he for everybody?  No.  If you are like me, you will hate his writing style and the demeaning tone he takes at times.  You will hate how he tries too hard.
I give both of these books 2 out of 5 stars.  The premise for both was good but the final outcome left me asking, what the heck did I just read?