Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince has slowly become another one of my favorite Harry Potter books.  When I first read it, it was during the summer time and I had my mind on other things - or other books more likely.  I was planning on reading a book titled Eragon after I finished up with Harry Potter and was pretty excited to read that book - so much so that I sped through Harry Potter without really really getting the entire weight of this book.  The only thing I remember is that I vividly imagined the cave scene at the end and in my opinion the scene in the movie adaption was by far one of the best scenes in the entire series.
This book is really heavy with emotions!  It has romance, comedy, suspense, death, and mystery.  Of course, every Potter book has these qualities but it is the sixth installment that really hits things home about how serious the fight with Voldemort is going to be. 
Harry begins the year in a distraught state.  He has just lost the only person he considered family to him, Sirius Black, and is worried about the fight with Voldemort and the prophecy he just heard at the end of the school year.  With the new school year comes new challenges which involve quidditch, dating, and personal one on one classes with Dumbledore himself.  The
point of these classes?  To study Voldemort and figure out his weaknesses so that he can be defeated.
What do I love about this book?  I love how intricate it is.  In my opinion, this is the book that really reveals it all and is a very interesting character psychology study on villains.  The book is very coming of age and dark.  It is the first time we see Harry get to work as an equal with Dumbledore.  I love the Ron and Hermione romantic bits and I also love Harry's interaction with the new minister of magic, calling himself Dumbledore's man through and through - that scene is my favorite in the book.  J.K. Rowling's writing got better and better with each book and it is obvious while reading this book.  Not only is her writing superb but her characterization is brilliant.  In this aspect I am obviously referring to Voldemort.  The reader learns of Voldemort's heritage and his past and how he became the villain they must defeat. Snape is also a prime example of Rowling's masterful characterization.  For those who know Snape's true allegiance, reading this book is a real treat.  It is so great to see that Rowling doesn't underestimate her reader.  She doesn't make Snape conform so that we easily see his true allegiance before the ending.  She keeps him a solid character with his own motives and quite frankly he is, in my opinion, one of the best and most complex characters of the series next to Dumbledore.
To put it simply, I love this book.  It is definitely a favorite!  I will give it 5 out of 5 stars...of course.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran is a short but thoughtful and provocative piece of literature.  The reading process felt like a holy event, like I was reading some sort of biblical text.  At times it felt like I was a child again, listening to the old and wise mythical stories that taught me virtues and told me tales of morality, right from wrong.  No this is not a religious text.  Yes, it does contain religious but ambiguous implications.  The Prophet is a story on how one can best live and enjoy life.
The book starts off with Almustafa who is leaving the place called Orphalese and is greeted by the townsfolk for one final goodbye.  During this goodbye, the townspeople ask many specific questions about life which include topics such as love, marriage, work, pain, self knowledge, prayer, pleasure, good and evil, etc.  Almustafa answers each question intricately.
Author Kahlil Gibran does an excellent job at writing a poetic, thought provoking and theological work of art.  This book is a true testament to the idea that a book does not need to be large to carry meaning.   It was a quick read, mostly because I didn't want to put the book down.  As I was reading I felt a strong need to read the book out loud.  I wanted to sit down and read it to my younger cousins and record myself reading it so they could listen to the book at home.  I wanted to write down every single line from the book because the teachings inside are so profound and moving that I wanted to live by their principles.  Overall, excellent short read.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to find spiritual fulfillment.  I don't recommend this book to be the only thing a person lives by but I believe it's concepts are very much universal to religion and anyone can take something away from the reading experience!  5 out of 5 stars will be my rating.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner is a book I was excited to read but also fearful of reading for I had since tried to read his fiction and found it so complicated that I had to put it down in hopes that when I next pick it up my mind will be more mature and open to his writing style.  This is nonfiction though, and perhaps that is why I became accustomed to reading this book versus his fictional work that I hope to pick up again someday, because although his style was complex and beautiful and haunting, it was very clear and mind shattering.  It is funny how you feel certain emotions but can't seem to put them into words.  As a writer I feel like this isn't something I shouldn't be struggling with and yet I do.  Buechner is one of those special writers who not only writes these unexplainable emotions down on paper in colorful terms but also has an ability to connect with his readers and touch a part of them that is held close to their heart.  I believe that all books have the ability to touch our lives but there are some authors that have the insane ability to do this so well that you feel as if reading another author would be an insult to the one you are so fond of.  Indeed I was sad when I shut this book for the final time.  It was truly a remarkable read.
Telling the Truth is subtitled, The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.  The book is split into four sections - the introduction, the gospel as tragedy, the gospel as comedy, and the gospel as fairy tale.  I want to take a moment to address each section.  The introduction really drew me into the book but it was the three main parts that had me hooked.  One special trait that each section shared was that they all contained many references to Shakespeare's King Lear.  I can't claim to have read the play but I sure want to read it after reading this book.
The gospel as tragedy focuses on the apparent absence of God in the real world.   What does Buechner mean by absence?  He is referring to the idea that people have created that God cannot be real for if he were, bad things would not happen.  Of the many Biblical examples Buechner uses in this section, the one he comes back to the most is John chapter 11, the Death of Lazarus.  Buechner goes to great lengths to explain the psychology of the chapter, explaining that Jesus wept for Lazarus for many reasons.  Lazarus was his friend and he loved him and will miss him but he also weeps because he wasn't there to save Lazarus.  Despite all the miracles, despite being the son of God, he did not save this man and God had not saved him either.  So when he hangs on the cross and shouts, "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", he is asking, "where are you God?"  Even the cross speaks of the absence of God.  And yet this very scene points to the fact that God makes himself present in his absence, Buechner explains.  People try to explain God but Buechner says "they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life.  God is not an answer man can give, God says.  God himself does not give answers.  He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself." (Pg. 43)
The next section, the gospel as comedy, was just as remarkable as the previous section.  It paints a new picture of the gospel for the reader...to see it as comedy.  I believe it was this section that surprised me the most.  The whole idea of the gospel being comedy is something I never stopped to consider.  Buechner uses the Biblical example of Genesis when an angel comes to tell Abraham and Sarah that Sarah is pregnant at the age of 91.  In this chapter, Sarah laughs when the angel tells her the news and God asks her why she laughed and she then lies, saying she did not laugh.  But it is funny, isn't it?  I can imagine a comedy movie being made about the old lady who was pregnant at 91 years old.  It is so funny because it is so ridiculous and Sarah knew it, Abraham knew it, and so did God.  In fact, he instructed the couple to name their son Isaac which means he laughs.  Another
Biblical example Buechner uses in this section is Jesus' apt for speaking in riddles.  Jesus never gives a clear answer to things, nor does God.  After all, how can the cross be a clear answer of God's love for us?  The ridiculousness of the whole situation is laughable - and I can vouch for that since I have been around many people who laugh at this aspect of the gospel and how it can't be true.  Buechner explains this technique with the technique of telling a good joke.  Say you are at a dinner party and you tell a hilarious joke you heard at work to the crowd of quiet people, all eyes on you expecting to laugh, and you expecting them to laugh too because it truly was quite funny.  What if they didn't laugh though?  There you would be standing, all eyes still on you but no laughter and you may start to sweat and you can't really explain the joke because that would ruin the joke so you sit down embarrassed because no one understood it.  The same can be said for Jesus who stood in front of large crowds speaking the gospel.  He didn't use plain language but colorful and metaphorical and comical language so that if someone did not understand, he would not explain himself for the same reason that you didn't explain your joke.  It would ruin the message.
The last section, the gospel as fairy tale, is one that I consider myself very familiar with.  I don't claim to be an expert on the matter but I will claim that I am very interested in the fairy tale and fantasy genre and how they relate to the Bible and share many Biblical themes.  Buechner references many great works of fantasy and fairy tale such as the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and the Wizard of Oz. What these stories, and most other fantasy and fairy tale works is that nothing is what it seems.  The white which is not pure but evil and Aslan is not a killer but gentle.  Dorothy is a little girl yet the hero of the story.  Glinda is beautiful but a witch.  And Jesus is a king in spite of everything.  He looks like a poor man and unworthy but beneath it all he is the son of God, a king, God in the flesh.  Just as the ugly duckling transformed into a swan and the beast transformed into a handsome prince, Jesus is proof that beauty resides in unexpected places.  Many people would expect that if God showed up today he would be dressed in a nice tuxedo with his hair slicked back and a successful back story on his shoulders but in fact God is the man at the soup kitchen poorly dressed for the cold weather or the young school teacher helping her students everyday after school.  Like the fairy tale and fantasy, the gospel is never what it seems.
I don't think it is a big surprise to say that this book moved me in many ways and it is one that I will never forget.  It is easily one of the best books I have read this year and I plan on reading much more from Frederick Buechner.  The book was rich, the language was exquisite, and the content was brilliant and beautiful.  I will give this book 5 out of 5 stars!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Movie Review

I saw the new Hunger Games movie - Catching Fire - last night and have a few thoughts on the film that I would like to share.  WARNING - THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Okay...Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games installment in film form.  It has been a while since I read this book.  I wrote a review for it in April 2012!  Wow, I have had this blog for a long time!  I have seen tons and tons of feedback for the film and all of it has been positive.  Besides hearing about the amazing actors and the awesome soundtrack, the review I saw the most was that this film was practically 100% like the book.  Is it true?  I wish I could remember...
That is the first thing I want to talk about.  Going into this film, I thought it would all come flooding back to me but the truth is, I forgot a lot of plot events.  This could be because Catching Fire is to the Hunger Games book series as Order of the Phoenix is to the Harry Potter book series.  It introduces a whole load of new characters and a whole new complex story that, in my opinion, is not easy to get in just one read.  It has to be read more than once.  I would love to reread Catching Fire but right now I want to read new books and have just started reading the final book, Mockingjay.  In other words, I don't have time.  Anyway, when it came to the actual Hunger Games, I forgot most of the events in the arena and was like an average movie goer unaware of what was coming up next.  When I left the theater, my first thought was that the movie was a bit overwhelming - the content was on overload and sometimes certain things felt rushed.  Then a thought occurred to me - for the fans who had read Catching Fire and had looked forward to every single event being portrayed on the big screen, this must have been their heaven on earth.  The movie truly seemed to keep every event from the book which is why I may have felt like it was overwhelming and rushed.  Usually, I am on the other side of things.  Usually, I am a nerd who can point out every single deviation from book to movie.  Now that I have been on the other side, I have a sense as to why movie directors and writers have such a hard time keeping every single book event in the movie. For book lovers, this movie will have been an A+ and possibly movie goers who haven't read the books but love the Hunger Games will agree.  This film stuck to the book and that is a rarity in Hollywood.  But now I understand why so many book to movie adaptions don't stick to the book.  Because this film stuck so close to the book, it did a lot of things that don't work for films and that I believe is why the film felt overloaded with content and felt rushed at times.  I don't believe this film would or should win any academy awards (which isn't saying much because I don't think the academy awards do a great job at choosing the best films to represent the industry and are very biased) nor do I believe this film will be held alone as the best in it's own right.  I think it is a film that Hunger Games fans will love (and I sure loved it but I still love the first film and first book the best).  The average movie goer may not feel the same way because as a film, there could have been improvements.  Regardless, the filmmakers did an excellent job and that is what I also want to talk about in this review - the things I loved, liked, and didn't care for.
Let's start with the things I loved about the film.  First - Jennifer-freaking-Lawrence!  I love that girl way too much!  When she was first announced as the actress to play Katniss, I had never heard of her and didn't know what to think of her.  When I saw the first movie, I found her to be refreshing because I had never seen an actress quite like her.  Her acting style was really unique.  Then I saw her in Silver Linings Playbook, watched a bit of interviews she had done that not only are genuine but funny (including the hilarious Academy Awards question and answer speech) and finally began to understand why everyone loves this girl.  She is freaking awesome!  Which brings me to my point that she did a perfect job at portraying Katniss Everdeen.  To make her portrayal possible though, the film needed some great writers and a great director to convey the psychological effects the Hunger Games have had on Katniss.  These scenes which focused on Katniss's psychological well-being were well written, well shot, and well acted.  My favorite was in the very beginning when Katniss is sitting calmly by the water with her bow and suddenly she hears a sound and instantly reacts as if she is still in the games but before she releases her bow, she realizes it is just Gale coming up from behind and she is no longer in danger.  Besides Jennifer Lawrence, the other actors did a spectacular job as well.
The other scenes I loved in the movie outside of a theme were when Katniss's wedding dress transformed into the mockingjay on stage and when Katniss went to enter the games and Cinna was taken away.
Now for the things I thought were not so great.  First - and this is no fault to the movie as much as it
is the book - I still believe, as I said in my original book review, that the end of the story is a cop-out.  The ending is too easy.  Now for the movie itself I found a few faults but two stand outs that I want to talk about.  The first was the elevator scene where Katniss and Peeta meet Johanna.  Johanna steps on the elevator, complains about her outfit and then begins to strip out of it until she is completely naked.  Was that in the book?  I don't think so.  It just felt awkward to me.  Second - was it just me or did I notice an inconsistency when it came to the clock events?  When Katniss, Peeta, and Finnick run away from the poisoned fog, they tumble down a hill and as the fog approaches them it hits an invisible force field wall.  Later in the film Katniss and Finnick run into the section of the clock where there are jabberjays and as they try to escape, they hit the force field and they can't get out until the hour is up.  How come they couldn't get out of their section with the jabberjays but they could get out of the section with the poison?  Just an observation I have made.
There are also two things missing from the film that I had looked forward to seeing.  One scene I missed was the scene where Katniss has to jump the electric fence.  The electric fence in District 12 is usually never on but when the Capitol learns of Katniss and Gale's trips into the forest, they turn the fence on suddenly while Katniss is in there and she must jump over it to get back home.  The other big thing missing is that we don't get to see Haymitch in his Hunger Games.  I would have liked to see that but I know they are splitting the last book into two films so they will probably bring it up then.
I see that many people more prefer this movie to the first.  I think everyone involved did a great job and I can agree that in terms of little details, this movie did a better job but I still prefer the first one.  Many people disliked the shaking camera movement but I disagree.  I liked that because it felt much more realistic and scary - like if you were the one running near Katniss in the Hunger Games.  I also like the first book better than the sequel so that is another reason I prefer the first film.  Overall, it was a great experience watching it and I know I will be watching it time and time again but I do not feel this film is necessarily better than the first.  I believe they are equally good and work well together though the first movie is my personal favorite.
Although much of this blog is criticizing this film, check out this blog post written by another person who feels that Catching Fire fixed everything that the previous film did wrong.  I agree with most of the blog even though some of it clashes with my view of this film. Check it out HERE!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reading: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

This review contains SPOILERS.  
I first read the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series when I was 15, almost 16.  I came to the book late in the game.  It came out when I was 12.  It was the summer time, August to be exact, and I began reading the book at an interesting point in my life.  For my 16th birthday I did not have a big sweet sixteen with a bunch of friends.  I invited four or five to my house for a sleepover and we went to my church's carnival to celebrate.  Nothing fancy.  Before we left for the carnival my mom surprised me with my very first cell phone.  It was a flip phone track phone and I loved it.  My parents were strongly against cell phones and I could tell this phone wasn't as nice as the razor all my friends had but I didn't care.  I finally had my own phone.  I bring this small anecdote up because looking back, this was a huge thing in my life.  The memories from that weekend are still strong in my mind and I distinctly remember my new phone being apart of it along with my friends, family and of course, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
After my party my dad, brother and I took a weekend trip up to the Pocono's to stay in a small cabin in the same community my grandparents used to live.  I brought Harry Potter with me.  My grandmom came as well and brought her friend Peggy with her.  All I remember of Peggy is that she loved Bingo and that she constantly commented on my love for reading.  She probably commented so much because I was reading so much.  I was caught reading this book constantly and the truth is, I couldn't put it down.  For the first time I began to realize how amazing this series actually was.  Before this point I had only liked Harry Potter.  Now I was falling in love with the books. 
The entire weekend was fantastic.  Between the nostalgia I felt at being back to the location I had spent so many summers and Christmas's at with my family and my new cell phone and the amazing book I was reading, there was nothing to spoil my happiness.  This is the memory I carry with me when I read this book and it is what I think of when I look at it's spine from time to time on my bookshelf.
Goblet of Fire is truly the turning point of the Harry Potter series, but Harry Potter and the Order of
the Phoenix takes the series to an entirely new level.  It is, in my opinion, the most complex of the series, introducing plenty of new characters, new types of magic, tragedy, and an entirely new plot that ends up tying into the entire series!  This novel also has the best villain, Dolores Umbridge - the "pink" professor we all love to hate.  Her sweetness is so repulsive and it is very reminiscent of Professor Lockhart from Chamber of Secrets.  This book often brings into question "what makes a good educator?" and definitely has something to say about education in general.  Another stand out attribute to this novel is that it is very much a Sirius focused story.  Like it's ring book, Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix focuses on the relationship between Harry and his godfather.  The reader learns a lot about his godfather's family history and sees Harry share many strong bonding moments with Sirius.  Rowling does an excellent job at painting the tragic story of Sirius, the supposed escaped convict who can't do anything to help with the cause to defeat Voldemort and is humiliated in the process.  His death marks another tragedy in Harry's life...as if watching Cedric Diggory die and growing up without parents wasn't enough. 
While many critique this novel for being too dark, too long, and too teenage angst, I disagree.  I don't disagree with the fact that the book is dark, long, and has a lot of teenage angst.  In fact, I believe it is those things that propel this novel forward and set it apart from it's siblings.  Even the later books, while still extremely dark, don't quite measure up to this book in my opinion.  Harry's anger only proves that he is human and what I love is that he isn't the typical hero.  He is weak and flawed, unlike many of the typical heroes we see in fantasy.  Of course Harry isn't the first fantasy hero to be flawed but he was the first in my childhood.  While the book is long, I can't imagine any part of it being taken out.  Each chapter and sentence is essential to the story - whether it be to forward the plot or to develop the world and the characters inside it.  Besides Harry's angst, we also see a lot of sassy Harry in this book (for those who are not acquainted with this side of Harry, you should check him out in Chapter 1 of this book) and I love sassy Harry.
There are a ton of other things I want to mention but that would take forever so I am going to end this review here.  Overall, this book is a solid addition to the Potter series and it's darker tone sheds a new light on how great this series is.  5 out of 5 stars!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading: Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

As a lover of all things Potter and fairy tales/stories, I bought Tales of Beedle the Bard right after the final film came out to theaters though didn't pick it up right away.  I think part of me felt that since the book series and the movies had come to a close, this would be a short re-entrance into the Wizarding World and I didn't want to enter and leave it again so quickly.  This past summer/fall I reread the Harry Potter series for the sixth time and figured it was the perfect time to finally pick up the Wizards book of fairy tales. 
Right away I have to say that J.K. Rowling truly is a literary genius.  I get that the Harry Potter series is a bit overrated...it doesn't need to be said.  But for those who take the time to reread these books and analyze them (ex. Alohomora Podcast, Mugglenet Academia Podcast), readers can see all the time and brilliance that Rowling poured into the series.  The same can be said for this small edition, Tales of Beedle the Bard.  The book contains five Wizard fairy tales, the most popular one being (and my personal favorite) the Tale of the Three Brothers.  I guess I consider this a favorite because it holds some nostalgia from reading the final Harry Potter book since it is a big part of the plot.  Another reason I love it is because of the message.  I read it and it feels as if I have read it before as a child.  The story shares the message that not everything is what it seems and that we should be
careful with the choices we make - the same themes we see in the Harry Potter series as well.  This story, and the other four, belong on all children's bookshelves.  Rowling truly is a magnificent writer. 
The other four stories were enjoyable as well.  What I enjoyed most though were the statements made by "Albus Dumbledore" after each tale.  Rowling really knows her characters and is nothing short of brilliant when she writes as Dumbledore himself outside of the Harry Potter book canon.  Not only do we hear from Dumbledore's voice but in that we learn more about the history of this world Rowling has created and I love it!  It is really well done.
The stories were great, though some not as great as others.  Overall, it is a nice read and great if you have any young kids in your life who love reading or being read to.  I will give the Tales of Beedle the Bard 4 out of 5 stars.