Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

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 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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Wisdom of Pixar by Robert Velarde

Pixar has always been a huge part of my life. I grew up with the movies and can appreciate them as artistic films as an adult. When I was in high school, I became very fascinated with entertainment and the connections with Christian spirituality. Being a teenager and still very inexperienced in many aspects of life, I didn't quite have the vocabulary to state what I felt and saw, but I continued to have an interest and learned a lot since then. I now know I'm not the only one who sees these connections. There are books and books discussing entertainment's connection with faith as well as psychology, philosophy, history, etc. I have read quite a few of these books and want to write one of my own someday. The Wisdom of Pixar by Robert Velarde is one these awesome books and it does a great job of analyzing these films and forming connections that the viewer may not have noticed before.
If you aren't aware, I am a host on a Disney podcast called Talk Magic to Me. Disney is a big part of my life and I have always felt a strong connection with their movies. That is why I am on the podcast, to discuss my love for Disney in a community based way. Our summer theme is Pixar and I figured this was as a good a time as any to start reading this book. A big plus to being on a podcast is that I contacted author Robert Velarde himself and had a chance to interview him! How cool is that?!
I'm going to state right away that this will be a five star review. I'm telling you this early because I don't want you to think I'm giving the book kudos just because I interviewed the author. Nope, not the case. I genuinely really  loved this book. While the title of the book doesn't overtly hint at any faith based analysis, it is primarily focused on Pixar films and their connection to Christian faith and spirituality. Wisdom itself is a biblical virtue after all. I find it a bit ignorant when I see people reviewing this book with one or two stars just because of it's Christian worldview. Every book has a worldview so why start getting picky when there is a Christian one? Velarde doesn't shove the theology mindlessly down our throats. He meets us in the middle and is very straight is a movie, this biblical virtue exists within that movie, this is what we can learn and take away to apply to our own lives. Velarde makes it clear that he isn't saying Pixar intended to make their movies as biblical metaphors.  But as John Green states, "Books belong to their readers" and this saying isn't limited to books but all entertainment. What you get out of a film, TV show, painting, or video game is equally (if not more) important than the author's intent. This phrase has always been bittersweet for me because as a writer and creator I want my intentions to be known yet as a reader I have interpreted texts and art in a very specific way that has helped me grow as a person but not everyone gets.
The book is split into chapters in order of Pixar movies, starting with Toy Story and ending with Up. Each chapter has a different focus on wisdom such as love, humor, technology, justice, etc. and how the piece of wisdom ties into the movie of focus (with an occasional look at other Pixar films that also incorporate the same aspect of wisdom). The chapter will use biblical examples to make things clearer. Velarde does a great job at breaking these films down and analyzing them in a simplistic way. He reveals the depth within Pixar that many choose not to see since they label it as kids entertainment. David Beagley, a professor at La Trobe University once said in a lecture, "Children's literature is not simple. It's as complex as adults. It's the audience that is different, not the literature." The same can be said about any other medium. Of course with film this idea is hard to see since so many companies only make kids movies for money and use stupid dialogue and easy humor that suggests no adult will ever enjoy these movies at all! Luckily Pixar is not one of those companies, nor Disney...or at least most Disney movies don't adhere to that standard but there are exceptions. Ironically enough, David Beagley also stated in his lecture that he hates Disney which made me die a little inside because I really respect him and hoped some scholar would see the good in Disney but so many don't.
Pixar is the perfect example to show that not all "kids" movies are simple. They hold a lot of weight! What is cool about being a 90's kid is that I grew up in arguably the greatest era of Disney...the Disney Renaissance, good Disney channel programming, and of course the birth of Pixar. These films have really shaped me as a person. I'm not saying my entire being is all thanks to Disney/Pixar but you get my point. I was able to enjoy these as a kid and now can still enjoy them as an adult but in an academic way which is really awesome!
The book was excellent. I really enjoyed Velarde's writing style. He wrote as if you were on the journey through Pixar movies together. He has a lot of important things to say about these movies and the biblical imagery within them that should be taken more seriously by Christians and entertainment lovers alike.  It was thought provoking and written well. If you love Pixar, you will really enjoy this book. As I said, I will be giving this 5 out of 5 stars. If you want to check out our interview with Robert Velarde, visit on July 23rd which is when the interview will be released.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

There are many classic novels that are referenced in college courses and podcast discussions and lectures and I always find I am adding new books to my "to-read" list. Treasure Island is one of these books. My initial reason to pick up the book was to do a character study of the ambiguous Long John Silver but being pressed for time, I found a free audiobook on iTunes and started listening at work. I always feel like I am cheating on books when I listen instead of reading, but I excused myself this time. As I began listening to the book at work, a sense of excitement took hold of me. I felt like a young reader again and wanted to drink up every ounce of Stevenson's words. After listening to the first two chapters of the audiobook, I stopped listening and checked the actual book out of the library later that week. The narration was fantastic but the language was even better and I couldn't help but wish, as I listened, that I was reading the words on a printed page.
Treasure Island is a typical adventure story. It is also where many pirates tropes originated. I couldn't believe how much the Pirates of the Caribbean films borrowed from this book! The films certainly carry a similar spirit that makes you want more and more and more! Our main character is Jim Hawkins who runes an inn with his parents by the sea. He lives an ordinary life until a pirate named Bill arrives and Jim's life becomes extraordinary. When a group of pirates raid the inn, Jim and his mother must flee. Before they leave they find a mysterious treasure map. When Jim shows the map to some comrades, they make haste to find a ship and set sail to Treasure Island!
This book was very exciting. It had a lot of twists and turns and was very different from the various adaptions I have seen via the big and small screen. As the story moved forward I grew more and more tired of the...story. I really loved the beginning but the end felt very rushed but perhaps that was because I was reading faster to try and finish the book. Long John Silver is definitely an interesting character though I really love our main character, Jim. I can imagine many young boys inspired to have adventures and bravery like him when this book was first published. The writing was impeccable, there is no denying that. Overall, it wasn't the amazing book I had expected but it was a good read and I'm glad that I have finally read it so that I will hopefully notice other works that borrow from the tale. I will give it 3 out of 5 stars.