Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Polar Express

Ok, so generally children's books don't actually need reviewing, but this may be my favorite book of all time. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is primarily a Christmas story, but to me it is so much more. Van Allsburg is a two time winner of the Caldecott Medal (once for Jumanjii in 1982 and once for The Polar Express in 1985). To put into perspective how important this book is to me it was the basis of my college admissions essay. While I loved the book growing up for its Christmas theme and the idea that if you believed long enough you might just get to see Santa, it has, over the years become something much more. Belief is one of those funny things that is really had to hang onto. It sticks with you for a very long time, yet always seems to disappear when you need it most. At least for me. But, somehow the ringing of a bell always seems to bring back my belief in the good that happens in the world.

I think I really need that today. The events in Aurora, Colorado Friday morning have left me really shaken. Maybe I am associating it with Columbine (one of the first major tragedies that I remember) or maybe it is just not being home and with friends that I can turn to and talk about everything... all I know is that even just staring at the picture of the train in the snow has somehow left me comforted.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Anna Karenina

It is perhaps one of the most famous openings of a book, rivaled only by the writings of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is the sentence that starts off Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 

I read Anna Karenina two summers ago in between working and whatever household duties I had that day. The book is divided into eight parts, telling the story of Anna Karenina, her husband, Anna's affair, and the relationship trials of her sister-in-law Kitty. Perhaps it is because I do not have the same feelings of restlessness and hopelessness but I do not relate to Anna on any level much at all. I don't really identify with many of the characters at all. Perhaps Levin (Kitty's husband) if I had to pick. And I feel exceptional amounts of empathy for Anna's two children who never feel her love. 

The book is exceedingly well written, however. And perhaps the reason that I enjoy the character of Levin most of all is that he is semi-autobiographical (at least according to theory) for Tolstoy himself. He does come across as the most genuine character, so perhaps that says something about Tolstoy's own moral character. The themes are interesting to explore (love, faith, family etc) and not all together uncommon, but presented in a way just unique enough that you want to know what happens. I also like that there are very few redeeming moments for the characters. Tolstoy portrays real characters in a very unflinching, almost critical light. 

If you are a fan of the classics I would definitely add Anna Karenina to your list. Just don't expect that you are necessarily going to feel emotionally satisfied after you've finished it. Maybe pick it up in time to read it before the Keira Knightley version comes out in November. Or there is always the 1948 Vivien Leigh version

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Blast from the Past: Stravaganza

One of my favorite books growing up was called Strazaganza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman. Mary Hoffman is a well known in Britain, having written over 90 books, but for most people in the United States she is relatively unknown. City of Masks is the first book in the Stravaganza series which was originally a trilogy (City of Masks, City of Stars, and City of Flowers) but has grown to include three more books (City of Secrets, City of Ships, and City of Swords). All six books were published by Bloombsbury, City of Masks was first published in 2002.

The books follow a teenager living in London (or thereabouts) in present time as they are transported to Talia (an alternate universe of Renaissance Italy). Lucien is the main character in City of Masks. The talisman that transports Lucien to Talia is a notebook given to him by his father because he is sick. In Talia Lucien meets Arianna who tells him about the custom in which young women must wear mask beginning at the age of 16, as decreed by the Duchess, Sylvia Bellini. The three main characters are different, yet share a common determination that appeals to both girls and boys. While it does not have the same type of overly dramatic action as Harry Potter it does have a good deal of action and the life-or-death feeling (especially for Lucien who could be trapped in Talia if he loses the journal) is clear. It is also interesting to see the story of the di Chimici family play out and how Hoffman is able to incorporate the di Medici lore into the book. I strongly recommend this series to anyone who has not read it. For more information visit the Stravaganza site.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury is one of my favorite stories of all time. Which is incredibly odd considering I had to read it for school and generally do not prefer books that I have to read for school over those that I chose to read. But, this is one of those books that stuck with me, and not always for a good reason. While the idea of a loving and caring family (taking care of Benjy is something that most families would not have done in those days) really captured my heart, but the other ways that the Comptons love each other... well that wasn't in my heart so much.

The Sound and the Fury was also one of the first books that I was confused pretty much up until the end of the book. The third person narrator that appears at the end clears a lot of things up, but it wasn't until my second reading that some of the clues Faulkner slips in really make sense. The sense of confusion is not something that classifies Faulkner as a bad writer (as I would bestow on some of the writers of the current generation) but rather speaks to his masterful skills. Keeping track of the interweaving story lines in the first section of the book alone speaks to his briliance. It also makes me wonder about the process writers have to go through in order to write a book like that. Obviously he was one of the great masters of the stream of consciousness technique, but how did he become one of the masters. How does anyone?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Water for Elephants

I finished re-reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen yesterday. I hadn't read it in a couple of years (before the movie came out) and people were talking about it at work so I decided to re-read it. It isn't a bad book, Gruen clearly put a lot of research into getting the Depression-era details right. But, 90 or 93-year-old Walter is my favorite character. Maybe it is his flaws, but he seems the most well-constructed part of the book. The Depression-ear Walter and Marlena's love story is cute, but seems forced or rushed in places. One minute they kiss and the next minute they are in love with only a few sentences of inner-dialogue from Walter inbetween.

I do love (and hate) the fact that the book focuses so much on animals. I am a huge animal love and animal rights supporter (not so far as PETA, but I love animals) so the treatment of some of the animals is absolutely heart-breaking to read. The same goes for the human treatment, but as it is couched in the Great Depression and framed as either the circus or starving their treatment doesn't seem as bad (or I am completely desensitized to it). The scene after August uses the bull whip on Rosie and they have to treat her wounds is one of the most devastating to me. I have used riding crops and whips on horses before so I understand that they are teaching aids, but the idea that you would use them so much that they would puncture skin just shakes me to the core. I couldn't even imagine striking an animal that hard.

The discussions about the treatment of humans and animals is the real reason to read the book, for me. The story isn't bad, mostly just predictable. For fans of Nicholas Sparks and The Notebook it is definitely the kind of book that could be enjoyed, but for me it just feel short of what I thought I might feel re-reading it.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Time to switch it up here on the blog. The book that I am going to review next is called Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey. It is a very interesting book on something that is super painful. It uses a really interesting series of references including Emma and a various paintings that depict people being bored.

It also made me wonder about how often I get bored and why. I am constantly on my laptop or washing tv but I seem to be bored because I'm not stimulated. Somehow I feel as this should worry me... but it doesn't. Maybe that is what the book taught me. Boredom happens, but sometimes you just have to go with it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Peter Pan

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” -- Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Peter Pan and Wendy 1915 Cover
Peter Pan is one of the true classics, both in book form and Disney movie form that everyone seems to love. I am included in that list. Mostly because I love J.M. Barrie's style of writing. I don't know if it distinct to him or to the time period but no matter which of the Peter Pan incarnations by Barrie I read I always know it is one of his works. The original Peter and Wendy is my favorite, but the sequels are good when I need to reminisce. I also love the characterization of Smee in the book. He seems so loveable and completely different than how he is portrayed in any other sequel or media.

Peter Pan, 1953
I also grew up in the land of Disney and the 1953 original animated version of eter Pan voiced by Bobby Driscoll with Katryn Beaumont as the voice of Wendy. I am not actually a fan of the movie. It doesn't really accurately capture the motherly feelings of Wendy or the fear that comes when they (particularly Michael) start forgetting their parents. I suppose it is good for a Disney movie, but the book just seems to have more substance.

There are a lot of other Peter Pan remakes and re-imaginations. There is the 2003 version with Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy or the 1991 masterpiece that is Hook with Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Julia Roberts (try and figure out how I actually feel about the movie). And more recently Peter and the Starcatchers (the 2004 prequel to Peter Pan and Wendy) appeared on Broadway. If you've never heard any of the songs I encourage you to look them up on YouTube. The musical won 5 Tony Awards and Christian Borle is absolutely fantastic.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Harry Potter Generation

So for the second review/commentary (in 2 days no less!) I thought I would go with a series that has pretty much defined my generation. And no, I am not talking about Twilight, I am talking, of course, about Harry Potter. In seven books J.K. Rowling managed to encapsulate the entire growing-up process, create characters I could fall in love with, and determine what I wanted to do with my life. Well that last part took a little time, but I'd say now I'm pretty dang determined to make it in the publishing industry one way or another.

But anywho.... on to the books themselves.
My favorite book is probably either the the second one (it introduces us to Dobby) or the last one (it seemed fitting that I was applying to college just as the Harry Potter chapter in my life was closing). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone for my UK friends) will always hold a special place in my heart as the book that started it all. It is kind of funny looking back on it after nearly 15 years how much my view has changed on it. I hated Hermione for much of the first book (which is odd because I pretty much am her) and loved Ron, but as the books progress their roles kind of switched. I still love both characters, Ron just seemed to get more annoying, or maybe I was projecting about the boys around me, I don't know. The second book introduces my favorite creature from the world of Harry Potter: Dobby. He is the most infuriating little thing but I immediately grew attached to him. I think for some reason he reminds me of ET (one of my favorite movies of all time). It does make me sad that he is entirely CGI and not a puppet that I can go see at Harry Potter world or something....

Book 3. This was really the big "fan" beginning for me. I remember being really excited that the book came out. It is kind of middle-of-the-pack for me, though. Though I really wanted a time turner! It was nice to see that the supporting characters like Hargrid have a bigger role I felt like J.K. Rowling had a better idea of the Harry-Voldemort mythology than she explained which ended up being a little confusing. Harry Potter mania was definitely in full swing by the time the fourth book came out. I actually got the pre-order in my stocking as a Christmas present and was beyond thrilled. I was really excited to see the special effects in this book translated onto a movie screen and the storyline is great because we get to see the wider world outside Hogwarts, a theme Rowling continued for the next few books, but some of the characters seemed a bit flat.

Book 5. As a fan I hate to admit that the fist two times I read the book I just couldn't remember what was happening. It definitely isn't a favorite. I think it is all the mythology again. I didn't mind it so much after the seventh book when a lot of the things that happen make more sense, but still isn't the first Harry Potter book I'd be tempted to pick up. Book 6 was a big improvement for me over book 5 and marked the passing of a character that I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle. The ending had been spoiled by the time I had finished it a week after it came out, but Dumbledore is such a father figure for Harry that it crushed me to see him mourn.

Book 7. It was the end of an era. I actually really like book 7. It captures teenage-angst very well. The deaths nearly broke me though. The works was definitely Tonks and Lupin's because it was like history repeating itself with Teddy and Harry. Dobby's death and Fred's death are awful though too. It is like loosing a big brother and a pet/invisible friend all at the same time.

Well maybe I'll do more indepth thoughts on a book-by-book basis later because otherwise this will be a 23 page long blog post...

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Constant Princess

So I've decided I am actually going to start using this blog for what I intended it for almost a year ago... to blog about books. So I am going to start with one of my favorite books in my favorite genres. I LOVE historical fiction (and then reading actual factual information to disprove it... hehe).

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory is definitely up there in my favorites. The book is Gregory's ninth book and the fourth she wrote about the Tudor dynasty. The Constant Princess is the first book in the series chronologically, however, following Catherine of Aragon from child in Spain to the divorced, disgraced first wife of Tudor monarch Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon is my favorite of the Tudor figures because there is the least known about her and because without her none of the lore about Henry VIII would exist. After all, if she had born Henry a son he would not have found cause to divorce her (or so the lore goes).

As far as the factual elements go there are large segments of the book that are not based on historical evidence, but it is an enjoyable book, regardless. The fact that Catherine of Aragon was not only married to Henry VIII, but first married to his older brother adds an element of mystery and attraction to her character. The added dimension that Catherine of Aragon was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain adds another point of interest for me (too many Christopher Columbus rhymes as a kid maybe).

If you like historical fiction I would definitely recommend giving this book a try.