Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

I'm not one of those parents to go around boasting about my technique and how wonderful my daughter is. Like all kids, she's only wonderful some of the time and the jury is definitely still out on how much my parenting technique contributes to this. I do have opinions though based on what's worked for me but I"m not going to share those here either. You need to make up your own mind as a parent. With this little disclaimer in place, please don't take my review of this book as a full-fledged endorsement of any one parenting style or a condemnation of any other. Whew.

I really like Bringing Up Bebe for the simple reason that, no matter the specific parenting topic being discussed the book reminded me I don't have to be a neurotic mother to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. French parenting is all about finding the calmer route to parenting, maintaining a sense of self from within that mommy role, and really striving toward building a child's confidence and sense of self. It was refreshing to read about simple ways to get to these goals which mostly made a lot of sense to me.

As a mom with a 3 1/2 year-old and another baby on the way in a few months, the first part of this book was a great refresher into the new baby parenting challenges which I think I've blocked from memory. I especially liked the French attitude of getting to know your child even in infancy - talking to them from day 1, pausing to really listen and understand their needs, etc. Of course, my mind was continually blown away by the fact that French children sleep through the night very quickly (on average) and don't snack continually throughout the day. And, France's state programs to support child care and provide reasonable insurance to pregnant women is staggeringly better than anything dreamed up in the U.S. But, I definitely could never go all French when parenting if I suddenly needed to.

What's great about Bebe is that it isn't a parenting manual. You're not being told to do anything. It's more of an anthropological review of French parenting with one women reacting and implementing aspects of the style then sharing her own impressions. It's very passive so there's no pressure to alter your parenting style but rather just an opportunity to enjoy reading a parenting book (for once.) The highlights for me where the focus on strengthening and encouraging autonomy in children - a value I rank highly in general - as well as the calmer approach to parenting which I'm always reminding myself to attempt.

So, recommending this read is a little difficult. It's really interesting and well-written for any mom (or dad) looking to gain some insight into parenting techniques outside of our own little bubble, but it's not an instruction manual and you won't agree with everything that's presented in here. It's best read as a memoir consisting of a well-researched recollection of a woman's entry into motherhood while living abroad. I do think it's a more enjoyable read once you've already had a child so you can reflect on the parenting you've done so far and connect more with the story in general. I really like that it has helped me starting thinking ahead as well to when I'll be parenting a newborn once again.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

Needing a break from all my 2013 rereads, I decided to revisit the world of Percy Jackson and start Riordan's second series about the demigods that live among us. This series, set in the same world, introduces us to a whole other set of demigods - those sired from the gods while in their Roman incarnation. Therefore we meet Jason who is the son of Jupiter rather than Zeus. Riordan does a good job of explaining how the gods are all the same but were given different names to suit different aspects of themselves and how the gods can exist in multiple forms at once.

Jason has no memory of his childhood and becomes conscious on a bus heading toward the Grand Canyon. He's a teenager. His two close friends, Piper and Leo, know who he is and have memories of him, but Jason is clueless. He's given about an hour to ponder all he's forgotten before the whole busload of children are attacked by monsters. It's a rough introduction for Jason, Leo, and Piper, who all turn out to be demigods, into the world of mythology. They end up at Camp Halfblood and meet Annabeth. She's pretty absent from this book since she's on her own mission to find Percy who's strangely gone missing. 

A new prophecy is revealed foretelling the end of world and how seven demigods will be chosen to work together to prevent it. With three assembled already, Jason, Leo, and Piper set off on a quest to rescue Hera, who has been kidnapped by giants. The whole plot of the series unfolds as they quest to find Hera who of course is in California, the seat of all evil for Riordan (not really sure why,) things are looking pretty interesting for the rest of the books. What's different about this series already is the human connection. In Percy's series, you felt that everyone was connected through a common cause automatically, but for Jason's story line, it's not that easy. Not only are the demigods and gods going to have to work together (and the gods hate that,) but two groups of kids who didn't even know each other existed will have to figure out how to team up successfully, overcoming centuries of inherent animosity. It sounds like it's going to be interesting.

Conflicting with the interesting plot though are the new characters. I'm not sure I like them all. There's almost too much insecurity between them which I assume will improve, but for now. Jason is insecure because of his lack of memory, Piper just a teenage girl who second-guesses a little too much, and Leo has issues in his past keeping him doubt of his abilities. I know they'll grow because that's what Riordan characters do, but it's almost like they started at more of a deficit than I expected.

I'm not dying to get into the second book in this series the way I was with Percy's books, but I will eventually read it These books are a fun break from heavier reads and I really do like the world Riordan has created for them. It's fun YA fiction that features an ensemble cast rather than a single strong female battling her way through dystopia, and that's a nice change too.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

2013 Reread #9

This book really epitomizes the word, "timeless." It's always going to feel relevant somehow regardless of the time period it actually takes place in, regardless of all the news media surrounding the Catholic clergy into today's media. These characters will always just blow me away. Their lives will never stop being interesting. I still welled up with tears at the very end.

If you haven't read this book at some point in your life then you're truly missing out. It belongs on that Must Read list you keep in the back of your mind. I initially read this book in high school, I believe, and this is the first time I've picked it back up. I actually remembered a lot of the story whether from the book making an impression or the movie, I'm not sure. I even knew a girl in college who was named after Meggie. It's a family saga, following characters through three generations. Ultimately, it's the few female characters who help us witness the world and learn about the family - their characters are the most developed - although you really do feel like you know this whole family inside and out as the generations go by. The family starts off in New Zealand and eventually moves to Australia. They essentially live in various stages of wealth and work coming to place a high emotional value on the land they maintain - it's really what they build a relationship with more so than people. Lots of things happen although the tragic moments always feel more intense than the happy ones as if the real passion lies in coming out of adversity or just staying strong through it. It's a book about life although I wouldn't call it typical.

Stories that fully develop a reality by focusing on a small amount of people in a very specific location draw a reader into the world and make you as much a character as the characters themselves. Their lives wouldn't go on if you weren't reading them. All of their passions and fears, hardships and love wouldn't be felt if you weren't feeling them alongside them. It gives a book presence and makes it really sink in as you read. I know The Thorn Birds is just such a book. I was reading it in my doctor's office recently and both one of the doctors and another patient saw the book and had that excited, "that is such a great book," type of reaction to it. We all shared a knowing smile and went about our way, but it was a connection made from a story and that's powerful stuff.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

I don't typically get into books about food. Being told by someone else what I should or should not eat has always been somewhat of a sore point for me. I know how to be healthy and I know what indulgences I'm not interested in living without and that works for me. Thankfully, this book doesn't come close to this approach to food; it goes in a completely different direction and it totally blew my mind.

Cooked doesn't talk about what to eat or really how to eat, but rather how eating and preparing food has contributed to our evolution, how things have changes over the time inside and outside the kitchen, and what consequences we face in how we process food. Divided into four parts, Pollan uses the four elements to break all this down. 

We start with fire and the art of BBQ but not just BBQ as a cuisine, whole hog BBQ. Pollan talks about the art of cooking the entire animal and how the discovery of fire complete changed the human diet. He talks about how sacred fire has been historically - initially seen as an actual gift from the gods.

Water is next and with it the art of cooking in the kitchen. Pollan primarily focuses on the one-pot meal learning how to cook and mix flavors from an actual chef. He uses this section to talk about the domestication of cooking - the shift from "man's" fire pit outside to the "woman's" indoor stove. Traditional roles in the home as they relate to preparing food are discussed along with corporations' desire to make kitchen life easier for women by selling partially (or fully) prepared foods to, "save time." He makes the point, which I found very interesting, that home cooking today isn't actually cooking from scratch, which is what the term means in our heads. It's like saying a bowl of pasta using a jarred marina is a homemade meal when actually half of it was prepared in a factory.

Baking bread encompasses the element of air in the third section. Pollan talks about yeast here and nurturing the culture for break almost like a pet. Changes in how we view the nutritional value of bread, how we've begun putting stripped-out nutrients back into white bread to make it more marketable to today's health-conscious consume is a big focus. I found it most interesting that baking sourdough bread - which has the least nutritional value as far as ingredients go - is described most seriously as an art form.

Last, but not least, is earth. This ends up being a broad topic as far as food goes with the common factor in all being bacteria. Pollan uses pickling  cheese-making, and beer-brewing to talk about fermentation and how good bacteria contributes to food preparation. He also uses this section to talk about how pasteurization and over-processing has robbed us of access to this good bacterial. Humanity's fear of the bad bacteria has led to us removing it all from our food and now our guts aren't as healthy as they used to be.

No point Pollan makes throughout the book is heavy-handed which I appreciate and they all really made sense. He never calls for any radical changes to the world of food, but rather takes the time to incorporate technique and history into how common items are prepared. I really liked everything he had to say and learned a lot through Pollan's accessible narrative style. I've already  been telling all my friends about this book, so I definitely recommend it across the board.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins

2013 Reread #8

I think I will always love this book. Where else can you find so many intriguing elements mixed into one story that will pretty much always feel relevant? This book focuses on art, religion, history, the power of love, the power of enlightenment and self-awareness, and the ability of inanimate objects to grow consciousness and locomote across the country and across the world. Beyond all the strange characters and philosophizing typical of any Robbins book the heart of this story is what I've always connected with - live in the moment if you can and don't let the past dictate who you are nor the future influence who you will be. Just be you, right now. 

It takes a very long time to get to this epiphany and on the journey a lot goes on for our main characters  Ellen Cherry Charles and her husband, Boomer Petway. They encounter a wide range of strange characters who are all obsessed in one way or another with the same thing, the Middle East. Some characters believe the world is nearing its end and the third temple should be rebuilt at any cost, some just feel a change on the wind and want to be in Israel, and others want to set an example of how an Arab and Jew can actually get along in the hopes it will lessen the conflicts going on in that part of the world. The funny thing is though, Ellen Cherry and Boomer don't know anything about the Middle East. They come into the story totally ignorant and yet ride this wave because of random associations. And, it's really the two of them that essentially figure everything out Boomer finds the unity between Arabs and Jews through art and Ellen Cherry comes to understand the conflict through the enlightenment brought on by a very salacious dance of the seven veils.

My favorite element of this story is the inanimate objects - a spoon, a dirty sock, a can of beans, a conch shell, and a painted stick journey from the mid-west to New York City then over to Israel. Conch Shell and Painted Stick are artifacts from before the first temple in Israel who have somehow managed to survive. Robbins uses them to fill in the gaps in history since, of course, Can o' Beans is so interested in learning how the Middle Eastern conflict really got started. These characters move without a real concept of time or sense of urgency, but with a level of determination that goes beyond anything a human could muster. Eventually, Conch Shell floats across the ocean from New York to Israel with Can o' Beans riding on her. The patience and determination to accomplish that is just mind-blowing. I love the idea that the pull toward Israel is so strong, even inanimate objects feel it and gravitate toward it. It's a feeling I myself experienced when I was there visiting. There's just something about that part of the world - you feel the origins of life, of your story in the air. After visiting the country I had this residual compulsion for a few months to return and find a way to live there. Being in Israel gave me this sense of calm that I haven't had anywhere else in the world, which is a little odd when you think about it since that part of the world is anything but calm.

Using the Middle East and the long history of conflict there as the backdrop for this story was really a stroke of genius. The conflict has been going on for so long, it's not going to stop any time soon, so this book will always have a relevant element to it. The idea of peace as well is never going out of style, and a tandem theme to any conflict as long-going as this one. It's a way to talk about grudges and peace and learning to let go in a context that everyone can relate to. If you're not directly involved in the conflict or haven't been learning about it your whole life because you're either Arab or Jewish, you've watched the news, you've seen the craziness that goes on over there, you understand. 

This is just a long, strange, trip of a book and an amazing read that I still, after letting it sit on my shelf for over a decade, would recommend to anyone looking for something a little off the beaten path of today's popular fiction.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

2013 Reread #7
There are so many reasons why I had to make this book a reread for the year and they all have to do with the tone of the story. This book is funny. Not in-your-face funny or sarcastic, but subtly and intelligently. I love the humor Lewis uses to delve into the life of every-man, George Babbitt.
George is a conformist. He believes what the "good" men of the community believe. He belongs to all the right clubs, holds the right kind of dinner parties, has the correct hobbies, and well, essentially doesn't think for himself at all. His place in society is what's important so he owns the right things and behaves the right way to stay included. Yet, he's constantly contradicting himself between what he thinks and how he acts. It's almost like he's blind to how unoriginal he really is. So, we send a lot of time with George in the early part of the book, watching him do what he should to build his popularity within the outstanding sect of society. It doesn't mean he's a good person, he has just sided with the "right." It's comical how completely Babbitt can rationalize his choices and his behavior to keep him both "right" and good. For example, this book takes place during Prohibition, but it's okay for Babbitt to drink since that law should really only be in place for the poor who can't control themselves, or it's okay to make shady real estate sales because he's being supported by officials in local government who would never to do anything that was truly illegal. Scenarios like that pop up frequently at first.
So, poor George simply looks like another lemming until one day the switch flips and he suddenly things for himself. Of course this then leads to liberal ideals, having an affair, drinking too much, and hanging out with the "wrong" crowd. He loses his friends and begins to get bullied to come back over to the proper side. All for having an opinion and daring to live outside the straight and narrow of the elitist. Babbitt's new-found independence doesn't actually cause any major uproar in real terms. He still works and keeps his family roughly together even while cheating on his wife, but the fact that his choices become his own totally ostracizes him from all the daily activities he's used to doing. The whole concept of, "if you're not with us, you're against us," is a huge theme in this book. All it takes is one slip from where the ruling societal group thinks you belong and that's it.
Babbitt eventually gets his mid-life crisis out of his system and goes back to his old ways which he now fully believes in because he has chosen the lifestyle this time around rather than just gone with the flow. It doesn't change the fact that he ends the book where he began, unable to think for himself, giving in to the bullies.
The observations throughout this story are what appeal to the essayist I am at heart. There's so much to think about. Is Lewis saying conservatism is right because it's safe and is what everyone else (who has the power) agrees with? Is he saying that original thought, acting outside the lines of propriety as set by these big bullies will get you nowhere fast? We hardly ever get a liberal perspective in the story. Most of those characters drink and smoke too much, gossip too heavily, and party all the time while all the business owners and success stories in the community are conservatives. It's so tough to tell because of the element of humor. Babbitt is a funny guy regardless of which side he's on. Most of the characters have funny-sounding names so it's hard to take either side very seriously. The way everyone acts is just a little on the silly side as well. It's almost as if Lewis is poking fun at society as a whole, showing off how both sides are a little ridiculous, that extreme thought is a little silly no matter what direction it's heading. This vagueness of message in the commentary is another very appealing aspect of this book for me. I feel like it's a serious testament to society wrapped in a light blanket of ridiculous.
I'm glad I reread this book and that it had the same effect on me this time around as it initially did. I love books that feel timeless even though they cover a very specific time period. And while the outrage of seeing a woman's shoulders in the story really doesn't play today, the idea of extreme thought getting you into trouble does as does the idea of free-thought. This book doesn't feel like classic literature so even if you shy away from the old stuff, this one shouldn't be crossed off your list just yet.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Possession by A.S. Byatt

You can definitely tell this book was written by an academic. The level of extreme detail is fitting of an author determined to prove her argument (even though she's not really arguing anything here.) Her thoroughness also gives her away. The whole story is fully explained, no unanswered questions are left for the reader to interpret.

Possession is both a mystery and a love story. It's about taboo relationships reaching higher levels of intensity than traditional ones. There are two main sets of lovers: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, two poets from the 19th century and Roland and Maud, two modern academics studying the two poets respectively. When Roland comes across some unsent letters linking Ash to LaMotte he seeks out Maud to uncover the history of the poets' connection. The connection is so important because it could possibly change all existing interpretation of not only the poets' lives but their poetry as well. Roland and Maud begin their search pretty casually, but the subject matter is so significant to the scholars it would affect that other academics begin sniffing along the trail. The mystery here is at the center of the world for these characters even though, comparatively, it's not big mystery. Each character involved in the quest for answers brings an additional nugget of information into the story that helps solve things in the end.

The story is primarily told with a modern-day, third person narrator shedding light on the characters and the story. The characters themselves are all lost in such a way that allows this type of narrator to really shed light on every one's inner thoughts and feelings. It adds depth to the story. In addition to the present in the story, letters, poems, journal entries, and flashbacks are all used to reveal bit and pieces of the plot. Even with all these genres, the story never feels jumpy. I will admit that some parts were harder to get through than others because of the style (I wasn't a huge fan of the poetry,) but I finished the book satisfied with the story itself and how it unfolded.

It's hard to say whether or not I'd recommend this book. It's really for a very specific audience if you ask me, the kind of person who still loves classical literature and the suspense of the taboo from the 19th century. It's definitely not a summer, beach read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

I was so excited to get to the last book in this series. Percy Jackson's five books have proven to be an intelligent and entertaining read full of Greek mythology and young characters determined to keep the world safe. They only have their own demigod abilities and strength of character to sustain them and while it's not always enough, the sheer will of these demigods exceeds the expectations of their enemies as well as their parents.

This fifth book takes us to the final battle foretold in a prophecy about a child of one of the big three gods - Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. This demigod will have to make a decision that will determine whether Olympus falls or survives. We have no hints as to what this decision is going to be, but Percy, the son of Poseidon, internalizes the prophecy and decides that he just has to fight as much as he possibly can. He does everything to hone his skills and enhance his chance of defeating his enemies. He thinks he has to do it all on his own. Without giving away the final decision of the prophecy, the biggest lesson Percy learns is that it's not about how strong you are, but who you can depend on that really makes you a hero. His friends are imperative components in this battle and Percy would never get to the "decision" without the fight and support of those closest to him. Even his mom, a regular human jumps in when the time comes to do battle.

The theme of this book is trust. You see what happens when trust is threatened. You see what happens when trust is given even in uncertain terms. You see the reward of trusting your friends even when your brain is telling you to run off alone. It's a wonderful lesson for young readers to learn - that you aren't alone, that you can build important relationships through your actions, through trust. It's almost like a subliminal lesson since a younger reader would definitely be all caught up in the action of a very fast-paced book.

The series wraps up but it doesn't feel like it's over. I haven't ready up on the rest of Riordan's books, but I believe these demigods reappear in other series. I definitely would like to see more of Percy Jackson and his friends. It has been great to find a young adult series that's so engaging and fun and intelligent to read.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

2013 reread #5
I absolutely love this book. I can't pinpoint an exact reason why this is one of my favorite books; maybe because it's about family, or the importance of having people in your life who love you, or maybe I like this book so much because it takes place in a time period I'm particularly fond of, it's really anyone's guess. I do know, that aside from the book itself being a favorite, Josephine March is easily one of my favorite characters in literature. She's blunt and awkward and smart and loving -just an absolutely wonderfully written character. Being a classic in every sense of the word, this is a book everyone should read.

Capturing an entire period in history through one simple family, Little Women uses the personalities of the four March daughters to walk us through time. Meg lives the simple, proper life of the time. She likes to follow the rules and enjoys that her life happens in a small way. Jo is honestly like a feminist before the movement was even a twinkle in any lady's eye. She doesn't always say the right thing, she stands up for herself, she is really the master of her own fate lives on her own longer than anyone else. Beth is symbolic of the times. She dies young like so many soldiers did during the Civil War before getting to have a full, adult life. Amy is the social climber and indicative of a lot of women at the time looking to rise out of poverty through marriage. Although she does end up marrying for love, her constant quest to improve and refine herself does make her more eye-catching to the wealthier sect of society. It's a microcosm of society.

Jo is still the heroine though. She's the one who sacrifices her independence to take care of Beth. She refuses to marry without love. She's always there supporting her sisters and her family. She's the one who really cares for others no matter if they're her family or not.

I like this book because of how real it feels. The lives of our characters feel real. They suffer as heavily as they find happiness in the regular joys of life.

I don't feel like I need to really talk about this book since if you don't know the plot already, you cannot call yourself well-read. I just love the way this book makes me feel and reading this book is like coming home in a way since it has been with me throughout my life. It made my reread list because the story never gets old and is always a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

2013 reread #4

I honestly didn't know what was going to happen when I reread this book. It was a mind-blowing experience for me in college when I read this the first time, spawning an utter love for Tom Robbins as an author. Of course, at the time I smoked Camel Lights and a majority of this book happens thanks to a pack of cigarettes, so there was an immediate common factor that didn't exist this time around. This book was also the first modern, philosophical book I'd ever read. I read Robbins first, Vonnegut second.

So, this time around, the insane ramblings of an extremely intelligent author hit me in a different but still profound way. My love of this book hasn't changed in the last decade. Instead of it being all about existential thought and philosophizing though the book was about love. At the heart of this novel, full of dynamite, blackberries, and pyramids, are two people trying to figure out how to make love stay. Isn't that a universal theme we all can relate to? In the midst of saving the planet and too much solitary confinement, Princess Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Mickey Wrangle fall in love. It's a beauty and the beast tale only the beauty is a disposed princess and the beast is a terrorist who likes to blow things up rather than people. Their love is presided over by the moon and an unopened pack of Camel cigarettes.

They fall in love but in the confusion of being in love for the first time they get a lot of things wrong, misinterpret a lot and take the most roundabout route possible to finally admitting they have a love that can work. They may be a little unconventional, but their love story is universal and the questions they raise about love (forget Argon, red-head folk tales, and the profundity of cigarette packs) are worth thinking about.

I love the way Robbins writes and I love the stories that he decides to tell. They're all strange and off-beat, clouded with a lot of speculation and sideways tangents, but he has this special way of telling you a story while getting you to really think. His books aren't just an escape, they're an exercise in creative thought. You don't question the absurd reality of his story, but rather begin forming your own opinions on the major questions in life - like how do you make love stay?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I feel like this book is really a series of short stories woven together so they become a novel. While character plot lines legitimately intersect, everyone is essentially on their own path. It's a mystery novel except none of the major action seems to happen until the mystery is solved, so in more ways than one, this is really a uniquely formatted novel.

Daniel Sempere happens upon a forgotten novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by an unknown author, Julian Carax, that proves to be the kind of book that forever alters the life of the reader. It's the kind of book you have to finish before putting it down, the kind you stay up all night reading. But, it's the last copy of the book in existence because a mysterious, deformed man has been systematically buying and burning all copies of any Carax novel. Daniel feels compelled to not only get to the bottom of this shady character's motives but to figure out who Carax was and what happened to him. Daniel's connection with the novel along with similarities between his life and Carax's life unite them together with a force that can't be ignored.

This quest for truth brings together a whole cast of characters who all contribute to Daniel's life becoming forever altered. Daniel falls in love, learns what true friendship is, witnesses pure evil and desperation, and gets a taste for what real loneliness and longing can do to someone all because of the impact of just one novel that Daniel accidentally happens upon.

Of course, I love the idea of a single book setting into motion the course of a reader's path into adulthood as Carax's book does for Daniel, and as the book goes on the level of intensity and immediacy picks up in a very effective way, but still something was missing from the story. I feel like the setting was a bit underdeveloped on the whole. The story takes place in Barcelona, yet I felt like it really could have happened anywhere. I guess I wanted more Spanish influence to the tale and didn't really feel transported to the another place and time while reading. I did find the story very entertaining and the characters intricately developed. I felt like I really knew these people. The style of writing and the story's organization makes it a pretty thrilling read that definitely builds upon itself with the right combination of emotion and action. I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a chance of pace (unless all you read are Gothic-inspired, modern mysteries!)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

The 4th book in the Percy Jackson series takes a departure from the central action of the series and focuses on the life-changing events of our characters - what's really shaping who they're becoming. Sure, Kronos is still rising and amassing a giant, angry army to descend on Camp Half-Blood before taking down Olympus and it is what propels our heroes into the Labyrinth but once down there the focus shifts just a bit. We see Grover, who's really under a time crunch, devote himself entirely to tracking down Pan, ignoring the coming doom of Kronos. Percy and Annabeth are really turning into teenagers and those overpowering emotions of first love and utter teenage confusion begin to surface. Even as the end of the world draws near and supernatural creatures start appearing around every turn the human characters still act appropriately human confronting what's going on inside of them as well as what role they'll have to play a demigods.

So, the plot. An entrance to the Labyrinth is discovered on camp grounds and if Kronos' army can navigate the Labyrinth successfully, they can use the entrance to bypass the camp boundaries and invade. Our heroes, Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson journey into the Labyrinth themselves to attempt to locate Daedalus who they believe is still alive and who can help them learn the secrets of the Labyrinth before anyone else. However, the Labyrinth is an organic place, ever-changing, presenting almost more obstacles than out heroes can survive. This isn't a quest our heroes can beat on their own and outside help comes from other demigods, mortals, Goddesses, and other assorted immortals, but it's the connection our lead characters have with each other that leads to victory. Knowing each other as only true friends can really proves to be the saving grace for all obstacles these guys run into.

One more book to go in this series and I almost feel like Percy's battle against Kronos will be overshadowed by his confusing teenage emotions for his female friends. I really can't decide which story line I'm more interested in reading, but either way book five is going to have an amazing battle to read and, I think, a great conclusion to this wonderful story.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2013 reread #3
I read this book for the first time in junior high, for fun, at summer camp (I know, I'm strange.) Then, when reading it again in high school, it inspired one of my favorite paper topics in my entire academic career. Now, I'm sort of just waiting for Gatsby to die (and if that spoiled things for you - start reading more!) as I read through the book. All of Fitzgerald's commentary on the opulence of the 1920's that was so interesting and insightful at my second read almost just felt like obvious fodder now. What, obscenely wealthy people can be extremely vapid? No? Can you hear my sarcasm?

I'm happy I reread this book though despite its ability to amaze me like it had previously done. This story takes place over just a few months and is really very tragic for so many characters - not just the ones that die - and I find it interesting how much sadness Fitzgerald was able to inlay between crazy parties and lush trips into New York City. You really don't feel like anyone but our narrator, Nick Carraway, lives in reality and yet all the other characters are looked upon as "normal." 

Ironic side note: Nick's last name, Carraway, like carried away, yet he's the only one who stays grounded.

This story is really very complex if you look at it analytically, which is how I like to look at literature. A million different paper topics could come form this book and because of that, with each read I see something new in the text. A book that changes with each read is truly a great work of art.

I'm curious to see how they shape each character in the movie version coming out soon. A lot of big names playing characters that don't always make good choices (alright, they characters are totally morally questionable.) While there's no real villain in the story, nobody is really good. It would be interesting to have a movie where none of the characters are totally likeable, where there's no actual hero. We'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson #3

The stakes are getting higher and the gods are stepping in more directly in this latest installment of Percy Jackson's saga. The situation on Earth is also getting more dire as the  Titans gain strength and followers. People actually die! Then, there's the looming prophecy that the child of one of the "big 3" - Hades, Zeus, or Poseidon - will decide whether Olympus rises or falls when they turn 16. Besides Percy, there's only one other candidate so there's a lot potentially coming Percy's way.

There's finally a continual sense of urgency in this book brought about not only by the Titans' increasing strength but by the pain and sacrifice being demanded of the demigods. They're getting hurt, sacrificing themselves for the cause - really fighting like hardened soldiers instead of teenagers. And yet, Riordan hasn't created teenage characters completely devoid of angst. It's an interesting combination that I find very appealing to read.

In book #3, Annabeth and the goddess, Demeter, have been kidnapped and it's up to Thalia, Percy, and two of Demeter's immortal huntresses to find them, rescue them, and derail (well really postpone) the imminent attack of Kronos and his minions. They travel cross-country again, making new pit stops in areas of the gods which are hidden among mortals. The gods are getting more involved so we meet Aphrodite, take a ride with Apollo, and get a hint of Pan in addition to Demeter. Our half-bloods also get to Olympus and actually talk to their parents which, to me, was a huge indicator of how serious our story is getting. Demigods are the mortal instruments of the gods, not people they typically interact with directly.

Only two more books left in this series although Riordan has many others. I'm really looking forward to seeing where this story goes and thinking about diving into another series once I'm done here. I know this is YA fiction, but it doesn't feel as young as a lot of other books in this genre. It hasn't hit a slump in the narrative yet as many other series fall victim to and it continues to stay steadily engaging. Percy Jackson is still a big recommendation from me.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

2013 Reread #2
At first read (quite a while ago,) this book blew me away. I hadn't read very much Vonnegut at the time and had only grazed the surface of Sci-Fi Humor (which this book definitely is.)

It's amazing how perspective adds so much to how a book makes you feel. This time around, knowing the big reveal, I kept expecting the entire book to be just as exciting as the last few chapters, but truthfully, it was a little slow. I can't remember what I thought about Malachi Constant, our "hero," initially, but this time around I really didn't feel anything for him at all. Having read so much Vonnegut now, ti was easier to see how rough his style was here in his first book. And, while I still absolutely love the story, it didn't blow me away like it did before.

I feel like I took something totally different away from Sirens at this read than I did initially. At first read, this book was about the meaning of life and how disappointing and humorous humanity's "actual" purpose was. I loved the f-you to the scientific community about life on earth and evolution. This time around, the book was about emotion - how living without it makes you do stupid things, like invade Earth, and living with too much can make you a crazy zealot. Emotion is even powerful enough to force a robot to dismantle himself. In this way, the big reveal for me wasn't about the meaning of life, but rather the revelation of where to reside on the scale of emotional involvement. Malachi sums it up perfectly in the book, "a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."

Vonnegut's humor was still delightful with this reread. I love how he plays with reality. I'm still definitely a Vonnegut fan and I still believe that Sirens of Titan is a wonderfully entertaining book, but I'm not sure it's my favorite anymore. I might have to reread Galapagos to see if that's worthy of the #1 spot.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reached by Ally Condie

Overall, this was a really unique conclusion for a dystopian YA series. Rather than have her heroine overcome some huge obstacle to discover the worldly corruption being hidden from society, Condie lets Cassia learn a simple, universal, life lesson. Of course, it's brought to her as society crumbles under a deadly plague that the Rising is trying to cure. Basically, there's no loss of action or urgency even with a more ambiguous ending.

This third book finally presents a scenario where Cassia, Ky, and Xander can be with each other. They've intertwined as a functioning love triangle where their friendships with each other overshadow the awkwardness of mismatched love. They come together to literally save the world. A plague everyone thought was under control has mutated and a cure must be found. Cassia, the sorter, can calculate outcomes with data. She can see how long before the mutated plague does significant damage. She can guess at potential cures through a subset of the community that is immune. Xander, the medic, can build and administer a cure once its compounds are known. Ky, unfortunately, serves as the test subject in this struggle. He eventually falls ill to the plague. Each of the characters though are integral to the process, not only for the job they take on but for the emotional motivation they provide for each other. Solving this puzzle is personal.

These books read really fast. Condie doles out new bits to the plot at just the right face to fully engage the reader, and her unique angle to dystopia keeps it interesting. I really appreciated that through all the action, the three main characters still remain anonymous to the larger community. They don't become emblems of salvation for either side in this battle, they just work at what they do best to save the world so everyone can then work to bring the community back together in the right way (the way that works best for everyone.) The big win here is that each individual gets back the right to choose - a worth cause to fight for in any instance.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Persuasion by Jane Austen

2013 Reread #1

This book is still, without a doubt, my favorite Jane Austen book and one of my Top 5 of All Time. There's not a single character I don't like, which is saying a lot for Austen who's sometimes overly-girlish, naive female leads drive me crazy (see Mansfield Park or Emma.)

Anne Elliot, our lead in Persuasion, is a mature, intelligent woman who has grown up to realize they importance of following your heart regardless of the opinions of those around you. She learns this lesson just in time to have her happy ending. It also gives her the ability to look outside societal title and rank to appreciate the happy endings for those around her. She's an amazing character, full of so much emotion for other despite the lack of regard shown to her by her father and oldest sister. Living a relatively comfortable life, it is the lack of regard for her needs that's her unique obstacle. Austen typically focuses on rank and obstacles society places in the way of happiness more centrally than she does here.

Persuasion also boasts a male lead who's not stiff and inaccessible (see Pride and Prejudice.) Captain Wentworth doesn't hide his emotional side, going so far as to drop hints to Anne of how he feels about her during public conversations. He even writes her a very personal letter while in a room full of people passion so overcomes him. While not an "open book," Wentworth is still more multi-dimensional than Austen typically allowed her male characters to be.

This was the last book Austen wrote before her death and it's very apparent how much she matured as a writer throughout her career when pitting it against any of her other works. There's nothing frivolous in Persuasion; every character, every event contributes to the story in such a perfect way that you can't help but love every page. It has been a little over a decade since I last read Persuasion and it's great to know it's still as wonderful as I've always remembered it. I know it's hard to purposefully pick up 19th Century literature, but if you ever feel the urge, make this your first choice.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

This second book is Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series is no less exciting than the first. It's a little more mystical than Lightning Thief but the basic plot is the same - there's trouble among the gods and kids from Camp Half-Blood must go on a quest to save the day.

More characters come into play this time around and we start to get to know more campers. The gods are more prevalent as well even without playing directly into the action. They're really still only big behind the scenes. The same evil is being fought as Luke assists Kronos who's literally trying to pull himself together to destroy Olympus, but nothing is as obvious as it seems. Motive is always a little sneaky when working with the gods and what might feel like a win to Percy and his friends initially might not actually turn out for the best. 

The primary impetus for this book's quest is the attack of Camp Half-Blood. Protective spells keeping the camp safe have been weakened enough that monsters are getting in to wreak havoc. Thalia's tree has been poisoned and is slowly dying along with the spirit of Zeus' daughter. The only thing that can save both the tree and the camp is the Golden Fleece. By chance (and I feel like that should really be in air quotes) this long-lost item is discovered by Grover, the satyr, who comes upon the fleece on a cyclope's island during his own quest to find Pan. All these pieces come together and the quest to bring back the fleece and save Grover begins.

With a lot of missteps and near-death run-ins on the way, our adventurers, Percy and Annabeth, strike out with new allies: Tyson, a young cyclopes who's also a son of Poseidon and eventually Clarisse, a slightly dense demigod of Ares' making. It's another exciting adventure written in a way that makes you truly believe the unbelievable. It's really hard to put the book down.

Two books into the series (of 5 I believe) and I'm really enjoying Percy Jackson's adventure. With a prophecy now revealed, we know this all leading up to some big climax to take place when Percy turns 16 and I"m really looking forward to the big reveal.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Positron Short Stories - Episodes 1-3 by Margaret Atwood

Episode 1: I'm Starved for You
Episode 2: Choke Collar
Episode 3: Erase Me

The three short stories begin a series in a world where an experimental town has its inhabitants switch off lifestyles month-to-month. Every other month they live normal, suburban lives. Then, the odd months are spent as prisoners in jail. Not everyone is a criminal but everyone is trapped for life in this "experimental" way of life. Everyone is given a specific role to fill both inside and outside the prison. Inhabitants share homes with their alternates - those people who live outside the prison while they're serving as inmates. It might sound a little confusing here, but you definitely get a sound picture of what life is like within the series.

The series starts off rather light with Atwood taking her time showing off her community by focusing on the lives of just one couple - Stan and Charmaine. We meet them in episode 1 and spend just one day with them, the day they're heading back into prison, where we ultimately learn how imperfect their marriage is.

Episode 2 exposes a little corruption in "paradise" as the routine flow of both Stan's and Charmaine's lives are interrupted by outside forces. We get a deeper picture of the twisted interior of the community and the dissidence that's arising. Of course, in true Atwood fashion, the naive become the pawns of the plotters.

Episode 3 tightens the puppet strings on Stan and Charmaine and both are forced onto separate paths potentially dangerous and devastating. It turns out they signed away the control over their own lives when they moved into town.

Within these three short stories a lot is exposed about the world within the town on Consilience and Positron Prison, yet we have no idea what's going on beyond the city walls. People signed up for this experiment because life on the outside had gotten rough, but did it remain that way? I'm hoping Atwood will let us find out. I also hope Stan and Charmaine figure out a way to rebel against the rebellion and take back their lives.

This series is only available online so it was my first foray into reading digitally. As a staunch supporter of the printed word, I'd resisted eBooks for so long until given a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I really enjoyed the access to these books and the readability of my Kindle. I've already accumulated a small library of free eClassics to reread. So, if you have an eReader and are an Atwood fan, this series is for you. I'm looking forward to more.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

In true John Irving style, this book starts off as one thing, dives into some extreme tangents you don't expect, and ends on a completely unrelated note. I really enjoyed it.

Last Night in Twisted River is primarily about a father and son on the run. They've accidentally committed a crime, covered it up, and left their New Hampshire home to avoid the wrath of the drunken, violent police officer should he discover the truth of what happened. The story begins when the son, Daniel, is 12 and ends when he's in his 60's.

In the course of their time on the lamb, Daniel grows up, gets married, has a son of his own, and becomes a famous writer (using a pseudonym of course.) He also leads a pretty tough life - most of it spent with a broken heart. Daniel's Dad, Dominic, spends his time as fugitive loving, cooking, and fulfilling dreams although he's a bit broken as well. Keeping the characters rooted to where the whole things started is Ketchum, a rough logger and close friend whose complicated relationship with Daniel and Dominic never overshadows his unfailing desire to protect them both.

More than a "thriller" this is a book about people and how they deal with the horrible and stressful extremes of life. Can you really prepare for the worst? Can the inevitable be avoided? How do you find peace when the smoke clears? Irving offers up his answers to these questions through his complex characters and doesn't disappoint in the process.

A side note to the story I also found interesting was that Irving shares his own writing style with the reader through Daniel. The way Daniel forms his novels is actually identical to Irving. With a bit of a comedic twist at one point, Daniel considers a title for a book's first chapter that is the same as the title for the first chapter of Twisted River. I like that Irving shares such a personal process with his readers in this way.

I'm a decent-sized Irving fan, but I haven't read all of his work. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favorites, but I didn't enjoy Twisted River on the same level even though it was an intelligent and interesting read which I'd recommend to anyone.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Reading Project for 2013

Before the holidays set in this past year I decided to make 2013 the year of the reread for me. Assuming I'll still be able to read two books per month, my plan is to read one new book and reread one old favorite throughout the year. This seemed like an easy challenge until Hanukkah and Christmas came and went. I'm not left with five new books to read and a Kindle Paperwhite where the amount of exclusive and free content to download is staggering. 

I'm going to try my hardest to read these twelve books (my favorites) in addition to all the new titles I now have access to:

  1. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
  2. Lasher by Anne Rice
  3. Taltos by Anne Rice
  4. Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
  5. Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
  6. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  8. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
  10. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  11. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  12. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I think this list is a good mix of new and classic. It definitely encompasses my favorites over time not including the lengthier series I've read and loved. Not entirely sure where to start, just looking at this reading list makes me happy.

Wish me luck in 2013!