Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review for the Books Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Perhaps my review of this will be a little biased because I have always been fascinated by books about utopian/dystopian societies. I love Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, The Hunger Games trilogy, and, though I didn't really like them, I still thought 1984 and Brave New World were very interesting.

I guess I will start by saying, I read both of the books (both around 500 pages) in a little over a week, so I obviously enjoyed them. They were exciting and were hard to put down. At the same time, they were definitely not as good as The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, or even the Hunger Games Trilogy. It's hard to describe why, exactly, other than to say they didn't make me feel as deeply and didn't make me pause to think as much. Also, at times, the quality of writing and choice of words wasn't as excellent as the aforementioned books.

I just realized that perhaps one reason I didn't love the books is because I didn't feel the society was entirely believable, I don't feel society can be put into merely 5 factions...but I suppose the fact that it is beginning to fall apart in the books shows the author does not think it can be divided as such either, at least not for long.

One thing which was nice is there was not really a triangle of love, as appears to often happen in recent books written for this age group.

What are the books about? They are about a damaged “faction” (not really a class or caste system, because one is not necessarily above another) based society in which members take an aptitude test at 16 to help them choose which faction they will join. They then must go through an initiation process. Some do not make it through initiation and become one of the “Factionless,” the outcasts and, if they do have a job, it is a job no one else wants. Some die during the initiation process, especially in the faction of Dauntless, which one of the main characters chooses to join.

The books are about discovering who you are, what you are made of, learning to face your fears, the difference between bravery and stupidity, selflessness and a sick sense of atoning for your wrongs by putting yourself at risk and allowing yourself to be hurt. They are about friendship and love, learning to trust and realizing people are more complex than they seem. They are about a perceived threat and how it can motivate people to act in different ways, cause them to betray those they love for what they view as the right course. They are about the question concerning “the greater good” versus the value of a life. They are about truth and information, how some think it best to “protect” people by keeping them in ignorance and some think people should know those secrets which can break apart your life and make the world a scary place.

Are they worth reading? Yes. Are they favorite? No. Am I looking forward to when the third one is coming out and will I re-read the first two before it does (it should be out the end of 2013)? Yes. Also, the fact that the author is only like 23 and wrote most or all of the first novel while in college is pretty amazing.

What would I rate them? PG-13 for violence, disturbing situations, some smooching, and a little language. Though there is a lot of violence, I would still say it's a step down from the Hunger Games books. There's nothing quite as gruesome as the Tracker-Jack scene or the Dogs-with-the-human-eyes (by the way, the movie tamed both of those scences down).

Side-note: In Insurgent there are a couple blatant inconsistencies which, unfortunately made it past the author, the editors, and the beta readers. The author is, of course, now aware of them and I'm sure will change them in future printings, but for can have fun by finding them yourself. So you won't drive yourself crazy through the whole thing, they are near the end.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review for The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

First, some slightly negative things. You wouldn't think this book would be hard to categorize, it being about talking animals and their everyday adventures. Given the content, one would think it is definitely a children's book, right? Well, I view myself as someone who has a fairly extensive vocabulary and there are a few words I do not know the meanings to. Grahame primarily uses simple language but will occasionally inject these words. After having thought about it a little more, I think these unfamiliar words occur because of when the book was written. We simply do not often use some of those words anymore.

I know children's books don't have to make sense, but the world within the Wind in the Willows slightly annoys me. In this world there are humans and talking animals. It is unclear where animals actually “fit.” Mole, Rat, Badger, and others will eat ham and other meat, cows wander in pastures (I assume some being raised for beef), but since the aforementioned characters are intelligent, you wonder “What about the animals they eat?” You could think, perhaps domesticated animals are dumb, but then, the horse which drew Toad's wagon talked. Toad is big enough to drive a full-sized automobile, “human” enough to be put in a prison alongside humans, and yet the gaoler's daughter speaks of Toad almost as if he is a “common” animal, which can be trained and fed out of her hand.

All of the above aside, I have read The Wind in the Willows 4 or 5 times and I have thoroughly enjoy it each time. Though it is a children's book, I think it is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. You often almost feel as if you are reading a poem instead of prose. How Grahame captures the simple beauties of the river, describes the barrenness of a winter landscape, and the call of the elusive Pan are wonderful.

He paints characters which are easy to love and friendships that are splendid in their quiet way. Grahame shows how Ratty and Mole fit together so perfectly and yet also points out the allowances they make for one another; he shares how loyal, kind, and giving a friend Badger can be, despite all of Badger's reclusiveness; and then there's Toad, who is generous, prideful, loving, and ridiculous.

What is The Wind in the Willows about? It is about the River, which is the love of Ratty's life. Friendship, and how even perfect friends must sometimes sacrifice their own comfort or happiness to put their friend's needs and wants ahead of their own. It is about simple joys and longing, silly passions and loyalty. Picnics, lazy days, warm fires, homesickness, and wanting to leave home. It is about animals but also seeing in the characters Grahame has made those things which make us human.

I would rate this “G.” There is very mild violence and a tiny bit of language (such as someone being called an “ass”). Personally, I think this book would be best shared if read aloud, especially because some of the “bigger” words.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

You may be wondering why I am going to do on a review on a book this old, I mean, most of you probably had to read it for school at some point. Well, I am reviewing it because I've read it three or four times and it is one of my favorite books. If you haven't read it for a few years, I encourage you to read it again because it tries to teach some lessons that are best not forgot.

It can't really be called a "coming of age" story since Scout's too young to be coming of age, she's just eight, but it is about growing up. I believe one of the reasons why I love this story so much is because it takes place in the "good ole days" but shows how those days were also filled with darkness in some ways.

You see, in the town of Maycomb, based on the family you were from, you had a precast mold, "No Crawford minds his own business, The truth is not in the Delafields, etc." and certain families were expected to be drunks or poor or unbeholden to no one. The prejudices go deep, deepest when it comes to the color of your skin. So, alongside the story of the sleepy town, where everyone knows everyone and Scout, her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, have free reign of their street and try to get their reclusive neighbor to show his face. There runs a deeper, darker story of a black man wrongfully accused. Condemned, despite Scout's father's best efforts, because what it comes down to is a white man's testimony against a black man's, and a black man's testimony isn't enough in a small Southern town in 1935.

I love the characters. Scout and her rambunctious tomboyishness, her innocence, and the frequent attempts to turn her more into a "proper" lady. I love her brother, Jem, and his, at first, grudging loyalty to his father because he is just beginning to understand there are other, nobler ways to be a "real man" other than hunting, playing football, and being young and strong. I love their father, Atticus, and his sense of fairness, duty, and warmth hidden beneath his aloofness. Their friend, Dill, and his mischievousness resourcefulness. Their cook, Calpurnia, and her sense of pride in herself, her people, and in the family she is working for. I also love the neighbors for all their peculiarities.

It teaches lessons of loyalty and duty; of how essential it is for justice to be blind in regards to race, gender, and socioeconomic status; the importance of children feeling they are needed and wanted, as well as abstractly loved; that sometimes the best way to stop an angry mob is to remind them they're human through the voice of a child; and, though the good ole days were wonderful in many ways, some things are even better now and can be even better in the future.

My only regret is that Harper Lee did not write other novels. I am so glad she at least left us with this treasure.

Yet another reason why I love this book is for the closing remarks of Atticus, in the trial of Tom Robinson, which I think is one of the most excellent speeches ever written. I do not think it is short enough that I can write out the whole thing without infringing on copyright laws, so I won't. Also, it means more having the majority of the book before it, so I encourage you again, read this book or reread it. Here's a (rather long) excerpt from the speech:

Atticus paused, then he did something he didn't ordinarily do. He unhitched his watch and chain and placed them on the table, saying, "With the court's permission -"
Judge Taylor nodded, and then Atticus did something I never saw him do before or since, in public or in private: he unbuttoned his vest, unbuttoned his collar, loosened his tie, and took off his coat. He never loosened a scrap of his clothing until he undressed at bedtime, and to Jem and me, this was the equivalent of him standing before us stark naked. We exchanged horrified glances.
Atticus put his hands in his pockets, and as he returned to the jury, I saw his gold collar button and the tips of his pen and pencil winking in the light.
"Gentlemen," he said. Jem and I again looked at each other: Atticus might have said, "Scout." His voice had lost its aridity, its detachment, and he was talking to the jury as if they were folks on the post office corner.
"Gentlemen," he was saying, "I shall be brief, but I would like to use my remaining time with you to remind you that this case is not a difficult one, it requires no minute sifting of complicated facts, but it does require you to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant. To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. This is as simple as black and white.
"...And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to "feel sorry" for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people's. I need not remind you of their appearance and conduct on the stand - you saw them for yourselves. The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption - the evil assumption - that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
"Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson's skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women - black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire."
Atticus paused and took out his handkerchief. Then he took off his glasses and wiped them, and we saw another "first": we had never seen him sweat - he was one of those men whose faces never perspired, but now it was shining tan.
"One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal...There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and the idle along with the industrious - because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe - some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others - some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal - there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court..."
"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system - that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty..."

Perhaps the greatest reason to read To Kill a Mockingbird can be learned from a 1966 letter written by Harper Lee to James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as "immoral literature":
“Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

"Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

"I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism...."

I would rate this book as PG for brief violence, light language, but mostly for dealing with some pretty "heavy" stuff, in terms of a man being wrongfully accused of rape, and all the situations which arise from this.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The first time I read this I was in college. It was a book that one person owned and then it was just passed among friends, which, for some reason, I think is appropriate for this book. I remember the first time I finished it, I was in the car and near the end, it made me want to throw up, it just made me feel ill. I guess I should say, before moving on, the very final "flavor in your mouth" is more pleasant. Once I got to the end of it, I looked out of the window for a long time, and then proceeded to read the whole thing again.

I just recently checked it out from the library and found the time to read it in two days. It's not an "adventure book," it's not necessarily gripping in its excitement, but it is hard to put down once you get into it.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age story about a deeply feeling boy named Charlie. He watches people and understands them, he's a secret keeper for almost everyone and that can be one of the most isolating feelings of all. So Charlie begins to anonymously write letters to a mystery someone "because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have," so he doesn't have to keep so many secrets bottled up inside. Those letters are what make up the structure of the book and how the story is told. I am a huge fan of letters, maybe that is one reason why I love this book. Another reason is because I can relate to Charlie, though I have not tried some of the things he has and I do not think I am as passive in my relationships as he often is.

We start out the book with Charlie not really having any friends at all and soon find out that the boy he was closest to has "passed on." Which, I guess, is one reason Charlie starts the letters. Once he goes to high school Charlie is soon adopted by Patrick (a enthusiastic, quirky, boy) and Sam (a lovely, crazy girl). Although I don't think the line is said in the book, in the trailer of the film someone in Charlie's new peer group says, "Welcome to the island of misfit toys," which I think suits Charlie and his group of friends perfectly. Sam and Patrick see Charlie for what he is, a Wallflower, and value him for it. Maybe this is another reason so many people love the book, because there is a part in all of us that hopes to have friends which put up with us, understand us, and are as patient with us as Patrick and Sam are with Charlie...even if they are messed up.

Perhaps so many people like it because a part of them hopes Charlie is writing to them, trusts them enough to share his secrets with them. Or maybe it's like one reviewer said, the story reminds many of their own high school days, of old friends or misfits, and has echos of their own stories within it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about relationships, trust, understanding who others are and who you are. It's about relating to others, trying to give your loved ones what they need, and learning you sometimes have to ask or guess and realize what you think they need is totally different than what they truly do. It's thinking about what shapes us and what shapes others, what causes us to expect the “love” we do, and, hopefully, makes us self-aware enough to give and receive a truer type of love. It's about kisses, fear, mix tapes, and monsters lurking from the past. It's about finding people with whom you can feel "infinite." It's about growing up.

I would give it a content rating of PG-13, nearing a possible R rating. This is for drugs, language, underage drinking, violence, sex (though it doesn't go into any details), and some disturbing situations. Also, if non-heterosexual relationships bother you, maybe you shouldn't read this book. One of the main characters is gay and part of the book deals with them having to figure out how they can love the person they want to love in a time and place where it is difficult to do that.

P.S. Somehow I missed the movie in the theaters, but I am SO excited to see it. Perhaps I will add-on a review of that once I have seen it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire or, as I think they are more commonly known, A Game of Thrones

I have now read the first 4 books of this series and am waiting to get the next one from the library.

Somewhere I read a book critic who compared these books to The Lord of the Rings and, I have to say, I was a little offended. The LOTR world is black and white, good and bad, the heroes are noble and the villains are evil. That is not to say the characters are one-dimensional, that the heroes do not fail in their courage and the villains are devoid of goodness; but you can tell the heroes and the villains apart, you can fall in love with a character and root for them wholeheartedly. The world within A Song of Ice and Fire is made of black and white and gray, splattered with blood and semen. Forgive my imagery, but I think it is a fairly accurate description.

These books are brutal, filled with pillaging in every sense of the word. There is rape, incest, torture, murder, horrible betrayals, language, greed, lust, and crude humor. One of the characters says something along the lines of, after a while, war makes man forget he is human, that is the only way to explain some of the actions of various characters. That, or George R. R. Martin has a lower view of humanity than I. I suppose that's not fair, everything his characters do are things which are done by people in reality, whether in war or not; it just seems the predonerance of his characters do dispicable things. It is hard to know who the heroes are, it is hard to cheer for them; and it is hard to know who the villains are, it is hard to wish them ill.

Yet another reason not to like these books, and this may only bother me, is that there are so many different “main characters” and each chapter follows one character at a time. Potentially there can be a few hunderd pages between meeting up with a character again. This, combined with Martin's tendency to kill off characters, change their name, and continuly introduce new characters, makes it hard to keep up with everything. There were a few times I had to flip back to find out where I had left a character and a few chapters where I had to read a couple pages in order to remember who the character even was.

After all of that you may justly wonder, why do I read them? Well, first I will say, these are not books I ever plan to own and I will probably never read them again. Then why do I read them? I hint at it at the end of the paragraph above my last, Martin has created some of the most complex characters in literature. There are some so seemingly merciless, silly, and sadistic you almost wish to skip the chapters related to them and look forward to a time when they may be killed off. Then there are others you hated but then they grow as a person and so you come to like them, some you pitied but then begin to loathe because of their blind quest for vengence. I will say Martin is like Tolkien in that they both place great importance on character development. They are also alike in their thouroughness, they manage to create very believable worlds, though both have elements of fantasy (this is also to say, Martin is somewhat long-winded, like Tolkien).

I also read them because the author is a great storyteller, he draws you in, even if the world he draws you into is full of shadows, blood, and tears. Perhaps this is just because “winter is coming,” perhaps the world will change into a brighter place with the coming of the spring.

I would without a question rate these books rated “R” and perhaps even suggest an “NC-17.”

Book Reviews: Coming Soon!

I have decided since one of my greatest passions is books, I am going to do a series of book reviews. My purpose is two-fold, it is not only to review books in the traditional sense (my thoughts and feelings about them), but also to give them a rating (as in G, PG, R, etc.). I just did a brief search to see if anyone else is doing this and there are a few sites, but when I went to them and tried to search for some popular books, they didn't show up.

I wish to give these ratings so people have a better idea of what they are getting into. Books are a little more tricky than movies because how bad, scary, etc. a book is partly depends on the reader's imagination. For instance, I have a very good imagination so, based solely on my imaginings, I would be tempted to give Lord of the Rings an R for terror (those Nazguls are pretty terrifying) and also an R to the Hunger Games trilogy for brutality (my imagination can do a lot with the description of the genetically modified dogs and what they did to the tributes). But my imagination is not everyone's imagination, so I would actually rate each of those as PG-13. Also, as someone recently pointed out to me, in books you can skim/jump over unpleasant and bad sections. Some of us are better at this than others and, if you are good at it, you can act as your own content filter.

I know some people will very much disagree with this, but with movies I sometimes allow them to have “redeeming factors.” As an example, The Royal Tenenbaums has a lot of bad stuff, but is one of my very favorite movies because, in terms of cinematography, it is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Also, even though Gladiator is a very brutal movie, I still really like it because it is a great story, very well made, and the acting is superb. In the same way, I will try to convey the redeeming factors of books, or share when I do not think they really have any.

In the future I will try and rate books as I read them so as to have individual book reviews and fresh impressions, but some of my first reviews are going to lump a few books from series together.

Oh, I suppose I should share, though I have read and enjoyed many classics (the unabridged Les Mes., Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jane Erye, some Jane Austen books, The Foundation series, most of the Dune Series, etc.), I am unashamed to admit I have read the Twilight series twice and enjoyed it both times. I'm not saying they are quality literature, or that they are not cheesy, and slightly ridiculous, but I thought they were entertaining and good escapism books. Anyway, that's a warning that some types of people should probably read my reviews with a grain of salt.

With all of that said, I will go for now. I hope you all have a wonderful day.

Note: In my "rating" the various books, I will follow similar guidelines to those put forth by the Motion Picture Association of America, to review those guidelines, you can click the link below.
What Each Rating Means