Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Else I Read in May 2012

I came upon this great idea in the blog, Mixed Book Bag, and decided to share my own list. The idea is to write a list of the books you read in May but did not yet write a review on. My list isn't too long, as I didn't read a whole lot of books, and about half of the ones I did read have reviews up. Here it is:

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman - I figured I'd get this out of the way because I have mentioned it in a few other blog posts. I'll say this again and again, it is an excellent read, and I look forward to checking out more of Gaiman's stuff.

Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie - I will most likely finish this today, as I only have a little bit left to read. As my first encounter with Christie, I am impressed. She writes with an entertaining style and great characters.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee - I revisited this novel earlier in the month. It's a moving read and wonderfully written. It'll be difficult to write a review on it that has something new to say about it, but I'll try.

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk - I technically started this one in December, but I had such a busy school semester I didn't get around to finishing it until May. It's a little slow, but a fascinating story with a crazy twist that I still don't completely comprehend. Pamuk is a Turkish author, and if you want to read something really good by him I would suggest Snow. He is on the erudite side, but definitely readable.

The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman - I only read this because it shares the Prince and the Pauper theme of Pamuk's The White Castle. This book is aimed at 4th or 5th graders, and it is an entertaining read, though predictable.

Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi - This is the first graphic novel of Satrapi's I have read. You may know her for Persepolis, which was made into an animated movie. Embroideries is definitely geared towards adults. It is about a group of women who talk about marriage and sex. It is very funny and insightful, and I would recommend it if you don't mind sexual language.

I've decided to add the books I did review, with links to the reviews:

Shiloh, by Phyllis Naylor Reynolds

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Double Dutch, by Sharon Draper

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by a blog, Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie. It's my first time reading a novel by her, and I am enjoying it so far.

What did you recently finish reading?

I recently finished reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Highly recommended!

What do you think you'll read next?

I am considering reading a young adult fantasy novel called The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall.

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1991)

Shiloh is a simple story about a boy who falls in love with an abused dog, and a dog who returns his affection. Anybody who has ever gotten a puppy as a child will be able to relate to the adoration Marty shows the dog he names Shiloh. While this is a story for young children, its themes and ethical dilemmas are much more sophisticated than some books written for adults. Naylor asks some very interesting questions for parents to discuss with their kids, and even one another, questions that don't necessarily have a right or wrong answer.

Marty comes across a distressed young dog one day, and it follows him home. His parents recognize it as Judd's new hunting dog. Judd has a reputation for mistreating his animals, and for this reason Marty wants to keep the dog, who he names Shiloh, but his parents tell him he can't. It belongs to Judd and it's not anybody's business what Judd does with his property. This kind of logic does not persuade Marty.

Shiloh flees his master yet again, and this time Marty keeps him a secret from his family. He builds a makeshift pen in their expansive yard, hidden from view, and keeps Shiloh there. He sneaks food every night, eating less of his own dinner so Shiloh can have something to eat. It takes a toll on Marty to continue lying to his parents, but he decides it's in Shiloh's best interest to keep quiet. Even his two sisters are becoming curious about where he sneaks off to. Judd stops by one night asking about his new hunting dog and he seems to suspect that Marty's hiding something. A showdown between Judd and Marty is inevitable.

Shiloh won the Newbery Award, spawned two sequels, and was made into a movie, a testament to its quality and its popularity. This is a great book for younger readers. They will love it because of the friendship between Marty and Shiloh, and parents will love it because it has good values and poses some excellent questions for kids, and adults, to ponder. In considering his own moral code, Marty realizes that it is wrong to lie and to steal, but he feels a stronger obligation to keep a dog from returning to its abusive owner. What makes this conflict so interesting is that adults would likely consider it much differently than children. Adults, whose moral values are more logical and place a stronger foundation on property, would say Marty should mind his own business. If there was proof of extreme abuse or neglect, the law could step in, but a dog fearful of its owner is not proof. At least not to an adult. To a child like Marty, the proof is in the animal's eyes. He couldn't forgive himself for returning an innocent animal to someone who will not treat it with love.

Surprisingly, Judd, is very well-developed for being the villain of a young adult novel. Many novels or movies aimed at kids have one-dimensional or very silly villains, but Judd is much more human. I believe many of us have known someone like Judd. How Naylor resolves the conflict between Judd and Marty makes sense, and it sends a positive message. In making her villain human, she shows that though there are bad people in the world, things aren't simply black and white. You don't have to fight fire with fire. In fact, it is more effective to stand by your principles and stand up to people like Judd. Shiloh isn't just a novel about a boy who falls in love with a dog; it is about a boy who learns to be brave.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jaws, by Peter Benchley (1974)

I was unaware until a few months ago that Jaws was a book before Steven Spielberg made it into a movie. It just so happened that my Young Adult Literature professor had it on her bookshelf and handed it to me for my Man vs. Nature book ladder assignment. The difference between the two versions is huge, as Spielberg has a better knack for storytelling. That's not to say Peter Benchley's novel is without its entertainment; it's just that his cynicism shifts the story in a bad direction.

The opening will likely sound familiar. A man and woman, drunk, have sex in the backyard of his family's house. She decides to take a dip in the ocean while he is passed out. Little does she know a shark lurks in the dark.

Chief of police Martin Brody is put on the case of the missing woman, and when he finds her detached head, there's no doubt she was the victim of a shark attack. Brody proposes closing down the beaches for several days, but it's bad timing for the town, Amity. Harry Meadows, editor of the town's local paper, and Mayor Vaughn don't want the beaches closed because the town relies on summer tourism for revenue to survive the winter. So, against Brody's better judgment, the beaches remain open and the shark attack is covered up. However, when a second and third shark attack occur, the mayor has no choice but to close them down.

Brody calls on shark expert Matt Hooper to help out. Hooper can't explain why the shark, which he identifies as a great white, is hovering around the area, especially when the waters are still chilly, but he does know it's a really big shark (which inspires the famous line in the movie, "I think we need a bigger boat"). He also recognizes Brody's wife, Ellen, who dated his older brother back in the day. Ellen loves her husband, but despises her life as a "winter" person, meaning she lives in Amity yearlong rather than as a summer getaway. She's clearly attracted to Hooper, a "summer" person, and Brody suspects this. Also joining the scene is Quint, captain of a fishing boat. He despises sharks, but loves slitting open their gut and dropping them in the water to watch them eat their own insides over and over until they die. Like in the movie, these three men go on the final quest to hunt down the shark.

The novel is actually pretty good for the first half of it. Benchley writes with a lot of humor, similar to Stephen King, although some of his humor relies too much on bodily functions. I grew to like the police chief, Brody, and even Harry Meadows, as well as another policeman, Hendricks. However, Benchley's mistake is to forget about the shark plot about halfway through the novel in order to develop a romantic subplot between Ellen and Matt. This subplot takes up a significant portion of the novel and only serves to undermine it. Those who don't like graphic sexual language might want to skip this section of the novel. While the scene produces a lot of tension, it also changes the tone of the novel for the worst, making the rest of the novel difficult to enjoy.

In exploring a Man vs. Nature theme, the novel does have some interesting points to make. Matt Hooper says some fascinating things about sharks. Everyone wants an explanation as to why the shark is hanging around, and Matt makes it clear that sometimes there are simply unexplainable anomalies in nature. The shark's presence is a threat to the town's economy, and because the shark lives in the ocean, it is difficult to find and kill. Thus we find how humans are sometimes powerless to fight off mother nature, no matter how big their boat is.

Though my Young Adult Literature teacher had this on her bookshelf, I wouldn't consider it YA, due to the graphic language. However, it's not difficult to imagine teenagers in the 1970s reading the novel due to the popularity of the movie. I wonder what they thought of it. You're probably familiar with the claim that the book is always better than the movie, but I think Jaws proves that wrong. Spielberg's movie remains a classic, while Benchley's novel has fallen into relative obscurity, and with good reason.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Beginnings: Neverwhere

I've decided to try something I came across today posted in the blog, Rose City Reader, called Book Beginnings on Fridays. Bloggers post the opening line or lines of the book they are currently reading and share with others. Then you share your thoughts on the book/opening line. Here is my book:

"The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself."

- Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

I'm almost finished with the book and I would definitely recommend it. As you might guess from the opening lines, Richard has some bad days ahead of him. The book has lots of humor, great characters, and a neat world set in the London Above and the London Below.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

Ursula K. Le Guin uses her fantasy to tackle real themes with real depth. This is not to say her story, A Wizard of Earthsea, is pedantic and boring. In fact, it is an exciting fantasy adventure, but one with meaning and purpose. For Le Guin, it isn't the action that's important, but the human element. The wizard Ged may be destined to be the most powerful wizard in the realm, but that doesn't mean he isn't without real feeling: fear, sorrow, alienation, love. Too often fantasy stories, in the form of novels, superhero movies, and anime shows, present a powerful character for the sole purpose of creating awesome spectacles of action. To be sure, a movie like The Avengers is exciting and fun, but can one truly fall in love with its characters as anything greater than arbiters of awesome power? In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is loved not because he is all-powerful, but because he is human.

Born on the island of Gont, a young boy soon to be named Ged lives with his father, a blacksmith. None realize Ged's true power except his aunt, a witch, who begins teaching him charms and spells, which he learns and casts with ease and skill. When barbarians invade the nearby isles and mount an attack on Ged's small village, he casts a thick fog around the area, and his father and the villagers are able to chase them away. This draws the attention of a powerful wizard named Ogion the Silent, who gives Ged his name, his true name, and takes him on as an apprentice. To others Ged is known as Sparrowhawk; if somebody knows your true name they have power over you, if they choose to use it.

However, Ged grows bored with his master's slow-paced teaching. Ged is hot-headed and arrogant, not very well-suited for patience. When Ogion gives him the option of going to school on the island of Roke, Ged doesn't hesitate to accept, though he realizes he has come to love his master. At the school Ged meets a rival in Jasper and a close friend in Vetch. Ged's rivalry is inflamed, perhaps, because he is so gifted. Jasper seems inspired by jealousy and looks down at Ged with contempt. Ged is determined to show that he's Jasper's superior. He attempts to summon a spirit from the dead, but instead summons a powerful shadow being, which would have destroyed Ged had the Archmage not sacrificed his own life to save him. Ged's face is scarred, as is his mind. He realizes what everyone had been trying to warn him about all along, about the balance of the universe. Now he is afraid of his power, though he still continues his schooling and graduates to become a wizard, earning his staff. But the shadow is out there in the world, waiting for him to leave the island so it can destroy him.

The novel doesn't read as you might expect. Le Guin does not follow any conventions or formulas, and you might be surprised how its conflicts resolve. The final showdown is not an awesome display of power, but it is much more moving because it has meaning. It displays growth of character in Ged, not growth of power. This is what makes the novel unique. Other fantasy and action stories may pretend they are about growth of character, but this growth is usually trumped by the increased physical power of the hero. Le Guin shows how a fantasy story should be written.

The novel takes place in a world created entirely by Le Guin's imagination. Earthsea is populated by many isles, both large and small, and each isle has its own distinct characteristics. Le Guin helpfully provides several maps of her world, and one of the joys of reading the book is to glance at the map and find where Ged is located. Le Guin also makes interesting use of magic; it is more scientific than fantastic, though of course the fantastic is important. The bulk of magical power lies on knowledge of a thing's true name. On his way to becoming a wizard, Ged had to take a class under the master of naming. Here he was isolated from the rest of the school and had to memorize as many true names as possible. This quest to learn names is reminiscent of the quest of science to gain knowledge about all things in the world and give everything a name. All living things that we know have a common name and a scientific name. In Earthsea, all things have a common name and a true name. To know a thing's true name means a magic user can manipulate it to his or her will. Similarly, in science, and even in the rest of society, the ability to name something is a display of power over that thing or person. Le Guin's magic seems to serve as a warning about the abuse of scientific power, but she also shows how it can be put to good, when used correctly.

If A Wizard of Earthsea has trouble finding an audience today (and I'm not saying it does), this is probably because Le Guin's writing style is a little dry. Don't get me wrong, I find her writing to be very engaging, but her narrator merely describes. The novel has lengthy descriptive passages, sprinkled with sparse dialogue. I only mention this because young adults familiar with the style of J.K. Rowling may not so readily jump into Le Guin's Earthsea series. Though Harry Potter has a lot of similarities to A Wizard of Earthsea in terms of conten, Rowling writes with playful language that is more accessible and inviting. Her narrator does describe things, yes, but often has fun with these descriptions. This seems to be a difference in writing style between the British and Americans. The British seem to have a little more fun. Rowling and Neil Gaiman come to mind, and they have historical precedent in the likes of Charles Dickens. Most American writers seem to take the more serious route: Le Guin, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, Cormac McCarthy, and others, both popular and canonical. Stephen King may be an exception. I take this to be the powerful influence of Ernest Hemingway on American literature. I don't mean this as a criticism, just an observation. There are pros and cons to each style of writing, and Le Guin's novel may have lost some of its magic with a more playful narrator.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a four book series by Le Guin featuring the wizard, Ged. This novel is about Ged's growing up to become the powerful wizard he is destined to be. It is like putting the entire seven books of the Harry Potter series into this small 180-page novel. Harry Potter lovers should definitely give this novel a chance. In fact, everybody should read it; it isn't your usual fantasy novel.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Double Dutch, by Sharon Draper (2002)

Delia and Randy have a secret. Delia can't read, and Randy's father has been missing for six weeks. I can relate. To adults, it seems silly for young teens to keep such secrets from other adults, but from the perspective of the teen, it's a different story. They're afraid of what others will think, so it's easier to say nothing. When I was in fifth grade I had a secret. I discovered it after my brother began struggling with the same problem: near-sightedness. To me, being unable to see was less humiliating than having to wear glasses. I decided to test whether I really was near-sighted after my brother had an eye exam. I took a seat across from the eye chart and tried to read it; but I found I couldn't read a single letter from the bottom row. Nonetheless I stood up and tried to act nonchalant. This didn't fool my parents or the eye doctor, and I have worn glasses ever since. Double Dutch is about the reluctance of two teenagers to admit a weakness, a reluctance, I imagine, shared by many of us.

Delia's inability to read causes problems for her at school, but she uses her ingenuity to keep her grades up. Whenever a class is assigned a novel, she watches the movie version and listens carefully to group discussions. She relies on non-essay assignments as well to boost her grades, and her teachers, as a result, don't suspect she has a problem. However, ingenuity will do nothing to help Delia pass the upcoming state tests. A poor performance on the tests means she can't continue double dutch. Only her closest friend, Yolanda, knows her secret, and Yolanda promises to help her out.

Randy has a much bigger problem. His father is a truck driver and occasionally must leave Randy alone for days at a time, but he hasn't shown up for six weeks. Randy worries that his father has abandoned him like his mother did. Or worse - that he's dead. Afraid that going to the authorities might get his father in trouble, Randy does his best to pretend that nothing is wrong. He uses the little money his father had stashed in the apartment to pay off bills and buy food for him and the cat. But as the electric company starts calling about a late bill, it becomes increasingly difficult for Randy. The novel takes place mostly from Delia's point of view, but a few chapters are from Randy's perspective, and his, I think, are the most effective. A twelve-year old boy shouldn't have to take care of himself, and there's also the cat to worry about. He naively hopes his father will be there in the morning when he wakes up or in the evening when he comes home from school, and it's crushing the way he begs food off his friends and is forced to feed the cat bits of hot dog while pretending nothing is wrong.

A third major plot point involves the Tolliver twins, Tabu and Titan. These are two big, mean-looking kids, and everyone is terrified of them, including the teachers, such as Miss Benson, who is in her first year on the job. To make things worse, they were featured on a show about terrible teenagers. The early parts of the novel are at times a little too preoccupied with the twins. More experienced readers will realize right away how this conflict will resolve. Draper handles this resolution very well, though, by avoiding any cliche and abrupt personality changes. Once the rest of the characters realize what us readers know all along, the Tollivers still remain as they always were.

It is in its depictions of double dutch that the novel shines. Double dutch is a popular sport where two girls (or boys) swing two ropes while a third (and sometimes a fourth) jump in the middle. There are several different ways to compete. One is to jump successfully as many times in a minute as you can. Another is freestyle, where the jumper(s) and turners perform spectacular tricks while keeping the ropes moving. In the novel, the World Double Dutch Championships are held in Ohio, which if this is true it is a testament to the sport's worldwide popularity. The students of the Cincinnati school district where Delia attends are particularly diligent. Children from the third grade to the eighth grade get together several times a week and fill up the gym for practice. It is this sport that holds the novel together and connects each of its characters.

This is the second novel by Sharon Draper that I have read, the other being Romiette and Julio, and it is the better of the two. An English teacher for twenty-five years, Draper is an African American author who now writes young adult literature. She writes in a simple style for easier reading. One might suspect her target audience is young teens who have trouble reading. She writes a lot of dialogue and action, with very little concrete details that might bore readers. The dialogue is energetic and clever, sometimes a little too energetic and clever, but I imagine young teens will find it amusing.

The novel, overall, is pretty good. Young teens or pre-teens will most likely enjoy it, and many might grow interested in the sport of double dutch. Adults will find it lacking in substance, however. Draper, especially in Double Dutch, seems reluctant to portray anybody as truly mean. Her meanest characters earn their distinction by appearing to be mean, but not by their actions. The teachers, the coach, the students, the parents: none have a mean bone in their body. When Miss Benson loses a few kids after a tornado strikes the school, the parents of the missing kids sympathize with her rather than grow angry. Even the tornado has the decency not to take any lives. It's all a little too sweet, a little too nice, a little too much of a fantasy. You'd be hard-pressed to find many readers today who will believe there's not a single problem child in the entire school.

Still, it's a nice fantasy.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The Graveyard Book is a delightful fantasy, a recreation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It is a tale about a boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts, rather than a boy raised in a jungle by animals. Gaiman is a prolific writer, having written adult novels, young adult novels, graphic novels, and even movie screenplays. This is the first novel of his that I have read, and I am curious to read more. He writes in a very playful style, with a narrator who isn't afraid to be witty, and on top of that, the story is entertaining, too.

Nobody Owens, or Bod, is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, ghosts who reside in a London graveyard. Silas, a creature that can travel between the world of the living and the dead, appoints himself as Bod's guardian. Only he has the ability to leave the graveyard and fetch the boy some food. On the night Bod is adopted by the Owens family, a man called Jack kills his entire family, but his job won't be over until he also kills Bod. However, Bod is protected by the Freedom of the Graveyard, which allows him to do such things as Fading, Slipping, and Dreamwalking. As long as he is in the graveyard, he can turn invisible from any human. These abilities will be crucial for his survival.

The story is about his life as a child up until his mid-teens. During this time he has many adventures and meets many new people. He befriends a living girl named Scarlett, who isn't sure if he is imaginary or not, but is quite certain the ghosts he claims to be talking to are made up. Bod shows her a dark secret of the graveyard, a tomb down a flight of stairs where a creature called the Seeker resides, waiting for the arrival of its master. This frightens Scarlett and she isn't sure if she can trust him anymore, but before she can decide, her parents decide to move away.

Bod meets other interesting creatures, as well. Miss Lupescu is assigned to be his tutor and guardian when Silas must leave for a short while. She is a boring lady with an interesting secret (take a guess). He has an adventure with ghouls, who want to turn him into one of them. He meets a witch in the graveyard, named Liza, who everyone warns him about but she seems pretty nice. He participates in the Dance of the Macabre, the one time of the year when the living and the dead interact, though nobody remembers it the next morning. And Scarlett makes a return visit, and her mother, now divorced, takes a liking to Mr. Frost, a historian who has been studying the graveyard Bod lives in. Inevitably, of course, Bod will have to deal with the man Jack, who is patiently hunting him, and I will say no more about that.

Gaiman has a very engaging writing style. He inserts wit wherever he can and has the ability to generate a laugh out of even the dullest moment. His dialogue is particularly good. He does a great job of infusing personality into the voices of his characters. Silas is mysterious and terse, leaving Bod desiring to learn more. Bod himself is very clever. When he speaks with other humans, the fact that he is different is readily apparent. He is very intelligent, but his knowledge is limited mostly to what the ghosts in the graveyard know, which is centuries old, and so his manner of speaking is odd to other humans. Gaiman does a great job of connecting his many side stories, as well. We see how Bod learns something new from each conflict he comes across, and this helps the novel feel connected.

The final stretch of the novel is much more suspenseful than the rest, as it involves scenes with the man Jack, but it is also the most disappointing. Inevitably, all questions are answered during this final stretch, and satisfying as the answers are, they are rarely as fascinating as the questions, in any story. Also, the novel makes use of the talking villain syndrome, in which the villain explains everything to the boy, giving the boy extra time to carry out his plan to defeat said villain. I suppose this is standard for the genre, though otherwise Gaiman is careful to avoid cliches.

The novel is billed as a children's book, having been awarded the Newbery Honor Medal, and this seems appropriate. Some of it can be scary, like the man Jack and the Seeker, but the scary parts aren't too scary. The story is really a lot of fun, and one that parents would enjoy as well. It is over 300 pages long, but is a very quick and easy read. When compared to other popular novels of its age group, such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, The Graveyard Book shares the whimsy and fun of the Harry Potter books but lacks the violence of The Hunger Games. By the end of the tale, you can at least feel good knowing that Bod has learned a lot and grown into a fine young man.

Even if you are not familiar with The Jungle Book, I recommend you read Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1993)

The Alchemist is one of the world's best selling novels and has been translated into more languages than any other book by a living author, according to Wikipedia. I think I understand why. The novel is full of hope and also acts as a spiritual self-help book. Paulo Coelho, born in Brazil, has led an interesting life. He was locked away in a mental institution by his parents because he wanted to be a writer; he dropped out of law school, became a hippie, experimented with drugs, became a songwriter, and went on a pilgrimage that changed his life. This pilgrimage, which led to his realization that though he wasn't yet living his dream, no doubt inspired him to write The Alchemist. It is an inspiring read, reminiscent in ways of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. There is magical realism, fun adventure, and the conviction that if you really want to, you can achieve your dream. At the same time, Coelho's story seems more a vehicle for preaching his philosophy and sometimes grows tiring. In modern American culture, we are skeptical of what it means to live and achieve one's dreams, especially in the days of post-9/11. American novels like Steinbeck's The Pearl warns us of the possible consequences of achieving the American Dream, and in the daily scandals of young celebrities shown in gossip magazines and television, we find one such consequence. I admire Coelho for his conviction, but I also believe he treats the idea of chasing and achieving dreams too simplistically.

In Spain, a shepherd boy, not unlike Coelho, wanders the plains with his many sheep. He was destined to be a preacher, but told his father that he wanted to see the world. His father lets him go, believing he will realize that his home is the best place in the world, but the shepherd boy falls in love with his nomadic life. However, something begins to nag at his paradise. He has a recurring dream that he finds a treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. So he visits a gypsy woman and she tells him the obvious: a treasure awaits him at the Pyramids of Egypt. This costs him ten percent of his treasure. At first he is skeptical about chasing this dream, and there's a girl in the next town, anyway, he's thinking about marrying. Making things easy for him is the appearance of a a magical king, who tells him about Personal Legends and the Soul of the World. Everyone has a Personal Legend, but very few live it out. Most people find excuses not to chase after it, preferring not to take the risks, and so they lead the safe, easy, but dull, life of a career man (and it does seem to apply only to men). The Soul of the World is like God. It connects everyone to everything. If one learns to read the omens and to speak with the Soul of the World, one can achieve anything.

The boy's journey eventually lands him in an oasis in the Sahara desert, where he is able to read an omen that armed men are going to attack the oasis. He warns the tribesmen there, and they fend off the attack. This ability to read the omens attracts the attention of an alchemist. He is much like the king, all powerful, able to transform into the wind and turn lead into gold. He takes the boy as his pupil in order to help him seek out his Personal Legend and the treasure of the Pyramids. I will say no more about the story, except that it ends with a pleasing twist.

Coelho's spirituality is very apparent through his language of Personal Legends and the Soul of the World. The boy will learn to speak through God, like the great prophets, and perhaps Coehlo is also serving as a prophet, instructing his readers how to lead their lives. I think Coelho is trying to say that anybody, through hard work and merit, has the ability to speak directly with God, and not just the chosen few, the prophets. This, perhaps, is what adds to its popularity. It is what made Christianity such a powerful religion. Rather than being for the elite few, Christianity spoke to the impoverished many. The problem, however, is that while Coelho seems to be preaching to the many, his story undermines this. Based on what the narrator says throughout the novel, it seems that only the elite few possess the ability to achieve their Personal Legend.

This is apparent in the way the story is told as well. Only those who the king and the alchemist choose to explain the rules of Personal Legends to can actually achieve their dreams. This is also lazy storytelling. Every time the boy is consumed with doubt or faces an obstacle that threatens to turn him away, some powerful characer, like a genie from the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, enters the scene and tells him the right way to go. The boy would have never chased his dream had it not been for the appearance of the magical king, and he would have given up had it not been for the appearance of the alchemist. Coelho seems to believe that the world conspires to make our dreams come true, which is easy enough to argue in a novel with fantastic elements. Real life isn't so simple or easy, though.

Coelho's narrator implies that those who do not achieve their dreams don't because of their own personal failings and fears. However, he fails take into account the twists and turns life takes. There's also the fact that our dreams change, and that they are not absolute convictions. Our dreams might change as we gain new perspectives on life, or they may not have been very clear to begin with, but always developing in our mind. And perhaps when we do take up that career, while our mind dreams of other things, we realize that this career fulfills us in ways we never imagined. And once you achieve your dream, you may likely face the question, is this what I really want? You may also begin to dream of something else. Dreams aren't so simple, after all.

The Alchemist is not a boring read, and at times is very entertaining. I enjoy the stories from the 1001 Arabian Nights, and the novel is at its best when its adventure plays out like them. Theft, travel, war, sandstorms and love. Coelho is very inventive in the ways he makes use of what at first appears to be an obstacle to the boy's journey. However, the novel plays out largely as a philosophical work, and Coelho's idealism seems born from another age, an age of innocence. We have become realists and pessimists today. Of course, as a spiritual work, I believe the novel will play out differently for everyone. You might become a believer, and the novel may serve as a source of inspiration for you. Just because it doesn't work for me doesn't mean it won't work for you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Hessian, by Howard Fast (1972)

Set during the American Revolution, The Hessian is a powerful novel about the attitudes and life of early Americans. It is about a bigotry that serves to protect a small town, but with tragic consequences.

Near a young New England town marches a small regiment of Hessian soldiers. Hessians were well-trained and much-feared soldiers who fought for the British during the American Revolution. Because of this, a Hessian regiment, no matter how small, would have generally been left alone. However, an autistic child from the town follows them and is captured and hanged as a spy. This is witnessed by Jacob Heather, a young Quaker boy, who runs into town to tell the physician, Dr. Feversham, as well as Squire Abraham Hunt, the town's leader. Hunt leads a regiment of nervous men to ambush the Hessians, and the ambush is so successful that all of the Hessians are killed except the drummer boy, without a shot fired from the other side. This boy, named Hans Pohl, finds safety in the Heather household, and the Quaker family enlists the help of Dr. Feversham to take care of Hans's wounds. The doctor has no desire to see Hans harmed, but he knows it is only a matter of time before Squire Hunt finds him.

The novel is told in the first person from the point of view of Dr. Feversham. He is a bitter man, and not a very likeable one, though this doesn't detract from the novel. His bitterness is justified. As an Englishman and a Catholic he has faced persecution in some form all of his life. In England he was persecuted as a Catholic, and in America he is persecuted as an Englishman and a Catholic. He is tolerated only because he married an American woman and is the town's only physician. Dr. Feversham finds himself at odds with the narrow-minded Squire Hunt, and he admires the kindness and tolerance of the Heather family. At the same time, their passivity frustrates him. By the novel's end, though, he comes to see this passive nature of the Quakers as a coping mechanism, as he is ultimately powerless to prevent a horrible tragedy.

Fast does an excellent job of bringing the era to life in his descriptions of the daily routines of Dr. Feversham and his encounters with other townsfolk. In a world filled with insecurity and uncertainty, Squire Hunt's narrow-minded prejudices are a necessity for survival, and as such his values won't permit any exceptions. Perhaps the most powerful scene and also the most vivid portrait of life at the time is the trial of Hans's Pohl. Men and women pack themselves into a small, hot courthouse in order to watch a trial whose outcome has been decided long before it even began. What Dr. Feversham and the Quakers see as tragic, Squire Hunt and the other townsfolk sees as necessary. Fast reveals a sense justice warped by the prejudices of those presiding over it, and this is not just a relic of the past, but a problem that faces society even today.

The novel's only weakness is the inclusion of a couple of romantic side plots that distract from the main story. Inevitably, Hans and the Heather girl who is his own age will fall in love, but worse is the way the novel handles an attraction between Dr. Feversham and Sarah Heather, the mother and wife of the Quaker family. There are some awkward, unconvincing scenes that come out of this, particularly in the form of jealousy from Dr. Feversham's wife. It's ironic the way Fast seeks to make a point about bigotry in America, yet casts the women as nothing more than objects of romance for the men.

Nonetheless, The Hessian is a captivating read that transports the reader to a more primitive and unstable time in America's history. What Fast has to say about society then reflects on society today. It raises interesting questions about the necessity of prejudice in a society, whether it really is necessary, and what it says about society that such deep-rooted bigotry still exists.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reviews: Adult

Book List by Author


Austen, Jane

Northanger Abbey 


Bellow, Saul

Benchley, Peter



Christensen, Andreas

Christie, Agatha

Cat Among the Pigeons

Clarke, Arthur C.

Coelho, Paulo



Eliot, George

Adam Bede


Fast, Howard

The Hessian

Flynn, Gillian

 Gone Girl


Gaiman, Neil

American Gods


The Ocean at the End of the Lane 


Haddon, Mark

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Hill, Joe

Heart-Shaped Box





King, Stephen


The Green Mile

The Long Walk 

Under the Dome


LaFave, Charles

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Le Guin, Ursula K.

A Wizard of Earthsea

The Tombs of Atuan 

Lee, Christopher

The Archaeologists


Macgregor, John

Manchester, Steven

Martin, George R. R.

A Clash of Kings

A Dance with Dragons

A Feast for Crows 

A Game of Thrones 

A Storm of Swords 

McCourt, Frank

Angela's Ashes

McCullers, Carson

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  



Ondaatje, Michael

In the Skin of a Lion 

Orwell, George



Preuss, Paul

Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime Volume One



Remender, Rick


Rice, Anne

The Wolf Gift 

Riddle, A. G.

The Atlantis Gene 


Saramago, Jose

Satrapi, Marjane


Sells, Robert

Steinbeck, John

The Pearl


Tartt, Donna

The Goldfinch



Vonnegut, Kurt

Cat's Cradle 

Happy Birthday, Wanda June 


Waters, Rayme

The Angels' Share

Weir, Andy

The Martian

Wilde, Oscar

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Wright, Richard

Black Boy




Reviews: Youg Adult

Book List by Author


Alexander, Lloyd

Anderson, Laurie Halse 



Crispin: At the Edge of the World



Good the Goblin Queen

Bloor, Edward


Burnford, Sheila

The Incredible Journey  


Cass, Kiera

Chbosky, Stephen

Collins, Suzanne


Dhariwal, Radhika

Draper, Sharon



Farmer, Nancy

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm


Gaiman, Neil

Golding, William

Lord of the Flies

 Green, John

The Fault in Our Stars 


Hinton, S.E.

The Outsiders 




Kendall, Carol


L'Engle, Madeleine

A Wrinkle in Time

Lawrence, Iain

The Wreckers

Leavitt, Martine

Keturah and Lord Death

Lowry, Lois 

The Giver 


Morpurgo, Michael

War Horse

Myers, Walter Dean

Fallen Angels



Myracle, Lauren




Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds



Pitcher, Anabel

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece



Riley, Meghan


Roth, Veronica




Ryan, Pam Munoz

Esperanza Rising


Salinger, J.D.

The Catcher in the Rye

Sleator, William


Smith, Roland


Spinelli, Jerry

Maniac Magee










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