Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Not only finishing, but truly enjoying A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens might be my greatest accomplishment as far as books are concerned. I'm not sure why I was so reluctant to read Dickens for so long, but it probably has a lot to do with laziness. If anyone understands the meaning of the word "elaborate" it's Dickens. Everything, from the characters to the cobblestones on the streets, was exceedingly described. He apparently had a love of commas and semicolons that converted many of his sentences into full-fledged paragraphs. He was also not shy in his use of metaphors, which all put together is the perfect recipe for a book that needs to be given an incredible amount of attention and requires a lot of re-reading. One of my thoughts as I started this book was, "How am I going to read 600 pages of this?!?"

After reading the first chapter a few times and as I continued to read this daunting novel, I started to feel more comfortable with the language and the style of writing and I began to enjoy the characters and the story. It was still difficult to understand a lot of it though, because of its setting in the time of the French Revolution. I was confused about a lot of what happened in the story because I didn't know the background of why some things were happening. Once I did some "research" (thank you Wikipedia and SparkNotes!) a lot more of the story made sense and I could continue to read and truly enjoy it.

This was one of those stories that would take you in so many different directions with the story lines before bringing everything together in the end. The last 100 pages were by far the most exciting, and also the most interesting. When everything started coming together I started pausing the story to go back and re-read earlier chapters, to remember what some characters had said or done and make connections from the earlier chapters to the later chapters.

I think the most interesting thing about Dickens' writing was how he created each character's unique role in the story. He kept you guessing about the loyalties and strength of some characters, surprised you with the motives of others, and made you love or hate some of them instantly. Some of the seemingly minor characters ended up having large roles that you wouldn't expect. He portrays the time and the many people of the time accurately yet creatively. After conquering this novel, I'm excited to read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. I highly recommend A Tale of Two Cities to anyone who enjoys a truly good, intellectual and entertaining book.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Almost the whole time I was reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I thought it was a true story. Not until the very end did I realize, with such disappointment, that it was actually a very artfully written work of fiction. In my mind it was a story like Apollo 13 or Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand), a story so incredible that you almost can't believe its truth, but you are so moved and in awe by knowing that it really did happen. In Life of Pi, the author didn't discover and tell an amazingly true story, but in fact did just the opposite. He finds inspiration to write a fictional adventure and crafts the story in a way to convince you that it's true, similar to what Jules Verne did with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Pi Patel is a teenage Indian boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India. He is interested in the animals his father kept in their zoo and in religion. When his family decides to move to Canada for a better life, they embark on a cargo ship that will transport their family and many of their animals across the Pacific. The ship sinks, and Pi finds himself stranded in a life boat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger.

The author describes how the animals behave in the boat, using explanations based on studies in zoology to convince the reader that the tiger would have claimed his territory under the tarp in the boat and that the hyena would have been too scared of the tiger to kill the zebra right away like it normally would have done. These sorts of explanations of Pi's survival are so artfully woven into the story that I was convinced this boy really did live for seven months in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

I've never read a story that I loved so much and was so disappointed with at the same time. I loved Pi from the start - his intelligence, his devotion to the things that he loved, his quirkiness. I loved the descriptions (who knew there could be so much written on the "different skies" of the Pacific) and the scientific accuracies (a sea turtle is an incredibly valuable resource for a castaway). I loved how all of these elements came together to create the realness of the story, and my disappointment comes exactly from believing in the realness of the story and then finding out that it wasn't, feeling almost like I've been lied to.

I wonder if I would have had the same enjoyment reading this if I knew from the start that it wasn't true. It's been only 30 minutes since I finished the book and I think I'm beginning to come to terms with its fictional roots. I will still consider this book as one of my favorites and absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes an inspirational adventure.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

If there was ever a book that I would tell anyone and everyone to read, this would be it.

Wonder is a fictional story about a boy named August, who is a normal fifth grade boy in every way except one: he was born with a very rare gene disfunction that made his face severely deformed. He had always been homeschooled before but now he is starting school for the first time, and he and his family are uneasy thinking of how things will go. Auggie is such a sweet character who you can't help but root for from the very first page. Since most of the story is told from his point of view, you as the reader really find yourself emotionally invested in the story and especially August. "I won't tell you what I look like," he says. "Whatever you're imagining, it's probably worse."

Over the years, August has become used to the stares and reactions he gets from strangers, but that doesn't mean he is immune to the feelings that come with them. I understand why someone who doesn't know about Auggie or his condition would be surprised, scared or intrigued. How much of today's media is focused on people who are different and uncommon, just for the entertainment of the masses? The natural human reaction to anyone or anything unusual is to stare, wonder, and stare some more. It's not always meant in a bad or mean way, it's just what people tend to do.

When I described this book to my 5th grade class, I told them how much I loved it and also that it was a sad story. It's not an intense tear-jerker, and it has many funny moments in it, but there is also a thin and invisible blanket of sadness over the whole story because of how real everyone's reactions to August are.

At first, the kids in Auggie's new school are afraid even to be near him. They start a game called "The Plague" where if anyone touches him they get "the plague" and they have a short amount of time to touch someone else and give it to them. A few kids are nice to Auggie, most are scared of him and one is particularly mean to him. August even admits in the story that he knows "kids can be mean" and he says how it doesn't usually affect him much anymore, but you can tell that he's still sad because he rarely has the chance to show people that he's a completely normal kid on the inside; most people are too jaded by his face to give his personality a fair chance. In fact, August doesn't always trust people who are genuinely trying to get to know him because he thinks they feel bad for him and are just being nice.

There are so many reasons why I say that everyone should read this book. R.J. Palacio does an amazing job extracting the raw emotions of her readers. She instantly throws you into August's life and finds a special place for him in your heart. She makes you think - about yourself, about others and about humanity, how and why we treat people the way we do. Don't worry, August survives his first year being in a real school and the book has a happy ending. But like so many of those really good stories, it's not August's destination that makes it so good, it's his journey and the journeys of all those surrounding him.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

I'd forgotten how nice it is to take myself back to being a kid and read a 5th grade book. It took me only a few hours to read The Sign of the Beaver, 135 pages and one of those classic elementary school books that I should probably have already read but haven't. Shouldn't university teacher education programs have a list of all those common and classic books/authors to read before becoming a teacher? Anyway, I knew I had to read this book since it's the one all the boys in my class chose to read for our novel unit. They were all excited to read it because of the ferocious-looking bear on the cover and the backstory of settlers and Indians, a topic we've spent a good chunk of time on in our social studies units this year. Won't they be surprised when they find out that the bear appears in one short scene of the story!

I truly recommend this book to anyone. Seriously, go buy a paperback copy for $6.99 and spend a Saturday at a pool, lake or beach and READ IT. Elizabeth George Speare does a superb job translating the history of Native Americans and European settlers into a story from a 13-year-old boy's perspective. That's exactly what you have to do to get kids' attention on a topic that would be completely boring reading in a textbook. I guarantee you that after reading this book, all the boys in my class could tell you not only what the relationship was like between the settlers and the natives but also give you details on how the settlers struggled to survive in the early settlements, explain life in a native village and give you their opinions on the tribes moving away from the white settlements and the friendship between the characters Matt and Attean.

This book was a very simple and fast read for me, but the story evoked so many emotions. It wasn't an extremely predictable plot; I kept wondering if the character Ben from the beginning would show up again, and I wondered if the main character Matt's family would make it back to Matt at the cabin. I thought about all the things Matt had to do to survive on his own in the wilderness and how difficult it must have been to learn how to make his own bow and arrow, fishing pole, line and hooks, and snares, and have the patience to do all of those things correctly! The ending simply made me sad, because even though the events that took place were mostly happy I also thought about how it shows the historical reality of the natives being moved off of their homelands, and how neither the settlers nor the natives really understood each other. There is definite potential for some intense discussion of this book among my students, and that makes me happy.

This is also a Newberry Honor book, which I always make a big deal out of for the kids :)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Game of Thones by George R. R. Martin

Thank goodness for Spring Break, or I never would have had time to lounge on my couch for hours on end reading. I did a lot of other things this week, too - spending time with family and friends, shopping, playing frisbee, visiting my old barn - and through reading I've also sat in on royal councils, fought is great battles and learned traveled the length of the world (among other things.)

Recently, I was introduced to George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series by my roommate, and once I knew what it was I've talked to a few others about how much they enjoy the series. It's currently a 5-book series with another 2 books in the works, and also a successfull HBO series in its third season with a fourth on the way.

If I could describe the GOT in three words, they would be: exciting, inappropriate and suspenseful. Being told from a different perspective in each chapter, there is "never a dull moment" throughout the story, one  of the reasons I haven't been able to put it down. I was wary of forming opinions on the characters because I knew there would be twists, turns and betrayals. It turns out that one character I wanted to like but thought might turn for the worse was killed because he held onto his honor; another that I greaty disliked was killed before he could really cause any trouble. A third that I pitied will have a much bigger part to play, and I have no idea how much trouble that one will cause.

At first, I didn't really understand the title of the book. Maybe if I had thought more about it, it would have made more semse to me earlier on, but as the story went on it became much more clear. A Game of Thrones, all those games that people play when power is the prize to be won. "When you play the game of thrones, you live or die," Queen Cersei tells Lord Stark more than once, and that lesson is learned the hard way by a large number of characters as the story progresses. It's almost a game for the reader to figure out who to trust and who will turn, who will live or die or flee.

When I read a book, I like to enjoy the story and be surprised when a big turn of events happens. This is a great book for someone to try and pick the truth out of the details and analyze each character as they think and act. However, I prefer to just sit back and immerse myself in this foreign world, to wait in suspense and wonder and fear and dream with the characters without trying to jump ahead and solve the mystery.

It's difficult to talk about these books without giving too much away, but I have my own quest ahead of me to continue reading Martin's incredible series, continuing with th second book A Clash of Kings. The title makes sense to me based on the last couple chapters of the first book, and I can't wait to see not only how hard these kings clash, but which kings will be doing the clashing amidst the confusion left by the bloody game of thrones.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Finally, I am getting back to my blog! The real miracle here is that I've found enough time in my elementary school teacher schedule to actually read and finish some (ok, two) books. Those two books were The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Fellowship of the Ring, also by Tolkien.

This is my second go-round with these books. At the recommendation of my dear old dad, I first read The Hobbit in sixth grade. Naturally, I continued reading the series throughout my middle school years and became borderline obsessed with the movie releases around that same time.

In November of this year, anticipating the release of the Hobbit movie, I decided to re-read the book. I ALWAYS do my best to read books before viewing their Hollywood counterparts, mostly because I like reading so much that I want to read the books anyway, also because I enjoy comparing books to their movies and a little because of the bragging rights I get from being able to say that I read the book.

It was an even better read than I remember. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for a younger audience as a prequel to his Lord of the Rings trilogy, which made it interesting with a little more humor and levity than he put into his other novels. I enjoyed traveling on the valiant yet dangerous adventures with the naive but eager Bilbo, and laughing along with the dwarfs' blunders. (Note: in his books, Tolkien purposefully writes the plural of "dwarf" as "dwarfs," not "dwarves.")

Critiquing books vs. movies can be fun, or it can be tedious. Most of the time when I watch a movie that is based on a book, I can't help but pick out all the little changes that were made. I understand that changes are necessary in the translation from a book to a movie, mostly stemming from the fact that a reader has the privilege of reading much more from the narrator's point of view that needs to be communicated differently on the big screen. When I'm deciding how much I like the movie version, I ask myself if the changes are justifiable or not. Was it a change that was necessary to take the author's beautifully written words and get the story to make sense on screen? If it makes sense, then ok. If not, get off your high-up Hollywood horse and do what the author intended.

With The Hobbit, I walked into the movie (at midnight on a school nigh, by the way) truly hoping to enjoy it. I had high hopes for the same quality I enjoyed in the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson, the director, had already won my trust with the work he did on the trilogy, and I may have been less inclined to see the movie if it were directed by someone else.

I enjoyed the movie very much. Recently, I heard people discussing their opinions on the movie's shortcomings and pitfalls, which they are completely entitled to. However, I thought the movie did a very nice job of portraying Tolkien's work based on his original novel, notes on what he wanted to rewrite (I haven't actually read these but I know Peter Jackson did and I trust that he was faithful to them) and other works by Tolkien that brought together bits and pieces of Middle Earth history that answer questions and tie up loose ends. I can't wait until all the movies are out on DVD and I can have a big movie marathon to watch th whole story, from The Hobbit part one through the final scene of The Return of the King.

My only complaints are these:
1. The actor playing Bilbo in the short scene of The Fellowship of the Ring  is different from the actor playing Bilbo in the Hobbit movie. That will be a blatant discrepancy when I have my movie marathon, but possibly fixable with Hollywood movie editing magic. Also, the way in which he finds the ring is slightly different between the two movies, and neither are 100% consistent with the the details in the book.
2. Some of the history of the dwarfs in the movie did not match up with the book story. This was probably to simplify the story for the movie-goers, and to cut down on the length of an already-long movie.
3. There was no Pale Orc pursuing Bilbo and his company (correct me if I'm wrong.) I hope that was something in Tolkien's notes that he wanted to go back and change, but I have a feeling it was the movie-makers searching for a more exciting antagonist.

Currently, I am reading The Two Towers (second book of the trilogy) and looking forward to finishing my reread of the series. It is frustrating that I still don't have the time like I used to for reading (or writing about my reading) but it's also refreshing that I have some time, and thank goodness for that.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I haven't been reading ANYTHING!

It's true. There are a few books I'd really like to be reading right now, but all my time has been taken up with my NEW JOB!! Last week I was hired as the new 5th grade teacher in Frederick County, at Green Valley Elementary. I'm so excited to be getting my classroom ready. The first year in a new room is more complicated because you have to figure out what all you need and where it will all go, the best routines and procedures for the classroom space and work the curriculum requirements into a new schedule. Despite all this, I'm actually not stressing. I'M JUST SO EXCITED! This really feels like a good place for me - the town the school, all of it. Even looking for an apartment and a barn isn't stressing me out... yet. Depending on how that goes, my level of stress is bound to fluctuate. But I know I'll survive and the right thing always falls into place with time and effort.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

I’ve been reading this summer, but not as much as I had planned on. In a way I’m disappointed about that, but in another way I’ve been doing so much else that I’ve been having a great time and can’t complain. Early in the summer I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

I remember back to high school when a friend of mine recommended this book to me. I was interested but just didn’t get to it until now. Doesn’t that just go to show that timing is everything! Not everything needs to be tackled right away.

The Lovely Bones was both captivating and slightly disturbing. It drew me in right away with the first two sentences, “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The chapter goes on to describe Susie’s ordeal from her point of view up in heaven. The rest of the story with the family’s devastation and the investigation into the culprit is also narrated by a frustrated Susie who can see all but do nothing from Heaven.

Alice Sebold took some risks in writing this book, and they paid off. Ethically, it can be difficult to write about the murder of a young girl. Although for the most part I would say this book is for ages 13+, I can see a lot of parents not wanting their children to read it because of the scary reality of the murder. It’s not described in explicit detail, but it’s detailed enough. If I read this book when I was 13 I probably would have been scared to be alone for a while.

Read this book for the reality of it, the suspense throughout the story, and the ending.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks

Love stories are not my thing. As a general rule of thumb, I tend to stay away from them in the books and movies I choose. That way, I incorporate more variety into my life and I'm not momentarily caught up in the false hope of those oh-so-perfect "happy endings" only to return to reality a day or a week later. And I'm sorry, but they're just too easy to write. 99% of the time it's a cop-out: someone wants to write a novel but they don't know what to write about, so they make up a romance. Maybe they think they're being different or more sincere by writing about their own love story, but either way it's probably the easiest web in the world to spin and there are too many of them out there.

Let's try an analogy here.
Nicholas Sparks is to love stories as Dan Brown is to quest stories.
That's all he writes. Doesn't he want to mix it up a little, give himself a bit of a challenge? I can tell you exactly what will happen in any of his books. A boy and a girl have an improbable meeting. It's love at first sight for at least one of them. They form a seemingly perfect relationship until the one big "thing" surfaces and everything falls apart. One ends up fighting for the other and finally in the end everything works out.

I should give him some credit. I enjoyed watching The Notebook and A Walk To Remember when I saw those movies. But after reading (or watching) a couple of cookie-cutter plots, you really need to move onto something else to keep your mind stimulated and entertained. Even with Jane Austen, I had to take a break from her because there was such a common thread stitched through all her stories. It's like movies on the Hallmark channel. No offense to Hallmark, because I really like working there, but I'm surprised that Sparks doesn't have an ongoing contract with them to write all the movies they air.

I am two-thirds of the way through reading The Lucky One, my first Nicholas Sparks book. The element of this story that keeps me interested is that I think he has come up with two genuinely good characters. If they were real people, I would like them. He has also invented one extremely bad character that annoys and aggravates me, and I want to see him get his piece by the end of the book.

His writing, however, does not impress me one bit. I have eighth graders who write better than he does. Hasn't he ever heard of show, don't tell? And he really should try to vary his word choice - include some "vivid verbs" and work on more of his sentence structure.

A couple of my female students really like these books. I can understand why. They are young teenagers who are captivated by the idea that true love awaits them. Admittedly, I have that dream too and I used to read more novels akin to these love stories that Sparks writes. I've just read or watched too many similar plots and "happy endings" in books or movies like this, which simply gets boring after a while. Give me a more complex plot. I want to be truly shocked by the climax of the story or a sudden twist in the events leading up to it. I want to wonder if the main characters will succeed by the end of the story, and not already know that some way or another they will end up together.

I guess this is more of a holiday read for me. It's an easy book to get through and it's not like it's a bad book. Telling the same story over and over again isn't as much bad as it is boring. With every book I read I'm expanding my horizons and familiarity with literature. I get ideas for my own writing from every book I read, whether it's something I find inspiring and may want to venture into someday, or something I find repulsive and know I want to stay away from. Nicholas Sparks isn't repulsive, but I wonder how much pride he takes in cranking out story after story like a well-oiled machine?

You may as well give The Lucky One a try. I've also had a student recommend The Choice to me, and it may be worthwhile to read The Notebook because I honestly did enjoy that movie. My advice? Read one and then switch to a couple of different books before reading another. Everything in moderation, right?