8.27.2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is a novel all high school students should read. It was published in 1999, but it focuses on Charlie, a high school freshman from 1991-1992. It was written in letters to an anonymous "friend", and strangely the first letter was written August 25th, 1991. I read the book almost exactly twenty years after it takes place. The book addresses everything that goes on in a teenager's life and more; drugs, alcohol, friends, awkwardness, siblings, family, etc. It is a coming-of-age novel in one sense, but in another it is about the life of a wallflower, Charlie, someone who's there and observes and sees things that others don't. As Charlie is described in the book, "You see things.  You keep quiet about them.  And you understand." On the jacket of the book, Perks is described as "This is the story of what it's like to grow up in high school.  More intimate than a diary, Charlie's letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating." And I could not agree more. I felt like I was a part of the story, and I could not stop reading (to be honest, it took me one morning to read this 213 page novel). It reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger in the fact that both Charlie and Holden are completely honest with the reader in their thoughts and feelings and whatnot. Chbosky has said that Salinger's novel is an inspiration for him. It was made into a movie, which is now in post-production. It stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, Emma Watson as Sam, Nina Dobrev as Charlie's sister, Paul Rudd as Bill and Ezra Miller as Patrick. I cannot wait until it comes out in theaters! I would not only recommend this book to high schoolers (even though that is the targeted reading age) but to everyone. It was amazing, and it was one of those books after you finish reading it where you just sit there and think. Charlie has this one line towards the beginning of the book, "I feel infinite." It think that line just really deeply resonated with me, as I'm sure it does with every other teenager. Rating: ★★★★★

8.20.2011

Island Beneath the Sea

The story of Tété, born into slavery in the 1760s on the island Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), and the story Toulouse Valmorian, a French plantation owner who arrives in Saint-Domingue in the 1770s, run parallel and inter lap and weave together over 40 years in this unbelievable novel. Allende's historical novel has all the workings of a full-fledged saga. Tété's story is heartbreaking, and she is "determined to find love amid loss and forge her own identity in the cruelest of circumstances." However, this book is not all about love and soul-searching; at its core, it is about the harsh realities of slavery. Her novel is "intensely personal and contextually personal." I loved reading about the Haitian revolution from a different point of view than my textbook's. It was the first and only truly successful slave revolt in the new world, led by Toussaint L'Overture. Towards the end of the novel, it becomes not only a story about the Haitian people, but about blacks in America. This was a quick and easy read, and it must have taken me two days, at most, to finish. A really interesting note - the book was originally written in Spanish (the author is Peruvian) but later translated into English. I recommend this for a multitude of reasons but essentially it is a perfect easy read for the end of the summer! Rating: ★★★★★

8.17.2011

Unaccustomed Earth & Interpreter of Maladies

Two novels by Jhumpa Lahiri that focus on Indian-American families. They are both composed of short stories that focus on family; with many topics from marital difficulties, children, cultural differences, arranged marriages. They are so good. The stories are so perfect; in total there are 17 stories and each is as good as the one before it. Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 and Unaccustomed Earth: Stories was the New York Times' Book Review best book of the year in 2008. Obviously, these two books are both highly acclaimed works of fiction. I think it is because of the way Lahiri emotionally gets her point across in a story in such a short period of time. What takes full-length novels at least a quarter of the book to get the reader attached to the protagonist, it takes Lahiri two or three pages. Which I think is incredible, and hope to emulate in my own short story writing. Both Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth highlight the difficulties many first generation immigrants have, bridging the cultural gap between America and India. "Lahiri's stories show the diasporic struggle to keep hold of culture as characters create new lives in foreign cultures." (source) Lahiri also wrote a full-length novel, The Namesake, which is the same storyline as her short stories (Bengali immigrants in America) but expanded. It was just as good as her short stories, and like her short stories, examines first-generation Indian-Americans and their struggles combining their parents' way of life with their peers. It was made into a movie, which I have not seen yet. Interpreter and Earth are two very moving collections of short stories, and I highly recommend going to read one, or both, as soon as you get the chance! Rating: ★★★★★

8.16.2011

This Is Where I Leave You

The book begins with the death of the father of Judd Foxman, the narrator. Judd is called back to his family home to sit shiva, a week-long grieving period by Jews. Judd's family is comically dysfunctional.  As the Amazon description writes, "As the week quickly spins out of control, longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed, and old passions reawakened. For Judd, it's a weeklong attempt to make sense of the mess his life has become while trying in vain not to get sucked into the regressive battles of his madly dysfunctional family." To be honest, I did not like Tropper's novel. Yes, the story was interesting, but it felt very un-original. No, I have never read a book about a family sitting shiva, but in reading it, I felt like I had read it before. As the NYT book review, Eyes May be Moist, but the Jokes are Dry, puts it, "wild yet all-too-plausibly rendered friends, siblings and other relations." It was funny at some parts, definitely (the rabbi's back story and the family's nickname for him is quite hilarious) but at other times it was just Judd wallowing in his misery, mad at his life. Judd is glum and mopey, and his snarky comments get old after a while. I wouldn't suggest reading this unless you are a fan of Tropper's other works (The Book of Joe, Everything Changes, Plan B) all of which I have not had the opportunity to read yet. Rating: ★★★

The Forgotten Garden

The quest to find one's true identity is a tired and true story, yet Kate Morton magnificently delivers the story of Nell. Nell was abandoned on a ship to Australia in 1913, and arrives alone with nothing but clothes and a volume of fairy tales. When she turns 21, the dockmaster who took her in tells her the truth and "with her shattered sense of self" she sets out to find who she is. Nell never achieves finding out who she is, but her granddaughter, Cassandra continues the quest. Interwoven through the novel are the accounts of Nell, Cassandra, Rose, and Eliza (Rose and Eliza relate to Nell's past - but I can't tell you how!!) When Nell finds out she's adopted, she says to the reader "His [Her adoptive father's] words had tossed the book that was her life into the air and the pages had been blown into disarray, could never be put back together to tell the same story." Morton's story is one big and very complex fairy tale, with no happy ending. Within the fairy tale is a mystery that keeps the reader engaged and speculating on the ending. The author gives the reader clues in small bits, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what was going to happen. The ending leaves you satisfied but sad that Nell never got to find out who she really was. Rating: ★★★★★

8.15.2011

The Magicians

You know a book is going to be good when it starts out with a map of a far away land. Critically acclaimed, and a new york times bestseller, the Magicians by Lev Grossman is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who is "unexpectedly admitted into an elite, secret college of magic."As George R.R. Martin (author of the A Game of Thrones series (which I'm currently reading!! and will post about at a later date)) wrote about Grossman's novel "These days any novel about young sorcerers at wizard school inevitably invites comparison to Harry Potter...The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. Solidly rooted in the traditions of both fantasy and mainstream literary fiction, the novel tips its hat to Oz and Narnia as well to Harry, but don't mistake this for a children's book. Grossman's sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwarts was never like this." I couldn't agree more. However much I love love love the Harry Potter series, this is a more mature and realistic book. The sequel, The Magician King, actually came out a mere six days ago (I'm awaiting my copy). I think I've read this book at least twice, if not three times, because it's just so good! Rating: ★★★★★

Young Adult Books

A few months ago, I compiled a post of Children's Books highlighting my top eight children's novels. Now, I decided to do the same for Young Adult books (but there are seven on this list). (Harry Potter will be excluded from this list, as it was not put on the Children's list - a harry potter appreciation post will come in the near future!) (*note - boys might not like 3 - 7 because they're aimed at girl readers)

1) The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. A great dystopian trilogy  about America in the future where two tributes are sent from 12 districts to fight to the death. The last tribute standing receives a grand prize for his or her district. It is narrated by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. If you haven't read these yet, GO READ!

2) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - narrated by Death, "This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul." It is the story of Liesel, a foster girl living outside of Munich who finds a desire for books. "It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery..."

3) Sold by Patricia McCormick - about Lakshmi, a 13-year-old girl who is sold into prostitution by her stepfather. Written entirely in vignettes, her story is one that you will never forget. Although fiction, prostitution in India is a huge problem; the Human Rights Watch says there are approximatley 15 million prostitutes in India (source)

4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A classic coming-of-age tale about a young girl from an Irish-American family growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. A true American classic, there isn't much to describe about this - it's a story of family, perseverance, growing up, and life.

Nine Parts of Desire

Geraldine Brooks, who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, lived, worked, and traveled in the Middle East for six years, writes this book about Muslim women. As the book is described on the back, "Nine Parts of Desire is much more than a captivating work of firsthand reportage; it is also an acute analysis of the world’s fastest-growing religion, deftly illustrating how Islam’s holiest texts have been misused to justify the repression of women." Brooks writes from her personal experience, combining anecdotal stories with the past and present, all weaving together perfectly. Mostly, I stay away from non-fiction because of how boring I usually find non-fiction books. But this book was different; it was interesting and a captivating read. As the NYT Book Review says, "[Brooks] avoids both the sensational and the stereotypical...a valid, entertaining account of women in the Muslim world." She writes about a range of topics - from the Prophet Muhammad's wives to jihad to Queen Noor to clitoridectomy. Muslim women, she argues, are blamed for everything by Muslim men. The title of her book is from a quote by Ali ibn Abu Taleb (husband of Fatima, Muhammad's daughter, and founder of the Shiite sect of Islam) - "Allah created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." While this book may seem very religious, it is more of a study of women than of Islam - it's a study of how women are oppressed because of interpretations of the Koran. Rating: ★★★★

8.14.2011

Letters To A Young Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens writes this masterful book to the reader ("Dear X") about inspiring new generations of contrarians (one who opposes or rejects popular opinion; going against current practice. As the back of the book says, "There is no one writing today with a greater understanding of the importance of disagreement - to personal integrity, to informed discussion, to true progress, to democracy itself." As I began reading, I immediately began to like Hitchens. The way he addresses the reader, his ideas, and simply is writing. For example, Hitchens writes that we don't aspire to any paradise (or in his words, "hazy, narcotic Nirvana) because human nature, critical and ironic, would become useless. Hitchens writes, "Imagine a state of endless praise and gratitude and adoration...and you have conjured a world of hellish nullity and conformism. Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch." (24-25) I love this quote for two reasons - one, for its mention of Brave New World and two, for the pure logic and simplicity in which he completely destroys the basis of every religion since Hinduism (founded 3000 BCE). Hitchens was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 25 most influental liberals in the U.S. media but said because " he styles himself a 'radical,' will likely be aghast to find himself on this list." (source, Forbes) As I was reading Letters to a Young Contrarian, I kept a running list of terms, events, people, quotes that he mentions that I wanted to look further into or found interesting. One quote that stuck with me - "The truth cannot lie, but if it could it would lie somewhere in between." Also, a warning, his vocabulary is extremley sophisticated - so much so I had to pause after every page to look up words. Some interesting words I learned (see how many you know!)- euphony, anomie, propitious, chiaroscuro, fatuous, ashram, thralldom, unfettered, salient, agnosticism, turgid, cretinous, and repartee. I am currently attempting to get through his memoir, Hitch-22, but I literally cannot read more than five pages at a time without my brain exploding. In conclusion, read this if you want an intellectually stimulating novel. At only 141 pages, it seems small, but it is so jam-packed with information that you need to read it 10x slower than your normal pace. The only critique I would have of this book is that you legitimately need to sit with a computer at the ready to be able to look up all of his references and fancy vocabulary! Rating: ★★★★

The Handmaid's Tale

A dystopian novel set in the futuristic Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid's Tale is a disturbingly possible future where women have no control over their lives. Margaret Atwood, as amazon.com describes the novel, "[It] has endured not only as a literary landmark but as a warning of a possible future that is still chillingly relevant" (Similar to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World [see my post about it here] or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four). The story is told by Offred ("of Fred"- her name is assigned to her, after the Commander (Fred) she serves), a Handmaid who's role in the community is to "lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant" and then deliver a child to be raised by his "morally fit" wife. That is how society works in Gilead - every woman has a role in which they cannot deviate from. Gilead was founded on a far-right wing view of the world; its leaders are racist and male chauvinistic and they turn America into a theocracy. Women are forbidden to read, and signs have become pictures. As the book is described on its inside cover, "In the world of the near future the Handmaid's only purpose is to produce a child..." However dark and gloomy this book sounds (like 1984), it is a gripping read. The terms and what is going on is often hard to comprehend in the beginning, because the reader is not used to this new society. Just as paranoia was omnipresent in 1984, the paranoia in Atwood's novel is widespread - no one wants to be arrested by the "Eyes" (similar to Orwell's "Thought Police"). The name of the Republic, Gilead, is thought to be a Biblical reference to the Book of Genesis, in the story of how Rachel and Leah compete in "bearing sons for their husband by using handmaids and taking immediate possession of the children they produce. In the context of Atwood's book, the story is one of female competition, jealousy, and reproductive cruelty." (source, Wikipedia). Rating: ★★★★

8.06.2011

Day After Night

After the tragedy of the Holocaust, many Jews went to Israel, but were soon forced into British illegal immigrant camps. Anita Diamant writes a story telling of Atlit detainee camp through the eyes of four women; Shayndel (a Polish Zionist), Leonie (a Parisian Jew), Tedi (a Dutch Jew who was hidden during the war), and Zorah (a Polish concentration camp survivor). It first starts off confusing as you figure out how the women are connected - but once you figure out all their back stories and what is going on, the novel becomes extremley addictive in finding out what will happen to Shayndel, Leonie, Tedi, and Zorah. While this novel is fiction, Diamant based it on a true story of the October 1945 breakout at Atlit. She says about the back stories of her characters and why it was so important to them to keep their stories secret, "There was a great deal of silence and secrecy about the horrors of the Holocaust after the war. There was a world filled with guilt; survivors who felt they didn't deserve to be alive when their loved ones had died." I recommend this novel not only because of the stories of these women, but because of the inspiration they instill. Rating: ★★★★★
Kindle Day After Night