Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Review of 'The Second Coming' by Walker Percy

"Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so strange and severe that he decides he doesn't want to continue living.  But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living along in a greenhouse.  What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more."

This was one of my favorites that we read in Philosophic Themes in Literature class.  Once more, we are dealing with attitudes towards life, but if you've read The Plague and/or Nausea, this view of the world is somewhere in between.  We are randomly given life and we're pretty insignificant, but that doesn't mean that we can't matter or make others feel like they matter to us.  It's a nice happy-medium view of the world and that makes me feel very comfortable.

As my class and I read this, we all agreed that Ally's chapters were better than Will's.  Not that we could relate directly to her, but we were right there with her as she rediscovers the world around her after experiencing several rounds of electroshock therapy.  It was also really nice because she lived so simply, getting only the necessities (food, water, heat), and simply joys to pass the time when needed (books).  I loved reading about this, especially since Will was busy surrounding himself with things that he thought he needed and they didn't even turn out to be needs of his, much less wants.

For class, we also read articles about Walker Percy and I found the writing that appears in his novels to be much more accessible than those articles.  Reading books and learning lessons is a lot easier when reading about them in novel form rather than in article form.

I definitely want to try reading more Walker Percy novels.

I give 'The Second Coming':
Thanks for Reading!


A Review of 'The Colossus and Other Poems' by Sylvia Plath

"With this startling, exhilarating book of poems, which was first published in 1960, Sylvia Plath burst into literature with spectacular force.  In such classics as 'The Beekeeper's Daughter,' 'The Disquieting Muses,' 'I Want, I Want,' and 'Full Fathom Five,' she writes about sows and skeletons, fathers and suicides, about the noisy imperatives of life and the chilly hunger for death.  Graceful in their craftsmanship, wonderfully original in their imagery, and presenting layer after layer of meaning, the forty poems in The Colossus are early artifacts of genius that still possess the power to move, delight, and shock."

I'm not the greatest when it comes to reading or even understanding poetry, but I know that I love Sylvia Plath (or what I've read of her work so far) and so I decided to give her poetry a try.

I found that it was best to read Sylvia's work in chunks as opposed to one sitting.  I felt like I could put in a decent effort to gain meaning for myself and also try and figure out what the words she used meant for her own life if I waited between a handful of poems.  I would definitely recommend this approach.

The image that best sticks with me is the heart beat, I Am, I Am, I am as well as the tips of waves looking like knives.  I don't know how she does it (well, how she did it) but the images she evokes are just so striking and you can't help but be taken in by what Sylvia is saying.

Someday I'll have to go through this book of poems again.  I'd like to get a physical copy of my own so that I can write in it.  This time, I was using my Nook (e-reader) and I was highlighting and typing in notes, but it's just not the same.  I'll try books with my e-reader, but ultimately, I'd like them in my hand, if they're good.

I give 'The Colossus':
Thanks for Reading!


A Review of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus

"A gripping tale of human unrelieved horror, of survival and resilience, and of the ways in which humankind confronts death, The Plague is at once a masterfully crafted novel, eloquently understated and epic in scope, and a parable of ageless moral resonance, profoundly relevant to our times.  In Oran, a coastal town in North African, the plague begins as a series of portents, unheeded by the people.  It gradually becomes a omnipresent reality, obliterating all traces of the past and driving its victims to almost unearthly extremes of suffering, madness, and compassion."

This was one of the books that I had to read for my Philosophy of Literature class this semester.  Incidentally, I wrote a paper about one of the characters, Tarrou.  Just thought I'd mention that.  I'm just very happy with the paper that I cranked out (Note from after the fact: I got a B+ on that paper).

Two things that we talk about a lot in philosophy are Death and Suffering.  This book is chock full of each of these things.

Oran is a fairly average town filled with people going about their business and normal routines.  Suddenly hundreds of thousands of rats start dropping dead for seemingly no reason.  Then it spreads to the people of the town and they start dying in a similar fashion.  This is a novel all about facing hardship and figuring out what makes life worth living, despite the hardships that befall us.

Even though this is a book about suffering, I adore the relatively positive philosophy that comes out of this novel: we're all going to die, so find meaning in where you are and live your life while you can.  This is a message I find a lot more appealing for the New Year, as bleak of a reminder as this is.  But maybe that's just the kick in the pants that some of us need to get out there and actually DO the things that we resolve to do every New Year.

This book takes a while to get into, but once you're in, you're not going to want to let go.

I give 'The Plague':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, December 30, 2013

A Review of 'Nausea' by Jean-Paul Sartre

"Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, critic, novelist and dramatist, holds a position of singular eminence in the world of French letters.  Among readers and critics familiar with the whole of Sartre's work, it is generally recognized that his earliest novel, La Nausee (first published in 1938), is his finest and most significant.  It is unquestionably a key novel of the Twentieth Century and a landmark in Existentialist fiction.

Nausea is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence.  In impressionistic, diary form he ruthlessly catalogues his every feeling of nausea which 'spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time-- the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.'  Roquentin's efforts to come to terms with life, his philosophical and psychological struggles, give Sartre the opportunity to dramatize the tenets of his Existentialist creed."

This is one of the books that I read for my Philosophic Themes in Literature class.  Because this is a philosophy class, we talk a lot about life and death.  Boy were these big themes...

I have to say, this is a pretty exhausting book.  It feels like Roquentin does a lot of whining and lamenting about the world, how our lives are just a random happenstance and we have no hope of truly mattering in this world.  How's that for an uplifting take-away as we come into the New Year?

The good news is that this is only a perspective and not necessarily a universal truth.

Even though this was an exhausting read, I did find that I liked reading this book.  I think it was the imagery and the way the main character, Roquentin, made relate-able observances.  For example, when his ex-girlfriend tried to create perfect moments and then those moments felt bad and incomplete.  Another time was that frustrating moment when we realize that perfection isn't possible for us, even though we want it so badly and shoot for it so often.

I would recommend that if you're interested in reading this book that you're prepared for a dense read.  It's good, but you'll more than likely need time to sit with it afterwards.

I give 'Nausea':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Review of 'Austenland' by Shannon Hale

"Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man-- perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  But when a wealthy relative bequeaths to her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, Jane's fantasies become more real than she ever could have imagined.  Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?  

In this addictive, charming, and compassionate story, Shannon Hale brings out the Jane Austen obsessive in all of us."

This is one of the books that I had to read for my Pride and Prejudice-themed Lit Theory class last semester.  It was a good fit with the class's theme, but it definitely wasn't on the same level as some of the books we were reading.

After reading the original Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, it was really hard to like most of the spin-offs of the book.  Austenland was no exception.  What frustrated my class and I the most was that it was a very shallow book to read.  If you aimed to dig beneath the surface, you didn't have far to go before hitting the core of the book.  This made it really hard to write even a one-page reflection on the book, much less even consider writing our 10-12 page research papers on the book.

While this may not have been a good book to use for a course intended for those entering the English major/minor, this is, however, a light enough read that one might want to take it on vacation with them.  If you're looking to finish a book, not be challenged too much, and enjoy a little Darcy-ness without actually reading Pride and Prejudice, this could be the book for you.

I do like the idea of having a place like Pembrook Park to visit, but it's strange to me that guests would stay there for weeks at a time indulging in this Jane Austen experience.  I'd definitely like to visit for a day or two, however.  Since this is an experience that I don't especially care to have myself, it's nice to read about this experience through Jane, an extreme Pride and Prejudice nut and one who is completely addicted to Darcy (I don't really understand the attraction, personally, but I also wrote an 11-12 page research paper about why Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are a coupling that doesn't work).

One thing that bothered me was how every loose end about the book was tied up at the end.  I finished and I just had this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Some of the loose ends were just too perfectly tied-up, it felt like.  For example, when Henry (Mr. Nobley) comes onto the plane and when Jane asks him why he was speaking as perfectly as he did back in Austenland, he explains that he was hired because he was similar to his character in real life.  What?  No one speaks that way any more.  Even when he allows contractions in his speech, it's still so formal and forced and completely out of Austenland.  I don't blame Jane for not trusting him.  I would have left him at the airport upon landing in New York.  But instead of saying no as she originally said before getting on the plane (by the way, how is Mr. Nobley able to buy a plane ticket on the exact flight minutes before take-off?  It's uncanny), she accepts him and starts a relationship with him.  Grr... for once, I need a version of Pride and Prejudice to end with the lady character saying no and leaving it at that.  I want her to discover her own worth and be okay with that.  A partner will find their way into her life one way or another and then she will be ready for them.  Someone please write that Jane Austen fan fiction, if they haven't already... I don't need another sad and pathetic female character.

This was a nice book to finish up while I'm here on break with no homework to speak of, but I don't think that I'll be reading it again any time soon.

I give Austenland:
Thanks for Reading!


Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Review of 'Tuesdays With Morrie' by Mitch Albom

"Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher, or a colleague.  Someone older, patient, and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, helped you see the world as a more profound place, gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it.

For Mitch Albom, that person was Morrie Schwartz, his college professor from nearly twenty years ago.

Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded, and the world seemed colder.  Wouldn't you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you, receive wisdom for your busy life today the way you once did when you were younger?

Mitch Albom had that second chance.  He rediscovered Morrie in the last few months of the older man's life.  Knowing he was dying, Morrie visited with Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college.  Their rekindled relationship turned into one final "class": lessons in how to live.

Tuesdays With Morrie is a magical chronicle of their time together, through which Mitch shares Morrie's lasting gift with the world."

This is quite a heavy read, especially considering the time of year that it is.  Then again, given Morrie's dying message to the world, perhaps this is something that we need to hear soon, regardless of the weather outside  and regardless of whether or not we're spending time with family.  It's never too late to try and get your life back in order.  I have family that have already made New Year's resolutions and they have started already since that is what works for their lifestyle.  They've rejected our cultural norm of making a change on January first.  Really, life does not begin anew on January first.  It only continues.

I have had this book sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust for years now.  I don't really know what possessed me to pick it up this time when I came home, but I'm glad I did.  I read a lot of books about death, but never has anyone been so straightforward about what death is like-- the mental process before death, for example: learning to forgive others, learning to love yourself, finding a purpose that makes you know that life is worth living.  It seems so simple when you're given these answers in book form, but I don't think it could be a harder mission, especially if you feel that you've lost track of yourself somewhere along the way as you went away to college, tried to find a job, attempted to see the world, if you decide to marry someone someday, etc.  All of these things, and others too, are beautiful and wonderful things to do in your life, but you need to do them for the right reasons and sometimes with your own interests in mind.

I'm incredibly happy to have been introduced to such an incredible person as Morrie.  Thank you, Mitch Albom.  Most other readers couldn't have hoped to know him on such an intimate level if it hadn't been for you.  Not even the television networks could give us such a glimpse into Morrie's life.  But that's a matter of personal opinion, I suppose.

This is a book that everyone should read no matter where you are in your walk of life and no matter your religious or cultural background, since we all have the same beginning and the same ending: birth to death.  It's never too late to start thinking about the rest of your life and how you perceive it.  Why not start now?

If you want a book that sticks with you, look no further.

I give 'Tuesdays with Morrie':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Review of 'Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language' by Deborah Fallows

"Deborah Fallows has spent much of her life learning languages and traveling around the world.  But nothing prepared her for the surprises involved in learning Mandarin, China's most common language, or in the intensity of living in Shanghai and Beijing.  Over time, she realized that her struggles and triumphs in studying the language of her adopted home provided small clues to deciphering the behavior and habits of its people and conundrums of its culture.  As her skill with Mandarin increased, bits of the language-- a word, a phrase, an oddity of grammar-- became windows into understanding romance, humor, protocol, relationships, and the overflowing humanity of modern China.

In Dreaming in Chinese, Fallows unravels Chinese culture by explaining the intricacies and subtleties of Mandarin, devoting each of her fourteen chapters to a particular linguistic quirk, interwoven into these explanations are wonderful stories of her encounters with everyday life in China-- real, often funny, and always very human.  Fallows learned, for example, that in China, an abrupt, blunt way of speaking is a way to honor the closeness between two friends-- she found that by adhering to an English speaker's standards of politeness, she was actually being rude!  And when Fallows tried to order fast food, she realized that her own difficulty in articulating tones-- the variations in inflection that can change a word's meaning-- was matched by Chinese speakers' inability to understand the meaning of a phrase when foreigners mangle them.

In sharing what she discovered about Mandarin, and how those discoveries helped her understand a culture that had at first seemed impenetrable, Deborah Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese opens up the China of the laobaixing (lau-by-shing) (everyday people) to Western readers in surprising new ways."

I haven't really thought about visiting China, much less living in the country, but after reading Dreaming in Chinese, I'm more interested in visiting now.  I don't think that I will ever become fluent in Mandarin, but it's just fascinating to read about the nuances of the language from the perspective of an American learning Mandarin.  As a linguist, Deborah Fallows interviews native speakers and works hard to get to the bottom of her own language blunders so that she can learn from them and share them with readers like us.

This is a good introduction to Mandarin and some of Chinese culture (because they're interconnected).  Because of Ms. Fallow's book, I'm looking forward to reading more books about China and other countries around it, if I can.

I feel like I don't have a lot to say.  This is a memoir, so you can't critique what she's writing about, because that is what she is feeling, experiencing, and seeing.  Fallows writes clearly and everything she has to say is quite interesting.  You will not regret picking up this book, especially since it's a fairly quick read (I read it in two days, but I bet it could be done in less time, if you were determined).

I give Dreaming in Chinese:
Thanks for Reading!  I'll hopefully be flooding this page with book reviews to catch up and some other posts as well in the next couple weeks.


Monday, December 2, 2013

A Review of 'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga (Audio Book)

"Balram Halwai is a complicated man.  Servant.  Philosopher.  Entrepreneur.  Murderer.  Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life-- having nothing but his own wits to help him along.  And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem-- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international sensation-- and a startling, provocative debut."

I read this book for my World Englishes class.  When we read this, we were talking about Indian English, since my professor lived there for many years and still chaperones trips to India over January Term.  I had a physical copy of the book, but I found that I needed to find a different way to get the book when I was at a point a little over halfway and I realized that someone had cut out 10-15 pages of the book.  Unacceptable, Amazon.  Next time, I'll check to make sure the books I order through Amazon aren't like that.  The book isn't use-able to anyone at this point.  It must be recycled.  Or turned into an art project.  I like the art project idea better...

And now I turn my attention to the book itself.

I do believe that listening to White Tiger as opposed to merely reading it is a much richer experience.  The narrator speaks with an Indian accent that really helps place you in the setting of the story.  It was especially helpful for me because in class, we were specifically talking about the different between the English that we tend to speak here in the Northern United States compared to how they tend to speak English in India.  It was also helpful because part of what Balram (the main character) talked about was where and how he learned English-- it wasn't really in school and it certainly wasn't with his family).

There are major themes of colonialism in this book and that's another thing that we talk about A LOT in World Englishes class.  British colonists came into countries like India, set up their own government and just left, leaving the Indian people to pick up the pieces and put everything back together.  It's a disastrous situation and India isn't the only country to be affected by such colonialism.

The only bad thing about this book is that it takes time for it to grow on you.  In the beginning, it was difficult to get into the book because of how I imagine Balram sounding (condescending, too smooth for his own good).  But as I kept reading, the story picked up and I became more interested.

This is a very interesting read and a good way to become acquainted with Indian culture.  I don't think that this will be the last book I will read that is set in India, especially now that I have some background information now.

I give 'The White Tiger':
Thanks for Reading!