Monday, January 27, 2014

A Review of 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' by Brian Selznick

"Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity.  But when his world suddenly interlocks-- like the gears of the clocks he keeps-- with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the train station, Hugo's undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy.  A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo's dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience.  Here is a stunning, cinematic tour de force from a boldly innovative storyteller, artist, and bookmaker."

I've been eyeing this book for quite some time, but the size sort of intimidated me for a while.  Since I'm currently a full-time student, I kept thinking, "When am I ever going to get the time to read this whole thing?"  Fear not, the size of this book is incredibly deceiving.  I sat down and read this book in about three hours-- all 530ish pages of it.

Hugo Cabret is not what I thought it was going to be.  About half of this book is made up of illustrations.  Not only are they absolutely beautiful, but they function differently than the illustrations in your average graphic novel.  Whereas graphic novels like V For Vendetta and Watchmen work hand-in-hand supporting each other to tell the story through the dialogue and limited narration, the illustrations in this book put the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" into action literally, moving the story forward without saying anything.  In between pictures, the book reads like the average novel with paragraphs complete with dialogue, narration, and filler phrases such as "...said Isabelle."  On top of that, the whole experience is like a silent film.  You have pictures but then the "film" cuts to frames with words of dialogue and description.  To top it off, the edges of all the pages are black and the end of the book ends with a fade-out.  This is so cool and completely different to me!  I prefer this experience to my other graphic novel experiences (so far).

I love the setting: Paris in the 1930s.  The pictures make me nostalgic for the city.  I kept thinking, did I enter Paris through Hugo's train station?  Did I pass through that Metro station?  If you've traveled to Paris, you'll want to go back, and if you haven't been there, you'll definitely want to go there by the end of this book, story aside.

I was also surprised that this is historical fiction.  Georges in this book was a real filmmaker, even if Hugo wasn't a real character.  He created automatons and one of them was found in the attic of a museum, damaged by a fire that had occurred.  I didn't see that one coming, that's for sure.

My understanding is that this is another book for younger readers-- I originally found a copy in the fifth grade classroom I volunteer in, so that's what makes me think this.  One more book for younger readers under my belt!  But this is also a book that older audiences will also enjoy.  I certainly enjoyed it.

I give The Invention of Hugo Cabret:
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, January 20, 2014

A Review of 'Holes' by Louis Sachar

"Stanley Yelnats is under a curse.  A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats.  Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys' detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep.  There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  But there are an awful lot of holes.

It doesn't take long for Stanley to realize there's more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake.  The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something.  But what could be buried under a dried-up lake?  Stanley tried to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment-- and redemption."

I had only ever seen the movie (about a billion times) before reading Holes that I was sick to death of this story.  I thought that I knew everything about it, but I stand corrected.  One again, the book proves to be better than the film adaptation.

Compared to Stanley in the movie (played by Shia LaBeouf), I liked book Stanley a lot better.  In the movie, Stanley was insecure, but in the book, Stanley was more insecure.  He was overweight, his family wasn't very financially well-off, and no one at school bothered to be friends with him.  He was clearly in a dark place, which, according to my memory of the movie, Stanley was just awkward with no friends.

Zero was my favorite character in the movie and I liked him better than the Zero in the book.  Maybe it's because we hear from Zero more often in the movie.  You know that he's not a dumb stump.  You can see that he's thinking whereas he's incredibly quiet in the book (no surprise) but he doesn't look like he has anything going on in his head.  This is according to Stanley's perspective, of course, but I'd still like Zero to have more credit than he gets.

I really liked that there are three story lines going on here-- one with Stanley at Camp Green Lake, one with Kate Barlow and Sam, and another with Stanley's distant relative and Madame Zeroni.  The only issue that I had with Kate and Sam's story was that I was really confused about when this was occurring.  One of the people Kate knew (and hated) had a boat with a motor on it, but it sounds like coaches were still used to get around as well as carts pulled by animals.  Maybe this was a western area turning to technology, or this town was not up to speed with the technology used in other towns, but there wasn't really an indication of any of these things... I wish that I had been given more information.

This year, while this isn't a goal of mine indicated on the challenges post I made at the beginning of this year, I want to read more books intended for middle school readers.  I'd consider this to be a middle school book.  It's possible that in my future, I will teach at the middle school level and I want to prepare myself for anything.  I'm excited for this!

If you're looking for a relatively quick and engaging read, Holes would be a good choice.

I give Holes:
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, January 13, 2014

A Review of 'A Year in the Merde' by Stephen Clarke

"An urban antidote to A Year in Provence, Stephen Clarke's book is a laugh-out-loud account of a year in the life of an expat in Paris-- for Francophiles and Francophobes alike.

A Year in the Merde tells the story of Paul West, a twenty-seven-year-old Brit brought to Paris by a French company to open a chain of British 'tea rooms.'  Soon enough, he finds himself juggling a group of grumbling French employees, a treacherous Parisian boss, and a succession of lusty girlfriends (one of whom happens to be the boss's morally challenged daughter).  He soon becomes immersed in the contradictions of French culture: the French are not all cheese-eating surrender monkeys, though they do eat a lot of smelly cheese, and they are still in shock at having been stupid enough to sell Louisiana, thus losing the chance to make French the global language.  the book also reveals the secrets of how to get the best out of the grumpiest Parisian waiter, how to survive a French business meeting, and how not to buy a house in the French countryside.

This book is for everyone who can never quite decide whether they love-- or love to hate-- the French."

I had serious issues with the narrator of this book... the way he treated and talked about women was despicable and a little distracting from the rest of the book.

Hello everyone, and welcome to my rant.  Your regularly scheduled book review will continue after these angsty words.

Maybe it's my ignorance at play and this is how a lot of Englishman are, but it took this narrator the entire book to begin making proper connections with women.  Not just physical connections made by spending the night and having sex (not making love), but an actual "let's be friends" connection.  I would cringe and feel my blood boil a little more when he'd look at a woman on the street and think about what she would look like in lingerie or about how much of a "love machine" he was and how he'd blow her mind in the bedroom.  I know that Paris is the city of love, but does this fact really illicit the number of sex references and jokes that it does?  The narrator is pathetic...  He wonders why he has trouble getting women to stick with him.  He's not very nice to them.  It very much feels like all he wants is sex.  Not only that, but there are only a few things that seem to occupy his mind: sex, tea rooms (his job), and hating France.  It's exhausting when the entire book is taken up by these three things.  He constantly tries to woo the women around him, he's in Paris for business reasons, but doesn't seem to appreciate the fact that he is living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  He is constantly comparing England to France and it feels like he doesn't give the country a chance.

Even though I hate the narrator with a fire-y passion, there are still one or two things that I did like about this book.  I really loved mentally revisiting the places that I saw two years ago-- the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare and Company... this book desperately makes me want to visit each of these places again.  Hopefully I will in under a year.

Another thing that I liked was how many French words and phrases were included this book.  I got to bask in my French-snobbiness and pronounce the words as I've learned how and even get a little giddy over the fact that I could still understand most of the French words used (a few were new).  This really added to the atmosphere of the book, making you feel like you were in Paris.  French is such a beautiful language...

I also appreciate the transition that the narrator had when he returned to England and realized that he didn't feel like he really belonged in England anymore, that he had taken on so many French characteristics that there was almost no going back for him.  That's when everything clicked and everything seemed to make sense in his life, even if he was in a low place.

Despite the narrator, I really enjoyed the book.  I give 'A Year in the Merde':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, January 6, 2014

A Review of 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett

"Three ordinary women are about to take on extraordinary step...

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss.  She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger.  Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child.  Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way.  She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi.  She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job.  Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation.  But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk.  And why?  Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times.  And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women-- mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends-- view one another.  A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't."

I'm inspired to read more about the Southern U.S. during the Civil Rights movement.  This is an amazing book, but it has only whet my appetite.

No character is like the other.  They each have their own individual voices.  They are charming, they are strong, smart women.  They each have skills that another character doesn't have.  Aibileen is one of the help that is more nurturing to the white children of the house than anyone else.  Minny is an amazing cook-- no one tops her pies and cakes!  But she also has an awful mouth on her sometimes...  Of the society ladies, Hilly Holbrook is the powerhouse of the group, telling everyone what to do (including firing maids that she didn't hire and getting husbands to fire family members of their maids) and still managing to keep up a somewhat high-class and genteel facade.  That's what scares me.  She's a bomb waiting to go off.  Elizabeth never knows what to do-- she doesn't know how to connect with or take care of her children, she doesn't know

It was really great to read about sort of the other side of what was going on during this time.  There are mentions of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, sit-ins, Kennedy's assassination, but these events aren't the center of the book.  Kathryn Stockett is more focused on the interactions between the Help and the society ladies they work for.  It was wonderful to hear positive stories.  Some of the ladies were generous enough to help the maids send their children to college, help them get a car, and some just made a connection with the children or the society ladies that some couldn't make.  But of course there are issues that this part of the time period dealt with.  Unfair pay, the fear of losing a job forever if they screw up and tick off the lady they work for enough, the fear of not being able to take care of the family for the reason mentioned before... there is this fear, and that's the scariest part of this time.  No one knows what the "other side" is capable of.  The maids have more power than they think they do but the society ladies have too much power and they know how to effectively use it, especially if you're Hilly Holbrook.

This book gives a really powerful insight into what life was like for those who lived during the Civil Rights movement, whether they were black or white.  I really appreciate that the book emphasizes that there is an imaginary difference between everyone.  There are lines that we draw for ourselves, but they only exist as long as we tell them they exist.

This is a book I would love to teach someday.

I give 'The Help':
Thanks for Reading!  Happy New Year!


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading, Blogging, and Life Goals for 2014!

Well folks, we have made it to 2014.  This means that there are more resolutions to be made and goals to be accomplished!  I thought I'd list my goals for my own life, this blog, and goals for reading.  Feel free to tell me your own down below!

Reading Goals

1. Read 50 books in a year.  For the past couple of years, I have come really close, but I haven't reached 50 yet.  I'm determined to find time to do a lot of reading this year (which will be a challenge, being an English major who is assigned books all the time).  As I read, I will list these books below so that I can easily keep track of my progress.

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
2. A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
3. Holes by Louis Sachar
4. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
7. My Life As A Book by Janet Tashjian
8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
9. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
10. Frindle by Andrew Clements
11. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
12. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan
13. The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher
14. Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan
15. Thumped by Megan McCafferty
16. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
17. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
18. Witches!  The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer
19. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
20. Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare
21. Dear Diary, I'm Pregnant by Anrenee Englander
22. Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer
23. The Paris Wedding by Kimberley Petyt
24. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
25. Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli
26. The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
27. The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
28. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
29. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
30. This Star Won't Go Out by Esther Earl
31. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

2. Read more Sci-Fi.  My partner is a physics/astrophysics major, so it really bums him out that I don't really appreciate science fiction more.  My goal is to read at least five books from the science fiction genre.  Again, these titles will be listed below to keep track of my progress.

3. Read more Graphic Novels.  I achieved this goal last year, but now I want to do better.  My goal is to read 10 graphic novels in 2014.
1. The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth

4. Listen to more audio books.  My goal is to listen to 15 audio books.

5. Read more of the books that I already own.  I aim to read 10 of these books this year.

1. A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
2. Holes by Louis Sachar
3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Blogging Goals

1. Post one review a week.

2. Post more about the things going on in my life (outside of reading).

3. Chronicle my study abroad experience (before, during, and after).  In August, I will be leaving for a four month stint in the Netherlands.  I created a different blog about this, but I think it'll be much simpler to use this blog to keep my friends and family updated and still keep talking about what I'm reading.

4. Review more movies.  My goal is to review at least 15 movies this year.  They will be listed and linked to below.

Life Goals

1. Do more Yoga.  This is one exercise that I truly enjoy.  But I'm really bad at finding a consistent time to do this.  So I'm going to put more of an effort into making this my routine exercise.  Maybe I'll talk about this on this blog.

2.  Learn basic Dutch.  Read children's books, practice in and out of a classroom setting, practice pronunciation whenever you can.  Throw in Dutch words into English conversation and confuse people, it'll be great.

3. Take more photos.  Document life as it's happening.

What are your goals for 2014?

Thanks for Reading and Happy New Year!