Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book 7: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling. Released in the States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
I'm not including a link here- if you can't find or haven't heard of Harry Potter, well, there's really no hope now, is there?
I remember when I first entered the world of Harry Potter. It was 1998. I was in Atlanta, and was running errands with my cousin J-------. She had a quick stop to make in one shop, and said, "Here, read this while I run inside and pick up these photo proofs. Mike sent them over from England, and apparently these books are insanely popular there."
And so, in the fifteen minutes or so that J was inside, I read the first several pages of Harry. And even though I was thirteen years older than Harry, I was hooked. Something about the way JK Rowling wrote about Harry, and Muggles, and magic just enthralled me from the beginning.
Rowling created an enchanting magical world. Whether intentional or not, Rowling wrote on two levels. Her clever use of names likely wouldn't be caught by 9-12 year olds, but older readers would certainly notice them. In this first book, the relationships were so important. The Magic was a subtext. It wasn't until the later books that I found myself wishing for the magical abilities myself- how cool would it be to be magical.
I recognized pieces of myself in Hermione. I already adored Ron. As old as I was, Rowling captivated me, and I worked with J to have Mike send me the first three books from the UK. I read them all in quick succession. It started me on a journey into a world that still fascinates me today. Early in the third book, I realized how Rowling had begun laying a foundation in Book 1 that was going to be important throughout the series. That is why I've read the first six books numerous times. And it is why I am re-reading the series again now, before the first of the last two films hits theaters this November.
The piece of this book that I carry with me is Dumbledore's words to Harry when Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. He said, "It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live. (UK Children's edition, p 157)."
I could talk about Potter all day. I won't. But I will be forever grateful to JK Rowling for opening my eyes to an entirely new genre of fiction. For creating endearing characters and a world that has become a part of our culture (I cannot believe how many "texts from last night" and other contemporary works reference the HP series). I'm grateful to Rowling for opening up to a whole new generation the joy of reading.
I won't read Chamber of Secrets immediately, on to something else for the next book. But I will come back to the Magical world before this journey is over.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book 6: Warrior Queen

The story of Queen Bouidca, Warrior Queen by Alan Gold
Appropriately listening to Big Wolf Pappa's "Warrior Queen" while writing this post.
Warrior Queen is a fictionalized retelling of the story of Britain's Celtic Queen, Boudica. Full disclaimer time. My knowledge of the expansion of the Roman Empire into Africa, the Middle East, and Europe is hazy at best. Of course I've heard the history of some of the corrupt rulers, including Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. But I have to confess it will take more research than I have done to this point to say with certainty which parts of this story are historically correct, and where things have been fictionalized or even best-guessed. I'm summarizing here what I think of the book. It is fiction, though, so I fully recognize that things may be referred to here as fact that truly are not. Now, moving on....
Warrior Queen tells the story of one Iceni queen, Boudica, who led Briton in an uprising against the Roman Empire in 60 A.D. The Empire levied heavy taxes on even those Britons who were considered "friends of Rome." Boudica and her husband were the rulers of the Iceni tribe. Boudica's husband, knowing his death was near, created a will, without Boudica's knowledge, that gave half the Iceni wealth to Emporer Nero and made his two daughters Queens with Nero. When Boudica tried to get the will enforced, she was publicly whipped and her daughters raped by the Romans. Intent on revenge, Boudica became the Warrior Queen, aligning tribes with centuries-long history of warring with each other, to take on the Roman empire. I'll stop there- the story is really quite interesting, certainly a David and Goliath type of tale. But I don't want to share the ending here.
Aside from telling an interesting and compelling story, one thing the book does well is switch narration between Boudica and other Britons and the Romans. Balancing multiple viewpoints in a story can be challenging. Since there is no omniscient character, an author must take care to ensure that each character know and reveal only what is in their power to know and reveal. Too many vacillating viewpoints can confuse the reader. Alan Gold manages his characters and narration carefully, to avoid just such confusion.
This story did not move with the pace that I expected it to, although by the end I was both anxious to turn the page, and dreading the same. Anxious, because the tension and excitement were building, and dread because I did not know quite how this story was going to end, and wasn't sure I was going to be happy with the ending. I think that made up for the pacing.
I enjoyed the Druid and Roman culture and history that were presented in this story. I learned some things I did not know. I've long been fascinated with the Celts and Druids, so seeing the imagery of the Beltane festival and other symbolic ceremonies here was especially enjoyable for me. The Romans derided the British barbarians for their worship of gods and goddesses associated with nature, but there's something comforting in that same reverence to me, and I really enjoyed reading that part.
Some things that stood out to me while reading this book. As is the case with seemingly all invasions, there was an element of a clash of religions here. The Romans sought to eradicate the Druid tradition and replace it with the Roman gods and goddesses. The same, time-worn and still true today story of "My religion is better than yours." Seems to be at the root of so many wars, doesn't it?
When I read of Boudica's internal struggle with how much of the Roman culture to embrace, I started thinking about what I would do in a situation like that. Prasutagus, Boudica's husband, was of the belief that friending the Romans would preserve their lives and livelihood much better than would an attempt to fight against them. Should they fight, they would at best end up slaves of the Empire. At worst, they would die at the hands of the Romans. So they compromised, and cooperated with the Romans and then were betrayed by the very same. At that point, freedom became paramount. Death was preferable to living as a Roman subject, in any form. I don't know what that point is for me. What is the thing that is so important to fight for, that I must not be silent and begin to fight against it now? What is that thing I would give my life for? I do think sovereignty and freedom are in that list, but are there other things now that I should be fighting for and am not?
That is not a complete digression from the book. I think any good story should make you think about whether or not you would have the courage to act in the way the protagonist does. Of course Bouduica had her flaws. But she got it, she understood, that there are things that are worth fighting and dying for. Shouldn't we all know at what point we would do the same?
A statue of Queen Boudica still resides near the Houses of Parliament in Britain today. I've pasted a link here to a Historic UK site that provides an image of the statue and a brief history of Boudica.
I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in historical fiction, or Celtic and/or Roman History.
Next up? I'm not sure... I'll have an audiobook review here soon, Harry, a History, by Melissa Anelli. I'm contemplating Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone next, as I want to re-read the entire series before the first of the last two movies comes out in November. But I have several other books I'm interested in as well, so I need to decide what to read next.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bonus Book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I can't really count this book in the 52 in 52 tally because I started it before I began my little adventure. But, I just now finished it, and I enjoyed it. Thought I would write about it anyway.
What if Narnia and Hogwarts were real? Or even magic itself, like we've read about in these books? Such is the premise of The Magicians. Both the Narnia and Harry Potter sagas are mentioned by name, but of course The Magicians has its own magical land called Fillory. Our hero, Quentin, has grown up reading all about Fillory and its stories and Queens and Kings. I couldn't help but recall all the stories of Narnia with the mentions of Fillory. And like Harry Potter, Quentin thinks he is an ordinary student but finds himself a new pupil at Brakebills, a magical school in New York.
But this isn't some allegory about Christianity and our choices. Nor is it the story of an epic battle between good an evil. While both elements are alluded to and serve as a subtext, the real issue at stake is what happens when we aren't happy enough in our own reality?
The great theme of Harry Potter, that Love can conquer any evil, and that those who love us never really leave us, just happens to be told in a Magical world that exists within our own. Wands and spells are weapons, rather than guns.
As I mentioned earlier, the Chronicles of Narnia are a great Christian Allegory, with Aslan representing the Christ and the final book in the series, The Last Battle, reading much like the New Testament's Revelation. Magic and talking animals exist in Narnia, much like in Fillory.
What makes the Harry Potter and Narnia stories so appealing, and what is the Hook in The Magicians is that so many children and adults who have read these series think how great it would be to live in Narnia, to be able to wave a wand and have the potatoes peeled. In other words, the magic in these books is a means to an end, a metaphor, an agent to progressing a story. I admit that I often joke, "If I only had a house elf..."
This rambling is getting to the point of what would really happen if we suddenly had magic at our disposal? In theory, it would fix everything... but would it? And what if those fabled places of our childhood did exist after all, and we were able to discover them, would we find them to be paradise? Is happiness and contentment a choice, really?
Of course there's some great magical imagery in the book, and complex relationships between the characters. But these questions about what real happiness means are at the heart of the novel. And if you lose everything, what do you have left to find?
Took me a while to finish this book because of this 52 in 52 challenge I set myself, but I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book 5: Fragile Eternity

Melissa Marr's Fragile Eternity is a continuation of the Faery saga that begins in Wicked Lovely.
I first happened upon these books because of the cover art. Intense colors, intriguing pictures. So I picked up first Wicked Lovely and then Ink Exchange. Like the Twilight series, these are geared towards young adults, but I think they are in a completely different class than the vampire saga.
This series centers around Faeries, who dwell alongside mortals. Most mortals cannot see Faeries, but a few are gifted with the Sight and are able to see them.
In Wicked Lovely the King of the Summer Court is looking for his Queen, who happens to be a mortal high schooler named Aislinn who has always been able to see, and fear, the faeries.
Fragile Eternity is the sequel to Wicked Lovely (but third in the series-Book 2, Ink Exchange, focuses on the Dark Court) and Aislinn and her mortal boyfriend, Seth, are trying to figure out how their relationship can exist in Aislinn's new world. As Aislinn learns to be a now-immortal Queen to the Summer Court and find her place in that world, she and Seth are trying to navigate their own way with a threat of war between the Faery courts- a war that could destroy humanity.
So yes, it's Fantasy. But for a lot of reasons, I find this series much more compelling than Twilight. Yes, I know I'm risking bodily harm by legions of teenage girls and suburban moms (should more than 3-4 people ever read this blog) by making that statement, but hear me out.
First, this series is darker and edgier. Melissa Marr describes herself as voted most likely to end up in jail when she was in high school. She seems to bring that side of herself, along with her addiction to fabulous tattoos and a quest to meet interesting people, to her characters. They are more real, more complex than in a lot of young adult serialized fiction. Seth has a lip ring, a pet boa constrictor, and lives in train cars. Ink Exchange starts with Leslie's quest for the perfect tattoo, which she seeks to help her overcome a horrific trauma. The characters have real teenage flaws which make them more identifiable, in a lot of ways. Certainly more issues than I had in high school but more the kind of people I think I would be drawn to if I were in high school now.
Second is the faery lore that is included in the books. Faeries cannot be trusted. Any deal a mortal makes with a faery will likely be much more advantageous to the faery. Faeries cannot lie. so the nuance, the particular words they use to convey something, are very important. Loyalty is everything. Faeries are weakened by steel and iron. Faeries are immortal.
I love Ireland, and this particular novel I really enjoyed because that affinity. Many of the faeries have Irish names, for one thing. When I was in Ireland this summer, I saw the Faery Tree at Tara. Local lore says that you can leave a gift for the faeries at that tree, and should they accept your gift, they will grant you aid. However, to take a gift from the tree is to invoke the wrath of the faeries and is done at one's own peril. I felt more connected to the book having seen this place and heard more of the faery lore myself.
The Faery Tree at the Hill at Tara
One thing that really stood out for me was Marr's description of a movie Aislinn and Keenan, the Summer King, watch. "An indie film about street musicians falling in love while they both belonged elsewhere. The music and the message were perfect, poignant, and heartbreaking." (p.291) I got such a kick out of reading the film description and thinking to myself, 'That sounds like Once' and reading just a few sentences later that it was indeed Once that Marr meant. I completely agree with her description and highly recommend both the film and its soundtrack.
The fourth book in the series is due out later this year, and I've already pre-ordered it from Amazon. Highly recommended for anyone who likes Fantasy. So far, Marr is staying true to her characters and the rules she is setting up for their world. I'm confident that however this series ends, it won't be with a Breaking Dawn styled cop-out (my opinion) ending.
So, here we are, 16 days into January. Five books complete, 47 more to go. Next Up is Warrior Queen, a novel based on Celtic Queen Boudicca (

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book4: The Assault on Reason

Al Gore's The Assault on Reason

I'm not sure what Al Gore wanted to provoke in people reading this book. I'll summarize my reaction in one word: Angry. This book made me angry. Angry at the Bush Administration, all over again. At our Congress. At a handful of our judges. At those appointed by politicians. At some faith leaders. At people in general. At myself.

Why? Because Al Gore touched a nerve. Published in 2007, Gore’s work highlights the number of areas where we are allowing our political, spiritual, and corporate leaders to govern by something other than reason. In the first draft of this post, I listed the litany ills Mr. Gore highlights. I made the decision to not rehash them all here.

Mr. Gore points out that the number one source of information today is television, a one-sided flow of information at best. When this country was founded, it was by people who valued reason and discourse. Gore offers that as time has passed, we've become more inclined to act irrationally, basing our decisions on fear and blind faith more than reason. We've had leaders who have exploited this trait. As rational beings, when this type of propaganda and manipulation is exposed, we should question it and hold the perpetrators responsible. Yet for whatever reason, no pun intended, we're less likely to do this now. We're less likely to even know about it.

Mr. Gore’s book certainly made me think. I often joke that I get all my news from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and I do watch the show religiously. I read the news headlines every day, from several sources. But I’ve been negligent lately. I listen to my iPod in the mornings while I am getting ready for work. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be listening to NPR. I’ll be paying closer attention to what the New York Times and the BBC are publishing. I’ll be holding my representatives accountable.

I honestly wondered at the beginning of this book if Mr. Gore was writing it as more of a “Told you so” after “losing” the 2000 election. The more I read, though, the more I saw how much we as a society are not using reason, how much I'm not using reason, and the consequences of that apathy. I finished the book with a renewed commitment to doing what is right rather than what is easy.

So, ten days into January and I've completed four books. I'm pretty pleased with that. But I need something less intense for the next book, so I'm going back into fiction. I've started Melissa Marr's Fragile Eternity, and I'll be posting on that next. Checkout, a Melissa Marr fan site if you'd like a little insight into the Faery world that is the heart of the Wicked Lovely franchise.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Book 3: Bitches on a Budget

Bitches on a Budget by Rosalyn Hoffman
Formatting edited and reposted
I'm in the lovely Kendall Square Marriott in Cambridge, MA. My flight home was cancelled; I have an incredibly early wake up time in the morning to make my rescheduled flight. I finished another book, so thought I would take a few minutes as blog my take on my latest read.
With the provocative title Bitches on a Budget, Rosalyn Hoffman and Karen Conner, who co-wrote a portion of the book, take sassy ladies all over on a journey to determine how to maintain a sense of style in this insane economy. I was fooled. I thought this book was going to be about how to get out of debt. No. Thankfully, this book assumes that all its reading divas already know what they need to do financially to stay afloat in these tumultuous times. We just want a way to do it in style, of course. And this book comes through there.
Chock full of those things on which to splurge, and others on which to save, Bitches on a Budgetprovides saucy oversight on how to live decadently on a budget. Get the T's at Target. Are all those expensive skin care items really worth it? I adore my Dior skin care, but now I’m thinking, how badly do I really need it, if Boots will do just as well? How does one travel in style for less these days? And did you know Whisky (the Scottish spelling) is the new Cosmo?
My new virtual friends in the Bitches world tell us how to have it all without spending it all.
Yes, the title is provocative. I had a great conversation with one of the flight attendants on my way up to Boston about the book. The title will certainly spark curiosity. I'd love to see my friend Kate at Fusion of Style ( elaborate on the fashion buying tips. You won't learn any new groundbreaking financial management tips here, but that is kind of the point. Really, we all know what we need to do. This book makes it FUN. But you'll get some website gems, some excellent (sounding) recipes, and a dose of sass not found any other book I’ve read about budgeting.
Highly recommend!
Next up? Al Gore's The Assault on Reason. I started it tonight. Thought I might finish it on the flight home tomorrow, but since the flight is so obscenely early (yet I'm grateful to be getting home), I may sleep instead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book 2: River's End

Having last week off let me get a jump start on the books I'm reading. This time, as mentioned in the previous post, I chose a Mystery/Romance novel by Nora Roberts, River's End.
I picked this one for a few reasons. Primarily, I wanted something that I could just enjoy to finish off vacation, and not really have to think too much about. Second, under the name JD Robb, Nora Roberts writes a crime series I like. I've read a few other Nora Roberts books, and they've entertained me. And I'm intrigued by the whole Romance genre. Romance is currently the largest and best-selling fiction drama in North America. I think it is because most people want that happy ending, and you know in a Romance that the heroine and hero will find each other.
But I'm also skeptical about the Romance genre. I've read a few in the past. I think that because my own love life has never resembled a romance novel, I have a hard time buying into the all-consuming, devouring, fiery passion. But I like a good mystery. Spice it up with a little lovin' and it could be quite entertaining.
With this novel, I think what you see is what you get. When Olivia was four, her mother was murdered. She stumbled upon the scene, and saw her own father holding the scissors that had been used to stab her. Her grandparents move her to Washington State to raise her away from the press about the sensational slaying. Years later, the son of the police officer who investigated the case tracks down Olivia to interview her about the murder for a book he is writing. Of course, then, mystery and romance, with the obligatory roadblocks, ensue.
The skeptic in me still isn't sure about this "I fell in love with you when I was twelve" bit, and I guessed the twist to the story rather early on. Still, I had fun reading to see how things would work out, and if my suspicions about the twist were true.
If you're looking for a quick, fun read with a decent mystery story and a little romance to go along, this book would probably keep you entertained.
Now, I've started Bitches on a Budget, but I can't decide if that should count for Book 3 or not. I may also make it through an entire audiobook this week, so I can post on that.
Contenders for the book after "Bitches" are Warrior Queen, a novel about Celtic Queen Boudica; Fragile Eternity, the third book in Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely Faery series, and Al Gore's The Assault on Reason. All three will eventually be read, I just need to pick one for the next selection.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple

Book 1: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

Kevin Roose

Like many college students, Kevin Roose wanted to experience a semester in a different culture. Instead of choosing Europe, though, Roose left Brown University for a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Roose’s parents are Quakers, but Kevin himself grew up largely non-religious. A friend gave him a crash course in evangelical Christianity before he started classes with advice like “Cursing will give you away immediately. Best say you’re a new Christian.” Roose knew he would be writing about his experiences at Liberty, so he chose not to disclose his full history. He wanted to learn about the college, its faculty, and students as they truly are.

Brown University is a secular, liberal university. Roose’s adjustment to Liberty included a strict dress code, no cursing, no dancing, no R-Rated movies, among other things. Some of the biggest adjustments for Roose were academic- like the school’s belief in Young Earth Creationism. That is, that the earth is about 6000 years old and evolution is a complete farce. He was also learning about the doctrine of Biblical infallibility- that Bible is literally true- the earth was created in six twenty-four hour days, and a bush really did catch on fire and talk to Moses.

The thing that struck me the most about Roose’s experience is that while he went into this with a preconceived idea of what the people he encountered would be like, he was also open to experiencing who they truly are. Roose found that while he did not share the same fundamental beliefs with his peers, that in general, they were more alike than different. To me, that was what was most shocking and meaningful to Roose.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about Roose’s experiences here, but I do have some other color to add to reading his memoir. Liberty is not the most conservative school, with respect to rules and regulations, as some of the other US conservative colleges and universities, which Roose cites in his book. I’ve had personal experience with the elementary schools associated with two of the other institutions Roose mentions.

At the time of publication of the book (March, 2009), some of the prohibitions listed at these institutions included no “secular” music and even more strict dress codes (women are allowed to wear pants only between their dormitories or in their dorm courtyards- not to any classes or in public) and there is to be no physical contact between couples- no hand holding, and not even eye contact that is deemed “too intense.” Now, the elementary schools I attended didn’t have all these same prohibitions, or maybe not to the same degree. I was required to wear a dress every day. I was the rebel who listened to rock and country music, although it was specifically prohibited by the school. Prayer and daily Bible lessons were core parts of the curriculum. I remember the rote memorization of the Baptist Catechism (Who made you? God made me. What else did God make? God made me and all things...). There was a test on it every Monday. When Roose recalls the challenge he had in learning the books of the New Testament, I was able to recall, after all these years, the song I had to learn in maybe third or fourth grade that listed all twenty-seven books in order. I’m still able to recite the song if I think about it a bit, and it turned out someone taught it to Roose as a study aid. I will say I’ve not had much use for that particular ditty in the last several years, but good to know that rote memorization has longevity in some cases.

I switched to public schools in grade six. I think I must have experienced, to some degree, a culture shock similar to Roose, although in the reverse. I was being exposed to so much more diversity, to more critical thinking. I didn’t realize at the time how much my world was opening up by being in this new environment. I wish it had happened sooner. Until then, I saw things as very black or white. Something was either OK or it was a SIN. And the SIN list was much longer than the OK list. As I was exposed to more, and as I got older, I realized how much grey there is in the world- and how there are very few absolutes; that “Always” and “Never” should rarely be used. I liked that I could identify with Roose on his journey.

Ironically, as Roose lived in the Liberty community for that semester, and his world view was somewhat narrowed, he still grew and learned about himself. He analyzed the religion he was being exposed to and determined for himself whether or not it was a good fit. He learned that even if he doesn’t necessarily believe that prayer works, the idea of someone supporting you through prayer is somehow comforting.

All in all, I thought Roose was very fair to his Liberty classmates. He might disagree with some of their philosophies, but he found the people to be largely good people. In fact, I get the impression from the book that he still keeps in touch with a number of them today.

If you like memoirs, if you’re intrigued by different religions, if you’ve ever watched a Mega-Church preacher on a Sunday morning and wonder what would drive a person to attend, then I think this book is worth a whirl.

Book 2 is one my Nora Roberts- complete fun, and the closest I've gotten yet to a true "romance novel."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Here we go....

I'm going to try to read 52 books in 52 weeks. Why? I realized how much time I'm spending watching meaningless television, and I've been on the computer way too much lately.
I'm not in the book business, and I'm not a Lit major. I read for me, for my entertainment and edification. Don't be surprised if you see my thoughts on chick lit here, as well as non-fiction or heavier fiction. I'm just going to read whatever is interesting to me.
I'll post my thoughts on what I've read each Sunday. I listen to audiobooks during my commute. If I can complete one in a week, I'll include it as well.
And while I have quite a backlog of books to go through, I'm always open for suggestions.
Happy Reading.