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Books From Humanities, Or, Reading for School Isn’t Always Boring


Cover of "The Odyssey"

Cover of The Odyssey

So I’m not even going to comment on how many months it has been since my last blog post, because the number is just shameful and wrong and horrible to look at. BUT I am back now and (hopefully) better than ever!

Since I’m a senior in high school right now, just forcing myself to physically go to school is hard enough, but actually enjoying it is nearly impossible. Having said that, there are a few bright spots amid the constant sea of pointless busy-work and annoying underclassmen, and one of those is my Humanities class. This class, man, let me tell you, this class is awesome. Like seriously, all we do is read these ancient and wonderful and complex texts and then we get to class and just discuss them for two hours. And we drink tea while we’re doing it. Has there ever been a more perfect class? I think not. So in honor of this lovely class that is helping me slog through the (seemingly endless) weeks until June, here is a list of some of the ancient and wonderful and complex texts that we have read so far:

• It took me a while to really get into The Odyssey by Homer, but when I did, I realized that this book is such a classic because it is simply brilliant. The plotting is so complex and intriguing, the characters are vibrant and surprisingly relatable, the language is incredibly beautiful and deeply moving. If you’re willing to stick with it for the long haul (and through those slightly dull stretches where Odysseus is living with the Phaeacians) you will be rewarded in spades.

• Dialogues of Plato is absolutely fascinating. My favorite dialogue was The Republic (though I feel like it’s kind of unoriginal to say that) because it presents such an interesting view of Plato’s utopian society. Who wouldn’t want a philosopher king to run their city?

• The Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus has such a dark and sinister beauty, you can just feel the complex net of family, fate, murder, deception, and betrayal that entraps the House of Atreus. Mmm, so good.

• Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I love this book so much. I love the fact that Marcus Aurelius was such a powerful leader, but he speaks with such humility and ease. I love the advice in this book is as applicable to my life as a 21st century teenager as it was to that of a roman emperor. I love that it is practical and simply written and scattered and imperfect. It’s like the most sincerely beautiful self-help book imaginable.

The Dhammapada. Oh my goodness gracious, talk about love. This book is amazing. AMAZING. Its language is so precise, its imagery so evocative and beautiful. I absolutely loved learning about Buddhism in class, and this book was a big part of that.

• The Bhagavad Gita. This book is so gorgeous and thought-provoking. As I was reading it, I kept marking every beautiful image and idea that I liked, and at the end, nearly every page was marked. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

Ahh talking about these books makes me want to read them all again, they are so brilliant and gorgeous.

More later!

The Imperfectionists, Julie and Julia, The Little Prince, and Mountains of YA


 

Cover of "Julie & Julia"

Cover of Julie & Julia

 

I’ve got some good and bad news. The good news is that it’s Harry Potter’s golden birthday! 31 on the 31st! (It’s dorky beyond belief that I know this…) But the bad news is that summer is already more than halfway over and I’ve been hit by the summer reading bug hard. I’ve been reading reading reading all day practically, which in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s what I’ve been reading. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that it’s summer, or that it’s insanely hot (complete joke…it’s hovering around a balmy 55 degrees around here), or that being out of school has just made me lazy, but all I’ve been wanting to read lately are sweet, comforting, completely non-challenging YA books. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with YA. I love it to the moon and back, and some of it is insanely well-written and even literary (Octavian Nothing, I’m looking at you…) but the type of thing I’m reading right now is definitely on the lighter end of the YA spectrum. Fun, quick, comfort food books. Oh well, I guess we all need to read something fun once in a while to liven everything up!

 

But first, I have read a couple of actual grown up books over the last few weeks to ward off a complete mind-melt:

 

• I started reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman on the plane home from Nicaragua since a friend had it with her and thought I’d really like it and oh my god did I ever. It was the kind of brilliantly detailed, completely convincing books that is written with such subtlety and ease that it seems effortless but of course isn’t. Each chapter assumes the viewpoint of a different person connected with a struggling English-language newspaper based in Rome. There is the past-his-prime freelance writer desperate for a story, the bitter and lonely copyeditor that both hates her job and would be desperate without it, the financial officer who finds herself seated on an airplane next to the very man she has just ordered to be fired. The characters are beautifully well-rounded, and each chapter is like a miniature portrait of their lives, with Rachman conveying more about their particular foibles and quirks in just a few pages than some authors are able to manage in entire books. Great read all around.

 

•  I picked up Julie and Julia by Julie Powell mainly because I’d seen and liked the movie (though Meryl Streep couldn’t have done fine on her own without the Amy Adams parts, in my opinion) and was curious to see where it had come from. I have to say, I did enjoy the book, but I really should’ve payed more attention to how much more enjoyable I found the “Julia” aspects of the movie as opposed to the “Julie” parts because if I had, I would have realized that the whole book is pretty much just a long, drawn-out “Julie” part with only slight breaks for some imagined scenes involving Julia. Julie Powell is a good writer, not great, and she can be pretty funny. But she also makes for one of the most unreliable, self-centered, navel-gazing narrators I’ve ever come across. Now, I have about as much experience being a neurotic 30-year-old New Yorker as I do being a Tibetan monk, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I hope to never ever ever be as blatantly self-absorbed as Julie Powell comes across as in this book. I don’t know, maybe I’m being unfair about Julie, but I’d say skip through the whining and just concentrate on all the lovely descriptions of the food.

 

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Okay, so this isn’t exactly an adult book, but it is a classic, and it’s so good and so lovely I literally could not put it down. (Seriously, I read it in less than an hour). I’m not really even going to try to describe the plot (partly because I could never do it justice and partly because I just hate writing plot descriptions) but suffice it to say that this is one of the truest, wisest, and most honest books I’ve read in a long time. The language is lovely and the vision is breathtakingly clear and makes you want to look at the world with child’s eyes again.

 

And now for all the lovely YAs:

 

Divergent by Veronica Roth. This. Book. Is. Addictive. Seriously, enter at your own peril because you will not want to put it down. Now, the premise isn’t anything very special, and you know who’s gonna get together with who (whom? Whatever, whom the hell cares?) but it’s all so gripping and so fun and fast-paced that you completely don’t mind. Basically, (here comes the dreaded plot description…) the Chicago of this dystopian-futuristic world is divided up into five factions, Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the intelligent), Candor (the honest), Amity (the kind), and Abnegation (the selfless), all based around what trait the members of each faction feel is most important to preserve peace. Each year, 16-year-olds undergo a simulation which indicates which faction they are best suited for, and then choose which faction they would like to be in for the rest of their lives (this involves the disturbingly primitive ritual of scattering one’s blood over a bowl containing objects that represent the different factions – burning coals for Dauntless, gray stones for Abnegation etc…) Beatrice Prior has been born into Abnegation, but she’s always felt that she doesn’t quite belong, not like her perfectly selfless older brother, Caleb. And, surprise surprise, when she goes through the simulation, her results turn out to be inconclusive (she’s equally suited for Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite), which means she’s Divergent. (Duh Duh DUM…) Apparently, being labeled Divergent is basically like being labeled an axe-murderer so Beatrice isn’t allowed to tell anyone about it. The next day, after a very dark night of the soul in which she tries in vain to come to a decision about which faction she’ll choose, she goes to the choosing ceremony (I’m sure there was another name for it, but I can’t remember…) It’s her brother’s turn to go before her, and she’ll all like, “Okay, at least I know what he’ll choose,” but then – TWIST – he chooses Erudite. And then she’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t both abandon our parents,” but apparently she doesn’t really care all that much cause she spills her blood over Dauntless. (Totally didn’t see that one coming…) I feel like I’m going into way to much detail with this plot summary and also maybe getting a little spoilery, so suffice it to say she has to endure a hellish three-part initiation process to even become a member of Dauntless (seriously, eyes are lost…people get beaten so badly they pass out…and all the time I’m like, “Serves you right for not choosing Amity, where they strum ukeleles on the back of trucks!”) and she makes some friends and enemies along the way, as well as meeting the truly dreamy Four. (I’ll give you one guess what happens there…)

 

Basically, I know I’ve made fun of this book a lot, but it was actually pretty well-written (especially considering the fact that the author is only 22 years old!) and SO enthralling I literally could not put it down. I’m dying a million deaths waiting for the next book in the series (thanks god it’s a series!), which is always the sign of a good, old-fashioned foaming-at-the-mouth YA experience.

 

Graceling by Kristin Cashore is, in a word, great. Katsa, the main character, is seriously kick-ass, and Po is equally awesome and not in any way your generic YA-hero type. It was just very imaginative and well-written and enthralling and engaging. Sorry I’m being lame and not describing the plot, but I’m just so exhausted after Divergent, this is just gonna have to do.

 

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway. Oh my god oh my god oh my god. This book is epically awesome. I have not laughed so hard at any YA book, like, ever. And besides being freaking hilarious, the dialogue is brilliant and true-to-life in a sort of larger-than-life way (if that makes any sense…), the characters are straight up fantastic, and Audrey herself is one of funniest, most awesome, most offbeat, likable, relatable, narrators I’ve ever come across. Just, seriously, read this book. Only not in public, because people will think you’ve gone crazy, you’ll be laughing so much.

 

Heist Society by Ally Carter was, for me, the equivalent of the best episode of the TV show “Covert Affairs” ever, if “Covert Affairs” were about awesome teenagers who steal priceless works of art. Okay, so that metaphor probably isn’t the most helpful, but believe me when I say that this book is fun, fast-paced, and completely enjoyable from start to end, and makes you want to jet off to London and wear expensive clothes and pull off some big heist. And did I mention it has a sequel too? (Which I have read yet, but have placed a hold on at the library!) And I haven’t even mentioned the absolute perfection that is W.W. Hale the Fifth!

 

The Guardians of Time trilogy (The Named, The Dark, and The Key) by Marianne Curley. This is a trilogy that I’ve read and re-read a lot ever since I first discovered it in middle school because it’s just such a fun, zippy little fantasy. Okay, so the writing isn’t all that great, and some of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, but it’s perfect for a rainy day when all you want is to curl up and live vicariously through someone else for a couple of hours. Plus, you will fall in love the awesome Arkarian, guaranteed!

 

•  I just finished Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt last night and I ended up really liking it. The story-line was pretty straightforward, an Underworld-y sort of take on the whole Sheherazade I’ll-tell-you-a-story-but-you-have-to-keep-me-alive-long-enough-so-you-can-here-the-ending story, but I really liked the portrayal of Lord Death, and there were some lovely and wise thoughts about death’s place within life, and how each of us must inevitably meet and come to terms with death at some point.

 

• I read Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen because I absolutely love her as an author (Some of my favorites of hers are Just Listen, This Lullaby, and The Truth About Forever) and this one was sweet and refreshingly realistic in the sea of lookalike dystopian YA books these days, but for some reason just didn’t connect with me as much as some of her others have.

 

Sorry for writing such a long post – phew! More later!

 

 

Possession, I Capture the Castle…And Why I Haven’t Blogged For A Month


 

I Capture the Castle (film)

I Capture the Castle (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I think it’s official: I’m the worst blogger ever. I haven’t blogged in nearly a month? How did that even happen? Well, I sort of know how it happened: I got lazy and I also took a two-week community service trip to Nicaragua. (Which was amazing, by the way – the trip, not the laziness – but doesn’t make for good blogging). So anyway, sorry for that, and also sorry that I only have two books finished to show for it…Not exactly the best way to start off a reading-filled summer!

 

Possession by A.S. Byatt was, in a word, amazing. Gorgeously written, completely enthralling, and hugely ambitious, it’s the kind of book that allows you to escape the hum-drum mundanities of everyday life (or, in my case, the sweltering Nicaraguan climate) and dive into a fascinating world of academic rivalries, doomed love affairs, and epic poetry. Every page held an ingenious turn of phrase, colorful character, or thoroughly convincing imitation of Victorian-era poems, letters, and diaries. Some books are so impressive that you feel not only as if you’re reading them, but as if you’re experiencing them as a fully immersed participant in an event. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Possession, and my only (very minor) complaint would be that at times I wished for less of Roland and Maud (such academic-y academics, which probably doesn’t even make sense as a phrase, but what I mean is that they were just so serious and their research was so obscure and they spoke so formally all the time…it made me want to force them to watch a couple hours of Jersey Shore, just to show them that there is a world outside of a University library…) and more of Randolph and Christabel, but even in lovely, accomplished, practically flawless novels, there is always something to find fault with.

 

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith was also a great read, with one of sweetest and most convincing protagonists I’ve ever encountered. I was completely swept away by Cassandra’s descriptions of her life living in a decrepit castle in the English countryside with her eccentric family. It was also interesting to hear a British perspective on America and Americans, too, since it’s a bit of a rare experience for me to be seen as the strange outsider. Cassandra would always point out differences in phrases and customs Americans and British people used, little things such as Americans moving their fork from hand to hand when cutting and eating meat. Things I’d never really thought about before as being different or unique, but apparently are. All in all, a very good and though-provoking read.

 

• I’m also a little more than halfway through on The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and it is absolutely brilliant so far. Can’t wait to talk about it more!

 

 

The Joy Luck Club, The Maytrees, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Part of Possession…


 

Cover of "The Maytrees: A Novel"

Cover of The Maytrees: A Novel

 

Arggh I’m tired today. It’s finals week and everyone is annoying and all I want to do is watch the Borgias until my eyeballs fall out BUT I have posted in over two weeks, so I felt like I should at least TRY to be a good blogger and, you know, actually post once in a while…

 

1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan was a great book that I just finished. Just the write length, well-written without being overblown or flowery, populated by believable, (mainly) sympathetic characters, and definitely deserving of the love that’s been heaped upon it over the years. Tan captures the misunderstandings and annoyances between mother and daughters perfectly, as well as the lighter times. Her vision of two generations of Chinese-American women is perfectly realized and written with such refreshing elegance and assurance.

 

2. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard was one that I just finished and wasn’t quite so crazy about. While I loved Dillard’s evocative imagery and note-perfect descriptions of the ocean, I couldn’t get past her over-reliance on alliterations (seriously, sometimes enough is enough…) and the often foggy and under-developed motivations of her characters. Without giving much away plot-wise (I personally am never interested in long plot descriptions in reviews), I’ll just say that she seems to set the reader up for one set of events before completely turning them all on their head in a way that I frankly found unbelievable and incongruous. The characters also bothered me in that they never seemed to DO much of anything. Sure, there was a lot of staring at the sea and pondering the nature of love, but come on, can’t they work a little bit too…? Or just do something that could be construed as useful…? Overall, this book had moments of lovely writing marred by half-baked and maddening characters.

 

3. I read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey for my English class, and I ended up really liking it, though I just can’t say I ever really LOVED it. (Unlike The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Gatsby for instance…) I really don’t know why, I just never fully connected with the character of McMurphy, and I think without that, the book just lost a little bit of its pull for me. Great message though, obviously (basically, stick it to the Man!), and well-written/constructed.

 

4. Possession by A.S. Byatt doesn’t really count, sicne I just started it and am only about 50 pages in, but it is SO GOOD. Really, SO SO GOOD. Every time I read it I literally feel like I’m being swept away into another time and place. (Okay, maybe not literally). Byatt’s writing is almost insanely brilliant and incredibly versatile. AHH better get back to reading it!

 

 

Matched, One Day, The Film Club, The Crucible, AND Play It As It Lays…


 

Cover of "The Film Club: A Memoir"

Cover of The Film Club: A Memoir

 

I don’t know why, but for some reason, I keep reading such odd combinations of books. For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve read Matched by Ally Condie, One Day by David Nicholls, The Film Club by David Gilmour, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didian. Each of them are INCREDIBLY different from the others, but they were all (pretty much) very good. So, without further ado…

 

Matched was a nice, fast-paced weekend read, the kind of thing that doesn’t take too much time or brainpower but nevertheless leaves you feeling satisfied. What bothered me about it, though, was that the plot just seemed to done. I mean, how many YA writers can put a twist on the old free-thinking-teen-rebels-against-his/her-dystopian-government plotline. I like these books as much as the next person, but only when they differ enough from this stale formula to chart new territory and not just feel like a tired rehashing of the same events. Compounding my annoyance at the book was its sassy girl/nice guy/bad boy love triangle that frankly, just felt like a tepid redo of the whole Katniss/Peeta/Gale storyline in The Hunger Games. I loved that series, but the downside of its crazy popularity is that now so many YA writers are sticking straight to its formula without adding enough twists and surprises of their own to keep things fresh. Okay, rant over.

 

• I just finished One Day last night and I have to say, it ENTIRELY lived up to the hype. It was glorious. Funny and realistic and interesting and sad, I completely believed the two main characters and their messily imperfect lives. Telling the story through yearly snapshots of Dexter and Emma’s lives on the anniversary of the day they met was an ingenious way to present the character’s lives and pique the reader’s interest throughout the story (“Ooh, can’t wait to see how this turns out next year…”) All in all, a great big fun romantic story with a heartbreaker of an ending.

 

The Film Club was another great book. A memoir of sorts about the years that Gilmour allowed his son Jesse to drop out of school as long as he watched three movies each week, this book surprised me in its smooth, assured style and the startling depth of its insights about family, love, and, of course, movies.

 

• We just finished reading The Crucible in school, and while I liked it, I can’t say I loved it. I tend to find highly subtextual novels somewhat exhausting, with their thinly-veiled references and wink-wink-nudge-nudge cleverness, and with this one, I just kept feeling like I was being hit over the head with its hidden agenda. But this one’s a classic, so that might just be me…

 

• Since I read The Year of Magical Thinking a while back, I’d forgotten how stark and bone-dry Didion’s writing can be. But Play It As It Lays brought it all back. Each sentence felt like it was trying to suck the moisture out of the air, the writing was that dry. I really respect Didion’s control over her work, and her obvious talent at creating tone and atmosphere, but when a books feels like Death Valley translated into novel form, it can be a bit of a trial to read.

 

So many good books this week! And so many more on the horizon! I just started The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner…Let’s hope the stay as good as they are now!

 

 

Fight Club and The Way of Life


 

Cover of "Fight Club: A Novel"

Cover of Fight Club: A Novel

 

This week I read two very different books: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and The Way of Life by Lao Tzu. A bit of a a weird combination, but somehow it actually worked. Maybe because Fight Club was so apocalyptic/nihilistic whereas The Way of Life was so peaceful and serene, they ended up balancing each other out really well. Because I’m tired (but also because I love how both the books are written) I’m going to let the similarities and differences speak for themselves:

 

On Death:

 

“On a large enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero.”

 

Fight Club

 

“Death is no threat to people who are not afraid to die; but even if these offenders feared death all day, who should be rash enough to act as executioner? Nature is executioner. When man usurps the place, a carpenter’s apprentice takes the place of the master: and an apprentice hacking with the master’s axe may slice his own hand.”

 

The Way of Life

 

On Relating To Others:

 

“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”

 

Fight Club

 

“A sound man’s heart is no shut within itself but is open to other people’s hearts: I find good people good, and I find bad people good if I am good enough; I trust men of their word, and I trust liars if I am true enough; I feel the heartbeats of others above my own if I am enough of a father, enough of a son.”

 

The Way of Life

 

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I like that last quote from The Way of Life. I feel the heartbeats of others above my own if I am enough of a father, enough of a son…Perfection.

 

 

Week of YA


This week I was feeling super stressed and crazy, so I turned to the greatest of all comforts: YA. Now, I sort of have a love-hate relationship with teen books. I mean, for every glorious The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, there’s always a Twilight…or an Airhead…or a Gossip Girl…It’s sometimes like nobody ever writes books for teens anymore that aren’t about vampires, rich mean girls, or dystopian/futuristic worlds.

So I was happily surprised when BOTH the YAs I read this week were smart, well-written, and mature. The first one has one of the worst book titles I have ever seen: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. But don’t let that dissuade you, because this was one of the most realistic and entertaining depictions of the whole guy-and-girl-are-best-friends-but-maybe-more? thing I’ve ever read. Anna was a believable, quirky heroine, Etienne (the best friend/love interest) was refreshingly flawed, and their relationship was convincingly halting and imperfect.

The second book I read was The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Though pretty different in subject matter from the first one, since in this one the main character is dealing with her sister’s unexpected death, it had the same mixture of the breathless joy at first love along with deep pain and loss. Joe Fontaine, the gorgeous and amazing sort-of-boyfriend in this one is an absolutely fabulous character.

Very good, solid, honestly written YAs! Perfect for this insane week!

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