Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Charlie is entering high school with the standard onslaught of worries, concerns, and anxieties about fitting in with general society, but he finds refuge by watching from the sidelines as others participate in life. He has a rough history following him around – the recent suicide of his close friend, a stay in the hospital after his favorite aunt died – and add to the quirks that make him obviously not “normal.” Fortunately, he runs into some other “outcasts” who gladly accept all his quirks into their circle of friends. So Charlie spends his first year of high school watching his friends come to terms with growing up and coping with the difficulties in all the standard and illicit ways, watching his family struggle and fight and ignore the same secrets they always avoid, and trying to participate in life. His status as a wallflower gives him a unique perspective for understanding the actions of others and removing himself from the situation as necessary, but attempting to participate in life brings on both the infinite happiness and unbearable suffering that comes with living.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a novel written in the form of letters to a “friend” who will “understand.” Coming from the personal perspective of letters from the main character, it is so easy to empathize with what Charlie is going through, whether discovering new friendships and crushes, providing comfort to those who are struggling, or suffering the consequences of a poor decision. As a young adult novel covering standard young adult issues, it is highly relatable. It’s is an excellent book for the intended audience (young adults), but having read it in high school and again now, I feel I understand it much better as a slightly older young adult. This book covers some very dark issues, and though the standard high school experience is generally relatable, there is a sort of wisdom and deeper understanding that comes with the maturity of having moved past adolescence, “the popular crowd,” and all that other crap. It is great to read at any point, but a little time makes a big difference.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Scout Finch leads the life of your average child in her small town in Alabama. She isn’t particularly fond of school, absolutely adores her older brother, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans during her summer break. Her life is populated by two kinds of people: those who indiscriminately make friends and those who measure others according to their own scale of acceptability, be it family background or the color of their skin. These issues gain importance throughout the book as her father, a lawyer and local hero known for his quiet manner, prepares to defend a black man against the word of a white girl. Leading up to the big day, Scout gradually comes to recognize prejudices that lead to discriminatory behavior and even violent action, and after court is adjourned, she sees how the issues continue to evolve after public acknowledgement. Gifted with the innocence of childhood, Scout absorbs these lessons and learns how to deal with people she does and doesn’t agree with in a way that allows her to find her own values. In Smalltown, America, that is an incredibly difficult lesson and a priceless gift.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely regarded as an amazing book, and rightly so. The voice of Scout stays constant throughout the story, but we see how she is growing up. Lee introduces the story by presenting us with the summertime play of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. Lee hooks the reader by appealing to their sense of innocent fun. Then Lee introduces the sticky issues – what is best for the reputation of the family, when and how to defend the ones we love, and what qualities a hero has, not to mention the more obvious racial and social issues throughout the book. What makes this most effective, though, is that Lee manages to maintain the innocent voice and perspective of a child throughout the story, so that the novel unwinds with genuine emotional involvement rather than a strict moral lesson. We become attached to these characters and find ourselves sharing their search for understanding. Lee offers a touching and sensitive portrayal of the human spirit, of what it means to be a good person, and how to define yourself and your world when you’re not sure what to believe in.

I found this book to be sufficiently enjoyable when it was assigned for English class in 9th grade, but I obviously wasn’t paying much attention to it. This time around, I found the book absolutely amazing, and I was moved to tears on multiple occasions. It was a bit like “Dracula” in that I remembered the first part of the book, but realized, upon re-reading, that so much more happened after what I thought was the climax, and I got so much more out of the book this time around. I never remembered that “how to be a lady” comes into the story, but it subtly finds its way in there. The obvious winner is Atticus Finch, who unflaggingly believes in the inherent value of all human beings and lives with more integrity than humanly possible. Despite certain unfortunate circumstances, this is an inspiring book, offering hope to anyone who believes in the possibility of a fair world.

How Did It Begin?

How Did It Begin? – Dr. Rudi Brasch and Li Brasch

Any guesses on what this book is about? It’s the background of various customs, traditions, beliefs, and habits that we take for granted in everyday interactions, but actually have a reason as to why things are done a specific way. Whether it’s the best man (who initially helped the groom to steal his bride and then guarded her until the wedding day), how beer first came about (bread accidentally got into the concoction, and the first time beer made it into recorded history was around 6000 B.C), or how bunnies and eggs became associated with Easter (both related to fertility and rebirth, and both adopted from pagan worship), this book will tell you pretty much anything you never thought you wanted to know, but now that the subject has been brought up, it’s a very interesting story to hear.

Dr. Rudi Brasch was a researcher for “Encyopledia Britannica,” so from his lifetime of research, he came to be known as quite an expert on origins. This book is broken down simply enough – each chapter tackles a topic, like national symbols, time, and naval traditions, and discusses various sub-topics related to the overall theme. Some chapters are longer than others. However, it reads more like an encyclopedia than a novel, so I recommend taking it in small doses – no more than a chapter at a time. Very interesting conversation starter, but hard to keep up with during a two hour lull at school.