Saturday, December 28, 2013

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling

In the final book of the series, Harry leaves school with Ron and Hermione to chase down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named based on vague instructions from Dumbledore to search for objects in which Voldemort has hidden pieces of his soul. Frustrated with the lack of honesty and clarity in Dumbledore’s instructions, Harry becomes disheartened as he realizes that Dumbledore was not infallible. As the search party stalls in the fight against Voldemort, they stumble upon the Deathly Hallows, a collection of enchanted objects that, when combined, make the possessor master of death. In a race against both enemies and time, Harry struggles to figure out whether Dumbledore meant for him to destroy Voldemort in a systematic search for hidden objects, or to overpower him by collecting Hallows. In reckless and daring acts of defiance, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and a significant number of their friends and allies, pull together in the final stand against Voldemort, balancing everything they know with everything they can guess at to defeat the most powerful Dark wizard of all time.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is the ultimate culmination of the Harry Potter series in every sense. Not only does it revisit every important instance, character, and setting in all of the books, it also uncovers and unites all the relationships, alliances, and themes presented in the series. The entire book almost serves as a climax for the series because every turn of the page presents new and startling information, calling into question everything that was previously known or assumed about the wizarding world. Rowling’s plot twists emphasize the need for trust and teamwork due to the inability of an individual to grasp the overall picture. Voldemort stands as the recluse among his followers, unwilling to trust and unable to love in his pursuit of power, while Harry, despite sharing characteristics with Voldemort, represents the struggle to overcome individual wants in favor of collective needs. Throughout the series, Rowling shows how to learn and grow through relationships, push limits, and overcome unbelievable hardships in order to overcome public and private enemies.

I cannot say it enough that Harry Potter is the most amazing book series ever written. Not only has Rowling thoroughly researched and planned every aspect the series, but she also writes with the imagination and passion required to create and bring to life all the details of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. There are some inconsistencies throughout the series (the thestrals were not present at the end of the fourth book, but suddenly appeared at the beginning of the fifth), but the series overall is imaginative, cohesive, and constantly evolving as Harry grows up, learns, and meets new people and challenges. Each rereading uncovers new interpretations and understandings. The Harry Potter books cannot be individually separated from the series; they must be read together. This series is indisputably fabulous. READ THEM.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running

Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running – Edited by Rich Elliott

Addressing everything about running except technique, this anthology looks at the whole experience of what it means to run and be a runner. Split into sections such as “spirit,” “race,” or “heart,” this anthology is a collection of pieces written by and about runners about preparing, racing, recovering, and enduring. Some pieces talk about records, whether that means reliving the exhilaration or the first sub-four minute mile or reaching past personal limits. Some recreate definitive races in the history of running that propelled the sport into national attention or set records that stood unchallenged for decades. Others reflect on the experience of running, vividly recalling all the aches, pains, and injuries as well as the clarity, calm, and focus. Across the diversity of writings, the whole book is united by the undeniable universality of running.

“Runners on Running” beautifully captures the inherent paradox of distance running. Running is and always will be a solo pursuit, but the triumphs and travails of the runner are inextricably connected to personal and community relationships. Several of the articles focus on one runner or one race, resulting in narrow and specific subject matter, but due to the common experience of running, the story of the individual still applies in the broader context. Elliott also carefully selects articles to cover the history and breadth of running as a sport. One article focuses on a runner who became a political prisoner, one begins its story in the early decades of the 1900s, and another tells the story of a woman who ran the Boston Marathon when women were not allowed to participate. The pieces included in the anthology offer so much depth and detail about running that it is impossible to read the collection and not feel moved, either by an interest in the sport or a motivation to run.

This book starts off with a strong hook by focusing on the “spirit” of running, which was one of the more universal sections in the book. Reading these stories perfectly echoed how I feel when I run. Then the collection shifts toward more of a focus on individual runners, races, or records of some sort. While these stories are captivating, they are also intimidating. In the introduction to the anthology, Elliott talks about his inclusion criteria for the articles he selected for the anthology, and he admitted that he has a strong sense of competition, which shines through so strongly in the pieces that it is almost like looking at the sun. I felt just barely vindicated with one marathon under my belt. This book might need a disclaimer that it is only for serious and long-distance runners. Despite the competitive attitude, this was a fantastic book to read because it gave me so much more information on the sport. If you enjoy running, you should definitely read this book. If you aren’t currently a runner, at least read the first section.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Bone Bearer

The Bone Bearer – Lani Wendt Young

The third book of the telesa trilogy culminates in an even less normal life than the one Leila was already struggling with. After her adventures in Tonga, Leila finds herself possessed by Pele, the original fire goddess. Pele was spurned by the telesa after stealing the gifts of other women in the sisterhood, and ultimately gathered too much power to be contained in one body and suffered for centuries as a tormented spirit. Now Leila finds herself “hosting” Pele, and neither she nor her friends are happy about that. Unrecognizable in every way but appearance, Pele behaves in ways that drive Leila crazy, infuriate her boyfriend Daniel, and confuse her rag-tag band of telesa friends. While Leila’s friends are concerned about Pele’s behavior, they are not the only ones to notice the change. Telesa covenants from around the Pacific have gathered in Samoa to try to band together in an effort to finally deal with Pele. Between Leila, Pele, her friends, and the telesa traditions, the stakes are high and tensions higher as different parties work with and against the greatest threat the telesa have faced in a millennium.

“The Bone Bearer” by Lani Wendt Young is a continuation of the telesa trilogy in every way. It expands the mythology of telesa by deepening the understanding of the Samoan legend and incorporating traditions from Fiji and Hawaii. As in her other books, Young’s descriptions of restaurants, locations, and places are as relevant as ever because they all exist in Samoa. Her attention to detail gives legitimacy to a reality that is so often passed over in pop culture because Samoa is so small it hardly registers anywhere outside its borders. However, as in her other books, Young’s writing hastily recreates pop culture and mixes it with cultural traditions, which can be a successful combination, but not always. Aside from numerous grammatical and spelling errors, she writes with heavy overtones of Harry Potter and Twilight, with notes of Hunger Games, Fifty Shades, and various other pop references thrown in. Although this adds to the relevance of her writing, she seems almost unapologetic in recreating a pop culture and trying to combine it with traditional culture. The story, the writing, and everything about the telesa series seem hasty and rushed rather than thought-out and planned.

“The Bone Bearer” seems like a mash-up of every other young adult trend. As I was reading the book, I found myself predicting what would happen based on patterns in other young adult novels, and was unsurprised when my predictions came true. I also found myself correcting her grammar and rewording her sentences as I was reading, which distracts from the plot. This book also seemed dominated by anger, so that themes of love and optimism would have been lost had they not been blatantly stated at the climax. Despite the difficulties of reading the telesa novels, I absolutely love them because they are set in Samoa and based in Samoan culture and legends. Now that I am somewhat removed from Samoan life, I appreciate these books even more because I appreciate the culture so much more. These novels are not great, but if you have any ties to small islands in the Pacific ocean, they are worth reading.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Non-Violent Communication

Non-Violent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

Non-violent communication is a method of communication that enriches life for all parties engaged in discussion. The four basic steps of non-violent communication are to make non-judgmental observations (thoughts), recognize how those thoughts create an emotional reaction (feelings), identify what needs are not being met because of this emotional reaction (needs), and ask for what will fulfill those needs (request). Basically, non-violent communication is empathic communication that clarifies and strengthens relationships. Non-violent communication can be used in the thoughts we have about ourselves, in personal relationships, and any kind of social or work group setting. Whenever conflict, unease, or tension arises in a conversation, non-violent communication helps connect to the underlying and often unexpressed needs contributing to miscommunication.

Rosenberg clearly outlines the principles and applications of non-violent communication in his book. Having practiced clinical psychology for years, his background as a therapist adds both to his authority on the subject and the relevance of the content. He draws on his own personal practice and life for examples, as well as offering examples from people attending workshops to learn about non-violent communication. He outlines the non-violent communication process in a clear and logical manner, starting with the most basic pieces before putting it together in a process, and offering examples throughout. Even though empathic communication can sometimes get obscured in heady theories of therapy, Rosenberg makes it accessible and relevant for everyone by showing how daily interactions and personal relationships can be improved with non-violent communication.

By the end of the book, it’s almost impossible to find any area of disagreement with Rosenberg. He provides compelling examples, addresses potential areas of difference, and writes with sincerity throughout the entire book. Rather than lecturing about how to improve communication, he seems to be offering his book as a resource for who might be interested (which is everyone, as he explains). Hi book is a perfect example of non-violent communication in action. The only thing that frustrated me about reading the book was that many times I couldn’t anticipate the non-violent responses in all the example conversations. He makes the process seem so easy, but more often than not, I found myself constructing different sentences than those offered as examples. However, he emphasizes that non-violent communication takes practice, mostly because it’s not the way our culture is taught to interact with each other. Whether or not you think you’d ever use non-violent communication, I highly recommend this book because chances are it will benefit you at some point in the future.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling
Entering his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry finds himself with new resolve, understanding, and responsibility. As captain of the Quidditch team, it falls to Harry to maintain the Gryffindor winning streak while also facing his most difficult year of school, though surprisingly in different subjects. With help from a new potions teacher, and even more help from an inscribed potions book that belonged to the “Half-Blood Prince,” Harry finds himself at the top of the class. In addition to the increase in coursework, Harry also takes private lessons with Dumbledore to help him prepare for the day when he must finally face He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. More than ever before, the boundaries of morality, trust, and friendship are blurred beyond recognition as Harry finds himself facing ever more difficult and ambiguous decisions.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a beautiful continuation of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Harry learns to trust despite loss, build relationships despite being hurt, and connect with others despite his desire to isolate himself. He begins to see how important the people around him are, especially as he learns about Voldemort’s past. Moreover, Rowling manages to convey all this within the realm of average adolescent occurrences. As always, Rowling finds a way to write the themes of humanity into the world of wizardy and make it accessible to everybody. She creates such polar opposite characters in Voldemort and Dumbledore while also showing how everyone is connected by some underlying thread of commonality. However, she also shatters these universal lessons by confusing the uniting factors with secrecy, treachery, and disloyalty. The less certainty Harry experiences in his relationships, the more he learns to trust what is can be sure of – the supportive relationships in his life.

After the behemoth of “Order of the Phoenix,” “The Half-Blood Prince” feels like a breeze. Pithy, succinct, and only addresses the most relevant parts. Not that any part of Harry Potter is irrelevant, but the story moves along much faster in “The Half-Blood Prince.” Rowling also provides a refreshing change from the increasingly dark storyline by refocusing on hope, optimism, and connection. The sixth book also comes with more than its fair share of heart wrenching grief, but it’s not quite as overwhelming as in previous novels. She also manages to squeeze in politics, academics, and the equivalent of driver’s ed into one of the shorter novels in the series. Entertaining, enlightening, and ever relatable, this book is just as fantastic as any other Harry Potter book. You need to read it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling

Without time to recover from the shock of Voldemort’s return, Harry Potter feels trapped in a world of uncertainty and lies. Nobody from the Order of the Phoenix, a resistance group, will answer questions about how they plan to thwart Voldemort’s efforts, and the Ministry of Magic reports lies and slander in the daily newspaper, portraying Harry as a lunatic. On top of the stigma Harry is forced to deal with, he must also face his most difficult year yet at school. Professor Umbridge, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, brings her own agenda and challenges to school, sparking chaos and covert rebellion. As Harry struggles to find ground to stand on, everything in his world keeps shifting, creating more uncertainties and obstacles for him to work through. The only thing that seems to stay the same is the dark hallway Harry constantly returns to in his dreams.

General consensus describes “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” as the darkest novel of the series, and rightly so. Rowling aptly captures all the angst and isolation of adolescence and combines it with the struggles and grief of personal tragedy to create the melancholy, bitter world of Harry’s fifth year at school. The injustice of his friend’s behavior carries more weight than the political slander Harry faces from the government. Rowling’s emphasis on personal relationships lays the foundation for significant plot points in the sixth and seventh novels. In fact, Rowling reveals the most important point at the climax of the fifth novel. The ability to care for others, feel compassion, pain, and empathy, is both the greatest strength and most painful weakness of human connection. Rowling shows this in the way the characters construct supportive alliances in the face of frustration, develop patience and appreciation through poignant interactions, and reach out to others in times of need. Unfortunately, Harry is caught in the throes of adolescence, and rather than recognizing this strength, he registers the pain that necessarily accompanies relationships.

Rereading the fifth novel through my social worker lens was a very interesting experience. I read a lot more into the social justice side of the wizarding world, specifically in how discrimination determines alliances and what relationships are needed for individual and collective efficacy. I was also very intrigued by the emphasis on family. Spoiler alert – Harry’s blood connection to his aunt protects him from Voldemort. While this reinforces a traditional family model, an argument could also be made for Harry’s unconventional family, including the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Hagrid, his friends, and the Order of the Phoenix, who care for and protect Harry beyond his blood relations. Overall, Rowling proffers an optimistic interpretation of the world in which the ties that bind are stronger than the forces that divide. Read and consider, then let me know when you’re ready to discuss because I always love to discuss Harry Potter.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling

Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts marks the most difficult year he has faced yet. After somebody conjures the Dark Mark at the Quidditch World Cup, everyone becomes a little more vigilant waiting for the next sign of Voldemort. Traditional school competitions like the Quidditch Cup and the House Cup are cancelled as international students come to Hogwarts to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. But this year, the Triwizard Tournament includes four competitors – some unknown person has submitted Harry’s name. Harry’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament threatens to unravel everything Harry loves about his life at Hogwarts. Rita Skeeter, special correspondent, fills the newspaper with lies about him, while Ron has stopped talking to him, and he has no idea how to prepare for facing and overcoming unknown tasks he is magically bound to participate in for the Triwizard Tournament. Not to mention difficulty handling his newfound desire to talk to Cho Chang. With his world shifting underneath his feet, Harry finds support and guidance from the people around him as he encounters unforeseen challenges.

In the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, Rowling introduces new characters and complexities that both reveal and obscure overarching plot lines. More information brings more misunderstanding about what happened in the past and what the implications will be in the future. The new professor, who turns out to be a Death Eater in disguise, shifts everybody’s understanding of the past because they had all believed him to be dead. Meanwhile, Voldemort’s return to power complicates relationships as levels of secrecy and protection are restored. Throughout all this, Rowling quietly draws attention to obstacles in forming relationships, and how they manage to exist and thrive anyway. Rowling parallels social expectations in how people react to giants and house elves, invoking quick and thoughtless reactions from some characters, and unswerving acceptance and loyalty from others. As always, Rowling skillfully manages to weave all these elements together into a cohesive whole that reflects Harry’s growth through adolescence. Although the story focuses on Harry, the cast of characters and plot points in the larger wizarding world grow significantly as Harry gains greater awareness of what is happening around him, and as he learns the importance of other people in times of need.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is in close competition for my favorite Harry Potter book. I love how Rowling expands Harry’s world to include international characters, and also brings back characters from past books. I was just as heartbroken as Harry was to hear that the Quidditch Cup was cancelled for the year, but was equally excited for the Triwizard Tournament. Everything that happens in this book evokes the same reaction for me as it does for Harry - the injustice of Rita Skeeter’s articles, the frustration of temporarily losing Ron as a friend, and the overwhelming disbelief at Voldemort’s return. If you’ve been following the series – as everyone should be – the emotional attachment to these characters just continues to grow as everything in Harry’s world becomes more intricately connected.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great Gatsby (the movie)

The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrman

I read “The Great Gatsby” way back when in high school and wasn’t impressed. But I know there are a lot of people out there who love this book. So I gave it some time, read it again, and was slightly less unimpressed. OK, it’s a pretty good book, but still, so what? So I let some more time pass, and read it again. And again. With each subsequent reading, “The Great Gatsby” improves as a novel, but the overriding sense I take away is “what’s the big deal?” However, I am completely blown away by the Baz Luhrman film adaptation of the novel. It brings the novel to life in a way that just doesn’t translate for me on the page. This isn’t quite a movie review, but here is what I take away from “The Great Gatsby” the movie that doesn’t come across for me in the novel.

“The Great Gatsby” tells a story of transition, a blending of multiple worlds. Both the past and the present, the haves and the have-nots, the hope for the future and the dashed dreams that lurk just around the corner, both those from the past and those yet to come. Gatsby lies at the intersection of all those transitions, functioning as the heart, soul, and embodiment of all those conflicting expectations. The myth precedes the man, and the myth attracts every follower except the ones who matter most. Nick is the only person ever invited to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties, and he is invited because he provides a direct connection to Daisy, the woman who Gatsby loves. Living in a combination of past hopes and future dreams, Gatsby unknowingly finds himself trapped in a fantasy world. Only Gatsby the legend actually exists, for nobody knows the man. When reality crashes into Gatsby’s painstakingly constructed existence, the impact is both resounding and unnoticeable. The legend of Gatsby slowly drifts away, forgotten, but Gatsby’s world shatters.

The movie superbly illustrates the conflicting worlds of the legendary and actual Gatsby. The glitzy, glamorous, gaudy parties are too over-the-top to be believable, adding to the myth of Gatsby. Contrary to the parties, the valley of ashes lies between Gatsby and the city, the two places where the myth of Gatsby holds the most traction. The valley of ashes visually and physically represents the poverty so desperately suppressed in Gatsby’s myth. Everything connects to the valley of ashes, whether though broken and deceitful relationships, business transactions that reinforce hierarchies of power, or just the act of passing through poverty without seeing. But that’s what T.J. Eckleburg does. The forgotten glasses on the billboard sit above the valley of ashes, watching everything.

Yes, there are a lot of annoying cinematic effects that distract from the movie rather than contributing to the visual representation of myth vs. reality, but this movie is amazing. One of my other favorite parts of the movie is a quote Nick repeats a few times, saying that he finds himself “both within and without.” Within and without what? He is drawn into the myth of Gatsby, finding himself within the legend, but he is without means to participate in the myth. He is central to the tangled circle of relationships, but maintains an outsider perspective. He is within and without in so many ways, as is everyone else. I love the visual representation the movie offers on the world of Gatsby, emphasizing the imbalances and dichotomies that come with living through a constructed self rather than actual reality (although reality is not without its own difficulties). Now I have to read the novel again to see how the lessons come through in the book after watching the movie.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – Douglas Adams

One unremarkable afternoon, an unremarkable airport becomes the cause of great uproar due to “an act of God.” Inexplicably, something blew up, resulting in one missing person, but no casualties. The next morning, private detective Dirk Gently remains blissfully unaware of this “act of God” as he blusters around five hours late for his morning appointment. To his great consternation, he discovers that his client has died of a most improbable suicide, or less likely, a murder. As his day rolls on, filled with more and more strange coincidences and connections, Dirk sets out to uncover the incredible truth behind these two amazing events, determined to figure out which God has been causing trouble, why, and how these disparate accidents are actually inextricably linked to each other. As generally happens with these kinds of things, the big picture is unbelievably complicated, and can only be resolved with the holistic perspective of a private detective from a holistic detective agency.

“The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” is the second novel by Douglas Adams featuring Dirk Gently, holistic detective. Adams is especially adept at writing grand philosophical statements and arguments that undermine rational thought processing, resulting in undeniable yet unbelievable truths. The strength of his statements is reinforced by his chosen narrative, a holistic detective who seeks the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The irrational, implausible, and disparate all become beautifully and perfectly aligned in the world of Dirk Gently. Moreover, Adams writes with unexpected and incisive humor that perfectly captures the frustrations and absurdity of the human condition. His metaphors and illogical arguments connect the most unexpected elements, creating vivid descriptions to a degree that “a box of chocolates” just can’t muster. Both entertaining and mind-boggling, Adams will have you laughing out loud as you ponder the possibility of the impossible.

I love Adams’ work because of the originality, unexpectedness, and humor in his tone. Adams rarely crosses into the vulgar sarcasm that so often accompanies science fiction, keeping his arguments and criticisms more insightful than disparaging. However, “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” is not my favorite work by Adams. Perhaps because I couldn’t devote my full attention to reading this novel, and because it took me almost two full weeks to finish the novel, I had a hard time following the plot. Every once in a while I could understand how he was drawing conclusions based on earlier happenings in the novel, but for the most part, I seemed to be riding along with the arguments rather than building on the foundation of previous events. It’s hard to find the fundamental interconnectedness of things when you can’t keep all the things in your head. Disconnections aside, Adams is always a worthwhile read just for the entertainment value alone. Whether or not his arguments make sense, they always make you laugh.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling

Sirius Black, one of the most notorious criminals in the wizarding world, has unbelievably managed to escape from Azkaban, the equally notorious wizarding prison, and everyone believes he is chasing after Harry. Of course, this doesn't bother Harry. What does bother Harry is the dementors, the guards at Azkaban who specialize in terrible memories, and who have been stationed outside Hogwarts for extra security. Every time the dementors get close to Harry, he hears the final moments before his parents died. Harry turns to Professor Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, to help him ward off the dementors. Lupin becomes a mentor for Harry over the course of the year, adding another link to the chain that connects Harry to the wizarding world and the parents he never knew. However, when Harry learns about Lupin's connection to his parents, Black's connection to his parents, and the connection between Lupin and Black, it radically shifts Harry's understanding of his past, alters his expectations for the future, and entirely changes how he fits into the whole complicated picture.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J.K. Rowling focuses on the question of good vs. evil, undermining the basic dichotomy that always tries to clearly delineate sides. Simpler versions of this question show up in Harry's rule breaking, sneaking around the castle, and deceiving teachers. Small rule-breaking doesn't seem to do much harm, but when considered in the context of how Harry's behavior resembles that of his father, and how his father died to save Harry, it takes on complexity to also become an issue of identity and relationships. The biggest question, though, is that of being good or evil towards other people, whether those tendencies can change over time, and what implications it has for everyone involved. It also draws attention to the importance of having supportive relationships when struggling with these issues. As always, Harry turns to Ron and Hermione, but he keeps finding more people to help him make sense of his lost past with every new revelation.

I usually tell people that the third Harry Potter is my favorite, and so far, that is still a true statement. I love this book because it introduces Lupin and Black, who are some of my favorite characters. You learn more about Harry's past (although I think that's true of every book). I also love it because this is when I started figuring out some of the astronomy connected to Harry Potter (Sirius is the brightest star in the Big Dog constellation). It also sits at the precarious tipping point before the series gets really dark and heavy - a brief preview of things to come. I can't pin down one thing that sets this book above all the other Harry Potter books, but I just love it. Well worth the read.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson

Part memoir, part historical commentary, "A Walk in the Woods" is the recounting of Bill Bryson's decision to hike the Appalachian Trail. Bryson includes all steps of this process, starting with instructions from his kids about purchasing gear ("Don't ask so many questions!"), to every last adventure with his amazingly incongruous trail mate, Stephen Katz, to their final steps on the trail. Along the way, Bryson delivers a well-researched history about the development and maintenance of the trail and sarcastic commentary about the trail, the woods, the conditions, and the antics of every person they encounter along the way. From bear scares in the middle of the night, to little luxuries of condensation on a can of soda, to the soul-searching that accompanies leaving goals incomplete (not a spoiler, you actually learn this pretty early in the book), Bryson finds a way of capturing his entire experience on the AT in a way that makes the reader laugh, groan, and sympathize with every last ache and pain.

"A Walk in the Woods" is pretty evenly split between Bryson's experience on the trail, the history of the trail, and Bryson's sarcastic commentary about everything that is happening during his adventures. Although it felt like information overkill at times, the background of the AT actually provide nice little interludes throughout the book. Bryson does his research - thoroughly - and despite presenting the information with a hefty dose of personal opinion, the history contributes helpful tidbits and anecdotes, as well as a more serious tone, to the overall story. The portions of the book that deal with Bryson's experiences and his musings on those experiences were much more...enthusiastic. They were quotable, laugh out loud hilarious, occasionally angry, and most often sarcastic. His writing is endlessly entertaining and relatable, but by the end of the book, I found myself growing impatient with his sarcasm. While his recounting of the AT was thoroughly enjoyable, there are times when he could have toned down his tongue in cheek style just a bit.

This is one of those books that grows in hilarity as you read it out loud to others, whether it's repeating a sentence or a series of paragraphs. I was dying laughing as I read parts of this book - just wait until you meet Mary Ellen. One of the things that was hard about reading this book, though, was that I read it while I was at camp, and I spent more of my time comparing my experience to his than I spent absorbing his stories. There were certain parts where this was beneficial though - who better to relate to the "gentle descent into squalor" than someone who hasn't showered for a week? This book is well worth the read, if for no other reason than to live vicariously through his experience. I'm not sure I would ever actually hike the AT (I'd never sleep at night for fear of the mountain man), but I can certainly enjoy reading about it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry knows what is waiting for him at school. Or at least he thinks he knows what is waiting for him. After a long summer of silence from his friends, Harry's solitude is interrupted by Dobby, the house elf, who tries to save Harry's life by preventing him from returning to Hogwarts. Despite the chaos that ensues from Dobby's "help," Harry again finds himself at Hogwarts and running into trouble in all the places he shouldn't be. As danger threatens his closest friends, Harry finds himself running headlong into jeopardy and all the mystery that surrounds it. The danger that threatens to close the school reveals some of the secrets of his beloved Hogwarts, and also some of the secrets about his own past. With no other option than to intervene, Harry finds himself facing demons both real and personal as he fights for all the things that have become his home - his school and his friends.

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is the second of seven books in the Harry Potter series. Having established the world of witchcraft and wizardry thoroughly enough in her first novel, Rowling uses the second book as an opportunity to expand the depth of the storyline and characters involved in Harry's life. She fills in some - very few - of the blanks about Harry's past, giving just enough information to leave the reader eager for more, and adds layers of complexity to the wizarding world. New characters come with new spells and new dimension of what constitutes good and evil. Overall, Rowling does an excellent job at mirroring the world of Hogwarts - a second year (novel) brings new information, growth, and complexity to every facet of the story.

The "Harry Potter" books are in a league of their own in my opinion. Engrossing, original, and infallible, the books forever hold a special spot on the bookshelf in my heart. Read them. NOW.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Leadership and Self-Deception

Leadership and Self-Deception – The Arbinger Institute

Tom is newly hired at the Zagrum company, and after his first month of work, he is being called in for a special meeting with the VP, Bud. Unsure what to expect, Tom is amazed when Bud starts off the meeting by telling Tom that he has a problem. They spend the rest of the morning talking about how this problem manifests in such a way that everyone else is aware of it except the person with the problem. This problem is also peculiar because it is a problem that everyone has. After a day and a half of discussion that includes the VP, the president, and the previous owner of the company, Tom reflects about how his new awareness of the problem might influence his life. Everything from his work productivity, his work relationships, and his home life all improve as a result of his new-found awareness of this basic problem that everyone shares.

“Leadership and Self-Deception” has been used worldwide in corporate, team-building, and personal settings to improve relationships between people by building a common language about this specific problem. In short, that problem is living “in the box.” When someone (meaning all of us because we all have this problem) is living in the box, they see other people as objects instead of people, which inflates their view of themselves and the annoyances of the other person, creating a cycle in which we justify our less-than-perfect actions by blaming others for their weaknesses (not blaming others for your own weaknesses, but blaming others for their own weaknesses). This in turn puts other people “in the box,” giving them permission to blame others for their weaknesses and creating discontent all around. The solution to getting and staying out of the box is to let the humanity of other people pull you out of the box so that you connect to others as people instead of objects.

This book takes an interesting approach for a self-help novel. Instead of explaining the problem and giving examples, it puts it in a story, semi-fictionalizing the material so that it reads as a novel while drawing on real-life examples and situations. It is very easy to read, continually reiterating the ideas and concepts for maximum learning opportunities. It also feels incredibly patient for a book, so that you can argue with it while you are reading until you accept that you, too, are susceptible to the problem of living “in the box.” Understandable, relatable, and clearly explained, this book would be useful for anyone looking to improve their productivity, teamwork, or personal relationships. Highly recommended, especially for any kind of leadership setting or program.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

After a horrific accident that leaves Harry Potter an orphan, he is left on the doorstep of his aunt and uncle’s house. Although strange things always seem to happen around Harry, he grows up thinking he is a normal kid, until owls start bringing him letters on his 11th birthday. Then a strange man who looks more like a giant comes to the house when Harry does not answer his letters. Hagrid tells Harry that he is a wizard, explains his background, and introduces him to the world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After a whirlwind of preparation, Harry heads of for his first year at school where he learns to fly, plays the much beloved wizarding sport of quidditch, and even makes a few friends despite the fame and mystery that shroud his background. As the school year draws to a close, the friendships and tensions that have built over the past year are tested as Harry and his friends attempt to thwart a teacher who has been assisting Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard the world has seen. And that is only in his first year at school, leaving him hopeful for what the future will bring.

“Sorcerer’s Stone” is the first of J.K. Rowling’s seven book series on Harry Potter, an international hit that has been turned into one of the largest movie franchises in the world. As an introduction into the series, Rowling does a great job at explaining what needs to be explained for a basic understanding while also leaving questions unanswered so that the storyline can grow in complexity as the characters age. The characters she brings in already have distinct behaviors and roles to distinguish their specific contribution to the story, and she explains just enough about the world of magic to lay the basic structure of the world without overwhelming the reader with details. As an introduction to a long series, the book perfectly outlines the necessities so that nuances can grow in later stories. Rowling is also a hilarious writer, bringing in absurd ideas and making connections and comments that draw attention away from basic daily observations to how the simplest things are not always the simplest things.

Harry Potter books have always been in a league of their own in my opinion. For a long time, I reread the entire series every summer, but I have not had the opportunity to do that recently. However, the break has been refreshing because the distance removes some of the familiarity, allowing me to see parts of the book that I may have glossed over in my half-memorized skimming. Knowing what happens in the rest of the series and starting over from the very first book is actually a lot more fun than I was expecting because I see the hints of what will come later. The first book is fairly simple and straightforward, which is how it needs to be, so it is fast and easy to get through, but always enjoyable. You must read Harry Potter – there is no room for argument or disagreement here.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


Inferno – Dan Brown

Robert Langdon is back to save the world again, although he doesn’t quite know what the problem is, where he is, or how to figure out. Suffering from amnesia that has taken away the past few days of his life, Langdon must make hasty decisions about where to go and who to trust. Dr. Sienna Brooks helps Langdon out of the hospital and on a dizzying race through Florence, but for how smart she is, she does not offer many answers about their situation. Who are the soldiers in black chasing them around the city? Is Langdon’s own government trying to kill him? What does this mysterious plague do and how can it be stopped? As Langdon and Brooks follow a trail through Florence that seems to parallel Dante’s Divine Comedy, they begin to wonder if the mad genius who laid down the path was really trying to create hell on Earth.

As always, Dan Brown writes a fast-paced novel that raises questions until the very last page. With short chapters that never break into double-digit page lengths, the book moves as fast as the narration, jumping between scenes, revelations, and high-speed chases at every turn of the page. And as always, Brown finds a way to take a deeply divided issue and make it gray. Brown creates an indisputable villain, but the only reason he is the villain is because of the methods he chooses, not necessarily his end goal. In “Inferno,” Brown changes position so many times that it is hard to get clarity on who can be trusted, what is happening, and how to proceed, which is not exactly a bad thing. Sometimes, to face unthinkable moral questions, everything has to be made unfamiliar so that the usual black and white cannot define the issue.

I am a huge fan of Dan Brown because his books provide edutainment. Every time you read a Brown book, you learn something about some piece of art, some obscure symbol, or some language puzzle, and it is always combined with a crisis. However, I felt like “Inferno” was more of an art history lecture than a novel. It was hard for me to keep up with the storyline because he introduced a different piece of art or architecture every other paragraph, so when plot points finally began twisting beyond recognition, it took me a while to figure it out. In general, this is a classic Dan Brown book, and if you like Dan Brown, you need to read it. Personally, I think it would have been better to release the book as an app so I could see everything he was telling me about. That way, I wouldn’t have gotten so caught up in the details of angles and colors and instead focused more on which team I am rooting for and why.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Winter is certainly coming, but nothing else is as certain as it seems. The Seven Kingdoms, which have been united under one ruler for centuries, are in upheaval after the sudden death of the Hand of the King. Ned Stark, lifelong friend of the King, is appointed the new Hand and must leave his land and part of his family behind to live at King’s Landing and be the voice of the King. Up North, rangers at the Wall are disappearing at an alarming rate, raising concern about what the coming Winter might be bringing with it. And Dany, last of the line of the Dragon, the king killed by the Usurper, has found her own strength to stake a claim for the throne stolen from her family when she was a baby. Everywhere in between, tenuous alliances are held together by half-truths, oaths are sworn and broken, and individual mettle tested in every way imaginable. But this is only the beginning, because Winter is still coming.

In the first book of the Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin, the structure of the Seven Kingdoms is laid out just in time for any semblance of reason, justice, or loyalty to be shattered. As the first book of a (yet to be finished) seven book series, Martin has a lot of information to introduce. The narration jumps between characters in the story, revealing some information while simultaneously raising questions about what is actually happening. This makes for fast reading, which works well considering the amount of foundation he has to set up before he can start breaking it down. Martin writes with ruthless and merciless accuracy, getting across exactly what he means to say and cutting down anyone or anything that prevents him from making a point. Don’t get attached to characters because they won’t hang around forever. He develops his novel with complex and interwoven storylines, adding intrigue with every passing page, which bodes well for the rest of the series. Though he may be blunt, he knows how to keep the pages turning.

“A Game of Thrones” is a mammoth book, and only the first of a series adding up to thousands and thousands of pages. I am generally not a fan of this type of fantasy, and a preface that left me more confused than intrigued didn’t help. Stick with it, though because the book gets really interesting. After spending at least half the book laying the groundwork for his storylines, Martin lets the first piece fall, throwing the whole story into a whirlwind of betrayal, misunderstanding, and illogical action. It may also be helpful to use the map and appendix (which lists all the family lines along with their councils and courts) more often than I did. I read through the first couple hundred pages by sheer brute force, mixing up knights and squires and councilors. It would also help to refer to the appendix because not all the characters have clear loyalties. I love this book because it of its complexity, and it promises to be an interesting series.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

“Cloud Atlas” tells the story of the human condition. Sometimes the human condition is to be weak, vulnerable, and preyed upon. Sometimes the human condition finds strength despite being preyed upon, propelling ideas to the public to be adopted for future generations. Sometimes the human condition is to be blindly, hopelessly in love. Whatever the specific circumstance, there is some universal element that finds a way to connect us all to each other. Honestly, though, I can’t give you a brief synopsis of “Cloud Atlas” because that takes all the fun out of it. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

Written as a series of stories, “Cloud Atlas” takes a kind of postmodern, abstract perspective on the human condition that tends to hide just as much as it reveals. Whether you have to patiently wait for the answers, answer the questions for yourself, or even formulate the questions yourself, “Cloud Atlas” will make you stop and think a second or third time about what you just read and how it relates to everything else. Mitchell beautifully creates multiple worlds within one novel, giving distinct voice and character to each section. This is alternately exciting and annoying because it forces you into new settings with no certain terms or rules about grammar, spelling, and how life works, which reinforces the theme of the novel. You may never know the full story of what is happening, but the most important part is to try to understand what is happening at this particular moment. Mitchell writes with wit and satire that seems more and more brilliant as the novel goes on, because the more you read, the more you understand. It is unbelievable how such a complex work can resolve to such a united storyline.

I was completely blown away by “Cloud Atlas.” It doesn’t make any sense, yet it makes absolutely perfect sense. I frequently found myself frustrated at the lack of information, but once I started to find answers to my questions, it was so beautifully simple and obvious. I want to read it again to see if I can find even more allusions between the stories. A little bit of word play, a little bit of criticism, and a lot of fantastic worlds and stories – everything that I enjoy reading. It was thrilling (exhilarating) to read because of the fun, imagination, and creative care that obviously went into crafting every part of the story. I highly recommend reading this one.

Monday, March 25, 2013

On Friendship

On Friendship – Michel de Montaigne

Hmm, I don’t particularly feel up to reviewing this one so I’ll be brief. “On Friendship” is a collection of essays from Montaigne including “On Friendship,” “That it is Madness to Judge the True and False From Our Own Capacities,” “On the Art of Conversation,” “On Idleness,” “On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children,” “On Moderation,” and “That we Should Not be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death.” Quite a range of topics, and he presents rather interesting arguments in each essay. His language is rather dense (these were all written in the 1500s), so it requires more than average (meaning, semi-distracted) effort to focus on what he is saying, but he does make some witty remarks and come to some astute conclusions. More often, though, he makes blatantly sexist and elitist comments about the abilities of different people, but don’t dismiss his arguments outright. Half the enjoyment of reading Montaigne’s essays came from thoughtfully refuting his points. In my head, of course. Reading his essays produces a conversation through active engagement with ideas in the text, which is exactly what books are supposed to do. So maybe don’t read the entire thing in one sitting, but it’s worth reading the essays and considering what he has to say. Or at least the shorter ones.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Beet Queen

The Beet Queen – Louise Erdrich

At the height of the Great Depression, Adelaide cannot afford to take care of her children. After selling everything she owns and sacrificing everything of meaning, she gives up, hops a plane, and flies away. Thrust suddenly into leading a family, young Mary makes a plan to ride a train to their aunt’s house, who will surely solve all their problems. But before they can reach their aunt’s house, the three children are separated. Karl jumps right back into the boxcar and spends his life in motion, while Mary grows a stubbornness that roots her to Argus, North Dakota for the rest of her life, and the baby brother lives apart from the rest of them, only to enter their lives again at rare intervals. Desperate to find a home, Mary attaches herself to her aunt’s family by becoming necessary to their existence. She takes over her uncle’s butcher shop when they have to move south, constantly annoys her cousin Sita, and forces her way into a lifelong friendship with Celestine. Meanwhile, Karl floats around, appearing at random intervals to disrupt life. He has a child with Celestine, Dot, who pulls everyone else together by pushing them away equally. In a life of uncertainty, sometimes the only thing that can be counted on is change.

“The Beet Queen” follows a cast of characters over more than 40 years as they grow from children who struggle with finding a place in the world into adults who struggle with finding a place in the world. Haunted by their past relationships and abandonments, each character adopts a different coping mechanism, which defines how they approach new relationships. Whether through flight, immobility, passive acceptance, or general disregard, each character seeks to build substantial relationships and establish a sense of home. The characters represent different perspectives on what home means, how to build a home, and how other people in life relate to one’s sense of home. The setting alternately reinforces and juxtaposes the importance of home. A tiny little town in North Dakota brings to mind a small, close community that is often associated with “home,” but it ironically serves as the nexus of life for so many characters in motion. Erdrich expertly creates a world where people, places, stability, and motion all question what it means to belong.

Admittedly, I think “The Beet Queen” is a bit of a bland novel. A tiny town in North Dakota that struggles to catch up as the rest of the world modernizes? Who cares? But upon closer inspection of the characters, their actions, and what motivates their lives, the story really comes to life. I love how Erdrich plays with the sense of home, how people and relationships relate to our sense of home, and how movement impacts or, sometimes, defines life. No, this isn’t a ground-breaking, soul-shattering novel, but it is beautifully crafted to make you reconsider how we relate to the world. It is simple, even understated, and well worth the read.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook - Matthew Quick

Pat Peoples believes in silver linings, and he is waiting for the movie of his life to come to its happy ending. Despite spending the past few years in "the bad place" with no memory of what happened to put him there, he believes he will be happily reunited with his wife if only he can prove that he is now a better person. To prove he is a better person, he spends all day working out, all night reading, and puts all his effort into being kind instead of being right. With the support of his friends and family, he manages to make a smooth transition out of “the bad place,” but his encounters with Tiffany, the sister of a friend, only confuse him. While Pat focuses all his efforts on reuniting with his ex-wife, Tiffany silently challenges all his notions of how the world works. She pushes him out of his comfort zone, provokes him into emotional outbursts (occasionally showing her own dark side), and supports him through his all-too-familiar struggles to function in daily life. As Pat strives tirelessly for his prized “silver lining,” he learns that silver linings, if they exist at all, may not be permanent, cannot be pre-determined, and are beyond personal control.

“Silver Linings Playbook” documents the struggles of an emotionally unstable man trying to live a normal life. He is alternately strong and fragile, his emotional balance delicately dangling between unflagging optimism and uncontrollable rage. In a world of uncertainty, the only routines he knows are his morning and evening pills, and his daily marathon of working out. Having missed the past few years of life, he desperately seeks something solid to hold on to, but must maintain a façade of calm because nobody else seems fazed by the information that astounds him on regular basis. While his friends and family are supportive of him as he attempts to return to the real world, they also barrage him with their own expectations of life and how he is supposed to behave, making his transition more complicated and burying his expectations beneath those of his friends and family. Written as a collection of journal entries to serve as his both his memoir and proof that he is improving his life, “Silver Linings Playbook” documents the naïveté of happy endings, but also shows that endings only bring more beginnings.

I absolutely loved the "Silver Linings Playbook" movie, and I think this is the first time I would pick the movie over the book (I'm going to blame this on the fact that I saw the movie first). The book is fairly simply written since it is written to sound like a journal. While this is good for embracing the child-like innocence/emerging into new adulthood that the main character has, I felt it wasn't quite substantial enough. It is a quick read, and very entertaining, but there is a lot of potential to expand the novel, add depth to characters and situations, and explore how mental illness manifests in the 21st century and how others react to that. I did like how the novel was a bit ambiguous about the reality of silver linings - that ending was a bit more satisfying than the hollywood ending the movie has. This was a really fun book, but if you absolutely had to pick one or the other, I would go with the move.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Because of Winn-Dixie

Because of Winn-Dixie – Kate DeCamillo

India Opal, generally referred to as Opal, is new in town. She has just moved to a small town in Florida because her father, the preacher, was assigned to a new congregation. Without her familiar surroundings, she feels more vulnerable and scared than ever, longing for the mother who left when she was young. Lucky for Opal, she quickly finds a friend in a stray dog when she runs down to the Winn-Dixie grocery store one day. Naming him after the place she found him, Opal and Winn-Dixie become inseparable. They go to church together, share the same bed, and walk all over town meeting new people and even making some friends. Through her partnership with Winn-Dixie, Opal learns how to move on and build new relationships as life continually pushes forward.

“Because of Winn-Dixie” is an adorable story about finding the courage to push outside your comfort zone and reach out to others. It covers everything from loss and death to alcoholism, but does so with a tone of childhood teasing, so although the issues are serious, they are portrayed with a touch of simplicity that allows for forgiveness and growth. Opal’s innocent curiosity about life also emphasizes that skill children have for asking difficult questions with unassuming interest, which tends to put a little perspective on how big (or, more likely, small) the issue really is. Her simple trust and optimistic determination about building relationships, and life in general, make her an excellent protagonist for a children’s novel.

I love children’s books because of the perspective they offer on life. There always seems to be more of an element of fun and play while also tackling some of the stickier issues of life. Children’s novels can’t be too serious because of their intended audience, and I think we always need that little reminder. This is a very simple book, probably readable in one sitting if you have enough time, but easy enough to pick up and put down.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Book of Awesome

The Book of Awesome - Neil Pasricha

Sometimes you're having a bad day, then one little thing happens to turn it all around. Or sometimes you're having a great day, and one little thing happens to make it that much better. Or it’s just an all-around amazing day when everything is going right. Whatever the case may be, those little things are worth taking note of. In fact, why not make a whole list out of them? Whether you’re smacking electronics to make them work, high-fiving babies, or enjoying the cool side of your pillow, these little things are what make life AWESOME!

“The Book of Awesome” is just a list of awesome things. Some items are accompanied by lengthy descriptions explaining the exact circumstances in which said awesome event is so awesome, while others are just quick entries emphasizing that the awesome event is awesome exactly the way it is. Pasricha writes in a conversational style that sounds exactly how you would speak if you were defending deep-held beliefs about what makes life so great. The easy-going writing style underscores the value of the materials by making it accessible. “The Book of Awesome” is fun, easy to read, and plain old awesome. Since it is written in list format, it doesn’t lend itself to extended reading, but it’s great to pick up and just read a few items on the list. It reminds you of all the little things that deserve your attention because they are so great in such a simple way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Civil Action

A Civil Action – Jonathan Harr

The small town of Woburn seems like an ideal place to raise a family in the 60s and 70s, as many people do. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, as one family learns when their young son dies of leukemia. A small tragedy that could pass unnoticed until another child dies of leukemia. And another, and another, until people begin to speculate about the possibility of a cancer cluster. The likely suspect is the drinking water, which smells foul and tastes worse. The town suspects two production plants of polluting the water source with chemicals and toxic waste. However, the case seems just as toxic and untouchable as the water, until it falls into the hands of Schlichtman, who pursues the case beyond the point of obsession. After pouring years of life and millions of dollars into research, the case finally comes to trial. Although the case seems clear cut, Schlichtman runs into problems in the courtroom as he comes up against hostile witnesses, alternative theories of groundwater movement, and a stubborn judge. As the case drags on, it raises more questions about both the purpose and the process of the justice system. Does it protect the victims, and can it indeed be called a justice system?

“A Civil Action” is a very detailed retelling of the trial process. Based on the true story of a court case in the 80s, it tells the real story of all the effort, strain, and worry that goes into high profile cases. The author doesn’t skip any detail, documenting superstitious wardrobe choices, eating habits, and a whole array of dysfunctional behaviors. This could potentially be a highly compelling legal story, but the author doesn’t seem to be telling a story. He is recounting a trial, and it comes off that way. His descriptions are accurate and they create somewhat dramatic scenes, but overall, he lacks the energy and enthusiasm that should accompany a story. The narration is fine, but it doesn’t flow. The details are precise, but they’re not vivid. The story plods along rhythmically rather than catching the reader in a swirl of interest. Overall, it’s OK.

I wasn’t too thrilled with this book. Actually, I was quite intrigued as I read the summary of it, but once I started reading, I quickly changed my assessment. It was still interesting and I enjoyed learning more about the legal process. I had no idea that there was more to a trial than just the trial – there is also discovery, taking depositions, all kinds of research, briefing, and motions. But unless you are really interested in those things – perhaps if you are a lawyer – it doesn’t make for an easy read. It’s no John Grisham, which I know isn’t a fair comparison, but if you’re looking for an interesting legal read, you’re probably better off sticking with a reputable author with a history of compelling books.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain – T.C. Boyle

Delaney is a writer living in southern California with his new wife and step-son. He calls himself a pilgrim because he moved from the east coast, and he sees himself as a transplanted person with a unique perspective to notice to local flora and fauna because it is all new to him. His life focuses on the patterns of nature, and his lifestyle in suburban California takes on the humanist liberal perspective that seems founded on everything equal, organic, and helpful. What the humanist liberal perspective actually means is challenged when the neighborhood he lives in considers the idea of building both a gate and a fence to protect those inside and keep all sources of trouble outside. These political challenges become a personal struggle when Delaney hits a Mexican with his car. Candido, an illegal immigrant looking for work, camps in the valley with his pregnant wife. Having left his village in shame, he knows he cannot return, but he also knows he cannot remain where he is without work. He struggles daily to find food for his wife, but the outside sources working against him – la migra, drought, and general racism – are almost impossible to overcome. Even when all hope is lost, he cannot turn away from his responsibility to those around him. Delaney and Candido lead parallel lives that occasionally intersect as they struggle with what it means to live in the world they inhabit.

On the surface, “The Tortilla Curtain” seems more concerned with binaries than anything else. Native plant species vs. invasive species. The dark uncertainty of the night vs. the light of day when everything can be laid bare. Inside the neighborhood vs. outside the neighborhood. There are plenty of metaphors to find and analyze, but the effect of all these metaphors is to show where the binary doesn’t actually exist and these opposing forces intersect. Delaney and Candido lead mirror lives, in that their lives are completely different, but ultimately they struggle with the same issues. As Delaney wrestles with his entrenched habits, Candido struggles to find certainty in a constantly changing world. The differences built into each character encompass the entire range of human experience, and Boyle incisively shows how the essential aspect of human experience is to incorporate change and difference. Boyle’s writing is unforgiving, unapologetic, and spot on, as he lays bare human emotions and motivations.

I absolutely recommend this book. Although it is horribly depressing, it is also heartbreakingly inspiring. It shows what the world really is, but also what it can be like when people do actually help each other.

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

Religion and politics are closely tied in 12th century England when the king dies without an apparent heir to the throne, and everyone wants to replace him with their own favorite choice. The consequences of this feud extend to all areas of life for everyone in the land, no matter their distance from the throne. Amidst the scheming, politicking, and fighting, Prior Phillip somehow manages to focus his energy on turning his priory into a thriving town. At the center of his efforts, he oversees the building of a new cathedral, which will replace the one that burned down on the same night a master builder took shelter in the monastery. Over the course of a lifetime, Prior Phillip struggles earnestly for peace and justice in a world dominated by shrewd, sinister men, and watches the walls of his cathedral rise to the heavens. Those building the cathedral suffer no small hardship either, as they face the poverty, uncertainty, and occasional joy of the life of a peasant. In a world so full of suffering and sadness, everyone helps each other to see the promise of a new day that might bring success, justice, or just a bite to eat.

“The Pillars of the Earth” is a very thoroughly researched, planned, and written book. The novel encompasses a lifetime, and somehow Follett finds a way to make the storylines compelling all the way through its almost 1,000 page length. It is also an incredibly complex novel, with multiple story lines competing for primacy and even more secondary stories filling out the background. There are more characters than I can count on my fingers and toes, but they are pretty easy to keep track of after the initial introductions. Follett portrays the lifestyle and hardships, or lack thereof, of the different characters in roundabout detail, so instead of telling the reader exactly what life was like, he demonstrates the drastically different standards of living. The heart of the entire novel, though, is the construction of the cathedral. Follett’s introduction to the book was a little long, but worth reading because it tells how the novel should be read. Although the detail Follett gives to the construction of the cathedral gets a bit technical (boring) at times, his genuine awe and wonder at the ability to construct such magnificent structures with such limited knowledge inspires such wonder in the reader as well.

In terms of lengthy novels, this certainly scores high on my list for maintaining interest. The story never really drags, although I wasn’t particularly fond of all the detail about the construction of the cathedral. I had a hard time visualizing the intercepts, clerestory, and the western wall of the nave because I’m not entirely sure what all those things are, but it did leave me with a greater appreciation for the skill of builders and the amount of work that goes into a construction project. For those who were intrigued by the religious side of the Da Vinci Code books, I would highly recommend this book because it gives more information on the inner workings of the Catholic Church in England. For those who aren’t so interested in that, it is also a great novel about the struggles of good vs. evil, and if even that doesn’t sound interesting, there are lots of great battle scenes.