Wednesday Wondering: Character Connections

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Time for another special edition of Wednesday Wonderings by yours truly, Friendly Bookworm! Unlike my other posts which consist of talking about specific books, here, I like to discuss and focus on different elements of literature and reading in general. So let’s get started!

In my youth I was terribly obsessed with horses and animals more generally. I used to read The Saddle Club religiously, devouring all the available books in that series from my local library. One time, I even recall getting the poor librarian to ship one of the books in the series from a library across the province (I grew up in Canada where we have provinces, instead of “states” or “counties”).

At the beginning of my literary adventure/career, all that mattered to me were the plot lines (must be something to do with horses), the interesting adventures that characters went on (usually with their horses). As I grew older, however, my interest gravitated from plot lines towards the characters themselves. Why do they react the way they do? What are the different personalities that permeate each book? How do the characters themselves influence plot?

It was around this time that I did well in my English classes and actually took interest in the books we were were reading for them. Eventually, I learned to contain my obsession with horses and expand my book reading genre – which I am sure helped me a lot. It was so interesting to learn about different characters in different areas of the world. I loved reading about the American south, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, or learning about the Cold War through the allegorical novella Animal Farm by George Orwell. I realised that there were so many more elements in books beyond plot lines that would books so much more satisfying then just on the surface plot lines.

Now, a new book or a series could be in  a make-it-or-break-it situation if I’m to a fan of the characters. Take for example (and my boyfriend is going to be so upset when I write about this) The Wheel of Time series. The plots are extremely lengthy but all the characters are the same, especially the women. They all have the same characteristics which I don’t feel like I can connect to. The author, Robert Jordan, does a slightly better job with the men in the series, but it still doesn’t go far enough for me, or doesn’t offer a large enough range. I think this is something that George R.R. Martin does a lot better in his Game of Thrones series, as he does provide some variety.

Reading back through what I just read it might sound that if I can’t relate to a character then I dislike the book. Although that’s how I felt for a period in my life, take the Harry Potter series for example, my favourite character was Hermoine and sometimes learning about how she reacts in situations was more interesting for me than what was happening in the book or how the main character was reacting. Obviously she was fictional character but she possessed attributes that I could relate to and strove towards.

Now, I’m more interested to see the author using different characters to explore the human psyche. I think that’s why I loved East of Eden as much as I did. The plot line was sub-par but that wasn’t the purpose of the novel. The sense I got was that the whole point of the novel was for the author to explore how nature and nurture battled it out in the characters from their birth and analysed their behaviours and reactions to different scenarios. I thought this was so cool – it’s like people watching but knowing how they actually think or feel in the situations instead of just assuming or making up what they might feel.

Mind you this doesn’t mean that I gave up on plot all together. A book definitely needs at least something to push me along, but I’d just learned plot/adventure isn’t integral for me. Rest assured, if a novel has both then it’s absolute magic!

Q: Do you have any preferences when reading a new book? What’s most important for you?

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Teaser Tuesday: June 5th

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teasertuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

You might already know that I am pretty obsessed with Bill Bryson. He’s definitely one of my favourite authors as his writing style is so unique. He can make any subject entertaining and you find yourself going through his book at record speed because you really can’t put them down. So here is another small sample from the latest book by him that I’m currently reading The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.

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” The first principle of a British system is that is should only appear systematic. That is the nub of it really…If you suggest to any British person that there is anything odd or irregular about any part of a British system – let’s say, just for the sake of argument, about weights and measures – they get instantly iffy and say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.'” (185-188)

Book Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Published: 1952

This book came into my life quite randomly. I was back in Canada for Christmas and I saw my brother reading it, and just asked him what he thought of it. He said it was a good book, and one day when I had a couple of hours spare I thought I’d just read the first chapter to get a sense of the book. About 5 chapters later I was completely hooked on this book and couldn’t put it down. I knew I had to have this in my life!

The story is set in Salinas Valley, California, but throughout the novel we do bounce around to different areas in the states as well as time periods, at one point we de get taken back to the American Civil War. The story follows several generations of two families and their lives, the Trasks and the Hamiltons as the author explores themes such as identity, love, evil, and paternal rejection, just to name a few.

It’s a decent sized book, and I felt like it was some sort of a psychological experiment, to see how people’s identity is shaped by nature (genetics/family genealogy) and nurture (events and people). I re-read that last sentence and it makes it sound a bit boring, but with the author’s incredibly captivating writing style it’s anything but boring.  We follow a number of different characters with different traits so it’s easy to relate to at least one of them. The characters themselves are anything but stock, and  they feel very relatable as they make mistakes and bad decisions as we all know we call can make in life.

As the book is based in America, the author also explores America’s identity. I found this especially poignant given the release and popularity of Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” where he explored the nature of America and it’s downfalls, through the perspective of African-Americans. There is one quote in particular that really drove home the tumultuous character of America home for me:

” ‘We all have heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’ve over-brave and over-fearful – we’ve kind and cruel as children. We’re over-friendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re over sentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic – and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.’ ” (689)

We can’t talk about America without talking about freedom of course, as they go hand in hand. That’s why the author’s exploration of the power of free will. Early on, the author preaches this idea that we all have the right to choose between good and evil, even if our lives up until then were dictated by one or another. This is particularly poignant as all the characters will battle with this issue of choosing between good and evil:

” ‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.’ ” (161)

After reading up on the author you can’t help but feel like this is semi-autobiographical, as reading about John Steinbeck’s life draws many similarities to the book. He was born and grew up in Salinas, California, and has a mixed heritage upbringing.

Steinbeck was also highly conscious of religion in his work, and you feel it permeating throughout the novel – although he himself would become agnostic, which is interesting in itself. The story of Cain and Abel is the most prevalent one, with Adam and Charles being parallels to this story and then later Adam’s twins would be opposites. The large Task fortune becomes a symbol of “original sin” which is a Christian belief that sin has been passed down from through every human generation since the fall of the biblical Adam and Even, which would be another Christian motif.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved this book. The complex characters made it a joy to read and also made this a book one that you can read over and over again and always find something new it in to appreciate and admire.

Q: Have you read a book by John Steinbeck? Which one and what did you think?

 

 

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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Published: 2011

 

This was a bit of a tricky read to write a review on, to be perfectly honest, as it’s such a strange amalgamation of themes, feelings, and characters. I had to look online for some inspiration as to how best describe this book. I came across it being referenced as a phantasmagorical fairy tale. Confused? So was I. So I had to Google what “phantasmagorical” even meant (*super embarrassing, please tell me I’m not the only one*), and as soon as I read the definition I smiled because it was bang on what how I would describe the book.

For those of you who likewise have no idea what “phantasmagorical” has a few meanings:

adjective
1. having a fantastic or deceptive appearance, as something in a dream or created by the imagination.
2. having the appearance of an optical illusion, especially one produced by a magic lantern.
3. changing or shifting, as a scene made up of many elements.

All three of these are EXACTLY what the book feels like as you read it (minus the lantern bit…)! It’s got elements of reality, which allows you to be able to picture it and relate to the characters, but then as you keep reading the novel tricks you and most of the time I felt a bit dazed and confused as to why things where happening the way they were. To top of it of course it was NOT in chronological order which aided the illusion as you never quite knew what lay around the bend or if things were really how they appeared.

It was a relatively easy read, you did have to pay attention to characters and timelines because it wasn’t in proper order, so you had to keep reminding yourself of what the characters were or weren’t aware of at the beginning of each chapter which was a tad annoying, but not impossible to follow through.

Set primarily in ahistorical London, we follow a magical circus called Le Cirque des Rêves that is only open dawn until dusk, and has no set schedule (it just appears randomly around the world). It’s atypical to a regular circus as it has tents such a blooming garden made of ice and vertical cloud maze. The two main acts are that of the illusionist that transform her jacket into a raven and a fortune teller that actually reads the uncertain future. This enchanting circus has a more sinister element, as two powerful magicians place a bet on who can train a “better” or more powerful protege, with the circus being their main ring where both their proteges display their talents.

I found the characters to be slightly “safe” and none of them really took me by surprise or resonated with me. Having said that, there was a nice variety of stock characters and they are quite easy to imagine, which I think goes down to author’s good descriptions and overall writing style.

I do think that the real gem of this book, and the main reason why I gave it the stars I did was because the book did what it set out to do. You feel like you are in a dream or part of some strange illusion, trick of the eye and brain. It feels quite light and

Overall, I think that the story is a pleasant quick read, but I can’t say it’s anything revolutionary. Reading the whole book through, there weren’t any pages that I marked because there weren’t any particular quotes or lines that really stood out for me. The author’s writing style is definitely the main driver of the book for me, as you felt the mystery, the magic and the illusion throughout the whole book.

 

Q: Have you ever loved an element of a novel, but was not struck by the plot or overall book?

 

 

Teaser Tuesday: May 8th

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teasertuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

I’m currently re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale for the second time, the last time I’ve read this I was in the final year of the English Literature degree at the University of British Columbia – talk about a throwback. I remember reading it back then and thinking it was okay, but re-reading it now I wonder how I will feel? Here’s a little teaser for you!

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“I would like to steal something from this room. I would like to take some small thing, the scrolled ashtray, the little silver pillbox from the mantel perhaps, or a dried flower: hide it in the folds of my dress or in my zippered sleeve, keep it there until this evening is over, secrete it in my room, under the bed, or in a shoe, or in the slit in the hard petit point FAITH cushion. Every once in a while I would take it out and look at it.” (99)

Book Review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

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Published: 2015

 

I must confess, I was not really expecting this book, Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future by Ashlee Vance, to be so engaging and fascinating when I first got my hands on it. I had seen that it got rated high on Amazon, from where I purchased it, but to be honest I only take those ratings with a pinch of salt as most things average out to be 4 stars anyway. I also don’t have the best experience with biographies, as I often find they are written in a bit of tedious manner – reporting facts as opposed to making it engaging. That’s sort of what I thought about the biography I read on Queen Elizabeth the II, by Andrew Marr, for which I never bothered to even write a review.

I didn’t know very much about Elon Musk before reading this book about his life and visions. All I knew is that he founded Tesla and SpaceX and was somehow revolutionising how we view space exploration/travel, with him selling seats to the first human shuttle into space. What I found out after reading this book is that he is a genius and a revolutionary. Everything he does isn’t really about the money (he’s invested a lot of his own money in all his companies and is happy to sell them off to work on his visions of the future), but rather about exploring and pushing our human boundaries. For him, there are no boundaries. He’s a powerful force of will power and vision, that our planet needs.

“In July 2002, Musk was gripped by excitement of this daring enterprise, and eBay made it’s aggressive move to buy PayPal for $1.5 billion. This deal gave Musk some liquidity and supplied him with more than $100 million to throw at SpaceX.” (116)

I was completely taken aback by the entire biography. His life is so fascinating, and he’s such an interesting human being. His quirky personality is highlighted throughout his upbringing so you get a better understanding of who he is a person, a visionary and explorer. He’s also got an incredible work ethic. That’s the reason why he’s got as far as he had, no lucky streaks, wealthy parents or being at the right place at the right time. It’s the his own discipline and drive, that he continues to have despite all his successes, that has allowed him to get where he is. That’s why I find him so inspirational.

“He saw a man who arrived in the United States with nothing, who had lost a child, who was being pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife and who verged on having his life’s work destroyed. ‘He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress that anyone I’ve ever met,’ Gracias said.” (211)

This is not to say that he’s a perfect human being. What I love about this biography, is that it doesn’t try to sugar coat things about the man featured on it’s front cover. Although it highlights how Elon Musk is doing some extraordinary, and inspiring things, it also highlights his downfalls (we all have them, even the greatest people!). Instead of making up excuses for him, the author isn’t afraid to point out that it is just how he is. I realised that although Elon is a amazing visionary, he’s a terrible people-person. He fires people left, right and centre, often for quite trivial reasons. You can see in the videos or interviews with him, that he’s quite socially awkward. But then again, he’s not trying to become a socialite. He’s got other priorities.

The author sections the book according to Elon Musk’s milestones in his life and big ventures, rather than being written in a purely chronological way. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the author’s engaging way of storytelling, by skipping around the timeline a little bit, or if it’s just fascinating to read about Elon Musk’s life. Either way it works, and I kid you not, I could not book this book down once I started reading it. Knowing that this is about a real person, there were many sections of the book that left me speechless. I would often run upstairs to tell my boyfriend about what I just read, or what Elon has accomplished. I cleared my entire day and finished the book in 24 hours.

 

Q: Have you recently read a very good biography? Please do share in the comment section below!

 

 

Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Published: 1961

So I know already I am going to get a lot of hate for this rating, and I have thought long and hard about it and just accepted it!

I’ll start focusing on the positives before I delve into the areas that I really struggled to appreciate. Firstly, it’s obvious a sensitive subject, the Second World War, and the author tries to discuss this subject with more humorous undertones than many other novels would, and for that I appreciate it.

The basic synopsis is, the book following a group of airmen stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during the latter half of the Second World War. We primarily follow the main protagonist, Captain Joseph Yossarian, and his disillusionment with the war and military in general. Throughout we dip into the other soldier’s lives at the base and we get to understand where they have come from and their hopes from the war. There are definitely moments when the author is trying to nail the theme and idea home, and it’s at these points where I get interested and want to listen, like this scene for example:

” Nately was instantly up in arms again. ‘ There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your own country!’ he declared.

‘Isn’t there?’ asked the old man. ‘What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth fighting for.’ ” (283)

This is a soldier questioning the whole purpose of war, and questioning his own participation in it.

As you keep reading, the book reveals how corrupt, selfish and ineffective the military officials are and how the war is completely insane. I think that the theme of “catch-22” and how soldiers are made vulnerable by the war (like a prison sentence for them really!) are very poignant however, and there is a big however, I couldn’t get into the author’s writing style and humour at all, so although I understood what he was getting at, I did NOT enjoy the journey of getting there.

I also really struggled to relate or to feel any appreciation toward any of the characters, even the main protagonist I only really started to appreciate him when we got to the latter half of the book and by then it was too late to save it for me. Near the end the author was trying to tie in all his themes of the novel and a number did stand out for me. For example, the scene where Yossarian tries to escape to Rome because he realises how twisted the war and and world is, even in the glorious country he’s fighting for:

“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives were socked, and how many children were bullied, abused and abandoned. “(472)

The rest of the characters are too similar, there are only a couple that stand out for me (Milo, Major Major, Chaplain and Nately). The rest have very similar characteristics and blend into one for me. The author does invest into the characters stories (or at least tries to) and this forms the bulk of the book. Nonetheless, when the characters described are so similar and quite frankly detestable in nature it’s challenging to find interest in the book. After a period of time, I did realise that the whole point WAS to make the reader not like most of the characters, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed this knowledge.

Lastly, and this permeated through his writing, it’s all very chaotic. I understand this is what it’s meant to be to show how confused and dumbfounded the war makes people, however it was quite challenging and frustrating to keep track. The chaos permeated the chronology of the book, the character’s thought processing as well as the character’s conversations so it felt like much ado about nothing in the end.

It was definitely hard because I had such high hopes for this novel, but in the end it wasn’t an enjoyable read and at times it quite annoyed me. Maybe it will be better the second time around, but I think I will have to wait a bit longer to find that out.

Wednesday Wondering: The Reading Utopia

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Wednesday Wonderings: A chance for me to muse about anything and everything literature.

For this week’s Wednesday Wondering I am curious to hear your thoughts on your favourite reading spots. I stumbled across is absolutely amazing website of neat bookshops that I wanted to share with you:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/gallery/2014/oct/10/weird-and-wonderful-bookshops-worldwide-in-pictures

From keeping stock in the vaults of a building that was once a bank in Victoria, BC, to combining books with parties in Beijing, everyone has different preference as to where they enjoy picking up a good book and reading (maybe the latter not being as common?).

I have always preferred the reading nook, the little corner away from everything else in the world, the comfy couch to just stretch my legs over and snuggle up to a soft blanket with a good book. I can stay in that utopia for hours. Sadly, I have never really had this idealized nook in my life. It was always either on the bed (which gets pretty uncomfortable after a little while) or sitting behind a chair in the library when I went to school.

In the past I’ve done a lot of reading on my morning train commute to work (which I enjoyed quite a bit at the time as the train took us through the English countryside). It gave me about 45 minutes of peace and quiet before we stoped at the busy station and everyone squishes into the compartment like can of sardines. But let’s be honest, it’s not the same as reading by yourself.

Nonetheless, I think I am getting closer with the most recent move to putting together a proper reading nook! We actually bought a proper bookshelf which fits our books, which has been nice. Unfortunately it’s not big enough as we already have more books then space on the shelf! The next step is getting a comfy chair in there and a proper light! In my future house I will make every effort to re-create this little bit of paradise:

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I want to hear of your reading spot utopia. Do you listen to music? Do you need to be alone? Attach a photo if you have found your dream room online!

Teaser Tuesday: Feb 27th

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teasertuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

This week I am jumping ahead of myself here a little bit, but this is a big, fat book so I thought I would start early rather than late! Enjoy!

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” Nately was instantly up in arms again. ‘ There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your own country!’ he declared.

‘Isn’t there?’ asked the old man. ‘What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth fighting for.’ ” (283)

Book Review: The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell

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Published: 1958

So I thought that I would start off my reading blog on a positive note, an old classic, and a book that brings me back…wayyy back! In fact, I knew first of the film, when I was just 5 years old I used to watch the film and play along to it with my toy horses. Yes, I was such a cool child!

I was immediately attracted to the “real” portrayal of the horses in the wild, Australian bush. At this point in my life I was living in Slovakia so I literally couldn’t be farther from the place, but for some reason it felt so familiar.

Imagine my delight, when I realised a few years later, thanks to some research in my local library, that there was actually a book that the filmed was based on. And I have to say the book was AMAZING! I devoured the book when I was a child, enthralled with the wilderness that the author, Elyne Mitchell, described and captivated by the story of the silver brumby. I also loved the realness, this wasn’t any silly My Little Pony tale and neither did it have the teen drama that say the Saddle Club series had. It was just about free and wild horses versus man.

I’m delighted to say that many decades after I read the book, nothing has changed. The magic still remains. It’s not a complex book by any means, and it’s very short compared to a lot of the books I’ve been reading but it’s got substance without having to even try. The main theme is nature versus the man, and that couldn’t be more relevant in todays age.

The story is about a wild, silver stallion that lives in the wild Australian bush. Early on we discover that “he would be hunted…by man, since they were so strange looking in the wild herds” (14) and also he would be badgered by other stallions on the mountains as well, due to his colour. We follow his life as he develops and learns the tricks from his mother of how to remain invisible and be like a ghost of the mountains.

The plot is simple and rather predictable, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Thowra, the name of the silver brumby, and other mountain range that he resides in. By the end of the book you can’t help but shed tears against the selfishness and evil of mankind.