The Catcher in the Rye

What’s this?  Two book reviews in less than an hour?  No, I didn’t learn to speed read, I actually read The Things They Carried last weekend and I read The Catcher in the Rye yesterday.  I’ve just been lazy in getting around to writing up the review for O’Brien’s book, and I’m writing my review for Salinger’s book now.

Book StatsThe Catcher in the Rye

214 pages

Drama, Classic

Setting

The book is set in and around New York in the mid 1900’s.  I don’t know exactly when, and to be honest the exact year doesn’t matter for the book.

Characters

There’s really only one character who matters in the book, and of course that’s Holden Caulfield.  He’s in many ways a typical teenage boy who is facing a future that he isn’t ready for and in some ways doesn’t want to deal with.  He’s cynical, brash, and doesn’t much care what many other people really think.  But he does show some signs of being a much better person, and in finishing the book you really feel like there’s going to be hope for him once he grows up.

Plot

The plot to this book is almost non-existant, we basically follow Holden as he goes through a a fairly rough weekend and follow his thoughts.

Enjoyment

One of the first things that you have to talk about when talking about this book is the fact that while it’s widely considered to be one of the best books written in the English language, it’s also one of the most widely banned books in the United States.  And after finally reading the book, I kind of wonder what the big deal is.

To be fair, I do lean towards being fairly liberal in most matters, and I have no problem with people pushing the limits of what most people consider to be acceptable.  Even with that, I think you can tell that some of the people who complain about the book probably never read the book, or if they did they never got past the surface level.  To begin with, Holden swears constantly (just like many teens today), thinks and talks about sex constantly (just like many teens today), drinks while being underage (just like many teens today), and doesn’t care about school or his future (just like many teens today).

So yeah, as far as being an obedient child and teenager, he’s an awful person.  But the book also shows just how horrible his life really is as he’s going through the weekend in the book.  You could easily argue that this book does a better job than many others that I’ve read of showing you how having an excessive number of bad habits can ruin your life.

Another thing to talk about with this book is that while it’s frequently banned, it’s also one of the most frequently taught books in public schools.  I never read this book in high school, and while I enjoyed reading it now, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much had I read it in high school.  The biggest selling point of the book for me was the character voice, and I don’t think that I would have appreciated a book with a strong character but a bare bones plot in high school.  Either way, I’m glad that I read the book.

Overall Grade

An interesting book driven by a great character.

7/10

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NPR’s Top 100 Teen Novels

So a while ago I had this post where I first talked about NPR’s summer poll where they were looking for the top 100 Teen Novels.  Well, they’ve finished tallying up all the votes and their final list is up.  Here’s a link to the list, and here are my thoughts about it.  (I’m not going to talk about every book, just some of them.  I’m also going to include links to those books that I have reviews for if you’re interested and haven’t read them.  For a series the link will be to the review of the first book unless otherwise noted.)

Lets start at the top.  Not surprisingly, The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling took the number one place on the list.  And I couldn’t agree more, I’ve said before that I think this is one of the most important series of books to come out in the past 20 years because it’s one of the only series in recent memory where kids were breaking down the doors of bookstores because they wanted to read the books the day they came out.  I’m glad to see it this high on the list.  (Book 1Series Review)

#2: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I really enjoyed this series, and I thought it was well written, but I also wonder if this is more of a “what’s popular now” pick than some other books.  I think this list came out at the perfect time for The Hunger Games to be this high.  (Again, I’m not saying that it isn’t deserving, I really enjoyed the books.)

#8: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  I don’t know if I’d really qualify this one as a teen book.  I think it’s primarily on the list because it’s taught to high school students on a regular basis.

#10: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I loved this book and I’m thrilled that it’s on the list, especially since it’s this high.

#12: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams.  Again, not really sure if I’d consider this to be truly a teen novel, but a lot of the humor in the books probably works better for teens than for some adults.  I enjoy the series and can’t complain about it being on the list.

#17: The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  Wonderful book and I’m glad to see it here.  It’s a really interesting example of a sort of meta-fiction where the author plays with a lot of what we normally take for granted about books.

#19: Divergent Series by Veronica Roth.  I can see why it’s up this high, because the story in the first book was executed quite well.  Unfortunately, if you have any knowledge of psychology and how personality works the worldbuilding completely falls apart.

#25: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  This is a really weird book that has a unique narrative voice.  I thought about choosing this book for my 10th choice, but while it’s a very interesting way of telling a story, I don’t know if it’s the kind of book I would give to a teen to try to get them to read more.

#27: Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer.  I haven’t read the books (and don’t plan on it) but I’ve heard a lot of people say that they aren’t very well written, and that they don’t do a whole lot to encourage women to be strong on their own.  However, I still say that any series that gets people to read is a good thing.

#28: Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld.  I haven’t read these, but I did vote for The Leviathan Series by Westerfeld, and I’m glad to see him on the list.

#36: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  Another fantastic book that I’d highly recommend.  There’s also a very good movie based on the book, which makes it highly accessible as a story in multiple formats.

#38: A Separate Peace by John Knowles.  We read this book in my junior year English class in high school, and this is one of the few books that I’ve gone back and re-read after school.  I really like this book and I would highly suggest it.

#41: Dune by Frank Herbert.  This is a great book, truly a classic piece of literature, but it’s not a teen book.

#42: Discworld/Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett.  I recently read The Color of Magic by Pratchett, and I think it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read.  I personally prefer the Xanth series by Piers Anthony which is very similar to Discwold, a continuing series of books that take place in the same world with a rotating cast of characters. (The Color of Magic, Discworld Book 1)

#48 The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.  Another one that I haven’t read but that I endorse for the same reasons as Harry Potter and Twilight, anything that gets people reading is a good start.

#65 The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.  I’ve read the first book in this series and have the other two, but I read the first book well before I started my blog and didn’t want to do a review for the second book in a series without having the first on here so I’ve been putting them off.  (I’ve since done that several times, most notable with Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, where I have reviews up for books 2-9 but not Ender’s Game.)  The first book was fun and did some interesting things with fantasy tropes.

#74 The Maze Runner Series by James Dashner.  This is a series that it definitely thriving because of the current dystopia trend in YA.  The first book was decent, the second was actually pretty good, but the ending of the series left me really upset that I read it at all.  (Book 2Book 3)

#82 I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak.  Another great book that I’m glad to see on this list.  I would personally like to see it higher, but The Book Thief is his better known book and might have taken a few votes away from this one.

#92 Leviathan Series by Scott Westerfeld.  I loved this series, but I can understand why it’s this low on the list, steampunk is a really weird genre to get into.  I do have to plug one thing about the books, they have illustrations in roughly every chapter that add a lot to the series, I’d highly suggest this to kids.

Overall I don’t have a whole lot of complaints about the list.  I’m pleased that everything that I voted for made the final 100, apparently I have some good taste in books.  My biggest complaint is still no Ender’s Game, but it was their decision not to include it on the list.

So what do you think?  Did the voting public come up with a good list?

The Scarlet Letter

I picked this book up for the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge and I’m applying this book for #3 of the challenge, reread a classic of your choice.  The first time I read this book was back in 2001 for my English 11 class in high school.  I remember enjoying the book then, and I thought it would be interesting to read the book again.  Anyway, on with the review.

One side note, this review will have plenty of spoilers, but the book was originally written in 1850, there is a statute of limitations on book reviews, so there’s really no excuse for me to try and avoid them for this book.

Book Stats

269 pages

Classic

Characters

There are three characters that really matter to this book, and everyone else in superfluous to the overall story.  The first character is Hester Prynne, the woman who is required to wear The Scarlet Letter for committing the sin of adultery.  The second character who is central to the story is Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister in the town of Boston and the father of Hester’s child, although the townspeople don’t know that he is the father.  The last character is Roger Chillingworth, who is actually Hester’s husband from England and hides his true identity from the people of Boston.  The way the book is written, I didn’t really think that any of the characters came across as incredibly deep.  But we’ll get into that more later.

Setting

17th century Boston

Plot

The book begins with Hester receiving The Scarlet Letter, and from there the book follows the three main characters over the course of the next 7 years.  The central point of the plot is watching as Hester and Arthur deal with the consequences of their actions.

Enjoyment

There is a lot going on in this book.  Although it isn’t expressly said very early in the book, it is heavily hinted at from the early chapters that Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s daughter Pearl.  One of the things that I really enjoyed throughout the course of this book was the dichotomy between Hester and Arthur.  Hester is outwardly shunned, while Dimmesdale is praised.  Hester is by all standards very content with everything in her life, while Dimmesdale continuously punishes himself throughout the novel because he thinks that he needs the punishment that the townspeople refuse to give him.  All in all, the story was very well told and I enjoyed following the story.

However, while the story of the book is excellent, the writing is very dated.  There were large sections, entire chapters at times where there was nothing but description about the scenery.  In these (frequent) chapters absolutely nothing happened, and I have to think that if an editor were to get this book today they would have the author cut about 1/3 of the novel.

Overall Grade

The writing is dated, but the story is very good and there are a lot of interesting themes running through the novel.

7/10

A Clockwork Orange

A couple of years ago I was nearly as interested in watching movies constantly as I currently am in reading books.  While going through all of my movies, I started to look for several classic movies, which is how I came to own Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”  I knew that it was based upon a novel, but I’d never read it before.  While on a recent trip through my local Barnes & Noble I saw this book and decided to buy it (if you follow my blog at all you’ll see that I get quite a few books this way, which is why as much as I love Amazon I still go to B&N quite often for books).  Anthony Burgess’s classic novel is interesting to say the least, but at times aggravating as well.

Book Stats

212 pages

Stand alone

Classic

Characters

The book follows Alex, who is 15 years old when the book begins.  He is the leader of a gang which includes himself and 3 “droogs.”  The book is told in 1st person and Alex is a very introspective character who constantly analyzes his situation.  He is an intelligent person who spends his time constantly breaking the law and getting into fights with other gangs.

Setting

The city where the story takes place isn’t really named, not that it’s important to the story.

Plot

With his law-breaking ways, Alex eventually gets caught by the police and then taken to prison where to avoid his entire sentence he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment that will allow him to return to society “cured” and able to function as a proper member of society.

Enjoyment

This book is odd in many ways, some of which Burgess mentions in his introduction to the version that I have.  One of the first things stated in the introduction is that the original American version only had 20 chapters as opposed to the 21 that the author wrote.  The movie is also based upon the version containing 20 chapters.  In all honesty, the book is better without the 21st chapter, which seems out of place from the direction that the rest of the novel was going.  The other part of the book that needs to be mentioned in any review of it is the language used.  Alex and his droogs talk in a very heavy slang that is at times very hard to understand.  Especially in the earlier sections of the book, I would have had no idea what was going on had I not seen the movie and been able to relate what was going on back to scenes from the movie.  Later in the book you are able to understand it easier (while very odd, it is at least consistent) but it’s still frustrating to read.

Overall Grade

The idea of the story is powerful, but it’s not good enough to overcome the dialect flaws and the fact that the last chapter just doesn’t fit with the direction the story was going in.  I almost hate to say this, but for anyone interested in this I would suggest that they watch the movie rather than read the book.

3/10

Slaughterhouse Five

I read a lot of popular fiction.  I love fantasy books, and I enjoy science fiction books a lot.  I also try, from time to time, to read some of the books that are highly regarded by many people.  Some of these books I’ve enjoyed, some of the books I can understand why they are classics, even if I didn’t personally care for them, and some books I really don’t understand why they are so highly regarded.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is considered one of the most highly regarded books, appearing on several lists of the best English language books of all time.  Having read it today, I just don’t get it.

Book Stats

215 pages (paperback)

Science Fiction? Satire? I’ve seen it called both of those, Amazon calls it Science Fiction, I’m labeling it under Classic and Science Fiction

Stand alone book

Characters

The book is told from the perspective of the author of the book, and the book is well aware that it is a book.  The central character of the book is Billy Pilgrim, a man who lived through WW2 and the book tracks his life before and after the war.  The book also talks about several other characters that Billy meets throughout the book, none of the characters are terribly deep.

Setting

The book takes place during WW2 in Germany, on the alien planet Tralfamadore, where the aliens see all of time at once, it’s weird sounding, and it’s even weirder in the book.

Plot

When Billy is abducted by the aliens of Tralfamadore, he learns to go through time and experience the events of his life out of order.  The book talks a lot about war, and how horrible it can be.

Enjoyment

I guess I just didn’t get it.  This book is regarded as a great antiwar book, and I can see that it pokes fun at war, but it just didn’t work for me.  The humor in the book was there the whole time, but it just wasn’t all that funny to me.  There was also something in the book that drove me crazy as I kept reading it.  It seemed like every other page (if not more often) Vonnegut would punctuate a scene by typing the sentence “So it goes.”  We’ve all been in classes where you have to give presentations to the rest of the class.  Many times, people would say “um” constantly throughout their presentations.  I was originally an education major, and I was told to watch my speech to avoid saying “um” as it becomes distracting.  “So it goes.” became distracting to me in this book.  My paperback copy of the book was 215 pages long, I would bet that Vonnegut wrote “So it goes.” at least 100 times in this book, probably more.

Overall Grade

I can’t recommend this book to anyone, the humor didn’t work for me all that well, and the book irritated me by the end of it.  So it goes.

2/10

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.  I’m not sure what to think about this book.  It was an interesting story, but the symbolism of what he was trying to say with it was clear.  Anyway, on to the review.

Book Stats

165 pages (paperback 50th anniversary edition)

Stand alone book

Classic/Dystopia

Characters

The book centers on Guy Montag, a fireman who’s job is to start fires, not put them out.  Early in the book he meets a young girl who causes him to change his thoughts on everything that has been existing in his life forever.  The book follows his journey through the world.

Setting

The book was originally written in 1953, and the time frame for the book was set in the 90’s or early 2000’s.  Anyway, the idea for the setting is that books are outlawed from society.  The government has a firm grip on it’s control of information and very little is given to the populace as a whole that isn’t controlled by the government.  In this way it’s very similar to George Orwell’s 1984.

Plot

The book begins with Montag at work, burning someone’s house down because they were reported to have books in their possession.  Coming as no surprise, the book quickly forces Montag to question just how right it is to continue to hold back the knowledge of the past from the people.

Enjoyment

The book has a very interesting premise, and the author’s message of the importance of information and being able to think for yourself instead of allowing others to think for you is clear.  I’m not quite sure what I think about the ending, it’s not that it comes from nowhere, but I think it almost stretches out a bit too long.

Overall Grade

I enjoyed the book, it has a lot of interesting ideas.  However, I’d seen most of the ideas from reading 1984 (which was written a few years before Fahrenheit 451).  Either way, they are still good ideas that merit reading multiple times.

6/10

The Palace of Illusions

This book was suggested to me by a friend in my Literature of Ancient Greece class.  This book is a retelling of the Mahabharata, which is a sanskrit epic of ancient India.  It was an interesting book with a very interesting way of retelling an ancient tale.  The book is written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Book Stats

360 pages

Stand alone

Mythology

Characters

Nearly all ancient myths centered around men and their stories.  This is where Divakaruni does something completely different in retelling this tale.  She tells the story from the viewpoint of Panchaali (birth name of Draupadi), who is the wife of the 5 Pandava brothers.  Panchaali is an interesting character, but had she not been the primary viewpoint character, she probably wouldn’t be anyone’s favorite character.  I would assume that this in largely to keep in line with the myth, but she is driven by jealousy and a search for vengeance throughout the story.  Given that she is the viewpoint character, this is well disguised as she is able to offer her reasoning for her actions throughout the book.  While the story focuses on Panchaali and her thoughts and motivations, the other characters in the book are all interesting and prove to be able to stand up to Panchaali’s dominance of the book.

Setting

The book is set in ancient India and describes some aspects of life during the time it was based.  The settings follow the three main areas of Panchaali’s life, living in palaces for large parts of it, exiled in forests for other sections, and being involved in the largest battle anyone has ever seen in their time.  Divakaruni is fairly descriptive for most of the book (which again may be taken from the myth, in myth you don’t explain what life in general is like unless it directly affects the character, it’s assumed to be understood by the reader/listener of the story) but the descriptions of The Palace of Illusions about halfway through the book were wonderful.

Plot

The story begins with the childhood of Draupadi in her father’s palace.  She was born in a ritual where she was essentially an unexpected child, the ritual was in place so that her brother Dhristadyumna could be born to take vengeance for her father.  As such, she is unwanted for most of her life and largely secluded.  She is given no choice about who she will marry and her father picks her husband through a competition.  She is ultimately wedded to all 5 of the Pandava brothers.  The story follows the Pandavas and Panchaali as they struggle to regain their rightful place as kings.

Enjoyment

The book is written in such as way that it would be better to be familiar with the original story of the Mahabharata.  Being written this way, the book has a tendency to simply refer to other stories in Indian myth without going into them with too much detail.  While this was a little annoying at times as I’ve never read the Mahabharata and am not familiar with it or other Indian myths, it helped to give a weight to the world that led you to understand that there was a huge backstory, even if you didn’t know it.  I enjoyed this book a lot and knowing that it was written from a prior tale makes it interesting in many ways.  Imagine the story of the Iliad being told from Helen’s point of view, that is essentially what this book is.

Overall Score

8/10

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I probably should have seen this coming in some ways, I’ve never really enjoyed most of the books I’ve been required to read for English classes, and this one isn’t much of an exception.  Parts of this book weren’t bad, but then other parts of the book were extremely irritating and made me wonder why they were in the book at all.  Anyway, here we go, the review for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Book Info

359 pages (paperback)

Stand alone book

Classic/Drama

Characters

The book follows 5 different characters, John Singer (a deaf-mute), Biff Brannon (a restaurant owner), Mick Kelly (a young girl), Jake Blount (a drunk) and Benedict Mady Copeland (a doctor).  The book somewhat revolves around Singer who in most cases serves as nothing more than a central hub for the other characters to interact with.  The other characters are all off living their separate lives, rarely interacting with each other, but they all come to confide in Singer, who they all think of as a very intelligent person who understands their viewpoints.  Singer in reality is a fairly simple man who wants nothing more than to see his friend Spiros Antonapoulos who goes insane and is taken to an asylum/hospital early in the book.  As for the other characters, Biff is a man who simply takes life as it comes, and he tends to focus more on the past than anything currently going on, he is a very stoic character, and was very annoying to read.  Mick is the only optimistic character of the group in the book, and while her sections were probably the easiest to get through, she also doesn’t change in her personality very much.  Jake is a person who believes that he has a great overall truth and in trying to express his truth moves from town to town.  And Copeland is a black doctor who is working to improve living conditions for blacks in the South.

Setting

The book is set in a small town in the Southeastern U.S.  Although I don’t believe we are ever told the name of the town in the book, it really isn’t important to the story.

Plot

This is where I think the book falls flat, there really isn’t much of an overall plot to this book.  Essentially we are shown a group of people who all are struggling to get through life’s ups and downs, but that’s all that this really is, a snapshot of life in the southern U.S. in the late 1930’s.  I didn’t really get much character growth throughout the story, but each person just goes about their life, dealing with the obstacles that come up.

Enjoyment

Parts of this book were interesting, and parts were absolutely horrid to me.  Although the book somewhat centers on Singer, I  actually don’t know what purpose he served in the book other than a way for the author to get the characters to talk to him so that we can hear their thoughts while in a conversational form rather than just them thinking about it.  It also seems that several of the characters were in the book simply to talk about the evils of fascism and how a more Marxist ideal of socialism and everybody getting what they need are better than the current system.  There were several times when I became irritated with the book and probably would have put it down if I hadn’t been reading it for my class.

The book also suffers from some questionable editing to me, for example, I quickly got sick of reading about a character who “lighted up a cigarette.”  If it’s within someone’s dialect, sure say ‘lighted,’ but if it’s in the narrative, please say ‘lit.’  There was also a huge difference between the speech of Copeland and his daughter Portia.  Copeland’s speech is almost too perfect for everyday use, whereas Portia’s speech is shown to be a very southern dialect.  This difference between them irritated me greatly.

Overall Grade

The book wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be based upon the first third of the book, but it wasn’t all that great either.  I read books for an escape from everyday life, not to see how a group of characters that I never identified with get through everyday life.

4/10