Sunday, December 7, 2008

There Is No Place Like Hogwarts for the Holidays

The holidays are the perfect time of year to delve into fantasy sagas because (at the risk of sounding cheesy) it is a magical time of year. So, I’ve been in Twilight/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Narnia mode lately. I saw the Twilight movie on its opening night, which was the perfect start to the Thanksgiving/holiday season. The baseball scene was my favorite. In fact, it seems that I’ve rediscovered a lot of these series through the films lately.

Any Twilight fan understands how the Twilight movie naturally leads to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But I haven’t exactly gotten to the fourth Harry Potter film yet because I’ve started from the beginning, with the first one, and have only now just made it to the point of the Triwizard Tournament. But exploring the whole series does make me realize one thing: some of my favorite moments in the Harry Potter series, especially as portrayed in the films, are the Christmas scenes. Who can forget the first time Harry put on the invisibility cloak or Harry’s first visit to Hogsmeade, the Yule Ball, or Christmas with the Weasleys at number 13 Grimmauld Place?

But recently I watched Return of the King on TV, and the whole time all I could think was how great Lord of the Rings had been when I was reading it. I should definitely read the series again. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it since the first time. As good as the movies are (and seeing them was an experience in and of itself), I still have a fondness for what it was like to sit for hours and discover the story through the book. That’s how I feel about all of it really. After my stint of movie-watching, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that it cannot replace reading. So . . . what to read?

You can’t forget about Narnia. I’ll admit that I haven’t read the whole series yet, but I have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more than once. My favorite holiday moment is when Lucy first walks out of the wardrobe and meets Mr. Tumnus. Okay, so it’s not technically a “holiday” moment, but maybe the reason I like it so much is because it reminds me of Christmas. Of the whole series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the one to read during Christmas, not only because of the snow, or because Santa Claus makes an appearance, but also because its story, which is steeped in Christian allegory, successfully reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. One fantasy author that should not be overlooked is Robin McKinley. I love Robin McKinley books. So far I’ve read Beauty, Spindle’s End, and the Hero and the Crown. I’ve also read most of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series--I’ve read every book except the first and the last. Go figure. Currently, I am in the middle of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and perhaps this is the perfect time for me to finish Christopher Paolini’s Eldest.

But if reading a whole book--or, as is often the case in the fantasy genre, a whole series--during the holiday season seems intimidating, I would recommend browsing a compilation of fairy tales. They’re short and sweet and chock full of the fantastical. Besides, J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard has just come out in bookstores. Perhaps you should check it out :)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Better Than Fiction

Right now I’m reading The Devil in the White City, which talks about the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 (a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair) and two men in particular who were involved in its history: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who designed the fair, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who, shall we say, used the fair to his advantage. I am only through Part One of the book, but it’s already one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read.

The most frequent comment about the book is that although it is a nonfiction book, it reads more like great fiction, and I have to say that I agree. This is not the first nonfiction book in my experience to borrow from fiction. Some other notable nonfiction reads include In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and, of course, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Each of these books reads more like a story rather than an analysis of events. (I’d take a story over a textbook any day.)

And, if these books prove anything, it’s that you don’t necessarily have to resort to the historical fiction genre to make real-life events into a riveting story. But as a side note, a good historical fiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair is Fair Weather by Richard Peck. You could say that this book was my precursor to The Devil in the White City since it increased my interest in this time period.

I would argue that every good nonfiction book needs some element of fiction, and by “fiction” I don’t mean that it should be untrue, but rather that its storytelling technique should be similar.

In my opinion, The Devil in the White City reads like fiction because Erik Larson, the book’s author, managed to integrate good versus evil into his book. You have the architect, Burnham, who is involved in one of the most exciting and optimistic undertakings in American history up to that point (maybe ever), and whose main goal was to showcase the best facets of American culture. And then you have Dr. Holmes, whose crimes were compared to Jack the Ripper. The best and the worst. Although their stories are told separately, what unites them is the event itself. As I read, I find myself wondering if the fair will succeed in the same way that I worry if the hero is going triumph over the villain. I know what’s going to happen, since I’m familiar with the history, but as in fiction, where I may know that there will be a happily ever after (or not), the suspense is still there.

As further proof, here is a quote from the author’s note at the beginning of the book:

“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”

But Burnham and Holmes aren’t fictional at all, and that is the most fascinating part of their story.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Won't Someone Help Willy Loman Tonight?

I just finished Death of a Salesman again. For me, Death of a Salesman is like It’s a Wonderful Life turned on its head. Imagine George Bailey really did jump off the bridge, with no angel to come to his rescue and no friends to come to his aid. That’s Death of a Salesman. Sounds depressing, I know, but for me Willy Loman has just as much appeal as George Bailey, it’s just that his story ends tragically. Too simple a comparison? I don’t think so.

People may think that Death of a Salesman is just another one of those depressing stories you study in English class where someone dies (and if you’re thinking I’m giving anything away here, you’re obviously not paying attention to the title). Well, it is one of those stories that people study in English class where someone dies, but even so, I believe that this is one of the few literary deaths that has a point.

Sometimes death in books makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Maybe this is why I dislike Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. All the pointless death. Literature is swimming in death, such as in Huxley’s Brave New World; John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some “good” deaths, in my opinion, are Sidney Carton in Tale of Two Cities, Beth in Little Women. all the deaths since the fourth Harry Potter book. But Oedipus Rex is worse than death. Oedipus doesn’t die, but in his case, death would have been a mercy.

And movies are not immune to this either, a la Legend of the Fall. I’m on the fence about Dead Poets Society. It’s inspiring up to a point, and it does have that whole “Carpe diem” thing going for it, but then you have this character’s suicide to deal with, which is kind of like finding a fly in your soup. It ruins the whole thing. But Titanic, with all its death--and Jack Dawson’s in particular--is good. And a direct descendant of Romeo and Juliet would be the musical West Side Story. Like Romeo and Juliet, I can’t get myself to like it as much as other musicals, but I’ve come to understand the emotional impact of the death, so I’ve learned to tolerate it. On the other hand, the musical Carousel begins with a death, and it lends a more serious tone to the story, but I like it in this case.

I think what I’m trying to get at is the difference between sad and depressing. Sad is good. Sad can be therapeutic, moving, thought-provoking, all those good things. However, depressing, especially when it’s touted as art, is awful. Depression, in every sense, is pointless. Sad is when you care that the characters have lived or died at all. Depressing is when you feel like you’ve wasted your time caring about them. Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. You care about him all the more because how and why he dies is pointless, but the death itself isn’t pointless period. Death, really, has nothing to do with it. So I’ll restate my thesis: It’s not death in art that annoys me, it’s depression. A story can be depressing without anybody dying, and someone can die in a story without it being depressing. It’s a very thin line. I’ve had to endure a lot of depressing to get through my English classes. For instance, I had to study A Separate Peace twice when I switched high schools. Ugh. Oedipus Rex in high school and college, Ernest Hemingway (enough said), Brave New World, and, of course, Shakespeare.

But, you argue, not everything has a silver lining or happily ever afters. It’s just how it is. To which I answer, pessimism is just as effective as depression.

What is the point of all this? Maybe it was to point out that Willy Loman’s demise is not depressing, but sad, and that distinction matters. Perhaps it is to say that, although not everything must end in ‘happily ever after,’ art exists to appeal to our higher natures, not to exalt our baser ones. Death of a Salesman doesn’t end happily, but you care about Willy. He was optimistic to a fault, but it’s also what makes you care about him. Or perhaps what I’m suggesting is that if Death of a Salesman had ended happily, it would have made a great Christmas story.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Secret Life of Bees: Perfect Cast

So I went and saw the Secret Life of Bees movie this weekend. Thumbs up. It’s been getting average reviews, mostly in the form of occasional slams for its being too sentimental, but honestly, this is a chick flick, people. Get over it.

The movie stuck close to the book, but there were little moments unique to the movie that I thought improved the story. Overall, I agree with what was cut--and changed--for the movie. It was interesting how Zach went missing instead of being arrested, but either way works fine. I like how they gave us a glimpse of T-Ray’s character in the past and how June initiated the final marriage proposal in the movie. It focused the moment on her character more. Another thing that I noticed was the question that Lily asks T-Ray before he leaves for good. It’s different in the movie, but I thought it was a good decision. Bottom line: This was a strong, faithful adaptation.

Another criticism I’ve been hearing/reading is that the plot is predictable or cliche, more of a TV movie-caliber than feature film, to which I say, I kind of expected it. I mean, the plot structure of the book is solid to the point of being been-there-done-that, and it inevitably carried over easily into the film, but knowing this didn’t deter me from liking the book or the movie. You have to pick your battles. For the book, the writing/language and characters saved it from the predictable beats of the plot. In the film, the thing that saved it was undoubtedly the cast.

They couldn’t have gotten a better cast for this movie: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo. Need I say more? And is it weird that the most interesting character in this story for me is T-Ray? He and Lily are alike in their suffering, and so he is a good foil for Lily's character: what she would have been without the Boatwright sisters. On the other hand, I think T-Ray shows signs of vulnerability, like he could change if he came upon the right people and conditions, as Lily had, and in that sense he isn’t a stereotypical deadbeat father figure at all. Paul Bettany played the role well, and, I think, got this element across. But that could be just me seeing what I want to see. If there was one scene I wish the movie had done more with, it would have been the one with Lily and T-Ray at the end. It went by too quickly.

This movie review by Time magazine, by Richard Corliss, probably reflects my sentiments the best:,8599,1851105,00.html

I love it when the casting is just right: Lord of the Rings, Hairspray (2007), Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump, Christopher Reeve as Superman, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the Harry Potter trio, Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in the play Wicked, and so on.

Just reading that list makes me want to give a big sigh of relief.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Good Titles

I’ve been reading The Secret Life of Bees. It’s kind of a rush job since the movie is coming out soon, and you know how I am about books and movies (See my first blog “What are you reading?”). So far I’ve enjoyed it. I spent a good part of Sunday reading it. Very relaxing.

Even though I’ve just recently picked it up, I’d been considering reading the book for some time, before I knew there was going to be a movie. It was getting good exposure at the bookstores, was on the bestseller lists, and it seemed to have staying power, but I always hesitated when I had the chance to buy it. Why? Probably for those very reasons I just mentioned. Not everything that’s popular is worth your time, and all I knew about the book was that it was popular, and therefore, I didn’t have enough reasons to invest in it.

Maybe this is why I so frequently wait for books to be made into movies: movie trailers are so convenient. They can tell you just enough about a story in a couple of minutes. It reminds me of what Ouisa says in Steel Magnolias: “I don’t read books because if they’re any good, they’ll make them into a mini-series!” Except in my case it prompts me to read more books instead of ignore them.

But The Secret Life of Bees had two things going for it besides its popularity that had caught my attention long before now: its cover and its title. Practically everyone is familiar with the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ so you can probably understand why the cover still didn’t convince me to buy it. A pretty cover doesn't necessarily make a good book. Which leaves me with the title.

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good one. It’s not only interesting, but it has more meaning once you know the story. Frank Capra movies have some good ones. It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are so simple and unpretentious that you’d almost overlook them, yet they are deeply significant. Like his movies. One title that always gets me thinking is Carousel, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘Carousel’ is such a happy image, and yet the story is bittersweet, arguably the most serious of their works. And it wasn’t the original title of the source material either, so I always wonder why they chose that title. And then there’s Oklahoma!, which is probably Carousel’s polar opposite, brimming with optimism. I think the exclamation point makes all the difference. And Fiddler on the Roof is intriguing for its imagery alone.

Some book titles I like are A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Series of Unfortunate Events (I know--it's a book series title, but what the heck?), Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Once and Future King, and The Devil Wears Prada (Never read the book, but I'll admit it's a strong title. I did see the movie, and it was fun, but I'm content to leave it at that.). A short story title I really like is A Good Man is Hard to Find. The title fits, and yet at the same time, the story is definitely not what you'd expect. And of course, The Secret Life of Bees.

So if you're trying to pick out a book, stick with book titles, if nothing else. Book covers can change, but titles don't. Somehow I always knew that I should have picked up The Secret Life of Bees a lot sooner than I did because the title stuck with me. Movie trailers may tell you a story in a few minutes, but a book title--a good one--will tell you the story in a few words.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What Next?

I am at that point in my reading habit when I can’t decide what to read next. I’ve started a couple of books, Redwall by Bryan Jacques and Eldest by Christopher Paolini, but I haven’t hit a rhythm with either of them yet. I read a few pages at a time, but I haven’t really gotten into the stories. This doesn’t mean I don’t like them, just that I haven’t spent enough time with either one to know if I like or dislike them.

And I always find that my reading selection changes when the fall season comes around. I begin picking more “literary” books, if there is such a distinction (Personally I think there’s only good writing or bad writing, regardless of a book’s literary status, but that’s a subject for another blog post). It’s probably because I get into back-to-school mode even though I no longer go to school. Hence, why I just got done reading a Shakespeare play. Because I felt like it. Last year around this time I read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. And for some odd reason, I always feel like rereading Arthur Miller. I probably read either The Crucible or Death of a Salesman every year.

I don’t mean to snub the value of fun books like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or action/adventure/fantasies like Twilight or Harry Potter; nor am I suggesting that these books don’t have something significant to say about the human condition, but I think there’s something to be said for the term “summer reading.” Add to that the fact that I just got done reading a whole fantasy series--Twilight--and both these factors are no doubt the reasons why I can’t delve into Redwall or Eldest. I’ve gotten tired.

Which comes to my main point: Read what you feel like. I’m only recently starting to learn this concept. I own a lot of books I haven’t read, books that I want to read someday, but I have to make myself take my time. All those books put me under this weird, self-inflicted pressure. I feel like I HAVE to read them. But I don’t. Don’t read a book just because it’s a literary classic, and don’t be snobbish enough to think that those are the only good books out there. Don’t feel like you have to finish every book you start. Don’t feel like you have to read a certain number of books per week or month or year. There is no quota, and there is no list.

Which still leaves me with the dilemma of what to read next . . .

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reading Shakespeare

I have just finished The Merchant of Venice, which I had never read before, and it got me thinking about my Shakespeare experience in general, and what I’ve learned about how to approach his work.

The first play I ever read, as a freshman in high school, was Romeo and Juliet, which I didn’t like at the time and which probably prejudiced me against any of his other works thereafter. I remember once having a conversation with a very good friend when I went on and on about hating Shakespeare, only to discover that she had bought me a Complete Works of William Shakespeare as a gift before I’d gone off to college, which she gave to me later that same day. I felt horrible, as you can imagine, and have since apologized and clarified my assumptions to her on the subject. I didn’t hate all of Shakespeare. In truth, I should have just said, ‘I don’t like Romeo and Juliet, and I’m not a huge fan of Hamlet,’ because that’s what I meant.

I’ve since rethought my first, hasty assessments, although Romeo and Juliet is still not a favorite. I think I just had the disadvantage of starting out on a play that didn’t appeal to me because, as I read more, I’ve discovered what I like. I love Othello and Taming of the Shrew. Those are my favorites.

In conclusion, here’s what I know about reading Shakespeare:

1. Read it more than once: Shakespeare is difficult to read. There is no getting around it. Maybe, no matter what play you start with, you’re going to hate it, like I did. But you have to be open-minded. Like exercise to the body, it will only get easier for your reading “muscles” if you keep at it.

2. Read it aloud: Shakespeare is poetry, after all, and I think this rule applies to all poetry. It’s meant to be read aloud.

3. See it performed: Plays should be seen as well as heard. While studying Romeo and Juliet, my teacher had us divide into groups and perform a scene for the class, and it did help, despite the lack of acting skills. Although I’ve never seen a Shakespeare theatrical production. It’s on my “Things I Do Before I Die” list. For me, this is where the film adaptations are useful because I can watch them, and see them over and over again. This is how I learned Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve seen the Kenneth Branagh version, but I still haven’t read it.

4. Do your research: This is where a classroom setting helped me, I think, because I had a teacher there to guide me and provide information. The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It are the only plays I’ve read completely on my own.

5. Don’t read the footnotes--yet: A lot of Shakespeare comes equipped with footnotes these days. These are distracting. Ignore them. Maybe look at them later. Maybe. This is the very last thing you should do.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What are you reading?

I sometimes get asked the question, "What are you reading?" I guess this blog is meant to answer that question and to tell you what I think about what I'm reading. Some of my other interests include movies (including movies adapted from books) and writing, so occasionally I'll address these topics as well.

So . . . What am I reading now? At the moment I'm finishing up Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. In fact, I've managed to read the whole Twilight series in the space of 2-3 months. The first I'd heard of the series was back in July when I discovered the Twilight movie trailer online. Love the book, and the series, although Twilight is the best, in my opinion. It's funny--this is also how I picked up on Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, to be honest. I heard about the movie first and picked up the book before the movie came out.

I always try to read the book first, before seeing the movie. I prefer going in that order, for a number of reasons. Fried Green Tomatoes? Saw the movie first and eventually read the book (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe), but I have to say, this is one of those rare instances for me when the movie is better than the book. And that is probably the reason why I haven't read, and will most likely never read, Big Fish. I love the movie too much. Same goes for Jurassic Park. Although I am a Michael Crichton fan, Jurassic Park is one of his books that I've never read. I remember seeing the movie in the theaters when it was first released, and it remains one of my most memorable movie experiences. However, Jurassic Park the movie can be credited for piquing my interest in Michael Crichton books in the first place. And Forrest Gump? Again, movie first. I did read the sequel, Gump & Co., and it successfully turned me off from ever reading the first one. See what I mean? I'm cursed if I don't read the book first. One rare exception to my rule may be Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, the inspiration for Field of Dreams, although I really couldn't tell you for sure because I never finished it. Perhaps I should someday. I really liked it.

Okay--so another exception to the rule would be the first Harry Potter. The other Harry Potters, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all instances where I like both the books and the films and where I picked up the book first. I own some of the Harry Potter films. Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the books; Goblet of Fire is my favorite of the movies. (So naturally, the fact that Cedric Diggory is also Edward Cullen is just another reason for me to look forward to the Twilight film.) I own both Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and Clueless. I also have the Colin Firth and Keira Knightley versions of Pride and Prejudice. Not to mention the Special Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the classic film of To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck.

Of course, there are those times when the movie does not do justice to the book, but I won't get into those. I'd rather wipe those from memory.

So now that I've read all the Twilight books, at least now I have a good chance of enjoying the film. What I've seen about it looks really good, so I'm not worried. :)