Dec 31, 2011

Chamber of Secrets

I've argued before why this is one of the most underrated books by HP fans.  No one seems to love this book.  I just finished rereading it and I have two hypotheses.  I feel like it could possibly have something to do with how Rowling re-explains concepts introduced in Philosopher's Stone.  It's like those 4 pages that are in every Baby Sitters Club book: they explain how the club was formed, who's in the club, and what they do.  I used to be able to recite those pages.  They served the purpose of familiarizing readers who didn't start with book one, because it wasn't a plot heavy series.  You find it in practically every long running series out there.  It makes sense.

But with Harry Potter, there's really no way you can just pick up a random book and start reading, so there's no reason to have all of this extra explication.  Even if you've seen the movies and think you'll be able to understand, you won't.  Your first question will be, "who the hell is Peeves?"  It's like trying to understand an episode of LOST if you've never seen it before.  The only difference is that a LOST fan will punch you in the face if you try to ask a question while it's playing.  True story, we punch.  

Anyway, after I finished rereading, I realized just how much the cover art gives away.  The cover is practically the entirety of the last 3 chapters of the book! What's there: Fawkes, the sword of Gryffindor, snakes galore, the basilisk's eye, Harry, Ron, and Ginny.  Then there's Mrs. Norris, which makes no sense whatsoever, but oh well.  

Going into the book, there's really no question about what's going to happen.  The other books all have cover art related to their endings as well, but they're a little more cleverly disguised, with the exception of Harry and Hermione riding Buckbeak on the cover for Prisoner of Azkaban.  So was it because we unconsciously already knew that nothing bad was going to happen in this book? 

I can never convince anyone that Chamber of Secrets is better than it seems, but that's okay.  One last thing though: Hermione saves the day whilst unconscious.  What did Bella do when she was practically comatose in New Moon?  Nothing.  Trees were killed so that the months she did nothing could be marked by empty pieces of paper.  Even if that's an unfair comparison, an unconscious Hermione accomplishes more than Bella on her most active day.  Just sayin'. 

Dec 28, 2011

Young Adult

Love. Love. Love.

It's not for everyone.  I wouldn't say it's a chick flick, because it's not when you define chick flick as a sappy movie where the girl ends up with the guy in the most obvious plot possible.  If you want to say a chick flick is a movie with a lead female character, then sure, it's a chick flick.  

People who will (or should) like this movie: young adult book enthusiasts, Diablo Cody fans (it's not as prevalent as "Juno," but there's definitely some vocabulary fun when you compare the generations within the film), people who like watching a woman go crazy, 90s nostalgics who want to hear phrases and songs they remember fondly, and general nostalgics who just need a good slap to get on with their lives.  

Charlize Theron plays a ghost writer for a young adult book series that is declining rapidly in popularity, despite her claims otherwise.  She has severe writer's block while trying to write the last book of the series so she heads home and, like a normal person, attempts to steal back her ex-boyfriend who is happily married and has a newborn.   Yes it sounds chick flickish, but the movie is a lot deeper as it explores how people believe they were at their best in the past, hanging onto any flicker of success to get them through their daily routines.  Soooo good.

Other pluses: there's a scene that takes place near a shelf full of the YA series she writes and they look exactly like a mix between old school Sweet Valley High, Baby Sitters Club, and the Box Car Children, Patton Oswalt is in it, Charlize Theron is awesome playing a crazy person and her character is the complete embodiment of a character from a trashy YA series in the vein of Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars (both terrible, both highly recommended without shame), and it's hilarious despite depressing.  

So in a nutshell, it's wonderful.  Also, according to her twitter, Judy Blume saw it twice, so that mean's you should definitely check it out. 

Dec 26, 2011

#TheList, No. 412: The Happy Prince

I didn't really have much of a reaction to this collection of short stories/morality tales penned by Oscar Wilde.  Maybe it's because I'm a horrible English major who isn't wild about Wilde (yeah, I just made that joke), or maybe it's because I was too preoccupied with Christmas to really put in some effort to deconstruct these stories.  Either way, they were well written, but I wasn't inspired after reading.

All of the stories involve anthropomorphizing animals or elements in order to provide commentary on and correct human behavior.  Basically, after reading these tales, a person should be selfless, charitable, loving, caring, friendly, etc.  An unsurprising Jesus cameo in one of the stories essentially sums up how we should act. 

Even though there's nothing really wrong with Wilde's stories, there are many other stories that cover these moral lessons more effectively, particularly for younger children.  Not that I condone taking the easy way out or am suggesting that kids don't have the mental capacity to get through these stories, but they're just so plain that I think more captivating stories would complete the job.  

However, I do think Wilde's short stories are perfect for junior high and high school English classes.  All fairy tales are wonderful for class discussions and essay writing, so these are perfect candidates.  The religious undertones, depiction of class differences, symbolism, and philosophy found within the stories are practically screaming for a ninth-grade student to write an essay. 

The Help

I'm a huge book snob.  If a book I've read and loved becomes a movie, I want to hate the movie (though "Hugo" was surprisingly wonderful) and if a book I haven't read becomes a movie, I never want to read the book and appear as if I've jumped on the bandwagon.  It's tough.

I kept seeing people reading The Help on the T every day, and each time I could only think of the SNL Weekend Update bit with Tyler Perry (aka Kenan from "Kenan and Kel") where he says "Oh yes, 'The Help!' A film that teaches black women the lesson that if you work hard enough and hum loud enough, Emma Stone will come and save you."  And I would chuckle to myself and keep reading whatever children's book I had with me that day. 

But my grandmother, whom I love dearly, read and recommended The Help to me, and as someone who bought me give or take 1 zillion books when I was growing up, I always read what she recommends.  Plus, I'm a sucker for female empowerment stories, even ones where girls decide they don't want to complain about being single, but want to get a job and just complain about that instead. 

It's.So.Good.  A girl called Skeeter (because, why not?) wants to make it as a serious writer and needs a controversial topic to write about to break into the business.  She interviews black maids and writes their stories, as well as her own, in a book to exploit the horrors of segregation in Mississippi.  But by the end, of course, it's less about her finding success and more about her really wanting to help the women she writes about.

Without getting into the argument over whether or not a white author has the authority to present black point of views, the multiple point of views is the best part about the book.  The only addition that would make it better would be the perspectives of a racist character and a man so it'd be slightly more balanced, but still, it's effective.  Also, the romance bits sometimes seem out of place, but they help to highlight the severe flaws in most of the white characters. 

Who won't like this: Racists.  Sadly, they probably need it the most. 

Dec 20, 2011

Review: The Snow Angel

Over the weekend, I did the unthinkable: read a children's book written by Glenn Beck (in case you don't know me, the fact that a children's book was written by Glenn Beck is what's unthinkable).  It was difficult to get through and off the top of my head, I can't even remember what it was actually about.  I do remember a few things:

1)  The scene is set on the first page of this terrible picture book: two downtrodden children are in the kitchen, eating what looks like the most depressing Kraft macaroni and cheese ever (because it's not the Blues Clues kind, which everyone knows is the best kind and is sadly discontinued).  The measly three lines of text lets us know that Dad doesn't make good macaroni and cheese like Mom.  But now that Mom has a job, Dad's been forced to cook for the kids more often than not. 

Translation: A woman's place is in the kitchen. Grab your torches and pitchforks, the economic crisis is yanking women from their natural environment.  Manly men should not be forced to pick up utensils and prepare food for their offspring.  They should be spending their time killing the food they bring home for their wives to cook. 
Hidden meaning: Obama is not only destroying the economy, but he's ruining the nation's nutrition by forcing men to cook for their children, and upsetting the traditional American family structure.

2)  He couldn't go three pages without mentioning the Middle East.  On the off-chance a woman  neglecting her duties isn't enough to prove the world's demise, he lets the news announcer demonstrate just how serious the setting is in this story.  I'm a little surprised at his restraint from writing about how this family doesn't even have a flat screen television for Dad to watch while he ignores his children's pleas for a better dinner.   

3)  Dad may cook the dinner, but he puts his dishes in the sink, presumably for the wife to wash after busting her metaphorical balls to support her family.  

4)  I just reread the book (UGH) to remember what the story was about: an unappreciated Grandmother telling her bratty grandkids about how her soldier dad once taught her that snow angels store love.  This lesson is somehow supposed to console them about having to eat the same thing each night and never see their parents.  I think that the lesson is mostly supposed to mask the fact that Mr. Beck didn't realize until it was too late that the Grandmother was a viable candidate to cook dinner instead of the Dad.  She apparently takes care of them every night.  It only makes sense. 

5)  So the kids have some sense smacked into them, and they make some paper snow angels for their parents to show them how much they love them.  They also give them breakfast in bed: uncooked macaroni and cheese, which I'll admit did actually make me giggle..but only for a second. 

Is this book good? No.  Should you read it? No.  Not even to give it a chance? No.  Should you buy it for someone else?  Only if you hate them or you're giving it as a joke gift, like the wonderful gentleman who gave it to me.  Thanks, Richard!!

Dec 6, 2011

Adults Judging Childrens Books: Complexity

Whenever I tell people that I'm close to reaching my goal of reading 110 books this year (6.5 to go!), I tend to get a response along the lines of: "But those are easy books. Those are way beneath your level. So why bother?"  Putting aside the obvious problems of them taking the liberty of knowing what my level is and assuming I'm not reading books that I actually enjoy, who is to say that children's and young adult books are beneath anyone's level?

While some "grown-up" books may not be appropriate content-wise for young'ns, readability statistics for some of the most popular adult fiction is right on target for a children's audience.  The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level ("FKGL") test is a readability test that measures total number of sentences, sentence length, and syllables to assign a grade level to a selection of writing.  If you're a student, you're most likely familiar with this test from seeing it after spellchecking your papers in Word (...and then furiously hitting shiftF7 to use the thesaurus to find longer words, yeah don't deny it).  Obviously assigning grade levels is making an assumption about where each grade should be, but let's experiment.

Read this:
"'All your old drinking habits, too. Chewing Excedrin. Wiping your mouth all the time. Cranky in the morning. And you haven't been able to finish the play, yet, have you?'"
According to the FKGL, that's at a 2.8 grade level.  It's also a quote from The Shining, one of the most popular "adult" books of all time.  That quote isn't even as bad as this:
"The wedding. Her father had been there. Her mother had not been. She found she could live with that, if she had Jack. And then Danny had come. Her fine son."
That has a 0.0 rating.  Seriously. 

Now this:
"'From this point forth, we shall be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying together through the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wildest guesswork.'"
Yes, that's right.  Dumbledore speaks at a 13.2 grade level.

While the subject matter of Stephen King novels may not be appropriate for a second grader (depending on how liberal you are), they can definitely read it.  So should second graders deem you lazy for reading something way below your level?  I mean, it's a pretty easy read, so why bother?

Okay yes, obviously I picked specific quotes that would prove a point.  But if you put The Shining as a whole up against this test, it averages out at about a 7th grade level.  You know what else does? The Harry Potter series.  So stop judging people for reading things "beneath their level" because guess what? Chances are, so are you. 

Dec 4, 2011

Book Review: Savvy

I know you're not supposed to, but I'm a huge criminal when it comes to judging books by their covers.  So I expected a light-hearted magical journey when I saw this cover with it's swirly and sparkly designs.  It ended up being an incredibly heavy story about loss and uncertainty.  While not a tear-jerking novel, it might not have been the best choice as a relaxing read during my stressful week (end of grad school semester...yikes). 

Savvy is definitely not just another run of the mill, a child gains magical powers and needs to go out and do good in the world after the initial mischief magic phase.  Unlike those books, the children in the Beaumont family know that on their 13th birthday, their magical power, or "savvy," will emerge and it takes time to gain control and understand the mysterious savvy.  So far in the family, the Grandfather can create land, the Grandmother can trap music in jars for future listening, the Mother does everything perfectly, the oldest brother is electrical, and the next oldest brother can create storms.  On the eve of her 13th birthday, Mibs' father, who is not magical, falls into a coma because of a car accident, leaving Mibs praying that her savvy will be something she can use to save her father. Not exactly the fun hijinks a 13 year old would expect to have on his/her birthday, with or without magical powers.

So despite not understanding her new savvy, Mibs, her brothers, and two teens from their congregation, stowaway on a Bible delivery bus driven by a spineless man, in order to get to the hospital miles away and try to save the Beaumont father.  A lot of slight catastrophes occur along the way, some funny, some sad, all while Mibs tries to figure out if her new gift of hearing people's thoughts through their tattoos will be able to help her father.  

It's an interesting adventure story that's worth reading.  I wouldn't give this book to someone who's looking for strictly funny though. This book is more for the thinkers; it's a children's version of a search for meaning in life, just using magic as a means to that question. And despite the cover's semi-girliness, there's enough physical humor to appeal to boy readers, lest they judge the cover the same way I did.