Friday, December 27, 2013

Door Stop: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

For reasons somewhat still a mystery even to myself, I decided to tackle Dante's The Divine Comedy, and in the process I began to understand why most people simply read the Inferno and leave it at that.

The Situation: On the night before Good Friday, a 35 year-old Dante is lost in the woods and is suddenly attacked by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf. He is then rescued by the poet Virgil (of The Aeneid fame) and they begin their journey to and through the underworld, starting with the Inferno, or Hell. Having survived the Inferno, Virgil then continues to lead Dante through Purgatorio, or Purgatory. And naturally, after Purgatory comes Paradiso, or Paradise. But Dante's guide into heaven is no longer the poet Virgil, but instead Beatrice, his ideal woman. And after completing the tour of Paradiso, the epic poem ends with Dante finally understanding the mystery of the humanity and divinity of Christ, and his soul becomes aligned with God's love.

The Problem: Being allowed to take a tour of Paradise is all well and good, but Dante does have to literally go through Hell in order to get there, all ten circles of it. And in order to get out of it and only into Purgatory, Virgil leads Dante as they climb down Satan's form (seriously) in order to escape the last circle. And while going through these ten circles, the still living Dante is witness to the many souls who have found themselves in the various circles of hell, and the punishment they must endure for all eternity. The punishment for every sin has a sort of poetic justice to it, such as flatterers being covered in excrement (seriously) for all eternity. By comparison, going through Purgatory isn't nearly as jarring, even as Dante is taken through those who committed one of the seven deadly sins. There are many moments when Dante, despite Virgil's insistence that he will be fine, fears for his own well-being. But he must trust his leader if he is to make it through this journey and see his beloved Beatrice.

Genre, Themes, History: The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written somewhere between 1308 and 1321. It is also an allegory as it not only goes through three levels of the afterlife, but those levels also represent the journey of the human soul towards God. Inferno is where Dante sees sin for what it really is. Purgatorio is where the love of God, which is pure, is shown to become sinful when it flows through humanity, therefore resulting in the seven deadly sins. And finally, while Inferno and Purgatorio were centered around sin, Paradiso is focused on the four cardinal virtues as well as three theological virtues. The entire poem consists of a total of 14,233 lines divided into the three different parts, which each part containing 33 cantos, sort of like chapters. The number three has a prominent place throughout the poem, and it is even written in tercets according to the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc.

My Verdict: As I mentioned in the introduction, I could easily see why people tend to only read the Inferno. For whatever reason, Purgatorio and Paradiso just aren't that interesting. I can't decide if it is the way they were written, or if it is simply because sins are interesting to human beings, while virtues or even lesser sins are not. Once Dante and Virgil make it past Satan, I found it really hard to continue reading. Ultimately I am glad I did, but it was a struggle. The good news is that it is poetry, so the reading actually goes much faster than it would for most other books more than 500 pages long. The bad news though, is that it is poetry and therefore for someone like me it could be hard to understand. Thankfully, each canto began with a brief summary of what was to follow.

Favorite Moment: When Dante sees the three faces and mouths of Satan, with one mouth containing Judas Iscariot, the disciple that betrayed Jesus, and the other two mouths holding Brutus and Cassius, the men that betrayed Julius Caesar. As one of the few people ever whose favorite Shakespeare play is Julius Caesar, it felt right to me that Brutus and Cassius would have places in Hell next to Judas.

Favorite Character: There are really only three consistent characters throughout the poem, and they are Dante, Virgil, and then Beatrice. Of the three, I choose Virgil, despite how little I care for his Aeneid. He serves as an excellent guide for Dante and is extremely patient throughout the narrator's doubts and fears.

Recommended Reading: I honestly have nothing for this. I would never recommend for anyone to ever read The Aeneid, so that's out. Since I mentioned it, I suppose I'll recommend William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I've always wanted to become one of those people that can recite Marc Antony's speech from memory, but since Shakespeare can sometimes be even harder to grab onto than The Divine Comedy proved to be,  that process has been extremely slow going. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl's Night Film has been nominated in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller. I had discovered the book before I saw it had been nominated for the award, and it was one of those books I first received from the library, but later found at Half Price Books and was delighted at the chance to buy it and own it for myself, even though I didn't yet know how it ended. I was already convinced that it was something I would want to add to my own personal library.

The Situation: Scott McGrath is a disgraced former investigative journalist. He already once tried to discover the well-kept secrets behind the life of Stanislav Cordova, a well- known, incredibly famous, and notoriously secretive, directer of several iconic horror films. The man has a fierce following, and to say that his movies have become cult classics would be an understatement. There is even a secret, hidden website that only the most hardcore and committed fans are able to access. When McGrath attempted to investigate Cordova the first time, he was slapped with a million-dollar slander lawsuit after making some harsh, and rather foolish, comments about the man on television. It also didn't help that MCGrath's inside source was found to not exist, ruining MCGrath's reputation and causing him to lose his job. Now, Cordova's young daughter, Ashley, has been found dead in an abandoned warehouse, and McGrath sees this as another opportunity to find out the truth about the secretive director.

The Problem: If the first botched investigation ended up costing McGrath his reputation and his career, this one may cost him even more. Every lead McGrath finds and every new bit of information he encounters tends to offer more questions than it does answers. And it seems like someone from Cordova's own office is onto him and following him around, throwing obstacles in the way at crucial points, making this investigation even more difficult and problematic than it already is. Also, most of the people who would have the information McGrath needs have either seemingly disappeared off of the face of the earth, or they just aren't talking, or they're dead. But McGrath is determined to find the truth, and believes that he was always onto something, even before the lawsuit that was filed years ago halted his career. Cordova has become his white whale, but the search just might kill him.

Genre, Themes, History: I almost gave this book the heading of "horror," but decided against it. The book deals with a famous yet reclusive director of horror movies and some of the real life horrors that have surrounded his life and his films. And while there are no moments when anyone is being chased by a psychotic serial killer, there is still plenty of chasing. And many of the stories and legends surrounding Cordova and his films are just plain creepy. Also, throughout the book, Pessl includes clips from articles, screenshots of websites, including the secret one that is only for the most hardcore fans, and even some of McGrath's own typed notes with his handwriting of other details in the margins. Not only do these things lend to the book's credibility (as much as that is possible with a fiction novel), but it also lends to the creepy factor. Pessl put a lot of work into giving Cordova a complex history, and also made his fictitious film cannon as detailed as possible, as if I could go onto Netflix today and find his movie titles. Other themes include black magic, skepticism, method acting, Meta fiction, seclusion, and parental love. 

My Verdict: If you want a great mystery and/or thriller, then Night Film is the book for you. Pessl spares no detail when crafting this well-done mystery involving a director of famously harrowing movies and his recently deceased daughter. And while there are parts that come very close to terrifying, they weren't scary enough to make me afraid of going on with the story, but they were just intriguing enough that I knew I had to go on until the very end. Which brings me to the one real qualm I have with the book: I feel like, with all of the lead-up and evidence that the reader is provided, that Pessl wrote herself into a corner and wasn't really sure what to do with the ending. McGrath had been through all of this stuff, some of it pretty crazy, interviewed all of these people, collected all of this evidence, heard so many different sides of the story, and the ending, I felt, kind of leaves everything flat. For me, it was just unsatisfying. But considering MCGrath's character and his experiences, that could be the point, so there could be readers out there who will like the ending just fine. I very much enjoyed everything else that lead to that point, almost making it one of those books I wish I could read again for the first time, just so I can unravel the mystery again. But seeing as this book is almost 600 pages long, therefore making it a door stop, I think I'll move on.

Favorite Moment: When McGrath is seemingly and finally willing to believe in the effect of the supernatural when it comes down to his daughter possibly being in danger. A parent's love and concern for their child and their safety can cause people to believe things they never thought they would.

Favorite Character: I would have to choose MCGrath's unlikely yet quirky partner Nora, an aspiring actress (naturally) living in New York City, trying to slowly make a name for herself by auditioning for off-off Broadway productions, one of which is a gender-bending version of Shakespeare's Hamlet

Recommended Reading: If I lean more towards creepy instead of scary, I choose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. If I decide to lean towards scary, I suggest Joyland by Stephen King. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Saving Paradise by Mike Bond

I was sent Mike Bond's Saving Paradise in exchange for a review, and I agreed because the premise did interests me, and I am attempting to read more crime novels. Plus, with this being a free book, this situation was already a win in my opinion. Also, I will be reviewing Bond's newest novel, The Last Savannah, due out in mid-January, early in the new year.

The Situation: Pono Hawkins is a veteran living in Hawaii, making his living as a well-known surfer, writing articles for surf magazines. He also teaches surfing to under-privileged youth, and makes extra cash on the side with his dog Mojo, a dachshund with his own surf board and fan base. After one of his many mornings spent surfing off the shore of Waikiki, Pono finds the body of a beautiful journalist washed up on shore. As an ex-con, Pono knows enough to just call it in and let the authorities handle it. And if she wasn't so pretty, he may have been able to leave it at that. But after asking a few questions, and learning that the coroner decided to essentially switch his conclusion from murder to accidental drowning, Pono finds himself unable to just let this go.

The Problem: As soon as Pono begins to investigate Sylvia's death on his own, it becomes clear that he has instantly made some very powerful enemies that want to give him the same fate. Sylvia's death was no accident, but the amount of people involved in the scheme is almost overwhelming, especially for one man attempting to clear this up on his own. Powerful people with money from powerful corporations are tracking Pono's every move and trying to keep him away from the truth, all in the hopes of keeping their other shady deals from coming to light in an effort to just make more money. If Pono isn't careful, and doesn't manage to stay one step ahead of them, it could very well be the end for him. And it doesn't help that not everyone tells him the truth all of the time, even those that are supposed to be helping him out.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a crime novel, or thriller. I have even seen this categorized as an existential thriller, though I am not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean exactly. While the primary focus of the story is one man trying to find out who killed a journalist, while not ending up dead himself, there is a sub-plot of several major corporations essentially attempting to use land in Hawaii for a "green" wind-farm project that actually isn't so green, except in that it would make them all very rich while not actually helping the environment at all. There is much discussion about these corrupt corporations, and also the corrupt politicians, including Hawaii's governor, that back them and help push their agendas onto the Hawaiian population. Hawaii is shown to not be quite the island paradise that most mainlanders would imagine it to be, as Pono is not shy about pointing out all of its flaws and corruption, which he asserts all started before it was even a U.S. state. It is certainly a different view of Hawaii than what we normally do not get.

My Verdict: This book is not for everyone. If you want a fast-paced thriller that often-times doesn't make a whole lot of sense but doesn't actually require much thinking to enjoy, then this may be a good book for you. Also, there will need to be some suspension of disbelief, but almost every book has a little bit of that I guess. My main issue is that almost none of the characters are likable, least of all Pono. Which is a shame really since he is the narrator and the one whose head the reader is in all of the time. Everyone is guilty of something, so it made it hard for me to not want them all to go down. Things definitely get better as the book moves along though, and it isn't crazy long or anything (clocking in at 277 pages). At the beginning I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but by the end I really did want to know what happened and was hoping everything would work out.

Favorite Moment: When one of Pono's many girlfriends finds out that she is just that and decides she is done with him. 

Favorite Character: My favorite person is definitely Mitchell, another veteran who served with Pono and is able to use his computer skills to tap emails and retrieve useful information. He is one of few people that Pono seems to genuinely care for, and Mitchell watches out for Pono and helps him in return. 

Recommended Reading: I think I will actually recommend Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) Cuckoo's Calling. It is also a crime novel, but takes a very different approach. The story takes place in London where a supermodel's death has been ruled a suicide, but her brother suspects it was murder. Instead of being a fast-paced thriller like Saving Paradise, Cuckoo's Calling is much slower and much more methodical in how the mystery is laid out.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nonfiction: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The full title of this book is The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who is an advocate, motivational speaker, and author of several other fiction and nonfiction books. I picked this book up because, like many people, autism is a fairly big mystery to me, and probably always will be to some extent. And Higashida's book attempts to provide some answers directly from someone who lives with autism everyday.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that almost resembles a conversation more than it does a book. Higashida answers 58 common questions that are asked about those with autism, including "why do you like spinning," "what causes panic attacks and meltdowns," "why do you make a huge fuss over tiny mistakes," and even "why can you never stay still?" Higashida's answers are both enlightening and fascinating. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, and for him, spoken communication is next to impossible. This book, and also his other books, were written with the help of a Japanese alphabet grid where Higashida points to letters to spell out words, which a helper then transcribes. The Reason I Jump was actually first published in Japan in 2007, but has now been translated and published in English due to the efforts of David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) and his wife Ka Yoshida, who have an autistic child of their own. Mitchell and Yoshida first translated the book for friends and family, but quickly discovered how useful the information would be to the greater population. And in between Higashida's answers are short fictional stories that he has also written. The book certainly dispels one of the most commonly held beliefs that people with autism are antisocial loners who lack empathy for others and their feelings. Higashida mentions over and over how bad he feels knowing that his actions sometimes disturb other people, making them uncomfortable and making them lose patience. His main plea is for others to not give up on him and others with autism and to keep trying. 

My Verdict: This book is useful for anyone who has ever had any contact, however limited, with any autistic person anywhere ever. In other words, everyone should probably read it. Even those who are autism specialists. It is fairly short, clocking in at only 139 pages. I read it in a day, but what I learned is pretty invaluable. And it's honest answers straight from the source. What could be more useful than that?

Favorite Moment: When asked the reason why he jumps, Higashida ends his answer with this statement, "Ah, if only I could just flap my wings and soar away, into the big blue yonder, over the hills and far away!"

Recommended Reading: I haven't read any other books on autism, or special needs children or adults.  Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness tells the story from the author's point of view of her struggle to overcome a mysterious disease that quickly took over her body and almost ended her life had a doctor not been able to finally diagnose her successfully. Even though there is an entire month of the ordeal that Cahalan doesn't remember, the whole account is written in the first person and based off of the doctor's notes, and also the stories and testimonies of close friends and family.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Winners of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards

The people have spoken and the results are in. Here are the winners of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards.

For fiction, I am very pleased to see that my second choice, Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, took home the prize for Best Fiction. And actually, out of all of my choices, this will be the only book that actually won in its category. But let's face it, there was some really stiff competition out there.

In a bit of a surprise, at least to me anyway, both Stephen King and Robert Galbraith (an alias for J.K. Rowling) lost to Dan Brown's Inferno for best Mystery & Thriller, with Galbraith losing just barely.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life took home the prize for Best Historical Fiction, while Malala Yousafzai took the Best Memoir prize by a very large margin with her book I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

And then of course, in my favorite category, Rainbow Rowell took not only first place, but also second place when it came to Best Young Adult Fiction. While I voted for Fangirl, it was Eleanor & Park that took first place, with Fangirl coming in at a close second. I am almost certain that this the first time one author has taken both the first and second place in a Goodreads Choice Awards category.

And there you have it. Now we look forward to 2014 and the wonderful books the year is sure to bring us.