Sunday, January 2, 2011

Big Book Read #21

The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

The follow-up to Moab is My Washpot, The Fry Chronicles, well, chronicles Stephen Fry’s post-adolescent life and the beginning of his rise to fame. As with everything he writes, its funny, touching, and honest.

The book can be jolly, like when Fry talks about how he skipped along through university at Cambridge, joining the footlights and meeting some guy name Hugh Laurie along the way. School came very easy to him, so he spent his time doing more interesting things like acting, smoking and writing.

But The Fry Chronicles can also be dark. Fry’s battle with manic depression is well-known in the UK and he doesn’t shy away from recounting episodes of his life marred by mental illness.

I would buy this book a second time as an audiobook just to hear Fry himself read. As can be expected from the author, be ready for big flowery language. It’s wonderful.

Big Book Read #20

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the final book of the Hunger Games Trilogy. Katniss has become “The Mockingjay” – the face of the rebellion against the Capitol. She has survived the Hunger Games twice and now President Snow and the Capitol are hunting her down. Katniss, her family and her friends are all in danger in the face of the Capitol’s anger.

Working with District Thirteen, Katniss must rally the remaining districts to attempt to overthrow the Capitol and end the starvation, abuse and terror suffered by the people of Panem. Meanwhile, Katniss is torn between her old friend Gale and her fellow victor Peeta.

This is not a “happy ending” book. The protagonist does not persevere against all odds and live happily ever after with the love interest of her choosing. The book is much more realistic and you see a young girl dealing with pain, loss and anger and her attempts to pick up the pieces of her former life and find out where she fits in to the new world she helped create.

Big Book Read #19

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Part two of the Hunger Games Trilogy starts off where The Hunger Games left off. Katniss’ survival has struck a chord with the other districts and now there is a movement growing against the Capital and Katniss is their unwitting figurehead; ‘The Girl on Fire”.

In Catching Fire we follow Katniss and Peeta as they begin their new lives as “Victors” while President Snow (creeeeepy) comes up with a horrible way to punish them for stirring up rebellion in the districts.
Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is full of action, violence, romance (of the PG variety), horror and drama. Although I didn’t like it as much as The Hunger Games, it is the second book of a trilogy and is a great transition novel for the exciting conclusion.

Big Book Read #18

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve been put in charge of the Young Adult section at my bookstore, so I thought I’d get cracking on some of the books in that section. Now, I’m not reading any books based on Gossip Girl or The Princess Diaries, so I needed something more up my alley. And I found it.

The Hunger Games, book one of a trilogy, is a young adult Science Fiction novel like none other. Set in Panem, the country that rose from the burning ashes of North America, it is about a young girl named Katniss Everdeen. Katniss has grown up in District Twelve, the poorest of the twelve districts of Panem.

All districts of Panem are ruled by The Capital, located in what would be the Rocky Mountains. As punishment for their rebellion several decades earlier, all residents of Panem’s twelve districts must compete in The Hunger Games. Each year children aged 12-18 must enter a lottery and can be chosen to fight to the death in an arena of the Capital’s making for the entertainment of the masses.

Katniss finds herself in the arena and faced with the challenge of staying alive while ending the lives of everyone around her. The book is quite violent, but the violence is not glorified and the repercussions of the violence are always addressed, which I think is important in a young adult novel.

The story follows Katniss through the Games as she fights for her life, makes alliances, friends, and enemies. The characters are all sympathetic but realistic and the pacing is very good which makes it a tense and exciting read.

Once you start reading The Hunger Games you’ll have a hard time putting it down. Being a YA book it’s a quick read so it’s possible to finish this in one sitting if you have a couple hours to spare.

Big Book Read #17

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester

This book took me absolutely AGES to finish. It was interesting, well-paced, and extremely informative but for some reason I read it on and off for WEEKS before I was able to conquer it.

This book explores the history of cartography leading up to the creation of the Waldseemuller Map of 1507; the first map to use the word “America” for the bits of land being discovered across the ocean from Europe. The Waldseemuller Map now resides in the Library of Congress, but the extraordinary journey it took to get there is one of the best parts of Lester’s book.

Lester starts at the beginning, in ancient times, and over time describes the ever-changing worldview of philosophers, geographers, cartographers, and explorers. It was a long and complicated process that led to our modern picture of our earth. Even the Waldseemuller Map only shows America as a strip of land in what is today the coast of Brazil. There were not satellite photos or sophisticated cartographic equipment back then, which is what makes this book so exciting. Making a map of the world of the magnitude and accuracy of the Waldseemuller Map took trial and error, constant study, months at sea, close observation and a lot of ingenuity and persistence.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big Book Read #16

Paranormal State – My Journey Into the Unknown

By Ryan Buell

The show Paranormal State is one of my guilty pleasures. I am easily scared but for some reason that does not deter me from watching shows about ghosts and other nasties that go bump in the night. Every now and then you need a book like this.

Buell created PRS (The Paranormal Research Society) in his college days at Penn State (hence the title ‘Paranormal State’) and has continued to travel around the country with his team to investigate, and often shout at, the noises and shadows that torment the homeowners.

Buell’s book chronicles the first year of making the show. He goes into detail on many of their cases and succeeded very well in making me jump at the slightest noise while reading this in my living room. But, Buell also talks about his use of psychics on cases (he’s very skeptical) as well as addressing the criticisms of his use of religious language and imagery (Buell is a devout Roman Catholic) on cases.

What drew me to the show was the emphasis on helping the families deal with their problems and not just simple ghost hunting. This distinction is made often in the book and you can tell Buell is very sensitive to families dealing with the paranormal due to his childhood experiences. His skepticism is not always apparent on the show but is discussed at length in the book, which was nice. Not every noise or shadow is a ghoul out to get you!

I read this book to get a good scare, and I was not disappointed. What I did not expect was a deeper look at Buell’s life, which as it turns out has not been all that easy. His terrifying paranormal experiences as a child, largely ignored by his family, has greatly influenced how he approaches cases. He also discusses the backlash he received by members of the clergy after he came out as bisexual. It was an interesting read and satisfied my creepy desire to be frightened.

Big Book Read #15

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn’t
By: Stephen Prothero

304 Pages

It’s been several weeks since I finished Religious Literacy so I’m afraid my review may be more vague than I had originally hoped.

Stephen Prothero is a professor of Religion at Boston University. I was lucky enough to be be in attendance when he was the speaker for Theology on Tap way back in 2008. His book American Jesus had just come out and his talk was pretty darn interesting.

Religious Literacy discusses the religious literacy, or more accurately, the religious illiteracy demonstrated by the majority of Americans today. The book discusses the religious literacy of colonial and early post-revolutionary America, its descent into religious illiteracy and his prescription for how to make it all better.

The book also contains a religious literacy quiz, which Prothero gives all his students at the beginning of class. In his mind, the students (and we the readers) should be able to answer these questions, but the sad fact is the majority of his students cannot answer many correctly. What’s even more disturbing is that these questions are EASY.

A few sample questions:

Name the four Gospels.

Name a sacred text of Hinduism.

Name the Ten Commandments.

Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t too that well. I managed to come out above average according to his classroom results, but overall the outcome was embarrassing.

This book not only taught me a ton about the history of religious literacy in America (I never knew what The Great Awakening and The Second Great Awakening were) but inspired me to learn more on my own. Immediately after finishing this book I bought a giant book on the history of Christianity and another on the Histories of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. Next on the list will be Islam.

I’d recommend this book to everyone.