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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Big Book Read #14

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Twenty pages into this book I wasn't sure if I'd continue. I'm not generally a 'thriller' type of girl and this one has a whole of of business talk in it, at least at the beginning. I stuck it out though and I'm very glad I did.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been convicted of libel and sentenced to three months in prison. Before his sentence is to be carried out he has taken a job for the aging businessman Henrik Vanger. For one year Blomkvist will dig deep through the family records and police reports to solve the 40-year old mystery of Vanger's niece Harriet's death.

Meanwhile, hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander (the title character) becomes involved in the secret investigation when Blomkvist realizes he needs her expertise. She is a mysterious and obviously troubled character and various episodes of her life are revealed throughout the book.

The original title for this novel was Men Who Hate Women and to me that seems more fitting. This book is just as much about Blomkvist as it is about Lisbeth Salander and the theme running through the book is very much in line with the original title. Yes, Lisbeth is the girl with the dragon tattoo, but what has made her the person she is at the start (and end) of this book has much more to do with the abuse she suffered at the hands of men. Together, she and Blomkvist, who seems to be the first man she can truly trust, uncover the Vanger family secret. And it's a doozy.

Big Book Read #13

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This book is full of awesome. I could probably just end the review here and be completely satisfied but those silly Big Book Read rules require me to give you at least three paragraphs. So, here goes...

Shadow has recently been released from prison and become a widower. He meets the mysterious Wednesday while on his journey home and agrees to work for the man; despite not knowing who he really is or what he really does for a living.

What follows is one man's very strange trip through the myths and legends that have been absorbed into the American landscape and psyche. Gaiman depicts a sort of "alternate" American midwest and it is fantastic yet real and familiar yet terrifyingly strange all at the same time.

In this novel the ancient gods brought to North America by immigrants and travelers are at war with new indigenous gods. These new gods are everywhere. They are the gods of credit cards, television and cell phones and poor Shadow can't seem to take two steps without running into one of them.

There is a lot going on in this book, but the main story revolves around Shadow's road trip through America. The heart of the story is decidedly human and many moments see the bickering gods pushed to the side and we get to see this strange and beautiful America through Neil Gaiman's eyes.

Read it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Big Book Read #12

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Death has decided to quit the whole death business and poor old (and dead) Windle Poons and company are left to deal with their second attempts at life. Some strange things are cropping up (and flying about) in Ankh-Morpork and it’s up to the Fresh Start Club to save the living. Meanwhile, Death has found a new job as a real reaper for Miss Flitworth and discovers just how interesting life can be.

This book was funny and strange, just what I like. However, it wasn’t perfect. There were moments, especially towards the end that were a big confusing during a big action sequence. But, overall this was an excellent read. Pratchett is humorous, silly and witty. I’m planning on adding many more Discworld books to my library.

This was my first Terry Pratchett book and I think it was an excellent introduction. He’s well-known as arguably the best parodist working today and I can see how he got that distinction.

Big Book Read #11

Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson

Much like after reading Stephen Fry’s memoir, I wasn’t quite done with Mr. Ferguson after finishing his memoir American on Purpose. I had heard he had written a rather well-received novel several years ago so I headed out to the giant used bookstore near the house and snagged a copy of Between the Bridge and the River.

The novel follows Fraser, a phony televangelist from Scotland and his childhood friend George who is terminally ill and determined to kill himself, Leon and Saul, two morally and sexually perverted brothers and….Carl Jung. Yes, Carl Jung.

Ferguson rips on the media, religion and pop culture with a truly twisted sense of humor. This book was hilarious, sad, profane, surreal and very, very strange. I loved it.

Big Book Read #10

Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture
by Daniel Radosh

Rapture Ready follows author Daniel Radosh on various adventures within the diverse and somewhat misunderstood world of Christian pop culture. What follows is a humorous and insightful look through the eyes of a secular outsider (Radosh describes himself as a humanistic Jew) that is light on mockery and heavy on what I would call an amused understanding. Radosh does not generally speak only with the weirdos (unlike Bill Maher in ‘Religulous’) but also with perfectly normal people. His goal is not to humiliate but to understand. He is honestly curious.

Radosh visits a Christian music festival (where the amount of times a band prays during their set determines how popular they are), a Christian wrestling match, hangs out with Bibleman, goes undercover to take park in a gigantic passion play, and wades through a warehouse full of “Jesus Junk” (Tchotchkes and knickknacks. Think bobblehead Jesus, purity rings, Salvation Challenge board game, etc.). He tries to understand that whole “Left Behind” series (I’m still trying to figure that one out…), learns just how much money Christian bookstores make, listens to a little Christian comedy and walks through a “Hell House” (I won’t even go into how disturbing those things are. Google it.).

Rapture Ready is an insightful, slightly snarky introduction to Christian pop culture. It doesn’t sanitize but looks at it honestly and with humor. Because Radosh is coming into this Christian bubble from the outside I believe he’s best suited to write about the topic. To quote another review:

“One of the pieces of advice you're often given when getting ready to sell your house is to have someone who's never been there come to walk through & look for all the things that need fixing or repainting. There's a reason - you've lived there for so long that you've become used to the imperfections, blemishes & outright broken stuff. Mr. Radosh's book that does just that for Christian pop culture (primarily evangelical pop culture).”

I’d recommend this book for people, like me, who did not grow up in the world of Christian pop culture and for anyone interested in reading about it with a fresh pair of eyes.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Big Move

So, I'm incredibly behind in my reviewing but I assure you all I am reading, reading, reading. I've finished a few books but haven't had time to review them. Upcoming reviews:

Rapture Ready by Daniel Radosh
Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

Yeah, yeah. I'm REALLY behind. But I have a good reason. We're moving!! In just a few days we'll be settled back where we belong. Boston. Ah, it feels good to be going back.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Book Read #9

Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry

309 Pages

After finishing his memoir Moab is My Washpot, I guess I was in the mood for a little more Fry. So, I quickly plowed through his book Stephen Fry in America, the companion book to his BBC Special (also airing on PBS apparently). From September 2007 to May 2008 Fry traveled to every state in the Union. Yep, all 50. I only know two people that have done that, my grandparents. I myself have only been to about eleven, and ten of those are on the east coast. I was interested in this book not only because I’m curious about the states but also because Fry is British (some say the quintessential Briton) and it would be interesting to read about my own country through the eyes of a foreigner.

I of course was very interested to read about his visit to my state of New Hampshire. I was very disappointed. Not because he wrote negatively about it but because he unfortunately went there during the lead up to the Primary and spent all his time following someone from the Mitt Romney campaign around. Although he did manage a trip to the top of Mt. Washington on a gorgeously clear day, which is something I have not even done.

Overall his trip through the states was highly entertaining and quite informative. It certainly made me more interested in visiting some of the states in which I had no previous interest (I’m looking at you Utah). The best thing about this book is that I bought it from a book merchant in the UK, so it has British English spellings and is geared towards the British reader so there were many explanations on proper pronunciation and size comparisons (Alaska can hold thirteen Englands!).

There were just a few things that needled me about the book. Being from New England I was not pleased with Mr. Fry when he stated that there are seven states in New England. I found myself rather disturbed by this mistake and said out loud to my husband, “He better not be including NEW YORK in the count! Ugh!” I then made a plan to write a very stern, yet polite tweet to the man informing him that New England has only six states and that even Connecticut is only included out of courtesy.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who likes travel writing. It’s funny, informative and is full of beautiful pictures of this beautiful country. It has certainly increased my feelings of Wanderlust (something which I did not think was possible) and I am determined to embark on my very own American road trip soon…well, someday.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Big Book Read #8

Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

436 Pages

To me Stephen Fry (Jeeves & Wooster, Wilde, A Bit of Fry and Laurie) has always seemed like an astoundingly intelligent, witty man, the product no doubt of a well-to-do family and a very expensive Oxbridge education, nothing that I could relate to. What I did not know about Fry is that his childhood, though decades before my own, seemed awfully familiar; full of the ups and downs of navigating a school’s social hierarchy, making trouble (in his case A LOT of trouble), angsty arguments with parents and first loves.

In this memoir, Fry chronicles his first twenty years in a very honest way. Most of the memoir discusses his years in boarding school and the hilarity and heartbreak that made him the person he is today. Knowing from an early age that he was gay made for some rather poignant and emotional stories as he struggled to fit in. He was not a model child as the tales of the strap, other punishments and a stint in prison at the age of eighteen will attest.

Fry writes just as he speaks, which means that this book is absolutely charming. If you don’t mind the odd naughty word or some frank discussions of sex you will really enjoy this book. I was quite disappointed at the end when I realized I had run out of pages. If only he’d write another about the next twenty years!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Big Book Read #7

American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson

348 Pages

Fans of The Late Late Show will know that recently Scottish-born host Craig Ferguson became an American citizen; a moment he says was many years in the making. American on Purpose is a memoir of Ferguson’s life leading up to his naturalization. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a funny, brutally honest memoir.

Ferguson writes about his childhood growing up in Glasgow, Scotland; a city he describes as both beautiful and hard. The stories from his childhood are both amusing and painfully awkward; stories which I know most readers can identify with in some way. He also describes the night that, as a teenager, he got drunk for the first time, resulting in him waking up with a black eye and a very angry mother. This story also foreshadows a good portion of the rest of the book.

Alcohol played a big part of Ferguson’s life from his late teens until he was nearly thirty. As the grip of chronic alcoholism took hold of his life he drifted from one job to another and one girl to another. He very funnily and painfully describes how his life unraveled and how he was helpless to stop it. Ultimately, alcohol cost him friends, two marriages and his sanity.

I’m surprised Ferguson was able to remember so many events from his life while drinking so much. Despite his alcoholism he managed to develop a respected stand-up career and grab small acting jobs in television and film though he is very quick to give his supportive friends the credit for most of these opportunities.

The last part of the book follows Ferguson as he comes back to the US to look for work and fulfill his dream of living in the States. It’s the story of how he cleaned up and made something of himself, but not without failing a million times before. He wanted his own “American dream”; to find success through hard work and determination in the only place in the world where he knew that was possible. And as we all know, that dream came true.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Big Book Read #6

Big Book Read #6

Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind

785 Pages

Whew! I made it through another book in the Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind. The sixth book of the series, Faith of the Fallen begins right where Soul of the Fire left off; with Richard and Cara taken a seriously wounded Kahlan into Richard’s home of Westland to heal in secret. Meanwhile, Jagang and his Imperial Order are running wild through the Midlands.

Richard is quickly captured and it looks as if he and Kahlan will never see each other again. He is taken off “into oblivion” and held prisoner by an old enemy while Kahlan is left to lead the D’Haran troops in defending the people off the Midlands against a must larger and must stronger Order.

Goodkind gets a bit preachy for my taste in Faith of the Fallen. Throughout the long book, and especially in the last third, he hammers his philosophy of reason over faith into the reader. The world under the Imperial Order in Goodkind’s work appears to be some really screwed up mixture of Communism and religious fundamentalism. It’s a world where everyone must be equal and no one can work too hard for fear of outshining someone less able. You’re hit with several images of bread lines, rampant unemployment, political purges and torture. Additionally, the “Brothers of the Order” are skulking about reminding the people that they are worthless creatures and can only be saved in the afterlife by suffering in the present and only through despair can they live fully in the light of their creator after death. It’s all very depressing.

The good bits of the book, in my opinion, are those concerning Kahlan. She has been separated from Richard and is now left to lead the people of the Midlands in his place while knowing full well that it’s a futile effort. Despite her sadness and the hard living and violence of traveling with the army she shows herself to be a strong and capable leader and a fierce warrior in her own right. It’s nice to come across a female character that has to go rescue the man for a change.

This wasn’t my favorite book of the series but I enjoyed the greater focus on the two main characters in contrast to Soul of the Fire, which focused on too many characters. It was exciting, emotional and violent; a big old adventure that was a pleasure to read.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Big Book Read #5

The F-Word by Jesse Sheidlower

270 Pages

Jesse Sheidlower is the Editor-At-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, what one would assume to be a very serious position. What some may not know about Mr. Sheidlower is that he is also one of the foremost authorities on obscenity in English. Now, to me this is much more exciting than working with the boring OED.

This book was given to me for my 29th birthday by my friend Lynda. I’m assuming she gave it to me, not because of my interest in the etymology of a word but because I am well known (among my friends) for my frequent and hearty swearing. In my opinion, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a well-placed f-bomb when the situation requires it.

Mr. Sheidlower begins The F-Word with a brief etymological discussion of the world “fuck”. Is it an acronym? No. Is it from the Latin? Probably not. It’s early history is in fact, rather boring. It’s when Sheidlower gets into the word’s use in literature, music and film that it gets a bit more fun.

The rest of the The F-Word is a dictionary. Sheidlower lists most of the variations and uses of our most beloved swear word, and I thank him for it. While reading it I smiled at my favorites and laughed out loud at some completely absurd variations. Who wouldn’t let out a giggle after coming across “fiddlefuck’?

Because it’s a dictionary, The F-Word can be a bit tedious to read at times. But, I had fun anyway. It’s not everyday that you get to read a book chock full of your favorite naughty word. Do I recommend it? Absofuckinglutely.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Big Book Read #4

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Pages 333

Stardust is the story of Tristran Thorn and his adventures from the small town of Wall through the land of Faerie and back again. Tristan left on a quest to recover a fallen star for his true love but didn’t quite get what he had expected. Gaiman has turned the traditional fairy tale on its head with a word and what follows is something both familiar yet entirely unique.

For any one familiar with Gaiman’s work you will know that he’s a writer with seemingly limitless imagination and a great sense of humor. This story doesn’t disappoint. Tristran’s journey through Faerie is full of adventure, danger and fun. Along the way he meets his fallen star, a unicorn, an evil witch and a sky captain who fishes for lightening, just to name a few. Ultimately, this story is about the pursuit of love. It is a fairy tale for grown-ups and its well...magical!

This book could easily be finished in one sitting and I recommend you do. I found that as soon as I picked it up I was hesitant to put it back down again. The characters are so well done that you feel as if you can hear them speaking to you from the pages and Gaiman has created the world of Faerie in such a way that you can smell the air and feel the wind on your face. You are completely drawn into the world he has created.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Big Book Read #3

SOUL OF THE FIRE by Terry Goodkind

788 Pages

Soul of the Fire is the fifth book in the eleven book Sword of Truth series by fantasy writer Terry Goodkind. The book continues the story of Richard Rahl, Seeker of Truth, War Wizard and now leader of the D’Haran Empire and his new wife, Kahlan Amnell, The Mother Confessor. The previous books have chronicled Richard’s journey from humble woods guide to Seeker of Truth bound to rid the world of evil.

The fifth book begins with Richard finally marrying the love of his life, Kahlan Amnell, his companion and protector throughout the first books of the series. Soon after their wedding however, Richard’s grandfather, First Wizard Zedd realizes that Kahlan has accidentally, in order to save Richard’s life, set “The Chimes” loose in the world. This is bad. This is very bad. The Chimes are after Richard’s soul and as they hunt for him they rid the world of all its magic, leaving Richard, Kahlan, Zedd and many others without their powers. Meanwhile the evil Emperor Jagang has amassed a massive army to take over all the Midlands. Did I mention this is bad?

I wasn’t aware until recently of Goodkind’s belief in Objectivism. As an Objectivist he is a devotee to the work of Ayn Rand (insert my husband’s eye roll here). I’m not very familiar with Ayn Rand and Objectivism but can see its influence on Goodkind’s characters. There are themes such as “people will believe what they want or fear to be true” and the rule of unintended consequences throughout the series. In Soul of the Fire Goodkind’s character Jagang can invade people’s minds as a “dreamwalker” and can force them to do things, which they would not normally do. He and his Imperial Order then subjugate the conquered using a form of religion. Looking up a bit of info on Rand shows that this is alluding to the Objectivist idea that faith and force act as destroyers of the world.

Now, even if you think this particular philosophy is complete bunk it shouldn’t diminish your enjoyment of this book, or the entire series if you are a fan of the fantasy genre. I went through four books before realizing their Objectivist undertones and it didn’t matter a whit to me. Goodkind has created a complex fantasy world with noble yet flawed heroes and some really frightening baddies. Expect six more Goodkind reviews to come. I intend to finish all eleven of these.

Big Book Read #2


299 Pages

For me How To Read Literature Like A Professor takes off where my first read, How To Read A Book, began. Although the first book was helpful, it mostly dealt with Non-Fiction reading. Foster’s book deals only with fiction and poetry and that’s just what I was looking for.

Foster has been teaching literature and writing at the University of Michigan – Flint for the past twenty years. He has written a very interesting, and at time humorous, book about major themes and symbols in literature. For example, he explains that sharing a meal can symbolize communion (but perhaps not in the traditional sense), a journey can symbolize a quest, and how when in doubt, it’s probably from Shakespeare.

As I was reading I began to wonder if reading so much into a novel would affect my enjoyment of the story in a negative way. If I’m so busy wondering if the rain the characters are walking through is symbolic or if the main character is a Christ figure am I giving up on reading for pure enjoyment? In the end, I don’t believe so. If anything I’ll find more enjoyment from the story because of the added thinking and wondering. I’ve already begun to identify certain themes in another book I am reading and I’m enjoying that part of reading quite a bit.

Foster’s book is both chock full of good information and easy to read which is a perfect combination for someone like me who never made it past Intro To Literature in college. It’s obvious he loves what he does and that makes reading his book all the more fun. He takes examples from epic poems, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Eliot and Joyce to name just a few to show that these themes and symbols can be found anywhere, as long as you know what to look for.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Big Book Read #1

How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

426 pages

Adler and Van Doren’s book How to Read a Book has been on our bookshelf for ages. My husband bought it at least a year and a half ago and promptly read it, whereas I rolled my eyes in its general direction. I thought it was silly. It’s a relatively large book, over 400 pages, and it’s titled How to Read a Book. It made me giggle. What I didn’t know at the time, however, is that this book has been around for 40 years and is considered by many as a must-have for every dedicated reader.

The book is separated into four parts: The Dimensions of Reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter and The Ultimate Goals of Reading. Each part builds upon the previous so that the reader becomes an active reader and comes to understand how to get the most out of whatever it is that they are reading.

Although I was intrigued with the book in the beginning and enjoyed some of the advice (such as reading the index before beginning the book), I found myself yawning through a good portion of the middle where they discussed mathematical, scientific and philosophical reading. I have no interest in these subjects (well, perhaps a bit in the science category) and didn’t get much out of that particular part although that is my own personal problem and says nothing about the usefulness of that section.

I found what Adler and Van Doren had to say about fiction obvious. I’m fairly certain that anyone reading a novel would know not to critique it as they would, say, a book on economics. The same rules do not apply. They do make an excellent point, however, that the reader should find unity in a work of fiction. Keep your mind on the plot and how it develops. More often than not I’ve read a book, have seemingly enjoyed it, and have then been unable to explain the plot!

What this book did accomplish well, in my opinion, was give excellent instruction in how to fully and actively read non-fiction. It never occurred to me to pick up a pencil while reading non-fiction (outside of college, that is) in order to make notes on the page. They covered the series of questions the reader should ask while reading in order to not just accept or reject what the author has to say, but to understand and be able to effectively explain why.

This book is about learning to make a book your own and about how to challenge yourself. They explain that reading is not a passive experience but something that you should do with energy, inquisitiveness and patience. Adler and Van Doren put it best when they said, “The more active reading is, the better it is.” And I think they’re right.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My 10 Favorite Reads of 2009

Here are the ten books I enjoyed reading the most this past year.

10. Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

9. All Souls: A Family Story From Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald

8. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

7. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

6. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

5. Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind

4. The Song of Albion Trilogy (Technically three books but who cares, right?)by Stephen Lawhead

3. The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain Madness and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White

2. My Life in France by Julia Child

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams