Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book #5: The Shack

Title: The Shack
Author: William Paul Young
Genre: Religious (non?)-fiction
Pages: 248
Pages to Date: 1,922

The Good:
In a very fresh take on spirituality, The Shack tells the story of a man spending a weekend with God in the cabin where his daughter was murdered. The philosophical discussions are compelling and the story confronts many of the difficult questions facing religious faith. I would say the strongest arguments made by the story are about the love of God. Young does a fantastic job describing through vivid diction and strong analogies a very powerful depiction of boundless love. Furthermore, the challenging of preconceived visual notions, such as God the Father being depicted as a woman, keep the reader constantly re-evaluating their personal faith throughout the story.

The Bad:
The lack of obvious follow-up questions by the main character to God's explanations for various things really, really bothered me. As someone who identifies as a Christian and is studying religion for my Bachelor's degree, I believe that many of the questions raised (such as why is there a hell and what does it take for God to damn someone there) are extremely important to discuss. In The Shack, God would offer a really simple, broad answer based on an analogy to these answers and the main character would say "oh, I get it! I never thought outside the box before!"... Essentially, I believe The Shack dodges many important theological questions and leaves a lot to be desired if the reader is looking for religious answers.

A fascinating read that definitely diverges from traditional Christian literature. Overall, worth picking up and reading (it goes by fast). It did not drastically change my personal faith, nor give me any satisfying answers, but it certainly made me think about some interesting theological quandaries. At the end of the day, it is the thought-provoking nature of The Shack that makes it worth reading.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book #20- Gardens of the Moon

Title- Gardens of the Moon
Author- Steven Erikson
Series-The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1
Genre- Epic Fantasy
Pages to date- 6,084

The Good:
Gardens of the Moon is massive in scope and ambition. Erikson weaves countless tales together with expert writing. The book is remarkably cinematic; it establishes setting perfectly and follows numerous distinct characters. The Malazan Empire and its bordering continents are infused with rich and enduring histories that rival those of countries in our world. As a writer, I found myself endlessly jealous of Erikson's ability to craft a world so concrete and blooming with intriguing heritage. Since the budding of fantasy as a relevant literary style, few have proven to be worthwhile storytellers while avoiding common tropes of the genre. Steven Erikson is one of those few.
Gardens of the Moon contains countless story arcs that compete for the reader's attention, but never win. Every plot and subplot is interesting, important to the ongoing plot of the series, and flat-out fun to read. This is done through careful characterization; Erikson imbues each character with such emotion that it is impossible for the reader to remain indifferent.

The Bad:
Honestly, I had to deliberate for some time when deciding whether there was something I didn't like about Garden's of the Moon. The only thing I could think of was this: because the cast of characters is so large, the piece starts off slow. Once past the 100-page mark, though, everything picks up and the novel is a quick (but by no means easy) read.

The Verdict:
Gardens of the Moon is a must-read for any fantasy fan. This book is absolutely stunning in its scope and is nearly perfect.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book #3 - If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home

If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
Author: Tim O'Brien
Genre: Military
Pages: 224
Pages to Date: 1409

The Good:
This is a stark honest look at what life was like for a thinking man in Vietnam. If I Die in a Combat Zone does not focus so much on the battles and fighting of the war, but rather, gives a brilliant look at the ennui that soldiers suffered during the Vietnam.

The Bad:
I can't really think of anything I didn't like about this book.

The Verdict:
If I Die in a Combat Zone is a very good book that delves into the psychology of what it's like to be in combat Vietnam.

Ryan Knott

Book #2- Gardens of the Moon

Title: Gardens of the Moon
Author: Steven Erikson
Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 497
Pages to date: 1185

The Good:
Reading this book is like reading no other fantasy book out there. You will find no elves, orcs, or evil sorcerers between the the covers of this book, although there is one mysterious scheming mage, actually several. This is also not a book that will baby you through it, Gardens of the Moon requires close reading because there are no huge info-dumps to get you through it.

The Bad:
The only problem I have with this book is that it is by far the weakest offering in the series. This is also a very difficult book to get into, and the first hundred or so can be difficult to get through.

The Verdict:
A great introduction to an amazing series, but it can be a difficult book to get into.

Ryan Knott

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book #4: Blankets

Title: Blankets
Author: Craig Thompson
Genre: Coming-of-Age
Pages: 582
Pages to Date: 1,674

The Good:
Blankets is a full length graphic novel centering around his first love and his transition to adulthood. Honesty is the strong backbone of the story, a very real feeling story that does not turn away from the potentially inappropriate to properly illustrate the full range of emotional trauma associated with being a teenager. Using a medium widely thought of as being for childish superhero comics, Thompson demonstrates the truth to the famed saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" by splashing emotion across the page with his artwork. Subtly is another major boon to Blankets, as his horrifying ordeal as the victim child molestation is acknowledged, but not shoved in the reader's face. The questions posed by the author about relationships, religion, and coming-of-age are all timely and relevant to any college student. Anyone who feels outside of the social norm, which I am fairly certain is everyone, should appreciate his analysis of what it means to be alone and everyone should relate to his unfortunately predictable first love experience.

The Bad:
Blankets has been banned by several schools and libraries due to its nudity. There are sexual images, so that may be uncomfortable for some. However, I would say that it's done in a way that is non-pornagraphic, instead depicting the emotional elation that goes along with a sexual connection. As for the content, some of his criticisms of organized religion are easily refuted (in my opinion), but this is his experience and therefore I cannot be too upset with him honestly depicting what deeply impacted his religious journey.

Blankets is a tremendous coming-of-age story that evokes nostalgia, regret, and hope for the future. The depth of emotion is impressive and it's clearly a book that can reverse negative notions about graphic novels. I highly recommend curling up near a space heater with hot chocolate near-by, snuggled under a blanket on a chilly afternoon with this heart-wrenching tale of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and how to carry on through those pitfalls.

Book #3: Up in the Air

Title: Up in the Air
Author: Walter Kirn
Genre: Drama
Pages: 362
Pages to date: 1,092

The Good:
The snippet of a review from the Wall Street Journal on the back cover promised a lambasting of corporate America and Up in the Air did not disappoint in that respect. Kirn's story of a tired road warrior trying to cross the million mile mark before his boss finds his letter of resignation pulls no punches, truly showing the dark side of capitalism. I happen to be a huge fan of the recent film adaptation starring George Clooney and I was pleased that the book was very different than the movie. While some things remain the same, the plot is extremely different outside of a few repeated quotes (ex: "I'm like my mother, I stereotype - it's faster.") and characters.

The Bad:
Honestly, while I think that an honest examination of the seedy underbelly of our society's business practices is a necessary endeavor, Up in the Air can go full blown cynic. For example, one line states "He knows, as all the cleverest ones do, that no human being is so interesting that he can't make himself more interesting still by acting retarded at random intervals." Dismissing all idiosyncrasies that people have as acts to draw attention is simply too broad, too generalized to possibly be accurate- a criticism that could be made of most of Kirn's negative portrayals of the American businessman's ethics. Furthermore, each chapter begins with a lower case letter, while an artistic decision that has no impact on the overall quality of the writing, and that really irked me.

An interesting look at the state of American business, particularly the hypocrisy Kirn portrays as rampant, but overall too generally cynical to be accepted as a valid summary of our ethical woes. Perhaps I am simply still too naive, but the bleak and desolate portrayal of American culture was simply too narrowly negative for me to buy into.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book #2: The Firm

Title: The Firm
Author: John Grisham
Genre: Crime/Legal Thriller
Pages: 501
Pages to Date: 730

The Good:
The second of three John Grisham books I picked up from Goodwill for under $3, The Firm is fast paced and grips the readers attention from the get-go. The tension as the action and drama rise is palpable, as Grisham does a fantastic job not only making the stakes high, but making me care about them. For a book of 500 pages, it also does a good job remaining interesting throughout, even bits of the story that contribute little or nothing to the central storyline. It's also a very fast read in the best kind of way, as it is hard to pull yourself away from the crescendo of drama that builds steadily until a predictably satisfying climax.

The Bad:
For a very dramatic and suspenseful storyline, there really is not much intricacy to the villainous schemes the protagonist finds himself involved in. As to the protagonist himself, I feel that he is meant to be portrayed as confident and intelligent beyond his years, but he just comes off as pompous; in particular, with the way he interacts with his loving wife. Honestly, I was not drawn to finish the book because I needed to see a character I love survive and overcome tremendous odds; instead, it was to simply see how he could ever escape the no-win scenario he found himself. As to that escape effort, I did feel the ending was a tad rushed and convenient, but sometimes a writer has to do what he can to ensure a satisfying emotional ending rather than a particularly clever one.

Overall, a fast paced thrill ride that may not keep the reader guessing, but will entertain for a couple hours. Definitely a good bit of reading for a plane ride or on a beach. There is also a movie version starring Tom Cruise, so reading this book will give you an excuse to rent another film from everyone's favorite scientologist.

Book #1: Bleachers

Title: Bleachers
Author: John Grisham
Series: none
Genre: Drama
Pages: 229
Pages to Date: 229

The Good:
Bleachers taps into the nostalgia for youth felt from those who peaked in high school. The pace is fast, with strong imagery that sucks the reader into a world obsessed with small town high school football. Not enough mainstream literature deals with the fallen hero, the disgraced former star who simply never reached his full potential; Bleachers unflinchingly examines the emotions felt by a man who will never escape the giant shadow cast by his 17 year-old self. Furthermore, the scenes portraying former teammates discussing triumphs from years past are extremely real. Only three years removed from high school myself, I cannot help but be reminded of conversations I have with former teammates that are eerily reminiscent of the dialogue in Bleachers. Overall, a wonderful mixture of how wistfulness regarding the past holds one back and the lifetime bonds created through sports.

The Bad:
The "mystery" of the national championship of the main character's senior season was completely devoid of suspense; honestly, it just dragged the book down a notch. Furthermore, there is a completely disproportionate amount of wonder towards achieving a college scholarship. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work and there is plenty of great high school players who never play at the college level; but when several Geneva High School grads are playing right now at Northern Illinois, I have a really hard time taking the notion that barely anyone from a school described as an unbelievable powerhouse goes to play DI football.

The Verdict:
Despite the page count over 200, Bleachers is a fast read with skinny pages. While it will not expose you to any revolutionary ideas or concepts, it is absorbing. I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed high school, enjoys football, or just wants to read about the type of futile exist destined for those who yearn to relive their high school glory days.