Monday, December 22, 2014

A Whirlwind Review of Seven Worthy Books

(Minor spoilers throughout this blog post. Proceed with caution! You have been warned.)

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf- All right, this is not a worthy book; at least, not in my opinion. To the Lighthouse is a story about the ill-fated Ramsay family and their guests at their summer home over two visits. When this book was written, in the 1920s, after World War I, the young set were disillusioned with anything solid and predictable, such as religion or government. World War I was the "War to End All Wars" and people were trying to come to terms with what would come next. Artists and authors were popping up everywhere; people experimented with feelings, art, sex, drugs, dancing, music, the human psyche (in the form of psychology); those who experimented with these things in the extreme were called Bohemians and Virginia Woolf and her friends were a part of that circle. Bohemian experimentation and disillusioned aimlessness show themselves clearly in To the Lighthouse.
There is no plot to speak of and most of the book is stream-of-consciousness narrative. The reader gets to see the character's innermost thoughts. Unfortunately, these thoughts are not worth seeing. Mostly, the characters bemoan their lives and bottle up their feelings. Take Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, for instance: there is a scene where Mr. Ramsay, looking at his wife, is thinking "I wish she would just tell me she loves me. I know she does, but it would be nice to hear it." Mrs. Ramsay is thinking, "He wants me to tell him that I love him, but I just can't say it out loud. He knows I love him." If the characters addressed their feelings, if they talked about their emotions, instead of bottling them up, they may have led happier lives and not been so miserable. And, as a result, THIS reader would not have been so miserable.
This book depressed me because the characters were so purposeless and hopeless; they were stuck and they were stubborn about being stuck; they felt they couldn't change. I am firm in my belief that you are never stuck in or with one choice. You can always change if you want to, especially if you have God.
Although I did not enjoy many elements of this book, I did enjoy some of Ms. Woolf's descriptions and it was vastly interesting to read a style of writing that I don't usually read. Another perk to this book is that it is short.

The Ankulen by Kendra E. Ardnek- This book follows Jen as she is sucked into her own imagination (which has been missing for the past few years) which is being eaten by the many-headed Polystoikhedron. She must save her imaginary friends and their world.
This book is very innovative and creative (it is a book about imagination, after all!) and I think my friend Kendra is the only one who would ever be able to write such an idea so wonderfully!
When I read back-cover synopsis' or blurbs on the author's website, my brain tricks me into thinking that the whole story is contained within the summary when, usually, there is SO much more going on in the story. In that way, The Ankulen surprised me. I had expected it to be a story simply about a girl exploring her lost imagination and destroying the monster that preyed on it. The story, however, dived quite deeper and included allegorical elements that I wasn't expecting, but enjoyed. There were a few parts that got a little too spiritual* for my comfort, but I think that's just a denominational difference. Since I can't remember what the parts were at the moment (it's been six months since I read the book), I won't elaborate. Perhaps I shall do so in a fuller review sometime in the future.

*Spiritual isn't exactly the word I'm looking for... but it will do in place of the word that has escaped my memory.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick- This wonderful children's book follows the adventures of young Hugo who lives and works in the Paris train station. He fixes the station's clocks and, in his spare time, tries to fix an automaton (pronounced: aw-taw-ma-taun) which had been in his late father's possession. Hugo gets entangled with Melies family and it becomes apparent that Papa Georges Melies is much more than he appears, and he knows more about Hugo's automaton than he lets on, too.
I love love love this book. Half the book is told in illustrations, like a stopmotion film, while the other half is written in normal prose. Both the story and the wonderful illustrations are done by Brian Selznick. I am fairy certain that he will someday be ranked among the finest children's book writers and illustrators, right up there with Maurice Sendak (and not just because they both have funny names) and Howard Pyle.
The book's magic does not end with its peculiar storytelling method. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about this book is the historical part. Georges Melies was a real man; he was one of the first men to create moving pictures at the end of the 1800s. He made hundreds of films, many of which, sadly, have not survived. Still, a great many are on Youtube. George Melies was not only a filmmaker, but also a magician, so many of his movies feature magic tricks and show-stopping stunts. He also had a substantial collection of automatons. Automatons are mechanical figures, run by clockwork, that "exhibit human characteristics," as Google put it. They were popular entertainments for the rich and they were employed by magicians chiefly in the 1700s-1800s. Sadly, the making and preserving of such works of art has rather slipped through the hands of many historians.
Brian Selznick, however, by writing about these two important but nearly forgotten and infinitely interesting historical curiosities—Georges Melies and his films and automatons—preserves an eccentric and somewhat trivial piece of history.
I feel like a kind of kindred spirit to Mr. Selznick because I, too, enjoy little-known, quirky areas of history (such as the story of the Collier brothers) and I am all for saving as much history as possible, especially if it is such beautiful history such as automatons and some of the earliest films.
While the historical side of things may be lost on younger readers—the targeted age group—it adds a rich layer to the story, something that most books today are sadly lacking. Also, this book certainly piqued my curiosity on automatons and, after some research, I find myself fascinated with them! Perhaps you will be too, after watching this video:

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit- Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis' lives are turned upside down when their father is taken away by strange men, forcing the three children and their mother to move out of their expensive home to a cottage in the country. Although they do not have much to live on, the children fall in love with the countryside and the nearby railroad. They have many adventures on the railroad and make many new friends, though their missing father is always in the back of their minds.
E. Nesbit is one of my favorite authors. Her books are utterly delightful and just the sort of story I enjoy reading: children having adventures.
One brilliant thing about this story—and The Enchanted Castle, the other E. Nesbit book I have read—is that it doesn't have one singular plot, until the end. Every chapter is its own self-contained adventure (like a novel made up of short stories) but, in the end, everything is connected together, like train couplings (okay, bad simile, I admit). There is something satisfying about reading meandering adventures that don't seem to be headed anywhere, only to find that, indeed, they were all connected and important. Its as if, halfway through the story, the author suddenly realizes she needs an overall plot, only the transition between self-contained chapters and a cohesive novel isn't bumpy, but smooth.
Another asset to this book's charm is that it is about trains and the railway. My love of trains started with Thomas the Tank Engine when I was three years old and has continued until today. Trains hold a fascination for me and I think I would rather travel by train than any other sort of vehicle.

If you enjoy E. Nesbit or stories about children having adventures or novels with self-containing chapters or all three, try reading The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall or A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini- Eragon finds a blue stone in the woods which soon hatches into a dragon! Eragon keeps his new pet a secret, but that doesn't stop the Ra'zac—servants of the Empire—from getting suspicious and burning Eragon's uncle's farm. Eragon is forced to flee with his dragon, Saphira, and the old storyteller, Brom, who turns out to be much more than a storyteller. As they hunt down the Ra'zac, Brom teaches Eragon swordplay and magic and Eragon realizes that he and Saphira are far more important than either of them realized.
I enjoyed Eragon. I think its a good work of fantasy and Christopher Paolini must be credited for creating a working, coherent fantasy world. I enjoyed Eragon's growth throughout the book. I did, however, feel like Christopher Paolini "borrowed" too much from other franchises. Continually, I was saying to myself, "This reminds me of Star Wars!" or "This reminds me of Lord of the Rings!" and not, necessarily, in a good way. While it is good to learn from successful authors, to borrow too much from them is dishonest, even if it is unconsciously done.
Still, Eragon was an enjoyable book. I loved Paolini's take on magic. Magic in Paolini's book comes from a language of power, and using that magic costs the strength of the user. I thought that was really unique and more "realistic" than stories where magic does not "have a price," as Rumpelstiltskin would say in Once Upon a Time.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott- Ivanhoe is an exhilarating tale filled with knights, competitions, a damsel or two, and more than one familiar face. It is set during the Third Crusade—also known as the time of the Norman takeover, the time of Richard the Lionheart, and the time of Robin Hood—and follows the intersecting story lines of several characters. Ivanhoe, recently returned from the Holy Land, and his Saxon relatives clash with their Norman adversaries, Prince John ("Too late to be known as John the First, he's sure to be known as John the wooorst!") is trying to steal the throne from the missing King Richard, and Isaac the Jew is trying to protect his daughter, his hide, and his gold from persecutors.
So much goes on in Ivanhoe that I find it hard to write about. Really, all I can say about the whole book, and not just parts, is that it is epic and definitely worth reading.
My favorite characters were Wamba the Fool and Rebecca the Jewess. Her speeches against the Templar Knight's advances were wonderful; her loyalty to her faith astounded and inspired me. The Templar offered her love and riches—he even risked losing his status in his order just to woo her—but through it all, Rebecca remained stalwart in her Judaism. Honestly, I don't know if I would have persisted in my resistance, had I been in Rebecca's place. By standing strong in her faith, Rebecca shows women that they don't need a man to be content; God will fill the void, if you let him. Even if a man offers love and riches and even goes so far as to risk his reputation for you, it does not mean that he Mr. Right, especially if he means giving up your faith and your scruples. Rebecca is an unsung heroine of literature, I think. Her only fault is in her rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Persuasion by Jane Austen- Kellynch Hall has become too expensive for Sir Walter Elliot's style of living and he and his eldest daughter must remove to Bath and rent the Hall. Anne Elliot, Sir Walter's second and often forgotten daughter, goes to stay with her younger sister's family, the Musgroves, where she meets with a former suitor and falls in love all over again. 
Persuasion is a lovely read. As it is one of Austen's last novels, it is more mature in its style; the heroine is certainly no Elizabeth Bennet. It is a rather quick read, only twenty-some chapters long, but it is full of delightful characters and a variety of different settings. I have enjoyed all of Jane Austen's novels (except Northanger Abbey, which I have not yet read), but I have especially enjoyed her more subdued novels like Mansfield Park and Persuasion. This book is a great read!

What have YOU all been reading lately?

Live long and prosper.


  1. I've been reading the Dresden Files... because I'm hooked. And not much else, because life has been busy.

    I love The Railway Children. Have you seen the movie? It's fantastic! Also, the "paper chase" in that movie inspired parts of my sister's latest song, so that's cool :)

  2. I've been reading the Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. I like it a lot so far.