book review, reading recommendations, nonfiction

Review: Common Sense

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason

Common Sense, Thomas Paine

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Click the image above in order to purchase it at Amazon.

In honor of it being Thanksgiving here in the United States, and because I am so very thankful that I reside in the United States, I decided to do more of a patriotic super-short review today.

AUTHOR: Thomas Paine

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: This was a pamphlet essentially published in order to convince the colonists that the solution to their issues with Britain was to break off and declare independence rather than try and make amends with King George III. Paine’s writing was quite influential at this time.

THOUGHTS: I was inspired to read this book as a result for my love for Hamilton: An American Musical. It is a quick read, amounting to around sixty pages, but considering that this was a propaganda pamphlet that was widely spread, that is quite a lengthy argument. The thing that I loved best about Paine’s writing is that the line of logic that it follows is clear and yet complex, making it quite difficult for anyone to argue against him. He approaches the argument for America’s independence from many sides- a religious approach, a moral approach, an economic approach, a political approach, etc; this demonstrates that the American Revolution was not just another war to be fought, but also a question of identity, of values, and of ideas.

Paine’s writing tends to be a little disorganized, but I suspect that is because I read a version that had been edited many times in order to address counterarguments that arose from his critics. One of my favorite parts of the pamphlet is when Paine mercilessly calls out those who deemed themselves pacifists; essentially, he asked those who opposed war to his side, and his arguments for why they should enter a bloody revolution were actually quite compelling. There is no argument that Paine could not morph until it fit his own agenda, and it is easy to see why colonists were so compelled by his words.

The language is dense and sometimes tedious to get through, but this is more a product of the time that has elapsed between the time it was published and now rather than a product of Paine’s lack of writing abilities. For any of you fellow American history buffs, or fellow fans of Hamilton, I would recommend this as a quick, patriotic read that will allow you to learn a little more about the values that America was founded on.

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book review, fiction, reading recommendations

Review: Middlesex

Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

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Click on image above to purchase on Amazon.

This is one of my absolute favorite novels, and one of the books that I have rated 5/5 stars on Goodreads. So, please prepare for all the praise.

AUTHOR: Jeffrey Eugenides

GENRE: Realistic Fiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: school library

RATING: 5/5 stars

SUMMARY: This is the story of Cal Stephanides, and his journey of self discovery throughout his childhood and most of his adult life. His story parallels the stories of his grandparents and his own parents, each generation’s mistakes resulting in his own unique and challenging genetic condition- so that he transforms from Calliope Stephanides to Cal Stephanides. This is a novel about immigration, about gender, about identity, about romance, and about other topics that are hard to breach- this is truly, though, a novel about American culture and how many different identities can often occupy the same person.

THOUGHTS: So first of all, Eugenides’ writing is brilliant. As a literature nerd who loves nothing more than the pull of good, efficient prose, Eugenides’ writing is like several breaths of fresh air. Not only is his diction skillful, but the figurative language that he employs, such as parallelism and metaphors, could have been all for show but it only helped and supported the plot line that he was conveying.

I also loved how this was a multigenerational story but also very modern at the same time- the Greek immigrants that struggled against several of the issues that face past and modern immigrants alike in America, the parents that struggle with an unorthodox, budding relationship, and the second-generation child that shuns certain parts of their home culture out of a lack of appreciation for it, in favor for more modern, Americanized traditions. There are also many eras covered through the novel in this way- the racially charged riots of the 1960s, the booms of Detroit when it was the ultimate manufacturer of the Rust Belt, and the complexities and challenges that come with the present day.

There is also a rich variety of characters throughout the story besides the Stephanides family; there are the characters that are exhibitionists in San Francisco with ambiguous sexualities and gender identities, the girls that Callie grew up with during her school years, and the many other figures that are recognizable to those who know their contemporary American history also populate the world of this novel. These characters are all beautifully developed, complex, realistic, and completely sympathetic. There are many themes of childhood and adolescence explored, through Callie’s own adolescent experiences, and there are many subjects of adulthood that are breached. Some of these issues were brought together seamlessly, especially though the protagonist who is telling this story as a middle-aged man, breaking the barriers between those issues that strongly identify with youth and with grown-ups: questions of identity and feeling comfortable in one’s skin are not necessarily issues that disappear with age, even though that can often be people’s instinctive conclusion.

I cannot even think of a criticism for this book, and I can be quite the picky reader, but hey, there’s a reason that this novel won the Pulitzer and is proudly listed as a book in Oprah’s book club, right? It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of reader who would not enjoy this story, except maybe those who are only dedicated to certain specific genres, so stop reading this review and just go read the book instead!

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book review, young adult

Review: Annie John

I was afraid of the dead, as was everyone I knew. We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

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Click on the image above to purchase on Amazon.

I was assigned to read this novel in class, but I was already familiar with Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories, which are, quite moving. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed with my introduction to her novel writing.

AUTHOR: Jamaica Kincaid

GENRE: Young Adult, Fiction, Coming of Age

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: Amazon

RATING: 4.5 stars/stars

SUMMARY: Annie John is your typical girl who grows up on the island of Antigua. Her life is dominated by a couple of things; fear of the dead, her undying love for her mother, and her affection towards her friends. However, as she grows older, the nature of the affectionate relationship between her and her mother shifts. Suddenly, Annie John finds herself the victim of lectures about what it means to be a young lady and on the other side of childhood that she never thought she’d find herself on.

THOUGHTS: The theme of the English class I took, the one that assigned me this novel, was coming-of-age. This theme is heralded throughout Annie John and is dealt with a truthful and unapologetic way that makes me love the book even more. There are all sorts of emotional complexities that accompanies one as she makes the transition from young girl to young woman, and these are laid bare in this novel. It was a delight to share in Annie John’s pain and struggles for me personally, because it is a stark reminder that a) I’m not alone and b) maturing into a woman is significantly different than maturing into a man.

Coming-of-age novels can often be a hit and miss with me (The Catcher in the Rye was a total miss) and Annie John was a hit. Maybe it is because I identify so strongly with parts of Annie’s narrative: her urge to leave her home for the greater world beyond, her struggle with the aspects of her identity as a woman-of-color and what expectations that identity entails, and her rebellious side. There are also aspects of female-female friendships throughout the book that are so strong, as those bonds typically are in young girls, which is amazing to read from a feminist point of view. However, there are also rivalries between girls, though not over boys as other young adults might espouse, but over academic achievement. This subject is also broached in a respectful way (because the girls attend an all-girl school) and enhances the truthfulness of the narrative.

Kincaid’s language, as per usual, flows well from one chapter to the next. Annie’s voice as a narrator is easily identifiable as youthful, though wise beyond her years. Annie is smart, she is snarky, she has attitude and she has pity and is capable of humiliation. She goes through all the awkward struggles that comes with those early teenage years, and all of this is made clear in Kincaid’s diction. Annie is sometimes identifiable, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes not. All in all, her humanity- the best and the worst of it, are on full display in this novel.

Those of us who like novels that end neatly and with no lingering, unexplored topics waiting at the end might not enjoy this particular novel. It is true that the character of Annie progresses from girl to adult, from naive to seasoned, and from full of love to full of other, more complicated emotions; however, the book only ends with her as a young adult. As as many young adults can attest, just because one makes it through physical puberty does not mean that the emotional journeys started in puberty also come to an end. However, this open-ended ending does all the more to make the novel believable, and the character of Annie John identifiable as a young woman with more still to figure out as she continues to mature.

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book review, reading recommendations, short story sunday

Short Story Sunday: How to Become a Writer


For those of you who find it hard to set time aside to read, but still love the pull of a good novel, I introduce to you Short Story Sundays! Basically, I will review a short story or even an essay that I loved each Sunday (most of them will be recommendations) instead of a full length novel or play that you can easily pick up, read, and digest in the span of an hour.

This week’s short story comes to us from Lorrie Moore. This was a story I had to read three times for three different English classes, and I consider it a good introduction to Lorrie Moore, so here goes. You can access the story here.

SUMMARY: Francie, an aspiring writer, details the journey of how her passion for writing is born and blossoms. However, the reception of her writing remains the same: there are lukewarm responses, discouraging responses, and of course confused responses. Francie rewrites the same themes into multiple storylines, and it seems that no one seems to understand her process or what she’s writing about. Not even those in her creative writing classes seem to understand what she is trying to say; they’d rather smoke cigars and turn up their noses. Throughout the story, we accompany Francie throughout her maturation and fight our way through her confusion alongside her as she discovers, (or doesn’t?) how to become a writer.

REVIEW: One thing I absolutely adore about Moore’s writing is that it is unique. It has a specific voice that is incredibly identifiable as only her’s. Moore’s writing also keeps you guessing, she mentions in her title that the story is about falling into a cliche but her writing is anything but. Her figurative language is unnerving but at the same time makes complete sense, and even though I have read this story multiple times over there are many aspects that I still do not understand and I love that about her writing.

The stream-of-consciousness style suits this story well, as it appears disjointed but is actually masterfully being held together by a few, select, story mechanisms, such as the parallelism in Francie’s life. Francie’s voice as a character is clearcut and quirky- she is leading the life of someone who has a passion but has no idea what to do about it, and Moore’s writing only exemplifies this.

This story almost reads as a series of diary entries or even a hazy memoir looking back (Francie is of course, predictably narrating from the future) rather than a short story. The plotline is there, but strays away from the basic beginning, middle, and end structure.

One thing I love about this story is Francie’s miserable failures. The story showcases the gross, unidentifiable, confusing, and frustrating side of writing- none of the flowery sentences that talented writers will eventually arrive at. All of Francie’s story ideas are near awful; she has not yet reached her full potential. And yet, the story hints at future success for Francie, so just because all hope seems to be lost throughout Francie’s past, it does not necessitate any part of her future. And that as a lesson, I think, is one that is not touched on enough, especially on the subject of writing.

If you enjoy reading something slightly out of your comfort zone, then this story is for you.

RATING: 4/5 stars.

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book review, classics, reading recommendations

Review: Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

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There is something to be said about the fact that I have the first line of this novel memorized. And that something is, I am OBSESSED as any teenage fangirl would be with this book.

AUTHOR: Jane Austen, duh.

GENRE: romance

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: thrift shop

RATING: 5/5 stars

SUMMARY: Mrs. Bennet is sent into a frenzy when a rich, eligible bachelor moves into a house in her neighborhood. She is convinced that Bingley, the bachelor, is destined to marry one of her daughters. This prediction proves to be not unfounded as Bingley and Jane, the eldest Bennet girl, are quite taken with each other. Bingley brings his friend along, Darcy, another rich, eligible bachelor that the main character, Elizabeth, finds pompous, arrogant, and exceedingly rude. Through some miscommunications, Bingley suddenly leaves town, taking Darcy with him and leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth suspects foul play, and when Darcy surprisingly proposes to her, she confronts him about how he interfered with the happiness of her sister. From then on, events spiral out of control and Elizabeth’s world-view and character judgements are challenged, shattered, and rearranged. As she matures throughout the story, she finds that first impressions are not always what’s really true and that her pride, and someone else’s prejudice, very nearly destroyed the happiness of themselves and those that they hold dear to their hearts.

THOUGHTS: Pride and Prejudice, for me, was the kind of book that I picked up and rarely ever put down until I was completely finished with it. It was that captivating, and that good. Elizabeth Bennet is my perfect narrator: relatable, sassy, intelligent, loving, and flawed. Her journey throughout the story arc is one of my absolute favorites, and though the romance is the main focal point for most people, Elizabeth’s development is the meat of the story for me.

If you have ever watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube (here is a link if you have no idea what I’m talking about), there are a few aspects of the book that stand out as flaws. There is no redemption of Lidia Bennet or her relationship with Elizabeth in the book, there is not a whole lot of characterization from Wickham besides word-of-mouth (and of course the book clearly says that this is not a good way to know a character), and the submissiveness of Jane Bennet in forgiving other characters. Of course, some of these errors are only perceived as such because this is not a modern novel, and some come from the fact that the novel is only told from Elizabeth’s point of view while the video series tries to incorporate other points of view. But some, of course, are Austen’s errors.

Besides this, there are many praises that I can ascribe to this novel, and there have been many praises that other people have ascribed to this novel, so I will try and keep it brief so you can spend less time reading this review and more time reading Pride and Prejudice. The characterization of Elizabeth and William beautifully mirror each other, and although it is Elizabeth’s story, William also blossoms and grows throughout the story.

The family aspect of this story is also very important; the Bennet family, although not the best family to marry into nor the most stable of families, is recognizable, even in modern times. The mother, who is characterized as rather crazy and obsessive by Elizabeth, does experience some redemption. Mr. Bennet is lovingly characterized as a simple, quiet, but fiercely loyal man. The Bennet sisters are all quite different, but also recognizable as the different kinds of girls you have known and befriended throughout your life. There is jealousy, there is contempt, but above all, there is love and support.

The romance, of course, is your classic they met and hated each other, but once they got to know each other, things changed. But this storyline was probably best exemplified by this novel, and it feels so fresh and real in this novel. Additionally, the way that the two end up falling for each other is unorthodox and is not romantic in the conventional sort of way.

I’ll stop here to prevent myself from rambling on, but if you’d like to talk to me about your crazy love for this novel and all things Austen, feel free to reach me through the Contact page! And if you love classical novels, a bit of romance, and plenty of drama, this novel is a MUST READ for you!

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book review, play, reading recommendations

Review: Death of a Salesman

A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

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This is probably my favorite play of all time, just a warning! There will be considerable gushing for this particular work.

AUTHOR: Arthur Miller

GENRE: Drama, Tragedy

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: school library

SUMMARY: Willy Loman is a less-than-mediocre salesman that seems utterly incapable of coming to terms with his own mediocrity and average state and with the lack of conventional success in his two sons’ lives, Biff and Happy. It is revealed in the play that Willy had always imagined that his two sons would experience great success, as Biff was the quarterback of the football team and was predicted to go to college on a football scholarship. Their neighbor, Bernard, is a smart kid who had constantly reminded Biff to study so as not to fail his high school classes. It is also apparent to the audience that Biff as a kid was a bully, full of himself, irresponsible, and a troublemaker. Willy is as blind to his son’s flaws at that time as he is in the present, and Biff and Happy strive to prove to their father that they will lead ordinary lives. Their mother, Linda, pushes them to make their father happy by pursuing prospects that do not really exist and careers that ultimately would not make them happy. Willy refuses to listen to his kids’ protests, and his children desperately try to play in his fantasy world while Linda moderates, but eventually all of these tensions come to a boiling point and a climax that the family cannot ultimately return from.

RATING: 5/5 stars

THOUGHTS: There are many reasons why this is one of my favorite plays, and one of the reasons is because the theatricality of it is so thought out and employed so well. All of the details and thought put into the stage directions is amazing and helps the reader really envision the work; it is a play that can exist as beautifully on stage as it does on paper. Specifically, the flute music that is supposed to accompany the story and Willy’s memories is one of my favorites details, and Miller’s details concerning how the house is supposed to be set up embody the feeling of the story so perfectly.

This is also a story about the American Dream, but not in the way that more classical works like The Great Gatsby address the materialism accompanied with the American Dream. One would think that Willy’s son Biff was the perfect high-school hero, as a popular kid and the star of the football team. However, his future did not pan out as well as Willy might have hoped it would, and this mostly resulted from the character flaws of Biff and from some of Willy’s. Instead, the expectations for a standard American life and the entitlement that can sometimes embody American culture are the subjects of this show, and I think it only reveals why idealizing anyone else’s idea of the perfect life can be so damaging and demoralizing.

Willy Loman is the epitome of a tragic hero, and it is unclear what exactly, in medical and psychological terms, what it was that he was afflicted with. There is no need to really know what could possibly be affecting Willy’s mental and emotional state, because it is family expectations and an idealized world that ultimately would be his downfall, and he pushed these things that poisoned his life onto his sons, continuing the cycle of abuse. He has no consciousness that these are his weaknesses though, except maybe at the end, and this makes him a fascinating character that I love to investigate over and over again.

This is a simple family drama but it is ultimately a reflection on American culture, and it is almost certain that everyone has something to draw from the story. I think that is what makes it timeless to me, that as a high schooler in 2016, I could still relate to the character of Willy Loman from decades ago. He only ever strived to be a great man and not just another chip off the block, and I believe that a lot of us strive to be one of the “greats” when the reality is, that most of us are the flecks of dust and not the flecks of gold. However, this can be embraced in its own way and has its own beauty, a message that Willy Loman never learned but one that perhaps Arthur Miller did and was trying to convey through this work.

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book review, historical fiction, reading recommendations

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

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Click link to purchase on Amazon.

This book is probably the single thing that kept me from going insane during my second semester of my senior year of high school. Instead of procrastinating and refreshing my college application sites every three minutes, I was transported to the wonderful world of this novel instead.

AUTHOR: Anthony Doerr

GENRE: Historical Fiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: I got this for my birthday

RATING: 5/5 stars

SUMMARY: Marie-Laure is a French, blind, adolescent girl whose father is employed by a museum. Her father is forced to flee with her and they go to live with her uncle, who is pretty much a recluse, in a French sea town. Her father is in possession of a jewel that has mythical powers and is said to be protective against physical dangers. The Germans are after this particular jewel and therefore, after Marie-Laure’s father. Werner is an bright adolescent in the German countryside with a knack for trigonometry and technology; he joins the Hitler Youth and eventually the Nazi Army as the expert in technology. These two live through the realities of World War 2, and eventually their two paths converge in a tragically beautiful way.

THOUGHTS: I honestly don’t have many criticisms of this novel, except I might argue the necessity of a few plot points? However, I absolutely loved the rest of this novel- the language, the style, the set up of the book, the motifs, the plot, etc. It was all very beautifully crafted and so unlike anything that I had read before, especially from the genre of historical fiction.

I must dedicate some time to praising Doerr’s unique and ethereal style of writing. Doerr beautifully marries vignettes and the novel form, and it is so unlike how I have seen these styles combined in other novels (like in The House on Mango Street). Also, the figurative language, especially the metaphors and the imagery, felt fresh and not at all cliched- they were refreshingly new and at the same time, felt familiar and made sense, as if they had been cliches.

Doerr is also one of those writers that can make you sympathize with a Nazi and only feel slightly guilty about it. There is such a beautiful humanity given to Werner, who became part of the German army because that was the only way he could pursue an education that he so desperately craved. It is such a twist to experience the events of World War 2 from the perspective of adolescents.

Marie, who is also an adolescent experiencing the horrors of war as formative events during her childhood, is also beautifully fleshed out and is such a sweet and sympathetic character. She has all the frustrations of a recently disabled young girl and all the imagination of a child, something that she does not lose as she loses her innocence.

The themes of technology in war (which is discussed in the form of radio), adolescence, morality, nature, health, power, and myth are mixed together so that it feels like a contemporary story, even though it takes place in the past. If you are a fan of historical fiction, as I am, as well as a fan of a bit of fantasy mixed with your history, this is the book for you!

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