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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#DNF list- Books I Did Not Finish


It is nearing the end of the calendar year, and I figured I’d wrap up the year with some books I have never finished. Hopefully, in 2018, I will be able to finish these novels (at least some of them!)

  • The Aeneid by Virgil:

This was a book that I was assigned to read for an Ancient Roman culture class. We only were assigned to read excerpts of it throughout class and I honestly never picked it up again after that class ended, mostly because that particular class required so much reading every week that I had to take a break from that story. However, it is interesting and educational so I’d like to think that I’d pick it up again.

  • Anna Karenina  by Leo Tolstoy

I have been “reading” this book for over a year now and I always make excuses not to read it- I’ll go and read a shorter book or I’ll listen to my audiobook or I’ll read my ebook. It’s a really bad habit and I’m nearly halfway through, so hopefully I will get the urge to just power through it. I am really enjoying it, it’s just dense and sometimes I have to switch to something lighter or more contemporary. The issue is I often get stuck in those other novels while forgetting about this classic.

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I had to read excerpts of this for a science class and actually really enjoy the spin that Bryson puts on science- it’s accessible to laymen who have never taken a psychics class in their life like me and it’s entertaining. There are narratives behind every discovery described and I would like to finish the parts that were not assigned to me because it was that good.

  • Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

I tried reading this book as an adolescent and it was a more adult version of Little Women that young me just didn’t identify with as much as the characters in the original book. However, as a younger adult now, I think I would like to give this book the second chance it deserves.

  • The History of Rome by Livy

Again, I was assigned this book for my ancient Rome class, and because a lot of Rome’s “history” is mythologically based, I would like to continue reading this book but in a less academic, more relaxed setting.

  • Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke

I regret never finishing the Inkheart trilogy, especially because I loved the first two. I was deterred by the enormous size of the third book, as well as a couple of friends who told me that the book was not worth my time. Thinking back on it (in my defense I was ten years old so the opinions of my peers had great weight on me) I should have formed my own opinion on the book and just committed to finishing the series in the first place.

  • The Complete Sonnets of Shakespeare

It’s not like me to read poetry as I would a novel, but instead pick it up from time to time. However, I believe I don’t pick up this poetry book quite as often as I should, and I do hope to, one day, have read every poem and play written by Shakespeare.

  • The Story of Earth by Robert M. Hazen

I was also assigned parts of this for a science class. However, I am not sure I am as determined to finish this one as the others- it describes the origins of Earth and is kind of dry unless you are a geologist enthusiast? It is interesting though, but maybe this one will be a book I’ll never finish.

  • The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp

I love, love, love The Sound of Music. I am pretty sure I have the entire soundtrack memorized at heart. I tried to read this memoir at a young age, but it differed so much from the idealized, romanticized version of this story portrayed in the movie that I quickly lost interest. However, as an adult (do you see a theme here?) I’d like to think I’d appreciate the real story more.

  • Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald

This was simply a vacation read that I never quite finished, but I would really like to. I don’t have a good excuse for this one, besides the simple fact that I forgot I was reading it.

How many books on your #didnotfinish list? Will you continue reading those, or will they remain unfinished for you?

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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, 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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book review, young adult

Review: We Are Okay

There are degrees of obsession, of awareness, of grief, of insanity.

We Are Okay, Nina LaCour

GENRE: Young Adult

WHAT FORMAT: audiobook

RATING: 4/5 stars

SUMMARY: Marin is a freshman in college, stranded in the dormitories for winter break. She has not talked to anyone she knew back home since her grandfather had passed. Her best friend, Mabel, comes to visit her at her school in New York. Though the two friends had spent months not talking to each other, they rediscover and re-map out their friendship during Mabel’s three-day visit. Also, Marin explores what it might mean to be “okay” for the first time since she lost her grandfather.

THOUGHTS: This novel is so surprisingly poignant. As I started to read, I grew bored pretty instantaneously because not a lot was happening. However, by the last words of the books, I was left in more tears than I really care to admit on the Internet. Something should be said by the fact that I finished this book in less than 24 hours. I will also mention a small spoiler: this book features a biracial, LGBTQ relationship so yayyy diversity and representation!!

I always prefer carefully constructed characters over an exciting plot, and this means that We are Okay was just my book-type. Marin is so complex, and so relatable to me personally. She is a girl that finds every aspect of her life reflected back to her in the novels that she reads, and she has a special and deep relationship with Jane Eyre (as I definitely do). Marin is also the kind of girl that would rather flee from her issues and use coping mechanisms rather than talk about them and deal with them in concrete ways, which is too relatable.

I adore LaCour’s use of setting to advance her plot and her characterization, which is something that is pretty lost in Young Adult, or even Contemporary Adult novels. And no, this is not English class where you have to search out the significance of every little description. The aiding of the setting of snowy New York City, of a desolate dormitory room (where I know melancholy can reside so easily), of a sketchy motel, of foggy San Francisco, and of sunny Southern California enhanced the story so much that if setting was left out, the story would lose much of its meaning. LaCour achieves this effortlessly though.

This is definitely not a feel-good, Young Adult novel. It is filled to the brim with melancholy, and explores the topics of the grieving process and loneliness in depth. This endeared the book to me, because of its relevance in my personal life and because I think that grief is a topic that should be tackled more often in contemporary literature. Normalizing grief and death in media is so important because it is such a universal experience and yet no one ever seems to want to talk about it.

If you enjoy a thought-provoking, entertaining, and heartbreaking read, then I would recommend this novel to you!

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