Saturday, February 03, 2007

Guide to books- January

I must say that I have enjoyed the recent surge of Stone bloggers. It’s fun to keep up with my siblings in their almost daily posts. I am enamored by Michelle’s wit and frankness and also by Nick’s sense of humor and interest in film and audio stuff (not to mention, Brandon's debut post basically proving how smart he is :)). They are good people and I am glad to be their brother. Keep it going!

I have been meaning to do a book report, as the count of books read since I began student teaching has now reached four (in three weeks—ain’t bad!). I have thoroughly enjoyed each of the books for various reasons—though I don’t usually keep reading a book that I am not into (Angels & Demons by Dan Brown was near exactly the same story as The Da Vinci Code plot element-wise—I was glad that I read the second story in the series first because I quit reading A&D, no offense Brown lovers.) Anyway, what follows below is a brief accounting of the four novels and what I liked about them.

My Name Is Asher Lev- Chaim Potok

I have been hearing about how great this book is for a long time now. A couple in my ward whom I respect go as far as to say it is their favorite novel of all time. All I had heard about it before (and before I read/listened to Potok’s The Chosen over the summer) was a bit of controversy when Nick’s high school English class read it and a few parents were offended. Anyway—as I mentioned in my last post—I really enjoyed the book. It explores the conflict and paradox of clashing traditions: in this case, the tradition of orthodox Judaism and the equally dense and multilayered tradition of fine art. The story, in essence, is how this paradox plays out in the life of Asher Lev—an prodigical art genius and a strict Hasidic Jew. While the book appeals to me on many levels, I was particularly struck by the fact that Asher manages the paradox. Many successful stories (and I hope that this doesn’t give the book away—I don’t think it will) might center on how one piece of a persona must be sacrificed in order to let another flourish. In Asher Lev’s case, the story might have written so that either religion or art might have to be (difficultly) sloughed in order to become something more true—a real artist or truly devout. But Asher remains, unequivocally, both… even though the decision to do so requires significant sacrifices. The Chosen deals with a similar theme, though in this case it is intellectualism instead of art and the character does seem to make a choice.

Anyway as a man of devout, religious convictions but also as a man with strong feelings and opinions about the beauty and importance of art (and the importance of intellectualism), Asher’s story was one of inspiration. Managing the paradox is possible though it requires significant discipline and maturity (which I often lack). For some reason it rings the same chord as a conversation that I have had with my dad a few times about the importance of understanding the exceptions in life. Anyway, a good friend of mine recently read the book as well and though we usually agree about books, she didn’t care for it as much as I did. So, though I recommend it highly, I recommend it with that one caveat.

The Red Pony- John Steinbeck

After reading East of Eden a few years ago, my dusty, freshman memories of the Grapes of Wrath and the lingering adolescent distain that it left could no longer be justified. I was a bonafide Steinbeck fanboy—so much that I thought that maybe Steinbeck could be my focal point for graduate school. I subsequently bought all the Steinbeck novels I could find at used book stores and am only now getting around to starting to read them. Red Pony is a novel that I think most people read as a young student—maybe even in middle school. And I can see why—its short, and could even be classified as a young adult novel since it centers on the life of a pre-teen Jody. But it really is a great book—and surprising. For those of us not into lame books about a boy and his animal and the coming of age that is sure to happen because of their tender relationship, no worries—this isn’t that book. In fact, the book is episodic and each of its four or five chapters is different stories that aren’t really connected. They could be read completely autonomously. The red pony is only present in the first story. What is present in all of the stories, however, is Steinbeck’s lush and beautifully familiar Salinas California-in-the-early-twentieth-century landscape. Familiar because he tends to set a lot of his book there (Salinas could be thought of as its own separate character in East of Eden). The Red Pony is a quick but poignant read and would be a great book for you book clubbers out there who want your classics in small dosages.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Stories- Stephen Crane

When I mentioned in my “best of 2006” entry that I had discovered Stephen Crane, and that he had become one of my favorite writers, I admit that I was making this declaration after only reading two of his short stories The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. I have still yet to read his most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, but will—oh yes—I will. The stories that I had read as a part of my American Lit after 1860 survey class were striking in their imagery, language, and their stark sense of reality. Crane is a realist and his stories are portraits of life at the turn of the twentieth century as it really was—no gloss or silver lining. The stories, however, often center around a character who is exhibiting courage and the majority of the stories in the Maggie collection are of this type. I admit that Crane is, for me, advanced reading. I have to sit with my Oxford English dictionary close at hand to look up all the words that I don’t know (a habit I have tried to get into since my vocabulary baptism of fire while studying for the GRE). But the reading is rewarding and the stories are memorable. One of my favorites in this collection is titled The Monster and is about a free black man who is severely burned while saving a woman and her son from a burning house. He doesn’t reemerge into the town until after the hubbub of praise for him has passed and when he does reemerge he isn’t recognizable any longer as the fire has burned off his face. He’s also gone a little coo-coo. So it ends up being one of those funny/sad/ironic stories as the burned guy goes around unknowingly terrorizing the town who has just finished praising his name.

Twilight- Stephanie Meyer

I have been meaning to read this vampire book for a few months now as it was one of the books that were praised often last semester in my Young Adult Lit class. Two things hastened the process. I did a little research on the author and discovered that she is a BYU grad and lives in the Valley here. So that was the first thing that got me interested—an LDS author writing vampire books!? But Meyer is so charming! Read a bit about her here and you too will think the same thing. Second, Tina’s book club decided to read it—so I checked it out. I am kind of embarrassed by how much I liked it because it is definitely a romance and also definitely for a target audience of teenage girls…but I found it fascinating—for one reason in particular: on many levels it is a book about abstinence. Consider this: Girl meets boy. Boy is nearly insatiably attracted to girl—he’s a vampire after all. Girl finds out that boy is vampire, but a “good” vampire who is lives with a group of other vampires who have all decided to give up biting people and feed rather on animals (“Fish are friends, not food!”). Boy struggles mightily to first not start relationship with girl and then (because of course he does) to not bite her! It sounds kind of cheesy as I write it, but seriously: it’s a good, fun, book set in both Washington and Phoenix (two of our favorite places!). And the abstinence thing is subtle—I don’t even know if it was intentional, but it still adds some extra depth to the story. Read it, especially if you like long, detailed descriptions of really attractive dudes (you know I do!).

So that’s it for now. I have picked up the sequel to Asher Lev called The Gift of Asher Lev but also thought I’d give the Bourne series a try. I haven't done much action/adventuring in my reading endeavors, so I thought-Why not? I really like those movies and have heard that the books are different and well done. I started The Bourne Identity last night.


  1. Fantastic...great descriptions, awesome and thorough analysis(es), way to many big words (sloughed?) and I want to read all of the books! especially the long descriptions of hottie vampires...mmm, yums. :) just kidding brandon! :)

    jon I could read your stuff it.

  2. and a wrong to! I meant way "too" many, I really did!!