"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ender's Game

by Orson Scott Card

Ender is a child genius who lives in a future world where Earth is fighting a war to stop an alien invasion by what are know as the "Buggers."  He is recruited and trained to be the next great general that will hopefully save the world.  He is trained, along with a number of other children, to learn combat tactics, psychology, and leadership.  But the training he receives is much more serious than he or any of the others understand. 

This is one of my favorite sci-fi books, because its not your typical "hero saves Earth" story.  Ender is an innocent kid who nevertheless has a brilliant mind and can access ruthless and violent tendencies in himself when necessary to get the job done.  And yet, he maintains his integrity and innocence as much as is possible.  There are few books out there that really get into the mind of a kid, and I think Card does a fabulous job of writing from the perspective of children. 

Be warned that there is some violence and language in the book that can be disturbing.  It is a tough read because it is about putting children into situations where they have to grow up very fast and learn to deal with a very hard world.  How each of them cope with it is what the story is really about. 

One of my favorite parts is a bit surprising, because normally I have trouble following technical/strategy type stuff.  However, the parts where they describe the zero gravity combat tactics training missions is really fascinating, and he writes so well that even I can picture it in my mind.  I so wish I could be weightless, just once! 

Ender is one of my favorite characters of all time, and wait until I review the companion novel "Ender's Shadow" which is about the same story, except from a different child's perspective.  Another quite fascinating look into child psychology, but contained within a brilliantly written fiction.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Long Walk

by Slavomir Rawicz

There are no words that do justice to the true story of this man's walk to freedom, except his own.  I have read this book before, but found myself just as involved through my second reading.  Rawicz describes the journey from being captured and tortured (not horribly graphic, but plenty to make the point) as a Polish prisoner in a Russian prison, then shipped like cattle to Siberia, and finally sent on a forced march to a gulag, or work camp.  He and six other men plan an escape which entails walking south from Siberia, all the way to India.  This "walk" not only cover approximately 4000 miles, but involved walking through the Russian winter snowstorms, crossing the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas.  It is also somewhat unique because along the way this group of men befriend a female escapee and she travels with them.

It is a harrowing journey to read, and makes you very tense until the end, wondering if they really are going to make it.  You laugh a few times, cry some, and gasp at what these men, with hardly any supplies except their friendship and pure resolve, are able to do.  It is an important read for detailing many of the unjust, cruel, and inhumane ways these people were treated.  The book also has a very unique voice to it, one of straightforward and honest details, without going too far into melodrama. 

What is especially wonderful about this book is that for all the horrible treatment these men receive at the beginning of their experience, the story chronicles many good and generous people who help them along their way, who literally saved their lives time and time again.  Some of the stories of "poor" Mongolian and Tibetan people who give of their small means in such generous ways are true examples of the goodness of humanity.  It makes up, in some part, for the terrible things that were done to them.  And finally, it again reminds me and hopefully you of the greatness of the freedoms we so readily enjoy.  To what lengths would you or I be willing to go to for freedom?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

by Chris Van Allsburg

I've loved the artwork and stories of Chris Van Allsburg since I was young and read many of his strange and intriguing children's books.  If you don't know who this author/artist is, he's the one that did such stories as Jumanji and The Polar Express, now made more famous from movies (although definitely NOT made any better by the movies).  As always, read the books first!

One of my favorites is a mysterious book that is a great one to read near Halloween, aptly titled The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  You must read the introduction to understand the interesting nature of this book.  I won't give it away because you honesty cannot appreciate any of it without seeing the illustrations.  Its not even really a story book.  Basically on each 2-page spread is a black and white illustration, the Title for the story that the illustration is for, and one line or phrase from the story.  That's it.  And yet, those 3 simple things can say a whole lot and still leave much to the imagination.  Allsburg's real talent truly is in his artistry, done mostly in black and white and with details that let your senses wonder.

I still remember one family night activity where mom had us each pick one of the illustrations and using the 3 elements provided, write our own story about what was happening.  There were some funny stories, scary stories, and downright strange stories, especially since the majority of us were still in elementary school.  We enjoyed sharing our creativity and appreciating everyone else's amazing ideas.  Get this book and solve your own Harris Burdick mystery this Halloween.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Crucible

by Arthur Miller

I recently watched the movie Goodnight and Good Luck, which is the story of Edward R. Murrow, a television broadcaster who dared to stand up to Senator McCarthy when he was on his anti-Communist crusade.  It reminded me of another time when people were accused of things that could not be proven, and condemned with no real evidence.  Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials, and one family in particular caught up in the horror and hysteria of it all. 

Many of you may have perhaps performed this play in high school or even watched some sort of video/movie rendition of it, but today I wanted to review it because there is something to be said for reading the play and remembering the power of simple words on a page.  It is not an easy story to read, nor a happy one.  But it is one that reminds me that nothing should ever let us sacrifice truth to the whims of the world. 

The story is focused around John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth.  John has had a relationship with a younger girl in the town and is racked with guilt.  The girl accuses his wife of being a witch, and the witch hysteria continues to grow and spread throughout the town until many innocent people are tried and sentenced to death.  John Proctor struggles with his guilt, his faith, and his life as he takes his turn in court.  Two of John Proctor's lines are my particular favorites, because they are about the real value of truth and integrity:

"A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud—God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!"

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

May we never let fear conquer truth, and always keep ourselves worthy of our good name.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

by Grace Lin

I come from a family of storytellers.  My grandfather and mother both are beautiful storytellers.  There is nothing better than a story within a story, which is why I so enjoyed this children's book.  It is a simple narrative about Minli, a young girl who lives with her parents.  They are poor and her mother is somewhat discontent with their meager circumstances.  Minli goes on a journey to find the Old Man in the Moon and learn how her family can find fortune and happiness.  She meets fantastic creatures and people along the way, including a dragon who cannot fly and a talking goldfish.  and each of them has their own story they tell about their own fortunes.  The author incorporates many Chinese folktales into her story, weaving them together elegantly into a rich and touching narrative.

This is a lovely book for both parent and child to read, especially together, because it shares beautiful stories about family, friendship, forgiveness, contentment, gratitude, and love, all in a way that reminds you to never stop believing in the wonder of magic and fantasy.