The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

img_6189Book: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Date Read: September 10 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Why did I decide to revisit The Hunger Games recently? Because I needed to prepare myself for the prequel that came out this year, of course.

Although the book is technically a prequel, I think it may be more aptly described as a sort of character study. This is not a story to try to redeem President Snow (of course not, how can you be redeemed by something that happened before the acts you need to be redeemed from?). However, there is definitely some interesting insight into his motives during the primary trilogy, as it seems that Katniss Everdeen has been tailor made to push every single one of his buttons.

We meet Coriolanus Snow as an ambitious, but desperate, teenager. Despite coming from a prominent family, the war was difficult for them and they are still trying to recover 10 years later. He is in his final year of what seems to be the equivalent of high school, with hopes of a scholarship to the university. Of course, his methods of seeking that scholarship are different than normal circumstances: he is part of a new program where Capitol children will be mentoring the tributes from the Districts. The Hunger Games are entering their tenth year, and are not the popular spectacle that readers know from Katniss’s story. They are a grim affair, with limited interest in the Capitol and nearly none in the districts after the day of the reaping.

As this new version of the Hunger Games comes underway, Coriolanus finds himself not only as a mentor of a tribute, but also as the reluctant mentee of Dr. Gaul, who seems to take a special interest in him. Although he sees much of her behavior as twisted or sadistic, he also seems to have an understanding of her motives that begins to frighten him. He finds himself playing a larger role in the reimagining of the games than he had anticipated, and has occasion to believe that he has gotten himself in too deeply.

As for his assigned tribute, there are a few immediate things that call Katniss to mind: primarily, that he is assigned the female tribute from District 12. His tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, creates a bit of a spectacle at the reaping with a snake and a song, setting the stage for her peculiar entrance into his life. Lucy Gray is a performer, but also a survivor. Over the course of their mentorship, a bond forms between the two, leading Coriolanus to take some exceptional risks to help her; and landing him some time spent in District 12 after the conclusion of the games. He struggles throughout the events, with an ever looming question: was he taking risks for the sake of Lucy Gray, or out of desperation for his own personal circumstances and gain? At the same time, I am not quite sure which of those he considered to be the “right answer.”

It was interesting to see some history of things that featured in the trilogy, and to see them in a different light. Some of these were overt, like the Hob, the meadow in District 12, and the lake that Katniss liked to visit: all places that Coriolanus got a glimpse of in his youth. There were a few more subtle items that may or may not have a connection: is the penthouse apartment with a rooftop garden where Coriolanus grew up, the same penthouse apartment and rooftop garden where the District 12 tributes are housed in the Capitol?

There are also a few other ties to the future Hunger Games trilogy, starting with some Capitol names that carry over between the books, although generally not the same characters: Heavensbee, Crane, and Flickerman, to name a few. Another obvious connection is in the music: Lucy Gray sings some of the same songs that appear in Katniss’s repertoire, including having composed the song about the Hanging Tree. And of course, the title creatures cannot be forgotten: songbirds and snakes. We see the first evidence of the mockingjay birds, for which Coriolanus finds he has a particular disdain. Although snakes do not have as direct of a link to the original books, I thought it was interesting that Katniss viewed President Snow as snake-like. More important, however, is part of what the snakes represent: poison.

In the third book of the trilogy, Finnick Odair calls out Snow based on the rumor that poison played an important role in his rise to power. While there is little evidence for a clear accusation, there are certainly some peculiar circumstances that make this a viable conclusion. Here we see the beginnings of that: influenced and inspired by Lucy Gray and her affinity for snakes.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this a book of things I can chase? Those birds outside have been looking awfully suspicious lately.”

The Hunger Games

img_6217Book: The Hunger Games (Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I recently revisited The Hunger Games, after having read the trilogy quite a few years back—about a year after the final book was published. I remember enjoying the series quite a bit, but many of the details of why have become rather fuzzy over the years. I remember the general plot of each book, many of the major events, and feeling invested in Katniss and her revolution. Beyond that, many of the particularities of the series have faded into a broader feeling of “I am glad I read that, and I would read it again.”

Well, as I said in my last post, I have always been a re-reader. While I do not re-read as often as I would like, there are a handful of books that I have read at least a dozen times. Reading the next new thing on the shelf is certainly exciting, but there is a thrill that comes with re-reading a good book that cannot be replicated. The story, vaguely familiar, comes into sharper focus. Details that seemed insignificant the first time through suddenly jump out with meaning. It is been quite some time since I have done any re-reading, and I am so happy that I chose to start here.

This series were the first books that I chose to re-read via audio book. The format is well suited for the first person narrator, and it was really interesting to actually hear the story in Katniss’s voice. It kind of felt like something somewhere between a book and a movie—there is a liveliness added to the story when hearing a character relay their first hand experience, but we are still able to hear the thoughts and emotions that can get lost in a movie adaptation.

The first thing that stuck out to me this time around was the wealth of rich details in the text. Katniss has a unique set of survival mechanisms that lead her to be very in tune with her surroundings, especially in the forest. This makes the details in her descriptions fit with her as a character, adding a nice balance to the scene setting. For me, the scene setting often feels forced with the first person narrative. Everyone notices their surroundings, but it’s not a typical line of thought to describe them in great detail. This all helps to make her story feel grounded in reality, despite the extreme differences in her world.

While I say extreme differences, I suppose I should also comment that there were a few moments that felt a little too real to me. I could not help but twinge a little as some of the characters were voicing their concerns about their government—on both sides. At the same time, I think this could be a fair introduction to some of the realities of politics and war, especially since this is aimed toward young adults. While the first book seems to pretty clearly align the sides of Districts versus Capitol as Good versus Bad, this becomes increasingly blurred coming into the end of the series. Life is complicated, just as their war is complicated. There are good and bad people on both sides; no system or side in disagreement is perfect.

Lastly, I noticed much more depth in the character of Katniss than in my initial read. She is a more powerful, yet damaged character than I remember. One thing that really impressed—and frustrated—me about her portrayal is how very clear it was that she was experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, this makes perfect sense: she had a history of trauma even before being thrown into the Hunger Games, and then a series of continuing traumatic experiences after. I felt that Collins did an excellent job of depicting this, both in Katniss’s behavior and her thoughts at trying to cover for herself. The frustrating aspect for me was how every single other character seemed completely unaware of the extent of her struggles, perhaps with the exception of Peeta. Even those who appeared to understand that she was not well also seemed to brush off the severity, or act as if circumstances make it unimportant. I suppose, while frustrating, this may be an accurate representation of what many experience when dealing with similar mental health issues. While certainly not the main focus of the book, I think this aspect of the story provides a good glimpse at the thought processes behind such an illness. Perhaps there is room for some to find some understanding of others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “If you listened to these books instead of reading them, how did I still end up in a pile of them?”

I Just Want My Pants Back

img_5912Book: I Just Want My Pants Back by David J. Rosen

Date Read: September 1 to 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

An interesting prompt from the Unread Shelf Project had me browsing my shelves to find a book that I forgot where or why I got it. Strangely, I remember the acquisition of nearly all of the 250+ books on my list—it came down to a choice between 4 books! I simply could not choose myself, so I send the list off to a friend, who chose the book with the funniest title.

Unfortunately for those intrigued mostly by the title, the pants only form a small part of the plot, with the line coming early on, in the sixth of 19 chapters. Over the course of the book, the pants become a bit of a metaphor for the stage of life where the protagonist, Jason, finds himself. Jason is a slacker who is slowly working out what it means to grow up. He is introspective enough to know that he seems to be lagging behind as many of his friends take steps into the “next level” of adulthood—relationships, weddings, “real jobs.” Although he can recognize that he should have some kind of plan for the future, he does not really make any efforts. Much of the book centers on his drinking, drug use, and other partying, which eventually turns into a downward spiral.

While it did come through on the humor that the title suggests, much of this fell flat for me. Jason is portrayed as a nice guy, but he’s honestly not really that likable. He does as little as possible to get by, living paycheck to paycheck, but then spends any money he has to binge on drugs and alcohol. He doesn’t seem to take anything in his life seriously: his job, his bills, or his friends, even after being asked to officiate at their wedding. Maybe I never partied quite hard enough to relate. Nothing came as a surprise when things start to fall apart for him, and I didn’t really have much sympathy for his situation. There is a little redemption for Jason at the end, but it almost feels like too little, too late.

I will give some credit to the author on the writing, as it was good enough to keep me reading a story that I was not all that excited about. Extra points for this, because there were a few lines in the first couple chapters that actually had me cringing—one particular when Jason “grabbed a slice and crammed it into [his] eat hole.” Despite this, there was a quality to the writing that pulled me through to the end. And while I am not fully convinced that Jason has redeemed himself to me as a character, at least I found out what happened to the pants.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Pants are overrated. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for September

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 263

Bookish Things – Audio Books

img_5962I have never considered myself an audio book person. I like to hold my books in my hands; I like to see them sitting on my shelves. Being surrounded by books makes me feel warm and cozy. I find books comforting and magical. Of course, I realize that a huge and important part of those books is the stories that they contain. I have always appreciated the existence of audio books—they are certainly an amazing thing, to allow those with visual impairments or reading difficulties access to these stories that might otherwise be out of their reach. Of course though, I can see. I can read them myself. Why would I need an audio book?

For most of my life, the line of thought stopped there. Once, when I was younger, I got an audio book from the library when there was a long waiting list for a book that I wanted, but the audio version was available. This was back in the day of cassette tapes, which I must say gave me a bit of a distaste for the genre. I gave them little further thought until this previous New Year’s Eve—I very much wanted to finish my book by the end of the year, and had a long drive to make. I had only a few chapters left in the sixth book from A Series of Unfortunate Events, and was able to find the audio book for free online. I decided to give it a try. What a treat this turned out to be! The book was narrated by Tim Curry who was a perfect fit for the series; I was really impressed with his voice work in bringing life to the story.

Since I enjoyed the first part from A Series of Unfortunate Events, I listened to parts of other books in the series as well. Unfortunately, I ran into some trouble. I am a little distractible, and often found myself needing to replay parts. I discovered that it was nearly pointless to listen at certain times or when doing certain activities. Even though folding laundry or doing dishes seemed like perfectly thoughtless tasks, I found my mind drifting. And of course, I frustrated myself quite a bit with switching back and forth between books and audio every few chapters. After thinking through some of these kinks over the last several months, I decided that I would listen to at least 5 audio books as a sort of trial run, before putting the format on the back burner again.

img_5954As it turns out, I did not need all five books before making a decision: I have no desire to replace reading with audio, but there is a perfect place for audio books in my life. For me, audio books are an ideal way for me to revisit books. I have always been a re-reader, but often struggle justifying the want to re-read when there are so many new books waiting on my shelves. There are a few times that I have found I can work in audio books during my routines without interfering with my other reading, which has worked out really well for me. I frequently walk the parks in my neighborhood, and this is the perfect time to get in a couple chapters most days. It is also a great option for longer car trips, as long as I do not need to concentrate too much on navigating—this summer I have gotten in many hours of listening driving between home and my family’s cabin in Northern Michigan.

I very quickly made it through the five books that I committed myself to, and have kept going. It has been fun for me to get the chance to revisit quite a few previous reads, and I have been lucky that the books I have chosen have had well matched narrators. While I intend to keep this blog primarily focused on physical books and new reads, I do hope to sprinkle in a little bit of audio every once in a while.

A Bad Case of Stripes

img_5693Book: A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Camilla Creams loved lima beans. Of course, she was much too afraid to admit that to any of her friends. Everyone else thinks they are gross, and she wants so much to fit in. The trouble all starts when she is picking out her clothes for the first day of school—so worried about impressing her friends. When she finally looks at herself in the mirror, she is shocked to see herself covered in stripes! First her parents called in the Doctors, then the Specialists, and eventually the Experts; but nobody could figure out what the problem was, and things only seemed to be getting worse.

I really enjoy the combination of silliness and seriousness used here. The story is presented matter-of-factly, despite the obvious absurdity of a girl suddenly coming down with stripes. It’s a perfect attention grabber for the lesson here: it is perfectly okay to be yourself. Camilla’s affliction of stripes, spots, roots, and all else is tied to what everyone else expects from her, but the cure comes when she is able to admit what she worries everyone will think makes her weird. Turns out, the real her was in there all long just waiting to come out.

The reading level on this is a little higher for a picture book, although the text length does vary a bit from page to page. This could be a good choice to practice reading switching off between an adult and child. It is a good length for a read-aloud as well, and the colorful and interesting pictures make it a good fit for kids a bit younger too. There are tons of details to point out or ask about throughout the story, adding to the fun.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Excuse me? Is there something wrong with stripes? 1 paw.”

Post Secret

img_5165Book: Post Secret by Frank Warren

Date Read: July 8 to 10, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I cannot remember when I first discovered Post Secret, but I suspect that it was sometime around 2011 or 2012. I remember the Sunday routine of checking the website while living in my first apartment, but I am not sure if the routine started there or was perhaps solidified during that time. I do have one other Post Secret book, which I bought on a whim around the same time, but have not really been a follower of the books. This one was gifted to me by a friend who said it seemed like my kind of thing—not realizing that it was something that I follow regularly.

This is the original Post Secret book, published in 2005 when the project was not quite a year old. It is a little funny to me, thinking about this coming out 15 years ago, so soon after the project started, at a time that I imagine nobody had the faintest idea of what the project would become. While I know there is little evidence that would support the therapeutic value of sharing a secret with strangers, especially when it is done anonymously, I think there is more to Post Secret than that. Certainly, I think the sharing of a secret this way could be a jumping off point for some, but I think the community that has built up around the project is far more significant. Over the years that I have followed, I have seen huge community responses of support related to particular secrets, and I think there is a general feeling of connectedness to others when we realize that we are not alone in our peculiarities.

In some ways, the book is no different that reading secrets on the website. The secrets are arranged mostly in groups of four, although there are some that are printed larger. The book does contain some book-exclusive secrets, as well as some older secrets that I had not seen previously. However, I would have difficulty pinpointing which exactly these were. At the same time, it feels like something special to be physically holding this collection of secrets in your hands. It is nice to have something tangible to go along with something that I have primarily experienced through technology and the internet, and makes me feel a little more grounded. Although, perhaps that is just one of my personal peculiarities.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I think I like it better when you read this on the internet. This version is awful heavy. 2 paws.”

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

img_5275Book: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Date Read: July 13 to 21, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was gifted to me earlier this year. My friend told me that she knows it is not the kind of book that I would normally choose for myself, but that it was cute, fun, and light—something that we could all use a little more of this year. I always feel just a slight pressure to move gifted books up on my to read list, but I try to balance that with the commitments I have made to the books already waiting on my shelves. The timing worked out for this one, since I really needed something easy after a couple heavier reads earlier this summer.

Nina works in a bookstore and is comfortable living alone with her cat. She has a routine that she likes to stick to, although perhaps a little more strictly than most. She values the things that she has planned into her life, and is reluctant to make changes. I think she is a character that all true bookworms can relate to on some level, despite her unusual background raised in hotel rooms and then by a nanny in place of her mother.

This is a romantic comedy in the form of a book. Is that its own genre? I am not well versed in this area. I usually think of romantic comedies as movies, and am more familiar with the generic “romance novel.” I am not sure this quite hits the mark there either. So after my rambling, I’m sticking with romantic comedy. The main plot is a dual storyline that fits well with the genre: Nina sees the potential for a relationship with a guy from a rival trivia team, but things get complicated when she also learns that her absent father has died and included her in his will… also connecting her to a complicated network of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that she never knew existed. Things get messy.

It is also a book for bookworms, full of bookish references and other nerdy tidbits. There is definitely an element of predictability, but I felt the author was at least clever and a bit tongue-in-cheek about it: near the middle of the book a character even suggests how the story is going to end, saying “that’s how it happens in the movies.”

Waxman pokes fun at the trendiness of Nina’s neighborhood, full of hipsters and activists, with their competing specialty ice cream shops and quirky stores. It is the sort of joke that I appreciate and make myself—even though I know that it probably applies to me as well! One of the reviews included with my copy of the book refers to Waxman as a “modern day Jane Austen,” which I find very intriguing. Although I have added Austen onto my to read list, I have never actually read any of her work. Drawing a parallel between these authors makes me wonder if it is time for me to give Austen a chance.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Cute, fun, and light—just like me! Also stars a cat! 4 paws!”

Good Omens

Book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Date Read: August 3 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Another month complete for 2020’s Unread Shelf Project! August was the month for buddy reading, and I did the best I could: my buddy, who chose the book, also finished it the day that I started it. I suppose I should have known better than to buddy read something with someone who aims for 100+ pages per day. For us, it was more so an easy way to choose our next book rather than an opportunity to read and discuss—although we did manage to get a bit of that in. My reading buddy is the only person that I know personally who has “to read” list longer than mine, so I suppose this one was good for both of us. We even got the cats in on this one, with her boy Rahl reading alongside Boris!

Where to begin? This is a book that I very much enjoyed, and definitely will be putting on my shelf to revisit one day. Oddly enough, these are often the very books that I have the hardest time articulating my feelings on. Good Omens was full of moments hilarity, but also included some poignant social commentary. Although originally published 30 years ago, much of the themes have held up over the years—perhaps this is more of a sad reflection on the state of the world than a compliment to the book. I especially liked the accusations of the aliens that humans could be charged with being “a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism.” And of course, on a day-to-day basis I cannot be sure that the apocalypse won’t be brought on by bureaucratic incompetence.

Continuing on perhaps a deeper level of the book, I also really enjoyed the discussion of good and evil as opposing sides. While it is certainly not a black and white issue, I think the point of the contrast is important—early in the book Crowley puts it well when he says that heaven and hell are merely “sides in the great cosmic chess game.” The truth behind real good and evil comes from within humanity.

I have always had a fascination with religion as a construct, although I do not specifically align myself to any particular set of beliefs. I know some of many religions, although am admittedly most familiar with the tenets of Christianity. I appreciated the inclusion of true bits of religion, along with some humorous twists. I thought the inclusion of the horsemen of the apocalypse as semi-human characters was interesting, especially the replacement of Pestilence with Pollution after too many advances in medicine.

Overall, I was very much impressed with the writing here. I have read a few works by Gaiman, but am not at all familiar with Pratchett. Having some experience with one of the authors’ writing, I thought it would be obvious which parts seemed “different,” but it was so seamless that I would never suspect that this was a co-authored book. The edition that I have includes some information on the writing process, which sounds like the authors mostly were having some fun and being silly most of the time. I suppose this is an appropriate place to comment on the humor, which I must admit sometimes evaded me. It is not too surprising that, as an American reader, I would feel like I do not quite get all of the jokes—however there is something that I appreciate about what I consider the British style of humor.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? Obviously cats would have a much larger role in the end of time. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 263

Dinotrux

img_5525Book: Dinotrux by Chris Gall

For this month’s children’s book, I decided to stray a little from my typical choices in this area. Generally speaking, I like to feature some of the fun picture books in my school library, as well as some of the books on my own shelves that I consider to be children’s “classics.” This month is a tribute to my cool nephew Clint, with the book that I picked out for his birthday: Dinotrux. What an amazing combination, isn’t it? I know my nephew is not alone in his love for dinosaurs. With my brother’s job in trucking and frequent renovation projects, he is certainly no stranger to trucks and other large equipment. While I did choose this book with a specific kid in mind, I think there is a pretty wide appeal among children for a dinosaur and truck crossover book.

Millions of years ago, prehistoric trucks roamed the earth… Unlike trucks today, these trucks were mostly troublemakers. We are given a tour of prehistoric earth with introductions to all of the truck-dino combinations, such as the hungry Craneosaurus with his head in the trees and the Dozeratops pushing trees and boulders around. The illustrations give us some extra ideas about all the trouble these trucks caused for prehistoric man. I think my favorite were the sleepy Deliveradons, reminiscent of the brown UPS delivery trucks.

Both kids and adults can get a good laugh from this fun book. I am not quite going to predict that this will end up on anyone’s list of classic children’s literature, but I am pretty confident that my nephew is going to love it. He is four, after all, and when you’re four, what more do you need than dinosaurs and trucks?

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think… I would like to be one of these when I grow up. 3 paws.”

Everything Is Illuminated

img_4360Book: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Date Read: May 17 to June 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for several minutes thinking about how exactly I would like to start this review, but nothing quite feels right. I suppose I should say that I really wanted to like this book. In some ways I did, but it is sitting heavier with me than I was expecting. Parts of this were beautifully crafted; other parts were cleverly crafted. It all comes together into something that is sometimes tragically beautiful and sometimes irritatingly painful to read.

The premise of the story, as indicated in the back cover summary, is that this is the story of a young man who is visiting Europe, hoping to find the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This is a vast oversimplification. There are actually three different stories here, told in an alternating fashion between characters: Jonathan, the young American searching for the past, writes the story of his grandfather’s town and his family’s past; Alex, the young man who served as his guide and Ukrainian translator, writes letters to Jonathan to tell of his family, also sending along his own writings about their journey.

Through each of these stories we are given glimpses into the past, both charming and horrifying. The story of Jonathan’s family ends with a chance escape, but we hear the heartbreaking fate of his town through the woman they encounter while searching for the long forgotten town. We also hear first hand the experience of Alex’s grandfather, who still felt the misfortune of the Nazi invasion despite not being one of the targeted Jewish people. His guilt in the aftermath felt a bit close to home with the current state of affairs. These two stories of the past have a somewhat listless ending. While the stories draw to a definite end, there is no satisfaction for finding their conclusion. The story of Alex’s family has a more satisfying, although still tragic, ending with Alex giving up his dreams for what he knows to be the right thing for his family.

I had a hard time getting into this book, partially because the style of some sections were difficult to read. I understand the use of the broken English for parts of the story, but I felt like it was overdone. It was an important aspect of the story for some things to be written like this, but it was often unnecessarily crude. While the structure of the novel was unique and often interesting, there was an underlying feeling that the author might be trying a bit too hard to come off as clever.

Despite my personal qualms with the style, the themes of truth, responsibility, and tragedy here are undeniable and well handled. We are faced with the responsibility of each individual in their place in history, as well as their responsibility in relaying their stories to future generations. Alex writes to Jonathan that he hates him for not allowing some happiness for his grandfather in his story. When viewing the past, is it the responsibility of the writer to tell the story exactly as it was, or perhaps how it should have been?

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is quite depressing for having such a cheerful cover. Deception. I like that. 4 paws.”