Book Review: The Odyssey

odysseySo with John Green starting his second run of Crash Course Literature, I realized there are a few classics I’d never read. The Odyssey by Homer being one of them. I snagged Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from the library and became enthralled. I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to read! For being a 462 page poem, it flowed incredibly well and kept my attention the entire way through.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who went away to fight in the wars in Troy caused by the abduction of Helen. This story takes place after the war is over, when everyone – or almost everyone – has gone home. Odysseus, through a series of mistakes and misfortunes, has been marooned on an isle for many years, and his family has begun to think he’s dead. Sons of most of the nobles in Ithaca have taken residence in Odysseus’ palace, courting his queen while eating his food and drinking his wine. His queen still waits for him, and puts off her suitors in a variety of ways. (The most famous of which being her claim that she must finish a weaving before taking a suitor, and while she weaves every day, she unweaves her work at night, but the suitors figure that one out and make her finish it.)

One thing kept bugging me through the entire story, though – while much is made of Odysseus being gone, and his trials, and the people waiting for him at home – the fact that his ENTIRE CREW OF SHIPMATES, heroes all, dies on the journey is somewhat glossed over. Maybe it’s my history as a military spouse, but what about THEIR families? There are surely women and children waiting in Ithaca for them as well, but nary a mention is made of them. Only the King’s story is important enough to talk about. In a 400 page book, is a paragraph about the other families too much to ask? I suppose, given how long ago the book was written, the fact that Homer writes sympathetically (albeit briefly) about a woman’s suffering for her husband might have been revolutionary on its own, and asking for some concern for anyone lower than a Prince would be unheard of.

That aside, it’s an amazing story. Here’s John Green’s take on it:

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Crash Course Literature is coming back!

Today is Digital Learning Day, so I feel it’s appropriate to plug one of my favorite Youtube channels!

If you’ve followed this blog for a few months, you know I’m a Nerdfighter. If you haven’t, and have no idea what a Nerdfighter is, well. A Nerdfighter is someone who, instead of being made of flesh and blood and inner organs is instead made of pure awesome. …..actually a Nerdfighter is someone who is a fan of John and/or Hank Green, also known as the vlogbrothers of Youtube fame. Several years ago, the two started making Youtube videos to talk to each other, EVERY DAY – and developed a following. These days they run several successful Youtube channels (all educational!), like SciShow, Mental Floss, Crash Course, and the original vlogbrothers. They started VidCon, the Con for Youtubers, and dftba Records, a recording company for Youtube artists. They’re kind of internet famous. (Oh, and John is a highly successful young adult author whose latest novel is being turned into a movie set to release this summer, so there’s that, too!)

ANYWAY. John and Hank make videos for the Youtube channel Crash Course, and they generally do a series of videos on a topic. Past topics include a 40-video series on Biology, a 43-video series on World History, an 8-video series on Literature, 12 videos on Ecology, and the two currently running, U.S. History (at 46 videos so far) and Chemistry (at 47 videos.) Hank handles the science, and John the humanities. When Chemistry and U.S. History wrap up, they’re moving on to Psychology (Hank) and another round of Literature (John).

The last Literature course covered Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. And they were EXCELLENT. So I am very excited for the next round. (I’m excited for Psychology too, but it’s not on topic for this blog!)

I thought I’d post the reading list for the next round of Crash Course Literature, since I’ll be reading it in the next few months and posting the accompanying videos with my reviews of the books. The Course is supposed to start sometime in February.

nerdfighterThe list of books John is covering:

The Odyssey by Homer
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Hamlet by Bill Shakespeare
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Beloved by Toni Morrison

I’ve started reading The Odyssey already, and it’s surprisingly good. I expected it to be hard to read, but it’s actually easier than Shakespeare. And I love Shakespeare. So it’s going pretty quickly! I’ve read a few of the others on the list – Oedipus, Hamlet, Jane Eyre – but actually have not read the rest. So this should be fun!

The ALA Young Media Award Winners!

Today the American Library Association announced the winners of 2014’s Young Media Awards – authors, illustrators, books, and videos aimed at Young Adults. I’ll be adding a few of these to my to-read list and I’ll link to my reviews when I do! In the meantime, here are some of the award winners (You can find the full list at ALA’s YMA page):

 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature:

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” written by Kate DiCamillo

Four Newbery Honor Books were named:

Doll Bones” written by Holly Black
The Year of Billy Miller” written by Kevin Henkes 
One Came Home” written by Amy Timberlake
Paperboy” written by Vince Vawter

The Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults:

Midwinterblood” written by Marcus Sedgwick

Printz Honor Books:

Eleanor & Park” written by Rainbow Rowell
The Kingdom of Little Wounds” written by Susann Cokal
Maggot Moon” written by Sally Gardner and illustrated by Julian Crouch
Navigating Early” written by Clare Vanderpool

The Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences:

 “Brewster” written by Mark Slouka
The Death of Bees” written by Lisa O’Donnell
Golden Boy: A Novel” written by Abigail Tarttelin
Help for the Haunted” written by John Searles
Lexicon: A Novel” written by Max Barry
The Lives of Tao” written by Wesley Chu 
Mother, Mother: A Novel” written by Koren Zailckas
Relish” written by Lucy Knisley
The Sea of Tranquility: A Novel” written by Katja Millay
The Universe Versus Alex Woods” written by Gavin Extence

Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults:

Markus Zusak, the author of “The Book Thief,” “I Am the Messenger,” “Getting the Girl,” and “Fighting Ruben Wolfe.”  

Stonewall Book Award – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award given annually to English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience:

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children” written by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Fat Angie” written by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo

Three Stonewall Honor Books were selected:

Better Nate Than Ever” written by Tim Federle
Branded by the Pink Triangle” written by Ken Setterington
Two Boys Kissing” written by David Levithan 

 

I’ve added Doll Bones, One Came Home, Midwinterblood, Eleanor & ParkThe Kingdom of Little WoundsRelishThe Sea of TranquilityBeautiful Music for Ugly Children, and Two Boys Kissing to my reading list. (Two Boys Kissing, incidentally, is authored by the co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson – the other co-author was John Green, and it was an excellent book, also dealing with GLBT issues.)

I might also add Golden BoyHelp for the HauntedLexiconThe Universe Versus Alex Woods, and The Book Thief to my list. Not like it’s not out of control already…

Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

papertownsPaper Towns
by John Green
305 pages
Published 2008
Young Adult

So this is the last of John Green’s books that I hadn’t read. And it, like the others, boils down to much the same plot. Boy meets Girl, Girl affects Boy’s life in a profound way, Boy loses Girl and has to deal with the changes she’s wrought AND her absence. On one hand, I feel like Green needs to branch out and find a new plot, on the other hand, he writes this plot so well. And even within this plot he writes such different books. The Fault in Our Stars was slightly different, in that Girl lost Boy and had to deal with it. Unlike Looking For Alaska, in Paper Towns Girl didn’t die, but Boy still lost her nonetheless. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the plot was changed to “Boy meets Boy, Boy changes Boy’s world, Boy loses Boy and has to deal with the loss and the changes.” But in all four books the protagonist winds up dealing with something John Green has mentioned repeatedly in his vlogbrothers videos: imagining people complexly.

What does that mean?

It means not making preconceived notions of what people are or how they think. That woman who was rude to you yesterday, she’s a bitch, right? Instead of just deciding “well she’s rude and mean” imagine her complexly. Maybe she has a migraine, maybe she overslept and her entire morning was a cascade of failure. Maybe she has a sick kid and an out-of-work husband at home and they’re struggling to make ends meet on her minimum wage income. Imagine her complexly and you’ll realize that she has problems of her own, and maybe what you interpreted as a rude, mean-spirited remark was simply a tired tone of voice from a stressed-out woman. Maybe she was rude, maybe she looked at you as simply someone in her way because she didn’t imagine you complexly. Imagining people complexly is another way of saying “treat people like PEOPLE and not just bit players in your own little drama.” That can be a hard task when not everyone is doing it.

In Paper Towns, Margo Roth Spiegelman is an enigma, even to the boy who’s been her neighbor for sixteen years and from whose perspective the book is written. She’s been a different person to every person in high school, letting no one see the real Margo until she runs away and leaves a trail of clues for Quentin, her neighbor, to find. Quentin’s had a crush on her since he was ten, but it’s only in following her clues that he begins to see Margo as Margo, and not as the idea of Margo he had constructed.

It’s an important lesson, and maybe the reason it shows up in all of John Green’s books is because it is so incredibly important and yet so rare to find and so difficult to do. John talks about the concept in a speech he gave at the Alan Conference but the important part is here, I think:

“Let me tell you what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence: I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can’t be bothered to acknowledge mine.

When I was a kid, I believed in an embarrassingly total way that I was the only human being in the world and that all the other people, including my brother and parents and everybody, was in fact an alien, and that the aliens had created the entire world to do a series of controlled experiments on how a human child—me—would respond to various forms of trial and tribulation. And when I wasn’t around, they would take off their human costumes—the aliens had very advanced costuming technology, naturally—and they would do alien stuff. You know, go to the alien zoo and watch the alien local news and whatever else. I really believed this.

And obviously, on some level, this indicated the kind of massively narcissistic worldview that would later require decades of therapy to adjust. But in a way, I was right. I am the only person whose existence I can directly attest to. By the way, when I’ve talked about this in the past I’ve seen people nodding, like they also believed in their childhoods that they were the only real person in the world, and I would imagine that right now, some such people are probably feeling the comfort we feel when we learn that our delusions are shared, that we are not alone even in our darkest corners.

… I will acknowledge that you are all likely to be people. The probability that I am the only person in the world is extremely small—it is that number that infinitely approaches zero but isn’t zero. And yet. On some level, I have to take it on faith that you are as complex as I am, that your pain and joy and grief are as real and as meaningful as my own.”

The entire speech is very much worth reading. John Green is extremely eloquent (as good writers must be!) and his perspectives on things are usually worth reading.

From the back of Paper Towns:

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. 

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

terabithiaBridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson
128 pages
Published 1977
Children’s/Young Adult

So let me just say up front: I’ve never read this book until today. I haven’t seen the movie. The little I knew about this book was “two children travel to a magical land and then something happens to one of them.” But my husband loved this book when he was young and kept pushing me to read it. I just did, and – it was not at all what I was expecting. I find it a little funny to say “it reminds me of Looking for Alaska,” when Looking for Alaska was written much later than Bridge to Terabithia. But I read LfA first. They do have some striking similarities. Boy meets Girl, Girl affects Boy’s life in a profound way, Boy loses Girl unexpectedly and has to deal with both losing her, and the changes she wrought in his life that can’t be undone. In Looking for Alaska, Miles went looking for his Great Perhaps and thought he’d found it in Alaska. In Bridge to Terabithia, Jess wasn’t looking until Leslie pushed herself into his world and brought that Great Perhaps with her.

Paterson paints a bleak picture of Jess’s life in the backwoods of somewhere-near-Washington DC. Surrounded by three sisters and his mother, while his father is gone all day working in DC, Jess appears neglected, stifled, and lonely. His family is very poor, but so are most of their neighbors. When Leslie and her parents move to the farm next door, tired of the big city and looking for a simpler life, Leslie brings Jess a window to the bigger world. Her parents tell him of things going on in far off places. And she takes him back into the dark woods behind their houses where they create an imaginary world called Terabithia. They reign as King and Queen of Terabithia, playing a game of pretend that starts as soon as they swing over the creek on a rope into a land that is solely theirs.

One thing that really stood out to me was Jess’s trip to the Smithsonian with his music teacher. Maybe it’s because I’m jaded, maybe it’s because the book was written in the 70s and it wasn’t considered a big thing, but – his young, pretty music teacher takes him, JUST him, to the Smithsonian museums. He’s 10, and has a bit of a crush on her as 10-year-olds are wont to do, so he’s constantly talking about her hair, her voice, the scent of her perfume – the whole scene was just creepy to me. A young female teacher taking a young boy on a solo trip? My husband said he didn’t notice anything wrong with the scene, but he was in 4th grade when he read the book! Nothing untoward actually happens between Jess and his music teacher, but the scene still just creeped me out.

Overall I can’t say I really have strong feelings about this book one way or another; it had a strong impact on my husband, but he read it when he was in the fourth grade. His comment was “the whole book is about being a child, and doing childish things, but not wanting adults to TREAT you like a child,” which does sound like something he dealt with, being an only child. Reading it as an adult just doesn’t have the same impact.

From the back of Bridge to Terabithia:

All summer, Jess pushed himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, and when the year’s first school-yard race was run, he was going to win. But his victory was stolen by a newcomer, by a girl, one who didn’t even know enough to stay on the girls’ side of the playground. Then, unexpectedly, Jess finds himself sticking up for Leslie, for the girl who breaks rules and wins races. The friendship between the two grows as Jess guides the city girl through the pitfalls of life in their small, rural town, and Leslie draws him into the world of imagination – a world of magic and ceremony called Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess rule supreme among the oaks and evergreens, safe from the bullies and ridicule of the mundane world. Safe until an unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone, and both worlds are forever changed. 

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

alaskacover

Looking For Alaska
by John Green
221 pages
Published 2005
Young Adult Fiction

I just finished reading Looking for Alaska, making it the fifth John Green book I’ve read, after Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Let It Snow, The Fault In Our Stars, and An Abundance of Katherines. I enjoyed Looking for Alaska immensely, just like I did the other three. (My favorite being Let It Snow, which he wrote with two other authors as a set of three related short stories.) I haven’t made a habit out of reading young adult fiction, but for John Green I’ll definitely make an exception. I should also pick up some of Maureen Johnson‘s books; her contribution to Let It Snow was excellent.

I have a confession to make before I go any further: I am a Nerdfighter. I was introduced to John and Hank Green about two years ago by one of my best friends, by way of Crash Course. Since then I’ve (almost!) caught up on their Vlogbrother videos, watched most of the Crash Course videos (sorry Hank, I’m just not into chemistry) and started watching Sci Show. John and Hank are both extremely educated, well spoken, and yet extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Watching the vlogbrothers episodes where John talks about writing the books (as he’s writing them!) is what finally made me go pick up his books to read. And he’s GOOD.

In Looking for Alaska, Miles Halter goes away to boarding school at Culver Creek, his father’s alma mater. He’s in search of his “great perhaps,” his meaning for life. (The phrase comes from Francois Rabelais’ last words “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” Miles doesn’t want to wait until he dies to go in search of his.) Culver Creek really marks a turning point in Miles’ life – from a friendless outcast in his old school to one of the closest friends of Alaska Young. Alaska is a bit of a bad girl (sneaking cigarettes and alcohol into school constantly and pulling ingenious pranks) but also an enigma. The entire school body loves her, but even to her closest friends she doesn’t reveal much about herself.

The book is divided into “before” and “after” and it wasn’t  until within a few pages till the end of the “before” section that I realized what the event was. “After” deals with the characters of the book coming to terms with their life-altering event.

In The Fault In Our Stars, John Green dealt with the lead up to a life-altering event that the characters knew was coming – a long, drawn-out sort of grief. Looking For Alaska deals with the fallout of an event no one knew was coming, and while the emotions are just as deep, they feel sharper somehow for being so unexpected.

I definitely recommend this book, and all of John Green’s books. He’s a very talented writer, and isn’t afraid to put “adult” themes into his “young adult” books. As if sex and alcohol and death and deep meaning-of-life questions aren’t things every teenager deals with? I like that he doesn’t pull his emotional punches. His books may be “young adult” but they’re not fluffy or “easy to read.” Easy in terms of grammar and flow perhaps, but not in content. I teared up reading parts of Looking For Alaska, and outright sobbed for a good portion of The Fault In Our Stars. (Which is now being made into a movie!)

John Green is definitely one of my favorite authors – I’m only missing one book of his, Paper Towns, and I’m picking that up from the library tonight. So a review will be up soon!

From the back of Looking For Alaska:

Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words – and tired of his safe life at home. He leaves for boarding school to seek what the dying poet Francois Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.” Much awaits Miles at Culver Creek, including Alaska Young. Clever, funny, screwed-up, and dead sexy, Alaska will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapult him into the Great Perhaps.

DFTBA, my friends.