Category archives: Recommended

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

by Feb. 24, 2010 in Books, Nonfiction, Recommended

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

I have been enjoying my time over the past year of writing down what I think about books as I finish them.  It has added a depth to my understanding of books that wasn't there in the past.  Yes, I always enjoyed reading, but I never spent much time meditating on what I read, or digesting it.  Instead, I would read a book, finish it, and immediately move on to the next work.  Now that I don't let myself do that, I'm enjoying reading more than ever.

I've come to realize, though, that I don't have that many things to say about books.  Most of my discussions consist of enjoying a particular plot element, character, structure, tone, or style of the book.  Even when I identify these elements, however, I have a hard time expressing exactly what I like so much about them.  Don't get me wrong - it's good to enjoy these aspects of books.  At the same time, though, I know there is more going on that I'm missing.  But where do I start?  Do I just make things up?

All of these questions lead me to How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and the book has absolutely met my high hopes for it.  Each chapter provides different elements to seek out when reading a book in order to get a deeper understanding of the text.  For example, it encourages you to ask questions such as "why is this character sick?  and why this particular illness?"  Or, "why is it raining/snowing/sunny/cloudy?  What is the author trying to tell me with the weather or the seasons?"  Fortunately Foster doesn't just tell us to ask the questions, but gives us numerous possible answers through examples of a wide range of literature.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but more than that, I hope that it improves my ability to read literature.  I want to know what is going on behind the text - I want my reading experiences to have depth and to (as Foster puts it) resonate more deeply.  Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to be very good at it.  I'm sure practice will help, but I'm afraid my mind simply doesn't work this way.  At the end of the day I may always be more of a surface level reader.  That isn't such a terrible thing, as long as I continue to enjoy reading, but I love to hear about the symbolism and metaphors present in a book, so not being able to see those connections myself will be frustrating.

Still, I'm going to try and, over time, I hope to have more posts that ask these type of questions and try to answer them, and hopefully my insights won't be too elementary for anyone with a true literary background.  Oh, and remember when I said that I wish every subject matter got the same treatment that data graphics received in Visual Display of Quantitative Information?  Well, this has been my Visual Display for literature.

"We – as readers or writers, tellers or listeners – understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story. We have only to reach out into the air and pluck a piece of it" (192).

Feel free to read for more of my thoughts on the book in the review on the right, since there aren't really any spoilers to be had.

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First Line: A Prayer for Owen Meany

by Feb. 11, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

First Line: A Prayer for Owen Meany

For this week's First Line let's see what John Irving has to offer in A Prayer for Owen Meany:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

It's interesting coming to this first line after Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell last week.  In that case we had a short, subtle, straightforward sentence that was particularly good at setting the stage for tone and tempo.  It gave us some idea of setting and story, but for me, that wasn't it's primary purpose.

Here, however, we are thrown immediately into the story.  First of all, we know that our narrator (John, conveniently enough) will remember Owen, but not in a simple, reminiscing sort of way.  Instead, he is doomed to remember Owen.  The language here conveys a sense of inevitability or fate about the role Owen will play in John's life.

This idea is confirmed as John relays ...

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First Line: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Feb. 4, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

First Line:  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I think that far too often the first line of a book gets wasted on the reader (myself included). How often do we, when first cracking open a brand new book, stop to appreciate everything the author is trying to tell us right at the very beginning? Sure there are times when we are immediately captivated by some good writing, or by a novel that jumps right into the action, but do we really give enough time to what is literally setting the stage for everything to come?

With that in mind, I'd like to start a reoccurring feature on the blog: First Line. In these posts I will provide the first line of a book I have read (and hopefully many of you have as well) and discuss what it does right and wrong in context of the book as whole.  Don't worry, I won't be spoiling anything specific.  Instead, I'll be focusing on the tone, themes, etc. of the novel.  It's not exactly a review, either, because as we all know a book can start great and end terribly or start terribly and end great.  This is still in its infancy, so I ...

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Atherton Series (Audio)

by Feb. 1, 2010 in Audio Books, Books, Fantasy, Recommended

Atherton Series (Audio)

I absolutely hate not having an audio book to listen to in the car.  For over 2 years now I have exclusively listened to books while driving.  About a month ago, however, I found myself on the way to the grocery store just as I was finishing the last book I had in the car.  Desperate, I decided to stop at the nearest library to pick something up (typically I reserve books beforehand to ensure I get something of high quality).

I normally stop at a library near my office, so this was not one I had ever been to before.  While searching, I came across the book you see to the left - The House of Power by Patrick Carman.  This caught my eye because I have read and enjoyed The Land of Elyon which was also written by Carman.  It turned out to be a pretty good decision.

At this point I have finished all three books in the series (The House of Power, The Rivers of Fire, and The Dark Planet), and I enjoyed them all quite a bit.  The Atherton series follows the adventures of an orphan boy named Edgar who loves to climb.  He spends his ...

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Botchan

by Jan. 29, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Botchan

An introduction to a book can be a double-edged sword.  Sometimes it can be extremely useful and informative - as is the case with Botchan.  Here we have an introduction that reveals some of the subtleties of the translation that would not have been evident from the text itself.  For example the word Botchan, which is the nickname of the main character and narrator, can mean any of the following:  "a younger son; inexperienced or naïve; easygoing in a way that can either be mildly endearing or distressingly irresponsible" (5).

Clearly this is important information that is necessary to approach the text in a more fulfilling, meaningful way.  This introduction continues such usefulness as it gives clarification to the nicknames Botchan gives to his fellow teachers as well as some insight into why the book is so popular among Japanese readers.  All of this was interesting, without spoiling the content of the book.

On the other hand, sometimes introductions go a little overboard.  My favorite book to recommend, I Am a Cat is a perfect example.  At first the introduction seems to just offer clarification on translation issues but suddenly it gives away the ending of the book, and offers an ...

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Half Moon Investigations (Audio)

by Jan. 22, 2010 in Audio Books, Books, Fiction, Recommended

Half Moon Investigations (Audio)

Before we headed to Pennsylvania for Christmas vacation, Vanessa and I picked up the audio book versions of the first Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from our local library.  These were meant to be safe, guaranteed good listens for the many hours of driving we were going to have to do up north.  Unfortunately, I left them at home and when we arrived in PA, with a four hour drive looming on the horizon, we were feeling a little nervous.

Vanessa's mom, and her trusty library card, came to the rescue, however, and while we prepared for the drive she went to her library to pick up "any Artemis Fowl book you can find" (we have read and enjoyed them all, so we weren't going to be picky at this point).  While she did find the first Artemis book, she accidentally grabbed the book you see to the left as well - Half Moon Investigations. Since we had not ever read this one before, and we were feeling adventurous, we decided to give Half Moon a go.  We made the right decision.

Half Moon Investigations is the story ...

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Catching Fire

by Jan. 19, 2010 in Books, Recommended, Science Fiction

Catching Fire

My friend Raina (a librarian) recently mentioned in a book review on Goodreads that the first book in a series has to be extremely good if she is going to read any sequels.  I found this interesting because this is absolutely not the case for me.  A book only has to be moderately enjoyable if I'm going to continue on in a series.  If I like even a single character, or if the plot is remotely interesting, I feel compelled to find out what happens next.

Is this a bad thing?  Sometimes, like when it results in reading terrible novels (His Dark Materials 2 & 3 come to mind), but for the most part I prefer it.  Sometimes it takes more than one book to really appreciate the depth of a character, or the subtleties of a plot.  Plus, I hate to think that I might miss out on a great sequel because of a bad first novel.

Regardless, this is all a moot point when it comes to Catching Fire.  The first volume in the series (The Hunger Games) is excellent.  No doubt if you read the first book, you've either finished the second already, or are ...

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2009 Reading Year in Review

by Jan. 13, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended, Science Fiction

I'm posting this later than I originally hoped, but oh well.  You'll forgive me, won't you internet?

I think it's safe to say that I read more in 2009 than any year before.  It was both fulfilling and motivating to record my thoughts on books after I finished them, and so I don't have any intention of stopping in the future.  To recap the year, though, I'd like to provide you with my top books of the year, and leverage the database to provide you with some fun stats!

This "Best books list" is obviously the best books I read in 2009, not the best published in 2009.  I am aware of the flaws of working this way, but I can't imagine any other way of dealing with it!

In 2009 I read...

  • 33 books
  • 11298 pages
  • 1 Comedy (255)
  • 3 Fantasy (889)
  • 5 Nonfiction (1348)
  • 5 Juvenile Fiction (2015)
  • 8 Science Fiction (3061)
  • 11 Fiction (3730)
Now on to my favorite books of the year:

Favorite Audio Book:

The House of the Scorpion on Amazon.comThis is an easy category.  Of the 30+ audio books I listened to this year none came close to The House of The Scorpion ...

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The Hunger Games

by Jan. 11, 2010 in Books, Recommended, Science Fiction

The Hunger Games

It's frightening to think about a book like The Hunger Games now that we are in year 2010 and officially in the future.  Normally when you read a book about a post-apocalyptic world in which an evil government forces children to fight other children to the death in order to show how much power they have, you can reassure yourself with the following: "Nothing to worry about!  That kind of thing only happens in the future."  Well guess what?  The future is now and, if Suzanne Collins has it right, it's brutal.

Well, maybe this future isn't here quite yet, but it's certainly something to think about.  Anyways, bleak children killing children future aside, The Hunger Games is quite captivating.  I received this book as a Christmas gift and finished it within just a few days.  It's an easy read, clearly meant for the teen reader, but great for any adult who wants to engross themselves in a world that is just far fetched enough to be exotic, without being ridiculous.

With that said, however, don't let my flippant attitude give you the wrong impression about this book.  It is brutal, with 20 plus ...

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What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

by Dec. 21, 2009 in Books, Nonfiction, Recommended

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

When I first received this book as a gift, I looked at the cover and thought "Cool, a book that will show how good and noble video games are!"  However, if I had read even the title a little more closely I would have realized that this isn't an apologist's book on video games.  It isn't meant to show how video games are good for us, and therefore should be played by everyone all the time (though they should).

So what is it?  Just as the title says, it's a book that looks at what video games can teach educators about learning.  After all, Gee argues, good video games are complicated, difficult, long, frustrating endeavors that children and adults will spend hours mastering.  Obviously they are doing something right to produce this type of effort.  The question then becomes, what we can we take from video games and apply to the current education process?  How can we apply the principles of learning so obviously evident in video games to schools?

Throughout the book, Gee goes into detail on 36 different principles of learning, how they are exemplified in video games, and why they are so important ...

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