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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

4 Brief Book Reviews

So it's been a whole month (um . . . how?) since my last post. To break that dry spell during which I was camping, cooking, traveling, and otherwise gallavanting/enjoying the final throes of summer sunshine, here's my latest offering for your reading pleasure, reflecting several of my own recent reads:

#1. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
I read this series mostly so I could discuss it with my friends, in anticipation of the upcoming movie trilogy based on the books. It's young adult fiction, and therefore very fast, easy reading. I would even call it a guilty pleasure, except that it was over so fast (about 24 hours per book for me, on average), that it was almost like one of those mini-cones you used to be able to get at the McDonald's drive-through. It's delicious, but there's about 4 ounces of ice cream there total, so you'd better make it last. Which of course you can't, because it will melt.

If you haven't heard of this series, I won't spoil any of the quite inventive plotline by describing it here. Suffice it to say that the characters are memorable (and should lend themselves nicely to the silverscreen), the morals are generally sound, and (like that other blockbuster YA book/movie series, Twilight) each book gets progressively weirder and the outlandish leaps of logic become harder to accept. Still, it's a fun little escape, and I'm excited to see how they pull off the translation of these books to film.

Overall rating: B- (with extra points for naming a male character "Gale," prompting me to explain to my husband that "it's Gale, not Gail," to which he responded, "Oh, like Gale Sayers? Cool.")

#2. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film by James Card
I read this book in preparation for a silent film class I'm taking next month at my local community college. It's a leisure course, so no college credit (bummer, right?), but I'm extremely excited to meet and converse with other people who will (presumably) appreciate my fascination/borderline obsession with silent film legend Lon Chaney. But I digress . . .

This book, by James Card, could not have been written by anyone else. As he says in the introduction, there's no need for footnotes or sources because "this writer was there," and between the cameo shots of him mingling with old silent film celebs and insider accounts of meetings with bigwig Hollywood producers of the era, there's no way you can doubt his story's authenticity.

But this isn't a story. This is nonfiction at its best. Even if you have never seen (or had any interest in seeing) a silent film, you'd probably enjoy portions of this book for the candid writing style alone. And if you're anything of a film buff (like me), you'll definitely enjoy Card's detailed and hilariously opinionated take on everything from the famed directors of the teens, '20s, and '30s to his valiant quest to preserve old cannisters of disintegrating silver-nitrate silent film reels when some studios were actually melting them down for the silver! (This was during the Depression, so that does something to mitigate, though not excuse, their crimes against these invaluable and irreplaceable film archives. Apparently money talks, even when it's in the form of melted silent films.)

Probably the most memorable takeaway: a silent film actress confided to James Card that she felt we "went the wrong direction" in marrying film to voice instead of music. That just struck me as poignant. Sure, films have had soundtracks for decades now, but the whole experience is so different than it was in the silent era. Back then, the limited dialogue was flashed on-screen for a few seconds, in between long visual scenes accompanied only by music conveying the appropriate emotions. Result: You were forced to actively participate in the entire experience. You couldn't multitask, half-watching the movie and half-doing something else. You had to immerse yourself in the cinema, let the film play out before your eyes (and your ears), surrendering all outside thoughts to the flow of the story onscreen. (More on this in a later post, I think, because I'm getting wordy, and that means I likely have more to write than what should be stuck into a "brief" book review.)

All told, Seductive Cinema more than lives up to its title. And I definitely feel more prepared for my upcoming film class having read Card's intriguing account of the earliest days of cinema and the flickering magic of the silent era.

Overall rating: A (It only missed the A+ due to some detail-heavy descriptions and other excess fat that could have been trimmed to make the book flow a bit better.)

#3. Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler
*Disclaimer* This is a Tyndale book, but I did not work on it at any point during its development and so read it as a "fresh" audience (and presumably with no preexisting prejudice toward its praise or criticism). I had heard a lot about it, but mostly because of its hitting the coveted New York Times bestseller list. With that going for it, I figured it had to be worth reading.

Bottom line: Not my favorite, and frankly I wouldn't read it again. Caveat: Couldn't put it down the first (and only) time through. This owes mostly to the author being a great writer/storyteller, rather than to the merits of his actual (true life) story.

As far as autobiographies and more specifically bildungsroman (there's your free $50 word for the day) tales go, this one was extremely readable and mostly kept me interested. But after reading it, I felt like I hadn't really gained anything. At least, no lastly insights into Amish culture or even any strong spiritual nuggets. It was almost like chewing a whole pack of gum on a road trip; you enjoy each piece and it gives you a pleasant momentary distraction, but the flavor just doesn't last. And when the pack's gone, you're almost relieved that you can stop chewing. It's almost a relief to spit out that amorphous, nutrient-less wad of fading flavor.

As the author says in the epilogue (which strangely reminded me of preachers saying similar things from their pulpits), "If my readers glean only one thing from my story, I hope that's it. That God is there, even when he seems far away." True as that statement may be (and I believe it IS true), that wasn't what I gleaned from your story, Mr. Wagler. What I did learn were a few tidbits about Amish living that Witness left out, plus a general sense of gratitude that I wasn't born Amish, if the typical experience is anything like yours. . . . This is a strange admission for me, since many times in my life I have thought it would be great to flee the suburbs and "go Amish": live off the land; work the farm; eschew technology, globalism, and Facebook; carve out a simple, God-fearing lifestyle for myself and my family. Maybe it's the dresses that turned me off and gave me a reality check. (Jeans and T-shirts are my attire of choice, and I don't think I could stomach any life that required pioneer dresses 7 days a week. Whilst milking cows, raising chickens, and herding assorted farm animals, including perhaps a dozen of my own human offspring, no less.)

But back to the book . . . I don't want to judge Mr. Wagler for detailing his own experience of Amish existence, and I certainly don't want to detract from his great gift of writing, which this book leaves as an undeniable fact. If you choose to read Growing Up Amish, I hope you enjoy it. Just be prepared for a lot of grumbling, guilt-wallowing, and increasily tiresome introspection (this coming from a girl who self-identifies with that term). Some folks seem determined to be unhappy, no matter what God blesses them with. Eternally discontent, they skirt responsibilities and make "brave" (selfish?) choices to go off and find themselves rather than blooming where they're planted. An adventure? Perhaps. But mostly just a "Should I stay or should I go?" emotional roller coaster. If that sort of thing turns you on, you'll love this book. If not, save yourself a few hours and get your Amish fix the old-fashioned way: re-watching Witness.

Overall rating: C+

#4: The Touch by Randall Wallace
*Disclaimer (yes, again)* This is another Tyndale book, but not one I worked on. Truth be told, I mostly wanted to read it because it was by the guy who wrote Braveheart and, well . . . that movie is awesome.

The Touch is one of those simple stories (technically it's a novella, not a novel) that really sticks with you. It almost reads like a parable, which is probably intentional given the author's Q&A that reveals Randall Wallace's frequent readings of the Gospels. The characters are by no means caracatures, but they do fit into types, archetypes almost, that lend them a certain universal appeal.

Basic premise: There's a young doctor who has been blessed with "the touch": extraordinary talent in surgical technique. But after failing to save someone close to him, the doc hangs up his latex gloves, unable to perform surgery on anyone without picturing the victim who died in his arms. I won't go into details, but the rest of the book deals with the fallout of that tragedy and the doctor's struggle to embrace his talents and move beyond his grief.

While this definitely isn't a modernday sequel to Braveheart, there are certain similarities and a great deal of the same type of heroic, selfless sacrifice that made that movie such a powerful one. It's too gritty to be Nicholas Sparks, but you can almost feel echoes of that kind of tragic fate in this novella. Beyond that, I read the final page feeling a quiet contentment with the (not perfect but quite satisfying) final resolution of the characters' struggles. Without spoiling the ending, let me say that this book offers a tangible and satisfying conclusion, one full of real (read: not sentimental) hope and even a few warm fuzzies.

Overall rating: A-

1 comment:

  1. Interesting idea, wedding film to music instead of speech. Although I have to say, I am ALWAYS multitasking when "watching" TV or film. Bec has to prod me when I actually need to be focused on the screen to understand what's happening.