Day of Empire

Day of EmpireDay of Empire by Amy Chua was a book I picked up simply to learn more about how societies and empires were formed, how they maintained their power, and what led to their destruction. This was all research for a potential story where an empire would be prominent and I felt the need to learn more so as to have realistic elements in the fictional society I want to create. I learned a lot from this book and it made me think about many things as well. The book covers a large history, starting from the Persian empire and ending with the current United States (as of 2007 at least, when the book was published). Many of the chapters do not go in-depth into each of the empires discussed or the book would be a million pages, but it does provide a lot of information about how the empires were formed and how they came to end in fairly general terms.

However, what I thought most interesting was Chua’s thesis that these empires grew and thrived on tolerance. Relative tolerance in some fashion. A trend I noticed was religious tolerance was what caused some of these empires to become as large as they did. When other parts of the world were persecuting people due to religion, those people would flee to an area where they could practice their beliefs without fear. Many of the empires were also formed from violence and military strength. Some from economic and trade power. Chua claims that tolerance is what helped create each of the world powers, and intolerance led to their decline. I am non-religious so I do not know much about the histories of religions, but I thought it insane how much of history has been dictated by religious disparities. So much hate and war. So much persecution and destruction. It has been an issue through seemingly all of human history and unfortunately it continues even today. I could go further on this topic with my own opinions, but let’s get back to the book.

I knew a little about Rome and almost nothing about the Mongol empire. I never knew how the Ottoman empire was founded or even how the English empire grew out of the Dutch empire. Needless to say, this book has a ton of great information and it made me want to delve deeper into some of the empires it discusses. History can be fascinating and it has been a long time since I’ve read a history book (especially one that was not assigned reading). It was refreshing since I read many fictional books of mainly the science fiction or fantasy variety. I like to learn and history is the best area to learn from. I think I’ll start incorporating more history books in my reading line-up from now on.

After covering several empires and several thousand years of humanity, Chua spends the final few chapters in the 1900’s and ends with present day (as of 2007) America where she predicts what other nations may come to rival the hyper-power that is the United States. This book in already 12 years old and many of the things stated are somewhat dated, but one thing I can’t help but think about is Chua’s claim that powerful nations begin to fail when they become intolerant. Today’s political climate has become quite intolerant. I know there have always been issues in this area, and that many different peoples have been persecuted throughout the history of the United States. From the Irish to the Japanese to African Americans to Muslims just to name a few. I fear this trend will only continue.

As individuals it is easy to be nice to others and get along without violence or even arguments. It is harder to manage or govern large groups of people in towns or cities or countries. But aren’t populations made from individuals? My personal history has been quite different than anyone else’s I’m sure. I was taught what hatred is but I was not taught to hate. I honestly believe people can live in peace even if they disagree on many issues or big topics. I hope that one day we, humanity, can find a way to stop killing each other and simply live and grow together. To build a world where the lowest standard of living means access to clean water and no empty stomachs. But again I digress from the book.

There is much to learn from history and I learned many things from this book. About governments and governing practices that work and don’t work. About many different areas of the world and different times. Looking at the history of the world from a distance, or over a great amount of time, makes it seem a little more simple, but it also gives a world-view of humanity where you can see trends that persist even today. If you’re up for learning some history, I’m sure this book will have something you did not know previously.

Happy Reading.

The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaids_taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood popped on my radar a few years ago when it was being adapted for television. I didn’t know much about it at the time and only learned a few tidbits before I decided to read the book. All I really knew was that the main character was a woman who was considered special because she could bear children in a world where that was supposedly rare, and that it took place in a dystopian future. I do like dystopian novels, but what really made we decide to read this book was Margaret Atwood herself. She didn’t personally recommend it to me (though I wish I could meet her). I took her Masterclass on writing a few months ago. She did use this book as a case study for a few instances, but I came to find her as a person simply charming. I’d never read anything by her and didn’t now much about her before this class, so I thought I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale to see if I would like her writing. I almost chose Oryx and Crake but it was book one of a trilogy so I decided to save that series for later. It has joined my extensive to-read list.

I do not include spoilers about the story itself, but I do describe aspects of the dystopian society, which could be considered spoilers. So…*Spoiler Warning*

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and tells of a world where the United States is changed into the nation of Gilead via a military coup with a deeply religious foundation. The issue of declining birth rates had already been taking place and various other issues are alluded to such as mass nuclear contamination in many areas and the reduction of sea life to near non-existent levels. So basically the world was declining drastically before this takeover. Many people were persecuted and exiled. Many tried escaping when things got really bad, but this book focuses on a Handmaid.

Women are all segregated into classes and men have dominant roles in the new society. A Handmaid is a woman who has the potential to give birth and they are, as Atwood describes, essentially just a walking womb. They have a special role in this society but are also held to the highest standard. They are surrogate mothers in a society that opposes in-vitro fertilization.

Needless to say, this book can be disturbing. The little information we get about the gradual change of the society is what, I think, was one of the most frightening aspects. The Constitution gets suspended and life goes on as usual, but small changes start to occur. Then larger ones. Some people try to resist but are suppressed quickly and often lethally. What I think is so disturbing is that this drastic change of society by a large, violent group is very realistic. I like to think something like this could not happen, but Atwood dispels that doubt with her descriptions. The society itself and the way women are used is also quite disturbing. Women are reduced to nothing but their biological abilities. They are used as cooks and to run households if they cannot bear children, but outside of that they have no liberties. They are practically sentenced to death if they are deemed non-compliant. Men also have to watch their backs, but they can still live somewhat normal lives with a certain level of freedom.

One thing that did take some getting used to was the first-person character who also acts as narrator. There are very few quotation marks used in this book. I think many people have a hard time with this since there are instances where they are used but most of the time they are not used even when a conversation is taking place. As I said, it took a little bit to get used to it. Once I was, it didn’t bother me much. I think the lack of the quotation marks makes the descriptions and scenes actually stronger or more disturbing. It’s a style choice. Some like it, some don’t. I personally did not think it was a big deal.

Atwood shows her mastery of the craft in this book with her pacing. She builds her dystopian world and makes it intriguing despite its horrors, but she also provides information about the characters and changes to the society in small bursts throughout the story. Therefore, you are always learning more and getting questions answered as you read.

Great dystopian stories often read as timeless (and also allude to a war going on somewhere in the background of the story). This one can be ‘dated’ to the 1900’s or after fairly easily, but it reads timelessly as if the story could take place not far into our future. Dystopian stories are, I think, supposed to show us of a possible future that we should absolutely try to avoid. They are often extreme futures. But more importantly they comment on the world we live in (or the issues of the time they were written). This book is definitely a commentary on gender in society. It comments on many other things as well, such as sex, but the core is gender disparities. I guess you could almost compare this book to Brave New World. At least, to say that the societies are opposites. You could say the society in this book took great steps to prevent what would possibly become the society we see in Brave New World. Instead of rampant drug use and orgies and ‘everyone must be happy,’ we get an authoritarian Big Brother where sex is only an act that should be used to create life and love or any other abstract feelings should be suppressed. So…yes, it’s more like 1984. 

I recommend this book because, as most dystopian books do, it makes you think about society in various ways. This book is a bit more disturbing than others, but for a purpose, and I think it is disturbing because it is hitting close to home on many issues we see today. Issues that were probably more prominent in the 1980’s. It is meant to make you think. Not about some fictional future but of our current issues and our past. To make us look closely and see what we may have been previously ignorant of. Hopefully, it will expand your mind and let you see the world you live in a little more clearly. Hopefully, it will encourage you to help make the world a little better off than it currently is.

Happy Reading.

The Great Hunt

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I know I said I wouldn’t write book recommendations for each of the Wheel of Time books since there is 14 of them and, let’s be honest, you only need the first book recommended in a series to get started and determine for yourself if you will finish it. That said, this post is not technically a recommendation. I thought it would be fun to track my journey through this enormous series. So, here comes my thoughts on The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan. I will keep this post spoiler free (which proved harder than I thought) for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I am absolutely open to having a discussion in the comments with any spoilers. I would greatly appreciate it if you do not include spoilers from later books so nothing is ruined for me before I get to it.

I finished this book about two weeks ago (and about two weeks after I finished the first book). I flew through it. I found myself absorbed in the story and wanting to read it with any free time I had, which is a sign of a good book. I have to say I am greatly enjoying this series. Right now I’m about 2/3 through the third book and will probably finish it before this time next week. Of course, there were things I liked and didn’t like as there are for nearly every story. So let’s begin.

One thing I didn’t like that is completely excusable is the lack of resolution for some story arcs. Obviously there is plenty of story left to resolve some of the arcs that begin in this book (or began at the end of the first book), so I can live with a few unknowns at the end of this one. Though unless there is going to be a long play, there was one specific character that I was expecting to see a resolution with, and I have no idea where Mr. Merchant Darkfriend is currently (hopefully that doesn’t give anything away). Honestly, I would have been okay with just a short description but I’m sure he will pop up later on.

This book begins the trend (I’m assuming it will continue to be one from where I am currently) of using prophecies. These prophecies, some to be potentially accurate and others probably not, are used to heighten expectations and let the entire population of this imaginary land be somewhat in-the-know of what we as readers are experiencing. Prophecies are a great literary tool and I think Jordan uses them well.

One thing that is only slightly excusable is the Seanchan. I was intrigued by them and they obviously created some questions, which so far many are unanswered but still interesting (I hope I get the answers thought it may be awhile). They of course created conflict and allowed for some great character development. They also were an interesting commentary on slavery and psychology. I’m not going to write a literary analysis of this, but I’m sure I could if I was so inclined. Human history is littered with societies that included slavery, but this is a different take on it since many things apply to only Jordan’s world.

I’ve become a big fan of Loial. Maybe because I also love books, but also because he is odd man out. He is too hasty for an Ogier and is considered young at the age of 90, yet he now travels with those who he considers hasty and naive in many ways. The Ogier as a people often remind me of the Ents in Lord of the Rings with their relationship with nature and their view concerning the actions of those who live shorter lives.

Also, what is up with Selene? I felt like every time she is mentioned I was reminded that men go simple-minded in front of gorgeous women (which is not entirely true) and that good-looking people are highly influential (which pop culture today proves to be true unfortunately). I know she is dangerous and I found myself at times shaking my head at how some characters interact with her.

Let’s not even talk about Ingtar. I like that guy and choose to continue doing so.

The introduction to fast-travel in the first book via the Ways was interesting, plausible, and enjoyable. Then we get another means of fast-travel that opens up an infinite world of possibilities and I’m unsure of how it will impact the remainder of the story. Especially since the theme of dreams is further explored. Either way, I got a Skyrim vibe from this form of travel. I hope it doesn’t get overused as I continue through the story because it could easily become an overly convenient way of getting characters around.

Well, that’s all I have for this book. I’m afraid things are already starting to merge in regards to what happens in each book. I’ll post about The Dragon Reborn shortly after I finish it so the events are little more fresh. I may very well include spoilers moving forward so I can discuss things freely, but I’ll give a heads up either way. The last thing I want to do is ruin anything for anyone.

As always, I’m happy to discuss this book with you so leave a comment.

Happy Reading.

Top 100 Banned Books

Today I had an interesting conversation with a student about banned books. She is writing a paper on the subject, specifically about Fahrenheit 451 and censorship, and it reminded me of a list I viewed about a year ago. I can’t find the exact one, but I did find several which got me thinking about the subject and the reasons why books get banned or challenged. Some are funny and some may seem justifiable. I don’t want to get into the history or ethics of banning the ideas of others, but since I am human and we almost immediately do the thing we were just told not to do (because nobody can tell me what to do!), I find I want to read a challenged book simply because it has been challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) has some great lists when it comes to banned or challenged books. The Banned or Challenged Classics list includes descriptions as to why the book was challenged. I think you may be surprised as to how recently some of these books have been challenged, but then again (with the current political climate), you might not be.

Below is a the list of the top 100 banned books between 2000-2009 (with thanks to www.ala.org). I hate to say I’ve only ready seven and a half (I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale). Of those that I have read, I’ve recommended five previously (see the Book Recommendations tab above). I marked all that I’ve read in Indigo (such a fun color) and underlined the ones I’ve recommended.

How many of these have you read? Are you surprised to see any on this list? Will you add any to your list of books to read?

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
11. Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
12. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
13. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
14. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
15. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
16. Forever, by Judy Blume
17. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
19. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
20. King and King, by Linda de Haan
21. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
22. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
23. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
24. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
25. Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan
26. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
27. My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier
28. Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
29. The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
30. We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
31. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
32. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
33. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
34. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
35. Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
36. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
37. It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris
38. Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles
39. Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
40. Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank
41. Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
42. The Fighting Ground, by Avi
43. Blubber, by Judy Blume
44. Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
45. Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly
46. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
47. The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby: The First Graphic Novel by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the creators of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey
48. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez
49. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
50. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
51. Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan
52. The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
53. You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco
54. The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole
55. Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green
56. When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester
57. Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
58. Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
59. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
60. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
61. Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle
62. The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard
63. The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney
64. Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park
65. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
66. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
67. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
68. Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
69. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
70. Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
71. Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
73. What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras
74. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
75. Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry
76. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
77. Crazy: A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert
78. The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein
79. The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss
80. A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
81. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
82. Deal With It!, by Esther Drill
83. Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds
84. So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins
85. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
86. Cut, by Patricia McCormick
87. Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
88. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
89. Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
90. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
91. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
92. The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
93. Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
94. Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
95. Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix
96. Grendel, by John Gardner
97. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
98. I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte
99. Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
100. America: A Novel, by E.R. Frank

 

Happy Reading.

The Eye of the World

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Today I am recommending The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. This book is the first of 14 in the Wheel of Time series and was originally released in January of 1990 (preceding Game of Thrones by about six years). This epic fantasy series was and continues to be extremely popular. I’ve met several people who raved about it and even one person who has a tattoo covering the middle of his back. My grandmother bought me this first book of the series and it has sat on my shelf, on my “to-read” list, for over ten years. She has always encouraged my love of reading. Then a friend of mine started the series recently and loved it and convinced me to bump this book up to the top of my list so he would have someone to talk to about the series as we both progressed through it. So here I am, beginning possibly the largest series I’ll ever read.

Jordan began writing the first book in 1984 and the series was planned to span six books. It ended up being 14 books with a prequel novel and two companion books. The Wheel of Time series is an impressive 4.4 million words with this first book running just over 300,000, which is the average length for each book in the series (an average novel is roughly 85,000). Below is a breakdown of the series by length.

Image borrowed from Barnes & Noble Statistical Analysis of the Wheel of Time

This is a massive series which, if I’m honest, was the reason it has stayed in my “to-read” pile for so long. I knew I would eventually get around to reading it, but I’m glad I started it now because books are always better enjoyed with friends. In this case, we are both reading through it for the first time so it isn’t a “you should read this because I already have and it’s great and you need to think it’s great too” kind of deal.

I do want to note that I do no plan to write a recommendation for each book in this series (though it would increase the number of book recommendations I post this year). I plan to write this initial recommendation and one final post when I finish the series. I am recommending this series now because I have finished the first book and enjoyed it.

I thought there was a slow area about 2/3 of the way in, but that isn’t bad considering the length of this book, and the ending made up for it and then some. This book is well-written and I never found myself bored (even during the part I thought slow). There is much description but not enough I think to turn many people away. Jordan does name a few of the horses (I have a friend who draws the line at the naming of horses in books of fantasy, weird I know) but nearly everything has a purpose and isn’t simply superfluous world-building. The characters are well-rounded and easily discernible. There is plenty of mystery as you ease your way into this world Jordan has created but he provides everything you need at a good pace and doesn’t leave you hanging unnecessarily. This is a rich world and I am excited to continue my journey into it as I progress through the series.

I will not be providing a summary here because I wish to keep this recommendation spoiler free and I would prefer not to provide a summary of the overarching story versus what is contained in the first book alone. All I will say is that if you like epic fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Name of the Wind, The Riftwar Saga, etc., then you will enjoy this book and series. If you can convince a friend to join you in this journey, then you may find it even more enjoyable and I recommend doing so. If you can’t, then you will have fun all the same. Just know that you are jumping into a story that will surely make an impression. If you don’t like the first book, then I recommend not completing the series. If you do like the first book, then be prepared to consider this series an essential collection in your library (just as many of us consider Harry Potter).

I understand any hesitation in starting a series this large but know that millions of people have already made this pilgrimage and returned enriched. I look forward to finishing my own read-through as I reach the last novel. I hope you may one day make the journey yourself. If you do, let’s talk about it.

Happy Reading.