Monday, November 26, 2012

My Favorite Fantasy Book Series

1. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin

I picked up A Game of Thrones because my then-fiance bought a copy. He loved the book and encouraged me to read it. I found it so gripping that I stayed up all night reading it, unable to put it down.  It's epic and emotionally intense, and the world Martin creates is rich and fascinating. Still, what I love most is the deep complexity of the characters. Too many writers create one-note villains, people just born evil with no valid point-of-view.  While some of Martin's secondary characters, like Gregor Clegane, are pure savages, his main villains have a depth of character and a point of view that is almost as compelling as the heroes'.  A reader might hate Cersei Lannister, and with good reason--but Martin shows that she fights to protect her children and save her loved ones. Even Ned Stark feels some sympathy for her; he knows that Robert treats her horribly, and that Robert would murder her and her children if he discovers her secrets. Excellent fantasy books need more than a fascinating world; they also need complex characters with gripping stories readers can't put down.

2. His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman 

In his books, Pullman creates a rich fabric of worlds and characters, and he drives his plot with powerful moral philosophy.  I love this series because it is one of the most original and compelling I've ever read. Lyra's strength and bravery make her journey from innocence to experience both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even her parents, Lord Asriel and the vicious Mrs. Coulter, undergo a profound transformation. Very few books inspire you to re-examine your life and your ideas about the universe, but this series inspired me to think about the nature of good and evil, and examine my understanding of morality.  Yet, Pullman never lectures--it's the wonder of his story that drives its philosophy, instead of the other way around. Everyone should read these books.

3. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling 

This series may have saved children's publishing single-handed. Beloved by millions for a good reason, Rowling creates a wonderful fantasy world full of awe, but also danger and pain.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione are complicated but lovable characters, and Rowling beautifully depicts their deep friendship through many trials. If you have only seen the movies, try reading the books. I enjoyed the movies, especially the last two, but the books give a richer portrait of the world and relationships of the characters.

4. Kushiel's Legacy, by Jacqueline Carey 

While Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are written for children or young adults, Carey's excellent series is very adult.  She creates a beautiful, complicated world of fallen angels, where prostitution is a sacred calling.  Yet, although the books contain erotica, the bulk of the stories are exciting adventures, more of a spy novels than romance. Her heroine, Phedre, uses any means at her disposal to protect her country and the people she loves. Gifted, or perhaps cursed, with the ability to feel pain and pleasure as one, Phedre journeys to hell and back, only surviving because of her unique abilities.  Far more well-written and engaging than the irritating Fifty Shades of Grey, this series deserves serious attention from any fantasy readers.

5. The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 

The Wheel of Time is an enormous epic fantasy series of 13 books (the last book is due to be released in January 2013).  Reading it is an ambitious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart.  Still, these books have a lot to offer: an epic plot, a huge cast of characters, and a highly developed fantasy world.  True, sometimes the plot seems to go off on a tangent, and some of the main characters get very whiny, but overall I have truly enjoyed reading this series, and I'm excited to finally read the last book.

Updated: I can't believe I forgot to mention Ursula Le Guin's wonderful Earthsea series. The deep philosophy of these books and the development of that philosophy throughout the series is an incredible joy to discover. Furthermore, the world Le Guin creates is as fascinating and fully developed as any other fantasy world I've discovered. Her characters feel like real people, and remain lovable and engaging despite their many flaws.

As someone who loves fantasy books, I know it can be frustrating trying to find an excellent series to sink your teeth into. I'm always interested in learning about excellent fantasy books, so if there are any you feel should be included on this list, let me know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (Chapter 1)

The first chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man depicts Stephen Dedalus as a young child. The chapter begins with a sing-song story and a collection of Stephen's earliest impressions of his parents and their friends, including Dante and Uncle Charles. At first, everything in this youthful world seems peaceful, but already the seeds of discord have been sown--Dante's two hairbrushes, red for Michael Davitt and green for Parnell, represent the impending Irish political crisis.

Clongowes Wood College

In the next scene, Stephen attends Clongowes, a highly respected Jesuit school for boys.  Although he succeeds in his studies, Stephen finds Clongowes a confusing, harsh place.  A bully, Wells, pushes him into a ditch and mocks him for kissing his mother. Stephen gets sick from the cold, slimy ditch water, but because his father told him to never "peach on a fellow," he keeps the name of his bully secret.  While he's in the infirmary, Stephen hears one of the Brothers sorrowfully announcing that Parnell is dead.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Stephen goes home for Christmas, but instead of the peaceful house he remembers, he discovers that the Irish political conflict deeply divides his family.  This conflict establishes many of the themes of the book such as the contrast between unity and conflict as well as innocence and experience. The fight pits Dante, a strongly Catholic woman outraged by Parnell's scandal, against Stephen's father and his Uncle Charles, who vigorously support Parnell. Dante insists that the priests and bishops who condemned Parnell for his adultery "behaved rightly" because "God and morality and religion come first." But the men argue that the church and its henchmen betrayed Parnell to the British, and they mourn him as their "dead king." Only Stephen remembers how once they were on the same side, because Dante had struck a man with her umbrella for taking off his hat during "God Save the Queen." By the end the fight devolves into screaming and sobbing.

The irony of this intense conflict is that it is most destructive to the cause that all the participants support: Irish independence.  The savage squabbles and mistrust in the aftermath of Parnell's death prevented the country from uniting or finding a way to move forward, thus ensuring the paralysis Joyce depicts in Dubliners.

Just as a scandal rocked the adult world, on his return to Clongowes Stephen discovers that another vague "scandal" divides his school.  A group of older boys committed some terrible crime, perhaps a sacrilegious one like stealing and drinking the altar wine, or perhaps a sexual one, like "smugging" two of the younger boys. The boys face either expulsion or flogging, and the priests are so incensed that they strictly punish many of the younger boys for small infractions.  When the prefect of studies visits Stephen's Latin class, he notices that Stephen is not working like the other boys.  The teacher tells him that Stephen broke his glasses, and he can't study until his father sends a new pair.  But the angry prefect insists that Stephen broke his glasses on purpose and punishes him by beating his hands.

Though Stephen's punishment is mild compared to the church's destruction of Parnell, it reflects the harsh and unfair practices of the church.  Just as the political scandal divided Irish Nationalists and devout Catholics, Stephen's punishment sets the students of Clongowes against their prefect.  The other boys encourage Stephen to take his case to the rector, to ensure that the prefect does not punish him again the next day.  Ironically, though Stephen refused to implicate Wells in his sickness, and his father told him not to "peach on a fellow," Stephen now finds himself tempted to tell on his prefect.  After careful consideration, Stephen visits the rector, who brusquely assures him that the prefect only made a mistake and it won't happen again.

The other boys greet Stephen with cheers when they realize what he's done, briefly displaying the unity that alludes adults in their country.  Once he's alone again, Stephen feels "happy and free," and vows to remain humble despite his triumph.

Blogs for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead"

Other blogs for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Favorite Science Fiction Books

1. Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. 

A good friend of mine recommended this book to me when I was in college, and I was immediately hooked.  I eventually read the entire series, which was one of the most powerful, engaging series that I've ever read.  The first book, Hyperion, is like a science-fiction version of the Canterbury Tales. An unusual group of seven pilgrims gather aboard a tree-ship (a gigantic tree that also functions as a spaceship) to try to avert a terrible galactic war.  They don't know why they have been chosen for this mission, to travel to a planet called Hyperion and confront a mysterious creature called the Shrike. On their journey, they decide to tell each other their stories, so they can discover their connections and learn why they have been chosen. Each story is beautifully written, and I found myself fascinated by all the characters.

2. The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

I loved Ursula Le Guin ever since I first read the Earthsea books in middle school.  But while the Earthsea series is more fantasy, The Dispossessed is a science-fiction tale about a realistic anarchist society.  Anarres is a moon of the main planet, Urras.  It has few resources and is a difficult place for people to live. Nonetheless, it has been settled by the followers of an Anarchist philosopher named Odo, and they have developed a society based around complete equality, where people are valued based on what they can do, not what they own.  Yet Anarres is not without its faults.  The main character, Shevek, soon realizes that Anarres's revolution is stagnating, and he finds intense resistance to his new ideas in physics.  He vows to travel to Urras in order to spread his ideas and learn about the society his people left.  The powerful story of Shevek's journey and his eventual return to Anarres raises profound philosophical and moral questions--how much are we willing to sacrifice for a genuinely free and equal society?

3. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood 

I read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and have loved her work ever since.  Oryx and Crake might be her best book yet.  Set sometime in the future, when the upper class lives in elite gated communities fiercely controlled by corporations, and the masses live in desperately poor slums, the technologies that Atwood depicts in her pre-Apocalyptic fable are already in development.  The story revolves around the complicated rivalry between two disillusioned young men, and their relationship with the elusive and mysterious woman they call Oryx.  Atwood is a master of ambiguity, hinting at the deep motivations that might possibly drive Crake to completely destroy the world as they know it.  But both he and Oryx keep their secrets deep, and Snowman's questions remain unanswered. Did Crake want to destroy the world so that a new one could be born, like Shiva? Or was he punishing the world for its cruelty, like the angry Old Testament God? Painfully alone, Snowman searches his past for answers.

4. Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke  

This book is one of the first hard sci-fi books I ever read, and I still think it's one of the best.  Rama is a mysterious spaceship, seemingly abandoned by its makers, which is heading towards Earth's orbit.  A team of scientists lands on the ship to investigate it.  As they explore the strange craft, it becomes clear that the Ramans' technology is so advanced, that the scientists can barely comprehend it. The whole story is brimming with the mystery, awe, and fascination that a reader finds in only the best sci-fi.  Some critics have noted that Clarke's characters are simply drawn, notable more for their professionalism and scientific specialties than their personalities.  However, I think the lack of personal conflicts lets the focus of the story stay on the ship and the scientific puzzles that it contains.

5. Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card 

I debated whether to include any Orson Scott Card on this list.  It truly bothers me that this author who books I admire and enjoy is so viciously homophobic. I have decided that however terrible I find Card's personal beliefs and politics, I can still appreciate his books for their deep compassion and beauty. In Speaker for the Dead, we see Ender Wiggan become a man, working quietly to encourage compassion and honesty throughout the universe, and hoping to find a home for the last hive queen.  When he finally lands on Lusitania, he faces his greatest challenge yet: he must ensure peace between humanity and a newly discovered species, Pequeninos, and help Novinha's damaged family heal their rifts. Finally, Ender has a chance to redeem himself.