St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton

This book was another from the cruise, and although it's fairly short it's not exactly a quick read. I'd been looking forward to reading it for several years, ever since I discovered that one of my favorite authors wrote matching biographies of possibly my two favorite saints: St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas. It seemed like a perfect combination, but I've got to admit that the book didn't quite live up to my expectations.

The disappointment was partially my own fault; Chesterton assumed that his readers have a basic knowledge of Greek philosophy and the early church controversies/heresies, and I don't really know Aristotle from Plato, much less have any idea what the Manicheans tried to preach. This may not have been a huge problem if I'd been reading at home, where a full background would have been a google or two away, but for travel reading it meant that a lot of the book went over my head. The other difficulty was that Chesterton's biography of St. Francis was apparently the first one written, and required reading before starting on St. Thomas. The two biographies must be more heavily linked than I assumed at first, because Chesterton was constantly drawing comparisons between the two saints.

So, overall this was not the best choice for travel reading, but I still finished with more information than I started with, which is always a good thing.

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

We got to go on a Caribbean cruise a few months ago, and in addition to being a ton of fun, it allowed me to actually catch up on some "real book" reading (as opposed to audiobooks, which constitute about 90% of my reading list). Near the top of my list was Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, a literary analysis of the Narnia series that makes a rather interesting claim. According to the author, Lewis wrote the seven books of the series to correspond to the seven medieval planets: Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, the Sun and the Moon.

I thought the idea was interesting at first, then after reading his first chapter, which added to the initial claim and made the planetary link the main and central reason for writing the entire series, I was like "riiiiight . . . no I'm pretty sure the Christian allegory was his main reason". But over the course of the book, he builds a pretty good case. He starts by addressing the 'kappa' element in literature, which Lewis had written about in cases such as Spenser's Faerie Queen--a kind of secret meaning behind a large work. The whole point of the kappa element is that it must remain hidden, the author himself can never call attention to it, which is why Lewis had no problem discussing the Christian allegory angle, but never let on to the planetary links. This was the high point of my skepticism, it just sounded way to conspiracy-theoryish to be true.

However, the fun part was the book-by-book analysis of the series. Ward explains the themes and attributes that belong to each planet, how Lewis identified these attributes/themes and used them in his other works (mostly unpublished poetry and his Space Trilogy, so the ST is basically prerequisite reading), and finally how they were used in their particular book. These ranged from the large scale aspects of the plot and setting to seemingly insignificant details like word choice, colors ,names, and metallic elements.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although it probably doesn't have universal appeal. If you really like Lewis, Narnia, and super-detailed literary analysis, you'll love Planet Narnia :-p otherwise, it's very easy to get lost in the mire.

The Lighting Thief by Rick Riordan

Whoa, I've got a backlog building up :-p not as much spare energy as usual. But if I wait too long, everything's going to start running together, so here's a quick one:

This first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a fun romp--modernized Greek mythology given the Harry Potter treatment. Twelve year old Percy Jackson is a lovable misfit, transferred from one school to another because he chronically gets into trouble, only to discover that he's actually the son of a Greek god. He's whisked away to a special school for Olympian half-bloods, where he makes new friends, goes on crazy adventures and kills plenty of monsters.

I'll probably go into more detail about the series in later reviews, 'cause it's good enough to keep reading, and the beefs I have against it are pretty much balanced by the fun stuff.

Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin

It usually takes me a little while to warm up to Ursula K. LeGuin's writing, but once I do it's always enjoyable. I'm entirely sure why, maybe it has something to do with her characters or her tone, but I remember that I made it through the first two books of the Earthsea sequence with somewhat lukewarm reception before the third book really caught my interest. It may be that she spends quite a bit of her stories building up to an emotional climax which feels empty and cold as it's developing, but totally remakes the story once you reach it. I dunno :-p I should read more of her stuff, I'm basing this off of about five of her novels. (Turns out I haven't actually finished Earthsea yet, I'd better get on that!)

But anyway, Changing Planes was my first encounter with her short stories, and they were amazing. I'd hate to give away the pun in the title with too much description, but what the book amounts to is a collection of world-building stories that blend scifi and fantasy. (And in the finest traditions of each, there's a healthy and amusing dose of social commentary in there too.) Each one is a window into a new civilization, new species, new world, all told in a clever travelogue style. Because of the structure, I didn't run into any of the emotional delay I've noticed in her other stuff, and overall it was a really fun book.

Guess What?

What to Expect When You're Expecting, 4th edition by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel

Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy by Roger W. Harms, MD (ed)

Yep! It's finally time for a family that includes more than canine children ^_^ Due date is Oct 30th, and we're super-excited!

So, as soon as we found out and the first rush of excitement turned to "oh wow, we have no idea what we're doing here", it was time for the bookstore. These are the two titles that top the list for pregnancy books, and although I haven't shopped around much more, that popularity seems to be deserved.

What to Expect is the quintessential pregnancy book. My mom had a copy of What to Expect, your mom probably had a copy, and at my first appointment, my OB specifically asked if I had a copy. It covers all the basics: what to eat, what not to eat, baby's development, pregnancy symptoms, possible complications, a section for dads, and more. I've poked around on the internet a bit, since that's a default for me, but none of the pregnancy sites I've found have any new information, or at least not new information I'm willing to trust. It's well-organized and I've never had any problems using it. One thing I discovered after buying the book is that there's also a free iPhone app that includes most, if not all, of the text, and the book's website also has a lot of information. I still prefer having the physical book, but it might be a helpful alternative option.

Mayo Clinic Guide is all that and more. It's significantly bigger, and goes into more detail on a lot of the medical aspects, complications and post-birth tips. It's more clinical than What to Expect, with a slightly more formal tone and no funny business (WtE has fun sidebars now and then). One feature that I really like, in addition to the extra information, is charts for every month showing possible worrying symptoms and when to tell your doctor: wait til the next visit, call the next day or get on the phone ASAP.

Overall, either book is excellent and both cover all the basics. If you're expecting a normal pregnancy and don't have many risk factors, What to Expect is probably all you'll need, but if you're interested in the medicine and details, Mayo Clinic may be a better choice. I will say that because it has a more colloquial tone, What to Expect asked and answered a few questions that I'd never quite put words to, but Mayo Clinic didn't really address.

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer


That's not quite the same relief I felt on finishing the Tales of the Otori series, which was a release from a tale that had become somewhat tedious and slogging. Finishing the Twilight series was more like getting to the end of a particularly terrifying zip line--it was exhilarating, crazy, and impossible to escape, but in the end, great to have your feet on the ground again.

This massive final volume is actually broken into three books, a change of format from the other three, which were one book each. It's a little discordant, and I wonder if Meyer was caught unaware by her success and ran overboard, trying to up the ante to something more epic. One example of this is when she used a quote from Empire, a recent military thriller by Orson Scott Card, to open a new section. I can't fault her taste in literature, OSC is one of my favorite authors, but for me the quote was not only jarring (I'd just finished reading Empire), but inappropriate. The conflicts in the two books are of different scales and different focus, and it feels like Meyer is trying to borrow gravitas. On the other hand, the three-book format gives us a nice long escape from Bella's head when the second book is narrated by Jacob. This is very welcome, so I'm not going to complain too much.

Meyer reminds me a bit of the fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. They both tell engaging stories that capture the imagination and create memorable, fun characters. And they both have serious failings in the prose and dialogue department.

One more rant, and then I'll let it rest: I heard a rumor that for Meyer's next book, she was working on a point-of-view switch, where she told her original story from another character's point of view. Okay, so she's an Orson Scott Card fan, and that worked really well for him in Ender's Shadow. So I was thinking, what would be a good character for a retelling of this series? It should be someone who can give us angles we've never seen, and expand the universe and the complexity of the story, so probably not a main character. I decided that Leah, the only female werewolf, would be a perfect fit. The werewolves are an enigmatic group, there's a lot going on in the background that we don't see. Plus, as traditional opposites, they're every bit as cool as the vampires are lame. And Leah's got a personal tragedy that's only halfway resolved by the end of the series. She's also one of the few characters that isn't happily paired up with someone by the end of the series, and she's deliciously nasty to everyone--she'd be perfect. I was quite looking forward to another take on the series from her point of view, and then I found out who the second point of view character actually was.

Edward. The guy who's been there throughout the entire series? The guy who's gone to painful lengths to tell us exactly how he feels about everything, especially Bella? Yeah, that guy :-p And that's probably a good way to sum up the series.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

On the surface, The Lovely Bones sounds like it's going to be a very depressing book; thirteen year old Suzie Salmon is raped and murdered, and watches her family from the afterlife. And while the first part of the book is just as bad as you'd imagine with that premise, it grows into a beautiful story as her family rebuilds (eventually, and mostly) from the tragedy.

I'd heard the title of the book bounced around for a long time before I actually read it, and it well deserves the popularity. It's essentially a book about people; the characters are correspondingly well developed, and their individual stories are lovingly and compassionately told.

One thing that I had fun with in the book was comparing Sebold's version of the afterlife with C.S. Lewis' from The Great Divorce. (Minor spoiler warning) In his version, purgatory and hell are the same place, a gray dreary zone where you can have any material possession you want simply by wishing for it, but where nothing material brings joy. In Lovely Bones, Suzie's personal heaven is like a more cheerful version of Lewis' purgatory -- bright and cheerful, where you can make anything happen simply by desiring it. But Suzie's real desire is for her family, and the joys of her personal heaven seem to be only pleasant distractions. I thought the similarities between a Christian's fiction of purgatory/hell and a secularist's fiction of heaven were interesting, but kind of sad for Suzie.

It isn't until much later in the book that we learn Suzie's personal "heaven" is not the final destination--only a stopping place for her to heal and develop before she can join her grandparents and (we assume) all the other souls in 'true heaven'. That revelation in the story brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful, a vision of purgatory (even though the word was never used and probably wasn't intended, that's exactly what was going on) that didn't revolve around the punitive, dark version so often imagined, but is based on healing and cleansing for a soul before reaching its final destination.

End theological aside

Anyway, a very good book, highly recommended!