The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner
Dill is no stranger to hardship. He’s dirt poor, financially supporting his mother, and seems to have zero future prospects. His father, a snake-handling preacher, is in prison; many of his former parishioners blame Dill. Yet Dill has two things that keep him getting up in the morning – his friends Travis and Lydia. The three are strikingly different but are pushed together by their mutual status as social outcasts. 

This is a story about friendship, futures, and fighting. It’s the first book in a long time that’s made me just start bawling – I generally avoid crying if I can, but this book deserved a good cry. It was that moving. I didn’t just feel for Dill and his friends, I felt with them – which is saying a lot since I personally have not experienced most of the hardships that Dill and his friends were going through. 

The characterization and mood of this book were what made it amazing. The characters were real. They were flawed. They got angry for stupid reasons or were sometimes bossy and blind to the needs of others. Yet they were perfect. They were just what good friends should be. They knew how to love, how to inspire, how to live. The mood of the book was remarkably well-kept. It somehow mixed the darkness of hardship with the light of an amazing friendship. 

Overall, I would recommend this book to anybody who likes gritty teen realism. Personally, I volunteer for a texting crisis hotline for teenagers, and I find reading books like these helps me to better relate to the teens that text in. I am currently collecting books that I think would either be good to recommend to troubled teens, or help others in the crisis center to empathize with teens in crisis. I consider this an important collection, and carefully think about each book that I include. This one is a definite yes. Issues that I consider important in this book – religious extremism (and how it impacts youths), family members in prison, bullying, grief, mental illness, and coping mechanisms. 


Let Me In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Let Me In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, narrated by Steven Pacey

Oskar, a 12-year-old boy, is bullied by his schoolmates. He spends his time fantasizing about revenge and stabbing trees with a knife. He obsesses about violent crimes, keeping a notebook of newspaper clippings. One day, a strange girl and her father move in next door. She seems quite unaware of social norms and completely immune to getting cold. Her father and she argue loudly and frequently, which Oskar can hear through his wall. Despite the fact that she tells him they can’t be friends, Eli and Oskar soon form a bond. She encourages him to stand up to his bullies, and he starts growing in self-confidence. But strange murders are suddenly occurring in his neighborhood, and Oskar begins to suspect that Eli is more than he thought she was. 

I have been interested in reading this book after reading a fascinating short story of his a few years ago. This book did not disappoint. It was eerie and consuming. It was also very gruesome, and it has some graphic child-sexual-abuse scenes, so beware. Luckily, I had read reviews of this book beforehand and already knew about the child abuse, so I was not quite as repulsed by it. However, this book lost an entire star because of the child-sexual-abuse, which didn’t appear at all in the movies and wasn’t absolutely necessary. The child abuse did help develop the character of Eli’s father as a disgusting and pathetic failure, but I think both attributes could have been manged in other ways. Or, at least, without the graphic scenes.

In general, I am pleased with Lindqvist’s style – it is mysterious and flows well. The characters were well-drawn and believable (in a there-be-vampires sort of way). There dark, dreary mood was set early in the book and retained steadily throughout. There was nothing particularly original about Lindqvist’s vampire, though Eli had some original personality traits and circumstances. Also, I’ve seen this book described as a romance, and I don’t agree with that. Yes, Oskar asked Eli to “go steady,” but that was about it. I mean, he was 12, and those feelings were very naive and not pronounced. This was a book about friendship, not romance.

Overall, I was pleased with the book and would read another by Lindqvist, though I’ll probably wait before I can get through another that has sexual abuse in it. The audiobook was well-read – the voices were distinguishable and the pacing was quite reasonable.
3.5 stars for flow, eeriness, mystery – star lost for child sexual abuse



The Epic of Gilgamesh – Analytical Summary

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the futility of seeking immortality. It’s a journey of self-discovery in which Gilgamesh learns the ultimate truth – every human dies. It follows Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. As a youth, Gilgamesh was a capricious and domineering king. He deflowered the maidens, bullied the children and elderly, and forced labor on the men. His people prayed to the gods that they would send respite. So the gods formed the magnificent wild-man Enkidu out of clay. Enkidu fought in mighty hand-to-hand combat with Gilgamesh. When they found themselves nearly equal in strength, they embraced and became dear friends. 

Gilgamesh found entertainment and love in his new friend, and left the people of Uruk alone. But the two unearthly men soon became bored. They decided that they wanted to earn immortality by achieving great feats – or at least die trying. Rash youths, they glorified death, thinking it would immortalize them. 

First, they set out to defeat the beast Humbaba, whom the god Enlil had appointed protector of the forest. Once conquered, Humbaba begged for mercy. But the two youths, mistaking death for victory, chopped off his head and then downed many of the huge trees Humbaba had protected. 

Gilgamesh and Enkidu certainly made an impression, because upon returning to Uruk, Ishtar, the fertility goddess, fell in love with Gilgamesh. In his blood-glory, Gilgamesh scorned the love of Ishtar, who ran to daddy and pouted and screamed until her father loaned her the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. 

The Bull brought famine and drought. He drank the Euphrates in a few gulps. He snorted, and the earth cracked before him. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu were in a blood-lust fury. They tore the Bull apart, and Enkidu threw the shank of the Bull at Ishtar claiming he’d tear her limb from limb if only she’d come down from the wall. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu rode through the streets exclaiming: “Who is the most magnificent hero? Gilgamesh is! Enkidu is!”
With these two “victories” over death, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fancied themselves equal to the gods. But they soon found themselves sorely wrong. The gods punished the two by giving Enkidu a wasting illness. Before, they had glorified death as a path to immortality. But now they were standing face-to-face with death, and they were appalled by what they saw. To slowly die breath by breath? Humiliating! The loss of life, of friendship, of love? Tragic!
Gilgamesh could not face the reality of his friend’s death; refusing burial until maggots fell out of Enkidu’s nose. Then Gilgamesh melted down. He realized that he is human – and humans die. And death is not glorious. It leads to rot and decay. This was the second stage of Gilgamesh’s folly: he no longer saw death as a path to immortality, nor did he see it as a natural part of life. To Gilgamesh, death was an enemy who must be defeated.

Gilgamesh wrapped himself in the bloody skins of a lion and roamed the earth trying to hide from death. He became increasingly more violent and insane. In one passage, he found a boat that would take him to a man-god who Gilgamesh thought could advise him on becoming immortal. But instead of asking the boatman to ferry him across the lake to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh furiously destroyed everything in sight. Having shown his power, he then demanded the boatman ferry him. But the boatman told him “How can I? You have destroyed the tools I need to do that.”

Everyone Gilgamesh talked to on his journey told him the same thing – death is inevitable. You are wasting your life in futility. But he would not listen. 

He finally reached Utnapishtim and asked the man-god how he had become immortal. Utnapishtim related the story of an annihilating flood which killed all but him, his family, and the animals he brought on his ship with him. Realizing the horror that they had empowered, the gods rewarded Utnapishtim with god-hood – promising never again to destroy the inhabitants of earth. But, Utnapishtim assured, the gods would never again grant immortality. Death was now the inevitable finale of life.

Gilgamesh was relentless, so Utnapishtim challenged him to fight death’s younger brother sleep for only seven days. Gilgamesh reclined and immediately fell asleep from exhaustion. He slept for 7 days before Utnapishtim woke him. 

Defeated in the realization that death could not be overcome, Gilgamesh prepared for his journey home. He bathed, anointed his body with oils, and donned civilized clothes. He was now willing to face death as a man. But there was one more lesson Gilgamesh had to learn before returning to his kingdom. 

As a parting consolation prize, Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that at the bottom of the lake lay a plant that would return youth to whomever ate it. Gilgamesh dove into the lake and retrieved the plant. Instead of eating it right away, Gilgamesh decided to take it back to Uruk. In his hand, he finally clutched a tiny morsel of immortality, something that would allow him to return to Uruk wise and youthful. Yet he hesitated.

While on his return journey, Gilgamesh stopped by a lake and bathed. He carelessly placed the plant on the shore. Of course, the plant was stolen by a passing snake, which sloughed its skin and slithered youthfully into the ground. 

Thus Gilgamesh realized that his entire quest for immortality – from the glory-seeking of his youth, to the insane grasping for godhood, to his desperate clutching at the comfort of youth – was in vain. He returned to Uruk an introspective, wise king. This elderly Gilgamesh finally attained a form of immortality: he built temples, halls, and the great wall of Uruk (parts of which have been found by archaeologists today). He brought prosperity to the city. 

My one lingering question after writing this analytical summary is why did Gilgamesh hesitate to eat the plant? Was it his final folly to hesitate? Or was this hesitation encouraged by his new-found wisdom? I can’t decide.

There are so many things to say about The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I had big plans for this post. But I see now that there’s no way to give even a small portion of Gilgamesh’s due in one post. So I will break this into a series of posts. More is yet to come. If you have anything specific you’d like me to discuss, let me know.

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding

The Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding

Genre: Young Adult Dystopia, Science Fiction, Ages 11-14

Reason for Reading: This was my bookclub book for this month. 

Summary: The island city of Orokos has been trapped in isolation for so long that the idea of a “world outside Orokos” had become a dream for only the naive and the fanatics. There is nothing outside of Orokos, and Orokos is nothing but city, ghetto, and the ruling Protectorate. Chaos storms wreak havoc upon Orokos and its inhabitants – picking people up and dropping them elsewhere; crippling some people while giving life to others. Even eyeshadow isn’t too small to be overlooked by the probability storms.

When Rail and Moa make a snap decision to hide an expensive artifact from their Thief Mistress, they must flee with an assassin hot on their trail. While running, they come across a golem, Vago, who’d been misplaced by a probability storm before he had any idea of who he was, where he was from, or why he was made. Where can these refugees go when the Protectorate rules with an iron fist – keeping ghetto-folk away from the city? Their path is simply a series of coincidences strung together…leading, where?

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. The characters were simple enough to flow well in a book for young teens, but each character had an interesting mixture of strengths and weaknesses. My favorite character was Vago, the Golem, whose process of self-discovery throughout the story made him intriguing. 

I loved the philosophical underpinnings of this story. It reminded us that the random power of entropy will always win. It always destroys what we have worked to build. Entropy is a non-stoppable machine. So why do we continue fighting it? Why do we continue dreaming of that “other world” when we have so much evidence that it doesn’t exist? Why do we clutch hopefully to mere coincidences and use them to fuel our dreams? 

Slight spoilerish material
This is a book about hope as well as one about chaos. One character, who was “fanatically” willing to risk the lives of her people in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream said: “We can stay here with our dreams just out of reach, or we can risk everything to reach them.” Even after having finished the book, I’m still not certain which was the right thing to do – was it better for her people to risk everything in pursuit of their dreams? Or was it foolish? Is it better to keep yourself safe by being cynically aware of the brutality of the world, or is it better to hope, dream, or love?

To me, the lasting message of the book is: your life might be nothing more than a series of coincidences that are out of your control, but how you respond to the world defines who you are – and YOU decide how you respond. I’m not sure whether I agree with this philosophy or not. Lately, I’ve had a bit of a faith crisis – which makes the life-is-a-random-string-of-coincidences theory sound rather rational. But I know what everyone expects me to say is that God is in control, it’s not a string of coincidences. 😉 


The Aviary, by Kathleen O’Dell

The Aviary, by Kathleen O’Dell

Reason for Reading: Real life book club

Review
Clara Dooley has lived her whole life in the decrepit Glendoveer mansion, where her mother is the care-taker of the elderly Mrs Glendoveer. Clara’s mother keeps her hidden away from the outside world, claiming that Clara’s health is fragile. At 12, Clara has come to an age where she wants to test her boundaries –  and just such an opportunity arrives when her elderly patron passes away, a new girl moves into the neighborhood, and the birds in the aviary begin to speak to her. With her new friend, Clara must discover the secrets of the Glendoveer mansion, and decide whether the birds are friends or foes.

This was a cute little ghost story / mystery for children (probably girls) ages 9-12. It used the basic adults-don’t-want-to-share-secrets format, while keeping the adults likable and intelligent. The two little girls were adorable and fun. And the birds, once they started developing characters, were a very interesting twist. I found this book an engaging and quick read. Highly recommended for lovers of middle-grade ghost stories / mysteries.

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

Kira-Kira

Written by Cynthia Kadohata, Narrated by Elaina Erika Davis

Reason for Reading: This book won the Newbery Medal in 2005

Review
In this endearing book, the Takeshima family moves to Georgia so that Katie’s parents can work in the chicken factory. There, young Katie learns about Southern racism and the practically-slave-labor conditions of factory workers. But when Katie’s older sister Lynn becomes sick, Katie learns the hardest lesson of all…This is a sweet story – and pretty typical for Newbery winners. (Newbery judges certainly like bereavement, racism, and Southern settings!) The character in the book ranges from about 5-7, I’d say, but I think the subject and reading level is more appropriate for a 10-12 year old.  

Skellig, by David Almond

Skellig, written and narrated by David Almond

Reason for Reading: It was there

Review
Soon after Michael’s family moves to a new home, his sister is born prematurely. While his parents are ferrying the newborn back and forth to the hospital, Michael deals with his stress by exploring their dilapidated garage. There, he finds a strange owl-like man. As Michael and the girl-next-door nurse the winged man back to health, he learns a lesson about love. This was a sweet little book. It was quite short, so there wasn’t a lot of plot, but the characters and premise was quite adorable. This book would be appropriate for 7-9 year olds who enjoy reading magical realism. 

Almond did a fantastic job of narrating his own book. He has an engaging reading voice and had all the rhythms and intonations flowing well. 🙂