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Book War Wounds

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I am careful with my books. They are the kids I don’t (and am not likely) to have. They go everywhere with me, and I always have at least one on hand. But as often as I lug one around, even being careful, they inevitably bear some marking of that kind of love, from the occasional curled edge or corner repaired with acid-free invisible tape to the faint white wrinkles down the spine. They’re wounds, to be sure, but who hasn’t been wounded by love in their lifetime? Not that this exonerates me for the guilty feelings I have for some of the bruises my books have endured.

This past weekend, for example, I was reading Inheritance by Christopher Paolini. I was sitting at my desk and taking a break from my homework. I was sitting quite normally and enjoying my cup of coffee when tragedy struck. I picked up the mug, engrossed in the page, and then…a slight tremble and SPLASH! Sloshed coffee smeared along the margin of one page and drip marks along the outside edge of the pages on half the book. The damage wasn’t catastrophic. It’s not like I soaked the whole page, but it was bad enough. I’m quite perturbed by it, but I’ve done worse. The Mists of Avalon and I enjoyed a hot bubble bath together once, and while I got in with the intent to unwind, I got out cussing, fussing and fumbling for a towel to try to minimize the damage I’d done to my poor book. I didn’t have a hair dryer (because I don’t use one), but my book spent some quality time basking in the white-hot heat from the famous Sarah Lawrence radiators to dry off.  The pages are still a little wrinkled, but there’s a story to it now, too.

I suppose some of this makes me a bad book-parent, but my philosophy is this: every kid gets an egg on their head when they headbutt their parents while playing, or a scuffed up knee from playing on the jungle gym at the park. Bumps and bruises aren’t always a sign of abuse and the lack of them might mean they’re lacking in play or attention. I love my books, and it shows – but with a passion that sometimes leaves a mark or two. It’s part of the reason why I don’t borrow from the library as much as I probably should. I’m not the kind of babysitter other book parents want.

Things You CAN Accomplish in 3 Minutes

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Why three minutes? Because time is precious and that’s how long it takes to nuke a mug of hot water for tea while doing work and/or school work:

  • Empty the dishwasher
  • Reload the dishwasher
  • Empty the dish strainer
  • Scrub 2 pots/pans used in making dinner
  • Fill and program the coffee maker for the morning
  • Take the trash out (either shoeless or with random slip-ons by the door)
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Reboot the laundry
  • Clean out and re-prepare loose-leaf tea in my tea infuser
  • Work on the grocery list
  • Change into pajamas
  • Check (but don’t answer) email
  • Use up your audible.com credits on something in your cart for a new “read”
  • Make a playlist to boost studying focus
  • Write this blog post

Time’s up! Back to my homework – at least until the next refill. 😉

Something Like a Review – 11/22/63 by Stephen King

February 26, 2012 2 comments

11/22/63 by Stephen KingI will do my best to set aside my hero-worship and fangirl-ism long enough to chat about this hefty tome, but understand that if my idolatry creeps in, I swear it’s not my fault. I’ve had an obsession with Stephen King’s stories since I was a teenager, I’ve spent years being mystified by his skills, and recently, have been trying to learn lessons from The Master to make what I do better.

That being said, I don’t think that everything he’s ever written is amazing. Not only would that be impossible, it would be bullshit. Those who’ve read Dreamcatcher or slogged through books 3 and 5 of the Dark Tower series (The Wastelands and The Wolves of Calla, respectively) know exactly what I mean. There are probably more that left me scratching my head trying to figure out where the hell the guy who scared the living bejesus out of me with It, or Pet Semetary decided to hide when the book was written, but they aren’t as memorable as the three I’ve mentioned.

For those who are looking for the traditional King book where blood is spilled in ways that sometimes make you cringe (don’t think about the shit-weasels, that’s not what I mean, but about Georgie’s missing arm…or the elevator and halls of the Overlook, or Carrie at the prom), you’re going to be disappointed. If that’s what you’re looking for, if that’s what you crave, don’t bother. This is not a slash and splash thriller. There are moments of gore and scenes with cinematic fighting, but 11/22/63 is different. It still provides the tension you’d expect from a man who fiddles with the dark side of our imagination, but this is a more introspective kind of horror. We all wonder “what if…,” and this story jumps in to answer it – and reveals the consequences of making “what if” happen.

I have seen more conflicting reviews on this book than I have on King’s others, and one of the ones that intrigued me most was posted by the lovable, if snarky, Insatiable Booksluts. Take a peek to see their Triple-Decker review (part 1 and part 2) – and enjoy their widely disparate views on the story. I’ll admit that I read their reviews before I had an opportunity to pick up the book and read it for myself, so I approached both the reviews and the book with a dose of skepticism, but after I knocked the fangirlism down a couple of notches, I will admit they do have some valid points, though I don’t agree with all of them. The plot lines are separated by a rift rivaled only by the Grand Canyon, and the 1950’s/60’s plot line has a tendency to meander and wander through the idyllic streets of Jodie, Texas. You know, since it’s safe and utopian and all. There is more foreshadowing and, as mentioned in one of the booksluttian reviews, “fortune telling” than I recall seeing ever before in a King novel. This isn’t to say the subtle clues that you realize later were clues, but you were too sucked in to see them for what they were, but big, thick, unmistakeable shadows drawn with the extra-large crayons they give little kids to fit in their chubby little hands before they can properly hold crayons. Or maybe these shadows were filled in with a Sharpie. All I know is that when I came across some of them, I tripped and then looked around to figure out what happened. It was unpleasant, somewhat jarring, but no worse than slamming across a pothole in a winter street. You wince, check to see if you made your tongue bleed when you bit into it, but you move on all the same. I’m guessing that these heavy-handed marks were to impart a sense of nostalgia, to convey that this story was told in almost memoir fashion, but the story didn’t need it and the tension would have existed without them.

Even with those frustrations, there was more to love about this book than not, and the detractors were overcome by the positives. I loved, loved, loved stepping back into 1958 and getting to peek in on Ritchie and Bev in Derry, post conflict. This is a testament to King’s world-building, which I’ve gushed about elsewhere, but it lends so much more richness to the story. It creates context and makes his world come more alive for the reader, creating a sense of familiarity, of returning home to familiar faces.

I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to know the ins and outs of the speculations regarding the Kennedy assassination. (Tinfoil hats just don’t come in my size, doggone it.) I do have a broad, generalized understanding, and it’s enough to get through the story. I loved seeing the interpretation of “what might have been,” and how the butterfly effect morphed into a flock of condors and shredded the fabric of our reality. It’s part of what brought the crazy story to balance, to make those harmonics Jake Epping liked to ramble about ring through to the end. You can make some wrongs right, but who’s to say that it’s not going to undo the good they inspired?

I love the underdog stories, the ones where the hero in charge of saving the world, of righting the wrongs and of surviving the impossible is in the hands of the Average Joe (or in this case, Jake), and this is certainly one of those stories. There’s no high-tech solutions, no secret file accidentally glimpsed in some obscure basement – just a regular guy trying to save one of the most powerful men in the world. All in the hopes of making the world he came from a better place. How could that possibly go wrong?

This is a mixed recommendation. If you’re looking for a book that will make you afraid to turn off your light and sleep, skip it. You’re only going to be disappointed. If you can put up with the minor annoyances for a good story and a “what if” interpretation, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I gave it 5 stars, but this one is going to swing from one extreme to the other, depending on your personal tolerances and love for conspiracies.

I’ll Pass, Thanks

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

We all have our passions and there are times when those passions get the better of us and we spew verbal poison. I’m guilty. My favorite punching bag is Twilight and all things that come with it. I am (relatively) unapologetic about it, and where there are merits, I will admit them. There aren’t many, but I give credit where credit is due. Part of the reason why I don’t feel too awful about beating up on Meyer or her franchise is because of its rampant success. My bitching is but one drop in the ocean of its fan-dom, and I realize that it’s only relevant to the people who agree with me. Rabid fans see no flaws, or reject them because of the “quality” of the story and most will try to defend it.

But no, I’m not talking about the bad fiction that becomes a mega-success. I’m talking about the small publications that you come across that are either the shallow end of the mediocrity scale, or the ones that plummet into the depths of bad. Small press publications and authors can be broken with negative comments. Sometimes this is justified, but even when it is, it’s not professional. In a very broad, sweeping generalization, let’s say there are two kinds of authors; those willing and able to identify their mistakes, and those who chase their name in print. The former do everything they can to read, educate themselves on their craft and fine tune their writing as a matter of professional pride. They seek opportunities to push themselves, to learn and to not only figure out what’s broken in a manuscript, but how to fix it. The latter are those who swell with uncritical pride when they hear an unqualified “it’s good” from a friend, or who don’t see the value in pushing their limits to make what’s good into something “great,” or “amazing.” I feel sorry for those people, especially the ones with talent for telling a story.

I get it. Really. Bad writing happens. It’s a fact of a writer’s life, and something that we try to grow through and out of. The problem is, thanks to the digital age, bad writing gets published, bought and sold every single day. Even in the larger market where publishers are reading, buying, printing and selling so fast in the interest of seizing a trend to grab the interest of a target market, decent stories get pushed out without the polish or attention they need to make them great. Mistakes happen. Plot holes happen. Typos are par for the course, and when the digital eyes of spell check don’t grab the word taking the place of the one the author meant to use because it is actually spelled correctly, they can happen in abundance. The author bears the brunt of the responsibility for this clean up before it ever leaves the sanctity of their desk, but every author needs help picking the nits from the manuscript once in a while. When you’re too close to the subject, you miss things or you interpret what’s on the page as the visual drama unfolding behind your eyes, even though the actual words may be missing. The trick is to have a support team to help find these nasties BEFORE the reader finds it on the shelves, digital or otherwise.

One of my favorite e-book haunts is Amazon’s Top 100 Free list. I have gotten great classics and based on what I’ve skimmed through on my Kindle, I’ve scored some pretty good reads from reputable publishers promoting new works on limited time offers. (I’ll let you know once I’ve actually gotten through them.) I’ve also downloaded some really poorly written “stories.” I believe I have realistic expectations about what I’m getting there most of the time, since I know you usually get what you pay for. But on the other hand, I also understand that self-pub and vanity press in the e-book market are pretty damn cheap – and it shows. The ones that have been bad have been really bad and I don’t include them on my “What I’m Reading” or “What I’ve Read” lists. I don’t feel right being honest about them with my standard blurb, and I don’t want to be asked why they’re there without one. I can handle mediocre with a diplomatically worded blurb, but with the truly awful, I’ll pass, thanks.

Something Like a Review – Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by AJ Hartley

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine PactI’ve become something of a sucker for young adult fiction, and I blame it all on JK Rowling and Harry Potter. She got me past my book snobbery (at least the part that sneered at picking up a “kid’s book”) and showed me that I don’t have to be the target audience to really enjoy the story. Granted, she was not my only insight into this phenomenon (The Lorax is still one of my favorite books, and I have a feeling it will always remain such), but she was the most recent memory which made a significant impression.

As much as I enjoy reading YA fiction, I feel something like a traitor or an imposter, or perhaps a bit of both when trying to talk about it. I read it like a fan, to indulge in the craftsmanship of the story, but I’m reading it with a jaded perspective and seeing things that the target audience may not gain perspective on for many years.  To investigate too deeply ruins the magic (making me an imposter), yet to point out things that irk me when lacking in an adult novel seems traitorous because I’m reading from a different perspective than the story was written for. The latter is part of the reason why I’m hesitant to write Something Like a Review for YA fiction. I will, however, make an exception for Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by AJ Hartley.

This is a great story of a young English boy who finds himself uprooted and transplanted in Atlanta to live with his aunt. The circumstances of his removal are something I won’t reveal here, but they are discussed in the story after some speculation and foreshadowing. He finds himself in the surreal environment of a wealthy private school, and as we all know, those little over-privileged microcosms breed our future 1%-ers and the members of the upper 99%. Darwen is given a mirror by a strange shopkeeper, Mr. Peregrine, and discovers that it becomes a portal to another world, called Silbrica, after the sun goes down. He also discovers that his ability to cross from modern Atlanta into Silbrica is not a common one, that he is, in fact, a mirroculist. This ability and his quirky friends, Alexandra (Alex) and Richard (Rich), help our hero realize his potential as their world is threatened by a dangerous contingent from Silbrica. There are poignant moments, like Darwen’s fear for his Silbrican friend Moth, moments where I just had to laugh at what happened (I’ll just say the confirmation of the true nature of a teacher in the book will cause speculation and critical evaluation of school faculty for many a young avid reader), and many enthralling moments where I couldn’t seem to read fast enough to find out what happened next (meeting the Jenkinses and then Alex and Darwen’s final return to Moth’s forest).

What I enjoyed most about this story was also the most frustrating aspect of it – it ended too damn fast. That’s not to say that the story was cut short; it was not. It was a great adventure that reminded me of a cross between the heroism of Harry Potter and the magical, otherworldly adventures described in the Chronicles of Narnia, with a measure of a dangerous Alice in Wonderland for good measure. What I mean to say is that when the story ended, I wanted more. The story resolved, but it resolved with the acknowledgement that this was but one battle in what is likely to become a war against the dark factions from Silbrica. I want to see more of Darwen in action. I liked his development from a reserved child in denial to one who seemed to begin to accept and open up to his circumstances. I wanted to see him grow further. I liked Rich and wanted to see how he’d develop as a character. Personally, I think these are some of the highest compliments a reader can give an author – a blatant demand for MORE.

And then there’s Alexandra. From the beginning, I was not a fan, and it seemed as though that was at least somewhat intentional. She’s the over-the-top character that’s in your face and annoying as hell. (Think Kimmy from Full House, for those of you who grew up with the show. For those of you who didn’t…well, you missed the Olsen twins when they were actually worth talking about.) Alex does grow through the story and has redeeming moments where her hyperbole is resolved into unflinching moments of heroism, but she and I just didn’t get along well. I tolerated her, and when I saw what she was willing to do for a friend, I gained a little respect for her, but not more affection. I think she’s got potential, but I’ll withhold my judgement until the next book.

There will be a next book…right? There’d better be, because this saga is so not done and I’m so ready for the next installment.

All in all, as a jaded adult, I’d give it a solid 4 stars (and did, on Goodreads). A kid who’s focus is simply on getting lost in a great story will undoubtedly rate it higher. These, after all, are just the words of a grown up whose feet still splash in puddles on a rainy day. I can pretend to be a big kid, but that doesn’t make me one.

Anachronisms in Reading

February 15, 2012 Leave a comment

What I mean here is not a digital watch showing up in a Victorian novella, but more the language used in books we consider “modern,” that make us squirm. Words that are not a familiar part of polite or respectful conversation about others appearing in print have the ability and tendency to shock, discomfort and provoke a sense of guilt when they are repeated frequently.

As an example, I am currently listening to “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks. My cursory perusal of the book showed a print date of 1998, and I didn’t delve deeper. The subject matter seemed relevant and recent enough to expect only minimal pitfalls from new research and data. (I do mean this in a more relative sense than literal because I understand that drastic changes in research can take place in a short period of time, and that more than a decade could bring about a revolution of understanding.)

What disabused me of that expectation was the past two morning commutes where I began, then delved further into Part Four –  “The World of the Simple.”

While I was not surprised to encounter stories of those with mental handicaps in a book of this nature, what startled, disturbed and upset me was the terms used to describe these individuals. “Retarded.” “Idiot.” “Moron.” “Simpleton.” At best, these words are pejorative in the context of current day language usage, yet were used in conjunction with compassionate accounts of individuals who were uniquely talented, in some ways, and devastatingly impaired by standards of “normal” functioning. The dichotomy of these terms, the sometimes bewildered language used to account the doctor’s experience and his struggle to see past the “deficits” and reconcile that the testing available was by no account complete were and are confusing to more modern sensibilities. Because of the discomfort this part of the book has already inspired, I have dug a little deeper and noticed that the first copyright of the book was 1970, which goes a long way towards explaining the language, and the mindset around this group within society. But it doesn’t make it any more comfortable to listen to.

So what words, what language, prejudices or anachronistic attitudes have you come across in reading that make you squirm, or that make you feel uncomfortable for reading or guilty for enjoying what you’re reading in spite of context? Do you still keep reading? When you have expectations of encountering this kind of experience while reading, how do you prepare yourself?

Return of the SLaR!

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

No, it’s not Wednesday, and you’re not late for work.

No, a SLaR is not some mythical beast from some cult novel you’ve somehow managed to skip during your “obscure novel challenge.” It has, however, been so long since you’ve seen one (if you’ve even seen one) that it will take a few moments to explain. A SLaR is “Something Like a Review” wherein I brag about and/or pick apart a book I’ve found requiring more than just the fast and furious blurb on my “What I’m Reading” page.

I’ve done several SLaRs in the past, and it’s been a while since I’ve had both time and a book I wanted to spout off about, and as it generally happens, I now have several hanging out waiting, impatiently tapping their fingers and jostling each other for position. And you, dear book lover, get the benefit.

Over the next month or so, I’ll be posting a SLaR on Sundays, so set aside your New York Times Book Review for a minute, because I promise mine will be shorter and will include fewer big words. Here’s the tentative schedule, so you know when to look out for a book you’re curious about:

2/19 – Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by AJ Hartley

2/26 – 11/22/63 by Stephen King

3/4 – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

3/11 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

There will be others throughout the year, of course, but these just happened to pop up all together and demand some attention. I hope you enjoy, and I promise to make the anticipation worth it. 🙂

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