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Something Like a Review – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

It took me a while to really know what I thought about this book and about Murakami’s style. At first, I was listening to Aomame’s story begin in the cab on the backed up expressway and I was wondering why this had been so eagerly anticipated. It didn’t seem like it was going to be anything extraordinary and I wondered if I was embarking on something that was going to be a waste of time.

I was, of course, wrong.

One of the things I appreciated most about this novel was the subtle way that reality shifts and the way the reader is eased into the unreality that seems to seep out of “Air Chrysalis,” the novel the main characters Tengo and Fuka-Eri are focused on, and the way other characters, like Aomame, are drawn into it.

This is a deeply complex story and there were times when I thought I knew what was coming, only to be thwarted. There were times I thought something was too easy to predict, only to be wrong. In short, it kept me off balance, much like it did with the characters in the story and even the parts where I got frustrated thinking the story had meandered off course weren’t the diversions I assumed they were originally. The manipulation of reality was deft yet significant enough that I used this book as a part of a paper for philosophy on constitutes reality and how “stable” it really is.

On beloved pain of this story was Murakami’s use of repetition to disorient, disconcert and create the sense of deja-vu feeling that the characters felt. Not only was it effective in creating this head-spinning unreal yet real reality of 1Q84, it also got irritating at times. Especially towards the end, the cyclical conversations, the repetitions, rehashings and reaffirmations of things already laboriously discussed tap danced on my nerves. I understand the intent, but for me, it didn’t work except to frustrate me. I wanted either more depth, more revelations or for them to move the hell on and get a new topic of conversation. The tension and expectation for the climax was there, and I think it would have been much more effective to tighten up the conversations between Aomame and Tamaru rather than revisiting something they’ve already discussed. At length.

Overall, I enjoyed this work and am likely to pick up other works by Murakami. In addition to the unique story line, I think reading the work of an author from a country with which I am not familiar was an enriching experience that provides a new perspective on culture and behavior. The only thing I regret is not being able to read it in the original Japanese. While I’m sure the translation is excellent, since both translators worked closely together and with the author, there’s always something that slips through the grasp of translation that’s not perceptible unless the reader can understand both.

Medium: audiobook from Audible.com **

Other: Multiple formats available from Amazon.com

Overall rating:4 stars

Potential re-read?: Possibly. There are interesting twists on the fragility of reality that, when combined with my philosophy class, made me stop and consider what I “knew” to be real.

Dead tree worthy?: Yes, if only to avoid the sound of that nasally whisper. I’d recommend a digital version at least.

** As a caveat for those purchasing the audiobook: if you are easily irritated by odd/unusual voices, do NOT buy the audiobook. The voice actor who reads the chapters written from Ushikawa’s perspective has an absolutely grating way of whispering that drove me up the wall. His normal reading voice was fine, but whenever he was reading Ushikawa’s internal monologue or thoughts, he used this harsh, whispery, nasally voice that made me want to stop listening. It felt like ants had crawled into my ears and were burrowing their way through my eyes. With fifteen hours of recording remaining, I was seriously considering how I could get my hands on a copy of the book to finish reading it just so I wouldn’t have to listen to him any more. It might not have been so bad if it were just occasional, but there’s a chapter where Ushikawa spent a great deal of time alone with his thoughts and almost the entire section is read in that voice. It made me hostile to listen.

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Something Like a Review – Completely in Blue: Dispatches from the Edge of Insanity by Chris Curry

April 22, 2012 4 comments

I’m probably somewhat biased in favor of Post Mortem Press for an obvious reason or so, but that doesn’t change the fact that the books and stories I’ve seen being offered by this growing small press have been impressive. Over the past six weeks, they’ve added Big Names to their roster of published authors and they show no signs of stopping.

This is great news for any author lucky enough to catch their attention. I’ve been snagging books as I have the chance, though I can’t say that I’ve been a timely reader of them. The one that I chose to start with was one that caught my eye for personal reasons. Completely in Blue: Dispatches from the Edge of Insanity is one man’s tale of his descent into drug-induced madness and how everything fell apart and kept falling apart for a long time.

A topic like mental illness is very easy to stigmatize, to dramatize and to destroy by trying to lecture the reader about what to avoid, what someone suffering a similar experience should do, or to bog it down so heavily in medical jargon that the layman is left baffled looking at the page. Mental illness is also something that’s easy to demonize and wield like a sledgehammer to scare people.

Chris Curry does none of this. He humanizes his experience and explains even the ugly, dark parts of what he remembers without over-embellishing to create sympathy or drama. The drama emerges naturally from knowing this really happened to someone, and the sympathy arises just seeing the humanity Curry breathes into every word.

I was skeptical when I got this book because I have had personal experiences with the mania and depressions he mentioned, though I wasn’t the one afflicted. It’s hard to hear/read/see negative or hyperbolic portrayals of illnesses like these and I have eschewed a wildly popular public figure for this reason. Mental illnesses that involve mania, hypomania and depression are devastating, not only to the person suffering, but to those around them that want to help, yet find their hands tied. No one can truly understand what these episodes are like, from the irrational euphoria of mania, the Jekyll/Hyde hypomanic moods or by the depths of suicidal/paralytic deep depressions. Yet, Curry manages to convey as much as can be to those who’ve never witnessed it. Every scene Curry writes rings horrifically true, but lacks melodrama. He simply tells it like it is with admirable honesty and clarity. His story is engaging, so much so that even with other responsibilities looming, I read it in about a day. I had no desire to put it down once I started, because I wanted to know what happened. Chris Curry is very lucky to have found help that met his needs exactly, and to have gotten it before it’s too late. That he not only shares his story, but has pursued helping others in similar situations says much about him as a person. The one thing I haven’t had an opportunity to research yet is his music, but if it is as good as his writing, I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my collection as well.

I’m proud to share shelf space with him in the Post Mortem Library, and hope that some day I’ll be able to meet him.

Medium: e-book, Kindle format

Other: paperback from Amazon.com

Overall rating: 5 stars

Potential re-read?: Yes. I have a feeling that I’ll get even more out of a second reading.

Dead tree worthy?: Yes, if only to have a copy to hand to others so I can say “You need to read this.”

In the Zone – Headphones and Focus

I am twitchy, unfocused and probably borderline ADHD.(And if you don't know who these characters are, go do your research on classic movies, kids....)

Well, maybe not, but it’s a fantastic excuse for lacking the discipline to force myself to sit in my chair and do what it is I’m supposed to be doing. This is partly a result of the epic to-do list that has a mish-mash of “NEED to complete” and “WANT to complete” items and distraction of pretty much everything around me. Maybe I was a crow in a former life; I certainly am attracted to sparkly things.

My ideas distract me from my deadlines which distract me from my household responsibilities which distract me from my homework which distracts me from work which pulls me out of a deep sleep for no other reason than sheer panic at what I have to complete and what has not yet been done because I’ve been doing homework, housework, and still trying to pursue personal interests and goals like writing.

And you wondered what could possibly be so distracting. 😉

What seems to help, especially when I’m facing that moment of indecision where I want to stay focused on my computer and the work lying therein and demanding my attention, but something infinitely more pressing is nagging at my attention. Putting on headphones seems to help tether me, even if only by the fragile umbilical of a thin wire. The music choice is just as important. Something too bouncy like, oh I don’t know, 80’s music, and I’m going to levitate right out of my seat and wander away. Something too engaging like the Beatles or Led Zepplin or Disturbed and I’m going to be sitting at my desk singing instead of working. Something too mellow like Beethoven and, well… zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Jazz seems to work, and some of the American standards are helpful (not too much Frank, though, or it becomes my private karaoke seat – and the same for Ella). What has worked best is artists like Enigma, or even the old Pure Moods albums. Classical is a bit too relaxing and has caught me nodding off.

Another thing that’s important is the quality of the headphones. If they come off too easy, they’re not much of a deterrent and the same if they’re uncomfortable. As much of an investment as it is, the Beats headphones have been amazing. Not only is the sound quality great, the noise cancellation is very very very helpful at limiting distractions. With the music at a reasonable level, I can still hear big sounds and some of the higher pitched ones (like the sound of the washer/dryer going off), but ambient noise is significantly reduced. They are also comfortable enough to wear for hours without bothering me. They internalize so much sound that crunchy foods should be avoided unless you like listening to the sound of something like gravel being rattled around in your skull overwhelm what you’re listening to. I like that they’re bigger than the headphones most of us are used to simply because they stay on much better than lighter weight headphones and they aren’t those stupid little ear buds that always fall out of my head when I yawn, sneeze or look at my monitor cross-eyed. (Seriously, I HATE those stupid little things.) The draw back to that is, if you forget you have them on, you’re going to practically clothesline yourself when you get up. Think that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Nia Vardalos gets up too quick at the travel agency and lands on her ass. Yeah, that will happen to you too.

So, now that I’ve been quite disciplined for quite a length of time (measured in hours tonight, not minutes) and gotten all my “needs” accomplished for the night, I’m going to go reward myself with a good book and a hot cup of tea. Let’s see if I can make it through either or both before I doze off or get distracted. 😉

Something Like a Review – Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

April 15, 2012 1 comment

I was very intrigued when I caught wind of this book when it first appeared on the scene. On the one hand, I was blown away by Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but on the other, vampires have been appearing everywhere in every possible scenario. While I love those fanged enigmas, I’d been getting pretty tired of them (still am a little numb to the onslaught, truth be told) and I wasn’t sure if I was going to really be able to listen to the book and set the vamp-weariness aside.

As I’ve said before, though, I’m a curious kitten, and as the whispers of the upcoming movie reached my ears, I set my reservations aside and downloaded the book.

This is a unique book written in biography style and using journal excerpts to form the narrative and get “inside Lincoln’s head.” The format helps develop the character voice and create a sense of stepping into the life of a historical figure. The voice was true to the writings of the time, as far as I’ve experienced them, and Grahame-Smith had a deft hand when creating it. As unique and true to style as it was, it did start to grate on my nerves and get annoying. “I could not.” “It mattered not.” “I cared not.” The relentless style, the implacable patterns and flow of his speech just bugged me after a while. In a weird way, though, it enhanced the fact that I was listening to historical fiction, if it was alternative version thereof. I felt immersed in the world, the language and the time…the repetitiveness is something that got to me.*

One of the most engaging and interesting things about this story was the premise behind it that drew Mr. Lincoln in to his vampire hunting. The premise that slavery in the United States was the front for vampirism was not only plausible, Grahame-Smith did a masterful job weaving it into the conflict between the north and the south and using both known and behind-the-scenes politics to enrich the story. I found myself believing it, and “understanding” how the conflicts arose and the external pressures that created the conflict around this sanguinary topic.

Grahame-Smith did not take enormous risks with the trope, but did make palatable changes to how the vampires behaved, interacted and lived in the 19th century human world. He kept it alive, and interesting while still paying homage to those who’d left their mark on it previously. It was well done, and something I appreciated as something of a vampire snob (*ahem*).

While I liked the style of the story, and aside from my one niggling irritation, I felt that the beginning of the story remained unresolved. One of the characters from Lincoln’s chronicle presents the writer of the biography with Lincoln’s journals and asks him to create a manuscript and this is left pretty much unresolved other than the fact that it’s clear that what I’d finished was the product of his labors. I found myself asking questions about what happened with him. There wasn’t really closure for that thread, and it didn’t seem like the story had been left open enough for him to return. I was somewhat confused and disappointed at that, but I understand that it may have just been the medium that I was using. When I’m next in a book store, I plan to pick up a copy just to flip to the back and see if I missed something that would clarify where it left off.

My opinion is that Seth Grahame-Smith is the magician of the mash-up, and an alchemist of the alternative history. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, enjoyed his sequels to it, and I think he did a fantastic job with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I look forward to reading more from him just to see what his twisted hindsight will bring us in the future.

(And I’m salivating over the prospect of seeing this on film. Click here for the trailer… You won’t regret it…Well, you might, but only because you’ll have to wait until summer.)

* As a note to the reader, this is a personal pet peeve that happens to me a lot. I’m not good with repetitive sounds, or other relentless irritants. If it gives me a mental bruise from poking the same spot in the same way over and over again, I get frustrated. The machine-gun exhaust of a motorcycle, the sustained whine of a fire truck siren trying to pick its way through thick traffic, most thumpa-thumpa techno/house music, leaky faucets, the song “Simple Man” by Shinedown, etc. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, how effective or evocative it is, or how much I like the piece overall – poking the same spot in my brain without cessation in the exact same way will straight up piss me off. So take this complaint with a heaping teaspoon of the proverbial salt because it may not bug someone less weird than me…and it may be strictly related to the format I used to take the story in. Would the repetition have bothered me so much if I were reading it? It’s hard to say. Don’t let it deter you from reading the story, but if you’re at all like me, you may want to steer clear of the audio version. Caveat emptor.

Medium: Audiobook narrated by Scott Holst (audible.com)

Other: Trade paperback from Amazon.com

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

Potential Re-read?: Possible, but not likely. I think I’m more likely to watch this story repeatedly on film than listen to it or re-read it on paper. This is not a disparagement of the story…see note about my auditory issues.

Dead-tree worthy?: Not for me, but definitely will require shelf space for an alternate-history buff.

Something Like a Review – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A series is an entity composed of smaller entities and while each individual piece should be able to exist, and even thrive, on its own, it becomes more than the sum of its parts when combined with the other pieces. Ultimately, the best compliment for a series is that reading one leads to a voracious hunger for the next, and domino-ing from one story into the next until the conclusion releases the reader, exhausted, sated and slumped in a chair.

The Hunger Games series did this for me. I allowed my curiosity about the hype to get the better of me and I indulged my Audible.com credits in purchasing the first book. Before I’d finished the first 5-1/2 part of the download, I’d snapped up the other two and downloaded them so I could listen to them back to back. To put it in perspective, the total length of all three volumes in playing time is roughly 35 hours and I burned through it in a little over a week.

Voracious reading.

What I liked about this the most was it wasn’t a “happy” series, but there was an inherent lesson that threaded its way through the narrative without being so heavy-handed or didactic. I didn’t feel like I was being preached to, but I understood what Collins was trying to impart with the events that took place. In some ways, it was a non-partisan political message, and in some ways, it was just a general life lesson that all of us could benefit from. I loved the recovering-from-an-apocalyptic-event kind of atmosphere where society is still under reconstruction, life is being re-defined and the things we take for granted are luxuries, of non-existent. Collins did a great job building a credible world and putting the reader and the characters in the thick of the conflict and I was enthralled.

In general, the characters were well-rounded, and Peeta’s transformation across the three books is probably my favorite character development/evolution of the year so far. There were moments in all three stories that felt predictable – at least to the reader; Katniss, however, was shocked. These weren’t terribly distracting, but I found myself smiling to myself and wondering if I was actually *that grown-up* that I could anticipate what the old-beyond-her-years narrator did not.

What bugged me most about the series was character-related. Katniss was so consistently thick-headed that I wanted to shake her. Especially when it came to the boys. Ok, maybe not so much shake her, but smash her forehead into the table. I get being oblivious. Really. I’m quite thick when it comes to interacting with the opposite sex, however, Katniss seemed to be impervious to learning, or learning anything about the same men that continued to appear in her life. I understand her age being a factor, but by the end of Catching Fire and on into Mockingjay, her oblivious behavior was frustrating and I found myself occasionally calling her a dumbass for the way she behaved.

Out of the series, the most grumbling I’d heard was around the way Mockingjay ended. Personally, I had no objection with the ending and thought that it well suited the nature of the story as it wove through all three books. It was by no means the “happy” ending I think people have come to expect from books and movies, and not every little thing was resolved with a smile, but it was realistic and satisfying in and of itself. The tone of the three stories is grim, and this is yet another book I see targeting the YA group, but appealing more to the adults. There’s a good bit of satire and social commentary I don’t think young adults are going to pick up on for a handful more years, and that I think adults would benefit from hearing. The question is, will they listen? And if they listen, will they act?

Medium: Audiobook narrated by Carolyn McCormick (audible.com)

Other: Hardcover boxed set on Amazon.com

Overall Series rating:  4.5 stars

Potential Re-read?: Very likely

Dead-tree worthy?: Still considering. (I enjoyed the voice talent in the audiobook versions, so I’m not sure if I’ll want to make the leap to hearing it in my own internal voice. This is not a matter of quality of the story, but whether I’d prefer having someone else read to me or reading to myself.)

Books to Movies

I keep a stash of ideas in draft form stashed away in my WordPress dashboard. They’re usually (mostly) blank pages that have a few vague comments that hint at the genius rattling around inside my head on the topic. I probably started this one around the time I started seeing advertisements for The Lorax and hearing the early grumblings of dissatisfaction over its translation to film. Compounding this, I was listening to The Hunger Games and talking to a co-worker about the (at the time) up-coming movie. This conversation between two book nerds became a quasi-rant about the quality of movies that super-popular books inspired. Yes, inspired. It’s rare that a movie is actually a faithful interpretation of the books that inspired the imaginations of its faithful enthusiasts. when you have to look at the book and movie as two entirely different entities and judge them as separate stories, the films can only be “inspired by” the books.

So while this is stewing on the back burner, and I was trying to decide which draft to finish, along come the Insatiable Booksluts (whom I adore, just sayin’) with The Perfect Rant about just such a topic for a Reading Rage Tuesday. No amount of popcorn is going to fix this says it best, so rather than belabor the point, I’ll defer to them for this one.

Maybe the readers should unite and start our own PAC… “Readers Against Butchering Books” or something like that. Buffy for books – defending them against the Hollywood vampires that want to suck the life out of the pages. Imagine us as the literate equivalent of a roundhouse-kicking, stake-wielding badass hunting down those who want to sanitize and dumb our beloved stories down for the people who can’t or won’t exercise their imagination by going to the source. That’s some political activism I could get behind. 😉

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