Wednesday, August 31, 2011

during my nervous breakdown i want to have a biographer present, 42/100

Lines I enjoyed from Brandon Scott Gorrell's book of poetry, during my nervous breakdown i want to have a biographer present:

from 'giant destructive moth':
i said i want to move into the internet
you said let's do that
i said where do you go in
i said does it have sun chips

from 'face annihilation':
today i wil go to work
i'll hardly ever move my body
then it will be time to leave
sometime tonight i'll try not to get drunk
sometime tonight i'll walk to the store, buy alcohol, and think 'what about the homeless people
sometime tonight i'll get drunk

from 'today i empathized with the top of a tower':
this is what happens
when you seclude yourself and become alienated
you sit on your bed
and receive validation from words on a computer screen
you feel extremely excited and jump off your bed

If you want to read more of Brandon Scott Gorrell's writing, check out his contributions to Thought Catalog, where he is also an editor. And really, you should be checking out Thought Catalog anyway. Because it's incredible. It's the only website I really take pleasure in visiting anymore.

And here's the back cover to DMNBIWTHABP, which is the best ever.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Favorite Summer Read

Friend and co-worker (and author!) Cherie Reich is holding a Favorite Summer Reads Blogfest over at her blog Surrounded by Books Reviews. I've certainly read enough this summer -- more than I ever have. Despite not taking any vacations. NONE. It failed to be a summer of beach-going, sandal-wearing, or skinny dipping (everyone rejoices), instead turning into a summer of me sitting in my air conditioned apartment killing zombies in video games. (note: the sheer amount of violence I have vicariously inflicted upon the grim CGI bodies of the undead should be enough to put me on some kind of FBI watchlist by now. Chainsaws, guys. CHAINSAWS.)

So none of what I have read in the past 3 months really strikes me as something I'll remember years from now having read in the summer. At least that's my definition of a summer read (or any season read for that matter): a book that for whatever reason ties itself to the period of time you're reading it. Example: Anne Rice books are late winter books. I read the vampire chronicle books during the most depressing part of the year, kickstarting a spiral of depression that culminated in me dreaming I was trying to bury myself alive. JOY!

There are other books I specifically remember reading in the summers of past: there's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that I read last year, Alex Garland's The Beach, which I read at the...beach, Harry Potter rereads before the July films, and rereads of Jane Eyre and The Hobbit in high school.

But the one that sticks out the most in my mind is reading Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness one summer at the beach. It's a fairly odd choice, being a science fiction novel set on a planet called WINTER. Let's just say the descriptions of chilly landscapes and Antarctic weather were as good as AC in that horrible beachy heat.

This was the book that got me back into reading science fiction. Telling the story of an envoy to the planet Winter, we follow his interactions with its race of androgynes, their government, religion, and civilization. The entire novel is a study of gender, society, power, and human relationships; even when those relationships aren't between humans. Everything that happens on the fictional planet of Winter is a finger pointing directly back at Earth. The goal of all good speculative fiction.

I'll have to do a reread of this fantastic novel so I can list some passages. But don't wait for that. Go read it now. I think it's the only book I could recommend to positively everyone. No "well if you fancy aliens you might like this," or "stay away if you hate Star Trek." If you like printed words on pages, then you should probably read this book.

And now I'm going to bury you under an AVALANCHE (pun) of awesome book covers!

I have to admit I don't remember there being a guy on fire waving a lightning bolt. Guess I really should reread it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Parnassus on Wheels, 41/100

And here enters what could possibly be the cutest book ever written.

Not only is Christopher Morley's novella Parnassus on Wheels a book about books, it's a book about bookselling. A romantic comedy about bookselling! And there's a dog! All kinds of cuteness.

The story recounts the tale of a middle-aged woman, who, tired of taking care of her brother, the farm, and the house for so many years, decides to go on her own adventure. She buys a traveling caravan used as a bookstore on wheels (think bookmobile), and sets off to sell books to the farm families and country folk along the road.

It's supremely funny and cute, and made me long to just throw my collection in the back of a covered wagon and hit the road. Turns out the novella is a prequel to Morley's longer work, The Haunted Bookshop, which has now been added to my wishlist.

Anthony over at the blog Time's Flow Stemmed suggests that if the story was turned into film it should star Hattie Jacques and Robin Cook. Which is spot on. But for some reason I kept picturing Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent. Horribly wrong casting based on the characters' descriptions, of course. But once I'm set on a visualization of a character, it sticks. And here's the thought process that went behind it:

Description of man w/ red beard manning a caravan named Parnassus --> Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus --> circus --> Zidler from Moulin Rouge wore that ring leader outfit --> has a red beard --> Jim Broadbent is now and forever this character.

Description of overweight 40-ish farm woman --> I like Helen Mirren --> the character is Helen Mirren.

I will never be hired as a casting director.

Of course being a book about books, there are plenty of quotes about books. Which I'm sure all the book bloggers of the world have posted. Book book bookish bookity book.

When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night--there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.

It's all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff--something that'll stick to their ribs--make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box!

Any clue to what a hot-box is? Hesitant to google it. At least while at work.

You can buy the novella from Melville House, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, August 22, 2011

One Day, 40/100

You guys. I really liked this book.

I've been getting pretty annoyed with reader reviews lately. The more popular a book is (or more specifically, best-selling), the more annoying the reviews are. Reading the reviews for The Help made me practically sick to my stomach -- the positive and the negative. Even my own review for it! I wouldn't have written one except I vowed to write something for everything I read this year. AND be honest about it, which will probably cost me some "cool" points in the long run. If I had any to begin with at all.

I started reading online reviews for David Nicholls' One Day and got the same feeling. People giving it one star reviews, while admitting they hadn't even finished it. People giving it five stars and saying "OMG it's sooooo ROMANTIC!!1!" Just...GUH. So I stopped. From now on I'm only reading reviews of vague novels or things published pre-1923.

Anyway. One Day was super funny. That's the first thing that comes to mind. To me it isn't a romance novel, the same way I've never considered Wuthering Heights to be a romance novel (at least not with a lowercase 'r'). It's a story about a very strong bond between two people, and how it, and they, change over time.

Revisiting the two characters on the same day every year for 20 years, we see the ups and downs of their lives, how their personalities change, how their relationship changes, etc etc. Most importantly it's realistic. There's no fluff. No fantasy. My only annoyance was with the end, which was predictable and felt like a cop-out for the writer. Again, don't read the reviews unless you want to a big batch of spoilers.

Then again, we all know what it means when we say "I didn't like the ending." Or "watch out for spoilers." You know what it means. Now you know the ending of the story. I don't have to say anything except "something happens," and you know exactly what that something is.* That's why it's so ANNOYING when novels end this way! Take heed, writers!

So anyway, that should be my last book clubbish read for this month. I'll be seeing the film sometime this week. Here are some great passages from the book that will give you a much better idea of what it is actually like, a lot more than what a review could accomplish:

...Gary Nutkin, our director, wants me to devise a show for infant schools about Apartheid. With PUPPETS for fuck's sake. Six months in a Transit on the M6 with a Desmond Tutu marionette on my lap. I might give that one a miss. Besides, I've written this two-woman play about Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson called 'Two Lives' (either that or 'Two Depressed Lesbians'). Maybe I'll put that on in a pub-theatre somewhere. Once I'd explained to Candy who Virginia Woolf was, she said that she really, really wanted to play her, but only if she can take her top off, so that's the casting sorted. I'll be Emily Dickinson, and keep my top on. I'll reserve you tickets.

'Fat girl,' she thought, 'stupid fat girl' this being one of the slogans currently playing in her head, along with 'A Third of Your Life is Gone' and 'What's the Point of Anything?'

Sometimes, when it's going badly, she wonders if what she believe to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationary.

Isn't she meant to have a close circle of kooky friends to help her get through all this? Shouldn't she be sitting on a low baggy sofa with six or seven attractive zany metropolitans, isn't that what city life is meant to be like? But either they live two hours away or they're with families or boyfriends, and thankfully in the absence of kooky pals, there is the off-licence called, confusingly, depressingly, Booze'R'Us.

* Other novels where "something happens."

  • Mockingjay
  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
  • Harry Potter, books 4-7
  • Bridge to Terabithia
  • Where the Red Fern Grows
  • Pretty much everything Nicholas Sparks has ever written

Why can't that "something" just be like a pizza party or an orgy or something. Come on guys, surprise me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

First Love, 39/100

The novella First Love was my introduction to Ivan Turgenev, having never read much from the Russian Greats.

As the title suggests, the story is about love. First love! And all the heartbreak, silliness, and tragedy that comes with it. The protagonist, 16-year old Vladimir Petrovich, falls in love with his slightly older neighbor, who in true 19th century fashion is being courted by like ten other guys. Like all teenagers frustrated and in love, he becomes jealous and angsty, even to the point where he hides in a garden at midnight, planning to stab a mystery rival. Which sounds serious, but was actually pretty hilarious. When he finds out who has stolen the heart of sweet Zinaida, it's a huge surprise (well, for him -- the reader can figure it out fairly easily a few pages in).

This is the first novella I've read that I really wish was a full-length novel. As a 124 page read it works, but it seems like so much is missing. A lot of questions left unanswered and perspectives unexplored. What was the point of having Zinaida be from a "disgraced" royal lineage? Why/how did she fall in the love with...the person she fell in love with? And he with her? This wasn't like Mathilda, which I can't even fathom as a full-length tome (can you imagine how many more times we'd have to read the word despair? Alas!). Even though I now know the story, if First Love was lengthened into a 300+ novel I would absolutely read it.

You can buy the novella from Melville House, or read it for free here.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, 38/100

Not overly creative with the book covers, were they?

So after the success that was reading The Help, I decided to read the other book club fav that hit the screens over the weekend. But I should have trusted my initial instinct and never read Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

The premise of the book, or at least what I thought was the premise prior to reading, is interesting enough. Two women, separated under an oppressive patriarchal and Confucian society, bend the rules by writing to each other in a secret language, concealing their forbidden friendship. Then you read the book and find out the men can actually read the "secret" language, they just don't give a fuck. And the two women live like a mile apart. And they don't really write very much to each other. And their friendship isn't forbidden, but encouraged. In fact it was arranged for them, like an arranged wedding. UM, WHY WOULD I WANT TO READ THIS.

Guilty of Mary Shelley's crime in Mathilda, See throws tragic event after tragic event at the reader, without ever making us actually feel for the characters. As if by throwing as much plot at us as possible, we would just HAVE to emote for these women. There are two plot twists in the story, and I could see them from a million miles away. It also had a strange generational thing going on in the plot, paralleling the structure of Wuthering Heights.

I don't know, guys. I just wasted a lot of time reading it.

If there's one good thing I have to say about it, it's that the novel was better than the film. The film managed to take out all of the parts I actually liked, leaving behind an empty shell of WTF. Just 120 minutes of Bingbing Li making sad faces.

Why are they in modern Shanghai? Nothing makes sense. And Hugh Jackman is somehow in it. I don't understand anything anymore.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Help, 37/100

So normally I try to stay away from book club books. Anything that seems like Oprah would recommend it. But what I've found is, whenever I read a book clubbish book...I usually end up liking it.

And what makes up a book club book? They're consistently grounded in reality, historical or present fiction (although usually historical), and have a political, didactic, or inspirational message to convey. The writing is never too experimental, guaranteeing a large audience. The historical ones are well-researched, but still fluff the details for the sake of the plot. And are always, ALWAYS, about people and how they relate to each other. Is that so bad?

The heart and purpose behind every book club pick isn't the plot, but an attempt to enter and understand the lives of the characters; regardless of how removed our own experiences are from theirs. This seems good to me.

I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.
Kathryn Stockett

I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help, after months of avoiding it, because the film adaptation was opening soon. And if there's one thing I can't resist, it's a book-to-film adaptation. I'm endlessly fascinated by the transformation that takes place from page to screen. Sometimes appalled by the results, or elated, but always fascinated.

Stockett's novel is a book club darling. It follows all the rules. It has its flaws. It tries to root itself so deeply in the early 1960s, with all of the allusions to historical events and pop-culture references, that it becomes too wide of a focus. It becomes a book trying to account for the entire civil rights movement of that period, when it should have narrowed its focus. And the characters, however hilarious they are, boil down to stereotypes. They are caricatures of the people they represent. Every single one of them, black and white.

It was a great idea for a novel, and it could have been better. But I laughed and cried with the characters, was compelled by the story, gave the book 4 stars on goodreads, and paid to see the movie opening night. So who's the sucker. At the end of the day those 5 million people who bought the book have read and learned about racial prejudice and the civil rights movement in the US.

Like Jessa Crispin noted in this essay defending Elizabeth Gilbert:

Like a lot of people who care about books and writing and sentence structure, I was initially horrified at the success at Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Then I realized what it meant: 80 million people read a book about the removal of femininity from the Catholic Church, about how Jesus liked women and prostitutes and screw-ups and freaks, about how the Bible was edited by men in power, about how Jesus' divinity was not universally accepted. They read the book, and now it's in their brains, like a vaccination against patriarchal monotheism, even if they don't do anything with the information.

Oh, and how I love Dan Brown books. Every badly-written, historically inaccurate sentence. Don't judge me.

Not many quoteables, but here's a snippet I loved:

When you're not making mimeographs or fixing your boss's coffee, look around, investigate, and write. Don't waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles, 36/100

My first Sherlock Holmes story!

No, I have never read any Arthur Conan Doyle until now. Or, gasp, even knew the plot of what's considered his greatest work, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I have been trapped under a rock for 25 years. I apologize.

So not knowing the story, I had an enjoyable time trying to piece together the mystery. Would I have still enjoyed it had I known the outcome? Yes, because Doyle's characters are interesting and hilarious. The banter between Holmes and Watson made me laugh out on more than one occasion.

"And the dog?"

"Has been in the habit of carrying this stick behind his master. Being a heavy stick the dog has held it tightly by the middle, and the marks of his teeth are very plainly visible. The dog's jaw, as shown in the space between these marks, is too broad in my opinion for a terrier and not broad enough for a mastiff. It may have been—yes, by Jove, it is a curly-haired spaniel."

He had risen and paced the room as he spoke. Now he halted in the recess of the window. There was such a ring of conviction in his voice that I glanced up in surprise.

"My dear fellow, how can you possibly be so sure of that?"

"For the very simple reason that I see the dog himself on our very door-step.

Having finally read a Sherlock Holmes adventure, it makes me remember a graduate student I knew back in school. He was OBSESSED with Arthur Conan Doyle. He wore tweed suits to class, with with a bow tie, and carried a brief case. If he had ever walked in wearing a flap hat or smoking a pipe I would've lost it. Regardless, it made me feel particularly juvenile/frumpy in my jeans and Tool tee-shirt. Everyday I resisted the urge to just walk up and casually ask him what mystery he was working on, or if he suspected the butler.

So if you want to check out CSI: Creepy Wind-Swept Moors edition, I suggest buying the book from Melville House, or reading it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lady Susan, 35/100

Scandal! Drama! Hilarity!

I needed something fun after reading two novellas in a row narrated by sad, dying people.

Jane Austen's Lady Susan covers themes familiar to those who've read her novels: marriage, class, social mores and manners. But this time the heroine is an anti-heroine. A wicked woman and master of words who uses her charm to get what she wants. And what she wants is to find a husband for herself and for her daughter -- by any means necessary.

This was a really fun read. Austen is a master of language, and forms the personalities of the characters perfectly just by what they say and write. The novella is done is an epistolary format, which is perfect for this story. The reader sees how the voice of a character changes depending on who they're addressing. The entire time we get to see the true, horrid personality of Lady Susan through her letters to a friend, while the other characters can only guess. A deception that will echo itself in the character of Wickham later on.

The novella was written in Austen's late teens, making it one of her earliest attempts at writing. However, it wasn't published until 1871, around 50 years after her death. The novella format gets no respect, no respect at all.

You can buy Lady Susan from Melville House, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mathilda, 34/100

Finished Mary Shelley's novella Mathilda, #2 for the Art of the Novella Challenge. This may be one of the most Romantic books I've ever read. Romantic with a big R, not a little one. It's so packed full of feelings, melodramatic dialogues, and rainy moors, you'll be convinced Lord Byron is standing directly behind you.

In Mathilda, the title character narrates from her deathbed the tragic story of her life. Having lost her mother at birth, her father leaves her in the care of a cold aunt and disappears for 16 years. He returns, only to eventually confess his incestuous love for her, and ashamedly commit suicide.

Orphans and incest and suicide, oh my!

It's no wonder that Shelley's publisher, her father, refused to publish it and never returned the manuscript. It wasn't found and published until 1959.

I love a good depressing book, but it has to actually BE depressing. If the author is simply trying to convince us to be depressed and it isn't working, that isn't a good sign.
From a review of Mathilda on LibraryThing

The reason I quoted from the above review is that, despite how the plot summary sounds, it's actually a pretty droll story. Not once did I really feel sad for the characters. Possibly because the entire time they were trying to tell me in excruciating detail exactly how sad THEY were.

I did a word count, and here is how often the following words were used in the story:

  • Alas -- 24
  • Agony -- 11
  • Sorrow -- 28
  • Misery -- 26
  • Grief -- 48
  • Bitter -- 30
  • Tears -- 50
  • Despair -- 52

And last but not least, the words death (59), die (64), or dead (23) were used for a combined total of 146 times! The book is only 144 pages long. Alas!

Not to mention some of the most exorbitantly flowery descriptions of depression you'll ever come across. My favorite line: "Medusa head of Misery." That's Misery with a capital M, people.

Perhaps I'm being too insensitive. After all, Mathilda, who is "fed by tears, and nourished under the dew of grief," was supposed to represent Shelley herself. In fact the only thing I really found interesting about the story were its autobiographical elements. No, there wasn't an incestuous relationship between her and her father (that we know of), but some of the details and character elements match her life and her family story. Also, the novella was written almost immediately after the deaths of her two very young children. I'd probably write something pretty emo too.

Even though I didn't care for it much, I'm still glad I read it. I'm interested in all things Shelley. And it was a bit of a change-up to read something with so much description of feeling and emotion, when nowadays all 144 pages would've been reduced to an emoticon in a text message.


You can buy the novella from Melville House, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Skim, 32/100

Why do I keep reading things set in the early 90s?

I swear I'm not consciously doing it.

Finished Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's graphic novel Skim, which was my bookstore find I mentioned the other day. A gorgeous gorgeous book.

Here's what it's about, in bullet point format, because it's too hot for complete sentences today:

  • A bi-racial girl
  • Cliques
  • Suicide
  • Homosexuality
  • Wicca
  • Friendship
  • Cool English teachers
  • Stuff
  • Things
I don't know. It's just good, okay? Read it already.

Maybe book blogging isn't the right path for me. Can't I just live-tweet while I'm reading? I would have absolutely no followers but it'd be fun as hell.

Here's one part that made me laugh. And also makes me think of Daria.

The Lifted Veil, 33/100

So George Eliot wrote a gothic-horror/science fiction piece? I can tell I'm going to like this novella challenge.

The Lifted Veil is quite a departure from Eliot's other work. Written only a few months after Adam Bede, it was at first rejected by her publisher. However it now seems to be getting the critical attention it deserves.

The story follows Latimer, a self-described sensitive poet who also happens to be clairvoyant -- he can see visions of the future, as well as into the minds of others. He becomes enamored with the only woman whose mind he cannot penetrate, a plot device that's been thrown around lately. Twilight and that Nicholas Cage movie comes to mind.

The interesting part is that he sees a vision which reveals her true malevolent nature, and the unhappiness their marriage will bring them both, but he does nothing to keep the events from unfolding:

It is an old story, that men sell themselves to the tempter, and sign a bond with their blood, because it is only to take effect at a distant day; then rush on to snatch the cup their souls thirst after with an impulse not the less savage because there is a dark shadow beside them for evermore. There is no short cut, no patent tram-road, to wisdom: after all the centuries of invention, the soul’s path lies through the thorny wilderness which must be still trodden in solitude, with bleeding feet, with sobs for help, as it was trodden by them of old time.

The gothic-horror and suspense comes in bits and pieces, including a reanimation scene that brings to mind Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Here are some other passages I marked:

I read Plutarch, and Shakespeare, and Don Quixote by the sly, and supplied myself in that way with wandering thoughts, while my tutor was assuring me that “an improved man, as distinguished from an ignorant one, was a man who knew the reason why water ran downhill.” I had no desire to be this improved man; I was glad of the running water; I could watch it and listen to it gurgling among the pebbles, and bathing the bright green water-plants, by the hour together. I did not want to know why it ran; I had perfect confidence that there were good reasons for what was so very beautiful.

We learn words by rote, but not their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves.

Buy a copy from Melville House here, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

Melville House Publishing is running a novella reading challenge for August. I'm pretty far behind in my goal of reading 100 books this year, so I plan on joining in.

All the books are part of their Art of the Novella series, which includes 42 classic works. The authors are renowned, but you may not recognize the titles. Lady Susan by Jane Austen?

There are a few different levels of participation:

Curious – Read 1 novella
Fascinated — Read 3 novellas
Captivated – Read 6 novellas
Passionate — Read 9 novellas
Mesmerized – Read 15 novellas
Obsessed – Read 21 novellas
Fanatical – Read 27 novellas
Unstoppable — Read 33 novellas
Bibliomaniac — Read all 42 novellas

I'm looking to do the "Obsessed" level. I figure 21 is doable. So wish me luck! You may be seeing a review by this afternoon...