Monday, December 31, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is a coming-of-age dystopian novel which makes it sound not unlike The Hunger Games but no two novels could be further apart, frankly.  While both have a female protagonist and a love interest, the quiet quality of this novel elevates it to a well-deserved literary status. 

The story, told through the eyes/voice of 10 year old Julia, is simple in its elegance.  When the rotation of the earth on its axis begins to slow, the realization and implications are gradual, not unlike the slow approach of adolescence, bringing unexpected, barely observable changes.  Because the narrator is so young, the observations she makes are less dramatic, more intimate and, as a result, more universal.  She tells her story through the complications of relationships.  Her mother is more affected by the earth’s rotation changes than her father but it is her father’s distancing that has the greater impact.  A best friend moving away and a crush on a boy are of equal relevance to the impact that longer days and nights have on agriculture and society. 

If this novel lacks the sheer despair and poetry of McCarthy’s The Road, it is delicate and subtle in how it allows the reader to experience the despair and inevitable decline of humanity without being overly immersed in hopelessness.  Because of the narrator’s narcissistic focus due to her age, she is unable to see things beyond her immediate needs to understand herself in a world that is changing more alarmingly than even her own body, thoughts, and feelings. 

The story is simple and the conclusion hasty.  For these reasons, I didn’t find it as satisfying as The Road.  And yet, it some ways, the two seem to complement one another and do so beautifully even if one is superior to the other.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Zombies Christmas Carol by Jim McCann

Zombies Christmas Carol by Jim McCann and illustrated by David Baldeon and Jeremy Treece is a graphic novel mash-up of, as one can probably assume, the dead coming back as zombies promising a zombie apocalypse and the much beloved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

I have been curious about the whole mash-up thing, taking classics and adding zombies or vampires or whatever to the mix.  I think it’s a clever idea mostly because anything that encourages or inspires people to read is a-okay in my book.  (Okay.  Maybe not any and every book but mostly I’m okay with, okay?)  I mean, I had seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and long before the movie was released, I had seen Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter in the bookstore.  I was intrigued, curious, but also skeptical.  So when I saw a graphic novel that did this sort of thing, I eagerly pounced because that seemed a perfect way to check it out without spending hours of reading time that I could be using to enjoy either a classic novel or a vampire novel without wasting time on a mash-up that I did not enjoy. 

A graphic novel doesn’t demand as much time from the reader so it was a perfect choice for me to give this sub-genre a try and see what I thought of it.

It’s hard not to have fun reading something like this, especially when the author goes to the trouble of interjecting obvious allusions to the original text, twisting them slightly to fit the context of a different story.  A literary inside joke, if you will.  I can see why these types of books would be so hugely popular.  There are things the author does to add layers of meaning to Dickens’ original story.  (The Spirit of Christmas Past in particular.)  These work to make this story McCann’s even when remaining grounded in the original text.

The illustrations are gorgeous and make this graphic novel soar.  There are pages that are so beautifully laid out, I had to pause simply to admire the artistry.  The colors and characterizations are wonderfully, most especially in how Scrooge himself is drawn.  When I read the content at the back of the book, where the author and illustrator discuss their work, I had to laugh because it is quite obvious that some of the drawings are inspired by Alphonse Mucha.

There is a brilliantly subtle effect created in having two artists illustrate this story, with one drawing the journeys into Scrooge’s past.  Both artists remain true to the others’ work yet there is a difference in style that comes through just enough to reinforce the idea that we are somewhere else just as Scrooge himself is.

I definitely liked this graphic novel much more than I thought I would although I found the ending a little too convenient, a bit hastily pulled together and sort of thrown out there.  Right down to the “God Bless Us Everyone.”  But a hasty ending is not enough for me to dismiss this book altogether.  Ultimately, however, I don’t think that I appreciate or enjoy the idea of a mash-up and, if this graphic novel is indicative of the sub-genre as a whole, then I am probably not going to read another.  That I enjoyed this at all, let alone as much as I truly did, is a testament to the creators.  The illustrators I cannot possibly praise enough.  And if the author didn’t depart enough from the original for my tastes then that is more indicative of my own subjective opinion than not.  After all, I can appreciate his choosing to stick closely to the primary source but to end the novel with “God Bless Us Everyone” is just too strange.  I mean, why?  You have a story about the dead coming back to life during a Christian holiday season and all so why bring God into it?  As if Christianity and the dead walking the Earth have anything to do with one another.  I mean, seriously!  What was Jim McCann thinking.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner

The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner was something I read not because it was assigned as part of the Science Fiction & Fantasy course I took through coursera, per se.  You see, the professor did assign Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, both of which I had read as a child and again as a teenager, and again as an adult to my own children so I thought it would be more fun for me, and more insightful, to read the annotated text.  After all, it seems obvious that Lewis Carroll would use puns and jokes throughout the two novels. 

If nothing else, I hoped it would allow me to read the novels with fresh eyes and, in being able to do so, I might bring something interesting to my essay for that week’s assignment.

I rather enjoyed some of the insight Gardner brought to the novels.  I was not aware of the close relationship between John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll.  Carroll had a lot of say in the illustrations Tenniel provided for the books, suggesting sources for caricatures hidden within some of the characters.  It is not a coincidence, I’m sure, that Tenniel was a political cartoonist and I was not surprised, once I knew how involved Carroll was in the production of his novels, to learn that he sought out the artist particularly.  

It also helps, no doubt, that Gardner himself is quite fond of mathematics and published many books including one entitled Mathematical Games.  It makes perfect sense, of course, that a man who enjoys math would want to explore, to the fullest, a novel which makes ample use of puns, riddles, mathematics, and even the game of chess.  That Gardner was also unafraid of stirring up controversy suggests that he would be furthermore interested in a man like Carroll who, after his death, had some scrutiny aimed in his direction.

Of course, I am referring to the photographs Carroll was known to have taken, many of children in various states of undress.  After his death, many people have seen salacious implications in knowing that such photographs existed and have suggested that he, himself, was a paedophile and possibly even a sexual predator.  Gardner goes to great length to not merely dismiss these things but to explain them.  To ignore them altogether would weaken rest of the text, frankly.  That he found young children, particularly girls, of aesthetic interest is irrefutable but how far the attraction went has been especially disputed in recent years.  The photographs were taken with parents present so there can be no question of impropriety.  None of the children in the photographs themselves ever suggested that he was anything but a family friend, someone who knew how to make them laugh. 

Gardner defends Carroll’s intentions where Alice Liddell and all other children are concerned.  I am inclined to agree with him because it is unwise to judge Victorian times through modern filters.  Even contemporary photographers, and I am specifically thinking of Sally Mann at the moment as well as others, have been criticized for sharing nude photographs of children.  (In Mann’s case, they were of her own children.)  The flowery language and effusive expressions one reads in letters is no more indicative of romance let alone passion yet modern readers seem eager to sexualize everything.

But I digress.  Anyone who has read Carroll’s novels over and over again will probably take great delight in learning some of the nuances and subtle jokes hidden within the text and images. I am not going to suggest I was blown away by any of the revelations.  It’s one of those nerdy things, the need to know more about a subject, above and beyond the norm.  There’s nothing wrong with that but the people who typically seek out annotated volumes are either already long-time fans of the text or are doing research to learn more about the text before writing a paper or something.  I read this because I fell into both categories in this context.  If you love Alice and her adventures, you’ll enjoy this book.  If not, reading this won’t make you appreciate the novels more. 

And speaking of enjoying the novels, I apparently forgot how these novels ended.  Without giving anything away, the endings are not the least bit satisfying.  In fact, they beg the question, “How can these novels be so popular when the ending is such a disappointment?”  Probably because, although I know I’ve read them many times, I refused to remember the bad ending.  I suppose the silliness, the weirdness, the utter nonsense of the rest of each novel is enough to outweigh the way Carroll chose to end them.  I’d like to believe that, were he writing today, an editor would demand a revision.  However, I realize that he’d probably just self-publish anyway and not worry about what an editor has to say.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James

Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James . . . do I really need to tell you what this novel is?  Given how I felt about Twilight, I would probably do better by you to explain why I bothered to read this novel at all.

I have a friend Pia who is a wonderful part of my life.  I’ve known her since we were both young and younger still.  You see, we crossed paths in Intermediate School.  Specifically in a Science class where we both sat in the back at opposite ends of those long lab tables.  Under the black stone top she was surreptitiously reading a book.  I instantly knew she was my kinda gal.  And, since nobody else sat at the four person table, were became lab partners. 

What neither of us knew is that her mother and my mother’s best friend were friends once-upon-a-time and Pia and I had played together as toddlers when those two mothers would meet at the playground.  So Pia and I are practically lifelong friends and we share a common love of literature.  She is the one who introduced me to J R R Tolkien and Monty Python.  I could and should forgive her anything.

Which is why I am officially forgiving her for giving me this book.  I probably only have myself to blame.  I may not have impressed upon her my feelings for the novels which inspired these.  Besides, it makes sense I should be forced to suffer some more.  After all, I read Twilight because Saila loved it so very much.  I even watched the movie with my friend Mary because she adored the books and the movies.  Having been tortured by the recommendations of my friends in the past, it stands to reason that someone would add insult to injury and here I am writing a book review for a book I was destined to loathe.

It takes eight chapters for anyone to actually have sex!  Eight fucking chapters with not a single fuck?  Are you kidding me?  This is erotica?  As I told my husband and my son, if this is what erotica is then I guess I prefer porn because my patience with the Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, and the pseudo-sexual tension ran out after the first chapter.  I’m not even sure it lasted that long but I’m being generous here.  And speaking of not lasting long, the sex itself lasts a couple of pages. 

Trust me.  I’ve had hot sex and to describe it adequately would absolutely take me more than a couple of pages.   

I am using “hot” somewhat facetiously here.  You see, I have heard from so many people that this book is hot, the sex in this book is hot, and this doesn’t surprise me.  The author repeatedly tells the reader that Christian Grey is hot.  He looks hot.  He dresses hot.  He undresses hot.  His emails are hot.  His sexual innuendoes are hot.   Over and over again the narrator tells us how hot hot hot everything is.

Unfortunately the author is completely incapable of showing us how hot anything is because, after chapters and chapters of innuendo, we get a couple of thrusts and it’s done.

It probably helps that the author has written a character who reads Thomas Hardy so one would assume she has intelligence but who is, herself, incapable of actually using words effectively.  Either that or she doesn’t have any vocabulary for her own body parts which she insists on calling “down there” rather than actually, you know, using descriptive language like vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, pubis, mound, hood, button, cunt, clit, pussy, whatever! 

A woman who is not mature enough to at least label and name her own body parts is not ready for sex and “down there” is so juvenile that it took me months to read this novel.  Literally.  Because I was so bored with her and her non-sex building up to a quickie and nothing more than “oh that was so hot.”


Slit, snatch, cooch, quim, lips, and I could go on but apparently this poor child is incapable of owning her own body.  And perhaps that’s the point except I cannot give the author that much credit for thinking in metaphor or symbolism because the woman can’t write about sex, let alone aberrant sexuality with any depth or relevance.

You want kinky erotica?  Read The Story of O, which has a psychological depth which this best-seller can only aspire to achieve.  Or read Submission which is more interesting and has a lot more sex in far fewer pages.  Because, whatever else this novel may or may not be, it is not erotica.  It is romance with a few very short kinky sex scenes and nothing more.  It doesn’t live up to the hype and yet I will say that I am curious to see how the movie comes out because, if nothing else, the sex scenes have to last longer on the screen than they do on the page.   

No, I will not be reading the next two books.  No, I will not even go out of my way to see the movie.  Yes, I hope that this whole phenomenon would go away.  No, I don’t think it ever will, judging by the enthusiasm of everyone else around me.  Yes, I love my friend Pia.  Yes, I forgive her and everyone else who insists that I’ll love what I end up hating.  But please, people, I beg you, if you know I am unlikely to like something, don’t insist that this time it will be different.  I don’t like avocado.  Never have. Never will.  Some personal preferences never ever change.  And Twilight, with its misogyny and self-loathing disempowered women, and all of the derivative variations on this vulgar theme, is not something for which I shall ever acquire a taste.  So let’s put this dead horse to rest and stop beating it.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Simple Scrapbooks by Stacy Julian

Simple Scrapbooks by Stacy Julian is among the books I borrowed from the library to serve as inspiration for my finally rolling up my sleeves and creating these albums for my children.  And it was the perfect choice for starting. 

In the introduction, Julian explains how she was looking through a scrapbook that was quite pretty, beautifully laid out with photographs, but she intuitively sensed something was missing.  What it was, she couldn’t quite determine until later.  

Although the album itself was visually lovely, the content—the photographs and layout—added nothing to the meaning of the photos themselves.
Aside:  My mother has a photo album in which she has gathered older photographs of the family.  However, she has not labeled them so I know that the man in the monk’s robe is my Grand-Uncle (or is he my Great-Grand-Uncle?) Augustus and that the woman in the nun’s habit is my Great-Aunt Josephine.  I can probably figure out who my grandfather and grandmother are but that is all I could do and I still wouldn’t know who the other people are, how (or even if) they are related to me, or anything else about them as individuals.  Two relatives devoted themselves to their faith in a way many of us would never consider doing.  What does that mean to them?  To my family?  Who were they beyond a monk, a nun?  I’ve asked my mother to please scan and at least label them somehow so I can put names to faces.  All I can do is ask and hope she obliges. 
Eventually the scrapbooker cum author realized that the lack of story left a gap in her becoming involved with what was on the page.  She did not know the people on the page, where they were when the photograph was taken, or any of the things, the stories behind the images, that would build a connection between herself and the page.  As a result, Julian was inspired to think of scrapbooking less as a photo-album and more as a means of sharing her story and her experiences in images as well as in words. 

This may not seem like anything remarkably new but this book was published over a decade ago and I have no doubt that, at the time of her writing and publishing this book, her perception was remarkable.  Regardless, how she put this realization into practice is what makes this book worth exploring.

Basically she realized that scrapbooks needed some verbal content—written elements beyond a title or banner.  She also chose to start organizing her albums not in chronological order (although she assures her reader there is nothing wrong with that) but by themes.  Some of the themes are unsurprising.  A Guest Book, a Recipe Album, and even a Nature Journal are not necessarily surprising.  But what about a book that explains why you have your name or one that shares only the family rituals (aka traditions)?  Perhaps even a one in which you think about your goals for the coming year or what you will do when you retire?  The possibilities are endless even if the book itself is limited to 25 projects.
Aside:  My middle name, RenĂ©e, was given to me by my mother because a very dear friend of hers who had the name was there for her when my father abandoned a very pregnant her.  She was only a few weeks away from giving birth (or so she thought anyway but that’s another story entirely) and one day he just didn’t come home to their apartment.  Can you imagine?  I cannot. 
Image found here.
A quick browse of the table of contents (click the link and “Look Inside”) shows just some of the uses for thematic albums.  She offers simple examples from her own collection while also sharing how others have applied her ideas in ways that are unique to them.  Furthermore, she contends that most of these albums can be made in a weekend.

An entire album in a single weekend.  How is this possible?

After browsing through her book, the reader will probably find one or two album ideas to try on for size.  Each album has a “Preparations” section with a short list of what you will need.  What makes this book even more useful is that she doesn’t have specific recommendations.  No need to worry about trying to find out of print paper patterns or ephemera.  The reader is encouraged to pull together their own elements—photos (sometimes even suggesting how many you might want), stickers or other trimmings (that tie in with your theme), album size, etc.  

Of course, not all albums will be finished in a weekend.  Many of them are not even meant to be finished.  Obviously the "Guest Book" is an ongoing project that can grow from year to year or you can choose to create a new album with each new year.  The “Hopes and Wishes” book is another one that lends itself to being created as you go along.  In creating the album, you will be creating the form into which you will later add content, in the form of journaling, and photographs. 

hostess message book and flowers
Image found here.
As I said before, she shares examples from the pages of other people’s albums and, for instance, the Guest Book Stacy Julian created includes a place to put her own journaling and a photograph taken from sometime during the visit.  From Becky Higgins, however, a variation is suggested:  have your guests fill out a simple questionnaire.  The same idea but used in different ways equally resulting in a treasured keepsake.

Given that my own intention for using my scrapbooking supplies is rooted in having a thematic album rather than a chronological one, this book really was a great place to start.  Of course, when you pick up a book that is over a decade old, you run the risk of falling in love with a resource that is no longer available.  The resources at the back of the book are a hit or miss.  Some are still around while others are not.  But you won’t have to worry about a lot of projects relying on expensive equipment either.  She doesn’t go into a lot of detail about how to create specific layouts or effects so when she says she used a “pocket page” don’t go looking for instructions on how to make one.  That’s one of the reasons I would argue that, in spite of the very simple designs and for these thematic, and therefore, smaller projects, this book is probably for the somewhat experienced.  If you are not a novice to scrapbooking, like I am, but not quite ready to tackle a more complicated project, this book is probably perfect.  Assuming a scale of Novice/Beginner/Experienced/Expert, this book falls into the Beginner category.  In other words, it was perfect for this novice.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Calling Dr Laura

Calling Dr Laura by Nicole J Georges is a graphic memoir that I devoured rather than read.  It begins  with the author sharing about a crush she had on a girl, a physical attraction that grew stronger but not strong enough to sustain a romantic relationship.  The memoir quickly moves to Nicole’s birthday when her friend takes her to a psychic and is told by the psychic that her father is not dead.

This news is confusing, at first, and the reader quickly learns that Nicole’s family of origin is complicated, that she has always felt like an outsider and, as she tries to get to the truth of who she is, she reveals more truths about her family as well as herself.  Georges does an excellent job of moving from the recent past to the more distant past, stylistically differentiating the two timelines of her story.  The more recent past is drawn with more sophistication while her more distant past is told in simplistic, more child-like visuals.  The grey wash used in the more recent narrative suggests not only a more mature artistic ability but a way of seeing things; just as a mature person can see things with a subtlety allowing for shades of grey, the artwork layers a subtle understanding that things simply do to fall easily into black and white rationales. 

When the author shifts the story into her childhood, the drawings are black and white but equally evocative as she shares the story of her mother’s desperate urge to create a family.  The simplicity of the drawings also implies how memories fade, recollection less nuanced than the more immediate experience.  Just as a child sees things as right/wrong, true/false, black/white, the way Georges illustrates is part of her story is perfectly matched. 

If the young Nicole sees things in simpler terms, the adult Nicole is able to address herself to the very contradictions that Walt Whitman claimed to contain.  What could be considered merely an affect is used to such good effect that I can't believe other graphic memoirists haven't done it before!  

I kept trying to set this memoir aside because I had other things I needed to do, only to find myself gravitating back to where I had put it down last.  Of course, it will inevitably be compared with other graphic memoirs, most especially Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.  After all, both tell the story of a young woman coming to terms with the secrets her family carry and how the burden of things unsaid impacts the individual. 

Georges’ story is less literary than Bechdel’s and, frankly, less satisfying, but it is also more quirky, a lighter read than her predecessor’s.  From rescuing chickens and dogs to exploring her various ways of expression herself creatively, she is as much an outsider because she embraces an alternative persona.  Even when her friends criticize her for listening to The Dr Laura show, she offers no apology.  It’s just one more detail that sets her apart from others.  Her sense of not fitting in is both part of who she is in spite of herself and something she embraces.  I confess, I'm a sucker for anyone who offers no apologies.

I suspect that part of the reason I enjoyed this memoir so much is how some of Georges’ story reminded me of Janice Erlbaum’s own memoir, a personal favorite as I’ve mentioned in my blog before.  I also empathized with her curiosity, the desire to know who her father is and why he was not a part of her life.  If I could not personally relate to the details of her story, they are, nonetheless, familiar enough that I cared deeply about how her memoir would conclude. Would she meet her father?  Would she make peace with him?  Or her mother, who lied to her for so many years?  And with herself?  These are the questions the memoir could answer and some are answered more fully than others.  After all, life itself is a process and closure is over-rated, a superfluous rarity.  I can't wait to pass this on to my daughter.  I'm sure she will find it interesting for many of the reasons I did.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a beautiful dystopian novel, a post-apocalyptic poem about a man, his son, and their slow journey south as the weather gets increasingly cold.  Along the way, they scavenge for food in places that have long been picked over.

The prose in this novel is poetic, gentle, evocative in its clarity.  For instance:  He dug a tunnel under one of the fallen trees, scooping away the snow with his arms, his frozen hands clawed inside his sleeves (82).  The words are simple, the moment described in a way that anyone asked to act it out would immediately know what to do, how to “claw” hands into sleeves and scoop away imaginary snow. 

Meditative and lovely, the story itself is horrific.   The father and son are both suffering from the trauma of living in a world where nobody is safe.  The land has been ravaged, with all plants and animals gone.  What cataclysmic event caused the circumstances is never explained nor are the names of the man or his son ever given the reader.  In doing so, McCarthy creates an everyman who is desperately trying to survive, to protect his son, and does so with language that is achingly elegant.

I found the ending a bit convenient and I know some will find the lack of quotation marks and other traditional punctuation (like hyphens and apostrophes) off-putting. These conventions, when not used, do not matter to me and the tonal integrity of this novel made it a book in which I found myself easily lost, aching for more as I ached for the characters.  A quiet scream of a story, poetic, desperate, and painful.  Wonderful from the first page to the last.  

The movie, The Road, does a very good job of telling the novel's story in visual terms. If it lacks some of the poetry of language one finds on the page, it has the same quiet movement, the slow pace, and bleak tone.  If you like the movie, you will love the book.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Martha Stewart's Handmade Holiday Crafts

From the Introduction:
There is something magical, endearing, charming, and so heartfelt about the handmade, the homemade.

Martha Stewart’s Handmade Holiday Crafts:  225 Inspired Projects for Year-Round Celebrations is what you would expect it to be.  The table of contents begins with New Year’s and ends with Christmas.  No Kwanzaa but there are Hanukkah crafts so there’s one nod to being multicultural in how one defines holidays. 

Now, if you ever go to the Martha Stewart website in search of a craft or gift you can make yourself, you have probably seen some of these crafts already but there are enough new ones to justify having them all in one place.  Of course, there’s something lovely about having things all collected in a single book and trying to find something on the internet depends on remember the right key words, a website not being up and running, and all sorts of other factors. 

For instance, the “Paper Party Hats” in the New Year’s section is on the website, as are the “Paper-Cone Party Favors,” but I wouldn’t want to make the former while I would the latter, as I do the “Glitter Balloons” which are not on the website. 

Everything from decorations to tabletop centerpieces is included.  But New Year’s is not traditionally a gift giving holiday so it’s not until Valentine’s Day that gifts above and beyond party favors.  “Love-Knot Bracelets” and even a little something for your cat!  Naturally there are cards and a project to up-cycle one of those heart-shaped boxes from a previous year's holiday.  

Simply flipping through the pages, it’s evident that most of the crafts are on the beginner and intermediate levels.  Nothing too labor intensive although a few may require buying materials.  Some are even easy enough for children to do, with some supervision, depending on how young your little helpers are.  Bonding over making things together is an opportunity to make great memories, too!

I wasn’t overly impressed with the Father’s Day section because the crafts were predictable, ties or tie-themed cards, coasters for drinks, and a box for poker night.  Really?  Have men not come any further than the Mad Men days? I showed the book to my husband and he found several projects he would like.  Botanical soap because men like to be clean.  The ""Iron-On Transfer Tote" with a design made specifically for the recipient because men need reusable shopping bags too.  Event the "Custom Canvas Bag" was something he said he would like.  Seriously.  Admittedly some men do like to wear ties, play golf, and even have poker games.  But not all men do and it would be nice to see "Father's Day" suggestions that are not so stereotypical.  

If the Martha Stewart crew are not be more creative in what can be made for Father’s Day, the creative crafter can at least use some of the ideas in other parts of the books across the seasons.  For instance, I can’t be the only one who thinks that some glitter balloons would be fun to have any time of the year.  And the glittered pumpkins can certainly be left out after Halloween to enjoy through Thanksgiving.  I’m pretty sure that a creative person (and anyone who is interested in this book is bound to have some creative abilities) will find ways of modifying something in another section into something any father will love.  

I’ll be borrowing this book from my library many times in the foreseeable future . . . unless someone decides to give it to me.    

Monday, December 3, 2012

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

First sentence: 
His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is a science-fiction classic and deservedly so.  I could easily put the novel aside but found myself compelled to pick it up.  I begrudged every moment I was forced to set it aside for obligations.  It is the best of both worlds—a novel you don’t want to put down but can when necessary.

The novel tells a story that spans millennia, each part focusing on a particular group of characters in a particular time in history.  This is why the novel can easily be put down—after you read one part, you know the story will leap forward, often leaving these characters in a past so far behind the familiar is no longer relevant.

But the compulsion to know what happens next is there, unrelenting and, in spite of myself, I found myself reading “just one more chapter” as I went to bed.   I wanted to know what would happen next, even if the same characters were not involved.  The novel begins with the psychohistorians, a concept that doesn’t reach too far beyond The Possible to be unbelievable.  After all, human behavior being somewhat predictable, is it really so far-fetched to believe that a group of people who have studied history and the human psyche might not be able to anticipate what is on the horizon.

These predictions both set things in motion and ensure that they will happen.  Each section lays the foundation for the next and leaves the reader with the impression but there is no choice but to move along the predicted path.  Yet, each story introduces different aspects of the story so that the reader can’t help but hope there are choices.

The obvious implication in all of this is the role of fate.  In a universe where god has been replaced with science, does fate have any bearing?  If the human psychological make-up of the individual can be so well understood that the actions of the masses can be anticipated, how does fate/destiny play a role? 

For all the implications, this is ultimately a science fiction novel, with a clear emphasis on Science.  There is an element of space-opera, with a rebellious realist who sees his role and manipulates the situations to meet his ends.

The protagonists are, inevitably, masculine leaving women with few characters that are remotely identifiable.  There are clearly influences within the novel, whether intentional or incidental, of Joseph Campbell, echoing his teachings about the social evolution of humanity from superstitious tradition to merchants. 

There was a trilogy and then seven books in the series and I have only read this one novel.  There is at least one prequel.  Normally I would choose to read the novels from the first, meaning the first prequel, than the first published.  But then there was this thing online where others were reading the novel together and the first book chosen was this one.  Only, I didn’t keep up with “the thing” and I read the novel during my moments of not studying.  This may be part of the reason why I found the novel so consuming but I doubt it was the driving force; rather, I wanted to know what would happen next and, leaving the characters from one section behind when moving to the next, allowed me to imagine what happened, to fill in the blanks, as it were.  Not that each section introduced new characters but even those that did altogether dovetailed so seamlessly with the previous section it didn’t feel disconnected in the least.

This to me is what makes this novel a great piece of literature and one I would happily recommend to anyone who enjoys science fiction.    

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien is a classic and with reason.  I can't even say how many times I've read this book and I reread this and Lord of the Rings about every ten years but when I first read them I read them every year, sometimes even back-to-back.

I revisit the novels because they are one of the few where I fall in love each and every time.  The characters never fail to delight and inspire, the story is always engaging, and the prose is elegant.  This is masterful story-telling, an epic myth or mythic epic par excellence.  And this is one of the first times that the Banned Books Group has chosen a book I've already read that I was eager to read.  (Truth is, the group didn't choose so much as it came up in discussion and, since there are three books in The Lord of the Rings it made sense to read them over the summer--June, July, August.  Naturally, I began by reading the prequel.)

When my children were young, I read this novel to them, hoping they would be inspired to read The Lord of the Rings.  Although my son only remembers my reading this novel and vaguely remembers my reading one other, none of them read the trilogy.  They did see the movies, however, so they know, give or take some variations, how the story goes.

And now The Hobbit is coming to the big screen.  I'm so excited!  The journey of Bilbo Baggins from ordinary hobbit to hero is classic but it is especially remarkable in that he himself is mostly a catalyst, not performing the ultimate act of heroism that actually occurs "off set" by another character altogether.

Still, there's no debating that Bilbo is a hero, flawed though he may be.  He isn't noble nor brave.  He is relatably typical, average, and yet he is living in extraordinary times and if he mostly stumbles his way into doing the right thing at least he does something.  Which is why this novel, and the others, stand up to repeated readings.  What is most admirable about Bilbo is not how remarkable he is but how unremarkable and yet he is a hero in the end.

Edit:  Since writing this review months ago, it has been announced that instead of two movies there will be three and since this announcement, my enthusiasm has diminished exponentially.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Poem Traveled Down My Arm by Alice Walker

 A Poem Traveled Down My Arm by Alice Walker is a collection of poems and doodle-like drawings that reveal Walker's spiritual context and personal beliefs.  In the introduction to the book she explains that was dealing with a writing drought--not so much a block as a burnout, no longer wanting to write.  Who can blame her?  Most famous for her novels, Walker is prolific, writing essays and poetry and is politically active, speaking out against the social injustices she sees around her.

I have read a few of Walker's poems, usually in other collections or as a complement to an article in a magazine.  I have been touched by her novels and blown away by some of her essays.  So I was eager to immerse myself in her poetry and intrigued by the context of her being driven to pour herself onto the page in both words and images.

The end result, however, is disappointing.  The work is mostly self-indulgent, with occasionally nice or even pretty lines but nothing truly provocative.  These poems are easy, not in that they are non-academic, something that would not trouble me in the least.  I would have been thrilled if she had been challenging the status quo.  However, these poems read more like something comfortable.  Compare advertising with literature, psycho-babble versus deep thinking, and you get some concept of what I am saying.  This is simply not Walker at her best.

Perhaps if the poems had been collected with some essays that the reader could really sink teeth into or some pieces on her spiritual journey, I would have been more engaged and interested.  Unfortunately, I was not and now I don't know if I'll ever seek out another of her poetry collections or just stick with her essays, her fiction, her nonfiction.  No doubt there are those who adore anything and everything she publishes.  Clearly, I am not one of those.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Healing Power of Reiki by Raven Keyes

The Healing Power of Reiki:  A Modern Master Master's Approach to Emotional, Spiritual & Physical Wellness by Raven Keyes is a book meant to promote something but I am not clear what it is.  With a foreword by Dr Mehmet Oz, it is certain to gain a wider audience than many books on Reiki.

Keyes has been named the best Reiki healer in New York city in New Yorker magazine and has worked not only with Dr. Oz but with NFL and NBA players and more.  She shares stories of volunteering after the 9-11 attacks and frequently offers humble gratitude for her many blessings, never taking credit for the healings while proclaiming repeatedly that it is the Reiki that heals.

However, chapter after chapter ends up feeling more like a self-promotion than a woman's personal healing journey and, at best, it sounds like an advertisement for Reiki than a resource that the reader could use to share the ideas of Reki with a skeptical audience. In fact, anyone who is skeptical about the real benefits of Reiki will probably walk way with more reasons to be a skeptic.  Keyes talks about her spirit guides, guardian angels, and even shares stories of being visited by the dead who have messages for those who are on her healing table.

For those who think Reiki is too "out there" or, as my mother would say "woo woo," this book is all the ammunition you will need to agree.  Maybe the name dropping she does will lend this book a legitimacy but I found it more distasteful than interesting.  Yay, Keyes has had many blessings, opportunities to work with famous people, and does not hesitate to tell them all.  For a Madison Avenue style presentation, it's great.  It is not, however, a book I would recommend to most people.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say is a graphic memoir interspersed with photographs, cultural and historical references, all telling a remarkable story of an artist who was still a boy when life invited him to take control of his circumstances and become a man.  He tells the story of his childhood with no apologies nor does he try to romanticize things.  Rather, he tells his story through images and words.

The author was born when Japan was at war with China and the violence of the world continued to escalate through World War II.  When his parents divorce, his mother strives to have her son and daughter with her.  When her son is old enough for school, she works tirelessly to provide the best education for him and moves him in with her own mother to ensure his future.

But Say has ideas of his own and when he is left more to himself than he could ever dream to be, he dares to approach one of his comic artists after being inspired by a story he read in a newspaper.

Of course, the reader knows that the young boy will grow up to be an artist because the evidence is right there on the page.  And yet his journey as an artist is so compelling that the book itself is impossible to put down.  The conclusion is especially remarkable as he is offered an opportunity that will force him to make a choice that will change his life, and possibly his future, erevocably.

I want to say so much more about this book but to do so would give too much away.  I ached for him and rejoiced at every triumph.  I had completely forgotten that I'd also read his wonderful book Grandfather's Journey.  The two books together are a treasure and I am only sorry that I didn't read them both at the same time.  I'll be looking to add these books to Bibi's bookshelf or, at the very least, borrow them from the library when she's older and can appreciate the stories Say tells in both words and images.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Then Again by Diane Keaton is everything one would expect from a memoir by a woman who embraces her quirkiness.  When her mother died, Keaton inherited a collection of papers--including letters, scrapbooks, and journals--her mother had accumulated through the years.   These papers reveal to Keaton a woman she both knew and didn't know and, above all else, loved.

Interpolating her own memories, inserting parallel journal entries by both herself and her mother written around the same time, and never letting her loyalties to those who have touched her heart, Keaton a heartwarming account of her life, replete with celebrity names.   This is not a kiss-and-tell book nor is it strongly feminist, although Keaton does discuss both the opportunities she had that her mother couldn't because of the times in which they both respectively lived and she honestly looks at her own mid-life career as an actress in a youth saturated industry.

With every turn of the page, Keaton expresses a sincere gratitude for all the parts of her life; her confusion and quirkiness abound as does her compassion.  She doesn't dish the dirt to pander to paparazzi driven needs as some writers might. Instead, she honors everything--every moment and every person--for being a part of her life.  After all, how many women are afforded the opportunity to have an intimate relationship with their adolescent movie star crush?

If you already love Diane Keaton, the actress, be prepared to love her even more.  If you like her, don't be surprised if you find yourself falling in love.  And if you are hoping she'll tell you what she really thinks about Woody Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow or how good Warren Beatty is in bed, you'll be profoundly disappointed.  As for me, I was perfectly delighted.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Marilyn by Lois Banner

Marilyn:  The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner is another biography about the movie-star icon by a woman whose credentials promise a different perspective from what has been thrown out in publication before.  Banner is both an academic and a feminist, having cofounded Berkshire Conference of Women Historians and more.  On the heels of Gloria Steinam's Marilyn, with luscious photographs by George Barris, it is exciting to see women engaging with the meaning of Marilyn Monroe both as a person and as an icon.

I want to be gracious and say that this book doesn't live up to the promise but I'm fighting not to say that this biography is speculative and salacious, more tabloid than truth, as insulting ot the reader as it is to the memory of Marilyn Monroe herself.  In short, this biography is crap.

When she isn't self-aggrandizing, Banner belittles her reader's intelligence by bandying about heresay as possible truth.  Offering inconclusive evidence, she shares the most disgusting stories with "some say" and "may have" and "possible" to throw around the most vulgar suggestions about Monroe's life.  One story in particular was so disgusting that I wanted to throw the book away unfinished; unfortunately, I was so close to the end at this point that I didn't think it couldn't get any worse.

Interestingly, the author often cites sources but whenever she uses one of these qualifiers to share a story, there are no citations.  So if you want to know who "some" of the people are who "say" these things, you will not find an answer anywhere in this book.  Usually, the citations are dumped at the end of the paragraph either lending erroneuous credence to the final (often infallmatory) sentence of the paragraph although the citation actually refers back to some other part of the paragraph.  Not that it matters; most of her primary resources are such "reliable" ones as Kitty Kelley's sensationalistic unauthorized biographies and personal interviews which, of course, the average reader cannot merely verify for themselves.  Assuming most readers even bother to look at footnotes.

The author is also often redundant in her statements repeating things she has said either in a previous chapter or even just a page earlier.  I don't know how many times anyone needs to be told that Marilyn Monroe called Eli Wallach "Teacake" but apparently Banner thinks her readers are as dumb as Monroe was purported to be.

Have I explained well enough why I think this is an unfortunate biography which will likely get far more attention than it deserves?

Anyone who still thinks that Marilyn Monroe was a dumb blonde hasn't been paying attention to over 20 years of scholarship.  The only "revelations" the author makes are speculative, based on rumor or gossip or conspiracy theories.  It is common knowledge that Norma Jeane was abused as a child, maneuvered and manipulated, a natural survival instinct often seen in adult children who have been shuttled from foster home to foster home.  That she used her sexuality to get ahead in a patriarchal industry makes her both a shewd businesswoman and a victim of her socity.

But if you hoped to read about any of these things, if you thought that a feminist academic might have written a scholarly survey of one woman's life, offering some insight into both a personal psyche and a universal one, this book does not even come close to being that text.

In the end, you can learn more truth about the actress by reading Blonde, a novel (in other words fiction) written by Joyce Carol Oates.  I wanted to at least like this book if not love it.  Instead, I loathe it and would not only never recommend it to anyone, I will make every effort to avoid any text pulblished by this author.  And when I finished the book, I felt like I needed to take a shower.

Note:  I am not easily disgusted nor embarrassed by sex and sexuality.  However, some parts of this book were so vulgar--in particular that one that is close to the end of the book--I could not even tell my husband what the author claimed.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro

Beautiful Thing:  Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro is both an intimate look into one dancer's life and a sociological look at a particular time in India.  Through the voice of Leela, a dancer in one of the many bars that were once common in some areas of India, the reader is taken on a relentless journey of desperate hope and a relentless pursuit of happiness.

Through Faleiro's narrative, Leela's story gradually unfolds, revealing a young woman who is impossible to like but manages to inspire a deep compassion.  Leela's life at first seems narcissistic and self-destructive but, as the story of her childhood begins to weave itself into her present choicse, it's impossible not to appreciate the simple truth:  Leela is a product of her environment and, whatever potential she might hagve realized in a different circumstance, will never be realized.  If she is manipulative, it is obviously rooted in a survival instinct forced upon her because of her childhood.  Her parents are pragmatic at the expense of Leela's purity and hvae no qualms in using and abusing her to their own ends.

The political environment defines Leela's life and morality from the start and when one politician blames the dance bars for being an immoral entity whitin an otherwise moral society.  Shutting down the bars results in leaving the dancers without much recourse, for they are uneducated and untrained to do anything but prostitute themselves.  And when a young girl is taught from childhood that her sole purpose is to serve as a sexual object the inevitability of her story's end is nonetheless heartbreaking.

Difficulat to read at times becuase it is so heartbreaking, Leela's story is beautifully and evocatively told by Faleiro.  The prose is sometimes poetic and her descriptions are vivid, so much so that they etch themselves on the heart.  She generously sprinkles the story with Hindu words, adding a flavor all their own without ever becoming obtrusive.  Every word, every story, Faleiro shares, and Leela's nightmarish childhood is not unique in the world of the dance bars, makes it impossible for the reader to judge Leela or any of the other dancers.

Even if one does not like Leela, she inspires a sympathy.  Her story is left unfinished but the reader knows how it will end, how it must end.  Leela's is a cautionary tale of what happens in a society where women and girls are not given the same but Leela herself wouldn't give a flip if the reader felt pity.  To do so, she would have to be vulnerable enough to feel the full horror of her childhood and noboy reading this novel could judge her for choosing not to do so.  After all, the reader can close the book at any time, walk away and forget what happened to Leela and continues to happy to children.  As painful and beautiful as this book is, it is easy to want to forget what it has to say.
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