Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm Talking about 'One of those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies' by Sonya Sones

Don't even begin to ask me where this book came from.  I've been trying to figure it out myself.  Perhaps it's a novel; perhaps it's a book of poems.  Perhaps it's journal kept by a teenager at the time of some extraordinary changes with a few interspersed epistolary sections.  I don't know.  

It works.  And it reads really fast; as in infuriatingly fast.  And there's way too much italics.  (And it's slightly redundant as teenagers really don't have much to say.)

'American Airlines Flight 161

I'm not that depressed, 
Considering that this 
Gigantic silver bullet with wings
Is blasting me away from my whole entire life, 
Away from Lizzie Brody, 
My best friend in the world, 
Away from Ray Johnston, 
My first real boyfriend.

Not that depress, considering I'e been kidnapped 
by this monstrous steel pterodactyl
And it's flying me all the way to L.A.
To live with my father
who I've never even met
Because he's such a scumbag
that he divorced my mother
before I was even born.

I'd say I'm doing reasonably well, 
Considering I'm being dragged
three thousand miles away from all my friends
And my school and my aunt Duffy
And the house I've lived in ever since I was born, 
Three thousand miles away from my mother, 
And my mother's grave, 
Where she lies in a cold wooden box
Under six feet of dirt, 
Just beginning to rot.  

I'm not that depressed
considering that I'm trapped
on this jumbo poison dart
Shooting me away from everything I love, 
And there's this real weird guy
Sitting in the seat right behind mine,
Who keeps picking his nose 
And eating it.

Who?  Me?'

Pages 1-2

That is how the whole two-hundred and seventy page book is written with the exception of a few emails.  It was initially a bit jarring, but--right after immediately--it read like a novel with awkward poetry presentation.  Perhaps that's how all poetry is supposed to read… 

Ruby is the most stereotypical teenager I've come across in fiction in terms of her personality.  Her mother dies (we only kinda learn of what and how) and she goes to live with her father she's never met but knows very well.  Her dad, Whip, is a mega-movie star; think on the scale of Tom Cruise sans the psychosis.  

She hates everything about her new life only because everything is different from what she previously knew.  What I liked--what felt real--was how she had to constantly remind herself that she was miserable.  The weather, the house she is living in, the friends she makes girls and boys, and especially Whip, Ruby has to wake up and tell herself every morning that its all horrible if only on some obscure principle only known to fifteen year olds.  

Despite the title, this is a 'happily ever after' book.  I don't say that as a bad thing as the realism was never sacrificed to achieve that end.  

Its fast (really fast; I had to make myself stop reading twice because I hate that breathless feeling while reading; it's supposed to be a relaxing endeavor for me) it takes about an hour to read; and I'm about as slow as they come.  

It's fun and shallow.  

I'll have another please.    

Monday, February 24, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

From the first page to the last, the world of Divergent left me scratching my head.  It takes place in some weird-ass version of Chicago that is never explained.  Usually I like little to no exposition: BOOM!  The story starts and goes, no need to get bogged down in the details.  In this regard the story works fine, but the setting never jelled with me and in a story that is so intrinsically tied to it's world, I was left feeling a bit empty and confused.    

There are five factions and one's faction determines everything about the individual: their friends, jobs, lifestyle; everything.  Beatrice chooses a different faction than that which she was born into.  Her faction of choice, Dauntless, is rife with problems but I'll get there latter.  The factions each embrace different ideals and fulfill different roles and are supposed to work together for the greater good of all or something; I'm was never really sure about that last part.  

The story is of Beatrice, Tris, being an initiate in Dauntless.  They learn to jump off buildings, jump off of moving trains, shoot guns, and beat the crap out of people.  (Everyone in Dauntless is shot and beaten, which is fine, but I do question whether the author has ever shot a gun or knows anything about physical combat.)  The other part of the story, the reason why there are sequels, has to do with political intrigue and fighting among the factions.  It was never explained or even hinted at how things came to be as they were, this raised a lot of questions on my behalf and I felt like rather than undergo the difficulty of providing answers or fleshing out her world such matters were ignored.  

It's an intimate story, all about Tris, but I couldn't help wonder: What's happening in Denver?  Do they have factions there?  The Country?  The world?  Cause who would put up with this?  Why has no one left Chicago and most pressing, what happened prior to Tris' story to leave things in that state they are in?  Perhaps the answers are forthcoming… 

Weight classes exist in combat sports for a very good reason; that is why there are pound-for-pound rankings.  Imagine an eight year old girl (this is effectively Tris at sixteen or there abouts).  This girl is made to be Serigo Martinez's sparring partner for most of the book.  Now imagine Sergio not holding back.  She's sore in the morning but other than that, she's fine.  No one shoots a gun with an eye closed assuming they have two.  I could go on--at length--with some credibility issues concerning Tris' initiation but, no.  

I had no real idea as to where the story was going.  It's always good to hint at the ending, or at least I feel it is.  While the narrative never felt like it was wandering, I did at times try to figure out what was going on in a not-good kind of way.  

The ending was awesome.  Lots of action, energy, and everyone got shot or beat up eleven-teen times.  (Actually Tris was shot and or beat up at all points in time in the book--she even has knives thrown at her because she's extra awesome.  The two shirts she owned said 'target' and 'punching bag' across her chest, respectively.)  

My biggest gripe is that this is the kind of story where far too many problems--perhaps all of them--are solved with a gun.  "Just keep shooting people and all you're dreams will come true."  When I got out of grad school I wrote a few novels all of which deal with shooting a lot of people in the head.  Roth is far superior than I at both writing a novel and the shooting-in-the-head bit, but just because she does it well doesn't mean it's a premise to hang one's hat on.  By the end, it felt a bit like Rage Against the Machine screaming "Killing in the Name Of" and I'm thirty-three so I'm kinda over that stage of life…     

Despite what I may term short comings, or faults many of the novels aspects that weren't given a strong enough foundation to shine on their own came together in the story's romance.  I saw it coming (everyone who reads it will), I couldn't explain why, but it really worked.   

There is a healthy dose of Hunger Games here and that is certainly not a bad thing.  It's tense in moments, and a lot of fun at all other times.  It should be a phenomenal, testosterone, driven action movie.  If you've ever needed a strong, young, not pretty, female heroine who can take a beating better than any video game final boss, look no further than the whipping post Tris was tied to in Divergent.       

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

I am without doubt the worst person alive to leave comments on this particular book.  (Or at least one of the worst people.)  I bring too much personal life experience to the table to read a fictional tale about a classical pianist's teenage years with an objective nature added to which I'm kinda in love with Sara Zarr.

I'll try to be good.  Or 'nice' or something…

The library copy I read has been censored for profanity by a previous reader who apparently found some of Zarr's language inappropriate.  While it's sad that someone would take a felt tip pen and thoroughly blot out words in a book that isn't theirs, filling in the blanks did make for fun reading.  Every now and then reading a sentence was like reading some of those letters that Yossarian had to edit while not-injured and dodging the war.  "My dad bought me this for the museum fund-raiser.  Kinda            don't you think?"  I'm guessing Zarr, went with 'slutty' but given the freedom to interpret that which had been scratched out, I went with 'whoretastic.'

I read this book in about two hours; that's how much I liked it, but I had to indulge a lot more than an occasional scratched out word.  Lucy is sixteen years old and has just recently walked away from the life of a brilliant, classical pianist: traveling to competitions, concert engagements, recordings, and being pimped out by her grandfather to achieve a dream that he has long nursed for someone in his family.  After being betrayed by her family over a not-so-insignificant-matter she, wants to be 'normal.'  Go to school, have friends, not have her life dictated and planned out for her, to not have to wonder if she even likes playing the piano or if it's just the way her life has always been and she knows nothing else.

All of my problems with Lucy are from my life's experience and I couldn't really picture her in the game to the extent that Zarr wanted her to be.  It felt to me Zarr had done surface level research in what is a far more esoteric world than she ever imagined.  While Lucy's story and situation were certainly plausible she never came close to passing the eye test in terms of being a classical musician at her stated age, and more specifically, ability level.

There was a mention of Lucy going to a piano and adjusting the pedals.  The pedals are fixed and can't be adjusted in any way.  Perhaps she meant the piano bench.  There was a moment when Lucy is in a mini cooper with her two best friends--who aren't musicians--and she plays classical music.  I've only driven a mini once (it was an absurd amount of fun) and it was really loud.  Not the car for listening to classical music in.  Furthermore, if you put on classical music in a car with other people who have no time for classical music you essentially get beat up about it.  There is no arguing this last bit.  Lucy has quit playing the piano; hasn't touched it in eight months then on two weeks noticed puts together a Brahms sonata she hasn't played before for a performance only to--spur of the moment--play something else.  On no planet does this happen.  Ever.  Both Lucy and her little brother Gus who has taken up where she left off, don't really practice enough.  Practicing becomes compulsive: hearing Gus stress about his hour a day for the level of performance he was supposedly at was laughable.  Her family is super rich and they have a rebuilt European grand from the eighteen hundreds.  Modern pianos happened around the 1910's-20's when Steinway and Chickering finally got things so right that everyone else adapted what they were doing.  Her family would have eschewed the history of her great Uncle's piano in light of a Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Grotrian or Steinway.  Finally--kinda--Will, Gus' teacher, doesn't really teach.  What was said during lessons was unlike any lesson or masterclass I've ever taken part in.

There was some drunk piano playing as well.  Unless, you learn to play the piano or any instrument while drunk, called a conditioned learning response (like me with bowling) you will suck donkey balls at playing the piano when drunk.  Elio's drunken moment in Call me by Your Name was far more accurate in terms of playing while under the influence.  (But then again, that book was perfect...)  Zarr also doesn't talk about music in a way that pianist do.  If you just heard someone play, afterwards you may say, "I loved our Liszt!"  But if you're talking to other pianists, no one would ever say, "I'm playing a Chopin nocturne."  Because everyone's next question would be, "Which one?"  You state key and opus immediately after you say Chopin nocturne; all of this hurt believably.  My last musical gripe (promise!) is Lucy at sixteen playing the Mendelssohn d minor.  It's not a matter of difficulty, but why would she choose that piece?  Not the violin concerto but the piano one.  Because at that age, unless you've played every other concerto there is you're not gonna pick Mendelssohn d minor.  This bothered me so much I called some grad school friends for their response as well.  Both of these friends are also piano performance majors.

What Jennifer said.  "No I haven't played that.  Why would I?  Maybe if I'm recording both just to get it out of the way for posterity's sake.  Why would anyone play that?"

What Jay said.  "You mean the violin concerto?"
"No, piano concerto in d minor.  Mendelssohn."
"There's a d minor piano concerto?"

Granted, I think Jay was joking but even that joke proves my point.

My musical complaints aren't only because I think I know the subject matter better than the author, rather how she presents the material puts some serious dings in Lucy's credibility.  It was these issues that held me back from buying into the story.

Music aside, the most difficult points to swallow was her relationship with her family.  She falls out of favor with her family, especially her Grandfather, as she gives up on piano.  But I never found any tangible complaint to justify their continued hardship.  I couldn't imagine her family not supporting her decision to stop playing.  Furthermore, her parents damn near neglect her.  She is a spoiled rich kid sure, but the degree to which they don't keep tabs on this girl stretched belief.  Added to which the options for a sixteen year girl to get in trouble in San Francisco after discovering freedom after being chained to a piano for twelve years was more than I could take.

My eyes rolled a lot.  And that has never happened to me in a book by Sara Zarr.

The story is about Lucy's longing to play again only not in the manner or extent to which she previously played.  Will, Gus' teacher, coaxes and prods and is a wangus in general .  Will's relationship with Lucy felt very, very real.  I don't know how she couldn't come to see that he was an asshat.
Zarr's strong points are what she is always good at doing.  Her depiction of Lucy's family, their wealth, and San Francisco are all so clear with such minimal, almost accidental, effort is phenomenal.  I still love Zarr's voice.  I still wish she'd write about something other than a teenage girl fighting an intangible anxiety.  Musical deficiencies aside, it's a hard book for me to talk about as I'm so biased toward liking Zarr that I'm inclined to forgive a pretty weak to insubstantial plot tension just because the book was fun and easy to read.

Please do read Sara Zarr!  But start here, or maybe, here.

I spent all day reading.

That's what I did yesterday.  I started and finished The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr (commentary coming soon).  I read a bunch of poems from three different collections; why I can't read one to completion is beyond me.  I started reading Divergent by Veronica Roth.  I also probably spent two hours reading online about my beloved Tarheels and how we are going to stomp on The Enemy tomorrow night.

I still don't see myself leaving commentary for poetry; at least not any time soon.  I shouldn't leave commentary for The Lucy Variations but I'm not strong enough stay away.  I'm fifty pages into Divergent and have no clue as to what is going on and it's kinda awesome.

So yeah, I did other stuff yesterday than read, but for the most part that was it.  I could do with another one of those days soon.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I've learned so much about myself since I started my second stint of actively reading for pleasure.  Back when the world was young and Methuselah owed me money--my high school days--I read everything. Michael Crichton and John Grisham were my favorite.  I read thrillers incessantly and I was probably averaging a book every two or three days.  Somewhere along the way I came across high or epic fantasy.  It wasn't until after college that started paying attention to what I was reading; what other people thought about what I was reading; and how the books I was reading were classified.  What I've learned is that if the word 'fiction' has to be modified, the book is generally not for me.

The Name of the Rose is undoubtedly 'historical fiction.'  Fiction, implies the story and all that elements that make that up.  Historical implies a very specific time frame and most likely a culture that the reader won't be immediately familiar with.  The problem, for me, when 'fiction' has to be modified is very tricky.  14th century Italy is the time, and monastic life is the culture.  I like a story to focus on the fiction and not whatever may be modifying the word.  So for me, quickly ingratiating me to the setting and indoctrinating me to the culture is essential.  I'm not sure Eco succeeded on the 'quickly' part but what he lacks in urgency he overcompensates in believability; and for me, I was completely okay with that trade.  

The story is a very standard murder mystery.  An extraordinarily wealthy monastery is turning up corpses in a fashion that seems to conjure the Apocalypse and coming of the AntiChrist.  The murders revolve around some very worldly secrets among the monks, a book that questions accepted truth and philosophy, an amazing library that is built more to conceal knowledge than share it, and a very base jealousy.

William of Baskerville, an ex-inquisitor, arrives just after the first murder and with his astonishing powers of reason and logic, and the thorough assistances of his companion Adso, begins to unravel the mystery.  The Holmes and Watson aspect of the novel couldn't be stronger.  

The 'historical' part of the novel is where I, and perhaps others, began to get a bit bogged down.  Eco writes in exhausting detail.  About everything…  There is life and vitality and color in his writing--it's never boring--but he goes on to an extent that far surpasses the need to make he believe in the time and place he writing.  It's no where near as bad as Tolkien, I never wanted to cut myself or cry blood while reading, but particularly in the begining where he can go on about the minutiae of monastic life at the expense of sharing even a hint as to why William is traveling to this monastery at all is a bit odd.  It's not rambling and it wasn't an info dump: it was too much of a good thing and my gut says Eco fought his editors who probably wanted to make some cuts.  At times, the maze that's supposed to be the library feels a bit more of a stifling quagmire than an arresting labyrinth.  It's all so (overly) well done that at times the book really does feel like a memoir of real and true events.    

The primary historical matters being discussed were Christ's earthly possession--should he have had any--and the church's stand point of poverty.  A saving grace was the novel's end when the fiction and history came together, and eventually went up in smoke.    

The book's title is perhaps the most interest point to mention when talking about the book and one can't divine any mean of the title from reading the novel.  It was only in reading the foreword, which I read, afterward, that the author shares some hints as to what the title means.  It is the 'name,' idea, or thought, of a thing that makes a thing special.  Not the object itself.  True possession isn't possible; 'You can't take it with you when you die.'  Like a rose, nothing endures for ever.  In terms of the book the 'rose' could be the monastery's library, human vanity, wealth, or a beautiful woman Adso once knew.  It's a rather dangerous, and a bit depressing, philosophy to live by.  

It's not an easy book to read, and a very difficult on to appreciate (I know I missed a lot).  It's not for everyone, but on every level I did think it was an extraordinary book.   

Check out Maria's take on the same book.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Snow in Hot 'Lanta; Again…

Subtitled: How one metropolitan city of more than seven million can be shut down before the snow even begins to fall.

Queue the extended Allman Brothers instrumental; this is gonna take a while.

 I'm going to attempt not to rant.  I'm going to make a concentrated effort to not vent my frustration at specific people.  However, winter in the state of Georgia is bad enough to turn me into one those people that fly south until spring.  Please note that the previous sentence is absurd and I'm being serious.

I left work early today as my employer presented my co-workers and I with an interesting choice.  Another one of those crazy, never seen before winter storms was coming through… just like two weeks ago.  And the building can't afford to shut every department down solely because people can't get to work.  (Which will factually be the case for many.)  Added to this, there are shows scheduled there Thursday through Sunday that are at near capacity.  So, we could leave at the end of the day and go home and then in the matter of safety, stay home until we thaw out from the ice.  (It's supposed to be 60 degrees by Friday.)  Or, we could leave now, go home, pack a bag, come back, and they would check us into the hotel across the street so no one would have to drive.  This option is either an expensive overreaction, a beautiful gesture by my employer, both, or the only choice the CEO had to offer in light of how poorly the negligible storm of two weeks proved to be handled.

And by 'handled' I mean wholly ignored.

Two weeks ago, I left work instead of sleeping there like thirty or so other people did.  That would have been the smart thing to do but I'm stubborn.  It took me seven hours and fifty-four minutes to get home, and I had to finish the last six miles on foot.  All that due to ice and two inches of snow.

Tomorrow the same people will be in public office that were in office two weeks ago (incidentally the same people that were in office in 2011 during the ice storm).  How will they react?  We don't know yet, but I feel certain they will react.  They can't ignore the storm and say, 'We'll melt out of it in two days,' like they essentially did two weeks ago.  Last time, people wondered how this could happen when the storm had been predicted for five days, if the people are made to wonder 'How could this happen again?' those people may well be made to resign.

So the chain of overreaction begins.  What's the cost of overreacting for a storm?  Probably millions, but we've all seen, or experienced the cost of not doing anything.  And so schools are already shut down (wisely), a state of emergency has already been declared, there is no more food at the grocery store.  The line at the liquor store wouldn't make sense even if it was New Year's Eve.

And it hasn't even started snowing yet…

The primary problem is one of perception versus reality.  'Hot 'Lanta.'  What do we know of this place?  We know that June-October is 'miserably hot with a high chance of drowning in your own sweat if you're out-of-doors for more than two minutes.'  We know the Braves will win the National League East then lose in the first round of the playoffs.  We know traffic at spaghetti junction will be awful if we're traveling during daylight hours.  What people in all walks of life in Atlanta don't know is that winter happens once a year--every year--and last for precisely three months.  Winter in Hot 'Lanta.  Sounds odd but I'm trying to tell you it's nothing new.

In Atlanta there is no such thing as a 'freak winter storm' or 'bizarre weather pattern that lead to cold weather' or whatever other ridiculous headlines, newscasters and media folk present.  We are used to being uncomfortably, or comfortably, hot for nine months out of the year; to the point where at least half of the population doesn't own clothing for winter or even if they do they wear their summer clothes in February thinking they can influence the weather and make it warmer by wearing sandals, a tee-shirt, and shorts and thinking positively and warmly.

Winter is not some far off distant threat, or impending doom of an untold future: winter, isn't, coming.  It's here.  Now.  And it's right on time.  Just as it was scheduled.  Please plan on winter happening once a year for three months; every year.  It always has.  It always will.

So I'm packing a bag to sleep across the street from my job for three nights.  It's annoying.  Now imagine how my employer feels knowing that thirty employees were stuck in the building just as they were and now offering to put us up for days.  I'm not talking cost, because I honestly think they are nonexistent to negligible, but… it's annoying.

There is value in doing things right the first time; setting a good precedent is a residual benefit.  What we, the people of Atlanta, are experiencing now is the exact opposite: the trickle down effect of a massive overreaction that has to take place in a good-will effort of over compensating for prior negligence.  It's a headache for us all and it's not the fault of the weather.

Winter happens in this city--just as summer does--every year.  Snow, and more specifically ice, is anything but a rare occurrence.  It's obvious there are no more boy scouts, or at least not in government positions.  Could we at the least remember--and apply--their motto?

"Be prepared."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Month in Review

Oh yeah… This thing… Better all-kinds-a late than never or something…

So, work is trying to run me into the ground and has been somewhat successful.  This is the first time I've had a chance to blog in about two weeks.  I've tried before but I literally couldn't keep my eyes open long enough.  I started this post yesterday but was interrupted by my nephew urgently needing to explain the history of Spiderman as understood by a three year old.  

So January was exhausting for a host of reasons.  I usually get a lot of reading done when I feel overwhelmed with other things.  When overwhelmed I don't have as much free time; I usually apply the time I have to reading.  That has still held true for me.  I did a TON of read in January, however most of it didn't come by way of published books.

I read seven novels for people in my writers' group.  I offered substantial feed back for two of them.  This was fun in a way, yet very very time consuming.  Only two of those books were really really good, and I hope that in short time they will be available for all to read, the rest needed a bit more work, but I still enjoyed the process and effort in my attempt to help.  If nothing else, I damn well best be on Santa's "Good" list come December.

In terms of published books, I finished some stuff from last year; read a handful of poems from a handful of collections; and knocked out the majority of The Name of the Rose.  Much to say on that book soon…

So yeah… not much to report.  A lot of reading that I can't really count towards my year-end book tally but I'm okay with that.

An aside: Atlanta doesn't do snow very well.