Monday, November 2, 2015

I'm still here

I've been reading a lot lately.  I've even written a few commentaries only I haven't posted them.  I'm lurking around my own blog and the internet in general.  It's really strange but as I reflect a bit on my internet absence I fully see that it's the start of the college basketball season that is bringing me back.  (Must have something to do with UNC's preseason ranking.) 

I'm not yet back to full strength but expect a lot of content to be put up in the following months.  

Apropos of nothing, does Roger Zelazny get the recognition he deserve?  Lord of Light was amazing.  Easily one of the most contemporary books I've ever read and it was written in 1967.  It made me think a lot and take an active part in reading.  It was far more fiction and story than science; and best of all it never once made me think, 'What happens next?' as I was only all too happy to enjoy being exactly where I was.  

For my last random note for this post; I meet Catherynne Valente this past Thursday.  She is awesome--but that's old news.  She was reading from her new book Radiance (which seems to have a lot going on).  I was there to be a bad person and pester her about book three of A Dirge for Prester John, which is important to my life's existence.  I kinda got the feeling this book is done and now it just needs a publisher.  Nightshade doesn't want it (Boo!) and, understandably, other publishers aren't too excited about printing book three in a series that they didn't print books one and two.  I was told to expect a kickstarter by the end of the year: and you'd best believe I'll be supporting that even more than I did exploding kittens.

So yeah; I'm still here.    

Thursday, October 1, 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 "My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man.  She did not survive the lost of her family; I supposed you knew that."
"What?"  Charles turned furiously to Constance.
"My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister's trial for murder.  But she is of very little consequence to my book, and so we will have done with her"
"She is sitting right here."  
Page 93

I think I love everything about this book.  The fact that I'm not sure is what is driving me crazy.  As I was reading, I kept asking myself, "What is going on?"  There is a mystery or uncovering of the past that is fun and very intriguing.  When I finished the book I kept asking myself, "What the hell is going on?"  My confusion aside, it's always better to leave readers wanting more than wishing you shut up two-hundred pages ago.  (I'll name no names…)

Perhaps I need help in understanding something: what are the factors that determine how to read a book?  When do we accept what is written on the surface and go with it and when do we search for something deeper; perhaps applicable to the human nature?    

A large--and wealthy--family has been nearly wiped out; the accused acquitted; and no motive or further suspects established.  That is the concept the story is built on though I wouldn't call it 'the plot.'  Learning about Mary Katherine, the novel's main character, is the point of story.  

Seeing things through the 'eyes of a child' often obscures adult perception.  For doing so even half as well as she did Jackson deserves all praise that can be given.  However Mary Katherine is eighteen, a rather nebulous age in terms of maturity, added to which she is the survivor of a horrible incident that is sure to have left some mental scars.  PTSD initially came to mind; her extreme anti-social behavior, expressed desire to kill everyone in town, and overtly repetitious nature points fingers in many directions, but at some point in time I gave up on reasons for her behavior and rolled with, "This chick is plain old crazy."  And suddenly, everything was illuminated.  

Everyone in this story is crazy.  And by crazy I mean not in a right state of mind.  

Uncle Julian, who is invalid, and wheelchair bound is obviously suffering from some sort of dementia.  Mary Katherine's sister, Constance the accused, had more problems than I could account for.  The town they live in, is comprised of a very stereotypical angry mob, they were most certainly crazy (the town actually made the most sense if that gives any indication as to how bad the others are).  

Everything changes when a reader abandons rational thought and stops trying to understand 'why' and accepts the world as a madhouse.  All of a sudden Mary Katherine's 'magic' makes sense; only perhaps she is a bit too old to be a 'practitioner' of such arts; her talking to her cat and incessant desire to go to the moon all make sense.  Constance's maintenance of daily life, as if her family hadn't just been murdered, makes sense.  Uncle Julian's incessant need to go over the details of the family's last day and need of assurance that 'It really did happen, didn't it?' makes sense.  It all made sense because they're all crazy.  

It took the implementation of a rational, reasonable character in Cousin Charles who is filled with nothing more than the most base human emotions, jealously, envy and greed, to expose the rest of the family as they nuts they are.  

As a second tragedy occurs (more 'magic' gone awry) another family member is lost, one driven away, and the survivors retreat further into themselves than I would have though possible--even for this book, and yet amends are made between the town and the family.  It was upon reaching the end that I was left with my predicament outlined at the beginning as the family and town reconcile on some bizarre level, as all mysteries are solved and everything and everyone is exposed for what they are, is this just a really good story (all kinds of weird though) that I need to accepted on the surface or is there some greater correspondence to human nature that I'm not making at the present?  

I may need more time to think than the few days that have past since I finished reading.  It's a really short book and, while not dense, the pages don't fly by.  It's extremely well controlled despite the chaos happening on the page; so much so that I can't help but think that the prosaic--near stiff--presentation was intentionally done to better highlight so much complicit, moral, wrongness and the burgeoning psychosis of so many.

It's really, really weird and I'll probably never sort out how I feel about it so for now, I'll go with, "It was great!"  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I didn't voluntarily choose to read this book.  Marion raved about it; I went to a book store--to buy something else--and was told, then forcibly made by Frankie, to buy and read Uprooted instead.  If nothing else, Novik has some kick-ass fans.

More than anything else concerning this book, I love the title.  There are nearly endless references none of which feel forced or cliched.  The main character Agnieszka (upon finishing the book I was surprised to learn many people didn't know how to pronounce her name--perhaps this is my payoff for being a tennis fan…) is quite literally dragged away from her life to only then turn the life of her captor, The Dragon, upside-down.  Then the duo proceed to shake up the world a bit.  Oh, and in case you're wondering it's not just the title: the book is really good too.  

I almost felt like I was reading two books--and thank the publishing gods (are there such cruel deities?) that such a fate wasn't imparted to this novel.  The first book tells the first half of Agnieszka's life: growing up in a small village (boring) only to be--on what seems a whim--chosen by The Dragon to spend the next ten years of her life in his tower (aggressively more interesting).  

Agnieszka represents a large sample of my most recent female, teenaged protagonist; horrible and seemingly unable to help herself from complicating her life.  She's not good at magic despite having the gift; so naturally she doesn't study or practice and avoids the topic.  Somehow, this turns her into a latent savant of sorts (it was never explained) and she becomes a badass wizard.  Basically, she fails arithmetic for life but calc III and kinetics are a breeze… 

The purpose of learning magic is to help fight The Wood; the reader learns this half way through.  The Wood is sentient, multi-faceted, and very dangerous.  I think one has to be a regular fantasy reader for this novel to click.  The Wood; heart-trees; even the beginning with it's multiple and vague references to The Dragon, you kinda gotta bring something to the table to fully understand and appreciate the conflict going on.  It also wasn't completely secondary-world fantasy which was strange, as words like 'christening' 'matins' and 'Venezia' were used along with Baba Yaga being a character.  

There is a lot going on in the beginning of the book and a lot of points of interest, but there isn't much actual conflict other than Agnieszka getting on your nerves and The Dragon being obstinate.  (I returned to the same bookstore two days after starting and Frankie promised me Agnieszka would 'get better.')  The start of the conflict is the beginning of the 'second book' I mentioned.  

After so much intimacy with The Dragon and Agnieszka her move to the big city and court life felt awkward and none of the other 'new' characters had anywhere near a great enough opportunity to develop as our two previous main characters.  The Dragon all but falls out of the book, and Agnieszka bumbles around with no direction for too many pages.  Court intrigue seems to present it self as a 'bad guy.'  And giving The Wood enough personality, as well as human embodiment, to dislike it felt rushed and under-whelming.  The 'second book' to me felt filler-ish in a 'get to the final battle stuff soon' kinda way.  I was always entertained and sometimes even riveted, but never had problems going to sleep with pages left unread.  

For all of it's freshness and subversion of themes, the end was surprising run-of-the-mill military fantasy stuff.  That's isn't to say it wasn't good or well done, but I was very surprised.  

Now I know it's been awhile and I've kinda fallen out of the habit with book commentaries so in case you've forgotten how to translate The Chad; I'm here to help.  I only criticize stuff I like because I want to like it more.  I'm not quite back to my usual long-winded form but yeah, Uprooted was kinda awesome.  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

In which I find myself re-reading a book…

It's only odd because I don't do this.  I don't have anything against re-reading but I have so much un-read stuff and so much more on my to-be-read list that re-reading isn't an option.  There are plenty of books I'd like to re-read for enjoyment or further understanding but not until I run out of new possibilities.

I once started reading a book by John Green, that I later put down, and years later started reading it again only to catch myself about fifty pages in (I put it down the second time as well).  So… The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte I'd read and enjoyed; it's one that I didn't leave comments for.  It's book four in a series and while the plot of each is different the author is so hellbent, in a good way, in communicating Spain to the reader that it was a bit difficult to immediately figure out that I'd already read this book.

So I should just put it down, right?  Read something else that I haven't read before, right?  Well I can't do that because I'm one-hundred pages in and while some of it feels familiar; some of it still feels fresh and new and I'm completely hooked as if it were the first time I read the book.

So yeah… I'm re-reading a book; first time that has happened in a very long time.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Drown by Junot Diaz

Slice-of-life fiction, particularly literary fiction, seems to me difficult to get excited about.    Trying to make the minutiae of every day life poignant is a daunting task to say the least.  Essentially the author attempts to answer the question, "How was your day?" and make their answer genuinely compelling to a third party.  It shouldn't work.  More often than not it doesn't.  

Not so much style or voice, but rather the foreignness of what's being depicted and the immediacy in which a culture is conveyed this book, an awesome collection of short stories, reminded me of The Buddha in the Attic.  Stay with me I can explain this…  

In Ysrael, and it's companion story No Face, a boy who's face has been severely scarred by an incident with a pig that now causes him to wear a mask, sets the tone perfectly.  It's light (most all of Diaz come across as light regardless of plot or themes involved) introduces us to the culture that main character Yunior is from whether or not the culture is in the Dominican Republic or New Jersey, and perfectly illustrates things through the eyes of a child.  

That last bit I found very important for a large part of the collection.  Children don't judge people, situations, and beliefs the same way as adults do.  More often than not they accept things just as the way they are.  And so in Ysrael we don't see two bad kids misbehaving, teasing, and bullying; we see merely the facets that make up their life and we see it objectively.  

Aurora was the only story outside my comfort zone.  We all know about drugs, sex and poverty and the cliches about the people involved, but damn, Diaz really puts you there.  It was more compelling than I wanted it to be.  

Aguantando, which I liberally translated as Endurance, does so much to place you in the moment and that is perhaps why there is so much room to be surprised.  We see Yunior's early life without a father.  How he saw his life, how not having a father affected him and his brother, his mother, we even see a bit of the reality that Junior can't convey.  And in the end, as if to remind us to get our adult sensibilities out of Diaz's prose and not to put things into perspective as a child can't, we see a single paragraph or two of the hope and sentiment and the romance that Yunior maintains when he conjures a meeting of himself and his father.  The contrast isn't subtle and it's used to great effect.  

He has a rare gift that I can't convey but, two or three words in and I promise you'll have to finish reading.  Walking away isn't an option even when the subject matter may be a bit of a turn off for you.    

Diaz's casual revelations of subject matter that is a really big deal to the reader but of no consequences to the those involved in the story is superb.

I didn't know you could read.
I was nine and couldn't even write my own name.
Yeah, he said quietly.  Something I picked up.  Now go to bed.
"page 82.

That's really good out-of-context.  I'm just saying… 

Much like the stories' characters you have to expect to be constantly surprised by the circumstances that Diaz characters lives are subjected to.  You may think you're reading about the world one misses out on when leaving the neighborhood and going to college when seemingly out of no where you are shown ones first homosexual experiences.  "Twice.  That's it."  Being my favorite line from the title story.  

How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie is a hysterical tutorial that is as absurd as the title.  Boyfriend was perhaps the most universal story told while the specifics do encompass a bad break up and why it hurts is familiar to anyone. 

These stories are less about narrative and plot and more concerned with the immediacy of letting the reader experience whatever event the characters are currently going through.  Back to my Otsuka reference, Drown doesn't share the collective 'we' voice, but you do get the feeling that the stories and characters depicted certainly aren't unique to anyone one person but shared by many from similar backgrounds.       

There are no stories here that are 'at his best.'  Everything is this collection is extraordinary; it very well may be the only short story collection that I own where every single piece of writing is top notch.  Not a single word wasted.    

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

     "I knew what I was supposed to say.  "I'm more than okay there, I'm fantastic.  I love Windermere because you built it specially for Mummy.  I want to raise my own children there and my children's children.  You are so excellent, Granddaad.  You are the patriarch and I revere you.  I am so glad I am a Sinclair.  This is the best family in America."  
     No in those words.  But I was meant to help Mummy keep the house by telling my grandfather that he was the big man, that he was the cause of all our happiness, and by reminding him that I was the future of the family.  The all-American Sinclairs would perpetuate ourselves, tall and white and beautiful and rich, if only he let Mummy and me stay in Windermere.  

     My mother and her sisters were dependent on Granddad and his money.  They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they'd ended up unable to support themselves."  Page 161

This book is really hard to talk about without giving everything away, and I've never been one for spoilers.  I'm fairly certain everything matched up, but I'd have to read it a second time to be sure.  

Seventeen year-old Cadence (who I accidentally named 'Candice' for nearly the entire book) has had an accident, a head injury, and some very time specific memory loss.  The book is about her trying to fill in the gaps.

Her family is extraordinarily wealthy and spends the summers on their private island off the coast of Massachusetts.  It is there, two summers ago, that she had her accident.  She spends her time with two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and falls in love with Gat; Johnny's best friend who also spends summers there.

With the obvious exception of Gat, an Indian boy, Cadences's family is the most stereotypically wealthy--and shallow--whitest, white people ever: super wealthy, uber-American and either blissfully ignorant to the world around them or willfully bestowed with a powerful sense of entitlement.

Cadence calls them 'liars,' her whole family but primarily in reference to her three compainions.  I felt the term a bit harsh when she defined it and it never really set well with me in the end either, but I certainly understood the idea in which she was trying to apply the term too: that they could all lie to themselves and others about the idea of their family, the state of the rest of the world, even tragedy and death, all to support the perfect image of their family.

So much of the book is lesuirely that I was nearly begging to be told 'What was her accident?' just to have some point of tension to move on to as opposed to moving on from the incessent milieu of  Cadence's day-to-day activities and migraines, which really wasn't terribly interesting.

I don't think Lockhart could have told the story in any other way.  As the climax in the past unfolds the previous present events are cast in a new light and all the stories content has new meaning.  It was a surprise ending that certainly caught me off guard and felt genuinely satisfying--not a mere cheap trick.

It's a simple and easy read and well worth the time it takes to get through it.  This was a good way to start the year-in-reading.

Monday, January 12, 2015

First of Many Post in the New Year

Oh that's right… I have a blog…

Been two whole months since I remembered that.  Oh well…

No 'End of the year' rewards--which I greatly missed doing after reading over my past ones--as I simply didn't read enough this year to qualify 'the best of.'  Sad in so many ways…

No 'New Year's Reading Resolutions' either because we know I won't keep them.  I'll read more than I did last year, which ain't saying much.  And I'll even blog about what I read, which is saying even less than the previous statement.

As to not put my foot in my mouth right off the bat, I'll start with tomorrow.  First, of hopefully many, commentaries of the year coming soon.

And if you're curious, it was a really good read.