There Are Places I Remember…

I have to admit that I’ve strayed from the classics lately.  My reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Metamorphosis are on their way but since finishing them, I have derailed a bit.  I’m nearly finished with World War Z (and loving every word!) and have also read the latest from author Neil Gaiman, you know… the reigning king of science fiction.  His work is typically dark and loaded with symbolism, not to mention supremely well-written and somehow, I managed to get my hands on his latest novel, a lovely little read called The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

TOATEOTL coverLike most of his fiction, TOATEOTL is part sci-fi, part fantasy, part fairy tale.  Steeped in myth and mystery, it will transport you to that precocious time in life when you were too smart to be called a child yet too naive and inexperienced to be deemed a young adult.  Told through the eyes of a 7 year-old who is depicted like a real kid, not a tiny adult or an unrealistically innocent dunce, as children are often portrayed in books, Gaiman hooks you on page one with this clever, nostalgic, naive, yet never-too-simple narrator.  Like real children, he’s a kid who at times, shows deep maturity and at others, childish innocence.

It is set in Sussex, England and begins with the narrator as an adult, returning to his hometown to attend a funeral.  While there, he wanders back through his old neighborhood and eventually visits an old farm on which his childhood friend, an extraordinary girl called Lettie Hempstock, lived with her mom and grandmother.  What he remembers is a story so remarkably strange and exciting but also dark and frightening, it’s a wonder how he ever forgot it.  I will say no more because as wonderful as this story is, a very big part of its charm lies in discovering it, page by page.

I breezed through its 180 pages within three days, hardly able to put it down.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a delight to read, making you remember what it felt like when you were old enough to know certain things about the world but still young enough to believe in endless possibilities, when every corner of the earth held more mystery and wonder than your imagination could keep up with.

~Nikki

Eyes On Fire – Nikki’s 2012 Book List (Part 2)

As promised, here’s part two:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – Typically I try to read the book before seeing the movie but occasionally, it happens the other way around, which was the case here.  I saw the flick and thought it was a good idea but too heavy-handed in its execution.  After reading a couple of glowing reviews of the book, I thought I’d give it a look in the hopes that it succeeded where the film failed.  Sadly, I did not find that to be the case.  It’s a dark and sad tale set in the not-so-distant future wherein people who have the available funds can buy rights to clones of themselves.  At any point, if they need a kidney or a lung or any other vital organ, they’ll have a perfect match on hand.  Never Let Me Go tells the story of the doomed clones as they grow up in a boarding school, aware of their inescapable fate and still somehow trying to find some joy in life.  The writing is JaneEyrebeautiful and the story is not without merit but some passages just try too hard to convey the sense of loss that would come through much better without Ishiguro’s forcing it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I don’t know why it took me 30 years to read this but upon doing so, it immediately became a treasured favorite.  Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers a narrative that’s warm and personal without ever being trite and the story itself is as much about a young woman coming into her own and finding a way to assert her own independent spirit over the course of her life as it is a dark and intoxicating love story.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie – Alexie’s greatest skill as a storyteller is to make the stories of utterly ordinary lives feel extraordinarily tragic and simultaneously funny.  This collection of short stories deals with many of today’s pertinent issues – love, marriage, divorce, parenthood, racial conflict, substance/alcohol abuse, 9/11 and the War On Terror.  It isn’t Alexie’s best (for me, that’s still The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven) but it certainly is worth a read.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – I’m not sure what finally got me reading this.  It was different than I expected, more about the emotional aftermath for this poor dead child’s family than the capture of her killer.  The writing itself is good and the characters very real and fully developed but I never got totally sucked in.  There is no plot and at times, the story seems to just spin out in tangents.  For those of who love a good character study, I recommend it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Yes, I read this in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation by Baz Luhrman.  You know I’m a sucker for the classics so I’m sure I would have gotten to it eventually, anyway.  I had no expectations going in, really knew nothing of the story other than it’s set in or around the roaring ’20s.  It centers around a young man fairly new to New York and its high society.  He happens to be neighbors with a man called Gatsby, who is infamously mysterious as well as exceedingly wealthy.  He eventually witnesses Gatsby’s downfall along with the disintegration of the small circle of socialites that he briefly became a part of.  Hailed for capturing the essence of an era, it belongs on everyone’s book list.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – Two brothers find an abandoned crashed plane and in it, a duffel bag full of money.  Over $4 million, it turns out.  Should they disappear with it?  Is it marked or otherwise sought after by the police… drug lords… the FBI?  Such is the premise for A Simple Plan and it sounds promising enough.  Smith develops a fairly good story but the writing – the actual sentence by sentence writing of it isn’t good enough to make it great.  There are a few plot holes, nothing monumental, but made more obvious by the overly descriptive explanation of events surrounding them.  The action and every thought behind it were given too thorough a description, taking any semblance of nuance out of the work.  I hear they made a movie some years ago but I doubt I’ll see it.  Once through this story is enough.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – These 100 pages are a compilation of the very last writings of Mr. Hitchens, all written during the last 18 months of his life between his diagnosis with esophageal cancer and his untimely death.  They contain some of his most personal work and his most poignant.  By turns philosophical and musing, he never lost his ability to write with penetrating intelligence and unmatched grace.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – This was the second book King published and I’d venture to say that at the time of its writing, he hadn’t fully found his voice yet.  Some passages went on far too long while others felt cut short.  Still, it contains a few of those slow-to-reveal moments that King does so well, the kind that creep up on you and make you shiver with delight at the suspenseful, scary images you know are coming but still somehow feel fresh and surprising.  In 1975, King may not have yet mastered his craft but he was already well on his way.

The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant – This novel formed the basis for the film Lawless, easily one of 2012’s best flicks.  The wettest county is Franklin county (Virginia) and during Prohibition, it spawned what would later be called The Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy involving the Bondurant brothers and a deputy called Charley Rakes.  That much (along with some other details) is true.  But much more of the book is fictionalized.  It centers around the Bondurant boys and rightly so; they are the stars of this story and my interest in the details of their lives is what got me to buy the book.  It drags a bit in the beginning but stick with it – it’s worth it.

Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – I enjoyed Outliers so much, I thought I’d go back and read this earlier work by Gladwell that studies the idea of “thin-slicing” – selecting the few most relevant factors from any number of variables in the first few open bookseconds’ reaction to something – and how it affects our decision-making.  Gladwell examines a psychologist who can predict a couple’s chance of divorce with shocking accuracy by listening to them talk for a mere few minutes, a museum curator’s ability to judge the authenticity of a piece of art within moments of gazing upon it and the tennis coach who knows the player will double-fault before he even finishes his serve.  Gladwell also gives some examples of decisions made by those whose instincts lead to disastrous consequences and explains the difference between them.  Each case study is well explained and thought-provoking, exploring the successes and failures of rapid cognition.

50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed – Yes, I read them and no, I did not particularly enjoy them.  The first in the series is by far the best of the three (in the way that the time you broke your finger was a more enjoyable experience than when you fractured your skull) and the best thing I can say for them is that they weren’t quite as awful as I had expected.  The writing itself, while not anything I’d call good, isn’t the worst I’ve read but the characters are lifeless and underdeveloped and there is no story to speak of, just one pitifully contrived set of circumstances after another during which the girl worries she’s not enough for the boy and the boy worries she’s going to leave him and then they argue and make up and have kinky sex, some of which is mildly hot but not nearly enough to justify the time spent reading this schlock.  I read them because I felt guilty about hating all over a series I hadn’t actually read.  So I gave them a shot.  And now I can knowingly say they’re a waste of paper.

Can’t wait to see what literary treasures 2013 will bring.

~Nikki

So Take A Look, It’s In a Book – Nikki’s Book List 2012

booksMy goal for 2012 was to read at least 24 books throughout the year – that’s two a month.  Surprisingly, I surpassed that meager goal with ease and read a whopping 39 books!  (My goal for 2013 is 52 books!  I’m already two down – take that, books!)  Since the list is quite long, I’ve decided to break up their reviews into two posts for your reading convenience.  (For those whose review I’ve already written and posted, I’ve conveniently linked them for you below.)  Here is part one:

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – As the title suggests, The God Delusion argues that the idea of God (and religion) is fictitious.  Written by one of the world’s leaders in evolutionary biology, it is a scientific examination of religious ideas (most of them founded in either Judaism or Christianity) and the very notion of God.  Dawkins, as well as being expertly knowledgeable of evolution and natural selection, writes with an unbiased, clinical kind of honesty, simply presenting the evidence without his (or others’) personal feelings to obscure it.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens – This memoir by the late writer/journalist Christopher Hitchens sometimes reads like an autobiography and at others, like a personal essay.  It’s pretty typical Hitchens: poetic, honest, intelligent and written with extreme grace.  My only complaint is that he glosses over some of the more personal aspects of his life (like fatherhood) and didn’t talk much at all of either of his marriages.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – An excellent, easy to read but very thorough look at the many contributing factors that lead “outliers” the likes of Bill Gates, The Beatles or even Albert Einstein to their atypical, extreme success.  Many people like to think it’s nothing more than hard work and determination but the truth is, while those are essential, they are far from the only things needed.  A faithful support system, the right opportunities (sometimes nothing more than being in the right place at the right time), a culture that encourages and allows for such success and plain old luck all play significant roles.

The Necessity Of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain – A collection of short stories, all different but each having themes revolving around sexuality, these are a light and easy read.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – In all honesty, I’m a bit worn out on stories set in the Old South.  I decided to read this mostly just because it was wildly popular and seemingly inescapable.  I particularly liked that it was told from several different narratives rather than being limited to one point of view.  For anyone who enjoys historical fiction or simply a good Southern story, you can’t go wrong here.

I Am Number Four and The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore – These are the first two in a four-part series (the third of which just came out and no, I haven’t read it yet) about the last nine members of an alien race hiding on Earth from a different alien race out to wipe them from existence.  It’s light, exciting fantasy, loaded with action and quickly paced.  Fantasy and sci-fi fans will almost certainly enjoy.

Untouchable by Scott O’Connor – I bought this book at Powell’s in Portland (Oregon) after reading the jacket.  It tells the tale of a man and his son as they try with difficulty to deal with the sudden death of their wife/mom.  The kid is bullied at school and I admire O’Connor’s relentless dedication to honesty in these passages.  They’re so real, they’re often painful to read.  His characters are very real and the prose is well-written, but the story is slowly paced and lacking in depth of plot.  In fact, there really isn’t much plot to speak of.  Overall, an elegant, albeit slow read.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Amazingly, I had never read this classic until last spring.  Its gothic imagery and dark themes sucked me in right from the start.  For those of you who may not know, this is a haunting tale of a fierce and unnatural love between an orphaned young man and the daughter of his adopted father.  The writing is engaging and poignant; the main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, both wicked, selfish creatures devoured by their intense love of one another and the madness it inspires.  My only complaint is the narrative.  The story is told second-hand through the memories of a housemaid as she tells it to a man who has rented Heathcliff’s property.  I would have felt more connected to the characters and more invested in the story were it told by Heathcliff, or perhaps in third person narrative.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – Though I usually enjoy dark and gritty tales, the writing here is too heavy-handed for my taste.  Rife with abstract metaphors and overly wordy descriptions, the writing actually masks the action in the stories and takes the pleasure out of reading.

One For The Money through Lean Mean Thirteen of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich – Anyone looking for an introspective or socially relevant book will be disappointed here.  Evanovich’s prose is light-hearted and easy to read, fast-paced and fun, but there’s nothing deeply intricate or nuanced about it.  These are escapism, nothing more.  Twelve Sharp is my favorite of the series so far.

To Kill The Irishman: The War That Crippled The Mafia by Rick Porrello – I am from Youngstown and grew up on stories about the Youngstown/Cleveland/Pittsburgh mafia, so the subject matter was of particular interest to me.  Author Rick Porrello is a police officer by trade, not a writer, and it shows.  It reads more like text, listing events and facts rather than a narrative.  He clearly did his homework, though, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about true crime, history and/or mob stories.

To be continued…

~Nikki

We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay

I watched the series finale of Roseanne on TV today.  I loved Roseanne, practically grew up on it, and will still watch reruns now even though I’ve seen every episode a few times already.  A friend once said to me that she didn’t like the show because it was just too “low rent” for her.  I guess it was low rent.  But that’s also what made it different, what madRoseannee it ballsier than other shows and part of what made it work.  I also grew up watching The Cosby Show and Growing Pains and Who’s The Boss and I loved those shows, too, but my family did not look like the families in them.  I didn’t grow up in a double income home and the one income there was certainly did not resemble that of a doctor or lawyer or psychiatrist (or advertising exec or news anchorperson).  I grew up working class, blue collar in a relatively small but industrialized city.  We had playgrounds and backyards but not acres of untouched land nor any of the perks of big cities like NYC.  Nope.  The city in which I was raised looked more like the Illinois town in which Roseanne was set.  And my family looked like the Connors, too.  Well, not physically, but economically and in the way we talked and interacted with each other.

The series finale got a lot of hate from critics and fans alike and I kind of understand why.  It flipped the last season of the show on its head.  Backtracked and reversed both major and minor plot lines.  But for me, it was one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen.  For me, it worked.  Allow me to explain why:

1. It returned the show to its roots.  In the final season of Roseanne, the Connors won the lottery and the whole dynamic of the show changed.  They weren’t struggling working class anymore; they were millionaires.  Up until the start of that 9th and final season, the focus had always been on the family.  They struggled to make ends meet, to pay their bills and give their kids a life better than their own.  But they had each other.  And that’s about all they had.  After becoming rich, the focus became their altered lifestyle and extravagant luxuries.  A sort of fish out of water theme.  It didn’t work.  Everything about the show that I had connected with, that I loved and that felt like home to me, had disappeared.  In the show’s finale, Roseanne reveals that the whole last season had been a figment of her imagination.  That she’d been writing a memoir and when she’d lost her husband, she’d also lost her way and wrote an alternate ending for herself as a coping mechanism.  In the final few minutes of the series, Roseanne returned her show to the ideas and themes that had made millions of people love it.  I thought it took balls, personally, and I admired her for it.

2. It restored Dan Connor.  In the last season, after Dan’s heart attack, his character went through some major changes, as often happens Danfollowing a near-death experience.  But his changes were not for the better.  He alienated his wife and children and even had a brief affair with his mother’s nurse.  (I don’t remember if he actually engaged in sexual congress with the nurse or if he’d just fallen for her but never acted on it.  Either way, it’s cheating.)  If you’d watched the whole series as I did, you’d know that such behavior was uncharacteristic of Dan.  He was kind of the perfect husband in that he’d always backed his wife.  Even if she was wrong.  Even if she was acting irrationally or out of anger.  He’d tell her later on that she’d been a fool but when it mattered, he had her back.  Period.  The final episode revealed that everything Dan had done in that last season had been a work of fiction, something Roseanne made up to vent her emotions while grieving his loss.  She reveals that in reality, he’d died from that heart attack at the end of the previous season.  Roseanne had felt betrayed and abandoned by him, she’d been angry and lost.  In the shows final moments, Roseanne said: “When you’re a blue collar woman and your husband suddenly dies, you lose every sense of security.”  Those things Dan had done in the last season were simply a fictional expression of the insecurity brought on by her grief.

3. It worked, creatively speaking.  As a writer, I connected to nearly every word of that last monologue given by Roseanne during those final minutes.  She said that writing had been her way of working through her grief, her many emotions, her turmoil.  She’d changed things in her memoir not to rewrite history or alter the past, but in an effort to right the wrongs.  Through her writing, she’d discovered herself.  Her opinions, her values, truths she hadn’t seen before.  She discovered who she really was.  It reminded me of a quote from 20 century British writer E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”  As a writer, I know that emotions are voiced and vented through words and through the act of writing.  I know that sometimes I am surprised at my own hidden thoughts and opinions when they come out while I’m writing.  Writing makes you think about things in ways you previously haven’t.  It’s an outlet and a means of discovery for all writers, including Roseanne Connor.

~Nikki