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

My Head’s Stuck On Repeat

TAAM bookThe Average American Male by Chad Kultgen has been hailed as a brutally honest insight into the typical male mind.  As a woman, of course this caught my attention.  A book written by a man that shows what men are really thinking?  Seemed worth a read to me.  So when I saw it on the bargain rack at my local B&N, I picked it up.  Several hours of reading later, what I gained from Kultgen’s supposedly honest depiction of the average man is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I happened to be born female because if most men really do think this way, it must be mind-numbingly boring to be a man.

Having been a woman my whole life, there is no way for me to know with any degree of certainty whether this novel truly does do men justice but it seemed to me an exaggeration for shock value.  I know men think about sex A LOT and probably more than most women but according to this book, it’s damn near ALL they think about.  And not just simple thoughts like, “Whoa, she’s hot” or “I’d like to fuck her” but bizarre details like, “I wonder what her asshole looks like.”  Really?  Never in my life have I wondered what someone’s asshole looks like.  Not even my own.  The twenty-something male protagonist of this story directs his perverse thoughts at EVERY. SINGLE. WOMAN. he meets.  During a chance encounter with a mentally handicapped woman, he privately wonders if she even knows how to suck cock.  In fact, he wonders this about every female he comes across, even the mother of his girlfriend.  I didn’t actually count, but I’d bet the phrase “suck my cock” (or a variation of it) probably showed up 375 times in this less than 200 page book.  The same can be said of the term “blow my load.”  These things didn’t offend or repulse me so much as they quickly bored me to death.  If it weren’t for the book’s short length, I doubt I would have been able to finish it.

Because – here’s the other thing about this novel that made it hard to get through – NOTHING happens.  Every chapter begins with the narrator going out somewhere, coming across any number of women and having the same two or three thoughts.  After chapter 3 or 4, reading about this guy’s curiosity over every woman’s ability to suck a dick or willingness to take it in the ass got really old.  By the end of the story, the only thing that had changed was that the unnamed main character had switched out one girlfriend for another.  Though he claimed to have no interest in marriage or parenthood, he proposes to his girlfriend on the book’s last page because he comes to the realization that all women are essentially the same.  They’ll all want a wedding and babies eventually.  They’ll all get fat.  They’ll all stop sucking his cock after a few months or  maybe years.  They’ll all lose interest in sex.  So, why not marry the one he’s with now since he knows he’ll never find a woman capable of fulfilling his sexual needs over the long-term?  And this is the only shred of honesty, of true insight that The Average American Male has to offer.  On its very last page.

Whether it’s a true look into the male psyche or not, I can’t recommend this book to anyone.  Maybe Kultgen’s lead character is a satirical exaggeration.  Maybe it’s meant to be funny.  Maybe I just didn’t get it.  This may very well be the case.  I think this book was a best-seller and has since spawned a sequel, The Average American Marriage.  (Needless to say, I won’t bother with that one.)  The Average American Male even has a youtube video that is quite popular as well, so it seems something here went over my head.  Like, wayyyy over my head because I didn’t find a word of this book entertaining or intriguing in the least.  None of the characters were developed enough to make me feel anything and there was literally no plot.  The vast majority of the time, I was bored and had to force myself to get through it.  So, for now, it’s back to the classics for me.

~Nikki

Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely

Animal FarmThe nature of man is a tricky thing – much more complex and fickle than we often like to think.  Throughout our evolution, humans have tried a number of societal and governmental structures, some with great success and others with tremendous failures.  Some have led to near-miracles while others came to disastrous results.  Some succeed in certain cultures and communities but fail in others.  The one constant that has proven true in every society, in every group of people and at nearly every turn is that no man is immune to greed or corruption.

Animal Farm is George Orwell’s simplistic tale of corruption in a communistic community.  Rather than be ruled by the human dictator who owns the farm, the animals who work it pull together to overthrow him and ban him from the farm.  They agree on a system built around equality, around shared work for shared rewards.  Without one specified leader, they agree to live and work side-by-side, none anymore powerful or wealthy than the rest.  And so it goes for a short while.  But soon a couple of the smarter animals (pigs, of course) notice that things could work more smoothly and with greater benefit to the farm with a few changes.  Each pig presents his plan to the group and lets them reach a consensus.  Majority rules.  Harmony is achieved but short-lived.  Before long, one of the pigs realizes he can manipulate the more gullible animals by villainizing the pig who opposes him.  Once his opponent is banned from the farm, he becomes a kind of dictator, all the while changing his rhetoric to suit his own selfish agenda.  Many of the animals cannot read and are easily fooled.  It bears a remarkable resemblance to the structure of North Korea’s current government and the propaganda spewed upon its poor citizens.  I think this book was written for a Young Adult audience, which makes for a somewhat simplified narrative, but its lesson loses none of its poignancy or relevance.

With any political piece, it’s easy for the narrative to become preachy.  A writer has to be careful to let the point make itself in the unfolding of the story, something Orwell did with grace.  At no point while reading Animal Farm (or his more complex political novel, the iconic 1984) did I feel he was forcing his personal views upon me.  I’ve read that he was an advocate for socialism; in his life, he warned of the dangerous potentialtumblr_mgu6ej8ENw1qc6j5yo1_400 outcomes of both communism and capitalism.  No doubt, anyone who’s paid even the smallest attention to the goings-on of the world within the last 50 years would agree that communism simply doesn’t work.  It has always amazed me how the most basic definition of communism sounds perfectly fair and idealistic and yet, there has never been a society capable of maintaining it without corruption.  This speaks more to the nature of humanity than it does to the philosophy itself but that hardly matters.  For all practical matters, communism with regards to the human race has by and large been a failure.  Orwell gracefully lays out the causes for that in this book.  And one could argue that many of capitalism’s negative effects (an excessively uneven distribution of wealth leading to the disappearance of the middle-class via the expansive gap between the rich and poor, the working class being forced to work more and harder for less reward, and greed corrupting the free market, to name a few) as described in Orwell’s 1984 have recently come to fruition.

Regardless of his political views, any reader with even a slightly open mind will find meaning in Orwell’s work.  His storytelling isn’t pushy.  It isn’t preachy or obvious.  He was a master of language who artfully crafted stories that depict the corruptible nature of man.  Ultimately, the take-away message from both 1984 and Animal Farm isn’t that one societal structure is good or bad, but that any and all forms must answer to the people they govern through some form of regulation or system of checks and balances.  Orwell warns that any governing body is only as honest as the people who make it up.  I think we can all agree with that.

~Nikki

The Curse That Followed Me My Whole Life Through

Oscar WaoIt seems that books (and movies, for that matter) that have received countless critical accolades and perhaps an award or two don’t live up to the hype given them.  At least, not in my opinion.  This certainly isn’t always true but it happens often enough to be deemed a trend.  Such was my experience with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  First and foremost, I want to say that I liked the book and I do recommend it for any reader who may be interested.  That being said, it didn’t move me.

Diaz’s novel is a chronicle of the life of overweight, geeky sci-fi nerd Oscar de Leon, the son of a Dominican immigrant born in New York, raised in New Jersey but who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere.  Oscar defies two very different stereotypes: 1) that sexually frustrated nerds obsessed with LotR and Dungeons and Dragons are white boys and 2) that Dominican men are suave machismos capable of charming the panties off of any girl, no matter how beautiful.  Oscar is fat, awkward, uses a vocabulary so rich, his peers hardly understand him and seems to be followed by something called the fuku, a sort of Dominican curse initially struck unto his grandfather that followed his mother all the way to America and adhered itself to Oscar’s sad life.

But this story isn’t Oscar’s alone.  It’s also a chronicle of his familial history.  It tells his grandfather’s tale, a particularly tragic story of how he came to obtain this curse in an effort to save his wife and children from the wicked Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.  Oscar’s mother’s story is also told in great length along with a shorter section devoted to his sister, Lola.  His grandfather’s, mother’s and sister’s stories are all told in as much (if not more) detail as his own and, in my opinion, are more interesting.  Oscar’s family history kept my attention but his story lost me a little, in particular in the book’s final section, wherein Oscar meets his violent and untimely end.  The title forewarns his fate; his life certainly is brief.  It’s the wondrous part that didn’t hold up.  I found Oscar’s tale uninspired and after all his family experienced and overcame, his choices seemed undeserving.  Perhaps that is the point, though – that the middle class American children of immigrants don’t live up to the dreams of their parents and grandparents who’ve overcome impossible obstacles to give them more.

Diaz interjects each chapter with lengthy footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies and various Spanish phrases (I continuously had to stop to look up English translations – I knew I should have taken Spanish in high school!), proving that he shares his title character’s love of sci-fi/fantasy literature.  He also switches narratives; most of the book is told by a narrator who’s hardly a side character, Oscar’s college roommate and his sister’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Yunior.  Lola tells her own story and both Oscar’s grandfather’s and mother’s tales seem to be narrated by an unknown omniscient narrator (though I think it’s still Yunior, it’s never explained how he knows these intimate details of their lives).  It’s a novel about identity, masculinity, family and the hardships overcome by the ancestors of American children who may or may not squander the opportunities that were so hard-won by their parents and grandparents.  It’s well-written and evenly paced and overall, I did like it.  But its conclusion felt a little anti-climactic for my taste.

~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

If Only My Eyes Were Not Pinned To Your Page

Being the intense fan of the horror genre (in either visual or literary form) that I am, I’ve recently decided to read a Stephen King novel in honor of the upcoming, most hallowed of contrived holidays.  I’ve actually only read two and a half of King’s works: Pet Sematary (one of my favorite books, EVER), Under The Dome and half of The Stand.  I’ve always wanted to read countless more but the list of books I plan to read is ever growing and his novels just seem to continuously get pushed to the side.  But not this October!  I’ve endeavored to read Salem’s Lot and now, slightly more than half-way through it, I know I’ve made one damned fine choice.

Not only have I not read Salem’s Lot before now, but I’ve never seen the film on which it’s based and haven’t really heard anything about the story except that it involves vampires.  Not the wimpy pseudo-vampires of Twilight fame but real, dangerous, predatory, blood-sucking, life-taking creatures of the dark.  As they were meant to be written.

What stands out more than anything, though, and no doubt what has made King the iconic author that he is, is King’s ability to slowly weave together a story.  His sense of timing – the pacing of the tale’s unraveling is sheer perfection.  It is damn hard to make words on a page scary but King has had no trouble.  He times it perfectly, giving enough suspense, enough eagerness, enough slow-burning interest to ignite your imagination and immerse you into the scene.  I’ve read a few books in recent years that made me wonder how the hell their author ever got published, let alone gained enough momentum to make a buck or two.  Never do I wonder such a thing while reading a Stephen King book.  Whether his work is for you or not, there is no question of talent.

I’d love to know which of his many, many novels is your favorite.  It’s too soon to tell how Salem’s Lot will rank on my short list, which means Pet Sematary is still number one for me.  What’s yours?

~N.