Slip Inside The Eye Of Your Mind

Brothers KaramazovThe second novel I’ve read as part of my Classic Literature Challenge is The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous last novel.  Russian literature is fairly new to me (I’ve only ever read one other, The Idiot, also by Dostoevsky) but because of its considerable influence on authors around the globe (Christopher Hitchens, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, to name a few), I felt I owed it to myself as a lover of literature to give it a try.  And while certainly not quick or altogether easy, it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

The book begins with the scoundrel Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a man of loose morals who has four sons between three different women, two of whom he married.  Both wives eventually died, leaving Pavlovitch to raise the boys they gave him, a task he passed off to relatives while he indulged in women and booze.  Little time is spent on their upbringing or on Pavlovitch’s misadventures.  The real story begins when the boys reach adulthood.  Dostoevsky tells every brother’s tale in turns, giving each their fair amount of time in the spotlight.  The oldest, Dmitri, enters into a doomed love triangle with his father and a disreputable woman whom one is never sure if she loves either father or son or is merely manipulating them both.  The middle son, Ivan, is a man of conviction and good sense and happens to fall in love with Dmitri’s ex-fiancee, the woman Dmitri scorned in favor of his father’s mistress.  And the youngest Karamazov, Alexey, is a kind, albeit naïve young man intent on entering the monastery.  Few who know him fail to love him, even Ivan, who is every bit as firm an atheist as Alexey is a true believer.  These two engage in long and interesting philosophical debates about their opposing views and while they add little to the book’s plot, they make for a provocative and entertaining read.  Fyodor Pavlovitch also has one illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, whose sad tale is told in detail and which plays a valuable role in the larger narrative.

With each of these men’s stories and that of a rather large subplot revolving around a young neighborhood boy, the son of a man Dmitri publicly shamed, who suddenly falls ill and seeks redemption in his final days from family and friends through Alexey, Dostoevsky paints a vivid picture of Russian life in the 19th century.  He explores themes and issues ranging from family to religion to social norms, even dipping a toe into political issues of the day.  His prose is easy enough to follow with the one exception being the interchangeable names of characters.  For example, Alexey is as often called Alyosha, Dmitri also goes by Mitya or Mitka, his mistress Agrafena is also called Grushenka or Grusha, and so on.  Almost every character has an alias or two that are used interchangeably and without explanation.  I admit it took some getting used to.  Otherwise, I had no trouble following the narrative.

Typical of 19th century Russian literature, The Brothers Karamazov is long-winded, sometimes exhaustingly so.  But it is also deeply philosophical, with a grand central theme suggesting that even our most minor actions can heavily influence the lives of others, and because of that, we are all responsible for one another.  I gave it 4 stars on goodreads because, though it is unnecessarily long and wordy, it is also extremely thought-provoking, dramatic and stirring.  If you’re looking for something to challenge your ideals and really make you think about what’s in the minds of others as well as your own, I recommend it.

~Nikki

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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.

Tell Me How You Like It

You may have heard (or read) me mention that I happen to work with a group of people who are all significantly older than I.  I’m not necessarily a spring chicken, but the next youngest person at my current place of employment has got a full 20 years on me.  And not only that, they generally seem to act old, even for their age.  There is a noticeable disdain toward technology, which leads me to today’s topic: eReaders.

I’ll admit I was hesitant to jump on the bandwagon simply because it seemed an extra expense, a luxury that didn’t merit its cost in my household.  (I still feel this way about the iPad.  A cool new toy?  Sure.  But what can it do that my laptop and my hubby’s smart phone can’t?)  I did eventually buy a Kindle and in all honesty, I kind of love it.  Allow me to clarify: I read a lot and I certainly have not forsaken my beloved paperback.  But the eReader has its place.  I also travel any chance I get and the Kindle makes reading on an airplane exponentially easier, especially since I’m often reading more than one book at a time and it saves me the cumbersome task of stuffing my carry-on with multiple books or the nearly impossible chore of choosing just one (a choice I will, inevitably, regret).  Not to mention it is sublimely easy to delete a book that I have no desire to read again, which, unfortunately, covers the majority of them.  No old, long-unopened books cluttering up the shelves, collecting dust.

On the other hand, the books I do fall in love with, the ones I want to read over and over until every word is committed to memory, until their spines break and the pages feel onion skin-thin beneath my finger tips, those books I buy genuine paperback copies of.  In a way, the eReader has made the paper book that much more valuable.  I only buy one if it’s a book I love, like a prize.  The paper book has become precious, reserved for those words I so adore, I need a physical copy of them in my home.

I know many who disagree, who feel there is no way to read other than to hold a book in your hands, turning the pages as you go, straining your eyes in the dark, cherishing every little coffee stain for the memory it invokes.  Some who feel books just aren’t real if they aren’t made of paper.  Which, of course, leads me to this month’s poll.  I want to know how you, dear readers, feel about the format of your reading material.

~Nikki

There’s No Room Upon Your Shelf

I’m currently in the middle of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, a novel I’ve heard much about but never had a particular desire to read.  Not for any good reason, it just didn’t sound like something that would appeal to me.  Recently, though, I learned that a friend of mine has read this novel at least a dozen times, that she absolutely adores it, and my opinions on these matters usually coincide with hers, so I thought it was time to give it a try.  And I do like it, so far.  I’m very curious to see how it will end.  I’ve also started a collection of short stories that I bought at Powell’s Books in Portland called Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill that I am also really enjoying.  But, as usual, I’m already looking ahead to what comes next and I thought I’d share with you the list of books currently waiting for me to get to them:

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice -this book comes highly recommended to me from a friend whose opinions on literature I greatly value.  I read Interview With A Vampire more than a decade ago and liked it but never got around to reading any others among Rice’s extensive body of work.  I’m seriously not into vampires these days (Twilight has killed the concept for me) so witches will be a refreshing break!

Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell -I read Outliers a few months ago and felt inspired and amazed by Galdwell’s ability to weave together the intricacies that lead people to the lives they eventually live.  Blink addresses the decision-making abilities we have, or think we have.  Using both neuroscience and psychology, he discusses how the difference between making good choices and bad has nothing to do with the amount of information we can process quickly, but with the few particular details on which we focus.  Supposedly, it’ll help me make better decisions.  And hey, I’ll take all the help I can get!

Villette by Charlotte Bronte -After devouring Jane Eyre (and loving every word of it), I decided to download Villette onto my Kindle.  I’ve also recently read Wuthering Heights for the first time and have now officially become a fan of the darkly intricate minds of the Bronte sisters.

Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi -I first read about this collection of short stories a couple of years ago and decided to buy it with an Amazon gift card I got for Christmas.  The stories are science fiction and cover everything from genetic engineering to a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world.  It is Bacigalupi’s first published collection and has already been hailed by critics for its social, political and environmental relevance.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky -I read The Idiot a couple of years ago and while I did really like it, I must admit it was a tough read.  Written in Russian in 1869, I thought perhaps some things were lost in translation.  The heart of the story and its characters made it worth the trouble but I often had to re-read passages to gain a complete understanding of what exactly happened and to whom.  (The names alone confused me.)  So, you can see why I’ve put off reading another of his books.  But The Brothers Karamazov is largely considered one of Dostoyevsky’s best and I’m sure will be worth the time and effort it might take to get through it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -You know I’m a sucker for the classics and I’m sorry to say I’ve never read any of Sylvia Plath’s work.  After reading The Awakening a few years ago and marveling at the way I immediately connected with the lead character, a character created in the mind of a woman who lived 100 years before I came into existence, I added The Bell Jar to my list of “must reads.”  Hailed as an early feminist work and found on every list of essential readings for women, I may have to bump it up to the next spot on my list.

Just Kids by Patti Smith -Winner of the National Book Award in nonfiction, Kids tells the story of musician and artist Patti Smith (before she became famous) and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s.  I almost never read memoirs but who can resist the story of a bohemian budding artist in New York City in the 70s?  Not me.

What are you reading?

~Nikki

The Ghosts That We Knew Will Flicker From You

Something about the holidays makes me want to read the classics.  Austen, Dickens, Shelley, maybe some Henry David Thoreau.  This is my first Christmas as a Kindle owner and most of the classics are free downloads (thank you, Amazon), which is a nice perk.  In all my years as an avid reader, I’ve never before picked up A Christmas Carol.  Shocking, I know.  There’s no time like the present, I always say (okay, I never say that), and so, on December 1st, I began the long-time holiday favorite so adored by generations the world over.  Though it is a tale I am familiar with – how could anyone not be, what with the many screen adaptations – Dickens’ story did not disappoint.

It’s a quick, easy read (I finished it inside of 5 days) and well worth your time.  What I love about reading so-called classic literature is the language.  Language is one of the rare things that seems to become simpler, less refined as we evolve.  Unlike technology, social norms, architecture, medicine and nearly everything else that grows more complex and intricate the more we explore and develop it, language seems to grow coarser.  The vocabulary of the general public has shrunk down to a mere handful of verbs, nouns and adjectives (and adverbs- do they exist anymore? does anyone know what an adverb is these days?), repeatedly used to describe a multitude of things.  So many words have been lost over the centuries.  Slang is constantly changing, of course, but I’m not talking about slang.  I’m talking about words like apparition, ironmongery, intimation.  Words that can only be found in books like A Christmas Carol, the literature of a past time.  Which is part of the joy of reading, being transplanted into a wholly different place and time.

I won’t bother to go over the plot of A Christmas Carol, since I feel certain anyone who comes across this post is familiar enough with it already, but I will say that there are some details in it that have been omitted from most of the adaptations, details that, along with Dickens’ fine prose and style, make it a must-read for any fellow lover of literature.  And for those of you who don’t enjoying reading (or don’t enjoy the classics) but much prefer the art of film, here are my favorite adaptations of this beloved tale:

Scrooged– I’ve long felt that Bill Murray can do no wrong and this is another fine example.  A very modern take on this classic (for its time, that is…now it may seem a bit dated) and hilariously silly, while still retaining all of the emotion of the original.

Mickey’s Christmas CarolA 20-minute children’s version but, like most things created by Disney, well worth your time.  Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge McDuck are annual visitors at my house.

A Muppet Christmas Carol– Michael Caine is a wonderful Ebenezer Scrooge – perfectly capturing the depth of his evolution from greedy miser to generous, kind Christmas enthusiast.  Gonzo, pretending to be Charles Dickens, narrates with Rizzo the Rat, who provides witty comic relief.  Surprisingly enough, this is the most faithful adaptation I have yet to see.  Leave it to the Muppets to get it just right. 🙂

Which of the classics inspire you?

~Nikki