Monday, February 29, 2016

Book Review
The Boy in the Mirror by Tom Preston (2015)

Immersion, we learn in introductory linguistics, is a mysterious and effective way to become conversant in a language.  Want to know German?  Land yourself in small town in Germany where few speak in English, and don't go with a friend - no crutches.  Eventually, after a period of confusion and frustration, you'll discover you understand everything.

That's what they say.  Reading The Boy in the Mirror is immersion into sickness and the extremely surreal world of tortuous healing.  Poisoning the body to rid it of what is killing it.  Chemotherapy for severe cancer, in the body of a young man on the cusp from adolescence to early adulthood.

The immersion is so real, so intense, that I feel I may need to purge toxins from my own body.  I feel a cramp in my chest and I am chillingly aware of my own physical and mental fragility.  Tom wrote this memoir to heal, he says in the afterward, as he does not pretend to be over the experience.  As I was reading I wondered, wouldn't four months of aggressive chemotherapy give a person a profound case of PTSD?

I imagine so.

The delusions, the symptoms, the misery, the depression, the restlessness, the yearning, the comfort and sadness of memories and the cruel teasing of every bodily sense that comes through in this book? They were all my own even as Preston was describing his experience to us.  He's a gifted writer, and - not a mere gimmick - the presentation of the material in the second person seals the effectiveness completely.

I don't know what else to say.  The book flies by.  It's not always a pleasant read, and yet, oddly, it is.  It is because while it takes you into the lowest pit, it gives you the lifeline of hope, and it does so concretely and at the same time, absurdly, by appealing to the mystical within us.

Reviewed with great thanks to Netgalley and Inpress Books/Valley Press
Book Review
The Planets, by Dava Sobel (2005)

Confession time: I originally perused this book because the cover is beautiful. 

As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy. As a college Freshman, I took an astronomy course and dropped out after a few weeks. Perhaps now I would be able to grasp the difficult mathematics required for even elementary-level space science. Perhaps. But I think I'm better off with a text like The Planets, which dives into the fascinating history (and indeed much of the science) of our solar system with a sense of whimsy and poetry. 

Unlike, apparently, some who have written reviews of this book, I read a few pages before buying it. I do that regardless of topic or genre. To begin reading something is an investment of my time and energy. I've read criticisms of the approach used here, and I don't understand how that approach wasn't apparent from the beginning. I guess this isn't my problem, but I feel a bit sad to read negative reviews by people who really are not within the intended audience here. This is beginning-level stuff, surely, for a general readership with an interest in, not an expertise with, the material.

I know I haven't retained a lot of the specifics Dava Sobel has shared here, but that's not to say I haven't learned a lot. I also have a strong appreciation for how Sobel shaped each chapter, each treatment of individual bodies of the solar system. I'm happy to have read it.
Book Review
The Expendables: Stories by Antonya Nelson (1989)

This book came out in 1989, my second year of college.  I was 19, and beginning to embrace what became a failed hope that I would pursue the writer's life, specifically in fiction, and my first creative writing instructor at the college level was Antonya Nelson at New Mexico State University.  It was from her that I learned quite a bit, including the somewhat earth-shattering news that there was such a thing as literary fiction.  Literary fiction, to my not-quite-adult mind, was basically non-genre fiction.  Later I'd learn about magical realism, and even later I learned about post-modernism, but one of the most difficult things for me to get around was channeling my imagination into a literary, non-genre sphere.  I don't know that I ever really mastered that.

The more important message, though, something I still embrace and about which I learn more every time I explore the Genre (capital-G, which has to do with a different level of the writing sphere: capital-G for me encompasses Fiction, Poetry, Non-Fiction, Playwriting...and within that, you have Short Stories verses Novels, for example), is that short stories and novels are quite different.

I remember a conversation we had, about how frequently, if a novel can do the same thing as a short story, why would someone write a novel instead?  I suspect that it has to do with "what sells" and that's even more true now than it was twenty-five years ago.  Do people outside of college-level creative writing programs buy short story collections anymore, other than those written by Stephen King?

I hope so.

Nelson is a master of the short story.  The Expendables was her first collection, for which she won the Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction (if you've read the other reviews, you already know this), and whose book jacket bears a blurb from none other than Raymond Carver.

There are a few occasions where the writer's hand is perhaps too visible.  The most obvious for me is in "Helen in Hollywood," but even therein the content, if not the telling, is strong.  Others may disagree, of course. 

My favorite part of the book are the penultimate two stories, the paired "Mud Season" and "Looking for Tower Hall," about a family recovering from the sudden and bewildering death of one of its members.  There are many other strong stories here, and I certainly recommend it to those who like their fiction to explore (and thereby reveal) the humanity within the internal process of living, and questioning, one's place within the specific relationships people find themselves.  I revisited the collection this month, and I'm so glad I did.  I'm an adult now, after all.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Book Review
The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett (1983)
Book 1 of Discworld

I've got a bit of a geeky side.  It doesn't come out as often as I used to imagine.  I used to think I could be "as one" with the cosplayers of the world, those who memorized episodes of TV shows and character names and plot points.  While I haven't analyzed this (and I may not even be qualified to do so), I suspect I'm too mystically and philosophically inclined to get caught up in that ephemera, that culture.  Don't misunderstand: I get very excited at the arrival of a new Star Trek film, and I went on opening weekend to see the second X-Files movie (which I thought was so terrible that I didn't allow myself to get excited about the recent season 10 reboot, and lucky me, because midway through the third episode I couldn't take any more).  I've tempered my reaction though.  Adulthood?  Existential crisis fallout?  Enlightenment?

Who knows?  But hey, I still have enough geek in me to want to pick up The Color of Magic and re-read it after the first time I did so, back in 2000 when I was thirty years old.  I picked it up because all I could remember was a giant turtle, a bar-fight, and a great tumble down a waterfall.  Oh, and magic luggage.  And there was also the little matter that I wanted to kickstart a new entry in my bucket list: to read the whole damn Discworld series.

In case you don't know, that series is 41 books long, plus some shorter interlude works and short stories, plus appendix-type books of things like maps and scientific treatises (or something; I haven't looked at those yet).

There's the geeky part kicking in.

By the way, you can see the entire glorious list right here.

(As an aside, that same geeky impulse drove me to look into the possibility of reading every Star Trek book, in order.  There's a Wikipedia page with THAT list, right here, and if you look you might understand why, at age 45, I decided I had more stuff I'd rather do with the last third, or second half, whatever, of my life.)

The Color of Magic is full of the British wit we all love, thanks also to folks like Douglas Adams and the Monty Python people, with screaming wizards and sighing frogs, and impossible metaphors that really get me giggling.  And you know, thanks for that, Mr. Pratchett.

Turns out, the guy also had an amazing imagination, which is a great thing considering how many volumes (and pages) fill out this series.  I noticed that the paragraphs didn't get shorter as this first book neared its end.  Pratchett wasn't rushing to the ending.  My point: he didn't skimp; the story was brimming from beginning to end with irresistible adventure, color, and humor.  I'll be back for more.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Graphic Novel

Much time has passed, so much that I don't recall the last instance of it, since I have felt as I do right now, having just finished this book.  The Notebooks are more about Russian atrocities against Ukraine and Chechnya, and the second half of the book barely includes any time under the Soviet fist.  The atrocities are multiple and horrific.  I found myself engrossed, appalled, and outraged by the end.

The point is, there's nothing warm or fuzzy going on between these covers.

At a personal level, I find myself grateful for what I have, a sentiment I once found sappy and trite, but how can I complain about my life's purpose when I have a job which allows me food and shelter, even if it's not a good match for my personality and skills?

I'm angry with the Russians in charge, and my anger is renewed towards the leaders and opinion-makers of my own country, who enable similar crimes against innocents in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I'm more disgusted than ever at the insanity of the supposedly normal people of the world, ranting about non-problems while real suffering screams and aches among populations we never see, never hear about anymore.

I don't know the last time I have heard or read a news story about Ukraine.  It's February 2016.  I don't know what's going on there right now, because I forgot, and because the media grew bored telling us about it.

Yes, it's all overwhelming.  But it's pretty sad too.

This book is powerful.  I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to read it early, via an advance copy care of the publisher and NetGalley.

Back in "business"

I want a place to post reviews of books I read, albums I hear, movies I see.  I miss having a blog.

So I'm resurrecting this.  No need to start from scratch.