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Archive for the month “August, 2013”

The Discerning Reader.

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious”- P.D. James

The above quote tickled me when I read it a few weeks ago. Call me guilty: I’ve read my share of bad lit as of late.

The thing is, I’m a stickler for finishing a book even if it is decidedly bad. I recently just finished “One Thousand White Women” by Jim Fergus and a quarter of the way into the book I put it down with the full intention that I would not pick it up again. But there it sat on my nightstand with the library due date looming and glared at me.

“Finish me! Finish me, you coward! You even had the library waste valuable resources shipping me to a different branch! You OWE me!!!”

How can I properly judge and rate a novel if I don’t finish it? Are some books just a waste of time? And most importantly, how has my writing suffered because I’m not reading “with discrimination” any literature that is thoroughly engaging, enlightening, and richly and thoughtfully written? Probably a lot. I couldn’t even be bothered to summarize Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (even though I liked the novel, it wasn’t his greatest work writing-wise).

As I move forward in my 2013 Book Challenge where I am attempting to read all 55 books on my Goodreads “To Read” list, I am still 12 books behind because I refuse to give up on the awful. I think I would be caught up by now if I properly gave up on these ho-hum selections:

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Seth Grahame-Smith

“The Partly Cloudy Patriot” Sarah Vowell

“The Red House” Mark Haddon

“Starting Over” Debbie Macomber (a book club pick. Truly terrible)

“One Thousand White Women” Jim Fergus

However, in their defense, the above are not the type of novels or authors I normally read, so in a way I did broaden my horizons, or “Read widely” as P.D. James suggests. But perhaps that isn’t the point. I want to be a good writer and good writing isn’t strictly limited to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Steinbeck, Joyce, etc. In short, I must become a more discerning reader; to aim broadly but with  precision.

So from now on: I will give each book the first 40 pages to make its case and if the book doesn’t speak to me or is just plain bad, I will let it go. I promise. No, really, I do.

And for fun, here is my post on Goodreads about “One Thousand White Women”:

Good god, if there is a medal awarded to those who “Never give up! Never surrender!” when it comes to finishing books, then I would surely win. And I would win in a major eye-rolling contest as well, had I been given this book to read.

I almost bailed on the novel several times. In fact, I stowed “One Thousand White Women” away on my night stand in favor of another novel and fully intended to return it to the library unfinished. And if it wasn’t for a chance viewing of “Dances With Wolves” that re-sparked my interest in Native Americans circa the 1870s, I never would have picked the book back up again.

In all actuality, the research and care the author has given to the Cheyenne Indians and their tribal customs is the best part of the book. It was also the most fascinating to me because I sadly do not remember ever reading anything about Indians in such detail when I was in school (a topic for another time). He has clearly done his homework about these people and daily life, but it wasn’t enough to make the story as a whole incredibly interesting or even factually relevant. The concept of the book is extremely intriguing: it is supposedly based on an actual event where an Indian chief in the 17th Century (although the story takes place in the 19th) asked a US Colonel for 1000 white women in exchange for horses so that the Indians and Whites could properly assimilate in the new territory on account that their offspring would be of mixed blood. But Fergus takes this idea (that was also never truly acted upon that we know of) and runs with it, using the voice of one of the White women- May Dodd- as his narrator and heroine to tell the tale of what might have actually happened had this treaty gone into effect. And here is where the story goes awry.

The main reason I did not like this book- and this seems to be the consensus of EVERYONE who has reviewed the book- is that it is written by a man in the late 1990’s trying to write from a woman in the 1870’s point of view. And he fails, miserably. May Dodd, talking about herself and her emotions and feelings, is so laughably bad that I actually got quite angry at one point. She’s written as a cross between Samantha and Carrie from “Sex and the City” and in no way did I believe this was a woman from over 100 years ago (at one point he has May woefully exclaim to a fellow white woman in the Indian camp during chores that her Indian name should be “Woman in need of manicure”). Apparently the author feels that only women who are sexually enticing and adventurous can be feisty, passionate, and opinionated. I mean, come on, if you were a well-brought up woman in the Victorian era who was raised in the Church and brought up to believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and there are no role-models around you for what a healthy marriage and sex life should look like and no sex education to speak of either, and you are desperately trying to prove your sanity and that you are not a promiscuous woman, would you REALLY SAY THIS to someone who has the power to free you from a lunatic asylum:

“‘Au Contraire!’ I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, were were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom. ‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack’!”.

And would a woman of limited sexual education who has only had sex with one man in her life at this point in the book, REALLY have this advice to give to another woman on “carnal matters”:

“‘Oh, yes, one final thing- let him believe that he is extremely well endowed, even if, especially if, he is not’. ‘But how will I know whether or not he is well endowed?’ asked my my poor innocent Martha. ‘My dear’, I answered. ‘You do know the difference between, let us say a breakfast sausage and a bratwurst? A cornichon and a cucumber? A pencil and a pine tree?'”

Do you see what I mean when I say “Sex and the City”? In fact, I think the discussion of penis size was even a topic straight from an episode in the series. Were women of the 1870s even talking about penis size? Somehow I suspect this is a modern age concern. Plus, if you only had one lover and porn obviously wasn’t around, how would you even know how to compare one penis to another?

And what does a liberated woman of extreme passion (but who is NOT promiscuous, just another fool for love) do right after she’s freed fro the asylum to go live with the Indians as part of a government experiment? She immediately takes up with a solider as her lover, of course! The whole affair with Captain Bourke is incredibly ridiculous and unnecessary. Again, it just reminded me of how badly written May is as a character. And the other women in the book fare no better. The author’s portrayal of all the white women who participate in the experiment is so flimsy and transparent at best, and they are given no inner life. May is the only one among them who is written as showing any intellect whatsoever. And the fact that Jim Fergus felt the need to constantly write the dialogue in each woman’s dialect was cringe-inducing:

Says Gretchen Fathauer (even the name is awful), a stereotypically large Swiss German-speaking woman: “Vell, I tink de savages not be so choosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?”

Says Meegy and Susan Kelly, Irish twins who SURPRISE, SURPRISE! are a bunch of hooligans: “It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoont the likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”

Says Daisy Lovelace, Southern Belle and token bigot: “Why Daddy lost everythin’ during the wah, suh,”

The only person the author chose, very wisely, to not write with a regional dialect was Phemie Washington, a freed slave. Obviously, he probably would have been lambasted and critically panned for having Phemie speak like a character out of “Gone with the Wind”, but why do it to the others? Why do it all, I ask? Regardless of the character’s color and station in life, the dialogue still comes off sounding ignorant, stereotypical, and vaguely cruel.

Part of the reason I think the story suffers so is that it is too plot heavy, but I also think that the way the novel is structured was not the best way to tell the story. Using journal entries and letters, we only get to know May through May and she has an awfully high opinion of herself. And while the author is obsessed with May’s sexual appetites, apparently May herself is not too concerned about daily life as a woman in the Plains among a people and a culture that is completely foreign to her. Um, I think my first thought- and the first thought of women everywhere since the dawn of time- would be, “what do I do and where do I go when I get my period and where can I poop in private”. And wouldn’t she wonder what an Indian woman would do in this situation anyway and try to learn from her? This is not discussed (probably because men forget this happens to women every single month, and anyway, the author conveniently avoids this topic by having May and everyone else get pregnant right away), but there are several discussions about how May likes to bathe and be naked and how she likes to smell good while everyone else smells awful. Halfway through the novel, the author abandons the concept of having May write letters to her family and it is never explained why. The writing often feels clunky and uneven when it is coming strictly from May Dodd, and I wish wish wish Jim Fergus didn’t feel the need to end the book so abruptly, either!

I do have to say, in defense of the book, that it does get better as you read through it. The first half is truly awful and is the sole reason I wanted to shove this book away and never look at it again. Once he starts describing the Cheyennes and their tribe, the book picks up immensely. This is ultimately why my review is two stars and not one. It’s never a “hard” read, either, and eventually the pages flew by. But I’m left wanting something by the very end, and it makes me feel unsatisfied and just plain sad. This book could have been so much better had it been put in more capable historical-fiction-writing hands, such as Charles Frazier or Geraldine Brooks.

Oh, the horror, the horror!

I recently finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and sadly you won’t find my review here because I was just plain exhausted by the end of that book. Someday I will appropriately categorize my thoughts but the novel left me dazed and and on edge, but in a good way I might add. I recommend reading it not only because it is an interesting and dazzling addition to the time-travel canon, but if you are indeed a King fan you will be quite surprised by this book. If Stephen King owns the title of “King of Horror” then 11/22/63 is an extreme departure from his usual fare. Not that the novel about the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have its horrific moments- there are a few cringe worthy pages- but on the whole the novel is more of an emotional struggle and response to the passage of time, aging, and our obsession with defining, and perhaps redefining, personal and cultural history .

Several reviewers of the book have remarked that this is probably King’s most personal work, and I agree. His main character is only 35 years old, but carries the weight and burden of someone who is being written by a man in his late 60s who has surely seen his fair share of history and most likely would love to go back and change some past regrets. As we get older, what do we regret the most? Wish we can change? Do we know instinctively that no matter what we change, our lives might have ended up on the same path regardless? This is all scary enough, indeed.

But at the very least, I finished the novel feeling unsettled (and not unsatisfied, I might add, lest it appear I didn’t enjoy the novel).  It haunted me in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. The book was so different from King’s earlier works and books that I read and was more than a little disturbed by that I got to thinking about scary books and how they continue to haunt you. Perhaps we need to redefine what we consider “scary” anyway. Someone on an NPR report a few weeks ago claimed that horror novels are not nearly as scary as films and the visual medium. I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree!

Just because a film, or any visual medium, can scare and thrill with images (our worst fears gruesomely coming to life on screen) rather than words doesn’t in any way mean that the power of imagination cannot interpret the words on the page to mean something equally terrifying and horrific. Just recently, in fact, I scared myself silly simply by reading the plot description on a copy of Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon. From what little I read, the novel struck me as incredibly violent and terrifying- certainly my worst nightmare as a woman come to life. Needless to say, I decided against the book.

There are just a handful of books that I would categorize as truly horrific and disturbing, and this select pile has continued to haunt me since the first reading. I remember being scared; the palpable fear that crept up the base of my spine and took root in my imagination: This could happen to you, this could happen to you… And while I disagree with the NPR reporter who says films are much scarier than books, I do agree that film has its own special brand of POWER over the imagination. What I like about reading gripping books is that you get to crawl inside the mind of the character as the horror happens, rather than watch the horror unfold on film. To me, there is a big difference in the fear factor!

Here are my top 5 all-time scary books:

(An interesting thing to note that I hadn’t realized until now: all of my choices involve some sort of violence towards women. Obviously we now know what I find truly terrifying!)

1. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

I’ve written about AP before in a different post. This book ABSOLUTELY terrified me at first reading. I distinctly remember asking my friend who was visiting at the time to come in and hold my hand as I fell asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life! The book is gory, violent, and can be very, very dark. What shocked me the most from reading the book was that Ellis mixed humor and terror in equal measure. You literally didn’t know when the next gruesome and cringe-worthy moment was going to happen. The chainsaw scene with the prostitutes, the torture he uses on his friend’s fiancée with the rat, the careless disposal of all of the bodies in a dirty tub filled with lime in Hell’s Kitchen as if they were just trash… all of this disturbed me to my core.

2. Carrie, Stephen King

I wouldn’t say Carrie is as horrifying as it is disturbing. I don’t remember being particularly frightened by this book, per se, but I was horrified, rather, by the cruelty and abuse Carrie suffered. Her mother, especially, just creeped me out. Still, to this day I remember the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read this book and the sorrow and fear I felt at the end of the book when Carrie wreaks destruction and does get some revenge but is still doomed, and I count it among my all-time scary reads.

3. Intensity, Dean Koontz

Ok, this book nearly changed my life, or I should say that it changed my driving habits and taught me to be ever-vigilante in the face of strangers and policemen, alike. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about. You, too, might also have a necessary egress plan in place for any remote and unfamiliar place you stay in from now on. I would stay up late in my dorm room reading this book and praying that my roommates would be coming home soon so I wouldn’t be alone. What scared me most was that violence against women can just be so random and out of our control. I instantly knew what yahoos and maniacs I might be up against now that I was moving from young adulthood to adulthood, away from my parents and still in that ever curious and trusting mode most women in their late teens/early twenties find themselves in. It terrified me that people could be so cruel, especially those in positions of service and power. The book is aptly titled, as I found myself intensely on edge with a racing heart throughout the entire course of the novel!

4. Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

A stand-out part scientific/part sci-fi thriller that gets you right in the gut with its plausibility. I’ve always had a hard time with ghost stories and supernatural stories. Usually I can get away with watching “Paranormal Activity” or “The Ring” and without being super scared. I don’t know why, but perhaps I’m skeptical about the supernatural actually harming me. Serial killers, on the other hand…

Relic, however, will terrify you and the supernatural aspect of it makes sense, too. The authors do an amazing job of keeping the audience in suspense right until the very end. Meanwhile, “the relic” goes on its munching and crunching spree (this was the grossest part of the novel- the descriptions of the gore!) and killing off main characters with abandon. You can feel and almost smell the fear from each person as he/she hears the tell-tale clicks and gets a whiff of the awful “goatish” smell from whatever the hell it is that’s been hunting them in this dark and foreboding museum.

5. The Collector, John Fowles

Another book to add to the “Things You Need to Watch Out For as a Woman” pile. Not so much a horror novel either as it is a psychological thriller. What woman doesn’t absolutely fear being locked away in a creepy basement with no hope of escape from an equally creepy loner type who actually thinks some day the two of you will get married and live happily ever after? And this stuff really happens!! Think back to the recent discovery of women being held captive for years by the man in Ohio. Frightening! And if his psychological torture wasn’t bad enough, the Collector subtly goes from obsessed to disinterested very fast, and it was absolutely awful to read about this poor woman fight for her life and realize she’s going to slowly and painfully die by illness and not even at the hands of her captor.

So how about you? Which books would you rank as absolutely scary and horrifying? And what scares you the most: the paranormal or serial killers?

Paste Magazine’s Top 12 Libraries in Fiction

Click link below and check out some of Paste Magazine’s picks for the best libraries in fiction.

Do you agree? Any libraries to add to this list? I actually have a penchant for old libraries. Funnily enough, this list involves the movie “Clue” and that was always my favorite library because it included a secret passageway. And who wouldn’t want to get lost in the magic of Hogwart’s library just for one day!

My pick to add: The Cemetery of Lost Books library from “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2013/08/best-fictional-libraries.html

 

The Paperbook Collective Has Arrived!

TA-DA!!!!

The Paperbook Collective is here! You will find two pieces written by yours truly, as well as contributions by several talented and intriguing artists, writers, and poets from around the globe. Huge congrats to creator Jayde-Ashe Thomas for this endeavor. It all started with The Paperbook Blog!

I highly urge you to check out this new collection because the world needs more of this kind of collaboration. Also, if you want to get involved and have something you would like to contribute Jayde-Ashe is taking submissions for Volume 2! Details in Issue One.

The Paperbook Collective ~ Issue One 2013 

SHARE, SHARE, SHARE!!

xo Girl with Thoughts.

Book Review: “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” by Sarah Vowell

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

“The Partly Cloudy Patriot”, Sarah Vowell

Well, I have to admit I was partly cloudy as to what essentially this book was supposed to be about. Is it an exploration of a history nerd’s civic pride? Her dabbles in Americana? Memoir? Random thoughts about cultural what-not? Social commentary on the state of government and politics in this country? Yes to all of the above! And this is why I remain fuzzy with regards to whether or not I truly enjoyed reading this book.

Sarah Vowell’s novel of essays gets off to a great start with a piece about America’s most beloved president Abe Lincoln that was truly compelling. Her thoughtful and insightful writing actually made me question my own civic pride. Or more specifically: where did my civic pride go? I was once like Vowell- a history geek with a penchant for all things civics. I was on the Constitutional Civics debate team in high school, and like Vowell, also couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could vote. She rekindled my curiosity about turning points in our country. Have I even read the Gettysburg Address? Do I really know the details behind The Civil War? Can I quote Thomas Paine? Do I even remember who Thomas Paine is? The answer is mostly likely “Probably Not” to all. But her writing got me interested in actually making the pilgrimage to see the Nixon Library, of which, prior to reading the book, I wasn’t even aware was open to the public. That Vowell manages to be educational, whimsical, charming, and thought provoking all at the same time is a feat for any writer and even though I am familiar with her work from NPR’s “This American Life”, I was still surprised just the same.

However, for every essay that makes me analyze our government and our duty as a patriot, she tempers it with a non sequitur essay about Tom Cruise, or working at a map store, or an ode to a deceased football coach, among others. Her shift from topic to topic actually made it hard for me to fully engage in the book. Again, it became a question of what is this book really about? I guess you could make the argument that all of these essays really have something to say about America in general: our obsession with the good ol’ American boy next-door Tom Cruise, for example, or America’s favorite violent past time, football. But that is not what these essays were about, at least that is not the point of view I got from Vowell. What I sensed was that these essays were filler for a novel that is supposed to be about her adventures in America as a hard core patriot and she lacked enough material to make her case.

Even David Sedaris’s books of essays- another “This American Life” alum and probably the most celebrated- work the best when there is a through-line. Without a central theme, Vowell’s novel feels like a cast off collection of certain essays she couldn’t get published elsewhere. I mean, I’m all for variation and not every essay has to be similar in tone as the previous one. However, following up a particularly intriguing piece about Gore’s presidential campaign and sensational journalism with an essay about her love of pop-a-shot basketball, I found myself scratching my head. It’s ok to bring in comic relief, but even comic relief should have something to say and this essay about basketball. as well as a few others on similar fluffy topics, really didn’t say much. Its placement in the book easily diminished some of the power behind her points of view.

Furthermore, not only do David Sedaris and Sarah Vowel have unique writing styles, they also have have unique speaking voices and many of their pieces are often better understood and appreciated when heard read aloud by the writer. Anyone familiar with Vowell from the radio or interviews will know that she has a strong lisp and a higher pitched voice than most. And I don’t mean to be sexist, but you are almost completely taken aback that such brilliant and hysterical commentary can come from such a voice. Several of the pieces in “Partly Cloudy Patriot” I think I would have enjoyed better had I actually heard her speaking them aloud. Her writing tends to lend itself to aural storytelling and in the case of “Underground Lunchroom” and “The Strenuous Life” (essays from the book), some of the charm is lost because they don’t have her quirky voice to go with them.

What I do love about Sarah Vowell and reading her books or listening to her on the radio is that she is a fantastic observationist. She sees the world from a true citizen’s point of view- caught in the eternal conflict of loving her country and being dissatisfied with her place in it as a citizen. I absolutely adore the following quotes that best reveal who she is, her world view, and what makes her writing so compelling when she’s right on track:

“I’m a sucker for Puritan New England and the Civil War. Because those two subjects feature the central tension of American life, the conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good…I’m two parts loner and one part joiner, so I feel at home delving into the epic struggles for togetherness”.

“The most remarkable thing about the Mounties was their mandate: one law. One law for everyone, Indian or white. The United States makes a big to-do about all men being created equal, but we’re still working out the kinks of turning that idea into actual policy”.

“Walking in New York is a battle of the wills, a balance of aggression and kindness. I’m not saying it’s always easy. The occasional ‘Watch where you’re going, bitch’ can, I admit, put a crimp in one’s day. But I believe all the choreography has made me a better person. The other day, in the subway at 5:30, I was crammed into my sweaty, crabby fellow citizens, and I kept whispering under my breath ‘we the people, we the people’…reminding myself that we’re all in this together and they had as much right- exactly as much right- as I to be in the muggy underground on their way to wherever…”

But aside from the sections of the book about civics and history, which I loved, other essays and portions of the book just felt unfocused and didn’t work for me. When I finished the book and then proceeded to read the copyright information (as I always do for some reason when I am done with a book), I discovered that 11 out of 19 essays had been previously published elsewhere. Considering that I already had a problem following the logic of the book based on its mish-mashed theme, I feel this is almost lazy book selling at its best. Also taking into consideration it’s not a long novel anyway, 11 essays means over a third of the book is not new material. This absolutely irked me, especially since almost half of these 11 previously published essays, including pieces about New German cinema, shooting hoops, Thanksgiving with her family, Tom Cruise, and dead football coach Tom Landry, really had no business being in the book anyway.

Last week or so I saw an interview with Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, talking about the posthumous release of deceased essayist David Rakoff’s latest novel. She was absolutely whip-smart, funny, and her jabs and zingers even threw well-seasoned comedian John Oliver for a complete loop. I wish the same energy, vibe, and humor had been applied to this book. Granted, “Partly Cloudy Patriot” is over 10 years old, so she has probably had plenty of time to refine her humor, and I hope, write much more focused books.

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