Category Archives: Book Reviews

Gone Girl is Just Okay.

I’m just now getting around to the summer blockbuster book of this year, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is a little backwards of me, I know, seeing as I write a blog that consists largely of book reviews telling other people what to read, but when a book suddenly becomes so popular that even that one friend you’ve always secretly thought might be illiterate has read it, I loose all want to explore it for myself. It’s like all my pent-up strong-willedness comes bubbling to the surface, and I just can’t make myself read that one gotta-read book. (I still haven’t read Girl With a Dragon Tattoo for this very reason.) Often times that means that I finally read it a season or two late and then realize why everyone was so gaga about it in the first place.

This instance was like that. Sort of.

This book review is Cambria approved.

I probably wouldn’t have picked Gone Girl up if my book club hadn’t selected it this month. Suspense isn’t usually my thing, but this one was intriguing. The female half of a seemingly idyllic couple, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary. With a messy scene left at the house, the police start investigating the abduction and possibly homicide. As the evidence starts rolling in, all signs point to Nick, Amy’s bar-owning, ex-journalist husband. Cleaned-up blood, his lack of emotion, their marital and money problems, and a bombshell secret make it seem like Nick is a man with something to hide. But as Nick lawyers up and both his family and the public turn against him, something still seems off. What really happened to Amy Elliot Dune? Did Nick kill her, or is there a much more sinister force at work?

Let’s start with the good. Gillian Flynn is an incredibly gifted writer. Although I don’t think she fully understands the meaning of the word poignant (How does one smell or look poignant?), her prose is expertly dealt out and she captures the voice of her various characters well. In addition, the plot is well delivered, fast paced but never rushed,  and I like the way she organized the chapters, flipping back and forth between Nick and Amy’s perspectives, and using diary entries to catch the reader up on the couple’s background. I like the little clues that she left the reader in the first section that later made much more sense in the second and third. This was, overall, a creative and original offering on Ms Flynn’s part.

Now for the bad. It’s rare for me to be engrossed in a book that I don’t end up liking, but that’s exactly what happened here. All of her characters- from Nick and Amy to their families and the police- were singularly unlikable. Sure, I understood them. I understood why Nick cheated, why her parents turned on him, why the Ozark rednecks were thieves, why Amy (to a point) was like she was. But I couldn’t like any of them, even in the beginning before I knew Nick’s secret and when Amy was supposed to be likable. The only one I really liked was Nick’s mom, and she is a periphery character. I’m not some modern Pollyanna who only enjoys books full of sunshine; I enjoy Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and my fair share of drama and true crime and human messiness. But while I was enthralled, like a train wreck you can’t look away from, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. I felt about it the same way I feel about Ernest Hemingway, or certain movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus- I can appreciate the craftmanship, but it left me felling a bit hollow.

Also, I didn’t like all the cursing. I’m not a prude by any means, I know curse words exist and I’m not opposed to them in literature if they serve a purpose. They could have served a purpose here, but I think they were overplayed- a few too many f-bombs dropped, and suddenly no one cares about the damage anymore, they just want the noise and shrapnel to stop. And I never ever, for any reason at all, approve of the c— word. Ever. If offends me down to my very marrow. It’s almost worse when it’s uttered or written by a woman. I know someone out there will think it’s empowering or very feminist, but it’s almost like a betrayal; even if it’s not true, every use of that word by a woman feels like some sort of collusion with the misogynist of the world, like a small admittance that maybe women aren’t really worth more than that. The argument could be made that it’s usage here fits the profile of the characters, but I feel like any usage in any context says it’s okay in other contexts. I just…no. You can’t convince me it is ever okay.

So there you have it. Gone Girl is not bad, but it’s not dazzling. It earns a solid three-out-of-five stars from me.

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Book Reviews? Who Does Those?

Strange little women who are putting off writing real things for real jobs, that’s who!

But in all seriousness, I believe I promised book reviews a couple of weeks ago and then sorely failed to deliver, yes?

First, a few items of general business:

  1. It’s the second week of Poetry Month! Feel free to join in- it’s so simple. Just work on one poem every day for the 30 days of October. I’ve been doing pretty well so far, and I’m feeling very exciiiiiteeeed! I plan to share some of what I;m working on on the 5’s- the 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc.
  2. I walk/jogged a 5k mud run and obstacle course on Saturday. I wore a t-shirt and tennis shoes.  Appreciate it, because you won’t see it often. (Tennis shoes, the vile things, are nothing but cruel prisons for your feet. And t-shirts make me feel sloppy, and I despise feeling sloppy.)
  3. I miss real fall weather. I’ve been wearing fall pieces is rebellion against the warm weather (some goldenrod corduroys here, a flannel button up there, and boots always), but it hasn’t really been making me feel any better. At least the weather lady is predicting it will stay in the 70’s here all week instead of the 90’s it was this time last week. (Yes, the high on the first day of October was 93. Outrageous!)
  4. Gratuitous animal picture! Because it’s Monday, and I need some cute in my life.

    Ma-am! We’re trying to sleep, leave us alone!

And now, for something completely different. (Name that 1970’s television show!)

I read State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett for a book club that I, sadly, did not get to attend. The book’s protagonist, Marina Singh, is a doctor contentedly working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when her lab partner, Anders, goes missing in the Amazon Rain Forest. He had been sent on a reconnaissance mission for their company, charged with making contact with one Dr. Annick Swenson and her team, who are supposed to be developing a new fertility drug.  Anders’s wife asks Marina to go down to Brazil and find out as much as she can about Anders’s death, and her company asks her to go to complete his original mission. But once there Marina discovers that nothing is as it seems, and her own hidden past with Dr. Swenson threatens to knock her entire mission, and perhaps the entire life she has built for herself, off course.

I asked Oscar his thoughts on this oval. He just licked the cover and said, “Seems tasty.” He’s a very helpful dog.

Patchette is a talented writer, deftly creating the tangible, stuffy atmosphere of a jungle village, and drawing the reader in with prose that tics along at just the right pace. Or at least she hits the right pace and pitch for 75% of her story. My main complaint was this: Patchett took her time with lush prose and complex story threads only to abandon them all much too quickly in the conclusion, which was unsatisfying at best. The last several chapters were rushed without explanation, as if Ms. Ann forgot she had a deadline and just bolted out the minimal skeleton of a conclusion in order to meet it. In her rush to end this otherwise good book, she let several story threads that previously seemed important fall completely by the wayside, and there were two events she introduced that literally made me angry. I will not share what they are so I don’t spoil the ending for anyone, but if you read the book to its conclusion you will know exactly what I am talking about. One seemed totally out of character for both parties involved, and the other just seemed like an easy, but ultimately meaningless and unfulfilling, way to solve a problem.

Other than that there are just a few mechanical issues. Marina Singh, our supposed protagonist, ended up being a very flat character, and she seems to be more of a stand-in for everyone else and not a true character in and of herself. Also, there were a lot of snakes involved. I wish someone had told me this before hand because I do not, I repeat I DO NOT deal with snakes. There was a scene with an anaconda and I literally cried. If you are as snake sensitive as I am (just typing that vile word so many time makes me cringe inside) skip the anaconda event!

All in all, this book would earn a solid three stars from me. Pick it up at the library or borrow it from a friend, but use the $15.99 jacket price to pick up a better book.

Perhaps that money could go towards this next book instead, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is one of our countries forgotten shining moments. In response to Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle the United States decided to host their own World’s Fair in 1893. They had made a remarkably poor showing in Paris, where Eiffel’s Tower was first revealed, and were determined to “Out eiffel Eiffel” and show they world what America could do. All the major American cities- New York, Washington, St. Louis, Chicago- wanted a chance to host the world, but Chicago perhaps wanted it the most. Despite being the second largest city in the US, Chicago had a reputation as being a backwater, culturally lacking city, and they wanted to prove the posh societies in New York and Washington wrong.

Read this book!

Larson tells two tales here, really. The first is of Daniel Burnham, the architect charged with making the fair a reality, and how against enormous odds he created an expedition that not only matched Paris but outpaced it, changing American culture and architecture- and even electricity- forever. But inside of Burnham’s wonder world, a devil lurked, and therein lies the second story.

Largely forgotten by history, H.H. Holmes was a doctor, pharmacist, landlord, and con man who operated mere blocks away from the fair. He was also one of the first prolific serial killers in America’s history. Drawn to Chicago by the large numbers of young women who were moving there alone, and the excellent cover the notoriously rough city with an overworked and understaffed police force would give him, he killed at least 27 people between 1891 and 1893 before the authorities caught on to what he was doing. It is a chilling but fascinating tale that Larson tells with both precision and the appropriate amount of horror.

Larson deals purely with fact, but his writing flows so seamlessly and is executed with such superior prose that I forgot I was reading nonfiction. History buffs and appreciators of good stories alike will devour this book. It will definitely be on my favorite books of 2012 list, of that I have no doubt.

I’m now working my way through another of Larson’s best seller, In the Garden of Beasts, as well as Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours. I’ve also picked up Rhoda Jenzen’s newest offering Does this Church Make Me Look Fat?, and Catherynn M. Valente’s second Fairyland book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. I have lots of work-y things to do this weekend, but my only weekend plan is to read, so I will tell you all about these hopefully wonderful tales very soon.

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What I’ve Been Reading, Part 2.

I think it’s only fair to warn you that these are mostly books that I have started but not finished yet. Some of them will be finished very soon, though, because I’m doing another week of trying to read a book every day. My writing has been slumpish this past week, and a good dose of vigorous reading usually helps me un-slump. Anyway, all that to say that my opinions may change by the end. We shall see.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones: A reader recommended this book to me several months back after a post about comfort books. I finally picked it up at my local Barnes and Noble last month, but just haven’t gotten around to really diving into it. I have dipped my toes in, though, and so far I’m intrigued. A girl who is turned into an old woman? A castle that moves about like it’s alive? If this book doesn’t absolutely tickle my brain I’ll be shocked.

Afternoons With Emily by Rose MacMurray: I’m about a fourth  of the way through this chunkster challenge book about a fictional girl who becomes close friends with the ever eccentric Emily Dickenson. I like it, but I have to be in the right mood to get into it otherwise I find myself reading the same pages over and over. I’m waiting for the perfect afternoon to curl up with some tea and really get into this promising story.

I Capture the Castle by Doddie Smith: I love going to a book store without any specific book in mind and just perusing until I find some unexpected treasure. I almost always find something fantastic, like this book which I first discovered in 2008 on just such an expedition. Doddie Smith is most famous for her classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but I can’t figure out why she isn’t better known for this coming of age novel, which is narrated by 17 year-old Cassandra who lives with her impoverished family in a rundown old castle. Witty, charismatic, and just the right amount of quirky, I immediately fell in love with this book. I am sorely overdue for a re-read.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Y’all, I’ve joined a book club! I’m fairly new to San Diego, and making friends takes time. We were lucky that Tyler joined a company full of wonderful people that we have become true friends with, but outside of that I have yet to meet many people, and almost no book-ish ones. Them I met Gina. Her husband also works for Tyler’s company, and I think she may be my long-lost twin. And she has asked me to join her book club, where I am hoping to meet many more kindred spirits. This is the book club choice for the month of September, and  also my book for today. Why on earth have I never read anything by Ann Patchett before?! I could barely force myself to put it down long enough to write this post. An official review will follow soon. (Also, book club meets for the first time this coming weekend. I will definitely let you know how it goes.)

Half Broke Horses by Sheila Walsh: I read Walsh’s dynamic debut, The Glass Castle, in a single afternoon. Her sophomore offering has sat on my shelf for a while, often passed over for newer prospects. But after reading just 30 pages yesterday, I already know that this is going to be a new favorite. Walsh’s voice is pitch perfect and her story is, thus far, captivating.

Lit by Mary Karr: May Karr may very well be the perfect writer, if not the perfect person. Her word choice, the tone she strikes, and her honesty have all turned this into one of the best memoirs I’ve read despite the sometimes difficult subject matter. And I’m not even finished yet. I plan to do a full review when I’ve completed it, so I won’t say too much more, except I will be reading much more of Mary’s work in hopes that some of her genius with the English language rubs off.

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2 by Mary Oliver: I bought this book during a Modern Poetry class in college, but I could never get into Mary Oliver’s work, and then I discovered Denise Levertov and officially shelved this poet. But then yesterday I was looking for something to read for my book of the day, and nothing was really grabbing me. So I took Mary off the shelf again and what do you know, I feel in love. She writes a lot about nature, but her poems are so much deeper, about so much more, than just simply animals and plants. I read all 172 pages of poems yesterday. My mind in blown and my soul is opened. I think I’ve discovered a new life-long favorite.

On Writing by Stephen King: Like I mentioned before, I had a rough time in regards to writing last week, so I thought it was the perfect time to break out this highly recommended memoir/writing advice book. I’ve tried to read a few pages every day, but I’m so fascinated that I’ll probably end up reading it all in one big chunk later this week.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi: I first read this book in a World Literature class in college. That was my favorite college course ever, and this tied with Dr. Zhivago as my favorite book from that class. Nafisi is a literature professor who used to teach in Tehran. She and seven of her most dedicated students started reading classics from the Western canon in secret, and this is the story of that experience. It is a true testament to the power of literature as well as a fascinating exploration of womanhood in the face of tyranny. Like with I Capture the Castle, I’m simply itching to read this fantastic memoir again.

So, after I finish all these up, I’ll have a few weeks worth of books that I actually own to read and then I’ll run out of books! I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you why I simply cannot EVER let that happen! So I need some suggestions. So far I plan to get:

  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson
  • Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2) by Deborah Harkness
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank by Nathan Englander
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
  • Where I Was From by Joan Didion
  • Love, Life, and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick
  • Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth

I know that seems like quite a list, but if these are all as good as I anticipate, they will last we a few weeks at best.  Plus, I think my reading is getting faster. That means that in a month, I may not own any books I haven’t read. Eeek! And though I have a long to-read list, nothing else is jumping out at me. So, dear friends, give me your suggestions! What books do you love, what are you dying to read, what great new tomes would my life be incomplete without?

And finally, I leave you with a gratuitous animal picture. Because I just love my little furballs oh-so-much. And because they aaaaalmost like each other, and it’s starting to get cute!

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cambria, Oscar, Poetry, writing

What I’ve Been Reading, Part 1

The funny thing about making resolutions is that you never know what the future will bring you, so you never really know if your resolution will be practical, or even possible. I mean, a girl can vow to lose fifty pounds, but if she gets pregnant that just is not happening. (No, no! Don’t do it! I can see you doing it- your brain is jumping to conclusions! I’m not hinting at anything, mom and various baby-crazed friends!) You can vow to travel more, but if you break both of your legs in a skiing accident you’ll probably be more home-bound than expected. Or maybe your priorities will shift and your resolution to write a new chapter in your book every day won’t matter as much as making what you do write really good.

As I’ve stated in earlier posts, I’m probably not going to meet my goal of reading 104 books this year, and I’m okay with that. Instead of continuing my obsessive reading habits of years past, I’m spending a lot more time with my husband and friends, and I’ve made time for some other stuff in my life, like cooking more and adopting a dog and writing more and taking really long, refreshing walks.

But lest you think I’ve given up on my great love of reading, here are a few of the books I’ve read since the spring:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: I really wanted to love this book. The premise is everything I adore. I love fantasy oh-so-very-much, and the prospect of a book about a sort of Hogwarts for grown-ups seemed so promising. (And this book is for grown-ups. Like, pay-all-their-own-bills grown-ups. Anyone under legal voting age need not apply.) The world Grossman built at Brakebills was fascinating, and the story was solid and well told, but I just couldn’t love it. It was, in a word, stark. Cynical and jaded would also have sufficed. And I am none of those things. I can normally stand them in doses, but even Grossman’s wordsmithing genius could not sweeten the morose tones enough for me. I probably won’t read the sequel.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: Move over Twilight. This is a story that has Vampires aplenty, but it’s actually well-written, and it won’t make your teenager think a boy secretly watching her sleep is romantic and desirable. Diana Bishop is a witch who doesn’t want to be, Matthew Clairmont is an old vampire of great power, and Ashmole 782 is the magical manuscript that draws them together. And also attracts he attention of some of the most dangerous and influential members of the underground world of magic. No big deal. Harkness takes all the preconceived notions of magic and modern fantasy and turns them on their ear so effectively that it creates a wholly unique experience. I really enjoyed this book, and I will definitely be reading this sequel.

The Death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, retold by Peter Ackroyd: Any Arthurian fan or folklore buff will enjoy Ackroyd’s modernization of the classic Le Morte d’Arthur. He remains true to the spirit of the original stories while making the language more digestible and taking out some of Malory’s superfluous repetitions. Not a text-book retelling, but perfect for the layman enthusiast.

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson: This delightful little young adult fantasy is a quick but good read. It’s not as deeply developed as say, the first Harry Potter or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Seriously. If you haven’t read that one yet, do it!), but it’s the first of a trilogy, so I’m hoping Wilson will broaden and deepen the story as we go. It really annoys me when authors don’t fully develop the potential of a story just because it’s for kids. Children aren’t stupid, they can handle a real story and probably do it better than many adults. So please, Mr. Wilson, please develop this well. There is so much potential here! End impromptu rant.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: Speaking of a well-developed children’s story, I just have to re-visit this beloved classic every now and then. As the term “beloved classic” implies, it does not disappoint. In fact, it’s so well-loved that this little blurb was probably unnecessary.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims: I started this book last year, but never got past chapter three. It just wasn’t the right time. Until now. I’m about three-fourths of the way through this book that is both the story of the creation of one of the worlds best-loved books and a biography of its brilliantly eccentric creator. I have long loved all of E.B. White’s children’s books, but now I’m falling in love with the man himself. I’m going to have to read some of his essays very soon.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: I’m about half-way through this novel which follows the lives of various reporters at an English-language newspaper in Rome. Written with a journalistic sensibility, but still somehow plump with detail, I am really loving this book. So far my favorite chapter was the second, in which a lazy obituary writer goes to interview a famous, dying intellectual…without telling her he’s interviewing her for her own obituary. One of the best things about Rachman’s writing is the one-liners. My favorite? “If history has taught us anything, Arthur muses, it is that men with mustaches must never achieve positions of power.” Hipsters beware.

I’ve read several other books as well, but I’ll turn them into a part two for the sake of time and space and not getting bored.

Wait. What’s that? Adopted a puppy you say? Tell us about him, you say? Well, okay. I guess I can do that before I skadaddle out of here.

This is Oscar.

He’s the Boston Terrier we adopted a few weeks ago. We think he’s about two years-old, and despite the fact that he always looks like he’s frowning, he is actually very cheerful and snuggly and sweet. He loves every one, including Cambria, who is okay with him being here as long as he leaves her food and toys alone. And as long as she does not get left out of anything and is still the Queen of everything. Naturally. I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of our new boy in the future. Those goggly eyes and scrunchy face are so adorably photogenic that I may or may not have used up all the memory on my phone and had to erase a bunch of duplicate shots. Oooops!

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ADUD: Attention Deficit Unable-To-Finish-A-Book Disorder

I know it’s highly irresponsible, but I’m self-diagnosing. I, sadly, have discovered that I have a rare condition called Attention Deficit Unable-To-Finish-A-Book Disorder, more commonly referred to as ADUD. It’s just so obvious I couldn’t help myself, and I didn’t want to waste copay money so a doctor could tell me what I already know. WebMD is totally written by real doctors anyway, right? These are my symptoms: I can’t finish a book, I can’t seem to write and finish anything, blog or otherwise (This blog you are reading now? It took four days to finish, give or take a day or two. Weekends don’t count because then the husband is home, and he is always distracting no matter what.), and I’m so hyper these days, I may or may not have had a solo dance party in my apartment yesterday during my established writing time. I’m sure my neighbors appreciated me blaring my Bubblegum Oldies Pandora station at concert volume instead of the quiet Vivaldi that I normally put on when I write. Also, I bought a book just because it had a shiny cover. I’m a regular wild child over here!

Okay, maybe not. But the ADUD thing is real, as is the shiny cover. I’m turning into a magpie with a dancing craze. So while I come to terms with my new avian identity, here are all the books I should be finishing soon, maybe.

There is a whole lotta fantasy happening here. Fantasy addiction, anyone?

  1. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff: I started this on the heels of One Thousand White Women, and realized not fifty pages in that I needed a break from woman stories. But it’s been peeking at me from my book stack, and I think it’s time is almost here. Plus, I recently watched the show Sisterwives, so the historical plight of the Mormon polygamist is fascinating to me right now. (I know what you’re thinking, Sisterwives, Amanda? Really? I though you were better than that! I know, I though so too! But it’s the classic pull of the train wreck you just can’t look away from. It’s the reason traffic jams go on long after the accident has been moved to the side of the road, and it’s how good housewives go bad.)
  2. 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson: This is the book of the famed shiny cover. I haven’t actually started it yet. Oooops.
  3. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: This is my beef. I am on page 409 of the first book of your Game of Thrones series. This world fascinating. Martin reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien minus the whole linguistics genius deal he had going on. Also, by page 409 of The Lord of the Rings, I knew what on Middle Earth was going on. The scope of this story is just enormous, and there are so many threads that it’s taking me a while to piece it all together. In the hands of a writer even a teeny bit less skilled than Martin, this whole colossus would have already fallen apart. Also, the language is heavy. Due to the medieval feel of the story the sentences go down thick, and they stick to your innards so effectively that this is a book to be read and digested in well proportioned meals, not in one enormous gulp. So I’m still happily slogging my way through, trying to figure out for the life of me what is happening.
  4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling: Sometimes you just need an old friend to sit at home in your jammies with, and that is what Harry Potter has become to me. Hogwarts in the ultimate comfort food of novels to many a kid from my generation, and I am no exception. So I haven’t finished it, but there’s no rush. Harry understands.
  5. The Magicians by Lev Grossman: I’m actually really engrossed in this book, and I’ve been steadily finishing chunks of it at a time.  It really is like Harry Potter for grown-ups. And it is for grown-ups. It has a darker feel, you immediately know there will be no perfectly tied up, cheerful finish for our hero. Quentin will not go home to the Muggles slightly disgruntled over their nastiness but happy overall because he is, after all, the Boy Who Lived. Magic is harder to come by in this world, and its consequences are harder. But the story is, so far, really good. My only complaint? Grossman, use an edit button! There is an excess of profanity here. I’m not one of those people who gets offended by a well placed curse when it’s used in character, or to communicate something more effectively, but when used with such frequency profabity starts to feel like a writer’s crutch, a way to make a point without having to be creative, or even worse, just a way to seem like cool. And that’s just sad, since in all other areas Grossman is proving to be a capable writer.
  6. The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien-Jones: The poor, poor Owl Keeper and I have had terrible luck. I’m only three chapters in because every evening that I select to read this particular book, I fall asleep mid-read. It’s not the book’s fault, so far it’s rather charming, I’m just a sleepy head with an ever-earlier bed time.
  7. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis: I’m advancing slowly here because I keep doing that thing where you realize you’ve just re-read a passage four times. At this rate, I’ve been reading approximately three new pages an hour every time I pick up this tiny little edition. Pathetic. But I’m not giving up. At a mere 190 pages, divided by three pages a sit, and frequenting a sit an average of every two weeks or so, I should finish this book just in time for my grandchildren to ask to borrow it. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…
  8. The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims: I have to be in juuuuust the right mood for a biography, and honestly, at this point, I just have too many players on the field. Someone’s going to have to sit this quarter out until I can get it all under control, and poor Charlotte, the dear that she is, has been that one. I do like reading about other writers, though. It comforts me to know that they are all as strange as I am, if not more so. In writer world, I’m normal. Hooray!
  9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Do I really have to explain why this is taking so long?  As the ancient cave men used to say, you can’t eat a mammoth is day.

Hopefully tomorrow that big ol’ stack of neglected books will be one book shorter. Today is laundry day, which means some extra free time, which means I’m going to drink a cup of tea and read a book. I’m not sure which book. The success of this operation probably rests solely on my ability to pick which book in a timely manner, something I’m not very good at. But I’ll give it a good college try (whatever that means).

But wait! Incoming news! I have, just now,  made one decision, though it’s not the decision. I can definitively tell you I will NOT be finishing one of the books over 500 pages. Progress! Other progress? It only took me two hours, a lunch break, a play-with-the-cat break, and a session of staring aimlessly out my window for an undetermined length of time daydreaming about Easter candy for me to edit this post. Oh yeah, guys. I’m totally focused, and totally a grown-up.

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One Thousand White Women, Plus Me

Insomnia is an awful, horrendous, terrible, disastrous, abominable thing. I hate it. In fact, to date, there are only two physical conditions I’ve experienced that I hate more: severe nausea, and accidentally  wearing cloth shoes in the rain. But, alas, I’ve been rather insomnimatic for the last several nights.  While this condition hasn’t been so great for me in life-life, in my book-life it’s been rather fortuitous. On Thursday night, or rather very early Friday morning, I had been lying awake for what seemed millenia, so I decided I might as well put the time to good use and read. In the dark, I picked a book off my shelf at random and curled up on my couch with a book light. I feel asleep reading One Thousand WhiteWomen: The Journals of May Dodd that night, and the next, until finally I stayed up Saturday night because I simply had to finish this amazing novel.

"The Cheyenne believe that everything that ever happened in a place- every birth, every life, every death- still exist there, so that the past, present, and future live on forever in the earth. And so I, too, have come to believe." -Brother Anthony, page 420.

May Dodd is a Chicago socialite who has been committed to an insane asylum by her wealthy family for loving a man below her station. She has resigned herself to living the remainder of her life in this monotonous prison, when government agents arrive at the institution with an interesting opportunity. Willing to do anything to be free, and hopefully someday reunite with her two small children, May joins a secret government program whereby she and a group of fifty or so other women, the first of a promised thousand, travel West to the Nebraska territory to become the wives of Cheyenne warriors. Reported by her family to have died in the asylum around the time of her departure, May’s journals are the only clue for her modern-day descendents to the truth of her amazing adventure.

“We will look back on this life that we have now, ” Little Wolf said softly, “and we will think that no people on earth were ever happier, were ever richer; we have good lodges and plenty of game; we have many horses and beautiful possessions and I am not yet prepared to give this up to live in the white man way. Not yet. Another fall, another winter, perhaps one more winter…then we shall see.” -page 341

Though May Dodd and her journals are fictitious, Jim Fergus has done his best to portray an accurate picture of what life would have been had a white woman become part of the Cheyenne Tribe in 1875, in the last months of their freedom. Fergus portrays the Cheyennes well, neither as noble savages nor as evil heathens, but as people, just like you and me. Their culture is filled both with breathtaking beauty- a respect for and harmony with nature, a love of family- and horrible brutality- they mercilessly murder the children of their enemies.  And the white man? He reads Shakespeare, makes beautiful art, complex cities, and he also massacres tribes of Native Americans who do not move to their appointed reservations on time.

I was deeply moved by this book, by the journals of this woman who never really lived, but who brought me a deeper understanding of this period of our country’s history. I felt the flaws of my own people deeply, was fascinated by native culture,  cheered as the women fell in love with their new husbands and grew their new babies, cried as the solider’s raided the Indian camp and for the women caught between both cultures, and in May’s case, two loves- her Cheyenne warrior chief, and a brave army captain. I loved the ways the women invented to both assimilate and retain their identities. I wanted to travel the prairies with May and Little Wolf as they made this, the last great Cheyenne summer migration. I wanted to know what it felt like to sleep in a tipi and snuggle into a bed of buffalo skins, and I wanted to snuggle those little Indian babies with their cute, literal names.

“I feel that the children may prove to be our bridge to the savage way of life and theirs to ours….All children are children finally- it hardly matters to which race or culture they belong-  they belong to the first to the race and culture of children.” -May Dodd, page 141.

So, overall, I can’t say too much more without giving everything away, but this book, while entirely fiction, was a bold, touching glimpse into the months leading up to the American Indian War, and I enjoyed every page of it. The only downside? It is 16 pages too short to qualify for the Chunkster challenge. I really thought this would be my first completed tome, but alas, silly Mr. Fergus only had 434 pages worth of stuff to say. Boo, Mr. Fergus, boo! (Dear Mr. Fergus, I’m sure you’re not really silly. I apologize, and I mostly mean it. Sincerely, A Slightly Disgruntled Fan.) Although, if you count the bibliography and the book club discussion in the back, the numbers do almost work themselves out, counting to 449 pages…Hmmmm…Is this cheating? Can I swing it? Will the Chunkster gods give me this grace? I’ll shot them a message and find out. The Case of the Almost-Long-Enough Novel will be continued…

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A Poetry Detour: Heaney, Rilke, and a Touch of Shelly

First, a very happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you, my friends! Éire go Brách! I can hear the sounds of our city’s festival from here, but it’s very rainy, so we’re not venturing out. Instead, this little Irish lass is enjoying a hot mug of Irish Breakfast tea and reading some of my favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.

This is how poems help up live.
They match the meshes in the sieve
Life puts us though; they take and give
Our proper measure
And prove themselves most transitive
When they give pleasure.

If you’re never read Seamus Heaney’s poetry, or his book Finders Keepers, which is something of a poetry handbook and is incredibly useful to the aspiring poet or writer, then I highly recommend you check him out. He is well worth your time.

I don’t often talk about it, but poetry is my first love. Before I’d ever picked up Fitzgerald or Austen, I discovered Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Emily Dickinson in my neighborhood library during my eight grade year. I’m sure I’d read something of them, and other poets, before, but this is when they first captured me. I devoured Emily’s entire collection in a week, kept Tennyson’s Idles of the King on my bedside table, and was soon pluming the depths of Longfellow, Keats, Shelly, and the Brownings.

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
from creation to decay.
Like the bubbles on a river-
sparkling, bursting, born away.
-Shelly

What breathing soul would not be captivated by such lushness? *Sigh* These poets inspired me to write for myself. What I penned, however, was not even a little inspiring, but rather an angst-riddled adolescent verse that the world was kind enough to label “poetry-ish.” (Though I dobelieve every writer has to get this angst-y, teenage nonsense out of their system before they can go on to write something that wont make them nauseated when they read it in ten years.)

"Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." -Rilke

Then, in college, I discovered the modern’s- Sandburg, Whitman, Plath, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, Milosz, Brodsky, Marianne Moore, and Denise Levertov, among others- who all made me feel the world in a newer way. I also started writing a few pieces that were passable, and I started realizing that this wasn’t just a hobby for me, it was a need. I needed to write. It was around this time I first discovered Rainer Maria Rilke, and truly, I feel in love.

I don’t think you have a choice about your poetic voice, I think it just comes up from the depths of who you are and how you see the world, and that is the voice you have. I found my voice in Denise Levertov, and I love her dearly, but if I could have chosen my voice, I would have wished to sound like Rilke. He’s so smooth and simple and reads so effortlessly. He’s one of the ones that makes poetry sound like anyone could do it, when you know in reality he sweated blood over those verses.

Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet chronicles ten letters he wrote to an aspiring poet who admired Mr. Rilke greatly. I read a portion of these letters in a college Modern Poetry class, but I’d never read them in their entirety. Rilke is everything you expect from an eccentric poet- passionate, abounding in a slightly opaque wisdom, and sitting on the edge of a benevolent narcissism. He’s mesmerizing. At just 90 pages, this little treasure is well worth the afternoon it will take you to read on your own, but here are a few of the gems I collected from it:

  1. Never substitute irony for real creativity. Irony is only of real use when it springs from creativity, not when it takes it’s place. Writers who are purely ironic may last for a season, but the truly creative endure beyond. (Hipster poets, beware!)
  2. Everything is inspiration. Everything you’ve done, read, seen, said, thought, touched, tasted, or desired is all gestating in you. Poetry is an amalgamation; don’t discount anything.
  3. Poetry is hard. If you don’t feel from your inner core that it’s something you must do, it is perhaps better to find another enterprise.
  4. Poetry is hard because it is a preparation for life. The poet delves deeply and examines life so that it may be lived more fully. And what is life without love? Nothing. So if you’re not willing to take the time to learn to love well, you’re poetry will be stunted. To use Mr. Rilke’s own words, love is “the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
  5. If you want to write anything well, you’re going to have to get some time alone, and get it regularly. Solitude is the mother of reflection, and reflection is the mother of poetry.
  6. And, finally, this: patience will make or break you. Poetry is a marathon, not a sprint. My favorite quote from the whole book speaks to this:

“Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer….I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything.”

Amen.

And after swallowing all this richness, I just had to read more of his poetry. I read the entirety of my favorite Rilke collection, Rilke’s Book of Hours. Oh Rainer, how you slay me! I have no real review except this: if you’ve never read this particular collection, do it! It is a feast for your thoughts. I’ll share here two short selections, an old favorite and a new one.

Poem I, 2:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Poem II, 16:

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Have you ever read a poet that just set your heart on fire? Let me know below, I’d love to check them out! If you’ve read Rilke before, do you love him, hate him, or fall somewhere in-between? What is your favorite Rilke poem?

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