60 Second Review – Mira Grant’s FEED

28 May

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)Feed by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great book.

I don’t just mean great for zombie-philes or horror buffs, though they’ll surely find satisfaction here. If you have a penchant for flesh-eaters and catastrophic scenarios, this book will scratch that itch. But Feed is also just a great book period. It is very well-written, both in its language and structure. Mira Grant capably executes the suspension of disbelief while walking a self-made line between post-apocalypse horror, sci-fi, and political thriller. She makes some narrative decisions (no spoilers) that would have been disastrous in lesser-hands, but she pulls it off well. The exposition of the technology, society, and bureaucracy of this near-future was interesting and never felt forced. I enjoyed the way each chapter closed with a blog excerpt, reinforcing the story and atmosphere while further immersing us into the world. And I felt for the characters and cared about what happened to them, which, to me, is the number one victory for a work of fiction.

The headline of this book might read: Scrappy and Audacious Bloggers Tackle High-level Conspiracy and the Restless Undead. There is action and tragedy, a bit of humor and a bit of hope. The author’s attention to detail is impressive. The medical details are realistic for the genre, and the settings are logically thought out. Unable to eradicate the zombie epidemic, society adapts to live with it. It’s an America that has grown disconnected and fearful while clinging as much as possible to its past, with standardized blood-testing, gated communities, and a vigilant security culture. At the same time, it’s an America that is easy to recognize – ideological extremists make waves, while (literally) die-hard journalists who still believe in the value of truth fight for it with their very lives.

In short, Feed was a fun, interesting, and original read. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.

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Random Flicks

23 May

It has been a bit stormy and cloudy around here, which translates to movie-watching weather. There have been a few interesting viewings this week, courtesy of Netflix instant-streaming. My favorite was an understated indie from Matthew Lillard (yes, that Matthew Lillard) called Fat Kid Rules the World. Awkward, overweight teen Troy (convincingly played by Jacob Wysocki) is recruited by a spazzy drop-out named Marcus for a new punk rock band. Marcus is a chronic user of both people and pills, and Troy is initially reluctant to step outside of his comfort zone of computer games and quiet over-eating to join up with this unpredictable and shady character. But he soon agrees to be the drummer in Marcus’ band, and the two unlikely partners turn out to be exactly what each other needed.

This is Lillard’s directorial debut, and I really liked it. It’s well-paced and well-written, heartfelt without being sentimental. Wysocki is perfect in this role. Anyone who had a tough time in high school will relate to his cast-down introvert character. And hell, drumming is awesome. It’s very satisfying to watch an awkward young man find his own beat (sorry) by learning the drums. Just as the (also underrated) movie The Visitor (re)kindled my love for hand-drums, this movie made me want to go out and buy a kit. And one more neat thing about Lillard’s film, it was largely funded through Kickstarter donations, which I can only hope signals a new trend of viewer-supported media arts.

Switching gears a bit, I saw a sweet Italian film from director Silvio Soldini called Bread and Tulips, which follows a middle-aged housewife as she makes a life-changing decision to rediscover herself in Venice. Left behind by the tour bus during a family vacation, Rosalba Barletta (played by the adorable Licia Maglietta) decides to accept a ride from a friendly stranger rather than wait for her disgruntled and unappreciative husband to pick her up. Several rides later she finds herself alone in Venice, staying in the home of a charming but depressed waiter and getting a job at a florist shop. As plots go, it is nothing mind-blowing, but it’s the characters that make you smile. This is a great watch for fans of Italian romantic-comedy, a film of sweet humor and the unexpected courses life can take when we let it.

Lastly, I watched an interesting Chinese movie titled Tai Chi Zero. It’s an action / kung-fu flick with a definite steampunk influence, and made in a style that approaches something like a live-action comic book. The plot is pretty derivative (possibly on purpose), and the acting is nothing amazing, but the visual effects and fight choreography are absolutely spectacular. There are no dull moments, and a surprising amount of funny. This could be a fun and unique option for movie night. And bonus points just for being steampunk kung-fu, a genre which, if it didn’t exist before, certainly does now.

Pirates and Book Piles

6 May

It’s been a particularly bookish weekend. I recently received an ARC of the novel Greenbeard by one Richard James Bentley, and it looks like a rollicking swashbuckler of a good time. Looking forward to reading and reviewing it tonight, with the auditory aid of epic metal-pirates Alestorm in the background, and the libatious aid of Pyrat XO Reserve. Both heartily recommended.

Aw yesh.

Aw yesh.

Saturday marked the first day of the spring Friends of the Library book sale, a bi-annual event during which I buy absurd quantities of lovely books and then promise my lovely lady that I will buy another bookcase so that they aren’t cluttering the floors. It’s one of our little traditions. This weekend’s haul included a lot of great fantasy stuff that I’ve been meaning to check out – Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks – as well as some literary stuff from Calvino, Gorky, and Robert Walser. The prize was a thick edition of Icelandic sagas and a two-volume set of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber! Yes, book sale month is my favorite time of the year.

The glory.

The glory.

The last development of this weekend was an idea to compile and possibly self-publish a humble cookbook. My S.O. and I are often asked about some of the recipes we have created and/or improvised, and I thought it might be a fun joint project for us. We have both always been very conscious of our food choices, and as such we have developed an interesting repertoire of dishes that are healthful and scrumptious. So I look forward to sharing that, and I think it could also be a good experimental toe-dip into the realm of DIY e-publishing. There is certainly a lot to learn there, and I always learn best by doing! Advice always welcome.

What’s New?

21 Apr

Spring is springing and it’s becoming time again for things like biking and gardening and strolls downtown. In some mysterious symbiotic link, I find the returning strength of the sun to be more energizing than coffee, and the new projects are starting to pile up. Multiple writing projects are in the mix, plus my plans to start bookselling, plans for an Italian garden, plans to bike everywhere, and plans to learn guitar and harmonica. Then there are less exciting but arguably more important plans, like finding a day-job and eating more regularly. Plans plans plans!

In addition to all of that, I’m starting a new blog to document my personal journey through the world of poetry. It’s called Poetry A to Z, and the idea is that I will explore different poets for each letter of the alphabet, in an effort to self-educate myself in this vast and (for me) undiscovered realm. Tomorrow I will begin with the letter “A”, diving into the works of Diane Ackerman, John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Fleur Adcock, Anna Akhmatova, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rae Armantrout, and the ancient Greeks Aristophanes and Aeschylus.

Who am I missing? Are there other letter “A” poets that you consider essential? Feel free to make suggestions!

Peddling My Passion: Dream of an Aspiring Bookseller

20 Mar

People who know me know I have an unyielding, unreasonable, possibly unhealthy love of books. My personal library is over a thousand volumes strong, and they tend to come in a lot more than they go out. It’s a passion I’ve grown into naturally throughout my life, but recently it occurred to me that this passion may have another dimension to it. A profitable dimension!

I’ve talked to many booksellers over the years, always with a sort of wistful envy that they get to devote their energy to the buying and selling of these great treasures. Then, while recently attending a ridiculously huge and amazing book sale, I met a seller who reminded me an awful lot of myself. Similar age, similar back-story, and now he was making money dealing books out of his house with his girlfriend. Livin’ the dream, as far as I’m concerned. This got me to thinking: I know books. I know the internet. I’ve sold things. I could make a neat side business with this, add “book-slinger” to my many epithets. I’ve always liked to have multiple hats.

So, at the next ridiculously huge and amazing book sale, I bought some extra stuff, with the intent of selling rather than collecting. Then I culled some of the more valuable books from my own collection. This gave me a tidy little stock, enough to get started with. Today I am working on researching values and making a database. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the philosophy of selling books, and how it involves knowledge and trust and research and community. And the more I think about it, the more I realize: I can do this! I can have fun doing this!

Stay tuned, book-lovers. Stay tuned.

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10-second review of my latest read

15 Mar

Anansi BoysAnansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No one blends the real and the fantastic like Neil Gaiman. The more I read of him, the more I believe he is one of our greatest living story-tellers.

Anansi Boys is a story of family, fable, and finding one's voice. Neil's own narrative voice is effortlessly captivating, as he weaves a tale as tight and multifaceted as a mischievous Spider's spindly web. His characters are full and loveable, his humor and sensibilities endearing, and his trademark spins of reality full of fun and simple wisdom. Can't recommend this modern classic enough.

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Awesome Project Plug: Book Crossing

6 Mar

Books are amazing things. They are like spider silk connecting us to a web that stretches through time and space. And one thing I love is the magic of stumbling randomly upon a book that ends up really changing you. Sure, the digital-age affords us undreamed-of choices and access, with everything we imagine we want only a click away. But there is much to be said for old-fashioned serendipity, the chance encounters that alter our course out in the real world. Finding an unexpected book is a lot like forging an unexpected friendship. You weren’t looking for it, but now that you have it – what happiness! Each experience forges us anew, and sometimes we don’t know what we love until we find it.

Who knows why we pick the books we pick. Maybe a title triggers something in your mind. Maybe the author is familiar. Maybe the cover attracts you. Or maybe you find a worn paperback on a park bench and just start reading. When I was on the road a lot, I would leave my finished paperbacks in strategic spots to be enjoyed by the next random wayfarer. And I still love to give books away, and have them given to me. There is nothing like an unexpected book gifted by a friend, or a complete stranger.

What I like about used books particularly is how they can travel. When I hold one, I like to imagine the “life” of it, how it ended up in my hands. Which brings us, at last, to the point. There is a project called Book Crossing where you can print a special label for a book and “release” it out into the world, following its journey with the website. People who find the book can enter the ID# on the site and talk about how they found out, what they think of it, and where it is now. I think this is pretty damn neat, and I’d love to see it catch on!


Read and Release at BookCrossing.com...

The Weight of Greatness: The “Classics” and Intellectual Insecurity

22 Feb

So a question was posed recently of whether one should feel “guilty” about not reading the great classics of literature. It’s a distressing question, because it gives these important and amazing works a flavor of burden, as though they are unpleasant responsibilities that fulfill some sort of cultural requisite. It’s easy to see how this came to be – whenever we institutionalize an art and make a whole industry of its criticism and analysis, things start to get esoteric, detached, insulated. This easily turns off people who feel like they are on the outside of that field. It’s a trapping of the sciences, too. Delve far enough into any science and you hit the point where they are speaking a language utterly foreign to the lay-person, virtually existing in a separate world.

Many people feel this way about great literature, and I think that’s a damn shame. They find it intimidating, or assume it’s dry and irrelevant. It reminds them of the tedium of the classroom, the stuffy murk of academia. But here’s the thing: learning is the absolute most natural impulse of humanity. We are born curious sponges, and this thirst only dries up through our convoluted approaches to learning. We turn it into a responsibility, so that even as adults we come to associate it with duty and un-fun-ness. Sure, learning is work, of a sort, but it’s the best kind of work, the kind that foments growth and leaves you feeling happily spent and accomplished.

Great literature from the likes of Cervantes, Tolstoy, Poe, Goethe, Nabokov, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Camus… it does more than tell a story. It expands our inner lives. It connects us to our human legacy, each a vital link in the literary chain. It asks questions that we are still asking, probes our heights and depths. And though these books seem grand and imposing in this light, they were written to be read by regular old people like you and me, read widely and deeply and often. They are not sacrosanct relics, but rather inexhaustible, accessible treasures with a value that grows with age.

Now I didn’t care for much “serious literature” when I was in school, even though I’ve always loved reading. I’d read the assigned books and write the papers, and I’d do well, but they seldom stuck with me. It wasn’t until I was out on my own that I began to really self-educate, seeking out new experiences and understanding. I’d go to thrift stores to get cheap paperbacks of the classics, devour them, let them digest in my brain for months. The trick was to ween myself out of the mindset of “learning = work”. I then found that I wanted to read these great books even if they were difficult or alien. I wanted to learn why they were great, why they mattered in the world, why the other authors that I loved loved them. Even if a classic didn’t become a personal favorite, I was always glad to have read it, because it gave me new perspectives and knowledge to draw from. New understanding.

Point is, no one should feel guilty about reading or not reading the literary heavyweights – we (probably) only get one life apiece, and we should fill it as we want. We should always go with what excites us, be it space operas or dead Russians, beat poetry or vampire romances. The thing is to realize that all literature is an awaiting experience, and the greatest of our writers have given us some amazing gifts. Those literary masterpieces that taunt us from their pedestals, those sacred tomes of the learned, those papery self-improvement projects that we keep putting off – they can easily become “wants” rather than “shoulds” with a little tweaking of perspective. Don’t view a classic as a responsibility, something to get around to, like a diet or oiling a squeaky door. Test it out, explore, let it pull you in naturally. Dive into the richness of the world, and you will emerge the gladder for it. Guaranteed.

A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

21 Jan

Wise BloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first by O’Connor.

Story and theme aside, there is something about her style that is very addicting. I found myself speeding through this book in two days. Her prose has a no-nonsense directness that is amplified by the occasional (cunningly apt) metaphor, and by her darkly human characters – grotesque, self-serving, dishonest, indifferent, cruel, desperate.

Much is made about the author’s religious views, but in O’Connor’s uniquely questing artistry, what comes to the fore is not doctrine, but rather the tangled root of her beliefs, which really reflect a universal problem of seeking meaning.

Our protagonist is Haze Motes (a name which I learned references a Biblical passage regarding judgement – “do not remove the mote from your neighbor’s eye without first removing your own”). This allusion to eyes is part of the central concern of the book, that of vision (and blindness). Haze’s eyes are described like a sacred mystery by the young girl who is fascinated by him, eyes that “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking.” Haze is constantly looking, but rarely and reluctantly at the external world.

What he is looking for is a truth that the Church no longer provides him. A derelict veteran, he finds a calling to become a vocal anti-theist, even while his conflicts and behavior show him to have an indelibly “religious” persona in spite of his denouncements – a backwards nihilist monk, committed to his own special mission. He becomes an anti-preacher, trying to open people’s eyes to the needlessness of their moral suffering, yet really projecting his own sense of being lost. He is reactive and materially indifferent. And he occupies his own world, inwardly focused on his concerns for redemption and truth. Other characters try to penetrate this world, to see what is behind those eyes, attracted to his suffering. The last quarter of the book brings the author’s ideas together beautifully in a suddenly tightened knot that left me feeling a touch breathless.

Flannery O’Connor is brilliant at layering symbolism and exploring an idea from seemingly casual, tangential angles. Her depth catches you suddenly and off-guard, like realizing you’ve tread too far from the shore. I am looking forward very much to exploring more of her work.

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The search for a better normal.

11 Jan

Kicked off the new year with a flu.  I had all these January ideas to start exercising regularly, writing regularly, finding regular employment, eat more regular meals – apparently it was to be the year of regularity.  Instead I watched six seasons of Frasier on Netflix and constructed monuments of phlegm out of kleenex.

I didn’t even read very much, which is the only plus-side of the bedridden scenario.  Only two books were finished – Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr. (a highly recommended new author) and Nabokov’s The Defense, one of his early Russian novels with a chess motif and a stunted, phlegmatic protagonist (just what I want to read about in this condition).  The Defense was not as tight or probing as Nabokov’s later English-language novels, but the spark is there, and there are moments of beautiful prose that could only be his.  And I’m an on-and-off chess lover, so I appreciate the metaphors.  Next on my list is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, along with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.  I’m challenging myself this year to read 52 books in 52 weeks – a modest goal, not so much to read more, but to read more regularly.

And there’s that word again.  Regular.  Everything lacking in my life, according to me, seems to boil down to a lack of routine.  What is it about our identities that we think our true and better selves can be molded if we just find the right regimen, the right techniques?  As though our lives were slabs of marble that we hammer at with an array of chisels.  I wrote last year about “discontentment” as a necessary creative force.  To quote myself:

“When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.” (April, ’12)

It’s a tidy, romantic little argument.  But now it’s 2013, and discontentment hasn’t gotten me anywhere.  I’ve been unemployed for longer than I care to admit, and besides an uptick in my writing, I have very little to show for 2012.  Why is this?  We see ourselves, and we see the selves we’d rather be, yet we struggle, and self-help quacks make billions off of our self-inflicted paralysis.  When I was younger and knew everything, I mocked this as a first-world problem of the soulless consumer class, who had lost the ability to embrace passion and possibility, to embrace the freedom attached to their mortality.  We’re all going to die, I’d think, and very little matters in the mean time.  “It’s only life” I’d announce in the face of crisis, wise as Zarathustra.  I wasn’t wrong, really.  It is only life, and we certainly take much of it too seriously.  But perhaps inevitably, I find my fear returning as I age.  What have I actually done?  What do I have time left to do?

As this sickness fades off, I look out on the cloudy world and think about the years.  I am not satisfied with what I have done with them.  I think many people aren’t.  Is there any worse feeling than to contemplate the vacuum left by each lost chance?  Instead of regularity this year, maybe there’s something else I need.  Openness.  A return to fearlessness, without the self-inflicted pressures of an imagined perfection.  The guts to love who I already am, and to make a life that can never be perfect, but that is wholly and inimitably mine.

~

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” – Emily Dickinson