Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite Reads of 2010

I found 2010 to be an interesting reading year.  I'm surprised how many on this list were actually published this year, and I attribute most of those finds to Kathy and Carole.  Others are sequels or written by already-favored authors.

ArchEnemy — The third (and final) installment of the Looking Glass Wars series, the clash between good and evil of Wonderland is as big as author Frank Beddor's imagination.  Who will be sacrificed to save the kingdom?  Is Queen Alyss strong enough to beat Black Imagination?  Will England survive? Begin at the beginning with this series, and enjoy every page.

Black Hills — Paha Sapa is an explosions expert working on carving Mount Rushmore.  Only this Sioux doesn't exactly see the destruction of his holy mountain as a positive effort.  Readers glimpse the history of South Dakota and the nation through a man's life story.  Dan Simmons' sweeping saga with personal anecdotes will make readers think.

The Gates — Samuel Johnson, age eleven, and his dachshund Boswell decided to beat the rush and go trick-or-treating a few days early.  What he saw through the Abernathys' basement window sent him running straight home — and should send readers straight to their bookstores. John Connelly has a fabulous sense of humor as he follows the happenings in Biddlecombe on the cusp of Halloween.  Nothing and no one is safe from Evil (with a capital "E"), but if one can find the unlikeliest allies, even the impossible might very well be within reach.

Have a Little Faith — The best way to find out what you believe is to look beyond those borders.  Mitch Albom does that with Rabbi Albert Lewis and Reverend Henry Covington, two very different men of faith.  It made me reassess my own faith, and deeply appreciate the true, deep and loving faith of others.

Her Fearful Symmetry — This ghost story by Audrey Niffenegger was filled with fascinating characters, including memories, ghosts, lies and children who truly do not know their parents after all.  Elspeth is dead, to begin with, or soon enough; however, her life extends beyond the grave to many who don't realize its grasp. Nothing is without a price, especially life and death.

Johannes Cabal the Detective — The second book by Jonathan L. Howard finds Johannes in his next situation: in an Eastern Europe country on the brink of war.  Bureaucrats do not fare well in this tale, nor do necromancers, soldiers or dirigible captains.  The afterward is worth the price of admission alone.

Little Bee — Little Bee is not her name, but she explains her story in exquisite English and offered observations and perspectives that made me catch my breath again and again.  Chris Cleaves' story will remain with readers long after they turn the last page.

One Day — Everyone has read "a day in the life," but no one has read about the story of Em and Dex, Dex and Em, two college friends whose life intertwines in lovely, sad, startling and profound ways.  David Nicholls follows these two for decades, watching their lives intersect on a single day every year.

This is where I leave you — I wish I had the courage to reveal a story and characters the way Jonathan Tropper does in this amazing story.  The Foxman family sits shiva for their recently departed patriarch, and they haven't all survived in that house together in decades.  The language was true, the story was amazing, the characters unique and weirdly lovable even when they weren't.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise — Carole noticed this book one day at Politics and Prose and was drawn to it because of her summer travels with her daughter to England.  I was intrigued as well and picked up my own copy of Julia Stuart's novel. It was delicious: not always easy to read, but always rewarding.

The Swan Thieves — Elizabeth Kostova proves lightning strikes twice with this complex, interesting and compelling novel.  She guaranteed I won't view Impressionism the same way, as she guaranteed Dracula was reborn to a new generation.  She draws us in with mysterious letters and a mute psych patient and rivets us as the story goes full circle.

Bonus Favorite: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Author Rebecca Skloot spent a decade researching and writing this book, and I am glad to have been able to thank her for persevering.  It wasn't an easy read, but it was fascinating as Skloot introduced us to the HeLa cells, and what they meant to everyone — especially the family of the woman whose cells spawned them.

Worst book of the year: Beatrice and Virgil.  As the bookseller and historians asked the fictional writer in this book, "What is it about?"  As if taxidermy wasn't enough to put me off this book, it tossed in the Holocaust, rabid dogs, euthanized felines and a flayed fox.  Yum-ee!  Thanks, Yann Martel.

What did you enjoy reading this year?  What did you hate?  Tell me!

Friday, December 24, 2010

An Inflated, Meaningless War

'Tis the season to lament that not everyone holds the same things dear during said season. 

You read that right: not a lick of "jolly" anywhere in the sentence.  Every year, I'm surprised that people  put their "peace on earth, goodwill to men" on the back burner to complain that people aren't saluting a holiday the way they "should."

There is no "war" on any holiday. There's just a difference of opinion, and the last time I checked, that was not only legal, but certainly possible in this mixed salad of a world in which we live.  And in this season of goodwill, perhaps allowing people to "live and let live" would serve as a good example of the courtesy we ourselves wish to be extended to us.

For those who want to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas," knock yourselves out.  I'm thrilled, and I support you. Go to church and ramp up your Nativity to include an extra ass (so the kids can giggle when they say it). Wish everyone a "Merry Christmas."  Sing the Christmas carols that are ripe with meaning for you.  Make it as spiritual an experience as you wish.

For those who want it secular, I'm thrilled, and I support you. Whip out the candy canes and Santa Claus costume, deck the halls with boughs of holly, hang the stocking by the chimney with care.  Wish everyone a "Happy Holiday" or "Merry Christmas," depending on your mood, or audience, or time of day.  Sing the Christmas carols that are ripe with meaning for you.

For those who don't like to celebrate the season, don't.  I'm thrilled, and I support you.  No stockings, no tree, no Nativity scene, no Midnight Mass, no candy cane-shaped cookies.  Do not wish anyone a happy anything any more than you would any other time of the year.  Skip singing the Christmas carols, but if you have the ability to hear, don't expect to avoid them any time after Halloween.

Now, here is a great suggestion to keep the tension down during the holidays: just let it go.  Put your energy into your own celebration.  Christmas is as much a cultural touchstone as it is a holiday for the population at large.

When someone wishes you a "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holiday," you have a few choices:
a) respond in kind;
b) respond with your preferred phrase (if different from the original greeting);
c) say, "Thank you." 

Note: "bite off the other person's head" or "snap back peevishly with the phrase you prefer" are not listed because in that way lies rudeness, and that is certainly not in tune with the season.

That exchange is a form of polite chit-chat, not a declaration of faith (or lack thereof).  It's like the old joke, "When asked how you are, don't talk about your indigestion — 'How are you' is a statement, not a question."  Neither is a holiday exchange.

There's no either-wing conspiracy to cheat you out of your preferences, nor does anyone wish to be divisive.  It's like eggnog: whether you drink it with brandy, ice cubes or skip it entirely, make your choice and let your fellow nogger make her or his choice in kind. 'Tis the season.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Spooky Stories for Chilly Winter Nights

As the nights grow longer and chilly, spooky stories are the perfect companion.

Nocturnes is a selection of short stories and novellas by John Connolly.   Many of the stories are quick glimpses into the macabre, while others linger a while longer.  Readers will never look at a circus or clowns the same way again.  I'm also a little cautious about mirrors, too.  Expect to meet witches, vampires, fairies, a tormented stranger and a vengeful ghost.  These bite-sized morsels are delicious.

Another short story collection worth checking out is Fancies and Goodnights, written by John Collier in the early 20th century.  Each story has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost like Collier identifies older fears we think we have abandoned.  After tasting a little Collier, just try to enter a department store without looking over your shoulder.  Collier is praised by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and other fantasy and science fiction writers, who credit him with inspiration and guidance.  Prepare to be unsettled.

The Gates, another book by by John Connolly, is listed as a young adult novel, but as I have stated before, "YA" doesn't mean it should be resigned to the young.  Samuel Johnson, age 11, and his daschund Boswell witnesses his bored neighbors accidentally open up the Gates of Hell.  What comes through isn't pleasant, especially when it wears the skin of Mrs. Abernathy and threatens the small boy and his dog.

What if there is existence after death?  Would you want to know?  Audrey Niffenegger explores that realm in her latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.  The characters were intriguing, the story compelling and we discover that life, and death, aren't at all what one expects.  Elspeth, a twin, dies, and leaves her apartment, and the life it gave her, to her sister's mirror-twin daughters.  When the young women arrive, they meet many of the people in Elspeth's life — including one they didn't expect.

Connolly scores another direct hit with The Book of Lost Things, a book about a book.  David is a sad and troubled child whose life and sanity hangs in the balance on the cusp of World War II.  After his mother dies and his father remarries, he hears books talking to him — especially one in particular, older and more dangerous than the others.  Connolly mixes tragedy and humor, fairy tales and reality, a child's worst nightmares and his greatest dreams.  Readers must encounter this book if only to meet the dwarves.

Heart-Shaped Box is, hands down, one of the scariest books I have read in years.  I suggest you have a Reading Buddy on hand, like I did, when you attempt this book.  In Joe Hill's first novel, an aging rock star named Jude purchases a suit said to be haunted by a ghost.  From the moment Jude opens his UPS package, you know this is no lightweight story: it draws blood from the start and it keeps going for the jugular.

One can't complete a spooky book list without mentioning Stephen King.  I stepped away from him for a while because a couple of recent novels didn't hit the mark with me — but a recent collection of novellas and short stories did.  Just After Sunset reminded me why I wore a cross around my neck for most of the seventh grade and why I couldn't sleep for days after finishing Misery.  Some of the stories are more compelling than others, but as with his best, some of the scariest stuff was what could be true.  Between the artifacts appearing in a man's home to an obsessive-compulsive whose illness began after a photo session in the wilds of Maine, there's more than enough to keep a reader jumping.

What are some of the scariest books you have read?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reflecting on My New Year's Resolutions

As the year winds down while simultaneously revs up again, it's time to think about those Pesky New Year's Resolutions.  They Are Capitalized Because They're Important.  Or Ironic. Jury is out, still.

At any rate, let's take a look at last year's resolutions involving athletics, music and reading.

First, I will give up on running goals.  Last winter's snow and this year's hip that threatened to rebel prevented me from becoming too ambitious on the road.  Plus, I can dream of a five-minute mile all I want while understanding that it is all in my head.  (True confession: I wasn't a five-minute miler in my best days.)  (I'll give you a moment to gasp in surprise.)

What I can do is promise myself a more well-rounded exercise regiment.  David will be thrilled that I want to strengthen my core and do a little weight-lifting.  I shan't look like the Olympian on David's stamp artwork, but a little weight to keep my arms from looking too hideous isn't out of the realm of reality.  Add to that some good crunches (not crazy ones, a not-so-subtle hint to my trainer) with a little Bollywood dancing and I'll be golden.

Second, let's be honest about music: it's not my life's love.  (That would be reading.)  I like good music, but I don't always seek it out, and I don't think I'm deprived because of it.  I have a couple of good sources for music information (thank you, Rob, David and "Glee") and I'll surf the pop stations when I'm inclined.  I'm always up for suggestions, so don't hesitate to drop me a line.

Finally, I am reading at a good clip these days, so I don't need to hope to "read more."  I've begun including my book reviews on this blog, so you know I haven't run out of reading material (despite a huge chunk of my book collection being held captive in storage).  Plus, it's not a competition, but a desire to absorb good writing that compels me.  Remember to share your reading suggestions with me.

I may not abandon all of last year's goals, but there may be a few new ones in there; I'll let you know.

How did you do with your resolutions this year?  Are you eyeing next year's yet?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nobel Peace Poem

Liu Xiaobo, a poet and literary critic, is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. China has forbidden him to travel to the award ceremony, which will be held on Friday in Oslo. This poem was translated by Jeffrey Yang from the Chinese.

from “Experiencing Death”

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy
Faraway place
I’ve exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ’s birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers
Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere
A blink, a trembling instant passes
to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive
On Central Television News
my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”
though those nameless white bones of the dead
still stand in the forgetting
I lift up high up the self-invented lie
tell everyone how I’ve experienced death
so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor
Even if I know
death’s a mysterious unknown
being alive, there’s no way to experience death
and once dead
cannot experience death again
yet I’m still
hovering within death
a hovering in drowning
Countless nights behind iron-barred windows
and the graves beneath starlight
have exposed my nightmares
Besides a lie
I own nothing

Courtesy of the New York Times

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freedom of Speech: Is Religion an Exception?

Religion is a sensitive topic in politics.  Now it is in art, as well.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, removed a portion of an exhibit because people of that religion found the art to be offensive to their beliefs.

The exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" included a four-minute video "Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling on a crucifix, as well as some words being spoken, chanting images of bread and lips being sewn and what I assume is dripping dark red fluid (blood or pseudo-blood).  There were protests, and because the video was "perceived by some to be anti-Christian," the Smithsonian pulled that part of the exhibit.

Protestors objected to 11 seconds' worth of video.

Was that enough to get it pulled?

I watched the video.  I thought the images were creepy and bizarre, but seeing bugs crawling on a crucifix did not disturb me, nor did it appear disrespectful.  I can't see how it was considered anti-Christian.  However, the Smithsonian did, in response to protests.

I don't think the Smithsonian should have removed the images.  Just because some people considered them anti-Christian doesn't make them so.  It undermines the concept of free speech, one of the most envied rights in America — the one that allows people to disagree with their church, their government, their politics.

I know free speech isn't absolute, and that responsibility is the cornerstone to effective free speech.  I also know some topics are more sensitive than others — but that doesn't mean they are avoided.  It also doesn't mean different, or more, consideration is given to them.

Freedom of speech almost guarantees that someone somewhere won't like what you're saying/writing/showing.  However, it doesn't mean the material can't offend or annoy: Nazi supporters went to court to march through the streets of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill. in 1977. ACLU attorney David Goldberger, himself Jewish, defended this right.

Goldberger did it for the very reason that makes most of us strike out, to silence: he wanted to guarantee that his friends and family were not denied a similar right to speak when someone else didn't like what they had to say.

A couple of years ago, I received a very critical remark regarding Banned Books Week, one with which I disagreed vehemently.  I thought it wrong, misguided and small-minded.  I was torn: do I post it, like I advocate, or delete it because it bothers me?  I thought long and hard, and I discussed it with two very trusted confidantes.  In the end, I posted it, adding my own response in the following comment. (Hey, it was my blog.)

What if the next comment is from a Holocaust denier?  A WMD supporter?  What if it's someone who is rabidly against cats, or hedgehogs, or whatever deity in which I profess a belief?  What if it's the one thing I hold dear and that person wants to trample it?  I hope and pray I don't fold.

Like Voltaire, I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.  That means you should do the same thing for me.  If you can't, then surrender your free speech at the door.  If you can't give it, you don't get it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Letter to a First-Time Homebuyer

Dear Youthful First-Time Homebuyer,

I don't know you.  We most likely will never meet, and that's fine with me.  I don't need to know you.  All I know I learned from your real estate agent, who communicated it to my real estate agent.  And may I say, I don't care.

I don't care if you don't like the color I painted my kitchen.  Or my powder room.  In fact, I don't care what you think of the color of my walls in any room.  There's this stuff called "paint."  I suggest you get familiar with its use and application.  That's what I did, and I am glad to say I survived.  Thrived, even.

Oh, I had help from friends and family grabbed a brush and/or roller and put their backs into it.  Some rooms, however, were all me: the bright pink powder room, for example.  It was the first wall I painted in a home I owned.  It was liberating and educational: I realized I could choose any color and apply it because the walls were mine.  More so than the paying of a mortgage, the painting of the walls made this house mine.  I hope it does the same for you.

While we're talking "decoration," let me mention the carpet.  Yep, it's a little rough, especially downstairs.  It's dirty and rugged.  You don't want me to replace it now so you can feel good during the purchase process, though.  What you want is for me to give you money so you can choose its replacement after my family, including the cats, move out.  I've done that; read the listing.  You see, I know what my cats are capable of, including (but not limited to) hairballs and litterbox "accidents."  I wouldn't want to move into a house with carpet that hasn't been replaced, and I expect your parents will advise you the same way.  Having new carpet while I'm still living here isn't your goal. Moving your furniture into a newly carpeted home should be.

Sure, the drapes convey.  However, the likelihood they'll meet your decor is pretty slim, so I expect you'll take 'em down and use the hardware to hang your own.  That is what I have done in every apartment and condo I've lived in since college.  I don't know you or your preference, so keep them or not, but that's up to you.  I'm not replacing them so you'll feel good about them during your purchasing experience.

The furniture doesn't convey, either, so I don't care if you like my sofa, or if the dining room set is too dark or heavy.  The same for my decor, like my kitchen witch, or my cookie jar.  Do I have too much furniture, or too many books?  Who cares?  The rooms will remain the size they are and your belongings will fill them as well or better.  Don't waste your time telling me those things need to be changed, because we both know they will — as soon as I move out.

You don't have to like my house the way it is.   You have to like this abode enough to imagine it as yours.  And the likelihood that you'll like it off the rack is pretty slim, but I don't want you to settle any more than I would.  You might, however, have to use your imagination and muscle to make it your own home, like I did when I purchased it as a first-time buyer.  The investment is worth it.  Be willing to invest and you'll get the coolest condo in the area.

Just don't expect me to do the work for you.  Your landlords and parents have put in the sweat equity so you don't have to, and that might have been their job.  Mine is just to give you the house you see, and let you use your time, energy and vision to create the home you want.

Good luck.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas Reads: Check Out A Few Suggestions Here

Everyone has their favorite Christmas stories.  Many of us have migrated from the page to the screen, taking in our stories through video.  Just remember: many of them started out as stories themselves.

In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was written by Jean Shepherd, known world-wide for creating Ralphie Parker and his love of Ol' Blue.  The stories take place during the Great Depression, and many of the stories take place outside the Christmas season.  However, with the rich language Shepherd uses to amuse and illustrate the movie, how can someone resist such a read?

Take a walk through a different landscape with science fiction writer Connie Willis in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories.  I just met the author during her East Coast book-signing stop in Maryland, and had I realized I would fall in love with this book a week later, I'd have discovered it earlier. This collection pays tribute to other stories that already had shaped the season, but allow us to fit in a few more favorites.  The title story is a delight, and her story regarding a young couple who get lost on Christmas Eve re-introduced the wonder of the season yet again.

If you haven't yet read A Christmas Carol, stop what you're doing and purchase a copy now.  No matter how many actors you might have seen putting this story on stage and film, nothing quite beats the original.  (Plus, you will want to read it again and again, hence the suggestion to have your own copy on hand.)  Charles Dickens got straight to the heart of "Christmas" being synonymous with "love" in this archetypal book that has to be read to be appreciated.

Bring poetry into the season with one of the most famous Christmas poems of all time: "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clark Moore.  You can find a copy of it here at The Academy of American Poets.

Another traditional favorite is a short story written by O. Henry: "The Gift of the Magi."  A newlywed couple wants to give each other their hearts' desire: Jim wants to give his wife a set of combs for her beautiful long hair, and Della wants to give her husband a fob for his heirloom pocket watch. What they do to try to achieve these goals defines their love for each other.  Read this touching classic here.

For those with a more irreverent look at Christmas, consider Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.  Pine Cove, Calif. is awash in Christmas spirit —kind of.  Lena is mad at Dale, who skips the Salvation Army kettle and doesn't want her digging up his Monterrey pines, even for the poor.  After what happens, "It was an accident" doesn't quite cover the misdeed. Enter a stranger or two, a Micronesian fruit bat and a little ganja, and the mayhem ensues.  Just beware: it's not meant for the young or easily offended.

Edward Gorey also wrote a snappy little tale, fully illustrated, titled The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas.  Again, one would have to be in the humor for it, but after days and days of Christmas cheer, one can lean toward the morbid and bizarre for a little relief.  Plus, the story involves stale fruitcake.  What's not to like?

What are you going to read this holiday season? Tell me!