05 July 2014

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

The first book in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Over Sea, Under Stone is a tale I've been meaning to read for years. I actually first purchased this book about 5+ years ago for one of Dewey's Readathons, but I ended up reading the first three books in Cirque du Freak instead (a series I never finished by the way).

In the story, Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew are on holiday (damn my American sensibilities love that phrase) in Trewissick visiting their great-uncle Merry, whom they affectionately call Gumerry. When they discover an old manuscript detailing a map, the three children set out on an adventure to discover a true buried treasure which relates to King Arthur.

One of the reasons I hate summarizing stories is my inability to truly capture what the story is about in my overly simplistic synopsis. At the same time, I can't make it any better without adding detail which I am loathe to do as I am one of those strange readers who prefers to know as little as humanly possible before picking up a book. I enjoy the discovery of reading, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone else. Even giving away something that happens on page 5 makes me uncomfortable. That being said, read ahead at your own super-minor-but-still-there plot spoilers.

The plot of this one is simple enough, and adults who read it won't find too many surprises here, which I found oddly comforting and simultaneously eye-rolling-inducing this time around. I needed the easy read as I've been in quite the reading slump this month. At the same time, I crave a bit more in my stories - more backstory, more mythology, more action, etc. And definitely more of the paranormal.

The lack of supernatural elements in this tale surprised me; I was under the assumption this series revolved around the otherworldly. Perhaps more is coming in the series as this first book definitely heavily hinted at agelessness and magical powers. But it only hinted. For the most part, this is a simple quest with a few bad guys, but no stress on any real power behind either party.

So far it may seem like I didn't enjoy the story, but I did. I plowed through it, easily reading despite exhaustion (due to long days playing and swimming and swinging and sliding with the nutter). I am excited to start the next installment in the series.

Have any of you read this series?

01 July 2014

Top 10 Favorite Classic Books

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Today's Top 10: Favorite Classic Books

The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis This may be my favorite classic of all time. The entire story is just such a wonderful surprise as the three stories rather effortlessly flow in and out of each other, each one sensationally Gothic in nature. Abounding with monks, nuns, secret passageways, cold corridors, nasty weather, soul-selling witches, prurient interests, superstition, and the occasional dead body, The Monk has a perfectly eerie feel. 

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins The plot is complicated without being pretentious, the atmosphere is downright immersive, and the issues dealt with are varied and thought-provoking. Two thumbs up. You can throw my big toes in there too actually. At almost 500 pages, the book is a chunkster but it reads like a novella: quick and exciting.

House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky What Dostoevsky has done is create a portrait, a multidimensional complex image of life in prison.  He moves from event to event from person to person, offering a snapshot of individual instances and inmates, that when combined, form a comprehensive whole that is rather powerful. Reading like a well-lived man recounting memories, The House of the Dead is a beauteous philosophical ramble that will stay with me for a long time.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway Two words come to mind after reading this novel: broken and bittersweet. The people in this novel are broken, leading superficially frivolous lives. But the tone, to me, is not one of judgment or condemnation, but rather bittersweet in its treatment of this group who have been made empty. A definite need to re-read this one.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov What a read. Seriously, what a read. What's strange is that the most striking feature of this novel is not the illicit, pseudo-incestual relationship between Humbert and Lolita, what captures the imagination the most is the language. The way Humbert speaks (aka the way Nabokov writes) is ingenious. He artfully plays with words, the structure of sentences, the use of allusion, the creation of new words. Humbert's voice is everything in this novel.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton An atmospheric tale of a husband unhappy in his marriage to a hypochondriac, a too-much-money-spending nag, and all around bitchywoman who finds love in an unexpected and inappropriate woman. Ethan is poignantly heartbreaking, truly tortured.  Already married and dedicated to caring for those he has responsibility, Ethan's dilemma comes across remarkably sincere.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins The Moonstone contains some of the most intriguing characters I have ever read. From the humble servant Gabriel Betteredge to the prissy and self-righteous Drusilla Clack to the opium-addicted Ezra Jennings, these are people you want to know about, and they speak directly to you as The Moonstone is an epistolary novel with multiple characters recounting firsthand events in their unique tone of voice.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri What a great freaking book! The story is beautifully unique, thematically deep, and artfully written. And we have to remember, of course, we are talking about Hell here, so it is also wonderfully interesting in a macabre sort of way.

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier  Rebecca is a beautifully told story. Du Maurier's descriptions of the setting, the events, and the fantasies of our narrator are vivid and poignant. The fantasies leap off the page for me. The narrator constructs scenarios in her head continuously, revealing her deep-seated fears and her expectations. She invents future scenes where she is embarrassed, hurt, or ignored. It was an exceptional way to reveal the narrator's personality.

Middlemarch by George Elliot Unfortunately I do not have a review of this book on the blog, and it's been over a decade since I read Middlemarch; however, this is an absolutely fantastic read - that much I remember. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, I strongly suggest reading this as soon as possible.

30 June 2014

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Prior to hearing about The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin on Ana's blog, the book hadn't crossed my mind in almost two decades. Once I read the title, a tiny flicker of memory lit up, and while I could remember no details about the book, a positive feeling persisted. I am so glad I read it again as this book is tricksy fun.

Sixteen people are invited to live in a new apartment complex on the banks of Lake Michigan, and later they come together to hear the will of one Sam Westing. Divided into 8 pairs, the confused heirs are challenged to solve the riddle of Westing's death. The winner will inherit $200 million fortune and Westing Paper Products.

Fun, fun! I have a soft spot for books centered around puzzles like this. Not mystery novels, but stories where ordinary people are put into a position to solve a riddle of some sort. This one doesn't disappoint. While it is clearly written as middle grade fiction, The Westing Game has enough going for it to keep older - and even much older - readers entertained.

Primarily the interest lies in the characters. With such a large cast it would be easy to have superficial unconnectable characters, but Raskin does a pretty decent job of making at least half of the heirs (our main cast) unique, relatable, and sympathetic. If you are wavering as to whether or not to read this book, just look over the cast list at wikipedia.

As for the puzzly bits, they are clever without being pretentious and solvable without being simple. Definitely give this one a go if you haven't already, and if it's been years and years, as it was for me, pick it up again and lose yourself in an easy, entertaining tale.

08 June 2014

Currently | Active and Tired

Time and Place // 8:06am, on the couch with Madison who is watching YouTube videos on my phone....like always

Eating and Drinking // Water. Lots and lots of water.

Reading // I can't seem to get into a book right now. I've read the first few pages of Cinder, The Mad Scientist's Daughter, Everything Beautiful Began After, and The Thief, but all were put down and forgotten shortly after. I need a book to get me out of this slump, but nothing is popping out at me right now. At least nothing that I own - and since I have more unread books on my shelves than most people have books total, I feel just wrong buying a new one.

Watching // After the joy that was Veronica Mars, I haven't really gotten into anything else. I finally finished up the last season of Vampire Diaries, still a favorite but losing interest, and the last few episodes of Crisis - eh?. What do you guys think of Crisis? I am torn between frustration and interest.

Listening // I'm heading to a Lady Gaga concert in July, so I've been on a Gaga kick lately, but I've mixed it up with some Sufjan Stevens for variety.

Blogging // Blogging's been scarce lately, but I did post my review of Pilgrim's Wilderness, which was edifying and horrifying, and I definitely recommend picking it up. Who doesn't want to read about a crazy religious fanatic who essentially squats - aggressively and openly - on national parkland? Once I get in gear, I'll have reviews of Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game and Rainbow Rowell's eleanor & park.

Loving // All this time I'm spending with Madison! We've been to parks and playgrounds, the Exploration Station, stores and malls; we've been walking, swimming, playing dress up, doing doll's hair, and watering flowers.

Hating // All this time I'm spending with Madison. It's exhausting.

Teaching // I've had the past three weeks off, but summer classes start tomorrow. I'm only teaching two classes, and they are both online so I don't have to be on campus unless I have a meeting. Whoop! Whoop!
Wishing // I had time to binge watch the new season of Orange is the New Black!

Anticipating // The Lady Gaga concert. From what I hear, the woman can put on a show. I also can't wait for the new season of Falling Skies...when's that coming?

04 June 2014

Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness in the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia, a summary in less words than the title: Whackadoodle patriarch abuses family and pisses off everyone else.

Oh my Jehoshaphat ladies and gents, this book was crazy reading. I was horrified, I was morbidly awed, I was politically outraged, I was personally offended, I was arrogantly disbelieving, I was floored. If I pick up a book about an uber-religious family with 15 children who want to backwoods it out in the wilds of Alaska, I know what I'm getting into. I have yet to read - or even hear of - such a family where things weren't horribly wrong. And yet still, I'm reading, and I'm shocked.

Here's the description from Amazon: In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin.  As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider.  And as his fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue.  In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.

The amount of hoopla in this book is both adrenaline inducing and heart wrenching, and it is always, always amazing. Focused primarily on the landowner's battle the Pilgrims faced in McCarthy, the story also recounts the strange journey the family took to arrive in this "can't get more out the way" place and their exodus from it. Family dynamics, political intrigue, religious fervor, neighborly love, so much is touched on. It's all evocative and it's all weird. Sorry if that's offensive, but crap like this is weird to modern-convenience-loving, single child, atheist me. Check this out:
A good looking family for sure, but you can just tell that opening the front door of their smaller-than-my-living-room cabin is the equivalent to opening a door to hell. I mean this in a non-judgmental, but rather sympathetic kind of way. The only person in this picture who deserves judgment and damnation is the father.

At first, I was confused by the happenings and the people - there's a lot doing here and a lot of people doing it. But once I got into the story, I let the minutiae fall away, immersed myself in the tale, and just went with it. Even at the end, there were a few names where I had a hard time recalling their earlier importance. But Kizzia kept me involved enough that it didn't necessarily matter. I knew who the big dogs were and that was enough.

This is truly a fascinating tale, and I have Sandy from You've Gotta Read This to thank for it. She mentioned this book in passing, saying the book is "a non-fiction-they-can't-make-this-stuff-up kind of book that makes you feel like your head is going to explode.  In a nutshell, it is about a incestuous, narcissistic, bible-thumping madman who homesteads in Alaska with his brainwashed wife and 15 kids, and ends up taking on the National Park Service and the law for his sins.  Amazing, maddening stuff." Her description made me "nook it". [To nook it: to immediately download a book from Barnes and Noble with minimal thought].

I highly recommend you go nook it now.

30 May 2014

Armchair BEA: Middle Grade/YA

Here we are at the end of Archair BEA and the topic is:

Middle Grade/Young Adult
Our final genre of discussion is one that we know is a popular one these days: books for the younger crowd, from middle grade to young adult. If you do not normally talk about this genre on your site, maybe you want to feature books that you remember impacting you during this stage in your life. If this is where you tend to gravitate, maybe you want to list your favorites, make recommendations based on genres, or feature some titles that you are excited to read coming later this year.

I love books for the younger crowd, and I am a firm believer that these youth-centered books offer depth and insight into human nature as well as examples of elegant and creative writing (just like books written for the older crowd).

The blogosphere is flush with YA - and in particular YA paranormal romance - and while I absolutely adore this genre, I will leave it alone for this post since so many others will give you suggestions. Instead I will focus on middle grade and some YA on the youngish side:

Middle Grade and Youngish YA

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: Delightfully clever and thematically important, The Phantom Tollbooth is about the quest for knowledge. Milo, and his sidekicks a watchdog and a Humbug, take this wonderfully allegorical and metaphorical journey that is bound to delight kids and adults alike.

The Underland chronicles by Suzanne Collins: Forget The Hunger Games, this is the Collins to read. The reader is treated to a wonderful adventure in a unique and well crafted world. Collins' has an artful way with words that really draws me in to the story, and I really appreciate the humor she intersperses throughout. If you enjoy action-packed, entertaining, and well written adventure stories for younger adults/older kids, you should definitely pick up this series!

Percy Jackson and The Olympians series by Rick Riordan:  I would highly recommend this series to anyone looking for a clever, action-packed, easy read. And I would especially recommend it for those who need a break from the I-would-slit-my-wrists-to-be-with-you love stories that permeate YAL.

The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness: One of the best series I've ever read whether middle grade, ya, or adult. Scenes throughout brought tears to my eyes, and even as the story challenged me intellectually (and in so many ways), I found myself continuously circling back to a love of the characters and a strong desire to see things through. Hell, I think I wanted to help them as crazy as that sounds. A feeling of urgency followed me throughout the entire series, every page, every shift in the plot, every revelation of character, pressed me to keep reading. These are truly books I do not want to put down.

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman:  I love this series so much because it is wonderfully constructed, the unique and deep characters, and the myriad issues it addresses. I would be so happy if people read the book and thought critically and independently about the issues present: theology, religion, authority, hylopathism, quantum physics, interpersonal relationships, coming of age, diversity, self-sacrifice, free will, and on and on and on.

I highly recommend running out and reading these books right now. What middle grade or youngish YA books do you suggest?

28 May 2014

Armchair BEA: Short Stories

Novellas/Short Stories 
Now it is time to give a little love to those little stories in your life. Share your love for your favorite shorts of any form. What is a short story or novella that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves? Recommend to readers what shorts you would recommend they start with. How about listing some short story anthologies based upon genres or authors? 

I am not an avid reader of short stories or novellas. I like the long haul, veering towards chunksters over shorties. Lately, however, I have been more inclined to read short works due to my serious lack of reading time. This led me to put together a short story packet for my Introduction to Literature course which includes some of my favorite short stories.

First and foremost, I must call attention to Annie Proulx's "55 Miles to the Gas Pump", short but definitely not sweet. Here's the story in its entirety:

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

Holy crap right!?!? Talk about packing a lot of wallop into a tiny space. This is the story we read on day 1 of Intro to Lit. Then there's:

Article of Faith by Mike Resnick:
Robot finds God but Church Members Say No

The Hotel of Suicides by Mike Resnick:
Custom Order Suicides for the Down and Out

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:
Imposed Handicaps Equalize Society

The Veldt by Ray Bradbury:
Crazy Ass Kids Use Technology Against Parents

A Respectable Woman by Kate Chopin:
Married Woman Does Not (Yet) Commit Adultery (Review)

I could go on and on these days about short stories, and I highly recommend you check them out if you haven't yet. If you are already a short story aficionado, please please please let me know which ones I should be reading.

Another short I like called "The Scarlatti Tilt":

“It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin.” That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Oh, and here's one more I like:

27 May 2014

Armchair BEA: More Than Just Words

Today's Prompt:
There are so many mediums that feature more than just words and enhance a story in a multitude of ways. Examples may include graphic novels and comics, audiobooks, or even multimedia novels. On this day, we will be talking about those books and formats that move beyond just the words and use other ways to experience a story. Which books stand out to you in these different formats? 

Typically my reading format is old school, straight-up books. I gave audiobooks a try three or four times, but I've never finished a book in that format. I always pick up the print version because audio is SO AMAZINGLY SLOW. My only truly positive experience was listening the the first third of Lolita as Jeremy Irons' voice rocks. I don't have any experience with multimedia novels, but......

Graphic novels are wonderful. I could write this big, long explanation of the validity, sophistication, import, and impact of graphic novels; however, I think I will stick with 'graphic novels are wonderful.' The Fables series by Bill Willingham should be proof enough for everyone of the awesomeness that is the graphic novel. The plot-line entertains, the relationships interconnect, the personalities are complex, the artwork is intricate, and the world is believable. Neil Gaiman's Sandman series also ranks as a favorite GN series.

While the above two series focus on fantasy elements, graphic novels more rooted in reality are also delightful. In fiction, The Eternal Smile and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang are hilarious and thought-provoking. And for non-fiction Persepolis and Maus are maddening, melancholy, and moving. And I could go on and on.

Alongside graphic novels are books such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick who defined this book as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things". The book is a combination of prose, large chunks of it, and images, more of the full page illustration variety than the typical graphic novel frame set up.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on works that move beyond the text-only format. What do you like? What should I try?