Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cannonball Read Book 5: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Okay, this one is a bit tricky for me.  I really wanted to love this one.  Aside from the fact that the author is a friend of a friend (Ooooooh...), the book was basically a combination of two of my favorite things.  It says so right in the title.  Jane Austen + Zombies = Awesome.  Right?

I think the first problem may have been that I psyched myself out.  I mean it had been praised to the moon and back by people who share my taste.  Given the concept, I was absolutely giddy with anticipation until I could get my hands on a copy.  In that time, it's very possible that I worked out a certain set of preconceived notions regarding what the book would offer.

As many people have said before me though, the concept doesn't have that much horsepower.  It's brilliant and funny, no doubt.  In order for it to work, however, it must be carried with consistency throughout the story.  As a result, the book's humor plays out like a long series of variations on the same musical theme.  It may be interesting on a certain detached level, but it's not particularly moving.  There were certain elements I enjoyed, such as the woman who marries for security over love becoming a zombie.  Sure, it's a bit obvious, but it stays true to one of the original author's central themes.  I'm sure even Ms. Austen would have been pleased.

Now that I think about it, my main problem with the book is probably my own damn fault.  I'm not a purist to the extent that I can't see one of my favorite authors tinkered with, but it is important to me that the book stay true to the themes that were key elements in the author's work.  Something I particularly love about Austen's books is the empathy you feel for characters trying to gracefully maneuver their way through a broken sociocultural system without sacrificing their integrity or individuality.  When Zombies and Shao Lin training are added to the mix, this theme gets tossed out the window. 

The Bennet sisters, Elizabeth in particular, are not just warriors, they're almost sadistically blood thirsty.  Seriously, it's enough to make Beatrix Kiddo look like Little Bo Peep by comparison.  Rest assured I do "get" the the joke, and the concept of black comedy as a whole.  There was nothing offensive in the book's violence as far as I was concerned, but I just didn't find it all that satisfying.  I relish seeing Austen's heroines rely on subtlety, resourcefulness and wit to resolve their conflicts.  Elizabeth ripping out a still-beating heart and taking a bite just seems, well...dull by comparison. 

Maybe it's because our culture is so chock full of violence and yet deficient in wit.  The thing is, while I can enjoy a well choreographed fight scene (I really did enjoy the Kill Bill movies), and swords and guns and 'splosions and such, their use in entertainment is undeniably commonplace.  Seeing young people deal with universally recognizable idiots, misogynists, and hypocrites with admirable intelligence and grace...not so much.  I've seen it happen, but not as many times as I've seen an impressive martial arts showdown. 

So when Austen's subtlety and innuendo was tossed aside in favor of gun blasts and beheadings, it just felt watered down to me.  I wasn't offended or appalled, just...disappointed.  I undersand the author has a Lincoln-related story in the works.  That may appeal to me more, because I think more liberties can be taken with an iconic President of the United States than a specific piece of literature.  Or maybe that's just me being a book whore.  My God.  Maybe I have turned into my freshman literature professor.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Successful Kitchen Experiments: Cranberry Compote

Holy crap, folks!  My experimental cranberry compote turned out great! Sorry for lack of specific measurements...I'm more of a throw-stuff-in-until-it-works kind of cook. :-)

You will need:
1 bag of cranberries
1 cup (loosely packed) of dark brown sugar
powdered cinnamon
powdered cloves
1 whole orange
1 carton of orange juice
1 large apple, grated with its skin still on

-Empty bag of cranberries into a saucepan.
-Sprinkle dark brown sugar over them
-Dust heavily with powdered cinnamon
-Dust moderately with powdered cloves
-Add about a teaspoon of zest from the orange's peel (eat orange later for vitamin C)
-Add a splash of cognac or port, depending on whichever you happen to have on hand
-Pour in orange juice until berries start to float (think milk:cereal ratio) and stir everything up

-Cook over medium heat
-When the OJ bubbles and the cranberries start to pop, add grated apple
-Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently
-When stirring, make sure you scrape the edges of the pan, as wayward apple bits will try to stick to it.

-Compote is done when the sauce soaking the berries takes on the consistency of runny apple butter.
-Especially good on white meat turkey and/or biscuits!

Cannonball Read Book 4: The Mist, by Stephen King

I know many people who love and adore Stephen King.  I've tried twice now to see why, and twice I've come away thinking, "Well, he's all right..."  The first time was Firestarter.  Upon hearing this, many King fans insist that I simply started with the wrong book.  I'm wondering if they would say the same for The Mist.  It wasn't a bad book--- it was a quick, engaging read and spooky enough to make me put it down a couple of hours before bedtime.  What I think spoiled it for me was having seen Darabont's film adaptation.  It's usually the other way around, but this time--for me, anyway-- the book pailed in comparison to the movie.

I think one of the main reasons for this is the book's first person narrative.  The story is told only through David Dreyton's point of view.  The character is sympathetic enough, a touch grumpy and at times even crass, but ultimately caring, brave, and forgiving.  The problem with getting only his point of view is that many characters who were well fleshed out in the film get short shrift.  From seeing them through the eyes of another character, we only see and hear of them as he does, and any insight into their motives, hopes, and fears is limited to his speculation.  This works for many stories, but in a novel about a diverse group of people sharing the same terrifying situation, each handling it in their own way, the choice of singular first person narrative feels like a great, big wasted opportunity.

There is also the repeated mention of the narrator's fear, dread, rage, etc.  If done more sparingly, this device would have been much more effective.  But the repeated mention of Dreyton's intuitive dread at the beginning, his terror at the crux, along with his hopelessness and rage, seems annoyingly heavy-handed.   Like a manipulative film score, King seems to be trying too hard to tell us what to feel.  It's as if he doesn't trust his own material to achieve the desired effect in his readers.

It's a shame too, because even with these problems The Mist is still frightening and engaging.  I may have problems with some of his choices, but it's clear from this book that King knows how to tap into the darkest regions of his readers' collective unconscious.  The vulnerability that comes with being trapped, knowing nothing of the threat one faces, watching helplessly as your would-be allies lose their senses and turn on you are all terrifying scenarios.  For my part I've seen them rarely in recent horror, so to have those fears drawn up in my imagination felt like the summoning of a subconscious nightmare, dreamed before but long forgotten.  If King's other work achieves this, I'd be more than happy to give him another chance.  Given the choice however, I'd still be more likely to pop Darabont's adaptation of The Mist into my DVD player.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cannonball Read Book 3: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

" has nothing to do with what you look like, or what you have.  It has only to do with what you think of, and what you do." --Sara Crewe (on being a princess)

For many reasons, Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess was a favorite of mine growing up.  When I found myself woefully behind on the Cannonball Read, I thought revisiting it would be a good way to catch up while seeing how well a childhood favorite held up over time.  Much to my relief and delight, I was not disappointed.  Burnett's style, while florid, is intelligent enough to appeal to adult readers as well as children.  Like Dickens' work, her story pulls no punches, either.  The often fatally harsh living conditions for impoverished English children of the early twentieth century are brought painfully to life, as well as the capriciousness of fortune.  Within the bleak narrative, Hodgson provides a stoic little heroine whose methods of coping provide valuable lessons to children and adults alike.

One of the things I loved most about the book as a child was that it didn't flinch from sharing ugly truths with me.  It is a common and understandable habit in grown ups to try to shield their children from unpleasant ideas or unhappy stories.  However, this is not always helpful for some children.   As the child of a bipolar alcoholic with a volatile, violent temper, I was frustrated by storytellers who sugar-coated their interpretation of the world and the people in it.  At best, it felt like they were trying to distract me with a poorly wrought illusion.  At worst, they left me feeling even more isolated, as if I was solitary in my predicament and resulting unhappiness.  It made me feel different, odd, and full of self-doubt.

Read at age 8,  A Little Princess was a revelation for me.  Its heroine, Sara Crewe, is well-loved by her kind, wealthy father, who sends her to a school for girls while he pursues a mining investment in a distant jungle.  On her eleventh birthday, the school's gold-digging headmistress Miss Minchin receives word that Sara's father has died penniless from a sudden illness, leaving the girl an orphan with no money or prospective guardians.  Upon this news, Miss Minchin makes Sara a servant, takes away all of her belongings save for a few shabby, outgrown dresses, and sends her to live in the cold, dilapidated attic.  From there, it only gets worse.  Miss Minchin starves Sara, denies her fire or decently warm clothes in the wintertime, works her past the point of exhaustion, calls her abusive names, and beats her.  Whats more, she encourages her staff and pupils to shower abuse upon her as well.

Miss Minchin has never liked Sara.  Sara is not the bouncy, blonde, dimpled cutey so often leading little girls' stories.  Rather, she is dark haired, with large, green eyes and a thin frame.  Her manner is quiet and gravely thoughtful.  She is also extremely bright, fluent in multiple languages and far ahead of her fellow students in other subjects.  On top of this, she is unusually clever, possessing a wisdom and insight far beyond her years.  Such things are unnerving to Miss Minchin, who can only feel powerful and self-secure when she is domineering or bullying others.  Girls like Sara are difficult to bully.  Regardless of the cruelties heaped upon her, Sara meets them with a brave, stoic resolve.  Hodgson points out that it does not come easily for her.  The little girl often struggles to stay brave, reminding herself of soldiers in battle for inspiration.  Although it is difficult, she chooses to strive for an attitude of courage and quiet pride, knowing they're the only weapons she has against those who would break her will.  In the face of bullying, her grave stoicism confuses, unnerves, and bewilders those who wish to make her suffer.

Sara seldom cries, but when she does, it's usually for the sake of others.  She is an unusually empathetic person, befriending those whom others would despise due to their disadvantages in social class or intellect.  Her temper rarely flares, but when she does, it's triggered by the bullying of a social outcast.  She is not an angel, and acknowledges this herself.  What is truly remarkable about Sara is that she knows she has it in her to be either good or wicked.  Yet she consciously chooses, time and again, to be a caring, brave, thoughtful person, even when it isn't easy.

Unlike the film adaptations, her father does not magically reappear in the end.  Her beloved father dies, and she must cope with that.  She must find a way to deal with starvation, exhaustion, emotional and physical abuse with little to no help from others.  Until she finds a more material salvation, Sara sustains herself through imagination, empathy, and a resolve to be courageous.  Through Sara Crewe's unhappy story, Hodgson tells her readers, especially those in difficult or painful circumstances, that yes, sometimes terrible things happen to good people, even children, for no acceptable reason.  However, she also tells us that when the unthinkable happens, we have it within each of us to sustain ourselves.  Even without means, prospects, or friends with the power to help us, we can turn to our own imagination, strength of will, and a resolve to keep a loving heart.  As a child, I learned from this book that I could not control what happened to me, but I could control how I faced it.  To this day, I consider it the most valuable lesson of my childhood.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cannonball Read Book 2: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

It's hard to know where to start with Michael Chabon's sprawling, multi-faceted epic centering on two Jewish cousins living in 1940's New York City.  The book covers multiple themes, including hope, sacrifice, redemption, misplaced guilt, and revenge, introduces us to a multitude of characters (some fictionalized versions of real people), and takes us from a working class neighborhood, thru wealth and fame, then down to Antarctica (!!!), then to suburban, post-war America.  While Chabon can be a touch pedantic, he redeems himself through the creation of his main characters, Sam Clay, Joe Kavalier, and Rosa Sax, discussing them with such detail and insight that they feel less like book characters than actual acquaintances by the end of the story.

Having many friends who are crazy about Chabon, I want to make clear that I did enjoy the book.  Very much, in fact.  However, I'll admit I also had a few problems with his writing.  Chabon can be a touch long winded, and yes, pedantic at times.  He takes what sometimes feels like self-indulgent glee in interrupting the narrative with rambling sections of exposition detailing the culture of comics at the time, or New York, or Europe of that era.  While these sections, written in a charmingly academic tone, do much to breathe life into cultures many readers only know through history textbooks, there were times I caught myself skimming.  Chabon loves listing things, especially comic book titles, and his lists can take up over half a page written in paragraph form.  While he peppers his narrative with mention of actual films, artists, comic books, and movie stars of the time, he intermingles them teasingly with briefly-mentioned characters and titles of his own imagining.  It almost feels taunting at times, as if Chabon is dropping a trail of bread crumbs leading to his bibliography.

As annoying as this can be, the author more than makes up for it with the story itself.  It's difficult to summarize without giving away plot points, which I do not wish to do here.  One of the chief joys of reading this was to approach it from a state of total ignorance and let the story unfold, leading me by the hand through the lives of its characters.  Sam, Joe, and Rosa are each endearing and sympathetic in their own way.  Imaginative and big-hearted, Sam struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality in a time where men who shared his orientation were commonly beaten, sexually assaulted, and "disappeared" by homophobes in positions of power.  The dreamy and impossibly clever Joe, having escaped Nazi occupation, struggles with the guilt of having left his family behind.  In addition, he both clings to and fears the impulse to hope for their safe escape from Europe.  The beautiful and insightful Rosa, loving both men in different ways, provides a grounding, nurturing presence in their lives, struggling to balance her tremendous capacity for love with a strong desire for autonomy and independent purpose.

Through his work, Chabon makes clear his love for imagination, creativity, and especially writing itself.  Using the characters' thoughts as a voice, he speaks to his readers of the joys of creation as well as the frustrations of building a livelihood from it.  He discusses unrequited love, family, the nobility of self-sacrifice, and the occasional need for blatant selfishness.  I'd certainly be interested in reading more of Chabon's work in the future, but probably not on a tight deadline.  Like a fine whiskey, he's the kind of writer to be enjoyed slowly. In trying to knock him back in rapid gulps, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing the finer points in my intoxicated, giddy haze.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cannonball Read Book 1: A Room With A View

A Room With a View is E.M. Forster's brilliant coming of age novel disguised as a love story.  While the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson is undeniably moving, it is essentially a vehicle through which the heroine learns to stop putting the opinions of others ahead of her own personal truths.  In exploring a theme that still carries weight for today's reader, Forster surrounds the heroine with characters who both help and hinder her, each bearing qualities that may be uncomfortably familiar.

Since I'm a sucker for intelligent romance, it was George and Lucy's first kiss in a field of violets that drew me in.  However, the kiss itself would not have born the same power without a genuine, emotionally honest love story to support it.  Lucy is a bright, passionate woman torn between a childlike wish to please those around her and her own adventurous, independent spirit.  George has already chosen to yield to the latter, but like Hamlet and many of Salinger's heros, he is so at odds with the ways of the world he is plagued by melancholy.  After witnessing a murder in an Italian square, the two young people find kindred spirits in one another.  George naturally wishes to pursue their relationship.  Lucy, uneasy with his counterculturalism and reputation as a bohemian, has considerable trouble coping with her attraction to him.  Forster builds the tension between them with patience and insight, making their eventual kiss not just believeable, but inevitable.

The fact of this kiss being witnessed by Lucy's chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, catalyzes a fateful choice for Lucy: to follow her heart or to let the supposed opinions of others guide her.  A fretful, passive-aggressive train wreck with a martyr complex, Miss Bartlett represents those who have yielded, and continue to yield, to the latter.  Obsessed with appearances, she has long forgotten what makes Charlotte, well, Charlotte.  She simpers, coos, worries, and over-apologizes.  She consistently misinterprets people, rather than connecting with them.  From Lucy's point of view, Forster points out that while "it is possible to be kind" to such people, one "can never really love them."  For such people live in the author's interpretation of a personal hell, a "muddle" or perpetual state of self-delusion which destroys almost everything true and good in a person, and from which few people ever awaken.

Much of the book's latter half shows Lucy following Miss Bartlett's influence (at times, not even consciously).  As a result, she furthers her own unhappiness with each passing day.  Ironically, this path makes those around her unhappy, as well.  Many troubles she causes for those around her could easily be avoided by a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness.  As events come to a head, she only digs herself in deeper, until she is actually compared to Miss Bartlett herself.

What's really interesting is that when Lucy finally regains her senses and follows her heart, many of her loved ones do become angry with her.  A few even abandon her.  But it is not her love for George that they condemn.  What they can not forgive (at least easily) is the deception and hypocrisy with which she tried to conceal her feelings from them and herself.  Forster can not seem to drive home the point hard enough: try to disguise your heart and mind to protect others, and you're guaranteed to hurt them even worse.

I often come back to this book.  At political/cultural odds with my family, trying to be an actress in Hollywood-- where the powers that be are constantly trying to "improve" you, and healing old war wounds that tell me that I must be A, B, or C, to please the people I really care about, I find myself consistently struggling against Forster's "muddle."  When I find myself in danger, I know I can rely on Lucy's journey as both a cautionary tale and a source of inspiration.

And,'s on the list.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

It Begins!

For Book #1, I've decided to revisit an old favorite.  You know how sometimes, you realize that you just need to read a book--- the way you need Nyquil when you have a cold, or the way you need lots of water and ibuprofen after a night of heavy drinking?

That's how I need this book.  So by this time next week, my review of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View will be up for your perusal. 

Wishing luck and happy reading to my fellow Cannonballers!

Barring any unforseen craziness worth writing about beforehand, I'll see y'all next week.  :-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reading List!!!

Okay, folks.  So the Cannonball Read begins in earnest this Sunday.  I already have a dozen or so books lined up, but I long for suggestions.

Any titles recommended in the comments section below will be considered, and your input greatly appreciated. 


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As a child, I was an avid but picky reader.  I hated books that sugar-coated or dumbed down stories for me, as it always felt like the author didn't trust me to be able to figure things out, or handle the dark truth of the story, whatever that might be.  As I got older, my favorite books and teachers were the ones that encouraged me to think for myself, to look into things I didn't understand, and to not shy away from hard truths, dark humor, or odd characters.  Sometime in college I started teaching and working in educational theater, and these convictions only grew stronger.  I respect that there's a place for bubblegum and fluff, regardless of the audience's age, and that not everyone likes their entertainment as dark or strange as I do.  But lately, I feel like there's an overabundance in vapid, formulaic kids entertainment that insults the intelligence and imagination of its intended audience.  When I come across a children's book or film that encourages thoughtfulness, cleverness, imagination, and compassion, I add it to my unwritten list of books I'll someday read to my kid...if I ever have kids.

I wasn't even halfway through The Graveyard Book when I realized it had made the list.  I got into Neil Gaiman several years ago through a combination of his Sandman comics and the Tori Amos connection.  His originality, insight, and humor have never failed to amaze me, and his knack for imagery and realistically constructed, complex characters make his stories impossible for me to put down.  I was pleased as punch to hear he'd won the Newbury for The Graveyard Book, and put it on my reading list.

And now it's on my future dream child's list, whether he/she likes it or not.  The book covers the childhood of an orphaned boy raised in a graveyard by the spirits of the dead, with considerable help from his self-appointed guardian, a mysterious man named Silas.  All of Gaiman's winning narrative qualities are present here, but in addition, there are all of the elements that made a book worth reading to me in my childhood.  He doesn't shy away from hard plot points, opening the book with the murder of the boy's family.  He doesn't go into detail, or revel gratuitously in the violence of the act.  But in order for the story to progress, this dark, awful thing must happen.  So Gaiman explains the circumstances lucidly, unwaveringly, and without showy theatrics, demonstrating an honesty and insight that pays a high compliment to his readers.

He refrains from insulting their intelligence as well.  He references everything from 19th century poetry to European history to world folklore, confident that if his younger readers want to know more about these things, they can look them up.  In fact, this intellectual curiosity is encouraged throughout the book through the young hero, Bod (more on him later).  When we are introduced to a new  spirit of the deceased, Gaiman mentions the contents of their headstone, allowing the epitaph to provide clues to the character's original time period, passions, and personality.  Instead of stating simply that one of the main characters is a vampire, he leaves subtle hints and clues throughout the story.  The matter-of-fact statement that the character "only ate one food, and it wasn't bananas" is hands down the funniest, if not the clearest.

In Bod, the orphaned boy, Gaiman creates a spectacular young hero.  He is adventurous, clever, and kind, repeatedly exhibiting faith in himself, a shrewd insight into other people's motives and desires, and a tireless sense of curiosity.  Having been raised among the dead, he knows that being a ghost, a vampire, or a werewolf does not necessarily make a person evil or even frightening.  Bod understands that a person's character is defined by their motives and actions, not the quirks of their personalities or physical characteristics.  It helps tremendously that as brilliant as he is, Gaiman allows the boy to be imperfect.  Bod and other living children in this book have their stories told from their point of view, allowing the stresses, fears and insecurities we all experience to lead organically and believably to the tantrums, pouting sessions, and poor decisions we all make, both as children and adults.

All of this is set in a world where men can be more frightening than monsters, where the dead continue---but without the boundless potential that makes corporeal existence a blessing, where witches and vampires can be good, and where living between the realms of life and death can be lonely and confusing, but also an extraordinary adventure.  Gaiman's story works every bit as effectively for adults as it does for children, making it more than a bedtime story or required library reading.  He has constructed a treasure that many children would be likely to carry with them into adulthood, to be cherished and passed down to future generations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I've been interested in blogging for a while now, but two things have long stood in my way: a stubborn case of technophobia and a paralyzing fear of shooting my mouth off without having anything valid/important/funny to say.  I've tried to get past these obstacles a few times before, but have always scurried back to my candle-lit cave, my tail between my legs.

Then came the opportunity to participate in Pajiba's Cannonball Read: Year 2.  Conceived by Brian Prisco and the late, great Amanda Amos (aka Alabama Pink), it presents the challenge of reading and reviewing a book a week (minimum 200 pages), every week, for a year.  For each completed review, the Pajiban Powers That Be will make a contribution the college fund of Alabama Pink's young son.
Now to participate, you need a blog for book review posting.  Hence this shiny little blog you see before you.  I'm starting the read with Neil Gaiman's Newbury Award Winner, The Graveyard Book.  By the end of this weekend, I hope to post the first of many reviews.  I hope to make them entertaining, insightful, funny (if I'm lucky), and to inspire others to take a little more time to pick up a book now and then.

Thanks for reading everyone, I hope to make it worth your while!