2015 Reading Challenge – The Other Side

Way back on March 15, I posted my 2015 Reading Challenge. Accepted and met! Here are the reviews:

A book I’ve been meaning to read:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a huge windstorm in the Puget Sound area, that left us without power for a day and a half and turned out to be a blessing in disguise by giving me the opportunity to read this entire book from start to finish. What a treat! What wonderful storytelling! I loved the movie, and I love the book more. The book has many more characters – Big George’s wife and children, the Threadgoode siblings and their spouses. I especially loved Sipsey’s graveyard of heads, the saga of Railroad Bill, and the deeper story of Smokey Lonesome. As in the movie, there is much slipping around in time to quilt the entire story, and Flagg is a master at it.

Of course one of the main questions I see in almost every commentary about this story, and it is more strongly implied in the book than it was even in the movie – were Ruth and Idgie lovers? What I came away with was: does it matter? The Whistle Stop Cafe and the lives of those who passed in and out of its doors, whether the front door for whites or the back one for “colored,” were  about love, community, looking out for each other and taking care of each other, even at the risk of life itself. Love is love, no matter with whom it manifests or how it is expressed. That assurance of linked and shared humanity from the past was Ninny’s gift to Evelyn in the present. The movie also left the question of whether Idgie and Ninny were the same person. The book makes it clear, they were definitely two different people. Idgie just might still be out there, a bee-charming will-o’-the-wisp.

It made me absurdly happy to see that one of my favorite movie lines of all time was taken directly from the book: “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.” Towanda!

Technology and our bigger-better-faster-more society have robbed us of many things. This book actually made me a little sad that I missed the Great Depression.

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A book published this year:

I did not win a signed first edition, and I’m not too disappointed.

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This may be the most intellectual book I’ve ever read in which pretty much nothing happens. I blame the mist that has robbed Axl and Beatrice of their memories. The characters are flat and events are repetitive, and I am reminded of how deeply our memories form our personalities and our relationships. The dialogue is stilted and formal. The little action is related through looking back on it, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back style, so even that is rather passive. I can see where an amnesiac existence would be that way, but it does not make for a book that can draw me in. It’s entirely possible that I’m simply not highbrow enough to enjoy this work, and I’m okay with that. It took me three weeks to push through to 75%, and then the library loan expired and it disappeared from my Kindle. While I’d be interested to know if I’m right about the the son and the boatman, I don’t care enough to borrow it again to finish it. This is an Ishiguro book that just couldn’t do it for me.

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A book in a genre I don’t typically read:

I, Robot (Robot, #0.1)I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m generally not a huge science fiction fan, and I’m not sure why that is since I’ve read some stellar science fiction books. I should have read this one before now. After reading it and thinking back over the science fiction I’ve seen in TV and movies, I see why Asimov is considered the progenitor of all things robotic. The writing style is a bit dry for me, as much of the writing of that era was, but the stories were enjoyable enough that it didn’t get in the way. These short stories form a nice arc of the “history” of artificial intelligence with an interesting mix of psychology, philosophy, and logical deduction.

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A book from my childhood:

The Borrowers (The Borrowers, #1)The Borrowers by Mary Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book I originally chose for this category in my 2015 Reading Challenge, a book from my childhood, was El Jardin Secreto, or the Spanish translation of The Secret Garden. It turns out that my Spanish is not quite at that level, so I revisited The Borrowers instead.

I had forgotten how magical this book was. The concept is simple but brilliant, the way human “bean”-sized objects are used by little people is creative, the idea of brownie-like inhabitants of our houses is tantalizing, the thought of the damage a housecat could do is bone-chilling. It may have been a children’s book, but the language is not childlike and I enjoyed it as much at my “advanced” age as I did as a kid. And the illustrations – love them! I don’t recall reading the other Borrowers books that followed, but I’ll be reading them now.

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A book my mom loves:

Naked in Death (In Death, #1)Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually don’t enjoy romance, but this novel had the mystery/police procedural in the forefront, so it’s okay. The fact that the phrase “throbbing member” was not used is a big plus. I’m forced to admit I’m not as in love with Roarke as so many other readers are. I’ve always gone a bit more for the hot guy who’s still at least slightly on the wrong side of the tracks, who gets things done through ingenuity and true resourcefulness, not because he’s rich and powerful and connected and has every known and unknown resource in the world already at his fingertips. Where’s the challenge? Still, I liked the characters, the writing was good, the mystery plot was tight. It was good timepasser and I will read more of them. I am intrigued by the futuristic world – I so want an Auto Chef! – and would like to feel more of a sense of this future place as I continue reading.

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A book that was originally written in a different language:

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, this book has one of the best opening sentences for a novel I have ever read. No spoilers.

I understand why this book is considered a great piece of literature, and why so many people admire it. It is peppered with such gems as:

“She had the rare virtue of never existing completely except at the opportune moment.”

and

“He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.”

These quotes give you an idea of the dreamlike quality of this work. It is beautiful, but also problematic for me. I believe I understand the similarly-named characters, and the circularity of events and characters who seem to live for 150 years or so. History repeats itself, the life-death-rebirth cycle is circular, the fantastical existence of Macondo and the founding Buendía family is reminiscent of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. The whole thing is not unlike the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines. But all of the characters with the same names and jumbled familial relationships are confusing, and, as a work of magical realism, it’s like reading a 417-page account of a fantastical, intricate dream. Without a waking consciousness of reality and character development for context, I’m having difficulty pushing through. For me this would have worked better as a collection of interconnected short stories. I’ll keep trying until it’s due back at the library, but if you’re reading this sentence, that means I didn’t finish it. I’m still giving it three stars just for the beauty of the writing. I will most likely try others of Márquez’ work.

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A book “everyone” has read but me:

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The takeaway: If you hold on to the dream too tightly, it will bite you in the ass. Let it stay a happy dream…

I love the Roaring Twenties, with all the decadence and excess and excitement and changing morality and innovation. I’ve heard this book described as “rich white people behaving badly” and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but on the other hand, the rich have dreams and heartbreak too (although I imagine it’s easier to drown your sorrow in champagne than in tap water). No, money cannot buy happiness, and while it could conceivably buy you a moral compass, it also buys you an excuse not to have one. Can money buy the dream come true…?

I wonder what it must have been like to read Fitzgerald when he first started publishing, to be one of those hearing this voice for the first time. He had a gift for creating ambiance and capturing the essence of a fleeting, pivotal moment without overwriting it. Yes, it’s a short book, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, unlike other long-winded classics I’ve tried to read (I’m looking at you, Vanity Fair).

“‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns at the end of your dock.’ Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to him, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted things had diminished by one.”

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A book I chose because of the cover:

The Supernatural EnhancementsThe Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book!

Fans of Neil Gaiman, take note- although Edgar Cantero is a voice all his own, there is a Gaiman-esque-ness to this book.  As part of my 2015 Reading Challenge, this is the book I picked by the cover. I’ve discovered a great new author, and this may be my most enjoyable read of the year.

A secret society, a treasure hunt, keys but no locks, a garden maze, crystal spheres that record dreams and visions, some cryptanalysis…then toss in a ghost and a missing butler, and you’ve got the wonderful old gothic house and its supernatural enhancements. I love the watchdog named Help, and “conspiranoia” is my new favorite word. The epistolary format gives the feeling of being inside the story instead of just being narrated to.

“And the sad truth is, I want to be all those people. I’d sooner die forked a thousand times in that house than wake up to a world without monsters or goddesses. I’d rather play the monster myself.”

My only complaint is Niamh’s name. My stuck-in-English mind kept wanting to mispronounce it and then correct itself, so I was constantly tripping over it.  Once I allowed her to just be Nye-am, it got better.

I’m very much hoping Edgar Cantero publishes more books in English while I improve my skills enough to read his Spanish works.

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A book by a favorite author:

The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe I’d enjoy reading Anne Tyler’s shopping lists, she’s that brilliant a writer. This book is shorter and with less depth than her other work (although as far as I’m concerned, she’ll never be able to top Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which remains one of my all-time favorite books ever) but it still delivers. I’m always a little sad when I turn the last page of one of her books. Her characters remind me that bittersweet is the condition of unconditional love, and that I’m not (always) crazy.

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A book recommended by someone with great taste:

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I closed the back cover after the last page, I was torn. I was irritated by the Biblical metaphor. I am offended by the whole one-woman-did-something-wrong-so-all-women-are-condemned-forever thing. But in spite of that, I loved this book. The philosophies surrounding good, evil, and predestination were explored by many paths before Christianity, and timshel rocks. Such beautiful, beautiful writing. It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything by Steinbeck. I won’t let that many years go by again.

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A book I should have read in high school:

The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An adventurous read I should have had a few decades ago, but I’m glad to be here now.

I am confused, though. The Duke of Buckingham was the enemy of France, and Anne of Austria was having a love affair with him, so how are our heroes not also guilty of treason by supporting the Queen and protecting Buckingham?  And all the escapades like taking what you wanted from innkeepers without paying, and having affairs with rich married women to get money, and getting women into bed under false pretenses (even a Delilah like Milady), and generally bullying and leeching off of others…was this book written tongue in cheek? If that was typical noble behavior at the time, no wonder there was a revolution.

Cardinal Richelieu is not nearly as evil as I’d thought him to be, but Milady is a hundred times more diabolical. What does it say about me, that she is my favorite character? On the other hand, she’s the only character whose head we get into; the rest are rather undeveloped. The book started off slow-ish to me but halfway in it really picked up and by the last third I couldn’t stop turning those pages.  Once I stopped considering the scruples and the politics and just enjoyed the romp, it was a fun read. There is much swashing of buckles, and intrigue and romance abound. I will be sure to read The Count of Monte Cristo, which I understand to be rather darker (and therefore more to my taste).

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A book that’s currently on the bestseller list:

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the romance of gazing through a moving window to the imagined lives of those we pass by! Each of the three women in this story is a hot mess, and that’s what makes them real. I figured out whodunit early on, but that didn’t take away from the twists and surprises waiting in this tight, page-turning, intricately plotted psychological thriller.

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Cash by Johnny Cash (Book Review)

CashCash by Johnny Cash
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have fond memories of my dad and the hi-fi stereo we had in the 60’s, lying side by side on the floor with our heads underneath it for maximum volume and singing along at the top of our lungs to “Ring of Fire” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Walk the Line.” I don’t know if my fandom for Johnny Cash has more to do with Cash himself or with happy childhood memories in general, but I remain a fan.

“I knew it was wrong and self-destructive…but I’ve never been one to let such considerations stand in the way of my road to ruin.” Can’t we all say that?

This is not what I would call an autobiography because it’s not really linear; it’s more like sitting around the table and just talking, one subject brings up another which brings up another. Still, it’s very readable and the voice is honest and engaging. Love the Man in Black.

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Book Review)

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I closed the back cover after the last page, I was torn. I was irritated by the Biblical metaphor. I am offended by the whole one-woman-did-something-wrong-so-all-women-are-condemned-forever thing. But in spite of that, I loved this book. The philosophies surrounding good, evil, and predestination were explored by many paths before Christianity, and timshel rocks. Such beautiful, beautiful writing. It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything by Steinbeck. I won’t let that many years go by again.

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The First Annual (or Whatever) 99 Monkeys Stupidest Random Awards

The Stupidest Song You Can’t Not Sing Along With: Daydream Believer. That song is as impossible to break away from as the Borg. And I’m not bagging on the Monkees. I love the Monkees. I had as big a crush on Davy Jones as any other girl.

The Stupidest Best Philosophy I Just Might Adopt Immediately: WWKRD? What Would Keith Richards Do? Say what you want about the man, he’s a survivor. “Keep calm, get blazed, and play the riff ” has a simple purity to it.

Of course I am not the first to have thought of this. It’s a real book, and I want it.

I am aware that Keith Richards and Davy Jones are sort of the antithesis of each other, and I’m okay with that.

Elegantly wasted, indeed.


The Stupidest Dictionary: The one in my phone. It absolutely will not learn the word “damn,” but regularly tries to autofill “fisting” for any number of normal, everyday words. Are you fucking kidding me, Samsung? Learn “fuck,” too.
The Stupidest Super Power: My inability to sleep adequately for years on end. I can sleep only 10 minutes a night for a week at a time, and somehow my body thinks a 10-hour collapse once a week is sufficient for me to catch up and somehow avoid a psychotic break from sleep deprivation.

Unless, of course, this is due to a psychic awakening because I am, in fact, one of the Star People from the Pleiades. If that’s true, then I’d just like to go home now, please. A pair of ruby slippers would make short work of the 445 light-year trip.


The Stupidest Ostrich Argument: All these inane social media posts about wonderful white cops and wonderful black detainees and just all-around warm and fuzzy racial wonderfulness. It’s like posting about all the people who don’t have cancer to “remind us the world isn’t completely bad,” which really means “allow us to pretend the bad thing isn’t there.” No matter how many people don’t have cancer, cancer is still an ugly plague. So is racism. Stop trying to pretty it up or shrug away from it.

Of course. Racism solved.


The Stupidest “News”: That two little kids held hands. I don’t know what’s stupider, that someone actually got paid for writing this crap, or that people continue to eat up anything about the Kardashians. But that’s our society these days: the most money and the biggest boobs.

The Stupidest Place to Get Your News: Facebook. Remember, what you read is only as accurate as the most ignorant user.


This prank meme, Steven Spielberg posing with
a fake dinosaur from the Jurassic Park set,
was taken seriously by a disturbingly large number of people.

The Stupidest Alert System: Whoever invented obnoxious car alarms should be shot. OK, maybe not shot, but perhaps forced to be awakened by this rude noise every 15 minutes for the rest of his life. Nobody goes running out to catch the car burglar when these things go off, and go off, and go off, and go off, ad insaniam. What they do is start looking for the baseball bat they will use to shut the damned thing up, when it turns out the car’s owner is away on a three-week tour of Russia and the Balkan lands.

The runner-up is whoever thought up using a car horn as an alert to tell you that you’ve locked or unlocked your vehicle. Do it the old-fashioned way, by, um, remembering where you parked it. And if you can’t remember, then you’re missing out on the fun of trying to find your beat-up ride in the sea of a coliseum parking lot, with your ears still ringing from the concert and your head swimming from the ganja. Where’s your sense of adventure?

Overall, I think car horns are far too subject to rude usage, and should therefore be un-invented.
That’s it for this installment. Here’s the earworm. You’re welcome.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Book Review)

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children. It floats in a clear  liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world of light?

At first blush this book seemed quite similar to The Book Thief, one of my all-time favorite books and therefore tough to beat, and I began to be irritated. But except for childhoods stolen by the horror of war, and achingly poignant prose, the two books are dissimilar enough. All the Light We Cannot See is a moving, beautifully written story, well worth savoring.

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Out, damned Facebook!

It’s time to slow things down, Facebook. We’ve been seeing far too much of each other.
There have been a few good articles on how Facebook is bad for you, like this one and this one, but I’d like to think I figured it out on my own. Wait. Maybe that’s not such a good thing. It’s pretty bad when I have to figure it out for myself instead of reading about it on Facebook, right?

I’ve noticed it personally for a few months now. I see pictures of someone’s vacation and I feel envious. Not just that passing kind of envy, wow, how beautiful, that’s a place to keep in mind to go to someday, but something more ferocious, an anger turned inward. Why am I not good enough to be able to afford a vacation twice a year, or even once a year? People post pictures of their gardens, or the feasts they’ve prepared, and I immediately feel that I’m failing to live an acceptable life because I do not serve equally sumptuous dinners with tables graced by flawlessly arranged flowers grown in my equally exquisite garden. Never mind the fact that I live in a tiny apartment that doesn’t even have room for a proper table. Also never mind the fact that I am more of a necessity cook than a gourmet cook, and also have a pretty tight budget. Who, these days, has $39 for an ostrich egg? Hell, it’s all The Tominator and I can do to keep the place stocked with bread and tea.

I realize this is not the fault of the people who are doing fun and beautiful things in their lives. They should be doing fun and beautiful things in their lives. I am a depressive person. I’ve suffered from crippling panic attacks for 35 years, as well as the depression that goes with that. It is easy for me to find fault with myself, to weigh and find myself wanting. Why am I not that skinny? Why don’t I have 35 friends waiting to take me out on the town for my birthday? Why don’t I knit things that look that good? Why am I not a worldly and cultured traveler?  I certainly should be. I mean, just look. Everybody else is. Except, of course, that they’re not.

Yes, I know when to use which one. But I don’t own most of them.

But it’s not just that.

I don’t need the distraction. I recently participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and while the fault is ultimately my own, I still blame Facebook for the fact that I did not reach my word count goal. Hell, I’ve had to mentally slap my hand three times already, just writing this post, to keep from opening Facebook in a new window to see what new thing I’m not doing right that has come up in the last fifteen minutes. (It is interesting that I don’t have this problem when school is in session and I really do have to study, and I don’t have it at work either. Apparently my mind does have some self-discipline.) I’m still not as bad as some people though. I do not now have, and never have had and never will have, the Facebook app for my phone. But I still think that’s like justifying skin-popping smack by pointing out that it’s not as bad as mainlining. It’s still bad, Advertising irritates the living daylights out of me, clickbait destroys IQ points, and any article written about the Kardashians is a tool of Satan.
I don’t need the overstimulation. Yes, the world is full of injustices that need to be righted. But people who share a meme and apparently believe that means they’re actually doing something to fix things irritate the shit out of me. I personally don’t need to have horrifying pictures of abused animals shoved in my face. It agitates me, and the fact that you slammed me in the face with a gross-out makes for zero likelihood that I’m going to jump on your bandwagon. If this is a cause I will use my time to fight for, I will seek it out. Do you think the criminal justice system needs an overhaul, or GMO foods should be labeled? First, fact-check the meme you just read. Then, get off Facebook and write a letter to your legislator. Have a real conversation with a real person about it. Vote. I don’t know if it’s causing the insomnia that plagues me, but when I wake in the wee hours, that kind of crap is what is floating in my mind. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. But I don’t need it invading my sleeping hours as well as my waking ones.
I don’t need the negativity. I realize they are just stupid memes, and people frequently share stuff without really thinking about the implications behind them. Still, it upsets me to see that someone I like apparently harbors viewpoints I find hateful. Why, exactly, is it so horrible to have driver’s license tests available in languages other than English? Anybody who has ever learned, or tried to learn, a foreign language knows it’s damned hard, and having things available in people’s mother tongues makes rules and regulations clearly understood as well as making us just, well, classy for being so accepting of other cultures, kinda the same way other countries make things available in English. (Oops, I ranted.) And then there’s just all the generally irritating things that people do on Facebook anyway, like “vaguebooking” and proselytizing and posting quotes that aren’t even correctly attributed and the rest of these Facebook sins.

Except this one. If Abe said it, it must be true.

I’m not saying Facebook is completely evil. A year or so ago I reconnected with some cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, and it’s been delightful. I enjoy knowing that people I care about are doing things that make them happy. There is some intelligent stuff out there, and I come across some interesting articles and points of view. It’s a good place to promote my blog.

But I think there’s a lot more bad than good, and it’s time for me to draw a line.

In the hour I’ve spent writing this blog post, I haven’t looked at Facebook once. Now I think I’ll go email my legislator about the asshattery and unconstitutionality of the English-only movement. Maybe I’ll finish that beautiful scarf I started knitting for Dream Girl. And who knows, I might even read War and Peace and get some sleep.
Now, Twitter. Now, that’s interesting…

***
Get a Life: Nate Bolt, Creative Commons
Formal table: Andreas Praefcke, Public Domain
Abe: He’s everywhere.

I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres (Book Review)

Hopefully I’m off my rock and roll kick for awhile.

I'm with the Band: Confessions of a GroupieI’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Can Pamela Des Barres write? No. The book is liberally strewn with such gems as “When I came to my extremely sensual senses” (although I am given to understand Jim Morrison had that effect), and someone giving her a “look of unabashed, wholesome cleanliness mixed with drop-down-dead hot, horny sexiness.” The over-the-top teeny-bop rhapsodizing had already worn pretty thin by the time I read that Waylon Jennings “itched his crotch” — oh my God no, no, NO! You do not itch things; you scratch them. What editor left that in? If it hadn’t been on my Kindle, I would have thrown the book across the room several times because of the horrible writing.

But…Does Pamela Des Barres have a story to tell? Definitely. There’s plenty of dish here. This was a girl having the time of her life, prescriptions and proscriptions of society be damned, sex and drugs and rock and roll like nobody’s business. How many girls get to cross Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page off their to-do lists?

If you can swallow 300+ pages of drug-and-sex-addled-teenage-girl-diary gushing, there’s a lot of fun in here.

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