Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Month in Review: January 2012

At the end of my first month of focusing on reading and reviews rather than writing, I must say I'm pleased with the progress I've made I've pushed myself to read more and managed to review seven out of nine books that I read.  Here's a look at what I accomplished on the reading front in January 2012:

The first thing I finished in January was George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, book five of his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  I was overjoyed at finishing this book, though mostly because I'd been listening to all five audiobooks more or less straight through.  I'm glad I read it but I'm also happy to wait however long for the next installment while I immerse myself in novels with fewer characters and more plot.  For now at least.  When I finished that one, I went on to read the following nine books:

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King:
3. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
4. Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman
5. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
6.  Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
7. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
9. Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

What's Coming Up?

In February, I plan to continue reading as much as possible and may even try and read ten full new books.

Here's a look at a few things I've got my eye on:

Feed by Mira Grant (as part of the Feeding My Book Addiction Horror readalong in honor of Valentine's Day.)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Mistery by Stephen King

Those are just seven possible books I may review.  Perhaps I'll toss in another P G. Wodehouse novel, as there are several left I wish to read.

If you've read something lately that you think I should check out or have read something on my reading list you have an opinion on, please feel free to hit the comments!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Description (courtesy of Goodreads.com):

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

I had heard about this novel from someone I follow on Twitter who had hyped it quite a bit.  I normally am allergic to hype and tend to run the other way when something is proclaimed as A Book You Must Read.  This applies to films, plays, musicals, most things, really.  You may wonder, then, why I picked up this book.  Simply put, I trust writers.  Twitter allows me to interact with other writers and I"ve yet to be steered wrong when a fellow writer has recommended a book, either directly to me or to the masses.

Although the book gets off to a great start with Hazel Grace as an endearing narrator and her family as believable people who have been to hell and back, I struggled a little bit in reading this.  I think this was partly because I knew it was about a young girl with cancer.  I think in the back of my mind I was afraid of how real this book might get.  Despite, or perhaps as a result of Hazel being a funny narrator who's making the best of her situation, I worried how bad things might get.

Everything did not turn up roses for everyone in the end, but I thought that John Green did an amazing job of maintaining an appropriate distance between the reader and the most intimate details of living with (or dying from) cancer.  His prose is effective without being gruesome, so that you get just enough of an impression to feel for the characters without it getting grizzly and/or uncomfortable.

I think this is a fantastic book.  John Green did an exemplary job of bringing characters to life and gave them obstacles that, regardless of the outcome, they could not shirk from.  As a reader, I cheered their successes, rallied in their respective corners during their setbacks, and grieved for their losses.

In an interesting coincidence, at the end, when I could see whole picture, this novel reminded me of something Ann Lamott related in Bird by Bird (which I reviewed here).

Ms. Lamott was relating the story of how, six months before her friend Pammy passed away due to cancer or related illness, she had called a doctor looking for what she called "a positive spin on some depressing developments."  The doctor, she says, was unable to provide solace, but instead gave advice.  "Watch her very carefully right now," the doctor said, "because she's teaching you how to live."

Through the stories of Hazel, Augustus Waters, Isaac, their families, and friends, John Green delivers a sobering but, ultimately, uplifting story about young people with the deck stacked against them, battling to survive, armed with the understanding of what's truly important in life.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Weekly Roundup: January 27, 2012

Another week has gone by and February is nearly upon us.  It's a little hard to believe, but there it is.  This past week, I had set the goal of finishing John Green's The Fault in our Stars and listening to two Jeeves audiobooks by P.G. Wodehouse.  I did manage to finish Thank You, Jeeves, but the second Jeeves book I intended to listen to, Right Ho, Jeeves, just didn't seem to want to stick.  I kept losing track of things, so I decided to put that on hold and instead read Anne Lamott's fantastic book on writing, Bird by Bird which, as I describe in my review, had a profound impact on me.

On Thursday, I went to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in Manhattan, looking to kill some time before work and get some ideas for books I would like to read.   Miraculously, or because most of the books were only available in hardcover, I managed to walk out without buying any of these enticing books, though they've been added to my to-read list on Goodreads:

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why
Fellowes, Julian. Snobs
Helitzer Mel. Comedy Writing Secrets, 2nd Edition
O'Malley, Daniel. The Rook

I will also be taking part in the Feeding My Book Addiction Horror Readalong in February, during which I'll read one of the following books:

Grant, Mira. Feed
King, Stephen, Misery
Koontz, Dean. 77 Shadow Street
Stoker, Bram. Dracula
Whitehead, Colson. Zone One

Lastly, I must say I'm pleased with my productivity this month so far and I look to end the month on a strong note by finishing The Fault in our Stars and possibly one more book.  So far this month, I finished one book I'd started in 2011 (A Dance with Dragons) and I read seven more.  I should have no trouble whatsoever with meeting my goal of reading fifty books this year.  I wonder if I can make it to one hundred.

For the time being, I'll concentrate on finishing The Fault in our Stars and digging into Stephen R. Lawhead's Hood.

Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott
Description (courtesy of Goodreads.com:)

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said. 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
With this basic instruction always in mind, Anne Lamott returns to offer us a new gift: a step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer's life. From "Getting Started,' with "Short Assignments," through "Shitty First Drafts," "Character," "Plot," "Dialogue." all the way from "False Starts" to "How Do You Know When You're Done?" Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses "Writers Block," "Writing Groups," and "Publication." Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.
If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this books for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eves open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.

Frequently, I find myself treating books like fine wine.  I purchase them or get samples of them on Kindle, and I let them age for a while before I decanter them and sample their goodness.

Someone suggested, or I read somewhere that Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life was a great book about writing.  I dutifully filed it away and at some point even downloaded a free sample (a few pages, it may have been a chapter).  And I let it age.  And age.  And age.

I had been smack in the middle of John Green's The Fault in our Stars, which I had hoped to finish this week.  Although I love the characters and I think it's well written, I didn't feel anything pushing me forward in it.  Every time I picked it up, something else would demand my attention.  So I let that sit and age for a little while.  And then, this past week, something funny happened.  I felt like Bird by Bird called to me, inviting me in, telling me it was ready for me, or perhaps I was ready for it.

I turned on my Kindle and began to read.  I liked the tone.  Ms. Lamott is quite funny, laugh out loud funny at times, and she doesn't pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth.  I was two percent into the Kindle version of the book when she was talking about the need for a writer, especially at the beginning, to be willing to try things and make mistakes. She quoted Thurber as saying "You might as well fall fat on your face as lean over too far backwards."

As a perfectionist, this spoke volumes to me.  I had put my creative writing on hold (indefinitely) when I got tired of staring at a blinking cursor or a blank page and stewing in my own juices of self-loathing and (perceived, erroneously, but no less potent) lack of ability to meet my unreasonable expectations.  So rather than deal with that, I stopped writing.  The rub is, I'm a writer.  I will always be writing.  Journals, reviews of television, books, plays.  In some form or another I will always be writing.

So I continued reading.  I loved the tone and hearing about Ms. Lamott's beginnings as a writer.  A few "pages" later, I came across something that floored me, so strongly did it resonate with my own experience. She was speaking about how when she was in second grade she wrote a poem that won an award and appeared in a collection:
I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print.  It provides some sort of primal verification:  you are in print, therefore you exist.  Who knows what this urge is all about, to appear somewhere outside yourself, instead of feeling stuck inside your muddled but stroboscopic mind, peering out like a tiny undersea animal--a spiny blenny, for instance--from inside your tiny cave?
It was at this point that I understood that this book had the potential to change my life, because what she said reverberated so strongly with my own struggles as a writer.  When I first started taking writing seriously in around December 2011, I was in the throes of an identity crisis.  I loved writing, but at the time, I was clinging a little too strongly to Writer as an identity, fearing that without some such label, I might evaporate or something.  So when my writing inevitably failed to live up to my own tastes, I was back where I was before it began, no matter how many times I tried chanting one of my college rhetoric professor's mantras:  "A writer is one who writes. A good writer is one who writes well."

Using an honest and easy tone of voice and employing a great sense of humor, Ms. Lamott quickly won me over. In this book that has more to do with living than with writing, she talks about growing up with her father, also a published author. She talks about dealing with death and grief and jealousy.  She talks about being a single mother, about losing her father and a close friend to cancer.  She talks about rejection, about failure, and about success.

She advocates focusing on small assignments.  She tells the story of when her older brother was ten and he had a report to write on different types of birds.  He procrastinated and it was due the next day and was panicking.  Their father told him to just take things bird by bird, one at a time. I am going to try and take that advice to heart.

Like Stephen King's On Writing, Bird by Bird is part memoir, part advice for writers.  What's truly beautiful about this book is that it makes an argument for a way, not just to write, but to live in the world.  Remembering to breathe, paying attention, and commitment to craft are just the tip of the iceberg of what you can learn from this book.  Even if you're not a writer, there's valuable advice in here for everyone.

Like when I read King's On Writing, I have not yet read any of Ms. Lamott's fiction, but you can be sure that her books will appear in my to-read list shortly.

I felt called to finally crack open this book I'd heard somewhere or other about, and I was richly rewarded with a new perspective on writing, and on life.  Because God seems to work in mysterious ways, it so happens I was at Union Square in Manhattan the afternoon before I finished reading Bird by Bird, killing time before my night shift at work.  It turns out Ms. Lamott will be giving a reading and signing of her new novel in March. I plan on going, if only to tell her that Bird by Bird changed my outlook on life.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Thank You, Jeeves. by P. G. Wodehouse

Thank You Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
Unabridged Audible version narrated by Jonathan Cecil
Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):
When Bertie insists upon playing the banjolele, to the distress of his neighbors and his impeccable valet Jeeves, Jeeves is forced to take drastic action. He leaves B.'s service. But Bertie is entirely dedicated to his art, and decides to rent one of his friend Lord Chuffnell's cottages so as to pursue his banjolele studies away from the madding (and maddened) crowd... only to learn that Jeeves has taken employment as Chuffy's valet at Chuffnell Hall. Right-ho, then. There is the usual romantic imbroglio; a former fiancĂ©e of Bertie's, Pauline Stoker, enters the picture as Chuffy's guest while her father, the American millionaire J. Washburn Stoker, considers the purchase of Chuffnell Hall. Of course Pauline and Chuffy proceed to fall madly in love, and when they fall out, it's up to Bertie to set things to rights again. Only, without Jeeves, it's a deuced awkward business, wot? 

Note: There is something of a plot spoiler in here, but I think it would entice rather than spoil. Still, you've been warned.

When I watch a television show, regardless of how long it's been running, I always start at the beginning. So, for example, when I started watching the reboot of BBC's Doctor Who, I started with "Rose," episode one of series one, and watched every single episode from 2005 to the most recent, "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe."

By and large, I'm the same way with books when I know that a book is a part of a series, I try and seek out the first book in the series.  However, having been familiar with many of the stories of Jeeves and Wooster from the A&E series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, I've relaxed this habit a bit when it comes to reading the short stories and novels of P. G. Wodehouse featuring Bertie Wooster and his man, Jeeves.

Thank You, Jeeves, serialized and later published in 1934, is the first full-length novel featuring this duo and I find I'm of two minds about it.  On the one hand I didn't feel as anchored to the plot as I did with The Code of the Woosters (1938).  This caused my attention to wax and wane despite Jonathan Cecil's thoroughly enjoyable narration of the audiobook.  I recognize Bertie's banjolele playing as the inciting incident for the entire plot and I understand how it escalates and causes Bertie to leave for the country and Jeeves to leave his service.  It's when we get to the country that I get a little fuzzy, mostly as regards Sir Roderick Glossop.  My understanding of his role in all of this is a bit shaky.  I'm sure a second reading would clear that up.

Having said that, my less than rock solid handle on the plot and Glossop's character allowed me to focus on things like language and Bertie as the narrator, more than I did when listening to The Code of the Woosters.  What I love is the way that, based on the two books I've read so far, Wodehouse manages to lightly introduce a tension-creating idea, hinting at it or anticipating it and then just before Bertie deals with it, a related but also slightly tangential idea is introduced.

A perfect example of this is when, towards the end of the novel, the cottage where Bertie is staying in the country comes to be on fire.  He's made aware of this fact but instead of reacting the way we would expect a character to do, his circumstances and his character lead him to think of Robinson Crusoe (if, as he would say, it was Crusoe he he means) making a "credits" and "debits" list of his situation, and he starts listing off positive and negative things about both the macro and micro situations he finds himself within.  I found it so funny I literally laughed out loud and it tipped the scale from "I'm not sure if I'm going to review this book because I'm shaky on the plot" to "this scene is worth the price of reading the whole book."

As when I was reading The Code of the Woosters, I love the subtlety of Wodehouse's writing that's evident here.  The way he manipulates conflict and employs jokes by touching on a potentially difficult situation and lets his characters react in what may be a very British way, I'm not sure.  There's a lack of directness in his British characters like Bertie that we do glimpse in Pauline Stoker and her father, both Americans.

I gave the book three stars out of five on Goodreads because, although I do appreciate the subtleties I picked up on with the way Wodehouse seems to approach conflicts in this series, I was disappointed that I didn't have as firm a grasp on the plot as I had with The Code of the Woosters.  That may have been my fault, and perhaps on a second reading I'll reconsider.

One thing's for certain:  I will continue to read more Wodehouse.  If you like light, fun, British comic lit, you can't go wrong with P. G. Wodehouse.

Friday, January 20, 2012

11/22/63 Read-along Parts 4-6

You can read my review of parts 1-3 of Stephen King's 11/22/63 here.

What follows are my thoughts on parts four through six and the novel as a whole.  I have tried to refrain from including plot spoilers as much as possible but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, it's probably best you finish reading the novel before checking out my comments.

Having said that, I thought this book was brilliant.  King expertly brought the time period of 1958 through 1963 to vivid life for me. Through his simple yet elegant prose, his complex characters, and setting, he managed to create a sense of nostalgia in me for an era before I was born.  I identified with protagonist Jake Epping, not because he and I have a lot in common, but because I tried to imagine what it would be like to be told there's a wormhole in time in my favorite restaurant that would allow me to travel back in time for an indefinite amount of time and, although I would age accordingly, when I returned to the present only two minutes would have passed since I left.  Then to be charged with the task of picking up where the amiable proprietor of said favorite restaurant left off and attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  I can't imagine what I would do. I had no idea, so I had to find out how Jake managed this quest.

Right along side Jake Epping, we plunged down the rabbit wormhole and into 1958 where he financed his operations by using information about major sporting events to lay substantial bets on things where he knew the outcome.  He got a job, first substitute teaching and then teaching full-time, and he fell in love.  More than anything else, it's the texture of the novel that really brings it to life.  This is not just about a man on a mission.  This is a novel about a man who travels back in time and fully immerses himself in it.  Of course, on some level, at least, he's got to, lest he stick out more than he already does.  He meets Sadie Dunhill, and falls in love.  This causes at least as many problems as it solves.

There's a nod to conspiracy theorists, too.  Before Al, the diner owner who charged Jake with this quest, could feel certain enough about Oswald, Jake was asked to look into the attempt on General Edwin Walker's life, citing that if Lee Harvey Oswald was alone and not convinced by a third-party to assassinate the general, then it was 95% probable that Lee acted alone in the Kennedy Assassination.

The second half of the novel takes Jake Epping (or George Amberson, as he is known in the past) through to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and beyond.  The "obdurate" past is after him with a vengeance.

Does Jake succeed in saving Kennedy and thus providing a better future, or past, depending on how you look at it?  I highly recommend reading this fantastic book to find out.

Review: The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
Unabridged Audible version read by Jonathan Cecil.
Description (courtesy of Goodreads.com):

The Code of the Woosters is the first installment in the Totleigh Towers saga. It introduces the characters of Sir Watkyn Bassett, the owner of Totleigh Towers, and Roderick Spode, later known as Lord Sidcup after his ascension to Earldom. The story opens with Bertie recovering from a bachelor party he has thrown the night before for Gussie Fink-Nottle, his fish-faced, newt-fancying friend. While still convalescing, he is summoned before his somewhat beloved Aunt Dahlia and ordered by her to go to a particular antique shop and "sneer at a cow creamer." This is an effort to sap the confidence of the shop's owner and thus drive down the piece's price before it is purchased by Dahlia's collector husband Tom Travers. While in the shop, Bertie has his first run-in with Sir Watkyn (another collector of silver pieces) and Spode (whose aunt Sir Watkyn is planning to marry). Bertie escapes this ordeal relatively unscathed, but later learns that, via underhanded skulduggery involving lobsters and cold cucumbers, Sir Watkyn has obtained possession of the creamer ahead of Uncle Tom and spirited it away to Totleigh Towers. Bertie was already headed there in a frantic attempt to patch over the sudden rupture in the engagement of Gussie and Madeline Bassett, Sir Watkyn's droopy and oversentimental daughter, but now he has been assigned an additional impossible task by Aunt Dahlia: recovery of the cow creamer, which is being guarded both by Spode and the local police. His situation is complicated further by the presence at Totleigh Towers of Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn's anarchic young ward, who draws Bertie into her plan to marry the local curate, another old pal of Bertie's named "Stinker" Pinker, and a certain leather-covered notebook of Gussie's, in which he has lovingly and extensively detailed Sir Watkyn and Spode's many character failings, and which has escaped Gussie's possession to roam freely about the local community.

The Code of the Woosters is, surprisingly, the first P.G. Wodehouse book I've finished.  When I was growing up, my mother often borrowed the television series Jeeves & Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, from the library and we'd watch it together.  I had been acquainted with many of the characters in this novel before I'd picked it up.  I'd been meaning to dig into some Wodehouse but for some reason only managed to get through one or two of his short stories.

This novel is fantastic.  Wodehouse's prose is a delight to read and Bertie Wooster, charming yet somewhat dimwitted aristocrat, makes for a fantastic first-person narrator.  The story begins with a visit from Bertie's Aunt Dahlia who asks him to go to an antique shop and literally "sneer" at a silver jug of cream shaped like a cow that his uncle Tom wishes to acquire, so as to warm the shop owner up for negotiation when his uncle wishes to haggle for it.

What's wonderful about this novel is how much is made of so little.  Therein lies the humor of the book.  What begins as sneering at a cow creamer quickly escalates as Bertie is presumed to be stealing the creamer by a judge who, in the past, fined Bertie five pounds for stealing a policeman's helmet.

The plot thickens as other characters enlist Bertie in various schemes and I found myself wondering how he would avoid serious consequences including, but not limited to, the destruction of Gussie's engagement and an unwanted engagement to Angela Bassett for Bertie, the loss of Aunt Dalia's incomparable cook Anatole, and even the threat of imprisonment.  Yet, in the end, with the help of his inimitable manservant, Jeeves, all is, eventually, worked out in the end.

I didn't realize that this was the seventh Jeeves novel.  I will surely be tracking down the rest and reading those as well.  For those that enjoy audiobooks, while Jonathan Cecil could never replace the voices of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in my mind, he does an admirable job narrating this novel and bringing the characters of Wodehouse's universe to life.

Weekly Roundup 1/20/2012

It's been a good week for me in the reading realm.  I finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 and started putting together my review of the second half of the novel, which I hope to post in the next week.

Following that, I consumed the audible version of Mario Puzo's The Godfather.  I don't have enough to say about this to warrant its own independent review.  Suffice it to say that, having seen the film first, the first half of the novel was the slightest bit slow.  I found Johnny Fontane a whiny unsympathetic character who, if I'm recalling correctly, benefitted from the film taking the pressure off of him as a major player. In the book, he gets a whole section where he's the point of view character, and I just found it impossible to sympathize with someone who gets his way just because Don Corleone is his actual godfather.

I thought the second half of the novel, by contrast, picked up and made reading the book worthwhile.  The screenplay being co-written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, they nailed the task of adapting the novel into a brilliant film. Unfortunately, perhaps because of this, the beginning of the novel didn't give me more of what I wanted in the way some books turned into films do. I wanted to delve deeper into the characters and their world and it felt like I was just getting the facts. However, once Don Corleone is shot and Michael begins his ascent, the book really starts to shine.  I was on the fence about reading the next novel in the series but, in the end I think I will eventually pick it up.

I initially borrowed this book from my public library in ebook format, but I didn't finish 11/22/63 before the loan expired, so I ended up using one of my monthly credits and getting the multi-voice performance recording from Audible.com and I was very pleased.

I said I was going to start John Green's new novel, The Fault in our Stars, when I finished with The Godfather.  I didn't get to it this week, but I intend to over the next couple of days.  For the time being, I'm almost finished with the audio version of P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, a thoroughly enjoyable novel about Bertie Wooster, slightly witless British aristrocrat, and his remarkable butler, Jeeves.  I had grown up watching the television show starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, long before he took on the titular role on House, M.D.  The novel does not disappoint.  Bertie Wooster makes for an outstanding first-person narrator and Wodehouse's writing is a pure treat.

As I posted earlier this week, I'm going to be hosting a weekly poll to help me decide which of the ever-growing list of books I wish to read I should read next.  I'll pick four or so books from my to-read list on Goodreads and you can vote for your favorites.

Coming Up:

I've acquired a few books of late that I'm eager to sink my teeth into.  First thing's first, I'll finish up The Code of the Woosters.  Next shall likely be finishing off the Doctor Who Brilliant Book 2012, which I'm currently fifty pages into.  Following that, I most recently acquired a two-volume set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks, and the aforementioned A Fault in our Stars by John Green.  Other possibilities include Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, and any of another hundred books I probably can't think of at this precise moment.

When the week is out, I'll have finished one book and also read two complete ones.  I think I've gotten into the groove of near-constant reading.  Now I just need to figure out when I'm going to write about everything.  The good news is, the more I read the more I understand what's missing from my own fiction and, knowing what my own fiction lacks, I can begin to work on improving it.

Keep an eye out this coming week for my review of the second half of Stephen King's 11/22/63 and possibly P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Polls: A new feature of The Write Aspirations

I've added a poll to the blog that I'm excited about.  I will assume I am not alone among bibliophiles in that I acquire books at a faster rate than I can read them.  While this ensures that I never lack for something new to read, it can be like being at a restaurant with an intimidating menu full of choices when it comes time to pick what I'll read next.

In 2012, I would like to actually meet my ambitious goal of reading fifty books on top of my full-time job and blogging goals.  To do so I want to have a constant sense of what my next read will be. This way I can spend more time reading and less time debating what I should read.  I knew when I finished 11/22/63 that I would read The Godfather, but I failed to anticipate finishing The Godfather so quickly.  To prevent this from happening in the future, I've put a poll in my sidebar featuring four of the books currently on my "to-read" list.  I'll run the poll for about a week at a time.  Feel free to vote for your favorite.  If there's something you think I should be reading that isn't there, hit the comments below, mention it to me on Twitter, or recommend it to me via Goodreads!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

During a break from Stephen King's 11/22/63 this past week, I devoured the audiobook version of Matthew Norman's debut novel, Domestic Violets.

From Goodreads.com:

Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.
The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh . . . and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.
Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.

Matthew Norman's debut novel, Domestic Violets, was fantastic.  I got this as an audiobook from Audible on the recommendation of Grace over at Feeding My Book Addiction, where I find many picks that turn out to be favorites.

When the novel begins, our protagonist, first-person narrator and protagonist Tom Violet, age "almost 36," lets us into his life in more intimate detail than I was expecting. He's having trouble getting an erection.  Although I was a little surprised to encounter a sex scene in the opening chapter of a novel, Tom Violet's willingness to share this with the reader combined with humorous off the cuff delivery endeared Tom to me as a character, and Todd McLaren's narration of the audiobook helped Tom leap off the page into three dimensions and he sat me down and said "I'd like to tell you a story."
Equally endearing to me is the fact that Tom hates his job as head copywriter at his company.  He has a by-the-book nemesis named Gregory, whom he insists on calling Greg to antagonize him.  The only thing that seems slightly uplifting is an inappropriate crush on his twenty-three year old co-worker, Katie.  However, given that he's married, no good can come of this, and there probably isn't such a thing as "harmless."

I thought the writing was excellent.  At the beginning of the novel, Tom is passive, and the language makes that clear.  It's almost impressionist how the reader anticipates how Tom should feel before he necessarily comes clean about it.  For example, Tom has a secret novel that he's shown to no one.  His father is a famous novelist who, it reveals, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  One thing leads to another and eventually, something occurs that breaks the camel's back, as it were.  So you watch Tom move from  passivity to activity and begin to take control of his life in grand fashion.
This novel is also extremely well textured.  I got a sense of how different aspects of Tom's life fit together in terms of his relationships with his wife, his daughter, his coworkers, and his parents, and many other characters besides.

If Domestic Violets is any indication, Matthew Norman is a novelist I will follow for a long time.  I would encourage everyone to check out his fantastic debut novel.

Weekly Roundup January 13, 2012

It's been a bit of a busy week for me on the reading front. On Sunday night into the wee hours of Monday morning, I finished Part 3 of Stephen King's 11/22/63, which I've since pushed forward in and am now approaching the halfway point. I posted my review of parts 1-3 here.

Between finishing Part 3 and picking up with Part 4, I took a break for a couple of days and devoured the audio version of Matthew Norman's debut novel, Domestic Violets, which I enjoyed so much I'm struggling with where to begin praising it. A review is coming, though. I promise.

I also listened to a short story called "The Book Case," by Nelson DeMille.  It features one of his best characters, John Corey, who appears in such novels as Plum Island, The Lion's Game, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Lion, and his upcoming novel The Panther.  "The Book Case" features John Corey in his early days as a Detective with the NYPD, called in to take a look at the scene of what looks to be an accident, a bookcase toppling over and resulting in the death of a New York City bookseller.  Corey deftly surveys the store, determines that this death is no mere accident, and follows through to the conclusion where he elicits a confession from the murderer and their accomplice.

I think the John Corey novels are fantastic.  Corey's sense of humor resonates with me and his adventures in the novels in which he stars make for an enjoyable read. "The Book Case" did not disappoint.

I also discovered great news that I had not seen before while perusing the Fforde News Fflashes at British Author Jasper Fforde's website.  Namely, the seventh volume of his spectacular Thursday Next series, to be titled Dark Reading Matter was, as of October, predicted to be in draft form by December 2011 and "probably" slated for publication in May of 2012.  Even better, The Last Dragonslayer is slated to be published in the United States for the first time in September of this year.

I've been a huge fan of his work since a friend turned me on to A Big Over Easy a few years ago, and I recommend his books to anyone and everyone.  Even though One of our Thursdays is Missing came out in March of 2011, I feel like it's been an age since I had a new book from Fforde, so the prospect of not one but two this year is thrilling, and I will have to make room in my schedule for them.

If you love reading (and, if you don't, I'm not sure why you're reading this) you will love Jasper Fforde's books.  Start with either A Big Over Easy (his first Nursery Crime) or The Eyre Affair (the first novel featuring Literary Detective Thursday Next).  I daresay you'll thank me.

I'll be diving back into 11/22/63 again soon.  I hope to accomplish as much reading as I can manage over my three-day Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend so that I can dig into new things.

On Deck: I still intend for my next read to be Mario Puzo's The Godfather, but, depending on how long it takes me to finish 11/22/63, that may wait until February.  I wish the borrowing of ebooks from the library was a little more user-friendly.  Currently, I request something and I get an email when a copy is available.  Then I have three days to download the borrowed book to my Kindle and two weeks to read it.  I got as far as the end of the introduction to The Godfather, but I'm trying not to get into too many books at one time because I've a bad habit of starting things but never finishing them.  Most recently this happened with Ben Mezrich's Sex on the Moon, which I will get back to, but by the time I do, I expect I'll have to start over.  Sadly, I don't expect I'll get to The Godfather before my borrow period expires.

In any event, the plan is to finish 11/22/63, preferably much sooner than January 31.  Then The Godfather, followed by Tony Hawks' Round Ireland with a Fridge.

Monday, January 9, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King Read-along: Parts 1-3 Review

On Sunday, on the train home from work, I managed to meet this week's reading goal for the Feeding My Book Addiction read-along of Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/63.

Note: Although I've tried to steer clear of major plot spoilers, this review does contain information not found in the book's description at amazon.com. If you'd rather not be spoiled, feel free to read the book first, and then come back for my review!

First, a confession, and a little history:

Before I comment on the novel, I'd like, in the spirit of full disclosure, to confess that this is the first of Stephen King's fiction that I've read. The only book that I've read by King was his On Writing and even that I only read within the last year.

My first encounter with Stephen King was when I was in college. I was home on some summer vacation, 2002, 2003, I'm not sure exactly when, and on television I caught a live(?) broadcast of Mr. King speaking at a college commencement. I was impressed with what he had to say and, even though I did not run out and pick up one of his books, it stuck with me.

My second experience with King and the first time I'd been exposed to any of his fiction, was during An Evening with Harry, Carrie, and Garp. I have had the privilege of growing up in the New York City metro area and, in 2006, a few months after I'd graduated from college, I was lucky enough to get a ticket, in the nosebleeds of Radio City Music Hall, to see J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Irving give a reading.

Again, full disclosure, I was there primarily to see J. K. Rowling. It was, for me at least, the height of Pottermania, and I paid $40.00 or whatever it was, hoping she would reveal some snippet, some hint of what was coming for Harry in Book 7. At that time, however, she had just only selected the title of the final installment of her epic series.

As it was not the focus of my attendance at the event, I don't remember exact details or what he read. To be fair, I can't remember what John Irving read, either. Still, I was impressed with King's work. Obviously he knows a thing or two about writing, or he wouldn't be selling all those books. I have never been a fan of the horror genre, so I never thought to seek his work out. But I remember recognizing what he read for the quality writing that it was.

When I started taking writing classes in January 2010, I finally, with encouragement, sat down and read On Writing, which changed my life and opened up my eyes in ways that deserve their own separate review.

My thoughts on 11/22/63 by Stephen King: Parts 1 through 3:

The first thing I noticed when I began this book was how comfortable the tone felt. It was like easing back into my favorite chair by the fire, assuming I had either a favorite chair or a fire by which to read. The language is inviting, almost as if the first person narrator says "Hi, I'm Jake. Let me tell you a story."
As a writer, I'm impressed by the seeming effortlessness of the writing, which I can only assume means it must have been a lot of work.

11/22/63, so far, is the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine who is recruited by Al, the proprietor of Al's Diner, into a plan to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

This is to be achieved through the use of a portal in the diner's storage area which leads from Lisbon Falls, Maine in 2011 to Lisbon Falls, Maine in 1958.  Jake's mission is to appear in Maine in 1958, and stick around five years to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

First, though, he needs to learn how time travel works in this universe. Al has left him a wealth of notes on Oswald, and told him that no matter how long he spends in the past, when he returns to 2011, it will be two minutes later than it was when he left (although he will have aged accordingly to however long he spent in the past). Additionally, each time he returns to the past from 2011, everything he did has been reset, except for the cash he has. Still, Jake must learn what effects changing the past will have on the future.

To do this, he attempts to save the lives of the family of Harry Dunning, who were brutally murdered by Dunning Sr.

As Jake learns, the past does not always want to be changed and, in many ways, becomes an actual character as it tries to thwart Jake from achieving his goals.

* * *

I must say I am enjoying this book every bit as much as I had hoped I would. I did not know what to expect from a King novel, never having read one, but I've been awestruck by the ease of his prose and the clear cause and effect nature of his plot which, after the extremely character-driven novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, is a Godsend. 11/22/63 is by no means predictable, and yet I have a clear sense of how one event leads to the next and how each scene fits into the grand scheme.

I like Jake Epping as a protagonist. He's a little older than I but still young and I would be interested in his experience of time travel. King's version of 1958 evokes a sepia-toned photograph in my mind. It's not a perfect world. You can see that racial tension is present; even if it's not the focus of his novel, it's there. There's an infectious nostalgia for this bygone era nonetheless. I found this particularly impressive as I was born decades after the setting of this novel. Of course, the dirt-cheap prices of everything from gas to soda is probably enough to make anyone nostalgic.

Based on what I've read so far, I'm eager to finish 11/22/63 and expect I will continue reading King's work in the years to come. There will be another post coming on or around January 31 when I finish the novel but if you're a fan of Stephen King, time travel, or fiction concerning JFK, I would encourage you to visit your local library or bookstore and pick up a copy. I'm willing to bet you won't regret it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Weekly Roundup January 6, 2012

I'm going to post a weekly update consisting of thoughts on what I've read that week, what I'm reading now, and what I'll be reading next.

I'll kick this off with saying that this week, after months, I finally finished listening to the Audible versions of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  I wouldn't even know where to begin reviewing these massive works of fantasy literature.  Suffice it to say that I love his characters and I have some issues with his plots.  For the most part he's great about introducing me to characters that I come to care about seeing them either succeed or receive their comeuppance.  However, I feel like there is a lot in these five books that could have been cut.  I frequently found myself wondering what certain scenes had to do with the grand scheme of things (at best), losing my grip on the big picture (in the case of the second volume, A Clash of Kings), or, in worst case scenario, just plain bored.

Will I read the next two books in the series when they are published?  I think so.  I'm still invested in Martin's characters and since he's killed off so many characters I was rooting for I'm interested in seeing who, if anyone, "wins" the Game of Thrones.

I posted my review of Lewis Black's I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, an enjoyable respite from A Song of Ice in Fire in a number of ways. Its brevity and tone hit the spot, as it were, and, as an added bonus it helped me understand myself a little better.  I'll certainly be checking out Lewis Black's other books, Me of Little Faith and Nothing's Sacred.

I also started reading Stephen King's new book, 11/22/63, which, as I mentioned previously, I'm reading as a part of the read-a-long hosted by Grace over at Feeding My Book Addiction.  Aside from On Writing, I've never read a book by King before.  More of that when I post my review of the first three parts.  Look for that between now and the fourteenth.

Kindle tells me I'm currently fifteen percent through 11/22/63. So far, I love it.  Jake Epping is an English teacher who frequents a diner whose proprietor, Al, introduces him to a secret portal leading to 1958 and urges him to try to put a stop to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy five years later on November 22, 1963.

So far, the novel has set a wonderful tone, making me feel nostalgic for an era decades before I was born, but also for my own college town of Potsdam, New York.  Reading it I envision this sepia-toned past frozen in time but still vibrant and alive.  I look forward to finishing this.  I also have a firmer grasp on the causal nature of events, which makes for a welcome change from reading George R. R. Martin.

Up Next: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I went to my public library for the first time in at least ten years and got a new library card.  Then I went home, logged into live-brary.com and put a couple of ebooks on to my wait list.  First to come up was The Godfather by Mario Puzo.  I love the movie so I thought I would give the book a read.  And since I was able to borrow it on Kindle for two weeks, it hardly gets any easier to borrow books from the library.

It feels good to be blogging again.  When I used this site (in its pre-Blogger incarnation) primarily for my fiction, I felt pressured to update when I had nothing to say.  While this will transition to a site mostly about what I'm reading, I'm excited about the prospect of giving my analytical mind something to work on while I try and create new fiction of my own.

I hope you'll stick around for the journey.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas (Review)

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas
I've been a fan of Lewis Black's comedy since I was in college.  I can't remember exactly when, but I'm sure I discovered his work through his "Back in Black" segments on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, in which he would rant or rave about whatever issue irked him that week. Soon I was reveling in his standup on CDs such as The White Album (2000) and The End of the Universe (2002). I had the privilege of seeing him perform while I was in college when he toured with Stephen Lynch and John Bowman, as well as again a few years later at New York's Town Hall.

What I love most about his acts are that he pulls no punches.  He's not afraid to hold something up to the light to figure out if he can see through it.  His political humor is bi-partisan ("The only thing worse than a Republican or a Democrat is when these @#$%^'s work together!")

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas is, at least in my humble opinion, a strong display of Lewis Black's range as a comedian and what brings it all together is the same honesty that he brings to his comedy.  That said, the book is not a joke book, stand-up routine, or a substitute for one, so you'll want to know that going in.  Lewis talks about what his life is like during the holiday season: being on the outside looking in yet still sharing in some of the season.  He talks about his failed marriage and his mixed feelings over a lack of children of his own.  Thankfully, he throws in a joke just at the point where things might feel a little too raw.

Lest you think this book is a downer, it's not.  Lewis shares good times, too: the tradition of two Christmas dinners with the families of his friends and performing for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with the USO, a gig he got because of Robin Williams.  He shares strange moments too, such as playing Santa Claus on not one but two occasions.  And to top it all off, his sense of comedic timing and delivery loses nothing when translated onto the page.

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas is an honest, intimate look into Lewis Black's life during the holiday season.  As someone who sees a lot of myself in Lewis Black (for good or ill), I loved this book.  From talking about the idea of a Jew writing a Christmas book when it was pitched by his editor and then taking us through Thanksgiving and Christmas and including an appendix describing his experience performing for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, I relished the opportunity to gain such a close perspective on a slice of the life of a writer and comedian I admire.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012: Great Expectations

No, not Dickens.  At least, not yet.  I'll have to rebuild my reading muscles before I'll consider tackling Dickens again.

In 2011, I kept track (more or less) of the number of books I read through my profile on Goodreads and I believe I read somewhere around 33 books.  By reading, I of course include listening to audiobooks.  I think listening to a good story told by an expert narrator is at least equal to if not better than looking at words on a page or screen.  I wasn't always keen on audiobooks, but then I listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter series and have been hooked ever since.

2011 is behind and 2012 ahead.  I've set my Goodreads Reading Goal at fifty books.

I'm going to start by finally finishing George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I should finish Book V, A Dance with Dragons in the next day or two. Once complete (or perhaps sooner), I'm going to dig into Stephen King's 11/22/63 in conjunction with a read-a-long hosted by Grace over at Feeding My Book Addiction.

To assist me in achieving my reading goal, I have decided to read fewer epics and focus on shorter novels and other books.  Here is a look at some of the books I am thinking of tackling this year:

Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita
Connelly, Michael The Lincoln Lawyer
Cullen, Dave. Columbine
Cumming, Charles The Trinity Six
Fforde, Jasper The Last Dragonslayer
Hamilton, Steve The Lock Artist
Hammett, The Thin Man
Hawks, Tony Round Ireland with a Fridge
Heuler, Karen The Made-up Man 
Kafka, Franz The Trial
Larson, Erik The Devil in the White City
Lawhead, Stephen Hood (The King Raven Trilogy, Book I)
McLean, Patrick E. How to Succeed in Evil
Moore, Christopher Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art
Patchett, Ann Bel Canto
Patchett, Ann State of Wonder
Puzo, Mario The Godfather
Smith, Tom Rob Child 44
Tolstoy, Leo Anna Karenina
Torode, Sam The Dirty Parts of the Bible
Wallace, David Foster Infinite Jest
Wodehouse, P.G. Laughing Gas
Wodehouse, P.G. Uncle Dynamite
Wodehouse, P.G. Uncle Fred in the Springtime

Even if I read every book on the list above in addition to 11/22/63, I would still only be at twenty-five books.  I'll leave room for re-reads (Christopher Moore's Fool or Tom Robbins' Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates are likely candidates) and I'd also like to branch out into different categories of writing.  I want to broaden my horizons, to which end I will likely also be participating in the Mixing it Up Challenge hosted by Ellie over at Musings of a Bookshop Girl,

This is my first foray into book blogging so I'm going to make it up as I go along.  I'm sure I won't be reviewing every book I read; I would even know where to begin with reviewing the epic that is A Song of Ice and Fire, even though things I love and hate about that series readily spring to mind.

What I will try and do is update regularly.  I think I will plan to update each Friday and say something about what I read in the previous week.  So stay tuned and feel free to hit the comments!
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