Books and Reading: My Best Reads of 2013

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Being an English  Literature major means that I’ve begun to read some very interesting novels.

My World Lit professor this past term was very fond of European avant-garde works. We read a lot of banned books and fiction written by authors who went against convention, and in some cases, the party line, to tell their stories. I want to share a few of my favorites with you.

  1. The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov.
    • This novel features the devil in Moscow. A thinly-veiled satirical critique of the arts society in Marxist Russia due to Lenin’s rule of “creation for support of the Communist Party” which discouraged anything that wasn’t pro-Communist. This novel is a hoot: it features not only the Devil, but his comrades are a shady jester, a human- sized smart-mouthed cat, and one of the creepiest and weirdest thugs (Azazello, the fanged man in the bowler hat) that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. True to much modernist fiction, there are subplots a-plenty, including one of the writer’s account of Pontius Pilate, a black magic theater which goes awry, and a love story between a married woman (the Margarita) and an author placed in a mental asylum for “going against the grain” (the Master). Margarita will do anything to return to her lover’s side, including making a deal with the devil. A funny and insightful novel full of hidden symbols that expose the hard life for artists in Soviet Russia.
  2. We. Yevgeny Zamyatin. 
    • Thought by many scholars of European literature to be one of the precursors to dystopian fiction, and inspired other books in the genre, such as 1984 by George Orwell. I read this book for my research essay in World Lit on the advice of my instructor, one of the professors I came to admire my first term and who came to know me well enough to know that I would like this bizarre, futuristic science fiction story. We is such a critical expose of Soviet Russia that the book would not be published there until the 1960s. The story takes place in the One State, ruled by a totalitarian figure known as the Benefactor, and aided by a KGB-type secret police called Guardians. The citizens are known ciphers and given a combination of letter and numbers for names. Imagination and dreams are considered mental illness and individuality is punishable by forced lobotomization or death. The protagonist, spaceship engineer D-503, finds himself in turmoil after meeting the revolutionary woman cipher I-330, whom he is sexually obsessed with, despite her rebellious ways. I have to say this is now one of my favorite science fiction books of all time.
  3. All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque.
    • One soldiers intimate account of the horrors of World War 1, this novel was one of the first books targeted in Adolf Hitler’s book-burning campaign after he came to power. It was banned in Germany and elsewhere throughout its history of publication, sometimes for the rough interpretation of war and for language that today we would consider mild. Still, you won’t view war the same way again after reading this novel.
  4. Steppenwolf. Herman Hesse
    • A truly bizarre novel that serves as a critique of the bourgeois society. One of the many novels I read that focused on individuality and freedom of expression. Reading this novel is a treat that has to be experienced. Harry Haller calls himself The Steppenwolf, a wolf of the Steppes, a self-styled gloomy loner who is uncomfortable in society, yet suffers from intense loneliness. He believes that if he can’t find an end to his suffering before he reaches middle-age, he will commit suicide. Then he meets an oddball assortment of characters that put on a Magic Theater just for him (with the warning “Not for everybody. For madmen only”), to show him how to not take himself so seriously. Does it work? Read the novel.
  5. The Street of Crocodiles. Bruno Schulz. 
    • A  beautifully surreal, magical, and bizarrely painted portrait of childhood and memory. The ugliness of industrialization is the underlying message in this Polish masterpiece. This is not a long book, a little over one hundred pages, and if you needed to teach a lesson on what an unreliable narrator is, this is your book. Told through the eyes of a little boy, this story follows his life with his merchant father, who is dead at the end of every chapter yet alive again at the beginning of the next one. It is a tale of trauma and grief seen through the memory of a child. It is a weird, and wonderful little book.
  6. Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow. 
    • Doctorow gives us an unabashed glimpse of life in 1920s America. Early labor movements and American socialism are covered, as is the topic of race relations and the mistreatment of African Americans. Unfortunately, the film is not as good. It focuses on the racial story, but sidesteps the struggles for worker’s rights and the early feminism of characters like Emma Goldman. Nothing wrong with telling the racial story, but the other elements of the book make for a much more complete account of the complexity of the era and its subcultures, early activism and immigrant flavor in a burgeoning melting pot.
  7. Ferdydurke. Witold Gombrowicz. 
    • By far one of the strangest books I have ever read, and I’ve read a lot of strange books this past year. This is also a rare book, you might be able to get a used copy from Amazon, but you’d spend less for a new one. The plot of Ferdydurke (Polish literal translation: Thirty Door Key) is the main character’s denial of adult responsibility and the return to the devil-may-care individuality and irresponsibility of youth. The story begins when 30-year-old Joey is “abducted” by his former schoolmaster and sent back to school. He boards with a socialite family and becomes obsessed with the wealthy daughter. He has various absurd and fantastical adventures with one of his classmates. All in an attempt to deny responsibility. This book is full of funny weird prose, and plots, subplots and insanity. Two seemingly unrelated stories are tucked in, chapters 4 and 5, about  A Child in Filidor, but looking beneath the surface of them, they definitely are part of the whole. This  book wants to kick you in the ‘pupa.’ What does that mean? Read it.
  8. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. ed Mark C. Carnes. 
    • When you watch a Hollywood film that is “supposed” to be about an actual historical event such as Patton, Bonnie and Clyde, or Glory, how do you know if what’s on the screen is what really went down? This book of essays by historians, which was sort of a textbook used in my Film and American History class, explains the importance of knowing the difference between historical fact and creative license. Each essay breaks apart a historical film and tells you what really happened and what the producers added for “entertainment value.”

I recommend these books to any reader’s “to-read” list.

What good books have you read this past year?

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2014: The Year of Getting Serious Again

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First, to Everyone who reads this, Happy Holidays! I wish that all of your wishes come true during the next year and that you live life to its maximum capacity. Always.

This past year has been rewarding and challenging. I graduated with my associates degree, lost one job and got another with the same employer (lost student assistant job at St. Petersburg College when I graduated and got hired back on a few months later as an OPS writing tutor), started new university to go for the bachelors degree, moved into a new apartment  in the downtown area, and gave up my car (it was a piece of shit anyway) for the benefit of walking for exercise.

I was busy writing many essays for my junior year at the University of South Florida, so my creative writing efforts suffered a little. But those essays helped me improve my writing, and I hope all future academic witting will do the same.

For my resolutions in 2014, I don’t have many. I’m keeping it simple and doable.

  1. Continue to improve my health by walking. School and grocery is within walking distance from me now, as well as many other activities and entertainments that the downtown St. Pete area has to offer.
  2. Write new stories. Turn on my creative juices and get them flowing whenever possible. Write for fun, but also write for publications. Poems, too. I want to write some more poetry in 2014.
  3. Submit stories and poetry to major publications and journals. I’ve already started on this one. I’ve submitted my previously unpublished award-winning short story Parker’s Pygmalion to Glimmer Train literary magazine and three unpublished poems to Northwestern U’s Tri-Quarterly journal. I’ve started some fantasy and sci-fi stories that are pretty good so far, I just need to finish them and get them out into some slush piles. I will also continue to try and get some previously published stories reprinted.
  4. Keep my magazine going. My side-project as publisher and editor of the spec-fic ezine The Were-Traveler has taken a toll on my sanity this year. Finding time to read and respond to stories while reading 2-3 books a week for lit classes has been very challenging, but I have no desire to stop doing it now. In fact, I’m even more determined to make it work. I may ask for help along the way, but I’m definitely keeping it going. I nominated 3 stories to Critter’s P&E Readers Poll and wish I could have showered other writers with that kind of love and recognition. I’m still trying to find all those yearly award venues out there, where I can give my authors the cred they deserve. If any of my readers have recommendations, please let me know.
  5. Keep my sanity at school, work, writing, editing, publishing. This is a given. I must maintain a sensible balance to this crazy happening that is my life. Need to breathe a little in between and enjoy other things, too. Relax, take deep breaths, meditate.

That’s it. I’ll probably add goals as I go along through the first part of the year, but this is enough to start with.

I hope all of your goals for the coming year lead to success and happiness.

NaNoReMo Opening Lines

grahamewindwillowsI am reading two books again for National Novel Reading Month again.

The reason I’m reading two is because if one goes sour on me, I have a back-up…if not, I will have read two wonderful, classic books in February.

I also like to at least have a book to read on my Kindle app, to read when I’m on the bus or when I’m waiting in doctor’s offices or before I go to sleep at night.

My two books this year are The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, in paperback and The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame in eBook form. I decided to go with Wind in the Willows because I opened it up and was struck by the opening lines and kept on reading. It begins:

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing…”

I like that…divine discontent. I can identify with little Mole, tired of winter and longing for spring. So I’m reading on with that same spirit of hopefulness.

I started reading The Martian Chronicles on the bus yesterday afterbradbury2 class. I had a trip to make to one of the main stations to purchase a bus pass, since I’ve been sick and haven’t felt much like doing anything. So I had a bit of time on my hands on the buses and waiting for buses to read. It’s got an interesting start, too:

“One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.”

A strange Earthly opening vision for a novel about the Red Planet, but it gets there soon enough.

I’m enjoying both books so far. I hope wherever you are, you are reading something enjoyable.

What are you reading right now?

The Martian Chronicles for NaNoReMo

Life sometimes throws you curve balls.

I wrote a blog post awhile back asking my friends and readers to help me pick a book to read for National Novel Reading Month coming up in February.

I had four books to choose from: Don Quixote, by Cervantes; The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells; The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame and David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

I’d nearly made up my mind (with the help of the advice given by those who read the original post) to go with Wells. Then I found a book I’d lost awhile back. It seems to me that when I find a book after it’s been lost for some time, it’s like that book is begging to be read.

Who am I to argue with fate? Especially since the author recently passed away and I’ve been wanting to get into some of his works that I haven’t read, including this one.

So that settles it.

For my NaNoReM0 2013 read, I’m going to the Red Planet with Mr. Bradbury.

Look for my tweets and Facebook statuses as I go along.

Happy reading, everyone!

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February is National Novel Reading Month

As my friend John Wiswell recently pointed out, National Novel Reading Month, or NaNoReMo, is almost upon us.

National Novel Reading Month is when we look to the sad state of our reading lives, the classics that we have shamefully avoided or haven’t had the time to enjoy. Excuses, excuses. I am so poor in my classical reading that it’s not funny, it’s tragic. There are hundreds of classic books that I’ve yet to read. NaNoReMo is when I get a chance to help rectify that pitiful condition.

Last year, I read these two wonderful books. But before I read them, I downloaded a huge pile of free Kindle classics to my iPhone. I have a lot to choose from this year. I’m going in circles trying to decide what book to read.

I made a list of those that I would consider “classics” and filtered that into a shortlist of four books I thought I might be able to choose from. Now, I need your help. Let me know what you think of any, or all, of these books in the comments. You’re opinion may be the one that leads me to my new favorite classic.

Thank you.

#NaNoReMo 2013 Shortlist:

grahamewindwillowsThe Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. How my childhood missed this classic fantasy, I don’t know. As a fan of fantasy, and animal fables (Chronicles of Narnia; Watership Down; One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, etc…) I have always hungered to delve into this tale of forest creatures.

Don-QuixoteDon Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. I’m taking Spanish 2 and have this book on my Kindle app in both English and Spanish. Wondering if reading it and comparing the two would help me get through the class a little better. I’d like to read this at some point in my life, but not sure now is the time.

The Island of Dr MoreauThe Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells. I loved War of the Worlds, and this sounds like a really cool book. I’ve also never entirely read The Time Machine. I’m not listing it because I read about a third of it and then got sidetracked. I would like to finish that book someday. But the Island of Doctor Moreau has always appealed to me. It sounds like a cool, mad scientist story. I’d like to find out someday if I’ve judged the book by it’s title correctly.

copperfield-01Last book I’m considering is David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. I’ve read (and dearly love) A Tale of Two Cities. It’s one of my favorite classics. I have not read another Dickens book and I need to remedy that. Soon. Not sure if this is the next Dickens book I need to read or not. I’ve considered others, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Would love to hear what my reader/writer friends think on the matter.

So, friends, what classic book do you think I should tackle for National Novel Reading Month?

NOTE: Read John Wiswell’s post for more information, if you’d like to participate in National Novel Reading Month yourself.

Series-ously: My Best Reads of 2012

kitty readerI gave myself a reading challenge with Goodreads this year. I set a goal of reading 50 books (that’s 1.04 books per week). Even though that was a daunting figure, and I did not succeed, I did manage to read 43 books! Only 7 short of 50, and the year is not over yet. I plan to challenge myself to the same goal in 2013.

Some of the best reads I’ve had in 2012 (most of which have been series):

  • A Song of Ice and Fire Series, by George R.R. Martin.
    • Series-ously, these books are freaking fantastic! Like Tolkien for grown-ups. Sex, war, dragons and these strange creatures called the Others that create zombies out of the dead. So good it’s an HBO miniseries. Can it be more awesome? Oh, and there’s a wise-cracking noble dwarf. So good, I’m in the process of reading them all again. And this time, not from the library, but spending my own bucks on them. That should tell you how good I think these books are. Here’s a listing of the books in their proper reading order, though I warn you, if you haven’t read the books, you WILL become hopelessly addicted. Hopelessly. Did I mention the dwarf? Tyrion Lannister is the coolest wine-swilling, whore-mongering dwarf ever!
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
    • I always include a healthy helping of classic reading in my intellectual diet and this book is one of the best classic gothic scary stories I’ve consumed in quite awhile, with one of the scariest protagonists. Jackson’s writing is superb, and if you’re a writer, you should read her just as a study of the craft, never mind the enjoyment you’re sure to receive in her exquisite storytelling. But I’ve been a fan of her work for awhile.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine #1), by Ransom Riggs
    • A fantasy that contains all of my favorite elements (except dragons). Creepy kids with supernatural powers, a hero discovering himself, horrifying monsters, and time travel. There is also the fact that the author scoured the world for weird photographs and then wrote this strange and surreal novel around those photographs. It’s a favorite of Tim Burton, who is considering making a film of it.
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
    • This is my top post-apocalyptic series of the year it beats out the one following just by a hair, mainly because the hero in it is a girl. I like strong female characters and Katniss Everdeen is one of my favorites. The fact that she’s not perfect and seems to become more emotionally scarred as the series progresses only makes me love her more, because the struggle she endures makes her stronger, and more sure of herself in the end. Here is the reading order for those who haven’t indulged in the Games:
  • The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness
    • I loved the premise of this series. Mankind has journeyed to other planets. A religious group founds a planet where they can escape the craziness of the technological world they came from, live in peace, and get back to the basics in life: farming, worshipping, living simply and purely. Sound idyllic? Think again. Due to the Noise Germ, animal thoughts can be heard aloud…and so can men’s thoughts. But not women’s thoughts. This leads to mistrust between the sexes and eventually war, war against each other and against the indigenous species known as the Spackle. Interesting and sometimes infuriating to read (the POV character is the illiterate boy hero and Ness writes in his voice, complete with spelling and grammar faux pas that normally would send me into fits, but somehow seems right in this book). Also has one of the most despised villains I have had the joy of hating in awhile (Mayor Prentiss—he’s even more despicable than Cersei Lannister and would even give good ‘ol King Joff a run for his money, too). This series is also being considered for a film. The reading order:
  • Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
  • Anathem, by Neil Stephenson
    • This book is not for everyone. It’s a hard science fiction book that takes place on another world, but a world that shares similarities with Earth. They have convents (on this world called ‘concents’) but the monks are not the religious. They are the scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Secreted away and kept a close watch on by Warden Regulants and the Inquisition. The story is told through the first person point-of-view of one of the ‘avout,’ a young man named Erasmus who is with the astronomy branch of the order, the Edharians. When Fraa Erasmus’ superior, Fraa Orlo sees something strange in the night sky, Erasmus’ sheltered life comes to an end. There is a spaceship from another world orbiting Arbre, and soon Erasmus and his friends will play a pivotal role in dealing with the alien visitors to their world. I really dug this book. I dig science and I kind of dig math, and those bits are good, but I really enjoyed some of the philosophical interactions between the fraa’s and suur’s (female members of the avout). The “nerve-gas farting pink dragon” scene where Erasmus gets “planed” by his mentor is hysterically intellectual. My brain thanked me for reading this book! Stephenson demonstrates spectacular world-building skills. I totally believe in the possibility that an Arbe-like planet could exist out there. And if it does, it may well be the Hylean Theoric World.
  • Must Love Dragons, by Monica Marier
    • Last, but never least. I love to read Indie authors, and Monica is one of my favorites. I’m not saying that because she’s an online buddy of mine, I’m saying it because she writes some kick-ass stories. Monica takes fantasy elements and blends them like an artist. Like Dali, all funky and stuff. Toss in humor and adventure and you’ve got Must Love Dragons. The hero of the tale is a Ranger named Linus Weedwhacker (hows that for a name?), a half human/half elf who has gone back to work because his wife (a feisty red dragoness) is pregnant. Again. Linus gets caught up in a caper that involves killing an ice dragon. His Ranger co-workers on the quest are an elf, two spoiled elf kids, and a giant man who is more than he appears to be. I wrote a review of this book earlier in the year. I’m currently reading the second book in her Linus Weedwhacker series, Runs in Good Condition, and her Madame Bluestocking’s Pennyhorrid is on my To-Read list for 2013.

I wish you great reading joy in 2013!

NaNoReMo: Reviews of Frankenstein & The Book of Dragons

Get your paws on a good book!

I participated in this NaNoReMo (National Novel Reading Month) thing where a bunch of us writers read some classic books for the month of January, a great idea that writer John Wiswell came up with.

I decided to read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit. Both books were free downloads from Amazon’s Kindle store, and I have the Kindle app on my iPhone. It charges on the stand by my bed at night, and I have the habit of reading from it before going to sleep.

Frankenstein: I’ve seen the different movie versions, from Boris Karloff to Gene Wilder’s comic performance, but I’d never read the book. I was very surprised by it. It’s told through the vehicle of letter-writing. A man exploring the Arctic by ship, Robert Walton, begins writing letters to his sister home in England, telling her the tale of the strange man they encounter, emaciated and ill on the ice: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Walton relates Frankenstein’s tale of horror to his sister: The doctor became fascinated with a new branch of science involving the animation of flesh. He created a hideous creature. This is the part of the story that’s familiar to us.

But what surprised me was that unlike the films, the monster is intelligent. He begins his life with an aesthetic outlook that the cruelty of mankind (and especially the rejection of his creator) obliterates within him until he becomes increasingly bitter and violent. He tries to reason with Frankenstein, asks him to create another being, an Eve, if you will. Frankenstein’s refusal and the subsequent losses he endures at the hands of the monster, his resolution to pursue his creature in order to end it’s existence makes the story an exciting read.

I’ll end my summation of it with this: Either you will be put off by the format and disparity between the book the films and hate it; or you will enjoy comparing and contrasting it to the films. The latter is the experience I had.

E. Nesbit 1858-1924

The Book of Dragons: Edith Nesbit was an English author and poet who wrote over 60 books for children. I wanted to read this book because I’ve been reading (and writing) a lot about dragons lately and I’d heard about Nesbit’s dragon stories for children.

The Book of Dragons was compiled and published in 1900. There are a total of eight short stories. Here are my favorites, with a brief summary:

The first story, The Book of Beasts, tells of a young king who finds a magical book of creatures. When he opens the book to a picture of any creature, it escapes from the book. Naturally, the boy king Lionel accidentally lets loose a dragon on his kingdom.

Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger is a charming tale of a place called Rotundia where elephants are the size of puppies and rabbits the size of elephants. And there is a purple dragon, but he’s not friendly like you’d think a purple dragon ought to be.

The Island of the Nine Whirlpools. I loved this story. It has a princess locked in a tower, under a curse, and guarded by a dragon. Sound familiar? Well, Nigel is no Shrek, but he may have what it takes to rescue the princess from the dragon. As someone who appreciates (but doesn’t enjoy) mathematical problem solving, I had to applaud Nigel’s brainpower.

There’s other great dragons in this book, including an ice dragon (The Ice Dragon, or Do as You Are Told) and an awesome dragon made of iron (The Dragon Tamers).

I really enjoyed these imaginative dragon tales. I think they’re great stories, for children of all ages. 🙂