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 We is such a critical expose of Soviet Russia that the book would not be published there until the 1960s.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?

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.

“The Apprentice’s Mother” Published in Sunday Snaps Anthology

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Sunday Snaps front cover via Chuffed Buff Books.

My latest short story “The Apprentices Mother” appears in the anthology “Sunday Snaps” published by Chuffed Buff Books. Sales from the book will go to benefit the Canadian Red Cross Homecare Services.

Susan May James of Chuffed Buff Books is the creative force behind the inspiration for “Sunday Snaps.” It got started when she started posting photos on her website as writing prompts. The image below served as the Muse for my story.

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Image courtesy of Susan May James.

Here’s the cover blurb for the project:

“This colourful and quirky collection contains short stories, flash fiction, vignettes and poetry of various styles and genres. It developed over the course of 52 weeks in 2010/2011 whereby a series of ‘Sunday Snaps’ were posted online as a creative writing exercise. Writers were invited to use the snapshots as inspirational writing prompts. The result: an eclectic assortment of light-hearted comedy, romance, dark tales, tragedy, slice-of-life stories and expressive verse. While the spires of Milan Cathedral and a café in Toronto provide the backdrop to romance, elsewhere a marriage is arranged, children grapple with loss, and a woman rushes to the side of a life-long friend. With a bit of French cuisine, a spiteful kitty, a mother’s pact with the devil, a birthday kiss and a dash of supernatural revenge, this unique collection offers a tale for all! Stories and poetry by: Sam Adamson, Kim Bannerman, Cath Barton, Dominique Boller, Juliet Boyd, Jodi Cleghorn, Sandra Davies, Miriam Dunn, Rebecca Emin, Annie Evett, Stacey Faulkner, Wendy Ann Greenhalgh, D A Volpe Herskowitz, Stephen Hewitt, A J Humpage, Steve Isaak, Mandy K James, Susan May James, Maria Kelly, Mari Lee Kozlowski, Lisamarie Lamb, Shannon Lawrence, Tyrean Martinson, Tony Noland, Linda Olson, Roslyn Ross, Tony Schumacher, and Ren Thompson. Proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to Canadian Red Cross Homecare Services. For details on the Canadian Red Cross, or to donate without purchasing a book, please click: Canadian Red Cross Homecare Services.”

You can order the print edition from Amazon.com at:  http://www.amazon.com/Sunday-Snaps-Susan-May-James/dp/190885801X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1368636263&sr=8-3&keywords=Sunday+Snaps.

And you can get it from Amazon.ca at http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/190885801X/sr=8-1/qid=1368636517/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&qid=1368636517&seller=&sr=8-1

If you’re in the UK, it can be found at Book Depository…they offer FREE WORLDWIDE delivery: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Sunday-Snaps-Stories-Susan-May-James/9781908858016

Also for readers living in the UK, it can also be ordered online at Foyles for in-store pickup or for delivery: http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/sunday-snaps-the-stories,james-susan-may-9781908858016

And, of course, It can be ordered from the Chuffed Buff Books website – http://www.chuffedbuffbooks.com/bookshop/sunday-snaps-the-stories/.

Susan May James from Chuffed Buff Books has said that the kindle edition is in progress and will be available in the future.

Looking Behind and Looking Ahead

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Graduation from SPC on May 4, 2013

I have not made a post in quite some time. I apologize. When you’re a college student/author/publisher/editor/part-time employee it’s hard to find time to blog.  I am enjoying a nice summer break, though, so I hope to be able to catch up on my posts.

First, let me catch you up on the recent past. After a grueling spring term, I graduated from St. Petersburg College with my Associates of Arts degree on May 4th. It may not seem like a very significant accomplishment to some folks, but it means the world to me. I am an older student (47…not afraid to say it) who was told in high school by a guidance counselor not to waste my time with college. I wish he could have been there as I not only proved that it wasn’t a waste, I did so by graduating summa cum laude with a 3.95 G.P.A. and by being a finalist for one of SPC’s most prestigious academic honors, the Apollo Award. I didn’t win, and that doesn’t matter. Just to be considered for it is a huge accomplishment that will no doubt have a lasting effect on my life.

Ahead lies my goal for a BA in English Literature. I’ve chosen to remain in this area and transfer to the University of South Florida—St. Petersburg campus. I’m not quite ready to move out of Tampa Bay or Florida yet. The St. Pete campus of USF is gorgeous. It sits right on Tampa Bay with lovely water views from nearly every building. I’m looking forward to starting my classes in the fall…one of which includes a literature class on the occult. Hell yes!

Now for the present and future of other aspects of my life.

This summer while I am off I have many goals. Here are a few.

  • Employment. I lost my student job at SPC, so I’ve been working on updating the resume and creating a portfolio. I hope to use it to land my next job.
  • Writing. I have lots of writing goals for this summer.
    • More Blog Posts. That’s a priority. Need to get back into writing more frequent updates and doing the writing prompts again.
    • Parker’s Pygmalion. I’ve decided to upload my Phi Theta Kappa award-winning short story to Smashwords as a free e-book. I have to start doing this indie thing soon anyway, and this is a good story to start with. If it works out, I will likely add it to Kindle on Amazon as well.
    • Kill the Crow. I’ve begun putting the stories into one document. I still need to finish writing and editing a few of the tales for the book, and get it formatted for publishing. Once  that’s done, I will upload it to Amazon…maybe Smashwords again, too.
    • Quellseek: Army of Empaths. I have people who will murder me if I don’t finish this novel,  so I’m working on it. The biggest problem I’m encountering is that the plot bunnies have tortured me with another great idea, one which I’ve started the research on already.
    • The Dragon Siblings. See above. I’ve got Phandara and T’kanyae (a.k.a. Kane Anthony) Morphyrades story starting in my head and I’ve begun a research project on it involving (fictional and real) sorcery and alchemy.  I don’t even have a title for this yet and have no clue about the scope of it, because Quellseek and that series MUST come first. The tale of Rafael Errick, Emory Atarem, Marta Sanis, Alverin Ness, and Wellynd Niles/Well-and-Truly must be brought to a close and that could take 2-3 years to tell it all. The Dragons will happen at some point, though. They’ve sort of already happened in some pre-cursor/same multiverse short stories.
  • Publishing and Editing. 
    • The Were-Traveler. Yes, I also edit and publish a speculative fiction magazine. It’s a rewarding venture I dove into like a madwoman and for the moment I’m enjoying it. Not quite ready to give it up yet. I recently posted the descriptions for up-and-coming issue themes. I’m looking forward to some of the upcoming themes. I may have to pen something myself for the Lovecraft/Poe issue. So tempting.

Life is going to be a challenge for me once school starts again in August. I have decided to attend USF full-time, which means I will have even less time for the other parts of my life than I do now.

Going to do as much this summer as possible…got to get it while the gettin’s good.

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.