Sunday, September 29, 2013

Recent Reads from the Library

I've been trying to buy less books this year, primarily because there is already a large pile of unread books sitting in the corner of my living room.  Buying less books is, among other things, suppose to help me focus on reading the books I already own. Still there are books I want to read to now but I don't want to buy now, so I visit my local library.  Here are a couple of the books I picked up this week while I was there.

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

I read Rebecca to satisfy the Gothic genre of the Literary Explorations.  I chose it because the host of The Readers (one of my two favorite bookish podcasts, the other being Books on the Nightstand) constantly raves about this book.  I have to admit, I didn't get why he loved it so much at first.  I found the first part a little slow and found myself getting annoyed with the timid narrator who seemed to be afraid of everything, including her own shadow.  But the second half of the novel made up for it, as the truth comes out about Rebecca.  It was suspenseful, dark and twisty.

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

I don't read much poetry, but reading Sylvia Plath's Ariel last week inspired me to read a little more.  And so I picked up a collection of Langston Hughes' poems.  Langston Hughes is one of the few poets I have read before, at least a little.  He is part of one of my favorite literary-artistic-cultural periods, the Harlem Renaissance. 

I absolutely loved this collection!  I don't know much about Hughes but after reading this collection he seems like someone who would have been fun to hang out with —the kind of person who could come up with a funny poem on the spur of the moment if you were having a bad day.  Next to the funny poems about men and women and not making the rent, there are these intense poems about being Black in America, injustice, and freedom.  Hughes' poems span the emotional spectrum, from sadness, to anger and frustration, to hope and happiness.  This is an amazing collection of poetry.  I am amazed at how so much can be said in just a few lines. Thanks Langston, this was wonderful.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mud, Sweat, and Tears by Bear Grylls

Mud, Sweat, and Tears: The Autobiography Earlier this summer I was traveling through the seemingly evergreen pacific northwest.  One night I switched on the tv in the hotel and came across two outdoor adventure shows.  The first was Naked and Afraid where two people, a man and a woman who don't know each other are cast off into the wilderness without food, clothes or shelter.  Their challenge was to survive for 21 days.  What they got at the end of it all, I don't know.  It was such a weird show.  I couldn't understand it and didn't make it through a full episode.  I did follow the Twitter commentary, which was hilarious.  The second show I came across was Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls.

I don't watch too many reality shows, especially ones involving competition.  In fact, there are only two or three such shows that I like - So You Think You Can Dance, The Next Food Network Star, and years ago, Project Runway.  Most competition shows are just too mean spirited for my taste.  Plus, if I am going to watch people compete I want to watch people do something they love and are good at, hence the dancing and cooking shows.   

Get Out Alive was a different sort of a competition show.  First off, there wasn't a whole lot of actual competition.  For most of the show everyone had to work together.  They were in the wilderness, hiking up mountains, crossing fast moving waters, building shelters in effort to survive cold nights, all while lugging backpacks that appeared to be the size and weight of a not so small child.  In short, there was no room for sabotage or name calling.  If one person got hurt, it could endanger everyone.  So they had to work together, and along the way the competitors, and the viewers, learned something about survival.  What was key, what intrigued me was that the survival lessons weren't just about technical or physical skills.  There was some of that, but the more important lessons had to do with strength of character, will, working together, and being mentally tough.

All of this is a long way of explaining of how I came across Bear Grylls.  Admittedly, I am late to the game as Grylls has done other shows, including Man vs Wild and Worst Case Scenario, neither of which I have ever seen.  He is also apparently the youngest British man to climb Mount Everest.  I knew none of this when I saw the first episode of Get Out Alive.  I didn't need to.  What intrigued about the show and its host was their adventurous spirit.  The show looked tough but fun, and at times disgusting.  (Seriously is it ever really necessary to drink urine or eat bugs?)  The criteria for getting kicked off the show or winning was vague.  Grylls would say things like how he was looking for the team of people who could dig deep in hard times and keep going, who good keep in good spirits even when the going got exponentially tough.  It was inspirational without being cheesy.  So I picked up Grylls autobiography, Mud, Sweat, and Tears, looking for more about this adventurous spirit.

Celebrity autobiographies are often a gamble.  This one delivered.  Grylls has had a lot of adventures and has no shortage of stories to tell.  In Mud he describes the rigorous training he went through to become a member of the SAS (something I had also never heard of but which is apparently world famous), about breaking his back while parachuting, and about climbing Mount Everest.  The stories are riveting (the short chapters help) but they are not the main reason why I liked this book.  More than the physical strength, what seems to have gotten Grylls through multiple life threatening situations is his mental and spiritual strength.  It takes a lot to be calm in a dangerous situation.  The importance of keeping calm, of self-confidence, and of faith is what I took away from Mud, Sweat, and Tears.  

Some books make you think, and this book has definitely made me think that I need to take more risks.  It is time for an adventure!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading Drama and Poetry

At the beginning of 2013 I decided to participate in the Literary Exploration Challenge (also see here).  The challenge is all about trying new genres.  Through this challenge I have been introduced to new genres and have revisited ones that I don't think I've read since college.  Drama and poetry fall into this category. 

For the drama category I chose Shakespeare's Macbeth.  This had actually been on my want-to-read list for awhile.  I have read other of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, King Lear, but somehow I made it through high school and college without reading Macbeth.  There are of course several different editions of the play.  I chose to read Sparknotes' No Fear edition of Macbeth.  This edition features the original text of the play on the left-hand page and a modern interpretation of the text on the right hand side.  Since I am not reading this in the context of an English class, I found this to be really helpful.

Macbeth is one of those classics that is readily referenced in a thousand other contexts, so I had a general idea of plot going into it.  I was surprised, and perhaps I shouldn't have been, at how modern the story is.  I get why it is so readily referenced in other contexts.  Now that I've read it I would like to see it.  One of the reasons I don't read drama all that much is because it is an art form that is really meant to be seen and heard or performed.  As glad as I am to have read Macbeth, something was missing from the page.  That something would probably be found on a stage.  Speaking of stage performances, I'm not the only one interested in Shakespeare.  I happen to be on the bus and reading this book when the woman sitting next to me asked if I was reading Macbeth for a class.  I told her no, I was reading Shakespeare on my own for fun.  She then pulled out two DVDs from her bag.  She had just watched two BBC versions of Macbeth and was on her way to return them to the library.  If I can't see Macbeth performed live, I guess I can watch them on DVD. 

For the poetry genre I chose Ariel by Sylvia Plath.  I read poetry even less than I read drama.  It isn't that I don't like poetry, I do.  Yet, the concept of a book a poetry seems odd to me, primarily because a book of poetry does not seem like something that should be read linearly.  I read Ariel in one sitting, one poem after another, and I kind of feel that I read it wrong.  Notwithstanding my uncertainty about how to read poetry, I did enjoy this collection, particularly the poems Morning Song, Sheep in Fog, Lady Lazarus, Cut and Kindness. 

When I picked up Ariel at the library, I also picked up a book of Langston Hughes' poems.  I have enjoyed his poems here and there but have never read a full book of his poems.  This time I will read the poems slower. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In One Person by John Irving

In One Person There are a handful of writers whose work I aim to read all of during my lifetime.  One of these writers is John Irving.  I first discovered Irving by watching tv.  I was what used to be called a latch key kid and spent a lot of time at home alone watching tv, reading books, and writing.  One afternoon either The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire - I can't remember which I saw first - came on tv.  Upon learning these movies where based on books I started reading John Irving and have been a fan ever since.  It was with a great degree of anticipation that I picked up his latest, In One Person.  Unfortunately, I did not love this book, but I admire John Irving for writing it.

At the center of In One Person is William (Billy) Abbott, who grows up in a small Vermont town with his delicate mother, disapproving aunt, cross-dressing grandfather, and a host of other curious characters.  Long story short, Billy is bisexual.  Unlike many of his friends, Billy is honest about his sexual preferences, something that doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

Although Billy is the protagonist of the story, I'm not sure it is really about him.  It is a more of a fictionalized history of gender and sexuality in America from the 1950s to the mid-2000s.  Billy starts out as an adolescent  with a speech impediment, crushes on the "wrong people," and an interest in both making out with a girl and wearing her clothes.  Over time he comes into his own as a writer and as a bisexual man.  He watches many of his friends die of AIDS.  He witnesses the growing acceptance of what he likes to refer to as sexual differences as evidenced in part by the proliferation of LGBT groups on school campuses.  He even sees a few of his friends be able to marry their partner.

Billy is a witness to a great many changes over his seventy or so years.  That was my biggest problem with the book.  Billy is a witness or observer, but he doesn't really seem apart of any of it.  He doesn't seem emotionally invested.  For the first half of the novel I wondered why I wasn't enjoying it more and the word that kept coming to mind was passive, as in the narration seemed really passive and muted.  Billy is telling the story of his life even he didn't seem that interested.  The story did pick up in the second half but it wasn't quite enough to redeem the whole book.

For those who haven't read Irving before, I would not recommend starting with this one.  He's written thirteen novels, eight of which I've read, including this one.  My favorite is A Widow for One Year. A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I haven't yet read) seems to show up as many people's favorites so that may be another one to try.  In any case, don't start here but work your way to this one.  Even though not my favorite, it was worth the read.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (Hunger Games Series #2)  In my experience, the second book in a trilogy is often a disappointment.  My theory to explain this is that in the first book the author introduces the characters, sets up the world in which they operate, and outlines the main goal of the characters.  In the third or final book of the trilogy the characters eventually accomplish their goal.  The role of the second book is that of a bridge - it gets readers from one side to the other, but the voyage is often frustratingly slow.  Second books often feel like a holding pattern or a distraction until the third book.  The story may move forward a little, but not in a satisfying way.  Catching Fire is the second entry in the Hunger Games trilogy and for the reasons above, I had a low expectations.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Catching Fire is not only amazing, it is better than the the first book in the series. 

To bring everyone up to speed, the protagonist of the series is 16-year-old Katniss Evergreen (love that name).  In the ruins of what once was North America is the country of Panem, the center of which is the Capitol.  The Capitol is surrounded by twelve districts, some of which are poorer than others, but all of which are subject to the power and control of the Capitol and President Snow.  Every year the Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games where these children, or tributes, will fight to the death - literally.  The games are televised for all districts and the Capitol, making it a grisly reality show complete with live executions.  Should any of the tributes try to avoid the bloodshed in the arena, the game-maker adds in plenty of nasty surprises to spur them on. The games serve as a reminder to the twelve districts of the time when the now destroyed District 13 tried to rebel, or really as a reminder that they live at the mercy of the Capitol and President Snow.

The tributes are sent to compete are chosen by lottery.  When Primrose Evergreen is chosen, her older sister Katniss volunteers in her place.  Her male counterpart is Peeta.  In the 73-year history of the games (the first book marks the 74th games), only one tribute from District 12 has ever won.  District 12 is one of the poorer of the twelve districts and they don't have the means to train the way some of the richer districts do.  So Katniss and Peeta go the Hunger Games knowing that it is unlikely that either will return home alive.  

I don't think that it is too much of a spoiler to say that Katniss survives the games (after all, it is a trilogy).  In doing so she inadvertently defies the Capitol by essentially not being as bloodthirsty and cruel as they would like.  This is where Catching Fire picks up.  Having survived the games, Katniss must then go on a victory tour.  As she visits each of the districts, Katniss finds that she has unintentionally become a symbol of a people who are sick and tired of a government that forces people to watch as their children are forced to kill each other or be slaughtered themselves.  She is the spark that if it catches fire, could lead to a full scale rebellion.

Again, often with series I find the second book to be a letdown.  It also typically takes awhile for me to get back into the story.  Not so with Catching Fire, I was in from page one.  Collins does a spectacular job of pulling the reader in and immersing him or her into the world of the Panem, with all of its tension and fear.  Even though I knew Katniss had to survive, again it's a trilogy, I was still  worried that she wasn't going to make it.  I felt her fear and confusion. 

Aside from the world building and the character development, one of things I like about this series is the lack of romance.  There is a sort of romantic element involving Katniss and two boys competing for her attention.  But for Katniss, although she cares for them both to varying degrees, there are quite literally life and death matters for her to deal with.  So while there is a hint of a love triangle, getting a boyfriend is not Katniss's main goal, and I find that refreshing.  In fact, she is ambivalent about it all.  Having survived the horror of the Hunger Games, she is not eager to give birth to a child only to see that child's name chosen in the world's unluckiest lottery.

I hope the paperback version of the third book of the series, Mockingjay, is released soon.  I read The Hunger Games in 2009 but only read Catching Fire now because although the hardback was released years ago, the paperback only came out earlier this year.  If it doesn't come out soon I may have to forget about buying it and just go to the library.  (I don't buy hardbacks.)  Catching Fire ended with a surprising twist and I'm eager to find out what becomes of Katniss.  Collins did a great job here and I have high hopes for the next book.