Saturday, April 26, 2014

the Moments, the Minutes, the Hours: the Poetry of Jill Scott

Moments, the Minutes, the Hours: The Poetry of Jill Scott I never know what to think or say about poetry.  Without a plot or characters I’m not sure what to grab on to, except maybe emotion and perhaps imagery.  Jill Scott has a gift for translating emotion into words.  Her work is honest, angry, friendly, grateful, romantic, and sensual.  The poems are uncomplicated and fairly straight forward, which might be both good and not so good - good because they’re easy to understand but not so good because there is little to imagine.  There were a few poems that I re-read two or three times but most didn’t stay long with me.

Travel Dreams: All Over the Map and Wanderlust

I'm in the mood for an adventure.  The kind that involves a passport.  I've been wanting to go somewhere for awhile but cannot seem to decide on a destination.  In effort to come up with some kind of plan of action I've been skimming through travel books, planning sample itineraries, and browsing travel websites.  Hawaii, Sweden, Iceland, Toronto, Texas, and the California coast all seem like fascinating possibilities.

I grew up in a medium sized city in California with inexplicable dreams of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person and eating real French baguettes.  While my more sensible friends and family studied Spanish or Chinese in school (sensible because there are large populations that speak these languages in my home state), I opted to study French.  It took awhile but I eventually made it to France.  But that was not my first international adventure. The first stamp in my passport was for London.  Actually, my first true cross-border trip was to Mexico but growing up in California, going to Mexico wasn't much different than going to Nevada.  It used to be that you didn't even need a passport, at least not if you were only going for a short trip. 

Before I crossed an ocean I went to Boston for college.  That might not seem like a big deal but for a girl who had never been farther east than the Arizona desert, the East Coast was a giant step toward France and the rest of the world.  Later, after completing undergraduate and legal studies, I spent a month backpacking in Europe.  I stared upward at Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I was overwhelmed into tears at Dachau.  I discovered Stroopwafels (caramel cookie waffles) in The Netherlands. 

One of my favorite trips turned out to be in my own country.  Years later I am still awed by Alaska.  It remains one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.  In addition to traveling around the world I would like to visit each of the fifty states that make up the United States.  So far I'm about half way done. 

Unfortunately I haven't done much traveling in the past few years and I'm itching to get on a plane, a train, or whatever will take me somewhere new.  In my quest to find an affordable but exciting trip I came across a website hosted by Nomadic Matt.  Matt spent over six years traveling, mostly solo, around the world before deciding he needed to put down roots somewhere.  Though I admire his wanderlust I understand his need to settle down.  I am not sure I would like traveling as much without having a home to come home to, even if it is only a rented apartment.  More importantly, Nomadic Matt has convinced me I can travel more while on a budget.  However, I still can't seem to decide where to go next or how to get started.  In an effort to make a decision I turned to travel memoirs for inspiration.

All Over the Map  The first travel memoir I read was Laura Fraser's All Over the Map.  At age 40 Laura found herself divorced and childless.  It was not the life she expected.  Not that her life was all bad.  Far from it.  She travels the world and gets paid to write about it.  As much as she yearns to settle down with a husband and a child, Laura loves her work and traveling.  I was/am envious of her worldwide travels.  I also could relate to life not turning out precisely as expected.

Laura's writing is thoughtful and honest.  As she travels in search of stories and to visit friends, Laura constantly challenges and reevaluates herself.  She goes on an Outward Bound trip.  She contemplates buying a tiny house in Mexico.  She subjects herself to a meditation trip even though she finds it difficult to sit still and not talk for long periods of time.  She interviews genocide widows in Rwanda.  She tries to come to terms with the choices she's made and finds a way to navigate going forward.  Her attempts are not always successful but she keeps trying and keeps traveling.  All Over the Map made me want to pack my bags but also made me think about my choices and being more deliberate about those choices.

Random Fun Fact:  On Laura Fraser's website she lists all the books she's read since 1974.  Love that!  Another thing I noticed as I was re-reading this section was that I referred to Laura Fraser by her first name.  Last names are the norm in my blog posts.  Something about Laura Fraser's writing invoked a sense of I'm not sure of the right word - friendship or understanding maybe - that made referring to her by her first name feel right. 

Travel memoir doesn't seem quite Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents adequate to describe Elizabeth Eaves's Wanderlust.  It is as much a documentation of the author's emotional and sex lives as it is about her actual travels. I equate traveling with joy, personal and intellectual growth, adventure, and curiosity.  Though Eaves's adventures around the world make for an impressive list - Yemen, Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and Australia are just a few of the places she has lived - Wanderlust elicited feelings of adventure and curiosity, perhaps some degree of growth but oddly, not much joy. 

There is a thin line between running away from responsibilities or difficult situations (especially emotional ones) and running toward something - toward exotic cuisines in exotic locales, toward experiencing the world up close and in person rather than reading about someone else's experience, or toward facing one's fears.  Much of time I wasn't sure which side of that line Eaves was on.  She definitely is adventurous but for her adventure seems to equal escape.  She repeatedly invokes Harry Houdini and his daring escapes from life threatening situations.  Likewise, the stamps in Eaves's passport could be interpreted as evidence of her escape from some imaginary prison.

Eaves floats from one man to the next but even her long term relationships appeared to have little to do with love, romance, companionship, or even emotion.  It was more like she needed an excuse to travel and the excuse needed to be in the form of an escape from whatever self-imposed box she had put herself in.  As she readily admits near the end of her relationship with an Englishman (never got his name, not sure if it was there and I just missed it or if his name was never revealed), as soon as he consents to stay with her in one place for awhile, she immediately ceases to want him.  For Eaves travel seemed not to be about the destination or even the journey, but rather about the act of freeing herself from any kind of obligation.  Buying a house, signing an apartment lease, or maintaining a job may as well have been shackles the way Eaves chafed under them.  I sort of get how buying a house could feel like a prison.  It is a huge commitment that can dominate one's life and finances for decades, but even an apartment lease was too much for her.  Anything that suggested commitment terrified her.

Towards the end of the book Eaves decides it is time to stop juggling multiple boyfriends across multiple continents.  She starts making moves to settle down with one man.  This doesn't mean she is bound for a house in the suburbs or has to give up her passport - his State Department job means Eaves's travels will continue.  It only means that her solo trips will decrease in number and her long distance relationship pattern will be replaced by actually being present for the relationship.  At first this seems like a happy compromise as she enters her 30s and starts to feel the need for some stability.  It is foregone conclusion that this relationship is unlikely to last since Eaves enters into it partly out of love but mostly because her nomadic lifestyle has left her emotionally and financially unstable and she needs someone to be her anchor.  As I write this I am beginning to think that this might be the saddest travel memoir I have ever read.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts:  I wholeheartedly recommend All Over the Map, especially if you are over 30.  I suspect those who have entered their third decade (like myself) or beyond will readily relate to Laura Fraser's book no matter their particular life circumstances (married or not, parent or not). 

I found Eaves's book less satisfying.  While her travel experiences were off the beaten path and interesting to read about, ultimately her book left me feeling sad, though not sad enough to silence my own wanderlust. 

Postscript: I'm leaning toward a trip to Nashville.  Tennessee is a state I have not yet visited and a recent episode of the show Nashville reminded me of how much I would love to see Grand Ole Opry and the rest of the city.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Your Roots Are Showing by Elise Chidley

Your Roots are Showing Lizzie is overwhelmed and sleep deprived.  With three-year-old twins, a husband who is always traveling, and a disapproving mother-in-law, this is no surprise.  In a low moment she dashes off an email to her sister about how marriage and motherhood are not the happily ever after everyone says it is.  Unfortunately, the (un)helpful email program filled in her husband James's email address instead of her sister Janie's.  After reading how his wife wouldn't mind if he went on another business trip and simply disappeared forever James comes homes and starts packing his bags.  Lizzie tells her husband that she was having a bad day and didn't mean anything in the email, but he doesn't buy it and moves out.  Her friends and even new acquaintances tell Lizzie that she depressed and angry and that maybe she needs to talk to a professional but Lizzie insists that she is fine.  In complete denial about her life and her own feelings, Lizzie interprets James's moving out as a sign that he is testing her.  She decides to call his bluff by moving out herself. 

Your Roots Are Showing was charming to read. Lizzie was the kind of character I wish I would reach into the book and shake.  At the same time I could totally relate to her and continued to root for her as she stumbled into a series of awkward situations and jumped to one conclusion after another.   Her husband was just as sympathetic.  Sure he left, but can you blame him?  Can you imagine getting an email in which the person you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with says they wouldn't mind if you never came home again? Lizzie was stuck and who hasn't felt stuck in their life at some point.  As for James, he was blind to what was happening but also blindsided.  The email and its aftermath devastated Lizzie and James but it was exactly what their relationship needed.

Things do get better, as expected.  Lizzie starts trying new things, one of which is running.  As a runner myself, I loved this aspect of her transformation.  There are aesthetic benefits - Lizzie runs off the baby weight.  More importantly, she finds that she is stronger that she thinks.  Running gives her confidence.  Slowly she starts making choices, sometimes not very well thought out choices, but nevertheless choices about her life, instead of waiting for things to just work themselves out or for other people to read her mind.  At the end, Lizzie comes out stronger than when she started.  Watching her get stronger was like a roller coaster ride.  There were lots of ups, downs and fast turns but eventually everyone ends up safely on the ground, having faced one of their fears.  It was definitely worth the read.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Just One Day

Allyson is supposedly on the trip of a lifetime, only she is not really enjoying it.  As a high school graduation present Allyson's parents signed her up for Teen Tours.  Teen Tours provides teenagers like Allyson and her best friend Melanie a chaperoned tour of Europe.  It isn't as bad as it sounds.  In fact everyone except Allyson appears to be having fun and enjoying Europe's 18-year drinking age.  Allyson isn't quite sure why Europe's museums, cafes, and historic sites aren't dazzling her as expected.  Maybe, as she says at one point, she simply lacks a talent for travel.  Or maybe it's because the trip is yet another example of her micromanaged, carefully ordered life.  Then Shakespeare happens and Allyson's life changes.

While waiting to see Hamlet an actor named Willem invites Allyson and Melanie to his street troupe's performance of As You Like It.  Allyson is a good girl, as her chaperone Ms. Foley calls her, who follows rules and the road map to life that has been laid out for her by her parents.  According to Melanie, Allyson is constantly saying no to life.  Something about Willem's invitation inspires Allyson to say yes for once.  Later, when she is lamenting how her tour is almost over and she never got to see Paris, the once city she really wanted to see, Willem reminds her that it is not too late.  Paris is only a chunnel ride away.  Before you know it, good girl Allyson is off to Paris with a boy she just met. 

When I first read the description of Just One Day I couldn't help but think of the movie Before Sunrise.  Two strangers meet and spend twenty-four hours together in the most romantic city in the world.  Just One Day starts off like that.  Allyson and Willem spend a near perfect day and night together in Paris and then it ends, abruptly.  Allyson is shaken by the experience.  The last two-thirds of the book is about Allyson processing her experience and figuring out who she is and how to be.  It is not just a love story.  In saying yes to Willem, Allyson begins to think about her life up to that point and how she wants to live going forward.  It is about travel, taking chances, and finding out who she is.

As an adult I sometimes find teen romance stories tiresome and overly simplified.  Everything is life or death and now or never.  The rest of the world and the other people in it cease to exist for the young lovers.  One of the reasons I like Forman's writing is that she presents romance in a grounded context.  All of the emotion is there, but so is the rest of the world.  Here Allyson has college, new roommates, old friends, and parents to contend with, and they all have their own very valid issues.  Her experience with Willem is but one part of her life, albeit a big part that affects her other relationships.

Just One Day focuses on Allyson and how she changes after meeting Willem and going to Paris.  Gayle Forman has a habit of writing books in pairs.  The second half of this story can be found in Just One Year which I hope to read soon. 

This is the third book I've read by Forman.  The other two books were If I Stay and Where She Went, both of which I enjoyed immensely.  Like Just One Day and Just One Year, If I Stay and Where She Went are her and his stories of a relationship in which Mia and Adam deal with death, career choices, and separation.  They are beautifully written stories.  With this third book I would definitely count myself as a fan of Gayle Forman.

Also recommended: 

If I Stay  Where She Went

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Shining by Stephen King and Horror Stories

The Shining Me and The Shining have a long history.  I have never seen the whole movie but I’ve seen bits and pieces.  My parents were watching it and I was supposed to be asleep but woke up and saw a few scenes of a movie I was far too young to see.  To this day everything about The Shining has terrified me.  Once I came upon a random still from the movie - the one where crazy Jack Torrance / Nicholson with a sick smile is sticking a head through what appears to be a hole that he presumably made in a door while chasing after his wife and son.  I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw the picture.  A month or so ago the movie came on television and I tried to watch it.  I didn’t make it past the opening credits – even the music was scary.

One of the four reading challenges I’m doing this year is a genre challenge, one of which is horror.  In addition to being terrified of The Shining, I have never been a fan of horror stories in general, whether written or on screen.  There are multiple reasons for shying away from horror.  I don't like being scared. There are enough scary things in real life; artificial terrors are unnecessary.  I don't like gratuitous violent body slashers or religious related horror (involving the devil, demons, and the like).  Both of these only lead to nightmares and me jumping at every shadow.  Then there is what I’ll call psychological horror.  It may involve violence but the really horror is all in the mind.  It takes a very good storyteller to write a convincing a horror story that relies on mind games rather than blood spatter to bring readers to their knees, which brings me to The Shining

The Shining turned out to be neither gratuitously violent nor religious.  There was violence - topiaries just won’t be the same anymore - but it was the Overlook and its effect on Jack, Danny, and the hotel's prior guests that made the story come alive.  There is something about a threat is not entirely tangible or physical, whose uncertain reality makes it nearly impossible to fight against.

I enjoyed - no enjoy doesn’t seem like the right word - I liked The Shining and I am glad I finally read a Stephen King novel.  It wasn’t as scary as I expected but maybe that’s because it had been built up so high in my nightmares.  There are great, and by great I mean terrifying, scenes, where Jack is contemplating how to make his wife and son “take their medicine.”  The craziness rifling through Jack’s mind was a perfect mirror of life with an alcoholic or abuser.

My one minor issue (or one of the issues) I had with the novel was that it was unnecessarily long.  Around page 244 a friend asked what I thought so far and I replied that nothing had really happened yet.  I want to try another Stephen King novel, though I am still a bit intimidated by him and his novels.  Don’t know if I’ll ever watch the movie The Shining.  If I ever do, it will be in the daytime with all the lights on.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (Hunger Games Series #3)  Whew – that was intense!  
Mockingjay is the third book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy that started with The Hunger Games and continued in Catching Fire.  I liked the first book and loved the second.  After turning the last page of this third book I just sat still for a moment and released the breath I hadn't realized I was holding.  This is one of the best series I've ever read that got better and better with each book.  

For anyone who hasn't read or seen any of the books in this trilogy, you may want to stop reading here as there are spoilers ahead.  

This is series that really has to be read in order.  At the center is Katniss Everdeen, a resident of District 12 in the nation of Panem which is a not too distant future version of the United States.  The country has been divided into twelve districts plus the Capitol. The most anticipated (by the Capitol) and dreaded (by the districts) event of the year is the Hunger Games where each district is forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 17 to compete to the death in an arena full of horrors.  The children, called tributes perhaps in an attempt to dehumanize them and make it easier to watch them die, must kill each other or be killed.  Refusing to engage in the game is not an option as the game maker has created a variety of incentives to motivate them, and if that doesn’t work, to kill them.  These incentives include poisoned food, mutated animals programmed to rip a body to shreds, and the simulated screams of loved ones.

District 12 is one of the poorer districts.  Even without the Games life in District 12 would still be harsh.  Katniss’s life prior to the Games demonstrates this.  After her father died in a coal mining accident and her mother fell into a deep depression, Katniss was forced to grow up quickly and find a way to feed her mother and younger sister Primrose or Prim.  Remembering what her father taught her about hunting, Katniss sneaks off into the woods that borders her district and hunts for game she can feed to her family or trade in the district’s black market.  Her time in the woods is also where Katniss cements her relationship with her best friend Gale, another kid trying to support his family.  

Children are picked for the Hunger Games through a lottery system.  At the 74th lottery Prim's name is called.  Without thinking twice Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place.  Also picked is Peeta, a baker’s son. When they were little Peeta gave Katniss bread when she was starving.  Aside from that the two had never really spoken to one another before finding themselves on a train bound for the Capitol and the Games.  

In the 74 years of the Games there has ever only been one victor from District 12 – Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor.  No one really expects Peeta to survive, not even Peeta himself.  In some districts children are trained from a young age in preparation for the Games.  District 12 cannot afford such training. Katniss hasn’t had any more training than Peeta but with her archery and hunting skills she stands a fighting chance, all be it ever so slim.

Long story short, Katniss wins the 74th Hunger Games.  Along the way she befriends and mourns a fellow tribute named Rue.  In a game that is supposed to be the ultimate in brutality and bloodlust, the act of mourning over Rue’s dead body is an unanticipated reminder of the humanity of the children people are watching die on their TV.  When Katniss and Peeta are the last two survivors in the Games the Capitol expects them to fight each other to the death.  Instead, Katniss reveals a handful of poisonous berries and says that they either die or live together.  For the first time ever there are two victors and Panem's President Snow is not happy.  The rebellion already existed.  How could it not in a world where parents are forced to watch their children be killed or become killers?  Katniss’s display of compassion for fellow tributes reminds people that something else is possible, that life could be different.  Without meaning to, Katniss has fanned the flames of the small but growing rebellion.

In an effort to snuff out the embers of the rebellion, the Capitol announces that for the 75th Games, victors from past games will be forced to relive their nightmares by once again competing in the Games.  Peeta, Katniss are joined by past victors Beetee, Finnick, and others.  It is pretty clear that President Snow hopes Katniss doesn’t make it out alive.  Snow's hopes are dashed when Katniss finds a weakness in the structure in which the games are held.  Seconds after destroying the arena a hovercraft from District 13 appears overhead.  Katniss, Beetee and Finnick are rescued, but it can’t get to the others in time.  

District 13 is the rebel district that broke away from Panem.  Most of Panem's citizens think it was destroyed.  They don't know that the Capitol and Panem have long been at odds.  Some time in the past the warring factions agreed to a cease fire reminiscent of the Cold War: peace through mutually assured destruction. Both the Capitol and District 13 have nuclear weapons.

What makes Katniss both the best and worst leader of a revolution is that she lacks political acumen and often acts without thinking.  Peeta is supposed to the sensitive one but it is Katniss who feels every death.  She never intended to offend, let alone overthrow, the Capitol government.  She simply wanted to live and make it back home to her family with as low a body count as possible.  But the world is bigger than Katniss and while she may not see the bigger picture, there are others who can.  In Catching Fire President Snow needs Katniss to calm people down.  When that fails, he needs her dead.  The rebel government, led by President Coin, needs her to be the Mockingjay, the symbol of hope that inspires and unites Panem’s citizens in a fight against the Capitol and Snow.  

One of the things Collins does well in this trilogy is examine the use of media and perception.  In District 13 Katniss’s primary job is to perform in a series of televised propaganda pieces.  She comforts the wounded, gives fiery speeches, and shoots her bow and arrows, all with a camera crew in tow.  With Katniss in the nest of the rebels, Snow forces Peeta to perform in a similar fashion.  Another thing I liked about the trilogy is that although it is clear who the “good” guys are, the good guys are not morally perfect.  District 13 has strict rules and even an infraction liking taking an extra piece of bread at dinner is punished severely.  District 13 develops new weapons and traps aimed at killing more effectively.  Katniss is appalled even as she realizes that given the chance President Snow would spare her no mercy.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call the rebels the “better” guys rather than the good guys. 

The clearest example of this moral ambiguity is the rebel leader President Coin.  Proving that female leaders can be just as vicious and brutal as their male counterparts, after the rebels have won the war Coin suggests holding one final Hunger Games, this time featuring children from the Capitol.  Parents from the Capitol have never had to see their children compete to the death the way parents in other districts have. Further, once Katniss has served her purpose of uniting the districts against the Capitol, she becomes a threat to Coin.  As Haymitch explains, Katniss is the symbol of the rebellion.  Once the war is over Katniss will be influential in the new government, if only to endorse its new leader, and Coin isn't so sure she would be the one Katniss would choose.  President Snow is a monster but I couldn’t help wonder how but question if a government led by President Coin would be that different or better.  She might only be the lesser of two evils.

I really appreciated the ending of Mockingjay, mostly because is not a Hollywood happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after.  It was a fitting end to the series. What I remember most about The Hunger Games was the violence.  Catching Fire focused on the mounting pressure on Katniss.  Mockingjay was less about the physical and more about the psychological impact of war and violence.  Many of the main characters take a psychological beating in Mockingjay. With two trips to the Hunger Games arena and countless other traumas under her belt, Katniss sees to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as Mockingjay begins.  After Katniss is rescued from the Games arena Peeta is left to suffer the wrath of President Snow whose methods are not confined to physical torture.  The truth behind Finnick's playboy reputation is revealed.  There is one gut punching story after another and Collins manages to weave it all in while still delivering an action packed story.  I wonder what she is going to write next.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dime Store Magic by Kelley Armstrong

Dime Store Magic (Women of the Otherworld Series #3)  Dime Store Magic is the third entry in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series.  The first two books in the series (Bitten and Stolen) centered around werewolves.  In this book witches take center stage.  I have to admit, I missed the werewolves a little.

In Stolen representatives of the various supernatural races - werewolves, witches, sorcerers, shamans - are rounded up and held captive by a psychopath who likes hunting people as if they were in a live version of a video game and scientists who like to do experiments on unwilling victims.  Paige's mother is one of those who are captured.  In the mysterious compound where the supernaturals are kept she finds Savannah, a young witch whose mother has been killed and whose father is unknown.  When Paige's mother doesn't make it out of the compound alive, twenty-three-year-old Paige is left to care for Savannah.  Along with her new found parental responsibilities, Paige is now the leader of her coven, a coven that for the most part thinks she is far too young to be leader of anything.  Juggling her new responsibilities are hard enough when Paige encounters an even bigger problem - a custody challenge over Savannah.

Dime Store Magic was slow to start.  I didn't mind the slow build but did grow tired of Paige and Savannah's impetuousness.  I couldn't expect to much from Savannah given that she was only thirteen, but Paige's gullibility and foolishness started to drive me crazy after awhile.  Seriously, Paige fell for every trick in the book, like when she goes to a funeral home to pick up her file from her former lawyer Grantham's firm.  Grantham died under strange circumstances with Paige and Savannah as the only witnesses.  When a lawyer from Grantham's firm ask Paige to come pick her file, she agrees to meet at the funeral home where Grantham's body is because meeting at the law firm would be inappropriate but somehow meeting at the funeral home is perfectly okay so long as she enters through the backdoor.  Of course, it is a trap.

Eventually Paige does smarten up.  Her cause is helped by the appearance of Lucas Cortez, a member of the infamous Cortez cabal (witches have covens and sorcerers have cabals).  Once Lucas arrives the story begins to pickup.  There's action, romance, betrayals, and new beginnings.  As with the werewolf pact, there are all kinds of rules, politics, and history surrounding witches and sorcerers.  Much of that is revealed here.  On a side note, it is interesting that witches are always women and that they always bear daughters, while sorcerers are men who always father sons.

I enjoyed Dime Store Magic, though slightly less than the first two books in the series.  I'm looking forward to the next book, however.  The ending of Dime Store Magic was really good and set the stage upon which the next book will hopefully build.