Archive for the ‘Non-List’ Category

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Let me preface this post by saying that it might come across as a little biased. I love Cheryl Strayed. I was never going to not adore this book. That doesn’t mean that Wild isn’t a wonderful, fantastic book, however.

I’ve been meaning to read Wild for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Cheryl Strayed ever since I found out she was the Sugar behind The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” column. If you’re not familiar with it, you should definitely check it out. It’s an advice column unlike any you’ve read before. It’s equal part beautiful prose, advice from the heart, and personal stories. A bunch of us discovered the column in a creative writing class in college, and from that point on Sugar became one of the guides I took with me through the end of college and into the real world.

I took with me phrases like “write like a motherfucker” and the kind, gentle advice from “Tiny Beautiful Things” into the real world. Sugar was like a friend. I felt this strange connection with her. I was thrilled when I got to meet her, just a few weeks before I left for Prague. She was in Iowa City promoting Wild, which had just come out. One of my English major friends drove down from Minnesota to go see her with me. I bought both her books and had her sign both of them. It was awesome. She exudes this peaceful, calm energy that makes you want to sit and listen to her tell stories and truths about her life forever. Or maybe that’s just because I’d spent most of the previous spring clinging desperately to “Dear Sugar,” rereading several of her columns and forcing myself to believe that graduation wasn’t going to be the end of the world.

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Anyway, Wild is the story of how, at 26, Strayed, after a 3-year spiral into darkness and drugs following her mother’s death, decided to heal herself by walking part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike most people, who plan for years and practice and meticulously prepare for this hike, Strayed just sort of up and did it with only a few months of preparation. In this book, she recounts her transformative journey.

loved it.

Strayed is a great writer. She’s good at writing about things that affected her profoundly and reflecting on them in a way that isn’t constantly preachy or reflective. This is something I still need to work on. Pretty much every creative-nonfiction piece I write winds up sounding like a sermon, and when I read them back even I get annoyed with myself. I appreciate when people are able to walk that line between telling us what they got out of experiences, while leaving us room to draw our own conclusions and have our own thoughts about them.

On another note, I’ve always had a very strong sense of wanderlust, so I really like books where people travel and have profound experiences (except for Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t get into that one). Wild was no exception. I suddenly had a profound desire to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or take a month to backpack through Yosemite or the Rockies or something. Nevermind that I have never been backpacking in my life, I hate camping, and I am not cut out for carrying a giant backpack over rough terrain and not showering for days on end. I wanted to.

Maybe someday I will. I probably won’t go off on my own without a clue like Strayed did, but maybe I’ll go have some sort of spiritual journey of my own sometime. I just hope that I don’t have to get hooked on heroin and drown in grief to be transformed, because that’s not going to happen. At the heroin part isn’t, and I certainly hope the grief part doesn’t.

Either way, I recommend Wild if you’re looking for comfort and a good read that will make you want to hike and explore nature. One warning though – it’s an emotional read. I’m not a very emotional person; I rarely cry even when things are sad, and books and movies never make me cry. That said, Wild had me tearing up by page 20.

Rating: *****

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Life After Life

In my break this time, I read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I think I heard about it on some book blog or other, and I immediately knew that it had to be my next free read.

To (probably mis)quote one of the characters in the book: What if you had the chance to live your life over and over again until you got it right? 

Kate Atkinson explores this idea through her character, Ursula Todd. Ursula is born on a snowy night in 1910, but dies immediately. She is born again, in the same snowstorm, and lives, only to later be suffocated when the cat falls asleep on her face. She is born again, doesn’t die on the night of her birth, is rescued from suffocation by the cat, but drowns when she is only five. She is born again, doesn’t die when she is born, doesn’t get suffocated by the cat, doesn’t drown, but… you get the idea.

Ursula Todd gets to live many different versions of her life – in at least one of them she kills Hitler – but she isn’t aware of it. Sometimes she is able to save herself from the same fate a second time by “intuition,” and other times her choices take her to different places.

The idea of reliving your life and getting to see where things could have gone if x had been different or if you’d said instead of b has ALWAYS interested me. I often wonder how my life could be different if things had played out differently. My family moved houses when I was 3, so I went to a different elementary school. Who would I be if we’d stayed there? I wouldn’t have had the same best friends as a kid. I wouldn’t have had the same teachers. It’s entirely possible that my life could have been completely different just from that.

Exploring this idea through Ursula was really fun for me. Her many lives were varied, and though many of the players stayed the same, their roles were completely different each time. It’s weird to think how differently life can go based on decisions. Even a decision like “I’m going to learn German instead of French” can completely change things. Ursula got to run around and be awesome during World War II, and you know how much I love reading about Europe in World War II.

Life After Life is an interesting read. It’s a bit repetitive – Atkinson rewrites a lot of the same scenes with just small changes. That can get frustrating, and it does feel like the book could be about 100 pages shorter with some of these cuts, but in the end, I think it’s worth the effort.

I’d recommend you give this book a try if you’re interested in re-birth, reflect a lot (I mean a lot) on your life choices, have trouble making life-altering decisions, or if you read a lot of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books as a kid.

Rating: *****

Something Wicked This Way Comes

We need to talk about how much I love Ray Bradbury.

He’s just…I don’t know. He’s special, somehow. There’s something about him and his writing that just makes me feel things. I don’t even know how to put those feelings into words, really. I might try, but that runs the risk of this just turning into less of a “review” and more of a “Ray Bradbury is AMAZING” post. But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Basically, when I read most Ray Bradbury books, I feel like he’s my grandpa. I imagine him sitting in an old rocking chair, wearing a green terrycloth robe and brown slippers. I’m sitting at his feet, threading his shag carpet (because grandparents’ houses all have shag carpet, right?) and listening to him tell stories. All day. Because he’s telling me stories that help me understand life and make me confront tough ideas, but in a way that makes me feel safe.

Whenever I’m especially aware of my own mortality and feeling really freaked out about that, or whenever I suddenly realize “OH MY GOD, I’M NOT A KID ANYMORE, WHAT IS THIS?!?!?!”, I read Bradbury. It helps, somehow. It also (if I’m reading any of the Greentown stuff) makes me feel like I’m a 12-year-old boy. This is oddly comforting.

Anyway, Something Wicked This Way Comes was another make-me-feel-better-about-getting-older-and-my-eventual-and-inevitable-death book. It’s about two 13-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, who wind up pitted against the evil carnival that comes to town, complete with a carousel that can either add or subtract years from your life.

The idea of aging–and dying–is present throughout the whole book. Jim, more melancholy than his best friend, wonders what it’s like to be older. He wants to skip the awkward teenage years, it seems. Meanwhile, Will’s father (to me anyway) watches his son and his friend get to be boys and misses his own youth.

I related the most to the father, actually. Sometimes I have these moments where I’m suddenly aware that I’m, basically, an adult. It’s almost like some past version of me, some past consciousness, suddenly wakes up and is like, “Ummm…what’s with all the responsibility? What is this?!” These moments are always very brief, but for a few seconds it’s almost like I’m living a nightmare. Like suddenly I’m trapped in this adult body and I can’t do the things I used to do. I feel like that’s what Mr. Halloway is going through during the whole book. He watches his son and realizes that he isn’t a boy anymore. And it’s almost like it feels like a nightmare.

This horror, I suppose, is also connected with the carousel. Imagine being 12 or 13 and suddenly, you’re in an adult’s body. Horrifying, I think. Also, that’s sort of what growing up feels like at times.

So what I liked most about the book was watching Mr. Halloway come to terms with himself and, eventually, accept his age. He fights tooth and nail to save Jim and Will from aging on the carousel and, in the process, discovers a way to stop himself from aging, at least inwardly.

What I love about Bradbury is how simple his metaphors are. It’s incredibly easy and fun to get at the greater, more important meaning behind the story. Threaded through the scary story that kept me reading all day was something I needed to learn. But Bradbury didn’t just tell me what he wanted to teach me. He told me the story and let me figure it out for myself. Which somehow made the lesson that much truer.

What’s the lesson, you ask?

I could tell you. But I think instead you’ll have to read Something Wicked This Way Comes and decide for yourself. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for anyone else.

Rating: *****
But really, I’ll probably give five stars to everything Bradbury writes. It should really just be implied.

Oh, also, for several years, this song has been stuck in my head every time I read a book by Ray Bradbury. It really captures the, um, love, some of us fangirls have for him.
*Disclaimer: Contains swearing and is DEFINITELY NSFW

It comforts me to know that other people love him as much (well, more, I suppose) than I do. Except, you know, I think of him as my grandpa so, the whole, you know, sleeping with him thing is totally off the table.

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain

For one of my break books, I chose The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

It’s been on my “to read” list for awhile now. There was a Kindle Daily Deal or something awhile back and the book was only 4 dollars, so I figured I might as well buy it. Since then, it’s been sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read. Even before that, though, I’d been meaning to read it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a book about life, accepting and enduring hardship, and saying goodbye. Also, it’s narrated by a dog. An intelligent, humanlike, philosophical dog named Enzo.

Enzo lives with his master, Denny, a semipro racecar driver, and Denny’s wife, Eve, and his daughter, Zoe. The family, especially Denny, goes through incredible hardships. Enzo observes all of them and offers his reflections and ideas. Usually Enzo’s thoughts have a philosophical twist connected to what he has learned through years of watching video tapes of races.

Racing, it seems, can be very philosophical. Enzo often observes what is happening to the family and recalls things he has learned from watching races. If he could talk, he would advise Denny to “steer into the skid” or to keep his eyes on the road in front of him. Enzo is often frustrated that he can’t talk, that he can’t fully participate in human life and communicate with his family. He dreams of the day that he dies, when he can be reborn as a human.

At times, The Art of Racing in the Rain seems a little convoluted. Of course, it’s about a talking dog, so I suppose that’s to be expected. However, it seems like Stein tortures Denny just a bit too much. So many terrible things happen to him that at a certain point, I couldn’t really feel sympathy – it just felt like Stein was making his character suffer so that Enzo could prove a point. The entire Annika situation took the book in a strange direction that I didn’t quite agree with.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book. I like books that get philosophical through metaphors like racing (or any other sports, really). It was also a really nice change of pace from what I’ve been reading.

I will issue a warning though: this book is pretty damn sad. I won’t spoil anything, I’ll just say that it’s a book about a dog. And what happens in basically every. single. dog book. ever? Yeah….

Rating: ****

Bossypants

I want Tina Fey to be my new best friend. In some weird, strange way, I feel like she is my new best friend, actually.

For my “break” book, I read her new memoir Bossypants. It was really good. I was laughing and nodding and engaged from page one.

Fey writes both about her career – from beginning as an improv actor for The Second City to 30 Rock – with eloquence, humor, and heart. She doesn’t stray from awkward comparisons – she compares something to being about as gross and uncomfortable as losing your tampon string (and then apologizes to any male readers for their not being able to relate) – or brutal honesty.

She even fits a bit of feminism into her book. She makes plenty of comments about women in positions of power in the workplace, and also about male casting producers and writing who feel like two women in one sketch will never be funny. Normally I’m not huge on reading “feminist” literature or writings that focus on how women need more power. It’s not that I don’t think that women should be equal to men or anything (obviously), it’s just that that sort of thing usually doesn’t interest me or sit well with me for some reason.

But this time, it didn’t bother me at all. Maybe it was because it didn’t feel like Fey was asking me to burn my bra or protest against men in control or anything. She just kind of says it like it is and leaves me to draw my own conclusions.

Anyway, Bossypants had me laughing and smiling and feeling really happy all the way through. I like it when books make me do that.

Everyone should read it, because Tina Fey is awesome.

Rating: *****


Also, since I finished another ten list-books, I’ve chosen my favorite out of the set. It was kind of a rough group. None of them were really SUPER outstanding, but I enjoyed most of them. Ultimately, though, I’ve decided on The Hobbit.  Maybe it was Prague or maybe the fact that I had to read so much Gothic or Victorian this round, but I was glad for a little magic and fantasy.

The Haunting of Hill House

I finished The Haunting of Hill House today! Woot!

I read it because I was playing chess with my friend. He knew from our last chess-and-apple-cider/pumpkin-spice-chai meeting that I’d read The Shining. Apparently it’s one of his favorite books, so we got to discussing it. (God I love that book. So. Good. )

We got to talking about Shirley Jackson (yes, the woman who wrote The Lottery) and how does horror so well. My friend told me that she was a huge influence on Stephen King and that he has even said that Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is THE perfect horror story.*

I promised to read The Haunting of Hill House so we could discuss it. And I’m true to my word. Sometimes. In this case it’s mostly because I like horror stories.

I didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House as well as I liked The Shining. They are certainly similar, to be sure. Both involve a “haunted” building that eats at the consciousness of the people who stay there. Both have a certain aspect of insanity or internal instability (read: psychological thriller). Both include wonderful use of a PLACE as a character in a book.

I was going to continue to compare and contrast The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House, but I would wind up talking too much about The Shining, so I’m not going to do that.

The Haunting of Hill House is certainly frightening. Jackson’s writing is brilliant and she tackles her narrator’s consciousness so thoroughly that you can follow the descent into madness. As events start to unfold and mysterious things start to happen, the psychological unease grows.

Hill House itself serves as a character. It groans and breathes and sucks the inhabitants in. But perhaps the story’s true brilliance is its ambiguity. Jackson never says outright what is happening. Things get weirder and weirder and as a reader you become less sure of which events are really happening. A (semi) unreliable narrator contributes to this as well.

Overall, sanity has no place here. Neither in Hill House nor in the book. Like the house itself, which is uneven and disorienting, The Haunting of Hill House places readers in a strange place with little solid, expected ground. In this case, that is a good thing.

So, while I found The Shining more frightening (I just think that King is better at creating tension through pacing), readers who love horror should not pass up The Haunting of Hill House.

*After a cursory google search, I haven’t actually found any quotes of Stephen King saying this, but I do know that he cited Shirley Jackson as an inspiration and that some editions of The Shining, he quotes The Haunting of Hill House in the epigraph.

Rating: ****

The Smartass Gospel: Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

What if Jesus and his best buddy had been smartasses?

God wants us to laugh, right?

Christopher Moore certainly thinks so. His book Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is a hilarious, slightly blasphemous and probably offensive to super religious and hardcore Christians, account of the Jesus’s life, as told by his best friend Biff. We owe Biff the invention of cafe lattes, matches and, most importantly, sarcasm.

In the book, Biff has been brought back by the sloppy blonde angel Raziel – he was supposed to announce Joshua’s (Jesus’ Hebrew name was Joshua, apparently) birth to the shepherds but got distracted playing cards and showed up ten years late – to write HIS account of Jesus’s life. It differs drastically from the other Gospels.

Moore’s book is DEFINITELY tongue-in-cheek and not for people who are easily offended or touchy about religion. But the book is still touching in its own way. I was raised Christian, so Jesus is a guy I’ve “known” for quite awhile. It’s easy, when someone’s, you know, the reason for your religion, to put them on this huge pedestal. It was nice to see an account (even though it’s fiction) of Jesus that reminds us that he was a pretty neat guy. Even if sometimes he “loses it” and wants to give something to the “fuckheads” in the Beatitudes. Also, you get to see him as the typical smartass teenager, screwing with adults, and being a fan of irony (when he sees “Untouchables,” he pokes them).

This part might be a bit spoilery, but everybody knows how the Jesus story ends, so.

I almost cried when Jesus died. I mean, it’s sad and touching anyway, especially if you’re a Christian. But reading it from Biff’s perspective REALLY got me. I have best friends. I love them. I don’t even want to THINK about them dying. But to have been through everything Biff and Josh went through together and then to think about the fact that Biff is WATCHING his best friend die in the worst most painful way…MAN.

Anyway, Lamb is awesome. You should definitely read it. It’s a cool reminder that Jesus was a pretty cool guy and it connects Christianity with eastern religions in a neat way. Also, there are phrases like “the barfing Messiah” and “Torah! Torah! Torah! – War Cry of the Kamikaze Rabbis” in it.

Overall, I HIGHLY recommend Lamb. If you’re easily offended by religion, you might not like it. But Moore writes in the afterword: This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.

Rating: *****

I’ll be back soon with the next book on the list, Life of Pi.

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