Book Blurbs

I’ve been seriously slacking in the book review department, so here are some blurbs about the last four books I’ve read:

The Light Between the Oceans, by M.L. Stedman.

light oceans

In 1920’s Australia, Izzie, a lighthouse keeper’s wife, struggles with miscarriage; one day, she decides to keep a baby that washes ashore in a boat with a dead man. It’s a decision that will haunt her husband Tom for years. As a man who lived through the horrors of World War I, he clings to his integrity as a remedy for what he saw and did in those years. The isolation of the lighthouse allows them to keep their secret for a time; Tom’s love for his wife, and the child they named Lucy, keeps his torment at bay–for a time. Inevitably, the secret comes out, and the pain and grief that follows–for Tom, for Izzie, for the people who lay claim to the child, and mostly for the child herself, is almost unbearable. It was hard to know who to root for in this wrenching novel that explores the devastating consequences of a decision made in grief and longing, hope and love.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novick.

uprooted

It’s been many years since I’ve read a traditional fantasy–I thought maybe I’d “outgrown” them some time ago; turns out, I’ve just been waiting for one that doesn’t replay the same old tired tropes. Or maybe I’ve been away long enough for it to feel fresh again. At any rate, I immensely enjoyed this tale Novik culled from Polish folklore. Agnieshka, a young woman from the local village, has been chosen by the Dragon Lord to live with him and be his assistant in his tower across the river; he has chosen a young woman from her village every ten years for as long as anyone can remember. The Dragon Lord is a wizard who uses his powers to defend their valley from the evil influence of the Wood: a malevolent forest that corrupts and sickens anyone who strays too close to its borders. Agnieshka bumbles about in her new role with the cantankerous wizard, until they discover that she has her own powers–a Witch whose abilities confound and fascinate the Dragon Lord. Throw in a little politics and court intrigue, a relationship fraught with sexual tension, and a quest to discover the source of the Wood’s malevolence, and I couldn’t put this book down.

My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul.

bob

I’ve mentioned this book in a previous postand it was as entertaining as I thought and hoped it would be. Paul is the NY Times Book Review editor; she chronicles her life with BOB (Book of Books)–a notebook wherein she lists every single book she’s read for the past 28 years, since she was a teenager. Because I keep my own list of books (in print for many years, now digitally), I had to see how Paul’s choice of books impacted her life (or vice versa). Of course, her life has been much more interesting and varied than mine–she’s traveled extensively, several times to France during her school years, taking off to live in Thailand by herself after college, as well as many other places. The book progresses gradually from her youth to the present (in her mid-forties, married with three children). A person’s lifetime reading list is like a fingerprint, never the same for any one person. Later in the book, a book group asked the question, why do you read? Paul replied, in part, “To be transported.” I agree. I read to go to all the places I’ll never go, to live all the lives I’ll never live. I can’t get enough.

The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova.

shadowland

Years ago, I enjoyed Kostova’s The Historian, a kind of literary take on the Dracula myth. Her books are long and sprawling, with several points of view revealed through various sources: oral histories, letters, flashbacks. Her stories involve a core mystery that is ferreted out over distance and time. The Shadow Land takes place in Bulgaria (Eastern Europe and its history is a common theme in her books–Kostova is married to a Bulgarian). Alexandra is a 26-year-old woman who has traveled to Bulgaria to teach English at the Institute in Sofia, the nation’s capitol. She carries an old grief with her–as teenagers, her brother Jack disappeared on a hiking trip with their family, and was never seen again. This goes far to explain why, when she finds herself with someone else’s bag–containing an urn with someone’s ashes–in a taxi mix up, she stubbornly goes so far and endures so much to return the ashes to its family, instead of simply dumping it at the local police station. Alexandra finds herself enmeshed with the Lazarov family; in particular, Stoyan Lazarov, whose ashes she carries. With the help of Aspurah “Bobby” Iliev, her taxi driver–who turns out to be much more than a taxi driver–they pursue the elusive Lazarovi, discover Stoyan’s history as a violinist, his sufferings in a forced labor camp during the Communist regime, and why the police are pursuing them and the urn. This is a rich, engaging read that led me on a journey through the beautiful landscapes of Bulgaria (a country about which I knew almost nothing), and the sufferings of its people through various wars and political climates. Mostly, it’s about Stoyan, his genius and secrets, his sufferings and the sacrifices he made for the people he loved.

 

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading? Comment and we’ll talk about it!

Dumb is Good (And Funny)

I finally watched Dumb and Dumber Too on cable the other day, and I have to say my disappointment completely matched my low expectations.

You have to understand the iconic position the original Dumb and Dumber holds in my family. Every single line in that movie literally (and I use the word “literally” in its literal sense here) is a cultural and comedic touchstone. More than twenty years after its release, we still quote lines at any moment that seems appropriate.

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redeemthe vibe

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

If we’re flicking through the channels and come across D&D, we’ll watch it, no matter where in the movie it is. We still laugh. A lot. Every single time. It never gets old.

Until the same ideas are rehashed and reheated in an unfunny sequel (okay, I giggled here and there), served up as something new, when it’s really just overcooked leftovers. The writers tried to cash in on repeating a formula, and for me, it didn’t work. You just can’t improve on gold; better just to leave it alone–and I love almost everything Jim Carey touches.

This got me thinking about humor in general, and what makes me laugh, specifically. Jim Carey’s goofball slapstick comedy fits right into my long history of loving and laughing at, well, slapstick goofballs. Maybe it started when I was a kid, with a steady diet of Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings, and Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges on Sunday mornings, before the TV38 movie–some horror flick like Hell House or Kingdom of the Spiders. This juxtaposition of the silly and the horrific probably has a lot to do with my weirdness–it might even be the key to my entire personality…anyway, I absorbed that sense of the absurd into my blood early on.

In the eighties, I drank up the Airplane! movies, which spoofed the airline disaster movies of the seventies. There’s a lot of quotes from those movies that fall from my lips now and then (“Don’t call me Shirley,” of course; “She’s starting to shimmy,” and references to Ted’s “drinking” problem). My brother Randy has called me “Scraps” for over 30 years now, based on a bit about a dog named Scraps in one of these films (a kind of sick joke, actually), that we laughed and laughed about together. To this day, he hasn’t called me anything else.

I dutifully followed Leslie Nielson into his Naked Gun movies, where he played the hapless Detective Frank Drebbin.

poopy pants

The eighties and nineties were filled with these stupid-is funny movies, like Top Secret with Val Kilmer, and the Hot Shots movies with Charlie Sheen. I imbibed them all. Even thinking about these movies makes me giggle. At the time, they induced gut-wrenching guffaws and I-can’t-stop-crying-I’m-going-to-pee-my-pants laughter. Lots of other kinds of comedy make me laugh, but this ridiculousness holds a special place in my funny bone.

Some people don’t get it. They wrinkle their nose and look at you as if you’ve lost your mind. “That’s so dumb.” Well, yeah, that’s the point. And I’m sorry, but if you can sit through a performance of Jim Carey’s spastic facial expressions and plasticman gestures without losing it, that’s a little sad. Lighten up, because life is absurd. Let’s laugh at it.

jim carey

What makes you laugh? Do these movies crack you up, or leave you groaning? Leave a comment and we’ll laugh about it!

 

 

 

 

Slow and Steady

I’ve got a birthday coming up this month, and let’s just say I’ll be on the other side of forty-five. This has led to all sorts of interesting reactions in me, the usual, predictable ones, but the one I want to talk about here is my altered sense of time and how it has affected my writing.

In my twenties, and even throughout most of my thirties, my life seemed like a long road stretching out before me, with the destination nowhere in sight.  I felt like I didn’t have my shit together, but that was okay, because there was plenty of time (and road) to figure it all out. If I wrote, it was whenever I felt like it, and it was mostly complaining in my journal about not writing and not having enough time to write (??!!–this was before I had my daughter, mind you. I had no idea what “no time” meant).

Then suddenly (yes, it seemed quite suddenly) I was forty, and the road became decidedly shorter–terminal, in fact. The destination came into sight; it was still a long way ahead, but the fact that I could see it disturbed me. Okay, I thought. If I want to write, I better get the hell going, because sooner or later this road is going to stop.

hourglass

Slightly panicked, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Short stories, long stories, even a couple of  novels. Blog posts. Time was running out. Hurry, hurry, my mind kept badgering me. You’re going to die someday, idiot, get it all out! So I did. Piles of writing accumulated around me. I sent some pieces out on submission. A couple of small successes followed. Not much else since then.

That’s okay, but I do know what the ultimate problem is: I’m going too fast. I’m dashing down these stories (in the small pockets of time allowed me–I think ruefully back on the oceans of time I had before motherhood, and how I squandered that time), and making cursory revision attempts, but I’m not slowing down and really taking the time to make these stories the best they can be. I was so hell-bent on getting a finished product out, they turned out a little shoddy. Decent, but not good enough to be published.

It’s been a big learning curve, and it still is (that’s why I call this blog My Writing Journey-there will always be something to learn along this writing road). And the lesson that’s become clear to me is to slow down, be patient. Slow and steady. Quality over quantity. I don’t have to prove that I’m a writer by pumping out a slew of stories that aren’t quite ready.

typewriter

I’ve mentioned that I’m working on a story based on a poet that lived in my area in the mid-nineteenth century. I’ve also mentioned that I don’t really know much about poetry, or how people lived in the mid-nineteenth century in New England. So I’m going to have to do a lot of research. That’s going to slow me down. Not a bad thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on character sketches for the four main characters, really digging into their personalities, their history, their passions and baggage. This is all after getting down a first draft of the main events in the story, a draft that will be expanded on and reworked. This summer when Lilly is on vacation, I’ll plod away on a workable outline. Maybe NaNoWriMo this November will be spent fleshing out this outline into a novel. And then the real work will begin.

I love these characters, and I must tell their story. But I want to do it right. So I’m not rushing. Slow and steady. I’m not planning on dying in the interim. (I still want to work toward my Fifty by Fifty plan, so I’ve got a lot of work to do!)

As I’ve been pondering these things, I came across this articleabout a Japanese painter who felt he didn’t paint anything of worth until he was 70 years old, that the older he got, the better he got. There’s hope for me yet!

 

 

My Life with Paige

One of the books on my TBR list is My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul. Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and she’s kept a list of all the books she’s ever read for the past 28 years. She calls this running list Bob (Book of Books).

bob

This is a book I must absolutely read, because I, too, have kept a list of books that I’ve read, for a period of at least 15 years. In 2000, I bought a beautiful hardcover notebook with the tiny handwriting of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre on the cover. For each entry, I wrote the title and author, the copyright year, the number of pages, the dates I read the book, whether or not I owned it or if it was a library book, whether it was a new read or a re-read, paperback or hardcover. And then I’d write a few pages summing up the plot, what I thought of the book, anything and everything about how it made me feel. Sometimes I’d start a book and never finish, and I’d explain why I didn’t, or what I didn’t like about it. I wasn’t writing formal book reviews; it was purely subjective, a stream of reactions and thoughts at gut level.

The first book I recorded in that journal was The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle, in 2000. The last book was Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn, in 2004. On the last page I listed the total number of books read (64) and a list of the authors. On the inside covers, I recorded quotes about books and reading by various luminaries. If I saw a picture of the cover of the book, I’d cut it out and tape it into the entry. It truly is a detailed picture of my reading life, a scrapbook of literary experiences.

I have four of these beautiful hardcover notebooks, and they cover my reading from 2000 until 2011. The last one is a larger purple hardcover that covers 2011 to 2015; it’s only one third filled in, and I was getting lazier with my entries–I had begun to photcopy the cover of the book and tape it in, and jot down a few words about it. It was about this time I began the blog, and all the books I’ve read since then have been informally reviewed here. For a list of them, go here. To read the reviews, go to “Books” under Categories on my Home page.

With the inevitable transition from handwritten entries to digital posts, I’ve traded in a personal and private relationship to books for a slightly more formal, public one. I can share my love of books with others here and talk about my reading habit with other book lovers, which is wonderful; but I’m also sad that the hardcover book journals have come to an end.

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My book journals

I’d love to take the time to read through them all and perhaps match book choices to life events. I have personal journals stowed away somewhere from this time; it might be interesting to match the dates between the book journals and the personal journals, and maybe see what might have influenced my reading choices. In 2000 I was 29 and two years married; my daughter was nine years away. I worked at the accounting office for most of that time, and I scribbled away privately on various stories. Nothing too exciting outwardly; but my inner life was always working away, churning, evolving, planning, dreaming.

Could I write a book about my reading habits, as Pamela Paul has? Maybe with some thought, but I doubt it would be very interesting to other readers. It’s more of a personal thing, this choosing of stories, of deciding who I’m going to spend the next 15 hours of my reading life with.

I never named my book journals, but if I did, I suppose I would name them, collectively, Paige (get it?).

I really miss Paige. She was an old friend that was always there for me, during the good times and the bad, but I can always revisit her and reminisce. In the meantime, I’ll read My Life with Bob and add it to my list of books read, a continual, never-ending thread sewn into the fabric of my life.

What If

In my fiction writing, the question “What if?” is a great way to get stories going. What if an abused woman discovers she can leave her body? What if a young boy makes friends with the monsters in the basement? It serves a creative purpose, and it’s a fun question. But in my real life, […]

via What If — Beautiful Detour

Let’s talk about my hair

(Since everyone else seems to want to).

So I’ve been getting gray hairs since my late twenties. Back then, it was a few hairs here and there, something to joke about, oftentimes plucked out, only to be replaced virtually overnight. Not a big deal, though.

It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that they grew numerous enough for me to feel compelled to cover it up with hair dye. But I wasn’t consistent about it–I’d do it three times a year, maybe. Part of it was laziness–who wants to deal with that stinky muck?–and another part of it was, Oh, who cares?

Well, it turns out quite a few people have some fairly strong opinions about it.

I’m in my mid-forties now, and I made the conscious decision about a year ago to never dye my hair again. That slow and steady turning of a few grays a year has accelerated rapidly in the last few years, and I have just as much gray as light brown. Again, the decision was part laziness, part rebellion against the societal pressure for women to preserve their youth and beauty no matter what the cost. Fuck that, right? Yet I was still a little nervous and chose to keep that last box of hair dye in the bathroom closet. You know, just in case.

The reactions I’ve gotten over the past year have been interesting and various, depending on age group. Younger people (35 and under) invariably don’t give a shit. Why should they? To them, I’m already “old” anyway. It’s beyond their noticing.

The only exception to this was some youngish person asking me one day if my gray was natural or if I dyed it gray.

Excuse me? Why on earth would anyone dye their hair gray on purpose? Oh yes, I was informed. Apparently it’s a trend now among the younger set. Lucky me. I’m “trendy” without even trying. And yet I found myself a little miffed, too. Sorry, kid, but you gotta earn those grays. How dare you youngsters try to usurp that privilege! Stick to pink and blue and green, will ya?

Those older than me (50 and up), men and women both, seem to adore it. I can’t get through a single shift at my cashier job without some customer commenting on my hair:

“Wow, your hair is beautiful!”

“Is that your real hair color? It’s gorgeous!”

Gratification ensues. Finally, after a lifetime of hating my limp, mousy hair, it decides to become my friend in midlife.

One older man waxed rhapsodic about my hair–and other women in general who let their gray out naturally–for a solid five minutes. He praised the natural look and criticized that “horrible pharmacy red” that women of a certain age tend to dye their hair. This man has become my champion.

Interestingly, it’s women around my own age who are visibly distressed by my decision. A particular family member seems almost angry: “You’re too young to have gray hair!” Others have commented how “brave” I am to show my true colors. I find both of these reactions a little sad, and yet I’ll still defend the notion with my dying breath that a woman (and men as well) should do what makes her feel comfortable in her own skin. Hair, make-up, liposuction, even plastic surgery. As long as she’s doing it for herself, and not for some one else or “society”.

But that’s where it gets sticky.

The truth is, if I didn’t get any favorable responses, if my gray hair came out in uneven patches or was yellowy and ugly, rather than the lovely silver I inherited from my mother, if I had an unfortunate face, I’d probably dye it. Hell yes, I would!

So that last box of hair dye still sits in the closet, dusty and waiting. You know, just in case.

gray hairs

 

 

 

Tormented Genius Women

I have a thing for tormented genius women.

Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.

Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.

What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The BrontesI haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.

Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.

(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)

quiet passion
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia Dickinson.

A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:

The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.

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Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Paltrow as Plath, with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes

Cheerful, right?

Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.

tom and jane
James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane

While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.

 

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Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!