Recent Obsessions

Here’s what I can’t get enough of lately:

TV: Stranger Things, Seasons 1 & 2.

stranger things

They had me at 1983. I was 12 years old, just like the kids of Hawkins, Indiana. I wasn’t playing D&D (alas, I’m a girl), but I remember the music, the hair, that sense of being, well, a weirdo. I’d watch this show for the pure nostalgia (casting 80s icons Winona Ryder and Mathew Modine was a nice touch, and they’re great here), but it’s so much more than that.

Ryder plays Joyce Byers, whose sensitive son Will has gone missing, literally out of this world. Will’s crew of faithful, geeky friends are determined to find him; they meet a mysterious girl named Eleven who seems to have supernatural powers, and perhaps knows where Will is. Meanwhile, the town’s police chief Jim Hopper (the wonderful David Harbour), investigates, and climbs deeper into the strange happenings centering around the secretive lab nearby. Strange indeed, but addicting, replete with monsters, a parallel universe, and a surprising amount of heart.

(And because I couldn’t get enough, I watched “Beyond Stranger Things”, a series of short interviews with the cast and creators the Duffer Brothers, which was fun to watch, too).

Movies: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

PPzombies

How can I not love this? It blends two of my favorite things: Jane Austen and The Walking Dead (disclaimer: I haven’t watched the last two seasons of WD–I just couldn’t deal with the never-ending heartache). There are Austen purists who sniff at any tampering with their beloved author’s work (and I know some who dismiss any movie version outside of the Firth-Ehle pairing), but I’m not one of them. Let’s face it, adding a little blood and gore to Regency England’s genteel society is just great fun.

Lizzie Bennet’s weapon has always been her words, but here she wields a sword to add to her considerable arsenal. Austen’s story plays out with the usual, well-know scenes: the country dance where Lizzie and Darcy meet, the Netherfield ball, Mr. Collins’ unwanted proposal, the visit to Rosings, Wickham’s deception. But here England has been invaded by a terrible plague that turns people into zombies; everyone must train in the martial arts to defend themselves from the scourge. Darcy is a colonel in the army; the Bennet girls strap knives to their thighs under their dresses and carry swords and guns.

My favorite scene is Darcy’s botched proposal to Lizzie–while they verbally spar, they engage in a physical fight, throwing each other around the room and attacking with pokers and letter openers. I never knew I wanted Lizzie to kick Darcy’s ass in this scene until I saw it! The plot devolves into a weird zombie scheme involving Wickham, but rest assured, the lovers come to each other’s rescue and overcome their pride and prejudice to wed in the end.

Books: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

dark tower

I’ve been in a King kind of mood lately, just having read Sleeping Beauties (click here for a mini-review). With the movie The Dark Tower recently in theaters, my interest was piqued. I didn’t get around to the movie, so I thought I’d check out the first book of his epic fantasy series, The Gunslinger.

Here’s the premise: Roland, the last Gunslinger in an alternate world, pursues the Man in Black across a desert wasteland in his quest to find the Dark Tower. That’s about all we know. What’s a Gunslinger? What happened to this decaying world that has “moved on”? Who is the Man in Black? What is the significance of the Dark Tower? Answers come slowly and incompletely. King’s writing style here is different than what most of us are used to, dense and perhaps a bit pretentious, as King admits to in his forward. He came up with the idea very early on in his career, fresh out of writing seminars that dictated language over story. But he knew he wanted to combine the quest story (like Lord of the Rings) with a spaghetti western-style protagonist and landscape.

Despite some initial impatience, I kept on reading the book, and found myself drawn in. I’m well into the second book, The Drawing of the Three, which employs the King voice and style we’re all familiar with, and know I’ll continue with the other books (7 or 8 in all), though probably over time, interspersed with other books. Now that I’ve started, I have to know what happens. I have to penetrate the mystery of the Dark Tower.

 

What’s obsessing you lately? Interested in any of these entertainments? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

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What’s Been on My Kindle

Here are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately:

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt.

see what I have done

When I saw there was a novelization on the story of Lizzie Borden, I knew I had to read it. I wasn’t disappointed. Schmidt speculates on what might have gone through the mind of 32-year old Lizzie, during the days leading up to her father and stepmother’s ax murders in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. The result is appropriately creepy and mesmerizing, alternating between Lizzie’s point of view with that of her sister Emma, as well as that of a possible intruder on that fateful day. What emerges is a claustrophobic tale of rage and jealousy that culminated in murder.

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King.

sleeping beauties

I’m not the kind of King fan that reads every single novel he puts out, but every once in a while I’ll read one that stands out for me for whatever reason. And when I do, I’m reminded of why he is, indeed, the King. He wrote this one with his son, Owen, and I loved it. What if the women of the world fell asleep and didn’t wake up? That’s the premise of this story, which takes place in the small Appalachian town of Dooley. Women all around the world are falling asleep, presumably from what is being called the “Aurora virus”, and becoming cocooned in a white, web-like substance. Any attempt at unwrapping the women and waking them up leads to the sleepers becoming violent, with fatal results. In Dooley, a woman called Evie appears, the only woman who can sleep and wake again, and who seems to possess supernatural powers. How is she connected to the Aurora phenomenon? As the men left behind become increasingly desperate to wake their women up, Evie polarizes them into two factions who will fight either to protect her or threaten her. In the meantime, the sleeping women of Dooley find themselves in an alternate world with no men (and doing quite fine on their own, thank you), and must eventually make a fateful decision whether to stay and make a go of it, or go back to what was. This is a timely, fascinating story on the essential natures of men and women, wrapped up in a riveting supernatural tale that I found impossible to put down.

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.

rules of magic

I read Hoffman’s Practical Magic years ago (and watched the movie, of course) and enjoyed both. Even though my recollection of the story was vague, I was ready to read this prequel. Practical Magic was about the two Owen sisters, Sally and Gillian; this book centers on the youth of their elderly aunts, Frannie and Jet, as well as a heretofore unknown brother, Vincent. The setting is 1960’s New York City, for the most part, and the iconic events of that decade as a backdrop for the formative years of the Owens siblings. Frannie, the eldest, is practical and logical, and plans on becoming a scientist; Jet is sweet and a great beauty, and Vincent is independent and headstrong. All three of them have witchy powers, and all must contend with the “Owen curse” which dooms any person they fall in love with. I’ve always enjoyed Hoffman’s magical realism, and this one is no exception.

 

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

Book and Movie Recap

Time for my periodic summary of what I’ve been reading and watching the past few months. Because I know you’re dying to know.

Books:

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle.

changeling

This is a wonderfully updated version of the changeling myth: a creature (in this case, a troll) steals an infant and leaves in its place a nearly identical facsimile. That this story is written from an African American point of view adds to its freshness. Apollo and his wife Emma have welcomed a new baby boy to their family, but soon Emma begins acting strangely, perhaps with post-partum depression. But when she commits a horrendous act and disappears, Apollo is left reeling. Soon he begins a quest to find his wife and son, but what he finds is beyond anything he had ever imagined.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier.

cousin rachel

Daphne du Maurier wrote dozens of books, and somehow I’d only read Rebecca, her most famous book. With the release of the movie version of My Cousin Rachel (which I haven’t seen yet, but will soon), my attention was brought to this wonderful book. Young Englishman Philip suspects that his cousin and guardian Ambrose has been murdered by his wife, Rachel. He hates her before he even meets her, but when she arrives at his home, he begins to fall in love with her. Will history repeat itself? The mystery behind Rachel is the driving force of this addicting novel.

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins.

into the water

I loved Hawkin’s previous book, The Girl on the Train, and wasn’t disappointed with her latest. Into the Water takes place in a small town called Beckford, where the Drowning Pool has seen its fair share of women victims, through suicide or otherwise. Two women have drowned in the river within two months when the novel begins: Katie, a fifteen year old girl who drowned herself, and Nel, a woman who had been writing a book on the river and its victims, whose death is being investigated as a possible murder. Hawkins is deliciously good at drawing the reader in with multiple points of view, imperfect characters with secrets, and agonizing suspense. Excellent.

Natalie Goldberg: Long Quiet Highway, Thunder and Lightning, The Great Failure, The Great Spring. I’ve been on a Goldberg bender for awhile, catching up on all of her books I hadn’t yet read. Long Quiet Highway is her first memoir from way back in 1993. Thunder and Lightning is a writing book I had read years ago and wanted to read again. The Great Failure is a memoir exploring the two father figures in her life: her real father and her beloved Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi. The Great Spring is her latest memoir, a collection of essays gathered together exploring her two great loves: writing and Zen.

Movies:

The Light Between the Oceans.

oceans movie

Finally watched the movie version of the book I read several months ago. Excellent performances from Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. The script stays fairly close to the book, about a couple in 1920 Australia who finds a baby in a boat (along with a dead man) washed up on shore of their lighthouse island. After having endured several devastating miscarriages, they decide to keep the child to raise as their own. Predictably, this leads to heartbreak and anguish.

Her.

her movie

This has to be the strangest, most wonderful movie I’ve seen in a long time. The always stellar Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a man who falls in love with a computer program named Samantha, a kind of AI that can learn and evolve over time. It sounds weird, but Samantha has a real personality–she just doesn’t have a body. It’s a great exploration of what it means to be in love, what is real, and letting go.

Manchester by the Sea.

manchester sea

Holy cow. Does anyone say Holy Cow anymore? Let me reiterate: Holy cow! This movie is amazing. I didn’t even know Ben Affleck had a younger brother who acted, but here’s Casey Affleck out of nowhere (at least to me) winning an Oscar for his role of Lee Chandler, who’s been appointed guardian of his 16-year old nephew after his brother dies. But Lee is haunted by tragedy, and he struggles with his newfound role to the nephew he loves. Emotionally wrecking, but worth every two hours and fifteen minutes of it.

Have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies? What did you think? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

By the way, this is also my 200th post on My Writing Journey. Go me!

 

 

Two Memoirs

I’ve been in a memoir kind of mood lately, and recently finished two by women my own age dealing with different issues in their lives:

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, by Claire Dederer.  Dederer is a writer with a husband and two children, and by all accounts, a wonderful life. This is what she had always wanted. So why all the crying and restlessness and apathy that has suddenly invaded her life? She seeks out her old journals and letters from her youth, and digs up the past, trying to find the “disastrous pirate slut of a girl” she used to be. Turns out, she misses that wreck of a girl, her misadventures and her freedoms, her bad choices and impulsive wanderings. I was drawn to this book because of my own midlife growing pains; Claire Dederer is a brave soul who isn’t afraid to tell her own particular truths.

love and trouble

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. I’ve been meaning to read Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist, for a while now. I haven’t gotten there yet, but her recent memoir caught my eye, and on the heels of Love and Trouble, I hungered for another memoir. Gay’s story, on the surface, is very different from Dederer’s; Gay was raped when she was 12 years old. That violent experience shaped her life from that day on, and she steadily gained weight into adulthood until she became morbidly obese. She used her weight as a shield to protect herself from male attention. She wanted to become invisible, but in doing so, she became, paradoxically, more visible for a very different reason. Gay explores society’s judgmental preoccupation with women’s bodies, and comes to terms with the violence that was done to her.

hunger

Both writers explore how women’s lives are defined by their bodies (one trying to hide from the male gaze to protect herself, the other seeking it out to find love and validation). Both are riveting memoirs I won’t soon forget.

 

 

 

 

What’s With The Girls?

I’m often perusing various outlets for books–my local bookstores, the Barnes & Noble a few towns away (these are special trips my sister and I take, with conversation and catching up in the car on the way down and back, then separating on our own book odysseys in the store,  followed by chat over coffee to discuss our findings), my library’s online newsletter (or just browsing the actual library), and a print flyer called Book Page with reviews, interviews and book advertising.

I’ve noticed something over the past few years, and maybe you have, too. I’m probably a little late in the noticing, but the thing is the abundance of book titles with the word “girl(s)” in them. Here’s just a sampling:

  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Sarah Addison Allen)
  • Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly)
  • The Good Girl (Mary Kubica)
  • The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Heidi W. Durrow)
  • Or simply, The Girls (Emma Cline)

Don’t forget these classics:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larson) as well as the sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and

I could go on and on. When I googled it, Goodreads had a list of 759 books with the word “girl” in it. 759! Why is this so?

One could point to the mega success of novels like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Do authors–or publishers–really believe they can replicate that kind of success simply with a certain word in the title? Do they really think readers will flock to a book with said title, in the hopes of finding the same thrilling reading experience? I wouldn’t be surprised. Human beings are like sheep, content to go where they’re led.

girls

Maybe it’s something about the word “girl” itself. It connotes youth, beauty, innocence, a nascent sexuality. It’s what men want, and what women want to be. There’s a yearning associated with it, or a nostalgia. There’s so much that can go wrong–the misconceptions or corruption of youth, poison behind the beauty, the smashing of innocence, inappropriate or destructive sexuality. These stories behind the girl are alluring. We’re drawn to these images like a moth to a flame.

Maybe I should take up this trend and insert the word “girl” into my titles. My wolf novel could be Wolf Girl, instead of Wolf Dream (and believe it or not, it’s an expanded version of a short story I originally called “Lost Girl”–maybe I already intuitively understood the power of that word). My dragon novel could be, of course, Dragon Girl, instead of The Last Dragon, or The Girl with the Ruby Red Scales. I don’t have a title yet for the story I’m planning right now, but maybe it could be Girl, Reincarnated. Or The Poet Girl. I’m kidding, but it just goes to show how important titles are, and the influence they have over readers.

 

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!

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.

001
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.