Friday, February 23, 2007

Selling My Soul for Five Dollars or Less

I have just made a bargain with the devil. With sulfur on his breath and lies on his lips, he asked for my soul in exchange for five dollars (or less) and I gave it to him. Let me explain.

I'm broke. In fact, I'm worse than broke - I'm in debt. I owe so many people so much money that my paycheck, the one I thought would be noticeably substantial now that I've started my new job, is gone before I get it. I just got paid today, and guess what - I'm broke.

So after receiving a lecture from my most ruthless creditor, my grandmother, on the error of my spendthrift ways (and this is after I told her I've been eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner), I decided it was time to investigate some supplemental income options. Surely someone is willing to pay me for my witty insights and educated opinions on literature. Right? Right.

And while I was building the courage to send a query email to some of the more respectable publications, I happened to come across What do I see at the top of the web page? "Enter a book review or reviews online (click here) and make $5!" Oh, man. This is too good to be true, I thought. They're willing to pay me five dollars outright for my review, samples unseen?

I'm no sucker (at least, not most of the time), so before I got too excited I surfed the site looking for anything that screamed "Scam!" As it turns out, there is no scam. The editors of will pay you five dollars or less, depending on how much they like your submission, but there's a catch. The catch is they don't want a review, they want a summary a la high school book report-style. They want their "reviewers" a.k.a. "paid scholars" to give away the book's every detail except the ending.

Oh, the horror! What an insult to reading! Don't they know the journey is just as important as the destination? Who would read such a site ("Over 2,000,000 monthly visitors!")? Who would contribute to such a site? Sigh...That would be me. What can I say? I'm desperate.

I've just finished writing a plot summary (oh, god) of Angela Knight's Master of the Moon. I feel terrible. I feel cheap. I've gone against every bookworm bone in my body for a measly five dollars; if the editors don't like my review I might get even less. I don't know what's worse: having my plot summary rejected by the editors of a site I despise or having it accepted, knowing that if it is, I'll be writing another.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Will in the World, pt. 1

by Stephen Greenblatt
pgs. 11-105

Lately, it seems I've been reading several books set in Europe or - as in the case of All Souls' Rising (Haiti) - set in countries which fell under the scope of European rule. Together, with Captain Alatriste (Spain) and now with Will in the World (England), they have reinforced one undeniable fact - my European history sucks. Once upon a time, I knew the names of the kings and the queens, the princes and the princesses. I knew who married whom, what religion started where, who had a revolution, when, how, and why. But that was a long time ago. Now all these books set in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe has my head spinning. Sadly, I've been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia.

In spite of (or maybe, because of) my crappy knowledge of European history, I've wanted Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World for a long time. For years, in fact. I've only recently added it to my collection because I don't like hardbacks. (I'll buy a small one but I find the larger hardbacks too heavy, I don't care how good they look on my bookshelf.) So, I bidded my time and waited. When I saw the paperback Will in the World in the bookstore, I snatched it up like it was the last copy.

I fell in love with Shakespeare the day I read my first Bard play, The Tragedy of Macbeth. I won't torture you with talk of how much I love that play ("Out damned spot! Out!") but when I attended university, I bravely took a course in Shakespeare with the hardest professor in the department because I absolutely love the Bard's way with words. Unfortunately, during those four blissful months, I learned much about Shakespeare's plays and very little about the man. Will in the World is intended to rectify that situation.

Yet I'm beginning to doubt that it can. The facts of Shakespeare's life are based on more speculation than I thought. Several of Greenblatt's sentences begin with qualifiers such as: if, could have, it's possible, and maybe. When discussing Shakespeare's (possible) early education, Greenblatt writes,

"No surviving records indicate how often the Stratford teachers during Will's school years had the boys perform plays or which plays they assigned. Perhaps there was a time, a year or so before Will left school, when the teacher - Oxford-educated Thomas Jenkins - decided to have the boys perform Plautus's frenetic farce about identical twins, The Two Menaechmuses. And perhaps on this occasion..."

Thanks to Greenblatt's writing, the scholarly speculation which composes much of Shakespeare's early life, hasn't become annoying. Instead, it just seems honest.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A New Yorker Occurance on the Bus

by Me

Ah, ha! This morning I saw a man reading the January 15, 2007 issue of the New Yorker on the bus. Now I don't feel so bad for just beginning the January 29 issue. This week though, I am making a concerted effort to catch up (this week's anniversary issue has an article on the creators of "24" that I can't wait to read). However, I'm also determined not to skip ahead. I will give my New Yorkers their due respect and read them in the order they were published.

While I'm on the subject, I guess I should write a New Yorker post, which I've been neglecting to do as much as I have the magazine. --

Jerome Groopman's article on how doctors think ("What's the Trouble?") validates, sadly, my grandmother's belief that doctors don't know what the hell they're talking about. We all know that doctors are occasionally wrong - they are human, after all. But of course, the scary part is, frequently when doctors are wrong someone dies. The even scarier part is that the problems which often cause misdiagnosis are problems that seem to be the result of, well, human nature. For instance, a heuristic to which doctors may be particularly prone is "availability," which refers to "the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant examples come to mind."

If you are an overworked doctor with a roomful of patients waiting to be seen, how likely is it that, given human nature, your diagnosis will not be based on how quickly examples of the relevant symptoms and diagnosis come to mind? My guess is, not very likely. Of course, all doctors should try to be as thorough as possible, especially since not doing so could put lives at risk. But the likelihood that that will happen every time, all the time, is idealistic. Yet, as with all ideals, it is certainly something to which doctors should aspire.

Steve Martin's "Seventy-Two Virgins" was surprisingly funny. I say "surprisingly" because reading an article in the "Shouts & Murmers" section is often like reading a mystery: I'm always trying to figure out where the hell the joke is. Yet, "Seventy-Two Virgins" was entertaining and even, on occasion, laugh-out-loud funny. For instance, Virgin No. 16: "Even I know that's tiny." Or, Virgin No. 49: "I really enjoyed that. Thank you very much. Gee, it's late." Or even, Virgin No. 45, "When you're done, you should really check out how cool this ceiling is." Come on, you gotta admit, it's a little harsh but it's funny.

David Sedaris' piece "The Birds" is typical Sedaris fare - a memoir-ish piece in which he finds the funny in a situation that, in anyone else's hands, would be a typical, everyday occurance. On this occasion, two birds begin to ram themselves crazily into Sedaris' window for no apparent reason. Sedaris' plan - to tape album covers onto the windows to discourage them from attacking - strangly enough, works. "There I filled the windows with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Armatrading, and Donna Summer, who has her minuses but can really put the fear of God into a chaffinch." Only David Sedaris. Why can't my life be that crazy? Then again, maybe it is and I'm just not observant enough to notice.

What the hell is happening in Russia? In "Kremlin, Inc." Michael Specter writes, "Since 1999, when Vladimir Putin, a career K.G.B. officer, was, in effect, anointed as President by Boris Yeltsin, thirteen journalists have been murdered in Russia. Nearly all the deaths took place in strange circumstances, and none of them have been successfully investigated." And here I'd thought Russia was trying to work its way out of its Communist era. Apparently though, with the permission of his people (at least, according to Specter), Putin is working Communism back in.

Specter is quick to point out that, though the death of dissenting journalists may be placed at the feet of Putin and the K.G.B., the destruction of free media is as much the media's fault as it is their government's. In an effort to ensure that Yeltsin would win the 1996 presidential election against a pro-communist conservative, the media purposely skewered their reports in favor of Yeltsin. But, Specter writes, "...when Russia's young democrats jettisoned the rules of democracy they also forfeited their independence."

Because democracy has been a part of the United States' fabric for so long, it's easy to forget that applying its principles may not be as simple as it looks to us Americans. In fact, half the time, it's not even simple for us (see abortion rights and gay marraige) and we've been doing it for a few hundred years. Even still, the protection of the rights we hold so dear require constant viligence and clarification. If they didn't, what would the Supreme Court do with its time? So we have to ask ourselves, if we were forced to make the same choices that Russians have had to make recently, would we choose differently? "In today's Russia...stability is everything and damn the cost," Specter writes. It's a tough choice: civil liberty or stability? Which would you choose?...Are you sure?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Captain Alatriste, pt. 1

by Arturo Perez-Reverte
pgs. 1-70

I haven't read a good action novel in a while. A few days ago I decided I wanted to read something that would send a rush of blood through my veins and make my lungs burn as I held my breath. Because Jack reacher never fails to leave me with an anxious heartbeat, I thought I would be best served by picking up Lee Child's The Hard Way. But as I browsed my shelf, attempting to make a decision, Captain Alatriste kept whispering my name. So, I drew it out, stuck a bookmark in it and hoped I wasn't making a decision I would regret. I offer my assurances, here and now, I don't.

"Cling, clang; greetings and godspeed," will be a good way, I think, to summarize Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste. It's dark, it's dangerous, and it's full of cloaked characters engaged in swordplay. Yet, to call this book a swashbuckler would be a vast understatement. It is set in seventeenth-century Spain and it does involve swordplay but "swashbuckler" - at least in my understanding of the term - in no way hints at the creepy suspense or the dark shadows, the damp streets, and the shadowy characters that populate well-written Spanish historical adventure novels. "Swashbuckling" is too cheery a term to apply to something written in the same vein as the dark and dangerous Alexandre Dumas stories, Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, which are nothing like their various romanticized Hollywood treatments.

Atmosphere, including the characters, is everything in a novel such as this and Perez-Reverte does it brilliantly: "In one corner of the room stood a man muffled in a black cape; a wide-brimmed hat of the same color covered his head...The only signs of life visible between the cape and the hat were dark, gleaming eyes, which the candlelight picked out among the shadows, lending their owner and menacing and ghostly air." Doesn't a passage like that just make you sigh with unadulterated pleasure?

And oh! It reads like a serial. Like most modern readers I suspect, I tend to sneer at obvious page-turner attempts. It can turn reading into an exercise akin to watching soap operas and I hate soap operas. But Perez-Reverte is a skilled enough writer to know that, by including sentences at the end of the chapter - sentences you know that, in an earlier day and age would have been followed by the words "To be continued" - adds to the atmosphere and further entrenches the reader into seventeenth century Spain. And it's hard not to love a chapter that ends with: "And I was left standing in the middle of the street, enslaved by love, watching that girl who to me was a blonde angel. Poor fool that I was, oblivious of the fact that I had just met my sweetest, most dangerous, and mortal enemy."

Luckily for me, I'm not a seventeenth-century reader and Captain Alatriste isn't an actual serial but a novel. That's one of the many wonders of this modern day and age - instant gratification.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 - 3.0

The New Mecca by George Saunders
Peg by Sam Shaw
Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing by Kurt Vonnegut
Kenyon Commencement Speech by David Foster Wallace

Ok, this is the real real final post on TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006. I promise.

I love George Saunders. It's not too often that one finds a sentimental yet skeptical, let's love everybody and learn together soul-mate but I've found mine in Saunders. In "The New Mecca", while stading outside a wild water-ride in Dubai with an eclectic crowd of people, Saunders writes, "Then the [American] Navy Guys notice the Glowering Muttering Arabs, and it gets weirdly tense there in line." Here's why I love Saunders. Later, as they're all lounging in the water while their pulse rates slow, Saunders relates, " my tube at Wild Wadi, I have a mini-epiphany: given enough time, I realize, statistically, despite what it may look like at any given moment, we will all be brothers...Look what just happened here: hatred and tension were defused by Sudden Fun." Saunders is a man who believes in the essential goodness of man. He believes that, no matter our differences, we are all united in our need for love and the desire for our own slice of peace and happiness before we die. But Saunders isn't all rose-tinted glasses. He's also self-depricating and funny, which makes the sentimentality more edible for those of you more cynical than I am.

Sam Shaw's "Peg" is another one of those stories I'll forget as soon as I put it down. I understand the guy George was lonely and all. I also understand that he had dependency/power issues. I don't understand, however, if I'm supposed to think this guy isn't insane when casually takes the decapitated head of car accident victim home and proceeds to talk to it. This guy was nuts, certainly unhinged, and if I had been his wife I'd have done more than back into the bedroom and close the door. I'd have run hysterically to the neighbors and made a call to the guys in white who drive the paddy wagon.

"Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing" by Kurt Vonnegut is another one of those cool, funky pieces I wish I was cool enough to like. I don't dislike it. I even get what he's trying to do (I think), which is to poke fun at creative writing programs which begin by telling you to write one way and end by telling you to break all the rules. I get it, great point. But, eh. It didn't leave a lasting impression. Though it isn't as forgettable as "Peg" I won't be rushing back to re-read this piece and I need all the lessons in creative writing I can get.

And finally, last but not least, is David Foster Wallace's "Kenyon Commencement Speech." Wallace's commencement speech isn't anything like the one I received when I graduated college. I can't even remember who gave out commencement speech, which shouldn't be a suprise since I was asleep during most of the graduation program. Wallace's speech though is true, inspirational...sort of, and, most of all, it's funny. Whoever said that commencement speeches should be humourless and didactic should be made to sit under the hot sun while some windbag drones on and on about how our lives are really beginning.

When Wallace writes, " natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who the fuck are all these people in my way?", I wanted to stand up and clap. Finally, someone who knows how to explain the life college graudates can expect to have as adults without sounding pompous and know-it-all! I didn't stand up and clap of course, but I did laugh out loud. Wallace's piece was a good note on which to end the anthology.

From "Kenyon Commencement Speech": "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

I love reading The Best American Nonrequired Reading series because I always feel a little smarter for it. The 2006 installment has been no different. Though it was heavy in Iraq-related material, I can't complain it wasn't relevant to the times. And no matter how off-the-wall some its selections are, I know that I'm just a little step closer to ensuring I won't be a fish who's asking what water is - I'll already know.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 - 2.0

Pirate Station by Rick Moody
The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day by Haruki Murakami
False Cognate by Jeff Parker
Love It or Leave It by David Rakoff
Trauma on Loan by Joe Sacco

Obviously my plan to fit all of my final comments into one post didn't work. I could have tried but I figured no one wanted to read a blog post three full web pages long. Naturally, I could try not to be so long winded but, what's the point in writing a journal if you can't be as long-winded as you like? Yes, yes, I know I'm the one always harping on concise writing but, hey, I'm not here to talk about me. I'm here to talk about TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006 and, if you don't mind, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Now, "Pirate Station." There's a metaphor in there somewhere. I know there is but I'll be darned if I can find it. It could be I just didn't look very hard - a perfectly feasible supposition - since, although "Pirate Station" is funky and out-of-the-box, I never find pieces like this very interesting, even though I earnestly want to. It's the story of my life. A cool person would like a cool piece like this. I'm not cool so I just don't get it. Why is the pirate station anthropomorphized at the end of the story? Moody writes, "The pirate station goes off its medication. The pirate station quarrels frequently and is testy about things that never used to bother it." Huh? Isn't this the same pirate station that was broadcasting music a page before? Yes, I'm uncool, I don't get it and, now I'm moving on.

A bit of fatherly advice - "Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning to him. No more, no less" - becomes the driving force behind a man's relationships in Murakami's "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day." Despite how much I liked reading Junpei's story, I think I enjoyed the fictional story from which the title of this piece is derived. "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day" is the title of the story Junpei is writing when he meets a woman with whom he falls in love. "She steps down into the dry stream bed and notices an odd stone...She realizes right away that it's shaped like a kidney...Every morning she finds the stone in a different place." Those are the kind of out-of-the-box stories that, nerd that I am, I like reading.

I have no thoughts on Jeff Parker's "False Cognate" whatsoever. It was one of those stories that, though the writing is exceptional and the story - an expat in Russia with no friends takes a bus ride into the country and narrowly escapes being blown up - is well told, I will forget as soon as put down the book. There was simply nothing remarkable I found about this story. I feel sorry for that but there it is.

I have David Rakoff's Fraud on my shelf. I've read half of it and I've done thatby skipping around. I hadn't decided whether I wanted to read the other half because I had slowly approached the conclusion that Rakoff was a less-funnier and less-talented version of David Sedaris. I still don't know if I'll ever finish Fraud but Rakoff has redeemed himself in my book with "Love It or Leave It", in which Rakoff, a former Canadian, confesses, "George W. Bush made me want to be an American." The description of his subsequent naturalization is funnier than anything he's written in Fraud. And if officially becoming an American so you can vote to get Bush out of office doesn't reflect good ole' American values, I don't know what does.

Joe Sacco's "Trauma on Loan", the last graphic piece in the anthology, is long way from Delisle's funny and deprecating "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea." "Trauma on Loan" graphically illustrates a series of actual interviews Sacco has with two Iraqi men, Thahe Sabbar and Sherzad Khalid, who were held by American soldiers in an Iraqi prison. They have traveled to the States to be defendants a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfield which holds him responsible for the Abu-Gharib-like torture they endured while imprisoned. The story is well told but I didn't find the graphics necessary. Sacco's illustrations are nothing compared to the atrocities my imagination creates when I read these men's horrific stories.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006

Wading Toward Home by Michael Lewis
Are Iraqis Optimistic? by The Lincoln Group
Room No. 12 by Naguib Mahfouz

As you can see, I've been a very, very bad girl. Within the past three days, I have devoured the last half of TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006. I read it so uncharacteristically quickly that I didn't have time to keep up with their respective blog posts. As a result, I've decided to be lazy and economical with my space by attemping to squeeze my thoughts on the final half of TBA Nonrequired Reading into one post. (Large inhale.) Here it goes:

"Wading Towards Home", another personal account on the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans (and after reading the articles in the New Yorker it feels as if I've read many), is surprisingly original. It has added a new layer to my understanding of the tragedy by telling the story of the people on the other side of town, opposite from those in the Lower Ninth Ward, the upper middle class. I haven't read too many stories about the people on the dry side of the flood most likely because most of them weren't the ones sitting on their roofs waiting for rescue, or herded into sports centers or shipped out on buses.

What I also didn't know is that some of those who did stay (or in some cases, came back) were preparing themselves for the race war of the century. At one point a misinformed police officer advises his white friends, "If I were you , I'd get the hell out of here. Tonight they gonna waste white guys, and they don't care which ones." Another young man who has just flown in on a Russian assualt helicopter (where in the world did he get that thing?) says, "Hell, yes, I was scared. We didn't know what to expect. We thought Zulu Nation might be coming out of the woods."

Yet, in all of his travels through his middle-class neighborhood, Lewis never comes across a raiding, bloodthirsty black person and it doesn't take a genius to figure that what the young militant man really meant was that he was hoping the Zulu nation might be coming out of the woods. Then he would have had a reason to shoot, therby giving him an outlet for his repressed racist anxiety.

This anxiety seems to be the real subject of "Wading Toward Home". Lewis writes, "They harbored a deep distrust of their own city and their fellow citizens - which is why they were so quick to believe the most hysterical rumors about one another." However, Lewis is optimistic: "The ghosts have been flushed out of their hiding places; now there's a chance to chase them away, or at least holler at the a bit." I wish I could be as optimistic as Lewis. I wish I could believe that the floods exposed the nastiness hiding in New Orleans, which will then melt away like the water flowing back into the sea. I wish I could, but I don't. I will hope though.

"Are Iraqis Optimistic?", a newspaper article written by an American soldier posing as an Iraqi journalist who denounces terrorism and puts a positve spin on the Iraqi, is a part of a PR campaign sponsored by the Pentagon. There isn't anything surprising in this piece. In fact, once you know who's writing it, the article says everything you would expect it to say. For instance: "Our national wealth is once again our own, instead of that of a terrible dictator. Hundreds of thousands of satellite TVs are in Iraqi homes...most important, we can now practice our religion as we choose, whether we are Sunni, Shia, or Christian." Huh. No comment. The only thing surprising about this piece was its existance but, then again, even that's not a surprise - not in the world we live in today.

I'm not quite sure what I think about "Room No. 12" by Naguib Mahfouz. Its ending in certainly a suprise. Mass murder by drowning is not quite how I expected the story to fold. I suppose, however, when one considers the hotel manager, a man so in need of control that he becomes unhinged when he's presented with a situation beyond his comprehension and power, a situation which comes in the form of mysterious woman and a large party, the fact that he condems the party to death is not so much of a surprise. After he gives the order that the people in Room No. 12 should be left to drown, Mahfouz writes, "...he felt his great burden lighten, as his confidence returned with his clarity of mind." As it turns out, in the little world of his hotel, the manager is nothing more than a petty dictator and he acts the part to perfection.

Ok ladies and gents, it's getting late and I'm zoning out. I think this is as good a place as any to stop so I will. I promise I'll finish this post tomorrow. Until then...night, night.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, pt. 1

by Nick Hornby
The Preface

I've decided today that I will begin reading the one book on my shelf that is sure to break my heart with jealousy - Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. If you will remember, this is the book that plummeted me into a pit of depression when I discovered that Hornby, a much better and more successful writer than I could ever hope to be, was doing what I'm trying to with this blog in a monthly column for "The Believer." I bought it grudgingly because reading it would be an education after all and, as an aspiring writer who's never had a thing published, well I should be in the business educating myself. So I've begun reading The Dirt and damnit so far it's great. I hate it.

I hate it not only because Hornby, a writer of whom I had promised to steer clear (I really did hate How to Be Good - really), is a much better writer than I am, or not even only because he has my dream job ("Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which is read the books I wanted to read."), but also because Hornby tells the world the message I had always thought it was my duty and destiny to impart: Reading should always be pleasurable and if it isn't you should be reading something else. Hornby writes, "...if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV program."

Not only has Hornby taken my message but - and here's the real kicker - he's inspired me. He's finally turned up the volume to the little voice inside my head, the one that I've been ignoring for the past two months, which has been telling me that I need to put Jared Diamond's Collapse down and simply walk away. Slogging through that book has been a dreadful chore. Hornby has forced me to realize that by continuing to read it, I'm merely reinforcing the despicable myth that "books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good." So I'm putting it down and picking up The Dirt.

I can't claim that I don't feel the sour swallow of jealousy worming its way around in my belly still but I'll get over it. Who knows, maybe I'll learn something while I'm at it.

Letting Go of God?

by Julia Sweeney
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading

These days it seems as if God and who's a "true believer" or not is on everyone's mind. I suppose I shouldn't say everyone, if who I really mean are the politicians running in the 2008 presidential election hoping to get the religious right votes which ferried Bush into office twice, those people who are the religious right, and those of us deathly afraid that those religious right folks might give us another pean of Bush-style religious sanctity.

But its relevancy to the political environment isn't what makes Julia Sweeney's autobiographical piece which charts the devolution of her belief in God such a wonderful read. It was wonderful because - and I'm being completely subjective here - I related to her journey every step of the way. Step one: The smug superiority Sweeny feels towards the Mormons who come knocking on her door, I've felt that. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is as much a fringe faith as Mormonism is but I still felt that sting of superiority when I could question my Baptist friends on the origin of Christmas accutremon and they would come up empty.

But then, Sweeny writes, "I realized that I had been getting a bit lazy about my faith...So I decided to rededicate myself to my church." That's step two, we have in common, except my rededication wasn't a result of missionary Mormons but the consequence of reading a library pamphlet which included an unflattering history of Jehovah's Witness. That's one of the few places Sweeny and I diverge - Sweeny rededicates herself to her faith to prove herself right. I rededicated myself to prove someone else wrong. Our rededications both had the same result though: surprised disgust, growing disbelief, and an undying hope that things are going to get better as soon as we learned a bit more and had a little more faith.

During my own Bible study and struggle, I too had the conversation that Sweeny has with her priest as he tries to explain away her confusion and disillusionment with the Old Testament: "Well, the Exodus story is myth in the sense that it never actually happened. But it's not a myth in the fact that the story was believed by a group of people who shaped their identity in the world based on thinking it was true...You have to read [the Bible] with the eyes of faith," the priest says. That speech didn't work for Sweeny and neither did it work for me. I mean really, if the priest is right then he can't seriously argue that there's any difference between Christianity and Greek mythology if it's all based on myth, nor from any other religion in history of the world for that matter. What religion in the world isn't used by its believers to shape their identity in the world? According to the words of the priest - and according to the words of my own spiritual leader - it's not required that the stories in the bible be true, only that we believe they're true. If that's not the largest crock of bull I don't know what is.

And finally Sweeny and I took that last step together: Admitting to ourselves that we believe there is no God and learning how to live with that. "And I began to see the world completely differently," Sweeny writes. And she's right, you do. Sometimes the world looks better than the way it did before with God in it and sometimes it looks worse but mostly it just is.

"Letting Go of God" is a journey. Like any good journey, there's suspense, drama, love, and loss. I loved it because it's a journey I've taken. You'll love it too because it's a journey we should all take, even if we don't end up in the same place.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Harmony's Way, pt. 2

by Lora Leigh
pgs. 200-End

It took me forever to get through the last forty pages of this book, mainly because I needed a break from Harmony and Jonas for a while. Though they are less annoying and more interesting than Megan and Braden in Megan's Mark, Harmony and Jonas also became a little boring towards the end. Harmony was beginning to harp on her confused feelings a little too often and Jonas was beginning to turn into that typical Breed male stereotype. I dislike it when authors repeat themselves, which I understand is fraught with complication since every Breed novel is essentially the same. Have I mentioned that's why I don't read Christine Feehan's Dark series anymore? I'm willing to pay $6.99 for a novel about a tortured Carpathien and his angelic mate but so many times.

Reading should always be a progression and great, even good, writing is never stagnant. Why then do I feel I've read the tortured and confused scene with the heroine sitting around with a frown on her face, wondering how she is ever going to make it through the emotions she's never felt before pulling her apart? In yet another scene of Harmony standing around contemplating her feelings, Leigh writes, "She shook her head unconsciously, frowing as she tried to make sense of herself." Sigh. Again? Earlier, Leigh wrote, "Emotions rose, twisting, churning inside her chest until she wondered at the fact that she could breathe for them." Sigh. Again? Apparently, along with the heightened hearing, strength, and agility of Breed genetics, Harmony also inherited - along with Megan - an exhausting enlarged capacity for emotion. Is there anything more stereotypically female than a woman stading around analyzing her feelings every second? Is there any wonder that I skip these two page passages?

I hate that I get so annoyed with these novels yet I still return for more hoping for an improvement. As I've said before, Harmony and Jonas are an improvement over Megan and Braden but, after having gone back and re-read the other Breed novels published on the Ellora's Cave website, I've realized that that doesn't really say much. Sheera and Kane from Kiss of Heat, Amanda and Kiowa from Soul Deep, Merinus and Callan from Tempting the Beast, and Roni and Taber from The Man Within are all, by far, better characters than Harmony and Jonas could ever hope to be. If Leigh really hopes to gain a new following of readers through her mass market paperbacks, I would suggest printing the early Lion Breed e-books. I'd buy those anyday.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Me and You and Everyone We Know

by Miranda July
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006

This is an excerpt of five scenes from the original shooting script of the film. I've never seen the film and I'm not sure if that improves or hinders my reading of script. I am sure, though, that if I were an actress given a copy of these five scenes to study, I would certainly ask, "What's my motivation?" because everyone's motivation in the excerpt is obscure, to say the least.

In the very brief synopsis of the film precluding the excerpt we're informed that Richard "sells shoes in a department store and is prepared for amazing things to happen. One of these amazing things comes in the form of a persistent customer named Christine." Why then, is he so abrupt with her when she invites herself into his car? He's angry and maybe a little afraid without, it seems, any reason for either, especially when one considers how well their conversation had gone before their angry exchange. Richard seemed to be almost reluctant to end their conversation but when he's given an opportunity to continue it, he kicks her out of his car.

And what kind of relationship does Richard have with his two sons Robby and Peter? There seems to be some kind of tension between them although that too is never explained. Granted, the synopsis does mention that Richard is newly divorced, which may explain the tension but is it an angry, confused, or resentful tension?

As it stands, this excerpt reads like what it is - an excerpt. It's tellingly incomplete and reads like a script would if you followed someone around with a camera for a day. It's simple to observe a lot but, without the proper background, it's difficult to learn much at all. I don't think that this excerpt was included for it's revealing character studies. More than likely, it was chosen for it's off-kilter scenes not because they work so well together but because, as stand-alone pieces, they are wonderfully odd and make for some compelling reading.

Before he kicks Christine out of his car Richard says, "See, you're acting like I'm just this regular man, like a man in a book who the woman in the book meets." The irony of it is, this selection unintentionally reduces Richard to that which he seems to despise. He is just a man in a book. It's clear that I'll have to watch the movie or read the complete script if he'll ever be otherwise.

Monday, February 05, 2007

All Souls' Rising, pt. 3

Madison Smart Bell
pgs. 120-261

I had no business complaining about the violence in All Souls' Rising at page 119, especially when I had no idea just how much worse it could get. Believe me, it does get a lot worse. How much worse, you ask? How about this: "He stooped, smiling, and placed the screw gently against the white man's eyeball and with a slow precision began to turn it in." Or this: "Blood gushed over the edges of the skull and matted hair where it hung beneath and spilled over to darken the gold braid on the cuffs of Jeannot's coat." Or even this: "The epidermis had been peeled away strategically to reveal the workings of the musculature on the hands and arms and thighs; even the cheeks were laid bare, and the lips had been cut away (so that the man must scream without the proper mouth to do it with)." And here I was complaining about a little crucifixion. What was I thinking?

Obviously, slavery is an atrocious institution. I was prepared with this knowledge when I started reading the book. And no matter how much I complained about the violence before, it wasn't anything that I hadn't expected. What I wasn't prepared for was the reminder that violent revolution can be just as unpretty. All of the quotes provided above are taken from violence that blacks and mulattos visit upon their former white masters. In fact, the last excerpt of a man being skinned (and eventually gutted) alive is performed by a mulatto on his white father.

I imagine that having such atrocities visited upon yourself and others whom you love could desensitize a person enough to perform the same torture methods upon those responsible. But just because it's understandable doesn't make it any less horrendous. There are no heroes in a story such as this, at least there hasn't been thus far. In these beginning days of the revolution, the revolutionizers seem more concerned with revenge than they are with freedom. Again, it's not incomprehensible, but it's difficult to find a piece of humanity within this 'forest of revenge' to empathize with.

There are a few characters - Toussaint and Dr. Hebert, for instance - who seem to have maintained their humanity in the midst of the bloodlust and the violent retaliation on both sides. But their reason, their fear, and their understanding for the other side is so overwhelmingly outnumbered by those who don't, can't, or won't share their empathy that, half-way through the first book of a trilogy, it all already seems so very hopeless. Can there be any winners in a world like this?

Of course, it's a moot question since I know how this story really ends. Yet, Bell's writing is no less poetic for all of its vivid and descriptive violence. I will most likely read this trilogy to its end. Yes, this isn't the type of novel I generally read in my free time, but regardless of how often I cringe and my eyes water at mans' inhumanity against man, I'm still pleased to be reading out of my box.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

I confess, I haven't been reading anything on my list these past few days. Instead, I've been reacquainting myself with some classical literature. A friend of mine is taking a course in Greek literature and his comments on the Oedipus trilogy ("Oedipus the King", "Oedipus at Colonus", and "Antigone") inspired me to pull out my classic plays (I have a degree in Classical Civilization, so I have many) and revisit some old friends. "Oedipus at Colonus" is the second installation of the trilogy.

It was good to say hello to the old, dying Oedipus and his long-suffering daughters but since it's late, I'm tired, and I've already written more than one analytical paper on the Oedipus trilogy I don't really feel like going into right now. Sorry.

I will say one thing that I found a little disappointing, though I should have known better. That friend of mine - let's call him Paul - remarked that he liked "Oedipus at Colonus" the best, the play which is easily the most ignored of the trilogy. Paul also stated that his favorite line of the play was, "It is I, the accursed." So, I admit, because I couldn't remember the details of "Oedipus at Colonus" as well as I'd liked and because I wanted to go searching for this line, I pulled my copy from the shelf and started reading.

I was disappointed to learn that the line Pual loves so much can be found nowhere in my copy of the play. I should have known better and at least have entertained the possibility that the line Paul quoted wouldn't be in my copy if we had read a publication of the play by different translators. Apparently we did. Reading different translators can be a lot like reading different books altogether. I remember that I disliked Virgil's Aenied until I read the translation by Allen Mandelbaum. In his hands, the epic poem was, well, sheer poetry.

Oh well, the play was still worthy the two days I spent reading it. After I read "Antigone" maybe I search through my books to see if I have copy of "Oedipus at Colonus" that proves to be a bit more poetic than the one I've just finished.