Sad news–Hiatus

So, for the first time in four years, Dave and I need to take a short hiatus from the blog.

We plan to return in just a few short weeks with blog posts about top ten books, literary travel locations, probably a Stephen King book, and other creative literary topics.

So, keep checking for us on here or facebook and we will return!!

Thank you to all of you that have kept following us and we look forward to seeing you soon 🙂

 

Kim (And Dave in absentia, as he is currently enjoying the British Empire)

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe is a weird little book. Let’s just start out with that as an opener.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Kathryn Harrison.)

A guy disappears. A schoolteacher, who rails against ordinary life, goes on a little holiday collecting insects, about which he purposefully though without reason tells people almost nothing. He wanders into a little village on the seaside with all these homes at the bottom of pits in the sand dunes. Having made no plans for where to stay, upon being confronted he asks if he can be put up in a village house.

He can:

He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.

From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. After they had walked on awhile, the old man leaned over into the darkness and, clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice: “Hey! Granny! Hey, there!”

From the depths of the darkness at their feet a lamp flickered, and there was an answer.

“Here I am! Here! There’s a ladder over by the sandbags.”

Indeed, without the ladder he could not possibly have got down. He would have had to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands. It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage. In the daytime, he recalled, the slope had seemed to him rather gentle, but as he looked at it now, it was close to perpendicular. The ladder was an uncertain thing of rope, and if one lost one’s balance it would get hopelessly tangled up. It was quite like living in a natural stronghold.

What they omit telling him until later (too late) is that he cannot leave:

He wondered if he should say something to the woman before he left. But, on the other hand, it would only embarrass her to be awakened. Anyway, what should he do about paying her for the night’s lodging? Perhaps it would be better to stop on the way back through the village and give the old man from the cooperative the money—the one who had brought him here the day before.

Stealthily he went out.

The sun was boiling mercury, poised at the edge of the sand cliff. Little by little it was beginning to heat the bottom of the hole. He hastily turned his eyes away from the intense glare. In the next instant he had already forgotten it. He simply stared at the façade of the sand wall.

It was unbelievable! The rope ladder had vanished from the place it had been the night before.

The village intends to keep him in the pit forever with the woman (who is not a granny despite the quote above). They are to clear the sand that is blown into the pit. This is what they need to do all day, every day. Supposedly, this needs to be done so that the village survives and isn’t forever buried in the sand, there not being enough villagers to do it, but why keeping their particular cavity clear of blown sand helps isn’t ever really specified. They raise no crops or livestock, nothing else. They just have to clear the sand endlessly, which will be taken up in baskets by people who bring them food, water, and other necessities.

As one might expect, the man tries to escape. Repeatedly. As one also might expect, this does not go well. Eventually, he finds a way that he actually can escape. However, he doesn’t. He just stays there, doing what he’s supposed to be doing, planning on one day escaping after all. As with everything else except the sparse prose of the text, the reasons behind this aren’t explicitly specified.

The Woman in the Dunes is a very strange little book. The writing is crisp and the subject is pleasantly unusual. The protagonist can get a bit annoying, but I think that actually helps the reader accept what happens to him. It’s just such an odd thing, and there’s a great deal of meditation on the nature of living underneath a very simple structure. The Woman in the Dunes is intriguing to say the least.

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes

So. Finally, I have completed reading Don Quixote. I don’t remember any other novel since Les Miserables giving me this much issue to complete.

I can’t tell you who listed it because my Top Ten book remains stubbornly missing. So much so that I am about to order a new copy which is sad since my old one has all my notes and crossing outs and all of that in it.

I wasn’t very fond of Don Quixote. There were parts and themes that I was more fond of than others. Like the concept that someone could go a bit mad from all the books they read. I’m going to talk on that first.

So, Don Quixote is an old gentleman who is in love with books of knights and chivalry. He reads them with an obsession that not even my love for Stephen King rivals. He then becomes convinced he, too, is a knight. And that a peasant girl named Dulcinea is a princess whom he has sworn to.  He leaves his home on an old nag that in his head is a fine knightly steed and picks up a peasant farmer as a squire (Sancho). Then he proceeds to go and interact with the world as if it is still a chivalric code of honor world. Which it isn’t.

The idea though that books caused this fascinates me some. Because, being the huge reader I am, I know the fog that you can sometimes emerge from a book with, in which the real world seems a bit hazy, and not quite all there. It’s almost how I judge a book from bad to amazing. How much of that fog did I leave it with. Also throughout history how many acts of madness have been perpetuated based upon readings of a book (even if we remove any and all madness associated with the Bible or the Quoran)?  Even at the beginning many see the books as having caused this (in modern psychology speak) disassociative identity disorder that Quixote suffers from. The housekeeper, friend, family member and priest all get together and burn most of them in an effort to keep Quixote’s madness at bay. There are times where he seems to know even when it isn’t a time that he declares himself sane and cognizant to actually also still realize that the world isn’t as he is seeing it.

I think the other hard part of reading this was the feelings Quixote himself inspired in me. There was pity, exasperation, annoyance and a bit of respect mingled in. When people are laughing at him or when they come up with insane charades for him to “act” out his role in just so they can sit and laugh at him, then you feel such an intense pity for the man and for his squire. But, then there are when he severely hurts someone because he is in the pitch of this fantasy world of being a knight in which you want to smack him. So, I think that part of my trouble reading Quixote was these very conflicted feelings for him that I had. (A contemporary novel that gave this to me on a lesser degree was Girl on The Train, in which the narrator isn’t a very likeable woman at all).

There was and is value in having read Quixote but unless you are the type that likes very long novels and is on the quest to read as many “classics” out there as you can, this isn’t very high on my recommend list.

Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe

From time to time, Dave will pass me a book from an author he knows. This time, it was Rain Check, Stories by Levi Andrew Noe.

This book of short stories was different than others that I have read. The main thing, they are all flash fiction. For those of you wondering, “flash fiction? what’s that??” Go here for all the geeky info about it. Basically though, it’s fiction in a very shortened form. Anywhere from a short paragraph to 1000 words usually fits the general definition of flash fiction.

Rain Check is divided into three sections. The first, On Time and Place, the second On Relations and the third On Mind, Body, Heart and Soul.

On Time and Place contains some of the very best travel writing I have ever read. Noe takes you right to the heart of where the story occurs. Whether that’s watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat or hitchhiking on a random highway, Noe puts you in the person and in the setting. If these stories had been around when everyone was praising Eat, Pray, Love to the sky and beyond, I would have shoved them in their face and said “Read these. Then tell me how much you loved Eat, Pray, Love”. In a few short strokes of a story, he takes you somewhere that other authors don’t achieve in 200, 300 or 800 pages.

On Relations, the stories slant towards relationships (of course). One of my favorites in this section is “Writers Make Terrible Partners”. Because, even though I don’t write hardly at all, my brain still works like a writer’s. “The clouds stand poised above us like sumo wrestlers in leotards, bursting at the seams. I chuckle to myself and you ask why, but I can’t just say, “because leotard is a funny word.’ Of course you’d ask me to explain, and then I’d have to retrace the chaotic steps I took in my world of thoughts to come to such a statement. By that time the humor would have been lost, the simple joy of daydreaming would be gone. It just isn’t worth it”. This happens to me a lot with both friends and husband. But, all the stories intertwine in this section to create a collage of relationships of all sorts. Not just love.

The third section, On Mind, Body, Heart and Soul, the tone shifts again, but I have tried and tried to find the words to articulate -how- it changes. I can’t. But I can say that -this- section is my favorite one of all three. The story Rapture made me laugh out loud (which luckily I was by myself so I didn’t have to try to explain it to anyone). My favorite though in this section is The Mind. “I was having brunch with my demons when my Shadow showed up uninvited, turning our pity party into a mid-morning massacre. I would have stayed in my hole wallowing, but then the synaptic mailman came at noon to deliver a letter from Rationality that read: “There are a thousand sides to every story, so please step outside for a minute, or at least open a window.”. It then goes on to him meeting Mercy, Compassion, Pain, Delusion, Oblivion, etc. The personification of these, Noe paints swift and sure with a few words and you see them. “She sent me next door to Pain who was lying on the linoleum, needle in his arm. I had to slap him awake”.

I will admit, I have never been a huge fan of flash fiction. A lot of the ones I’ve read don’t seem to fulfill the job of a story to me. They don’t entertain, they don’t capture the essence of something. Noe’s stories fulfilled all of the normal needs I bring to longer short stories, novellas and novels. I highly recommend this book to anyone. But this would be a great one for those times where you don’t have a ton of time to read but don’t want to just read a chapter in an ongoing book, but would rather have a tale told and over. Pick up Rain Check. Just trust me 😉

 

Micro Adventure Series

Kim stepped briefly away from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books to talk about some of her favorite series of books. I thought I should talk about something along those lines, but I’m not a huge series fan. I’ve read a few here and there, but I’m not hugely fond of them. Maybe the kind of things that need to be done for a series compromise the book level view a bit, at least as far as what I’m looking for, it’s hard to say. I have been at least somewhat fond of one or two, but perhaps not enough for a post. There was one that interested me quite a bit, but for perhaps different reasons than one might expect. As such, we’ll go ahead and talk about the Micro Adventure series, despite the fact that I only ever read one of the books.

This was an 80’s Scholastic series written in second person where you were supposed to get involved with the action by typing in a Basic program (designed for Apple, which translation tips for other systems, since there were so many versions of the Basic programming language at the time), figuring out how it worked, and “hacking it” to get it to do what you needed (i.e., change the program to kill the robots instead of the humans). The idea was to teach programming a bit, and along the way have a space-age action adventure.

I only ever actually read Micro Adventure No. 6 Robot Race by David Anthony Kraft. Found it in one of the Scholastics and picked it up.

I was fascinated, despite never getting around to typing any of the programs into a computer and “hacking” them as instructed (my parents rarely would hook up our Commodore Vic 20 for me). A half-human/half-computer evil named Brutus was leading a robot army against the world. You were a computer wiz teaming up with ACT (the Adventure Connection Team) to stop him.

That was about it.

Seriously, it was cheesy, the programs were pretty simple to modify (though some were interesting), and there wasn’t a huge amount to it. Still…it was fun. I would totally have bought the others in the series if I’d ever seen any in the subsequent Scholastic. I never did though, the above being the only one I ever checked out.

Still, it was enough of a pull that I went looking for a copy to get again twenty years later. I have it even now, sitting right next to me as I write this.

My brain isn’t working & Book Series

So. For those of you that check back here weekly, you may have noticed something last week. There was no blog. What happened is Dave and I texted back and forth about it. We discussed what I was going to write about. And my brain checked it off my to do list. I honestly thought I had written a blog. Until Dave messaged me on Monday asking about it. Or maybe Tuesday. So, my apologies.

Then my brain -almost- did it again for this week. But, I remembered now!

I am still making my way through Don Quixote. So, I decided to take a few minutes to talk about a few series of books I like. Just in case any of you are in love with series and knowing you like a certain set of characters enough to read multiple books with them. And since winter is fast approaching, you might want something long that you can read on all the cold nights coming our way.

First, my absolute favorite series is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This has been my favorite series for years and years. Long before Starz created a series of it. The premise of it is that in 1945, Claire Randall is on holiday in Scotland with her husband Frank, after years of being separated by the war. They are reconnecting. There is a small standing stone circle. It’s right near Beltaine. She falls through the stones and ends up in 1743. She’s forced to marry Jamie Fraser there for her protection. And so begins the conflict of loving two men in two very different times. The books go through the Scottish Uprising of 1745, to the 1960s, to the American Revolution. There are multiple books and Gabaldon researches her stories well. She writes humorous scenes interspersed with scenes of touching simplicity that will make you tear up, to dramatic battle scenes. Her characters become real to you and walk beside you. After book 3, there is a series that goes along the side with one of the characters, more like mysteries. She treats all subject matter with an openness and sensitivity that’s gorgeous. These are more than romance, more than historical fiction. They just…are.

Second, I will just put in a blurb about Game of Thrones here. Almost all of you will have had some exposure to it by now. But, I also recommend the books. But, maybe wait a few more months then you might be able to finish about the time Martin finishes the next one.

Third, another fantasy series, for those of you that are a bit more hardcore into fantasy, is the Gardens of the Moon series by Stephen Erikson. These are amazing books, but be prepared to have to read them back to back. There are so many intricate story lines between all books that I find them more complicated than Game of Thrones. But, if you love fantasy and still haven’t read these, pick them up.

Fourth, Kelley Armstrong has a series of books that start with Bitten, which is now a show that you can find on Netflix. I have read quite a few paranormal series and thoroughly enjoyed this one. It starts out with the only female werewolf in the whole world as the main character for the first two books, then starts to switch narrators. The center of the story is a young witch named Savannah, but Briggs doesn’t show that until the 2nd and into the 3rd book. Then the whole series has a nice beginning, middle, and end.

Fifth, my absolute favorite paranormal book series though is The Hollows series by Kim Harrison. The basis is, a witch, a living vampire and a pixy are running a detective agency. And yes, it’s as fun as it sounds with that. But there’s also real depth and soul to these books as well. Again, there is a nice arc to the books and while I wasn’t overly excited by the last book of the series, it was still a decent conclusion.

I’ll end here, just to give myself a few more for a couple of years down the road to recommend more. If you have any you’d like to add, or want to comment on any after you read, please feel free to drop us a line 😀

Tune in on Thursday! (It’s Dave’s turn, so you can rely on it being Thursday).

Have a great rest of your weekend!

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to say, I was expecting to find that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was the original idea for Dead Poets Society. After all, iconoclast teacher shapes students to be exceptional certainly sounds like that. I thought was going to find that Muriel Spark had anticipated Dead Poet Society by twenty years, and that it was a story of young women not young men. However, though there are a number of similarities and there may have been an influence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more complicated than that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for A.L. Kennedy and 3rd for Alexander McCall Smith.)

After all, Miss Brodie is not pursued by students eagerly coming towards the world, ending up then dramatically shaping who they become as people. Rather, she seeks them out…intending to cultivate a select few into the “crème de la crème.” She’s unconventional and individualistic, but she’s also somewhat blindly opinionated and has highly subjective views of what is cultivated or not, far from perfect. She’s also a bit ridiculous in endlessly talking about how she’s working “in her prime” (the phrase “her prime” must be referred to hundreds of times within the space of this relatively short novel, both by Miss Brodie and the girls) to lead these young women out of themselves:

Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. “Hail Caesar!” she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. “Who opened the window?” said Miss Brodie dropping her arm.

Nobody answered.

“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the time-table. Get our your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain. Here is a picture of Dante meeting Beatrice—it is pronounced Beatrichay in Italian which makes the name beautiful—on the Ponte Vecchio. He fell in love with her at that moment. Mary, sit up and don’t slouch. It was a sublime moment in a sublime love. By whom was the picture painted?”

Nobody knew.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”

“A painter,” said Jenny.

Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

“And a genius,” said Sandy, to come to Jenny’s rescue.

“A friend of—?” said Miss Brodie.

“Swineburne,” said a girl.

Miss Brodie smiled. “You have not forgotten,” she said, looking round the class. “Holidays or no holidays. Keep your history books propped up in case we have any further intruders.” She looked disapprovingly towards the door and lifted her fine dark Roman head with dignity. She had often told the girls that her dead High had admired her head for its Roman appearance.

She’s also a fascist.

She molds her girls as she wants them, even trying to get one of them to become the lover of the art teacher, whom she herself loves but cannot have because he is married. The school wants her out and relentlessly tries to force her retirement, but she skillfully avoids this until one of her own students deliberately betrays her…simply to overcome Miss Brodie, to put a stop to her seemingly unstoppable influence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful novel for both the characters and the interpersonal complexity. You have to love how vivid and differentiated each of these people are. More than that though, you have to adore how they interact across time. It’s certainly not all good, but it is rich and complex. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a marvelous book, and unsettling in many unexpected ways.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

First! I am sorry this is late 😦 There are three reasons for this.

Most importantly: I made the mistake of trying to read two very long novels at once. Don Quixote AND Middlemarch.

Less importantly (well except to me, it took more energy than the former): I have been having stomach issues for a week now.

Even less importantly: The stomach issues and my natural tendencies have created some wicked insomnia.

But! onto what I thought of Middlemarch.

This was an example of a book I previously tried to read and could not get into. However, this time, unlike the Iliad, I WAS able to read it and get into it. So, that was awesome!

George Eliot is a pen name, during the 1800s it was less likely people would read a novel by a woman in England (probably elsewhere but I have noticed that a lot of women authors in the United States at this time were able to publish under their real names). When I was younger I always thought George Eliot was a man. Imagine my adulthood surprise to find otherwise.

I am not a fan of Jane Austen novels, which were written about the same time. I am also not overly fond of a lot of Dickens works (which I keep trying and failing to read most of them). I -am- fond of the Brontes. But, Middlemarch? I loved it. I loved the complexity of the novel. I loved that it was not merely focused on love, as Austen, but also about personal choices and the ripple effect they have, and politics and just life in general at that time. It has both a gossipy feel and a richly layered feel. In essence, there is something for almost everyone in it.

I read up a little and found out that even though at this time, most English novels were either published in installments like Dickens, or in 3 volume sets, Middlemarch was such a long novel (one of the longest in English history) that the publishers published it in 8 volumes, over the course of 18 months. They wanted people hooked. And they were. Middlemarch was immensely popular even in its time. And since, it has remained immensely popular.

For anyone that is looking for a long, satisfying novel to read this summer or during the winter when you merely want to be home under your blankets, please pick up Middlemarch. You can find it fairly cheap or free for Kindle or get the hardback copy. I was surprised how easy it was to read on Kindle.

Have a great week everyone! I will return on THURSDAY in a week and a half, hopefully with Don Quixote under my belt! 😀

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Maybe it’s the national chaos this election year, but I felt it was time to read something mired in panicked imperialism. Thus, we’re looking at Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee this week.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Jim Crace and 9th for Jim Shepard.)

Waiting for the Barbarians focuses on the Magistrate, the empire’s minor official who has been running his tiny town on the barbarian frontier for thirty years. It isn’t an important place, but it’s peaceful. There’s been talk for forever about the barbarians massing to take them over, but on the ground the Magistrate has seemed to see nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even have facilities for prisoners. Bandits swipe one or two cattle here or there, but for the most part they keep to themselves and concentrate on their nomadic lifestyle. However, things change when a visiting officer from the empire arrives to do something about the barbarians.

For one thing, the Magistrate is a good and peaceful man. He lives by the law, which he understands is the best that they have rather than perfect justice. Still, he is utterly unprepared for the kind of pointless cruelty of which the visiting officer (and indeed the empire and eventually most everyone around him) is capable:

“These are the only prisoners we have taken for a long time,” I say. “A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life. The old man says they were coming to see the doctor. Perhaps that is the truth. No one would have brought an old man and a sick boy along on a raiding party.”

*****

“Nevertheless,” he says, “I ought to question them. This evening, if it is convenient. I will take my assistant along. Also I will need someone to help me with the language. The guard, perhaps. Does he speak it?”

“We can all make ourselves understood. You would prefer me not to be there?”

“You would find it tedious.”

*****

Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing.

Horrified by what he sees done by the empire, he obsesses over a barbarian girl who had been blinded and had her feet broken, taking her in and performing odd quasi-sexual rituals involving washing and oiling her. Eventually, he takes a few soldiers on a long and dangerous journey to return her to her people, but upon his return he is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. He is tortured by the empire, though not as badly as what they seem to do to the barbarians, and is abandoned and laughed at by his own townspeople.

Of course, then things go badly for the empire. The barbarians, who had left things relatively alone for so long, cunningly manage to destroy crops, troops, and more. The empire’s soldiers all flee, leaving the town to its fate. The Magistrate just steps back up again, quietly trying to help the people of the town figure out how they’re going to get through the winter.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interestingly spare exploration of imperialism and human cruelty. The writing is solid, though some of the paragraphs can swell a bit. For the most part the lines are clean though, and the descriptions are tangible. I liked how concrete everything was at the same time that the exact empire and place was left vague enough that it could be so many places. Waiting for the Barbarians is not going to be one of my favorite books, but it might be one of my favorite Coetzee books.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is late. So very, very late. My apologies, I was trying to get through a different book and wasn’t able to finish in time. I switched to Beloved and read it as quickly as I could in order to talk to you guys about it.

I still have no clue where my Top Ten book walked off to this time.

I have not had a lot of sleep in two days so I feel a bit foggy right now, just an observational thing I felt you all needed to know.

I urge you to read Beloved if you have not already. I do not urge you to read Beloved if your stomach or mind are not equipped to deal with violence. Because in some things, Beloved is brutal. It is a story told over a decade after the Civil War. It is a story told about the present of former slaves as well as their past while still in slavery. Morrison drips description and metaphor alike from the page until you are as immersed in it as one of the characters is in an “emerald closet” (a bunch of shrubs that have formed a small hidden room) she uses as a play room and a dream escape as she grows older. So, when Morrison describes one of the characters telling about having an iron bit in his mouth, it’s not just “hm, ok, random detail to get over to get to the rest of the story”, you can taste the metal in your mouth and feel the skin at the corners of your mouth going tender and stretched out.

The story is about a house. A house that has a vengeful baby ghost in it, the toddler daughter of one of the main characters who died very young. A man from her past comes in the beginning of the book and chases the spirit off. The daughter that lived is upset about this, Denver. Her mother, Sethe, Denver and the man, Paul, they go to a carnival in town for Negroes. On the way home, Sethe sees their shadows with linked hands and takes it as an omen of good for the future the three of them can have. Upon arrival home, there is a young woman there, who is sick. Her name is Beloved. It comes about that Beloved appears to be the spirit that was chased from the house, but grown into a woman. Because this is a novel and because a spirit formed into a live human being just isn’t natural, of course things go horribly awry.

This is a book about slavery. This is a book about the power of hope and love and where that power can lead when that love and hope are warped beyond measure by something as ugly as being owned by another human. You can find hope in Beloved but it doesn’t jump from the page. Rather, it sneaks in the cracks and around the corners. The characters have it but squash it.

This is a book about memory. About how memories can entrap us, can impale us and can suffocate us. But it is also a book about how we can entrap ourselves by choice in a memory, while lying and saying we are free as birds.

This book is haunting. It lingers around you even after you’re done, and whispers to you even before you’re done.

Hope everyone has had a great weekend!