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Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Plan For A Tale

Not only is today Thursday, but it is also the day in which in 1859 the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities” was first published. Its original format was 31 weekly installments in the literary magazine All the Year Round (owned by Dickens).

One of the most recognizable lines of literature and one of the most widely quoted first lines of a novel, the story begins:

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

This, some would say, is a sentiment that is still true today.

So let me ask you, readers of mine… have you read it?

Some of you might have back in high school. But for a lot of people this book is one of the many literary works that is part of the “literary canon” yet the actual plot remains a mystery.

I’ll admit it. I read it in high school but like so many things I read in high school I don’t really remember it.

Time to remedy this!

A connected thought. Several people have asked me how I decide what to read. Well except for the books that I am asked to read for reviewing reasons, the books I read are usually whatever catches my eye while shopping or what is recommended to me by people’s who have opinions I value.

A while ago I decided to pick my reading material with a bit more of a focused agenda. I consider myself fairly intelligent and fairly well read… and yet I know my knowledge of some of the “classic” works of literature is woefully hit and miss.

So I bought myself this book.

Now, I don’t plan on agreeing with every entry that is listed… and I am sure I will feel the need to add to it, but I thought it was a good jumping off point.

Anyway, to make a long post a tad shorter, I am going to be reading “A Tale of Two Cities” in the month of May.

I cordially invite you to read it along with me. I will blog about it when I am done and again you are cordially invited to do the same… or at the very least comment on my future post.

Also, look for more posts having to do with the “literary canon” and the “501” book in the coming months.

(And just in case you do want to join me in this literary adventure, feel free to buy from Amazon using these links and share the love.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Noticer

Book Review for The Noticer

First of all, I would like to say that had I been consulted, I would have named this book “Perspective” or “Jones” or well almost anything besides “The Noticer.”


This book bills itself as ‘a moving story of common wisdom” and while the common wisdom part is correct, there wasn’t that much of a story involved.

Let me break it down. There is a guardian angel named Jones (or Garcia or Chen depending on what nationality you happen to be) who dispenses much needed wisdom and perspective to the inhabitants of a beach town. He is loved by young and old alike and has the ability to help people look at their problems or situations from a different point of view… or perspective. “Perspective” is Jones’ favorite word.

The framing device of the guru helping the townspeople deal with issues like divorce, communication, hopelessness, acceptance of eventual death, etc works as a framing device should, it keeps things contained and centered and allows the portrait to be the object of focus.

Which is of course the “common wisdom” that is doled out by Jones.

Now, some of the common wisdom is actually worth taking nte of. I personally found the illustration of how different people respond to different signifies of affection and love to be interesting. The idea is that if you are the sort of person who shows your affection and love verbally and your partner needs more tangible physical reminders, you are liable to both not be getting what you want. By understanding what your partner, friend, child needs you can work to provide it and vice versa.

I read that bit and nodded along, “Right, that makes sense” Not all of Jones’ wisdom is as cut and dried. Occasionally his wisdom is a bit cheesy The lesson given to a gaggle of earnest teens of “Every Date is a Potential Mate… so date wisely’ is a prime example. Not that the idea behind it isn’t true… but the delivery of an old man (guardian angel or no) giving teenagers dating advice and them taking it was a bit hard to fathom.

Eventually the town realized that they have been blessed with the advice and attention of a truly remarkable and supernatural being and there is a sense of camaraderie and cohesiveness that is enviable if not really attainable for people who don’t live in a teeny tiny beach town.

All in all, I would say reading this book didn’t change my life… or really my perspective on much but it did give me food for later thought. I appreciated the morality that was being taught and found it refreshing that the book wasn’t a sermon even though it could very easily hae become one.

As far as story goes… well the framing device of the town was tepid at its best and overly cliché at its worst. The common wisdom was, however, sadly not common enough.

If you feel the need for some good old fashioned never out of fashion inspiration that even though it suffers through a sometimes painful framing device and enough small town “charm” to make you go running for the nearest skyscraper still manages to convey the overall feeling of hope and yes, dare I say it, perspective… then I recommend this book.

And if you are interested, go ahead and buy it from here!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Garden of Earthly Delights

Book Review for A Garden of Earthly Delights

Every now and then I read a book and while reading it I think “Now, this, this is literature.” I am then usually filled with a conflict of emotions. On the one hand I am humbled and amazed and think that there is no way I will ever be able to write something like this. On the other hand I am giddy with delight and grateful that my eyes continue to allow me read things like this. Such is the case of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights.

Now, Oates is a bit of an acquired taste… her prose is very often thick and her descriptions are both accurate and horrible. When a character in an Oates novel or short story feels pain or discomfort, so dose the reader. She writes with a style that is meant to be sipped, to be taken in slowly and savored.

There is substance and heaviness behind her prose… and I, for one, am a fan.

A Garden of Earthly Delights tells the story of Clara who is born into a family of migrant farmers and moves up the ladder of society. She uses her wits, she uses her body, she uses every tool at her disposal… and she is at once heartbreakingly sympathetic and woefully unlikable. It is a combination that mirrors the society and people who make up her context; a backdrop of the American people themselves.

“I guess I like it.” Clara said shyly.
“Look at the others”
The old man pulled out another tray. Clara’s heart beat in confusion and alarm at everything she had to see, touch, think about. Her first instinct was to take the first thing and have done with all this awkwardness, all this pain…. The stones sparkled at her and their settings were intricate and beautiful, gifts from another world that she had no right to and she was stealing from, those that really deserved them – not girls like herself but women who were really married, who were not choked with shame in a doctor’s office…. There was an ugly roaring in her ears. She would ne able to wear on one finger something worth more money than her father had ever had at once, … and it was all coming about with no one showing any surprise except herself.

Clara is every awkward girl, every manipulating woman, every proud and defiant mother, every lovesick teenager, every migrant worker, and every socialite with fading beauty. She epitomizes one who attains the “American dream” but is never really fulfilled.

I read a tagline for a movie not that long ago… I didn’t really “get” it at first and I don’t really think it fit the move, but I do think it fits Clara and Oate’s award winning novel.

They dream without faith.

I highly recommend this book. If I were a English teacher, I would assign this book. As it is, I am looking forward to reading the next Oates book in her Wonderland Quartet; Expensive People. I will of course let you all know what I thought of it once I do.

In the meantime, if you are so inclined to read A Garden of Earthly Delights, feel free to click the link blow and buy your very own copy.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Great Eight

Book Review of The Great Eight

Reading this book was a departure for me. First of all I tend to read fiction and when I do read nonfiction, I am usually reading something historical or scientific (Hawking, Dawkins, etc) or even something political (“The Mommy Myth” or “Audios Barbie”).I tend to stay away from self help books, inspirational books, or memoirs by people I don’t have a desire to emulate.

This book was not my cup of normal tea but since the publisher was nice enough to send me a free copy with the understanding that I would write a review, I sat down one sunny afternoon with the expectation that I would read it, learn something useful, and pass on said wisdom to you.

Or not.

It was actually hard to finish this book. Not because the subject matter was deep or thick or difficult to grasp. Not because the writing style was high brow with big words and even bigger concepts.

But because… after reading the first ten pages or so I started to feel the stabs of an early migraine setting in.

In other words, I severely disliked reading this book and had I not told the nice publisher people that I would read it and write about it there is no doubt in my mind that I would have quit very early on and never ever ever finished it.

And I was all ready to lambaste this book, to mock it, to rip it apart, to go point by point and tell you all exactly how and why it was a colossal waste of my time.

But then I realized something…. This book isn’t my sort of book, but it might be just what the doctor ordered for other people. With that in mind, I have prepared the following list.

Reasons you should read “The Great Eight” by Scott Hamilton.

1. You love Scott Hamilton and reading his earlier memoir was not enough.
2. You enjoy relearning concepts about happiness from a book instead of where said concepts are normally found: greeting cards.
3. You have a deep appreciation for exclamation points!
4. You have the attention span of a gnat.

Was it really that bad? Yes, yes it was.

In the book figure skater (and Olympian Gold Medal winner -1984 on a well documented and admitted technicality) Scott Hamilton gives you advice on how to find happiness. See, he is an expert having survived a childhood (never diagnosed) illness, testicular cancer, and a brain tumor. He is happy see, he is married with kids living away from the rat race, performing, living his dream…. And You Could Be Happy Too!

I am not sure what bothers me more about this book, the fact that the entire thing is written in a style better suited for “Discover A Better You” pamphlets one might find behind the couch at a doctor’s office or the fact that Mr. Hamilton honestly seems to think that advice like “Keep Trying!” “Trust God!” “Failure happens, but you can get over it!” are not only worth of a 183 page book but are somehow new and exciting!

I should have counted the number of exclamation points… thre is some serious overkill going on!

In fact, it was difficult to not read the book without hearing the narration done in a hyper squirrel voice. Here is an example passage from the potion of the book where we are encouraged to find the positives in every situation:

“Take, for example, being short. I don’t need to list the infinite number of negatives about being far shorter than the average man. But on the positive side of things, I can tell you that at five-foot-four. I don’t take up as much space. I fit in airplane seats more comfortably. My clothes don’t require as much material thus helping save the planet (and I am a better environmentalist since I don’t use as much water in the shower!)”

Other words of wisdom include life altering assertions like “You’ve got to find the light spot, even in the darkness. If you don’t, you can’t be happy.”

Not that I necessarily think he is wrong… I am just not sure there is anyone out there who wouldn’t already know this. (And if there are people out there who think that happiness can be found by dwelling on nothing but the dark/bad stuff… well are they going to buy a copy of this book? I would wager not.)

He continues to talk about light and dark and brings God in as well: “There is so much darkness in the word and it has the potential to suck us in like a black hole… God created the sun for many reasons, one of which is to give us light. You notice that we sleep when it’s dark? I like to think this is God’s way of saying ‘Hey guys. Don’t pay too much attention to the darkness.”

At this point I almost threw the book across the room.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I think happiness is a good thing and I think that being reminded that being happy or finding happiness isn’t an overnight thing and that tools like a good sense of humor and humility can help you achieve it. I don’t even have a problem with people finding happiness with God or Shinto or Zeus or whoever…. But again I have to wonder who was the target audience for this book. People who already buy into this woo-ish sort of touchy feely stuff probably don’t need to read this book and those of us with a more practical way of seeing the universe will be alternately bored and nauseated by Mr. Hamilton’s ramblings.

It doesn’t help that it is written at a 5th grade reading level, the font is huge and on almost every page big blocks of test are blown up and indented so as to a)make the book even longer! and b) draw special emphasis to things like “Learning not to fight the inevitable changes life brings is a key component to being happy."

I am not sure when I felt such a sense of relief upon completing a book. In fact, I guess I could say that the only real happiness I got from the entire ordeal was that eventually I finished it (gritting my teeth and reminding myself of the nice publishers every step of the way.)

If you are interested in reading this book for yourself and agreeing or disagreeing with my review, feel free to use this link to buy it on Amazon!