Books I Read This Month - August 2012

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss 

Lucifer Box, painter and gentleman spy in Edwardian England, charms his way through this hilarious novel with both wit and vanity. First in a trilogy by actor and co-writer of Sherlock and a few episodes of Doctor Who (two of my favorite television series) Mark Gatiss, The Vesuvius Club follows Lucifer Box's government mission to solve the murders of a handful of scientists while he simultaneously romps around with numerous lovers and comes to terms with his fading painting career. With fiendishly genius puns interlaced into each sentence, I literally laughed out loud at least once every page. This is definitely one of the funniest books I have ever read. Highly recommended to those with a highly British sense of humor.

Eleven by Mark Watson

Recently emigrated from Australia to England, twenty-something Xavier Ireland hosts a midnight radio show, participates in Scrabble competitions, avoids awkward encounters with his stressed neighbors, and contemplates the way he left things with his three childhood best friends back in his home country. When he fails to stop a teenage boy from being beaten up as he walks home from a speed-dating session (enforced by his stuttering co-host), Xavier triggers a chain of events that will drastically change his life, as well as the lives of eleven other individuals. At once a hilarious page-turner and a moving account of a decent-hearted man's good intentions gone tragically wrong, Eleven is an intriguing read with unique characters. It's a roller-coaster ride of a story, truly enjoyable and highly original.

The Absolutist by John Boyne

An extraordinarily sad portrayal of a World War I soldier's friendship with a fellow soldier, this well-crafted novel is tender and moving, but also gripping and dark. After returning to England, Tristan Sadler visits the sister of the deceased soldier, Will, with whom he shared an intense bond during the war. The narrative unfolds, both in Tristan and Will's sister's conversation and in flashbacks, told in close first person by Tristan, revealing the problems of personal conviction, betrayal, and not just the cruel consequences of war but also of the consequences of unrequited love. I could not put this book down. Elegantly crafted and certainly transcending the lines of war story and love story, The Absolutist is beautiful even in it tragedy. Perhaps one of the most powerful new novels of the year.

Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro

While the dystopian premise of clones created for the extraction of organs is not an altogether original storyline, Kazuo Ishiguro certainly created a unique novel here. Rather than treated cruelly as if they are inhuman, the clones of Never Let Me Go are raised in a comfortable environment, encouraged to do artwork, and allowed to befriend their peers. The story takes place over the course of narrator Kathy's life, from childhood through her career as a "carer," a nurse for clones taking part in the donation processes, in the final years of their lives. Though the cloned children were raised in a boarding school environment, I could relate extremely deeply to the problems Kathy faced in her relationships with the students and teachers. I was surprised to find myself nodding along to many of Kathy's childhood experiences, recognizing the emotions she felt in dealing with self-righteous Ruth and sweet, troublesome Tommy. Many of the situations she faced were eerily similar to events in my own life. Never Let Me Go, I am sure, is meant to be an exploration of human worth, a question of what makes a human, what defines love, but it had a different affect on me; the tone of Kathy's narrative voice, especially when relaying the events of her childhood, gripped me with its tenderness and connected me to experiences of my own childhood and the close friends with whom I shared that important part of my life. This moving novel taught me a lot more about love and hit a lot closer to home than I thought it would.

Solar by Ian McEwan 

After reading several of Ian McEwan's previous works recently, I picked up Solar solely because it was next on my list. I was expecting it to be like the other McEwan novels: moving, illuminating of human nature, and deeply literary. What I got was a pleasant surprise. In Solar, a middle-aged environmental scientist is struggling through a fifth divorce. A series of unusual events leads this annoyingly self-absorbed and, frankly, insipid man to come across a great scientific discovery, but at the expense of a young man's life, his fifth ex-wife's happiness, and several years of an innocent man's life. Many times as I was reading this book I felt like blurting out, "Ugh, Ian McEwan, how disturbing that scene was! I thought I knew you!" Nevertheless, I could not put it down, no matter how much I tried (though there was one scene in the first third of the book that made me so squeamish I had to take a break from it). A fascinating page-turner with a narrator readers will surely love to hate, Solar may shock McEwan fans with its differences from his previous, highly literary works, but they will certainly still enjoy it and get plenty of good laughs from a man whose books usually induce profundity or tears. 

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman 

When a young veteran is offered a job as a lighthouse keeper for Janus Island off the coast of Australia, he feels contented, almost excited, to spend six months in isolation, working in tough conditions every day. However, in the town nearest the port, he meets 19 year old Isabel, who he soon marries and brings with him to the island. Young and naive, and after three miscarriages, Isabel, when a boat containing a dead man and a living baby washes ashore on the island, convinces Tom to let them keep the child and raise her as their own. Little do they know, however, the infant's mother lives in mourning on the mainland. Exploring the consequences of war, isolation, and instinctual decisions, this book would best be enjoyed by mothers, especially those with young children.


The Power of Literacy

When someone tells me they don’t much like to read, or just blatantly, “I don’t read,” the thought what the heck do you do with your time comes to my mind and all but blurts itself out of my mouth. If you don’t read, what do you do? What is there to do in the world besides read? Obviously that is a selfish question, as everyone has different hobbies and interests. But almost immediately a second question manifests, and a much deeper question at that. Do you know what you’re missing out on? And further, Do you consider yourself closed-minded or open minded? And finally, Why not?

The act of reading is a strange thing indeed. It is a solitary act, and it is time-consuming, so I can see why many people would prefer not to do it. But most people who feel this way will occasionally pick up a book, be it an adventurous thriller or a cheesy, humorous romance, be they snowed in and curled up by the fireplace or on a nice vacation sunbathing on the beach, and they will read and enjoy it. This type of person reads for fun, maybe a novel or two a month, and they understand and perhaps look up to the literary-type who devours books one after the other, if only just because they seem to have more time to do so.

I’m okay with these people. Even if they don’t fully appreciate literature, they understand the enormity of the portion of our culture books inhabit. It’s the people who claim to have read one novel in their entire life, and who say reading is boring or pointless that simply get on my nerves. …That might be putting it a bit lightly.

Boredom has nothing to do with it. Boredom is not a feeling. It is a perspective. If you merely see reading as an inquisitive and adventurous activity rather than a time-consuming, mind-utilizing chore, then perhaps you will one day find it in you to crack open a book and begin to find yourself enjoying the experience. It’s the first step, finding reading fun, but it’s the simplest step, one which children learning to read are learning to take. But reading is much, much more than fun.

Those who do not read are blatantly ignoring the biggest aspect of what separates humans from animals, what makes us so-called “evolved.” No other animal uses written language to communicate. (If someone knows of another species that does, please let me know; I’d love to learn more about it!) This simple truth draws a distinctive line between primitive creature and human being. Communication is evidence of our intelligence.

The second enormous thing that makes human beings unique is perhaps the most important of them all: empathy.

Perhaps the most significant thing I have discovered in my experiences of reading various genres and hundreds of novels is that reading helps create empathy. Like traveling the world to absorb the knowledge of numerous cultures, reading a wide variety of literature can shape a person’s perspective of the world, of other people, and of themselves. Nonfiction obviously offers knowledge, but in quite a different sense; I would never say that reading nonfiction takes less thinking—if anything it takes more, in deciding what information is true, who you can trust, and how you can utilize this information in an effective and productive way—but fiction not only provokes imagination, but it also encourages the development of empathy in a much subtler way.

Novels offer a rare look through another individual’s eyes at the world. It can be the same world in which the reader lives or it can be a totally imagined fantasy realm, but it still holds true to the inhabitants of our world. A reader, when peering through the eyes of a character at the world, must force themselves to extend their suspension of disbelief, especially if the narrator or main character holds drastically differing views. For example, a highly conservative person may find it difficult to read a novel in which the first-person narrator is quite liberal. However, for the sake of enjoying the story, the reader, whether they realize they are doing it or not, will often set their own views aside for the duration of the book.

In the end, the reader as not only experienced life through the character’s perspective, but they have also absorbed, by proxy, the author’s perspective on the world as well. There are numerous layers to the wisdom that each and every book holds between its covers, and it’s not something hidden, something you must scour the text for or rip apart the literary techniques and the historical or biographical context of the author to find. All you have to do is read.

When humans first developed the skill of communication, its sole purpose was survival: finding food sources, protecting each other from the dangers of the environment, etc. Now, we have evolved further and use language to evoke emotions in readers and to portray new worlds which a writer has created out of thin air. If one simple sentence can provoke miserable tears or ecstatic laughter or a sense of profundity, it can certainly help the development of empathy in an individual.

Who knows; a character in a book may be a Greek-mythology-believing warrior or an 18th-century Zen Chinese widow or an extra-terrestrial from not just a different world but a different dimension, but goddammit, that epiphany they had at the climax of the novel moved you to tears, it made you think critically about the choices you make, and most of all, it made you feel deeply about another individual who leads a drastically different life than you do.

After closing the book and wiping the tear from your eye, you may feel you just wasted six hours of your precious time or you may look back on the fun adventure of the characters feeling as though you had a nice little romp with some interesting folks or you may forget about the whole thing a week later. But one day, you may meet someone, maybe an average-seeming person on a bus ride, and they may tell you “My husband recently passed away” or “I’ve been thinking about joining the military” or “Sometimes I look up at the stars and feel immensely alone,” and though—let’s be completely honest—you may not have the slightest clue what to say to the person, at least you will understand, you will feel what it is to experience that pain because you have experienced it once too, when you joined a character, trusted an author, and learned just a little bit more about the world in between the covers of that book you read that one time a few years ago that made you cry. 

Peace, Aimee

Peace Activity #3

The previous two peace activities were signing up for the blogfest to be put into a drawing for a copy of the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel and writing a poem to be posted on my blog during the month of September. These two activities are on-going, and I definitely need more submissions for poetry!

The third and final activity before Peace Day has more to do with the community.

Firstly, the blog community! 

At the end of this post I have provided a list of links to the bloggers who have signed up to participate in the blogfest. I will add to the list as more people sign up. To support the blogging community and Peace Day, you can follow your fellow Peace Blogfest bloggers and comment on their blogfest post when 21 September rolls around.

Even if you are not participating in the blogfest, you can still grab the code for the badge below and place it on your blog to help spread the word!

Secondly, your own community!

I have uploaded below a poster I created to help spread the word about Peace Day. Now, you may ask, what should you do with it?

1. Download it.
2. Print off as many copies as you would like.
3. Post them around your town (libraries, schools, your workplace, anywhere a free board is available).
3. Take a photo of the poster hanging up, and share it with me via email, or tweet it!

Here is the list of Peace Day Blogfest 21 September 2012 participants (more to come!):

Here is the poster: 

 Peace, Aimee

Blog Tag!

Ravena Guron tagged me! She has given me 11 very stimulating questions to answer. 

1. What did you want to be when you grew up? (If you ever grew up.) I have pretty much always wanted to be a writer, from the day I learned how. I did go through phases, of course. For a while I wanted to be a teacher, then a psychologist, then a pharmacist. I’ve always been really into science, but more speculative and theoretical stuff, not things I’d be able to make a career of without about 12 more years of school.

2. If you could marry any celebrity, who would it be? There are way too many. Martin Freeman? Benedict Cumberbatch? David Tennant? John Barrowman (if he weren’t gay)? Noel Fielding? Why, oh, why would you dare ask me a question like this? Now you’ll never get me back on track…

3. Do you think aliens are real? As a matter of fact, I rather do. Obviously there is no scientific proof whether they exist or not, though there is evidence of bacterial life on other planets, which has increased the chances of us finding intelligent life someday. I like the idea of aliens, and I think they are probably out there, but without concrete evidence I can’t say with conviction that “I believe aliens are real.” …Same thing with God really. …I have a firm idea of what I believe aliens would be like if they were real. If they were intelligent and had technology like space crafts to use to come visit us, I think the threat of them coming to destroy our planet is quite low. If they were really so much more highly developed than us technology-wise, then surely they would be more developed socially and culturally. Some theorists contemplate the idea of evolved aliens that use telekinesis and the like. Plus, if we exist, and we find some other alien form, perhaps there are thousands of species from different planets who are all in different places in the evolution spectrum. Perhaps one species is still in the Bronze Age while another on the other side of the universe has created a utopia on their planet. …I could go on and on. I’ve spent a lot more time than perhaps healthy thinking about extra-terrestrial life…
4. What season (Summer, Winter, Autumn or Spring) do you like the best? Why? Spring. First time seeing the sun in a long time is a beautiful thing.  

5. What sort of books do you read? Mostly literary fiction. But I like a little crime and sci-fi and paranormal every so often. Not a fan of fantasy or romance much though.
6. What is your favourite book? Why? It’s a tie between Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad because they are both so honest about the answers to deep questions in life.
7. Why did you start blogging? Not so much to have my voice heard but simply to express my opinions, whether they reach ears (or eyes) or not. To create is to live. That’s why I started, but my purpose has shifted over the course of my blogging career. Now I blog to connect readers to good books so they can learn more about the world and about other people. Books have a great knack of creating a stronger sense of empathy in readers.
8. If I gave you a million pounds right now, what would you spend it on? (Assuming I'd already given two million pounds to charity.) Maybe it’s cliché, but I would love to travel the world. I am only going to be on this planet for a few decades, so I may as well see as much of it as I can. So far I’ve been absolutely nowhere. The farthest I’ve been from my hometown in Michigan is Tennessee where I visited family, and Quebec, where, once again, I visited family, so there wasn’t much sightseeing going on. I really want to tour the UK and Europe and South America, to see historical sights and become more cultured and wise. …Also charity.
9. What is your favourite TV programme? Why? Doctor Who! Can’t get enough. I LOVE time travel. Also, LOST is still my favourite television series of all time. I’m still obsessed with it even though it’s been off the air for over four years. Seriously, that show changed my life.
10. If you gave birth to twins, would you give them rhyming names? Why? No. Twins are two individuals, not some opportunity for parents to get all silly and creepy.
11. If you could, would you go back in time and be seventeen again? No way in hell. 

Music Box Dancer by Marc Pietrzykowski

Graveyard-shift security guard and college dropout Charlie Price recently watched his fiancée die in his arms. Believing it will help him move past her death, he reads book after book after book from a list they created together during adventures in hole-in-the-wall bookstores. After a particularly irritating work shift, Charlie comes home to read a book, but, in the dead of night, an ice cream truck sits on the street corner blaring its tinkling music. When Charlie approaches the truck to ask the driver to turn off the music, the driver pulls out a gun and shoots at him. From then on, a series of badly thought out decisions leads Charlie on an adventure from his home in Pennsylvania to a terrorist cell in Yemen and back again, throwing the sad, resigned young man into situations he thought he would never be able to handle.

With dark humor and a brilliantly honed command of language, Marc Pietrzykowski has crafted a surprising, hilarious, and touching first novel. His previous poetry publications are evident in his fine prose. After the very first chapter of the book, protagonist Charlie Price already feels like a fully developed character, like a friend (though he is practically friendless) of whom readers will enjoy the company, despite his emotional turmoil over the recent loss of his fiancée and his what-does-it-matter attitude. Pietrzykowski’s prose grasps the reader immediately, thrusting them into Charlie’s head. Not just Charlie comes to life on the page; so too do all the other characters, even those who only appear in a few scenes. The settings as well are developed wonderfully.

The first half of the book is both poetically tender and comically scatological. The second half, however, takes a sharp turn from Charlie’s day-to-day life disrupted by the murderous ice cream man when he is suddenly, and almost inexplicably, kidnapped by terrorists and mistaken for a rogue soldier. Charlie’s dark sense of humor, paired with his existential depression and hallucinations of his deceased fiancée, gets him into more trouble at every turn. The snowball effect of the plot keeps the reader turning the pages, yearning to know what Charlie will do next. And while the unexpected plot twist splits the novel into two distinct halves, the successfully character-driven plot makes Music Box Dancer one of the most entertaining and original novels I have recently read.

It is a rare occurrence for a writer to create a novel that features a wholly developed and likeable—though sad and often lazy—protagonist, a distinct sense of humor that begs a reader to laugh out loud, and finely tuned and poetic prose, but Marc Pietrzykowski has done just that. This is a touching story that makes both a political statement and takes the main character on a touching journey to redemption and recovery. If he continues with his excellent work, Pietrzykowski could become the next Chuck Palahniuk (with the same desperate need of a nom de plume). A highly recommended and memorable experience. 

For the Love of Books Part Three

I am one of those people who can’t stop reading a book in the middle, even if I’m having a hard time getting through it. I feel bad if I don’t finish. I also must read every single book in a series if I start; I can't just read the first one. If only my writing process was more like that.

That said, there are only three books I have been unable to continue reading. And each has its own reason.

The first is Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary. I read this as a child, obviously, and when I arrived at the scene where she squirts an entire tube of toothpaste down the sink, I was so disgusted and appalled by the amount of valuable product she wasted that I could not bear to continue reading.

The second, I cannot remember the title. It was a young adult book about a girl who is babysitting, and when the children go to sleep, the house is broken into by a serial killer. It just so happened that I was babysitting while reading this book, so, for obvious reasons, I had to put it away.

Now the third and final book I could not finish for more sophisticated reasons. I will not name the book here so as not to besmirch its reputation because it was probably the most disappointing book have read, or at least started to read. The problem may have been that I saw the film version of the book before reading it, and I absolutely ADORED the movie and therefore had too high expectations. One of the more poignant scenes of the film was dragged on in the book for approximately 50 pages. I was positively bored to death. At over 500 pages long and prompting an only 90 minute film, I was unable to drag myself through the second half of the book.

There have been books that I began, put down, and finally returned to reading after a while, but these three, I feel I will never finish.

Is there any aspect of a book that repulses you and makes you put it down and stop reading?

Peace, Aimee

The Boomer's Guide to Story by Roemer McPhee

Roemer McPhee is obviously well-read and has not only seen but analysed with a keen eye hundreds of films significant to American culture, and he has obvious insight into how these films reflect the Baby Boomer’s generation’s views on society. In The Boomer’s Guide to Story, McPhee has collected his essays on approximately 300 books and movies. This is not a book of reviews, not in the least. In fact, McPhee provides an objective opinion of the quality of these films, looking at their message and techniques through the lens of a member of the Baby Boomer generation.

The book begs the reader to dive straight into the middle, picking and choosing movies they have seen and skipping over the ones they have not. Each essay is approximately one page long, though some of the more significant films, such as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather are given much more room. McPhee’s focus on the most moving aspects of these films searches for insight into the mind of a Boomer, which may cause the reader to feel as though some other important aspects of the films have been glanced over or excluded altogether; however, McPhee’s objective has been achieved. In his analysis of the book/film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, he trains his eye on Nurse Ratched, saying, “An explanation of what in Nurse Ratched’s past might explain her terrible need to dominate and destroy others, particularly men, is a question for a gifted psychologist. One would immediately want to know about Ratched’s relationship with her father and brothers.” A psychological look into the characters in the context of the era to which the audience of these films belongs offers key insight into the Boomers’ societal and cultural viewpoints.

Because the book is organized in alphabetical order, it is easy to navigate, but one simple problem is created with this format. The essays do not link from one to the next, providing no forward momentum through the book. The Boomer’s Guide to Story is more of a reference book where a reader can pick and choose which essays to read and in which order to read them. With no link tying the essays together besides McPhee’s main objective of looking at these films through the Boomers’ lens, some of the overarching themes seem slightly underdeveloped. An epilogue may expand upon the idea, or placing the films in an order that more successfully develops the idea over the course of the book may offer more profound insight, but it certainly would not be as fun of a book to read as it is now.

Any film lovers or critics, not just those of the Baby Boomer generation, will enjoy this book. 

For the Love of Books Part Two

There are two types of readers in the world: those who can’t choose what to read next because nothing looks good, and those who can’t choose what to read next because EVERYTHING looks good. I definitely fall into the latter category. My Goodreads to-read list grows and grows every day. But how do I choose which books I want to read?

Firstly, recommendations. If a friend tells me a book is really good, then I will glance it over and 9 times out of 10 put it on the list of books to read. If I see a review that praises a book, then I do the same.

Secondly, browsing. Upon entering a library or bookstore, I usually have two or three books in mind to pick up, but often I find myself scrolling through the aisles, picking up anything that looks intriguing. There are two things I keep in mind here: previous experience and the back cover copy. Sometimes it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover, but if working in the publishing industry has taught me anything about deciding what to read, it’s that if a publisher believes whole-heartedly in a book, they will do whatever possible to make it look pretty so people will buy it. It’s important to remember, though, that oftentimes a book with an ugly cover or vague back cover copy will surprise you with how wonderful it is. By previous experience I mean knowing what types of books I like and what I don’t like, taking into consideration what those books looked like, who wrote them, by whom they were published, and numerous other factors. 

And thirdly, my mood. If I'm in a really bad mood, I will either read a depressing book or a book simple and light-hearted that I can read quickly without concentrating to much, in order to distract me. If I'm in a really good mood, I want to read everything in sight! Also, my own writing affects what I choose to read. My current manuscript's setting and characters will influence my choice; I like to read things that take place in similar locations or feature characters in similar situations, both so I can learn from the authors' successes and so I can steer my manuscript in its own way to be original rather than too close to another work.

What about you? How do you choose a book to read? Do you judge a book by its cover? Do you read book reviews?

Peace, Aimee

Books Released This Month

Like my monthly “Books I Read This Month” post I write for the last day of each month, I am now beginning another scheduled post, “Books Released This Month,” in which I will list some of the new books being published in the month to come. I’m sure most of them will be novels of the literary persuasion because that is what I read most often, and perhaps most of them will be featured in the “Books I Read This Month” post after they’ve been released, if I read them. Enjoy. :)

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman 
31 July 2012 - Technically last month, but this sounds like a really good book, so I'm listing it anyway.
Literary Fiction
An ex-soldier takes a job as a lighthouse keeper where he and his wife find an orphaned infant and raise her as their own.

Monster by Dave Zeltserman 
2 August 2012
In 19th century Germany, a man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit awakes to find himself inside a monstrous body in the lair of Dr. Frankenstein. 

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner 
7 August 2012
Literary Fiction
The story of a young girl in during the genocide of Cambodia in the 1970s.

Winter Journal by Paul Auster 
21 August 2012
An unconventional memoir, a meditation on the sensations of the body.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin 
21 August 2012
Literary Fiction 
At the turn of the 20th century, a reclusive orchardist risks his life to protect two pregnant young women. 

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper 
21 August 2012
A one-hit-wonder rock star decides to refuse his necessary heart surgery when he learns that his ex-wife is to remarry.

Peace, Aimee