Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wolven by Di Toft, OR I Conquer the Wilds

WolvenIt was a weekend worth remembering; a disastrous attempt at building a fire with wood that just wasn't having it; a carefree jaunt through a flea market that redefined rockbottom pricing; an opportunity to dive headlong into a British paranormal adventures series about that most overdone of angles, lycanthropy. I couldn't be much happier. Okay, in certain respects my weekend camping trip could have gone much better. In others, it was pretty near perfect.

Let's choose to accentuate the positive though. That boils down to the number of stars that are visible in central Pennsylvania, good company making for good times, and Wolven by Di Toft. Before I dive into the depths of joy that Toft's book of a boy and his dog boy brought me, let me just thank my wife and my sister-in-law for pulling me along with them on their trip to the wilds of central Pennsylvania. I don't normally go for the whole roughing it angle. Don't get me wrong. I have no aversion to nature but, as Jim Gaffigan so eloquently put it, "I'd like to keep the relationship professional." You really don't get to see so many stars in my small suburban town. That was hardly the case in the pitch black of the campground I spent a few days in this week. The trick was finding a patch of sky unobstructed by the abundant trees to view the spectacle overhead.

In the daytime, between wrangling with an energetic niece and nephew (a nephew that could run even an olympic marathoner ragged), I read Wolven and what a pleasant reprieve it was. No vampire romances to be found in this one. In fact, neither of the characters are old enough to have any interest in that, though there was the one scene where the two of them were entranced at the carnival by a girl with a swirly gown and wild hair. Instead, this was more akin to Shiloh if Shiloh had been partially human. Toft writes a fair adventure, though I feel somehow uncertain after this first book. I know that there's a second adventure in store for those brave enough to plow forward, but I was kind of expecting the villains to be more lasting. You see, she killed all the baddies by the end of book one. Now she's going to have to introduce a whole new batch of rotten toads for book two. I suppose that's the way it works for some series. Each volume would stand on its own well enough that it wouldn't need a series to back it up.

We'll have to wait on that second one as I haven't seen it in any of my local bookstores, though it claims to be out and ready for reading already. In the meantime, I'm going back to the land of the shrouded night sky. I'll miss the constellations, but home is where your stuff is after all.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Marriage, the End of the World, and an Eventful Saturday

On May 21, 2011, as the most recently predicted end of the world closed in on us, I found myself and my closest friends and relatives wearing tuxedos and milling around a banquet hall like really inept secret agents. In case that doesn't encapsulate what an awkward experience preparing for a wedding can be, let me add that this was my second visit to that same banquet hall that day, the first having come a few hours earlier when I was setting up various decorations with a collection of the most dedicated volunteers any person has any right to hope for. You see, on May 21st, I not only survived another fruitless apocalypse prediction and married someone who obviously severely underestimated my shortcomings, I also learned that a wedding can make even the calmest of people into forgetful, blithering morons. I am now a married man. On May 21st, I was that aforementioned moron. And yet, somehow I managed to get a ring onto my bride's finger and she must have said I do despite her better judgement.

And this fortuitous circumstance merits posting. Also, I have a couple of books to review and they are of the wedding variety. I'm not going to promote any of the hundred or so wedding-on-a-budget books that my bride copiously provided me with over the past year or so. There are more than enough people who spend their lives trying to push those books on unsuspecting goofballs like me without my throwing my thoughts into the fray. And I can't say I really read any of them carefully enough to merit their review. My bride did though. And she told me what they said. She knows enough about them to write a book of her own just reviewing everyone else's materials.

Flower GirlWhat I will review are two picture books that I read before we presented them to my niece and my cousin as part of their flower girl and ring bearer gifts. I read them, lost the first copy ring bearer book, replaced it, and presented the books to my young relatives with a few other things that my wife had picked up.  Of course, with a combined age of less than ten among the junior members of our wedding party, the books weren't the big hit I might have hoped they would be. No, that honor went to the build-a-bear companions we gave them. I liked the books though. They could have been any one of a number of books. Like so many other things in the wedding industry, there is an overabundance of picture books devoted to flower girls and ring bearers out there. Go to your local bookstore and give it a look. You'll see what I'm talking about.

Anyway, the basic idea behind your average book of this variety is something relatively cute and heartwarming, like a terribly drawn-out Hallmark card. Flower Girl was pretty much par for the course in that regard. It was cute. Heck, it was much more than cute. Yeah, that's right, I gonna drop the A-bomb. Flower Girl was stinkin' adorable! I wanted to hear a few of my literate relatives gush an "aww" and "Isn't that sweet?" I must have missed it though. Either that or the book was shoved way down deep in the gift bag and they didn't see it until a few days later.

The Best Ever Ring Bearer: All the Best Things About Being in a WeddingThe ring bearer book was every bit as brilliant. I should know since I've purchased two copies of the thing. I'm still hoping to find that first copy before the digital age ends the reign of the printed book so I can resell it and regain a degree of my dignity. Anyway, these aren't books that will redefine the genre. They will never be shortlisted among the candidates for great American literature. They'll sell a ton of copies though, since people who get married temporarily lose their financial mind and buy a whole bunch of stuff that they wouldn't even look at normally.

Anyway, I'm a married man now, so happy days are here. The day went off without a hitch and  other than the fact that I have now purchased a couple of books that most people will giggle at the existence of, I am so much better for the experience. So if you're as love loopy as I was (and still am), know that you're not alone, and that these two books are out there with about a million others are lurking in your periphery, waiting for their chance to strike your wallet. My advice? Let them. And let your wife have it her way on her wedding day. It's in your best interest.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Well Wishes for Lois Lowry

Recently, I've been following the blog posts of Lois Lowry more closely than usual as she has recounted something terribly difficult, the slow decline and death of a dear friend of hers, Martin Small. I have great respect for her work and though I haven't read every book she has ever published, I've read enough to know that she is an author of great and varied talent. I feel true sorrow at hearing about this hardship. As with many of the writers whose work I've read, I feel a strange connection to her despite our never having met, as though we're distant cousins or long separated friends. I want to send condolences though I'm not sure that such a gesture from a complete stranger would be at all meaningful or even helpful.

I experienced something similar when I read about Jane Yolen's struggle with the passing of her husband. I truly wish that I could reach out to them since I feel that by sharing their writing they've reached out to me in some way. It's difficult not to feel compassion for someone who shared something as personal as a piece of their own writing. I feel protective of them, because I know how hard sharing can be. There is a degree of exposure that comes from writing that can't be paralleled in almost any other profession.

So even though Lois Lowry is a stranger, I feel a sense of loss for her. I wish I could take away some of her suffering. I won't be offering commentary on any of her work here. I've read a lot of it, but this is hardly the time for it. Right now, I just want to wish her well. I want her to know that I am going to keep her in my thoughts. I won't claim to understand what she's going through. I know that's unrealistic. I just want to say I'm sorry for her loss, whether she ever reads this or not.

If you'd like to catch up on the blog posts I referenced in this post, here is the link:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reading challenges and an uncontrolled appetite...

If you read this blog carefully, and occasionally click on the blue highlighted words you find, you might have already noticed that I am a regular user of the book-centered website, Goodreads.com. I keep a running log of my reading activities on the site, I offer up reviews of many of the books I've finished reading (though they are typically very short reviews and incomparable to what I put up here), and I keep up with the blogging activities of many of my favorite authors thanks to a very simple blog display interface. More recently, I've taken part in the 2011 Goodreads Reading Challenge, something that I didn't think much of to start, but have since become unavoidably obsessed with. The premise is simple. Since users of Goodreads spend much of their time sharing what they've read and their opinions on those books, it seems only natural that Goodreads is able to gather statistics on a user's reading habits over a given time, provided that the user bothers to offer that information up. Therefore, it isn't too difficult to keep a running total of the books a user reads during the course of a year. If the user had a reading goal for a given year, Goodreads could offer progress updates to the reader and basically keep the reader on pace to reach that goal.

2011 Reading ChallengeI made a tentative goal to read 100 books in 2011. I remember as a child when my school would hold the 100 book challenge and we would all read for that mythical number and the resulting pizza party when we succeeded.  When deciding on my own goal I thought, I read a lot of books as a children's librarian. Even though I don't have any kind of prior gage on my reading habits, I figured 100 sounded like a nice round, possibly attainable number. Then I started monitoring my reading, being sure to update the site on any books I finished in a given day.

Well, it turns out that I was low-balling it. I topped 100 yesterday and now I'm moving beyond that. And I have to say that I give Goodreads a lot of the credit. I'm not saying that I wasn't a habitual reader before. What I'm saying is that I was a disorderly reader before. I was in the middle of just about every book I put my hands on. I didn't finish things. I would read something, get really involved in it, put it down at the end of a day about half finished, and pick up something completely new and different the next day without ever returning to finish what I was reading the day before. I was a mess. I had a fairly good memory for books so when I would pick something up for the second time, possibly even years later, I would pick up where I left off with only vague blurriness about a few forgettable details. But it didn't cater to being the sort of reader who would finish a lot of books. I new a little of a lot of things, but not nearly enough of almost anything for my opinion to be worth its while.

Now, I find myself going back to the same book day after day, writing status updates on my current progress in the Goodreads sidebar, and being so engaged that I find myself driving my fiancee up a wall with an almost constant need to gush about what I thought of this or that book. That's where this blog is probably saving my life in some manner. If I poured everything I was thinking into one ear hole, the owner of that ear hole would have every right to attempt to murder me. It would easily be deemed self-defense by any court of law.

"Your honor," my former fiancee would say, "he had only just finished a one-sided discussion on the merits of Chris Crutcher's Deadline when he unthinkingly segued into an anecdote from a Sloane Crosley essay he'd been reading. Now, I like I Was Told There'd Be Cake as much as the next girl, but one person can only take so much! Am I right?" The judge would solemnly nod his head and pardon her of all charges, and justice would be done. I can't argue with that. One person can only take so much. So I put my thoughts down here, where the reader can choose to click the close button rather than doing me bodily harm for the sake of some peace and quiet. I clog the Internet with a little bit more mindless chatter, and I move one step further toward a happy marriage. It's a happy alternative I think. I'm sure my fiancee agrees.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Little Something Unbearable…

A Touch of Dead (Sookie Stackhouse: The Complete Stories)Two o’clock on a Saturday and where do I find myself? In a women’s clothing store, waiting for my dear fiancée to try on a few pairs of brown dress pants. What does a man do in a women’s clothing store? He waits, occupying himself with anything that he can find to distract himself from the misery that is sitting in a women’s clothing store on an otherwise beautiful spring day. And so, the time had come for me to acquaint myself with Miss Sookie Stackhouse. You see, my fiancée is a True Blood fan, one among a legion of fans by my understanding, and so like many True Blood fans, she has decided to read the series from which True Blood was derived.

Now, if you are among the few who has read some of my earlier blog entries, you’ll remember that the last unbearable thing that my fiancée dropped upon my lap was equally paranormal, and equally cringe worthy. I am speaking, of course, of the Twilight books, Stephanie Meyer’s saga of strange creatures with strange addictions to sorry excuses for humanity. That’s right, Bella Swan, I still think you’re a dimbulb. I was never much for the Team Edward versus Team Jacob argument. I was always on Team You-Both-Could-Do-Much-Better. But this is a new beast altogether. Sookie Stackhouse has her own skills, her own vampires, her own dog man, her own messy home life. And I am not reading the entire series. It’s enough for me that I have passed by the television a few times while she was watching an episode.

No, my meeting with Sookie is due to an acute oversight on my part: leaving the house without sufficient reading material. I make a point of always keeping something to read from or write upon whenever I go out. This is primarily to prepare me for just such a situation as this one, the unplanned visit to pick up a pair of pants, or shoes, or a blouse, or just to browse for the sheer joy of it. As long as I have something to occupy myself with, I know I can persevere through whatever is thrown my way. Yet, on this particular Saturday, as we pulled into a parking space and prepared to disembark, what did I find behind me? Nothing. Well, the near equivalent of nothing. Just the volume of Sookie Stackhouse short stories that my fiancée recently checked out but neglected to remove from my backseat. Desperate times. I picked up the book and trudged into the store.

The book was in large print, not because my fiancée needed it, but because that was the only edition the library had available. That was fine by me though. If there’s one quirk I don’t take issue with, it’s the publisher that takes unnecessary pity on my eyes. Aside from that, it turned a 300 page book into a much more manageable burden should I become strangely enthralled. So I cracked it open to the beginning and dove in. Around me, my fiancée began draping pants that she wanted to try on. I become a human coat rack in stores. It’s okay. I’ve happily resigned myself to this lot in life. She’s more than worth the slight indignity.

I started reading a story about a trio of fairies who suspect that one of their own has been slain by a coworker at a strip club. This is not exactly my choice of material, but it’s better than price stickers and clothing labels. They’ve rounded up their collection of suspects and tied them up in various parts of the house. Sookie, who reads minds (but apparently doesn’t see the moneymaking potential therein, since she works as a waitress at a dive bar), has been brought in to interrogate the suspects. After cross-examining one after another, each with their own backlog of reasonable suspicion, Sookie uses her powers of deduction to piece together a plot that pins the club owner with premeditated murder by lemon juice. Oh boy, I think. Fairy murder by lemon juice doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

The next story is of the vampire persuasion. It centers on the coming of who else but Count Dracula, and via a few slightly funny “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” references it builds a story around a vampire holiday, of all things. It ends with a vampire being staked by Sookie while other vampires, werewolves and werepanthers (that’s right, I said werepanthers) all look on. Oh my, maybe the clothing labels would have been better. But I keep reading, and horror of horrors, I am getting hooked. I manage to blow through the third story, a story centered on another vampire who killed Sookie’s long-lost vampire cousin, before my fiancee picks out her pants, and I am started on number four by the time we exit the store. Maybe there’s something to this paranormal escapade after all.

So you’d think that after leaving the store and returning home to my room-o-literature, I should be ready to set aside Sookie’s stories and get back to the high-quality books I normally read, but you’d be wrong. I keep on keeping on. In fact, I read the final two stories before dinner. Story four involves some simple detective-style storytelling focused on an insurance agent who dabbles in magic to increase his clients’ luck. I’d hardly even call it a story as much as an inconclusive yet colorful anecdote. Story five is a shameful attempt at paranormal harlequin writing. Basically, the story boils down to a lonely Sookie looking for a little lovin' and finding it in the arms of an abandoned werewolf. Then, because everything isn't odd enough, it turns out that the werewolf was only a shifter/actor hired to give the required lovin' by Sookie's recently discovered fairy great-grandfather as a Christmas gift. Yet I still manage to zone out everyone, everything, even through the fairy grandparent hiring his human granddaughter her own prostitute. Even my fiancée seems a bit peeved with me before I’m through, though when I read a book like this she does offer me some leniency.

So, I have fallen prey to Sookie Stackhouse. I don’t have any desire to read the other stories. I’ll leave them to the masses. But for one day at least I have to admit that I became a Sookie faithful. She helped me through something unbearable, even if the reprieve she offered might have been every bit as unbearable under other circumstances. I guess I owe her one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial PacificDuring my teenage years, I would never have imagined reading a book titled The Sex Live of Cannibals simply because I couldn't get through the title without tittering like an adolescent schoolgirl. Yes, I am, or rather I was and might still be that immature. But for whatever inexplicable reason, I was recently able to get past that or at least keep on reading through the giggle fit it caused me and finish this book. That probably has something to do with the fact that this is the second book by J. Maarten Troost that I've read. Despite The Sex Lives of Cannibals being the first book Troost managed to get published, I stumbled upon an audio edition of his most recent book, Lost On Planet China, a month sooner. It might also have something to do with the fact that I didn't read them at all, but opted instead to listen to both books in my car while on an endless daily commute to and from work.

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying NationLost on Planet China is an excellent book. The audio edition offers the reader who hasn't the eyes to spare the chance to experience that excellent book. True, the people at Blackstone Audio made a curious choice of readers choosing Simon Vance, a top-of-the-line performer with a strong English accent despite the author's lacking any such accent. It gives the reader the impression that they are listening to a wandering Brit on a far-flung expedition from his not-so-native home in California, but it does little to detract from the quality of the book. I devoured it in the space of a few days despite all the obstacles that preparing for my wedding caused. I'm getting married soon, on the 21st of this month to be precise. Yet, somehow I managed to fit 11 hours of listening pleasure in between the endless shopping that weddings strangely require. I think it was the one thing that allowed me to maintain some degree of sanity amidst the buying spree. I needed to hear the trials of another man in an equally foreign climate to give me perspective on my own.

Sadly though, when a book is consumed with such ferocious haste, the reader finds himself in need of further nourishment to sustain him through the continuing mayhem. I needed distraction. And so I found myself an audio edition of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, read by the same humorously English Simon Vance. I guess the people at Blackstone just assumed that a man who lived in Holland as well as some of the more interesting parts of Europe for a time would have to be encumbered by some verbal peculiarity. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and Simon Vance just happens to enjoy reading Troost as much as I enjoy listening to him read it. In any case, The Sex Life of Cannibals turned out to be a beast of entirely different proportions. It was plain to see that from the start. For one thing, this memoir recounts an entirely different Troost, one who is unmarried yet oddly living the married life, unsure of what he wants to do with his life career-wise, and entirely unprepared for any of what he was getting himself into. True, Troost was continually mystified by China too. The lifestyles and customs of the Chinese were perplexing to say the least. But in Cannibals, we get the chance to observe him as he develops coping mechanisms. We witness his gradual acceptance of a life where nothing can be assumed, no part of his past can offer him guidance, and setting dictates choices in every conceivable moment.

I gained an entirely new understanding of the hardships of life in the Pacific. My experience on Pacific islands is limited to the Hawaiian six: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, Lanai, and Molokai; where living in paradise is only unattainable because I couldn't afford it. Compared to life on tiny Tarawa where Troost witnesses firsthand that the postcard appearance of a life in the Pacific is quite unlike anything a person might experience in reality, I have no business offering commentary on the subject. There is a degree of limiting life to its more basic survivalist tendencies that a person might expect to find in a book about someone who survived a plane crash in the remote Himalayas. The chapter on island dogs alone is enough to make any person realize that this is another world onto itself. Savagery doesn't seem like such a far off descriptor for the lifestyle one must embrace, though to call the people of Tarawa savage would be inaccurate. The Kirabati in his book are kind people that I grew to like just from getting to know them secondhand over the course of the story. Some of their customs seem like a bit of a stretch for me, like the system in which anyone can walk up to you, ask you for something that they want or need, and you have to agree to offer it to them right there on the spot. It's pronounced baboosi, though I'm not sure about the correct spelling. While I am a big supporter of sharing, this seems to be a bit over the top. In general, they are just living the life that an atoll dictates to them.

This book was enough to make me know that I never wanted to live on Tarawa or any other part of the Republic of Kiribati. But then again, after reading his China book I was happy to write off China as a place I wanted to keep my distance from as well. Maarten Troost's literary career seems to boil down to a very simple formula. He hunts out an adventure in a bizarre place or the adventure hunts him out somehow instead, he promptly dives in way over his head, he's washed away in a flotilla of harrowing and slightly horrible events, and then writes it all down as accurately as he can recollect with a generous dose of historical insight thrown on to illuminate the whole experience. It does the trick. Despite the fact that I wouldn't want to relive any of his adventures firsthand, I've found myself replaying a chapter a couple of times just to pull everything out. I wouldn't trade places with him though. Not for all the money in the world.

Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and VanuatuA life of adventure is probably not in the cards for me. I am looking forward to Getting Stoned With Savages as soon as I get my hands on a copy. I'll continue to read what J. Maarten Troost writes though, and to paraphrase something I read in another review, a book is all the closer I need to get to a life like his.