Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CBR6 #4: Poems New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska is one of my very favorite poets. Her work is often both abstract and specific, and she combines remarkably evocative imagery with a variety of emotions, ranging from frustration to detached interest to dry humor. She is one of the few things I got out of a college lit class that was worth remembering.

Poems New and Collected is a retrospective of her work, and spans forty years of poetry. My favorites were probably from the pieces published in her 1972 work Could Have, though I liked poems from her entire collection. She writes on a variety of themes, including love, death, and most often what it means to be a part of humanity, and the collective experience thereof. It's kind of interesting to see how the themes change and develop over the course of forty years of writing.

The piece below is an example of one of her shorter works, this time from 1957's Calling Out to Yeti.


The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
the hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for roosters' crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

Empty hour.
Hollow.  Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours.

No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we're happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we've got to go on living.

It's brief, and it's simple, but it paints such a clear picture of a particular time and emotion.

For those who like poetry and don't mind a bit of a challenge, I'd highly recommend this.


CBR6 #3: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Stefanie Pintoff's debut novel was both a fantastic historical fiction and a compelling detective story.

It's 1905, and Detective Simon Ziele has moved out to the New York City suburbs after his fiancee perishes in the General Slocum disaster (that detail being what hooked me on the book in the first place, since that wreck is one I was very interested during my maritime disaster phase). He expects the life of a small-town policeman to be fairly quiet, but it isn't long before a horrific murder drops into his lap. The victim seems to have had many enemies, but none with a hatred violent enough to result in bloody homicide. Ziele is at a loss until Professor Alistair Sinclair shows up--Sinclair has been pioneering a field of criminal psychology at Columbia, and he thinks one of his test subjects might be the man the police are looking for...the only problem is finding him.

Ziele and Sinclair wind their way through the neighborhoods of old New York, coming into contact with every strata of society, from the mayor all the way down to local drunks and hoods in the search for the murderer.

This book was awesome -- I really enjoyed the character of Ziele very much, and found him quite sympathetic and believable. I also appreciated Alistair Sinclair's daughter-in-law Isabella, who was a much-needed female presence, and painted as a smart, independent young woman. The mystery wasn't obvious, and while I had my suspicions, I didn't know for sure who had done it until the reveal. I also enjoyed the historical context (though on occasion it did feel a tiny bit "OH HERE IS A THING THAT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK IN 1905 THAT WE JUST HAPPEN TO MENTION CASUALLY READER, DO APPRECIATE OUR HISTORICAL CONTEXT!" for the most part it was well done).

I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or detective thrillers. I can't wait to get my hands on the second and third books in the series.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CBR6 #2: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff

     The Harrowing would make a great movie. I'd cast Elizabeth Olsen as Robin, the depressed and lonely protagonist, spending her Thanksgiving break in a supposedly empty dorm. Brittany Snow as her nasty southern belle roommate Waverly, and Chris Hemsworth (or someone younger...I'm old and don't know who the current crop of stars in the "college student" age group are anymore) as Patrick, her jock boyfriend who also ends up staying behind. Rounding out the five "discarded" students who find themselves thrown together for three days in Baird College's Mendenhall dorm would be Eva Amurri as Lisa, the sexy bad girl, Kit Harrington as dark musician Cain, and Dane DeHaan as mousy nerd Martin. The five find themselves riding out a nasty storm together, and then of course they discover an old Ouija board...

This was actually a pretty gripping little horror story. The pace remained pretty consistent, and although the protagonist started out a little bit whiny, she rapidly improved into a likable character. The villain was not immediately obvious, and there was a bit of a twist toward the end that I wasn't expecting.

The only downside about this one was I felt as though it could actually been a little longer. I would have appreciated a bit more development from the secondary characters, particularly since the book was VERY focused on the main five. Some depth to their personalities was sketched out, but I felt like the author may have relied a little too much on archetypes rather than making each supporting cast member into a truly unique person.

On the whole, I thought this was an entertaining read, and would be interested in reading other books by the author.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Life: A Manifesto

Another new year.

Jesus, it seems like Thanksgiving was only last week and now suddenly we're halfway through January already. As I get older, it seems like time gets significantly more capricious each year. It's like "I can't wait for spring / where did spring go? / Why is it so hot? / Oh God, will it ever be warm again? / How can the holidays be here already I thought it was still summer?"

 At the end of last year, I was feeling kind of lost and directionless. A bit like a paper boat that had gotten stuck in an eddy--just swirling around and around in circles, not sure how to go forward...not even entirely certain which direction WAS forward. I was feeling trapped, with no idea what to do about it. Lucky for me, a good friend did me a solid and gently lifted my little boat out of the whirlpool, dispensing some good advice and depositing me back into the stream, ready to surge forward toward the horizon. (Thanks, friend. I hope to have the chance to return the favor some day.)

Traditionally, this is the time of year to make resolutions. I generally don't bother, as they usually turn out to be things I am totally not going to do, so instead they become just one more thing to add to the stack of stuff I did not get done, which leads to guilt. And guilt is really nobody's friend. Therefore, instead of resolutions, I have some looser declarations which--like the Pirate code--are more guidelines than anything else.

1. On Writing: Last year, I didn't manage to get my Cannonball Read even close to finished. Although I continued doing the same amount of reading, I had trouble forcing myself to do the reviews. "After all," I figured, "no one is reading them, except my mom. What's the point?" The point, of course, is that goals need to be set and conquered once in a while, if for no other reason than to prove it's possible. Also, writing breeds writing (hence this blog entry). On a related note, if I DO manage to finish Cannonball Read 6, I am going to throw myself a party to celebrate.

2. On Art: When asked recently what I'd want to do if I could do anything, I surprised myself by immediately answering "Art." I've always enjoyed it, but since I left school I haven't done much with it. My reasons have mostly been about lack of time, or space, or materials, or inspiration, but clearly those are just excuses. This year, I am going to try and "art" at least once a week for an hour or two. Maybe not daily, but enough. And I am going to try new mediums, and probably inundate my hapless loved ones with sketches and comics and cross-stitches and slightly lopsided sculpey figurines of yaks. I have realized that I can't art for myself, but I am great at arting for others, so that's what I'll do. What I'll get out of it is the process of creating, exercises for a muscle I'd almost forgotten I had.

3. On Exercise: I would like to say that I am going to take up a focused exercise program and learn to love working out, but that would be a bald-faced lie. What I AM going to do is continue looking for something active that I like to do. Monday I've committed to trying a Bollywood dance fitness class. Maybe I'll like it. Maybe I won't. But I'm not going to let the possibility of a bunch of skinny, flexible people giving me the hairy eyeball keep me from trying it. If I don't like it, maybe I'll find something else I do like. And if I like it but don't like them...there's always dvds.

4. On Weddings: According to The Knot, there are exactly 499 days until the Boyfriend and I are scheduled to get married. You'd think after ten years of couplehood I'd be more than ready for it, but I must say that my feet are a little cold now and then. The idea of such a massive undertaking is daunting, particularly for someone like me who has trouble even organizing a meal where all the parts finish at roughly the same time. However, I am going to try to relax and remember that this is not about throwing the social event of the season. It is about celebrating the Boyfriend and my commitment to spending our lives together with our most beloved family and friends. It is not about aisle runners, centerpieces, sand ceremonies, passed hor d'oeuvres, unity candles, save-the-dates, or any of the other bullshit that the WIC (wedding industrial complex) is pushing. We will have the wedding we want, doing things that make sense for us, and we will put aside traditions or trappings that don't. And we will make it super fun. That is my number one priority, and I will be sure to keep that at the top of my mind when making decisions.

5. On Diets: I have decided to give up on dieting. I don't like it, it doesn't like me, and frankly it does me very little good. I will say that making an effort to eat more healthy this year (i.e. more vegetables, fewer processed foods) is on my list of things to do, as well as the aforementioned exercise. However, I am not going to count or calculate or weigh or watch. I am a fat person. I am also a healthy person--my blood pressure and cholesterol are basically perfect, my asthma's improved, and since I started taking vitamins I've been sick a whole lot less. I am not going to torture myself  anymore about my weight. I am who I am, and those who don't like it are welcome to exit stage left. Also, comments about "don't you want to be a beautiful bride?" will be met by hostility, as I would be a be a beautiful bride if I were to get married tomorrow, motherfucker, and don't you forget it.

6. On Outlook (no, not the email program): A friend recently described my personality as a "reliable little grey cloud." I am pretty sure that he meant that affectionately, but that makes it no less depressing. Nobody likes to be thought of as a rain cloud--we all want to be the sunbeam in others' lives. Now, I'm aware that he was totally accurate in that my natural personality does not trend toward sunny or optimistic, but I suspect that is something that can be learned (or at least faked with concerted effort). I also suspect that once I make the effort, it will begin to become second nature through sheer habit. This is a tough one, and I'm not sure how much progress I can make, but it's worth a shot.

7. On Openness: This last is the most difficult, but also potentially the most rewarding. It ties in with the Outlook issue, in that it's going to be a major change and will require a certain amount of brutally painful effort. This year, I intend to become more open and available to people. It should not take someone more than two (or even six or eight) years to feel as though they are friends with me. I'm not saying I plan to become a Barnacle Girl, glomming on to everyone in sight and declaring them my very bestest friend. But I should definitely be capable of making conversation and possibly arranging plans. I've been told by a number of people over the years that they would have liked to get to know me better, but that I come off very aloof. It's true; I do come off aloof, and it's both a function of genetics (my father's photo may actually be next to the word "aloof" in the dictionary) and experience (it's tough to reject someone who wasn't interested in you in the first place, after all). But I am not twelve years old anymore, and I need to stop expecting people to behave the way they did back then. Seriously, it's not brain surgery! It's "Let's hang out...okay, how about this time at this place?" God knows that once I'm comfortable with someone it's nearly impossible to get me to shut up, I just need to start opening my mouth sooner. 

And there you have it. I think seven declarations are enough for the time being. Some are easier than others, but I think all are totally manageable in context. Now it's just a matter of getting started...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

CBR6 #1: Combat Corpsman: A Navy SEAL Medic in Vietnam by Greg McPartlin

Another year, another Cannonball Read. Last year was something of an abject failure, as I didn't even manage to complete the quarter Cannonball (13 books read and reviewed -- I read plenty, but fell behind with the reviews and never caught up). However, it's a new year, which means a clean slate (at least as far as this little endeavor is concerned.) I've only signed up for the half-Cannonball, though I hope to manage the complete again this year.

Anyway, on to my first review of 2014! This book was a gift from the lovely llp (as part of the CBR gift exchange), to whom I am extremely grateful. I've been wanting this book for ages, but it refused to drop into my price range. 

Greg McPartlin's tale of his exploits as a corpsman attached to a SEAL team during the later years of the Vietnam conflict is pretty great. McPartlin's has a strong, likeable voice, and his tale is full of gripping combat adventures, the brotherhood of the military, and attempts to keep morale up in a situation that could be pretty depressing.

If you are looking for a "what does it all mean? How should we feel about the Vietnam war?" type of story, this isn't going to be for you. McPartlin is strongly biased, and not afraid to speak about his feelings in (often salty) language. This is his story, and his feelings about the Vietnamese people are ambivalent at best, which comes through throughout the book.

However, I liked him, and I enjoyed reading about his time with the SEALs. They played some very funny pranks on each other, and the personalities of his friends and comrades also came through very clearly in the narrative. The only real downside is that it ends very abruptly when his team rotates home, and I would have liked to know what happened to McPartlin and his fellow SEALs.

It's not necessarily a thoughtful book, but it's a good read.