I’m baaaaack!

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"

I'm baaaaack!

Yes, I’m back after an unexpected and drawn out hiatus.  It’s amazing how life can change in such a short time, and what’s equally amazing is how I have not spent one drop of that time reading or writing.  For some, this would not be unusual, but for me, it’s akin to living in Opposite World.

A quick update for those keeping track:

1.  I finished NaNoWriMo and actually submitted 50,000+ words by the end of November.  Now I need another November and possibly another 50,000 to get to the end of the story, but I was really proud of myself for reaching that goal. It makes me realize how much really is possible when I put my focused will into it.

2.  After the holidays, the business of which kept me away from my books and writing, I ended up relocating back to South Florida in a relatively sudden development, so the month of January was spent packing, cleaning and actually moving.

3.  I started and recently finished a temporary job which involved standing on my feet for interminable hours without the ability to sit, read, write, or do anything other than smile and chat up virtually non-existent customers.  My mind quickly proceeded to turn to jelly, and it was all I could do to arrive in my hotel room before passing out from physical exhaustion and mental stagnation.  As much as I appreciate the opportunity, I cannot express how glad I am that it is over.

4.  Of course, this now means that I am officially unemployed . . . but it’s May in South Florida and I’ve got a pool so it can’t be all bad.  Right?  Right???

5.  Relating to my previous post on technology, I acquired an iPhone 4 due to the infinite wisdom of Apple to share its hardware with a cellular provider other than AT&T.  It’s the only thing that kept me sane during #3 as I surreptitiously
checked FaceBook and email and text messages every 15 minutes all day.  It’s remarkable how quickly I was able to drain the battery during the long work day, not to mention pathetic how dependent I was on social media for a feeling of connection.

6.  Also relating to technology, most recently, I purchased an e-reader in anticipation of a vacation that I will be taking in about a week.  I went with an e-ink (black and white) version of Barnes and Noble’s Nook.  (Disclaimer:  a week or so after I received my cheap-o refurbished Nook from B&N, they came out with a new e-ink one which is where this link will take you.)  I agonized over the decision for quite a while before making a commitment, but the main reasons for selecting this particular item were the ability to “borrow” books from the local library because of the compatible file types, the capacity to “lend” books for two weeks for free to others who use a Nook (and I do know a couple), and I went with the e-ink because, bottom line, I have to be able to read it in the sun and that’s just not possible with any of the color readers currently available.  I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually and I’ll probably upgrade at that point, but I’m really loving the look of e-ink right now.  So far, I’m delighted with my choice.

7.  Oh yeah . . . since this is supposed to be about classic books . . . I’ve read about half of The Scarlet Letter in the last 6 months.  Anybody familiar with that book knows that it should take a serious reader approximately 4 hours to read such a slim volume, particularly a reader, such as myself, who has already read it at least twice and written two separate research papers on it.  I actually enjoyed it in the past, so I choose to blame my inability to finish it to life circumstances rather than any fault of the book or the author.  I promise to finish it before the end of my vacation and report back.  Or maybe I’ll just copy an old research paper onto the blog.

8.  One final note or actually a plug.  My high school drama class friend Christy English has just released her second novel published through Penguin Books historical fiction division.  It’s entitled To Be Queen and I’m using it to christen my Nook.  It’s sort of a prequel to her first book The Queen’s Pawn which was on an earlier post of books I read last summer.  It deals with Eleanor of Aquitaine’s earlier life and marriage to the King of France.  It’s incredible to me that I actually KNOW somebody who is really making a living as a writer, and a darn good one at that (a good writer, I mean.  I have no insight into the magnitude of the good living she is making.)  It’s inspiring to me, and more than a little annoying that I haven’t been able to do it. I suppose I’d have to actually finish writing a novel first.  Details, details.

Go buy her books.  I’ll let you know when mine is available for purchase, but, uh . . . don’t hold your breath.

One Man’s Trash . . .

While I am plowing through the first novel on my list of bests, I thought I’d give you an idea of what I normally read (for better or worse).  What follows is a list of some of the books I have read this summer along with my personal thoughts about the books, authors, etc.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo & The Girl Who Played With Fire both by Stieg Larsson – I was lent and read the 2nd book in this series first and contrary to what I was told, it DOES make a difference.  There is a major plot point that carries much of the first novel that is already resolved before the 2nd, so I already knew how the 1st was going to turn out while I was reading it.  I might have been able to figure it out myself anyway, but it kind of messes up my flow when I have knowledge of a spoiler.

The heroine is unusual and fairly kickass which makes for an interesting read, in my opinion.  The first book was made into a movie in Sweden, I think, and the powers that be have decided that it need to be made into a movie in the U.S. since Americans, apparently, can’t tolerate subtitles.  It’s just the kind of book that should translate well onto the silver screen:  handsome, principled hero; funky, counterculture heroine; an old, wealthy family mystery; sex; technology; murder; money . . . it’s like Stieg lived in Hollywood already.

Anyway, this is a series of 3 books by the now deceased Swedish author and they are all (?) currently on the best seller list.  I would have read the 3rd but it’s only available in hardback & I can’t bring myself to spend that much.  And even if it were in paperback, I needed to give myself a break from this particular series, as much as I have enjoyed it.

Tipping Point by Malcolm Glaldwell – another best seller, but this one is non-fiction and the reason I found it was a referral by a marketing teacher I had in my MBA program.  This book deals with what is the difference between a sweeping trend and an idea that just kind of peters out without making an impression.  Using numerous examples from a wide variety of sources, Caldwell tries to identify the factors that “tip”.  It sounds like it would be a dry read, but Caldwell has an amazingly readable tone and a storyteller’s voice.  It was thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, and I plan to read it again one day.  I also recommend another of his books I read previously:  Blink.  More or less, it’s about first impressions and their impact on behavior.

Odd Hours by Dean Koontz – I happen to like a good series, as you will gather from this list.  I particularly enjoy a series that doesn’t necessarily have to be read in order where the main draw is a strongly appeal main character.  This is one of those series.  I have never read any of Dean Koontz’s other books and I am aware that he is widely popular.  They just never seemed to be my kind of books.  I’m not sure why I stumbled upon this character, Odd Thomas, who was so named by a typo on his birth certificate (his first name was meant to be Todd), but I love him.  He, like Haley Joel Osment, sees dead people, and the dead people know it so they frequently want him to do something for them.  It’s frequently spooky, but there are wonderful, comedic sidebars where he talks to the ghost of Elvis and Frank Sinatra, among others, although none of the ghosts can actually talk back.

Odd is quirky (as you might imagine for someone named Odd that talks to ghosts), tortured, heroic and humble.  There’s a good bit of action and traditional bad guy stuff too.  I believe this is the 4th books featuring Odd, and they are all easy, fun reads that sweep you along.  You’re at the end before you know it, with only a vague memory of what you just read, but that’s OK.

Lucky You & Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen – This is one of my Florida authors.  Having been born in South Florida and lived 11+ years of my adult life there too, I have an exasperated, affinity for the craziness that is that state.  Interestingly, unknown to much of the rest of the country, it’s almost like that state is divided into four other, distinct states that have their own personalities and foibles.  Mr. Hiaasen focuses his efforts on the swamps of the Everglades with its colorful cast of Seminole Indians, dangerous wildlife, eco-tourists, redneck militia fanatics, immigrant farm laborers, and much more.  He has some extremely engaging recurring characters, but they don’t show up in every book and are not usually central players.  He also makes visits to other, more populous areas and has a fondness for all that makes Florida tacky.  In these two books, there is a “dispute” over a winning lottery ticket and a stripper who is accidentally caught in a political intrigue.  The sharp wit and entertaining characters carry the books along quite well.  Perfect summer reading if you don’t mind finishing the book in just a day or two because you can’t put it down.

Sanibel Flats by Randy Wayne White – This is my second Florida author, but his work focuses the locale in Western Florida and follows a main character Marion “Doc” Ford who seems to be a geeky marine biologist living on a houseboat, but turns out to be some kind of inactive covert operations type of government employee.  He’s a bespectacled nerd that is more than capable of kicking somebody’s ass when necessary . . . and it’s amazing how often it becomes necessary when he obviously wants to avoid it.  He is kind of like Indiana Jones but a little tougher and less cartoonish.  I have read several, but this particular book is the first and it’s interesting to read knowing how Doc Ford develops over time.  My brother and I have so enjoyed RWW’s novels over the last several years that the main character’s preferred drink, pineapple and dark rum, has become our standard summer cocktail, and we call it a “Doc Ford.”  Like the drink, the books are a delightful combination of humor and action, fruitiness and business.

The Queen’s Pawn by Christy English – This is a freshman novel by a friend of mine from high school, and I cannot say enough good things about it.  I have read a number of first novels recently, for some reason.  I am not listing most of them here because most are not worth listing.  In so many, there tends to be a stiltedness that forces you to remember the reality that you’re reading somebody else’s not quite eloquently worded thoughts.  It jars you out of the floating suspension of disbelief that you enter when you immerse yourself in a well written book.  This book has none of that as a problem.  From beginning to end, this fictionalized look at Eleanor of Aquitaine and Princess Alais of France and the intersection of their lives lifts you up and doesn’t put you back down in your world until you close the book.  It is virtually seamless.  Whether this is the innate ability of the writer or the masterful work of a highly skilled editor, I cannot say.  I imagine it is a bit of both.  But if you have any interest at all in historical fiction a la Philippa Gregory, I highly recommend you give this book a try.  Christy’s second book is locked and being printed as I write, and I will have to take a break from this project to read it when it finally comes out.

Positively Pooh:  Timeless Wisdom From Pooh by A.A. Milne – an adorable little book given to me on the occasion of my graduation.  It’s exactly what you might think it is, and the better for it.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – This, too, is a first novel, but not by a writer I know.  Why this one is so immensely popular and The Queen’s Pawn is relatively undiscovered . . . well, I’ll have to read Tipping Point again to see if the answer is in there somewhere.  That is certainly not a knock on this book, though.  It is absolutely outstanding.  I hesitate to say that it will become a classic because I feel unqualified to make such a pronouncement, but I will just let that indicate my high regard for the book.  It deals with segregation in the South during the Civil Rights movement and particularly the remarkable variety of relationships that white families had with their black housekeepers.  It resonates with me because even when I grew up, we had a black housekeeper that I called by her first name.  An adult woman that a child was allowed to call by her first name!  I had no idea what a travesty that was at the time, just as many of these people had no idea what they were doing.  It’s embarrassing to be able to see myself in it, but I am glad that I see it rather than being so ignorant as to think it has no relation to my life.  Read it, whether you had a housekeeper or not.  You won’t regret it.

Earthfall (Volume 4 of the Homecoming Saga) & The Crystal City (Volume 6 of the The Tales of Alvin Maker Series) by Orson Scott Card – I go through phases where I read a lot of a particular genre.  These two are leftovers from a science fiction/fantasy phase and I am trying to finish the series.  The Homecoming Series is genuine science fiction and I have one more of those left.  I prefer the Alvin Maker Series as it is more fantasy and it deals with an alternate reality pre-Civil War America where there is an element of magic around.  I like alternate reality views of the world.  One must be so creative to flesh them out fully.  I admire OSC for his ability to do so, although it seems that he used an online community of readers to help him.  The Crystal City is the last of the series.

Note:  both series should be read in order because each book builds on the previous one.  It kind of drags it out when you can’t find the next book you need to read, so it’s taken me quite some time to get through them.

Demons & Other Inconveniences by Dan Dillard – this is a self-published book of short horror stories by the husband of a friend of mine from high school.  It’s not my normal genre, but I see great promise in his work.  I know that he is writing on a regular basis, so his craft will only get stronger.  He has great instincts and some of the stories are genuinely surprising and scary.  He is currently talking to a publisher, I hear, and is definitely someone to watch.

Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them by Francine Prose – this was the last book I read prior to starting my 101 Best Novels project, and the title really says it all.  I’m hoping that it will help me to slow down and read a little more critically from time to time, so that I can figure out just a little bit of what makes a novel great.  Not exactly pleasure reading, for most, but worth the time, in my case.