Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Tragic Christmas Worth Remembering

On Friday, December 21, the Stewart family moved into our new residence.  We were pretty sure that we wouldn't be in before Christmas, but through tireless efforts from our realtor and our lender, and through the providence of a caring Father, we did.  The home is beautiful and far beyond what we hoped for.  A ranch style spread sitting on 1.5 acres--with trees!  Hardwood flooring throughout.  An attached garage with an almost finished out attic.  A plot for a garden.  Lots of stuff, and we love it.

On Saturday, December 22, we spent the entire day unloading boxes and putting stuff up and together.  A long day, but not unpleasant.  Many thanks to all those who were able to help.

On Sunday, December 23, we heard a sermon on the birth of Jesus.  How His birth, His life, His death, and His resurrection--the Gospel, His gift of grace--is the ultimate present to unwrap on Christmas.  How so much God loves the world that He extends to us grace and redemption when we don't deserve it.  And that night, as every year on December 23, the entire extended family gathered together in Bremen to enjoy one each other's company.  This has always been so as long as I can remember.  Coming together as a family.  It's a unique experience, as I come from a family where love is apparent and obvious, where people honestly care about one another, where the backbiting and gossiping is relatively minuscule and non-existent.  My family may not have much in the realm of materialism, but we're over-abundant when it comes to love.  That's how we are. 

After the get-together was over we stopped by Mamaw's house to pick up Stella and to check on her.  She left the gathering early.  She hadn't been feeling to good.  So we stopped and spent a good hour-and-a-half there, just talking and chiding Mamaw's stubbornness.  She didn't want to spend Christmas in the hospital, she said.  She'd go after Christmas.  So I took her trash outside for her and Keisha offered to take some of the food home with us and prepare it so she wouldn't have to.  Mostly we just sat around and talked and watched Avonlea play with Mamaw's water bottle and eyeglasses.  Hilarious stuff, really. 

Mom spent the night with Mamaw and we left to go to our new home.

At 3:54am on December 24, Mom called and told me that Mamaw didn't have a pulse.  She passed away not long after.

On Monday, December 24, we went to the funeral home and went through all the routine stuff.  Questions, answers, coffin room.  We were all stunned.  Christmas at Keisha's grandmothers that night to try normalcy, but my heart and mind were elsewhere.  All I can think about is how fulfilled my relationship was with Mamaw, how much I loved her and how much she loved me.  I spent the formative years of my life living with Mamaw, and my relationship was incredibly deep.  Many nights I spent down her house and she'd wake up early to take me and Jake home before going to work.  How I always opened her fridge and freezer just to see what she had available or if the ice box needed seeing to.  How I called her each week just to talk on the phone and see what was up.  How funny Avonlea looked playing with Mamaw's glasses, how Mamaw laughed. 

I think of the few unfinished things in my life that Mamaw missed: she won't get to see my new house, she won't get to meet the new baby when he comes around, and a few others.  But mostly I think about how full her life was, how much love was there between us.  All four of us grandkids loved her intensely, and her love was reciprocated.  She was without a doubt the best grandmother I could have hoped for, and I miss her very much.

On Tuesday, Christmas Day, December 25, we all gathered at Mamaw's house that night as planned.  We didn't get to eat her delicious cheese dip or sausage balls or barbecue, nor did anyone feel too much like eating, but we managed.  We sat around the tree and looked through photo albums, each of us quietly reflecting in our own way.  We passed out the gifts we had for one another.  My heart lurched at opening the ones from Mamaw.  Her absence was so noticed, and yet her presence was felt.  Love never ends, even if this life is temporary.

So I grieve and miss my Mamaw, but I think only happy thoughts on her memory.  I have the assurance that I will see her again, and until that day I'll go on living my life knowing that she has helped shape me into the person that I am today.

I love you, Mamaw.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Six Mini-Reviews

Between packing a house, driving extra distance to work, playing with a toddler, searching (and finding) a new home, dealing with a six-month-pregnant bride, and sundried other things, I’ve not had much time for reading, let alone writing reviews.  However, I have read a few things and am offering some short, concise reviews/impressions.


The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time #2) – I read this book a year ago and mocked it the whole time.  It was trite and uninteresting and I abandoned the WoT series for naught.  On a whim while perusing the audio section at the library I decided to pick up the book and try again.  And wouldn’t you know that the thing captured me this time.  The two narrators did a great job and helped make my commute time much more enjoyable.  I actually found myself wondering about the world when I wasn’t in the vehicle.  Still clich├ęd and somewhat juvenile, but there is plenty within to enjoy.

The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time #3) – After enjoying the audio of The Great Hunt, I happily picked up the third book in the massive WoT series.  The audio was still working for me, and the plot was still keeping me interested.  Rand, Mat, Perrin,  Egwene, and Nynaeve all are woven into the pattern for different purposes, and The Dragon Reborn continues exploring the world when an ancient darkness is threatening to spill out and blot the light.  I'll definitely be moving to the next book.

The Walking Dead Volumes 14 - 16, by Robert Kirkman – I’ve grown rather tired of this series.  The story has stalled and I feel like certain plots are being rehashed over and over again.  I’m ready for something more than what I’m getting.  Volume 16 takes the Reader up through Issue #96 of the series.  If Volume 17 does nothing absolutely brilliant and game changing, then I might just quit.

Batman: Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison – Dave McKean illustrated this.  My first exposure to him was through Gaiman’s Sandman series.  Because of that, I can’t help but feel like I’m reading a Vertigo imprint of the Bat as opposed to DC.  The dark themes also seem more Vertigo than DC.  Regardless, Arkham Asylum is like looking inside the mind of someone who’s gone crazy.   The panels, text, drawings, colors, and fonts all add to the illusion.  The story is jumbled and largely left up for interpretation.  Loosely, all the inmates of Arkham Asylum have escaped their cells and are holding the place captive, demanding Batman come in and join them.  I found the book readable, but mostly as a work of art as opposed to a coherent story.  This is apparently a landmark Batman title, but it’s just another Batman book to me.

Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster – I read Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as part of the weekly Coffee Talk group read.  Foster, a Quaker, writes with passion and eloquence.  His words are challenging, and his practical advice for living a life as Jesus’s disciple is very applicable.  This book is a great read for those wanting to grow in their faith through discipleship and following Christ.

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer - This is another Coffee Talk book.  Written by the famous Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran who stood up to Hitler during the height of the dictator's power, Bonhoeffer's words read almost as if they were written this year.  His examples and illustrations are perfectly applicable, and his insight was particularly beneficial to me.  The book is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor the feeble minded, as Bonhoeffer was a professor as a German seminary and writes like one.  While I theologically disagreed on some of his teachings (i.e., the sacrament chapters towards the end), I very much enjoyed the challenge of this book. 

The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, by H.P. Lovecraft – This book is available for free from  Collecting all the works of Lovecraft in chronological order, I started this book during RIP.  I read the first nine stories and enjoyed two – “The Tomb” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”  The problem is that Lovecraft uses the exact same structure for nearly every one of these stories.  A guy is retelling a story about some horror he witnessed and is now going crazy.  The POV needs to change occasionally, or the passive verbs need to capture my attention more or something.  I abandoned the book and may or may not try it again down the road.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Twelve, a (Spoiler-Free) Review

Justin Cronin’s The Passage (my review here) was a tour de force. (I just wanted to use that phrase.) It was incredibly fast-paced, horrific in all the right places, and had a cast of characters that I could really get behind. There was no doubt that I would be reading the follow-up, and when the library informed me that I could check it out, I happily obliged.

The Twelve picks up a few years after the events in The Passage. Well, after the majority of the events, in any case, since that book was told in three separate eras. The Twelve continues with the three eras, still choosing to focus primarily on the year 97 A.V. and the people there. There is a hefty chunk of exposition beforehand, just like The Passage spent several hundred pages building up Wolgast and the virus.

Peter, Amy, and Alicia are the major POVs for The Twelve, but Cronin gives us more insights when the occasion warrants it. The Twelve introduces several new characters to the mix, many of whom made this Reader’s skin crawl. Post-apocalyptic America is a tough place in which to live, and Cronin does not hold anything back.

I devoured The Twelve (I had to; I couldn’t renew it.) and am already waiting for the concluding volume to hit the shelves. There were parts of this book that seemed without purpose, but I trust that Cronin is simply focusing on the journey and not the End Game. This book was a bit more gruesome than The Passage, but nothing too shocking.

If you’ve read (and enjoyed) The Passage then you’ll read (and enjoy) The Twelve. If not, and you want to read a very entertaining and deeply thought-provoking speculative fiction novel, I definitely recommend picking up The Passage. Cronin is a heck of a story teller. He’s able to make the Reader actually care about the characters and their choices, even after the pages run out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Return of the Native Son

And lo, the son turned his face again upon his jilted blog and found favor with her, for she was pleasing unto him. And the son mused at his absence and how to proceed with his estranged blog and at his superfluous use of the conjunction “and” and he thought it was wonderful.

“A month has passed since last we met,” spoke the son, tenuous, like a child speaking to a mighty gorilla. “How shall we proceed?”

The blog—she has been anthropomorphic all along, has she not?—stared back at the son, blinking once per second with the soul-crushing gaze of a blank cursor.

“I thought so,” said the son, sighing a sigh beyond his twenty-six years. “The problem is that I’m not the person I used to be. I’ve changed, see. What we had was nice, but it just doesn’t exist anymore, y’know?”

The cursor blinked-blinked-blinked.

“Don’t look at me like that. You know I hate it when you do that.”

He might as well have been talking to a deaf and blind gorilla with cotton balls in its nostrils for all the good it did him.

“Fine. What do you want from me? You want me to tell you about my new job? Is that it? You already know how much I’m loving it, how I get to help the environment by polluting her in controlled quantities. It’s thankless and I’m hated by the people in production, but that’s environmental, right?” The son laughed a not quite sardonic chuckle. The great-and-terrible eye blinked-blinked-blinked. “Or would you rather me tell you all about the housing situation? Stewartland has been under a contract to sell for three weeks and she’s scheduled to close two days after the Ides of December. We’ve been frustrated waiting on the buyers to get an appraisal—which still hasn’t been ordered, by the way—because the house we’re moving into—currently unnamed—is all contingent upon our successful sell of Stewartland. It’s a crazy and mind-numbing process, especially with Christmas approaching and the very likely possibility that we’ll be spending the holidays in transition, wonderful for Keisha and Avonlea’s holiday spirits, I’m sure.” He couldn’t help but let the cynicism in this time. Blink-blink-blink.

The son made a fist. “I could delete you, you know? It’s not like I would miss you.” And he thought seriously about it. “It would be… easy.” Blink-blink-blink.
The son collapsed into a crumpled and tired form. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just, well, I’ve not forgotten you, but I don’t have the time to carry on like we used to. We’re not just some bumbling teens any more. I have a career and a wife and a seventeen-month-old and a son on the way and a million, billion other things and honestly you’re just not that high up in the priority list. But it’s not just you, either. Life is a crazy, wonderful, beautiful thing, too short by far. The time we spent together, it was good. But let’s face it, that was in the past. If you want to still be a part of my life, then you’re going to have to accept my decision. I’ll still visit you from time to time, if only for journaling. That is, after all, one of your primary purposes. I’m sure I’ll still even give you reviews from time to time, too. It’s not like I’m tying you to a tree, coating you in honey, and leaving you in the jungle for a gorilla to find. It’s more like I’m locking you in the basement and turning out the lights, but I’ll come down there from time to time just to check on you. That’s not so bad, right?”

Her eye reminded him of Sauron’s and he shivered.

“Right?” he asked again, but he already knew her answer.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said with an appropriate adverb applied to his tone. “Until next time.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Stand, a Review

Some folks say that The Stand is Stephen King’s greatest work. The book has been on my TBR for many years, pretty much from my starting of The Gunslinger during my college years. I vaguely knew what the book was about, but I definitely knew that it had a monstrous page count. Other than that, my expectations were moderately high. 

In 1990, a superflu swept across the globe. Its mortality rate was greater than 99%. The survivors of this superflu were therefore few. The Stand opens with the outbreak, and it doesn’t take too many pages before people begin dying. King tells this tale through several different points of view (too many for this particular story), from an up-and-coming Rock-and-Roll star to a deaf mute, from a pregnant coed to an insane pyromaniac. All of these survivors each must come to terms with their circumstances, but they also must come to terms with the reasons behind their survival, a reasoning that is possibly more than what seems. 

The Stand is gripping… at first. The spread of the superflu and its devastation was an absolute thrill to read, especially considering that my allergies kicked in right as I was starting. But as the pages turned and the survivors rose above their circumstances, it didn’t take long for fatigue to set in. Part of the issue was the enormous cast of characters. King spends time building up each one of them, which makes some sense, but not enough to justify their purpose. I mean, I understand why they were in the story, but I don’t understand why King wanted to give so much mundane detail on so many different people. 

Stephen King is a gifted storyteller, that is true. I think it’s also fair to assert that Stephen King is a gifted deliverer of lackluster (or maybe I mean disappointing) conclusions. The Stand gets no reprieve. I felt that after spending 1152 pages with these people that I deserved something more than what I got. Surely King was telling a grand story here. Surely his message and theme deserved climax. Sadly, I felt greatly underwhelmed with the resolutions and the ultimate fates/decisions of the characters. 

What did I like? I liked the opening part of the story, right when the superflu was spreading and people were dying. I liked how King dealt with the humanity mindset in that time of catastrophe. I liked the survivor’s initial guilt and ponderings on why they survived. I liked the stirrings in their minds as they felt the urge to pick up life again and journey across the nation. But, as I’ve said, after this elongated exposition, my entertainment waned. 

I don’t like sounding so negative. I wonder if part of my problem is with the genre itself. King’s post-apocalyptic romp was probably unique back in 1978 when the first edition of the book came out. This is no longer the case, obviously, and post-apocalyptic stories are run of the mill now. I’m sure part of the initial success with the book is attributed to when it was published (which can be said about any book, truly). 

The Stand is much more than a book about a decimating (uh, centi-mating?) epidemic. It’s a book about Good versus Evil, sort of. It’s a book about what it means to be human and be a manipulator or one that’s manipulated. It’s a book about choice and consequences. It’s a book about anger and sex and violence and fear and love. It’s a looooooong book and a trifle boring, but never bad enough to abandon. The Stand is vulgar, as is King’s proclivity, but not as bad as could be expected. Ultimately, The Stand is an unsatisfying novel with a brilliant start-up but an inability to pull through. Any fan of King will likely enjoy the novel—and indeed I did enjoy the novel—but to a Reader familiar with contemporary trends the novel will very likely feel flat. I truly did love the first few hundred pages, but that wasn’t enough to overcome to over-long book. Read at your own discretion.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Clockwork Orange, a Review

I was introduced to A Clockwork Orange back in old high skolliwoll. My droogs and I used to, like, hang out at a certain dromy and spend our time viddying acclaimed sinnys. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation (1971) was a real horroshow and I had my glazzies opened wide, Oh my brothers. The protagonist, fifteen year old Alex, was a miscreant and a true troublemaker, spending all his raz crasting about town, tolchocking poor innocent vecks for no reason other than to have a real horroshow time, forcing the old in-out-in-out on helpless devotchkas, and many other vile deeds. Yes, Oh my brothers, Kubrick’s sinny opened my glazzies wide. I found the film both repulsive and fascinating. The source material for Kubrick’s sinny was from a book by Anthony Burgess, and this book made its way onto my TBR all those years ago. 

To begin, Burgess’ acclaimed novel varies from the Kubrick adaptation. The sinny ends with a slightly different take on poor old Alex’s fate. This is because at the time of A Clockwork Orange’s original publication (1962), the American publisher decided to omit Burgess’ final chapter. This final chapter puts a completely different ending on the book, and Kubrick’s film is based on this “incomplete” version. I had no idea what to expect with the true ending, but I was curious to find out. 

A Clockwork Orange is a malenky bit disturbing. It is graphic and filled with pages of ultra-violence atop ultra-violence. I found it hard to stomach, especially in the opening few chapters. Alex and his droogs are wretched from the beginning, but even after Alex’s transformation the ultra-violence doesn’t stop. No, Oh my brothers, it just finds a new victim. Alex is abused time and again. His jeezny has changed and Burgess does a wonder at making the Reader have pity on poor little Alex. 

Linguists will love the way Alex govoreets. Burgess’ created language, Nadsat, is a mixture of Russian, English colloquialisms, and other slangs. Much of it is, like, left up to the Reader to pony through context. I did not pony all of the slovos Alex used, but I did pick up on most. The use of Nadsat really enhances the read, Oh my brothers, lending credibility to the novel that otherwise might have been absent. Nadsat also fits in comfortably with the dystopian future Burgess imagines; it’s easy to compare this language with leetspeak and other modern slang (and eerily with Orwell’s newspeak). 

I also want to remark on Alex’s transformation in the book. The brainwashing experiment was a memorable scene from Kubrick’s sinny; the book makes it even more memorable and more horrifying. Remarkable to go from utter loathing to distrusting sympathy for a character, yet Burgess succeeds. Alex is a true anti-hero worthy of scorn and love. 

I can’t say that I recommend A Clockwork Orange to everyone. No, my brothers, I cannot say this at all. It is quite disturbing on its own oddy-knocky, especially when coupled with Kubrick’s sinny. Nevertheless, the book is a treat to read for a mature Reader, if only to work through the Nadsat. From my ponying, both Burgess’ and Kubrick’s works had a heavy impact on the counter culture of the times. The satire was piercing and the cautionary tale was too close for comfort. A Clockwork Orange is an important work of art, both cinematically and in literature. It is right to be challenged, but it cannot and should not be banned. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

On Cemeteries

Share a memory of a cemetery, Carl prompted.  Okay then...

What particular memory comes to mind when thinking about graveyards? No singular one, at least none more prominent than another. I see myself standing at the top of the dangerous hill where Gish Cemetery is located, overpopulated and old. I remember the cold October day of just a year ago, when the ground was opened and my absent father was placed therein for keeping. I remember the same cemetery welcoming in a middle aged Marine, twenty-one guns and all. I remember a different place—Bethlehem Cemetery—some years earlier, Keisha’s dad, tears, shock, grief. In the small towns, a funeral is often a community involvement.

But not all memories are of tragedies and passings. I spent many summers helping my uncle keep a massive cemetery cleaned. My job was always weed-eating around the headstones, a painstaking task, stooping over at every stone and picking up the artificial flowers, swinging in the weed-eater, replacing the flowers, and repeat times a million. Long into the gloaming we’d work, my uncle on the mower, my brother and I with weed-eaters. Good money, though.

Or the time Keisha and I stopped on the side of the road to go off into the woods and find a supposedly very old cemetery. We walked through the woods, curious explorers. We found the place, segregated from the encroaching woods by a fence and nothing more. We spent some time contemplating the graves, searching out the oldest dates and obscurest names, all the while freaking ourselves out more and more. It wasn’t t

Or the place out way back in the woods behind the projects. We’d ride our bikes all throughout the town as teens, leaving no lands unexplored. An abandoned and demolished house, one like you’d imagine a witches hut, a smattering of broken tombstones around the place.

Or the seashell topped graves, sunken deep into the ground, cracked with fissures like canyons. To our young eyes we imagined we were seeing bones inside those cracks.

Or the first time I saw solar powered lights glowing at night along Highway 181, eldritch and sinister. My heart took a fright to that one, and I still feel a spook whenever I see the eerie lights at night. They’re like modern day will-o’-the wisps.

There’s no single memory of a cemetery that comes readily to mind for me. Most prominently in my mind is Gish Cemetery, the one closest to my old stomping grounds. It’s where I figured I’d end up, at least physically, but now I’m doubtful of that one. But who knows. I’m a proponent for cremation, though Keisha informs me every time I bring that up that if I go first that’s not going to happen. Alas…

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

It's A Boy!

That thing that I've vaguely hinted at a time or two, yeah, Keisha's got a baby growing inside her womb again.  Numero Dos.  Been quickening life for a while now, but I've put off announcing it until we found out the sex.  Turns out that baby is a boy, which is most excellent and kind of what we were hoping for.  I mean, a girl would've been fine and all, but I just wanted Avonlea to be my only girl for the time being.

Needless to say, Keisha and I are both super very muy excited.  More information as I get it.

Anyway, not much time really, just wanted to get that out there.

Oh, and if you're just itching for a fascinating post that my buddy Lance put up--titled "Why I Never Try to be a Dark Person"--check it out.  The comments are rather philosophic, but very interesting.  It's all about whether Darkness really does exist or not.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Mr. Monster, a Review

My first exposure to John Wayne Cleaver was in May of last year. On a whim I picked up I Am Not A Serial Killer [my review here] and had my breath stolen away. I burned through the first book in just a few hours, unable to tear my eyes from the words. Wells’ book made it to the shortlist of my favorite books I read in 2011, and I knew that the sequel(s) would be savored at some later time. Now that RIP season is here, I decided to give Mr. Monster a go. 

Mr. Monster is a direct sequel to I Am Not A Serial Killer, taking place just a few months after the events of the first book. John is now sixteen years old and still a sociopath. His control on his inner voice—Mr. Monster—is tenuous, and John’s worried that his grip on his strict rules my slip too far. His families mortuary business has slowed down now that the Clayton Killer has apparently stopped, and John’s been itching for excitement. Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Clayton, another killer soon arrives on the scene, and once again John’s attraction gets the better of him. 

In Book One of this series there was an abrupt shift in the plot when the true identity of the killer was revealed. It was so shocking that I re-read the paragraph several times, making sure that I understood what Dan Wells was saying. In Book Two, there was another scene like this, and I really shouldn’t have been so ill-prepared for it, but I was. Suffice it to say that I stayed up long past my bedtime to finish the book. My pulse was racing away and I had a strange sense of dread within. 

Mr. Monster starts out slower than the first book, but this pace is never really boring. Once the Great Reveal happens, the action explodes. It was sickening, honestly, and quite disturbing. We’re dealing with serial killers here, and Dan Wells writes as if he’s familiar. Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart or the weak of will. There are scenes that will haunt you, but in a good way. On some points I would market this book as YA, but on others I would urge caution. Teens can definitely relate to John (i.e., high school angst and parental issues), but so can we all. 

I’ve kept this review intentionally vague because of the Great Reveal. If you’ve not read I Am Not A Serial Killer then you shouldn’t read Mr. Monster. If you have read the first book and enjoyed it, then you’ll love what comes in the sequel. The book is a bit darker than the first, but there’s plenty of lightheartedness, too. I’ve been very impressed with everything I’ve read from Dan Wells so far (see also A Night of Blacker Darkness [my review here] for a comical RIP book) and I very much look forward to finishing up this series.

Monday, October 01, 2012

On A Cold and Rainy October Night

It's been far too long since I've blogged.  It's not that I stopped, because I still blog all the time, though these are just theoretical and intangible blog posts that exist solely in my psyche.  I miss the catharsis that comes from just sitting down at my computer and punching out a few lines of text and clicking that "Publish" button atop the GUI, sending the post out into the ether for all to see.

It's rained all day, this beloved October One.  A cold rain.  A miserable rain under the right conditions.  I stood out in the wind and the rain for much of the day, wearing two waterproof jackets and talking with a professional geologist.  There were some contractors doing some core samples, but the rain and the thunder inhibited progress.  I stood in the weather and thought about how happy I am with my new job, how fulfilling it is to actually do something that I enjoy.  I spent the morning collecting water samples from our main effluent spot, dipping an instrument into the creak and pouring water into acid filled containers.  Nitric acid, Sulfuric acid, and Sodium Hydroxide.  They preserve something in the water to allow the lab to test properly.  Time is important, that is, how long it takes for the sample to get to the lab and get tested.  Water temperature is also vital.

I'm learning a lot about environmental engineering and I'm very much enjoying it.

I'm also progressing through several books at the current moment, still whittling away on my 2012 Manifesto.  Reading life is good.

Don't forget to check out the RIP VII review website for all your up-to-date book reviews of RIP themed books.

Still running, though less.  Did a three mile run the other day.  Felt wonderful.  About died.

Catching up on Season 4 of Fringe.  I happened to win Season 4 on blu-ray thanks to a local tv stations contest.  Unexpected yet cool.  I really really like this show.  And I'm trying to stomach Revolution, but I'm not holding my breath.

And there's still that undisclosed bit of information that I alluded to with my last "general update" style post.  I've not forgotten.

Life is wonderful.  God is great.  I am blessed.

Friday, September 28, 2012

World War Z, a Review

Zombies are everywhere in pop culture these days.  The undead presence is so proliferated that its occurrence is no longer shocking to encounter in almost any given genre.  By and large I am an independent soul, beating to the chords of my own guitar.  I eschew trendiness like a kindergartner cringes at shots.  For all practical purposes, whenever something becomes coo, it is implicitly given a death sentence, because the masses are always looking for something new and different.  The zombie craze, I think, is finally nearing the downward slope of its popularity.  (But the question is can it remain dead?)

I’ve been a zombie fan for most of my life.  My mom woke me up late one night—I was five—and she wanted me to watch some old black & white movie with her cause she was scared.  This is one of my earliest memories.  The film was “Night of the Living Dead.”  To this day she is still terrified of that movie.  Apparently it entered into my young psyche and I’ve been partial to the genre ever since.

When Max Brooks’ World War Z came out I thought it sounded interesting.  I’m a fan of the documentary style of storytelling, and World War Z was described as a series of interviews with survivors from the zombie war.  But this was all during the hype of the zombie craze, so I dropped the book on my TBR and went about my business (much like I did with Pride & Prejudice& Zombies).  However, I had to do some traveling recently for work, so I decided to pick up the audio version of WWZ for the road.

To begin with, the audio book itself is a work of art.  Because the book is a series of interviews with various survivors, the audio production features a full cast of actors to fill the bill.  Max Brooks reads his own part, playing the role of the interviewer.  Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Rob Reiner, and several other voices play other roles.  This version won recognition and an Audie award.  This was truly a delight to listen to.

However, one thing I did not notice until later, the audio book was ABRIDGED!  I am against abridged books and cannot understand why they even exist.  (If you have any good reasons why, do tell.)  But there was no going back, so I pressed on.  This is my only disappointment with the audio book.

Plot-wise, Brooks establishes right up front that he’s presenting these interviews as a follow-up to an official UN report.  He traveled the world collecting facts and figures and wound up gathering so much stuff that he was encouraged to write the book.  Most of the time Brooks stays silent in order to allow the survivor to tell their story.  He introduces each character and asks an occasional question, but he has intentionally removed himself from the story.

The world is fascinating.  Brooks interviews people from all over: China, Japan, Iceland, New York, South Africa, Palestine, and more.  The stories are captivating to varying degrees, but all were engrossing enough that I never grew bored.  The interviews provide some unique insight to how the zombie outbreak affected the entire world, culturally, economically, mentally.  They were handled well and entirely believable.

I don’t want to say anything about any of the individual stories to remain spoiler free, but all were worth the read.  If you can suspend your disbelief and have a weakness for this type of storytelling, check out Max Brooks’ World War Z.  I very much enjoyed it.  The audio was excellent, just remember that it is abridged.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, a Review

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies came out whilst I finished my studies at the University. I recall when the faint whisperings of such a blasphemous tale first reached mine ears, and I remember delighting in it. This was before zombies were ubiquitous in the entertainment world, and the introduction of zombies into Jane Austen’s beloved classic was twisted just enough to my liking that I could not but help declaim its brilliance. And so Seth Grahame-Smith’s alterations to Austen’s original masterpiece* made its way onto my extending TBR. 

That was a smidgen over three years ago. Since then, the glorious undead have proliferated to a shocking degree. Indeed, they became mainstream and trendy. As such, I never got around to reading P&P&Z… until now. 

In essence, this book is a bizarre alternate universe story of old England. The undead—also known as the dreadfuls—roam the beautiful countryside with unstated bloodlust. The five Bennet sisters struggle to maintain ladylike propriety due to their training in the Deadly Arts. Each of the sisters is a lethal zombie slayer, much to Mr. Bennet’s delight. Each of the sisters is unwed and somewhat uncouth, much to Mrs. Bennet’s chagrin. 

The basic plot of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies follows the original excepting a few major points (i.e., the revisions have more innuendo than Ms. Austen’s, as well as violence). Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley come into the Bennet’s lives and romance ensues. During it all, however, the threat of the undead grows. Periodic episodes of zombie mayhem arise, and the Bennets are often forced to make quick of the scourge. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. The idea is clever, methinks, but its execution quickly grew stagnant. The bizarre juxtaposition of Regency England to ninjas and zombies yielded laughs, yes, but the tension never elevated. I enjoyed all of the different nomenclatures Grahame-Smith created for dealing with the dreadfuls. I also liked the plot surrounding Ms. Charlotte Lucas. But, as I mentioned, too many things grew repetitive and dull. 

There was enough intrigue to keep me reading the book, if only to see it to the end. I kept thinking about Downton Abbey while reading the book, picturing a twisted version of the show airing on PBS. I think that I would have enjoyed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies more if the plot varied, or if there were more postulation about the dreadfuls and the scourge. Instead, as often the zombie genre does, this is left up to the Reader to accept as Fact and move on. Usually I’m okay with that, so long as the world is captivating enough. Regency England is not. 

So do I recommend reading Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? Maybe. I suppose it would depend on the Reader’s expectations. A true Jane Austen fan may balk at the disgraceful changes, but an Austen fan with a sense of humor might get enough giggles to warrant a read. Me, I can’t say that I’m an Austen fan per se. I only read the book out of mere curiosity. I had more fun imagining how the original readers of Pride & Prejudice would have reacted if Austen had actually published the & Zombies version instead of the original.

*That is according to universal acknowledgement, not which is not necessarily reflective of my own opinion.  I think perhaps calling the book a masterpiece is quite a high honor, but I'll not get into all that stuff.  It's just a "beloved classic" in mine eyes.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Stardust, a Review

Tristran Thorn is an unusual lad in the town of Wall. Wall itself is rather an unusual town in the English countryside. The town is named after the natural wall that spans all across its border next to faerie. There is but one break in the wall, and it is guarded day and night by men from Wall to make sure that no one goes through.

Every nine years the Market comes to faerie. It’s set up across the hole in the wall, and folk travel from far and wide to shop at the Market. This is the only time the guards allow anyone through, as a faerie Market is not something to miss. To miss the Market would be to miss miracles and wonders and all manner of mysterious things.

Victoria Forrester is the prettiest girl in all of Wall, and young Tristran Thorn pines for her as much as any other man. One night Tristran proposes to Victoria and she laughs him off, telling him that if he wanted to win her love then he would have to find a fallen star that the two had just seen. Tristran, ever eager, vows that he will and sets off almost immediately. The guards let him through the wall and soon he’s in faerie, chasing a fallen star to win his love.

Tristran Thorn, however, is not the only one after the star. For a fallen star is a thing of value in faerie, and there are many that would like to find it.

In essence that pretty much sums up what Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is. The book has accolades and acclaim and has been on my TBR pretty much since I discovered Gaiman back in college. I remember watching the film adaptation, but I have no memories about it other than that. So as I read this book it was as if I was reading the story for the first time.

No one can deny that Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller. His prose is precisely as it needs be, and he has a way with words that few others can match. Stardust is a simple story, but its simplicity allows Gaiman to truly shine. All of the characters are well developed (even Wall) and flushed out. The pacing is quick, partially rushed by the tale’s just two-hundred pages or so. The wit is great, and the humor quite funny. Gaiman once again tells a master story.

Allow me to give an idea of how much I enjoyed this read. I checked out the audio book from the library and listened to it on my commute. Gaiman himself did the narrating, and this made the story all the better. Once I finished the audio book I checked out the hardback from the library and began reading it aloud to Keisha because I wanted her to hear the story. Point blank, I finished the book one afternoon and began re-reading it again that night. That’s how much I enjoyed Stardust.

If you’ve never read Stardust then allow me to boldly recommend that you rectify that. It’s a truly wonderful story that takes very little time to read. It’s sweet and funny and dramatic and fascinating and many other things. Gaiman tells a great story, and I’m rather sure to say that Stardust is my favorite novel of his that I’ve read to date. I’m glad to have finally read it, and I look forward to revisiting it again down the road.


Post Thought: I checked out the film version from the library again.  I'd forgotten so much about it that it was practically like watching it anew.  The long short of it: Nowhere near as good as the book.  The many changes made to suit a film style were necessary, I suppose, but the alterations weren't to my liking.  I much prefer the book's ending to the film's.  Even so, the movie does have a magical-ness to it, and it was a fun way to while away the night.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Bob Dylan Chronicles Volume 1, a Review

Bob Dylan has had a special place in my heart for nigh over a decade now.  My first experience with the man himself was in high school, where I bought a double-live album on a whim.  I’d recognized the name and had a vague idea of who he was, but that was it.  This album stirred something inside my high school soul, and anon I was captivated by folk music.  Through college my love for the genre grew fonder, as did my appreciation for the legendary Dylan.  I up and listened to his entire catalog.  The guy could write.

Sometime ago I bought a trade paperback of the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs titled Chronicles Volume One.  The book was an immediate bestseller and had a lot of fanfare about it.  But I’m not much on biographies* so the book rested on the TBR.  Until now.

I described Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. One to Keisha like the ramblings of an old man just sharing some memories.  In essence that’s exactly what it is.  But to the fan, this is a book straight from the man himself**.  Music is in my blood and marrow, and the idea of getting some insight into Dylan’s psyche sounded fascinating.

Reading prose by Bob Dylan is as evocative as his lyrics.  His use of metaphor is unique, painting pictures with perfect comparisons.  The way he describes people is sometimes funny but always revelatory.  These passages are like little trips into Dylan’s mind.  I loved his reactions to Woodie Guthrie’s music and Robert Johnson’s records. 

One odd thing about Chronicles Vol. One is that its focus is on odd points in Dylan’s life.  The book spends a bit of its time detailing two of Dylan’s lesser celebrated albums (Oh Mercy and New Morning) and how Dylan came to creating them while practically omitting any other albums.  There’s also a generous section on Dylan’s rambling about New York and New Orleans but very little on his formative years.

I did enjoy Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, but there seemed to be things missing.  I would have preferred more time devoted to his first few albums as opposed to ones so late into his career.  I would have preferred more anecdotes and reactions to his rise of popularity.  I would have preferred many other things, but that’s not what Dylan wanted to share.  This Reader infers that these shared memories in Chronicles Volume One are very special to the man, perhaps more so than others.  There are supposedly three volumes to this memoir set, but this is the only one out right now.  All in all, if you’re a Bob Dylan fan and are curious to learn some more off-the-familiar path information about him, Chronicles Volume One is definitely for you.  Just be aware that the scope is very limited with this book and you may wish to get a more thorough biography if you’re after anything else.

*Unless they’re fictitious in nature, or about a larger-than-life subject (of which Dylan possibly could be). 

** Apparently there is a bit of controversy over how much of this book stems from Dylan’s own vocabulary.  There’s folks aplenty crying that Dylan plagiarized, or at least didn’t give proper credit.  From what I can tell, this has some truth to it, but I didn’t really care one way or the other. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

From the Library of C.S. Lewis, a Review

From the Library of C.S. Lewis is a reference book filled with selections from C.S. Lewis’ personal library.  This book, compiled by James Stuart Bell and Anthony Dawson, is broken into eighteen sections.  The primary focus of the book is to highlight works (and writers) who influenced Lewis’ spiritual journey, as Lewis is regarded as one of the finest Christian thinkers of the 20th Century.  There are a few other sections that are not dedicated to religion (such as a section on fantasy & imagination), but these are definitely the minority of page takers.

I found the concept interesting and so I requested a review copy from the publisher.  I like Lewis (especially Mere Christianity), but I’m not fanatic about him by no means.  I’m also finding myself getting a bit more interested in biographical works as I’m getting older, and I’m a believer that you can tell a lot about a person by the types of things they read.

Unfortunately, my initial excitement quickly faded.  Page after page I read through archaic texts and dated sermon notes.  The material was interesting, but my daily dose of deep theology and introspective meditation could not handle deluge.  As such, I took to skimming things, and that’s not what I wanted to do.  So then I decided to read devotionally, just picking a page a day or something and seeing what was said.  I noticed a lot of repeated writers and works, and I suppose these were more influential on Lewis than others, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

Each selection is presented with a title, its source, the text, and then a mini author biography (Twitter-esque).  This format is perfect, and each selection spans at most three pages.   Much of the text is heavy and deep, as I’ve said, and I recommend it in small chunks to avoid duress.  This format inevitably leads to bias, as quoting out of context is wont, but I believe the intent of Bell & Dawson is to tease the Reader to dig deeper into the cited works.

From the Library of C.S. Lewis is an interesting little reference book.  It is dry and sometimes complicated, but that will fluctuate based on the Reader and the day.  There are many pearls of wisdom in this book, and it was a pleasure to think about how they affected Lewis’ works (and life).  I would have liked more descriptive correlations between works and Lewis’ life, but that was outside the scope of the book.  To a casual Lewis fan this may not be the book for you, but if you would like to find out what kind of things C.S. Lewis liked to read, then by all means check out From the Library of C.S. Lewis.

FTC Thingy: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.  Nothing more was required.  I was not coerced or bribed to review positively or negatively, nor was I offered any extra incentives for a positive review (i.e., baked goods, especially cookies).  As such, this review is reflective of my inner self's inner self.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Catch-22, a Review

Joseph Heller first published Catch-22 in 1961.  The book is a modern classic that has received universal praise.  The book directly created the eponymous “catch-22” phrase that has entered into the vernacular.  Catch-22 has been on my TBR since high school, always on the shelf to get to one day.  Thanks to the 2012 Manifesto, that day has come.

It is hard to pin down exactly what Catch-22 is all about.  On the surface it’s a biting satire of war and disillusioned life in the mid-19th century.  Yossarian, the twenty-something chief protagonist, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force serving in the 256th Squadron in the Mediterranean during World War II.  He’s hilarious and honest and completely against flying any more missions.  Again, superficially, this is the main dilemma of the book.  Colonel Cathcart wants to impress his superior officers and so he keeps increasing the number of missions the men have to fly. 

It doesn’t take much to see that Catch-22 is really something else altogether.  Absurdity abounds, often to the confusion of the characters within the pages and to the Reader without.  I scratched my head a few times trying to understand what had just happened.  It doesn’t help that Heller uses a third-person rotating POV omniscient voice, as well as a proclivity to disregard chronology periodically.  The book reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

I struggled at first with this book, wondering whether or not to abandon it.  There start is somewhat slow, and getting used to Yossarian’s (or whoever’s) mind takes some time.  But once I had the tone established my enjoyment level dramatically increased.  The characters were funny, but I was more drawn to discovering their true motivations.  Heller paints a picture of utter confusion and absolute chaos in the leadership ranks for the military, one that required a constant suspension of disbelief and several groans.  This was another struggle I had, and I can easily see how some could take issue with plausibility.  In fact, practically every character is irrational to varying degrees, which conveniently fits nicely into a major theme of Catch-22.

So what exactly is the catch?  Heller writes,
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)
This review really doesn’t give an in depth understanding of this novel.  Heller’s constant rotation of POVs is jarring but fitting.  Heller’s wit is perfect.  There is a rather bleak and fatalist view of things, but it’s World War II and that’s understandable.  The characterization (especially Major Major Major Major and the Chaplain) is brilliant.  There is much to write about with the book, but finding the appropriate words are difficult.

Ultimately I very much recommend Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of war and sanity.  It is an adult book with some coarse language and wanton sexuality, but comparatively it’s much more vanilla than contemporary mediums.  If you’ve never read Catch-22 and you’re looking for something bizarre and thought provoking, then I strongly recommend you try this book.  It’s worth its many accolades.