Jennifer Astle

October 16, 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

coverWe all have that author.  That author who has shaped our perceptions of fiction (or non-fiction, perhaps), for whom we have spent many hours ignoring the outside world while we fully wrap ourselves in the pages, and allow ourselves to be swept away for two, four, eight, twelve hours at a time, and before we’ve discovered what we must, MUST know about the book, it’s dinner time, and a hungry partner gives a forlorn look like “you love that book more than me.”  For me, Margaret Atwood is that author.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was handed to me by a favorite teacher, I had no idea the journey I would be on, for Atwood’s has been the voice that followed me through the years, a decade really, feeding my overactive imagination, resurrecting the hurt child in me, and shaping me into a feminist long before any university professors got a hold of me.

I picked up The Year of the Flood a week ago, and set it down yesterday.  If I could somehow quit working, I could have made much shorter work of reading the book, but such is life.  I did however wait until my husband was out of town on business, so I could give the book the attention it truly deserves, hours of reading, uninterrupted. I settle into Atwood books much the same way one settles into a warm bath.  I slide into each page with care, slowly absorbing the imagery she spins with her pen, sometimes re-reading to ensure the tiniest of detail is unearthed.

The Year of the Flood took me by surprise.  For the first hundred or so pages, I suspected that it was either a prologue or an epilogue to Oryx and Crake, which I read a few years ago.  Had I read it more recently, and my short term memory not been so shoddy, I would have grasped this connection from the very first page.  Now I have more reading to do (or re-reading, rather).  Either way, I would have been wrong, since The Year of the Flood is happening concurrently with Oryx and Crake.  It takes a supremely talented author to tell the same story twice, without it being the same story.  Some (including myself) are even linking the two to The Handmaid’s Tale.

True, all three are dystopic, sociological works at their roots, each depicting a world radically different from the one we live in, but not so radical that it doesn’t seem to be a minute away.  My argument for the connectedness of the The Handmaid’s Tale to the Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is subtle, and I acknowledge that there is a possibility that I might be grasping at straws.  “Glenn” is a character in the later two, while we are introduced to “Ofglen” as a minor character in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Is the woman, Ofglen of Glenn, the character who brings them all to where they find themselves after the flood?  Is The Handmaid’s Tale really taking place after nearly all of humanity has been destroyed by the flood?  Is this story that of humanity reorganizing itself after the events of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood? Perhaps not, but I won’t restrict my imagination from running away with me.  That’s the beauty of great fiction.

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July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Angel’s Game By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

51nBUKGP-YL._SL500_AA240_I picked up The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon last week after a colleague recommended it, and settled in, somewhat skeptically, to give a new writer (by new, I mean one I had not read previously) a fair shot.  It had been described to me as a dark mystery by a writer who Stephen King recently raved about.  And as one of King’s Constant Readers, I trust his word more than I’d trust that of any clergyman.

I was not disappointed.

Zafon brought me down the familiar road of writers writing about writing, and into early 1900’s Barcelona and the life of David Martin.  Martin is a young boy working at a local paper, The Voice of Industry.  His early writing career is bestowed upon him by a young, charismatic benefactor who has a soft spot for the budding storyteller.

Later in his career, Martin enjoys enormous success writing trashy horror stories for an even trashier publication, run by sleazy publishers.  Writing under a pseudonym, Martin begins to dream about writing under his own name, and thus enjoying his success in his own right, a dream that his already successful (although a horrible writer) benefactor shares.  Thus begins Martin’s descent into darkness as a mysterious French publisher makes him an offer worth his soul.

On the surface, this is a typical story based on the competing notions of good and evil, light and dark, God and The Devil.  Zafon constructs the story in such a way that, beyond the title, there is little mention of God, and yet, one feels that there is an omnipotent force pulling the strings in the lives of David and those who are acquainted with him.  Yet, it is much more than that.  It steps further, leaving the reader questioning who is “good” and who is “evil”, and if in fact, they aren’t one and the same.

Underneath, if you look closely through the eyes of a young, struggling writer, you see a play on the insecurities of a writer who can gain thousands of readers under a ghost name (more than one, in fact), and yet cannot sell a single copy under his own.  It plays directly into the notion of literary publication being tantamount to immortality, shows exactly how desperate a writer can get, and delves into both the magic and consequence of a writer’s craft.  Much the same way that King attributes a power of their own to his characters, Zafon brings Martin, and what he writes to life.

When I closed the cover and replaced the sleeve I was left with two resounding thoughts; 1) Would I sell my soul to be published? and 2) I must visit Barcelona, and remember to bring a pen.

May 5, 2009

Book Review: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

almostmoonWriters are very aware of this thing called a hook.  The hook, in reference to literary agents is the line you use to, well, hook them in your query letter.  That’s not the only time the hook comes into play.  It is generally accepted that a writer, once they actually have a book in print, have only won half the battle; the other half being hooking the reader.  It is also generally accepted that a writer has only sixty or so pages in which to do so.

Most books use every last inch of those sixty pages to build toward the books theme and story line, gradually sucking the reader into the remaining three hundred or so pages by getting them invested in the story during those first critical chapters.  Very rarely does a writer manage to hook me in the first page, let alone the very first sentence.  Alice Sebold takes the prize for the most intriguing opening to a book I have ever had the pleasure to read.

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

Eleven words. That’s all.  Brief, succinct, and brilliant. Why did she kill her own mother?  And for that matter, why did it come so easily?  These are the very soul shaking questions the reader is left with as (s)he makes her way through the rest of the page, and inevitably, the entire novel.

Although, soul shaking is nothing new for Sebold.  Whatever source of personal anguish/professional insight she has brought to the literary table, Sebold has tapped into that je ne sais quoi, that certain something.

I knew this to be true when I read Sebold’s first book, Lucky.  Believe it or not, it was required reading for a seminar course in research methods during my last semester of my undergraduate year.  Despite the fact that I was putting the finishing touches on my thesis, and was just barely glancing at other required readings, I gave Lucky a shot.  The course focused on ethnography, and the book, I knew, was a memoir about Sebold’s rape while in college. I’ll tell you, as writer, it takes a solid brass set to spill your personal demons on the pages in the manner Sebold did and not have to be swept up off the floor afterwards.

Since then, Sebold has continued to impress with The Lovely Bones, which I hear is being made into a movie.  Success then, for a writer, must mean having your words made into images.  The Almost Moon could just as easily be brought to film.  I, however, wouldn’t watch it.  I wouldn’t want to ruin that feeling of urgency I had while reading it, that intense desire to get to the next page, to get more information, to find out what happens to Helen, the murderous daughter.  That single brilliant line simply can not be transfered to the screen without losing the magic.

So read it.  But be ready to devote twenty four hours to following Helen in the twenty four hours after killing her mother, and all of the baggage, rage, sympathy, and stoic resiliance the book will bring you.

April 3, 2009

Enough with this Eat, Pray, Love Crap

eatpraylove2Does anyone else cringe when they hear the term “chick lit”?  I always thought it was a term that was thrown around in book reviews to define material written by and for women, but behold, “chick lit” is an entire genre, like horror, that agents and publishers recognize. And, it just won’t go away.  Take Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for example. Despite the book being published in 2006, it seems to still be lurking in the media, and setting the standard by which all women writers are being compared.

Now, I can’t say I have read the book anymore than I can say I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, beyond of course what Amazon was kind enough to provide me as a preview, and the few minutes I spent leafing through the pages in a book store before moving on to The God Delusion.  Needless to say, a woman’s memoirs about finding herself that starts with the line “I wish Giovanni would kiss me” is unlikely to captivate me the same way that Orwell captured me with his construction of a futuristic society in which the bourgeoisie worship an organization called The Party.

This brings me to another point.  When reading an article about gendered choices in literature, I was shocked to learn that men are actually impressed by women who read Orwell and the like. You know, because wrapping our vaginas brains around a complex political movement marked by submission and rebellion, is like, totally out of our reach…unless someone is going to bring up chocolate.  Which Orwell does, so I guess that’s why I read it.  Not because it is an iconic piece of literature and remarkably timeless in its representation of political fundamentalism (oh, shit I forgot, I am supposed to be talking about shoes).

So this brings me back to chick lit and Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to get over her failed marriage, and her sense of being lost in life.  Here is my official position; if your life and your travels were that interesting, they wouldn’t be marketed as the bible of chick lit, they would be marketed as a memoir of an interesting life.  Show of hands, how many men have read Eat, Pray, Love?

*insert sound of crickets chirping*

So why is it that the industry finds this type of writing so appealing?  Obviously there is a market for it, or else agents and editors would be tearing the Gilberts of the world down to their heels and hashing it all out on #queryfail.  I can see it now “OMG, another query about her divorce and how she got over it, shut up already! #queryfail”.  Or maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Of course it is no secret that many a woman have written under a nom de plume, or pseudonym (ahem, J.K. Rowling) to draw attention away from the fact that they are women and gain respect in the literary world before anyone looks up their skirts and realizes that they have an inkwell instead of a pen hidden up there.  Unless, of course, they are writing about “women stuff” like pining over 20 something Italian guys as a means to finding oneself.  Then girly names like Elizabeth can be plastered all over the cover like a rogue noodle that broke free from the covers font.

Now, before anyone jumps on me and says women publish literature other than chick lit, just look at Stephanie Meyer and Twilight, I ask you to pause for a moment.  ‘Cause there’s nothing darker than vegetarian vampires that blow sparkles out of their asses.  Stephen King look out, you have some competition (*snorts*).

Words are words, and the last time I checked the area between my belly button and my knees had very little to do with my choices of reading material or writing topics (excluding feminist literature of course, which is much different than wanting Giovanni to kiss you).  Women frequently write from the perspectives of men, and vice versa, with astonishing insight.  This begs the question; do we really need an entire genre of “Oh my god, I found myself in Jimmy Choo?” or are we creating it by filing it under the vagina niche and calling it a day.  You know, so men won’t have to make the mistake of picking up a book written by a woman for a woman while perusing the aisles of their local book store…because there is an entire section segregated off where women can confide in each other about yoga, having babies, being married, getting divorced, and shopping; all of the important life lessons a girl must learn.

This is my call to women writers; stop publishing this Eat, Pray, Love crap, and find a voice based on your writing talents, not on the chance that you got an X instead of a Y in your chromosome make up.

Update: Apparently my writing is worth plagiarizing without credit.  Check it out here, and feel free to let them know how us bloggers love link backs.

March 27, 2009

Why Lost is the Best Television Ever

lost2When the first episode of Lost aired, and we met John Locke, I phoned my mother and told her that I was already on to something.  The name, John Locke, was significant because in the year before, I had taken a course on political philosophy and had read John Locke.  And, for the next couple of seasons I was left wondering if that was a coincidence or not (I highly suspected not).  Then we meet Jeremy Bentham, and my suspicions were confirmed; John Locke’s character is based on early policitical philosophers who discussed such issues as the social contract and utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number and so forth…).  It made perfect sense.

This little revelation is only the beginning.  Literature is regularly mentioned throughout the show; from Stephen Hawking to Stephen King, from Of Mice and Men to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I can’t help but wonder if the Lost book club could provide us with additional insight into the story line (which for those of you who think it’s a bunch of 20-somethings smoking pot, has been established since the beginning). Add to this, the revelation that J.J. Abrams has bought the film rights to King’s The Dark Tower (for nineteen dollars, no less), and the obvious influence those books have had on the show itself (see time travel, paradox, reluctant leaders).

I don’t watch much T.V.  In fact, I purposefully avoid it, selecting my viewing pleasures carefully and patronizing the Internet for access, but Lost had me from hello.  Some may complain that the story line itself is lost, but I would argue that this is one of the most intelligent shows in our history, and draws heavily on classic literature, theory, and science to bring us 44 minutes of entertainment.  If you can’t follow it, perhaps you need to hit the books.

March 23, 2009

Remembering Ron MacDonald

id2171For many the name Ronald MacDonald might conjur images of a red-haired clown who peddles french fries and cheesburgers.  In my case, it conjurs images of a red-haired teacher who peddled the English language and literature.  Ron MacDonald was one of my most memorable teachers in high school.

He had a huge bookcase in his classroom, filled with books that he lent out liberally to students.  Once I approached him to apologize for being late in returning one particular novel, and he (somewhat jokingly, I imagine) repsonded with “You know, stealing books shouldn’t be criminal.”

Once he called me after class and I was certain I was in trouble (probably pushing the envelop for what was considered acceptable in young literature, I have a bit of a dark streak when it comes to fiction).  Instead, he handed me a well used copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the epic books of my youth.  Although I was always a reader, he became sort of a book pusher, constantly suggesting books I might find interesting.  He also gave me The Giver, which I read cover to cover in one afternoon flat and still remember with alarming clarity (those gray eyes…).

He was an old scotsman I believe, and had a bright red face (that most of us I suspect, attributed to his drinking).  He had a handle bar mustache and a habit of getting food lodged in there, but he would stand in front of the class room and teach us as though we all wanted to grow up to be literary masters.  He took little notice of students who took little notice of him,  but those who expressed an interest in literature were nurtured and constantly supplied with books.

Sadly, he passed away while I was still in university.  Living a life of a bachelor, I like to imagine that he was in fact, married to his books.  To this day, I can look at my bookshelf and see volumes that were passed from his hands to mine and think fondly of all that he taught me.

Update:  Says Beth Button, a classmate of mine and a relative of Mr. MacDonald’s;

He came up in conversation recently. Ronnie was a pretty close family member. Notorious for being eccentric and also for buying every single christmas present in a theme each year. I think if I had known him now, I would have appreciated him so much more than I did as a kid.

A bachelor who died without a will or any real indication of what he wanted. Instead of the traditional funeral, we all gathered at another family member’s house in a circle, with his tobacco pipe, and passed the pipe around as family members had an opportunity to tell a story or share thoughts. In it’s own way it was quite beautiful.

Of course then there was drinking.

March 22, 2009

Weekend Reading: Writer’s Block and My Overflowing Bookshelf

procrastination-main_fullWriter’s Block.  That terrible, ever-lurking antithesis to “the flow” of which writers speak is a very real thing.  To someone who does not write extensively, it may seem easy to cast the notion off as silly, and inextricably linked to ego, but in reality, it can interupt a writer’s work and frustrate the bejesus out of them.  Flow, on the other hand, is that glorious pace a writer can find where the words seem to come from the fingers (or pen) first and the mind later.  It’s a constant race to keep up with yourself before the next moment flutters out of your mind like a butterfly and is lost forever.  This can last four hours before the writer is broken from the trance and brought back to the reality of dinner that must be made, day jobs that must be worked, and bills that must be paid.

I don’t know what other writer’s do when they experience Writer’s Block.  I’ve found sites for writing prompts and ideas, but ultimately a prompt that says “write about a red ball” is unlikely to shake me out of reality, and back into that dream world that writers create for themselves.  Someone once told me to keep my head above the clouds.  My immediate reaction was that it was mis-phrased; it should have read keep your head out of the clouds.  I didn’t understand properly then what was meant by that, but I do now.  Above the clouds is where creativity flows, and sometimes it is impossible not to come down, into the clouds,  and subsequently back into reality where there is traffic, phones ringing, appointments, and all of the mundane practices that make up this thing we call life.

When I have Writer’s Block, I read.  I’m always reading something, and in fact, I can hardly remember a period of time where I wasn’t completely absorbed in one book or another.  For the year I wrote literally nothing, I was completely wrapped up in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, a seven book monolith that makes The Stand look like a Sunday paper.

This may explain the current state of my bookshelf.  I’ve rationalized my Writer’s Block down to a few things, including the fact that I have my first short story making its rounds in literary magazines and contests, and somewhere deep inside me I am waiting for judgement/affirmation.  The second cause is related to research.  My book-in-progress is deeply rooted in religion, mythology,  psychology, and to some extent, sociology.  At 20,000 words I simply hit a point where the idea was no longer enough, I needed background knowledge to keep the train chugging along.

So, for a little change, I am offering my weekend reading list.

1984 by George Orwell

Until now, I hadn’t read this book.  Not only did I know that I must read it because it is a classic, but the subject matter interests me greatly.  I can hardly put it down and it has been dominating my reading for the last week. I plan to finish the last 30 or so pages today.  While reading it I have to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1949, and renew my admiration for Orwell’s construction of a future society.  As a sociologist at heart, this book is fascinating.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I found Sebold during a seminar course on Ethnography in my undergraduate degree.  Our professor assigned Lucky, a biographical account of her rape while attending college.  The Lovely Bones was her next book, which also took me in.  I expect The Almost Moon to live up to my expectations of Sebold’s ability to capture me.

2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market

Otherwise known as the bible.  I am going through this volume painstakingly, absorbing all of the information about the publishing industry I can cram into my 26 year old brain.  What are agents, publishers, and editors telling me?  How can I use it in the future?  I know that I can break down countless boundaries if I am prepared, and I intend to be.

The Lilith Monographs Vol. I: Immaculata by Joshua Seraphim

This is directly related to my book, in which the main character is Lilith, or rather my version of her.

Lilith: The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz

See above.

Glimmer Train Spring 2009 Issue 70

Glimmer Train is the first literary magazine I have subscribed to.  The first issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday and since then it has been waiting patiently underneath 1984, waiting to be picked up next.  I’m reading it partly to learn what other writer’s are selling, to compare as objectively as I can, the quality of the work therein versus my own, and to absorb great literature from the future authors of classics that will come about in my life time.  As my writing income grows, so too will my collection of literary magazines.  For those who do not subscribe, I highly recommend it.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This is a slow read for me.  I can only keep my attention focused on congressional history and legislative process for so long.  I also feel this is a necessary read.  Obama is an eloquent and moving writer, and knowing full well that he will become known as one of the great thinkers of our time, I am compelled to read through the political jargon to hear the message behind it.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis

This was recommended to me by a friend who works in the legal system in the United Kingdom.  It focuses on a public defender in Chicago, named Marijane Placek, a “snakeskin boot-wearing, Shakespeare quoting nonconformist.”  Needless to say, she knows my taste.

What’s on yours?

March 9, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Books Meet Technology

kindleThere is no doubt that as a society we are bombarded by media from the moment we wake until the moment our heads hit the pillow (or longer, if you fall asleep with the television on).  News, movies, television, magazines, YouTube, Facebook, billboards, it’s everywhere.  But what of books?

Quite possibly the oldest, and longest lasting form of media, books face an uphill battle in the face of quick media like blogs, Twitter, and social network status updates.  Not to mention, many books are transformed into films or television spin-offs that make visual access more efficient than reading a few hundred pages.

Where does this leave the future of books?  E-books are a huge phenomenon barely heard of only a few years ago.  Amazon guru and Kindle backer, Jeff Bezos, would have you reading all of your books in digital format on his device, which retails for about $350.  That, of course, does not include the cost of the books themselves, which can be downloaded for an average of $10 for each of the roughly 250,000 titles offered on the electronic medium. Kindle is even available on your iPod.

The Huffington Post advocates for the digitization of books, arguing that the electronic medium makes it possible to read in the dark, like while at a bar or in bed, without having to turn on a light or lug a heavy volume around with you.

But does that satisfy the same feeling as thumbing through page after page as you read?  Are we trying to improve something that was perfect in it’s original form?  I take great pride in looking at my bookcases and seeing the collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I have accumulated throughout the years.  Despite being broke in my days as a student, I rarely re-sold textbooks  to the bookstore for credit.  There is something to be said of the tangible quality of holding a book in your hands.

On the other hand, imagine the possibilities if devices such as Kindle were commonplace in schools.  Imagine the possibilities of equipping students with a device pre-loaded with books, texts, and resources.  Imagine if a student need only buy the device (or have it donated) and could read ahead, easily reference back to materials, and access new literature instantly, all in one place.  The possibilities are endless.  University students would love this idea.  Purchase a Kindle for $350 (not that much more than the cost of a textbook or two), and offer texts, journal subscriptions, and other reference materail at a discounted rate.  Universities could even include the device as part of tuition.

So while I am wary of the digitization of books for a variety of reasons, I also see the value. But personally, if I like a book, I will buy it…in it’s good old fashioned form.  Sorry trees.

February 26, 2009

Book Review: Duma Key by Stephen King

200px-duma_keyI must admit up front that it is tremendously difficult for me to NOT like Stephen King’s writing. From the time I read Gerald’s Game at the age of thirteen (I highly doubt that 13 year olds were the target market for that particular book…), I was hooked.  Since then I could be considered what Mr. King refers to often as Constant Reader.

Duma Key is the story of Edgar Freemantle, a millionaire who loses his arm in a construction accident, and eventually moves to the Florida coast while he tries to rebuild his life.  During the course of his new self discovery, Edgar learns that he can paint.  However, those of you who know King know that there must be something supernatural behind his new found talent.

This is a good place to note that I read Duma Key directly off the heels of The Stand.  I’d always had The Stand on my bookshelf, but hadn’t gotten around to reading the 1000+ page behemoth.  Those of you familiar with the book know that a, if not the central protagonist is Abigail Freemantle, or Mother Abigail as she is more frequently referred to.  Coincidence?  The Dark Tower fans might not think so.

Back to Duma Key.  The first half of the book draws you in, as you witness Edgar advance from his hospital bed to a small art gallery where he is quickly becoming a local celebrity.  King describes the painting richly, and could convince the reader that he is a painter himself.

Edgar’s experience painting while living in “Big Pink”, an old beach house owned by Elizabeth Eastlake, the local eccentric and rich lady, inevitably evolves into something more sinister.  Without offering any spoilers, I say that when King discovered this aspect of the story, he could have gone in a completely different direction than the one Duma Key taken in the second half of the book .

That being said, the direction he does take is true Stephen King form; a mixture of personal and supernatural failures and triumphs, rooted as firmly in the human condition as it is in tales of ghosts and other menacing creatures.   There is, however, a moment in the book where you will find yourself scratching your head and saying “Where the hell is he going with this?”  If you can get through that part, you will be satisfied with the result, especially if you are fond of rainbow colored frogs with “teef”.

February 24, 2009

Let Me Review Your Book!

Filed under: Book Reviews, Fiction, Nonfiction — Anonymous @ 5:56 pm

I would love to begin a series of book reviews.  If you are interested in having your book reviewed please visit the Contact page and drop me a line.  On average, and depending on how much work I have, I can finish a book in under a week.  I’d be thrilled to read your work, comment on it (constructively of course) and link back to where your book is sold.  Sure, I could spend all of my time reviewing Stephen King, but he gets enough attention as it is (Sorry, Mr. King, but it’s true).

You sell your books and I build my library.  It’s a win-win situation!

– Jenn

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