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Archive for October, 2011

Well, Halloween is all but canceled in Connecticut this year 😦  I’m bummed thinking about all the little kids who won’t be going out in their costumes tonight because of downed power lines.  The entire city I live in with my husband is in pitch blackness.  My office is closed until further notice.  I’m fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t lose anything, so I’m mooching off their internet and electricity, hot water and cooking, until ours is back on.  It may be a week before the power is adequately back on.  Last time they said that, it was three days…but I have a feeling we won’t be as lucky this time.
But we’re lucky to have what we do.  Granted, a few days without power, internet, and Netflix won’t be as convenient as we’d like.  And my husband, the video gamer, God love him, is preparing himself for the boredom that is impending (although he does have a charged Nintendo DS).  But we can survive.  And at least we can get heat and food at my parents’ house.  Some people don’t even have that.  So I’m counting my blessings today (and trying to ignore the baby fits that some of the people on my FB friends’ list are throwing right now over the power failure), and planning on spending the day doing my best to keep warm.  I’m also right in the middle of Antonia Frasier’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey and I LOVE it, so there’s that to look forward to!
I hope all my friends in New England are doing okay today!
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The fun thing about this “100 books in 365 days” thing is that it’s prompting me to read books that I was never forced to read in high school or college.  Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books for me.  I never had to read it in high school, but had it described to me many times by classmates and friends.  When it dropped down to $4.27 on Kindle last week, I thought, what the hell, I’ll take a chance.  And I did.  Number 80 for the year (we’re getting so close to the end!) is Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist tale of war and its repercussions.
Slaughterhouse-Five‘s narrator (Kurt Vonnegut himself) is a veteran of World War II trying to write a story about his experiences in the firebombing of Dresden, Germany.  But instead, he makes himself only the bit-part in the tale of the tragic Billy Pilgrim, a student of optometry who is drafted into the war and finds himself woefully unprepared for the horror that greets him when he arrives in Europe.  Ridiculed by his fellow soldiers, he is captured by the German army and taken as a prisoner of war to the makeshift prison known as “Slaughterhouse-Five” in Dresden, a quiet city of seemingly little import.  There Billy lies adrift in a sea of fantasy as the city collapses around him in a firebombing worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, surviving to return to the United States a different person, wholly altered, trying to find his way in a world that does not understand him.
It took me a few pages to wrap my brain around the fundamental illness that was plaguing Billy Pilgrim — post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  Known and understood now, after so many veterans of the Vietnam conflict returned home with such a diagnosis, it was virtually unheard-of during World War II.  Anyone who has seen the George C. Scott film Patton will remember the difficult scene where Patton screams at a young soldier that he finds huddled and sobbing in the hospital tent, accusing him of cowardice in the face of the enemy.  We’ve all heard stories of veterans “hitting the deck” when they hear a loud noise, or experiencing flashbacks to the Asian jungle, or any number of other horrific experiences.  But Billy Pilgrim takes it one step further — he really believes that he has the ability to travel through time and space, and spends much of these travels on the far-away planet of Tralfamadore.  There he creates an alternate reality; instead of being a ridiculous optometrist-turned-soldier, he is a being both mysterious and respected.  Instead of having an overweight, foolish wife, he sleeps with a beautiful movie star every night.  Tralfamadore gives Billy a world he can understand, while providing a safe haven from the world he has never felt comfortable in.
I loved this book.  It’s not my favorite ever, but I think it was a sad, but excellent description of the hell that post-traumatic stress disorder wreaks upon individuals, and how, if unchecked, it can drive them to create an alternative reality from a world too painful to confront.  It made me sad whenever someone in the book dismissed Billy as “ridiculous”, “insane”, or “demented”.  To a 21st-century mindset, it was obvious what was hurting Billy and making him the way that he was.  Had he been alive (or, you know, real) today, hopefully he could have received the help he needed, rather than ridicule and dismissal.
Rating: ****

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As someone who has struggled to write for years, it is my opinion that the hardest part about writing fiction is developing your own “little world” — characters, locations, story arcs, etc.  I feel like lifting those developments from an established writer or fandom is almost “cheating”, as it is.  So I would never have picked up Seth Grahame-Smith’s “adaptation” of Jane Austen’s famous bestseller, had it not been free on Kindle a few months ago.  And I would probably never even have read it, if I had not been without a book to read one day, far from home and a wireless connection to download new material.  So here we are — Book #79 for the year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Early-nineteenth-century England is plagued with an infestation of zombies, or “unmentionables”.  Their sad fate is transferred via a deadly plague, and England’s wealthy elite have taken to seeking ninja training in the far East, in hopes of surviving the outbreak.  The five Bennett sisters are such accomplished warriors, the greatest of them being Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennett, the second-eldest at 21.  Lizzy entertains no greater wish in her life than to fulfill what she feels is her destiny: to become a great warrior and executioner of zombies.  But when she meets dashing and proud Mr. Darcy, and immediately dismisses him as vain and pompous, Elizabeth can hardly foresee the impact that he is going to have on her family’s happiness and status, the zombie outbreak in England, and especially on herself.

I have a love-hate relationship with Austen.  I read Mansfield Park in late December of 2010 and I loved it.  I tried fighting my way through Emma and finally gave up.  Austen is one of those writers who has a compelling story and wonderful characters, but whose writing just doesn’t do it for me.  That is why I loved PPZ.  All of the delicious characters and settings that Austen is known for, with a zombie outbreak, murders, vengeance, and action thrown in.  I wondered how the author had even come up with the idea to intersperse Austen’s classic with a zombie tale — turns out that he got his inspiration from the encampment of soldiers that is present around the Bennett family’s estate.  Why would soldiers suddenly be camping in the country during England’s Regency period?  And thus, the tale was born.

The idea that the Bennett sisters — and all other wealthy individuals in England — were trained in the art of combat in the Far East was a little too far-fetched for me.  The constant talk about the wealthy having private dojos and personal ninjas was bizarre and went over into the ridiculous.  But I loved how seamlessly the story was woven in.  SPOILER ALERT: In the original Pride and Prejudice, Darcy convinces his friend, Mr. Bingley, not to marry Elizabeth Bennett’s sister Jane because he believes her to have no interest in him after a bad cold forces her into an extended visit at his estate.  In PPZ, Darcy believes that the cold is indicative of Jane’s infection with the deadly virus responsible for the zombie outbreak, so he tells Bingley that Jane is disinterested, in the hopes of saving both his friend’s life and heartbreak. 

All in all, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to the film that’s coming out in 2013.  David expressed an interest, so maybe we’ll go see it together:)

Rating: ****

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Almost anyone who was in high school in the late 1990s – early 2000s remembers April 20, 1999, or more simply “Columbine” — the day that the word ceased to be the name of a high school, and became the name of the most deadly school shooting to date.  On that day, two teenagers entered their high school, armed with automatic guns and homemade pipe bombs, and slaughtered classmates and teachers indiscriminately, before turning the guns on themselves and committing suicide.  Shock waves resonated across the United States, leaving everyone wondering “Could it have been prevented?  Why would two teenage boys commit such an atrocity?  What caused them to do so?  Can we keep ‘Columbine’ from happening again?”
Columbine is the result of a decade’s worth of gathering information by the author, David Cullen, in an attempt to quash the plethora of rumors surrounding this terrible tragedy and set the record straight.  In the months surrounding the attack, all sorts of stories — especially about the motives of the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — rampaged through the media.  Everything from bullying to Marilyn Manson to the highly-violent computer game Doom was blamed.  But Cullen paints quite a different, equally-mystifying picture of the two antagonists, and why they did what they did.  He takes evidence from both of their respective journals and homemade videos known as the “Basement Tapes”, plus forensic evidence taken by the FBI, to show the boys in their true lights: Harris, the dangerous, violent psychopath, driven by his lust for killing and his insatiable desire to mastermind the ultimate massacre, and Dylan, the manic-depressant, whose obsession with finding his true place in the world and equally-futile search for love spiraled him downward into suicidal thoughts.
Besides doing an extensive study into the lives and motives of the two killers, Cullen also interviewed the survivors and the families of the victims, illustrating their struggle to put their lives back together and move on after the tragedy.  It is equally touching and heartbreaking to see the different ways in which the victims’ families attempted to move on: from the father who turned his grief into an anger-based crusade to rid the world of guns and abortion, to the parents of questionable martyr Cassie Bernall, who wrote a book about their daughter’s life and death as a means of keeping her legacy alive, to the principal who channeled his PTSD into helping a generation of students take back Columbine High School.  All are stories of struggles and triumphs, and all are depicted beautifully, tragically in this book.
In the end, Columbine is as victorious as it is tragic — the story of a generation of people in a small town learning to rise from the ashes of the most vicious school shooting of the 20th century.
Rating: ****

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Every so often, a truly remarkable book comes to those of us who love to read.  It’s a book that we may not think much of when we first read it, but slowly, over time, it becomes more than just a book.  That is what Colleen McCullough’s saga The Thorn Birds is to me.  Maybe it was part destiny — being born in 1983 (the year the novel was adapted into a miniseries) and being named after the main character, maybe I was meant to love this book.  I’ve read it at least a dozen times, and I always come back for more.
Set in Australia in the first half of the 20th century, The Thorn Birds is the chronicle of a poor New Zealand-Irish family who strikes it rich when their elderly aunt wills them her home, a sheep ranch by the name of Drogheda.  The only girl in a burgeoning family of sons, Meghann “Meggie” Cleary, rails against the confines of her Catholic upbringing to pursue the love of the man of her dreams.   Fr. Ralph de Bricassart, the object of her affection, is a priest whose love for Meggie is surpassed by only one thing — his ambition to be the “perfect” priest and a Cardinal of the Church.  Thrown together and torn apart repeatedly by love, ambition, and rules, their story comes to an abrupt turning point when Meggie takes her fate into her own hands to steal what little happiness she knows she can, with results and consequences that neither she nor Ralph could possibly foresee.
To me, this is one of the greatest “love stories” of all time.  The conception of a Catholic priest falling in love with a young woman is as old as time itself, and Thorn Birds has an almost Romeo and Juliet quality to it.  Why does Ralph push Meggie away and pursue the priesthood when he loves her so?  Why does Meggie go back to Ralph repeatedly when he brings her nothing but misery in denying her?  The difference between Thorn Birds and Romeo and Juliet is deliberation.  In Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about imprudent child lovers, the titular hero and heroine are too young and foolish to realize the dire consequences of their actions.  In Thorn Birds, Ralph and Meggie (especially Meggie) realize exactly what they are doing, and why, and the consequences of their actions if they are discovered.
The theme of the book — suffering great pain to achieve one’s heart’s desire — is one that resonates with me more than ever, through the years.  McCullough’s writing is beautiful and meaningful.  The last paragraph, even thirteen years after my first reading, still rings with its message:
The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing.  At the very instant the thorn enters, there is no awareness of the dying to come: it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note.  But we, when we put the thorns in our breast, we know.  We understand.  And still we do it.  Still, we do it.”
Rating: *****

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Due to a lot of outside factors, September (and October, thus far) was not a good month for me, reading-wise.  For the first time this year on Goodreads, I am not any books ahead of where I should be (down from seven books ahead a few months ago).  Granted, part of this is due to the fact that I spent most of September reading a very long book — Shogun, which beat out The Pillars of the Earth for longest book thus far this year — an unfortunate general malaise about reading, and an inability to pick a “next book” to read.
On Monday, I decided to check out my shelves and see what (thus far this year) I haven’t read.  Only one book stood out.  And now, a hundred or so pages into it, I’m realizing that it was exactly what I needed right now.
To say that this book is one of the ones that has influenced my life the most is probably an understatement.  Colleen McCullough published her epic saga about a Catholic priest and his illicit love for a young woman in New South Wales, Australia, in 1978, five years before I was born.  In 1983, the miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward was released, and the name Meghann and its variants skyrocketed to number 8 on the list of most popular names for that year.  I was one of the many thousands of “Megans” born in 1983.  And I wasn’t prepared for the embarrassing essay I had to write for my Confirmation class, fourteen years later, about how my parents chose my name.  “I was named for the heroine of a novel who falls in love with a Catholic priest.”  Awkward.
And yet, when I picked up the book, I had no idea how much I would fall in love with it, the story of a forbidden love, of two people who rush headlong into their passion, neither knowing or caring about the destruction they bring about on themselves and their future.  To me, The Thorn Birds is more a more passionate and terrible romantic tragedy than Romeo and Juliet.  In the latter, the lovers are children who have no idea what they are doing to themselves, no scope of the world beyond each other.  In the former, they surrender willingly to the fate that will inevitably destroy them.  And why?  Because they know that they are worth it.
The prelude to this incredible book is beautifully-written, and expresses a lot of the way I’ve been feeling these past few weeks.  Although I have read The Thorn Birds many, many times in the past thirteen years, re-reading it this time has been like a conversation with an old friend, when she reveals things to you that you never knew about her before.  I’m enjoying it more than I ever imagined I would, even after all these years.
There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth.  From the moment it leaves the nest, it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one.  Then singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine.  And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale.  One superlative song, existence the price. 

But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles.  For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…or so says the legend.

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