Saturday, January 6, 2018

Stellar Stories to Kick off 2018

As those who know me even the slightest are aware, reading is something I do akin with breathing.  Never without a book.  Ever in the midst of one.  Often, describing, recounting or passionately "selling" whatever I am reading to those close to me (and sometimes even to random people as well, especially those who ask the Pandora's Box question of, "read any good books lately?"  To which I think, have you got an hour, or two, or ten?). 

To me, books are an integral part of life, and one that I believe that those who choose not to read have no idea just how much they are missing.  And its a lot.

Books offer cheap, easily accessible and transportable, marvelous entertainment.  When you do not read, you live solely one life, your own.  Granted, life is a beautiful thing so there is nothing wrong with this.  But when you read, you get to live more lives simultanously.  You can revel in the wonder of your own life, while at the same time, stepping foot into another existance, world, topic or idea whenever you wish to crack open its cover and dive back in.

Books teach us a plethora of different things.  Life topics on anything you can imagine (from cooking, to how to play saxophone, to what its like to live in an Arctic tundra, to all of the most awesome places worthy of venturing in the world- many of which you likely haven't even heard of, to how to speak Chinese, or how to conduct a Japanese tea ceremony, to how to be a better friend or lover, the list goes on and on, forever and ever), as well as giving and offering us different ideas on ways of living, being, and thinking.

Books, even fiction, teach us how to be human.  They teach us how to live.  Fictional stories are mirrored on real life human dilemma, situations, experiences and emotions.  Fiction is the lie through which we (humans) tell the truth.  So even if its "pretend," assuming not too outlandish, we can often find ourselves within the pages somewhere.  Or at the very least, some inspiration, thought provoking ideas or just something that intrigues or moves us.

Studies show that those who read have higher vocabularies, are more open minded and empathetic (and thats those who specifically read fiction, believe it or not), tend to perform better on standardized tests, the list of benefits and positives goes ever onward.

Reading enriches your life, benefits both your mind and soul, offers affordable but often outstanding entertainment, it has the ability of teaching you everything and anything.  Books have the power to change your whole life.  If you read the *right* book(s) (and this is a relative term, as each book speaks differently to each individual person in varying ways), it can alter your entire way of living, thinking or being.

So, thats my arguement for reading.  Its one of the best, most worthwhile, life enriching hobbies and seemingly small add ons you can do within your life to make it better, more interesting, engaging and richer, and in more than one regard.  If you think reading is boring or lame, you are simply doing it wrong (aka, not finding the right books for you, or not giving it enough of a true chance).

Without further ado, a smattering of fantastic books I recommend for your 2018 reading, or just your general taking within at some point.

This book, non fiction, part memoir, part manifesto, is about Amanda Palmer and the trajectory of her path going from being an unknown, wannabe artist, to a famous song writer, poet and well known.  I was stunned during reading to find out she is married to Neil Gaiman, the author (wrote "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," a book I was hesitant about, as its fantasy and I am not partial to this genre, usually finding it too outlandish.  But this book blew my mind, I loved it.  He is also better known for his book "American Gods" which has since been made into a TV show). Never would have put these two people together, so that was interesting.

She alternates between recounting the flourishing and growing of their relationship, which is poignant, sweet, and emotionally moving, as well as within her story, challenging different outlooks in our society which tend toward being restrictive, stigmas or just generally constricting ideas our culture tends to perpetuate about things like: what does it truly mean to be successful?  Why are we so afraid to lean on or reach out to others?  What does it truly mean to support and love?

I was shocked to find myself really enjoying this book.  While I havent finished it, I am on the cusp of doing so and would say its a great, worthwhile read.

Now this book was a surprise for me.  And this is why sometimes taking a chance on a book you dont think is your type but really putting in the time to read it can be a surprisingly delight.  Both, in that I picked it up at all, and additionally, that I really loved it.  Not the usual type of read I would go for, either in terms of writing style or topic matter.  But this was a great one. 

Its fiction, about an old, semi washed up musician named Bad.  He has several ex-wives under his belt, a drinking problem and is a bit of a resigned loner of sorts.  However, by chance he meets a young woman, a reporter wishing to interview him on his music, and the two are both surprised to find they seem to feel a unique click/draw between them.  Some things begin shifting/growing in Bad emotionally that even are surprising to him.

And what I really loved about this story was the ending.  Unexpected.  Emotionally moving.  Sad.  But I thought, realistic and real.

The authors prose is excellent.  The writing, superb, lyrical, really fun to read.  The story, unique and interesting.  I recommend giving this one a try, even if you aren't sure its something you would typically like.

Ah yes.  Those who know me well have surely heard my mentioning this one.  This book remains one of my very favorites.  I have read it three times now (and its a whopper of a book, clocking in around 800 pages) and each time, its left me mind blown.  While not an uplifting read, its an awesome one.  All of human life is in this book.  Loss, immense love, betrayal, friendship, darkness and light, jealousy and sacrifice, evil and goodness, the list goes on. 

And Donna Tartt, to me, spins magic with her words.  One of my writing inspirations, for sure.  I wrote a slightly more detailed blog entry about the book (dont worry, I promise, no spoilers) back when I first read it (which coinsided with my solo trip to Portugal for a week, on which I first read this book).  Here is the article if you wish to read it.

This book is about high school.  The story alternating narrators with each chapter.  We occupy the mind and perspective of a different character per chapter.  Some of which are pretty heart wrenching. 

One young girl, a dancer, goes to a party and gets intoxicated, which results in her getting into a car wasted with a driver who was also drunk, resulting in a huge car accident leaving her badly injured.  At the party prior to the accident, she danced on a table, took off some of her clothes, etc.  Black out drunk, she doesn't remember any of it.  Photos end up online.  And the comments beneath them, really upsetting and awful.  Comments about how her wearing a skirt, or having gotten drunk, essentially "make all of it her fault."     

Another one places us in the perspective of a young girl who has an affair with her teacher.  Also heart breaking.  She believes she loves him, and that he loves her.  (He doesn't.  He does this with loads of students).  Very sad.  And yet, as the reader, you understand how she fell for him and got into such a situation.  Your heart aching when her classmates chastise and judge her upon hearing the rumors.  Especially with having received her inside perspective to the experience.

Another chapter gives us the perspective of a young, angry boy who is teetering on the edge of becoming an addict.  Misbehaves a lot at school.  His father beats him frequently at home, putting him down, name calling, emotional and verbally abusive, etc.  So while he is a loathsome character, a part of your heart still feels for him, and gets why he is the way he is.

And then a teacher who gets too close to her students emotionally.  Blurring the boundaries, if you will, within her caring for them, wanting to understanding and help them, but crossing the line in doing so.  And ultimately, getting in trouble with the school eventually when it nearly comes to a head.  She doesn't cross the line physically with any of them, nothing like that.  Nor do anything that will actually harm any of them.  On the contrary, she is a loving, warm and open presence to these kids.  But.  Its not good. 

Things get dicey a couple times, in what she means as being well intentioned actions but could have easily crossed over into blatantly inappropriate territory (and which semi do).  As the reader, we both feel heart warmed by how much she cares for these kids- we get it and empathize, as well as are distressed by and shocked over a few of her actions, as though watching a blind person wandering into the middle of a busy intersection.  Watching, wide eyed and terrified, wanting to yell and wave our arms in seeing the impending disaster that only we can see coming and they cannot.

So, those were just a few character examples.  But I have found the book to be quite gripping, a fairly (if somewhat dramatic) and generally accurate representation of many of the prototypes and experiences found in any given high school. 

While I just started this one, I am already impressed, as I was nearly certain I would be.  It has great reviews, from what I have gleaned.  A collection of non fiction essays challenging the ways our society treats and views women, the narrow lenses through which we continue to dipict, portray and consider what it means to be female.

Some passages I already read and found rather poignant and relevant:

"I understood that being pretty wasnt the most important thing, as no doubt some adult had dutifully informed me at some point, but it was obviously the only thing anyone cared about where girls were concerned.  You surmised this just be existing.  Being the prettiest was the pinnacle of womanly achievement.  It ranked you."

"Before Hugh Hefner came along, porn was furative and hidden.  After Hefner, it was everywhere.  Mainstream, pop, classy, cool.  Hefner considered that his big innovation.  Realizing that Playboy wasnt actual porn so much as lifestyle porn.  He wasnt selling pictures of girls, instead he was selling a particular male identity via the consumption of girls as consumer objects.  This identity is similar, in many ways, to the identity sold to ladies in womens magazines, only with naked women themselves as the expendable products whose constant consumption would supposedly bring men satisfaction and happiness."

"The culture bombarded women with mixed messages, putting them into impossible, crazy-making, psychological double binds.  To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillating bitchy, or should we say ill tempered.  The medias uncritical promotion of the degrading mindless boob girlie symbol and the ludicrous beauty standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously."

"Fashion modeling went from being a boring, low-paying workaday job for the average size woman that showed customers how clothes fit, to a glam fantasy full of underage girls made up to look like adults."

Really thought provoking and fascinating stuff.  Things I believe all men and women should be challenged in reading and considering.

Ah yes.  I read this about a year ago and it remains the most powerful emotional wallop I have ever been dealt at the hands of a book.  The story follows four men, all close friends, over the course of each of their individual lives as well as through the nuances of their friendships with one another.  This author is, hands down, from what I have read in my life so far, the most skilled writer at occupying the emotional space and experiences of human beings.  Just, wow. 

The story itself is deeply poignant, devastating, heart wrenching, and mind blowing.  One of the characters, Jude, for half of the book we can only wonder about his past, which is heavily hinted as being laden with much prior abuse and horror.  We read about how this impacts his friendships and connections with these three men to whom he is so close.  And then finally, we learn what happened to him.

The story follows multiple plotlines.  The story of Jude.  The emotionally close friendships of these four men.  The events of their lives.  And touches on several poignant, worthwhile themes and life topics.

This book.  Everyone should read it.  Its incredible.  So well written.  Gripping.  Immensely deep and astonishing.  Its a hard read, I will admit.  Sometimes uplifting and achingly beautiful, while at other times (often), heart aching and sad.  But its one of the more worthwhile things I have ever read.

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