Book Review | When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

I’m always looking for book recommendations and this one had been passed my way already by a reader I respect. This review was the final push I needed to officially add the title to my list. It gives a great summary, a taste of the book’s style, and the reviewer’s own personal takeaway.

A great review!

brown books | green tea

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92aac483e96cd907f6b3732cf5654b44Rating:  5 out of 5 stars
Short review:When Breath Becomes Air is as deep a look into death as one can have without actually experiencing it first hand. Introspective and philosophical, Kalanithi illustrates how being acutely aware of one’s mortality can simultaneously push them to have the most meaningful life possible.

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Book Review Times Two

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin

Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell c.1998
 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Madames Russell and Le Guin, you’ve both done it again. I find that I must reiterate how baffled I am that these two Crazy Greats escaped my attention for all the formative years of my life. What lasting lessons could I have learned from these two women through their extraordinary stories! Of course, much of their genius would have likely left my narrow, tender mind much disturbed. Now that I’ve left at least some of my childish ways of thinking behind me, these books taste like graduating from milk to feasts fit for kings.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven wanders the dark and twisty path of dreams, asking the generally horrifying question: What if your most vivid, overpowering dreams all came true? Not just for you, but for all the world? Worse, what if an arrogant scientist, certain of his own unfailing rationality and good will, gained control of those dreams?

George Orr stumbles through this nightmarish series of worlds and disparate narratives with a demeanor just placid enough to permit us our own perspectives, just morally centered enough to keep us wholly on his side. Lathe of Heaven felt like a feminine love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Man Who Was Thursday, misanthropic and humanistic, speculative and practical, hopeful and despondent all at once. It was a quick read, but a deep one. And yet another example of Le Guin’s peculiar and powerful craft.

Children of God, on the other hand, is a work of poetry and music and ancient religion, all woven together in the lives of children and soaked in blood. A sequel to the already classic masterpiece which was The Sparrow, Children of God has very possibly surpassed its predecessor in power and prose. Mary Russell strikes me as an author with the utmost respect for her character’s personalities and histories. Emilio Sandoz would never willingly return to the planet of Rakhat, the site where his faith was first buoyed, fed, then brutally eradicated. So what does Russell do? Spoiler alert! She beats, drugs, and kidnaps the poor bastard to force his return! Brutal? Yes. Dedicated to the integrity of the character? Absolutely.

Children of God worked to redeem the irreparable tragedies and violations of The Sparrow, using faith, war, forgiveness, but most of all Time to harvest what was sown. And was it all redeemed? Read it for yourself. Just be warned, Russell is merciless. She cuts like a surgeon to those secret doubts and bastions of silent hate you thought no one knew about but you. Her work is not to be entered into lightly.

As for you, Mary Russell, I am once again in your debt. Each time I read, I am changed by your work.

And to each of you crazy great women, master storytellers, bold and faithful to the art: I cannot wait to read the rest of what you’ve created. Every single book.

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genly Ai, a “First Mobile” of an intergalactic collective of planets called the Ekumen, travels in his youth as a lone human emissary to Winter, a world comprised almost entirely of glaciers and a thin band of habitable valleys, blanketed in nearly constant snow, around the planet’s equator. The inhabitants of Winter, called Gethenians, live as humanoids without gender 28 days of each month, at which time their natural cycles send them into a state called Kemmer, when they manifest either as male or female, however the dynamics of their current mating relationship demand. As a full-time male, unchanging, Genly Ai is considered by the Gethenians to be a “Pervert”, only the first of an unending series of political, emotional, physiological, and cross-cultural barriers to his interplanetary mission. Genly Ai is tasked with drawing the various warring governments of Winter into the Ekumen, as a peaceable cooperative, to give and to take knowledge and power and protection. But the gap between the Gethenians and the rest of humanity is broad indeed. And Genly Ai is only one man, unadapted to the local social and political systems, to the nature of Gethenian relationships, or to the cold.

Ursula Le Guin, as I have learned far too late for my liking, is the godmother of fantasy and science fiction. If Tolkien re-established fantasy as a respected genre, Le Guin answered him with her own unique, reasonable, impassioned female voice. I don’t know how much more I can say about the Left Hand of Darkness than just to lay out its rich and delicate highlights as I’ve done above (spoiler alert, the left hand of darkness is LIGHT… how brilliant is that??). In a grand/epic/light-handed/gentle style, Madame Le Guin has crafted a masterpiece of intellectual science fiction. The characters are lovable, believable, and journey through dramatic changes of heart and mind. The world she created is stark, beautiful, deadly, and wild, never once stretching past the limits of reason, yet showing a face wholly “other” to the world in which we live. The language is meticulous, flowing, generous and easy to read.

My favorite part of this tale is the relationship that developed between the rational, masculine, prideful Genly Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian who started out as Genly’s powerful and manipulative enemy, and turned out, layer by delicate layer, to be a person wholly unexpected. By blurring the definitions of gender, Le Guin forces the reader to take every interaction between Genly and Estraven entirely at face value. The cultural divide between them makes far more distinct an impact than any question of sexual attraction or repulsion, and the qualities of each individual are attributed to each character as a whole, rather than to their natural-born  sexual identities. Brilliant. Challenging. Unique.

Ursula Le Guin is certainly one of the Crazy Greats. Madame, I salute you.

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Book Review: The Stone Man by Luke Smitherd

41eKtYmYOSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOn an average day, perhaps tomorrow, in an average British town, in an unremarkable city square, a stone figure of a man appears. It isn’t carted in by performers, it isn’t theatrically unveiled, it isn’t dropped from the upper atmosphere in a terrifying lightning bolt or a dazzling display of lights. One moment it isn’t there, the next, it is. So simply and so silently does it appear, only a few people notice it. But then the statue stands erect. Two hours later, it begins to walk. And nothing – and no one – can stop it.

What is a government supposed to do when a stone monolith walks steadily and inexorably through the country? It demolishes buildings and bridges and civilians who get in its way. It cannot be blown up or lifted or diverted or even slowed down. What does it want? Who sent it? And when will the blasted thing stop?

Just lucky enough to be on the scene of the Stone Man’s arrival, a washed up reporter named Andy Pointer follows the walking apocalypse in hopes of securing a career-making story, only to discover that he is more intimately connected to the statue’s story than he’d like. What the Stone Man wants, where it stops, what it does when it reaches its destination… the horror of the Stone Man grows with each passing hour. And Andy can only try to stay one step ahead.

The Stone Man caught me by complete surprise. It added greatly to the story that I listened to this book, narrated by an expert story-teller with a killer accent (Matt Addis), because the format of the narrative was a journal recorded on a dictaphone, told from the perspective of acutely detail oriented Andy Pointer. The excruciating tension and deeply rooted horror of this story got into my bones. I found myself camping out in my driveway, unable to turn off the car or interrupt the story long enough to switch to my headphones and walk inside.

So effective was this tension, in fact, that I often grew impatient with the narrator’s minute details and laborious explanations of the facts. “I get it, I get it, move on!” I shouted. Literally, I shouted. Whether this was because Luke Smitherd has mastered the art of not disclosing all the facts until the very end or because he should have cut about half of the narrator’s inner monologue, I have no idea. I do know that nothing could have stopped me from getting to the conclusion of this book.

The conclusion, as it was, turned out to be more of a question than all the pages that preceded it. I’m a long standing lover of science fiction, so unresolved conclusions aren’t too irksome for me. They’re preferable, actually, to those endings which work too hard to tie up the various strings of a complicated story. The ending Smitherd chose finished on exactly the sort of horror I prefer: the horror of the mysterious, the unknown, the unresolved, rather than gore or perversion or extravagance. There’s plenty of gore in The Stone Man. Consider yourself warned. But every incident serves the purpose of the whole. And in my humble reader’s opinion, that is almost always worth the trip.

Pomodoro: An Exercise in Hope

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately. It’s not the usual trend for me. I have almost always read exclusively fiction; mainly novels, really; mainly 19th century novels out of Europe. I know. Time to branch out. Now that I’ve dabbled in the genre somewhat demeaningly labeled “self-help” I find myself more and more addicted to books which address issues I’ve always struggled mightily and farsically to manage through my own wit and strength.

The three books which have caused the deepest tremors in the foundations of how I operate in every day life are How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gotten and Joan Declaire, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown.

I bring up these three books because they’re awesome and you should read them all. I won’t review them here since my focus is fiction, but seriously. Drop what you’re doing and go read them.

I also bring them up because each of these books is intricately connected to the success I’ve had in writing of late. I’ve gained insights into my own areas of emotional intelligence (and areas where intelligence is sorely lacking) and this has informed my characters and relationships in my fiction. I’ve benefited greatly from hearing about healthy and life-giving boundaries that “keep the bad out and let the good in”, instead of following the opposite pattern… MY usual pattern. And from Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection, I’ve learned a brand new definition for hope, one which ties directly into a strategy I’ve been employing just to get words on the page in my life overrun with diapers and dishes and the myriad blessings of a quotidian life.

So now, the roundabout way, we finally come to it: The Pomodoro technique, a simple tool I discovered while surfing Facebook (See, Wormtongue? Facebook surfing does have its uses. (Note: I’ve named my inner critic Wormtongue.)).

Pomodoro is simple enough: set yourself a task, work at it for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break. Repeat this pattern four times and then take a 30 minute break. Start over. I tried it out with writing and found that not only did the 25 minutes fly by while while they normally crawl while I strain to put words on the page, but my writing efficiency also increased with each 25 minute session. 200 words the first session, 500 words the second, 700 words the third, 900 on the fourth. Over 2,000 words in a single sitting and the time felt too short! (My brain also felt like a bowl of jelly on merry-go-round but that just means it’s been working, right?)

No matter what your work is, what your goals are, what tasks you set for yourself, this technique can be a very effective tool for motivating and sustaining your efforts. And as a very high bonus, this technique can also be an exercise in Hope.

According to Brene Brown, hope is not an attitude but a practice. This practice is made up of three parts: 1. setting goals, 2. striving towards those goals with perseverance, and 3. believing our own adequacy and worthiness to achieve those goals. Hope can also be based on belief in the adequacy and worthiness of someone else, of course. My hope in heaven, for example, is not founded on my own adequacy or worthiness but on the adequacy and worthiness of someone else altogether. But the pattern stands.

I set out to read and write this year, to make it part of my unconscious habits. I want to expand my palate and my knowledge by reading books outside my usual genres. I want to draw the connections between treatises on emotional intelligence and sci-fi space operas and odd literary exercises in introspection. And I want those connections to lend depth and maturity to my writing.

Just three months in, I have found my mind to be much changed. As though dormant parts of my soul are surfacing. As though my mind, a starving and exhausted creature, is being brought back to life by a feast. I’m reading decent books and extraordinary books and really, really bad books. Life-changing and inane, spectacular and miserable. Each one of them is working its changes on me as a thinker and a feeler and a writer, either by opening my eyes to gorgeous new vistas of possibility or by pointing out ways of writing and thinking and seeing the world that I just don’t like. (Finding out what you don’t like can be as helpful as reading the crazy greats!)

All that after just three months. I look to the next 9 months with great excitement and renewed vigor and… Hope. One book at a time. One story at time. 25 minutes, then striving to rest. Keeping my eye and focusing my energy on only those things which challenge and drive and inspire me toward my heart’s desires.

The world is indeed wide and weird and a wonder to behold.

Audiobooks, Paperbacks, and Kindles, Oh my!

As I savor the last of the short stories in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and Others, I’m also starting in on an Audible offering, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

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I’ve had very mixed feelings about audiobooks and my experiences seem to be largely determined by the audiobook’s reader. Neil Gaiman is an excellent narrator, as you could only assume he would be, so I’ve loved every one of his audiobooks thus far. I got frustrated with the tone and pace of the reader for Station Eleven, which made it tough to finish the book. Whereas Benedict Cumberbatch was so much fun to listen to, I didn’t really mind that I didn’t love the book.

The issue I’ve encountered in The Name of the Wind is that it’s a sweeping epic, likened by some to The Lord of the Rings, but it’s read by a kid who sounds like he may just have graduated from college. Not to be agist, but too many of these character’s voices sound like they require a seasoned voice to represent them. It’s been a major distraction.

Does anyone out there enjoy audiobooks? Do you have any favorite readers? Any least favorites?

I don’t encounter these sorts of distractions when I read books in paperback or on my Kindle, happily. Although, the voice-to-text on the Kindle can lend very interesting insights as you hear text read aloud in a monotone, digital voice. I couldn’t listen to a whole book that way, but it is certainly a worthwhile stop gap when I just can’t pick up a book to read it for whatever reason.

What about you? Do you love to listen, to feel the printed page between your fingers, or to scroll across the screen at your leisure?

How do you read best?

To Amazon or Not to Amazon, That is the Question…

Since the first time I mentioned to someone that I was actively seeking a publisher, I’ve gotten confused looks and the same question, over and over again: Why don’t you just self-publish an eBook on Amazon?

I know I’m not alone when I say that getting published the traditional way, with an editor and/or agent, with a carefully bound tome of printed pages that I can smell and feel and turn over in my hands, is quite simply my heart’s desire.

That is my goal for my novels: I want to see them on my bookshelf. I want spines with “Amy Deringer Robinson” printed on them resting between Poe and Salinger. I want books.

But my short stories… Well those I might be willing to self-publish as digital bite-sized fiction.

Thoughts?

Anyone have experience with this?

Anyone like to buy short stories on Amazon?