Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

I have a lukewarm feeling about this book. I'm a huge fan of filmmaker David Lynch, and that's why I purchased this title. But there wasn't anything particularly spectacular or substantial in its pages.

It only took me part of a day to blow through this book. It is a mish-mash of Lynch’s observations on how decades of Transcendental Meditation (TM) have greatly enhanced his creativity, alongside thoughts on how he encountered the ideas that contributed to the body of work he has accomplished.

Still, the book did reinvigorate in me an interest in learning to practice TM.

Lynch made some valid points on how new technologies are greatly changing the art of cinema. He sees the cinema at its best as a world into which the audience can enter and become lost, where each member is free to perceive a film through his or her own personal lens. He writes that seeing video as we do today, on a much smaller, less theatric scale (i.e. on an iPod), removes the viewer from having the opportunity to perceive a film in a unique way.

He believes high-definition resolution is almost TOO crystal clear to communicate the cinematic experience, because it takes away the gauzy mystique and feelings of other-worldliness, and sharpens imagery that should challenge the imagination, rather than appear in full, illuminated detail. I happen to agree. I found this the most interesting point that Lynch made. In our modern society, we seem to have this fixation with getting ever and ever perfect clarity in every film or television show we view. It's wonderful that we can avail ourselves of these technologies to achieve this. But, through this, films become too realistic. Don't we watch movies, because we want our minds to be carried away from all that is part of ordinary life – to escape the cares, distractions and stress of daily living?

A great degree of realism has its place. It’s acceptable in a National Geographic documentary. But it can be a deterrent to getting lost in the imagery of a David Lynch film.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Siteseeing: WEbook - Writing Loves Company

I just discovered a Bethesda, Maryland-based startup called WEbook today. It looks intriguing and uses the power of crowdsourcing, an interesting phenomenon that is gaining in popularity.
What is Webook?
Excerpt from the web site:
WEbook is a revolutionary online book publishing company, which does for the industry what American Idol did for music. (Modestly speaking, of course.) Welcome to the home of groundbreaking User-Generated Books. WEbook is the vision of a few occasionally erudite people who believe there are millions of talented writers whose work is ignored by the staid and exclusive world of book publishing. It just makes logical sense that if you create a dynamic, irreverent, and open place for writers and people who like reading to meet, write, react, and think together, the results are bound to be extraordinary. Cue WEbook.com, an online publishing platform that allows writers, editors, reviewers, illustrators and others to join forces to create great works of fiction and non-fiction, thrillers and essays, short stories, children's books and more.
For more, check out About WEbook.

Siteseeing: Altered Books, by Dan Waber

I haven't been making time to read for the past two weeks. My schedule became the schedule from hell. By the time I get home every afternoon, I'm ready for a nap, and I can hardly concentrate enough to enjoy a book. I hope to return to my love of reading when I can. I estimate that will be during my vacation to see family in Texas, April 22 to 28, especially during those times I'm on the plane or waiting in the airport. Having that free, unfettered time to devour a book during flights is the best.

Today I came across this project called Altered Books on the web site of creative soul, Dan Waber. The premise of this is a unique way to give new life to old books, reviving them as works of both art and poetry. Being an avid bibliophile for not only the literary value of books, but also the ways they touch my senses of smell and sight -- this really appeals to me.

I hope you enjoy!
-- Jen

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Siteseeing: WikiSummaries

I came across this site today and thought it was worth a mention on Observed in Books. Seems to be a useful resource as well as a place where we avid readers can add our two cents about our own favorite reads.

Free book summaries that anyone can contribute to! WikiSummaries provides free book summaries. The community is open to all, with the goal of helping to bring knowledge to the world, for free.

Please Join the Community and help us build out the summaries!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Continued Reading of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I'm halfway through Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm far from a slow reader, but as demands have increased in my life, I've had to compensate by confining my reading time to the rare spare weekend moments and weekday train commutes.

It's a thick read, but the writing is so lyrical, and the content so grabbing, most people wouldn't dream of quitting on it. I'm not quite sure I even want it to end. When I read this book, I feel I've lost myself in an alternate universe. When the protagonist Shadow (no real name revealed thus far) comes to reside for a short time in the quaint small town of Lakeside (set in Wisconsin, I think), I yearn to experience its small-town friendliness and eat "pasties" at Mabel's restaurant (specialty regional handheld meat pies) right alongside him.

Shadow is very likable. He easily perceives the inner desires of those around him. Although his character entered the story as a former small-time crook getting released from prison, you find it hard to hold that against him. I feel that he really wants to do the right thing and just survive his ordeals - he wants to return to a normal life again, before this metaphysical storm brewed and the "old" gods (i.e. his mysterious employer Mr. Wednesday, who is really an incarnation of the Norse god Odin) required his assistance. Now and then, his dead wife Laura pops in, unannounced, to say hello, moving about in the physical plane, but still appearing as the corpse that she is. Shadow wants more than anything to fulfill her one wish, which is to return to the world of the living.

He is a loner, no real ties to anyone, it seems. During the course of his work with Wednesday, he travels like a nomad, setting down roots just enough to graze the social topsoil, and then off again. He dreams of a mysterious Buffalo Man who sits beside a fire in a cave and speaks in riddles, never giving straight answers to Shadow's questions. Shadow is warned by Wednesday not to ask too many questions, and he wanders along in this arrangement not having a full picture of how he fits in. He is prodded to each next episode in his existence by odd occurrences and by taking direction from Wednesday.

Along the way Shadow is besieged by men in black who, so far, as I understand are on the side of the "new" gods, those of technology and modernization. They try to convince him that theirs is the "right" side. He is accosted by a Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone who work for the "new" side. They remind him of C.I.A. types, but they are not. Shadow is roughed up, interrogated, locked inside a nondescript space in an unmarked train, and assumes he is going to die. Just in the nick of time, Laura appears on the scene, kills his enemies and helps him escape. He sets off alone, on the run, toward a town called Cairo after a foul-mouthed raven in the forest tells him that is his path. There are other, just as bizarre, episodes in the book. Mad Sweeney, a self-proclaimed Leprechaun, who, although deceased, stays with the living long enough to drink and boast throughout his own wake. A being speaking through Lucille Ball's character from "I Love Lucy" talks to him from a hotel television set. She ends the conversation by asking him if he ever wondered what Lucy's tits looked like. Then, she offers to show him.

Wednesday seems to treat Shadow well. So far, it's hard to know why, of all people, he chose to so aggressively pursue Shadow as a partner, in particular - a freshly-released prisoner tasting his first inkling of civilization on a flight to what is left of his home. Maybe it's because he had no one, nothing to connect him to anything, and a drifter was needed for the job. Plus, he was down on his luck, no money, no job and desperate -- a good combination. I'm sure that will come to light further into the book.

Shadow seems to be able to read minds and possesses the ability known as remote viewing. He practices sleight-of-hand coin tricks to pass the time. Coins figure into the story very often. When he first seals the deal of working with Wednesday over a few bottles of honey mead, he gets a coin from Mad Sweeney, which he later tosses onto the dirt atop Laura's grave (this turns out to be the very object that brings her to life). He meets a strange, fragile old woman who is miraculously light on her feet late at night and accompanies her to a rooftop where she waves her hand over the bright image of the moon and, unexplainably, produces him a silver coin. He continues to grow quite capable of his coin tricks, having honed them during the endless moments of his jail term. Throughout the book, Shadow uses these to pass the time and amuse curious children. There is much symbolism in this book, although half of it misses me totally, and I imagine the coins somehow figure into that.

I anticipate the story will grow even weirder. The storm continues to brew on the distant horizon, and the signs of war are beginning to peak. And I haven't even reached the climax of the novel.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Close Encounters of the Gaiman Kind

I am currently on page 100 of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. In my opinion, there is no better way to introduce this book to someone than chucking a copy at them and telling them to dive in.

This is the first book I've ever read of Neil Gaiman's. I've been very familiar with the author's name for years and had some of his books saved for possible future purchases on my Amazon Wish List. The content sounded right up my alley, as least in the fiction realm. Little did I know I would venture into Gaiman territory and lose myself in a swiftly spiraling, electric dream in the process.

There are some very unsettling moments in the book that you don't anticipate until they're upon you. Without giving away the story, for those of you who have yet to read it, I will say that one such instance involves a deadly wager made during a seemingly harmless game of checkers. Whew, yikes, I didn't see that coming. Talk about getting hit on the head! (little play on words that those of you who have read it will recognize)

I find it difficult to write reviews that are too in-depth. I don't want to influence the individual perception of a reader who comes to the first page, totally unaware of what to expect. It's like watching the movie The Sixth Sense and already knowing the ending. That would be a definite letdown. To experience that movie for the first time and not realize you are missing the little cues to the truth throughout the unfolding of the film is what it's all about.

The funny thing about me reading this book is that I'm not even remotely into fantasy fiction. But Gaiman sucks the reader in immediately, artfully, with a descriptively rich and yet unassuming use of language.

ODD SIDE NOTES: I picked up my copy of American Gods for less than five bucks at my local Daedalus bookstore since I'd always been curious. Sadly, the book then almost met an untimely demise as it sat in the back of my car, because we have no room for my literary outgrowth in our dinky one-bedroom apartment. The wetness trickling down from a snow shovel haphazardly tossed onto the rear floorboard of my car seeped into and throughout my book, rendering it a sopping mess. With hope, I placed it vertically on my dresser, pages spread, where it sat for weeks until it finally dried. Of course, now consisting of mostly warped pages, it's twice as thick and unwieldy as it should be. Otherwise, the words are thankfully intact.

After having become entranced by the stature of Gaiman's writing, I feel sorry I never made the time to read my copy of his novel Neverwhere. Unfortunately, It had to go, along with thousands of others in a collection I was forced to abandon to a friend in Wyoming. There was no way to ship that many by mail or afford to move cross-country anything I couldn't stuff into my already overloaded-to-the-gills Grand Am. Losing those books was quite the heartbreak. I had carefully hand-selected the perfect books that I would "one day" find time to read. Can you imagine?

There are worse compulsions, I guess.


Neil Gaiman's web site

For those of you who don't mind reading in e-book format, I just happened to discover today (synchronicity afoot?) that Neil Gaiman's web site yesterday began to host a link to a FREE copy of American Gods. It will be up through March 28 and appears to just be a version to be read online and not downloaded (although I'm sure crafty people out there will find a way). The book can also be accessed via the image of its cover on the sidebar of my blog.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

DailyLit for the Time-Challenged Bibliophile

If you don't have time to read, check out DailyLit, a website that will send you daily installments of books via e-mail or RSS feeds. There are over 750 books available for FREE, but even the copyrighted titles usually cost well under $10.

A great way to get your daily biblio-fix when you're short on time! For me, I imagine it would get really old stretching out the time spent reading a book over the course of almost a year or less. But, hey, it's better than not reading at all.

Oddest Book Title of the Year

Every year, Bookseller magazine announces the winner of its Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. This year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Diagram Prize, the magazine is also holding public vote for the "Diagram of Diagrams"--the oddest book title ever.

Here are the illustrious winners, as well as the titles currently on the short list for this year's award and some that narrowly missed out on a place in history.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Salon: Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Currently I'm reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's one of those philosophical classics I've always had on my list to read and of which I never got around to cracking the cover.

There were parts of this book where the waters turned deeper and darker, and I knew there was more than met the eye at first glance. So, there were some of these paragraphs that I had to return to and pick apart to let the meaning sink in.

I was fine until I reached the part about the narrator having had a previous personality, which was somehow removed and replaced with his current one in the book. I assume that this change was meant figuratively, but so far a better understanding of this has not been revealed.

Anyway, please read more about this book here. Because, let's face it. It's 11:30 at night, and I'm unable to form coherent sentences, while trying to capture an entry before I miss making my official weekly commitment to the Sunday Salon. And, as of now, at page 96 and just getting down a superficial understanding of this book, I'm not qualified to write much more, and even if I could, I'm not so sure I could explain it. It's kind of like one of those "you had to be there" moments. You have to be there reading it to really get the gist of it.

Am I making any sense? Well, right now I feel pretty much like the book makes me feel, like I'm running in circles through my thoughts.

P.S. A Google search on Robert Pirsig produced many results. My favorite was this insightful essay, Cruising Blues and Their Cure.

Monday, February 11, 2008

HarperCollins Will Post Free Books Online

This is pretty cool.

Starting today, readers who log on to HarperCollins will be able to see the entire contents of “The Witch of Portobello” by Paulo Coelho; “Mission: Cook! My Life, My Recipes and Making the Impossible Easy” by Food Network star Robert Irvine; “I Dream in Blue: Life, Death and the New York Giants” by Roger Director; “The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President: Who the Candidates Are, Where They Come from and How You Can Choose” by Mark Halperin; and “Warriors: Into the Wild,” the first volume in a children’s series by Erin Hunter.

HarperCollins also plans to upload a different title by Coelho each month for the rest of the year.

I'm more interested in reading offline books, but, hey, FREE! Who am I to turn that down?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Just For Fun: What Kind of Book Are You Quiz

Errr, I had hoped I was a little more exciting than that! I borrowed this quiz from the blog, Dinosaur Mom Chronicles.

It did hit some things on target. I admit it. I am a spelling nerd. I won first place in the spelling bee for my school in 9th grade in Florida and went on to county level. And I am a useless trivia buff, so I guess that fits.

I shouldn't even tell you this, but as a kid, I used to read the encyclopedia or dictionary when I was bored.

You're The Dictionary!

by Merriam-Webster

You're one of those know-it-all types, with an amazing amount of knowledge at your command. People really enjoy spending time with you in very short spurts, but hanging out with you for a long time tends to bore them. When folks really need an authority to refer to, however, you're the one they seek. You're an exceptional speller and very well organized.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sunday Salon: Girl Clown, by Mary R. Wise

I must admit that I haven't gotten a lot of reading done for today's Sunday Salon. This past week I began Julia Cameron's The Complete Artist's Way, and I've slowly been incorporating that into my life.

I did remain true to my literary core today, however. I interviewed a local author (local, to me, anyway) originally from Takoma Park, Maryland -- Mary R. Wise, who wrote Girl Clown, a memoir of her life working for three years as a clown in the circus.

I plan to elaborate more on that this week. My schedule has been pretty crazy lately, but I'd like to come back to this, as it was both educational for me as a beginning writer and entertaining for the conversational value. I'll soon be posting the details of the interview surrounding this author and her written work.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Complete Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron

Of late, I have begun reading a three-book compilation by author Julia Cameron, The Complete Artist's Way. This includes The Artist's Way, Walking in This World, and Finding Water.

If you're not familiar with Cameron, in The Artist's Way, she advocates two simple concepts as major tools for transcending creative blocks. Doing these activities on a constant basis is meant to unleash the creative soul within each of us - whether we are sculptors, writers, homemakers or business people looking to engage more fully with the artistic aspects of ourselves.

I have never read the second and third books in the set, and the total sum of advice covers over 700 pages. Cameron says that following this model throughout her own multi-faceted career path as a filmmaker, writer and speaker, has paid off.

Slowly, I've begun to chip away at this heaping of inspiration on the train each day. I enjoy how she blends the process of accessing our creative urges with beginning to open up spiritually. Although Cameron uses the word "God," it is not in the sense of linking her teachings to the Christian ideal. She encourages anyone of any faith (or lack thereof) to respond in his or her own way, saying that pure creativity comes about from a combination of this unseen force in collaboration with our own intentions.

The first step recommended for all who wish to seriously pursue this course is to complete "The Morning Pages." This is a "brain dump" of sorts, with a requirement to write three pages daily, no matter what your mood. The goal is to write whatever comes to mind (even if it seems petty, angry or boring, and you hate it -- even if you write three pages that read, "I have nothing to say today.") without stopping to edit or judge its content. The product of this free writing is meant to get you out of your own way. Only then, can you be ready to embrace those first thoughts that spring from the well of your imagination. This will send you onward on the path to developing as an artist.

The second step for those of us who seek to become unblocked creatives is known as "The Artist Date." This involves making time to go out alone and attend an event or take part in a hobby you enjoy. This tool is designed to work in tandem with the Morning Pages. While writing the required three pages per day is akin to sending a request to the Universe (or God, Buddha, whatever) to express your dreams, the Artist Date is how you are to receive inspiration and guidance from the Universe.

The book is filled with well-chosen quotes and numerous practical exercises. Over time, these should allow you to delve into your past and understand what caused you to bury your creative side, to disconnect from the flow of creativity in the first place, hence to aid in your recovery.

As a side note, the Morning Pages can be penned within the plainest of notebooks or in a journal Cameron specially designed to accompany your work. It is up to you. However, it is not recommended that you type your pages. Cameron also states that you shouldn't even read them for at least 8 weeks (so you don't end up critiquing yourself right out of keeping to this goal). Also, it's not advisable to ever show them to other people. The pages are meant to function as a sanctuary for only you, so that you can begin to "rest on the page," as Cameron puts it.

I began my Morning Pages before Thanksgiving, and I lasted about one week. I managed the mighty task of ditching my usual morning nap and disciplined myself to do them. I was really starting to feel my load lighten and my mind grow in clarity, with each day accomplished. Then, my boyfriend and I left to visit his parents in Missouri. Even though I had the best of intentions, and brought my journal with me, I didn't even crack the cover. By the time we returned home, I had veered off in other directions.

So, here I go again.

There seems to be much validity in reading and partaking in the tasks in Cameron's books. Groups in many parts of the world have formed for the purpose of working through the process together.

The one line from Cameron that sums everything up for me is "Leap and the net will appear." Doesn't that say it all? If we can detach ourselves from our fears and find out how to dig deeply, down to the blood that pulses through the center of our lives, our needs will be met. But, in order to do so, we have to take that first step.

PLEASE comment if you have used Cameron's books, and let us know how they worked for you. I've been familiar with her books for years, but only now at 35 years old, do I find that I can sit still long enough to probably hang on to the very end.

I also just came across The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size, and I immediately ordered it. Looks fascinating and unique.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Salon: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

This afternoon I decided to reread Anne Lamott's writing classic, Bird by Bird. Even though I've already read this book more than once, I'm already one-fifth of the way through.

If you haven't read this book, and you are anyone who seeks to pursue writing -- from the college student grinding out essays to even the most seasoned of wordsmiths -- I highly recommend getting a copy. I'd say it's right on par with one of my most favorite writing books of all time, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Bird by Bird is just as enjoyable to read as it is informative. Lamott has a unique way of sharing with the reader the basics of good writing while blending it with her own personal stories and a solid dose of wit.

Lamott expertly whittles down the craft that has been a part of her life for decades. She then compresses that advice into neatly understandable packages that we can carry with us into our own writing lives, long after we close the covers of the book. However, this isn't one of those books you will want to pass on without a care, for you will find yourself returning to its sage advice again and again.

Sunday Salon: gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

Yesterday I finished southern writer Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama. It was a fast-flowing novel that I would qualify as a great read for the beach or for the interminable waits at the airport, or to pass the time during air travel.

Hailing from Alabama myself (although I haven't lived there since my parents whisked us off to Florida when I was 12 or 13), I was intrigued by the title. The book crooked its little finger at me and beckoned. I was on an afternoon stroll through the Pentagon City shopping Center in Arlington, VA. I was largely bored and ducked into one of those cheesy types of stores featuring a mishmash of everything from Washington DC souvenirs to scores of newspapers and mass market novels by the likes of John Grisham. Then, there it was, at first glance looking like a Thelma and Louise kind of story sans Thelma, reminding me of the wayward southern belle character played by Melanie Griffith in Crazy in Alabama. I dig a story set in the devious backdrop of the unpredictable South, my home stompin' grounds, seasoned just right, with a dash of mystery, murder and romance thrown in.

When Arlene Fleet headed off to college in Chicago, she made three promises to God: She would never again lie, she would stop fornicating with every boy who crossed her path, and she'd never, ever go back to her tiny hometown of Possett, Alabama (the "fourth rack of Hell"). All God had to do in exchange was to make sure the body of high school quarterback Jim Beverly was never found.

Ten years later, Arlene has kept her promises, but an old school-mate has recently turned up asking questions. And now Arlene's African American beau has given her a tough ultimatum: introduce him to her family, or he's gone. As she prepares to confront guilt, discrimination, and a decade of deception, Arlene is about to discover just how far she will go to find redemption - and love.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Consuming Words Like Some People Eat Chocolate

When I read, I have a hard time getting through books as quickly as I'd prefer. My reading speed has always been fairly swift. However, I'm completely infatuated with words. To me, a word is a vibrant gem that injects reality into the pages at hand. It is a building block, creating and strengthening human understanding across the diversity that is life. Without the right combination, a novel could not convey the story the author hopes to tell.

Words… the smallest and simplest of things. Yet, they have the power to enact large-scale change and influence emotions, to forge relationships between strangers and enhance communication -- sometimes in the form of stories passed down through the ages, the likes of which continue to color our world, deeply ingrained within the hearts and souls of the inhabitants of its societies, despite strife and transformation. Without the gift of words, delicately strung together in romantic ballads, or heavily cemented into the legal documents that structure our governments, our world would be chaotic and meaningless.

So, as I feel their vibrations upon my lips and the way a smoothly crafted sentence stirs my spirit, I can't help but wish to pluck each one from where it rests and drop it into my repertoire.

My usual practice is to keep a highlighter or felt-tipped pen handy and mark the words that really jump out at me. Then, I try to remember to go back through the book and gather the words into a list (I'm not always successful at completing this task). I write down the jargon that I'm not familiar with to later look up, as well as even more common words that I would enjoy using in my own writing, because they inspire me. My best intentions are to store these all in a large notebook, so that these words can be my source for writing prompts later on, and then to insert them all, over time, into my daily writing practice; but, so far, this is more of a "wouldn't that be nice" kind of idea that makes me feel cozy to contemplate.

I try not to let my passion for consuming words onto themselves detract from my enjoyment of the entire story, and the only ways to make this so are the highlighting and underlining I already mentioned, as well as jotting words (and sometimes uniquely put-together phrases) down in a small notebook I carry with me, or typing them into my iPhone's Notes application when all else fails. So I'm good at being the curator of the words I love, but, so far, I haven't found a viable way to organize them into one useful database or similar system. I did use the Web 2.0-style site, Wordie, for a while, but even that didn't seem to be fully featured enough to meet my needs. Does anyone else share this malady? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this or suggestions.

I've always entertained a courtship with words -- accompanying my dad in his tasks on our Alabama farm, as I scribbled entire notebooks full of elementary poems as a kid, winning first-place in the school spelling bee in ninth grade, continuing to be an insatiable reader, and finally, achieving my goal to attain the military occupational specialty of print journalist in my service to the Army.

So, please be aware, if I pass on one of my already read books to you there's a 99 percent chance it will marred by hastily scratched marginalia that only means something to me, and cherished words lovingly handpicked and stored away for a rainy-day writing session.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oracle Night, by Paul Auster

Today I began reading Oracle Night, by Paul Auster. So far, it promises to be an intriguing story, peppered with "eerie premonitions and bewildering events." The book centers around 34-year-old novelist Sidney Orr from New York City, who is recovering from a near-fatal illness. During one of many strolls Orr takes, as he seeks to regain a hold on his life, he encounters a curious stationery shop where he purchases a blank blue notebook. That seemingly harmless small act is what sets into motion every event that follows.

This is the fourth book I've read by Paul Auster. He is quite a prolific writer, and I enjoy his style. I recently read his short memoir, Hand to Mouth. I've also read In the Country of Last Things and I Thought My Father Was God, a compilation of true and compelling stories submitted by ordinary people, taken from a National Public Radio (NPR) segment, The National Story Project, that Auster hosted a few years ago.

Follow-up on Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants was a very riveting read that, one night, even kept me, the early-to-bed person, up until 1 a.m., because I could not find a point at which it was easy to set the book aside.
I enjoyed Gruen's sharp and well selected, detailed descriptions of circus life, with a good dosage of circus lingo -- words I had never heard before, to add realism to the story.

Water for Elephants contained a satisfying mix of multi-layered characters. Some of them surprised me -- at first, gritty on the outside, but as they evolved, slowly displaying the humanity that lay beneath their exteriors -- as with Kinko the dwarf, later revealed to be named Walter (because only his friends could call him that).

And, since I'm not very biblically versed, I didn't understand the references to Jacob in the story and how that fit in with the Bible. I felt I missed some significance that would have added to my understanding of the story. There was some correlation with the religious story of the man known as Jacob, which Sara Gruen mentioned at the end of the book. Luckily, I did some sleuthing, consulting some book discussions on Amazon and found that even people familiar with the Bible missed what that was about. Sara kindly explained the cryptic issue in a comment within the discussion, saying:

There are anagrams, both exact and phonetic:
Catherine Hale=Leah, Marlena L'Arche=Rachel, Alan Bunkel (Uncle Al)=Uncle Laban. There is the flat rock, the dream, the animal husbandry for Uncle Laban. Jacob and Rachel (Marlena) leave with Uncle Al's (Uncle Laban's) best livestock, Jacob must do an additional seven years of animal husbandry in order to be with Marlena, he breaks his hip, etc. Some of his children's names are the same as well.

Lastly, since I wish to publish my own novel one day, I made a mental note that, should I ever do so, I will also employ the present-tense style Gruen used throughout the book. I believe this gives the story a sense of immediacy that brings the reader directly into the midst of the unfolding of events.

Also, see my previous post about Water for Elephants.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

"I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder for conversation, I don't know what is." So says the narrator of Water for Elephants, 90-something-year-old Jacob Jankowski, about his experiences in a travelling circus called The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

I began Gruen's New York Times bestselling novel this morning. I'm reading it simultaneously alongside I Thought My Father Was God.

I borrowed the following summary from the novel's Wikipedia entry...

The story is told as a series of memories by Jankowski, a ninety-three-year-old man who lives in a nursing home.

As the memories begin, Jacob Jankowski is twenty-three years old and preparing for his final exams as a Cornell University veterinary student when he receives the news that his parents were killed in a car accident. Jacob’s father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. Jacob further discovers his parents were deeply in debt, because his kind-hearted father treated animals even when their owners weren’t able to pay. With his plans in chaos, Jacob has a breakdown and leaves school just short of completing his final exams for graduation. In the dark of night, he wanders aimlessly, and then jumps on the first train he sees, which turns out to be a circus train. When the tyrannical owner of the outfit, "Uncle Al," learns of Jacob's training as a vet, he hires him to care for the circus animals.

The novel chronicles Jacob’s experiences as he learns the hierarchy of circus life, picks up the lingo of its laborers and performers, and gains an understanding of the brutalities inherent in this clandestine society. Along, the way, as he struggles to maintain his moral compass in a sea of recklessness, he falls in love...

P.S... If you enjoy stories centered around the theme of circus life, or just memoirs in general, you should check out Mary R. Wise's book, Girl Clown. Mary is a Maryland author I met during a kick-off event for this year's NaNoWriMo in Columbia, MD. In addition to being an interesting and warm-hearted individual with a great blog, this former "girl clown" can write up a storm.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I Thought My Father Was God, NPR Stories

I'm now on page 68 of I Thought My Father Was God, a collection of writings from NPR's National Story Project (ran from 2000 to 2001 on NPR).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Master, by Colm Toibin

Today I completed The Master, by Colm Toibin. Another reader and friend of mine, Toni, recently lent it to me for my copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

I must say, that, because of the sheer volume of decisive prose that one must traverse when reading this novel, I am glad to be finished. It is truly well-written, but I am ready for the next novel adventure.

My friend said that, for her, this book felt very similar to the experience of reading Tolstoy.