Friday, May 31, 2013

One Novel, Two Readers, Different Effects

It is never any surprise that a book that affected me also has an effect on others. What always surprises me, though, is how one book can influence people so differently. My sister brought to my attention this article Composites: German Language and 'Things Fall Apart' by Jalees Rehman, M.D. In it, the author, whose family spent time in the same region where this story takes place, finds that the language of this novel that he says changed his life forever. One cannot disagree that this book is striking in its simplicity of language, which makes the story all the more poignant.

For me, it was something else altogether. I read the book in High School as part of a special program called "Combined Studies." This course made the bridge between history and literature. We read Things Fall Apart when we were learning about the colonization of Africa. Our teachers tried to instill in us the understanding that the concept of culture is something that is far more subjective than we think. What's more, the way a different culture's citizen acts should not be judged by the standards of another own culture. The buzz word that went along with our lesson was ethnocentric

The dictionary says that this word means "the conviction of one's own cultural superiority." To me, it is a type of unfeeling depravity that is unforgivable. In the novel, the white man's good intentions were, on the surface, beyond reproach. The death and destruction they caused was nothing more than the merest collateral damages in the war to civilize the uncivilized world. One would think that after such a novel became such an icon, that we might have learned something from it. Rehman learned the power of the simple sentence. While that is a good lesson, I think he missed the point of the book. In the article he says:

As with so many of the characters in the book, I could see myself in them and yet I was also disgusted by some of the abhorrent acts they committed. I wanted to like Okonkwo, but I could not like a man who participated in the killing of his adopted son or nearly killed his wife in a fit of anger.

Maybe if Rehman had learned about the negative effects of ethnocentrism, he wouldn't have judged the characters using what seems to me to be his own superior cultural yardstick. Many of the "abhorrent acts" in the book aren't in the least bit objectionable in the eyes of the characters that do them. They are done as a matter of fact, it was just the way they did things, and it was part of their culture.  What right did outsiders have to try to change these people? Because in trying to change them, things literally fell apart. 

Rehman goes on to say that he tried to imagine Okonkwo as someone of another race who suffered upheavals at the hands of different invaders. He says, "The history of humankind is always that of things falling apart and, importantly, that of rebuilding after the falling apart." While this is true, the question in my mind is why is humankind so eager to tear things down for the sake of what they consider to be progress?

This type of thing always brings to mind the story of the Ethiopian woman who was brought to Israel. When a group went to visit her in her new apartment, someone made the comment that her life was so much better now than it had been before. To this she replied that when she lived in Ethiopia, every morning she would milk her cow, make breakfast for her children and send them off to school. Then she would go down to the river to get water. This took her most of the day. When the day was done, they would go to sleep on the mats she put down on the dirt floor of the hut. In Israel, her apartment had stone floors, running water, a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, windows, doors and even real beds with sheets and pillows. She had all this convenience but, "I don't have money to buy milk to make my children's breakfast. You tell me - where was my life better?" 

It seems unfortunate (or maybe it's ironic) that Rehman, a German Muslim, would fail to see this as the real essence of this novel. Then again, my feeling this way is probably just my own ethnocentrism showing.

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

So… who is this "Chocolate Lady" of whom you speak?

I'm sure by now you'll have realized that I am "The Chocolate Lady." This particular nickname was actually not self-dubbed. (Over the years, people have called me many things. I sincerely hope that most - if not all - have been long forgotten.) For those of you interested, here is the long version of how I obtained this auspicious handle.

Way back in the mid-90s, my (then) employers decided I should be the first person they would give a home internet hook up. I had already had internet access on my work computer, and found I took to it very quickly. I already knew it was a valuable tool. But with it at home, maybe I could find something there that would help me become the famous, published poet I always wanted to be. (Yeah, sure… as if!)

Back then, they had what was called newsgroups. These were bulletin board sites where people could discuss whatever interested them. Even then, there were tens of thousands to choose from, on any topic one could imagine - for amateurs, professionals and even the kinky of all kinds. I quickly discovered that most of the poetry groups were filled with people posting their poems for critique. That the majority of the commentary on what I considered to be Hallmark rejects was particularly inane and undeservedly complimentary made me soon discontinue my participation. Aside from some cooking and baking groups, which in retrospect, informed me of almost nothing I didn't already know, I was becoming uninterested in the platform.

And then I found the group misc.writing. This was a group that totally discouraged posting of the contributors work - hurray! They were more about the "art and craft" of writing. They discussed many things like etiquette for submitting our work for publication, resources where writers can find markets, elements of writing such as character development and more. They also talked about many things that had nothing to do with writing. These could be anything from politics to pets. It was a virtual refuge for writers who wanted to get some advice as well as just take a break from writing (or whatever they were doing).

I should also mention that relationships grew up between the various posters. As the members of the group and their personalities came through, they were also made into characters that appeared in fantastical stories set in our own fictional Misc.Writing.Ville (yes, I was 'there', I did that, and I still have the T-Shirt). Many members felt real connections with others in the group and set up real-life meetings. These we dubbed "wrevels," because they were where writers got together to revel in each others' company. There were even romances that bloomed through the group, two of which (that I know of) lead to marriages. It was more of a community than a message board, and I took to it.

However, soon after getting involved, I noticed that some of the "off-topic" threads could get pretty heated. These disturbed me and for some reason, I decided I would attempt to defuse the situations. I did this by veering the conversation onto a topic in which I had a great deal of love and no small amount of expertise - chocolate. It wasn't long before I would interject chocolate into any conversation. This would often shut the thread down altogether, or make it go so far off on a tangent that it never succeeded in returning to the subject again. Not long after this, someone included me in one of the 'Ville's stories as "The Chocolate Lady." Flattered and pleased, I took this handle on as my online persona, and I have kept it ever since.

And so you have it - the full story of how I became known as The Chocolate Lady. But let's make one thing crystal clear - I am a gourmet of chocolate; not an addict!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Prepare to Die… Laughing

"The Princess Bride" by William Goldman

The story of "The Princess Bride" is a complex one. According to William Goldman, this is the true account of a group of people and the events that happened to them in and around the land of Florin a very long time long ago. As the account begins, we are introduced to Buttercup, a milkmaid who has the potential of being the most beautiful woman in the world. Then there’s her family’s farm boy Westley, who apparently is far from being a slouch in the looks department. We are soon introduced to Count Rugen, who is the only person that Prince Humperdinck trusts. At the onset we already understand that Buttercup will eventually rise far above her lowly station to become worthy of the man who will eventually become a king, and make her his queen. The truth is Buttercup doesn't know she is actually in love with Westley. And Westley isn’t anything better than a love-struck farm boy. As the story unfolds, these two are quickly parted and then go through a series of adventures (and misadventures) before they can finally be reunited. Along the way they encounter such interesting people as Fezzic the giant, the Spaniard master swordsman Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Does that sound like a fairytale to you? Of course it does. But throughout this book, Goldman insists that all he has done is take an existing true story that was desperately overly wordy and technical in order to extract from it the “good parts”.  This, because he wanted to make it as close as possible to the story his father read aloud to him when he was recovering from Pneumonia at the age of about ten years old.  The original, he states, was written in Florinese (the national language of the country called Florin) by one S. Morgenstern.  Apparently, Morgenstern’s original book has “been on the Florinese Times bestseller list continuously since the week it was published”!  But it really doesn’t matter if you decide that this pretense is fact or fiction.  One way or another, this is a book that will warm your heart and make you smile - if not laugh out loud, as I did. 

And so the stage is set for a myriad of adventures, heartbreak, romance, intrigue and everything a perfect fairy tale could offer.  But this isn’t a fairy tale - or is it?  Sound a bit muddled and convoluted to you?  Well, you see, this was apparently Goldman’s problem with Morgenstern’s original text versus what his father read to him when sick as a child.  Because of this, Goldman has attempted to remove all of the superfluous passages (including whole chapters, when necessary), while allowing himself to interject from time to time with his own insights and commentary.  Some readers might find this a pretty egotistical way to abridge a story.  However, I found that quite to the contrary, it was these interjections and comments that made the whole thing come alive for me.  Sort of like being slapped in the face every so often by a velvet glove - here we are, deep in the convoluted story and then Goldman brings us almost rudely back to the present with something as obvious as “they had acres back then” or as silly as “they had arguments then too”. 

Goldman’s abridgment of this story not only helps us concentrate on the essence of the tale (by eliminating the “not good parts”), but also brings us closer to these characters (um… historical figures) by practically speaking to us through his commentary.  The humor he puts into his commentary and interjections perfectly parallels, as well as compliments the humor of Morgenstern’s original text.  If you don’t at least crack a smile while reading this book, then your funny bone must be made of hardened, cold, molten stone!

In addition, Goldman also appeals to our senses of wonder, amazement, bravery and valor, while showing us that these do not exist in a vacuum, but are part and parcel of a world that holds evil as well.  Still, he gives us hope that good can overcome evil if we only believe that it is possible.  It is probably this message that Goldman is trying to put forth to us, and he does it by doing everything in his power to make you believe that this is no fairy tale, but a true story - a historic account and that these people really did exist and triumphed through adversity we can’t even fathom to understand.  Lastly, Goldman always leaves you wondering and wanting more, because, after all isn’t life just one big question that’s never totally answered?  Much like the famous Reunion Scene that Goldman wrote, was stopped from including in the original edition of the book, and is to this day, buried in litigation and mystery - yet hope still springs eternal!

It would therefore be my opinion that this book is not simply highly, or even merely extremely recommended, but rather, I wholeheartedly believe that it should be required reading!  (Thank you, Miss Roginski, wherever you are.)

The Princess Bride is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, as an iBook or an AudioBook from iTunes, The Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), or from an IndieBound bookstore near you.

This review was originally published on DooYoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who am I to be writing book reviews?

I've never made a secret that I am mildly dyslexic. This is something that - among other things - slows down my reading. The fact that many of my teachers didn't believe I had any disability, was a bigger problem. They knew I wasn't stupid so they called me a lazy reader. Me! A lazy reader - imagine that!

While this was a handicap, especially when sitting down for tests, it also had its advantages. The most prominent of which is my love of words. I loved their sounds, their feel, their nuances and even their scents. I loved words so much that in my youth, I wanted to be a poet (after realizing that I wasn't talented enough to become an actress). I was lucky enough to be encouraged by a few teachers, and I've actually published a few of my poems (nothing special, but I did get paid for a couple of them). But writing poetry is an almost impossible career choice.

Over the years, I realized that I liked reading novels much more than reading poetry (especially the works of amateur poets who think putting down saccharine emotions on a page in rhyming stanzas constitutes a poem). Novels, on the other hand, bring us into other worlds. And every novel that I read, I read carefully, as if I was dramatizing the texts. This brought out the love of theater in me, and I gave the characters accents and voices in my head. I believe this would never have happened if I hadn't been dyslexic.

But I also love writing. While my poetry was good, it wasn't good enough. It's also an extremely draining activity. I tried my hand at writing short stories, to no avail. I also realized that I didn't have a novel in me. This was a surprise, considering how many famous authors are afflicted with my same disability. My talent as a journalist is also less than stellar. I eventually put my writing talents to work online, while at the same time learning grant writing through my job.

The online part began with content and consumer review sites. These places gave me an outlet for my creativity, along with a smattering of extra pocket money along the way. I soon found that I was becoming most critical of those writers who critiqued arts and entertainment categories. Putting all humility aside, I decided concentrate my reviews in the areas of music, TV, films and books, in the hopes that I my articles would become an example to others.

Over the years, I noticed that the book reviews were becoming fewer and farer between. It seemed to me that the pastime of reading was slowly becoming obsolete. This trend seems to have continued, despite the introduction of electronic reading devices. Pick any book title and ask someone if they've heard of it. Unless it was made into a movie, the answer is probably 'no.' How sad is that?

So, once again, with all the modesty I have locked firmly away in the darkest, most remote corner of my soul, I bring you a blog with my book reviews. I hope it will encourage someone out there to pick up a book and read it - be it one that I review here, or any other.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What the Dickens??

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

Jack Maggs is a criminal - a convict shipped away from England to Australia for his crimes, who returns to his native 19th century London to contact one Henry Phipps. Henry was an orphaned boy who showed Maggs a small kindness just before his exile, and whom Maggs has been secretly financially supporting from afar. Maggs returns to England, despite personal danger, so he can finally reveal and explain himself to his "son", Phipps.

Does this sound at all familiar to you? Anyone read any Dickens, perhaps? Maybe you read Great Expectations? Maybe you recall a minor character that plays a major but secret role in the life of young Pip? Do you recall the convict called Magwitch? Think that there are some parallels here? Pip and Phipps, Maggs and Magwitch - two stories taking place in the 19th century dealing with convicts, orphans, exile, secret financial support and painful revelations. But the difference here is that this story isn't told from the side of the growing and prospering lad, but rather from the part of the convict who returns to reveal himself to the young man that once aided him in his hour of need.

Now think about that plot line for a just moment. It's as if Mr. Carey decided to tell the part of Great Expectations that Dickens left out of his novel. If you ask me, I think it almost borders on genius, actually. Unfortunately, great ideas do not always reap great novels, and unfortunately this is an example of just such a situation.

Firstly, you should know that when you start reading this book, you won't feel like you're reading Dickens. Carey doesn't try to imitate Dickens' style or language, and instead uses clues and references to 19th century England in order to give the flavor of the time, rather than to pretend he was writing during it. This is wholly approve of, because too many times modern novels seem fake and artificial because the authors tried too hard to make their writing into a literary time machine, and failed miserably, so all kudos for Carey in this aspect.

However, the main problem with this book was the feeling that the focus wasn't quite right. We seem to be led in one direction and then are veered off elsewhere and never seem to get back to that original track. More simply stated there are a few too many loose ends here. And while hindsight actually shows that some of the ends actually did get wrapped up, they certainly didn't come to any type of logical conclusion.

For example, at the very beginning of the book there's a scene where Jack visits the home of a woman and has heated words with her and then threatens to return the next day for satisfaction. Carey then tells us that Jack didn't return the next day, but rather it took him several weeks to return. Now we do find him returning later in the book, but the events of his return are not to conclude the dispute but rather for something else altogether. The whole conflict with this woman is dropped and never returned to. The old adage of "if you see a gun in the first act, there had better be a dead body by the end of act two" has been violated here. We are given clues that lead us down dead end streets, and this isn't a murder mystery novel, where that is necessary.

Carey also seems to cheat the reader with how he drew his main character, Jack Maggs. While we get a good deal of his background by the very clever device of having Jack write his memoirs to his unsuspecting ward, there are still many holes in his history and personality. What's more, Jack acts uncharacteristically in several instances. Mind you, this isn't all bad, since it suggests a person who is complex, unpredictable and possibly very deep, which would generally fit the mold that Carey has forged for us. However, some things are just not feasible.

For instance, how does someone who started his criminal life as very young boy who probably never had time for schooling, not only learn to read and write perfectly, but can pen his memoirs in mirror-writing, like Leonardo Da Vinci? Furthermore, he's doing it with a special fading ink that needs to be washed with lemon juice and then heated by a flame in order to be restored. Where exactly did this criminal learn these tricks?

In addition, Carey seems to get overly involved with some of the characters that are supposed to be minor ones. This isn't totally disturbing, because Maggs is particularly unsympathetic, and these distractions were actually pleasant ones. But if Maggs is supposed to be the focus of the book, why then do we feel we understand some of these characters more fully than Maggs? Perhaps this was another one of Carey's ways of keeping Maggs enigmatic, and therefore interesting, but it also makes the book feel confusing.

While highly flawed, Carey has given us a fascinating story line, a truly colorful cast of characters that are multi-dimensional, and a setting that is brooding and yet romantic, all written in a style that is both accessible and clear. With these pluses it is no wonder that Carey has found himself no small number of faithful fans. But for my part, my opinion of this book was that it wasn't completely polished, left too many questions unanswered (some questions can be left to one's imagination with great effectiveness, but not as many as can be found here) and seemed a bit distracted and unfocused. Even for those who are Carey fans, this is a book to be borrowed from the library, rather than purchased. This is why I can only give it two out of five stars.

"Jack Maggs" by Peter Carey is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review on Curious Book Fans, which was also published on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In the beginning

There comes a time in every online content writer's life when they find they need to start their own blog. This is something that I've avoided for some time now. I mean, seriously, what have I got to put on a blog that would interest anyone besides myself? And if I'm the only one reading it, then why not just put it into a 'dead tree' version? 

On the other hand - why not start a blog? It could be a good place to put up my book reviews. 

So... here goes nothing, and wish me luck!

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