Posted by: Naomi | July 4, 2011

The Pastures of Heaven

The more I discover of the works of John Steinbeck, the firmer his position as my favorite author becomes. The Pastures of Heaven is a book of interrelated short stories, based around a group of people settled in a lush, beautiful California valley. The denizens of the valley settled there to lead a peaceful and idyllic lifestyle, surrounded by beauty, and a friendly community. However, each family has their own secrets and potential oddities, some humorous, and some horrifying. Each man interacts with his neighbors, and over time discovers his secrets, or the things people try to hide. There is irony, and sadness, and happiness, and miscommunication galore. A man and his young son decide to do away with the normal everyday trappings of life, and instead choose to enjoy life spontaneously and richly. They do not realize that they are poor until the community gives them a gift of new clothes. The man and his son are so embarrassed that they turn their backs on a life they so enjoy, and move to the city, shackling themselves to a ‘normal’ existence. I am excited to delve into more of Steinbeck’s works in the future, and revel in the goodness, sadness, and beauty that comes with life.

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Posted by: Naomi | June 6, 2011

The Bell Jar

As I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath–first published under the nom de plume Victoria Lucas, I was struck by the honesty and reality of the story. Prior to reading the novel, my only knowledge of Sylvia Plath was her notoriety as an inspiration to the feminist movement. I was expecting to read an off-balance novel glorifying women at the expense of all else. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that protagonist Esther Greenwood, is a three-dimensional, feeling, laughing, hurting human being. Despite the fact that she has had some tragedies in the past, she hits a point in her life where everything is going right, albeit only briefly. As the story progresses, Esther (based heavily on Plath’s own life and experiences) becomes discontented and stifled by life and all its innocuous trappings, and attempts suicide. After a bumpy journey through several incompetent mental hospitals and equally ineffective medical professionals, Esther comes to a place where she starts to feel little tendrils of hope and healing, and the lifting away of the bell jar she felt she was trapped in. The book ends halfway between acceptance and hope, as Esther steps into a board meeting, to determine if she is healthy enough to leave the hospital and be out on her own. Sadly, one month after the publication of her novel in the UK, Sylvia Plath committed suicide. I am not going to ponder or guess the reasons for her decision, but I appreciate the beautiful and fragile portrait she left behind; one that has helped me to re-examine my own moments of insanity and acceptance.

Posted by: Naomi | May 24, 2011

Middlesex

Every once in awhile, I come across a book that so enthralls and entertains me, that I spend every spare moment reading it, eager to finish the story. As soon as I am done the book, I immediately wish I had never read it, because I so thoroughly enjoyed it, and now that virgin reading is over. I cannot say enough about how much I loved Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I did not expect to become so enamored by a story about a hermaphrodite, but I felt that was only one of many parallel stories included in the book, along with the  trials of family, immigration, marriage, military service, infidelity, death, self-image, etc. Eugenides has a very intelligent and readable writing style, sprinkled with little sparkling bits of dark humor and titillating taboo details. I enjoyed the way that the family tries very hard to be bonded and together as a unit, yet each one has secrets from the other, secrets that could tear everything apart. I found it to be a very realistic portrayal of a typical family, it reminded me very much of my own experiences. It has also inspired a bit of my creative writing juices, which is why it is important to read if you want to write.

Posted by: Naomi | May 20, 2011

The Remains Of The Day

I read an article the other day where someone was talking about the books that they read recently. They were referring to a book they read by Nabokov, and described it as “bloody hard work, but really thrilling.” Until I read this article, I hadn’t really thought about how it could be hard work to read a book. Reading seems like the easiest, most natural thing in the world to me. Occasionally though, I will admit, some books do require a bit of hard work to push through at times. The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro did take a bit of pushing at times, but it was all in all an enjoyable book. Reading it brought to mind listening to an elderly gentleman in a retirement home, telling his life story. It may jump around a bit as far as chronology, and it may not even be interesting all the time, but it is his own story, and there is catharsis in the telling. The character of Stevens, who has willingly spent his entire life in the service of others, reflects on how he spent his life, the things that he feels are important, and the reassurance that he has served a moral and distinguished man, and therefore has not wasted his life. At times, his character seems so stoic, his language so carefully modulated, that he comes across as almost robotic. At other times, we are able to see his deeply held feelings and beliefs, and his reasoning for certain actions. Although not an exciting book, this was a worthwhile tale of the sum of a man’s life, and a reminder of the importance of character and dignity.

Posted by: Naomi | May 20, 2011

Atonement

One of the most provocative and scintillating books I have read thus far is Atonement by Ian McEwan. It is a beautiful and introspective tale of love and lies, loyalty to family, and relationships–both healthy and destructive. McEwan has a wonderful command of language, and is an artful storyteller, but the thing I found to be the most enticing about the book was the character development. A lot of time and detail is spent on describing the characters motivations and inner thoughts. This is extremely important and helpful in the understanding of the inner workings of the story. I was at once angered with and enchanted by the character of Briony, whose misinterpretation and willful stubbornness have disastrous repercussions for her family and their future. So many of Briony’s flaws I see reflected in myself, and even her secret motivations I found to be eerily familiar. I also enjoyed the character of Robbie, especially as he struggled through the memories of prison, and the metaphorical prison he still faced as he struggled through the war. I enjoyed the ‘twist’ at the end, the way that reality does not always turn out as we hope, but that ultimately, good and love will manage to triumph on some level.

Posted by: Naomi | May 15, 2011

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Since first discovering the film adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Anthony Andrews in junior high, I have been a huge fan of British Lord Sir Percy Blakeney and his gallant alter ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious figure in disguise, along with his league of friends,  that rescue members of the French aristocracy during the Revolution.  I was skeptical about reading the novel, since I figured that I was already familiar with the story, and it would hold no new surprises for me. I was quite pleased to discover that, although I was familiar with some of the plot points and characters, much of the details and story were entirely new to me. Baroness Orczy tells an absolutely charming and spellbinding tale. Each of the main characters has a richly layered personality and personal history, and there is also a enjoyable sense of humor that is ofttimes sarcastic and winning. Several of the chapters end in true cliffhanger fashion, and I found myself deeply engrossed in the book. I am very much looking forward to reading this book to my children at bedtime.

Posted by: Naomi | May 11, 2011

The Good Earth

I recently journeyed through the tradition-laden Chinese world recounted by Pearl S. Buck in The Good Earth. I found the tone and cadence of the book to bit a bit stilted and odd, almost as though I were listening to an older woman telling a story in Sunday School. The book spans the entire adult life of Wang Lung and his marriage and children, and ends shortly before his death. There are two sequels to this book, Sons and A House Divided, but I have not read these yet. Overall, though there are times of prosperity and happiness, the book presents a brutal and painful picture of the hard realities of life. There is war, famine, death, infanticide, murder, prostitution, hatred…the list goes on and on. As they grow, Wang Lung’s children develop their own personalities and ideologies, most of which do not agree with their father’s traditional mores. The moral that struck me most from this book is that before the famine, Wang Lung and his family were prosperous and content. During the famine, all they could think of was going back home and having things be as it were. When they go home wealthy and enjoy a time of prosperity, Wang Lung becomes discontented and brings a concubine to live with them, which seems to signal the end of life as they have come to know it. Wang Lung was not content to sit and enjoy what he had, nor thank his god for what had been returned to them, he had to take more than his share, and in pure selfishness make decisions that would ultimately tear his family apart. To me, this is a book of great sadness and longing, yet still rich and evocative in its descriptions and message, and leaves me with much to ponder.

Posted by: Naomi | May 9, 2011

Dubliners

My most recent foray into literature has been the Irish Catholic world of Dubliners, written by James Joyce. The book is a collection of short stories, each focusing on a specific character or group. The first few stories are narrated by children, and as the work progresses, the characters get older, and the situations deal with mature subjects and tragedies, a nice parallel of the way that innocence and easiness is lost as one ages. Each story is very simply told, but the language that Joyce uses is sometimes so striking and beautiful, I would pause, and let my eyes linger over a sentence, almost like I was admiring a work of art, or a flower. The tales are only fleeting glimpses into the lives and circumstances of the characters. Just as they become truly engaging, the story ends, often abruptly, and we must move on. It reminds me of riding the bus with other people. You may look at them, or talk with them, and you can figure out things about their lives, and who they are, but then there is a stop, and you must part, and the time is over. The characters are not always portrayed well, one tale ends with an inebriated man going home and beating his child. However, from the glimpses we see, however fleeting, there is still beauty and loyalty and purpose, even in the darkest and most dreary of places and times. This book has definitely become one of my favorites, due to the depth and feeling with which the tales are told, and Joyce’s beautiful command of language.

Posted by: Naomi | March 20, 2011

Fahrenheit 451

One of the most fascinating and eerie books I have ever read is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I grew up associating the author merely with science fiction writing, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this little tome. Although it has aspects of the fantastic, this is a stark and realistic portrayal of a world where people aren’t allowed to think for themselves. A world where day and night, an incessant stream of TV, music and radio are pumped into the human consciousness at deafening volume. A world where reading books is a crime. Guy Montag, the protagonist is a fireman, whose responsibility is to start fires, particularly of homes that are reported to contain books. The written world was outlawed because it caused people to think too much for themselves. It caused them to dream and to imagine; to contemplate that which is not real, and to engage in reckless self-expression. Over the course of the story, Guy chafes at the so-called ‘normalcy’ of this society, and has been slowly hoarding books, trying to find what is so fascinating about them that people risk prosecution and death just to have them. The most striking part of the story comes almost at the end, when Guy meets a group of men in the woods, men who are in self-imposed exile from this rigid and ridiculous society. Each of the men has at least one entire book memorized, trying to preserve the classic works until the ban on the written word is lifted, and they can write down the words again for all to see. The library is quite diverse, including Scripture, Darwin, Marcus Aurelius, Faulkner…on and on. This book made me want to treasure the ability to think and read that our society affords us, and it also made me want to read everything. I think a very small and nicely stylized ‘451‘ would be a good tattoo, and a great reminder to read and think and discover, while I still can.

(On outside right wrist) I love this tattoo, it serves as a reminder to me that I am privileged to be able to read, and to write;  to express my own thoughts, and explore the thoughts and ideas of others.

Posted by: Naomi | March 20, 2011

Dracula

Despite the many treatments that the character of Dracula has received in various movies and books, the original work by Bram Stoker is still both riveting and thrilling. The writing style is interesting, the tale is told via letters, recordings, journal logs, etc. and adds an interesting sense of realism to the book. Although the movie version of Dracula with Bela Lugosi may seem a bit campy, the Count is still very creepy, and nothing like these staid Victorian characters have encountered before. The variety of characters and the ways that they interact with each other, and the schemes and devices they concoct to combat the monster are amusing and fascinating. I very much enjoyed exploring ‘where it all began’, tracing the Vampire myth back to its roots, as it were. It amazes me how such a simple and terrifying tale can be so well-loved and imitated, and how the legend of the Vampires becomes a well developed and organic world of beauty and horror. I also enjoyed the cultural and historical settings of the novel, set partially in Romania. My grandfather comes from Romania, which gave me a small sense of ownership or pride, that Dracula could come from the same place.

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