Monday, December 14, 2015

The Fall of Princes - Robert Goolrick

I hope everyone is enjoying this holiday season! I'm finding myself constantly balancing work, holiday preparations, nursery preparations, finishing up thank-you notes from the two baby showers, doctor appointments, and my third trimester desire to take a lot of naps. Thankfully, Bonnie and Lola are around to make sure I spend at least some of my time accomplishing nothing but snuggles.

Anyway, onto the topic at hand: I sped through this novel, which is no surprise given that I've loved both of Goolrick's previous books. (A Reliable Wife was literary magic, and Heading Out to Wonderful was beautiful and chilling, if you're interested.) The Fall of Princes was completely out of left field in terms of tone, set in 1980s New York City instead of the woods and more prone to describing the opulence of a life on Wall Street than dissecting the deeper interpersonal relationships between lovers. In all honesty, I felt like I was reading a literary rendition of the Gossip Girl lifestyle (I tried to avoid getting sucked into that show, but what can I say? The phrase "guilty pleasure" exists for a reason). Our protagonist, Rooney, waxes poetic about what it felt like to be the bearer of virtually unlimited amounts of money, and through these recollections, he narrates his inevitable descent into becoming a member of the invisible masses who wear khakis and work retail. The horror! Also, along with his money and job as a trader, Rooney has lost his rich, materialistic wife, Carmela. As he mourns for the family he never created because he was too busy being rich and irresponsible, he assures us he still loves her and will never love anyone else; starting a family with another woman is not an option for him. I got through the whole book without ever understanding why, though. Personally, I was rooting for him to fall for the prostitute in drag he meets after his moneyed world collapses, because that character is a thousand times more lovable than Carmela. Alas.

Monday, November 23, 2015

PSA for Music Lovers

My dream is finally coming true: The Last Shadow Puppets are returning with another record!

Who are The Last Shadow Puppets, you ask? It's a small, British supergroup comprised of the lead singer and guitarist for the Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner; current solo artist Miles Kane, who is perhaps best known for his work with The Rascals; and Simian Mobile Disco member James Ford. They dropped The Age of the Understatement in 2008, and it is fantastic. My personal favorite track is My Mistakes Were Made For You, but there isn't a bad song on there.

All three bandmates have expressed the desire to work together again, but after the Age of the Understatement tour, they all pursued their separate careers for several years. The Arctic Monkeys have been particularly successful, with their latest record (AM, 2013) making waves on a global scale. Thankfully, for obsessive freaks like me, AM was so successful that the band has been taking a break from recording since then, leaving Alex Turner with an open schedule for returning to The Last Shadow Puppets. He did, they've recorded, and we can expect the as-yet-unnamed record to drop sometime in 2016! Cue dancing in circles around my bewildered husband...

Bonus track, because I couldn't actually pick a favorite (the song starts around the 1:49 mark): Standing Next To Me

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian - Andy Weir

I figured since the movie based on this book* is currently raking in millions worldwide, it'd be prudent of me to discuss the literary phenomenon that started it all. Especially now, since I haven't seen the movie yet; my opinions of the book remain unswayed by my undying love for Matt Damon (sorry Bryan).

Simply put, this book is fantastic. I was enthralled almost from the beginning (more on the "almost" in a sec), and by the end I felt like I'd just finished an autobiography rather than a novel. An autobiography about a single human surviving on Mars. Yep.

It wasn't even until I was recommending the book to a friend that I realized how significant Weir's accomplishment actually is. This friend is a fellow writer, and we tend to discuss books in a very writer-y fashion: What's the pacing like? How was the plot executed? Are the characters believable? Do their actions and motives make sense within the story? And so on. So here I am, telling her that this book with one main character who talks mostly to himself is one of the best things I've ever read, and suddenly it clicked - Weir did the ONE THING that every single creative writing instructor I've had since high school has been telling me not to do. He completely isolated his character and expected this one guy to carry the entire plot. And you know what? The story is exciting, and the voice never gets boring. It totally works.

The only gripe I had, and the reason for my "almost" above, was that sometimes the scientific explanation was a bit heavy-handed and borderline condescending. This was especially true at the beginning - Mark Watney's explanations of his methods throughout the book become much more important as the story progresses, and his attention to detail is the reason I feel 90% certain that I could head to Mars and start a successful potato farm. But I remember one instance near the beginning where Watney is mentioning CO2, and he finds it necessary to throw in a parenthetical clarifying that that means "carbon dioxide." Now, I'm aware I've had more exposure to scientific literature than your average English Lit major, but this seemed over-the-top. It's important to keep your audience in mind, and I think the majority of any audience devouring a book about a guy trapped on Mars and constructing a survival strategy on the fly would at least have some vague understanding of greenhouse gases and their abbreviations. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny, nit-picky issue that in no way deterred me from devouring the rest of the book while gripping the edge of my seat.

I'm sure, before too long, you'll be seeing a follow-up post with my thoughts on the movie. October is turning out to be a crazy busy month, but I can't let this one slip by without seeing it on the big screen!

*I've been debating whether to provide links to the books in these posts or not. Being a die-hard fan of our local bookstore, Literati, it felt disingenuous to link to Amazon. But then I remembered Neil Gaiman's promotion of IndieBound, which is a site dedicated to making it easy to find your nearest independent bookstore. So here you go!

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been a huge Kazuo Ishiguro fan ever since I was assigned Never Let Me Go for one of my English courses at Michigan. I had to hold myself back from finishing the book way ahead of schedule, since I didn't want to inadvertently drop spoilers during group discussions. A few years later, when my favorite independent bookstore, Literati, opened in downtown Ann Arbor, I took the opportunity to grab The Remains of the Day, which was equally captivating. (Bonus - I didn't have to pace myself with that one! I think I was done in two or three days.) So, when The Buried Giant dropped in March 2015, it must've been an easy decision on my husband's part to grab that for my early April birthday. He even managed to snag me a signed copy, because he is awesome. (Again, from Literati. I'm telling you, that store is fantastic.)

For a whole host of reasons, I didn't have a chance to get to the book immediately. According to Goodreads, which is serving as my memory source/baby brain savior at the moment, I finally got around to reading it in July. Now, I'm not sure if this was the fault of pregnancy hormones, or if I would feel this way regardless, but I thought this entire book was laced with an acute sense of sadness. In a nutshell, whole villages are losing their individual and collective memories. Their long histories, spanning countless generations, are rapidly fading into fog. The main couple, an elderly man and woman, can't remember if they have children or not. Eventually, they manage to dredge up images of a son from their past, so they set out to visit his village. Along the way, they are faced with the realization that they have no idea what they've encountered as a couple: have they been happy? Have they fought? Are they good people? Do they trust that their partner is a good person? The questions are unanswerable, for the most part, but each person is equally certain that they love their partner very much and will walk beside them as far as the road will take them with hardly a second thought.

It becomes clear early on that the afterlife is reached by crossing the sea to a particular island. Certain couples, who can prove their exceptional love for one another, get to cross together and walk the island in each other's company. Everyone else gets taken across by the boatman individually and will roam the island alone - sometimes they'll be able to catch traces of other inhabitants, but they will never meet and live with another soul. I know there are countless representations and interpretations of the afterlife throughout the entirety of human history, but in my opinion, this is one of the most tragic versions ever contrived. I can't think of a prospect more terrifying than living out the short life granted to each person here on earth and then spending eternity aware but alone - to spend my life cultivating loving relationships and then have them all fade into nothing as I cross the sea with a boatman.

I won't spoil the ending by giving away the couple's fate, because I do hope that people will choose to read this on their own. Let's just say they complete their journey and confront their dragons, and they even get some help along the way. But the story encompassed much more than the couple, and it weighed heavily on my mind for several days after I finished it. I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who's already feeling blue about something, because I don't think it would help. But for anyone who's in the right place and willing to confront very personal fears about mortality and love, this book is definitely a beautiful entrance to that meditation. If there's one conclusion I can draw from the three Ishiguro books I've read so far, it's that the man doesn't know how to pen a forgettable novel.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Something a Little Different

Apparently I went into hiding for a couple weeks. Oops. Still working on making this a habit! I will definitely have a new review prepared soon. In the meantime, I am happy to announce (well, re-announce) that my short story, "Stranger in a Bar," is included in the 2015 Imagine This! anthology, which is associated with ArtPrize. For anyone interested, here is the link to preorder, which is open until September 20. They're sending the orders to the printer on September 23, and after that you can pick one up at ArtPrize! I'll update if I find out any specifics about the exact locations of where they're being sold.

Just as a disclaimer, I'm not making money from these sales; I'm just benefiting from the exposure, and I'm excited to share this story! It's one of my personal favorites. The proceeds support Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters and next year's anthology. If you do end up reading it, let me know what you think! Don't worry, I can take criticism. ;-)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

I promised you Henry James, and that's where I'm going to start. Just diving right into the nerd-fest.

So far, I've read three Henry James novels: The Americans, Portrait of a Lady, and most recently The Turn of the Screw. I've enjoyed all three, but I'm starting to feel a bit cheated that I was introduced to his writing through the perfectly-fine-but-ultimately-forgettable The Americans. It was a requirement for a freshman year English literature class at Michigan. Portrait of a Lady was much longer and yet much more engaging, and The Turn of the Screw was phenomenal.

In The Turn of the Screw, a young woman is recruited to act as a governess/nanny for two young children, one boy and one girl. She is instructed from the start to not to bother the children's uncle (their legal guardian) with any news or complaints about the house, the children's progress, etc., because he's a warm and generous man who was totally ready to be a father figure. Of course, due to the nanny's obvious lack of support and no clear path out of any trouble, a couple of creepy ghosts show up and start tormenting her. But instead of writing to the uncle and saying "Hey, sir, your house is haunted; do you think we could move to one of your other residences?" she decides she's just going to have to buck up, deal with their presence, and protect the children from these ghosts (a man and a woman, who she learns are former residents/employees of the house).

Now, this could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill ghost story, but Henry James is not a run-of-the-mill author. He decided to tell this story in first person from the nanny's perspective. Throughout the entire novel, the nanny is the only one who definitely, 100% admits to seeing these ghosts. There are signs that the children can see them, at least through her interpretation of their behavior. She makes close friends with the maid, who identifies them as the former troubled employees based on the nanny's description of their appearance, but when confronted almost face-to-face at the lake with the female spectre, the maid is unable to see what the nanny is talking about. No one else on staff complains about being haunted, and no one takes off suddenly with or without explanation. By the time the reader reaches the catastrophic end of the novel, there is absolutely no light shed on whether or not the ghosts are real or are merely figments of the nanny's imagination. In fact, James does his best to blur that line more and more as time goes on.

Having finished reading this book around mid-morning, I spent the rest of that day reliving the entire experience, trying to dig up clues that would prove the nanny's innocence and sanity, but I couldn't come up with anything conclusive. I even delved into the scholarly essays at the back at the book looking for answers, but since those types of essays revel in ambiguity, I came up empty-handed. In the end, the only thing I knew for sure is that I was (and am) in awe of the deftness of James' literary hand. I'm sure I'll be working my way through the rest of his published legacy as the years progress. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Welcome to the Experiment

Welcome, one and all!

Since it is now well into the 21st century and I call myself a writer, I've decided that it's time for me to seriously consider this thing they call "blogging." To be fair, I've tried this before, and I'll admit that I got bored pretty fast. So this time, I'm approaching the attempt with a clearer topic plan and a few posts outlined already. A vision! From this procrastinator! Miracles can happen.

Over the next few weeks, months, or years (if I'm lucky), I will be introducing you, dear readers, to various books, movies, music, etc. that have caught my attention in some way. Sometimes you'll get the latest bestseller, sometimes you'll get Henry James. I decided I'm not going to hide my nerdy English-major-for-life tendencies. You'll also get an Arctic Monkeys overdose, because my name is Hannah VanDuinen and that's just who I am.

If, over the course of time, you discover a book, album, or any other form of entertainment you think I might enjoy, feel free to let me know in the comments! I am always open to suggestions.

I will be back later this week with my first book review. Get ready.

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

( Image courtesy of ) Blah. I was actually all set to do a VanDuinen Studio blog post this week, but that's going t...