{for skittles}

Well, I can’t remember the last time it took me this long to finish a book. Not that Unseen Academicals isn’t good. It is, actually, and I’m developing some very interesting theories on it, mainly because I also watched The Outsiders this week. But I’ll save that for the end review.

Perhaps it’s taken me so long to finish because I’ve been distracted by this:

1. I laugh until I cry.

2. I’m pretty much obsessed with Victorian lit anyways.

3. Is no one else impressed that the dialogue and ambiance go together so perfectly?

4. “She’s so boring. There’s nothing to her. She’s just there, like furniture.”

5. There are 5 videos.

So that’s my life as an unemployed convalescent living with my parents.

What about you? What are your favorite pop culture, multi-media, or other example of literature being used for awesome?

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{kicking it}

Whew. Back in the trenches. By which I mean my couch.

I spent the past week visiting the bro at college (and re-experiencing the complete Bizarro World that is the American fraternity house) and then bopping around Portland, Ore. with the ‘rents. After catching myself saying, “Can we go home now? There’s nothing to spend money on at home,” I realized that I had probably blown through two months’ spending budget in three days, which, when you’re unemployed and living with your parents, is a lot to sneeze at.

But the trip wasn’t a total waste, since I did get to bond with my favorite kindergartener in boots.

Bookwise, I’m still plodding through Unseen Academicals. I did get briefly sidetracked by an impulse guilty-pleasure Powell’s purchase, but I’m forcing myself to save it for later. Except I’m already halfway through.

So, with no book news, I leave you with this article. Lengthy enough to be practically a book, and educational!

P.S. The only other big news is that almost one week ago, I applied to basically my dream job. Not only my dream job, but one that I feel quite qualified for, a practically extinct combination. So, please—good thoughts! I need this job!

{i am running}

I’m not running. Can’t, actually, for two more months.

But running is a central part of Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, a novel about a young orphan boy in 1939 Warsaw. The title of this review is actually the first sentence of the book. Misha has no family, no home, not even a name until Uri gives him one. In Uri’s vivid (and imaginary) story, Misha is a Gypsy, stolen from his family and his speckled mare, Greta.

Misha and Uri belong to a gang of homeless boys, who survive on the streets of Warsaw by stealing bread and pickles and avoiding the ubiquitous Jackboots. It’s an easy life, a fun life. Misha’s best friend is a small Jewish girl named Janina, whose family’s garden he once ransacked and now attempts to repay by leaving stolen presents at their door.

One day, the Jackboots round up the Jews of Warsaw and take them to the ghetto. Misha doesn’t know what a ghetto is, and he’s not a Jew. But he follows Janina and her family so he can continue to feed them. That’s all he knows how to do—take food, run, and give it to those he loves.

I was born into craziness. When the whole world turned crazy, I was ready for it. That’s how I survived.

I firmly believe that there’s really nothing better in literature than a good child narrator, and Jerry Spinelli is the master of these. Misha’s youth and naïveté is at once endearing (at Janina’s birthday, he runs away with the cake because he thinks they’re going to set it on fire) and heart-rending (he follows everyone to the ghetto because he thinks it’s a parade). He has good powers of observation but comes to confused or inaccurate conclusions about what he sees, making his voice remain childlike as he recounts the horrors around him.

By far my favorite parts of this book were Misha’s relationships with Janina and Uri. Despite the fact that all three characters are children, these relationships are extremely complex.

Uri essentially adopts Misha after they compete for a loaf of bread. He’s the first human contact that Misha can remember. Red-headed and stern, he’s the natural leader of their group of boys, perhaps because he sees himself as exempt from the Jackboots’ cruelty: “Who’s ever heard of a red-headed Jew?” Throughout the book, you can tell that Uri is constantly torn between conflicting instincts of self-preservation and protection of Misha, who constantly draws attention to himself through some misguided act. Of all the characters, adult and child, Uri has the best idea of Warsaw’s fate at the hands of the Jackboots. He is strict, often violent, with Misha, who just can’t seem to keep his head down or stop asking questions. But with the attitude of a much older person, Uri does not let his fear overrule his care for Misha.

Misha, in turn, adopts a similar attitude toward Janina, especially once they are trapped in the ghetto. Shouldering the responsibilities of caretaker and breadwinner, he risks his life every night to feed her family. He keeps Janina’s spirits up by playing games with her and bringing her special treats, and takes very seriously her father’s orders to “keep Janina safe.” Their relationship makes an interesting contrast to his with Uri: both Misha and Uri are protectors, but while Uri assumes the role of an all-knowing adult, explaining to Misha only what he feels is absolutely necessary, Misha’s protective duties toward Janina are limited by his understanding. He can protect Janina from the Jackboots and their clubs, but why must they keep away from the trains carrying the Jews away from the ghetto?

Jerry Spinelli, as usual, delivers a powerful, heart-renching story told by an unexpected voice. Milkweed is an incredible feat of narration, as well as a well-researched account of humanity in crisis. I highly recommend it.

{lone star}

I’m not good at comparing things. That was always my biggest struggle with literature assignments in school: “Describe the similarities between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Uhh… depression? I didn’t like them? (Actually, Meta was alright.) Mmk.

So—here’s my best stab for comparisons to You Know When the Men Are Gone. If you like The Things They Carried, you’ll probably like this. Is that just because they’re both short-story collections about war? Or just because I liked both of them? Probably.

Yes, YKWtMAG is a short-story collection about war. But unlike TTTC, they’re not stories about a warzone. With one exception (“Camp Liberty”), the stories deal with domestic settings, centering around the army base of Fort Hood, Texas (a real base where author Siobhan Fallon lived while her husband was on two tours of duty). The stories’ main characters all either wives or soldiers home from Iraq for various reasons.

The underlying theme throughout all eight stories are romantic relationships during wartime. The stories themselves are anything but romantic in its traditional sappy form; Fallon pulls no punches in addressing the hard-hitting problems facing army couples during wartime. A 20-year-old is permanently disabled by a bomb and faces his wife’s abandonment on his return home. Waiting for her husband’s tour to be over, a woman babysits the children of a neighbor while their foreign-born mother carries on an affair and cries for her homeland. A cancer survivor’s children run away while her husband faces the stigma of remaining on base. (All the couples are composed of a man in the army and a woman in Fort Hood.)

This book is short. The stories are short. And yet Fallon manages to pack tremendous emotional range into each one, making every word count, saying nothing that doesn’t absolutely need saying. Some of the characters’ reactions to their circumstances are described so minimally that I found myself wondering about them, but completely in a positive way (not “Geez, I’m so confused by this,” but “Oh my God—I wonder what’s going through her head right now. Hey… what would be going through my head right now if that was me?”).

Fallon’s writing is simultaneously delicate and forceful, as are the issues she writes about. There’s no good answer for how a man can return to his wife’s normal life after the atrocities he’s seen at war. There’s no fair solution to a woman who feels abandoned and lost in her everyday life without her partner. While having absolutely no personal experience with anything covered in YKWtMAG, I felt strongly connected to the characters and deeply interested in the difficulties they faced.

So, now that my review is done, I realize that YKWtMAG and TTTC have, thematically, almost nothing in common. Oh well. You should still read both.

{goal orientation}

Goodbye, weekend! Of course, unemployment + living with parents means that really the only difference between weekends and weekdays is that during the latter, my hedonistic lifestyle goes relatively uninterrupted. A blessing at times, but usually guilt-ridden.

I started reading a new book today, in the latest of what has turned into a long journey to find an appropriate Glass Castle follower. I originally had the advanced reading copy of a nonfiction work about a serial killer in Nazi Paris, but I decided I needed a bit of a pick-me-up after my TGC-induced nervous breakdown. So I turned instead to a harmless little cozy about an idyllic hamlet and its philanthropic minister. While certainly the opposite of an anxiety attack, I found it unable to maintain my interest. It actually would’ve been perfect for immediate post-surgery reading, when all I could do was lie in bed with my leg elevated, but when it competed for my attention with more strenuous physical therapy, a baby social life, Oregon football, and my first official job application work (!!!), it simply did not make the cut.

So. After some spontaneous Borders purchases with the change I scrounged out of my car after my last physical therpay appointment, You Know When the Men Are Gone has jumped to the forefront of my reading list. It’s a single-author short story collection about a present-day military base in Texas, with most of the men off in Iraq. So far it’s great! But I’ll save any other thoughts for my finished post.

In case you didn’t catch it earlier, yes, I have officially (after muuuuch procrastination) begun the job search! I spent all day today on one application, going for quality rather than quantity. Since being back with the parents doesn’t give me much of an opportunity to live beyond my limited means, one app a day isn’t bad, right? At least I have a seven-year plan clearly mapped out.

P.S. Dashiell Hammett is a boss. My post on The Maltese Falcon was posted this Friday on the Book Blob.

{anxiety attack}

The Glass Castle had been on my stack of post-surgery reading, and when I found out that my college’s Seattle-based alumni book group had chosen it for their September read, it was obviously time to read it. What follows, then, is what I would bring to the discussion were I in Seattle and so inclined to attend an alumni book group.

TGC is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her childhood, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes as markedly Dickensian. Jeannette, her parents, three siblings, and several pets have a nomadic existence, remaining in one place only until they completely exhaust their meager resources slash are in danger of being hunted down by various legal organizations. Walls is an excellent writer with a remarkable story. I was turning pages almost faster than I could read them, but was almost constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

TGC is the second book I’ve read recently on a destitute childhood, the first being Ellen Foster. Despite the fact that Jeannette’s parents love her and Ellen’s are either dead or awful, Ellen still left me feeling more optimistic. Ellen was a plucky kid who knew she was in a tight spot and did everything in her power to escape it—and was ultimately successful. The child Jeannette (though now a happy and successful adult) doesn’t seem to realize that her living circumstances are abnormal, even atrocious.

She has—for the most part—a happy family with a sense of adventure. When she lights herself on fire cooking hot dogs at the age of three, the lessons her parents teach her are to be stronger than any threat, to not let fear overtake her, and not to trust doctors. The scary thing is that, with the exception of the last one, I agree with that! But I don’t agree with a toddler lighting themselves on fire because they have to prepare food for themselves! Gah. Stress.

The Walls parents are brilliant. They teach Jeannette and her siblings literature, math, philosophy, physics, astronomy, and logic (Jeannette later attended Barnard with a four-year scholarship). Their logic on life generally makes sense, as I mentioned above. It’s just when you put it into practice and add alcoholism, shirked responsibilities, and a great deal of paranoia, this logic devolves into a state that leaves me (the reader) screaming, “How could this happen to someone? And how did she ever get where she is now?” Jeannette Walls teaches us that rotted meat and rusty nails are no barrier to being awesome and brilliant and alive, and that’s a lesson worth learning.

The happy family dream begins to fall apart when Jeannette is in her early teens. The hunger, pain, and helplessness is no longer a fun adventure. Plus, her dad’s drinking gets much worse, as does her mom’s denial of reality. Through a series of miracles, the Walls children find their way to New York City, just like the scrappy, experience-hardened kids they are.

TGC will make you question pretty much everything in your own upbringing and, probably, your whole life. The Walls parents just seem so great at times! I loved when Jeannette makes her own braces/headgear out of a rubber band, a coat hanger, and a Maxi pad. How cool is that? But inevitably, Mr. Walls can’t get a job, a relative dies, CPS comes knocking, the kitchen roof caves in, and rats eat all their food, and then the Walls are on the road again. It’s the story of a vicious cycle that kept me in constant anxiety because I couldn’t help thinking that if I ever fell into a life like that, I probably wouldn’t be able to get out. Yikes.

{fun things}

My physical therapy appointment today spelled a definite end to crutches! So now the job search begins… tomorrow. Today, I had more important things to do/ponder:

• If indeed I end up as an unemployable liberal arts major, at least I’m in good literary company. Sadly, the only work on that list that I’ve read is Bartleby, the Scrivener, and I actually forgot that it was Melville until I Wikipedia’d it just now. Ah humanity!

• Would that I had a job that paid me to do this. That would, I suppose, be known as my life right now + money.

The Glass Castle is the biggest page-turner I’ve read in a while, but makes me anxious pretty much all the time. I’ll do a full post on it once I’ve finished (probably tomorrow), but suffice it to say that it makes me extremely nervous about my projected future as a responsible and successful adult. I also stayed up much too late last night reading it, which doesn’t help my nerves come the morn.

• Yesterday, my favorite student from last year passed on a message to me of “hi a million times”! Brightened my day so much that I crushed our three German visitors at Apples to Apples later that night due to my increased hilarity.

{free at last}

It’s gotten to the point where I’m more or less completely off crutches, giving me a certain amount of freedom (staying home alone! carrying things! racing dust mites up and down stairs!). Unfortunately, I was NOT ALLOWED to go to the beach yesterday with my parents and our three German visitors, which was très bummer. Not to worry—I spent a productive day lying on my bedroom rug and watching Seinfeld. I also finished The Maltese Falcon, but my post on that is reserved for the Book Blob and will appear this Friday.

In the immediate aftermath of surgery, I had decided that freedom from crutches would be my cut-off for postponing a job search, so, technically, I should be tracking down references right about now. Instead, I’ve continued my practice of finding jobs online that I COULD apply to, bookmarking them on my laptop, and leaving it at that. I’m currently operating under the philosophy that I can’t be rejected from jobs I don’t apply to. It’s working well so far—my self-esteem is still fairly intact. We’ll see how much longer it’ll remain so.

In other exciting book news, I ran across this little gem the other day: A Photographic History of Bromance, 1840-1918. I devoted a large amount of time and energy into verifying that yes, this is in fact a real book. Now all that remains is to wait until it appears in my local library, which likely won’t happen unless I move to a town bigger than 200,000.

During a brief respite in my current employment as chauffeur (chauffeuse?) for our three German visitors, I watched the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice and crafted last night. Despite being a die-hard fan for the 5-hour BBC P&P, I did enjoy enjoy the KK version in theaters and, later, when I procured it on DVD. Prior to last night, I hadn’t seen it for about three years, and I found myself slightly irked at various interpretations of the Austen classic. At first, I couldn’t figure out why, but I gradually came to realize that I just didn’t care for Knightley’s Lizzie. Now, I am a moderate fan of Keira (I’m planning a Pirates of the Caribbean marathon for the next time my parents go out of town), but her Lizzie seemed a tad too… je ne sais quoi. Giggly? Snide? Impetuous? My high-school memory of the novel tells me that Lizzie is to some extent all those things, but this Lizzie seemed just a little too-too. Flightly, I guess, might be the most accurate. Or immature. Something. Clearly, I’ve gotten too old and cynical to still be amused by Hollywood’s 19th-century witticisms.

What do you think? Which Austen film adaptation does the most justice? (Don’t even bother posting anything about the zombies/sea monsters parodies—I’m telling you right now I will delete it and, probably, block you from any future comments.)

{smells pretty good}

At long last, today I finished A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a 1993 Pulitzer winner by Robert Olen Butler. It’s a collection of short stories, and though quite short, it took me almost a week to read it because I fell in the habit of reading just one or two stories every night before bed. All of the stories are told from the point of view of a Vietnamese person—almost all born in Vietnam, although at least one is the American-born child of Vietnamese parents—now living in Louisiana, which I was unaware had a large Vietnamese population.

The stories were all very good—Butler’s prose has a lyrical quality, which worked well with the various first-person narratives. The stories have a collective theme of culture differences between Vietnam and the United States. I was quite impressed that each story had a different voice, in keeping with the different narrators, but still held similarities to each other, reflecting the Vietnamese culture, traditions, and values.

Recognizing that Butler was not a Vietnamese name, I did a little more biographical digging than I normally do for leisure reading. Turns out that Butler served in the Vietnam War for two years, during which he developed a great affinity for the Vietnamese, and was a professor of creative writing when AGSfaSM was published.

Now, given that I have absolutely no experience or qualifications whatsoever to put forth an opinion on this, I found myself wondering at the possibility of writing from the point of view of a foreign culture. I mean, obviously most narrators are going to be different from their authors, but I think it’s significantly more difficult to adopt a completely different cultural outlook in your writing. As I read, I found myself wondering: Are these accurate representations of Vietnamese people? How did Butler use his own experiences with Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans in his writing? How would someone who is Vietnamese and currently living in Louisiana interpret these stories?

Please note that I in no way mean to discredit Butler’s writing; as I stated previously, I have absolutely no credibility in this line of questioning. I merely believe that these questions are inevitable for the average reader.

What do you think? How does a writer establish credibility when writing from a foreign perspective? What books have you read that raised similar questions?