Sarah Creech’s first novel, Season of the Dragonflies (William Morrow 2014), is a beautiful book and mesmerizing story. The story is about the Lenore women and their perfumery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it is, as the synopsis promises, “a beguiling tale of practical magic, old secrets, and new love.” Continue reading
I’ve had a soft spot for Russia since I was a kid. As a child of the 1970s, I did most of my growing up in the Reagan 80s, and the only Russians I knew were more like cartoons than real people. I wasn’t yet quite sophisticated enough to know that “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff was really a red-blooded American meat head and that I was in no real danger of being on the wrong end of a Russian Sickle. I wasn’t old enough to understand the degree to which Rocky IV was a propaganda film, but part of me always wanted to pull for Drago, even after an arena full of his own countrymen, won over by Rocky’s superhuman ability to take an ass beating and remain semi-conscious, began chanting the American’s name. Then there was Yakov Smirnoff, who made a career out of one joke about how bad things were in the USSR, like some kind of Russian Jeff Foxworthy. Taken altogether, the picture of Russia painted onto my young psyche was a land of steroid-fueled commie cyborgs and poor schleps standing in line for toilet paper, the Big Red Machine having failed them even when it came to wiping their own butts.
Add to all of this the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear that Russian soldiers might, for some inexplicable reason, attack a school in the middle of nowhere, as they did in Red Dawn, and it’s easy to see why I was fascinated by and terrified of Mother Russian in roughly equal measure. Continue reading
I never meant to become a teacher. In fact, it was my intention to be somewhere in the IT world ever since I was a sophomore in high school. But there have been three outcomes in my life–guidance by a sort of invisible hand–that shoved me down a career path that I could never have anticipated. The first was my freshman year of college. My declared major was Computer Science, I was hired to work on campus as an IT department receptionist and help desk attendant, and I was taking my first Comp Sci class – Java. Meanwhile, I was also taking expository writing, a required class for all freshmen and not liking it a bit. But that didn’t stop me from succeeding at it. In fact, as my grade in my Java class plummeted, my grade in writing had skyrocketed. By the end of the semester, assessing where the chips had fallen, I had re-declared myself an English major and ceased further pursuits in Comp Sci (though I kept my job and was even promoted within the IT department). The second outcome came during my last semester as a senior, applying for the Peace Corps. I had wanted to go to Sub Saharan Africa, specifically Namibia, where I had studied abroad as an IT volunteer. Peace Corps thought otherwise and offered me a position in the Philippines in Southeast Asia…to teach English. By the time I was on my way home from that, I was sitting on a plane waiting for takeoff in Tokyo, lost in a daydream of an IT job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Over the course of the flight, however, I started talking to the guy from L.A. next to me, who was on his way home from teaching English in South Korea. Well, that put a bug in my ear, which finally got the better of me about two weeks after I arrived at home. And that’s how I wound up teaching these last six years, two in the Philippines and four in Korea–and Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov should have been the first book I read before I ever even got on that plane back in 2008, and maybe again for a refresher in 2010.
Through the cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are the timeless classics that everyone has read – everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
I’m from New Albany, Mississippi. Birthplace of William Faulkner. I lived much of my childhood about two miles or so from his childhood home. I went to New Albany High School, where Faulkner pride was contagious and inescapable. I went on to attend Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi – where Faulkner lived as an adult. One of my classes met once at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, because, well hello, how do you attend Ole Miss and not visit William Faulkner’s home at some point? So, as you can see, a lot of Faulkner for me. A whole lot. I’m even a (very) distant cousin to the man. So can someone please explain to me how I never read a Faulkner novel, either in high school where, as I said, Faulkner was revered and beloved, or at Ole Miss, where he was possibly more revered and beloved? And I was an English major, for crying out loud… I guess it’s just that even though all my high school teachers taught a Faulkner novel most years, I somehow fell in the year that skipped him – all four years. Then in college, I never could work out my schedule to include the Southern lit class I so desperately wanted to take. When I finally did manage to get into a writing course that taught a Faulkner novel, I had to drop it because of unforeseen difficulties in commuting to the branch. I mean, I’d read a couple of short stories in some survey courses. I think I’d had “A Rose for Emily” at least three times. But no novel. It just slipped through the cracks. Well, no more. I recently picked up As I Lay Dying, and jumped in. It’s just not right to have grown up where I did, have gone to school where I did, even be who I am – a distant relative, a Mississippian – without ever reading a Faulkner novel.
Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow fell through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
For the longest time, I didn’t want to read Lolita. And not for any of the reasons you’d expect. I am pretty hard to rattle, and I never considered a tale about a middle-age man’s sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl something I couldn’t handle. It was something else. Something about isolated snippets from the book I had come across by way of a Graduate school lesson on slacks and stresses in prose, or a writer friend reciting for me one of its many eloquent passages. The writing style always struck me as upper crust, elite, ultra-intelligent, private school educated…in short, the essence of everything that makes me truly insecure. Approaching this book was akin to approaching a middle school lunch table where I knew I wasn’t wanted. Give me tales from the good old working class, or junkies even. I could delve into the reasons for this, but I’ll spare you the details of what I really should be paying a therapist to suffer though. Suffice to say, this is the honest reason it has taken me this long to read Lolita, silly as it may be.
Coming down off acid can sometimes be a stressful experience. It doesn’t help when you’re stuck in a Birmingham airport for five hours. Looking for something to do and trying to quiet the feeling that my brain was being gnawed on I spotted a stranger with a book. Interesting cover, nice title, I was intrigued and wrote it down. I promptly forgot about it until I went to my local library and found it sitting on the English section. This review is not about that book, but I thought it would be a shame to waste the story. This is about Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. It’s a damn good fairy tale for adults that manages to be familiar and fresh all at once.
Neil Gaiman is very good at telling stories. He is also very good at writing novels, but it is his story-telling that makes him stand out from other great authors. Stardust is an excellent example of his work. It has all the right elements of a real fairy tale. The Hero embarks on a Journey into Faerie in order to fulfill his Heart’s Desire. Along the way he finds a Hidden Talent and runs afoul of Various Enemies. He eventually succeeds in his Quest, but not before learning a valuable Moral and growing as a person. The plot is well-known, but it feels like an homage rather than unoriginality. Of course there is never any doubt that the Hero will eventually succeed, but as with so many things it is about the path taken and not the destination.
Gaiman has a real talent for blending the real and the unreal. Like most of his novels, Stardust begins firmly in the world as we know it and fleshes out the mundane life of the protagonist. By beginning in a familiar place, Gaiman creates a connection between the audience and the protagonist which is exploited to fine effect when the fantasy hits. It starts subtle, allowing the reader to hope along with the characters in the book that maybe magic is real. The Hero then enters another world and is completely cut off from the life they knew; magic is real, but it is not supposed to be in our world. The end of the book touches back with reality just as the reader must and leaves the reader with a sense of “What just happened?” It’s a bit like an acid trip. Everything is real in the moment, but there is always that doubt/hope after the fact.
I’m not sure if I wish this book was longer. As it is, it is concise and to the point, with enough story to keep it interesting. This is certainly not a story for a trilogy and ultimately this kind of story is best served short and sweet. However if you are longing for meaningful character development and interpersonal conflict I would recommend another book. It is not that Gaiman is unable to write these things, it is simply that as a faerie tale it is much more focused on providing fodder for the imagination to run wild. Still there are several parts of the book that could have been made more dramatic and touching if more effort had gone into fleshing out the characters involved.
Overall it is a fun book and a refreshing example of a faerie tale. It is a quick and easy read with plenty of creative scenery and characters. The respect it has for the traditional faerie tale is appreciated and put to great effect in modeling and playing off the expectations of the reader while never falling into stagnancy. It excels in describing the split between the real world and Faerie and does so in a way that hints of conspiracy. Sometimes it feels a bit light in the development of characters’ emotions and relationships, but this does not detract overmuch from the otherwise very enjoyable experience. Would recommend reading if you’re coming down off acid. And maybe coming up.
I challenge you to think of a day sometime in the last five years or so that Google did not affect some aspect of your life. Maybe you did a Google Search for Black Friday deals or double checked the best way to brine a turkey before roasting. But let’s exempt any Google searches from my challenge. Google is, after all, a search company, right? That certainly was the case at the company’s inception in 1998, but I’m willing to bet that Google has made a major impact on your life within the last 24 hours and in a way that we take wholly for granted now in 2014. I’ve checked my secure and safely stored Gmail, was reminded of an event on my calendar (and am confident that I will continue to receive them), used Maps to find directions to a local business and am even typing this into Google Docs, a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Google was a David, the underdog of the internet that has slowly lumbered into the role of Goliath. It is an oft misunderstood target of fear and favor, both a champion of the common man and a black box that leaves us feeling a little creeped out. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is a rare glimpse into the beginning, culture and process of one of the most powerful, influential and provocative companies the world has ever know. Google has been a target of public mistrust, has enabled me and a friend of mine to start a business, and has empowered me to explore my new hometown of Memphis. It’s easy to imagine a world with a Google more or less sinister or benign; but it’s impossible to imagine the world without Google at all.