Novel Thoughts: The Grievers by Marc Schuster

Adulthood is a wonderful thing. We evolve from pimply teenage mess into responsible, productive members of society. At least that’s the ideal progression. But for some of us, the voice of the inner child doesn’t fade as readily. For some of us, it becomes difficult to let go and face reality, so we hold onto that which keeps us innocent, inculpable. And somehow it becomes easy to maintain this childlike revery. That is until the reality of adulthood comes hurdling towards us at full steam like a bully in the halls of Anywhere USA High School.

Marc Schuster’s Charley Schwartz of The Grievers is one such individual. Throughout the novel, readers will find themselves growing increasingly frustrated with Charley until they realize that he represents the parts of themselves that they must deny in order to function as adults. In many ways, Charley behaves in a manner that we have all envied at some point. He is sarcastic, irreverent at times, and completely unsure of his adult self. This uncertainty of just what it means to be an adult is precisely what allows Charley to ingratiate himself with readers. By the time he comes to the realization that none of us is sure what it really means to be an adult, readers are already sympathetic to his plight.

The Grievers contains a number of examples of people we could all be, paths we might have taken when we reached the proverbial crossroads that separate childhood from adulthood, and it is interesting to note that no one seems completely confident of their decision. Some characters are better at faking it than others, but for the most part, everyone involved in the story is operating under some sort of pretense, a quality that lends itself to both believability and relatability. Anyone reading The Grievers will find someone with whom they can identify, and it becomes very comforting to note that everyone has uncertainties.

While the story itself is very realistic and the portrayal of the characters makes them both endearing and frightening, there are times throughout the book when the dialogue seems better suited to reading than to speaking. In other words, people don’t really talk that way. However, these instances are so few and far between that they do not detract from the novel, its purpose, or its impact.

The Grievers is an ideal novel for those of us who sometimes seek to read books with which we can commiserate, rather than books into which we can escape. It allows us to be more aware of our humanity, while learning to accept it (flawed though it may be) at the same time.

The Grievers will be available for purchase in May 2012. In the meantime, interested readers can get more information here and here.

What’s New?: V-Day

Love is a timeless, universal sentiment. It defies the parameters within which we seek to define it. To attempt its definition is to find oneself at a loss. Love, true, real, raw love, is not easy, and it is ever elusive. But once it’s been found, once it has allowed itself to be confined within the hearts and souls of two people, it makes life more rich and abundant than we could possibly imagine it to be.

So why is it that we devote only one day a year to something so important, something so consuming?

In elementary school, we hand out little paper hearts attached to lollipops in hopes that they will bring happiness to our classmates. We eat cupcakes (at least we used to) and have parties and leave school sugared out all in the name of love.

In high school, we wait expectantly either to receive flowers or to find out how our flowers will be received. We give cliché greeting cards in the hopes that they will accurately expose our adolescent feelings to our sweethearts. And we think it will last forever.

In adulthood, men are now obligated to scramble around at the last minute to purchase flowers (that will die), candies (that she will say have contributed to her nonexistent weight gain), and jewelry (that she will likely wear for a few weeks before allowing it to slip to the bottom of her jewelry box to lie with the relics of Valentine’s Days past). Women, it has to be said, have a fairly easy job this holiday. They are required only to wait and to receive. The final judgement regarding the success of the holiday lies within their jurisdiction. Sorry, guys.

But why? Why do we do behave in these ways? Why do we stress ourselves out wondering whether or not he will propose this year or whether or not the flowers and necklace will be enough to keep her happy for now?

The history of Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery and confusion. No one saint can claim patronage over the day, and early celebrations of the holiday were hardly the greeting-card infused sweetness we know today. But somehow over the years we have adapted this day to our own purposes and allowed it to become the international day of love, for better or for worse.

I’m not suggesting here that Valentine’s Day is a pointless exercise designed only to make us feel worse about ourselves than we already do. I can be just as sappy and sentimental as the next girl (and quite frequently am). But if love is so important, if we’re willing to call it the be-all, end-all, if we’re willing to spend a lifetime searching for it, if we consider ourselves so lucky to know it, to possess it, to bestow it, then isn’t it worth celebrating every day?

Happy Birthday

Facebook.

We all know it. Some of us love it. Some hate it. And some are unflinching in their indifference. But whatever the feelings its reach is inescapable.

Masquerading as the ever helpful connection between far flung friends, Facebook has managed to create not just a desire to stay connected but a dependence on social information. In scanning through my Newsfeed, I can’t help wondering: what is Facebook’s true motive here?

Studies have concluded that social interaction via Facebook can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and depression (take a look at this and this). Whether or not these studies are conclusive really is not the point. The fact that we are all subject to the potential findings is enough to inspire feelings of uncertainty and suspicion.

Perhaps it’s not in the forefront of our minds, but that lingering hesitant feeling before posting a status update is proof positive that Facebook encourages us to second guess ourselves. For me, the uncertainty comes in the form of a weekly birthday reminder email.

Every Sunday I receive an email reminding me which of my Facebook friends is celebrating (or not, whatever) a birthday that week. Some weeks I am prompt with my good wishes, some weeks not so much. And it’s those weeks that I feel that Facebook has far too much hold over my sense of self-worth.

I have good intentions. Don’t we all? I receive the email, and I think to myself that this will be the week when I finally beat Facebook to the punch. This is the week when my birthday buddies will know that they’re special. And then I fail. The weeks scoots past me, and before I can log on, birthdays have come and gone, and I once again find myself feeling guilty. Not profoundly so, but dully, naggingly.

In an attempt to mitigate these feelings, I am sending out best birthday wishes to all of my Facebook, Twitter, and blogosphere friends. I wish each and every one of you the absolute best birthday of your life this year. May it be filled with hope, happiness, and celebration. May your wish come true when you blow out your candles. And may you be set free from any and all obligations imposed upon you by some arbitrary social network.

I’m sure there are those who feel the same way I do, whether you will admit it or not. But for those of you who don’t know these feelings, for those of you who find yourselves able to absolve yourseles of any feelings of virtual responsibility or duty inflicted by Facebook, this post, I’m sorry to say, is not for you.

Novel Thoughts: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.

Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.

Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.

Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.

By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.

Dilly-Dallying with Daisy: Where’s That Heat Coming From?

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Ok, so, the lady I live with needs a name, and I know she’s not a fan of Hey You. So I’m thinkin’ about calling her The Boss. I think she’d like that. Funny thing about bosses, though, is that I hate being bossed around. I just get so bothered. I’ve even been accused of being indignant. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, the lady I live with (aka The Boss).

So, one day The Boss brings home this thing. Yeah, I don’t know what it’s called. At first I thought it was someone new. Yeah, like a new friend or something. I like making new friends. And I always seem to meet them in the weirdest places. Parking lots, hair salons, doctors’ offices. Well, I don’t really get out as much as I’d like, but…anyway, yeah, so she brings in this new thing. And I try to make friends with it. I’m real friendly.

The Boss set it up in the floor, and then she just left it there. I don’t get it. What’s it doing? It doesn’t talk; it doesn’t move. I’m trying to be hospitable, and there’s just no getting through to this thing. Suddenly it starts to hmmmmm, and then it starts to glow. Ok, so maybe I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but this freaked me out!! The Boss thought my behavior was funny, which I thought was really rude. You know, like when you laugh at someone for doing something they can’t help doing? Like tripping over a dog leash or getting tangled in the bush while the dog is trying to sniff out its place? Oh my gosh I saw this lady one time who got all wrapped up in the leash, and…where was I?

Oh yeah. So I’m totally on my guard. I don’t trust the newbie. But the longer I sat watching it, the more I noticed I was getting kinda toasty. And honestly: IT FELT GOOD! See, I’ve got really short hair, and in the winter time I get sort of cold. I’m a warm weather kind of girl. Anyway, so I decided to get closer to this thing. And the closer I got, the warmer it got.

We’ve had the thing for awhile. I still don’t trust it completely. It still won’t talk to me except to make that annoying hmmmmmm noise. But it sure is a considerate thing. Whenever I start shivering, it starts hmmmm-ing away and glowing and making things warm. So for now, I’m content to let it hang out as long as it’s cold out. I don’t think The Boss would move it even if I asked her to, and besides, we have a sort of understanding. I’ve even started bringing my toys around sometimes.

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What’s New?: Celebrate Like the Dickens

Capital L Literature is slippery to define, even on the best of days. Generation after generation has struggled to define the qualities inherent in Literature (as opposed to literature, or the stuff that populates both the bestseller list and the book stands in local grocery stores). We ponder over innumerable cups of coffee what it means to be part of the great literary canon: what characteristics link the greats to one another? How can those characteristics be replicated? How do we define them in concrete terms? What happens when we try?

Over the years, the literary canon has changed, multiplied, divided, become inclusive and exclusive all at once. But some things never change. Some authors remain constant fixtures in Literature, and no amount of debating, dissecting, or declaiming can ratchet them from their honorable places.

Among these sit illustrious, albeit misunderstood, literary geniuses (the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Poe, and Louise May Alcott), of whom Charles Dickens is one. Today marks what would have been the author’s 200th birthday, and a celebration is seemingly in order.

Even those who are not readers of his works have been influenced in some way by Dickens. His story A Christmas Carol has become part of the holiday catalogue, inspiring animated films and Christmas decorations. The film and television industry has been arguably generous to Dickens, ensuring that each generation has its theatrical embodiment of the classic holiday tale, and each generation has bent the story to its purpose.

Dickens’s works are full of one-liners familiar to us all for one reason or another:

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

“Please, sir, may I have some more?”

“Bah humbug.”

And for these the world owes a debt of gratitude. Not only have they illuminated poignant moments in literature, but they have also provided the masses with entertainment and laughter at their own expense.

To say that Dickens had a way with words seems trite and inadequate. The names of his characters alone are enough to inspire both readers’ and writers’ imaginations. One needs little more than the name of a character in any given story to understand the true nature of him. Take, for example, Wackford Squeers of Nicholas Nickleby or Lord Verisopht of the same novel. While Dickens has absolved himself of outwardly accusing these characters of certain natures, their names provide the reader with enough context to form an opinion before the character has even acted.

Dickens had a knack for making a point with his work without overtly using his authorial voice to comment on the state of his world. In Nicholas Nickleby, for example, he uses Squeers and Smike to illustrate the deplorable conditions of boys’ schools, but he allows the text to resolve the problem, allowing Wackford Squeers his just deserts.

Important writers, those with canonical staying power, are few and far between. Many aspire to greatness, but few are able to achieve it. Today we celebrate one of the few who did, one who gave to the world more than he could have ever realized in the voices of Tiny Tim, Pip, and Oliver Twist. For this a celebration is indeed in order.

The Big Apple of My Eye

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Some of the best friends I’ll never make are in New York. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to meet them all. That is the city’s great mystique, encouraging (indeed forcing) interaction while hoarding its people for itself. For some its the way of New York; they belong to the city and no one else. For the rest of us, it seems difficult to imagine the immensity of the place and its capacity for allowing simultaneous exposure and anonymity.

New York thrives on synchronous creation. People go to New York to create themselves without realizing that the city can only create itself from its people. Not a dangerous dependence, but one that is inescapable. A mere presence there allows the city to crawl inside you, perhaps to an abandoned nook of your personality, perhaps someplace more prominent. There it waits for the opportunity to spring itself. And it will. New York is nothing if not surprising.

Apathy is not an emotion to be associated with this particular metropolis. New York is a highly emotive place where feelings and thoughts, dreams and sorrows are amplified. Everything you ever did or didn’t do is magnetically drawn to the surface to be confronted. Suddenly, for everything in New York is sudden, you find yourself faced with unlimited possibility. New York is a city for asking, “Why not?”

For some, the electrifying potential seems daunting. So they leave, telling themselves that they can now cross NYC off some elusive mental bucket list, justifying their presence while simultaneously (there’s that word again) dismissing missed opportunity and things undone. Some convince themselves they don’t like it there, that they would almost rather be anywhere else, that New York holds nothing for them. But the city has already claimed them, whether they know it (and accept it) or not. And some of us leave reluctantly, knowing that everything now will pale in comparison with this place. We know we’ll be back. In fact, most of us have already begun planning our return visit because trying to resist the urge feels unnatural, uncomfortable. The city has claimed a part of us, and we acknowledge it freely, unashamedly, knowing part of the attraction lies in the reality that we will never be able to visit the same New York twice. We’ll be back there. How could we not be? It’s a fun quest, searching for that part of ourselves that the city snuck away while we weren’t looking and knowing that even if we found it we would give it up all over again.

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Novel Thoughts: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

Sherlock Holmes is one of Literature’s most revered characters. Generation upon generation has found in him a brainy hero, someone who manages to win without employing might and strength. No, Sherlock runs on brain power, which is arguably his most endearing quality. Embraced by both the film and television industries both here and abroad, Sherlock has maintained a cultural presence unique unto himself.

Which is precisely why Andrew Lane’s young adult novel Death Cloud inspires reluctance. Lane’s novel approaches Sherlock from the aspect of childhood. For years readers have wondered what Sherlock must have been like as a boy, and Lane has attempted to answer the quandary. He has done remarkably well, considering that we are never given any indication as to what childhood events shaped our beloved Sherlock.

All reluctance aside, Death Cloud is quite the captivating novel, particularly for its intended audience. Lane has paid specific attention to detail regarding the time period within which he is working, down to the specifics regarding how people brushed their teeth in those days (“[Sherlock] splashed his face, brushed his teeth with a chalky powder flavoured with cinnamon that he sprinkled on his bone-handled hog’s bristle toothbrush, and quickly dressed.”) He has also managed to preserve that very traditional sense of class and social propriety (“The kids there had tended to avoid the house, belonging as it did the the people they thought of as their social superiors, “the landed gentry,” and Sherlock had spent most of his time alone.”) Sherlock’s friendship with both Matty and Virginia in the book serves to illuminate the social structures in place during what would have been the years of Sherlock’s childhood. Lane’s inclusion of Amyus Crowe also delineates the difference between social mores in England and social mores in America.

Lane attributes the development of Sherlock’s powers of deduction in part to both Mycroft Holmes and Amyus Crowe, an attribution many veteran readers of the Sherlock Holmes collection may find disappointing. With these two instructors, Sherlock’s ability to think on his feet and to mentally and logically move through a problem are quickly honed in this first novel of what is to be a series. Whether or not readers agree with the technique, it is reassuring for younger readers to know that Sherlock was not born brilliant, that it took years of practice and incidents to sharpen his wit and intellect.

The action in Death Cloud is captivating enough for younger readers; however, more mature readers will find the action sequences tedious. Sure, they are filled with anticipation, but while some readers anticipate the outcome of the scene, others anticipate the scene’s ending. Towards the end of the novel, readers, both younger and more mature, may find themselves weary of Sherlock’s penchant for falling into the same kinds of traps.

Despite its (at times) tedious nature, the entertainment to be found in Death Cloud will not disappoint its reader. Lane’s construction of Sherlock’s childhood will make the character both more relatable and more fascinating for whatever reader comes his way.

The Ponderings of Mr. Peay: Unfathomable Television

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Television is a curious thing, isn’t it? I never cease to be amazed at the ease with which the people I live are drawn to it. Lately, the lady with whom I live (henceforth to be known as Missus) has taken to watching a particular show that would fall, I assume, into the genre of reality television. The women on the show, created by BravoTV in its infinite wisdom, claim to be housewives. Now, I’m not precisely sure what constitutes housewifery, but something about the definition appears skewed on this particular show. They shop, eat, throw parties, attend parties, love, and hate all in the name of reality. I, however, remain skeptical. Though my social experience has a limited reach, I have never seen adults behave as these do.

Missus defends her behavior by saying that watching these shows is a bit like watching a train wreck: you know what’s coming, and you know you should probably change the channel. But somehow it becomes impossible. I always find it amusing to watch Missus’ facial expressions change from apathetic stare to twisted surprise, and I find myself drawn to drama. Whether or not it is real or scripted is irrelevant. We, Missus and I, find it entertaining if only for a brief moment.

I try not to think too deeply about what it means that we spend so much time watching the shows in all their various locales. Does it really matter? If the purpose of television is in any small way to entertain, then the Real Housewives franchise has accomplished that purpose. So please, don’t judge us too harshly. We are only participating in the construction of popular culture in a way that only BravoTV can make possible.

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