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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Lazarus is Dead

Lazarus is Dead Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most unique books I have read in a long, long time.

Beard examines the story of Lazarus through a novel, inherently a work of fiction, yet he weaves historical asides throughout the book that paint an even more compelling, almost "convincing" picture of this man who was said to be Jesus' only friend. Lazarus is presented to us as both a character in a story and a man who was once alive on this earth, someone who is intimately knowable through Beard's imagination but also inherently unknowable because so few records of his life are available to us.

As someone who was raised Presbyterian and attended Catholic grade school, I always saw Lazarus as "just one more" of Jesus' miracles. He was just another chapter in the life of Jesus, no more or less important than the other chapters we learned about. And yet Beard raises (and answers, in his own creative way) questions that never occurred to me: why did Jesus choose to raise Lazarus, of all people, from the dead? Why was Lazarus dead in the first place? And what happened to Lazarus after he was brought back? How could any of us live our lives again, after coming back to life?

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: The Troop

The Troop The Troop by Nick Cutter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Terrifying. Grotesque. It's been a long time since I read a horror novel, but The Troop reminded me why I have such a love-hate relationship with this genre. I love that a good horror novel can create such a strong emotional reaction, but at the same time I have to wonder why I'm putting myself through this torture voluntarily. I was sincerely afraid I'd have nightmares from reading this book!

Let me start with a trigger warning: if you have vermiphobia, do not read this book. However, if you don't know what vermiphobia is, then you're probably safe (or as safe as anyone who voluntarily reads horror novels can feel), so go ahead and turn the page.

Imagine a horror-infused Lord of the Flies with a little bit of modern science thrown in, and you'll have this book's essence in a nutshell.

The setup: a scoutmaster and his five Eagle Scouts have been dropped off on a small island in Canada for a 3-day wilderness excursion

The plot twist: a very ill man arrives on the island . . . and his infection spreads

The horror: (don’t worry, this is revealed extremely early on in the book, so not a spoiler) genetically modified tapeworms

What I love most about this book is the way the boys’ characters are all so distinct and their interactions play out so realistically, despite the impossibilities of the story itself. In fact, the most horrific part of the book might not actually be the tapeworms, as grotesque and scary as they were; the most horrific part of the book was the horrific things humans are able to each other in the name of science and survival.



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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The Girl on the Fridge

The Girl on the Fridge The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What incredibly short stories! Oftentimes a few paragraphs long, or a few pages at most, these stories were extremely quick, which was a nice way to experience reading: I could sit down, zip through a few, and set the book aside with zero stress.

However, perhaps due to their brevity or maybe something else, I was often left feeling frustrated. Where was the story? These seemed to be more snapshots, introductions to interesting situations or ideas, but rarely anything that felt like a full and complete story. This is a problem I find myself facing with many short story collections, where the "stories" feel more like character sketches or introductions to full stories that then fail to materialize. So in many ways, this collection was just one more that left me unfulfilled.

Yet I cannot say I did not enjoy it at all. The ideas and characters and situations Keret presents are fresh and unique. The stories cohere in a vague way that I might only identify by rereading the book in its entirety, but they always felt like they belonged in this collection, no matter how banal or bizarre. So the next time I have novel fatigue, I just might pick up another collection by Keret. Because sometimes, freshness and brevity is worth a little frustration.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

On Failing

Here is what failing feels like: it feels like two lead vices clamping around your legs as you fight to keep them in motion. It feels like dread, in that moment right before you look down at your watch. It feels like sliding backward down a hill that has no end. It tastes like metal. Looks like darkness. Sounds like silence, where there should be the deep, tremendous roar of will.

I’m running. And I’m failing. And I don’t have any answers.

Before I sound too self-pitying, I should point out that by many people’s estimations, I’m not failing. In fact, if you look at the “official record” of what I’ve done so far in 2017, you might say I’m succeeding. I’ve run a handful of races and placed reasonably well; I’ve even won a few. But is winning the same as succeeding?

Depends on your definition of success.

If I show up to a race and the only women there are at my fitness level, with my experience, then yes: I want to win. But there are plenty of women out there who are fitter, tougher, more talented, and harder-working than I am. If they show up, I will not win.

And frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is, when the race is neck-and-neck and it comes down to who can dig deeper in those last miles, or moments, or seconds, that I don’t let up. I don’t care if my name is rendered in lights or entirely forgotten. I don’t need an extra medal, or a trophy, or a podium, as nice as all of those things are. What I need is to know that, when it comes down to it, I care more and can push myself harder than the woman next to me. If, in the end, she is actually faster and wins the race, so be it. Good for her. But as long as I ran right to the brink of self-destruction and gave it everything I had, all the way through the last centimeter of the race, I’ll be happy.

Happy . . . but perhaps still not succeeding.

The beauty of running is that I don’t have to care about winning for the sake of winning. Running is not like basketball, or soccer, or tennis, where there is one winner and one loser, and if I don’t win, I failed. In running, I can lose to tens or hundreds or thousands of women and still succeed. But in order to do that, I have to beat myself. I have to beat my own fastest time.

That is how I measure success.

So right now, I am failing. I am failing at races, I am failing at workouts, and I am frustrated as hell. However, I’ve heard some smart people insist that failure is not the end of the journey. So tomorrow, I’ll lace up my shoes, strap on my watch, and try, try again.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, I just have to say this up front: page 333 cites Brancusi's The Kiss as "one of the most romantic sculptures ever made." So of course, I looked it up.

Let's just say it looked better in my head.

But that's the thing about writing about visual artwork: it can look better in your head. And it should! Loading down a piece of writing with every single detail of a painting or sculpture would bore the reader to tears, but a few lines of slightly vague yet compelling description that appeals to all the senses can do wonders. Jandy Nelson does wonders.

Before I get too far into the discussion of artwork, let me backtrack. This novel is not about artwork, per se. It's about artists--lots of them--and about passion and love and identity. Also, it's a YA novel, so the romances are (of course) over-the-top in the best sort of way: all fireworks and melting insides and desperation and agony (but written in much more eloquent, unique ways that I just described). Nelson accurately captures the essence of quirky teenagers struggling with the fine line between being true to their themselves and using their quirks to alienate themselves and others. She also looks at the idea of "what's allowed" in love and romance, in both teenage and adult life. And she does so with compassion and a narrative that moves at the pace of a skittish colt.

Jude and Noah are teenage twins, competing for their parents' love and the love of the world around them. Noah is the dreamer and the model child; Jude is the rebel. Yet when tragedy strikes, their role reversal could not be more abrupt, and the ways they hurt each other and shame they feel as a result drives the narrative forward with the sort of "what will happen next" urgency of a murder mystery. I enjoyed how the past and present were intertwined by allowing Noah to tell "what happened" and Jude to tell "what is happening," and I was impressed with how Nelson managed to conceal facts from us, the readers, even while the characters themselves knew what had happened.

My only criticisms were that 1) by the end, it felt a bit like "everything plus the kitchen sink;" I feel as though limiting the melodrama of the narrative just a bit, particularly at the end, would have done it a great service, and 2) every loose end tied up a little "too" perfectly. Otherwise, however, it was a quintessential YA novel, perfect for lovers of art, romance, and family drama all rolled into one.

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