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nataliya

nataliya

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

Nataliya's quotes


"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

'A Face in the Crowd' by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan

A Face in the Crowd - 'Stephen King',  'Stewart O'Nan'

I almost did not read this book because of baseball. 

Seriously, I fail to understand this sport (my European-born brain must be lacking a baseball neuron, I suppose)¹. 'Twilight' pseudo-vampires engaging in this American pastime did not help this sport win credibility with me, so you can at least partially blame Stephenie Meyer, I guess.

¹ Seriously, my facial expression when people start discussing baseball around me is akin to the facial expressions of my American colleagues when I started singing praises to biathlon during the Winter Olympics. 
My feeble attempts at garnering enthusiasm (Hey, it's skiing and shooting! It's USEFUL!) were met with carefully blank stares. See below.


The best approximation of abovementioned facial expression that internet could provide.

Whatevs. The greatness of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is clearly not for everyone.

But then I thought - hey, it's Stephen King writing about baseball, and that combo somehow worked amazingly for me in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I should be open-minded, and why the hell not?

I needn't have worried. Baseball is just a backdrop in this very short story and could have been replaced by any sport that has major televised coverage. Even though ice dancing as a backdrop may have not been quite appropriate for the tone King is trying to set.

This story for Stephen King's Constant Readers is nothing new - but there's nothing bad about that. It's more psychological than horror, as we came to expect from Uncle Stevie. It has trademark brilliant narrative voice slowly creating an uneasy atmosphere - because King is excellent at believable and relatable narration that makes you feel that you're siting around a campfire listening to a bit of carefully crafted spookiness. The ending is actually a bit subdued as far as King goes, but manages to hold its own.

Where this story does shine is characterization - something we may not necessarily expect from a short story *this* short (the page count is a bit inflated by including excerpts from King's Talisman and Black House). By the end of it you *know* Dean Evers - in a way he wouldn't want you to know him, surely. His loneliness and sense of loss and - of course - inner ugly monsters lurking under the seemingly ordinary shell. As he watches a parade of people from his life on the TV screen - those people all dead, by the way - and is reminded of the ugliness that was always present in his life, you get a nagging feeling that despite superficial similarities, there will be no saccharine-sweet ending of A Christmas Carol, nossir.

All in all, it was an enjoyable short read. Bring on more baseball stories! (Ok, I may be kidding here, I'm not yet ready for that). 

3.5 stars. Good. Not amazing, but good.

'The Graduate' - just watch the film instead, really

The Graduate - Charles Webb
Rarely do I prefer film versions of a book over the book itself, but there's no contest here. Love or hate The Graduate - the cult 1960s film - you gotta agree it has heart, or at least that almost intangible something that burns it into memory. 

To me that something has always been the very ending of the film, that final scene that adds a new dimension to otherwise lovely but okay film - those last moments on the bus with Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence in the background, with close-up on the faces Ben and Elaine, so exhilarated from their on-the-spur-of-the-moment decision - but, as the camera lingers, we see eventual slow fading of the happy grins and uncertainty setting in, and the slightly confused awkward apprehensive glances at each other - now what? - the scene that is the most perfect conclusion of any film ever, and subtle enough for generations of college students to misinterpret it. 



Add to it amazing performances by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, breathing life into what otherwise could have been wooden characters, and the rest of the lovely soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel - and the cult film is born.

This heart, this humanity, this something is what Charles Webb's first novel The Graduate completely lacks, even though superficially it is not that different from the film based on it. The plot is the same - a bored and disillusioned affluent recent college graduate starts an affair with an older woman, then promptly falls in love with her dishrag-personality daughter, madly pursues the above mentioned daughter and breaks up her wedding to another affluent young man, all while unsure of his place in life in the 1960s. The scenes are the same as in the film, the dialogue very similar - but where the film soars, the book drowns like a brick.

You see, separated from the humanity brought to it by the amazing Hoffman and Bancroft performances, the book feels desolately empty and meaningless. It's seems to mostly consist of awkward circular dialogues that go on forever, full of filler with nothing actually being said, with people droning on an on meaninglessly, constantly asking each other, 'What?' The attempts at communication are empty because no one actually has anything to say - a smart literary move, perhaps, if used sparingly and to the point, but the overabundance of the non-communication quickly becomes tiring, irritating and shallow. By overemphasizing emptiness around Benjamin, the book becomes quite empty itself.

“Ben?” he said, opening his son’s door.

“I’ll be down later,” Benjamin said.

“Ben, the guests are all here,” his father said. “They’re all waiting.”

“I said I’ll be down later.”

Mr. Braddock closed the door behind him. “What is it,” he said.

Benjamin shook his head and walked to the window.

“What is it, Ben.”

“Nothing.”

“Then why don’t you come on down and see your guests.”

Benjamin didn’t answer.

“Ben?”

“Dad,” he said, turning around, “I have some things on my mind right now.”

“What things.”

“Just some things.”

“Well can’t you tell me what they are?”

“No.”

Nobody in this book listens to anyone else, especially Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist, a selfish privileged young college graduate who, after a life handed to him on the silver platter, has a case of ennui and is lucky enough to have parents rich enough to allow him to parasitically waste his life in the pathetic self-pity while openly despising everyone around him because, of course, everyone is inferior to his special snowflakeness. He refuses to understand anyone, refuses to have meaningful communication with anyone, places himself into the center of the Benjamin-centric universe, judges everyone except himself, sees no consequences for his actions, and, after deciding - arbitrarily, it seems - to fall in love, basically badgers the most vapid love interest ever to pay attention to him. 

He is ridiculous in his pompous quasi-disillusioned snobbery, and very quickly progresses from annoying to simply just an ass.


The movie treats this scene as suffocated cry of a lonely soul. In the book, Ben Braddock is a bored and rude self-absorbed twit.

Throughout the story he sounds not like a talented almost-prodigy college graduate. No, he sounds like a perpetually pissed-off snappy overpampered fifteen-year-old teenager, angry for the sake of anger. Where film-Benjamin is confused and lost and humanly vulnerable, book-Benjamin is simply irritatingly full of himself.
Benjamin stood. “Now look!” he said, waving his arm through the air. “I have been a goddamn—a goddamn ivy-covered status symbol around here for four years. And I think I’m entitled to—
Entitled is precisely the word to describe Benjamin. Exactly right.

Written by a very young (24 years old!) privileged man from affluent Pasadena about a very young privileged man from affluent Pasadena, this book to me seems a perfect testament to the well-known fact that if you are a privileged young man, you can do whatever the hell you want and mope around for a while while being fashionably disillusioned because you know at the end of it your convenient life will be handed back to you on the same silver platter. 

The book is devoid of any kind of internal monologue of characters, of any hints at their mental state, their motivations - nothing except for what's on the surface and what gets across in the empty endless dialogue. I can see how that could have been conceived as a literary device, but too much of it makes the book too shallow and empty and meaningless. At least in the film Hoffman and Bancroft's acting brought life to the characters, filling in what was unsaid with body language and facial expressions, thus creating something behind the actions of the characters. Devoid of this, the book does not provide an alternative - it simply provides nothing.


The expressions of the bus people at the end were probably exactly what my expression was by the end of this book.

And the ending - MY film ending that brings in subtlety and subverts so much of the film - no, of course it was not here. It would have been silly to expect subtlety from such a dull book. It ends just as flatly as it began, woodenly and purposelessly.

"Elaine was still trying to catch her breath. She turned her face to look at him. For several moments she sat looking at him, then she reached over and took his hand.

“Benjamin?” she said.

“What.”

The bus began to move."



So if you happened to find an old copy of the book The Graduateand, feeling nostalgic for college years, want to relive the experience, I recommend the following: get some nice wine, rent the film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and get comfy on the couch using the book The Graduate as a coaster for your wine glass. 
Lovely evening guaranteed. 

Half a star.

 

'Broken Homes' by Ben Aaronovitch - I missed Peter Grant's world of magical policing!

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch
"This book is dedicated to all the people who get up and do something about it, whatever “it” is and however small the thing it is they do."

With this perfect dedication, Broken Homes - the fourth entry in Ben Aaronovitch's series about a snarky, geeky and ultimately good London Police Constable Peter Grant, employed in the subdivision of the Metropolitan police focused on magical side of the society - hit the high note from the very beginning and remained very good until the last page.

A few things always stand out for me in Aaronovitch's series and make his books quite special.

First is the very distinct narrative voice of Peter Grant - a bit snarky, a bit smartass, full of endless geeky references and quite a bit of self-deprecating humor, and so captivating that, I swear, I'd read about grocery shopping and plumbing if Peter Grant was narrating it.

"I’d love to stick some high vestigia material into a mass spectrometer, but first I’d have to get myself a mass spectrometer and then I’d have to learn enough physics to interpret the bloody results."

Second is the unbelievably vivid atmosphere of the streets and buildings of architecturally beautiful multicultural London, described so lovingly and fully that even this non-Londoner reader feels that she just took a stroll along the Thames. Speaking of the Thames - I finally decided to search for a map with all the 'lost' rivers of London, mostly tributaries of the Thames that had long ago been converted to underground rivers. And read quite a bit about Heygate Estatewhich provided inspiration for Skygarden Estate in this book.



Third is the continuing emphasis on keeping these stories as much of police procedural as possible, with constant reminders that keeping the peace comes with the burden of regulations and paperwork and long hours spent gathering evidence and staring at miles of CCTV footage and juggling many different investigative threads that do not always conveniently come together to reveal a bigger picture. Mundane routine is the reality of police life, Aaronovitch emphasizes it, and his characters navigate the system in a way that makes you believe they are actually part of real-life police force.

"It’s a police mantra that all members of the public are guilty of something, but some members of the public are more guilty than others."

Peter Grant books avoid the common pitfall of so many stories that feature anyone with supernatural abilities: the immediate disregard of anyone not magical and resulting complete despising of police force as little but clueless buffoons good for nothing except for throwing obstacles in the way of the heroes. It's not so in Peter Grant series. Police force are the competent people who are perfectly capable of working side by side with their slightly more supernaturally inclined colleagues, even if it means creating just a tad more paperwork than planned.

"So I waited in the porch and wrote up my notes. I have two sets, the ones that go in my Moleskine and the slightly edited ones that go into my official Met issue book. This is very bad procedure, but sanctioned because there are some things the Met doesn’t want to know about officially. In case it might upset them."

These stories also not only feature a wide array of non-white characters (as would be appropriate in a city as multicultural as London), but have quite unique in our literature approach of actually integrating race in the story, casually mentioning race in the description of many white characters, thus subverting the unspoken rule that only non-white characters' race needs to be specified since white is the assumed default. No, here race is just one of the descriptors, applied to white people as well, and that reads very refreshing and common-sense.

The humor of this book deserves a separate shout-out. It's very British (I assume, not being British myself), quite dry, quite intelligent. Combined with the uber-Britishness of this book (again, assumed by me, a non-British reader) it creates a very memorable and very British setting, requiring me - happily - to resort to Google a few times to make sure I understand what's being said and why it's funny.


Broken Homes is very much a middle-of-the story book. The threads started in the previous three - including the greater and greater focus on the villainous Faceless Man - continue here without much hand-holding from the author to remind you where we left off. This book counts on you being quite familiar with the characters and events from the preceding three as it throws you right in the middle of continuing storyline. The flipside of this is that you should not expect all - or even some - of the storylines pursued here to wrap up by the end of this book; no, they will continue into the sequel as by now they all are just little threads of one larger story, leaving you in the meantime with hanging burning questions and no satisfaction of having them answered yet.

"See, I thought as I waited for the lift, someone tries to kill you and suddenly you’re all cautious."

Peter Grant ("I could have used my magical abilities to get a closer look, but instead I used the zoom function on my phone"),Lesley May ("[... ] whose attitude toward taser deployment was that people with heart conditions, epilepsy and an aversion to electrocution should not embark upon breaches of the peace in the first place") and Thomas Nightingale("Nightingale gave me the same long-suffering look he gives me when I accidentally blow up fire extinguishers, fall asleep while he’s talking, or fail to conjugate my Latin verbs") are pursuing their leads to uncover the identity and the associates of the mysterious and dangerous Faceless Man while solving a few murders, a theft, establishing a connection of a sink estate to all of this and policing a supernatural deity fair - all while trying their best to stay alive and caught up with paperwork.

“That which does not kill us,” I said, “has to get up extra early in the morning if it wants to get us next time.”

It starts with the usual lighthearted humor full of witty banter, but somewhere around the halfway mark the tone becomes more and more serious as Skygarden becomes the primary investigative location, and not only social issues are raised to the surface with apt social commentary (for instance, the struggle of the mostly poor inhabitants of the estate taking up space that could have been used for something infinitely more lucrative) but also the long-standing character tensions come to light, including Lesley's painful struggle to live with her 'ruined' face and the toll it takes on her - sometimes too subtle for Peter to actually see.

And then, like a punch in the gut, the ending comes - unexpectedly and yet not that much, as throughout the book little clues were dropped alerting you that something was amiss, something was different, something was about to crack. And yet, whether you saw it coming or not, the impact remains - both on Peter and the reader, making me immediately go and look up when the next book in the series is due (and resolving to buy it as soon as it comes out, even if I have to pay for the extra shipping from Britain). It's painful and sad and leads to so many questions, and having your heart break for Peter just a bit. 4.5 stars and the countdown to the next book release begins.

"Sometimes, when you turn up on their doorstep, people are already expecting bad news. Parents of missing kids, partners that have heard about the air crash on the news— you can see it in their faces— they’ve braced themselves. And there’s a strange kind of relief, too. The waiting is over, the worst has happened and they know that they will ride it out. Some don’t, of course. Some go mad or fall into depression or just fall apart. But most soldier through.

But sometimes they haven’t got a clue and you arrive on their doorstep like god’s own sledgehammer and smash their life to pieces. You try not to think about it, but you can’t help wondering what it must be like.

Now I knew."

 

'City of Masks' by Mary Hoffman

City of Masks  - Mary Hoffman

Cute. That a the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. Cute and mostly harmless. Adorable and sweet, but unfortunately just not too memorable. Like a decent fast food meal, it's satisfying but not too nutritious.

This is a story of a teenage boy dying from cancer in contemporary England, who accidentally discovers a way to travel to an alternate reality that closely resembles medieval Venice. He makes friends with a powerful scientist-magician and a perky tomboy-girl, foils a few political intrigues and, as his life ebbs away in the real world, realizes that this alternate reality quickly is becoming more real than 'real' world.



It's a book that seems to be aimed at quite young readers, perhaps age 9 or 10. It's gentle and sweet, with simple plot and easy-to-follow hints of the predictable plot twists, with never-too-real dangers, relatively harmless villains and generally happy resolutions to conflicts. The depths that could have been explored - in characters as well as the plot - were left uncharted.

There were a few points where it could all have been taken to the next level, to the place that can arouse strong conflicting emotions and create necessary tension- but they were sweetly glossed over (for instance, Lucien's experience of loss and dying, addressing the pain of grief, the difficult choices Silvia makes, the introduction of some ambiguity into the events - there were such opportunities for making the shades of moral grayness more prominent and more memorable!). Alas, any possibility of moral upheaval and emotional effect were softened and made sweet and cute and very easily palatable, which I thought was a real missed opportunity.

It's overall a feel-good book, probably unlikely to cause deep discussions between children and their parents, probably unlikely to change any kid's perception of the world, probably a lovely read on the cold rainy day when kids have to stay inside (however, I'm probably thinking of those long-away days of my own childhood when there were no video games and TV programs were quite limited, and library books were the perfect go-to entertainment)

It's a lovely book to help pass some time before moving on to better, more challenging literature. It has no teeth, it doesn't bite, and that may be a good or a band thing, depending where you stand on the idea of literature in lives of young readers. At least it does pass for a decent bedtime story.

Not a bad read, but you may find it hard to remember much of it a few days later. Interesting enough to finish reading it, but not captivating enough to pick up the sequels. 3 stars.

'Panic' by Lauren Oliver

Panic - Lauren Oliver

I bet this book will be loved by so many readers. After all, it has quite a it of potential, it's not badly written, and - thanks to all the literary gods - it mercifully lacks the unavoidable first-person narration that plagues the YA subset of literature.

For me, however, it fell a bit flat. And that's disappointing.

I did appreciate what Lauren Oliver (a relatively new author for me, by the way - I only read her sweet and adorable children's story 'Liesl and Po') tried to do here. She tried to tackle uncomfortable themes and take a YA story outside of its usual confines by giving a view of the real world that can be quite uncomfortable. I see where she wanted to take this story and what she tried - and actually succeeded - to bring into the spotlight. 

The crushing poverty and oppressively suffocating drudgery of life in a dead-end small town without future, the desperate desire to get out and find a life you deserve instead of the one fate dealt you, the frantic attempts to find yourself and prove yourself, and the willingness to do *anything* to reach your goal and get out of Dodge Carp. 

This stagnant desperation of life on the fringes of nowhere was what Oliver managed to describe memorably well, and I loved that she did not shy away from the monotone hopeless mundanity of it. The atmosphere was brilliantly crafted, and I loved it.
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'Roadside Picnic' by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic - Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky

When people talk about the "special" feel of Russian literature, I tend to shrug it away as yet another point of confusion "Westerners" have with anything Slavic. 

But when I tried to explain the feeling this book evoked in me to a few "Westerners" I startlingly realized that "it just *feels* so essentially Russian" may indeed be a valid description that encompasses the soul-searching ambiguity, the pursuit of deeper truths shrouded in light sadness, the frustrating but yet revealing lack of answers to the clear divide between right and wrong, and the heart shattering "scream of soul".


This is a story of the aftermath of the aliens' visit to our planet. Well, a visit may be too grand of a word. It seems dishearteningly likely that the space visitors made little notice of us; that their visit here was little but a "roadside picnic" - a quick stop in the middle of nowhere, a break after which they left to never be seen again, leaving only a bit of waste behind them - the relics worth quite a bit of money, and a toxic area - the Zone¹ - where humans cannot survive, where the invisible effects of something inside it inflict permanent scars (mental and physical) on those brave (or foolish) enough to venture inside it.

¹It was hard for me to believe that this book was written years before the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - an explosion that left a "Zone" full of deadly invisible poison affecting those in it or near it, with ghost city that once was full of people and now is just a shell of a disaster.
No wonder that in popular culture Chernobyl and Strugatsky's "stalker" became intertwined.

The disheartening insignificance of the contact goes well against the well-established rules of science fiction. There was no communication, no contact, nothing. It appears that despite the hopes of all the sci-fi writers over decades, we were not that interesting to the other intelligence - actually, we probably weren't even worth noticing. Just a matter-of-fact quick purposeless roadstop and a bunch of refuse - which still proceeds to affect the lives of people around the mysterious Zones.

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

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"The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint Exupéry - a children's book really meant for adults

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Richard Howard, Viggo Mortensen
'You do understand that the Little Prince died?' my mother asked as carefully and gently as only adults who know that loss of innocence can be crushing but is brutally necessary can do.

'No, he didn't. He went back to his home planet and that stupid rose. It says so right here,' I replied with the comforting stubbornness of an eight-year-old.

Later that night, I quietly reread the book and the sad truth clicked, and so did the belated thought that for all the gentle berating of adults in it, this strange and beautiful book was written by one of them and definitely for them, and not for me, and by luring me in with the beautiful pictures it pushed me just a bit further on the inevitable road to adulthood.

Or so I see now.

Back then, I decided to read the author's biography instead as a distraction from the thoughts that were trying to be a bit more grown-up than my heart cared for - I was the odd kid of a literature teacher mother, after all - just to learn that just after writing this book, Antoine de Saint Exupéry died when flying his plane in a war to liberate his country, killed by adults who played a game of war, too dangerous and cruel. And that finally made me cry.

And then I went back to the simple security of childhood.




Then I grew up, inevitably, like most of us do. I learned to do my fair share of 'matters of consequence'. I learned the painful understanding of why certain vain but naive roses can hold such sad power over our hearts. I learned the comfort and longing of nostalgia, the fear of the crushing burden of loneliness, the understanding of fragile beauty of the world that can be so easily taken away at any moment. I became a grown-up, and I have to learn to reconcile my inner child with my outer age.
"In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them."
Now, reading this intensely lyrical and mesmerizing book written by an ailing middle-aged adult far away from the country he loved in the middle of war-torn years, I am confronted with emotions that ruthlessly hurt, hidden in the deceiving simplicity of a (supposedly) children's story just like an elephant was hidden inside a boa constrictor - or was it simply a hat all along? - in the opening paragraphs of this book. I sigh and tear up, and try to resist the urge to pick up the golden-haired child that never stopped until he got answers to his questions and carry him away into safety. But I can't. Because if I do so, there will never be 500 billion bells in the stars, and we will never wonder whether the rose is still alive - and it needs to be, because we are responsible for those we have tamed.
"But I was not reassured. I remembered the fox. One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed."
This is not a book for children. It's for adults who remember being children and feel nostalgia for the simple comfort of childhood innocence but know they can never go back to it. Because they have met their Roses, and Foxes, and drank from a well with a rusty handle in the desert, and learned that a few thorns may not stand against the claws of a tiger. Unlike the Little Prince, they can no longer go back - but they can look at the night starry sky and laugh, and imagine that they hear an answering clear laughter.
"In certain more important details I shall make mistakes, also. But that is something that will not be my fault. My friend never explained anything to me. He thought, perhaps, that I was like himself. But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through t he walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown-ups. I have had to grow old."



'What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well.'

'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

Some books can be quite ill-served by their title. 'Not enough triffids!' would complain those lured to this book by the promise of a fun sci-fi romp centered around carnivorous sentient plants - just to find something entirely different.


But you gotta agree - a more appropriate title for this unexpected gem of a book such as "How complete disintegration of society and civilization as we know it, the sudden helplessness and the painful realization how little it takes to throw us off our tenuous perch on the top of the food chain leads to uncomfortable ethical questions about societal structures and conventions and the implications of successful survival in a forever changed world where our morals and ideas and what we think constitutes humanity may become quite obsolete" - well, it doesn't really roll off the tongue, doesn't it?

This book is really about survival in the midst of disintegrating society and all the implications of it that go against the frequent and quite stereotypical portrayal of such happenings. It's not an optimistic ode to the courageous and morally sound few who carry the torch of civilization into the future while dodging death, slaying monsters and coming unscathed out of numerous death traps, proving again and again that humanity triumphs over all obstacles. No, it's more somberly bleak than that.



In Wyndham's story, it did not take much to unravel our society. All it took was a case of worldwide blindness after a breathtakingly beautiful meteor shower that left the vast majority of humans blind, and in the resulting confusion and struggle present-day civilization found its end. Add to it a plague-like outbreak that followed, and finally the titular triffids (semi-sentient mobile carnivorous plants carelessly bioengineered by humans back when our supremacy was a given) - and the survivors of the disaster have their hands full when they try to survive and rebuild some kind of organized new world.

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'Watership Down' by Richard Adams - forever favorite.

Watership Down - Aldo Galli, Richard Adams
Some books have an amazingly unexplainable ability to transcend the purpose of their creation and take a leap into being an instant timeless classic.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
Watership Down began as an impromptu entertainment for Adams' two young daughters on long car trips - an adventure of a migrating bunch of somewhat anthropomorphic but yet very rabbit-like rabbits. It is a story full of palpable love for English countryside, full of 'rabbity' allegories of the variations of human societies and ideologies that nevertheless do not overshadow the simple but fascinating impact of the story of survival against all odds, rooted in friendship, bravery, loyalty, courage, quick thinking and learning, ability to see and embrace the new while relying on the ages-tested old, and perseverance despite the unfavorable odds.
“Rabbits live close to death and when death comes closer than usual, thinking about survival leaves little room for anything else.”
I first read the story of Hazel, Bigwig & co. when I was twelve, and read it again and again many times since, loving it more and more with each re-read, appreciating more and more each time how its seeming simplicity is actually made of layers of complexity.



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'A Discovery of Witches' by Deborah Harkness - a disappointment, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches  - Deborah Harkness

For mere two bucks I rescued this book from a dusty shelf of a local Goodwill store, adopting it with high hopes. For free, I returned it to the same shelf a few weeks later with dejected feeling, sandwiching it between a rejected copy of 'Twilight' and a tattered paperback with a shirtless guy on the cover.

 

At least it found its rightful spot. And I'm out only two dollars.

 

And I would have gladly paid more to free my own bookshelf of this book.

 

So it goes.


My books mercilessly rejected the intruder.
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The appeal of it (besides the beautiful cover deceptive in its alluring elegance of royal blue) was the introduction of a (supposedly) adult professional accomplished heroine, a history professor to boot, who allows us to take a fresh new look at supernatural occurrences rooted in history (and in a book written by a historian, too!). No sappy teen romance, no supernatural entities masking as high school bad boys, no helpless heroines in need of rescue as Diana, the protagonist, is supposedly from a strong magical line herself. 

The reality of it was a book that many characterized as 'Twilight' for adults, which is an uncannily accurate description. We have a whiny insecure heroine (her personality is roughly that of a wet dishrag) who nevertheless is treated like a special snowflake for no reason whatsoever, who falls head over heels over the first remotely hot and mind-bogglingly rich vampire who (a) doesn't really need to drink blood, (b) has an insane amount of 'protectiveness' which really boils down to stalking and over-macho patriarchalism, (c) is hauntingly tortured by his dark past, and (d) is an intolerable self-centered rage-prone jerkass.

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'Snow Crash' by Neal Stephenson - an unexpected disappointment.

Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson
Disliking this book seemed quite impossible. After all, it had all the necessary ingredients: the pervasive air of nerdy geekiness (or, perhaps, geeky nerdiness), an unexpected take on linguistics, a kick-ass female character, a parallel (virtual) reality, a hefty helping of (admittedly, overexaggerated) satire, and just enough wacky improbable worldbuilding to satisfy my book loving soul. Or so it seemed.

But awesome ingredients do not always add up to a satisfying dish¹ (as my horrible cook self knows much too well).

¹Remember 'Friends' episode where Rachel tries to make English trifle for Thanksgiving desert, but because of a couple pages unfortunately sticking together ends up making half English trifle and half the shepherd's pie? Joey was baffled that the rest of the gang found the dish unpalatable:

 

'I mean, what's not to like? Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!'



I did NOT come to this book with an open mind. I came to it infinitely biased in its favor, ready to love it to pieces, prepared to find in it the same irresistible allure that so many of my Goodreads friends appreciated. Alas, after the first few pages my good-natured amusement gave way to irritated frustration, then to impatience, and eventually, as the book was nearing its final pages, my feelings changed to dreaded passionless indifference - akin to the emotions stirred by a disclaimer on the back of a pill packet.

It is very disappointing when a book leaves you indifferent after hundreds of pages spent with the characters and the plotlines - especially when it is a book with such immense potential as 'Snow Crash' had based on all the reviews and snippets I have seen, with all the ingredients for an amazing sci-fi adventure I listed above.
“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”
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Creepily disturbing "We Have Always Lived In the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott, Jonathan Lethem
Bizarre, strange, haunting, sinister, disturbing, twisted, foreboding, suffocatingly claustrophobic, leaving you with the ever-growing sense of unease. What else can I say about this book to give it justice?

This is a chillingly terrifying story that has nothing to do with the things that go BUMP in the night. No, it's the odd terror that comes when things go BUMP in the mind. And the most terrifying things are those that are left unsaid, that creep up at you from behind the printed lines, just hinted at and left for your own brain to chillingly realize.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”


Behind the events of the story is the mystery of the Blackwood family, rich New England landowners who are quite well-aware of their presumed class-snobbish superiority over the inhabitants of the nearby village; the family which is in turn met with distrust, fear and even hatred - not quite unfounded, actually. You see, six years ago half of the members of the Blackwood family were poisoned by arsenic in their food. Three are left: Uncle Julian, left crippled by the poison, hanging on to the remnants of his mind, obsessed with the tragedy of the day of the murder; Constance, an agoraphobiac trapped in the narrow confines of her domestic universe, cooking for the remnants of her family with a strained chirpy attitude - a young woman who was also the cook on the day of the fateful arsenic poisoning and therefore is considered the poisoner in the eyes of the villagers; and Mary Katherine, Merricat, the narrator of the story, now eighteen, who was sent to her room without dinner on the day of the poisoning, who now serves as a link between her diminished and scorned family and the rest of the world.

For a careful reader, the identity of the poisoner is really very easy to figure out after the first few pages. The psychological impact is never about the identity, it's about the implications of it. And that's what gives it a real punch.
“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
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'The Buddha in the Attic' by Julie Otsuka: The power of 'we'

The Buddha in the Attic - Julie Otsuka

In this slim, delicate, lyrical novel Julie Otsuka unflinchingly and confidently does something that really is not supposed to work for Western readers, those bred in the culture of stark individualism and raised in a society where it's traditional to expect a bright spark of individuality shining through the grey masses. After all, it's the plight of one, the quest of one, the triumph of one that appeals to us - naturally, as individual and personal portrayals appeal to our innate sense of self, make us connect in a way most of us do not when faced with a collective - reflected quite well in every story, every film, every charity poster that brings out the individual behind the masses, appeals to the personal spark inside of us.

 

But, to quote Terry Pratchett (of course I would!), "Personal's not the same as important. People just think it is."

 

In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka breaks the convention of bringing a personal, individual story to the forefront. Instead, she chooses to focus on the collective set of experiences, the collective story of a mass, the voices of many.

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The ode to books and Barcelona - a.k.a. 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind - Lucia Graves, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."

 

Well, I wonder then what part of me I saw inside this book - a book I adored despite its imperfections, despite its frequent veering into melodrama, despite (or maybe because of?) its densely Gothic atmosphere.

Whatever it was, it was enough to make me lose myself completely in the rich setting of mid-20th century Barcelona, in the world of seductive dangerous power of literature and perils and passions of young love, and the contrasts of idealistic innocence with the weariness of experience, all against the rich tapestry of the city full of beauty and secrets and vividness, all told in a lavish idiomatic language that makes you forget you're reading a translation.

And over all of this gothic surreal passion turned into words hangs a real grim presence of those in power who can come after you whenever they please, and who will try to silence you whenever they feel like it.

"I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger."

 

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The Catcher in the Rye - and my sincere dislike of Goodreads new 'off-topic' excuse

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

"Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don’t know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

 

Yes, this review eventually will be about the book. My reviews always are. I'm boring this way. I envy the ability of my friends to digress in their review space and tell me a story which in some way was inspired by something in the book they just read, or its blurb, or - god forbid now, in the land of GR censorship of anything that does not look like a book report - author behavior, the new scary censorship-causing phrase out there, together with the now-used 'OFF TOPIC' excuse.

 

Because - oh the horror! - they dare to focus on the readers' opinion rather than the coveted by conglomerates endorsements of THE PRODUCT. 

 

Because for some of us literature does not equal product. Because for some of us, literature is what is designed to make us think and speak up, and not mindlessly consume (consumer instead of reader - that's making me shudder).

 

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The Shining - Stephen King Review to follow.