The Literary Lollipop

Guilt-free adventures in reading, writing, and original fiction

Courage — April 13, 2016

Courage

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I stopped halfway through The Collector to read Courage, if only to escape the negativity for a couple of days. The Collector is emotionally heavy and Courage is like a light breeze.

Osho is an interesting guy and, if not taken too literally, full of interesting ideas. I’ve read some of his other works (Intelligence and Intuition) and he never fails to articulate exactly what I need to hear at any given moment. Although I wouldn’t recommend reading Osho books back-to-back without a break in between, his writing is exceptionally easy to read and digest.

Courage in particular is about giving yourself permission to stop worrying what others think about your image and reputation. The key word here is “worry.” He encourages people to follow their heart, and to stop worrying what parents, family and co-workers think about one’s life decisions.

There are always many layers to an Osho argument, and he’s usually the first one to ask that we question the advice we’re given, so he doesn’t consider his approach the only approach. Osho understands that one size absolutely does not fit all. And it’s for this reason that I enjoy reading his work. There’s so little commitment involved – no dogma or pressure. Simply read and do with the words what you will.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with rules and proclamations declaring  what we should and shouldn’t do in fashion, health, work, fitness, nutrition, who and how to date, it’s refreshing when someone says:  It doesn’t matter. Just stop worrying, and listen to your heart.

The Collector — April 12, 2016

The Collector

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The Collector is reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, not in plot or prose, but concept. Both narrators are blind to their own psychotic behavior; they are equally deluded by their obsession with a girl/woman, and create in their minds a version of her that does not exist. This, however, is where their similarities end. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert at least mildly recognizes that he never really understood or knew Dolores, though it certainly doesn’t dampen his love/lust. The Collector takes a left turn and becomes something else entirely, and sets a deeply disturbing pattern into motion.

In The Collector, we are introduced to Fred (who prefers to think of himself as Ferdinand), an anti-social young man and clerk who lives with his aunt and cousin. He collects butterflies, and lives mostly in his head. From afar, he admires “M,” a beautiful art student. He watches her, makes observations, fantasizes about her, and dreams of the day when she will fall in love with him.

By complete fluke, Fred wins the lottery. A psychotic with lots of money to burn. Clearly, not a good combination.

At some point in the story, an idea occurs to him. What if he were to buy a house in the country, kidnap “M,” and keep her under lock and key – his own personal butterfly? Over time, he buys the house, some clothes and art books, furnishes a room in the cellar with locks and thick doors. It’s just a silly idea, he thinks, just an experiment he’d never actually execute.  But then, one day, he actually does it. Lures her toward his van, surreptitiously attacks her with a rag of chloroform, and takes her away.

“M” is Miranda. It is very clear from the outset that Fred has created a version of Miranda in his mind that is not real. So, as you can imagine, when the real Miranda starts behaving unlike the person in his head, the situation disintegrates rather quickly. She isn’t ‘innocent and pure’ in the way he had hoped. She has knowledge of sex and has an actual body, with breasts and hips and legs. Miranda is not the Madonna he envisioned. She’s not behaving as she should. As a result, Fred grows angry and, for some demented reason, becomes offended by Miranda’s presence the longer he keeps her.

Halfway through the novel, the narrative switches from Fred to Miranda’s diary. We go through the entire ordeal for a second time, only from her perspective this time. Unfortunately, Miranda’s perspective is troublesome as well. Fred is horrifyingly sinister, and Miranda is unusually petty, and full of artistic pretension. Both are distinctly unlikable – a difficult realization for the reader to reach, especially when, morally, we should be on Miranda’s side. I have yet to decide whether or not this means:

  1. John Fowles is really clever for creating a character that not only didn’t meet Fred’s expectations, but ours as well; or,
  2. John Fowles doesn’t have a clue how to write women (and maybe views them as inherently manipulative and petty).

Either answer could be correct. I hope it’s the first, but fear it’s the second. I’ve read too many unrealistic female characters to render me skeptical. Miranda seems more like a caricature than a real person, and it isn’t until the very end that she seems genuinely frightened for her life. It’s very difficult to discern. Much of her dialogue and writings appear flip.

The Collector is certainly worth reading, though be prepared for some internal resistance. It’s a story that will evoke extreme emotions and, in some, outrage. Frustration aside, I am in awe of the subversive narrative elements throughout this novel. They will get under your skin.

Do you remember what you read? — March 30, 2016

Do you remember what you read?

Hmmm

While walking home from work last week, it suddenly struck me how little I remembered of books I read just a few years ago. That’s not to say I have forgotten everything beyond 2015, but only certain novels stand out in my mind.

As an experiment, I went through the archives of my own blog, and was very surprised to realize how few I remembered clearly. Although the titles were familiar, I drew a complete blank on key characters, themes, and general plot lines. I vaguely recall the cover designs of some and the genre of others but, in general, the details are sketchy:

A Castle in Romagna by Igor Stiks (2010/04/30)

Sophie by Guy Burt (2010/05/08)

Enchantments by Linda Ferri (2010/06/16)

Osama van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight (2010/07/11)

Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulic (2010/07/16)

At the same time, there are certain books that I can remember clearly, not specifically because I loved them, but mostly because the plot line was astoundingly original or horrifying. Even now, however many years later, images remain vivid in my mind, and I could describe the book to anyone who asked:

Company by Max Barry (2010/05/04)

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (2010/06/06)

Innocents by Cathy Coote (2010/05/06)

Audition by Ryu Murakami (2010/07/27)

Fangland by John Marks (2011/02/11)

In some cases, the stories were actually traumatizing. Utterly disturbing. And so the imagery has been burned in my mind forever and ever and ever and ever. Like the twin girls from The Shining. I can actually remember what I was doing and where I was when I read it. For example, I was on a ferry between England and Ireland, in a giant food court, while reading Innocents by Cathy Coote. I would glance up at the water between chapters, to calm myself down from the demented story. (The ferry windows were dirty. That was a detail that stuck.)

Audition by Ryu Murakami was ordered from the library, and read in nearly one sitting on the balcony one summer. Two words come to mind when I think of this book: piano wire. The most horrifying weapon of choice. Even though I read Audition nearly six years ago, I can tell you with certainty that I still remember – and recommend – that short, intensely written novel. It’ll freak you right the hell out.

But, to look back, in all honesty, I can only sort-of remember reading Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and some Guy de Maupassant short stories in 2014. It’s vague and hazy. There were vampires and ghosts and Prussian soldiers, but the picture is foggy. And that was only two years ago!

I wonder what clicks in my brain to make a book memorable or forgettable. I’m quite sure the enjoyment factor has absolutely nothing to do with it. I absolute loved Like the Red Panda, but I’m coming up empty. Characters don’t surface. On the other hand, I disliked Everything is Illuminated, but most of that novel remains in my memory bank, frustratingly so.

So what’s the trick, the pattern?  There is no identifiable reasoning behind what is remembered and what is forgotten. At this point, it seems random. I’ve yet to figure it out. Until then, I’ll keep reading and see what sticks… and what melts into the cracks.

 

The Midwich Cuckoos — March 28, 2016

The Midwich Cuckoos

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I’m on a roll that began with Mr. Vertigo. A reading kick – clearing the titles from my shelf and giving them away once finished. Purge, baby, purge!

I read The Chrysalids in junior high school, and always had a bee in my literary bonnet about John Wyndham. He has an interesting perspective on the science fiction platform. So, for this reason, I decided to try The Midwich Cuckoos to see where the story would take me. (It was between The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes, but I chose Midwich because it was the inspiration for Village of the Damned. The concept is way freaky.)

I enjoyed the conversational tone of The Midwich Cuckoos, which began on a rather quiet note. The narrator, Gaylord, has just arrived home with his wife after a business trip to London, which is lucky for them. The couple has conveniently missed the weirdness unfolding in their town. A strange silver object has appeared over the village, rendering everyone unconscious. It disappears approximately twenty-four hours later, everyone wakes up from their slumber, and life proceeds as normal. Well, that is, until all the women of child-bearing age in the town discover they are pregnant.

Cue creepy music.

The children born are blonde and golden-eyed with a will of their own. It soon becomes apparent to everyone that the Children (capital ‘C’) are not of earth. They learn and grow quickly, are very stoic and unsentimental in their relationships with their so-called parents, and exert unprecedented mental prowess against anyone who poses a threat.

Wyndham’s approach to narration in this novel is a bit annoying, waffling from person to person, yet remaining with Gaylord in first person. We are often in the brain space of Mr. Zellaby, the philosopher and academic of Midwich, who endlessly debates the moral and ethical implications of the Children and their place in society. After some experimentation, he discovers that the group of boys is somehow mentally connected. When one learns a trick, all of them are immediately proficient in the exact trick without even trying. Soon after, the same is discovered about the girls. Mr. Zellaby eventually comes to the conclusion that they represent a composite Adam and Eve.

Unfortunately, as much as I was intrigued by the concept of The Midwich Cuckoos, much of the novel’s prose is spent on philosophical debate, mainly between Mr. Zellaby, Gaylord, and several other male authority figures, regarding the morality of self-defense against what no one names aloud (but assumes are) ‘aliens from another planet.’ These conversations, though interesting, last for pages and go in circles.

And still, amidst all the insanity, everyone is overly concerned with making certain Midwich appears normal to all who look from the outside. It is clear from the beginning that all the effort spent on ‘appearing normal’ could’ve been channeled into something more significant and worthwhile, and this becomes even more apparent as the Children grow more powerful.

Despite my mild irritations with the narrative and excessive philosophical debates, I continued to turn the pages out of genuine interest. What could this town do to save itself? When and where does violence play a role? Are the Children truly children, and what would it mean to end their lives for the greater good? All very captivating questions, but Wyndham allows the reader to contemplate the answers on his/her own.

I was also amused and somewhat horrified by the feminine perspective, which is frequently glossed over or relegated to the ‘hysterical.’ It’s hard to tell if this was purposeful on Wyndham’s part, or if the story actually reflects his personal beliefs on the subject of women’s reproduction. There were moments when I thought his characters were attempting to be progressive, while at other points they were outright dismissive. The strongest female voice was Mrs. Zellaby, but I never really understood her purpose in the novel as a whole, and what insight she was meant to provide. She was, however, the only one to discuss the notion of bodily invasion in direct relation to the unwanted pregnancies. Very rarely did The Midwich Cuckoos examine the experience from a woman’s perspective in a satisfying way.

I am, however, willing to forgive this glaring omission, mainly because the backbone of the story is so strong and, of course, because it was written in 1957.

Mr. Vertigo — March 22, 2016

Mr. Vertigo

Mr Vertigo

After struggling for months to find a book that I could truly sink my teeth into, Mr. Vertigo fell into my outstretched hands. This is my first Paul Auster, and I am very excited to read more of his work.

Mr. Vertigo, above all else, is a wonderful story, full of unique characters and equally unique dialogue. Narrated by the precocious and forever anti-authoritarian Walt, this novel takes place mostly in the 1920s, but progresses into the 1970s as he ages. At first an orphan with nothing better to do than get into trouble, Walt is found by the mysterious but well-intentioned Master Yehudi. The older man is convinced that Walt has a special talent for… flight. Yes, flight. He vows to teach Walt how to fly. Master Yedudi negotiates with the young boy’s uncle, who doesn’t give a snit what happens to his nephew, before bringing Walt home to his farm in the outskirts of Wichita.

This is only the beginning, and an adorable beginning it is. I found myself smiling throughout the first fifty pages, thoroughly charmed by Master Yehudi’s psychic ability, and Walt’s fantastically potty-mouthed retorts. The two embark on a series of unusual, physically and psychologically demanding challenges, meant to prepare Walt for his future (but as-of-yet unrealized) talent.

Mr. Vertigo is peppered with an incredible array of brilliantly drawn supporting characters: Aesop and Mother Sioux, the loss of whom I mourned long after I closed the book; Mrs. Witherspoon and her propensity for speed and liquor; Bingo; and, of course, the cruelest of the cruel, Uncle Slim. I have no intention of forgetting a single one of them, especially Aesop, whose scenes I grew to love and crave.

As an aspiring writer myself, I am doubly mystified and impressed by Auster’s talent. Forever encouraged to show – don’t tell! – I often rewrite scenes in my fiction to fit this philosophy. Auster, on the other hand, seems to shirk this rule outright. He spends many pages, chapters at a time, telling a chronological tale. And yet, the prose works on so many levels, crafted beautifully with heart and an instinct for narrative progression. I simply loved this novel, and it is a shining example of what happens when a writer doesn’t listen to the rules and creates something exceptional and well worth reading.

Old journals – keep or pitch? — March 21, 2016

Old journals – keep or pitch?

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I’m a sporadic journaler. My commitment is unpredictable, inconsistent. Sort of like blogging. For weeks, I’ll sit down to write every morning or evening, empty my brain of all its fuzz and cobwebs. Then, without warning, I’ll simply lose interest for a month or two. Just stop.

Despite my back-and-forthing, I’ve managed to fill several dozen journals and notebooks over the years. When I look through old volumes, I’m rather embarrassed by my lack of progression. The frustrations are the same, as are the words in which I express those repetitive frustrations. Of course, there are a few fluctuations here and there but, for the most part, history repeats itself. Over and over again.

As a result, I have about twenty old journals collecting dust in my closet, journals that have long ago fulfilled their purpose. And yet, I cannot bring myself to pitch them in the garbage – or recycling bin, for that matter. They represent years of my life, hours of my time, dreams, thoughts, and all that heartfelt jazz.

What to do? Schlep them from apartment to apartment, bemoaning the weight of all that paper? Or, do I start over, and wipe the philosophical slate clean, and free the universe of my neurotic hopes and fears? To bring it all with me feels rather like heavy baggage. Literally and figuratively. Suitcases full of my university days and countless New Year’s resolutions.

Perhaps I could throw out one journal at a time? Tear out the pages and symbolically leave my “self” behind, rejuvenate my so-called paper cells.

I’m perplexed. To keep or pitch?

Making Stuff in 2016 – Almond Milk (from scratch) — March 19, 2016

Making Stuff in 2016 – Almond Milk (from scratch)

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Whenever I read a recipe that sounds deceptively easy, I approach the execution of said recipe with even more caution than I would one of extreme difficulty. After researching the process of making almond milk from scratch, I squinted with surprise at the directions. Could it be? All I need to do is soak the almonds in water and throw them in the blender? Surely, there’s more to it than that.

Well, yes and no.

According to suggestions online, the milk comes out creamier if the almonds are left to soak for two days instead of one, so that is what I did. They slowly but significantly expanded during that time. Indeed, this part was easy. Ain’t nothin’ but a waiting game.

Eventually, I drained the almonds and put them into a bullet-style blender with fresh water. The recommended ratio is one cup of soaked almonds to two cups of filtered water. This part is also very easy. Once I sealed the blender and turned it on, the mixture immediately turned into a white, frothy, fairly thick liquid.

I raised my eyebrows at the simplicity of it all. Huh. Who knew?

But that was before the straining process. Using a fine mesh sieve, I began to separate the almond milk from the meal. It got a little messy, and the meal built up on the sieve every few minutes, which required scraping to keep the milk running smooth. I kept a spoon handy to keep the clumps from slowing the flow.

At the end of a 45-minute process, I was left with a bowl of soggy meal (to be used in baking or oatmeal), and approximately two cups of almond milk, which was eventually used to create a frozen berry and chocolate protein smoothie. Also, keep in mind; I’m a newbie, so this likely wouldn’t take a pro 45 minutes to make. My method was somewhat flawed.

Although I’m not entirely sure I’d go through the trouble or expense again, the resulting smoothie was quite delicious and very low in sugar. There was also a nice texture, earthy and fresh. My sieve didn’t produce a silky smooth product, but I enjoyed the grainy flavor.

If you are curious to try your own batch, this recipe from The Kitchn is the one I consulted most often.

Pretty Happy — March 16, 2016

Pretty Happy

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Feel free to laugh at me. Yes, I bought Pretty Happy by Kate Hudson, and thoroughly enjoyed it! So there. We are all allowed some frivolity in our lives. Sometimes. Anyway, this was my frivolity, and I fully admit it.

Actually, to my never-ending surprise, Pretty Happy was pretty good, way better than I expected. It’s not a celebrity cookbook, nor is it a celebrity memoir. Pretty Happy is a layman’s guide to Ayurveda, fitness, mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation. It is of the Self-Help ilk, of course, but fun and silly, a combination of her trademark sense of humour and a genuine desire to educate her readers. Kate doesn’t take herself too seriously, thankfully, but seriously enough to convey the information in a thoughtful way.

There are a couple of “cleansing recipes” that I read with caution (and perhaps an eye roll here and there) but, for the most part, I was intrigued. I grew up on Ye Olde Natural Health Remedies and still prefer a holistic approach to nutrition, so am already part hippie. Needless to say, most of what Kate Hudson had to say wasn’t a stretch for me. She was preaching to the choir.

I will, however, note the unnecessary amount of fashion-related photographs in the book. I am happy to read plain words for the sake of digesting good and helpful information. Generally, I don’t need a picture of Kate contemplating the pages of her journal to illustrate the importance of quiet time. With this in mind, I do recognize that a celebrity book is a celebrity book, regardless of content. And thus, glossy lifestyle photographs are plentiful here.

Out of Sheer Rage — March 7, 2016

Out of Sheer Rage

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Out of Sheer Rage is like an episode of Seinfeld: exceptionally funny, well-articulated social idiosyncrasies, and a cornucopia of crazy neuroses. Geoff Dyer reminded me of George Costanza and his circular, bizarre logic. I was laughing at nearly every turn and narrative shift, and I would be lying if I didn’t identify with Dyer’s circular thinking and tendencies for procrastination.

However, if you or I had to spend more than a few hours in George Costanza’s head, the novelty might eventually give way to outright irritation. He’s funny on screen, of course, but once he has the freedom to set up camp in my brain, that’s another situation entirely. As much as I loved the first half Dyer’s unique book – I struggle to define the genre of what is essentially a very, long comedic and autobiographical monologue – the second half left me feeling a little claustrophobic.

The most enlightening experience from reading Out of Sheer Rage is being able to see where a few of my own neurotic habits line up with Dyer’s. The fact that he could never decide on a place to live, forever waffling between the lure to acquire “trappings of permanence” (for example, furniture) and the desire for freedom, made perfect sense to me. Unfortunately. If anything, it made me realize that I am constantly running away from the “trappings of permanence” and should therefore get over myself, and just pick a place to live already, and buy furniture, too. In other words, embrace the trap of permanence, and deal with the consequences as they arrive, instead of flitting about on the surface of life, analyzing ever minor life decision with a microscope. I didn’t like that I could see myself so clearly in the madness of his back-and-forth indecisiveness. Funny to write about, but not something I enjoy going through. Oops. Lesson learned, loud and clear.

Part D.H. Lawrence study and autobiography, part personal travelogue, Out of Sheer Rage is a grab bag of opinions, many of which are absolutely hilarious, just like this academia-inspired golden nugget:

That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch. I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature. I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke. Rilke! Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.

Overall, I was very pleased to have read Dyer, whose voice resonated, perhaps more than I wished it would. The experience was reminiscent of that old saying: the things that bother us about others are usually what bother us about ourselves.

Making Stuff in 2016 – The Elephant Necklace — March 3, 2016

Making Stuff in 2016 – The Elephant Necklace

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I approached this project knowing that I wanted to revamp an old piece of jewellery into something new. At first, my intention was to reuse some beads from a broken childhood necklace, but I realized that the colour scheme wouldn’t work in this particular case. Promising myself that the sentimental relic would eventually be incorporated into a different design, I instead chose to use an elephant pendant, removed and separated from a tarnished costume chain.

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The original plan was to use blonde, wood beads, but I chose to use these resin versions instead. They have an appearance of wood, but are more flat/oval, with intricate hearts carved into each. As a contrast to the amber shade, I envisioned turquoise; however, at the last minute I added some bronze coloured beads to the pattern.

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My intention was to create a long strand, no fastenings required – long enough to slip over your head in a hurry, if need be. Fiddling with a clasp is not my favourite thing to do early in the morning. The spontaneously added bronze beads serve to enhance the look and the length.

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The beauty of a project like this is that, once you have decided on a pattern, this is a quick craft to complete. Choosing a pattern, though, is where I spent the bulk of my time. At least thirty minutes was spent threading in various configurations until I found one that resonated. Half a dozen times, I returned to my plastic bin of supplies, trying to find the right colour, finish, and size of bead that would fit the picture in my head. Constructing the actual necklace, thankfully, was a speedy process.

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