Book Review: Give Me Your Heart: Dark, Disturbed, Maddening

– From Archived Site –
I went on a Disney cruise to the Eastern Caribbean last week.  It was fun and jam-packed with magical activities and Disney characters.  My 7 year old had a blast.  But I’m not really interested in writing about that, this isn’t a travel blog after all.  Maybe it was because I found myself immersed in so much G-rated goodness that I suddenly had a craving for the dark and disturbed.  Luckily on my iPad I had a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates called Give me Your Heart.  I’ve had this collection on my iPad forever and I think I must have needed to embrace the macarbe to escape the constant spectacle of manufactured wonder and awe on board.

The tone of all the stories is bleak, unhappy, full of disturbed (albeit interesting) individuals.  Funny that I should have the urge to revisit this book while on a cruise with Mickey and the gang.  I probably could write an entire essay on what that means for my psychology.  But why probe to deep? Arguably, it could awaken some happily sleeping monsters.  Wow!  Who knew that Disney was capable of dredging up such horror?  I prefer to think of this surprising craving as something of a yin and yang.  I needed the darkness to bring into balance the overwhelming light of Disney and his multitude of “dreams upon a star”.  One can only take so much happiness, yes?

Back to the book review.  Let’s start with the good – Joyce Carol Oates is a very evocative writer who creates believable characters and situations.  I love how she really gets into the mindset of her protagonists, and how original they are both in tone and setting but sharing the common thread of underlying pathology.  The level and depth of the depravity differs in each character but it is a constant presence throughout.  There are no happy endings.  There may have been (some) happy beginnings but through the course of the narrative things unravel.  You can see this happening in the stories.  At times its subtle, Oates doesn’t beat  you over the head with going from Point A to Point B but the plot points are all there.  What I found perhaps the most maddening, however, is just as you’ve become fully engrossed in the tale it ends usually quite abruptly and often ambiguously.  I found myself having to go back and re-read most of the stories for clues as to what Oates intended.  For the most part, enough breadcrumbs were left behind to interpret the ending but it is by no means conclusive.  I suspect two people could walk away with very different views on what actually transpired.  Some of this is intentional.  At least two stories had unreliable narrators.  In others, however, Oates uses language that is intentionally misleading.  I’m all for subtly but to intentionally try and confuse your reader?  Maddening.  Maybe Oates simply wants her readers to work hard to understand her stories, she is not what I would call light reading.

I found myself reminded of one of her other (and perhaps most famous) short stories,
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.  I read this story years ago – in high school English class – and remember being similarly perplexed by the end.  I guess what I’m saying is while Oates convincingly draws you into another world, I pretty much hate how these stories end.  That could be just a quirk particular to me but I’d say proceed with caution – or read with a notebook at the ready – when diving into a Joyce Carol Oates short story.  They are not for the faint of heart, in more ways than one.

PS: I loved Joyce Carol Oates novels The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys so my hesitancy to recommend refers to her short stories.

PPS: I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been working on my book.  Only two chapters to go to the end!

What is a Story Anyway?

– From Archived Site – 

I’m slowly getting through a newly acquired book purchased in an effort to boost my creativity, Wonderbook.  Honestly, it’s a bit of a slog.  Not because the book is bad.  The book is actually quite good.  It is just very, very DENSE.  This is not content that one can breeze through lightly.  The illustrations alone are worth pouring over.  They are so rich and original they can spark any number of creative ideas.  Just take a peek at the cover shot I’ve provided to the right and you’ll get the general idea.

Wonderbook also contains writing challenges in each chapter.  Perhaps not so surprisingly,  given my fledgling and sporadic writing career (hobby, who are we kidding?), I had difficulty with the first exercise.  Wonderbook provided an unusual image and then challenged the reader to provide the story behind this image.  I found this instruction very vague.  What kind of story?  A short story?  What is a story anyway?  And here is where I became stuck.  You see, in all of the writing reference books I own – and there are an embarrassingly high number of them (most unread at this point) – none actually defined what a story was.  I always thought of a story as some type of narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  But is this even true?  How did I come up this definition?  Sadly none of my books provided any guidance so I turned to the internet.  Here’s what I found.

  • Merriam Webster – STORY: An account of incidents or events (not so helpful)
  • – STORY: a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale (a little better?)
  • Google – STORY: an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something (Why even put this out there?  It means absolutely nothing.  Gibberish!)
Nothing about a beginning, middle, or end in any of these definitions.  Basically, I could just say whatever I wanted.  So without further ado, here is the image and the associated story:

A cranky middle-aged man who spent far too much time with his ledgers dreamt of escaping to a tropical island paradise where his parrot companions would whisper scandalous, extortion worthy town gossip as giant fish serenaded him on a nightly basis.

Now clearly this “story” satisfies the criteria based on my highly rigorous, internet based definition(s) but it’s not particularly good.  I did actually write something that more resembles what I consider to be an actual story and I’ll post it for your reading pleasure as soon as it’s complete.  In the meantime, forward with the rest of the Wonderbook!

Book Review: The Girl on The Train is a Trainwreck

– From Archived Site – 
In the best possible way.  The book The Girl on The Train (Paula Hawkins) should come with a warning – do not begin this book unless you have 48 hours to devour cover-to-cover.  I know this book wasn’t on my March reading list but somewhere between procrastinating writing my own book and avoiding going to the gym I remembered that a friend recommended it to me recently.  I downloaded the book on Tuesday and finished it on Thursday.  Notably, I was almost late dropping off my seven year-old daughter to school, so determined was I to finish the book.  Can a review really get much better than that?

In terms of plot all you need to know is that a girl (woman really) with some personal troubles and an active imagination commutes to London via the train every day.  While on the train one day she notices something unusual.  That’s all I really feel comfortable revealing.  The less the reader knows about the plot the more addicting the read.  I will say this; the story grabs your interest from the beginning and doesn’t let go.  My only slight complaint is that I suspected where the story was going fairly early on.  I read these types of books just looking for the inevitable “twist”.  I was one of those people unsurprised by the big reveal in Gone Girl.  However, just because I also spotted (or at least suspected) this one in no way hampered my enjoyment of the book.

If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller do yourself a favor and get this book.  You won’t be disappointed.  Best read on a stormy weekend with a drink by your side, for effect of course!


Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

– From Archived Site – 

The Light Between Oceans: Sad, Beautiful, Lingering

I’ve knocked off one book from my March reading list and it was The Light Between Oceans.  Once I got into this book it basically consumed me until I finished it, emotionally shattered and awash in tears.  In a good way, kind of.

The story is about a childless couple living alone on a small island off the coast of Australia who finds a baby who has come ashore in a small boat along side a deceased man.  The couple decides to claim the baby as their own and the story unfolds from there.

I’ve read some reviews expressing incredulity at the act of keeping the infant rather than reporting the discovery to the authorities.  While this is not a course of action I would have taken, the book credibly establishes the history of the couple such that you can understand how such decision was made.  To me, it’s not about whether what they did was right or wrong; it’s more about can I understand and believe – given the characters background and motivations – how such a choice came about.  The book clearly establishes the path that led to this choice, not to mention the consequences that follow it.

Characterization in this book was top notch.  I really got a strong sense of who the main characters  were, why they were damaged in different ways, and understood their course of action.  I was very impressed how the author was able to generate sympathy for the couple, even though they committed an incredibly selfish act damaging not only themselves, but also a host of other characters in their wake.

Good people sometimes do very foolish things, but does this mean they are bad people?  I think at it’s most basic this is what the story asks you to consider.   The Light Between Oceans asks this question in an engaging, beautifully written, and very affecting manner.  I loved it.  Highly recommend but keep a box of tissues nearby, you’ll need it.