Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a Beautiful, Important and Timeless Classic

Finally, my Great American Read slump is over! I was able to grab a copy of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" at my local library's sale for just $1... what a find this was. 

I loved this book and can't say enough wonderful things about it. Have you read it? Feel free to comment below. I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

It’s early 1900s in rural West Florida and Janie Crawford is a light-skinned African American sixteen year old when we first meet her. She lives with her grandmother, who has some very definite ideas about how Janie should live her life, and this includes whom Janie should marry. Over the years, and over the course of two marriages, we see Janie grow up and struggle to come into her own. It’s only during her third marriage to the charismatic, adventurous Tea Cake that we see Janie finally grow and thrive as an active participant in her own life.

I finished this book several days ago and decided to let the story marinate in my mind before I wrote my thoughts. I knew I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I just wanted to be sure that I understood why I loved it.

At the heart of this beautiful, tender, gripping novel is the story of a young woman who is not at all content living someone else’s life, yet readers are given small glimpses of the strong, intelligent woman Janie truly is. To me, Janie’s life mirrors some of the struggles that so many women face in life. The author’s use of symbolism in her prose to describe the differences and similarities between men and women is nothing short of poetry.

I know that many readers have found the vernacular dialect in Their Eyes difficult, if not almost impossible, to read and understand. While it did slow me down somewhat, I do think it was a brilliant way for the author to tell the story in two distinctly separate voices. I urge anyone who has given up on the book for this reason to try again. It really doesn’t take long to begin to understand the slang and regional dialect and it is so worth the little added effort.

The story begins shortly after Emancipation and the author doesn’t shy away from broaching the topic of race and equality. The author is an expert at subtly weaving the topic of racism within the book’s passages. Mrs. Turner’s racism against darker skinned blacks and Nanny’s rape are just two examples. Yet race is not the main topic in Their Eyes. The book focuses much more on gender inequality, Janie, and her life as an African-American woman living in the South during that time. This is an important, timeless classic. I’d encourage anyone to read it.

5 of 5 Stars, Review by Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe - No Review Here, Folks... This Was a DNF for Me

I refuse to go in depth into the many reasons why I deeply disliked this book other than to say these few brief things:

I wanted to like Things Fall Apart. I really did, but I just couldn't get past Chapter 7. The author may have written about African tribal culture at that time, but beating women, slavery and beheading innocent children just wasn't on my reading tasks for today or on any day for that matter. 

Aside from the horrific stories, the storytelling itself was emotionless, stagnant and stilted. In other words, BORING. 

Note to PBS's The Great American Read list: You are NOT the literary boss of me. It's time for me to get much more selective in my reading choices. So there. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon Book Review and Intense Criticism

Up next on my Great American Read TBR list we have the much acclaimed book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. I've come to the point where I'm starting to really wonder how PBS came up with this list of America's 100 most loved novels. I know they've said that "readers" voted for these books, but I'd love to know how, where and when. I'm on my third negative review in a row and I'm starting to get incredibly discouraged. 

Oh, this book... I had SO MANY issues with it. If you're a big fan of Curious Incident you may want to look away because I'm about to really blast it with criticism. I'm just glad I only paid $1 for this one at my local library's book sale. Feel free to add your comments below my review. 

Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers his neighbor’s dead dog Wellington one night while he’s roaming the streets of his town. He decides to find out who murdered the dog and simultaneously sets out to write a book about his detective work.

Okay, we all know the idea behind this story. Although there is never any specific mention of Christopher being on the Autism spectrum within the story, readers are led to the conclusion that Christopher is indeed Autistic and most likely has Asperger’s Syndrome (an earlier book cover specifically mentions Asperger’s). And here in lies one of the biggest issues I had with this book.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) varies greatly in severity, skill set, behavioral characteristics, disability levels, etc. I couldn’t help but feel the author grabbed a hodgepodge of symptoms and decided that Christopher should have every one of them. In fact, Asperger’s, in particular, is one of the mildest forms of the disorder and hence symptoms are not nearly as pronounced as Christopher’s are in this book.

Interestingly, one of the first pages states, “As a young man, Haddon worked with autistic individuals”, which is a rather vague statement. Yet the author himself admits in a 2009 post on his blog that he “knows little about the subject”  and that he read some newspaper articles before writing the book. In this same post he goes on to state that he regrets the earlier “Asperger’s” mention on the original book cover. Apparently, he was backtracking several years after the book's publication. As a reader, I really had to wonder why that was.

If the author really wished to dispel the idea that this story is not about a boy with autism who sets out to solve the murder of a neighbor's dog and discovers unexpected truths about himself and the world,” as the Amazon book description states and is instead “a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties,” as he’s posted on his blog he might want to change the original Amazon page info. I’m sure he’s already made plenty of money from this endeavor. He also seems to have convinced an awful lot of people that Christopher is an accurate portrayal of someone with Autism. 

Although the book has been praised by many and has even been turned into a Broadway hit, with an autistic actor playing the lead, the consensus among people who have not gotten their ASD information from a newspaper article is that this book is gimmicky and does not at all portray ASD accurately. All one needs to do is read the dozens and dozens of one star reviews, many of which were written by people either on the spectrum or related to someone with the disorder.

Then we have the problem with narration. Yes, we get it that Christopher is Autistic and struggles with everyday tasks. But do we really want to read the 200+ pages of his rambling account of, well, everything? And by everything, I mean tons of passages filled with asides, graphics, charts and figures that lend absolutely nothing to the story. The minutia was painful for me to slog through. 

Lastly, and I really have to wonder why few people even bother to mention this, the adults in this book are truly psychotic. Christopher’s parents are abusive, terrible psychopaths. How in the world can anyone call this a heartwarming and funny tale? The ending was a ridiculous copout with no real resolution. It was like the author either didn’t know how to end the story or he’d had enough of it as much as I had.

It goes to show that if you have a gimmick you can sell anything to the masses. If it weren’t for the fact that I feel the author does a real disservice to anyone with ASD or loves someone with ASD I’d say more power to him. He made his money off an often-misunderstood disability and in my opinion that’s shameful.

1 of 5 Stars, Review by Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - Another Book Classic I Just Couldn't Like

The Great American Read quest continues for me with Oscar Wilde's "scandalous" 1891 classic "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Oh, dear. I'm starting to wonder if it's just me or if many of the books on the list are mostly hype.

Most people are already familiar with the premise of this book. A young man, who suddenly becomes vain after a brief conversation about youth with an older blowhard of a man, wishes that his recently rendered portrait would age instead of him. His conceit leads him to commit a series of dastardly immoral and illegal acts, and in less than 200 pages he receives his comeuppance.

How can I possibly describe how much I disliked this book? It was painfully clear that nearly every character in this book was merely regurgitating Wilde’s self-important views on EVERYTHING. 

I cared not one iota for anyone here. I didn’t care who aged, who was captivatingly handsome, who “secretly” (aka, not at all secretly) desired who. Sheesh, was this a rambling flowery flowerbed of ridiculous nonsense, which was quite possibly why my copy included a Text Summary at the end – so readers could make some sense out of the ramblings.

I’d almost venture to say that Lord Henry Wotton was like a 19th century Truman Capote, but that would be an insult to Capote, who actually liked and respected women. Wotton’s (aka Wilde’s) dislike of women was apparent: “My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex.” His fondness for the same sex was obvious. His frequent “flouncing" himself onto furniture was, well, overdone and unnecessary. Egad, so very scandalous.

This book was published in 1891, and like the picture of Dorian Gray, it hasn’t aged well over the years. The scandal factor is no more. Yes, it’s supposed to be ever so deeply cerebral and overflowing with poignancy. The main premise is compelling, but I just didn’t like being forced to wade through pages and pages of blah, blah, blah to get to the point. I should have skipped right to the Text Summary and saved myself the time and aggravation.

Once again this was another classic that made me say, HUH? Why all the rave reviews? I have to give it a big fat NO.

1 of 5 Stars, Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Book Review

My Great American Read TBR quest continues with F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic "The Great Gatsby". This is a super short book and has certainly garnered much praise over the decades. Was I as impressed as many other readers have been? Below is my book review. As always, feel free to chime in with your comments!

My Half Price Books Version of The Great Gatsby

Nick Carraway arrives in West Egg Village, Long Island in the spring of 1922 from his hometown in the Midwest. He rents a modest house that sits among extravagant mansions and soon becomes immersed in the lives of several of the mansions’ inhabitants.

Through Nick’s eyes and POV, we meet Jay Gatsby, who, for the past five years, has molded himself into the man he thinks Daisy Buchanan desires. To Gatsby, Daisy is the one who got away and he’s determined to get a second chance no matter the cost. Although Daisy is now a mother, married to Tom Buchanan, Gatsby’s scheme to insert himself into the lives of the Buchanans soon materializes, but with tragic consequences.

I read this book in high school, which admittedly was a very long time ago and I had trouble recollecting much of what I’d read way back then. Therefore, reading it this time was like reading it for the first time and I’m afraid I wasn’t nearly as impressed with The Great Gatsby as many people seem to be.

Raymond Chandler said of Fitzgerald’s writing, “He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature – charm.” And yes, I’d have to agree. I did find the writing in The Great Gatsby to be charming with regards to prose, setting, atmosphere and symbolism. I even enjoyed some of the dialogue. In particular, I loved Daisy’s remembered words after the birth of her daughter, “All right… I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” That was page 16 and I immediately thought this is going to be insightful and deep. This just might go somewhere great. But then I read on and was dismayed to find that that one line pretty much summed up Daisy’s mindset throughout the book.

I found I had the same opinion that many other critics have had about The Great Gatsby: the main characters are incredibly unlikeable. Tom Buchanan is a violent, racist, misogynist with not one single redeeming quality. Daisy is a wishy-washy, rich, beautiful little fool of a girl without a conscience. As for Nick I didn't think he functioned just as the story’s POV character. He was no innocent bystander. In my opinion, he was a willing participant and collaborator who, although remained a faithful friend to Gatsby until the very end, was annoyingly complacent in the face of violence and murder. Not only did I find the characters unlikeable, I thought they were extremely one-dimensional. None of the characters change. They are exactly the same at the end as they were in the beginning. The book is short and the events take place over just a three-month spam, which doesn’t leave much room for character or plot development. Fitzgerald may or may not have designed things this way. I certainly couldn’t figure it out.

In the end, The Great Gatsby was one of those classic books I was glad I read simply so I could say that I did. I honestly don’t feel any better or worse off for having done so.

2.5 of 5 Stars, Review by Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Stairway to Danger by Ben Woodard - A Shakertown Mystery Series Book One

I took a break from my Great American Read challenge to read a mystery book I recently downloaded to my Kindle. A Stairway to Danger is written by children's book author Ben Woodard of Bubbles the Frog fame. 

In 1923, fourteen-year-old Tom Wallace and his fifteen-year-old cousin Will stumble on a decayed body in their small Kentucky town. The boys recognize the victim as a sheriff’s deputy and they immediately report it to the sheriff. Tom and Will are surprised by the sheriff’s rush to downplay the suspicious death and they realize there’s a mystery brewing.

This book was reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn adventures and Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys series. There’s mention of Mark Twain’s books within this story, so I got a sense that this is what the author was going for.

There’s sufficient suspense and mystery for both children and adults to find here. I was fairly sure I knew where the mystery was going early on, but that didn’t take away from the story for me. The characters are likable and, for the most part, relatable and realistic.

I would have much preferred that the swear words were left out, and I’ve noticed that other reviewers mention this as well. While this might be considered genuine dialogue for characters in this age group (even in 1923), I honestly feel this might be a deal breaker for young readers. On the other hand, if this book is geared toward the YA crowd, those readers might find the story slightly juvenile. Just something to keep in mind.

I appreciated that the author included some background on the story at the end of the book. As an avid reader, I enjoy knowing how an author came up with the elements of a story. I found the author’s brief history of Shakertown interesting. Well worth the read!

4 of 5 Stars, Review by Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

Thursday, June 7, 2018

“Why I MUST Listen to Music When I Write” Author Guest Post By Michael Phillip Cash

I love music. Always have. To me, music helps me focus, which is super advantageous while working. I always have music playing while I write. I find that it puts me in a productive writing mood. I also enjoy switching things up, according to my current mood and genre.

I’m not alone in my music listening while working habit. Studies show that listening to music that you enjoy while working actually releases those feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This relaxes you and increases focus better on a task at hand. Even complex tasks can be benefit from background music. Think about the surgeon who has Bach playing during a surgical procedure and you’ll know it’s a widely respected fact.

Believe it or not, I love listening to classic film soundtracks while writing fantasy, and they don’t necessarily have to be related to Sci-Fi films either. I’m pretty eclectic in my music tastes. My go-to favorites are:

  • Star Wars by John Williams
  • Shaft by Isaac Hayes
  • Blade Runner by Vangelis
  • 2001 by Stanley Kubrick
  • Singing in the Rain by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown

I’ve found that listening to music makes a hugely positive impact on my writing. Give it a try and you will too!

About Michael Phillip Cash

Michael Phillip Cash is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. His novel The Battle for Darracia is a three-part saga and is available on Amazon.

Michael’s novels are best-sellers on Amazon under their genres – Young Adult, Thriller, Suspense, Ghost, Action Adventure, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance and Horror. Michael writes full-time and lives on the North Shore of Long Island with his wonderful wife and screaming children. You can follow him @michaelpcash or connect with him via his website.