The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut by Paul Nowak

Title:  The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut (Based on the Life and Works of G.K. Chesterton)

Author:  Paul Nowak

Paperback:  55 pages

ISBN:  0977223493

Miscellaneous:  This book is intended to be the first of a series on “Uncle Chestnut.”

Challenges:  2009 ARC Reading Challenge 

“You see, Jack, an adventure is only an inconvenience considered the right way, and an inconvenience is an adventure considered the wrong way,” said Uncle Chestnut.  “When someone complains about the inconveniences in their life – such as hats blowing away, or drawers getting stuck, or delays at the airport – they are missing the adventure in those experiences they cannot control.  The only thing we always can control is how we react.”

“In other words, we can choose to enjoy life, with all its adventures that take place beyond our control, or we can be miserable with all the inconveniences life hands us.  It’s up to you to choose.”

-page 9

Uncle Chestnut is a great storyteller, and he enjoys telling them as much as Jack enjoys listening to them.  He makes faces, uses voices and acts out parts of the tale he’s telling.  When I read this, my mind immediately went to my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Crawford (whose first name, coincidentally, was also Jack).  Mr. Crawford didn’t teach history to us, he performed it.  His face reflected the Pharaoh as he covered ancient Egypt.  I still remember when he was telling us about Israel’s crossing the Red Sea, and he was pretending to be one of the Egyptian cavalry soldiers pursuing them:  “Whoa, Nelly… you can’t drink that water!” was his command to his horse as “Nelly” was getting ready do sample the wall of water.  Mr. Crawford, like Uncle Chestnut, made the stories come alive.

The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut isn’t a story, specifically, but rather more anecdotal.  In the book Jack, the narrator, is remembering life with his eccentric writer-uncle.  It’s full of wisdom and good sense that’s definitely lacking today.  The author, Paul Nowak, was inspired by G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th century writer who inspired C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Mahatma Gandhi, just to name a few.  More recently, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have referenced, credited and even created characters based on Chesterton.

As I first started reading this, I thought it was written by the actual nephew, but I quickly realized that wasn’t possible.  Then I thought maybe Nowak was updating Jack’s diary, or that Jack would turn out to be C.S. Lewis.  It wasn’t until the American Idol reference that I finally understood that this book was really a work of fiction.  Yes, Nowak based Uncle Chestnut on Chesterton and used Chesterton’s work to be as true to him as possible, but it is fiction.  It’s such a surprising little book, not at all what I was expecting.  As it is the first in what the author intends to be a series, I really hope the next book isn’t far off, because I can’t wait for my new favorite uncle to visit some more.

Some little things about the book, though…  The only fault I could really find with it other than the few typos about which Nowak warned in the accompanying letter is this:  It is too short.  I had hardly settled in before it was over.  I’m not saying it to be funny, I really mean that the length of the book actually left a negative feeling.  You know, like when you go to the ice cream shop and order a large, thinking you are really going to get a treat, and they hand you a kiddie cone?  Ultimately, somewhere down the line, it might be a good idea to consolidate books into a 200-300 or so page book.  The other off thing I had to say about it is that it’s supposed to be kinda-sorta a kids book, but I’m not really sure it fits that.  Maybe, IDK… it’s a bit Winnie-the-Pooh like in style, which was actually a very surprising thing to have captivated my kids attention.  I haven’t read this book with them yet, so maybe they would really like it, but it just seems like something the kid inside the grown-up would like.

I really do hope The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnutby Paul Nowak catches and takes off, it’s very much a needed book and voice of wisdom and reason that could tip the balance a little more toward sanity than it’s been leaning lately.  I know my copy isn’t leaving my library, so y’all will have to get your own :-)  I know I will re-read this one.  5 out of 5 stars, in case you didn’t catch that I liked it. ;-)

By the way, make sure to check out the book’s site at http://unclechestnut.com/ .  There you can learn more about the man who inspired this book, G.K. Chesterton, as well as search quotes and sign up for the Uncle Chestnut’s quote a day newsletter.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Title:  Haunted

Author:  Chuck Palahniuk

Paperback:  412 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Vintage

ISBN:  9780099497172

Looking back, it was Mr. Whittier’s stand that we’re always right.

“It’s not a matter of right and wrong,” Mr. Whittier would say.

Really, there is no wrong.  Not in our own minds.  Our own Reality.

…In your own mind, you are always right.  Every action you take – what you do or say or how you choose to appear – is automatically right the moment you act.

…We’re all condemned to be right.  About everything we can consider.

In this shifting, liquid world where everyone is right and any idea is right the moment you act on it, Mr. Whitier would say, the only sure thing is what you promise.

“Three months, you promised,” Mr. Whittier says through the steam of his coffe.

It’s then something happens, but not much.

In that next look, you feel your asshole get tight.  Your fingers fly to cover your mouth.

Miss America is holding a knife in one hand.  With her other hand, she grips the knot of Mr. Whittier’s necktie, pulling his face up toward her own.  Mr. Whittier’s coffee, dropped, spilled steaming-hot on the floor.  His hands hang, shaking, swirling the dusty air at ech side.

Saint Gut-Free’s silver bag of instant crepe Suzette drops, spilled out on the cornflower-blue carpet, the sticky red cherries and reconstituted whipped cream.

And the cat runs over for a taste.

Her eyes almost touching Mr. Whittier’s, Miss America says, “So I’m right if I kill you?”

-Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, pages 60-61

Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk is the stories and poems within a bigger story that is the shadow of the truth.  It is the camera behind the camera behind the camera, as is often said in the book.  It’s the story of a collection of strangers who have all answered an ad about a writer’s retreat, but find it’s a lot more than they bargained for.  Mr. Whittier, the operator of the “retreat” tells them that they’ve promised to write and, for the  next three months, he intends to hold them to that promise.  However, there is an unfortunate hiccup in the plan when Whittier dies from a busted gut after eating the equivalent of 10 freeze-dried turkey dinners.  Now the strangers are on their own, locked in an abandoned hotel/theater, each with their own guilt and story to haunt them.

From a psychological/sociological point of view, this book is fascinating.  It’s  a bit like Lord of the Fliesin that it is the witness of the de-evolution of society.  How depraved can people get?  How little humanity will be left at the end of the three month period?  When food runs out (because they’ve all sabotaged the supplies) what will they eat?  That they are all there as writers and artists, what will they do with this time they are given?

It is a dark look into the human soul.  The Missing Link states that it is how we treat the animals around us that shows our humanity… the cat disappears shortly after he says this.  Director Denial makes a statement again and again that people turn each other into objects, then turn objects into people.  Points are made that humans have  a low threshhold of tolerance to boredom, that we seek out a villain to blame all our troubles on, and that we thrive on chaos, drama and disaster.  There’s no joy like the joy found in another’s suffering.  That all this drama and difficulty is to prepare us for our final act, our own death.

While these are the concepts that drew me to this book, I found the book itself a bit on the boring side.  I kept falling asleep… though, that may have been because I couldn’t nibble while reading due to the nauseatingly disgusting content.  Haunted has more canabalism in it that the Donner Party was ever accused of.  The graphic descriptions of the toilets backing up, the cooking of a baby, and decomposition were enough to make me gag. 

This is only my second Palahniuk book, Rant being my first, and I’m aware he can be a bit disgusting and warped.  One review I read said that Hauntedwas for the true Palahniuk fans.  I’ve got a few more of his books on Mt. TBR, but I think I’m going to wait for a while before reading another by him… let my stomach settle.  It’s definitely NOT for the faint of heart.

Even though it was gut-churningly gross, the intellectual appeal was enough to keep me reading on.  I give Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

One of my favorite parts of my Border’s newsletters is the shortlist.  When Palahniuk’s book Snuff came out, the following video was his shortlist offering.  I think it was this vid that made me want to read more Palahniuk (as well as pick up Clown Girl)

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Title: Exit Ghost
Author: Philip Roth
Hardcover: 292 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publish Date:2007
ISBN: 9780618975477

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing – the cell phones. We had no reception as yet up on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I’d rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years fo there suddenly to be so much to say – so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the driver were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous.

-Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, pages 63-64

Nathan Zuckerman is man in the twilight years of his life. As an author, words and ideas have been his medium to work and creation, yet, now age seventy-one, senility and his growing “word salad” difficulty has begun is slowly robbing him of his ability to write. Once virile and in control of his destiny, a prostectomy has rendered him impotent and incontinent. And, after ten years of New England solitude, the hope of regaining some bladder control from a medical procedure has brought him back to the cosmopolis of his exodus, New York City, where he likens himself to Rip Van Winkle, returning from his twenty-year nap and finding the entire world changed.

In his week-long stay, he makes connections with three people who that threaten to irreversibly alter his chosen isolation and reality. With the first, he makes a rash decision to answer an add to swap homes and meets the young and seductive, Jamie Logan, who inspires a fantasy affair in Zuckerman’s mind and reawakens his all-but-lost desire for female company. His second, the serendipitous running into of Amy Bellette, the mistress of his literary icon, Manny Lonoff, reminds him of both his youthful past and his ever-creeping mortality. The third connection he makes is with Richard Kliman, an abrasive, tenacious wanna-be literateur, who believes he has discovered Lonoff’s “great secret” and wants to write his biography, exposing the author’s shameful “crime” in the titillating tell-all fashion of the modern biography, a genre of current writing that is more Weekly World News than World News.

Meeting these three people force Zuckerman to face and accept the realities that his isolation has allowed him to ignore: He is getting old, each day bringing him closer to his own life’s end, and after his death he will no longer have control of that life he lived, as some young writer wanting to make a name for himself may decide to write the expose of Nathan Zuckerman. In the end, he asks himself this questions: Once I am dead, who can protect the story of my life? How will I have failed to be the model human? What will be my great, unseemly secret?

************************************************

Exit Ghost  is my first experience reading Philip Roth, but I don’t plan on making it my last. Slow going at first, I wasn’t sure I would really be able to get into it. How can a mid-thirties, single mom understand and relate to a septuagenarian man? How can I, a moderate to conservative Republican from the mid-west, relate to a liberal Democrat New Englander? I’m a product of the Eighties and Nineties, he is a product of the fifties and sixties. I’m a W.A.S.P. and he a Jew. I am in the Summer of my life when all my body parts are where the good Lord put them, and work within normal parameters. He is entering the Winter of his, incontinent, showing the beginning of dementia, with a mutinous body. I’m aware death will someday happen, though not many I know have experienced it. Zuckerman is facing it’s certainty, many of his friends and contemporaries having already passed through that gate.

However, for all this lack of commonality, Roth manages the miraculous; for a time, a young woman in her prime became an aging man in his decline.

Winner of several prestigious awards, Philip Roth is a skilled, intelligent yet readable, wordsmith. He references Joseph Conrad (an author I have not yet read, but I do have Heart of Darknesson Mt. TBR) often in Exit Ghost, and I found his writing style to be reminiscent of Faulkner (not surprisingly, he has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times).

For it’s ability to transport the reader to a life completely foreign and unimaginable, as well as for it’s well-written and memorable passages that are sure to be included in quotable literature books, I give Exit Ghost by Philip Roth  five out of five stars.

hated it!didn't like itit was okayliked itLoved it!

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Title: Matrimony
Author: Joshua Henkin
Paperback: 291 pages
Publisher: Vintage (division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780307277169

“So how’s your book going?”

“Glacially,” Julian said. “It’s like that joke about Joyce Carol Oates. Someone calls her up and her secretary says, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Oates can’t come to the phone right now, she’s busy writing a book,” and the person says, ‘That’s okay, I’ll hold.’ Only with me it’s the opposite. Rip Van Winkle wakes up twenty years later and I’m still writing my novel… I’ve been at it almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve got two hundred and fifty pages, though I’ve probably thrown out twenty for every one I’ve kept. I’m laying waste to whole forests.”

“What’s the book about?”

Julian hesitated. Even to Mia, he hadn’t confided much; he didn’t want to jinx himself. Growing up, he’d had a special cup he drank from and a lucky number, eight. When he watched the Metsat Shea Stadium in 1973, five years old, in the corporate box seats with his father, he always wore his baseball glove… because he believed it made the Mets play better… Writers, Julian believed, came in all types, but one way or another they were control freaks, and superstition was nothing if not an attempt to exert control. Besides, he thought a good novel resisted summary; it had to speak for itself. Still, he felt he owed Carter an answer, for Carter was his friend and he’d written fiction, too.

-Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, page 142

First of all, I want to say that when I first received an email from Josh to review and host a giveaway for Matrimony, I was preparing for a real life visit from my Second Life boyfriend. I was excited and in love, and all that other ooey-gooey stuff brought on by the overproduction of the brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. I read the summary and it sounded sweet and lovely and wonderful. However, by the time the book arrived, things between him and I had started going south (reality really ruins fantasy), and I didn’t want to read about happy people falling in love and living happy lives with each other and living happily ever after. So, I drug my feet so hard that I’m surprised I don’t have grooves in my floors.

Then Josh sent another email excusing me from the review having not read the book, and asking me if I still wanted host the book giveaway. I felt guilty for not following through on my side of it, deciding to grin and bear the book , and facetiously set the giveaway for the first day of Lent, stating the two sacraments, marriage and penance, went well together.

So I sat down Sunday morning and started reading Matrimony. Immediately I realized this book was, by far, NOT what I had expected. Josh’s characters are shocking and quirky, vibrant and memorable, drawing me in and guaranteeing I would read the book through to the final punctuation mark.

Julian’s roommate is convinced the other guys on their dorm floor pee in the communal shower and resolves to wear flip-flops when bathing. His writing professor, embittered by the treatment of his novel in a failed attempt to turn it into a movie, refuses to admit anyone who writes with the intention to write books for the film industry. What’s more, Professor Chesterfield writes commandments on the blackboard, 117 by year’s end, like “THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD ‘KERPLUNK’ IN YOUR SHORT STORIES,” and “ THOU SHALT NEVER USE PASS-THE-SALT DIALOGUE.

It is in this writing class Julian meets Carter Heinz, and the two become best friends. During their freshman year, Carter meets and falls in love with Pilar, as does Julian with Mia when they meet in the dorm’s laundry room. Thus begins Matrimony, as Henkin takes the reader on a 15 year journey in the life of Julian Wainright, born to wealth but refusing the comforts and connections the privilege would bring, his struggles to fulfill his dream to publish his novel, and the joys and heartaches life brings.

Unlike Sinclair’s Jungle, whose characters make small gains in one chapter, only to have catastrophic losses in the next, until you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, the ups and downs the lives of the characters in Matrimony are believable and to whom the reader can fully relate. When Mia feels lost and alone as she watches her mother waste away from breast cancer, I wanted to hug her and comfort her and tell I knew what she was going through because my father died from cancer. I was reassured by Julian’s difficulties as a writer, knowing I’m not alone in my own feelings in my own sluggish progress with my novel. And when trouble arises between the couple after Julian learns about an infidelity nine years before, I completely understood his sense of betrayal and loss.

But Henkin hasn’t just written a compelling and involving tale of characters so real that you expect to find them at the grocery store or mall, Matrimony offers lessons in writing that I’ve taken to heart and inspires the reader to action. After reading how Mia copes with their separation, foregoing the comfort of their bed, sleeping instead on the futon from their college days and hoping to catch Julian‘s scent in it, I realized I was holding on to a person, knowing our relationship has ended.

After his visit, I had taken the bed sheet he’d slept on, folded it up and put it away, refusing to wash it because HE was in it; his skin cells, hair and scent were woven into the threads themselves. However, after reading Mia’s feelings, thoughts and actions, I grabbed the sheet and threw it in the washer, letting go of the hurt and disappointment and sense of loss of what could have been. I deleted his phone numbers from my phone and his address from my computer. Then I took a long look at the months I spent in Second Life, and asked myself what did I haveto show for it. The answer I arrived at was this: For the five months I spent escaping to a virtual (fantasy is a better term) world, I had neglected my responsibilities to my family, the housekeeping, to my reading and blogging, to paying bills, became forgetful of appointments and activities, and have had one of the worst cases of winter depression (I have Seasonal Affected Disorder) that I have had in a long time. I have very little good to show for it. Once I realized this, I removed everything related to Second Life from my computer and I’m debating canceling my account (I have decided to wait a month before doing something that drastic, though, as I’vealready paid the rent for my apartment). Though it was painful at first, I feel a profound sense of relief and freedom at having made a decision and taken action, taking control of the situation instead of being a passive victim of life.

I have told all of that to say this: The difference between a good read and a great book is whether or not the reader is changed and compelled to act on that change. A good read is enjoyable and fun, but is forgotten in a year or two; it is the chips and Twinkies of the literary world. Contrastingly, a great book may be an uncomfortable labor to take in, but the reader cannot walk away the same person he or she was before opening the cover and peeking within; it is the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years of desert wandering, and is preserved for future generations’ understanding and inspiration. Great books become classics, and Matrimony, if there is any wisdom in the reading world, will be counted among them.

For its truth, wisdom, tangible characters, its meaningful and timely content, and its power to inspire and to illicit change, I give Matrimony by Joshua Henkin 5 out of 5 stars, two thumbs and toes up, and a perfect ten (even the German judge agrees). It ranks among the few books I’ve read that becomes a permanent resident of my library. I know I will reread this book, which is very rare for me. I just cannot praise Matrimony enough.

Thank you, Josh, for writing this book and for inviting me to experience and share it. *sniff… tear* :)

 

Don’t forget to sign up to WIN a personalized, autograph copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin!  Enter here to win! :-)

The Boat by Nam Le

The Boat by Nam Le

Title: The Boat
Author: Nam Le
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (a division of Random House, Inc. New York)
Publish Date: May 16, 2008
ISBN: 9780307268082

The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.

The Boat is a collection of seven short stories from author Nam Le.  Some are more vignettes than short stories, and all showcase Le’s incredible writing talent.  Nam has an amazing ability to get inside his character, be it a 60-year-old man just learning he has cancer or a 9-year-old girl in Hiroshima days before the atomic bomb.  The extensive detailing Le does gives the worlds he writes a certain reality, right down to speech patterns and slang.

Brief summary of the seven stories:
Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice: This first story is a view into the life a young Vietnamese writer in Iowa City, who is up against a deadline in his writers workshop. He scoffs at the idea of stooping to writing an “ethnic” story, but with his father’s visit, he decides to write the story of his father’s experiences in My Lai, South Vietnam army, and the tortures of a “reeducation” camp. Through the interviewing of his father, the relationship with whom has always been strained and somewhat distant, possibly even abusive, both come to understand one another better.

Cartagena: Nam’s writing style in this short story is reminiscent of Cormac McCarney’s. The lack of quotation marks and the quick changes of settings are disorienting, adding the sense of surrealism in the life of Ron, the 14 year old hit man in Medellin, Colombia.

Meeting Elise is the story of a man with cancer, still heartbroken over the loss of his lover 30 years his junior, who is about to meet his only child, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a baby when the witch, his ex-wife, “blew the county, dangling [their] daughter from her broom…”

InHalflead Bay, Jamie has a turn of luck and goes from a loser to school hero after scoring the winning goal.  Because of it he catches the eye of Alison, and because of that he’s in the cross-hairs of Alison’s psychotic boyfriend.  Jamie must decide whether he will remain the coward he had been or will he fight.

Hiroshima, written in the stream of consciousness of nine-year-old Mayako, is glimpse into the mindset and life of the Japanese pre-atom bomb.

Tehran Calling is the story of a Sarah Middleton, who goes to Iran to visit her best friend, who’s involved in a subversive group, and to escape the heartbreak of a love lost. 

The Boat is a heartbreaking story of the reality of the dangers many refugees face.  It is a story of survival, loss, and new connections.  This story is particularly close to my heart as it is about a 16-year-old Vietnamese girl named Mai, which is my youngest daughter’s Vietnamese name.

Nam Le’s writing is visceral and beautiful at the same time.  His style varies in each story appropriately as each story’s characters and subject matter wants it.  He is sensitive to the emotions and world of his characters and shows an amazingly real view into the lives of the mains.  The intricacies of a 14 year old assassin’s life in Colombia to a 60 year old man in New York City dealing with cancer and loss are so real that you forget it is written by a young Vietnamese man in Australia, as each story’s characters are as real as if you were watching them via spy-cam.  Le’s writing is hypnotic and compulsive; he is a literary pied-piper and I cannot help being carried along through the stories.

From a personal perspective, I love the first and last stories the most, as they deal with Vietnamese characters.  My youngest daughter’s father is from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and he came to the US in 1996.  His father came to Los Angeles shortly after his release from a “re-education” camp, followed by his wife a few years later.  My ex, with whom I’m still very close, followed a route common to many Vietnamese who immigrated in the mid-90’s and later: first to LA, then Iowa City to work for the meat-packing company IBP (now under Tyson, inc) and finally here in Logansport.  Because of my daughter, I am especially interested in everything Vietnamese, buying her any book I find on the subject or checking it out from the library, buying her CDs, cooking dishes for her (and ignore her two older sisters complaints about it when I do), and looking up sites and videos on the Internet.  She is very proud of her culture, as I think she should be.

This is my Mai

My daughter Maggie (her Vietnamese name is Mai)

Jane-A-Thon In Progress!

Jane Austen

I have finally begun my Jane-a-thon, which I’ve been dying to do for some time now. I’m putting aside ARCs, books to review and overdue library books. But such is the sacrifices I make for my obsession!

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is one of the greatest authors of all times, and possible the greatest woman author as well. She cleared the way for many others, the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolfe, and so many others. There were women writers before her, but there was something in the way that Austen wrote that proved a woman could write with a balance of logic and emotions, and that both sexes could enjoy her work. In Austen’s short life of 41 years she published a book every year or so after the 1811 publication of Sense and Sensibility.

When I was in my high school honors English reading club, I read Pride and Prejudice, and I read Sense and Sensibility after watching the Thompson-Grant movie. These two are the only Austen’s I’ve read before, never really taking notice of the others. However, a couple months ago, I thought it might be interesting to read all of them, straight through chronologically to see how Austen grew as a writer, and to get a fairer sense of the life and times of Georgian England.

The following are the Austens in chronological order:
Sense and Sensibility published in 1811
Pride and Prejudice published in 1813
Mansfield Park published in 1814
Emma published in 1816
published in 1818
Northanger Abbey published in 1818

And now… a Janing I must go!

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