3. ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino

You are about to read a review of Italo Calvino’s classic, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Perhaps you are a first time visitor to this blog, or you’ve been a loyal follower for quite some time. Are you sitting comfortably? Maybe you are at home on your laptop while peacefully drinking coffee. Perhaps you’re using this time as a distraction from getting any actual work done. Then again, you might be genuinely interested in hearing what this reviewer actually has to say. Sit and relax for a moment. Let the words take you to another place. Please forgive this writer’s little indulgence as I was trying to mimic (quite unsuccessfully) Calvino’s distinctive style. I found this book to be quite an engaging read as the author manages to remove himself from the conversation by centering the narrative on you the reader.

CALVINO

I struggled for several days to begin this review. That’s not actually bad; on the contrary, it’s quite the opposite. Over the years, I’ve read books that I would instantly categorize as excellent. Others are more forgettable and end up being passed down to the used bookstore where hopefully someone will give them a second chance. Then there are those reading experiences that go completely above and beyond anything you’ve ever read before. After processing if on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve come to realize that Italo Calvino is quite ingenious to have written the ultimate book about what it means to be a reader.

Told in the second person, this book tells the story of “You” also known as the “the Reader” and his fruitless attempts to read the latest novel by Italo Calvino called if on a winter’s night a traveler. While at the bookstore, the Reader meets a beautiful woman named Ludmilla but also referred to as “the Other Reader.” After taking the book home and beginning to read it, he is dismayed that the book is incomplete due to a printing error. Desperate to obtain the rest of the book and find out what happens next, The Reader is sent on a journey that is the ultimate comedy of errors. What he thinks is the correct copy turns out to be another book by a completely different author and it is incomplete as well. Now the Reader has two books he needs wants to finish! This struggle continues throughout with ten different books all of different literary genres.

“One reads alone, even in another’s presence.”

Each chapter of the book alternates between what is happening to the Reader with the ten various beginnings of different novels. The reading experience gets interrupted just as events were about to get interesting. Calvino points out all our idiosyncrasies as readers, such as the exhilaration when discovering a new book’s words for the first time or that painful withdrawal that comes from having your reading interrupted just when things were getting good. There’s the fact that we analyze our literary works to painstaking details almost to the sacrifice of reading just for the sheer pleasure of the act.  Calvino refers to this in terms of “natural reading, innocent, primitive.”

I stopped to think about Calvino’s point for a while. As book lovers, a lot of the fun comes from being able to have these open dialogues going back and forth between particular points as we analyze each aspect of a work of fiction. I’ve attended classes. written papers, even had conversations with others tearing apart a piece of literature to examine every single cell of its composition. Our natural tendencies sometimes lean towards a closer introspection of a work. Even if I never reviewed another book again, I wouldn’t stop reading. The act itself still holds pleasure and sometimes you just have to be in the moment with a work (or a person) and just enjoy the experience.

“Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading, one reads in the other the unwritten story.”

It was definitely not lost on me  that Calvino was comparing the acts of reading with lovemaking. Leave it to Calvino to make reading both an intellectual and an erotic activity. Throughout the book, there is a romance forming between Reader and Other Reader. The relationship between the two is eventually consummated in what can only be described as hot if you are a book lover.  I particularly liked how Calvino described the experience as two people becoming one yet still being solitary in thought.

Despite his creative and witty style of storytelling, I did have some problems with Calvino. Although each of the ten stories belongs to a different genre, the voice of the author often sounded the same. Now on reflection I think this could either be a matter of translation or the fact that I was reading the story as if I was the main character in the book. One of Calvino’s points is that no two readers look at the same book exactly the same way. However, for me some of the stories didn’t work for me while others I actually wished did exist.

If on a winter’s night a traveler will either be a book that you come to love as a superb work of postmodernist fiction or as one that just tried way too hard. This my first experience reading a book by Italo Calvino, and I’m more than a little curious to see what else he has created. It was strange at first with the second-person narration, but it definitely got me engaged with the story. No author since Murakami has brought this much intrigue into my life. I think Ludmilla’s definition of her favorite book fits perfectly to how I see this book, with “its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves….”

If nothing else, I would encourage you to simply read the opening nine pages just for getting a really great reflection of all the little details we experience as readers. Maybe you will like that and continue to read further. The one thing I know is that your journey will be different but none the less rewarding.

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Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

 

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Writing Goals 2018 Edition

In my 2018 resolutions post, I only focused on reading goals. What about updates on my writing? Truth is, I did not write nearly enough in 2017. Rather than focus on the failures, I will share what I did accomplish before talking about my writing plans for this year:

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I Entered a Short Story Contest

Back in August, I submitted a sci-fi story for an online contest involving a plane that travels 20 years into the future. I was proud of myself for getting my story finished and entered. Sadly, I didn’t win. Although it needs work (like a lot of work), I really like some of my ideas and am contemplating revisions in order to try to get it published somewhere.

I Found My Old Short Stories

I have several short stories that I have written over the years kept in a big white folder. They aren’t great, but I think there’s one or two that I would rate as somewhat decent. I’m hoping to maybe revise those two as well.

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I Started Snapshorts

For a few weeks, I was posting some original flash fiction on this very website! SnapShorts was a project my wife and I started where she would take an interesting photograph and I would write a very short story about it, typically less than 300 words.

I’ve Been Maintaining This Blog for Two Years

Although it’s not fiction writing, I am quite pleased that I’ve maintained this blog for over two years! Thanks to staying disciplined, I’ve managed over 100 reviews of some truly fabulous books!

I Also Contributed Articles for Other Websites

I also did some additional writing on the side for my best friend’s now deceased website dedicated to all things relating to Arrow and other super hero shows on the CW. Prior to that, I contributed weekly to a Doctor Who website because I’m quite the sexy nerd.

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Alright so when I put those details out there, it certainly sounds like I did get some writing done. However, I really want to kick the fiction writing into high gear. I have some ideas:

Revise and Expand My Short Story

I want to revisit my most recent short story “Holding Patterns” because I think with some changes and heavy editing, this could be something fairly decent. I had some ideas that I didn’t include in the original that might actually expand this story quite a bit.

Submit Three Short Stories 

Did you know that Ray Bradbury wrote one story and edited another every week? Surely, I can find time to do this three times in the next year. I have my old ones that I would like to fix, and I seem to come up with random ideas throughout the day. I also have a great workbook that has hundreds of writing prompts so I can always turn to that resource when I’m struggling for inspiration.

Bring SnapShorts Back

This was a fun project that actually didn’t take too much time. I would like to get back to posting some fiction on my blog.

Start Putting Ideas to Paper

As soon as I get an idea, it immediately disappears into the ether. Then I’m angry at myself for not jotting it down at the time. I have plenty of writing materials for putting my thoughts and ideas down. No more excuses!

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So those are my writing ambitions for 2018. I will attempt monthly updates on my progress (or lack of such). Good luck to all my other fellow scribes out there!

 

Do you have any goals or resolutions for 2018? Are you trying to write more this year? Let me know with a comment down below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ by Philip K. Dick

Choosing the next book to read can be a daunting task. Since I was in the mood for something off the beaten path, I decided to go grab some Dick—Philip K. Dick that is. I fell in love with his masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and quite enjoyed his little science fiction work The Variable Man. While I quite liked my third outing with Mr. Dick, I have to say that this one was quite a different reading experience. Although placed in same genre as PKD’s other works, it becomes tricky to label A Scanner Darkly as a work of “science fiction.” This could be due to the novel having very few sci-fi elements, or the fact that it hits very close to home in realistically capturing the growing epidemic of drug addiction.

SCANNER

In the “Author’s Note” that follows the book, PKD states “there is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were.” Written as a response to his own experiences with the drug culture of the late sixties, A Scanner Darkly clearly stands apart from the rest of PKD’s oeuvre. The story centers on “Fred,” an undercover cop who is working to track down the source of a highly addictive drug called Substance D. Known by many other names like “Slow Death,” this drug is so dangerous that many cannot survive the withdrawal symptoms. In order to complete his assignment, Fred has taken on the identity of dealer Bob Arctor. Since Fred/Arctor has been taking the drug in large doses, his brain has started to split into two battling hemispheres leading him to believe he really is two separate people.

As I mentioned the book is virtually devoid of any science fiction elements, with the exception of being set in the future (the nineties) and the method the police use to keep their undercover identities secret. When reporting to his superiors, Fred uses a “scramble suit” which basically projects multiple images of other people over his body (making him look like a blurry image). This one sci-fi trope works well going into the second half of the novel when Fred sees Arctor as a potentially dangerous character who he wants to get arrested or snuffed out altogether.

The other characters in A Scanner Darkly are fascinating as well. We start with Jerry Fabin, an addict who believes that aphids are crawling all over his house, on his skin, and in his lungs. He buys can after can of bug spray, showers constantly, and spends his time collecting the make-believe aphids in various containers. It’s not long before he’s carted off to one of the dreaded federal clinics. Fabin is one of PKD’s more interesting creations, and is a fascinating study considering he only appears briefly at the beginning of the novel. Most of the attention if focused on Arctor’s roommates who share house in Los Angeles. There’s the mechanically inclined yet manipulative Jim Barris and the insane Ernie Luckman. The other major character is Donna Hawthorne who serves as Arctor’s love interest. There is a really poignant scene between the two of them late in the book, and I really liked how the relationship between the two was quite underplayed.

“But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away. That one touch of her hand.”

Please be advised the plot of this book moves incredibly slow and doesn’t really kick into gear until the second half. Scanner is littered with various asides or anecdotes that have nothing to do with what is actually happening. In fact, I could easily see many of the funnier scenes being filmed by Tarantino. Some of the stoner speculations are hilarious while others were a bit boring and went on too long. I vaguely remember watching the 2006 animated film by Richard Linklater. Obviously, I didn’t care for it at the time, but perhaps I need to go back and revisit it to see how well the book itself was captured.

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There’s a whole lot of long philosophical monologues in the middle third of the book. As Fred/Arctor’s sanity begins to dwindle, PKD attempts to capture his viewpoints of events that are unfolding. I think overall this was very successful as I often felt like I was on drugs while reading certain passages in this book. Some of Fred/Arctor’s thoughts and dialogue would be interrupted in mid-sentence with passages in German leaving everything to feel very off-putting. There’s also a great scene with two psychologists who are testing Fred/Arctor and contradict each other over and over. Although never having been on drugs myself, I have a feeling that PKD captured the experience perfectly.

I won’t spoil the final third of the book, only to say that it devastated me. As someone who loves books that give emotional reactions, this one definitely accomplished that. A Scanner Darkly will forever stand alone as PKD’s more realistic fiction due to the fact that he lived to tell the tale.

Usually I write down one or two quotes when reading a book to put at the end of an entry, but this time I had nearly a dozen! I picked the following because I think it stuck out the most for me:

“Imagine being sentient but not alive. Seeing and even knowing, but not alive. Just looking out. Recognizing but not being alive. A person can die and still go on. Sometimes what looks out at you from a person’s eyes maybe died back in childhood.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

Book Challenges 2018

Since I love to challenge myself, for this year I’m going to participate in more book challenges! There are loads of fun ones, so I’ve selected three that I want to try. I figure these will keep me motivated to keep my book count high in 2018! Here are my 2018 challenges:

Challenge #1

This is the one I participated in last year, and it’s a great way to read more classic books. The idea is to read at least 6 of the 12 categories; books must be published by 1968. Hosted by Karen at Books & Chocolate.

Here are my tentative selections for this year (you are allowed to change your choices from your original sign-up):

1.  A 19th century classic: I have several works by Dickens that are untouched, so probably one of those. I’m thinking The Old Curiosity Shop since that’s one in particular that tends to divide fans.

2.  A 20th century classic: I’ve been wanting to read Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man for quite some time.

3.  A classic by a woman author: How do you choose between so many great female authors? Here are some of my options: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, or Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Tough choice this one.

4.  A classic in translation: It’s been awhile since I read Kafka so going with The Trial for this category.

5. A children’s classic: This is a fun category, and you can’t go wrong with Roald Dahl so probably either James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

6.  A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction: I really loved Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd so selecting Murder on the Orient Express. I just saw the new movie version and loved it!

7. A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction: I’ve been wanting to revisit Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels. I did a paper back in college on it and have been wanting to do a reread.

8. A classic with a single-word title: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s on my TBR list for 2018.

9. A classic with a color in the title: My fellow blogger Joelendil’s Kingdom of Books recommended The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve been on a roll with his stuff lately, and this one sounds light and fun.

10. A classic by an author that’s new to you: Undecided for this one!

11. A classic that scares you: Is there a classic you’ve been putting off forever? A really long book which intimidates you because of its sheer length? Now’s the time to read it, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised! It’s time I conquered my fear of Moby Dick. It will be read this year!

12. Re-read a favorite classic: Too many choices here, but I’m thinking of reading more Bradbury this year, so let’s go with his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Challenge #2

I posted about this challenge in an earlier blog. The object is to read books that have been on the shelves too long. Hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

  1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  5. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  6. Carrie by Stephen King
  7. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  10. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
  11. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (didn’t get to it in 2017, determined to tackle it)

Alternate Selections:

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides 

 

Challenge #3

This is another new challenge for me this year, hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. The idea is to “tour” Europe by reading a book set in a different country with a different author. The person with the highest number of qualifying reviews receives a gift card prize! There are different levels, so I’m signing up for the top level:

FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

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In addition to the above challenges, I will continue to work on books that are on the 1001 Books list and participate once again in Austen in August. I’ve created a page to track my progress on all three challenges here.

What are your reading goals for 2018? Are you participating in any book-related challenges? Comment below!

1. ‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman

As everything comes to an end, so a new beginning is born. No sooner do I complete the 50 books a year challenge, then I have to begin anew. Fortunately, I couldn’t have kicked off my third year any better than by reading Neil Gaiman’s brilliantly written tribute to the Norse Gods. My best friend/brother and his family gave me this book as part of my Christmas present. I loved it! Gaiman manages to weave the ancient myths with his usual brand of simple yet magical storytelling in a recipe that comes out perfectly.

GAIMAN

For those of you familiar with Gaiman (and if you aren’t shame on you), then you know that Gaiman grew up reading all of the old myths as well as how Thor was depicted in the Golden Age of comics. In his introduction, he talks about reading the adventures of the Mighty Thor when he was seven years old. After borrowing of copy of Myths of the Norsemen, the future author was surprised at the vast differences between the two versions of Asgard. Gaiman’s knowledge through vast reading is what has made him such a successful writer today. When you look at his work, he manages to tell these fantastic stories in a simple and straightforward way that works and seems all too simple. For us inspiring writers who wish to be like him, it can be quite frustrating.

In his introduction to this book, Gaiman gives a perfect summary of Asgard and its Godly inhabitants:

“The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.”

Throughout the book we are introduced to several Gods and creatures (there’s a handy glossary in the back), but nearly all the stories feature these three:

Odin: Known by many names, he is the oldest and the most cunning of the Gods. In his thirst for knowledge, he sacrificed one of his eyes as well as his own life in order to gain more wisdom. Often, he will disguise himself as a mortal to walk among them in order to gain more information when needed. He is not someone you want to anger.

Thor: Oh lovable Thor, you are so clueless. Although you are the strongest of the Gods, you were not given the same gifts as intelligence. The version of Thor presented here seems quite close to the one we experience in the films.

Loki: Blood-brother to Odin, you often wonder why he wasn’t banished long ago. This version of the Trickster God differs quite a lot from his film counterpart. Loki doesn’t really desire to conquer the world or become a super villain. He’s just selfish and will do whatever it takes to serve his own interest. The world of the Gods would definitely be more boring and his strategy has helped a time or two, so maybe that’s why they keep him.

Given the influence that mythology has had on his writing, it only makes sense that Gaiman would one day pen a retelling. It is the perfect marriage of taking already established tales and spinning them in a creative and simple way that is all purely Gaiman. You would think that the characters of Thor and Loki were the creations of Gaiman himself after reading this book!

Although written as a series of short stories, the plotting actually takes on the structure of a novel with the book beginning with the creation of nine worlds and how Odin gained his powers and finishing with the final battle known as Ragnarok. Each isolated story moves in the direction of the final curtain for the Gods, which then turns into a new beginning. Gaiman manages to bring everything full circle.

As I said before, nobody writes like Gaiman. He keeps his sentence structure and vocabulary simple. I also loved the loads of humor, sure to please children or us child-minded adults. The story of Thor having to pose as a bride in a wedding dress in order the get back his hammer plays out just like any television sitcom. Another favorite scene is when Loki is having his private parts yanked around in order to get someone to laugh. There’s even a rather hilarious and crude scene of Odin as a bird farting in a rival’s face.

However, there are plenty of serious moments as well. There are courageous heroes, daring rescues, and tragic deaths. I loved how Gaiman paints these Gods to not just be all-mighty and benevolent. These Gods love, hate, bicker, and make mistakes just like us mortals do every day. Not only are these great stories, but it was nice to get some education into the Norse legends. Reading this book has definitely inspired me to further expand my knowledge of mythology. It was nice to learn more about Thor and Loki than from what I’ve seen in the films. If you have an opportunity, take the time to read this one (or anything for that matter) by the wonderful Neil Gaiman.

“He said nothing: seldom do those who are silent make mistakes.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!