Reading, Writing & Other Addictions

Facing Reality Through Fiction

Book Review: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

The great thing about working for a book store is that you get your eyes opened to books you otherwise would have passed by.  Every Thursday at 10am, part of the Marketing Department of Half Price Books meets with one of the New Book Buyers to talk about what titles we are going to promote though signage, email, and yes, the book club.  I was given the job of coming up with eight questions for every book club title we choose.  So, it’s also my job to read every book club title we choose.  Most of them I like, a few are meh, and a couple I desperately wish I could get back the hours I wasted reading them.  A Man Called Ove, our August/September book club title, by Fredrik Backman is the best book club title we have ever chosen. But if we hadn’t chosen it, I never would have read it, which would have been a shame, because I truly believe it’s the best book I’ve read this year.

A Man Called Ove is a Swedish novel about a fifty-nine-year-old man called Ove (bet you never would have guessed that) who is forced into early retirement, so he spends his time patrolling the neighborhood, putting bikes back into the bike shed, making sure people are recycling correctly and complaining about dogs who pee on his paving stones.  All his neighbors think of him as the “bitter neighbor from hell,” and he doesn’t think much of them either, coming up with descriptive names for them like “the Lanky One” and “the Weed” because he can’t be bothered to learn their real names.  Then an accident prone man, his pregnant wife and their two girls move in next to him (smashing his mailbox in the process), and through a series of humorous and somewhat touching events they force Ove to come out of his shell and engage with his neighbors.  As Ove’s life is invaded by this family, you learn about Ove, and how he became the cranky old coot everyone believes him to be.

Backman uses clever chapter titles to draw in his readers, and the bittersweet humor that runs through the book makes Ove an endearing character.  I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’m not going to tell you why he tries to buy an iPad or why he needs to put up a hook, or why one of my favorite characters is a cat. What I am going to tell you is you need to read this book.

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Book Review: Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge

If you, like me, enjoy retellings of classic fairy tales, especially if they are clever, like Merissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, then you will love Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge.  This book explores how no heart is pure, and there is a little bit of a beast in all of us.

Nyx has always been told that she must marry the Demon Lord who makes his home in the tower ruins.  Her father bargained her life away before she was even born in order to make his wife happy.  His wife had desperately wanted children, so he made a deal with the Demon Lord. If the Demon Lord would grant them children, then one of their daughters would be given back to the Demon Lord as his wife. So, Nyx was chosen to be his bride. She was also chosen to destroy him and save her country of Arcadia from the Demon Lord’s evil bargains and demon horde. Resentful of her fate, and jealous of her sister’s blessed life, Nyx meets her fate with anger and intelligence, acknowledging that her attitude and hatred toward those who failed to save her, failed to love her, make her a suitable bride for a monster.  But her attitude seems to amuse her husband, as does the attempts on his life, and slowly, this woman who has never been shown love but has always been treated like a sacrifice, discovers what it is like to be loved and have another sacrifice for her.

Still, her mission remains: she must destroy the Demon Lord and save Arcadia.  But how can she save Arcadia after she sees the evil in their selfish hearts as they so willingly make their bargains, knowing what they will have to pay for it?  And how can she destroy the Demon Lord after she sees how much he has done to try to save her people, after she sees how much he is willing to do to save her?

Throw in a house that changes every time you turn around, much like the staircases at Hogwarts, though much more dangerous, and a servant called Shade, who isn’t much more than a shadow (literally), and you have an intriguing book that was firing my imagination long after I finished it.  (I even woke up this morning and reread the ending, after having finished it at 2a.m.)

I would suggest this book to anyone who enjoys a good fairy tale, or even just a good story.

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I’m Starving!

The Friday before a three-day weekend tends to be a day a lot of people take off, but in my company, if you work the Friday before a three-day weekend, the company will sometimes spring for a pizza lunch.  They haven’t done so the last two holidays, so when I got the email about the pizza and salad that would be arriving at 1pm, I thought “YES!  I can grab some salad and save a little money.”  (I am no longer eating pizza.) Plus, I had been eating the same salad for the past three out of four days, so a little change would be good.

The pizza arrives. I hear others in my department passing my office to head to the reception area. I get up and walk around my desk, pizza…salad on the brain.

The phone buzzes and I hear a voice “Julie?  You there?”

Technically.  “Yes.”

“Can you help me out, and print some more of the 11″ X 17″ signs for the book signing tonight?”

I am the Traffic Manager for Half Price Books.  My job is to make sure vendors, stores, distribution centers and my team have what they need to do their jobs–as well as tell them by when they need to have it done.

I walk back around my desk and pull up the signs.  The person on the phone is still talking about why she needs the signs, but I’ve stopped listening.  There is pizza…salad down the hall waiting for me.  She has taken a breath, so I say, “Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll have them ready for you to pick up.”

I set up the file and can’t for the life of me remember how many signs she said she wanted.  I put a number in the quantity field and hit print.  I go to the printer to pick up the signs.  The cubicles and other offices around mine are empty. Everyone is down the hall, stuffing their face with free pizza.

The sign printed out the wrong size!  I stand there holding only a  1/4 of the sign.  I remember changing the page from letter to tabloid, but we got a new printer last month and when we first got it, no one could print anything other than 8/5″ X 11″. We threw several fits until it was solved.

I walked back to my computer and tried to print again.  Again, the same problem.  For the third time, I check all my settings.  Everything looks right, boxes all ticked, all info entered.  What is the problem?

I email the IT Dept. “If you have parked under the balcony, you may want to move your car because the new printer is about to have an accident.”

Person stops by my office to pick up signs. “Sorry. I’m having printer problems.  I can’t print the sign.”

“Oh, okay. Well, I can. Can you just email me the file?”

And you didn’t ask this in the first place, because…”Sure.”

I email her the file. Then start toward the reception area.  At least, I will be rewarded with pizza…salad.

I can see the boxes.  I can smell the cheese.  My stomach grumbles.

“Julie!”

A member of the IT Dept. is walking straight towards me, pointing. She walks right by me saying, “Let’s fix your printer problem.”

But the pizza…salad.

I follow her to my office.  She checks all my settings, has me input my password, reinstalls the drivers, blames the problem on the Art Dept. and their penchants for Macs, and hits print.  The paper comes out the right size.  YEA!

She wants to check it again.  Again, it’s the same.  She deletes the other printer drivers so that my computer won’t be confused, and says I shouldn’t have this problem again, but if I do…

She leaves.  It’s after 2pm.  I’m starving.  I reach reception.  People are still getting pizza, and it smells so good.  But I can’t have any pizza.  I’m on a diet.  I reach the end of the table to find an empty pan.

“Is there any more salad?”

“Nope.”

I give the receptionist my biggest puppy dog eyes, as though she could wave her new Ballerina Barbie and more salad would appear.

She shrugs.  “You should have gotten here sooner.”

 

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Book Review: The Finisher, by David Baldacci

 

I know I’m coming late to the game on this one, but I just finished reading it last week, and I can’t get it out of my mind (and I’ve read two and a half books since I finished).

Last year, David Baldacci came to my Half Price Books store in Dallas, TX, and I had the privilege of working the event.  Now, for those of  you who don’t know who David Baldacci is: He is New York Times (NYT) Bestselling suspense novelist responsible for the John Puller series, the King and Maxwell series and the Camel Club series.  However, the book he was promoting at Half Price Books was a new Science Fiction Young Adult novel.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, The adult suspense novelist has penned a Young Adult SciFi novel, and it is amazing!  I was a little reluctant to read it at first.  I thought what does David Baldacci know about SciFi. After reading it, I can tell you, the man is not only a spectacular storyteller but also a closet geek!

The Finisher follows Vega Jane, a fourteen-year-old “female,” who is struggling  to make ends meet and take care of her little brother after her parents end up in the Care facility. Then, when she sees her friend and mentor Quentin Herms disappear into the Quag, a place no one should ever go, Vega starts to wonder if there could be a way through the Quag and a life for her outside of her village. As she begins to investigate why her friend would have disappeared in the Quag and why the Council is lying about Quentin’s disappearance,  strange, mystical, magical things start happening to Vega. As enemies and allies begin to emerge, Vega must fight for her life in both the magical world she has been thrust into and the physical world she has always known.  This book keeps you guessing until the last page, so that when you put the book down, you want to immediately pick up the next book, (which was released last fall) The Keeper.

I will admit the book threw me off a couple of times as I adjusted to the way his characters talked (e.g. sliver is a unit of time, like a minute), but the more I read the more I was sucked in, and I ended up comparing the book to Tolkien’s works and the television series Firefly in regards to its use of language.

My admiration for Mr.Baldaccci continues to grow with every one of his books I read. If you like SciFi, this is a book you need to read.  Also, if you get a chance to meet David Baldacci, you should.  He is nice to all his fans, and he tells the funniest stories.

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Epiphany

epiphanyausWhen they saw the star they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him, Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and of myrrh.  –Matthew 2:10-11

Since yesterday I wrote about Twelfth Night, it’s only fair that today I write about Epiphany (the day after Twelfth Night).  January 6 is Epiphany and is celebrated around the world as the day the three wise men visited the baby Jesus, though personally I don’t know where they get that.  The Bible just says they came after the birth of Christ, which could be two minutes or two years. The Bible is very vague on that matter.  However, Herod’s decree was to kill all boys two years of age and younger, so Jesus could have fallen anywhere within that age range.  However, since the Scripture says they came to “the house,” we can assume He had gotten out of the manger by that time. However, we also know they were still in Bethlehem.  Regardless, of whether or not this day was actually the day the three wise men visited Jesus, the celebration of Epiphany is more about the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, and is one of the oldest Christian celebrations.

Epiphany also celebrates the time when John the Baptist baptized Jesus, which represents Jesus’s manifestation of the Son of God to the world. Epiphany is also the start of Carnival, which culminates with Mardi Gras, which of course leads into lent which ends with Easter.  So really from the day after Thanksgiving until Easter there is some religious celebration going on.

Epiphany is a public holiday in many countries.  In many Latin America countries, it’s the three wise men and not Santa Claus that bring gifts to children. In France, there are parties for both children and adults, and in Spain, children leave their shoes, filled with straw for the wise men’s camels, outside on Epiphany eve, and in the morning the straw has been replaced with cookies, candy or gifts.  Makes me wonder how they celebrate Christmas.

Anyway, happy Epiphany!

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Twelfth Night

images-2“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” –Malvolio, Twelfth Night

What a great quote to begin this blog, on the 5th of January, 2015.  Greatness is not something to be feared.  As I start a new year, the one I’m dubbing “the year I finally force an publishing editor to accept by novel,” this quote is a strong start to the year.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that January 5 is actually Twelfth Night, which is the day that the 12 drummers drumming were sent to me by my true love.  Of course with all these maids, lords, and pipers I have no idea where these drummers are going to sleep tonight. Not to mention that my neighbors are starting to complain about the noise the birds are making.

Actually, Twelfth Night is the day before Epiphany and the end of the medieval winter festival, which began on All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.  That’s one long party. On Twelfth Night it was a common practice to follow “The Lord of Misrule” and switch places.  The peasants became the lords and the lords, the peasants. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my boss to go along with this idea today.)

“The Lord of Misrule,” of course was the king. To decide who was to be “The Lord of Misrule” everyone would get a cake that contained a bean, and the person who found the bean was the ruler, like the king cake around Mardi Gras. In fact, in many places around the world, a king cake is baked on Twelfth night, and eaten on Epiphany. At midnight, the world was put right, and his rule ended

William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written to be preformed on Twelfth Night, just in case you were wondering. However, the earliest recorded performance was in Middle Temple Hall on Candlemas, which is February 2.  It seems that even Shakespeare missed a deadline or two.  The play is true to Twelfth Night as many of the roles of the characters are reversed.  Viola dresses as a man and a servant, and the servant Malvolio aspiring to be a nobel.  I wonder if they timed the play so that the reveal (or the end) was at midnight, when things were put right.

Does anyone else feel the need to watch Shakespeare in Love, whose main character was named Viola, and where Queen Elizabeth commissions Twelfth Night from Will Shakespeare, and then watch She’s the Man, which is a modern day telling of Twelfth Night, starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” –Orsino, Twelfth Night

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Trivia Day!

images-1Today is Trivia Day!  One of my favorite pastimes, trivia!  Here are some wonderful little bits I have read through the years (most from Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts).

  1. Tissue paper gets its name from its original use: it was designed for placing between the folds of extremely fine gold-woven fabric, or “gold tissue.”
  2. Martha Washington’s silver service was the source of the silver that went into the first U.S. coins.
  3. The Egyptians trained baboons to wait on tables.
  4. The Europeans once called the giraffe a camelopard, because they thought it was the product of a camel breeding with a leopard.
  5. Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 47 days in 1961 before someone noticed it was upside down. About 116,000 people has passed in front of it before it was noticed.
  6. All of Reykjavik the capital of Iceland, is heated by underground hot springs.
  7. New York City’s administrative code still requires that hitching posts be located in front of city hall so that reporters can tie their horses.
  8. Chocolate was once considered a temptation of the devil. In Central American mountain villages, no one under the age of 60 was allowed to drink it, and if churchgoers broke this rule, they could be ex-communicated.
  9. The only thing that Isaac Newton said when he was a member of Parliament was to ask someone to open the window.
  10. The average married woman in seventeenth-century America gave birth to 13 children. (PTL I am neither married, nor live in seventeenth century America.)

Happy Trivia Day!

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All You Need to Know About Straws

234_straw-940x626-300x199Did you know that the paper drinking straw was patented on January 3, 1888?  Oh, there were straws before then.  In fact, archaeologists discovered a gold and lapis lazui drinking straw in a Sumerian tomb.  (By the way, in case you were wondering lapis lazui is a bright blue semi-precious stone and the Sumerians were an ancient people who lived in what would today be Iraq.) Apparently the Sumerian men used straws made from hollow rye grass to drink beer. (Archaeologists found a seal dating bace to 3100 B.C. to prove it.) Paper straws were not invented until 1888.  (You knew, I was going to say that, didn’t you?)  Legend has it that Marvin Stone, a paper cigarette holder manufacturer was sitting around with some friends sipping his mint julep through a hollow rye straw, not particularly enjoying the gritty residue the straw left in his drink, not to mention the way the straw would break down after a while.  So he went back to his factory and wound strips around pencils, and then began playing with a wax-coating, so the straw wouldn’t break down.  Two years later, Stone’s factory was producing more straws than cigarette holders. Now, most straws are made from plastic, though you can still find paper straws. it’s estimated that McDonald’s alone used at least 60 million plastic straws daily world wide.  That’s a lot of straws.

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January 2, Isaac Asimov’s Birthday

isaac-asimovIsaac Asimov, one of the most prolific writers on the twentieth century, was born this day in 1920.  Though Asimov is best known for his science-fiction writing, this trivia hound is more familiar with his book Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, which by the way, has an interesting fact about Isaac Asimov.  Did you know that Isaac Asimov wrote six popular books of science fiction for high school students under the pseudonym Paul French?  Neither did I until I read his book.

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia on January 2, 1920.  His family immigrated to New York when he was three years old.  He taught himself to read when he was five, and fell in love with science fiction.  He was first published at 18, and just a few years later wrote and had published “Nightfall,” a short story that the Science-Fiction Writers of America voted to be the best science-fiction short story ever written.

Asimov wrote more than 500 volumes and an estimated 90,000 letters on postcards and has works in all the major Dewey Decimal categories, except for Philosophy.  (I think James Patterson must be trying to see if he can write more.  I think he has a book coming out every other month in 2015.) However, The Gods Themselves is the only book by Asimov where readers will find aliens and sex in the story.  Why no more aliens?  Well, he once wrote a story with aliens that was rejected because he portrayed the aliens as superior to humans.  So, Asimov decided he’s forego the whole mess and never wrote about aliens again, until his readers asked, “Why don’t you ever write about aliens or sex?”  The Gods Themselves has not only aliens and sex, but also alien sex, so everyone is covered.

Isaac Asimov died in 1983, a mere 63 years old, from AIDS related complications.  He contracted the disease after receiving infected blood in a transfusion during his heart bypass surgery.  His widow, Janet, kept the true cause of Asimov’s death a secret for more than a decade after death.

To close, here are a few more interesting facts about Isaac Asimov I found while reading and surfing the net:

  1. Isaac Asimov was afraid of flying.
  2. He got his Ph.D. in Chemistry at Columbia, and became a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. (Could you imagine walking into class and realizing your teacher was one of the most famous science fiction writers ever?)
  3. He was a claustrophile, which is the opposite of a claustrophobe. He enjoyed being in small, enclosed spaces.
  4. Isaac Asimov showed up on the Ghostbusters movie set one day.  It seems that his daily commute was disrupted by filming, and he was upset.  He ended up yelling at Dan Akroyd, who was crushed because he admired Asimov’s writing.
  5. Asimov coined the word “robotic.”
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Happy New Year!

These are not the black eyed peas I made. These look a lot prettier.

These are not the black eyed peas I made. These look a lot prettier.

Since I was a child black eyed peas have always been part of our New Year’s tradition.  I was told that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day would bring me luck in the new year.  I was also told that if you could eat 365 black eyed peas on New Year’s Day, you wouldn’t have to eat black eyed peas any other time during the year.  After doing a little digging, I have discovered that the good luck story was true, but the story about eating 365 peas so that we wouldn’t have to eat them for the rest of the year, seems to be something my family made up to get us to eat their vegetables.

Black eyed peas being good luck is a Southern tradition that dates back to the Civil War, when Union soldiers would either eat or destroy the crops of Southern farmers and plantation owners as they marched through.  However, they never ate or destroyed the crops of black eyed peas because they thought black eyed peas where feed for cows and not fit for human consumption.  So the Southerners would eat them and think they were lucky to have them. Black eyed peas are usually cooked with either pork or bacon (I cooked mine with bacon), because  hogs root, which represents pushing forward.

Since I was looking into New Year’s traditions, I also decided to look into why New Year’s is celebrated on January 1st, as it never made since to me to begin the year in the middle of winter.  However, after doing a little research it starts to make a little more sense.  Did you know that the earliest record of a New Year’s celebration is in 2,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, but it was celebrated at the vernal equinox (mid-March), which of course made more sense to me, as Spring is the time when everything becomes new again.  Actually, many different places celebrated the new year at different times.  The Egyptians and Persians started the new year on the Fall equinox (September) and the Greeks at the Winter solstice (December).

So, why do we celebrate in January? Well, the month of January had to be created before we could start to celebrate during it.  The calendar used to only have 10 months, which is reflected in the names for the months (septem=7, octo=8, novern=9, decem=10 in latin).  So the early Roman calendar had the new year starting in March, until 700 B.C. when Numa Pontilius, the second king of Rome added January and February to the calendar.  January comes from the Roman God Janus, the two-faced god, who was the god of doorways and beginnings.  Janus had one face that looked back into the past and one face that peered into the future.

Another reason I found for the timing of the new year was that January is after the Winter solstice and therefore the days begin to get longer again.  The longer hours of daylight effect the cycles of crops and even the emotional state of people.  Therefore, the Romans began celebrating in January.  Not that the Romans celebration had any effect on when the Greeks or Egyptians celebrated. Until the Julian calendar came into effect.  This calendar was a solar based calendar and decreed that the new year began on January 1.  Unfortunately, the Julian calendar suffered from a math problem and so days kept getting added to the calendar.

Then, during the Middle Ages, celebrating the new year on January 1st was actually abolished for having it’s origins in a pagan ritual, so people started celebrating New Year’s on December 25 (because of the celebration of Christ’s birth) or March 1 or March 25 or Easter (I guess we shouldn’t mention Christmas and Easter are also based on pagan rituals that Christians adopted as their own).

Fortunately, in 1582, during the time of Pope Gregory XIII, the Jesuit astronomer Christopher Calvius worked out the math and gave us leap year day.  Thus, the Gregorian calendar was born and most of the world reverted to celebrating New Year’s on January 1,  There were still the hold outs, mostly Protestants in England and the American colonies, who didn’t fall in line until 1752.

So question answered. Now we know why we celebrate New Year’s on January 1.  We can blame it on the Romans.

Happy New Year!

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