Anna Karenina Challenge, Day 4

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Oh, Russian literature.  Why do you have so many side characters with complicated names??  I have been making a character chart/web as I often do with books that have too many characters.  However, this one is exploding off my piece of paper.  I will need to recopy it.  BIGGER.

Yes, all of my photos are backwards because I take them with photobooth, so the chart will be hard to read. But at least you can see the chaos. I will take a real picture of my final chart so it may be helpful to others.

Anyways, this is insane.  Four days in and I am only on page 25.  And really, barely anything has happened.  Except for the introduction of 12 characters (and some minor ones I made the executive decision to leave off the chart.  For the purposes of my sanity.)

An Epic Rejection

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So, a couple of weeks ago, I sent one of my stories out to about 14 journals and magazines.  Not expecting much, but who knows?  So far, I have gotten 3 rejections…but one was an EPIC WIN!  How could a rejection be a win, you ask?  Well, on my rejection from Ploughshares, handwritten, was “Please send us other work.”  Someone took the time to write that.  With a please.  I absolutely freaked out.  I told everyone.  My poet friend Jamaal May confirmed for me that the excitement was justified, saying “That’s fucking colossal!  That’s a big fucking deal!”  As a side note, Jamaal is fabulous.  His first poetry collection, “Hum”, is coming out from Alice James books in 2013 and you all should really check it out.  I have had a sneak peak and it is genius.  Check out some of his work HERE.

Victory.

Anyways, I am PUMPED.  I feel like a real writer.  I would like to thank my Bucknell professors, Porochista Khakpour, Claire Vaye Watkins, G.C. Waldrep…I would like to thank the Academy, and my fellow nominees, and Manolo Blahnik for custom designing my shoes for the red carpet…oh wait, that last part was my Oscar acceptance speech.

Also, there is the Anna Karenina challenge.  Yes.  About that.  I tried to start the book last night but there were complicated Russian names and I was sleepy.  I completed 3 out of 800 pages.  Great start.  However, I absolutely adore the first line.  It is so perceptive and inspiring to me, as I often write about unhappy people and dysfunctional families.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  – Leo Tolstoy

Hopefully I’ll get a little more read tonight…

The Anna Karenina Marathon Challenge and Literary Adaptions

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Let the Anna Karenina cramming begin!

Now that the holidays are getting closer, tons of exciting movies are coming out, including a couple of major, high-budget literary adaptions.  The first to come out (I think it was today, actually) is Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley.  My brave friend Katy read the entire novel a couple of years ago and struggled with it.  Ah, Russian literature.  I am dying to see the movie but I have a personal rule that I have to read the book first.  This rule began when I attempted to read Fellowship of the Ring after seeing the movie and found the book so slow-moving in comparison that I just couldn’t finish.  It was tragic, so I won’t make that mistake again.  The only thing is, since the movie is now out and I have been distracted by a behemoth work of another author (*ahem* Stephen King), I have very little time.  I did a bunch of Googling and it seems that the average answer to how long a movie is in theaters is 6-7 weeks.  To be safe, I am going to try to read this 800 page book in 5 weeks.  I think I can do it.  I will need to seriously resist my tendency to read 3 books at once.  Isn’t my copy gorgeous, by the way?  Barnes and Noble classic!!  I’ll keep you all updated on how my crazy challenge is going.

I am also excited for The Hobbit, which comes out soon and will star my favorite literary adaption duo – Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, who play Watson and Sherlock, respectively, in the BBC’s Sherlock.  In The Hobbit, Martin Freeman is Bilbo (now every time I watch Sherlock, all I can think is that Freeman was born to play a hobbit) and Benedict Cumberbatch is the voice of the dragon – casting perfection.  I have a lovely illustrated copy of The Hobbit that I am looking forward to reading after the Tolstoy madness is over.

Then, there is Life of Pi.  Both my brother and sister had to read it for high school English classes.  We didn’t have it in the curriculum when I was in high school, which makes me feel old.  Anyways, they didn’t particularly like the book, but this could be due to the fact that neither of them is much of a reader (I got all of the literary genes – they got math and science skills) and that books are never quite as enjoyable when you have to read it and discuss it for a class.  I gather from my brother that the book has a shocking and disturbing twist at the end, which sounds right up my alley.  If you have read it, no spoilers please!

I’m Back! I’m Alive! What I’ve Read in the Past Months

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Yes, I have pretty much disappeared from the blog-o-sphere for the past several months, I admit.  Lots has been going on, but I have mostly been lazy.  My grandfather passed away and I got rejected from a couple of jobs I thought I would be a shoe-in for, so that was rather depressing.  Then, of course, came Hurricane Sandy.  My house was inches from being crushed by a giant tree, I have had no power for a week, and I just had to take a sponge bath out of a bowl.  I am drafting this from a shelter.

Anyways, enough personal junk.  That’s not what my blog is really about.  Reading!  I have indeed been doing a lot of reading.  An insane amount. I finished the behemoth, 11/22/63 By Stephen King (I have linked to the book’s site, which is pretty cool.  Definitely go for the “1963” version rather than the “2001” version if you are going to look at it).  It was intense.  I had to alternate it at times with other books because it was just so long and involved.  For those who do not know, 11/22/63 was the date of the JFK assassination and the novel is about a man from 2001 who goes through a time-travel-portal and attempts to stop the killer before he strikes.  I now know more about Lee Harvey Oswald than I really ever wanted or needed to know.  Originally, I started reading the book because I was so surprised that Stephen King had written this tome of historical fiction.  I knew him mostly for Carrie and The Shining.  Well, this book is indeed a departure – impeccably researched history, deep philosophical moments about the merits of messing with the past, and three dimensional characters that you truly came to root for.  Even King’s version of Oswald has his moments.  But the book did embody some of that good old Stephen King creepiness, with a “Jimla” monster haunting our hero, Jake, and constantly reminding him that his presence in the past is unwanted and dangerous – the butterfly effect, if you will.  Eventually, Jake must make an impossible decision between love and his sense of duty.  The book was moving and frankly, just a straight up masterpiece.  Plus, the inner cover of the soft-cover edition has a fascinating hypothetical newspaper front page for the scenario in which JFK escapes assassination.  Who doesn’t love a good historical what-if chock full of romance and adventure?

While reading 11/22/63, I occasionally took breaks to read Thinner, also by Stephen King, though published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman (Yes, I was on a bit of a one-author binge.  But, hey, if you need to pick one…).  This book was a much thinner volume… (oh hahaha I am so punny).  It was about an overweight lawyer named

English: Stephen King signature.

English: Stephen King signature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Billy Halleck who accidentally kills an old gypsy woman with his car and is cursed by her father to become “thinner”.  At first, the random weight loss seems like a blessing…but then it keeps going…and going…and becomes a nightmare.  A chilling, quick read – would be great for a vacation or to read in chunks on your commute.  And who doesn’t love a good gypsy curse?  In the words of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds, “God bless you for making my life into a Cher song”.  (P.S. Watched the movie version AFTER I finished the book, as this is very important to me.  Entertaining but ultimately not very good.)

Next, I read I Was Told There Would Be Cake, a book of personal essays by Sloane Crosley.  I generally don’t read memoir-type books (why read about real life when you are forced to live in it all day every day??), but my library had a table of humorous books and I thought hey, I am depressed, let’s have a few laughs.  And I did.  I laughed a lot.  She is very relatable to myself, a twenty-something year old trying to make her way in life, date, and get an entry-level job.  She deals with a wide range of topics, from weird neighbors to bosses with anger management problems to serving as a maid of honor.  I recently bought the book for a friend for Christmas.  I would recommend it to female lovers of David Sedaris or Dorothy Parker.  Really funny stuff.

BANNED BOOKS WEEK!! September 30-October 6.  So, since I am just posting this now,

Banned Books Week Banner

Banned Books Week Banner

you missed it.  BUT, still read a banned book.  My personal favorites are Alice in Wonderland and Lolita.  But, as I have already read those (I basically worship Vladimir Nabokov as a deity), I picked some different ones off of the banned books display at the library.  Side note, the librarians are staring to think I don’t have a life.  Anyways, my first selection was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  This is a rather horrifying futuristic-dystopian novel about a society (post some sort of nuclear fallout that rendered more women sterile) where the few fertile young women are basically used as walking, talking incubators/sex slaves.  The cruel regime that maintains control through mystery and fear is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1964.  I was glued to it for days but ultimately found the ending unsatisfying – I am sure that was the point, but it bugged me.  The novel had good thoughts and warnings but not much that I hadn’t read in other dystopian novels.

Speaking of that, my second banned books week selection was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  This book is fabulous and probably the most original, innovative book I have read in a long time.  Burgess creates an entire “dialect” of English, if you will – Nadsat, the coarse slang of the teenagers of this dystopian world.  At first, I found it difficult to read because there were so many made-up words.  I used the Nadsat Glossary on SparkNotes for a while, but eventually realized that it was ridiculous to stop and look up every unfamiliar word.  Eventually, my conclusion was to memorize the meanings of some important words, like droog (friend), horrorshow (good, great), untraviolence (rape) etc. and simply gloss over others or figure them out from context clues.  The book follows Alex, a boy growing up in a society where kids are violent and brutal beyond their years.  He is eventually arrested and put through a “rehabilitation” program.  The book is truly thought provoking and philosophical, asking serious questions about morality – if one is incapable of committing violent acts or thinking evil thoughts, is he truly good?  Do his moral actions mean anything?  Is he even human anymore?  Most of all, I love love loved the symbolism of the clockwork orange itself – it looks natural and wholesome on the outside, but on the inside it is manufactured, a machine.  It is unnatural and a bit creepy.  Love it.  Want more insight??  Check out THIS New Yorker article about the book written by the author himself.

Next, for Halloween, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  I was looking for some spooky fun – our lights have out due to the Hurricane so I needed entertainment and something creepy to read by the fire to make up for the fact that my town cancelled Halloween.  What I got was a seriously depressing book.  You know the sort of iconic scene with the lightening coming in through the roof and jump-starting the creature’s heart and Dr. Frankenstein laughing ominously and shouting “It’s alive!!” ?  Yeah, that doesn’t happen in the book.  The creation of the monster is dealt with extremely briefly and the rest of the novel wrestles with morality – what it means to play God and what dangers and responsibilities that carries.  Ultimately, Frankenstein gives his creature life and abandons him to the cruelty of the world.  They become each other’s worst nightmares and downfalls.  Basically, I should have gone for some Poe.

The Book That Cured My Reading ADD

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My recent inability to stick with a book for more than a chapter or two has been cured thanks to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  It was the first sentence of chapter one that got me:

“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter recieves a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.”

Wow.  How fabulous and mysterious and disturbing all at once.  The novel could be called genre fiction (fantasy), which some of my English major classmates would turn their noses up at, but I find it delightful and quite literary.  The writing is excellent and the descriptions are vivid and artfully done.  The story centers around the Night Circus, a mysterious carnival of oddities and wonders that only performs duirng the night and comes and goes without warning.  I have always been fascinated by the darker aspects of the circus and carnivals – the “freaks”, the nomadic lifestyle, the mysterious things that go on behind the scenes. 

Circus in Pécs

Circus in Pécs (Photo credit: antaldaniel)

This novel delivers on all counts with an eccentric proprietor, illusionists who have secrets and alterior motives, a contortionist who appears with no invitation or warning…

It is dark, suspenceful, lavish, and cloaked in mystery.  If I were not otherwise occupied by a family emergency, I would hide away somewhere and read it straight through. 

I Love One Story Literary Magazine

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There are two things that give me pure joy when I see them in my mailbox:  those bright red Netflix envelopes and the oversized white envelopes bearing the label “One Story“.

Mailboxes

Mailboxes (Photo credit: enigmapirates)

I have been having intense reading distraction lately; I started and abandoned several perfectly interesting books – Bleak House, Swamplandia, Game of Thrones, and The Bloody Chamber.  I just can’t seem to commit to a book for more than a few chapters lately.  I think this issue of One Story is exactly what I need.  The magazine consists of just that: one short story.  The magazine is a non-profit with the mission of preserving and honoring the form of the short story.  They strive for originality, often publishing experimental pieces.  My favorite of late was You, On a Good Day by Alethea Black.  The story is told entirely in the second person, which is highly unusual and difficult to do.  Further, the first half of the story is told in the negative (“you do not”).

I also love that the magazine strives for variety and independence.  They will only publish an author once, which ensures that they do not depend on a repetitive pool of writers for their material (ahem…The New Yorker).  They have published several acquaintances and friends of mine, including my fiction professor Claire Watkins and Bucknell‘s former Roth Resident Smith Henderson, whose One Story issue Number Stations  involves an ostrich and was so haunting and traumatic for my former poetry professor Shara McCallum that she doesn’t even like the talk about it.  You can order past issues of the magazine if you are interested.  Being able to support a non-profit with a great mission and receiving a magazine that I love?  Priceless.  I would recommend the magazine to any aspiring writer who wants examples of excellent experimental, fresh writing.  I hope to see my name on the cover of one of those colorful little magazines on day!

Tidbits of Literary Hilarity

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I am always on the hunt for funny twists on classic literature to entertain me and remind me not to be so serious about my work or my reading list.  Recently, I came across a couple of gems.  The first is Twitterature by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin.  It is always interesting to think about what classic characters would be like in the modern age.  This book imagines what icons like King Lear and Sherlock Homes would tweet, vividly and with clever humor.  Think you’ll never make it through Great Expectations?  Read a couple of tweets by Pip aka @piMp.  Although, the twitter feeds do contain spoilers, so be aware of that.  ImageNext, for lovers of Mad Libs, try Lit Libs by Patrick Baker.  This deliciously naughty book takes passages from famous novels, like Call of the Wild and Moby Dick and transforms them into Call of the Wild Municipal Dog Park and Moby ____ Tease.  Play with an equally lit savvy friend and laugh deviously as you insert kittens into Dracula and put Jane Eyre on the Jerry Springer show.

Source of Inspiration for Conflicts

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I was sitting around with a friend the other day, surfing the internet and laughing at entertaining websites, when we came upon one I hadn’t visited in a while: fmylife.com.

Weirdly, I got a ton of ideas for stories.  Yes, some of the posts are obviously fake.  Some are also unlikely and far-fetched, but isn’t that what we want for a story sometimes?  If a mishap was commonplace, it wouldn’t make such an interesting read.  Some of the posts are even deeply sad.  You may have to look through a lot to find one that speaks to you, but if you have writer’s block, it could really be worth it.  Look what I got from this one:

Today, I packed all my clothes in a black garbage bag, so I could easily move them to my new house. When I came back outside to load it into my car, the bag was missing, and all I could see was a garbage truck driving away with the week’s trash. FML

Scania front loader

Scania front loader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, losing one’s clothing?  Unfortunate but not Earth-shattering.  What else could have been in one of those bags that would be catastrophic to lose?  Don’t you just feel the ideas flooding in?  Or this one…

Today, after backpacking across Europe for a month, I picked up my dog from the doghouse. No one will listen to me or acknowledge the fact that he’s now missing two toes. FML

How in the world did that dog lose two toes?  Or if you are a humorous writer, this one…

Today, I woke up to my drunk great grandfather peeing on my cat and thinking it was absolutely hysterical. This isn’t the first time and he just moved in with me for the next six weeks. FML

Let the extreme family conflict commence!  If you find any super-evocative FMLs, post them in the comments section!  I’d love to see what you all find.

Flash Fiction: Swarm

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This is a piece of flash fiction I wrote for a contest.  There was a very tight word limit, which is why it is so short.  I didn’t win the contest (which was huge and international so I really wasn’t surprised), but I think this piece has the potential to say a lot about manmade destruction versus nature with some work.  Please let me know what you all think!  I love suggestions and criticism, as long as it is constructive.  Thanks for reading!

bees

bees (Photo credit: kokogiak)

Swarm 

Molly stepped through the garden of carnage, placing her feet gingerly as if the field would crumble beneath a misstep like an eggshell.  With each footfall, the lifeblood of the battlefield bubbled up around her soles.  As she tiptoed over scattered muskets and stone still hooves of horses, her schoolbooks slipped loose from her pudgy fingers and fell with a soft pat onto a tattered blue wool chest. Reminded of school, she turned slowly to gather up the curling bundles of pages.  A low sound, like the hum of a sewing machine, broke the silence of the misty morning and she paused, fearful.  Her quick breaths had been the only sounds she had heard since straying from her path.  Molly knelt next to the body from which the sound emanated – could he be alive?  The little girl’s skirts ballooned out and parted the sea of bodies, soaking up mud from the field.  She gently touched the gold Union insignia on the chest of the man’s uniform – there was movement there.  Not breath, but a stirring from within.  Suddenly, in a maelstrom of yellow and black, a riot of wasps burst from the festering entrails in which they had made their nest.  Molly let out a small gasp of shock and held perfectly still as they swirled around her and dispersed.  Not a single one harmed her delicate skin.