Saturday, January 29, 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Middlesex is one of the most powerful books I've read recently. It is the story of a Greek family during and after their immigration to America. It is told by Cal (formerly Callie), a male born with enough female characteristics (and an incompetent, family friend for a doctor) to pass for a girl. Only when he reaches puberty does he start to discover the way that he’s different.

The genetic defect in Cal is due to the emergence of a recessive gene and the emergence comes from inbreeding in his family. His parents were first cousins and his grandparents on his father’s side were brother and sister.

What I liked the most about this book is the way it took people in situations we try not to think about and presented their personalities so thoroughly that I sympathized and even identify with them. This is true in both the case of Cal’s gender identity and in the incestuous marriage between Lefty and Desdemona. These people also have other flaws, as do the rest of the book’s characters, but these flaws are the type an average reader can identify with. By doing this Eugenides forces us to rethink our prejudices concerning the less common shortcomings.

My only complaint is in the point of view choice. Often the story is told from Cal’s point of view while detailing the thoughts of other characters, thoughts he couldn’t have known. A few times he says he’s making up those thoughts, but that comes off more like an excuse than a legitimate rationalization.

Overall, the book is wonderfully written, with the perfect amount of detail and action. I was always in the heads of the people I was reading about, understanding what they were feeling and why they made their decisions. But at the same time the story is filled with carefully crafted allusions to Greek mythology and modern culture. There is a tremendous amount of analysis of Middlesex on the web. It’s fun to go through some of that when reflecting on the novel.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kindle 3

I've had a Kindle for a little more than a month now, so I've had enough time to get the feel for its advantages and disadvantages while it isn't old enough to lose the new gadget feel. I wasn't sure I wanted to move on from the comfortable feel of paper books, but I soon found I love this way of reading.

The main hesitation I've heard people express about e-readers is the same one I was feeling, some readers don't want to give up the feel of books. I have a cover for my kindle that has compensated in that area surprisingly well. With the cover I open it up and hold it the same way I hold a paper book. Yet I can also read it in other ways. I use it while exercising. I can place it on the little ledges that are on the exercise bike and treadmill at the gym. Then I can increase the text size so I can read it without my magnifying glasses. With paper books turning pages is tricky, but with a Kindle I just have to punch a button. And if I want to refer back to something I just read that's simply a different button.

The text is very readable. It does require light, which some people see as a disadvantage. There is a cover available with a built in light, but for my uses I didn't feel that was something I wanted. For the rare times I need to read in the dark I can use the Kindle application on my laptop. My Kindle and my application can sync up, so finding my place isn't difficult.

On the Kindle 3 there are a few new features Amazon has labeled as "experimental." These are: Web browsing, playing MP3 files, and text to voice. I have enough devices for playing MP3 files, so for me that wasn't something I care about. The other two were interesting enough for me to try. The web browsing seems weak. I tried to look at my facebook page and had trouble scrolling down. But it worked acceptably for other uses. I could check the weather or look at a movie schedule without any significant problems. I suppose it is good for someone who wants a mobile device and doesn't have a smart phone.

I like the text to voice, but it takes awhile to get used to the synthesized voice. There is no expression, of course, and the pauses aren't always right. I get the feeling the software gives too much emphasis to commas and not enough to periods. I compensate for that by setting it on the slow speed, so I have time to correct those situations in my head. I like mixing the ways I read with some listening and some standard reading. When I do that I think I get a better feel for a book.

The disadvantages I've found are worth noting. It doesn't function well in cold temperatures. My Kindle locked up in that situation and required a reset. Reading in the cold isn't something I do very often, but if I was someone who liked winter camping, I'd bring a paper book for those situations.

The other think I don't like about e-readers in general is that they don't use compatible formats. I like the Kindle more than the others because it has so many available titles. (Motherless Soul has a Kindle version.) But I wish I could read epub formats.

The things I like the most about my Kindle are the way I can carry a library in my briefcase and the fact that my reading habit doesn't kill as many trees as it used to. But in the end the words are what's important, not the format on which they are shared.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Motherless Soul Discussions

Last Wednesday I met with a group of people at the Forsyth Library to talk about some of the concepts I covered in Motherless Soul. I read sections of the novel. We had some lively discussions about reincarnation and about mother/daughter relationships. The library did a wonderful job of hosting and I believe everyone there had a good time.

Because the book deals with past lives my characters are influenced by relationships they had in previous incarnations as well as events in their current lives. This aspect of the book allowed me to cover my theme of mother/daughter relationships in unusual ways. It was fun to write and it is fun to talk about, especially when readers express their own thoughts freely.

There are a couple of similar events coming up. Please join me if you can.

1. I'll be at Barnhill's on January 21 from 5:30 to 7:30 PM. That's at 811 Burke St. in Winston-Salem. Barnhill's is a wonderful store. They sell wine, art and gifts as well as books. The people who work there are knowledgeable and fun to be around. There will be a wine tasting when I'm there, featuring product from local wineries. I'm looking forward to that evening. (For the talk as well as the wine.)

2. For those of you who don't live in this area I also have an appearance scheduled on blogtalk radio. (The Monica Brinkman show on Feburary 24 at 7PM CST, 8PM EST, 6 Mountain and 5PM PST.) If you've never participated in one of these discussions, you should. When you call in you get to be part of the show. I did that last week for a discussion of Musical Chairs by Jen Knox. The theme for my show will be mother/daughter relationships. I imagine the talk will start with how I handled the subject in Motherless Soul, but it will quickly change to a more general discussion. The link is if you would like to learn more.

Please come to Barnhill's or call in to Monica's show. It will be fun to talk to as many people as possible.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

To Begin Again by Jen Knox

I recently had the opportunity to preview a collection of short stories that is due to come out in March (although that schedule could change). This book, by Jen Knox, will be titled To Begin Again and will be published by All Things That Matter Press.

Jen's previous book is Musical Chairs, a memoir about a young woman growing up in a working-class family. The story covers her problems such as panic attacks and her rebellion from her family. She goes through long periods of alcoholism and earns her living as a stripper. It is a brutally honest reflection on her life.

To Begin Again is fiction rather than memoir, although the lines sometimes seem to blur. But Jen's background comes through. The characters can be rough or fragile, but always human. They deal with diverse issues such as physical abuse or a parent with dementia. One story even has a situation where a woman is trying to break up a couple by simultaneously attempting to seduce both the man and the woman. The characters in that relationship have their failings, but also their strengths. Another story gives us the thoughts of a clerk in a convenience store who has to deal with a tedious life, a boss who shows her no respect, and an opportunity to steal some cash. The twists in that plot will surprise the readers as they will in most of the other works.

Many of these stories have appeared previously in literary journals. The only one I read before I picked up this collection is Dandelion Ghosts, which is also my favorite work in her book. Keep your eyes open for the release of To Begin Again. It will be worth the wait.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Literary Resolutions - 2011

I love New Year resolutions. Most of the reactions I get from my friends indicate that I'm in a minority when it comes to this. But to me they represent a chance to reevaluate how things are going and to get a fresh start.

2010 was a good year for me. Despite the economy I kept my job. Despite turning 60 I didn't have any serious health issues. And I had more fun with my writing than any other year I can think of. So for me the fresh start is probably less important this year than it has been in the past.

But here are the resolutions anyway:
1. Finish the sequel to Motherless Soul. I'm about halfway through, so this is doable, but I have to be careful not to rush and get sloppy. (I guess I'm hedging on this one already.)
2. Reread Anna Karenina. I've read it a few times, once even read it twice in a row, but it has been over five years since the last time.
3. Read Middlemarch. My daughter, who loves classics, gave me a copy last year, so I don't have an excuse not to get through it.

And here's another list. These are the ones I'm resolving to continue:

1. Keep up this blog. I hope since you're reading this, you'll be pleased about that.
2. Keep working with my writers' group. This one will be fun. I'm in a group with three other writers with work on a very high level. I love reading and critiquing what they write.
3. Keep up with my book club. We've got a very eclectic group, so the choices have exposed me to some interesting works I wouldn't have picked up on my own.
4. Keep up the effort to sell Motherless Soul. It's been out for more than a year now, so things have slowed down a bit, but the readings and signings are still fun.

That's it for mine. I hope everyone has a great 2011!