Literary Inspiration: The Night Circus

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Have you ever fallen in love with a book?  Just found yourself utterly entranced by the world it creates?  I think this happens all the time, can actually remember my father some 20 years ago telling me, in rapturous tones reminiscent of a little girl divulging her first crush, about this book series he had just started reading about a boy wizard at a magical boarding school.  My mom is going through something similar at the moment with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books; when she talks about them, I can see that she’s been positively enchanted.  As was I the first time I read my favourite book, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  I remember reading that blisteringly tragic final paragraph and then just sitting back in my chair, a melancholy smile playing at the edges of my lips, as I contemplated that weird ache in my chest that felt as though it was caught somewhere between heartbreak and hope.

Which is precisely how I felt when I finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, an elegantly languid tale of love, loss and the beauty of the unexplained as set against a mysterious after-hours circus.  This was the most beautiful book I think I’ve ever read, and it actually hurt a bit when the gorgeous tale of les Cirques du Reves and its creators, performers and devoted Reveurs drew to a close.  At the risk of sounding like a book jacket blurb, I would absolutely run away to join this circus.

On the subject of the story itself, a tale of two magicians whose chess game-like maneuvers play out over decades, sweeping the circus and its inhabitants into their increasingly dangerous orbit, I’m somewhat neutral.  It’s a love story, and a deeply satisfying one at that, but for me, this novel is all about the elegant, gothic carnival Morgenstern creates with her Night Circus.  This is an all black and white world, stark light-and-dark simplicity against which to highlight the incredible magical feats showcased within.  The only colours you’ll find in les Cirques du Reves are the blood red accessories the circus’s travelling fandom wear as a kind of identification, and on opening night, the rainbow-tipped flames in the hulking courtyard cauldron.

If a book could be said to be set designed, then this one has been, to within an inch of its life, and I adore it – I love the more is more is more approach!  It’s truly the most evocative novel I think I’ve ever read – I could picture every painted checkerboard floor, every striped canvas tent, every sumptuous midnight dinner menu, every impossibly beautiful feat of the unexplained.  And all the credit in the world to Morgenstern for this; she certainly has that Rowlingian flair for world-building.  That The Night Circus is her debut novel (the theme in my friends’ reading challenge for which I chose this book in the first place) is incredible; she’s a very gifted writer.  And not for nothing, because I’m exactly the kind of person who notices these kinds of things, but this was a beautifully edited book.  I can’t tell you how irked I get when I’m pulled out of a great story by some sloppy little editing error.  I get so peevish about it, I’ll actually grab a highlighter and aggressively circle it!  It’s a real delight to see someone (or someones) take the time and care to get it right the first time.

Because I’ve tasked myself with doing a manicure for each book I read for my friends’ reading challenge, I had to come up with one for The Night Circus.  But I couldn’t possibly have limited myself to just one design, not with so much great inspiration right there on the page…so I did five.  Actually six, but the sixth was whonkus and not quite what I had intended, so five it is!  Here I’ve done manicures inspired by Herr Thiessen’s dreamy courtyard clock, the entrance tunnel of stars, the spiral and checkerboard patterns painted on the ground and – my favourite – Celia’s wishing tree.

The Clock

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The Entrance

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The Grounds

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The Wishing Tree

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And then for good measure, because one does want a hint of colour, even in the midst of a black-and-white circus, I created a design inspired by the wrought iron cauldron in the centre of the courtyard.  The cauldron, a centrepiece of the circus in more ways than one, typically burns with stark white flames, but on the circus’s opening night, archers lit the flames with arrows tipped in a rainbow’s worth of rich colours.

The Cauldron

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Gosh, I loved this book; it was so pretty.  Big recommendation if you like a sweeping, slow burn of a love story and uncommonly evocative settings.  This one may require another read-through, and soon. 🙂

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Literary Inspiration: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

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Stephen King has mortality on his mind in this 2015 book of short stories, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that I read in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the theme of (no duh) short stories.  And now so do I; his creepy bleakness has a way of catching.  But I suppose I wouldn’t read King, and I certainly wouldn’t consider him my favourite author, were I opposed to being pulled into his twisted world of ordinary horrors run amok.

In this collection of short stories, some written in and around 2015 and others dating back much earlier than that, King’s preoccupied with those everyday horrors, particularly the fundamental unknowability of death.  You can tell from the bent of the stories gathered in this collection – chronic pain in The Little Green God of Agony, suicide in Herman Wouk is Still Alive and the reaper himself in Mr. Yummy, among many others – that the fallout from his 1999 car accident still weighs heavily on his mind.  References to chronic pain, illness and violent car crashes abound.

King also seems preoccupied with what I’d call everyday domestic horrors – your spouse abruptly dying while out running a mundane errand, your happy romantic partnership suffering irreparable harm, the loss of a beloved pet to accidental neglect.  Now in his early 70s, King seems more in touch with the real things that go bump in the night than ever before.

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Ah, but this is still the same man who writes about rains of frogs and killer time-munching fuzzballs and psychotic action figures come to life (well, that one’s Richard Bachman) and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is no exception to King’s screw-with-your-head approach to storytelling.  Bazaar actually kicks off with a particularly gory little monster car tale (Mile 81), before veering into something very reminiscent of Heart of Darkness (The Bone Church) and concludes with an old fashioned, super bleak end-of-times tale (Summer Thunder.)

For these nails, I drew inspiration from four of Bazaar’s stories.  I thought they’d all make decent nail art, even if they weren’t necessarily my favourites (that honour goes to Ur, an Amazon-produced tale about a Kindle e-reader from another dimension.)  Here we have, from index finger to pinkie, my one-finger versions of Dune, a story about a supernaturally prescient beach (here I have it just beginning to spell out King’s own name), Blockade Billy, a slow burn tale of murder on-the-mound, The Little Green God of Agony, the story of a man seeking to physically exorcise his chronic pain, and Premium Harmony, a quietly devastating story about an unhappy married couple arguing their lives away.  Classic King.

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Literary Inspiration: I’ll Have What She’s Having

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Cute manicure inspiration aside, I don’t have a lot to say about this book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: Adventures in Celebrity Dieting by Rebecca Harrington.  I chose this book to satisfy the to-be-read requirement in my friends’ reading challenge, predominantly because it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for the past two years, longing for precisely that, but also because I was in desperate need of a light, literary palate cleanser after The Handmaid’s Tale.

Following the sort of “I’ll do crazy crap for a year and then write about it” literary craze that started with Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, I’ll Have What She’s Having tosses writer Rebecca Harrington into the deep end of the celebrity dieting world as she attempts to emulate the weirdly restrictive eating habits of, among others, Madonna (macrobiotics), Karl Lagerfeld (Diet Coke), Marilyn Monroe (raw eggs in milk!) and Greta Garbo (pure, ear-splitting dietary insanity, with a heavy emphasis on a make-ahead (and apparently never-eat) celery loaf.)

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That all seems like fertile ground on which to mine a lot of excellent observational comedy, if I may mix my metaphors.  Yet I’ll Have What She’s Having was stubbornly flat, more a recitation of the unpleasant facets of these diets (the social isolation, the prohibitive costs, the biological disruptions) than any sort of insight, humourous or otherwise, into those same issues.  I was looking for something light, but this was just slight.  Clocking in at 161 pages of very large text and an inexplicable number of double-spaced paragraph breaks, it felt like a feature length magazine article that was needlessly stretched into a full length book.

The inside cover art did provide some pretty great nail art inspiration, however.  Can’t ever go wrong with bold graphics of food against a star-printed background.  That’s, like, right where I live!

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Literary Inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale

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When I was a younger woman (young enough to be an ignorant git, but old enough to know better) I studied The Handmaid’s Tale.  I was assigned Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel across a number of different English classes in both high school and university, and true to the nitwit form I spoke about in relation to Fahrenheit 451, it did not leave much of an impression with me.  Frankly, I don’t think I wanted it to, so fundamentally disturbed was I with the nightmare world that Atwood was presenting – the thought that I could be reduced to nothing more than the functioning of my womb was so utterly incomprehensible, it was not even worth thinking about.

But the times, they have changed.  Part of it is that I’m older now, and infinitely more thoughtful.  Too thoughtful – stories like The Handmaid’s Tale have a knack for burrowing deep into my brain, allowing me plenty of time to ruminate on the all too plausible possibilities of Life on Gilead.  I’m also more engaged with the world around me (not hard; I was, quite shamefully, not the most critical of thinkers in my early teens) and what I’m seeing scares the ever living shit out of me.  Here in North America (predominately south of the Canadian border, but still) hard-won gains in the areas of gender equality, women’s rights and reproductive rights are being walked back every single day.  The president of the United States is an admitted sexual abuser, and the fundamentalist vice president would sooner catapult me into the sun than speak to me directly, lest I tempt him with Satan’s forbidden fruit.  If that doesn’t sound very much like one of the Handmaid’s recollections of what immediately preceded the total collapse of American society, I really don’t know what does.

That horrific bit of anti-mimesis (life imitating art) is at present best demonstrated by the immense popularity of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.  I am beyond curious about this show, would very much like to watch it, but I know I can’t – I don’t care for either misery porn or torture porn in my entertainment, and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale deals in both areas frequently.

But with The Handmaid’s Tale very much on my mind, and with my friends’ reading challenge prompting me to pick up a secondhand book (this 20-year-old university bookstore-procured novel is definitely on its second, or maybe even third or fourth, hand) the time felt right to read it, really read it, and enjoy both the joy and utter terror that is born of informed reading.  The More You Know.

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The plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale are well known.  It’s the mid-1980s, and following an attack on Congress that claims the lives of most of the upper tiers of government, democratic rule is suspended, and then altogether abolished.  A group of theological extremists known as the Republic of Gilead eagerly step into the power vacuum created by this loss, brazenly reshaping the United States in their murderous, totalitarian image.  Women are separated from their families, rounded up and sorted into various colour-coded castes – baby blue for revered wives of Gilead’s commanders, muddy green for domestic-minded Marthas and blood red for Gilead’s “most precious” of human resources, the child-bearing handmaids.  Unwomen, women unable to bear children due to age or health, are assigned no colour; they’re simply sent off to the nuclear wasteland known as the Colonies to toil alongside other “criminals” until they drop dead from exposure.  Men who aren’t lucky enough to be one of Gilead’s “commanders” fare no better than their female counterparts – it’s very much a “Get in line or be executed” kind of regime – but if they aren’t a liberal or an academic or a scientist or gay or of any denomination other than Gileadean, they might be rewarded with a drafty room in a guest house and a choice new career washing some extremist bastard’s car.  But the women – all of them, no matter their distinguishing hue, or lack thereof – are subjugated, diminished and much, much worse.

In Gilead, everyone has a job – the wives passively alternate between smoking, loathing their husbands and knitting scarves for soldiers on a non-existent front line, the commanders pretend they’re big shots and weren’t entry level managers at some mid-level bank just four years ago (in between balling everything they can get their arthritis-riddled hands on at Jezebel’s) and the handmaids are forcibly raped every 30 days by both.  It’s a cruel indecency delivered on unwilling victims month after month after month in the name of “survival of the species” – everyone knows the bitter, husked-out wives are barren, it’s a fact, just as everyone knows the commanders are testosterone-saturated marvels of virility that could impregnate a marble statue at 10 paces.  Why waste all that human potential?  Simply enslave yourself a walking womb and you, too, can have a shredder in eight and a half to nine months!  Act now and we’ll throw in a free trip to the Colonies; can’t beat that!

Between all of the wild abuses of human rights, corporal punishment, religious hypocrisy, ultra far right extremism, torture and sexual abuse, there isn’t a lot of enjoyment to be derived from reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Yet I enjoyed it very much, now at this time in my life when I can finally appreciate it, although for reasons not entirely related to the story itself.

For me, this one’s all about the writing.  I love Margaret Atwood’s style; it’s spare without being sparse, direct without being pandering, brutal without being sensationalist.  It takes an immensely gifted author to weave such viscerally unpleasant subjects into a compelling, respectful tale.  I can think of very few writers who have pulled off such a delicate balancing act.  There’s nothing about this novel that’s not soul crushingly bleak, but there’s a kind of beauty in the Handmaid’s raw retelling of the life she led “before” versus now, even as you wonder how anyone could continue on in such circumstances.  I really, really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and was alternately delighted AND horrified to learn that I finally now “get it.”  How much I wish I didn’t.

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Because accompanying nail art is sort of the point of this Literary Inspiration series, I had the rather unenviable task of creating a manicure inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale.  Here I ran into a similar problem I faced when reviewing my favourite novel, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  It’s all right there in the title.  So how exactly does one go about creating respectful (?) nail art around such literary unpleasantness?  In that case I went less with a literal interpretation of the novel, eventually creating a manicure that I thought captured the overall feeling of the book, if not the details contained therein.  But for this Handmaid’s manicure, I went with a straight interpretation of the text, eventually landing on this delicate design of dandelion fluff as against a blood red background, inspired by a passage in which the Handmaid thinks of her young daughter Hannah, who she has not seen since they were violently separated trying to flee the United States, playing with dandelions.

“Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean.  I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun.  Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.  Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces, stains from the bitter milk on our fingers.  Or I’d hold one under her chin: Do you like butter?  Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose.  (Or was that buttercups?)  Or gone to seed: I can see her, running across the lawn, that lawn there just in front of me, at two, three years old, waving one like a sparkler, a small wand of white fire, the air filling with tiny parachutes.  Blow, and you tell the time.  All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze.  It was daisies for love though, and we did that too.”

No daisies, no love, no dandelions, and nothing but time.  The Handmaid’s Tale is too cruel, too devastating, too current, but all the same, it had to be reread, and I’m glad I did.  Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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Literary Inspiration: Fahrenheit 451

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Continuing my run of thoroughly depressing dystopian lit, this manicure was inspired by the latest book I’ve read in service of my friends’ reading challenge, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Banned books was the theme, although I actually couldn’t find it on any roundups of the usual verboten subjects.  I’ve no doubt it’s been banned, though, in pockets all across the world, time and time again, staggering irony notwithstanding.  I think Fahrenheit 451 will always be a lightning rod for that kind of attention, though I couldn’t find any major examples.  But I did think an entire novel about the violent destruction of written material and, by extension, the very essence of critical thought would more than suffice for the purposes of this challenge prompt.

Along with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (the super feelgood book I’m reading right now) I read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in grade 9.  And I understood the import of the underlying themes of both about as well as you would imagine, which is to say I was utterly clueless.  “Well, that’s bad,” I naively thought, “you shouldn’t burn books.”  And that’s about as deep as my critical assessment went of a world in which the written or recorded word has been banned, mindless reality TV reigns supreme and squadrons of “firemen” are dispatched to the homes of uncooperative citizens to violently torch their secret libraries.  I’m actually rather ashamed at how little thought I gave this all-too plausible nightmare, often a problem with material that has been assigned as school work – school books = ultimate boredom in most matriculating minds.

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But one thing that hasn’t changed between then and now is I still don’t like Fahrenheit 451.  A large part of the problem I have with the novel lies with its protagonist, a by-the-books (pun intended) fireman by the name of Montag in the midst of a major identity crisis – after a chance encounter with a quirky neighbour named Clarisse, a young woman filled to the brim with all of the whos, whats, wheres and whens sorely absent from Montag’s sterile life, he begins to question his purpose as a fireman, and indeed the very purpose of humanity itself.  If it sounds like weighty stuff, that’s because it is, and Montag barrels into his new role as a rebel agitator with very little care or forethought, dragging literally everyone into his unhinged, treasonous orbit – a kindly old academic, his deeply disassociated wife and his boss, the fire chief.  With the exception of the old academic, who simply has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these are terrible, craven people (maybe not Beatty, the scripture, prose and poetry-quoting police chief who willingly walks into his own demise) and they deserve their fiery ends.

But might Montag not also deserve such an end simply for being such such an unrelentingly insufferable know-it-all?  I mean, sure, you’ve got the violent autocrats on one side, the sort of people who use a robot called the Hound, a kind of euthanasia machine on legs, to unilaterally mete out their warped vision of justice, and on the other you’ve got a guy who’s really just overly enthusiastic about a thing he only just learned about yesterday, but somehow, the newbie is worse.  Montag is that guy who reads an article about cryptocurrency in the Economist whilst waiting for the dentist, only to go home and bankrupt the next four generations of his family purchasing mining gear.  He doesn’t think through anything, and he delights in throwing his newfound enlightenment in the alternately shocked and uncaring faces of his friends and family acquaintances and colleagues.  He’s drunk on knowledge and about as insufferable as a second year J-school student, a most dangerous state to find yourself in when cunning, stealth and careful planning are paramount to your very survival.  He’s Nicholas Cage screaming his blasted head off as he and ultra calm Sean Connery break out of Alcatraz in The Rock; the man just has absolutely no chill, not even when lives are on the line.

And as it’s through Montag’s lens that we get the story of Fahrenheit 451, it stands to reason that I’d then find the novel to play out like one giant lecture.  It’s groundbreaking work, to be sure, both at the time of its original publishing in 1953 and somehow still now, but it feels weighted down by its own self-importance.  Montag?  More like Mon-nag.  Heh.

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My copy also contains numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes, editing errors that make this insufferable J-school grad cringe, but also sort of wonder if this, too, was some sort of commentary on the unavailing nature of the written word – that it’s not the form the word takes, but rather the ultimate preservation of the word, the thought, the message.  Or maybe it was just crap editing.

This burned book manicure was great in theory, but perhaps ever so less successful in terms of execution.  I guess that’s what happens when you literally burn a book (hey, just a redundant page from one of TWO forewords, but I won’t lie and say I don’t LOVE the irony at work here) and stick it to your fingernails.  Things got quite messy, and this manicure is ultimately a marvel of creative photo editing.  There were also about nine different tense changes in those last three sentences – take THAT, Bradbury!  Immutability of the written word, my grammatically incorrect butt.  Clearly I’ve learned much since grade 9. 😉

Beauty and the Books

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Last January, feeling as though my childhood obsession with reading was departing for better-read pastures, I decided to re-up my commitment to the written, printed word and signed on to my blogger friend Julie’s 2017 reading challenge.  Julie’s a major reader, and the challenge themes she chose ran the full range of the genre spectrum, from classics such as Hemingway and Steinbeck, to those open to a bit more interpretation, such as a scarlet-hued tome, a book set in Europe or – my personal favourite – a book with words in it.  I figured with that much choice (24 prompts in total) I was bound to find lots of somethings to reignite that reading spark.

Spoiler alert, but that never happened!  I topped out at just 10 measly books (hmm, except for The Stand; I would never call The Stand “measly.”)  I’ve already made my peace with this epic literary suckage, and vow to do better next time, or this time, when I attempt this reading challenge thing once more, with feeling.  Julie has put together another reading challenge for 2018, this time with the collaborative help of our other blogger friend, Jay.  Dubbed the Bookish Jay and the Reading Mermaid Challenge, the 30 prompts (you’re killing me here, guys!) cover everything from travelogues and historical fiction, to a second pass at that Hemingway or Steinbeck you neglected to read last year (I know I did!)  We shall see how this goes.

One thing I do plan on carrying over from last year’s challenge to this one is some accompanying nail art.  Have to keep it at least moderately blog-relevant, you know? 😉  Plus I just like to put my own nail artistic spin on what I’ve just read.  Call it a review in lacquer.  Below you’ll find the manicures I painted to go along with each book, as well as a brief rundown of what I really thought about each pick.  Spoiler alert the second: This is not going to end well for The Walking Dead.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides – Re-read a beloved novel.  Creepy, overwrought and maudlin in the extreme, this melancholy novel about the suicides of five sisters is my favourite book.  The final paragraph never fails to move me to giant, sobby tears.

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The Walking Dead by a bunch of guys who are way more impressed with their thoughts than they should be – Art and literature.  Ah yes, Sandra, but tell us how you really feel!  Okay then – I f**king loathed this piece of shit graphic novel.  Ugly inside and out, the story lurches along in spasmodic fits and starts, hurtling over even the most basic of character development in favour of about 12 agonizingly detailed pages of a beloved female character’s confinement, torture and prolonged sexual assault.

I try to keep things PG around here, but I’m not going to mince words about this one – FUCK YOU, KIRKMAN ET AL.  If this book were mine and not my husband’s, I would have shredded it into filler for my cat’s litter box months ago.  It does not deserve my excellent nail art.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling – Magic.  Unpopular opinion ahoy, but I found this installment of the Harry Potter series to be an aggravating slog.  Very little actually happened to advance the story, until the final 100 or so pages when absolutely everything you thought you knew about the franchise was turned right on its head.  I think part of my problem with the novels is that I prefer the Harry of the movies to the Harry of the books.  Book Harry is a petulant, endlessly naval-gazing little whiner.  I’m not sympathetic to Book Harry.  Daniel Radcliffe really imbues the character with a lot more warmth and kindness than displayed as-written.  Just my (unpopular) opinion. 😉

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The Guardians by Andrew Pyper – A book gifted or loaned to you.  Eh?  And like The Walking Dead, just a little too impressed with itself.  This languid, go-nowhere story about murder, intrigue and haunted houses in small town Ontario should have been a slam dunk for this lifelong Ontarian.  Instead, its weirdly telegraphed story and ultra abrupt ending made for a jarring and ultimately forgettable read.

The Guardians Book

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – A book in your to-be-read pile. One of my oldest friends loves Jenny Lawson, and she turned me on to this hilarious blogger when she gave me this book.  So. much. taxidermy.

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill – A library find.  An evocative but ultimately forgettable rock and roll ghost story from Joe Hill, son of Stephen King.  In fact, I’m returning it to my building’s mostly-paperback library this evening!

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Duma Key by Stephen King – Cool book cover art that lures you in like bait.  An appropriate descriptor, given that this ultra creepy phantom abilities tale takes place at the beach.  I loved this novel, even if the ending went predictably pear-shaped.

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Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, with Nancy J. Stephens –  A book to learn something from.  I’ve actually had this little ice cream cookbook since I was about eight years old.  It contains my slightly-tinkered-with, should-be-patented chocolate chip cookie recipe, which I’ve made about five dozen times, but I’ve never really stopped to enjoy the Ben & Jerry’s origin story the book opens with.  It’s a sweet (heh) little tale.  The illustrations in this book are also the cutest things ever.

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The New Hunger by Isaac Marion – A story that takes you to another place and time, real or imagined.  The New Hunger, a prequel novella set in the Warm Bodies universe, seemed like the perfect choice to fulfill this fun, open-ended prompt.  In reality, the nuclear and industrial calamities suffered by the few remaining humans on earth hit just a bit too close to home.  And that’s before the zombies showed up.  Just re-reading this terrifying nightmare fable threw me into a major funk, beautifully written though it may be.

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The Stand by Stephen King – A book from a favourite author that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet.  A major funk that was helped not one iota by choosing this as a follow-up novel.  Picking up at the logical point where The New Hunger left off, The Stand, King’s early magnum opus, is a gloriously depressing read about the downfall of man.  I really, really enjoyed reading The Stand, loved coming at it from a sort of forensic fan perspective, but it left me in a weird head space that I was glad to be well and done with.

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In conclusion, I think I could stand to make better, possibly more uplifting choices in reading material going forward.  Maybe then I’ll actually finish one of these challenges, instead of dreading the next upcoming prompt.  Lessons learned and all that good stuff. 🙂

Literary Inspiration: The New Hunger

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First off, reading challenge assessment time.  Grade received: Total crap!  Because I’ve read just 10 books out of a possible 24.  And I can only lay so much blame at the feet of Stephen King, whose gigantic tomes I’ve already read in service of two of the challenge themes.  Reading for pleasure (instead of panic, ie. whatever horrifying news is coming out of American politics this hour) is just not an activity I gravitate towards any more.  I wish I knew why that need to read has departed – I was a voracious reader when I was a kid – but hopefully it will return.

Until then, there are infinitely worse ways to pass the hours than in the broken but healing, dying but not yet dead world of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies.  And so for the ninth challenge prompt – a story that takes you to another place and time, real or imagined – I chose The New Hunger, a prequel novella from Marion set in the Warm Bodies universe.

If you’ve only seen the 2013 Warm Bodies movie, you can be forgiven for assuming that The New Hunger is a trifle of a book.  I liked the film – correction: I like Nicholas Hoult, will watch him in virtually anything, although I recommend the sexy-as-hell Equals – but there really wasn’t very much there.  It was an enjoyable watch, but a tepid shadow of 2010’s fiery novel (which I see that Wikipedia has sorted into both the post-apocalyptic and gothic fiction tags, neat.)  But the movie – quite apart from some major changes to the story – failed to capture the beleaguered optimism of the novel, distilling R and Julie’s passionate, revolutionary call-to-arms down to a simple Romeo and Juliet story, with zombies.  I adored the book; it’s one of the best things I’ve read in decades, but the film adaptation did it, and the deeply layered Warm Bodies universe, no terrific favours.  Isaac Marion is a fantastic writer – his prose is tidy and to-the-point, peppered with heartbreakingly poignant observations about war, politics, geo-political turmoil, man’s inhumanity to man, life, death and all those other terrifically lightweight subjects.  Warm Bodies, the novel, deserved more.

So a trifle it is not, and neither is The New Hunger, a 2013 prequel novella set in the four or five years before R, Julie, Nora and M make their last stand in Stadium City.  I actually read this book when it was first released via e-reader in 2013.  Scared the crap out of me; the last 10 or so pages left me breathless, wide-eyed, shocked.  As always, I can’t say more than that without spoiling this excellent, taut little examination of the downfall (and subsequent resurrection) of man, but the book links our four main characters years before they ever meet face to face – R, newly awoken as a reluctant zombie desperately clinging to the last vestiges of rational thought; Julie, 12-years-old, living out of her parents’ armored truck and dreaming of the kind of stable childhood she was never allowed to enjoy; M dying alone in the bathroom of the Space Needle; and finally Nora, 16-years-old, on a trek across the flooded port of Seattle in search of food, shelter and safety.

The New Hunger Cover

The bulk of The New Hunger concerns itself with Nora’s story, which ends in a place no less bleak than its beginning.  After years of global crises, nuclear war, destructive political posturing and rising sea levels (sound frighteningly familiar?) humanity has reached its breaking point.  Then, as the final flaming cherry on the end-of-times sundae, the dead rise up to drag the few remaining down.  In the midst of all this – abandoned cities, deserted safe zones, looters and cultists and much, much worse – Nora and her little brother, Addison, have been dumped in a Seattle suburb by their junkie parents.  Nora wakes one morning to find that they’ve simply left, taking all the food and weapons with them.  Nora tries to tell herself that they probably committed that final atrocious act out of some concern that two kids left alone with a gun are bound to hurt or kill themselves with that gun, but she knows better – her parents didn’t give a shit, cared more about their final score than they ever did about their own children.  It’s heartbreaking.

And real.  Maybe a bit too real given some of the realities of today.  I said before that this book genuinely scared the crap out of me.  It did back in 2013, and it continues to frighten me today, albeit for different reasons beyond “ooh, zombies, scary.”  It’s all hitting just a little bit too close to home.  Truly, absent the living dead, Marion’s template of the downfall of humanity seems to be one we’re following note for note these days.  Takes a bit of joy out of post-apocalyptic literature, that.

But you get your kicks where you can, and for me, that always means accompanying nail art, here my approximation of the flooded, fog-shrouded Seattle skyline Nora and Addison cross on their path to what just has to be something better.  Something I think we could all work towards – something better.

Seattle Silhouette