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

I'll Have Collage

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.)

I'll Have 1

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!

I'll Have 3

Advertisements

Literary Inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid's Tale Collage

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.

Handmaid's 3.jpg

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.

Handmaid's 1

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.

Handmaid's 2

Literary Inspiration: Fahrenheit 451

451 Collage

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.

451 2

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.

451 1

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. 😉

Literary Inspiration: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I Open at the Close Collage

Look who finally motivated herself enough to finish a book series the rest of the world put to bed over 10 years ago!  Yay, I’m (still not remotely) current!  Really, though, I’m thrilled beyond belief to have finally crossed the final book in the Harry Potter series, the Deathly Hallows, off my to-be-read list in service of the third prompt in my friends’ 2018 reading challenge.

I will please virtually no one with this statement, but like all of the Harry Potter novels, I found the Deathly Hallows to be a deathly slow slog.  If you ARE one of the 86 bajillion people who read the novel over a decade ago when it was first published (or watched the films, as they’re really quite close in terms of both tone and structure) you know that the final book in the series details Harry’s efforts to stop an increasingly desperate Voldemort from forcing his violent nationalist tendencies on a terrified, unwilling populace.  Sound like anyone we know?  Along the way Harry and his friends are tasked with locating, and then destroying, Voldemort’s Horcruxes, physical objects tagged with bits of the Dark Lord’s murderous, fractured soul.  Once they’re disposed of, he’s nothing more than a mortal man, vulnerable and open to attack.

I Open at the Close 2

It’s in the hunt for and subsequent eradication of the Horcruxes that the Deathly Hallows gets terribly bogged down, lingering for 300 some-odd pages on a locket already in Harry’s possession that defies all attempts at destruction.  This passage goes on forever – it is an interminable slog of Apparating and wind-swept moors and Apparating ONTO wind-swept moors.  In a 607-page book with multiple major character deaths (spoiler: arguably THE major character’s (temporary) death) as well as three big battle sequences and a satisfying peek into the future, it’s a puzzling bit of pacing.  We’re in more than 450 pages before Harry, Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts to kick off the final, epic showdown between the Dark Lord and the Boy Who Lived.  The long, lackadaisical tease of those first 450 pages followed by just 150 pages of frantic fighting and exposition makes for a jarring contrast.  It’s also why it took me four months to read the Deathly Hallows – because I was deathly unmotivated to continue.

In hindsight, some days removed from finishing the book, I can see that the seemingly endless literary slog had a purpose.  Had Harry, Ron and Hermione’s six-month search played out with seamless ease – say, flashing by in a series of condensed vignettes – we may not have gotten a true sense of just how taxing, frustrating and arduous their journey really was.  As it stands, we were with them for every false start, every near miss, every fake lead, every betrayal and every heartbreak.  I don’t know if there was a better way of conveying the sort of despair that results from a long, protracted fight in which you must carry on despite enjoying no victories, but I do wish it hadn’t taken up quite so much of the book.

I Open at the Close 5

Things I did like?  Voldemort proving once and for all what a toothless wussy he really is.  Voldemort suffers from the same problem in my mind as Darth Vader – both are more legend and reputation than actual threat.  And I positively loved that his ultimate undoing was thinking himself beyond the need to do his research and double check every facet of his plan.  You’d think if you were a hideously malformed megalomaniac making a vicious grab for ultimate power you’d at least take the time to educate yourself, do your research and get your friggin’ ducks in order.  Still sound like anybody we know?

Other things I liked?  A naughty little “It’s not the size of the wand” joke Ron makes towards the beginning of the book.  Ron and Hermione finally acting on their sweet, slow burn of a romance.  The epilogue.  Neville, Defender of the Meek.  Everyone finally realizing just how awesome Luna really is.  A longer explanation – actually, any explanation – of Dumbledore’s tragic past.  Always.

Things I didn’t like: Dobby’s death.  And not because he died – I’m glad he did, I friggin’ hated that shrieky house elf.  I just thought given how touching his death is in the film (I cried, and well…see above) the source material might grant his passing more than a handful of paragraphs, and none of that “dying with his friends” tear-bait business either.  Fred’s death (one-half of the delightful twin duo, Rowling, are you freaking kidding me with this crap?  That’s the suckiest move you pulled in seven books.)  The fact that the Dursleys never got their comeuppance.  Don’t know about you, but I generally like to see child abusers get their virulent (and in this case occasionally levitating) just desserts.

Another thing I don’t particularly like?  This nail art, depicting the hidden message and final puzzle piece inscribed on Harry’s bequeathed Snitch, “I open at the close.”  My cursive writing is not great here.  I was going for elegant and refined, and it came off more big ‘n’ bubbly, my everyday writing style.  Although this manicure does look so pretty glittering almost magically under the midday sun.

I Open at the Close 4

But by gosh am I glad to be done the Deathly Hallows, and indeed the entire Harry Potter series.  I never latched onto the novels, actually found Harry to be a snotty little know-it-all.  I far prefer Daniel Radcliffe’s film version of Harry – he’s a kinder, more thoughtful and reasoned young man than his literary counterpart.  But the world J.K. Rowling created, as reflected in the films and now various exhibits and attractions around the globe, is vivid, detailed and fully realized right from the very first page.  I think her knack for world-building is unparalleled, and I’ve always loved the Dickensian flair she takes in naming her characters.  I enjoyed the books, and particularly the Deathly Hallows, so much in that regard.  Ultimately, they were really enjoyable reads, and I’m glad to have finally finished the series so I can fully join the Harry Potter cultural zeitgeist.  All was well.

Literary Inspiration: The Burning World

The Burning World Collage

Last we checked in on my reading challenge efforts, I was whiffing a friend’s 2017 creation with just 10 piddly books.  I mean, I’m not sure I’d call The Stand “piddly,” but I did attempt to pass off a 35-page ice cream cookbook as a novel from which I learned something, so six of one, half a dozen of the other!  So when that same friend, working in partnership with a third blogging buddy, created a new reading challenge for 2018, I thought it prudent to try, try again.  Second verse, same as the first and all that literary jazz.  Or second verse, hopefully with more effort…than the first, and all that literary jazz (slightly less catchy saying, that!)

Last time I got quite hung up on completing each of the challenge prompts in the order in which they were listed.  This time I just jumped into the deep end with whatever theme spoke to me first, which turned out to be number 26, “A book title that sounds like the cool name for a band.”  And for this theme, I chose Isaac Marion’s The Burning World, the third novel set in the Warm Bodies zombie universe.

The Burning World Book 2.jpg

Some of you may remember that I read The New Hunger, a prequel to Warm Bodies, in satisfaction of one of the prompts last year.  The Burning World, a direct sequel to Warm Bodies that picks up two months after the events of that novel, acts as a bridge between the original story and its prequel.  It’s a fantastic framing device, particularly in light of the fact that if you’ve read the prequel, which introduces the main characters into each others’ orbits years before they ever meet face to face, you know things in this book that the characters do not.  Watching the puzzle pieces of their deeply interconnected lives (and afterlives) click into place is half the joy of reading The Burning World.

And it’s just as well there is that joy to be had from this novel, because holy smokes, absent it, there is very little light or levity to The Burning World.  If you’ve read Warm Bodies, you might remember its tone was one of a weary kind of optimism.  It ended on an up note, if not necessarily a “And they all lived happily ever after” note.  But The Burning World opens on a beleaguered community crumbling under the weight of trying to “fix” the zombie apocalypse, and it only gets much, much, much worse from there.  Part heavy political commentary (zombies were just the final outrageous straw that broke the world’s back, after years of war, environmental destruction and political abuses), part road trip journey and part bald warning, The Burning World mostly jettisons the softer aspects of Warm Bodies – gone are R’s “boy zombie-meets-girl” internal monologues, replaced now with meditations on whether love is even something worth pursuing in a world where survival is paramount.  So, too, is any sense of peace or rest or stability for our little band of wandering revolutionaries, who are left, at the end of 500-some pages, exactly where they started – on the run.  And with one final book coming in 2018 to wrap up the story, it left The Burning World in an oddly truncated and abrupt place – I literally flipped the page and thought, “Oh, okay, so that really was it.”

The Burning World Nails 1

Having said all that, this was a great novel – Isaac Marion is such an evocative writer, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his works set in the Warm Bodies universe.  Enough that I’ve managed to pull some decent nail art inspiration from even the bleakest of dystopian tales, this burning manicure being no exception.  As for the tie?  Well, that’s a bit of a spoiler, and on that intriguing subject, I shall say no more. 😉

Beauty and the Books

Beauty and the Books Collage

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.

virgin-suicides-collage

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.

the-walking-dead-collage-again

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. 😉

HP Collage

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.

Let's Pretend Collage

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!

Heart-Shaped Box Collage

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.

Duma Key Main Collage

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.

Ben and Jerry's Collage

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.

Warm Bodies Collage

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.

The Stand Collage

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 Stand

The Stand Collage

A couple months back, I was going through a bit of a low phase, one nearly entirely of my own making.  Every day I’d get up and, in the course of going about my otherwise pretty enjoyable routine, I’d jump online and then just completely mire myself in whatever horrible news was emanating from around the globe, with a particular emphasis on the trainwreck that is American politics.  I may be Canadian, but the chaos and casual cruelty that seemingly permeate every aspect of today’s American governance have cast a noxious pall across the world; we are all feeling it.

So when it came time to tackle the tenth prompt in my friend’s reading challenge, one which called for a choice from a favourite author that you’ve not yet read, I’m not surprised I gravitated towards Stephen King; he is my favourite author, yet I’ve probably only read about a third of his novels.  I’m a bit more surprised that I chose an absolutely gigantic tome that’s more like three books in one; 823 abridged pages of very, very tiny text.  And I was going to say I was the most surprised at my choice, King’s seminal text, The Stand (my husband called it King’s bible, a very apt comparison) but it fits both tonally and in terms of subject matter. That’s just the head space I was in when I rolled up on the tenth challenge prompt – major end-of-times bleakness.

For those not familiar with The Stand, here’s how bleak we get: 99 percent of humanity dies horribly in a flu epidemic that ravages the globe in a little under a month.  The book literally kicks off with about 300 pages of mucus-filled respiratory deaths.  You come to know a handful of characters (inexplicably immune, all) and then watch through their eyes as society quickly breaks down, teeters on the brink and then completely plummets off the edge.  Spread out across the four corners of the United States, we follow these characters as they watch their loved ones suffer and die, and then we watch THEM suffer (and sometimes die) as they attempt to make their way to Nebraska and then on to Colorado, drawn there by prophetic dreams of an old woman who offers salvation or hope or death, or maybe all three.

The Stand book and nails

And that’s just the first 400 or so pages.  After that, we get into a major battle between Good and Evil, and then we meet Randall Flagg, the other Man in Black, the Walkin’ Dude, the devil.  I mean, I guess he’s the devil?  Or at the very least a close confidante.  I just know that Flagg as a symbol of ultimate evil didn’t land for me.  He’s petulant and whiny and kind of lazy; a being of such tremendous power should not be as preoccupied with appearances as he (sound like anyone else we know?)  As Buffy might say, “Ooh, The Taunter – striking fear in the heart of no one.”  But then again, with the exception of Under the Dome’s absolutely horrific Jim Rennie, very few of King’s baddies have left a mark with me.  I think I was expecting more from his marquis villain.

This jacket cover photo, however?  It’s EVERYTHING.  The hair, the suit, the smoke – oh, it’s perfection!

The Stand book jacket

It’s a small moment in an otherwise gigantic novel, but there’s a little bit early on in the book that strikes at the heart of what The Stand is ultimately all about.  In Nebraska, 108-year-old Abigail Freemantle is setting out for her neighbour’s, a two days’ walking trip.  Abby’s not paying a social visit to her neighbour, though – that would require a host or hostess to greet her, and everyone is dead.  Abigail instead travels to her neighbour’s in search of chicken; on her last visit before the flu took everyone she knew, Abby had spied a few in the backyard.  Moving infinitesimally slow (because she is 108-ancient-years-old) but drawing from a long lifetime of experience, Abigail dispatches two of the chickens.

Mother Abigail, a deeply religious woman with a strong, but ill-defined connection to God, falls into the realm of that tired old literary trope of the “magical negro.”  I’ll give King a bit of a pass because The Stand was written in 1978.  The times and sensibilities, they change.  But I’m not giving myself a pass, because I fell for that aggravatingly regressive trope hook, line and sinker.  When Abigail slaughters the chickens, I ignorantly wondered what sort of magical concoction she needed their blood and bones for.  Then when she is walking back home and she and her bag of chicken are set upon by bloodthirsty weasels sent by Randall Flagg, I wondered what sort of ritual could be so important that she’d put her life in danger in such a way.

But I was wrong.  Instead of some chicken-based hoodoo, Abigail had simply sensed that she was about to have a number of drop-in visitors (the pilgrims who had been dreaming of her just as much as she had been dreaming of them) and the chickens were so that she could have a hot, home-cooked meal waiting for them when they arrived.  There was nothing more to it than connection and kindness through food.  I thought it was such a charming little moment – simple, goodhearted humanity as set against seemingly insurmountable odds.

The Stand nails

A friend recently commented that she remembered The Stand as ending on a bittersweet, slightly melancholy note, and that’s true.  But there’s also an undercurrent of malice, a sense that the mistakes of the past are ones we’re powerless to prevent from happening once again.  I read a lot of fear in the ending.  But then again, it wouldn’t be a discussion of a Stephen King novel if you’re not debating the ending as being either sweet or completely horrifying.

This nail art aims to capture the snow-covered peaks of Colorado.  Without giving too much away, the mountains factor in heavily.  As does the twinkling night sky; in a world gone dark, it takes on a new, watchful meaning.  Ultimately, I’m glad I decided to finally pick this one up; neglecting The Stand was a major blank spot in my Kingsian education, and I enjoyed coming at it from a forensic perspective – you can almost see the partial or nearly fully fleshed out ideas of many of his stories to come.  The King bible, indeed, and an excellent read.