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. 🙂

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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.

Literary Inspiration: Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book

Ben and Jerry's Collage

I’ll concede straight off the top that my choice of this little cookbook, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book, is an odd one in satisfaction of the seventh prompt in my friend Julie’s reading challenge.  The task was to tackle a book from which you learn something (you know, other than that you’ve really outgrown chick lit.)  I immediately thought about this bitty little cookbook that my parents gave me when I was maybe nine or 10 years old.  Which, for those keeping score at home, means I’ve had this book – a bargain bin find of less than $1.50 in 1987 on account of the small notch in the upper right-hand corner of the cover – for 31 years. This book has seen things, man. Specifically, it’s seen a LOT of action – this is the cookbook from which my much-beloved chocolate chip cookies are birthed (your standard chocolate chip cookie recipe, but there’s just something to them that makes people lose their minds a bit when they’re in their presence.  I can’t share the recipe with you, because then I’d have to kill you.)

But all great things aside, it’s an odd choice in that The Story of Ben & Jerry’s that kicks off the book – a very entertaining, informative read about the duo’s early years – is just 17 pages long, and the rest is recipes.  Easy-to-follow recipes that produce delicious results, as I can attest across about a dozen different ice creams and desserts, but recipes all the same.  Also, it’s a book I’ve had in my life forever, and when I started this reading challenge, one of the stipulations I made was that all of the books I chose were going to be from my to-be-read pile, and I have absolutely enjoyed this cookbook – both the recipes and the cute, witty little story that kicks off the book – time and time again.  So I may have to revisit the seventh prompt in this reading challenge with a slightly beefier, newer read (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil Degrasse Tyson is on my hit list.)

Ben and Jerry's Book with Nails

But this book is such a charming little treat, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to do another inspired-by manicure.

Ben and Jerry's Nails

And there’s also much to be learned from this book, with its rags-to-slightly-ritzier-rags origin story, really fantastic recipes (I’ll never understand the voodoo that those chocolate chip cookies hoodoo, but wow, do people love the results) and adorable illustrations.  I have always loved the graphic design of this book, with its bubbly lettering, hand-drawn characters and bright colour palette.  It’s so. darn. cute.

Ben and Jerry's Pages Collage

Definite problem, though, particularly when you’re trying to watch your diet: reading Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book WILL make you ravenously hungry for creamy sweets, in the way that reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will make you want to immediately eat a chocolate bar or watching Pulp Fiction will make you want to devour whatever the hell a Big Kahuna burger is (surely not just me.)  But a small pittance to pay for such a cute and entertaining read. 🙂

Literary Inspiration: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend Collage

The fifth prompt in my friend Julie’s reading challenge was to tackle a book in your to-be-read pile that you’ve overlooked time and time again.  For me, that’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), a hilarious collection of sweetly horrifying true life tales from blogger Jenny Lawson.  My best friend gave me this book years ago, after assuring me that I’d find more than a little in common with Lawson’s various embarrassments, and probably also piss myself from laughter.  And so taking her recommendation to great heart, I promptly stuck the book on the shelf beneath four other things and then totally forgot about it.  Slick.

But some gentle nudging in the form of this reading challenge encouraged me to release this forgotten gem from bookshelf purgatory, and I’m glad I did, because Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was hella funny. Lawson gets a lot of mileage out of a very unique childhood, one that mirrored a lot of moments in my own rural upbringing, only writ extra large and super bloody.  Seriously, there are SO many stories involving taxidermized animals and her crazy Viking father’s penchant for traumatizing his daughters with pelt-centric pranks.  It takes a special kind of writer to wring the humour and humanity out of a dead dog story, and yet Lawson manages it.  I tittered throughout and was sad when I finished the final chapter.  Thankfully, my friend gifted me with Lawson’s follow-up book, which is also currently languishing on my shelf, though not for much longer.

This manicure is inspired by the inside cover art of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a 1950s-style collection of hand-drawn pigs, foxes and raccoons in various states of repose (if by “repose” you mean setting up a lighting rig.)  They’re probably stuffed.  Everything in this book seems to come back to taxidermy in one fashion or another!

Let's Pretend Nails

I employed a bit of animal fakery in this mani myself, eschewing my normal free-handed approach for an attempt at stamping (key word here being “attempt,” because lordy, do I suuuuuuccccck at stamping.)  I used MoYou London’s Enchanted stamping plate #14, which features a charming assortment of twee little animal designs, including a sweet pug design I stamped onto my index finger in honour of Lawson’s dearly – and somehow hilariously – departed pug, Barnaby Jones Pickles.  In solid black as against an ivory creme, OPI’s My Vampire is Buff, I think the overall effect looks a bit like faded print on a slightly yellowed page of your favourite, much loved book.  So pretty much perfect inspiration. 🙂

Let's Pretend Stamping Plate

Literary Inspiration: The Guardians

Guardians Fingers

The fourth prompt in my pal Julie’s reading challenge was to tackle a book that was a gift or loaner.  It just so happens I was gifted with a number of books this past Christmas, so I was all set in that department.  My choice?  The Guardians, a novel by Canadian novelist Andrew Pyper.

The Guardians is a mystery – also a haunted house story – so without giving away too much of the plot, it’s about a group of friends who return to the small Ontario town they grew up in following the death of a childhood friend and teammate.  So Guardians as in the hockey team the boys play on, and also, as it turns out, guardians of dark, disturbing secrets – your pretty traditional Stephen King-ish fare as told through the lens of small town Ontario life (as opposed to Maine, Maine, always Maine.)  It was well written and flowed nicely (I did have the dubious benefit of being ridiculously ill when I read it, so I had an entire day to devote to nothing but its reading) but the ending completely fell off the table.  I felt like my cat when she tracks a fluttery thing off the side of the television – I kept flipping through the final two or three blank pages, apparently trying to will a more definitive ending.

These nails represent the lettering on the Guardians’ jerseys.  The book doesn’t actually stipulate the Guardians’ colours, so I went with my high school’s combo of purple and gold (which I realize is far more football than hockey, but I really wanted to use a purple polish today, the end!)

The Guardians Book

Literary Inspiration: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

HP Collage

Being one of maybe only half a dozen people in the entire world who had not yet read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the second last book of the Harry Potter series, I thought the theme of magic and fantasy in my friend Julie’s reading challenge was the perfect time to rectify this literary shortcoming.  And then, as always, I did some thematically-appropriate nails, this time a swirly, twirly, free-handed mani inspired by Felix Felicis, the good luck libation Harry wins for his extracurricular activities in Potions class (which just might include whipping up this delightful Every Flavoured Bean sudser from Dreaming Tree Soapworks.  That or, you know, accidentally flaying Malfoy alive in the girls’ toilets.)

HP Nails Again

So what did I think?  I actually found it VERY slow going.  Until things really began to take off in the final 100 pages, much of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince felt as though it was treading (Inferi-logged) water – Ron’s got lady troubles, Harry’s got friend troubles, Dumbledore’s got Horcrux troubles, Malfoy’s screwing around in the Room of Requirement and Slughorn’s being obstructionist.  Lather (with this fun soap?), rinse, repeat.

HP Soap Collage

Yet despite believing that the story could have used a bit of trimming, I ultimately find no fault with its fans for wanting to spend as much time as possible in Harry’s bewitchingly magical world.  It’s such a special place; I don’t mind treading water for that (just not that skanky lake water filled with dead bodies; damn, Rowling, things got real dark real fast! Thank goodness for that glowing green light out in the middle of the lake.  Let’s just grab this invisible chain and haul ‘er up and see what we’re dea– oh.  Holy hell, Rowling, why the nightmares?!)

Literary Inspiration: The Walking Dead

the-walking-dead-collage-again

After kicking off my friend Julie’s reading challenge with my favourite novel, The Virgin Suicides, an ultra light and breezy choice (sarcasm), I thought I’d lighten things up a bit by diving into the comic book world of The Walking Dead, where of course nothing bad ever happens and everyone lives in perfect happiness perfectly, forever and ever (further sarcasm.)

The second challenge prompt called for a book inspired by art and literature, be it art history, a book on technique or, say, a comic.  I went the comic route, seeing as The Walking Dead Compendium 1 is right on my bookshelf (as is 2, for that matter), and as a casual viewer of the show, I’ve always been a little curious as to the similarities and differences between it and the books.

Compendium 1, a MASSIVE, forearm-taxing beast written by Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard and Tony Moore, clocks in at 1,000 pages and covers the first 48 issues of the comics.  Save a childhood obsession with the graphic novel Tales From the Crypt, comics as a storytelling format have never really been my thing – I prefer novels.  And indeed, I had a bit of a hard time getting into a decent reading rhythm with the comics, with the dialogue either entirely absent (Rick waking up from his cop coma) or spurting from characters like word vomit (pretty much anyone upon introducing themselves to THE GROUP; after that you won’t hear from them again until they die.) Which might just be the style of comics in general, although if the show is any indication, I think that one may be particular to The Walking Dead.  I also found there to be a weird condensing of seemingly-pivotal moments (Rick’s awakening, Shane’s death, THE GROUP’s introduction at Woodbury) in favour of endless scenes of morality talk (but again, that might just be The Walking Dead.)

the-walking-dead-book-and-fingers

But after an initial period of hesitation, I started really, really getting into the story, digging hard on the parts where the book and the show would intersect and then deviate once again (Carol and Tyreese!  Super unhinged Hershel!  Sexy Dale and Andrea time!)  It was all going so well.

Where the comics lost me, though, and where I ultimately stopped reading, was with the introduction of Woodbury.  Fans of the show will remember that during the third season a new villain was introduced by the name of The Governor.  Completely insane by any definition of the word, The Governor of the TV show was an authoritarian psychopath with fish tanks full of walker heads in his livingroom, a zombiefied daughter in the closet and a super big hate-on for Rick Grimes.  So not a good guy.

But The Governor of the books is the WORST guy, a violent and sadistic rapist who cuts off Rick’s hand within about six frames of meeting him (there’s that pacing thing I was talking about) and gleefully, and repeatedly, assaults Michonne over PAGES.

As a matter of personal principle, I don’t watch or read anything that heads too far down the path of sexual assault (cruelty towards animals and torture porn as well.)  My tolerance for that is practically nil.  It’s insulting and uninspired writing used by lazy authors who can’t think of a motivating event for their female characters beyond rape (looking at you, Game of Thrones.)

So when the books – which to that point had been bleak, yes, and shocking, also yes, but still very much in keeping with the PG-13 tone of the show – took a hard, hard turn into ultra heavy sadism (there is one image I wish I could unsee that will haunt my dreams forever) I checked the hell out.  I feel like there may have been a switch in authors at this point, the change in tone – and not one for the better – is just that jarring and unpleasant.

So The Walking Dead Compendium 1 and I parted ways at about the halfway mark.  But as always, I had to do a bit of nail art to go along with my choice of book, this time a mani showing off my ultra tiny lettering skills, because every other option was just too depressing or inappropriate.  Which is just The Walking Dead for you (I should create a macro for that phrase.)

the-walking-dead-fingers