Holidays on Ice

Holidays on IceHolidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Published: 1998
Length: 176 pages

I’ve had this book for a few years now, but I kept forgetting about it during the holidays. I can’t bring myself to read anything related to silver bells or reindeer outside of December, so it kept getting moved to the dark corner of the shelf. I finally remembered it this year and read it as the holidays ramped up (hint as to how far behind I am on my posts). I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas at all this year, so I thought Sedaris’ cynical (I assumed) take on the season would be perfect for me.

This is a collection of fictional and non-fictional humourous essays, and you never know what you’re going to get as you start each one. Most of them are quite dark and they’re all hilarious, although a quick look through the Goodreads ratings show that people are pretty split on how hilarious these are. You really have to be a fan of darker humour to enjoy most of these, I think.

A few of my favourites:

SantaLand Diaries – Sedaris worked as a Christmas elf in a New York Macy’s store in his thirties. He describes the elf training, the different elf positions, the insane parents, and the creepy Santa Clauses. It’s hilarious and is perfect for making your own holidays seem spectacular.

Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles.

Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol – Scathing reviews of school Christmas pageants. Being cruel to children is always comedy gold.

In the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin. A cloying, preening stage presence, her performance seemed based on nothing but an annoying proclivity toward lifting her skirt and, on rare occasions, opening her eyes. As Joseph, second-grade student Douglas Trazzare needed to be reminded that, although his character did not technically impregnate the virgin mother, he should behave as though he were capable of doing so.

Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!! – An overly cheerful Christmas letter from Mrs. Dunbar to her friends and family to update everyone on their awful, awful year. Sedaris perfected the use of multiple exclamation points in this one.

You’re saying, “There’s no way the Dunbar family can grieve their terrible loss and carry on the traditions of the season. No family is that strong,” you’re thinking to yourselves.

Well, think again!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Christmas Means Giving – A fictional couple battle their neighbours over who can be more generous, and end up going to grotesque lengths to outdo each other.

Jesus Shaves – Sedaris trying to discuss Easter with his classmates in broken French during a lesson.

I can’t wait to read more of his books. So far I’ve only read this and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which are two of his more gimmicky collections I’d think. I’ll probably try an audiobook from him next, as he narrates them himself and is a great reader.

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More Baths, Less Talking

More Baths, Less Talking (Stuff I've Been Reading #4)More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby
Published: 2012
Length: 135 pages

Yet another collection of the monthly Stuff I’ve Been Reading column that Nick Hornby writes for the Believer magazine.

I like to think I read a wide variety of books, yet somehow my reading choices never seem to overlap with Hornby’s. This is the fourth collection I’ve read over the years, and this is the first time I’ve ever read a book listed in his column, which was Sum: 40 Tales From The Afterlives. He reads a lot of non-fiction, which I tend to have very specific taste in, contemporary literary fiction, which I’m not all that up to date on, and occasionally classic fiction that I haven’t gotten to yet, like Dickens and Salinger.

My to-read list doesn’t seem to grow too much while reading these, partly due to my terrible note-taking, but I still find myself in love with every word. I think the voracity with which he reads, his enthusiasm, and the insight into how he chooses each book is what keeps me riveted. It’s a peek into a portion of someone’s lifelong love of reading. It’s exactly why I read the book blogs of people I’ve never met, and the added bonus of it being a favourite author of mine just makes them such a pleasure to read.

One of these days I’m going to revisit these collections and compile a list of new books to read, but right now I’m just enjoying the ride.

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The Stranger

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus
Published: 1942
Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
Translated by: Matthew Ward (from French)
Length: 03:27

So this is apparently not about sitting on your hand until it loses feeling, although funnily enough it is about a man who cannot bring himself to feel anything for what’s happening in his life. It begins with Meursault, a French Algerian, attending his mother’s funeral. He feels nothing for the loss, and the next day meets someone and begins a relationship with her as if nothing is out of the ordinary. He appears to be completely detached from the world, observing what’s happening to him as if he’s watching his own life on television. He soon finds himself in the middle of an abusive spat between his neighbour and his neighbour’s cheating girlfriend, which sets off a series of events culminating in him having shot an Arabian man who was brandishing a knife. After the murder, he seems more upset with the bright sun and heat than having taken a life.

This is split into two parts, the first consisting of what happened above and the second covering the repercussions. Meursault is thrown in jail and is put on trial. The trail quickly loses focus on the crime itself and begins to be about Meursault lack of remorse over the murder and his lack of grief over his mother’s passing. It’s something that he could easily deny with a lie, but he feels it’s wrong to do so.

Meursault is an interesting character, unlike most you find in fiction. He comes across as not caring about right or wrong, but he actually strongly abides by his own personal set of morals. Life is meaningless to him and everyone is bound to die and leave no mark of their passing, so why mourn them? He feels no remorse in killing a man but cannot bring himself to lie in court. The idea of following your own moral code, rather than that of society’s, is an interesting discussion, but when you jump straight to murder it’s hard to really spend time considering it.

This is a short but interesting novel. Jonathon Davis, one of my favourite narrators, handled this perfectly. I think it’s likely that I’ll re-read this again at some point. It’s very quick to get through, and I listened to this while painting a room and maybe didn’t give it the thought it deserved at the time. It seems to me that these days he would probably just be diagnosed with severe depression or sociopathy, which isn’t quite as glamorous as being a nihilist.

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Lock In

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi
Published: 2014
Narrated by: Wil Wheaton
Length: 10:00

This is John Scalzi’s latest novel, and it is once again narrated by Wil Wheaton. At this point I’m wondering if Scalzi has him chained to a radiator in the basement with just a microphone and a bowl of bread crusts, but thankfully the combination of these two really works for me, so I’m not going to ask any questions. There is also a version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson, most well known for her role as Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the near future, a virus spreads across the world. For a very small percentage of those affected, which still amounts to a huge number of people, it leads to them being in a state of lock in – fully conscious and awake but trapped inside their bodies, unable to move. This became known as Haden’s Syndrome and the sufferers as Hadens. Because there was such a large group of these victims, a lot of research went into supporting them, and while no cure was found, the technology was developed to allow them to interact with society again. The main advancement being humanoid robots that the Hadens can control.

The protagonist, Chris Shane, is a Haden and a new detective, and the story begins on the first day of work. Chris is a newbie, but competent, and the assignment is a Haden-related murder, one that leads to a much deeper conspiracy (as they tend to in these novels). It’s a police procedural plot, but with a really fun science fiction twist to it. The addition of Hadens into the world, and the mistaken identities that can cause, takes the plot in unique and unexpected directions at times.

Scalzi was able to have two people of differing genders narrate the audiobook without having to make any changes to the writing, because he never specifies the main character’s gender. I completely missed this while listening, despite wondering at the beginning how the two narrations worked together, but I suppose that’s because I had Wheaton’s voice reading it to me. I do wonder how the experience would have been if I had read the hard copy of this instead. Would I have assumed the main character was male because it’s natural to me to relate to the characters I read about, or because the name was Chris Shane and I know more male Chrises? What subtle hints in the writing would lead me to think one way or another, and what would that expose about my preconceived ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine? It’s a cool experiment, one that I sadly didn’t really take part in due to my choice in format, but in the end it’s also interesting that the gender didn’t really matter.

That said, all of this was just a subtle layer on top of the story, so it doesn’t really come up while reading. This isn’t an experiment in format or something that will distract the reader. It’s more of an interesting retrospective talking point for those interested when finished.

The existence of Hadens does start to mess with gender roles in the book’s world as well. These humanoid robots are genderless, so the Hadens controlling them don’t have the same subtle societal gender pressures that may exist for others. Hadens can also travel the world by using an Integrator, which is a human that allows the Hadens to essentially borrow their bodies. They act as an avatar for them, allowing a Haden to control their body and experience all of their senses. These Integrators can be male or female, so Hadens can essentially experience life, if they choose, from both sides.

This is a fun science fiction detective story with a world that gives you a lot to think about after. Some of the plot fell a bit flat for me, and I didn’t connect to most of the characters in a way that I have in some of his previous books, but I still really enjoyed myself. You never really know what you’re going to get when you open a new Scalzi novel. He’s similar to Joss Whedon in that you know a certain type of humour, and maybe a certain type of character, will be there, but the story is always a surprise. He really switches it up each book, which is great to see.

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2015 TBR Pile Challenge

My second and final book challenge this year will be the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. The goal is to read 12 books that have been on your shelf for at least an entire year. A noble ambition, I think, so here’s my proposed list:

  1. A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde
  2. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway
  3. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  4. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  5. The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
  6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  7. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  8. Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry
  9. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
  10. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  11. French Lessons by Peter Mayle
  12. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Alternates:

  1. Without Feathers by Woody Allen
  2. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
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Back to the Classics Challenge 2015

The Back to the Classics Challenge was a fun motivator when I participated a few years back, so it seemed like a no-brainer to sign up again. It’s now hosted by Books and Chocolate and is organized a little differently. There’s now a draw at the end of the year for an Amazon gift certificate, and you enter by completing categories – six categories will amount to one entry, nine categories for two entries, and all twelve categories for three entries.

The choices below may also be changed throughout the year.

  1. A 19th Century ClassicThe War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  2. A 20th Century ClassicThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  3. A Classic by a Woman AuthorTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. A Classic in TranslationEugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
  5. A Very Long Classic NovelFor Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway
  6. A Classic NovellaThe Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  7. A Classic with a Person’s Name in the TitleAdventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. A Humorous or Satirical ClassicA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  9. A Forgotten ClassicThe Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle
  10. A Nonfiction ClassicTravels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  11. A Classic Children’s BookA House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde
  12. A Classic PlayThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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2014 in Review

The year is over, and it’s time for a quick look back. Last year had some great moments, but overall it was a bit of a rough one on a personal level, the aftermath of a horrendous previous year. As such, I’ve let myself get behind on a lot, so if I have one resolution for 2015 it’s to try a bit harder to stay on top of things and enjoy myself rather than becoming overwhelmed and procrastinating. This last year was better than the year before it, so here’s hoping that 2015 will be better still.

The Weblog

In my head, I think of this weblog as if it’s an offline reading journal. I don’t really go out of my way to tell anyone that it exists, and I’ve mainly ignored making any cosmetic or functional improvements. I’ve had a website of some fashion since the mid to late nineties, and I would spend days meticulously redesigning them every few months – I’d almost keep websites just so I’d have something to design. This time I wanted to start writing immediately, and I wanted the focus to be the content, so I chose a template (something younger Rob would have railed against) and started typing. So this year, I’d like to flesh the site out a bit more. Maybe look at a redesign, maybe add an ‘about’ page, maybe create some additional ways to browse the books I’ve written about. You know, the sort of thing people usually do week one rather than year four.

I’d like to catch up and stay on top of my book posts. I’ve been a bit behind for the last few months, and have often found myself writing about books I’d read a month or two before. It really takes some time to get back into that headspace when it’s left so long. I’d also like to expand on what I’m writing about and explore different ways of learning and discussing what I read. I might try joining a book club and see how that goes. An online bookclub might also be fun.

The Stats

Overall books read: 38

Format
Graphic novels and trade paperback collections: 7
Audio books: 12
Poetry compilations: 1
Short story or essay complications: 4
Plays: 1

Country (of author)
America: 18
England: 11
Canada: 3
Scotland: 2
France: 1
Ireland: 1
Pakistan: 1
Ukraine: 1

Other
Most books by same author: 3 (Nick Hornby)
New authors (to me): 18
Female authors: 3.5
Re-reads: 0

The Challenges

The only challenge I took part in this year was the continuation of The Classics Club challenge, which is to read 50 classics in 5 years. I’m currently at 30, leaving 20 to be read in the next two and a quarter years, so I’m on track with that. I plan to take some time this weekend and find a few challenges to participate in this year. I’m not much interested in book count challenges (ie. read 80 books this year), as they tend to affect my book choices in a negative way by pushing me towards shorter novels, but I’ve really enjoyed challenges in the past that, rather than adding constrictions, help guide my reading in interesting ways.

The Top Threes

These are all lists of media that were new to me this year, not necessarily released this year. In the case of the movies, video games, and television series, these are mainly picked from the second half of the year. I wasn’t keeping track during at the beginning of the year, and I really have a terrible memory. I also apparently didn’t watch many movies this year, so the top 3 is fairly popcorn-y.

Fiction

  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
  2. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  3. The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Non-Fiction

  1. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  2. More Fool Me by Stephen Fry
  3. More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby (not yet reviewed)

Audiobook Narration

  1. Jonathan Davis narrating The Scar
  2. Peter Kenny narrating The Wasp Factory
  3. R. C. Bray narrating The Martian

Comic

  1. Saga, Volumes 1 – 3 by Brian K. Vaughan
  2. The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire
  3. Chew: Omnivore Edition, Volume 4 by John Layman

Movie

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  2. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
  3. The Lego Movie (2014)

Video Game

  1. The Blackwell series
  2. The Witcher 2
  3. inFamous: Second Son

Television series

  1. Wallander, seasons 1 – 3
  2. Sherlock, seasons 2 & 3
  3. Dollhouse, seasons 1 & 2
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December in Review

Books Acquired:
Dracula by Bram Stoker (audiobook)

Books Read:
More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Aquaman, Vol. 1: The Trench by Geoff Johns
The People Look Like Flowers at Last by Charles Bukowski

No physical books for Christmas! That might be a first actually. I’m not complaining, as I have a huge number of unread novels on the shelf (and currently no more shelf), but it’s just a strange feeling. My family is currently putting money towards selling the childhood home, so we decided not to buy gifts this year and just spent the day together, playing with the dogs and having a big meal. I also had an early Christmas with my girlfriend that included gifts, eggnog, and watching The Grinch. It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable Christmases I’ve had in recent years.

I usually don’t list audiobooks in the acquired section, but I felt like I should throw something in there. Everything I read this month was pretty tiny, and I’ve been listening to the same audiobook since the beginning of December. If I have one resolution this year, it’ll be to start reading during the day more again, instead of just leaving it until I’m in bed. I felt like I lost my ability to focus last year, so I’ll be re-learning how to stop squandering my quiet time.

Movies watched:
Robin Hood (2010) – Fun movie. Looked great, like every Ridley Scott movie, but would have been better if it wasn’t named Robin Hood. I went in excited for that story, and was given something else. Something good, but not what I was expecting.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – The animated version is a staple in our house, but I’d never seen the Jim Carrey version. I did enjoy it, but I prefer the classic.

The Wolverine (2013) – This was a bit forgettable, but I didn’t hate it. It was at least better than the last Wolverine movie. I do wish they’d followed the original comic more, though. Wolverine should know how to speak Japanese. It really bugged me that he couldn’t here, probably more than it should have. The man’s practically immortal, he’s had time to learn a few things.

Love Actually (2003) – I really love how this movie is put together. It has some painfully cheesy bits, but it’s actually really great if you can look past those.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) – I think I was aware of what I was getting into this time, so I actually didn’t mind this as much. I actually quite enjoyed a few of the scenes. There was some awful, awful dialogue, though, and decisions that just didn’t make sense. Why was Bilbo able to kill orcs by throwing stones at them? Why does slashing someone in a breastplate, a piece of armour specifically designed to protect the wearing from being slashed with a sword, kill them? The trilogy is now over, so I’m afraid these questions will remain unanswered. Maybe there’s an unpublished Tolkien book that explains all of this.

TV watched:
Arrested Development, Season 2 & 3 – I was bored by the first season of this show, but it got fantastic after that. Season 2 and 3 were hilarious and smart. If you can sit through the first season (or skip it), this show is great.

Games played:
Tales from the Borderlands, Chapter 1 (PC) – A new one from Telltale. I love the humour of the Borderlands series, and they really seem to have nailed that here. I’m not sure how I’ll feel after the whole game, but I loved the first chapter. This feels fresh after their last games. And it has Chris Hardwick, Patrick Warburton, Troy Baker, and Nolan North as voice actors, which is a pretty stellar cast.

Dreamfall Chapters, Chapter 1 (PC) – I loved the last two games, so I’m excited to see where this goes. The first chapter was mainly introduction and, unfortunately, fetch quests, but the world looks and feels amazing. The dialogue is great too, so I’m just hoping they come through with the gameplay and plot in the later chapters.

Blackwell Epiphany (PC) – The final game in the Blackwell series. I was really sorry to see this end. Just a fun story and world to be wrapped up in, and they did such a great job in updating the gameplay of old-school adventure games to make it less tedious while still managing to keep the feeling of playing them the same.

The Novelist (PC) – It’s only a couple of hours long, but it’s a pretty interesting concept. You’re a ghost in a summer rental home that a young couple, a struggling writer and a painter, and their son are staying in. You have to listen to their stories, understand their problems, and whisper suggestions each night to them to try to guide their lives. You can’t make all three happy at once, as compromises have to be made, so it’s a game of balancing conflicting priorities. I feel like I ended up with a pretty good outcome, as everyone basically did great after the summer ended, but I am tempted to replay it and just completely ruin their lives.

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The Gun Seller

The Gun SellerThe Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie
Published: 1996
Pages: 340

Reading Stephen Fry’s most recent biography, More Fool Me, finally prompted me to pick this up after having it loom over me from the shelf for years. I wasn’t avoiding it, but my interest just kept getting pulled elsewhere. It came up in the autobiography because Laurie was working on the novel during the period of Fry’s journal that was included. He mentioned how funny it was, and while I know his opinion is biased, it finally made me pick it up.

For some reason I thought he’d take a straighter edge with the novel, but it’s incredibly funny. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many gags and witty remarks per line as this. He makes Terry Pratchett look like Tim O’Brien. It actually became a bit too much, to be honest. I love humour in my reading, but sometimes it’s nice to pull back a bit and let some other elements shine through. It makes it difficult to really care about the characters if there’s literally no break in the jokes, and it begins to feel needy and insecure.

He certainly has nothing to feel insecure about, though, because he’s a great writer. While I had some issue with the plotting and pace of the novel, which I’m sure is just a common first novel problem, his descriptions and use of language was fantastic. He makes it seem so effortless too, which probably comes from a history of comedy that focused on wordplay, but he could make every description and scene hilarious while still being incredibly vivid.

But Raynor was also three inches taller than me, four stones heavier, and at least eight however-you-measure-violence units more violent. He was uglier than a car park, with a big, hairless skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners, and his flattened fighter’s nose, apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot, spread out in a meandering, lopsided delta under the rough slab of his forehead.

[…]

Moving now the side elevation, we find that Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s and ear’.

It felt like Laurie was having a blast writing this, and I was having a blast reading it. His writing actually really made me want to try my hand at fiction again. It’s just felt fun. I was a little heartbroken to see he hasn’t written anything since this. Apparently his second novel, titled The Paper Soldier, was initially scheduled to be released in September 2007, then scheduled for a September 2009 release, and now currently has no release date. I’m hoping it comes out eventually, or he gives up on it and writes something else, because I’d love read more from him and see how his writing matures.

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Cannery Row

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
Published: 1945
Pages: 181

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one. It’s set in the south during the Great Depression, which isn’t a setting that really excites me, although I think I’m coming around on that. Each chapter reads like its own story, and I sometimes have a hard time keeping interest in fiction that doesn’t have a strong central plot. Despite these concerns, I ended up loving this novel. I actually started reading the first couple of pages absentmindedly while figuring out what to read next, and I just couldn’t stop. I can’t really put my finger on what it was that grabbed me, but I just wanted to learn more about this place and these characters.

It’s a collection of chronological vignettes following a group of people living in Cannery Row, a street in Monterey, California, that gets its name from the sardine canneries that line the street. Each chapter is a scene from the life of one of the residents, and with each one your picture of this world becomes clearer and clearer. You get to see each of these characters from multiple angles – not only are you in their heads but you’re seeing them from everyone else’s eyes as well, and it’s done so well. I read a lot of novels with multiple viewpoints, but something about how Steinbeck brings you into each character is so natural.

Of Mice and Men was exploring desperate loneliness, while this novel explores companionship. It’s much more comedic than soul-crushing, surprisingly funny at times, and I found the characters even more interesting. Each novel had such a distinct tone, and if you’re wondering how to write compelling and well-rounded characters, look no further than this. Just fantastic.

I never thought I’d be a big Steinbeck fan, to be honest, but I’m two for two now. I should probably start looking at The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden soon.

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