Rachel Mauro

January 31, 2016

Rachel’s Literary Newsletter: January 2016

literary newsletter

Book Pic Spotlight / Book Reviews / January ’16 “TBRs” / Book Video / Book Meme

Hello, and welcome to 2016! My big, personal book news involves the publication of YA fantasy novel, Sword and Verse! My friend, Manu, was the beta reader and her friend the author basically lives in my backyard. Manu, on the other hand, is from Brazil, but she came to my little corner of the world to help promote the book. :D We hung out at the Smithsonian and Kramerbooks in DC (I shoved The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri onto her), and then I went to one of their launch events at a nearby library branch. So much fun! My review of the book is below.

One of the first things I read this year concerned George R. R. Martin confirming that he wouldn’t be able to get the sixth book of A Song of Ice and Fire out before the new season of Game of Thrones this April. :/ I admit…I was kinda hoping he might be able to pull it off. But Alyssa Rosenberg wrote nicely in The Washington Post about why this news might not be such a bad thing after all.

In wider and more ethnic book news, the JBC announced the 2015 winners of the National Book Awards! They cover everything from various types of fiction to anthologies, biographies, history and scholarship. Shortly after that, the Association of Jewish Libraries announced the 2015 Sydney Taylor Book Award, honoring childrens’ and YA fiction. Gulp. Might be time for me to get out my favorite hashtag, #TooMuchToRead. :P

Book Pic Spotlight

january bookpic

Found this book on my work truck a week or so ago, and my eyes boggled at the title. Is there really some sort of history with POCs, (presumably liberal) women and the LGBTQ community within an interpretation of Evangelical Christianity?! Goes against what stereotypes I’ve seen, but that title is certainly meant to be enticing and I’m intrigued. Someone should read/review this book and get back to me. :P

Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!

Book Reviews

Started big this year, and went through 8 books! :D Already mentioned Sword and Verse. I also had to finish the Starglass duology that I started last month, and then I had to indulge in my annual Best American Short Stories tradition. Skimmed three books off of the top of my TBR with Battle Royale, I Am Forbidden and Hush. Finally, I’m really enjoying listening to the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins on audiobook. :D It’s giving me those Hunger Gamesesque cost-of-war themes that I’ve been missing out on. Overall I think I’m sticking to my resolution to be a little more critical with my rating system, but I really enjoyed most of these books!

Starbreak (Starglass, #2)Starbreak by Phoebe North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Terra chases her dreams down to Zehava–or Aur Evez as the natives call it. North’s narrative shines most in the beginning as she builds up this intriguing planet with sentient plant life. Would be a good chance for Terra to make a mark for herself as a botanist and painter, but instead she gets waylaid by an incredibly cheesy love story. She tries to equate this alien romance to gay relationships (forbidden by the council) but ugh. It would have been better character development, IMHO, if Terra had challenged the status quo of the married, heterosexual lifestyle by choosing to remain single, and realizing that she didn’t need a guy to complete her.

Of course, the Asherati people’s quest for a homeland is kind of/sort of an allegory for the Jews, constantly expelled and looking for the promised land. In history, we are often seen as both colonists and refugees, similar to the people here. But as Rachel grows more religious (sadly, also more fundamentalist and intolerant, though I respect that this is a believable response to social unrest) it becomes clear to me how incongruous religious Judaism is with the extraterrestrial–all of our myths, our narrative about Israel, they’re all Earth bound. Rachel invoking them as the reason to turn back to our planet of origin is the most Jewish content in this book (other than her also saying the blessing over the wine. :p). On the other side of things, the biologist, Jachin, believed in “HaShem,” although the council dissuaded belief, and that led him to the Children of Abel. I also liked how they changed the words of the Kaddish to signify life on Asherah, but it was still seen as a tradition, even in changing times.

Full review

***
Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1)Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The world building in the Underland isn’t anything too complicated, but no character is left to be one-dimensional. Gregor is a deeply empathetic narrator who, although he sometimes feels anger at characters like the vain princess, say, always encourages himself to see things from her perspective. His own 11-year-old coping for dealing with the sudden and unexplained absense of his father is also fleshed out, and the entire story has a “Wrinkle in Time” feel, with him and Boots going to a fantasy land to rescue him.

This book is straight-up fantasy, and the prophecy of a warrior/savior appears to be real, unlike with Katniss and the trumped up propaganda of the Mockingjay. But despite this seemingly simplistic hero’s journey, Gregor had to deal with the effects of seeing death, and like in the Hunger Games, had to struggle with the concept of living a life with hope after fighting in a war. This level of emotional and psychological investment made me feel for the characters more than I thought I would; I even got teary at the end. *awkward coughing*

Full review

***
The Best American Short Stories 2015The Best American Short Stories 2015 by Heidi Pitlor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pitlor mentions GoodReads, but in the context of pointing out how many readers demand (unfortunately) “likable” characters. Wish she found more reviews like mine. TC Boyle seems refreshingly optimistic about the present–or maybe just his skill as a curator. He claims the stories here have more depth than a couple he picked out of the premiere 1915 edition of this anthology. Promising start!

My favorite stories:

“Sh’khol,” Colum McCann (Zoetrope: All-Story) The narrative is sweeping, encompassing a lot of themes. I’m a sucker for stories that consider dwindling Jewish communities, and I’m also tickled that McCann wrote something around a complicated Hebrew word.

“Thunderstruck,” Elizabeth McCracken (StoryQuarterly) For McCracken’s stories I think this is still a lesser one for me, but she may be my favorite writer here. Could be bias because I read her full book of short fiction. But the characters, situation, background are real and complex and draw me in the most.

“Kavitha and Mustafa,” Shoba Rao (Nimrod) A little more of an action plot, but finally, a story in a non-western setting. She does a good job giving depth and history to her main couple, too. And I love her final line in her contributor’s note–“Violence, after all, is not difficult. Humanizing that violence is what is difficult.”–so true.

Full review

***
Battle RoyaleBattle Royale by Koushun Takami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Battle Royale, in essence, asks the audience to play the game–each chapter even begins with a countdown of students left alive, and many of the chapters that flit between players, many of whom die pages later, often felt like some sort of video game avatar’s psych assessment. The Hunger Games is much more about the effect of the Games on society, but the tributes are also playing a very different sort of game. There’s a player that is entirely absent from the Program–the audience, or sponsors, in particular. The tributes, in fact, spend a week leading up to the Games attempting to create a narrative/propaganda to impress Game Makers and sponsors that might help them to survive. The Battle Royale characters are more about face value, it seems. No one is going to help them, so the way they respond to the Program, which they are forced into about a half an hour after learning their fates, is about their genuine personalities.

I think Battle Royale suffers from being too long and following too many different characters around. if Takami had stuck to three or four different people with varying reactions, it would have been much more powerful. As it stands, most of their back stories were pretty one dimensional, and the most “evil” male and female students were stereotypes. I also felt like the game maker figure read like an internet troll–maybe that’s just the translation, which could be distractingly infantile–with his circuitous language and deliberately goading of the students. Then again, maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of fascism. :p

Full review

***
I am ForbiddenI am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Satmar are not just some vaguely defined, ultra-religious sect; they have roots in a town in Transylvania, from which they were expunged during the Holocaust, and then they re-establish themselves in Brooklyn, NY. As a microcosm, the orphans Mila and Josef, who later marry, feel bound to, and a sense of purpose in, their communal religious doctrine as a way to find meaning in the murders of their families. They, and Atara, also grapple in very different ways when they witness a factual event, of how their leader, the Satmar Rebbe, turned to hypocritical and arguably inhumane methods to survive the Nazis. The novel does not take sides, and I commend it for that.

The pacing is a little uneven, and barrels forward like a life’s summary after the “forbidden” event in the late ’60s. I get why Mila turned so desperately to the biblical story of Tamar, but I don’t get why she decided to join the Parisian protestors for a day. Seemed a bit convenient, in a novel where Markovits got to probe so much history anyway. (There’s a whole lot about Central Europe, ending with the communism that drove our main characters out and literally sealed the border on them). I did love her descriptive prose about Parisian streets. She doesn’t spoon-feed her audience anything–including Yiddishisms and religious practice, leading to an occasional set of brackets. But I imagine the general non-Jewishly inclined reader might be confused, even with the glossary in the back.

Full review

***
HushHush by Eishes Chayil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of the book could be a little flippant. We go back and forth between past and present, so we know that something horrible has happened to the protagonist’s best friend, Devory, but the details almost come to us like the audience is playing a game of Clue. I did appreciate the different characterizations of said protagonist, Gittel, at 9 and then 18-20; felt realistic to me.

Gittel witnesses part of the abuse in the former part, which understandably comes back to haunt her in the latter, when, with marriage, her own sex life begins. This is a novel about sexual abuse done right; no exploitation, and a lot of emphasis on the complicated impacts it had on members of the community. Because of ingrained and external dogmatic refusal to confront the issue, characters go into varying stages of denial, cover up and strain on their relationships. Gittel could never express her guilt and frustration in words, leading to some physical property damage that I thought might break up her marriage. She’s better at writing letters to Devory, though those got a little redundant after awhile. I also thought her monologue at the end was a little pat, but the author could have ended the whole story on some sort of Lifetime/Hallmark note with total redemption and Justice, and she didn’t.

Full review

***
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (Underland Chronicles, #2)Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are plenty of middle grade tales where the protagonists are called back to the magical world again and again, but this one has the consequences. Gregor’s dad’s ordeal has left him frail, and this has a major effect on the family’s finances. Later, when we are in the heart of the new story in the Underland, there’s still plenty of reflection on war and loss. Gregor’s relationship with Ares, particularly, grows much stronger, but they have a great scene near the end where they lament the simpler days, before they’d even met.

In continued Hunger Games geekery, one of the more popular phrases in the Prophecy of Bane reminded me of my most ardently supported fan theory about the YA trilogy–that Coin purposely killed Prim for very definitive reasons. “Die the baby, die his heart, die his most essential part” (Collins is also a good poet). Of course, that phrase likely means something different than what we all first assumed, given a twist that, among other things, leads to a sequel more easily than the last book did.

Full review

***
Sword and Verse (Sword and Verse, #1)Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read some reviews that claim this is more of a romance than a fantasy, and I wonder if popular, contemporary trends in YA genre publishing have kind of muddied the whole “fantasy” issue. Not to say that MacMillan accomplished, or intended to, anything on the scale of Tolkien, but fantasy world building relies upon that conflagration of mythology, socio-cultural issues and language. (She created scripts for three!). Unfortunately, also much like Tolkien and Lewis, the darker skinned people turn out to be the most oppressive; this is a trope we should definitely move away from in publishing, thanks to our own socio-cultural issues. But Raisa did offer some intriguing commentary on the nature of slavery and how it effects the whole society.

One of the less fortunate aspects of first person narration is the limited scope; I think it would have done us some good to see, first hand, schisms between members of the Resistance and schisms between Mati and the nobility of his culture. Lessens the impact to just have them told to Raisa. But I respect Raisa’s conflicted response to betraying Mati and the more violent parts of the Resistance; empathy for life is always cool in my book. :p. I’m even ok with her not wanting to give up her lifestyle, or her fear to act at the beginning, because that’s all very human. Even Kirkus Reviews calls Raisa selfish, and therefore an less worthy heroine, but I don’t think that flawed characters should only exist in literary fiction. I want to see them everywhere.

Full review

January ’16 “TBRs”

Didn’t add a whole lot of books this month, but there’s a little bit of (sub)genre variety. Also, thanks to JBC’s spring 2016 preview, I added all of my Amazon wishlist books on the same day. :P It’s fun to know some of what’s coming up in publishing!

  • Amazon wishlist: The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson; domestic drama against the political realities of Jerusalem between the two World Wars. Piece of Mind by Michelle Adelman; twenty-something coming-of-age story where circumstances force the protagonist from her Jewish home. The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman; Jewish domestic drama about two girls who are born, late ‘40s, in a two-family brownstone.
  • The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, a young woman forced to live as a converso in 15th century Spain. Excited to read about this time period in Jewish history!
  • Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, space stations, androids and protagonists from Tel Aviv…aka my next foray into the Jews in Space topic. :P Also trying out more hard science fiction, which yay!
  • Invisible City by Julia Dahl, a murder mystery/Hassidic identity story in Brooklyn, NY. A finalist from the Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark Awards, which might make this my first mystery genre read! Huzzah!
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green, welp, he said it himself in a recent YouTube video. The movie adaptation is, at best, going on without him. So I figured it was time to stop putting this off, and just add the book to my TBR, yup yup.

Book Video

Went through an internal crisis where I feared my written reviews for my three favorite reads of 2015 (especially The Dovekeepers, but also Station Eleven and The Interestings) weren’t strong enough. So I decided to make a video. Now I’m not sure the video is strong enough, but whatever, it’s out there, and it gives more insight into why I loved these books (and my honorable mentions, the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante, #FerranteFever). :P

Book Meme

Transitioning well from the video, I got inspired by BookTube to highlight some other 2015 reads of which I think highly. Basically I gave a lot of 5 out of 5 stars, and even though most of them aren’t among my very faves, they are pretty special! So why not give them yearbook-like superlative labels? (Expect a lot of silliness with some of these “categories.”) After this, I promise, I’m done obsessing over 2015, and I’m only moving forward. :P There’s so many books out there, and I’d better get to them. Happy reading!

(more…)

January 28, 2016

Writing Update: Finished First Draft of “Quarter Life” as Short Story

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 1:13 am
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Sometimes maybe I need a kick in the pants from a friend. She came to visit from off continent, because another friend whom she beta-read for just had her book published. (Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan! I’m a little over halfway through reading it now…expect a review in my next literary newsletter.)

Anywho. My friend graciously offered to read my first draft, and it got me to thinking about how, in trying to do everything at once, I might be paralyzing myself. I can’t expect each draft to be perfect. I’ll need to do my fair share of whittling.

The first thing to concern myself with is what I’m trying to say. Granted, that issue is different for a short story than it is for a novel. Then again, this short story is running a little longish, and I might have too much going on. For the time being, I’ve left it all in. Maybe I can have another pair of eyes on it before I decide what can stay and what must go.

My stats have changed a bit since September. I’m now at 13 (or 12 and 3/4ths) single-spaced pages, 6,915 words. It is a bit of a surreal feeling. I wrote two go-nowhere Nanowrimo novels based on the 2006 storyline in 2008 and 2010. I spent some time last year writing several false starts to the short story I envisioned coming out of that project. Now, I have something tangible and completed–in the draft sense, anyway. But it’s much better than my muddled thoughts in my brain!

I’m so lucky to have anyone at all who is willing to give feedback on my creative writing, especially someone with experience in this area. I know well that this sort of camaraderie helps writers realize that they’re not just shouting nonsense into a void. Or at least hopefully, in my case. :P I juuuust finished this draft, late at night, after all. Should likely give it a read-through in the morning. Then, onwards and upwards!

January 1, 2016

Rachel’s Literary Newsletter: December 2015

literary newsletter

Book Pic Spotlight / Book Reviews / December ’15 “TBRs” / Book Video / Book Meme

Hello, and happy new year! Busy month to round off 2015. I went to New York City to visit with family—and to check out the Strand and the New York Public Library. :D I either bought or received four books for myself—Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories (1972, fifth printing edition), The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, the newly illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

I gifted my fair share of books as well! My favorite, undoubtedly, is this personalized number for my niece. <3 Most embarrassing—when my sister and I both got The Japanese Lover for our mom. And here I was so proud of myself for checking that my dad wasn’t purchasing it. :P

I’ve had so much fun keeping up with the GoodReads Choice Awards, and watching the BookTube community wrap up the year with their favorite reads and literary resolutions for next year. I’ll be getting to that below! :D But first, my final newsletter for 2015.

Book Pic Spotlight

november bookpic

Not real books this time, but in the spirit of them…this is a Macy’s holiday window inspired by Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. I wanna go rolling around on that ladder—librarian’s dream! :P

Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!

Book Reviews

Lots and lots of books for me…guess I was making up for November. :P Took part in the# readukkah challenge with two books! Read one for book club. The Martian FINALLY came in, so I felt compelled to listen to it, whether I wanted to or not. :P Got through some other audiobooks as well, including my first memoir! :D Picked up some print books from the library, including (too late) a YA dystopia duology with Jewish themes. I could only get through one before the new year, finishing literally when the clock struck 12, hee. Alas.

The Septembers of ShirazThe Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story is at least loosely based on real events; Sofer’s father was imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guard, and she and her family fled Iran when she was Shirin’s age. Only one thing in particular made me a little eyebrow archy–that Leila’s revolutionary family (or father, anyway,) would allow her to be friends with Shirin, and that they wouldn’t immediately suspect her of stealing the files, precisely based on guilt by association.

The characters are well defined–not only in reaction to the current political climate, but with regards to personality and relationships. I could have perhaps done with a longer book, something lurid and descriptive to more tangibly set up the Amin backstory in Iran. Perhaps it would make their downfall more heart wrenching, though it should be enough on its own, given what I got. I never cried for them, though I felt uncomfortable tightenings in my chest due to all too similar displays of antisemitism, and how their lives (more their livelihoods) were brusquely and unapologetically taken away from them.

Full review

***
After Abel and Other StoriesAfter Abel and Other Stories by Michal Lemberger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even disregarding the characters for a moment, her descriptions of the landscapes, from lush Persia to the arid desert, made the worlds seem real even in the most magical realist of stories. We start with Eve, who, as the main character of an origin-of-life story, is the only one who understands, through her narrative, that she is recounting things for all time. Or, at least she would be if her voice counted as much as Adam’s and those of her sons. Cities rise and fall from there; warfare, conquest and cruelty are often a backdrop here, as they are in the Hebrew Bible. We see how ambition turns Yael’s people, who are surprisingly peaceable at first, into warmongers.

Yael’s story was similar to Lot’s wife’s, named Puha here, in that they both make murderous choices in service of an arguably higher goal, but then they have to live with the unwanted consequences of that. These dilemmas perhaps speak the most to me from a modern perspective. The women narrating these tales had slightly differing desires–Yael longed for the peace and family of the old days, Puha wanted to save her daughters, Zaresh was mired in a world of political intrigue as a way to advance her family (and I commend Lemberger for telling a story about THAT man’s wife while never mentioning his name; surely intentional. :p).

Full review

***
The Little BrideThe Little Bride by Anna Solomon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sort of book, I believe, that often leaves a sour taste in some readers’ mouths based on the selfishness and other unlikeable qualities in the main (female) character. I kind of found Minna to be refreshing in that way, because the Hallmark version of this tale might involve a headstrong but plucky girl meeting up and “reforming” (no pun intended, fellow Jews) her rigidly unlikeable much older Orthodox husband. Max is definitely older and more observant, but he’s human, too, and not just an archetype. Minna is definitely more unlikeable, but even she can’t be selfish all of the time given their harsh conditions; she still puts herself on the line. Maybe I also like the idea that people from “olden times,” even when objectively expected to be rational, sturdy and ignore individual desires in place of communal protocol, had emotions, desires, ambitions and insecurities just like any recognizable human being.

I’m not sure I found the other characters to be as fleshed out as Minna, which partially has to do with the close third person narration. Solomon dipped and flowed a little bit into glimpses of her past and future sometimes, which could be illuminating, though I found the ending just a little too pat in placing Minna’s story in the broader context of “Jews in the Wild West.” (Also, Max’s ending was a little too convenient for me, though it almost read like a dark mercy). It’s a subject I should know more about, because my Jewish family hails from the Midwest and my grandfather was born in South Dakota, albeit some decades after Minna’s time. I have no inkling whether my family was part of the Am Olam movement to send Jews west–which Jacob also explains to Minna in a little too textbook a way–partially because Jews believed that leaving cities for farms would curb antisemitism, and partially because more established US Jews in NYC and etc were wary of gentile “anti-immigrant” attitudes as more Russian Jews like Minna were escaping the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Am Olam movement, at least in the colony that Minna and Samuel visited, struck me as an obvious precursor to the kibbutznik movement in Palestine/early Israel.

Full review

***
All of a Kind Family: Five Young Sisters in the turn of the 20th century  (Audio Book Download)All of a Kind Family: Five Young Sisters in the turn of the 20th century by Sydney Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cute stories, and I imagine I would have enjoyed them as a youngster, not only for the Jewish holidays or whatnot, but the focus on libraries and piano lessons. Turns out that Papa shares a birthday with my sister, too! :P

I loved the familial descriptions of life on the Lower East Side 100 years ago (oy gevalt) and most stories even had enough meat to them to not just be about the moral at the end. Listening to the audiobook also turned out to be a treat, with the playful piano music between each new chapter, and Suzanne Torren’s cheerful tones. A bit of a treat of a performance in itself!

Full review

***
Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the StoryNever Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story by Jewel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jewel narrated her audiobook and even sang some of her songs, as well as read them like poetry. I’m also partial to the inflection she used when she got to meeting Bob Dylan. :p. Her life is almost too bizarre to believe, from growing up without plumbing in a homestead in Alaska, to talking, briefly, with Tupac, weeks before his death. A real rags to riches phenomenon, and sometimes, it feels like she saw herself as a little too unique. To be fair, not everyone could fund tuition to a prestigious arts high school by organizing a concert for their hometown, and even fewer people could break into the entertainment biz. Jewel has this sense of herself in the ’90s as a rare artist who wasn’t cynical and into grunge, but then she also mentioned similar contemporaries–other of my favorite artists, though I wasn’t trying to curate my tastes at the time–Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow. She also referenced herself as generally inspired/thought to be the next generation of the Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell ilk, two of my mother’s favorites.

There’s a lot of valuable lessons in this book, but I think the one that stuck with me the most was something Jewel first picked up as a child when riding her horse and looking to nature for release–hardwood grows slowly. It means not to take the quick fixes in life, and to make choices that support long term sustainability. It’s how Jewel claims to have lived her life–from suffering PTSD as a teenager, all the way to her exploding celebrity as a folk singer.

Full review

***
Claudia Silver to the RescueClaudia Silver to the Rescue by Kathy Ebel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is teeming with so much sarcasm and physical description of the ’90s that it reads like a sophisticated, retrograde episode of “Girls.” It was also a bit relentless, so exhausting to keep reading. The beginning of the novel was kind of amusing in a “shit you pull when you’re 20” sort of way, but I can see how it’s wearying at the end; even Claudia finally gets it. At the same time, we kind of see how these behaviors get passed down from generation to generation.

Judaism played into this novel by way of Claudia’s family having a persecution complex, and the occasional attempt to light some candles, go to synagogue or read Jewish literature. Apparently both Claudia and her mother, Edith, are very literary (Ebel didn’t really provide much direct evidence, but the cleverness of their dialogue holds some merit) but that doesn’t stop them from screwing up their lives. But, in retrospect, it really makes sense that people who are engrossed in worlds of classical fiction would do such a thing. :p

Full review

***
The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrative was a little uneven, and some of that I fault to listening to it on audio. The first time we moved away from Watney’s logs and met the folks at NASA, I thought he was just speculating about how his bosses were handling his “death.” Took me a little bit to catch on, and partially that had to do with using the same narrator. R.C. Bray is very good with voices (better with male than female, of course,) but by that time I’d come to contextualize him as “the voice of Mark,” so it was a little jarring. Also due to audio over print, hearing the dictation of all of the computer code stuff was just weird. :P I think I’d’ve just acknowledged that in print, as though skimming commands on a screen.

The characters weren’t too well-developed, of course. Rich Purnell struck me as stereotypically on the autism spectrum. We had a minor love story among the Hermes crew; Commander Lewis is largely defined by her guilt over leaving Watney behind and her obsessive love of disco and ’70s shows. Watney’s sarcastic humor was very well done, though it could get old sometimes. There’s no doubt, if this was “Mara Watney,” with both a winning personality and crazy fix-it ability to stay alive in all sorts of situations, she’d be labeled a “Mary Sue.” But it also seems very viable that perhaps the only way to survive something so huge would be to save a largely light-hearted take on it. If the elements didn’t take me down, my own terror and depression would. Watney certainly allowed himself some occasional navel grazing about this strange turn in his life, but he retained the personality that must draw readers to him. I chuckled quite a bit, and then rolled my eyes at transitions like NASA personnel wondering how he was keeping morale up, and then his next log being about Aquaman. :P Dude’s a classic nerd, and that was fun.

Full review

***
Starglass (Starglass, #1)Starglass by Phoebe North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, that wasn’t quite what I expected. I was kind of hoping that the “Jews in space” would be a little more…Jewish. :p. Instead, it leans closer to the YA dystopia, but instead of the Corporation controlling factions, to mix and match a little bit, we have the Council advocating the ideas of mitzvot and tikkun olam. But the overarching feel is that they’re not doing this to preserve Jewish culture, as they claim, but just to keep the citizens employed as yes-men. Some groups might claim that’s what religion is, in its essence. Some more traditional Jews would claim that this resembles less traditional practice. It’s probably not as deep as all of that here; more like a means to an end.

One positive “Martian” association comes in the form of the ship’s botanist. Seems like she was getting a lot of work done about what food and plants might grow down there. And also, hee, her name was Mara, which I jokingly referred to Mark Watney as if he had been imagined as a woman. :p. This character is actually a bit more layered than Mark; she’s like the ship’s Israeli sabra with the tough exterior and heart of gold for those she loves. She’s aware of negative attributes in both establishment and rebellion factions, and she’s confident in her opinions. She also didn’t want to be a mom (something her society demands) but in her own, uniquely gruff way, she comes to love her children. This is a nice contrast to Terra’s claim that everyone lives the exact same lives.

Full review

December ’15 “TBRs”

In a switch from last month, only added one to my amazon wishlist; the rest went directly to my GoodReads TBR. I also alternated between adding Jewish books and science fiction, hee.

  • Amazon wishlist: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. I usually add to this list from Jewish Book Council reviews, but this one I found on a truck at work. Takes place around a day-in-a-life of a family in Haifa. Published in Australia; not sure the print edition is widely available in the US yet. I have time! :P
  • A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neesta Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, a corporate-controlled world meets Medieval kabbalists and rare book librarians; maybe this is the futuristic Jewish story I’m looking for! :P Sounds more goofy than my usual fare, but it still intrigues me more than Cantor’s latest novel, to be published near the end of January.
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, the stories of every-day people and aliens, aboard a space-traveling vessel. I’ve heard this book lauded on BookTube, and it seems like the sort of societal commentary and character development I was hoping/not expecting might be in the Expanse series. (Started watching the adaptation on SyFy. Eh.)
  • The Invitation by Anne Cherian, Indian-American novel with Jewish connections? Sign me up! I hope it’s easy to follow without having read A Good Indian Wife. #SoMuchToRead!
  • The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, adult dystopia about a couple that chooses the questionable security of a “social experiment” town. Been feeling like I should give Atwood a try, and this feels much less suffocatingly depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale.

Book Video

Excited to get back to this segment! This month, I’m featuring another vid about a favorite Jewish novelist, Tova Mirvis. Hope you enjoy!

Book Meme

Finally, the space for all of my end of year stuff. I’ll start with some stats. GoodReads provided this great review, with my longest and shortest books read, most and least popular on the site, highest review average by members, etc. I hope they offer this again in 2016! Here are some of my own stats: I read 57 books this year. :P There was a lot of overlap in subject matter, but I assigned each of them one tag based on my own take. Here’s the percentage breakdown, from most to least: jewish fiction: 37%, general fiction: 30%,science fiction: 18%, young adult fiction: 7%, jewish short stories: 4%, general short stories: 4%, memoir: 2%. I’m a fan of the fact that my math came out to 102%. :P

Bookish resolutions: I love how hip to the book world I’ve gotten over the past year, but I’m still mostly just talking to a void. In 2016, I’d like to interact with some BookTubers; they seem like nice people. :P I also hope to read all of Meg Wolitzer’s backlist, and/or Virginia Woolf’s, and/or the remaining Brontes novels I haven’t gotten to yet. Maybe I’ll try to read some fiction on this list as well; some of it is on my TBR. I do hope to mostly read from my crazy-long TBR, but I know I’ll occasionally throw in a random book. Finally, I hope to make at least one video dedicated to reviewing nominees for the Sami Rohr fiction prize.

You may have noticed from my GoodReads stats that my average review was a 4.2. Now that I’m taking my literary life a little more seriously, I feel like I should be more critical. So I decided to do something that I never do: I retroactively lowered my rating on 2 books, The Magicians and Portnoy’s Complaint. In doing this, I hope to encourage myself, in coming years, to give some books I might’ve given 3s 2s and 4s 3s and etc etc. I still think my average will be pretty high, over all, but I’m tired of giving books I’m not that fond of such high scores.

All of that being said, I also went back and switched my ratings from the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante from 4s to 5s. :P #FerranteFever has officially kicked in. I think I didn’t get the series in the beginning, but now I feel confident in calling My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child runners’ up to my favorite reads of the year. Part of me is still in fictional Naples, watching these crazy talented women navigate their crazy crazy lives.

Under the cut, I’ve included snippets of my reviews for and quotes from my top three books that I read this year. Thanks so much for sticking with me through 2015. Happy reading!

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December 21, 2015

Reviewing Movie Adaptations: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”

Filed under: Adaptations — rmauro2 @ 12:37 am
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mockingjay part 2 When it comes to the so-called “book purists,” I’ve found, we run the gamut from disliking any change in an adaptation, to centering in on specific parts that hold the most meaning for us. Although I have criticisms for each of “The Hunger Games” movies, I was particularly wary about the final installment. “Mockingjay” is the most divisive book in the trilogy, but I fall firmly on the side of considering it the axis that makes this entire story work; there’s some stuff at the end that I hold sacrosanct. And unlike with the last two movies, I wasn’t thrilled with most of the promotional stuff leading up to the premiere. The trailers largely seemed to be “rah, rah, good vs evil” in theme.

Luckily, hearing all of those quotes within the actual context of the movie assuaged my fears. I knew, objectively, that I had little reason to doubt. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of the adaptations is that they cater to the themes that are of upmost importance to me—the physical and mental cost of violence, and even the need for human connection. (I was literally gasping for breath, post-epilogue, once the credits started rolling. And to think, I was crying during a “Hunger Games” movie because something uplifting had happened! :P) I’m in a zen place with adaptations right now. Movies (and even tv shows) only have so much room, so they have to stick to one or two themes and downplay or excise all the rest. The product we get is less expansive, though hopefully moving and thought-provoking within its confines.

“Mockingjay: Part 2” isn’t perfect, but in totality it sticks to the above. Of all the films, it probes the meaning of war most complexly, since we’re now in the thick of it. In fact, I found myself abandoning one of my favorite pet theories from the books, not because it couldn’t fit in with this retelling, but so that I could focus more concretely at the issues at hand. And, thank goodness, it ends with my favorite epilogue in fiction. When I posted my excitement to Facebook on the day that I saw the Mockingjays double feature in theatres, I used the hashtag #ThereAreMuchWorseGamesToPlay. I didn’t really think about it cropping up in the movie, because most of Katniss’s internal monologue doesn’t make the cut. But to hear Jennifer Lawrence end her performance on those lines…and then, her voice reprising “Deep In The Willows” from the first film, bringing us full circle…well, this is about the time that I needed additional oxygen. :P

…Kinda seems like I spoiled the entire film now, but under the cut I go for more specifics. Definitely still my favorite adaptation ever.

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December 2, 2015

V-Log: NaNoWriMo 2015: Winner!

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 12:59 am
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Print Somewhere between 51,119 and 52,270 words! :P

I go over my writing and reading goals for the future. Among my reading goals: the 2015 #Readukkah challenge. Also, shoutouts for all of my NaNo pals! Keep writing!

November 30, 2015

Rachel’s Literary Newsletter: November 2015

Filed under: Reading — rmauro2 @ 11:56 pm
Tags: , , , ,

literary newsletter

Book Pic Spotlight / Book Reviews / November ’15 “TBRs” / Book Meme

Hello and welcome! Quite the unusual month for me. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, my reading schedule resembled my old routine, before March of this year when I decided to step up my game. Thank goodness for short stories and audiobooks when you don’t have quite the attention span for your normal fare. :P

I missed the routine, is what I’m saying. Maybe next year I can find a way to get through more books during NaNo. Conversely, in non-November months, I’d like to strike a balance between voracious reading and more active writing. Perhaps I’ll have another literary breakthrough in 2016, the same as I did this year. One can hope!

Book Pic Spotlight

november bookpic

Going for the strange and geekishly exciting this time. I received this booklet as I was leaving the theatre for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2. Kvelling that this is a novel (to me) way of picking up new literature! Thinking I might add the book to my GoodReads tbr.

Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!

Book Reviews

I might have been too gracious to the short story collection, given my disappointment with The Magicians. Man, that was rough. I decided to go for it so as to coincide with the a tv adapted series to air on the SyFy channel next month. But I dislike the book so much that now I doubt I’ll even watch the show. Where does that leave me? SyFy is also adapting Jame’s Corey’s “Expanse” series, but that seems a bit too crime-detective-meets-hard-science-fiction for my tastes. Feeling picky after all of this hoopla. :P Alas, if only The Martian by Andy Weir had come in for me…been on that waiting list for months! Oy.

The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011: The Best Stories of the YearThe PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011: The Best Stories of the Year by Laura Furman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Always nice to have a collection of short stories in order to keep my palate wet during a reading-lite month. Best American Short Stories will always be my fave, but I liked the fare in here, too. Below are thoughts on the stories that made the biggest impressions.

“Pole Pole” by Susan Minot, The Kenyon Review–probably my fave so far in the collection. Involves a sexual tryst between two white people in Kenya. She weaves physical description and decent character development in a small amount of space. Touched deftly on several themes–racism, entitlement, abuse, adultery, reading people through faces, and the multitudes of meaning in a different language.

“The Black Square” by Chris Adrian, McSweeney’s–seems like subtle metaphors-meets-magic-realism with the black square representing falling into depression. Thoughtful with well realized characters for the short story form. I found the protagonist unlikeable for some self-centered denial and hypocrisy, but that’s often depression, too.

Full review

***
The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)The Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Brakebills to be sparsely described and generally unmemorable. Magic annoyed me the most there; I get that Grossman was trying to sidestep some middle grade fantasy worldbuilding, but the execution felt lazy and ill-conceived. At one point, the narrative made this big deal about how magic couldn’t permanently change appearances, a la Hermione fixing her teeth in “Harry Potter,” but magicians had no trouble wrapping themselves in spells as they walked, naked, through the antarctic, or taking off like human rocket ships for a journey to the moon. Speaking of Hermione, Quentin’s group of friends, which he awkwardly convened through skipping grades and being assigned to an academic discipline that he didn’t earn (more than that, they clique remained in tact for two years, because they conveniently didn’t admit any new people in the latter one,) were all self-satisfied know-it-alls who knew far more about wine and culture than your average twenty-something. (I might be biased by the audiobook, and Mark Bramhall’s rendering of the dialogue.) Complete with the standard catty dislike between the sole female members, and only one guy who struggled at all academically. Not much character development past that.

Fillory was much more interesting to me than Narnia, on which I presume it was based, and again I like that Quentin et al go there not out of some divinely-inspired quest, but out of boredom. I like that at the heart of it, they were just these entitled brats with way too much power, and lacking in the real world knowledge (until it was too late, anyway) to realize how their decisions affect others and themselves. Still, I kind of wish that Grossman had scrapped this entire story and focused more completely on the Chatwins. Although they only existed on the sidelines, these were the characters imbued with some emotional payoff. Would that I were inside Martin and Jane’s heads, rather than Quentin’s. Alas.

Full review

November ’15 “TBRs”

Only actually added the first one to my official GoodReads tbr; the rest are on my amazon wishlist. Hopefully I’ll get to them some day…just keeping you in the know! :P

  • In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. I mean, there was no way that I could not; she’s one of my favorite authors. This marks her first foray into memoir, and she focuses on the Italian language and her time in Italy. She didn’t even write in English; Ann Goldstein is the translator! I am so excited, intrigued, fascinated, the works, concerning Lahiri’s perspective on all of this.
  • The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, a biopic about the life of King David. This one is getting a lot of buzz, and I’m too intrigued by modern interpretations of biblical tales to stay away. I hear there’s a lot about the ladies in here…one can only hope that they might be given a voice!
  • Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee, about the daughter of a wealthy family in Santiago. There’s inter-class romance, shocking reveals about family, including some Jewish relatives and apparently a stay with them in both Miami and Israel. Color me intrigued by this unusual (or at least unusually depicted) salad of cultures!
  • The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris; she was on a panel that I attended at this year’s DC Jewish Literary Festival, so when the Jewish Book Council reviewed her book, I figured it was due diligence to add it. :P Beyond that, we’re chronicling the era of Jews and the jazz age of the 1920s; it’s pretty cool stuff!
  • The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, more historical fiction, this time about a disappeared Jewish painter from the 1940s Works Progress Administration (WPA.) Decades later, her niece decides to pick up her trail. I’m hoping this will shed a light on art and politics of the mid-20th century.

Book Meme

With NaNoWriMo on the brain, what other tag could I do? So this is mostly about my writing habits, but there’s a little bit of reading and book reccs in here, too. I might make this tag an annual thing, and change up the questions when need be. Trying to keep things fluid. :P Thanks so much for sticking with me, and hope you enjoyed this abnormally short newsletter. Happy (writing and) reading!
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November 29, 2015

V-Log: NaNoWriMo 2015: Week Four

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 10:13 am
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Print Word count: 45,308

Less time to chit chat as I make a mad dash for the finish line! Still, I actully write–and read–from my short story, “Quarter Life.” You can read what I wrote, too, by clicking here.

November 23, 2015

V-Log: NaNoWriMo 2015: Week Three

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 8:23 am
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Print Word count: 37,714

In which I recount traveling between DC public libraries in search of NaNo swag, and about how I acquired some surprising swag while leaving the theatre for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”! You never know from where new books will enter your life.

November 15, 2015

V-Log: NaNoWriMo 2015: Week Two

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 8:38 am
Tags: ,

Print Word count: 23,018

I wrote fiction! A brief amount at the local library write-in, before my computer battery started giving me trouble. :/ Luckily, should all be sorted.

I read my “The Corners” Silver Spring Novelists meetup synopsis, and then an excerpt from a short story I wrote in my 1995 summer writing workshop. Hopefully my style has changed…the themes that intrigue me as a writer, not so much. :P

November 9, 2015

V-Log: NaNoWriMo 2015: Week One

Filed under: Writing — rmauro2 @ 8:06 am
Tags:

Print Word count: 12,225

Still haven’t gotten to any fiction, and that slightly bums me out. :/ May have to make that a priority soon. And yet I’m finally plugging away at other projects, so yay.

I talk about my social life calendar this week that did NOT have to do with actual writing (although I did partake in my writing critique group. :P) Also showed off my cool NaNo donations; you can donate to the nonprofit here!

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