Reflections of the Past, Resolutions for the Future

Wow, what a year!

2014 was packed full for me, of both the good and the bad, but thankfully mostly good. My biggest achievement was earning a Bachelor’s degree in English at the University of New Hampshire, and I am extremely proud of myself for accomplishing that. I am so happy that part of my life is over – going to school full time is difficult while working and being a father of two small children. Part of me yearns to go back, though. Not just to earn a Master’s degree, but to sit in a room and talk books and writing with other like-minded people, to share my stories with them and to read theirs, to receive feedback and give my own thoughts and opinions. I miss that sense of community. Perhaps I should join a club…

The rest of the year flew by with the wind. Summer was over before I knew it, Halloween and Thanksgiving came and went, and Christmas was upon us almost before we had the decorations up. Now they are all taken down and today is the last day of 2014. Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is a new year. And with every new year comes the time to reflect on the past and create resolutions for the future.

My goals for this year were only partially met, and I am not upset about it. Not too much, anyway. This year gave me a good bearing on what I can accomplish, and now I can set better goals for next year.

My first goal for this year was to read at least twenty-four books. I thought I would struggle with this one, but I passed it with ease around June or July. My final tally was: 51 books, 3 plays, and 28 short stories and novellas. Of the 51 books, 7 were non-fiction and 6 were collections of shorter works. It was an amazing and inspiring year of reading. I read great books and crappy books, long books and short books, old books and new books. I read books that I had never heard of and books that sat on my t-read list until they were covered in time-dust. I read fantasy and science fiction, horror and mystery and thriller, even some romance. I tried not to limit myself too much. The most important thing is that I learned something from every book. Some books had hidden jewels or inspirational passages, some had influential ideas or masterful architecture, and others taught me what not to do.

Next year, I am going to push myself a little harder. My goal is to read 55 books, 12 plays, and 25 short stories and novellas. I want to dust off a few more that are on the to-read list as well as explore with new authors and genres. I also want to read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series again. I was too young when I read them the first time and want to read them with my more experienced writer’s mind. As for the plays, I started reading Shakespeare this year from the beginning. I am jumping past the Histories for now, but plan to read them in order of when they occurred in history (instead of when he wrote them). Hopefully I can surpass this goal again.

My next goal was for writing, and I did horribly, though I can’t say I’m not proud of what I did accomplish. My goal of 1,000 words a day was crushed into oblivion. I have come to the realization that I will not accomplish this until I can start selling stories and quit my part-time job. I also need a private writing space where I can be alone without interruption, which is also not possible because I need to watch over my hardly-napping two-year old. Sometimes the TV can babysit, but other times she just wants Daddy, and it’s extremely difficult to deny a princess. I also didn’t meet my one short story a month goal. I only wrote 9, but that is still the most I’ve ever done in one year. I can see my writing getting better with each story, though, and that is good enough for me.

This time I am lowering my goal to 500 words per day, or 3,000 per week. I still want to push myself to do more than that whenever I can, but I want to make sue I can set aside time to do at least 500. I still want to do one short story per month, and of course my ultimate priority is to get published. This year will be the year I accomplish that. I had set aside the novel earlier in the year so that I could focus on the short stories, but I have recently starting working on it again and plan to finish it by the end of 2015.

My final goal for this year was to lose some weight. And I did. Not as much as I had hoped but I finally broke free of the 190-195 plateau a little over a month ago. I hit 188 the other day, and now that the big eating holidays are over, I think I can shed a few more. I really want to fit into that pin-striped suit again!

And now is the time when we say goodbye to 2014 and hello to 2015. I hope your year was as fruitful as mine, and good luck with all your resolutions for next year!

Cheers!

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Progress Report

At the beginning of the year, I told myself I would keep up on this blog–at least once a month, preferably once a week–just to keep myself actively engaged in writing. But then, towards the end of my final semester in college, I took a break to focus more on my schoolwork, most of which I barely managed to complete on time. And when the semester ended, and I was finally finished with school and earned myself a degree, I thought about returning to the blogosphere to maintain that one post a week that I had somehow managed to keep up for the first four months of the year. At the same time, though, I started using all my writing time for fiction, and I decided that was a much better idea. The blog could wait.

And it did. I found it’s still here, just the same as it was before. Imagine that.

Now that summer is almost over, I have taken a few moments to reflect on the past few months, and reviewing my New Years Resolutions, I decided to give a little update. A lot has happened.

My main resolution was to write. My goal was to become published; at least one short story out there for the world to read if they choose. I also wanted to maintain an average of about 1,000 words per day, write at least one short story per month, and work on the novel on the side. Unfortunately, none of that has happened. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working hard. I have accomplished more this year than I have any other year in my past, and I am extremely happy with that. I don’t even think I’ve averaged 500 words a day, but I have completed nine short stories this year, and seven of those have been brought into being since school ended in mid-May. For the most part, I have been following a routine, which is good because I know it’s important. I feel a little burnt out, though, and for the past month I have been writing a lot less. I cut my writing time in half, managing only 100-200 words most days, just so I can spend more time with my kids before my son goes back to school. I feel that is the best decision, even if it hurts my writing. I still make sure I write SOMETHING every day, though, and that I am content with, for now. Next year is a whole new story, especially if I can get published this year. I do feel my writing keeps getting better and better, and that is not just my ego talking. I have learned a great deal by reading and writing a lot, not to mention the advice from other writers.

My reading objective is doing much better. I have been following the #readeverywhere advice, and I have been reading everywhere. I had originally planned to read 25 books this year, thinking that was a lot. It’s not. I’ve already hit 29. Five of those were non-fiction, and another five were collections of short stories. I have also read twelve separate short stories (from magazines or books or whatever). Now that I’ve seen how much I can actually read when I try, I will definitely bump that number up to 50 next year. I am maintaining a list of everything I read, even rating each book and story, and I plan on posting it at the end of the year, instead of writing a review like I had starting doing. That was just too much, and was taking away from my writing time.

My other resolution was to lose a few pounds, and I am happy to say I have succeeded. 12 pounds have been shed, and I see more going away in the future. At least until Thanksgiving and Christmas come around. But I have been more active lately, and have been eating and drinking less. I feel great. That’s the important thing.

So overall, I would say I have succeeded quite a bit so far this year. Though my writing is lacking a bit, I have still accomplished more than ever. It would be unwise for me to complain about that. There’s always room for improvement, though, and that I plan on doing.

Book 7

I have finally done it. I have boldly gone where not many people go anymore. It took me over a month, maybe even more than six weeks, but I have finally finished this whale of a book, this leviathan of a book. The hump of this book – the middle half approximately – was extremely tough to get through, as it was just so boring and dense at times that I had to put the book down and continue it later. But I eventually finished it, and now I can cast it to the bottom of the ocean where it belongs. Now, whenever someone asks me, “Hast seen the white whale?” I can say, “Aye, I have seen that mighty beast, and I have conquered it!”

OK, enough over-exaggerated and cheesy whale talk. Yeah, it took me a long time to finish Moby Dick (1851), but I also had a lot of other things going on, and some family sickness to deal with as well. Here’s what I really thought of it:

There is a ton I could say about Moby Dick. I will not be discussing any of the religious aspects of it though, as much of it is very controversial and I wish to keep that out of my blog for now. In general, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the story of Captain Ahab and crew hunting the giant whale. I enjoyed the unique and well-crafted characters. I enjoyed the sarcasm and satire that Herman Melville heavily sprinkles into the book. And I enjoyed the ominous white whale, Moby Dick, this massive infamous beast that could be a whaler’s doom or his glory. There is much that I did not enjoy, though, which made for a very dense and painful read.

Moby Dick is comprised of three parts (according to me, not in actuality): The Introduction, the Information, and the Chase.

The Introduction is where we meet all the important characters like Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, and the mates. All these characters get long, drawn-out dramatic introductions, especially Queequeg and Ahab. It may be overdone a little bit, but I liked it. The suspense of finding out who these people were kept me reading. I was a little disappointed, though, that after all the character build-up for Queequeg, he nearly disappears for the rest of the book. He makes a couple cameos and then has an entire chapter where he almost dies, but that’s it. I was intrigued by the tattooed face and cannibalistic nature, and wanted more story for him later in the book.

The Information section of the book is what held me up and made me put the book down way too many times. In this section there are many chapters devoted to describing whales, whaling, and the ship. We learn about how a whale is caught, how it is cleaned and stripped, we even learn about how they use the skin of the whale’s penis as a shirt! We learn about the different types of whales, we learn about the whale’s physiognomy and countenance, and the different types of fins that each whale has. Sure, it’s all very interesting stuff, and Melville’s sarcasm and witty remarks make it a fun read (when I can understand his reference), but I just think it was too much. It seemed that what Melville really wanted to do was to write an informative book on whaling, but threw in a tragic adventure story to make it more interesting.

The Chase is the final conflict of the book. Moby Dick is spotted by the crew, and they immediately attempt to catch and kill him. They try for three days. The first two days, Captain Ahab’s boat is torn to pieces, and he barely escapes with his life. On the third day, though, nobody is lucky. The entire ship gets destroyed along with everybody in it. Except for Ishmael, of course, who is telling the story. This section of the book is not only the shortest, but it is also the fastest paced. It kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I already knew the outcome. But by this time, I just wanted to be done with the book, so I read it as fast as I could anyway.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book. It’s been on my to-read list for years, and now I can finally cross it off. It had a lot of unique and interesting features that will influence my own writing. I give Moby Dick 3 out of 5 stars

Book 6

003If ever there was a pioneer in women’s rights and feminism, Fanny Fern (born Sara Willis) was she. And if ever there was a book that was the cornerstone of such movements, Ruth Hall (1854) is it. Sure, there had been others before her, but Fern made such a statement with all her writings, and became so popular among women and men, that she must have at least made a huge impact in that step towards women’s independency, and her fictional autobiography shows it.

Fanny Fern became the first newspaper columnist in the U.S. during a period that was dominated by men in every field. And on top of that, she became the highest paid newspaper writer of her time, a huge blow to men everywhere, and a giant step for women. And she did so from a poverty so low that she could barely feed herself and one child on a daily basis, resorting to milk and bread for most meals, if she even had the money for that. Her family shunned her because of her free spirit, continued to shun her for her poverty after her husband died (a marriage arranged by her parents, by the way), embraced her only when she became wealthy, and then shunned her again when she exploited them for all the wrongs they did to her when she needed them the most. She is the epitome of feminine independence, for after she received no help from her own family, she strove to make ends meat, endured every hardship thrown her way, and worked all hours of the day to finally make enough money to support herself and her children. Then she wrote all about it, in a fictionalized way, in her novel Ruth Hall.

Though a bit exaggerated and sarcastic, Ruth Hall exploits the uncivil side of society that we all know exists: The negative, unsupportive, greedy people that prevail and preside over the average, honest, hard-working people that go unnoticed. But Fern’s exaggeration and witty sarcasm are what make us really realize the truth behind her words. She shows us how evil humankind can be – not just men, but women as well – and especially when assistance is needed most. She emphasizes the nation’s obsession with gender roles in the nineteenth century and ridicules the necessity of such, and she does so by retelling her own tale through the fictional character of Ruth Hall.

It is amazing how one person can go through so many hardships in one life, but Hall does it and prevails just as Fern did so priorly, and it makes for a great, riveting story that stands the test of time. As for the “Other Writings” as the title of the book pictured suggests, I have not read them, but I am sure they are equally engaging. I did, however, read the long-winded introduction, which is where I got the information of Fanny Fern’s biography. And by long-winded, I mean long-winded. The introduction amounts for 10% of the book, equal to about a fifth of the actual novel. The last 40% of the book, the “Other Writings,” include many of the actual newspaper articles written by Fanny Fern, which made her famous and opened the door to her life as a journalist and author.

If you have not had a chance to pick this story up yet, do so soon, as it is a great book for men and women alike, and I recommend it to all. I give Ruth Hall 4 out of 5 stars.

Book 5

001I noticed the other day that fellow New Hampshirite (New Hampshiran? New Hampshirese? Whatever) Dan Brown published the fourth book of his Robert Langdon-Conspiracy-Symbology series, Inferno, and I realized that I hadn’t even read the first one yet, though it’s been on my shelf (and on my to-read list) for years. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that he had written a third book. I’ve enjoyed the movies so far, despite how far-fetched they are and the poor mixed reviews they got from critics and viewers alike, so I decided the books would be worth reading. And besides, I got the first two for free, so why not?

One thing I noticed right away about Angels & Demons was Brown’s simplistic style of writing. Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, even his vocabulary is pretty basic. To add to that, he takes completely unrealistic circumstances, throws in an unrealistic hero, and puts him through trials and tribulations that nobody could endure. For these reasons, many people have proclaimed that he is an awful writer, but I found it a nice break from the flowery, long-winded writing of the 19th and early 20th century that I have been reading lately. 

The brevity of the writing style and book format made Angels & Demons a very quick read. Nearly every chapter ends with a cliffhanger that makes one want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. Even though I found the events highly unlikely, the book had my attention. It pulled me in right from the start, and kept my attention until nearly the end. Then, suddenly, the book slowed down drastically. The last hundred pages or so dragged on forever, and I often found myself wishing the book would just end.

In my opinion, Brown had a very good eye for architectural details, of which I am a huge fan. Architecture has been a love of mine since high school, and I think he did an excellent job showing Rome and the Vatican city. There is some speculation that he did not do very much historical research for his books, and that the information he put into the book was way off, but I can’t confirm that. To be honest, though, I didn’t care what was accurate in regards to the history of religion, science, and cults. This is fiction, and I’m sure he made a lot of stuff up, as fiction writers do. Even historical fiction writers have to change things so that their story makes sense. I did not read the book for a history lesson, I read it to be entertained. And I was entertained, for the most part.

Two things that really irked me about the book were the flow of time within the story and the amount of physical exertion that is not displayed. The entire thing takes place in approximately twelve hours, and the amount of action packed into it would leave anyone practically comatose. Sure, Langdon is in decent shape (he swims a lot), but nobody could put up with the amount of mental and physical strain that he goes through. The characters seem to have perfectly calm conversations while running at top speed, never pausing or gasping for breath.  Also, there are times when 20-30 minutes pass while a few characters have a short conversation, then at other times only a few minutes go by while they are running across the city, having flashbacks, and telling each other life stories. There is one point in particular where it takes them nearly ten minutes to traverse (running, mind you) an underground passage, but they return via the same route in a fraction of the time.

Overall, Brown did an excellent job of keeping my attention, which makes up for the inaccurate and unrealistic  details of the story. I give Angels & Demons 3 out of 5 stars.

Book 4 of 2014

006I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter (I know, I know, shame on me! But it’s on my list!), but I have read some shorter works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I’ve enjoyed everything. The same goes for The House of the Seven Gables. When I signed up for the class “Major American Authors of the 1850’s,” and saw Hawthorne’s name on the list, I thought for sure we would be reading his first, and most famous, novel. But as it turns out, the class has a strong focus on life in the early and mid-19th century, and The Scarlet Letter takes place two centuries prior, so it only makes sense that Seven Gables was chosen.

I was a little disappointed at first, until I opened the book and starting reading away, and realized it was about a cursed family in a haunted house. The book begins in the past, around the time of the Salem Witch Trials, when the revered Colonel Pyncheon accuses Matthew Maule of practicing witchcraft and has him hung. Said Colonel then seizes Maule’s land (with him buried on it) from his cold, dead clutch, and builds a giant seven-gabled house. And who does he hire to build it? Oh, Maule’s son Thomas. “Hey, I killed your father, now build me a house. No hard feelings right?” Well, as the story unfolds, we learn that not only are Wizarding abilities passed down through generations, but so is vengeance. The Maule’s do everything they can to subtly make the Pyncheon’s lives hellish. In the end, a descendant of Maule (under the name of Holgrave) marries one of the last remaining Pyncheons, a beautiful ray of sunshine named Phoebe. One can only wonder if this is the final act of Maule vengeance, uniting the the two ancient families (I’m sure the Colonel is rolling in his grave by this time), or if the two genuinely love each other. After all, Holgrave does hypnotize the poor girl at one point, but stops before he gets too deep into her mind. Or does he? 

Aside from the plot, Hawthorne does a masterful job with language, pacing, and using real names and events, but twisting them around to make them his own. His flowery prose, iconic of just about any book from this time period, gets a little wordy at times. But Hawthorne creates some really wonderful dark settings and creepy images throughout the book. His pacing starts off slow, as explanations of past events are carefully unfolded, but when the action speeds up, so does the pace. And as our mind gets used to reading in the 19th century, we are more able to comprehend the long, flowery sentences, and therefore, allowing the book to move along even quicker. Obviously Hawthorne did not know that his readers’ vocabulary would drastically decrease over the next 150 years (curse you texting and tweeting!), but he does make the reading easier when he’s not giving a tour of the house.

Not only did I enjoy the book, but I also learned a bit of history as well (always a plus!). I had no idea that Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne didn’t like that he was related to someone who sentenced innocent people to death, so he added the ‘W’ to his surname so that he was not associated with his ancestor. I also found out that Pyncheon and Maule were real families, and that he used real people for his characters, though he changed them quite drastically. Thomas Maule, who also happened to be an architect and builder, was not a witch (or wizard), but he did call out those Puritan ministers in their false accusations of witchcraft. He was whipped and all copies of his book were confiscated for his “crime.” I find it very interesting how Hawthorne took real people, places, and events, and twisted them around to create a compelling story.

I did not read the entire book pictured above, as half of it is just essays and such. Those that I have read thus far are interesting enough, but this review is for the novel only. I give The House of the Seven Gables 4 out of 5 stars.

Book 3 of 2014

Full_Dark,_No_StarsTo date, there has never been a Stephen King book that I did not enjoy. I haven’t read them all yet–only about 32 of them, and a handful of shorts–and I have heard some of his books aren’t  so great, but from what I have read, I have loved. It is true that he sometimes includes long lulls within his books (I’m thinking of you, part two of Tommyknockers!), and those lulls often make it difficult to keep plugging away, but it has always been worth it to finish the book. Once through all the boring stuff, the action always picks up, and often with more intensity than before.

Full Dark, No Stars (2010) has none of his infamous lulls in it. The book is comprised of four novellas, and each one is captivating and intense, with non-stop suspenseful thrills and horrific events from beginning to end. In his Afterword, King mentions his intent was to place normal, average people in unusual, terrifying situations to see how they would react, and he has done just that. The details and events in these stories get pretty wicked and gruesome at times, and the suspense kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire read.

The first story is about a farmer and his son who go a little crazy (well, maybe a lot crazy) after they conspire together and murder his wife, all because she wants to sell the 100 acres of land she inherited from her father to a pig-slaughtering company. The second story is about a slightly well-known writer who goes on an out-of-control revenge trip after getting raped and left for dead in a ditch. Story number three tells of a man undergoing chemotherapy (but doesn’t have long to live), who sells his best friend to the devil (playing a street vendor) to prolong his own life. The final tale is about a woman who finds out her husband has been hiding a terrible secret for nearly three decades.

It’s not the grisly and distressing situations that these characters get thrown in to that makes the stories great (although that is part of it), it’s how they react to those situations, how they deal with it and overcome (if they can). These are no powerful heroes that can fight any foe, they are your every-day people. People like you and me. How would you deal with it?

I give Full Dark, No Stars a lot more than the title suggests: 5 out of 5 for me.