Review: Coraline

  • Coraline CoverTitle: Coraline
  • Author: Neil Gaiman
  • Printed Pages: 208
  • Publish Year: 2002 (HarperCollins)
  • Recommended For: Parents who read to their kids, adults that enjoy fairy tales, a quick read, books that end in triumph.

First Lines: “Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.”

I knew I would love reading Coraline before I even sat down with the first page. I had seen the eponymously-titled animated movie version of the story last year and fell in love with it immediately. The artwork was stunning, the story was thrilling, and I could relate to the protagonist Coraline. Developing a fondness for Gaiman’s writing, particularly his fairy tales, I knew the book would please as much as the movie.

The story is dark and creepy, yet delightfully so. It features a cast of characters that are unique and enchanting, and then doubles-down by showing us a version of them that could only exist in an alternate reality. This is a story that parents should read to their kids, as there are morals to the story that both can benefit from realizing.

It’s a story about courage and bravery, good and evil, and being grateful for that which we often take for granted. Coraline is a story that is at once both charming and terrifying.

Selected Lines:

Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”


Coraline also explored for animals. She found a hedgehog, and a snake-skin (but no snake), and a rock that looked just like a frog, and a toad that looked just like a rock.


[When] you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.


My Rating: 5/5 – For scaring me and then comforting me, for making me look at myself and helping me realize that I’m at times both Coraline and her parents, and for making me fall in love with fairy tales again.

Also, check this deal out: You can get the enhanced Kindle edition of the book, with audio and video, for a heck of a price by clicking the link below.

Review: Perfume

  • Cover for PerfumeTitle: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
  • Author: Patrick Süskind
  • Printed Pages: 263
  • Publish Year: 1987 (Penguin)
  • Recommended For: People that haven’t felt disturbed in awhile, enjoy macabre thrillers, vivid language.

First Lines: “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.”

Sometimes I find it easier to write about a thing by first talking about how it made me feel. Perfume fits into that category. It’s a story that disturbs, yet fascinates. It repulses, yet somehow does it beautifully. For me, it was the literary equivalent of smelling something you know is going to smell bad but can’t help but to do it anyway. And I say all of this and still assert that this book is among my favorites.

The story is an homage to the power of smell. It’s an exploration into the ability of smell to both attract and repulse, both of which are emotions that this story imbues. How is it that a sociopathic murderer can find himself adored, tricking the world into thinking he’s a man of beauty and perfection? By appealing to a sense that only the murderer fully understands. By misleading with a perfected sense of smell and meticulously-crafted perfumes. By turning one of a person’s senses against the rest.

I don’t want to give a synopsis. I want to let the story unfold for you in the same way the tones and flavors of a fine scotch whisky reveal themselves: naked in a glass, exposed to air and judgement.

I’ve had this book on my list to read for a couple of decades now. I first heard of it from an interview with Kurt Cobain. Perfume was one of his favorites, a copy of which was always with him. He related to certain aspects of the main character of the story. He was so inspired by the story, one of the songs he wrote with Nirvana, Scentless Apprentice, was based upon the novel. I found that the book recently became available in Kindle format, which prompted me to snatch it up and finally partake in the experience.

After I read the book, I learned that it was adapted for film of the same name, starring Ben Whishaw and the recently-deceased Alan Rickman.

While not a book that I would recommend to everyone (if you’re more of a humor or romance novel reader, this might not be your flavor), I do recommend it to people with strong stomachs that aren’t afraid to visit a truly grotesque and gruesome mental place.

Selected Lines:

He would often just stand there, leaning against a wall or crouching in a dark corner, his eyes closed, his mouth half open and nostrils flaring wide, quiet as a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly moving current.


Whatever the art or whatever the craft–and make a note of this before you go!–talent means next to nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything.


She had a face so charming that visitors of all ages and both sexes would stand stock-still at the sight of her, unable to pull their eyes away, practically licking that face with their eyes, the way tongues work at ice cream, with that typically stupid, single-minded expression on their faces that goes with concentrated licking.


This world molded in lead, where nothing moved but the wind that fell sometimes like a shadow over the gray forests, and where nothing lived but the scent of the naked earth, was the only world that he accepted, for it was much like the world of his soul.

My Rating: 4.5/5 – For being able to invoke contradicting emotions simultaneously, for inspiring me with descriptive language that I could almost smell, and for serving as a metaphor for humanity.

Rapidfire Memories: A Week in Oahu

Something that I’ve made a habit while traveling is taking a ton of photos. Yeah, sure… doesn’t everyone take a lot of photos while traveling? Of course, but I purposely take photos of things that most people wouldn’t consider worthy. If you watch the video below, you’ll see why. It’s the latest in my Rapidfire Memories series of videos I’ve created over the past few years. I take over a thousand photos, dump them all into a video with little-to-no post-processing, add some music and a ridiculously-fast frame rate, and voilà! I like being able to relive a trip or vacation in just a few minutes. This family vacation to Oahu in December 2015 was packed with memories I’ll cherish forever. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to see more, check out my Rapidfire Memories collection on Vimeo.

OneWeekInOahu from Ryan Marquis on Vimeo.

Review: Paddle Your Own Canoe

PaddleYourOwnCover
  • Title: Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living
  • Author: Nick Offerman
  • Printed Pages: 353
  • Publish Year: 2013
  • Recommended For: Fans of Nick Offerman (or Ron Swanson), people that like to laugh, a glimpse into the acting industry, advice on delicious living

First Lines: “I am a jackass living in America and living surprisingly well.”

You probably know Nick Offerman from his highly-popular role as the mustachioed Ron Swanson on NBC’s hit comedy: Parks and Recreation. Having never seen the show myself, I had no real idea who the man was. (I don’t watch a lot of television, but don’t worry: I’m working on that!) So, what am I doing reading the memoirs of a person I was nary aware of? I’m not sure: Someone mentioned it to me, the cover looked cool, and the summary sounded funny. I’m glad I read it, as now I count myself among Nick Offerman’s fans (and I started watching Parks and Rec).

At first I feared this book would be some sort of celebration of clichéd masculinity, a sort of literary representation of Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor’s signature grunt. My fears, however, were unwarranted. Paddle Your Own Canoe reveals the man behind the mustache, and exposes him as a man of sensitivity, passion, and a remarkable work ethic. Sure, there’s a bit of machismo sprinkled in, but oftentimes it’s ironic or, at least, sarcastic. The entire book is laced with comedy and self-deprecation. What stuck with me the most was Offerman’s humility: this is a man that doesn’t take his success for granted, nor does he allow it to transform him away from his roots as a hard-working boy from rural Illinois.

There were two things I admired most while reading this book:

First, Offerman has a lot to say about the virtue of hard work. He goes to great (and entertaining) lengths to imbue the importance of accomplishment, of fixing and creating. He recounts the time when he moved in with his now-wife and star from the popular sitcom Will and Grace, Megan Mullally. By the time he and Megan purchased a home together, she was already substantially successful. He found himself dumbstruck one day, with the fleeting realization that he “made it”. He was a “well-off dude living in the Hollywood Hills like a king!” He recounted a fantasy that he had while growing up: if he ever was able to afford such a lifestyle, he would “smoke some weed and listen to Neil Young and float in the pool.” So when he was finally able to live that fantasy out, it lasted all but two songs. “What am I, an asshole? What am I gonna do, buy a yacht and just be a rich asshole floating on my yacht? Jesus, man, look at yourself. The sun is up. You should be getting something done!”

The second thing I admired about Offerman was the way he spoke of his wife and their relationship. They had been married a decade by the time Paddle Your Own Canoe was published, and yet he still speaks of her as if they were still on their honeymoon. Both working hard in a demanding industry, they made a pact to never accept a job that would have them apart for more than two weeks. His admiration for Megan melts the heart. Of course someone will go out of their way to paint a beautiful picture of their spouse and love-life when writing about it for a large audience, but it is clear to me that Offerman was very careful with his descriptions of their life and I’m confident that their love is as genuine as he portrays it in this book.

So, I guess I’ve become a bit smitten with Nick Offerman. I found his stories interesting, hilarious, and motivating. What I thought was going to be a quick comedy–a time-killer, really–turned out to be an inspiration: a book that has me re-thinking my own philosophies.

A fair warning: this book has some colorful language, some sexually-explicit scenes, and takes some swipes at organized religion.

Selected Lines:

For some strange reason, we never could fully reconcile our farm flavor with the hardscrabble aesthetic of inner-city street dancing.


If you engage in a discipline or do something with your hands instead of kill time on your phone device, then you have something to show for your time when you’re done. Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle. The arithmetic is quite simple. Instead of playing Draw Something, fucking draw something! Take the cleverness you apply to Words with Friends and utilize it to make some kick-ass corn bread. Corn Bread with Friends—try that game.


In my head, I was absolutely living out a fantasy as the cool protagonist in my very own John Cusack superromantic comedy, when in truth, I was 100 percent stalking this poor young dancer. Terrific!


My Rating: 4.5/5 – Inspiring, humorous, and surprising; an added benefit of providing a look into the world of professional acting and the path of a successful career.

Buy on Amazon:

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Cover for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

  • Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • Printed Pages: 274
  • Publish Year: 2008 (The Dial Press)
  • Recommended For: Something different, bucolic scenery, a vision of history, a unique style, flavorful characters, something to read in one or two days.

First Lines: “8th January, 1946… Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food.”

 

There’s more to love about this book than just its unique title. Written by the late Mary Ann Shaffer, with the help of her niece Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was one of those books I simply couldn’t put down. Lovable (and loathsome) characters, a quaint setting, and a beautifully-unique presentation make this historical fiction a worthwhile read.

The book is written as a series of letters (and a few telegrams) both to and from the protagonist, the writer Juliet Ashton. Juliet had earned some success as a writer thanks to her humorous columns published during the Second World War. She’s quite unsure how to handle her success and struggles to come up with an idea for her next publication. A letter from a stranger, a man named Dawsey Adams from the Channel Islands, plants the tiniest seed of an idea in Juliet’s head, setting the 32-year-old writer off on a project that will completely transform her life.

This historical fiction recounts some of the horrors perpetrated by the Germans during World War II, and exposes the effects of those tragic acts of savagery. The story doesn’t dwell on the dreadful however; it uplifts the reader more than it depresses.

When I first read about the book, I worried that the epistolary form and multitude of characters would be cumbersome to keep track of; I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary. The book reads fast and each character remains warm in your memory. If I were to have one critique, it would be that the character voices weren’t as distinct as I feel they should be.

Selected Lines:

“Now, about Markham V. Reynolds (Junior). Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet.”


“In a good mood, I call my hair Chestnut with Gold Glints. In a bad mood, I call it mousy brown.”


“I sat; arms crossed, hands tucked under my armpits, glaring like a molting eagle, looking around for someone to hate.”


“If I were ever to fall off a horse, it would be lovely to be picked up by Mark, but I don’t think I’m likely to fall off a horse any time soon.”



My rating: 4/5 – Easy to read, transported me to a different place during a different time, made me sad but then made me happy, quirky in a good way.

Buy at Amazon:

Now Hear This: Serial Podcast

Serial logo

I listen to podcasts. Among my favorites: Radiolab, Star Talk, I Should Be Writing, and Astronomy Cast. And now, I’ve added a new favorite: Serial. In April of 2015, it became the first ever podcast to win a Peabody Award.

Serial spun off of the popular This American Life podcast and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. It explores a single non-fiction story over a multiple-episode season. The first of twelve episodes of season one aired in October 2014.

Before I tell you what season one was about, let me tell you how I came across the podcast. I first listened to it in December 2015, as its second season was beginning. I stumbled across it while researching serial fiction. I was thinking about trying to turn one of my stories into a serialized fiction, in which I would publish a single scene or chapter at a time. Through my searching, I came across the podcast, Serial. Same idea, except in audio, rather than written, form. I subscribed to the podcast and listened to the first episode of season two to see what it was all about. I immediately became hooked.

The second season is about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier that was imprisoned by the Taliban for five years before being released in a controversial swap for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. It’s built around numerous hours of audio of Sgt. Bergdahl telling his story to Academy Award-winning screenwriter Mark Boal.

The tagline for the first episode of season two is:

In the middle of the night, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl grabs a notebook, snacks, water, some cash. Then he quietly slips off a remote U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan and into the dark, open desert. About 20 minutes later, it occurs to him: he’s in over his head.

I listened to the 40-minute episode and was impressed with how well it was produced and how engaging it was. It would be a week before the second episode aired, so I went and listened to the first episode of season one. It was just as beautifully crafted and I ended up listening to the entire season in two days.

Season One

Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed – Image via PBS 

Season one investigates the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student from Baltimore, Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed was eventually, over the course of two trials, convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Adnan has always insisted his innocence.

Throughout the twelve episodes Sarah Koenig and her team investigate the case, turning over evidence and following leads that both the prosecutors and defense in the 2000 trial over Lee’s murder failed to investigate. Sarah interviews dozens of players in the case, including spending dozens of hours speaking with an Adnan Syed himself, who has been in prison for the past 15 years. Episodes focus on issues such as the prosecutor’s lack of evidence, the variation in the witness testimonies, the personalities of all the players, and all of the grisly details of what we know (and don’t know) about Lee’s tragic murder.

The story plays out so well, that I was constantly finding myself questioning my personal instincts and beliefs about what happened. Twelve episodes–more than eight hours of listening–and for the past week I can’t stop thinking about the case. I hardly have a hunch about what actually occurred. There are times I think the right person is prison, that Adnan Syed committed the crime and is either such a fantastic liar or he has somehow been able to convince himself that he actually didn’t murder Hae Min Lee. Other times, I think about how bizarre the evidence against him is and how he had to have been framed somehow. Syed doesn’t sound like a murderer (whatever murderers sound like) and he does sound convincing is his declaration of innocence, but at the same time there’s no motive for anyone else to commit the crime and make it appear that Syed did it.

I won’t tell you where Koenig eventually settles on the story, but for me, I can’t say.

In an interesting update to the case, following the airing of season one, it was announced that in February of 2016, a month from when this post was published, Syed will be back in court for a post-conviction hearing in which his lawyers are expected to present an alibi witness and raise questions over some of the evidence that was used to convict him 15 years ago. Because of Serial, not only am I familiar with this case, but I’m looking forwarded to how it all pans out beginning next month.

Back To Season Two

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – Public Domain

 

Three episodes of the second season have been published thus far, with the fourth episode set to drop this Thursday, January 7. Thus far, we’ve heard about Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance, his capture by the Taliban, his multiple escape attempts, and the nightmare US troops went through trying to bring their fellow soldier back home. The story, we’re learning, is much deeper and interesting than you might have already imagined.

I can’t recommend this podcast enough (iTunes, Pandora, RSS Feed). I challenge you to listen to the first episode of either season and see if you don’t become just as hooked as I did.

Oahu Vacation Wrap-Up

We’re home. Our tans are fading, our wounds are healing, the sand is almost out of our shoes. The current feelings seem to be mixed: some of us are glad to be home and back in our own beds; whereas, I’m already looking forward to the next trip. I could have used another week.

Man-O-War SignWe spent our last days mostly snorkeling. On one of the last days, we figured out the tide situation in the beach behind our house and realized we had an amazing snorkeling location a few steps from our backdoor. We also spent a day at Hanauma Bay State Park. This beautiful beach is well-maintained and requires a small entrance fee. It’s very popular and thus somewhat crowded, but they do control the number of people allowed on the beach at any given time. The wind and surf was strong the day we went and we didn’t end up seeing a lot under the water (the reef areas were a bit too crowded for me).

My nephew was swimming near me when he announced that a Portuguese man o’ war was near him. I told him to try to get away from it, but as the words were coming out of my mouth he shouted, “It stung me!” I urged him to head towards shore and I followed. He swam extremely fast. He reached the beach and the lifeguards there had already figured out what was going on. They met him with a spray bottle of vinegar. They sprayed it on his hand where he had been stung and cracked a few jokes with him to keep his spirits up. The wound began to really sting and swell up. They told him there really wasn’t much that could be done, he just had to wait it out.

Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

Portuguese man o' war

Portuguese man o’ war

The next day, we were snorkeling at our beach. These man o’ wars were ubiquitous on the beach, apparently an unusual outbreak owing to strong trade winds. My nephew took a stick and drew big circles around them in the sand, pointing them out to anyone unaware. Still, he would not be deterred. We swam and played on bodyboards. Then he felt something bump him. “I think I got stung again!”, he shouted. He got out of the water and I noticed what had hit him. It was a beautiful white jellyfish, the top of it about the size of a quarter with thin ghost-like tendrils drifting behind it a couple of inches. He waited around to see if this would start stinging like the man o’ war. A decent-sized welt appeared, but he didn’t seem to be bothered too much by pain this time around. He was the only one that managed to be stung, and he got stung twice by two different species of animals. The seas might be out to get him.

man o' war stingI was seriously regretting not having a waterproof camera. In the Hanauma Bay gift store, my wife found a contraption that allowed me to use my phone underwater. It’s basically a plastic case that’s clear where the camera lens is and half-inflated with air to ensure it floats. The plastic allows the touchscreen to be used even while underwater.

Back at our beach, I was able to use it properly and captured some decent video clips of the world below the sea’s surface. The photos aren’t that great, but the sun was setting and it was getting dark quickly. I wished I had had it earlier in our trip, especially when I was swimming with the turtles.

I apologize for the crappy photos below (cellphone in a bag, what do you expect?), but hopefully you get an idea of the wonders I found below.

Underwater photo of reef fish.

Underwater photo of reef fish.
The video turned out a little better:

We had a fantastic time on our vacation. It was relaxing and exciting all at once. There were some things that I had hoped to see but we ran out of time: Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, Waimea Canyon, etc. I’m already looking forward to planning the next trip.

Master of None

Master of None LogoI don’t take the time to watch a lot of television or movies, but I’ve been vacationing lately and have had more time for recreation. I started scrolling Netflix for the first time in who-knows-how-long? and saw a recommendation for a Netflix original show called Master of None, created by and starring Aziz Ansari. I’m a little familiar with Ansari’s comedy, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was hooked instantly.

The first episode in the series started with a hilariously awkward scene involving a broken condom and an Uber trip for some emergency contraception. Dev (Ansari’s character) and Rachel (played by the adorable Noël Wells) have this brilliant duality in their chemistry; they’re great together until Dev does something to revert all of the progress that their relationship has gained. Still, he gets chance after chance to set things right.

I binge-watched the first half-season and will have the second half finished by the end of the weekend. So far, my favorite episode is Indians On TV. Ansari tackles the inherent racism in Hollywood, ironically using more than two Indian actors to illustrate how no show can get away with more than one Indian character. I created a .gif of my favorite clip from the episode:

Clip from Master of None

What’s wrong with Short Circuit 2?

They got a white guy to play an Indian guy.

What the ro… the robot movie? With Johnny Five?

Wait, you don’t know this?

Wait, which Indian guy are you talking about?

Dude. That guy’s a white guy.

The robot, or the Indian?

The Indian guy, is a white guy. That’s Fisher Stevens. They used brown face makeup.

Wait, what?!

Yeah, they got a real robot and a fake Indian.

Ansari actually contacted Fisher Stevens after this episode aired, which Ansari wrote this article about.

So far, the show has covered a broad range of relevant issues: in addition to racism, he explores the overlooked-by-males female perspective, dealing with bad dates, the challenges and rewards of raising children, and struggling to relate with parents. The show is comedic genius with characters you instantly fall in love with.

There’s a few days left in the holiday season; if you find yourself with some time to binge-watch some television I highly recommend giving Master of None a chance.