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800th post snapshot! August 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Book Reviews, Misc, Movie Reviews, On Writing, Reviews, Travel.
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7 comments

A charm celebrating the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge (2009) -- which just happens to be the year I studied there and started this blog! (I got one of these when I graduated)

Congratulations to me!

This is the 800th post on this blog.  I thought long and hard about what to write about for this monumental occasion, but I had my usual brain freeze…so instead I decided to write about the fact that I am writing a post about my 800th post.

Today is the 30th of August, 2011.  I started this blog on the 11th of January, 2009.  By my calculations that’s 962 days.  That’s a lot of writing!

On average, that’s 1 post every 1.2025 days, 5.821 posts per week and almost 25 posts a month.  As at the time of writing I have 833,486 blog hits, which translates into an average of 1041.8575 hits per blog post and 866.409 hits per day.

When I started this blog I was happy to get around 10-20 hits a day, and certainly for the first month or two that was the norm.  Now the blog hovers around 1,000 hits a day, with occasion dips and spikes (like the current one courtesy of StumbleUpon, which is giving me around 2,500 a day).

I currently have 2,601 comments, which equals roughly 2.7 comments per day.  I’ve also been bombarded by 26,754 spam comments (I believe more as some slipped through the keeper), or a whopping 27.81 per day!  I find Akismet has been doing a much better job as of late, meaning less penile enlargement advertisements.

My top post remains My European Adventure Round-Up, which has amassed 66,273 hits, though it is almost certain to be overtaken shortly (in the next couple of days) by The 20 Most Rewatchable Movies of All-Time.

My top movie review?  Shock horror, it’s Ninja Assassin (with 12,825 hits), probably because no one else has seen it — or maybe it’s that topless shot of a ripped Rain that has web surfers flocking to it.  My top book review and writing-related post is the same one — Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing (with 12,766 hits).

Moving forward, I’m not sure if I can keep up with the same pace (pun intended).  I love to write, and that’s why I continue to write on this blog without compensation (apart from the occasional free movie, DVD or book).  Even though at some point I’ll likely be swallowed by the demands of work and other responsibilities I hope this blog can remain my sanctuary, a place I can come back to to express and rant and be creative.

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Book Review: ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham July 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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6 comments

I’ve always been interested in the massive global phenomenon that is Mr John Grisham, and despite my disappointment with The Associate and relative disappointment with The Firm, I decided to check out Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Grisham names the novel as one of his favourites, and most people have told me it’s one of his best.  And I think it has one heck of a premise — a young black girl is brutally raped by two racist rednecks, the girl’s father seeks retribution, and a predominantly white Mississippi community deals with its aftermath.  Caught in the middle is a young, brash criminal defense lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance (a character Grisham admits was modelled on himself).

Lots of stuff happens in this book, which is ultimately a courtroom drama/thriller centred around this very provocative premise.  Would you do the same thing if it happened to your child?  Would the jury convict?  Would you vote to convict if you were on the jury?  Those are the types of questions Grisham keeps asking throughout the story.

Grisham paints the fictional town of Clanton (also used in a later book, The Last Juror) extremely well.  There is a whole cast of characters, with almost a couple being introduced every chapter, and many of them are memorable and well-developed, especially the town sheriff Ozzie, the trial judge Noose, the obnoxious DA Buckley and Jake’s mentor Lucien.  A number of minor characters also have their moments.

A Time to Kill is a very good read, but not a great one.  The opening chapters sucked me into the world of the story but every now and then throughout the 500+ pages there were times when I lost interest in the narrative.  The strengths are the characters (good to see Jake Brigance has his own agenda and isn’t acting out of the kindness of his heart) and the moments of tension — either from the trial itself or the occasional threat of physical danger.  However, as Grisham admitted himself in the book’s introduction, he does waffle on far too much about things that didn’t need to be.

Like many first novels, A Time to Kill could have been pared back a lot more to speed up the pace, especially considering that the actual trial itself does not commence until almost four-fifths of the way through the book.  I felt some parts could have been condensed (the pointless, sometimes repetitive chatter) while others (such as the trial testimonies and jury deliberations) could have been drawn out more.  It’s a shame because with better plotting and pacing it could have been unputdownable.

As for the moral debate in the book — I had to keep reminding myself that it was originally published in 1989 and that a small, predominantly white town in Mississippi where the KKK still roamed is a completely different world to the one I know.  With that in mind I think Grisham handled it rather well.

Ultimately, A Time to Kill is the best Grisham fiction novel I’ve read thus far, but it still fell short of the lofty expectations I had for it, given its reputation and the premise.  Now, which Grisham book should I tackle next?

3.75 out of 5!

PS: I first had a look at A Time to Kill when I was in a Border’s book store (back when they still existed in Australia) and read the author’s introduction, where Grisham discusses his fondness of his debut novel.  It took him three years to complete it while still working as a lawyer (an amazing feat in itself), but didn’t gain success until The Firm became a bestseller.  It’s an inspirational story I continue to use to push myself down the writer’s path.

PPS: I can’t believe I still haven’t seen the 1996 movie based on the book.  Might be my Matthew McConaughey aversion.  I’ll have to check it out.

I Need a Good Page-Turner! July 13, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Book Reviews, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Study.
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15 comments

Sorry if things have been a little slow lately.  Have some family visiting and it’s been craaaazy.

Anyway, I’m reaching out to see if anyone can recommend a good page-turner for me.  Actually, not just a good one, a great one.  An all-time best.

For whatever reason I haven’t been getting into books as much as I should be recently.  When I had been working on my major writing project I had to read stacks of books and articles to help me with my writing — and while they were helpful I didn’t necessarily enjoy them.  Nevertheless, I had to churn through them for the sake of my writing.

Now that I’m done with all of that, I feel like I need a ripper of a book to get me back in the groove of reading for pure pleasure.

I started reading Peter Temple’s Truth (winner of the 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award) on the iPad recently but haven’t been able to really get into it yet.  Temple has a unique style that almost feels like he’s cutting corners with words to make his prose punchier, and it takes a while to get used to.  And so far the progression of the plot and dialogue reminds me of one of those classy Hollywood detective movies where you don’t really understand what the heck they’re talking about (at least at the start) but you know it’s good dialogue.

I also started reading my fourth John Grisham novel (after The Innocent Man, The Associate and The Firm), A Time to Kill, his debut work.  After I expressed my disappointment in The Associate some recommended that I check out his earlier stuff (before crap like ‘Theodore Boone — Child Lawyer!!’).  I’ve never seen the film with Samuel ‘Maryland Farmer’ L Jackson and Matthew ‘I have good genes!’ McConaughey, so I’m finding it quite an enjoyable read thus far, but as Grisham admitted in the intro, he does ramble on a fair bit.  Thus I would call it a good page-turner but not a great one — something that could keep me occupied on a train but nothing that would keep me up late at night.

A third book I barely started is Everyone’s Pretty by Lydia Millet, a dark comedy about the porn industry.  This was one of the books recommended to help with my writing but I thought it would be an interesting read too.  A few pages in and I’m somewhat intrigued, but haven’t gone back for more in days.

Not sure if have time to finish all these books in the short term as I have another book review to do for a trade publication.  It’s called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb, a series of profiles on fascinating public figures, artists and entertainers including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, and so forth.  Being a published profile writer myself (ahem), I’m looking forward to this one, though the fact that I have to read it dampens my enthusiasm somewhat.

Am I just too picky here?  Some might say these are all perfectly good page-turners, but I’m not satisfied.  I need something to blow me away.  I’m not necessarily talking about a wonderfully written book (from a technical perspective — I mean, Madame Bovary is supposed be to ‘technically’ perfect but her ‘bovaries’ kept putting me to sleep).  I have pretty pedestrian tastes, after all.  I just want a read that will make me want to tear through it in a couple of days and inspire me to read more.

Help.  Anyone?

Book Review: ‘Naked’ by David Sedaris June 29, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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6 comments

For me, David Sedaris is the master.  When it comes to the type of comedic writing I want to be able to emulate, there’s nobody better than him.  Having attempted (well, attempting) comedic writing myself over the last few months, I am discovering first hand just how difficult it is to make writing amusing.  And Sedaris’s writing is not just amusing — it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same time it is incredibly clever and somehow manages to maintain an air of sophistication.

In my efforts to be more Sedaris-like in my own writings, I sought out one of his earlier books, Naked, published in 1997.  Like the other Sedaris book I read, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (review here), Naked can be classified as a collection of ‘personal essays’ of varying lengths.  Each essay covers an aspect or person of Sedaris’s life, from early childhood to adulthood, and are filled with outrageous characters (many of which are in Sedaris’s family) and anecdotes.

Titles of some of the my favourite essays include ‘A Plague of Tics’ (about Sedaris’s obsessive compulsive tendencies as a child), ‘Dix Hill’ (when Sedaris worked in a mental hospital as a teenager), ‘I Like Guys’ (where Sedaris discovers his homosexuality), ‘The Drama Bug’ (when Sedaris became a theatre fanatic and spoke in Shakespearean for months), ‘Planet of the Apes’ (about Sedaris’s hitchhiking stories), ‘The Incomplete Quad’ (where Sedaris shared dorms with quadriplegic students for free housing), and ‘Naked’ (about Sedaris’s experiences in a nudist colony).

Yes, as the above suggests, Sedaris is a weird, neurotic, somewhat disturbed guy, but he embraces it with a bizarre sense of self-righteousness and humility.  His stories are hilarious because they are so brutally honest, and each joke almost always provides some kind of insight into human nature.  And every now and then he would surprise you with a dash of poignancy, like the piece on his mother’s passing from cancer (‘Ashes’).

Sedaris weaves his internal thoughts, the anecdotes, the stories and the characters together effortlessly with elegant, clean prose, marvellous dialogue (some of which are really mini-soliloquies), astute observations and crafty storytelling.  The thing that amazes me most about Sedaris’s writing is that he knows exactly what words to use to convey the image he wants you to form in your mind.  His descriptions are brief but on the money just about every time, and he can give you a pretty good idea of what a person is like in a just a couple of slabs of dialogue.  He brings his characters to life in a way that few writers can.

I didn’t necessarily like every piece in the book, though that being said, each piece had its moments and I absolutely loved around half a dozen of the 17 essays.  I am certain that I will read his work again (and hopefully sooner rather than later).

4.5 out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Boat’ by Nam Le June 21, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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Award-winning writer Nam Le is kind of a hero to me.  Refugee parents from Vietnam, grew up in Australia, became a lawyer, hated it, quit, then pursued a life of writing.  Studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published his first book, The Boat, a collection of short stories.  Won a zillion awards for it including the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year.

Single-author short story collections are almost extinct these days (and with good reason — it seems most readers prefer their books to tell a big story, or even part of a massive story, and reading different stories in the same voice from the same writer can potentially become tedious).  That’s why The Boat is such a phenomenal achievement.  The stories are so varied in scope and depth, characters and location, and yet are capable of being so honest, painful, beautiful and haunting — it’s a powerful collection from a confident, crafty writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Boat contains seven short stories, each ranging from around 25-50 pages in length.  They take us all around the world, to places like Iowa, Colombia  Vietnam, Tehran, Hiroshima, New York, Australia.  They are all literary pieces that exhibit fine craftsmanship and stunning imagery (not surprising considering Le started out in poetry), so they won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.  Even though they are short, some of them can be considered as slow-paced, the type of story you need to take in slowly and savour, bit by bit, and maybe re-read once you’re done.

I enjoyed reading The Boat as a book, but as is the case with most short story collections, I preferred some stories more than others.  For me, the best stories were at the beginning and end.  The first one, entitled Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, is a powerful story about a strained relationship between father and son.  The last one, The Boat, is about a young girl’s journey on a refugee boat and the bond she forms with a small boy.  These two were my favourites.  Was it a coincidence that both of them were heavily linked to Le’s Vietnamese background?  I don’t know, but I found them the most honest, the most engaging.  Does that mean the other stories about cultures Le might not be as familiar with weren’t as good?  Maybe.  I’ll leave that to the individual reader to decide, but to me it is amazing that he even attempted to write about things that ought to be completely foreign to him.  I only wish I could develop that kind of self-assuredness someday.

You don’t see many short story collections getting published these days, but The Boat is the kind of book that made me wish there were more of them.

4 out of 5

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