Friday, December 25, 2015

A Christmas Message for All

To my friends and readers-

No matter your faith, or lack thereof, have a joyous and peaceful day. Take a moment to ponder the fact that as millions endure religious persecution around the world, we are free to worship--or not worship--as we choose.

The are dark times, but we have seen darker. The light always wins.

If you're so inclined, please share your favorite traditions and memories of the season below. Thanks for stopping by!


P.S. Also, this exists ...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I often speak of my desire for more books that reflect my values, and I fully intended to do a separate post on the subject. I still might, at a later date.  For now, The Martian is the next book on my to-be-reviewed list, and would, in fact, serve as a decent demonstration of what I mean.

On the surface, the plot could not be simpler, or more fundamental to literary tradition: Man versus Nature, or to make it even more basic, human fight for survival. There are two paths in covering this theme. One describes man as an insignificant, weak creature, hurtling towards doom from the moment he is born, powerless against the vastness of the Universe. It has become a popular view over the last few decades, as many of the creatively inclined individuals have lost their sense of the wondrous and the heroic and turned more and more inward, looking for meaning in a sea of diffuse angst and anxiety.

The Martian, as you might have guessed, takes the second approach, showing the strength and unbreakable spirit of humanity in the face of insurmountable external obstacles. Sure, the quality of writing, the characters, the darkly humorous tone and the pacing all make for a great novel, but I think it is the values the story represents that make for its near universal appeal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Somewhither by John C. Wright

Occasionally while reading a book, there comes a point where I pause, smile and tell myself, “This one will be special.” Sometimes it’s a particularly riveting action scene, or it’s a clever turn of phrase, or a personally relevant reference. Somewhither is full of all three, making it appeal  to different readers in a variety of ways, as most novels do. For me, the key is found near the start of the book, when Ilya, the protagonist who is not yet the hero, explains why he had made the decision to-literally-rush headlong into danger.

“It was because of the guy I wanted not to be.”

Who says that? Especially now, when self-esteem appears inversely related to achievement, when everyone is special and everyone is a hero? This protagonist does, and the contrarian that I am, I immediately suspected he would, in fact become one of the more memorable heroes by the time the story is done. And I was not wrong.

Somewhither presents a world that is both recognizable and surreal, taking comfortable sci-fi and fantasy elements and using them as only Mr. Wright can. A young man on a quest? Check. A beautiful love interest? Of course. A Big Bad of world-shattering proportions? You bet. A team of quirky sidekicks? Oh yes, big time. The novel takes all of these pieces and lifts them into the stratosphere. There scope is bigger, the questions weightier, and the over-reaching vision is like nothing you might expect to come out from the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Review: Honor at Stake by Declan Finn.

I have a confession to make. I somewhat enjoyed Twilight. Well, not the actual prose, or the female lead I kept wanting to strangle, or the male lead who, having lived for over 100 years has emotional maturity of a 15-year-old. What intrigued me was the idea that vampires can choose to not be monsters. The thought of a vampire patriarch of hanging a cross in his living room and dedicating his life to helping humans was quite appealing since themes of free will and redemption are some of my favorites in literature.

Enter Declan Finn, who takes these same themes and actually employs them WELL. I'm not just referring to the excitement of action scenes--from this author, action awesomeness is to be expected. I'm talking about taking the time to establish the world of the story, to tie it both to historical background and to other vampire fiction and create something both new and respectful of what has come before. And then, of course, there are the characters, both the female and male lead who somehow manage to be entirely over-the-top and relatable at the same time. (It actually proves my long-held belief that characters don't need to be "regular people" to have a connection with the reader. They just need to be complete and believable within their world.)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chanukah Reflections

The Holiday of Chanukah starts tonight, and I will now take a break from cooking my 8-hour chicken soup (yes, really!) to share a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. As we enter what is loosely called The Holiday Season, there is no denying the amount of darkness currently present in the world, and no better time to reflect on the meaning of the holiday that specifically celebrates light.

One question that I particularly want to ponder today, as some of our cultural outlets seem to go out of their way to diminish the significance of both tradition and prayer. In the story of Chanukah, throughout history, and in our present day, who are the heroes? The warriors who fight to preserve our way of life, or the spiritual and cultural leaders who keep it alive and undiluted after the battle is won? And in the final analysis, in the judgment of history, must there be a dichotomy between the two? Feel free to comment below.


Come gather my friends on this Holiday night
Consider the story of Chanukah lights

Ages ago, the Hebrews took fight
To an arrogant ruler who denied them their rights

The warriors battled and won their glory
But that wasn’t all; just the start of our story

Their Temple, alas, had been damaged and looted
With idols inside, its spirit polluted

The Jews went to work. They cleaned and they polished
Swept up the debris of the idols demolished

But as they looked around, the Jews realized
They still were not done, for a Temple needs light

While oil for lamps wasn’t hard to procure
The Priests had insisted it had to be pure

They searched for a while, and soon with delight
Have found the oil, enough for one night

The rest of the story you know by now
The Priests lit the lamp with the oil they found

And then, in defiance of doubt and hate
A day’s worth of oil burned brightly for eight

The story is old, but the spirit remains
I hope it helps you in darkest of days

When the wolf’s at the door and your dreams fall apart
Remember this lesson and take it to heart

Just one simple thought from this Holiday night:
When you stand on conviction, you will always find light.

Dedicated to all the folks out there fighting the good fight.
You know who you are. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On Gratitude

The holiday of Thanksgiving has taken on different connotations over the years, anything from an annual family reunion to an excuse to over-eat to "that day before Black Friday." However, at its core, Thanksgiving is a four-day weekend dedicated to gratitude.

On the whole, it's not in human nature to feel gratitude on a regular basis. (I am not referring to feelings towards helpful individuals or in case of a particularly lucky turn of events, but a diffuse sense of "I have it pretty good. Thank you, world, for treating me well.") It makes sense, in terms of our survival needs, to focus on the problems, on what is lacking. When afflicted with a toothache, we don't feel happy for having a healthy heart--we run to the dentist. When the roof is leaking, we don't appreciate that fact that at least we are not homeless--we concentrate on getting it fixed. All proper reactions, of course, but as we run from one problem to the next, do we tend to acquire the sense that it's ALL that life is about?

At best, the sense of permanent dissatisfaction drives us to achievement, self-improvement and, occasionally, greatness. Too often, though, we forget to focus on what is not broken, on parts of our world that did work out just right, on little moments of joy and grace. And in failing to recognize the good stuff, we become the poorer for it.

Fortunately, we do get this special weekend in November. To slow down, to look at what we do have, to spend time with loved ones and yes, even remember the good times we've had with those lost to us. Life's little (and not-so-little) problems will still be there on Monday. These few days are ours to enjoy. Let's make the best of the opportunity.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hi and Welcome!

Welcome to the Musings, a magical place where books rule and nerds don't drool. (However, salivation over anticipated new releases is expected and encouraged. Just keep it off the furniture.)

As you might have guessed, my name is Marina (Masha is my family nickname and Google handle). I was born and raised in the former USSR and read my first book at the age of three. It think was something about a bird, but don't hold me to it. The important thing was, I got hooked and never looked back.

I like to call myself an "American by choice," but as much as I had wished to live in the U.S., the choice, and the sacrifices that came with it, were my parent's alone. They gave up their home, careers and comfort to make sure I would live in freedom. In December of 1987, I took my first steps on American soil and fell in love with my new country with the intensity that can only be understood by religious converts.

I love the American people--the way they move; the way they smile at strangers; the way they say "thank you" for the smallest favor; the way they constantly find excuses to celebrate and enjoy life. Some might point out that the country is not what it once was, that there are hardships and problems, both current and on the horizon. No matter. From where I stand, the idea of America, the constant striving towards happiness and greatness is still alive and not going anywhere.

That brings me back to culture in general and storytelling in particular. The best way I can think of repaying my new home country for her hospitality is to help support art, especially literature, that celebrates all that makes America special to so many around the world. If you share my desire, or just looking for a different book-related place to hang out, come on over and let's have some fun.