Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading Madhouse by Rob Thurman

If you thought the Dresden files weren't gory enough but you wanted more character development than Simon Green's shorter novels, you may want to check this series out. 
  • More concentrated horror. Yech.
  • More gross and drippy things.  'Nough said.
  • A higher body count.  Yuck.
  • Way more bad language and bad attitude.  Amusing.
  • A more fragile main character.  He may be half-demon, but he gets the crap beaten out of him regularly; his older brother is the real butt-kicker in the family. Also, he has even more family issues than Dresden.  Really.
  • Some interesting but not all that savory side-characters.  Way more R-rated than Dresden.
  • Characters making hard and sad decisions. It's tough watching them get hurt and making poor decisions with consequences they'll have to deal with.
Of course, I find myself comparing these to the Dresden files, and they are found wanting because they are more horror than I really care for and because the world isn't as complex and because the characters aren't as well-developed.  However I'm not really being fair. If I really want to fairly compare this third book to Dresden, I would need to compare it to the third Dresden files book, and I do remember that, though I got a kick out of the first three Dresden books, I wasn't hopelessly hooked until #4 was exponentially better than 1-3 (and #5 was better than that). 

In conclusion, I'm going back to read #1 and 2 in this series, and then maybe I'll make another review of how I feel about it.  If I don't throw up.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Only fifteen?

Brought to you by my friend J who spent over a year with me in RetailPurgatory a lifetime ago.

Name fifteen fictional characters (television, films, plays, books) who’ve influenced you or that will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

This one's hard for me because I'm an ensemble cast sort of person.  I often like whole casts of characters, and it's hard (sometimes impossible) to choose a favorite. 

It's also hard because there's, like, a couple hundred I have to choose from, and no matter which ones I choose, I will feel inadequate for choosing them, and I will spend days stopping short at random places going, "Darg!  I should have said ____!"  But that's what comments are for.  :)

  • Ender Wiggin from Ender's Game
  • Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles books
  • Caz from Curse of Chalion
  • MacGyver
  • Kvothe from Name of the Wind
  • Kel from Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series
  • Ash Lynx from Banana Fish
  • Harry Dresden from Butcher's Dresden Files series
  • Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner's books
  • Heero from Gundam Wing
  • Wolfwood from Trigun
  • Folken from Escaflowne
  • Charles Wallace from Madeleine L'Engle's books
  • Joshua from The Arm of the Starfish
  • Vimes from the Pratchett books
  • Otori Takeo from Tales of the Otori
  • Harvey from the Kieli series
Better stop before I get to one hundred . . .

What about you?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jealousy is a sin

And I'm sinning right now.

Anyway, yes, Wise Man's Fear, the second book published by Patrick Rothfuss, may in fact really come out next year.  Happy New Year.  The question is whether I can hold off rereading Name of the Wind until February . . .

Yes, WMF might really be coming in March.  Really.

At first, I wondered why they'd bother with Advanced Reader Copies of this book.  I think it'll sell through the roof regardless of whether anyone gets to read it and create buzz in advance.  In fact, there was some doubt about whether the second one could live up to the first.  I figured they'd never do an ARC just in case it got poor reception.  I take it as a positive sign that they decided to create one because it must mean they're not afraid of the quality suffering.  Or else they know people are curious enough that even if it gets bad critical buzz, a bojillion people will buy it anyway.

Like me.  :)  How about you?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

About melodrama

I've asked the question before about the line between drama and melodrama.  Came across this definition unexpectedly.  It confused me more.

"The 1994 film [Shawshank Redemption], which featured heartwarming prisoners fighting for their humanity, is not only the highest user-ranked movie on IMDB, but is immensely melodramatic.  We have it in us to love these sorts of stories, but to work they must be presented without the neurotic self-consciousness that infects nearly every pop culture product coming out today.  A good melodrama needs to be honest, have heart, and be true to the Human Experience."

I guess that "neurotic self-consciousness" relegates anything without it into the melodrama category?  Hmmm.  I guess I'm just used to the term being applied to Gilbert & Sullivan works like Pirates of Penzance and Patience and others stuff that's just over-the-top ridiculous.  I can't reconcile that with the modern way we seem to say something is melodramatic as if it means, trashy, cast-off, manufactured, overly-emotional, and sub-par (think of criticism you've read about any sports movie based on a true story).  I can't make the two mesh.

Semantics.  Fascinating.  Any opinions?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thinking with Fire

I adored Graceling (along with a lot of other people including critics), but I have to say I was afraid that the next book would be too similar, so I held off buying and reading it.  Unfortunate repetition happens to a lot of YA authors.  In Fire's favor was the fact that it was not a sequel, always a good sign.  Also in its favor was the fact that it took place in the same world as Graceling but in another part of it where the rules were different.  (Echoes of Tamora  Pierce, hooray!)  I found the world fascinating and was all for more exploration of it.

In Fire, the situation the heroine was in was sort of vaguely similar, and it was destined to be a romance from the beginning, so there was a certain amount of predictability there, but there was also a lot of court intrigue and reversals and hard decisions and bad things happening to lots of people and misunderstandings and nuanced characters and other bits to keep one reading and guessing.  I enjoyed Fire

I must admit that, at first, while I was reading it, I wondered if it sold very well.  Lots of people are sort of Method Readers: they have to find something they can identify with in the main character to keep them reading.  I wonder how many teenaged girls struggle with being so effortlessly, ridiculously beautiful that they literally have to fight off men attracted to them.  The answer is probably not many.  So what would make this book appealing and relevant to them?

I actually found my answer in the responses of those around this main character.  Many wanted her dead because she was by her very nature a temptress (even though she didn't consciously use her powers, especially not for evil) who caused strife, and they were afraid of her potential if she chose to be evil.  They were scared of their weakness and her power over them, so they hated her and tried to confine her or even kill her. 

I found myself remembering that in many places in our real, modern world, women are forced to cover themselves completely and hide away because the men around them believe that their existence and visibility leads men to sin.  Of course, the men can't be expected to control themselves; that would be too hard, so let's blame the women.  It's their nature to tempt men to sin simply by existing, right?  The way the story raised and handled these issues was great.  There wasn't any preaching; no one made speeches they wouldn't have made if they really existed, and I still walked away thoughtful.

I like the conclusions Fire comes to by the end of the novel.  I really do.  She wrestles with her demons and her nature, and she comes to a peace with them.  If only other women in captivity to the weak men around them could have such a hard-fought, hard-won happy ending.  If only all teen girls could successfully fight their way to peace with themselves about their bodies and their responsibility to the people around them.  I hope some of them can.  Maybe reading this book will make them think about it. If not, it's still a great read full of adventure and romance and sacrifice and redemption and good and evil and other things that make a story worth hearing.  I'm looking forward to Cashore's next book.  It's coming out . . . soon, I hope.

Are you more of a "Method Reader" or a total omnivore (omnibibliovore)?

Monday, November 29, 2010


One of the homework assignments for my online class was to read a short piece called "Soup" from the New Yorker.  Now that I have a real job with a cafeteria that sometimes has 4 different soups a day, I am coming to appreciate soup more.  It is warm.  November in my state is not.  It has more than one food group and is much healthier than the other options.  It is cheap.  It is fun to say.  "Sooooooooooooup."  What is not to love about soup?

I found myself in a bathroom washing my hands before lunch one day, and I accidentally burst into song.  (I was, thank goodness, alone.)  "Who would not give all else for two/ pennyworth only of beautiful soup?" 

This past spring, my choir was performing with the school's orchestra, and we premiered a few pieces based on Lewis Carroll poems from the Alice books.  One of them was a supremely ridiculous choral and orchestral rendition of his poem about soup.  It had a rather high tenor solo, and none of the tenors wanted it, so, with a couple weeks to go before the performance, the director asked me if I would take it.  I am flexible and dependable and sympathetic to people in authority when no one else is volunteering.  That is how I came to premier a duet about Soup. 

It was gloriously ridiculous.  I had fun, though I was hardly stunning (having been violently ill and without a voice for more than a week before the performance [I actually had to keep cough drops in my mouth during the entire performance and a bottle of water with me on the stage, for shame]). 

The side effects are with me still.  How many people do you know who have to suppress their desire to sing about soup?  Besides me, I mean?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Too Many Books (Never)

Ran across this exchange on a site I follow and found myself agreeing.  Maybe someday when the e-readers can use amazing projection technology to show the full color stuff and let me actually page back and forth and mark and underline with ease and not have a tiny screen and be only $20 I will possibly buy one.  Or if I have to go overseas for an extended time and can't bring my libraries with me.

"MICHELLE: It is, but the production on this series is especially lovely—one can unfurl the whole cover (French flaps and all) and get one long vertical scene of some lower-level buildings—and it’s a real treat to read a physical copy. Online just isn’t the same.
MELINDA: We’ll be relics someday, you realize… shaking our canes at those digital-obsessed kids, doomed to meet our demise under the weight of a thousand overstuffed bookcases. ;)
MICHELLE: Yep. I’m already feeling curmudgeonly because I honestly cannot tell you who a lot of current celebrities are. Who are Nick and Vanessa? Why does their engagement merit a headline on CNN? I have no clue.
MELINDA: The police will shake their heads, sadly, when they finally discover our bodies. “Too many books,” they’ll say, sighing heavily.
MICHELLE: At least we’ll have died happy.
Amen, indeed.

The Next "Miles" book

A comment (#5) at a favorite author's site when he posted a notice about the new Miles book:

'Oh, and I got to see Bujold at the U Bookstore last week, and she read a scene from what she referred to as “Ivan: His Book.” She said she has sixteen chapters of it. So hopefully the next Vorkosigan book won’t have a seven year gap between pub dates.'

Squeeeeeeeeeee.  Well, I'm not so sure I want to be in Ivan's head.  I found it rather distasteful in a Civil Campaign because any time in Ivan's head meant less time in the heads of characters I liked better.  However, his segment of that book was pretty funny, and I do have a bit of curiosity . . .

Your thoughts about Ivan carrying a whole book?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Declaration of Independence (for one day)

I am going to read a book on my birthday.  I am not going to grade papers.  (I'm taking a day off work the next day to finish off that.)  Now I just have to decide what book.

The Top Contenders:

However, I bet you already know what the winner will be . . .  (What's your guess?  And what would be your top choice from the list?)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Patrick Rothfuss t-shirt contest voting

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, which I have mentioned before, held a t-shirt design contest. Even if you don't get to vote, it's a riot to see the t-shirt designs people submitted.  I had a hard time deciding between Eolian Bar Shirt, Lute Design, and NOTW Tree.  I liked the clean layout of NOTW Fancy Design, too.

NOTW Speech Bubbles, Kingkiller (expression: hilarious), Hello My Name Is, and Lute Hero all made me laugh.  I'd definitely like them as coffee mugs.  :) 

Now you can start saving up for the time when they are actually available . . .

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wales, waste, and crankiness

The last time I was in Wales, it was January, and the nights were country dark even though we were in a village because, as my host told us, money was tight in the village, and they had decided to only turn half of the streetlights on at a time.  I thought about this today as I had one of those "Our society is wasteful, unhealthy, and decadent!" moments. 

Have you ever had those sorts of fed-up moments?  The students in my writing class want to talk about how easy it is to solve big issues like world hunger and poverty.  I passed a store with all its lights on and sign blazing even though it had been closed for a few hours.  I got some over-priced hot chocolate I was told was flavored with cinnamon, and I thought they meant the actual spice cinnamon, which is really good for you, but they actually meant some horrible sort of cinnamon syrup that tasted of pepper.  I'm trying to think of ways to cut down on senseless waste on my part when I eat at the cafeteria at work, but I can't figure out how to avoid all the paper and Styrofoam since they won't let us bring our own washable dishes. 

Maybe I'm just cranky because I remember how incredible that fresh apple juice our hosts served at that home-stay in Wales tasted.  And how clear the stars were once the rain and snow passed that night.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Neighbors at work: some day this will make it into a story

The guy in the cubicle next door isn't used to being next door to anyone.  This has become apparent in the last month as he has been working out of this location four days a week.  It was okay when he was only working here one day, but now that he's here all the time, I find myself wishing there were a way to sound-proof his cubicle.

He can't do much about some of it.  He's in HR and has to call people and ask the same 6 ridiculous categories of questions.  I even find it somewhat entertaining sometimes (also horrifying) to hear all of the strange ways people self-destruct in phone interviews.  Do that many people seriously not know their own work history that they just filled out an application about?  Do they really think that the correct answer for "What are you going to college for" is "to keep my parents from bugging me"?

The things that make me slightly crazy are all of the weird noises he makes.  Seriously weird.  Of course, if I had to do the same conversations all the time as listed above, I'm not saying I wouldn't have cracked, too.  Still.  He sounds like he has a horse in his cubicle with him from all the weird, blowing, rubber-lipped sighs he does.  There are certain foods I wish he would avoid because he always does those loud, weird, startling hiccup-burps after eating them.  (Pardon me, but I'm laughing so hard right now remembering these things that just piss me off when they're happening that I kind of need my inhaler.)  Sometimes he will do random movie quotes.  I'm pretty sure he's on the phone for those.  Mostly sure.

I know more about how he got his stupid new cat than anyone should have to.  Except for my other next door neighbor who just escaped and transferred cubes partly because he couldn't stand being anywhere near this person.  The traitor.

My friend advised that when he's making noises, I should play Miss Slightly Dumb and Concerned and go around and ask him if everything's all right when he makes these weird noises.  It would only take a few seconds.  It's a good idea; I just don't think I could keep a straight face with all I've heard.  Too many times I have had to stop what I'm doing and bury my face in my arm to smother the slightly hysterical laughter he is causing me to deal with.  Sometimes, my voice recognition software ends up trying in vain to translate the stifled noises I'm trying to strangle before they erupt as full out belly laughing.  The poor guy has enough problems; he doesn't need me to acknowledge that I'm aware of them.  Mortification.

On that note, I guess my passive-aggressive dreams of going through my old Dilbert calendars and pinning relevant ones about bad cube manners/hygiene on his chair would not be a good idea.

Maybe I should just play deaf and bring my big, old noise-canceling headphones.  Nobody really calls me on the phone anyway.  Maybe when I'm not using my voice-recognition software, that would be the best solution.  Running away is always a good idea, right. :)  Any other suggestions?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stories to tell: the exercise room

I wonder about the dark-skinned, middle-aged, middle-Asian man who seems to be stalking me in the exercise room at my apartment.  I don't exercise at the same time every day (I'm in there anywhere from 6:30 AM to 8 PM, depending on my crazy schedule, and it seems like soon after I enter, he shows up.  I never watch the TV because I am reading and using the stair climber.  He heads straight to the TV, where he religiously tunes in to one of two channels: The Women's Network or Black Music America.

I am careful not to make eye contact with people I don't know in particular and men in general, so I don't know if he is as embarrassed as I am to exercise to commercials and infomercials for maxi pads, Vagisil, women's health issues, and miracle bras in the company of a member of the opposite gender who should really have very little interest in these things.  Does he enjoy the talk shows and soap operas?  I can only assume he is totally comfortable with this stuff that is hideously embarrassing to me (even if it were with a male friend), or why would he do this all the time?  We have never talked.  I don't know if he speaks English, so it's only inside my head that I ask him, "Have you no shame?!" when some particularly excruciatingly embarrassing topic is displayed.

Variety is the spice of life, so sometimes at random and always on Sunday mornings, he zooms in to Black Music America, a channel that shows random pictures and plays music from artists you would expect from the name of the channel (with more of an emphasis on gospel music on Sundays).

Why these two channels?  Why me?  God only knows . . . 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oh, those silly writers

I got a kick out of this post that shows that some science fiction and fantasy writers can seem just as embarrassed about reading poetry as many "literary writers" seem about reading fantasy and sci-fi.  A lot of people miss out on a lot of good books due to snobbery, in my opinion.  "Art is a powerful inspiration for more art."  And some speculative fiction is art.  Preach it!

I'm omnivorous, so I like it all and think that people should just read what they like without caring what category or genre it's in.  It's fine to like Charles Wright and Charles Stross and Charles Baxter.  Be proud of it!

I want to read Kay in the worst way.  Unfortunately, I suspect he shall be one of those authors I then have to read the whole back catalog of immediately, and I have way more temptations than I have time for right now.  He's high on my list!  Anybody read any of his mouth-watering books?  Have any suggestions for good ones to start with?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Partial Book Binge

When my arm really hurts, I have even less energy and motivation to do anything.  However, I'm always up for a book binge because they require almost nothing of me, so I had a partial one today.  I think I read for about five hours.  There were other things I could have been doing, but I feel fine about not getting to them. 

A good book binge makes me feel refreshed because it's not about me or my pain.  It's five hours of being somewhere else seeing the world through someone else's eyes.  It's nice.  It's especially refreshing when the rain is coming down at varying speeds (including free car wash speed :), and you can watch and listen to it through a window just a few feet away.

When was the last time you had a book binge?  What did you read?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sometimes my story goes like this

increasing clumsiness
pain pain
disturbing inability to concentrate
pain pain pain
ruining a pair of contact lenses because you forget to put in the contact solution
pain pain pain pain
almost walking out the door without a necessary garment on
pain pain pain pain pain
more of the same

Who wants to read that?  I sure don't.

And that's why I'm so glad there are so many more stories to read and immerse myself in when I just can't stand to live my own anymore.  :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lesson learned this weekend

When one is procrastinating from grading papers, and when one has chosen to read an actual prose book while exercising instead of manga in order to encourage one to exercise on consecutive days to find out what happens next, one should not exercise for over three hours on that single day, or one will come to regret it in all one's joints for days afterword. 

And still not finish the book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Never Let Me Go

I finally read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro recently, and now I find out they made it into a movie.  I have some mixed feelings about that. 

I saw an ad for the limited release, independent film while flipping through someone's City Pages at a corporate outing to, of all places, a local beer brewery.  I was somewhat stunned (not just by the beer fumes); I would not have thought of the book as one that would translate well into film.  It would be difficult to get that sustained sense of low key creeping horror/dread going without the narrator's voice in the book, and it was all so unhurriedly told with such detached melancholy.  Then again, one of my biggest problems with the book is that I didn't like the narrator/POV character, so maybe being out of her head would be better.  You see, she's what we're all told in writing is the cardinal sin for a POV character: someone who is almost totally passive.  (That's not really why I disliked her; I'm totally fine with passive POV characters who don't go along with the flow to gain the approval of someone who encourages them to do wrong, whose opinion shouldn't matter, and who abuses her power.  I'm fine with passive characters who THINK.  Then again, this whole story construct wouldn't have worked its atmosphere without such an unthinking character in the lead . . .)

One of the things the book did well that I could see a movie possibly doing better is leaving a lot up to the audience.  Since it's an independent film, I'd like to believe that's more likely.  Nowadays, cheesy acting to show that something bad is going on is probably less likely, and melodramatic or annoying music or sound cues would be less likely, as well.  And I would love to hear the song that gives the story its name because it's described so beautifully in the book.

Upon seeing the ad, I wondered if they changed the ending.  The book's ending is just not cinematic at all unless you like your resolution long and sad and, honestly, unresolved.  Brilliant, don't get me wrong, but I could see actual speculative fiction fans crying foul because so much of the mechanics of the world are just never even acknowledged.  Anyway, I'm not sure I'll see the movie because it's rated R because it sounds like the movie decided not to be as subtle and elegant about the sex as the book was, and that's a shame.  This work didn't need to show any explicit sex because it was more about connections and disconnections of a different kind.

I'm always nervous when a subtle, slow-burn sort of speculative fiction story gets turned into a movie because the subtleties tend to get blunted, and things get said and summarized and compacted all out of their original beautiful shape. 

MaryAnn Johanson: "[C]om[es] at its horrors gently, almost idyllically... This is science fiction of a keen but subtle sort... so gorgeously delicate and lovely a film that it’s almost impossible to convey how (appropriately) horrific it is..."

Roger Moore: "Lovely and melancholy, poignant and chilling, Never Let Me Go is an old school sci-fi dystopia with lovely, wistful performances that never quite overcome the fatalism that hangs over the whole affair."

The reviews are decidedly mixed on whether that's the case.  For some people, it sounds like the experience of book translated well to film.  Eric Melin said, "Like great science fiction should, it serves as an allegory and inspires some deep thinking about the world we live in now."  I totally agree.  Tom Long called "Oddly cold and detached" what Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle called "superbly crafted, shot with the self-contained radiance of a snow globe."  I think they both caught the same thing there but judged and reacted to it differently.   The TomatoMeter summary seems apt, too.  "With Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek has delivered a graceful adaptation that captures the spirit of the Ishiguro novel -- which will be precisely the problem for some viewers."

Biancolli's pull quote at Rotten Tomatoes was pretty excellent in summing up both my experience of the book and her experience of the movie.   "Never Let Me Go is gorgeous. And depressing. It's exquisitely acted. And depressing. It's romantic, profound and superbly crafted, shot with the self-contained radiance of a snow globe. And it's depressing."

(Which is a recommendation for those who like their literature to make them think.)

Anybody seen it?  Read it?  Any opinions either way?

Monday, October 11, 2010

In honor of 80 degree October days

I am in love with Kieli.  It's a series of books translated from Japanese about a teenager isolated because of her past and her abilities and what happens when she meets someone even more lonely and isolated than she is.  It's aimed at a teenage audience (it's called a light novel), so it's not particularly challenging.  The writing isn't necessarily Pulitzer caliber.  It's horror, a genre I normally don't get on well with, and there are some serious gross-out moments.  What is it, then, that makes me love it so much that it's the first thing I read when I get a new batch of books that contain it among them, no matter how large the batch is (as long as it's sunny out, and I can read in the sun because, otherwise, even the "light" horror will drown me).

There's a lot to like about it.  In the past I've wondered what draws me to the series most.  The atmosphere of sweet, awkward melancholy or the dreamy quality of the storytelling (interrupted by brief and disturbingly clear instants of graphic violence and action)?  Is is the reflective mood?  The detached but sad tone?  The brisk pacing that seems languid at the same time?  The spine-tingling weirdness that creeps in sometimes?  The amusing and crotchety relationship between the lead characters?

This round (volume 3), though, I realize that one of the most powerful draws to it for me is the way that it approaches the walls we put up around ourselves and how to co-exist with them.  That sounds dreadfully opaque.  What it comes down to is that I respect this author for not taking the easy way out, like so many other Japanese stories about teen girls do.  We put walls up, and there can be all kinds of very legitimate reasons for that.  In a lot of Japanese stories aimed at teen girls, the author will tease me by bringing up the subject and then inevitably let me down by making the answer a simple, "Bust down the walls, be friendly to everyone, and everything will be fine!  Nice conquers all!"  That is not reality.  It is false, saccharine, and kind of enraging, especially when it's the cliche in a long series that could do so much with the idea.

Don't get me wrong: I can like those series well enough.  I do like a happy ending.  But I love a happy ending that is earned by blood, sweat, and tears. I love a series like Kieli that says, "Here is what it's like for these people who have excellent reasons to have walls, and here is how sometimes they trust, and it's a good thing, and sometimes they trust and it's a bad thing.  Here is how their walls save them and keep them alive, and here is how their walls crush them, sometimes at the same time."  In other words, it's kind of like real life even though the setting is horror/fantasy/sci-fi.  I love how "genre" works can sort of sidle up to these issues and deal with them sideways.

I do want a happy ending for these characters; I really do.  But I want a believable happy ending.  And I don't see yet how that will happen.  The author is too good at those real-life twists and turns to pander to the reader.  They're billing it as a romance, so I believe things will work out, and I look forward to seeing how, but right now, I love reading about these broken people searching for God knows what.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

No books for me

All I've been reading lately has been student assignments.  I want to be reading The Left Hand of Darkness, which I found at a used bookstore and am looking at for a course I'm helping a professor prep.  A course I should be helping my professor prep.  I would be helping if I weren't so buried.  (I would much rather be prepping it!!!!!)

If you can't tell, I'm pretty down about this class taking over my life so unexpectedly, which is weird, since I usually set my expectations so low that anything other than a disaster seems rather pleasant.  My expectations about the teaching resources that would be provided for me for this class were set too high.  The class is a huge, time-consuming disaster for me.  See what happens when you don't set your expectations low enough!  :)

The essay about science fiction in the introduction of my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness was so elegant and clear and simple and LeGuin that it was excellent.  It was especially stunning after the essays I've been grading lately.  Who knows?  Some day, one of my students could be writing as beautifully as LeGuin.  I wish I could help them all improve without killing myself in the process, but that is another example of an expectation that will probably only hurt me.

This too shall pass.  There will always be books to look forward to.  So for now, onward.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

New Terry Pratchett Book!!!!!!!! (I'm a little excited.)

Yes, it's another Tiffany book, no doubt chock full of Wee Free Men and hilarious regional dialog!  It's called I Shall Wear Midnight, and it comes out September 28th!  Eeee!

You might want to pre-order it now.  You can get it for a smidge over $9 at Borders and a couple of other places (and if you go to the store and pre-order it, you can get free shipping), but that won't last very long.  Oh, I'm so happy!

Any fall releases that have you giddy?

Friday, September 10, 2010

It's ALIVE!!!!

So, once again I dropped out of sight.  In honor of my first anniversary of blogging, my computer died.  Eventually a kind friend resuscitated it, and now I am almost caught up enough to get back to blogging.  So you'll likely hear from me for real this weekend.  Until then . . .

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The joys of a poor memory

I am the kind of person who forgets
what I just read, so I can read it
and love it again sooner.

(Sorry for being out of sight [site] for a bit.  My online course didn't get set up with enough time for me to prepare, and I am not-quite-treating water yet.)

I hope to be caught up soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Join the Library Wars

I just finished reading the second book in a series that appeals to me on many levels.  It's a bit hard to describe the book, since it's a mashup of many genres.  Part romantic comedy, part social commentary, part combat movie, part political drama, part compelling and harrowing near-future science fiction, Library Wars is really all over the place but in a good way.  It's actually hard to describe what makes it so delightful because if someone tells you the premise and the world it takes place in and the nature of the conflict, you are likely to think they are crazy. 

I mean, what kind of near future involves actual physical combat over library books?  What kind of funny odd-couple comedy is set in a world where national and local governments and a ton of other shadowy political bodies manipulate the press and jockey for position using freedom of  expression as their hot-button issue?  Is it more important to protect people from the bad expressions than to allow the freedom to have differences (and smut and pornography and dangerous ideas)? When was the last time you saw Library and War used in the same sentence?  This isn't Fahrenheit 451, but it might be distantly related (and much more fun since the focus isn't really on the heavy drama, though there is a small sense of dread about that drama always lurking in the background).

It's true that I really like clever premises that work and make me think (enough that sometimes I don't even care if everything else is a mess), but from the number of times I found myself laughing at interactions between the two clueless romantic leads and thinking really hard about how far I would go to defend freedom of expression, I'd like to think this is actually a well-executed story overall.  I just really enjoy it all the way through.  It's a delightful experience to read and enter this bizarre but not-so-different world.  At least I think so.

What do you think?  How far would you go to censor the bad for the public good or defend free access to it all?  (It's really not a trite and easy issue, especially not as it's presented in Library Wars.)  If you love books, you might want to give this series a read to see how much you really love them and how much you would be willing to sacrifice in their defense . . .

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More words of wisdom on revision

These particular words are brought to you by Patrick Rothfuss, a man who wrote a book that's like reading a song.  He's a real craftsman, so if you've ever wondered what a writer's personal revision process is like, check his out.  He takes good notes.  I particularly like the way he talks about making every word work for its place in the book.  I also like the way he revised the fan's letter that spawned the post as an example.  Kind of priceless.

His next book (The Wise Man's Fear)is allegedly coming out in March (for real this time), and I hope it's worth every hour of revision he's put into it.

(Once again, I am baffled at the lack of awards for this book.  There are over 740 reviews for it on Amazon.  Seriously.  Was it even nominated for anything?  Ah, well, I'm no critic.  I guess I should be glad it won that short-lived people's choice Quill Award and was a bestseller.)   

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An opinion on "literature" my sister could get behind

I came across this comment about literary fiction, and it made me laugh, so I thought I'd share it with you.

'What's really interesting is that I have a intense, visceral reaction to some of the literary novels that have been published in the last 10-20 years. Reading them is like getting a bucket of negativity upended over my head. The writing is so very very beautiful but the events in the book just make me want to stick my face in the waffle iron and end it all. What the hell is this crap! How on earth can you Choose Life after reading one of these books? The world is filled with suffering and adultery, alas; no point in dying; we might as well live and suffer some more. Then I have to clear out my brain by watching "Dude, Where's My Car?"'

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pilgrims? Bad neighbors?

So a radio station in our area is really pushing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land right now, and my immediate reaction was something along the lines of, "The economy is in the tank, lots of our brothers and sisters are struggling, and you want to take an expensive vacation because it's somehow good for your faith to be a tourist and waste money you could be giving to help those who need it?"

Possibly a little harsh.  Maybe not.  I don't know.  There's evidence in the value of pilgrimage.  Lots of stories come from that tradition.  What are your thoughts about pilgrimage?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The great migration

The great manga migration is finally (almost) over.  I have moved (nearly) all of my manga (Japanese graphic novels) and anime (Japanese cartoons) to an off-site location.  I'm kind of in mourning, but I'm also breathing better because there is less book dust around my bed each night.  Darn that allergist for being right!  It was a tough decision, but now that I have a job that pays a living wage, I no longer had any excuses not to get 6 bookcases out of my sleeping area (aka, my 385 square foot apartment) due to allergies.

How did I make the painful decision to part with the manga in a spacial way?  It all comes down to the fact that I only have four and 3/4 bookcases full of other books.  I considered breaking things up and keeping my most favorite, most frequently randomly re-read manga series here and sending some of my reference books to my new library, but, in the end, I felt like they should all be together and able to spread out in correct alphabetical order because as much as I am a manga nerd, I am a book nerd first and foremost, and alphabetizing things is soothing, darn it. 

There are nine bookcases crammed into a tiny, climate-controlled storage unit a few miles from my apartment.  I have 14 inches of clearance wherever I go in this tiny space, so as long as I don't gain any weight, I still have free-ish access to my lovely collection, which is slowly emerging from its boxes and settling in.  No more sun damage from the light through the window.  No unpredictable and uncontrollable temperatures.  Less space-crunching.  Silence and solitude.  I hope they like it there.  And I will visit regularly, so they know I do care.  I'd like to believe it's a better place for them.  Pardon me while I get a tissue.

I should also mention that it's actually good to get that temptation away from me.  It was really too easy to see something I loved and grab it off the shelf and read it before I got any work done.  It's not the manga's fault I have no self-control; it's mine, but by moving it, I've stopped enabling myself in a negative way.  Kind of.  I still have a couple shelves worth of stuff I'm going to read before I take it to its new home.  I just have a lot less, and this is ongoing series stuff, so I don't know how it ends.  I have to give it more thought and attention than the quick re-read stuff I know I'll love.

Some people might say that I still have almost 5 bookcases worth of books around, so how can I possibly act like I've removed the temptation.  To them, I would say that since I got hurt at work and started losing sleep and concentration and such, my reading rate and comprehension tanked.  Even a YA or middle-grade book takes hours now (used to be I could read over 100 pages an hour), so I tend not to start them if I know I won't be able to finish them right away.  Most manga is fairly short.  Some volumes take less than 30 minutes to read.  That's temptation to me.  It's like fast food in some ways only right in my room all the time . . .

Now that I not only have a 40+ hour a week job but a new part time teaching job coming up, I can't afford to make it that easy for me to let my priorities slip.  This way, if I want to reward myself, I have to plan and be efficient and get things done.  Then I can allow myself to read for fun.  And I must read for fun; therefore, I will be efficient!  Let's see how that works out for me, shall we?

Have you ever had too many books and not enough space?  What was your solution?  How did you prioritize?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why writing memoir is hard

I really admire people who can pull off a successful memoir (success = skillful execution) because I don't know how they do it.  I am long-winded by nature (I think in multi-volume, epic plots and can't do much with short stories to save my life).  It is extremely difficult for me to figure out how to take, say, a 450 page spiritual autobiography and turn it into a svelte 200 page memoir. 

How do you know when to start?  How do you know what to cut? And most importantly, how do you know when to end it?

". . . You're searching, Joe,
For things that don't exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings--there are no such things.
There are only middles."
-"In the Home Stretch" 
by Robert Frost
I read that and blessed dear departed Mr. Frost again.  He was amazing.  He puts things in words I've been wanting to say but can't until I stumble across a new (to me) poem.  Did he ever write a memoir?

Anyway, that quote explains the reason why it's so hard for me to write a good, succinct, complete memoir.  I don't feel like things ever end/stop in my life, and I'm not at the place yet where I can see enough of the bigger picture to see how to craft a stopping point that I am comfortable with (comfortable = no "if I leave that out, it feels dishonest" moments).  
I'm not sure where things begin, either, but that's a lesser concern because I feel like it's the ending I need to stick first.  All my other questions can be answered and addressed if only I know where the end is.  
Maybe this is some subtle form of procrastination, but I don't think so because anything that generates hundreds of pages is obviously not afraid to get work produced.  
Maybe this is why it's easier to write an autobiography when you are old (or have it written for you after you are dead).  Death is an ending it's hard to argue with.  However, I don't think it would solve the problem of knowing when to begin if you wanted a short work.  :)  Sigh.

Content to be in the middles, 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Art, faith, and film: top 100

This is an interesting list of films folks put together to showcase what they thought were the best films in terms of art and faith.  What does that mean?  They talk about it a little at their site and have links to some longer explanations and discussions. 

I would be lying if I said I hadn't heard of half of them.  (More like 80+ percent since I was familiar with about 17.)  I've seen a grand total of 2 of them (Chariots of Fire and The Burmese Harp).  I forced a bunch of friends to watch Chariots with me.  They weren't very appreciative of the music in general, but I think they enjoyed its story and thought-provoking nature.

The Burmese Harp devastated me for weeks, and it was only #20.  I'm almost afraid to see any ranked higher.  I'm also very curious . . .

How many of them have you heard of and/or seen?  Can you make any recommendations?

(Also, the great library migration is mostly over, so I should be returning to my regular schedule of posting every Monday and Thursday.  See you then.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

To all the "I'm not a writer"s out there

There's a book that just came out with a rather intriguing title.  I liked the first chapter enough that I'm definitely going to have to track it down.  I mean, how can you resist the siren song of Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime?  I read a preview chapter in a magazine, and, though I still don't know where the Suicidal Mime is going to come into play, I did like the rather bizarre premise and the rather awkwardly sad narrator.  I hope he gets a good ending.

A quote I enjoyed from the first chapter.

"All you have to do is write down the things that happened and how you felt exactly the way you experienced it.  As long as you try your very best, the honest words of someone who doesn't usually write can inspire the heart and the appetite so much more than works that rely on technical mastery."

Do you agree?  

Monday, July 19, 2010

Protecting/Defending Innocence

There's a fun discussion about one of my favorite series going on right now, and in this one, several people brought up something that was bothering them: one character seems to be going out of his way to protect the other character's innocence, even to the extent of not wanting the poor kid to learn how to protect himself (by hurting/maiming/killing other people).  This seems very two-dimensional to the readers, like it's turning the protected into some sort of lesser person.

(NOTE: The referenced discussion only covers up to the first third of the work in question; I've read the whole thing, which might color some of what I think.  Also, if you're a Princess Bride fan, you should definitely check out the rather hilarious references that pop up in the discussion, especially if you've read Banana Fish.)

It's true I'm pretty generous with characters.  I work hard so authors don't have to.  It is very difficult to make me believe your characer is two-dimensional; I will do all sorts of extra work in the background to flesh out that character unless you go above and beyond. That said, I don't really think this character is two-dimensional at all.  Out of his depth?  Totally.  Frustrated and helpless and conflicted and protected?  Yeah.  Unrealistically simple?  Not really.

One of the ideas I was getting from the discussion is one that I've encountered before, the one that says it's wrong to protect someone because it's the same as reducing them somehow.  I think that idea comes from the way we protect children from as much reality as we can.  Kids hate that as they grow older; it makes them mad.  I think that anger's still sort of fresh in the minds of disillusioned young adults, especially ones who were raised by people who denied them reality and the chance to face it in a more controlled environment.  I don't think that every attempt to protect someone else's innocence is necessarily like saying you think they're a child.

I'm totally willing to buy that one young adult male might really respect and cherish another young adult male's relative innocence without that reducing the one being cherished and protected.  And of course there's a risk of transforming the one you cherish into an object on a pedestal, a thing that must be protected rather than a person, but I don't feel like that's really happening in this story.

[ASIDE: There's another character who is really irritated by that same character's innocence at least partly because it represents everything he never had (peace, a loving family, a life of relative ease, etc.).  I suppose you could say he's two-dimensional because you can infer all that quite easily (more because the author is skilled than because it's blatantly spelled out).  I don't think that being able to figure out part of what motivates someone renders them less-complex, whether they are fictional or non-fictional.]

Another more recent pop-culture example I've been considering is from the TV show Chuck.  Chuck ends up with a head full of government secrets and all kinds of danger his nearly-completed engineering degree and several years in retail hell have really not prepared him for.  He is kind of goofy and adorable, and he has a huge heart and is a good guy.  People like him, even spies.  They like his innocence and his willingness to trust and his desire to do the right thing.  And they don't want him to change.  They are there to protect him from the bad guys, but at least one of them is also interested in protecting him from becoming just another spy.  And one of the bad guys is even very concerned that he'll turn into just another jaded public servant putting his rights and freedom on the line every day to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

(Apparently, in season three when he comes into some special skills, he starts acting like just another spy.  The more cognizant viewers saw what the writers were trying to do; the less-cognizant just got mad because Chuck wasn't good-ole' sit-com Chuck anymore.  And while the show has always had a healthy lot of comedy, it's never been a sit-com because the characters are in flux and changing as they go, you know, like people.  People don't always make the right choices; sometimes they choose very poorly, and we have to watch them live with the consequences (and often share those consequences with us).  That doesn't make them less realistic.  Perhaps it makes them more realistic and thus less funny.  :)  And we wouldn't want any reality in our science fiction because it's all just supposed to be brainless genre-fluff anyway, right?  Riiiiiight . . . )

Anyway, do you have any thoughts on protecting someone's innocence and/or what makes a character two-dimensional for you?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My music man - silent movie music and Diary of a Lost Girl

Once my manager at work passed off a problem phone customer to me.  He was a lonely old man, and he was difficult to understand.  In the end, he just wanted to talk, and she's not good with people, so he was pretty irritated when I picked him up off of hold.  He talked for an hour and a half, and when he hung up, he was happier than he'd been in a long time, from what I could tell.

He used to play the organ in movie theaters back when silent movies were the only kind.  All his recordings were out of print and very rare, but I wanted to hear what they sounded like.  He hadn't been able to play for years, of course, but I wished I could have heard him play.  He gave me his address and asked me to stop by some time.  He was, as you might imagine if you can do the math, pretty old then, and it's been a few years since, so he may not be alive any more.

I thought of him recently when I was watching The Diary of a Lost Girl.  Sometimes, the music they put in was just terrible, obviously a synthesizer, not a real organ.  And an organ in a real, drafty, old theater would have sounded different anyway.  There were some very sweet moments in the music, though.

It's unlikely my music man ever played for that movie.  It was cut in half here due to its scandalous nature, and it basically only played in the art theaters of its day.  I guess what was left to the imagination (pretty much everything) was considered scandalous if it came from Germany at that time.

The ending was maybe a tad forced, but it worked mostly because of the force of Louise Brooks' talent pushing it back.  She really is astonishing compared to, well, everyone else.  Pabst (the director) was pretty amazing, too.  He just let her be natural and not overact, and the result is that you identify with her sympathetically as she makes really bad choices. 

I was impressed by how clearly she communicated (without overacting) even though she was acting surrounded by people who didn't speak English.

"It's a silent movie," my mom said, exasperated.

I couldn't quite articulate why I was so impressed, but if I were trying to act natural surrounded by people speaking gibberish to my ears, it would be hard.  It's a subtlety thing.  It's disappointing that she was so self-destructive because I kind of wish I could see all those films she didn't make.  I guess I'll have to settle for Pandora's Box, the other Pabst film she illuminated.  It was supposed to be even more scandalous and much more melodramatic.  I hope the music is better.

I wonder what my music man would have played and what it would have sounded like in that theater all those years ago.  He would have gotten her subtlety, I think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Let's have a poetry jam session even though none of us are poets

A former co-worker of mine who coaches high school debate was helping a student who wanted to perform poetry.  Being the extremely bright person he is, he did tons of research.  A few times we had lunch breaks together, and we talked poetry, everything from theory to history to terminology to interpretation.  He told me that he dug the old kind of poetry, the kind that was popular entertainment, education, art, and history all mixed up.

He decided he'd like to get a bunch of flexible, creative people together and have poetry nights at his place, so he did.  (That's pretty much the kind of person he is.  It's awesome.)

The first meeting was a blast.  We didn't really have any set agenda, but we ended up looking through reference books, reading some poetry, doing some free-writing exercises based on art/drawing classes he took, and passing around some poetry we all contributed a line to.  Also, we played one of the variations of chess that he made up.  (He loves game design, too.)  I lost.

I also found this incredible poem by that master poet, Anonymous.  I am kind of totally in love with it (please ignore the post-script), and I don't even garden.  It should be read aloud to someone else for best effect but only if you can do it without laughing.  Good luck.

There was high-brow and low-brow.  There was laughing.  There was silence and squirming and even some good ideas for essays and short stories.  Also, a great drawing of a stick figure throwing up and some dinosaurs.  It was a totally enjoyable evening, and I'm looking forward to the next one. 

Have you ever done something like that?  Or thought of doing something like that?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Loving the fallen sparrow

We're back from the dead and ready to roll.  Thank you for your concern about my dead computer and lack of internet access for, er, too long.  My lack of access to the net (and several delayed and canceled flights) meant I read a great book lately, and I wanted to tell you about it while I am still gobsmacked.


I loved the characters.  I loved the plot.  I loved this book.  It made me cry so much that my nose peeled from tissue over-use, and I had to do all kinds of wonky things to prevent my awkwardly peeling nose from being what people at my new job remembered about me henceforth. 

This is a difficult and beautiful story.  The characters are lovable and believable and painfully awkward and broken in so many different, normal ways, and that's why this book may break your heart.  It's challenging and moving and heartbreaking and harrowing and full of fragile happiness and despair and death and sadness and tragedy and seeking and surviving and not-finding and truth and grace and faith and hope and love in so many forms.  I can't give you details because it must be read to be understood. 


No plot summary could possibly do it justice.  Such summaries only serve to cheapen it (as I have proven by trying and getting less-than enthusiastic reactions.  This is a tight book, a finely crafted piece of speculative fiction no "literary fiction" reader should feel ashamed of reading.  World and plot and characters are melded to each other.

The parallel narrative structure is pulled off wonderfully.  I've read other books that try to be this good at a parallel story, and I ended up feeling jerked back and forth, always in the middle of things, as if constantly being in media res is a good thing.  No thank you; I don't appreciate the whiplash.  There is no whiplash here, just elegant execution.

Great balance of new information, great use of point of view to control what is withheld and what we learn and what the characters learn without making the readers feel like the writer is toying with or torturing them.  It's all remarkably organic.  We are on a journey with the main character in the present, and we are reliving the past with him.  We are restricted, but it doesn't feel manipulative because it rises from the story itself and the way it is being told.

It deals extensively with ideas and themes I wish more people would think about (good and evil, maturity, change, celibacy, society, community, mistakes, hindsight, judgment [without facts or love], respect, kindness, tenderness, love and friendship, dignity, fate, good intentions, God, sin, nature, and some other things).  This is a smart book with smart characters, and you will think whether you plan to or not.  Also, regard the calm foreshadowing with awe and dread.

The paperback version I read had some extras at the end, including author insights, and I was blown away by Russell's comments about how we look back at the past and judge harshly, as if we are better people now who would not do these things, as if we are not still the same human beings who make the same mistakes ad nauseum, as if we have the right to judge based on our imperfect information and the twisting of facts and historical records.  If you have any smugness in you, it might be beaten out of you by the end.  Read the book before you read the extra bits because it's kind of like being punched (in a thought-provoking way) if you read it in the context of the whole story.


One of the most amazing things about the book is that when you come to the end of the story, having been pummelled and rung out and smashed, somehow there is hope.  This is a miracle.  Don't miss it.

If you've read The Sparrow, feel free to gush or just talk about it or recommend other books people might like.  It's vaguely similar to but clearly better than Out of the Silent Planet and is somewhat redolent of Madeleine L'Engle to me (criticisms I've seen of this work and some of her thinkier works are very similar, and I couldn't help but connect this with The Arm of the Starfish for the sparrow quotes alone).

I'm sorry I waited so long to read this for the first time.  Feel free not to repeat my mistake.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Four reasons to look forward to this year in books

There are some authors I just kind of adore. Some of them are mid-paced writers, others fast, others slow, so what are they chances they will all have books coming out in the same 12 months? Not likely. Hot dog, it's a dream come true!
  • Jim Butcher's Side Jobs in October: Okay. I would buy this one just because it has a short story about what Murphy finds when she comes back to pick Harry up after the end of the last book, but it also collects a lot of other Dresden shorts, so hooray all around.  I'll admit, the "hat" still bothers me, but it's a running joke, so I can deal with it.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn in November: I know she wasn't very keen on writing another Miles book, but I don't care! I am so happy to have a new Miles book! SO HAPPY! At this point, she is more than good enough that I trust she wrote a great book even if it was sort of against her will. Happy birthday to me!
  • Patrick Rothfuss' Wise Man's Fear in March: I have spoken of this book with longing. I truly hope it delivers. Either way, I will get to read The Name of the Wind again, and it will be glorious.
  • Jim Butcher's Ghost Story in March: Jim Butcher is an evil man.  In a good way. He has all sorts of evil plans for Harry Dresden, and I kind of want to read them all right now. Alas. At least he's the fastest of the bunch because if he's really planning 23 books total, I want us both to be alive to finish them.

See?! There is much to be excited about. MUCH!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Remembering The Chosen

I saw a gaggle of Jewish boys in yarmulkes, long dark pants, and long-sleeved white shirts on their way home from playing sandlot baseball, and I thought of that opening bit in The Chosen by Chaim Potok, a book I read on a whim back in high school, I think.  I was in an experimental honors English class that year, or something, so I missed the books my regular classmates were being forced to read, which made those books seem enticing. 

I had a lot of time to spend in the school building that year, waiting for practices to start after school ended, I think, and once I finished the reading material I'd brought along, I would read almost anything I could find.  (I drew the line at textbooks.)

There were stacks of books I hadn't read in the English teacher's room, and he gave me permission to read whatever I found.  I think that was how I discovered The Chosen and A Separate Peace (the book that finally taught me how to spell separate correctly all the time) and The Promise and eventually My Name Is Asher Lev (which I hope you read). 

There was no discussion with a group about themes and symbolism and such, just me and amazing works of literature that percolated in my brain and helped make me who I am today; you know, the kind of person who sees a bunch of Jewish boys with baseball gloves walking down the sidewalk away from a ball field and thinks of a book she read fifteen years ago. 

Have you ever seen something in passing that reminded you of a book from long ago?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some thoughts on "The Ecstasy of Influence"

When I first stumbled across Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" in Harper's Magazine a few years ago, it felt like a revelation. Before I read it, I thought I was alone.  After reading Lethem's brilliant "plagiarism," I knew that I was part of a great collection of insatiably curious minds addicted to learning and information and baffled by modern copyright laws and the ways they try to box and contain the human mind and creativity. 

We have read so many books and stories that they influence us in ways we aren't cognizant of.  Instead of being afraid of being called out for lying unintentionally when "quoting" these influences unaware, Lethem advises thinking and talking about plagiarism, influence, and copyright the way it is evolving in our society.  Maybe we're not the ones who need to change, he suggests.  It seems like a stunning collection of original ideas, but it turns out he got these ideas from other people.  (Be sure to check out his end notes.)

Ever since junior high, I have been extremely concerned about plagiarism because it seemed like one of writing's deadly sins.  I was a good girl; I did not want to be a sinner.  In college, I evolved a complex documentation process involving notecards and notes that allowed me to write 10 full academic papers in ten weeks for one class.  I was always a stickler for documentation when writing academic papers.  I had to be.  It knew it would be easy to plagiarize unintentionally, so I was vigilant.

Towards the end of college, I started taking creative nonfiction (CNF) classes (personal essay and the like) and discovered CNF's insidious charms.  (Writing well about what I think about things is legitimate!  I don't have to have sources at all!)   This elation was short-lived because in the course of these classes, I learned that it was easier for me (and somehow more challenging) to relax my Type-A controlling of information and just think on the page.  But I wanted to be a college composition teacher, and I would have to get a research degree to do so.  I resisted the siren song . . .

Then I discovered you can teach with an MFA (a terminal degree that's more about practicing the craft than researching).  A titanic battle erupted.  It would be lovely to be called Dr. X, but what a silly reason to spend more money.  Was I capable of the rigor and organization that it would take to write a dissertation?  Probably, but just thinking of the number of trees I would need to kill for that many notecards was daunting.  And, let's be honest, did I want to squash myself like that now that I'd felt the freedom and relief of creative writing?  Not really.  Not now that I had been seduced . . .  The MFA it was.

Another reason I steered away from academic research writing was because of those scandals about plagiarism when nonfiction writers didn't cite sources correctly.  I felt bad because sometimes it seemed like they didn't do it on purpose, but they were labeled as evil thieves anyway.  I wished the news people would be a little less gleeful about it.  The writers read so many sources to create those academic tomes; how could they possibly keep straight what was original thought?  I sure couldn't, not with what I'd come to know about how my brain works best. 

I'm an omnivorous reader, a generalist and a synthesizer, an unconscious collector of knowledge and phrases, and I'm also a writer.  This is a dangerous combination because  I never know when I will write something I read somewhere 10 years ago without even knowing it. I'd hate to have my integrity called into question just because I haven't been carefully documenting every source I've encountered since I began reading at age 3.

Should I have to?  Do we need to know and acknowledge all our sources when we live in a society of document, idea, and information overflow?  Is it possible to?

Once, on a dare from a high school history teacher, I wrote a term paper made up entirely of quotes (okay, and about 7 sentences of connecting tissue).  Sometimes, I feel like that's what I do when I write an essay, only I don't have the sources and notes available for citation.  Where do our ideas come from?  They must come from somewhere, but that doesn't mean we remember where.  Should we have to?  Is it really dishonest to have a bad memory?  Isn't the idea what matters?  Isn't the discussion what's valuable?  Must we create out of nothing or risk being called immoral?

In graduate school, one of the first things a professor told us is that all writers are thieves and pirates.  If we love to read, we can't help but be so.  Something has to happen to all those bits we learn and love that float around in our brains interacting with each other.

While you may not agree with the conclusions of Lethem's piece, that's not the point.  The point is starting discussions and considering things you haven't thought about before about how our brains work and work best.  It's a bonus that he did so in a rather brilliant and entertaining way.

If you haven't already read the article, please take some time to do so. What do you think?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Them's fighting words

Publisher's Weekly has this feature called "Why I write," where they get authors to write a very short explanation about why they write. I find it fascinating for obvious reasons, being a writer and reader and all, and Steven Saylor's mini-essay in the May 3, 2010, issue that highlighted historical fiction was fantastic, and now I want to read his books to see the progression he points out in the article.

Anyway, here's my favorite bit.

"All writing is an act of self-exploration.. . . The so-called literary novel consciously attempts self-analysis, while the genre novel supposedly does not, offering merely--literally--generic entertainment. Don't believe it. Even the crudest, most derivative novel is an expression of the authors hopes and fears and ideas about good and evil. Even the most commercial writer is, at some level, exploring personal demons."
Yeah, he said it. :) Any thoughts?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sisters of the Sword and the occasional hazards of reading "historical fiction" for kids

I've been on a historical fiction/multicultural kick lately, and one of the series I started reading that I shouldn't have was one of those factory-created ones that always get canceled if I like them. I liked it, so of course the fourth book seems to be delayed indefinitely.  Drat.

A bit more than halfway through the first installment, I was rolling my eyes at the predictability and hoping there would be at least some surprises before the end. I was getting all snotty and composing a review in my head where I would heave a huge literary sigh and say that it was entertaining but it was hardly Tales of the Otori or Kaze Hikaru or even Rowland's Sano Ichiro Novels. I was, of course, ignoring the fact that this series wasn't trying to be as rigorously historically accurate and really couldn't be, so it wasn't fair of me to judge it for being what it was instead of what it was not intended to be.

And then, things started getting unpredictable. One professional review I read mentioned that because of what it is (a revenge drama), there are certain predictable elements, but the story weaves in a lot of unexpected turns and surprises. If you catch yourself thinking, "Well of course this is where the story will end up," be ready to be wrong.

I wish the series had taken pains to be more authentic because then I would have been able to turn my inner armchair sociologist off and just immerse myself in the story wholeheartedly. Multiple times every book, I wanted to get to a reference book to see if I was wrong or the book was.

However, the books aren't aimed at adult Japanophiles who get irritated when they know things are getting out-of-whack culturally or historically or otherwise. I would just prefer readers to get an exciting read that's not going to give them inaccurate history/culture lessons.  Maybe its intended audience would be driven to go do some research and find out more and get the truth that way.  I may also be frustrated that the theory seems to be that there's no need for that much cultural accuracy because the books' intended audience would likely be bored by such accuracy and just wants an exciting read, correct or not.

They probably also want to know how the series ends, so let's hope enough people buy the first three that the publisher starts releasing new volumes, especially after how that third one ended. So cruel.

Do you have any favorite historical fiction for the 8-18 age groups?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bonhoeffer and Feiffer walk into a bar . . .

There are just too many great looking biographies! I can't keep up! Here are a couple of newish ones I'm particularly excited about.
  1. Jules Feiffer's Backing Into Forward: Really, I just want an excuse to read The Man in the Ceiling again. If you're an artist of any stripe, I dare you to read that book and not cry at the end. That book is where I first encountered Feiffer (and the first middle grade book I read that involved comics drawn by the main character), and it was a tiny glimpse at what has made him such an outspoken titan. I'd like to find out more about his remarkable life; I think he would be an interesting artist to know.  Seriously, go read The Man in the Ceiling.  It was just as invigorating and revolutionary to my young artist's soul as Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer as seen by Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: As if the title doesn't say enough about why I want to read this one, which is mammoth, by the way. I've heard about the pastor and martyr parts, but most sermons don't mention much about the spy part (or the prophet part). I respect his commitment to doing everything he could to do good and stem evil's tide based on what he believed was right. In the end, it got him killed, but he didn't go silently or without doing good on his way out.
Will I ever get to either of them?  Who knows.  I'll definitely read The Man in the Ceiling next time I'm about to let my failures kill my desire to create art.

Do either of these look good to you?  Any biographies you've been eying or reading lately?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Your reader/writer advantage in job interviews

While preparing (for over 30 hours) for this job interview I just had, I was able to experiment with using stories for job interviews, and it was a unique challenge.

The idea is that if you can come up with maybe 10 stories to tell, you'll be more impressive, interesting, and memorable in your interview.  Each story should cover multiple areas they might ask about in an interview, so they can be adapted on the fly.  You can even use the same story to answer more than one question, and you won't have to spend time on the background/setup, so even the way you answer the questions shows organization and efficiency. 

All four of those interviews went very well, from what my friend at the company was able to find out, so I decided to write a little bit about the process in case it can be of any use to you as writers and readers of stories.

  1. Research questions asked at interviews.  Read books.  Especially helpful are books that provide examples of answers that show what information the interviewer is really looking for when asking certain questions.  I was shocked when one of my interviewers asked me a really off-the-wall question and then said, "What we want to learn from your answer is how you use skill X."  I want to work for that interviewer; he is way better than any book.  Anyway, the more questions you can see, the more ideas you can get for good answers. 
  2. Take lots of notes.  The more notes you take about good ways to answer well, the more you will have learned those phrasings for good answers.  Mark questions that you really don't want to answer, ones you read and immediately pray, "Dear God, please don't let them ask me this," or ones that you think you'll likely be asked because of the kind of job you're interviewing for.  Basically, you're leaving a trail in your notes of questions you'll want to revisit and be sure to be ready for.
  3. Start thinking about the stories for questions you least want to answer but know they will ask.  (Ex. "Tell me about a weakness" or "What is one thing you need to improve" or "Tell me about a time you made a mistake and how you handled the situation" or "Tell me about a time you were working for someone you really couldn't get along with")  The books are not kidding when they tell you that kind of question will come up more than once in every interview.  Some strategies for dealing with these questions are as follows:
    • talk about a weakness that has nothing to do with the job,
    • talk about an aspect of your personality that is both a strength and a weakness,
    • talk about a weakness you had and how you overcame it or compensated for it so that it is a strength now,
    • talk about a problem briefly and spend a lot of time emphasizing what you learned from it and how you prevented it from happening again.
      The latter two strategies make you seem smarter to the interviewer. 
  4. Brainstorm story ideas.  Focus on ones that star you (alone and part of a group), have happy endings, or taught you valuable lessons.
  5. Draft stories.  Using a format like SAR (situation/action/result) can help you keep things focused and concise, but there are so many structures you can use.  Check out Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career for great lists.  Anyway, keep it under 350 words.
  6. Talk through these stories out loud.  Some phrases that look spiffy on paper just don't work aloud.
  7. Title your stories.  You don't get extra points for cleverness here.  Just use 1-3 words that instantly identify the story in your brain.  You may have to remember the whole story based just on these three words, so don't make it hard on your brain.
  8. List kinds of strengths/traits/topics each answer shows. (Ex. organizational or interpresonal skills, problem-solving, logic, patience, respect of colleagues, project management, handling failure, flexibility, task-orientation, etc.)
  9. Have someone who can be objective read the stories and give you feedback about where you may be saying something you don't intend or when a particularly evil follow up question could arise. 
  10. Revise your stories until you're satisfied with them.
  11. Cut your stories down to key words and phrases for notes.
  12. Talk through the stories using only those notes. 
  13. Repeat.  This part is hard if you are not a good public speaker, so the more time you leave for practicing here, the more natural you will be able to sound when you're in an interview.  You are not memorizing a script; it's more like you're programming your brain with keywords and then speaking extemporaneously.  Since you don't have it memorized, it doesn't sound memorized.
  14. If you can cut your notes down further here, do it.  You never know if they will even let you have notes, so if you can get everything typed onto one piece of paper, do so.  Half a sheet would be even better because then you could actually attach it to the notebook you brought along to take notes and be able to use it really unobtrusively.
  15. Practice with someone.  Use only your notes.  Yes, it is way harder to answer a question someone just threw at you, and you need to practice accessing the info you've stored on your notes and in your head and adapting it to fit questions you're unprepared for.  You will probably be terrible at first, so you should do this a lot.
  16. Make sure you are up early enough that you can talk through each of your stories clearly and intelligently with very little use of the notes before you even leave for the interview.  You can keep doing this on the way to the interview (unless you are on public transportation because people will look at you funny).  Read through some of those questions you marked in your notes all the way back at step 2, and practice connecting your stories to them.
  17. Be sure to get there so early that you will be able to be calm and rational.  Review your strategies, questions you have for the interviewers, and interview etiquette.
  18. Pray.

I can't say it worked for me since I probably won't get the job due to lack of experience, but it does feel good to have given the best interview I could give.  Don't let the interview be the thing that disqualifies you.  Use your natural affinity for stories to your advantage!