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?