Friday, August 29, 2014

DIANE ZAHLER


Interview with DIANE ZAHLER

Diane Zahler is the author of four middle-grade fairy-tale retellings: The Thirteenth Princess, A True Princess, Princess of the Wild Swans, and Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters. She has also written two nonfiction books for older readers, The Black Death and Than Shwe’s Burma, and an incalculable quantity of textbook materials for elementary and high school students. She’s made her home in Seattle, Morgantown, Ithaca, Solana Beach, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Belgium, but now lives with her husband and dog in an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. She really likes chocolate.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a fabulous middle grade adventure story that I can’t tell you about, because I’m doing it for a job I’m working on. It’s in galleys and I’m sworn to secrecy. So instead I’ll say I’m just finishing Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, which is brilliantly written. I can’t remember when I last read something that made me stop every few pages and just marvel over a turn of phrase or the construction of a paragraph.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, so I can’t really answer that. My earliest memories of reading combined joy in the work itself with a burning desire to write something as wonderful.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There’s not much I don’t love about it. For me, being struck with an idea is almost magical, and the early stages of writing, when nearly anything is possible, are wonderful. Later, the challenge of figuring out where a story is going and how best to get it there can be frustrating, but I still find it enjoyable. I don’t love getting stuck at points in the narrative, but even the difficulties of working out what seems not to be right in a story is a fascinating challenge. I’ve never been a writer who agonizes over writing (though my husband, who has to listen to me moan and complain, might disagree!).

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I’m not sure I have a process. I like to have my day’s work in my head before I put words on paper. So often I’ll figure out what I’m going to write while I’m driving somewhere, or walking on the treadmill. Then, after I’ve finished my other writing (usually textbook materials), I’ll open the manuscript I’m working on, read the previous day’s work, revise it if it needs it (and it always needs it!), and then write what I’ve been mulling over all day. (Reading this over, it seems like I could have a better process. But somehow it works for me.)

What are your passions?

Reading. Writing. Chocolate. Belgian beer. Travel. Chocolate. My husband and son. My new(ish) rescue dog, Flora. Did I say chocolate?

What inspires you?

Travel, more than anything else. If I’m in a place that’s unusual or marvelous in some way – lost in the maze of Venice’s canals, wandering through an ancient Irish graveyard, paddling a canoe along the moon trail of a Maine evening – I file it away in my head to pull out when I’m thinking about what I want to write next.
 
Why middle reader?

The books that meant the most to me and that I remember most clearly are the ones that I read when I was a middle-grader myself. I write for that girl, as well as for the kids who are my readers today. I can’t imagine anything better than having my books affect a reader the way the books I read at that age affected me.

Why fantasy?

That middle-grade reader in my head always loved fantasy best. That’s not to say it’s all I loved to read, but books by Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper, E. Nesbit – those were the ones I returned to again and again.

Why fairy tale retellings?

Fairy tales focus on such universal feelings and fears – the feeling of powerlessness, the fears of being left behind, of being lost, of losing parents…the stories have meaning for just about everyone. And most people are familiar with them. So the idea of taking these well-known stories and doing something different and new with them was really intriguing to me.

How was SLEEPING BEAUTY’S DAUGHTERS born?

The title actually came first.  I had a contract for two books, one that I’d finished and one called “Title to Come.” My editor and I had lunch, and we were tossing ideas back and forth. She was the one who came up with “Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters,” and immediately that struck a chord with me. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with it, but by the time I was ready to write, there was a story in my mind to tell.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I tell aspiring authors three things: read as much as you can, write as much as you can, and be persistent. Reading in the genre and at the age level you want to write will help you figure out how to write in that genre and for that age group. Writing – well, it’s a craft, and practice is the only thing that will make you better at it. Every published author has drawers or files of manuscripts that never saw the light of day. Those are part of our practice. Each failed story or manuscript makes us better writers. And persistence – and sometimes a thick skin – is absolutely necessary. Often publication is the result of luck and timing, your story hitting an editor’s desk at the instant that editor is looking for something like what you’ve written. But that happy moment can take years to come about. DON’T GIVE UP!

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Did I mention that I am a huge fan of chocolate?

Monday, August 25, 2014

COCKTAILS FOR THREE


Review of COCKTAILS FOR THREE by MADELEINE WICKHAM

Sophie Kinsella is my all-time favorite chick lit author. If that sounds like a tangent, let me mention that Madeleine Wickham is merely another pseudonym for Sophie Kinsella. I actually counted both authors as my top-two favorites for a few years before discovering they’re the same person! So why use two different names?, you might wonder. After putting some thought into the matter myself, I’ve concluded that her Wickham books are a little grittier than her Kinsella ones. Note an important distinction: that’s “a little grittier” not “gritty.” Characters swear more, might engage in illegal activities, and make less responsible decisions. A Wickham character might smoke pot, but not a Kinsella character. In the case of COCKTAILS FOR THREE, we’re quickly introduced to a pregnant woman drinking alcohol and a woman having an affair with a married man, both things Kinsella protagonists likely wouldn’t do. In other words, Kinsella books play it safer and steer away from potential controversy, but both possess the same lighthearted, humorous tone that has made her work so popular regardless of which pseudonym.

Also, if I’m remembering correctly, I think Kinsella books always focus on only one heroine. Whereas COCKTAILS FOR THREE follows three different women who work for the same magazine, enviably close friends who meet the first of every month for cocktails. It’s at one of these traditional happenings that Wickham first sets the stage. (Impressively, I might add. In retrospect the novel put me in mind of a skillful play where the first scene lays out groundwork for future problems with natural dialogue and believable - if ticking time bomb - developments.) We meet Candice first. Sweet, young, trusting Candice who would chide herself for complaining about her current problem if she knew what was to come. What is her current problem? Her ex-boyfriend, who also works for the same magazine, has taken over as her boss and she fears some inevitable pettiness and tension. He’s replacing Maggie, second in this friendship threesome, who is nervously about to embark on a new life of stay-at-home motherhood out in the country. Last but not least, there’s Roxanne, who manages to stun people with her looks, charm, wit, wardrobe, and spunk. Her friends know she’s been having an affair with a married man for six years now, though Roxanne refuses to reveal his identity even to her closest friends. She speaks casually and callously about her romance and only in her own viewpoint is her pain and insecurity apparent.

Enter Heather, a cocktail waitress but also someone who dredges up painful memories for Candice. In an effort to make amends for (and I’ll emphasize this word) perceived wrongdoings, Candice reaches out to Heather and unknowingly welcomes said ticking time bomb into her life.

This one was a re-read, specifically so I could review it on my blog, and I found the novel just as engaging as the first time. It’s a fast, easy, fun, and entertaining read about how strong friendships strengthen us an individuals. I tore through the story and found myself wanting to bump all my re-reads and first time reads by both Wickham and Kinsella higher up on my mental read-next list.

I particularly admire how Wickham makes all her heroines likeable but still flawed. In fact, I’ve mentioned on this blog how sometimes cheating characters can put me off a book, but Roxanne didn’t do that. Or perhaps I should say Wickham didn’t do that. I’ve come to realize that it’s not the character cheating that puts me off; it’s when I feel like the author is attempting to justify the character’s decisions and steer my reaction towards what the author wants it to be. I like books where the author simply presents real and believable characters and allows me to think whatever I will about them. Wickham does just that. She makes Roxanne an authentic person, but doesn’t attempt to explain away any of her decisions.

Another triumph from Wickham/Kinsella!

Friday, August 22, 2014

SOMAN CHAINANI

 
Interview with SOMAN CHAINANI

Soman Chainani’s first novel, THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List, has been on ABA’s National Indie Bestseller List for 15 weeks, has been translated into languages across six continents, and will soon be a major motion picture from Universal Studios, produced by Joe Roth (SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL) and Jane Startz (TUCK EVERLASTING, ELLA ENCHANTED). Soman is a graduate of the MFA Film Program at Columbia University, and the recipient of the school’s top prize, the FMI Fellowship for Writing and Directing. His writing awards include honors from Big Bear Lake, the Sun Valley Writer’s Fellowship, and the coveted Shasha Grant, awarded by a jury of international film executives. Before joining the Columbia University film program, Chainani graduated Harvard University summa cum laude, with a degree in English & American Literature. While at Harvard, he focused on fairy tales and wrote his thesis on why evil women make such irresistible fairy-tale villains, winning the Thomas Hoopes Prize and Briggs Prize for his work.

What are you reading right now?

THE MAGICIAN’S LAND by Lev Grossman

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I just always seemed to have a gift for storytelling and really enjoyed the process of working out the perfect story structure. I'm not a linguist like some authors - more a dramatist, and enjoy the process of finding ways to surprise readers and myself in the process.
 
What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love being stunned by something as I'm writing - and getting caught up in the fever of a particular plot moment or a character arc. When it's all racing along and you feel the book writing itself is when it's all very special (usually towards the end of a book.)

As for the least, I think sometimes the solitude and the deadlines, which preclude you from taking your time with it and really enjoying the process at times, can be tricky.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write from about 10am-4pm every day, with a short lunch break in there. I try to get 500 solid words in a day in terms of new material, plus reviewing the material from the day before. I write fairly slowly but consistently.

What are your passions?

Tennis, movies, and storytelling.

What inspires you?

Good characters and a penchant for high comedy.

Why middle reader?

Because it's so undefined. I feel like the teen genre has been a bit John Green-ified in recent years, so there's not much room to find a tone. In middle grade, it feels like I can really dive in and work with a blank canvas.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the strongest characters to make up for the lack of grounding in the world.

How was THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL born?

I'd had the idea for a very long time - I've been a fairy tale “expert” since college, to some degree, so the idea of a princess and witch switching places was irresistible to me.

This series seems like it must be so much fun to write. Is that true?

It's definitely a blast at times - but it's a very, very difficult series to write. The number of characters, the level of difficulty, the intensity and complexity for a first series is a bit insane.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Only write a story you care deeply about.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Check out the interactive website at www.schoolforgoodandevil.com. All sorts of fun things on there, including my personal blog, which features a lot of tips about writing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE BUNNY SUICIDES

 
Review of THE BUNNY SUICIDES by ANDY RILEY

Soooo...these books will only appeal to those with a morbid sense of humor. The series includes: THE BOOK OF BUNNY SUICIDES, RETURN OF THE BUNNY SUICIDES, and DAWN OF THE BUNNY SUICIDES.

Praising quotes on the back of the first include statements such as: “If you are a bunny contemplating suicide, then this is the book for you.” and “Very imaginative, very funny, very worrying if you're the author's mother.”

It’s not so much bunnies killing themselves that’s entertaining; it’s how creative these bunnies get in inventing more and more bizarre and complicated ways to off themselves. Like hiding in a piggy bank as a kid’s about to take a hammer to it. Or putting their ears in electrical sockets. Frankly, many of these schemes are so elaborate that I can’t easily summarize them.

Each page presents one of Riley’s wordless cartoons depicting yet another possibility for bunnies who have had enough. (And for readers who have had enough, there is a lovely intermission halfway through that features bunnies frolicking happily in a meadow.)

This is the kind of book that manages to elicit amused chuckles in the same breath as appalled gasps. Amulled chusps? Appused gackles? An especially wonderful coffee table book. Even more so if your intent is to scare away visitors.


Friday, August 15, 2014

QUIET


Review of QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by SUSAN CAIN

Prepare yourself. Here comes my longest review to date. When I start a book, I start a Word document. As I read, I make notes - whether mental, actually written on a piece of scrap paper, or by bookmarking a noteworthy page  - and add my thoughts to this ongoing document periodically in the form of bullet points. After finishing the book, I add any additional comments to my notes document. Then I add, cut, consolidate, and organize my bullet points into an outline before developing these thoughts into full sentences and paragraphs. Usually, I have about half a page of bullet points that turns into a 1-2 page review. Well, I knew QUIET would have quite the rambling review when I looked at my final “notes” and saw 4 pages of bullet points! Not to mention how I tore off a few pieces of paper for marking every page that had a point I absolutely didn’t want to forget...only to find my book looked a little as though I had mistaken it for a recycling bin. The length of this review can be attributed in part to the fact that there is simply a lot to discuss in QUIET and in part to how strongly I related with the subject matter.

Numerous people recommended QUIET to me over the course of months or even years before I finally added it to my to-read list, let alone actually read it. My main fear proved unfounded as soon as I started reading, but I’ll share: I worried the content wouldn’t be news to me. Despite all the raving, I noticed a pattern. Extroverted people seemed the most impressed: “Hey! Did you know introverts aren’t just weirdos? They actually have something to offer society?” Yes, yes, I’m bitterly paraphrasing, but I heard that general, more tactfully put surprise dozens of times. As an introvert, I already know what many people seemed to be taking away from this book and worried that it would be one big collection of “duh” for me. Except once I started reading, I found QUIET such a validating book for an introvert. Actually there was plenty of information in here new to me as well, especially in terms of specific studies, data, case histories, quotes, etc. backing up concepts I intuitively suspected. (As one example of something new I learned, I had never heard the word “ambivert” used for those people particularly split between the two labels of introversion and extroversion.) Aside from the wealth of information, though, I primarily enjoyed a close analysis that repeatedly reminded me: it’s okay to be me.

I’ve always described myself as an introvert, but sometimes when I voice as much my friends act shocked. One even protested recently, “But I think of you as a social butterfly!”, a reaction that I found amusing and possibly flattering but inaccurate. As in most cases where people have almost opposite interpretations, the root problem is how we define those terms. Some people hear “introvert” and think socially inept. I can and do socialize and network and even enjoy doing so. I have always defined introvert vs. extrovert by how you recharge (which is the primary definition that Cain utilizes). A party might be fun for both an introvert and an extrovert, but it’s actually “refueling” the extrovert and “draining” the introvert. An introvert, such as myself, will still need some alone time after the party before feeling refreshed. Another way Cain puts it later is that extroverts require more stimulation than introverts. We all seek out the perfect balance of stimulation and try to avoid both being over- and under-stimulated. This emphasizes why introverts and extroverts can struggle compromising on a social activity. A setting that might be just right for an extrovert is likely too bustling, noisy, and overwhelming for an introvert. It also emphasizes why introverts usually prefer one-on-one interactions. Introverts tend to “take in” more in terms of observation and feel a little besieged when there’s so much sensory data to sift through. I related to this from personal experience. I sometimes feel the bigger the event the less I’ll speak. Why? Because I have trouble narrowing my focus. At big events, I often end up quietly torn between multiple conversations. I can’t help listening to the one on my right as well as the one on my left, not to mention the one across the table and the one behind me at a different table or even the high-volume one coming from across the room. Because of all this distraction and my split attention, I’m not really actively involved in any of the conversations; I’m overstimulated. Well, I already felt certain of as much, but I’m definitely an introvert according to Cain’s informal quiz. Due to my experiences of people being surprised when I label myself as introverted, I really resonated with Cain’s assertion that creative people - such as writers like myself - are often “socially poised introverts.”

Which leads in to some of the annoying misconceptions about introverts that QUIET sets about debunking. First of all, there’s the assumption that introverted means a lack of social skills. Second, a lack of social interest. Neither is true. In fact, at the back of the book Cain reveals that she almost didn’t use the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” At first she worried about starting out with such terms already laden with judgments and fallacies and even considered creating her own new words for the traits she’s describing. Of course, she eventually opted for embracing the existing terms with the goal of helping people reframe how we define these words. Another common mistake is confusing introverted with shy. I can be a very quiet person and in such situations I often hear people describe me as shy. “But I’m not shy,” I think. “I’m quiet.” As Cain explains, shy is a social anxiety whereas quiet is choosing not to speak. Since I’m perfectly comfortable and secure in the social situation, I’m not shy - even if I’m not saying much. I recall attending an acting summer camp as a preteen that rated participants at the end of the week on a number of factors, confidence being one of them. The instructors gave me an extremely (practically 0) score for confidence and I felt indignant. I knew why they did this: because I wasn’t loud. The kids who earned high confidence scores always used a high volume, always had something to say, and often interrupted each other to say it. Luckily, I had enough sense of self that this experience didn’t tear me down as it could have, but it certainly made a lasting impression about what traits our society values. I also battle the irritating assumption from some people that if I’m not talking I’m not thinking. People often associate more talking with being smarter, but research suggests the opposite: that talkative people often speak without thinking and quiet people are busy observing their surroundings, carefully selecting their words, and filtering their thoughts into what is and isn’t worthwhile to share aloud.

Let me repeat that this is an incredibly validating read for an introvert. I related to so much of what Cain wrote. I don’t really believe in one-size-fits-all labels and certainly not everything that’s “generally” true for introverts is true for me. As one example, I was a very low reactive baby and usually those grow up into extroverts. However, I really enjoyed all the “Hey! Me, too!” moments when Cain writes about a behavior I notice in myself. I’ve perceived for almost a decade now that I prefer one-on-one interaction the most with small groups of 2-5 being my second choice and huge, rowdy social outings not my taste at all. The bigger the group, the more alone I feel. I talk less and barely get to know anyone. I love that when I spend time with only one other person we really take the time to learn more about each other. I also have trouble projecting artificial enthusiasm, something I never connected with my introverted side until I read this book. Cain mentions that extroverts tend to bounce from one hobby to another while introverts stick determinedly with a few or even one passion. I only discovered my zeal for writing about 9 years ago, but I’ve never looked back from the second I felt: “I was meant to do this.” For that matter, my obsession with books and reading predates my own writing. I nodded along when Cain states that happier people perceive setbacks as opportunities for growth. Through all my years of observing more than talking I’ve noticed how someone can have an awful, awful, awful past or experience but they fight their way through it with admirable resolve while another person can let a much smaller misfortune infect their outlook on every aspect of their life.

Cain divides the book thematically with each chapter presenting yet another engaging topic for discussion. One examines the role of free will in our temperament and personalities. Another looks at introversion vs. extroversion in the workplace. I loved the chapter that examines how these traits are viewed and valued differently across cultures. And I also really enjoyed the chapter about the communication gap between the types. Introverts and extroverts interpret social situations entirely different, which leads to miscommunications when they’re in any relationship, be it romantic, friendly, or familial. Take for example when an introvert and an extrovert in a close relationship fight. To many extroverts raising your voice in a fight shows how much you care about the person and the topic. You wouldn’t get so worked up if you weren’t invested. Meanwhile, introverts think it’s more respectful to lower your voice and not let your emotions show too much lest they distract from the point. Then the extrovert thinks the introvert doesn’t care and the introvert thinks the extrovert is lashing out at them.

This book is a brilliant choice for a book group, since there is so much to discuss. (Which is exactly why my review got away from me!) There’s the nature vs. nurture debate as related to introversion vs. extroversion. As with everything, Cain supplements her insights with an abundance of research. In this case, she points out that identical vs. fraternal twins are ideal for nature vs. nurture studies and, in fact, they have found identical twins (even those raised apart) tend to grow up to be both introverted or both extroverted while there’s no statistically significant commonality with fraternal twins. There’s public speaking aversions and how such fears are actually instinct rooted. Predators stare at prey before striking for the kill, so it goes against our instinct to walk into the path of numerous intent gazes. This provides some insight, too, for why those who fear public speaking can act as terrified as if it were a life or death situation. Then there’s how Cain suggests examining what you envy to decide what you should be pursuing yourself.

While Cain primarily keeps her tone light and informative, I found one story depressing. When conducting interviews, Cain spoke with a psychologist who recounted his experience with a very introverted seven-year-old boy. The parents brought in their son, because they were concerned there was something wrong with him. The psychologist could tell right away that these are extremely extroverted parents with an introverted son; they can’t understand his behavior and are genuinely worried that his preference for reading alone rather than roughhousing with the boys indicates possible depression. After talking with the boy, this psychologist was quite convinced that he was entirely emotionally stable, his main anxiety being that he isn’t meeting his parents’ expectations. The sad part is that when the psychologist insisted the boy was fine and suggested they should appreciate him as he is, the parents instead inquired around with different psychiatrists until they found someone who would “treat” their son. The plus side (on a larger scale, not for this boy) is that Cain also shares uplifting stories of parents and children from opposite ends of the spectrum that learn to relate despite their vast differences in perception.

I mentioned earlier that I liked the chapter on different cultural perceptions of this same topic. Specifically, I really related with how Asian cultures tend to view introverts and extroverts. I’ve been very interested in both Japanese as a language and a culture ever since I started studying the language in high school and this added a whole new layer for me to consider in why I clicked so immediately with Japanese culture. Granted, Cain talks more about Chinese culture, but I noticed a crossover with what I’ve observed myself about Japan. Though I had many more bookmarked pages from this chapter, I’m going to single out two points. The first is how class participation varies in the U.S. compared with China. In fact, what we call class participation, some of Cain’s subjects call “talking nonsense.” I wanted to exclaim, “YES!” (on an airplane, where I was reading QUIET) when I read a student’s quote about how it seems to him that the U.S. encourages talking...even if you’re not saying anything of value. Hence, talking nonsense. I’m an adaptable person who has learned how to get an A in a classroom, but will often rant afterwards about the stupid classroom politics that detract from actual learning. Class participation usually encourages talking over thinking. The second point I’m singling out is the difference in what Chinese vs. American high school students say they want in a friend. American high school students use adjectives like: cheerful, enthusiastic, and sociable. Chinese high school students prefer: humble, altruistic, honest, and hardworking.

QUIET also made me laugh more than once. I think Cain presents the single best argument against viewing porn at work. The hilarity lies in how she skips over all the usual ethical, moral, and emotional-based points and cuts right to the intellectual. I’m also tickled by the fitting if humorous term “behavioral leakage.” In all her dissection of free will vs. temperament and acting more extroverted than you feel, she reminds us that your true personalities will always seep out a little. I immediately thought of actors. When discussing whether an actor is skilled or not, I compare him or her in different roles. Some popular actors don’t strike me as particularly skilled, because they bring the same little ticks and habits to every role. This is probably behavioral leakage. I’ve always admired the actors who seem reinvented in a different role. They’ve considered everything from expressions to inflection to posture to gestures. Speaking of funny parts, I also laughed aloud at Cain’s footnote about her second grade subject Isabel, who is an example of an introverted child with an extroverted mother determined to love her daughter for herself. When I read a few quotes from Isabel, I immediately skipped back to double check her age. “What an articulate young girl,” I thought. Then I noticed the footnote after one quote and read Cain’s defense that, yes, that’s how Isabel talks. Apparently, enough pre-publication readers accused her of manipulating the girl’s dialogue “because no second grader talks like that!” that she needed a footnote to insist these are direct quotes. I was impressed by Isabel but not suspicious, perhaps because I related. As a child, I often preferred the company of adults to other children for the more stimulating conversation and my mom used to joke, “Rachel’s 3 going on 30.”

Though I knew as much beforehand for most of Cain’s point generally speaking, I definitely didn’t know all the research. She talks about the person-situation debate: do fixed personality traits exist or do we adapt to the situation? Then there’s Free Trait Theory, which proposes that we’re born with certain personality traits but can act out of character if doing so serves one of our core personal projects. That certainly explains why it’s easier for me acting extroverted at a literature conference than a party. The conference serves my passion for writing, books, and reading. Cain talks about the big five traits a little: introversion-extroversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. I was particularly intrigued by her assertion that, while extroverts have an easier time making new friends than introverts, it’s agreeableness that counts most for lasting, harmonious friendships than where you land on the introvert-extrovert scale.

I’m nearing the end of this review, let me reassure you, but I also wanted to talk about Gandhi a little. I knew who Gandhi was, of course, and perhaps a little more than average about him since a friend in high school was obsessed with him, but Cain shared details about Gandhi with which I wasn’t previously acquainted. Such as the time a judge in South Africa asked him to remove his turban before taking his oath as a lawyer. He did and was chastised by his friends afterwards. Gandhi said later that he knew resisting on principle had a moral-basis, but he was there for a purpose and he wouldn’t let an argument over a turban distract from the purpose. I also didn’t know that Gandhi disliked the term “passive resistance” even though people associate it so strongly with his mentality. He preferred “satyagraha,” which means “firmness in pursuit of truth.” He didn’t perceive his approach as passivity, but as determining your goal and not letting yourself be let astray from that goal. 

Cain has impressively researched her book and I admired how she organized the notes. With all her references, footnotes and especially superscript numbers cluttering up the page would have been a horrible distraction from an engaging work. Instead there are 46 pages of notes in the back, organized by page number. If you want to know on what research Cain bases her assertions she makes it easy to look up.

Cain’s conclusion is a concise compression of some points from the book. My favorites include “think quality over quantity” for relationships. At different points in my life, I have had a handful of very close friends vs. hung out with huge social groups. I definitely prefer the former. I want a “friend” to be someone I know backwards and forwards, not someone I sometimes do things with. I also love the quote: “spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.” That took me a while to master. I would often have free time and think I should go to a party before realizing I don’t want to go to the party. I want to read!

I only have one, petty criticism for this book. Cain uses “OK” a lot. I always want to see that word spelled out (“okay”) in writing, not abbreviated, and she uses it frequently so it tripped me up every time. Okay, not OK, okay?

QUIET is enlightening for extroverts, validating for introverts, and worthwhile for everyone. The book is chockfull of worthy discussions, making it a fantastic selection for book groups. Let me assure you that even my lengthy review represents only a small slice of the cake. Dig in!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Guilty Pleasure Reads


Discussion Post: Guilty Pleasure Reads - Is There Such a Thing?

I assume most everyone has heard the term “guilty pleasure” applied to a book. Reviews might declare a novel a “guilty pleasure read.” But what does that mean? Is there such a thing?

I take “guilty pleasure” to mean the reviewer did enjoy the book...but feels embarrassed for their enjoyment. Usually, they consider the book of poor quality in some regard - perhaps terrible writing, worrisome values, or a lack of depth. Their intellect dismisses the book as lesser and yet they connected with the story nevertheless. Perhaps they even want to run around raving to everyone about this story nevertheless. Except they recognize the book’s flaws and fear a backlash of “Really? You recommended that? That’s what you think a good book is?” “Guilty pleasure” has become a kind of disclaimer phrase for when someone recommends a book, with reservations.

Of course, some argue back against this backlash. My sister has a saying that, though I might phrase differently, I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying philosophy: Don’t yuck other people’s yum. I understand “pleasure read,” but do we need the “guilty” adjective tacked on? Why are we making people feel guilty for enjoying a book? Why do we make ourselves feel guilty? Some argue that there isn’t - or shouldn’t be - such a thing as a guilty pleasure read, that if you liked something you shouldn’t have to apologize for your taste.

Drawing from my own experience, I have definitely felt guilty for liking a book. I can recall books that I found addictive and absorbing and that lingered in my mind for weeks or months after I finished them, but I chastised myself for such a strong connection to a book that possessed one to all of the following: horrible grammar or otherwise clumsy and distracting writing, flat or Mary Sue characters, a predictable plot, objectionable subtexts, and, well, I could go on. Sometimes I loved a book without having any specific praise for it. I could say, “I couldn’t put it down,” but I couldn’t honestly say, “What apt metaphors!” or “I so admired the heroine.” When I get into specifics I have a cluster of criticisms but my overall enjoyment of the book still rates very highly.

Because I tend to avoid the phrase “guilty pleasure read,” I’ve adopted the terminology of intellectual vs. emotional connection for my reviews. I can emotionally connect with a story while my analytical side tells me the book is terrible. Just as I can highly connect with a book intellectually (which means there’s a plethora of themes begging for discussion) despite a lack of feeling the book. And I sometimes use terms like “lighter” or “fluff” (which has negative connections but I never use as a put-down) or “entertainment reading” to distinguish between stories that make you think vs. those that provide a break. (And, yes, I think a book can do both, but that’s a post for another day.)

In case my opinion hasn’t already peaked out here and there with my phrasing, let me specify that I don’t think we should feel guilty for enjoying a book. We tend to associate reading with intelligence and personal growth, so it’s no surprise that we feel bad if we suspect a book isn’t challenging us enough. Of course, I could also do an entire post on what it says about our society that we can feel guilty in a solo pursuit for not meeting perceived group expectations. Do other cultures have the same guilty pleasure read concept?

That being said, I still think the packaged phrase “guilty pleasure read” is helpful in labeling a book that you enjoyed and recommend while acknowledging flaws and weaknesses. I tend to avoid it due to my stance that I shouldn’t apologize for enjoying a book, but sometimes it’s a nice summary term for reviewers.

How about you? Have you read what you might call guilty pleasure reads? Do you think we really should feel guilty for reading certain books? How do you interpret the term? Is it useful or should it go?

Friday, August 8, 2014

A STORM OF SWORDS


Review of A STORM OF SWORDS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
(third in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

Though I admire this series, my interest waxed and waned throughout this 1,000+ page installment. What held back my full-hearted investment: sometimes I find the story’s scope too large, I often wish for more insight into characters’ motivations, and, last, I’m restless for more magic in this fantasy epic. It feels ludicrous to say of a novel with so many characters and overlapping plot threads but sometimes the story felt same old same old. However, let me clarify that for most of the book I couldn’t flip or return to the pages fast enough.

Before my praise, let me elaborate a little on my above claims. As for the first, I’m certainly far from the only person to accuse A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE of an overcrowded cast. A STORM OF SWORDS even has a disclaimer at the start that, since there are so many viewpoints, some of the events in this novel overlap with those of the previous book. For that matter, the cast of characters listed at the back could practically be its own novel; I’m not convinced I recognize more than a tenth of the names! As for my “same old same old” comment, I’ve always been an admirer of stories that focus so closely on one or a few individuals that they swell with universal truths. Sometimes this series feels like it loses that connection by resisting any kind of settled focus.

As for my second claim - unclear character motivations - I’m not someone who cares about vivid description of a gruesome murder. Instead I want to know why the culprit committed the murder, how they feel about their crime afterwards, and how the victim’s loved ones react to the loss. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE has plenty of gruesome murders but little of the close character connection that I prefer. Again, this criticism can’t be applied to the entire book, but my interest waned the most whenever I suspected the author might not know any more about why his characters do what they do than the reader.  

My third and final complaint has to do with the scarce amount of fantasy elements. This is the third book and it still feels like fantasy readers are merely being teased and taunted with prophecies of magic to come...but those developments consistently find themselves pushed off until a future book. I’m probably more impatient for Daenerys’ dragons to be full-grown than she is!

A STORM OF SWORDS introduces new perspectives previously hidden to the reader, such as Jaime Lannister. It's definitely fun experiencing the story from a “villain’s” outlook and probably a necessary development if Martin keeps killing off viewpoint characters!

A strength by some opinions and a distraction by others, this series certainly boasts plenty of atmosphere: clothes, titles, family history, political history, architecture, food. A great part of what immerses readers so much in these stories is how Martin appears to have imagined every detail. I sway back and forth on whether I count all this as a strength or weakness. Most of the time, strength, but sometimes I do find myself skimming over meal descriptions, the layout of a room, or other small additions that add to the world but not the story.

It’s incredible how such a huge book can actually feel surprisingly short. No doubt the shorter chapters contribute to this effect, but mostly I think it’s how little time actually passes. The story bounces from so many perspectives all taking place at once that you finish a book that looks like it covers centuries and realize it hasn’t even been a year.

The huge cast in this series might blur together now and again, but when you’re really invested you care so much about all these complicated, violent, and oftentimes tragic stories intertwining with each other in consistently surprising ways.