Friday, March 22, 2019

DAVID AND GOLIATH


Review of DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This author has been recommended to me plenty of times over the years, but this is my first read by him. It definitely lived up to all the hype and made me eager to read the rest of his work. The premise of DAVID AND GOLIATH lies in the namesake story: how thinking outside the box can flip the game.

For his examples, Gladwell reaches far and wide, but in so doing emphasizes how applicable his theory is to all aspects of our society. Chapter 1 focuses on youth girls’ basketball. I do not know enough about basketball to be any kind of expert here and that will be clear in my paraphrasing. Gladwell follows a specific couch who volunteered to coach his daughter’s basketball team, but really didn’t know a thing about basketball himself. He realized that his team simply wasn’t good enough to win based on skill alone. However, in his research on the sport he also realized there are other ways to play the game that could give his girls an edge, such as focusing more on stamina than skill. Again, no basketball expert here, but my understanding is that this coach’s particular approach is completely legal by the rules of the game, but considered unsportsmanlike by some. Gladwell argues that it’s really a matter of opinion. As with David and Goliath where Goliath expected a hand to hand combat only to be taken out by a rock, the girls didn’t play the game like people expected. Subverting expectations gave them a much needed advantage, but those who feel tricked by flipped standards call out the strategy as cheating.

I especially loved Chapter 2, which discussed our misperception that many factors in life are a linear graph. Take money, for example. It’s a typical fallacy that the more money you have the happier you are. Realty (and logic, in my opinion) suggests that it’s actually a bell curve. Money increases happiness until a certain point at which more money only makes happiness decrease.

I strongly related to Chapter 3 and its analysis of organic chemistry, as I know several people who have struggled with that educational requirement. Gladwell posits that the emphasis of organic chemistry comes from a perhaps outdated mindset, and instead weeds out many students who would make spectacular doctors…who maybe aren’t brilliant at organic chemistry. This same chapter also brings up the old phrase big fish in a small pond and vice versa. In this case, Gladwell applies the adage to schools. Many students believe the obvious smart decision is to attend the most prestigious university into which they’re accepted. The truth is that this may have a little fish in a big pond effect and there are times when it’s wiser to choose the smaller pond, the place where you’ll thrive and stand out the most.

This book was written several years ago, but Chapter 6’s focus on racial tension will feel especially relevant today, in particular given Gladwell’s focus on media portrayal. Then Chapter 8 addresses our ever-confused perceptions of crime and how best to take preventative measures. He mentions common statistics and debunks possibly misguided interpretations of those numbers.  

I’m only scratching the surface here, but Gladwell offers many specific examples that successfully make his case for “thinking outside the box.”

Friday, March 15, 2019

NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD


Review of NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD: A WRITER ON WRITING by MARGARET ATWOOD

This book about writing by the famous Margaret Atwood is adapted from the series of six Empson Lectures that she gave at the University of Cambridge. I will admit that the book does read like a series of lectures, at times more long-winded than necessary as though to meet a certain time obligation rather than establish a point as concisely as possible.

I often argue that writing advice and discussions breaks down into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. This book is definitely about the philosophy of writing: what it means to be a writer, in a broad sense. Each chapter (lecture) is loosely thematically organized, but all tie together as a broad analysis of this societal role. In fact my favorite quote states, “Writing…is an ordinary enough activity…Being a writer, however, seems to be a socially acknowledged role.”

Writing can be a lonely profession, tucked off in a solitary room spending hours considering human nature. Writing books are invaluable reminders that we writers aren’t alone. Many say that we are telling the same stories over and over again, but it’s the specifics that make them unique. Well, each of us writers may have a unique, specific set of life experiences, but there’s plenty of familiar trends, too. You’re special, but you’re not alone.

Friday, March 8, 2019

WHAT ALICE FORGOT


Review of WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

Last that Alice remembers she was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital where they tell her she has amnesia. Oh, and she’s apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

First, my ranty disclaimer. I am not, broadly speaking, a fan of amnesia as a plot device. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that all made use of amnesia as a twist. However, I will say that of those three I liked the amnesia element the most in WHAT ALICE FORGOT, and I can articulate why. Usually I find fictional amnesia very frustrating, because – when it’s introduced midway into a story – the reader has to wait for the character to catch back up with everything the reader already knows…and the character knew only a few pages previously. More often than not the amnesia element feels like a pause button; the story doesn’t resume with new developments until the characters remember what they should. WHAT ALICE FORGOT avoids that tired trope, because we catch up with Alice. She has amnesia from the very start of this novel and we know as much about her current life as she does.

My typical quibble with Moriarty’s novels is that she always utilizes a juicy piece of mystery bait for suspense. In this case, there’s a woman people keep mentioning to Alice and then clearly wishing they hadn’t mentioned. Alice has no idea who this woman is or why she’s so important, but comments make clear her name is associated with tragedy and drama. My issue with mystery bait is that it’s usually unnecessary. In this case, I saw no reason Alice couldn’t ask someone for more information about this woman and save us pages of wondering and speculating with her.

However, my nitpicky comments asides, I found this a heart-wrenching, powerfully affecting novel. Moriarty manages to step away from the cliché, dramatic nature of amnesia as a plot device and really made me imagine what it would feel like waking up one day only to be told I am ten years older, now married, and have kids I can’t remember. I highly empathized with Alice’s terror at suddenly being responsible for children she cannot even remember having, not to mention the agony of having her devoted partner switch from besotted to bitter overnight.

And, of course, this story features what I always adore about Moriarty’s work: great characters and interesting relationships with crackling dialogue. It’s her unique, dynamic characters that make all of her work so addictive.

Friday, March 1, 2019

THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US


Review of THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Whenever I read a book, I stick tabs on the pages with quotes I especially like. Normally, this equals 0-5 tabs per book, leaning more often towards 0. However, this book had so many tabs by the time I finished reading it, I may as well have stuck one post it note on the front that said: “almost every page” and saved some paper. By the end, I filled five typed pages full of quotes. These are mostly writing advice, but such valuable, well-articulated writing advice that I want the reminders when I’m writing and re-writing my own stories.

Some of my favorites include “Don’t mistake drama for melodrama,” “Revision is the other half of writing,” “Fictional characters differ from us mere mortals,” and prepositions are the “carbohydrates of writing.” And those are simply quotes I selected for their brevity.

I believe all writing advice can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business explains the publishing industry. Craft focuses on the actual writing, the technical mechanics. And philosophy is closer to self-help or therapy for writers, dissecting the emotional turmoils and inner demons most every writer encounters. From my experience, most (well-known, popular) writing books focus on philosophy. This can be validating in a supportive way, but not necessarily helpful on the level of improving one’s writing. Morrell delivers one of the rarer specimens focused on craft. Then she further impresses with not a little but tons of actionable suggestions and insight. Much of what I read attempting to explain craft is too vague: write well. Morrell acknowledges that it is perhaps easier to pick apart what isn’t working than to provide a formula for what works, but I think she has that the right approach. By pinpointing and then addressing problems in a story, the writer can continue to improve its quality.

Morrell provides so much clear, actionable insight that I almost feel I owe her a consulting fee much greater than the cost of this one book. Every chapter ends with a section on what she calls “deal breakers.” In other words, the most common mistakes she sees in relation to whatever aspect of writing that chapter addressed. As if that weren’t enough, she also includes several immensely helpful lists of revision questions. By answering all these questions for your current story, it’s easy to narrow in on the weak points that could use more work. I also made note of her wimps versus heroes list for assessing your protagonist as well as her advice for book openings.

THANKS is easily the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. All of us readers are capable of discussing, in vague terms, what makes a good book, but Morrell actually breaks stories down into their specific components, shows how each works, and how they fit together. She not only provides invaluable advice for assessing your own work, but she’s not stingy with that advice either. A lot of craft writing books have mostly “filler” in my opinion and boiled down perhaps a page or two of actionable suggestions. Every page of THANKS is exceptionally helpful.

Friday, February 22, 2019

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS


Review of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R. R. MARTIN
(fifth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

While I loved this book, I’m afraid I may not have much to say about it, because it feels like more of the same (in a good way). This series skews a little from my usual taste, but I understand the appeal for hardcore fans and am filled with admiration myself for the scope of the work.

I waffle about my feelings on the extreme violence. I agree that it’s period accurate, but it nevertheless feels, for me, at times too gratuitous.

This series features a huge cast and, as a character-centric reader that sometimes frustrates me. I have difficulty remembering everyone or strongly investing in anyone. I tend to prefer a more focused storyline following on one or a few characters; in my opinion, the more character perspectives the less driven the story. More accurately, epic storytelling is a different type of story. By portraying a wide cast of varied people we get more of a sense of humankind overall. Whereas with my preference you form a stronger bond with one or a few fictional people and their individual struggles. That said, for all the names I forget, I’m impressed at how many Martin makes memorable. I know I'm not alone in listing Daenerys as an obvious favorite.

Friday, February 15, 2019

BECOMING A WRITER


Review of BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

This book on writing was published in 1934, but is still remarkably relevant today. It’s slim, but packed with concise and valuable insight, which I find preferable to longer, rambling books.

Most books about writing either focus on: business, craft, or philosophy. BECOMING A WRITER does a little of both the latter two. It addresses the emotional difficulties of writing while also providing some specific exercises. I love when writing books include, well, homework. I find it much more helpful than vague musings on what makes a good book.

Some of my favorite actionable suggestions include walks, self-imposed time-outs, and scheduled writing times. Walks are hardly a new concept for creative professionals, but Brande encourages that while on this walk notice everything. I emphasize that, because it’s easy to read and dismiss without truly considering. Take in the colors. The subtle differences in shade. Assess any man-made structures. Do you know what every part of that structure accomplishes? What each piece is called? Are there people around you? Can you see anything especially interesting about their appearance or body language? As for the time-outs, that’s my word choice. Brande acknowledges that sometimes when we sit down to write, we don’t feel “ready” and it’s easy to procrastinate with others tasks. So instead of allowing oneself to be sidetracked, she suggests that if you aren’t going to write, then go and stand in the corner until you’re ready to write. Odds are it won’t be that long. She also encourages scheduled writing times as a way of training oneself to write on cue rather than becoming too persnickety about the ideal environment for some elusive muse. As she puts it, if you tell yourself you will write every day for ten minutes at 4pm and you find yourself in the middle of a social event at 4pm, promptly get up and leave mid-conversation and perhaps go scrawl for ten minutes on a napkin in the bathroom. While certainly not ideal, difficult experiences like this increase the likelihood that you will plan around your scheduled writing session next time. Treat it like a contract. You said you would write for ten minutes at 4pm. If this is your job, then that is a job expectation. Don’t be an unreliable employee to yourself.

As for the more writing philosophy side of things, I made note of several memorable quotes, not the least of which being: “There is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors.” I cannot agree more.

Don’t write this book off for being old. The content here is relevant for writers today as it was in 1934.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

ABHORSEN


Review of ABHORSEN by GARTH NIX
(third in the ABHORSEN series)

The last book in this series, LIRAEL, felt very much like it cut off in the middle, but that also means that this one, ABHORSEN, jumps right into the action. Whereas LIRAEL started slower, ABHORSEN doesn’t need to waste any time with new set-up and doesn’t relax the tension until we reach the inevitable dramatic conclusion.

Nix sticks out in my mind as an author with a knack for writing content I don’t typically like in a way that I enjoy. Specifically, I’m thinking about action scenes and undead themes. I care most about characters and sometimes find fast-paced novels sacrifice character development for chaotic action scenes. Uninterested in pages of fighting or evasion, I skim ahead for the result. However, when Nix writes an action scene I find myself hanging on every word, invested not only in the outcome but also how we get there. (I think the lesson here is it’s more about balance than sacrificing one for the other. Make me care about the characters first and then I’ll care about their every step.)

As for undead themes, I do not care for vampires, zombies, or ghosts, and find few books that I consider exceptions to that generalization. Perhaps part of why I love Nix’s undead creatures is that they’re not really any of those three things. While it’s fair to call them that (undead creatures), they feel unique, varied, and compelling.

I want to end with a quote from another author about this series, because I agree so heartily. As Philip Pullman put it, SABRIEL is “fantasy that reads like realism.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that our heroine in this installment is a librarian.