Friday, November 28, 2014

Best Book Of November

I’ve hit another streak of truly terrible books, so there was only one I liked this month. The review is mine. The summary and cover come from Goodreads.

I Know This Much Is True – Wally Lamb

On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother, Thomas, entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut, public library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable. . . . 
One of the most acclaimed novels of our time, Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True is a story of alienation and connection, devastation and renewal, at once joyous, heartbreaking, poignant, mystical, and powerfully, profoundly human.
I usually avoid family saga books because they're often

A. 1000 pages long
B. Plotless
C. Insufferably boring
D. All of the above

Because of my bias against these books, this one sat on my shelf for nearly a year before I picked it up. I shouldn't have waited so long to read it. I actually liked it a lot. Up until the last 300 pages, it was probably the most interesting family saga I've ever read. I know that a book is good when I start neglecting things in my life in order to spend more time reading
Review: I usually avoid family saga books because they're often

A. 1000 pages long
B. Plotless
C. Insufferably boring
D. All of the above

Because of my bias against these books, this one sat on my shelf for nearly a year before I picked it up. I shouldn't have waited so long to read it. I actually liked it a lot. Up until the last 300 pages, it was probably the most interesting family saga I've ever read. I know that a book is good when I start neglecting things in my life in order to spend more time reading it. I neglected a lot of stuff while reading this book. And, when I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it.

I Know This Much Is True tells the story of Dominick and his struggle to free his schizophrenic twin brother from a mental institution.

All of the characters are amazingly well-developed and realistic. Dominick was the most intriguing for me. He's an ass, and I disliked him. For most of the story, he's an angry, homophobic bully. But, the weird thing is that I felt like I completely understood him. I think almost everyone who has siblings can relate to Dominick's love/hate relationship with his twin. It takes a very talented author to create characters this complex. I didn't know that I could stand reading a 900 page book about a character who I didn't like.

If you don't enjoy depressing books, then you should avoid this one. I'm pretty sure that every bad thing that can happen to a human happens to someone in this story. There's murder, suicide, baby death, illness, rape, racism, homophobia, war, job loss, child abuse, animal abuse, spousal abuse, bullying, accidents, divorce, adultery, drug addiction, incest, poverty, sibling rivalry, abandonment, evil magic, curses, and probably some other things that I'm forgetting. There's so much trauma that I kind of became numb to it by the end. I just expected the worst to happen. (And the worst almost always did happen.)

Even though it was depressing, I loved the gritty realism until I got to the last 300ish pages. Then the author lost me. The ending is slow and seems to drag on forever. I understood the point of Dominick reading his grandfather's history, but the history itself is boring. I was very tempted to skip over it. Finally, I thought the ending was wrapped up too neatly. I was grateful that the book had a happy ending, but everything worked out a little too conveniently.

Even with all of my complaints, this is one of the best books that I've read in a long time. I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in complex, unlikeable characters.

All The Things = 15 Books
I’m Currently Reading Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion by Marc Galanter

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Massive Headache And An Inbox Full Of Rejection

One day last week, I got a massive headache and decided to go to bed early. But, before I went, I thought it would be a good idea to check an email account that I don’t look at every day. You know what I found in my inbox? Rejection letters. Lots of them.

I’ve been writing for years, and getting rejected still hurts. I’ve sent enough rejection letters to know that the rejection is just one editor’s subjective opinion, but that doesn’t change how rejection feels. It feels like someone is confirming that I really do suck as much as I believe I suck. It makes me feel like I’m wasting my life on something futile. It shakes the microscopic amount of confidence that I have in myself as a writer.

However, as I deleted my latest batch of rejection, I realized that I wasn’t as devastated by these letters as I have been by past rejections. When I got rejections as a teenager, I would get so angry at myself that I wouldn’t write for weeks. I’ve matured a lot since then, but I think the biggest difference is in the number of projects that I’m doing. I have a lot going on, and I’m super excited about some of it. The rejections didn’t hurt as much this time because I could easily shift my focus to the other projects. I didn’t have time to dwell on the sucky-ness of rejection.

So, I think the moral of the story is to write more after rejections, not less. It’s hard to be upset about one rejected project when you have a dozen other projects going on.      

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, you should have written at least 11,669 words by the end of today. No pressure or anything.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out my post about last year’s NaNoWriMo.

I’m not participating this year because I have too many other projects, but I just wanted to say “Good luck” to all the crazy people who are trying to write a novel in a month.

Now, go write.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Best Book Of October

Happy Halloween!

This month, I mostly read books by George Eliot. I posted about Middlemarch a few weeks ago, and my favorite George Eliot book is below. The summary is from Amazon, and the review is mine.

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe - George Eliot

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe is the third novel by George Eliot, published in 1861. An outwardly simple tale of a linen weaver, it is notable for its strong realism and its sophisticated treatment of a variety of issues ranging from religion to industrialisation to community. The novel is set in the early years of the 19th century. Silas Marner, a weaver, is a member of a small Calvinist congregation in Lantern Yard, a slum street in an unnamed city in Northern England. He is falsely accused of stealing the congregation's funds while watching over the very ill deacon. Two clues are given against Silas: a pocket-knife and the discovery in his own house of the bag formerly containing the money. There is the strong suggestion that Silas' best friend, William Dane, has framed him, since Silas had lent his pocket-knife to William shortly before the crime was committed. Silas is proclaimed guilty. The woman he was to marry casts him off, and later marries William Dane. With his life shattered and his heart broken, Silas leaves Lantern Yard and the city.
In 1800s England, a lonely man adopts a child who changes his life and teaches him about the kindness of his neighbors.

I've read several of George Eliot's books, and this one is my favorite (so far). It's not very long, the plot is fairly straightforward, and there aren't a ton of characters. Compared to other British classics, it's an easy book to understand.

I don't have too many complaints about this novel. The biggest challenge for me was reading the dialect. There is a lot of dialect, and a
Review: In 1800s England, a lonely weaver adopts a child who changes his life and teaches him about the kindness of his neighbors.

I've read several of George Eliot's books, and this one is my favorite (so far). It's not very long, the plot is fairly straightforward, and there aren't a ton of characters. Compared to other British classics, it's an easy book to understand.

I don't have too many complaints about this novel. The biggest challenge for me was reading the dialect. There is a lot of dialect, and a few times I had no idea what the characters were saying. Also, like Eliot's other novels, this one takes a while to get going. But once the story does start moving, it's easy to get caught up in it.

If you are new to reading classics, I'd highly recommend this one.


All The Things = 16 books. All The Things is starting to remind me of a mythological monster. The books regenerate as quickly as I can slay them.

I’m Currently Reading: Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple by Deborah Layton.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Rewarding Slogs: Update

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Middlemarch and rewarding slogs. Well, I finished Middlemarch. I don’t think it’s the most rewarding giant book I’ve ever slogged through, but I enjoyed it. A summary from Goodreads and my review are below.

‘We believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul,’ wrote Henry James of Dorothea Brooke, who shares with the young doctor Tertius Lydgate not only a central role in Middlemarch but also a fervent conviction that life should be heroic.

By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England's finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community—tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry—in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader's sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.’

Review: It took me about three weeks, but I finally got through this giant book. As far as classics go, it's actually pretty good. It's a lot more readable than many classics. I didn't have to rely too heavily on Google to tell me what was happening in the plot.

Middlemarch is a complex story about marriage, politics, gender roles, and gossip in a small English town in the early 1800s.

The first few hundred pages are very slow, but the pace picks up a lot toward the end. The last few hundred pages are great. There are a lot of storylines, and it is impossible to predict the endings to all of them. My favorite storyline was Lydgate/Rosamond. I felt so sorry for Lydgate. He is a realistically flawed character, and he tries very hard to do the right thing, but life just isn't easy for him. I also liked Dorothea/Ladislaw and Fred/Mary. A few of the other storylines are boring and sometimes confusing, but this book is still worth reading for its fascinating and realistic characters.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Manifest West

The anthology that I helped edit is now available on Amazon. If you enjoy western regional literature, check it out here

Manifest West: Different Roads

"Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle."—George R.R. Martin 
The works in this anthology reflect both the myth and the truth about the part of the United States we call the "West." Is there one "true" West? Or have the changes that are overwhelming most of the rest of the country so modified the West that there is little commonality? The editors of Different Roads believe, with Stephen R. Covey, that our "strength lies in differences, not in similarities" and are constantly amazed by what Stanley Baldwin calls "the many-sidedness of truth." Many sides of the truth of the West are represented in the anthology. Is everything here absolutely the truth? The reader must decide. 
Topics included in this collection of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction range from the West's diversity of landscape, people, languages, attitudes and history to discussions of water issues, wildfires, antiquities and a broad range of environmental concerns. 
Different Roads is the third volume in Western Press Books' literary anthology series Manifest West. The press, affiliated with Western State Colorado University, annually produces one anthology focused on Western regional writing. The 2014 theme is Western diversity and the title Different Roads comes from George R.R. Martin's quote above.

Friday, October 3, 2014

On Rewarding Slogs

For the past few weeks, I have been slogging my way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. If you’re not familiar with this giant book, it is the story of a small English town in the early 1800s. The book is hard to summarize because I haven’t finished it yet, and it has a ton of plotlines, but so far it’s about politics, marriage, the roles of women, education, religion, and idealism vs. reality. Middlemarch was first published as a serial novel in 1871-1872. Most of the modern-day copies that I’ve seen are between 800 and 1000 pages. My copy was printed by a small press, so it is 651 pages of microscopic print. Seriously, after about an hour of reading, my eyes feel like they are going to bleed. And, I’m still less than halfway through this thing.

So, why am I reading it? Because I’ve been told many times that Middlemarch is the most rewarding book that I will ever slog through. So far, it’s not the best classic I’ve ever read, but it’s still pretty good. I’m actually enjoying it (except for the eyeball-bursting font).

Reading Middlemarch has made me think about other rewarding slogs. The first one that comes to mind is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The language is outdated, so I couldn’t read it as quickly as a modern book, but the characters and story are brilliant. Another rewarding slog is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. My copy is over 1100 pages. I don’t agree with the book’s philosophy, and the preachy characters are mildly annoying, but the story is actually quite entertaining. I didn’t feel like I wasted the months that it took to get through it.

I don’t know if anyone reads this blog, but if you’re reading, what are your rewarding slogs?   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Best Books Of September

Here are the best books that I read this month. As always, the summaries and covers come from Goodreads. The reviews are mine.

Burned – Ellen Hopkins

I do know things really began to spin out of control after my first sex dream. 
It all started with a dream. Nothing exceptional, just a typical fantasy about a boy, the kind of dream that most teen girls experience. But Pattyn Von Stratten is not like most teen girls. Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, a simple dream may not be exactly a sin, but it could be the first step toward hell and eternal damnation.

This dream is a first step for Pattyn. But is it to hell or to a better life? For the first time Pattyn starts asking questions. Questions seemingly without answers—about God, a woman's role, sex, love—mostly love. What is it? Where is it? Will she ever experience it? Is she deserving of it?

It's with a real boy that Pattyn gets into real trouble. After Pattyn's father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control until Pattyn ends up suspended from school and sent to live with an aunt she doesn't know.

Pattyn is supposed to find salvation and redemption during her exile to the wilds of rural Nevada. Yet what she finds instead is love and acceptance. And for the first time she feels worthy of both—until she realizes her old demons will not let her go. Pattyn begins down a path that will lead her to a hell—a hell that may not be the one she learned about in sacrament meetings, but it is hell all the same.
In this riveting and masterful novel told in verse, Ellen Hopkins takes readers on an emotional roller-coaster ride. From the highs of true love to the lows of abuse, Pattyn's story will have readers engrossed until the very last word.

Review: This book is so awesome.

When sixteen-year-old Pattyn starts questioning her religion and disobeying her abusive father, she is sent to live with her aunt on a rural cattle ranch. On the ranch, Pattyn meets an older boy who changes her life forever. Burned is written in a mixture of formal and free-verse poetry.

This book is intimidating because it's written in verse, and it's a thick book. Don't be intimidated. The poems are very easy to understand, and the plot is pretty simple. The book is actually a quick and entertaining read. 

I had a hard time finding things to criticize about this book, but a lot of people criticize it because of its portrayal of Mormons. There are abusive families, abusive communities, and abusive churches within every religion. This book is not about Mormons. It's about Pattyn and her experience as a member of an abusive religious community. I thought the author did an accurate job of showing religious abuse.

Even though this is a book of poetry, it has all the elements of a great novel: complex characters, an intriguing premise, suspense, action, fast pacing, romance, and a twist ending.

I already knew about some of the twists because I read reviews before buying the book, but there are so many twists that you won't see all of them coming. This is a very interesting book. I can't wait to read the next one in the series.

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won't talk to her, and people she doesn't even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that's not safe. Because there's something she's trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country.

Review: Anyone who is interested in young adult literature needs to read this book. Speak is one of those novels that changed everything. It inspired a lot of copycat books and is required reading in many middle and high schools.

Speak is about Melinda, a freshman in high school. Her old middle school friends will not speak to her because she called the police about their party the year before. As the book progresses, the reader learns that something very bad happened to Melinda at that party.

I love the fragmented way that this story is told. The pacing is a little slow, but Melinda's voice more than makes up for the slowness. Melinda is funny and authentic. Many teenagers (including me as a teenager) have the same attitude that she does toward high school. She hates it and doesn't take it too seriously. The humor is wonderful and surprising. I love this book. I'd recommend it to everybody, especially if you are interested in quality young adult literature.

Wintergirls – Laurie Halse Anderson

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls. 
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another. 
I am that girl. 
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through. 
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame. 
Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit. 
In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

Review: This book is both intensely fascinating and difficult to read.

Wintergirls is the story of Lia, an anorexic teenager who feels responsible for the death of her bulimic best friend.

Even though I never felt a connection to Lia, her story was interesting enough to keep me reading. I loved the mixture of reality and Lia's imagination. I also liked the fragmented structure of the book. I've read a few other books about eating disorders, and the way that this one is written sets it apart from the others.

I would have enjoyed this book more if I had liked Lia. Maybe she was meant to be unlikeable, but I didn't feel anything for her. She was so selfish and self-absorbed. That might be realistic for a person with an eating disorder, but it was difficult to read about a character who I disliked so much. I was actually happy when her parents called her out for her selfishness. And, this might make me sound horrible, but I wasn't upset when she almost died. She was so miserable that I wondered if death was the only thing that could make her happy.

Normally I love books that have a quirky style and a lot of poetic language, but I think it was too much of a good thing in this book. I thought the crossed out words and some of the descriptions were a little distracting and didn't add anything to the story.

Elijah was the best part of the book for me. I thought he was a very well-developed, realistic, and believable character. He added some much-needed humor. I also loved seeing a young adult book where a girl meets a boy and a romance does not develop.

I didn't like this book as much as I like some of the author's other work, but it is still a story worth reading.


All The Things = 16 books. (Whenever I finish one, a new one appears!)

I’m currently reading: Middlemarch by George Eliot. (I think I’m going to be reading Middlemarch for a long time.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Colorado Gold Conference 2014

Why was there no blog post last week? Because I was at the 2014 Colorado Gold Conference and didn’t pay the hotel for the use of the internet.

The Colorado Gold Conference is put on every year by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. This year, the conference was September 5th – 7th at The Westin in Westminster, Colorado. As always, the conference was amazing. The sessions were helpful, and the hotel was very nice.

Maybe I’ve been taking writing classes for too many years, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t find general craft sessions at conferences very interesting. I did go to sessions on dialogue, tension, and character development at Colorado Gold, but I liked some of the genre-specific sessions much better. This conference had genre-specific sessions about the Victorian era, science, the brain, witchcraft, sex, more sex, even more sex, violence, and more violence. It was awesome.  

Writing conferences are usually overwhelming for me. I’ve never been very good at taking notes, and I learn so much that everything jumbles up in my brain. This isn’t a bad thing. I remember what I learned when I need to remember it. But, it makes it a little difficult to write a review of the conference.

I learned one fact that clearly stands out in my mind: Murderers often bite their victims. It’s an animal instinct that takes over when people kill each other.

Out of all the sessions I attended, that fact is the only thing that I clearly remember. I learned it in a session called Dying to be Here: Techniques of Murder and Mayhem. The session was aimed at mystery, horror, and thriller authors. I have no idea when I’m going to use this information, but it sure is yucky.

If you go to a writing conference, try to attend some genre-specific sessions, even if you don’t write that genre. They’re pretty interesting. And, if you live near Colorado, check out the Colorado Gold Conference. It’s one of the better conferences that I’ve attended.    

Friday, August 29, 2014

Best Book of August

I seem to have hit a streak of less-than-impressive books, so there’s only one this month.

As always, the cover and summary come from Goodreads; the review is mine.

 Esperanza Rising – Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico—she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances—Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

Review: This middle-grade novel is based on the life of the author's grandmother. Thirteen-year-old Esperanza is a rich girl living in Mexico when her father is murdered. She is forced to flee to California with her mother and work as a farm laborer to support herself and her mother.

This book is set during the Great Depression, but the themes are still relevant today. It confronts the issues of racism, classism, discrimination, immigration, labor strikes, and economic problems. It shows the importance of family and of being kind to people who are different from you.

The characters are well-developed, and the setting is very vivid. Nothing in the book is oversimplified or "dumbed down" for children. I like the Spanish words that are used in dialogue and as the chapter titles. If you don't know Spanish, all of them are translated for you. There are a lot of historical details, but I would have liked the book even more if it had included more historical details.

I did have a hard time getting interested in the story. I didn't think that Esperanza and her family were very relatable in the beginning of the book. The characters become more relatable as the story progresses.

This is a quick read for adults and an educational read for children. It would be great as part of a social studies curriculum. There is a lot of material in it for parents and teachers to talk about with their students.

All The Things = 16 Books

I’m Currently Reading: Burned by Ellen Hopkins

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

You’re probably sick of hearing me talk about it, but I’ve spent the past year reading submissions for an anthology. So, I’m going to write about rejection today.

There were several editors who worked on this anthology. Every week we all read the same batch of submissions. We met to discuss the batch at the end of the week. In order to remember what I read, I kept spreadsheets with the title and author of the submission as well as my reaction to the submission. I was looking for something on my computer yesterday, and I found the spreadsheets. For some reason (boredom), I decided to look over the spreadsheets. I started noticing trends in my reasons for rejecting submissions. I noticed that there are some very common mistakes that writers make that lead to rejection. (Or, at least, rejection from me.)

I decided to take a sample of about 250 rejected submissions and make a pie chart of my most common reasons for rejection. The submissions were a mixture of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Most of the submissions were rejected for multiple reasons, but I always put my biggest reason for rejection first in my notes. I only put my biggest reason on the chart.

Here is my (admittedly crappy and hard to read) pie chart of rejection.

Not Quite Ready – 1.07% - These are the submissions that were very good, but they weren’t quite as good as the accepted submissions. We couldn’t accept everything. Some good stories had to be rejected because they just weren’t quite right for us.

Lacking Emotion – .56% - The submission felt flat. I didn’t feel anything for the characters or their situation. Or, I didn’t feel anything while reading a poetry submission.

Boring – 6.54% - I read past the first 3-5 pages of a story, but then I got bored. The story felt long, meandering, or slow. It didn’t hold my attention.

Not Unique – 7.01% - I’ve read too many pieces (published or unpublished) that are similar to this one. There is nothing in this submission that is unusual or unexpected.

Poorly Written – 4.91% - I can tell that the author is a beginning writer or a non-English speaker. The piece is extremely unpolished and difficult to read.

Doesn’t Fit Submission Guidelines – 35.75% - You know how a lot of rejection letters say, “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now”? That’s this category. These submissions didn’t fit the theme of the anthology well enough for me. They just weren’t what we were looking for right now.

Too Simplistic – 1.87% - The author took complex human emotions; a complex situation; or a complex political, social, or environmental problem and oversimplified it.

Why Did I Read This? – 1.4% - When I read a submission, I want to feel like I got something out of reading it. I want to be entertained or enlightened. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of reading these submissions.

Other – 4.91% - These rejections didn’t fit in any of the other categories. Many of the submissions in this category just didn’t match my personal taste. For example, I didn’t like an author’s choppy writing style, or a nonfiction piece was too informational and didn’t have enough of a narrative.

Predictable – .47% - Within the first few paragraphs, I knew exactly how the story was going to end. I always skipped ahead to see if I was correct. With these submissions, I was correct.

Nothing Happens – 18.22% - Nothing important happens within the first 3-5 pages of a story, or nothing happens at all in a poem.

Confusing – 14.72% - Something in the submission was confusing, unclear, or needed more explanation for me to fully understand or appreciate it.

Lacking Character Development – 2.57% - The characters were underdeveloped.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Psychology For Imaginary People

Over the last few years, I have been reading a lot about psychology. Mostly I’ve been reading about it because it interests me, but I think that having some knowledge of psychology can be helpful for writers. Your characters might be more realistic if you understand what makes real people function.

One of the things that I’ve been reading about is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is a questionnaire that reveals how a person sees the world and makes decisions. For example, is the person extraverted or introverted? Does the person prefer to think problems through or improvise solutions quickly? Does the person prefer to base decisions on feelings or logic? There are sixteen possible types that are each referred to by a four-letter abbreviation. None of the types are good or bad. The test just shows the ways that a person prefers to deal with the world.

Fictional characters, like real people, all see the world in slightly different ways. If you are struggling with character development, the Myers-Briggs types could give you a blueprint for creating a realistic person.

I’ve noticed that different versions of the questionnaire will give you slightly different results. Every questionnaire that I’ve done says that I’m either ISTJ or INTJ. Here are links to two different versions of the questionnaire:

With fictional characters, it might be more helpful for authors to just read about the sixteen different types.

I’ve heard that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is more accurate than many other psychological questionnaires. For fiction writers, an understanding of the types may help you create characters with realistic strengths, weaknesses, and ways of responding to the world.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

This Is Not Historical Fiction: History As Art

Every time I finish a book, I read the reviews to see how other readers responded to that book. Occasionally, I’m surprised by reviews. The reviewers point out something that I hadn’t noticed or make me think about something in a different way.

The reviews that surprised me recently were the reviews of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. When I read this book, I didn’t realize that it was controversial. If you haven’t read it (and you should), I will provide a summary, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so this blog post might not make much sense if you haven’t read the book.

Berlin 1942.

When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion, and the family must move from their home to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

On the surface, this book seems like a typical WWII novel. Bruno, a German boy, becomes friends with a Jewish boy from Poland. If you're familiar with WWII novels, you probably know how this story ends. (Hint: It’s not happy). However, this is not a typical WWII novel, and that’s where some of the controversy happens.

The novel is set during WWII, but it’s not historical fiction. It’s a modern fable. A fable is a story that incorporates elements of myth and has a strong moral. Ideally, the moral of a fable should transcend time and culture. It should apply to everybody everywhere.

It was immediately clear to me that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable and not historical fiction. The author tells the story from a third-person true-omniscient viewpoint, which is very common in fables and old literature but relatively uncommon in modern literature. The narrator is god-like and can see into the heads of all of the characters at the same time. Like any good fable, the moral of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is clear: All people are equal. The story also has a mythical quality to it. It’s the kind of story that people might tell each other about WWII, but it’s not a story that could have actually happened.

The author uses a few techniques to transcend time and culture in this fable. For example, he never uses the name of the camp where Bruno’s friend lives. He uses wordplay that would work in English but not in German (such as Bruno saying “Fury” instead of “Führer”). And, the book is not historically accurate. In fact, it’s so historically inaccurate that the events in the story probably could not have happened during WWII. There is a good reason for all of this: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not about WWII. It’s a fable. It’s about everyone everywhere. Discrimination and genocide did not stop after WWII. It’s still happening today, and that’s the point of this book. It’s a universal story. This book could be set almost anywhere and at almost any time in human history.

So, where is the controversy? I read a few reviews by people who said that this book is offensive because it ignores historical fact, and ignoring historical fact trivializes the experiences of the real people who lived through that historical period.

It didn’t cross my mind to be offended by this book. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. To me, this book is not historical fiction, so I didn’t care if it was historically accurate. I saw this book as art. The best artwork is controversial, sparks passionate responses, and makes people think. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does that. I like the book for its artistic value. It’s odd, interesting, and unique.

But, I want to know what other people think. If you read the book, how did you react? How do you define “historical fiction”? Is it ever okay to ignore historical fact when you’re writing fiction? Is it okay to use history as a backdrop for art?   

Friday, July 25, 2014

Best Books of July

Here are the best books that I read this month (so far). As always, the summaries and covers come from Goodreads; the reviews are mine.

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge. 
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

Review: This collection of linked short stories centers around Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher and mother of a grown son. The stories examine Olive from every angle. She is the main character in some of them and briefly mentioned in others, but they all show the impact that one woman can have in a small town.

Olive is a complex and fascinating character. She is big, loud, blunt, and opinionated. She is self-centered, abusive, judgmental, unkind, and manipulative. She refuses to apologize for her mistakes. She eavesdrops and talks behind people's backs. Many of her students were afraid of her. She is independent, strong, funny, and in control. She is amazingly perceptive and willing to help anyone who needs it. She loves her husband and son fiercely. She is a very realistic human being.

Like most short story collections, I did get bored with a few of the stories. I also felt like a few of them went over my head. The author was saying something deep that I wasn't quite getting. However, the majority of the stories are brilliant. This book is entertaining and beautifully written. 

The stand-out stories for me are "Pharmacy," "A Little Burst," "A Different Road," "Ship In A Bottle," and "Security."

In "Pharmacy," Olive's husband develops a crush on the plain and unassuming (and complete opposite of Olive) young woman who works for him in his pharmacy.

In "A Little Burst," Olive's only son gets married to a woman who Olive does not like, and she finds small ways to make the woman's life difficult.

In "A Different Road," Olive and her husband are held hostage in a hospital bathroom by a gunman, but the argument that they have while trapped in the bathroom is the most traumatizing part of the experience. I love the humor in this story. It's tied with "Security" as my favorite in the collection.

In "Ship In A Bottle," an eleven-year-old girl knows where her older sister (one of Olive's former students) has gone, but she doesn't tell her crazy mother.

In "Security," Olive goes to visit her son for the first time in years and ends up causing trouble in the airport security line.

I have to warn you that many of the stories in this collection are depressing. The characters' emotions are raw and realistic. But, if you don't mind that, this is a great collection.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – John Boyne

Berlin 1942 
When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. 
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Review: Well, that was depressing.

I've read enough WWII novels to know that they don't usually have happy endings, but this one blindsided me. Possibly because it was in the young adult section of the bookstore, and the endings of young adult books are usually more hopeful. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find much hope in this.

This book is about nine-year-old Bruno. His family moves from Berlin to "Out-With," and he makes friends with a boy who lives on the other side of a big fence.

Depending on how you look at it, this book could have a lot to criticize. Is it historically accurate? No. Are the child characters realistic? No. Are there believability problems? Yes, tons of them (such as the hole in the unpatrolled fence). Is there English wordplay that wouldn't translate to German? Yes, tons of it. Is the writing style unusual? Yes. Is the author heavy-handed with delivering his message? Yes.

None of that bothered me because I didn't see this book as historical fiction. It is a modern-day fable. Like many fables, it is told from a third-person omniscient viewpoint, so there is distance between the reader and the characters. The reader is a helpless observer, just like Bruno is a helpless observer. Like many fables, there is wordplay and repetition and simplistic language. The moral is made very clear: no group of people is better than any other group of people. By using English wordplay, not being historically accurate, and not using the name of the camp, the author shows that the message applies to the entire world and not just to Nazi Germany. People are being treated inhumanely all over the world, even today.

This is not historical fiction. This is a work of art. In my opinion, the best artwork is controversial and makes people think. Successful artwork sparks passionate responses. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does that. I love the juxtaposition between Bruno's innocence and the horrors being committed on the other side of the fence. Other people will disagree, but I think that this book is a brilliant work of art.

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

Two misfits. 
One extraordinary love. 
Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Review: This book is adorable. Eleanor is the new girl in school, and the first person who she meets is a boy named Park. What follows is probably one of the most realistic teen romances that I have ever read.

Neither of these characters is perfect. Their bodies aren't perfect, their minds aren't perfect, their lives aren't perfect, and their romance isn't perfect. They are both awkward and unsure of themselves. They have misunderstandings because neither of them are great at communicating. Neither of them have much experience with romance. Sometimes the relationship moves quickly, and at other times it's painfully slow. The romance is realistic and handled well by the author.

If I had to find things to criticize, Eleanor's stepfather was stereotypical, and I never really understood what her mother saw in him. The constant point-of-view switches were slightly distracting. I loved seeing the romance from each characters' point-of-view, but I wish that the sections were longer so that there was less switching back and forth. 

I really enjoyed this book. I'm glad that I randomly stumbled across it in the bookstore.


All The Things = 21 books.

I’m currently reading: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.