Friday, April 25, 2014

Best Books of April

Here are the best books that I read this month. The summaries come from Goodreads; the reviews are mine.

The Spectacular Now – Tim Tharp

Sutter Keely. He’s the guy you want at your party. He’ll get everyone dancing. He’ll get everyone in your parents’ pool. Okay, so he’s not exactly a shining academic star. He has no plans for college and will probably end up folding men’s shirts for a living. But there are plenty of ladies in town, and with the help of Dean Martin and Seagram’s V.O., life’s pretty fabuloso, actually. 

Until the morning he wakes up on a random front lawn, and he meets Aimee. Aimee’s clueless. Aimee is a social disaster. Aimee needs help, and it’s up to the Sutterman to show Aimee a splendiferous time and then let her go forth and prosper. But Aimee’s not like other girls, and before long he’s in way over his head. For the first time in his life, he has the power to make a difference in someone else’s life—or ruin it forever.

Review: I have no idea how to review this book. I considered not doing it because I don't know what to say, but I'm going to give it a try.

This is one of the most honest and realistic books that I've read in a long time. I know that a lot of people hate the ending, but I thought that the book ended in the most realistic way that it could. I would have been disappointed if it had ended in a morality-tale kind of way. Alcoholics don't just stop being alcoholics.

The dialogue is amazing. Sutter is very funny, and he always knows what to say. I like that he's an unreliable narrator who is incapable of seeing himself clearly. I like the glimpses of him that we get through how the other characters react to him. I like that he truly cares about people and wants to protect them or make their lives better. He can save everybody but himself.

Even though I can see the good in Sutter, and his jokes are hilarious, I dislike him. He's an arrogant, self-centered, attention whore. I probably would have been one of the people yelling, "Sit down!" when he started singing at prom. I think it's irritating when someone needs to be the center of attention all the time. I spent the whole book going back and forth between hating him and feeling sorry for him. I think I mostly hated him for his attempt to "fix" Aimee. He decided that something was wrong with her and that he would be the one to fix it. Even if he did end up making her life better, his behavior seems very presumptuous. He probably could have gotten the same results if he'd just been a good, honest friend to her and treated her nicely. 

Usually, I try to be more objective about the books I read, but I guess this one hit too close to home for me. I know people like Sutter. Reading it made me uncomfortable. I liked the book a lot, but it was also like watching a slow-motion train wreck. My brain is still processing it. I think my brain will be processing it for a long time.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs. 

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive. 

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Review: This is a peculiar book. I was intrigued by the combination of fiction and vintage photographs, but it didn't work as well as I'd hoped. The writing is beautiful, and the photographs are beautiful, but they went together a little awkwardly. Some of the photographs seem like they were forced into the story. The story includes a few pointless details to accommodate the photographs. The plot is slightly convoluted because it has to explain the pictures. However, this is a very unique idea, and I will happily read the sequel. It took an amazing imagination to write this book.

The best part of the book is the imagery. There are some awesome scenes. My favorites are the peculiar children raising the dead and Jacob and Emma visiting the shipwreck for the first time. The monsters are also vividly described and creepy. I got a good sense of the island, its history, and its people. I liked that a lot.

Some elements of the plot are predictable. As soon as Jacob saw his first monster, I knew where the story was going, but I liked the ending. The identity of the monster was a surprise to me. The loops could have used more explanation. I don't think I totally understand how or why they work.

Unlike the peculiar children, Jacob is forgettable. He's bland and ordinary, which was probably intentional, but I like narrators with a little more personality. I finished the book yesterday, and I've already forgotten pretty much everything about him. The only thing that I remember clearly is his creepy relationship with Emma. Emma is 80-something-years-old. Jacob is 16. Emma dated Jacob's grandfather. Jacob is in love with her. Yuck. Just, yuck. (By the way, I had this exact same yuck problem with Twilight.) Age is much more than just how you look.

Aside from the romance, this book is unique, mysterious, and captivating. If you're looking for an out-of-the-box YA book, I'd recommend this one.

Warm Bodies – Isaac Marion

'R' is a zombie. He has no name, no memories and no pulse, but he has dreams. He is a little different from his fellow Dead. 

Amongst the ruins of an abandoned city, R meets a girl. Her name is Julie and she is the opposite of everything he knows - warm and bright and very much alive, she is a blast of colour in a dreary grey landscape. For reasons he can't understand, R chooses to save Julie instead of eating her, and a tense yet strangely tender relationship begins. 

This has never happened before. It breaks the rules and defies logic, but R is no longer content with life in the grave. He wants to breathe again, he wants to live, and Julie wants to help him. But their grim, rotting world won't be changed without a fight...

Review: This is a retelling of R(omeo) and Julie(t) . . . with zombies. A zombie, R, falls in love with a human teenager, Julie, and they might have accidentally figured out a way to end the zombie apocalypse.

The beginning of this book was the best part. It's kind of funny, and zombie "culture" was interesting. The zombie marriage and the sudden appearance of children was amusing. I didn't love R, but he was entertaining enough to keep me reading. Julie kicked ass. She was a little angsty, but she was my favorite character because she was never a damsel in distress. She was calm, independent, and in control. I liked that. The love story in this book was both disgusting and sweet. I didn't know that was possible.

I didn't think that the rest of the book was as strong as the beginning. Some parts felt a little preachy. I didn't think that the Julie/Perry relationship was handled very well. Julie's current boyfriend, R, killed and ate her former boyfriend, Perry, and she didn't seem to mind. That bothered me a lot. Everyone forgave R way too easily. The excuses that were given were "R is a monster and couldn't help it," and "Perry didn't want to be alive, anyway." Julie was upset about the deaths of other people in her life. Why wasn't she upset about this? The value of Perry's life and his relationship with Julie were downplayed so that the reader didn't lose sympathy for R. That felt cheap to me. Even if R couldn't help being a monster, he should still have to deal with the consequences of his actions.

This book is a quick and entertaining read. It's not a typical zombie novel. I appreciate that it is different and unusual.

All The Things = 19 books.

I’m currently reading: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami 

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Critical Essay

Last week I promised that I’d post the critical essay that I used to apply (and get accepted) to graduate school for Writing for Children and Young Adults. The entire essay is below. As you will see, it’s not a spectacular piece of essay writing.


Artwork as Foreshadowing in Bridge to Terabithia

Even though Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia was published in 1977, ten years before I was born, it was one of the books that I could relate to most easily when I was a child. Like the characters in the book, I lived in a small farming and ranching community on the outskirts of a large city that my father worked in every day, but I had never visited. Like the characters in the book, my friends and I spent a lot of time sitting in overcrowded classrooms and running around in cow fields. We also loved to play in the forest of giant cottonwoods down by the creek. Katherine Paterson got the details of rural life—right down to the underfunded schools, the overworked parents, and the community’s reluctance to embrace change—so correct that I was immediately drawn into the story. As a child, I had never read about characters who were so similar to me. Bridge to Terabithia remains one of my favorite books to this day.

Bridge to Terabithia is about two ten-year-old friends, Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke, who create Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom in the woods that they rule as king and queen. The only way to enter Terabithia is to swing across the creek using an old rope hanging from the branch of a crabapple tree. At the end of the book, while Jesse is on his first-ever trip to Washington D.C., Leslie tries to swing into Terabithia alone. The rope breaks, she falls, hits her head on a rock, and drowns in the creek. As a child who had not read many novels, Leslie’s death completely blindsided me. As an adult with much more reading experience, I am impressed with the massive amount of subtle foreshadowing that the book contains. One of the most interesting ways that Leslie’s death is foreshadowed is by references to two pieces of artwork.

The first piece of artwork is described right before Jesse meets his new neighbor, Leslie. One of Jesse’s hobbies is drawing funny pictures of animals in strange predicaments. Minutes before he meets Leslie, he draws this:

“This one was a hippopotamus just leaving the edge of a cliff, turning over and over—you could tell by the curving lines—in the air toward the sea below where surprised fish were leaping goggle-eyed out of the water. There was a balloon over the hippopotamus—where his head should have been but his bottom actually was—‘Oh!’ it was saying. ‘I seem to have forgot my glasses’” (Paterson 10).  

The image of the drawing is still in the mind of the reader when Jesse meets Leslie. It stays in the back of the reader’s mind all through the book because Leslie is one of the few people who support Jesse’s love of drawing. Jesse’s hippopotamus drawing is evoked again at the end of the book when he is visiting the art museum in Washington D.C. without Leslie:

“There they came upon a display case holding a miniature scene of Indians disguised in buffalo skins scaring a herd of buffalo into stampeding over a cliff to their death with more Indians waiting below to butcher and skin them. It was a three-dimensional nightmare version of some of his own drawings. He felt a frightening sense of kinship with it . . . . To himself he said, I don’t think I like it, but he could hardly pull himself away” (Paterson 100).

This passage about the buffalo hunt artwork increases the tension in the story and darkens the mood. Jesse is having fun before this passage. When he sees the buffalo hunt, he becomes uneasy, which makes the reader uneasy. Leslie dies while Jesse is visiting the art museum, but neither Jesse nor the reader learn about her death until he gets home. Several times during his trip to the museum, he wishes that he had invited Leslie to come with him because she loves art as much as he does. He cannot wait to get home and tell her about everything he saw. The increased tension caused by this passage very subtly lets the reader know that something bad is about to happen, and it will probably involve falling and death.

Jesse’s reaction to the buffalo hunt artwork is similar to his reaction to Leslie the first time he meets her. He feels a sense of kinship with her because her individuality makes her an outsider in the community. Jesse’s love of drawing makes him an outsider in his no-nonsense family. This kinship keeps pulling Jesse to Leslie despite the fact that he originally does not like her because she is the fastest runner in the fifth grade—a title that Jesse trained all summer to earn. Like Leslie herself, Jesse’s drawing of the hippo is imaginative and light-hearted. Like Leslie’s death, the buffalo hunt was a real event. After seeing the buffalo hunt, the reader knows that Jesse and Leslie are not in their imaginary Terabithia anymore. They are in the real world, and scary things are not as easily dealt with in the real world as they are in Terabithia. Because Jesse is drawn to artwork that involves falling, it is as if he feels such a strong kinship to Leslie that he is able to subconsciously predict that this imaginative girl will fall to her death.
It is not a coincidence that Jesse draws a hippo—a water creature—falling into the sea. Leslie’s death is also foreshadowed with dozens of references to falling, water, death, bad luck, the breakup of relationships and kingdoms, religion and spirituality, fear and fearlessness, and Jesse’s sense that his entire life “was delicate as a dandelion” (Paterson 77). I was most impressed by Katherine Paterson using artwork to foreshadow Leslie’s death because it fits with the book’s message about the importance of imagination. Before Jesse met Leslie, he had been “a nothing—a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big” (Paterson 126). Leslie had “tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world . . . . It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned to him in vision and strength” (Paterson 126). Jesse learns that his imagination and silly drawings are valuable, even if his family and classmates do not see the value in them. Leslie taught him that he can use his creativity to make the world a better place. Using artwork to foreshadow Leslie’s death is perfect because imagination is such an important part of the characters’ lives and the message of the story.

Works Cited
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. First Harper Trophy Edition. New York, New York:
 HarperCollins Children's Books, 1977. Print.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tips for Getting Accepted to Graduate School for Creative Writing

I’m not an expert at getting accepted to graduate school, but I thought I would share what I’ve learned during the very stressful process of applying and being accepted.


1.      Find a program that teaches what you want to learn.


“Creative writing” encompasses a lot of different types of writing: literary fiction, genre fiction, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, writing for television, etc. You have to find a program that teaches what you want to learn. Most of the programs that I’ve come across allow you to write literary fiction or poetry only, so if you want to write sci-fi or picture books, you’re out of luck in those programs. I knew that I wanted to write for young adults, so I Googled “Writing for young adults creative writing MFA.” That’s how I found my MFA program. If you want to write poetry or literary fiction, you can Google “Creative writing MFA rankings.” This will give you a list of the top programs in the country, but be aware that these schools get a lot of applicants. It would probably be a good idea to choose a few “safety” schools that aren’t among the top programs in the country.


2.      Low-residency?


Both my MFA program and my post-BA certificate program are low-residency. I love it. In a low-residency program, you only have to be on campus for a few weeks every year. The rest of the time, you do your work online. You don’t have to rearrange your entire life to go to graduate school. I’d highly recommend a low-residency program if you’re not the type of person who enjoys being in classrooms.


3.      Applying to graduate school takes forever.


Seriously, it takes an unbelievably long time. There are a lot of steps in the application process, a lot of paperwork that you need to get to the school, and a lot of writing samples that you need to provide. Be prepared to write. A lot. You might be able to use some of your samples for multiple schools, but every school has different requirements, so you can’t count on being able to use the same samples for everybody. If you want to apply to 8 programs, you might have to write 8 different 2-5 page critical essays. Do you have time to do that plus all the other application stuff for those schools?


4.      Asking for recommendation letters sucks.


Asking for recommendation letters made me hugely uncomfortable. I felt horrible for making people take time out of their lives to write letters for me. I didn’t like the fact that the letters had to be confidential. I didn’t like that I had to rely on other people to help me do something that I wanted to do. I didn’t like that my graduate-school future was in somebody else’s hands. I also spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if all of my potential letter writers said that they couldn’t write the letters. It turned out that only one of my potential letter writers said no. I got letters from everyone else I asked.   


5.      Don’t procrastinate asking for recommendation letters.


Procrastination is tempting because asking for letters sucks. Don’t procrastinate. I asked for my letters 8-12 weeks before the application deadline. I made sure that my letter writers knew the application deadline. Still, one of my letters didn’t come until after the deadline, so I wasn’t able to apply to that school. Ask for letters as early as possible. Also, use Interfolio. Interfolio is a document-management service that will keep your letters confidential and mail them to the graduate schools for you. All your letter writers have to do is upload the letters to your account. You do have to pay to use Interfolio, but it’s totally worth it. You have control over when your letters are mailed, and you can mail all of them in the same envelope. You can mail the same letters to as many schools as you want. You don’t have to rely on your letter writers to mail your letters or to get the correct number of letters to you so that you can mail them.


6.      Don’t freak out about the GRE.


A lot of schools will require you to do the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). You have to take this test at a testing center. It’s a hard test, much harder than the ACT/SAT. There are two different GREs. The General Test has math, reading comprehension/vocabulary, and essay writing. The Subject Test has literature, literary history, literary criticism, and reading comprehension. Make sure you know which test(s) your MFA program requires. You can find practice booklets for both tests on the GRE website. Don’t freak out too much about the GRE. I studied every day for months, and I still bombed everything but the essay writing. The tests involve a ton of reading, and I’m a fairly slow reader, so I ran out of time. The essay questions on the General Test were stupid and easy. Even though I did horrible on the GRE, I still got accepted to graduate school. I know a lot of people who bombed the GRE and still got accepted to their first-choice school. Study hard, but don’t worry about it too much.


7.      Don’t freak out about your critical writing samples.


I freaked out about the critical essay that I had to include with my application. I’m not a very good critical writer. My critical essay wasn’t interesting or insightful. In fact, I’ll post it on this blog next week so that you can see how not-good it is. It didn’t matter. I still got accepted.


8.      Freak out about your creative writing samples.


All of the MFA programs that I read about said that they base their decision mostly on your creative writing sample. Work on your samples as much as possible. Give them to other people to read. Work on them some more. Think about them before you go to sleep at night. Then work on them some more. Bring them to a writing workshop. Then work on them some more. After you read this blog post, go work on your samples. If you’re going to freak out about something, freak out about your creative writing samples.


9.      Know how long it takes to mail transcripts.


MFA programs will want official transcripts from every college that you’ve ever attended. Two of my previous colleges mailed transcripts within a few days of receiving a transcript request. The third college took up to two weeks to mail a transcript. Make sure you know how long it will take your previous colleges to mail transcripts so that you don’t miss the application deadline.


That’s what I’ve learned from my application process. I hope that it is helpful to you.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Authors on YouTube

I didn’t have time to write a proper blog post this week, so I’m posting some inspiring YouTube videos from authors. Who couldn’t use a little inspiration, right? (Sorry people who are reading this blog on a mobile device. I still haven’t figured out why videos don’t work. So no inspiration for you.)