Fall Book Reviews

This was totally unintentional, but the apparent theme of my fall reading list? Depressing ‘R’ Us. Not that any of these books were bad, per se — we just had a whole onslaught of “whomp, whomp” themes. Manipulative friendships, religious cynicism, multiple suicides… it was a whole big bucket of WHEEEEEE!

So let’s get started on this parade, shall we?

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cats_Eye

I’ll start out by saying that since this is an Atwood book, it is, of course, wonderfully written. But Cat’s Eye is wildly uncomfortable. This is the story of Elaine, who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her painting career. While there, she recalls her entire childhood and young adult life — and it’s in the remembering of that childhood that shit gets WEIRD.

If I had to pinpoint one theme of the book, it’d be this: children are horrible and cruel and do terrible things to one another. Enter Cordelia. Cordelia, Elaine’s supposed best friend, is the ringleader of a group of girls who do awful things to Elaine. Just awful. And this is what makes Cat’s Eye such an uncomfortable read — all the terrible things these children do? They all read true. Children can be absolutely cruel and manipulative — but often aren’t seen as such, because come on, they’re children!

About halfway through the book, Atwood pulls a masterful switch on us. I don’t want to tell details, but at a high level — Atwood slowly transforms Cordelia from the antagonist into… well, not the protagonist, for sure. But sympathetic, yes. And that’s why I think Cat’s Eye is worth the read — to watch a master author at work. Sometimes being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

Oh man. Here comes confession time. I’d never read Travels with Charley, but enjoy a lot of Steinbeck’s other work. So after our California road trip adventure, I decided it was high time to pick up this book. I know a lot of people who love it, and I mean come on, it’s a classic! Man road trips across the country with beloved dog. What could be better than that?

The whole time I was reading it, all I could think of was…

The Simpsons - Old Man Yells at Cloud

I’m sorry, you guys, but most of the time Steinbeck just came off as a cranky old man who was frustrated by the direction his country was headed. Everybody was doing everything wrong! Kids these days! IT USED TO BE BETTER WHAT IS HAPPENING TO AMERICA!

Did anyone else get this impression while reading this book? Was it just me?

Now, it must be said — since this is Steinbeck, there are moments of beautiful lyricism and insight. The last third of the book seemed to hit its stride (once he reaches the West coast — Steinbeck just can’t hide his love for the Best coast). But the rest was a bit of a slog, and if I hadn’t been committed to finishing this one, I may have set it down early. AND THAT IS MY AWFUL CONFESSION.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

This is the one book that breaks the depressing mold… which is odd, considering that it has a murder-mystery-suicide at its core.

I’ll admit it — I never would have picked up this book (let alone found it) if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been revealed as the author. Even still, I didn’t have super high expectations. I thought it’d be a fun read, but I knew it wasn’t going to be Harry Potter.

And then I couldn’t put it down. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t the best written book I’ve ever read, nor the most original — but it’s fun. It’s just plain fun. The characters are interesting, the plot intriguing. You turn each page thinking, “What happens next?” Which is a quality I remember the Harry Potter books having — sitting at the kitchen table, unable to set the book down, NEEDING to know what happened next. Ms. Rowling, bless you for that — we need books like this, books that get people interested in reading.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

THIS. This was the surprise read of the season. Several friends recommended it, but I knew nothing about the plot. When I started reading it, all I felt was a big fat “meh.” White middle-class 20-something explains family drama. Yup, I thought, I’ve read this before. I almost set the book down, but for whatever reason decided to continue on just a liittttle bit further.

And then — the twist. The thing that makes this book NOT your regular family drama. There had been hints dropped along the way, but I’m not always so quick on the uptake. And in case YOU, dear reader, are not so quick on the uptake… I’m not going to say what The Twist is. I’m not even going to hint at it. Which makes the book pretty damn difficult to review. So I’ll just say this: I ended up LOVING this book. It’s going to be on the 2014 Favorites list, for sure. It made me think, it had me emotionally invested, it had my mind-grapes muddled for days. I read the end on an airplane, which was a TERRIBLE IDEA. I had to stop reading several times because it got me too worked up. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not THE best-written book I’ve ever read, but the plot — and the questions and moral ambiguities the plot raises — more than make up for it. Seriously, go read this one.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cats_Cradle

Last winter (OMG almost a full year ago??) I read Slaughterhouse-Five and LOVED it — and to my immense shame, I admitted that I’d never read any Vonnegut before. So I thought, “Ok, let’s try another.” And Cat’s Cradle… man, this was one cynical book. Cat’s Cradle seems to be Vonnegut’s anti-religion creed, anti-society creed — the prose equivalent of giving up on all mankind. And that’s really saying something, because Slaughterhouse-Five ain’t exactly unicorns and sunshine. But I mean, look at this:

And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing.”

Fantastic prose — DEPRESSING AS HELL. I’m definitely going to be reading more Vonnegut, but this one wasn’t top-of-the-list for me. I consider myself a realistic; I don’t necessarily consider myself a cynic.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood

This is a case of “Not for me.”

Last fall (HOW, HOW HAS IT BEEN A YEAR), I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wasn’t crazy about it, but enjoyed it enough that I wanted to check out Murakami’s fiction.

Norwegian Wood is objectively a good book. It’s a quiet book about important things (suicide and depression, mostly — I KNOW HOW TO PICK ‘EM, AMIRIGHT?). Just like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the writing quality is high — even beautiful in spots. There is no doubt that Murakami is an excellent writer. But about halfway through… I got bored. I thought maybe things would pick up, so I pushed on. And then I got to a point where I was far enough along that I couldn’t NOT finish, but dammit I just wanted the book to end. So, yes, I finished this book. Mostly out of spite. Good work, me.

But I can’t call this a “bad” book. Because it’s not a bad book — even as I was desperately trying to finish it, I could tell that. It just wasn’t for me. I think these days I need more plot — less introspection, more action. My college self probably would have loved this book — heck, I would have wanted to write this book — but we change, and as we do, our tastes change. Others would enjoy this book. Just not me, not now.

That wraps up the Fall Reading Fun Times. Dear LORD I need to chose some more uplifting books. Any recommendations? Have you read any of these?

Spring Book Reviews: Part 1

IT IS TIME! For a recap of the books I read this spring. I normally try to do a seasonal recap all in one post, but as I was writing this one, I realized it was getting looooong. I don’t feel like I did a ton of reading this past spring, but maybe I did? Or maybe I just have more thoughts than usual. Whatever the reason — here is Part 1. Part 2 shall be revealed next week.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton

Lost Cat

As I read this book, one word kept popping into my head: charming. Which, I have to say, doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for a book, but in this case it is. This book follows the exploits of Tibia and Fibula, brother and sister cats living with their humans in San Francisco. At the story’s start, Caroline Paul crashes an experimental plane, an accident that results in a lot of broken bones and time spent at home with the cats. And then one day during her recovery… Tibby disappears.

He comes back. And I’m not ruining anything by telling you that! The book follows Caroline’s exploits as she tries to figure out where Tibby went to, and more importantly (to her) why he would even leave in the first place.

This is definitely a book that requires a hard copy. MacNaughton‘s illustrations add SO MUCH wimsy and delight to the story – I’d go so far as to say the story isn’t complete without them. Seriously, don’t even THINK about buying an e-ink version.

Now, it goes without saying that this book is pretty much only for crazy cat people (like myself). BUT. I would also say that it’s a good read for someone who loves a crazy cat person and wants to understand the depth of the crazy. It’s a really loving portrayal of the relationships we form with our pets and the value of animal companionship.

I’m Starved for You and Choke Collar by Margaret Atwood

ImStarvedforYOu ChokeCollar

So… you all know I love me some Margaret Atwood. When I found out she was writing a Kindle Singles series? SIGN ME UP. The series is called Positron, and it’s set in a seemingly lovely but actually horrifying dystopian future (so, you know, par the course for her). I eagerly read the first installment, “I’m Starved for You”… and wasn’t completely hooked. But I was intrigued enough to pick up the second, “Choke Collar.” And after that… I felt done. No need to pick up the third.

I think part of my problem with these is the format itself: serials. I’m slowly learning that it may not be the story format for me. Once I get into a story, I want to dive in — the inherent breaks that come with serials stall me. I had the same issue with Chuck Wendig’s “The Forever Endeavor” (found in the lovely Fireside magazine). Loved the premise, was super intrigued — but couldn’t keep up the momentum. If it’s ever collected into one volume that I can read in one chunk, sign me up.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

You’ve probably heard of Austin Kleon — he’s a bit of a golden boy these says. Rightly so, I’d argue. I was a big fan of his first book, Steal Like an Artist, so was super eager to pick this one up. Show Your Work! completes the cycle set forth in Steal Like an Artist — you’re influenced by others, you “steal” from them, and in turn you should share your work and your influences so others can discover and steal, too.

For me, personally, Steal Like an Artist was the more valuable book — it had more insights that seemed directly applicable to me. But I’d definitely recommend this new one, too. The thing that struck me most about it is how it advocates for generosity — not something often talked about in creative circles. No one is an island (despite the prevalent myth of the lone creative genius), so we might as well play nice and share our enthusiasm with one another.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

When I traveled to Stockholm and Copenhagen with my friend Hen, she raved about this book. She said I had to read it, especially after traveling to Viking lands. It took me a couple months after our trip to pick it up, but I finally did.

Considering that I was a history minor in college, I’m kind of surprised I don’t read more historical fiction. That may change after reading this book. It’s set in England, during the Viking raids of 800’s, and follows the story of an English boy who’s taken in by Vikings. I really enjoyed learning more about this time period (which I previously knew very little about), and it encouraged me to do my own research outside of the book itself. And I have to say — Cornwell did his homework. The book has just enough detail to make you really feel this time period. (One reoccurring thought: SO DIRTY.)

All that said — I felt like the book was a bit bloated. By the last 100 pages, I was just ready to be done with it (never a good sign). And the main character Uhtred didn’t totally do it for me. He wasn’t a Mary Sue… but at times he felt dangerously close. The Last Kingdom is the first book in a seven-book series, and I’m still undecided if I’ll pick up the rest.

That’s a wrap for Part 1! As I work on getting Part 2 together… Have you read any of these? Your thoughts? What have you been reading lately? My reading list needs an injection of fresh material, so I’m eager for recommendations.

On Editing

As mentioned earlier in the week, I’m starting the first-draft edit on Saturday. As also mentioned, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Yes, I can edit for spelling, grammar, consistencies — but this thing needs serious revisions. Where to begin? How to tackle what at the moment seems to be a massive undertaken?

I was always the type of student to do all my homework, and apparently I haven’t lost that trait. For the past week I dug into blogs and books and turned to the experts: authors whose advice I’ve found helpful in the past. And soon enough, some themes began to emerge.

Start Reading

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. — Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story

Stephen King advises the same thing in On Writing — sit down and re-read the first draft, preferably in one sitting. The idea is that you’ll see the book as a whole, without time lapses, and you’ll be able to see what works — and what doesn’t.

Find Your Theme

I’ve read On Writing numerous times (I noticed the other day how incredibly broken my book’s spine is), and I’m always finding new bits to love in there. Like this:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book — at least one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your is about. — Stephen King, On Writing

Yes. Definitely yes. That’s one thing I’m very aware of with my book — it needs a Unifying Factor. Or rather, the unifying factor lying beneath all the junk needs to be uncovered. (For more about uncovering theme and symbolism and all that big scary stuff, I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog post, “The Contextual Edit“.)

Cut Out the Crap

There’s one bit of On Writing that always stuck with me, from the very first time I read it:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High …. I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1 Draft – 10%. Good luck.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I love that — such a simple, easy formula. What I find most interesting is that King claims he follows it almost to the letter — for his second draft, he chops 10% of the word count from the first draft. No excuses, it just has to happen. I know my book needs some “de-puffying”, so 10% seems a good amount to aim for.

Margaret Atwood gives similar advice (PS, HOW EXCITED WAS I when I found Margaret Atwood had a blog post with editing advice??):

Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head — like practicing a dance or a military exercise — so that no actual tactical mistakes are made — the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope. — Margaret Atwood, “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Remove the “connect-the-dot” steps — this gives the reader credit. You’re trusting that the reader is intelligent, that you don’t need to fill in every tiny detail for her. It seems to me this would result in a sharper, leaner book (something I’m hoping to achieve).

Track It

I can’t believe I never thought of this one before:

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. — Chuck Wendig, “How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel

Track Changes in Word. Duh. Totally doing this.

It’s a Process — And That’s Ok

The most daunting thing about editing is… well, there’s not just one daunting thing, is the problem. It’s all the things. Grammar and continuity errors and gaping plot holes and oh God I forgot about that character what do I do with him?? At this point in time, it seems like a massive undertaking.

Well. It is. But that shouldn’t phase you:

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Wendig calls this the “Layer Cake” theory of editing. One of my writing-group buddies has a different analogy — varnishing a table. You can’t apply ten layers of varnish at once, the thing will turn out looking like a mess. You have to sand the table down, smooth it out, apply one layer. Then you repeat the process, one layer at a time, until you have the final result: a beautiful, smooth, gleaming table. Same thing with a novel and editing: you start one layer at a time — context, grammar, characters — until you have one damn fine table. Er, book.

I have to say, after this whole week of research and reading and expectation — I feel ready. I feel excitedI’m ready for Saturday to arrive, to sit down with my book — my book, which I wrote, which I finished — and start ripping it to shreds. Or, maybe politely pecking it to shreds. It’ll be a messy business — and that’s ok.

Book Review: MaddAddam

Well, I did it. I basically binge-read Margaret Atwood’s trilogy. Starting with Oryx and Crake, continuing on to The Year of the Flood, and ending with MaddAddam.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

(Side note: how do I get that amazing cover?? Is it the Canadian version? The U.S. one is definitely inferior.)

I read the first two books in the trilogy earlier this summer, so all the back story was pretty fresh in my mind. Which greatly enhanced the reading of this book. Atwood seems fairly conscientious about getting readers caught up to speed, so I think technically you could read this book on its own — but why would you want to? It’s so much richer when you have the whole background, the entire mythology.

“Mythology” seems to be a central theme of this book — specifically, the stories we tell ourselves, both for ourselves and about ourselves, and how those stories shape us. The book is told through three distinct narrators: Toby (she was one of our narrators in The Year of the Flood), Zeb (a character from the past book), and Blackbeard (a young ‘Craker’, a new species of super-humans created by Crake). Each voice adds its own nuance to the story, its own meaning. At first, I was somewhat puzzled by Atwood’s choice of narrator in certain sections. But then I realized what a different story it would be if someone else told it.

Two quotes stood out to me while reading the book. One near the beginning:

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

And near the end:

“‘There,’ says Blackbeard. ‘Telling the story is hard, and writing the story must be more hard. Oh Toby, when you are too tired to do it, next time I will write the story. I will be your helper.'”

Throughout the book, there are musings on writing, on stories, what stories mean, what’s the point of stories in a dystopian society where mankind struggles for survival. At the end, Atwood’s answer is very clear: stories do matter. Stories are important. They are a flicker of hope in what can be an otherwise dark and scary world.

I was sad reading the last chapter of MaddAddam. I was sad to leave this world, where I’d spent so much of the summer. But that’s always how a good book is, isn’t it? You want to know what happens, but you never really want it to end. And fortunately, I get to extend this out just a teeny bit — Margaret Atwood is coming to Seattle the end of October, and I’m going to her reading. So perhaps MaddAddam isn’t quite over yet.

Summer Reading List

Ok first off — I KNOW. I know summer is not over yet and it seems like an odd time for a wrap-up list. But the past week in the mornings and evenings there’s been that certain twang in the air, and I feel like the next book I read will land on the Fall Reading List. So then, here it is — the books I read this summer.

1. The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes by Check Wendig

The Blue Blazes is pulp fiction in the best sense of the term. Fast-paced, fairly violent, with a cast of rough-and-tumble characters with names like Mookie Pearl and Skelly. Chuck Wendig excels at creating slightly fantastical alternate realities, and this book is no exception — it takes place in a (literally) hellish underground beneath New York City. I do think I preferred Wendig’s Miriam Black series to this one (probably because I love that character), but this was still a fun romp.

2. American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This was a re-read. I hadn’t read it in a loooong time and wanted to freshen up before the Neil Gaiman reading. I’d remembered the clever storyline — downtrodden gods, an epic road trip, dark twists — but I’d forgotten something important: Neil Gaiman is a great writer. His style seems very simple and straightforward, and yet it still manages to be entirely beautiful and evocative. This time around I studied the writing a lot more closely, trying to analyze how he does what he does.

My only qualm — I somehow ended up with the tenth anniversary edition, which contains the “original” text, before Gaiman’s editor got to it. It was still a great read, but I’m a strong believer that a good editor only improves a story.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Of course after the Neil Gaiman talk I immediately devoured his new book. It’s a quick read (Gaiman started it with the intention of writing a short story). When people ask me how I liked it, the only word I can come up with is, “Lovely.” Our narrator is a young boy, and this book just so perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a kid — both the everyday wonder of it, and the everyday pain of it. That combination actually makes it a bittersweet, almost melancholy read — but still, it leaves you happy. And the ending… mmm, it’s a really beautiful ending that made me think about the nature of memory.

4. Boneshaker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I had been really excited about this one. I’d heard great things from a lot of people. So imagine my disappointment when I just couldn’t really get into it. And the frustrating thing is, I can’t pinpoint why. It has a lot of elements I enjoy — alternate histories! Seattle! a cool female lead! — but somehow it just didn’t add up for me. I’ll probably give Cherie Priest another try, because the writing itself was good. But yeah. Sorry, Boneshaker. You and I weren’t meant to be.

5 and 6. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood

These two are so entwined, it seems futile to review them separately. In short — OMG I LOVED LOVED LOVED these books. They’re the first two in a trilogy (MaddAddam, the final installment, comes out September 3), set in a dystopian future where humans struggle for survival. First up: Oryx and Crake.

Snowman is our narrator, a despairing man once called Jimmy before mankind suffered a horrible, catastrophic disaster. The nature of the disaster is not fully revealed until the end of the book, and the hints along the way lend such a sense of foreboding — it looms over everything. The hints and descriptions also make the book somewhat terrifying — it has so many parallels to our current political and environmental realities (in fact, Atwood herself always insists on calling it “speculative fiction”, not science fiction).

So of course after finishing Oryx and Crake, I had to pick up the next. The Year of the Flood is set in the same dystopian future, with roughly the same timeline, but we have different narrators: Toby and Ren, who live in a hippy-like commune called God’s Gardeners. Switching the narration gives the reader a “big picture” view of the disaster in Oryx and Crake. You could definitely read these books on their own — but man, you get so much from reading them together. Of the two, I’d have to say my favorite was Oryx and Crake — I loved the slow reveal, and also found Snowman to be a fascinating narrator. Plus, Oryx and Crake contained this, the most delicious of sentences:

It’s the fate of these words to be eaten by beetles.

Mmmm. Pure perfection. Can not WAIT to get my greedy little hands on MaddAddam.

7. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

So technically — I have not finished this one yet. I’m about a third of the way through. But I figure it’s summer, I’m reading it, it’ll go on the list. I’d been meaning to read George Saunders for quite a while, because all my fellow English-major nerds talk about what a fantastic writer he is. And it’s true — the stories I’ve read so far are amazingly well crafted. But oh man, are they depressing. Every single story has focused on a hapless protagonist whose life spirals downwards into despair. And I mean, there’s some hope. In some of the stories. But for the most part, man. I’m sure I’ll keep reading it, because the stories are so well-written. But it does remind me why, for the most part, I’ve forsaken the path of Serious Literature.

What about you? What books did you devour in the sun this year?

Book Review: The Blind Assassin

I finished The Blind Assassin on the bus yesterday. I was totally that freak who was praying that all the lights turned red, so I had enough time to get to the ending. I’m everyone’s favorite bus rider!

The Blind Assassin

I don’t think I enjoyed this one quite as much as The Handmaid’s Tale — but then again, it may be too soon to tell. It seems Atwood’s books kind of need to “sink in” with me. They’re complicated, and WHOA. The Blind Assassin was no exception. First you have a narrative that spans…what, 30 years? And then you put a novel within a novel within a novel…and just, whoa. This thing gets dense fast. But it also shows what an amazing writer Atwood is, because it totally works. I admit to being 100% confused throughout the first 50 pages or so, but if you stick with it, it’s worth the payoff.

Looking back at it, none of the characters are actually all that likeable. Let’s face it, Alex Thomas? Kind of an asshole. Yeah, he’s under a lot of pressure, yadda yadda yadda — asshole. Iris herself — you sympathize with it, but she’s not exactly warm and cuddly, is she? Laura is probably the most likeable person in the book, but even she… well, admit it, if you knew her in real life, she’d drive you crazy.

(Side note: I would totally read a Lizard Men of Xenor book.)

I can see why writers love this book. Aside from the dizzying plot structure, the eloquent writing — in a lot of ways it seems to be a book about words. Laura is a literal creature, she takes words at face value. In the end, words are her undoing. And Richard — one could say that words bring about his end, too. Iris only really gains power once she gets the book published. So of course we writers like it. It validates what we do.

One thing’s for sure: I need to get more Atwood into my life. Probably won’t be my next read — these books seem to be heavy, I think spacing them out is wise — but there will be more.