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Taking a Break

August 15, 2012

I’m taking a break from the blog for a while. I’ll likely be rather silent on Facebook as well. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

I’m still going to keep up with my reading challenges, but I’m going to do it over on Goodreads. If you want to follow me there, I’ll happily accept your friend request and talk to you about books and such.

Until later . . . Take care.

My Massive Reading Challenge

August 8, 2012

So, prompted by a comment on yesterday’s blog, and because I can’t freaking sleep again, I decided to post my massive reading challenge list of 350 books. This list was compiled from six different lists:

The TIME 100 best English-language novels since 1923

The Novel 100: A Ranking of Greatest Novels of All Time, by Daniel S. Burt

The BBC’s Big Read from 2003

The Guardian’s answer to the BBC from 2003

The New York Time’s Modern Library list

And that crazy BBC list that circulates every now and then on Facebook–the one that says “the BBC says only blah blah blah have read blah blah blah of these books.”

I combined and meshed these books into this ginormous list and alphabetized it by title. Yes, I know small articles shouldn’t be included in the alphabetizing, but Word doesn’t know that, and I didn’t want to mess with it. You’ll also note that a few of these titles are also on the NPR Top 100 list.

I won’t even tell you how few of these books I’ve read. In all honesty, I look back at my reading life and wonder what the heck I did read, because I don’t see many familiar titles on “top book” lists. Or I see familiar titles that I never read. And then I read something like Possession and think, “holy crap I want to write like this,” but realize that my own work is just cheap genre Hamburger Helper compared to the exquisite filet mignon that is A. S. Byatt’s work. Okay, maybe I can’t sleep because I’m hungry.

In any case, should you want to challenge yourself, here you go!

  1. 1984, George Orwell (NPR List)
  2. A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul
  3. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  4. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (NPR List)
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  6. A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell
  7. A Death in the Family, James Agee
  8. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  9. A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
  10. A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
  11. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes
  12. A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul
  13. A Passage to India, E. M. Forster
  14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
  15. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
  16. A Room With a View, E. M. Forster
  17. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  18. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  19. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  20. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  21. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  22. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  23. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  24. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  25. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  26. An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro
  27. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
  28. Animal Farm, George Orwell (NPR List)
  29. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  30. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
  31. Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara
  32. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
  33. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien
  36. Atonement, Ian McEwan
  37. Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald
  38. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  39. Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Doblin
  40. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
  41. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
  42. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  43. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
  44. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (NPR List)
  45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  46. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
  47. Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann
  48. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
  49. Candide, Voltaire
  50. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
  51. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  52. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  53. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  54. Cities of Salt, ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif
  55. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  56. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  57. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  58. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  59. Crime and Punishment, Feodor Dostoevsky
  60. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
  61. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
  62. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler
  63. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  64. Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
  65. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  66. Deliverance, James Dickey
  67. Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
  68. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  69. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
  70. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
  71. Dracula, Bram Stoker
  72. Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin
  73. Dune, Frank Herbert (NPR List)
  74. Emma, Jane Austen
  75. Falconer, John Cheever
  76. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
  77. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
  78. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  79. Frankenstein, Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley (NPR List)
  80. From Here to Eternity, James Jones
  81. Germinal, Emile Zola
  82. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
  83. Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  84. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  85. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  86. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
  87. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  88. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
  89. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  90. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
  91. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
  92. Haroun and the Sea af Stories, Salman Rushdie
  93. Harry Potter Series, J. K. Rowling
  94. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  95. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
  96. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  97. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  98. Holes, Louis Sachar
  99. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  100. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  101. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  102. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
  103. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino
  104. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  105. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  106. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  107. Ironweed, William Kennedy
  108. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  109. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine
  110. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  111. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
  112. Katherine, Anya Seton
  113. Kim, Rudyard Kipling
  114. LA Confidential, James Ellroy
  115. Lanark, Alasdair Gray
  116. Le Pere Goriot, Honore de Balzac
  117. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  118. Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  119. Light in August, William Faulkner
  120. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  121. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  122. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
  123. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  124. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  125. Loving, Henry Green
  126. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  127. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  128. Magician, Raymond E Feist
  129. Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
  130. Matilda, Roald Dahl
  131. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
  132. Men Without Women, Ernest Hemingway
  133. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  134. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  135. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  136. Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
  137. Money, Martin Amis
  138. Mort, Terry Pratchett
  139. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor
  140. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  141. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  142. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  143. Native Son, Richard Wright
  144. Neuromancer, William Gibson (NPR List)
  145. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  146. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  147. Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock
  148. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  149. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  150. Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson
  151. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  152. Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov
  153. Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
  154. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
  155. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  156. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
  157. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
  158. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  159. Oscar And Lucinda, Peter Carey
  160. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
  161. Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford
  162. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
  163. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  164. Petersburg, Andrey Bely
  165. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  166. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
  167. Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley
  168. Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
  169. Possession, A. S. Byatt
  170. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  171. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  172. Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow
  173. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
  174. Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
  175. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
  176. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
  177. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
  178. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  179. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
  180. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (NPR List)
  181. Snow Country, Kawabata Yasunari
  182. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (NPR List)
  183. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  184. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  185. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
  186. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
  187. Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli
  188. Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  189. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  190. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
  191. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  192. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  193. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
  194. The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
  195. The Ambassadors, Henry James
  196. The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
  197. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  198. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  199. The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
  200. The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni
  201. The BFG, Roald Dahl
  202. The Bible
  203. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
  204. The Black Sheep, Honore De Balzac
  205. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  206. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
  207. The Bottle Factory Outing, Beryl Bainbridge
  208. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
  209. The Brothers Karamazov, Feodor Dostoevsky
  210. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  211. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
  212. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  213. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
  214. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  215. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
  216. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
  217. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  218. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  219. The Counterfeiters, Andre Gide
  220. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
  221. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon
  222. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
  223. The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
  224. The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentes
  225. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  226. The Diary of a Nobody, George Grossmith
  227. The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer
  228. The Faraway Tree Collection, Enid Blyton
  229. The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Mitch Alborn
  230. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
  231. The Ginger Man, J. P. Donleavy
  232. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  233. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
  234. The Golden Bowl, Henry James
  235. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  236. The Good Soldier Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek
  237. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
  238. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  239. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  240. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (NPR List)
  241. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  242. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  243. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (NPR List)
  244. The Hound of Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
  245. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  246. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  247. The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope
  248. The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
  249. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  250. The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis (NPR List)
  251. The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  252. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkein (NPR List)
  253. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
  254. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
  255. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  256. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington
  257. The Magus, John Fowles
  258. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  259. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
  260. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
  261. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  262. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
  263. The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
  264. The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett
  265. The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski
  266. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
  267. The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
  268. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  269. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
  270. The Plague, Albert Camus
  271. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  272. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
  273. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  274. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
  275. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
  276. The Princess of Cleves, Madame de Lafayette
  277. The Pursuit Of Love, Nancy Mitford
  278. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
  279. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
  280. The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence
  281. The Recognitions, William Gaddis
  282. The Red and the Black, Stendhal
  283. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  284. The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers
  285. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  286. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  287. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  288. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  289. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  290. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
  291. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
  292. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  293. The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth
  294. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  295. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
  296. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre
  297. The Stand, Stephen King (NPR List)
  298. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
  299. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  300. The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, James T. Farrell
  301. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  302. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
  303. The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
  304. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
  305. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
  306. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (NPR List)
  307. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass
  308. The Trial, Franz Kafka
  309. The Twits, Roald Dahl
  310. The Wapshot Chronicles, John Cheever
  311. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
  312. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler
  313. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
  314. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  315. The Wings of the Dove, Henry James
  316. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
  317. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  318. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  319. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
  320. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre
  321. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  322. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  323. Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell
  324. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  325. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  326. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  327. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  328. U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos
  329. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
  330. Ulysses, James Joyce
  331. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
  332. Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
  333. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  334. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  335. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
  336. Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee
  337. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  338. Watchmen, Alan Moore (NPR List)
  339. Watership Down, Richard Adams (NPR List)
  340. Waverley, Sir Walter Scott
  341. White Noise, Don DeLillo
  342. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  343. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  344. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
  345. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
  346. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
  347. Wise Children, Angela Carter
  348. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence
  349. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  350. Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm

Um . . . Enjoy?

Social Media Changes

August 6, 2012

So a few days ago, this article from The Guardian popped up in my Facebook feed.

Mental note: stop clicking on publishing links.

Okay. Here’s the thing. I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It’s not like I’ve been quiet about my ambivalence, either. I put up with Facebook, but I’m not happy about it. I’ve finally sort of waded into the shallow waters of Goodreads, but only because I’ve been on a reading spree (more about that in a minute). And for a while, I thought maybe Tumblr might be kind of a fun way to build a platform and network a little, but I just don’t have time for it. Plus, it seems to be the Land of Animated GIFs, and they sort of make my brain twitch. I never got into LinkedIn or Google+ or any of the other Up and Coming Things, and I’ve always kind of hated Twitter.

So, after reading that article and evaluating my own feelings and experiences, I quit Twitter and Tumblr. I also trimmed more than 200 friends off my Facebook profile. If you and I are friends on Facebook and you can still see me, congratulations. You made the cut.

The truth that all of us writers, indie and otherwise, sort of know deep down but tend to be reluctant to admit is that social media does not sell books. And even if it does, I do NOT have the time to work it the way folks like Joanna Penn, John Locke, Kristin Lamb, and others suggest. What it does do really well is put writers in touch with other writers. And don’t get me wrong–I’ve met some great folks through social media who have turned into part of my support system. I like to think God or the universe or whoever would have brought them into my life anyway, but who knows? I have social media to thank for those relationships. And some of those folks have bought my work and shared it with others, and that’s awesome.

But for every one of those folks who survived the Great Friend Culling of 2012, I probably had at least five other writer friends who I don’t really know, have nothing in common with, and really never connected with for one reason or another. Those folks? I kind of decided I didn’t want them to see my personal profile. It was partly a safety thing–I like to post pictures of my kids, and I didn’t really want a bunch of folks I don’t know on some level seeing photos of the beasties. By tightening down the security on my personal profile and eliminating some of those shoestring friends, I feel more comfortable posting personal things.

The other folks I eliminated were a lot of people I know in real life, which may seem weird to some of you. But honestly, I feel like having Facebook friends that you see all the time is like sending Christmas cards to your boss who sits in the cubicle next to you. And after being “schooled” several times in the past couple of months by people who seem to think I’m four years old, I decided I’d had enough. If I can’t be comfortable posting what I want on my own Facebook profile, then what’s the point of having it? I’m not talking about healthy disagreement. I’m talking about a “Mom tone.” Such a tone is especially disagreeable coming from someone significantly younger than I am who has not yet walked a mile in my moccasins.

I still have the Facebook fan page for now. I don’t see myself eliminating that anytime soon. But I just really can’t stomach Twitter. And I’m going to keep the personal Facebook circle really small from now on. I just have to if I’m going to stomach it at all.

As I did mention, though, I’m wading more into the Goodreads waters. I said some time back that I wouldn’t write reviews, but that was before I decided to read through the NPR list. And now that other people are reading those posts, I sort of feel like I should put something on Goodreads. Most of those books are popular enough that my little opinion isn’t going to damage the author or the book one iota. That was a huge part of my hesitation to do reviews at all–I didn’t want to harm other indie authors or be inundated with review requests. But now, the funny thing is, I have had a few review requests from indie and small press authors, and I’ve had to turn them down. I don’t really want to be a book blogger–I’m just doing this reading challenge to improve myself.

But anyway, I did decide that, eventually, I’ll move the review posts over to Goodreads and return this blog to its regularly scheduled angsting. It will take a bit of time, though–this summer is still kicking my ass. The reading binge has been good for me, though. With writing and editing, I sort of need blocks of uninterrupted time to work. Reading is easier to fit into whatever else is going on around me. Plus, after a day running the four beasties around, I just simply don’t have the energy to open the computer. I can open a book, though, and I feed my brain that way.

That’s one thing about that article I mentioned at the top, and one huge source of frustration for me (aside from the social media thing): time! Back in the early 90s, I did write like that article suggests. I had downtime at work when I could write or read or even cross stitch. I wrote during a lot of it. Even after I moved on from that job to one that kept me a little busier, I would go home and write for hours in the evening if I wasn’t doing homework. I’d clean our little apartment in a three-hour binge every couple of weeks, and The Man and I would fend for ourselves in regard to meals due to separate, hectic schedules, and I had tons of mental space, creative energy, and free time to indulge my Muse. Most of what I wrote was crap, but I could at least spend time writing it.

Now . . . Four kids, a more hectic schedule, a house that’s at least twice as big as either of our early apartments, volunteer duties, and various and sundry other little things sneak in to steal every ounce of free time and mental space and creative energy. And I’m supposed to take 80% of the precious moments I can block out to tweet and blog and Facebook? Um, no thanks! If I get the time and inclination to write, I’m going to write! And I’m not saying you have to wait for the inclination–you should write whether you feel like it or not, just like a lot of things–but what I was hating was the implication that I had to sit down at my computer and immediately take a bunch of that precious time and use it for social media. For one thing, those moments are rare these days and likely to become rarer. For another thing–I’m an introvert. Even socializing on the Internet is hard and exhausting for me.

Anyway, this is turning into another long and rambly post, so I’ll wrap up. A few quick updates on books I’m reading:

1) I decided to wait till I finish the whole Dark Tower series before I blog about it. I will say I really enjoyed The Gunslinger.

2) I compiled a massive reading challenge list from about six different “top 100” lists I found online. Once I merged them, I came up with about 350 books I’d like to read before I die. So my new plan is to read a book from the NPR list, a book from the massive challenge list, and a book I just want to read for fun. This means my NPR reading will slow down, but it also means I’ll be reading a lot more literary stuff and (hopefully) improving my craft in the process.

3) With #2 in mind, here are some of the books I’ve recently finished:

The Green Mile, by Stephen King

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin

Thunder Over the Prairie, by Howard Kazanjian

Buried by Debt, by Cathryn Grant

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Right now, I’m hovering between Possession, by A. S. Byatt, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather. The Drawing of the Three is on my Kindle, but I needed something more . . . poetic? I don’t know. I just wanted to read something with prose I could really savor. Possession and My Antonia are definitely in that category.

And now, I’m about to turn into a pumpkin. I’ll post again when the reviews are moved over to Goodreads.

Popular vs. Good

July 26, 2012

When I was in high school, I was a “good girl.” I got good grades, I didn’t smoke, drink, or try drugs, and I didn’t have a . . . um, reputation. I was mostly friendly to people, and I hung out with kind of an underdog crowd since I didn’t really fit anywhere else. I never even had detention, y’all. Not even once. But I never considered myself popular. Of course, in a school of only 250 kids, “popularity” is kind of an odd thing since everyone knows everyone anyway, but still–I never really expected to be nominated or win anything where popularity was a factor. And that was fine with me. I’m an introvert, and doing the things that were necessary for popularity didn’t appeal to me at all.

So imagine my shock–and it really was jaw-dropping shock–when I was chosen as prom queen my senior year.

I guess I was a little more popular than I thought.

But these days, when I talk to friends from high school, no one mentions that popularity stuff. What do we all remember? The stupid antics, the friendly rivalries, the moments where one friend held up another who was going through painful times.

My point is this: the title of prom queen was a momentary thing. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it. It was a single night’s event–a moment when I was slightly more popular than the other 30ish girls in my class. But friendships? Those are enduring. I’m still very close to several girls from high school. Ethel and I went to school from the fourth grade on. Those friendship have nothing to do with popularity. They have to do with something far more enduring–something good, something built on shared experiences and moments and hurts and victories.

The massive popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy made me start thinking about the difference between “popular” and “good.” To be honest, the popularity of that series disturbs me a bit, but I sort of decided to live and let live. This Tumblr post from Neil Gaiman calmed me in all kinds of ways. This is why I pay attention to Neil Gaiman. He’s a ridiculously soothing influence on me. I may need professional help.

I try really hard to maintain neutrality when it comes to judging “good” vs. “bad” books. I can critique the writing and the structure and the themes and all that, but I try hard not to make value judgments about the worth of spending hours reading the book. Some people like vanilla, some people like Cherry Garcia. For the purposes of this post, when I talk about “good,” I’m talking about more objective issues, if there is such a thing in literature–writing craft, structure, plot, characterization–those things that critics look at.

Earlier this week, someone shared my NPR Reading Challenge on Reddit, which was a surprising and lovely thing to discover. I went to the Reddit post to read some of the comments, and a lot of folks more well-read in regard to this list had a lot of things to say about the “bad” books on the list.

The thing is, they’re probably right. There are some books on the list that I dread reading. I’ve mentioned Stephen Donaldson before–I won’t be touching the Thomas Covenant series because I tried it once before, and once Thomas Covenant raped a girl and showed zero remorse for it, I lost all respect for him as a character and Donaldson as an author. But that’s a matter of something that disturbs me, not a real critique of the writing or structure of the book. On the other hand, I did read the first few books of the Sword of Truth series, and I actually really enjoyed them up to the point where Richard Cypher Rahl started preaching Ayn Rand everywhere he went. But I’ve read criticism of the writing, and it’s probably accurate–Goodkind can tell a story, but maybe he’s not the best craftsman when it comes to words. He’s competent, though, or he wouldn’t be so popular.

I recently found six more reading lists online and combined them into one enormous list of about 350 books that I would like to make sure I read at least once in my lifetime. But the thing is–those lists run the gamut of classics (Dracula, Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables, Don Quixote) to modern literary fiction (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Naipaul, Mistry, Atwood, Franzen) to beach reads (The Da Vinci Code) to children and YA stuff (Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web). And in a list of 350 books, you’re bound to run into some that are popular, but not necessarily good.

So here are the questions I’ve been mulling over. Is reading what’s “popular” a worthy use of my time? Well, I think “yes, sometimes.” It’s good to know what’s going on in my genre, even if it doesn’t influence what I write, and it’s probably worth it to look at what’s “popular” in other genres or categories I enjoy and want to emulate–namely, literary fiction (I’ll come back to that). But outside of my genre or category? Meh. Probably not, which is why I haven’t really hopped onto a lot of the YA book bandwagons. I haven’t read The Hunger Games or Twilight or any of Amanda Hocking’s stuff.

Which leads me to the next thought: maybe there’s a difference between “popular” and “enduring.” On all of these lists–the NPR list and the others I found online–there are a lot of books that are decades or even centuries old. They’re enduring. They last. We can still read Frankenstein and appreciate it for the stunning imagery and the questions it asked without giving heavy-handed answers. We can read Jane Austen and appreciate her social commentary and biting wit. But in 100 years, will anyone still read Fifty Shades and appreciate it for . . . well, anything? Or Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or The Name of the Wind or Wizard’s First Rule? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt those books are “enduring” in the way that Hamlet or Gulliver’s Travels or The Iliad are “enduring.”

But does that make them not worth reading at all? There’s where I can’t be sure. Sometimes I eat a burger for dinner, and while I’m thankful for the food and glad for the nutrition, it’s not exactly the kind of meal I tend to remember. But once, The Man and I ate dinner at the Ritz Carlton on Grand Cayman, and every morsel of food, every sip of wine, every interaction with the staff of the restaurant imprinted itself on my memory. One meal provides an enduring experience, one does not, but that does not mean I didn’t need or want the burger. So sure–read popular, less enduring stuff, or at least try it, because feeding your brain with something is better than nothing.

And then my final question: do I want to be “popular” or “good?” I think “good” works of literature certainly have a much higher chance of becoming “enduring.” It’s the difference between E. L. James and Ray Bradbury that Neil Gaiman so eloquently pointed out in that Tumblr post. James may sell more than Bradbury right now, but chances are good that her work is not enduring. People will be reading Bradbury until the end of books, I have no doubt.

When it’s all said and done, do I want to endure? Do I want to be popular now and have no legacy in 20 or 30 years? I’m thinking . . . no. I’d rather be good. Good and popular would be nice, of course, but I’d rather err on the side of good. In fact, one of my goals in reading this new massive list of 350 works is to really study the more literary pieces and figure out why they work and how to write that way in genre. I’d love to be known as someone who writes literary fantasy.

And ultimately, I want my work to endure the test of time. I’m not there yet, but with a whole crapload of hard work, maybe someday I’ll be on a Top 100 list.

It’s my hope that it won’t be a list of “good beach reads.”

Challenge Book #22: The Handmaid’s Tale

July 24, 2012
The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Top 100 Spec Fic Reading Challenge: Book #22

Book: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Readability: Readable, but some unusual style choices. Also, it’s in the first person present tense, which just makes me twitchy.

Stand-out Line: There are several:

“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.” ~ Offred, speaking to men and women of the future

“That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real.” ~ Offred, in reference to her husband killing their cat before they try to escape

“But she exists, in her white dress. She grows and lives. Isn’t that a good thing? A blessing? Still, I can’t bear it, to have been erased like that. Better she’d brought me nothing.” ~ Offred, after the Commander’s Wife shows her a picture of her daughter

Will I re-read it? I don’t know.

I’m sure you probably guess that I have some opinions about abortion, reproductive rights, birth control, family planning, and the government’s role in all of those things. I mean, who doesn’t, right? No matter what your particular political, religious, or social perspective is, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably going to push some pretty seriously sensitive buttons.

I’m not going to talk about any of that.

There may be people who really would like to know what the political and religious side of me thought of the book, but I really don’t want to focus on those things. That’s not what my blog is about. I’d rather focus on what the reader and writer in me thought of the book.

In short? It’s a beautifully written, very frightening story set in a dystopian world that I hope never comes to fruition.

I said above that the first person present tense form makes me twitchy, and that’s true. I’m really not a huge fan of the first person–that’s mostly just a personal thing, and could have possibly been part of what interfered with my enjoyment of The Kingkiller Chronicles. Present tense is just . . . Ugh, it’s painful to me. I don’t like it at all. So really, it’s saying a lot that I was almost 10% into the book before I really thought about the fact that it’s in the first person present. I think it may have helped that the narrator occasionally slips into past tense for flashbacks.

As for the writing . . . It’s beautiful and haunting. In a lot of ways, this is a book I would love to write. This is the kind of book I intend to write, someday–something literary and haunting and beautiful that lingers when you close it. I loved the way Atwood played with symbols and themes, and I thought she was absolutely brilliant in how she would lead the reader along with something that seemed mundane and then hit you with something heavy, something that tied the whole scene together or gave it more weight. The pacing was darn near perfect. I don’t think you can classify it as a plot-driven book, really; it’s a lot heavier on character development than plot development. The plot really only seems to serve to change Offred. And really, that’s fine–this is definitely a more literary work than a genre work, and I think one of the hallmarks of literary fiction is a bigger focus on character, character development, and character change. In that sense, I really did love it. My number one focus as both a reader and a writer is character.

But the biggest thing, really, was how I related to Offred. As a mother, this book punched me in the gut. Well, punched me in the gut and ripped out my intestines and still-beating heart before cutting off my hands and feet and shooting me in the head, perhaps. As much as the beasties irritate and annoy me, I cannot even comprehend how awful it would be to have them taken away from me without just cause. I cannot picture a world where I am not “Mom.” And what I really fear is that I would be like Offred in another way–that I would be afraid to fight back, afraid to rock the boat because I would always hold out some hope of seeing my children again and nurture some fear that they would be in danger if I fought.

The book certainly has a well-deserved place on any “best novel” or “top 100” list. It’s beautiful and literary and brilliant. But read it again? I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think it might take a lot to get me to go there. It might just end up being one of those books that you can only read once because letting the story linger is more satisfying than trying to recreate the first time reading experience and failing.

Next: The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that one since it’s seven very long books. I might comment on each one, or I might just read the first and then stop. We’ll see how I feel after The Gunslinger. I haven’t read much Stephen King–mostly because I’m a big wuss about scary things–but I just read The Green Mile and loved it, so I’m very much looking forward to this series.

 

Challenge Book #21: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

July 21, 2012
do androids dream of electric sheep?

do androids dream of electric sheep? (Photo credit: mirindas27)

Top 100 Spec Fic Reading Challenge: Book #21

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Author: Philip K. Dick

Readability: Readable

Stand-out Line: “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.” — Wilbur Mercer to Rick Deckard

Will I re-read it? Probably not

I’ve started this post three times. I cannot figure out how to write it. I’m going to just stumble along and hope that y’all will forgive me for being inarticulate on this one, all right?

One of the reasons I read speculative fiction is because of the questions it asks. In fact, I would say this is, quite possibly, the best reason I read speculative fiction. Well, this and the swords. I do like swords.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a prime example of everything I love about speculative fiction. Among the really fascinating questions it asks: What constitutes “life”? Are androids alive? Do they have rights? Should they? What obligation do we have to those things we create? Our fellow man? Do we shun “specials” because they aren’t as smart as the rest of us?

In those ways, it’s exactly what I love to read.

But.

I have to tell y’all–I struggled mightily with this one. It wasn’t offensive or dense or sexist or any of the other stuff I have a hard time reading.

The writing. It was the writing.

The dialogue was, to me, incredibly stilted and not realistic at all. The prose was serviceable, but not especially eloquent or descriptive or lovely. I felt like I was slogging through the book, even though it’s a spare 240-ish pages, according to my Kindle. It seemed like it took forever to read it.

Which all raises a question that Rabia Gale asked in the comments on my blog the other day: which is more important–story or style? And to be honest, this is a book I would point to as being one that just about lost me despite the very good story.

I do think writers are probably a lot pickier about writing, style, prose, voice, all that stuff than the average reader. I feel like a snob when I say that. I don’t mean for it to sound snobbish–I just think we have more sensitive nerves for certain things than most readers do. It’s the same kind of cringe reaction that any expert has when someone else attempts to express things about that field. Not that all of us are experts, but we do practice the craft of writing, and when we see writing that doesn’t quite fit with the way we’ve practiced or learned or whatever, we sort of do this involuntary cringe or grimace. For me, there’s a line where the work of reading something outweighs the joy of the story.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? just about crossed that line.

But the funny thing is . . . even now, as I skim through the text on my Kindle, I think, “well, it wasn’t that bad. What was it I didn’t like?” In all honesty, I can’t really pinpoint it. It may just be something indefinable–style or voice, perhaps?–that made it so hard for me to read.

If this book had not been on my challenge list, I would not have finished it. I did find it growing on me as I read, but if I had only sampled it, I would have decided it wasn’t for me and just moved on. I am entirely willing to admit that this is very likely just a subjective thing and that other folks will find the writing in this book brilliant and lovely and perhaps even symbolic of deeper themes.

There were some very good things about the book, I thought. As I mentioned, the questions were quite intriguing, even the less obvious ones (is it adultery if a man cheats on is wife by having sex with an android?). The plot is pretty tight. The themes are a little heavy-handed, but they’re good ones, so I kind of forgive that. And I can see why this book became a movie–it reads like one, in a way, and even though I’ve never seen the movie (Bladerunner–please don’t revoke my geek card), I could totally picture Harrison Ford in the role of Rick Deckard. There’s lots of action and good intrigue and a fair dose of mystery–all of which make it ideal for a movie treatment.

But for me, the story and themes just did not outweigh the writing.

Next up is The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I confess–I’ve been meaning to read this one for years and just never got around to it. I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Problem with Fantasy . . .

July 16, 2012

After reading the two already-published installments of The Kingkiller Chronicles, I started to put into words some of the real criticism I have about my beloved genre. I think these thoughts are worth sharing in more general terms for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to rant about Rothfuss anymore. I don’t think his books are rant-worthy. I just think they’re overhyped and not nearly as brilliant as people think. Second, I want to go over these things because I think anyone who reads my blog and writes fantasy might find them useful. And third, I want you all to know what I’m trying to avoid in my own work!

As I see it, fantasy falls into three big traps:

The books exist to build bridges, set up conflicts, or establish scenarios for future plots. One could argue that most of The Wheel of Time exists purely to set up the next book, ad infinitum, until we hopefully get the big payoff in the last book. I wouldn’t know because I don’t plan to re-read the books. The problem of books existing only to bridge gaps is probably more of a problem with second books, I think. I suspect that authors work so hard on those first books in order to get an agent or publisher that the first book is usually polished to a fine sheen–plots are tight as they can be, characters as fleshed out as possible, worlds intricately built.

But the problem is that when we come to book two, authors have deadlines, expectations, and multi-book deals in hand. So maybe there’s a rush to write something to meet the deadline and expectations. Or even worse–book one was outrageously successful, so maybe in the haste to publish book two and book three, the author writes like a demon, the agent and publisher work more on marketing or publishing than on editing, and the result is a book that’s not nearly as tight as the first one.

Listen, authors. Every book in your series should potentially stand alone. There should be some kind of central conflict, some kind of goal for each book in the series. Do not expect your readers to go along with you for three or five or twelve books just hoping for the big payoff at the end. Give them a payoff in each book.

Too much backstory becomes frontstory. Did I just make that word up–“frontstory?” Honestly, I think this is about 90% of the problem I had with Rothfuss’ books, and I think this is quite possibly why Kvothe comes off as such a special snowflake to me. If I just didn’t have to hear every flipping detail about his entire life, maybe he wouldn’t come across as so irritating. I think Rothfuss got caught up in writing backstory and history for Kvothe and never really distilled those stories into an actual plot.

I have about 200 – 250 pages of backstory written on Connor Mac Niall because he’s the central character of The Taurin Chronicles. I have a responsibility to know about his life, his past, his upbringing. But aside from showing how his past made him into the man he is, this backstory really has nothing to do with the main series. I had thought about publishing that backstory as a separate prequel novella once, but here’s the thing: there’s no central conflict. That backstory is just backstory. I’ve looked for a central conflict and never found one. It’s just a list of highlights and events from Connor’s life that really don’t hang together as a story in themselves. Oh, each scene is moderately entertaining, but as a whole, it reads like an episodic, plotless journal of events except that it’s written in 3rd person.

That’s the problem with a lot of fantasy, I think. It turns episodic quickly. I think fantasy authors get caught up in world-building efforts or in learning about characters by writing backstory, and we get so excited about it all that we think everyone needs to read everything. Well, no. Not really. It’s okay to write this stuff just for you. As I always say, “all the words count.” Not only do those pieces of backstory help make you a better writer, they also give you a deeper knowledge of your world and your characters, which can bring depth to your work even when the specifics don’t end up on the page.

Competent writing covers a multitude of sins. This is a huge issue, I think. There are a lot of really good storytellers out there who are pretty competent when it comes to putting the words on paper. Rothfuss is a good storyteller, and his writing is easy to read. (Although, I have to say, the rhyming couplets in dialogue might be a tad over the top, Mr. Rothfuss.) The same is true of George R. R. Martin. He’s an excellent writer, and he has us all hooked on his world, so when his books come out, we all ignore the fact that they exist only to bridge the gap to the next book (A Feast For Crows, I’m looking at you). And the truth is, you don’t have to be a great writer to cover up the sins of No Plot, Shallow Characterization, or Skimpy Worldbuilding. You only have to be competent. I’m competent. Rothfuss is competent. Eddings was brilliant. Martin is somewhere between competent and brilliant, depending on the book. Gaiman is brilliant.

But what a lot of us don’t like to admit is that Stephanie Meyer is competent. Amanda Hocking is competent. Dan Brown is competent. Those authors are often lambasted for lack of talent and ability, but the truth is, they’re competent. They may not be brilliant, but they tell compelling stories in a way that makes people keep reading. The story and the writing covers up the sins that more critical eyes will notice–the Mary Sue qualities of a character or the fact that the story is too episodic or has major plot holes. (I do think that the more truly brilliant authors you read, the less you will like merely competent writing, so if y’all could just stay away from Gaiman before you read my work, I’d sure appreciate it.)

Competent writing and storytelling will take you far, but please, don’t let it be an excuse to put all your backstory up front or give us a never-ending list of Events Which Must Take Place so that we can all get to the payoff in book twelve.

There are a lot of fantasy authors who’ve done it right. While I have criticisms of J. K. Rowling, I think she was brilliant in making each book a stand-alone story. Yes, they’re slightly formulaic, but they work–and remember, they’re supposed to be YA! Each book gives us clues to the bigger story and payoff–the final battle between Voldemort and Harry–but each book has a plot, conflict, and goal of its own. Same with David Eddings–Garion/Belgarion’s journeys in both The Belgariad and The Mallorean extend over five books, but each book in each five-book series has a plot and conflict of its own. The characters are also fully developed, and the world is deep and rich. And for all my criticism of A Feast For Crows, I do want to go on record as saying that A Clash of Kings is my favorite book in A Song of Ice and Fire–mainly because the entire book builds up to the Battle of the Blackwater, and yet it still gives us enough little clues about the world that Martin carries the overarching plot forward into A Crown of Swords.

This turned out to be a lot longer than I intended. Sorry about that. I hope it doesn’t sound ranty. Here’s a final thought: I know I’m a competent writer. Some of you tell me I’m brilliant, and I appreciate that and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I also know I’ve read brilliant writing, and I’m not it. I have occasional flashes of brilliance, like the blog says, but the more I write and read other writers, the more I realize I have a lot of room for growth and improvement.

But I could take the compliments and just say, “hey, my readers don’t care–I can go ahead and just publish and let my writing cover up the bad plot or skimpy world-building, because I know my characters are great.” But I don’t want to do that. I want everything I publish to be top notch–or as top notch as I can get it–even in the little things. From the simplest sentence to the biggest plot twist, I want it all to hang together. I don’t want to rely on a few bits of snappy dialogue or good description to get people to buy my work. I want the whole thing to be good.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my criticisms of fantasy? Do you have other criticisms of the genre?

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