Book Review: The Corrections

The Corrections FranzenI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never thought I could be so absorbed by a book about such despicable people.

I used to think I’d have to root for at least one character in a story in order to enjoy a work of fiction. The character could be an anti-hero, even a truly evil person who makes a turn for the better around the story’s mid-point. Just give me a scrap of likeability and I’ll lap it up if the writing is good.

But Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections gave me an entire family of persistently miserable creatures. These people aren’t just flawed—they’re morally depraved, shallow, greedy, weak-willed, manipulative. Sometimes what makes reading about and despising characters like the Lamberts so jarring and titillating is simultaneously recognizing glimmers of yourself in their despicability. And that’s what makes this book such a great read. Its honesty is naked and raw. The lack of a true hero and the bluntness of the family’s prejudices and meanness may be unpleasant, but it’s also real. When I read the thoughts of the characters I sometimes wondered if the author had tapped into the undercurrent of my thoughts–the unfortunate things I whisper in my mind when I think I’m not listening. Franzen taps into the modern American consciousness and, with his seemingly effortless way with words, puts its bad face to pen and paper.

The Corrections broaches so many topics: consumerism, sexual repression and expression, the decline of rural America. At the base of it all is the family struggle—the clash between eras, the rejection of childhood and disgust with aging. I felt like a therapist puzzling together the pieces of my patients’ lifetimes to find the root of the evil possessing them. Their personal problems and relationships were so compelling, I couldn’t put the book down even as I ground my teeth to a fine dust.

I think you should read this book. Yes, I think you should brace yourself for discomfort, big laughs, seething sessions, frustration and the kind of deep satisfaction that comes with clarity.

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Book Review: Abarat

The early Hellraiser movies have long been favorites of mine and so Clive Barker’s name always means good things to me. I’ve long thought of Barker as a great mind in horror but, terrible fan that I am, I didn’t realize his work went beyond the one genre.

Needless to say, I was intrigued when I randomly learned he’d written a series of Young Adult fantasy novels, starting with Abarat. After reading the summary on the back of the book, the title immediately went on my summer reading list. Here’s the summary:

A journey beyond imagination is about to unfold…

It begins in the most boring place in the world: Chickentown, U.S.A. There lives Candy Quackenbush, her heart bursting for some clue as to what her future might hold.

When the answer comes, it’s not the one she expects.

Welcome to Abarat.

That little blip took me back to some of my favorite childhood movies and stories with the common theme of young person struggling to find his or her purpose, and then discovering it in a fantasy world (particularly the Harry Potter books, Labyrinth, and the Adventures of Baron Munchhausen the movie). These are the stories that have influenced and shaped my own writing.

The Review

It’s been a long time since I read YA fiction, which is bad news since it’s my novel’s genre. I think the last YA book I read was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when it had just come out.  It was a little jarring returning to it after so many years. Along the lines of my earlier adverbs post, some prevalent literary rules are broken in the genre but that sort of thing doesn’t bother me much, especially while traveling through a gorgeous world like Barker’s Abarat. He really is a master when it comes to creating unique creatures and settings; he doesn’t hold back. I might as well have been in Abarat as I read about Candy’s adventures.

I also want to note that there’s more diversity in Barker’s novel than I’ve seen in YA lit in general. This made me happy.

Barker’s prose captivates. I was taken on a ride right from the start with the first sentence.

The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.

So simple, so telling.

If you’re looking for a story that’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before and breaks the boundaries of structure and form, or a story that deals with issues rarely broached in literature, this probably isn’t the book for you. If you think “serious” literature is the only “good” literature, this isn’t the book for you.

I was looking for a book that reminded me why I love YA fantasy and inspired me to work harder on my own novel. This was the book for me.

What I Learned

Abarat gave my imagination much-needed exercise. Many times as I read, I wanted to run to my laptop and think of ways to make the world in my WIP richer. World-building is supposed to be fun, and I think I forgot that. Here’s a description of one of the islands in Abarat–the Yebba Dim Day, an island shaped like a big head:

It was a city, a city built from the litter of the sea. The street beneath her feet was made from timbers that had clearly been in the water for a long time, and the walls were lined with barnacle-encrusted stone. There were three columns supporting the roof, made of coral fragments cemented together. They were buzzing hives of life unto themselves; their elaborately constructed walls pierced with dozens of windows, from which light poured.

There were three main streets that wound up and around these coral hives, and they were all lined with habitations and thronged with the Yebba Dim Day’s citizens.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series.

Summer 2012 Reading List

Remember summer reading lists in high school? I think I was one of few people who looked forward to getting that list at the end of the school year. Well, inspired by The Paris Review’s Facebook post sharing Carl Sagan’s reading list (originally posted in The Atlantic), I decided to write down and share my summer 2012 reading list.

Here’s my list:

And here’s Carl Sagan’s:

I realize mine isn’t nearly as impressive, but I think I’ve got a good mix going. I’m reading Abarat now.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Book Review: The Night Circus

Have you ever felt like you were suddenly left homeless after finishing a book? Like you really lived in the setting and experienced it, only to have that home and the promise of future experiences snatched away by The End?

When I finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, I felt like Bailey looking out over the hill to see Le Cirque des Rêves only to find an empty field.

Books like The Night Circus remind me that words are truly magical. They have the ability to transport the reader and convince her that the impossible is possible.

The Story

At Le Cirque des Rêves, a haunting and fantastic circus that arrives as suddenly as it disappears, visitors gain access to the inexplicable and breathtaking wonders housed within each black and white tent. But they are not privy to the mechanics behind each tent…the workings of magicians Celia and Marco. And they do not know that the circus is actually a battleground where the pair must participate in a competition they’ve been trained for since childhood. As Celia and Marco fall in love, the wonders within the circus increase, as do the stakes.

The Review

This book was almost everything I’d hoped to find sandwiched between the covers of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which I still haven’t convinced myself to finish). Magic, love, interesting settings and characters…basically, “the works” for a lover of fantasy and magic. I really cared about the fate of Le Cirque des Rêves and its performers. I turned each page to visit the circus and to learn more about those involved. There’s both poetry and clarity to Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus, and you can’t help but feel like you’re there, experiencing it for yourself.

I enjoyed the pace of the novel, with its short chapters and juicy little tidbits expanding upon the mood and various tents in Le Cirque des Rêves. It was a pretty quick read, and I didn’t feel like the story dragged.

Morgenstern’s use of magic was unique. I expected Harry Potter style battles with wands drawn and spells shouted, but got something refreshing and unexpected instead.

The characters were a bit iffy. This was one of those rare stories where I found myself more interested in the supporting characters (namely, Poppet and Widget) than the main characters. Celia and Marco were interesting at times, but I didn’t find myself truly invested in their love story. They lacked the depth I need from main characters. I was more concerned about the fate of the circus, Poppet, Widget and Bailey. Also, Prospero seemed like a bit of an afterthought by the end (maybe to match his physical state).

As for the rest of the conclusion, it didn’t give me an “Aha!” moment–I wouldn’t call it a strong finish–but I was satisfied and it didn’t change my mind about the novel as a whole.

The Night Circus is a lovely fairy tale that offers its reader a brief life in an unforgettable circus. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good circus story; this book was certainly crafted for rêveurs. If you’re instead seeking a love story for the ages or an impeccable plot, this book might not be your cup o’ tea.

What I Learned

I predict I’ll often turn to this book when I need good examples of descriptive voice, especially when describing settings. For me, The Night Circus solidified the concept of writing to provide an experience. Morgenstern’s prose took all five of my senses on a wild ride.

A Writer on “Your Brain on Fiction”

By NEUROtiker (Own work) GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)

I’m sure your cranium is flooded with advice about avoiding common metaphor and simile, using active voice, thoughtful word usage and phrasing. It can be easy to blithely ignore these tips when we’re struggling with our craft, when we’re exhausted and we just want to be done with our manuscripts. But in the end the care one takes in writing can make the difference between some words on a page and a mind-altering experience.

The good Doctor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tagged me in a Facebook post about an article published by the New York Times discussing “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul and I had to post it here for all of the wonderful writers who stop by, who have ever had doubts about the value of their work.

Murphy Paul’s article shares research supporting the idea that fiction makes a real impact on its reader’s brain. From a writer’s point of view, the brain’s reaction to fiction provides real insight into the science behind some of the advice with which we’re barraged. For instance, we’re advised to be mindful about metaphor, most importantly to avoid clichés. A research team in Spain published the results of their study on the brain’s reaction to metaphor.

…some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Utilizing the different senses in original ways drills our words beyond the eye into parts of the brain IRL smells, textures, tastes activate. Mindful and original metaphor is a boon and one of the most useful literary devices we have to turn our words into experiences.

In another study, scientists found that the motor cortex was stimulated by sentences relating actions.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Writers strive to pull readers into their stories and take them on the adventure. When reading becomes an experience, a book becomes unforgettable–it lodges itself into our memories in the same way that that unexpected and exciting journey to a new country, that first encounter with a friend or lover, that illuminating therapy session implants itself into our minds.

Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

As writers, we’re doing more than just trying to get published, make a buck, and get famous (perhaps MOST writers). We’re trying to make an impact and to share something about the human experience. Personally, writing is my therapy and a novel is a place where I can be heard, where I can relieve myself of the sad stories weighing down my heart, or comfort myself with a happy ending. Channeling the contents of my mind and heart through the written word provides a sort of closure and makes the telling meaningful. It’s shared understanding through shared experience.

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely keeping this article in mind the next time I’m wallowing in lazy, ready to settle for weak and common content. I’ll remember that I’m not just writing; I’m lighting up cortices.

Updates from a Bookworm

Yes, I do own a magenta Snuggie® (and it came with a book light).

Wednesday was payday AND I’m only one chapter away from finishing The Nerdist Way. Naturally, I rushed to the Internet and treated myself to a brand new book. So exciting.

I chose Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride. Never read Atwood, but I’ve heard great things.

I’m still working my way through The Disappearing Spoon. I’ve never run across a non-fic book I couldn’t put down, but this one sounded interesting. I have a deep-seated hatred of chemistry so I thought a unique and relatable take on the subject would help me cope with the nightmares recounting my college chemistry professor’s obsession with comparing chemical reactions to the preparation of ham sandwiches. It’s honestly slow-going, but I’m determined to finish.

While browsing books, I put The Hunger Games on my wish list. I really don’t know anything about the story, but I think it’s important to be aware of works that achieve such widespread success and commendation, especially in the Young Adult world since that’s the audience my novel will be directed toward.

I read the summary on Amazon…

 In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

…and was interested.

I also recently finished reading Just One More Thing, Peter Falk’s memoirs, but I’ll spare you a book review that would likely appeal to about 1% of the people who stop by my blog. In short–very Peter Falk, very Columbo. Quick, entertaining read…and I had no idea Falk was a talented screenwriter. Reading his memoirs, I’m convinced he could have been a copywriter for Ogilvy if he hadn’t succeeded as an actor. Okay S.Z., shut up about Peter Falk already.

On the topic of books, I just realized that there’s a giant independent bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles, appropriately named The Last Bookstore. It’s amazing how oblivious I am to these things. As a voracious wordeater, I should support my local indie bookstores instead of immediately going to Amazon for my bookish needs. I’m repairing the situation by attending the L.A. Zine Fest event being held at the shop on Sunday, February 19. I hope I get there in time to catch Henry Rollins.

Meet you back here on Monday for an L.A. Zine Fest recap!

P.S. I’m not big on memes, but this one made me giggle.

Reading for Writing

I used to read a lot in my youth. I mean, a lot. I avoided many an awkward social situation, such as homeroom (the high school equivalent of a networking function), by sticking my nose into whatever book I had in my backpack–and I always had at least one book in my backpack. Then, I chose English as my college major and I was reading great stacks of books. At UCLA, I took the obligatory (and infamous) 10 series, and carried around a 10-lb. book of canonized tales at all times. Let’s call it “The English Major’s Bible,” since I can’t recall its actual title and it was often mistaken for a bible.

My reading habits took a fall when I began writing more. I guess it was a combination of not having the drive to make time for reading and writing, new priorities, and a budding social life. I also had this strange idea that I would become a more original writer by reading less. I tend to absorb writing styles. There was a time when all of my high school essays read like letters from the Regency Era. This year, I decided to get back into the swing of reading; to squeeze a little more time out of my day for the practice. As in high school and college, I’m back to being a voracious consumer of words, but I’ve noticed a difference in the way I read now.

I find myself consciously noting the author’s style, their word usage and phrasing. The narrative voice and dialogue. I’m reading like a writer. In other words, I’m not just reading to get a quick fix of fantasy, to escape or relax; I’m reading to learn more about writing. And it has helped me through some challenges.

For instance, I’ve been trying to cut back on the use of adverbs (read this quickie from the NY Times Collections), but I started to worry that the “saids” were taking over my page and everyone would notice. I later cracked open a book, started reading and skimmed backward to find a million “saids” peppering the dialogue–I hadn’t even noticed as I read.

In consequence of my new habit, I’ll be posting book reviews here after each reading, and adding a reading list page with links to each review. I’ll also note anything new I learned from the reading. First book on the list: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” (unless I get a book for Christmas).