Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Weekly Poll 12/16/09: Favorite Genres

Getting back on my blog feels like coming home after a long trip--I've missed my blog while I've been busy the past week grading, preparing for finals, writing a presentation, and presenting at a conference in Poland.  Even though I returned from Poland just in time to attack ten stacks of grading work that I need to do, I feel quite calm now that I was able to take the preparation work for the conference off my to-do list.  I can return to a more normal schedule, one that includes visiting my beloved blog more often.  It's so lovely to click on the website and know that my blog will be there waiting for me. . .  And I thank all my readers for their patience while I was away (both physically and mentally).

The poll question from two weeks ago was this:

When it comes to your reading choices, do you have a favorite genre?

Naturally, the two answers to choose from were "yes" and "no."  The results are in (and have been in for a week), and 100% of responders answered "no."

I find this interesting because going into the question, I thought that most readers would have one genre that they preferred reading in over others.  My initial response to the question was that I was sure I had a favorite genre--I just had to put some thought into which one I preferred most.  I thought and thought and realize my so-called favorite genre changed with my reading mood.  Some days I prefer reading young adult books, other days I prefer reading any kind of fantasy book, and yet other days I prefer reading books that fit into a genre all on their own.  I used to be the type of reader that picked up one book and read it from start to finish before starting another book.  Now I've turned into the type of reader that has several books started and reads whichever book suits her fancy for the day.  I'm currently reading The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (and still loving it), Sherlock Holmes by Sir Conan Doyle (I'm making my way through the complete works), and City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.  These three books only have one thing in common when it comes to genre: They are all works of fiction.  So perhaps my favorite genre is simply "Fiction," as I tend to read much more fiction than non-fiction when I read for fun.  But can "Fiction" be a label for reading choices?  I feel like it's entirely too broad to say much about my reading habits (and I feel like using it as an answer is kind of cheating), yet it's the only one broad enough to fit in all my favorites.

The next poll question is up (or will be in about five minutes), so be sure to head over to the left-hand sidebar to get your answer involved in the next weekly poll discussion.

Happy reading in whatever genre suits your fancy!

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Love Affair with THE ICE QUEEN

Read sometimes for the story....  Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that.  Read sometimes for the words--the language.  Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that.  But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.  --Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis
This quote from Stephen King makes my breath stop--it does more than just take it away, it makes it impossible for me to breathe while my body processes the words.  I am the type of reader that gets carried away with books and their words and their stories.  When I read a good book, I forget that there is a world outside, and I crawl inside the book and live there until I'm finished with it.  I have posted before about how my favorite books are those that have both content and style; I take King's advice and treasure those books.  A while ago, a colleague of mine recommended that I read The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, and I started reading it a few weeks ago.  The book is so beautiful that I find I'm picking it up in spurts and enjoying it slowly, much like I would a gourmet dessert that I want to make last as long as possible.  I read a few pages, type out all the memorable quotes I encountered in those pages, and then reflect.  I can't push myself to go any faster because I don't want the book to be over too soon.  It's 'joie de lire' at its best.

The book is about a woman who is struck by lightning and survives; her story really begins after the lightning strike, which allows her to open herself up to another person--a fellow lightning strike survivor.  The story is intriguing because it revolves around a woman whose life is mundane at best, yet Hoffman crafts it with such love that I find myself drawn to this woman's story.  The book is so well written, that I find myself wanting to know what it feels like to be struck by lightning so that I can better commiserate with the main character.  I think that's one of the highest recommendations I can give a book--it makes me want to be struck by lightning, and not in a bad way.  The book has rendered me speechless, so instead of focusing on my own musings, I'm going to let Hoffman's words speak for themselves.

Hoffman's descriptions of characters rarely rely on physical traits but rather on personality quirks and beliefs and actions.  One such instance of character description through thought is the following paragraph, which is told from the main character's viewpoint:

I didn't believe that people got what they deserved.  I didn't believe in a rational, benevolent world that could be ordered to suit us, an existence presumed to fit snugly into an invented logic.  I had no faith in pie charts or diagrams of humanity wherein the wicked were divided from the good and the forever after was in direct opposition to the here and now.
As a person who doesn't regularly focus on outward appearances as the definition of people, I appreciate her attention to providing truer descriptions.  Later on in the book, she describes a man as beautiful, but never once stops to justify that description physically but instead focuses on how he is beautiful because of his energy--his raw magnetism.

The main character is a librarian, so Hoffman also provides descriptions of books, reading habits, and libraries.  One description that got my attention is how the character defined her brother in terms of his reading choices; while she is a fan of fairy tales (Grimms' fairy tales--not Andersen's), her brother is not.

He'd always had some comment to make: Genetically impossible for men to turn into beasts.  Ridiculous to imagine that a woman could sleep for a hundred years.  Absurd to think the dead could speak in rhymes and the living could make wishes that come true.  But the logic of fairy tales was that there was no logic: bad things happened to the innocent, children were set out in the woods by their parents, fear walked hand in hand with experience, a wish spoken aloud could make it so.

I like how she boils it down to "the logic of fairy tales was that there was no logic."  This analysis provides more description of the character by showcasing her belief that life is not fair and people do not get what they deserve.  It also shows the distinction between her and her brother: her brother prefers logic while she prefers the illogical.

Hoffman's descriptions of events are also spell-binding.  In the following passage, she describes the moments just before a man (a roofer) got struck by lightning:

Halfway through his work, he heard a hissing sound, and he found himself thinking of hell and whether or not he might end up there, if such a place existed.  His fingers started to tingle.  And then he saw what he thought was the moon falling from the sky.  But the moon had a tail, and that was surely a bad sign.  It was ball lightning; it fell on the roof and rolled down toward him.  It looked like a comet headed straight for him, a blue-black thing that was as solid and real as a truck or boot or a living, breathing man.  The roofer thought he might be face-to-face with the devil himself, that fallen angel.  He thought about everything he hadn't yet done in his life.  All of a sudden owning a dog seemed like the most important thing in the world.
Hoffman is realistic in her depictions of what people think, and I love how the man's last moments before being struck go not toward his family or his life or anything of great importance but instead toward the fact that he had never owned a dog.  I tend to wonder if lives actually flash before people's eyes or if people who say that are just too afraid to admit that their thoughts zoomed in on something insignificant during what could have been the last moment of their lives.

Hoffman also poses fascinating questions through the character's thoughts:

Could you walk into fear as one person and come back as someone else entirely?
If an ice age could be triggered by trivial shifts in the earth's orbit, what might be wrought by a woman in tears?
Are people drawn to each other because of the stories they carry inside?
When I come to questions in the book, I have to stop reading and put the book down to give myself time to think about what is being asked and how I would respond.  Oftentimes, the questions will be followed by the character's thoughts on the issue, and I like to work out how I feel about the questions before I find out how the character answers them.  It's a great thinking practice, and the book is making me more philosophical than I often am.

Happy reading and savoring your treasured books!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Weekly Poll 12/2/09

The voting for the last poll question I asked closed a week ago, but I am just now getting around to writing about the results.  With the holidays and the end of the semester and life in general, I let my blogging slide--so much so that I barely remembered to write this post today, and I only have 46 minutes left before it's no longer Wednesday.

The question asked what you would like to receive if you were to win a contest on a book blog (one much like mine); out of the four choices, which were a book, book paraphernalia, a gift certificate, and other, all the votes were for the same one: a gift certificate.  I find that a wise choice, seeing as how it's not much fun to win a book if you've already got it or if you're not interested in reading it.  With a gift certificate, you get the power to choose, and isn't that something we Americans treasure?

The reason I asked that particular question is that I'm toying with the idea of doing a contest on my blog, and I wanted to find out what my readers would be most interested in receiving as a prize.  With only two votes, I only know what two of my readers want, but I have a sneaky suspicion most readers would agree with the assessment that we'd rather get money to spend however we'd like than get a specific prize.  It's like being on a game show and having the ability to take $15,000 in cash rather than the car that you don't really want.  When I decide exactly what I want to do with the contest, I will keep in mind the fact that my readers would appreciate gift certificates.

Thank you to those who voted, and remember to check out this week's question, which is posted in the left-hand sidebar.

Happy reading and voting!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Short Break

Between the holiday week and the end of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I disappeared for the past few days (if you hadn't noticed).  I plan on getting back on schedule next week, once I take the rest of the weekend to celebrate my completion of writing a novel in one month and to breathe before the short holiday break is over.  Thank you for being patient while I celebrate/breathe.

I'll see you again next week, when my normal posting schedule will resume.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

MadLib Monday 8: 11/23/09

It's the beginning of a new week, which means it is time for the weekly edition of MadLib Monday.  At this point, I'm assuming you know what to do, but if you need a refresher, check out past postings of MadLib Monday.

  1. verb
  2. subject (in school)
  3. noun (plural)
  4. noun (plural)
  5. verb (present participle [-ing])
  6. adjective
  7. place
  8. subject (same as #2)
  9. noun
  10. noun (plural)
  11. adjective
  12. adjective
  13. noun (singular)
  14. verb
  15. noun (plural)
  16. adjective
  17. adjective
  18. verb
  19. noun (plural)
  20. noun (plural)
  21. noun (plural)
  22. noun (singular)
  23. location
  24. verb
  25. adjective
  26. verb (present participle)
  27. noun (plural)
  28. noun
  29. adjective
  30. noun
As an interruption in the MadLib fun, please remember to check out the poll question of the week that is located in the left-hand sidebar of the blog; as usual, I will be posting the results of that poll on Wednesday.

I have been told to ___(1)___ the ___(2)___ curriculum relevant to the ___(3)___ of my ___(4)___.  I am ___(5)___, though, that my ___(6)___ girls at ___(7)___ like ___(8)___ precisely because it has no ___(9)___ to their ___(10)___.  They like nothing better than a(n) ___(11)___, ___(12)___ ___(13)___ to ___(14)___.  They write the ___(15)___ on their palms in ___(16)___ ___(17)___ ink and ___(18)___ the ___(19)___ . . . like ___(20)___ counting their ___(21)___.

When it comes time for a(n) ___(22)___ they line up at the ___(23)___ to ___(24)___.  I lean against the ___(25)___ tile wall ___(26)___ them as the ___(27)___ fill with pale blue ___(28)___ and the ___(29)___ words run down the ___(30)___.

Can you guess what book the above picture and passage were taken from?

Answer to last week's MadLib Monday: The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman.

Happy reading!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ingredients of a Reader

Not too long ago, I overheard a student speaking with a fellow English professor; he said he knew he was meant to be an English major because he could "read a book--any book--in three days or less."  I had to stifle a laugh when I saw he was being serious.  It is interesting to me that students have these misconceptions that to be able to study English successfully, one simply needs to be able to read fast.  Thinking about that misconception started the spinning of my metaphorical hamster wheel, and I began thinking about being a reader in general, specifically about how many of us tend to live under the misconception that reading fast and reading a lot is all it takes to be a reader.  Unfortunately, we tend to forget to ask the important questions like, "Do you interact with the books?" or "What about reading is important?" or "What changed after you read that?"

Lately, I haven't had time to read as much as I would like to.  I barely made it through Something Wicked This Way Comes in time for an evening book group discussion on it.  Now that I've finished that, though, I've only been able to make it through the first three chapters of the next book that was on my reading list.  When life moves too fast, my reading time suffers.  I worried that not reading enough would somehow make me less of a reader.  I worried that I couldn't claim to be a reader if I didn't have time to read.

Yet when I do talk or write about books, a passion blooms inside me and leaves me feeling satisfied yet more open to possibilities.  Reading books fulfills me yet pushes me to start new journeys.  There is a certain inspiration borne from reading that I can't duplicate in any other activity, and that is what makes me a reader.

So I don't count how many books I read in a week, a month, or a year.  I don't care if the person next to me is reading faster than I am (unless that person is reading out loud and spoiling the ending for me).  What I care about is that I spend quality reading time with my books.  I want to know that what I am reading is making a difference in how I think about language or relationships or authors or maybe even life.  I want to know that when I do have the time to curl up with a book, I breathe in the 'joie de lire' that comes with it.

What makes you a reader?

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weekly Poll 11/18/09: What Attracts Us to Books

Which part of the cover attracts you most to a new book?

1.  The blurb on the back cover.
2.  The picture/design on the front cover.
3.  The font used on the cover.

After a slight decrease in votes (eek!), the results show that 25% of voters are most attracted by the blurb on the back cover while the remaining 75% are most attracted by the picture/design on the front cover.

Part of my motivation for asking this question is that I wanted to make sure I wasn't alone in defying the whole "don't judge a book by its cover" warning.  First impressions are huge for me, though, which is something I think authors need to be hyper-aware of when it comes to choosing designs for their book covers.  I am, in fact, not alone because other readers are also attracted (or repelled) by the book cover (*sigh of relief*).  The blurb on the back does help, but it is typically the cover that initially draws me in.

The first time I saw the cover of The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, I wanted to buy it.  In fact, I loved the design of the cover so much (and the title helped, too, since I am infatuated by dead languages) that I bought the other book the store had on its shelves of Carol Goodman's: The Seduction of Water.  After I bought the books, they sat on my shelves at home for nearly a year before I read them, but when I did, I was delighted to find that the stories held between both books' covers outshined the covers themselves.

You may not be able to tell from the picture above, but the water on the cover creates a shiny surface.  Between the dark color scheme and the shiny surface, I wanted to buy the book if for no other reason to decorate my shelves.

Another cover that attracted me to the book is the cover of Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen.  Again, once I got the book, it sat on my shelf for a while before I picked it up to read (a sad side-effect of having too many books, I suppose); however, when I did read it, I fell in love.

The girl hugging her knees in the middle of a fantastical garden is what grabbed my eye on this cover.  She looked so lonely, yet I wanted to be her.

Throughout my postings, you may have noticed that I tend to gravitate toward certain authors; I know I do, but I am not ashamed of my bias.  As a reader who only has so much free time to devote to reading new books, I am grateful to my list of favorite authors, who I can count on to produce books worth the time it takes to read them.  Because of that, I shamelessly plug for them every chance I get.

What books' covers have attracted you the most?

As a side note, the new poll question is in the left-hand sidebar and will be there until next Wednesday at noon.  In preparing for doing my first ever blog giveaway, I want your feedback on what type of prize you would most like to win on a blog giveaway.  This could affect you if you are the winner, so please make sure you vote!

Monday, November 16, 2009

MadLib Monday 7: 11/16/09

Is it already Monday again?  My calendar says it is, which means it is time for another installment of MadLib Monday!

  1. adjective
  2. adjective
  3. verb
  4. verb
  5. verb
  6. verb
  7. verb
  8. noun
  9. number
  10. noun
  11. adjective
  12. noun
  13. adjective
  14. adjective
  15. noun
  16. verb (+ -s)
  17. noun
  18. verb (+ -s)
  19. noun
  20. verb (same as #4)
  21. adjective
  22. adjective (same as #21)
  23. noun (plural)
  24. verb (past tense)
  25. adjective
  26. adjective
  27. verb (past tense)
  28. adjective
  29. number (same as #9)
  30. noun

As usual, the poll question is in the left-hand sidebar; on Wednesday I will be posting a new poll question and the summary of the results for this week's poll.  Be sure you head over there to place your vote.

Be careful what you wish for.  I know that for a fact.  Wishes are __(1)__, ___(2)___ things.  They ___(3)___ your tongue the moment they're spoken and you can never ___(4)___ them back.  They ___(5)___ and ___(6)___ and come back to ___(7)___ you.  I've made far too many wishes in my ___(8)___, the first when I was ___(9)___ years old.  Not the sort of wish for ___(10)___ or a(n) ___(11)___ ___(12)___ or ___(13)___ ___(14)___ ___(15)___; no.  The other sort, the kind that ___(16)___ your bones, then sits in the back of your ___(17)___, a greedy red toad that ___(18)___ you until you say it aloud.  The kind that could change your ___(19)___ in an instant, before you have time to wish you could ___(20)___ it back.

I was in the ___(21)___ place at the ___(22)___ time, but don't all ___(23)___ begin this way?  I was the child who ___(24)___ her feet and made a(n) ___(25)___ wish and in so doing ended the ___(26)___ world -- my world, at any rate.  The only thing that ___(27)___.  Of course I was ___(28)___, but don't most ___(29)___-year-old girls think they're the queen of the ___(30)___?

Can you guess the book that the picture and passage were taken from?

Answer from last week's MadLib Monday: The Devil Wears Prada. Kudos to Angie for guessing that one correctly.

Happy reading and MadLibbing!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Complexities in Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

Back in October, Angiegirl (of the Angieville blog) wrote a post called "The Parents of YA"; in it, she talks about how a lot of young adult (YA) books feature crappy parenting (often a necessity for the main character to end up on his/her own to struggle through the world) but then goes on to feature some YA books that offer good parenting (or at least parents who are trying their best).  I thought it was a brilliant post, but I didn't think of continuing the discussion on my own blog because I didn't have much more to add to what she had already said (outside the short comment I wrote on her blog).

But then I started reading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury for the upcoming Good Books Club discussion this weekend and was inspired to write about three types of complexities in the book, starting with one of the parent/child relationships portrayed in the book.

Looking at the title and cover of this book, it seems odd that I'd be using this book as an example of good parent/child relationships, and yet Bradbury beautifully writes the complex relationship between one of the main characters, 13-year-old Will Halloway, and his parents.  As a disclaimer, in my following discussion, I am speaking from the experience of having a prototypical parent experience (i.e., my parents weren't perfect but they also weren't "crappy").

One of the first scenes that touched me is when Will walked in one night to see his parents sitting together in the family room; his mom was happily knitting and humming while his father sat there broodily contemplating a book.  He stood in the entryway, unable to take his eyes off them and came to a realization:

He wanted to be near and not near them, he saw them close, he saw them far.  Suddenly they were awfully small in too large a room in too big a town and much too huge a world.  In this unlocked place they seemed at the mercy of anything that might break in from the night. ... Suddenly he loved them more for their smallness than he ever had when they seemed tall.

Bradbury uses this simple passage to reflect a complex moment in a kid's life: learning that parents are not impenetrable giants but vulnerable people.  Kids reach this knowledge at different stages in life, yet it is an integral moment for any child.  Or maybe I should say "person" because I know adults who still struggle with seeing their parents for who they are--they look at their parents, expecting them to have all the answers, expecting them to save the day, expecting them to live forever.  And here, a 13-year-old boy sums up what people who experience this change in relationship try to say but often can't: you're able to love your parents more deeply when you realize how small they really are.

Later on in the scene, Will is lying awake listening to the sound of his father's voice through the walls.

And the odd thing in Dad's voice was the sound truth makes being said.  The sound of truth, in a wild roving land of city or plain country lies, will spell any boy.  Many nights Will drowsed this way, his senses like stopped clocks long before that half-singing voice was still.  Dad's voice was a midnight school, teaching deep fathom hours, and the subject was life.

I love that portrayal.  Earlier Will had already come to the realization that his father was "small" and yet he still listened for his father's voice, wanting to hold on to his father's words.  Will is on the verge of growing up in this book and has a hard time letting go of childhood behaviors; his father can relate to what his son is going through but finds he cannot communicate well with his son.  Bradbury has a talent for taking horribly complex ideas and expressing them in beautifully constructed snapshots of the characters' lives.

The parent/child relationships are not the only complex relationships tackled in the book; Bradbury also explores the friendship between Will and his best friend Jim:

So there they go, Jim running slower to stay with Will, Will running faster to stay with Jim, Jim breaking two windows in a haunted house because Will's along, Will breaking one window instead of none, because Jim's watching.  God, how we get our fingers in each other's clay.  That's friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.

Will and Jim are opposites in every way--including their looks.  That opposite-ness keeps the relationship strong while at the same time breaks it down.  The way he describes friendship as each involved person playing the potter is beautiful yet frightening (perhaps that makes it hauntingly beautiful).  It provides a visual representation that we leave our marks on our friends but also reminds us that who we choose to be our friends will influence who we turn out to be.

Furthermore, the language itself is complex.  I am not quite finished with the book because, at times, I am finding it difficult to concentrate on the plot as I get lost in the language.  My inner linguist is being a jackanapes, interrupting my reading flow by wanting to analyze the language because Bradbury's style is simplistic yet otherworldly.  For instance, instead of writing something like "he paused," he writes things like "he waited until his heart beat twice."  My inner linguist rejoices at the literary freedoms taken with the language, but my inner reader shakes her fist at the linguist, wanting to finish the book to see how the story unfolds.

In case you were wondering, I am proud of myself for being able to use "jackanapes" in a sentence after watching it scroll across my computer screen earlier as one of the words of the day on my screensaver.  At least my inner linguist wasn't wearing galligaskins.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weekly Poll 11/11/09: Reading style


Which best describes how you typically read a novel?

  1. I skim the pages, usually only focusing on dialogue.
  2. I read it all quickly.
  3. I read it all and slow down on parts I want to digest.
  4. I read, re-read, take notes, underline, and re-read again.

After a week of voting, the results are in: the majority of my blog readers fall into category #3: "I read it all and slow down on parts I want to digest."

I originally became interested in the topic when I was speaking with a friend who went through books at what I can only describe as lightning fast speed; I was amazed at how much she could read in a single weekend while still managing to get other tasks done.  When I asked her how she did it, she said, "I'm a fast reader."  I nodded, thinking, "Gee, and I thought I was above average on reading speed."  We started talking about a book we had both read, moving on with the conversation, when she finished her answer to my question: "Oh, and I usually only read the dialogue."

My exact reaction was, "Wha?"  Yes, I was so shocked I couldn't even get the t out on the what.  And yet, the more readers I speak with, the more I hear about people who utilize this technique of skimming (or completely skipping) the descriptions, the background information, the "fluff" in some people's minds to get to the heart of the story: the dialogue.  My first point of interest is that I would assume that would limit the types of books those readers can enjoy.  I know some of my favorite books have entire chapters with no dialogue, which makes me question whether interaction-driven readers would tend to stay away from those kinds of books or if they bend their own rules if there is no dialogue for a number of pages.  This also points to something authors need to think about: there is a possibility that readers are picking up their books and judging the content based solely on the quality of the dialogue.  I hear the whir of computers firing up as authors frantically revise any awkward dialogue.

Beyond dialogue-divers, there is another subset of readers that skim everything.  I call it "skimming" because reading quickly is, in essence, skimming.  My husband is a skimmer to such a degree that I will hand him something to read, and he'll look up at me not even a minute later claiming he's read the entire five-page document I handed him.  Once I start questioning him, though, the reliability of the skimming method is severely called into question.  I've found, as a reader, that I've leaned the art of selective skimming for reading academic materials.  When it comes to novels, though, I fall--along with the majority of my voters--in the third category.

I can't skim books because I want to make sure I get every detail.  If I forget a name or think I remember something similar happening before, I can't just shrug my shoulders and go on--I have to go back and find out what that name was or what that similar thing was.  If I come to a sentence that is beautifully written, I slow down and read it a few times and close my eyes to let it sink in.  If a paragraph is complicated, I can't rush through it--I have to slow down and work my way through it.

As you can imagine, sometimes I also fall into the fourth category because sometimes I go so slowly through a book that I end up re-reading parts so much that I begin thinking more deeply and trying to find other connections--even ones outside the book--which in turn makes me want to take notes and underline and re-read sections.  A book has to really speak to me for me to fall into this category, and the odd thing is that I can never predict when I'll become this type of reader.

Because we all have our own reading styles, I wonder if we think they are "better" than someone else's.  I tend to think that the dialogue-only camp is missing the 'joie de lire' while the reading-quickly camp is also likely to miss the deeper meaning or subtle connections.  On the other hand, though, readers in those camps just might think readers like me waste time fretting over the smaller details and end up missing the broader picture.  It makes me want to do a study on reading styles to find out what determines reading style; the first possibilities that come to my mind are the end goals for the reading session (e.g., reading for a test, for fun, or for a specific amount of time), the ways we originally learned how to read, and length of attention spans.

Sometimes I wish I could skim--when I'm in a hurry and trying to finish the last few pages before I can do something else, I wish I could turn off that internal voice of mine and go full speed through the material.  But I just can't.  And even if I do, I end up going back later to re-read it to see if I skipped over anything important.  Maybe I'm just too anal retentive...

As a last note, the new poll question for the week is in the left-hand sidebar.  This week I want to know what attracts you most about the cover of a new book--what makes you want to read a book you had never heard of before?  Is it the blurb on the back cover?  The picture or design on the front?  The font used for the title/author's name?  Make sure you cast your vote by Wednesday, November 18, when I will post about the results.

Happy reading--whatever your reading style may be!

Monday, November 9, 2009

MadLib Monday 6: 11/9/09

It is once again time for MadLib Monday!  If you need a refresher on the "rules," refer to the original posting here.

  1. adverb
  2. adjective
  3. adjective
  4. noun
  5. verb
  6. adjective
  7. verb (past tense)
  8. noun
  9. noun
  10. noun
  11. adjective
  12. verb (past tense)
  13. verb (past tense)
  14. noun
  15. noun
  16. verb (present participle)
  17. noun
  18. noun (same as #17)
  19. verb (past tense)
  20. adverb
  21. noun
  22. adjective
  23. verb
  24. noun (singular)
  25. noun
  26. number
  27. noun (plural)
  28. noun
  29. verb (past tense)
  30. amount of time

The poll for this week is in the left-hand sidebar, like usual, and is about reading styles: Are you a skimmer?  A note-taker?  Some interesting conversations have been floating around Twitter about how closely people read texts, which got me thinking about the different types of readers out there.  Vote on the poll by Wednesday, when I will post about the results.

Also, a monumental MadLib Monday is coming up in a month: my 10th MadLib Monday!  I think that calls for a celebration, and my form of celebration is to turn that MadLib Monday into a contest (and contests are not complete without a prize for the winner).  I will announce the details during that posting.

As a suggestion, a fun way to share the MadLibs you complete would be to include your MadLibbed version of the passage below in a comment.  I'd like to see what my readers are coming up with.

The picture to go with this week's passage is here:

The light hadn't even ___(1)___ turned ___(2)___ at the intersection of 17th and Broadway before an army of ___(3)___ yellow cabs roared past the tiny ___(4)___ I was attempting to ___(5)___ around the ___(6)___ streets.  Clutch, gas, shift (neutral to first? Or first to second?), release clutch, I ___(7)___ over and over in my ___(8)___, the mantra offering little ___(9)___ and even less ___(10)___ amid the ___(11)___ midday traffic.  The little car ___(12)___ wildly twice before it ___(13)___ forward through the ___(14)___.  My ___(15)___ flip-flopped in my chest.  Without ___(16)___, the lurching evened out and I began to pick up ___(17)___.  Lots of ___(18)___.  I ___(19)___ down to confirm ___(20)___ that I was only in second ___(21)___, but the rear end of a cab loomed so ___(22)___ in the windshield that I could do nothing but ___(23)___ my foot on the brake pedal so hard that my ___(24)___ snapped off.  ___(25)___!  Another pair of ___(26)___-dollar ___(27)___ sacrificed to my complete and utter lack of ___(28)___ under pressure: this ___(29)___ as my third such breakage this ___(30)___.

Can you guess which book the picture and passage are taken from?

Last week's MadLib answer: Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki, which no one guessed.

Please let me know if you are interested in seeing the original passages that I've used for MadLib Monday; I can begin posting the originals after the guessing period is over if people are interested in reading them.

Happy reading and MadLibbing!

Friday, November 6, 2009

It's All in the Name... Or is it?

The other week I was participating in a Twitter conversation (in the #YAlitchat, which takes place every Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. EST); the topic was how writers choose to name their characters.  I won't get into my own naming practices here; I've started yet another blog to track my writing journey, Jessie's Writing, so check there for a future posting on my own personal naming habits.  The talk of how we choose to name characters, though, made me start thinking about the names of characters in some of my favorite books.

I remember when I was younger reading an interview with R.L. Stine; he said that some of his characters had their names because his kids had started their own business at school, "selling" other kids the ability to have their names appear in one of their dad's future books.  I'm not sure how serious he was about that, but I think the philosophy behind it represents one type of naming practice: books that have character names that don't necessarily "mean" anything beyond, "Well, a character has to have a name, right?"  Quite honestly, as I'm reading, usually the names don't speak to me unless I have prior attachments to the name.  As shallow as it makes me sound as a reader, I'll try out any book that has a character named Lucy simply because I'm infatuated with I Love Lucy.  And so for most books, I don't think too deeply about why the author chose a particular name for a particular character, and I'm not sure a lot of books actually have significant reasons.  In saying that, though, I don't mean that I ignore names altogether; in fact, some of my favorite books do have rather significant meanings behind the names, and I revel in that as a reader.

In the book Bitter Sweets (by Roopa Farooki), a character sums up the inspiration for the rest of this post quite nicely (taken from page 60):

Ricky-Rashid had an unconscious Dickensian belief that the name unveiled the soul; no man named Uriah Heep would ever be a romantic hero, no boy named Twist could expect a straightforward life.

Ricky-Rashid's thoughts continued, letting readers know that for him, "a rose by any other name" would not in fact still be a rose.  And so, it's all in the name.  Or is it?

On one end of the spectrum is Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.  When I picked up the book, I assumed the main character's name was Rebecca; after all, it would make sense that the name on the cover of the book matched the name of the main character.  As I read, though, I found out that Rebecca was the name of the main character's husband's first wife (in other words, Rebecca was the first Mrs. de Winter while the main character is the second Mrs. de Winter).  I was nearly finished with the book before I realized the main character wasn't named.  She was called "Mrs. de Winter," but her first name is never provided.  I delighted in the mystery having no name presented--it only let me know so much about the main character even though I was able to read her thoughts and interactions with other people.  There was something about not knowing her name that kept part of her character a secret from me, and I liked that secrecy--that intrigue.  The primary significance of the names in this book is represented by the lack of a name for the main character.  That raises the question of whether it can really be all about the name if not all characters even receive names.

On another end of the spectrum is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  In her books, names reflect the characters but do so in such a way that readers may not be able to recognize the relationship on the surface.  If you take the time to look up the origins of the names, though, they are the character in word form.  The names are characters all by themselves.  I found a website that provides meanings of the names for all the primary characters (and even some not-so-primary characters) in the books.  I have to admit that the first time I read the Harry Potter books, I didn't think too hard about the names--I just let myself get lost in the story.  It wasn't until I was teaching a Study of Words course that I began to realize just how many Latinate roots the unique words in Harry Potter had (e.g., the names of spells).  Then I started researching more about the names of characters in the books and found just how intricately J.K. Rowling had worked to shape the names of all her characters.  For example, the following is taken from the website provided above for the names of the Harry Potter characters:

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore: His first name is from the Latin word alba, "white." His last name, according to Rowling interviews, is Old English for "bumblebee." In color symbolism, white often stands for purity, so the headmaster's name suggests honor and a hard-working nature ("busy as a bee").

I don't have the type of reading habits that make me take into account all the details and ask what they might be symbolic of; instead, I tend to read for the pure enjoyment of reading.  And yet, names really are fascinating when authors integrate them so well into the plot that readers don't feel the strain from the struggles the author must have gone through to get all the names "just so."

In comparing the two differing styles of naming characters, I am not sure which author had a more difficult task: J.K. Rowling, who hand-crafted all her characters' names, or Daphne duMaurier, who hand-crafted the story in such a way that the lack of a first name for her main character would not be a glaring distraction to the novel.

What books come to mind for you when you think of memorable character names?  Which authors, in your opinion, use interesting character names?

Happy reading and analyzing character names!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Weekly Poll 11/4/09

The poll question from last week was...

As a reader, is writing style or plot more important to keep you hooked on a book?

  • style
  • plot
The results were that 67% feel writing style is more important while the remaining 33% feel plot is more important.

My first reaction was that I wasn't sure which I would answer--good style without a plot driving it feels kind of pointless while good plot with no style is just downright painful.  Luckily, I had a week to figure out which I felt, in the end, was more important in my own 'joie de lire.'

In this entry, I'm defining style as including word choice and sentence structure, which then affect dialogue, character development, and descriptions.  Plot, on the other hand, includes the basic plot (i.e., what happens), including the chosen characters and settings.

First, I want to backtrack to what I said in Monday's MadLib post about the MadLib feature making me slow down and analyze writing style more thoroughly.  I had a difficult time using Rebecca for the passage for my MadLibs feature because as I was picking out words to delete, I noticed that Daphne duMaurier has little to no adverbs in her writing.  Noticing that reminded me of writing guides (e.g., Stephen King's On Writing) that warn writers against using too many adverbs (or other modifiers, for that matter).

Compare the feel of Rebecca's opening lines to those of Twilight, and you might start seeing why writing guides would warn authors of becoming too attached to modifiers if those authors want to achieve literary status (versus Blockbuster-type status).  Not only did duMaurier not use an abundance of modifiers, but she also used sentence structures that don't lend themselves to deleting words to insert new words.  In other words, her sentence structures are unique and beg to remain in their original form.  Again, thinking about style got me questioning whether I thought style or plot was more important.

Books that become part of my "favorites" list are those that have both style and plot working for them: Rebecca, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, Harry Potter (all seven of them), and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, just to name a few.  If, though, I had to choose between reading bad plot/good style and good plot/bad style, I think I would rather read the book with a questionable plot but good writing style.

Unfortunately, most of the books I could come up with for this post were on the other side of the coin: good plot/bad style.  For example, I can't get past Dan Brown's writing style to enjoy his books, yet I am enthralled by his plots (and thus happy that his books have movies made out of them).  I had previously said that I'm not a fan of Mary Higgins Clark's writing style, but I love her books because the plots draw me in.  Her writing style doesn't distract me from the plot--it just doesn't move me, either.

Recently I've read a few books whose plots I didn't think were anything I would've been interested in, but I ended up enjoying the books because the writing style was so amazing.  The plots aren't "bad," but they alone wouldn't have kept me reading the books.  The first is Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, and the second is Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki.  When reading those books, I kept reading not because the plot had sucked me in so much that I just had to know what would happen next but because the style had sucked me in so much that I just had to know what the author would write next.

Another blogger, Livia Blackburne, posted "Genre, writing, and cliche, oh my!" this week, in which she explored the notion of writing within a genre while remaining fresh.  The reason I bring that posting up here is that my thought on it is that authors who write well can get away with using clichés or spotty plots while authors who do not write well better have a bang-up plot to keep readers going.  One of the clichés listed for chick lit is having a fabulous gay friend or witty banter in a coffee shop; my first thought was of Marian Keyes, who writes chick lit and has the fabulous gay friend showing up in her plots.  Yet, she does it so well that I don't notice I'm reading what could, in fact, be an instance of a cliché for her genre.

Thank you to all my voters this week, and the new poll question of the week is up in the left sidebar.  Vote by next Wednesday, when I'll post on the results.

Happy reading, whether you're reading for the book's style, plot, or both!

Monday, November 2, 2009

MadLib Monday 5: 11/2/09

It is once again time for MadLib Monday!  The rules are the same as always, but if you're new to MadLibs or simply want a refresher, you can refer back to the first MadLib Monday post.

  1. adverb
  2. adjective
  3. adjective
  4. noun (plural)
  5. location
  6. verb (past participle)
  7. adjective
  8. noun (plural)
  9. noun
  10. adjective
  11. noun (plural)
  12. location
  13. noun
  14. adverb
  15. verb (present participle)
  16. verb
  17. noun (plural)
  18. noun
  19. location
  20. adjective
  21. verb (past participle)
  22. verb
  23. noun
  24. adjective
  25. adjective
  26. adjective
  27. location (same as the location for #5)
  28. noun (plural)
  29. verb (present participle)
  30. noun (singular)
On Wednesday, I will once again be posting about the poll question, which is situated in the left sidebar; this week's question deals with what keeps you reading a book: content (plot) or style.  I know it's a tough choice for me, and I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about it.  I'll talk more about this on Wednesday, but the MadLibs I've been making were the inspiration for the poll question this week: Doing this MadLib feature is making me analyze the writing style of authors--when you have to pick out words and put part-of-speech labels on them, you start noticing what authors rely on modifiers and which base their sentences almost entirely on nouns and verbs; moreover, you start noticing exactly what words fill those slots for different authors.  Check back on Wednesday for the rest of that thought.

Now that I've sufficiently distracted you, here is the picture that goes along with this week's MadLib feature:

Henna was thirteen when she was __(1)__ married off to the ___(2)___ son of one of the ___(3)___ ___(4)___ in ___(5)___, and her marriage was ___(6)___ by a(n) ___(7)___ network of ___(8)___ as elaborate and brazen as the golden ___(9)___ on her ___(10)___ wedding sari.  Henna's paternal family were ___(11)___ by trade, shopkeepers from ___(12)___ who had made their ___(13)___ by ___(14)___ ___(15)___ powders and pastes of suspect origin, to ___(16)___ the boredom and fatigue of the British __(17)___ serving out their ___(18)___ in local government in ___(19)___.  Those ___(20)___ days had ___(21)___ with the British some ten years previously, but Henna's father was still never one to ___(22)___ a(n) ___(23)___ opportunity--when he heard that the ___(24)___, ___(25)___ and unusually ___(26)___ Karim family from ___(27)___ would be visiting their ___(28)___ around Dhaka, he wasted no time in ___(29)___ an effective ___(30)___.

Can you guess which book the photo and passage were taken from?

Last week's MadLib answer: Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.  Kudos to Angie for guessing that one correctly (she relied on the photo to get it: the "swoopy" R graces the cover of may versions of Rebecca).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Butterfly Effects: The Power of our Choices

On my quest to share my 'joie de lire' with blog readers, I'm beginning to find my voice as a blogger.  When I first started the blog, my ideas for what I should include were scattered, and I started keeping a journal-type document on my computer where I listed all the brainstormed ideas that came to me.  At first, they were all strictly about memories of reading and why reading is important to me (hence the name of my blog); the more I brainstorm, though, the more I realize what I want to say about books deals with how they inspire me to think about the world around me.  My dream philosophy course would be to read novels and discuss how the themes, the situations, and the characters play into our current ways of thinking.  So my vision for the blog has shifted from me telling my readers why I love reading to beginning a conversation about what reading teaches us.  After all, what is reading if not learning?

Last Friday I posted An Unlikely Trio: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night.  In it, I explored the notion that our choices are what make us us (rather than our dispositions or situations in life).  I must like unlikely trios because I've found yet another trio for this week's posting: The Butterfly Effect, Quantum Leap, and Bitter Sweets.  As with last week, not all my sources for inspiration are books--instead, a book sparked interest on my part in an idea, and I then came up with other sources I previously hadn't thought of connecting.  Therefore, reading is also about connecting.  This week, I focus not on the choices themselves but on the consequences (whether positive or negative) of those choices.

The movie The Butterfly Effect came out in 2004 and starred Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart.

The concept behind the movie was that Ashton Kutcher's character finds that he has the ability to re-visit his past and change decisions he made.  He then gets to fast forward his life back to the present and see how the change in decision affected his life and the lives of those around him.  The byline of the movie is "Change one thing. Change everything."  It's based on the notion (I believe it began in meteorology) that certain conditions have a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."  I remember growing up hearing the idea that if a butterfly flutters its wings in South America today, the disturbance caused in the air could become amplified as it travels around the world and change the weather patterns, eventually causing a tsunami in Japan.  In the case of the movie, Ashton Kutcher's character was focusing on how he could change one specific traumatic event in his life, only to find that however he tried to change it, the results were catastrophic once the effects of one decision multiplied over time.  It makes you question how your choices of today are building the reality of tomorrow.

Being able to travel in time to change things that happened in the past is the primary basis of the TV show Quantum Leap, which starred Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell and aired in the late 80s through the early 90s.

In the show, the main character, Dr. Sam Beckett (played by Bakula), travels back through time to "change history for the better."  Oftentimes, his goal is small: persuade that girl to stay in school, get that dancer an audition for this choreographer, or stop that guy from going out.  But those simplistic sounding goals are often difficult to achieve--Sam has to think in terms of "I need to do X today so that Y can happen tomorrow, which will then result in Z in some future time."  In other words, he is charged with starting a chain reaction that results in big changes for that person's future.  Sam "leaps out" of the scenarios before he gets to see the results of his work, so he relies on his holographic guide, Al (played by Stockwell), who is Sam's only contact with the future and who tells Sam what his mission is, how he could best achieve that mission, and whether he succeeded.

What we learn from the first two is that every choice we make is like those butterfly's wings--our choices disturb the air around us today and gain momentum over time to provide a different landscape for tomorrow.  A book that explores consequences of our actions is Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki.

Farooki highlights the consequences of the characters' choices by first presenting a scene in which a character makes a small, yet monumental, decision and then jumping forward to show just how that prior choice affected the future.  One of the primary characters, Ricky-Rashid (his given name is Rashid; however, he prefers to align himself with his love for the English culture and uses the name Ricky), meets his "one true love" after he is already married.  He is sitting in an airport when he meets the new woman (Verity), and by choosing to take her to one of the airport restaurants, he changes the direction of his life.  However, he also chooses to only share half his life with Verity, which causes a whole different set of reactions (taken from page 61):

Ricky-Rashid knew at the moment that Fate had decided to be kind.  He saw himself leading a different sort of life with a different sort of woman--a life beautiful in its frankness and openness.  He would share everything with Verity, he would tell her everything she asked.  But of course, she would never ask about his other wife, or his grown-up daughter, because she would never know that they existed.

Many of the choices presented in the book are situations in which the characters have to decide whether or not they are going to tell the truth.  Farooki beautifully explores the life of lying without applying judgment to the characters through her fanciful descriptions:

... the language of lying, with its complex grammar and syntax and timing... (20)

... he reflected that spinning a lie was like spinning smooth threads of chocolate; it melted in the mouth sweetly, and made everything so much more palatable.  (110)

The question is often how lying one day is going to affect the character's future life (or the future lives of those around them).

When the characters find themselves in inexplicable situations, instead of attributing those situations to the results of previous decisions, the characters say they are in a particular place in life because of fate; the following passage describes when Ricky-Rashid first met Verity Trueman (taken from page 56):

Rashid would later say that it was Fate that had led him to love--Fate (and not frugality caused by squeezed corporate travel budgets) that had forced him to make this inexplicable airline interchange so close to his destination, Fate (and not rudeness on the part of her colleagues) that had Ms Trueman carrying excess hand-baggage to the Business Class lounge long before her plane was due, and Fate (not the location of the TV) that he had been sitting near enough to overhear her plight and help her.

This one sentence hints at all the overlapping of previous decisions--none of which had been made by the characters in question--that resulted in the current situation.  Ricky-Rashid's business sent him to London but refused to pay more for the direct flight, thus leaving him in the Paris airport for a four-hour layover.  He spent the layover in the Business Class lounge.  As he was in the lounge watching TV, a lady came in dragging three suitcases and carrying two handbags; the lady was Verity, and she had all the extra baggage because her colleagues took a client out to an airport restaurant and treated Verity like the bellboy, asking her to take care of all their bags while they were out eating and drinking.  She dropped the bags, Ricky-Rashid got up to help her, and the story goes on from there.  I find that many people throw around phrases like "it's meant to be" or "it was fate" simply because they don't have the time or inclination to fully explore why they are in a particular place or situation (or in some cases because they don't want to attribute any negative consequences to their prior actions--"it wasn't my fault; it was just meant to be").  The decisions we make are like the fine strings of a spider web--interconnected and often nearly invisible ... even as we are walking through the web and feeling the sticky strings wrap around our arms.

Happy reading .... and may your 'joie de lire' provide you the inspiration to make connections and learn about your world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Weekly Poll 10/28/09

Poll question:

Which of the following best represents your opinion on books that are made into movies?

  1. Authors are selling out if they let their books be made into movies.
  2. The theory behind making books into movies is good, but books don't always translate well onto the big screen.
  3. Books should get made into movies so that the book's message can reach a wider audience.

The results are in. 100% of voters agree that the theory behind making books into movies is good, but books don't always translate well onto the big screen.

If you've read my previous posting on books and the movies based on them, you can probably figure out pretty easily that I also fall into that same category.  I understand the urge to make good books into movies because the second I finish a good book, my thoughts wander to things like, "I wonder who would play that character in a movie," or "I wonder what that set would look like."  I really want good books to be turned into good movies, but the majority of the time, it just doesn't happen that way for me.  And yet... I keep hoping.  Hoping that my 'joie de lire' I experienced with a good book will translate well onto the big screen and leave me feeling visually fulfilled.  I get disappointed, I brush myself off, and I come back for more.  As I was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I watched the movie version play out in my head (the movie version, by the way, would be about 8 hours long if it stuck to the script in my head).  Right now, I'm reading Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki, and I can't keep myself from wondering how the book could be turned into a movie script.  Maybe it goes back to our aural roots, where literary works were meant to be performed and enjoyed by communities rather than read silently and enjoyed by single readers.  Whatever the reason, I'm addicted to the movie versions of books.  Are there any books you're currently reading that you want to see turned into a movie (even if you have a sneaky suspicion it could be disastrous)?

I wish I could report that these findings are based on a solid 10-person voting pool; sadly, I cannot.  I got more votes than last week, though, so I will focus on the positive and continue striving for my 10-vote goal.  The new poll question for this week is up in the left sidebar, so be sure to vote by next Wednesday.

Happy reading, and happy voting on the new poll question!

Monday, October 26, 2009

MadLib Monday 4: 10/26/09

Welcome to another MadLib Monday!  If you need a refresher on the directions, please refer to the first MadLib Monday post.  Without further ado, let's get started.

  1. noun (singular)
  2. location
  3. verb (past tense)
  4. adjective
  5. noun
  6. verb
  7. verb (past participle)
  8. noun (singular)
  9. noun (singular)
  10. noun
  11. person
  12. comparative adjective (+ -er)
  13. noun
  14. adjective
  15. noun
  16. adjective
  17. noun (plural)
  18. verb (past participle)
  19. adjective
  20. verb (past tense)
  21. noun (same noun as #5)
  22. noun
  23. verb (present participle)
  24. verb (present participle)
  25. verb (past tense)
  26. noun (singular)
  27. adjective
  28. adjective
  29. noun (same noun as #5)
I interrupt this MadLib experience to bring your attention to the left sidebar, where the poll question of the week is posted; so far, it has 4 votes, which is an increase from last week but still a bit shy of my goal of 10 votes.  Please take a look at that and cast your vote before Wednesday.  Also, the new book of the week is actually a series of books: Harry Potter.  In the spirit of Halloween, I chose the Harry Potter books because they feature magic; on top of that, I also chose the books because I really enjoy them.  I send out a big thank you to my aunt for getting me to read the first four books back in the summer of 2002.  They may be marketed for kids, but they're amazing books for readers of all ages.

The picture that accompanies the MadLib for this week is below:

Last ___(1)___ I dreamt I went to ___(2)___ again.  It seemed to me I ___(3)___ by the ___(4)___ gate leading to the ___(5)___, and for a while I could not ___(6)___, for the way was ___(7)___ to me.  There was a(n) ___(8)___ and a(n) ___(9)___ upon the gate.  I called in my ___(10)___ to ___(11)___, and had no answer, and peering ___(12)___ through the rusted ___(13)___ of the gate I saw that the lodge was ___(14)___.

No smoke came from the ___(15)___, and the little ___(16)___ windows gaped forlorn.  Then, like all ___(17)___, I was ___(18)___ with ___(19)___ powers and ___(20)___ like a spirit through the ___(21)___ before me.  The ___(22)___ wound away in front of me, ___(23)___ and ___(24)___ as it had always done, but as I ___(25)___ I was aware that a(n) ___(26)___ had come upon it; it was ___(27)___ and ___(28)___, not the ___(29)___ that we had known.

Can you guess the book the picture and passage were taken from?

Answer to last week's MadLib Monday: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen.  Congratulations to Anonymous for guessing that correctly.  For anyone who has not read any of Sarah Addison Allen's books, I highly recommend them (so far there are only two, but her third book comes out in March).  After I finished reading Garden Spells the first time, I couldn't bring myself to put the book down because I had loved it so much, so I carried it around with me for several days.  Seriously, it was that good.

Happy reading and guessing the book featured in today's MadLib!

Friday, October 23, 2009

An Unlikely Trio: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night

Here's a riddle for you on this lovely Friday morning:  What do Harry Potter, the TV show House, and Mother Night have in common?

Instead of simply providing an answer, I'll provide scenarios from each and then talk about the common thread through the scenarios.

First up is Harry Potter.

In J.K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry goes through his first year at Hogwarts, a school for wizards.  On his first night at Hogwarts, all the first-year students have to go through a ceremony, in which the Sorting Hat is placed on each student's head; the Sorting Hat reads the student's character and then tells the student which of the four houses within the school he or she will belong to.  When the Sorting Hat is placed on Harry's head, it sees inherent qualities in Harry that would allow him to do well in Slitherin, the house that every bad wizard in the history of Hogwarts have belonged to ('bad' in the sense of 'evil').  Harry begs the hat to put him anywhere but Slitherin, and so he ends up in Gryffindor, a house whose wizards are known for courage.  In short, Harry chooses to not be a part of Slitherin.

Later on in the series, Harry worries about the fact that the Sorting Hat originally wanted to place him in Slitherin because he thought that meant he was a Slitherin simply posing as a Gryffindor.  His mentor (so to speak), Dumbledore, tells Harry that what he has on the inside doesn't define him; rather he is the sum of his choices.  And he chose Gryffindor.

Keep that in mind as I move on to the second part of the riddle: the TV show House.

House follows the main character, Dr. Gregory House (center character in the above picture), and his team as they diagnose difficult medical cases.  In one episode last season, a patient is brought in who is exhibiting signs of disinhibition.  In other words, he is saying anything that pops into his mind without being able to first monitor what he is about to say.  He sees a pretty girl and out pops, "I'd do her."  His wife asks him what he thinks of her job as an organizer for charities, and he replies, "Those who can't do organize events for those who can do."  He also tells his young daughter not to worry about not being too smart because her "mom isn't the brightest crayon in the box, either."  You get the idea.  A debate begins between House and his team as to who the man actually is: the man thinking the not-so-nice thoughts or the man choosing to suppress those thoughts.  House, being the cynic he is, argues that the man is a hypocrite because he is really the person thinking his typically inhibited thoughts but chooses to present a fake persona to the world.  One of his team members, Kutner (on the far right in the above picture), then brings up the Harry Potter example, saying that what we choose is who we are.

And, finally, comes the third part of the riddle:

In the preface to Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes that this is his only book for which he can provide a moral.  The moral, he writes, is this:

We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Are you seeing the theme now?  The main character of Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., is an American living in Berlin when World War II begins.  As a famous playwright in Germany (he writes his plays in German) who is married to a beautiful German actress, Campbell chooses to stay in Germany even as the war breaks out.  He becomes a spy for the Americans by sending out messages through radio broadcasts with secret signals in them (the signals are so secret that Campbell himself has no clue what information he is passing on); his radio broadcasts are pro-Nazi.  The world sees him as a Nazi because he is "pretending" to be a Nazi.  He questions his own motives for what he did during the war:

Those orders I carried out in Germany were ... ignorant and insane .... I knew it.  God help me, I carried out their instructions anyway.

Campbell lived his life hiding who he really thought he was; in the end, his true self was so hidden that even he wasn't sure who he was.  In my own words, the moral of Mother Night is this: If we don't actively choose who we are, someone else will choose for us; then, when they're finished with us, nothing will be left of us.

Putting all that information together leaves us with an answer to my original riddle: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night explore the notion that our choices are what make us us, regardless of what we start with.

I can't quite end the post here even though I've answered the riddle I posed because there are other quotes I want to share from Mother Night that struck me:

We are never as modern, as far ahead of the past as we like to think we are.

History often goes hand-in-hand with sports.

All people are insane ... God help anybody who looks for reasons.

"Headache?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said.
"Take a aspirin," he said.
"Thank you for the advice," I said.
"Most things in this world don't work--" he said, "but aspirin do."

"This day will go down in history," said Jones.
"Every day goes down in history," said the boss.

I had previously said that Vonnegut's books make me think, and Mother Night was no exception.  The above quotes are just some of what I underlined (metaphorically, as the underlining was done on a Kindle).  It's a book that still has me questioning my own ideals and motivations, more than a week after I finished it.

As a final note, I watched the movie Mother Night yesterday (a side note worth mentioning because of my post from last week).  While I prefer the book to the movie, the movie did a nice job of providing a visual representation of a complex book.  It is the only movie I know that could have "White Christmas" playing in the background as a prisoner is marched to his jail cell in the opening scenes.  Another artistic highlight is when Campbell (played by Nick Nolte) is watching a recording of himself that had been taken fifteen years earlier--during the war--speak about pro-Nazi sentiments.  You see Campbell's horrified face covered by the projection of his righteously angry face.  If that sentence didn't make sense, all I can say is you might just have to see the movie to understand.

Happy reading ... and choosing who you are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Weekly Poll 10/21/09

The question from last week's poll:

Which of the following elements is most important for you to get the most out of a book-related blog?

  • book reviews/discussions
  • language discussions
  • links to featured authors, books, or blogs
  • book-related activities
You may have guessed it, but the only reason I posted this particular question was purely self-serving.  I wanted to get an idea of what my blog readers enjoy most and what I should try to continue to focus on in my blog.  Out of the two answers I got (I didn't quite reach my goal), I found that 50% of my readers like book reviews and/or discussions while the other 50% like language discussions.  Whew.  I hope that means I'm doing something right.

I'd like to take a moment to share my current goals for this blog:

  1. to increase my readership
  2. to provide more interactive content
  3. to make enough money for this to be my "side job"

As I wrote the third goal, I cringed.  It makes me feel like a money monger to say that I'm blogging--doing something I enjoy--to make money.  And yet, I admitted it because I learned from another blogger (Makeup and Beauty Blog) that you should not be ashamed to admit all your goals (even money-related ones) to your readers.  Sometimes that's the only way to start meeting your goals.

What am I asking of you?  If you like my blog, please share it.  If you like any of the pretty ads you see in either of the sidebars, please click on them.  If you have any ideas for me to help me meet any of the above goals, please leave a comment with your ideas.  In return, I will continue to try to keep a steady schedule and to include content that you might find interesting.

The new poll question of the week is up in the left sidebar; my goal of 10 votes continues.  On top of that, I also have a goal of doubling my current number of readers/followers.  I have to post this before I lose my nerve (setting public goals is difficult because not meeting those goals also becomes public), so I'm going to end this goal-sharing session here and hit "publish post."

Happy reading... and voting on the new poll question (hint, hint)!  :)

Monday, October 19, 2009

MadLib Monday 3: 10/19/09

Welcome to the third weekly MadLib feature.  If you need a refresher on the instructions, check out the first MadLib Monday.

  1. adjective
  2. name of a female
  3. noun
  4. verb (past tense)
  5. verb (past tense)
  6. adjective
  7. adverb
  8. noun
  9. noun (plural)
  10. noun (plural)
  11. noun (plural)
  12. noun (plural)
  13. name of a female (same name as #2)
  14. verb
  15. adjective
  16. verb (present participle [-ing])
  17. name (first or last name)
  18. adjective
  19. adjective
  20. name of a female (same name as #2)
  21. noun (plural)
  22. time of day
  23. adjective
  24. noun
  25. noun
  26. verb (past tense)
  27. body part
  28. verb (past tense)
  29. adverb
  30. noun (plural)
As you can see in the left sidebar, the new book of the week is Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki--the writing style is melodious, and the characters are fascinating (or at least I think they are).  Thank you to Angie for getting me the book (yes, it's taken me since Christmas to finally get around to reading it).  The poll question of the week (also in the left sidebar) has two more days before voting is closed; my goal was to get 10 votes, and I'm still ... oh, about 8 votes shy of that goal.  Please help me out by voting by Wednesday.  Thank you in advance!

And here is the picture to go with this week's book featured in our MadLib passage:

Every ___(1)___ moon, without fail, ___(2)___ dreamed of her ___(3)___.  She always ___(4)___ to stay awake those nights when the stars ___(5)___ and the moon was just a ___(6)___ sliver smiling ___(7)___ down at the ___(8)___, the way pretty women on vintage ___(9)___ used to smile as they sold ___(10)___ and ___(11)___.  On those ___(12)___ in the summer, ___(13)___ would ___(14)___ by the light of the ___(15)___ footpath lamps, weeding and ___(16)___ the night bloomers . . . .  These weren't a part of the ___(17)___ legacy of ___(18)___ flowers, but ___(19)___ as she often was, ___(20)___ had added ___(21)___ to the garden to give her something to do at ___(22)___ when she was so ___(23)___ that ___(24)___ singed the edge of her ___(25)___ and she ___(26)___ tiny fires with her ___(27)___.  What she ___(28)___ was ___(29)___ the same.  Long roads like ___(30)___ with no tails.

Can you guess the book that the picture and passage are taken from?

Answer from last week's MadLib Monday:  Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.  Kudos to "Anonymous" for guessing that correctly last week.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hollywood's Take on Books

My post today was inspired by two things: (1) a book review of The Lost Symbol (the review was written by Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books);

 and (2) a colleague lending me the movie version of Mother Night.

If I were you, I would be scratching my head about now, wondering what the connection is between the two events and what the connection is between a book review and Hollywood.  Please allow me to explain.

I'll start with the Dan Brown connection.  The first book I read of his was DaVinci Code, and while reading it, I noticed some stylistic stumbling but wasn't distracted enough to not be intrigued by the plot.  At the end of the book, I was satisfied with the story but knew I probably wouldn't be able to read the book again because I was dissatisfied with the way the story was told.  When I heard a movie (starring Tom Hanks, no less) based on the book would be coming out, I was excited--the plot was a historical web that made me want to run out and do research of my own, and I thought that web would translate well to the big screen.  I've seen that movie quite a few times, and I still can't decide whether I like it.  Something just seems off about it...

Even with the problems I had with the book and movie, I wasn't deterred from trying to read Angels & Demons in time for that movie's release last May (as I said in an earlier post, I prefer to read the book before I see a movie that is based on it).  About 70 pages in, I closed the book for the last time.  For anyone not familiar with the book, it is in fact longer than 70 pages.  Much longer.  For me, A&D's plot couldn't hold my attention to help me make it through my problems with Brown's writing.  All I kept thinking while I was reading the book was something close to, "I read better stuff than this coming from college freshmen who need remedial help in writing."  A few thoughts weren't that nice, but I'll keep those to myself.  As an aspiring writer, I kept A&D on my bookshelves solely for motivation: If that book can get published, mine can, too.  Needless to say, I had no expectations when I walked into the movie theater to see the A&D movie (in case any of you are asking why I would pay to see a movie I had no expectations for, it's because my husband loved the DaVinci Code movie and had been tracking the release of the Angels & Demons movie for over a year).  I was mystified at how Ron Howard (the director) and the screenwriters took a book that I couldn't even make it through and turned it into a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Because of my history with Dan Brown's books and the movies based on them, the book review of his latest book, The Lost Symbol, got me thinking about the rare cases in which Hollywood took a book that I either didn't really enjoy or only semi-enjoyed and turned it into a good movie.  Two other examples (for me) are In Her Shoes and Stardust.  I liked both books well enough, but I adored the movies.  In cases like these, I say kudos to Hollywood and its ability to bring books to life.

In many cases, though, I usually end up completely disappointed with what Hollywood did to the book to turn it in to the movie.  I sit through it, thinking things like, "That wasn't in the book," "Why did they take that scene out?" or "Those characters look completely wrong."  The most recent example of movie disappointment I can think of is The Other Boleyn Girl.  When I read the book (by Philippa Gregory), I devoured it.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it because I couldn't stop without knowing what happened to Mary and Anne (even though I already knew what history had in store for her).  And so when the movie came out, I was ecstatic (especially when I saw the long list of incredible actors and actresses who starred in the movie adaptation).  I was ecstatic until about 30 minutes into the movie.  Then I was slightly less impressed.  About an hour in, I started doing chores, leaving the room, doing anything that would make it so I wouldn't have to concentrate on the movie.  Disappointed doesn't even really begin to say how I felt while watching the movie.  Not all movies in the "disappointment" category are so extreme.  Oftentimes, my sentiments are, "The movie is okay... but the book is amazing."

The connection to Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, then, is that I am really enjoying the book (and will probably write a post based on it when I am finished).  I have the borrowed movie version sitting on the counter, taunting me, and I'm wondering which category that movie will fit into: it is automatically ruled out of category A where the movie is better than the book, and I'm hoping it won't fall into category B where the movie is disappointing (especially since it was highly recommended).  Instead, I hope it will fall into category C: I like both the book and the movie.  Such an example is Bridget Jones's Diary--the book and the movie are separate entities in my head, and I enjoyed both.

The connection to the larger picture of books and movie adaptations of them is that even though I am more often than not left feeling disappointed with the movie version, I am always willing to go back for more.  If I enjoy the book and its movie counterpart is released, I will go see the movie.  Moreover, as I read books, I often find myself thinking, "This would be a great movie!"  A few times I have considered changing careers to become a screenwriter--my first project would be writing the screenplay for Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages, my second would be Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells, and my third would be Jennifer Donnelly's A Tea Rose.  I have yet to figure out my fascination with seeing books played out on the movie screen.  If any of you can offer me insights as to why I would still want to pay to see movies I will most likely be disappointed with, please share them with me.

Happy reading, and may all the movies you watch that are based on books be good ones.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weekly Poll

Here is the poll question for the past week:

Do you pay attention to what critics have to say when choosing what book to read next?

A.  Yes.  Critics help me narrow down my book choices.
B.  Sometimes.  It really depends on the book and/or the critic, though.
C.  No.  I don't want to be biased before I start the book.
D.  No.  I never seem to agree with critics.

The results are in and ... 50% of voters sometimes pay attention to critics (depending on the book and/or critic) while the other 50% of voters do not pay attention to critics for the fear of becoming biased before reading.  Before you become blinded by my dazzling math skills, I will warn you that statistics can create a hazy picture, and I don't want all book critics running out and quitting their jobs because not a single percentage of readers always pay attention to what they have to say.  My numbers are based on a whopping 4 votes.  I was rather proud of getting 4 whole votes (new blog, still recruiting a following), so a big thank you to the four people who made this results posting possible.

One of the reasons I asked the question was because I was trying to figure out my own reading relationship to book critics/reviewers.  Prior to the past month, I probably would have answered either C or D because I tended to staunchly avoid book reviews (even the ones posted by users on sites like Amazon).  Sometimes it was because I didn't want to be biased or find out too much information about the plot by a poorly written review (some people don't know how to review without spoiling), but other times it was because when books I enjoyed got horrible reviews, I was left with my doubts about critics.  The same goes for movies--I tend to really like the movies critics hate while only semi-enjoying the movies critics hale.

Over the past month, though, I've become aware of a new type of book critic: the online blogger who reviews books.  I found my answer swaying more toward the A and B answers from above.  I've been able to find bloggers who fit my reading style and provide fair reviews that help me narrow down my reading selection (or, in some cases, add to it).  Not all online bloggers have reviews that are helpful for me, so I don't pay attention to what all of them are saying (so the helpfulness really depends on the reviewer in question).  I don't know if these bloggers consider themselves critics or not, but for me, they fill the position nicely.  If you'd like to check out some of the bloggers I follow for advice on whether or not to read particular books, my blog list in the right-hand sidebar includes an up-to-date list of blogs I frequently read (most include book reviews; a couple are devoted to language and words rather than to book reviews).

So thank you again to my voters, and thank you to the bloggers who have helped me come to appreciate a well-written book review, especially Rebecca of The Book Lady's Blog, Dawn of She is too fond of books, Trish of Trish's Reading Nook, and Ruth of Bookish Ruth.

The new poll question for this week is up (my polling week runs from Wednesday to Wednesday), so be sure to vote.  My goal is to get at least 10 votes this time. . .  Again, if you have any suggestions for questions, please share them with me.

Happy reading and voting on poll questions!