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!

Monday, October 12, 2009

MadLib Monday 2: 10/12/09

Welcome to the second MadLib Monday!  The "rules" for completing the MadLib are the same as the first posting, so if you need to review, please refer back to that post (which is what is conveniently linked to the words "first posting").  Let's get started. . .

1.  verb
2.  noun
3.  amount of time
4.  verb (past participle)
5.  verb (past tense)
6.  preposition
7.  adjective
8.  adjective
9.  noun (singular)
10.  adverb
11.  pronoun
12.  adjective
13.  verb
14.  name of a person
15.  verb (past tense)
16.  verb
17.  verb (past participle)
18.  name of a place
19.  noun (singular)
20.  adjective
21.  verb
22.  noun (singular)
23.  measurement of length
24.  noun (plural)
25.  verb
26.  noun (singular)
27.  noun (singular)
28.  adjective
29.  verb (past tense)
30.  verb

And now for a bit of "taking care of business" to distract you from seeing the passage just yet...  First, I chose Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut as the book of the week, and I'd like to thank GoodBooksInc for recommending it because it is their current read for their Good Books Club.  And secondly, there is a new poll question on the left sidebar; I update it every Wednesday, so be sure to check that out and provide an answer in the next couple days--the deadline is noon on Wednesday.  I'll then do a posting this week based on the result of the poll (I say "result" in the singular, as there is currently only one vote).  If you have any suggested questions for future polls, please share them with me.

And now for the picture to go along with this week's MadLib. . .

I'd never given much thought to how I would ___(1)___ --though I'd had ___(2)___ enough in the last few ___(3)___ --but even if I had, I would not have ___(4)___ it like this.

I ___(5)___ without breathing ___(6)___ the ___(7)___ room, into the ___(8)___ eyes of the ___(9)___, and he looked ___(10)___ back at ___(11)___.

Surely it was a ___(12)___ way to ___(13)___, in the place of ___(14)___, someone I ___(15)___.  Noble, even.  That ought to ___(16)___ for something.

I knew that if I'd never ___(17)___ to ___(18)___, I wouldn't be facing ___(19)___ now.  But, ___(20)___ as I was, I couldn't bring myself to ___(21)___ the decision.  When life offers you a(n) ___(22)___   ___(23)___ beyond any of your ___(24)___, it's not reasonable to ___(25)___ when it comes to a(n) ___(26)___.

The ___(27)___ smiled in a ___(28)___ way as he ___(29)___ forward to ___(30)___ me.

Do know what book the above passage and picture are from?

Answer to last week's MadLib Monday: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Kudos to Billy for guessing that one right away.

Happy reading!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Metaphors Gone Wrong?

I just finished reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, the book I used as content for my previous post.  While reading it, I encountered a few hiccups in language usage that make it difficult for me to decide what I think about the book overall.  I can't decide if I am simply being too tough on the book because, being a linguist, I am prone to thinking about language and its use too much or if I am simply being a typical reader.  Instead of trying to figure that one out by myself, I'm turning to the blogosphere to try to find an answer.

In the book, I felt there were portions of gratuitous medical terms being thrown around--not medical terms that helped along the plot but medical terms that showed the author had done her research before writing about a family dealing with a medical (and then later a legal) crisis.  Some paragraphs, though, were so filled with medical jargon that I skipped right over them, never looking back to see what I missed.  When I'm teaching composition, I tell my students that simpler is often better--simpler structures and simpler vocabulary that get your point across can be as poignant and deep (and oftentimes even more so) than a passage written in overly complex structures filled with difficult-to-understand words.  I'm not saying I'm never guilty of doing the exact thing I tell my students not to do--I know that sometimes when I write, I try too hard and end up sounding entirely vague rather than meaningful.  I just wish that there weren't so many examples in modern-day writing of authors trying to outdo each other (or themselves), trying to make their language come across as more thought-provoking or intellectual.  One such example is that the entire book is told in the first person; however, the narrator changes every chapter, which left me confused when skipping around among six possible narrators.  With the deictic "I" changing so often, I found myself having to reread paragraphs, trying to jog my memory as to who was telling that particular portion of the story.

The specific examples I'm using for this post, though, are metaphors that I feel have missed their marks.  Metaphors are one of the strongest tools in a writer's toolbox--they have the ability to make the abstract concrete, to make the unknown known.  I love that about metaphors and metaphorical extensions.  But when metaphors go wrong, they really go wrong.

 (I found the above comic on a website article titled "In Praise of the Bad Metaphor.")

In my first example from the book, one character sees a woman he has not seen in fifteen years, and he's noticing how she's aged in those years apart:

... fine lines bracket her mouth, parentheses around a lifetime of words I was not around to hear.  (117)

I had to read this line through a few times before I realized what it was about the line that bugged me: if her words are all enclosed in parentheses, he is rendering them as extra, unnecessary, superfluous information.  I would not want my "lifetime of words" to be summed up as being parenthetical.  I know that is not the effect that is intended, and perhaps I am just a bit too touchy when it comes to punctuation.

The second example provides another metaphor that uses punctuation; a father and his daughter are watching a meteor shower together, both unable to voice what they are feeling:

Every second, another streak of silver glows: parentheses, exclamation points, commas--a whole grammar made of light, for words too hard to speak.  (200)

Please tell me someone else cringed, thinking, "But punctuation is not grammar."  In the list of comparisons, only punctuation marks are metaphorically present in the light from the shooting stars, and punctuation marks are hardly the grammar of any language; instead, they are mere conventions agreed upon by the writers of the language.  In other words, the metaphor is saying that nothing is getting said at all and that empty punctuation marks are lighting up the sky.

My final example strays from punctuation (proving that punctuation is not my only pet peeve):

Summertime, I think, is a collective unconscious.  We all remember the notes that made up the song of the ice cream man; we all know what it feels like to brand our thighs on a playground slide that's heated up like a knife on fire; we all have lain on our backs with our eyes closed and our hearts beating across the surfaces of our lids, hoping that this day will stretch just a little longer than the last one, when in fact it's all going in the other direction.  (279)

If those three examples are the definition of the collective unconscious of summertime, then I have sadly been left out from the collective whole, which makes me question whether that makes me downright un-American or just someone who never lived anywhere near an ice-cream-truck route or minded that the days got shorter as the summer went on.  In fact, part of the fun of summertime for me was the onset of night--chasing lightning bugs, hearing the whippoorwill...

So that I don't come off as being horribly judgmental, I want to point out that the book had many highlights as well.  The plot was interesting and made me want to keep reading despite my previous criticisms.  And not all the metaphors missed their marks:

Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I've decided, is only a slow sewing shut.  (299)

That statement reminds me of a Randy Travis song: "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man."  Being a child makes us think everything is possible while becoming an adult provides us with the wisdom that not everything is possible, thus dimming our spirit.  The song's point is that we come to points in our lives when we have to choose between having a youthful spirit or an aged wisdom, a sentiment reflected in the above metaphor.

And there are also many instances of really deep, poignant thoughts being expressed in simple terms:

... maybe who we are isn't so much about what we do, but rather what we're capable of when we least expect it.  (307)

In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parent who loses a child.  (417)

Again, the language of the book has its highlights and lowlights, so to speak (metaphor, anyone?).

The question I have for my readers, then, is whether I am simply being too picky or if these examples also make any of you raise your eyebrows, questioning the validity of the comparisons.  Moreover, I'd love to hear any examples you've read lately (or not so lately) of metaphors gone wrong.

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Sister's Keeper: A plot that could only happen in America?

This week I started reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  I had previously heard of Jodi Picoult's novels because many of my students are fans of her books, but this is the first book I've read of hers.  I chose this particular one to start reading because the movie (also called My Sister's Keeper) based on the book came out during the summer (I'm waiting until it hits Netflix to see it), and I have a compulsion to read books before seeing the movies based on them.  Luckily for me, my sister had given me the book for Christmas last year, so I didn't have to go far to get the book.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, a couple's young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia, and no one in their family is a perfect match for the daughter to be able to give her blood, platelets, marrow, organs, or anything else she might need to fight the leukemia.  The doctor working on the case tells the parents that using any non-related donor increases the risk of something going wrong with transfusions or transplants.  So what does the couple do?  They go to other doctors to genetically engineer an embryo that will be a perfect match for their sick daughter.  Once the other daughter is born, her predetermined job is to play the role as her sister's lifelong donor.  That's the backdrop to the story, which has its own twists and turns once you get into the plot; however, for my purposes in this blog, if what I've written here is all you know about the book, it will be enough.

As I am reading the book, one question keeps running through my head: "Could this only happen in America?"  Our culture has such a hard time saying goodbye to someone when it's necessary that we have become a culture that mourns the death of household pets (Hallmark even makes sympathy cards now for the loss of a pet) and that is afraid to use the word die in most polite situations, preferring instead the euphemistic pass on (as in He passed on last year).  It is not difficult to imagine, then, American parents who are so afraid to let go of one daughter that they genetically engineer another daughter to save her, without wondering if their next daughter would ever have a chance at life.  In the book, almost every time the daughter with leukemia gets sick and is hospitalized, the donor daughter has to be hospitalized, too, so that she can provide whatever it is her sister's body requires to go back into remission.  Would this be a plausible plot in other cultures?  Or is it just America that tries its hardest to not deal with death?

Not only do we, as Americans, have a hard time dealing with death, we also have a hard time dealing with disease in general.  The following passage was taken from page 131 of My Sister's Keeper:

There was this kid in my school, Jimmy Stredboe, who used to be a total loser.  He got zits on top of his zits; he had a pet rat named Orphan Annie; and once in science class he puked into the fish tank.  No one ever talked to him, in case dorkhood was contagious.  But then one summer he was diagnosed with MS.  After that, no one was mean to Jimmy anymore.  If you passed him in the hall, you smiled.  If he sat next to you at the lunch table, you nodded hello.  It was as if being a walking tragedy canceled out ever having been a geek.

From the moment I was born, I have been the girl with the sick sister.  All my life bank tellers have given me extra lollipops; principals have known me by name.  No one is ever outright mean to me.

It makes me wonder how I'd be treated if I were like everyone else.

The community doesn't know how to react to the family because one of their five members was diagnosed with a fatal disease.  In fact, the family members often don't know how to act around each other (not knowing what they can say or what they should do).  The parents especially have a hard time relating to their non-sick kids with most of their energy focused on keeping their daughter with leukemia in remission.  The "emotionally absent parents" syndrome is reminiscent of a recent post on Angieville that focused on prevalent bad parenting in young adult novels (though Jodi Picoult's book is not classified as YA, it focuses on telling the story of the 13-year-old donor daughter).  Is the inability to deal with disease unique to the American culture?  Or do people from other cultures also completely shut down and forget how to be an interactive human once someone who has a disease crosses their path?

In the mid-1990s, a movie called The Cure explored the relationship between a young boy who has AIDS and his best friend (who is also his neighbor).  When the young boy with AIDS and his mother move into a new community, the community responds by avoiding both of them.  The only one who treats them as normal humans is their neighbor's son.  Everyone else avoids them not because they get to know them and don't like them, but because they don't know how to act around them and they don't know what to say.  Instead of trying, they run in a different direction.  Are we afraid of facing the disease or of facing our own inadequacies in difficult situations?  Or maybe it is simply because they are different, and Americans tend to prefer the status quo.

My question remains: Are all cultures like ours?  It is an unwritten rule that we can't speak ill of the dead or the dying, so some exalt them while others avoid them altogether, whether it's motivated by pity or fear.  Is it an American curse or humanity's curse?

"Happy reading" seems like an inappropriate sign-off after this post, and yet I still wish you all happy reading, even if what you're reading is anything but "happy."

Monday, October 5, 2009

MadLib Monday 1: 10/5/09

I'm starting a new weekly feature called "MadLib Monday."  In it, I will include a MadLib activity based on a passage from a book and a close-up picture of some part of the cover of the book I used for the MadLib.  At the end, try to guess which book I used for the passage and picture.  Let's begin our first MadLib Monday.

As a quick review, the present participle of a verb is the verb + -ing (e.g., walking, choosing); the past participle of a verb is typically the verb + -ed/-en (e.g., walked, chosen); if a verb is irregular, its past participle is the form you would use after have (e.g., have sung, have hit); if nothing is specified for the verb, use the base form with no inflection (e.g., walk, choose); the possessive noun is one that has either 's or s' (depending on whether it is singular or plural); and if nothing is specified for the noun, you can use either a singular or plural form.  If you need more of a review, a helpful resource is the English Club website.

1.  time of day
2.  title of a government position
3.  verb (present participle)
4.  noun
5.  adjective
6.  verb (present participle)
7.  noun
8.  pronoun
9.  noun (singular)
10.  title of a government position
11.  place
12.  adjective
13.  adjective
14.  adjective
15.  adjective
16.  adjective
17.  noun (singular)
18.  verb
19.  noun
20.  adverb
21.  title of a government position (use the same one you used for #2)
22.  body part
23.  noun (plural)
24.  noun (use the singular version of what you used for #23)
25.  verb (past participle)
26.  amount of time
27.  verb
28.  verb (past participle)
29.  verb
30.  noun (possessive)

After you've made your list, scroll down below the picture (which is a close-up of the cover of the book I am using for today's MadLib Monday feature) for the passage.

In the passage, use the list of words you came up with to fill in the numbered blanks:

"It was nearing ___1___ and the ___2___ was ___3___ alone in his ___4___, reading a ___5___ memo that was ___6___ through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of ___7___ behind. ___8___ was waiting for a ___9___ from the ___10___ of ___11___, and between wondering when the ___12___ man would telephone, and trying to suppress ___13___ memories of what had been a very ___14___, ___15___, and ___16___ week, there was not much ___17___ in his head for anything else.  The more he attempted to ___18___ on the ___19___ on the page before him, the more ___20___ the ___21___ could see the gloating ___22___ of one of his political ___23___.  This particular ___24___ had ___25___ on the news that very ___26___, not only to ___27___ all the terrible things that had ___28___ in the last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to ___29___ why each and every one of them was the ___30___ fault."

Can you guess the book used for this week's MadLib Monday?

The answer will be posted for everyone to see in next week's MadLib Monday, but feel free to provide your answer in a comment to this posting before then.

Happy reading!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Helped by "The Help"

I've often thought that I need to be or do something more in life to matter.  I feel like being me isn't enough, but I'm not sure whose expectations I'm trying to live up to.  No one has ever explicitly said I need to do anything more than what I'm already doing, but sometimes I wish someone would tell me exactly what was expected of me so that I could feel like I'm working on fulfilling my purpose rather than wondering what that purpose is.

A couple months ago, I was perusing books on my Kindle, and Amazon suggested a list books for me based on my reading interests.  One of the books on the list was The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

I didn't immediately buy it because, at that particular time, I was trying to be thrifty by only getting the free (or nearly free) books.  Yet something about the book and its synopsis kept me going back to its Kindle page every day for three days.  So I downloaded a free sample, thinking, "What could it hurt?"  Two pages into my free sample, I bought the entire book.  Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.  Even when I didn't physically have the book in my hands, the book was still alive inside me because I thought about the story and its characters as if they were my dearest friends and I were a part of everything going on.  I wondered what the characters would do next, what I would say if they asked me for advice, what I would do if I were in their shoes...

I found ways to connect with the three main women in the book, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny, even though I shared little in common with them on the surface.  They were living in Mississippi in the 1960s; Aibileen and Minny were both black maids; Skeeter was a young white woman who had been raised by a black maid; they were all tired of the status quo; they became inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.  As someone who has never visited Mississippi, lived during the 60s, or had a maid or known anyone who had one, how is it that I could feel like I was a part of their story?

Part of that connection is due to Kathryn Stockett's amazing writing.  Her words provide dimension for the characters so that they can step off the pages and become living, breathing souls.  She writes the book in sections, writing the different sections through the eyes of one of the three main characters.  A couple of quotations to show off her writing style follow:

My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy.  I don't know what to say to her.  All I know is, I ain't saying it.  And I know she ain't saying what she want a say either and it's a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.

I always thought insanity would be a dark, bitter feeling, but it is drenching and delicious if you really roll around in it.

If the book were simply a well-written one, I would have liked the book but not become a part of it.  I would have relished the book as I read it but not chewed and digested each passage.  The book was more than a good book--it became one of my favorites before I had even finished it.  Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie inspired me because they were able to accomplish a quiet triumph by simply being themselves and doing what they did best right where they were.  Reading about their lives helped me realize that I can make a difference in the world--and serve a purpose--by not worrying so much about living up to expectations but rather turning inward and reflecting on what I do best.  And then doing that.

I will never be a politician who can fight injustices of the world by promoting better laws.  I will never be an ambassador to the UN.  I will never be a doctor who saves people's lives.  I will never be a multi-millionaire who can spend money financing expensive charitable deeds.  Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie taught me not to focus on those.  They taught me to focus instead on the other side of the proverbial coin: what I am.  I am a teacher in a position to inspire college students.  I am a writer with the desire to share my love of reading and words with those around me.  I am a woman of many relationships: daughter, sister, mother, wife, friend.  Those are the things that matter.

The book's message reminded me of Gilda Radner's autobiography, It's Always Something, which details her life in comedy and her fight with cancer.  Gilda writes, "What I've learned the hard way is that there's always something you can do.  It may not be an easy thing to do, but there is always something you can do."  The three ladies in The Help found the something they could do and, in turn, helped me to start searching for, acknowledging, and actually attempting the small somethings I can do without worrying about the things I can't do.

Happy reading, and happy searching for your somethings.