The Reading Corner

The Reading Corner is a place where books of all genres are examined and reviewed. Comments, questions and disagreement are welcomed. Grab some coffee and a comfy chair and make yourself at home.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Android Karenina

I have never read Anna Karenina, but I'm beginning to be tempted. Russian literature can be a heavy undertaking, as my symbolism-laden senior year literature class could attest to. It took us several years to get through Crime & Punishment (or it felt like it, anyway), because we spent so much time analyzing everything that we had no real ability to just appreciate the literature.

Tolstoy is intimidating. Anna Karenina is a very large book. It's brick-sized. Brick-sized books frighten many readers. I had no intention of picking up any Russian literature this summer...

...but then I saw Android Karenina at my local library. Those of you who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and hey, anybody hear anything about the movie starring Natalie Portman? Can you say boo-yah!?) or Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters should grab a copy of this newest Ben H. Winters phenomenon, because it is great.

As the back of the book cover says, Android Karenina is set in an awesomer Russia.

The back of the book cover is not lying to you.

Fans of Winters, Russian literature, steampunk and/or robots would be remiss in not picking this up. It takes the Tolstoy, which is already classic, and pumps it up a notch. As a Star Wars fan and an avid reader, Android Karenina is a huge treat.

The best thing about Winters' mash-ups, as far as I'm concerned, is that they encourage readers to approach classic literature with an open mind. Yes, you get zombies and seamonsters and robots in the mix -but you're also getting the literature. The rich traditions of hundreds of years of writing are being more widely read (and besides, they're much more funny than the authors ever intended).

Even if the books aren't the pure literature of the original, they make a great read, and they get more reluctant readers interested in the writing. Android Karenina is no exception.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whiny Whiny People.

You know what I am really sick of hearing? People whine about self-publishing. I've ranted about Garrison Keillor's steaming pile of whine before, but apparently people still have not picked up on a few simple facts.

  • Self-publishing works for a growing number of writers and readers (so the people complaining about the poor readers! how will they ever be able to choose books! can seriously shut up. You're insulting readers -who know what they want, and will learn how to find it, when self-publishing outlets become as organized for readers as they are for writers)
  • Self-publishing is not going away. We live in an increasingly digital world. The ability of writers and readers to access books in seconds is not something people are going to give up, now that they have it. And there are more books available!
  • Self-publishing does not mean the books are bad (or "dreck" as one panicky Salon columnist called self-published work). I've said it before, and I will continue saying it until people realize it's true: not all self-published books are equal. Claiming that everything that is published belongs in the rejected slush pile as having been horrid, despicable, shallow and bad just alienates the great writers from working with you.
  • Self-publishing is a market. It's going to self-regulate. People are all panicked about the gatekeeper aspect of traditional publishing. Well, I'm sorry. Any "gatekeeper" who would allow something like Twilight to get published is hardly worth the name (and the claim that there are worse books that have been rejected changes nothing -a crap book is a crap book, and it got published. Someone on the marketing team is happy, while literature is sitting in a corner weeping. Claiming that the traditional industry is a bastion of literary prowess while self-publishing writers are all shoddy hacks is a lie, plain and simple.).
I also hate the claim that anyone who supports self-publishing must have been rejected from the traditional route and is looking for an easy way to get their book out there. First of all, I have been published in the traditional way (short stories are different than novels, but the rejection rate is still high), and I support self-publishing fully. I don't have any rejected manuscripts that I'm slapping out on a POD site, all bitter and angry about my rejections. My manuscripts aren't ready for publication, and any self-pubber with an ounce of sense has been through this process.

They have been through the marketing process, the design, the editing (and if they're smart, they hired somebody to help them with every step -and self-pubbers are very frequently very smart). The ones that aren't going through this rigorous cleaning, polishing and touting of their work aren't going to be successful. Just like in the "real" publishing world, if you put out crappy products, you get crappy results.

So quit your whining. Start making friends with the people who are driving the market forward and will be gaining even more momentum over the next decades. We're not going to forget the people who referred to self-publishing writers are producers of dreck. We'd like to work with people in the traditional industry and apply the expertise to this new market -but we're more than happy to leave you all behind as you cry about how technology is the devil and no one is writing anything good.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Recommendations

I love books. If you didn't know that already, you're probably on the wrong blog. I have a tattoo devoted to books (and someday will probably have another. It's true what they say about tattoos -they're addictive), and so many books that I can't find them all and occasionally end up the victim of a bookvalanche.

But I'm still looking for new things to read.

What I'm Reading Now

Right now I'm reading a great book called Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. I borrowed it from my grandma (she's awesome), and it's fascinating. As an American secularist, I am really interested in the history of the movement, and it's not something that gets much mainstream attention.

There's a lot more history (and humor) than I had even imagined. I was kind of thinking that Freethinkers might not have much to say (despite its 432 pages), because secularism isn't talked about all that often unless you're involved in some secular blog circles. The history of the movement and the individuals has been neglected. Freethinkers is like the history class I wish I could have had in school.

Susan Jacoby is an honest, open and funny writer. She's not bitter about the relative anonymity secularism has, only frustrated and sad. Some of the biggest secular figures of history never get even a whisper of a mention, but they had fascinating lives and often received national and international attention. Reading this book is like discovering old relatives I wish I'd been able to meet. There are fascinating people and events described.

If you have any interest at all in secular America, check it out. It's a great read.

Then What?

What would you recommend I start on next? I like juggling a few books at a time during the summer, and I will read almost anything.

What You Should Read

I would recommend trying something new this summer. Break out of your favorite genre and explore a new topic. If you usually read paranormal romance, try a book like Nudge, by Malcolm Gladwell. If your favorite books are science fiction, read some modern literature. Reading new things is one of the best ways to learn and expand your knowledge base -and who knows? Maybe you'll find a new favorite genre.

Monday, June 14, 2010


I have been absent for a while. I'm trying to get back on track with all of my writing, starting today, so if I don't post again every weekday this week, feel free to write me an angry letter.

What I want to write about today is characters, and most importantly, character appearance -as in, physical appearance.

Spare Me This Crap

I read a review of a book today, and the description of the characters made me gag. It was essentially that the good guys were all sexy, smart and sarcastic and the bad guys were all hideous, smart but with fatal flaws, and also kind of lame and petty. I haven't read the book, so I can't say if that's accurate...but I can tell you I will not be reading that book. Ever.

This is a book for adults, mind you. It's not a kid's book where good and evil are clearly defined and there is no nuance or gray area, so that kids can understand the morals. It's a book for grownups, who are supposed to be able to puzzle out the difference between good, evil and the questionable in between, or at least try.

Apparently the author of this book doesn't have enough faith in readers to give you any actual substance in characters. The good guys (and girls) are so good they even look good! And the bad guys are so wicked it warps their outsides and they're just fugly. Wow. Yawn.

Give Me More of Characters Like These

Now I'd like to look back at Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Sissy Hankshaw is a fox -she's a model, and she's tall, blond and slender. But she has massive (supermassive) thumbs. They're so jarring that they never even appear in the ads she's featured in. These thumbs are her defining physical characteristic, and they shape her destiny: she's a hitchhiker. It's what she is (mostly).

Sissy is still a complex character with wants and desires and depth, however. She is not reduced to one aspect of her physical appearance, and that's what makes her interesting. If Sissy was just a body attached to a pair of thumbs, ECGTB wouldn't have held my attention past the first three pages.

And another example: The Better Part of Darkness. Without giving away any spoilers, one of the main (and handsome) male characters' souls is replaced by that of a demon who purchased the rights to the body (seriously, it's a cool book. Check it out.). And yet, when this demon looks at the situation his host body was in, he doesn't run away from it. He's got this great new bod, a whole new lifetime to use it in, and he throws himself back into harm's way to help a woman and her daughter, despite the fact that he's a shady demon.

That's complex. That's confusing -do you hate him for taking over a main character's body? Or do you love him for helping? That is a real character. That adds value to the story. That's someone whose outward appearance may be attractive in the conventional way, but whose personality is their biggest quality.

Other Considerations

Books are escapism. Sometimes readers just need to escape into that fantasy of the perfect bod/perfect mate/perfect life for a while, and there's nothing wrong with providing that -sometimes. On the one hand, escapism is healthy. We need it, and it's nice. On the other hand, it also tends to promote specific cultural stereotypes about beauty and its effect on personality (for example: the smoking hot bitch, the cute but shy girl who gets the guy, the bad boy who just needs some love and is totally gorgeous, the square-jawed hero with a dark past, etc. I am bored just thinking about these characters).

I want to read about real people, not some character who always has the snappy one-liner, the long legs and the straight blond hair. Real people are clumsy or have freckles they hate or always nick their knees when shaving. Real people are drawn in shades of gray.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Homeward Bound

I've been absent from the blogosphere this week -I'm going home today, and packing, studying and generally being incredibly bored have taken up most of my time. That and watching seasons 3 and 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix (don't act like you didn't know I was a nerd. Next it's going to be True Blood.). However, I now find myself with nearly an hour to kill and no desire to start on season 5 right away.

Today I woke up grumpy, walked grumpily through the rainstorm from hell to get a breakfast that made me sick and then got a stress headache, which I decided (brilliantly) to compound with a latte (or a chai with a shot of espresso -I honestly do not remember). The stress headache went away, but the whole "I'm allergic to milk (etc)" thing is kicking me in the head and stomach simultaneously. It's a fun day to have a final exam I don't want to take!

I figured I should update with some bookish things, but to be totally honest, I don't have much to say (at least right now. I do have news, but I want to wait a couple of days so I don't jinx it somehow). I haven't been reading much (cue the guilt), but that should change once I get home and have nothing but free time (and possibly two summer jobs).

I'm still working my way through Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and I have to be honest -I like Jitterbug Perfume better. I love the characters in ECGTB (too lazy to type), they're interesting...but something about it is losing me. I think it's possibly that since I've been stuck in my dorm since last Friday with -quite literally -nothing I needed to work on, I want vicarious action. Not much is going on in ECGTB. Sissy is in a mental institution, and Robbins seems to be frolicking through lengthy descriptive and introspective passages. They're well written, and they're funny, but nothing is going on and I'm very bored with it.

In JP, the characters are after something. There is a driving force pushing the characters through life. There are desires, and conflicts. In ECGTB, that's almost totally lacking in all significant ways -and I'm almost halfway through the book. Even the tantalizing little tidbits about the Chink and the clockworks really aren't enough to keep me interested right now. I love Robbins' writing, I just think I picked a bad time to read this particular book. Thoughts?

While I psychoanalyze my reasons for wanting more action (hint: it's because I'm stuck in a dorm with nothing to do and I'm bored), I am going to refrain from whining about having to live in a dorm and be bored for almost a full week any further (it involves how gross other people are, and I don't have the stomach for it).

More books and booky talk soon, when I am less grouchy. :)

Friday, June 4, 2010


I am having a severe case of geek flashback. The Scripps National Spelling Bee is today (and yesterday)! Right now I really wish I was at home so I could be watching it -this is the first and only time I have wished for a TV while at school.

As a two-time competitor in the Bee, watching all of those terrified kids takes me back to when I was standing on that stage, nervously misspelling theodicy to pronouncer Jacques Bailly (who won the Bee himself in 1980). This is true of all spellers: I constantly run into the word theodicy now.

I placed 47th in 2004. In 2003, I was 85th. I can't even put into words how much fun the Bee always was for me (even when I lost). Even now, I bring one of my two copies of Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary to school with me, and I use it regularly.

If you have some time to watch the Bee, it's on ESPN or ESPN3 and ABC as well. Even if you don't know how to spell the words, some of the kids' antics are hilarious, and it's always amazing to me to see how intelligent they are.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Got Books

More accurately, I got a stack of old literary journals and magazines. Yesterday was the last day of my nonfiction writing workshop, and our prof brought in a bunch of them to give away -her husband is a book reviewer and wanted to clean house.

I don't know if that means these are all copies that he didn't like, but if you put me in a room and say, "Free books, take as many as you like!" believe me when I say that I will. I got 4.

Have any of you heard of/read/submitted to/been published in any one of these? Let me know! I'm excited to dig into them and see what's what.

West Branch.

I got the poetry issue from Spring/Summer 2005.
First line of the first piece, called A Walking Fire by Josh Wallaert:
"Now a little fire in a wild field. Winter."


I got the first issue of Volume 30, published in 2010.
First lines of the first piece, called Canto 23 by Mark Smith:
"Marcus, having exchanged the firemen's
asbestos suit he wore in Canto 22
for a jacket of polartec, was escorted
by his Indian guide to the shoreline"

The Greensboro Review.

I got Number 78, from Fall of 2005.
First lines of the first piece, called Necessity at Radmansgatan by Hildred Crill:
"We all rush
down the narrow stone stairway
to the trains or back up again"

Great River Review.

I got the Fall/Winter issue from 2005.
First line of the first piece, called Such Fire, by Lon Otto:
"I was thinking about Roy, which wasn't his real name but what he'd told me to use when I talked about him."
(I will admit that I picked up Great River Review because there is an author in it who shares one of my last names.)

I'm sure I'll be posting more about these as I go through them. What are your favorite literary magazines or journals? And have you submitted to mine? ;)