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.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Weekend Update

I will probably not be updating again this weekend, but I didn't want to leave you all with nothing. Check out this post on my literary journal's website to see some of the writing and art blogs I use for inspiration and information.

See you next week!

Friday, May 28, 2010


After my slightly feisty (okay, really feisty) post yesterday about Garrison Keillor's technophobia and elitism, I decided I should take a day to write about the self-publishing industry itself and what makes it so interesting and so challenging.

As someone who is heavily involved with the self-publishing scene, I am constantly trying to learn more about it. I'm always looking for solutions to problems I've had in the past and attempting to find the best possible way to produce my literary journal, Leaves & Flowers.

Self-publishing is an intense process for the writers who take it seriously. And these are the people I want to focus on.

Serious Self-Publishers

The people who are serious about self-publishing are the ones who are going to succeed.

Garrison Keillor -and anyone who knocks on self-publishing as a whole -assume that writers who self-publish simply find the first ebook website they can, slap an unpolished manuscript up onto it and flood the market with crap that nobody wants. That's simply not how it works.

The people who are serious about their writing -people who have written a number of books, perhaps published in the traditional way, have a degree in something related to writing, or are dedicated to and in love with their craft -are not going to just throw their novel up on a website without any planning.

While self-publishing and traditional publishing both have their challenges, self-publishing is just as difficult as going the "normal" route, and it has very unique challenges. The writer becomes much more than just a writer:
  • Editing falls on the writer's shoulders, unless she is willing to pay someone hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a professional edit. Many writers do opt for this, because a polished manuscript is essential for sales.
  • Designing the interior and exterior is also the writer's responsibility. For writers with no design experience, this can be a huge challenge as they experiment with different formats. The cover is one of the most important parts of selling a book online, because people do judge books by their cover -we all know it. Again, many writers choose to hire someone to do the designing for them, which is very expensive.
  • Finding a printer is the writer's responsibility. A self-publishing author cannot simply hand the manuscript over to a publisher and know that the publisher owns or works with a printing press. The writer must seek out the best quality printer -and sometimes reformat a book to fit their specifications. Printing self-published books is expensive, especially if you order multiple proof copies (for example: I ended up needing three separate proofs of the latest issue of Leaves & Flowers; each one cost me $15. $45 for one issue is a huge amount of money to a broke college student -for a professional writer, that number could rapidly get much, much larger).
  • Marketing and publicity are the responsibility of a writer. Many traditionally published writers are involved with their publicity -and many receive none at all -but in self-publishing, the risks are much greater. All of the marketing experience available to big publishers is unavailable to self-published authors, who are often working totally alone, promoting their books on Twitter, Facebook and other websites in order to create a fan base.
  • Self-published writers receive no advances, have no agents and often lack experience in the publishing field. It is a steep, steep learning curve.
Despite all of the things that hamper self-publishing authors, those of us who want to succeed in the path we have chosen make sure we know how to do so. There are classes, blogs, other writers, seminars, webinars, groups and even writers' guilds devoted solely to the self-publishing industry.

Those of us who choose to self-publish are not always in it because the manuscript "wasn't good enough" for a big publisher. And if it wasn't, it won't sell. Self-publishing, like traditional publishing, is a market. People who learn how to work the market effectively are going to succeed. They might not have a breakaway best-seller or a New York Times Book Review (yet!), but that's because this is a new market. It's just learning how to walk. Give it a few years, and it will be running faster than you can imagine.

I love it when I see authors who are willing to take the plunge and self-publish. It's risky, it's ballsy and it is more likely to fail. But it is also the up-and-comer, the next big thing. Getting in on it now and learning the ropes is an investment. Self-publishing is riding the new technology of ebooks and ereaders and the influx of self-publishing outlets in a way that the industry doesn't understand. And in the end, that's going to be their loss.

A Community of Writers

Those of us who self-publish form a very tight-knit community. People are more willing to interact, buy each others' books, promote one another and make friends. We play well with others, because taking the route of self-publishing requires you to engage with your community. Self-published authors can be cranky, argumentative and bitter, just like anybody, but on the whole, we are driven to help one another.

Traditionally published authors have a similar community, I'm sure, but it's always inspiring to me to see how much self-publishing authors are willing to do for one another. Building a fan base is part of succeeding, but it goes far beyond that in the self-publishing world: these writers build a community, too.


I have nattered on long enough for now. Self-publishing is a force to be reckoned with. It's like fire: if you learn how to use it and control it, you can make art. If you're just playing with it, which Garrison Keillor and his ilk assume is all we know how to do, you can be eaten alive. It's a challenge, and it's one that any serious writer should consider taking on.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Garrison Keillor: Technophobe

Garrison Keillor showed his true colors in his column in the Baltimore Sun. By falling into that ever-so-cliched and offensive trap of the big-name writer, he not only lost a fan in me, he also revealed even more about the problems with the industry. What did he do?

He bagged on about all of the evils and horrors of the rise of self-publishing. No, I am not kidding. He claims that when everyone can publish their own work, no one will ever read it, it will all be poor quality, the publishing industry is going down in flames and oh my god people can publish their own books!

He has perfectly illustrated the mindset that so irritated us youngsters when our grandparents chided us for wanting cars to go to school. "Back in the day," he says, "we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshiped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats." As though writers who go the self-publishing route have no love of language, no obsession with the telling of stories, no desire to succeed at all costs -and self-publishing, my friends, is costly.

He writes that 'back in his day,' authors had to work for their publishing deals -practically write in their own blood and sacrifice their children at the altar of the great god Literature. "Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries," he tells us. Nobody likes a martyr anyway, so I'm failing to see how that's a bad thing.

Additionally, the very fact that big names in the traditional industry whine about self-publishers as though we are out to get them and destroy literature is a huge contributor to the failure of that very industry. Instead of working with self-publishers and self-publishing outlets to help improve the quality of writing and the access of writers to editors (who Keillor clearly assumes are an endangered species), the publishing industry runs around flapping its hands and refusing to adjust to the new model of the writing world. Technology marches on, you guys. Get on board and make it work for you, or become obsolete. People once thought the pen would be the downfall of academia. While academia certainly has its issues, none of them are pen-related. Stop hand-flapping and learn about the technology before you bash it.

But let's get on to to the meat of my complaint:

Not all self-published authors are the same.

By tarring all self-pubs with the same brush (namely that self-pubs are ignorant of the market and the conventions of writing, lacking the sense of martyrdom Keillor says is required for a proper author, and clearly holding the idea that not having to go through the exact same process he did means that whatever a self-pubber produces is obviously going to be garbage), Keillor discredits thousands of authors -like my friend Renda, to name just one -who have worked their way into the market, fighting tooth and nail every step of the way.

Yes, there certainly are people out there who will write a book, slap it up on an ebook site with no editing, no design knowledge or marketing tools and sell very few copies, mostly to blood relatives. Maybe that's what some people want -to share a book, perhaps a family story, with, you know, family. Other authors will simply lack the knowledge to market and design a book, and they will fail. But that is not the entirety of the self-publishing market, although Keillor would desperately like you to believe that it is.

There certainly are quality control issues with self-publishing. It is entirely possible to miss something in the editing process. I have done it myself, much to my everlasting embarrassment. It's a steep, steep learning curve, this self-publishing thing. It's a lot harder than traditional publishing, because the individual is writer, agent, editor, marketer, designer, type-setter and publisher all in one -and it all comes out of the author's own pocket. With traditional publishing, you polish and polish and hire an agent and work with that person to navigate a deal, and then maybe do some of the marketing to help earn back the advance that self-publishing writers sure aren't going to get.

This technophobic attitude is infuriating, because it is narrow-minded and ignorant of what it actually means to self-publish. Writers who are serious about the process often hire an agency -like DuoLit, who also did a blog post about the hatred directed at self-publishing writers -to help them during the process. And it's expensive. Upwards of $2,000 for a single book. That's not something that a hobbyist is going to go for. To get the services you need to make a good, professional, well-edited book, you have to be serious about it.

And the people who aren't -the people Garrison Keillor assumes make up the entirety of the self-publishing world -won't get read. If they don't learn the skills they need, or pay someone to provide them with those skills or knowledge, then their book will sit in obscurity on a digital shelf, unsold. Rather like books produced by, oh, say, the traditional publishing industry that don't sell well because they're terrible (it happens, although Keillor would like us all to believe that every traditionally published book is a triumph of literary and philosophical prowess).

To be a self-published author -a good one -takes time, it takes skill, energy and dedication; this is something most authors who succeed at self-publishing have in spades. They simply chose to go a different route. And different, according to Keillor, is bad. Very bad indeed.

Keillor protests that he is not an elitist at a couple of points throughout the column. And yet, his attitude is unmistakable: Oh say it isn't so -the philistines can publish books now. Wherever are my smelling salts and fainting couch? Verily, it is the downfall of all things literary. Nothing good can come of this. We are your readers and your paycheck, Keillor, we of the self-publishing market, and we are not pleased to be so disparaged.

We are simply choosing to earn our literary keep in a way that allows us to ride the wave of technology. If you fear that, fine. Cling to the old, dying model and shake your fist at us dang kids as we ride by in our shiny new ebooks, continuing to tell stories and spread them to those who need and want them, just as real writers have always done.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Body Finder

Today I want to write about The Body Finder and the idea of showing, not telling. I can already hear some of you whining, "But we know about that! That's so basic!" Well, stick with me. It's clear that this is a lesson writers still need to learn, myself included.

Show-don't-tell (SDT from now on) is something I struggle with, because I have a desire to over-explain things. I like making sure my readers know precisely what I mean, probably because I am argumentative and prefer to cover all points as explicitly as possible. With a blog and in academic papers, that's not a bad policy.

In fiction (and creative non-fiction), that's a very bad policy indeed. It leaves you with sentences like, "He was angry -very angry." Excuse me while I grab a pillow and take a snooze on that sentence.

How about this one? "His hands were clenched so tight that little half-moon cuts showed up in his palms."

That is an angry fellow. I would be sitting up and paying attention if that sentence was used. Telling a reader that someone is experiencing X is so much less engaging than showing a reader how X is being experienced.

So, on to The Body Finder and how SDT is related.

I don't read a lot of YA. It's not really my go-to genre -it's not that I don't like it, but I'm definitely not the target demographic. I generally enjoy what YA books I do pick up, but it's not a genre I actively seek out.

That being said, I have a question for avid readers of YA: Is it common practice for many YA writers to use italics to show a reader that something is important -very important -throughout most of a book? I suspect that it's not, because the SDT rule holds true in all creative writing, YA included; I have a feeling that the italics issue might be limited to a few books, like The Body Finder.

I will elaborate on it, but my main point today is this: If you have to use italics to show strong emotion or denote importance, you're doing it wrong. (By "it" I mean writing).

Using italics seems to me to be the very essence of breaking the SDT rule: you are telling people that something is important by setting it apart from the rest of the font -not by giving readers any details as to why this something is significant. That's a problem in a couple of big ways.

  1. It's distracting. I use bold/italics on my blog for emphasis because this is largely fact- and opinion-based writing, and because I want to set main points apart from the rest of the text. It is intentionally distracting. In a novel, I don't want to be distracted from the flow of the writing -it needs to pull me in and keep me there because I'm too entranced to look away. Throwing in italics every few paragraphs is visually unappealing and breaks the flow of the writing.
  2. It's lazy. If, as a writer, you are using italics to show that something is meaningful, you need to take a good look at why that is. It's probably because you're not using enough sensory detail to make the reader understand without having to be told. It's way simpler to use italics to tell someone this sentence is significant, but in the end, you're not really saying anything.
Now, I will have to grant that my copy of The Body Finder is an uncorrected proof. It is entirely possible that this overuse of italics was corrected in the final (anyone who's read it, please let me know). However, my experience reading the book was almost ruined by it.

The Body Finder has the worst case of italics overload I've ever seen. At minimum, 1 out of every 3 pages (not including the fully italicized "interior" pages, which are italicized for a valid reason) has at least one use of italics on it. Visually, that's horrible. It also tells me, at a glance, that I am being told things and not shown them.

Take this sentence, for example: "She needed to see what was there." Okay -at this point in the story, the reader already knows that Violet has the ability to sense the 'echoes' of dead things. It's almost a compulsion for her to seek them out. But telling the reader that she needed to see something does not evoke the emotion of need -it's just a lame signifier that "ooh this is important so pay attention."

Bummer. I want to see more of Violet's struggle between her desire to find these things (people) and put them to rest, and her desire to be a normal teen. Telling me she needed something doesn't do that.

Once in a while, the use of italics can be pulled off and done well. In a book like The Body Finder, where it's used to replace emotive writing, however, it takes the story and cheapens its emotional color and its fire.

That is especially sad, because The Body Finder (apart from a few cliched characters and adverb overuse almost as bad as the italics abuse) is actually a very good story. The plot is captivating enough that I was able to deal with the italics...on my first reading. My first reading took me about two hours. My second reading took me two days, because I was so frustrated with the constant italics that I would put the book down, which is bad. (See how annoying it gets?)

Readers -what's your take on the SDT rule and italics? Do you use italics effectively in your own creative writing? If so, how? Am I being too harsh? Is italics abuse common in YA novels?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Inked, by Renda Dodge

Image Credit: Renda Dodge

My friend Renda Dodge, a two-time contributor to Leaves & Flowers and all around great writer, has just released the second edition of her novel Inked.

Some of you may remember my review of Inked from around the time of its initial release. I'll pick a few of the choice quotes, to refresh your memory and then bring in some new highlights:

First Review

Inked is about a young woman named Tori who has an undiagnosed personality disorder. She deals with it by getting a new tattoo every time there's a major shift in her life.

Tori is a fascinating character. She's rebellious, she's angry, she's scared -and she knows it, which makes the story even more interesting. Tori acknowledges her own faults throughout the story, but she's still too pissed off and frightened to allow herself much room for changing the parts of herself she doesn't like -not to say she doesn't, because she certainly does, but I got a feeling that Tori isn't ever going to totally break out of certain aspects of her personality (nor did I want her to).

Tori isn't a character I could see undergoing a traditional growth pattern in a novel -and that's definitely one of the strengths of the book; keeping Tori very much herself keeps the book human. This is not a hero story, this is a story of someone who is just a person trying to deal with their life and getting a little lost doing it. We've all been there in one way or another, and Tori reflects that back to the reader.

Updated Information

Some new things you might notice about Inked are the new cover, which is absolutely gorgeous, and it definitely adds a very visual element to the story. While I liked the abstract sort of approach to the first cover, the new cover is a picture of Tori herself, and that's great.

There are also some quotes on the book from reviewers, including one from yours truly, which makes me feel super important! :)

This second edition of Inked is a great-looking book. I encourage you to check out my initial review and buy a copy. Independent writers put a huge investment into their work, and Renda's work is totally deserving of your support. Inked is a great read, and it's not a book you will soon forget once you've picked it up.

Inked is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million for your purchasing pleasure.

Facebook and Damage Control

Too little, too late. I just wanted to write a brief recap on my decision to quit Facebook from a few weeks back before I do my big blog post today, which will be much more awesome than this one.

Facebook is now scrambling to scale back the invasive privacy changes made several weeks ago, responding only belatedly to the angry public outcry about it. I see several reasons for the delay in their response: They wanted to wait and see if the complaining would die down as it always has (and to some extent, I think this probably happened) and they wanted to get as much out of the changes they made before they were forced to address them. That's speculation on my part, but given what we know about how badly Facebook treats its users, probably not wholly inaccurate.

For me, these revisions to the policy are too little, and way too late. I deleted my Facebook account about two weeks after I quit using it. I didn't deactivate it, I full-on no-holds-barred no-resurrection deleted it.

And you know what I found out? Even when you go in and go through the process of deleting it, Facebook keeps it on there for another two weeks, as though I cannot be trusted with my own decision and choices regarding my information. Given all of the recent actions of Facebook, that shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. And it made me mad.

Any chance of reconciliation between us evaporated at that point, no matter what changes they eventually decided to make.

I was a loyal user of Facebook for several years. I liked it, for the most part. I could chat with my parents and get information from groups and friends without too much effort. But that took a back seat to my concerns about the unethical and sly behaviors of Facebook. Any changes they try to make now are just a further slap in the face to people who are still using it, because we all know they'll just try to pull something else in a few months.


Without Facebook, I am a much more productive individual. I've been blogging regularly, writing every weekday for Suite101, getting my schoolwork done more quickly and even engaging in new creative writing endeavors. Facebook wasn't a useful tool for me anymore, and when they tried to make money off of my information, that was all it took for me to be able to say buh-bye.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Internet Grammar for Writers

Today, I messed up my grammar on a comment on a blog post -I used "it's" instead of the possessive "its" and I am still embarrassed. I went back and added a comment to correct myself, but it's just one of those things where I wish I was flexible enough to kick my own face. I'll settle for blushing.

Bad internet grammar is one of those things that annoys me only peripherally anymore. I hate it, but I have slowly come to realize that going, "AAAAAH! Bad grammar -augh, die, die, die!" every time I see it is a) not constructive b) not going to fix anything and c) bad for my blood pressure. I'll certainly correct myself on those rare and awful instances when I do screw it up, but I'm not going to go out of my way to correct anyone else.

I don't know if that's necessarily right or not, however. Obviously if I appointed myself High Queen Internet Guerrilla Grammarian I would never get anything else done as long as I lived, and since I do have goals aside from being online all day, that's not feasible. What I don't know is how to constructively address it, because it is a problem, at least in my eyes.

One of my biggest frustrations is when I get on a blog -especially an author's blog -and read things like "summery" instead of "summary" and confusions of it's/its (guilty myself, I know, we'll get back to that), they're/there/their, you're/your, etc.

To me, that suggests that either this author is uneducated and doesn't know the grammar rules, or she's lazy and doesn't care. Neither option is going to make me rush out and buy this person's book, that's for sure.

With Twitter I am more forgiving -typos happen. They are so easy to make. But on a blog? You have time to review it. Checking over the writing even briefly takes so little time, and it can make a huge difference in the way a random reader and potential customer perceives you. Here is where we're getting back to my screw-up this morning. The difference between a blogger/commenter with a typo I can respect and one that I can't is whether or not they address it.

Obviously on a blog, if there aren't any errors, there's nothing to address -but what that does show is attention to detail and an effort in editing. In comments, a simple "Oops! I meant 'its' instead of 'it's'!" does the trick. Just letting a glaring error sit there is awful, at least to me. It encourages all of us to be lax with our writing and our attention to detail, and as a writer, that seems like a fate worse than death.


What do you think? Am I too much of a stickler on this issue? Are internet grammar mistakes forgivable and acceptable because of the relaxed format of the internet, or does our appearance as writers matter more?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife

This will be our last look at The Time Traveler's Wife, which I finished last night. And when I say I finished it, I mean I bawled my way through the last 20 pages or so.

I can't remember the last time a book made me actually cry, or if a book has ever made me cry so hard.

And that's a good thing!

The book is fantastic. It's realistic, it's emotional, it's incredibly well-constructed and it flows so nicely that you can get lost in it for hours and feel as though no time at all has passed. Clare and Henry are some of the best characters I have come across in quite some time.

And that's what I want to focus on for the rest of this post: Characters.

They're real people. I don't mean that literally, of course, but in a literary sense, they are so real they might as well be flesh and blood. They are flawed -deeply, secretly and at times embarrassingly flawed. They lie, they hurt each other, they fight and they make mistakes.

That is one of the golden parts of this book. Clare and Henry are more passionately in love -and in odder circumstance -than many other characters in modern novels, but their relationship is still as fraught as any other real life relationship. They have Henry's chrono-displacement to worry about, but they also have "normal" problems like trying to have a baby, dealing with a small living space, difficult family relationships, illness, silly little fights over who's going to vacuum (they hire a cleaning service).

Those are the things, as much as the oddity of Henry's condition, that readers are going to take away from this story. They are the things that make The Time Traveler's Wife such a powerful read.

Writers, we hear all the time that our characters must be believable, and that point hits home so clearly in this book. If Clare and Henry fit together easily all the time, or if their families were stereotypically normal -or predictably flawed -this book would not pack the punch that it does.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I will say this: even if the book had ended differently than it had, and it ends on an amazingly poignant note, I still would have cried. I still would have put it down feeling slightly dazed by the writing. I would still be looking very closely at my own writing for the emotional power I found here.


What were your perceptions of the characters in this book?
Writers, how do you achieve emotional complexity without detracting from your plot or goals?
What did you think of the rest of the book?

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Call for Books

Yesterday I embarked on an epic project. I pulled all of the books off of my two bookshelves (one is this cute metal contraption and the other a stack of big apple crates) in my (miniature) dorm room and put them in other boxes for transportation home. I tore down half of the cute metal contraption and put all of my canned food into the apple crates so it's not all sitting under my bed anymore. My room feels much larger.

The problem?

I'm not leaving for another 2 1/2 weeks and all my books are in boxes, except for The Time Traveler's Wife (which I am still really enjoying), Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death (because you just never know when you need some Wondermark) and the books I read to Jonah when we're driving places (because we are just that awesome).

Once I have finished The Time Traveler's Wife, I will have nothing new to write about for quite some time. I could regale you with tales of my 7-10 page essay on the relationship between swearing and censorship, but that's due on Monday, so we won't get much out of it.

No, what I really need are some book suggestions from you, my readers. The library here is composed primarily of older and largely academic books, but novels do pop up from time to time. If you suggest something, and I can get my hands on it, I'd love to read it.

Additionally, send me free online books or samples or magazines that you want to give exposure to! I would love to review some things I've never seen before, especially if they are totally wicked awesome. Hook me up. I'm all about spreading the love.

The only caveat to this is that I do have 3 final exams, one on June 7 and two on June 9. I might not be doing updates on those days or during the weekend right before them, depending on how much studying I have to do (odds are it won't be a terrible amount, but I am a pretty thorough student. Me no likey the bad grades.).

So there you have it! Load me up with some good things to read and talk about -the next couple of weeks will be fueled by you (or else I'll be scrambling to find things to discuss.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife and Magical Realism

I just started reading this book for the first time yesterday -I'm not even sure where I got it. I must have bought it during one of my crazed book-buying sessions. I've never seen the movie, and I'm not too far into the book yet, so I'm still just getting started. I'm certainly enjoying what I've read so far, though, and I'm looking forward to continuing.

One thing that did catch my eye was the idea of chrono-impairment as a genetic disorder. That raises some red flags for me. I'm a little wary of using science to justify magical realism occasionally, because I have seen it crash and burn and ruin books.

I'm all for magical realism -I think it's a fun genre and a good answer to fantasy, which can begin to come across as repetitive, stale or uniformly Tolkien-esque over time. However, using science to "explain" magic sort of takes away the magic part of it -that's basically what science does now: we use the scientific method to examine claims and better understand the world. It's the main reason there are no witch burnings in the developed world: we are at least skeptical and informed enough to know that magic is not actually real.

Magic is a great tool in a story that uses it well. It can definitely become a crutch, but well-written magic is just a lot of fun. However, combining modern science and magic can lead to a few problems, by:

-Destroying the mystery by over-explaining how said mystery occurs.
-Irritating scientifically literate readers by fudging the facts on certain scientific concepts (which is not always a problem, but can be really really annoying).
-Making the magic actually impossible by the rules of the universe or scientific explanations that have already been imposed by the author (I have seen this happen several times, and it will make me stop reading a book).

There has only been a very brief mention of the concept of chrono-impairment, and it looked like it's going to be well handled by the text, so I'm not too worried about it just yet. I can handle the intersection of magic and science if it's well done. I'm really hoping The Time Traveler's Wife lives up to my expectations.

What are your thoughts on magical realism and science+magic?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Importance of Language

This is going to be brief because I have an exam tomorrow, but I just came across an article description that really bothered me.

According to Yahoo!'s homepage, "Some contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' drop more than 100 pounds and even find love."
(Article here.)

I'm sorry, but what does that mean? Are they referencing a relationship that blossomed because of the show? I wouldn't know; I don't own a television and only watch Castle on Hulu. The wording seems to me to suggest that only people who are thin are able to find love.

Shouldn't we be beyond propagating this stereotype by now? It's unhealthy, especially for the young men and women who read that, whether they're overweight or not. It reinforces the idea that only thin people are beautiful people and only beautiful people can be in love. I realize that the people on that show are often dangerously and unhealthily obese and it's a good thing to be in shape, but the average reader of that remark gets another "ping" of positive reinforcement for the skinny stereotype.

I'm underweight (thanks to my university's dining policy) and I still find that comment to be extremely offensive and thoughtless.

What do you think? Innocent wording or potentially deliberate propagation of an unhealthy body image?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Truman Capote

Image credit: PBS

Truman Capote is probably best known (certainly by me) for writing the book Breakfast at Tiffany's, on which the movie is also based. However, Capote wrote more than a book about a high-class hooker: he also wrote In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel" that revolutionized the true crime genre and made it financially viable, popular and more interesting to the public.

In Cold Blood tells the story of the Clutter family, murdered in the middle of the night in a small rural town in Kansas. Capote follows the story from a background on the Clutters to the eventual discovery and execution of the killers.

What results is a mostly-true horror story of the motives, mistakes and history behind the Clutter murders. Capote's portrayal of the Clutter family is as sensitive as his portrayal of the two men who carried out the gruesome crime, and their disappointment with a robbery gone wrong.

Although Capote received some criticism for fudging the facts in In Cold Blood, a majority of the story is true. Interviews with relatives and neighbors of the Clutter family and the murderers themselves helped Capote paint a picture of a murder and a story that won't be forgotten, once read.

Capote himself was a fascinating person. He was born in 1924, raised by his elderly aunts and cousins, and eventually moved to New York. He was openly homosexual in a time when it was much less acceptable to be that open, but despite that and despite complaints about his frivolous and sometimes mean-spirited behavior, he became very popular among the New York elite for a time.

Although In Cold Blood was Capote's most famous nonfiction book, he did do other works in the genre, including one called Answered Prayers, which lost him many of his friends and his social standing because of the details it revealed about many people and the scandal it caused.

Capote died in 1984.

For more information, check out the PBS article about him -which I used as a resource for this piece -and this article in Salon.

Monday, May 17, 2010


During my recent trip to D.C. as a chaperon for a group of eighth graders, I took a couple of books with me. One was Neil Gaiman's American Gods, about which I have already written at length. The other was a book I picked up on a whim at a sidewalk sale for a local bookstore.

Before I start talking about it, I'd like to make a note about myself: I am incapable of resisting sidewalk book sales. I had left class with a half hour to spare before my next one and every intention of getting myself a coffee, until I came upon the sale. Books were anywhere from 10-60% off, and half an hour later, I walked to class with three books and a calendar (and no coffee). I am also utterly unable to leave a bookstore without making a purchase.

Two of the books I picked up (and the calendar) were for my mom. The other was one that I picked up on a whim, because it spoke to an interest that has recently taken root (that's a pun and you'll see why soon; I am sorry): sustainable food and agriculture. I even wrote an article recently on permaculture greenhouses, and I'm working on creating a permaculture-type gardening scheme with my boyfriend. Mom has graciously said I can use a portion of the back yard to experiment, which is cool.

The book is called Waste, by an author named Tristram Stuart.

I will warn you right now that if you are not into being horrified and slightly ashamed of yourself, Waste is probably not for you. And yet if you were here in the room with me, I would insist that you read it and pass it along to your friends once you finished, because I think it's that important.

Waste is about the absolutely disgusting amount of food that is simply thrown away as garbage, all over the world. When you hear about starving people in far-flung portions of Africa and other impoverished areas of the world, there's often a sort of automatic assumption that there is simply not enough food to go around. No explanation or solution is ever offered in these cases -a request for money, perhaps, but no guarantee of anything actually resulting from it.

However, the food that is thrown away by people like me, and you, and most everyone we know, is enough to feed every hungry person on the planet several times over.

Think about that. Waste is absolutely a book that will make you think about that fact, in multiple ways. Stuart demonstrates a plethora of possible solutions for this global wasting of food that are not only relatively easy to accomplish, they don't even require that much sacrifice on the part of the average person, which should make the solutions an easy sell.

Reducing food waste would not only help feed people who otherwise cannot afford to eat, it would free up agricultural land for other purposes. Stuart goes through numerous options for how to deal with food waste, from South Korea's draconian legislation that makes it illegal to dispose of food in the garbage to using food waste to create biogas and feed livestock.

In addition to the shocking statistics about food waste Stuart presents (for example: for every carrot or potato eaten, 1 or more were discarded as esthetically imperfect and left to rot in a field or put in landfills), he's really quite a good writer. That can make all the difference in reading something like this. Stuart is able to blithely jump from raging about the wasteful practices of an industry to describing an individual with surprising empathy and some wonderfully evocative imagery.

Stuart was, himself, a freegan for a period of time -he lived almost entirely by rummaging through Dumpsters and trash bins outside of grocery stores and restaurants. A vast majority of the food thrown away by these places is perfectly edible and safe for human consumption -but it is simply discarded.

Waste is not an easy book to read from an emotional standpoint. I found myself getting swept up by Stuart's passionate writing, all while thoroughly enjoying the reading process. I was disappointed when I finished today, because I was totally engrossed in the topics he discusses. During and after my experience with Waste, I am taking a very serious look at my own eating habits. I've started being much more careful not to buy or put on my plate any more food than I can eat, and monitoring how much of anything I waste. I would absolutely recommend Waste to anyone with environmental interests or concern about the future of global food production.

In addition to that, there is a great documentary you can watch on YouTube about permaculture and the future of farming in the UK. The first of the 5 videos (roughly 10 minutes each) can be found here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like is, at times, too funny for words. At other times, I find myself squirming in discomfort when I recognize something in the book that is true of me (I am, after all, a White Person, according to the book). The book could be retitled Stuff Hipsters Like and still be pretty accurate -the book, although ostensibly about the Generic White Person, seems to be aimed at a pretty specific demographic of individuals (people from ages 20-35 or 40).

The writing is slyly funny at times, while at other times it seems as though one is being hit over the head with the..errrr...humor (yes, we get it, White People are responsible for colonialism, slavery and a number of other global ills, but that's not a joke that can smoothly be worked into every category of things White People like). At all points, the book tries -and usually succeeds -to engage the reader in its tongue-in-cheek style of humor.

Sentences like, "Did you know that if you are able to acquire a friend of every race then you are officially designated as the least racist person on earth?" have me laughing out loud every time I read the book. It is actually very clever, and it's a fun way to be able to laugh at White People and the lens through which White People are viewed (and how we sometimes actually act).

It's a quick, funny read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone in need of a (self-conscious) laugh.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Security Blanket Books

I have started thinking of some of my favorite books as my 'security blanket books.' These are books that I run to as I would run into the arms of an old friend I hadn't seen for years. I can allow myself to be totally absorbed in these books, because I am as familiar with the details and the story as though I have actually been to places like Aravis in A College of Magics, which I am currently reading for the eighth or ninth time.

These are the best kinds of books to have around when traveling, upset, sick or tired. When you are in any of these states, it's hard to let a new book really absorb you. If you're traveling, you have too much else going on to really get totally lost in an unfamiliar book -you're already in unfamiliar physical territory, so it's nice to find some familiar mental space. The same goes for when you're upset, sick or tired -your headspace is out of whack, and reading a new book is often a disaster, at least for me.

That's why I love having old books around, books I've read so many times I know the best lines by heart. Lots of my security blanket books have been around since I was 14 or 15. They're old pals.

A College of Magics is definitely one of those. It's a great fantasy/alternate history/steampunk-ish book with a great plot and very subtle writing. Sometimes even now, after I've read the book a dozen times, I find myself going, "Oh, that's what that meant!" I know I am a different reader each time I approach a book, which is why I am able to read and re-read and re-re-read without ever getting bored, but ACoM really does have something special and shifty about it.

It's a great book if you ever have a chance to pick it up.

What are your security blanket books?