Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best-Selling Books of 2008

Well, folks, it's that time of the year again--when JibJab puts out their year-in-review video and we look back at trends that have taken place over the last twelve months. Therefore, with no further ado, I present to you the top ten best-selling adult fiction novels of 2008:

1. The Shack by William P. Young
2. The Appeal by John Grisham
3. The Host by Stephenie Meyer
4. The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
5. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
7. Playing for Pizza by John Grisham
8. Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
9. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks
10. 7th Heaven by James Patterson

To be honest, I'm surprised the the vampire-teen melodrama The Host wasn't higher on the list, as 2008 will undoubtedly be called "The Year of Twilight" by the generations to come. Unfortunately, I have not read a single book that is on the top ten list--yet. I just pciked up a copy of Water for Elephants so I can read at least one top seller. I chose this one because I have a special place in my heart for carnies.

Work Cited:

[1] "Tops in 2008: Best Selling Books, Audio Books." Nielsen Wire. http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/tops-in-2008-best-selling-books-audio-books/

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Death of the Bookstore

As many of you know, for Christmas I went home to my parent's house in Lompoc and discovered, once again, what poor shape the economy is in. I think most of us who live in urban areas tend to forget that it is small towns (what Governor Palin once termed "real America," as opposed to the fake America the rest of us live in) that have been hit especially hard by the recent recession. Most notable in Lompoc's case, perhaps, is the recent discussion of expanding the town's Wal-Mart to a Super Wal-Mart while local businesses are closing their doors on a fairly regular basis.

Sadly, the town's best book store, Printed Matter (pictured left) closed this year, business having been extremely slow. The store featured a fairly extensive science fiction / fantasy section as well as what seemed to be a pretty large selection of comic books and graphic novels. This was the first bookstore I ever shopped at, and I spent many hours perusing it's Classic Books section when I was still a student at the local community college.

Unfortunately, while I was and continue to be a fan of independently-owned bookstores, most of Lompoc was not, and there were rarely any other patrons in the store when I went in. It is not surprising to me that the store closed. What is (mildly) surprising is what factors may have caused the recent decline in bookshops, which David Streitfield identifies in his New York Times article, "Bargain Hunting for Books and Feeling Sheepish About It." While I have often thought that large chains such as Borders and Barnes and Noble were responsible for the deaths of small bookstores, Streitfield points out that these stores, too, are on the rocks, while Amazon sales are not soaring, either.

Instead, Streitfield writes, "This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds." It is through the increased availability of very cheap used books that Americans have stopped going to bookstores. Why drive all over town to look for a specific book that will cost me fifteen dollars, if I can just go online and buy the same book for a quarter and have it shipped to my house for a couple of bucks? Bookstores are neither time- nor cost-effiecient and are soon to go the way of the dodo.

I worked at an amazing bookstore in Santa Monica last year, Kulturas, which was owned by a couple who had just recently moved to the area from Washington D.C. Having been slightly unfamiliar with the area, they chose a location on Ocean Park Boulevard, about ten blocks from Main Street. It was in a lovely location in a very tidy neighborhood on a fairly busy street. The owners were very picky about their stock and had only books in the best of condition. They had a large philosophy section, a gorgeous poetry section, rare books, political science, foreign languages, etc. There were no fluffy romance novels, no science fiction / fantasy, very few mysteries, etc. The owners were well-read and well-spoken and I thoroughly enjoyed both their company and their store.

Unfortunately, there was little foot traffic on Ocean Park, so there were very few customers who stumbled across the store. The only people who came in on the days I worked (Saturdays) were students hoping to sell their books. Those few people who did just happen to stop by couldn't find anything to interest them in the well-stocked shelves, especially considering many of the books were incredibly specific and there was no catalogue of the store's contents. In addition, the books were priced at approximately $15 each. Are you surprised, then, that the students who were trying to sell their books there were not buying books, as well?

Unfortunately, most arguments that are used to try to motivate people to go to their bookstores in droves are ineffective at best: "Michael Barnard, who owns Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., not far from Berkeley, was more critical of me. He said that I was taking [the author's] work while depriving her of an income, and that I would regret my selfish actions when all the physical stores were gone." True, it's possible that the general public will miss bookstores when they're gone, but on the other hand, it's obvious that most people don't use bookstores any more, anyway, so why would any of them miss the bookstores when they're gone?

No matter how many times booksellers cry, "support your local community," in the end, the public would rather save money. As Streitfield points out, "How much do I want to pay, and where do I want that money to go? To my local community via a bookstore? To the publisher? To the author? In theory, I want to support all of these fine folks. In practice, I decide to save a buck." Sad, but true.

In my opinion, technology has changed the way we shop too much to allow the old ways to continue unfazed. Kulturas, in an effort to change with the times, had accounts on various websites and sold most of their rare books on-line rather than in-person. Clinging stubbornly to the way things were rather than facing how things are will only result in more closing bookstores.

Review: Terry Goodkind's "Wizard's First Rule"

I'll be the first to admit that I have, in some of my more bitter moments, been pretty critical of the publishing industry as a whole (please see "Print is Dead" if you don't know what I'm talking about). I regret to inform you, therefore, that Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule confirms all my worst beliefs of the world of published books.

I actually picked this book up months ago, when I was first getting back into my fantasy "kick." I was originally drawn to the book because it was the beginning of a massive series, The Sword of Truth, and I've been known to enjoy books that feature the same characters (although, with twelve books, each one at least two-to-three inches thick in paperback, he could take a lesson in editing from J.K. Rowling). I was also under the impression that the book had to have some redeeming qualities as they are currently producing a tv series based on the books. I also liked the fact that there seemed to be a strong female main character who did not exist solely to recreate some of the more pathetic of male sexual fantasies.

While the book seemed to start off promisingly with a fairly well-written chase scene, Goodkind's pacing throughout the book is extremely rushed and so improbable as to be distracting. His prose is stilted and seems to be intended for someone with an eighth-grade reading level. All of the main characters are extremely one-dimensional and flat: Ricard Cypher is tall and handsome, likes the truth, and dislikes riddles, while Kahlan Amnell is beautiful and has long, long hair, was raised in an Amazon-like setting, and is a powerful ruler with no friends. The relationship that springs up immediately between the two seems forced, and the accompanying discussions of what constitutes friendship are so redundant and repetitive as to be annoying.

This simplicity extends to the villains as well: Darken Rahl, the main antagonist, is evil, evil, and did I mention evil? There is a graphic torture scene of a little boy toward the beginning of the novel to convince the reader of just how evil Darken Rahl is--who could perform such atrocities and not be evil? The entire thing smacks of condescension on Goodkind's part, as though he doesn't trust his readers enough to rely on their understanding anything less than pure blatancy. (This is assuming, of course, that Goodkind himself doesn't function at this most basic level.)

I pushed through, however, determined to finish the novel as I had learned through research that Goodkind was a staunch believer in Ayn Rand's school of objectivism and I was curious how he would handle the philosophies. Unfortunately for both Goodkind and Rand, he man-handles her philosophies (which I'm not entirely sure they don't deserve--would this constitute blaming the victim?) as the book goes out of its way to show that communism is evil, evil, and did I mention evil? Hmm. Really? Communism doesn't work? No shit, Sherlock, but I'm not sure there are too many commie bastards lurking in the wings anymore.

In addition, Richard Cypher spends about two hundred pages of the book in a blatantly BDSM-relationship as he is forced to wear a collar with a leash and follow his mistress around, thanking her for starving him and beating him up with an agiel. It culminates with Cypher telling Mistress Denna that he loves her, and she proves she loves him, too, giving him her agiel which he uses to kill her. I'm sure Goodkind would argue that the book explores the nature of power and love, but I failed to find anything of interest and skimmed most of this section.

I won't delve much further into the book, as I'm sure someone out there in the world-wide web would claim that I "spoiled" it for him or her, but my advice to all of you is avoid this book like the plague. Don't read it--in fact, don't even think about reading it, just in case you might accidentally pick it up in a book store. If I were you, I'd also avoid the tv series, if only because it got horrible reviews--and it's based on this book, which I give a solid D.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I Don't Want to Grow Up...

Bad news, kids: some of you who are 20-something-going-on-12 might be too young to view this blog. Check out my rating from What's My Blog Rated:


This rating was determined based on the use of the following words:
  • death (3x): since when has discussing current events and the chance of imminent disaster when flying in a plane inappropriate?
  • bitch (2x): I'll cop to one of these, as it was probably inappropriate to call J.K. Rowling a female dog (I'm using a euphimism to avoid upping my blog rating), but the other one was a quotation from Hemingway. I should get cultural points for that one!
  • hell (1x): um, yeah... I got nothing for this one. Not only was I using the word "hell," I was using it as an expletive because I, sir, am a potty mouth. Although, really, how fucking bad is "hell?" Buncha stick-up-their-asses website raters...

Editor's note:

It should be noted that my rating jumped up to an "R" after I published this post. Apparently "they" (whoever "they" are) took exception with the following words:

  • hell (4x but now 5x): I guess I got a little carried away. I apologize if I offended anyone.
  • bitch (3x but now 4x): Technically, I was only re-capping previous use of the offending term. Again, I apologize if I offended anyone.
  • whore (1x but now 2x): Now this one I refuse to accept. Why was it that my plane crash post was so much more offensive than calling J.K. Rowling an attention whore (oops, 3x)? And really, talking about attention whores (4x) isn't exactly the same as talking about crack hoes, is it? Whatever.

I guess maybe I should take this a little more seriously. Check out this article from The Times, in which there is a proposal in the UK that would allott "cinema-style age ratings [...] to websites under government plans to restrict access to unacceptable material." Interestingly enough, however, Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, told The Daily Telegraph that his proposals were not intended as an attack on freedom of speech, but that some web material went too far: “You can still view content on the internet which I would say is unacceptable. You can view a beheading.” I'm glad that someone's focused on violence online rather than just porn. (And now, thanks to the four-letter-p-word, my site will probably be blocked at work. Great.)

Review: Brandon Sanderson's "Elantris"

Yes, it's one more post about Brandon Sanderson, but please rest assured it will probably be the last for a while as I have now read every book the man's had published. Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel and, though parts of it are a bit shaky, it is overall a very good book.

The introduction on the back cover:

"Elantris was beautiful, once. It was called the city of the gods: a place of power, radiance, and magic. Visitors say that the very stones glowed with an inner light, and that the city contained wondrous arcane marvels. At night, Elantris shone like a great silvery fire, visible even from a great
distance.

"Yet, as magnificent as Elantris had been, its inhabitants had been more so. Their hair a brilliant white, their skin an almost metallic silver, the Elantrians seemed to shine like the city itself. Legend claimed they were immortal, or at least nearly so. Their bodies healed quickly, and they were blessed with great strength, insight, and speed. They could perform magics with a bare wave of the hand; men visited Elantris from all across Opelon to receive Elantrian healing, food, or wisdom. They were divinities.

"And anyone could become one.

"The Shaod, it was called. The Transformation. It struck randomly--usually at night, during the mysterious hours when life slowed to rest. The Shaod could take beggar, craftsman, nobleman, or warrior. When it came, the fortunate person's life ended and began anew; he would discard his old, mundane existence and move to Elantris. Elantris, where he could live in bliss, rule in wisdom, and be worshiped for eternity.

Eternity ended ten years ago."

That's more of a back story than an introduction, I guess, but it provides at least a framework for what the book is about. It revolves around three main characters: Prince Raoden, the happy-go-lucky noble-is-as-noble-does son of a merchant king who wakes up cursed by the Shaod; Princess Sarene, his politically-conniving spinster of a fiancee; and Hrathen, the missionary "gyorn" bent on either saving or destroying the people.

While the most interesting character of the three was unarguably Hrathen (of whom the reader has conflicting perceptions which finally come together in a huge twist in the end), Sarene was also well-written as she creates political plots and leads a small group of noblemen in a rebellion against the king. My only complaint about Sarene is her constantly running internal monologue that goes something like this: "I'm tall and smart and can fence and most women aren't and can't, which is great because I'm a feminist, but no one will ever want to marry me! Why would they? After all, I'm tall and smart and can fence. Will I never have a wedding of my own?" While I appreciate the feminist sensibilities present in the internal battle between being traditionally feminine and being culturally acceptable, the fact that she's very close to the "always a bride's maid and never a bride" sentiment was a bit tiresome after the first four hundred pages. Her evolving relationship from arch nemesis to something bordering on respect with Hrathen, however, more than makes up for her occasional "poor me" moments.

Prince Raoden, on the other hand, left quite a bit to be desired. He is, as one writer describes, "very much a fantasy, a nobleman doing noble things because noble things are the noble way of living a noble life." [1] He's completely two-dimensional and unbelievable, if only because he can see the silver lining on every cloud even after he's become a zombie locked in a ghetto living in constant pain. His motto of hard work curing every ill is a bit Polly Anna even for this Sound of Music fan.

Despite these shortcomings, however, the book was very good. I'd give it a B+ /A- (I'm still on the fence on this one.) I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre.

(Interested? Here's the google books edition.)

Work Cited:

[1] Abbamondi, Paul. "Elantris - Review." Wistful Writings. http://wistfulwritings.blogspot.com/2007/09/elantris-review.html

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Politics of Poetry

As though we needed yet more proof that Obama is doing his best to separate himself from the Bush regime--I mean, administration, meet Elizabeth Alexander, the next inaugural poet.

It is interesting to note just whose footsteps Obama is following in naming an inaugural poet in the first place. There have only been three inaugural poets in the past (Robert Frost at JFK's, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams at Clinton's first and second inaugurations, respectively), and the Republican inaugurations have always been notable sans poetry.

Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, points out that
"'In a way, the poem itself is not the point. [...] I would guess that a president-elect decides to have an inaugural poem in the first place not in the hope of commissioning some eternal work of art, but in order to acknowledge that there is an intimate, inevitable connection between a culture’s language and its political life. That Obama wants to make such a gesture seems to me a pure good — for poetry, yes, but also for the country.'" [1]
Alexander herself acknowledges Obama's connection to the power of langauge (which has already been explored somewhat here and here): '"His own use of language, and his respect for it, is so evident,” she said. “He is aware of the kind of power language has, and aware of the kind of care with which we ought to try to speak to each other with as we move forward.'" [1]

Work Cited:

[1] Garner, Dwight. "The Intersection of Poetry and Politics." The New York Times. 24 December 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/25/books/25poet.html?_r=1&ref=books

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Poll

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, etc. etc. etc. I hope you all have an excellent holiday season, however cliche and mundane that phrase may have become over this advertising season.

I've decided to write what will probably end up being my one-and-only Christmas post about up reading Christmas books (unless it's the Little Golden Books series, in my case, but most of those are books based on movies--kind of backwards, if you ask me). Listed here are five books that were the inspirations for Christmas movies we all enjoy year in and year out.

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Miracle on 34th Street, by Valentine Davies

I haven't read this book for various reasons, most notably because, judging from the cover of the book, the story is as much a piece of propaganda for Macy's as the movie is. I'll stick to getting my advertising from the television and movies, thanks.
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A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This is the well-known story of the lesson the greedy Mr. Scrooge learns by his visitations from three Christmas ghosts. Oddly enough, this is the only work by Dickens I've ever read, as I've never been able to slog much past "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I'd recommend it insofar as much as you wish to be able to claim to have read it, rather than just seen the million-and-one film adaptations.

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

This is the well-known story of the lesson the Grinch learns by witnessing the true spirit of Christmas from the Whos in Whoville. I'm not a fan of the live-action film adaptation of the book with Jim Carrey, but the book is most definitely a classic.

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In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd

This book is a collection of short stories on which my favorite Christmas movie, A Christmas Story (1989), is partly based. Sadly, I have yet to read this book but plan to do so sometime in the near future.

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The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsberg

About this time, I'm beginning to wonder about the wisdom of writing a post on Christmas books turned into Christmas movies when I have neither read this book nor seen this movie. Has anyone? I've soured on the Tom Hanks band wagon recently and didn't bother to see the film.

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So it turns out that, out of the five books above, I've only read two of them, and one of them only because my high school English teacher knew we wouldn't ever read A Christmas Carol unless he forced us to our junior year.

Looks like it's time to take a quick poll to test my hypothesis: How many of you have read more than two of the above-mentioned Christmas classics?

And how many of you have seen more than two of the above-mentioned Christmas classic films? I've seen four of them, but I've also seen at least three other adaptations of A Christmas Carol, including A Muppet's Christmas Carol, A Diva's Christmas Carol, and Scrooged.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lindsay-with-an-A's Guide to Airport Reading

UPDATE, 12/21/2008:

Well, kids, I survived my flights (by the grace of God and the skin of my teeth, by my measure), but I have a piece of disturbing news to share with y'all:
"Jet skids, passengers yell, 'The plane's going to blow up!'"

CNN is nothing if not good at the short, descriptive headlines. To be honest, though, I can't say I'm that surprised. The runway was covered in ice when my flight took off on Friday night and I was scared shitless. On a somewhat brighter note, I've drummed up a couple more titles you should avoid while on a plane or at the airport:

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (courtesy of Homero, below)
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As I will in approximately ten hours be sitting in Denver International Airport waiting for my flight to California, I thought I'd do a little piece on what constitues good airport reading. If you don't already know, I'm an extremely nervous flier--"I will not think about falling to my death. I will not think about falling to my death. I will not..."--and often have images of fiery, painful demises in my head (see right). Taking off is bad, but landing is even worse, which is why one of the first short stories I had published was entitled "The Flight Home." (In case you were wondering, returning "home" in this case wasn't Mom and Dad's house--it was the great abyss from which we are all born. Ack.)

And with that, I will leave this panic attack-inducing subject and move on to that which will keep my mind away from the above image. As evidenced by the plethora of bookstores in every airport across the nation, reading in the airport is extremely useful to distract one from the almost-certain chance of death. While I touched briefly on books that I enjoy reading in airports here, there are several factors to take into consideration when choosing a book:

Entertainment value
: This is probably the most important factor to consider. While getting recommendations from blogs and other reliable sources is good, I find that I generally like to read books by authors I have already read and enjoyed so I don't have to suffer if someone else has bad taste.

Length: The book should be long enough to last through the whole trip but short enough that you don't get discouraged that it takes a long time to finish.

Subject matter: Books about plane crashes, terrorism, and/or martial arts should be avoided at all costs. Plane crashes and terrorism for obvious reasons, and martial arts because I think it's boring.

Keeping these factors in mind, I have compiled the following list of titles you should probably not read in the airport. You have been warned.












Thursday, December 18, 2008

Can You Honestly Say You're Surprised?

O*ver*com*pen*sate (o'ver-kom'pen-sat') verb: to attempt to make up for or cancel out (something) to an unnecessary degree.

Example: Ernest Hemingway tried all his life to overcompensate for the fact that his mother used to dress him up like a girl.

Well, kids, the cat is officially out of the bag. Check out this article from Mental Floss entitled Why Hemingway Used to Wear Women's Clothing. It's pretty interesting, considering the amount of literary criticism that focuses on Hemingway's treatment of women in his novels.

Apparently, a tell-all book published by Hemingway's sister Marcelline revealed that Hemingway's mother (whom he once described as "an all-time, all-American bitch") had always wanted twin girls, and she didn't let a little thing like biological gender stand in her way:

"Submitting to her twin fantasies, she started dressing Ernest up in Marcelline’s old clothes, despite the fact that they were little girl’s clothes—lacey white dresses with pink bows and the like. Soon his mom was buying two of everything and dressing her children in identical pink gowns and flowered hats. She would refer to the kids as her 'sweet Dutch dollies' and actually tell strangers that they were her twin girls. To perpetuate the twin fantasy, Grace even held Marcelline back a year in school so that she and Ernest would be in the same grade together."

And the piece de resistance? His mother called him Ernestine. Is this the man who might rightly be called a "macho hunter, drinker, womanizer, and misogynist"?[1] What was it Lady Hamlet said? Me thinks she--oops, I mean he--doth protest too much.

Work Cited:

[1] Bauer, Margaret D. "Forget the legend and read the work: Teaching two stories by Ernest Hemingway." http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3709/is_200307/ai_n9256332

Rowling Determined to Wring Every Red Cent From Harry Potter...

... no matter what.

I'll be the first to admit I'm a little biased. I've never been a big fan of Rowling for various reasons, though I do understand the appeal of the Harry Potter stories. (My God, though, has the woman ever heard of editing? If I really wanted to read an epic, I'd get around to finishing The Iliad. I mean, really.)

So while the Harry Potter series is okay (not great, especially considering Harry's adolescent whining through books 5-7, but okay), my real beef is with its prima donna author. Rowling's attitude about the world and her place in it is mind-boggling--for someone who revels in the "I was so poor I had to write my rough draft on a napkin" story, she seems quite indifferent toward her fan base, to the point of just being a bitch.

Take, for example, the copyright lawsuit Rowling filed against Steve Vander Ark and the Harry Potter Lexicon earlier this year. Rowling has said in the past that she intended to end the Harry Potter series with Deathly Hallows--oh, except for an encyclopedia, but she only mentioned that later. The Lexicon stood as a fan-created website that explored plot details, traced story arks, etc. It was a tribute toward what fans of Rowling see as her genius. When there was talk of publishing the Lexicon as a book, however, Rowling was all over it like white on rice, claiming that

"'the book would be a 'significant' threat to JKR’s market for her book, citing a court decision that said, “once purchased, the consumer is unlikely to purchase a second can opener.' It says the RDR marketing materials show that it is positioning the book as more comprehensive than others, and that publication would 'signal that others may also free ride off Ms. Rowling’s works, flooding the market with copycat works.'"[1]

While there might be some truth to the argument that it's the precedent the book sets rather than the book itself that is the problem, I find that I have a hard time buying it.

First off, in my opinion, only real fans of the series would give a rat's ass about the website or the book. No one who buys the books in the first place is a casual Harry Potter reader--the books are too long and convoluted to hold any interest for someone interested in a quick, light read. I've read the series, but I do not own it. I've never been to the Lexicon or any other fan website before I began poking around to write this post. Therefore, I think it's safe to say anyone who would actually buy the Lexicon in the first place would not pass up the chance to buy another book written by the author of the series.

(Rowling, of course, "feels the premise that fans will buy both encyclopedias is 'presumptuous and insensitive,' owing the first to an assumption that everyone would want to have two encyclopedias and the second to assuming they could afford both. '..it is obvious to me that many people do not have money to buy every book that appeals to them.'" [1] Blah blah blah. Yeah, all right, but it's somehow okay to have the series stretch for seven books, even though some people can't afford to buy them all, despite the fact that Amazon.com sells them at a 49% discount, which would (probably) be applied to any other book Rowling ever writes? That seems a little "presumptuous and insensitive" to me.)

What is interesting to me about the case is that she completely discount's the Lexicon's status as a fan site. “(JKR) feels frustrated that a 'former fan' has tried to 'co-opt my work for financial gain. The Harry Potter books are full of moral choices and ethical dilemmas, and, ironically, Mr. Vander Ark’s actions tend to demonstrate that he is woefully unfit to represent himself as either a "fan of" or "expert on"books whose spirits he seems entirely to have missed.'" [1] Ouch. I think it's safe to say that he's definitely a "former fan" as of this statement.

Whatever. The courts ruled in Rowling's favor and she has won her case against money-hungry, crazed former fans. If anything, Vander Ark was just following Rowling's example as she first promised to close the magical world of Hogwarts after the seventh book, then said she might write an encyclopedia some day, and then published a "A Wizarding Classic From the World of Harry Potter." WTF? She's the richest woman in the UK! Why must she insist on beating this dog until it's really, really, really dead? Seven books, seven movies, and millions of dollars in retail merchandise just weren't enough? She's richer than the queen, for God's sake.

Really, she's just a big attention whore. Remember the frenzy around the 7th book last summer? She wouldn't allow advanced readings for reviewers; a truck of books was stolen; she was on the news what seemed like every day begging people not to "spoil" the end, all the while egging on speculation about what that end might be, etc. etc. etc. (Side note: what could possibly spoil the end of that book? It was the biggest anti-climax I've ever read, especially considering the ending of The Half-Blood Prince.) She even "outed" Dumbledore after the initial buying spree in a pitiable attempt to stir up controversy. Between this shameless display and the multiple "nip slip" photos of her available on the web, I guess it just goes to show that money definitely can't buy class.

Anyway, if anyone gets around to reading the "Wizarding Classic," let me know how it is. I don't see myself putting in the time or effort.

/ End rant. I feel much better now.

Works Cited:

[1] "JKR/WB Respond in Lexicon Suit." The Leaky Cauldron. http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2008/2/28/jkr-wb-respond-in-lexicon-suit

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson

Hey, everyone, check out Brandon Sanderson's short story, "Firstborn," posted on Tor just this afternoon. While it's much more "sci fi" than his published books, it's still got his knack for storytelling.

It deals with ideas about winning and losing, parental expectations, the ethics of medical science, etc. If nothing else, however, it's entertainment on the long, long Wednesday before my Christmas vacation.

"California dreamin' on such a winter's day..."

*PS: don't read the comments below until after you read the story.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Speaking of Shakespeare...

Here's yet another book on the Bard (shout out to Anonymous!) by Marjorie Garber whose goal it is to prove, in true academic fashion, that “Shakespeare makes modern culture, and modern culture makes Shakespeare.” What ties this in to past discussion, however, is that Ms. Garber points out that "the layman’s temptation to invoke Shakespeare is irresistible: 'The commentator sounds profound and witty; the reader, listener or audience feels gratified and flattered to "get" the reference, and Shakespeare is reconfirmed as the most trenchant and trusted observer of contemporary events since Walter Cronkite.'"

Here are some other interesting tidbits from the book, none of which I wrote:

Macbare, Macbuff and Out Damn Spot are the Macbeth-inspired names of makeup products.

In popular films that have slight debts to “The Tempest,” Ariel has variously been played by Robby the Robot (“Forbidden Planet”) and Wilson the Volleyball (“Cast Away”).

It’s easier to sing, “just like Romeo and Juliet,” as the Detroit doo-wop group the Reflections did in 1964, than “just like Troilus and Cressida.”

Motivational speakers who provide Shakespeare-inspired lessons to captains of industry have described the Welsh forests of “Henry V” as the Silicon Valley of their day. And “while Henry doesn’t have the luxury of a policy-planning staff and off-site strategizing meetings,” a firm called Movers & Shakespeares instructs, “he proves himself a great leader in identifying and then pursuing a clear vision.”

My Penpal, Mary Doria Russell

Whoo hoo! I just got an email from Mary Russell, my newest penpal! (Here's my short review of her novel, The Sparrow, an excellent book that you should read.) My letter to her:

Dear Ms. Russell,

I just discovered and read your novel The Sparrow and was very impressed by it. I felt that your balance of engaging plot and theology discussions between the characters was very well-done. My question to you is this: how (or perhaps why) did you decide to place a lot of the "fight" sequences in the "courtroom" scenes--while Emilio describes the rebellion that Sophia leads and his own rape, there is a degree of disconnect. I don't think this is a bad thing--I don't personally enjoy reading violence and I don't think that actually showing the scenes was necessary to the plot, but I do feel it might have wreaked havoc with the pacing at the end of the book, especially since those scenes were pivotal moments in the degeneration of Emilio's faith. I would be very interested in hearing your views of this.

(Also, I apologize for the fact that you published this book over a decade ago and people are still writing to you about it. I suppose you should take it as a compliment to the longevity of your novel.) I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Lindsay Phillips

Her response:

Thanks for your kind words. Nobody is more surprised than I at the reaction to The Sparrow -- the best I hoped for was a boutique SF publisher and a print run of 4000 copies that would go OOP in six weeks, leaving me with a cult following of two neighbors and a cousin. Here we are 15 years after I wrote it, and it's still my biggest hit.

Anyway, in answer to your question about pacing and off-stage violence: I could claim that I was following the ancient Greek dramaturgists by placing the action off stage, but in reality, I just didn't know any better. The Sparrow was the first fiction I ever attempted (I'm a paleoanthropologist who taught gross anatomy in a dental school -- my last lit course was during the Nixon Administration). I just wrote what seemed to work as I went along.

That said, it took 60 drafts to hammer it into the published version you just read. What I decided as I worked was that the important thing was not to show the violence but the effect of violence on perpetrators and on victims. A thirty-second fire fight or a four-minute rape will change a soul permanently.

That seems to be a theme in my work, even today. I have written about war directly in A Thread of Grace and somewhat in Children of God, but there's always a strong sense of what happens after the violence and how it echoes for generations in families and nations.

MDR


The fact that she got back to me so quickly is very cool. I love writers!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Check out this article from The Telegraph called "Men 'lie about books they have read to impress on dates'". While the statistics about who are the biggest liars were fairly interesting, the top reads to impress men or women were something else all together:

Top ten reads to impress a man
1) Current affairs websites
2) Shakespeare
3) Song lyrics
4) Cookery books
5) Poetry
6) Nelson Mandela autobiography Long Walk to Freedom
7) Jane Austen
8) Facebook/Myspace
9) Religious texts
10) Financial Times


Top ten reads to impress a woman
1) Nelson Mandela autobiography Long Walk to Freedom
2) Shakespeare
3) Cookery books
4) Poetry
5) Song lyrics
6) Current affairs websites
7) Text messages
8) Emails
9) Financial Times
10) Facebook

My question is this: who the hell would be impressed by someone reading Facebook/Myspace or text messages?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Writer's Bail Out

Finally, a bail out I might be able to get behind!

In this Sunday's Book Review preview of The New York Times, Paul Greenberg explores what it might mean--and cost--to bail out the publishing industry in his article, "Bail Out the Writers!"

Interestingly enough, Greenberg is not advocating simply throwing more money at publishers in the hope that they can support themselves in a floundering economy with a dwindling demand for books. Instead, Greenberg identifies book overcapacity as the predominant problem in the industry--that is, demand is far less than supply because there are, quite simply, too many books out there. He writes, "According to the industry tracker Bowker, about 275,000 new titles and editions are published in the United States each year. Let’s say we want to eliminate half of them. Assuming it takes about two years to write your average book, we would offer book writers two years of salary at the writers’ average annual income of $38,000 a year. Add it all up and you get a paltry $10.5 billion to dramatically reduce the book overcapacity." I'm unsure how I feel about paying people not to write...

The problem is this: people like the idea of writing much more than writing itself. As Ann Beattie wrote, "To many, writing is not so interesting as being a writer, and when writers go on tour, it reinforces people's belief that it's all a package: you create something (details saved for future memoir), you get out there and network and promote it all the way to success, because success is the American Way." Writing is considered (mistakenly) one of the get-rich-quick paths to success, and getting a book published is more about making money than producing a work of literature.

As long as people believe that there is a market for the crap they're shilling, they'll keep pumping out their books, whether it's through traditional publishing houses or vanity publishing. It's all in the public's mistaken perception of writing as (a) lucrative and (b) easy, and nothing will change until that perception does.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Asisine and the Book Club

There's a mildly amusing article in The New York Times entitled "Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?" It essentially outlines all of my own reasons for hesitating to join a book club. What stuck out for me, however, was that the first woman quoted in the article comes across as incredibly pompous and obnoxious: "'It was bad enough that they wanted to read Da Vinci Code in the first place,' Ms. Bowie said, 'but then they wanted to talk about it.' She quit shortly after, making up a polite excuse: 'I told the organizer, "You’re reading fiction, and I’m reading history right now."'"

While I can entirely relate to Ms. Bowie's views on Dan Brown's "writing," I'm not sure that she has much room to complain about the book club's reading list when one considers her own motivation for joining the club in the first place: "'I was hoping to network with all these women in upper-level jobs at I.U., then I found they were in the book group,' she said. 'I thought, "Great! They’ll see how wonderful I am, and we’ll have these great conversations about books."'" She didn't join because she wanted to read new books and expand her own horizons. Instead, she wanted to impress other people by showing how great she was so that she could then use those people as connections in other aspects of her life. Well, she was certainly "wonderful"--she was so wonderful she didn't fit in and didn't get to network after all.

That's so ironic.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Short Review: "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is the kind of book I would like to write--while it can often be found in the science fiction / fantasy section of bookstores, it is more appropriately classified as a piece of moral or philosophical fiction.

The basic storyline of the novel revolves around a Jesuit mission to another planet, but Russell deals explicitly with issues of family and faith as it follows the rise and fall of the faith of Emilio Sandoz, the main character. Perhaps the most fundamental question the novel addresses is that of faith in a God who is not always nice. Anne Edwards, the agnostic character whom Russell describes as her own voice within the novel, often complains that God gets the credit if her patients survive while she, the doctor, gets the blame if her patients die.

Russell, a paleoanthroplogist, is incredibly skilled at both characterization and creating believable alien cultures. A former Catholic who has since converted to Judaism, she presents penetrating questions about science, religion and faith, as well as about morals and cultural mores. I would definitely recommend this book.

(If any of you end up reading this book--which you should--email me, because I would love to discuss it with you. The end is absolutely fantastic, but I don't want to write about it here and spoil it for anyone.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Beats in the City: "Denver! Denver!"

Having never before lived anywhere that was relevant in any literary way (unless you count the Central Coast of California, whose biggest claim to fame is Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series, aka A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc), it is interesting to know that I am living in a city that made a very large impression on what was once my favorite group of writers: the Beats.

Rewind to Denver, 1947: Neal Cassady and Jack Keruoac (pictured right) along with one of my favorite poets, Allen Ginsberg, cavorted about downtown Denver. Their escapades were to be later remembered by Keruoac in On the Road, in which he based the character of Dean Moriarty on Neal Cassady, a car thief who could quote Schopenhauer.
In truth, Denver's impact on the Beats came from its impact on Cassady, who grew up in Curtis Park and whose boyhood took place in four square miles of downtown. Kerouac's romanticizing Denver was strictly due to his admiration for Cassady, as was Ginsberg's. In a way, it is an interesting circle: Cassady would never have been famous without Kerouac or Ginsberg, and Denver never would have had its mid-century impact on literature without Cassady.
If you're curious, here are several links to walking and driving tours of Denver that explore its Beat history:

http://www.litkicks.com/Denver/
http://www.denvergov.org/AboutDenver/today_driving_beat_introduction.asp.

To see what other important literature was written or based here, check out this site from the Westword: http://www.westword.com/php/map/#
And with that, I leave you with Allen Ginseberg's "The Green Automobile," which exactly captures the spirit of Denver that he felt here--an "authentic American" spirit that was wild, untamed, and fresh.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Attack of the Cellphone Novels!

Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!

Terrifying monster ravages mankind!

Amazing! Startling! Shocking!

Of Japan's 10 best-selling novels of 2007, five were originally cellphone novels!

Aaaagh!

So I'll admit that I'm finding out about this phenonemon a little late, but I still feel it's relevant as it's sure to explode in the United States in about nineteen nanoseconds. That's right, I'm referring to the Attack of the Cellphone Novels!

Essentially, they're exactly what they sound like--novels written (generally by high school girls) on cell phones. They often lack plot, character development, or anything else that might make them have any value beyond morbid curiousity or very cheap entertainment. Be that as it may, however, they've virtually taken over Japan's publishing industry. For example,

"Love Sky," a debut novel by a young woman named Mika, was read by 20 million people on cellphones or on computers, according to Maho no i-rando, where it was first uploaded. A tear-jerker featuring adolescent sex, rape, pregnancy and a fatal disease — the genre’s sine qua non — the novel nevertheless captured the young generation’s attitude, its verbal tics and the cellphone’s omnipresence. Republished in book form, it became the No. 1 selling novel last year and was made into a movie. [1]

And this one:

"A writer who goes by the single name Yoshi wrote 'Deep Love', a series of stories about a Tokyo teenage prostitute. He began by posting them on an obscure
cell-phone site he started and made reader payment voluntary. Deep Love, which uses erotic language and violence to create a page-turner despite a preposterous plot line, became a hit, mainly through word-of-mouth among young adults. It went on to become a movie, TV show and manga, or Japanese-style comic book. It's even been turned into a real book, with some 2.6 million copies sold." [2]

Sadly, neither Sky of Love nor Deep Love are a joke. I suppose it's difficult for the fans of this stuff to recognize bad writing and cliches when "many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers." [1]

Far be it for me to judge the literary taste of millions of Japanese, however--especially when it's not limited to their little island. There's plenty of short, choppy sentences and poorly chosen rhyme schemes written on cellphones right here in the good ol' US of A. Check out http://www.quillpill.com/, where members can send their novels via text message. Quillpill then collates the text messages and publishes them online.

I should add that, though there seems to be some people who are only familiar with single-syllable words, there is also the possibility of finding real poetry or novels. Unfortunately, most "real" poets or novelists use pen and paper or computers, so you'll have to sift through a lot of "Unsufferable Idiocy" to find it. Best of luck to you.

(To give the author his due, I sort-of liked "Insufferable Idiocy," which is why I linked to it. But there is a lot of garbage on that site.)

Works Cited:


[1] Onishi, Normitsu. "Thumbs Race as Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular." The New York Times. 20 Jan., 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/world/asia/20japan.html

[2] "Cell Phones Put to Novel Use." 18 March 2005. Wired. http://www.wired.com/gadgets/miscellaneous/news/2005/03/66950

The Future of Science Fiction

Science fiction that pretended to show us the future couldn't keep up with the present. It failed to foresee the electronic revolution, for example. Now that science and technology move ever faster, much science fiction is really fantasy in a space suit: wishful thinking about galactic empires and cybersex - often a bit reactionary. Things are livelier over on the social and political side, where human nature, which doesn't revise itself every few years, can be relied on to provide good solid novel stuff.
--Ursula K. Le Guin

You might be interested in reading this article from NewScientist which looks at the past, the present, and the future of the science fiction genre. Probably most interesting are the excerpts written by six leading science fiction authors, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter, William Gibson, Ursula K Le Guin (quoted above), Kim Stanley Robinson, and Nick Sagan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Not Quite What I Was Planning

Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (Harper Collins) has an interesting premise, though the title is a bit obvious and blatant. (Oh, who cares? I'm sure that subtlety is over-rated, anyway.)

What would your six-word memoir be? I have a problem with this kind of thing, just because I tend to hope that my most important days are in front of me rather than behind me. Still, if I had to choose, I'd probably say mine would be, "She sees you when you're sleeping." Just kidding.

See if you can match the six-word memoirs to the writers:

Memoirs:
1. "Liars, hysterectomy didn't improve sex life!"
2. "Well, I thought it was funny."
3. "Revenge is living well, without you."
4. "Secret of life: Marry an Italian."
5. "Maybe you had to be there."

Writers:
A. Nora Ephron
B. Joyce Carol Oates
C. Joan Rivers
D. Roy Blount Jr.
E. Stephen Colbert


(Answers: 1 C. 2 E .3 B .4 A . 5 D)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Questioning the Hero: Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn: The Final Empire"

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone--I enjoyed it from the beginning until the end, and though there are some things that I would have done differently were I Sanderson, I can honestly say that it managed to walk the line between entertaining and thought-provoking. While I emphasize the thought-provoking aspect in the essay that follows, I would say that this book could also serve as escapist reading if someone were hoping for something a little lighter than it might appear from this piece.

Though Christian imagery often permeates the pages of fantasy and science novels, it generally falls into one of two categories:

1) The C.S. Lewis Category: Aslan is great; He's so awesome; everything about Him is cool, cool, cool. I really love Aslan.

2) The Philip Pullman Category: The Church sucks, it's really horrible; everything about it blows, blows, blows. I really hate the Church.
Though both sides are interesting if pulled off correctly, they are both a bit simplistic in their approach to the larger issue of faith, divinity, and mankind. They are both essentially propaganda for their respective schools of thought and there is little room for reader interpretation or even involvement in the plot.

Not so with Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire. Though there is obviously Christian imagery throughout the novel, Sanderson does not obviously thrust his LDS faith into the book, instead leaving breathing and therefore thinking room for the reader. Rather than writing yet another yea-or-nay book on Christianity, Sanderson uses the Christian imagery as a cultural point of reference: "Either way, yes, the Christian imagery is intentional. I didn't put it in simply because I'm religious [...]. I put it in because I think that the images and metaphors of Christianity are deeply-seated in our culture, and drawing upon them provides for a more powerful story. " [2] In this way, he leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions from the book, trusting her judgment enough to allow her to think for herself.

Some might say such a tactic is dangerous for a Christian writer. The god/emperor of the Final Empire is cruel and vindictive and could, upon first reading, seem almost to represent the cruel and vindictive God of the Old Testament. This quickly proves to not be so, however; though there are three separate story lines throughout the novel (Vin, Kelsier, and the unnamed Hero of Ages), much of the more blatant Christian imagery revolves specifically around Kelsior, the "Survivor" of the Pits who presents the common people of the Final Empire, the skaa, with a new god to worship.

Be that as it may, however, it is the journal entries that provide the chapter "bumps" which provides the most food for thought. They are ostensibly written by the Lord Ruler when he was young, before he became an emperor/god and was known instead as the Hero of Ages. It is the Hero of Ages who is to save mankind and he often parallels Christ in many ways, as this prophecy (which could be applied to either the Hero or Christ) clearly shows: "The Hero of Ages shall not be a man, but a force. No nation may claim him, no woman shall keep him, and no king may slay him. He shall belong to none, not even himself." (page 342) In addition, both men come from humble beginnings, rural towns and modest families: "I think it would do men well to remember that this task was not begun by emperors, priests, prophets, or generals. [...] It began in a small, unimportant town whose name would mean nothing to you. It began with a youth, the son of a blacksmith [...]. It began with me." (page 266) Finally, if these allusions to Christ are not enough, the prophecies say that, "He will be their savior, yet they shall call him heretic." (page 146) There is little doubt that the Hero of Ages is a Christ figure.

What is interesting, then, is the manner in which the unnamed Hero of Ages presents himself in the journal entries--while the philosophers of his time name him the savior of the world, he is dubious as to the veracity of their claims. The Prologue to the book opens with this introduction:

Sometimes I worry that I'm not the hero everyone thinks I am.
The philosophers assure me that this is the time, that the signs have been met. But I still wonder if they have the wrong man. So many people depend on me. They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms.
What would they think if they knew that their champion--the Hero of Ages, their savior--doubted himself? Perhaps they wouldn't be shocked at all. In a way, this is what worries me most. Maybe, in their hearts, they wonder--just as I do.
When they see me, do they see a liar?
(page 1)

The reason that this stands out as notable is that, in portraying a doubting savior, Sanderson has added layers to the generally-absent character's personality. A hero who knows he's a hero is rather simplistic; one who questions his own self-worth while still fighting a battle he's not sure he can win is much more complex and appealing.

In addition, for a writer belonging to a church many would identify as right-wing fundamentalist, this exploration of a hero's self-perception and his role as a religious leader is intriguing. For example, towards the beginning of the novel, the Hero of Ages writes, "Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man's opinion any less valid than my own?" (page 19) In this instance and in others, Sanderson shows himself to be very open-minded as to others' religious points of view by merely acknowledging that there are other opinions that can hold weight. The nameless author of the journal reiterates his doubts and fears multiple times, including one that closely parallels Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ:

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd remained there, in that lazy village of my birth. I'd have become a smith, like my father. Perhaps I'd have a family, sons of my own.
Perhaps someone else would have come to carry this terrible burden. Someone who could bear it far better than I. Someone who deserved to be a hero. (page 276)
To be sure, Kazantzakis and Sanderson are not the only writers to address this issue. What makes The Final Empire different, however, is the idea of a doubting savior turning into the evil Lord Ruler, a cruel emperor/god--if he had survived, could Christ also have "gone to the dark side?"

**SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ PAST THIS IF YOU HAVE YET TO READ THIS BOOK!**

If the similarities between the Hero of Ages and Christ ended here, it might be argued that they were purely coincidental. This possible conclusion, however, does not take into account the theme of betrayal that runs through the entire story. Of the the other two main characters (Kelsier and Vin), both deal explicitly with betrayal--Kelsier suspects that his wife turned him in to the Obligators while Vin believes that her brother betrayed her by abandoning her in the streets. Vin even carries this idea so far as to believe that everyone will betray her at one point or another in an uncharacteristically heavy-handed approach by Sanderson.

It is safe for the reader to assume, then, that betryal will play a part in the third story line--that of the Hero of Ages. The journal entry bumps allude to this possibility by emphasizing the hostility Rashek feels for the author of the journal: "[Rashek] does not know me, yet I can already see the anger and hostility in his eyes." (page 128) It is not until the final scene between the Lord Ruler and Vin, however, that the point is made explicitly clear as Vin accuses the Lord Ruler of having murdered the Hero of Ages and taken his place all those years ago.

The entire timbre of the story changes dramatically with this revelation--while it was assumed that the Lord Ruler was the author of the journal, he stood as a character of virtue corrupted by power as he had once foreseen: "I know what will happen if I make the wrong choice. I must be strong; I must not take the power for myself. For I have seen what will happen if I do." (page 577) Instead, the Lord Ruler emerges as a Judas who successfully usurps the role of savior and manages to convince the world that he is Jesus.

There are many implications that accompany this climax--rather than standing as a potential criticism of a Christ-like figure as he once seemed to be, the Lord Ruler is instead a reminder to be careful whom we put our faith in. Sanderson reminds us that only those who are truly heroes should be put in leadership positions.


Work Cited:
[1] Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn: The Final Empire. Tor Books; New York, New York. 2006.

[2] Sanderson, Brandon. "Mistborn: Chapter Thirty-Two." http://www.brandonsanderson.com/annotation/159/Mistborn-Chapter-Thirty-Two

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."

In keeping with my recent theme of theology, I finally got around to reading a book I bought after reading a Time article on it last summer. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, compiled and edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, follows Mother Teresa's private letters that reveal a spiritual struggle few knew about during her lifetime--a feeling of isolation from God, of a constant spiritual "darkness," and a tug-of-war between faith and doubt.

What initially drew me to the book was the idea of faith in the face of adversity--Mother Teresa is the posterchild of a "good" Catholic and since her death in 1997 has been beatified, the first step towards becoming canonized as a saint. Despite her "saintliness," however, she struggled with doubts, mired in what some call the Passion of Christ--that moment on the cross when Christ cried, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" She felt abandoned by God, undeserving and unloved, and she still managed to live her entire life for the poor, the sick, and the dying. That kind of faith is staggering to the average American agnostic (a.k.a. me).

The book has been hailed by the religious community as an example of true faith to bolster the masses who also might have moments of doubt:

"[Rev. James] Martin of [the Jesuit magazine] America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book 'a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,' and says, 'It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.'" [1]
The atheist community has, of course, a different take on the book that I'm not entirely interested in discussing because it's so very simplistic--Mother Teresa didn't feel God's love because there is no God to be felt. (Slightly off-topic, I'm coming to believe that atheism is an easy out; cold hard facts are easy to believe in. Faith, on the other hand, is and should be difficult--hence my attraction to this book.)

The letters themselves are beautiful and fascinating. Though she was Albanian by birth, most of the later letters are written in English and have an almost-poetic feel to them, emphasized by her habitual use of a dash as punctuation which often serves to create a rhythmic flow. Read this excerpt and tell me it's not lush:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
It's an incredibly moving passage, as are many of the letters. I got chills more than once, imagining the pain she was feeling while showing a cheery face to the rest of the world.

Had the book simply been the letters to and from Mother Teresa, I would have no complaints regarding it. No, my problem with the book arises from the editing--or lack thereof. To give Rev. Kolodiejchuk his due, he obviously views Mother Teresa with inimitable respect, serving as he does as a member of her mission. That said, I'm not entirely sure that this is sufficient explanation for the complete lack of critical attention he pays to her letters. He assumes that her letters are 100% true and do not conceal any kind of interior thoughts--he does not read between the lines and usually goes so far as to assume that there is no between the lines. This, of course, is aggravating for a someone who occasionally likes to read books with an eye toward psychological criticism. There are three basic questions associated with this particular method of literary criticism:
One: How are the author’s psychological conflicts revealed in his or her work?
Two: What is an in-depth analysis of the characters if they were real people?
Three: What is the appeal of the work to the readers in relation to their own ability to work out hidden desires and fears? [2]
In my opinion, a posthumous biography that does not dip below the surface of the text and therefore asks none of these questions is a failure. For example, when Mother Teresa is petitioning her spiritual advisors to write to Rome about the Mission of Charity she wants to start, they respond by advising her to forget about the issue until an answer comes from Rome. Instead of obeying those whom she views as God's representatives on earth, however, she chooses to pepper them with letter after letter urging them to try to hurry the decision through to the Pope, despite the fact that neither of her advisors has any real say in whether or not the issue passes. Kolodiejchuk lauds this as an exhibition of her fervor for the cause, while I view it as impatience and general desire for immediate gratification--both of which are unflattering traits for a nun to possess. This is not a bad thing, however--Mother Teresa was human, as are we all, and to expect perfection is unreasonable. To portray her as perfect is an oversight on the part of the editor.

As I read the book, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with Kolodiejchuk's "commentary," which basically re-states what the letters themselves say, though they occasionally provide historical context. There is absolutely nothing "critical" in his approach to the letters and therefore very little of interest in the majority of the book, which I feel is a disservice to Mother Teresa's very human struggle with faith. While I enjoyed the letters, I cannot in all honesty recommend this book unless it is to someone who wants to read below the surface of the text and draw his or her own conclusions.

Works Cited:

[1] Van Biema, David. "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Time. 23 August 2007. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415-1,00.html


[2] A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms. Ed. Edward Quinn. Facts on File, Inc. New York: 1999, page 263. Accessed at http://www.northern.edu/benkertl/psychological_criticism.html

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who The Hell Does Aesop Think He Is?

I recently re-discovered Leo Lionni's prize-winning children's book, Frederick, in which a little mouse warms the hearts of his family in the bitter winter by sharing with them the "colors" he gathered in the summer. While the rest of the mice spend all summer preparing for the winter, Frederick basks in the colors of summer and forms them into poetry. Lionni's point, I believe, is that art plays an intrinsic role in a culture--it is the culture, and Frederick's family values the contribution he makes to their survival of the winter.

It's obviously a not-so-subtle point, but it's one that needs to be made. The book almost stands as an artist's response to Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper," which we have all grown up hearing. In fact, the beginning of the two stories closely parallel each other, as evidenced by this version of the tale of the two insects:

"In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

"'Why not come and chat with me,' said the Grasshopper, 'instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"'I am helping to lay up food for the winter,' said the Ant, 'and recommend yu to do the same.'

"'Why bother about winter?' said the Grasshopper; 'we have got plenty of food at present.'

"But the Ant went on its way and
continued its toil. When the winter same the Gsshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

"It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."
Had Frederick's family been a little more cold-blooded, they, too, would have booted Frederick out in the winter because he hadn't helped to gather the food. Instead, they shared the bounty with him and in turn reaped the benefits of his "lazing about": the poetry that invoked the colors of summer and warmed their hearts in the cold of winter. Another way to look at Aesop's story is this: all summer long, the ants worked hard, listening to the beautiful music the grasshopper made while "chirping and singing." Everyone knows that work goes quicker when accompanied by music--hence the popularity of sea shanties and other work songs.

The problem, then, is that while the ants survive the long, cold winter, their music does not, as the grasshopper obviously starves and freezes to death. All winter, the ants will huddle in their dens with only the silence of the snow above to comfort with. The next summer, when they are industriously stocking food for the coming winter, their work will not be eased by the strains of the grasshopper's song. There will be no pleasure to be found in their work.

If anything, one might say that Aesop's tale of a utilitarian commune is an attack on art and music, while Leo Lionni's tale of the little poet mouse is a defense of it. While we all know hard work in the form of manual labor is necessary to physically survive, hard work in the form of art, literature, and music is necessary to spiritually and emotionally survive. The cold-hearted ants effectively killed the possiblity of culture in their world and there will be no songs lauding their efforts and survival. Nothing of meaning will emerge from their work, as only art can last beyond the death of the generation.

What is really galling about all of this, however, is that Aesop was a fabalist, a writer, a spinner of tales--essentially, an artist. He was not industriously tilling fields in preparation for the hard winter. He was telling stories and being paid to do so, and it was only because his stories resonated so well with the ancient world that he is remembered today. Though we know little about his life, we know that Socrates transcribed some of his stories, as did other figures in Ancient Greece. How does a writer, a sage, a philosopher, get off telling us that only those who work in the most obvious sense deserve to survive the winter? Read this little tidbit about his life:
"he subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he is said to have visited Athens, on which occasion he related the fable of The Frogs asking for a King, to dissuade the citizens from attempting to exchange Peisistratus for another ruler." [1]
It was through his stories that he made a difference in the world--he was an advisor to kings, and he related to them by telling them stories. This is why his criticism of the grasshopper never has and never will make sense to me.

Who the hell does Aesop think he is?

Work Cited:

[1] "Aesop Biography." Biography Base. Accessed on 20 Nov. 2008. http://www.biographybase.com/biography/Aesop.html.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Room For Our Own

As some of you may or may not know, I've had a rather eventful month, and most of the excitement in my life has resulted from those with whom I've been living. Living for more than a year with two people who share a love/hate relationship is bound to be tiring, especially when you're the go-to girl for each of them to vent. I've been relegated to living in a single bedroom, having not been comfortable extending "my" territory beyond the door of my little room. In recent weeks, I've even felt insecure in my cramped haven, knowing that the privacy I crave and once thought I had established is a sham, a fraud--and there is nothing I can do to change it.

Nothing, that is, until November 15th, when I will officially begin moving into my own apartment. I've been dreaming of this day for quite some time--it's been my nightly fantasy for it for at least eight months, and now that it's upon me I can hardly wait. It's in a classic building in Capitol Hill, has hardwood floors, arched doorways, and more storage than I have stuff. All in all, it's an unhappy roommate's wet dream come true.

The reason I bring this up, however, is not to explain the lapse in my posts, though your very enthusiastic requests for more were nicer than you can possibly imagine. The reason I bring this up is that it merely re-affirms what women have long known to be true and what Virginia Woolf established so clearly and so firmly in her extended essay, "A Room of One's Own."

And with that awkward segue, let me continue. Though the recent presidential election has shown the world that Americans are ready for "change" (whatever that may mean to each person), the state initiatives and constitutional amendments passed around the country left something to be desired. The controversial passage of Proposition 8 in California, for example, added a constitional amendment that stripped gays and lesbians of their rights to be married because the majority of Californians voted to do so, though many did not understand what was truly at stake in the election. According to the LA Times, though the proponents of Propostion 8 had little to gain financially from the passage of the amendment, they "cite religious beliefs, and Mormons have emerged as the largest source of money to the Yes-on-8 effort, contributing about 40% of its war chest, according to the campaign. Church leaders have urged members to contribute." [2] This faith-against-rights face-off has been ongoing throughout history and has been applied to all minorities at one point or another; to those of us who don't have moral objections to gay marriage, the passage of the amendment seems bigoted and close-minded.

Interestingly enough, by studying the history the civil rights movement and the history of women's rights, we can clearly see the path that the current struggle will take. For example, a friend of mine who happens to be German and is a graduate student in literature recently told his teacher that "feminist literature" held little interest for him. She, in turn, coolly responded, "That was an incredibly stupid thing to say. If you aren't interested in the history of the rights of women, I suppose you aren't interested in the history of racism, either. Roughly how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?" Believing in equal rights for all virtually necessitates interest in the Suffragist movement and in Civil Rights, if only because we have been down this path before and it is only the knowledge of those struggles that can lead the way.

Consider this argument against the "gay agenda": "'The homosexual activist movement, which has achieved virtually every goal and objective it set out to accomplish more than 50 years ago, is poised to administer a devastating and potentially fatal blow to the traditional family,' Focus [on the Family] founder James Dobson wrote in 2003." [2] While this argument might seem justified to those in the Mormon Church, the rest of us wonder how the "traditional family" (whatever that is) will even be affected by gay marriage. Remember, the same argument was once applied to bi-racial marriages and was shot down by the California Supreme Court in 1948 when it stated, "Marriage is thus something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the state; it is a fundamental right of free men. " [3] These arguments against the rights of others are not new or original, and we can take comfort in the fact that they will not be effective in the long term.

What does this have to do with Virginia Woolf, you ask? By reading "A Room of One's Own" with the idea of civil rights for all, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, we can clearly see where these discriminatory attitudes stem from. For example, Woolf wonders why some people feel compelled to force others into a role of subjugatio, and she finally decides that,

"Without self–confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one self. By feeling that one has some innate superiority—it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney—for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination—over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power. " [1]

Therefore, though gay marriage would have little-to-no impact on straight marriage, there are those who feel threatened by its very possibility simply because they must feel others are inferior to have any self-confidence. Each person who donated money to the Yes-on-8 cause cannot fathom gays being "equal" because his or her identity is based on the idea of being superior to all those whom the Bible classifies as sinners, i.e. gays, non-believers, etc. I'll admit that those of us who do not feel this bone-deep drive for superiority over the "gay agenda" instead feel superior to those who do, and our self-confidence is dependent on classifying them as closeted, close-minded assholes.

Let me give another example. On November 5th, the day after Senator Obama was elected the next President of the United States, a woman called into C-SPAN and said, "I'm a Democrat who voted for McCain because I think these people are treating whites badly and I've never been anything but polite to them. They're discriminating against us, and that's wrong." My aunt, upon hearing this, said, "Wow, that's mighty white of you," and we both laughed because the woman was so obviously racist while protesting that she is anything but.

Viriginia Woolf explains this tendency thusly: "if [the "other"] begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking–glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?" [1] The woman who called in to C-SPAN feels she is superior to "these people" and gets personal satisfaction from being polite to them from her position of power, but the second one of "these people" might gain power over her, she feels threatened and lashes out, voting against her own party in the hopes that she will maintain her position of superiority. My aunt and I, on the other hand, despised the woman for what she said and gained our own sense of superiority from her idiotic statement.

While those of us deplore everything Proposition 8 stands for, including those who voted for it, we would do well to keep in mind what Virginia Woolf says about groups of people:

"Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control. They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, for ever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs—the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives." [1]

While the religious Right convinced many that Proposition 8 was dangerous, they did it only by spreading propaganda and lies on the airwaves, by frightening the ignorant and prejudiced masses. Can the masses be held responsibly for fearing a group they know nothing about other than that homosexuality is "contagious" and "dangerous"? I would say so, but some might disagree. Regardless, protesting is effective to a certain extent, in that it brings attention to the issue, but education, compassion, and respect on the part of the public are the only things that will set this to rights. Though I have no doubt that justice will eventually be reached, it will be a long, uphill battle all the way, as nothing is more contagious and dangerous than ignorance.

Works Cited:


[1] Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own." http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter1.html


[2] Morian, Dan and Jessica Garrison. "Proposition 8 proponents and foes raise $60 million." LA Times. 25 October, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-marriagemoney25-2008oct25,0,2856145.story

[3] Perez v. Sharp. The Supreme Court of California. 1 October, 1948. Accessed at http://lmaw.org/freedom/docs/CA-Perez.pdf.

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