Thursday, April 30, 2009

Can Fun be Real, or Vice Versa?

I'm asking this in all seriousness--I tend to get bogged down by my own quest for intellectual excellence, resulting in a rather-stop-and-go progress on my novel. Unfortunately, I usually ask myself, "But what does it mean, what does it mean?" Jack Skellington-style as I stare in frustration at a blank page/screen. I find myself concerned with creating something "real," meaning something that others will be able to identify with and that might help them as they struggle with issues that I struggle with daily.

My question is this, then: Can something be both "real" (in this literary sense rather than the more obvious existential one) and "fun"? I picked up a book by Lauren Willig entitled The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, one of the books in her Pink Carnation series, which was a very "fun" read--it has parallel story lines (one in contemporary England and one set in 1806) and had English spies (inluding one called the Pink Carnation, a la The Scarlet Pimpernel, to which there are numerous allusions), a royal kidnapping, and other exploits across the English countryside. While I skimmed it (due to self-assigned time constraints), I enjoyed the book and it reminded me that not every single word has to mean something. Sometimes plot has to be simply that: plot. It does not always have to be a metaphor for "meaninglessness in a universe with meaning." On the other hand, however, while I enjoyed The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, I didn't really learn that the answer is 42.

When I try to think of books that have been "real" to me, meaning I can identify with them and find something in them worth thinking about, they were not necessarily "fun." In fact, sometimes they have been painful because they illuminate things inside me that are not flattering, but both the novels and the realizations that accompanied them have been important milestones in my development.

Can a book, then, be both "real" and "fun"? Or are the two mutually exclusive?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl

Why couldn't anyone have written an awesome book for me when I was a kid? Some musical artists' children have all the luck!

Here's Neil Gaiman reading his new children's book Blueberry Girl, which he wrote for Tori Amos' daughter. For those of you who don't know, Neil Gaiman is one of the big names in fantasy fiction right now, perhaps best-known for having written Stardust. Blueberry Girl celebrates girls who are different and is very positive in a pagan-goddesses-are-cool kind of way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My mother gave me Gilead by Marilynne Robinson for Christmas, and I finished reading it months ago; I have since been trying to find the words to describe this beautiful, moving novel. I suppose I could reference the blurbs on the back cover from The New York Times or The Washington Post, which would result in descriptions like "demanding, grave, and lucid" or "one feels touched with grace just to read it."

While these descriptions are true, however, they almost cheapen the book itself because those kinds of blurbs are handed out like candy anymore, and this book deserves so much more than a cliched review and a final "yea or nay" recommendation.

All I can say is this: the book is beautiful. It is thoughtful and thought-inducing, and it's like taking a bath in a tub full of warm thoughts and words. It brought me to tears more than once. And with that, I'll leave you with my absolute favorite block of text from the novel:

"A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contest, I don't mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly--where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except in seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By 'life' I mean something like 'energy' (as the scientists use the word) or 'vitality,' and also something every different. When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the 'I' whose predicate can be 'love' or 'fear' or 'want,' and whose object can be 'someone' or 'nothing' and it won't really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around 'I' like a flame on a wick, emanating in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Can a Book be a Deal Breaker?

(Ed. note: I haven't actually read the book pictured left, but the illustration was just too perfect to pass up.)

Has anyone else ever run into a situation in which a book served to underline the fundamental differences between two people? I had this happen this weekend, when a guy was attempting to politely make small talk by telling me that he enjoyed reading (he knew I was a lit nerd), but that we probably didn't read the same types of things as he preferred science fiction and fantasy.

I assured him that I had read quite a bit of fantasy and asked him what he liked. His answer: "Well, I like... Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, stuff like that."

I cautiously asked, "The Terry Goodkind who wrote Wizard's First Rule?" When he replied in the affirmative, I knew that I had found a deal breaker. (For those of you who haven't read Wizard's First Rule, here's my take on it. The best one-word summation of my feelings about Terry Goodkind's writing is "blech.")

I don't think that most people realize how much they reveal when they name their favorite writers or books, especially a book that is polarizing as Wizard's First Rule, featuring as it does a BDSM relationship and multiple torture scenes. I'm very concious of the fact that others will pass judgment on me based on what I report as my favorite books, because that is exactly what I do.

In fact, here are a list of my "deal breaker" books, by which I mean those which make me think less of a person if listed as a favorite:

1) Wizard's First Rule, by Terry Goodkind (see above)
2) Anything by Ayn Rand (if the reader agrees with her rather than views her with a sort of horrified fascination the way I do)
3) The Harry Potter Series (while these are enjoyable, they are not "favorites" worthy)
4) Anything by Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, or any other conservative pundit (for obvious reasons)

Does anyone else have a list like this, or am I just a bitch?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Short Review: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

(Ed. Note: Two down, three to go! Huzzah!)

Confession time: I've been "reading" this book for the past twelve months--and by "reading," I mean it was in the pile of books by my bed that I kept meaning to get around to. I finally finished it last week in a blaze of glory, due in part to the fact that it ties in (almost) perfectly with the Great American Novel I'm currently writing.

Siddhartha was written in 1926 by Herman Hesse, a German writer. It's the story of a young man who leaves his father's house and his father's caste (this is set in India, by the way) to begin a spiritual journey and "find" himself. You can see why this would be appealing. (Less appealing (for me) was the very episodic nature of the book--this is one of my biggest pet peeves, which is why I hated The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

I agreed with many of the points Hesse made about personal transformation, including the idea that one person cannot confer enlightenment upon another. Probably my favorite chapter was the one in which Siddhartha becomes enmeshed in the "worldly" pleasures of lust, money, and gambling, because it is the chapter that best serves to make the metaphor of Siddhartha seem human and imperfect.

I would recommend this book, but with some reservations, and I think there may be other books that communicate the same ideas in an easier form to swallow. (I don't have a list of books as yet, but I will try to develop one over the next 60-70 years.) Here's the googlebooks link if you're interested.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What the Definition of Genius in the Humanities Reveals About Identity in Dreams

Please excuse my lack of recent posts--I'm working on a new literary project that has temporarily distracted me from my lovely little blog. I don't want to give away too much (because for some reason digitalizing my efforts has been counter-productive with this particular project), but let's just say that the themes I'm dealing with in my new book are along the same lines of some of the issues I've been dealing with here in cyberspace: the definition of genius, science vs. the humanities, the role that vocation plays in identity, the death of dreams, etc.

... kind of sounds like a big emo mess, huh? Well, I'm embracing my inner emo. So there.
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