Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Real Life Is Worrisome So I Talk About Dead Irish Wits Instead

I had big plans for this week. I was going to come home from beach weekend refreshed and inspired, and get a lot of writing done and tell you all about it. The first part went okay - beach weekend was very nice - but the rest did not go according to plan. I came home to find that a long-simmering family crisis had boiled over, and also my refrigerator had broken. So I've been trying to deal with that and have barely gotten anything done this week at all.

Instead, I will distract you and myself by telling you about a new-to-me author I've found! After dinner on Saturday, Cousin Disco and I were sitting out on the porch drinking wine and discussing how to bring down societally imposed gender roles (as you do) when her father Uncle Disco came outside.

Uncle: Since we were talking about books before [as we were, of course] - have you read Myles na gCopaleen?
Felicity: No.
Uncle: You have to.
Felicity: Okay. [I try to be agreeable.]
Uncle: S.J. Perelman called him "the best comic writer I can think of."
Felicity: Well, then. If S.J. Perelman says so.
Uncle: I'll put it on your pillow...
Felicity: I'll read it!
Uncle: ...but you can't take it with you. It can't leave the house. You have to buy your own.
Felicity: ...okay.
And really, I understood. People are funny about their favorite books.

Later, when I went upstairs, I did indeed find the book on my pillow - it turned out to be funny columns from an Irish newspaper from the thirties and forties. (Here it is.) Okay then! That's the sort of thing I would like. I was just looking at it when Cousin Disco knocked at the door. I opened it and she was holding a book:

Cousin: I think this was meant for you.
Felicity: *looks at suspiciously similar book* No, I got one too.
Cousin: Is it...?
Felicity: *fetches book, compares* Yes. Identical.
Cousin: If he has two, why won't he let you borrow one?

And at that point we had to concentrate on keeping our laughing from waking up the rest of the family. Anyway, next morning, Cousin Disco asked her father about the duplicates. "It's my favorite book," he said. "I can't be without it." Totally fair. I may have more than one copy of certain books myself.

I read the first 60 or so pages while I was there, and I would definitely recommend it if you like WWII-era Irish humor that is silly and bitter all at once! And very, very educated and cultured. There are a few other collections, too, and he also wrote novels under the name Flann O'Brien, so I'll be trying to work my way through all of it eventually. Remember: Doesn't leave the house. Buy your own copy. Buy two.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What about not-so-great books?

I know the question of whether to post bad reviews has been discussed to death, but . . . apparently I'm going to make you discuss it again. It's been bothering me since my earlier post, because even though I didn't say a book was bad, I did say I didn't think one book was as good as another book. Which . . . is true. And honest. And everyone makes value judgments about what they read. But. These are my concerns:

1) Well, if a book is REALLY bad, I'll probably not finish it, and I wouldn't review something I didn't read in its entirety. So I guess I'm really asking about "I wasn't crazy about this" books, rather than "OMG this is awful" books.

2) I know authors Google themselves - everyone Googles themselves - and I don't like the idea of them coming here and finding primarily negative things. I realize this is sort of silly, but . . . still.

3) I assume you all know that these are all MY opinions here, and have nothing to do with my employer, but I am still afraid of someone thinking badly of her because I didn't like their book, or something. Again, I realize this is silly, but I worry. About everything, basically.

4) I don't have infinite blogging time, so I'd rather spend my time and energy telling you about books I love!

But at the same time, I don't want to make it sound like I LOVE EVERYTHING, you know? And I would NEVER say I liked something if I didn't. I would just not mention it. This is what I'm leaning toward - writing book recommendations, rather than reviews, and just not mentioning the books I wouldn't recommend, unless they come up when I'm writing about a certain topic.

Does this make sense? Thoughts?

Edited to add: I also don't mean saying only positive things. "I loved everything about this" isn't really helpful. There's always room for "I wish the author had..." or "I wasn't crazy about this one thing because..." even when a review is generally positive.

Books involving issues don't have to be Issue Books.

Deb Caletti's Stay and Jennifer Brown's Bitter End both came out this year, and I picked them up at the library and read them almost back to back partially because they were reviewed together in the Times. Now, I have plenty of issues with that review - most notably with the idea that most YA books are designed to Teach A Moral - and don't necessarily agree with its assessment of these particular books, either. I do agree with the reviewer that Stay is far better, but I don't think it's particularly light, and I don't think Bitter End is more realistic.

Let's deal with the one I liked less first - and I should emphasize that I didn't think Bitter End was a BAD book, at all. (And I probably would have liked it better had I not just read Stay.) But it read very much like an Issue Book, to the point that I never really got into it as a novel. And after thinking about it for a week or so, I've concluded that most of my problems with it came down to the fact that it felt like Brown was so dedicated to Getting The Issue Across that the characterization suffered for it, and that ended up making the book worse as a book as well as undermining the Teaching Of Issues. Because when you want readers to buy into a story in which the heroine gets into a relationship with an abuser, the reader needs to be able to see at least a hint of why she finds him attractive. And that just wasn't here. From his first entrance, Cole is clearly A Big Jerk. And shortly thereafter, he becomes A Big Jerk Who Is Also Evil. Everyone in Alex's life can see this (and tries to tell her). The reader can see this. I'm not saying that people don't fall for jerks - we've all done it - but the author needs to give us something to go on so we can understand the attraction.

And Alex herself . . . I never really warmed up to her, and I read mostly for the characters, so this was a big problem. And she was . . . a little boring. At first she was Sad About Her Dead Mother, and then she was Sad About Her Dead Mother and also In Love With This Jerk. She complains about her sisters not being focused enough on the fact that their mother is dead, and because I'm a horrible person that kind of made me wonder if books about the sisters would be more interesting.

But let me emphasize that this wasn't BAD! There were some minor characters I loved, who were perhaps more complex than the main characters, and some aspects of the book seemed really promising, and I wished she'd spent more time on them. The whole question of what happened to the mother and how the family could go on living around that big event was fascinating, and I felt somewhat let down by how quickly it was wrapped up, almost as an afterthought. I did wholeheartedly love Alex's best friend Zack, and would happily read a book about him.

On the other hand, Deb Caletti's Stay is one of those books that I loved so much that I have a hard time being coherent about it. But I think the main difference is that it read like it was a novel, first of all, that happened to involve an abusive relationship as part of a larger thing, rather than a Lesson that was pushed into the form of a novel. I adored the main character, Clara, and her flawed but lovable father, and the seaside town where they went to recover from Clara's trauma. I loved the tone and the writing and the whole atmosphere of the thing. I loved it so much that I immediately requested the rest of Caletti's books from the library.

But what really got me was the extremely realistic description of what it's like to love someone who has mental illness. At one point when Clara's talking about dealing with her boyfriend Christian's moods, she says "You anticipate, and when you do that for a long while, it's hard to shake. You get edgy. Like men back from the war who jump when a car backfires." That's one of those lines that made me stop reading and stare at the book because it was so true. I am in no way claiming to understand Clara's specific situation, but I dated someone who had a mental illness (though very different from Christian's and not related to abuse), and Clara's descriptions of what that's like - both while you're in it and the lingering effects afterwards, which is the part people don't usually talk about - were probably the best I've come across in any novel.* Overall, Christian was a much more nuanced character than Cole from Bitter End, so it was much easier to buy into the fact that Clara had ever liked him in the first place. (Of course, this apparently led to Amazon reviews saying he "wasn't abusive enough." Gaaaah.)

Of course, if that aspect hadn't won me over, the HOT SAILOR BROTHERS would have. Swoon. I love sailor stuff, and hot brothers, and I loved the way these brothers appeared in the role of saviors but wound up being very human at the same time. Finn is definitely one of my new Literary Boyfriends - he's funny and confident and outdoorsy and also caring and perceptive. And his big brother's no slouch, either. Their family as a whole was one of those warm, chaotic fictional families whose house I want to show up at for Sunday dinner.

Another quote from Stay that I loved:
"One of the hardest tasks as a human being is knowing when to keep an open mind. And when not to."
And I think that's another good example of why I preferred this book - that's a Lesson, sure, but it's not a hit-you-over-the-head lesson on one exact topic. It's more general, and it ties into the dating violence plot as well as other situations in the book and plenty of situations in life in general. The point of fiction ISN'T to get a message across, but if it were, such a universal and less-obvious (than "don't stay with the boy who hits you") message is almost certainly more worthwhile - and springs from a more interesting novel.

Summary: Read Stay by Deb Caletti! I loved it! It will make you laugh and cry and think and cheer and want to move to the beach. Bitter End by Jennifer Brown was okay, and reviewers who think the point of YA is to teach morals should just FIND NEW JOBS already.

* This was a long time ago, and there was nothing directed at me and I was never in danger like Clara or anything, so please, no need to call the police or my mother.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Post-birthday thoughts

Yesterday was my birthday, and, perhaps partially because it's conveniently toward the middle of the year, I tend to make some new goals and resolutions at my birthday to replace my abandoned New Year's resolutions. So that means today, the day after my birthday, I shall sit here and eat leftover cake and blather at you about them.

Next year I'll be thirty, and I don't really MIND getting older, but it still feels . . . something. So I thought that this year I should concentrate on just doing things that will make progress toward Big Life Goals, so at least I'll go into my thirties feeling like I'm on the right track. Or something. Anyway, since this blog is mostly about reading and writing, the important thing here is the writing goal: I am determined that by my next birthday, I will at least be at the querying stage with my novel. The rough timeline in my head is that I should have a complete draft by Christmas, and then spend the first half of 2012 revising and rewriting. And I will pledge to put some sort of writing update here once a week, to keep myself accountable. Hold me to it!

My reading goals are mostly in the interests of keeping myself sane, because when I'm busy it's easy to cut back on reading time, but then I go nuts. Really. So. I'm going to start trying to carve out AT LEAST an hour of uninterrupted reading time every night, and see how that goes. I'm hoping this will also mean I FINISH books more often instead of starting lots and leaving them scattered around. (I've long since given up any attempt at actually only reading one book at a time. I can't. I just can't.) And I also want to write about a higher percentage of the books I read, so I will write SOMETHING here about books at least once a week, either a review of one book or a quick "three good mysteries I've read recently" thing or something like that. (One thing I HAVE been managing to do is keep a list of the books I've read so far this year, so that's something.)

My library is having some of its carpets replaced, so the adult stacks are CLOSED at the moment. That, of course, means that all of a sudden I am thinking of dozens of books I DESPERATELY NEED and having to convince myself not to just buy them all. On the other hand, the renovations mean that the borrowing period is longer than usual, so I have a LOT of books out right now. We'll see how many I can actually get through by the time the library reopens and wants their books back.

And on that note . . . I should stop blathering about reading and go actually read.