Tag Archives: books

Two Impossible Things to Get in Life

cup of tea

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough, or a book long enough, to suit me.”

-C. S. Lewis

Don’t you love it when people know you enough to get you something for Christmas that’s just perfect? Here’s something that combines three things I love: C. S. Lewis, tea, and books. Isn’t it a great mug?

And yes, despite my admitted addiction to coffee, I will never say no to a cup of tea. Or to a long book, unless it is so poorly written as to not be worth the effort.

What about you? Get any perfect gifts this year?

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Let’s Call the Ebook Something Else – It’s Not Really a Book, Anyway

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle Touch, by IntelFreePress (CC BY 2.0)

“We need a new word for ‘e-book,’” Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich declare in Slate – basically arguing that process of reading things electronically is so fundamentally different from reading the printed word that they shouldn’t be compared.

Well, they do have a point. When I read stuff online, I frequently fall down a rabbit hole in a way I never do when reading a book or magazine. I follow link after link, and discover I’ve learned a truckload of information on, say, Les Miserables, when I did not intend to do so when I sat down at that computer. But it was just so interesting. And, Finn and Eschrich argue, ‘e-books’ have the potential to tap into the fundamentally different world of electronic reading, by experimenting with crowdsourcing, embedding videos, and faster publication. And this ‘reading experience’ should be known by another word than ‘book.’

Yes, a book is different than electronic reading in my experience too. When I turn back to print, I have to consciously shut off my ADD tendencies learned from online reading and link-skimming, and commit. Frequently, I force myself to finish books just so I don’t succumb to a short-attention span completely. And, the amazing thing is, once I shut off the ‘skim-reading’ part of my mind, I can suddenly fall into a deeper reading experience than I ever do with online/electronic reading.

 To be clear, I love BOTH types of reading – the exhilaration of link-skimming and information overload, and the deeper experience of committing to a book. But I mean to underline here that I agree the two experiences are very different – and that currently e-books exist in a funny kind of limbo between the two types of reading. And that the world of e-books could be broadened in a way that makes them bigger than their current existence as electronic copies of printed books (though whether this will happen is a different story). But if this does happen, a new name for e-books could help people understand how e-books are different than books, and take advantage of the fact they are electronic.

 However, I have a couple things to say about Finn and Eschrich’s choice of a replacement word for ‘e-book.’ They want to call it a codeX. First, what I like about the word, and then what I don’t.

 I like the roots of the word, in ‘codex.’ I love history, so a term with a long history behind it, and a reason for using it, makes me feel warm and cozy instead. (I am just naturally drawn to stuff with a history, that’s just the way I am. Anything brand-new makes me feel empty and sterile).

 Now, for the bad – I really, really hate the CamelCase. CamelCase is random, capitalized letters in the middle of a word. In many cases, especially in things like URLs, using CamelCase does make things easier to read and remember (for example, HarmaMaeSmit.com instead of harmamamesmit.com). But in this case, it looks like the X is random, and it would be pronounced the same way no matter which letter is capitalized.

 Secondly, ‘X’ is pretty much shorthand for making things sound science-y, modern and technology – ‘X-rays,’ ‘Xanax,’ and ‘Xerox.’ (both ‘x’ and ‘z’ are prone to this – see the number of drug names with those letters in it). This runs the danger of making the word look out-of-date when the technology is no longer brand-new – see ‘X-ray’ and ‘Xerox,’ above –and I can definitely see the word codeX falling into this. For example, in the nineties’, it was cool to put ‘e’ in front of everything technological, and then it was cool to put ‘i’ in front when the iPod came out, and now brands who did these look like they just jumped on a bandwagon.

 To follow up on that point – we don’t need to make books sound cutting-edge to make people want to read them, and many people who read lots don’t care about being cutting edge. I’d be okay with just calling it a ‘codex,’ though I can see people might be afraid it sounds too academic. After all, ‘e-book’ sounds familiar. It sounds like something you already have experience with.

Basically – if we have to a a new word for ‘e-book,’ let’s make sure it doesn’t sound gimmicky, shall we? 

But don’t worry, I haven’t seen any signs that vast hordes of readers are rallying behind this new name for e-books, which means the name probably won’t change any time in the near future. But I do think the idea of emphasizing how different e-reading is from print reading is an interesting one. In a world where Apple is patenting a way for authors to electronically authorize e-books, and most electronic publishers are slavishly trying to copy every aspect of a print book, the idea of trying to find a new path for electronic publishing that takes advantage of the very ‘electronic-nish’ of it could change publishing forever.

It’s just that no one’s quite figured out how to do it yet.

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Filed under Ebooks, GENERAL Bookish Thoughts

Peck Out Her Eyes, She Deserves It!

Vindictiveness in Fiction

'Just Desserts,' by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

‘Just Desserts,’ by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

Some versions of Cinderella end with her ordering her bird-friends to peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. Yes, the sweet, lovely Cinderella whom we all heard about as a kid – though clearly not the Disney version. Apparently she decided to take revenge and punish her sisters by blinding them in the most gruesome way she could think of. Or, in other versions of the story, exiling them to the wilderness, or forcing them to be slaves.

 I always preferred the endings where she invites her stepsisters and stepmother to live in the castle instead, and teaches them how to be gracious. After all, Cinderella is supposed to be better than them, and if she resorts to petty vindictiveness to punish them, how is she better than her stepsisters, who mistreated her because she was prettier than them?

(See my version of Cinderella, Prince Charming, to see what I think about the character of the prince!)

 I always wanted to think if anyone could be outstandingly forgiving, it was Cinderella. And I always wanted to think the stepsisters learned to be better people after what happened. Maybe I’m just an optimist about humanity.

 But, strangely enough, vindictiveness is a strong theme in many works of fiction. I mean, take The Count of Monte Cristo. This is a book completely centred around a man taking revenge, it is regarded as a true classic, and its plot keeps getting used by many other works (the movie, The Mask of Zorro, for instance, and Charade, an actual Christian inspirational fiction book that uses the same plot).

 In the book, the Count of Monte Cristo takes great pleasure in revenge. He manipulates a man’s wife to commit suicide and take her son with her as well, driving the man insane. Then he destitutes another man, and causes a third to commit suicide. Of course, the point of the book is that they all deserved it, but still…

 Clearly, punishing people who were mean to you is attractive to most readers, and I’m not really surprised this natural human reaction is so popular. Everyone likes to see someone get their comeuppance. I am surprised that I don’t enjoy it. Like I said before, I like the versions of Cinderella where she doesn’t punish her stepsisters, and the parts of The Count of Monte Cristo where he relents instead of taking revenge. But this quirk of mine ends up interfering with my enjoyment of other classics as well.

 Take Roald Dahl. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! Everyone’s read at least a dozen of his books in their childhood – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc. So I read them too, and they confused me like crazy. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel bad (I actually felt bad) when James’ aunts get flattened by the giant peach, or Veruca Salt gets carried away by squirrels.

 So while I knew these books were wonderfully creative and inventive – no one’s written about being inside a chocolate factory before! And definitely not a chocolate factory that was so fun – I couldn’t get past feeling uncomfortable with them. In this case, I never particularly felt that the characters in the book were the vindictive ones – Charlie, or James, for example. It was just this undercurrent of vindictiveness that ran through most of the books – as if the author himself was exorcizing his demons.

 So here’s the thing – bad characters should learn something, or be punished, or whatever makes a satisfactory ending to a story. But what I find uncomfortable is when other characters take this into their own hands. Because I don’t believe we ever see things quite clearly when we’ve been hurt. And I’m always afraid that taking this kind of revenge just tangles things up and makes them worse.

But that’s just me. What do you think about vindictiveness in fiction?

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Misc. Books, Prince Charming Extras

Ranking Jane Austen – Is It Possible?

Emma
Mansfield Park
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Northanger Abbey
Persuasion

 Is this a sensible way to rank Jane Austen’s books? As far as I can discern, this is how Adelle Waldman ranks them, in “I Read Everything Jane Austen Wrote, Several Times: Here Are Some of the Many Things I Learned.” Fans of Jane Austen, of course, can argue for hours about which of her novels are best, and non-fans are probably just surprised she wrote more than Pride and Prejudice. But this particular ranking is unique enough that I feel compelled to comment on it.

 In general, most of these choices are justifiable, and while I would rank Pride and Prejudice just a little higher than Emma, they are both of such good quality that they could both be at the top of any list. I did not think Emma was well-plotted the first time I read it, because it was so long and it felt like the action dragged out forever. But it is well-plotted, if you know many of the little details will add up to something in the end, and reveal how blind Emma was at certain point, or how blind you as the reader were about what was really going on.

 Uniquely, Waldman looks down on Persuasion. I have often been confused as to why so many critics think it is one of Austen’s best works, though I would not be as hard on the novel as Waldman is. It is not as funny and sparkling, true, but there is something sweet about it. I have the most amount of sympathy for Anne Elliot, because I know what it’s like to be overlooked.  Depending upon which novel I am reading, I would probably rate Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey all pretty close to each other, and so I’m not going to quibble about which one should be rated higher than the others. I just have to stick up for Persuasion when it is stuck dead last.

 But she puts Mansfield Park far too high up the list. While the complexity of the characters do make the novel a more mature work, I cannot forgive the deficiencies of its plot. It does not leave the reader with any feeling or satisfaction, or ending in the right spot, even though it ends with the expected happy ending. (I ranted more about Mansfield Park here).

 However, I can’t help but thank Waldman for the observation that Austen is not merely about romance and marriage, but primarily about people and how they should behave. Romance and marriage tends to act as a reward for the right sort of behaviour, which is why Austen’s work often comes off as intensely moralistic. But it is also why Austen’s works have endured so well. We all know vain and pompous fools (Sir Walter Elliot), scoundrels who lead women on (Wickham), jealous and competitive women (Caroline Bingley), and foolish and vindicative women (Mrs. Elton). We want to see people like that learn a lesson – though Austen realistically never forces a vile character to change as a result of the lessons a reader can glean from the action. As Waldman states, “She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile… Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”

Yes to that.

As a postscript, my personal ranking goes like this:

 Pride and Prejudice (as the best paced and best plotted one of the bunch, with highly entertaining characters who go through believable character development)

Emma (almost as good as Pride and Prejudice, upon second reading, but a little too long to be thoroughly enjoyed on first reading – as I discovered here)

Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (both entirely serviceable and charming novels, and I’m not sure which one rates above the other)

Northanger Abbey (which is enjoyable but somewhat flawed – understandable considering it was one of the first she wrote, as well as one she later revised, though it was published posthumously and therefore it’s hard to say it she would’ve been satisfied with its finish published form)

If you include Lady Susan as one of Austen’s novels, though it is more of a novella, I would stick it last on the list. If it had been longer, I would’ve liked it more (more of my thoughts on Lady Susan here).

And then… I can’t decide where Mansfield Park fits in. I think that novel will annoy me for the rest of my life. Is that a mark of great literature?

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Making Fun of Readers?

books 2 I would never make fun of anyone who loved to read.

– Juliet Ashton, in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

People who love to read get made fun of, sometimes. This is probably leftover from childhood, when the bookworms were thought of as kids who sat in the corner and had no friends, while the ‘cool kids’ boasted about how much of Animal Farm they didn’t read. So I would never, never make fun of anyone who loved to read. It’s too much of a life pleasure to make someone embarrassed about doing it.

This is probably why I cringe inside when someone tells me, “I never read,” or “I haven’t cracked open a book since junior high!” Because I am afraid they’re subtly trying to prove they’re superior to me. This is probably an entirely unfair way of reading this situation, and it’s highly likely no one is trying to insult me this way. It’s merely a knee-jerk reaction from my schooldays, in the same way I cringe when someone calls me “smart,” and I automatically insist I’m not (while looking over my shoulder in fear of being labelled “teacher’s pet” as well.) In the same way I try not to tell anyone my grades, even though getting a good grade in university has a lot less stigma attached.

But this works the other way too. When someone admits to me that they love books too, I feel a sudden kinship with them, as sharing a love of reading means we have a lot of other things in common too. I’ve discovered this is not always true, of course, but one of the fastest ways to get me to like a person is still for them to not be afraid to talk about the books they read.

I know, people who don’t like reading are sometimes looked down on by readers – the best solution would be for everyone to think twice before laughing at someone else. But since all of you lovely people are clearly readers, I have to ask you – do you ever feel looked down upon because of your reading habits? How do you feel when you meet a fellow reader?

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Filed under Misc. Books, Quotables

Books, Books, Books!

A logical follow-up to last week’s post about libraries is have one celebrating books. Here is a bit of verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – I quoted her once before in ‘From Recluse to Romance,’ which was part of my Real-life Romance series. I haven’t actually read much of her work, because of my somewhat ambivalent attitude to poetry in general, but I do like a lot of her verse than I have read. So here is a chunk so you all can decide what you think too!

Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!
At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1856), Book I, line 830.

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Oh, Libraries!

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

“Human beings can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”

Saul Bellow, in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”, from Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984)

I once made an acquaintance with a man who had the most amazing library. It wasn’t the biggest library I had even seen – just several shelves lined up side-by-side, in fact – but it had every book I wanted to read or thought I should read someday. Every classic that ought to be in one’s library was there. It was as well-selected and tasteful as I dream my library should be, but isn’t (yet).

But time, unfortunately, was short. I found myself jumping from classic novel to classic novel, reading the first chapter of each before going on to the next. If I had had the time, I certainly could’ve lost my life in those shelves. Instead, I ended up cramming as many snatches of ‘great literature’ from as many different authors as possible. The first chapter of Brave New World, of Atlas Shrugged, of The Great Divorce, and on and on… I may never finish pick up any of these books again, and certainly have not read enough of them to decide if they should be counted as ‘great literature’ or not. But I discovered the thrill a great library can give you.

What about you – what is the most amazing library you have set foot in?

(This post contains affiliate links)

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Why Do Writers Write?

quotables button“Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.”

– Thomas Berger, apparently

There never are enough good books out there. Good books exists, but once they’re read it’s hard to find another one – so I do write to fill the gap in books I love to read. On reflection, this is maybe one of the strongest drives that get me to write. You can just feel this big, gaping absence in the world, and you know it’s crying out to be filled. So you try to put the greatness you can see in your mind on paper. It’s maybe crazy at first to think you can ever be as good as your favourite author, and that anything you write will actually fill that gap for anyone else except you. After all, Tolkien, Austen, etc. were geniuses with words. But maybe, just maybe, you can produce something that starts to fill in the gap they left behind them.

I write what I love to read. I wonder if I came across my own stories and had no memory of writing them (through some strange twist of fate), if I would think I succeeded.

 

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Unicorns in the Streets: What is Genre, Anyway?

by Erin Stevenson O’Connor, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

J.K. Rowling just released her latest book yesterday, and surprise, surprise, it is not about wizards. Or magic. Or unicorns. She has firmly departed her old stomping grounds of children’s fantasy, and forayed into what might be called contemporary adult fiction. Which got me thinking – why do we draw such hard and fast lines between different types of writing, anyway?

No Fantasy in Realism

“I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling is quoted as saying. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy.” She makes it sound like the gulf between realism and fantasy is wide and impassable. But looking back over a history of literature, it doesn’t appear that there was always such a hard line between fantasy and realistic stories. The Iliad depicts a drawn-out conflict between two war-like groups, a situation that would’ve been somewhat familiar to people at the time. Yet fantastic elements such as the interference of gods and Achilles battling with a river are added without a second thought. In medieval literature, knights go off to fight dragons and mythical creatures, as well as more mundane enemies. Beowulf slays a dragon. King Arthur pulls a sword out of a stone. MacBeth consults with witches. The line between the realistic and the fantastic seems to be very blurry – perhaps to the point of not existing at all.

(To be fair, what we know as a ‘novel’ was not invented till about the 17th century either. The Iliad, for example, was an epic poem and certainly not a novel. The same for Beowulf.)

Of course, part of the reason for this was that for historical peoples, the world was a mysterious place and mostly unknown. There really might’ve been dragons beyond the next hill, but you didn’t really know because you’d never gone there. In our modern times, we’ve lost that sense of wonder when we gained the ability to circumnavigate the world in hours, and map DNA down to the very last detail. Fantastic creatures such as unicorns and dragons just don’t belong in our everyday life, or even our typical imaginations. They are only acceptable sectioned off behind a little label called ‘Fantasy,’ with the understanding that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Realism’ are very different things.

But Really, Why Genre?

I think it’s because we, as humans, like to know what to expect in stories. Not to know every detail, of course, but to be able to predict general outlines. If it’s a fantasy novel, it’s going to have magic, some kind of Dark Lord, and yes, maybe unicorns. If it’s a mystery novel, it’s going to have a murder – and probably someone who’s wrongfully accused, a detective of some sort, and a second murder that raises the stakes of the case. The readers know a bit of what to expect beforehand, so while hopefully the plot will keep them at the edge of their seats, they are still entering a comfortable world where events happen according to unspoken rules. A nice contrast to the randomness of reality.

And genre conventions do go back a long way. The ancient Greeks didn’t have novels like we do, but they did divide their plays into two types: comedy and tragedy. The audience knew to expect different things in each one. Shakespeare also had comedies, tragedies and histories (slightly different from what the Greek meanings of those words were). Of course, not all Shakespeare plays fit into the categories assigned to them, proving that while genre is a useful concept, it does not solve all problems across the board. Creators want freedom to subvert conventions, including the conventions of genres.

So there you have it. When J.K. Rowling announced her latest book was ‘adult realism,’ she (and her publishers) were signalling exactly what kind of audience they expected to buy the book. Genre is a useful tool for letting the reader know what to expect, but the categories are not the hard and fast categories we like to think of them as. Writers like to break rules, and more than that, categories and styles of literature have changed over the years.

But does this mean a unicorn could never walk down the main streets of New York, and still be called ‘realistic’? Maybe not nowadays, but who can say about the future?

Note: I missed my Quotables post this Monday – it just completely got lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately I have a bit of a busy semester ahead of me, so once in a while I may resort to only posting once a week. If a post doesn’t go up, rest assured I have not forgotten about my blog! I just have not managed to juggle my priorities well enough. I hope this will not happen often. 🙂 

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Filed under On Writing, The Iliad

Let’s Just Blame the Plot on Someone’s Sex Drive

The Problems with Leaving Romance up to “Overwhelming Attraction”

The Kiss

‘The Kiss,’ by Francesco Hayez

You know what I hate? I hate when romantic comedies or romance novels set up a perfectly good antagonistic relationship between two main characters (you know, where they take an instant dislike to each other, like in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice), and then easily overcome this obstacle by making them realize their mad attraction for each other. The characters go from screaming at each other from across the room, to climbing all over each other and unable to tear themselves away. Okay, I’m not going to argue it’s unrealistic. I know hormones can make people do crazy and unbelievable things (whether that’s a unjustifiable excuse for anything is another topic, but hey, I’m saying I know it happens). But I hate it when an author makes a sex drive over-rule everything that came before. The author spent half the book showing us how the characters can’t get along. And now we’re supposed to believe it’s all solved because the two had one make-out session in some deserted hallway or something?

I hate it because it’s lazy. I don’t care how realistic it is, it’s like the author realized they did their job a little too well and it seems impossible to justify that their two characters ever will get together. In Pride and Prejudice, it takes Elizabeth chapters and chapters for her to realize she’s misjudged Mr. Darcy. But if you don’t want to write chapters and chapters of someone’s internal thoughts, struggling to make them seem believable, you can just throw hormones into the mix, because isn’t that reality? I guess for me the problem is, in this case, that reality is unrealistic. And I want to read about how people process their changing opinions. Good fiction, for me, is opening a window into characters’ minds, not having characters jerked about by uncontrollable urges, random environmental events (like an earthquake from nowhere), or deus ex machinas. It just feels lazy. Real life doesn’t have a plot either, but fiction is pretty boring without one.

I guess it also doesn’t tell me anything about the characters, other than the fact they have a sex drive like everyone else. Part of the reason I enjoy well-written­ romance is because the interaction between two characters reveal more and more what the characters are like. For better or worse, they can’t hide who they are, and the other has to decide if they’re up for putting up with that or not. If you short-cut the process by throwing in “overwhelming attraction,” you end up with the kind of romance novels people laugh – cookie-cutter, cliché, with the main characters indistinguishable from the main characters of every cookie-cutter novel.

This is even worse in fanfiction. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to complain about fanfiction, because most writers are clearly amateur, but I have to bring it up anyway. (And yes, sometimes I do have to spend more time with characters after a book or movie is over, and passably written fanfiction is one way to do it. That, or write fanfiction myself – see my one-shots of Jane Austen). The basis of too much fanfiction is romantic relationships between characters that had no romantic relationship in the original work. So the antagonistic relationship, or even a lack of any relationship at all, is already set up for the would-be fanfiction writer. The problem now is to write the characters into an understanding. But what reason can you give to make enemies overcome their differences? Oh, just throw in a sex drive and everything will work itself out.

It’s even worse with characters that are supposed to be pretty emotionless already, like Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not saying you can’t write a pretty convincing story about them falling in love. It’s just going to take a lot of effort. A lot of believable plot events that make the characters re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about themselves. If Sherlock Holmes finds himself kissing Irene Adler or something, he’s not going to throw himself into a passionate relationship with her. He’s going to freak out. After all, Doctor Watson clearly says, “[Holmes] never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.” Don’t you see – if such a thing were to happen, Sherlock Holmes would be in danger of no longer being Sherlock Holmes. It would throw his whole mental processes in doubt, and his mental processes are the basis of the Sherlock Holmes character.

And yes, I’ve read a few too many novels that have had this problem. Have you? Agree or disagree? Thoughts?

(This post contains affiliate links)

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Filed under Jane Austen, True Romance