Tag Archives: books

The Dangerous Business of Recommending Novels

And the Dangerous Business of Reading Recommendations

“Please read these books and tell me what you think”
(Library books, by CCAC North Library. Licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Someone lends you a book, telling you it’s “fantastic,” “will change your life forever,” or that you “have to read it.” You take and swear you’ll read it. Then it sits on your bookshelf for the next twelve months, while you stare at it and promise yourself you will read it when you have time.

Why is it sometimes so hard to read books that people recommend to you?

I find this reaction very strange, but I do it myself. Someone can describe a book and it might sounds exactly what I’d be interested in, but I still put off reading it. Maybe I’m scared it can never measure up to my hopes. Maybe I’m not one hundred percent positive that whoever recommended it to me actually understands what I like. Or maybe I’d just prefer to have the thrill of discovery for myself. But still, it’s hard enough to find good books, so you’d think it would help to have books recommended to me. And it is nice. I do enjoy most of what people give me, once I convince myself to actually read it. I can think of three possible reasons for this reaction though:

1.) We’ve all had someone tell us we’ll “love” something, but then we don’t. It’s like when a joke is supposed to be “hysterical,” but once someone actually tells the joke, it just falls flat. By raising expectations beforehand, which is kind of part of recommending a book (after all, who says, “this book isn’t all that great, but you have to read it?”), you also risk that the book won’t live up to your description. And everyone’s reaction to books does tend to be personal. Sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for a happy book when you read it, so what came off as “sweet and charming” to your friends, comes off as “syrupy” to you.

So, basically, you’re afraid the book can’t possibly be as good as you were told, so you put off reading it rather than tell your friend your real opinion of it.

2.) Or, possibly, you’re afraid your friends don’t know you as well as they think they do. Maybe you’ve got a friend that gushes over any work with a boy and girl falling in love as “soooooooooo romantic!” or “soooooooooooo suspenseful!” But to you, the books are just mushy or terribly cliché. Someone will tell you there’s no way you could not love Twilight. You like romance novels, right, and Twilight is a full of romance! So you’re pretty hesitant to believe every book people tell you is perfect for you, actually is.

3.) Or maybe you just feel contrary. I don’t know if it’s just me who does this, but if someone tells me I’ll love something, I always wonder how do you know? No one likes to feel like their reactions are predictable and obvious (though maybe mine are). Or if someone tells me a book will change my life, I get nervous and wonder if I want my life to change (or I get cynical and think every book gets called life-changing, when very few actually are). It’s probably a similar reaction to being told you have to read a book for English class – it might be the greatest novel ever, but because it’s assigned you just know you’ll hate it. Case in point, I didn’t take the opportunity to re-read Persuasion when it was assigned in university, relying instead on my very hazy memory of the plot, despite the fact the book is Jane Austen. I still dislike Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids, because I was made to read them in school. And when someone tells you a book is a “classic” – the word “classic” can mean so many different things! It could be a potboiler, like Dracula, or a depressing assessment of humanity, like Lord of the Flies. I always stubbornly think, “classic doesn’t necessarily mean good.”

By no means does this post mean to stop recommending me books! I love books, always will. I just want to analyze my reluctance to start new books for a moment, when I usually enjoy almost anything once I start reading. But I have had a mixed bag with some recommendations, from the library trying to convince me every fantasy book was “Hotter than Potter” when very few were (though I did stumble upon Artemis Fowl this way), to the one elementary teacher who kept throwing these ancient, ugly books at me that I enjoyed almost every time I read them (“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, and he was right). I guess I just need to spend a bit of time in anticipation and nervousness before I really plunge into something. And so my stack of books-to-read might grow ever higher, but at least I do slowly read them.

Do you have the same problem when people recommend books to you? Why do you think people would be reluctant to start reading a book recommended to them?

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts

Escaping Our Dystopian Futures

If I wanted to know how horrible this world can be, I’d watch the news. Like I said before, when I read, I read books to remind myself of the good things that can exist in this world. That’s not to say I don’t read stories where bad things happen. In some of my favourite books, terrible things happen. I just don’t get why some people like to read books that are dark and despairing from beginning to read, without a ray of hope anywhere.

Like dystopian science fiction.

We had to read The Chrysalids in school. I admit, there might’ve been a miniscule ray of hope at the end. But it was doom and gloom for the other two hundred and thirty-nine pages, as if John Wyndham was doing his best to convince me I’d hate to live in a world devastated by nuclear bombs. Hey, I wasn’t arguing. I won’t even start to argue with that, so why act like you need a whole novel to bang that point home to me? This is why I have such a love-hate relationship with science fiction. The idea of writing about an imaginary future is neat. But does it say something about us that we’re so incredibly pessimistic?

The consensus is, if humanity has a future, we’re going to be struggling out of the ruins of civilization somewhere. I suppose this isn’t an unreasonable assumption – the Roman Empire collapsed, after all. But I think it says something about humanity that we’re so convinced things are getting worse. That no matter what new thing humanity invents, it will somehow contribute to our downfall.

Oh well. Utopian science fiction does exist, apparently. In fact, here’s an author who thinks we should write more of it, and inspire inventors and future engineers. (As if there’s anything left to invent, now that we’ve come up with the iPad?) Maybe I should go read some of that.

What about you – can you handle depressing fiction?

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Filed under Misc. Books

Remembering E-book Details – Harder Than With Print

I realized I should’ve mentioned earlier that no post would be going up yesterday, since it was Good Friday and a holiday (and wow, I was glad to have a holiday after writing so many history papers!) Instead, I’m putting up a short post today. I came across this article on Time.com the other day, discussing how our minds just don’t absorb the details of what we read as well when we read e-books, as when we read the same book in print. And I have to agree, to some extent.

I don’t read too many e-books, but I read (far too many) articles online, and though I usually remember the main idea of the article, I don’t do as well on the details. Sometimes I read the same thing twice before realizing I’ve actually read it a few months before. It’s enough to make me wonder if I actually read to get information, or if this is just a symptom of impending information addiction – an odd condition where the pleasure of finding out something new is, well, incredibly addicting. (On the other hand, I also apply what I read in numerous ways, including on this blog, so hopefully I don’t skate too close to the edge of surfing the ‘net just for the high it gives me. 🙂 )

I also sometimes am assigned textbooks as e-books, and it is sometimes incredibly difficult to absorb the information from them . On the other hand, I love the fact I save money on them, and will always choose textbook available as a free e-book from the library over being gouged on the print version. Another upside is being able to easily search the text for a keyword, or a half-remembered argument you were sure the author made somewhere in the book, rather than endlessly skimming print pages in a fruitless search for a certain quotation.

The argument in the Time article is that people remember things better in the print version by landmarking where they found information, such as remembering it was at the bottom of a page near an end of a chapter, and this was incredibly interesting to me. Sometimes, when writing an exam, I can see exactly where the information I need to know was in my textbook (though it has happened that I still have no idea what the answer is). If only my memory worked like a camera!

And, lastly, this leads to interesting implications for writers of e-books. Maybe intense fantasy tomes with hundreds and hundreds of names, and an incredibly complex invented society, are not the best choices when writing an e-book. Maybe readers are actually looking for a simple story, “light reading,” that’s a pleasant distraction while riding the bus. I wonder if, in the future, authors will write differently if they intend their work to be an e-book, or if they intend it to be released as a print version. It depends how well this e-book craze takes hold. I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Ebooks

I Need to Read More Books

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve probably started to see a pattern. I know I have, from writing it. The same books keep coming up over and over. If you were to take a guess at which books exactly were my favourite, what would you come up with? Say Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Pride and Prejudice, and you’d be pretty close.

Now, these keep coming up partly because they made a book impact on me, and I want to know why I classify some books as “good” and some books as “horrible.” But at some point the well is going to start getting a little dry. There’s a chance all you readers out there are going to start predicting, “She’s talking about romance again? I bet the example will be Pride and Prejudice,” or, “Is the topic fantasy? Lord of the Rings, of course!”

The obvious solution for this is for me to read more good books.

And here we come upon the realization that has slowly been dawning on me for the last couple months. I don’t read near as many books as I used to!

Part of the reason for this is because in highschool I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a forty-five minute long bus-ride to school, so I taught myself to read on the bus without feeling nauseated. This meant I had time to read all kinds of books that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise–All Quiet on the Western Front (which I found gory but hugely insightful into the misery of war), Hiroshima (similarly gory, like All Quiet on the Western Front, but about how people felt after the atom bomb dropped on Hiroschima), The Old Man and the Sea (which I didn’t entirely understand) and The Three Musketeers (which I hardly remember, and should re-read sometime). I may not have read these books otherwise, because they don’t exactly fall into my usual genres of romance and fantasy, as you may have noticed. In university, I just don’t have as much time. Of course, I get to read lovely non-fiction books such as Imposing Decency and Revolutionizing the Sciences, which probably educate my brain too. But after reading assigned pages of somewhat dry material, my brain is too tired to read novels for fun.

The other up-side to being in highschool (and there’s not too many of these) is that you’re assigned books to read in English. Now that I’m done all my English classes for my university degree, no one is forcing me to read certain bits of fiction. Highschool is the reason I read The Great Gatsby, most of the Shakespeare I’ve read, The Chrysalids (which I hated) and Lord of the Flies (which I also hated, but I was forced to read it over summer vacation). Sometimes being forced to read stuff means you at least know what pop culture is referencing when they parody it–pig’s head on a stick, anyone?

I hope this is not part of growing up. I remember, as a kid, hearing my mum complain about never having time to read, and I used to wonder how anyone didn’t have time to read. Books had such a magnetic draw for me that I had to make time to read them, or go crazy. Now I understand a bit better about how sometimes, no matter how much you want to do something, you just can’t fit it into your schedule.

For example, I started re-reading The Hobbit, and it’s taking me a month. I think it took me a day the first time I read it. And the last ‘classic’ I started, Cyrano de Bergerac (on the recommendation of some of my lovely visitors here), I haven’t finished yet. But I will. I will make time to read.

Because if I’m reading a good book, I find it improves my writing immensely. It seems to turns on that creative side of my brain. That’s why finding and thinking about good books is so important to me. That, and getting another perspective on how one can view life. I do hope I do not reach a point where I am perpetually too busy to devote myself to challenging stuff.  

How about you – do you think you read less than you used to? What books have you been meaning to read, and haven’t got around to?

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Filed under All Quiet on the Western Front, Misc. Books

Happy Endings vs. Sad Endings

Darcy and Elizabeth. {{PD-US}}

And Everything In Between

Endings are one of the hardest things for me to write. Obviously, I feel the weight of the readers’ expectations—hey, if anyone is reading this, they’re trusting me to end this satisfactorily! And I’ve read so many books where a so-so ending kept the book from becoming great.

But both happy endings and sad endings have pitfalls. Happy endings can come off too unrealistic and gushy. But do a sad ending badly, and no one believes your tragedy. Even done well, a sad ending can be rather—depressing. Really, does nothing good ever happen in life?

As a reader, I’d probably pick the happy ending every time if I have a choice. I can skim over glurge, and have many times, but a sad ending to a book or even a movie can leave me stuck on how it ends for weeks. That’s the point of most sad endings, of course. But I can’t handle every book I read to impact me that much. And, of course, I like to believe that though there are so many terrible things in life, sometimes people end up being happy.

One example of a good happy ending is, I think, (spoiler alerts ahead!) Pride and Prejudice. Yeah, the couple does end up getting together and getting married and all those other cliché happy-ending tropes, but Lydia is still married to Wickham. Her mother is still a fool—endings that are too happy change everyone’s characters into unrecognizable versions of their previous personalities—and her father still has to put up with her (or hide in the library). And as for Elizabeth and Darcy themselves… well, Austen makes it very clear that Darcy has a way to go in managing his pride, so their marriage will not be heaven. But I think it’s exactly those kinds of shots of reality that keep happy endings from becoming, well, too unrealistic.

How shall we call those endings? Gritty-yet-happily-ever-after?

But I think the best compromise between a happy ending and a sad one is a bittersweet ending. When things in life are happy, they’re never completely happy. The best book example I can think of this is Lord of the Rings. The One Ring is destroyed and the Dark Lord is vanquished forever, but Frodo is never the same again. Most characters go on to become leaders or get married, or do something great, but there is something about the world that is changed forever. It’s probably the best mix of the readers’ hopes andcynicism that a novel can achieve.

 

Now, I should go study for exams again. Comment below on what type of ending you prefer!

***

Looking for a story with an ending that won’t devastate you for days? I can promise you that if you find yourself mulling over my ebooks, Prince Charming or Lookin‘ Good, it won’t be because they leave you feeling gloomy on the inside. You can decide for yourself if the endings are happy or bittersweet!

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Lord of the Rings, On Writing

A Thought From C.S. Lewis – On Reading the Classics

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina D. All rights reserved.

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

         – C.S. Lewis (full text found here)

Very useful rule, C.S. Lewis, but I fail miserably at it. I comfort myself with the idea that “when I have more time” I will improve my reading habits.

 Lewis’s argument is:

– Classics are classics for a reason. Who knows if anyone will be reading Twilight in two hundred years?

– Old books help correct the blind spots we modern people don’t realize we have.

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The Pleasures of Re-Reading

Reading in bed, by Artotem. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0

Or, Surprise! I Actually Like This Book

Some novels can stand up to the pressures of being re-read over and over – Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – and get better and better each time I read them. To come back to them is like finding a comfortable old friend, to pay more attention to sections I merely skimmed over before, or to open my eyes wider and wider to the genius of the author. Other novels fail this test miserably. Still others that don’t seem all that great on their first reading actually improve once you’ve read them multiple times. I’m not sure why that is. Either sometimes the story benefits because I know exactly what the plot is and where the author is trying to go, or somehow all the little annoyances get less annoying the more I read them. Anyway, here are a couple of novels I’ve experienced this with – which just goes to show that not judging on first impressions extends to more than just not judging a book by its cover!

Emma, by Jane Austen:
You probably think I’m the biggest fan of this book, especially after posting that “missing chapter” on this blog last Saturday. Actually, for the longest time I never understood why so many fans of Austen’s work liked this book so much. Not that I thought it was exactly lesser quality of prose than anything else she wrote, but she seemed to demonstrate rather too well how little went on in the life of a well-bred young lady in that time period – how closed and confined her society really was. All Emma does is drive into town, or visit with her neighbours, or “cheer” her father’s spirits. I had nothing against the general plot, but I thought the author could’ve cut out some long passages of “nothing happens.”
Here is an example of what I mean by a book being better when you know where the author is going. The first read-through you are completely guided by Emma. But all those long passages of “nothing happens” are liberally sprinkled with clues that point exactly to the ending, and you have to be as blind as Emma to miss them. It is a joy to read them over and figure out what they all mean. Frank Churchill is not fixing Mrs. Bates’ spectacles merely out of the goodness of his heart!
I have to admit, it took me at least three read-throughs to appreciate this one, but now it has gone up my hierarchy of Jane Austen’s novels. All I can say is – worth the effort.

Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott: 
This is the sequel to Little Women, and is in fact packaged in the same volume as Little Women in most editions. I actually read it long after I read Little Women, and thought it far weaker than Little Women, Little Men, or Jo’s Boys. Again, it took me three times reading it to appreciate it on its own.
*Spoilers ahead*   Surprisingly, it was not the much complained about fact that Jo does not marry Laurie that bugged me about this book. I don’t really mind that Laurie marries Amy instead. I never saw it coming, but I find their relationship relatively sensible. Professor Bhaer came way out of left field though, and I could not see him as a romantic interest (in fact, I still see him as a better husband and father than a romantic interest – not all good husbands make good heroes of romance novels, remember that!) And I had no idea why Jo went off with him to start a school, since to my younger self “starting a school” was unheard of – all schools I knew were institutions and not run by random individuals. In fact, probably most of my displeasure with the book came from reading Little Women when I was so much younger – I accepted Jo and Laurie as just good friends, and Jo as rather motherly towards him, and to see them hurting each other as a result of misplaced romance was just weird. And Beth dies, when the high point of Little Women is that she lives after her illness. And so on. I had to get over my preconceptions to fully enjoy it. And once I did, my opinion of it rose.

Two examples are probably enough for now. There’s plenty more books I have NOT been able to get into, despite the number of times I re-read them (I could never get into Emily of New Moon, despite loving the Anne of Green Gables series). Who knows, maybe I just have to re-read them a few more times.
What about you? What are your favourite books to re-read, and has re-reading a book ever changed your mind about it?

This post comes to you on Friday, not Thursday, which I think will become the regular schedule for this semester. Class-wise, it works much better for the next couple months. 

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Misc. Books

Strange Flotsam in My Bedroom – A Photo-essay

Cleaning your room can unearth the oddest things you forgot you had. I’m a bit of a packrat – a bad habit – so it was high time to do a deep cleaning and clear some stuff out. It’s a wrench to part with some of these things. In fact, most of these I ended up keeping. Such as:

To my surprise, my old piggy bank still had money in it! A grand total of 16 cents, but still…

This is apparently a tooth-holder. For putting your baby teeth in when waiting for the Tooth Fairy to come. I got it as a gift in playschool.

To illustrate my skill as an interior decorator, here is my brilliant idea to fill an old Jones Soda bottle with my dad’s old marbles. Doesn’t it just ooze with originality?

Now THIS is a pen. It would be a pretty neat idea for a pen too, if the pen actually worked. The long, skinny part detaches from his foot, which acts as kind of a pen-stand.

The dude on the left is the aforementioned pen. The dude on the right is – er… a souvenir from Holland. It actually opens in the middle, and you eat ice cream from its belly. My sister and I got one for dessert, after eating dinner at a pancake restaraunt (yes, they eat pancakes for dinner in Holland).

And lastly, my lovely bookshelf is made of vintage apple crates I rescued from my grandparents’ garage. The crates have come in very handy, actually. The one thing I’ve learned from all this cleaning is – I have too many books! Is that even possible? Maybe it’s time for me to go buy a Kindle or something.

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Filed under Randoms & My Life

Fantasy Round-up

Lately I’ve had people ask how I get inspiration when writing, and one big part of it is – reading other books! Good books show what works, what techniques are out there, and what tropes exist (obviously not for the purpose of blatant copying, that would be pointless). Bad books show what fails horribly, and gives me hope that I can at least do better than that. Since one of the genres I dabble in is fantasy, I thought I’d examine some of the ones I’ve read here.

So, after devouring Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (no need to recommend them – there’s obviously huge names in fantasy and worth reading), I turned to the rest of the epic fantasy world in an attempt to find something just as good. Either I just got a lot more picky, or nothing could measure up, because I wasn’t really satisfied with what was out there. Feel free to disagree:

–         The Sword of Shannara: This was a lot like Lord of the Rings, except lacking something (Tolkien’s genius?). I did like some of Terry Brooks’ (the author’s) later books a bit better – The Scions of Shannara and Antrax.

–         The Belgariad: I got a little annoyed at how the plot just made the characters run from country to country mostly just for the sake of describing strange new places. I did enjoy Belgarath the Sorceror though, since it was pretty much a condensed version of the original story. I tried the Sparhawk trilogy by the same author, but it bored me and I never finished.

–         The Wheel of Time: This is a very well-known and popular series by Robert Jordan – but maybe a little too long and detailed (I know, I know, the details are why people like it). I think I reached the fifth or sixth book before giving up, and I was a little tired of the frequent mentions of naked women (???).

I found more children’s fantasy books that I enjoyed, actually.

–         Diana Wynne Jones: This is an author who’s written a wide variety of books all in the fantasy vein. She’s just got absolutely unique plots. She also mocks some of the clichés of the fantasy world, with books such as Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I really loved: Hexwood (somewhat dark), Howl’s Moving Castle and Archer’s Goon (absolutely unique).

–         Artemis Fowl: A very unique hero (or anti-hero, I guess), who steals fairy technology and has to defend himself (a highly original plot). I loved the first two books, and found the series petered out from there, though they are still entertaining.

I have to mention the Chronicles of Narnia here, since they were the first fantasies I ever read and are responsible for sparking my interest in the first place. Puddlegum, in The Silver Chair, is great.

Note: I haven’t posted any of my fantasy writing up here, but maybe that’ll change. 🙂

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Filed under Misc. Books