Why I Don’t Trust My Own Opinion

or, Why I’m bad at writing book reviews.

Books belong to their readers. – John Green

The writer side of my brain loves this quote.  It means that you, as the reader of my words, can interpret those words in any way you like. And that is absolutely fine with me.  In fact, I find it incredibly flattering that my lowly words would inspire a unique thought someone else’s brain.  Wonderful!

But as a reader, I’m not so sure I like the idea of taking ownership of thoughts inspired by a book.  Ownership implies responsibility, something I strive to avoid, constantly.

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I recently joined in a discussion about art appreciation and said: I find it easier to understand what I’m looking at if I know what the artist was thinking or feeling when they created the art. I have a really hard time forming an opinion about a painting or a sculpture when I don’t understand anything about its creation.  Is it good or bad? I have no idea.  Did the artist work really hard at it, or did they knock it out in an hour or so? Did the artist feel like it was the best thing they’d done, did they fill it with a decade’s worth of pain and angst?  If I don’t know anything about the creation of the art, how can I judge its worth?

The same is true, to an extent, with books. Books are easier to like or dislike because the elements inside are easy for me to pick apart. However, I still have a terrible time putting those feelings into words.

Who am I to voice an opinion? What do I know?  How can I know enough about the story to write anything meaningful about it.  I wasn’t there during its creation.

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Many years ago, I took an online creative writing class. One of the assignments was to write a review of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  I hated the story, and I hated the assignment.  Maybe because the experience was mostly anonymous, I never saw the teacher face to face, and maybe because I was angry, I threw out my uncertainty and I ripped it to shreds.

The teacher loved it.  She said it was the best review she’d ever read. Obviously, I didn’t just write the words “I hated it.”  I wrote carefully and thoughtfully, knowing I was going against popular opinion. I put a ton of effort into digging deeply and writing specifically about what I disliked.  I must have read that story backwards and forwards a dozen times to do what I did. What inspired me to that level of effort?  What enabled my honest feelings? Was it simply the anonymity of the situation?

I’ve never really been able to do it again.  (go ahead look at some of the reviews I’ve written on this blog – they’re pretty awful.)

I stumbled upon the following Tumblr post:

wittneyhancockisatlarge
Ok so I’ve been thinking about a thing John Green has said a few times.

“Books belong to their readers.”

While I understand the sentiment, I can’t help but vehemently disagree for a couple reasons.

1. Does anyone remember how Horton Hears a Who was used as pro-life propaganda? And Dr. Suess’s widow had to come out and basically say fuck you because pro-lifers were actually completely wrong? Books belong to their writers.
2. Y’know how words mean things? And when you put words into sentences, those sentences mean things? And how if someone decides that sentence means something that it actually doesn’t, that person should be corrected? Sentences belong to their speakers. Books belong to their writers.
3. Y’know how the guy who invented the .gif came out and said “it’s pronounced jif”? But we’re all like “no fuck you it’s totally gif”? Words belong to their makers. Books belong to their writers.

That is all.

This is an interesting (if poorly written – but that’s Tumblr for you) thought. The first and third points are specious, but number two is worth thinking about: “Sentences belong to their speakers.”  I think therein lies my problem.

A book is a whole.  And I can easily say, as a whole, I liked or didn’t like a book.  But it is down at the sentence level that I run into trouble. Do I really have the right to express my opinions of the thoughts or feelings contained in a sentence?  What if, as wittneyhancockisatlarge says, I decide “that a sentence means something that it actually doesn’t,” should I be corrected?  What if an author or a ‘qualified’ expert says to me, “I (they) meant it this way,” and that changes my entire experience of the book?  What makes a qualified expert and why do I feel so unqualified?

But is it a better, more valid, understanding?  I think John Green would say no.  In order to get any meaning out of a book, you must put meaning into it.  The reading of a book is a deeply personal experience.  You bring with you only your perspective, only your experiences.  My reading of this book at this moment is an intensely unique event. When I read a sentence and it sparks a thought, that thought cannot be wrong.  It is my thought.  My feeling.  It is real and therefore true.

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If I write any reviews for the books on my September reading list, I will try to remember that my feelings and opinions are valid, I am the qualified expert on them after all. But, if I decide to share those thoughts with the world, I must put in the effort to prove their worth.

Re-Re-Read

English: Illustration by Hugh Thomson to Jane ...
Illustration by Hugh Thomson to Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, ca. 1894. Mr Collins protesting he never reads novels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revisiting a beloved book is like going home after a long journey.  My own life experiences in the interim color the familiar words on the pages, reanimating and enlivening the familiar descriptions and characterizations.

I know these characters and I miss them if I am gone too long.  Yes, the journey they take never varies, and yes, I know it all turns out well in the end, but that does not in any way diminish my enjoyment of the shared experience.

Lizzie Bennet always ends up with Darcy, but that knowledge, knowledge that Jane Austen had herself by the way, only makes her harsh treatment of him in the beginning of the book more amusing.

In Dave Duncan’s A Man of his Word series, the main characters end up happy and healthy and even married at the end of the fourth book.  The trials and tribulations they encounter prior to that resolution define the people they become.

It is like thinking back on your own life and remembering the decisions and choices that lead you to where you are now.  With hindsight, it is easy to see why you did what you did, even if at the time your lack of full knowledge hampered your decision-making process.  In re-reading a well-known story, I can see, with further clarity each time, how the writer crafted the hurdles to form the characters final incarnations, just as I can see how the person I am now is directly correlated to the person I was then.  By analyzing and revisiting the past, we learn and practice for the future.

However, the best reason for re-reading a book I love is to learn how to write like that too.  Many manuals on the writing process advise wannabe’s to copy passages of writing they admire, to learn how the authors did what they did.  Re-reading these books has taught me that the writing I admire most focuses on character development.  And I think you will find in my writing an emphasis on character, perhaps to the detriment of setting or scene.

When I re-read my work, after time apart from it, I want to feel the same sort of familiarity laced with new revelations that I admire so often in other’s works.  Maybe by reading Pride and Prejudice for the billionth time – something of Jane Austen’s incredible characterization skill will finally sink in.

Title: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I just finished listening to Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin on Audible.  I will talk about the book in a moment, but first I want to talk about the voice of the book, Alex Jennings.

Alex Jennings is one of those English actors that you’ve seen a million times, but never remember.  His list on IMDB is long and varied as is the list of his theater work in London.  A search for his name on Audible brings up 68 titles.

(An aside… Is it just me or does it seem that British actors work a lot harder than American actors. When an American becomes a famous actor, it seems they get a pass to put their feet up, feast on caviar and champagne and wait for brilliant roles to fall in their lap. The more famous a British actor becomes, the harder they seem to work.  It is as if they take their jobs a lot more seriously than our actors do.)

There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mr. Jennings voice, but it is most decidedly male.  You’d think it shouldn’t matter that a man reads a book written by a woman about a man, but it does.  Every once in a while the tone of the words being said and the voice saying them become discordant.  It knocks the listener right out of the flow of narrative and into a sort of nether realm where you think, for a moment, that the English language has shifted slightly and left you behind.  (Did you ever see the Twilight Zone episode where that happens?  Scary.)  This mostly occurs towards the end of the book, when Ms. Tomalin’s real obsession comes clear.

You see, I believe that the whole reason Ms. Tomalin wrote the book just so that she could gossip about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan.  Am I exaggerating a little…  Maybe.  (Ms. Tomalin did write another whole book about Nelly after all.)  The part about Nelly Ternan is the only part where the author shows any passion about her subject. And that is where the voice/words weirdness comes in.  She wrote that part of the book like gossip over a fence, “so and so said this, but so and so said that, and who knows what really happened, wink wink,” but when read by a renowned British actor, in that polished english accent, it sounds absurd.

I know, I am really awful at these reviews.  I did enjoy the book – I listened to the whole thing.  I’ve only read a few of Dickens’ books, I mostly find them dull, (the only book I really like is Nicholas Nickleby but I do like all the movies made from his works.) but Dickens did have a truly interesting life.  Should you read this book?  I don’t know – do you like hearing about the intimate details of the life of a writer who died a hundred and forty years ago?  I did.  But I’m weird like that.

Luckily for me, so is Claire Tomalin.  I think I will read her book about Jane Austen next.

The Bear in the Boat

Who determines what a child’s favorite book is?  What if the child finds more joy in the enthusiasm of an interested parent than in her own selfish desires?

My mother told me I was a wonderful oldest child because I always enjoyed the accomplishments of my younger siblings.  I found true joy in their joy.  (I still do)

So when my father tells me my favorite book was The Bear in The Boat, by Ilse-Margret Vogel, who am I to argue?  I don’t remember the book very well, but my father does.  Even now, almost forty years later he can still recite at least the first few pages by heart.

Was it really my favorite, or was it his?  And did I ask for it over and over again because I loved the enjoyment I heard in my father’s voice as he repeated the nonsense lines or because I truly liked the silly story?

I don’t think it matters.  When I think of the answer to the question, what was your favorite bedtime story, this is the title that pops in my mind.  And all the reasons for that response are good ones, even if they aren’t about me at all.

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PS. Rara did her’s a day late so I am too.  So there.

PS. Again – Now I’m going to have to read all about Ilse-Margret Vogel – She and her husband were artists living in Nazi Germany during the war. She wrote a memoir – but it seems I’ll have to go to the library to get a copy…  I want electronic versions of everything! 

Title: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

Cover of "And Another Thing... (Hitchhike...
Source: Amazon

The full title is actually: “And Another Thing … Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Part Six of Three”  If you are living under a rock and know nothing at all about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you should be able to discern the type of humor contained within the pages just by re-reading the last four words of the full title.  Go ahead… yeah – not a typo.

The world lost a wonderful source of laughter in May 2001 when Douglas Adams died of a sudden heart attack. But luckily for us he wrote lots of good stuff before he died.  And books don’t disappear when their authors do, which is really nice, don’t you think?  Douglas Adams wrote five books in the trilogy and left the last one on a bit of a cliff hanger ending.

Sort of.  Or not at all really.  Actually, it was a rather definitive end. One where everyone died, and so, you know, that’s it.

But HGTTG is the kind of book where, when you turn a page and read that the last twenty pages, where everyone died, were part of a dream, you think to yourself, oh, well that’s nice, lets keep going then, shall we?

And that is exactly how Eoin Colfer starts off book number six of the trilogy, published in 2009.  Adams’ publisher and his widow hired Colfer for the job, noting that Adams himself had always thought book five had ended on kind of a downer.  Of course a few purists complained. They always do.   But as Colfer said in a 2008 interview, “You’re not actually messing with the original books. You’re just doing a highly publicized bit of fan fiction.”

I only just read it now because, well I’d forgotten about it.  And then Google did the Doodle for Adams birthday last week and I said, hey – I think there was a sixth book I never read…  so I read it. And it was good.*

The front cover of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's G...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you like that sort of humor.

Which I do.

Here is a test to see if you will like it. Please read the following aloud and note your reaction:

  • Gazing up at a god’s crotch can do wonders for a person’s lack of low self-esteem.**
  • A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.***
  • There is no such thing as a happy ending. Every culture has a maxim that makes this point, while nowhere in the Universe is there a single gravestone that reads, He Loved Everything About His Life, Especially the Dying Bit at the End.**

If any of those lines made you chuckle – then go read the whole six book trilogy – I promise you are in for a treat you can enjoy over and over again.  If however, you did not find the lines funny, perhaps you should have a doctor check to see if your brain has been removed without your consent.   And if you are now utterly confused, suffering from a blinding headache or feeling dizzy, stop reading this immediately and go back to enjoying your Twilight fan fiction – you’ll be happier in the long run.

* I’m really crap at book reviews
** From And Another Thing…
*** From Mostly Harmless

Title: Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Title-TuesdayPern is a world where telepathically bonded humans and dragons battle with a mindless spore that has an insatiable appetite for all organic life. The first few books of the series introduce the readers to the centuries old conflict amid the trappings of a feudal society through the lives of the planet’s leaders.  The books fit nicely inside the Fantasy Fiction genre.

But then things get a little more sciency. It happens slowly, a hint here or there as a few of the main characters, contrary to non-curious previous generations, decide to dig a bit, sometimes literally  into their planet’s past. The readers trail along as one discovery after another reveals the forgotten origins of Pern.

And then we come to this book, Dragonsdawn, one of my favorites of the series. It can easily be read as a standalone novel, but a large part of its charm is the way the author ties the present era of the previous books to the 2000 year past of this one.

Cover of "Dragonsdawn (Dragonriders of Pe...
Cover via Amazon

Turns out Pern was settled by a bunch of humans from earth who arrived in huge colony ships that are still orbiting the planet.  Turns out they didn’t know about the life eating spore when they picked the planet to move to.  Turns out the dragons are totally bio-engineered from a native species of flying lizard to help the humans combat the deadly spore when it arrived and killed off a bunch of the settlers.  Bam! – take that fantasy genre! Now the books are classified as sci-fi.

The so amazing part of this genre transformation is that it very clear that when the lovely and talented Anne McCaffrey sat down at her kitchen table back in the late sixties to write the first Pern book, she had no thoughts of sci-fi at all.  Well, I don’t really know that – she might have had an idea way back in her mind, but the first three books at least read as straight fantasy.

I love Anne McCaffrey for many reasons. Her greatest skill as an author is in her ability to create characters that you really care about.  In a way similar to Dave Duncan, who I wrote about last week, I re-read her books to reunite with old friends.  (Their writing styles are different, McCaffrey summarizes parts of narrative to move the story along which can feel jumpy, whereas Duncan’s stories flow at a smoother pace.  McCaffrey’s female characters are more believable at times, and she has more of them in heroic roles.)

I highly recommend this book.  It is a fast read and there is something exciting happening on every page. Although you would enjoy it more if you read the six books that precede it first, it works well enough on its own.

Title: Magic Casement by Dave Duncan

Title-TuesdayI want to convince you, yes you, to read this book.  I don’t care if you’ve never read a book in the fantasy genre before, and I don’t care if you think it is a kids book just because it has a princess on the cover.  You have to read this book because this book will teach you about love.

I have read this book about twenty times in the twenty five years since I first bought it.  I’m not kidding.  No, it doesn’t change every time, and no I’m not really finding new things every time I read it.  The story isn’t that complicated.  I keep going back to this story and the people in this book for the same reason I travel long distances to see my family.  I miss them.  I just want to hang out with them for a few days, to live inside their world, to watch them struggle and deal with each other and life and love and death and sorrow and joy.

Cover of "Magic Casement (Man of His Word...
Cover of Magic Casement (Man of His Word)

This book is the first of four books in the series, A Man of His Word.  Well, actually there are eight books. The second group of four books take place about sixteen years after the events in the first four.  I don’t even need to talk about the rest of the series, because I know that if you read the first one, you wont be able to stop.

I wrote about Dave Duncan and Love in an earlier post, but I want to reiterate, I’ve never encountered an author so well versed in the varieties of the love we humans express for each other.

So what makes this book so great?  I have no idea.  When I figure that out, I will apply it to my own writing and I will become a best selling author.  I believe the only reason Dave Duncan isn’t better known, is because he has stayed inside the fantasy/sci-fi genre his whole writing career.  I read his books over and over, and I still can’t figure out his secret for creating incredibly real people. I mean people who you know so well by the end of the book, you feel like you’ve known them forever.  His language isn’t fancy, the plot isn’t all that dramatic, the setting isn’t mind blowing.  It is all very simple really.

Maybe that is the secret.  That if you pare down all the fluff around the story, and just concentrate on the core – the people – you have the energy and time to make living, breathing characters.  Keep it simple, and let the characters tell the story.  Maybe.

All I know is when I am feeling lonely, all I need to do is pick up this book to feel like I am surrounded by friends.

Title: I’m a Stranger Here Myself

Title-Tuesdaypineapple

When I grow up, I want to write like Bill Bryson. I love his tone, I love his insatiable curiosity, and I love that he lives in England. Not that living in England has anything to do with writing. I’d just like to live there some day.

I’ve read almost all his books. The ones I didn’t read, I listened to. I listened to a Short History of Nearly Everything twice because I know I missed a bit the first time through. The important bits like… how gravity works. (Knowing how gravity works is not supposed to be a requirement for walking without tripping over invisible rocks, but it can’t hurt, right?)
I have just re-read I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. It is still funny, even for now sounding a little dated. He at one point goes on about telemarketing as if it is a new thing, and I really wonder, haven’t they had telemarketers for as long as they have had telephones? But you have to forgive him because even though he is an american, he’s spent the majority of his adult life overseas.

coma

This book is a collection of essays he wrote for an English newspaper over a period of eighteen months while back living in America. While he does spend time poking fun at our odd American habits, like driving everywhere, for the amusement of his English readers, throughout the essays there is a sense of nostalgia for the things he’s missed:

skunk

He attributes much of his writing skill to his time working as an editor for a newspaper, that paring down other people sentences gave him the ability to write with concise clarity. But he also weaves subtle humor through every sentence. You don’t even realize that you are being led to a punchline until it hits you. Always when I’ve just taken a sip of milk, of course. My day is not complete until I’ve had milk shoot out of my nose from laughing. And that is something Bill Bryson would completely understand.

 

Title: Guns, by Steven King

I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man, help me understand.
Depeche Mode, People are People

In a strange sort of coincidence, as I was reading a review of Steven King’s Guns (kindle single) the Depeche Mode song, People are People popped up on my Pandora 80’s Pop Radio station.

The chorus seemed to work in direct contrast with the words, “Steven King Don’t Know Shit” that I was reading on my screen.  People read, and hear, what they want to hear and read.  The reviewer said that Steven king was ‘trashing our 2nd amendment.’  In fact, Steven King doesn’t even talk about the 2nd amendment in his long form essay.  Instead, he says keep your hunting rifles and your hand guns.  Those aren’t the weapons used in these horrific mass killings.  He’s only talking about eliminating the ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ the ones with tens of rounds.

Seriously – just answer this question: If you want to keep a gun in your home for ‘self defense,’ how many bullets do you need to kill an intruder?  One or two is probably going to do the job.  I’m sure we can all agree, thirty rounds is a bit of an overkill. (pun intended)

That is all Steven King is talking about.  If any of these mass murderers had to stop and reload after eight rounds or so, it would give some brave soul the time to stop them.

While my opinions are different from Steven King’s, the essay was excellently written, thought-provoking, and, I think, fair and balanced.

About the format: if you don’t know about the Kindle Single, you are in for a treat.  (I often think, that for as much time as I spend siting in front of this window to the world, I am actually living under a rock.)  I thought Kindle Singles were just self published books.  They are not.  They are, as Amazon puts it, “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length” and are ‘published’ by Amazon.   Not sure about the ‘compelling’ part, but I like the natural length part.  No longer do ideas of ‘unnatural length’ have to hide away in unread magazines or over-priced compilation form. Now with the beauty of the E-Book, they can be enjoyed and read just like their short story and novel length siblings.

And they’re cheap!  Guns only cost me 99 cents. I suspect it will cost you the same amount too.  Awesome.

Most of the non-fiction-essay-genre that gets published in old-fashioned book form these days takes an extremest position.  It makes sense: if a publisher wants to make a lot of money, they have to do so with bold, headlining, obnoxious statements. The great thing about the Single and other e-book formats, is that it costs almost nothing to distribute.  An author is free to write something more reasonable and still get it out there. And everyone makes a profit.

Steven King is a great author and a highly empathetic man.   He exudes honesty in everything he writes.  In Guns, he takes all sides into consideration, and he falls only slightly left of center.

No matter which side of the gun issue you are on, if you are willing to read thoughtfully, with an open mind, you will enjoy Guns.   And perhaps if we all read more books like this one, we could have more reasonable discussions on the issue.

Stephen Donaldson: Introduction

This is the way I remember it.

I was fourteen years old, we were down the shore and my uncle was visiting. He was in his mid-twenties or so. He might have been married to my aunt by then, but she doesn’t figure into this memory.

My uncle took us to the used book store. It was my favorite thing to do on that island full of scratchy sand and stingy salt water. At that used bookstore down the shore, you could buy books for a dollar. One Dollar! I didn’t care that they were used, that just meant that I didn’t have to feel guilty about breaking the spine or getting food on the pages. I didn’t just read books, I devoured them. I flew through them like a tornado. Ripped pages, chocolate fingerprints, cover pealing off. A book never quite recovered from my reading of it.

My mother paid pretty close attention to the books I read. Up to that point, it was mostly young-adult, and a few fantasy books by authors like Piers Anthony and Terry Brooks. They hinted at sex the same way soap operas did, with a lot of groping and moaning but nothing that would lift the veil from my naïveté.

My uncle, probably as naive as I was, didn’t think to question the suitability of my choice when I asked him if I could buy the book with the bright orange cover and the drawing of a man raising his arms to a glow of light on a curved bridge. He probably thought it was religious. The synopsis on the back cover hinted at the story of a man who is sick and finds himself healed in a magical alternative-reality. And how this man will use the power of a ring to fight off the bad guy.

Stephen Donaldson – Lord Foul’s Bane

Sounds a bit like Tolkien, right? And everyone, especially my uncle who was a teenager in the seventies, knew about Tolkien. There was nothing bad in Tolkien. Cute little hobbits and grizzled old wizards. No sex or drugs or humans being evil to other humans. Things you might want to keep away from the mind of your innocent, young niece.

Lord Foul’s Bane, book one of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson, begins with the hero raping an innocent, young girl.

Ok, it doesn’t immediately start that way, but by the time the rape occurs, I had already learned more about human misery and the crushing sadness of despair than I ever wanted to know. When Covenant rapes the poor girl, the reader is not surprised. Covenant does almost nothing good or kind for himself or for anyone else throughout the entire three books of the initial series. He was my first encounter with a true antihero.

This book, which I still have, was my introduction to real, grown-up books. Where not only did bad things happen to good people, sometimes good people did bad things. Piers Anthony and Laura Ingalls Wilder would never again satisfy my newly matured mind. I had seen the power of the gray side, and I would never go back to the black and white worlds of clear cut good vs. evil.

Stephen Donaldson is at his best when writing about the dark side of human nature. If you can handle it, read his Sci-Fi books, the Gap Series. They are harsh, difficult books to get thorough. I have read the series through more than once, and I might do so again.

But only if I am sitting on a bright, sunny beach with loads of happy people around me to deflect some of the despair.

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