Saturday, April 18, 2015

In Defense of Sad Endings

Author Linda L. Zern shares some passionate thoughts in defense of sad endings:

"I wrote a book with a hard ending.

Mooncalf is a work of historical fiction for middle grades. It is set in the mid-60’s, halfway between the assassination of President Kennedy and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. America was racing the Russians to the moon. Skirts were short; hair was long. Schools in Seminole county, Florida, were still segregated.

After reading Mooncalf, one reader told me, 'I liked Olympia and Leah so much. I just wanted them to go off in the orange grove and start a babysitter’s club.'

Spoiler alert: That’s not how it ends.

Comments from readers have included:

'I cried.'

'I was so angry.'

'I was crushed. You warned me, and I was still crushed.'

'Shocking.'

'It didn’t have to end that way.'

One young woman refused to read the book, having heard that it had a sad ending. She doesn’t do sad endings.

As an author, I sometimes wonder if I should have softened the blow, written a happier ending, given the readers a way to dream away the reality, but then I listened again to my readers. Tears. Anger. Shock.

I knew then that it was exactly as it should be.

In the world of my childhood, little girls of different colors did not go off and organize inter-racial glee clubs. We learned the hateful lessons our adults taught us and we cried."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mooncalf
Mooncalf: Book Trailer
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reflections: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a masterful work of non-fiction exactly because it intersects so movingly with works of fiction.  If the book were written as a standard autobiography it more than likely would have focused on names, dates, and strictly adhered to a rigid chronology.  Reading Lolita in Tehran, however, is not a standard work of non-fiction; it crisscrosses several genres, and in so doing places itself apart from other works of non-fiction as a memorable, personal, and moving book. 

The element which makes Reading Lolita in Tehran so unique, its literary criticism and exploration, is also the element which threatens to make it the most inaccessible to readers.  Nafisi's commentaries on Nabokov, James, Austen, among others, are thoughtful and at times esoteric, at least for the non-literary crowd.  I haven't read Nabokov, which actually was a barrier of entry for me to actually pick up Nafisi's book.  There were only a few pages in the book in which I felt like an uninvited guest, as if I had stumbled into a literature class and had no idea what everyone was talking about.  The feeling evaporated quickly, though.  Luckily, Nafisi spends a lot more time weaving the ideas of her favorite literature into a social commentary of living in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Reading Lolita in Tehran is gripping.  It's so hard for me to visualize a place which is so oppressive, especially in regards to some of the smallest and most petty behaviors--a strand of hair out of place, painted fingernails, pink socks.  It's unfathomable living in a society which in many ways flaunts sexuality.  The insights gained from reading this book are priceless.  It's hard to not see people in a nation as one homogeneous group.  Reading this book gives the reader a perspective on individuals rather than on national or global events, although there are some allusions to them but it's always in the context of what it does to individuals; what is it like to be a woman in Iran?  What does frustration look like for them?  What are their passions and interests?  And how are they suppressed both by the regime and by their own complicit actions?  The book offers glimpses and reflections that are both inspiring and disheartening.

When I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan I kept thinking to myself: "Why would anyone stay there?  Why not pack up your things, your family, and your pride and leave?"  Reading Lolita in Tehran is another testament to the power of the idea of home.  Even with the nearly unendurable hardships faced by people in Iran, most of them stay.  They want to reform their home if it's broken, not abandon it.  Deciding to leave an oppressive State may not be as easy as we would like to believe.  There is a loyalty which seems to grow in people for their homeland, hometown, whatever.  This hearkens back to the importance of fiction and literature so as to understand places that are not your homeland and people who are not a part of your tribe.  The small group of women who were a part of Nafisi's reading group show how fiction can impact the heart and the mind but may or may not motivate the feet. 

I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran as much for its commentaries on fiction and literature as I did for its commentary on the Islamic Republic of Iran.  There are dark places and dark people in the world we hope we only have to visit and meet in fiction, but there are a lot of people who live and try to thrive in a world which should be fictional, at least from my sheltered perspective, where the great debates of humanity are the most brutal and bloody.  (Azar Nafisi's book is also a great reminder that freedom can be lost anywhere regardless of a nation’s current strength, past successes, or its longitude or latitude).  I would classify Reading Lolita in Tehran as a sticky book; in other words, the subject matter, the experiences, and the words stick with you; they linger with you and inevitably affect you.  They certainly did me. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Why I Read
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories
3 Rules of Book Etiquette

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reflections: Ender in Exile


Orson Scott Card has a good gig.  He has been writing about the same characters and essentially the same conflicts for decades.  Although some authors may tire of spending so much time in the same setting and with some of the same characters, Card seems to be perfectly content and is willing to explore the most obtuse and banal motivations and circumstances his characters can experience.  And me?  Yeah, I'm okay with it too.

In my reflection of the last book I read in the Enderverse, which was First Meetings, I wrote: "Jumping back into the Ender universe is a little like going home."  I still stand by that having read Ender in Exile.  Yet, a book like Ender in Exile, in my opinion, doesn't really have any need to exist.  Card insists in his afterward that the book was needed to tell the story of the soldier, Ender Wiggin, after the war.  Ender's struggles in this book, however, aren't that much different from his struggles in other books.  Furthermore, Card sets up some fairly bland conflicts.  Fumbling Admiral Morgan barely represents a threat to Ender and the entire duel of wits lacks any real sense of suspense.  In addition, the majority of the book surrounds that stand-off; it's a lot of wasted time.  Ender in Exile probably would have been better served as loosely connected short stories which deals with some of the key events, to wit: Admiral Morgan, reaching the colony, discovering the Formic's message, and Bean and Petra's lost son.  A few of the characters, such as Alessandro or Dorabella Toscano, don't really have any reason to exist.

Card's signature psychology and historical commentary is on display here.  From a science fiction standpoint, there are some interesting things to be found.  I was especially intrigued by the exploration of the idea of colonizing new worlds and all that it means for the generations of human beings involved.  Card, being a student of history, doesn't treat these ideas flippantly, and I appreciate the thought and reasonable conjecture he instils into this book.  (It was from an afterward that Card wrote that I learned about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel; agree or disagree with Card, he is working with established ideas and projecting them into the future).  Like in other Ender books, the constant psycho-analysis between characters can become tiresome, but it's a well-established theme throughout each of the Ender books. 

In the final analysis, I liked Ender in Exile fine, but it's not a particularly strong addition to the canon.  This is now the 11th book I have read in this series, and I have a few more to look forward to.  And I do look forward to them for whatever unexplainable reasonable.  With so many books and so many authors in the wild to enjoy, I'm not exactly sure why I keep coming back to the Ender well.  Regardless of whether I figure it out or not, I'll be back to take another drink and more than likely enjoy the taste just fine.

Other Topics of Interest:
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terrible Reality
Reflections: First Meetings in Ender's Universe
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Reflections: Steve Jobs

One of the things Steve Jobs is known for is his piercing stare.  As a young man he fine-tuned and perfected the ability to stare at someone without blinking as a way to intimidate them into doing what he wanted.  (The cover of Steve Jobs's biography has a portrait of Jobs with what appears to be that glare, and if you really focus on it you may get a small glimpse of what that stare must have felt like in person).  That odd trait also illustrates the incredible focus Jobs had as a visionary and businessman.  He was indeed brilliant and shepherded new products that have had an incredible impact on the entire planet, but he was also a bulldozer who trampled those around him to achieve his goals.  Reading about the life of Steve Jobs will both leave you in awe and with a bad taste in your mouth.

Steve Jobs the biography is the best business book I've ever read.  I have tried on several occasions to read business-oriented books, such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Wisdom of Teams, and Who Moved My Cheese?, and have always walked away feeling somewhat disappointed.  Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, however, puts on display a business leader who showcases some of the best business acumen ever known, as well as someone who was a nightmarish manager who prided himself on having no filter.  He was the embodiment of unrestrained honesty.  He saw the world in binary terms.  Products and people were either brilliant or sucked.  (Steve Jobs often used more colorful language).  It's incredible how much there is to discuss and debate in this book.  It should be required reading for anyone wanting to learn about business, marketing, and consumer products.  Furthermore, Steve Jobs the biography provides a wonderfully intimate and honest glimpse into the world of corporate CEOs.

As much as we can justifiably admire Steve Jobs for his contributions to the human experience, we are also faced with his glaring frailties and weaknesses.  Steve Jobs the biography appears to be a honest rehearsal of who the man really was, warts and all.  (I appreciate this because I have read other biographies that appear to be far too sanitized and subsequently lose sight of what makes their subject interesting).  He could be incredibly cruel to people, including his own family.  He was inconsiderate and brutal in his evaluations of others; yet, he also drove people to accomplish things even they didn't believe they could.  That was part of his genius.  Some of those who worked for and with him came to appreciate and value that.  Others were just left behind.  Perhaps just like the people who associated with him, I found myself both loving and loathing Steve Jobs, sometimes from one page to the next.  He's worthy of admiration in some ways, and unworthy of imitation in other ways. 

Steve Jobs the biography caused me more reflection of my own life and contribution than perhaps any other book in years.  Especially as Steve Jobs gets close to the end of his life, he, as well as the reader, begins to ponder about their legacy, what they're leaving behind, and what's most important.  The book causes introspection, self-evaluation, and probably some self-correction.  This was one of the best biographies I've ever read.

This is a great book.  It's compelling, fascinating, and, at least for me, motivational in a way I was not expecting.  One can learn a great deal from Steve Jobs's life, as much about what to do as what not to do.  And if you can learn from that, then Steve Jobs's impact in your life will extend beyond the consumer products he helped design, create, and make a part of our every day life and experience.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Too Big To Know
Thousander Must-Reads

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reflections: The Westing Game

The Westing Game is a wonderful book if you're intrigued by mysteries, especially those of the less bloody or violent kind. I enjoyed The Westing Game in a superficial way and was perfectly content in allowing it to take me along on a topsy-turvy and unique adventure and spend it with some equally unique characters. Yet, in the end, I didn't exactly understand the point of The Westing Game and, frankly, why it, both the titular game and the book itself, exists.

To begin with, Ellen Raskin should be commended for the characters she has created in this book. They are all far more developed, in small and memorable ways, than many characters in other books ever are, even with a great deal more time to be developed. I remembered the characters, which is a signature accomplishment. (Although, I will say that reading The Westing Game in only a few sittings is probably the best option since it could be very easy to lose track of events after a moderate lapse of time). As wonderfully distinct as the characters are, some of their motivations seemed a little suspect to me by the end of the book.

I liked The Westing Game far more than I didn't; however, it has, in my opinion, a singular flaw. I don't know why the game itself exists. It's a fun ride, but is that the main reason? The book dances around a possible reason for the game, but the game seems so elaborate and so complex that I couldn't help but think there was an easier way to accomplish it. Why the secrecy? Why the MacGuffins and distractions? The book is intended for a younger audience which may not care nearly as much as I about such an element, but it nevertheless left me puzzled. (Perhaps that's the point?).

I think aspiring mystery writers could learn a thing or two from The Westing Game. It leaves an effective path of bread crumbs which eventually culminates into a reveal that isn't earth-shattering but isn't obnoxious either. To use a trite phrase, The Westing Game is good, clean fun, even if the fun doesn't have much point outside of itself.

The Westing Game won the Newbery Medal in 1979.

Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads Vol. 2
What Should a 9th Grader Read?