Tag Archives: books

Don’t Forget Your Library


Writers are supposed to read, right?

And we’re supposed to read widely and prolifically, right?

Here’s the truth: in years past, I haven’t read enough. Not as much as I liked, and certainly not as much as I should. Why? Because books are fraggin’ expensive. And a major commitment. You go and drop forty bucks on a handful of books, not knowing if you’re going to enjoy them. But because you’ve spent the money, you feel obligated to read through the whole thing, whether you’re enjoying it or not.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be buying books. (As a guy who very much hopes you may buy his books when they become available, that would be pretty much anathema.) But for whatever reason, I had forgotten about the most obvious alternative: the library.

My wife recently started her specialist’s program, and had to do a bit of research. So off she went to the library. And because, you know, libraries are good for kids books, she took the kids along, and I went, too. And so I got a chance to browse around as well. And, hey, here’s a John Scalzi book I’d been thinking about reading — I read Lock In and loved it, but wasn’t sure about his other stuff. And there, some Neil Gaiman — somehow I haven’t read much of his work, but I’ve heard very good things. And then over there in nonfiction, a bunch of titles by Malcolm Gladwell — I’ve been listening to his podcast, and it’s excellent, so why not?

I went home laden with a bunch of titles I wouldn’t have read otherwise, feeling basically no commitment or obligation to any of them. Which is really the best way to read a book — with no expectations.

I read a few, and it was good — but I quickly became a little disillusioned. Our local library is pretty tiny, and the selection isn’t much to speak of. But — what I didn’t know until recently is that basically all the libraries in the state are networked, which means that you can browse the entire selection of books in all the libraries (which is quite a lot.) Then, if some library carries a book that your branch doesn’t, you just put in a request and within a week or so, the book shows up at your library.

This changed everything.

I’ve now got a queue of books ten deep and a stack of five or so on my bedside table. I’m reading books on philosophy and sociology and nuclear weapons and all kinds of things that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on before, for whatever reason. (The fact that it’s summer helps.) You might even say I’m reading so much it’s to the detriment of my writing, but that’s a discussion for another time. (It’s easier to pick up and put down a book at will than it is to pick up and put down your novel.)

Point is, I’m shoving words into my facehole at an unprecedented rate lately, and it’s entirely because I’ve rediscovered the library.

So, you know. Visit yours. Check out a book. Learn something new.

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Forgot.


After a really productive, really invigorating session editing the novel today, I turned around and left my reading material at work.

Today was rough. We were up way too late (hooray SUPERCELL STORMS), long day at work. All I wanted was to kick back and read a little. I don’t even read every night. But I really wanted to read tonight.

I NEEDED IT.

TooMuch

I know exactly where I left it. I can picture it, clearly, on my desk. Perched atop a small pile of ungraded papers. Jauntily turned at a thirty degree angle, for ease of picking up and chucking in my bag.

Where it will stay.

Unread.

Blarg.


The Too-Good Book Blues


I’ve just finished reading a book that I’ve had in my “to read” queue for far too long: Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. It came highly recommended from a number of sources, and though I don’t usually read horror novels, I have to say, it’s a hell of a ride. Possession. Fear. Devils and demons. (Maybe? Or maybe not? The book and its main character are kind of agnostic on the point, which is frustrating, but also powerful.) And a blindsiding final twist that doesn’t disappoint.

It’s one of those literally unpotdownable stories that keeps you breathlessly turning the pages.

Which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because it fills my head with all sorts of ideas and aspirations in addition to just being a bloody enjoyable waste of time. Bad because it’s over now, and I have to pick up something else to read, and whether the next tome I pick up will even come close is anybody’s guess.

English needs a word for this feeling: that vague hopelessness you feel after tearing through a proper humdinger of a story, that creeping suspicion that what comes next can’t hope to compare. (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows should get on that.)

In fact, I think it’s partially this feeling that’s had me so on the ropes creatively lately — in addition to the move, which swelled up and rolled out of control like the Thing and, bloblike, consumed my entire summer, I read John Scalzi’s Lock In at the beginning of the summer and it so filled me with this sensation that I couldn’t get interested in reading anything else for about a month. I pawed at Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and it just seemed to drag on. I nibbled on Matt Haig’s The Humans, and, though it’s really very entertaining (an alien puts on a human skin to stop a scientific discovery from reaching the light of day), I just kind of stopped reading it for reasons I can’t properly identify. Nothing wrong with the books. They just didn’t exactly seize me by the lapels.

But Head Full of Ghosts did, and now I have to deal with that. The next book up is Michael Crichton’s Micro, which I bought at the bargain bookstore and have put away 150 pages of in just a few nights. Not a bad start.

And, for that matter, look — it’s got me posting on a weekend again. Maybe the haze is lifting.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Re-Motivator: Bookwise


Books are the lifeblood of the writer. Not just because we traffic in them, But like water, we depend on them. We cannot function without them.

But while water in its purest form is a thing we can’t live without, not all water sustains us. Thirst may be a thing we can’t survive, but if you drink muddy water from a scummy pond, you may soon have worse problems than thirst to deal with. The man marooned on a desert island reaches for seawater to slake his thirst and only hastens his death.

Book, Books, Circle, Curly, Education, Knowledge, Learn

I think part of the reason I’ve been in something of a creative funk lately is because I haven’t been reading as many books — or I’ve been reading the wrong kind of books.

A little while ago, I reached for a book that I thought I was going to love: Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is the author of Gone Girl, which I loved in all its twisted darkness, so I figured another book by the same writer would be a sure thing. So I jumped into the book one night, and I read about twenty pages, and I just wasn’t feeling it. No big deal. I was tired; try it again another night. Tried again a few nights on — still nothing. Thirty pages in, it wasn’t clicking with me.

I should point out that this isn’t a review or an indictment of the book. My wife loved it. But it just wasn’t working for me. Now, I’ve got a stack of books on my bedside table just waiting to be read, but I’m this weird creature. I don’t love reading multiple books at a time. I like to take on one thing, drill through it, and move on to the next. If I read too many things at a time, I get overwhelmed, distracted. Like in that old Missile Defense game, where you’ve got like thirty missiles aimed at your base, and you can only blow up so many of them? That game stresses me out.

My blood pressure is spiking just looking at this picture.

No, I prefer to keep to one book at a time. But I also don’t like to leave things unfinished. So here I was with this book that I wanted to like. But I didn’t like it, so I didn’t want to read it. But because I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t move on to other books I might have liked more. I had sipped from a scum-covered pond, and I was, as a result, not only thirsty for proper, refreshing water, but convulsing with dysentery in the meantime.

The bad book was clogging my system, and it was making me feel unmotivated and gross and even, stupidly, bad about myself. (Why don’t I like this book? What’s wrong with me?)

It sat there on my bedside table for a month, and I never got past page sixty. Shameful! And at the same time, I was becoming creatively blocked, as well. Unmotivated. Uninspired. Unproductive.

I don’t know what caused the wake-up, but one day I finally decided to dump the bad water out the window. I moved Sharp Objects to the bottom of the pile and picked up Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King instead. (Yeah, I know, I should be pulling my reading material from lesser-knowns, since I’m hoping to become a lesser-known myself soon. What can I say. I suck.)

And what do you know? Within fifteen pages, I’m fascinated and repulsed by the antagonist, frustrated and sympathetic to the protagonist, and before I know it, I’m 45 pages in and my eyes are drooping because I’m up way too late.

And — wonder of wonders — all of a sudden, a day or two after I ditch the bad book and pick up the good book, comes the thunderbolt from the blue that starts me off on my newest jag. (3000 words in so far. Not exactly awesome progress, but as I mentioned yesterday, it’s summer, and my Getting-Things-Done-ometer wobbles like a weasel in a windstorm over the summer.)

So here’s a reminder to myself. Read more good books. Toss out the bad books. Stay inspired and keep fargoing writing.

Also: bookwise is not a word, I was disappointed to find out. But it should be.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Terrible Review: The Girl On The Train


I don’t have a ton of time for reading. Does that shock anybody? So my wife and I have had this one on our shelves for several months. Meant to read it — something came up. Meant to read it — wanted to read something else first. Meant to read it — got distracted with a flashy app on the phone.

Well, I finally read it, and I’m mad at myself for putting it off so long.

Here’s the obligatory part of the post where I warn you that I’ve read the book, and it’s hard to talk about the book in depth without spoiling some aspects of it. So: Spoiler Alert. Within I’ll be speaking (not at length, and unspecifically when I can) about characters and developments within the book. If you’re a purist and want to be shocked by everything, this is probably the part where you should stop reading.

What’s Awesome about it?

  • The Buildup. The book starts off slow — almost too slow — but once the inciting incident happens, the tension ratchets up after just about every chapter and never really slackens. The end result is that I ended up reading the last hundred pages of the book in twenty-minute sessions stolen during the same twenty-four hour period. I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
  • The Characters. The story revolves around the (not quite) alternating viewpoints of three women. None of these women is particularly likable, but each of them is undeniably recognizable. Their motivations, their hangups, their insecurities and their suspicions make perfect sense, and I found myself rifling through all sorts of feelings toward each of them. Sometimes I pity them. Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid they are. But always I’m compelled to see what they’re going to do next. That’s maybe the most important part of all this: each character has a very clear role in driving the story forward. Nobody is tacked on or just blowing in the wind like a useless confederate flag.
  • The Conflict. Something terrible happens and our central narrator (Rachel) fears that she may have been involved in it somehow. Problem is, she was blackout drunk the night in question and has no recollection of the events in question. This snarl adds another level to the mystery that’s already unfolding, and of course is a tremendous source of strife for the narrator. I’ll acknowledge that selective amnesia as a plot device would feel like a cop-out, but the blackouts aren’t present merely as a convenience: the narrator is as unreliable as they come. She’s a binge-drinker, and it becomes clear through the course of the story that the crucial blackout is not the only one in her life; rather, they happened to her several times in her life, and were also directly responsible for her shattered relationship (the falling apart of which is the backdrop to the whole story).
  • The Ending. I won’t spoil it, but the end sets you up for such a delightful one-two punch of betrayal and then vindication, it’s almost overwhelming. My wife was getting frustrated with me because I kept gasping and then exclaiming reading the last few pages while she was trying to work. I couldn’t help it. It was that good.

What’s Not-So-Awesome?

  • The Structure. Maybe it’s me, but the novel is awfully preoccupied with dates and I don’t know if it needs to be. Each chapter and sub-chapter is marked meticulously with the date and the time of day (August 13, 2013, Morning), a device which is certainly intended to build together a timeline of events. This becomes “necessary” since the narrative jumps around in time; we have the murdered woman telling swatches of her story after she has already died in the timelines of the other two narrators. Now, I understand that the dramatic tension and reveals achieved this way are a big payoff for the book, and I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the fact that with all the dates heading each chapter, I feel like I should have been taking notes for a test at the end of the book. I don’t know that the events of the story — especially when viewed through the lens of a less-than-reliable, sort of drifting-aimlessly-through-life narrator — call for such specificity.  But maybe that’s just me. End result: I pretty much ignored the dates and I did just fine piecing together the story without them.
  • Red Herrings and Such. At its heart, the book is a mystery novel, so there have to be false leads, misinformation, overlooked clues, and all that. But the main suspect for much of the book is just so obviously not the guy. Over 150 pages are spent trying to convince us that he could be the guy, but he’s obviously not. It felt taxing after a while, to still be going through the motions of investigating this guy who was obviously not the guy. And then the guy who turns out to be the guy, well, it feels a little out of left field, a little too easy, a little too neat. But again, that might just be my cynicism acting up.

What’s Hard to Quantify?

  • There is no hero. Yeah, we’re in the age of the anti-hero, where the protagonist has to do horrible things to win the day. And while I’m not saying there’s nobody to root for — clearly we hope that Rachel manages to pull through her troubles — it’s hard to get behind any of them. Rachel’s a drunkard and a total sad-sack living in the shadow of a broken marriage. Anna’s an adulteress who’s overly hateful of the woman she wrecked home on, and becomes increasingly suspicious and distrustful of her adulterating husband. Megan’s perhaps the easiest one to like, until you find out that SPOILER ALERT she’s responsible for the death of her own child. I just find it hard to hope for good things for any of them, though it does get revealed that Rachel’s problems were not entirely of her own making (as she seems to believe toward the beginning of the book).
  • Moral Ambiguity. It’s hard to say if Rachel causes the events of the book or if she just blunders through them, but what’s clear is that the story wouldn’t have happened if the narrator had kept to herself. Since her own life is in the crapper, she lives vicariously through the anonymous people she sees on the train, and that’s what sets things in motion. Whether the novel suggests this is a good thing or not is unclear: the murder gets solved because she sticks her nose in, but she also causes a world of hurt (for herself and the other characters — up to and possibly including actually playing a role in the murder herself) by sticking her nose in. The moral of the story is, then, either get involved in the lives of those around you, or don’t. I think you could make a compelling argument either way.
  • Looking inside the heads of women. I would need to hear from female readers on this, but if women in real life think the way these women do, then it would benefit guys to read this book. Because wow. The way they draw connections between events, the way they read between the lines of everything that’s said, the way they think about the men in their lives… men are toddlers, living among evil geniuses.

Okay, so, this review is by no means exhaustive, and I don’t want to spoil the book any more than I have to, but suffice to say, I got through it in four days. That’s pretty fast for me, and it speaks to the readability of the book. The tension is there; it hooks you and yanks you along like a guppy on the line.

All that said, the book does a brilliant job of romanticizing the everyday. The book is centered around trips back and forth on a train — a more mundane premise you could not imagine. But what’s mundane, just like in real life, quickly transforms into something much bigger, much more consequential. Things, in other words, always mean things. It accomplishes all this, however, with very straightforward, unembellished language. No purple prose here, no artful application of metaphors and comparisons or allegories. The writing is simple and straightforward, which, again, makes it very easy to read.

I pointed out some good and some bad, but who am I kidding: I read the book in four days, which is almost unheard of for me. The bad stuff, I feel, is largely subjective, and what bothers me might not bother you. The book is solid. It’s surprising. It’s satisfying.

You should read it.


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