Category Archives: Book Bite: Petite Reviews

on misfits, loners, and outsiders

I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of James W. Hall’s Hit Lit, but I keep forgetting to grab one. The book analyzes the elements that make bestsellers take off and become successful. According to Hall, there’s a couple of really key factors at play. One of which is that the main character is often a misfit, outsider, or loner.

IRL, these people are typically on the strange side of things. They’re the weirdos trolling internet forums about, say, soil pH levels at three in the morning.  But in fiction, they’re the characters that attract readers. Think about Holden Caulfield, por ejemplo. Book reviewer Dave Shiflett writes that “protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities.” Makes sense, right?

Speaking of misfits – one of my all-time favorite outsiders is actually named The Misfit. He appears in Flannery O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” (That book also has the distinct honor of having one of my all-time favorite least likable characters: the ultra-judgy and hypocritical grandmother whose moral superiority prevents her from begging The Misfit to spare her family as he murders them in cold blood. She is delicious.)

Image by haagenjerrys, via Flickr

Image by haagenjerrys, via Flickr

The Misfit is very complex. This escaped convict brings up religion, guilt, Jesus, and family trauma in the space of just a few lines. He’s in prison for allegedly killing his father, but he says his father died of the flu; then he sends the family off to their deaths out in the woods. My favorite quote of his:

“‘I call myself ‘The Misfit,’ he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.’” (129).

Perhaps he wasn’t originally guilty, got punished anyway, and is making up for lost time?

In the spirit of all things misfit, I’ve come up with a writing prompt for today.

Compose a draft of a creative work where the main character is some kind of misfit, loner, or outsider. Why are they? How did they get there? What are their motivations, and what happens?

Enjoy! Feel free to share it with other readers in the comments.

on friends

Way back in 2009, Jeffrey Zaslow chronicled the lives of eleven childhood friends in a nonfiction bestseller, entitled The Girls from Ames.

Jeffrey Zaslow

Jeffrey Zaslow’s national bestseller

I can’t remember all the similarities four years later, but: These women grew up in Ames, Iowa. We grew up in Easton, which is the home of the pseudo-famous Ames family. We went to Oliver Ames High School. Easton is also where one of the women, Jane Nash, is a psychology professor at Stonehill College. They are a very overwhelming group. We are a very overwhelming group. (We are also lucky because none of us has died, unlike one of the Ames Girls.) There are a million character traits in this book (valuable for any writer) and plenty correspond with our group. They vacation together, which we try to do sometimes, too.

July 2, 2005

July 2, 2005 – Our summer “Capehouse”

On page 98, one of the women, Cathy, says of her friends: ”We root each other to the core of who we are rather than what defines us as adults by careers or spouses or kids. There’s a young girl in each of us who is still full of life.”

Maybe that’s what keeps us so connected.

We learned that it’s hardest for women to stay friends in their late 20s and 30s. So, three years ago, a friend and I came up with the most original idea ever. We decided to start a book club with our friends from high school.

That didn’t exactly happen.

The "ten" of us at my wedding.

The “ten” of us at my wedding.

With our careers, boyfriends, husbands, house-buying, engagements, weddings, babies, and the like, we hadn’t been setting enough time aside for each other. However, because of our busy lives, it quickly became obvious that not everyone would have the time or share the same taste in fiction.

Since no one would ever read a book, it turned into article club  (read: a cocktail club), for the Boston-area members of our little crew. 

We’d grown up doing “potlucks,” and it kind of transformed naturally from there.

200_?

200_?

2003?

2003?

We meet each on the first Thursday of every month, at rotating homes. At the end of the “rotation,” we try to head out to dinner. The month’s host picks out an article that we, as a very tenacious set of friends, can debate.

The requirements of the article are simple: it should be controversial, and capable of inspiring both opinions and conversation. Past topics include assisted suicide, autism, and whether or not teachers should be paid based on merit. In addition, the host is responsible for providing appetizers and a specialty cocktail.

us, enjoying specialty cocktails

us, enjoying specialty cocktails

Most of the time we don’t even talk about the article for longer than five minutes, if at all.

hot messes.

hot messes.

Cheers to my friends: The Girls from Oliver Ames.

girls3As a writer, I count myself very fortune for the intricacies of these friendships. They remind me every day to include the little things, details, and inside jokes within my characters.

We’ve got our April cocktail club this evening! So tell me: do you have any lifelong friendships? What have they done for you?

book bite and author love: lois lowry

There are board books for babies, chapter readers for children, and novels for adults. Often, there’s dystopias, vampires, dragons, pregnancies, murders, love stories, adventures, talking animals, and mysterious strangers, although they’re usually not in the same story.

What about the books that stay with us?

As of now, I write for both children and adults. That means that I read everything from Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody series to young adult crisis stories to William Landay’s Defending Jacob (which I really enjoyed, by the way). The sample feature on the Kindle is a life changer. I study, study, study the greats, and the not-so-greats. I think this, plus physical practice and age, is the only way I can grow as a writer.

With that in mind, I recently read Lois Lowry’s Son, which is the culmination of The Giver quartet. Current unplugged readers know that I love The Giver, as I just revealed it as one of the books I read every year. To a kid with a weird/elderly name (who is named “Joan” anymore?), Jonas was a pretty close match.

The Giver

This is my second copy of the book, which is why it isn’t overly dog-eared. I replaced it about three years ago after my mom’s beagle, Seamus, ate my old one.

I’ve taught it in a couple of my English classes. I kind of fell into becoming a professor, which sounds far more pretentious than I’d like it to sound, when I turned 22. (I still remember applying for my first professor job at my mom’s house. I was recovering from my most recent knee surgery and filling it out in between horror-watching, in a car accident kind of way, Jon and Kate Plus Eight.The Giver helped me connect with my first set of students, and a whole bunch since then.

So naturally, I explained all of this to Lois Lowry in a recent e-mail.

Obviously, one of my idols.

Obviously, one of my idols.

I’m not going to post the full e-mail that I received back from Ms. Lowry, but I seriously almost cried when she got back to me almost immediately. And other than certain shows, nothing makes me cry. Just know that Lowry’s e-mail ended with:

“…And today is my birthday! So your note was a nice gift.”

 And so, onto the book bite.

The Son, Lois Lowry

Fans of The Giver will probably be most fascinated with the first section of Son (which is divided into three “Books”). Book 1 explores the same utopia that we’re familiar with, from a parallel perspective: that of Gabriel’s Birthmother, Claire. It answered many questions I had about the process and were left ambiguous in the first novel.

In Book 2, Claire ends up in an agrarian community and undergoes a transformation that reminds this reader of Jonas’s original journey into the world of color. Very clever, Lowry. We again meet The Trademaster, who readers will remember from The Messenger.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we come to Book 3, where we learn the fates of all of the characters that was left unanswered in The Giver. We learn whether or not Jonas really did hear music and see lights. That’s all I’ll say without becoming a spoiler-monger.

As for theme: there’s the inevitable clash of good vs. evil, but most interestingly, there’s a sense of journey for Claire’s character, as she will stop at nothing to find her son. It’s the mother’s love that was most touching in this novel. I read this novel with a sort of biographical perspective: I know that Lowry’s own son, Grey, was in a tragic accident some time ago and she lost him. I hope that in Son, she was able to heal some of her own mother wounds.

 

on typos, self-publishing, and a book bite

Typos are a part of life. And they drive me insane.

The fact that I’m slightly a head case is pretty well documented, but very few people have viewed my career insanity firsthand. Wrestling with my desire to be a perfectionist makes me wince every time I find one of my own typos.

Spelling things wrong can be cute, of course…

Written by my flower girl. I still hope I chose the rite one.

Written by my flower girl. I love the “have a nice life” sentiment. I still hope I chose the rite one.

Or they can be so hit-you-over-the-head wrong that they become laughable.

Joam might be more popular than Joan one of these days. Who knows? (Also, I’m not a doctor, and that’s no longer my last name.)

Which brings me to my next subject. There are so many advocates for self-publishing now, which is vastly different than even three years ago, when I was finishing up my MFA. I’m not completely cemented on this idea yet, but I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan of self-publishing.

I think that one of the biggest mistakes people make is sending out stuff before it’s ready. This goes for both traditional and self-publishing. With the option to become internet famous at nearly everyone’s fingertips, people jump the gun and too frequently submit things for review that aren’t ready to be submitted.

I can almost always figure out if I’m reading something that has been self-published because of the number of typos. Imagine how bad it is for a publishing company to edit release a book, only to have it be littered with bad writing … let alone dozens of typos. When an author self-publishes something that hasn’t been completely gutted, they’re doing the same thing to their very own brand, right?

Typos are like what my husband and his idiot friends call “go home stains.” They ruin a great outfit.

A serious go-home stain.

A serious go-home stain.

The biggest piece of advice for my students is always to read their work out loud. When I was finishing up my master’s thesis, I read the entire 215-page piece out loud. Paragraph by paragraph; page by page.

Let’s be honest. It was the worst.

It was also by far and away what made the piece more successful.

When something is:

  • a New York Times and USA Today bestselling book
  • on the Amazon “top paid” list for three weeks
  • listed quite cheaply online
  • rated at 4.5 stars by over 500 people
  • discovered at 2 a.m. when I can’t sleep

I might buy it. Which is the case with Wait For You by J. Lynn. And then I might read things like this:

“‘Excuse me?’ Jacob almost knocked over his pyramid of awesome. ‘I’m hot.’
Cam frowned. ‘So I am.’” [sic]

Don’t get me wrong. I am not this novel’s ideal reader. This story has so many elements of a decent novel: a character who deals with something difficult AND makes a transformation. It also has a few colorful, and yet clichéd characters. There’s episodes of sexual tension, which based on books like Fifty Shades of Grey, are capable of luring in millions of readers. (Sidebar: I didn’t like that one, either.) This one is geared toward young adults – actual young adults though, as in college-aged people, rather than the YA fiction that’s out there now.

I’d grade it a C-. Read it if you like romances, but not if typos drive you up the wall.

 

a story about stories… and a book bite about a story about stories.

This post contains my first “book bite,” which is a blurb I’ll briefly review and potentially recommend a book. In this post, I’ll address Jodi Picoult’s new novel, The Storyteller. 

Recently, I attended a forum at the J.F.K. Presidential Library in Boston. At that forum, John Irving, who is my all-time-favorite author, discussed his most recent novel, In One Person, with Boston author Tom Perrotta. (

I’m not ashamed to admit how starstruck I was – but then I got distracted because I thought I saw Jodi Picoult. And then I thought I saw Jodi Picoult leave early.

So of course, I Tweeted her.

There’s probably some kind of scientific study behind this, but if there isn’t, I’m going to say it’s true anyway. My guess is that authors are, first and foremost, the people who are more likely to respond to others via social media. Their medium is, after all, words and language – and thus, computers.

Nonetheless, coming down off of my manic John Irving high and getting a reply from bestselling empress Jodi Picoult will make it to my top-ten favorite parts of my 2013. This is what transpired:

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 1.34.23 PM

I believe in a balanced education when it comes to books, so I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on. I will read bestsellers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, go on to a Stephen King kick (read 11/22/63 – just do it), explore young adult dystopias (Lauren Oliver and Veronica Roth: I’m looking at you), circle back to Betty Smith and Harper Lee, and then read every memoir ever written by hilarious gay men, because I firmly believe that Augusten Burroughs and I are friend soul mates. Last summer, I went on a kick where I read The Paris Wife WHILE IN PARIS, and then subsequently limited myself to nonfiction and fiction books that mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s band of buddies in the Lost Generation. (My husband and I went to Harry’s Bar, and then traveled in style on a train through the French countryside to Nice – with the combination of reading and doing, it was a religious experience.)

Harry's Bar

On the train from Paris to Nice.

Above: On the train from Paris to Nice.
Left: My husband Kevin in front of Harry’s Bar, Paris

 

So, after Jodi Picoult replied to me, I checked on her expansive list of publications and found that there would be a new one coming: The Storyteller.

the-storyteller-395

Photo Credit: http://jodipicoult.com/

Jodi Picoult has a pretty tried-and-true formula. She explores her plot through a variety of viewpoints (and fonts) and then finishes it up with a twist (and, usually, a courtroom scene and/or some kind of arrest). This concept works very well in The Tenth Circle and in The Pact. When I read Picoult’s work, I try to guess the twist. I am very good at guessing plot twists in most mediums – my husband has more than once scowled at me for guessing a line in a show or a movie. I guessed right in this one – I won’t reveal it here, though.

There are really four storytellers here: Sage, a twenty-five-year-old baker who pursues Nazi-turned-beloved-nonagenarian Josef Weber with the help of government official Leo Stein; a flashback series narrated by Sage’s grandmother, Minka, who endures the heartbreaking tribulations of the Holocaust; a more brief history of Josef Weber’s early years in Germany; and finally, an allegorical story written by Minka that is dispersed in italics throughout the book.

By far and away, Minka’s account that paints a grim picture of the horrors of life in Europe nearly seventy years ago is the strongest writing here. Picoult definitely did her research. Minka’s point of view is raw, honest, thoughtful, poignant, and smart. In an interview, Picoult recounts some of her research; the details which she later incorporated into Minka’s story in a very natural way.

In contrast, Sage – her granddaughter – is puzzling. She has a scar on her eye, but as a reader, I can’t bring myself to care about it (or how it contributes to her desire to be alone). Some things in her story are linked very well, including the theme of baking that transpires throughout the piece. Sage is a baker and Minka’s father was a baker, which becomes a model for the allegorical scenes. I appreciate well-done themes.

Ultimately, I’d give this one a B, and call it worth reading. It contains a number of hefty moral dilemmas. Namely: Can you ever forgive someone for unspeakable crimes against humanity? How does one atone for a sin? And, perhaps most importantly… if someone asked you to help him or her die, what would you do?