Thursday, October 24, 2013

"But you were dead."

"Death can not stop true love.  All it can do is delay it a while."

One of my biggest pet peeve's with writing these days is the overuse of character death in order for us to supposedly feel more deeply for a situation, character, or the novel as a whole.  On the other hand, one of my favorite ability of authors is to seamlessly bring a character back from the great beyond.

Death certainly brings powerful emotions into play.  





All of these things surround death and can pull characters and readers in a myriad of directions.  Authors can therefore use it purposely to create all of these situations.  We have school shootings that bring about sympathy and regret at thoughts of wasted lives and what ifs.  Deaths of young people with egregious diseases brings frustration at our inability to fight these monsters.  But how and why should death be used?

I find that if I only care for a character because they have died that the author has been unscuccessful.  Using death successfully means I need to care enough for a character or story that I believe without that character the story will lose its way.  I stopped reading The Fellowship of the Ring in seventh grade because Gandalf died and without Gandalf my seventh grade mind was simply not interested.  I probably would have stopped reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan dies, but it was being read to me, so luckily I was able to see his rebirth.  I was able to get through Rowling's deaths simply because I needed to see the septet through to its finish.  But she walks a razor's edge here with all that fail to make it to the end of both Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.

I guess authors may believe we care for characters before they kill them off, but my cynicism tells me this is not true most of the time.  Death comes to so many because the author is hoping to up the adrenaline and tear jerking hormones in our veins.  

That being said, Sanderson successfully bridges life and death with his character Firefight.  He created a pathway back from death because the story would fall apart without that character.  They were too vital to the story.  Too integrated into the fabric to be removed.  What a triumph! I love it when this happens.  I love it when as a reader I know the character isn't going to stay dead.  I love it when you read on through sheer force of will because you know there is a twist that is coming that will change all that has come before.  

These characters move mountains.  They change stories because they are the story.  They are the heroes.  They have looked death in the eyes and not faltered.  They are just too strong to be removed from the world in which they live.

Wonderful writing Brandon Sanderson! I had stopped reading Robert Jordan's story because I thought that the death of Mr. Jordan created the biggest cliffhanger in many a year, but Sanderson's masterful style needs to be explored in those last novels of the Dragon Reborn series.  

I guess Sanderson has a knack for picking up characters or entire stories that we though might be dead.

Thank you for your mastery!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I read an early review of this that called it a utopian novel.  I have been completely saturated by all the dystopians and haven't been able to read one for a couple months, but a utopian gave me pause and I decided what the heck.  And I am very grateful that I did!

I thought the writing was brilliant at times, but it was the idea that really brought me around.  I understand the value of dystopian novels, find a flaw in our society and highlight it, so that we can recognize that it exists and hopefully begin the discussion about how to make it better.  The problem is, I don't think we always get to the 'how-do-we-make-it-better' discussion.  And then we are left with readers empathizing with characters in terrible situations.  While this empathy has value, we as a society need to spend more time on constructive plans to make things better.  

We need to develop visions of our future, so that it is better than the world we inherited.  Maybe this is why our government can't move forward with anything.  They certainly know what is wrong, but nobody can figure out how to make it better.  This is about how we think.  It is easy to see the problems.  The football faithful call this 'armchair' quarterbacking.  The rest of us use the 20-20 hindsight phrase.  As a people we can critique with the best of them.

"You should of done this!"

"Why didn't you try that!"

I mean really.  We are willing to tear decisions people make apart.  Our talk shows allow us to focus on a decision someone made and then more often than not we begin our witch hunt.  I know people make stupid decisions, and I am by no means exonerating all of the bonehead decisions, there is a reason I like the 'Darwin Awards'.  But, give me a break! Like you could of dropped a robot on the surface of Mars that can do geological surveys.  We do impressive stuff as well.  Amazing stuff!

I think it is that forever entrenched news argument, that the news people still don't get.  That is, why not report good news.  News that makes us wonder what could be.  What world we could live in if we work hard to get to that understanding.  A world of utopias, not dystopias.  A world where bad ideas are accepted as unfortunate mistakes that we correct as quickly as possible and move forward.

This is somewhat idealistic.  I mean look at Fukushima.  But let's start with small things, like the bad pass your quarterback made or the wrong turn your friend made to get to the park.  People, for the most part, believe they are making good decisions.  Utopias shed the same light on society's problem, just in a more positive way.  In a utopian novel, the problems with our society have been solved, so they can be looked at in a different way.  A way in which there is a path that could lead to a solution.  

That is what we are after.  A solution.  That is why we spend so much time in school.  We are learning that it is a solution we are after, not simply highlighting what is wrong.

Great stuff Janet Edwards!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The dystopian nature of Charbonneau's writing might make you glance over the poignant theme as you sink your teeth into the more meaty aspects ... crumbling society, small town love in the face of everything, and can the world be saved.

But it is the title of the first and second novel that lead me to believe we are dealing with a writer who has pondered education and what education should and should not be about.  And that was what I ended up paying attention to and why I made this book a Community Book Discussion book at our high school.  

How high stakes have we become in our methods to find the best of the best of the best?  Because it is definitely true that only people who know how to find the curvature of a certain line should become doctors or ... excuse me.  When did we leave, "Plays nice with others" behind for these more cognitive skills.  There needs to be a balanced caring human being behind the engineer.  Why exactly did we think that playing nice with others wasn't a baseline skill that all people should have.  Lawyers that can create rules for all people need to be understanding, compassionate people.  They might not understand homosexuality or be part of a minority, but they better be able to listen to folks that belong to those groups. Whether they believe in homosexuality or not, they should at least be able to listen to someone who is trying to communicate to them that homosexuality isn't a disease or a choice or whatever other crazy notion the Defense of Marriage Act people believe.  How can you make a law when you don't understand the people whose lives would be changed by the law?

It's not that I don't like school.  I was a kid that loved all the testing because I did really well on them.  But testing with the goal of finding the best of the best is wrong.  Testing should be designed to make all students achieve more and become more of the person they want to become.  Students should try to do their personal best.  Not some state accepted 'best'.  And certainly not the 'best' that asks a student to believe their best is acceptable at the cost of their classmates happiness, let alone their classmates' lives.   

Empathy is a trait that many have left behind through the trials and tribulations of our high testing society.  Charbonneau makes that loud and clear.  Independent Study is the title of the second in the series.  It's not a flashy title, but I like that she thinks this is where education should be headed.  My favorite teacher in my life was my fifth grade teacher who was all about independent study.  Self directed learning makes a lot of sense.  I am anxious to find out what the title of the third in the series is and where she hopes to push those who are listening to her narrative on education.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

This has been recommended by many teens across the country.  I hadn't read any of the recs, so I was surprised to find that it was a thriller with a science fiction setting.  While the story was fine, definitely a European style of storytelling, I was disappointed.  I thought science fiction might have fiinally landed with the current generation of teens and to find out that science was just the stage, well, I am still waiting for science fiction to make a big splash.  

Harstad certainly had the right storyline to interest teens.  So, I wonder if he had told it a different way would it have been popular? He could have explored deeper characters each with a love of science in some way.  Instead he just killed off characters and created suspense.  

What is the science fiction that will capture this generation the way space travel and robots dragged the minds of so many in the 1970s?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Upside Down and Turned Around

I am having trouble believing Benioff's book, City of Thieves.  In the first forty pages his main character, who has just been arrested by the Soviet military police, begins daydreaming about the girl he sees while being interrogated by a Soviet general.  Call me crazy, but I think your mind would be in a different place in this scenario.  

That being said, I love books that don't add up.  I mean take Narnia for instance.  When Peter challenges Miraz in Prince Caspian we all believe completely that he will be victorious.  So why not have a young man who has been caught stealing from a dead German soldier be allowed to focus on a girl instead of the cold, the hunger, or the pain that he is in.  

The sanctity of the Holocaust.  

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas goes as far as you can without being offensive.  I guess when you are doing historical fiction you really should remember how painful the time you are talking about is.  If Narnia had seen the deaths of thousands of unicorns and talking horses over one brief period where Miraz had reigned, well than that might be off limits as well.  

I don't know.  These stories do provide hope.  That is what it is all about.  Hope in the face of brutality. It is a delicate balance.  What can we think without being disrespectful? And why not add a little hope to a bleak story.  Maybe, somebody did get to have a piece of cake during the Reign of Terror.  Maybe someone did get to meet a beautiful young girl.  It is certainly a slippery slope.  Thanks for that perspective Benioff, reading the truth is a little too painful.  

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is truth.  It is cold and the prisoners are hungry.  And those two things follow the prisoners every day of there ten or twenty-five year sentences.  They count the days.  Every slow day.  Every slow minute while the cold bites into you and hunger gnaws at your stomach and sanity.  

Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops - at all

-Emily Dickinson

Sometimes flying far above the awful truth is the only way to hear it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Definitely a good read.  Well deserving of the Printz Award.  I just don't know how readable it is for high school students? I really wish he would have incorporated what happened to the Haitian community during and after the earthquake.  Did any light shine through?  Lake was in darkness for the most part, but did have many metaphors with words that conjured some light.  I like the metaphor, but the uprising of the slaves felt a little distant from the earthquake.  The view into Haiti's slum is powerful by itself.  I think Lake masterfully tied all the strings as close together as he could, but there was just a bit of a disconnect.  I guess that was supposed to be the spiritual voodoo part, but I didn't love that.  As a person who wants to believe in that kind of connection, I was sorry not to feel intrigued by the Haitian history.  

The rest was good enough to write down some of Lake's thoughts:  

See? I've been in darkness before.  Maybe I wasn't shot in the arm, but in the heart and all this hell ... Papa's murder ... where I'll always be ...

Really good! Thanks Nick Lake for one of the best books of the year!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Amazing! Better than Little Brother.  Doctorow uses the world of technology, again, this time to delve into the world of labor unions, workers' rights, and factories throughuot Asia that pay their workers obscenely.  Egregious working conditions created deep empathy and made rich characters.  The gaming aspect drew me in, just like in Little Brother.  Once again, RPGs (Role Playing Games) are vital.  They allow for miserably paid workers to begin to organize.  It's not just workers though that begin to organize, gamers do as well.  

And then the gamers begin to control the games.  The value of swords and shields.  Getting on to the next level.  All of it.  And then they begin to influence the world outside of the games.  This was the bit that got my imagination going.  I finished Ready Player One in the spring and Doctorow's novel goes hand in hand with that one.  What is the value of this virtual, role playing game world? How far should we let ourselves live in that world? Can we 'live' in that world? What would that mean? Can we become the people we always wanted to be? Or do we lose ourselves a little bit? So many questions for this world that is just over the horizon.  This world is coming, the biggest question isn't will it change our society, but how it will.

The empathy for those working in Asia was coupled with embarrassment for what we Americans demand each day when we rise from our beds.  No matter how you slice it up, we are responsible for those working conditions.  It is a weak argument to say that those countries should have better labor laws.  It is 'Nike' logos burned into peoples arms, not Li Ning.  Those factories might be in other countries, but those are our factories.  Those are our shoes being made.  And that is our footprint burned into the workers bodies.

The lorax already warned us that Thneeds are destroying the Earth.  Now we can see them destorying people.  Not just those with burns on their arms, but those being filled with the need to succeed no matter the cost.  The need to nickel and dime.  The need to have what your neighbor has.  There are ugly, ugly characters in this novel, but it is the good ones that I will remember for a long time to come.  How many will I remember from this book in ten years? It could be a half dozen.  That doesn't happen all that often.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

As a big fan of Lemony Snickett, I decided I had to give this a try.  That coupled with the fact that it was the January Community Book Discussion at our high school got me to continue reading after being slightly disappointed with the first several chapters.  It seemed 'common'.  Whether or not it will be memorable in my mind in a year or two is still unclear, though I think it will be, at least attached to the name, Lemony Snickett. As our discussion played out I began to focus on the most telling part of The Bad Beginning and all the Snickett files.  It was the characters' backbone or lack there of that is maybe the most memorable part of those tales.  Certainly we wonder why there is no one around to help the children.  Is there really not one single adult willing to stand up for them? Willing to not only believe they are in trouble, but able to do something about it

It took several chapters, but eventually I began to see this similar theme in Why We Broke Up.  Handler, not Snickett, puts us back in the same place.  A situation where we seem to be stuck due to characters that aren't willing to stand up for themselves or their friends.  We arrive in a relationship with a boy who is a complete idiot, and we end up enduring the relationship because we are not strong enough to stop it and our mother and friends can't make us see how harmful the relationship is or at least will be.  

The book began to make me draw lines in the sand.  Where am I willing to go? What am I willing to say for a friend? How loud am I willing to shout to stop a behavior that just isn't right? And if my voice isn't heard amongst all the insanity that we call mainstream culture, what am I willing to try to do to stop all that insanity? Am I willing to write a book? Am I willing to start a website called, The Why We Broke Up Project? How do we help people from engaging in harmful relationships? How do we help them get out? When do we develop enough character, a loud enough voice, that we can clarify situations for ourselves and our friends?

Lines in the sand can be easily erased.  Sometimes they probably should be.  But sometimes we need those lines to guide us.  Lines that help us help the Baudelaires.  That's what those lines are about.  Those lines can guide us when there are too many voices to hear clearly.  Those lines allow us to stand when we can't think.  Those lines enable us to go in the right direction.  Those lines spoke to us and are important to us for whatever reason.  We should listen to those lines.  They build character.  Give us voice.  Characters that people want to befriend.  Voices that people will listen to.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

We have come to the point in our history that the Trekkies (Star Trek lovers) have long since known as one of the most poignant times in human civilization.  It is the time depicted in that science fiction when the world has a choice to allow information to be free.  Why would we do this? Why allow everyone equal access to ancient texts and modern manuals? The answer is rather simple and in science fiction it plays out that free information is able to create a second Renaissance.  A time when innovation is unrivaled because there are countless more minds allowed to use the information that we as a society have compiled.  

Imagine the original, state of the art thinking with access granted to all.  Millions of minds all working together to figure out the puzzle.  Little nuances that people outside the field might add to the thought process.  In Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch he argues that peoples indigenous to Central America might have better been able to repel the Europeans if they had worked together to create things like larger ocean going vessels.  He suggests that a tribe that had good boat design but no metal work couldn't create a ship large enough to go far to sea.  But, a neighboring tribe, that did have the metallurgy necessary to allow for the strength needed to create larger framed boats, working with the first tribe, together would have been able to create boats to repel Europe's navies. 

It is a simple thought.  But it is a thought that has been proved true time and again.  Work together and prosper.  The BBC published an article recently by David Keller ( that shows there is at least one library director thinking in this forward way.  Keller quotes the Cambridge library director in regards to making Cambridge's collection available to all:

"We want to share these treasures with the world.  We want to be surprised at what people do with it and the discoveries that are made from it.  We want to advance scholarship, research, and teaching and we want this to be used and enjoyed."

The second in a long line of Renaissances is upon us, let's ride this wave!  The Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has a beautiful slogan outside it's library that says, "Free to the People".  Let's live up to that.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I posted on Illyria not too long ago, but had to add a little bit more from Elizabeth Hand's newest,  Radiant Days.  Her language is a joy to read, tantalizing senses, imagination and that romanticism that stirs inside us when we read Shakespeare.  Each word accompanies the others on the page in a dance that takes several reads to fully appreciate.  Here are just a few of those moments:

"As if someone else, something else, moved there unseen"

"In love as in theatre, I had never had any magic"

"True, I never flamed out, and I never shone the way my cousin had, not even for a moment"

"Carpets in their muted colors, unfurling across wooden floors, white lace curtains in the windows, wisteria blooming on the porch outside and the echo of footsteps on the stairs above" 

"when the entire house seemed knit around me"

"Stars seemed to stir in the wind"

"I didn't want to touch that painting, I wanted to be in it"

"Dieu me conduisse"

Her character may not have had any magic, but Ms. Hand's words are soaked in that stuff that turns zephyrs of wind and clouds into ancient creatures that gave birth to our legends and stories of times long gone and places we may never find.

A sincere thanks! That was an amazing read!

Friday, January 4, 2013

I read Octavian Nothing a few years back and didn't think it was that strong of a novel, especially with all the hype it was receiving.  I think the folks that were trumpeting it along had certainly read Feed and understood Anderson's ability to communicate ideas through voice.  In Feed, Anderson successfully created a voice of an average teen in a decadent culture where corporations rule and priorities have long since been focused on superficial things.  

Feed made me rethink Octavian Nothing.  Before I thought the novel vague, never really creating a picture that was detailed enough to fully understand what the storyteller was trying to communicate.  Now I see that Anderson doesn't focus on creating a story so much as allow his characters to use their voices.  This allows readers to see the world through the character's eyes.  This might mean that we see a world that we don't fully understand.  This is precisely why I didn't like Octavian Nothing, the storyteller didn't understand the world he was in and so he was often confused.  This made the reading hard at times, cryptic even, but it created a very real character.  A character that couldn't understand slavery.  A character that couldn't understand hate and the subjugation of a people. 

I really found that perspective amazing.  To not understand hatred, subjugation and slavery is a wonderful idea.  It is a kind of revelation that steels the heart, allowing us to believe in the goodness of the world.  What does it mean that a child can not understand the depravity of men? That men have gone so far away from the way we think as children, that they can no longer be understood.  It brings hope and light to the darkest of subjects.  

Slavery? What's that?