Amanda Gates
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A Musings - November 2007

I wanted to comment on the post my friend Willikat made on my previous entry. She mentioned she used to think that Picoult's books may have been "supermarket" reading - you know, cheap romances, thrillers, nothing too substantial. I'm also hesitant when it comes to these uber-authors who can write so many books so fast. I mean, James Patterson (whom I've never read) writes at least two books each year, if not more. But I read that he writes with a partner - someone who can take Patterson's outline for a story and fill in the rest. Other examples include Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi, etc.), another author I've never read, or Patricia Cornwell (I've enjoyed her Kay Scarpetta novels), Janet Evanovich (I read through Seven Up before the Stephanie Plum series got old for me), Stephen King, etc. These authors are different than the J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee-types who write one or two great books in a lifetime. Right?

Picoult actually has a very interesting podcast on her Web site titled "Literary vs. Commercial." She talks about the difference between the two types of books: Literary books get reviewed by the The New York Times, commercial books top the NYT Bestseller list; literary authors get nominated for national book awards, commercial authors may not get awards, but they make lots of money; literary books make you think about them long after you've read them, commercial books are forgettable; and so on.

Picoult talks about the day she realized she was considered a commercial author - with her books stacked to the ceiling at B&N; or on the grocery store shelves - and not necessary a literary one. She talks about her struggle with this: should she be happy she can pay the rent, or disappointed she's not considered a literary gem that all the critics are talking about? The podcast is only six minutes long and definitely worth a listen if you're interested in this type of thing or aspire to be a writer yourself. (Her other podcasts are also interesting: her own son being bullied in school inspired her to write Nineteen Minutes.)

I think Picoult is actually the perfect mix of the two. She's commercial because her books sell like hotcakes and she probably makes the big bucks. She's literary because she's well researched, discusses important issues and I'm still thinking about several of her books months and years after I read them - especially My Sister's Keeper and Nineteen Minutes.

Your thoughts? Who are the "commercial" authors you can't help but love? Who are the "literary" authors you feel don't get enough publicity? If you aspire to be a writer yourself, what type would you want to be?

Posted: Wed, 11/28/2007 - 02:17 | Comments: 1

One uber-author (one of those authors who can crank out books nearly every year) of whose novels I've read quite a few is Jodi Picoult. On her Web site she says she can write a book in nine months - she doesn't know why it takes her the same amount of time every time, but it does. I enjoy Picoult's books because they usually surround a controversial issue with a story about love and family. She puts an incredible amount of research into her stories, so that while they are fiction, everything that can be is factual. Plus, her books are fast reads, they sweep you up from the first page and they're nearly impossible to put down. Here are the five Picoult books I've read so far, in no particular order:

My Sister's Keeper: This book looks at the issue of a family with a child with a devastating, life-threatening illness. When the child is diagnosed, the parents have another child immediately in the hopes of producing a genetic match and in turn helping to cure this disease. What ensues is a lifelong battle for this new child, a battle between being poked and prodded every time her sister falls ill again and the hopes of being just a normal kid. The book alternated between voices of both sisters, their parents, the brother and the lawyer who the youngest hires to sue her parents for the right to her own body. This was a heartbreaking story that really had me thinking about some ethical issues. (Movie News: Dakota and Elle Fanning have been cast to play the sisters and Cameron Diaz has been cast as their mom in the soon-to-come movie of the same name.)

The Tenth Circle: A father who illustrates comic books from home, a mother whose college professorship brings her closer to student then it should, and a daughter, Trixie, who learns what it's like to be in love at 14 and what it's like to have your heart broken, too. Trixie finds herself in violent situation and her father, a normally mild-mannered man, reflects back to his difficult childhood when he tries to protect her. The Tenth Circle looks at teenage angst, racial stereotypes, broken marriages, drug use and sexual violence, all in one household - a household that could be thought of as normal by anyone. One of the most unique features of this book is the mini comic book that runs throughout. I'm not a comic book fan, but I definitely enjoyed this aspect of the book. (Fun Fact: Because the comic feature was so cool, after this book was published, Picoult was asked to scribe the latest Wonder Woman story.)

Salem Falls: Jack St. Bride was wrongly accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of this high school students and serves time in jail. When he's released he tries to start over in Salem Falls, a tiny New Hampshire town, but once the citizens, in particularly one disturbed 17-year-old girl, find out about his past he find a whole new set of problems. This book brought on that struggle readers sometimes face when we know a character is innocent, but no one in the book does. You just want to scream at them!

Vanishing Acts: 32-year-old Delia learns that what her dad has told her about her mom and their life together isn't all true. In reality, her father kidnapped her from her mother when she was too young to remember. But was it for the right reasons? That's the issue readers have to figure out. Both this book and Salem Falls have several scenes that take place in prison. It's horrifying to think about what goes on in prison (especially to the men who shouldn't be there in the first place), and Picoult brings it all to life - just another aspect of life I'm sure she had to greatly research.

Nineteen Minutes: This story surrounds a school shooting. It looks back over the lives of some of the parents and kids who were involved in the shooting, sometimes from 15 years out. This was a very interesting book in that it looked at how it could be possible for good parents to raise a child who ends up shooting up a school - and how they may not even see it coming. Many of Picoult's books have a bit of a surprise twist in them, but this one had the most shocking one of all. I usually see these things coming, but I didn't until right before she let her readers in on it.

Posted: Tue, 11/27/2007 - 09:04 | Comments: 2

Here is the sequel to my top pick of a few post ago, Shannon Olson's Children of God Go Bowling. I waited in great anticipation for this book, as it was delayed being published. While I've yet to write a novel, I can only imagine how hard it is to do. And then to have to come up with another one just a few years later? Well, I can understand the delay. But, it was well worth the wait.

We rejoin Shannon in her mid-30s, still struggling with the same issues of the previous book. She has yet to find a boyfriend, yet all her friends have paired off and have started to pop out babies. She still does her laundry at home. Instead of peeking in on her sessions with her counselor, we now take part in group therapy with her (a suggestion from the aforementioned counselor). The characters in group therapy with her are just who you'd imagine, and the sessions play out as scenes in a movie might - the passing of the tissues, the breakdowns, the snide comments, the reprimanding from the group therapist. But at the end of the day, this mess of people, who only know each other because of group therapy, really help each other. Shannon's inner thoughts on the group rank right up there with some of the funniest things I've ever read.

The title of the book is a reference to something someone in her group therapy session said about the sport of bowling. It seems most people bowl pretty poorly. So, no matter who we are in our everyday lives, when we bowl together, we're all on an even playing field. Or, in other words, God loves us all equally.

Shannon also makes a reconnection with a college friend, Adam, who is also single in the city. Maybe Shannon has been setting her sights too high and has missed the laid back, silly, lanky, kind-of-cute friend who has been in front of her ever since freshman dorm life? Things don't work out that way, but Shannon and Adam do experience an emotional road in the end.

This book includes the same humor that I loved so much in Welcome to My Planet. However, it reaches a little deeper than the previous book. Through her sarcasm and self-deprecating manner, Shannon is forced to deal with some very adult emotions and experiences, and watching (reading) her struggle through it and make the decisions she does is emotional for the reader as well. When I read this book in 2004, I learned what life might bring in the future. And now, nearly four years later, I've experience some of the the same things Shannon did. Maybe I wasn't that much better prepared for it all, but I do think her story helped. It's amazing to me how books can do that.

(Sara L., I hope you're bowling strikes right now. We miss you.)

Posted: Mon, 11/26/2007 - 05:21 | Comments: 1

My hubby pointed out to me today that Amazon just released Kindle - its electronic reader. Because I can't say it any better than the Web site itself, here's what it offers (directly from Amazon):

  • Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.
  • Simple to use: no computer, no cables, no syncing.
  • Wireless connectivity enables you to shop the Kindle Store directly from your Kindle—whether you’re in the back of a taxi, at the airport, or in bed.
  • Buy a book and it is auto-delivered wirelessly in less than one minute.
  • More than 88,000 books available, including 100 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers.
  • New York Times® Best Sellers and all New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.
  • Free book samples. Download and read first chapters for free before you decide to buy.
  • Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • Top international newspapers from France, Germany, and Ireland; Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and The Irish Times—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • More than 250 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics, including BoingBoing, Slashdot, TechCrunch, ESPN's Bill Simmons, The Onion, Michelle Malkin, and The Huffington Post—all updated wirelessly throughout the day.
  • Lighter and thinner than a typical paperback; weighs only 10.3 ounces.
  • Holds over 200 titles.
  • Long battery life. Leave wireless on and recharge approximately every other day. Turn wireless off and read for a week or more before recharging. Fully recharges in 2 hours.
  • Unlike WiFi, Kindle utilizes the same high-speed data network (EVDO) as advanced cell phones—so you never have to locate a hotspot.
  • No monthly wireless bills, service plans, or commitments—we take care of the wireless delivery so you can simply click, buy, and read.
  • Includes free wireless access to the planet's most exhaustive and up-to-date encyclopedia—Wikipedia.org.
  • Email your Word documents and pictures (.JPG, .GIF, .BMP, .PNG) to Kindle for easy on-the-go viewing.

Sounds pretty slick. It's probably not for me for a few reasons, two being: 1) I'd miss looking at a physical book, and because I'm in front of a computer all day long, well, looking at another similar device during my leisure time doesn't really appeal to me, and 2) The ability to buy most any book for under $10 at anytime right at my fingertips - well, that just spells trouble. And an empty bank account. What do you think?

[UPDATE (Dec. 19, 2007): Here is a review of the Kindle (and Sony Reader) from the Pioneer Press.]

Posted: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 08:10 | Comments: 2

The front page feature of the Star Tribune discusses our nation's reading habits. The National Endowment of the Arts released its latest study that says book reading is falling by the wayside. If you don't want to click through to the story or the report, here are some of the facts:

  • Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
  • On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.
  • Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

(UPDATE Nov. 21, 2007: Another article to read, if interested, from MinnPost.)

In general, we're not reading as much, and we're not reading as well. I find this astounding. I believe it - college freshman are not prepared for college reading, and that only continues the vicious cycle into adulthood - but it still upsets me. I'm as big of a TV fan as anyone, maybe bigger. And yes, many of my nights are spent in front of the TV for three hours of my favorite primetime shows. However, I would be lost without being able to escape in a book. I love my lunch break for the 45 minutes it gives me to read, and my bus ride for the 20 minutes each way it gives me to read. If I didn't have this time during the day, I would make time.

Now, the Strib article looks at both sides. Is the NEA getting worked up over nothing? While there's a decline amongst book readers, that doesn't mean they're not getting their reading time on the Web and are really learning through electronic means, such as blogs, Second Life, CD-ROMs, etc. However, I still agree with the NEA in that Web-based reading can't compare to reading a novel or a textbook. Reading practice, especially through the developmental adolescent stages, makes you a better reader in the end. I used to be a slow reader in elementary school and I was embarrassed by it. When I started to read for fun - reading Babysitter Club and Sweet Valley Twins series so quickly because I couldn't wait to get the next one - my reading for school only improved. I could retain information faster, read my homework faster, in turn getting my homework done faster. This skill helped me greatly through high school and college.

I worry that kids (and adults) who get their reading from the Web have shorter attention spans, making reading for school, work or even for leisure that much harder. And in turn, not fun. Reading is supposed to be fun! Some of my best moments come from reading: waiting eagerly for Harry Potter books over the years and then consuming them as quickly as I could; being wholly surprised about liking a book I never thought I would (Frankenstein, thanks to freshman Lit); having mini book clubs with my girlfriends discussing the Traveling Pants series, even if we're a bit too old for them; and all the laughter, tears, confusion and epiphanies that have come from reading.

I do agree with the article that reading books and Web-based learning do have to go hand in hand now. Kids have to learn how to navigate cyberspace, learn the difference between trustworthy sources and crap, and learn how to participate in conversations started by their peers on blogs and wikis. But hopefully future generations won't forget what a new book smells like and how satisfying it is to shut the back cover after you've read that last page. Your thoughts?

Posted: Mon, 11/19/2007 - 09:06 | Comments: 1

It's time to make mention of my most favorite book of all time. Shannon Olson spoke in my Creative Writing class my freshman year of college.It's time to make mention of my most favorite book of all time. Shannon Olson spoke in my Creative Writing class my freshman year of college. We had a sample of her writing to read before she spoke, and I loved the chapter so much, I went to the bookstore and bought Welcome to My Planet and read it in a day. Like a nerd (but a cool nerd), the day she spoke, I asked her to sign my copy.

The main character, Shannon (it's a novel, but Olson readily admits that many situations are pulled from her own life), is nearing 30 and reexamining her life. (Maybe she's reaching her quarterlife crisis or her Saturn return, as mentioned by Willikat?) We learn about Shannon's neuroses, her love life (mostly gone bad), her friends, her boss, her nameless counselor, and my favorite character, her mom Flo. Shannon is a blond haired, blue eyed, St. Olaf grad (probably the only Catholic at St. Olaf by the way) from Chaska, Minn., and she's oh so relatable, especially if you're a 20-something female from the Midwest. Her mom is our mom, her mess ups are our mess ups. The story follows her through this time in her life - going back to school, moving in with a new boyfriend, breaking up with said boyfriend, her relationships with her siblings (who seem like our siblings). Her sarcastic, self-deprecating humor made me laugh out loud so many times. So many times during the first read, and then all over again in the dozen or so times I've reread this book. It may sit on my shelf for nine months to a year, but I always pick it up again, because it just makes me so happy. There's no huge climax, no huge resolution, no life-changing moment in the book, but that's why I love it so much. It's real - and life is like that.

Her follow up, Children of God Go Bowling (which I'll write about at a later date), was the hardest book for which I ever had to wait to be published. And it delivered. I can't say it's better than Welcome to My Planet. But, it's equal. And this one makes you cry, too. Which for me, more often then not, makes a book grand.

Posted: Thu, 11/15/2007 - 04:39 | Comments: 2

While I'm a couple days late, I'd like to make mention of a book in honor of Veteran's Day. I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in 11th grade English, I believe. If you're unfamiliar with O'Brien, many of his books - novels, memoir, etc. - are about the Vietnam War. The Things They Carried is a compilation - memoir with bits of fiction, in my opinion, though it says "novel" on the cover - of short stories about Vietnam. However, the stories follow the same men of Alpha Company, so the book feels very connected throughout. Some stories are told in present-day Vietnam, while some are flashbacks from 20 years later.

O'Brien's storytelling is mesmerizing. The short story that stuck with me the most, and that I still think of to this day, is "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." Located in a "safe" place in Vietnam, one medic decides to bring his girl over from the States to stay awhile. Picture this prim and proper teacher in her sweater set arriving in Vietnam. She takes to the daily routine, joining in the fray and even becoming friendly with the neighboring Green Berets. Crazy things unravel - she chops off her hair, goes on secret missions, kills animals - and let's just say she's never the same again.

The other stories tell about the pressures, boredom, anger and angst that these soldiers faced during the war. While these stories are fictionalized, I'm sure their feelings and experiences are wrapped in truth. I think it would be really hard to make that stuff up completely.

What books would you recommend for Veteran's Day?

Posted: Tue, 11/13/2007 - 02:50 | Comments: 2

On MinnPost today, I read a wonderful story about Jon Hassler, author of such best sellers as Staggerford and A Green Journey, not to mention the young adult books Jemmy and Four Miles to Pinecone (both of which I read when I was younger and loved). I also wrote a paper on Grand Opening for my 10th grade English class. His books line many Minnesota shelves I'm sure, including my mom's. He's one of the greats from our region.

I didn't know, however, that he's suffering from a Parkinson's-like disease which affects his speech and mobility. Imagine how hard it is to write books when you can't write, type or speak well. The writer, Dave Wood, describes Hassler's daily life - of which writing is very much a part - and his selfless, caring wife and "helper." It's a great story of focus and perseverance.

I also want to give a shout out to MinnPost. Started just last week, this online and print publication is composed by many writers familiar to we Twin Cities dwellers. Many are former Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and City Pages reporters who were bought out, asked to leave or got out just in time when our big newspapers went through several months of turmoil and turnover recently. I'm so pleased to see their names in print again and look forward to reading what they have to say.

Posted: Mon, 11/12/2007 - 07:24 |

Since my good friend willikat made mention of it in her comment on my previous post, I thought I'd write about The Lovely Bones today. Willikat mentioned it was one of the books that gave her a powerful reaction - sadness. I couldn't agree more.

This is a haunting tale about a young girl, Susie Salmon, who is murdered, but her body is never found. She tells the story as she looks down from heaven, watching over her family. I enjoyed the image author Alice Sebold painted of what heaven may be like to a 14-year-old girl. In my heart of hearts, I imagine heaven is different for everyone - it's how you want it to be. Besides the fact that she was abducted and killed, the story was also sad on so many other levels: Susie's struggle with all the things she'll never experience (boyfriends, driving, high school, etc); watching her family grieve and her parents drift from each other; and wondering if her killer will ever be caught.

Not to spoil the story for others, but I have to tell of probably the most heartbreaking, but also heartwarming, part of the story for me. As a person who had a dog for 17 years of her childhood, I've often imagined what "doggie" heaven is like. Well, when Susie's childhood dog passes away, and she hears his chain jingling toward her in her heaven, and he jumps on her lap and licks her face... well, I have goose bumps and tears in my eyes right now. It really moved me. It still does.

Next year brings The Lovely Bones the movie, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Mark Walhberg and Rachel Weisz. I'm anxious to relive the story through the movie. I know not all movies live up to the books - and I'm sure this one won't either - but I have a good feeling about it.

I also read Sebold's first book - a memoir called Lucky. It tells of her own rape as a college student. If this type of violence is something you can stomach to read about - it's graphic - then I recommend the book. It was almost too much for me, but her process to get passed it and move on was interesting and worthwhile to read about. I'm still on the fence about The Almost Moon, her latest. The reviews haven't been stellar, and as I said in my Slam post, I hate to be disappointed. I read an interview with Sebold though, and she too knows how hard it is to live up to the popularity and praise that came with The Lovely Bones.

Posted: Fri, 11/09/2007 - 10:28 | Comments: 2

I'm ashamed to say, as a journalist who loves literary journalism, I haven't read much Joan Didion. But, when her book The Year of Magical Thinking came out, I felt drawn to it. The reviews were over-the-top good for this book, and I was going through a particularly difficult time with an illness in the family, too.

In this book, Didion describes a year in her life when her daughter fell into a coma unexpectedly and for unknown reasons, and just days later, after visiting her at the hospital, Didion's husband died instantly at the dinner table from a heart attack. The book starts there. It describes the moments right after he fell out of his chair, the medics arriving, the trip to the hospital, the days that followed. It describes her visiting her unconscious daughter, who eventually does wake up, and having to tell her that her father passed away months earlier. They waited to have the funeral until her daughter was well enough to go. Which, in a way, postponed Didion's own grieving.

The feelings Didion describes - expecting him to be there when she gets home, coming across something of his months later, cleaning out his closet - are heart breaking. She has such random thoughts about him, that to some, she may seem off her rocker. However, if you've ever lost someone close to you - even if it's a pet or just an awful break up of a relationship - you completely understand her. I choked up with every chapter - every chapter. Being newly married at the time, it made me realize even more how heartbroken I will be if hubby should be the one to go first.

This book made me unbelievably sad - not in a depressing way that I wouldn't recommend it to others - but what made my heart break even more was to learn that after the book was published, Didion's daughter fell ill again and passed away, too.

What books have made you feel an emotion - sadness, happiness, anger - so completely?

Posted: Thu, 11/08/2007 - 08:15 | Comments: 2