Life is Too Short to Read Things That…

9 Jul

I feel like I’ve been abandoning everything these days. Classes. Blogs. Definitely my sanity. But sometimes you need to abandon a few things to make way for others. So I gave up my MOOC class for my novel. Oh, I’m still viewing the lectures and reading the books (all fantastic, actually!), just not the doing the writing.

I’ve neglected the 52 Books Project. Although I’m not far behind on reading, I am WAY behind on blogging reviews.

So, in the spirit of abandonment, I share this fabulous infographic from Goodreads.

And YES – I did abandon Fifty Shades and its predecessor, the Twilight series. Life is too short to read things that suck.

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Taking Brown University Lit Courses – For Free

29 May

At the dawn of the commercial internet, way back in ’95 or ’96, I remember turning around to one of my colleagues and saying: “Our kids are going to be so smart.”

My job, at the time, was competitive intelligence of online services. The words “online” and “search,” which had meaning to me as early as the mid-80s, were only just gaining mass understanding.

The genesis of my comment was the newly  launched Library of Congress website, and I’d been tooling around it for the last two or three hours (one of the benefits of my job was that I could waste time on the Web – and get paid for it). As one of the two largest libraries in the world, the LOC is truly a national treasure for knowledge seekers. But since it’s located in Washington, D.C., and most people aren’t able to check out books, for much of its history it has been a walled garden.

The Web changed that. Almost overnight, many of its collections were digitized and made available – for free – to anyone with a computer and dial-up connection. I was fully aware of the implications of “online” long before beginning my career in digital media in 1985, but the rollout of the National Digital Library and its contents truly astonished me.

It wasn’t the last time that I felt that way. In fact, there have been numerous occasions over the last 30 years in which technology and media have intersected to pleasantly surprise me. And it has never been the outcome, but the speed at which we reach that development that astounds me.

And last night, it happened again. The rush of adrenaline was enough to keep me awake through the night, too excited to sleep.

A few weeks ago, I began exploring MOOC’s (massive open online courses) on Udacity and Coursera. I also looked at fee-based online courses at I’ve always attended Webinars or used YouTube to pick up skills here and there, but Udacity and Coursera were different. Top universities, 6-12 week intensive courses on complicated subjects. It was too good to pass up – and yes, this is truly disruptive to the current status quo.

So, I enrolled in a couple, and yesterday I received an email for my first class to start on Monday. It’s a Brown University course taught by a well-regarded professor of comparative literature, Arnold Weinstein. It’s called “The Fiction of Relationship.”

The requirements to earn a Statement of Distinction (it’s free, so no Brown credits awarded) are still tough: read 12 works of literature, write five short papers (about 2 pages apiece), one longer paper, attend 2 hours of lectures, and grade and review three works of your peers nearly every week.

I know, right? This is going to be so much fun. And I mean that.

To have access to such amazing knowledge – for free and at my own leisure – is a slice of heaven.

The Internet: Greatest. Invention. Ever.

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The Miracle Is that We Survive

27 May

“We’ve reached a critical desalination point!” – Jack Hall

“It’s going to get bad! Really, really bad!” – Sam Hall

Whenever the weather gets rough, it’s inevitable that my husband, one of my sons, or I will find a way to quote Jack or Sam. The Day After Tomorrow is so simultaneously awful and wonderful that it’s hard to resist. (We’ve no idea how Dennis Quaid or Jake Gyllenhaal managed to say either of these lines without cracking up.)

There’s a certain fascination to the idea of the world ending, partly because we all know it’s possible – and probably likely at some point – and partly because hard evidence points toward inevitable and noticeable change in our global environment. (Yes, climate change IS happening. Sorry, Republicans and conspiracy theorists.)

Last week’s tornado in Moore, Okla., and last fall’s Hurricane Sandy were near the extreme end of their respective scales, but some scientists are predicting that storms of this size will become the norm.

When we do finally agree that change is happening, how will we react to it?

We’ll continue to live and love, while finding new ways to adapt to our new situation. Colonization of a far off planet certainly seems in the cards, but it’s the day-to-day human experience that will likely stay the same. We’re creatures of habit, in a way.

That’s the way that Karen Thompson Walker presents it in her wonderful “The Age of Miracles.”

Walker envisions a different kind of disaster: the world is slowing down. Days and nights are growing longer, and the effect on nature and the world as we know it is devastating. It’s not completely debilitating, at least not yet. Julia is just 11 and  adolescence – her age of miracles – coincides with this new way of life.

This isn’t a complicated novel, either in plot or characters, and its real focus is on Julia’s coming of age. But it’s the small details that make the story special: how people cope with “clock time,” the hundreds of beached whales and the strange reaction of the cats. I found myself thinking about this alt-Earth long after finishing.

Well, I do love to ponder “what if” scenarios.

Climate change or not, the world will change, but human nature will not. We’ll continue to fight over things that don’t matter; we’ll continue to find love and lose love; we’ll continue to find ways to survive using our natural ingenuity. In the end, there is hope.

Even on the day after tomorrow.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things.

– Julia in The Age of Miracles

Libraries are Compassionate and Awesome

9 May

For almost three and a half weeks, I’ve been flat on my back and in horrible pain. I couldn’t sit or stand at all, making driving impossible. I just didn’t have the flexibility or swift reactions to navigate a car.

For that reason, my latest three library books were grossly overdue – by more than a month! Today, after finally getting a good diagnosis and better drugs, I was able to get up and move around enough to go the library to return those grossly overdue books.

“I hope you aren’t going to revoke my library card!” I joked when I got to the counter.

The librarian dismissed my comment with a wave.

I held out my money as she checked the books back in.

“That’s it. You’re good,” she said.

No fees? Nope, she’d waived them because of my condition (which, by the way, is a bone spur pinching a nerve in my neck).

See? Aren’t libraries awesome?

So, a huge shout out to Plainsboro Public Library for being so compassionate. And in return, I’m going to give them a little Twitter love: Follow them on Twitter @PlainsboroLib. They just joined and deserve to have a following.

Also, another huge shout out to my youngest son, Devlin, who DROVE me to the library. He’s just learning, and for the next few weeks he’s my official driver around town.

And so the 52 Books Project continues. I’m behind on writing reviews, and now I have new books to read. But we’ll catch up. Here’s what’s coming up:

  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  • The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
  • We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin Mee
  • The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also, the new books I picked up today will follow:

  • Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young
  • Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
  • Live by Night, Dennis Lehane

And one more that’s on interlibrary order:

  • The Woman Who Wasn’t There, Robin Gaby Fisher

Visit your local library today, and travel the world without leaving your home.

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When Crime Novels Go Literary

7 May

Dublin Castle was the fortified seat of Britis...

I do love a good mystery or crime novel, so it’s always a pleasure to discover new talent in this genre. I first discovered Tana French’s novels in New York City’s Penn Station, where paperbacks were on a “Buy Two, Get One Free” deal.

I quickly sank into French’s first novel, In the Woods, and by the time I arrived at Princeton Junction, I had nearly finished the book.

An Irish writer from Dublin, French focuses on police procedurals, in particular the Dublin Murder Squad. But she approaches the genre with a more sophisticated literary sense.

Her stories aren’t just well-crafted, but intelligently written, with characters that are more complex and less stereotypical.

In her latest novel, Broken Harbor, French sets a triple murder against the backdrop of Ireland’s recession. Key themes explored are the modern-day narcissist and a materialistic culture. She contrasts these societal ills against the selfless love and devotion that family members have (or should have) for each other.

I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never have even crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is sent to investigate the murder of a family in a mostly unfinished luxury development, a victim of the recession. Mick has something to prove – he botched his last murder investigation – and something to hide. Broken Harbor holds painful childhood memories for him. So he has his own demons to contend with, just as he seeks to find the devil that took the lives of a father and his two small children.

Like many during the recession, the father had lost his job and found it difficult to find another. His wife does her best to keep their lives as normal as possible. To an outsider, not much appeared to change with the family. But behind the doors of their pop-up mansion, their lives are in turmoil.

Mick himself is also keeping up appearances; he goes to great lengths to keep his family problems to himself. His youngest sister suffers from mental illness, and her care often falls to him. When he takes this case, his first instinct is to protect her from the memories of what happened to his family at Broken Harbor.

French tells a good crime story, with lots of plot twists and turns, but it’s her ability to raise the genre to a higher plane that has me coming back for more. Broken Harbor won’t be her best novel; I think that’s yet to come, and I’ll keep reading her books until it arrives.

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Sweet Story, Bitter in the Telling

4 May

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Ah, unrequited love. It’s my favorite kind of love story. It can be so sweet, until it all ends so bitterly.

So it is with Keiko and Henry, who meet and fall in love when they are just 12 years old. He’s Chinese, she’s Japanese, it’s Seattle, and it’s 1942.

In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford tells the story of these star-crossed lovers, divided by prejudice and separated physically when she’s sent off to a Japanese internment camp.

This novel garnered a lot of good buzz when it was published, and I can only assume it’s because it had a stellar marketing and PR buzz. Why anyone thought it warranted such a commotion, I can’t say.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a promising debut for what should be a teen book. Ford frames several themes in a way that’s appropriate for middle-school social studies and language arts discussions: complicated father-son relationships, prejudice and tolerance, and assimilation challenges of immigrants. He layers these on top of the historical events of 1942, specifically the Japanese internment of World War II and the deep animosity between the Japanese and Chinese.

He does a fine job of capturing the sights and sounds of Seattle, bringing to life its sights and sounds and giving a distinct feeling of place, but the plot is predictable and flat, lacking the tension that normally keeps me turning the page.

His characters are completely out of character. In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12, but speak and act as if they’re in their 20s or 30s. Far too sophisticated for their ages. In 1984, Henry is just 52, but is presented as a doddering 80-something.

The ending ties up in a neat little bow. It’s perfect for Hollywood, but for the discerning reader, I’d like more complexity and depth.

Definitely not a keeper.

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J.K. Rowling Steps Out of the Mystic

5 Apr
English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve long been an admirer of J.K. Rowling. When you look beyond the insane success of her Harry Potter books, you realize that she’s a spectacular writer with an unsurpassed imagination.

I loved the Potter series for the dozens of inventions and complex characters that Rowlings conjured. In the distance between the books and the movies, I think people forgot just how remarkable a writer and dreamer that she is. Though many of the items in her books were just a half step from reality – the moving images on newspapers and the game of quidditch – it’s her ability to wind up the tension in the plot or develop complex characters that is so admirable. Professor Snape and Moaning Myrtle are two characters that could easily have been one-dimensional, but were much more nuanced as the story progressed.

I read once that Rowlings envisioned writing the Potter novels for adults, but the publisher persuaded her to write the series at a level more suitable to children. And of course, that’s how they marketed it.

We knew she’d write a novel for adults someday, and now we have it: The Casual Vacancy. I didn’t expect to like this novel. It’s hard to compete with something of the magnitude of Harry Potter. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I hadn’t set the bar very high.

The story focuses on a town councilman whose sudden death sets off a battle for his seat, examining the tensions between parents and their children, the rich and the poor, and between friends and acquaintances. Rowling evokes at least one British news story of the 90s, but I’d lost interest long before the book reached that part.

The Casual Vacancy has its moments. The writing is there, and the characters show hints of complexity. It’s the plot that’s missing. In all fairness, I read the first half of the book and skittered through the rest. The tension that drives stories simply wasn’t there for this one, though early on, I had high hopes.

Consider this family’s breakfast table conversation.

“Goes to show, doesn’t it?” he said portentously. “Got to watch yourself.”

That’s wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that’s profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother’s own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.

At this point, as I wonder who to root for, I’m leaning toward the son. What we see of his father, Simon, in the first few pages is entirely unlikeable. So I think he’s picking on the son without reason. Then this:

Simon pointed his knife at his elder son and said, “Oh, and by the way. He’s going to be getting a job. Old Pizza Face there.”

Startled, Ruth turned from her husband to her son. Andrew’s acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek, as he stared down into his bowl of beige mush.

“Yeah,” said Simon. “Lazy little shit’s going to start earning some money. If he wants to smoke, he can pay for it out of his own wages. No more pocket money.”

Ah. Now I understand the source of the rage bubbling under Simon’s surface. Typical parent-teen conflict. Or is it? Read on, and I might change my mind again – maybe I should side with Andrew.

This is the true magic of Rowling’s writing. I just wish it hadn’t faded so early in the novel.

Still, I look forward to her next book for adults. I suspect she’ll find the right mix of subject matter, plot, character, and tension.

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