Monday, February 28, 2011

My new favorite Oscar winner

Acceptance speech
I'd like to offer my enthusiastic, hearty congratulations to Shaun Tan of The Arrival fame and Andrew Ruhemann for winning the Oscar for best animated short film. It's not every day I get to see an author I really really admire accepting a prestigious award for something that is not at all literary (or even something in the "best screenplay" realm).

Back when I first read The Arrival, I found myself repeatedly comparing it to a silent film. It would appear that Mr Tan is just as adept at animating actual films as he is at drawing wonderful, wordless books. I very much look forward to seeing "The Lost Thing".

Once more, congratulations!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Do you like your eReader?

In the past several months, it seems like everyone's gotten an eReader. If in the days of the book blogger survey only around 30% of bloggers used any kind of eReader, I'm sure the result today would be very different. Everybody chooses their own eReader based on their own personal reasoning but here's the thing: almost nobody seems to actively hate the eReader they already have. In fact, whether or not they wanted one, most people seem to like them.

I spoke to a colleague a few days ago about eReaders, mentioning that I had one. She responded by saying (with a slight shudder) that she could never have an eReader. "I like the feel and the smell of a book way too much," she confided in me. She seemed surprised that I, being such an avid and devoted reader, owned one myself. I was reminded of Trish the Book Lady, who recently wrote about her decision to get an eReader. She wrote how having an eReader changed the way she read, but not necessarily in a negative way.

It's true. One of my aunts declared several months ago that she didn't want an eReader. But a stubborn daughter bought one for her mother anyways and today ask my aunt and she'll tell you how much she loves her Kindle. "It's so convenient," she tells me. The lightweight, wireless device makes for comfortable reading. For me, Artemis represents a completley different kind of reading. Not because of internet access (which I don't have), not because I necessarily find it to be more attractive and stylish than a book, but because of the wealth of free books (more on this later this week). Furthermore, Artemis gives me the option of reading multiple books at once. These days, I read one print book, one classic eBook and one more modern eBook. That, at the end of the day, changes the way I read.

So why is it that readers love these devices? Why is it that we all hesitate jumping on the bandwagon at first, but over the course of two or so years, we've gradually accepted eReading into our daily cultures? And the fact is: have we really forsaken "real" print books, to be replaced by digital copies?

Like with all technology, eReaders aren't to everyone's taste. And perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps many have found their reading unchanged by their Kindle, or Nook or iPad. For me, at least, the change has been clear. And, for the most part, positive. What about you?

Monday, February 21, 2011

One sided, spoiler-free and incomplete issues with the Millennium trilogy

I spoke in defense of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy last month, after reading the Reading Ape's great post on the matter of the books' popularity and the criticism they often face. This time, I'm going to don the other hat and just criticize.

I'm midway through The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (at the request of a friend who wants to borrow the book ASAP) and I have to say that it's not that impressive. Granted, I never fell head-over-heels for the series. I liked the "wrong" things about it, disliked things that everyone else seemed to unequivocally love and though I was able to speed through the book, I never really felt that driving urge to read the sequels. It took me months to get to Hornet's Nest and even now I don't feel a driving need to finish. See, my issues with the series (still obviously incomplete) break down as follows:
  • Once you finish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson's actual thrills become kind of... cheap. Not that they're bad quality, it's just that Larsson's method for creating a thrilling setting is by having his characters withhold information. Which, with all due respect, is a slightly bad literary method.
  • Haters of the series like to dismiss Mikael as Larsson's attempt at writing an ideal male stand-in for himself. The problem with the Millennium books is that every character is kind of like this. All characters are these clear-cut, idealistic types - either true and noble souls at their core (no matter their nastiness... that is, after all, part of their charm, so it would seem according to Larsson), or evil, corrupt and cruel deep down. You'd be hard-pressed to find middle ground in Larsson's series. Though the good people do bad things repeatedly, they are never scolded for it. The good guys' frequent moral crimes go unnoticed by the author.
  •  To continue this point, all the characters are also a little too perfect. Or, at least, the narrating characters - the noble souls. Each one is either brilliant, beautiful, powerful or talented. Or all of the above. And people repeatedly notice and mention these traits. Larsson tries so often to remind his readers of the greatness of his characters that it gets... tiring.
  •  What am I reading for? This ties into the first issue, regarding the thrills. The question of where's the story going is entirely legit and it's one that seems forsaken in Larsson's second two books. Dragon Tattoo has a plot. The story goes someplace. With Fire, the story sort of scattered and Hornet's Nest is just all over the place. I mean, obviously it's going to end up somewhere, but I've read half the book and I still have no idea what it's about. Seriously. That's not a good sign.
But it's important for me to stress the fact that I don't hate this series. I'm not a die-hard completist - I wouldn't really keep reading if it was 100% trash. While I wouldn't say that I'm exactly a Stieg Larsson fan, there are still many reasons why kept on reading. The enjoyable guilty-pleasure style is perhaps the main reason, but here I must refer you back to the beginning.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    A few words about Borders

    Standing at the top of the stairs
    Despite the fact that my own Borders will not, in fact, be shutting down (list found via A Reader's Respite), I face the news of 200 Borders stores closed down with a heavy heart. I have a long, personal history with Borders that begins rather early in my reading childhood. My local Borders was divided pretty well for my childish mentality. The bottom floor was boring (though I later grew to appreciate history, science and music). The top floor, meanwhile, was awesome. In one corner, children's. In the other, sci-fi and fantasy. Between the two, grown-up literature. On the other side of the floor (where across and under the staircase I could stare for hours at the buyers below), the teen section glimmered, right next to comics.

    It was always easy to drift over to whatever shelf I wanted that week. As I grew older, I switched sides more and more, first relocating clearly to the teen section and as I grew even older, drifting back over to the "grown-up" sections, browsing books with the best of them. The booksellers were tolerant and kind, always helpful when I came with questions and always understanding that a kid sprawled on the floor reading probably shouldn't be bothered.

    It was more than that, though. These things could apply to any bookstore, and do in fact to a few others I've frequented. But there was something nonetheless unique. It was, without a doubt, our local hang-out as early teens. Borders was were my friends and I would go to hang out.

    I think about other bookstores I've been to. My semi-local B&N always felt cold and rushed and seemed like it wanted people to leave as soon as they'd arrive. The local indie was awkwardly organized, crowded and a bit far. The second-hand bookstore was clumsy, tiny and cramped (though perfect for other kinds of book-shopping). Borders, on the other hand, was airy and welcoming, the glass doors showing me a lively world of readers. It was filled with books (and good books too), unlike B&N offering me obscure titles scattered among the popular. I'd see indie publishers. I'd find unexpected books. And I appreciated every minute of it.

    Even though my "own" Borders doesn't seem to be shutting down yet, I find myself thinking that if it ultimately does close down, the world will be losing more than just a competitor to B&N and Amazon. It was also be losing a store that, perhaps at a great cost to the smaller stores around it, was forever encouraging young readers to blossom and expand, even if only in one small region.

    I, at least, will miss that.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Not all hype is the same

    Browsing book blogs, reading reviews and especially writing them means that I have a little bit more of a notion of what new (or not so new) books are being hyped at any given time. There are always a few "books of the moment", especially at that annoying end of the year period when everyone seems to hype up the same books. But I was reading a random comment today about the oft-recommended Room, and something occurred to me: hype changes from book to book.

    Readers (whether or not they would have read the book) recall the recent Franzen Freedom uproar (and the still ongoing backlash). Here was a book so clearly hyped from day one that by the time it got to the hands of the public, so many had already formed opinions about it. This was both a good thing and a bad thing. Lots of times, the opinions of those around us influence how we view the book, particularly if we're apathetic. Strong emotions can easily influence apathy, and thus I have found myself shifting opinions more than once after reading a particularly sharply-worded opinion or review.

    It's a bad thing, though, when backlash comes into play. Again, apathy is the worst emotion because it is the most easily manipulated. If faced with extreme praise and all you feel is apathy (or mediocre emotions - pleasant acceptance, etc.), what can easily happen is your opinion - while staying the same on an absolute level - takes on a relative extremism. In order to counterbalance the gushing, the reader might focus primarily on the negative aspects in a subconscious effort to create a so-called balanced picture of the book. And so backlash is born.

    Four examples of hype - and there are still many others
    But not all hype is "bloated hype", as I like to think of the whole Freedom story. Freedom came prepackaged with vast amounts of praise, but the praise also had a slightly false taste to it. It was, in a sense, pretentious praise, taking up a book that could very well have become a bestseller and a hit amongst readers with no additional effort, and inflating it until many people read it simply to prove the hype wrong. Similarly, you have a book like The Passage, which was more "publicity hype" - the book was hyped in that it was massively advertised and just about every internet reader/reviewer could have gotten a free copy in the first couple of weeks without too much strain.

    On the other end of the hype spectrum (or on another end - like I said, there are many kinds of hype...) you have Room. Here's a novel that's been hyped by a collection of moderate praise. Not moderate in that the praise is reserved - hardly - but rather that it came on rather quietly. The book received attention after being shortlisted for the Booker and continued to gradually accumulate praise (and some dismissal, for the most part as a result of the child narration). Reading a review of Room doesn't feel like someone is trying to make a point - either in favor of the hype or against it - but rather a personal view on the book.

    Somewhere else on this spectrum, you also find books like Harry Potter. Take Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Obviously a book that was hyped, a significant chunk of the hype was fan anticipation. Sure, there was (a long time ago) hype regarding the series as a whole but here exists a very different kind of hype. Waiting for the next book in a beloved series and hyping up its inevitable (or not so inevitable, fans of A Song of Ice and Fire...) new release is predictable, expected fan anticipation hype.

    With the exception of Harry Potter, I haven't read these books but somehow I've managed to form opinions about them. Freedom honestly seems like the kind of book I'd just want to punch (or maybe that's just Franzen himself...?), The Passage seems a little too movie-esque for my taste (though I'll probably read it eventually) and Room seems sincerely good. It sure seems like the type of hype has influenced how I view these books...

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    "Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free."

    Neil Gaiman is not my favorite author. He's good, he's someone I like to read and though I know of many readers who like him a great deal, I don't follow him consistently. Still, when he goes out and says some wonderfully apt, eloquent words about books, free books and the internet, I really have nothing but respect for the guy (via A Momentary Taste of Being - thanks!).

    Gaiman's message, other than being in tune with a lot of what I've claimed over the past few years, is ultimately that offering free material on the internet does not hurt publishing and book sales (as we're led to believe - "piracy is evil!"), but does so much for getting the author's name out there and getting his/her writing into the readers' hands.
    "I started asking audiences to just raise their hands for one question. I say: okay, do you have a favorite author? And they say: yes. And I say: good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book, put up your hand. And then anybody who discovered your favorite author by walking into a bookstore and buying a book, raise your hand. And it's probably about 5-10%, if that. [...] They were lent [the book], the were given it, they did not pay for it. And that's how they found their favorite author."
    It's more than just a calm realization of the nature of favorite authors (though it's certainly a lovely image). Gaiman nails the fact that profit - real literary profit, the clean and honest kind that we all would like to believe in - comes from returning readers. Readers want to support authors they like. When I read a book from the library (I obviously have not paid for it) and really like it, I very well may buy it. Why? 1. To have the book in my collection, and 2. To support the author. As a reader, the very best thing I can do to show an author that I like him/her is to buy his/her books. A new book comes out? I'll get it. I'll write reviews recommending their works. I'll lend the books out to my friends so that they might buy them too.

    How can I be certain that this will work through the internet? Downloading a book isn't like borrowing a book. It's permanent, right? But I've done it. I've stumbled across promotions that offered free eBooks, read them, liked them and gone out to find more by the author. Gaiman is dead-on in this video. Offering your writing freely gets you readers and fans, increases your exposure and boosts sales. I hope more authors and publishers take note.

    For an additional video Neil Gaiman made for the Open Rights Group, here's the link to his own journal post.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    3. The Giver - Choices

    "But I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an “only us, only now” world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete."
    -From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech

    The Giver is the kind of book that I actually read as a kid, as a slightly older kid and as an adult, where the level of admiration for the book did not once diminish. The thing is, The Giver is clearly a kid book. Simplistically written and plotted, it's meant for a child reader. This does not mean, however, that adult readers cannot appreciate and enjoy it.

    The Giver is not the first in its genre. In a sense, the dystopia it presents is fairly tame (when compared to some of the more recent, overwrought examples...), but starkly important when one realizes that the matter of choice, of individualism and free thought are all ideas that we - and the generations after us - will need to maintain. It's a story about growing up, about a world that at first seems almost identical to our own and gradually shifts as the reader realizes the differences.

    This is dystopian literature in the true sense of the word - to almost every member of Jonas' society it is a utopia. To Jonas and The Giver it isn't. It's a book that inspires thought, continues to speak to readers across the generations, and one that deserves its status as one of the greatest works of children's fiction (or science fiction, or dystopian fiction...) to have been published.
    "The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.

    It is very risky.

    But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
    Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."
    -From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    Worst. Book title. Ever.

    Okay. I haven't read this book, I don't know what it's about, and I really, really, really don't care to read it based on the title:
    The Truth-Teller's Lie
    Ahh. I swear, no book title has ever been more insipidly bland and completely formulaic-without-revealing-anything-about-the-book! Seriously? Say this one out loud a few times. Does it mean anything? Is it referencing anything? It doesn't even sound right, it sounds completely idiotic.

    To make matters worse... it was once published under a different title. "Hurting Distance" isn't the greatest book title ever, but it's 10x10^100 times better than, well... "The Truth-Teller's Lie".

    I think I need to go dunk my head in a bucket of ice-cold water...

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    2. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Seven years of rain

    This counts as fantasy
    My father is a slow reader. Reading Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece was a project for him - several years of careful, deep reading that never became difficult. Ask him for his favorite book, he answers comfortably: Cien años de soledad.

    Why, you may ask, is such a book in a list of fantasy literature? Readers unused to García's writing style may think this is simply due to the idea "magical realism", often tossed around when García's name is mentioned. It's not a wrong phrasing, but truth be told: One Hundred Years of Solitude is fantasy. And wonderful fantasy at that. Things happen in a strange and mysterious way, all without a single logical explanation from the author.

    A few weekends ago, the subject came up. My father mentioned that one aspect he loved so much about the book was that:
    It could appear to be completely normal and everything would be entirely realistic and all of a sudden something happens that doesn't make any sense.
    "Like seven years of rain," I mentioned. Yes, now he remembered. Seven straight, completely acceptable years of rain. Or a character living forever. Or the wonderful ending.

    This is not a man who likes fantasy. Not fantasy as it's typically perceived, at least. Almost every reader I've encountered who has read One Hundred Years of Solitude would probably balk at the idea of putting it on a list of fantasy greats, but I call it as it is.

    If I mentioned in my definition of fantasy that Lord of the Rings is fantastic without being magical, here is a book that is entirely magical and entirely fantastic, perhaps without being pure fantasy. Much as my father said: things just happen. And as they happen, it makes sense. Except for how it absolutely doesn't. It's this fantastic quality to the storytelling. Pure magic.