Thanks for Thinking!

Better Living Through Criticism isn’t so much about how to think as it is about why to think. It’s about doing more than just reacting to what’s in front of you; consider it, put it in its context, know who made it and possibly tease out why it was made.

One of the mistakes we as a people make is to think that culture is somehow universal, in the same way that, say, mathematics is. It’s not. My reaction to a book I’ve read is necessarily personal. It’s going to be a reaction to what I’ve read in the past and who I am as a person. But I can take a step back and ask things like “what is the author trying to do here?” and “does this say something larger about society?” or whichever questions seem appropriate.

I will confess that I enjoy reading more and am a better reader because I write these short reviews. I also occasionally participate in NaNoWriMo, not because I think the world needs to hear my stories (I have never shown one to anyone), but because the more I try to write them, the better a reader I become. Thinking helps.

Which is the point of the book: thinking helps in both reading and life. It helps you (me) be a happier, less stressed person. I’m going to keep doing it.

Story as Therapy

Dive from Clausen's Pier

Once upon a time, I read The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. I over-identified with the main character, Carrie, who was from Madison, like me. She went to the University of Wisconsin, like me. She had the same boyfriend through high school and college, like me. When we both left Madison, it was all tied up in feelings of loss and wondering who we really were. Leaving Madison helped both of us figure out who we were.

So, in the novel, when Carrie goes back to Madison for a visit and it becomes clear that she’s going to stay. I got angry. Very, very angry. I finished the book, put it down and did not pick it up again for almost 14 years.

It was with some trepidation that I picked it up off the shelf a couple of weeks ago. “I’ll just read until she leaves for New York. I’ll skim it, it’ll be fine.”

Much to my surprise, time from both the story and Madison gave me the distance I needed to appreciate what Ann Packer had to say about the city where I grew up, the patriarchy, stability, love, and friendship.

Don’t get me wrong: I put it down when she returned to Madison. I still can’t deal with her going back. It’s too… No. Carrie, you were on your way to happiness, a career in fashion (a thing you clearly love), a relationship that wasn’t based on you taking care of him. Just, NOPE. Stay gone. Stay yourself.

But that’s not the story. And that’s ok.

Taking care of people is important

All the Bright Places

Oh, All the Bright Places was a lovely story. Which seems like an odd thing to say about a book about depression. But both characters, Violet and Finch, are treated with such care and attention and, well, love.

Finch is manic-depressive, has been his whole life. Violet was in a car accident last year, and her sister died. She’s depressed, but in a different way. They meet one morning when they’re both thinking about committing suicide. It’s less sad than it sounds. He talks her off the ledge (literally) and then follows her down.

Long story short, Finch goes into a manic phase, Finch and Violet end up in a relationship, and things go from there. Violet starts to come out of her depression, and Finch’s manic phase ends. It’s not always easy to read, but it is always compelling.

Chronic and situational depression are different. I’ve had situational depression; I’m friends with chronically depressed people. It’s not the same, and putting words around those differences is important.


Magic v Technology: who will win?

All the birds in the sky

All the Birds in the Sky was, for me, a tightly written three-act near-future novel about the clash of technology and magic (read: nature). I really enjoyed it.

There are two middle school aged children, Patricia and Laurence, and they are both freaks in that special middle school way. They almost become friends before they go their separate ways. As adults, they meet up in near-future San Francisco. Laurence is part of a tech incubator whose goal is to reach other planets sooner rather than later. Patricia is helping her fellow people via healing magic. The world is falling apart, and that accelerates. Clearly, humanity needs saving; will it be technology that will get us to the other world(s) before this one is destroyed or will it be magic that fixes it all?

This book is very much A Good Thing and worth your entertainment time.

Maybe don’t read famous books, self

Balzac and the little chinese seamstress

Imagine that it’s the Cultural Revolution, and your parents were intellectuals. You get sent off to be “re-educated”, which just means doing the menial labor no one else wants to do. It’s a small town, with no technology, no entertainment. Just work. You and your fellow male re-educate-ee discover two things: a pretty girl and a book by Balzac. What happens? What would you do to make your lives a little more enjoyable?

That’s the premise of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It has been highly praised, and it was a fine book. My expectations, however, were too high. It was not as good as promised. I didn’t feel the weight of carrying buckets of shit up mountains each day, and I didn’t feel the relief of the occasional happy moment. I understand that a) menial labor sucks and b) getting a chance to relax after back-breaking work is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

It’s a perfectly fine book. But I was expecting more.

Enjoying the process


Is this where I reveal that I’m a sucker for a modern retelling of an older story? Or, particularly, of Jane Austen stories? I enjoy seeing how the situations change to keep the same characters and traits and dynamics amongst them.

Eligible is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice. It takes place in Cincinnati, Darcy is a neurosurgeon, Lizzy is a magazine writer. They are both almost 40, and Lizzy has her large family. She and yoga instructor Jane are back home from NYC because her father is recovering from a heart attack. Her family is as atrocious as you’d expect.

Sittenfeld ably handles the material, turning it into an enjoyable story even though you probably know how it goes. Sometimes the joy is in watching the process unfold.

Carry on, Jeeves

Code of the Woosters

I could pretend that The Code of the Woosters is about making fascists look like idiots – and it is, a teeny-tiny bit. But really its about the goofy adventures of Bertie Wooster, getting engaged to two different young ladies, neither of whom he wants to marry (neither of whom want to marry him, either), and how Jeeves, the amazing butler somehow makes everything better.

All the Jeeves books are fun and light and worth a laugh. Definitely recommended.

A life lived in a dream

The Orchardist

The Orchardist is a lovely story about a man, Talmadge, who runs/owns an apple orchard in central Washington in the late 1800s – early 1900s. It describes a quiet, isolated life that is disrupted when two girls come into the valley. They’re pregnant and they’ve run away from some truly horrible circumstances. The Orchardist describes what happens over the next twenty years in a way that illuminates loneliness, the solitary life, and the weirdness of families. Recommended.

Be the best you can be

Ms Marvel v1

What’s it about?
Kamala Khan is like any other girl in the Marvel Universe – interested in the Avengers, but really just trying to live her life. She’s muslim, and trying to please her family and do well in school. Then something happens and she becomes the new Ms Marvel. She tries to imitate the old Ms Marvel – blonde Carol Danvers – and fails miserably. It’s only when she uses her super-powers to become a better version of herself that she succeeds.

Why should you read it?
I’m not a comic book person. But I’d heard good things about Ms Marvel v1, and I enjoyed it. I like empowered women, and thus empowered girls. It’s a good adventure *and* the story is all about the more you you are, the more powerful you are.

I’m going to keep going with this series, I suspect.


Part of a bigger world

Welcome to Night Vale

What’s it about?
Do you listen to Welcome to Night Vale? If you like slightly weird things, you should. It’s a touch on the horror side of things (there’s a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house), and it’s deeply entertaining.

If you’ve heard the podcast, you know that sometimes there’s a man in a tan jacket who no one remembers after they’re done talking to him. This book? This book is his story.

Why should you read it?
You should read Welcome to Night Vale if you’re a fan of the podcast. There’s obviously less Cecil (the voice of WtNV) as there’s no talking, but there are interludes of Night Vale Community Radio. I wouldn’t read it if you’re not a fan of the podcast already – there’s a fair bit it presumes you already know.

But it is an entertaining entry in the world of Night Vale, and explains a bit more about the rules of Night Vale, things that the radio show only hints at.