[ Best and Worst ] Making the World Count

Part of the Best and Worst Series

— in which theothercanary talks about her best and worst reads —

Often, new writers seem to think world-building only applies to science fiction and fantasy books. It’s assumed that if one is writing a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 2011, the world is already built–everyone knows what’s there, who’s there and how the world around them works, so what’s left to explain? But that way of thinking is fatally flawed. It leads to a story-world full of cliched characters and the unshakeable feeling that something is missing.

The solution: Build your world from scratch! But be careful. As this best and worst shows, t is not always easy to find the balance between just-enough and oh-my-god-another-page-full-of-descriptions-about-hills. Continue reading

[ Best and Worst ] Breaking Hearts and Breaking Heads

Writing about my best reading experience for the The Canary Review turned out to be tougher than I imagined (writing about my worst was much, much easier, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After giving it some thought, I decided to write about the one story that changed both reading and writing for me.

That story is Break by Hannah Moskowitz.

“BREAK is a story about Jonah, a teen on a mission to break every bone in his body. Everyone knows that broken bones grow back stronger than they were before. Jonah wants to be stronger–needs to be stronger–because everything around him is falling apart. Breaking, and then healing, is the only way he can cope with the stresses of home, girls and the world on his shoulders.”

What I love most about Break is its honest portrayal of a self-destructive teen. Jonah lives with one brother who has deadly food allergies, a baby brother who is consistently covered in deadly food, and well-meaning parents who don’t seem to notice. In less capable hands, this story might have become maudlin, but not once did the author let the stress of Jonah living with a chronically ill brother or distracted parents overshadow his emotional journey. Hannah Moskowitz lets the reader relate to Jonah’s choice to injure himself as a coping mechanism without ever having to play the pity card.

This book renewed my love of young adult novels. It reminded me how much I enjoyed reading from the perspective of a teenage boy, something I hadn’t experienced since I read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton as a kid. Break set a new standard for me in my own writing and I’ve been a fan of Hannah Moskowitz ever since.

Oh, if every reading experience could be this good. But sadly, it can’t. Because right now, as you’re reading this, someone somewhere is listening to Holden Caulfield whine.

Wait! Wait! Put down the torches and pitchforks! Please, let me explain.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I am not suggesting that The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a stunning piece of literature–it is. I wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to it if it weren’t. But J.D. Salinger’s portrayal of insufferable teen angst just plain got my chowder up.

As a native New Englander who grew up less than an hour from where J.D. Salinger spent the last fifty years of his life, I can tell you that Holden Caulfield wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in any New England public high school anywhere. Even Connecticut. This kid is so emotionally pathetic he makes Edward Cullen look like Bill Sikes. There wasn’t a moment during my read that I didn’t want to reach through the pages to give this punk a chowda-fisted beat down and then stuff him under the stands at Fenway. And I’m a girl.

For those of you who are lucky enough not to know, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the sixteen year-old Holden Caulfield, a chronically disgruntled prep school drop-out. When he’s not whining about how he thinks everyone around him is a poser, he’s moping about the fact that he’s still a virgin. Lacking the testicular fortitude to confront his parents with the truth of his sudden expulsion from yet another prep school, Holden checks into a run-down hotel and waits for a vacation to explain his trip home. While he’s there, Holden annoys nuns, is obnoxious to girls (and for some reason cab drivers), and is convinced that every man who looks at him sideways is a homosexual.

I will say that there was one redeeming moment in the novel. When Holden backs out of a deal with a prostitute he hires,  Sunny has her pimp beat Holden up–even after he pays them. I remember standing up in class and clapping for that one.

Fans of the novel will say that Holden Caulfield is technically from New York and that J.D. Salinger wrote this novel before he moved to New Hampshire but it doesn’t matter. When a kid is forced to live in a state where its citizens wear Salinger like a badge, you grow to resent being identified with the myopic twit that is Holden Caulfield.

In an effort to rid myself of my impotent “post-Rye” anger, I’ve decided to combine my best read and worst read into an uber fan-fiction graphic novel. In my mind I see pages and pages of my good buddy Jonah repeatedly laying the smack down on Holden for thinking he’s “wicked smaht.” Then Jonah stuffs him under the stands at Fenway.

Go Sox.

[ Best and Worst ] The Beauty and Beast Within

When CanaryTheFirst invited me to do a guest post, I was excited. Then she told me the topic (your “Best and Worst Reads Ever”), and I almost broke out in a cold sweat.

It’s not that I don’t have a best read ever. Of course I do. It’s just that… well… it’s something I’ve never shared with anyone before.

See, my best reading experience had very little to do with the book, and everything to do with the experience of reading the book.

First, let me tell you about the book. It’s a tiny little thing, only 162 pages long.

It’s The Sacred Prostitute by Nancy Qualls-Corbett, a treatment on the Eternal Aspect of the Feminine, published by Inner City Books. A friend gave me the book because he knew I was writing a novel involving the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, but I was having trouble bringing her character to life. I had very little information on her that wasn’t dried-out fact or archeological evidence.

I had never heard of Jung before.

The title and nature of the little book embarrassed me. I didn’t want to be seen carrying it around, so I covered it with nondescript wallpaper. Now I could read and be amazed incognito.

Once I agreed to write this post, I wanted to find my copy of The Sacred Prostitute. I started digging through my boxes of packed away books. It took a while, but–there! It was like finding an old friend or a favorite stuffed animal, its wallpaper covering now worn and yellowed. That little book took my world-views, and turned them upside down–or rather, right-side up.

I know, I know…what’s the book about?

(Just so you know, I’m having pitch-slap PTSD…)

The Sacred Prostitute by Nancy Qualls-Corbett

Qualls-Corbett tells us about the historical goddess representations of Ishtar, Inanna, Venus, etc., and explains how sexuality and femininity were once valued aspects of society. Next, she delves into the psychological archetypes of the sacred feminine and how the perception and denial of sexuality influences our societal evolution. The book ends by touching on how we might reconcile the very concept of sexuality with our current belief-systems, mainly Christianity.

Cracking open the cover of a tiny book ushered an entire paradigm-shift in me as the reader. It was an awesome light-bulb moment that changed how I viewed myself as a woman. I was raised to think of sexuality as a dirty topic, off-limits, not discussed. When I went to college and learned a little of the Freudian perspective, it pretty much reinforced that negative view.

Jung’s concepts, though–now that was something altogether different. The author’s treatment of the topic of values, societal attitudes, and the advent of Christianity and patriarchal codes…it made me feel glad to be a woman.

It set me free.

***

My worst reading experience is going to be a lot easier to describe.

At first I wondered, how does a person have a worst reading experience? Why not just fling the book out the window if it’s that bad? After a bit more thought, I realized I did have a bad experience, once, with a book I’d read from cover to cover.

I cursed the author the entire time I was being sucked into a world I didn’t want. That book was…

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I didn’t want to have anything to do with this book to begin with. I knew of King by reputation, and as far as I could tell, wrote about the things I was more comfortable not thinking about…but stupidity reigned over common sense.

“Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel chose rural Maine to settle his family and bring up their children. It was a better place than smog-covered Chicago — or so he thought. But that was before be became acquainted with the pet burial ground located in the backwoods of the quiet community of Ludlow.”

It’s that pet cemetery that brings their dead cat back to life–but the cat comes back different. Wrong. And it’s that pet cemetery that calls to Doctor Louis Creed when he loses his toddler son. He can bring the child back to life, but at what cost?

The cost is too high.

Now, it’s not that the book  isn’t well-written. It is. And that was the problem. Once I’d started, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to put the entire story out of my head, in fact, but I couldn’t. And then I was angry with myself afterwards for finishing it.

Books like Pet Sematary illuminate the worst nightmare of all parents–the main character’s son is killed by a semi-truck when he runs onto the highway. Then King takes it a step farther and preys on the pain of the parents who want so badly for their dead child to live again.

It is not a book I’d ever want to revisit again.

***

Conclusion:

Now that this essay is written, I’m amazed to see that there is a tie-in with my best and worst reads. As Carl Jung unveils and gives life to the mysteries of human psyche and desire, skilled horror writers like Stephen King prey on them.

It would seem that I prefer the unveiling to the exploitation, but I think that in reality, all best-sellers capitalize on that exploitation of secrets. It’s what make us, the readers, tick.

But that is a topic for a whole ‘nother editorial.

That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Do you have a book that tilted your world onto a new axis? 

You can find more great writing by Madison at her blog. Click away, canaries!

[ Best and Worst ] Where Our Hearts Lie

Part of the Best and Worst Series

Many thanks to the birds at TheCanaryReview for inviting me to contribute my thoughts on a pretty daunting subject: The Best and Worst Books that I’ve ever read.

Recently, I completed a meme (The 30 Days of Books) where the ultimate question is, of course, favorite book. When I did that, I chose The Hobbit–a novel I read early in my teens and one that filled me with wonder, kindling the love of fantasy literature that continues to drive my reading choices to this day. It would be easy to select it again. But while it might be my favorite, I don’t think it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

In thinking about this post, I tried to strip away a little bit of nostalgia from my answer, so I went back to my list of favorite reads. If you take a peek at my Goodreads reviews, you will see that the shelf collecting five-stars is pretty small–no grade inflation from me!

And so, I choose a book that was a revelation to me not as a teen, but as an adult. This is the book that moved me to sadness, anger and considerable self-reflection:

We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

The Mulvaney’s are an upper middle-class family that have it all: Smart, loving parents that are known and respected in their upstate New York community, smart kids from whom much is expected, and a bright future. The family lives on a farm–the sort of farm that the well-do-to can “work” without any expectation of needing it to, you know, produce anything.

We Were The Mulvaneys tracks the family in the wake of their daughter’s date-rape.  The family’s mettle is tested and it’s not too long before cracks begin to appear.

The story is heartbreaking and very American–an ugly truth glossed over for propriety’s sake, a lack of justice, the loss of innocence, the schadenfreude of bringing down the high & mighty and sometimes just trying to get by. Each family member reacts to the events and to each other. As the years pass, each faces a reckoning–about the crime and about their family.

What really makes this book stand out for me though is its human quality and the way Oates’ writing forces each of us to inhabit the lives of the different Mulvaneys, as if asking us to gauge what our own response might be. I certainly didn’t grow up rich, but having been a “gifted” kid in my day, watching the Mulvaneys struggle through self-doubt and the weight of expectations affected me like no book before or since. Powerful, moving stuff.

Speaking of moving–let’s move on to the opposite end of the spectrum. Worst book.

This label isn’t for the forgettable stories and cardboard characters; there are plenty of bad books and hopefully you don’t come across them too often.  This is about That Book. That Book you wish you’d never ever read.

Easy. It’s a book I’d read with great expectation, only to be left reeling. Not only was it a huge disappointment, but it also managed to tarnish one of my all-time favorite series.

That Book is Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tehanu.

Tehanu was published almost twenty years after LeGuin’s third (and what we thought was final) Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore–and it shows. I was excited to go back to Earthsea when Tehanu came out, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this book wasn’t going to dovetail with the others.

In it, Ged, the hero of the first three books and the greatest wizard of his age who saved the world…loses all his power. Now this might have been an interesting twist, but not only does he lose his powers, he also manages to lose his will, his decisiveness, his personality—everything that made him the character he was, and the character I loved. The book also went out of its way–and the way of the story–to focus on the implications of gender and power: LeGuin heavy-handedly emasculates Ged, makes just about every other male in the book either weak or evil, and proclaims that the only wisdom and power for good is to be found in the hands (and hearts) of women.

Now, I’m all for gender equality and the exploration of gender-roles in society (whether that society is ours or a fantasy one), a topic that LeGuin herself has covered thoughtfully and effectively in her classic 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In its obviousness, however, Tehanu was more of a tirade than a tutorial. And worst of all, not only did Tehanu fail to extend and enhance the wonderful Earthsea world, the book tore it down.

The Earthsea trilogy still remains one of my all-time favorite series (read it, if you haven’t yet). In this original trilogy, LeGuin writes tight, lyrical fantasy stories that stand tall outside of Tolkien’s sphere. But with this latest installment in the Earthsea mythos, LeGuin’s becomes the George Lucas of fantasy writers, as if wanting to say, “Yeah, those first three books? Screw them!”. For me, Tehanu undermines an entire, beloved mythos that LeGuin created once upon a time.

What a heartbreaking shame.

That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Which are your nostalgia reads? Have you read any books that failed to live up to the original series?

You can find more reflections on awesome books by Steve at his blog!

[ Best and Worst ] The Perfect Amount of Darkness

Part of the Best and Worst Series

First off, many, many thanks to the Canaries for inviting me to spend a little while in the nest! I’m thrilled to be an honorary bird for a day.

Lovely as they are, though, I’m not here to talk about the Canaries. We need to talk books, people. Specifically, we need to talk about the books that stick. There are novels that go way beyond something that killed the time on a plane ride, or kept you company on a vacation. You have a relationship with them. They changed who you were when you read them, and when people ask you, casually, what your favorite book is, you are almost as horrified as though you’d been asked to pick a favorite child.

I wasn’t going to pick just one, and then I realized that if I were to tell you properly about all the books I really love, this post would be something like 8,000 words long and you’d sprain a finger before you finished scrolling. So I’m taking the leap and announcing my

Favorite Book of All Time:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

The story is about Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, best friends born minutes apart, on either side of midnight; and about Charles Halloway, who struggles to find the balance between being a father and letting his son, Will, live his own life; and about the dark carnival that comes to the small Illinois town one October. As Will and Jim explore Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, they realize the carnival feeds off the fears and desires of the people in the town, and twists visitors into sideshow freaks. Even as Will is repulsed, Jim can’t deny his own fascination with the carnival.

Partly, this is a beautifully written fantasy novel, with the perfect amount of darkness to give you a tingle without making it hard to sleep at night. The carousel is the best part of the carnival, from its horses “asking for mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth,” to the dark secret it reveals about its owners. Mr. Dark is particularly creepy—there’s a scene in the library that thrills me every time.

The soul of the book, though, is in the relationships between Jim, Will, and Will’s father. The boys have such a delicate balance going on between Will’s good-boy instincts and Jim’s more rebellious nature, and Something Wicked does an amazing job setting up the boundaries of friendship and the fear of growing up and apart. Bradbury captures Charles Halloway’s fear that he is no longer a relevant part of his son’s life with masterful sensitivity.

This was my first Bradbury novel, and I fell for it completely. I read it in the summer, and I remember having a moment of panic when I looked up from the page, disoriented to find myself surrounded by sunlight and heat instead of leaf-smoke and shadows —I had been that deeply entrenched in Bradbury’s October world.

Obviously, I went on to read everything else by him I could get my hands on, but this book is special. It’s the one that helped me understand my relationship with my best friend. It’s the reason I can never see carousels as fun or innocent ever again. I did my undergraduate thesis on Ray Bradbury’s novels, and Something Wicked This Way Comes is largely why. Because of that one summer when I picked up a black book with lightning-sparked horses on the cover, I am forever changed.

Now, readers have a secret: there’s the other kind of book that sticks, isn’t there?

You may be able to avoid most bad reading experiences—I give the Romance shelves a wide berth because I know I’m not interested in anything they have to say—but when you do actually read a book that’s terrible, you carry it with you, too. It’s almost exciting, trashing it to your friends or seeking it out in the bookstore or library just to give it a good, hard flick as punishment for making you suffer through it (I can’t be the only one who does that). The one that gets the hardest flick from me is:

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk.

Before the Fight Club fans come for me, I do realize Palahniuk’s not meant to be everyone’s cup of tea. I know part of the shock value of his writing is supposed to be funny in its absurd extremes. I’ve even read some of his other novels and enjoyed them. This one, though, just made me feel sick. Cannibalization, incest, torture (physical and psychological)—this story of a “writer’s retreat” that goes wrong when writers run out of food and confess the worst things they’ve ever done feels more like Hostel than anything worth reading. I finished it mostly out of spite. I didn’t want a book that disgusting to beat me.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, in case there are sensitive readers out there. Here’s what I will share: I read an article, an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, about a specific phenomenon associated with the book. There is a particular story in Haunted about a boy who gets off by masturbating underwater in his swimming pool, sitting on the suction drain. Things get out of hand, and the story gets so gruesome that when Palahniuk reads it aloud at his readings, it’s become a pattern that at least one person in the audience will pass out from the combination of the heat in the room and sheer emotional revulsion. That should tell you what you need to know. Unless you’re a torture porn junkie, steer clear.

­­That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Which books changed you? What do you wish you’d never read?

You can find more awesome writing by Jessica at her blog! Click away, canaries!