Black Monday

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is time to think about Christmas shopping. I know some blogs (like Moonrat’s) have already started their gift-giving guides, but I just couldn’t bring myself to think about such things pre-Thanksgiving. Obviously, the best gifts you can give someone are not those from fancy department stores or even those you make yourself out of the kindness of your hearts. They are BOOKS!

In case you are at a loss of what to buy, here are some suggestions by genre that I hope will help/influence:

Nonfiction: Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is best known for his spot-on commentary on pop culture. Last year he ventured into fiction territory with Downtown Owl, but now he’s back with a new collection of essays that makes me very excited. If you like debating whether Barack Obama is the best spokesperson this country has ever seen, or how ABBA and AC/DC really aren’t all that different, then this book might make you excited too.

Literary Fiction: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. In true Hornby style, this book has musical obsessions, mid-life crises, and emotionally stunted characters. I admit I wasn’t a huge fan of Hornby’s past couple novels, but this book is definitely back in the same league as High Fidelity and About a Boy. I also want to give a shout out to Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, which has been on my “I know I will love this!” list all year.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone by Jeri Smith-Ready (for your vampire needs, and for your VAMPIRE DEEJAY needs!) OK, I know. We’re all vamped out. But these vamps are not sparkly, nor do these books feature a mousy damsel just waiting for a purpose when suddenly a brooding, sexy vampire walks into her life. Smith-Ready’s heroine is a con artist who runs a radio station and her deejays are vampires who only play music that was popular when they “turned.” Let’s face it: vampires are, and always will be, awesome. And these books are a welcome change in the my-boyfriend-is-a-high-school-[insert something supernatural here] trend that won’t go away.

Mystery/Thriller: In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French, and The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (yes, more vampires) by Charlaine Harris. French and Harris write mysteries in that their books open with crimes and end with culprits. But what happens in between isn’t just a set of clues routinely found by some down-and-out cop or young, handsome detective. They create wonderfully complex and interesting characters, strong female leads, and plots that keep you hooked.

Children/YA: Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor. This book for young teens features three fairy tale novellas, each dealing with the simultaneous excitement, pain, beauty, and consequences of a first kiss. For those less fantasy-inclined, Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur is heartbreakingly real. In it, eleven-year-old, Aubrey, copes with the deaths of her father and sister, and the absence of her mentally unstable mother, in this novel written in a series of letters.

Cookbook: The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. This book was written for people like me who, when left to my own devices, think nothing of microwaving some popcorn or licking a spoon clean of peanut butter and calling it dinner. I love the title and its subtle empowerment for single people. It could also be a great gift for couples. What’s sexier than competing over who prepares their single serving first? Loser does the dishes.

Comics: OK, I’ll admit I’m not that into comics or graphic novels (I only support those written by or associated with Joss Whedon), so I may not be the best person to take gift suggestions from. However, one webcomic that I read daily is Dinosaur Comics, which to me is what greatness looks like. Lo and behold, its creator, Ryan North, put out a tangible “best of” collection, appropriately titled, The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 A.D. Amazon’s author bio simply reads: “Ryan North is awesome, all the time.” So true.

If I’ve missed any genres, it means I probably don’t read them enough to have real suggestions, and therefore don’t want to mislead you. However, Publisher’s Weekly has a pretty comprehensive list if you’re so inclined.

So Happy Shopping everyone! And remember – buying books says you love, but buying books from your local independent bookstore says you care.
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See Any Good Books Lately?

So, apparently this movie Precious is out right now. It’s based on the book Push by Sapphire, and since it has gotten the Queen Oprah seal of approval, it was spared the fate of being labeled “the best indie movie you haven’t seen.” I know I should want to see this movie and the million people I know who have seen it/will see it will tell me, “Oh you must! It was so moving and powerful,” but basically I’d rather read the book.

Which brings me to my topic of the day: movie tie-in covers. I don’t know about you, but movie tie-in covers actually put me off from buying the books. I’ve been denying myself Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels because it seems the original paperback cover of Dead After Dark only exists in True Blood form now. It’s been over a year that I’ve been searching for the REAL cover, so I think I might just have to swallow my pride on this one. (Especially since there’s that boxed set out now that STILL, unfortunately, includes the True Blood cover…. arrrrgh!)

But I digress.

Other books-to-films coming soon to theaters near you are New Moon and The Road, both books of which have tie-ins (obviously). I can’t imagine a disheveled Viggo intriguing more people to buy The Road, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I can see the value in putting the public faces of Edward and Bella on the covers of the Twilight series. The non-tie-in covers seemed to do just fine without them, but now that Robert Pattinson has reached Beatlemania status among tweens with disposable income, why not sell a few more copies of books they already own? Still, I don’t remember seeing Daniel Radcliffe’s face on a certain YA fantasy series, and I think those books did OK.

What are your thoughts on tie-ins? Does anyone even care about them as much as I do? To me, they seem impure, or as another example of how people don’t actually read anymore and that they need Hollywood in order to get noticed.

I will admit to this though: I found a very old copy of Rosemary’s Baby at a flea market a couple years ago and it had the little “Now a Major Motion Picture” stamp on it and I thought it was cool. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe I can stand Hollywood’s infiltration as long as no actors grace my books with their presence… and about forty years have passed.

Unlikeable Heroes… and Villains

This week I watched Glee (obviously) and was thoroughly entertained as always until something awful happened. Without getting into specifics in case it is still saved on your Tivo, I will just say this: THEY ARE TRYING TO HUMANIZE SUE SYLVESTER!
If you don’t watch Glee (sigh…), then all you need to know is this: Who was once the perfect villain is now developing a “softer” side which makes me want to scream. Whether in literature or on screen, sometimes people are just mean. Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter  novels, recently touched on this in Entertainment Weekly, saying “My Dexter pretends to be nice. [TV’s] Dexter is trying to become nice.” And it’s true – TV Dexter now has a family and a conscience – and for what? So people can relate to the serial killer main character? 

Now, I’m all for creating dimensions in your characters. In fact, they need complexity in order for a reader to remain interested in their story. However, if I may turn the conversation back to where it started, with television, let me say that some of the better shows on television right now (other than Glee) are Arrested Development (in our hearts!), The Office, House, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And they all feature unlikeable characters. We root for Michael Scott despite his insensitivity and cluelessness. We secretly want to be members of the Bluth family. We are Dr. House. 

This trend was perfected, and therefore started, by Seinfeld, whose characters were so selfish and trapped in their inabilities to show common decency, that they were imprisoned for it. And yet. We LOVE them. They are not characters who we want to date in real life, or even have as our close friends, but we love them.  

OK, so why do we love them? For me, it’s because in real life, in adulthood anyway, there is rarely “character development” in the day-to-day. If a tragedy befalls you or your circumstances change in ways that you have to keep up with, then it is natural to alter a piece of your personality (if not your whole being). That means that if you write a story in which your character must change by the end, then I’m sorry to tell you that that is what you must do. 

This is actually something the boyfriend and I have discussed recently. One of our favorite jokes at the moment is mocking the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. Specifically, this dialogue:

Woman: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Sandra: “No, he’s changing mine.” 

Not all changes need to be that dramatic (and preferably not so poorly written). In life, changes take time and are not usually so declarative. Be subtle in your writing, but remember that if your story is more character-driven than it is plot-driven, chances are there won’t be any huge internal changes by the end anyway. In the way that a Jane Austen wedding scene makes one question the couple’s future happiness, characters like Nick Hornby’s ever-adolescent men “change” by reluctantly accepting society’s expectations.  

While keeping in mind that not everyone needs a Carrie Bradshaw “and suddenly I realized” moment, don’t be afraid to create some unlikeable characters either. Sometimes they can be the most interesting characters to read, whether protagonists or, for example, the walking embodiment of evil. Don’t feel obligated to “TV Dexter-ize them” unless you think it will better serve your narrative. Or, as the BF put it while we were discussing this, “If a character is a rapist, do we necessarily have to know why he’s a rapist?” 

An example of this that comes to mind is Push, the bully, in the Stanley Elkin short story, A Poetics for Bullies. He is by no means a rapist or murderer, but who’s to say he won’t grow up to be one? Push narrates, opening with: “I’m Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys, and kids who pass pencils and water the plants – and cripples, especially cripples.” 

Elkin gives us glimpses as to why and how Push is the way he is, but he never implies “and this is why you should feel bad for him.” He just is what he is, and not to ruin it, but he doesn’t exactly become a better person in the end. And yet. We care. And even if he doesn’t want us to, we end up loving him.

What Do You Know?

Aside from “show, don’t tell,” the most overused writing maxim is arguably, “write what you know.” As a former student of creative nonfiction, I took this advice quite literally. In fiction, however, those words can get a little tricky. I know fiction writers who worry that “writing what they know” might be considered cheating in some way. As if using characters, situations, or settings from one’s own life makes the act of “creating” somehow illegitimate. To them I say, pshaw! Some of the greatest novels of all-time came from authors who were just writing about aspects of their own lives. Salinger’s Upper West Side, Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, Didion’s California… and on and on and on. 

I got to thinking about all of this while reading Twelve by wunderkind Nick McDonell. Since it is a scientific impossibility to mention this book without mentioning that he was seventeen when he wrote it, I must say that this then-child took the oldest rule in the book and turned it into brilliance (granted, I’m only halfway through). Of course, it helps that “what he knows” is the privileged, unsupervised world of rich Upper East Side teens, just as it must have helped Salinger, Fitzgerald, and basically everyone else to use this maxim to their advantages that their worlds were far more glamorous, interesting, or devastating than our own.

Most authors aren’t so transparent in their abilities to capture their own experiences. The most otherworldly of science fiction novels are often rooted in truth, or at least truth as the author sees it. Fears stemming from real-life events such as wars abroad or government influence at home are usually the influence of good sci-fi, and fantasies can be as simple as an exaggeration of the real world (the main difference being that in these parallel universes one or more of the characters possess magical abilities).

In “realistic” fiction, authors have the option of using their own lives overtly. But I think, more often, what they know is revealed more subtly. It can be the basis for a setting (Denis Lehane’s Boston) or at the heart of an experience (Raymond Carver’s gin-soaked problems of middle-class America) or be purely emotional (dare I mention A Million Little Pieces without sparking a fiction vs. memoir debate?).

What are the ways you use your own experiences in your fiction? Or, for nonfiction writers, do you ever find yourselves editing your lives in order to keep certain “things you know” for yourselves? That used to be a concern of mine when I wrote personal essays. Now that I’m entertaining the idea of fiction, I’m thinking about it even more because fiction is… for lack of a better word… frightening. I don’t know how anyone does it without incorporating at least a portion of his or her own life.

Further, what are some of your favorite author-inspired novels (as I’ll call them, I guess)?