Water for Elephants, Sustenance for Me

I don't know why I'm so attached to Water for Elephants. It's not over-the-top creative or still on any bestsellers lists, but it's one of the books I would take to that hypothetical desert island (Don't worry, we'll get to that later).

It's a story about Jacob Jankowski, a young Polish man who accidentally runs away with the circus after a family tragedy. Stumbling into the world of train circuses he meets Marlena, a breathtaking creature who enchants and commands a dozen horses during the liberty act. Wave after wave of new experiences crash over Jacob, but one of the most powerful is when Rosie, a mischievous elephant, is added to the circus.

Gruen made the train circus real - the roustabouts, the kinkers, the cooch tent and patches - everything felt as if you'd walked straight into the Grand Spec. The backdrop of the 1920's is vibrant; speakeasies, jake leg and liquor raids all take their place among the bread lines and hobo jungles. Gruen artistically balances quiet romance with depressing realism and I can't get enough of it.

Why I hate JK Rowling

Full disclosure: I am biased. Harry Potter is one of my favorite series. Calling them children’s books is damning with faint praise, and I’m continually surprised by how well written and well-crafted they are.

And I think that in the beginning, she was an author to respect. She was smart enough to use initials instead of Joanne Rowling. Because, let's face it, it's still a sexist world we live in and women have to write the "right" kind of book (like EAT PRAY LOVE) in order for them to sell. She committed to her world a hundred and ten percent; transforming silly words like Quiddich and muggle into everyday language. But since she has become famous, her personality has shone through. And man, is it disappointing.

First, the suing of a fan; a diehard, worshipping-her-world fan. A man named Vander Ark ran a Harry Potter fansite as a hobby. He declined to publish an encyclopedia because he didn’t want to violate copyright laws. But when the last book was published and he was approached by RDR Books with a promise copyright laws would be intact, he agreed to move forward. Rowling’s response to a fan she previously awarded? Suing him. Calling his work “inferior,” she went on and on about how she was losing the will to write. Let’s make note that this is after she has finished the world-famous seventh and final book. Yes, he is destroying her. Clearly suing him was the only option. I just have to wonder Rowling: do you not have enough money or do you have so many fans that one of your most loyal is expendable? A slap in the face to him and a warning to passionate fans worldwide.

Second, she panicked about being out of the media spotlight so she made up a controversial lie about one of her most beloved characters. I have no problem with Dumbledore being gay. If he wants to chase wands not skirts, sure. Whatever makes one of the most legendary men in the wizarding world want to get off, works for me. But make that a character trait, not a publicity stunt to draw attention back to yourself. There was nothing in any of the books (including the last one) that even hinted at homosexual attraction. You've had your 15 minutes; retreat gracefully. Oh no, wait....too late. It's a disappointment. Fans grew to love Dumbledore and whether they are supportive of his new lifestyle or not, it's still a cold shock. Again, a slap in the face to the people who live in her wizarding world.

So it seems that anytime Rowling makes news, it is to dishearten her fans. While I will forever appreciate the art and love the characters, I can only be continually disappointed in their creator.

Stand for Free Speech or Fall for Anything

“Do the right thing and stop selling products that promote criminal violence against living beings.” This bold statement is found in Tracy Reiman’s, the Executive VP of PETA, letter to Amazon asking it to remove offensive content. This is heartfelt and honest, written with the best intentions for animals and people alike. And while Reiman makes a good point, I feel that the protection of our freedom of speech, even in situations we might not like, takes precedence.

Imagine if we didn’t have this first of our Amendments. Reiman might not even be able to write her passionate, seething letter to Amazon. She might not be allowed to express her opinion without fear of repercussions.

“Censorship (is) inconsistent with American values…the Internet is, and must remain, the most open marketplace of ideas in the history of the world. Limiting its reach has a direct impact on the speech and privacy rights of all Americans.” Michael Macleod-Ball from the ACLU is clear about his stance on freedom of speech and censorship. And it’s really one or the other.

So the question is: whose side are you on?

I’m free speech all the way. Look at our list of banned books. How many on this list are classics that we now can’t imagine living without? How many works have pushed social issues into the forefront even though it’s uncomfortable? But more importantly, how are we supposed to live if we are forever afraid of offending?

Don’t be hypocritical. Either stand for free speech or move out of its way. If we bend and cave for every unhappy party, we will find ourselves living within the pages of Fahrenheit 451 before we realize it.

Oh, and fyi, I was totally going to read The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure. I bet you’re not surprised.

Can't Stop Looking at the Birdie

Vonnegut's posthumous work Look at the Birdie is refreshing. I miss Vonnegut. His passing ended a long list of controversial classics. Look at the Birdie is a collection of short stories, some rougher than others. In the forward by Sidney Offit, he says that there are no unpublished stories by Vonnegut because he is so precise, and I agree. These were not published for a reason, for whatever imperfection Vonnegut felt they still carried. But in his infamy, nothing is safe. His fans, and I am one proudly, hunger for anything in his voice. So here they are and what they say to me:

Confido - human nature is a poison.
FUBAR - heaven is found in your little corner of the world.
Shout It From the Housetops - the truth is unbearable unless you accept it.
Ed Luby's Key Club - an example of how the world treats those who are honest within it.
A Song For Selma - our judgments are easily influenced.
Hall of Mirrors - we build our worlds to destroy ourselves.
The Nice Little People - unconscious desires will always work their way out.
Hello, Red - we can choose our futures.
Little Drops of Water - habits make the man.
The Petrified Ants - we allow our own demise.
The Honor of a Newsboy - our weaknesses will destroy us.
Look At The Birdie - the powerlessness of life.
King and Queen of the Universe - life's purpose finds you, not the other way around.
The Good Explainer - our past is forever woven into us.

One of my favorite moments in the whole book: "My conclusion was that the man was crazy, and I was about to drive off when I heard what sounded like a scream from the back of the house. I thought maybe I'd interrupted him while he was murdering his wife, thought he'd gone back to it now." From Shout It From The Housetops, this is uniquely Vonnegut. Grim, witty and unexpected. The pages are wrought from this quirky genius and show us that even when it's imperfect, it's still impactful.

Once or twice I felt as if a short story was a nugget filed away for future use, a seed which would grow into another post-apocalyptic nonsensical revelation about our world; not incomplete but without the room to flourish. I found a few of them were heavy handed in their message; perhaps why Vonnegut shelved them. Two of them were so poetic I had to stop turning pages and grant them a moment of silence. But throughout there is the quirk and charm that Vonnegut has wooed so many with. If you have not peeked into his reality, Look at the Birdie is perfect for a few curious glimpses.

Afterwards, perhaps you will feel as I do upon closing his works: that I "had finally seen a little something of life."

Unique, Freaky and Long-Winded

I’m not a business major, economically curious or even slightly inclined in that direction. But Freakonomics was presented as the book for me; a non-detail intensive look at curiously intertwined realistic situations. A combined effort between the ideas of award-winning economist Professor Steven D. Levitt and the pen of New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner, the book jacket claims it “will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.” My interest was piqued.

207 pages of unique economic questions lay before me, but it was the introduction of the “characters” that I found addicting and refreshing. In truth I would probably enjoy Dubner’s New York Times Magazine article about Levitt more than I enjoyed their book. Levitt’s a curious individual, humble and extraordinary; Dubner is a skilled writer, intuitive about human nature and poetic in its’ portrayal.

From the beginning, I saw that Levitt’s ideas were unique. I mean, who thinks to connect legalizing abortion with a decrease in the crime rate? Certainly no one else I’ve heard about. Levitt’s theory is this: the women who appreciate abortion as a legalized option are primarily low income, less educated and low socioeconomic status. Children born into these conditions are much more likely to commit crimes (he gives statistics). Now, consider if these mothers can choose to not have these children and all the children statistically inclined to commit crimes are not born; ergo crime decreases. A brilliant idea. But really, a paragraph such as this is all that is necessary for me to appreciate it. Freakonomics continues the idea for five or so pages, five more pages than necessary.

I liked the idea, but felt they missed their mark. Trying to make economics interesting to the mass, business-uneducated population is a lofty goal. They gave it a heroic effort, but ultimately overshot by about 157 pages.

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Today is the day,
Its’ been anticipated
Today is your day,
You’ll be celebrated

Theodor Seuss Geisel, lovingly known to youngsters everywhere as simply Dr. Seuss, was born this day in 1904. He’s published over 60 books, starting with And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street in 1937 to Oh The Places You’ll Go as his last book in 1990. I could talk about how his books have sold over 222 million copies and been translated into more than 15 languages (numbers which I’m sure don’t surprise anyone). I could lecture on his poetic use of language and the rhythm of his anapestic tetrameter verses.

But I’d rather bask in the child-like joy that I experience reading his stories. There are so many that are favorites: Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, I Can Lick Thirty Tigers Today, Star-bellied Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now, Cat in the Hat, and Hop on Pop.

I was delighted with Green Eggs and Ham, reading and rereading it until I could quote it cover to cover. I fell in love with the vain and confused Sneetches, laughed as Yertle the Turtle was covered in mud, delighted in all the children named Dave who sent Marvin K Mooney on his way, and feared for the small one talking himself out of beating up tigers.

In my first grade class we had a green food-colored feast to celebrate our book, as I’m sure other kids did all over the country. Every kid in my class loved his books; the color, the rhymes, the characters, the unorthodox stories and the made-up words. Under his pen reading was play, and kids who never cared to read before would devour the pages. The National Education Association’s Read Across America Program happens every year on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, encouraging kids and teens across the country to pick up a book, and they couldn’t have picked a better author.

We Miss You – March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991

All Atwitter About The Fake AP Stylebook

Twitter is bringing the literary world new sensations, but none so delectably satisfying as The Fake AP Stylebook. The page is very similar in appearance to the real AP Stylebook, with the exception of "If you use this you will get fired!" in the corner. This hilarious site pokes fun at the stodgy, stuffy and restricting real AP Stylebook that journalists are so familiar with.

Editorial rules are tweeted and each one seems funnier than the next. A few examples of my favorites:
@hanged/hung - Hanged refers to an execution. You know what hung refers to. We're all adults here.
@STAR WARS Episodes IV-VI are to be referred to as "The Original Trilogy." Episodes I-III are not to be referred to at all.
@Use "gay" or "lesbian" to refer to people, "alternative lifestyle" to refer to Trekkies and Twilight fans.
@Don't confuse "philanthropist" and "philanderer," no matter how much they both put stuff in people's pockets.

Of course, the success of this site, even Twitter itself, leads to the inevitable discussion of print vs. viral. To most, if not all, it seems as if the print world is suffering. Newspaper circulation is declining, books are published electronically and getting your creative voice heard now only requires texting 140 characters. Indeed, the trend implies that literary print will be a thing of the past.

But to this I say, Nay! The two main men who run the Fake AP Stylebook page and manage the online contributors, Ken Lowery and Mark Hale, have been offered a book deal. A physical editor will critique and improve their tweets, form them into a cohesive whole and then place it on bookstore shelves. Their viral success has landed them success in the print world. There is further proof that print is viable and kicking still; this whole site would have failed if not for the copyeditors who find it so humorous, such as myself. If it weren't for the editors who used the book religiously for their print publications, there would be no market for the online parody. 

The brilliance of this site is twofold. First, it is hilarious and original. It offers relief from the constant pressure of correct punctuation that its more serious companion dictates. Second, the Fake AP Stylebook accomplishes something much bigger, almost unintentionally. This page illustrates the possibilities for the future of writing, both online and in print. It embraces the print world while it jabs companionably at it, and leads by example on bringing the two worlds together.

Her Fearful Sophomoric Attempt

Seldom do I buy a book sight unseen, on only author’s name and fame alone, but I decided to take a chance on Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, because her first book of fame, The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favorite books of all time. I will not make that mistake again.

Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t a bad book, but it’s not brilliant. It’s readable, but I won’t tell anyone about it. The basic premise is about two sets of twins, the older set being mother/aunt to the younger set. The story opens with the death of Elspeth, one of the older twins. She has left her apartment in London to her nieces, upon the condition that they live there for a year before they sell it. The nieces, Julia and Valentina, move into their aunt’s house as she haunts it. Then the story gets completely convoluted.

In the end, all the characters got what they wanted, but weren’t happy about it. This could have been a lesson, but as a reader, apathy overtook any other emotion. Niffenegger did have her moments of brilliance, but having the characters comment on that brilliance reduces its impact significantly. The climactic moments were so heavily foreshadowed that they were obvious and disappointing. If she had spent less time adoring herself and a little longer creating characters we could fall in love with, there might have been a ghost of a chance for Her Fearful Symmetry.

The Robot Detective

"I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader - and yet would be a true science fiction story," Isaac Asimov states in the beginning of Caves of Steel.  And he succeeded.

It's difficult to write a science fiction book that creates a viable and breathing world; it's a completely different skill to create a world that is scientifically relevant 60 years later. In Asimov's Earth, humans live in enclosed, self-contained Cities of millions, live off of yeast rations and fear entering open air. Other planets have been colonized and warred with Earth for their freedom. His ideas pulse in worlds where daily things are made strange and miraculous; the crunchiness of an apple, the whispering sensation of wind, night falling. But I wouldn't expect any less from the man who coined the term "robotics."

In this strange future, Earth detective Elijah Baley has to solve the murder of a prominent man from the Outer Worlds, a Spacer. The City bubbles with anti-robot riots and churns with contempt for the occupying Spacers. To maintain the delicate balance of peace between the Spacers and Earthmen, Baley must solve the murder before his Spacer partner does. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, is his only aid as he investigates, interviews and instigates discord until something breaks. His friends, Spacers, his fellow officers, his robot partner, even his wife are caught up in the investigation.

Completely apart from brilliant time-tested science fiction, this novel stands up as a well written mystery. The reader can make guesses, but it's only in the last 5 pages, when Asimov decides, that the mystery unravels. All the twists, wrong guesses, turns and near misses crystallize into that moment of realization that makes a mystery worth the adventure. To those who say a good science fiction mystery is a contradiction in terms, I challenge them to read Caves of Steel. Upon closing the pages, you will not only be convinced, but addicted.

Veronika Decides to Die and Should Have

Veronika Decides to Die. Catchy, right? This title drew me in completely. The book is beautifully written, tragically romantic; a portraiture of human nature at it's most hopeful and in it's barest moments. Yet in the final pages, the beauty falls away to reveal a manipulative puppet and his prank.

"Veronika had decided to die on that lovely Ljubljana afternoon, with Bolivian musicians playing in the square, with a young man passing by her window, and she was happy with what her eyes could see and her ears could hear. She was even happier that she would not have to go on seeing those same things for another thirty, forty, or fifty years, because they would lose all their originality and be transformed into the tragedy of a life in which everything repeats itself and where one day is exactly like another."

Truly, it began with such hope. A young woman, Veronika, from Slovenia decides to kill herself. She had two very well thought-out reasons to die: everything in her life was the same and the only change that would be imminent was death anyway, and second, the world was continually becoming a worse place to live and she was powerless to stop it. But her suicide attempt was only that. As a result she was taken to Vilette, a mental hospital, where she is told her attempt on her life shortened it to mere days. In Vilette, under her death sentence, she learns the flexible definition of "crazy," the fulfillment and richness to be enjoyed from a life lived and an appreciation for every single day.

And then Paulo Coelho pulls the rug out from underneath his characters and the whole card castle comes tumbling down. Dr. Igor, the doctor who runs Vilette, was experimenting on Veronika, seeing if the fear of dying would cure her imbalance of what he calls "bitterness." If Veronika had died, then at least she would have lived in the time given her. But now, she will end up right where she started, only older and more worn. Her life will become the tragedy she always feared. In the end, nothing changed. The experience is a farce, a reality that reveals itself to be a dream. As the reality leaves, the color, emotions and truths disperse into meaninglessness and leave the reader not only unsatisfied but robbed.
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