Jennifer Astle

August 5, 2009

Book Review: It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong

it-sucked-and-then-i-cried-armstrongIf you read Dooce.com, then you are familiar with Heather Armstrong and her deeply sarcastic, somewhat sardonic sense of humor.  Armstrong regularly pumps out wit faster than MacDonald’s pumps out Big Macs, often amusing many, and enraging the odd wing nut.

At her blog, she talks about life the way we only wish we could; all of this after clearly expressing that she is exerting extreme restraint after getting fired for blogging about her boss and pissing off a few Mormons.  Before blogging was even a commonly used term, someone gave the girl a laptop, a wireless Internet connection and a way with words, and for that us sarcasm-aholics are grateful.  To put it plainly, she’s as funny as I wish I was.  Even her ridiculously excessive use of caps lock can’t make her less funny.

So, when I got my hands on a copy of It Sucked and Then I Cried I knew I had to read it.  Even though the subject matter is of absolutely no interest to me (I’m not a baby person), I couldn’t put it down.  This, I think, is the true testament of an excellent writer; the ability to make even calculus sound riveting. From her blog Armstrong writes of the book;

A few weeks ago when my publisher sent me several copies of my book in its final incarnation, I opened the box very slowly while Leta sat on a stool at the counter next to me. She was terribly excited because she thought it was a present from Santa Claus, and I assured her it was EVEN BETTER THAN THAT. Because look! It was a book I had written about her! Called It Sucked and then I Cried! HA HA! GET IT? GET IT? YOUR THERAPIST IS GOING TO LOVE ME! (Source).

Even when I got to the part about the dreaded evil episiotomy, I kept right on reading, because it really does take a lot of comedic talent to make that sound funny.  Her narrative of her pregnancy and the months following is honest, and you feel like you are riding the same see-saw of emotions she describes; wavering between extreme satisfaction and frustration.  You get a sense of what the pressure is really like, what people are really thinking, and how far they are willing to go to be better.  These more intense moments are nicely punctuated by letters to her daughter, Leta, in which she continues her sarcastic style, but is assertive about her deep love for the child and moments of sincere love for Leta’s father, that made me want to hug my husband.

As someone who is, and shall stay childless, and deeply skeptical of the Cult of Children, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with this read, but Heather Armstrong delivers more than just babies.  I highly recommend it to anyone who loves children, hates children, or is having or thinking of having a child.

May 5, 2009

Book Review: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

almostmoonWriters are very aware of this thing called a hook.  The hook, in reference to literary agents is the line you use to, well, hook them in your query letter.  That’s not the only time the hook comes into play.  It is generally accepted that a writer, once they actually have a book in print, have only won half the battle; the other half being hooking the reader.  It is also generally accepted that a writer has only sixty or so pages in which to do so.

Most books use every last inch of those sixty pages to build toward the books theme and story line, gradually sucking the reader into the remaining three hundred or so pages by getting them invested in the story during those first critical chapters.  Very rarely does a writer manage to hook me in the first page, let alone the very first sentence.  Alice Sebold takes the prize for the most intriguing opening to a book I have ever had the pleasure to read.

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

Eleven words. That’s all.  Brief, succinct, and brilliant. Why did she kill her own mother?  And for that matter, why did it come so easily?  These are the very soul shaking questions the reader is left with as (s)he makes her way through the rest of the page, and inevitably, the entire novel.

Although, soul shaking is nothing new for Sebold.  Whatever source of personal anguish/professional insight she has brought to the literary table, Sebold has tapped into that je ne sais quoi, that certain something.

I knew this to be true when I read Sebold’s first book, Lucky.  Believe it or not, it was required reading for a seminar course in research methods during my last semester of my undergraduate year.  Despite the fact that I was putting the finishing touches on my thesis, and was just barely glancing at other required readings, I gave Lucky a shot.  The course focused on ethnography, and the book, I knew, was a memoir about Sebold’s rape while in college. I’ll tell you, as writer, it takes a solid brass set to spill your personal demons on the pages in the manner Sebold did and not have to be swept up off the floor afterwards.

Since then, Sebold has continued to impress with The Lovely Bones, which I hear is being made into a movie.  Success then, for a writer, must mean having your words made into images.  The Almost Moon could just as easily be brought to film.  I, however, wouldn’t watch it.  I wouldn’t want to ruin that feeling of urgency I had while reading it, that intense desire to get to the next page, to get more information, to find out what happens to Helen, the murderous daughter.  That single brilliant line simply can not be transfered to the screen without losing the magic.

So read it.  But be ready to devote twenty four hours to following Helen in the twenty four hours after killing her mother, and all of the baggage, rage, sympathy, and stoic resiliance the book will bring you.

March 23, 2009

Remembering Ron MacDonald

id2171For many the name Ronald MacDonald might conjur images of a red-haired clown who peddles french fries and cheesburgers.  In my case, it conjurs images of a red-haired teacher who peddled the English language and literature.  Ron MacDonald was one of my most memorable teachers in high school.

He had a huge bookcase in his classroom, filled with books that he lent out liberally to students.  Once I approached him to apologize for being late in returning one particular novel, and he (somewhat jokingly, I imagine) repsonded with “You know, stealing books shouldn’t be criminal.”

Once he called me after class and I was certain I was in trouble (probably pushing the envelop for what was considered acceptable in young literature, I have a bit of a dark streak when it comes to fiction).  Instead, he handed me a well used copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the epic books of my youth.  Although I was always a reader, he became sort of a book pusher, constantly suggesting books I might find interesting.  He also gave me The Giver, which I read cover to cover in one afternoon flat and still remember with alarming clarity (those gray eyes…).

He was an old scotsman I believe, and had a bright red face (that most of us I suspect, attributed to his drinking).  He had a handle bar mustache and a habit of getting food lodged in there, but he would stand in front of the class room and teach us as though we all wanted to grow up to be literary masters.  He took little notice of students who took little notice of him,  but those who expressed an interest in literature were nurtured and constantly supplied with books.

Sadly, he passed away while I was still in university.  Living a life of a bachelor, I like to imagine that he was in fact, married to his books.  To this day, I can look at my bookshelf and see volumes that were passed from his hands to mine and think fondly of all that he taught me.

Update:  Says Beth Button, a classmate of mine and a relative of Mr. MacDonald’s;

He came up in conversation recently. Ronnie was a pretty close family member. Notorious for being eccentric and also for buying every single christmas present in a theme each year. I think if I had known him now, I would have appreciated him so much more than I did as a kid.

A bachelor who died without a will or any real indication of what he wanted. Instead of the traditional funeral, we all gathered at another family member’s house in a circle, with his tobacco pipe, and passed the pipe around as family members had an opportunity to tell a story or share thoughts. In it’s own way it was quite beautiful.

Of course then there was drinking.

March 22, 2009

Weekend Reading: Writer’s Block and My Overflowing Bookshelf

procrastination-main_fullWriter’s Block.  That terrible, ever-lurking antithesis to “the flow” of which writers speak is a very real thing.  To someone who does not write extensively, it may seem easy to cast the notion off as silly, and inextricably linked to ego, but in reality, it can interupt a writer’s work and frustrate the bejesus out of them.  Flow, on the other hand, is that glorious pace a writer can find where the words seem to come from the fingers (or pen) first and the mind later.  It’s a constant race to keep up with yourself before the next moment flutters out of your mind like a butterfly and is lost forever.  This can last four hours before the writer is broken from the trance and brought back to the reality of dinner that must be made, day jobs that must be worked, and bills that must be paid.

I don’t know what other writer’s do when they experience Writer’s Block.  I’ve found sites for writing prompts and ideas, but ultimately a prompt that says “write about a red ball” is unlikely to shake me out of reality, and back into that dream world that writers create for themselves.  Someone once told me to keep my head above the clouds.  My immediate reaction was that it was mis-phrased; it should have read keep your head out of the clouds.  I didn’t understand properly then what was meant by that, but I do now.  Above the clouds is where creativity flows, and sometimes it is impossible not to come down, into the clouds,  and subsequently back into reality where there is traffic, phones ringing, appointments, and all of the mundane practices that make up this thing we call life.

When I have Writer’s Block, I read.  I’m always reading something, and in fact, I can hardly remember a period of time where I wasn’t completely absorbed in one book or another.  For the year I wrote literally nothing, I was completely wrapped up in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, a seven book monolith that makes The Stand look like a Sunday paper.

This may explain the current state of my bookshelf.  I’ve rationalized my Writer’s Block down to a few things, including the fact that I have my first short story making its rounds in literary magazines and contests, and somewhere deep inside me I am waiting for judgement/affirmation.  The second cause is related to research.  My book-in-progress is deeply rooted in religion, mythology,  psychology, and to some extent, sociology.  At 20,000 words I simply hit a point where the idea was no longer enough, I needed background knowledge to keep the train chugging along.

So, for a little change, I am offering my weekend reading list.

1984 by George Orwell

Until now, I hadn’t read this book.  Not only did I know that I must read it because it is a classic, but the subject matter interests me greatly.  I can hardly put it down and it has been dominating my reading for the last week. I plan to finish the last 30 or so pages today.  While reading it I have to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1949, and renew my admiration for Orwell’s construction of a future society.  As a sociologist at heart, this book is fascinating.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I found Sebold during a seminar course on Ethnography in my undergraduate degree.  Our professor assigned Lucky, a biographical account of her rape while attending college.  The Lovely Bones was her next book, which also took me in.  I expect The Almost Moon to live up to my expectations of Sebold’s ability to capture me.

2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market

Otherwise known as the bible.  I am going through this volume painstakingly, absorbing all of the information about the publishing industry I can cram into my 26 year old brain.  What are agents, publishers, and editors telling me?  How can I use it in the future?  I know that I can break down countless boundaries if I am prepared, and I intend to be.

The Lilith Monographs Vol. I: Immaculata by Joshua Seraphim

This is directly related to my book, in which the main character is Lilith, or rather my version of her.

Lilith: The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz

See above.

Glimmer Train Spring 2009 Issue 70

Glimmer Train is the first literary magazine I have subscribed to.  The first issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday and since then it has been waiting patiently underneath 1984, waiting to be picked up next.  I’m reading it partly to learn what other writer’s are selling, to compare as objectively as I can, the quality of the work therein versus my own, and to absorb great literature from the future authors of classics that will come about in my life time.  As my writing income grows, so too will my collection of literary magazines.  For those who do not subscribe, I highly recommend it.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This is a slow read for me.  I can only keep my attention focused on congressional history and legislative process for so long.  I also feel this is a necessary read.  Obama is an eloquent and moving writer, and knowing full well that he will become known as one of the great thinkers of our time, I am compelled to read through the political jargon to hear the message behind it.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis

This was recommended to me by a friend who works in the legal system in the United Kingdom.  It focuses on a public defender in Chicago, named Marijane Placek, a “snakeskin boot-wearing, Shakespeare quoting nonconformist.”  Needless to say, she knows my taste.

What’s on yours?

March 12, 2009

The Great #QueryFail Debate

fail281

I sold my soul signed up for a Twitter account this morning.  I have resisted the beast until now.  I wanted to have a look at the phenomenon that is #queryfail.  A handful of literary agents, editors, and other industry “insiders” have been sharing reasons why query letters get rejected.  The query mistakes range from bizarre to simply ignorant (both equally unacceptable). #QueryFail Day on Twitter is the creation of Colleen Lindsay.  This is what she has to say about #queryfail;

Today is #Queryfail Day on Twitter, the first of what will probably become a monthly or semi-monthly experience. What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? * rubs hands together gleefully * A group of online agents, book editors and periodicals acquisition editors are posting about their queries in real time. The idea is to educate people about what exactly it is in a query that made us stop reading and say “Not for me.” We’re being very careful not to include personal identifiers of any kind. The idea isn’t to mock or be intentionally cruel, but to educate.

Here is a sampling for your reading pain/pleasure;

ChristianPubTip: It’s a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have.#queryfail

danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously
have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail

danielliterary: Say you don’t know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email?
Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail

angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don’t need to know your life history. I need to know about
the book. #queryfail

angelajames: “passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page” makes me think your
book is going to be overwritten #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: @bookavore I just delete all queries that come in addressed to Dear Sir, To Whom It
May Concern or Dear Agent. #queryfail

danielliterary: Call yourself a “published author” when what you really mean is “self-published”?
#queryfail

bostonbookgirl: Including a creepy photo of you clearly taken about 20 years ago? You have just taken
your first step on the road to #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of “me, me, me, look how wonderful I
am!” – #queryfail.

mattwagner: “My proposal is a work in progress.” Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying,
#queryfail

danielliterary: Addresses me “Dear Sir/Madam…”? #queryfail

I deliberately excluded the #queryfails for the BDSM photo included with the letter, the mothers who want to educate their daughters about pimps, and the con-men who are finally ready to tell their stories.  Self-explanatory.

I, like others, am incredibly interested in this debate.  Netta at WordWebbing.com had this to say;

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what is done in public, what the hell goes on in private? But then, it’s private and I don’t have to know. I also wondered if these agents, who took time out of a busy day to skewer the hapless writer, ever took the time to contact the writer and tell them, in private and in a professional way, just what it was that made the query fail. Feel me?

I feel you.  Rejection is important.  It’s more important than succeeding, because succeeding doesn’t really teach you anything.  You already knew how to do it in the first place.  I can see where there would be concern over the feelings of some poor hapless writer venturing into the mysterious world of Getting Published. That said, not every writer (ahem) follows Twitter, so the personal contact offering constructive criticisms (to the honest mistakes, not the con-men and crazies) would be useful.  I would venture to guess though, that not every literary agent has the time to write a personalized assessment of my crappy query letter.  They have more bad query letters to read you know.

As a whole I think we have become too sensitive to rejection and failure.  No, I don’t like failure.  I’m not a complete idiot.  But, I learn from my mistakes and hopefully refrain from making them again.  No, I don’t want to be another hilarious #queryfail tweet, but I do want to know how NOT to write a query letter, so I learn from the mistakes of others. It seems that this would be common sense to most, but common sense seems to be about as common as horse-drawn buggies these days (see: Pimps for Dummies #queryfail).

Still, some are up in arms about the snarkiness that can come along with some of the fails, but honestly, they seem to deserve it.  Besides, telling an agent or an editor that they’re doing it wrong would be like telling God she built the universe wrong, and that, I suspect, would land you in the #queryfail pile.

March 10, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized Pt. 2: Could Kindle Really Change Everything?

kindle3Last time, I talked about the supposed demise of books due to the technological revolution and the uphill battle that publishers and pushers of paper of all kinds are facing with the combined force of a weakened economy and a (relatively) free forum like the Internet from which to gather information.  I questioned whether Amazon’s Kindle could really convince the market to switch from paper to processor and from books to e-books, even with a screen bright enough to allow you to read in a bar.

I did however, recognize the benefits that a device like Kindle could have on a struggling educational system.  I’m probably not the first to think of this, but I do think it is an excellent point; this device, if provided to school and college aged kids, could revolutionize the way they read, research, write, and learn.  If a university student doesn’t have to pay for or travel to obtain access to a scholarly journal or book, they are much more likely to read and implement it in their educational process. That got me imagining what else Kindle could do.

Newspapers and magazines are struggling, and there is no end in sight.  Even the formidable New York Times is having trouble making it from paycheck to paycheck, and having to do a real estate shuffle to stay afloat. Sacramento Bee staffers took a pay cut so to prevent further layoffs.  There is a debate going on as to whether free online content is to blame and whether newspapers can stay in business by requesting “micropayments” (e.g. 10 cents per click) or offering content on a subscription basis.  Similarly, magazines (although bought and paid for) are losing advertising money and are cutting back accordingly.

So where does Kindle come in?  Let’s suppose for a moment that Kindle could access the Internet on a wireless connection .  Then let’s suppose that Kindle offered a database of not only books, but current “print” copies of newspapers (not web versions, but Kindle friendly versions of the actual paper), magazines, and other reading materials.  So, for example, let’s say I want a subscription to the New York Times, but I am one of those people who have come of age with a cell phone in one hand and an iPod in the other.  I would read the NYT but, I am not someone who will lug around a bulky paper. I will just wait until I get home, visit the New York Times website and get all of my information there.

Now let’s say that Amazon offered a subscription to the New York Times via Kindle.  I could access the newspaper from my device where ever I wanted it.  Let’s say the same goes for magazines.  Of course, subscriptions would have to be cheap, which they could be if paper was eliminated and it was all web-based.  Newspapers and magazines could offer their product to another audience, the crucial one that doesn’t necessarily have a web-based phone on which to access news and information (which even on a BlackBerry still looks like it belongs somewhere circa 1999), but isn’t inclined to purchase papers or magazines for various reasons.  Let’s take it a step further and add blogs.  Now readers can access books, magazines, newspaper, journals, and blogs.  With Kindle (and enough storage space on the device) there is the potential to build an entire library of reference material that doesn’t get thrown away, is easily and instantaneously accessible, and is compatible with today’s web-based generation of iPod addicts and technology savvy users.  Hell, a tree or two might be saved after all.

So, if these technologies are already available, why aren’t we using them?  If anyone has the power to convince the world that Kindle could mean a reading and writing renaissance, it is Amazon.  It’s up to them (and us, as consumers) to decide what use will be made of the technology.  Not everyone will buy a Kindle (or a similar device), many will want to stick with the traditional paper versions of various media.  I only pose one question; isn’t it better to read a paper on Kindle than it is for the paper to go under altogether?

At Amazon, we’ve always been obsessed with having every book ever printed, and we know that even the best reading device would be useless without a massive selection of books. Today, the Kindle Store has more than 240,000 books available, plus top newspapers, magazines, and blogs. This is just the beginning. Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle. We won’t stop until we get there.

Whether you prefer biographies, classics, investment guides, thrillers, or sci-fi, thousands of your favorite books are available, including 102 of 111 books currently found on the New York Times® Best Seller list. New York Times Best Sellers and most new releases are $9.99, and you’ll find many books for less. (Source: Amazon).

March 9, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Books Meet Technology

kindleThere is no doubt that as a society we are bombarded by media from the moment we wake until the moment our heads hit the pillow (or longer, if you fall asleep with the television on).  News, movies, television, magazines, YouTube, Facebook, billboards, it’s everywhere.  But what of books?

Quite possibly the oldest, and longest lasting form of media, books face an uphill battle in the face of quick media like blogs, Twitter, and social network status updates.  Not to mention, many books are transformed into films or television spin-offs that make visual access more efficient than reading a few hundred pages.

Where does this leave the future of books?  E-books are a huge phenomenon barely heard of only a few years ago.  Amazon guru and Kindle backer, Jeff Bezos, would have you reading all of your books in digital format on his device, which retails for about $350.  That, of course, does not include the cost of the books themselves, which can be downloaded for an average of $10 for each of the roughly 250,000 titles offered on the electronic medium. Kindle is even available on your iPod.

The Huffington Post advocates for the digitization of books, arguing that the electronic medium makes it possible to read in the dark, like while at a bar or in bed, without having to turn on a light or lug a heavy volume around with you.

But does that satisfy the same feeling as thumbing through page after page as you read?  Are we trying to improve something that was perfect in it’s original form?  I take great pride in looking at my bookcases and seeing the collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I have accumulated throughout the years.  Despite being broke in my days as a student, I rarely re-sold textbooks  to the bookstore for credit.  There is something to be said of the tangible quality of holding a book in your hands.

On the other hand, imagine the possibilities if devices such as Kindle were commonplace in schools.  Imagine the possibilities of equipping students with a device pre-loaded with books, texts, and resources.  Imagine if a student need only buy the device (or have it donated) and could read ahead, easily reference back to materials, and access new literature instantly, all in one place.  The possibilities are endless.  University students would love this idea.  Purchase a Kindle for $350 (not that much more than the cost of a textbook or two), and offer texts, journal subscriptions, and other reference materail at a discounted rate.  Universities could even include the device as part of tuition.

So while I am wary of the digitization of books for a variety of reasons, I also see the value. But personally, if I like a book, I will buy it…in it’s good old fashioned form.  Sorry trees.

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