Reading Thoughts: THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll

9781442465954_custom-12f4f2d06ce64eed4edd127cad7febc6833a41bb-s400-c85

I didn’t think I’d get creeped out by this graphic novel I stole from my boyfriend’s house…but I did. I live on a pretty busy street, and the city noise that seeps into my room is usually quite comforting. However, when I was reading Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, I jumped at every sound outside my window.

The artwork was beautiful—and of course, creepy. But mainly beautiful. My two favorite stories were “Our Neighbor’s House” and “My Friend Janna.” Anyone who loves fairy tales and reminisces about reading Scary Stories to tell in the Dark will love Through the Woods.

4/5 Stars

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TABula Rasa in the New Year

"Along Came Pocket."

Along Came Pocket

There comes a time in every person’s life when we experience something so great that we just need to shout about it from the rooftops. We want everyone we meet to know just how lucky we are. And we hope that one day they too will experience it.

That’s how I feel about Pocket.

Seriously though, with the new year upon us, I’ve decided to tell the world about an amazing app that I believe will help anyone who wants to clean up their internet tab situation and begin 2016 with a blank slate: a tabula rasa, you might say.

My Tab Problem

I’m a lifelong learner, a consumer of informative writing, interesting articles, well-crafted fiction, self-improvement pieces, personal essays, and ground-breaking journalism. However, the amount of reading material out there is overwhelming. The internet provides us with an amazing buffet of mostly free writing (whether I agree that it all should be free is a different story). It all sounds so good that I often don’t know where to start. So I open tabs in my browser. Lots of tabs.

I’ve been guilty of having at least 20 tabs open at a time on both my personal laptop and on my work computer (though I’m sure other people have hoarded more than that). I’m always coming across new articles, and my Facebook news feed is constantly flooded with enticing links. So I’d open more tabs. And because no one can possibly read all those articles in one sitting, I’d just leave them up and never turn off my computer. That system update that requires me to restart my computer? I’d been clicking “Remind me in 4 hours” for almost a year.

This vast array of tabs slowed my browser down so much that it was painful to navigate any webpage I was actually using. I’d also have a heart attack whenever my computer randomly shut down (my battery is terrible). Each time that happened, I’d lose everything I was “planning” to read over the next ten years!

Sometimes I tried emailing myself the articles. Sometimes I’d post them on my Facebook wall to read later. Sometimes I bookmarked them. It could have worked in theory, but I often forgot about them the next day, and came across new articles on Facebook. And opened more tabs. Sound familiar?

How Pocket Helped Me

Despite how it sounds, I love being organized. My tab addiction was also my biggest pet peeve. I just wanted a simple way to keep track of my growing reading list without breaking my computer. Then, along came Pocket.

I don’t remember how I came across it (hopefully not by opening yet another tab), but I took to the app instantly. I saved all my pending reading material in my Pocket account, and finally, finally, turned off my computer.

Pocket is an app that allows users to “read it later.” It can be integrated into all browsers and accessed from all devices at pretty much any time—even without the internet. When you access Pocket, the program shows you a running list of all of the articles you’ve saved to it, presented in a clean and organized way. It allows you to create tags as well. For example, my most useful tags are “writing advice,” “about blogging,” and “for Dave” (these are articles I plan to read with my boyfriend). It also lets you archive articles once you’re done reading them so they’re removed from your reading list, but not lost forever.

Here’s how I did it:

  • I downloaded Pocket for free.
  • I added the Pocket extension to my Chrome browser (it’s located at the top right of the browser, next to my Pinterest and Evernote extensions).
  • I also downloaded the Pocket app on my phone and synced my account.
  • Whenever I come across an article I want to read later, I click the Pocket extension button in my browser and it automatically saves the article to my list. Then I close out (yes, actually close out) of the article.
  • If I’m on my phone, I copy the article URL and then open up my Pocket app. It asks me right away if I want to save the copied URL to my list. Of course, I click yes.
  • Over the past few months, I’ve begun tackling my list, article by article. If I have a free moment on my commute, I open up Pocket and read. I’m trying to read about one article per day. When I’m done with one, I just archive it and move on to the next article in my list (though you can read them in any order).
  • At this point my list has grown to include over 100 articles to read. I haven’t been perfect about it, but at least those aren’t all open at once on my computer.
  • Pocket also has a “Recommended” section that suggests articles to read based on the articles saved to your list. Yay knowledge!

I also want to mention that Pocket didn’t ask me to endorse their product. I just love it and had to share it with you. Pocket has helped make my quest for knowledge much more manageable, organized, and convenient. As an aspiring writer myself, I hope that one day something I’ve written ends up saved in a few Pocket accounts. That would mean I’m really starting to make it.

Now, go get Pocket and start closing those tabs. Happy New Year!

Is it OK to Read YA?

Blog - Permission to Read YA 2

Credit: nwbooklovers.org

I hope it’s not too late to give my official reaction to the provocative “Against YA” article published in Slate a few weeks ago. It’s written by Ruth Graham and has a pretty offensive subtitle: “Read whatever you want, but you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Graham’s article not only shows her contempt for readers of YA, but also for readers of any type of fiction that she doesn’t consider “literary” (i.e. genre fiction).

In her article, Graham shuns “trash” like Divergent and Twilight from the get-go, and says she’s only interested in talking about realistic YA fiction. She says that when she read The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park, she couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes again and again in reaction to some of the narration and dialogue, and feels that when adults read YA, they are asked to “abandon the mature insights” they have gained over the years. But according to Graham, YA’s most unforgivable sin is its satisfying endings: “Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” She concludes that such endings are “emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” Ultimately, though, Graham admits that there is space for  “pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose.”

My gut feeling is this article was published to drive traffic to Slate‘s website, much like Ann Coulter’s ridiculous article for The Clarion-Ledger on the moral decay of the U.S. as evidenced by soccer’s rising popularity. Putting that feeling aside though, I want to discuss Graham’s piece because it has many people thinking and talking about what they read and why they read, as well as whether we should regard all literature as equal. Almost every article I’ve seen in reaction to “Against YA,”—from Salon to The Atlantic to The Washington Post to Bookish, and more—lay out plenty of examples of great YA fiction and also state that YA can be just as complex, enriching, and eye-opening for adults as any work of great literature can be. Of course, I agree with those reactions, and feel strongly about them too. But I can see where Graham is coming from.

WAIT. Here’s why: I think her choice to pigeonhole YA was made in poor taste. Pigeonholing any genre as unsophisticated and cliché, especially one as broad as YA, is ridiculous. There’s always going to be exceptions and examples that counter such rigid classifications. I think the heart of Graham’s argument, though, is really about her disdain for bad writing, and her concern that people are forgetting what makes a story great and worth reading. But she’s using YA and genre fiction to explain her concerns, and that’s just not the way she should be looking at it.

For example, most of us hate murderers, but are there any populations made up entirely of murderers? Of course not. And like so, most of us hate shitty books, but are there any genres made up entirely of shitty books? No. Not YA, not Romance, not Western, not Mystery, not Science Fiction, not Fantasy, not Horror, not Erotica—not anything.

It seems that Graham suffers from literary pretentiousness and elitism—something that I’ve been struggling to overcome for a few years now. I’ll say it: I’m a recovering literary snob. It started in freshman year of college, when I declared my major in English literature and creative writing. At first, I was just reading a few classics, like Hamlet and The Odyssey. But then I started getting in deep with authors like Virginia Woolf, John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, and others. I started to think that authors writing outside of the “literary” genre could never be as great as literary authors (romance got the worst of my bullying). At one point, I might have even agreed that adults shouldn’t be reading YA.

Stuck in my world of pretentiousness, I almost forgot that I was mesmerized by ghost and horror stories as a kid, that I grew up with Harry Potter, that reading the YA book Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging inspired me to keep a brutally honest journal, that Stephen King always fascinated me, and that I rented the animated versions of The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, from the Pathmark video section religiously. I’ve always gravitated toward genres like fantasy, horror, and YA, and I almost lost those interests when I descended into literary snobbery. I think that’s where Graham is right now—she’s still hooked on books packaged with the “Fiction – Literary” BISAC, and thinks nothing else is worth her time.

As I mentioned above, this argument is really about what makes a story good, and what kinds of books adults should be taking the time to read. First of all, anyone can and should read whatever they want. But if we’re talking about the best of the best, I do agree that great literature incorporates the literary sensibility.

I’m just going to take a moment here to define what I mean by literary: There’s a difference between the “literary genre” and the “literary sensibility.” The literary genre is made up of adult books that are usually set in the real world and emphasize character and language over plot. The literary sensibility, on the other hand, is the way in which a story is written. Stories written with a literary sensibility share some similarities with the literary genre (for example, the careful crafting of character and language), but literary sensibility is not limited to any one type of story. For a while, in my snooty little corner, I thought the literary sensibility was an exclusive component of straight up literary fiction, but that’s just not how it is in the real world.

Here’s what I think describes a story written with the literary sensibility:

  • It avoids clichés, flat protagonists, and formulaic plots.
  • The language is crafted, consistent, and engaging.
  • It’s character driven. The main character(s) undergo some kind of change—they’re not just observing their world, but also are taking action, and it’s affecting them.
  • It’s honest. It illustrates the human condition and embraces the complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability that characterize real life. (This can be evident in the plot, in the characters themselves, or both).
  • It’s about more than itself. It makes a statement, even a subtle one.

Again, the above elements can be incorporated into any type of story—realistic stories, detective stories, memoirs, nonfiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror stories, mystery and romance, and of course, YA. It might be true that some genres have fewer examples of stories written with the literary sensibility, but great stories in those genres do exist, and adults read them.

It seems like Graham, and other people caught in the snobbery cycle, still have some growing up to do. Part of being a mature adult is understanding that just because you don’t like something or don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s bad or stupid or beneath you. Real adults are open-minded, understanding, and empathetic. They can see things from another perspective, and they care about equality and diversity in their literature.

Real adults aren’t against YA.

 

Developing a Book Diet

Credit: Ex-Smith (via Flickr)

Credit: Ex-Smith (via Flickr)

I’ve discovered that I need lists and (some) rules in order to function.

I usually make a daily list of things I need to do, and also keep an ongoing list of things to do over the next few months—or at some point in my life. The lists are always growing, but they’ve been helpful as my schedule has become increasingly packed (Post-Its and Evernote are now my true loves). There’s something really gratifying about checking things off—sometimes I go back and write something else I did that day just so I can check it off.

The one list I find hardest to tackle, though, is my to-read list. And this is because I don’t really keep an official one. It would just always be incomplete. There are so many things I want to read, just based on my own interests or on recommendations from friends, librarians, podcasts, author interviews, book recommendation websites, and the multitude of other reader resources out there.

My current To-Read List is composed of the physical books sitting on my bookshelf and the books I’ve designated as “To-Read” on my Goodreads account. But even if this list were to be “complete,” it’s still difficult to decide what to read next.

Once I get past the existential angst it causes me, I wonder: Should I read that Best American Short Stories collection? Or how about A GAME OF THRONES and its sequels, or Donna Tartt’s new book so I can have timely discussions with people? Or maybe I should try a poetry collection, or that novel my former writing professor published, or that Malcolm Gladwell book on decision-making? Perhaps that Ernest Hemingway book my friend lent me, or that huge Amber Chronicles compilation my boyfriend bought and annotated for me, or that Stephen King book on horror stories I grabbed from the free bookshelf at Simon & Schuster two years ago? I have many more rhetorical questions about what to read next, but I’ll refrain from listing them all for you.

Upon figuring out that this is quite the reader dilemma, I came up with a book diet (a reading sequence) to rotate through and give myself some kind of direction. It’s based not on individual books themselves, but on genre (and other criteria). That way, I can slowly check off books on my list while also getting the well-rounded reading experience I crave.

Creating a reading sequence like this seems to be in line with some advice that George R.R. Martin has on his website for aspiring authors. On his FAQ page, he writes:

“The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you’re trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. Read history, historical fiction, biography. Read mystery novels, fantasy SF, horror, mainstream, literary classics, erotica, adventure, satire. Every writer has something to teach you, for good or ill. (And yes, you can learn from bad books as well as good ones—what not to do).”

It certainly helps to know that even crappy books can teach reading writers important lessons, so it doesn’t feel like a waste of time if one ends up reading something they don’t like. Anyway, here’s my reading sequence I’ve come up with—the book diet I will try to follow from now on.

My Book Diet

  • Contemporary Novel
  • Short Story Collection
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror
  • Experimental
  • Nonfiction – On Writing (or an author biography)
  • Mook (a book made into a movie. My friend Alyssa, over at Mookology, coined the term)
  • Classic
  • Written by an Author I’ve Read
  • Nonfiction – General (anything not on writing/authors)
  • Poetry
  • Modern Classic
  • Written by a friend/teacher
  • YA
  • Literary Magazine

What’s your book diet? Please share your literary recipes. Am I missing anything? (Based on Martin’s suggestions,  should consider adding erotica to the list?)

 

Existentialism in Bookstores

Book and Hour Glass

I’ve hit a point in my life where I now have an existential crisis every time I walk into a bookstore.

Years ago, bookstores (and libraries) were places of solace for me. I couldn’t wait until I was older so I could go to a bookstore on my own and spend the day browsing and sitting cross-legged on the floor between the shelves, reading ten books at a time and daydreaming. Now I’m old enough to do just that, but it doesn’t go so well when I try it.

Now my adrenalin rushes when I walk into a bookstore. Just by glancing at the shelves, lined with thousands of book spines facing out at me, I’m reminded that there are too many books out there. I’m reminded that I don’t have the money to buy however many books I want because I want them all (besides the crappy ones). I’m reminded that even if I do have the money, I will quickly run out of places to put these books. I then start to think that I would be better off utilizing my Kindle, or checking a book out of the library for free instead, and that I’ve made a terrible mistake by walking through the bookstore’s doors. I’m reminded about all of the books I bought on a whim that are still sitting on my shelf unread. I’m reminded that I don’t have the time to read all of the (not crappy) books in the world, not only because my free time is limited, but because my lifetime as a human is limited. Death will prevent me from reading everything I want to read. There are too many darn books.

A few months ago, a couple of friends of mine and I exchanged thoughts on why we each want live forever. One said that he wants to live forever so he can become a sort of vigilante and save people. The other said she would use her immortality to have sex constantly. I said I would use mine to read every book in the world.

Thus, when I walk into a bookstore, knowing that I can never be immortal, I feel uneasy and start to question my life and the choices I’ve made along the way. I start to question why I want to read in the first place, or why I care that much about being a writer. Which then spirals into questioning how a writer can ever feel satisfied, or how humans can ever be happy in general—because the one thing  that once gave me so much pleasure (browsing through bookstores) now makes me feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and on a terrifying personal deadline.

Moments of existential angst, of course, can be prompted by anything—not just by visiting a bookstore. Bookstores just tend to be my trigger for the life-is-too-short feeling that (I think) is universal. Sometimes I wonder how we can even stand to contemplate existence and meaning without imploding. But even though I feel pressure to measure my life by how many books I read, I also hate rushing. Rushing makes the process less enjoyable.

Maybe of all types of people, readers have the right to slow down, because we live a new life with every book or story we finish. Maybe reading makes us exist more.

Have you ever had a life crisis in a bookstore? Am I alone in this?

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