Archive | November 2014

Writers on Writing

I remember what one of my English professors at TWU said about a better time when to start writing fiction–while you’re still young, when your imagination, skills, and energy are at their peak.

Here’s a contradictory opinion. Lee Child, the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher series, believes that “not only can you, but you should start (writing) late, because you’ve lived, you’ve gotten experience…” which young people lack.

Also having started writing late, I can’t agree more with Mr. Child.

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Sarah Negovetich’s “Rite of Rejection”

51PgU1YZfUL._UY250_[1]Sarah Negovetich’s Rite of Rejection is a YA novel set in an imaginary society ruled by a leader named “Cardinal” with absolute power. The author masterfully depicts a country with a totalitarian regime (reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany) where its citizens are so brainwashed that they follow their leader unconsciously, like sheep. Not because they don’t have a mind of their own, but because they’re so enamored by Cardinal’s personality and his ideas that they wholeheartedly trust his “wisdom” and his supposed “devotion” to the well-being of the nation. (Here’s a classic example of the personality cult for you.) When, in an attempt to cleanse the country of criminals, the government designs a machine capable of sorting out the “good” citizens from the “bad” ones and sending the latter to a penal colony for the rest of their lives, no one has any doubt in the faultlessness of the Machine. Even those “rejects” who have never done anything wrong sincerely believe that they might have a propensity for committing a crime, just like the Machine has “predicted.”

That’s how sixteen-year-old Rebecca Collins feels when she, a good girl, is ripped from her family and home and exiled to the PIT, a place of no return. It happens right before the Acceptance ceremony, the biggest event in her life, when she’s about to be welcomed into the society as an adult. After she goes through the Machine (which is just a routine procedure in her mind), she will attend a celebratory ball, where she will dance with eligible bachelors, and, hopefully, with her future husband. (Yes, in this country, a woman’s role is limited to being a wife and mother.)

But Rebecca’s high expectations are crushed when the Machine rejects her. She’s in the PIT now, living in wretched conditions, among “criminals” like herself and actual hardcore criminals. She is confused and scared. How will she survive? Will she survive? Fortunately, she meets other teens who become her friends and who reveal the truth about the Cardinal’s “just” and indisputable policies.

There’s yet another test for Rebecca to go through, this time in order to prove her worthiness and loyalty to her new friends; there’s a love triangle; there’s an attempt to escape; there’s a vital-for-survival friendship and there’s an unfathomable betrayal… And, of course, there’s nail-biting tension all throughout the novel.

Will Rebecca and her friends free themselves of the abject existence in this hellhole? And if they do, where will they go? They can’t go back to their home after all.

Rite of Rejection is so interesting that I read it in one setting. I was disappointed with it ending on a cliffhanger, but I assumed Sarah Negovetich would write a sequel. I do hope that she will.

Favorite line: “There’s freedom that comes with words that don’t fall into perfect measurements or even stitches.”

Book Review: Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour”

91q1PSDZ9KL[1]Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a literary novel about a man in his late thirties searching for meaning of life and his own place in the world.

Paul O’Rourke, a successful dentist in Manhattan, is a man of contradictions: he’s cynical and self-centered, but he genuinely cares about his patients; he’s an atheist, but he’s drawn to religious people; he’s a huge Red Sox fan, but he gets upset about the team’s major victories; he feels aversion to the Internet, but he is obsessed with his smart phone.

Suffering from insomnia, Paul stares at the ceiling night after night, pondering such issues as his perception of himself and the perception of him by other people, as well as asking such questions as: When you meet a person for the first time, how do you present yourself to them? Do you show them your true self? When you fall in love with someone, how much of yourself do you share with that person? What if you lose your identity to them?

(Don’t we all ask these questions too?)

Paul searches for answers because he’s been unfortunate (and thus, insecure) in love. Growing up poor and fatherless since he was nine, he craves for a warm, loving family. That’s why each time he falls for a girl, he falls in love with her parents too, and he wants their acceptance and love in return. But he tries too hard to be loved—to the point that his efforts backfire.

Well, it’s bad enough that all those questions keep Paul awake at night, but then he finds out that someone has impersonated him online, created his professional website, and begun posting “his” opinions on Twitter and Facebook. That’s when things go from bad to worse. To his horror, those opinions are of a controversial nature, discussing religion, citing from the Bible and other holy texts, thus upsetting his acquaintances and people he cares about. But since “his” posts have gone viral, Paul is powerless to do anything to stop them. Fortunately, he identifies his impersonator, but that person makes Paul ask bigger questions about himself: Who is he, really? What’s his identity? Does he really know himself and his heritage? Etc. (Once again, it resonates with us because identity theft is an actual problem these days, isn’t it?)

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this yeah, which was my main interest in it, assuming it must be a great literary achievement, but, frankly, I can’t say that it has met my expectations. Yes, it is profound and thought-provoking, and it is funny too, but (and I hate to say this) it’s also tedious, in places. Paul’s narration sounds almost like stream-of-consciousness—painstakingly detailed descriptions of his daily routine, his watching baseball games, his thoughts on religion, his correspondence with his impersonator…on and on it goes, sometimes ad nauseam. I even wanted to quit reading it. What kept me going, though, was Paul’s great sense of humor and his flashbacks (many related to his relationship with his ex-girlfriends and their families) that peppered the novel. His little jokes and anecdotes made me laugh so hard, at times, that I had to put the book down to wipe my tears.

You may or may not like the novel, but one thing I can promise you: after reading this dentist’s account of his patients’ dental problems, resulting from insufficient care, you will start flossing twice as vigorously after each meal and snack. 🙂

Joshua Ferris is a gifted writer and I’ll definitely read his previous two novels.

Author Interview: Writers on Reading

This is an amazing piece that I stumbled upon on YouTube: Writers discuss the importance of reading.

So why do we feel the need for literature?

For Nicole Krauss, “everything falls away, when she opens a book: she’s in a world where everything matters.” And as a writer, she sees writing fiction as “a chance to create herself.” On a blank page, you can say anything, and you can become anything you want. (My thoughts exactly!)

Richard Ford thinks that “reading is an attempt to make our experiences more valuable.” (Isn’t true? Because no matter what we read about, we can’t help but compare the experiences of the fictional characters to those of our own.)

Siri Hustvedt gives an invaluable advise to follow your own passion or curiosity in reading. Don’t just listen to those who point out something “great” with a capital “G.” (Yes! We, as individuals, need to pursue whatever drives our own curiosity, even if it’s not very popular.)

Well, there’s much more in this video.

Enjoy! 🙂

Brian Winter’s “Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien”

61fT6UbTSFL[1]Argentine tango. It’s rhythmic and pulse-quickening. It’s melancholic, nostalgic, and soulful. It’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s beautiful. And it’s addictive.

So addictive that my daughter became obsessed with it just after a few beginner classes. I was envious. And became obsessed too—with watching tango on YouTube. 🙂

Then I looked for a book on this dance, and I found a treasure.

Brian Winter’s Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a memoir describing his obsession with tango during the four years that he spent in Buenos Aires after his graduation from college.

How does he end up in Buenos Aires? Well, unlike his classmates landing sixty-hour jobs at big corporations, Brian wants “to measure himself as a man by putting himself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it.” He wants to move to a place where “things still happened,” things like rallies and riots and revolutions. See, his ambition is to become a journalist—someday. So maybe he’ll find the material worth reporting—someplace. He chooses Argentina for his adventure, and that’s what he gets—an adventure.

Since the economy in Argentina is at its lowest in the year 2000, Brian can’t find employment at an American corporation or at school as an English instructor, so he spends his days wandering around Buenos Aires, exploring. That is, until he meets a man passionate about tango. When Brian gets acquainted with other people, he discovers that all Argentines are passionate about tango. It is their dance! It is the soul of their country! Shouldn’t Brian give it a try, too? After all, when you go to another country, don’t “you look for the soul of that country, for the roots?” Hell, yes!

So Brian, presumably with no talent for dance, picks up tango and falls in love with it. He dances his feet off in a bar called Nino Bien, night after night after night.

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is filled with accounts of milongas, as well as descriptions of Brian’s private lessons he took from a beautiful instructor, Mariela.

Brian becomes so obsessed with tango that he buys books galore, researching its origin and evolution.

Which makes this memoir so remarkable. In it, Winter draws parallels between the destiny of tango and political life in Argentina throughout history, pointing out that tango’s popularity or decline depended heavily on the country’s prosperity or turbulence. Still, Argentines have always loved their dance so much that their milongas were impervious to the crisis. Each time tango went nearly extinct, it was resurrected like a phoenix from ashes.

Winter also dwells on the reaction to the dance in other countries—whether it was loved or spurned. The Catholic Church of New York, for instance, called tango “wild and shameless.” In the French port of Marseille, in 1906, where the crew of an Argentine frigate performed their dance, “the tango was immediately denounced as criminal, lascivious, and immoral; in other words, it was an instant sensation.” 🙂

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a fun read, filled with fascinating facts about Argentina, its history, people, and tango. Winter tells his story with self-deprecating humor. His love for tango and the country made me want to go to Argentina. But I can’t dance! Why don’t I learn how? I’ve learned these beautiful terms—cabaceo and barrida and gancho—for starters.

So I signed up for tango classes. 🙂

My favorite lines: “The tango is not an athletic competition. It depends above all on your ability as a man to show the woman what to do, to guide her, to make her feel comfortable, to make her feel like a woman.” 53

“Against all odds, people kept coming back to the tango, a century-old dance that had gone out of style in the 1950s. There was no logical way to explain it. It must have been that damn embrace.” 233

Karin Slaughter’s “Cop Town”

Cop-Town1[1]The drama, nail-biting suspense, and the incredible cast of characters of Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town made me forget all about my plans for the day and kept me glued to the arm-chair until I read the last words of this page-turning thriller.

Cop Town is set in 1970s Atlanta. A serial cop killer, the Shooter, shakes the APD. Four officers were shot, execution style, and now another one is down. In the opening scene, Jimmy Lawson, a former high school football star and now a savvy police officer, carries his partner, gunned down by the Shooter, to the hospital. And the hunt for the criminal escalates.

Karin Slaughter masterfully depicts various worlds of the same city: the slums, the upscale neighborhood, and the police department. The powerful message, voiced by one of the characters, is this: “For every person, Atlanta is a different thing. Yet they all take pride in ownership. They all feel that the city belongs to them, and that their idea of the city is what the city should be. They feel the need to defend it.” 270

Ironically, yes. They all—the poor in the ghettoes, the rich in the upscale neighborhoods, and the cops—have a sense of entitlement to their town and they have attitude.

So what was this cop town like in 1970s?

In 1970s Atlanta, not too many women served on the police force, and those few who did were not treated with respect—either by the general population or by their male colleagues (the subject explored by Slaughter in her novel Criminal). But the female officers in Cop Town are so smart, competent, strong-willed, and determined to succeed in fighting crime that they choose to endure discrimination, misogyny, and blatant sexual harassment rather than quit the job they love. (It beats me, but…there you have it.)

Kate Murphy, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, has had it all: a privileged family, privileged schools, a privileged social circle, a privileged neighborhood—privileged everything. But now at 25, she’s a widow and she wants something different in her life. After trying various occupations, she chooses police work. Well, she’s got a different life, all right. On her very first day on the job, she patrols the streets of the ghetto, chases after prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, murderers, and gets ridiculed and scorned by her fellow officers. So what can be more different from her previous sheltered life than all that? Will she quit after one day, as her co-workers expect, or will she surprise them by showing up the next day? Kate ponders this dilemma very seriously. And decides to show up. But her second day is worse than the first, and the third one is even worse. Will she have enough guts to stay on the job, or will she withdraw back into her insulated world?

Maggie Lawson, Kate’s partner, comes from a cop family. But that fact doesn’t make her family proud as you might expect. No encouragement or praise of her dedication and competence from them. No, ma’am! They all—her mother, her brother, her uncle—want her to quit. But the blood running in Maggie’s veins is made of “liquid steel,” so she’s not giving up this job, despite the humiliation she has to endure from her male peers and, mostly, from her uncle the brute.

The characters are so well-drawn, so interesting, and so memorable, I hope that Karin Slaughter will not abandon them but let us meet them again in a sequel to Cop Town. In fact, I hope she’s hard at work on it right now. 🙂

Karin Slaughter is a gifted storyteller. I’ve read all of her Will Trent’s series, and I absolutely loved this stand-alone novel.

Highly recommend.