Friday, July 29, 2016

What Makes a Book "A Classic"? And Are Critics Wrong?

Just recently, I finished reading Under the Volcano, which the Modern Library calls the 11th best novel out of 100. But here's the thing. When I say "reading," I'm taking huge liberties with the word since I really just finished skimming the book. That's not to say that I didn't give it an earnest effort. I sat and really tried to pick apart the book and take my time for the first 100 pages. But after that, when I realized that not much was going on at all (on the surface) and that the plot could really be summed up in a single sentence--A drunkard drinks a lot, finds a dead body, and then, bad stuff happens--I kind of found myself skimming whole chapters and then looking up on wikipedia to make sure that I got all the key details from each chapter, which I had.

So, why is this a classic? Well, most would say that it's the prose itself that makes the book so noteworthy, or that it has all these crazy references to other classic books that makes it such an enjoyable read (It's like the Paul's Boutique of novels).

But whatever the reason, I just couldn't get into it. There are whole chapters that are just inner monologues that really felt like they were going nowhere, and it just wasn't an enjoyable book in any way. The same goes for Lolita, which is number 4 on their list.

While I made a real effort to finish Under the Volcano, I honestly couldn't get even remotely close to finishing Lolita, which was just too boring for words. (I'm not too big on the Kubrick movie, either, so maybe I just don't dig the story). But that's what makes the list so weird. You have books like those, which are undoubtedly the stick your nose in the air kind of titles, and then you have genuinely interesting, plot-driven books like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Brave New World (Which is actually quite high at number five). So what's going on here?

One might say, well, duh, books are beloved for different reasons, and I get that. But how do you have such artsy-fartsy books like Under the Volcano and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then have a book like Slaughterhouse-Five, which has a subplot involving a man's beliefs in a planet called Tralfamadore? More importantly, do the critics really know or have a say in what can even be considered one of the "best books" in modern literature?

And what's really interesting to note is that if you look at what everyday readers consider the best modern novels, they have a whole bunch of wacky L. Ron Hubbard books, as well as that nut, Ayn Rand, and her objectivism. Atlas Shrugged, it should be noted, isn't even ON the top 100 list of the modern library. Neither is anything by sci-fi writers, even though many would consider Foundation by Asimov a classic. Or does genre writing not count at all when considering the "best" modern books?

That's why I believe that it isn't really much to put stock in either the critics or what general readers would consider great literature. Personally, my favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces. I don't think it's great because of the writing, which I actually thought was kind of so-so. It's because I honestly couldn't stop laughing at certain moments, and I just really loved the characters. Especially Ignatius, who is my favorite character that I've ever read (Oscar Wao is a close second). I like it because I think really fat, obnoxious people are funny, and I can understand if others don't enjoy a story that could follow such a ridiculous human being, but then again, I'm not calling it the "best" book, which I think is too grandiose a word when considering what a book sets out to be in the first place. But then again, people like to point out how intelligent they are, so books like Ulysses, or movies like Citizen Kane, act as the sort of cornerstone for pedantic people. I don't know. Either way, don't read Under the Volcano if you're looking for an enjoyable book. It may be considered one of the best modern novels, but man is it boring. But that's just one ardent reader's opinion.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Introductions: Do they need to spoil the plot to get their points across?

I'm reading Under the Volcano right now (And not liking it so far) and have had a great portion of the book spoiled. Do you want to know why? It's not because somebody told me about the book and recklessly told me key plot points. It's because I read the introduction, which in itself revealed major plot points to discuss overarching themes and to make comparisons to other work. But why? This is not the first time this has happened to me. In fact, it happens all the time. Whenever a scholarly dissertation is made on a famous story, one thing that usually happens is that the scholar will say, this happens because of this, and this represents, yada, yada, yada, but why is this put at the beginning of the book? I could understand if you've already read the book. But if you haven't, you're basically getting an unasked for Cliffnotes version of the story that you were actually excited to read. Why the hell would they do this?!

I mean, if this content was put in the afterword, then that would make a lot more sense. I mean, NOW you could tell me why this character did this or that since I just finished the book. But by putting all that information in the introduction, it totally destroys any reason to even read the book, other than to understand what the introduction is connecting to the overall content. But that seems so backwards! Why do that?

And I already know what you're saying. You're saying, hey, numbnuts, if you know this is a problem, then why do you read the introduction in the first place? Well, first off, don't call me numbnuts, and secondly, not all introductions are like this. I feel that there are many instances that in order to even understand the book, especially if it's old and has details that wouldn't be understood by a modern audience, then the introduction is necessary. The book It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis comes to mind.

In that book, Lewis referenced several political and media figures of that time that I would have no idea about if I didn't read the introduction. Did the writer of that piece spoil some of the key details of the story? Yeah, he did. But I feel that the book would have been incomprehensible, at least from an historical viewpoint, without that insight. So for those kinds of introductions, I don't get TOO upset. But when your introduction mostly reveals plot points of MULTIPLE books to compare it to the book you haven't even read yet (as does the intro for Under the Volcano), well, then you've pissed me off on multiple fronts! Don't do that!

But what are your thoughts on the issue? Do you skip introductions altogether, go back to them once you've finished the book, or read them before the content like I do? I'd like to hear your thoughts, fellow readers. Please leave them in the comments below.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender-The Search

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The SearchAvatar: The Last Airbender - The Search by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I seriously love, love, love these graphic novels of Avatar: the Last Airbender (I'll have to check if they have any for the Legend of Korra, which I actually prefer to Avatar). These stories fill in so much and actually seem necessary to fully understand the characters of TLA, which is what all follow-up stories should do. I think of it like DLC, in book form. This story concerns Zuko's mother, which was always a great mystery on the show. All those answers are revealed here in a very satisfying way. My only complaint is that it's so short. I read the entire thing in the span of my daughter's nap time (and I spent $40 on it!). If you're a fan of Avatar, you must read this book!

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Is Listening to An Audiobook Still Considered "Reading"?

I'm a book lover, a bibliophile. So in other words, I'm a nerd. And what do most nerds do? We obsess! The obsession varies from person to person. Some book nerds obsess over knowing the most about a single author, while others obsess by reading the same book or series over and over again until they can practically quote every line from the story. And then, there are the annoying book nerds who pride themselves over being extremely well-read, like that's some kind of great accomplishment. These are the book nerds who often raise their nose to you and say, what do you mean you've never read (Insert obscure, out-of-print book here)? It's a classic. I have a copy. Wait right here.

Unfortunately, I'M this kind of book nerd. :(

(Image taken from:

I'm not saying that all well-read book nerds are like this. In fact, most aren't. If you were to ask, which book do you recommend, these book nerds would be able to pick out a wide assortment that they think fits your taste. These are the cool book nerds., the approachable ones. These are the book nerds who make reading sound fun. But unfortunately, while my favorite part of reading is the actual reading part, another thing I love about reading is seeing just how many books I've read. One website that all book nerds use is Goodreads. The great thing about the site is that you can monitor how many books you've read, as well as join groups with fellow readers (If you're into that sort of thing). At one point, I thought I'd read over a 1000 books. I mean, I'm constantly reading, right, and I've been reading all my life. But when I put in the number of books I could think of, I ended up in the 400 range. That's it! I was stunned.

If you want to see a truly pathetic person, just look at somebody who thinks they've accomplished more than they have and show them the figures. It got to the point that I started putting Goosebumps books on my list of "Read" (I mean, I did read them, right?) just to up my number, but it's still way lower than I would have liked.

So, what's the answer? Well, reading a book takes time, especially with a baby. And reading sometimes hurts my eyes. I get floaters already at the tender age of 32 in my right eye, so if I read for long periods, I start seeing a little dot scrolling along the page back and forth like a fly reading with me. So, again, what's the answer?

That's a good question, and somebody once gave me a legitimate answer--Audiobooks. At first, I was like, listening to an audiobook is not reading, dude, and then he asked me, why not? You're still getting the same story, and it's usually read in a very theatrical manner. Hell, Stephen King does his own book readings, so it's almost like from the lips of God to your ear (Or was it the other way around?). So how is that not reading?

(Image taken from: here: Man listening to The Old Man and The Sea

He has a good point, but, I don't know. It just doesn't feel like reading to me. I teach in a middle-school, and sometimes, I read to the students, but I don't feel like they're actually reading. In fact, if I look on the state standards, I would qualify that in the "listening" category of the skills I'm meeting. Reading, for me anyway, is an entirely different skill that engages other parts of the brain. I can definitely fall into a story listening to it, but it's not the same as when I actually scan the page with my eyes and absorb the text. Like I said before, it just feels different. But what do you think? Is listening to an audiobook the same thing as reading it? If so, I can definitely get to 1000 books before I reach my deathbed since I can listen to books at any time. Please clear this up for me, fellow readers. It would really mean a lot.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

On Raising a Child and Trying to Be a Writer (Exphasis on Trying)

So, I haven't blogged in earnest in probably well over a year. Blame parenting, or don't since plenty of writers are parents and plenty of parents blog. I think the issue may be that I'm not sure what to blog about without sounding like I'm looking for commiseration. So, here's a picture of my kid to show you that I'm perfectly happy with fatherhood, and the year that it has provided me with.

(Note my child's love for Appa from Avatar. Starting her off early)

Usually, when my wife is away at work, I go through spells of looking at the clock to see when to put my daughter to bed for a nap so I can get some reading or writing in. But after seeing Fiddler on the Roof yesterday, I've come to realize, wow, why am I trying to rush this? Sunrise, sunset and all that jazz, right? Am I really trying to make time speed up when time is already so short? Haven't I already learned that life already goes way too fast? To what end am I trying to achieve anything? Am I just screwing myself over?

So I've decided to put writing on the backburner, but still blog when I can. It's gotten to the point that waking up at 4:30 AM to write doesn't work when it manages to wake up my daughter in the process. So I'm taking a more fluid approach to writing, which makes me feel like I've grown as a writer, in a sense. If the endgame isn't just, I have to meet a schedule. I have to meet a schedule, then that will open up my schedule more if I can write when I can. But what do you think? I'd like to hear from fellow writer/parents. Everyone always tells me, there will be a time you will miss them being young, and I'm sure they're right, but I also miss being on a set schedule and being a writer. What do you think?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'UrbervillesTess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is often said that Jude the Obscure is Thomas Hardy's crowning achievement, with Tess of the D'Urbervilles being a close second. But I would like to switch the two since I don't think Jude the Obscure can touch the level of depth and complexity depicted in this book. Tess, when compared to Jude, is a much more likeable character, and in that, her tragedy is much more acutely felt than that of Jude's. By the end of this book, I was furious by the chain of events that occurred. I can't say I had the same level of emotion after finishing Jude. It was a well told story with an overall message, but it didn't bridge those messages together the way Tess does. This is probably the deepest and richest book I've ever read. No question.

That said, there are some truly wonky sections in the story where you really have to suspend your sense of belief. But the commentary following the version I read really goes into depth about how even those sections have value and actually expand the ideas of this story, which is ultimately about rape, both of the land, and in a physical sense. It's the kind of novel that could take up an entire semester studying. I don't read books more than once, but I may come back to this one in a later period of my life. It's definitely going on the book shelf.

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