September/October 2015 Round-Up

Like I said in my last post on writing, I will be taking a hiatus in November for NaNoWriMo. Before I go I wanted to do a quick round up of what I’ve been reading.

Besides my adventures in audiobooks, September wasn’t very exciting for me reading-wise, and then two of the books I was reading bled into October. I listened to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance and Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook on audio in September; I talk about both of them in my post about audiobooks and Scribd.

I read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood in September and I loved it, but it still took me longer to finish than I thought it would. I am losing some steam with my Margaret Atwood project. I am going to have to extend this into 2016–I have her newest release on deck and plan to read it in November, but other than that I am okay taking an Atwood break. These novels demand to be savored. It’s probably better to give myself time and enjoy them fully.

The last book I finished in September was Lauren Oliver’s Requiem, the third and final installment of the Delirium trilogy. It was okay. I didn’t mind it. It made me decide to not force myself to slough through another YA series for a while. I think there is a theme in September’s reading–I seem to be forcing myself through books that I find okay but don’t love, or, in the case of Margaret Atwood, forcing myself through books that I like but I’m not always in the mood for.

I think I am going to have a new resolution that I should only be reading things in my free time that I really, really want to read.

I started two books in September that I really, really wanted to read but didn’t finish until after month’s end: Missoula by Jon Krakauer and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I reviewed Missoula here. I really recommend it if you want to read a book that will make you mad? But why would you do that? What’s wrong with you?

I have some complicated feelings about Game of Thrones. For one thing, there are some really awesome female characters, but it all takes place in a really disgustingly patriarchal society where everything sucks all the time because of how patriarchal it is. This is really the first fantasy book I have read as an adult, so there is some stuff I just do not get. These people need democracy. Arya for President tbh. Anyway, I liked it enough to keep reading the series, despite how long the books are. I am watching the TV show as I go along which is helping me follow it a bit more.

I listened to Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach on audio for Halloween non-fiction reading (is there such a thing?). I loved the audiobook reader’s narration style; it was perfectly dour with a hint of laughter. Creepy in a friendly way. Otherwise, it was a pretty interesting listen about the history and current culture of body donation and the uses of dead bodies, though I felt like my attention weaved in and out. I wonder if I would have gotten more out of it in print, although it’s possible I would never have gotten around to reading it in print. I kind of want to donate my body to science now, anyway.

I tried to read A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter but I didn’t get through it. It’s a short book, so I could have forced myself to finish it, but I really wasn’t feeling the first couple chapters. It seemed to be a book about pretentious people in Paris, which is fine, but…the exact opposite of what I want to be reading books about at the moment. I’ll try again some other time, because I heard some great things about this book.

Right now I am in the middle of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (re-reading as inspiration) and Revival by Stephen King.

That’s it for now. See you in December, and good luck to everyone participating in National Novel Writing Month.

P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I am going to be Katniss Everdeen!  🙂 Let me know if you are also dressing as a literary character.*

*pics or it didn’t happen


Why I Still Write

I went to a tarot card reader last week. After she spent some time on my love life, she asked me if I had two jobs at the moment. I shouldn’t have, but I threw her a bone to chew on. I told her I had one job, but I was also a writer. I said it sheepishly, because I am embarrassed about being a writer these days. When I tell people I’m a writer it’s sort of like telling them I have a mole on my thigh that I’m going to get checked out soon. They make a pretty sad face.

My reader made me flip up some cards for her about my writing. She told me all was not lost, but something something, I don’t know. She said she saw an older woman in my future who would be my agent. She told me writing would be a thorn in my side for my entire life, but I would publish. She said I’m an impatient person and I need to be better at revising. Then she went back to talking about my love life.

So I’ve been thinking about this lately–what my writing is in the grand scheme of things. Is it a job? A hobby? A waste of time? Pretentious to even spend so much time thinking about it?

I don’t make any money from my writing, because I haven’t been published. I have yet to write anything worthy of being published–I am not one of those people bitterly wondering why magazines won’t publish me. I know why. So, it makes sense to call writing a hobby, as it is something I will gladly put my time and money into without any promise of benefit.

Right now my main hobby is running, which took me a few tries to get into. I have pretty pathetic lungs. Let’s just say running isn’t always fun. But I found things I liked about it–I liked getting better, in small but noticeable ways. (My lungs don’t burn anymore! I can run a 5k in less than 30 minutes! I only fall sometimes!) I like the feeling of keeping myself accountable, and feeling like I accomplished something when I do improve. But I know I will never win any races. I just don’t have that natural talent. So it’s a hobby, and I don’t mean to disparage hobbies–there can be a lot to gain from hobbies. It’s just that the ambition isn’t always there. The only person I compete with is myself, at the end of the day.

I would be lying if I said I don’t feel my own ambition gnawing on me when I write. I want to be good, not just better.

I don’t have a natural talent for writing, but I spent most of my childhood reading rather than going outside, which means I have more of a flare for words than, say, beach volleyball. If I have any natural talent, it’s in my ability to observe myself and others and think about it enough until I can grind it down into some sort of thought that reflects the way I view the world. I think of my brain like a meat grinder, basically. And I need this because otherwise I just can’t handle being a human very much. It’s like, you get broken up with? Take those feelings, put them all in the meat grinder that is your brain, and spit out a poem, shape it however you want. You’ll feel a little bit better, I promise. This is also what books were to me growing up. If I felt sad or lonely, there were characters in books that felt the same, and I felt better.

When I’m not writing regularly, I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I am skirting my own responsibility. This is why I think of it like a job, even though there’s no money and no boss and let’s face it, I don’t really need to do it at all. But when I don’t make time for it, I am letting myself down. It’s really not about the passion or desire to write, at the end of the day. It is this feeling of responsibility to myself.

When I have a good writing session, it is a relief. It feels remarkably similar to getting up to stretch my legs after a long drive. The problem is that it isn’t always that way–somedays, everything I write feels stiff, clumsy, and boring. I’ve been feeling like this a lot lately.

Writing is fun when I have already trudged through the mud of a story to get to the part where it flows. After that, my mind suddenly feels organized, and everything has a point. It is like clearing a cluttered table. It is satisfying. When it’s good a story gets to the point where your brain is drunk on it all the time, and everything in your life is more interesting and useful because of it.

Ever since I read Tenth of December, this quote from George Saunders from the little special edition part of the book has obsessed me:

“What I think good writing does: It enlivens that part of us that actually believes we are in this world, right now, and that being here somehow matters. It reawakens the reader to the fact and the value of her own existence. How? Hmm. Well, maybe just by holding the things of the world up for examination in a semi-sacred way. Just the act of reading ‘The dog licked his ass, not even budging as the huge riding lawn mower powered past and the sky clouded ominously’ makes us suddenly think about dogs/asses/lawn mowers/clouds – and I’d say that this reminder (this momentary redirection of our attention) makes dogs/asses/et al. holy again, in a certain sense.”

Exactly. Reading and writing are sort of ‘soft’ interests. They’re easy to dismiss as unimportant. But I chose them, because writing is the best way I have found to connect with the world around me. To remind me that life is important. There are other ways, but this is the way that has been given to me. Not a gift like a talent but a gift like an offering. I have a responsibility as a human being to cherish and grow whatever it is that makes me feel closer to the world around me.

The problem is the pressure I feel to prove something, the feeling that being a “writer” means something other than just being a person who writes. If I were an actual writer, I would be published by now, or I would have at least written something I felt was good enough to publish. If I had actual talent the world would constantly sing my praises, obviously. If I were any good at all, it would take me less than six months to finish a story. I feel like this most when I am out of touch with why I do this in the first place. When it starts to feel like just a way to get people to notice me, I don’t feel like an actual writer at all. And then I am not entirely sure what I actually am.

I haven’t felt the relief much lately, that satisfied feeling when the words come out, simple and true and easy. The current status of my writing life is this: words come out and they are very slow and very bad. But I am still writing.

This is all part of it: the connection, the disconnection, the wading through mud. I’m learning how to trust the process. All is not lost.

This is all just to say I will be taking a hiatus from this blog in November, because I want to concentrate on NaNoWriMo, which I do every year but haven’t won in a few. I’m challenging myself this year to write 1) A lot and 2) Something Not Bad and 3) All of it fiction. So, sorry blog, see you in December.

If you are participating and want to connect, please add me as a buddy. I would love to see what sort of stories you are all writing!

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer


Lately I’ve been missing college. Not in a serious way, because let’s face it: life is better in the real world! (Everyone lied when they said otherwise.) But I do miss the classes. This is part of the reason why I read Missoula by Jon Krakauer. It reminded me of the kind of book I would have read in one of my Women’s Studies courses. It was a warm and snuggly feeling, being able to talk about women’s rights in a class full of people who care about women’s rights. In the “real world” it’s a lot harder to find kindred spirits, and since I’ve graduated I’ve felt a lot of anti-feminist backlash happening in the public discourse. This is mostly because more people are talking about these issues, which is good. It’s good to have your views challenged, to talk to people who think differently. You don’t get anything done talking to people who already agree with you. It’s just exhausting, that’s all. I’m sick of bringing up feminist issues with people only to be answered with, “Well, men have it hard, too.” It’s sad to say, but I think because of this I definitely pay less attention to what’s going on in the current feminist discourse. I’ve been disheartened.

I think a lot of people have this image in their head about the college feminist, and it isn’t always a good image, but having been one I know why feminism is so important and exhilarating to women in college. It can feel so damn powerless to be a young woman in America, and trying to piece together why that is can be empowering.

I didn’t feel empowered reading Missoula. I just felt angry. There were times in the book where I actually felt too upset to finish, and I wondered why I picked it up in the first place. These stories sound like all the stories I have heard before. And now that I’m older, it feels kind of pointless to be reading them still. I don’t need another book to make me mad about rape culture! I’m already mad! I guess I’ve lost the energy to constantly rail against it all. It’s tiring, facing down a world that really doesn’t understand why you’d be so mad about the fact that a lot of people really don’t care when women are raped.

Krakauer tells the story of a handful of women who had been date raped at the University of Montana in Missoula, which was investigated by the Department of Justice for its mishandling of several cases of sexual assault. He details the ways that these women were failed and even outright attacked by the legal system. It goes through rape accounts, trial transcripts, trolling message board comments by college football fans. It can be scream inducing.

There were moments in some of these women’s stories where my heart just dropped, but there are some heartening things about Missoula. Not exactly happy-making, but enough to give me hope. The University of Montana, to its credit, seemed to take the punishment of rapists very seriously in most of the stories, making an effort to not continue to fail rape victims like they had been failed in the past on countless college campuses. The very fact that Jon Krakauer wrote this book makes me feel like things are looking up, and that people are taking these issues seriously. They’re not just discussed by Women’s Studies students anymore. It sucks that people will take this more seriously because it was written by a respected male non-fiction writer, but I think that’s a reality. Not to pat Krakauer on the back, but it’s nice to see a man using his voice to shed light on these problems.

I think the thing that upsets me so much about these accounts is the rabid hatred rape victims received in the cases where a football star is accused. A lot of times when a rape victim reports the crime and it is brought to the public’s consciousness, it’s called a “witch hunt” – the implication being that the men accused are innocent and being unfairly attacked. Then the rape victim is victimized all over again by public hatred and legal BS. And you’re going to call a rapist on trial a witch hunt?! Seriously, the stories about the stuff defense attorneys pulled in this book made me sick. People have an obsession with fake rape accusations, when the fact is that very few women actually feel comfortable reporting sexual assaults. After reading this book, I don’t think I would feel comfortable reporting an assault if I were in the same situation, and that makes me so mad.

Missoula isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know: Victims need our support. We need to stop treating the victim as if they are lying criminals. I hope this book helps people understand.

On Audiobooks, and a Review of Scribd

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I wrote in my last monthly round-up that I was giving audiobooks a go in September, and here I am now to report my findings! I have been pretty adamant in the past about how I don’t like them much– I understand the appeal, but could never really get into them myself. For one thing, I felt like I couldn’t experience the whole of a book when I “read” it through an audiobook. That, and there is the physical satisfaction of a book which can’t be replicated with the audio format. Even e-readers can do a better job of filling my hands with something vaguely book-shaped.

So what made me decide to rethink my relationship with audiobooks? Well, I am behind in my Goodreads reading challenge. Which you know if you read this blog, because I am almost always behind in my Goodreads challenge and I mention it a lot because it is STRESSFUL. What I needed was more time to read, but there was very little I could do in that regard. I read about an hour and a half every weekday, mostly on my commute to and from work on the train. This is enough daily reading time, in my opinion, as it ensures I can finish about one book per week. I could read more, but don’t want to force myself. Mostly because I have a job, and I have hobbies other than reading — I like to run, and write, and watch Netflix, too. Trying to make more time to read was going to be a rough task unless I got creative.

I walk a lot. I also run a lot. Usually when I do these things I listen to music, but honestly sometimes I get sick of even my own playlists. I had the idea that I could listen to audiobooks while I’m walking around town. That way it wouldn’t be cutting into my train reading time. I didn’t actually want to replace any of the time I spent reading with listening to audiobooks. I wanted to replace time I spent doing other things, like listening to Taylor Swift, with more book time. This results in more books consumed, which results in me getting a badge on my Goodreads page about how I read lots of books in 2015. Success.

I had a problem, though: I didn’t want to buy any audiobooks, because I was still skeptical they were for me, and they can be expensive. What I wanted was audiobooks in a digital format that I could download onto my iPhone for free. Legally, of course. I went to my library’s Overdrive page, which is also how I get every ebook I read. (I have the same inclination to not buy ebooks, either. I don’t like to own things I can’t actually touch, because I am old?!) I was bummed to see the selection for audiobooks was pretty pathetic. The only book I could see in the Overdrive audiobook selection that I even had a slight interest in reading was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And it’s a very slight interest. So I didn’t end up taking any audiobooks out from the library.

This is not to say that the library is an awful place to find an audiobook. I’ve thought about this, and I realized the trouble is that in general, older people are more likely to want to get an audibook out from the library. So there’s not a great selection on Overdrive, which specializes in downloadable media–stuff you can borrow with your library card without actually visiting the library, basically, such as ebooks. The selection of physical audiobooks (ones on CDs or Playaways) are much better at the libraries I have visited. Those just didn’t work for what I wanted, which was the ability to listen from my phone.

So I looked into Audible, which ended up being too expensive for me for not enough benefit. It’s $15 a month and you get one audiobook each month. You get to keep the audiobook, but like I said, I didn’t really want to keep the audiobooks I listened to, so I didn’t sign up for a membership.

I listen to the Book Riot podcast a lot, and one of their major sponsors is Scribd, a book subscription service which is much cheaper than Audible at $8.99 a month for unlimited ebooks and audiobooks. I always ignored their ads because I’m kind of dumbfounded by book subscription services. I like ebooks, but I prefer paper books. I read one or two ebooks a month at most, and I always borrow them from my library’s Overdrive collection–they have a decent selection of ebooks, unlike the audiobook selection. The only reason a book subscription service would make sense to me, then, is if I were certain to read/consume several books from the service a month, every month, and I just wouldn’t. But I thought Scribd could be a good way for me to listen to two or three audiobooks a month (what I estimated I would be able to get through) without having to buy them, and with a much better, newer selection than the library’s Overdrive collection.

I signed up for my free month trial convinced Scribd would be a great new addition in my reading life. I started with Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, which was awesome. It was a great introduction to audiobooks, because it was light and easy to follow, and the fact that it was read by Ansari himself made it seem like one extended comedy routine. It was funny, like I expected it to be, but it was also a very intelligent, empathetic look into the struggles of being single and dating as a young person in a social media obsessed world. It made me happy I am no longer on the market on OKCupid but in a heartening, “We’re all in this together and it all works out in the end!” sort of way.

After Modern Romance, I tried a collection of essays by Zadie Smith called Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Unfortunately, I didn’t get through very much of it. I decided to quit it solely because I hated the narrator. This is a very real problem with audiobooks. Sometimes you don’t like the voice of the reader and it ruins the book. In this case, the reader was an older British lady, and she had a particular tone which made Smith’s essays sound kind of snobby. Okay, maybe they are a little snobby, but they didn’t need that extra layer of snob. I can’t help it, I want all audiobooks to be read by Aziz Ansari.

I chose The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick after that. I didn’t love it, to be honest. It was trying to be a very charming story, but I don’t think there was enough risk to it. I was kind of hoping the main character’s separated wife was dead the whole time, you know? But nothing really exciting like that happens in The Silver Linings Playbook. Maybe I read too much Gillian Flynn but are you seriously telling me, Matthew Quick, that NOBODY dies in this whole novel? Come on.  I’m only being partly sarcastic. This book really would have been better if the wife had been dead the whole time. Instead nothing happens except people have feelings and go to football games. I didn’t mind the reader of this one, except for the fact that whenever he was reading a female character’s dialogue, he put on a weird tone that irritated me. This is what I’ve learned from audiobooks: they’re best if they’re read by comedians, but otherwise, if you’re easily annoyed, there’s plenty to be annoyed by.

I was pretty impressed with Scribd’s interface and selection. The browsing process is fun, kind of like Netflix for books, with a bunch of changing recommended categories based on what it thinks you might like. This gets more nuanced the more books you rate with the service. Also, although I was not looking for ebooks, their ebook selection is awesome. I would have borrowed an ebook or two just because of this, but my to-be-read pile is pretty tall at the moment, so I decided to concentrate on audiobooks. The audiobook selection is smaller, but still pretty good. There are popular, newly released books like Modern Romance available in seconds without the inevitable hold process I would have faced at the library. That is a major plus.

This is where the big problem lies: just around the time I started my free trial with Scribd, they announced that they would be moving towards a credit-based system for audiobooks. So, you get to choose one audiobook per month, like Audible, and if you want another that same month, you need to buy a credit which costs the same as your monthly membership free ($8.99). Each audiobook equals one credit. They offer a small selection of “unlimited” audiobooks per month that you can get without a credit, but from what I saw, this selection was unconvincing. This sealed the deal for me that I would cancel my membership after my free month ended.*

I get the business decision behind this. This is why Oyster doesn’t provide audiobooks. They tend to be more expensive than ebooks and they’re less popular. It is nice that you can still get a free audiobook a month on Scribd without paying as much as you would for Audible, although Audible has the best audiobook selection of all options. Really, with Scribd, you’re getting the most for your money if you are looking for mainly ebooks with the occasional audiobook.

The problem is I have too many books to read. I don’t need (or even want) a new unlimited selection on top of my already endless selection of books to read. I have an overflowing book shelf and two awesome libraries that I frequent regularly. I never have a moment where I think, “I have no books to read!” I literally will never run out of books to read before I die. I won’t even come close.

As far as the digital aspect, my library has more than enough ebooks to keep me satisfied, especially since I don’t need or want every book I read to be in digital form. If your local library doesn’t have a big selection of ebooks, and you think you’re likely to read several ebooks a month, than a Scribd membership would be perfect for you. If you’re impatient when it comes to books and you can’t stand waiting on hold for new releases, Scribd could be a good alternative to buying brand new books every time you’re curious about a new release. I waited on hold for The Girl on the Train for an entire month this past winter, so I get the impulse.

Final verdict on Scribd: I certainly recommend trying it out, but it’s not for me.

As for my audiobook quest, I am going to head over to the library soon and try out a Playaway. I don’t love audiobooks, but for some books, like Modern Romance, they’re an enjoyable option to have, and I like that they give me more book time in the spaces of my day. For the majority of books I want to read, though, I’ll still choose reading over listening, and my library is a fine enough subscription service for the time being.

[*Note: I tried to cancel my Scribd subscription, but they offered me another 30 days free. I will take advantage of this offer and let you all know if I change my mind about canceling.]