The Art of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

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There’s a helpless joy I feel whenever I hear song I loved in high school. I sway a little on my feet like the female lead in a romance novel. I mean to say I swoon.

Reading The Art of Asking had the same sort of effect on me, not only because I remembered how much I loved the Dresden Dolls back in the day but because I remembered how cool Amanda Palmer is.

She is brazen and unapologetic, sensitive but unafraid of her audience. Full disclosure: she’s so cool, I thought reading The Art of Asking would grate on my nerves. I thought, a little meanly, that Amanda Palmer was a bit of a try-hard, just like all the cool kids in high school who used to wear all black and smoke cigarettes and dress effortlessly from the thrift store.

I’ve seen the TED talk that inspired the book (or, at the very least, inspired publishers to give Amanda Palmer a book deal), and I liked it, but I failed to see how it would translate into a book.

Palmer makes it work by turning it into half memoir, half art-as-business manifesto. And often The Art of Asking is uncool: it reads like a sentimental blog post that had been professionally edited, full of stories and scenes and life philosophies. Palmer’s discussion of what art is was refreshingly not cool, as it stresses collectivism over elitism, the transactional nature of art: “Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.”

This book isn’t really about Kickstarter albums, or couch-sharing. If anything, it ends on a note encouraging a return to patron-based art consumption. (See: Patreon.) Which is something to think about–maybe instead of worrying that the internet will kill art because there is no way to attach monetary value to it anymore, we can change the way we determine that value and give of our own accord. We can help and be helped, guided by our own human determination to collect, connect, and share.

Overall, I enjoyed The Art of Asking more than I thought I would. Amanda Palmer is still cool (or weird, however you look at it) but she’s also much more. I didn’t really need to hear all those stories of Neil Gaiman trying to flirt, though.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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I’ve been a fan of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast since about 2013, and although I haven’t been keeping up with new episodes, I still recommend it a lot to people just getting into podcasts.

Then Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor announced they were releasing a Night Vale book…and I knew I wasn’t going to like very much. Not that I didn’t try to have an open mind. I did, but I knew I wouldn’t like it very much and I didn’t. I am book reviewer, hear me roar!

I’ll keep this review short, because while I wasn’t a huge fan of the novel, I still think the podcast is really cool and I wouldn’t want to turn anyone off entirely. So here is a list.

THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE WTNV NOVEL:

  1. I didn’t like the characters the novel focused on. The podcast is a fictional story about a creepy, bizarro town told exclusively through the sweet, deep-voiced narration of Cecil, the host of a local community radio show. While the recurring characters are part of the charm in the podcast, the story is always told through this singular voice. This was the main reason I knew I wouldn’t like the Welcome to Night Vale novel, because most of the charm of the podcast is its format. There are a few chapter breaks that are transcripts of Cecil’s radio show, which read exactly like the podcast except…you’re reading it. Cecil’s voice was sorely missed, but those chapter breaks were STILL my favorite part of the book– I didn’t like the actual novel part of the novel. Which is a bad sign.
  2. I don’t think a twenty-five minute podcast translates to a novel. I was really glad it was over when I was done reading it. The long-form story just didn’t work for me in the Night Vale universe, because the more I was told about the town the less it amused me.
  3. It felt like the authors were a little tired by the end of the novel, too, like they had a specific word count they needed to produce, and some of it had to be forced out. There were a lot of times where they told instead of showing–actual, literal scenes where the characters looked at each other and said, “Wow, our town is a really weird place to live!” I rolled my eyes a few times, and the minute I roll my eyes at a piece of writing is the minute you’ve lost me entirely.
  4. I guess I just missed Cecil’s voice a whole lot. Cecil’s voice, the community radio station, the background music…those are where the character of “Night Vale” lives! I missed the atmosphere of the podcast, the comic delivery, etc.

That’s about it. I don’t recommend reading Welcome to Night Vale unless you are already a big fan of the podcast. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, definitely do not start with the novel. Listen to the podcast.

Welcome to Night Vale is at times absolutely perfect-it just didn’t need a novelization. That’s like saying, Hey, the Mona Lisa is a really great painting, really a masterpiece of its form…maybe we should turn that into a podcast? Okay, sometimes experimenting with different forms turns awesome things into further awesome things, but in this case it didn’t feel organic or inspired or interesting. But feel free to disagree with me, Night Vale fans! I would like to hear your thoughts.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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If you’ve read my blog recently, you know I’ve got a thing going on with Margaret Atwood–I am attempting to read her back catalogue in chronological order. I’ve gotten as far as Cat’s Eye, released in 1988. Some of her most popular work has been released after 1990, like the Oryx and Crake series, but I’m basically clueless about her newer work. So, when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2015, based on a serial she had been publishing online, I was all aboard.

There’s a lot of reasons to read Margaret Atwood–she’s quirky without being annoying or cute. (Never, ever is she cute.) The way she blends science fiction, gender issues, and Canada is one of those things readers needed without knowing they needed. Her language is in turns poetic and flowery and sharp as a knife. And The Heart Goes Last, while at times perplexing, did not disappoint.

The Heart Goes Last is about a modern couple named Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car after the economic collapse of the United States. They are offered the chance to trade freedom for comfort by joining The Positron Project in Consilience, a town where people alternate between being prisoners and living comfortable, dictated lives. It’s basically a city run by a corporation that gets people to sell their lives and bodies as a way of escaping the starvation and crime on the outside. All Hail Our Kindly Corporate Overlords.

It reminds me a lot of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart in the way it uses dark humor to shine a light on how very messed up society is and can become. Also, the fact that sex robots were a major plot point and nearly all of the characters are insufferable narcissists and/or insufferable idiots makes The Heart Goes Last kind of Shteyngart-esque.

Not that The Heart Goes Last was all sex robots and hand-wringing about materialism. I’ve read present day dystopian/speculative novels that focus on social media, like the above-mentioned Super Sad True Love Story and The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, and they’re certainly of the moment but sometimes they feel a little naggy, like your aunt complaining about selfies at Thanksgiving. The Heart Goes Last is different—it focuses on how economic disparities and excessive corporate power can erode individual choice, and it isn’t concerned about Facebook. Although it is sometimes absurd, the premise isn’t completely far-fetched. Because of this, The Heart Goes Last could have been a truly spooky dystopian, a la 1984, but instead it was…funny.

The dark humor lent the novel a satirical flair, but I don’t find The Heart Goes Last anywhere near as scary as I find The Handmaid’s Tale (published by Atwood in 1985), and I think The Handmaid’s Tale is more effective because of its earnestness. I certainly recommend The Heart Goes Last, but my answer to the question “What Margaret Atwood book should I start with?” has not changed. (It’s still The Handmaid’s Tale, because I will never shut up about that book.)

This is the downside to being a Great Living Writer. Jerks like me will always compare the old to the new. But I find Atwood’s bibliography so interesting in the way it flows from one book to another like one decades long conversation. They’re all different, but the ideas build on one another. Which is why I’m glad I took the time to read them in order (with the exception of this one), and why I’m glad she’s still writing. Because if The Heart Goes Last is any indication, Margaret Atwood in 2015 is still taking valuable and interesting risks with her writing.

Let me know what you thought of The Heart Goes Last in the comments below. Bonus questions: Do you have a favorite Margaret Atwood book? Are you from Canada? Is it as cold there as they say?

A Brief August Round-Up/A Less Brief Pre-Autumn Check-In/The Summer Reading Wrapeth Up

Here’s a list of what I read in August!

Delirium by Lauren Oliver – This is the first book in the Delirium trilogy. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either? I’m still looking for an underrated gem of perfect YA dystopian, but I think after I wrap this series up, I’ll call off my search– unless somebody besides a fifteen year old can vouch for a series for me. Okay, maybe I’m not the intended audience, but The Hunger Games was so awesome guys! Why can’t there be more like that? I have such a soft spot for YA, but a lot of it feels so tedious, especially dystopian, which follows a lot of formulaic plots without the benefit of interesting writing styles. This series, like the Legend series, really suffers because of how eye-rolly the main romance is. BUT, it has a seriously gutsy twist at the end of the first novel, and that is what kept me reading the second book later in the month.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – I reviewed that here, if you missed it.

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver – The second book of the aforementioned Delirium trilogy has a markedly more mature narrative, and I liked that. I think it was slightly better than the first book, even, and a lot of that was because the love story in the first one had been completely altered. (No spoilers though.) For a summary of this series: basically, this is about a dystopian United States where people get a surgery on their 18th birthday that keeps them from falling in love, because in this society, love is considered the ‘disease’ that is the root of all mankind’s problems. Basically, like so many YA dystopian trilogies, it took an aspect of The Giver and just made it about a girl wanting to kiss a boy, on the lips even. I have the third and final installment on my Kindle as we speak, so I’m not exactly knocking it.

Champion by Marie Lu – I read a lot of YA last month, which I guess is why I didn’t really want to write this post. I really have a love/hate relationship with YA–so much of it is so dumb, and the Legend series by Marie Lu is no exception. That being said, while I found the second book of the series completely boring, this, the third and final book, was my favorite. But no, I don’t exactly recommend anyone read it if they’re looking for a good YA dystopian series that is not The Hunger Games or even Divergent. The problem is I don’t exactly have anything to recommend that fits that description, and that bums me out.

So, as far as my summer reading challenge goes – I have read 3 out of 4 classic novels written by women: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The only one I haven’t gotten to yet is Beloved by Toni Morrison, (inexcusable, I know) which is on my desk to be read very soon. Once I finish the Delirium trilogy, I will have completed my 2 YA series. I have absolutely not started a short story collection but you know what is lovely in Autumn? Short stories. And I read and watched a book to movie adaptation early in the summer–Olive Kitteridge. So, not too bad.

In other challenge-y news, I lowered my Goodreads challenge goal from 80 books to 70 books, because it was stressing me out too much, I wanted to read longer books without feeling rushed or guilty, and I just have quite a lot going on in my life at the moment. I also think 2016 will be the year I have no challenge at all–I think it puts too much emphasis on quantity over quality, and I know I’m going to read every single year anyway, so why do I need a challenge? Maybe my challenge in 2016 will to only read excellent books and have fun everyday all the time always.

So now it’s September. (92 degrees, but September) Which means it is almost my favorite time of the year. I am looking forward to reading a lot of Stephen King in the fall, because I like to do that and last October I wasted a lot of time on IT so I need a re-do. That, and lots of cozy warm-drinks-and-book instagram selfies, and NaNoWriMo. All very exciting things!

I also started a trial membership of Scribd, which I am using to try out audiobooks–something I’ve always actively resisted but am now trying out for reasons I will explain later. I will post a review of Scribd as soon as I’ve formed an opinion, so keep an eye out–but for the time being, please tell me about your experiences with subscription books services! (I.E. Audible, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Oyster…) I am interested, and the idea of paying to borrow books is still kind of weird to me because IDK, libraries exist? But, still, we will see.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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It’s not very fun to write a review of a book that is beloved. You either love it and you write a review saying, “Like your big brother and your 11th grade English teacher, I, too, loved Catcher in the Rye” and who cares, or you hate it and you write a review saying, “I don’t really get why people like The Fountainhead.” And who cares?

So, I didn’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn looking to review it or even post much about it on here. I was reading it because it’s been on my shelf for too long and it fulfills one of my goals for my Summer Reading Challenge. But this book got under my skin, so I wanted to write a brief post about it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Now that I’ve read it I realize how few classics are about a young women’s coming-of-age in the strict definition of the term; so many novels about young women are plain love stories. This is not a love story, it’s a survival story. Francie grows from a poor little girl to a young woman going off to college; in between she is forced to drop out of school to help support her family financially so her brother gets to remain in school. She watches her father deteriorating from alcoholism and her mother struggle to balance motherhood and working in poverty.

The story of Francie’s family is fascinating in its stark realism, in the ways that it deals with how idealistic people can either stubbornly keep on or be ruined in the face of poverty. It’s written in a sparsely beautiful way, only occasionally sentimental. It has the warmheartedness and redemptive qualities a story about growing up in a certain place should have. And what a sense of place this story had. 

While the Brooklyn in this novel is long gone, so many of the themes it touches on are current. Smith writes on issues of sex, childbirth, class, privilege, and disappointing husbands so frankly I wonder why more people don’t call A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a feminist classic.

I think this could easily take the place of Catcher in the Rye in many junior year English class. Kids would probably hate it just as much, but the English teachers would find so much to discuss. That’s about the highest compliment a classic novel can get, am I right?

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – Book + Miniseries review

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I recently read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, mainly because I was intrigued by the HBO miniseries that recently aired. I generally don’t allow myself to watch adaptations of books without reading the books first. (I feel like I got a lot more out of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie because of this.) Then, my sister recommended that I read it. Another thing about me is that if someone recommends me a book, I will read it. I may not read it right away, or even that year, but I will read it. So if you guys ever recommend me a book, don’t be surprised if I email you five years in the future to tell you my thoughts. You’ll be like, “I’m actually pretty over Jonathan Franzen,” but I’ll still have to tell you about it. Thankfully, because this book hit two of my reading triggers, being both an adaptation I wanted to see and having been recommended to me, I took the e-book out from the library pretty soon after the idea of reading it formed in my head.

Olive Kitteridge was a surprise to me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was not what I was expecting at all. It was funnier than I thought it would be, and the entire structure of the novel was strange. I hadn’t really heard anything about it before I read it except that it was about a grumpy lady. That was enough for me. I wasn’t aware, however, how the character Olive Kitteridge is often just a weaving secondary character in a series of short stories about a Maine town–no one seemed to mention this?! There are a few stories that seem like deep treks into the Kitteridge family, but some of the other stories are about, say, a student Olive Kitteridge used to have, or about the singer at the local bar. Olive Kitteridge makes only a brief appearance in the stories about the townspeople, sometimes just as a antidote the character in focus tells.

Which feels like a gimmick, doesn’t it? I hate those!

I think that this is where Olive Kitteridge both sets itself apart and falters. I say falters and not fails because overall I really enjoyed the novel, but I did feel there was a lot of excess in the form of unnecessary characters and plot lines. The stories in Olive Kitteridge I felt the strongest reaction to were the ones that focused on the Kitteridges. Which makes me wish Olive Kitteridge was just a straightforward novel about Olive Kitteridge–maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.

That’s why I loved the miniseries: it took the small, interesting details from the stories of the townspeople and make them just that–small, interesting details in the background of the main story of the Kitteridges, and Olive, a character that came alive in the miniseries in a new way. (Frances McDormand, by the way, was excellent.)

I had a hard time fully connecting to Olive in the book. I found her character so interesting but hard to grasp: one minute she is pondering about how she hates interacting with people in her town, the next minute she is helping a random girl get help for an eating disorder. It seemed unbelievable. But she felt so real in the miniseries, like the kind of lady all towns know: she knows everyone’s business and even though she’s kind of a jerk she doesn’t judge as much as it seems she does. When she does act out, it is out of the deep hurt of not belonging. She is a deeply flawed and somewhat tragic character, but her weaknesses are just so real that it was sometimes hard to watch.

There’s a lot in this story, and I’m a bad book reviewer, so here is a list of THEMES:

-Small town life turning slightly less wholesome with the passing of time (this book will make you feel kind of sad about chain drugstores)
-Depression! Suicide!
-Children who grow up to resent you!
-Aging and death!
-People from Maine are different from the rest of us!
-Probably the biggest: Human connection and how it is sometimes easier for some people than others, but sometimes the people who have trouble connecting are the ones who need it the most.

I feel kind of like a bad book lover for saying this, but if you must, you should watch the HBO miniseries even if you don’t get around to reading the book. Although I loved the miniseries because I had the background of the novel, the miniseries did a great job of cutting out the narrative fat of Olive Kitteridge, and leaving all the soul-shattering, beautiful, sad, wonderful characterization of the story.

Short Stories, Literary Bros, and My Girlfriend, Margaret Atwood: May 2015 Round Up

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I recently listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast episode where Gary Shteyngart reads Lorrie Moore and immediately went to the library to take out Self Help, Moore’s first short story collection. I really admire writers who get famous off of their short stories. There’s no money and very little readers to gain from being a writer of short stories, but the fact that we’re still talking about writers like Lorrie Moore with such reverence shows that there is still something magical about a story that can be life-affirming, funny, and sad all in one sitting.

I liked Self Help a lot, but it’s very much a collection by a young writer. One of the stories is called “How to Be A Writer”–about a young woman being a writer. If I never have to read another story about a writer being a writer, I’ll be happy. It just screams I’M A WRITER WITH NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT. Otherwise, I can’t wait to read more from Lorrie Moore; she seems to be a foreshadowing of my favorite newer short story writers, like Aimee Bender, Miranda July and Aryn Kyle, and I think I have a lot to learn from her.

After that I read the short story collection Tenth of December by George Saunders, which I resisted for a long time. There was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it first released. I read the title story for a writing class in college and I just hated it so much. Re-reading it now made me realize that I was wrong–“Tenth of December” is a good story. I think my annoyance back then was that it was just that: a good short story, and yet people were talking about how George Saunders was the best living short story writer of our time like it was pure fact. Blergh.

If you haven’t noticed, lately I’m into reading books mainly by women–and I think this was a medicinal measure to cure me of the yuckiness I was feeling in the book world; it was getting to me that male writers get titles such as greatest and genius a little too easy while so many women writers are being overlooked. Many women writers can write just as good a short story collection as George Saunders (I’m discussing one of them right above!). I’m tired of taking writers like Saunders so seriously all the time while all of my favorite writers (women) get called quirky.

What I realize now that I didn’t realize in college is that none of that–none of the hype, the think pieces about diversity in publishing, my own personal annoyance about LitBros, et al–have anything to actually do with George Saunders’ writing, which is good. I should stop comparing every short story writer I like to Miranda July (A very “Quirky” writer), but No One Belongs Here More Than You is basically my favorite short story collection, and Tenth of December reminded me of it in some ways. The joy in both collections is seeing the banal turned extraordinary, or the extraordinary turned banal, see: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” my personal favorite from Tenth of December. (A close second is “Victory Lap”)

Saunders’ work seems to focus a lot on class anxiety in America, but in a way that is funny just as often as it is tragic. I recommend it to anyone who may be new to reading short story collections, because the writing style is very conversational.

When I was at the library picking up a copy of Self Help I stumbled upon a beautifully designed indie-published book called Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm. The book is about a woman named Leah, whose brother went missing when they were both young. It goes in and out of past and present, and although it seemed full of potential, I didn’t love it. I reviewed on Goodreads:

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Ain’t it a shame.

I needed something short and sweet after that, so I reached for some YA: Legend by Marie Lu, which I reviewed here. I will be reading Prodigy soon.

I’m reading Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood at the moment. It’s not my favorite Atwood. It’s about a love triangle between some miserable 70s hipsters who work at a museum. How many douchey hipster men has Margaret Atwood dated? I feel like we could swap some stories. At this point in my Atwood reading adventure I am just antsy to get through the 70s and reread The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it when I was in high school, and you all know how I feel about dystopian. I am getting impatient to get to it, but next up after Life After Man is Bodily Harm, which I guess I will write about in next month’s round up. At this point I feel like I have traded my relationships with douchey hipster men for a monogamous relationship with Margaret Atwood. It’s an improvement.


 

Hey, thanks for reading. How’s the Goodreads challenge going, you ask? Not great, Bob.

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Just kidding, it’s fine, except I’m four books behind and that is crazy to me since I feel like I’m reading a lot. I wanted to get ahead a little bit so I could spend some time later in the year reading longer books, like The Stand or Game of Thrones both of which have been wearing holes in my to-read pile but are just too damn long. The biggest mistake I made in 2014 was choosing to read IT by Stephen King as my one long book. That book was a clusterfuck, and I won’t get that month of reading back. It’s such a commitment, you guys! #goodproblems

So, what did y’all read this month? Feel free to write to me in the comments, by email at saltwaterbookreview@gmail.com, or on Tumblr if you have any books you NEED TO DISCUSS!! (I know that feel.)