Monthly Archives: March 2010

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

Let me come right out and say that I adored “Eat, Pray, Love,” Gilbert’s mega-mega spiritual journey memoir, and found her writing style immensely engaging.  After reading Eat/Pray, I visited the author’s Web site, read through the FAQ, and fixated on the glimmer of hope she offered for future writings.  Yes, Gilbert and her Brazilian lover Felipe from “Eat, Pray, Love” were still together and going strong. ::cue girlish squeals at true love being possible:: And yes, there would be another book, a continuation of the story.  In the interim, waiting for her next book to come out, I watched this video from the TED conference detailing her insightful thoughts on the creative process and how she struggled to make peace with the ever-looming specter of “Eat, Pray, Love” ‘ s success  informing her next work.  Don’t worry, Elizabeth, I thought, your next book will be great.

Well, it pains me to say this, but “Committed” just isn’t on the level of “Eat, Pray, Love.”  I would never have read the book if it wasn’t slapped with the Elizabeth Gilbert name.  Prior to reading the book myself, I’d read a few reviews claiming that the new memoir wasn’t hot stuff, and my frugal side kicked in, prompting me to check the book out of the library rather than buying it and dog-earing the pages for posterity as I did with “Eat, Pray, Love.”

And yeah, the critics and my frugal side were correct.  Gilbert is still a likable writer, but in this new book she isn’t telling a compelling story.  It’s mostly a long history of the institution of marriage, a compilation of secondhand academic research and firsthand anecdotal accounts.  Sure, the frame story sounds somewhat intriguing:  Gilbert and Felipe are jarred from their nontraditional relationship when Homeland Security revokes Felipe’s visa, sending the couple flitting from country to country while the US government slowly tackles the paperwork and Gilbert comes to terms with essentially being forced to marry again.

But, most of the book reads like a combination journal entry and high school research paper.  The narrative arc essentially disappears at times.  And, while Gilbert is surely an intelligent and thoughtful woman, the revelations in this book didn’t awe me in the manner of “Eat, Pray, Love.”  It didn’t feel deep enough to me.  I felt like I learned some new facts about the history of marriage and about how marriage at one time was a radical act, but I wasn’t moved beyond the superficial level of “oh, that’s interesting.” In fact, I would have stopped reading the book and returned it if not for the profound respect I have for Elizabeth Gilbert’s prior work.

I suspect that my lack of engagement with the book derives from the unusual position Gilbert finds herself in.  While I totally respect her ambivalence to a second marriage, I don’t get it in my gut.  I can’t relate to Gilbert’s need to write a book talking herself into marriage, because I’m not even close to experiencing those feelings towards marriage.  And, I suspect many women would probably jump at the chance to marry a Felipe.  Gilbert is to be commended for thinking outside the cultural box, but it makes it harder to engage with an audience who largely embraces marriage, especially marriage to an attractive, loving soulmate.

On the other hand, “Eat, Pray, Love” tapped into visceral, universal feelings of religious yearning and the compelling call to journey that many of us experience and few of us are able to pursue.  In Eat/Pray, Gilbert’s experiences were literally transcendent.  She experiences the bliss of samadhi, she agonizes on the bathroom floor, internally hearing the voice of God. The scene where she forgives her ex-husband still gives me the chills to re-read.  Why?  I think she wrote it better, I think she was working with better narrative material, and I think she touched something absolutely universal in her readers.

The best parts of the new memoir “Committed” were the beginning, dealing with the Felipe visa setup, and the ending, describing the inevitable wedding.  I was tempted to outright skip the stuff in between, but I read it through because I was really really holding out hope for something amazing.  Maybe next time.  Realistically though, how many truly life-changing experiences can one have in a lifetime and still be genuine?  I recall reading somewhere that Gilbert is working on a novel for her next book.

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The Trade-Off and E-Books

The Trade-Off by Kevin Maney talks about the convenience of a product versus its fidelity, aka its special aura or experience.  E-books are a new product, and currently there’s no break-out product for history to declare the winner.  The Kindle has made some headway, and the iPad has the potential to revolutionize, but we’re not there quite ready to name the Betamax.

Maney puts in plain terms what many consumers have already concluded.  E-books just aren’t as treasured right now as real books.  Real books, he argues, have fidelity.  Real books can be displayed on a shelf to impress your friends, noted with your name, and kept forever.  That fidelity can’t be replicated by an e-book, which offers a more transient experience.  Your e-book exists in the ether, never truly yours to own in the way as a nice hardcover.

An e-book is potentially more convenient though.  You press a button and poof!  Instant book.  No trip to the store or agonizing wait for the UPS man.  No heavy backpack to lug around.  But, even though it all sounds good in theory, right now e-books just aren’t that convenient.  You have to buy an expensive device, buy expensive books, and deal with some less than ideal design issues.

So, right now, e-books aren’t particularly convenient, and they’re not offering a high fidelity experience either (must restrain from John Cusak joke).  Maney says this puts them in the “fidelity belly,” that no-mans land between the two extremes, and this isn’t a good place for a product seeking success.  E-books could break out of this trench, though, by becoming super convenient.  I think Maney is on to something here.

Amazon or Apple or another e-book player could pour money into development and unveil a ridiculously convenient e-reader.  This e-reader would be cheaper, have a more intuitive design, allow users to truly own books without pesky DRM, and more closely simulate the experience of reading a real book.  When that mythical e-reader debuts, the real revolution in written media will begin.  Until then, I’m sticking with Amazon supersaver shipping, Barnes and Noble, and my trusty public library.

I do think it’s only a matter of time before this ideal e-reader is created.  The promise of technology is there, and we’ve seen super convenience revolutionize other fields like music and television.  When the platform is right, e-books will fly off the shelves, and physical books might no longer be there…

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The Onion: Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text

This Onion article about our collective fear of chunky paragraphs cracked me up.  It’s true though.  Internet writing needs to be concise. (Cue obligatory paragraph break).

And yet, adult books are long blocks of text, uninterrupted by YouTube videos and links.  Do we buy them because there are no alternate, bells-and-whistles books available yet?  Or do we just prefer a chance to focus sometimes and let the author’s voice guide our imaginations?   What do you think?

Personally, I enjoy the focused nature of a book.  I always hated reading books with footnotes back in college, because I found it so distracting.  It’s an imperfect analogy, but links feel like footnotes sometimes.  I’m used to them in short articles on the internet, but I don’t typically read the internet seeking the same pleasure and immersion found in a book.

I think the modern way of reading has already affected books though.  Raise your hand if you’re intimidated by long text blocks with few paragraph breaks.  My hand is flying high.  In a bookstore, I’ll often flip through a book just to check out the author’s style.  If I see little dialogue and pages of text without the sweet white space of a paragraph break, I return it to the shelf.  Sure, I could force myself to read and comprehend it, but that’s no fun.  If a book doesn’t engage me, there are plenty of other ones out there that will.

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Book Review: Trade-Off by Kevin Maney

Trade-Off is written in a light, conversational style that makes the book fly by before you blink.  Fans of Malcolm Gladwell books and Freakonomics will enjoy the tone and content of the book, as Maney explains his concept of a “trade-off” by offering vivid anecdotes and profiles of people and products.

The “trade-off” explored is the interplay between fidelity and convenience.  Fidelity, defined in the book, is a product’s total experience.  Maney uses the example of attending a U2 concert.  Although it’s incredibly inconvenient to book concert tickets, drive to a defined place, and stand in line, you simply can’t replicate the experience of being in the physical presence of the band and joining the crowd dancing around you.

On the other hand, a U2 CD is a highly convenient product with its own niche in the market.  A CD has high sound quality and can be enjoyed at any time, but it’s an easily replicated and not particularly unique experience, and thus not a threat to concert ticket sales.

Products get in trouble when they occupy the “fidelity belly,” the no man’s land between catering to the high fidelity niche and the high convenience track.  After establishing these key vocab words, Maney dives into explanations of just about everything.  He explores reasons behind the NHLs lackluster television numbers and offers a solution.   He tackles Ozzfest, the iPhone, Netflix, flash-frozen fish, Second Life, MTV, and ATMs.  And that’s only a sampling.

I was especially interested in the segment devoted to e-books.  It’s a meaty topic though, so I’ll offer my thoughts in the next post.

If you like this type of book, then I highly recommend “The Trade-Off.”  I blazed through it, and I have a hunch you’ll find it interesting too.

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How to Write Scenes of Unspeakable Horror

Although not every novel calls for a scene of unspeakable horror, the right scene in the right place with the right buildup can greatly enhance a story.  When sick, twisted things happen to your characters, readers shiver and cringe… and keep turning the pages.

(SPOILER ALERT:  The Golden Compass and Unwind)

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman is one of my favorite fantasy/sci fi/steampunk adventures, and it centers around a horrifying idea:  children are being kidnapped and severed from their daimons. However, without reading Golden Compass, the preceding sentence might sound like gibberish.  Sure, children being kidnapped is always a bummer, but kidnapping alone is not quite otherworldly horror, and daimons aren’t a familiar concept.

But Pullman is a master world builder.  In the course of the novel, he unveils detail after tantalizing detail, preparing us for that coming horrific moment .  Daimons are constant animal companions; they shape-change and talk and reflect human emotions.  Daimons are the closest thing to a human’s heart.  Daimons are souls.  In bringing the reader to this point, Pullman avoids info dumps and reveals key details at the precise moments, keeping the reader in constant suspense.  He shows us everything.  We see how children are kidnapped, we see a room of caged daimons, we see a severed child, and we watch the child die in agony.

By the time the main character, Lyra, finds herself in the ultimate pickle, we’re fully acclimated to the world and ready to be horrified.    Lyra and her daimon, Pantalaimon, end up in the midst of the soul-severing machine.  With the backstory firmly in place, Pullman shows us Lyra’s pain and violation, tapping into two very real emotions that most readers could empathize with, and delivering them through a no-longer alien concept, the severing of a daimon.  In the spirit of showing, below are Pullman’s words, right after Lyra is caught:

“And suddenly all the strength went out of her.

It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious.

She felt faint, dizzy, sick, disgusted, limp with shock.

One of the men was holding Pantalaimon.

He had seized Lyra’s daimon in his human hands, and poor Pan was shaking, nearly out of his mind with horror and disgust.  His wildcat shape, his fur now dull with weakness, now sparking glints of anbaric alarm… He curved toward his Lyra as sshe reached with both hands for him…

They fell still.  They were captured.

She felt those hands… It wasn’t allowed… Not supposed to touch… Wrong…”

I think many books succeed with very different climaxes/key scenes.  Some sci-fi books have scenes of fights, of guns, of plot twists, of a main character about to be murdered.  But, I think a scene like Pullman’s reaches another place, a place that sickens and squirms and seriously ups the stakes.  Lyra isn’t just in danger of dying, she’s in danger of dying by losing her soul.  It’s visceral, it’s sick, it’s disturbing.  And it makes for great reading.

Writers who know how to use this tool, and use it well, are able to worm their way into sacred places in our psyches, the equivalent of laying a hand on our souls and squeezing.  Other writers lay a hand on our hearts, set them racing in the manner of a straight thriller.  But I think that evoking that sense of twisted sickness brings it to another level—gets the heart racing and the gut lurching at the same time.  It’s what separates a good car chase from something that keeps you up at night, like gradually losing your memories in little glass marbles given to a witch, ala The Neverending Story 2.  (That movie haunted me for years).

Here’s why:

  1. Writing scenes of unspeakable horror takes powerful imagination, and imagination makes for good storytelling.
  2. Scenes of unspeakable horror kick our primal emotions into action and up our throats—violation, horror, revulsion.   We’re forced to consider the unthinkable.
  3. To do horrific scenes well, the world-building must be precise, must show not tell.  Typically, this means these scenes occur towards the end of the novel.
  4. Show don’t tell.  Show don’t tell.  That’ll make or break it.

Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is the ultimate example of show, don’t tell.  If someone is  unwound, they’ll be surgically divided into organs, and those organs will be distributed to any takers.  The government and parents say this isn’t actually death, it’s just a way to continue living in a new form.  But the kids chosen for unwinding call bullshit on them and take off.  Wouldn’t you?  The buildup to the key scene is masterful.  The main characters spend the majority of the novel on the run, trying to elude capture and the dreaded fate of being Unwound.

And yet, of course, someone had to get caught.  I won’t give away who, but a major character ends up being unwound.  As a reader, you think to yourself… they’re not going to describe the unwinding, right?  They’ll just have a scene when the character is escorted away, and then some nice white space, and then a scene where everyone else cries/gets angry revenge.  Right?  RIGHT?

But we follow the character as he/she’s wheeled into the operating room.  No mercy for the character; no mercy for the reader.  We listen to the kindly creepy nurse make conversation while the character’s ankles are snipped away.  Then his legs, then his internal organs.  Shusterman juxtaposes the nurses innocuous small-talk against the surgeons’ procedures.

Finally, the surgeons reach the brain, and the nurse leaves since talking won’t be physically possible, what with the character’s jaw already being harvested.  Thinking is possible though, and we readers hear the characters thoughts diminish as specific parts of the brain are lopped off.  Thalamus, parietal lobes, hypcampus, corpus calloseum, etc.  It’s gruesome, it’s creepy, it’s the ultimate show-don’t-tell, and it sticks with you.  It works.

“Left frontal lobe.

I…I…I don’t feel so good.

Left occipital lobe.

I…I…I odn’t remember where….

Left parietal lobe.

I…I…I can’t remember my name, but…but…

Right temporal.

…but I’m still here.

Right frontal.

I’m still here.

Right occipital.

I’m still…

Right parietal.

I’m…

Cerebellum.

I’m…

Thalamus.

I…

Hypothalamus.

I…

Hippocampus.

Medulla.

…”

Pretty jarring, right?  Not all books call for something so unsettling, but when it works, it sticks with you, keeps the story lingering for days in your mind.  I’ve never been a fan of straight-out horror for shock value only, but I do like when things jar me a bit, shake up my world view, make me really empathize with characters.  Unwind and The Golden Compass are great books to read, and great books to learn from as a writer.

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The Google Book Scanning Monster

I wonder if Google will ever use the gaping monster mouth with waggling tongue as one of its ever-changing logos?  The image above was created by Asuf Hanuka for a magazine article about the implications of Google’s ambitious book scanning project.  Google, of course, prefers to think of itself as forward-thinking, benevolent, altruistic.  The company’s slogan is “Don’t be evil.”  This attitude, according to the article in California Lawyer, is what separates Google from the easy to hate Goliath of the 90’s, Microsoft.

Google fervently believes in its mission to digitize books.  Trust us, it says, our digital library will benefit everyone.  And, at first, everyone agreed.  The book scanning project began back in 2002 and has been humming along nicely since, digitizing 12 million books and counting.  We’re on the way to having all of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, immortalized in bits and bytes.  How could that be bad?

Well, for starters, Google doesn’t run the public library down the street.  Books, as repositories of knowledge, have a hallowed position in society.  You don’t burn books, and you’d feel guilty even chucking a used one in the recycling bin.  You buy books and support authors, but you also check them out for free at libraries.  Few other things in society have that cachet.  You don’t see a “library” of snowman nic-nacs for people to borrow, or a “library” of used kitchen utensils.  Books are special.  Underlying books is the assumption that knowledge is egalitarian, theoretically the sacred right of everyone.

So, what happens if a private entity, a corporation, now has exclusive control over all the world’s digitized books?  Google says they won’t be evil, but can we stake the future of digital books on a slogan and good intentions?  I grant that Google might not actually have nefarious intentions… now.  But what happens 25 years from now, when the founders and current CEO step down?

I equate trusting Google with trusting a benevolent dictator.  Sure, Julius Caesar was good, but not so much that Nero guy.  What happens if Google’s revenues falter?  What happens if some of the digitized books are somehow offensive to Google’s mission?  Do those books disappear?  Do charges and tiers of service start appearing?

We don’t know.  And that presents a potentially huge problem.  After the initial euphoric enthusiasm for Google’s book scanning project, backlash occurred.  The CLL article goes into more detail, but in a nutshell legal concerns over copyright violations and anti-trust regulations have surfaced.  Google settled once, was sued, and settled again.  Some of Google’s detractors formed the Open Book Alliance, and they weren’t entirely happy with the second settlement either.  This February, the Justice Department signaled that it agreed, and that Google’s book scanning project could overlap with its search business, fostering a monopoly.

The Open Book Alliance proposed a solution that I totally support.  Instead of a corporate, private digital library, let’s emulate our current open, free, unbiased public libraries.  Let’s establish a non-profit to lead the charge in book scanning, or let’s have the government do it. The future of books is digital, but we shouldn’t ditch models that have worked in the past.  And public libraries work.

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Pricing e-books

I don’t own an e-book reader currently, and have no plans to buy one in the near future.  Still, I’m assuming that just as I eventually bought an iPod, I’ll eventually do most of my reading with some e-book reader.

I do know, though, that if e-books cost nearly as much as regular books, I’ll stick with the good old binded paper versions until they’re pried out of my paper-cut hands.  Regardless of publishers’ profitability justifications, my gut says that it’s silly for solid objects and virtual objects to cost the same. 

Some might argue that the instantaneous service and portability aspects of e-books justify steeper prices, but I don’t find them particularly convenient.  I’d have to buy an expensive reader first, download fairly expensive books, and deal with digital rights management.  My book wouldn’t really belong to me; it would belong to Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or whoever else beamed it to my reader.  And I don’t like that.  I want to truly own books that I buy.  I want to know they’ll stay there on my shelf forever and that I can lend them to whomever I please.

Right now, I would only buy an e-reader if I were a constant traveler, irked by the burden of a backpack full of books.  The convenience advantage would offset the other issues.  Or, I might consider an e-book reader if e-books were priced cheaply.  The DRM would still be bothersome, but I could justify putting up with it for a lower priced book. 

Alas, prices don’t seem to be headed that way right now.  But that’s okay.  I enjoy sitting in Barnes and Noble with my steaming cup of coffee, running my hands over the glossy covers of newly printed books.  There are advantages to the current system, and I’ll enjoy them while I can.

Check out this article from the New York Times for more thoughts on e-books, and the latest in the pricing wars.

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