Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon
The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon

 

Does the amount of things that Google knows about you scare you? In my last review, I discussed Angwin’s Dragnet Nation. This week, I’m reviewing a fictional representation of this idea pushed to its extreme: a network so all encompassing and so pervasive that, for all intents and purposes, it ends up replacing the government–The Circle.

Mae, a young university graduate, gets a job at The Circle, a company that’s a mashup of Google, Facebook, Paypal and Twitter. In fact, in the world of the book, The Circle replaces all of these and buys all their archives.

At first, Mae takes this job as a job. She has a life outside of the Circle and doesn’t participate much in its social (both online and real life) aspects. But soon enough, the expectation of her participation in social media and social events force her, more or less, to become a full-time Circler.

Mae quickly becomes enthralled with the instant gratification of smiles, zings and messages, of signing online petitions and receiving comments on photos and videos. As her world becomes increasingly more knowable through real-time data and her ever-growing social networks, she gets embroiled deeper and deeper into the Circles plans for worldwide transparency and information control.

The novel is more a book of ideas than an enthralling story with interesting characters. I found Mae to be rather naive and barely self-aware. She is obviously flawed, but her lack of self-questioning and the quick way she gets taken in by the cult-like Circle culture is just too easily used as a rhetorical device to make an intellectual point.

The plot could also have used some tightening. I felt the novel took its good old time to get to the interesting part, and I can easily think of at least a dozen scenes that were unnecessary. I couldn’t care much about the central conflict–if there was even one–and ended up feeling, well, not much at all for Mae.

So, as I said earlier, this novel is more of a vehicle for making an argument about the dangers of too much transparency, of the disappearance of privacy even in our own homes, our bedrooms, our past, even our minds. It hints at a sort of techno-dystopian future without quite getting there. The interesting thing that the novel does raise, though, is how most of us are readily willing to enter the surveillance system. Are slaves still slaves if they don’t know they’re enslaved? Is surveillance acceptable if the majority of the population subscribes, welcomes, and even asks for it?

And in such a world, is access to privacy still a right, or does it become another inaccessible utopia?

As an intellectual exercise, this was an interesting book to read. As fiction, however, it is only mildly successful. In the language of the novel, The Circle gets a “meh”.

Review previously published on The Cryptosphere.

Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin

Review of Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin

If you’re a newcomer to issues of privacy and security on the web, Julia Angwin’s 2014 Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance is a good place to start. In accessible language and a relatable context, Angwin delves into the “dragnet nation”, or how multiple entities are grabbing your data indiscriminately to be sold, used and analyzed.

I wasn’t very surprised by anything that Angwin brings up in the book. From your Google search archive to your mobile location data, every bit of activity you do on the web or with your cell phone is likely recorded, stored in a database and may be used for commercial, governmental or covert operations.

To say this is scary would be an understatement. The sheer amount of things that Google knows about you is astounding, and if you want to know what data brokers and companies can discover about you, this is the place to begin. From your favourite takeout restaurant to your clothing size, from your health issues to your political leanings, it’s easy to make quite an accurate profile of anyone through their Google data. Angwin demonstrates this by going through her own data and realizing how revealing it is.

Most of the book is dedicated to Angwin’s quest for privacy in the dragnet nation. She looks for a private email client, a way to hide her location through mobile, and more. She describes the process of getting an alias (a famous early 20th-century journalist) for online shopping. She even gets a credit card in her alias’ name!

As you can imagine, Angwin struggles with living a normal modern life and living privately. From sluggish private browsers (Tor) to unpractical Faraday pouches that cut all signals to and from your phone, it’s difficult to answer to the demands of today’s digital world and protect your privacy. The expectations of availability and the constant surveillance makes it very difficult to live “off the dragnet grid.”

As you can imagine, Angwin is only partly successful at increasing her privacy online. She often finds that the cost of security is too high: it gets in the way of her life or in the way of her work, or somehow overcomplicates a task so much that it doesn’t seem worth it to her.

The most interesting–and alarming–conclusion you can make from reading this book is that the convenience of modern technology comes at the cost of your privacy. There is hardly any way to avoid the dragnet, if only by making a purchase with a credit card or by placing a call with your cell phone. Tasks as ubiquitous as reading your favourite news outlet online, doing a Google search or walking into a store with your cell phone are now all part of the dragnet.

The dangers of the dragnet are also obviously scary: that your information can be retroactively used against you. Proponents of the dragnet argue that it has protected us against terrorism, but as Angwin argues, maybe it doesn’t do it so well. What the dragnet does do well is build a profile of you for advertising purposes. What it is for is not so much protection against criminals (who would be careful to use privacy tools anyway, if they were smart) but for selling you stuff.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of any kind of big organization that knows too much about me, whether it is the government or corporations. I agree that the government should know enough about its citizen to build good policies, but should it be aware of everyone’s every single movement, phone call, Google search? Should it know where you do your groceries, your favourite type of legal pornography or the latest pair of boots you bought online?

As I said earlier, convenience comes at a price. To increase privacy is to forego convenience. But is it too late to turn back? Are we now all so addicted to our phones, laptops, city-wide wi-fi and Google that we’ve all just thrown our hands up and given up?

Is everything that makes our life easier necessarily a good thing, or should we begin questioning the consequences of blindly accepting and integrating ever more invasive technology in our lives?

Dragnet Nation, although admittedly basic for those who are already aware of these issues, is a good place to start your inquiry.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere

Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison reviewHow to describe how amazing and perfect this book is? The art of the essay–of observing our nature and that of others, of finding universal truths in deeply personal experiences–is alive and well, thanks to Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams.

The essays in this book all discuss, directly or indirectly, the topic of, you guessed it, empathy. From training doctors to empathize with their patients to visiting some of the poorest and most dangerous places on the planet, Jamison dissects how we feel and how, ultimately, we get to feel for and with others in different situations.

The book is thoughtful and smart. These are not commonplace platitudes: Jamison truly digs deep with personal experiences (an abortion, being punched in the face, getting heart surgery) and pulls out little diamonds of insights about the human capacity to share emotions.

Although all essays are pretty much amazing, I especially enjoyed “In Defence of Saccharine”. Maybe it’s because it’s among the most academic of the book (but still accessible), but maybe it’s because I can easily be overtaken by the kinds of emotions that Hollywood movies and “sentimental” literature can provoke. I admit to having cried at the end of A League of Their Own as a teenager at least the first 3 times. I also cried when I finished Daniel Deronda (don’t ask).

The last essay, about female pain, definitely tickled my feminist side. (I rephrase: tickled ME. I’m a WHOLE feminist, not just part of one. Anyway.)

The insight that female pain is dismissed more readily than male pain is not new. But she breaks it down in different kinds of pain, and uses plenty of academic, philosophical and pop culture references to make her point. Here’s a bit from this particular essay:

I knew better–we all, it seems, knew better–than to become one of *those* women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. An entire generation, the next wave, grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identify: we take refuge in self-awareness, self-deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: she doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.

And now we find ourselves torn. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime–a kind of shameful masturbation–that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show.

Jamison has insight that cuts through all the bullshit and goes right to the heart of the matter. Why can’t women admit to their pain? Why do we enjoy poverty tourism? Why do some people run marathons that even ultra-marathoners think are crazy? How do you know if your doctor really empathizes with you–and does it matter if he or she does? Should we embrace or reject the easy emotionality of Hollywood romances?

These are all interesting questions–and there are no easy answers, either. Although Jamison takes her own stand on things, she never shuts the door to the other side. Human emotions are complex, and so are her investigations of them.

To be honest, I’m a little jealous. I wish I had written these. Finishing this book actually made me question a bunch of things about my life, like “have I lived too much of a privileged, middle-class life?” “Can I be a good writer if I don’t have extraordinary experiences?” “WHY THE FUCK AM I NOT WRITING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW?” And also the less comforting: “where has my sharp mind gone?”

Personal fears and confessions aside, if you want to read amazing non-fiction, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll come out a richer, better person on the other side.

5 AWESOME stars.

I’m Going To Finish A Damn Story

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I recently wrote a post for my other blog (go have a look, and subscribe if you like it!), thinking about how I somehow wiggle out of everything that is remotely challenging or life-changing, writing-wise.

Those who know me know that I’m not scared of a challenge… but with stuff like writing fiction or relationships, I’m pretty chickenshit. Every time I chat with someone about writing fiction, here’s what I invariably answer with:

“Yeah, but…”

Doesn’t matter what I say after that. It’s always an excuse. Stupid excuses to avoid what scares. Silly excuses to somehow rationalize why I’m not doing what I’ve dreamed of doing since childhood, pretty much. (I was writing “novels” in 4th grade.)

Why do I use “yeah but”? Because I’m ridiculously conditioned to think that writing fiction is not worth my time, that I’m not good enough, that lots of people are much better than me, that I’ll never make it.

And today I say:

FUCK THAT.

I’m going to write a story. I’m going to finish it. No “yeah buts”. No excuses. 500 words a day. Finished by Sunday.

Then on Monday I’ll start another one. 500 words a day. Then finish it by Sunday.

And over and over again until I’ve written 52 damn stories TO THE END.

I don’t care how good they are. I don’t care whether they’re publishable or not. I care about finishing. I care about doing the damn thing I want to be doing until I die.

I’m going to write stories, and I’m going to finish them.

This is a promise, a commitment that I’m making in public, because I’m tired of hiding behind excuses and rationalizations. I’m tired of setting my true desires aside for other stuff that isn’t nearly as important.

I’M GOING TO FINISH A DAMN STORY. AND THEN ANOTHER ONE. AND THEN ANOTHER ONE.

Until this fear is gone, or at least tamed enough that it lives in a tight cage in the back of the deepest recess of my mind, where it can’t do anything to stop me anymore.

Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom, Lucky Us reviewSometimes, a little unassuming book grips you in the best way possible. The writing is beautiful and moves you. The characters span all across the types, but are mostly, simply, just human. The story highlights these characters; the characters aren’t slaves to the plot. Because, a little bit like life, there’s no plot: just people trying to do their best in crazy situations.

This is the happy surprise of Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us. Two teenage sisters leave their Ohio home for Hollywood in the early 1940s. The eldest, Iris, wants to be a star; the youngest, Eva, our protagonist, follows around reading books and cooking dinner. After a scandal that robs Iris of all chances of finding work in Hollywood, the sisters, along with their suddenly reappearing father and a friend, travel across America to New York to work as live-in staff for a newly-wealthy Italian family. Iris has a definite purpose: being an actress. However, we mostly follow Eva through her apparent uselessness (she is mostly an observer of things, which lets her be the best narrator of the book) through to finally finding her own purpose during a serendipitous accident.

Most of the book happens during the Second World War: a background shadow, something that happens somewhere else but still has an effect on their lives, albeit distant.

This gorgeous little novel (barely 300 pages) is all about family: the family we have, the family we want, and the family we finally make for ourselves. Throughout their life in Hollywood and New York, Iris and Eva gather around them a family of choice. Sometimes they are cruel, but they are always redeemable. Even the most “villainous” of characters in the novel, the girls’ father, is not so much a villain as a victim of circumstances, of choices he has made in the past and appearances he has tried to keep in the future.

The novel also deeply believes in essential human kindness. Sure, there are a few cruel actions, but most cruelty is eventually redeemed and forgiven. The girls’ lucky breaks often originate from a kind gesture from friends or strangers.

Because the story happens during wartime, maybe people were more inclined to kindness them. With all the ugliness happening in Europe, why be ugly to each other here? In a sense, this protects the girls from far worse situations, like prostitution and/or complete destitution.

One of the characters, Gus, is falsely accused of spying for the Germans and is eventually sent to Germany in a prisoner exchange. He ends up in a camp after the town he stays in is bombed, and eventually makes it back to the US:

All of us, the DPs, the soldiers who liberated the camps, even the survivors who came here–we tried to keep it from you. We protected America from what happened, like a man takes care of his wife. The man doesn’t mind when she closes her eyes at the scary part of the ride, of the movie. He loves her for that sweet, willful ignorance. She gives him something to protect, a nice world in which bad things don’t happen. It’s a pleasure, and a relief, to keep that ignorance intact, even as it comes between them.

There is something of that sweet, protected innocence in Eva, but some of the cruelty of the world still seeps through the cracks of her narration. Not enough to make us feel like all is lost, but enough to show us that the world around them is no utopian fairytale. They still live in a world where people can be mean and cruel; they just happen to be surrounded by kind, helpful people most of the time.

Some people were put off by the somewhat fractured narration; Eva tells in first person, while other characters write letters or get third-person narration. This didn’t put me off so much because it establishes Eva as the primary observer, with a few extra points of view to help us along the way.

The prose is lyrical, stylish. There’s an abundance of beautiful images, of moving metaphors. To me, the words danced like water in a creek: bopping and murmuring and smooth, fluid; you can stretch your hand, collect a little in your palm and taste its pure clarity.

If you feel for something beautiful and hopeful without being saccharine or artificially light-hearted, this is a book you can go through in a stormy winter afternoon with plenty of tea and classical music in the background.

It’ll warm your heart more than the fire in the fireplace.

4 stars.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir reviewYou’re on a mission to Mars, and all your crewmates have left the planet, leaving you behind, because they think you’re dead.

This is the premise of The Martian, probably one of the best science-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

The plot is as simple as can be: a dude is left behind on Mars and must survive until others can come rescue him. It’s Robinson Crusoe for the space age. It’s a story that’s been explored in many different settings and times, but it’s always the surviving character itself who makes or breaks the story.

In this case, Mark Watney is our survivor, and he’s one hell of a dude to watch. He’s ingenious, stubborn and hilarious. Most of the book is made up of his log, in the first person, with some sections in the third person for the people at NASA and his crewmates on the ship Hermes.

It’s Watney’s voice that carries the story. Despite absolutely insurmountable odds (how do you grow food on Mars when your supplies disappear? How do you communicate with Earth when your communications are down? How do you drive for a month without going insane?), he manages to solider on, and do so with optimism and humour. Because, I guess, if you fall to fatalism and cynicism, you wouldn’t last very long, alone, for a year and a half on Mars…

Not being a scientist of any kind, I can’t talk about the scientific accuracy of the book. It’s all very believable though, with just a touch of future technology that’s not so unimaginable today. There’s never any mention of the year, but it could be next year, or it could be in 20. It makes the book approachable that way, and any science is filtered through the lens of an actual human being applying it, so we get a lot more information about results than about math. Which I appreciated.

The author made Mark really adept at jerry-rigging anything. Mechanical engineers (my brother is one) are really good at thinking out of the box to solve mechanical problems. So you’ll often exclaim, “ah! if this was on Earth, he’d totally do the same thing.” And often, that involves duct tape.

Of course, duct tape is as useful for holding things together on Mars as it is on Earth:

I unravelled Martinez’s bed and took the string outside, then taped it to the trailer hull along the path I planned to cut. Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.

Here’s just a little bit of the humour that colours every entry in Mark’s log. It’s hard to imagine those snide remarks, blogging-like comments and other funny bits and pieces not being there, because otherwise, the book would just be an oppressive mess of loneliness.

This novel is an amazing tale of the human spirit for exploration, knowledge and survival. It shows the lengths to which we’re willing to go to survive, and how thousands, millions of people can come together to care about something other than them. The book believes in the nobility of the human spirit: the spirit that pushes us to risk our lives for others, to take chances just to learn something new and extraordinary, and to put our blind faith in the people we love.

I’ll give you the same warning I’ve read everywhere: make sure you have plenty of time aside to read this book. This is not the kind of book you’ll be happy to just read bits of on the bus. You will want to read it until you finish it or fall asleep. I read it in 2 sittings. The pace is extraordinary and you just. can’t. stop.

Five stars.

Review: One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories by B.J. Novak

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. NovakNext on my list of best readings from 2014 comes this collection of short stories from actor, writer and director B.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.

I’m trying to read a more diverse array of genres, including more short stories. I don’t always have the time or the mental stamina to get involved in novels, so I’m starting to find short stories quite refreshing and interesting. I also want to start writing short stories, so the more I read them, the better I’ll be able to write them, eventually.

So, this collection of stories made it to many “Best of 2014″ lists. It’s a collection of clever, mostly humorous short stories that deal with things like love, friendship, dating, sex, art. In short, pretty much the kind of stuff that an intelligent, educated 30-something will find interesting.

Under their often silly themes (a date with a warlord, a sex robot, a revenge race between the hare and the tortoise, a trip to the planetarium, etc…), these stories hide deeper insights into our present and our future.

The lessons in these stories come from simple, every day realizations that open up a whole new level of thought a reflexion. A man who chooses to quit being an ambulance driver to become a singer-songwriter. A comic who only has one bit, but who does it well. A young boy who finds his real father and makes a choice.

Many stories are actually quite short; some as short as 3 lines. Others are longer, but none too long to lose your interest. Some are somehow connected, through words or places or characters that appeared in other stories. But it’s not really a series of connected stories. They just seem to be part of a loosely related world, a bit like all of us living our lives and meeting randomly.

My favourite story is probably the one about meeting grandma in heaven. It’s sad and hopeful and joyous and heartbreaking at the same time.

Novak has an easy control of the language. It flows really well through all the stories and doesn’t bring attention to itself, leaving the situations and characters to brighten up the page.

“If only the earth could hold up a mirror to itself…”

Say no more, thought the impatient billionaire in the audience at the TED conference, who found the speaker’s voice as whiny and irritating as his ideas were inspiring and consciousness-shifting. He already knew the part of the speech that was going to stay with him: a mirror up to Earth–amazing, unbelievable. Tricky but doable. He got it. Let’s make it.

All in all, it’s a good collection of stories for the younger readers. I’m not saying that older readers wouldn’t enjoy it, but a lot of the concerns and ideas speak a lot more to the 20 and 30 something readers–and to their attention spans, too.

4 stars.

Review: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

So I’ve been quite away from the world of books in the past year. From dealing with mental illness to a full-time job, I’ve had little time to delve into a good book. But I’ve recently re-discovered the library (HALLE-FRIGGING-LUIAH!) and went on a book hold rampage (over 30!) based on some of the year-end lists of best books for 2014.

I’ve got a whole damn lot of catching up to do.

The first book that made on the hold shelf was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

New take on stream of consciousness

You rarely find stream of consciousness done well–or interestingly. There’s Ulysses, of course, but the lack of punctuation always put me off. In A Girl, you get punctuation… but not necessarily the punctuation you expect.

And of course, this book is deeply indebted to the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses, the famous last chapter describing Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she goes to sleep. The unnamed girl in this book, however, is fully awake: we experience the world through her eyes and her consciousness.

This is a family story, a love story, a tragic story of children living adrift in a world in which they can’t really fit in. In a way, it also reminded me of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The deep brother-sister bond, the ways each does everything they can to save the other pain and misery, and the ways each try to escape the lot they have been given by life.

The main character’s brother is an unlikely survivor of a childhood brain cancer. The sister is raised in the shadow of this cancer by a dysfunctional mother who spends too much time praying and not enough time loving her children.

Difficult, rewarding

This is not an easy book to read. The descriptions of violence (sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual) are so raw and real that I wanted to kill the offending characters. The world of this novel is a bleak, bleak place, filled with rain and small kitchens and dank bedrooms. Characters have no names. Places are never identified. It’s just “mother, brother, uncle, grandfather, a man”. It’s just “home, the city, the apartment, the bathroom.” It gives the book a sense of fluidity–it could be anywhere. It could be next door or, in this case, Ireland (identified only by the smattering of Gaelic in a few spots).

But it’s also an incredibly rewarding read, if you can stick with it. It’s difficult at first, but after a few chapters, you get into the rhythm of her thoughts and feelings as if they were your own. They roll on your tongue and in your mind, and they become part of your own experience.

And another thing I loved about this book: it’s a deeply rebellious book. It’s feminist and anti-religious and it’s about freedom. It’s also about love, the love that some of us are not given and try to replace with other things, like love for a brother, or sex.

In her teenage years, the main character protects her brother from constant bullying and mockery by having sex with the guys in his year. Here’s a paragraph that stayed with me throughout, and after I was done:

And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty — there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do. (My emphasis)

For a Catholic culture that reveres refusal when it comes to sexuality, this simple word, yes, is a big rebellion. And it resonated with me so deeply, because as a feminist saying yes is what I fight for. And refusing this right, this right to be able to say yes (or no) to sex is when the true tragedy of rape happens.

This book is going to be read for decades as a masterpiece of the stream of consciousness style and as contemporary women’s writing. If I taught a women’s writing course or a course centered on sexuality themes, it would be on the reading list.

Five stars.

Review: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Shaman Kim Stanley Robinson reviewAh, Kim Stanley Robinson. Giant of contemporary science fiction, author of the Mars Trilogy and other major sci-fi works.

I hadn’t read any KSR since I read the second book of the Mars Trilogy (haven’t gotten around to reading Green Mars yet). Earlier this summer (June 23rd to be exact, thanks GoodReads!), I picked up Shaman for fun as I was waiting in line at Chapters to buy a gift for my niece.

In general, this is a good book. But it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. Even reading a little bit on a regular basis, it literally took me 6 months to go through it. But first things first.

Imagined past

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of imagining our future, near and far. He might not be too far off as for the date of the first inhabited Mars mission.

However, Shaman goes in the opposite direction. It imagines our distant past, about 10,000 years ago, when we lived in small packs and used stone tools, and when Homo Sapiens co-existed with the last Neanderthals.

The book follows Loon, an apprentice shaman who must face rigorous winters, survive capture by a northern tribe and finally accept his role in the pack.

The work is detailed and evocative; it’s hard to really know where they are, but given the presence of Neanderthals, probably somewhere in modern-day Europe. Life in a Palaeolithic tribe is routine, simple, but hard. There is feeding the pack, and surviving winters that don’t end until June, and managing the everyday dangers of the wilderness.

Get ready for a long haul

I’m a fast reader. I can’t do a book club with my partner because I read books twice as fast as he does. But this one took me so long because it is slow to move along. As mentioned above, the book is very detailed and evocative; Robinson put a lot of effort in making this world as real as possible.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the problem of the big slumping middle. While I understand that it’s important to have a good idea of how these people lived, I just started losing interest after the first act. I powered through, and I was glad I did, but it still required a reading stamina that was difficult to conjure, even for George Eliot lover-me.

However, the book is redeemed by its lyrical, symbolic qualities. Indeed, everything in Loon’s life is filled with meaning. The sacred and the profane coexist constantly in a world where even the smallest gesture or sign can bring prosperity or disaster. The best part of this, for me, was the constant emphasis on remembering and telling stories. Everyone tells stories in this book: the shaman Thorn, of course, whose role it is to remember and tell the stories; Loon who has to learn and remember them; travellers who come and go and recount their discoveries; even the animals have stories. And of course, you can’t have a good Paleolithic story without cave paintings, which also tell stories of hunts, of love, of death, of fear.

In Shaman‘s world, even the smallest bit of knowledge is fragile. Without writing, every tribe relies on the memory of its shaman:

It’s fragile what we know. It’s gone every time we forget. Then someone has to learn it all over again. I don’t know how you’ll do it. I mean, I wanted to know everything. I remembered every single word I ever heard, every single moment of my life, right up to a few years ago. I talked to every person in this whole part of the world, and remembered everything they said. What’s going to become of all that?

The tragedy of the loss of knowledge, which we can’t understand because every single instant of our lives is now recorded, analyzed and backed up, accessible and permanent, is something that matters enormously to Loon’s people. A death, any death, is the death of knowledge and experience that is irreplaceable. The death of a shaman, the wisest and most knowledgeable men in packs and tribes, is even worse.

Overall then, I give this book 3 stars. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a long read, and a difficult one at times. I’m not one to reject books because they are long or deep, but the story went a bit too sluggishly to capture my attention for anything length of time during the middle third.



Review: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King reviewFine, I’m late to the writing book party. I’m not a Stephen King reader (not a fan of horror in general), but with everyone mentioning this book when I asked for writing book suggestions, I couldn’t not get it.

And boy, am I glad I did.

For fledgling and experienced fiction writers

There’s something I learned about writing training and advice: most of the time it’s just how things have worked for the person giving the advice, and it’s possibly (probably) useless for other people.

All you can really is write, discover your own process and maybe produce good stuff down the line.

King is aware of this, and doesn’t provide his advice as absolutes. It’s what worked for him, and if you can learn things that can help you, then awesome. Really.

You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. … You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

This, above anything else, gives me the kind of courage I need to get serious about fiction.

Any life is enough

The book begins with a sort of writer’s biography. King describes his childhood and early adulthood with a writer’s lens; he mostly focuses on how certain events have formed him as a writer. It was great to read that even a mostly ordinary childhood can produce successful novelists–one of my main writing anxieties is that my life has been too boring, too ordinary, too cushioned to produce anything interesting, writing-wise.

In fact, it was Flannery O’Connor who said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I must take courage in that.

A lot of readers find this section a bit tedious, but at least it’s only about 100 pages out of the 300 of the book. I personally found it interesting; I like to know how other writers grew up, how they came to love words, and how they developed into people who could make money out of scribbles with completely arbitrary meaning.

On actual writing

But the real meaty part of the book is, obviously, the “On Writing” section. There, King gives you the basics you need to know to write stories.

He first deals with mechanics: “good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style)”. He has a proper hatred for passive voice and adverbs (and at least we have that in common!) and suggests, as most writers should know, using strong, active verbs instead.

But the best information for me were the sections on actual story ideas and story construction. King is an admitted pantster (someone who writes without outlines) who simply “[wants] to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.”

To me, this seems like a good starting point for a story. He has a healthy suspicion of plot because, according to him, it usually feels contrived and artificial. Personally, when I try to develop a plot, I always kind of flail in the middle, because I don’t really know what to do with my characters in the first place. What if I just tried doing like King and putting characters in situations and watch them get out of it?

He does say that he prefers character-driven rather than plot driven stories. What’s more frustrating than air-tight plot but boring, cardboard characters? Who cares about what happens to them then?

Disclaimer

Do not read the last section of this book right before bed if you’re prone to nightmares or take some drug that makes dreams that much more vivid (which is my case right now). He describes a major car accident that almost killed him and stopped his work on this particular book.

And then I had a dream that I was in an accident too, with a lot of the details taken from King’s description. Maybe it’s just me, but I guess the strong writing had an effect on my brain!

All in all, though, a great read, and one that I will repeat on a regular basis (or at least the second section), if only for the encouraging words and the wisdom of one of the most popular writers of the 20th century.

Conclusion: buy it if you’re serious about being a writer–no matter the kind.