Sunday, April 29, 2012

Decoded, Cracked, and Ditched: A trio of reviews

A review of books by new authors! Cracked by KM Walton and Ditched by Robin Mellom. I also wanted to review the amazing Decoded by Jay-Z.

Let's start with KM Walton's Cracked!
I added it to my list because I liked the basic premise right away: The school bully and the bully's prime victim end up in therapy together. I knew that was the idea behind the plot, and I wasn't sure how Walton was going to pull it off. 

I liked this concept because I firmly believe that if you look deeply enough into the story of a perpetrator, you will often find a victim. Not to say by any means that this excuses a perpetrator-- that is not what I mean. I think we are all responsible for our actions. I only mean that I feel abuse/anger/pain runs in cycles where people who were once victims become perpetrators, and that it's a complicated and complex problem without simple solutions.

I didn't know how Walton would get these two characters together on a Psych Ward-- but she managed it in a convincing way. The two POV narration was excellent-- as a reader I had a clear sense of each voice as distinct, realistic, and sympathetic in their own ways. I also think she resolved the conflict in a satisfying way-- I know I'm not being very detailed-- I don't want to spoil anything. :0) I recommend it-- bullying is such a hot topic right now, and this book provides some real insight into the problem, without offering unrealistic easy solutions. 

And now for something completely different! Ditched by Robin Mellom. Justina wakes up in a ditch the morning after prom and stumbles over to a convenience store to unravel, with the help of the storekeeper and a customer, just what happened. Why would her best friend Ian ditch her on a night like this? 

This story could have gone in a much different direction (hello, potential after-school special!), but Mellom kept it funny, fresh, and light. It had a very John Hughes feel to it. Justina was likable and sympathetic, the ladies in the 7-11 were hilarious, and by the end I was gunning for her relationship with Ian to work itself out. It was a true comedy of errors that takes the stereotypical Prom-will-be-the-best-night-of-my-life fantasy and turns it on its head.  (By the way-- who exactly started this rumor about Prom being such a night to remember?)

I can't recommend Decoded by Jay Z enough. 

I distinctly remember the first time I heard rap (shout out to Run DMC's Raising Hell on cassette!) and have been a fan since-- though I would say my exposure to the genre is pretty limited. I have a few bands/acts/performers I love (Fugees, Lauryn Hill, De La Soul, Tribe, Beastie Boys, Ice Cube...) but I wouldn't say I am a superfan. In fact, I don't own any of Jay Z's music--- I have major gaps in my listening. It is what it is. But I heard about this book and borrowed it from my library. It was one of those "borrows" that I returned after one day and bought a copy for myself. 

It is fascinating to hear the story of a person like Shawn Carter, whose life is very different from mine, and to see how he grew and changed, and lived his version of the American dream. I think that's interesting just as a piece of social history. 

But what sucked me in and made me love this book was the way he talked about his art. There is so much there about voice, seeing the world and recognizing what you see, being honest, being a hard worker... that ALL applies to writing. It's like a Master's thesis on rap, but, you know, interesting to read. 

Here, in his words:
"It's brutal, but if you step back from it, it's beautiful, too. What you're looking at is a culture of people so in love with life that they can't stop fighting for it-- people who've seen death up close, literal death, but also the kind of dormancy and stagnation that kills your spirit. They've seen it all around them and they don't want any part of that sh*t, not at all. They want to live like they want to live-- they want to impose themselves on the world through their art, with their voices. This impulse is what saved us. It's what saved me."

"I've been able to create my own kind of social commentary. Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss. Just sharing that truth can be a very powerful thing."

"But this is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn't force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas. ...The real bullsh*t is when you act like you don't have contradictions inside you, that you're so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places."

Read Decoded, Ditched, and Cracked-- you won't be sorry. 

Have you read these books? What did YOU think?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Are you getting the hole-in-one?

(photo credit)

Who else feels a constant tug between confidence and doubt in this business? What if research shows  that's exactly what you SHOULD be feeling?

Check out this one-page article on an NPR story that aired last week, Can You Think Your Way To That Hole in One?

It details the research of Jessica Witt at Purdue University and Tim Woodman at Bangor University in Wales, and the delicate balance between confidence and uncertainty.

In her study, Witt, among other things, used lighting in a laboratory setting to manipulate the perception a golfer would have of a hole. She found that golfers tend to do better when they believe the hole is larger, or more achievable.

Of course I thought immediately of writing. The way writing has opened up to seemingly "regular" people (i.e., those not necessarily trained as writers) over the last decades certainly makes me feel confident about my abilities. Who hasn't read a published book and thought, "I can do that!"?

But as we all know as writers, if we were to pile up those "I can do that" books, they'd be no match for the tower of titles that astound, impress, and amaze us. The coolest part of this story: That doubt is a GOOD THING, too.

The article also mentions the research of Tim Woodman at Bangor University in Wales, which shows that confidence doesn't GUARANTEE performance. "The more confident you are, the better-- up to a certain point,"Woodman states.

He continues, "If you're good at something but you doubt yourself a little bit, you're more likely to try that bit harder."

What do you think?

How do you balance confidence and uncertainty in writing, careers, and life?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Project Weightless

Did you know that in some states, public schools have begun weighing and measuring kids and reporting their BMI results? Often, because of time and facility limitations, these weigh-ins are public.

A group at my University called Women for Change is running a campaign to protest this idea, and among other things, created a video of a scale-smashing event they held this spring.

Obviously, trying to combat childhood obesity is a good thing-- but I can only imagine how a public weigh-in would influence the self-worth and body image of a middle or high school student.

As writers, parents, teachers, individuals... what do you think about this?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Whales on Stilts woodblock extravaganza

As I have mentioned many times, my middle grade book club and I recently read MT Anderson's Whales on Stilts.

If you haven't checked this out yet, I highly recommend it. His YA book Feed has been on my favorite list for a while. Whales on Stilts is quirky and funny, and I found myself laughing throughout the book.

It's like when you watch some cartoons with kids: there was definitely humor and wit to delight an adult reader.

I also loved the excellent woodcuts found throughout. They were clever and stunning. So, being a printmaker, I brought in my supplies to make woodblocks with the kids based on the book.

Fortunately, I had a warning from the art teacher about her own attempts at having the kids make woodcuts (she sent five kids to the nurse in as many minutes). So, instead of giving them tiny knife-like woodworking tools, I had the kids draw their images, and then I cut away the wood, and they inked and printed them.

Then, they got to take a copy of their woodcut print and the actual block home to keep.

Good times, and the results were just lovely, if I do say so myself.

You can see lots of images of whales on stilts, and one completely unrelated "super cat" thrown in there that does NOT relate to the story at all (my 4 year old comes along to book club because I don't have a sitter).

Have you read Whales on Stilts?

What book's illustrations make you happy?

Monday, April 9, 2012

I dig reading challenge: March edition

I had a spring break in March, which allowed me a little extra mental health time, and that means more reading. 

I finished Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson with my middle grade book club. They loved it (and I did, too), and we even made wood cuts of scenes from the book together. (I'll post separately on that). 

I re-read the Hunger Games with my book club. It was great the second time around. I was in less of a rush, which was a good way to read it. 
Now I believe we're all signing up for an archery class this summer, which should help with my apocalypse plan (see below). 

I also read several new books:

Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern. Loved it!

Something Strange and Deadly by the awesome Susan Dennard, in an amazing ARC tour snag. REALLY loved it. You guys have to read it so we can all discuss this one scene that BLEW MY MIND. 

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This book has me working on my apocalypse planning. Here's the gist: I need more canned goods. And batteries. And an alternative fuel system. And to be off the grid. And my own clean water supply. The good news is, now I know what I need to do. I just need approximately $50,000 to implement the first phase of my apocalypse plan. 

It’s Not Summer Without You by Jenny Han, which I loved, but like an idiot, I didn't realize this is the second book in the series. Now I need to back track and read The Summer I Turned Pretty. I think good contemporary must be the hardest thing to write. It's so fun to read someone who does it well.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. She does mother-daughter relationships like no other. They are always heartbreaking and uplifting. 

and, I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella. I really like her style. Her MCs are always of a similar type, but they are endearing and so fun to watch make a transition from clueless to clever. 

That's eight books. My donation this month goes to and GRIST who are doing their darndest to make sure I don't need to implement my apocalypse plan.