Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Oops, Sorry Mr. Crichton, Sir

I went on a little Michael Crichton rant the other day and realized after the fact that what I wrote was far more accurate for Dan Brown's books than Michael Crichton's books. Then, when I went back and looked through the titles of some of Crichton's books, I realized how much I do enjoy his books. And then I looked through Dan Brown's book titles and realized how much I loathe and despise the man's writings. Should I have turned my wrath towards Mr. Brown and saved Mr. Crichton? Ah, this is why people need editors for their blogs, to save them from tasting their own feet.

Why, oh why do I hate Dan Brown? Partly for the aforementioned six characteristics, but mostly because of cliffhangers. If you've ever read a Dan Brown book, you'll realize that every single chapter, and sometimes paragraph, ends in a cliffhanger. It's a cheap tactic to keep people reading and frankly, it makes me nuts. If his writing alone was good enough, he wouldn't need to resort to such shoddy parlor tricks It makes me want to tell him to take his Deception Point and shove it up his Illuminati.

In repentance this week, I read Michael Crichton's novel "Next" that came out in 2006. His book "State of Fear" that came out in 2004 caused such a stir that I expected the kind of controversial writing in "Next." The book is about genetic engineering, companies patenting genes for their own monetary gain, the moral issues associated with transgenic animals and people, the sanctity of our bodies, and is loaded with all sorts of selfish and immoral characters. Instead of there being a main character, there are several people whose lives and actions intersect one with another and we get to discover this as we go along. It's pretty interesting reading and you find yourself rooting for Gerard, the transgenic African grey parrot and Dave, the humanzee. Yes, you read that right. At the end of the book, Crichton lists his sources and explains his research, much like "State of Fear". And like that previous novel, I put down "Next" wondering how much more was out there of which I am completely ignorant. I'm not so stupid to believe everything I read or hear from the media, but I know that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Now how does one go about finding the middle?

Since some of these characters completely lack any scruples, there can be some graphic sections of this book. Beware, oh delicate readers. But it was an exciting read and brought up issues to my mind I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Now, back I go to folding laundry.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books for Young Adults, Tweens, Teenagers, Whatever-you-call-them

I don't know how many girls in the 10-18 year-old range read my blog (my guess: zero), but I've been pondering on literature choices for that age. What was I reading at that age, anyway? Anything with supernatural scariness or teen angst drivel with a dorky, slightly attractive girl getting the boy in the end (he likes her for her witty humor and non-conformist attitude--shoot, this is getting autobiographical). My point is that I wasn't reading anything by the Bronte sisters or Mark Twain, but I was past Beverly Cleary and Nancy Drew. I don't remember there being amazing and wonderful contemporary young adult literature that was particularly worth reading.

Of course, there was no such thing as the internet back then (gasp!) and I had to rely on whatever a librarian suggested for my choices. Did I ask said librarian? Of course not, what a question. My reading choices during those informative, tender ages were garbage. Nothing great. Total mental junk food. Now I look back and think of how I wasted precious reading time! But I also have a theory that the YA literature offerings back then weren't as good as they are now. I'm talking about books that are contemporary, not the standard gems that everybody should have read by the time they reach eighteen years of age (which, of course, I didn't). I think the books for the YA genre that are being written right now are better than they were back in the day. Why is that, you ask? Because publishers discovered that YA literature is a big money maker. That means that great writers can lend their craft to books for that age group and still afford to feed their cat. I think that the Harry Potter broke down those barriers, for which I am thankful. I think that some of the best reading out there right now falls into the YA category.

The only complaint I have with this genre of books is when an author feels like they need to water-down adult books and call them YA fiction. When issues of sexuality, violence, and substance abuse are dealt with in a attitude of "they're going to do it anyway, so we might as well talk about it" I get frustrated. It's the same way with sitcoms. They assume that all high school students will drink and sleep around, so they depict that as normal, when in fact, it is not. Will young adults have to deal with these things? Absolutely. But they have choices, not inevitabilities. I'd rather read about a protagonist who makes good choices based on what they have been taught, or makes bad choices that they have repercussions for than read about some glamorized Hollywood unreality of what a young person's life is like. There is so much junk out there in the world, why add more? I think adults get used to being sent those kinds of messages so we don't realize how damaging it is to more impressionable minds. I don't think we should censure everything our young people read, but I think we should give them more choices that depict situations they will actually find themselves in.

My preaching is done now, so I'll give my two latest YA fiction reads.
"The Goose Girl" by Shannon Hale was excellent. Great writing, suspenseful pages turner, well fleshed-out characters. I love coming of age stories because you get to watch this character figure things out, become who they want to be. There are a bunch more books about these characters, so
I'm anxious to try those out. It's based on the fairy tale by the same title, which is somewhat of a newer concept, beginning with "Beauty" by Robin McKinley and "Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine. There are other fairy tale remakes out there, but these are some of my favorites. I love getting a better version of fairy tales because the originals tend to lean towards the weak female syndrome. Yes, yes, culture of the time, blah blah. I do hate books that take the female protagonist and turn her into a boy. She does boy stuff, acts like a boy, beats all the boys up with sticks, whatever. I want strong, feminine characters. Girls are unique and have attributes that are not masculine. I want to see those attributes being lauded, not dismissed. These books do a good job of that.

"Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging: The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson" by Louise Rennison was simply fabbity fab fab, darling. I died laughing while cringing from horror at the same time. Not an easy task. Georgia is 14, boy-obsessed, parent-intolerant and not a particularly good student. She's someone you wouldn't want your daughter to be friends with or your son to date. But she is hilarious. She's also British, so she conveniently adds a dictionary for us Yankee blokes to decipher what she's talking about.

My book list is quite long right now and YA books make up almost half of it. There's so much good stuff out there and I have the wonderful benefit of a great library system that sends me monthly e-mails on the newest book selections in the genres of my picking. I'm excited to check them out and then either praise or trash them for your entertainment.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Invasive Procedures...Into Your GUTS!

While I'm on a Orson Scott Card theme here, I'm going to tell you about an inadvertently funny book I just read co-authored by him and Aaron Johnston. Let me tell you what I know about Aaron Johnston. He and I share the same alma mater and when I was in college, he was part of a comedy troupe whose performances I frequented. Let me tell you, the guy is funny. Hilarious, in fact. Part of the reason why I kept going back was to watch him and Eric D. Snider, another funny guy. And I had a small crush on him, despite his pokey-out ears and hideously ugly 90s-style Girbaud jeans. He had great comedic timing, improv skills and could do physical comedy nearly as well as Steve Martin. Now he writes a column for called The Back Bench that is, not surprisingly, very funny. So what is he doing writing a novel with sci-fi great OSC? Card is usually funny in a wry, sarcastic way, not like Johnston. It seems to me that they became buds and decided to write a book together. Johnston had read lots of sci-fi and had a great idea for a book, so Card co-wrote it so it would make some money instead of dying of obscurity. But you can tell where Johnston's influences come from. "Invasive Procedures" is so close to a Michael Crichton novel that I'm surprised it didn't get misprinted with his name on the front. Let me tell you some key elements of a Michael Crichton novel:

1. Must be loosely based on a scientific principle or recent discovery.
2. Must rely on fear and ignorance of said principle to make it more easily believed.
3. Main character must be good-looking and highly intelligent, preferably with several college degrees.
4. Must have enough secondary characters to kill off, at least one of which the reader can easily despise and one that is goofy and lovable.
5. Must have attractive love interest for main character who is also highly intelligent.
6. The villain must be vain and also brilliant with a little splash of megalomaniac behavior to make it interesting.

Okay, so that describes a whole lot of books out there, but the way Crichton packages it, you can always tell when he's written a book. And all of his books have all six elements. I dare you to point out one that doesn't. I think I've read them all, so I'm probably safe in that assumption. Not that his books are exciting and a fun read, but predictable. Oh so predictable. In "Invasive Procedures" you have Frank Hartman, a virologist, fighting against George Galen, a deranged geneticist out to cure the world of disease by turning everyone into him. Then there's Monica Owens, the beautiful and (shocker) intelligent heart surgeon who Galen captures to help with the disturbing medical procedures he has in mind. Blah blah blah.

Why, Orson, why? I laughed my way through this book because it so utterly smacked of Crichton-ness and so devoid of Card-ness. Where were the moral dilemmas? Where was the villain that you could almost love? Aaron Johnston, I can only blame you. Stick to comedy next time. There certainly wasn't any in this book and maybe it would have been better if it had.

One funny side note is that I actually listened to this on CD, borrowed from the library. I listened as I worked in my kitchen over the course of a few weeks and when my kids would catch snatches of it, they were annoyed that I was listening to something so boring. But one night at dinner, my second daughter said, "Mom, I know what you're listening to. 'Frank was touched by evil.'" Yes, yes he was.

Another funny side note: the title of this book is also the title of an episode for "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Finally, something funny!

Fluffity fluff fluff

I just read a book that was pure fluff, but not a complete waste of time. "Playing for Pizza" reminds me of "Bleachers" another fluff football books that came out some years ago. John Grisham hasn't written a fabulous legal thriller in a while, now that I think about it. He did write the gritty non-fiction book, "The Innocent Man" not too long ago. Honestly, I wish he would write another book like "The Painted House", about a young boy growing up in rural Arkansas during the 50s. It was exciting, had his fun style of writing, but had nothing to do with lawyers. Good stuff.

Back to fluffiness. It's not just for rabbits and kittens, apparently. Even my old standby favorite author who delivers every time, Orson Scott Card, engages in fluff. I spent one short evening reading his latest "book" that was more of a bookette, "The War of Gifts: an Ender story". I'm not trying to say it wasn't a good read, because it was. Full of complicated personal histories of people, insightful looks into what motivates the villains, etc. etc. Typical Card good stuff. But wouldn't this have been more appropriately published in his online magazine, The Intergalactic Medicine Show? He writes Ender-related stories there fairly regularly. For those of you who are Ender fans, I'd highly recommend shelling out the $2.50 four times a year for the magazine. Anyway, publishing his little story (Christmas themed, no less) during the holidays seems out of Card's character. Like when Grisham wrote "Skipping Christmas" one holiday season (only to be butchered by Tim Allen in the film version not long after) you had to wonder if the payment on his yacht was getting behind. But Card? A yacht owner? Maybe his agent's yacht needed some updates? I hate to get all cynical, but that's what it felt like to me. Maybe he's going to come out with another Shadow book soon and this is to warm us up to it. Huh.

Don't think I'm discounting fluff because there are definite times I need some fluff to lighten my mental load. Not like I'm reading Tennison or Thoreau, but sometimes the day-to-day workings of life needs a little fluff to round off the edges. I think I'd rather read some fluff by an author that usually writes really amazing novels than one that only writes cotton candy. I'm looking at you, Richard Paul Evans.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Gifted or How to Destroy Your Child's Life

My mom used to say that she was grateful to have smart children, but not geniuses. I have a better idea of what that means now that I've read "Gifted" by Nikita Lalwani. This book is a great guide in what not to do if you have a child math prodigy. Rumi Vasi is born to native Indians who now live in England. Her father is a math wiz himself, teaching at a nearby college, and her mother is no dummy either, having been accepted into a medical school in India before her parents arranged her marriage. You can see where Rumi's brains come from. Once her intelligence is discovered, Rumi's father goes into overdrive, scheduling out her day down to the minute and pushing her growing abilities to the max. How could this story possibly end well, people? I ask you!

Rumi is being raised by people whose cultural norm is completely different from what she is surrounded by day to day. I'm not saying that she shouldn't be raised in a traditional Indian way, but how much harder is it to follow when you're surrounded by a vastly different culture? You have to believe in what you're being taught, and Rumi does not. Of course, her father's stringent rules and demands and her mother's constant guilt trips don't help. Rumi decides that the only way she'll have any freedom and break loose of her father's grip is to get accepted into Oxford at the age of 15. It's far away enough that she'd have to live there, at least part of the time, and she could determine her own schedule. The pushing for early acceptance now comes from Rumi, not her father, though he has no idea of her real reason.

So sad. This whole book is sad. Her father's complete emotional constipation, her mother's violent outbursts, her sweet little brother getting lost in the mess, her friends who can't seem to reach her, and most of all, Rumi's spiraling self-destruction. Man, I'm depressed thinking about it. It was kind of cool to look into her brilliant mind a bit, as she counts and multiplies when she's nervous or stressed. But mostly, it was depressing. Well written, but sad. Pray for normal children.

Speaking of abnormal children, I read a Time article a few months ago about brilliant children and what's best for them. The article quoted evidence that letting children skip grades ended up with a more emotionally, socially well-balanced person than holding them back to be with their age group. Being held back intellectually was more frustrating and harmful than being much younger than their classmates. Interesting. There was a kid down the street from me growing up who was a math genius. He was bussed from the elementary school to my math class in junior high. He was slightly odd and talked weird, but not a bad kid. In high school, I saw him again somewhere and he was surrounded by friends (nerdy ones, but friends no less), having a great time. I knew he was at least 3 years younger than most of them, but he seemed perfectly happy. It's possible. Brilliant does not a unhappy child make. It all comes down to the parents, I would guess. They have more to do with a child's behavior than their surroundings. Great. That means when my children are out of control or acting bizarrely, I know where to place that blame. Let's say it's partly the parents and partly the children themselves, their personalities and eccentricities. Whew. Dodged the bullet there.

Back to the point. Read the book. It's not too bad. Or don't. Whatever. I'm not smart enough to make a convincing argument. Thank goodness.