Let’s Talk Books — Like We Care

Warning: Spoilers

I picked up an interesting-sounding book from my library’s book sale not too long ago. It had a broken CD on the front, with the title Like We Care written on it like someone would label a burned CD. I read the inside flap’s description — basically a couple of angry teenagers get fed up with consumerism and stop buying stuff — and thought it would be a fun read. It was 50 cents, at any rate, so if worse came to worse I wouldn’t have really lost much except time by reading it.

And… eh. It was okay.

And that’s a little bit of an understatement. It’s actually one of the most “okay” books I’ve ever read. Right on the verge of being equal parts entertaining and boring, fun and a chore to read, interesting and non-interesting characters, etc. Even fans on Goodreads seem to be split down the middle; some of them adore it, others couldn’t stand it.

So why bother talking about it at all? After all, it’s pretty obvious I don’t have a lot to say about it, so a post dedicated to talking about the book seems a little dumb. Well many times when I finish reading a book, I look online to see what other people have to say about it. Sometimes it helps me solidify any wavering opinions or questions I had while reading it, and maybe even help explain why I felt the way I did about the book.

But when I went to go look up any kind of review for Like We Care, or even any info about the author, Tom Matthews, I found virtually nothing useful. The Goodreads comments provided more insight than anything I found elsewhere. And true, I could have spent more time looking into it; I only did a couple of Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube searches after all.

But man, this book came out in 2004. In 11 years, no one had anything to say about it? I dunno… it made me kind of sad. A bad book would have gotten more talk, which makes my feeling that this is one of the most “okay” books I’ve read really become more apparent.

So I guess I felt like sharing my thoughts on it, on the off chance someone else out there is scouring the Internet looking for someone else’s opinion on the book.

The story is basically about two teenagers, Joel and Todd, who conspire to stop buying from a local convenience store chain once they realize they’re being taken advantage of with overpriced merchandise and shitty customer service. They discover that the CEOs know they’ll keep spending money on their products no matter how much they raise the prices or how poorly the staff will treat them, and they end up boycotting the store.

The boys get a decent following going and catch the eye of Annie, a frustrated producer of sorts for a TV station that follows similar lines of thinking that the CEOs of the convenience store chain have. She catches the boys for an interview about what they’re up to, and other kids across the nation start doing the same thing. Annie wants to stick it to her company as well and eventually stages a protest against the company starring one of the boys.

Joel and Todd also plan to get one of their only respectable teachers, Frank, to run for council after seeing racial issues being ignored in a public meeting. Since most of the adults in town don’t care enough to vote anyway, Joel and Todd use their powers of influence to get the rest of the recently-turned 18-year-olds to vote for Frank, if for no other reason than to fuck with the adults.

While they make a decent impact on their respective targets for a while, the adults win in the end. I guess the main thing was that the kids proved they had a voice and could make an impact if they wanted to, but it was still a little sad to see it didn’t seem to matter much in the long run.

If you’re a fan of teenagers or other types of characters raising a fuss or outcry over not being heard, you’ll probably find something in this book to like. Same goes for people that like criticism against corporate America and consumerism. The book is more or less a critique against those things. In a way, it reminded me a lot of Fight Club, only with the volume turned way down.

There were a lot of cool ideas here, but unfortunately they didn’t always flow smoothly. For example, each chapter is supposed to focus on one of the four “main” characters: Joel, Todd, Annie, and Frank. The book is written in third person, and I’m assuming the main thing was to focus on one character’s POV at a time in the third person. However, there are many times when that POV will switch within the chapter itself to a completely separate character and it feels weird.

The dialogue itself kind of blends into the narration. In addition, this is one of those books where there’s maybe a little more narration than you’d care to read about and you wish a scene would get to its point rather than taking the long way around. The book is only 250-ish pages long, but the way it’s set up makes it feel like reading takes longer than it should. Thankfully the chapters are short, so even if it feels like it’s taking a while to get through the book, you’re almost never in a situation where a convenient stopping point is too far off.

At the end of the day, it was an entertaining read. But I’ve seen other stories similar to this before, and unfortunately this one doesn’t do anything particularly different to stand out. I’m also not exactly sure who the book is supposed to be for. It sort of falls into the gray area between young adult and adult fiction for me. More than anything else, I guess it’s for anyone who likes critiquing consumerism, as that’s the strong point of the book. As a side note, I also think it’s important to remember the book was released in 2004. References to music television, stereotypical views against rap music, and the lack of any kind of social media may make the book feel a tad dated. I’d even go so far as to say the book often feels like it takes place in the 90s.

But still, an entertaining read. Nothing to write home about, unfortunately. If you find it in the library or cheap somewhere, I’d say pick it up. But don’t hurt yourself going out of your way for it.

Info for my edition of Like We Care:

  • Published 2004 by Bancroft Press
  • Hardcover, 261 pages
  • ISBN 9-781890-862367

Let’s Talk Books — Paper Towns

Warning: Spoilers

Last year I read my first John Green book and… let’s say it didn’t go smoothly. It was The Fault in Our Stars, and I read it around the same time the movie came out. Between honest criticisms I had about the two main characters and personal issues I had with my experience overall, my initial impression of John Green’s work wasn’t exactly the most positive. I still ended up liking the book — in some weird, toxic, fucked up sort of way — but it left a really awkward taste in my mouth. I still wanted to read at least one other book by him, though. After all, it’d be a little unfair to form a strong opinion of John Green based on only one of his books.

Well it’s almost been a year since then, and the same friend that lent me The Fault in Our Stars lent me Paper Towns, this time wanting me to read the book before the movie came out (I still think I would have liked The Fault in Our Stars more if I hadn’t pictured Shailene Woodley and what’s-his-face as Hazel and Augustus the entire time). I read it, and although it still had its share of problems, I honestly feel like Paper Towns was a much, much better book than The Fault in Our Stars.

Paper Towns was about this teenager named Quentin who’s close to graduating high school. He’s kind of dorky and has some dorky friends, and has a crush/unhealthy infatuation with his (sort of) friend next door, Margo. I say “crush/unhealthy infatuation” because while he very much does have an unhealthy infatuation with her, I always got the impression she was just a crush before Margo took him out for a night of revenge and fun. He kind of borders on the line between wanting to be with her and realizing she’s out of his league.

One night, Margo asks Quentin to help her do a variety of tasks that she won’t tell him about until they’re about to do it. Quentin’s nervous and uncomfortable, because a lot of her tasks involve revenge pranks on people that have hurt her and breaking into places like Sea World in the middle of the night. But between liking her and gradually feeling the thrill of the events that night, he sticks with her the entire way. They have a great night, Margo expresses her feelings that she’ll really miss hanging out with Quentin, and they part ways for the night.

Margo goes missing the next day. She apparently runs away every now and then, and everyone at school is used to it. When she doesn’t show up again for a few days, though, Quentin worries something serious has happened. A detective shows up with Margo’s parents, and Quentin learns her parents are sick of her pulling crap like this and she’s not welcome back in their house anymore. He also learns Margo leaves clues to where she’s run away to, although no one has been able to figure out what they’re supposed to mean.

When Quentin sees a poster taped to the back of the shade in Margo’s room — the one that faces his bedroom — he’s convinced that Margo wants him to find her. With the help of his two friends Ben and Radar, as well as Margo’s friend Lacey, they find a series of clues in different locations and eventually track down where they think Margo is. Unfortunately, she’s in a paper town in New York, and they’re in Orlando, and by the time they’ve figured it out they have just less than a day to get there before she vanishes again. They skip graduation and book it to the place she’s staying at. While Ben, Radar, and Lacey give up on Margo after she acts like a brat when they find her, Quentin stays to gain some much needed closure. He and Margo talk for a long time about what she wants in life and how it’s not in Orlando and how she needs something more meaningful, as well as admitting to how she sort of had a thing for Quentin as well. They part ways on a solemn note, both realizing they can’t be with each other even though they want to, but still willing to make vague plans to at least see each other. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide what happens between the two of them in the future, if anything. Considering they’re both graduating high school, I feel that’s an honestly real ending, even if partly feels like a cop out.

Of course, one of the first things I instantly liked about Paper Towns was how I liked both main characters. Quentin is a little more reserved than the rest of his friends, and he’s kind of a dork, and he has a crush on this girl he used to play with when they were younger. That girl, Margo, is confident, takes action, keeps the school bullies in line, is intelligent, and does (at least to her peers) some crazy stuff like breaking into Sea World in the middle of the night just to see what it’s like. You’ve probably seen these characters before; it’s a classic story where Person A needs to grow and admires Person B, who teaches Person A to grow. During their overnight shenanigans, Margo pushes Quentin to be more confident and take more risks. When Margo disappears, Quentin takes her role at school when the bullies run wild again. He becomes something of an icon, just like Margo, and can’t help but admire her even more.

The rest of the characters are pretty standard, they fit their roles in the story and are enjoyable enough, but nothing more than that. The only one that really annoyed me was Ben. Sorry, but he was just a tad too juvenile for my taste, and dorky characters who act like frat guys aren’t exactly on my list of likable characters (unless they’re completely over-the-top, which unfortunately wasn’t the case).

Paper Towns is a YA book, though, so I don’t hold the lack of completely original characters too much against it. They all served their roles very well, and I’m glad they did. The writing still feels like a YA book, but again, I’m not going to completely hold that against the book. I do think it’s written much better than The Fault in Our Stars, however, and I was equally pleased with that. There’s a lot less pretentiousness, there are more back-and-forth conversations that feel natural, there are less paragraph-long monologues (and when they do show up I feel they do so at appropriate times), nothing overstays its welcome — the book in general feels a lot better in every area. I’m sorry if I keep comparing it to The Fault in Our Stars, but I feel like my appreciation for Paper Towns is at least partly influenced by how unimpressed I was with my first John Green book.

The only thing I wish was different is that I wanted more Margo in the story. The first third of the book, when Quentin and Margo drive around town together, was my favorite part. I love how they got to know each other a little better. I wanted that to keep going, maybe even take up the first half of the book. But I think part of Margo’s charm is that she’s this revered badass who we mostly hear about rather than see, so I guess my wish to have her around for a little longer is more of a personal preference rather than an unbiased note.

Speaking of personal preferences, I think I should admit that I had/have sort of a soft spot for stories like these and characters like Quentin and Margo. I used to really love to both read and write stories with similar concepts and maybe that’s another reason I enjoyed Paper Towns. I want to say upfront though, that I’ve met people like Margo in real life, and while characters like her are often fun, they can also be incredibly toxic. Actually, I think both Quentin and Margo show some toxic behaviors, and I wish the book explored that a little more. That being said, while I personally enjoyed Paper Towns, I can understand how it’s not a book everyone can enjoy, particularly people that don’t like or sympathize with the thinking and behavioral patterns of Quentin and Margo.

So overall, I really enjoyed the book. I wouldn’t say it breaks any kind of new grounds or is completely original in any sort of way, but it is a really fun read, especially for a YA book. The bad taste that The Fault in Our Stars left me with is gone, Paper Towns left me a much better impression of John Green, and I’m looking forward to the next book I pick up by him, whatever it may be. Hope everyone’s having a great week! ūüôā

Info for my edition of Paper Towns:

  • Published 2008 by Dutton Books
  • Hardcover, 305 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-525-47818-8

Top 10 Books I’ve Read in 2014

I’ve always wanted to make a top 10 list. So why not? Let’s do it. I was going to save this for my last post of 2014, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be one more Let’s Talk Books segment before the year is over, and since I’m fairly certain my last book to read this year isn’t going to make the top 10, I don’t see why I can’t present this one week earlier. (Ha. Present. Christmas is this week. That’s funny to me.)

First, I want to say this list does not contain books solely released this year, so if anyone has stumbled upon this post looking for the top 10 books released in 2014, well then I’m sorry, but this isn’t that list. It’s just a top 10 list from books I’ve personally read this year.

I wanted to make a couple of rules or else this list would have been a little unfair. I’m only choosing one book per author and one book per series. Also, there are a lot of things that went into consideration for this list, including my preference in writing style, originality, and how memorable it was for me. I tried not to let my own bias influence what was placed where on this list, but I’m not perfect, so take this with a grain of salt if needed. Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious, there might be spoilers.

Well enough talking, let’s do this.

#10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

I was a little surprised to see this sneak up on the list. I’ve liked the Harry Potter series since elementary or middle school, but I was never in love with it like most of the fans I know. I had a decent grasp on the overall plot and main characters, but I’d forgotten so many details. It was obvious that it’s been a while since I experienced anything Harry Potter-related, so over the summer I finally started giving the series a long-overdue reread. And while I really enjoyed getting into this universe again from the beginning, my feelings for the series remained the same: I like it, but I’m not in love with it.

That being said, I was really happy to discover just how much I loved the fourth book in the series. I always remembered this one being my favorite, and now I have a good reason why. There are major turning points in this book: Voldemort’s finally been resurrected, Ron and Hermione’s feelings start to become more complicated, Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world are starting to reveal more of their weaknesses and secrets to the readers, and I feel like Cedric’s death is what causes Harry to actually see what a threat Voldemort is, as opposed to hearing everyone else say what a threat he is. The entire last part of the book is intense, and while I’d agree that Voldemort drops a shit ton of exposition, it contains info that I’d waited almost four books to find out about.

The first three books, while having an overarching plot of preventing Voldemort from returning, always had their own separate plots that began and ended within their respective parts. The Goblet of Fire is, at least in my opinion, when Harry Potter starts becoming a little more mature, both in its subject matter and writing style, as well as starting something that doesn’t end when the last chapter is over, let alone end positively.

Unfortunately, I haven’t finished rereading the rest of the series yet, so it might be premature to say this is still my favorite of the series. But compared to the other three (especially Prisoner of Azkaban, which honestly felt a little underwhelming), Goblet of Fire definitely stood out the most in the series.

#9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

This was the book I did my first Let’s Talk Books segment on, so I guess it’s not surprising it made the list. Since I already talked so much about it, I’ll try to keep this short, but if you want to know more you can read what I wrote on it here.

This year was my first time reading this book since I was in high school, and not only did I still like it, I enjoyed it even more. I wasn’t exactly the smartest guy when I read it the first time, so maybe it was good I grew up a little and learned better literary analysis skills in college before coming back to this one.

Aside from what I already wrote about it, there’s not much more to say. As someone that still feels lost and burdened by what society labels as “normal,” there was a lot in this book I could relate to. McMurphy’s an extremely entertaining character, the descriptions of the Combine are very strong, and although it’s more likely I’d view the movie again before reading the book (it’s faster to rewatch a movie than reread a book, after all), there’s an extremely satisfying charm to seeing the world through the Chief’s point of view, which the movie fails to show. It makes the ending a lot more satisfying, too; seeing the Chief break free after spending so much time reliving his memories and struggles makes the escape seem well deserved, even a personal achievement.

I can’t say much more. It’s a really good book that I feel still stands strong today.

#8. Bill Warrington’s Last Chance by James King

I picked up this book a couple of years ago as an impulse buy. Something about the cover really drew me in. And I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it, but never underestimate the power of a well-made one. It’s certainly more interesting than the bland, giant text some authors use to broadcast their names and titles.

Of course, I wouldn’t have bought it if the book didn’t sound interesting. And thankfully, it was. Bill Warrington’s Last Chance is about a dysfunctional family (already a plus for me) that mostly centers around Bill Warrington, a grumpy, unlikable old man whose actions keep pushing his family away, and his granddaughter April, a teenager who dreams of becoming a musician and wants to get the hell away from her mother. Each chapter focuses on one character’s point of view (another plus for me), but I forgot there are also April’s mother and uncles’ perspectives, as well. I always remembered the book being just about Bill and April, so it was nice to see a varied amount of voices spread throughout the novel.

Bill and April end up taking a cross-country trip with the rest of the family following after, and I guess you can say there’s a lot of coming-of-age, maturing, and self-reflecting themes throughout the book. The book has some mature elements to it, but it never goes too hardcore or anything. It’s not like it’s a family that has physically abused drugs and each other, but I feel like it does a good enough job to capture the realization of how distant and hurt people can become due to a moderate amount of dysfunction many families can produce. In that way, I feel like it’s relatable to many people, but not so intense that it would stand out for all of them.

Still, there’s something about this book I really like, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because we get to see everyone’s story play out; they all seem simple at first but then develop a pretty decent level of complexity I honestly didn’t see coming. Maybe it’s the familiar themes of family dysfunction I can relate to. Maybe it’s all the different POVs and how well they work together. Maybe it’s the pacing. I honestly don’t know. But something about it grew on me over the years, and when I reread it in the spring I couldn’t help but love it all over again. It’s definitely something I would at least recommend borrowing from the library, as I’m not sure a lot of people would love it the way I do. But it still earns a spot on my top 10 list.

#7. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Another book I did a Let’s Talk Books post on (don’t be surprised if this is a thing with this list), so again, I’ll try not to repeat myself. You can read it here if you want more details.

I read Fight Club for the first time last year, and it instantly became one of my favorite books. So when I got a Barnes and Noble gift card last Christmas, one of the first books I went out and bought was something else by Chuck Palahniuk. I picked up Survivor, and it was one of the first books I read this year.

As a writer, there were a lot of aspects to this novel that I liked. The pacing, the many detailed descriptions of how seemingly random things work, Fertility Hollis, how the chapters and pages counted down; everything about the writing style seemed very different from what I was used to reading, and I think it worked out very well. It reminded me of my experimental writing workshops from college, and made me happy to see a published novel that took risks I don’t think many readers could appreciate.

If I get another gift card to Barnes and Noble from someone, I’m definitely going to check out another book by Chuck Palahniuk. Survivor definitely made me want to check out more of his work.

#6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

No. No. No no no no no no.

Why. How. You’ve read my rants about this book, right? How is it even possible this book worked its way into my top 10, let alone this high?

Well, I have no clue. But as I was assembling the books for this list, I couldn’t help but feel I remembered The Fault in Our Stars almost better than any other book. This is where some bias may come in; the time when I was involved with this story was a really shit time in my life, so maybe that’s why it always seems to come to mind when I reflect back on 2014.

But even so, wouldn’t a shit time make this book rank even lower, if at all? Well, yeah. So there has to be something else besides it being memorable for unpleasant reasons.

Well, there’s Hazel and Augustus. They’re easily my two most hated characters of 2014.

Hmm. Doesn’t really help explain why this book is #6.

Well, I’ll be honest: in terms of writing style and originality, I can’t give The Fault in Our Stars much credit. But all of its shortcomings aside, and as much as I hated the two main characters, I still liked the book (liked it enough to read it twice, apparently). It may not make much sense, but… well, in some weird, creepy way, I guess I warmed up to the book sometime during my rage-fueled yelling sessions as Augustus said something disgustingly corny. And, well… like it or not, it is extremely memorable. And I don’t want to admit that, because every previous book on this list is technically better than The Fault in Our Stars on my radar. But well… I don’t know! I just remember this book most of all, and I have to give the book credit for that. It must have done something right that I can’t quite grasp at the moment. Perhaps a retrospective should be in order sometime in the future.

#5. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Although a couple of other people have been threatening his position lately, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Moore is my favorite author. He’s the man that got me back into reading, he’s influenced some of my own writing, and he presents a brand of humor in such a way that only he can. And I even had the opportunity to meet him this year when his new book was released! Too bad it was during the before-mentioned shit time. It’s a very weird feeling to have one of the best and worst times of your life intertwine simultaneously.

That being said, The Serpent of Venice also has some bias as being read during such an important time in my life, let alone this year, so it’s memorable factor is naturally going to be high. But it’s also really good, which is why it places so high on the list. The Serpent of Venice is the sequel to Fool, a wonderfully humorous retelling of King Lear from the fool’s perspective. The fool, Pocket, returns as the main character in this book, which retells Othello and The Merchant of Venice, as well as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado (unlike Fool, I haven’t read any of the works The Serpent of Venice is based on, so I can’t personally say how much of each work is represented in the book).

If you liked Fool, you’ll probably enjoy The Serpent of Venice just as much, if not more. Pocket is such an enjoyable character, and it’s always entertaining to see him take advantage of his role as jester to openly make fun of and criticize every major villain in the plot. The only bad thing I have to say about it is, without spoiling too much, everything Pocket worked to achieve in Fool is practically thrown away. But since the book works so well on its own, as well as the fact that it was extremely hard to put down once I got into it, I’m proud to say it deserves its place on this list.

#4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I know this might piss a lot of people off, but tough. The Catcher in the Rye is still a good book and one of my favorites. I just did a Let’s Talk Books about it, so go read that if you want more details about why this book has such a connection with me. But short and to the point, I love the train-of-thought narration. I love what a flawed character Holden Caulfield is. I love the commentary he feels the need to express on everything. I love how I don’t feel alone when I read this book.

Both personal preference and the quality of the writing style earn major points with me. There’s not a lot to say that hasn’t been said already. It’s a great classic that I hope to always enjoy revisiting.

#3. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

This is definitely one of the most memorable books I read this year. Once again, I went over it in a Let’s Talk Books post, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is pretty much exactly how it sounds; the main character is an imaginary friend and must find his kidnapped real friend. It’s a good story, although a little predictable at times, but I still thought it was a fun and unique read.

Of course, what really won me over was the rules established by the author for how imaginary friends can behave. You’d think they can just appear and reappear at their creators’ will, but no. These imaginary friends live their own lives outside their creators. And they’re only as capable as their creators imagine them to be. For example, a young child may not grasp the concept of an imaginary friend moving through doors, so if one gets trapped in a closet, the imaginary friend’s life is at risk. The child may forget about him and never come back, and by the time the closet door is opened again, the friend will have disappeared.

There are lots of rules like this peppered throughout the book, and it makes even the smallest tasks seem surprisingly intense. It’s definitely worth picking up the next time you’re at the book store.

#2. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Ah, Nick Hornby. He’s the only fiction author my sister reads, and I finally decided to see what he’s all about. She let me borrow four of his books over the year, and I’m pretty sure three of them were going to go in my top 10 if I didn’t limit one book per author. It was a close call between this and High Fidelity; I loved them both almost equally, but High Fidelity’s ending really let me down, so I’m going with A Long Way Down.

I read this during the middle of a pretty bad depression, and in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best idea; it’s about four different people who run into each other as they’re each about to kill themselves. They all resolve to put that on hold for a predetermined amount of time, and even though they don’t like each other, they end up helping each other move past their depression and issues.

The fact that none of them really like each other (in addition to being told from each of their points of view) makes the entire book really interesting when it could have been easily predictable or cheesy. I can’t even say they like each other by the end, but that aspect makes them all have an interesting relationship with each other that I don’t think even they understand. It’s like they’re all on their own personal paths to something, and the others are there for company and some degree of support, and that’s it. But the fact is, they all have depression and suicidal thoughts in common, and that alone forms a weird bond between them.

Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye, there’s a lot of stuff in this book that clicks with me. There were so many quotes and passages I felt I could relate to that I started keeping a Word document of book quotes. You could say that about all of the Nick Hornby books I read this year, actually. There’s something about his style that hits pretty close to home.

I know the premise sounds depressing (and I won’t lie, it is), but there’s also a good deal of humor mixed in as well. It’s definitely an interesting read, and something I’d recommend checking out at some point.

#1. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

You know how much I loved this book. You must have known it was going to show up on here somewhere, maybe even predicted it was going to be #1. I think even when I was considering a top 10 list, I knew it was going to be #1. I tried justifying how that wasn’t fair, because it’s not written like a traditional book and how it’s a collection of short stories and illustrations from a blog, so it should be in its own separate category, but I couldn’t do it. Hyperbole and a Half was my favorite book I read this year.

This book made me laugh the whole way through. Like, laughing out loud, had to put the book down because I was in tears laughing. As a 20-something-year-old, I felt like there was so much I could relate to in this book, which happens to be written by another 20-something-year-old. Allie Brosh recounts a number of funny, exaggerated stories from her life that bring a smile on my face by just thinking about them. The fact that she can openly talk about her anxiety and depression issues through her stories, as well as being brave enough to poke fun at them, is also a major plus in my book.

She combines narrative and intentionally crude drawings for an amazing story-telling experience that couldn’t be achieved by using just one or the other. Coming from a writer, this may not make much sense, but no matter how good you are with words, I’ve always believed that sometimes a picture can just get something across much more effectively. This is something Allie Brosh seems to understand, and she takes full advantage of it in her book. She’s actually inspired me to start incorporating some art of my own into different projects, and hopefully I can focus enough to make that happen next year.

Well, there you go. My top 10 books of 2014. This was actually harder to make than I thought it would be, so if you’re still reading, thanks. If you have any Christmas money you’re looking to spend (or if you need to make a last minute gift purchase for someone that may like these books), give one of these a try. And if you want, let me know some of your favorite books you’ve read this year. Merry Christmas! ūüôā

Audience Interpretation vs. Creator’s Intention

So recently, we’ve been told that Hello Kitty has been fooling us all for 40 years. Despite the cat ears, the white fur, the paws, the cat nose, and the whiskers, she is, in fact, a little girl.

Or something like that. I’m kind of late to the party and now people are saying different things. Apparently, someone from Sanrio (the company that made Hello Kitty) insisted that Hello Kitty wasn’t a cat, but a little girl. Her name is Kitty White, and she lives in London, and she has a pet cat, but she herself is not a cat.

Despite, you know… obviously being a cat. The main argument this representative seems to have is that Hello Kitty doesn’t walk on all fours like a cat, so therefore, she is not a cat. The effects of being a cartoon character don’t seem to apply, I guess.

But now someone else from Sanrio is saying that she’s the personification of a cat. Which, I’m only assuming in this context, means that she’s a little girl, but in the form of a cat character. Like how Spongebob is a little boy/manchild in the form of an undersea sponge. Or basically anything else. Because she’s a cartoon character. As someone that grew up almost exclusively on cartoons, I can confidently say this follows fairly common cartoon rules. I think anyone could look at Hello Kitty and see that she’s supposed to be a little girl, but… you know. A little girl cat.

I don’t know. I feel like something was lost in translation here. Doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about audience interpretation vs. creator’s intention.

So I don’t know about you, but sometimes I come across a book, or a movie, or a TV show, or a whatever form of storytelling, and there’s enough room for me to make my own interpretation. And sometimes people have these big discussions about all of their different interpretations, and it’s great because this something is influencing a bunch of people to think. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a definite answer or canon to go along with these particular stories, because the audience is smart enough to come up with their own explanation, and despite arguments about which interpretation is “correct,” it doesn’t matter. It’s a personal belief, and that’s all that should really count.

And then sometime later, maybe during an interview or Q&A panel, the creator will reveal his or her intentions while creating said work. And sometimes it answers questions. And sometimes it creates controversy. Everyone who had been spending so much time finely crafting theories and interpretations are now outraged that the creator, who should know all of the “real” answers, decided to lay out the “facts” long after the original work had been published.

But here’s the thing: even if an author, or director, or musician, or any type of artist decides to tell the public what he or she intended their creation to mean… it doesn’t always matter. Your audience may see things the way you wanted them to, or they may not. And yes, at times it can be very frustrating. But it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes your audience can open you up to possibilities that make your work better.

For example, I wrote this 28-page short story for my advanced fiction workshop in college. I worked so hard on it, slaving away during all of my spring break, hoping to move my classmates and professor with this amazing story of a young boy’s personal realization and growth as he decided to start thinking and acting for himself. Through a series of interactions with the same, familiar people he’d dealt with every day of his life, he made a decision to leave home and see the world for himself. I thought it was perfect.

It was easily the worst story I’d produced in all of my college career (of the ones I’d grown attached to, anyway). At the time, I didn’t see it. I was just mad people weren’t seeing it the way I was. Maybe it was because I’d been going through a personal change at the time and wanted to communicate my feelings on it through the story. Maybe it was because I’d worked longer on it than most of my other stories, and I was frustrated it turned out to be so terrible. But people didn’t get what I was going for. They started making up their own theories about what the story was about (or rather, should have been). One of the motifs I used in the story was the woods (exploring the unknown; I know, so original) and various people warning the main character not to go in them. My professor had the idea to turn this “deep,” “symbolic” part of the story into a gateway that led somewhere entirely different. He had the idea of turning the story into a type of Truman Show piece. My main character should have went into the woods, only to find the same life he was so tired of was actually staged. Looking back on it, this would have been a great way to excuse the awful blandness of all the characters. Too bad I was too stubborn to take his suggestions to heart. He even E-mailed me later that day, apologizing if I took his criticisms too close to heart (I was usually fairly good at taking in negative feedback; I guess I couldn’t hide it that day).

What was my point again? Oh yeah. Just because I intended the story to be some amazing, coming of age masterpiece doesn’t mean that’s how my audience perceived it. And that’s okay, because honestly, I think my professor’s reimagining of the assignment would have been a much better short story. Sometimes, and obviously not all the time, but certainly sometimes, an individual’s own interpretation of a particular work may have more weight and meaning than the creator’s. To the individual, anyway. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters.

Or something like that. I know a lot of ideas were thrown around here today. I may not have had as much of a point as I thought I did. Oh well. Food for thought, anyway. Something to keep in mind the next time you want to disagree with what someone says about a book or movie or whatever, despite what the creator said.

Why Do Things Leave Less of an Impact On Us Now?

Borat. Silly Bandz. The Transformers movies. Guitar Hero. The explosion of Brony culture. Gangnam Style. Harlem Shake videos. Flappy Bird. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older or if the world works differently now, but I’ve noticed that trends come more frequently and leave less of an impact upon dying out. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that’s because “things were better and more memorable in the past than they are today,” but I¬†would like to explore the idea of why we seem to remember things from 10+ years ago with more fondness.

One of the more obvious answers is because people typically tend to remember the stuff they grew up with before becoming adults. Time seems to pass differently for kids. I remember every year from elementary school through high school seemed like it lasted much, much longer. And naturally, the movies, TV shows, books, video games, and all of our experiences in general are going to seem like a bigger deal. When time gives the illusion of passing slowly, the things we do and experience during that time will usually leave a bigger impact.

Take Pokemon, for example. Any person that grew up in the 90’s probably has a lot of memories associated with Pokemon. I’m no exception. Some of my strongest childhood memories involve Pokemon. And there’s¬†a lot¬†of them. Watching the TV show before going to school, playing the Game Boy games almost every day, reorganizing my trading cards, playing with the toys, drawing them in notebooks, trying to make up my own Pokemon, playing the spin-off games (Pokemon Snap, Stadium, Puzzle League, even the board game and Monopoly version); the list goes on. I always viewed my time with Pokemon as¬†the essential influence on my childhood. After all, it seemed to always be there back then. Strange how it was actually only for two years.

Eventually we got to a point where¬†we¬†embarked on a journey to discover who we are. It’s on that journey when we discovered those songs, movies, and other forms of media that spoke to us as something more than mere entertainment. A simple lyric or line could¬†sync up with where we were in life. We felt connected to whatever said that thing we’d struggled to express ourselves. That’s why we tend to remember those influences more positively, even years later when we¬†revisit them and they seem overrated, juvenile, or dated. We don’t forget what they’ve done for us, how we’ve remembered them so positively for years. That’s why we can overlook some of the more embarrassing qualities that would normally make us leave those influences behind as we move on.

But even so, what’s to stop us from being influenced¬†now, after we’ve grown up? Well, it’s not impossible. Most of us 20-somethings are probably still looking for our place in the world. But we usually have a clearer concept of who we are, what we want, and where we want to be. It’s harder to find that special connection with different things because we no longer have vague concepts of who we are; we have more specific questions about ourselves that we need answers to. We’ve gotten more life experience, and it’s harder to find things that match our own ideas.

Of course, growing up aside, there’s also the issue of how information is presented today. I’m sure you’ve all read something about it, but stuff is thrown at us much faster and more frequently than ever. Since around 2006 or 2007, it’s been becoming ridiculously easier¬†to absorb media in greater bulk. Quite frankly, we take this for granted, and the new stuff we acquire becomes less special.

But honestly, who can blame us? We have advertisements for movies and TV shows shoved down our throats every couple of minutes. You can’t watch a single video online without seeing a trailer for something. We see so many of them that they all just blend together. We can download book after book into the palm of our hand for just a few dollars each. Songs can be purchased at any time for just a dollar. Netflix and Hulu let us binge watch TV shows entire seasons at a time; remember when we had to actually get a physical copy of a box set for that to happen?

I don’t want to sound like an old man that wants to go back in time, but facts are facts: the easier it is¬†to obtain something, the less special it becomes. Same with how¬†frequently we obtain something. I’m not saying that limiting yourself to enjoying different types of media is going to make them leave a deeper impact on your life, but part of the reason the things in the past seemed like they were more important was because it was harder to get them. Other than birthdays and holidays, how did we get stuff? We didn’t have jobs, money was extremely limited, and it’s not like we could have gone shopping whenever we wanted. We were, more or less, at the mercy of another force, like our parents’ generosity. We had to make do with what we had, and as a result we appreciated it. And when something new came into our lives, we appreciated that, too.

Anyway, this was just some food for thought. What do you think?

Let’s Talk Books – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Warning: Spoilers

One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog was to talk about some of the books I’ve been reading lately. Not really a¬†review, or a detailed¬†analysis, just some general thoughts that I wanted to get out there. I originally wanted to do this on YouTube; my casual manner of speaking is probably better off in video discussions. But since Google’s busy fucking everyone in the ass over there, I figured doing this in a blog might be a better choice (not to mention that, as a writer, it will help in the long run). And while I didn’t exactly want to start with a book that so many people¬†love¬†while also getting its fair share of¬†hate, it’s got my mind thinking and I’d rather just get this out of the way while it’s fresh. So let’s talk¬†One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I haven’t read this book in years. I’d like to say I picked it up again sometime during college, but to be honest, I think the last (and only) time I read it was during my senior year of high school. I remember liking it, but I don’t remember why. It was probably because McMurphy was such an entertaining character. Back then I wasn’t exactly a smart reader. In fact, between being forced to read as assignments, writing essays on books I didn’t understand, and dealing with teachers’ frustration with my misunderstanding of themes and interpretation, I was actually turned off from reading literature for a while.¬†It wasn’t until I started taking my creative writing workshops during college that I started appreciating reading again. Being taught to write better helped me¬†read better, and my professors encouraged me to ask a ton of questions, and have¬†actual discussions about stories, and overall helped me grow more than my high school teachers ever could.

One of the books that several of the other writers in my workshops recommended to look at again was¬†One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I made a mental note to take a look at it again now that I grew as a reader. I finally got around to it, and I’ve got to say, I’m glad I did. I think one of the things I was looking forward to the most was the narration. One of the first things I learned in my workshops was that the narrator and main character aren’t necessarily the same person, and the professor who taught me that used this book as an example.¬†I really liked how although McMurphy and his influence were such integral parts of the story, the book was really about the Chief, his growth, and how McMurphy’s actions affected that. McMurphy kind of just dominated my memories of this book, and it was really nice to see the entire story through the Chief’s eyes, to see his hallucinations, to wonder if he was a reliable narrator, and to see his memories of his childhood and father. And without the narration written as it is, the Chief would become just another patient.

Another thing I liked about the narration was that there were a lot of moments that made me feel really connected with the book. The fog that the Chief keeps describing was one of my favorite aspects of the story, even if at times it felt a little overdone. I feel lost fairly often, so seeing his perspective through the use of fog was pretty interesting. His descriptions of being alone and fear of ending up at the Shock Shop while wandering through the fog were great.

Then I discovered something: I don’t have to end up at that door if I stay still when the fog comes over me and just keep quiet. The trouble was I’d been finding that door my own self because I got scared of being lost so long and went to hollering so they could track me. In a way, I was hollering for them¬†to¬†track me; I had figured that anything was better’n being lost for good, even the Shock Shop. Now, I don’t know. Being lost isn’t so bad.” (118)

This was one of my favorite passages. It reminded me of all the times I’d been lost throughout my life, and how I used to rely on other people’s attention or advice so I could find a better grasp on how to live. And more times than not, doing this kind of screwed me over and put myself at the center of manipulation (kind of like most of the patients). And at the time, I really¬†didn’t care, because I also thought being treated poorly was better than being lost by myself. And what I ultimately realized was the same thing the Chief did; being lost isn’t so bad. You can’t really find yourself or what’s important until you get lost with yourself sometimes.

While we’re talking about relying on other people to define you, there’s another part of the book narrated by the Chief that expresses this really well:

I lay in bed the night before the fishing trip and thought it over, about my being deaf, about the years of not letting on I heard what was said, and I wondered if I could ever act any other way again. But I remembered one thing: it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (178)

Again, this passage hit close to home. I don’t know how many social situations I’ve been in where I’d try to contribute to conversations but was interrupted, or talked over, or just¬†ignored. I felt stupid, like what I said never mattered. After a while I stopped wanting to contribute altogether, and then people started treating my like an antisocial person because I stopped talking as much or just didn’t want to go to parties or out for drinks. And for a while I actually thought I¬†was pretty antisocial. It wasn’t until later, after meeting people that¬†did¬†listen and¬†did treat me with a little more respect and¬†did¬†genuinely want me around that I felt more comfortable being social. And that’s where this passage, and for that matter, a lot of the patients speak out to me. You shouldn’t feel like something’s wrong just because some shitty people make you feel worthless. There are a lot of manipulative people out there, and it’s not just authority figures in books like these. There are a lot of really smart and talented people out there that beat themselves into the ground because they let some assholes make them believe so. And not just bullies or other assholes, but, like, toxic friends or unsupportive family members. Sometimes there’s something really great that can’t grow because of its environment. And again, you might need to get lost by yourself for a while before getting the confidence to stand up for yourself, not unlike McMurphy.

And what happens when you don’t? Well, the Chief says¬†that pretty well, too:

There had been times when I’d wandered around in a daze for as long as two weeks after a shock treatment, living in that foggy, jumbled blur which is a whole lot like the ragged edge of sleep, that gray zone between light and dark, or between sleeping and waking or living and dying, where you don’t know you’re not unconscious any more, but don’t know yet what day it is or who you are or what’s the use of coming back at all–for two weeks. If you don’t have a reason to wake up you can loaf around in that gray zone for a long, fuzzy time, or if you want it bad enough I found you can come fighting right out of it.” (242)

Anyone that knows the foggy gray knows how difficult it is to get out of it. Sometimes it’s a little more than just something to be lost in. Sometimes it’s a debilitating poison that saps your energy. Sometimes it becomes a breeding ground for negative thoughts that anchor you to bed. I guess that’s one of the reasons why the Chief stands out to me so much. He was in it for so long and he got out of it. Against pretty bad odds, he got out of it. And I guess that’s the main thing I took away from this book, it’s about realizing what’s true to you and what’s false, who’s really on your side, who’s manipulating you into thinking there’s something wrong with you even if there isn’t, and finding your own way out of the fog.

A lot of the negative feedback I’ve found about¬†One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest¬†is that some people found it a little juvenile. A lot of older adults think it’s a little overrated and more suited for a young adult or college mindset. I don’t personally agree with that, and maybe one of the reasons is because I¬†am¬†a twenty-something year old, but I¬†can kind of see where those opinions come from. The Combine, while I think worked well in the story,¬†is¬†just another Big Brother mechanic, and the whole “government controls us” thing does seem to work better for a younger crowd. And I did just spend the majority of this post gushing over how much I loved the whole “finding your own way” aspect of the book, an aspect that probably sounds immature or overdone to an older audience that actually has found their way. But like I said, I’m a twenty-something year old, and all these things are still really important to me right now. Maybe in 10 or 20 years I won’t think so fondly of the book, but right now it’s one of my favorites. I’m really glad I came back and looked at this book again after so long, and while I can’t say for sure everyone will like it, I do think it’s something any reader should experience at least once.

Info for my edition of¬†One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

  • Published 1975 by Signet
  • Paperback, 272 pages
  • ISBN 0451067525 (Signet W6752)