Words from Quiet (Susan Cain)

Quiet by Susan Cain

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”  -Susan Cain, Quiet (2012)

I just recently started Susan Cain’s Quiet, a non-fiction book exploring the benefits of introverted people, and it’s already sounding close to home.  I’m a quiet person myself and, while I would never say I’m in constant persecution, I have definitely experienced the kind of culture that she describes here.  I’ve often wondered why introverted people are sometimes seen as unintelligent or indecisive, instead of thoughtful.

Are you introverted or extroverted?  Do you think introverts have certain disadvantages in society?  Let me know what you think below.

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The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

The Land of Stories: The Wishing SpellAlex sat up and looked around her room and finally found what was making the noise.  It was coming from inside The Land of Stories on her nightstand and, to her amazement, the pages were unmistakably glowing.” (The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, 61)

Many classic fairy tales end with the characters living “happily ever after,” but what does that really mean?  Does each character never have a single worry ever again?  In this week’s book review, I look at The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, a fantasy novel that explores what really happens to classic characters beyond the pages of their own tales, and shows that some stories never truly end.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is about a pair of twins: Alex, an over-achieving yet friendless bookworm, and her brother Conner, a student who is often in trouble for his laziness.  The book begins with the children and their family still trying to put their life together after a recent death, but the children find new hope on their twelfth birthday.  Their grandmother gives Alex and Conner a book called The Land of Stories, a collection of classic fairy tales that acts as a portal into a realm where the tales actually happened.  The twins are quickly whisked away into the new world, but soon discover that returning home is far more difficult.

The Land of Stories is the debut novel by Chris Colfer, who is more widely known as an actor rather than an author.  He currently portrays Kurt Hummel on the television series Glee, but he has recently used that success as a springboard for other creative pursuits, such as writing.  Aside from The Land of Stories, Colfer has also been working on films and television shows of his own.  Actors who branch out into other art forms are often met with skepticism and that’s understandable (Colfer would have had a harder time having this book published if he were not already a celebrity).

However, for the most part, Chris Colfer shows promise as a writer in The Land of Stories.  He adds humour throughout the book and, other than a few examples, his jokes are pretty effective.  His writing style is simple and unremarkable, but it works, because the story is allowed to happen without distractions from poetic language or unnecessarily long descriptions.  Colfer’s book does have some mistakes, though.  Some sentences or paragraphs in The Land of Stories have the same word repeated too much.  While fantasy authors have used repetition in order to make a story whimsical, Colfer does not appear to be doing it on purpose.  Likewise, he has a habit of building sentences with the structure “something happened as something else happened.”  This might have been the fault of the editor, but the repeated use of “as” in this way can be distracting, especially in one instance where he used two sentences in a row with the same structure.  Of course, these are minor complaints when considering the entire book, which is otherwise entertaining and well-written.  For a first novel, The Land of Stories is better than average and shows potential for Colfer as a writer.

The Land of Stories might not appear original or unique at first glance.   The idea of expanding classic fairy tales has been very popular in recent years, from films such as Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to the television series Once Upon a Time.  Despite its resemblance to these other works, The Land of Stories is successful due to Chris Colfer’s strength in weaving the story and developing the characters.  On their journey, the twins come across a variety of classic characters, with Cinderella, Snow White, and Jack (the one who climbed the beanstalk) as some examples.  Each of these characters has grown and matured since their original stories, which makes them more complex.  I have never been a huge fan of the Goldilocks story, but I really like the direction Colfer uses for her in this book.  All of these characters live in the same land, so each character has a history with another, and it’s interesting to see how these relationships play out in the second half of The Land of Stories, when many of the characters come into conflict with each other.  Chris Colfer also should be praised for the character development he gives to certain villains, making them more sympathetic than they are in their original stories.

I have some other minor problems to mention.  In certain early scenes of The Land of Stories, a character will explain how certain modern versions of the fairy tales remove the darker nature of the stories.  When a character does this, he or she will say something along the lines of “actually, in the original version…”  While I’m sure there was a first version of each tale at one point, most of these stories have had so many different variations over the years and, from what I understand, none of the stories have a specific version that can be identified as “the original version” with any certainty.  I’m not sure whether that kind of error would bother everyone, but I did find it a little annoying, especially because the character usually acted like a know-it-all when his or her information was actually wrong.  One other problem was that many of the plot twists in The Land of Stories were easily predictable, but this is a bit more forgivable because the book is mainly written for children, who might not guess the twists before they happen.  The novel also has many other entertaining aspects that make it worth reading, so it does not lean too heavily upon the surprises to encourage the reader to continue.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is a fantasy book worth reading.  Even if you’re an adult, the story is sure to keep your attention if you like fantasy or fairy tales.  I wasn’t a fan of every fairy tale included, but the way Chris Colfer develops the characters made me appreciate the stories more.  However, the story and style of the book are simple because children are the intended audience, so if you’re looking for more complex or adult storytelling, this novel might not be the right fit for you.  Some problems aside, The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is an entertaining and accessible book, which I give a 4 out of 5.

Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am“As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war. Explosions. Trenches. Bodies. The eerie screaming of the wind. I had made my choice, for now.  It would be music.” (Who I Am, 62)

I should reveal my bias right away: I consider the Who the greatest band in rock and roll history. At the height of their career, they were revolutionary, always pushing their creativity and musicianship beyond expectations and into new territory.  Aside from technical innovation, the Who were also fantastic performers, constantly infusing their music with an explosive energy that few other bands could match.  Years after I originally heard the band, I still have chills when listening to certain songs.

Considering my fanaticism for the band, my decision to read an autobiography by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and principal songwriter for the Who, might be one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made.  I didn’t simply want to read Who I Am, I needed to read it.

In Who I Am, Townshend describes his entire life and career thus far, from his troubled childhood and socially awkward teen years to his rise to fame and his life after the dissolution of the Who.  As a fan, the sections about the band and their music are more interesting to me, but I did enjoy reading about the origin of such a legendary songwriter.  In interviews promoting the memoir, Townshend discussed the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of his grandmother, but he wisely avoids specific details in the book itself, focusing more on the effect it later had on his creativity and life.  This omission works well, because he garners sympathy without shocking or unsettling the reader.

Being a non-fiction book, Who I Am does not have characters in the regular sense, but Pete Townshend is able to describe the people in his life in a way that gives them complexity.  One of the reasons the Who had such explosive energy is that the four members had such distinct personalities; whenever they played, each member competed with the others, trying to pull the music in a certain direction.  Townshend based his rock-opera Quadrophenia on the differences between the members, so he takes some time in that section to address the chemistry of the band.  Likewise, he has opportunities to provide depth to the individuals.  For example, the late drummer Keith Moon had a reputation as a party animal, but Pete explains that the parties were a way for Moon to cope with the jealousy he felt about his girlfriend.  Small details about the band are revealed throughout the memoir, which makes the book worth reading for fans who might not know everything about the Who.

Of course, Pete Townshend includes details about people other than his band mates.  While some rock stars might remember their wilder days fondly, Pete shows regret for many of his actions, especially the ones that hurt his ex-wife and family.  His remorse might take the fun out of the book for some readers who want to read about the hedonism of rock and roll, but for me it made Townshend more human.  It also reminded me about why he’s one of my favourite songwriters: he’s very thoughtful and intellectual.  He’s always critiquing his own decisions and considering how he could have acted differently.

Pete Townshend adopts a very journalistic style in Who I Am.  He is very direct and tries to sound objective when describing moments during his life.  The style can be a little dry occasionally, but for the most part, it’s very effective.  There are some sections where I wish he would have elaborated more upon the creative process, such as when he talks about recording my favourite album Quadrophenia, but that’s simply based on my personal taste.  He goes into more detail about Tommy, which makes sense because it was a bigger moment in the band’s history.  My only other complaint is that Townshend spends a lot of time detailing the recording equipment in every home studio he made.  I’m sure those details are important for historical purposes and interesting for those who are knowledgeable in recording, but they mean little to me.

I rarely read memoirs or non-fiction books unless I’m very interested in the topic, and Who I Am easily fits the bill.  The Who is my favourite band and I enjoy reading about the stories and people behind the music.  Aside from some small complaints, I really loved the book and I recommend it to anyone who also likes the Who or wants to read about Pete’s rock and roll lifestyle.  Clearly, the book isn’t for everyone, because each person will have their own opinion (or lack thereof) regarding The Who, but as a fan who waited a long time for this book to be released, I’m satisfied.  I give Who I Am4.5 out of 5.

What does everyone think about biographies?  If you have read some, what was your favourite?  Do you read non-fiction books often or rarely?  Let me know what you think below.

New Year, New Challenges

2013 Reading Challenge

We’re almost halfway through January already, so I thought I would take some time to talk about the New Year.  I don’t really make resolutions, but the beginning of a new year always seems to signal changes in our lives.  With that in mind, I wanted to share some of my goals for 2013.

The first challenge I have set for myself is to read all of the books on my to-be-read pile before I buy or acquire any new ones.  I actually made this decision in the last couple months of 2012, but I had a slight hiccup when I was given books for Christmas.  Since then, I’ve become more adamant in my goal.  There are about twenty-five books on my list, which is nowhere near as high as some other bloggers, but the idea that I might not read every book I own is a little frustrating to me.  Hopefully, I can enjoy books more without the guilt of two dozen other novels looming over me.

In a similar vein, I’m participating in the 2013 Reading Challenge at Goodreads.  Goodreads runs this challenge every year, with each reader choosing the amount of novels he or she wants to read in the new year.  It’s more of a personal quest than a competition, but I haven’t done it before so I wanted to give it a chance.  My goal is 30 books, which is pretty low compared to others, but I can be a slow reader sometimes.  Luckily, I’ve finished two books already, so I’m ahead of schedule at the moment.  I have added a new section to the right, just above my Twitter feed, where you can track my progress.

My other goals for the year involve writing.  Last summer, I finished the manuscript of my first novel and I’m still working on revisions for that story.  I have been developing ideas for other novels I want to write, but right now my main focus needs to be completing that book.  Aside from creative writing, I also want to maintain this blog, even if it’s just for one post a week.  I haven’t been consistent enough, but I would like that to change.  I want writing to be my career in some capacity, so I need to continue to develop my skills.

How has everyone’s year been so far?  Are you looking forward to any books in 2013?  Have you set any challenges for yourself?

Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.  I’m returning today with a review of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan.  I have previously read two of the author’s other books, Saturday and The Innocent.  I had very different responses to those two novels: I found Saturday boring and pointless, but I really appreciated The Innocent.  Solar, in terms of quality, falls between those two extremes.  It is entertaining enough, but lacks the great story and character work that made The Innocent so good.

The main character of Solar is an aging physicist named Michael Beard, who develops new methods to harness social energy while he tries to manage a deteriorating personal life.  Beard’s problem is that he is driven entirely by physical urges and desires.  He moves from one woman to the next, saying and doing whatever it takes to seduce them.  Likewise, he gradually grows more overweight as the book continues, because he cannot control himself from eating unhealthy foods.  Beard does not truly care about anything beyond the satisfaction of his own needs.  Even his mission to help the environment by using solar energy is based on his selfish desire for recognition, instead of a belief that he can benefit the world.

If you are a reader who cannot stand unlikable characters, then Solar isn’t for you.  Michael Beard is just one among many characters in the novel who have little redeeming value.  I can only think of one minor character near the end who has a positive influence on those around her, but she barely has an impact on the story.  All of the other characters are either destructive, decent but make wrong decisions, or simply pointless.  McEwan clearly wants his audience to find humour in the detestable actions of the characters, especially in the case of Beard, but that charm can only last so long.  I enjoyed the absurdity of Beard near the beginning, when he reacts immaturely to his current wife’s adultery (which was revenge for his own infidelity), but by the second half of the book, I was tired of his limited view of the world.  His reluctance to make better decisions made him more annoying than amusing to me.  McEwan does lead the novel to an interesting conclusion, but not one where I could sympathize with any of the characters.

McEwan’s choice to make Solar about the current energy crisis made the book seem interesting to me before I read it, but unfortunately, that side of the book is never quite developed.  Perhaps because the problem is ongoing, the author does not offer any real commentary on the subject or reveal whether Beard’s research will be successful.  I wouldn’t expect a novelist to know enough about social energy to save the planet, but I would have liked it if he made some statement about the crisis.  McEwan could have at least used the concept as a metaphor for Beard’s personal flaws, but he never bothers to do that, either.  It sounds like all of the science in the book is accurate, but solar energy is ultimately a subplot that could have been removed or replaced with an entirely different field of research.  McEwan’s use of the topic appears to be a failed attempt to remain current.  It reminds me of his novel Saturday, which didn’t have a story because he was too busy making references to current events.  In ten years, both Saturday and Solar will just seem outdated.

Compared to other novelists, Ian McEwan has an intellectual writing style that many consider pretentious.  I’m a little undecided on his style, because I do appreciate more sophisticated prose, but it can also seem dry at times.  If I try to read his work for more than about twenty or thirty pages at a time, I can find it difficult to concentrate.  I can forgive his style when the characters or story are interesting, but unfortunately, Solar does not have a strong plot as an incentive.

The title Solar reminds me of two Latin words: sol, which means “the sun,” and solus, meaning “alone.”  The most intriguing concept I found in the book is the conflict between those two ideas.  Michael Beard and other scientists want to use solar energy to save the world, but they are still flawed humans, driven by their desire for immediate personal satisfaction.  The idea that those who work for the planet’s survival may be even more corrupt than the average person is interesting to me.

I found Solar a decent enough story, but very little about it stands out as exceptional.  The plot, characters, and writing style are not necessarily weak, but they’re not memorable either.  I give Solar a 3 out of 5.  I wouldn’t really recommend the novel to anyone unless they have already read and enjoyed Ian McEwan books before.  If you have any interest in the author, I would suggest The Innocent as a different starting point, because that’s the only book I’ve read from that I would consider great.