Thursday, August 28, 2014

Awesome Title

I've been thinking about titles recently. Book titles, blog post titles, that sort of thing. Titles can be very important. Titles can make a book sound unbelievably boring, or incredibly interesting. Titles can reveal everything, or conceal everything.

I'm not very good at coming up with titles, if you couldn't tell by the very title of this post.

I've always struggled with titles because, well, they are supposed to be short and creative and encapsulate the entire essence of what you've written. But the conundrum for me has always been, if I just spent so much time writing so many words to express the essence of what I want to say, whether it be a blog post or an academic paper or a novel, how do I boil that down to a mere few words in a title? So I end up with a title that is generic, obvious, or more often incoherent (the number one comment I got back from classmates who edited my last paper was that the title didn't seem to describe the paper I had written).

The ladies over at Brilliant Business Moms recently wrote a post about how to craft a killer blog post (from which I gleaned that I write very un-killer blog posts), and here's what they had to say about titles:
Research shows that many readers do not make it past the title of your post.  Was your title too long or confusing?  Did you hook your reader by making them curious or evoking emotion?
The research says that the first 3 words and last 3 words of your title are all that your readers will see. Did you pack the most important words towards the beginning and end of your title? The beginning of your title is also more weighted for SEO, so fit your key words into the title quickly.
I realized that probably over 50% of my post titles begin with "Book Review:" Hmm, now isn't that just a thrillingly evocative hook.

However, I do think I'm a bit better at coming up with titles than novelists of the 18th Century. I recently saw this list floating around facebook of actual novel titles from the 1700s, and I must say it gave me a chuckle. My particular favorite is The Adventures Of An Ostrich Feather Of Quality, followed closely by The Adventures Of An Irish Smock, Interspersed With Whimsical Anecdotes Of A Nankeen Pair Of Breeches.

I mean, are those fantastic titles, or are they fantastic titles?

And yet, somehow, I'm not inspired to read one of the books listed.

So, maybe I'm slightly better than most 18th Century authors, but still. I think I could work on coming up with better titles, in every genre I write. It's an artform, crafting titles, and one I haven't put a lot of thought into. But this is my new writing goal (manageable because it is small). I'm going to pay more attention to titles, the ones other people write and the ones I come up with on my own. I'm going to reflect more on how titles influence the way I feel about a piece of writing. I'm going to be more purposeful in how I create titles. Hopefully this will be one small way I can improve my writing overall.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast--rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve. Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time, and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.

So I don't exactly remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember it popped up in several places all at once the same day I was filling up my holds request list at my library, so this one was on the brain and I decided to add it to the list.

I didn't necessarily think I was going to love it. Actually, I was pretty sure I was going to hate it.

You see, this book is touted as a sort of Great Gatsby wannabe, and call me crazy, but I really dislike F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know, I know, as a former English teacher that's practically blasphemous for me to admit, but it's true. I just find his portrayal of the American dream so sad and empty and depressing. I find his characters shallow and vapid and morally reprehensible. I don't relate to those people at all.

But I do recognize that Fitzgerald was a pretty incredible writer, and I do understand why The Great Gatsby is considered a classic, so I was willing to give this one a try to see if it had any redeeming value.

And the answer is... yes and no.

I'm actually quite torn over whether I really loved this book, or hated it as much as Gatsby. It's set a decade after the roaring twenties, but even after the Great Depression there is still plenty of shallow, vapid, morally reprehensible behavior exhibited in this story of climbing the social ranks of New York. And just like the Great Gatsby, I really hated most of the characters.

But the main character? Katey, or Katherine, or Kate, or whatever people happened to call her, was someone I really related to. She was smart and level-headed, and a wonderful little introvert, and she loved Dickens! How can you not love a character who reads Dickens?

The only thing I couldn't understand about Katey was why in the world she wanted to hang out with the people she did. By and large every other character in this book (excepting maybe one or two) was completely horrible. And Tinker Grey? I mean, I kind of see why she liked him at first, but I got over him real quick, and I couldn't figure out for the life me why Katey still loved him for so long. Especially in the end, when Tinker turned out to be a bigger scumbag than even I'd anticipated, the book is still so sympathetic to him and I was just like, Why? Why does anybody like him?

So there was lots of social climbing and shallow parties and people sleeping around and all that stuff I hate about The Great Gatsby (tangent: I have such a hard time comprehending how the characters in these books can drink all the alcohol described, and not walk around completely inebriated all the time. Granted, I have zero experience with alcohol consumption, but just reading about all the drinks these people consume is enough to make me feel nauseated).

But! Then there were gems like this one (I know it's an awful long quote, feel free to skip):
One night near the end, as I was sitting at [my father's] bedside trying to entertain him with an anecdote about some nincompoop with whom I worked, out of the blue he shared a reflection which seemed such a non sequitur that I attributed it to delirium. Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup coffee. Only decades later would I realize that he had been giving me a piece of advice.
            Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded: but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane—in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath—she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. What my father was trying to tell me, as he neared the conclusion of his course, was that this risk should not be treated lightly: One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasure and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.
            In retrospect, my cup of coffee has been the works of Charles Dickens. Admittedly, there’s something a little annoying about all those plucky under privileged kids and the aptly named agents of villainy. But I’ve come to realize that however blue my circumstances, if after finishing a chapter of a Dickens novel I feel a miss-my-stop-on-the-train sort of compulsion to read on, then everything is probably going to be just fine.
There were several passages like this that just made me stop and think, Wow, that was actually profound. And I loved this book for those nuggets of profound wisdom.

I think the real test of this book for me will be time. If I'm still thinking about those little nuggets months from now, if next year this book still stands out among all the others I've read, then I think I'll be able to truly recommend it and say it's one to read. But for now, I think it's still mostly a no. If you love Gatsby, go ahead and give this one a try. You'll probably enjoy it. But otherwise, don't go rushing this to the top of your to-read list.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Books I Read in July

When I started this blog, my goal was to write a review for every book I read. I mean, honestly, I rarely read more than a book a week, so how hard can that be?

But, with all my blogging, um, laziness recently, I keep falling behind on reviews. And the further and further I get away from reading some books, the more and more I realize that I don't actually care about writing a long, in-depth review for every book I've read. Of course, for the really good books, or the reads that I have a lot to say about, I still intend to do full reviews. But for the others (for now, until my blogging steam picks up again), I think I'll stick to these simpler end-of-month round-ups.

Also, I love how we're almost half-way through August and I'm only now writing about July books. I am just coming to accept the fact that this pregnancy is going to continue kicking my trash until the bitter end, and I will never be on top of my game.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor

I've enjoyed this series since the beginning. Despite a few risque moments that mean I would never actually recommend this series to a teenager, I actually think it was quite well-written. If you enjoy solid fantasy/dystopian-ish YA trilogies, this is a good one. However, I don't think this is one that will particularly stay with me. It was just nice escapist fiction to lose myself in for a while.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I read this one for my virtual book-club, and can I just say how much I LOVED it? This is quite sincerely the best middle-grade novel I think I've ever read. Yes, at times is was perhaps a bit sappy or overly sentimental, but what great middle-grade novel isn't a little heavy on sap sometimes? This one was just well written, the characters were amazingly crafted, and of course I cried through the end of it (though I AM pregnant, so I cry at everything). If you care about middle-grade fiction at all, this one is a must read.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

Okay, technically I only finished this one in July (I started it in February, or something ridiculous like that). But, I actually wrote a full review here. It was that good.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Ah, I had such a love/hate relationship with this one. So many thoughts. In fact, I think I will do a full review on this one, because my feelings are too complicated to explain in a blurb. But you'll have to wait till next week, because how could I possibly write two posts in one week?

So, four books! Yay for July being a fairly successful reading month (better than June at least). August is not looking like it will not be quite as successful, but there are still over two weeks left, so I'm not writing this month off yet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Theory of Mind (or, Why Readers are Better at Relationships)

I stumbled across this article last week, called "Why Readers, Scientifically, are the Best People to Fall In Love With."

Now, in my little corner of the world, this is common sense type knowledge. Of course readers are the best people to fall in love with, because, generally speaking, readers are the best type of people all around. I remember my husband, back when we were "just friends" before we were "officially dating," suggested over a Christmas break that I recommend my favorite book for him to read during the two weeks we would spend apart, and he'd recommend his favorite book for me to read. Guys, if I hadn't been smitten already, that suggestion right there was a deal sealer. I recommended Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which at the time really was my favorite, and he recommended a book I had never heard of before, The Solitaire Mystery. He confessed he was a little bit ashamed when he realized my favorite book was a renowned literary classic and his was a little-known YA novel, but that was a fact I didn't care about all (because I always love me a good YA book, and The Solitaire Mystery was absolutely delightful, and philosophical and deep in it's own way). The most impressive thing to me was that he actually read  Tess, and liked it. We even had a little mini book-club-type discussion about the books when we got back after the break, and the whole time I was sort of like, "This guy was not only willing to read a classic, but he can talk to me about it intelligently!" After that, I think marriage was kind of inevitable.

But anyway, what intrigued me about the article above was the "scientific" part of it. The two studies linked to in the article aren't actually about whether readers make better romantic partners, but they did analyze the social skills (or more specifically, the empathy levels) of people who read fiction. And the results are very interesting. Apparently these studies prove that people who read fiction, and are able to immerse themselves in the comprehension of other characters and worlds, are better able than non-fiction readers to transfer those comprehension skills to real-life relationships. In other words, readers who are good at relating to the emotions of fictional characters are also good at relating to the emotions of real people.

The theoretical concept behind all of this is called "Theory of Mind," and here's where I'm going to get a bit technical, but I find this stuff interesting, so please excuse my enthusiasm. I first learned about "Theory of Mind" when reading On the Origin of Stories  for my History of Narrative class this past semester. Now, I'm not actually a psychologist or whatever, but basically "Theory of Mind" is the special ability most humans develop around the age of four or five to understand that other people have a different frame of knowledge and belief than their own self. The experiment they do to see if a child has developed "Theory of Mind" goes like this: a young child watches through a window as Subject 1 hides a ball inside a box, then leaves the room. Then Subject 2 comes into the room, moves the ball from the box to another hiding spot, and leaves the room. Then Subject 1 comes back in, and they ask the child where Subject 1 believes the ball to be. Younger children, who watched Subject 2 hide the ball in a new place, will generally answer with the current location of the ball. However, sometime around the age of five, many kids will begin to understand that Subject 1 doesn't know the ball has been moved, and therefore still believes the ball to be in the box. This, in it's most simple terms, is "Theory of Mind." Basically, it's the ability to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, or experiencing.

This is quite an advanced evolutionary skill that is very advantageous for animals who live in cooperative societies, and considering humans are the only known species to have acquired "Theory of Mind," it's a big part of explaining our domination over the rest of the animal kingdom. But, what's really interesting, is that apparently fictional stories help humans develop "Theory of Mind." As in, we are biologically programmed to tell (or, in the modern world, read) and enjoy fictional stories because they help us develop a crucial skill that gives our species an evolutionary advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom.

And that skill is relationships. Understanding other people. Empathy.

Pretty cool, huh?

So the next time someone derides your introverted tendency to stay home getting lost in a good book, you can rest assured that you are actually staying home to hone your social skills.

(Unfortunately, this is not true if you are staying home to read that technical non-fiction textbook. These same studies prove that non-fiction readers actually do have worse social skills. Now, I thoroughly support non-fiction reading, but I love how these studies prove that fictional stories have a legitimate, worthwhile purpose, and my decision to be an English major is actually making me a better friend and spouse and person.)