Monday, October 16, 2017

The Book Blab Episode 15: The Joys and Sorrows of Book Recommendations

Well, it's been a couple of months since our last one (my fault, I've had the crazy schedule lately), but Amy and I are back with another episode of The Book Blab. You guys, this one was seriously so much fun to record, we both had such funny stories about book recommendations gone awry! I'd love to hear your own stories in the comments. Also, apologies for the less than stellar lighting. We had to film at night because, once again, my schedule is crazy. Enjoy!


Show Notes

0:20 - Suzanne's new PhD program
1:35 - Today's topic: the perilous territory of making and receiving book recommendations
2:30 - Personal experiences with bad book recommendations
  • 3:00 - Suzanne's experience
  • 5:20 - Amy's experience
7:25 - How to handle a book recommendation that you didn't like
10:28 - The joy that comes from getting a good recommendation

  • 11:10 - Suzanne's experience
  • 11:50 - Amy's experience
13:25 - The anxiety of giving a book recommendation (but we love making recommendations anyway!)
15:40 - Suzanne's book recommendation gone wrong
18:20 - The times we've forced a book on someone, and it's gone over well
  • 19:00 - Amy's experience
  • 20:05 - Suzanne's experience
20:53 - The moral of this discussion
22:40 - Two seasonally appropriate reads for October
  • 23:30 - Suzanne's reccomendation
  • 24:50 - Amy's recommendation
28:08 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

Suzanne's recent post about time: Never Enough Time
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (Amy's review)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Suzanne's review)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Suzanne's review // Episode 6 of The Book Blab)
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (Amy's review)
The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens (Suzanne's review)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (Suzanne's review
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (Amy's review)

Friday, October 6, 2017

What Makes an Author?


I'm teaching English 101, the freshman writing course, this semester. It's been fascinating. So many things have changed since I took my own freshman writing course over 10 years ago.

The textbook we are using in my course is title Everyone's an Author, and we spent our first day of class reading the introduction and discussing whether the title is a true statement. Is everyone an author?

The authors of the textbook put forward an argument in the introduction that anyone who participates in social media or interacts online (which is basically everyone these days) is an author because they compose, "publish," and create work that has an audience (namely, whichever friends and family follow them, but potentially the world, since anything these days can go viral).

But while my students "publish" writing all the time to social media, very few of them felt like they could legitimately call themselves "writers," let alone something so endowed with cultural meaning as the word "author." During our discussion, I was able to pull out some of my own research interest knowledge and talk about how the invention of the printing press changed the way we view authorship culturally. Before the printing press, when anyone wealthy or lucky enough to find themselves in possession of a quill and parchment could write, the word "author" held a different meaning than it does today. In point of fact, it was much more closely related to the word "authority" (and it's not terribly hard to see how those two words are etymologically connected). An author was simply anyone who had the skill, the knowledge, the ability to write with "authority." Chaucer was an author because of his mastery of the (middle) English language. He could write with skill, he could write with authority, therefore he was an author.

Then the printing press came along, and things changed. Over time, printing press owners and then publishers became gatekeepers of the term "author," awarding it only to those writers they selected and allowed to move into print. No matter your level of skill or mastery of a subject, you could not call yourself an author until someone else, someone with the "authority" of a publishing house behind them, bestowed that title upon you.

In today's world of technology and social media, however, that is changing. Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can "publish" almost anything they want, from tweets to novels, and find an audience who will read them. The publishing house's role as gate-keeper is becoming narrower and narrower (although, it still pretty firmly exists). The term "author" is being applied to blog writers, people who self-publish novels, or those who write fan-fic. Our definition of who is an author is loosening, expanding, reforming with our technology.

But the point I put forward to my classes in our discussion is that I believe, in our new age of online publishing, the term "author" will need to revert to it's root connection to "authority." Yes, anyone can write whatever they want and post it over every social media account they want, but you should only be able to call yourself an "author" if you write from a position of "authority," a position of mastery and skill over the English language. And my goal for each of them, by the end of the term, is to help them gain that mastery and skill over the English language so that they can feel comfortable with claiming that mantle of "authority," so that they can truly consider themselves "authors."

But do I even consider myself an author? I, who only write in this small corner of the blogosphere, with my small and limited audience (hi, mom!). Do I even consider myself a writer? It's hard to claim those terms for myself. It feels like someone else, someone with "authority" needs to award those terms to me with a publishing contract and a book in print.

But at the same time, I do feel like I write with some skill, with some level of mastery (if I didn't feel that way, I sure would feel uncomfortable in my role as writing instructor at a public university). I do feel like this little hobby of mine, this little blog thing, however small my audience may be, is actually for an audience! People read my words! Doesn't that make me an author, at least in some sense?

I believe it does, and so I just want to say thank you. Thank you for coming here, for reading my words (however unskilled and unpolished they sometimes are). Thank you for participating in this space that brings me so much satisfaction and joy. Thanks for making me feel like in some small way, I can claim the title of "author."

Monday, October 2, 2017

Books I Read in September

You guys, my commute to school these days is loooong. I'm spending quite a bit of money on gas, and it's only a matter of time before I get pulled over because not a day goes by I haven't seen flashing lights somewhere on my drive (this portion of K-10 seems to be over-monitored, in my personal opinion).

But! I don't even mind, because two things: 1.) My drive is surprisingly pretty (in that Kansas, golden corn-field, sunflower, rolling green meadow kind of way). This may change come winter, but right now I'm loving the views. And 2.), you guessed it, the audio books. I made it through five books in September thanks to that commute, and some of them were quite good. So, let's jump in.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Unfortunately, this was not one of the good ones. I mean, the description of it sounds good. Librarians? Mysterious and beautiful old books? Mermaids and traveling circuses and magic? It kind of sounded exactly like my thing. Alas, it failed to deliver, and my general recommendation is to skip this one. I just found it rather boring and uninteresting. I failed to care about any of the characters, the mystery at the center was obvious, there were plot-holes, and there was some content that just made this one not that enjoyable.



Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

This one! Epistolary novel at its best! So this is written from the perspective of an older creative writing professor at a second-rate university where funding keeps getting cut and the building is falling apart around the poor, neglected English department. Having long given up on his own career ambitions as a novelist, and beset by numerous requests for various letters of recommendations (LORs) from students and faculty alike, Professor Jason Fitzger uses these letters as his outlet for creative writing. The result is hilarious. Maybe I found it so enjoyable because of my current re-entry into the world of academia, but this one was just so much fun. I highly recommend (with the caveat that there is a little bit of language at some points).

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Backman strikes again. I just don't even have words to describe how powerful this one is. I mean, it's incredible. It was masterfully written, and I will be thinking about this book for a long, long time. The only reason it will not replace Ove as my favorite Backman is because the content is quite a bit darker, and the language considerably rougher, and therefore it is a harder, less enjoyable read. I just can't even believe how realistic Backman makes his characters, and how much sympathy he made me feel for everyone in this story. And there are some horrible people in this story! The one complaint I had is that at the end, the resolution felt a little too poetic, a little too... satisfying? I have a hard time explaining what I mean by that without giving away major plot points, and I simply don't want to spoil this for anyone. But if you've read it, I'd love to chat with you about it.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

This one was just a complete delight. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's just my kind of historical fiction, as the tone and style feels like it could've been written in early 19th Century England. Except there are dragons. What fun! The characters and dragon lore and everything were very carefully crafted and this was just a super enjoyable read. My only complaint is that there wasn't a romance (everything is better with a romance), which I kind of understand given the circumstances, but I still wanted one. I'm tempted to read the next in the series (although, holy toledo there are like, nine books! Ugh!), but the plot preview doesn't leave much room for a romance in that one either, so, kind of less motivated. Anyway, still a fun, solid recommend.

The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas

I suggested this one (before reading it) for my virtual book club, and after reading it I'm kind of super horrified because SO! MUCH! SWEARING! I mean, it's a YA book, and while there's generally been an increase in swearing in contemporary YA, this is way, way, way more swearing than I've probably read in any book ever. That being said, the swearing is all super realistic, and the book for certain would not be as authentic or believable without it. Still, just be warned before you begin, should you choose to read this one. And, despite the cussing, I do still recommend this one. It is a powerful, powerful book about very current controversial racial issues (the main character witnesses a police shooting of her friend), and I'm actually excited to talk about it with my book club because there is so much to talk about. The characters in this book are amazing, there is a lot of funny humor in between the horrible stuff, and I learned so much I didn't know before about people who have a very different life than mine (the point of reading diverse books). There is a reason this is a best seller right now, and I agree that it deserves it's place and should be read and talked about. But yeah, so much language. So, so much language. Just don't listen to it on audio (which I did, because that's the only way I can read books right now, so I know from experience that it's not a good idea, even though the narrator gives a fabulous voice to all the characters).

Anyhoo, what was your September reading like? Read any of these ones before? I'd love to chat about them if you have!