Friday, October 25, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Gone Girl

In a world where everything dark is in and chick lit is out, Gone Girl fits right in. This is one of those books that grabs you by the collar, shakes you up a bit and won’t let go until you raise your head 489 pages later and utter a “what the hell just happened?” to whoever might be standing (or sleeping) next to you. The odd thing is within the constraint of its genre (film noir, mystery) it offers some interesting insights about marriage and gender expectations.

The story is told by two narrators: husband Nick and wife Amy. Nick wakes up on his fifth anniversary with bitter thoughts about his wife. Due to their mutual layoffs, Amy—a once-successful-New Yorker with famous writer parents and a book series inspired by her (Amazing Amy)—has been dragged out of her milieu and transplanted in a small mid-western town to assume the role of perfect housewife. Amy, apparently, is not happy about the move and doesn't seem as Amazing as Nick once thought. The encounter between the two of them this particular morning promises to be explosive, but instead of a collision between these two forces, we’re taken to another scene—a few hours later—in the bar Nick now co-owns with his twin sister. After a disturbing phone call, Nick returns home to find that his wife is missing and the house has been broken into. The police comes in and questions Nick, but there is no trace of Amy.

The next chapter goes into one of Amy’s diary entries—five years prior—when she first met Nick and gives us an insight of what those earlier days were like.

In alternating chapters between the two narrators in two different timelines, we get a sense of who they are. Well, at least we think we do. Pretty soon, Amy’s disappearance turns into a media frenzy. Nick keeps saying the wrong things, gets caught in a few lies and can’t explain what he did the day of Amy’s disappearance between breakfast time and the bar. Even worse, he can't figure out the clues his wife left him on their anniversary's Treasure Hunt. Before he knows it, he becomes the number one suspect in her disappearance.

So far, it seems like a pretty standard Lifetime movie, right?


This novel is so cleverly written that halfway through the book it takes a twist that challenges everything you thought and believed. That, and the fact that Flynn’s style is so engaging and unique (particularly when it comes to Amy’s voice). Someone called it a nice blend between literary and commercial. I have to agree with this assessment. While the plot moves quickly, there are reflections about gender relationships and marriage that I believe many readers may feel identified with. Having said this, there were situations that seemed too convenient for one of the characters, plus I wasn’t fully satisfied with the ending—though I would say that it was original and unexpected.

Despite its qualities (voice, character complexity, interesting plot) this novel is not for everybody. Like the cover suggests, the book is somewhat sinister, the characters extremely flawed and not very likable, and some may even consider it contrived. But there is something about the premise—that famous hook—that makes you keep reading until the big question is answered. I recommend this book to those readers who love suspense, plot twists and murky characters.

If you've read this book, care to share your thoughts with me?

Check out these other reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Subliminal Coffee
3.The Beveled Edge4.Blue Sky Gazing
5.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!6.Servitor Ludi
7.V's Reads8.Julie Flanders
9.Trisha @ WORD STUFF10.Rebecca @ The Dusty Cellar
11.Scouring Monk12.The Writing Sisterhood
13.The Random Book Review14.Wikes! Hikes on the Long Trail
15.Ed & Reub16.M.J. Fifield
17.StrangePegs -- Fortunately, the Milk18.StrangePegs -- "My Killbot Buddy"
19.Katie O'Sullivan20.Gladiator's Pen
21.Em Dashes and Ice Cream22.StrangePegs -- Fahrenheit 451
23.Words Incorporated24.
25.Spirit Called26.Denise Covey

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Writing Through the Storm

Pieter Mulier's Dutch Vessels at Sea in Stormy Weather
"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." ~ Henry Ford

"Gloom despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" ~ From the TV show "Hee-Haw"

I had another post in mind for today, but my mind kept circling back around to the idea of weathering storms. As many of you know, this has been a trying week for those working for, or are connected contractually to work for, the U.S. government. Needless to say, our family has been affected by the talking heads in Washington D.C., and I would be lying if I didn't admit that it has been one of those predicaments that I just couldn't seem to put from my mind no matter how many times I tried to convince myself that all of this would turn out to be fine in the end. With only a delay to the decision-making being passed, I'm not really sure when that end will be.

But does that mean my life completely stops for one unsettling moment? Does that mean my writing stops?

The answer is simple: no.

I've weathered many storms in my life (more than I care to count), and my love for writing even grew out of one of the most precarious times in my life. Feel free to read (or re-read) my success story if you're interested in knowing what that's all about. In truth, I find that writing through a little adversity, writing through those troubling and uncertain times in my life, have actually helped me grow stronger as a writer. Oftentimes, a writer will glean bits of information for his/her storytelling through the events in his/her life. And I'm pretty sure I'm one of those.

This past week, I came across an interesting post by one of our followers. The fascinating L.G. Smith of Bards and Prophets wrote a post concerning this past summer's damaging floods in Colorado and the clean-up efforts going on there. It touched me on two levels: First, I used to live in Colorado and recognized many of the places affected by the flooding. I don't know how many times we took trips up into the Big Thompson Canyon and heard the story about the flooding of 1976. And to have that type of devastating event happen all over again was heart wrenching. Second, I like how Smith engaged on a writerly level with what was going on. As a writer, I've trained myself to always be observant, always watching the people and events unravelling around me. Strangely enough, when I'm impacted on such a personal level it also impacts my writer's POV as well, much in the same way Smith wrote in her post. Disaster may be surrounding a writer, but it seems our minds are never at rest.

When a trying time hits, my first instinct is to shut down, draw myself away from those I'm close to. That might be due to my personality type, but it is exactly what I do. But, then, I have to stop and think a moment. Think about how I might best get through the storm. What techniques and ideas have I come up with or tried in the past?

Back in April of this year I attended a writing meeting where author Lynne Hinton spoke on various aspects of her writing. She shared some very good tips on getting through those tough times when all you feel like you're doing is waiting. Here are some ideas on getting your writing moving forward when the last thing you want to do is place your fingers on a keyboard:

  • Start a fresh project -- Instead of sitting around, moping about a given situation, or even something as difficult as waiting to hear back from an agent or editor on a project that's out, dive into something fresh. As I watched the news this week, wondering if a furlough would really come to our family, I found I needed something to take my mind off the uncertain circumstances. So, I visited the local library, checked out some research books on a new project I've been wanting to start and started in. Since I write American historical fiction, it's not hard to discover the trying times others before us have gone through, and maybe in the process feel a little better about the here and now.
  • Dig into your characters -- You need to shift your attention from focusing on your own problems to those of your characters. I have one book languishing on the shelf because I just don't know how to figure out my MC in the story. If I hadn't decided to dig into some new research, then that would have been another route for me to go.
  • Get in touch with your spirituality -- This helps me every single time. We all have different belief systems and find a measure of peace through that system, so take some time out and touch base. According to Dr. Robin, a consultant for Oprah Winfrey on the benefits of faith, she has the following to say:
"Dr. Robin says that people who disconnect from their faith community -- whether because of a move or other life circumstances -- often feel a sense of loss. If you feel like something's missing from your life, consider reconnecting with the faith or religious practices that you feel can enhance and enrich your spirit..." 
It may bring a calm to what you're going through, maybe even clear your thoughts for what you feel you need to do. Whatever it is that you feel you need, then take a moment and catch a calming breath.
  • Start a journal -- I'm not very good at the whole journaling thing, but there are writers out there who swear by it. Some feel they need to do it on a daily basis, and that's a big plus when facing a difficult situation. According to Psychology Today,
"Research has shown the tremendous benefits of journal writing on both our physical and mental health. Writing not only relieves stress and improves your mood, but it also boosts your immune system, which helps your body withstand the effects of further stress." 
Sometimes it helps to write out the junk that's going on in your personal life in order to tackle the lives of those characters you're creating. And, who knows, you just might find a nugget of inspiration in what you've written!
  • Stay true to the stories you enjoy writing -- When facing hard times, now might not be the time to jump ship and switch out your fantasy genre for hardboiled mysteries. As writers, we find comfort in the usual stories we like to create and it shouldn't be something we feel bad about doing. Take the turmoil that's going on in your personal life and find a way to apply it to your storyline on some level. Believe me, it can be very cathartic.
Maybe you're like me and have just finished out a stressful week. Is there something you enjoy doing that helps you and your writing weather the beating storm? One thing I know for sure, storms don't last forever. There's always a sunny, cloud-free day on the other side!

My motto is: more good times.
~ Jack Nicholson ~

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Teaching Empathy: A Novel Approach

Scientists are just beginning to study the effects of fiction on the minds of those who read it, and one interesting result hit the news last week: reading fiction seems to increase empathy.

Almost all of us have empathy: the only people who completely lack the ability are people with mental pathologies like narcissism and sociopathy. But even mentally-healthy people can vary in their levels of empathy, and now it seems there's one way to increase it: read more fiction.

Not any old fiction will do the trick, though: The study referenced in Scientific American tested literary fiction against "popular" fiction and nonfiction. Literary fiction was the clear winner: subjects who read books deemed "literary" did significantly better in tests measuring "their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions" than subjects who read popular fiction or nonfiction.

The example SciAm gave of a literary book is Louise Erdrich's The Round House, which won the National Book Award last year. For popular fiction, test subjects read excerpts from authors like Danielle Steel. I think we can all agree that Erdrich and Steel are pretty clear examples of their type: there's no question the one is literary and the other is popular. Books like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game or Alice LePlante's Turn of Mind are blurrier: one is science fiction, the other is a mystery, and genre is usually considered popular fiction. But both of those books fit the "literary fiction" definition in other ways: they are intensely interested in character; in fact, each plot actively flows from character. They also bother with language, the rhythm and flow of words on a page. They are both quite dark and end (spoiler alert!) rather unhappily; popular fiction tends to favor tidy, happy endings. 

So what I'm saying here is: don't get too hung up on categorization. If the book has nuanced characters whose minds you really get into, that's what counts.

Which brings us back to the point—why are these three styles of writing (literary, popular, and nonfiction) so different in their effect on empathy? From the SciAm article: "Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize."

Walk a mile in her shoes: read a book
In contrast, "Literary fiction focuses less on the plot, and more on the mental life of the characters, who are often 'incomplete;'" say the study's authors. "Hence the need for the reader to make an effort to infer what their intentions, emotions, thoughts, motivations are."

The study is of particular interest to people who work with disadvantaged youth, who don't have the access to normal socialization that their more privileged counterparts enjoy. It's also of interest to people who work with prisoners and empathy-challenged people like those sociopaths mentioned above. If empathy can be improved, it makes sense to spend effort improving it. For the rest of us, it can also help, though: empathy can dismantle the in-group vs. out-group barriers that keep so many of us apart: whoever you consider "the other," whether that's Muslims, blacks, or gays, you are less likely to maintain fear and discomfort if you learn to empathize with that group. Read The Kite Runner and your perspective on Afghanistan and its people will be forever changed. Read Native Son and briefly take on the perspective of a black man in early 20th-century America. Read Madeline Miller's gorgeous Song of Achilles to imagine what it's like to be a male warrior falling on love with another man ... in ancient Greece. Other books can cross other divides: religion, nationality, gender, even time.

This is not to say there's anything wrong with reading or writing popular fiction. "There are likely benefits of reading popular fiction—certainly entertainment," says study author David Comer Kidd. "We just did not measure them." Rather than dismissing popular fiction, readers and writers of literary fiction can focus on what's right with their preferred style. In an interview with NPR, author Jesmyn Ward said she found the study's results inspirational. "If that's true, then that's exactly what I want to happen when I write," she said. "Part of the reason that I write about what I write about is that the people I grew up with, poor people and black people, are underrepresented in fiction. So it's amazing to me that a study like this shows that people are seeing these characters and can empathize with them and sympathize with them. It makes me feel like what I'm trying to do is working."

You can never go wrong with bringing more empathy into the world.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Breaking Bad Double Standards

Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ve probably heard of the TV show Breaking Bad. Rest assured, I’m not going to divulge any details about the finale or delve into the show’s message (but be warned, there are a few spoilers ahead). What I would like to talk about is the characters—or more specifically one character in the show.

For those of you who don’t watch (or hate) BB, please bear with me. I’m going to talk about something more universal than the show—and it may be of interest to you.

I recently read an article written by actress Anna Gunn about the world-wide hatred of Skyler White, the character she portrays in Breaking Bad. Skyler is the wife of the protagonist, Walter White, a chemistry teacher who after a lung cancer diagnosis decides to cook and sell crystal meth to save money for his pregnant wife and son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) and pay for all his cancer treatments. Throughout the five seasons of the show, Walt experiences a transformation from meek, principled man to hardened criminal. The power, respect and money he gets from the drug world becomes his addiction and by the end of the show, his close family members can no longer recognize him.

Skyler is not perfect either. Initially a supportive wife who assists Walt through his chemotherapy treatments and gets a job late in her pregnancy to help with the expenses, she becomes embittered and unfaithful when she learns the truth about her husband. Not only that, but she eventually helps Walt launder the cash that reproduces in his cellar like a hoard of rabbits in springtime.

Ok, so we have a story full of negative characters (with a few exceptions) but not all crimes are created equal and there are degrees to the wickedness of each character. Every character in the show, it seems, has his/her own set of principles and limits to his/her (bad) behavior. But by the end of the show, Walt has no limits.

The bizarre thing is that the majority of the public, according to Gunn’s article and to some internet research I did, DOES NOT HATE WALT, but Skyler is hated to such an extent that there are clubs/forums/Facebook pages dedicated to insulting the character and “sharing the hate.” The actress even denounced death threats against her.

Some fans brand Walt as a “badass” yet Skyler gets called a “bitch” on a daily basis. How can we explain this phenomenon? Why does a female character inspire so much hatred when she is “less bad” than her husband?

Skyler and Walter White, an explosive combination 

In an earlier post, I talked about what makes antiheroes appealing to the audience. One of the tricks I mentioned was having to compensate for the characters’ antipathy by showing something admirable about them. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, gave us Walt’s intelligence. Even his nemesis, his brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank Schrader admitted a few seconds before dying that Walt was the most intelligent man he’d ever met. However, Skyler is no box of rocks herself. Whereas Walt is brilliant when it comes to chemicals, schemes and outwitting his enemies, he becomes excessive and careless with his profits. Skyler, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic nature. Once she somewhat accepts her husband’s new lifestyle, she figures they have to find a way to justify their earnings and comes up with a clever plan that Walt—in his infinite recklessness—could have never devised. Not to mention the way she saves them and her boss from an IRS audit.

So why doesn’t the audience have the same admiration for her intelligence as they have for Walt’s?

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Look at so many beloved antiheroes in fiction: Vito Corleone, Tony Soprano, Dirty Harry, the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, Dr. House, Hannibal Lecter, and let’s not forget the infamous Christian Grey. These men have a cult following trailing behind them. I don’t think there’s anti heroines who compare in popularity to these men (Scarlett O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander are the only ones that come to mind).

I recently finished writing my third novel and handed it over to a few friends. Two of my Beta Readers have expressed an intense dislike for my protagonist: a young woman who makes a huge mistake and needs the entire novel to redeem herself. Their biggest gripe is that she’s selfish and self-centered. I asked one of them—who has been known to love antiheroes in the past—if she thought people had less tolerance for negative female characters and her answer was a simple “yes”.

Women, it seems, have low tolerance for other women. Call it jealousy, competition, “cattiness,” but it is seems to me that women have more patience for “bad men” than they do for their own kind. In the case of male Skyler-haters, I have read complaints about her being a “dominant, nagging bitch” to Walt and demanding that he answers to her about his whereabouts at all times. Could it be their own frustration with their spouses that brings about this reaction toward a fictional character? Or is it a matter of gender expectations? Are there traits we cannot tolerate in women but we can in men?

This double standard seems to be an accepted state of affairs in Hollywood. Just take a look at what Diablo Cody (award-winning screenwriter and creator of Juno) had to say on the subject:

“The conventional knowledge in Hollywood is that an unsympathetic female character can tank a movie. I’m hoping that’s not true. I’m knocking on wood really emphatically right now but honestly I have a lot of theories sometimes I wonder if it comes down to mommy issues. The idea of a cold, unlikeable woman or a woman who is not in control of herself is genuinely frightening to people because it threatens civilization itself or threatens the American family. But I don’t know why people are always willing to accept and even like flawed male characters. We’ve seen so many lovable anti-heroes who are curmudgeons or addicts or bad fathers and a lot of those characters have become beloved icons and I don’t see women allowed to play the same parts. So it was really important to me to try and turn that around.”

As writers, we need to understand that this double standard exists. But how can we create anti-heroines that are not despised by all? Is it even possible? Or are we limited to creating antiheroes and good girls? Can you think of negative female characters who have been accepted (and loved) by the public?

And here, a small treat for the Breaking Bad fans.