How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore

If you want an easy way to learn the ins and outs of publishing and doing the grueling hard work of attempting to make writing your prime income source, with with which you clothe and feed yourself, then How to Become Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore in the book for you.  In this 262 page volume, Ariel Gore tells it like it is and takes her readers through the process of first establishing a writing lifestyle and then getting the polished and written work out there.

Written to complete her friend Allie’s dream of writing a book on how to navigate the publishing world, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead is packed with information and affirmations for every writer, and even a few suggestions that just seem like fun.  While the title might seem cheesy and the author may not be as well known as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, the advice offered in this book is advice from a real do-it-yourself type personality that takes the reader through personal experiences, Q&As with other underground writers like Michelle Tea and Margaret Cho, as well as some inspirational exercises to challenge the reader.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ariel Gore (see my review of Bluebird) and at first I have to admit I wasn’t as taken with this book as I was with her psychology text, however I stuck with it and I was very glad that I did.  While the first fifty or so pages didn’t hold any particularly riveting information for me, the back two hundred gave me some keen insight as to how to put together a press kit and press release, find an agent, look at publishers, and most importantly, how to look for a publisher that would be the right fit for my writing.

More importantly, these pages had things that I hadn’t considered. For one, the culture of zines and how useful they can be to getting a writer’s name out there.  One of the challenges, presented after one of Gore’s interviews, challenges the reader to make a zine and distribute it so that the writer gets hands on experience with the whole spectrum of publishing.  This challenge in particular was definitely one that resonated with me and made me want to challenge myself to do something similar.

In the very end, I was glad that I picked up this book and that it turned out to be such an insightful source of information.  It really shows how an author can be self-made and how they don’t have to rely on big publishing houses and large advances to get their name out there.

FINAL GRADE:  B+

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The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace

I came across this title, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace, while loafing around in my local Borders this summer. However, having little cash on me and a paycheck not coming for another week, I didn’t get to read this title until I was at school this year.  Upon receiving the small ivory volume from the library, I opened the book to be immediately drawn in by the exquisite first paragraph that gives a brilliant impression as to the adventure ahead.

Carey Wallace’s novel recounts Carolina Fatoni’s experiences as realizes that she is slowly losing her sight. Set in Italy, during the 19th Century, the book provides a rich landscape with memorable characters that embrace every fashion from the DaVinci like neighbor and love interest Turri to the narcissistic Romeo turned husband Pietro.  The exquisite prose takes place in three primary locations: Carolina’s childhood home, Carolina’s new home with her husband Pietro, and the lake between the two houses, where Carolina and Turri spend most of their time.  The fluffy style of the prose makes for an enjoyable light read but at the same time brings about questions about human nature, marriage, and friendship and begs the reader to answer the question: Does love really conquer all?

It is hard to summarize this book  well enough without giving away the decadent prose and human connection that Wallace is capable of conveying to the reading. Every word of this novel is important and chosen with care and each scene carefully placed and thought out to advance the storyline. While reading this post, if you’re worrying about the fact that I can’t summarize the plot beyond one paragraph, it is because with such a short novel I don’t find it beneficial to write a summary longer then the plot and as such would like to leave those who choose to read it with something to be desired.

The succinct appearance of the book should not be a turn-off for anyone because in the brief . Though the book is only the size of a five by seven photograph and about an inch in width it is a rich text that I found myself analyzing despite the fact that this was supposed to be a book I would read outside of coursework.

When I started reading, I found myself unsure of what to expect but after Carolina’s marriage, when her blindness slowly started to take over her vision, the novel really hit its stride.  Not only was Wallace able to make my sympathize for Carolina but also made me feel ambiguous towards her husband. Depending on the scene she’d constructed I had no idea whether I was supposed to like him or hate him. It wasn’t until I reached the end of her charming narrative that I had formed a solid opinion on him and even then my opinion was turned on his head.

At about halfway through the novel, I also noticed a certain level of Gothic influence playing into Wallace’s plot.  Perhaps I’ve been reading a little too much Jane Eyre, but the Gothic trope of a ghost or inexplicable and unseen presence plays a key role once Carolina completely loses her sight and begins exploring the house.  Between this similarity and Turri’s DaVinci-like proliferation of various inventions, it is no doubt that this novel would be a remarkable and breezy read for history fanatics.

In the end when I finished reading The Blind Contessa’s New Machine I found myself wishing that the  volume was about twice the length. I was hesitant about letting the characters go despite the fact that my opinion kept fluctuating on them from the very beginning.  Upon looking back, however, at it, the novel was perfect in its succinct and tender treatment of a real life situation. I felt as if this story could be set in any day and, while the circumstance would be different, the root of the story would essentially be the same. Saying as much I dub The Blind Contessa’s New Machine as one for those who enjoy a profound love story and would like to come away with a deeper understanding of what love is.

Final Grade: A+

Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore

I’ve been anxious to review this book since I first cracked it open in September.  I found the book on Amazon, after a summer of working with a therapist myself trying to sort out my depression, and had the intention of ordering it but in September I decided to get it through interlibrary loan and the day it arrived through interlibrary loan I sat in my room and plowed through sixty-six pages without once glancing up to look at the clock. Why was a book on psychology so engrossing to me?

The answer is quite simple. In Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Ariel Gore says the things that we all know but never say.  She examines the dichotomies of womanhood so well and exactly how society infringes on a woman’s happiness.  What makes this book so relate-able is that is is not a psychologist discussing these issues for other psychologists.  Ariel Gore is a writer, mother, and romantic partner who goes through the same stresses that every woman does and she just happens to want to solve this question of happiness.  She is writing for women like herself and not for those in the psychology field (though I would at least recommend they read the section about her daughter adjusting to college life).

I could go on to quote many examples of this book but I am going to let her preface say it all for you:

I must have been about nine years old when my paternal grandmother gave me the gift of a small glass bluebird. “It’s a symbol of happines,” she told me.

I turned it over in my hand. “Why?” I asked.  I’d already learned that the color blue represented sadness.

My grandmother smiled at me and then frowned. “Ariel,”  she said gravely. “You ask too many questions. A nice young lady doesn’t ask so many questions.”

I put the glass bluebird in my hip pocket.

“Now smile and say ‘Thank You,'” my grandmother instructed me.

I smiled and said “Thank you,” but I kept on asking too many questions.

This preface so brilliantly explains the point that Ariel is trying to make with her book.  Mixed with equal parts: psychology, history, and autobiography this book examines what women need to be happy, why they can’t be happy, and why this status is not okay.  Through interviews with psychologist, research in psychological studies, and keeping her own happiness journal with a few other women, Ariel Gore paints a picture of the little things in life that can make people happy and how to actively seek happiness.

I cannot express in words how much I love this book.   Sure there are plenty of studies on happiness. Plenty of women who write about their own journey and trying to find happiness, but I think that Ariel provides a good mix of advice and anecdote in simple everyday terms.  She looks back on her life, her current status, and takes her own steps to increase her own happiness in doing her research, while at the same time edifying readers with landmark psychological studies and point out their downfalls.

About halfway through this book I told my mother that I was considering buying my own copy to have on the bookshelf. She seemed eager to read it so I picked up a copy on my next trip to The Strand in New York City.  Now having reached the end of this book I still maintain that every woman should read this book and then give it to the men in their lives to read.   It’s a book that will open your eyes and change your outlook on life. Not in the preachy steps to happiness way that only gives the reader one path to follow, but in the form of an ideology that gives women room to “write their own script” as Gore calls it.

Having reached the end of this book I am sorry to have to return it to the library but I have also located some of the texts she references. Texts such as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Victor E. Frankl’s Man Searching for Meaning.   I look forward to exploring some of the ideas that Gore discussed and seeing how her own research can help me improve upon my own life.

FINAL GRADE: A+ (I’d give it a higher one if one existed.)

REVIEW: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Last month I concluded the first book in this trilogy called The Hunger Games. Immediately after I finished this book, I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the second and third books in this trilogy.  I received the order while I was in San Francisco visiting a friend, but the minute I came back I pulled the book out of the box and began reading it. For the record, I don’t hold sequels in such high regard, I find that if series go on too long they tend to lose their steam and the characters lose their fire.  However, I was very pleased to find that this was not the case with Catching Fire.

Beginning months after the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games ended, with the surprise of two victors, Katniss and Peeta are preparing to embark on their victory tour with Katniss very aware of the capitol’s anger towards the stunt she pulled during her time as a tribute.  Katniss is not looking forward to the tour as she has to pretend that she and Peeta are happily in love, and shortly before their departure, she is visited by President Snow who challenges her to convince him that they weren’t faking the romance between them. As our two favorite victors venture on through Panem, visiting each Capitol, they are pressed to show their love publicly and to reign in their protests regarding the capitol.  As the tour concludes and they return to their home in District 12,  Katniss comes to realize that as a victor of The Hunger Games her life will never be her own again.

Faced with the prospect of marrying Peeta and hiding her affections for Gale, Katniss begins to plot an escape, going over the fence that surrounds District 12 to a place where the government can’t find them.  However her plans are cut short when a new peacekeeper comes into town stirring up trouble. Meanwhile wedding gifts pour in from the capitol and the Quarter Quell, a twist in The Hunger Games that occurs ever twenty-five years, is drawing near.  On the night that Katniss’s wedding dress photoshoot appears on the television, so does the reading of the predestined twist for the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games, announcing that this year, the winners will be drawn from the surviving pool of victors, and forcing Katniss and Peeta back into the arena.

From there Catching Fire, takes the reader on a wild ride as the game gets turned on his head, making it exceptionally hard for the existing victors. The ages of which, range from teens to senior citizens.  As their second round in the arena goes onward so does the disdain of the citizens of Panem, and the revolution begins.

I mentioned before that I never really like sequels. This is largely because I find that the pace and depth that makes most of the original characters loveable is lost as they try to draw out their storyline for one more book. This is not the case with Catching Fire.  I couldn’t put this book down. Each time I read a new chapter it seemed like there was a new complication and a new face paced problem for the characters to solve.  Katniss’s internal narration lends a lot to the story, showing us her evolution.

The very end of Catching Fire also left me starving for more.  As I got towards the end I was wondering how Collins planned to wrap up the book in just two short chapters, but the way she handled it was just about perfect. One of the twists revealed at the very end is pretty relevant for anyone whose good at predicting plots, but the action sequence written in one of the final chapters does not disappoint and the final conclusion is just as fulfilling.

Another point is this books favor, is the last sentence. Just as important as the first words, the last words are what makes a book stay in a reader’s memory and lets the reader imagine where the story might be going if it’s part of a series. This is something Collin’s does beautifully at the end of Catching Fire. While the reader is aware of the result of the events she describes in the book, she makes us aware of other possible repercussions for Katniss, much like she did at the end of The Hunger Games.  Such is the last impression I got with Catching Fire. Upon reaching the last sentence I found myself hoping that Mockingjay, the third book, would show up at my doorstep the following day, however it didn’t and I am still anxiously awaiting the conclusion of this brilliant trilogy.

Final Grade : A+

REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I have always been a sucker for books with good dystopian story lines and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins delivers on that very premise.  Set in the ruins of North America, in the country of Panem, the story details the lives in the twelve districts that surround The Capitol with. The Hunger Games focuses on the story of a sixteen-year-old girl from District Twelve,  named Katniss Everdeen, who’s life consists of hunting in the woods with her friend Gale in order to keep her mother and her little sister, Prim,  alive.  However, on the day that Katniss’ narration begins, survival is more important then ever. At two a celebration known as “The Reaping” occurs where a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen will have their named picked from a bowl and made to fight for their survival in an arena where the Hunger Games will take place.  Katniss has done everything to make sure Prim is safe, but when Prim’s name is drawn out of the bowl on Reaping Day, Katniss steps up to take her sister’s place as a tribute.  Taken to the Capitol where she joins the other twenty-four tributes, Katniss is disgusted by the pageantry of what, in her mind, equates to an execution, and the politics that occur during her training days. Which is only made more complicated by the male tribute from her district, who may very well fancy her.  As the Hunger Games progress Katniss is faced with morality and survival in this tale of what it truly means to be human.

My first impression of this book was not a good one. I had problems imagining the world that Collins was setting up and I wasn’t entirely sure that I got it straight.  The first likened the world of Panem to an old Victorian village, especially District Twelve, and then later started to imagine a world similar to Equilibrium. Finally when I managed to get the combination of technology with the poverty stricken districts, I found the book quite enjoying and was really taken by the politicking and how Collins was able to weave it into a story that featured children.

Shortly after Part II began I found myself engrossed in the novel. I didn’t want to put it down with each new stratagem that was devised and each alliance that was made.  In fact, one of the biggest successes I found of Part II was making me forget the politics of Part I and involving me in each move that the tributes made.   It isn’t until Part III that the political aspect of the book picks up again leaving the reader starving–I know I can’t help the pun–to read the sequel Catching Fire.

The lasting impression that The Hunger Games gave me was that this is not Twilight. Certainly there’s action and adventure, even a love triangle, but its not the focus of the book. What this book gives readers is the haunting desire to question the motivations of a culture and think about what they would do if such a practice was implemented.  As I approached the end of The Hunger Games, I found myself reminded of The Draft. The practices of Reaping Day reminded me so much of that practice at the very end that I couldn’t help but find myself desiring to read Catching Fire immediately, particularly since Katniss’ transformation is so beautifully written.

Final Grade: A-

REVIEW: The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas

Thinking about a group of writers sitting around discussing their projects might not seem like an interesting premise for a novel, but the members of the  Leopardi Circle detailed in Corrine Demas’ The Writing Circle are anything but static and dry.  The book follows the circle’s newest recruit, Nancy, as she struggles to fathom sharing her latest novel with a group of distinguished writers. While Nancy might be the focus of the book, the five other members of the circle have their own narratives as well, each taking a turn to voice their own chapter with the current goings-on of their lives.  Among them is Bernard, Nancy’s friend, who writes biographies, and Virginia, his ex-wife who remains on amicable terms with Bernard.  Then there’s Chris, a divorced mystery writer in dispute with his ex-wife over his children and Adam, the youngest and most inexperienced of the group.  However one of the most successful and brazen of the Leopardi Circle, is Gillian, a cut throat poet who Nancy is warned to watch out for.  Through her meetings and interactions with the various members of the Leopardi circle, Nancy trudges on, broadening the character she’s built around the memory of her father. Centering this charming, character driven mosaic narrative.

One of the hardest things I imagine an author could do, is write about writing, but Demas does it beautifully and with a wide variety of characters at different stages of their lives and at different points of their career.  There’s different archetypes to be found in each character, like Virginia as the devoted mother, Gillian as the pretentious and manipulative career woman, and Adam as the boy who hasn’t quite grown up.  Reading each character through their different voices was a joy because each voice was clear and distinct, there was no confusion about what character was speaking and each even seemed to have its own driving force.   Many of the characters crossed paths through their children or a friend and in this way it made the narrative complex and interesting.  It was in these moments that I didn’t want to put the book down and found myself begrudging the fact that I had to go to sleep.

Because of the nature of this book I find it hard to comment on particular events without giving away the entire plot.  However Demas’ way of entwining the literary conversation with small talk at the meetings was brilliant.  I don’t think I have ever read a more stimulating conversation on “who versus whom” in a grammatical context.   While the craft talk was certainly not the centerpiece of the novel, it was enjoyable because of the characters.

The way the characters approached their work and their lives and seeing how each of them led a writing life was clever and the friendships formed within the circle added to the warmth and depth.  Though I thought the novel took a couple chapters to hit its stride, it was a fascinating journey.  I believe a large portion of that was because of the different perspectives taken on by each character, particularly as the end of the book approached.

I would recommend this book to anyone who was curious about writing or writer’s workshops and enjoys insightful human stories with different perspectives.   This is one of my favorites books this year and I highly recommend picking it up on your next trip to the bookstore.  The Writing Circle doesn’t disappoint and leaves you thinking to the very end.

Final Grade: A+

REVIEW: The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly

When it comes to British humor and fantasy, you can’t get a better mix then this novel by John Connolly.  In The Book of Lost Things Connolly details the story of a young boy, named David, who’s mother dies.  Not long after his mother dies, his father remarries a woman named Rose and together, they bring about David’s half brother Georgie.  David is jealous of the new baby and escapes into the world of literature.  It is during this time, that David starts to hear his mother calling to him to save her and in the pursuit of her, he discovers a passageway in the garden that leads to a world of fairytale and myth.  In the hopes of getting home, David is told he must trek across the foreign land to find the king, and his magical “book of lost things.” So David sets out, in the hopes of rescuing his  mother and reuniting the family that was destroyed by Rose and Georgie’s arrival,  with the help of The Woodsman and a knight as he is pursued by The Crooked Man who wishes to make a bargain with David.  Though at first David is hopeful that The Crooked Man can send him home,  he soon becomes suspicious of his actions and begins to question the way that this mystical land is run.

When it comes to my views, on this book, I am not sure where to begin.  While it does go along with the classic coming of age” themes it has a certain tone of danger that makes it more inclined for adults then children.   Connolly expertly translates the fairy tales known throughout the ages in with David’s story and puts his principle character into impossible scraps that his imaginative mind finds a way out of.   While at times I felt dumber then dirt reading about how David expertly solved the trolls riddle, or managed to trick the woman in the cottage, I found the entire experience an extremely enjoyable story.

What really grabbed me about the book, is the way the Connolly so clearly captures David’s contempt for his brother.  In David’s disdain for his half brother, Connolly clearly captures a clear them in many sibling relationships and uses it as the basis as his morality tale. The subject matter at the beginning of the book, when he introduces Rose and Georgie, is raw and emotional and as David progresses through the book, I could see a very subtle transformation in David’s thinking as Connolly turns the deadly sin of envy on its head and makes it a morality tale for children.

Though this book is not my favorite, I have to say I enjoyed it much more then my previous read The Magicians. While David does not have magical powers, the plot and adventure of this parallel word seemed much more present and the lessoned learned by David to much more real and thought out.  The ending of this book however, was the best aspect of the story.  It couldn’t have ended on a more perfect note, and for that reason I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mix of fantasy, with a strong coming of age tale,  and a nice sprinkling of tears.

Final Grade: B+