Fairy Tale Book Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

November 14, 2013

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wavered between giving this a high three stars or a low four. It was beautifully written, with believable characters and motivations. For me its main drawback was how long it took to get going; for half the book, it’s really just literary fiction rather than fantasy or fairy tale retelling, which makes the occasional fantastical elements feel out of place. The writing style in the beginning half also felt a little distant to me, similar to the writing in fantasy classics like the Narnia series, which I’ve never really loved.

The book really picks up in the second half, though, and here we see Anne Ursu’s fantasy writing skills on full display. Hazel’s trip into the woods leads her through one surreal experience after another, many of them enough to cause a lingering shiver when you think of them. The woods are also rich with metaphor, longing, and darkness, where things are not what they seem. This is “hero’s quest” writing at its best; it changes the character and tests her mettle, and you know nothing will ever be the same again.

The winter ambiance was also incredibly rich. No surprise that the author lives in Minnesota! One comment on the audio version, which is how I read this book: they made the odd choice to have a male narrator even though the story is told almost exclusively from Hazel’s perspective, making a female voice seem the more logical choice. The reader did have a good “storytelling” voice, but that may have contributed to certain parts of the book feeling a tad distant as well.

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On the Transubstantiation

November 13, 2013

Just posted over at Young Adult Catholics my piece on that most Catholic of subjects, the Transubstantiation.


Orson Scott Card’s Plea for “Tolerance” is not Enough

November 11, 2013

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” – A.E. Wiggin

Warning: this post contains Ender’s Game spoilers; proceed with caution unless you’ve already read the book, seen the movie, or have no intention of doing either.

It’s a big scary world out there, Ender, full of aliens and homosexuals.

My husband and I went to Ender’s Game on Friday. I thought it was a beautiful movie, but I still left the theater feeling conflicted. I knew many people were boycotting the movie because of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia — which, as an attitude, could perhaps be forgiven, if he hadn’t also taken active steps to block GLTBQ people from enjoying full rights. It was later revealed that OSC won’t receive any money from box office sales, but many continued the protest on philosophical grounds. Others say to go ahead and see the movie if you want to, but just don’t buy OSC’s books. I have a fairly extensive collection of Orson Scott Card’s books, purchased back when I only knew him as a gifted storyteller and not as a homophobic bigot. Luckily, all my OSC books came to me through used book sales and Paperbackswap, so none of my money has made it back to him (and, by extension, into the anti-gay campaigns he supports).

I often don’t have to struggle with such cognitive dissonance about the entertainment I enjoy, because most creative types are pretty open minded people, especially writers of speculative fiction, where being able to imagine new and different worlds is a job requirement. But one thing that always frustrates me about “classic” science fiction (Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, etc.) is that, although these authors could imagine vastly different worlds in terms of politics and technology, they could not imagine gender roles that went beyond the norms of the time they were writing in, leaving their female characters empty and one-dimensional. Orson Scott Card frustrates me in the same way.

In response to the boycott, Orson Scott Card issued a statement in which he said Ender’s Game had nothing to do with “gay rights” (my paraphrase) because they were not an issue when the book was written in 1984 (head in the sand much?). But Ender’s Game, which is ultimately a story about tolerance, remorse, and forgiveness, has plenty to say about prejudice–and that includes homophobia.

Ender is a powerful leader because he understands his enemies to the point of “loving” them. This is what keeps him from becoming brutal, although his mission requires violence. His biggest frustration when faced with the Formics (the alien “invaders”) is that he has trouble understanding them. But eventually, he does — and when he does, he feels such remorse over the genocide he unknowingly committed that he devotes the rest of his life trying to make it right.

In case you missed this, Ender found a way to understand and love an alien species that looked, thought, and communicated nothing like him, and that had wiped out millions of his people. If Orson Scott Card can imagine this feat of understanding, why can’t he make the comparatively tiny leap toward understanding people who fall in love with others of the same sex? Anyone who has fallen in love is already 98% of the way there. If you understand love, if you understand the desire to live a life free from hatred and discrimination, if you understand the desire to follow your heart, there’s not really anything else you need to understand about being gay. And yet, Orson Scott Card apparently cannot make that leap; and he puts his money and his activism into pushing others back from making that leap, too. Is this what Ender would do?

As the series progresses, we see that Ender’s remorse over his role in the Formic genocide leads him to a deeper understanding of all life. In Speaker for the Dead, he makes it his work to find the seeds of good in even the most seemingly “evil” of people, so that after life they can retain some dignity and be remembered as human beings rather than “monsters.” Again, if Orson Scott Card can theoretically make the leap and see “good” in someone who beats his wife and children, why can he not make the same leap to see the “good” in people who are not of his politcal/moral/homophobic persuasion?

Many people speculate that OSC is a “closet case” who feels that the current social order is the only thing “saving” him from giving into his own secret gay desires. While I’m not going to use this blog to speculate on his sexual orientation, he hasn’t left issues of gender ambiguity completely alone in his work. In Children of the Mind, Ender’s adopted son Miro finds himself attracted to “Young Valentine,” who is a projection of Ender’s mind. That means that Young Valentine essentially has Ender’s soul; she is not a real woman, but a man’s imagining of a woman, retaining something that is ultimately male. Miro reflects on this — does it mean that, underneath it all, he’s really attracted to Ender? He can’t shake his feelings for Young Valentine, even after this contemplation. Is it just me, or are things getting a little queer in here?

While the characters in the Ender’s saga attempt a “live and let live” philosophy toward alien races, viruses, and other humans, Orson Scott Card agitated to prevent his fellow human beings from having equal rights and equal dignity. To his credit, he’s willing to “let the case rest” now that the Supreme Court has ruled that forbidding same-sex marriage is unconstitutional (even though, in the past, he’s called to “overthrow” any government that would let such a thing happen.) But how much of this is him “taking it like a man,” and how much of it is his fear over how his homophobia might affect his pocketbook? He’s pleaded for “tolerance” of his views from those on the other side, just as he’s decided to “tolerate” them by no longer fighting against same sex marriage.

Let’s return to Ender’s Game. Although I love the story’s message, there remains a bit that rubs me the wrong way. And that is how quickly, how easily, Ender is forgiven for wiping out an entire sentient species by that very species. While human beings commit genocide to retaliate for millions who died in a past war, the Formic Queen forgives genocide and allies herself with the one who committed it as soon as she understands the depth of his remorse. Now, it seems that Orson Scott Card wants a similarly quick “forgiveness turnaround” from the GLTBQ community. But there’s one important difference: Orson Scott Card has expressed no remorse for the spiritual violence his activism has committed on millions of GLTBQ people and those who love them; instead, he’s simply decided to “let it go.” This is not enough. We have been “tolerating” homophobes forever — when was the last time you heard of gay people committing “hate crimes” against the people who spread hatred toward them? Despite fear rhetoric to the contrary, GLTBQ people have never tried to take away the rights of homophobic people — they just don’t want their homophobia imposed on secular institutions. That is tolerance, and those of us who support GLTBQ rights have been doling it for years. Orson Scott Card can have my “tolerance,” but he cannot have my respect, my admiration, or my money.

In Orson Scott Card’s crusade against homosexuality, he has committed a grave evil, just as Ender Wiggin has. The difference is that Ender immediately feels acute remorse, whereas Orson Scott Card seems to feel a smidgen of embarrassment. Asking for tolerance is not enough. To truly redeem himself, he must ask for forgiveness.


Writing Book Review: APE by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

November 10, 2013

This book makes its point well: that it is possible to self publish a book that is high enough quality to compete with traditionally published books. The writing here is clean, direct, and clear, and the formatting is impeccable — no small feat in an ebook that is being delivered across multiple devices.

The content is useful as well, although I didn’t find a lot here that I didn’t already know. It mostly offers an overview of various terms associated with self publishing, as well as different services and opportunities available for self publishers. The approach the authors take to self publishing is realistic, too, not a “get quick rich” sort of approach, acknowledging the success stories while also cautioning that they are not the norm. I think this book, while being a treasure trove of information for someone totally new to the concept of self publishing, might also be overwhelming to those same people. Still, I expect to eventually incorporate some of what I learned here into my own self publishing plans.

What annoyed me most about this book, and the main reason, aside from the lack of truly “new” content, that I gave it only three stars was its tone. There’s a sort of smugness in the writing, as well as a bit of latent judgment about various writing processes (I ranted a bit about the inherent judgment toward authors who write without an outline here, which is just one example). The shameless promotion of Google, Apple, and Amazon also got to be a little much, especially since it came without any mention of the “darker side” of any of these companies to balance it out (privacy rights, proprietorship, monopolies).

The authors have put together a good resource of which they can be rightfully proud; it’s just too bad that so much of the book, while conveying useful information, also feels like a protracted opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back.


A Year in the Life, Week 28: Each Side a Balance

November 9, 2013

Today’s A Year in the Life prompt asked me to take a common object and write about it alternating the lines, “I love you for …” “I don’t love you for …” I looked up, and there sat my water bottle, and a journal entry was born.

P1010477My dear Water bottle,

I love you because you keep my throat and mouth moist, so I can speak and kiss with confidence.

I don’t love you because it’s awkward to carry you with me everywhere.

I love you because you give me something to do for a few moments, when I need to think or take a break.

I don’t love you because you slow me down.

I love you because you make me feel clean throughout my whole body, from the inside of my mouth to my belly to the pee that cleanses me every hour.

I don’t love you because you make me run upstairs to use the bathroom far too often.

I love you because you have a label with my name on it, and little bumpy grippers on your cap.

I don’t love you because your mouth always retains the scent of what I last ate.

I love you because you hold enough to last four hours.

I don’t love you because my husband can deplete you in just two gulps.

I love you because you will go anywhere with me.

I don’t love you because I’m always afraid I’ll leave you behind … like the many that came and went before you.

Apparently I find water bottles very inspiring, because I used a writing prompt to talk about my water bottle here, too.


Are You a Success? By Whose Standards?

November 4, 2013

I’m still a little bleary-eyed and disjointed from odd train schedules and driving throughout the night — I just got back from the annual Call To Action conference, where I came up with ideas for at least two blog posts for Young Adult Catholics, so overall, I think it was a fruitful trip. Between audiobooks on the drive and traditional books on the train (not to mention a 7-hour wait at the station), I also finished three books–one of my favorite parts about traveling–including APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which I’ll review here by next week.

Source: Flickr: Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

On the drive home this morning, I was listening to the new biography on Jim Henson. I’m always a bit nervous when I pick up biographies of creative geniuses, afraid that I’ll feel woefully inadequate by the time I’m done. I thought that would be the case with this one; Jim was already well on his way to the legacy that would become The Muppets by the time that he was in college. But as I follow the story more deeply, I realize that success to the rest of the world and success to Jim weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jim’s characters are recognized and beloved around the world, yet he spent years trying to break beyond being “a puppet guy”–even before he worked on Sesame Street, launched The Muppet Show, or created any of his feature-length films. He wanted to expand into doing “arty” films, including experimental videography, live action, and ambiguous messaging. He only attained moderate success in that arena, with many of the projects he wrote and devoted himself to during this time failing to find an audience. Those that did find an audience met with mixed reviews, and have faded into obscurity today.

It reminded me of the article I found most intriguing in Write Good or Die, “Success” by Kristine Kathryn Rush. In it, she talked about how many writers who are outwardly successful didn’t consider themselves successes because they hadn’t achieved what they really wanted to do. I can relate to this. I used to think being published in something besides a student journal would designate me “successful.” When I hit that milestone at age 21, I wanted to have something published in a book, then write for a wider audience, then publish fiction. Around this time last year, I even ended up with my name on the cover of a book (although I didn’t write it), and I felt as though I were a “real” writer for about a week.

There are other external measures of success, too. While I’ve never made a ton of money, I’ve been privileged to find work I enjoy ever since college, not to mention work that is in my field. My current combination of working part-time as an employee for a news organization and freelancing to round out my time and my income is my “sweet spot” as far as work-life balance is concerned. By my own standards, I consider myself pretty lucky. I know others who are as smart, talented, and educated as I am who have not been so lucky in their work lives, and I remind myself often that I’ve got nothing to complaint about.

Except. I don’t really consider myself a success. My dream of publishing a novel, which I’ve cherished since I was about 10, is still out of reach. And it’s hard to feel successful after spending over half my life writing books and still feeling like I don’t have the right answer to the question, “Have you been published?” or “What have you written?” I feel that the answer to what I’ve published and what I’ve written are not really the same, although there’s the tiniest bit of overlap.

I believe that writing is its own reward; in fact, it’s so rewarding that I have a lot of trouble getting myself to devote as much time to submitting my work as I devote to writing it. The E in APE totally freaks me out. But I know that if I go through life without publishing a novel, I will feel like I’ve failed at my own measure of success, regardless of what else I might accomplish. And if I do publish one? I have a feeling I’ll be plagued by wishes that more people had read it, that it got better reviews, that it sold more copies.

This all might seem like a rather discouraging thread, but its effect on me is the opposite. It helps me keep things in perspective. Even Jim Henson received three years’ worth of rejections on a project he loved that never did get produced. I hope that at the end of his too-short life, he was able to appreciate everything he had done, and not dwell too much on what he hadn’t. I hope I’ll be able to as well.

Because ultimately, the next dream will always be out of reach. That’s the definition of dreaming. And maybe that’s why so many people who were “success stories” by the world’s standards felt like they fell short of their own. And maybe that’s not as depressing as it seems.


A Year in the Life, Week 27: Own a Place

November 1, 2013

This week’s A Year in the Life exercise was about “owning” a place. I wrote it while taking the Amtrak from Minnesota to Milwaukee for the Call To Action retreat.

How strange that I always get these prompts that are very place specific when I am traveling.

As I write this, our seven-hour-late train is bumping gently along, as the hostess announces a complimentary beef stew dinner. Perhaps I’ve been on this train before, and perhaps I haven’t. I rode this train to, or this line, at least, when I was 19, heading to Chicago and then to Memphis. I found Peter* in Chicago, and tried to be eager about it, and all I remember about it is that he picked up my bag for me, put it in a locker, held up his hand to dismiss the hawkers on the street, then took me out for Chicago-style pizza. And I don’t remember whether the pizza was good, only that he ogled the waitress, and I felt as though he was trying to make me jealous or insecure, but all he made me was disgusted.

I don’t think I met him again on the return trip.

Strangely enough, our conductor on this trip reminds me of him–a similar look to his face, a similar friendly demeanor that is easily distracted and not willing to go deeper, even if he likes to give the impression of it. I learned a lot about Amtrak from him, though. I guess I learned a fair amount from Peter, too.

I never imagined being on this trip back then, 13 years ago, with my husband beside me who never ogles waitresses when he’s having dinner with me, and who spent hours messing with his phone and his computer so I could have Internet access for the ten minutes I need it to approve my sub’s report.

Some things haven’t changed. The train is still full of Amish people and people complaining on their cell phones. It is a place both ever and never changing, a place that sees its sunsets and its sunrises in different cities, states, with different people. It is one place and it is many places, and I write this now that the view outside the window is dark because it is the only time I can tear my eyes away from the orange and yellow fire leaves, the width of the Mississippi, the graffiti under bridges and the forgotten scrap metal yards. Now that darkness has fallen, there are moments when we can’t tell we’re moving at all, when the track is so smooth, and the sound of the world going by is a strange lulling hum that could be coming from outer space.

When I’m on an airplane, the distance between and the method of crossing it is a necessary evil. But on the train, with the man I love beside me and a world I love outside the window, it is the most beautiful part of the journey.

* Name has been changed