In theory, I would write a brilliant opening sentence. In practice, I can think of nothing. However, that’ll have to do since one cannot finish something without beginning it.
In grade 6, 7 and 8 I had a teacher who I adored. This was not a common opinion. She was strict, but fair and expected a lot from her students. Most importantly, she was excellent at teaching, as some of my classmates later discovered. She taught us how to do a math problem, but also why a certain method was best. She taught us the practice and the theory. Instead of giving us a fish, she showed us how to fish.
And that, most wonderful and learn-ed readers, is why theory is so important. It helps one understand the practice and thus adapt it to multiple situations. There are some people, however, who find theory to be pointless, and others for whom theory is really the most interesting (and thus most valuable at times) of the two.
Practice, is the mickey to theory’s minnie, the eeyore to its Winnie. Just as skeptics of evolution like to say: it’s just a theory (until proven by practice).
For example, theoretically tougher crime and gun laws quelled a growing crime wave in 1990s US. Some argue that this is not the case, that legalized abortion was the real cause. Which is it?
Or how about this: theoretically disseminating knowledge of the ill effects of smoking should prevent people from smoking. It doesn’t work. People are more swayed by peer pressure and the desire to look cool than the possibility (albeit a high one) of death by cancer*.
If those examples are too dry for you, think of the fifth Harry Potter book**. Umbridge, as part of the Ministry’s attempt to quell Dumbledore’s supposed army-creating operation, taught only the theory in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Our main characters (and several others) were quite unhappy, what use was theory when practice is what’s needed to perform a spell successfully?
Theory is not enough. Practice is not enough. Both are necessary and important parts of education, knowledge and understanding. Personally, I like theory, but I find it even more interesting when I learn how it can be useful in practice.
*Not actually based on fact. I’m just making a (logical) guess.
**If you’ve been reading all my blog posts, you’ll know I’ve used a lot of HP comparisons. I have my reasons though! Number one: its at the top of my mind since the final movie came out and I’m re-reading the fifth one right now. Also, its so ubiquitous that I know that people will likely understand the point I’m trying to make.
You’d have to be living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean* to not have noticed the release of the final Harry Potter installment this past July. About a week prior to its release, I heard to a radio broadcast discussing (among other things) the books, specifically their impact on peoples’ lives both now and in the future. I found myself increasingly frustrated as the host kept asking callers if they were often asked ‘why they continued to read children’s books’, even being shocked at one point that one caller expected to re-read them well into their adulthood and oldster-hood.
I just don’t get how someone could ever be too old for good books. I understand it intellectually I suppose as they are, ostensibly, written for children and young adults), but this doesn’t preclude them from being quality reading. There are plenty of adults who read children’s/ya** books. I don’t believe it’s because these adults are ‘undemanding readers’ either. For instance, take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.*
Note the Dragon on the cover. I have a personal bias for dragons, i.e., putting a dragon on the cover of a book is like writing my name all over it.
There are already many reviews of this book out there on the intarwebz, thus I will not describe the book in any great depth. Most of the reviews are positive, and with good reason: the book is well written, believable, has great characters and an excellent plot (with an unexpected end). Within the first four pages of this book I was sold by this description:
“All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why the can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grownup hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weight quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.)”
But what I was most awed by was the sheer creativity of this novel. There is, among other things, a wairwulf (a reverse-werewolf: wolf most of the time, and a man during the full moon), a wiverary (a dragon who thinks he is a library), and a herd of wild books. Cat Valente takes a fairly common plotline, the child whisked away to a magical land a la Chronicles of Narnia. and reinvents it to create an enchanting and Somewhat Heartbreaking tale.
What I’m getting at is this: just because a book is written for a younger (and therefore less experienced) audience, does not necessarily indicate a lack of good writing, of creativity, of excellent plot, of character depth, or of emotional resonance. And just because adults are supposedly more critical readers does not mean that adult fiction isn’t filled with its share of crap. Indeed, the unsettled nature of children and teen taste lends itself to greater creativity; genres for this age group are much more fluid, often defying specific labels.
“I found myself thinking as I wrote, ‘These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.’ Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it…I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”
One of my favourite things about DWJ books is this lack of explanation; the exact mechanics of magic is almost never directly explained in her novels. You might think that this lack of explanation would be annoying. Au contraire, dear reader. It is, in fact, one of the best qualities of her books. Fire and Hemlock is an excellent read, but I still don’t understand the end. I know at least two other people who also haven’t figured out what happened. I’m pretty sure it was a happy ending…and that’s all I’m sure of. I’ve found this increases my desire and enjoyment in re-reading her books as I discover new things each time I read them. Your brain definitely cannot go on holiday reading her books.
But here’s my dirty secret: I used to be ashamed of my love of children’s novels, of the fact that something like 90% of the books I read are intended for a younger audience. Then I came to understand something: good books don’t have to be hard. Indeed, when the novel first debuted it was a low form of entertainment, nothing compared to the high art of poetry. In the linked article, Lev Grossman expresses the idea that good plot does not equal cheap thrill. He talks about the history of the novel, and how novels are a product of their time, and in this new time a different type of novel (which can still be just as sophisticated) is taking centre stage. Adults enjoy childrens’ novels because the very unpretentious nature of the intended audience allows plot to shine.
It comes down to this: I read books that interest me. Sometimes pure fluff grabs my attention, and at others Man Booker prize winners (Life of Pi I love you). The important thing is just to read, and not reading children’s books because one is ‘too old for them’ is just sad. Such a philosophy deprives one of a whole world of excellent reading, a world I hope never to leave.
*Or perhaps living in a third world country, poor and starving. They have more important things to worry about.
**For the ease of reading and especially of writing, I shall refer to this category as ‘children’s literature/books’ hereafter (mostly). I realize it isn’t strictly correct to lump them together, but they are more similar to each other than adult literature.
***How can you not pick up a book with this as the title?
The Virtue/Vice essays are officially the essays that will not let themselves be writ. So for now I shall leave them alone in the hopes that I’ll be struck with divine inspiration at some unexpected moment. I shall keep you posted if/when this happens.*
I don’t tend to live life according to a specific phrase or motto, so I didn’t immediately know what I would write this essay about. Luckily, google came to the rescue**, and I found this excellent quotation.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” – Sylvia Plath
The essay-a-week challenge has been much more difficult than I anticipated. Either I can’t think of a good topic, or what sounded unbelievably clever and hilarious in my head becomes extremely dull in translation from brain to paper. Part of the issue is that the internet is so public and leaves one terribly open to criticism. This fear is compounded by the fact that I am a frequent chat reader and some of the readers likely know exactly who I am. My instinct is to guard myself from any and all criticisms. A fairly impossible task on the internet, but I still feel compelled to try.
After re-writing the first few posts at least twice each (with completely different focusses) I had to tell myself to just stop! Choose a topic and go with it! More importantly, I also began to leave things alone. These things being bits of writing which I was unsure about; phrases that could be thought poorly written, or, horror of horrors, make me sound unintelligent and ridiculous. I have to remind myself that the point of doing this challenge was never to impress people with my brilliance (questionable) or to cause others to weep with joy at the elegance of my writing (writing that is adequate at best, and stems more from extensive reading than any natural skill). My goal for this essay challenge was to keep writing, keep practicing, and most importantly: improve.
It is easy to forget that goal. I don’t want to post anything truly terrible, but nor is it necessary that I post something positively astounding. Do I regret some of the things I left in? Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. I can think of at least two sentences off the top of my head which I really wish I hadn’t written. But I have a rule. After a post has been up 24 hours I am no longer allowed to change it, no matter what. This is important for both my growth as a writer and for my ego. (cue sarcasm font) Someday I plan on being an excellent writer, and it will be good for me to remember my humble origins (end sarcasm font).
But seriously, I am probably exaggerating my perceived faults in my mind. Studies have shown*** that people – academics, specifically – are terrible at judging their own writing skill. They often overestimate their ability in comparison to others, and I have to admit I have probably done this as well. And really, what I think is terrible is probably not what you think is terrible. What you think is terrible is likely something I believe is rather brilliant.
And that, dear readers, is why the editing process is so important. This blog is a prime example as all my posts have been edited solely by yours truly. This blog is raw, unadulterated, AH writing style. But, I digress. What I take from the quotation is that it is important that we create boldly so we may go where no man has gone before. Definitely not a new revelation, but still important and most assuredly worth writing by.
*Most likely this will be a thing that happens. All bets are off in the event that I die, am injured, or just plain forget. Or perhaps you find my blog boring and no longer care whether I update or not. To you I say…that’s fine, I cannot dictate your opinion. I wish you a good day sir/madam.
**There was a duel. Blood was shed. People died. It was very dramatic.
***Oh what a wonderful, useful, and quite often misleading phrase. I truly did read/hear about these studies in/from a reliable source, I just can’t remember where. My google fu skills are not up to the task either, apparently
A couple weekends ago I woke up early to go garage sale-ing. As always on such mornings, I grabbed my bike, donned a cardigan, put my wallet in my bike basket and away I went*.
It was a beautiful sunny morning if a bit chilly. A morning made even better when I found a lovely “vintage” leather briefcase for $2, something I’d wanted for awhile but had not yet found one for the right price**. As I was gliding down a hill, almost home, this song started playing on my iPod.
It just seemed to fit. The weather, the day, my mood, even its name ‘Morning Call’. It felt like I was in a movie, in that scene where the hero/heroine is jauntily strolling down the street to the rhythm of equally upbeat music.
Then my iPod fell out of my pocket and skidded down the road. (My iPod is ok, *phew*. Just a little scratched).
‘Morning Call’ is just one of several Korean indie songs*** that I have recently discovered. My absolute favorite is this one by a band called Standing Egg:
I love how the vocals in these songs are so soft, yet they still somehow manage to be bouncy. I love the use of whistling as an instrument; unconventional instrumentation makes me happy. I’m also a huge fan of the ukulele, which, oddly enough, neither of the above songs make use of. But this number from the main singer of Standing Egg (Solo name: Clover) really lets the ukulele shine:
(Incidentally, I am currently learning to play the ukulele because of how much I like it)
I’m not sure really what else to say. I could tell you how I wasn’t interested in listening to music until I was 16, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I listened to music not suggested to me by my brother. I could also tell you that I’ve never been to a music concert, unless you count coffeehouse-type shindigs. I’m still woefully uninformed when it comes to most popular music, and unpopular music, and pretty much anything else that isn’t on my iPod (a grand total of 411 songs). But I really don’t care. I’m happy with what I have, and occasionally the internet or iTunes introduces me to someone/thing new so I’m always entertained.
*Holy crap. I sound very hipster-y here.
**Somebody save me, I’m morphing into a hipster.
***Not as random an interest as it sounds. Here’s the progression of how I became interested in it:
Read Mangas online, watch anime online —-> read forums, realize that such a thing as ‘dramas’ exist which are (in the case of J-dramas) live-action animes—> watch some J-dramas —> discovery of Korean Dramas —> discovery of blogs about K-dramas —> discovery of K-pop and other Korean musicians
Everyone should see at least one Hayao Miyazaki movie.
If anime’s not really your cup of tea, you’ll still like his movies. Although I suppose its technically anime (provided we are defining anime as an animated feature made in Japan), it bears little resemblance to the stereotypical anime offerings of blue hair, crazy poses, ridiculous situations, weirdly proportioned people etc. Instead they are engrossing movies with realistic characters, great plot, and all around excellent movies. (that is not to say that stereotypical anime can’t be excellent, its just that if you dislike these things in anime, they tend to hamper your ability to enjoy more universally liked things)
Movies would be very strange without music, and in HM movies the soundtracks are particularly excellent. Listen to this piece from Princess Mononoke:
Not only is it beautiful, it’s appropriately creepy as well. The composer, Joe Hisaishi, also makes good use of silences (e.g. fight sequences). I love his use of piano, a somewhat underused instrument in movie soundtracks, I think.
I am always impressed that, when most studios are moving to CGI Hayao Miyazaki still hand draws his films (of course, with a team of animators, but the lack of CGI!). And I must say, although I enjoyed Wall-E, I do miss traditional animation. Animation which, in Miyazaki’s films, are detailed and a pleasure to look at, such as this image from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The portrayal of female characters is no less excellent. Often the hero of the film, they tend to be independent, confident (or become so along the way) young women who, through their own abilities, reach a happy conclusion. Nausicaa (in the picture above) is such a one. Although she does have a love interest, he’s a secondary character who has very little bearing on her ultimate fate.
The female main characters also tend to collect an odd assortment of non-human friends along the way, such as: a giant baby that has since been magicked into a mouse, an animate scarecrow (no talking, but does a lot of hopping) and a monster called No Face.
There are a billion other little quirks which set Mr. Miyazaki’s movies apart. Environmentalist themes for one. From the blatently obvious Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, to the more subtle (i.e., not a central plot point) Spirited Away. Miyazaki has been exploring man’s relationship with nature before it was really a huge world worry.
I have to mention The Cute as well. Mei and the Totoros in My Neighbour Totoro, the soot-balls in Spirited Away, Ponyo’s cry of ‘HAAAAAAM!’ whenever that delicious meat is served, they are all amazingly adorable.
But perhaps, despite all this some might worry that the plots might be a little too weird, that they lack the cultural understanding to really love the movies. I mean just what are Kodamas?
I agree, at first these movies do seem a little odd. I didn’t watch Spirited Away at first because the plot sounded too strange, and I like anime. Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps because the translations make allowances for a Western Audience (side note: the dubs for Miyazaki movies are all excellent. Definitely not your usual tragically-abridged-plus-annoying-voices fare), or perhaps because the core stories tend to be so universal, the lack of cultural understanding doesn’t seem to matter. In fact I like that the environment is so radically different than anything I’m used to. It’s much more interesting
Take Howl’s Moving Castle. As you may know, it was first a book by Diana Wynne Jones (and an excellent one at that). The book and movie differ substantially, and it’s neither suffers for it. I find that, after I read a book so many times, it loses a bit of its charm. I still love it, but I don’t enjoy reading it quite so much as I used to even if it is a favourite. The difference between the two was thus refreshing, as it is probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the same story twice for the first time.
Above all, I love the general feel of these movies. Although there is a good deal of action in most of them, the pacing is fairly slow. Often, there may be a fair bit going on and then you find yourself watching the characters ride a train, looking at the water, and doing nothing really. The whole movie Whisper of the Heart is entirely these sorts of scenes with little action (no surprise, since it is slice of life genre). By movie standards, not much happens. This translates into movies which are just so peaceful. I am often not on the edge of my seat, and it’s rather lovely.
I’ll leave you with a list of his movies (which I’ve seen, which is most of them), sort of in order of preference, but to be honest this list would probably be ordered differently had I made it yesterday, the day before and yet again the month before:
- Princess Mononoke (English script written by Neil Gaiman, so you know it’s good)
- Spirited Away (a bit of a deeper story than it first appears *link*)
- The Cat Returns (Ok, so not actually a Hayao Miyazaki movie, but still Studio Ghibli)
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- My Neighbour Totoro (possibly a deeper story than you may think. Warning: clicking the following link will forever change your view of this movie. It will no longer be simply cute and joyful, but slightly horrifying and disturbing as well *link*)
- Whisper of the Heart
- Porco Rosso
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
I am deliberately not fulfilling the purpose of this essay. If you’ve read my second essay, you’ll know I had a not so positive experience with liking, or rather definitely not liking, certain ‘classics.’ As such I find myself a tad unwilling to suggest that everyone should read a book based on my own, highly subjective, opinion. Luckily, the description of the topic indicates that I can instead write about books I “can’t stop talking about.”
With that in mind I went to my bookshelf and chose some books which I have read and re-read countless times. They aren’t so much deep or sophisticated books so much as books that I devoured the first time, went back to for seconds, then thirds, and casually nibble at when I’m bored.
Quick note: The Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett’s Books all deserve to be here. I excluded these because I figured you’d already know enough about the first two, and I find it very difficult to choose just one of Terry Pratchett’s books.
Reader Beware: [very minor] spoilers ahead. There will be further warnings.
Author: Wendelin Van Draanen
Age I was when I first read it: 13
At first glance, the plot of this book is underwhelming. Bryce and Juli meet at the age of seven when he moves into her neighbourhood. For her, it’s the start of a years-long crush, for him it’s the beginning of “six years of strategic avoidance and social discomfort.”
What I really love about this story is the way it’s told. It’s literally a he said/she said book; events are related first by Bryce and then re-told by Juli. As expected, they often interpret events in completely different ways. What makes this book work so well is Juli and Bryce. They are relatable, sympathetic, and perhaps most importantly, are voiced realistically and distinct from one another. It’s an elegant demonstration of how one can completely misinterpret someone’s actions and character despite ‘knowing’ them. Hence the title of the book: as Bryce begins to realize that Juli might actually be pretty cool, she starts to wonder whether his pretty boy face hides a rotten interior.
To this day, this book has one of my favourite endings ever, both in plot and actual writing. I won’t spoil it though, so go read it if you want to know!
Title: Airborn Trilogy (Airborn, Skybreaker, Starclimber)
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Age I first read it: 14
Pirates! Airships! Romance that Defies Class Distinctions! Need I say more? Ok, I will. Space Travel! Lost Treasure! Being Stranded on an Uninhabited Island!
These books are set in some Victorian-esque period but with differences (hello, steampunk). In this world there exists the mango-scented element Hydrium, which has all the lift of hydrogen and none of the explosiveness. This convenient property allows balloon airships to dominate the skies. The heroine of the books, Kate de Vries, is rich, pretty, intelligent, and extremely stubborn. In short: a believable and likable character. But it’s really the hero and narrator, Matt Cruse, that steals the show. In Airborn, he is the youngest crew member and cabin boy of the airship Aurora. He’s honest, hard-working, quick-thinking and a wee bit prone to jealousy. To be honest I like him so much I kind of wish he were real. So I could date him. Possibly marry him. And maybe even have his babies. That sort of thing. Alas, it is not to be, for he lives in the fictional world and I in this thing called reality. (Jasper Fforde, this is where you come in!)
Action-y books such as these work best when the writing doesn’t get in the way of the action. That is generally the case with Kenneth Oppel, but when you do notice the writing, it’s because it’s really good. Especially the endings. The man knows how to end a book. If his books were a present, and the final words a ribbon, that package would sport a very fine bow, a very fine bow indeed.
Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones (RIP)
Age I first read it: not sure…high school sometime…maybe 15?
This book is the only book I have ever read that I wanted to read all over again immediately after I finished it. But I didn’t. I waited as long as I could so that the book could retain that first-read charm for as long as possible. I lasted a month.
There are two things I love most about DWJ books: the characters and the magic. Magic in her books is not of the Harry Potter wand and spell variety. It’s a little of the symbols and incantations type, but mostly its just unpredictable and a bit incomprehensible. It’s not consistent from person to person or book to book, and she rarely bothers to totally explain it. (In her book Fire and Hemlock I still don’t understand the ending. I’m pretty sure it was a happy ending, but as to how they got there…Interestingly enough, this has no bearing on my enjoyment of the book: it was excellent and I plan to read it again someday). *minor spoiler (the text is white, so highlight if you want to read it)* For instance, Sophie’s magical ability in this book is channeled through verbal encouragement. Only Sophie’s brand of encouragement isn’t gentle, it’s more abrupt and forceful. It’s kind of like good-natured bullying, if that makes any sense. *spoiler over*
Which brings us to Sophie. The story starts rolling when she accidentally offends the Witch of the Waste, who then turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman. As a young woman Sophie is timid and shy. As an old woman she’s cranky, opinionated, stubborn and just generally awesome. A perfect match to Howl, who is irresponsible, lazy, immature and a wuss. Add to that a sarcastic fire demon, parallel worlds, and castle that actually does move, and you’ve got a recipe for a delightful book.
And that’s it. I probably could have written much, much more about each of these books. But I won’t. Read them yourself! Or, you know, don’t. Whatever strikes your fancy, floats your boat etc.
NB: I’ve noticed in the past few months that I rarely use similes or metaphors in my writing. If you feel there is an excess of imagery in this post, it is because I am experimenting with them at the moment.
I almost always smell a book before reading it. Old books, new books, shiny-paged books: you can tell them apart by their scent. Really old books contain more than just that familiar old book smell though; the fungi that grow on such books are likely a source of hallucinogens. So crazy old academics? Maybe they’ve just spent a little too much time in the library.
I’m not entirely sure where I first heard the above (the link is just from a quick google search to make sure I hadn’t made the fact up). When I first began thinking about writing this essay, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what I would define as ‘useless’ knowledge. Isn’t all knowledge valuable in some way? Isn’t it always useful? After all, the fact above is interesting and affords me some sense of pleasure in knowing and relating the information. This is still a use, if not a particularly great one. Therein lies the key to my dilemma.
According to certain youtube sources one can define knowledge as either informational or educational. The former is a collection of facts that may give you an understanding of a very small aspect of some broader subject. While it would take a lifetime and more to understand any subject completely, educational – or ‘useful’ – knowledge provides the context for that information such that one can comprehend a the subject complexly. Maybe this is obvious to you, but at first it wasn’t to me.
For instance, my recent obsession with Korean dramas means that I know (roughly) how to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’ in Korean, but lacking an understanding of pronunciation, grammar or any other vocabulary I can’t actually use that knowledge to speak to a Korean. It’s useless in a real-world setting.
As I said before, useless knowledge often offers hints to the whole. I know that the word ‘evil’ used to mean ‘uppity’ and ‘nice’ meant ‘mean’. If I knew nothing else about historical linguistics, I would understand from this fact that language changes over time. I wouldn’t understand how it changes, why it changes, or why this is significant, but perhaps simply being interested in this fact would prompt me to seek out its background. Even if it doesn’t, I know more about language than I did before.
I was in Tech I this past semester. I loved it. Especially the Newton project. A lot of the things I learned about Newton during the project would be categorized as useless knowledge. It’s not really important to know that he and Hooke disliked each other, or that he was not very nice to Leibnitz. But Newton seems less like a historical figure and more like an actual person to me now. Consequently, his discoveries and work hold more interest (for me).
I think the danger of informational knowledge is that you may begin to think you understand something totally when you really only know a very little bit about that subject. The internet is rife with examples of such people. And, in writing this essay, I think I’m beginning understand the idea that the more you know the less you actually know…maybe.
NB: The name of this post is a quotation from some children I know. It has to do with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It doesn’t totally make sense for this post, but I don’t really care.