Monday, August 24, 2009

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson

God, it's nice to know that not all my experiences living in Germany were entirely unique.

I'm not the first person to say this, and probably not the first person to say it like this (so apologies to anyone I'm paraphrasing or unintentionally quoting), but it's true that the best way to notice, to understand, and to appreciate one's homeland is to leave it for a while.

My year abroad cannot pretend to match Bryson's twenty, but we've both had the singular experience of living abroad -- not merely traveling there, or staying for a while, but living there -- and returning home again. And while living abroad was (and will again be?) incomparably valuable to the development of my world view, of my self, of my intellect, and of my excessive collection of ticket stubs, and while I would never trade my time outside the United States for, honestly, anything, there is just something so darn special about home.

Sometimes, it takes leaving to fully realize that fact.

For me, home means ice in my drinks and free refills on my water. It means not having to think through how to say something before opening my mouth. It means people wear deodorant and change their clothes. It means the pillows are a reasonable size, and it means that customer service isn't a luxury, and if it's an inconvenience, well, that's not shown.

But just because home is special doesn't mean it's perfect. Home now also means an extreme lack of usable public transportation. It means having to tip twenty percent because servers make crap wages. It means buying food in bulk, and probably with more preservatives. It means a daily routine always threatens, because each day isn't a linguistic or cultural challenge.

Whoever said you can't ever go home again was wrong. But just like you can't step into the same river twice, home won't be the same when you come back -- because both you and home will be different. Or at least they ought to be, because living abroad and coming home isn't just for personal growth. It also means seeing the best of the world (for me, peanut butter, and for Bryson, garbage disposals) right up against some parts of the world that could, and should, be a whole lot better.

Recognizing that is one thing. Doing something about it... well, that's part of what intercultural and international exchanges -- of ideas, of people, of concepts, of worldviews -- is all about.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

I realize that I have developed an entirely new (to me) method for evaluating the books I read, particularly those with fantasy leanings, although certainly not exclusively. It’s a means of thinking about stories not in terms of whether or not they are good or bad, but in terms of categories that don’t necessarily suggest qualitative values.

My new approach: Would the story make a good RPG?

For the uninitiated, RPG stands for “role-playing game,” and not of the naughty bedroom variety. (I know you went there with it.) But yes, I play RPGs,* and while they involve sitting around a big table with lots of munchables and bags of dice (my bag’s a pretty blue velvety one), they don’t fit all the stereotypes attached to them by those who think RPGs are played in basements by nose-breathers.**

But that’s not the point. I’ve decided that there are two kinds of stories: those that would have been great RPGs, and those that would not.

The best RPG-type stories involve a central core of characters who are each involved in a majority of the action, preferably while together. The characters must bring some unique skills to bear in helpful situations, and ideally, each one must make at least one character-defining decision and/or action. (A lot of stories actually spawn RPGs because they would be so perfect to game out. See: George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and – yes, it’s television, but still – the Buffy series.)

And the non-RPG-type stories? They might involve fewer characters, or focus on one individual. That person might go through all the things that would make for a great RPG, if it weren’t for the fact that a one-person RPG just doesn’t work. Or they just aren’t fitting to the concept of an RPG. Seriously, who would want to play A Separate Peace: The Game?

The Name of the Wind is fun to read, and even though I clearly don’t know what’s to come in the subsequent books, I have to admit to being seized by the story. It’s a good book. But it would be a terrible RPG.

And my admittedly circuitous point here is that there exists no one mold for what makes a good story. Some of the best stories I’ve encountered in the last year and a half have come from my group of Scoobies,*** which is without a doubt why my brain now uses this method of evaluation. And most of the fantasy-type stories I’ve read or watched or role-played in that time have fit the RPG mold.

This one doesn’t fit. And yet, it’s still good. That notion doesn’t surprise me one tiny bit, but hey, it made me take notice.

*And yes, I am a HUGE NERD.
**Actually, we play on the top floor.
***A reduction of “Scooby Gang,” from the popular series of television shows featuring Scooby-Doo; in this case, my fellow RPGers.

Oh, and by the way: Friends should always warn friends that the book being lent is the only published installment in an unfinished trilogy before their friends start to read it. Because now I want to finish the story, and I’m stuck waiting. You know who you are.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede

I've raised this point on this blog before, and I undoubtedly will again. But I think that, to a large extent, putting reader ages on books is a mistake.

And mostly, I think it's a mistake when a cap is put on the reading age. A starting age is, if nothing else, a good guideline, both for reading ability and for content. Even if some first-graders are reading at a college level, that doesn't mean they should start going through Stephen King novels or, heck, even John Irving books (let alone steamy Harlequin romances). The good thing, though, is that books aren't controlled in the same way movie theaters are (at least in theory). You don't need photo identification to read a book, and while parental approval might be nice when selecting advanced books, those age suggestions on the cover are just that -- suggestions.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons) are labeled as young adult books, and I think that's probably a good starting point -- if kids are reading them to themselves. But I see no reason why younger children couldn't enjoy these (and other) books being read aloud to them, because they're just good stories. And even if the vocabulary or the sentence structure were a bit difficult (I don't think it is in these books, but hey, I'm sadly not a little kid anymore), who cares? How else are children going to improve their command of language?

But really, what age labeling of books does is turn away adult readers. Obviously not all of them, or else I wouldn't have read these books and they wouldn't have been recommended to me. But a lot of adults -- to be fair, maybe not so many of the adults who actually read books -- will be turned off, thinking such books to be below them or some such nonsense.

And sadly, often they are right. Perhaps I give young adults more credit than some of them deserve, but I think they can handle plot twists and red herrings and endings that aren't always neat and tidy. A lot of people -- adults both young and normal -- like surprises, like twists, like stories that resemble life just enough to make them real while still allowing for escapism. And too many young adult books don't allow for such flexibility.

The Chronicles are very good stories, and actually involve a fair amount of humor that adults might find funnier than children would, thanks to the juxtaposition of the fantasy realm with more modern-day concepts which are usually put forth by the characters themselves. But the books, like so many "young adult" works, could have benefited from a touch of uncertainty.

I hope you're reading this, all you young-adult-book authors out there...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

B Is For Beer, by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is older than I would have guessed him to be. I believe he's got a lot of words left in him, but I left this book on my shelf far too long without reading it out of some fear that I may not have the chance to read a new Tom Robbins book ever again.
I'm waiting for certain people -- if they haven't already -- to go up in arms about this book. Not because it's about beer, but because the cover proclaims it to be both a children's book and a book for children, and Gracie gets drunk enough to vomit on her sixth birthday, and there's apparently a Beer Fairy that kids might just find exciting enough to try and conjure. Despite Robbins' warnings that beer is not for children, and that the fairy most certainly will not visit other such children, some people won't get that this isn't even actually a children's book (although I can't say I'd be opposed to children reading it, or having it read to them).

But maybe I've misjudged the general, or if not general then at least common, American mindset. I also expected to hear uproar about Barack Obama meeting with people at the White House to discuss their differences over a beer, but apparently if there are people who would construe that to mean that Obama is promoting alcohol as a way to solve problems, then they are fairly quiet about it.

I just think that many Americans still have the same mindsets about alcohol and its consumption that led to Prohibition, and that I believe contribute (among, obviously, many other factors) to other alcohol-related issues. Part of that mindset is that beer, and other drinks, should be kept completely out of the sight and mind of children. Now I don't think we should be supplying our kiddos with booze. But I think they ought to see adults drinking responsibly and behaving responsibly, and to realize that alcohol is not something to hide. And part of that is acknowledging the presence and use of drinks, and even (gasp!) discussing them with children.

Not that Gracie's Uncle Moe goes about that the right way. But he's got the right idea. Beer can be (and usually is) a wonderful thing. And one (or three) ought to be enjoyed responsibly with this little book.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

I'm going to miss picking up books in Europe. The secondhand stores are great -- thank you for this one, Oxfam of Dublin -- and in non-English-speaking countries, the selections are manageable. It's great to be back, but where do I start when I walk into a bookstore here? (Actually, most of the books I read for a while are likely to be borrowed -- those of you who have been giving me suggestions, care to pass along a copy for a while?)
A dear friend (who I've mentioned here before) recommended -- no, insisted -- that I read this book, and she stressed it more than just about any other book she's ever suggested to me. (And we've discussed a lot of books. Thanks for this one, C!) She writes about it briefly over on her blog, where she notes one of her favorite lines:

"The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered."

This book has a lot of ideas. My friend notes that Kundera's book is "Not a feel good reading, but one that makes you think and reconsider what you thought about coincidence and purpose." Which it definitely does. It would be hard to say that this book has any singular overriding idea -- and she really hits on one of the big ones -- but I'd have to say that it generally deals with "being" (duh), and how being is very much an individual experience. We can exist together, as neighbors, as lovers, as enemies, as pets and owners... but we cannot be together. Really, "we" cannot be. Only "I" can.

Being is something -- a burden, an experience, a journey, whatever -- that we must have alone, as individuals. Only "I" can fully understand "I's" being, and although that being is defined in large part by interactions with others, it's a very personal concept. Others can indeed unveil, uncover, and conquer part of the "I" (or they can try to), and that too is a large part of being -- revealing oneself to others, trying to protect oneself from others, and attempting to uncover the being of others. That's what allows us to exist with other people, and what makes being both light and utterly unbearable.
Really, this is one hell of a book. It's not meant for reading on the beach, and it's not much for a linear plot. But boy, it's good. Just don't let the discussion of Nietzsche in the first couple pages bog you down.