Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.

Social Media Killed My Curiosity About Authors

When I was a child I daydreamed all the time about talking to my favorite writers.

While I was toiling for hours over my own horrible manuscripts, I would wonder to myself what wisdom they would impart onto me if I ever mustered up the courage to write to them.

Writers back then were these mystical figures I imagined as silhouettes, tapping away at a typewriter in a clocktower alone all day everyday.

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Their lives were a mystery to me and the only connection I had to them was their work. I could only speculate as to what they did all day, what their hobbies were, what their childhood was like.

Now that I’m adult we have social media, and authors can communicate directly with their readers (and vice versa) at the push of a button…….

I wish they could go back to being silhouettes in clocktowers.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an adult now (technically), but I’ve lost that desire to know more about the people that create the works I read. In fact, I seldom follow well-known authors on any social media platform.

When it comes to famous authors, their social media platforms are usually divided into one of two categories: generic/bland or annoying/repetitive.

The authors in the first camp usually post motivational platitudes about determination and never giving up on your dreams. This on, the surface, isn’t a bad thing, but when that’s all they ever post it’s like “are you a real person, or are you an AI that’s been programed to monitor human behavior?”

The authors in the other camp are the ones that believe that because they are the creators of a universe that doesn’t exist, they know absolutely everything about everything and must, therefore, inform the poor plebeians about what to think. In addition, it would seem they have to tell their readers absolutely everything that is going on with their lives.

EVERYTHING.

“Getting my nails done!”

“Some guy at the mall said something rude to me.”

“Obsessing over (insert popular show here)!”

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I miss being able to imagine what my favorite authors were like because the authors themselves became part of the fantasy. They were just as metaphysical as the characters they wrote. They were untapped pools of mystery and wisdom.

Now that you can learn just about anything there is to know about a person with a quick Google search, the desire for knowledge is gone.

Nobody is interesting anymore.

They’ve become too accessible.

Perhaps I’m just longing for the days when I was more young and naive to the ways of the world. Back when I thought writers were these heroes of myth that brushed hands with the gods and had their lives together. Now that I’m older and social media has pulled back the curtain, I’ve been exposed to the naked truth. Or at least the naked, slightly airbrushed truth.

Writers are mortal.

They’re people with flaws and stupid opinions.

And those stupid opinions might discourage me from reading their books.Books I might need those in my life without realizing it.

As such, I choose not to peek behind the curtain.

I think I’ll stick to my clocktower.

Book Review: “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE AFOREMENTIONED MEMOIR. 

A synopsis taken from the writer’s website:

At 23, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent of J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in the plush, wood-paneled agency, where Dictaphones and typewriters still prevail and old-time agents doze at their desks in the late afternoon, and at night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic talent, Joanna is tasked with responding to Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the deeply candid letters from his fans, she finds herself abandoning the agency’s form letter and writing her own responses. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and wonderful terms.

Pros:

The writing style. While the premise intrigued me, what drew me in was the author’s voice. From the first page, Rakoff grabbed my attention and held it tight for the duration of the novel. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader so I was entranced by the novel-like style in which it was written in.

New York City. I loved how she describes New York in all it’s hipster-y splendor. She talked about the shops, the club scene, the restaurants, just the attitude of the city. Admittedly, I think New York tends to be over romanticized (particularly by those that live there), however, she was able to capture my awe and attention. It wasn’t an overblown love, but it was enough to show me why this city is considered so magical to some.

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It’s a story about growing up. I am around the same age Rakoff was when these events took place, so I found myself in her. She addresses many of the drawbacks of growing up such as paying the bills for the first time, growing apart from friends, watching other people make it big and become successful, and the doubt you experience in your own abilities. More than this, however, she accurately describes the loneliness of going through life, feeling as if nobody cares about you. It’s a relatable book, particularly if you’re in (or have recently graduated from) college.

Cons: 

The dust-jacket is misleading. While Rakoff’s job of responding to the Salinger’s fan letters is an important part of the memoir, the description makes it sound like it’s the crux of the story, or that she somehow mislead people into thinking she was Salinger when this is not the case. As I mentioned before, this story is more about growing up and figuring out what you want to do with your life than it is about Salinger or her acting as his mouthpiece.

Why Don?  Rakoff was never able to convincingly explain to the reader  why she stayed with Don, her roommate/boyfriend. From what I’m given to understand, she had a phenomenal boyfriend who went to California for school and….for some reason she didn’t go with him. She then decided to cheat on said boyfriend with Don, a egotist with little regard for Rakoff or her feelings, and even moved into a crappy apartment with him. My question is why? Why did she stay with him if she had a much better option? If Don had been the college boyfriend and she was just reluctant to let him go because of their history, I would be able to understand her thinking. However, that was not the case. I think it would have been important to discuss considering it probably reveals quite a bit about Rakoff as a person.

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Rushed ending. If I had to chose which part of this book was the worst, then I would easily say the ending. Up until this point, everything was well paced and shaping up nicely. However, there is no real emotional pay-off with her boyfriend Don. We don’t see or hear about the death throes of their relationship, the narrative just says she left him at some point for her much more desirable college boyfriend. There’s a jarring jump into the future where she learns about Salinger’s death and…nothing else about her life. We know she had kids and that she’s married to someone (she doesn’t tell us if this is the angelic college boyfriend of yore or not), but she doesn’t go into any detail about her life in the future. I wish we could have seen more since it would have been nice to know how her relationship with Salinger altered her adult life. Otherwise there’s not much point in including it other than to say “wow, sucks that Salinger is dead and stuff.”

Overall opinion: 

While I had a few problems with this book, my overall impression of it was a positive one. I was able to really connect with the writer and her experiences working at The Agency. It’s difficult to put down and I definitely think it was worth the read.

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Being a Reader in an Unliterary World

Growing up, it was difficult to find people who loved to read as much as I did. Or people who read at all, really.

I’ve always baffled by people who claim reading is boring, and yet spend hours and hours in front of the TV watching reality television.

“How can you read so much?” they ask. “It’s so boring. Now excuse me while I watch a rich woman I’ve never met before have her nails painted following a fifteen minute shopping spree.”

How…how is that more interesting? How? I do not understand.

I defy you to give me a convincing reason why watching Kim Kardashian breaking down over shoes is more interesting than a young boy wizard fighting an evil order with a leader so terrifying that just saying his name sends people into throes of agony.

What also confuses me is how many people seem to take pride in their illiteracy. They’ll gaze at you with a wide grin and tell you  “they don’t read” or “they don’t have time to read.”

Yeah, they don’t have time to read, but they can punch out an entire series on Netflix in two days. You aren’t fooling anyone. 

Besides I can attest to the fact that if you read for maybe 10 minutes a day, you should be able to finish a full-length novel in a month. Bookmarks exist for a reason.

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People often ask me what the point of reading is. Why would you read when you can wait until the movie comes out and see everything rather than having to imagine it?

Well, for one thing, books are longer than movies and therefore have more time for things like character development, setting up atmosphere, and give you the opportunity to be inside peoples’ heads without the use of half-assed voice overs.

It’s also been proven that people who read novels  generally have more empathy than people who don’t. This makes sense to me since most books now are told through first-person. You are constantly viewing things from the perspective of other people.

But reading makes you anti-social, Rachael!

Pop quiz: how long were you on your phone when you went out to dinner with your friends or significant other? Do you talk to people on the bus, or do you just listen to your music? Do you prefer texting as opposed to talking on the phone because it gives you the power to reply later if you don’t want to talk right now?

Pencils down. Ooh. These results are not good.

I apologize for my saltiness.

If I sound bitter, it’s only because I’ve had to defend my hobby countless times. I don’t get why it’s so hard for people to see why I read, or treat it like it’s some sort of ailment  rather than a perfectly healthy leisure activity.

Oh, well. At least Darcy understands.

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Enough With The One-Word Book Titles!

Is anyone else getting tired of one-word book titles?

They’ve exploded in popularity in recent years and seem especially prevalent in YA lit. Particularly with covers that feature attractive female teens wearing extravagant ballgowns and holding their hair up promiscuously.

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I realize there are many good book titles with a single word or name, but it’s becoming more obnoxious because people are using less imaginative and eye-catching words.

More and more I’m seeing books titled things like Skating or Dancing.

That tells me nothing and doesn’t encourage me to find out what the book is about.

Think about it. Would you do that in this sort of situation?:

Co-worker: Hey, Bob! How was your vacation?

You: Turquoise.

Co-worker: …….

See? Turquoise is a perfectly nice color, but it isn’t that compelling.

Compare this to The Woman In Black. When you see a title like this you’re forced to speculate. Who is this woman? Why is she wearing black? Is she going to a funeral? Is she a ghost?  I wonder what this book is about.

Same thing with The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Nighttime. What was the incident? What did the dog do? I’m interested.

I don’t get that same reaction from a single word, unless it’s a person’s name or not commonly used in day-to-day speech.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s often used because people have low attention spans, but I personally think that’s crap. How lazy are you if you can’t take the time to read three words? And if you happen to be that lazy, you probably aren’t the type of person that reads books anyhow.

Think about it. Would you rather read a book called Maze or Maze Runner?

A book called Fahrenheit or Fahrenheit 451? Okay, that’s technically a word and a number, but the number at least makes you question what could be cooked at that temperature. It sends your mental gears turning.

All I’m asking is for one more word, publishers. One more word and I’ll be happy.

My Thoughts On “Uprooted”By Naomi Novik Becoming a Movie

WARNING: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL “UPROOTED.” IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK AND WISH TO DO SO, DO NOT CONTINUE READING THIS POST.  

So after finally finishing Naomi Novik’s excellent fantasy novel, Uprooted, I decided to do more research on her via her website. I was thrilled to discover she’s written several other books that I will greedily dive into as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

While perusing her page, I also discovered some interesting news regarding Uprooted.

Novik proudly announced  Warner Brothers will be making a movie based on the novel.

My reaction to this news:

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It may seem weird that I’m resistant to the idea of an Uprooted movie, especially because I enjoyed the book so much.

But here’s the thing, regardless of how well-written a book is, some novels just aren’t meant to be translated into a visual medium.

The Lovely Bones was one book, and I believe Uprooted is another.

“But Rachael,” you say, “Uprooted was full of beautiful imagery and action-packed scenes. Surely you can’t be suggesting Uprooted wouldn’t look gorgeous on the big screen!”

The imagery was one of the most appealing aspects of this book. However, what also made the book so vibrant and powerful were the metaphors and descriptions.

All of which would work for the book only.

It’s not nearly as impactful if we’re just being flashed CGI imagery we’ve seen a million times. I want to be able to feel what the characters are feelings like I can in the book.

The way Novik describes magic is so much more personal than any other writer I’ve come across. It’s not just a bunch of fancy made-up words, it’s part of a person’s essence. It’s an individual language that can transcend conventional understanding. It’s an experience.

This entire book is an experience.

To strip away all of that depth and detail to just a visual?

It’ll be like a fantasy version of The Happening.

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Well….okay…not that bad.

Still.

Freaking CGI tree-people. I don’t think I will be able to take that seriously.

Especially since it will likely be morphed into an “OMG save the trees!” message.

To be fair, the book did that to a certain extent but…it was complicated, okay?

Thinking of the cinematic portrayal of the relationship between The Dragon and Agnieszka fills me with terror as well.

Especially because their relationship isn’t entirely conventional. Yeah, they smash and they clearly like each other, but it was never really a “for sure” thing between the two of them.

Hollywood will turn it into an all out bleeding-heart kissing-in-the-rain romance that involves a lot of soaked through clothes and sex.

Let’s face it, the movies do subtlety as well as Edward Scissorhands knits sweaters.

Again, I say, CGI tree-people.

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How many books must that accursed industry claim?!

How I Understand Poetry

I remember in high school being forced to take poems apart line by line. We’d do a few together as a class, which took a better part of the hour, and then we would write one long essay over a more complicated poem on Fridays.

To me, there was something weirdly clinical about the whole procedure. It felt like I was being asked to venture into the wild, find a cute animal, and then slice it into bits. 

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After I’d disassembling it, the poem seemed to have lost a lot of its beauty in the process.

It was a lot like trying to explain a joke. If you have to tell someone why it’s funny, it’s not humorous anymore.

Not to mention I hardly ever saw the poem the same way everyone else did. 

I would read a poem, thinking it was about a dog being taken on a walk, when in reality it was about a woman escaping a fire. I was so astronomically wrong with my interpretations of what each poem was about, it was as if I had been rewriting it in my head as I read.

It was like we were all given the same map to Tulsa and I somehow wound up in France. 

The thing is, I didn’t mind being wrong about what the poem was about. I minded that my English teacher minded what I thought the poem was about.

During one class period, the teacher and another student got into an argument about the meaning of a poem we were discussing for the AP English test. I can’t recall which poem it was, but most of us were in agreement that the poet was trying to say one thing, while the teacher told us he was trying to say something else entirely. 

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The student, acting as the class representative, provided ample evidence to support our claim while the rest of us nodded our heads. However, the teacher sternly ended all discussion by informing the student that he was “just wrong” and there was no disputing this.

I am not a poet. However, I don’t believe that poetry requires a uniform meaning. In fact, I don’t think most artistic creations require a definite meaning either. I am of the belief that as long as the observer/reader can obtain some benign meaning from the piece, then it has done its job.

This is especially true of poetry, which isn’t always as straight forward as other forms of literature. There’s something more ethereal about poetry than fiction.

It’s harder to get a handle on.

It’s like trying to collect mist in a jar.

It’s something you experience rather than just “understand.”

I believe that poetry should be taught in schools. However, I don’t think it should be treated the same way math is where 2+2 always equals 4.

Students should be taught that poetry is freedom and not just another assignment.