Top Ten Tuesday: Novellas and Short Stories

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature by That Artsy Girl. Each week has a new theme and you can participate however often you choose!

This week’s theme is favorite novellas and short stories. As I’ve written about this before, I was particularly excited for this week’s theme. While I am reigniting my appreciation for longer works (dutifully working through the Russian novels I’ve avoided – and loving it), I have a special place in my heart for novellas and short stories.

These crisp, clean works require skillful prose and  laser-point focus in order to be successful. The five novellas and five short stories I have listed today all are brilliantly written, compulsive examples of the diversity of short fiction.

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Review | In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Image result for in the first circleWe have all read books that aren’t what we expected. My first experience with this oddity was reading Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I had seen the movie first, so when I went into the book I was shocked to find a completely different story. Yes, there was the same witty humor and feel that the movie presented, but the story was much deeper and more engaging than the movie could ever be (needless to say the book is infinitely better).

These books that defy our expectations can cause countless responses, both good and bad. Often they are unexpectedly more delightful or deeper – as in the case of Ella Enchanted or Entwined by Heather Dixon (which was marketed as a “breathtaking romance” but actually was about more profound familial love and had a fantastically creepy villain who stole the show more than the romance). But these books can also be unexpectedly disappointing.  This seems often the case with overly hyped books as well as the final book in a series.

It is a little rarer to go into a book not knowing what to expect and yet having some expectations and then finding that the book both fulfills and defies these expectations – in fact the author turns the expectations upside-down and suspends them from the ceiling like stars hanging in the night sky. The reader sees their expectations and recognizes them, but doesn’t quite know what to make of them anymore.

Such was the case when I was reading In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I approached this book with the expectation of an engaging, but slow-moving masterpiece of intrigue and subterfuge. Instead, I was confronted with an imprisonment, various philosophies on humanity, truth, and life, and the soul-crushing everyday life of various people living behind the iron curtain. Yes, a masterpiece still, but the first half of the book I spent confused staring up at the stars of my expectations.

Yes – there was intrigue, but the intrigue was turned inwardly on itself. A rat chasing its own tail as the government slowly began to eat its own people and itself. There was subterfuge, but it was less about making an atomic bomb (or preventing it) and more about the quiet subterfuge we use on ourselves and others in everyday interactions. It was engaging but not through presenting exciting material, instead it was engaging through boring me to the point where I finally slowed down enough and actually engaged with the lives of the prisoners. Then my mind was able to connect and engage in the devastating every days of prison life and the simple pleasures and entertainments that these prisoners eked out of their existence.

No, it is a not a book of our time. It is not a book that “I couldn’t put down” that “ I read in one sitting” that “Everyone needs to read now.” I do think everyone needs to read it, but I believe a lot of people won’t be able to get through it. I am not saying this from a place where I think I am better than others for finishing it. I am no better; I thought many times about skipping to the end or just giving up and I skimmed through many passages. I made it through much of the book by sheer willpower and the rest because I was able to suspend my expectations and slowly realize the truth of this masterpiece.

To finish this work it took patience and dedication; a removal from the instant fulfillment culture of today. Everything in it was the very antithesis of instant gratification, the writing, the subject, even the philosophy on life that was presented. This was the point in fact, and one as necessary in capitalist U.S.A. as in the U.S.S.R. Solzhenitsyn writes:

“Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It’s the same with happiness, the very same…happiness doesn’t depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them. There’s a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: ‘Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.”

This was my expectations turned upside-down, this tiny, bright star that encompassed but surpassed what I had expected. This book was not about exaggerated consumption, stuffing yourself until you can’t eat anymore. It was a long book not to stuff the reader to bursting, but instead to draw them to a place where amount mattered little when compared to the quality of reading and writing. Once I got to this place I was able to engage with the book deeply and beyond enjoying my reading experience I learned from it and discovered profound truths in seemingly unimportant scenes.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Red, White and Blue

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature by That Artsy Girl. Each week has a new theme and you can participate however often you choose!

This week’s theme is a patriotic Red, White and Blue, featuring books with covers in these colors. And because I love making things harder for myself, I added an additional level — all these are fairy tale retellings! (Great beach reads and they usually have gorgeous covers).

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The Writer’s Dilemma: Part 3, What am I Even Saying?

As usual, there are great gaps in my postings; the last few weeks have been full to bursting with countless projects at work as well as wedding planning for my sister’s upcoming wedding (and shoved in their somewhere horrific is a couple days spent in unfathomable sickness). However, I recently have been thinking about the last installment of my writing tips posts. While I have not done much writing lately, I have missed the activity and am attempting to return to this wonderful pastime.

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But, as I do, I find myself struggling with what words to say. I have fallen out of the practice of writing and subsequently have found it difficult to return. Perhaps there is some superhuman out there who is a natural writer; but everyone I know and every author I have read who talks about the process of writing has iterated again and again that writing is hard and takes practice and dedication.

Part of this practice is considering what your biggest flaws in writing are and seeking to correct them – that is how I came to recognize this final topic of this series: non-specificity.

I believe that foundationally the other two topics I discussed (redundancy and leaps in logic) arise from this issue. A person tends to repeat themselves and make leaps in logic when they are unclear about what they are talking about. During my first semester in college, the main critique I received on my papers was that I wasn’t sure what I was talking about. Not in that I didn’t understand, but that I hadn’t taken the time to define what I wanted to say.

So, the question I had to ask myself was – what did I want to say? (more…)

THE WRITER’S DILEMMA: Part 2, Why Your College Philosophy Class Matters

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It’s not uncommon to hate your college Philosophy 101 class.

This isn’t surprising, considering most philosophy classes at that level are taught badly by professors who care more about their own personal philosophy than helping students learn about the subject (a stereotype which is sadly true more often than not).

The failure of introductory philosophy courses is probably one of the biggest failures in college education.

I could go on about how the McDonaldization of degrees, and how the philosophy class is just one example of this…increasingly focused on efficiency (large classes who are reading summaries rather than primary texts), calculability and control (emphasis on exams – particularly online – with right or wrong answers rather than essays), predictability (focus on the syllabus and requirements rather than fostering an open learning environment) . . . .

Like I said I could go on. . . .

My point is, the failure of philosophy classes is the failure of teaching students how to read, how to think, and – ultimately – how to write.

My freshman Fall semester of college I took two courses The Good Life and Western Civilization I. These required honors class were intended to fulfill that Philosophy 101 class. We read Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Epictetus, Plotinus, Virgil, Homer, and many other great philosophers – all primary texts (we had the hard task of trying to decipher Aristotle without a handy summary of what some academic thinks he meant.

Once again, I digress (my mind is unfocused today, for that I apologize).

The point is, time after time I would receive papers back with glowing reviews for my writing style. Yet, these papers were also typically B grade papers. Why? Because I did not adequately explain my argument, I made leaps in logic, I did not carry the reader through my writing well.

Well shit.

How does a person do that? All those missed steps in my paper were filled in my head, but it didn’t occur to me to explicitly explain them. Wasn’t it obvious?

No.

And that’s why I needed my philosophy class.

Those dull. Tedious. And – in my opinion – badly written books.

Ugh.

But what those books did was teach me how important it was to define my thoughts, my arguments, and my words.

Perhaps not so tediously though.

The 10 Step Process of Turning Bs into As

Beginning freshman year, I began to learn how to write without leaps in logic. The best part – this doesn’t just apply to college essays. I have found it useful in content writing, in my personal blog, and in my creative writing.

No matter what you are writing you want your reader to understand it. So, without further ado, here is the process I developed that allowed me to avoid getting Bs and start getting As.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Forever Rereading

It has actually been forever since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday — I didn’t even know that the host had switched! (You go That Artsy Reader Girl!)

I thought it would be fun to get back into this, because I always enjoyed it before my life turned upside-down with craziness for a while! (Sadly this upside-down has less to do with Eggos and Demogorgons and more to do with coffee and new jobs).

This week finds us all choosing the top ten books we could re-read forever. This is fun…mostly because I haven’t reread a book in a while (because I have too many books to read for the first time! Gah!).

So, instead…I’m going to make a list of books I would like to reread in the near (ish) future.

Here goes!

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Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

34964181Haunting.

This book is a haunting.

It challenges in the most demanding way possible, that the reader consider humanity. Not just philosophies or theories about humanity, but also the little moments that define who we are to ourselves and each other.

It forces the reader to acknowledge the violence so often enacted on people’s humanity.

It requires a response. As the New York Times review so aptly put it:

“What is humanity?” the book asks. “What do we have to do to keep humanity as one thing and not another?” This question made me rethink — and retranslate — the Korean greeting, and realize how hasehyo could be taken as a more forceful verb, insinuating a command. Instead of “Are you at peace?”, it could also be, “Are you doing peace?” Or “Are you practicing peace?” As in, peace comes not with passivity but with participation. As in, peace requires action, just like violence. And only now do I see yet another aspect of the novel’s English title: “Human Acts,” the tacit verb suggesting that, in the end, perhaps our actions are what matter.

Am I practicing peace?

That question reverberated in my mind every time I put this book down. It is a question that lingers now that I have finished. I believe it is a question that will continue to pester me until I find some kind of answer.

While the book gave no clear answers to this question – only offered a rich, kaleidoscopic view of human life. It gave tears – both mine and the writer’s – and it gave glimpses of joy; but mostly it expanded slim definitions of who a person is and asked the reader to contemplate the secret lives of those around us.