Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?


Literature of war

I’m not going to bore anybody with excuses here. I just didn’t feel like writing blog posts while I was writing papers my final two semesters of college, but now I’ve graduated and I’m unemployed, so I have lots of time! I’m going to set a modest goal of one post every two weeks (since I do hope to be employed sooner rather than later), but that means the content will be more worthwhile and less rambling!  Onward!

So, even though I was not making time for blog posts this past year, I was learning some pretty cool stuff. I had an English minor, so this last semester was packed full of English courses and the lone math class I put off as long as possible. The math class was not cool, but one of the English classes was Soldiers, Trauma, and Identity in American Literature, and it was fascinating. I’m really interested in writing about war and masculinity, and even though my take on those subjects tends toward sci-fi or fantasy rather than realism, it was an excellent introduction to the war literature tradition. Of course, the reading was intense; there’s really no comic relief in stories about people (or entire cultures) who have been irrevocably damaged by war, but it was worthwhile, powerful stuff. The literature was complemented by some theory pieces, and I certainly would never be so brazen as to think I’m now perfectly equipped to write soldiers or veterans, it gave me a good idea of what I’d be taking on if I were to pursue that subject seriously.

We read eight books over the course of the semester, but my favorites were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and Phantom Noise by Brian Turner. Every book we read for the course was important in its own right, but these were the ones I found really compelling. Billy Lynn is good in a way you can’t miss; it kind of slaps you in the face with its brilliance. Ceremony is just as good but really difficult and complex, and, as a book of poetry, Phantom Noise is no easy read but it is marvelous.

How about you? Have you ever taken a class or read a book (or group of books) that dealt with war? What about other difficult subjects?


Will work for books

You know, there are tons of books. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books—no, even just novels—there are to read. My Twitter feed is full of aspiring authors, most of whom I would love to support by buying a book and giving it a thoughtful review. My Goodreads “to-read” shelf is longer than my “read” shelf. My mental list of books to buy is separated into three categories: “desperately and wildly need,” “want,” and “don’t really want but ought to read.” There are at least five in each category.

As if these lists were not long enough with only previously existing books, people keep writing more. And a lot of these—too many, in fact—are worth reading. On top of this, I a) want to buy books, not borrow them and b) currently have less money in my bank account than my 15-year-old brother does in his pocket. While I haven’t figured out the financial dilemma, I’ve picked five newly released or yet-to-be released books from my “desperately and wildly need” category to share with you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Truth be told, I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman. I KNOW. Don’t make me feel WORSE. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t even on my radar until I started following bookish people on Twitter and realized not having read Neil Gaiman was not something to admit to anyone, especially not on your blog where anyone in the world can read it. Anyway, back to the book.

This is one I would pick up for title and cover alone, but the early reviews tell me it’s as gorgeous on the inside as the outside. Kirkus Reviews calls it “poignant and heartbreaking, eloquent and frightening, impeccably rendered,” and Publishers Weekly says it’s a “splendid and subtle modern myth.” June 18 can’t get here soon enough.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

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Photo courtesy of

Unlike the previous author, I have read two books by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry). I loved both, and I can’t wait to have a few dollars to buy Raven Girl. This is another cover that would prompt me to buy the book, but if that’s not good enough for you, Booklist says “Niffenegger weds the fabulous with the deeply human in this concentrated, suspenseful fable of unlikely love, a struggle for selfhood, and a dramatic metamorphosis.”

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

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Photo courtesy of

I know, I talk about Chuck Wendig a lot. However, I haven’t read any of his books. I want to read all of them, but here we are again at my empty bank account. Really, though, they all look brilliant and get great reviews; The Blue Blazes just happens to be his most recent. Since his is one of the few blogs I actually read and love on a regular basis, I can only assume I’ll enjoy his books just as thoroughly. Also, as you might’ve guessed from the title of this blog, I’m all about the nitty-gritty, and the nitty-gritty seems to be his specialty.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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I’ve read both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and they are beautiful, heartbreaking stories that stayed with me for days. This latest novel came out May 21 and it has a million billion trillion glowing reviews. I can’t imagine it will be anything less than exquisite.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Photo courtesy of

I don’t watch scary movies and I don’t read scary stories, but man, this sounds fantastic. I hate jump-scares and I’m not into the repulsive-creepy-disgusting, but from the reviews I’ve read, this seems like something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, it might require keeping my night-light on for a while (yeah, I really have one) but I think it will be worth it.

Well, there they are, five books I desperately and wildly need and will buy as soon as I have money or borrow as soon as my podunk library gets them in. Which happens first is anyone’s guess. What are some books you’re dying to read? Have you read any of these on my list? Would anyone like to berate me for not having read anything by Neil Gaiman and having the audacity to admit it? Talk to me, people! I love hearing from you.

Have a free sample!

This is a very short excerpt from my current project, the working title of which I dislike so much I’m now calling it Untitled P.O.S. Feel free to tell me what you think! In fact, please tell me what you think.

Leilah’s trembling hands skimmed the ornate carved lid of the chest and she longed for a cigarette but she knew even one, short drag would betray her. Adrian would smell it in the air and taste it on her breath and then it would be over. He had only let her smoke once while they were married and that was when Mr. Westwood’s blood was still staining the floor and their house was a den of analysts and forensic detectives. He had taken her out on the balcony while police boots tramped up and down the stairs, pulled a single Dunhill International out of his breast pocket, lit it for her, and disappeared back into the house.

And now she knew where the little red box was, tucked in his desk drawer with only one missing. She knew that even now when they were under siege he would smell the smoke and ask her if everything was all right, and she would be unable to lie. Even now when he thought at any moment the telephone could ring its shrill herald of their ruin, Adrian would wonder how she could be so bold or so desperate as to take a cigarette without his permission. Then the nicotine would not still her shaking hands or thundering heart and the truth would come spilling out of her mouth like blood out of a severed vein.

She had never been able to lie to him, not even on the first date when he said “How about sushi?” and she smiled and said yes and he smiled right back and said, “Italian, then?” She hadn’t been able to lie to him about his friends or the color of the drapes or which guests she could bear to be seated with or she couldn’t, and now she wondered if that hadn’t been the point all along. After all the things he’d said about her being more beautiful and more intelligent than the rest and how she really understood him when the other girls didn’t, she wondered if he had chosen her because she couldn’t lie to him.

On reading and rereading the classics

I have mixed feelings about “the classics.” I love some of them, hate others. A few of them (Hemingway, I’m looking at you) I’ve put down and realized I had no idea what they were really about. I profess to love books, so I feel somewhat obligated to not only read but remember classic books clearly enough to bring them up in conversation and thus contribute to the impression that I am well-read. That’s why people read classics, right? Oh. We’re not supposed to say that out loud?

When I was a kid (I am now an old woman at 22), all I did was read. I plowed through the Redwall books faster than Brian Jacques could publish them. I devoured more than 50 of the Thoroughbred series. The Boxcar Children, Pony Pals, and the Saddle Club were no match for my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot, but the closest I came to a classic was Black Beauty. I like animals, okay?

It wasn’t until high school that I realized the value of a book was judged by something other than whether or not I personally liked it. Even though I had put the Pony Pals behind me, I never picked up something like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca until it was part of my ninth grade curriculum. I had never analyzed a book or considered what it made me feel or why; I just put it down and moved on to the next one. I did the same thing with the first couple in high school but, after a few classes spent pulling and picking and dissecting, I realized that these books had a lot written between the lines. I realized that my way of reading—wolfing down pages like this was some kind of pie-eating contest—wasn’t doing me any favors.

I read my fair share of the usual suspects for class; Animal Farm, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, so on and so forth. However, as I developed a reputation for being something of a writer, something of an English person, I became uncomfortably aware of the holes in my reading experience. I started to cringe whenever anyone asked “Have you read…?” because what if I hadn’t and what if I should have?

With my newly-acquired identity as an English person at stake, I went to the musty section of the library and tried to pick out the classiest classical classics. I read Anna Karenina, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Age of Innocence, and Beowulf on my own. As I’ve already implied, I was way out of my depth.

Without my teachers and their worksheets and pointed questions, I couldn’t grasp what I was reading. I couldn’t pick out the themes or recognize the character arcs or do any of the other things we English people ought to be able to do. I couldn’t read between the lines by myself.

I like to think I’ve made some progress in that area. I’m pretty sure I can get a handle on what most authors are trying to say. I can pick up some bits and pieces between the lines on my own, so I’ve been thinking I should revisit some of those classy classical classics. But I’m a little nervous. What if The Sun Also Rises still seems to be about drinking, smoking, watching bullfights and very little else? What if Anna Karenina is still the inexplicable combination of farming methods and affairs that don’t seem to include sex? Is there something wrong with me? Am I not literary enough? Am I a fraud?

This has not been the case with all classics. The Scarlet Letter was an experience that helped make me the person I am, that shaped my beliefs and the way I see the world. The themes of Lord of the Flies are present in my own work, albeit in trace amounts. I’ve taken ideas and styles from others even if I didn’t appreciate them as a whole.

So, what’s the verdict? What has been your experience with the classics? Did you love them? Did you hate them? Have you turned out all right without them? Am I just too dumb to “get” them?