Tagged: books

Do You Want to Save Your Game?

A few days ago, someone on /r/suggestmeabook posted this thread in which they asked for a book that “has a similar style of a JRPG” and is “an adventure with a group of people that use magic and swords to fight along the way.”  This question has come up multiple other times in various forms: 1, 2, 3.  I like this question because, of course, it brings together my love of video games and literature, but also because it’s a super interesting question that deserves some exploration.  I think it lodged in my brain more than it normally would have because I’m currently about 1/3 through Station Eleven and the Traveling Symphony has some elements of the RPG storyline, although I won’t know just how much until I finish the book.

Let’s ignore what the user said about using magic and swords and just focus on the common elements of RPG, especially JRPG, storylines.  I’ll be using Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and the Warcraft universe as my primary examples as those are what I’m most familiar with and the ones I’ve enjoyed the most (thus I would consider them successful stories!):

  • The stories often start with a single character, who will be the focus of the bulk of the story, but the rest of the protagonist cast is quickly introduced.  Each character has a fairly unique backstory that’s important, although the amount of fleshing out of these background stories doesn’t have to be uniform.  The most typical backstories are either that something tragic happened to the character (loss of a loved one as a result of the antagonists is real popular), or that the character has forgotten some important element of their past.  Early on, there is usually some element of abrasion between the cast of the protagonist team, but as the storyline progresses they become more and more cohesive, especially when the Something Bad Happens (more later).
  • Like the protagonist cast, there are typically multiple antagonists, but one ends up being the Final Boss.  The antagonists are introduced early on but undergo some kind of significant change during the storyline.  Either the antagonist has a similar character arc to the protagonists, where they become more and more evil/deranged/powerful (Kefka, Arthas), or we find out that the antagonist we have been focusing on is actually a pawn, or less of a threat than whoever turns out to be the Final Boss Antagonist, etc. (Magus vs. Lavos, Shinra vs. Sephiroth/Jenova, Illidan).


Kefka’s first scene versus his last, in Final Fantasy VI.

  • Final Boss Antagonists are generally not that nuanced.  Giygas (Earthbound) and Kefka are just plain evil.  Sephiroth has a more complex evil, but is still willing to do anything to gain the power he seeks, and it’s arguable that he is a secondary antagonist to Jenova, despite being the Final Boss of the game.  Warcraft‘s Final Bosses are often corrupted by something, and are sometimes seen as complex characters prior to corruption but not after (Lich King, Kael’Thas fit this bill, we don’t have enough information about pre-corruption Sargeras to know about him.  Illidan in post-defeat by Arthas just hasn’t been given any treatment.).  Garrosh is one of the few characters who seems somewhat evil prior to corruption, and has one of the more interesting arcs in the universe, probably not uncoincidentally.  The seemingly most powerful villains in the Warcraft universe, the Old Gods, are also the least complex.  I think there might be something to the fact that a higher percentage of secondary antagonists are humans versus primary antagonists, too.
  • Something Bad Happens, usually about halfway through the story.  This might be the death of someone important to the protagonist’s side but generally not a playable character (one of the reasons I think Chrono Trigger has been so iconic as an RPG is its treatment of this).  It could also be the destruction of a town, or an even bigger destructive event (the cataclysm in FFVI).  Sometimes the Something Bad is a betrayal, although betrayals are common in these stories and aren’t usually the main Bad thing.
  • Super important and something that doesn’t always happen in literature: There are good guys and there are bad guys, and while who fits on each team might shift, in the end there are a clear-cut set of good guys who triumph over the bad guys.

There’s tons of examples that don’t fit into this framework, but I believe a lot do.  People play RPGs for their storytelling and world building and character development, so something about this formula has to work.  And yes, there is quite a bit of overlap with Campbell’s archetypes, but the focus is on specific parts of that story progression.

With the basic elements laid out, let’s explore some literary texts that have similar features:

  • Moby Dick is the first one that comes to mind.  The opening chapters are literally the gathering of a party to set out on an adventure.  As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the backgrounds of the party, although the main protagonist is less obviously developed compared with the typical RPG main protagonist.  The Final Boss is not nuanced.  Ahab is arguably a secondary antagonist.  Pip’s death could be considered the Something Bad.
  • It’s interesting to compare the plot progression of a typical RPG with that of The Lord of the Rings, given the close relationship between the original RPGs (tabletop games) and canonical fantasy works.  Tolkein’s treatment of the bad guys is a little different than most RPGs – beyond maybe the ghost army and Saruman we see little nuance of the antagonists.  They’re all just evil and led by a single being (there are some independent evils but they’re also just evil with no other motivation).  The party-gathering aspect is almost identical to an RPG, both in the trilogy and in The Hobbit.  Lots of Something Bads happen.
  • Stephen King’s The Stand could definitely fit the bill in pretty much every aspect.  We have a Final Boss-esque bad guy who has subordinate bad guys that are more complex than he is.  We have a team of good guys who we slowly learn more and more about.  The antagonists develop simultaneously.  There’s a big bad thing that happens prior to the climax.  There’s betrayal.
  • Likewise, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere hits all the same notes.
  • TC Boyle’s Drop City is the closest thing I can think of that might fit this bill and is considered a recent piece of literary fiction.  There’s a cast of protagonist characters who set out on an adventure with a common goal.  Somethings Bad happen.  There’s two clear-cut antagonists including one who was part of the protagonist team and then betrayed them, although they kind of seem like secondary antagonists to an incorporeal primary antagonist.

It was very difficult for me to come up with modern or realistic examples, and I think part of that is that so few books have embodied antagonists (or even organizational antagonists) post-Modernism.  What could this story look like in a semi-realistic setting?  Maybe Infinite Jest with everyone working against the American Government?  If on a winter’s night a traveler with a bigger protagonist cast?  Wild, but about a group of people doing the trail instead of one woman?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

Here’s the TVTropes article that describes the common elements of what they call the “Eastern RPG.”

Summer Reading List

I am always fascinated by the way in which people choose what to read.  There are so many books out there, sometimes it’s just completely overwhelming to me.  I’ve written before about telling other people what to read and the hubris involved with that, as well as about how the book reviews I read are failing to really influence the way in which I choose books (expounded upon more in an essay for Full Stop), so I thought I would write an entry sharing some of the ways I make the decisions about what to read.

First of all, I highly recommend the website Goodreads, which I’ve talked about before.  The site is invaluable when it comes to reminding me what I want to read, and it makes for a good repository for taking brief notes on what I liked/disliked about books I’ve read in the past.  Right now my “to read” shelf on Goodreads runs about 200 books long, which is almost too big to be worth anything, but I still use it.  It still has books I added to the list in 2011, but I’m hoping to rectify that this summer.

So, beyond that, here’s a rough list of the way I choose things to read:

  1. Obligations.  If I need to read something for a class or for an essay/article I’m working on, this is the top priority.  I also try to write a book review every 2-3 months, and that would fall under this category, although how I decide what to review (when I have a choice) is influenced primarily by #5 below.
  2. What’s so hot right now.  I like talking about books with other people, so I bump books up to the front of my list if it’s something that a lot of people are reading.  This got me to read ASoIaF, and it is the reason that I’ll be reading Station Eleven in the near future.  What’s hot doesn’t just mean what’s new, though, just whatever is in the ether.  It might take the form of looking through past winners of prizes, etc.
  3. Recommendations.  These might be from friends I trust, or from reviews, or just authors who I’ve liked their previous work.
  4. Research.  I usually have a topic or three I’m kicking around in my head, either for my personal life, a future article, or a book.  I don’t read many books solely for this purpose–generally it’s a combination of research plus one of the three above–but it’s definitely an influence.
  5. Considerations.  Beyond the above three, I try to make choices in my reading that broaden my horizons and work to counteract my biases.  That means that I seek out works in translation and works by minority and female authors.  I also try not to get into ruts where I’m reading tons of similar stuff, although that doesn’t happen to me often.

Here’s how it works in practice.  A sampling of my summer reading list:

Quite the variety.  Very male-heavy (only 2/9 authors are women) which I’m sad about and will seek to rectify with my subsequent selections.  There are more, of course, sitting around my house waiting to be read, but these are the definites.

How do you make these decisions?

Outside Content:

The weather in my area has been insane!  Check out this graph of Austin’s Lake Travis’s water level.  Be sure and check the boxes to be depressed about how, even with this inundation of rain, we’re still quite a ways from 2010.

Given that I love Full Stop and I also like to encourage book reviews to be a part of a conversation, you can read Sho Spaeth’s review of Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English here.  My review is over at The Rumpus, and our conclusions did not line up, but our focuses were also a little different, so I think it’s an interesting pairing.

Pop Culture Happy Hour is my latest favorite podcast discovery.  You should check it out.

Review – Animal Stories by Max Evans

Same story as the last one, a review that got lost in shuffle.

Book:  Animal Stories
Author:  Max Evans, Illustrated by Keith Walters
University of Oklahoma Press, 440 pp., $24.95 paperback
Published September 2013

Primal Encounters

In an encounter between a worn-out cowboy, a cow and her newborn calf, and a pack of coyotes, you know who the bad guy is, right?  In his new collection of stories—both fiction and nonfiction—Max Evans will show you that you’re wrong.  Animal Stories is a distillation of the relationship between the west and its two- and four-legged inhabitants.  It shows us the world through the eyes of animals that are hunted, ridden, herded, and loved, as well as people who metaphorically experience the same.  Some pieces are told from a fictional character’s perspective: say, a cowboy or a prairie dog’s.  Others are based on Evans’s own experience, and he’s the main character.  You might worry how the transition between fiction and nonfiction works, but it’s smooth—easy to miss.  Evans tells us in the introduction that he “did become aware early on that the main difference between true stories and fiction was simply this: fiction sometimes allows you to reveal a greater truth.”

It’s been over sixty years since Evans’s first novel, The Rounders, was published.  Since then he’s added twenty-six other books to his credentials, and his work has been the inspiration for both movies and a television series.  Before his writing career, Evans fought in World War II.  Like Evans’s career, the writing collected in Animal Stories comes at you from a great distance and carries you across a lot of ground.  The work spans Evans’s entire career, with pieces from the ‘50s to the newest having been written in 2007.  Evans’s writing remains consistent throughout, and only the occasional repetitive detail tells the reader that these pieces weren’t originally intended to be read together.

The very first short story, “The Old One,” tells the tale of an aging mother prairie dog teaching her offspring how to survive the scary world, and the ever increasing presence of the “two-legged enemy.”  Evans masterfully eases the reader into the prairie dog’s perspective by focusing on details and using language that lends itself to an instinct-based thought process, like describing a gunshot as a stick speaking or referring to predators as “the bobcat” or “the coyote.”  Occasionally that immersion is tested by language that doesn’t quite fit—like the prairie dog describing the hole she lives in as “small”—but the quality of his writing elsewhere allows us to forgive these moments.

Later, in the nonfiction section of the book, Evans shares another story about teaching.  In “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Evans’s friend Luther Wilson runs into a cowboy during a fishing trip.  The two men spend the evening sharing food and stories, then alcohol, and at the end the audience is left unsure what’s next for the titular protagonists.  Despite the dissonance in topics between “The Old One” and “The Cowboy and the Professor,” moving between Evans’s pieces is never jarring.

Luther Wilson also wrote the foreword to the collection, and he explains Evans’s ability to write animals so well as being a result of Evans’s experience as a hunter.  Regardless of how much hunting inspired his writing, it’s obvious that Evans is a master observer, a skill used in both hunting and writing.  He picks out tiny details from his experience in the southwest to bring everything to life, like when he describes cold night air as being “made of ice with a million flailing arms.”  For all the details about the natural world that Evans gets right, though, the dialogue and emotional interactions between the human characters tends to fall flat.  In a scene from “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Wilson shoots a rock with his .44 for target practice.  He offers to let the cowboy shoot, but the cowboy declines on account of his horse getting nervous.  A telling and believable detail, but Evans follows it up with “Luther could have seen the truth in that from a mile away,” blowing the scene out into unnecessarily melodramatic proportions.

Maybe this is why my favorite story in the collection is “A Man Who Never Missed.”  Despite the main character being a man, the story is full of animalistic, primal energy.  The dialogue is sparse, and the thoughts of Gus, the main character, are largely portrayed by actions.  In many of the pieces of Animal Stories, the protagonists are at a turning point in their lives, and are often facing down what might be the end of the line.  Gus is doing just that.  As “the best deer hunter in the Hi-Lo Country,” Gus has found himself without a deer as the hunting season draws to a close.  With the jeers of his fellow hunters ringing in his ears from the night before, he sets out on one last day of hunting.  Evans turns the tension up a notch for this story, and at the end he leaves us wondering who the animals really are.

At 440 pages, Animal Stories is beefier than most collections.  I’d recommend it to anyone who might be interested in a book that’s somewhere in between the genres western and nature literature.  I’d add the caveat that, like a lot of collections that span an author’s career, the book isn’t one you should try to consume in a short period of time.  Instead, be patient like the hunters and the hunted in the stories, and savor this collection of escapes into the real wild west.

Review – Oysters, Beer, and Macaroni by Gene Rhea Tucker

I wrote this review last fall and it ended up not getting published due to editor error (he didn’t realize a review had already been published of it, and that it was almost a year old at the time). I figured I’d throw it on the blog instead of letting it slip into the void.

Chronicling a Ghost Town

Book: Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store
Author: Gene Rhea Tucker
Reviewer: Graham Oliver

Thurber, Texas is a ghost town that sits on I-20, halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. For forty years, from 1894 to 1934, Thurber appeared as a company coal town, flourished, and then withered away.

Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store chronicles the brief history of Thurber, with a special emphasis paid to the role of the mercantile operations within the town. The Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of the Texas Pacific Coal Company, operated company stores, utilities, saloons, and various other establishments for the residents of the town. Gene Rhea Tucker’s analysis of the operation depicts it as a crossroads in the fascinating relationship between laborers, the corporation, and the region. Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer uses the company store to touch upon bigger issues of racism, unionization, and corporate responsibility. Don’t let the overtly political tone of the foreword (which is labeled the “Plainsword” as a nod to this being a part of TTU Press’s “Plains Histories”)–the text itself goes out of its way to reserve judgment in the various conflicts, for the most part.

Tucker’s writing is best when it’s recreating what life was like in Thurber. It’s painstakingly researched, and is peppered with first-hand accounts of events in the town, including a fist-fight between the company president and a local businessman. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, however, is the images. Photo after photo depict the locations and events described in the text, from a row a smiling faces in a saloon, to a building’s demolition after the town’s collapse. All the images fit well with the content, and tell an additional story of their own. Beyond the photos, the book itself is a work of art–the jacket and lettering are eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing.

Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer began as a master’s thesis, which accounts for the in-depth research. It’s well-sourced, and would serve as a secure jumping off point for additional inquiry. However, the fact that it was once a thesis brings baggage along with it. It’s thin, especially once you discount the space allotted to notes and photos. It repeats itself occasionally and gets bogged down in details. The biggest tragedy, though, is the near-complete lack of speculation, which would’ve helped the reader make more of a connection with the stream of facts, figures, and implications.

The book appeals to Texas history buffs, ghost town aficionados, and those interested in reading about a microcosm of big business issues. Although it might have better served as a section of a larger work, Tucker’s work makes the Thurber of a century ago come to life for his readers, which ultimately means the book is a success.

Photo album from thurbertexas.com – Link

Telling Other People What to Read

Book reviews are on my mind.  I have that piece about what might be wrong with the current state of book reviews up at Full Stop.  Not too long ago, I wrote an entry on this site about being a good reader.  I have one book review awaiting publication and two book reviews in the pipeline.  Finally, Lee Klein had this fantastic essay published while I was out of town, and it really captured a lot of what I had been mulling over.

I love talking about what to read online.  I’m not as great at it in person.  Recently, I met one of my cohort for the creative writing graduate program, and he asked me what I’ve been reading lately.  My mind went blank, and all I could think of was the fact that I had been reading A Song of Fire and Ice but that I definitely shouldn’t say that because I didn’t want to look uncool.  I ended up saying it anyways because I made a decision that saying that series would be better than nothing, which was the only other thing I could think of.

Of course, I have read a lot more than ASoIaF lately, although none of it particularly stood out at that moment.

I think the whole process of deciding what to read and telling other people how they should make decisions about what to read is just fascinating.  You have to have a certain amount of arrogance to assume that you have good taste enough to be a source of information on what to read.  You have to take into account what the receiver of recommendations likes, and usually this is done in terms of other literary reference points.  A friend who is a prolific reviewer recently said that a book was forgettable, but then recommended it as a good beach read, meaning a book’s enjoyment can change based on when it’s being read, not just who it’s being read by.  Most book reviews I read don’t really try to capture those nuances, instead describing a book mostly in isolation besides the obligatory three lines of nodding to other literary works.

I wonder if part of the problem is that by setting apart genre and literary work, we have a hard time talking about the subgenres within literary fiction.  (There are exceptions, of course.  The Addiction Memoir, the Multi-Generational International Historical Fiction, the Timid Story with a Tiny Slice of Magic Realism, the Novel Loosely Based on a Recent Real World Event.)  As you could guess, I find the label of literary fiction to be very problematic, and I think it actively hurts the lit community to wall themselves off from “genre fiction” for a semi-arbitrary reason.  But that’s a topic for a different day.

This entry is all over the place, but I guess my questions would be what gets you to read something?  What could someone say to get you to read something?  Who does a person need to be to influence your reading?  How do you weight venue vs. author vs. content of a review?

Outside Content:

Found this write-up of Bad Lip Reading in TIL.  Had no idea the guy got his talent because his mother went deaf and he tried to learn lip reading alongside her.

The Review Review always puts out good stuff, but this article about choosing where to submit is especially awesome, since it’s one of the most common dilemmas.  I hate people who just say “read issues until you find something that resonates” as there’s just too much stuff out there to do that.

Finally, I’ve taken up a reader position at Noble Gas Quarterly, a new online lit mag.  Check it out here.

Cataloging AJ Fikry

I just recently read Gabrielle Zevin‘s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  It’s a wonderful little hug of a book about books, and I was kind of enchanted with it.  The writing is a little corny: the metaphors used, the unrealistic dialogue, the ending.  But the corniness works for the most part, because it’s corny like a Christmas movie.  Yes, we know what to expect and this makes it kind of silly when our expectations come to fruition, but it’s also comforting and familiar.  Ultimately, very satisfying and just a lot of fun to read.

Like I said, this is a book about books.  It makes a TON of references to other books, and so I wanted to catalog all of those references into a complete list.  I’ll confess: I haven’t read a majority of these works, but I plan on adding a few of them to my “To Read” list.  I’m including the author, the page number of Fikry the reference is found on, and, if it’s a short story, the collection it can be found in.  I’ve also included links to the stories that I found via Google; I cannot verify the legality of any of those digital copies.

I won’t spoil the book any, although I will ACKNOWLEDGE THE EXISTENCE of characters and some mundane events in it.

Without further ado, a list of (hopefully) every literary reference in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry:

Dedication: Zevin thanks a boy who gave her The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.

Epigraph: A few lines from Rumi’s “Come on Sweetheart” which can be found in Rumi: Fountain of Fire.  Link to the poem.

Chapter Titles:  Every chapter title is a short story.  Each chapter is also introduced with a brief note from A.J. that discusses the story; some of those make mention of related works.

  • “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, p. 3.  Included in the collection Someone Like You.  Link to the whole story.
    • In the discussion, Fikry also mentions Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
  • “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, p. 27.  Included in the collection The Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories.
    • In the discussion, Fikry also mentions Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
  • “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Francis Bret Harte, p. 41.  Included in the collection The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketeches.  Link to the whole story.
  • “What Feels Like the World” by Richard Bausch, p. 79.  Included in the collection The Selected Stories of Richard Bausch.
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, p. 87.  Included in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories; this collection is also mentioned on p. 128.  Link to the whole story.
  • “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain, p. 129.  Included in a lot of collections and printed on its own, but this looks like the coolest version.  Link to the whole story.
    • The chapter discussion also mentions Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
  • “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw, p. 159.  Included in the collection Short Stories: Five DecadesLink to the whole story.
  • “A Conversation with My Father” by Grace Paley, p. 173.  Included in the collection Grace Paley: The Collected Stories.  Link to the whole story.
  • “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger, p. 187.  Included in the collection Nine Stories.  Link to the whole story if you have a New Yorker subscription.
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, p. 199.  Included in the collection The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings.  Link to the whole story.
    • The discussion also mentions poets Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath.
  • “Ironhead” by Aimee Bender, p. 213.  Included in the collection Willful Creatures.
    • Chapter discussion also mentions “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, which is found in the collection The Night in Question.  Link to the whole story.
  • “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” by Raymond Carver, p. 239.  Included in the collection of the same name.
  • “The Bookseller” by Roald Dahl, p. 247.  Included in the collection Roald Dahl: Collected Stories.  Amusingly enough, originally published in Playboy.

Recurring References:

  • “Tamerlane”, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, features prominently throughout the book, as does the author himself.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville is featured as the inspiration for the restaurant “The Pequod” and its “Queequeg” cocktails (the former is the ship in Moby Dick, the latter is a harpooner on the crew).
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is mentioned several times, primarily in reference to an argument between Fikry and a booksales rep.  Fikry doesn’t like the book, but admits to not having finished it.
  • Flannery O’Connor is featured many times in different contexts, and probably has the most references besides Poe.
  • Works by J.R.R Tolkein are mentioned multiple times, primarily by Fikry, who delights in the “nerdiness” of such references.

Fikry’s Books:

  • Page 19, Fikry is deciding on a book to read and mentions Old School by Tobias Wolff as “an old favorite.”
  • Page 97, Fikry discusses the Turkish Delight found in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • Page 115, Fikry compares television show True Blood with works by Flannery O’Connor, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, and Caligula (presumably the play by Albert Camus, but possibly the film).
  • Page 179, Fikry provides a long list of short stories to help with writing: “The Beauties” by Anton Chekhov, “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield, “A Perfect Day for Bananfish” by J.D. Salinger, “Brownies” or “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, “Fat” by Raymond Carver, and “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway.
  • Page 223, Fikry says “The Grapefuit Rag” while trying to say The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
  • Page 225, Fikry admits to only finishing the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Maya’s and Other Children’s/YA Books:

  • Page 48, Maya’s first appearance includes Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
  • Page 61, Maya loves and Fikry hates The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (illus. Michael Smollin).
  • Page 72, Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (illus. Jen Corace).
  • Page 85, Caps for Sale by (written and illustrated) Esphyr Slobodkina.
  • Page 123, Maya mentions From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
  • Page 145, Maya is reading The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.
  • Page 147, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Page 156, Maya is reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by Matthew Tobin Anderson.

Amelia’s Books:

  • Page 8, Amelia separates good male characters from good male romantic partners, mentioning the examples of Humbert Humbert (Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), Holden Caulfield (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), Edward Rochester (Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre), and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).
  • Page 117, Amelia has a bobblehead of Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
  • Page 135, Amelia realizes she didn’t understand Charming Billy until she heard author Alice McDermott read it out loud.
  • Page 177, Amelia’s first literary crush is either John Irving or Ann M. Martin.

Ismay’s Plays and Books:

  • Page 56, The Crucible by Arthur Miller.
  • Page 203, Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
  • Page 205, Ismay lists the books she teaches frequently: Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Silas Marner by George Eliot, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Lambiase’s Books and the Chief’s Choice Book Club:

  • Jeffrey Deaver is mentioned repeatedly as being Lambiase’s and the group’s favorite author.
  • Page 23, Fikry and Lambiase discuss books for the first time.  Fikry mentions Raymond Carver, but Lambiase hasn’t read him.  Lambiase mentions Jeffery Deaver’s character Lincoln Rhyme and John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony as examples of things he has read.
  • Page 72, in discussing what books to recommend Lambiase, Fikry mentions Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson, Elmore Leonard, Jo Nesbø, Walter Mosley, and Cormac McCarthy, as well as Case Histories by Kate Atkinson.
  • Page 104, the book club is reading James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.
  • Page 201, the book club is discussing a book that involves a stolen Stradivarius violin.  I’m not sure what book is being referenced exactly, but it looks like it could be several?
  • Page 236, Lambiase regrets the choice of The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III for the book club.


  • Page 46, a customer is upset at Fikry having recommended she read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
  • Page 68, a character cites Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett as the motivation for her career.
  • Page 71, Fikry organizes a book group for mothers.  They read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.
  • Page 106, a character praises Jose Canseco’s Juiced.  Fikry is not pleased.
  • Page 143, a character cites The Bible and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom as their favorite books.
  • Page 164, an event in the book reminds a character of The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
  • Page 168, a character compares her relationship with Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”.
  • Page 252, bookstores are important because of who hands your daughter A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle or who recommended Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
  • Page 257, a character mentions having a tattoo of a quote by C.S. Lewis about books.  There are several possibilities.


  • Zevin mentions American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Alphabetical List of All Authors Mentioned:

  • On a separate page because it’s long.  Link.


  • 80 authors.  And, because VIDA always has this in the back of my mind, 34 are female and 46 are male.

Wow, that was a lot more work than I expected.  Corrections are welcome and probably needed.

Like a Good Reader

Writing has a bunch of clichés surrounding it about how to be successful.  Work more, write every day, go for walks, write drunk, etc.  (Big fan of this post that makes fun of some of those clichés.)  One of the more often repeated ones is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader.  Like DFW points out, though, sometimes those common, simple, omnipresent clichés turn out to be true.  What doesn’t get talked about, though, is how one can become a better reader beyond just reading more.  In the past few years, I think I’ve done a better job at reading, and I’d like to share what has helped me.

1)  Be mindful about what you’re reading.

This has a sort of unstated first part, which is that you read for a purpose.  Of course, not all of your reading has to be for a purpose, but I have gained a lot in being more conscious about what I’m choosing to spend my time reading.  For example, three weeks ago I started /r/contemporaryshortform and since then I’ve made myself find a recent short-form prose piece every day to post in that subreddit.  This forces me to become familiar with a lot of the venues that I would seek to publish short-form pieces in, and it gets me reading some really cool, more nontraditional stuff.  I’m typically more drawn to spending my reading time on books, but this gives me the motivation to mix it up some.  Beyond that project, I’ve also started finding reasons to read books beyond having heard the author’s name, or it being popular.  I’m working on a nonfiction project with a fairly specific format, and normally the simplistic way of reading for that project would be to look at books that have tackled the same subject.  However, I think it’s been more useful looking at books with a similar structure to what I want to do.  (Hey, on that note, suggest to me nonfiction books about a subject, the author’s experiences with that subject, and the culture/people around the subject. Thinking of books like Pack of Two by Knapp, Of Dice and Men by Ewalt, Absolutely American by Lipsky, Teachers Have It Easy by Eggers and co., Eating Animals by Foer, etc.)   I think this idea really clicked for me when I took David Lipsky’s workshop, where he had us read Martin Amis’s piece “Emergency Landing” for humor, the first chapter of Nabokov’s Pnin for understanding how to set up questions and answers for readers, and the beginning of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark for understanding how to build tension.  Finally, I also read books to be a part of a conversation (more on that with my second point).  Reading recent popular/award-winning books gives a great frame of reference for talking to other readers, and thus I seek them out a lot more than I used to.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t read for fun.  I still read stuff with no “purpose” beyond thinking that I’ll enjoy the book, and I think that’s important.  Definitely not an either/or situation, you can do both.

2)  Talk about what you’re reading with other people.

One of the reasons that I’m pursuing an MFA and have greatly benefited from writing retreats/workshops in the past is that talking about writing gets more excited about writing, but it also gets me thinking about writing in a different way than I would when I’m off writing by my lonesome.  Talking about reading accomplishes something similar.  Another one of those clichés is that the person who is being workshopped doesn’t benefit as much from the process as the people doing the workshopping, and that’s another thing that I’ve found to be absolutely true.  Talking about someone else’s writing, whether it’s a piece being workshopped or a published book, forces you to think about what that writing does that works and what that writing does that doesn’t work, and it forces you to be able to articulate it.  Our default setting when we read, I think, is to just think positively or negatively toward a work and not examine why we feel that way.  Being able to express those ideas then allows us to turn that lens onto our own writing and see how it can be improved.

Side note: Tips on starting a successful book club?

3)  Take notes.

This has been the big breakthrough for me as a reader.  I started being better at taking notes as I read due to graduate school, but it became cemented as I began writing book reviews.  Now, I take notes for a majority of the books I read, even if I don’t intend to do anything with them.  These notes serve to accomplish a lot of what talking to other people does, but it has an added benefit of giving you something to reference after the fact.  Often, there are particular scenes I want to reread when I’m working on something specific, and having a folded up piece of paper inside that book on my shelf (or a typed up note about the excerpt on Google Drive) that helps me find that passage and reminds me what I liked about it is invaluable.  My notes highlight things that work, summarize structure, make a reference to other literary works cited/discussed in the text, ask questions I want to look up the answers to later, and more.

Like many things, I think this just boils down to a heightened awareness.  Hopefully laying out some specifics helps someone else.

Outside content:

Wyvern Lit just launched and published their first issue.  My favorite piece is “Crepuscular.”  The fact that the author is from Kentucky is probably just a coincidence.

Full Stop has a fascinating interview with two people who dropped out of publishing due to the industry’s treatment of minorities and women.

Finally, the cancellation of Jesus Christ Superstar has made me very, very sad.