Someone once told me that the state of one’s room reflects the state of that person’s mind. The other day, I remembered this when I looked at how messy my apartment had become – the stacks of books collecting dust, clothes that I never wore and the souvenirs from various events and conferences I didn’t know what to do … Continue reading The Life-Changing Magic of Questioning Yourself on a Regular Basis
Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch is about loving beautiful things. With constant tensions, complicated relationships, and rising stakes, this book explores what it means to devote yourself to what eludes you.
Theo Decker, protagonist and mistake-maker in chief, has a weakness for beautiful art, beautiful furniture, and beautiful people. In the beginning of the novel, he and his mother are in an art museum when it’s bombed, and his mother doesn’t survive. From there, he’s tossed around from home to home, forced to make several new beginnings. The Goldfinch painting, which he steals in the aftermath of the bombing, stays with him along the way, wracking him with guilt.
Soon, he starts making more unethical moves, from committing petty fraud to help make more money for his mentor Hobie’s antique business to agreeing to marry a woman he doesn’t really love.
All along, the reader is holding her breath, wondering when all of Theo’s small, intricate lies will come crashing down into a big mess. At any moment, it seems that he could lose everything– his friends, his money and other people’s respect for him– in a single false step.
“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.” -Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, written by New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, is a page-turning account about Cahalan’s experience … Continue reading The Sum of Our Parts: Brain on Fire Book Review
Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize-winning collection, Selected Poems, discusses big concepts– God, heaven, existence– but does it through small, specific objects and simple words. With vivid imagery and scientific precision , Tranströmer brings the infinitude of uncertainty back to the familiar and natural. After reading Selected Poems, I felt like I had experienced enough of Tranströmer’s beautiful poetry that I could, … Continue reading All the rolling wheels that contradict Death! Thoughts on Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems
When I read MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach, I was really excited to learn about how I could break into either an MFA program or the vicious world of New York publishing. Instead, this book make me rethink everything I thought I knew … Continue reading Everything You Knew About MFAs and the Publishing Industry was a Lie
Reading Les Miserables is a serious commitment. Even if you’re a fast reader, it’s going to take a long time. At the same time, when you finish it, you’ll feel like it could have gone on forever. Like it should have gone on forever. When I read Les Miserables, it helped me realize a few things about writing … Continue reading 5 Things Les Miserables Taught Me About Writing
One of my writing professors once said that every story was a coming of age story– that there was really no other story that could be told. I think she was right. Even if a story isn’t about coming of age in the traditional sense, it is about learning, developing, and adapting. A coming of … Continue reading 4 Books for 20-Somethings Who Are Trying to Figure Things Out
Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for … Continue reading Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
When it comes to stories, everybody knows that when you say, “That character’s not believable,” it’s a bad thing. You hear it in school. You hear it in workshop groups. You hear it when people talk about what they’re reading. This intense preoccupation with everything–even fiction– being extremely believable is human nature. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle talks about how mimesis in narratives creates an emotional connections between the writer and the audience:
The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.
In other words, people connect to what they know. Fiction, then, becomes a balancing act: get as close to the truth as possible without telling the truth.
I thought about this paradox when I read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was fascinated by the story of Maya Vidal, a teenager who gets involved with drugs, runs away, gets caught up with a group of criminals and addicts, then is saved by her adoring, spunky grandmother and whisked off to Chiloé, a rural island in Chilé. It’s a fantastically entertaining book, but the eerie thing about it is that for all the darkness it takes on (counterfeit money rings, drugs, racism, rape, police corruption, alcoholism, death), it’s filled with an overarching sense of serenity and joy. Maya overcomes her addictions more easily than a person might in real life; her grandmother is a little too adept at out-smarting the police, considering she doesn’t have any practice as a criminal and all her knowledge is theoretical; the romance between Maya and the dreamy American guy visiting Chiloé, Daniel, is a little too perfect.
I loved all these unbelievable things, even though they were unbelievable. Because they were unbelievable. Mary Pols says on her review of Maya’s Notebook on NPR:
I myself was not scared by Maya’s story, mostly because I didn’t believe a word of it… Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.
I didn’t believe Maya’s character, either. Her voice didn’t sound like a teenager’s voice to me and she seemed to get through her struggles a little too calmly. But unlike Pols, I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing. It was what made Maya’s Notebook what it was– a magical kind of story where all the characters pass through troubles with grace and skill.
Then one hot Sunday afternoon, when we were at the pool with Jamie’s parents, Eliza said to me, “You know what I was just thinking? ‘I’m in the pool, it’s summer, I’m seven years old, I’m wearing a very cute bathing suit, and my grandmother is asking me if I want anything to eat or … Continue reading What I Learned from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project