Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Recommendation: The Madman's Daughter

If you are a feminist anatomy lover like me, then you will adore this book. Juliet is everything I ask for in a protagonist--she's smart (bonus points for loving anatomy), curious, gutsy, stubborn, and a plays a very active role in a story set in a world where women are expected to be anything but. She also has a dark side--one that can be fascinated by horrible things, even when she knows they're wrong.

I have taken issue a lot with "evil scientist" plots, but this book handles it with a bit more nuance--the morality of the science is questioned as much as it is criticized. I also thought the romance and love triangle was better handled in that Juliet wasn't obsessed with the boys, and there was actually a thread of sexual desire rather than "I would die without you."

Some issues I had with the book: The style wasn't bad, but it was by no means impressive (a little too tell-y for my liking). I wanted to see more of Balthasar--at one point, Juliet called him a "friend," but I hadn't seen enough interaction between them to believe that. Also, could we put a moratorium on sexy dream sequences? They add nothing to the story.

I also wished Megan Shepherd had done a bit more research on xenotransplantation and immunosupression, but that's just me being weird.

If you like smart, active female protagonists and aren't hesitant about reading a book that includes gore and animal cruelty, then go read this book.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Medical School Announcement

Hi guys!

A few of you might remember that I got into medical school back in October. As it was still very early in the application cycle, I didn't want to mention the name of the school, but now that I'm done with interviews and heard back from every school, I can finally make the announcement.

I'm going to the University of Louisville.

I applied to fifteen schools and received six interview invites (one of which I declined). I ended up with one rejection, two waitlists, and two acceptances. Out of those two schools, it was an easy decision. Louisville was the first school where I interviewed and I knew immediately that it was a perfect fit. The people were incredibly friendly and the students were all relaxed and happy. It was also the school that fit my interests best. Not only do they have a spinal cord injury research center, but they are also affiliated with a hospital that has performed more hand transplants than any other place in the world--and they recently received $1.5 million dollars to do more! I also really liked the city--it's small enough that I can live downtown and still be close to campus, it's a cheap place to live, it's a great place for hiking and horseback riding, the tap water is actually drinkable, and most importantly, their "rush hour" involves cars that are still moving. (You don't realize how important this is until you've lived in north Jersey.)

Today I set up a summer job in one of their spinal cord injury labs. I'm leaving right after BEA, and I can't even begin to express how excited I am!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Recommendation: "Code Name Verity" by Elizabeth Wein

I loved this book and I'm only partially going to tell you why. Part of the experience of this book is not knowing what it is upfront. What I will tell you--it's incredibly written, detailed and powerful and beautiful and raw. The characters are brilliant and real and will steal your heart right out of your chest. I finished this book two weeks ago, and I still can't let go of it emotionally. the first chapter. It might not be your thing. But if it is, then prepare for a story and characters you'll never forget.

[Note on the "New Adult" label--I'm not actually sure how old the characters are, but given that these characters are working and independent, I consider this book New Adult. I was hesitant about advertising it as such right now, but maybe in a few years, after NA's reputation starts to go beyond the "trashy chick lit erotica" genre,  this book will find a good home on that shelf too.]

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Steubenville, Choices, and a Culture of Ableism

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

If you are a member of my generation, you probably recognize this quote. (Hint: It's from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I can't cite the page number because I don't have the book in front of me, so if J.K. Rowling or any of the people at Bloomsbury or Scholastic are reading this, please don't sue me.)

But anyway, going back to that quote. It's the kind of quote that goes up in classroom posters and facebook profiles. (Remember when facebook had a "favorite quotes" section? Those were the days.) It's also, unfortunately, the kind of quote that everyone conveniently forgets when, say, a couple of talented high school football players rape a drunk sixteen-year-old girl.

There was a lot of outrage over the way several major broadcasting companies (CNN, MSNBC, Fox) seemed to consider the "guilty" verdict more tragic than the crime itself. Take this quote from CNN's Poppy Harlow:

"Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart."

This quote is not just a symptom of a sexist society--a society that shames women for expressing their sexuality and then disregards their right to put boundaries on it--but it also shows the deep-seated ableism that underlies many of our values. Our society admires people who are smart, strong, beautiful, talented, and outgoing--and the people who are lucky enough to possess these attributes are much more likely to get away with breaking the rules. Why? Because our society is more repulsed by the idea of stripping away a talented person's potential for success than by the act of traumatizing a young woman. If the school outcast had raped this girl, would anyone take his side? Or what about a man suffering from mental illness? If that rapist were sent to jail, people would say he deserved it--that he "has no place in society."

I'm not going to pretend these boys don't have it bad. America's prison system is terrible, and it's hard enough to get a job in this economy without having a criminal past. So yes, in a way, this jury severely "debilitated" these boys. (But then again, there was a well-known neuroscientist at UPenn who was sent to jail for raping a prospective student--and he's now working as a research consultant at the university where I work. Apparently, if you're a enough of a big shot, then a rape charge isn't that much of a deterrent.)

But to focus on the tragedy of debilitating these boys is to ignore what our good friend Albus Dumbledore taught us all those years ago--it's not about ability, but about choice. And, well, let's be honest--these boys made a really bad choice.

This is especially important, because smart, sociable athletes often grow into our society's leaders--and if it's a choice between the kind of leaders who know nothing but success vs. those leaders who respect other people and make thoughtful, considerate choices, I don't have to tell you which option I'd pick.

[This post seemed very wise and worldly when I composed it in my head, but now that I've actually written it down, it feels like I just wasted a whole post on stating the obvious. But then again, if this were obvious to everyone, I probably wouldn't feel the need to write it.]

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: "Throne of Glass" by Sarah J. Maas

I almost never come across a bad review of this book, and I don't understand how that's possible. It's not that Throne of Glass is terrible--it's just that there's absolutely nothing remarkable about it.

If anything, Throne of Glass is a wasted opportunity. It's a book about a freaking assassin! I mean, think of all the possibilities! Think of what kind of morally ambiguous and conflicting story you could write with such a protagonist! Unfortunately, Sarah J. Maas is apparently intent on making you forget that Celaena used to be an assassin. For those of you who don't know (the author may or may not be among you), assassins kill people for money. Who did Celaena kill? Were they nobility? Merchants? Peasants? Cheating husbands? Did they fight back? Beg for their lives? Did Celaena feel any remorse about killing them? I have no fucking clue. The story never names a single one of her victims. Sure, there are a couple of vague references to remembering her first kill, but that's about the extent of it--we never get any details. And sure, I suppose I could read the prequels to find out, but a) I have no motivation to do so, and b) I shouldn't have to. This element of Celaena's past is central to her character, so why isn't any of this in the book?

There are several occasions where Celaena remembers other people doing horrible things to her, but what about all those times where it was the other way around? It's almost as if the Sarah J. Maas were afraid to let readers dislike her precious Mary Sue* protagonist. NEWSFLASH, AUTHOR: You cannot write about an assassin and then not let her get her hands dirty!

But anyway, going back to the whole moral ambiguity thing: This book doesn't have it. I can very clearly draw a line separating the "good guys" and the "bad guys". (In fact, the gap between those two groups is so large that I could probably draw that line blindfolded.) Sure, some of the "good guys" have flaws, which is why this novel isn't a complete fail (that, and Nehemia), but they still fit very neatly into the "good guy" box.

Aside from that, this novel has a number of other problems. Most of them are plot and character-centered. Let's start with the plot as a whole: a group of criminals are competing to be the king's Champion. If you were a king and you needed a champion, who would you pick? Personally, I would choose from the ranks of my best soldiers--people who have fought loyally for me and who will continue to do so. I would not pick a criminal. Criminals tend to be selfish and unpredictable. If I don't even trust an individual to compete in a tournament without leg irons, why would I give this person a weapon and expect him or her to take orders from me? That's not even the only instance of something that didn't make any sense, but I'm getting tired of writing this, so I'll just end it here.

So in short, this is the most overrated book I've ever read.

*Yes, Celaena has flaws (arrogance and immaturity), but all of that is overshadowed by her special snowflake status. She's the most famous assassin in the whole kingdom, she's beautiful even after wasting away in the mines for a year, the boys are obsessed with her, and she even gets a bit of "Chosen One" status. Plus, that hideous spelling of her name. I don't usually use the word "Mary Sue," but in this case, I'm calling it. She's a Mary Sue. 

Guess who's going to BEA this summer?

This girl! *so excited*

Of course, it's happening right around the same time my lease expires, so I have to work around that somehow. I'll probably pack all my stuff ahead of time, leave it in my car, and then head to the city. I have two siblings living in New York and another one about an hour away, so I'll definitely have a place to stay.

And now that I've said that, I'm going to start writing my Throne of Glass review. It should be posted sometime tonight.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What I think my problem is

Some people can't finish a novel because they're perfectionists.

Well, yeah, that's part of it. I always have to go back and fix things because "that plot is too convenient" or "that character would never do that" or "the beginning is too boring." But I still manage to progress. Gradually, more words are added. New scenes are added. So it's not like perfectionism really gets in the way of moving forward. It just slows it down a bit.

Others can't finish a novel because they're afraid of success.

Why would I be afraid of success? I fantasize about it every day.

Others just lose momentum halfway through. They inspiration and excitement fizzles and dies.

But I'm still in love with this story. I don't want to stop writing it.

And then there are people who are just lazy.

Well, okay, there's definitely that.

But I don't think that's the main reason. Mostly, it's because I never really expected to finish this novel. Sure, I have this great outline and write all these scenes, but the thought that I might actually reach that final chapter is something I can't even imagine. It's overwhelming to think about all the amount of work I have left.

But that amount is becoming smaller and smaller every week. And suddenly, I'm closer than I ever thought possible. Actually, it wouldn't even be right to call it "suddenly." It was last fall, actually. Before I went back to resume my edits, I was maybe ten scenes away from the end. And I still have that part of the draft, waiting in two little notebooks that I keep in my backpack. I'm working my way up to it.

And wouldn't it have been so easy to pick up those notebooks again and just write out those last scenes? To actually have a finished draft? But I decided to go back and edit. Because it still needed a flipping ton of editing. And it's going to need even more after that. I still have unwritten scenes, and parts that need to be figured out (ie, where to incorporate backstory). The draft never felt full enough for an ending. Will it feel full after I write the next handful of scenes? I don't know.

To some people, the final scenes are just that--scenes. They're fun and exciting to write, just like they're fun and exciting to read. But otherwise, they're not any different from the other scenes in the book. You write them, and then you fill in the holes and edit them. Sometimes you even re-write them altogether.

But that's the difference between me and other people--they have finished novels. Sure, some of those novels might be mediocre or even bad, but they're finished. And me? I haven't finished a novel since that Harry Potter fanfiction I wrote when I was thirteen. That was eleven years ago.

Because of that, "The End" has become a sort of writing nirvana that needs to be earned. I can't half-ass my way to those final scenes--it would be like taking an escalator whenever a part of the mountain became too difficult to climb and then telling myself, "I'll come back and climb that part later." No, I can't give myself the exhilaration of reaching the top until I've climbed the entire mountain.

I know that's probably not the smartest way to go about writing--it's so much easier to fill in the holes once you have a completed draft. And that's probably how I'll write future novels. But for now, my mindset is telling me to be patient and earn it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Twitter is weird

Twitter sometimes feels like eavesdropping. As in, I can read other people's entire conversations and not know whether or not it's okay to jump in. Seriously, what is the etiquette with butting into other people's online conversations (if I have something relevant to say, of course)? Are new people people welcome, or do you see it as some sort of intrusion?

Personally, I wouldn't mind if someone jumped into my twitter conversation. If I wanted to keep it private, I would use a means of communication that wasn't twitter. But I'm usually more open-minded about having conversations with random strangers, whereas others might think "who are you and why are you talking to me."

What's everyone else's take on this?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Review of "Incarnate," by Jodi Meadows

I remember the plot of this book pretty clearly, but my memory's hazy on what was my final impression of Incarnate. That probably puts it into "okay" territory, as it was neither stellar nor terrible enough for me to have a lasting opinion. Mostly, I think I was kind of bored until the last few chapters.

*opens Goodreads and looks for status updates*

Ah, there. On page 126, I wrote: "The world is interesting, but the things the characters do and say aren't exactly believable." That's the only status update I have, but I guess it does sum up my opinion of the book. The world has an interesting concept behind it: A world where all souls have been reincarnating for thousands of years. People have been living for so long that they can't even remember how it all began. What I appreciated the most about this book is that Jodi Meadows didn't half-ass the reincarnation premise. Although there were some shaky parts (How can you chemically disable a god? Science is about what can be known, and theology is about what can't. You really can't combine those.), for the most part, I got the sense that she really put a lot of thought into this concept. The re-dedication ceremony and the parts where Sam talks about his traumatic deaths are what stood out for me. Also, the thought that Ana's death might be permanent leaves its own sort of fear--it's a shockingly obvious reminder of how short a single life is.

It was also kind of cool to read a second-world fantasy that actually incorporated technology. There wasn't enough of it in there for me to consider this "science fantasy" (other than that one bit of "chemistry" I mentioned in the spoiler), but it was a nice change from the norm.

So I did appreciate the world, but what bothered me were the plot and characters. The plot was very 'meh,' and Ana and Sam were rather unmemorable. There were also some parts where I had trouble believing that Ana would think or say something--it was as if her mother's abuse had worn off too quickly. I can't really get more into detail because I already returned the book to the library, but my feeling is that if Ana had been isolated in a house for most of her life with a woman who hated and mistreated her, the interpersonal and emotional damage should have been far worse (and much more long-term). Abuse is one thing, but having almost no social interaction apart from that one individual? It would take years to recover from that.

And that leads me to another point--Ana's mother, Li. She was just...too unbelievably evil. Like, she would do things solely for the purpose of making her young daughter miserable. And yes, I know those people do exist, but unless you happen to know one, they're never believable in fiction. Besides, I would think that most of that behavior is related to either uncontrolled anger or the need to feel in power. I never got the sense that Li was experiencing either of those. Her cruelty was almost too casual. (If you want an example of what I thought was a believable abusive parent in fiction, see Ship Breaker.) Plus, I think the book once mentioned that the society's leaders decide who can and can't have kids. If the people in this community knew Li for thousands of years, shouldn't they have some idea of how evil she is? Why would they force her to raise a child she didn't even want? The whole "Li" element just made the whole book fall apart for me.

So in short, I liked the thought behind Incarnate, but I just couldn't get into the story. Oh well.


This book was on my list of "books that are similar to my novel-in-progress." Both books are utopian fantasy, but that turned out to be the only element they had in common.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review of "The Monstrumologist" by Rick Yancey

I can see why a lot of people think The Monstrumologist is a great book. It's dark, gruesome, uses eloquent, descriptive language, and touches on some good themes.

But I just couldn't bring myself to appreciate it.

The main problem was the pace. It dragged and dragged and wouldn't end. Yes, the writing was eloquent, but it was just. so. wordy. It could have easily been cut down to half its length and been twice as successful. And as for all the thematic stuff? An amateur English student would go bonkers for all of the worldly introspection in this book, but there was nothing original about it, and I found it more annoying than anything else.

Another issue is the content. Monsters by themselves make for very boring villains. They roar and chomp and eat you alive, but that's about the extent of it. Not that the choice of monster isn't interesting or unusual--I don't think anyone other than a medieval scholar knows what an anthropophagus is (think monstrous human body with face on its chest and no head). This book actually made me think back to my Monsters of the Middle Ages class from college--which brought up a whole other issue. In our class, we talked about the role of monster tales during the medieval period. One of these roles was to keep people in line--"don't travel too far, the sea monsters will get you." Another was to villainize certain groups, such as women and foreigners. Even though this story is set at least 100 years ago, I would have hoped that a modern take on the monster tale would have examined or subverted these tropes.

But no, this story, if anything, continues the tradition of marginalizing anyone who isn't a white male. The "uncivilized exotic foreigners who keep monsters for sport" trope is here (briefly, and only mentioned through a third party), and there are no major female roles to speak of. The only female characters are nagging wives or fridged young women. (The story starts with a dead young woman who has her body mauled and "impregnated" with the eggs of an anthropophagus--and the narrator repeats multiple times how horrifying it is that her body has been thus defiled (even though she was already dead when the monster found her).) The only female "character" is the biggest and most monstrous of the anthropophagi.

So if you like stories that are antiquated in both style, word count, and worldview, this would be a great book for you. Otherwise, there are a million other books you can read with equally eloquent writing and significantly better plots.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Book Recommendation: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy (audiobook)

Imagine the end of the world. The world is empty and deserted, there's not an animal in sight to hunt, and the only hope of salvation means traveling a long, cold journey that might lead to nowhere. In this sort of world, there are no friends and no one to trust.

This book is about a father and his young son searching for the last haven on earth. It's a book about hope and despair and about how, through everything, maybe it's still important to be one of the "good guys."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Back in the US

I actually came back a week ago, but between getting sick and being too tired to write because of jet lag, I've been putting off blogging and critiquing. But I'm back now, so you'll start seeing more of me around the internets.

A few things about my trip, if you're interested:

I was in Israel for a few days for a cousin's wedding. The wedding was nice, as most of them are. I really liked the music (a lot of international stuff) and the food was good, even though there was way too much of it. Aside from the wedding, I spent most of the time at my aunt and uncle's kibbutz (rural village in Israel). The kibbutz is a great place to get writing done, because it's so peaceful and rural. (I used the kibbutz as inspiration for Takiran villages, which is another reason I love to write there.)

Then I spent a week in Madrid. I studied abroad there for a semester, so I mostly came to visit friends. That didn't go quite as planned. Out of the three people I had contacted ahead of time, I only saw two, and only a couple times each. Both of them were friends from aikido, and they invited me to come to class while I was there, which was a lot of fun. (And much less embarrassing than I had expected, since I hadn't done aikido since moving to New Jersey.) I also went to Segovia one day, which is a beautiful city and great for inspiration. The hostel I stayed at was great (9 Euro a night, and they provided free breakfast as well as free sangria and beer every night.) I met a lot of really cool people at the hostel, so when I went out at night, it was with them. (I got to show two of my Korean friends the Debod Temple at night. Also, I partied with a local juggler--he actually makes enough money to survive by juggling in the street!) I also discovered two of the best bars in Madrid, both in Lavapies (the international district). Unfortunately, my Spanish became somewhat rusty after I graduated from college, and I didn't hit proficiency until two days before I left.

Madrid was a lot of fun, but I don't think I'm going to go back for a long, long time. I've pretty much seen everything there was to see in the city (Spain has a ton of great sight-seeing cities, and Madrid is fairly mediocre in comparison) and there's almost nothing there that I can actually eat. Most of the people I came to see made little or no effort to actually see me, so I don't feel any huge inclination to go back. I had a great time, and I'm glad I went, but there are a hundred other places in the world that will be much more worth it in the future.

I also decided that I don't want to travel by myself anymore. I met a ton of people, but there were long hours that I spent wandering around by myself. I like wandering, but it's more fun when other people are around.

So that's my ramble. Now I'm going to go catch up on those book reviews. (The next one in line is The Road, but I just finished Throne of Glass, so that's the one I'm actually more inclined to write right now.)
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