1. W--Two Worlds. My first and favorite thus far. Even if it isn't perfect (I felt like a particular main character was underused in the ending), it did a great job of having an exciting plotline, very likable characters, a real heroine who actually DOES something, humor, really heartwrenching sadness, strong chemistry between all of the characters in multiple directions, and a meta level of discussion of good writing and also beautiful illustration. Great use of repetition to show character development, too. About a webcomic artist, his character who comes alive and starts to resist the storyline, the artist's subsequent freakout and attempt to end it, and the artist's daughter who goes into the comic to save the life of the main character. Like I said, it was my first one, and pretty mindblowing. I see from the making-of documentary that all of the comics that show up in the show were actually drawn. If you took apart my brain to come up with the perfect story I never knew I wanted, this would be it.
2. Pinocchio. The title refers to truth-telling, not dolls that come alive. This one has so many personal stakes in it that you can hardly move without setting them off like dominoes. The central theme is truth versus loyalty. It's about a kid whose family was destroyed by the media after his fire chief father led his team into a burning warehouse that exploded and killed all of the firefighters. His father was blamed and his family hounded in the father's absence until the brother disappears and the mom kills herself. He grows up to be a rookie reporter in spite of this, meeting up again with the reporter who wrecked his life. However, she's also the mother of the girl he likes. And when he learns some things about his family, he finds loyalty and truth in direct conflict with each other. The family he grows up with (especially the grandfather who adopts him) are wonderful. There is also a great soundtrack! This is a good one to study stakes.
3. I Hear Your Voice. This is by the same writer (with several of the same actors) as Pinocchio, only it's a thriller (plus ESP--the main character can read minds). Park Soo Ha was just a kid when his dad was murdered by a crazy man leaping out of a truck at them. His life was saved and his story of murder, not accident, corroborated when a girl passing on the sidewalk takes a photo with her cell phone and has the courage to stand in court and testify. The murderer is sent to jail, but not before promising to find that girl and kill her when he gets out. Fast forward 10 years. Soo Ha has been preparing for the day that this guy gets out of jail so he can protect his protector. The girl is now a prosecutor, and sure enough, the murderer comes for them. It's a great story of choices over circumstances, self control over vengeance, overcoming your personal demons, and even learning to understand the stories of others who may be adversaries. All of the character arcs are very well followed-through.
4. Master's Sun. This one starts out really strangely, almost horror. It's about a girl who can barely crawl out of her house because she's so scared of all of the ghosts who keep popping out of nowhere, wanting her to take messages to the living for them. Visually they are really CREEPY at the beginning, and I almost gave up, but I'm glad I didn't. Don't let the creepy faces get to you! Anyway, she runs into the one person whose presence dispels the ghosts, giving her relief. Unfortunately, he's not very nice. He's the CEO of a huge shopping mall, and loves money and only money. He doesn't believe in anything he can't see, and he doesn't care about people at all. And she is not only a person, but just a really strange person! Of course you can imagine the plot trajectory, with him developing faith in the unseen and learning to be a kinder, more decent person, and her learning to have self control and embrace the ghosts around her. What I thought was so awesome about this one (besides the obvious humor and setup) is the fact that while the characters grow, they don't turn into different people entirely. I get tired of the ugly duckling, American movie style, where all the girl needs is a better wardrobe and makeup, and magically she's turned into someone else and now she's the it girl, etc. In this (or rather, these--I see it in other dramas, too), they don't so much turn into some nameless perfect character as simply become their best selves. So Tae Gong Shil is still a little offbeat--but she becomes confident. Mr. CEO still loves the business of making money at the end--but he's become a much better person, too. Also. The show is FUNNY.
If you like kdramas, are there any you would suggest? If you have never watched them, I would have to say I recommend them! There are all different kinds (historical--called saeguks, which often take place in the Joseon era, with a lot of cool costumes--, thrillers, medical ones, sci fi, ordinary romantic comedies, etc.), so if you try one and don't like it, there are always other kinds. In the meantime, we've started learning Korean at our house so that when it's the last episode and we can't wait for subtitles, we can watch it raw. Besides, with that volume of language input, it's almost criminal NOT to study it. If we had that amount of access to family-friendly German shows, our kids would all still be fluent.
- Makes you feeeeeeeeel. This is the single most important element. If everything else is cool but it doesn’t make you feel, it strikes out.
- Makes you think. It has got to have a good plot that is logical and fits in retrospect, yet isn’t see-through and predictable as you go in.
- Early clues planted that have large plot payoff later on. Payoff, payoff, payoff! I love seeing weaknesses turn into The Solution. I love seeing casual background scenery come off the walls and effect major turning points. I love seeing characters we thought were not so important turn out to be. I love adding just a touch more information about someone/a situation that shifts the entire way you see it. It's like laying out all of the pieces of a circuit and then plugging it in.That lightbulb moment of awesome.
- Sacrifice. Characters have to sacrifice something they want for the benefit of someone they love.
- Well, love. All kinds—romantic, family, kindness. It’s the thing that holds the entire universe together, so yeah, it all sorta boils down to this one golden truth. People will make great sacrifices and effect great growth for love more than anything else. True love (of whatever sort) contributes to happiness.
- Therefore, you need some pretty big obstacles. You need a longing for some core principle (ie love or something comparable) that your reader can totally buy into—and then you make it impossible to actually get. (Uhh…and then as writer, you HAVE to find a way to it. The more twists and turns along the way, though, the better.)
- All of this means tons of character growth. It can't just be suffering. It has to be worth something in the end--to make the character more than they were at the start.
- The more serious stuff/core nerves you touch, the more you need to ensure some humor to balance out. This not only gives the reader a break, but it also provides a foil to the tension. If it is all tension all the time, the events start to cease to have impact/meaning. There are books with too much tension and not enough relief where I've actually set them down and walked away because it was like trying to eat straight horseradish. You need balance.
- More true heroines, please. Like, not just a hero and a love interest (or vice versa). I didn't realize until watching W how nice it is to see a female lead be heroic without having to be an assassin or reject all human connections. Just an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things, being smart, using her resources, and making intelligent sacrifices. I want the girl and guy to complement each other and be equally awesome together. I can't think of too many stories that fully pull this off. Maybe The Blue Sword?
- Characters need to feel fully grounded. You do this by adding in mundane, ordinary details as they walk through the world. You can’t take up too much time with them, but you need the reader to feel like they have a life outside what is immediate proscribed by the plot. Example: Do Yoon in W. He barely has any lines. But you know he used to do martial arts and trained Kang Chul. You can tell they’re best friends because of the way he keeps confidences, even when they don’t make sense, and by how he questions Chul. Or, attention to everyday details that sometimes heroes don’t seem to have to deal with in stories—like Yeon Joo realizing after being a couple weeks in the manhwa world that she is getting whiffy and really needs a shower. These real-world grounding details can also provide necessary comic relief in a tense situation.
- Really, the more heartbreaking your story, the more comedy you need. Think of Jordan Sonnenblick’s writing. You laugh even as your heart is breaking. I don’t know how to do this, but it is so, SO effective.
- Gah. I just want to write something that makes people feel and obsess and have it entertain but have the underlying fundamental universal truths in it leak out of the book into the real world and stick to people’s insides.
In the real world. W is a bestselling web and print comic. It updates in real time, and the author, Oh Seong Moo, has gotten quite successful over it. But he is also one depressed alcoholic. And the comic is starting to take on a life of its own, not accepting all the changes he makes in it, and sometimes acting of itself. He freaks out and wants to put an end to it all--even if it means killing off his hero before Chul ever reaches his goal of finding his family's murderer. However, the night before the final episode is due, Mr. Oh disappears. His staff are worried. His daughter, Oh Yeon Joo, comes over to help look for him. While in his studio, she is pulled into the Cintiq drawing tablet by a bloody hand. It's Kang Chul. He's been stabbed, and desperately needs help. She's a doctor, so...she saves his life before realizing that something is really, really weird. She's in the comic world, but as she later tells one of her father's assistants--they are just like us. They are human, too. There is a lot of crossing back and forth, with all of the complications that arise from stuff like that, and let's just say that dad isn't entirely in control of the comic anymore. And bad guys are on the loose!
This show is so, so good! It's 16 episodes long (to date I've seen 10). And every one has a major plot twist at the end. I'm a writer, and I've read thousands of books. It's pretty hard to surprise me. But man, this one does! It has quite a metaliterary bent to it (develop your antagonists! Give them names and faces and personalities, or they'll come after you!). It's philosophical (Plato's cave, anyone?). It's got tons of action and romance and how the heck? and oh my gosh what is going to happen NEXT?? And it's FUNNY. I've skimmed a couple of other Korean dramas and been bored because there isn't enough humor to balance out the serious parts. I think that the harder you want serious parts to hit your reader/viewer, the more you need to employ a judicious use of humor. It makes people feel full, it creates contrasts, it allows relief so your reader doesn't get tired.
One of the interesting themes is power--because different characters have tremendous power in certain settings. It's interesting to see what they do with that power, depending on their sense of morality. People in relationships (even without manga portals) have tremendous power over their significant others. Some of my favorite parts are where Yeon Joo and Chul are working together to do extraordinary things, balancing their various areas of power for the benefit of each other.
One of the particular strengths I'm noticing also is that the writer is not afraid to follow the consequences of choices. And, she's not afraid to pause the action scenes and let the viewer feel. There have been a couple of extended scenes (one in a bookstore, one after a dream--you'll know the ones if you've seen it) where the main characters are just GUTTED--and because the script pauses on these, boy, they really hit hard in the feeeeeeelings department. Sometimes I read books and it's like the authors have taken the advice to start late and end early a little too seriously. Yes, you need action and you need plot developments. But if you want all of those developments to mean something to the reader, you've got to give a little screen time to the reaction/consequence. Let the important moments sink in. It's an investment in the characters and the book and the reader.
Anyway, the writing is sooooo entertaining. The acting is excellent. I have no idea how the writer will solve this one, but I really hope she pulls it off! So grab some popcorn and get watching. :)
In the meantime, I'm trying to let my subconscious swirl around and see what it wants to do next--finish off one of the partials I have (and if so, which one?), or start something new from whole cloth. It's kind of a delicious feeling, to be honest.
I know I'm going to be busy soon enough (we're moving at the end of May), but it just feels very weird not to be stressing about finishing this draft!
Anyway, here are some books I've read so far this year that I liked in some way or another.
A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, by Lisa Papademetriou. A really great middle grade read-aloud. It’s about two supposedly unconnected girls who each go away for the summer to visit family members, and each find a blank book called The Exquisite Corpse. They write in it, and the book writes back. (Well, really, they’re writing back to each other, but they don’t realize that.) One girl is in Texas and one is in Pakistan. And there’s a funeral home. And there is justice for past wrongs, too. And they are all connected.
The Aviary, by Kathleen O’Dell. Middle grade. It reminded me of a book by Sarah Williams. Turn of the century-ish, about a girl named Clara who lives with her mother, the cook, and old Mrs. Glendoveer, who her mother is taking care of. Oh, and five birds who have lived far past their ordinary lifespan. When Mrs. Glendoveer dies, Clara secretly makes a friend, Daphne, and they discover the scandal that happened before. Mr. Glendoveer was a professional magician, only then his kids were kidnapped and drowned. One child, Elliott, the youngest, disappeared. The birds start to talk, and it’s up to the kids to find out what really happened, where to find Elliott, and how to bring the criminals to justice.
The Weight of Feathers, by Anne-Marie McLemore. Interesting Romeo and Juliet retelling. The Cobeau family are a traveling performing family. They wear feathered wings and do an act in the trees. The Paloma family is a traveling performing family. They have a mermaid act. The two families haaaaaate each other, each blaming the other for destroying some family members and their performing location in this one place they always end up at every year. The night the local factory blows, letting loose hazardous chemical rain that can kill people, Luc “Cluck” Corbeau saves the life of Lace Paloma. They don’t know who each other are. But the mark of his feather (yes, they grow feathers under their hair) ends up on her arm. Burned and unable to be in the mermaid act, so goes to the Corbeaus under cover, hoping to even up the score so that the curse of the feather mark can be lifted. But of course, they fall for each other—the rejected ones in each of their clans. (Luc’s mother has never loved him, and his brother regular beats him up.) As they learn the truth about what really happened at the factory long ago, and more importantly, what really happened between the two families, they find the strength to become who they really are.
The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz. About a girl in 1911 (Joan Skraggs, only she prefers to be called Janet Lovelace) who runs away from an abusive farm family at age 14 and becomes a hired girl for a Jewish family in Baltimore. She pretends to be 18 but is of course very young, so she makes a lot of embarrassing mistakes, like falling for the charming 21 (!) YO son of the family, and also plenty of religious clashes (she didn’t know much about Jews and she was trying to become confirmed Catholic). Won the youth category of I think the National Book Award. Very well written. Some outcry because of a couple lines showing her ignorance about Native Americans (but that was the POINT—that she was young and naïve).
The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelley Pearsall. This was a good one. Maybe fans of Gary Schmidt might like it. I didn’t realize it was based on a true person’s life until I read the afterword, either (which is a good thing—sometimes when you try to novelize something real, it doesn’t feel organic. I read another book recently that didn't quite work for that reason). It’s about a kid named Arthur who is mourning the death of his dad, and in his grief, throws a brick at the Junk Man and breaks his arm. He gets sentenced to helping the Junk Man with his work--which is, indeed, going through garbage cans looking for certain things. At first it's pretty mortifying, but then Arthur starts to understand what exactly the old guy is doing. I loved reading about the transformative power of art and how learning to recognize it changed this kid and his attitude towards other people.
Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, by Tanner Colby. Adult nonfiction about racism, why it is still around, and what keeps it going. This was a good one. I don’t know that it offers solutions, but it does a great job of pointing out a lot of less-discussed issues in integration. He covers four areas that seem unrelated, but which really underscore the segregation that still exists in our society: school (why is there still a black table and a white table at some school cafeterias?), housing (creepy history of blockbusting and HOAs), worship (once you force out a group of people, they make their own culture, and don't want to give that up later when people come, wanting to integrate), and work (education is great, but personal mentors and connections in the field are what get people jobs. If you have no one in your group in your industry *cough* publishing *cough* it's hard to break in, no matter what skills you have). It's partly the story of what happens long term when you shut out a certain segment of the population, but it's also about the complicated dance between wanting to have the same opportunities as anyone else, but not letting go and losing your culture.
Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. MG; I think this won a recent Newbery. Funny and…strange. The main character shares an exact name with the author. I think it’s part fiction and part true. Set in the 60s with a pro-Bernie Sanders mother and a pro-Donald Trump dad (not literally, of course--but if they lived today, they would each be posting for their respective candidates with loud voices on Facebook), Jack is caught in the middle. He gets grounded for the summer and ends up typing obituaries for the crazy old lady down the street. Meanwhile, the town's elderly are dying at a suspiciously alarming rate. Weird book. Great voice.
Into the Dim, by Janet B. Taylor. Aaah. This was a fun one. As some have said, it’s a bit reminiscent of Ruby Red (the time travel, the jewels, the conspiracy). But still fun. Hope Walton (author is from Arkansas--yay!) goes to Scotland to visit aunt after mother dies. But Hope doesn’t believe mom is dead, and she’s right—mom is trapped in the middle ages. Mystery and warring factions of time travelers and hot boys, etc. This would be pure escapism when that is what you are looking for!
The Hollow Boy, by Jonathan Stroud. Third in the Lockwood & Co series. Not quite as creepy as the last one (which was SCARY), but still good. Lucy can hear ghosts and wants to listen to them, which is rather dangerous when her team is supposed to be eradicating them before they touch and kill people. Her team is trying to find the center of a massive outbreak. Also, they get a new assistant in this book, Holly Munro. She and Lucy do NOT get along. Lucy is a bit jealous of Lockwood’s attention to Holly… Lockwood is a bit of a privileged dude, even if he’s had hard stuff happen to him. I really like the ghost in the jar. He’s got quite a personality! There's a lot of character growth in here, and some developments that make me want the next book NOW.
Symphony for the City of the Dead, by MT Anderson. I grew up on classical music, especially all things Slavic, and in high school, our band did one of his pieces in a concert contest. I also wrote a paper for Russian class (in Russian; I have no idea what the words say anymore) on his 10th symphony. So I came in knowing something about him already, but this was a lot more. (Plus, in English, so I could understand!) Really excellent book about Dmitri Shostakovich's heady young days in the revolution, the scary, scary times of Stalin’s purges (what a person has to complain of when it comes to classical music is beyond me—how can violins be “anti-people,” or how can formalism be punishable by death??). The siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich writing his 7th symphony, the horrors of the siege and the turning point of hope when finally the staggering musicians still alive played his symphony in their city. I cried in that chapter.
A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty. Ooh. I love it when the last book still manages to have twists and surprises! This was a great ending to the Colors of Madeleine series. This is such a strange and enjoyable series. The writing feels a bit stream of consciousness, but then you wake up and realize that all of it is real. There are spoilers I can't talk about! But it's about of course resolving the plot problems of Worldians and Cellians, and also a bit about people meaning well and messing up (or meaning ill and changing). Very, very enjoyable book!
Meanwhile, the 2nd grader is busy celebrating Read Across America week. In case you're wondering, yes, he DID dress up as a book character today. Jack, from the Magic Treehouse books. Which means he's in jeans and a green shirt and carrying a backpack. Never mind that he looks like that every other day, too. :)
My senior has something like six AP classes this year and in one of them, they lined everyone up and had them take the privilege test. Step forward for every privilege and step back for every one you don't have. He's white and male, so he's got that, but in most of the economic ones, he ended up stepping back. (Note: race and class are horribly entertwined. However, class issues exist quite outside of the race frame as well.) He also got to step back for all of the times when he had to change his accent to fit in, or when he was not a native speaker of the dominant language, etc. The one thing that was really unusual in his class--even the teacher was surprised--was that every single kid stepped forward on the "do you live with both parents" question.
My 8th grader made it through track tryouts and is now doing "throwing things" in field events (I disagree that entry-level sports should have tryouts, but well, I am not in charge, either), and my 10th grader is enjoying running the distance end of track. So even though there is no orchestra here (sniff), the kids at least have something to be involved in. It's been one of the more difficult moves for our family (definitely THE most difficult for some members), but I do think it's good to point out what's working.
The other one was during one of the regular torrential rainstorms we have. The size of trees in relation to the houses is ginormous. At night when people's lights are on, it makes you think of maybe elves living in some Middle Earth forest--they seem so small and twinkly amid all that greenery.
One other nice thing about all the trees is that they blank out the city lights to a great extent. So if you find an unwooded spot, you can enjoy a pretty clear view of the stars, too. (That would be my next photography attempt, I suppose--a shot of stars through the trees.)
So, here is a fun (true) Cinderella story. I've been doing Czech genealogy with this distant relative, who recently ran across Berta Czuber (b. 1879). (Not literally, I mean in the records.) He's pretty sure she belongs to my branch, and I think I know which person she connects to. There are only so many people with that name who are master tailors at that time period in that tiny village.
So, imagine a family of shepherds. They move every year because they're always following the sheep. Eventually one son decides to settle down, marries a village girl and has kids. The next generation (and every generation thereafter), they are tailors. Well, one guy takes his tailoring and moves to the big city of Prague. And all fortunes change. His son gets educated. Actually, he gets so much education that he becomes a bona fide professor at the university. Rags to riches, right? (*cough* -- obviously, riches of the mind, not riches of the bank *cough*). But the story isn't over yet.
Mr. Smart Math Professor (Emanuel Czuber, if you want to find him in Wikipedia) has a daughter, Berta. She goes off to a ball in Prague--and meets a guy named Ferdinand. Archduke Ferdinand Carl of Austria, to be precise. The little brother of the guy who got shot in Sarajevo, thus starting the War to End All Wars. Ferdinand and Berta fall in luuuuurve, and parents flip out. No way, says professor dad. The emperor is not gonna like this, and he's going to take it out on my job. NO WAY! yells Uncle Emperor Franz Josef. But Ferdinand and Berta have a love that cannot be stopped. So they get married in Switzerland anyway, and keep it secret for two years. Then Uncle Franz Josef finds out. Blam! Blam! Blam! That's the sound of Uncle FJ blasting Ferdinand off the family tree tapestry on the wall. (He can't order them to get divorced because they are all Catholic, and that would not exactly go over well when you're the emperor. Plus--they obviously wouldn't do that, anyway. Because love.) Ferdinand has to change his name. Now he's no longer "von Oesterreich" but merely "Burg." And he's not allowed to set foot in the Austrian empire. They did let him come back for a funeral, though... Unfortunately for Berta, he died in 1915--and she kept on living and living, until 1979, when she was 99 and a half. No children, so the line ends there.
Now I'm thinking that I might need to study WWI all over again. Suddenly it seems very close to home!
On the positive side, I'm proud of the hard work my kids HAVE done throughout it all. And glad for all the teachers who have worked with my kids. Herr Zündt, my son's math teacher and principal at his German school, just retired this year. He reached out to this kid who didn't even understand the language, and saw that he was good at math, and gave him a voice through numbers. Coach Allan, who gave my older kids a lifelong guide for personal excellence and the importance of teamwork. Mr. Hansen, who took in kids who joined orchestra late--really late, like YEARS late--and helped them catch up and excel. I'm hoping my kids can somehow write this moving experience into their college entrance essays. Because it takes just as much effort to move frequently, catch up with the weird educational theories du jour in each new place, make new friends, change sports/music, have dreams interrupted, have to build respect from teachers all over again, etc. as it does to be captain of your cheer squad, or be student body president, or whatever the Very Important Extracurricular Activities that applications want in order to Prove You Are Special!!
So when you see new people show up once everyone else is already well established, please reach out. Please remember that while they might be new and time might be short, they probably have something to offer, too. Even if they're just "the rental people." Or the migrant workers. Or the I-don't-know-what-the-parents-were-think
*Nearly 70% of current US university faculty are now contingent. This doesn't mean the absence of cushy tenure positions where a horrible professor can do no wrong. This means severely, dangerously underpaid positions that come with an end date stamped on them the first day you show up. It's bad for the professors, it's bad for the students, and it's bad for academic freedom.