What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

It’s finally over.

This sense of relief is my predominate emotion after slogging through The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis. Not that the book is terrible, per se. Lewis drops some valid gems throughout the book, and I found myself highlighting passages as if I were back in college. The book was obviously a labor of love. However, her writing style, while perhaps appropriate for her career in the upper echelons of the art world (especially writing art critiques), doesn’t quite translate to the hoi polloi reading audience. Once upon a time, I lived for the flowery yet convoluted sentence structure employed in the book, along with liberal sprinklings of $2.50 words and obscure art and cultural references beyond certain circles; it’s why I was a fan of the late Manning Marable (in fact, Lewis’s writing style reminds me of Marable’s–a lot). Nowadays, maybe my brain is just too old (or overworked) to cut through anyone’s etymological maze in the name of being perceived as one of the smart kids–which I already am –or stopping every other sentence to look up a reference that I don’t understand or with I am unfamiliar.

To quote singer Tamar Braxton: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” 😉

[I mean, I love using my extensive vocabulary as much as the next nerd, but as a writer I know that my readers have to understand what I’m writing if they are to be engaged enough to drop some shekels in my basket. Feel me?]

Lewis uses The Rise as a platform to examine the correlation between creativity, failure, and mastery. Or rather, why some people use failure as an impetus to achieve mastery, while others use it as an excuse to quit. Why some creative people are content to exist within the prescribed, time-tested parameters of their particular niche; while others are willing to jump off a cliff at the risk of falling to their deaths while hoping to sprout wings and fly. The premise is valid; the execution, not so much.

Lewis likes to pack a lot of information into a small space; she will mention thermodynamics, Shakespeare, Sumerian myth, modern dance, and arctic exploration–sometimes all in one paragraph. The spasmodic jumps between exemplars lack the smoothness of, say, Malcolm Gladwell (to whom Lewis was unfairly compared), who has written bestsellers in a similar vein as The Rise: taking a subject and figuring out how it affects (or doesn’t) certain groups of people. Add this to the aforementioned maze-like conveyance of ideas and a penchant for name-dropping, and I understand why this book was such a chore for me to read.

As I’ve said before: the book isn’t bad, just tedious. Lewis’s perspective on failure and mastery is interesting, though not presented a clearly as I’d like. There’s good stuff in there, but you have to dig for it (alcohol and/or skimming ahead optional). I just had higher hopes for the content, given the initial hype surrounding the book in literary circles.

Thanks for stopping by.

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A Review By Any Other Name…

I have noticed a trend in book “reviews”, especially by independent bloggers such as myself: they aren’t reviews so much as puff pieces: PR-worthy paeans of praise for prose that is possibly putrid.

(that alliteration just rolled off my fingers. Yay, me!)

Seriously, folks: I was a professional (read: paid by legit publications & recognized as such) book reviewer for some years. While individual writing style may vary, a proper review always–ALWAYS–includes the good and the not-so-great things about a book. And make no mistake, there is always something not-so-great about even the most bestselling and/or popular book.

I would never have gotten even one review published had I just focused on how great (or not) I thought a book was; that’s how I learned to write a review, by having my drafts sent back and rewriting them to accurately reflect concrete, objective issues in a book versus my personal feelings about the book (there is a difference, but people often confuse the two under the guise of a “review”).

The people who paid me wanted balance, as that balance was what lent legitimacy to the reviews by both authors and readers alike. And yes, I have caught hell from authors when a review wasn’t as glowing as they’d prefer (“What…what do you mean, you didn’t like XYZ in my book? How could you find fault in it? Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews loved it! It’s on the NYT Bestseller list! It’s got over 500 five-star ratings on Amazon!  HOW DARE YOU?!”), but in the end they had to (grudgingly) admit that while the review wasn’t to their liking, it was at least fair. Plus, if an author is a true writer who wants to further hone his or her craft, the constructive criticism is necessary for future growth.

(if you’re a writer and you can’t handle folks telling you your writing sucks in some way, you’re in the wrong line of business.)

There is nothing wrong with giving a shoutout to an author when you’re digging her or his work. Our egos thank you for it. But keep it real and call the praise-only blurbs what they are: acknowledgements of fandom better suited for personal blogs and big-ups on social media, rather than a “(professional) review”.

Thanks for stopping by.

RETRO READS: Within the Shadows

Hi all!  Welcome to Retro Reads, where I talk about my favorite books that were published at least ten years ago. You can still find most of them online, though sometimes they have been re-released with a different cover and/or title. I will let you know if a book is out of print or otherwise unavailable.

WITHIN THE SHADOWS
Brandon Massey
Horror/Suspense
Publication year: 2005
Out of print/available used

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I have been a longtime Brandon Massey fan, ever since I reviewed his first commercially published book, Dark Corner. I met Brandon in person at Book Expo America in 2005, where I received my autographed copy. He has provided good writing advice over the years (thx, Brandon!), even as he has successfully adapted to the ever-changing publishing landscape.

Within the Shadows is Massey’s third book and the story of Andrew, a successful writer in the Atlanta area who becomes involved with a beautiful woman, Mika. Mika, however, turns out to be a stalker on a whole ‘nother level, aided by seemingly unlimited funds and a Grand Canyon-sized sense of entitlement. While trying to fend off Mika’s increasingly unwanted advances, Andrew also tries to rekindle his relationship with his estranged father, Raymond, which had taken an unexpected nosedive after both were involved in a car accident in rural Georgia. Unbeknownst to Andrew, Raymond was compelled to cause the accident and his secrecy ends up getting a few folks killed…and Andrew may be next.

Massey continues his recurring theme  of strained father/son relations, which is present in most of his books. He also spins on the “sins of the father” trope in Within the Shadows. Massey utilizes the supernatural in a way that taps into that part of us that we as people don’t like to acknowledge: the knee-jerk denial of the otherworld. The strong secondary characters of Eric, Andrew’s best friend and Carmen, Andrew’s not-so-unrequited love, help round out the story. While Mika’s character can be too over-the-top at times, it ends up working within the context of the greater story. Perhaps the best part of the book is realizing Raymond’s part in this whole mess and how it both harms and heals his relationship with Andrew.

Within the Shadows won’t keep you up at night, but it will provide some thrills and chills.

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: Salsa Nocturna

I finally got around to reading a book I’ve had for a while: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older.

This is Older’s debut collection of short stories (published in 2012), and the jump-off of his first full-length novel, Half-Resurrection Blues. While I perceived Salsa Nocturna to be the precursor to HRB, Older said that the events in SN took place after HRB instead of before. He’s the author, so he should know, though I beg to differ. 🙂

Anyway, having read some of his other short stories published here and there (and also here); his contributions to the anthologies Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond and Long Hidden; and his debut young adult novel Shadowshaper (more on that in a later post), I was not disappointed with Salsa Nocturna. At all. Set in Older’s preferred boroughs of New York City, Salsa Nocturna introduces the eclectic plethora of supernatural and supernatural-affiliated characters that populate HRB.  The social commentary alone was great (“Protected Entity” was everything) and the characters were so rich and varied that it was like reading a paint palette. The characters meet and bond throughout an array of otherworldly situations that are sometimes as amusing and engaging as the characters themselves (Riley and Gordo quickly emerged as two of my favorites). Older is also one of the relative few Latino authors who does not sugarcoat the mezcla of African and Latino bloodlines and cultures in his writing, and for that alone he gets props from me. I wasn’t really digging HRB based on the excerpt I read (and the character Carlos even less) but after reading Salsa Nocturna, I’m more inclined to plunk down some cash for Half-Resurrection Blues. His character Kia, in the linked stories above, has me anticipating her own upcoming novel, Midnight Taxi Tango.

Salsa Nocturna is, in my humble opinion, Older’s strongest full-length work to date. Short stories are where Older’s talent shines brightest and I would love to see him pen another collection, even with different characters. Do yourself a favor and pick up Salsa Nocturna. Thank me later.

And thanks for stopping by.