Remembering my dad

Dad’s shadow still looms large in my life.

With today the third anniversary of my father’s death, I’ve been pondering what to write. I thought for a while I might take a particular “angle” to discuss, like organ donation. My father suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was declared brain dead, so his body was viable, and my siblings and I all agreed to donate his organs, so his kidneys and liver are now keeping three people alive. So I could take the opportunity here to talk all about that. I felt so happy to know that my very health-conscious father could help other people even as we had to lose him. I was particularly pleased when we received a letter from the woman who received his liver, and it became even more personal.

But no, I decided not to make this post all about that angle. After the full weekend I’ve had, I’ve just realized that, as always, I simply want to honor my father by living my best life. I felt blessed the other night to have a few prayers answered and to be able to make progress in some goals I’ve had for a while, and I thought it was wonderfully appropriate that my exciting evening of those things coming together came over this weekend. Saturday was three years after the hemorrhage, when I realized, late that night, that my father would not survive it. Yesterday I remembered our long drive to where he was lying in a hospital, his body kept alive by machines and medicines, so his children could be there with him. Three years ago today, we met with doctors who officially informed us of the steps they had taken to assure he truly was “gone.” We said goodbye to him and held a funeral service two days later, just a small group of family and a few friends who were in the area.

I’ve remembered him every single day that he’s been out of my life, but these anniversaries have brought home again the memories of those days and moments, where I had been hit and flattened by an emotional truck and felt hollowed out by grief the magnitude of which I had never before experienced. I had dreaded the days when my parents would die, because I knew they would be devastating, but I thought I had a lot more years with my dad. The unexpected event blindsided me.But the grief has eased over time, and the hole in my chest doesn’t feel quite so gaping. Now I remember with a chuckle all of his foibles that would make me crazy, and I recollect with fondness all the time we had together, all the experiences we shared. He taught me so much.

Right now I’m writing a book, and I’ve been able to incorporate some of the lessons he taught me about media literacy into what I’m writing, and it gives me such great satisfaction to be able to use his work within mine. He’s a part of my present even now, as I work on a project that is so important to me. I may not be able to talk to him about it and share my excitement, but I’m still somehow sharing this with him.

As I watched my oldest participate in a marching band competition on Saturday on a perfect fall afternoon, I thought of Dad, who marched in band himself many years ago and loved watching when I did so too as a high school student. My heart swelled with pride on his behalf as well as mine. I listen to my fifth-grader practice on the very same trumpet my dad played, and I feel him around somehow.

So many things remind me of Dad and keep him close here in my life. The best “angle” I can write about today is simply that he  lives on, quite literally, and I will see him again someday, and even now, he is still present in my life through all he taught me and all I do that honors him.

Strong language in books: not so common as one might think

After addressing my great discomfort with the number of strong and vulgar language in J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, I looked at other bloggers’ reviews on the book, and I was perhaps a tiny bit surprised that few expressed any frustration with that issue. Several that I commented on basically did respond that they thought that the really, really frequent use of harsh language felt “authentic” to them.

So I decided to do a little analysis of how frequently the f-word, for instance, pops up in popular books to see just how much use readers are “used to” or tolerate.

My ratings website, Rated Reads, features nearly 1,000 reviews of a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and young adult books. Of those, only about 175 are rated “high” and a few are rated “DIRT” (for “don’t invest reading time” — not because of the quality of the writing, but just because of the offensive content). I thought that it would be interesting to see how many uses of the f-word tend to be used among those books my reviewers and I have already rated “high,” which means in terms of language, more than five or six uses of the f-word.

Here’s the breakdown: 17 of the “high” ratings have no use of strong language (they’re rated high for detailed sexual content); 91 have between 6 and about 15; 31 have between 20 and 40 uses of the f-word; and only 15 have more than 50 uses of that strong word (or the very rare c-word).

My conclusion? Writers of the most “popular” or “critically acclaimed” books, which are sampled fairly well on Rated Reads, don’t tend to use the f-word much more than 15 times. Only a very few use it very liberally, 50 times or more.

Which is why J.K. Rowling’s book for adults seemed so outrageous to me: she must use the f-word 100 times or so (and the c-word at least once), not to mention a liberal use all the other “milder” language. That puts The Casual Vacancy into a very small group: only about 1 percent of books, according to my sample of about 1,000 books, use strong language that casually.

It brings me back to wondering why authors use strong language. Readers who “defend” the liberal use of harsh language say it’s because the authors are being “authentic.” Especially when it comes to high school-age kids, they say, that kind of language is used all the time. I don’t argue that notion. It’s true that one can hear a lot of bad stuff in a school hallway. And then there are different groups in society that tend to use that kind of language very frequently and without any thought for what it says about them. But if most authors would hope to be “authentic,” then why do so few actually use that kind of strong language very often? In a book of 300 to 500 pages, my “most common” group of usages of the f-word only feature about 6 to 15 uses of it. That’s actually not too “true to life,” one could argue.

In fact, a lot of the books that readers really love don’t have any use of the f-word, or very limited use of it. It would seem that those authors, who write well and with large followings, don’t feel a need to use “authentic” language. Hm.

Most of the books out there that are really entertaining or thought-provoking, that open a window into other worlds of all sorts, succeed at transporting us as readers, making us think and experience other places and groups of people, and do the job we want them to do — most of the time without using really harsh language (even if the characters, places, and situations might genuinely call for that kind of language if they were to be completely “authentic”). Are most of us complaining that they don’t use more authentic language? No. But when an author does use a lot of bad language in the service of being authentic, people just say, “Well, that was authentic.” Where’s the outrage here? If only a small percentage of writers (in this case less than 1 percent) really go for it and use tons of vulgarity, why don’t they stand out from the crowd that doesn’t write with tons of that trash?

I’ll let you all ponder on these facts and draw some of your own conclusions. Then comment and let me know what you think.

All I want to say to conclude is that in real life, yes, there is plenty of “authentic” rampant use of vulgarity and harsh language. I hear it sometimes, and I heard it when I was in school. My high-schooler hears it at her school. But given the choice, we both try to avoid it as much as we can, because regardless of what we’re “forced” to hear, we still don’t like it, and we haven’t “gotten used” to it. I avoid the groups of people and places where I would be likely to hear that kind of abuse of the English language, and likewise, I try to avoid books and movies that contain that language. I don’t HAVE to read or watch those books or movies or TV programs. I have a choice. And I choose to stay away from them.

‘Casual Vacancy’ left me feeling empty

Given how gifted a writer J.K. Rowling proved herself to be as she gave readers the amazing series of Harry Potter, I couldn’t help but be excited about her writing a new book. I knew it would in no way compare to Harry Potter, but I thought that there was no way she could craft a bomb.

Well, less than 30 pages in to The Casual Vacancy, I was forced to stop reading. I’ll never know if the book is a worthy effort in terms of plot or writing style because it’s just jam-packed with vulgarity, and I refuse to read any more. I very rarely put down a book after getting started simply because it’s laced with profanity and other offensive content, but this was one of those times. I am SO disappointed. I am particularly disenchanted with Jo Rowling. From what I read in the first bit and then just after flipping through the book and stopping on random pages, I am inclined to estimate that there must be a hundred uses of the f-word (the rarely used c-word is even in the first bit that I read). Or even more. I just don’t care to read more to find out exactly how many. What’s the point?

I’ve already written about my aversion to vulgarity in books and that I don’t see a need for them to show “authenticity.” There’s just no reason for that. I know that there are people out there who disagree with me, but I am also fairly sure that quite a few readers really don’t want to read a book that contains 100 uses of the f-word.

Jo, just because this is your first book for adults doesn’t mean that it has to be “adult.” You could have written a fine book without all of that trash. I know that it doesn’t really matter to you how many copies you sell, at least financially, since you’re already set for about a hundred lifetimes. But does it matter to you that many of your loyal readers are now disappointed and disgusted by your choice to make this so full of vulgarity? I hope it does. I hope that next time you write a book you choose to make it “cleaner.” It doesn’t have to be squeaky-clean, and it doesn’t have to be appropriate for young readers, (even though that would be nice, considering the fact that some younger readers will likely try to read your adult novels even though they’re clearly “for adults”) but it would be nice if it were more accessible for everyone.

Review and thoughts on ‘UnWholly’ and ‘Unwind’

Although I write book reviews on my review website, Rated Reads, sometimes I’d just like to take a little time to write extra about the books I’ve read and put them in context in other ways. After reading Neal Shusterman’s UnWholly, the sequel to his young adult book Unwind, I find myself having to wax eloquent and enthusiastic about this series.

In brief, Unwind introduces a future in which there has been a war between pro-choice advocates and pro-lifers. It is ended when the two sides come to an agreement in which abortions are outlawed, but teens may be “retroactively aborted” or “unwound” by essentially donating their organs and ALL of their body parts. Whoa! What a concept! I love to read books that have compelling, original premises, and it thrills me when the authors are skilled enough to be able to execute those ideas perfectly. Neal Shusterman has written quite a few other young adult books, including the popular and well-regarded Skinjacker Trilogy (which I have yet to read but have heard good things about), and he also writes screenplays. So he was the right man for this job, with experience and skill.

I was introduced to Unwind by a friend, who had our book club read it, and it was a great book to use for that purpose: it’s interesting and fairly easy to read, but it is so thought-provoking that it provides plenty of material for discussion. UnWholly continues the series very well, keeping up a fast pace filled with action, and introducing new characters and new ideas that are ripe for dissection. What’s particularly interesting to me is that Shusterman doesn’t seem to have a clear “agenda” in that he’s obviously pro-life or pro-choice; he allows readers to just think about all the issues and ramifications of the choices that have been made by those two groups and society as a whole in this imagined future.

What’s nice is that Shusterman also chooses not to fill the books with bad language, vulgarity, sexual content or gore, which plenty of writers out there would certainly be tempted to do to give it “authenticity” (I’ve already discussed my feelings about THAT). There is occasional bad language and some violence, but it’s not too detailed or gross, just enough to get the point across and move along the action and plot. Good going, Neal!

This series is great for teens and adults alike, for entertainment and for the seeds of a good discussion about a variety of moral and ethical issues. Honestly, I think this trumps The Hunger Games for a few reasons and should get more attention because of that: it’s just as action-filled, compelling, and exciting, great for guys to read as well as girls (’cause honestly, there aren’t necessarily as many popular books out there geared towards teen males as there are toward female readers), but it has more elements that give food for thought. Hunger Games makes one think about the excesses of government and the concept of reality shows gone too far, but after that, it is just a good story. But Unwind and UnWholly continue to provide topics for discussion and pondering as the stories go forward, not just giving pause for thought with their premises. I’d definitely recommend this series for anyone who loved Hunger Games.