M is for Mark Watney

Hello, and welcome to Blogging A to Z 2017! Thanks for stopping by. Fellow A to Z-ers, please make sure to leave a link to your blog in the comments.

My theme this month is 26 of the Best Characters in Fiction.

IMG_8378.JPGMark Watney is the main character of The Martian, by Andy Weir. It’s technically a science fiction book, and people who know science fiction said that the science is mostly realistic. Even though natural sciences aren’t my thing, I do think it’s important for the science to be accurate. If I can spot the science problems, it takes me right out of the story.

Even though this is science fiction, for me it was much more about the psychological struggle of a man deserted on a planet where he knows he will probably die.

Mark is part of a team of astronauts who landed on Mars. When an unexpected storm happens, Mark is blown away from the rest of the team and presumed dead. When he wakes, and realizes what happened, he goes through the predictable stages, even contemplating suicide at one point.

But, of course, he doesn’t give up. He’s the botanist and the engineer, but he was also chosen for the mission because of his optimistic nature and his sense of humor. Those features really shine through throughout the book.

It could have been just a book about a guy surviving. But instead, Mark is a guy who’s doing his best to live. He complains about being stuck with only disco music (his commander’s personal items were left behind), and laughs at himself when he screws up.

There’s a reason why solitary confinement is considered the worst of the worst punishments for human beings. Being alone does wear on Mark, but his sense of humor is a constant. Even though he expects to die, he never gives up home.

I’m sure some people loved this book for the marooned on Mars aspect of it, and yeah, that was great. But I loved the human aspect of it. It’s not touchy-feely, hitting the reader over the head with what a great guy Mark is or showing him lamenting all the things he left behind (as I think some authors would have been tempted to do). Instead, Mark leaps off the page with every problem he solves and the way he interacts with others.

Oh, and the movie was good too.

Did you read the book or see the movie? What did you think?

What Makes a Memorable Book?

img_6613I read a lot of books every year.  Some are new, and some are re-reads.  I don’t re-read them because I’ve forgotten them.  I re-read because it’s like visiting an old friend.  If I’m re-reading a book, it’s most often because I remember it, and remembered how much I loved it.

So, what exactly makes for a memorable book?

It has something different.  I went through a time when I read a ton of romance novels, and many of them were the same.  Romance novels, in general, have a pretty predictable structure.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, or just have sparks, insurmountable obstacle happens, obstacle is surmounted against all odds, happily ever after.  A romance novel doesn’t have to deviate from that recipe in order to be good.  But it does have to bring a more interesting conflict than the normal one.  Sign of Seven trilogy, by Nora Roberts comes to mind.  It’s romance mixed with paranormal happenings.  If you haven’t read it, but you like romance and big evil bad guys, check it out.

Characters have unique traits.  I love characters with unique traits.  In The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the main character is antisocial and communicates through flowers.  In Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts, Novalee is superstitious about 7s.  The thing about unique traits, though, is that they can’t be for no reason and have no impact on the story.  Character traits have to mean something, or else they fade into nothingness in my memory.  Not to mention, meaningless quirks can irritate me into abandoning the book.

The characters make me care about them.  Not all characters have to be likable, and not everyone has to be a hero, but I have to be drawn into the story and care what happens, otherwise I’m indifferent.  When I’m indifferent to a character and story, I end up putting the book back down.  Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye is an example, as are Amy and Nick Dunne from Gone Girl.  Sure, they start off as likable, but I quickly came to hate them both.  It didn’t stop me from reading.  I wanted to know what happened!

It gets an emotional reaction.  This one is related to the last one, but if a book makes me laugh or cry, I’ll remember it.  I cry every single time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.  I’ve reread that book so many times over the last 20 (or so) years, but it gets me every time, just like it did the first time.  At least I know to have tissues.

But my emotions aren’t manipulated, and they don’t come cheap.  If I’m going to invest in a character, I want the sense that the author is invested in the character too.  If bad things are going to happen to a character, I want to know who the character is, if you expect me to care.  In The Martian, by Andy Weir, I was really rooting for Mark Watney to get off Mars.  My heart raced every time something bad happened to him, and I was genuinely excited when he was finally rescued.  I wouldn’t have been so invested if Mark had just rolled over and died, or passively waited to be rescued.  He worked for the victory, so I happily cheered him on.

The title makes sense.  This one isn’t a deal breaker, but I remember a book so much better if the title actually relates to the book in a meaningful/ memorable way.  The Night Circus is clearly and unambiguously related to the plot.  Bonus points because it’s title that would make me want to read the book.

What makes a book memorable to you?  Do you re-read?

 

French Fries, Salad, and How This Post is Actually About Books

IMG_6093I’ve said time and time again that I prefer novels to “literature” because novels tend to contain plot, whereas much literature focuses on language.  That’s true, and I stand behind that.  However, many classics and literary fiction, I’m finding, also contain ideas.  I love ideas and thought exercises.  In looking at the books I most enjoy, they blend plot and character with ideas.  The books aren’t just about Jane Doe who does something and interacts with Jack and Jill and does some stuff.  The books I love most are about concepts.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, was laced with existentialism.  I read complaints that teenagers don’t really talk the way August and Hazel do, but I disagree.  As a teenager, I was an amateur philosopher, discussing grand ideas with my friends.  As two teens intimately acquainted with dying, I can believe that August and Hazel would look to symbolism and philosophy to find their place in the world.

I’ve realized recently that many of the books I read most are not the ones I actually enjoy the most.  I really like reading romance novels.  They’re easy to get through, fun to read, and fast.  But on the enjoyment scale, most of them hit around a 3 out of 5, meaning I liked them but didn’t love them.  Same with many YA novels.  In contrast, books like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel are among the books I enjoyed most last year, because they’re about concepts and ideas as well as plot and character.  They’re about racism, loneliness, isolation, the characters’ places in the world while being narrated by an engaging person in an interesting plot.

One of the things I like best about my book club is that the other women pick books I’d probably never choose to read on my own.  Some of those books have ended up being favorites of mine.  Or if not favorites, have made me think.

Now, how does this post relate to the title?  Well, French fries are my favorite food.  I could eat them all day, every day, except that they’re not actually that good for me.  I love salad, but it never seems as appealing to eat as French fries do.  Yet, sometimes when I dig into a salad and taste all those fresh flavors, I’m reminded of why I love them so.

Books are kind of like that.  While there’s nothing wrong with junk food novels, when I fill up on them, I don’t have any room left over for the good stuff.  Yeah, sometimes those other books end up being bland and flat, but every once in awhile, I find one that’s so fresh, full of invigorating ideas, that it causes me to look at the world differently.

I live for those books.