Gussied Up Criticism

In my review of Hild yesterday, I disagreed with Michael Robbins’s review which appeared on the Chicago Tribune‘s website as well as in its Printers Row publication.

Mine were, I felt, relatively mild criticisms–I felt his assessment of the book as “gussied up fantasy” was off-base and I did not agree that the level of detail in the book was overdone.

Perhaps I should break down these two initial criticisms a bit. “Gussied up” means, generally, something that’s been made more attractive but in a showy or obvious way and, as such, is a pretty negative thing to say. As for the level of detail, I felt it was necessary to truly understand how Hild’s world was so incredibly alien to our own–because while it is a work of speculative fiction, it’s also based on real, lived history.

I was also concerned that Robbins’s admiration for medieval fantasy tropes and associated flagons of mead was contradictory to the very nature of Griffith’s novel. Since Hild is a book entirely about a female experience of history, I wasn’t sure what the fictional universes and associated tropiness of the other works cited in the body of the review as equivalent works (George R.R. Martin and T.H. White) had to do with it. The gore and chivalric romance cited in the concluding paragraphs maps fairly neatly onto Martin and White respectively while there’s precious little of either in Griffith (I mean, there is some gore–there are children born and battles, but chivalric romance in the historical sense of the term? Not so much.).

To be blunt: I found the last two paragraphs confusing and contradictory and I simply wasn’t sure how these things related to the rest of the piece apart from a few parallel phrasings, all involving mead and barmaids. Here are the closing paragraphs, so that you may judge for yourself. This quotation and the paragraph which immediately follows contain information which may be a bit spoilerish.

And though gore and chivalric romance abound, Griffith is particularly concerned to represent the complexity of the worlds of medieval women — dyers and weavers and cooks but also doctors and queens. Here is none of your saucy barmaids of yore (Hild is sexually attracted to women as well as men).

A good fantasy novel needs no special pleading, especially given the “Game of Thrones”-inspired dreck that speckles genre ghettos at present. Flagons of mead all around.

I am having an extremely difficult time reconciling the final sentence about flagons of mead with the statement that there are no saucy barmaids of yore–along with the completely out of context reference to a complicated relationship with another woman that is not particularly romantic or, really, sexual outside of the mechanics. Robbins is also unclear that the dyer and weaver and cook and doctor and queen could, in fact, all be the same woman. There’s a fluidity to the roles the women of Hild occupy that Robbins completely fails to acknowledge. The part that feels flippant–and which is what I was referring to in my review–is the final sentence: “Flagons of mead all around.”

Robbins also seems to take issue with the promotional material that accompany the book, the content of which Griffith likely had very little to no control over. And yet: a large part of his review is devoted to critique of this material and his final paragraphs rests upon that and not the book itself.

This is what we, as critics, do. We talk about books and culture and sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t. I have absolutely no problem with people disagreeing with my opinions and saying so. Stories are liminal and we all come to them with a different set of experiences and expectations–naturally we’re not all going to come away from a story with the same thoughts and ideas.

So imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered this in my mentions on Twitter late last night:

michael robbins 1

I think we can all agree that that’s not the most pleasant thing to find in one’s mentions.  My response, as I was tweeting from bed, was not the most elegant–it involved a re-tweeting and a comment about the use of slurs in response to criticism.  Let there be no mistake: moron is an ableist word and is most assuredly a slur.

Also, if that disjointed mess of a review is what passes for lauding in Robbins’s world, I’d hate to see what he does to a book he dislikes.

At any rate, within fifteen minutes, Robbins deleted his tweet. When challenged, this happened:

michael robbins 2

It was at this point I started to wonder if Michael Robbins behaves this way towards everyone who disagrees with him and I asked him as much. No answer was forthcoming except yet another deletion.

I daren’t speak to Robbins’s motives around his erasure of his half of the conversation (if it could even be called a conversation) but I do hope this isn’t business as usual on his part.

I don’t particularly care that Robbins disagrees with my assessment of his review–this is what critics do, we criticize and we disagree. I do care that he clearly feels that he can respond to criticism with personal attacks using slurs and a subsequent attempt at erasure. Robbins was, I assume, paid to write that review. His behavior has not been professional.

If Robbins wished to engage in a discussion of my criticism of his review, that’s fine. I have open comments here for a reason (and, I assure you, I let all non-spam comments through). I also have a very easily found email address. And there’s Twitter, although Twitter’s a difficult platform for nuanced discussion, especially when one party is not interested in a good faith discussion.

From where I’m sitting, though, it seems that Robbins is more concerned with putting those who disagree with him in their place and he’s not above using personal attacks to do so. He also believes that he can do so freely and without consequence.

One can choose to not engage in a discussion. Robbins has no obligation to engage with anyone and I respect that. However, he came into my mentions on Twitter and personally attacked me–and then tried to erase the evidence. This is my way of holding him accountable for those actions.

Next time you write a book review, Michael Robbins, write about the book and not the press release and/or cover copy.  Writing about the book you actually read instead of the one you wished it was is also good. Another free bit of advice: avoid using slurs.

In conclusion:

atkinson you mad bro

False Equivalence: Selfies and Diversity in SFF

Selfie with cat. November 2013.

See that up there? That’s a selfie (that’s my wtf face, btw).

See this? That’s a discussion of diversity in SFF that happened on Twitter over the last day or so.

You want to know what these two things have in common?

Not a damn thing. Unless, of course, you’re Felicity Savage. In which case, they are pretty much the same thing. And, of course, if you are a woman who posts selfies you’re a narcissist (except not really).  If you’re a man it’s art.

Just think about that for a second.

So from the very beginning, Savage is arguing from a deeply flawed and–arguably–sexist perspective.

There’s so much talk about representing diverse voices. It’s a good thing to have stories written by lots of different sorts of people, of course it is! But the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?

Oh, I dunno. Maybe because white cis heterosexual men don’t have a lock on being protagonists in stories? Because in the absence of markers indicating otherwise, people will assume that a character is a white cis heterosexual man? Because there’s so much more to humanity that that narrow, small slice?  Because it’s really tiring to never see people who look like you, who come from your cultural background, who share a sexual orientation or gender identity with you in fiction? Because that sort of thing, over time, actually is a denial of your humanity?

She then goes on to talk about–with a fair bit of mockery–some of the issues that persons of color (POC) have to deal with at conventions: having to deal with rude and inappropriate questions, being touched without permission–that’s assault, by the way–and when those POC try to set aside some safe space they still aren’t happy.  But Savage has no compassion for the very real racism and ignorance that POC have to deal with on a day to day basis and, instead, calls for compassion for the poor misunderstood white man:

But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often…doesn’t end well.

Because, yeah. White men: the real victims here. Wait. No. Fuck that noise. (Oh, crap–there I go again, swearing and stuff. Felicity Savage also doesn’t like swearing.)

Why are all of Savage’s examples so old (they all seem to date from 2010 or so)? One would almost think that Savage has been nursing this for quite some time considering how well-aged they are.

And then we get to the conclusion where Savage suggests that speculative fiction writers should leave off the introspection and interrogation of identities and go write about aliens instead. Because writing about aliens or other kinds of cultures which may be unfamiliar to your protagonist(s) without thinking about identities and how they work within human (and other) societies always ends well. Always.

Oh, and her parting shot is a nasty comment about how she sometimes reads mum-lit for the lulz. Because, hey, books about an experience that people with female body parts may have in their lifetime? Totally mock-worthy.

Diversity is important–it’s not just about filling a quota or getting a pat on the head from a particular group of readers or writers or editors.  It’s about including everyone and making everyone welcome in our community. It’s about having all sorts of different kinds of people as heroes and villains and in between.  It’s about not defaulting to the same kinds of characters every time we write a story–it’s about challenging ourselves to be better. It’s about failing. It’s about trying again. It’s about actively working to make our community a better place for everyone. Story doesn’t–can’t–live in a vacuum. I want to read stories about people who are like me and people who are not like me in the least.  I want speculative fiction to represent all of humanity, not just one small privileged slice of it.

Another, better response to Savage’s article can be found over at The Other Side of the RainDiversity is not Narcissism: A Response to Felicity Savage.

What’s New, Buenos Aries: an open letter to publishers

An Open Letter to Publishers:

Hi there.  You don’t know me, but you’ve certainly taken a lot of my money over the last 45 years—ever since I was old enough to receive an allowance and smart enough to spend most of it on books instead of candy at the corner store.  You can think of me as a long-running repeat customer.  I read.  A lot. And I want to talk to you about a growing issue in the books and other printed material I read.

Grammar.

That’s right.  You remember grammar, yes?  Punctuation marks, spelling, things like that?  You used to hire people as copy editors and proofreaders to catch mistakes and correct them before unleashing your books, magazines, and newspapers on the general public.

I realize that publishing has taken some financial hits lately.  People get more of their news online, for example, instead of on paper.  Is this really an excuse for allowing your standards to go to hell in a handbag?  Do you think that your online audience is less likely to notice the misused apostrophes, the run-on sentences, the incorrect forms of there, their, and they’re?  Sure they’re all on their social media sites, where internet-speak is more lenient and the audience more forgiving.  That doesn’t mean they don’t want to see things done right elsewhere.  I’m not going to recommend an article or opinion piece full of typos.  And I certainly am not going to finish reading one either.

As a writing teacher, I used to make it clear to my students that while it was certainly important that they have good solid ideas backed up by solid evidence in support of those ideas, they could have the best idea EVER and it wouldn’t be much use if no one could understand it because they were hacking their way through a forest of grammatical errors to get to it.  You might keep that in mind the next time you rely on spell-check, auto-correct, and Microsoft’s execrable grammatical suggestions.

I can’t be the only person annoyed by missing quotation marks around paragraphs of dialogue in a novel I’m reading.  Or by newspaper headlines where half the letters of a word are missing or transposed.  Or by an article headline that reads “Improvements Okd at Twon Meeting” (that last one appeared just like that in my local paper).  Or a published novel filled with random typos ranging from “teh” for “the” to my current favorite, “Buenos Aries” for “Buenos Aires”.  I paid money for a pleasant reading experience, not for the experience having to sit and mentally correct typos or grammar in order to actually understand what I’m reading.

I think computers are amazing things.  Mine certainly makes my life easier in so many ways.  But to rely on an algorithm to catch and correct very human errors is foolish and cheap.  My computer doesn’t know the difference between to, two, and too.  It only knows whether or not I’ve spelled them correctly.  It has no means of figuring out if I’ve used the correct form in that particular instance.

When these types of errors are passed on to the public for consumption, it makes the consumer mad and the publisher look lazy, sloppy, and unconcerned about the impression being made on the consumer.  So I implore you: give a recent English graduate a job and hire real people to proofread your product.  Consider it your contribution to boosting the economy if you like, but take my word for it—you’ll boost your sales, too.  I know I’m not going to repeat a bad experience with a product that I’ve repeatedly found to be shoddy.  If nothing else, have some pride in what you’re sending out to the public.

Please.

The Genre Dance

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines of late.  Sidelines is a collection of essays, speeches, travelogues, and sundry other non-fiction bits and pieces, and it completely deserves and shall have its own review.  However, as I was reading the text of a speech Bujold gave at the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention (Denvention 3), I remembered this half-written piece I started, oh, months ago, in response to a review I read of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance that dealt with the book as a romance.  That review (you can read it here) really bugged the crap out of me, although I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the reviewer was cherry-picking the bits out of CVA that dealt with Ivan’s romance and pretty much giving short shift to the fact that while that book, and many of the Vorkosiverse books, do contain romances for the characters, they do not fall within the boundaries of a romance as it is traditionally defined.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Now I’m not someone who thinks genre is a dirty word—all books are genre books to some extent, and thinking about the ways that a particular book falls within the boundaries of a particular genre doesn’t bother me—you’ll note that our tags in this page usually place a book within some sort of  category: mystery, romance, SFF, biography, etc.  Genre is a handy label that gives the reader an idea of what to expect—certain tropes are common and various elements are expected in certain genres.  So if I were asked, for example, “Tell me about Moby-Dick”, I could say “It’s about this insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale” and that tells you what the story is about, sure, but it doesn’t tell you much about how the story is told—but if I say “It’s an adventure novel about an insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale”, well.  That gives you a much better idea of what you’re in for.  By the same token, I could say “It’s the classic novel about…blah blah blah” and that suggests something completely different in terms of expectations.  As Mark Twain once noted, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”  Most people hear the word classic and their mind goes straight to dull.  Or possibly old-fashioned. Or even good for you.  No one likes literary spinach.

Genre labels have expectations.   It’s then up to the story to meet those expectations, fail to do so, surpass them, or turn them on their heads.  But I think in the above example you can see the danger in them as well.  Useful as the label is, it’s also possible to use them to mislead.  If I really wanted to push Moby-Dick like a crack dealer on an unsuspecting reader, for example, I’d avoid labeling it a “classic” and stick with “adventure story”.  Science Fiction comes with its own issues as a label (which Bujold hilariously details in an essay later in Sidelines where she describes being the only SF author at a book fair and soliciting opinions about why the people there didn’t like the genre.  The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “I only read important books”).  You see the problem with labels… because oh those pesky pre-conceived notions.

Me, I don’t think it’s any crime to like genre books and read them. I don’t think they’re unimportant–in fact, I think they are undervalued as a whole by critics.  Are some of them fluff?  Oh sure. Some of them have no heft to them whatsoever.  I’ve also read some “important” books in my time that are fluffy, or overwritten, or just plain stupid.  That’s not a genre issue, that’s a writer issue.  Genre does not equal bad, or lacking value.  Genre does not deserve to be looked down upon like a hairball the cat left on your new rug.  Poop on that.  Want to read a fluffy cat mystery?  Do it.  Fluff is sometimes exactly what someone needs.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m reading.  I just want to read it.  It’s to escape, not to improve my mind. I compared this need once to the difference between fast food and fine dining.  Sometimes you just want a Happy Meal to fill you up.  You don’t really care if there’s actually any beef in your cheeseburger.  Happily, though, there are just as many substantial books that do have some heft to them.  So if you want that, you can have it.  If you don’t, you don’t have to.  That’s the great thing about our world.  There are so many books, bless ‘em.  Something for every need and occasion.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign

So having established that, let me get back to this idea of genre and cherry-picking.  And Bujold.  Since it was her speech at Denvention 3 that got me revved up on this topic again, I shall use her as an example: if you say to me “What is A Civil Campaign about?” well good grief.  It’s about a lot of things.  It certainly is about romance, and I’m confident that folks who are romance fans will not go away dissatisfied in that respect.  But. It has to be understood that while you can read A Civil Campaign strictly as a romance novel, if you have no prior knowledge of Miles or Ekaterin, or of Kareen and Mark, and have no interest in the Vor caste, or in the complex world Bujold spent 8 previous novels building, you will have merely skimmed the surface of what is, in my opinion, not only a great novel, but a great series.  And you will not understand the nuances of the Miles/Ekaterin romance if you do not understand the world they live in.  Rather than a romance for all time, it becomes just another romance.  And it’s way more than that.

I’m glad to see people recommending Bujold to readers who may not have much experience with SFF, mind you.  I think she makes a great bridge between the romance and science fiction genres in those of her novels where the romance elements are more pronounced. And I want to be clear that I don’t think the author of the original post was trying to pull some kind of fast one on their readers.  But this kind of unintentional thoughtlessness bugs me.  It’s sloppy thinking and it can, as demonstrated above, be misleading.  To treat Bujold strictly as a romance writer is dicey at best because the Vorkosigan books are space opera–character-driven science fiction adventures.  Sure, some of those adventures include some romance now and then, but.  It’s essential to make note of how the science fiction elements influence the romances: how the Vor culture dictates how Miles acts and Ekaterin responds, or how Kareen feels trapped by societal expectations for her gender, or how Donna Vorrutyer has to take a drastic step in redefining herself in order to circumvent tradition and what effect that has on her romantic future.  You couldn’t take these people out of their world and plunk them down in Regency England or midland America and expect their romances to work because their behavior is conditioned by the culture Bujold creates (likewise, taking Regency characters and parking them on Barrayar?  No—for exactly the same reason.)  I’m trying to say—and probably making a hash out of it—that you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff here.  Bujold herself describes ACC as what happens when you put Regency romance and the science fictional world of Barrayar into a blender and push start.  Miles is who he is because of the world that he grew up in—to pull him and his pursuit of Ekaterin out of that world and isolate them would be like trying to grow a bonsai’d skellytum in my backyard.  The romance in Bujold’s novels is the same way: it grows out of the fictional world she’s built, it’s not there in spite of it.  It’s as much a part of the landscape as the Dendarii mountains, and it’s just as organic to the series.

So yes—A Civil Campaign has romance novel elements in it.  It also has elements of political intrigue, feminist thinking, an examination of gender roles, a consideration of how traditions can be bent toward a more progressive future, and all the elements of a comedy of manners.  But it is still science fiction in the same way that Memory may make use of mystery tropes, but the answer to the puzzles—both the mystery Miles is trying to solve and the mystery of why he pulls one of the most boneheaded moves of all time– is found in the science fictional elements Bujold created.  Without those elements, there’s no sparkle in the diamonds the author’s cut.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I think romance or mystery has no place in these worlds—the absolute opposite is true, in fact, and Bujold herself notes in another Sidelines speech that borrowing those tropes helps place her characters into new and interesting situations.  I think they enhance the worlds created in so many ways, mainly by giving the reader familiar touch points to help them settle into unchartered territory, but also by allowing characters who might otherwise be alien to us to have a handle we can grasp.  They serve as bridges to new, unexplored territories, and there’s no reason you can’t have a mystery or a romance on a foreign world–I’m sure they have problems to solve and people they love just like we do.

To give you another example, Dorothy L. Sayers subtitled her final Peter and Harriet novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, “a love story with detective interruptions.”  But here’s the thing: Peter and Harriet have had a rocky 5 year courtship for a variety of reasons.  When they finally do marry, there are adjustments to be made and they have to make them, to figure out how to live with each other without making the other one a lesser person.  It all starts out as playing houses for them, until a murder interrupts their honeymoon.  And wisely, that’s where Sayers laid her conflict—at the heart of their relationship, their working as a team, their varying attitudes toward their responsibilities for the people involved in the death of a not very likeable man.  Without the mystery, there would be no conflict—they’d just continue to play house.  She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers.  But A Civil Campaign is not “A love story with science fiction interruptions” any more than Busman’s Honeymoon is really “a love story with detective interruptions”.   You can’t cherry pick them out of their home genre because that genre is what shapes the romance.

In her Denvention speech, Bujold offers three definitions of genre.  First, it’s “any group of works in close conversation with one another.”  Second, in terms of readers, it’s “a community of taste,” a subject I could probably write paragraphs on but won’t because I’ve already gone on waaaaay too long here.  And lastly, she notes, genre is “a marketing category.”  I agree with all of that.  Again, it’s a handy tool, a way to categorize what we read and to some extent why we read it.  But she also offers a caution, which is what I’m going to end this lengthy screed with, because to me, it perfectly sums up the problems with cherry-picking or trying to cram a book into a category where the fit isn’t quite right:

“The categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren’t perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels become toxic.”

Five Life-Changing Books

In my previous post, I talked about how my daughter’s Honors Reading List got me thinking about how we define texts these days and how I think that definition has expanded with advances in technology.  You can kind of think of this post as part two of that discussion.  I’m going to talk about what I’d put on a list like that, although I’m not about to list 15 texts, mostly because I’ve got some crud that’s making my head ache.

So, to review: as part of receiving an Honors degree at her college, my daughter has to defend what is known as the Honors Reading List, an annotated list (or narrative essay) that consists of 12-15 texts that demonstrate how she has grown as a critical thinker and as a person during her college career.

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl

I graduated from college 30 years ago this May, and I’ve changed a lot since then.  My list is more The Five Books That Have Changed Me in some way:

1. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: I first read this when I was around 12, and I reread it to this day, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself.  This was the first thing, book or otherwise, that made me realize that whatever problems I might think I have, they are nothing compared to what other people endure.  It was the first book that made me realize the world was a much bigger place than my own little corner of it.  And it also made me see that without hope, you’ve got nothing.  Those are all big lessons for a 12 year old girl to learn.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

I should note that Anne Frank’s diary is also on my daughter’s Honors List, and for exactly the same reasons.

2.  Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers: I first encountered Lord Peter literally at the end of my high school days (I read Murder Must Advertise during my high school graduation) and this novel at a time when I was still struggling with the idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  This is the book that made me want to teach; its idealistic view of academia and the scholarly life had a tremendous impact on me—it was like a siren song.  I quickly learned that the view was idealistic once I actually started teaching, which in some ways made me really resent the book.  But there was a second component to Gaudy Night that really influenced me, and that was the struggle between Peter and Harriet to find a way toward a relationship that enhanced them both and took nothing from either of them.  I’d been through some half-hearted relationships by then and was thinking there was no one out there for me.  Peter and Harriet’s struggles showed me why I shouldn’t settle for just anyone and modeled what a marriage should be—a true partnership of the minds.  I met my husband about a year after I read this.  28 years later I can honestly say that teaching turned out to not be my proper job, really, but my marriage’s success owes a lot to Peter and Harriet’s difficult courtship.

M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H

3. M*A*S*H:  Not the book (which isn’t all that great, to be honest) or the movie (not that I do not love it), but the television series.  There are a number of things about M*A*S*H that stand out to me and for me and helped me become me: its anti-war themes and its refusal to whitewash what war is—a slaughter over a conflict of boundaries or philosophies, all romanticized by tales of glory and bravery—is just one.  If you ever get a chance to watch the episode titled “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet”, you’ll get the idea.  But as M*A*S*H began to last longer than the Korean War did, you got an expansion of that basic theme: the effects of long-term deployment on the unit’s psyches, on their families and the time they can never get back with them, on how the war shaped and changed them.  The most startling transformation was with the Hot Lips character, who starts out as a sex kitten interested only in climbing the military ladder through the only means available to her, sex, and grows into a strong woman not willing to compromise herself even with a general who offers her promotion.  Hot Lips becomes Margaret, proud of her accomplishments and the value she brings to the unit as a nurse and a woman.  It’s quite a transformation, and one I took a great lesson away from.  At a time when feminism was still in its toddler years, Margaret became a great role model for me.  And 30 years after M*A*S*H ended, it still holds up in all of the above ways and more.  It’s still funny, and it’s still relevant to our lives.

The Complete Poems, John Donne

The Complete Poems, John Donne

4. The Complete Poems, John Donne: my first encounters with Donne were not happy ones, and I probably would have happily left him behind when my course in early English lit was over, but I happened to be in choir in college, and our choir director set one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets (#7, “At the round earth’s imagined corners”) to music, and it all suddenly clicked.  I became something of a Donne devotee after that, spending years reading and rereading his works and mining them for meaning.  Through him I learned about balance more than anything: that humor can be used to make a serious point, that the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive, that relationships should be complimentary, not struggles.  I read a lot of poetry, and at one time I wrote a great deal of it; many other poets influenced me as a writer, but Donne alone shaped me as a person.  I still read this book on a regular basis—it’s almost a spiritual guide for me at this point.

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

5. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher: Penelope Keeling is such a great character, and I’ll tell you why.  Because she is who she is.  She makes no excuses for who she is.  She does not expect others to be like her, nor does she expect them to like her.  She cannot be bullied or guilted into anything, and she takes responsibility for her actions.  She is kind and generous, even when those around her don’t deserve such things.  She reminds me of how I ought to be when I’m at my worst.  And she taught me that it’s always better to be myself than to be what others want me to be—that that’s where true happiness lies.  She’s not wrong.

I’d love to hear what books shaped you—tell me about them in the comments if you’re so inclined.