Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Cross Section of Genres

The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov. A touching yet tragic story about a grandmaster's fixation on chess and the sympathy his somewhat morose genius engenders in his fiancée and her family. After his nervous breakdown, he’s prescribed abstinence from the game. And it isn't until near the end of the novel that his inherent need for the board inveigles him into plunging irretrievably into its familiar rows and columns. Nabokov is a genius with language, and his love of word play morphs into a dizzying merry-go-round of sly puns and mind games. You’ll smile at his similes and marvel at his metaphors throughout.  

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Crime/mystery novels rely almost exclusively on dialogue and terse detail. This generally fails to satisfy my reasons for reading in the first place. I believe literature is a superior form of storytelling over film primarily because narrative does what film can’t – allude, sometimes ingeniously, to things wholly separate from the things described, e.g. “The sun clung to the horizon like a bright barnacle”. I realize this is solely subjective on my part, but there you go. Having said that, both the plot development and the dialogue are first rate. 

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. I’ve long maintained that novels are superior to film. Maybe it’s just the avid book fan in me trying to persuade the average movie goer to read more. To those unconvinced, consider the complaints from fans online about how this movie glosses over or mistreats key elements in the novel. This shouldn’t surprise. When contrasting books to their movie counterparts, I’ve been disappointed with everything from The Lord of the Rings to Interview with the Vampire to Old Yeller.

A few months ago I didn’t even know this novel existed until I saw the movie trailer. At first blush it seemed like a silly premise to me – a futuristic version of the Roman Empire’s ancient Coliseum filled with the cast of Saved by the Bell. But a writer friend who hates most everything told me the books were good, so I decided not to judge the movie by its trailer and got book one of what turns out to be a trilogy.

I’m glad I did. Apart from the occasional cliché, it’s well written. The story is told in first person, present tense form, which is a nice change from the past tense standard. Collins knows the tricks of the trade. She applies every known plot device, and she often does more than one thing at a time. Details get introduced without slowing down the story. Describing someone new in a way that immediately identifies them, makes them memorable and relevant to the scene, and establishes their relationship with the protagonist are all important tools for creating an engaging read.       

The novel is disturbing, though. Without giving too much away, these competitors, or tributes, are not only randomly chosen and forced to participate in an arena death match. The totalitarian regime in this dystopia will punish the districts they're from if they refuse. But the real kicker is that these participants are children. None of them is over 18 years old. Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, is only 16. Rue is only 12. This makes the killings more terrifying. They’re just kids after all. The best stories are the ones that are character driven. And because these characters are not only well fleshed out but also of such a tender age, the story is highly emotional. Collins knows how to pluck the heartstrings. Hell, she’s fashioned her own finely tuned harp.

Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country, by Rosalind Miles. Over the years, many writers have given us their versions of the King Arthur legends, some with better critical success than others. When I think back to the good ones like Steinbeck, Stewart, and Tennyson, memory recalls the not-so-good ones, too, like Lawhead and Monoco. Miles falls amid the latter with a splat. While the title and cover implies Queen Guenevere’s point of view (which I looked forward to exploring), instead Miles assumes the omniscient view. This is actually a good thing, since being stuck inside Guenevere’s head for pages on end got tedious fast.

Physical beauty is her only strength, evidently. Her schoolgirl predilections smack of melodrama. Riding to the woods for a tryst with Sir Lancelot, Guenevere, now thirty, expresses her sophomoric mentality with italicized ambivalence:

The same thoughts ran madly around in her brain.
I will not go.
I will go back to Camelot. 
He does not love me.
Why should I love him, when he does not love me?

Sadly, Miles, like Guenevere, does nearly everything wrong. For starters, the book packs more clichés than the Guide to Clichés Almanac & Dictionary. For seconds, every character’s interpretation of a given scene is exhausted, leaving nothing for the reader to surmise (apart from the thought that Miles must consider her readers incapable of inferring for themselves). Third, she doesn’t seem to know the difference between evoking and emoting, meaning she tells us how these characters feel but never writes in a way that allows us to feel it for ourselves. Lastly, the love scenes are little more than grocery lists of anatomy. Yawn. Kiss Gwen on the neck and read her profundity – Oh, my love, my love, my love. Since she’s hailed as a “well-known and critically acclaimed English journalist, novelist, and broadcaster,” I assume Miles was simply too busy to redraft her manuscript into something less shameful. 

Social Studies, by Fran Lebowitz. (1981) Like another one of her books, Metropolitan Life, this is a collection of amusing essays previously published in various New York magazines. Humor is hard work, but Fran makes it look easy. She points out that while she has no children of her own, she’s got advice for those who do:

Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying.

If you must give your child lessons, send him to driving school. He is far more likely to end up owning a Datsun than he is a Stradivarius.

Children do not really need money. After all, they don’t pay rent … their allowance should be just enough to cover chewing gum and an occasional pack of cigarettes. A child with his own savings account and/or tax shelter is not going to be a child who scares easily.

On society:

People (a group that in my opinion has always attracted an undue amount of attention) have often been likened to snowflakes. This analogy is meant to suggest that each is unique – no two alike. This is quite patently not the case. People, even at the current rate of inflation – in fact, people especially at the current rate of inflation – are quite simply a dime a dozen. And, I hasten to add, their only similarity to snowflakes resides in their invariable and lamentable tendency to turn, after a few warm days, to slush.

This is good cynical stuff. Still, Metropolitan Life is even better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Literary Impressions

I’d read a book of short stories by Stephen Crane years ago, but apart from “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel,” which I know were included only because I’d made a note about liking them, I don’t remember the names of the other stories or even what they were about. As I say, it was years ago. But I’d also made a note: “One day I'll have to find The Red Badge of Courage. It's supposed to be Crane's best work.” Over the weekend I did. I can see why he’s considered such an important writer despite his short life (Crane died at the age of 28). Although complete and unabridged (which is how I prefer all my books), like his life, the book is relatively short. It was published in 1895, but there’s none of the awkward diction or stoic syntax you might expect from a book published over one hundred years ago. It’s a very smooth read. Crane’s vivid descriptions, paired with a liberal and insightful use of metaphor, approaches the profound. I’ve read a number of war novels over the years, and apart from Erich Maria Ramarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, this is probably the best rendering of war I’ve come across. Ironically, Crane wrote and published this book without having any military background or experience. It was only after the book was published that Crane became a war correspondent.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu, translated by N. K. Sandars. I need to point out that this book is about the size of an index card and thinner than a cell phone. So I’m not counting it as a book, per se. Only 55 pages long. From a used bookstore for only fifty cents. I’m no math whiz, but that’s about a penny a page. I love myths, legends, and folk lore, so I had to grab it, even if it took only half an hour to read.

I’ll Always Have Paris, A Memoir, by Art Buchwald. Having heard this author’s name tossed around most of my life, I finally decided to probe the hubbub. Buchwald knew just about every celebrity alive at the height of his career as a newspaperman for the Herald Tribune in Paris. He traveled extensively, interviewed the rich and famous, ate with powerful people at the most expensive French restaurants, and like Hemingway, he, too, went on safari (only for Art it was precisely because Hemingway had; Art refused to shoot an animal). It’s a bland book with a few amusing episodes and plenty of dull reporting (essentially, and not surprisingly, like a newspaper). I realize gossip sells but who had an affair with whom just didn’t appeal to me. If only the writing were as engaging as the dirty laundry. Not recommended unless you’re paparazzi, only substitute the camera for reading glasses. 

Travels, by Michael Crichton. Not the most well written autobiography but certainly fascinating. It’s essentially a chronicle of his worldly and spiritual exploration. Crichton claims to have seen auras, participated in spoon bendings, visited an astral plane, witnessed and been possessed by entities, as well as other psychic phenomena. His telling struck me as genuine primarily because he didn’t seem to care whether his readers believed a single word. Strangely enough, at least to me, he attributes none of these experiences to a deity of any kind. In fact, either due to ineptitude or deliberate circumspection, Crichton makes no attribution to these powers at all. This left me disappointed. For Crichton, experiencing these things was apparently enough, but I would’ve preferred a bit of philosophizing, some commentary to accompany the claims.

His last chapter was dedicated to skeptics at Cal Tech. He hoped to address CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), and he prepared a speech outlining the limitations science suffers when dealing with these things. He also hoped his speech would further encourage open-mindedness. He was never invited. My primary complaint is that Travels lacks focus.

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. In an interview, when asked whether this was his best novel, Faulkner said it was certainly his favorite. Since it’s considered a classic, I wanted to like it. I did, barely. Passages are downright extraordinary, reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint; other portions are utterly unintelligible – reams without punctuation (sometimes several pages' worth), stream-of-consciousness – deliberately confusing points of view, ideas that neither belong nor remove an already confusing narrative plus hints at psychological turmoil sans significance I think you see what I’m doing here by demonstration. 

The format is frustrating, with the first ‘chapter’ dealing with one group of characters, the next chapter taking place eighteen years prior with a different set of characters altogether, then yet another chapter jumping ahead eighteen years but the very day before the first chapter, etc. In short, it was a mess. The appendix, which I enjoyed more than I did the novel, belonged in the novel itself and would’ve gone a long way to illuminate things in the story. I don't know why Faulkner would want to deliberately confuse the reader. This, to my mind, is the epitome of self-indulgence, and I can’t recommend it, except as exhibit Z to my long-held view that many classics don’t deserve the label.

The Winter of our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. Here, Steinbeck paints the wealthy as compromised souls: no one climbs without digging his heels into the backs of others – a ubiquitous (and flawed) concept among liberals but forgivable here in lieu of the superb writing. I’m rarely moved anymore by what I read (I tend to be overly analytical), but the end made me crunch my face and spill a tear. Curiously, Steinbeck and his protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, trade off telling the story throughout the novel. The author takes the first few chapters (third person perspective). Then Ethan narrates a few chapters (first person point of view). This wasn’t necessary, but it wasn’t distracting, either. So I didn’t mind. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Darkness Forged in Fire, Book One of the Iron Elves, by Chris Evans.

Easily one of the worst novels I’ve come across since William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Forget character development or story structure for a minute. Let’s consider the basics. Like the musician memorizing scales before building a repertoire for his recital, the writer should familiarize himself with a few common principles long before considering the elements of story or publication.

1) Avoid clichés. Nothing kills your writing faster than tired terms and catch phrases. 

2) Be precise. This doesn’t mean use name brands or the metric system. But as Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Be particular. Instead of a run down of every article of clothing Rob wears, pick one item – his glossy alligator boots. Rather than a list of the furniture in the room, zero in on the Great Dane curled up on the fireplace hearth. A single detail will satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the cowboy’s outfit or the den’s décor, allowing him to get on with the story.  

3) ‘Economy of words’ could be the single most important principle, because even if the writing is terrible, there will still be less of it. Evans’ novel is over six hundred pages long. If he’d applied this one principle, his novel could’ve told as much if not more in 30,000 fewer words. Consider the difference between He looked over and saw Bill smiling and Bill smiled. Imagine sentence after sentence like that, page after page of disheveled prose in need of a buzz cut.

Not to single out Chris Evans, but with so many instructional books, workshops, and editing coaches today, authors who commit these rudimentary mistakes deserve every bit of ridicule the rest of us can muster. The more time the writer is willing to spend drafting, redrafting, and editing his work, the less time the reader is forced to spend reading it. Essentially, say all you want, but use as few words as possible. You get the idea. If only writers like Evans did.