Thursday, May 17, 2012

Summaries and Critiques

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although the protagonist of this novel is a young teen, it wouldn't be fair to call this a children's book or young adult fiction. It has some dark themes. I'd liken it more to Huckleberry Finn or The Island of Dr. Moreau than to, say, The Princess and the Goblin, all of which were published round the same time as Treasure Island by the way, late 19th century. Unlike lots of books written over a hundred years ago that lean toward a more formalized tone or diction, you might be surprised by how smooth a read this is. A solid adventure story. Long John Silver is a strong villain. From start to finish, the tension never lets up. Every scene offers some danger and suspense. Shiver me timbers! And pieces of eight!

Live From the Battlefield, From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones, by Peter Arnett. Arnett has obviously lived a full and exciting life as a journalist. Unfortunately, despite his years of experience, his writing ability still leaves much to be desired. Paragraphs lacked focus; descriptions were bland and uninspired. The whole book read like a terse journal with news clippings thrown in for effect. Too many sentences began with the dreaded “There were…” and “There was…” Note: “There were people standing along the curb” isn’t as lean as “People stood along the curb.” Overall, the book, while informative, isn’t particularly fun to read. I was constantly reminded of the wrist-slapping motto "show, don't tell." Arnett told me a lot but didn't show much. 

The Carousel, by Belva Plain. A soap opera in print. Most of the characters are pretty stupid. Ian cheats on his wife, and the woman he has this affair with marries Ian’s brother, Clive, evidently to spite Ian. We’re told Clive contracts cancer from smoking, though throughout the entire novel, we never actually see him take a single drag from a cigarette or a draw from a smoking pipe or a cigar. One character learns of an affair his wife had with another brother and decides to kill that brother but shoots his beloved father by mistake. And so on.

The story continues to run this silly course but unlike your average General Hospital or Days of our Lives soap, this novel is summed up in the last two chapters. More dialogue than narrative too, which I didn’t like.

Texas Tales Your Teacher Never Told You, by C. F. Eckhardt. A fascinating romp through Texas history. Chock full of great stories and amusing facts about its heroes and legends. Written with a flare for Texas jargon, its character and charm make it hard to put down. Highly recommended. 

The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Edited my Charles Neider. As anyone knows who’s read his stuff, Twain was a great writer – insightful, cynical, hysterical, and a great observer of people and human nature. This man suffered a lot of personal loss, though, lots of tragedy, some of it ironic, which is even worse. Much of the material in this autobiography is laugh-out-loud funny, but some of it is heart-wrenching. In the introduction, the editor, Neider, points out that a couple of other permutations of the manuscript have been published before, back in 1924 and again in 1940. Incidentally, Twain gave further instructions that certain material was not to be published until many years after the publication of this particular edition. This was to protect the people mentioned therein, their families and their children.  This might not be unique, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Twain was quite a unique personality, the story of the comet is one such example. I recently heard that another Twain autobiography was recently published. Evidently (as per his instructions in his will, I presume), the allotted time has elapsed, and the publisher is free to release material Twain was unwilling to have made known in the edition I read. There were some great photos of Twain in this book as well. Highly recommended.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain is excellent. However, because the story is written first person by our protagonist, Finn, and because Finn’s diction, or patois, is drenched in over one hundred and twenty-five year old southern slang, the narrative is somewhat rough going, though Finn would say, "That ain't no matter." While certainly funny in places, the book deals seriously with slavery. Finn weighs the prejudices of the south against his own conscience. He decides that helping Jim escape is the moral thing to do, despite the sentiment of society. It’s a powerful message about one’s moral conviction at odds with consensus. An important work.

Other Twain I’ve read over the years and recommend:

Letters from the Earth, written after both his wife and one of his daughters had died. Like his autobiography, it was published posthumously. It’s cynical but amusing in places. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a wonderful classic. The Mysterious Stranger and other stories has some real gems in it. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is okay but not my favorite. Tom Sawyer Detective and The Prince and the Pauper are amusing but not his best work.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Writing Books

No writer worth his sodium chloride would claim great writers are born great writers. For one, the wording is redundant and we writers are cautioned against stuff like that. For another, even the music prodigy has to practice her scales. In addition to reading in a general way (or as Faulkner advised: “Read, read, read. Read everything.”) so too the writer needs to read books about the craft. Just as the physics major doesn’t opt out of his math classes, neither should the aspiring novelist disregard instructional books on the mechanics of composition or what constitutes an engaging story.

John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist offers an astounding analysis of the writing process. His teaching experience is vast and authoritative, and he provides exceptional advice and genuine concern for the aspiring novelist. For those who insist the proof of the pudding is in the eating, one of Gardner’s tasty treats is a short novel called Grendel. It’s essentially the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. Compelling, masterful, and a stroke of genius are all clich├ęs now. But they’re applicable here. I couldn’t put it down. One of my favorites.

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty is a wonderful book, broken into three parts, each originally a lecture she delivered at Harvard University back in 1983. She had to have been in her 70s at the time, and her wisdom and insight are priceless. Her recollections growing up in Jackson, Mississippi reminded me in some ways of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Both books are essentially devoid of any real plot and each imposes a sort of nostalgia on the reader who’s never even been to those places described. Or maybe I just have a weakness for craftily rendered reminiscing. In Bradbury's case, Green Town is fictional, after all, so we couldn’t possibly have been there, though it's based on his home town of Waukegan, Illinois. Either way, as I’ve mentioned many times in my blog, I can be drawn in by good writing just as easily as others might be gripped by a high-octane thriller.

I’m sure it’s safe to assume that like Welty, most if not all writers’ childhoods and families, both the good and the grim, influence their work. People in our lives often inform our inventions of fictional characters in our stories, the stories themselves, and so on. But Welty’s recollections give voice to this truth in a tenderly rendered way. If you enjoy reading, you’ll enjoy this book, even if you’re not a writer. But if you are a writer, there’s much to learn from this woman. She’s generous with her rich experience and knowledge.

The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is a reality check for those of us who often get the foolhardy idea that being published is like winning the gold and that writing is the necessary tedium required. Anne asks us to remember why we write in the first place – because we enjoy and value the process itself rather than publication.

I’d say this is especially true when you consider the likelihood of getting published in the first place, not to mention the necessary steps that follow if you do: who’ll know about your book if you don’t promote it? Will your publisher devote anything to advertising a first work by an unknown writer? The self publishing industry is growing, but your book’s success still rests with your persistence, promotional technique, and luck. Some writers grow frustrated with how their advertising efforts cut into the time they could spend writing. And even the most famous authors make a pittance compared to other professions, unless of course you’re like Stephen King, Scott Turow, Michael Crichton, John Grisham or a handful of others who’ve sold rights to their novels to have them made into movies.

Lamott is also an amusing, quirky writer, and offers lots of personal anecdotes about her own journey in the writing field. She does place a higher value on fiction that concerns itself with truth over transience, meaning she seems to care little about producing publishable fiction for the sole purpose of financial success. This might explain why she stresses the joys of the writing process over the goal of publication. Some would insist this is elitist, to dismiss popular fiction while singing the praises of mining for that inner truth. Maybe.

Her advice is more general and less about mechanics, but if you need someone to encourage you to get busy writing and quit fretting over how awful that first draft is, she just might be the voice you need to hear right now. Recommended.

Renni Browne and Dave King co-wrote Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, How to Edit Yourself into Print. The book offers sound advice on strengthening basic elements of dialogue, narrative, and scene, as well as writing style and what to avoid. Keep a highlighter handy and don’t be discouraged. As with most good books on writing, a stiff upper lip is recommended. Browne and King draw from examples straight out of published works by famous writers and show you what went wrong where and how to improve it. An invaluable compendium for the serious writer.

Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein. This guy’s been writing and editing for decades. His experience and advice is formidable. Truly the best book for writers I’ve ever read. I must’ve highlighted half of the entire book. The three ideas that made the greatest impact on me were:

1) fiction is about creating an emotional experience, or as Stein puts it:

          Nonfiction conveys information
          Fiction evokes emotion

2) the character is everything. Stein says, “Characters make your story.”

The characters engage us first and are remembered most. The plots of individual books are chapters in their lives.

3) A story experience is shared by both reader and writer. This is why you should never talk down to your audience, nor should you try to impress them. Be yourself, for better or for worse. Or as I like to think of it: pretend you’re having lunch with a friend and telling him something you just can’t keep secret anymore. Maybe you want to make him laugh or gape. Stein says,

The pleasures of writer and reader are interwoven. The seasoned writer…confident in his craft, derives increasing pleasure from his work. The reader in the hands of a writer who has mastered his craft enjoys a richer experience.

Lastly, Stein says what I’ve felt for many years about what constitutes good writing. It was refreshing to find him articulate it so well:

When a writer…understands the electricity of fresh simile and metaphor, his choice of words empowers our feelings, his language compels our attention… When Shakespeare speaks, when Lincoln orates, we are moved not by information but by the excellence of their diction. …The best of good writing will entice us into subjects and knowledge we would have declared were of no interest to us until we were seduced by the language they were dressed in.


Other books on writing I do and don’t recommend …

The Golden Book On Writing, David Lambuth. Very helpful.

In Short, Louis I. Middleman. Pretty good.

The Elements Of Style, William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White. Definitely for anyone interested in writing well, covers some common abuses of terms, tenses, and diction.

Short Story Writing, Wilson R. Thornley. Helpful for understanding the basics to a solid short story.   

Secrets Of Successful Writing, Dewitt H. Scott. Not too helpful.

Someday You'll Write, Elizabeth Yates. You could skip this and not suffer.

How To Write Short Stories That Sell, by Louise Boggess. Slightly helpful but poorly done. 

How to be Successfully Published in Magazines, Linda Konner. Useful and practical. Includes interviews with both editors and freelancers. An eye-opener.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Future of Reference Guides

The miracle of internet search engines has made reference books and other paper journals, scientific or otherwise, nearly as obsolete as microfiche. Unless you’re one of those hermits who hasn’t left his cave yet, you know today’s dictionaries and encyclopedias, hell, the whole Library of Congress, has been converted to the more convenient format of PDFs and other electronic intellectual properties. So whether you want to know the history of cotton or cotton candy or how many ways to pronounce the word ‘argot,’ your curiosity can be quenched with just a few keystrokes.

Published material in physical volumes won't reflect what new discoveries or research might later reveal, and short of a new edition or a future issue or some other addendum, these antiquated formats simply can't compete with their online successors. However, I'm reluctant to burn my reference guides just yet. Some are well organized in ways even the luckiest web surfer couldn't imitate.

Those Who Fought, An Anthology of Medieval Sources, edited by Peter Speed, is one such example. This is a good case for the value of book form. A well composed, informative, and fascinating look at the Middle-Ages in Europe. Ancient excerpts, mostly from eyewitnesses, read like confessions. Subjects range from one’s platitudes about kingship to the effects of the crossbow in war (which required armor too heavy for a horse’s effective mobility) to the incorporation of gunpowder and thus the end of chivalry. Recommended.  

The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, an Indispensable Compendium of Myth and Magic offers a strong case for burning some reference books. Far from complete, replete with misprints, typos, and inaccuracies, the book yielded nothing I couldn’t have found elsewhere online. Written by multiple authors, the quality of the writing varies, and the subjects run the medieval gamut from armies and castles to commerce and paganism. Unfortunately, the treatment is more cursory than exhaustive.

For example, in a glossary in Chapter Four entitled Witchcraft and Pagan Paths under the section “Tools of the Trade” there’s a drawing of a scourge (essentially several thongs or cords depending from a haft sized handle) and a caption that reads

This is a military scourge. A Wiccan scourge would have cords of silk or leather.

Then further down the page 

Scourge: a whip or cat-o’-nine-tails, used to purify but never to draw blood.

However, from wikipedia.com I learned that the ancient Egyptians used a leather scourge to thresh wheat, that the priests of the Greek goddess Cybele scourged themselves and others and that their resulting stripes were considered sacred, that a hard material was affixed to many of the thongs of some scourges in order to tear into the flesh and that these were used to flog slaves. As for the military scourge, it was made of either leather or metal and used for corporal punishment. These scourges clearly would’ve drawn blood.

In short, as a stand alone, not recommended, even misleading.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...