Friday, December 15, 2006

Preliminary Thoughts on An Unfinished Season by Ward Just

I've been reading a lot of crap and long-drawn-out epics lately, including at least one book that I enjoyed (though I wouldn't add "thoroughly"). I hope to find the time to describe them in more detail. But first I want to recognize a book that is making me happy to be a reader again. An Unfinished Season isn't something I'd normally pick up and read, because its characters are essentially wealthy people and I've never understood them. Set in post-war Chicago (that's World War II, for young readers -- post-war eras of wars we lose don't get such wistful nostalgia created around them), it's a tale about a family that is evolving. The mother is old money from the East, the father is new money, and the 19-year-old son is finding his place somewhere between the two. Enmeshed within Ward Just's well-crafted tale of a challenged marriage and a coming-of-age young man is the whole Cold War battle between capitalism and socialism; free thinking and free love vs. uncontemplative complacency and staid mores.

I'll have more to say about this book, but I'm not even 100 pages in yet. Regardless, I highly recommend it so far.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Evil Dead -- the Musical

I realize it's not a book, but I thought I'd add a quick review of an Off-Broadway play my wife and I recently enjoyed: Evil Dead, the Musical.

Better than the films (which isn't saying much), the play is actually a mixture of all three Evil Dead movies (well, primarily the first two with references to the third that perhaps only the cognoscenti would get).

Vulgar and campy to be sure, and a little sticky. The songs actually stick with you too, but how can anyone forget lyrics like "What the fuck was that!" in the song "What the F@%$"

Not a musical for children (or perhaps the perfect demograhic is an 11 year old boy) because the language and the occasional dry-humping, etc. is clearly R-rated. In the first act, the sister of the hero is the first person to become possessed by the evilness that has been unleashed by reading chants from the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead). She eventually causes all the rest of the characters to be possessed at one time or another.

There's an enjoyable dance of the dead scene called "Do the Necronomicon" with passing references not only to the Time Warp from Rocky Horror but also Fonzie from Happy Days.

Before the second act, the first three rows of seats (where we were sitting) get baggies with clear plastic ponchos. The fake blood really flows in the climatic killing spree toward the end. It's so bad that you can't help but laugh.

I probably wouldn't pay more than the special $26 ticket for the show, but I recommend getting the splatter zone to enjoy the whole experience.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Still Reading

For the few (if any) readers who visit here, do not despair. I'm still reading as voraciously as usual. But I've been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, and have been uninspired (and time-constrained) to write creatively about it. I believe that will change very soon -- perhaps as early as this coming weekend. I'm reading Hitting Into the Wind by Bill Meissner. It's a baseball book, which helps me concentrate and relax. Last week, I finished Homer's Iliad, and before that I was steeped in a book about Krakotoa. While I've also read some short stories and novels, I've also been unable to catch up to my own personal writing. Stay tuned, dear reader. I will report back.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Schrödinger’s Ball by Adam Felber

Warning: crappy first draft ahead

You don’t need a Ph.D. to enjoy Adam Felber’s debut novel, Schrödinger’s Ball, but having some understanding about physics will help to get all the jokes. In particular, it helps to know at least about the famous thought experiment of Dr. Erwin Schrödinger, who was competing with Heisenberg to determine what was going on with electrons. Luckily, Felber adds an unscientific history of the scientific debate (read pissing contest) that occurred between the two prominent physicists. After Heisenberg developed what became known as the Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger created a cat, who was stuck in a box along with a device that will release radiation if anyone checks to see if the cat is dead. So the cat was both alive and dead – and not alive and not dead. Or something like that.

Schrödinger’s Ball starts with the unobserved death of Johnny Felix Decate (while cleaning a gun); at the same time, the president of Montana (yes, he seceded and set up his own country, which essentially included his own property -- on which he was late paying his U.S. taxes). Soon after, we find Johnny hanging with his gang; he’s our cat. Johnny and his friends Grant, Deb, and Arlene are drinking in Cambridge, Massachusetts (home of Harvard). Aside from Johnny’s ability to exist beyond his death, he and his friends have other talents. He may not be the brightest man in the world, but people will follow him. Deb experiences extended orgasms -- a half-hour is not outrageous for this happy woman. But she has no experience in love. Grant is brilliant but socially inept -- especially around Deb, who he quietly loves. Arlene is capable of much love, but is otherwise a killjoy.

In addition to defying death, Johnny has virtuoso guitar talents that turn him into a sort of messiah of music, with crowds of worshipping teens following him wherever he and his friends go. And Professor Schrödinger populates the streets of Cambridge as well, even though he died in 1961. Or is it Schrödinger? Does he always leave you with the check? And where are those cat meows coming from?

In a sense, the story is surprisingly predictable, in that you soon know that Grant will get the girl of his dreams (Deb). You’re pretty certain that neither Johnny nor Schrödinger are actually alive. But there are enough twists and turns and goofy secondary characters to keep those pages turning. (If no one sees you read, are you actually learning anything?)

This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys a goofy tale. And despite my comment about its predictability, it is also unconventional and its resolutions uncertain. Get your electrons moving and check it out.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

When you’ve had your head squished into the hot gravel by the tire of a postal truck as a child, life ought to get better. But for seven-year-old Edgar P. Mint, life has only just begun, and his miracle survival of the accident was one of the easiest achievements of his life. Half Apache/half white, the young boy finds himself struggling to balance the life he lives and the life he lost as a result of the accident at the beginning of Brady Udall’s 2006 bildungsroman.

As far as Edgar is concerned, he grew up in a hospital bed; he has virtually no recollection of his accident –- except for what others have told him. During his several months of convalescence in a hospital, Edgar befriends one of his roommates -- Art Crozier, whose wife and daughter died as a result of his drunken driving. Edgar also meets Barry Pinkley, who was the doctor on call who refused to let the injured Indian die.

And the hospital is his home. Art, his other roommates, and the nurses form the basis of his family, replacing his alcoholic mother he doesn’t remember and the grandmother who was the only person who cried or prayed for him after the accident – as far as he’s aware.

But the hospital is also a place of ghosts, which he wards off with a pilfered urinal freshener. As is the William Tecumseh Sherman School for Native American orphans, located at the former Fort Apache, where his education takes place. The almost constant torment to which Edgar is subjected at “Willie Sherman” shapes his lonely, tribeless adolescence. Even when he becomes a part of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and is assigned to a (dysfunctional) Mormon family, ghosts and shadows of his past surround him.

But it’s the real people Udall fleshes out, giving nuance and subtlety to what could have been two-dimensional characters in lesser hands. Dr. Pinkley, for example, is dismissed and becomes a drug dealer, but throughout the rest of his life he remains one of the few constant presences in Edgar’s life (often to the boy’s dismay). Through Pinkley’s doing, even Edgar’s mother briefly reappears. Moreover, Udall writes with a wicked sense of humor that makes the pages of sometimes awful images seemingly turn themselves

Despite all the travails of his torturous life, Edgar’s tale ultimately holds hope for the future, and through the Mormons he discovers his life’s purpose: to find the mailman who ran him over and let him know he survived and is all right; indeed, to offer him forgiveness. After Edgar leaves the Mormons, most of the nagging inconsistencies of his past find resolution, courtesy of a bingo-playing woman in Pennsylvania.

Edgar Mint’s is not always a tidy story, but when you’ve got road pebbles falling out of your head as a child, perhaps it’s best to learn to suffer through the difficult times.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos

Soon to come

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

If you come across Practical Demonkeeping, originally published in 1992, don’t be duped by its casual appearance. The 2000 Avon paperback version I received from my sister-in-law looked like it had been produced by an old desktop publishing program with neon colors and a clunky font for the title, and its déclassé demeanor was confirmed by a blanched author’s photo on the flimsy back cover. But inside these pages lurks the heartless soul of an author intent on making the reader laugh his head off.

Practical Demonkeeping has just about everything you could possibly want for a good summer read: sex, drugs, pool playing with an invisible partner, the devouring of well-drawn side characters (by an insatiable, wisecracking demon named Catch), a genie, long-lost lovers, and exploding bags of flour. It’s one of those stories that is immediately envisioned in a reader’s mind, despite the suspension of belief that is necessary (as it would be with any fantastical story).

The tale begins with The Breeze, a surfer-style drug dealer, heading out of Pine Cove, California, with a guy named Billy Winston in a Pinto wagon. As far as The Breeze is concerned, the night was intended for scoring with young co-eds; Billy’s just happy to be with the man he adores (and silently lusts over). The night doesn’t go as either planned: Breeze’s hairline betrays his age to the co-eds who want nothing to do with him and Billy’s intentions become clear enough. The Breeze tries to hitch out of town. When last we see him, however, he’s become the first meal of the night for Catch, who remains invisible until he’s about to feed.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then you may not be ready for the main plot: Travis the demonkeeper is looking for a way to send Catch back to hell -- while Catch tries to dispatch his keeper and pick up with some other human he can manipulate -- while Gian Hen Gian, the saltwater-drinking king of the Djinn (a genie, in other words) enlists help from Pine Cove local Augustus Brine to catch the demon. In the mean time, Travis -- who had been a seminarian at the beginning of World War I and who remains a young man while he retains control over the demon -- unexpectedly falls in love with the granddaughter of a woman he’s searching for, who still holds the papal candlesticks in which is hidden the secret incantation to return the demon to hell. Jenny (the granddaughter) is a waitress recently divorced from Robert Masterson, a drunken photographer, who has been staying with The Breeze. Got all that? Even with several characters and subplots (and others I’ve not even mentioned), Moore manages to spin each storyline without tangling them up.

Every one of his characters, no matter how small, is developed with an expert touch -- not too much, but just enough that the reader can imagine so much more. The back story is played out at the right time and with the proper pace that it never feels forced. Indeed, Moore has a deft feel for pacing in what is a quick read, but leaves you feeling you didn't miss a thing. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that this is his first novel, and I can only imagine how much better he’s become.

Is the story convoluted? Of course, but that’s half the fun. The other half is the witty repartee among the citizens of Pine Cove (and, of course, Catch). Practical Demonkeeping feels like a cult film waiting to happen; I could picture some actors and actresses resurrecting their careers by playing certain roles. As for Christopher Moore, I think the best that can be said is what Carl Hiaasen blurbs on the cover of this debut novel: “Christopher Moore is a very sick man, in the very best sense of the word.”

Why this man hasn’t become a house-hold name is beyond me. But I’ll be reading more of his work, and I heartily recommend this book at least to others.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Continuing a theme of the year, of my first readings of famous writers' books, I finally have a C.S. Lewis book under my belt. Unlike Henry Miller, Ian McEwan, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee, and Tom Robbins, whose spines I broke for the first time this year (well, their books' spines) Lewis’s works are clearly among the types of books I was likely to have read. I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's tales from Middle Earth, so I should have read Lewis as well; they were friends and colleagues and wrote of similar struggles between good and evil. As I did with Miller and Pynchon, however, I started by reading a book the writer is less well known for having written.

While Surprised by Joy is autobiographical, it’s not simply a story about Lewis’s life; rather’s it’s the tale of how he lost his faith, philosophically battled organized religion, and eventually reasoned his way to return to faith. That step was not his last. Once he’d acknowledged the reality of God, then he determined that the true faith was Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make sure his terms are understood. He distinguishes between “joy” and “pleasure”; joy has only one characteristic: that the person who has experienced it wants to experience it again. He also notes often that this has nothing to do with erotic joy.

Joy didn’t kill faith for him -- it took a sense of there being more to the universe than what he had already experienced to weaken his belief. “It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body, it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts,” he writes.

Lewis describes the various schools he attended during his life -- some the sites of harrowing experiences that, sadly, come across as pretty typical in the English public school system. While that’s important to allow the reader to get an understanding of who the author is, the book is really about the author’s conversation and search for an understanding of who is that is (if I’m allowed to conjugate that verb in this context.) In other words, God.

Ultimately, it was his time in Oxford, after fighting in World War I, when Lewis found his intellectual construct of his atheism start to crumble. Though the syntax with which Lewis writes can seem a bit stiff at times, he’s understandable; he takes pains to write with precision, but to a twenty-first century reader, he sometimes seems archaic and flawed. As he takes the reader along a winding path, however, he shares some of his way with phrases, and exhibits beautiful descriptions that perfectly describe moments and features. For example, I enjoyed his description of his family dog, Tim:

We met constantly, passed the time of day, and parted with much esteem to follow our own paths. I think he had one friend of his own species, a neighboring red setter; a very respectable, middle-aged dog. Perhaps a good influence; for poor Tim, though I loved him, was the most undisciplined, unaccomplished, and dissipated-looking creature that ever went on four legs. He never exactly obeyed you; he sometimes agreed with you.

Another passage: “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”

And yet again: “In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. … God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Perhaps, what I enjoyed most about this book was that Lewis took an intellectual approach to discovering God, and in so doing he realizes that he had been struggling all his life to stay away from him. When he decided that, yes, God exists, Lewis's armor melted away -- to him, it seemed to literally happen, and it wasn’t comfortable. Later, as he tried to discern which path was the right one (i.e., which religious doctrine) he “was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.

And since he found God, he also discovered that he had little use of Joy. “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”

Black Spring by Henry Miller

It’s hard to call this work a novel; it’s more a stream of consciousness short story anthology, but written in a semi-autobiographical sense. To be honest, I almost stopped reading this book, and by the end I wasn’t sure that I actually gained much by keeping up with it.

Black Spring was unable to get published in this country for a long time, and the edition I read was from Ireland, though this is not a controversial printing. Nor do I particularly see why this book shouldn’t have been published, except perhaps because it was barely interesting. Sure it describes explicit sexual situations, and it exhibits callous attitudes toward women at spots. Plus, its syntax is sexed up, but this isn’t Penthouse Forum. A few instances of the c-word. Sexual interludes with prostitutes. Personally, I found Henry Miller's common use of sentence fragments and unhelpful disregard for commas far more disturbing.

But all was not lost. One of the vignettes borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jaberwocky, which is noted for its odd language and sense of silliness during a serious situation. While not as much fun as Carroll’s poem, Miller’s “Jabberwhorl Kronstadt” story made me chuckle at times.

But the writing: metaphor after metaphor, allusion after allusion. Miller’s closing story is entitled “Megalopolitan Maniac,” and it’s as self-absorbed as that title suggests. Indeed, the entire book is an ego trip. Unlike many books – both those few that I’ve reviewed here and among the few dozen I’ve read this year already – this is one that I doubt I’ll ever re-read.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Pornographer by John McGahern

Anyone looking for page after page of pornography will be disappointed, though there are certainly a few sex scenes in John McGahern’s The Pornographer. The story is about a young man who writes the traveling sexual escapades of Mavis and the Colonel in Ireland, but the thrust of the story is the relationship between him and a thirty-eight year old woman he gets pregnant. She wants to keep the baby, and he wants nothing to do with it and soon wants very little to do with her.

From a traditional moral standpoint (whatever that means) the title character has very little redeeming quality. Not only does he make his living by writing about wanton sex, but he seems to have no interest in new life; what’s around him already is all he needs. But this book is filled with opposites. He shows devotion and tenderness to his aunt Josephine, who is dying. He cares about his uncle, who runs a mill and buys farm land. Josephine’s husband Cyril, whom the lead doesn’t particularly like, has become a drunk and wants nothing to do with his wife, but she leaves everything to him. The pornographer brings a bottle of brandy to his aunt each time he visits her in the hospital, because it’s the only thing that she thinks is helping her.

As tender as he is with Josephine, he is as subtle as a hand job in his relationship with the woman he impregnates. Though she was thirty-eight, she had almost no sexual experience until she meets the pornographer in a dance club. Though initially reluctant, she acquiesces to his advances, but she doesn’t allow him to use condoms, explaining that she’s as regular as clockwork. When she becomes pregnant, he initially tells her that he’ll marry her, but his intention is to leave her once she’s had the child. He tells her he doesn’t love her and likely won’t love her. But she expects that once he sees the child, once he recognizes this change in his life, he’ll marry her.

I can’t say I particularly liked either of the main characters. No matter how many times the pregnant woman said he and she were “good people,” I was left unconvinced. She wanted to change a man who was not ready for change, he was a selfish pig. But neither can be said to have “no redeeming qualities.” She is capable of much love, despite her inexperience. She truly seems to love this man; he truly doesn’t deserve her. And the character a reader might best relate to is the pornographic publisher; he is the one who says the writer deserves to get his ass kicked – which eventually happens. He’s getting through this unsavory situation too easily. But even the publisher has his eccentricities, such as a dream of a baby stroller decked out as a coffin.

In the end, the pornographer has buried his aunt. And, having had another affair with one of his aunt’s nurses, he begins to change his opinion of his future. His uncles are moving forward with their lives. The new mother has overhauled her life due to him. And as the story closes, the pornographer begins to see new possibilities.

It’s the first book I’ve read by McGahern, who died this past March, and I don’t recall reading any of his short stories, though he’s highly regarded in that form. It’s a special talent to create characters that are both despicable and believable. I expect I’ll read him again.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I hadn’t read this book since I was a teenager, which is a lot longer ago than I care to admit. Though the idea of a band of rabbits running away from their warren to save their lives and establish a new home sounds like a children’s story – and on certain levels, this is a children’s story – Watership Down has much more going on than that.

From a story standpoint, however, the tale is endearing and extremely accessible. To his credit, Richard Adams keeps his characters from having too many extraordinary attributes. Yes, they can talk to each other and other animals, which must be accepted in order to keep reading, but that’s not too tough for any reader of fiction. And, the rabbit known as Fiver has keen awareness – some might call it an extrasensory perception – that is really the genesis for the story. But beyond that, the rabbits embark on adventures through which they learn to rely on one another, to rely on their innate talents and skills, and to take risks in order to advance their society. These are human characteristics, but that’s what anthropomorphism is all about. And without them, the story is meaningless to the only beings that can actually read it.

As Adams explains in the introduction he gives in the 2005 Scribner edition I read, Watership Down began as a story he told his young daughters, and it was not intended to be about World War II, though the images of Efrafa and terms like “Owslafa” seem to suggest Nazi Germany. Moreover, the society the rabbits of Watership Down create is inclusive. They befriend mice and a gull and lead hutch bunnies into their group (in order to have a couple of does; hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.) And their reason for venturing to the harrowing warren of Efrafa is to convince its leaders that they can spare some does for the new warren.

Yet, all that aside, Adams’ storytelling keeps the story moving along. At 474 pages, Watership Down is not something an average reader knocks out in a weekend, but it’s easy to start the novel and soon find oneself 100 pages in. By that time, the “hlessil” (rabbits without a home warren, living above ground, in the Lapine language) have not only escaped their home warren of Sandleford but lived among a warren of rabbits that are the equivalent of the lotus eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, the tale has epic heroes among its characters. Hazel is the crafty leader who leads his rabbits away from Sandleford, following the vision set out by his brother Fiver. Though he’s not the largest of the rabbits, Hazel earns the respect of his people through his ability to lead them through each trial – a small brook, hungry predators, a snare – and to trust the talents of those around him. Indeed, Hazel doesn’t have every answer, which makes him an even more believable and compelling character.

Thlayli, better known as Bigwig, is the largest rabbit of the group and a natural second in command. While he sometimes disagrees with Hazel, Bigwig carries out his leader’s decisions unflinchingly. He takes on the suicide mission of venturing into Efrafa, which is under the command of General Woundwort, a ruthless, wily leader who rules through fear and power, demands unyielding adherence to the dictates of his government, and refuses to order any of his followers to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. Bigwig’s size and abilities are immediately evident to Woundwort – who may be a tyrant, but is not a fool – and because Efrafa needs new captains in its “Owslafa,” (like a powerful police force) Woundwort agrees to accept him. But his trust is misplaced, and with help from Keehar the gull, Bigwig leads an escape. In the final battle against the evil Woundwort, Bigwig defends the warren on Watership Down and saves his comrades and the escaped does. There he delivers one of the best lines of the book.

“Thlayli,” (Woundwort) said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”
Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.
“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.”

Woundwort and his other rabbits are shocked. If Thlayli isn’t the chief, then there’s another, stronger rabbit nearby. The effect on the rabbits of Efrafa was immediate, and it was all Woundwort could do to keep his best rabbits from staying with him.

A reader doesn’t run away, however, and by the time the book closes, with Hazel joining the Owlsa of their mystical folk hero/savior character, they want it all to continue – to know more about the rabbits of Watership Down.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Well written but slow moving, Ian McEwan’s Saturday takes almost two hundred pages to get to the action of the story. One of the blurbs on the cover was amusing in retrospect: “Read the final 100 pages at one sitting.” That’s because it takes so long to get to that you can’t help but continue reading.

That said, McEwan has drawn up three-dimensional characters and conflicts that linger long after you slip your bookmark between the pages of this 2005 novel. Henry Perowne, the lead character, is a neurosurgeon in London who awakes early on a Saturday morning feeling completely awake. He sees a plane on fire heading toward Heathrow, chats with his son Theo -- a burgeoning blues guitarist -- returns to bed where Henry and his wife, Rosalind, make love, then after a post-coital rest he heads to play squash. All this takes eighty-one pages, and we’ve still not arrived at a key moment; more than a quarter of the way in, the book has been all about character development.

The story takes place in February 2003, weeks before the beginning of the current Iraq war, and later that day hundreds of thousands -- perhaps two million -- will protest the inevitable war. But even that isn’t the story, exactly. At its heart, Saturday is about terror – witnessing it, anticipating it, experiencing it, and especially overcoming it. In some ways, the story has more in common with the American Airlines flight heading to the Dominican Republic, which went down from Kennedy Airport almost two months after 9/11 than the terrorist attacks that resulted in the deaths of thousands in New York, Washington, and the field where flight United 93 crashed.

For Henry Perowne and his family, the terror comes from a man named Baxter. To call him a thug is too facile, and McEwan makes the character sympathetic. Unattractive and suffering from what Perowne diagnoses from observation as Huntington’s Disease, Baxter is also intelligent and would forgo violence for a glimmer of hope to avert his fate: dementia, lack of physical control, death. Though he doesn’t use the poem, Dylan Thomas’s famous line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” seems apropos.

Instead, it is another poem, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” that carries the day. When Baxter and his crony, Nigel, break into the Perowne household, young poet Daisy (who has returned to her parents’ home from Paris with a galley proof of her soon-to-be-published collection of poems and a baby on the way) is inspired by her grandfather, poet John Grammaticus, to recite Arnold’s famous work. The poem enthralls Baxter, to the point that he fixates on what he believes is the girl’s work. In a sense, their lives -- even Baxter’s -- are saved by poetry.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Whether specifically in Arnold’s poem or in Saturday, McEwan’s message seems to be this: You should face terror the same way you face life -- head on. Protest. Debate. Create art. Anticipate death and do whatever is within your power to hold it back.

Saturday is filled with the mundane amid the truly horrifying. When witnessed, terror can be inaudible. When all around you is the noise of conflict, your personal horrors can pass unwitnessed. Like squash players, people battle on against time and physical deterioration. And in the end, a new day emerges as you’re still thinking about yesterday.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Just about any aspiring writer has at least heard of this book, which is probably referred to as often as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as an approachable, helpful text from which to learn. I’ve not read anything else by Anne Lamott, but in this book her sense of humor is inviting and infectious. She is honest and relates unattractive tales of her life that help show why she is the writer she has become. At times she gets a little preachy, but a brief glance at her other works shows that faith is a big part of who she is. So, if you accept the rule that writers must use their voice, not that of their favorite writers, then you must either accept her preachiness or just put the book down and move to the next item in the stack beside your bed.

I kept reading Lamott, and I was pleased I did. Published in 1995, Bird By Bird offers a classroom experience in creative writing –- regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Frankly, her advice isn’t earth shattering, and any writer should already have heard these tips a few hundred times. Still, the chief lesson I took from her was to allow your childhood vision to return and draw on it for your observations, which will inform your work. Be unafraid of what you say –- as you were when you were a child. Another helpful lesson is to accept that your first draft will be shitty and shouldn’t be seen by others. (From my experience, the second draft might be flushable too, and it’s probably best to not show anyone else that ugly thing floating around until it’s fertilized something beautiful.) And for you perfectionists out there, Get over yourselves! For most writers, such advice isn’t too hard to take, but it’s nice to know that a writer who has penned this articulate guide to effective writing practices what she preaches and has had her share of failures.

While I read Bird By Bird, I was reminded of John Irving’s The World According to Garp –- particularly the scene in which Garp discovers his mother has written about him in her book, which becomes a feminist manifesto. He becomes known as the “bastard son of Jenny Fields.” Lamott often talks about her son, Sam, and being a single mother. I wonder what this young man, who’s probably in his early twenties now, thinks of how he’s portrayed -– not that there’s anything wrong. Lamott also speaks about the death of her father, and the death of a close friend, which she has written about in earlier books. Indeed, her nonfiction is probably more successful than this fiction writer would like. But as the old saw prattles on: Write what you know. It’s not exactly how Lamott would say it, though. So find your way while I look further for mine.

Indeed, finding your way is the key. Persevere and know why you are writing. As Lamott says, if it’s just about making money, then you’ll likely be quite disappointed.

Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I’ve always been a Kurt Vonnegut fan, ever since I first read Cat's Cradle in high school; I re-read it last summer and fell in love with the characters once more. Monkey House is a collection of short stories, written in the 1950s and ‘60s. Many would be considered science fiction, and like most works of that era, are heavily influenced by the Cold War. Indeed, most of these stories are products of their time and might be lost on twenty-first century readers in their twenties. Those who’ve read Vonnegut before would recognize some familiar locations such as Wyandotte College and Ilium, N.Y. And the preface of the Dell paperback I read has a few pages from the writer, who gives autobiographical details, such as his former job as a publicist for General Electric, so even those new to Vonnegut will gain some understanding of who this man is.

I believe I read these short stories when I was in college, and I’d essentially forgotten the details of all but “Harrison Bergeron.” By decades, this work precedes the term “politically correct,” but it’s a biting satire of people’s well-intentioned desire for fairness. To make all people equal, the intelligent are handicapped with shocks and noise that distract their minds from deep thoughts. The beautiful are fashioned with masks, and ballerinas lumber on stage with weights. Harrison’s parents, George and Hazel, learn that their son Harrison has broken free from authorities, and as an announcement is being made, he crashes onto the stage, declares himself emperor, removes the mask of a lovely ballerina, and orders the musicians to play without their handicaps. Of course, such independent thought is not tolerated, and when the TV screen returns, George notices Hazel has been crying. She can’t remember why, and the sound of a riveting gun hammers any thoughts out of George’s head.

At the other extreme is the story “Adam,” in which Heinz Knechtmann has become a father. He is a sad sack of a man, a small, slightly hunched man who works in a dry-cleaning plant. A Jewish immigrant living on the South Side of Chicago, Knechtmann’s family was killed by the Nazis. He walks into a bar to toast the birth of his son, Peter Kroll Knechtmann -- named after notable relatives who've been lost -- and while the bartender and another new father join him in his toast, eventually the discussion turns to the White Sox. Though Heinz tolerates the American tendency to mispronounce his surname “Netman,” he seethes at their careless attitude toward life – especially new life. Frustrated, he almost acquiesces to anonymity, but when he finally rejoins his wife at the hospital, he is rejuvenated.

“The baby, Heinz--” She opened her dark eyes wide. “It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Heinz.

Vonnegut’s characters are what entrance me, and I enjoy the tone of his writing. At times cynical and sarcastic, his voice remains interesting from one story to the next.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

What I’m reading

Among my New Year’s resolutions was to read at least two books a month, which I’ve been able to accomplish pretty easily. With a week left in June, I’ve averaged about a book per week. I began Richard Adams’s Watership Down this morning, and I will start Ian McEwan’s Saturday on the train Monday (if not sooner).

However, I fear I’m not thinking enough about these novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction that I read on the train or in bed, or while taking care of bodily functions that otherwise leave me to sit and ponder. So, I’ve decided to create an appendage to my blog. Unlike my Coffee Cup, this blog will have a focus: Books and short stories -- my thoughts on what I’ve been reading: what I liked, what I disliked, what confused me. Assuming this blog will be as popular as the Coffee Cup (which perhaps one brother and a couple friends ever visit), I don’t expect much feedback from the general populace. But I encourage the occasional adventurer to comment, criticize, agree with, or disregard what I’ve said. Also, feel free to suggest other books I should read. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately are resurrected tomes from my college days –- things I’ve not looked at in more than a decade, and books I’ve forgotten I own. I also pick up random books at yard sales and keep the written words in a book shelf, awaiting my moment of discovery.

I’ll try to back fill some of the books I’ve read from the beginning of the year, though with 23 books already behind me – plus a half dozen short stories acquired from One Story –- I don’t know that I’ll get to everything from 2006.

Readers welcome.