Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Books.

This year I read about 145 books— very close to last year's 140. The best book of the year was I.J. Kay's _Mountains of the Moon_. I carried that one around the house for an hour after I finished it. Could not put it down. Special merit in the list is marked with an asterisk.

Achebe, Chinua -  Things Fall Apart

Aciman, André -  Harvard Square

Amis, Kingsley -  Lucky Jim

Amis, Martin -  The Information

Amis, Martin -  Yellow Dog

Anshaw, Carol -  Carry the One

Arvio, Sarah -  Night Thoughts:  70 Dream Poems

Atkinson, Kate -  Life After Life

Atwood, Margaret -  The Handmaid’s Tale

Auster, Paul -  The New York Trilogy

Barth, John -  *The Sot-Weed Factor

Bellow, Saul -  Ravelstein

Berg, Elizabeth -  Dream When You’re Feeling Blue

Berg, Elizabeth -  The Last Time I Saw You

Bolaño, Robert -  Woes of the True Policeman

Brunt, Carol Rifka -  *Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Burroughs, William S. -  Nova Express

Cather, Willa -  *O Pioneers!

Catton, Eleanor -  The Luminaries

Chbosky, Stephen -  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Cozzens, James Gould -  By Love Possessed

Currie Jr., Ron -  Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

DeLillo, Don -  Point Omega

Díaz, Juno -  This is How You Lose Her

Dick, Philip K. -  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Dickens, Charles -  Great Expectations

Didion, Joan -  The White Album

Dos Passos, John -  1919

Dos Passos, John -  The 42nd Parallel

Dos Passos, John -  *The Big Money

Dos Passos, John -  Midcentury

Dos Passos, John -  Three Soldiers

Dreiser, Theodore -  An American Tragedy

Duffy, Bruce -  Disaster Was My God:  A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Eco, Umberto -  On Literature

Egan, Jennifer -  A Visit From the Goon Squad

Englander, Nathan -  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Fitzgerald, F. Scott -  This Side of Paradise

Ford, Richard -  Canada

Ford, Richard - Independence Day

Ford, Richard - The Lay of the Land

Ford, Richard - Rock Springs

Ford, Richard -  *The Sportswriter

Forster, E.M. -  Howard’s End

Fowles, John -  The Magus

Fuentes, Carlos -  The Death of Artemio Cruz

Gaddis, William -  *JR

Gaiman, Neil -  The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Gogol, Nikolai -  Dead Souls

Grafton, Sue -  A is for Alibi

Green, John -  The Fault in Our Stars

Greene, Graham - *The Quiet American

Heller, Peter -  *The Dog Stars

Homes, A.M. -  May We Be Forgiven

Isherwood, Christopher -  The World in the Evening

Jeffers, Robinson -  Selected Poems

Jin, Ha -  Waiting

Joyce, James -  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Kafka, Franz -  The Trial

Kay, I.J. - *Mountains of the Moon

Kingsolver, Barbara -  Flight Behavior

Kundera, Milan -  The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kushner, Rachel -  The Flamethrowers

Kushner, Rachel -  Telex from Cuba

Le Clézio, J.M.G. -  The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts

Lessing, Doris -  Stories

Luikart, Marcy -  River Braids:  A Novel

Manchester, William R. -  *The Death of a President:  November 1963

Mankell, Henning -  Before the Frost

Mann, Thomas -  The Magic Mountain

Maupin, Armistead -  Tales of the City

McCarthy, Cormac -  *Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

McCarthy, Cormac -  Child of God

McCarthy, Cormac -  *No Country for Old Men

McClanahan, Scott -  Crapalachia:  A Biography of a Place

McEwan, Ian -  Atonement

McGuane, Thomas -  The Bushwhacked Piano

McGuane, Thomas -  The Cadence of Grass

McGuane, Thomas -  Driving on the Rim

McGuane, Thomas -  Keep the Change

McGuane, Thomas -  The Longest Silence:  A Life in Fishing

McGuane, Thomas -  *Ninety-two in the Shade

McGuane, Thomas -  *Nobody’s Angel

McGuane, Thomas -  Panama

McGuane, Thomas -  To Skin a Cat

McGuane, Thomas -  Some Horses:  Essays

McGuane, Thomas -  The Sporting Club

McInerney, Jay -  Story of My Life

Meloy, Maile -  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

Meloy, Maile -  Liars and Saints

Menand, Louis -  The Metaphysical Club

Merwin, W.S. -  *Migration:  New Selected Poems

Miéville, China -  Looking for Jake

Miéville, China -  Railsea

Miller, Henry -  Tropic of Cancer

Mitchell, David -  Cloud Atlas

Oates, Joyce Carol -  We Were the Mulvaneys

Pamuk, Orhan -  The Silent House

Plummer, Toni Plummer -  The Bolero of Andi Rowe:  Stories

Potok, Chaim -  The Chosen

Potter, Russell A. -  Pyg:  The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig

Pynchon, Thomas -  Gravity’s Rainbow

Riggs, Ransom -  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Roy, Arundhati -  The God of Small Things

Rushdie, Salman -  Joseph Anton:  A Memoir

Rushdie, Salman -  *Midnight’s Children

Russo, Richard -  Empire Falls

Sacks, Oliver -  Hallucinations

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire -  Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

Salter, James -  The Hunters

Salter, James -  *A Sport and a Pastime

Sandford, John -  Rules of Prey (Lucas Davenport, #1)

Saramago, José -  *The Stone Raft

Saunders, George -  CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Saunders, George -  Tenth of December

Schulz, Monte -  *Naughty

Sedaris, David -  Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

Sexton, Linda Gray -  Half in Love:  Surviving the Legacy of Suicide

Shriver, Lionel -  Big Brother

Sinclair, Upton -  The Jungle

Sloan, Robin -  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Sterne, Laurence -  *The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Tartt, Donna -  The Goldfinch

Tartt, Donna -  The Secret History

Tervalon, Jervey -  Serving Monster

Thompson, Jean -  The Year We Left Home

Thoreau, Henry David -  *Walden

Tolstoy, Leo -  Anna Karenina

Torrey, Beef -  Conversations with Thomas McGuane

Tyszka, Alberto Barrera -  The Sickness

Updike, John -  Rabbit, Run

Voltaire -  Candide

Walls, Jeanette -  The Silver Star

West, Nathaniel -  Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust

Winter, Isobelle -  Weather

Winter, Robin -  Future Past

Winter, Robin -  Night Must Wait

Winterson, Jeanette -  Lighthousekeeping

Wolitzer, Meg -  The Interestings

Yan, Mo -  The Republic of Wine

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Follow-up...

Of course, is that adding all those elements of disaster (person rejected, drought imperils the farm, government oppression, tornado), are settings, not story. Story is the action and reaction of human beings, and it had better not be just what we expect. Yes, seeing the rejected person accepted, the mustachios-twirling villain thwarted and then vanquished, the town rebuild, all these things are satisfying, but they're too easy.

Give us a great human character (no, not a "good guy"). We don't need to like or sympathize with them. That's nanowrimo bullshit. We don't need to admire their epic struggle against corporate America or whatever (have you read Franzen's Freedom? Remember any of those "good" cardboard characters? On the other hand, do you remember Anna Karenina, the worst person in the world who only ever killed one person, herself?

Drama happens inside a human being. It is active, not reactive. The worst moment in your character's life should not be running from a tornado. Ideally it could take place while they are sitting quietly on their sofa, alone, thinking. Or in the moment after they hang up their phone, or see a picture, or hear one word. And it will hit your reader while they are sitting quietly on their sofa, alone, reading.

You don't have to send a tornado to impact your reader. You have to send true drama. Know where it lives.

The World You Can't Write.

Can't write seriously, that is. Cannot use in literary fiction (the Serious Stuff). Can use only in satire or humor or tragedy. I hate to tell you, but it's big chunks of the real world. Nobody has ever pulled it off.

What aspect of the real world? I know you've read a lot or you wouldn't be writing. Have you noticed that the real world is slowly (and sometimes in leaps) getting better in some ways? The last place you'll hear about it is in serious fiction. Even in reality, on the news, they'll file it under "human interest" or in a last cheerful story before the sign-off— one minute after twenty-two minutes of disaster interspersed with prescription drug ads to help you deal with the world as presented. But then they don't want you going out in the scary world. They want you to hide at home and watch television.

We are getting better in many ways in our dealings with one another. The latest improvement is gay marriage in the U.S., and the larger spreading acceptance of the LGTB community. Homophobia is becoming the unacceptable stance. And we're making moves to ensure that people in this country who get sick don't have to decide between bankruptcy and death.

We are getting better in many ways in our dealings with the world. Both the physical world (anybody else old enough to remember leaded gas smog and seeing people toss litter out their car windows?), and in our dealings with the rest of humanity. We are just beginning to realize that people who don't speak our language are not barbarians.

Yeah, but...

Global Warming
Drone Warfare
Child Abuse
On and on...

Yep. The world is still a tough stage on which to play. Humans can be shits. But of all the things you can say about the world in fiction, you cannot say it is getting better without your work descending into the absurd and ironic. The character who is happy and satisfied is missing something. The Truman Show and Wall-E are examples (movies often make obvious the messages that are subtle in fiction). He who laughs last has not been told the terrible truth. The character who thinks he has it good is headed for a fall. Poor Mr. Karenin and Mr. Helmer in their happy marriages. If only they knew!

Who can write the story of the gay man finding acceptance and make it a serious story? They must add some other tragedy. Nothing ludicrous— he then is diagnosed with melanoma or a tornado destroys the town and scatters the good residents. His story without a redeeming disaster might be folksy, it might be heartwarming (god help us), but its is a chicken soup story, not literature.

So there's the challenge, writers. Why must we, and literature, and the news all reject the good? Perhaps at the core, information and language exist primarily to warn us, to provide survival tools. The good, the reassuring, is cast ever into the lighter fare of entertainment and romance. The unnecessary.

Maybe we are still growing up. Still getting better. Is that sad or hopeful?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Words and Music, Part 2.

About time to get back to this, don'tcha think, o two or three followers of this mighty blog? By the way, and in keeping with the idea that great writing must be heard in the head to be appreciated, I've stumbled upon a book I can only read at about thirty pages per hour. Because it is mostly dialogue, and quite adversing dialogue at that. William Gaddis' JR is worth the time spent on the stage of the brain. On the other hand, I just got through an audiobook that was so bad that it dragged and was loathsome even played at double time. Not something I wanted in my head, but I futilely hoped the main character would be horribly killed to death before the end. No such luck.

So where am I going with this idea of listening to writing? Straight to Ireland. I mentioned James Joyce's Ulysses in our first installment of this idyll, because I experienced something reading that book for the first time that I had never experienced before. I loved it, was struck by the language, but could not tell you why. I loved it even when I did not understand it. There is poetry in that book, but it took me some time to realize that there is music there.

Ireland is a place of poetry and music. They ain't had it easy and everybody knows it. Yeats, Irish himself, said, "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart," and yet in Ireland it hasn't. It hasn't crushed them, or their poetry, or their prose, or their music. And I claim that you can hear music in their language, spoken or written.

I think if you put an Irish writer in a functional MRI there's a pretty fair chance that a chunk of their language center will be on the right side of the brain. This is true of the Japanese, possessors of their own beautiful language and spectacular poetic and prose traditions, home to the oldest novel in human history. They keep their vowels on the right side of the brain. I think the Irish, like the Japanese, keep part of their language where the rest of us try to hold on to music.

That is a huge part of great writing. The writers aren't merely writing language. They are also writing music, and we are dazzled by the tune.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is Self-Publishing the New Query Letter?

I belong to a Facebook community that is mostly populated by self-published writers. The major problem they have with their books seems to be how to find readers. No surprise there; that's every writer's problem. Yesterday, though, something occurred to me. Most of these writers accept the challenge they have taken on, and fight the good fight. Some of them are surprised at just how hard it is. A very few are angry about it. They've heard the success stories. Failure doesn't make the blogs and writing magazines, after all.

It's the anger that has my attention, because it reminds me of other writers who, as their query letters to agents fail steadily to attract attention, also become angry. And then you see the Facebook posts:  "Nobody reads query letters!", "Agents just delete queries!", and "It's a scam!"

I am endlessly intrigued by assumption.

In any event, all this got me thinking that, just as query letters used to be the canary in the coal mine for a writer's hopes and dreams, now the entire book is being hazarded. Hazarded and, in most cases, killed. To be perfectly honest, most of these books were not going to find a golden future no matter what, but some were. In my opinion (hey, it's my blog; what were you expecting?), a good book has a much better chance of finding a golden future via query letter than by being set loose in the wild-wild-west of self-publishing.

Give your book a chance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Words and Music, Part 1.

I’ve been pondering writing, as I am wont to do. More so because the Santa Barbara Writers Conference just happened a month ago. Going to the conference is like receiving a writing and reading booster shot. The writing booster might be expected, but reading?

The truth is that I read better after the conference. I read more carefully. I read more slowly, which is inconvenient, but it is what it is. After the conference my giant boxes of books from the fabulous Chaucer’s Bookstore arrive, but I don’t go right for the newest books. I tend to pull from the bottom of the stacks the toughest books. The ones I put off reading before the conference. The ones with the fierce reputations, the ones with the tiny type, and the poetry.

When I started my goal of reading one hundred pages a day I looked at the few books of poetry languishing on my to-read stack, looked at all the white space on most pages, and thought they would be a breeze. Not so. Poetry turned out to be the slowest read in the stack. I didn’t know it at the time, but realizing that fact would feed into some ponderings I had about writing. I haven’t got it all worked out, but I have three related ideas, and here’s part one.

Why does it take so darn long to read good writing?

This goes against what many agents and editors and even writing teachers might advise. Many of them want writing to flow swiftly off the page, the language plain and easy to digest. Practically invisible. “Kill Your Darlings!” writers are told. At times it sounds like “kill anything good!” At times I think writers follow that advice too well.

Plain writing makes easy reading. Clean simple writing lets me get through my daily reading in two hours. Less if I don’t care what’s going on in the book. But a good story, utilitarian, straightforward writing? No darlings? Two hours.

So why does great writing take twice that long? Why am I inching through W.S. Merwin’s Migration? Why did James Joyce’s Ulysses take weeks (the first time)?

I realized I wasn’t just reading them. I was hearing them.

Saint Ambrose was an odd duck. He had a habit so unusual that Saint Augustine remarked on it:  he read silently. For most of history, all reading was aloud. Nobody knows if Ambrose’s lips moved when he read, but he wasn’t reading aloud. Here’s my question:  was he still hearing the language? Did he have an internal narration running?

When I read great writing, I need to hear the language. That is what’s taking so long. If the language is great, I am hearing it aloud in my head. If the writing is ordinary, the meaning is going in directly, at whatever speed I can maintain. I’m not hearing it. I’m just reading it.

I don’t know if this is something that came from listening to many, many audiobooks. It might be. I can switch up “narrators” in my head if I wish. But only the great writing gets this treatment.

So there’s the problem:  the better the writing, the slower the read, because I’m hearing it, not just reading it. I’m not certain what a functional MRI would find, but I bet my auditory center is up and going when I settle in with Merwin or Joyce. And maybe my music center?

That leads to Part 2 & 3 of my little contemplation. Joyce, the Irish, and music.