Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Genre Fail.

I made it about 20% of the way through Justin Cronin's The Passage before shutting it off. The book deals with a virus found in the jungles of Bolivia that causes vampirism. Good enough. Some reader reviews presented it as a post-apocalyptic tale, but the part I listened to was all pre-apocalyptic, with a secret military operation going on to explore the virus' effects. There were a few weaknesses in the operation, and I assume through one of these routes the virus would escape and go, well, viral. I had some concerns about the mismatch between what people reported the novel to be and what I was hearing. Was all this backstory necessary? But that wasn't what killed it for me. What did it was two questions:

1. Is anything about this story new and different in approach or execution? Am I surprised by any of the plot choices the writer is making? Is he creating problems for himself that I want to see him solve? Am I learning anything about writing by reading this? There's the real killer. I'm a writer. I need to be learning from what I read.

2. Are any of these characters any different from what I would expect them to be? Are the military commanders other than hard-bitten, just-following-orders, possibly-sociopathic types? Is the FBI agent working out past emotional scars? In fact, about the only note of non-cliché is that the innocent little girl caught up in the story has black hair rather than blonde. Maybe because it's a vampire story?

In the end, there was nothing new here, the writing was not exceptional, and there was too much of it. It was slow, it was only mildly interesting, it was done. On to the next.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Resolution Update #3.

Finished two qualifying print books and one audiobook, and I'm sorry to say there was no joy in this trio:

Dhalgren, by Samuel Delaney. I'm on the fence about this one, actually. It's one of those legendary "hard books," along with James Joyce's Ulysses and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's a read-at-your-own-risk book. Eight hundred pages, and, well... it has left a lingering impression, but a weird one. The problem I have is that the main character— very interesting to all the other characters in the book— was not interesting to me. When he did act, I found some of his actions objectionable. I "got" the book's central trick fairly early, but I didn't care. The book is not complex; it is complicated. And fair warning, since the book is such a commitment: It's circular. If you're a fan of Apocalypse Now, well, when you get to the end of this book, you're still only in Saigon.

Collected Stories, by Katherine Mansfield. Nothing wrong with this book, really. Just not to my taste. Subtle domestic dramas. All well-executed, lovely pieces. Just the sort of thing I grew up with as the definitive "short story," when all I wanted to do was read science fiction (not Dhalgren, though). And a times the fact that Mansfield was from New Zealand seemed to put a difficult cast on the language. It just didn't fit in my ear correctly. I blame my inattention and growing impatience.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Professor Eugenides likes Henry James. Professor Eugenides has written a romance novel. Professor Eugenides has a love triangle. One male lead is one of the most irritating characters in fiction. Just someone you would not want to sit next to on a short plane ride, much less listen to for hours. The female lead is in love with him for reasons unknown and simpers after him with slightly more self-confidence and independence than the girl in the sparkly vampire books. The second male lead is interesting and is in love with the female lead, but conveniently hies off to Europe and India so as to miss most of the romantic action. Add vast quantities of money from the female lead's family (honeymoon in Monte Carlo? Really?), just to let most of the possible drama and difficult choices evaporate, and you have a very, very flat story indeed.

The strangest thing is that a sequence in The Marriage Plot gave me a wicked sense that I had read it before. The second male lead is in India, at Mother Theresa's home for the dying, and he struggles with the more demanding parts of the work there, finally fleeing after three weeks. I would swear I read just that sequence of events in another work at some point in the last year. I shall have to search.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Resolution Update #2.

The hundred pages read per day minimum continues unbroken. Actually, thanks to a bad cold and failure to shift from the couch for most of a week, my pace is unprecedented! Here are the latest three books finished. I admit I managed one hundred pages out of the first book in 2011, but it had a lot of words. Fortunately, they were all good:

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy. A historical novel about the lives of the philosophers Wittgenstein, Russell, and Murray. A first novel, by the way. Wonderful writing. Describing Murray at table, bent over his meal, "placid as a cropping beef." And later, in a battle scene from WWI, after the two sides have come together over the trenches for a Christmas celebration, "In the woods, refugees ate weeds and died like little flies." That is the most significant use of the word "little" that has ever been seen. I shall be buying Duffy's new book about Rimbaud.

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. Where great writing meets a big, big story. I was vaguely aware of the story of the Civil War prison at Andersonville. Great-whatever-grandpa was a corporal in F Company in the 27th Connecticut. But my Civil War history is not good. This book was staggering. If nothing else, look at the bibliography in the back of this book and understand how many years of research went into it. Then take it to the front of the bookstore and buy it.

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. One of those "should" books. I should have read this before now. Greatly decreases my patience for writers who write books about slightly neurotic middle-class characters who have no real problems. More about that in a later post. For now, I'm just a bit more sad that my grandfather would never talk about his time in the Pacific during WWII. Or maybe I am glad.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Starred Reviews.

As you might imagine, I have a few books in my house. Contemplating my mortality this morning, I was thinking about the library I'm going to leave behind someday to my utterly disinterested niece and nephew. They're four and two, so no blame accrues; few of my books have pictures of princesses and backhoes. In any event, I do assume that when I pitch over into the tapioca they will have a bit more of an interest in word books. But look at all the word books! How will they know which to foist off on the local library and which to keep? There won't be time even to read all the book jackets. How will they know which books meant anything to me?

I shall take a page from them. A page covered with gold star stickers, which are a current favorite with the kids. I shall hie off to the Walmart and buy star stickers, and place them on the spines of my favorite books. Ah, a writer's proper estate planning has begun.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Moratorium is Declared.

Dear Novelists,

You are henceforth denied the use of titles in the format:

The (Occupation)-ist's (Son/Daughter/Etc.)

I do not care if your main character is the beloved child of the local phlebotomist. If I see another of these titles there will be MUCH wailing and gnashing of teeth. I will entertain the possibility that you were forced into the title by your editor, because otherwise I cannot believe that an author would make such a hackneyed, clichéd, non-creative choice. But fight against it, because remember, every novel is:

The Author's Child

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

All Writing is an Opportunity.

January 11, 2012

American Airlines Customer Relations

P.O. Box 619612 MD 2400

DFW Airport, TX 75261-9612

Dear American Airlines Customer Relations,

I am home. My suitcase is home. I am very happy about those two things, as both achievements were unnecessarily difficult and fraught during my recent holiday sojourn on the mainland. I left my home on Kauai on December 15th, 2011, and arrived in Santa Barbara on December 16th, 2011, via Honolulu and Los Angeles. I was traveling with my brand new Samsonite suitcase (bright red with a purple tag!). Sadly, my suitcase did not join me at Santa Barbara until the afternoon December 17th. I shall be filing a claim for expenses under separate cover (file locator TDHVUN). I was quite upset at the time because (1) I had purchased two very nice princess dresses for my niece for Christmas at the Lihue WalMart on my way to the airport and they were in the suitcase, and (2) I was forced to buy underwear at a drug store. Not a fine moment, I’m sure you’ll agree, American Airlines Customer Relations.

What most confused me in my final call to your Luggage Relations Persons Number (aka Bag Status) was being informed that even if my bag were located, it might not be placed on a plane to Santa Barbara if you had contracted cargo with the United States Postal Service. I was disappointed to know that my ticket for air passage and carriage of my suitcase did not supersede the many Christmas catalogs that had to be delivered. Shop online, say I.

My suitcase was finally found— in a startlingly battered condition— standing alone at the Santa Barbara Airport. It was delivered to me, contents intact. Either the suitcase was on the move the entire time, and its condition was due to thirty hours of travel and handling (I’d look into that; that sounds expensive for you), or it experienced time travel and is now three or four years old. As the planes in your fleet do not approach a substantial fraction of the speed of light, I would guess the first. Special relativity works the other way in any case, American Airlines Customer Relations.

I imagined my troubles were over. I enjoyed my holiday, thank you, and my niece adored her princess dresses. On January 3rd (didn’t want to miss the Rose Parade!) I rose quite early and my mother drove me through a starlit, predawn morning back to the Santa Barbara Airport. Where there was nobody at American Eagle ready to service my flight to Los Angeles International Airport, where I was scheduled to board a nine a.m. flight direct to Lihue. I was glad of my direct flight, and glad to be getting home in the afternoon. You see, American Airlines Customer Relations, I had learned that I would have to appear at Wilcox Community Hospital in Lihue the next day for a doppler echocardiogram. I don’t have the results yet, but I thank you for your concern.

I did not get home that afternoon. As I stated, there was no one at the counter at Santa Barbara, and nor was there a flight. I was told I had been put on a flight just after noon. Further, I was now being sent from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and was on the last flight from Honolulu to Lihue. I would be landing at 10:36 p.m. at Lihue. This, American Airlines Customer Relations, was bad. I had four issues:

(1) I could no longer ask my neighbor to pick me up. That’s too late. So I incurred a $100 taxi fare ($120 with tip; the poor man lived in Omao, on the other side of the island).

(2) My mother had to come back to the Santa Barbara Airport, pick me up, feed me breakfast, and return me later that morning.

(3) When my original trip was canceled, I was given seat 35A on the flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. 35A, American Airlines Customer Relations! Penultimate row to the rest rooms! As Henry Kissinger once famously said, “One only sits near the rest room if one has diarrhea or wishes to meet people who do.” Thanks to the agent at Santa Barbara when I showed up for my noon flight, I was moved to 11A. There’s a relief.

(4) When I called your Customer Service Number (I’m kidding— I called Reservations because your hieroglyphic Contact AA menu certainly does not include a straightforward phone number for Customer Service, hence this letter), I asked why I had not been notified of the change. I was told it was not your policy to notify travelers if they have not booked directly through you. But American Airlines Customer Relations, I plead to you as I did to them, I am an American Airlines Frequent Flyer (H7748W2)!

My disappointment was severe at this point, but I remained calm as I was destined for a heart test the next day. From my first arrival at the Santa Barbara Airport to my landing at Lihue, I calculate that my travel speed dropped to 150 miles an hour (I had plenty of time to do the math). I was forced to eat at a Burger King at Terminal Four at Los Angeles. I spent money that the cardiologist is going to want. And all along you had all of my contact information. There’s penny pinching, yes, but how much does one email cost? Ouch!

To add to my day, when I finally arrived home near midnight on January 3rd, there was a cane toad sitting on my toilet seat (see enclosed photo). It was just that kind of day, American Airlines Customer Relations.

Sincerely yours,

Lorelei Armstrong

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Resolution Update #1.

So the New Year's resolution for 2012 is to read 100 pages a day, no excuses. It's my usual minimum pace, but as with all resolutions, this is a bulwark against those days when you let the commitment slide and one day off leads to another and another, until finally you slap yourself back into compliance.

So far, so good. I haven't missed a day. Through New Year's Day, a wretched day of air travel, two medical appointments, and a now three-day cold, I have been reading. I've consumed:

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad. I didn't just enjoy this book due to my unhealthy interest in the Faroe Islands, but that didn't hurt. What really worked here was the main character, someone who is fleeing from life in ways subtle and rarely seen. Someone who rejects happiness until others have it first, someone last in line for life until it grabs him. Plus, as I said, Faroes!

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I was on page two when I looked to see from which august institution the author received her MFA. Sure enough. MFA programs leave sticky fingers upon much of the prose that emerges. Where an ambitious writer might say something like "the winter trees stood like bones," the MFA-holder might just add "washed from a forgotten cemetery by a November storm." Just that bit of oversell that fills me with ennui...

Pigeon Feathers by John Updike. A gorgeous collection of stories that coalesce into a whole. The story of a life that is many lives. Updike is a master craftsman, with a unique gift for the wide view. The arms-flung-wide take on life, on time, on family. Gorgeous and recommended.

Finished in 2012, begun in 2011:

Examined Lives by James Miller. Nonfiction, a collection of the life stories of philosophers. For some reason I found the impenetrable Kant most interesting. I hope there is another volume forthcoming, with Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, and the reprehensible Heidegger.

Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall. All the latest on the creation of and goings-on at the Large Hadron Collider. I am now both better informed and more eager for news from the LHC. Eminently readable, and delivers so much information it's like five books for the price of one.

More to come, as I am two days from finishing a 700+ page book that is one of the best I've ever read...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How (Not) Shocking!

The latest tempest in a teapot in the world of books is the note discovered from the 1961 Nobel committee that awarded the year's prize in literature, notes which revealed that Tolkein was supposedly snubbed tor the award and his work insulted. Snubbed? Well, not so much.

It's easy to conclude that popularity is the last thing a writer needs when jousting at the highest prize in the world of letters. I read a lot of literary fiction, and my response to most of the literature winners is "who?" Even the world of literature is often caught off-guard, having to scramble to translate the winner's work into English for the first time. Think there are debates over the peace prize laureates? There's as much argument over that big lit prize.

So what happened to poor JRRT? No, it wasn't a matter of popularity. I'm afraid to say that I agree with the judgment of the committee. Summing up Tolkein's work they said: "the result has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality".

Tolkein just doesn't hit the heights. I'm not saying every laureate does; few seem to these days in my humble... Tolkein was famous for not allowing his work to be edited, and it shows. His best-written work is the Silmarillion, and many of his fans struggle with that one. Yes, he crafted epic stories. He just didn't do it with epic craft in terms of the writing. His formidable talent was for world-building. In that realm he might just be the best there ever was.

Read literary fiction for decades only if you accept the risk of spoiling your enjoyment of some former favorite writers. I love the LOTR movies, beautifully done, paced well, story matched to the imagery JRRT never quite delivered. I did miss the Bombadil section, which seemed to me to be JRRT's most singular invention, and the one good line in the tome:

"And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold. . .until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness."

A copyeditor could have fixed the punctuation.