Sunday, April 22, 2012

Resolution Update #9.

Uh-oh, Blogger has changed its format again. This can only go well. The Resolution marches on. Ah, just had my first format problem. Had to switch to HTML since the normal Compose function does not want to do carriage returns. Well done, Blogger. Driving folks to Wordpress yet again.

Anyway, big update today since I have been shirking my responsibility and have a giant stack of finished books that need to get off my desk:

The Zero by Jess Walter. This was intriguing. Jess Walter came up with a structure I had never encountered before: a main character whose memory switches off and on due to a rather dramatic injury in the first scene. The book is centered around the events of 9/11, and nicely captures the chaos of the event and the insanity of what came after. I would like to see this character again. One warning: this book will make you go out and buy Zingers. It cannot be avoided.

Homicide Special by Miles Corwin. Non-fiction. Miles Corwin spent a year with the LAPD's Homicide Special division. Required reading for anyone who wants to write crime fiction or the modern murder mystery. I believe I shall be stocking up on Corwin's work. Very engrossing reading.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Every word I read by DFW makes me more sad that he's gone. He was an absolute original in the world of writing. If you subscribe to the "show don't tell" school, there is less telling in his writing than seems possible. His use of pace, which seems slow if you're not paying attention, actually reveals amazing complexity about human beings. And he does this while sustaining some of the most remarkable absurdity I've ever read. Skim DFW and you'll miss the whole thing. A stand-out story in this collection is about a woman's struggle with depression. DFW captures not only the woman's troubles, but also the rest of the world's troubles with her. Depression was a subject DFW knew too well, and understood completely.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. How have I not read this before? Rushdie is one of the rare writers who can present supernatural events and have them seem to belong in the world. He does not stop to explain, or to let the reader catch up, or in any way to qualify his story. The writing is beautiful but clean and never in the way. Very like Gabriel García Márquez, I find. And I now see why he has had trouble with the fanatics. Respect to him for appearing recently at Christopher Hitchens' memorial. I shall be buying and reading more of his work. The delight of finding a master writer, years later than I should have.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Memoir. The true story of a tragic adoption. Is there anything worse than discovering you might have done much better to be kept by a young, unprepared mother, rather than be adopted by a married couple? This is what happened to Jeanette Winterson. This book centers on her adoptive mother, a frozen religious woman who would have been better off not marrying and never having a child. The mother's problems hurt her daughter terribly, but this is not a tragedy. Jeanette Winterson survived and triumphed, writing the UK bestseller, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is an autobiography about the same period. If I have any complaint with this book it's that I feel I need to read Oranges to understand everything that happened in this bitter childhood.

Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. Memoir. I have long been interested in Gypsy history and culture. The UK's unusually lax trespass laws and caravan parks allow Travelers to roam the country, making money as they can, often via construction scams on homeowners. Often violent, rarely educated, Gypsies do not accept outsiders or anyone who wants more than what their culture offers. Walsh fled from his family when his homosexuality meant possible death at the hands of his own father. To this day he has to maintain his anonymity to stay safe. Another incredible tale of someone who escaped a closed society and rose to build a life from scratch as a young adult in an unfamiliar world. Like a deathmatch version of an Amish teenager escaping to the world of the English.

A Carpenter's Life by Larry Haun. Memoir. This was a beautiful book. Haun, a carpenter all his adult life, tells the story of his family through the story of the houses they built and owned. From his mother's life in a sod house on the plains of Nebraska to the small house in which he and his second wife raised their blended family, Haun tells us his thoughts about how we all build and live. He asks questions about what we value. Questions we should all ask. Why build a 10,000 foot house just because you can? Why live in a space so large that you lose sight of your family? Pictures enhance this splendid tale. I'm glad his non-fiction builders' guide publisher took a chance on this book. Everyone should.

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. I had some issues with his last novel, Winter's Bone. The main character, a young woman, seemed too passive for me. Other people came along to provide direction in her hunt for her father. Well, no such troubles in this short story collection. These folks (even the young women) definitely know their own minds, and you'll be amazed at the hunts they pursue. Brilliant writing doesn't hurt, either. My only complaint is that it wasn't three times longer.

There is No Year by Blake Butler. I seem to be chasing every novel that promises a magical or unusual approach to storytelling. I enjoyed half of The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and also liked The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. This was wilder than those, more poetic, and was that much harder to follow. I was pondering my problem with this book and it seems to come down to something prosaic: the characters don't have names. They're the son, the mother, and the father. Maybe this is a nod to Heart of Darkness, which is not "the heart of darkness" because such hearts are many and might be anywhere. Does this book mean to say that this dark adventure could happen to anyone? Is happening to everyone? This is a kind of a haunted house tale, but unlike The House of Leaves events and characters do not ground themselves to the real world. They are entirely in this strange story, and I wish I could have been. I am looking forward to reading Blake Butler's novel of insomnia. I think that's a subject that will definitely respond to his style.

The reading goes on...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dance Your Story.

I'm watching the third and final night of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is the largest annual hula festival here in Hawaii. It is held in Hilo, and draws halau (schools) from all over the state and from the mainland. It's a beautiful and splendid thing to watch. And as a writer, I am particularly struck that these dancers are telling stories through their dance. In the mele (chant) and in the dance itself. Hula is storytelling done with the voice, mind, and body. The Hawaiian people have saved their history through the hula. Even to those of us who are woefully ignorant of the language can feel the complex emotion of these stories.

I recommend that you spend some time on YouTube considering the hula, and think of how you would dance your story. How would you tell your story with your whole self?

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Downloaded David Foster Wallace's Pale King last night, and it's love already. First, how clever to start a novel on an airplane! Kidding— I did it— there's no actual extra credit. But to entertain while telling the story of a man on his way to Peoria to take his CPA exam, to impress with observation and diction and entertain with questions from the CPA exam... A lost genius. I also added a next book to my wish list that I greatly look forward to: Sid Stebel's The Collaborator. Good times ahead. I think I'll wash my mother's window screens and lanai this weekend to get in some good listening time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I Quit.

I turned off Ramona Ausubel's No One is Here Except All of Us today, three hours into the book. Part was narrator trauma, part was the flowery writing, part was the feeling that this was a short story that got turned into a novel against its will. Must we describe the rain— and everything else— quite so thoroughly? It also suffered from a POV problem. The main character is an eleven-year-old girl. How does she know what is being said in her parents' bedroom? I'll go ahead and assume she knows a cabbage is being hurled in there because of the thud.... No, I'm not kidding.

Another problem might be entirely unique to me, but there's a creeping discomfort to a book that is showcasing a lavish writing style and odd, mystical storyline against the Holocaust. Part of my brain is yelling "run!" so loudly that I can't relax into the book. And nobody does run. There's a lot of groupthink in this village. We'll call that strike three. Off to try my luck again at Audible.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another Weird Thought.

The book I just started reading for the New Year's Resolution is also striking me as odd. I'm not going to tell you what book this is, because my suspicion about it is rather serious. It's a memoir. Maybe. I feel safe here because my next Resolution update will contain a couple of them. One of them, the one I'm reading now, is straining my credulity just a bit. I'm getting a Million Little Pieces vibe off of it. Everything you read has a "do I believe this?" question attached, fiction or non-fiction. That question is much stronger in memoir, especially in light of the number of pseudo-memoirs we've seen in the last few years. I read James Frey and "JT LeRoy," and both of those struck me as bogus while I was reading them, and the same radar is going off today. Curious.


So I'm driving home from giving blood listening to Ramona Ausubel's No One is Here Except All of Us, which is exhibiting strong signs of what I call "old world tchotche style," when it came to me. I was suddenly certain that what I was hearing was an MFA program. Got home, checked, and lo, presto. Ms. Ausubel does indeed hold an MFA in creative writing. No harm, no foul, but I'm getting pretty good at hearing it in fiction. Some combination of mannered and florid. Seven or so hours to go and then I get to spin the wheel of audiobook selection once more. This narrator is still driving me wild.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Epic Fail!

I purchased a new audiobook this morning and ended up turning it off after thirty minutes. I would have done it faster but I was out on my morning walk and that was all I had on the iPod. I'm rather astonished, because I've been reading good reviews of this one for quite a while. Part of the problem was my usual reaction to the wanderer archetype, and this book was apparently little more than a man's thoughts as he wanders around Manhattan. That, however, could be done well. What killed this book dead, and I never thought I'd say this of a mainstream, well-reviewed novel, is the appallingly bad writing. I mean the sort of thing I'm used to hearing from first-time writers who are trying to be "writery." Just the worst sort of florid and strained diction and bits of tortured introspection ("I sat down on one of the benches and sank into a reverie" or somesuch). Writing to make the skin crawl. And oddly, the main character admits that he doesn't read much at present. I fear the same is true of the writer. How Teju Cole turned Open City into an acclaimed novel or even got it published I have no idea. Maybe people in NYC are terminally excited reading about NYC to the point of blindness. So there was $20 down the tubes.

And then...

And then I bought No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ansubel. I've barely begun this one and have no issues with the writing as of yet. Indeed, there have been some bright moments already. But the narrator... The narrator... She reads the young main character as though she were a low-IQ robot of some kind. A long, dreadful verbal tic. And tomorrow I get to listen to a couple of hours of this as I drive to town to donate blood. Perhaps the road noise will drown out some of the narrator's choices? Perhaps the Holocaust will distract? I shall be wishing for something awful one way or another.

The levels of roulette that function in the audiobook world are astonishing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Audiobook Update.

I just finished Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and I have a special request or two:

1. If you are a writer who has not grown up reading science and science fiction, you MUST give your manuscript to a science fiction writer for review prior to publication. This will save the would-be Eden-builder from making idiotic claims that industrialism will never re-emerge in the post-apocalyptic population of Ideal Beings because all the easy veins of iron ore have long since been tapped, then mentioning not ten minutes later the iron spikes of a fence that is part of the epic layer of iron-rich rubble that covers the entire surface of the Earth. The Stupid, it Hurts.

2. If you are doing the tired old "environmental collapse leads to societal collapse" thing, you must explain why human beings turn to animals in a way that we have never done in the presence of any other emergency, ever. Even the black death. If we were able to hold our shit in the face of the black death, you have to explain why we didn't when global warming hit the fan. I'm looking at you, too, Cormac McCarthy. I thought you were writing about nuclear winter. Ms. Atwood, I particularly need you to explain why all of your genius populations neither saw their fellow men as (a) human beings in need of compassion and help, nor (b) customers.

Final verdict: passion-free sociopaths are boring and poorly-executed apocalypses are frustrating.