Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading With Your Brain Off

Everyone needs a good mind-dumber from time to time, right?  I don't care if you're the biggest literary snob in the world, dedicating to a book about the same level of concentration required to understand an episode of Jersey Shore is almost always relaxing (therapeutic, even) and fun.

I mix in the occasional genre fiction novel for two reasons: These books are fun in the same way as the silly summer blockbuster movies: They really are just, pure mindless entertainment. I love contemporary literary fiction, and it'll always be my favorite "genre," but once in awhile, I just need to flip the "off" switch on my bean and grab a crime thriller or tale of political intrigue. I wouldn't even call them "guilty pleasures," because I don't feel the least bit guilty about devouring them, putting them on my shelf, and not remembering a damn thing about them the next day.

The second reason is that the signature bad dialogue and preposterous plot twists make them almost as funny as the funniest funny novels. I mean, how do you not laugh at a line like this: Character A hits on attractive female Character B and totally out of the blue, unleashes: "I want to get naked with you." So even if the plot isn't keeping you riveted, there is still plenty of entertainment to be derived.

Lately, I've been in the market for a new genre series to get me through the busy spring travel season. I settled on Vince Flynn's series of thrillers starring CIA agent extraordinaire Mitch Rapp, and plowed through most of the first one in the series, Transfer of Power, on planes to and from New Orleans this week. So far, the book definitely fits the bill — the above dialogue example is pulled directly from Flynn. Thankfully, there are nine more books in the series after this one!

Other than this first Flynn book, I've also enjoyed genre fiction from writers like Greg Iles, Nelson DeMille, Raymond Khoury, Tom Clancy and Daniel Silva.

So who is on your beach-read list?  Which writers have you picked up in an airport bookstore and really enjoyed? Why do you enjoy the occasional genre book as well?

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Writing: King's Approach to The Craft

Stephen King on writing? Isn't that a bit like Keanu Reaves on acting? Or Nickelback on music? Okay, juuuust kidding. ;)

This book came recommended highly enough by many people whose opinions I value that I knew it wasn't going to be as silly as King's fiction sometimes can be. And King does have some good advice to impart. Not all parts of his very specific formula for how he produces his fiction, edits and re-writes will work for all writers, but the trip inside his mind sure is fun to read.

King begins his "memoir of the craft" with actual tidbits of memoir. From his nanny who used to fart in his face to the day he met is wife, King describes all the seminal events of his life that have influenced his writing. A lot here will be familiar to King fans — how he wrote Carrie in the laundry room of a double-wide trailer while near financial collapse, and how his wife Tabitha had to intervene to cure him of a nasty early-80s cocaine habit and addiction to booze.

King introduces the actual advice-on-writing section with an anecdote about his grandfather's toolbox, and why it's important to bring all your "tools" as a writer with you every time you sit down to compose. Not exactly an original approach, and the section includes tips that won't exactly be revelations to anyone who's had a college writing class, but they're still good reminders: Write every single day, with a specific output goal in mind (1,000 words/day, eg.); read as much as humanly possible; avoid adverbs, especially in dialogue tags (...he said angrily, eg.); don't use passive voice; have thick skin and accept that rejection will be part of life.

The book builds to King's two central theses. Good fiction must be real and authentic. You can write about whatever you want, as long as you tell the truth and be honest, he says. Which leads to Thesis #2: To write good fiction, writers must understand that the story's the only thing that truly matters. The situation or spark comes first, then the characters, then you just narrate what happens. Every literary trick you can imagine plays second fiddle to the story itself. 

And that's where things get dicey. It's not so much that I "disagree" with some of King's assertions, because he's really talking about what's been successful for him and only suggests it might work for you, too. Besides, what right does an unpublished schmuck like me have to "disagree" with a novelist who has sold millions and millions of copies? It's more that some of King's assertions seem to go against the grain a bit.

Book buyers aren't attracted to the literary merits of a novel, says King — all book buyers want is a good story. That's true to a degree, I suppose, but I buy books based on their literary merits all....the....time! Or did you know you're not supposed to know what your book is about thematically until the second draft? Or that any symbolism in your story should be serendipitous, and not something done intentionally, and only discovered as you edit? Or that you shouldn't plot at all, you should just let the characters lead the story where it may with no ending in mind until you get to the ending?

I'm not exactly a prolific fiction writer, but all this runs precisely 180 degrees in opposition to how I've tried to write my own stories. It does, however, explain a lot about King's fiction — especially the atrocious ending, strange plot twists and one-dimensional characters in his latest book Under the Dome.

The strength of On Writing is its breezy, often sarcastic, and frequently hilarious style. One example: In the discussion of the evils of the passive voice, King provides a particularly odious sentence to hammer home his point, which he does thusly: "Oh, man — who farted, right?" He's even funny as he wraps up the book talking about getting hit by a van in the summer of 1999 — an accident that nearly killed him.

Have you read On Writing? Any parts you found particularly helpful? Any parts you take issue with?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Book Thief: The Power of Words

There is no better way to sum up this profound and moving story than to describe its most profound and moving metaphor: During World War II, a Jewish refugee named Max, who is hiding in a German family's basement, tears out pages of Mein Kampf and whitewashes them. He uses these newly clean pages to write a new story about the bond of shared experience between himself and the family's adopted teenage girl, Liesel.

He gives his story to Liesel as a gift, thereby deepening their bond and cementing the central message of the novel: Words are powerful. They can be both damning and brilliant. And they have equal gravity to be either massively destructive (like Nazi ideology), or redemptive, enlightening and life-giving (like Max's homemade book).

Liesel, who is the book thief of the title, had already had an inkling of this magnetic draw of words — even before she knew how to read. Her first book theft occurred the day she buried her younger brother on the way to their foster home; she stole a guide to grave digging that fell out of one of the gravedigger's pockets. She simply wanted a way to remember not just her dead brother, but how she was feeling at that moment of his burial. After she arrives at her foster home near Munich, her adopted father Hans teaches her to read and she begins to understand more deeply how life-altering words and stories can be.

I'd heard so much about this book before finally picking it up, and I'd always been worried about how much I would really connect with a supposedly "young adult" coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl in Nazi Germany. Let's make one thing clear: Whoever decided to label or market this is as a "young adult novel" made a massive miscalculation. If the YA label is your hesitancy as well, please be assured you can discard it out of hand. I'm not sure where the line between young and adult fiction is, but this belongs on the shelf next to the best of any kind of literature.

My second hesitation was the Death-as-narrator gimmick — I was worried how well it'd work. But, again: Fears were unfounded. Death's voice in this novel is unlike anything I've ever read. It's poetic and imaginative, but straightforward and serious at the same time. In an interview published at the end of the novel, Zusak reveals that he'd started the novel with Death as the heartless soul-reaper you'd expect. But, he says, the story wasn't working. So he created an omniscient Death who simultaneously sympathizes with and is terrified of humanity.

Finally, approximately 99 percent of people who talk about this book do it in such glowing terms that I had that typical too-high expectations hesitancy. I may not have loved this book as much as many, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. It moved me and it made me think, two hallmarks of a great book. 

Have you read The Book Thief? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts, but also there's one question in the "for discussion" section at the end on which I'd be interested to hear your take — what is ironic about Liesel's obsession for stealing books?

If you haven't read the book, it is highly, highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Weighing in on the E-Book Price Kerfuffle

Last week, the NY Times reported that publishers will be raising prices on new release e-books from $9.99 to as high as $14.99. People who shelled out several hundred bucks for an e-book reader, and who seem to think they were promised that e-books would stay the same price forever, are angry. And so, they've taken  to the practice of leaving one-star reviews on the creative products of their favorite writers.

I can understand the frustration, I suppose -- I mean, if iTunes all of a sudden started selling new records for $14.99, and didn't do a good job of explaining why, I'd be disappointed too. In the case of e-books, the anger mostly comes from a lack of understanding about the real cost of publishing a book. As the NY Times piece points out, you're not paying for the printing and paper when you a buy a book (and avoiding that cost when you buy an e-book), you're paying for a creative work, as well as the editing, marketing and other overhead required to put it out into the marketplace.

But, for the purposes of this post, that is beside the point. I'm much more concerned about the vocal minority who have taken to the one-star-review as their form of protest. I mean, by any objective rationale, a one-star review that has nothing to do with the content is not only idiotic, in an indirect way, it actually does impugn the content of the book itself.

Here's why: I'd never suggest that an Amazon review or a quick glance at the average star-rating should be the only criteria in a book-purchase decision. But for many people, they do hold a lot of weight. So several of these idiotic one-star reviews actually can negatively affect book sales.

So, if you'll follow me on a bit of a stretch scenario, not only is this practice stupid, it is also totally counterproductive. If book sales decrease, publishers will have to raise all prices, e-book included, further to stay in business and then NO ONE WINS!

Look, I know decrying the one-star-protest isn't exactly going out on an ideological limb. But, to me, this is the biggest shame about this whole e-book price kerfuffle. It makes me angry when I see one (on this new biography of Willie Mays, for instance), and even angrier when a reviewer tries to justify it - "this is a product review, not a book review."

So, as someone who strongly believes in the integrity of book reviews, I'd urge you to pay these vocal idiots no mind. Continue to click the "No" under the "Was this review helpful?" and I'll continue to petition Amazon and B&N to have reviews that have nothing to do with the content removed from their site.

Now, on a much happier note: The winner of my Zadie Smith giveaway is.....Kerry, at Entomology of a Bookworm. Congrats!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Play's The Thing: A Look at Literary Gimmicks

Shakespeare had the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father appear to reveal his killer. Mr. Kafka starts a story with a dude named Gregor waking up to discover he's metamorphosized into a giant bug. And, more recently, Alice Sebold narrated an entire novel from the point of view of a murdered 14-year-old girl hanging out in heaven.

Literary gimmicks such as these are one of the highest risk/highest reward tricks in literature. If done right, the writer is hailed as a creative genius and and his/her work as groundbreaking. Done wrong, and the writer is marginalized as, well,  gimmicky — in the most negative connotation of the term.

Genre fiction (including fantasy) aside, let's define a literary gimmick broadly as something that could only happen (or be done) in fiction. Of course, this definition must come with the understanding that individual metaphysical and/or religious beliefs may drastically widen or narrow what's fictional and what's not. For instance, do you believe in ghosts?  How about an alien named Xenu?  Most of the literary gimmicks that work well, though, everyone will agree could not possibly occur in nature — and that's what makes them fun. For instance, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I'm about a third of the way through, is an entire novel narrated by a gentle Death, who hates the human notion of him as a dark-hooded, sickle-wielding maniac.

Opinions on whether a literary gimmick works will, of course, vary widely by reader. For strictly literal-minded readers, literary gimmicks are fantasy novels, and so will never be to their taste. For me, a gimmick works if it's clear why the writer made that choice — if it's a fundamental part of the way the novel must be told, and not just a writer showing off his/her supposed prowess.

I can't wait to hear from you about what gimmick-enhanced novels you've loved (or ones you've hated) and why or why not those gimmicks works. But first, here are a few that I've really enjoyed: 

1) Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn: A conversation between a man and a talking gorilla named Ishmael explores the relationship between humans and nature. Many fans (me included!) of this philosophical "novel of ideas" credit it as a logical foundation for the environmental movement. Man is made for the Earth, not the Earth for man, the book argues.

2) Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace: The trick here is a film called Infinite Jest that is so entertaining that those who watch it literally cannot stop. And so they die. This gimmick as well as the alternate reality future America (where years aren't numbered, they're sponsored — Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, e.g.) in which the novel is set provide a medium for Wallace to explore addiction in two separate ways: The traditional (drug and alcohol) and the more complex (our silly consumeristic, entertainment-driven culture). This brilliant 1,079-page behemoth is one of my favorite novels of all time.

3) The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger: You know this one by now — time-traveling Chicagoan Henry jumps back and forth through the various stages of his eventual lover, Clare's, life. It's one of the most imaginative and touching love stories you'll ever read. 

4) House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski: This multi-layered, mind-blowing piece of postmodern meta-fiction has as its cornerstone a house that measures larger on the inside than the outside. Characters get trapped in an infinite labyrinth, the door to which is inside this house. These gimmicks and a documentary film-within-a-story give Danielewski a jumping off point for exploring the existential question of whether the world is just a construct of the mind. This book requires a lot of work, but is easily the coolest, hippest and most innovative book I've ever read.

Now it's your turn: What are some of your favorite literary gimmick novels? What was the gimmick and why did it work?  Alternatively (and perhaps more interestingly), what are some literary gimmick novels that didn't work?

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Unnamed: Walking Away From Marital Bliss

Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed isn't exactly a cheery book. It's practically a polar opposite from Ferris' first novel, a literary version of the movie Office Space titled Then We Came To The End — a National Book Award finalist that had readers rolling.

The Unnamed, however, will have no one rolling in the aisles. Essentially, the novel explores the limits of "in sickness and in health" in a marriage. Tim is a successful New York lawyer who has an unexplained, "unnamed" condition whereby his body forces him to stop whatever he's doing and just walk...walk until he gets tired, curls up  and falls asleep. Then, he calls his wife Jane to come pick him up at the gas station or side-of-the-road rest stop or beauty salon (in one memorable case) where he's collapsed.

The condition goes in and out of remission, and the resulting hope-despair cycle wreaks absolute havoc on Tim and Jane's marriage. Jane turns to the bottle to cope and escape, proving she's just as vulnerable as he is. Their marriage is a perfect example of co-dependence — until conditions spin out of control. The book was solid, but certainly not great, and not as good as Then We Came To The End. Even so, it's clearly the product of an immensely talented writer with a brilliant imagination.  

Speaking of the writer: You may remember from a recent post that I got to meet Joshua Ferris at a reading and signing last week. Ferris read for about 30 minutes — his voice (I'm fascinated by novelists' voices, for some reason) is a clipped, brisk, medium-soft baritone, exactly the type of voice you'd expect from the trendily-but-casually dressed, pleasantly-dishevel-'doed intellectual hipster.

He took only a few questions, during which he revealed he wrote the ending of the novel on his Blackberry while on a shopping trip to Home Depot with his father.

Then we got in line to have him sign our books. I tend to get a bit star-struck when meeting talented novelists, and had been trying the whole time he was reading to think of something smart to say when it was my turn. Not to be. He did this thing where he'd trace his pen, and then sign inside the tracing, and so all I could come up with is "Is there a story behind the pen-tracing?" Smooth one, Greg. He kind of smirked and said "I'm sure there is, but I've been doing it so long I can't remember why I started."

As you can see from the photo, even famous, incredibly smart novelists sometimes commit the common foible of forgetting what year it is!  Stars...they really are just like us.  ;)

(One final note: You still have a week to enter my giveaway for Zadie Smith's essay collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Go here to read about the details. )

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Zadie Smith — Changing My Mind, Occasional Essays: Review and Giveaway

Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers. So, last year when I learned that she was publishing a book of essays, titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, I was excited. When I saw a review in Time (on the Top 10 Non-fiction books of 2009, incidentally) that compared her gifts as an essayist to those of my FAVORITE writer David Foster Wallace, I was ecstatic. And when the book arrived and I discovered that the last of the 17 essays is a 40-page tribute to DFW, I damn near lost my mind. For me, this is like the Coen Brothers making a movie about Marquette basketball — a near-perfect combination of Greg-obsessions!

The book itself is very, very good — Smith's incomparably charming voice and "astonishing intellect" are on full display here. The essays are split into five subject-based sections and range from literary criticism to movie reviews to an essay on humor. Frankly, not every essay will be interesting to every reader — there were a few here I struggled to get through (about an obscure Italian film, about Middlemarch, about Kafka). But on the whole, it's a wonderful collection.

As shocking as this may be, my favorite piece is the DFW essay — her talent screams to the surface here, not just eulogizing HER favorite writer (she actually began the essay when he was still alive, and finished after he'd died) but also explaining his literary philosophy, and how and why she thought a genius like DFW wrote fiction. One of my favorite DFW quotes of all time is "Fiction's about what it means to be f@#$ing human," and the highlight of the essay for me is Smith unpacking this quote to explain why DFW thought fiction in general and language specifically allowed us to empathize with our fellow humans and escape solipsism. The essay is difficult at times, but very well worth the effort; just like DFW's stories, you have to invest the time and work to truly reap the benefits.

Other highlights of the collection include a lecture to Columbia University writing students about her writing process titled "That Crafty Feeling." This is highly recommended reading for any aspiring writer. Another is an essay about a trip to Liberia — Smith carefully records the destitution and poverty with terrifying vividness. Finally, as sharp and witty as her literary criticism is, her film review is just as good. One of the best essays is a collection of several reviews of 2006 films — they're funny, honest and just a blast to read, and a very concrete example of Smith's range as an essayist!

I have an extra copy of the book and want to get it in the hands of someone who will enjoy Smith's talent as much as I do. So, here are the rules, which I'll try to keep simple. You'll collect a number of "entries" based on the criteria below. Please comment and tell me which of the following applies for you (just be honest, and don't forget your email address so I can get a hold of you if you win.):
+1 for a new follower.
+2 for an existing follower.
+2 for posting a link to this review/giveaway on your blog. (Please include the link in your comment.)
+5 for identifying your favorite Zadie Smith novel, and writing a short paragraph explaining why it's your favorite.

The deadline for entry is Monday, Feb. 15. The winner will be chosen via a random drawing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Writers, Live and In Person!

About five years ago, I attended an Elizabeth Kostova reading/signing at an indie bookstore in Milwaukee. Riding a wave of Dan Brown-inspired hysteria, Kostova's historical thriller, The Historian, for which she'd received a much-publicized seven-figure advance, was poised to be the next big literary thing.

During the Q&A, I asked her what she thought of all the comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. She paused for a second, glanced at the ceiling, and then answered that she was flattered by any comparison to a book that has sold as well as Dan Brown's, but at the end of the day, her book was pretty different so she wasn't sure the comparisons were completely accurate. Later, when I made it up to her table to have my book signed, she recognized me and said "Hey, good question." I smiled and said "Thanks, good answer." She smiled too — both of us recognizing the real subtext to her answer was that she hated The Da Vinci Code comparisons and was dying to say that, but couldn't. She had to be diplomatic.

Such personal interaction is one of the many reasons why novelist readings/signings are so awesome!  You just can't get the same level of insight by reading reviews or watching the newfangled "book trailers" that seem to be gaining popularity. I absolutely love the author signing/readings, and since I'm headed to a Joshua Ferris (The Unnamed) reading/signing tonight, I figured I'd spend a post telling you about some of my favorites.

Jonathan Safran Foer — Dude is just awesome; very articulate and very funny. I mentioned in a previous post how the event was the literary equivalent of an 'NSYNC concert, but the best part about the signing was when he explained the most difficult "piece of writing" he'd ever done: Naming his first child. That damn near brought the house down.

Zadie Smith — I posted before about how much I loved her answer to the question about whether critics create art, but what struck me most about Smith is that for someone with such an awe-inspiring intellect, she was incredibly down-to-earth and normal and COOL. She explained that there seems to be a perception about writers that they lead some kind of charmed celebrity life, but really, with only a few exceptions, her day-to-day life is very tame. She and her husband do their daily work (her husband is a poet) and then convene at night to "order a pizza for dinner and watch a movie." Also, she seemed genuinely happy to be there talking to us, quite the contrast to many writers on these book tours who are only doing it to fulfill a contract requirement from their publisher. (By the way, just a teaser: On Thursday I'll post a review of Smith's collection of essays titled Changing My Mind....AND, that book will be the prize for my first ever blog giveaway.)

Richard Russo — I got to meet Russo at a reading/signing at my alma mater, Marquette University. At an alums-only, pre-reading reception, he talked about how different screenwriting is from novel-writing and how difficult it was to adapt his own novel Empire Falls for an HBO mini-series. He also talked about his friendship with Paul Newman, who plays Sully in the movie-ization of his novel Nobody's Fool. If you haven't read and/or seen the movie Nobody's Fool, do yourself a favor, and get on that as soon as humanly possible! 

Ken Follett — I got to see Follett on his book tour for World Without End, the sequel to the much ballyhooed Pillars of the Earth. It was fascinating to hear Follett talk about the sea change in mindset it took for him to move from his thriller-writing comfort zone to researching and writing massive historical novels. 

Jeff Shaara — I caught Mr. Shaara on his tour for his World War I novel, To The Last Man. Shaara wrote the first and third novels of the Civil War trilogy his father Michael began with The Killer Angels — often regarded as one of the greatest historical novels of all time. It was interesting hearing him talk about how he tried to match his father's style, after he'd passed away, to complete the trilogy.

Jon Fasman — I'm guessing not many of you have heard of Mr. Fasman, or his novel The Geographer's Library. Apparently, that was also the case at the time of the reading/signing. There were only FIVE people in attendance. I felt so terrible for the guy, but less so after reading the book, which wasn't particularly enjoyable.

What are some of your favorite author reading/signings?  What about the novelist made them memorable?