Thursday, July 28, 2011

Matterhorn: War Is Hell

During a particularly rough patch — and there are many, many rough patches for the Vietnam War soldiers who inhabit Karl Marlantes' novel Matterhorn — Lieutenant Mellas nearly loses it. He busts out laughing, and "he (keeps) laughing, shaking his head in wonder at the world." And there it is, as the Marines were fond of saying — what an absurd thing war is. What an absurd concept to fight and die to take a hill, only to abandon it the next day. What an absurd notion of morality that it's murder to kill a drunken, inept commanding officer who sends troops to their useless deaths, but it's not murder to kill other people whose only crime is standing on the other side of a line.

But what a brilliant novel.

Many reviewers of Matterhorn have begun their acclaim with some variation of "I'm not normally a fan of war novels, but I loved this." They're right on the mark — my sentiments exactly. True, this a war novel to the core — there's blood, guts and gruesomeness. But it's a novel that also moves beyond the theater of war and the Xs and Os to examine other themes of more universal appeal, like race relations, guilt, despair, fear, friendship, and importantly, the pros and cons of ambition.

But it's the characters that make this story. There's the seemingly fearless Vancouver who always volunteers for point on patrols, the 23-year-old First Lieutenant Fitch who is unable to extricate himself from the doghouse of his commanding officer, the platoon leader Goodwin who calls everyone Jack because "it's easier than remembering his name," the executive officer Hawke who becomes fast friends with Mellas, and Cassidy, the racist lifer who draws the ongoing ire of the black Marines.

One of the hallmarks of this novel is how authentic it feels, and no where is that more evident than in how Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, renders these characters. Mellas, the protagonist, is the best example of this — he has come to Vietnam fresh from Princeton to win medals and build his résumé. Soon, though, he's assimilated, and actually becomes a soldier. It's funny to watch how his language changes over the course of the novel — by the midpoint, he's picked up all the slang like "there it is" and he's using the "F" word in every sentence, just like the Marine lifers.

And so we follow these Marines through the bush and watch as they encounter ever-increasing hardships. Just when you think it couldn't possibly get worse, it does. And then it gets worse again. The opening scene in the novel sets the tone. Lieutenant Mellas has just arrived on Matterhorn (a fictional hill near the Laotian border) to begin his tour commanding a platoon, and one of his squad leaders has to be medevaced back to base because he has a leech stuck in his urethra. Then, there are the never-ending, nerve-shattering patrols through the jungle, a week-long forced marches in the rain with no food, a soldier attacked by a tiger, and finally, the actual combat itself.

All of this adds up to a novel that, while horrific, is still immensely readable — even for the squeamish. It's universal. It's intense. And it's absolutely absorbing. Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, wrote this novel over the course of 30 years. The polish shows. This has classic potential. Highly recommended!


Monday, July 25, 2011

I Love Reading Fiction, Why Can't I Write Fiction?

Last week, we learned about one of my literary successes: the 10-year-old reading journal list. (As comedian Jim Gaffigan tweeted yesterday, "I have to give it up to myself for being so humble.") Today, though, let's talk about my most shameful literary failure: writing fiction. Or, more accurately, not writing fiction.

Every reader endeavors to write, right? But in 11 years since I graduated with a degree in Writing Intensive English (Marquette's English lit degree with 12 additional credit-hours of writing classes...pretty cool, eh?), I've produced precisely one short story. And it wasn't great — one of my workshopmates called it "pretentious," and it's hard to disagree with that. (Because I'm a glutton for punishment, you can read it on the "Mason" page I just put up, if you're interested.)

I've always been a reader, and always seen myself as a writer. As a trade magazine editor, I actually do write for a living. But when it comes to fiction, it wasn't supposed to be this way. If you'd have asked my 23-year-old self, I'd have predicted I'd have cranked out dozens of stories and maybe even a novel or two by now. Just hasn't happened.

Thomas Mann famously said "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I've always thrown that quote around ruefully when I have trouble with a magazine article for work or a blog post or whatever. Of course, if you think about it literally, it's absurd. Writing is a lot easier for those who see themselves as writers than it is for, say, structural engineers or computer scientists or underwear salesmen. But I get the spirit of the quote — that writers are often perfectionists, take writing way too seriously, and spend weeks on a single paragraph. And, frankly, that's one thing that's prevented me from writing fiction — I do take it too seriously, try to make it perfect, and that prevents it from being fun.

And here's another thing. My senior-year (actually, my second senior year, but who's counting?) creative writer teacher A. Manette Ansay, constantly bandied about her favorite Flannery O'Connor quote: "A writer is someone who can't not write." (or something to that effect — my second senior year is bit of a blur). What's frightening is that apparently it's been pretty easy for me to not write fiction. Does that make me not a fiction writer? Sh!t! Every once in a while (now, for instance) I'll be wracked by that question and with it the guilt that I haven't written fiction forever. But it usually passes, and I go back to reading and critiquing others' fiction.

One more thing: At the risk of eliciting eye-rolls, there's the ever-constant fear of failure. To me, that fear manifests itself more as a fear of wasting time. What if I spend 30 hours on a story, and then nothing happens? That's 30 hours I could've been reading instead.

So what's the answer? Well, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem, right? I just need to re-discover that writing fiction is fun, and carve out some time to actually do it. Lately, I've been half-assedly researching online creative writing MFA programs. I'm not sure that's the right move, but it's been fun to think about.

And of course, I'm hoping you can help me with your ideas. What has gotten you out of a writing funk — even (especially!) if it's more than a decade? How do you make writing fiction fun? How do you get over the "fear of failure" idea?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Do You Remember Books?

Like a typical dude, I just totally blew it on a pretty significant anniversary. But I'm the only one who cares that I missed it, so no harm, no foul, I suppose.

Ten years ago, in early June, 2001, a year out of college, and hoping desperately to devise a way so that all the books I read wouldn't be stowed on the shelf and totally forgotten, I started my "list" — essentially, my book journal. So for the last 10 years, after finishing a book, I sit for 20 minutes or so (longer for better books, usually — I wrote about Infinite Jest for almost two hours) and type out unorganized thoughts about the book. It always must be the day after I've finished reading, to give the book a bit of time to percolate. I'll never start another book until I've finished writing in the list. And I've never shown the list to anyone.

At some level, it's a bit obsessive-compulsive, I grant. However, it's also comforting. What was Augie March's girlfriend's name? What was Amir's big regret in The Kite Runner? Was it liver or roast beef that Portnoy, um, defiles in Roth's novel? Yes, the answers to those questions are trivial and inconsequential to understanding what these books are actually about, but still, to have a place to be able to go back and look up stuff like that eases my mind when I'm reading. (And whether or not we're remembering the specifics of books, they're still adding something to our "worldview," as this fantastic NY Times piece from last year argues. )

In addition, for me, the list has also been hugely beneficial over the last two years as I've read and commented on others' blogs. It's great being able to remind myself whether I agree(d) with what someone's written about a book, and to be add to the conversation more so than "I know I read this, and I think I liked it, but I don't remember specifics. Good review."

So, the list is now 10 years old. After my entry last week on Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, the list has grown to 364 single-spaced typed page. It is 250,744 words. By way of comparison, War and Peace is 568,880 words. Just under halfway there, baby! The first book I wrote about on the list is Rabbit, Run, by John Updike and the first line is "This book started out pretty slow, plotwise, but I really could appreciate Updike’s writing style. His work reads like a manual for any sort of writing student." Man, beyond being downright cringe-inducing, that is some Grade A-mateur analysis, isn't it? 

But I bring up the Ten-Year Anniversary of The List not just to pat myself on the back for keeping this up for 10 years and to open myself up for the potential ribbing that will surely ensue, I also bring it up to find out how others remember books they've read?

I realize the idea of a "reading journal" isn't exactly original, but how do you keep yours? What personal flavor does your journal have? Other than just storing your titles on GoodReads, what have you found to be effective for remembering the particulars of books you've read? Let me know — I'm excited to hear about what other readers do.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Crossing Mediums: Songwriters As Storytellers

No matter the medium, I just love stories. In fact, you might say that when it comes to storytelling, I'm medium-agnostic. A good story is a good story, whether it's on film, on stage, on the page, or even to a tune.

Because it's summer, the season for live music, let's take a literary look at that last one. It'd be fair to say that songwriting was storytelling before storytelling was storytelling. Song was the first way people told stories, as they sat around their cave campfires enjoying their roasted woolly mammoth. These days, music as a means to tell a story has advanced quite a bit, so much so that musicians frequently cross over into other mediums. And lately, several famous musicians have traversed the medium-line to publish generally well-received novels.

Here are a few examples: Crooner Josh Ritter published a novel last month titled Bright's Passage, about a man who returns to his West Virginia home after fighting in World War I. It has an average rating of 3.73 stars on GoodReads. Pretty solid. Folksy performer Steve Earle published I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, about a guy who lives with the ghost of Hank Williams, in April to better-than-average reviews (3.56 GoodReads average). Nick Cave, Jimmy Buffett and Bob Dylan are other examples of folks whose primary medium is songwriting, but who have also published novels. I'm sure there are more examples — please comment below if you know of more.

This is a trend that doesn't take a Mensa membership to decipher. As my friend Doug said, as we were discussing this last weekend during a show (after a beer or six), "songwriters just have an innate gift with language, a natural talent for telling a story." He mentioned one of his favorite artists, New Orleans-based songwriter Paul Sanchez. He said the last time he caught Sanchez, during Jazz Fest this year, there was a woman sitting near the stage talking loudly on her cellphone and generally being a nuisance. Sanchez, on the spot, made up a song about (read as: making fun of) her — "it was amazing. He developed this story in his head while he was playing another song," Doug said. 

More so than possibly any other type of artist, musicians are creative about how they tell their stories. If it's not publishing a novel, it might be a CD-length concept album. Even generally considered neanderthal heavy metal and alternative musicians like Iced Earth, Mastodon, Coheed and Cambria, and Queensryche tell a story start to finish over an album or several albums, and set it all to music. In fact, Claudio Sanchez, frontman for Coheed and Cambria, includes a 350-page novel in the deluxe edition of their latest CD titled Year of the Black Rainbow, adding details to the story in the band's five-album set. He'd also published comic books to go with the albums, as well. Even if you don't like the music, you have to appreciate the storytelling talent. (Or, actually, since Iced Earth, Coheed and Cambria, and Mastodon actually tell fairly "out there" sci-fi stories, the music, to me, is more interesting than the stories. I'm just not a sci-fi guy, you dig?)

At any rate, musicians who adapt their craft to another medium are eternally fascinating to me. We've already covered the idiot celebrities who trade on their name recognition to publish novels. That's the low, dark-and-seedy end of the medium-crossover spectrum. This is the high end. I'm about 300 times less skeptical of a musician-published novel than I am of one published by an actor/actress — both in terms of whether the celeb actually wrote the novel and how much I might enjoy it. I'm excited to check out both Earle's and Ritter's novel (at some point), and that's something I'd probably never say about other medium-crossover types of projects.

By the way, and to bring this post full-circle, Steve Earle and Paul Sanchez have both appeared in the HBO series Treme, set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the flood. While we're speaking of spectacular storytelling, that series is spectacular storytelling to a "T." Season One is available on DVD, and Season Two, which just wrapped up, should be soon. I can't recommend it more highly.

So what other musician-penned novels are out there? Why specifically do you think it is that musicians are able to cross mediums better than other artists? Or would you argue that that's not actually the case?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Norwegian Wood: Better To Have Loved And Lost?

A Japanese version of The Catcher in the Rye, only with more atmosphere and depth, and a lot more sex? Does that sound like something you might be interested in? Then, I'd humbly submit Haruki Murakami's slim, ethereal novel, Norwegian Wood.

Norwegian Wood is, of course, a Beatles song, the opening lyric of which is "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." The song itself, as well as the idea presented in its lyric of first love and the stinging memory thereof, are two of the major themes of the novel. The novel asks us to try to understand the dangers of taking love for granted; of assuming that there will always be time to work out problems; of waiting on one love at the expense of the possibility of another.

Such are the issues our narrator Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old Tokyo college student, deals with. The year is 1969, and one day on the train, Toru runs into Naoko — the ex-girlfriend of Toru's best friend in high school, who had mysteriously killed himself. Toru and Naoko begin seeing each other once a week, and soon, their feelings intensify. But are the feelings genuine, or is Naoko simply using Toru as a stand-in for her dead boyfriend?

Meanwhile, Toru meets the flighty, but fascinating Midori, and begins seeing her regularly, as well. Such is Toru's dilemma: Whom should he choose? Or, is the answer neither: Should he continue going out with his friend Nagasawa, getting drunk and sleeping with slutty girls? At one point, he wonders aloud, "What if there were a deux ex machina in real life?" In other words, why couldn't life be simple like a Greek drama in which the resolution to any problem is simply a god's intervention.

And as if to make all these questions even more complicated for himself, Toru begins questioning how much he should even trust his own vision of the world. Midori lies to him. A friend's life is ruined by a manipulative, lying 13-year-old girl. And his friend Nagasawa constantly lies to his own girlfriend to continue his carousing ways. Toru begins to distrust his ability to parse the truth. "If I told myself (the events of last night) were real, I believed they were real, and if I told myself they were a fantasy, they seemed like a fantasy." And so how to make decisions regarding matters of the heart on information that's not trustworthy? 

This book is loaded with difficult questions. And sex. Lots and lots of sex. Indeed, Norwegian Wood is blurbed as "the most erotic of Murakami's novels." So, if you're not into all those coming-of-age, difficult life questions, there that to keep you interested, anyway.

But it is a quick, fluid read, and one I really enjoyed. This is the first time I've read Murakami, and while I understand that Norwegian Wood isn't the best representative of his oeuvre, it does seem a good introduction to both his style, which is as clear and sharp as any writer I've ever read, and also his acumen as a storyteller. This is the kind of novel you read in hundred-page chunks, and is over before you know it. How did it go that fast? What did that all mean?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Film To Books: Top 3 Movies About Fiction Writing

We don't talk much about film here at The New Dork Review of Books, but we shall today — and in a rather bookish context, no less. Don't worry, I fully realize the "best movies based on books" conversation has been done to death. That's not where we're going here. Instead, let's look at some really outstanding movies about the process of writing fiction. 

Now, naturally, there seems to be a ton of movies about screenwriting and playwriting, and a ton of novels about writing fiction. But there is a definite dearth of movies about writing fiction. There is your The Hours (a pseudo-biopic of Virginia Woolf), there is your Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which, I haven't seen, and so the actual connection, if there is one, to Virginia Woolf is unclear to me), and there is your The Door In The Floor, a fantastic film based on the first section of John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year. If you haven't seen this last one, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, throw it up on your Netflix queue post-haste.

But those aren't the three movies I want to talk about. The three movies I want to point out all have one thing in common: They're actually about the fiction-writing process. That's not an easy thing to pull off on film — fiction writing being the loneliest, most solitary of arts. However, all three of these films show both writers' internal relationships with their craft, and also how the process of writing fiction emanates outward from the writer to affect those around, whether family or fans. Let's take a look.

3. Finding Forrester One of the great Sean Connery's last film's, this Gus Van Sant (of Milk and Good Will Hunting fame) vehicle tells the story reclusive writer William Forrester and his at-first hesitant, and then willing, collaboration with an inner city high school kid, who between basketball games, also happens to love writing fiction. It's a good look at the dangers of stereotype, as well as a great portrait of a student-teacher relationship. It's not real deep, if I remember correctly, but it is entertaining — though it's more of a mass-market, rather than indie-film type of entertainment.

2. Starting Out In The Evening This film about a perky graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) writing her master's thesis about an aging writer (Frank Langella) successfully takes a sort of bizarre young-woman's-idol-worship-of-older-man love story beyond the cliché. It also touches on a lot of literary themes: the sources of inspiration, "the madness of art," and even the uphill battle for literary novels in today's publishing environment. The superfluous, dull side story of Langella's character's daughter (Lili Taylor) and her relationship troubles put a dent in the film's overall merit, but on the whole, it's very, very good.

1. Wonder Boys This is one of my favorite movies of all time. The short tagline that comes up on the channel guide whenever this movie's on best sums it up: "A professor and his student collide with life." The cast (Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Ripp Torn, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downery Jr., Katie Holmes) is fantastic. It's an infinitely quotable film ("Oh, Professor Trip, you're bleeding." "No shit, James.") And it's a film that just makes you happy about being into books. And if you don't laugh out loud with James as Ripp Torn proclaims " a writer," well, you better check your own pulse.

As always, let's discuss. What did you think of any of the three films above — specifically, in how they treat the fiction-writing process? Any other fiction-writing films you'd recommend?

(Yes, I realize two of these three — Wonder Boys [Michael Chabon], Starting Out In The Evening [Brian Morton]— are actually based on novels. But that doesn't make it any less of a feat to show how fiction writers write, how what fiction writers write affects others, and how fiction writers interface with the world.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Literary Device Post

The former English major part of me is openly standing and cheering this week's prompt at The Blue Bookcase's Literary Blog Hop. The question: What are your favorite literary devices?

I have two. And, not coincidentally, they also happen to be two of my favorite words. Let me a drop a little juxtaposition and synecdoche on y'all. 

I remember learning about juxtaposition in a Shakespeare class in college. Apparently, Billy S. was the original DJ Juxtapositioner. After I learned what it meant, and that it could apply to many, many real-life situations outside of literature, I never missed (and still try not to) an opportunity to use it. It's fun. "Wow, today's weather is quite a juxtaposition to yesterday's, eh?" or "The floral hints in this chardonnay nicely juxtapose the boldness of flavor in these chicken wings." Anyway, having just read Eric Larson's In The Garden of Beasts, juxtaposition has been fresh in my mind. It was even the lead for the review. I also used it as a headline here. In fact, it could probably be argued successfully that I overuse that term. But that's a discussion for another time.

And so, also in the category of fun: Just saying the word "synecdoche." But I also like it as a literary device for its capacity to illustrate with brevity. An example: In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace is describing one of Jim's crazy films and uses the phrase "camera as audience-synecdoche." Got it? It means a part standing in for the whole. Now that know you understand, can you spot the two examples of synecdoche in this made-up sentence: "I'ma cruise out in my new wheels on Sat. night and find me a real nice piece'o'ass, y'all."  By the way, have you ever seen Charlie Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York? Good God. I love that PS Hoffman fellow, but that movie nearly drove me mad. I was not a fan. At all. But that's a discussion for another time.

(PS. My blog is the process of transition from its blogspot URL to its own domain. So, pardon my dust, vis-à-vis any irregularities in redirection to the right page, or goofs in page elements. Cheers!)

Literary Blog Hop

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh

Faith without works is dead: It's an unassailable truth for Catholics. But it's also often true that no good work goes unpunished, especially in emotionally charged, mid-priest-sex-abuse-scandal 2002 Boston, the setting for Jennifer Haigh's deftly crafted, deeply affecting new novel Faith. But this isn't a novel about orthodoxy or catechism. It's not even really about the abuse scandal, either. More so, it's a novel about empathy and trust. And it's absolutely riveting.

Father Arthur Breen, a model priest his whole life, stands accused of molesting an eight-year-old boy named Aidan, who he'd befriended and mentored while the boy's mother, a former meth head and stripper, tries to put her life back together. Arthur's Irish Catholic family, including his half brother Mike and half sister Sheila (our narrator), is divided in their loyalties. And frankly, that's about as much as you should know, plotwise. 

That's because one of the many strengths of this novel is how carefully Haigh (through Sheila) goes about revealing information. One of the morals of this story is that making judgments without understanding a situation is incredibly dangerous. In fact, in might be delusional — and that's true whether we're talking about religious faith or faith and trust in people. Indeed, as Sheila says, "It was a thing I'd always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice."

And so Haigh (via Sheila) gives us a sort of a first pass at describing events, providing readers a framework and just enough information to begin formulating our own idea about Father Breen's guilt or innocence. In fact, as a reader, you feel slightly awkward — you know you're not supposed to be rushing to judgment, but you can't help it. The sex-abuse scandal is an incredibly emotional issue. You try to understand, but you just don't yet have enough information. You either like him or you don't; you either trust him or you don't.

Essentially, you either empathize with him or you don't. But, as Father Arthur Breen himself wonders, "How did anyone know, ever, what another person was feeling?" But to stop trying is to become a misanthrope — to pack it in on life. And whether you're a recovering drug addict or an accused priest, empathy is a form of conscience, a safeguard against doing really horrible things.

This novel is like a beautiful stained-glass window: Amazing at first glance, but even more so when it becomes further illuminated. I laid in bed for a good four hours last night, wide awake, just rolling this novel over in my head. Even more emerges. Every detail in this intricately detailed novel means something, adds something, furthers something. Unlike the play/film Doubt, to which this book is compared frequently, there is a resolution. And it's shocking, haunting, and yes, even fulfilling. Whether you're Catholic or not, you'll appreciate the craft here. Five stars: One of my favorites of the year.