Luke Mogelson’s Stories

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This is my update from February.

“Total Solar” appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year, inspiring me to mark the calendar for the release of the first published collection of Luke Mogelson’s stories.

I ordered it but didn’t read right away. This summer I’ve stubbornly stuck to short fiction’s best of breed, the tried and true Hemingway’s Finca Vigia Collection. Then I took a break and stepped back briefly into modern writers’ time. I’m glad, for it’s quality stuff.

I figured I would fly through Mogelson’s book but his stories have a richness and layering of intent that makes a reader slow down, even go back and re-read, which in my view is a sign of a  well-done short story: one that asks to be re-examined.

Mogelson is not hesitant to deliver narrative in strings of expository sentences rather than scene. He can do both, and he can cut the fat and expose the iceberg with the best of them.

Were they all war stories? No, not completely. Two vivid accounts from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are “Kids” and “Total Solar.” The latter is exemplary in construction. Other stories involve veterans struggling to find their way with physical disabilities or mental disorders. I got the impression that perhaps the author was at times channeling Hemingway’s “A Soldier Home” which doesn’t describe war at all but instead focuses on its personal aftermath. These are not cheerful stories.

“The Port is Near” was gloomy too but had some humor, and we half-expected to see a happier ending to this one. The protagonist’s only direct allusion to service is a 9-11 reference describing when he lived in San Francisco “before they attacked us and I volunteered.” The rest is about his post-tour job aboard a net-fishing boat with a psycho captain (jobs for vets are hard to come by, that implies). Mogelson delivers an engrossing sea adventure scaled to short story size. Being on the fishing boat is in itself  a battle of sorts and one that also ends with madness and loss.

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“Some Clouds” by Paco Taibo II

clouds

The symbolic clouds are puffy white and filled with promise as the story opens in a tropical paradise where independent detective Hector, now with a limp and minus an eye, is recharging after his wounds suffered in “No Easy Thing.” His retreat is cut short, and he re-enters a crime world far beyond his ability. By the end of this book, the clouds are dark and foreboding over the evil in Mexico City — Hector will describe them as “clouds of shit.”

In a masterful and imaginative mood, Taibo writes himself into this book as a writer. The character is named Paco Ignacio. The chapter in which Hector and Paco meet is like an interview between the author and his protagonist. Ignacio later plays a surprisingly important role in the story and becomes a deux ex machina figure.

Hector’s sister Elisa reappears from the previous book and talks Hector into looking into a friend’s murder case. She later regrets that she led her brother into such danger. We get the feeling at the end (it is only about 130 pages, perfect for a Hector novel) that our hero is not out of the woods. He won’t flee the country and hide however. He will remain in Mexico and face even more trouble in the next novel, “No Happy Ending.”

Each of Taibo’s Hector Belascoaran novels can stand on its own. Yet without reading them collectively and in sequence, the reader may be unaware of Hector’s past, and thereby miss some nuances. They’re also likely to miss how the next book picks up a thread or mood and continues it.

Eggers’ “A Hologram for the King”

(originally posted August 10, 2012 and updated April 29, 2016) – The movie version is out, a sleek ninety-minutes featuring Tom Hanks and some stunning photography from the fictional and troubled megaplex being built by the Red Sea, and from a homogenized Jeddah hotel (where the concierge repeatedly recites “Welcome to the Hyatt”in an Arab accent). There is a scene with some great footage shot in Mecca, where Alan Clay (Hanks) nervously hides in the car as a non-Moslem.

It’s an important movie, a tale of love and redemption that informs us about international relations, specifically with the Arab world. In these times perhaps some will find it increases understanding and peels away blind hate.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 11.02.01 PMIt’s also a take on how it can be sometimes to work in IT. You get sent on a boondoggle, the conditions suck, the network is down, you’re hungry, and no one pays attention to you unless you complain enough or do something outside the rules (like Alan sneaking upstairs without a badge).

In the novel, Eggers’ writing style is clean and direct, similar to the clipped style he used in “Zeitoun.” The book’s print job has illogical spacing. In some instances a gap is put between sentences obviously belonging to the same paragraph. Without the random spacing, and with some merciful reduction of a few scenes here and there, this thing could be close to novella land.

The story moves well, conventionally, and slows down in the middle. It is loaded with humor: the character Yousef is an instant hit, Westernized and corrupted by two cultures. The novel gives a rare look inside the unknown world of the UAE.  It’s a dual world, orderly on the surface, yet disordered on the underside. The work ethic is amorphous. Imports do much of it (“We don’t have unions. We have Fillpinos”). The orgiastic scene at the Danish embassy pretty well sums up the conflicting “moral guidelines” of compound residents vs. citizens.

The protagonist (Alan Clay) suffers a frustrating impasse inside the King’s new business complex, as he and his IT team wait for a chance to make their big pitch to sell the Arabs a holographic teleconferencing product. Meanwhile they’re stuck in a tent, largely ignored, without food and without wi-fi.  During this seemingly endless delay, Alan begins to fall apart. We are privy to flashback after flashback of guilt, shame, and failure.

He’s not a happy guy. And neither are we, suffering along with him. Along the way, we are reminded of the disembowelment of our economy by handing over all our work to cheap labor outside the country. There is a strong section about PPG Glass losing the new Freedom Tower contract to China, who manages to get the work Alan and his crew were after, too. Eggers manages to fit this into the story without making it shout editorial interruption.

Alan’s history of failure with the dying American bike company, Schwinn, is put in contrast to his new dreams as an IT salesman who helps wire the New Arabia. So we have mechanical vs. electronic, the tangible vs. ethereal.

Alan can’t seem to do much right. Two seductive ladies fall for him (we don’t know why), and he can’t handle that either. Can’t perform. One of them is a doctor who surgically excavates the cyst on his spine. Little goes right for them. As she eventually says, “it’s all very sad.”

At the end where we are dropped off, it appears as if finagling a job with the King’s “start-up” business will be his last chance saloon. His last chance to build something to save himself. He’s a man without a country. With a hole in his back.

The movie, however, has things end on a happier note.

“Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen”, a McMurtry Memoir

larryMcM-Dairy QLarry McMurtry presents a mixed bag of topics here, essays and personal accounts related to his love of books and writing. He uses a cowboy metaphor, stating his life-work is to corral and tame words and drive them forward to a conclusion. Books are his wide open range where he has spent a lifetime roaming.

He is certainly qualified to talk cowboy, having been one in his youth when he grew up on a ranch in the northern plains of Texas, in Archer City. It’s a real place and also a fictionalized place where movies were shot based on his novels, like “The Last Picture Show” and “Texasville.”

Of more academic substance, McMurtry gives a compelling history of the Texas plains where his family settled and ranched in pioneer days and beyond. It’s also a world he wanted to escape from, going off to urban centers where the supply of books is as abundant as thinking and diversity. So he forsook his father in following a life as rancher and chose to be a bookworm and a novelist. Eventually he came back and and settled.

McMurtry validates his subtitle “reflections at sixty and beyond.” He at times is crotchety and nostalgic over times and customs long since lost. It’s a good read, more complex than it first appears. Some patience is required when he wanders off on side roads. One of the better side roads is his account of heart surgery – how surgery and deep anesthesia can change a person. I know several people, including myself, who will vouch for this….something is lost in that suspended time, and its recovery is doubtful. Larry McMurtry fought back to regain his abilities after surgery when he was unable to read. His eventual long dive into the works of Proust and Woolfe reinvigorated the writer in him, a thankful turn for him and all of us who love his writing.

“Lonesome Dove” Revisited

(The book is entertaining. You can read it like Tolstoy – in parts. A brief update to previous post)

lonesomedove

McMurtry’s writing in this one is often like rodeo-talk mixed with the campy voice of “Dodge Ram tough.” Events can sometimes be trifling and sometimes sublime. When the author shifts to events of more substance the writing comes forward with an accomplished ease.

The book’s ending soars above the rest. The Montana chapters and Woodrow Call’s return-to-Texas chapters have their own tone and relentless pace. The writing is clear and unobtrusive and therefore perfect for the action.

McMurtry’s general readership may not know his creative writing credentials. He took his  degree in Texas then joined a highly talented class of writers at Stanford University back in the Sixties, including Robert Stone and Ken Kesey. Frank O’Connor was one of his teachers.

McMurtry gives us honest prose using the omniscient voice of a skilled novelist. There is no short-changing, plenty of patience. In such a lengthy book, enormous writing energy is required to create scene after scene, weaving the motives and desires of characters, making them vivid, and placing them in an action-packed milieu that we can see and experience. Larry McMurty is a treasure in American fiction.

Looking Back at La Valse

Some Background Stuff paraphrased from Wiki:

Ravel originally wrote La Valse as a ballet piece that celebrates Johann Strauss and the waltz form. Unsure what to say of its new and radical form, critics described the piece as a metaphor, one that made socio-political statements about deconstruction and decline. Ravel said otherwise, that “one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.”

The composer’s preface notes say: “Through swirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter…one sees an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo…”

Some Stuff from Me:

I imagine to hear it played live by a symphony in New York or Paris or Vienna must be an out of body experience. I can only speak to the one time I saw it live, which was on a summer evening in Houston. I was still a young man then, and an even younger woman was in my company. We were one of the couples, for a brief time existing more in the swirling clouds than grounded.

The music at first had a traditional aesthetic and was beautiful and idyllic. Then rebellion seized the melody. The rhythm halted and skipped, and an unexpected dissonance took hold. The sections of order and beauty volleyed with sections of discord.

During the concert, an explosive electrical storm took place over downtown Houston. Lightning flashed through the concert hall windows. If the chandeliers inside amped up, I doubt anyone noticed. When all the high musical tension was over, I felt a sense of relief. Through the doors the air smelled of fresh rain.

A version by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:

“Why Did I Ever” by Mary Robison

wdieAs if a traditional narrative novel had been mined, and material of value retained and all non-essentials ejected. The remaining ore was enhanced, polished and modularized, then shuffled into a sequence. Each part of the 500+parts has its own impact, its own exhibit or event or revelation.

It makes for disarming reading at first, then one gets into the mood of the narrator, a wry-humored woman teetering on the edge. Our narrator/heroine negotiates a family crisis, drugs, promiscuity, and ADD, and more than a fair share of lousy men in her life (who she relentlessly disses). Much of the comedy derives from her shakey job writing an insipid screenplay, working for an impossible boss in a movie industry for “stupid people.”

I admire and enjoy Mary Robison’s writing (cf. my review of Subtraction). She’s cut her own path in prose. She has the rare combination I like: a poet’s command of words and a cynic’s keen eye directed on America. A Univ. Southern Mississippi and U of H product (and among other places JHU as well) she has been writing and teaching since the early 80s. I wonder if I may have met her in my Houston days, maybe at Rice when Donald Barthelme did a visit-lecture there, and many of us back then hung out in Chaucer’s basement bar inside the old Plaza Hotel.

There’s a good interview with Mary Robison in The Bomb.

Last of the Hector Series – Paco Taibo

rtscThe translator Laura Dail must know her verb conjugations well. That’s extra important in a book written with a Spanish ojalá premise: if only detective Hector Shayne Belascoaran hadn’t died in the previous book. And you may believe the story that’s about to unfold, even to the climax when mariachi bands are employed as frontline troops.

Taibo brings Hector back to Mexico City for one more show, teasing with us about his right to create character immortality. We readers move up another notch in the suspension of disbelief scale, and we do so gladly because we are aficionados.

In many parts of the book the story is related in a variant of subjunctive mode with what if’s, and it would be nice that’s, and it could have happened like this’s. Owing to a good translation job and the brilliance of Taibo as a writer, the narrative is well-presented with a mix of voices from the humorous author and beleaguered heroic Hector. We buy in and feel assured of entertainment with plenty of human truths added.

During the series we sense that Paco and his character are one and the same soul.

This is likely it for one-eyed Hector and his pony-tail girlfriend. That’s okay, we can go back and re-read and enjoy the five other ones (plus there’s the untranslated “Días de Combate” to delve into).

A.E. Hotchner’s “Hemingway in Love”

9781250077486By way of contrast Hotchner’s 1970s biography “Papa” is a great read, as close a look as we can get to Hemingway the man. It’s a good book for two reasons: one, Hotchner is a terrific writer, concise and communicative without being fancy; and two, he and Papa were truly good friends. The candor and respect shown between author and subject creates an eager reader interest and provides veracity to the accounts. Unlike other bio’s I’ve read, I never felt I was getting any bogus or skewed information in “Papa.”

This new one (dated October 20, 2015) was also produced by Hotchner, who’s now in his 90s.  Most all of the Paris players and the last wife are gone. Hotch admits in his intro that he waited in order to not step on any toes, or risk hurting Mary Hemingway’s feelings.  We see Hemingway as a changed person, closer to mortality after his two near-death Africa airplane crashes. Often he is drinking wine in a series of hotel room meetings with his pal Hotch. These were occasions when Papa was either in ostensibly high spirits or he was blue, expressing regret and spilling over with irony and self-effacement.

As good as Hotchner’s writing remains – and despite an unflagging interest and admiration of Hemingway and his circle – I don’t have the same sense of complete trust with this little book. It’s not a matter of doubt about the authenticity of the information, most of which is already known, or the personal portrayals of Hemingway.

Instead it’s a matter of how Hemingway’s dialog is captured in the text. There’s a license to fudge in a memoir, but long sections of Papa’s conversations sound too pat, too prosaic and laden with facts. The author has Papa describe events or people he knew and books they wrote with Wikipedian detail. Not so sure I buy the Midgetape recordings claim.

Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies”

grofEnter knowing the entire universe is about Lotto and Mathilde.

The novel is an overwrought love story presented to us in a most literate and poetic way. It rolls out [twice] the truths and deceptions of a complex relationship between two exceptionally strong personalities. The his and her views are revealed under the watchful microscopic eye of the knowing author, the voyeuristic reader, and some snoopy secondary characters as well (e.g. Antoinette, Chollie, Rachel, and old ESP Bette).

Among the appositional statements the author throws into the mix, one of the most interesting appears when Shakespeare’s Volumnia is used as a point of comparison. Volumnia is the bad-ass mother figure in Coriolanus, who controls her son and rants obsessively, guarding him like a lover (her likeness is Antoinette). Coriolanus is maybe the most down and dirty play the Bard ever produced.

I think it’s safe to say Groff’s novel has more than its share of down and dirty: including cruel mothers, pandering perverts, drunk abusers, sleaze bags, con artists, dangerous neurotics, and lots of porn. Plus deceit, extortion, suicide, self-sterilization, betrayal, and vengeance.

Groff writes in language that is powerful and orchestrated with her content. Her imagery is raw and fresh, often hypnotic. Too often the aesthetic is dumbed down with a sudden sex act. The carnal imagery can go too far (or linger in a frat room somewhere) with lingo like, “and he shucked her right there.” When that happens, the narrative trance is interrupted.

Groff can do the atmospheric magic. She offers a fine portayal of caring artists and creativity in the colony-retreat section. The trap is set. Against idyllic venues on the beach and in the countryside or in the Big City and even Paris, she sets down a chilling collection of conniving, cold-hearted types fucking and vomiting and bickering their way through the pedestrian world. The characters wheel about. Back and forth we go: gifts and denials, triumphs and disappointments, comedy and tragedy.

Smelling the worst is the aroma of extortion.

In the long run, beauty and light edges out sordid darkness. The ending is sad and not as tidy as it could be. It meanders too much in time. It tries to offer redemption that seems too late. The dog named God is lost and then found. Conclusions are delivered before we can arrive at them.

As Orwell reminds us, a literary novel brings with it a wave of anarchy, and Groff is not afraid to shake things up, reach for the moon and take chances.

Paco Taibo’s “No Happy Ending”

nheThe title itself is the spoiler alert. Our hero is in deep trouble with the brutal paramilitary gang, the Halcones in Mexico City.

Taibo uses a tidy 12-chapter mystery format in this one. Other than a single chapter dedicated to the backstories of each of Hector’s office mates (for entertainment purposes, we suppose, not storyline), hardly a single word is wasted. Mexico City is laid out before us in gritty detail. It’s shown as a city beyond order and hope, held together by the remaining good-natured fabric of most of its natives. It’s a land of sugary soda pops, dangerous streets, venal policemen, gangsters, whores, and sometimes humorous and endearing characters, like the office crew and Hector’s elusive love interest, the girl with the pony tail.

Since authors can do such things, Taibo brings his hero back by popular demand in a subsequent novel “Return to the Same City,” subject of a future book report.

“An Easy Thing” by Paco Taibo II

paco2It’s the first chronologically in the English-translated series of Hector Belascoaran Shayne detective novels. The Mexican detective is introduced and developed.

The other – the real first book, is “Días de Combate” which Taibo published for Spanish-speaking readers only. I bought a copy and will give it my best shot translating/reading and reporting on it this winter.

As any review out there will tell you about “Easy Thing” (there is no article una in the Spanish title), the book’s made up of three cases that Hector has taken on at once. As he madly juggles the various events, we learn the most about him in the interim scenes when he’s with family, lovers, or his eclectic office mates (a sewer engineer, an upholsterer and a plumber). As in many American hardboiled crime stories, we are more entertained by the hero himself and his interplay and commentary on the world around him than by the actual plotlines.

Similar to his later novel “Frontera Dreams” (review), Taibo gives us realistic observations about the condition of Mexico, its inherent corruption, and the people’s low-key angst. “An Easy Thing” is longer than most Taibo novels and doesn’t exhibit the same kind of streamlined potency that “Frontera Dreams” has. But the gems within the story are well worth slogging through the most tedious of the three cases, the one about factory union murders. The other two cases, one about a porn star and her daughter involved in extortion, and the other a search to see if Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata is still alive, are less political and more entertaining.

Kerouac’s “On the Road” – the Mexico Trip

*an earlier post described the recent movie adaptation road1

Like any great novel, On the Road has classic sections that read fresh and even more powerful when seen again years later. The most re-readable section of On the Road includes Parts 4 and 5, essentially the novel’s last hundred pages. This is by and large the Mexico trip, which can stand alone on its own raw energy.

Here you find Kerouac on a high wire writing super prose, tightly packaged in a limited timeframe. The episode exceeds phantasmagoria and becomes mythic. Characters loom larger than life within the land of ancient Toltecs. Dean Moriarty on the mountain takes on godlike characteristics. The Mexico account delivers the conclusive impressions of all the gang’s journeys. Their experiences have now peaked and they have pushed the envelope as far as they can. They then test their mortality and move close to the edge, near implosion, blindly expecting things to be resolved on their own accord. And, followed by some angels, they are. Mexico City, which they see as a sort of a Bohemian nirvana, quietly becomes the last stop. It’s the last Sal and Dean journey.

The romantic innocence that marked their earlier trips has gone, and they are in dire straits. They part ways, each suffering their own variety of illness (Dean’s is delusional, Sal’s is mortal). Restless Dean leaves, and Sal feels abandoned. Even back in NYC their bond never mends.

Within this last section, Kerouac artfully makes the symphonic tie-in’s with vital themes and major percussions heard throughout the preceding pages of his story. There is a completeness achieved, beginning with the moment the travelers become one with the Mexico earth and its dirt and insects. Then again when Sal hallucinates the end-game’s apocalyptic white horse. Dean the omni-visionary and perpetrator of convenient truths says he saw it too. Kerouac makes us see it as well.

James Lee Burke: “Tin Roof Blowdown”

burkeThere’s hard realism in these pages about the social devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s as frank and true and graphic as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll read much about the disaster early in the book. Street-level. Then as pages go by, the more particular story tends to float and slog along with the murky waters of the flood. There is only so much one can say about hell and its parallels on earth before melodrama takes hold. Around the chaos of Katrina’s aftermath, Burke weaves a bad-guys-are-really,really-bad adventure. The pair of good guys Dave Robicheaux and his pal Clete Purcell strive to make things right. The storyline has its share of sudden shocks, twists and pitfalls, but I was wishing for the less-gloomy violence and pathos found in his other novels.

The narrative voice jumps from first person Dave to omniscient and back. It’s something crime writers often do, and they usually pull it off (to some extent) without any of their readers noticing. In this case, it may be overdone. I was prone to lose the narrative connection, that familiarity I had on page one when Dave talked about his time in Vietnam and its horrors. Burke’s POV “author” is conveniently all over the place. When we return to our man Dave, all the god-like narration in-between seems odd.

The New Orleans storm account (like the event and the nation’s reactions) is heavily laden with underlying questions of racism. Burke’s writing rides the razor’s edge between sympathy (for the flood victims) and loathing (for those who capitalized on the scene via criminal acts). There are some interesting factoids (and euphemistic epithets) thrown forth. For example: in the moments of urban rioting, there are two businesses that are always spared and not burned or looted (by the “Snoop Dog fans”)- funeral homes and the offices of bail bondsmen. Burke does not intellectualize nor direct this into a statement novel. There is a hint, but no mention of the “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein suggested as an intentioned by-product of Katrina. One thing for sure… lots of guns are everywhere, and that seems okay with everyone. In that sense I found the story angle a bit Republican in flavor, and it made me want to put the book down or at best hurry through to the end.

The Robicheaux books are written to be simple and very personal (with the hero’s touching family scenes, etc.). The texts have a salty Gulf Coast flavor, not unlike David Lindsey’s Houston detective books. Difference is, the hero of Lindsey’s series, detective Stuart Haydon, drives a Jaguar and has refined West University sensibilities. Dave R is simple and down-home. Whether in New Orleans or New Iberia, he’s an enlightened blue-collar Cajun type. The story is what it is – a fiction writer’s vision. But the account — the factual witnessing of the atrocious and tragic events during and after Katrina, that’s really what sells the book.

I give Burke a lot of credit for telling us about it without being unfair or sensationally biased (as most of the reporting networks were). Whatever made-up story Burke put around it was to me immaterial. Far as I’m concerned, Dave Eggers successfully cornered that aspect of things in his Katrina novel, “Zeitoun.”

“Writing a Novel: Eight Lessons Learned”

1. You have to know how to work yourself out of trouble.

2. Your novel should have some sort of spinal cord, supporting and relaying things from beginning to end.

3. It’s possible there is a more engaging opening farther inside the first few chapters of your draft. One that can be moved forward to replace the opening you originally had in mind.

4. During revision…To rearrange or re-word problematic parts is normal and safe. To compose something new has risks and can be more rewarding.

5. No matter what, you have to stay on top of your material and be its boss.

6. A good novel has a spine (see #2) and is layered with tension and resolution. If artful, it’s threaded with recurrent themes, and exhibits subtle moments of symmetry like music (or math).

7. Writing a brief description or elevator pitch should not be all that difficult.

8 .The ending of a novel is best written all at once in a crazed and feverish state.

Salinger’s Boxed Set

salingerRumor columns say the Salinger estate will release additional works, some of which supposedly pick up characters of yore and take them forward in time. True? Who knows for sure other than a few lawyers?

Meanwhile, I’ve stashed the old and supposedly rare 1969 moldy, pot-smoked, yellow-page boxed set and am replacing it with clean copies. It was time.

If there are new JDS releases. I’ll be ready.  This summer, I’m revisiting the Glass family and Holden and DeDaumier-Smith and Teddy and all the others.   (to be continued)

((())) seymour bouquet of parentheses

JAMES SALTER’S “A SPORT AND A PASTIME”

SALTER It’s bad practice to post a brief book report after reading a few reviews on Amazon, at least in my own writer guidelines. But this time, I did just that. The uneasy sense of confusion I had while reading this Salter book was too much. I rapidly went in search of confirmation. I found that others had similar reactions. One reviewer said it best, that Slater gives us an engaging intelligent narrator in a lovely setting in France and then tosses a monkey wrench into the telling.

In a klunky way, Salter puts his narrator in the role of describing some other guy’s romance.  We sense an odd attraction between the two men. Why, we aren’t sure. This is far from Nick and Gatsby, or that type of clearly executed observer voice. This is an odd hybrid of first POV and third POV. Much of it is unknowable by the first person voice, yet documented in vivid scenes. Since he’s not present, it is impossible for him to document the episodic sex scenes between his friend Dean and this Ann chick. So the narrator says, well, I’m sort of imagining it.  Huh?

There’s plenty of flesh. The book was written in the Sixties (1967) when womens’ rights awareness wasn’t yet raised to the height of the 70s. Still, there is a lot of room for feminist complaint about the objectification of a woman, i.e., Ann being a mindless sperm receptacle, etc. Fact is, Dean is pretty shallow too. Maybe in that sense he is a harbinger of men characters in future women’s novels. The ones in which women’s characters are duly given full development but at the cost (intentional or not) of shallow portrayal of the male characters. In a sort of role reversal the male characters end up as sex objects themselves, like mindless and faceless hard-ons.

This book has been touted as a “writers’ kind of writing” novel, a sort of paragon of styles and language. The writing itself is very good.  Slater has a refined style and immense talent with words. Stretches of it were so well written I went into a reader’s trance. But overall I didn’t like the story and characters and found the novel difficult to digest.

James Scott Bell’s “Write your novel from the middle”

midpoint(from the perspective of having a completed draft)

The premise is that we can find at the center of a novel’s manuscript a scene that defines what the story is all about. And within that scene there is often a particular moment that brings theme, plot, and character into focus, sometimes as bright and faceted as a diamond.  Bell calls it a “look in the mirror moment.” His examples help explain what he means, and they are convincing.

It is this center moment that, during revision, a writer can rewrite towards or away from, before and after. It is a fulcrum point, the center nougat of the candy. Which is why Bell’s book is of considerable value to a novelist stuck in the throes of a long revision, unable to fix the path from page one to The End.  Bell’s little secret finds the heart, if indeed it’s there. I don’t imagine any author consciously produces a mid-point that represents his entire book. It just happens. Bell uses the term magic.

I was surprised as hell to find the middle moment in my own comparatively unstructured draft. I divided the page count by two and there it was, obvious and lucid – my book’s thematic moment. Not perfect and absolute but pretty damn close. This was inspiring to say the least, as some sort of wizardry affirmation that my book does have a heart. This discovery has been very helpful in the surrounding revisions before and after that point. For this magic trick, I’d buy Mr. Bell a drink if I ever ran into him.

Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, by Herbert Warren Wind

hoganWhat’s a golf book doing among the rest of these literary books? Because it has stylized, lofty, quirky writing. It’s the most interesting and entertaining book about how to swing a golf club that I ever read.

Herbert Warren Wind was a sportswriter, of golf primarily. He wrote for Sports Illustrated a while and for The New Yorker for several decades. He lived to nearly 90 and died in 2005. The Hogan book came out in 1957.

It is the most famous golf instruction book ever produced. Many golf books after it are repackaged derivatives. The language is formal and wordy and over-wrought. Half Eisenhower didactic and half Victorian ornate. The info is still there.

Hogan said he actually meant to understate his golf tips and allow the readers to study and learn by implication. The aha! moments would make them better golfers.  The dense eloquence of Wind’s stern and repetitive instructions makes this difficult. But the advice is there, ready to be mined and refined. There are subtleties if one looks for them. The expert drawings by Tony Ravielli help make the book succeed.

Some examples of Wind’s eccentric writing style (based on Hogan’s SME input, of course):

“It may seem that we have gone into unwarranted detail about the elements of the correct grip. This is anything but the case. Too often golfers mistake the generality for the detail.”

“While it is dynamically important for a golfer not to depart from his plane at any time during the second part of his swing, being consciously attentive to it does not help him the way a consciousness of his backswing plane promotes a fine, functional backswing.”

“Interestingly enough, drinking some ginger ale, because of its effect on the kidneys, seems to prevent the hands from feeling too fat and puffy.”

“Consciously trying to control the face of the club at impact is folly. You cannot time such a delicate and devillish thing.”

“Don’t groove your waggles.”

 

 

February Toast (reprise)

Pip pip cheerio and saludos cheers –
Let’s drink to ancient presidents
and torturous valentines,
moving trucks and red red wines –
snowstorms on Sunday, flesh in the tropics,
neighbors we hate, incomplete biopics,
Atlantic-striped ties stained by nicotine,
bluesy friends whacked on Benzedrine,
boys soaked in hormones with guises and roles,
girls cloaked in perfume, spongy dark souls.

Bang one down for month two.
Within its four hazardous weeks
before the lion wheezes and creaks,
all left sane will likely go mad
Locked in cabins, no relief to be had.
We will try free verse with carriage returns
Fading like this – as our memory burns
Laughing hee hee at the wiki watchee
snacks on our knee, worshippin’ tee vee.

Whoop whoop and down the hatch –
Here’s to dinosaurs ever thirsty in museums,
to randy sailors and plump manatees,
to untended graves, the frigid north breeze.

The Joads drink gin on freeway exits,
Elephants stampede an invisible nexus.
The sirens of fate sing a bitter bolero,
while demons dance al contrario;
Between the poles of the morally upright
Lovers speak their clever lies at night.

Blinky winky mix me a stinky –
Another round for tavernous ghosts
Mythical heartthrobs and misguided boasts,
Black leggings over soiled pink lace
Reproduction rehearsals of the human race.

Wise are the beaten the noble the dying,
Into our beers lost chances go sighing,
By our breath and brain we’re fogged,
Our Febby pipe frozen and clogged.

Cold bad luck and electrostatic hugs,
tyrant landlords, someone else’s bugs,
Bad trombone, influenza, and wat’ry stew,
Roll a joint doobie doo,
Get us past this month, please hurry too.

from my book “February Toast,” published in 2014.  

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

aspectsThe wisdom and knowledge in Forster’s essays are revealed in direct proportion to the reader’s experience as a novelist.

Published in 1927, it is definitely not a book of quick-reference tenets set in boldface font, like we see in contemporary writing guides. Forster’s aspects are just that: aspects or features employed in famous novels that can be perceived and patiently considered, even modeled, by the growingly astute (and eventually graying) reader-slash-writer.

The range goes from what is story to the necessary ingredients, such as the required vitality of rounded characters and their expression through actions, to the intent of the whole and its weight by design. We get a few instructive gems along the way:

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Consider what Forster discusses in the “rhythm” of a novel. Similar to the repeating “dididdy dum” of Beethoven’s Fifth, prose can have a recurring beat (cf. Kerouac and jazz). In masterwork novels, deeper rhythms are also at play and harder to recognize. These are persisting images or actions that play to our cognizance of theme, like symphonic leitmotifs in language. Proust, as shown in an example, does this sort of thing with food and plants and snippets of a sonata, items that are weaved into the overall product as touch-points to something resonant and more centrally important – something artfully made familiar to us.

Forster says there are novels of fantasy and novels of prophecy, and the second is higher in his regard because it addresses universal themes and reaches mythic proportions. His commentary and examples are intriguing, He invites us to read the great books and brings them alive by argument and illustration.

Forster dishes about major novels of his time and some prior to, including Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights with a brooding milieu that is itself the ultimate mythic character; Joyce’s Ulysses (he calls it mud-slinging at traditional novel values); DH Lawrence (gets his high esteem as “prophecy” writing); character Scheherazade (the ideal story presenter using cause and effect plus suspense); George Eliot (grand, but valued more by quantity than artfulness); Melville (immense and grand, and the novel Moby Dick is a whaling yarn sandwiched by poetry).

By book’s end we have taken a survey course on Essentials of a Novel and can re-join Forster’s class and learn more on each annual visit. Provided we re-read carefuly and study in light of our own writing. His afterword contains anxiety about the future of the form, which of course still exists nearly ninety years later. Maybe the ongoing strength and perpetuity of the novel is due to on-going honor paid to many of the aspects described. Forster’s documentation is therefore, among other virtues, heroic.

Mosley’s Added Lesson about Fiction Narrative

From Walter Mosley’s writing handbook, it’s an exercise ostensibly to get rid of flat prose or to create something out of nothing. Mosley doesn’t like non-contributing sentences. It’s the only specific workshop type of lesson he includes in his book. It’s subtle. At first I wasn’t sure where he meant us to go. Then I did. It has power and nuance, this lesson of his.

Example of flaccid prose Mosley presents:

I went to the store and bought a dozen apples. After that I came home and decided to call Marion. She told me that she was busy and so she couldn’t make it to the dance.

Exercise Mosley proposes: “…Take these three sentences and turn them into something more. Consider the character who is speaking, the potential drama behind Marion’s reason for not going to the dance, the missing details, and the misconnections. From this, make the lines into some kind of beginning for a novel. Don’t write more than a page. Pretend that it was written by some writer friend who wants to tell a story but is lost somehow.”

(from p. 92 “This Year You Write Your Novel,” Walter Mosley, Little Brown, 2009)