Saturday, December 30, 2017

Festivals and banshees

I'll finish the year's blogging with discussions of two books I've read over the lead-in to our year-end holidays.

THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE, By Milan Kundera

     No doubt, some of you will have read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," by Kundera, or may have seen the movie.  I liked both.  Kundera was born a Czech, and that novel and all his early novels were in Czech.  "…Being" won a good deal of critical acclaim here when it was first published in English.  Kundera is now living in France and writing in French.

     I just finished his most recent novel, "The Festival of Insignificance," a rather slim book of just over 100 pages.  It is structured around the social lives and party-going camaraderie of a small group of Frenchmen living in Paris.  Some of their exploits and conversations are witty and thought provoking, but such a slim volume doesn’t allow for much in-depth character development.  Nontheless, a few story elements may especially stay with the reader.

      (A spoiler, here, perhaps, but I think not significantly so) Alain’s mother, Madeline, did not want his birth.  Instead of taking their usual precautions, the husband forcibly completed their intercourse without a condom, and Madeline became pregnant.  She is so repulsed and angry that she attempts suicide, which causes the death of a would-be rescuer, and lays waste to her plan.  Afterward, she goes ahead with the birth, but leaves Paris for America by herself as soon as she is able.  This understandably has a lasting effect on Alain later in his life as he pries the facts from his father—and in the present story, from his mother, in a display of magic realism, as she appears riding behind him on his motorcycle. Alain's anguish over his mother's rejection of him is poignantly revisited in several places in the novel. 

     Another thought-provoking setup is in some imagined conferences of Stalin with his cabinet members.  The sheer wackiness of the setup captures the reader.  How much is based on fact is beyond me, but apparently Stalin loved to pitch absurdities to his cabinet, and kept them in session for countless hours in this, just because he could.  In one marathon session he purposely kept one of his ministers, a man named Kalinin who had a bad prostrate condition, from going to relieve himself in the men’s room until he finally wet his pants.  As a consolation award to his minister, Stalin decrees the famous city of K√∂nigsberg, birthplace of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, shall be renamed Kaliningrad.  I have always wondered about that name!  Also, Stalin’s recital to his captive audience of Kant’s most important idea is awesome theater:
     “Kant’s most important idea, comrades, is ‘the thing in itself'—in German, 'das Ding an sich.’  Kant thought that behind our representations there is something objective, a ‘Ding,’ that we cannot know but that is real nonetheless.  But that idea is wrong.  There is nothing real behind our representations, no ‘thing in itself,’ no 'Ding an sich.' ”

Well, that may be as true a representation of Stalin's thought processes as one may get, considering the man is generally held responsible for about 25 million deaths of his countrymen in famine, war, and repression during his dictatorship.  

      "...Festival" was an amusing, and sometimes thoughtful novel, and of course shows flawless writing by a major author.

Now for a more random choice of a book in the horror genre:

BANSHEE, by D. T. Doyle

Banshee, by a new Indie author, was a pretty good read.  The plot had interesting twists and turns, and each new development had a startling aspect that raised levels of tension and suspense.  I sometimes wondered, where was this story going?  Each leap into darkness seemed to break the mold of similar horror stories from the past, and for the most part, Doyle just plunged fearlessly ahead and it worked. Not that I didn’t have reservations concerning the traditions of the banshee. I’d always understood the banshee to be a harbinger of an impending death in the household which she flew over in the nights before a demise, crying out in her frightening wails and shrieks. Doyle made her a vengeful ghoul, but hey, it works, and that’s most of what’s important in a good story. Characters in this story other than the banshee might have been made a bit more memorable, but the banshee was a stunner from the beginning.  The syntax had more than a couple of dangling participles and forlorn modifiers, but was fair enough overall.  I think we will see more of Doyle ahead.

I wish all my readers a Happy Holidays.  I hope you will continue to follow the blog over the coming year.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

It's in the character's DNA

Some characters claim our hearts from the very start.  Wherever a story steadily heaps challenges and sordid abuses on our main character, but we detect a tenacious quality in her personality and expect she may find her way to fight clear of any victimhood, we're better able to follow her down some dark alleys as the story tension progresses to its resolution.

Such thoughts came to mind as I reflected on two recent books, both good reads, but each quite different in intensity and tension levels.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, has a wonderful young girl character, Johanna, whose Texas pioneer family had been ravaged and slain by a Kiowa war party before her eyes when she was only six years-old.   The Kiowa carried her off as a captive, and perhaps as only a resourceful young child might do in such circumstances, came to think of herself as a Kiowa over the next four years she was with them.  She forgot her own English language, as well as the German of her immigrant family.  The U.S. Army eventually wrested her back from the Kiowa when she was ten, another huge disruption in her life, and offered to pay $50 to have Johanna escorted back to her relatives in south Texas.  It was a reasonable sum back then, and Captain Jefferson Kidd, late of the Confederate forces defeated in the Civil War and now a solitary wanderer in the southwest, decides to take the job.  He has otherwise earned his living charging admission to public readings of national newspapers he carries to isolated towns along his travel way.

During the initial journey south, Johanna rarely tries to speak and stays hidden in the wagon whenever they meet with army patrols, or stop near rough towns.  He tries to help her recall English words, and she teaches him Kiowa words.  Their relationship grows steadily.  Gradually in the isolated towns, Johanna begins monitoring admission and collecting the dime fee for the Captain's readings.  In one of the towns, a sleazy businessman tries to buy Johanna from the Captain, to place her in his brothel.  However, they slip out of town that evening.  Later, the man and his cronies follow after them and ambush them on the trail.  The assailants remain out of range of the Captain's pistol and light, 20-gauge bird-hunting shotgun.  However, Johanna has learned how to improvise for warfare from her Kiowa days.  While the Captain keeps the assailants at bay with his pistol, she hand-loads shotgun shells with stacks of dimes from the readings, and adds double powder charges.  When the Captain topples the remaining assailant with his supercharged shotgun, Johanna gives a war cry, grabs a knife, and leaps up to go scalp the enemy.  The Captain has to call back his impetuous warrior.

There is a dilemma awaiting them in south Texas, where it becomes obvious the uncle and aunt are not too keen about taking on the responsibility of an uncivilized young niece.  Johanna doesn't want the Captain to leave her with them, but shall the honorable Captain Kidd now become the child's third kidnapper?

Read this enjoyable, recommended story.  Our girl Johanna possesses great DNA.  I will give it 5 out of 5 stars.

News of the World is probably not going to disturb readers anywhere near as much as My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent, although there was arguably as much violence and moral turpitude implied in the former as is explicitly described in the latter.  The savagery of the rape and mutilation of the pioneer family by the Kiowa was terrible in its brief detail, but the reader might be reminded, too, of the brutal destruction by the army of entire Indian villages, women and children included, contained in other historical sources.  News did not pause to weigh-in on either of those earlier-in-time calamities.  Instead, its story focused on a more recent story time, and the courage, loyalties, and honor of the two admirable main characters: the Captain and Johanna.

The situation is quite different and significantly more complex in Darling, however.  Turtle, a nickname for Julia, is the fourteen year-old daughter of a survivalist, libertarian, hippie, physically powerful, gun culture, somewhat learned philosopher, cynic, and social Neanderthal, named Martin.  They live in a dilapidated, unfinished house in the woods, with plenty of weapons and ammunition at hand, constantly on guard against some indeterminate catastrophe that is presumably expected by Martin in an uncertain future.  He has trained Turtle to carry out a 'house-clearing' tactic on arrival home from school each day when he isn't at home.  This involves her grabbing a weapon and maneuvering from room to room in the house while clearing each room with bursts of actual gunfire.  The ammunition expenses must be horrendous.  It seems a little over the top, but there are probably more than a few unusual folks scattered around the forests and mountains of our rather sparsely settled county.  It's otherwise shockingly abundant in marine and animal wildlife, birds, native plants, and spectacular coastal vistas.  I've lived here more than forty years and treasure it.  The author, Gabriel Tallent, is, I believe, from New Mexico, but describes our Mendocino environment with a knowing familiarity, part of which must owe to one of our college professors of ecology, Teresa Sholars, whom he credits.  Tallents descriptions are quite wonderful.

The eight hundred pound gorilla in the redwoods, though, is the shock revelation that Martin is perpetuating a sexual relationship with Turtle.  It is a consensual thing, but this is a fourteen year-old intellect navigating a vastly uneven power balance, and transgresses one of society's dark taboos.  We're angry with Martin for exploiting her but we endure the tension, waiting for Turtle to recognize him for what he is, and to somehow bring him down.  Turtle has one confidant, Martin's dad, who lives in a nearby trailer.  Grandpa knows his son is bringing Turtle up all wrong with the primitive living paranoia, and may even suspect the worse, but he's an old man and just being critical doesn't do the job.


Angry with life as she sometimes gets, Turtle goes on a long, overnight hike in the woods.  She encounters two lost youths her age, and helps them find their way out.  Though she does attend school, this begins Turtle's first normal association with anyone her age, and she begins to care about one of the boys, Jacob.  Martin eventually finds out about her new interest.  He knows the families of the boys and moves to thwart any further contact, throwing away letters, monitoring telephone calls, and carrying out other contemptuous actions.  About this time Martin also comes home with a new, ten year-old girl, Cayenne, to live with them.  This arouses a jealousy in Turtle, despite her growing confusion about her own relationship with Martin.  Things become increasingly paranoid with Martin, and Turtle fears for Cayenne going through the same history she has had with Martin.  She later flees the house with Cayenne in tow, and instinctively knows Martin will come looking for her at Jacob/s house.  She plans her strategy, and the epic of all shootouts takes place at Jacob's house and along the rocky beach, between the two firearms experts engaged in search and destroy tactics.

This was a stunning read.  It had only been out about a month and I was surprised to note that so many at Goodreads had already read it and written reviews.  Considering the controversial material, it was also interesting to note that the great majority of ratings were quite good.  I would have to agree it was well written and I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

cultural appropriation

Pomo Eagle Dancer,     oil pastel
Let’s discuss the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ as applied to fiction writing.  There are some who frown on, or even censor the rights of any author to create characters and speak in the voices of people ethnically or culturally different from themselves.  I had been surprised years ago to encounter such a view from an author who lectured at my writing classes in graduate school, but it seems such a view might may have become more strident in our current era of political correctness.

Such a climate of pc didn’t give any pause to Lionel Shriver, best known for her 2003 bestseller (and movie), We Need to Talk about Kevin.  She gave a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia in 2016, that treated fiction and identity politics, and criticized contemporary forms of political correctness.  A cogent article discussing the lecture and its aftermath was written by Jonathan Foreman in the Journal, COMMENTARY, Nov. 16, 2016.  It appears Shriver’s lecture drew widespread criticism from identity politics activists, but Foreman was generally supportive of Shriver: 

“She (Shriver) excoriated contemporary forms of politically correct censorship with typically astringent fearlessness and rubbished the whole notion of identity politics: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity.  Being Asian is not an identity.  Being gay is not an identity.  Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” 

Points Foreman made that I think are germane to the discussion include the following arguments opposing the ideas of identity politics:

At the beginning of October, at Britain’s Bristol University, a production of the musical Aida (an adaptation of Verdi by Elton John and Tim Rice) was cancelled because student protesters claimed that having white actors play Ethiopian and Egyptian characters would be “cultural appropriation.”


By their logic, black actors should not be allowed to play Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or other “white” roles in Shakespeare, and nonwhite performers should be completely excluded from taking part in any opera or classical ballet given that both are “white” European art forms, in the same way that jazz or blues music could be said to belong exclusively to black people.


As Shriver pointed out, literature would be impossible if writers were forbidden from imagining and creating characters of different gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation to their own


I’m with Shriver in this; writers should be free to imagine whatever fictional character they wish for their story, and there ought to be no realm of ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever, reserved only to writers bearing the same genesis.  I think fiction writing has always been and will continue to be the richer for it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

difficult themes in writing cloaked in metaphor

Metaphor/Sketch for difficulty in aging

Occasionally one pauses early on when reading a new novel to reflect on whether there seems to be a compelling story arc, or whether some difficult thematic material will somehow enrich one's imagination or life experience.  Such questions arose for me when reading The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (as well as in A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, discussed in my post of Dec. 28, 2014).  Those considerations can be very subjective for different readers, and following is my take on The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian was translated from the Korean (by Deborah Smith), and won the prestigious English Man Booker International Prize.  It's a short, compact novel at 188 pages, and one of the qualities that captured this somewhat hesitant reader was the good writing.  In broad brush outline, the story concerns a Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, her sudden plunge into a haunted, vegetarian eating obsession, and the tumult it causes in her own life and the lives of her husband, sister, brother-in-law, and parents.  

Perhaps the vegetarian obsession was brought on by an onset of mental instability--Yeong-hye has begun to suffer dark, violent, carnivorous related thoughts--and her new eating practice is, in various degrees, distasteful or repugnant to her extended family.  Some book critics say it may reflect a broader, Korean attitude toward vegetarianism.  At a family dinner the father tries to force a piece of meat into his protesting daughter's mouth, and ends up slapping her, whereupon she slashes her own wrists.  

Yeong-hye's husband divorces her, and the husband of her sister, In-hye, becomes attracted to Yeong-hye.  He's an artist and filmmaker (oddly unnamed as a character throughout), and clandestinely arranges for Yeong-hye to help him make a film.  He paints her body overall with botanical art, and films her making love with a similarly painted young man.  In a subsequent filming, he paints his own body as well as hers with the botanical theme, and films them making love together.  Sometime later, they repeat the same performance in Yeong-hye's apartment, and are discovered there by the sister, In-hye.  In-hye is so shocked she telephones a municipal Emergency Services number, and the authorities bundle the assumed deranged couple off for an examination.  Yeong-hye is committed to a mental hospital, where she is visited by her morose sister.

At this point, Yeong-hye's mental condition has deteriorated to where she imagines she is becoming a tree, and no longer needs to eat any food. I'll stop short of giving a complete, 'spoiler' description, in hopes blog readers will try Kang's worthy book.

One  critic, Diane Johnson, in the NY Review of Books (Crazy in Korea, 8/18/2016), presenting a review of this novel, writes: 

a short, absorbing novel that readers and reviewers have declared to be about--besides meat-eating--marriage, obedience, care-giving, adultery, art, human violence, post-human fantasy, taboos, the resolution of the desperate, "the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette," and much more.  One of the glories of novels is that their complexity allows for different interpretations, and perhaps this partly explains the Vegetarian's appeal for judges specialized in literature and translation from various language traditions and with, no doubt, different preoccupations.

There are metaphorical constructs so flexible and capacious as to allow for all of these meanings: generally, the more terse and minimalist a narrative, the more adaptable its metaphorical repertory to a wide range.
I agree with Johnson's suggestions that there are many metaphors folded into this novel, and I'll probably muse over interpretive possibilities for some time to come.  So, in spite of my pauses for consideration I described earlier on, I continued reading The Vegetarian, and concluded it was indeed a worthwhile book.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

themes of mortality

Evergreen pioneer cemetery in Manchester, CA
There seems to have been a steady flow of profound books touching on a theme of mortality in recent years; from my own reading I'm thinking of: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and just lately, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.  The first is fiction, about an old preacher nearing death and writing a long letter to his young son.  He wants to explain to the boy before he dies his views on life, and God, and how he came to marry the boy's much younger mother.  The second book is really creative non-fiction, being the selected experiences of a practicing physician, which serve to illustrate the attitudes of patients, and their families facing serious health issues: perhaps hopeful, or unrealistic, sometimes angry, often frightened, and how little time is frequently left, regardless of attitude.  The third book is by a doctor over the course of his internship as a neurosurgeon, covering similar ground to that in Being Mortal, but which takes a dramatic twist when the 38 years old neurosurgeon is discovered to have major lung cancer.  Now it is he chronicling his own stunned responses to the increasingly dim prospects, as he tries to carry on with his marriage and his work.  He didn't quite finish the book in his last year; his wife had to write the last chapter for him.  A good read.

When one reflects on past reading, much of literature deals in some degree with mortality, either as a major theme or as a hidden or secondary theme.  The failing marriage, for example, may be the major theme, but it may be an expression of the midlife crisis, or lack of success in a career "growing long in the tooth," both tensions being heightened by fears of impending mortality.

As the demographics of the country trend toward an aging population, the interest in reading about how others face issues of mortality, whether in fiction or creative non-fiction, seems likely to grow.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

starting the story in medias res--into the midst of things

A stream of consciousness flows on into
an ocean of imagination
(a site near my home)
A Happy New Year to all, and I may wish to take a sabbatical from blogging next year to devote more time to my fiction writing.  But for now:

Sometimes an author has written substantial sections of vivid, suspenseful, engaging material, but such sections lie buried somewhere in the middle, or perhaps closer to the end of the story.  The author has chosen to first introduce his cast of characters, perhaps fixes them somewhere in the social hierarchy of a place, and dramatizes a few of their strengths and weaknesses, before revealing the main tension(s) they must attempt to resolve.

It may be that if the introductory material has characters of unique personalities, and the special quality of 'voice' so often stressed in Creative Writing 101, or in countless writers' conferences, the reader may stick around long enough to reach the really compelling sections of the book.

Alternately, perhaps the better strategy for structuring the book is to consider the technique of in medias res (into the midst of things), and find a way to bring the best material forward to the beginning.  Capture the reader early on, and fill in details as needed for the progression of the story toward a final resolution.

"A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin, is a collection of short stories that mostly begin in medias res.  The stories are first person narration, but since the action starts almost immediately we don't get to learn much about who our narrator is, or her relationship to other named characters, until Berlin drops the appropriate links which tie the characters and events together without interrupting the trajectory of her story.  Berlin often writes in an abbreviated, urgent syntax, sometimes inserting independent observational clauses that surprise us but increase our interest, and she uses stream of consciousness thoughts on the unfolding action.

Taking a few excerpts from the first two pages of her story, "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977:
You never hear sirens in the emergency room--the drivers turn them off on Webster Street...If it is Code Three, where life is in critical danger, the doctor and nurses wait outside, chatting in anticipation.  Inside, in room 6, the trauma room, is the Code Blue team.  EKG, X-ray technicians respiratory therapists, cardiac nurses.  In most Code Blues, though, the EMT drivers or firemen are too busy to call in.  Piedmont Fire Department never does, and they have the worst.  Rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools...

Madame Y is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  She looks dead, actually, her skin translucent blue-white, her exquisitely boned Oriental face serene and ageless.  She wears black slacks and boots, mandarin-collared jackets cut and trimmed in Asia?  France?  The Vatican, maybe--they have the weight of a bishop's cassock--or an X-ray robe.  The piping has been done by hand in rich fuchcias, magentas, oranges.  Her Bentley drives up at nine, driven by a flippant Filipino who chain-smokes Shermans in the parking lot.  Her two sons, tall, in suits made in Hong Kong, escort her from the car to the entrance of radiation therapy...

She is dead now.  Not sure when it happened, on one of my days off.  She always seemed dead anyway, but nicely so, like an illustration or advertisement.

So we're two pages in and we know almost nothing about our narrator but we see lots of activity through her eyes,  and the style of writing and quirky observational detail promise interesting reading ahead.  A writer might learn some useful structuring and elements of style from Berlin.


Monday, November 30, 2015

taking the hatchet to a draft



Writers' conferences can provide good venues for learning from featured speakers and fellow writers which techniques had worked best for them in producing good, publishable fiction.  However, what works well for one writer might not yield good results for another.  Perhaps rules for a sort of terse, active, and staccato delivery suits the range of fictional dreams at work in the mind of one writer, but may be entirely out of synch for the fictional dream flows of another writer.  The point arose when scanning notes I'd taken at several Mendocino Coast Writers Conferences in past years.  We've probably all heard of the need to go over our first drafts, to take out all the flab, exposition, discursive wanderings, and such, to better focus our stories.  A lot of this is absolutely necessary, but the subtractive process might also become destructive of an otherwise beautifully written, fictional dream.   Let's look at an excerpt from a piece by James Joyce, from his short story, The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drafted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I've always loved the imagery, the sense of hushed sound, and sense of timelessness in the arc of our lives.  I wondered if the same feeling could be maintained if the more severe draft editing rules were to be followed.  Here are a few typical, random notes taken from lectures given at the conferences by two accomplished writers.

John Lescroart (crime fiction)
Get rid of your 'to be' verbs, like 'when' and 'as.'  Don't use 'thought' to convey a character's thinking.   When reviewing draft, do a search for 'had,' which usually signals some sort of exposition.  Get rid of it, or replace.  Don't use any '-ly' adverbs.


John Dufresne (general fiction)
Eliminate progressive form of syntax; i.e., 'I was brewing coffee.'  Say I brewed coffee.  Don't use adverbs--you just haven't got the right verb yet.
 In the following, I've applied such rules to Joyce's piece as closely as I was able, while trying to maintain his complete thoughts and sentences:

A few taps on the pane made him turn to the window.  It snowed again.  He watched the flakes, silver and dark, fall against the lamplight.  It was time for his journey.  The newspapers had it right: snow all over Ireland.  Snow fell on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, upon the Bog of Allen, and fell on the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It fell, too, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay in drafted heaps on crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned at the sound of the snow that fell through the universe and fell, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I think it lost some of its beauty and whispered softness. There are undoubtedly other ways to edit the piece with the same rules that might yield better versions, but it is hard to imagine anything that could approach Joyce's offering.  So, while I think the lecturers have given useful advice, it need not be considered rigidly in every case.
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