Category Archives: Book Reviews

Ten Books that Stuck With Me

I apologize for the lengthy delay since my last post. There are no excuses. Actually, there are many excuses, but no one wants to hear them. But I am back, my faithful dozen readers.

I have been issued the “Ten Books that Stuck with You” challenge. I was going to just post to Facebook, but the blog allows me a little room to ramble. So please, indulge me and enjoy. This may contain some mild spoilers.

If you don’t know this book, you don’t know me. I’ve read it probably a dozen times. What stuck with me: Brian finding the pilot’s body. Gave me nightmares then and still frightens me now.

I would like to list all the Roald Dahl children’s books, but this one was always my favorite (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox). What stuck with me: It’s okay that burps and farts are funny.

Technically a trilogy. Having gone back and reread it as an adult, I can see the flaws in these books, but I read it when I was in their audience sweet spot: 13-15 year old male. What stuck with me: Tasslehoff Burrfoot was always my favorite character.

While I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books of all time, it stuck with me. When I read it as a teen, I was amazed at the alternate history concept: what if racist time travelers brought AK-47’s to the Confederacy to ensure they won the Civil War? Wow! Also, I was a sheltered and prudish young fellow, and the level of violence and (relatively tame) nudity was high enough to make me uncomfortable. What stuck with me: machine-gunned bodies stacking up into a wall.

The film Gettysburg got to me first, but the novel resonated with me powerfully, as well. From here, I didn’t learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. I learned about friendship, loss, honor, heroism, and pride. What stuck with me: Little Round Top, of course. Also the brutal speech by Buster Kilrain about the worthlessness of man, perfect counterpoint to Chamberlain’s lofty ideals.

Do we read because of who we  are, or are we who we are because of what we read?

 

When you are a fifteen year old boy and you read a book about a cat who dies of happiness (that isn’t a spoiler; look at the title), you know you are different from your peers. A beautiful story founded in Buddhism, but accessible to everyone. Jeez, I’m getting a frog in my throat just thinking about the book. What stuck with me: Extreme catharsis from a book that can be read in an hour.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest gets all the attention, and it’s a great novel, but a tidier, better contained one. Kesey pulled all the stops on SAGN. The atmosphere is intense. You will put down the book feeling soaked with Pacific rain, smelling of sawdust, and hearing the roar of the river. What stuck with me: The atmosphere.

Warren won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, and it is evident here. ATKM tells an archetypal story about how the ends never justify the means. Using unethical methods to achieve noble goals does not indicate that you are noble; it actually transforms you into the evil you were once combatting. The prose sings. What stuck with me: the whole, crushing, Greek tragedy inevitability of the book from the first page.

Most people stop reading it because they figure the rewards of the novel can’t be worth all the hard work that goes into understanding it. They are wrong. This is a high input/ high yield book. Joyce literally writes about everything, and after reading it, the world will never be the same for you. What stuck with me: Many parts, but the talk with Deasy, the teacher, still haunts me.

Reading this book was a distinct turning point in my life. I went from being someone who likes to write to being a writer. And King doesn’t glamorize the writing life, either. Succinct, honest, supportive, funny, and revealing, anyone who writes should read King’s memoir, as should anyone who enjoys his writing. What stuck with me: It’s tough to pick one part. My copy has a dog ear or post it on every page. But his “writer’s toolbox” was revelatory to me—here is a professional, successful author, laying out the groundwork for good writing and editing habits.

Honorable Mentions (is that cheating?):

Anything by Ursula K LeGuin (probably my favorite author, but I can’t choose one book. Maybe Lavinia). Anything by Tolstoy (same problem as above). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (so badly wanted this in the Top 10). The Giver by Lois Lowry. The Odyssey by Homer. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. The Worm Ouroboros  by E.R.R. Edding. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (a kid drowns and another kid uses the word “hell.” Both stunned me in 4th grade). Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The Dead Zone by Stephen King.

This exercise had me thinking a lot. What makes a book “stick” with us? It isn’t always (or usually) about literary quality or merit. On the path to my Master’s degree, I read dozens of books whose titles I can’t even recall. And on my Top 10 are some books of dubious quality. I think most of it has to do with reading the right book at the right time. Read a book too early, and it won’t register with the reader (or in my case, shock him). But read a book too late, and its magic may be lost. I know several people who worship David Eddings’ Belgariad Series. But they probably read it as teens, who are the intended audience. When I read it as a twenty-something, all I saw was a juvenile parade of fantasy tropes. I had read too much fantasy by then to be impressed. And I wonder, too—do the books resonate with us because they speak to values we already have? Or do the books cause us to foster certain values that, later in life, we recognize as important?

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Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, is a comic master at putting a twist on old tales and themes. He has a trilogy of vampire novels. His novel, Lamb, is the story of Christ’s youth told from the point of view of Biff, his childhood pal. A Dirty Job makes the Grim Reaper a mild-mannered secondhand shop owner. His novel, Fool, tells the story of King Lear from the point of view of the king’s fool, a short-statured, sharp-tongued, well-endowed jester named Pocket. Pocket’s apprentice is a dimwitted giant named Drool, who doesn’t understand basic human interaction or any nuance of language, but has a good heart and can perfectly mimic voices.

Moore’s most recent novel, The Serpent of Venice, follows Pocket and Drool again. This time, Moore doesn’t just tackle a Shakespeare play. He tackles two, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and mixes in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is an ambitious novel, which makes its success all the more thrilling.

Beware: Moore doesn’t hesitate to alter the original storylines. Most notably, several characters are killed off that do not die in the original plays. Whereas Fool kept the plot of Lear but told it from a new point of view, Serpent is more original.

Another element that carries over well from Fool is the written voice. Moore employs a mixture of excerpts of text from the source material, a sort of faux-Shakespearean that uses Elizabethan language but is entirely original Moore writing (he does this with the whiz-banger insults, especially), and plain-old modern anachronism. It seems like these three elements: authentic old, fake old, and contemporary– would make a horrifying, clanging mess for the voice, but actually it works well. Thus it comes across perfectly believably when Shylock asks “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and one of the Sals (Salanio or Salerino) whines “I didn’t know there was going to be a bloody quiz!”

One of Moore’s greatest strengths as a comic writer is that he also dips into heartfelt territory, too. The funny parts are funny, but even more so when set against the truly moving parts. As funny as Pocket is, he starts out as a grieving widower being tortured by a maniac. To me, this elevates Moore above the label of “comic writer,” a term I associate with writers who make me giggle but little else.

Moore also does “character management” well, knowing just how much of each character to use. I felt that in the vampire trilogy, the character Abby Normal made a great side character, but became tiresome as a protagonist. I worried about this when I read Serpent, that the highly entertaining Drool would take on such a prominence that his voice would overpower the story. But Drool is kept in reserve until the second half of the novel, and when he appears, it’s great. One can almost hear the resounding cheers of fans around the world.

In fact, Serpent might be one of Moore’s greatest achievements. Between the technical mastery of juggling multiple storylines and characters, the brilliantly blended styles of old and new, and the harmony of shenanigans and earnest emotion, The Serpent of Venice is a smart, fun, funny novel.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Are you looking for a young adult novel founded in wholesome values and featuring admirable young characters who display exemplary behavior and end up being rewarded for their good choices?

Then don’t look at Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky.

Under the Empyrean Sky

Wendig, aside from having written a number of novels and nonfiction books, runs a terrific blog called Terrible Minds. It is always insightful, always frank, frequently funny, and occasionally offensive. In a good way. Definitely worth checking out.

The novel can be called a dystopian future. It has been labeled “cornpunk,” which I think is a very cool term. In The Heartland, corn has become the primary crop for the entire world. It has been so genetically modified that it is like a weed, but a weed that has driven the world into a sharp division of the “haves” and “have nots.” The haves live in a giant flotilla in the sky, the Empyrean. All the other losers live on the ground, scrounging out existence while developing cancer and tumors from the toxic, malnourished soil.

Of course the young protagonist, Cael McAvoy, is one of these ground dwellers. He captains a salvage ship, scrounging out a meager life. He’s in love with Gwennie, his shipmate, but is facing Obligation Day, when the Empyrean arranges marriage for people of the proper age. Without giving away any spoilers, Cael refuses to passively accept the decrees from above, meanwhile trying to navigate the crummy time we call adolescence.

This is not a neat, tidy book. It features teens who: (1) swear, (2) have sex, (3) smoke, and (4) are mean to one another. They make the tough-guy characters of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders seem pretty tame, and they were shocking in their time. Some prudish readers out there might be dismayed. Let them be. Because guess what? These are things that real teens do. Though the setting is fictional, Wendig’s characters reflect real-life people. Above all, however, these characters reflect deep values: friendship, trust, love, and most importantly, fighting for freedom, autonomy, and equality. They’re rough people, for sure, but their hearts and minds are devoted to admirable principles.

In the numerous choices of YA novels, Under the Empyrean Sky stands out for being rough, fun, and thought-provoking. Other novels also present edgy characters, but lack the moral core present here. Still other novels are fun, but not substantive—fluff. And there are other novels that present warnings about environmental damage, too, but do so in a heavy-handed and unpalatable way. Wendig deftly creates a world that is frighteningly plausible, yet fully realized in its own, rather than just a cardboard backing for a moralizing tale. Although I am not really the target audience (too old by about fifteen years), I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and recommend it to all fans of dystopias, environmentalism, adventure, and high fructose corn syrup.

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Beyond The Giver: A Four- Book Review

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, did a lot of great stuff with our class. He made everything creative. We had to research endangered animals and lay out plans for a zoo exhibit for them. We wrote short stories based on Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. For math, we had to create word problems, and I made a running series about a farmer named Bob Joe Billy Bob who was constantly calculating the square footage of his eggplant patch.

He also read us Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This novel introduced me to dystopian fiction, and to the concept of subversion. Imaginatively and emotionally, it gripped me. Lowry is already one of America’s most revered writers of young adult fiction (her World War II-era novel Number the Stars also won the Newberry), and deservedly so. Her writing hits that rare mark: aimed at young teens, but equally engaging for adults to read. Since I remember the book so fondly, and since I spend 10 or 12 months per year teaching teens, and because I have to teach the book next school year, I reread it this summer.

[Here’s Lois Lowry talking about The Giver.]

A young man named Jonas lives in The Community, where there is no color, no sensation, no inequality, no death. Children are assigned families at birth, maximum two per family. Sexual feeling is suppressed with a pill. When they turn twelve, they undergo The Ceremony of Twelve, marking passage into adulthood. They are assigned jobs based upon their skills and personalities. If a spouse is selected for them, they wed. When citizens grow too old, they are Released. There is no notion of life outside The Community.

books_giver[1]

Dystopias make Santa Claus sad

But when Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a position that has been held by the same man for decades. Through his interactions with his mentor, he discovers color, feeling, and love, but also pain, suffering, and death. The novel encourages hope in a bleak, bleak world. What I didn’t know after reading The Giver was that it was only the first in a series of four books! (I didn’t know because the second book, Gathering Blue, came out in 2000, by which time I was in 11th grade).  Gathering Blue doesn’t take place in The Community, and Jonas is nowhere to be seen. Kira is an orphan with a crippled leg. She is to be killed, but she convinces the elders of her village to let her prove her worth. They give her the task of mending the robes for the singer of the Ruin Song, the village’s most sacred rite. In this task, she makes several friends and allies, including Thomas, a carver, Jo, the future singer, and Matt, a thief and scavenger. Matt really is the most memorable character in the book, outshining the strong-silent-type Kira.

[A The Giver film? Dude, this is good news!]

Pick flowers, not your nose

While the story is not as immediately grabbing as The Giver, in some ways it is a richer and more vibrant tale. The book has a flavor of Ursula K. LeGuin. The connection with The Giver is thematic. In both books, the questions about our how our livelihoods, our desires, our character, and our society all clash and connect.

In the next book, Messenger, Jonas’ and Kira’s worlds unite.

 Messenger follows Matt as a young teen (now Matty). His life in the Village had been idyllic, now that he’s straightened up and abandoned his grubby, thieving ways. But things in The Village ain’t so great any more. Refugees are bringing poverty and discontent and irritating technology with them. So what does the Village vote to do? Close the borders! Matty takes it upon himself to spread word about the closing and to find Kira to return with him (spoiler alert: she isn’t killed at the end of Gathering Blue). He ends up learning a lot about himself in the process.

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Does anyone even HAVE a Buddy List anymore?

My reaction to Messenger was mixed. A bit of ax-grinding got in the way of a good story. For example, the Village has been introduced to Gaming Machines, a fancy new tech that is takes up everyone’s time and creativity. Lowry seems to be taking out some frustration (however well deserved) Playstation and XBox. And the scorn for isolationism (again, however well deserved) rings too obviously as a comment on American politics. I found these thematic intrusions a little irritating. And yet, in some ways Messenger is a more finely crafted and poignant novel than the first two. The connections between Jonas’s Community and Kira’s Village are also made clearer.

The fourth novel, Son, is the longest at almost 400 pages. But it has a lot to tie up. Without spoiling too much, the events of The Giver are told through the eyes of Claire, a Birthmother. It’s a fairly lightweight career: make three babies, then retire (essentially), but it isn’t held in much respect, either. When Claire gives birth, she is vaguely informed that something went wrong, she would bear no more children, and she was being reassigned. As per Community rules, she isn’t allowed to see her Product, but through a little snooping and some coincidence, she finds her son. This is the first half of the novel. When he is taken from The Community, however, she embarks on a voyage to recover him.

Fortunate or otherwise

I always held The Giver in extremely high regard, but Son tops it. Jonas is special, a Chosen One archetype. But Claire is average, maybe below average. Life in The Giver is bleak but the story content doesn’t get really grim until the end. In Son, Lowry tackles prickly topics early on. In the first two chapters, a teenage girl is forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination, and then her child is taken from her. Tough stuff. Son expands on the creative world of The Giver, too. The plot of The Giver is actually pretty static, but Son has an active plot with a determined protagonist. And perhaps what makes Son most gripping is the conflict. The conflict of The Giver is intellectual, the desire to bring sensation and memory to the community. The conflict of Son is visceral, though: a young mother is on a quest to recover her child. Perhaps my status as a “new dad” makes this element more poignant for me. But having finished Son, I now feel like Lowry’s cycle introduced me to a world, expanded it, complicated it, then brought it back together with ten times the force. So if you enjoyed The Giver, (and I’ve never met someone who read it that hasn’t), then I highly encourage you to seek out the other novels.

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Hark! The Clockwork Angels Sing!

Clockwork Angels is the sort of project I admire and envy. I’ve often dreamt of a project bridging music and narrative. Well, 2012 saw the collaboration of the prog-rock band Rush and speculative author Kevin J. Anderson. Neil Peart had wanted to work with Anderson for decades, and it was on this project that everything finally clicked (as noted in the novel’s endnotes). Both the novel and album  tell the same story, but through different media. So let’s look at each.

First of all, I should mention this is my first encounter with Anderson. I know he is an extraordinarily prolific author, but he’s one that just slipped through the cracks for me. I will say this for the novel: the story was stronger than the writing. Clockwork Angels is a hero’s journey story, the tale of young Owen Hardy. His life is quiet, safe, and pretty much mapped out from birth. The Watchmaker, a sort of benevolent dictator, has established The Stability that keeps everything safe and predictable. Of course, Owen finds himself dissatisfied, and soon falls in with circus carnies who embrace a wilder sort of life. Owen’s path crosses with The Anarchist, the Watchmaker’s nemesis, whose sole goal is to disrupt the Stability. Throughout the course of the novel, Owen bounces from one adventure to the next, being used as a pawn by both sides, until he is finally able to create– or realize his power to create– his own destiny. As a heroic adventure, and as a philosophical exploration, it is wholly successful.

That being said, the prose is rather…prosaic. Not every author needs to be Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon, but Anderson’s prose is littered with over-explanation and telling rather than showing. A typical passage might run like this:

At the man’s refusal, Owen hung his head and sighed. He was very disappointed that the man rejected his offer.

The second sentence is unnecessary, as if readers need an explanation for every gesture (we don’t).

I don’t wish to imply that the novel was boring or unpleasant to read. It was quite a fun adventure. I was just a little disappointed that the grandeur of Rush’s album and music was lost in such unadorned prose.

Another shortcoming of the novel is that the story is driven by Idea. Specifically, the battle between Order and Chaos, and Owen must find his own way between the two. As such, it’s a novel of Ideas and Philosophy, rather than Character or Story. The characters’ depth really ends at their roles as symbols rather than as people. Owen is the only character to acquire much depth, but again, it is a depth of symbolism rather than of psychology or emotion.

One of the most pleasurable parts of reading the novel was detecting the Rush references that Anderson sprinkled throughout the story. He drops names of songs and albums all over the place, and this makes the novel more than a standalone book; it makes it a gift to the readers and fans. I was going to make a list of all the references I found, but in the endnotes, Peart suggests that some sort of contest for readers may lie in the future. And far be it from me to give anyone a leg up on that opportunity…

As I stated before, Clockwork Angels is Rush’s first concept album. And it’s a challenging listen. The music continues in the direction it has followed in the past decade– harder rock sound, darker lyrics, and more focused lyrics. By “challenging,” I mean there is no apparent single that standouts. No “Tom Sawyer,” no “Subdivisions,” nothing I’d expect on the radio. Instead, the quality is spread throughout the album.

There are some albums that have immediate impact on the listener. Some need two or three listens to get into. Clockwork Angels required eight or ten. But now, I can’t get it out of me. Reading novel greatly increases appreciation for the songs. The driving, pulsing rhythm of “Caravan,” the angry, big guitar swagger of “BU2B.” On the other hand, the album also carries melodic, gentler tracks like “The Wreckers” that ache with regret and bitterness. The knockout track here is “The Garden,” the closer, which provides us with complete catharsis and retrospect.

Musically, another shift listeners might notice is in Geddy Lee’s voice. No doubt, his voice is distinctive– high, chirpy, and to some, grating. Well, whether the result of stylistic choice or of age, his voice has come down out of the stratosphere (without losing its power). If you want to give CA a try but can’t bear to listen to an hour of Lee singing, give it a try. His voice is lower but no weaker, and more nuanced than in the past.

This may get me drawn and quartered by Rush fans, but I’ve found a number of Rush song’s lyrically disappointing. When Peart has an axe to grind, his songs come off more like essays, and frankly, I don’t listen to music to be taught or lectured. I listen to them to experience story or emotion. Thus, songs like “Freewill” or “Nobody’s Hero” don’t do much for me. They lack the grace or imagery that I want to see in song lyrics. I don’t think all Rush lyrics are like this. “2112” is pure story (saturated though it is in philosophy), and “Subdivisions” has  a big axe to grind, but is delivered with striking imagery. Even Snakes and Arrows, which is loaded with anger at social injustice, is written with nuance and style.

So we come to CA, and of course as a concept album, it’s all about story. Yet, as mentioned above, the story is largely Idea driven, Extreme Order vs. Extreme Chaos. And that’s what makes this album so remarkable to me, that it is so philosophical, and yet has a nuance and grace that it might not have been written twenty or thirty years ago.

And that’s why I declare this album an utter success. It’s not an easy listen, it’s not something you can pop in and be amazed by the radio-friendly tracks, but give it several listens, and you may find it to be some of Rush’s most potent and gracefully executed music they have ever written.

So in recap: The novel: great story, hampered by mediocre prose. The album: not Rush’s most accessible work, but some of their best.

Side note: This story could make a fantastic film. The story is there, and the imagery potential (think of all those clocks and gears and steamships…) is boundless. You hear that, studios? Get on it, already…

UPDATE: A draft of this blog post was written before the EXCELLENT news that Rush was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Congratulations to the R&R Hall of Fame for finally getting it right!

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Writers Writing about Writing: Bradbury and King

I don’t read many books about writing (the Craft is better learned by Doing than by Studying), but I recently read two such texts. I was hoping for a bit of a jump-start with my own writing, which has tailed off as the school year dominates my life.

The first book was a collection by Ray Bradbury titled Zen in the Art of Writing. The book is not one cohesive essay, but rather a series of essays he wrote about creativity throughout his career.  Some focused on particular projects (“Investing Dimes” is about the composition of Fahrenheit 451, “Just This Side of Byzantium” is about Dandelion Wine), while others explore his more general ideas about where creativity comes from, and about his writing process. The playfulness and nostalgia that is evident in his fiction also comes through in his nonfiction; one can almost see him grinning and hopping from one foot to the other as he composes. He engages in some “woo-woo” writing mysticism. The idea of the writer as a magician who can create amazing Somethings out of Nothing is a common one. Readers believe it because writing fiction seems like a confounding art: “How did he even THINK of that, much less write it?” Writers believe it because we like to think we’re tapping into something pretty special and unique when we compose.

My only real objection to Bradbury’s collection is the title. As a student of Zen, I find myself annoyed by pop culture’s appropriation of it to mean “anything mystical or illogical.” While there are some concepts in the essays that conincide with Zen principles (one must let go of Art in order to capture it), for the most part, Zen has nothing to do with the content. “On Creativity” or simply “The Art of Writing” would have been more appropriate, but tacking “Zen” on something can boost sales, right? The title actually comes from the final essay, in which Bradbury explains how writing can be an expression of Zen principles. A little closer, but in the essay he offhandedly confesses that at the time he wrote the essay, he had learned about Zen two or three weeks previous. So essentially, he says, “I’ve spent a lifetime writing, and I just learned this other thing that’s sort of like it, so now I’ll write on it as though I am some sort of expert.”

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the few books I have read several times. It is the book that first pushed me from “I like to write” to “I want to be a professional writer.” The first part is an autobiographical sketch that highlights aspects of his life that led him to writing. The second part contains his thoughts– all very practical and applicable, and invaluable for a new writer– about the craft. And the third part was written after his horrific accident in 1999, when he was nearly killed by an out-of-control van. The book affirms the power of writing to make life worth living, but he never claims it to be mystical or magical.

In fact, he doesn’t dramatize writing at all. King’s attitude is very workmanlike– he says writing is not much different than laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. This aspect of his attitude has always appealed to me. A writer (unless he or she is one of the few, freakish geniuses out there) isn’t born a brilliant wordsmith. A writer works, and works, and works. As a writer whose work ethic is greater than his inborn talent, I take this to heart. A writer gets better by writing, and writing a lot.

So while Bradbury and King come to their treatises with much different views, they actually unite on one single, all-important point. To be a good writer, one must write. King emphasizes this point while Bradbury tends to bury the fact that he wrote 1000 words a day for twenty years when he was starting out. But reading these books back to back did the trick– I’m squeezing in minutes of writing time now, even if don’t think I can afford to. On notepads at home, sitting on the train to work, getting up at an even more inhuman hour of the morning, whatever it takes. I will do what I must to serve the Craft.

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Reading Stephen King in the Dark in the Aftermath of Sandy…

I live in northern New Jersey which, like the entire northeast, was directly in the path of Hurricane Sandy. But we were more directly in the path than most, and I live one block from the waterfront, so our town was hit particularly hard. No power for four days (Monday night through Friday night).

What’s a safe, comforting reading choice in this time of anxiety and destruction? Stephen King, of course! Here is my review of his collection, Night Shift,which I reread last week with more wisdom and appreciation than I first approached it with ten years ago.

And before I sign off, yes, our town was hit hard, but a lot of places down the Jersey shore had it worse. Our home was without power, but others have no homes to return to at all. Donate something– time, money, canned goods or clothes– to help those who have nothing left.

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Three Tales You MUST Read if you Like Gothic Fiction…

…but you probably won’t enjoy.

I don’t know. Maybe you will. But I think this is a case of Important Reading not equalling Fun Reading or even Good Reading.

This month has been Read Scary Stuff Month. This summer I read the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales, Vols. 1 and 2. I followed that up with a little Poe, and then a collection of Lovecraft stories. Then, feeling frisky and academic, I decided to reach back to what many consider the starting point of the Gothic movement: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It sat on my shelf for years as one of my many library book sale I-Should-Read-This-Someday finds. I knew it was an Important Story, having taken a course on Romantic Literature and Art in college. And as a fan of the Gothic, I knew I had to see the Granddaddy of Gothic Tales.

Well, Grandaddy may be the oldest in the family, but he ain’t the strongest.

The Castle of Otranto was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. Set in Italy (as many Gothic tales were), the story focuses on Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, who has a son named Conrad and a daughter named Matilda. Conrad, on his wedding day, is crushed to death by a massive helmet (no spoiler alert here; it happens on the first page). What follows is a story filled with who-marries-who, ascendancy questions, unengaging prose, and histrionics. Conrad the Ghost makes a few appearances, and this formula became a template for many of Walpole’s later imitators.

Even the Foreword admits that The Castle of Otranto isn’t a great novel, and that later writers did far more with the Gothic attitude. And to be fair, it wasn’t a horrible novel. It just wasn’t a really good novel, either. Part of the problem may have been the conventions of prose. In the mid-eighteenth century, dialogue wasn’t always separated by paragraphs. As a result, conversations between characters become heavy blocks of text that are visually daunting. But I think more than anything, it just wasn’t that scary. Conrad the Ghost is pretty much mute and benign.

So overall, I read The Castle of Otranto, and I can say I did it. I don’t really plan to read it again, unless I’m pursuing a Ph.D or a coma.

But wait. There’s more.

The Castle of Otranto was in a collection with two other key early Gothic stories. Since I was already halfway through the volume, I thought, “Why not?”

Well, after reading William Beckford’s Vathek and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, I found myself kind of missing Otranto.

I must make a confession. I could not finish Vathek.

Vathek, a tale about a corrupt Caliph who descends into debauchery,  wasn’t just boring (though it was that). It was badly written. I could pull a dozen examples out, but here’s one:

“The caliph, notwithstanding his habitual luxury, had never before dined with so much satisfaction. He gave full scope to the joy of these golden tidings, and betook himself to drinking anew.”

Is it the vague language (“so much satisfaction,” “habitual luxury”)? The clunky syntax (“betook himself to drinking anew”)? Imagine sentence after sentence of this, working to squeeze some meaning or enjoyment from the text. Eventually, I realized I wouldn’t get more out of it than I put in, and I put it down.

Which brought me to The Vampyre by John Polidori. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician, and often moody and disagreeable.  The tale is about an Englishman named Aubrey who befriends the weird and spooky Lord Ruthven, who–surprise–turns out to be a vampire. It wasn’t a terrible story, but it was clearly the work of a cranky doctor who pals around with writers, rather than the work of a writer.

I might actually gives these stories another try someday. Maybe I just didn’t give them the time or energy they required. But for now, they will return to my shelf, while I round out the month with the work of a more talented writer.

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