Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Writers Read!
"Stein On Writing"
by Sol Stein

Writers are notorious time wasters. In moments of sheer crisis, we'll find anything to keep us from the unrelenting blank page. Immaculate kitchens, extravagant meals, spotless carpet vacuumed three times a day, these belong to the writer.

That means we'll look for any excuse, and if we're in between delicate words in a carefully crafted sentence and don't want to pick up a scrub brush, we read; books on writing are the biggest indulgence of this nasty habit.

Most books on writing read like memoirs. Said author did this, then did that, worked really hard and got published on a stroke of luck, and though this may be true, you learn nothing about the craft. Stephen King's On Writing is, I hate to say, one of my favorite Stephen King books, because you learn where he was in life when he was writing some of his biggest bestsellers (all of them?), but there's no lesson, only unpractical life stories. Other books are similar. Stein On Writing is different. It directly addresses what you should be thinking about when you are writing. It tackles the writer's job, not the writer's life.

Certain chapters are noticeably lacking in depth and examples. Stein talks about "liposuctioning flab", and would have done well to shave the chapters on "Particularity" and "Guts". Stein shamelessly plugs his own work towards the end of the book, but even so, he offers practical advice and relatable, usable techniques to get your story down on paper. Make your characters interesting by giving them a particularity, he says. His most important lesson is the best learned: as a writer you have to be conscious of your audience, you have to work at manipulating the pages to keep them interested. He suggests ways to keep the tension high and the suspense long, and stresses that creating tension and suspense are keys to a good story. If you want to tell stories but aren't sure how (and never took a creative writing class, like me) you'll find this book especially helpful.

There are few books on writing that offer solid practical advice into the hows and whys of the craft (The Lie That Tells a Truth, Writing In General and the Short Story In Particular), and Stein On Writing gladly joins them on my bookshelf for the next time I'm feel particularly constructive, can't seem to find the right word, and need some inspiration to find it.

The cover's all about writing. No pictures, just words. I like it!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I'm a Thingamabrarian!

Dilley dalleying around, I stumbled across this website featured on Blogger's Blogs of Note:

Library Thing

It's self-described as a MySpace or Friendster for books, and it's very cool. You can catalog your library of books. Like MySpace, you're linked to other people based on your books, and it's not a meeting-place like MySpace, it's a social collaboration of sharing ideas and books. Among a thousand more fantastically hip time-wasters, you can find other libraries "eerily similar" to yours, get recommendations, see your library on the internet (with pictures, of course), and even organize your books. But I can't do it justice. Check it out. It's addictive.

My name's "fourteenerus", if you wanna compare.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Blahbetty Blah Blah
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"
by Raymond Carver

As long as the title is, the short stories in this collection are exactly that. Short. Not to say they don't have power. Less is more, right? I have put off reading Raymond Carver's stories for a long time. For some reason or another, he has eluded me, but I could hold out no more. It's a tiny book that will disturb you, hold you, grip you, and leave you, at times, utterly dumbfounded.

Each of the seventeen stories in this collection is about love in some way, and most of them, wait, no, all of them, have negative connotations or involve negative circumstances. The string that ties these stories together are the differing perspectives of love, of relationships in moments of crisis, from seventeen different angles. From the poor choices of one partner in The Calm to a man so fed up he's put all his furniture on the front lawn in Why Don't You Dance?. The title story promises a glimpse into relationships and shows us how shallow and crass we can be, we expect deep discussion about love and its meaning and get an inquisition into one character's loyalty to a former, abusive lover. And my favorite, So Much Water So Close To Home, involves a man whose wife is angry at him to the point of leaving him because he and some friends discovered a corpse at the beginning of a camping trip and decided not to notify the authorities until the trip was over, thinking the corpse wasn't going anywhere and there's no sense ending the trip early if it would all be the same in a few days.

Carver's strength lies in his ability to pose questions. He dangles the truth just out of our sight and never gives it to us, demanding that we decide the relevance. Most of his stories are vignettes of instances, each tableau raising its own questions, hanging there waiting to be answered; until everything turns symbolic and the stories become unique allegories, small metaphors like ink blots that depend on the reader's interpretation, different from person to person.

Carver's collection resonates because it's evocative. It succeeds because each story deftly illuminates a complex world where morals are fuzzy and emotions are unclear. Indeed, what we talk about when we talk about love isn't love most times, but something different entirely, something that hardly makes sense at all. And still we try. Still we try.

Don't judge this one by its cover - it's better than it looks.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Guise in Disguise
"The End of the Road"
by John Barth

One can imagine Barth at a bar, late one night, chatting lucidly over a beer the relevance of any number of philosophical subjects and then later, accepting a dare. Create a character that has no character. One can imagine it simply because he did.

Jacob Horner is a man whose mood changes like the weather, at a whim, several times a day. Yet he is intelligent beyond belief and is able to grab hold of any side of a debatable topic. Horner, though, is a man with many problems, not the least of which is immobility, that leads him to the care of a doctor who will not disclose his name. The doctore prescribes Horner the only logical thing that will cure his immobility and characterless character: he must become a professor of prescriptive grammar at Wicomoco State College.

There he meets Joe Morgan and his awkward but sometimes graceful wife Rennie Morgan. He begins to take riding lessons with Mrs. Morgan which leads to an eventual slip-up affair one evening that they both regret. Rennie tells Joe, and rather than be angry, he wants to "wrap his hands around the thing," understand it fully, so he sends Rennie to commit the crime again. And eventually she gets pregnant - the father is up in the air. And so Barth touches upon a subject one can only imagine as taboo and controversial beyond belief in 1960: abortion. It is this subject, it's treatment, and the suspense and lively story thus created that save Barth's novel, and save it well.

Meanwhile, Horner has minor relations with a bitter woman named Peggy Rankin (he mentions that he's forced into these situations, otherwise he's asexual), and spars with Mr. Morgan over a variety of topics where Horner's mood and opinion shift from one hodge-podge to the next. Most of the time he says he has no opinion simply because he has too many opinions. Mostly, it is Horner's openness to the possiblity of everything that leads him to become such a chameleon, the most passive central character in fiction I've come across. This is accentuated with the stolid stance of a statue of Laccoon Horner stares at in times of change. The statue never changes, but, depending on the day and Horner's mood at the moment, Laccoon will bear a smile, or be concerned, or be sad. One never knows.

Barth flourishes with humor, and indeed every page is filled with subtle laughs and in-between-the-line jokes, but this book, the self-proclaimed sibling to "The Floating Opera" can't help but fall in the shadow of it's older, wiser, all-around better sister. It's a good read, and it progresses as the story reaches it's climax, but it's nowhere near as insightful nor daring as its counterpart. "The End of the Road" may be just that, but it reads like an exercise at times rather than a well written novel. I'd still recommend the journey, with the preface that the road is at times laborious, but the end of the road should make it worth the ride.

It's cover - hmmm, well, the same as "The Floating Opera." My edition shares these two titles, but I like the separate covers more. They're both interesting enough - I say read them!