Oracle Night by Paul Auster

If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal.  His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story.  Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads.  The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.

Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night.  I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future.  If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.

Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause.  Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.

Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:

Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream:  to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.

What are these worlds that writers create?

Do we live in the present with the future inside us?

Are we creating futures as we write?

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it.  I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark.  If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.

Brothers by Yu Hua

brothers-by-yu-huaWhat I loved about Brothers by Yu Hua is that within the pages of one book I found a story that made me laugh and cry over and over. The tale is both horrifyingly dark and twisted, but with seamless transition, Yu Hua writes some of the best comic scenes I’ve ever read. Life in America for the past eight years has made it possible to understand the absurdities about which Yu Hua writes, and for this reason, they are believable.

The story of Baldy Li, one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction, and his brother, Song Gang, opens right before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Scenes in which neighbors are unified in a common cause or belief and turned into enemies the very next day are chillingly similar to what is happening in the world today. When Yu Hua writes about Li Lan’s, Baldy Li’s, and Song Gang’s grief over the death of Song Fanping, I thought my heart would rip in two so great was their anguish.

The two definitions of stupidity (knowing the truth, seeing the truth, but still believing the lies, and doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result) often came to mind while I read Brothers. I’m watching the premise of the story take place right in front of my eyes as the youth of America believe they can make certain political systems work in their generation even though overwhelming evidence of failure exists in other countries. I have to wonder if they’ve forgotten the past or are purposely not being taught. In either case, we’ll all be doomed for it.

The story is engaging based on the time period and cultural differences. Yet the prose is so simple that I have to wonder if this is due to the translation from Chinese to English or if the author chose to keep his words plain. In either case, his writing style works. Another thing I noticed while reading this translation was the repetitive nature of the writing. I’ve only encountered this in one other translation, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and I wonder if this is a style particular to Asian writers. I find it lends emphasis to details and storylines.

Yu Hua broke the rules of writing brilliantly by not following plotting formulas. Two ways in which he did this was by the introduction of a new character and storylines in the last one third of the book. Not surprisingly, the pacing of the novel was not interrupted, and as a reader I wasn’t jarred out of the book. Obviously, Yu Hua writes for intelligent readers, and in this way, it reminded me of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo with its large cast of characters, interwoven storylines, and backstory. In both cases, readers willing to stay with the book to the end will absolutely not be disappointed.

I know the book was written as a criticism on political systems and to show all the evil and craziness that stems from them. I found my interest focused on the relationships of the characters enduring life under the various political systems and how their relationships were further affected by their personalities which dictated how they reacted to circumstances and each other.  I came to the conclusion that all one can probably do in such a situation is be kind, work hard, and do no harm.

Despite the depth of the tale Brothers presented, as I said there were some hilarious moments including a chicken search party, Yanker Brand underwear, and actual blind men drawing blind conclusions. But again, that’s part of Yu Hua’s ability to make a reader laugh while getting his point across. The best line though was probably Yanker Yu explaining politics to Popsicle Wang when he said, “…comfortable circumstances breed freethinking, which is why the rich love politics.” I laughed aloud as I shuddered thinking how stirred up the politicians are keeping the world.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

mary-shelleys-frankensteinI recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a requirement for my classic literature book club. It was my first time reading the book, and I looked forward to it. As I approached the story, I knew better than to compare it to the Boris Karloff version of the movie by the same title. I’ve only viewed portions of the movie, and from what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything.

Of course, there was the Kenneth Branagh version of Frankenstein that I watched years ago. I recall the movie seemed classier, and it had Mary Shelley’s name in the title, so perhaps it was more closely linked to her original tale. Prior to reading the novel, my only other experience with Frankenstein was during my senior English class in high school. The teacher mentioned that Mary Shelley wrote the story as part of a competition with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and friend, Lord Byron, to write a ghost story. From Mary Shelley’s efforts, the novel was born.

With all this build up, I launched expectantly into Shelley’s biography at the beginning of the book. She had an unfortunate life full of tragedy and was a husband stealing adulteress. I kept in mind that the last fact should have no bearing on her writing. I did, however, tuck away her comment that people often asked her how a young woman could have written such a tale. I didn’t find it difficult to believe that a young woman wrote the book; the novel gushed on and on with a relentless amount of filler. In tone and passion, it matched the sappiest of poorly written romance novels. Truly, Mary Shelley had written a horror novel.

I suspect Mary Shelley’s overinflated belief in her ability to write was influenced by her sphere of acquaintances. Her parents were prominent writers and philosophers (her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth but left behind quite a legacy), her husband and friend (Lord Byron) were well-known writers, so why not give it a whirl herself? I must admit that Frankenstein is the only work by Mary Shelley I’ve read, but based on what I encountered, I am not motivated in the least to seek out her other writings. Feminists everywhere are probably damning me right now.

Led around by the nose is the phrase that kept coming to mind as I read the book. Mary Shelley obviously had a point she wanted to make, but she didn’t allow her readers to arrive at this point on his or her own. Victor Frankenstein was meant to be disliked and the monster pitied. I believe her intent was to make us wonder who the real monster was.

I kept hoping that Mary Shelley would raise the Creator vs. Creation issue because I would have enjoyed arguing that subject as I read. After all, Victor Frankenstein as the imperfect Creator would have made for a wonderful debate. Instead, we’re given a pathetic, weak man who repeatedly saves his own life over those he claims to love. I still don’t know why he suddenly rejected his own creation. We’re expected to suspend belief and simply accept that he did.

As for the suspension of belief, prepare to do so over and over and over again. The most unforgiveable place I found this to be true was in the mary-shelleys-frankenstein-2creation of the monster. Mary Shelley didn’t do her research as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t provide any method of preservation or refrigeration for the body parts and briefly mentions decay. Still, we’re expected to believe that Frankenstein built a human in a rented room in the middle of town. She glosses over the part where the creature is brought to life by having Frankenstein refuse to tell Captain Walton how he did it to prevent the sailor from making the same mistake. As a writer, I know that’s a major faux pas. Perhaps it was more acceptable when Mary Shelley wrote.

It’s a toss-up who fluctuated more in character: Victor Frankenstein or The Monster. Frankenstein’s resolve wavered every time he decided he was going to deal with his creation, and right on cue someone he loved would die by the monster’s hands because Victor’s spinelessness reasserted itself yet again. It was dangerous to be loved by this man, and I do not buy into the belief that he was helpless to stop the monster’s rampage.

The monster was intelligent enough to grab clothes upon fleeing Frankenstein’s rooms, learn language and reading in about a year, quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but couldn’t discern his own feelings or come up with better plans for inserting himself into society. From the last two incidents, we’re supposed to believe the monster was a victim.

And when, exactly, did Frankenstein’s creation become a monster? In my opinion, it was when he refused to extend the grace he sought from humanity. In his unjustifiable rage, he lashed out not only toward those whose company he sought, but he hurt innocent bystanders as well (ex: burning the cottage punished the owner when the creature was rejected by De Lacy, Felix, Agatha, and Safie.) I could not find him pitiable, and it was not his right to act accordingly.

I could continue with issues such as why the monster possessed supernatural strength, how the scenes were predictable, the presence of too many coincidences, and how the character arcs read more like character cliffs. Since I haven’t read what the feminists believe Mary Shelley’s intent was for her novel, I’ll not enter that debate.

Instead, I’ll sum it up with the question of what makes a classic. If shock value for the era in which a novel was written qualifies, then a certain book in fifty shades is destined to become a classic in about one hundred years. Or does a book become a classic by the fact that it was written by an anonymous author who turns out to be the opposite sex from what we expected? All this did for me was present Mary Shelley starring in the role of Victor Frankenstein. (If you’re going to write an opposite sex character, try to make them masculine or feminine as is required of said character.) Don’t forget popularity and sales; they lend high regard for a book in the opinion of many people these days.

I’m not sorry that I read Frankenstein because now I can say I know for myself, but I cannot recommend the book as either well-written or worthy of being called a classic.

Description-A Writer’s Friend or Foe?

dearada_typepad_com_dear_ada_images_2008_01_15_experience_261_artFellow author Mark Tilbury tossed out a question that is often on my mind as a reader and writer. In his post, Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description, Mark asks us our opinion on today’s style of writing.

We’ve all encountered the “massive blocks of descriptive prose” to which Mark refers. Sometimes they truly are too long, too irrelevant to the story, too purple, etc., etc. I have skimmed such passages in search of the storyline and/or dialog that would put me back in the story.

However, because we’re all friends and adults here, I’m going to say that I disagree with the notion that description is informative but unnecessary. I hear all the time that the reader shouldn’t be led around by the nose; he/she should be given the opportunity to imagine the story. As an avid reader, I can honestly say that I have never felt this way about descriptive writing. On the contrary, my imagination was enhanced and grew because of the description I read including that written about journeys and the passage of time.

The key is that writers need to learn the perfect balance between too much and enough, the fine line between well-written, well-placed prose versus that which is encumbering, unnecessary. This seems like a daunting task, but I believe it can be achieved by not reducing writing to a formulaic method. In doing so, authors will elevate writing back to the level of artistic recognition it deserves.

85806_Ashford_1_122_526lo_122_526loI have never read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, but I would have to agree that abundant description about a character’s acne would be tedious. If that acne-plagued character traveled by canal boat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then I would love the benefit of description. I would look forward to a word picture painted by the author that draws me in to the sounds, smells, and sights of the trip. It would be a perfect place to introduce traveling companions, a time for the protagonist to reflect, an opportunity to build the tension that so deliciously moves the story forward.

Even if none of the above-mentioned suggestions occur, as a reader I would still enjoy the mental images of traveling with the character, and I believe an important part of the writing would be lost if these well-written descriptions didn’t occur. As Mark mentioned in his post, they are an art form unto themselves. Like all art, value thereof still resides in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. Well-written description can exist purely for the sake of entertainment.

I have to wonder if writing hasn’t gone the way of food preparation in that we no longer know how to linger over a book in the same way that we forego multiple course meals and choose to patronize fast-food restaurants. I read because I enjoy the slower pace, and while there is a place in my fa9bbdedb5103e7f31a0893eff84ed56reading diet for the occasional literary Big Mac, more often than not, I opt for the balanced meal of description, dialog, prose, and narrative.

Now I don’t want to start a fight with screenwriters because I truly do appreciate their craft. However, using what worked in an action-packed movie and applying it to writing has resulted in fast-paced novels written with the singular hope of being turned into a movie. This has diminished writing for some of us. This influence has led to the removal of poetry and painting (mental images) from writing resulting in flat, hollows stories. Let movies be movies, appreciate them for all that they are; and let books be books, treasures not to be rushed through.

Jim the Boy – Book Review

I am concerned that many readers, and not a few writers, have lost the ability to enjoy a story that exists purely to entertain. That unless a novel is outlined with on cue plot twists, pinches, and character arcs, the reader will dismiss the story as worthless. The only reprieve some books receive is to be classified as literary fiction.  Yet even this term will drive some readers away with the expectation of highbrow prose not easily understood. I blame this last fact on the current confusion that exists when we are expected to force every book into a specific genre.

Prologues, we are told, are anathema. One-sided conversation between characters is labeled an info dump. On and on the criticism toward books who stray from the above-mentioned criteria flows from reviewers, and again, I worry that excellent literature is being ignored or cast aside in favor of the high-tension, action-packed, reads-like-a-movie novel.

untitled (5)Sit down and let me tell you a story. Be still, and without interruption allow yourself to be drawn into the world of ten year-old Jim Glass, his widowed mother, and his three unmarried uncles. Set aside your technology, your resistance to everything you believe this story isn’t, and your expectations for a dystopian universe where children kill each other to survive. Slip back to a simpler time that existed during a difficult era, the Depression, and get a feel for what true social interaction means.

Live for a year with Jim’s family in Aliceville, a town that has been wired for electricity for years but has yet to receive the blessing of lights after dark. Attend the brand new school on the hill with Jim and be afraid that the converging of kids from all the closed one room school houses presents the terrifying and thrilling opportunity to make new friends. Enjoy the push and pull relationship between Jim and his best friend, Penn Carson, as they vie for playground supremacy. Listen to the family history, tall tales, and ghost stories told by the adults in Jim’s life.

If you can do this, long before you reach the last page of Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy, you’ll have made lifelong friends, and you’ll feel as if you’re among kin. Or, sadly, you may dismiss the story as merely charming, quaint, and anticlimactic. That’s okay, too; no one will judge you for it because you probably won’t even realize you let a treasure slip through your fingers.

For readers who enjoyed Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and John Grisham’s A Painted House, I highly recommend Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy.

Literacy and Democracy

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well. ~Margaret Atwood

Since I began working at the library, I have seen a decline in the quality of books for children and teenagers.  I have even witnessed a decline in the value of those being read by adults, and it shocks me.  There is very little worth in the written word lately.

My concern is that authors aren’t putting out their best work for the sake of their readers.  I find it hard to believe that some writers are actually proud of what they are producing.  Rather, it seems as if turning a quick buck is the goal.  Again, this is cause for concern.

As a writer, I lay this burden at my own feet first.  My goal is to write a book that will engage my potential audience.  I dream about my novel becoming a classic, but, at the very least, I want to give readers something to chew on mentally.  Even if I create a book that’s just a good story, I work to make sure it’s well written.

What we feed our minds is as important as what we feed our bodies.  I’ll admit that I love a good dessert as much as the next person.  However, even desserts come in varying degrees of quality.  Then again, so does much of what we eat to sustain ourselves.  What I mean is, a diet of garbage from fast food restaurants isn’t going to provide what our bodies need.  I could probably live a better life eating my mother’s homemade desserts all the time, not that I would.

The same is true with what we choose to read.  I can’t fill my mind with endless garbage and expect to increase my knowledge and/or awareness of the world around me.  Too much cotton candy for the brain will render me useless.  I’ll die without anything of value to read.  This is the point where someone will want to debate who assigns value to what is being written and read.

But just for a moment, let’s be logical.  A steady stream of unintelligent reading is harmful.  Like cotton candy, it’s fun for the moment, but it won’t sustain you.  Train your brain to crave the weightier reads the way you teach your body to desire healthy food.  I promise you, there are no negative side effects to nourishing your mind.

As for the link to democracy, even if someone lies to you about a situation, you will know better because you took the time to read and find out.  You will not be led around by the nose.  You’ll be mentally strong enough to meet their attempted deception head on.  You will understand what is being said to you.  What’s more, you’ll be prepared to fight back.

So I implore you:  Seek out quality reading.  Treasure it and share it with the upcoming generations.  Write the very best you have to offer.  By providing worthy literature, poetry, screenplays, etc., you will leave a foundation for the youth.  In return, they will know how to take care of you in your golden years as well as prepare for the generation coming up under them.

Dripping Ink – Questions for Self-critique

The Writer Has the Last Word

It is my very great pleasure to share an article by Caroline Totten of The Greater Canton Writers’ Guild, Inc.  The following article was featured in the September newsletter.  Information regarding the Guild can be found at:  http://cantonwritersguild.org/

Dripping Ink by Caroline Totten

Questions for Self-critique

Do your demons imitate the gods by grabbing and holding attention? (Your demons are ideas that keep poking you in the eye. If the idea arouses laughter, tears, paranoia, fright, curiosity or indignation, etc., you have acquired a point of view, which may boil into a plot.)

Does the plot offer an opportunity to provide fresh insight into the theme? (Ideally, the plot begins with a distress signal in the middle of the story. The action is already in progress and tinged with an emotional element in the main character. Usually, the setting fits the character and supports the viewpoint.)

Is the character(s) consistent in the context of the plot? (Draw the emotional tone from your personal experience and place it in the persona of the protagonist, the main character. The conflict may be psychological, physical, or ideological, or a combination of these elements.)

Here are a few aspects of the reader/author relationship to keep in mind. By being a writer, or hoping to become one, your entire self becomes an instrument to observe and record human experience. When you extrapolate heartache, joy, fear, whatever, and put them into your character, you are actually putting the reader in touch with his emotions. (Numbness, repression, or suppression are emotional factors.)

Psychologically, mystery, or suspense stories excite the mind of the reader.

Horror stories, by a circuitous route, help the reader release his fear.

Adventure stories encourage bravery.

Love stories release hormones that tenderize the heart.

Fantasy encourages imagination by offering another way of perceiving the resolution of conflict even though at the outset, the reader may be looking for escape.

Humor may release attitudes that might otherwise be socially rude or crude.

Actually, stories that contain violence, corruption, and greed may contribute to the reduction of these elements and/or act as a catharsis for the reader.

Reading fiction is not an idle past time. Its factual component may differ from nonfiction, but the result is similar. The point of view alters the reader’s perceptions.   Effective writing heightens awareness of the subject by allowing the reader to participate in the physical and mental experience of the character. Most effective stories show the character in action. In some cases, “thinking” by the character rather than dialogue or confrontation may be the entrance into a story. The approach depends on the genre, your style, and editorial desires. (At times, magazine and book editors don’t know what they want until they see it.)

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