Author: Acid Free Pulp

I am a writer and translator based in New York City. Here are my unspecific musings about writing, books, translation, etc. (and some of my published book reviews tossed in for good measure). Like most people, I’m finishing my first novel. acidfreepulp.com

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Bell Jar

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This is a bit of cheat, as it is an entire first paragraph and then some. I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in many years, but I was required to read the first chapter this week for an unrelated project. It was so striking and I forgot how Plath immediately sets up so many aspects of the novel, including Esther’s life in New York City along with foreshadowing what is to come. The writing of the first chapter grabs you immediately and Esther is so well-defined.

There were many marvelous lines in the first chapter alone, but I loved the simpleness of this line when Esther is out with her friend: “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.”

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

On Being Annoyed at Donna Leon

I am annoyed at a writer I have never read and have only heard of in the past days as I randomly listened to past episodes of The Guardian Books Podcast (“Writing crime with Donna Leon, Duncan Campbell and Barry Forshaw” from May 2016.)

Overall, the episode, including Donna Leon’s segment, was highly interesting. My annoyance didn’t come until later when she was asked why her novels weren’t translated into Italian. But before I continue, let me first add, the long-running series of detective novels by Donna Leon are set in Italy and feature an Italian police commissioner (and I assume, many other Italian characters). Leon writes in English but has lived in Italy for many years, and the novels have been translated into other languages as well–just not Italian.

It’s not as if the Italians are not interested in them, but it comes down to the strange vanity of the author herself. She insists that they not be translated and the absurd reasoning is quoted all over the internet.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested — the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day[.]

From a 2003 interview

I find this whole notion to be ridiculous. Unless you are Stephen King or JK Rowling, no one is spotting you 3 or 4 times a day.

Unlike some other European countries, English is not widespread in Italy and I deduce that her avoidance to have them translated into Italian alleviates the possibility that she would be critiqued by Italians. That she might be called out for aspects of her series that she wish to be hidden in the cloak of unreadability for an Italian audience.

Granted, yes, this is all speculation on my part as someone who hasn’t read a Donna Leon book. But still I became incredibly annoyed as she kept on insisting. As an avid reader, I often get bummed when an international book I’m interested in is not available in English or if an author has one book translated but not anymore from their oeuvre.

Some light Googling led me to a quote in The Independent,

“There’s the risk of falling into stereotypes, and Leon, despite the bonhomie of her Commissario Brunetti, is not exempt. It’s not for nothing that she doesn’t want her books translated into Italian,” wrote prominent Italian reviewer Ranieri Polese. 

I made the mistake of reading further into the aforementioned 2003 interview, and her answers to various questions carried on in the annoying vein. Perhaps, I am concentrating on minutiae, but really Donna Leon was very annoying.

 

1984 & The Hate Week

This morning, I pulled out my copy of 1984. The one I read for junior year English class in high school. I turned to the first page and saw my markups. Hate week. That’s what this has felt like but sadly for more than a week. 

Malice by Keigo Higashino

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I don’t often get the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and pick a book randomly off the shelf to buy. There are two reasons: 1) My own doing as I am either directly targeting a library book, used book sale, or online shop for a specific title and 2) retail books are quite pricey. But I went in with the mission of selecting a book on a whim. The first book I tried was a Swedish thriller with solid writing but uninspired plot and then the second attempt was Malice by Keigo Higashino.

I haven’t read a ton of Japanese literature, especially anything contemporary, but this whet my appetite to continue down a Japanese rabbit hole.

The novel touches on a character element that I really enjoy and that is the unreliable narrator. Also, Keigo Higashino clearly has been influenced by a personal favorite unreliable narrator story of mine, “In a Grove,” by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Malice is a locked room sort of mystery with a famous and accomplished author being found murdered in his home office. The front door to the house is locked and the two people, his wife and friend, both have solid alibis even though they are most likely suitable suspects. The novel alternates between the narratives of the aforementioned friend and the detective working the case. The murderer is fingered early on, but the mystery is focused more on the why and how.

The book is layered and with each new section, something is pulled away and revealed, but the new information also frustrates the case as sometimes what the detective finds out muddles what is already known. I also say Malice is like “In a Grove” as there is a testimonial aspect to the plot with people beyond the friend and detective testifying, so to speak.

My experience with Japanese literature is limited, but by the few examples I’ve read, the writing is not heavy. A reader feels as if every word is chosen for a reason and with Malice, the narrative didn’t feel clunky like many procedurals can appear. Of course, there is a constraint when an unclear mystery is presented, but I didn’t feel as if the gears were grinding and often crime novels can read very fabricated (I sometimes cringe at the bad writing).

Even if you are not one for crime or detective novels, I would still recommend this to you. I get a bit bored with this tired characterization of detectives as being grumpy, chain smoking loners who always jog in hooded sweatshirts at night. The detective in Malice is a former middle school geography teacher. Also, even though this book published in the US in 2014, it originally came out in the mid-1990s in Japan and the reference and reliability of a fax machine is delightfully antiquated. It is ann interesting thought to consider how storytelling must change as technology changes as well.

Has anyone else read books by Keigo Higashino? It appears that he is quite prolific and popular in Japan. I must admit, I reached out for this book while gazing through the shelf looking for Patricia Highsmith books when I saw this cover. The description and the fact that he’s been nominated for Edgar Awards piqued my interest.

A Couple of Bookish Apps for Literature Lovers

I found these two literature loving apps recently. I wanted to try them out for a little bit before sharing my thoughts (I don’t use my phone for more than telephoning, twittering, audiobooking, and spotifying, so there was a near possibility I would lose interest).

Serial Reader

This app’s mission is to help you read those classics you always wanted to crack, but the idea of dedicating huge swaths of time to conquering Moby-Dick is a hard one to overcome (although, I am an evangelical for the greatness of this novel and now that US publishers insist all novels be 500 pages, this great beast is not so monstrous anymore).

You choose which book or books you are interested in reading and everyday the app delivers a short nugget of the text. Each section is called a serial and besides easily digesting these 9-13 minute sections, the experience is akin to the way readers used to experience fiction when books were serialized in magazines.

Serial Reader is free, but there is a premium version with a few nifty extra features. Once I read through my first book, I’m sure I’ll ante up the $2.99, if anything as a donation to the creator. The app itself is stable, easy to figure out, and crisp. I really appreciate the lack of fuss.

I’m currently reading The Castle of Otranto, which is perfect for serialization. It is an overwrought, glorified soap opera of a novel and receiving daily short chunks is making the reading experience even more engrossing. I can also see Serial Reader’s advantage with texts that have more difficult language; it allows the reader to focus on a portion instead of being overwhelmed by several hundred pages.

COMPLETELY RECOMMEND


 

Litsy

It would be reductive to define Litsy as Goodreads meets Tumblr. Although, it does crib general ideas from both platforms. I love Goodreads, I find it very useful to keep track of what I’m reading and how long it takes to finish a book. Occasionally, I appreciate its algorithmic recommendations. With Tumblr, I am less enthused. I still don’t understand its appeal and consider it a sewer.

So, going in to Litsy I was skeptical because of the latter.

Its user base is not nearly as large as Goodreads, but still has a plentiful base, which includes both individuals and well-known publishing houses. The snippet sharing that is common on Tumblr is far more enjoyable on Litsy. Many of the users have interesting and helpful thoughts about books and for this, the app succeeds at being a venue for finding new reads.

It’s not entirely easy to find new users to follow and can be a little clumsy when it comes to user interaction, but overall, an enjoyable bit of literature love. In the very least, it’s a suitable time waster and it is filled with content that far exceeds the ephemera that makes up Tumblr. It’s not a super-platform like Goodreads, but this isn’t really the intention. It does, however, serve as another place for readers to find recommendations for books that might otherwise elude Goodreads’ algorithm. Also, because the user base is smaller, it’s easier to tame the reviews for a book that would otherwise have thousands on Goodreads.

(It’s free and brought to you by the people behind the Out of Print clothing company.)

RECOMMEND

 

 

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Back in October, I saw a short one minute long trailer for a new mini-series coming to HBO. Whoever created it was spot on. I was hooked. I had that feeling that marketers shoot for: I need this in my life now. The trailer ended with the note that the series is based on a book. When I looked it up, based on the cover, it appeared very much in the “chick lit” genre and perhaps, out of my normal reading purview. But this year, I decided that I was reading outside of my normal zone and in doing so, it has paid off. Especially for this book.

I also found it surprising that Stephen King, of all people, blurbed the book. His brief sentiment is exactly right. Big Little Lies was a dark, mysterious, funny, adroit novel. It was contemporary commercial fiction at its best.

Somehow Liane Moriarty has written a literary thriller that centers around the parents and children of a kindergarten class in suburban Australia. Immediately, a reader can see why Stephen King liked it. There are flash forwards to police interrogations, hinting at a crime that has taken place at a school function. It was reminiscent of the structure of King’s great first novel Carrie.

I often don’t read commercial fiction, because simply, the writing is tedious and abysmal (I imagine myself typing this with my nose in the air), but I unabashedly loved this. I also really recommend this book as a way to get back into using your brain. I’ve heard from many people that the past weeks have been hard and doing anything constructive, even reading or watching television, has been extremely difficult….

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While reading this book, I kept thinking that we are in a heyday of excellent crime novels written by women. I generally prefer the types that don’t feature a detective as the main character and are not part of a series. For example, I’ve enjoyed the imperfect Ruth Ware novels and some of Laura Lippman books are decent, but I still maintain the queen bee to be Megan Abbott (I reviewed her 2014 novel The Fever). Over the summer, she was interviewed on Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast, where she made a case that women writers have made a space for themselves within the genre. Abbott, I say, is an expert at “girl voice” and it’s so enjoyable reading. (aside- if I had the reading time, I would love to delve into Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

On the most recent episode of the NYT Book Review podcast, Pamela Paul talks about her recent pleasure read, All Things Cease to Appear, which she described as a literary thriller. I’ve downloaded the audiobook hoping to start soon.

One aspect of these type of books that I usually enjoy is the closeness to the characters and plot. Attention to writing on the sentence level is very important to me (this year, I’ve begun reading James Lasdun, whose books are thin and mysterious, and the writing is so enviable). I’ve never been drawn to hysterical realism, these big books that are more ambitious than anything else. They seem more concern with their “bigness.”

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But back to this HBO series. It’s developed by David E. Kelley, so I’m hoping he carries over the humor and dark, sharp dialogue and narrative. The book takes place in a beach community in Australia, but the series looks as if it has been transplanted to the craggy and beautiful Monterrey, California. Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the series, also serves as a producer and if you look at her past and upcoming projects, she is very interested in developing films and TV shows from books by women authors.

Last week, HBO released a slightly longer trailer, which shows a little more of the characters and plot. You can watch it on YouTube here, but below is the original one that I watched that got me intrigued (kudos again to the trailer designer!).

The Ghosts of Winter

Ghost stories are grand any time of year, but they’re particularly alluring during the wintry months. Days are darker and shorter, colder and crisper. Our eyes start to close more easily in winter. This is the perfect time for tales of hauntings and ghouls.

The Dead of Winter This is a children’s book that the algorithmic gods of Goodreads thought I would be interested in and those gods were right. I don’t normally have a chance to read children’s literature and when I do, my adult-reader-brain has trouble squaring the lightweight plots and writing. True, this novel will feel breezy to a grownup, but it was still really enjoyable to read a children’s book that was well-written and clearly influenced by Gothic literature. Of course, we will see the moving parts of this ghost story, but hopefully children will get chills while reading of this haunted house.

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof You know you have a good roommate when he or she buys you books and an even better one when they gift you books about ghosts. This gem was sent by an excellent past roommate one Christmas and I can’t recommend it enough for the avid reader. It’s non-fiction that will appeal to both lovers of fiction and non-fiction, alike. Roger Clarke is a witty and astute writer, and he humorously serves up historical ghost stories and reasonings. Clarke is a believer, but he is extremely skeptical.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places You might be quick to lump this title and the aforementioned Ghosts together, but besides the umbrella theme of ghosts and haunting, they are very different. The writing here is a little more “academic,” for lack of a better term (but still pop enough for a general audience). American readers, certainly, will be familiar with a bunch of what’s being investigated (American History, is in the subtitle, of course), but Colin Dickey does bring in new info. For example, he proffers an aspect of the Salem witch hysteria that is lesser known: land disputes. Families were in business dealings and disagreements with each other over properties, and certain people were fingered as witches when they weren’t playing nice with the others.

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What are you reading during these wintry months? Any ghost stories in your pile?

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Potpourri for $200, Alex

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A grey, opaque endless skyline seems about right.

Like most, these past days have been a mixture of anxiety, stress, anger, and shame (and some more words; please insert your favorites). Besides our electoral PTSD we’re all dealing with from the past year and a half, the onslaught of the rapid and flawed news cycle can make anyone’s heart explode.

Hyperbole aside, it’s been rough days. For the time being, I’m generally staying away from the news, letting my eyes scroll over my newsfeed. Somehow I’ve become more tolerant of inane articles about technology (read: Wired). These briefly distracted me from the racists and bigots who are being given powerful positions and platforms.

For a while, consuming books and television felt hollow and frustrating, writing useless. I have no doubt that others feel or have felt this way recently. So, I leave you with internet potpourri for a momentary mental health break.

 

The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

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For years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Ronson. His writing is entirely interesting and he knows how to tell his fascinating stories. I’ve read many of his books–some, more than once–and I adore listening to the audiobook versions that he reads himself.*

I don’t often get a chance to read non-fiction, but this is generally the kind I like and prefer.

A few years ago, I read Them: Adventures with Extremists and was horrified, but ultimately amused with the absurdity of David Icke and his very tall shapeshifting reptiles that both live underground and are adamant on controlling the human race, along with the tin foil hat variety of nutters like Alex Jones, who goes loony for supposed human sacrifice and for some reason is very keen on the idea that the government is constantly using actors in lieu of real victims of gun violence (if you hate yourself, just Google: Alex Jones + Sandy Hook). Their conspiracy theories were preposterous and if you scratch your nail shallow across their arguments, any rational human could see that they’re really masks for antisemitism (read the book; you’ll see). But these were fringe nutjobs, who I assumed had a small, obsessed following. I also thought they stayed in the shadows, tuning in to their insane radio shows, and keeping, ultimately to themselves and not getting their crazy train cooties on the rest of us. Sadly, that has changed this past year…

One does not have to read Them in order to read with rapt interest, Jon Ronson’s new title. It is a short piece–approximately 15,000 words–and focuses on the obscenely overt influence Alex Jones has on Donald Trump. It’s been about 15 years since the book and even though Jon Ronson has repeatedly stated that he personally likes Alex Jones even if the latter spreads paranoia and frightful insanity, he and Jones have had a falling out. Ronson reunited with him during the Republican National Convention to witness firsthand Jones’ ascent and how the once minor league captain of the tin foil hat society became the number one operator of the hate machine that is Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential candidate this year.

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” definitely is in the same vein of Ronson’s other writing: he places himself within the story he’s reporting on to illustrate how the naive reader might also perceive this strangeness and to illuminate a niche that might not be widely known and accessible. There is seriousness and humor. Jon Ronson is never dismissive of his subjects but he will point to when they are being ridiculous or worthy of criticism. He’s also very good at pointing out contradiction (for example, paintball guns and squirt guns were verboten at the convention, but real guns were a-okay).

Readers of Them will enjoy the part 2 aspect of this new essay, but readers who haven’t yet read the earlier book will indeed enjoy (used loosely) this, too. Ronson pokes at Trump’s inner circle and their shady dealings, how even Glenn Beck got creeped out once by Donald Trump, and how frightening it has become that these people that I once pshawed as weirdo fringe fruit loops, have now taken a mighty throne on top of a soap box which a vast number of people in a certain sect of the voting population are listening, too.

To them, it is okay to be an obscene bigot and unapologetic racist. These people enjoy their incendiary speech that is often misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic.

So enjoy!

No, really. I really recommend. I also recommend Jon Ronson’s other full-length books and audiobooks.

This is a Kindle Single and FREE for Amazon Prime US members and Kindle Unlimited subscribers everywhere. Otherwise, it is a mere $1.99 for the rest of us. So, grab it and read it right now.


 

(*) I also highly recommend checking out some of Jon Ronson’s past television shows from British TV. Doing a cursory Youtube search can bring up loads of episodes of Secret Rulers of the World and For the Love Of… When watching, please be forewarned of the 1990s.

(**) Sneaking in a second television recommendation: Louis Theroux also does similar reporting. His shows are great, too. The 1990s warning also applies here for some of his older episodes.

Froust Questionnaire, 10/12/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. This was recently recommended as a page-turner. It is, plain and simple. It is not perfect, but Dicker knows how to plot and keep readers engaged. What fun.

Audiobooking: Ready to start A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Writing: Have a few pieces still in their infant stages. Everything is a bit too abstract right now for my liking.

ObsessingWestworld. Has anyone else seen it? I was skeptical at first and almost didn’t watch it, but I saw the first two episodes and think it’s really intriguing. Because it’s HBO, of course there is annoying female nudity, but it sort of works here (but I argue that you still don’t need it; especially, considering that the male nudity is close to nil).

Brainstorming: Ideas for fundraising for online magazine. This is a very hard task.

Procrastinating: Need to read submissions for aforementioned online magazine. Doing it today! I swear.

Watching: Scream Queens (does anyone else watch? If not, you’re missing out)

Disappointing: The Sunday night presidential debate for so many expected reasons.