Writing

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Bell Jar

the-bell-jar_cover

the-bell-jar_opening-lines

***

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.
Advertisements

Celebrating Irish Women Writers

If you haven’t been following The Irish Times’ celebration of Irish women writers, what are you doing here?! Head on over. They have a whole slew of articles in praise of various authors, along with other literary interests.

Their most recent one–as of this typing–is about designing a new “Irish Writers” poster (does anyone else recall these from libraries or other places of scholarly gathering? I do.). If you notice on the original one, it was terribly outdated and not a single female scribe.* For your delight and enjoyment, the old poster has been updated to feature a handful of talented authors, which can be downloaded gratis; just click the image below.

writerposter

 

 

 

 

*Also, for fellow Jeopardy! fans, there was only one clue last night about women writers in all of the British Authors category. For shame.

Nabokov’s Real Lolita

Perhaps, it was a strange choice to read this long essay over breakfast (cold cereal and tea, for those who are concerned with such matters), but I’ve been in a reading, writing, blogging, everything rut. I have a bunch of deadlines for reviews coming up over the next two weeks, then I must begin writing an essay for which I’ve been commissioned, but good news arrived this morning, that a bit of flash fiction I wrote last year will be published in the autumn. I’m very happy for that, because it is a piece I am particularly fond of.

But anywho, this morning’s breakfast was accompanied by a long form essay (bully for a now oft-deprived discipline). It is an essay I’ve been saving for well over a month, but I thought this gloomy morning was a time to forsake the news and just read one thing: “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman (11/20/2014, Penguin Random House Canada/Hazlitt Magazine).

Has anyone else read this essay? Even if you haven’t read Lolita, I’m sure the story itself is particularly interesting. The subtitle is certainly astute in what it proclaims: The story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction changed the course of 20th-century literature. She just never got to tell it herself.

Enjoy!

lolita

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39_steps 39_steps1

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'”

***

I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

***

This book is available for free in the public domain.

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

lost for words

What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

reading list banner

This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

reading list clip

Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.

Hearts_017_by_ISOStock

Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.

 

Penny Dreadful

penny dreadful

This weekend saw the premiere of Showtime’s new series, Penny Dreadful. The show brings together some classic characters from literature: Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and his monster. The show is filled with dark creatures, hidden mysteries, and a dark and scrubby London.  The show is richly layered and for fans like myself who like Gothic fiction, the weaving in of these characters and their lore is delightful.

The creators set the show in 1891. Only three years after Jack the Ripper, the city is still on high alert when a gruesome murder has been discovered. Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green, who I’ve loved since The Dreamers) ropes American Wild West Show shooter, Ethan Chandler, in to helping her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) find the latter’s daughter, amongst other not yet said endeavors. Chandler is immediately thrown into an underground world with dastardly blood sucking beasts with very sharp teeth and Egyptian hieroglyphs etched into their skin. Oh, yeah, there is also a tortured young doctor who spends his days autopsying bodies along with his more clandestine nighttime behavior of keeping a corpse on ice connected to an electric generator.

Vampires are wicked in the first episode, but we’ve yet to see Dracula himself and I’m quite looking forward to Dorian Gray, as it is a favorite of mine. Something I particularly like about the series thus far is that they return to the more grotesque and sensational beginnings of the novels. Over the past decades and especially more recently, these characters (particularly the creatures) have been rendered so much away from their original iterations, that they lost some of their more frightening composition. Just look at what vampires have become in present day fiction and movies.

The creators of Penny Dreadful have also taken the route of foregoing heavy CGI in favor of makeup and prosthetics, which are stellar and not at all hokey. They give a reality to the fantastical storytelling and too much CGI, well, that can look too crisp and clear. Also, setting the series in 1891 was ideal. I’m sure they will take advantage of the era when modern medicine and science were evolving (but still stuck, no doubt; Doctor Frankenstein was putting his bare hands inside of corpses leaving him soaked in blood and what better way to clean your hands than to wipe them on a dirty rag). Also, this was a time that was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, so I’m sure all sorts of angst will run wild on the show.

Only episode one has aired, but there are eight in the series. For the weak of stomach, don’t fret. The gore is not obscene and fits well so far with the show. If you can watch an episode of [insert title of any banal cop or doctor show], you can easily watch this without succumbing to upchuck. The grotesque is impressive and just enough mystery was withheld to keep the momentum going. Lovers of both sensational literature and intriguing tales will enjoy Penny Dreadful.

The first episode is available for free with or without a subscription on Showtime’s website. For UK and Ireland viewers, Sky Atlantic co-produced, so I am sure it will air on your side of the pond as well.

Image [1]

May is Short Story Month

ShortStoryMonth_400x400

May is Short Story Month. For a long time, short stories got the boot. They used to be so part of the reading conscious, but in the past decades, collections were overlooked for novels. However, they are making a comeback. Short Story Month is sponsored by storyaday.org and is hoping to encourage more consumption of short stories beyond just the month of May.

In the coming month, I hope to include more short fiction. I have some books and lone short stories already lined up. I’ve just finished one forthcoming collection, too. Because May is also Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I am aiming to include writers who fit this criteria as well. So, let’s get our #shortreads on! Below are some past posts to get a jump on it. Are you reading any gripping short stories? If so, please tell me in the comment section.

+ “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
+ “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers
+ “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
+ and more.

I leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman regarding short stories:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” 

No Rest for the Writer

the-day-after-1895

weary reader rest
not for too long when you pick
your head up rejoice

****

In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to Time For Poetry, a haiku by this tired writer and reader who is trying to muster up some stamina for two book reviews that are due to editors soon (books I still haven’t finished reading) and trying to look at my own manuscript with its final 10,000-20,000 words being narrowed in on. I can’t help but feel like this perfect Edvard Munch painting.