Out of Service

I’m once again without home Internet service, so posts may be sporadic.

Anyhow, I hope my loyal reader doesn’t abandon me for some hipper, cooler blog.

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Booking Through Thursday: Not-So-Great Great

Here is today’s Booking Through Thursday question:

What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, although technically I haven’t read the whole novel. I’ve tried to read it twice now, setting it aside both times. It seems to be an American Ulysses among writers and critics: Harold Bloom canonized it. Francine Prose lists it as a book to be read immediately in her Reading Like a Writer.

Despite its difficulty, its  “obscure references  . . . [and] precipitous discourses on alchemy and Flemish painting, Mithraism and early-Christian theology,” Jonathan Franzen writes in the essay collection How to be Alone that he “loved it.”

“It was profoundly, metaphysically quiet,” he writes. “By the time I reached the last page of The Recognitions I felt readier to face the divorce, deaths, and dislocations that were waiting for me out in the sunlit world.”

I’ve read with pleasure what Franzen terms “difficult” novels — Ulysses, for instance (granted that was in a graduate class on Joyce) or even Gaddis’ A Frolic of  His Own — I feel I’m a reasonably intelligent reader, but I just don’t know why I can’t read The Recognitions.

Or maybe, after glancing at Franzen’s essay tonight, I’ve uncovered one reason why I can’t read this particular novel.

“The emotional temperature of the novel started cold,” Franzen writes, “and got colder . . . . the author’s satiric judgments and intellectual obsessions discouraged intimacy.”

Franzen expresses exactly what I couldn’t figure out: the novel is cold, too cold for me to want to push through all the obscure references, and symbolism. It doesn’t invite me to want to read it. I think that’s an essential quality a novel needs to possess — it needs to invite you into its pages, into its cosmos.

Sunday Salon: The Anxiety of Influence

This morning when I checked my blog stats, as I do regularly every day, several times a day, I saw on my Dashboard that WordPress had linked me to this post at So Many Books.

So, I’m going to list the 25 writers who have most influenced me here, and you can play along, if you want. They aren’t necessarily in chronological order.

  1. Robert E. Howard
  2. Ernest Hemingway
  3. Harold Bloom
  4. Camille Paglia
  5. Henry Miller
  6. Rita Mae Brown
  7. John Gardner– the one who wrote Grendel, not the guy who took up writing James Bond novels.
  8. John Aldridge
  9. Kurt Vonnegut
  10. William Faulkner
  11. Frank Conroy
  12. Francine Prose
  13. Richard Rhodes
  14. Tom Wolfe
  15. John Milton
  16. Whoever penned Ecclesiastes in the Bible
  17. Whoever penned Job in the Bible
  18. Kenneth S. Lynn
  19. Douglas Adams
  20. Mark Twain, his Letters from the Earth, especially
  21. Susan Orlean
  22. Larry McMurtry
  23. Jim Harrison
  24. Harry Crews
  25. Michael Chabon

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

Booking Through Thursday On Friday: Book to Movie

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m writing my Booking Through Thursday post on Friday. It’s a good topic, one I don’t want to pass up.

Here are the questions:

What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Nick Hornby’s How to be Good, if someone could translate narrator Kay Carr’s voice, especially the interior monologue, her meditations about what “good” means. I can’t think of any producers at the moment. Probably English. Maybe the people who do the BBC show Coupling.

I also want to add that I’d like to see someone make a movie of Charles Baxter’s A Feast of Love. I know, I know. Someone did make a picture of it. And Greg Kinnear is fine, I’m sure, as BradleySmith, but really it’s a part for Kevin Spacey, at least in my head it was.

Book Review: Making a Literary Life

Every time I vow not read another writing advice book, I find one that really seems to tackle issues I’m having trouble with.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2002) is the most recent advice book that I’ve checked out. Along with chapters on craft, See adds a new dimension: How to make a life as a writer, which delves into relationships, publication, networking and promotion.

To the chapters on craft — plot, characters, revision and scene — See includes an interesting section on geography, time and space, which expands upon more than just setting.

In this section, she emphasizes specifics over generalizations.  She says, for instance, if a writer generalizes too much when trying to be “‘universal” the writer runs “the risk of boring . . .  readers to death. Because the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in ‘the city’ may be easy enough to write about, but who can stand to read about them?”

The specifics matter. A character’s geography matters, how that character gets around matters, how time influences characters matters. Such things matter so much See suggests using such tools as drawing maps of the town a character lives in, of the place where a character lives. It’s a reminder we should know our characters inside-out as we work out their lives and stories on the page.

Also, as with other writing books, See stresses the importance of commitment to the craft. She has her version of Richard Rhodes’ Knickerbocker Rule — you write by applying your ass to your chair. See’s version of the rule is “a thousand words a day — or two hours of revision — five days a week for the rest of your life.”

There’s no other way around it, kids: to write, you have to commit to writing, you have to take time out and write and write and write, and then write some more.

My favorite sections in this book are about the writer’s life itself, the people around you, and the best people to be around (those who genuinely support your work); your life and outlook (how do you see yourself as a writer? how do you want others to see you?); how do you build a network of writers, editors, etc. (See suggests one charming note a day to a writer, editor, agent, etc.); and how do you manage publishing and promoting your work?

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Sunday Salon: Bigfoot Dreams

When I was a reporter, I covered religion, an under reported part of the human experience, covered sometimes it seems only when it bleeds, shows its flaws.

Unless there were flaws, sometimes covering religion wasn’t very exciting in the way other news could be, and I would joke with a colleague about the headlines of the now defunct Weekly World News — those headlines were fun, things were action-packed in the world of religion:  people found slivers of God’s beard, people found the Garden of Eden, the devil got locked in a tool shed somewhere in Argentina.

The tabloids had exciting stories of talking dogs, UFO abductions, and Bigfoot.

And Bigfoot is a favorite of tabloid writer Vera Perl in Francine Prose’s novel Bigfoot Dreams, the latest selection for my hundred-novels reading project.

Vera writes for a Weekly World News sort of tabloid in New York, and thinks she’s making stories up until weird things start happening after one story she writes appears to be true.

I’m about halfway through the novel, and as always, blown away by Prose’s prose, her storytelling, and her gift for satire and parody. And it’s a plus that Bigfoot will probably make an actual appearance, if what I suspect is true — that Vera’s fictional news is starting to become real.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

Sunday Salon: The Things They Carried

After a disappointing attempt to read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I set that novel aside for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

If you’ve read a short story collection or anthology in the past 10 or 15 years or so, you’ve probably read the lead story/chapter of this novel in stories, its cadenced sentences that lists objects, names, equipment, etc., that an infantry platoon in Vietnam carries through an episode of the war, the objects, etc. that define and characterize them and their experience as the war weighs itself upon them.

The rest of the stories/chapters follow from that story and congeal into a coherent narrative that follows the platoon’s experience during, before and after the war.

The novel itself uses postmodernist elements in the course of the narrative — many of the stories are narrated by a writer named Tim O’Brien who is reflecting about his war experiences about twenty years after the fact. From what I understand, much of what the narrator Tim experienced is similar to the real experience of Tim O’Brien the writer. And then the narrator plays Pilate, with his own “What is truth?” question in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.”

All in all, an excellent meditation not only on a particular war — a war that has had a long reach, especially in the way it polarized and still polarizes American culture and politics — but on war in general, and does what the best war novels do: it puts faces and names on the casualty lists and the abstract politics and history.

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On a lighter note: Always read the material on the dust jackets of your books. Four years after receiving Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel as a gift, after reading it twice, and after constantly referring to it and picking it up, I found on the dust jacket a companion Web site for the book:

www.smiley100.com

As you may or may not know, this book inspired my own 100-novels reading project. The Things They Carried is the 68th selection read for that project.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.