Book Review: Pass With Care Through Pinebox

Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas
Edited by Matt M. McElroy
12 to Midnight, 2009

Big fish lurk beneath the waters of Lake Greystone in Pinebox, Texas. Really big fish. But I will warn against a fishing trip, if you value your life. In fact, I will warn you to pass carefully through the little East Texas town.

Sure, it seems a friendly enough place with mom and pop shops and a state college.  You might stop for pie at Mom’s Diner or admire the architecture of the Golan County courthouse. Still, I recommend you pass on through, because Mayberry this town is not.

Strange things happen in Pinebox. And some of its strangest lore is collected in Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas. Besides an unusual amount of deaths by alligator attack — though alligators are rarely seen — in Pinebox people disappear mysteriously, rumors fly of a creature known as the Piney Devil lurking in the  woods around town, old ladies get accused of witchcraft, and criminals . . . well, let’s just say justice gets served.

The thirteen stories in the collection range from transcripts left by a travel writer who mysteriously disappeared to Preston DuBose’s “The One That Got Away,” a campy story that’s sort of a cross between Call of Cthulhu and a Jeff Foxworthy routine, to Ed Wetterman’s “The Witch of Linda Lane,” a tale of young boys who suspect their friend’s death may have been caused by a witch. The stories are capped off by a series of Headlines, newspaper clippings recounting the strange happenings in the town and surrounding county.

This collection is a fun read, some good horror stories for this time of year. But beware . . . if you stay too long in Pinebox . . . well, as one local says, “‘Gators do funny things, sometimes’.”


Booking Through Thursday: Blurble, Blurble, Blurble

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?

I can’t think of any blurbs that have made a book irresistible to me.  The only thing “blurbish” on a book cover that might interest me in the book is a good summary on the back cover or on the dust jacket flaps. Which, of course, sometimes those blurbs can fool you into thinking you’ve got a really good book in your hands, when, really you have a snore- inducer.

On the other hand, bad blurbs are those that make the author sound like the greatest thing since iced tea with lemon or gin and tonic with lime. Other blurb words that put me off include “life-changing/altering/etc.,” “smart,” “funny to the point organs and bones break,” “earth-shattering,” “poignant,” “buy it, but it now,” or “a gem: lucid, lively, and full of observations both useful and true.”  That last blurb is one from a book I liked, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. That blurb is head-explodingly bad. Surely most books, even bad books, contain some “observations both useful and true.”

And that last blurb comes from a review. A practice I dislike, especially when you look up the review and discover the quote excerpted from it is the only positive bit from the review.

I would like to say, though, that if I ever publish a book I hope someone will blurb it by saying, “This is a life-altering gem of a book. Rib-shatteringly funny. Poignant and tragic. Buy no other book, unless the author publishes something else. In fact, throw all your other books out, because nothing else need be read. Buy this book, buy it now. Buy boxloads.”

The Influence of Anxiety

When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.

Booking Through Thursday: Book Gardening

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

When’s the last time you weeded out your library? Do you regularly keep it pared down to your reading essentials? Or does it blossom into something out of control the minute you turn your back, like a garden after a Spring rain?

Or do you simply not get rid of books? At all?

And–when you DO weed out books from your collection (assuming that you do) …what do you do with them? Throw them away (gasp)? Donate them to a charity or used bookstore?  SELL them to a used bookstore? Trade them on Paperback Book Swap or some other exchange program?

To my best recollection, the last time I weeded out my library was perhaps in January or February, maybe before then. The library used to blossom out of control, though I haven’t really made too many contributions to it in the past few years. Just a handful of books. So it’s remained stable.

When I do get rid of books I like to try to trade them at the nearest Half Price, or put them on BookMooch, which I haven’t done lately. I should put more books up on BookMooch but the shipping is expensive.

What You Need To Write While You’re Sick

Yesterday, other than a blog post, I did no writing. A fever held me hostage. Achy muscles. A swirling head.

This morning I woke up some time around 11 a.m.  still not fully recovered from whatever illness had overtaken my body. I reminded myself that I had missed my regular writing session yesterday, and then I remembered something Joan Didion wrote in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem about writing the title piece:

I was . . . as sick as I have ever been when I was writing “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece. (I would like you to believe that I kept working out of some real professionalism, to meat the deadline, but that would not be entirely true;  I did have a deadline, but it was also a troubled time, and working did to the trouble what gin did to the pain.)

Today I’m half-heartedly working on my book. I’m fighting off chest congestion, but the fever is gone. I think I may need gin to get rid of the cough. And maybe that would get rid of the blah writing day I’m having.  Anyone out there want to send some gin my way?