Friday, November 14, 2014

Classic Novels I've Never Finished

This article on Moby Dick from the New Yorker got me thinking of classic novels I've never been able to finish, Moby Dick being perhaps first and foremost among them. I found it impossibly dense and turgid, the prose style convoluted and confusing, and it just failed to keep my interest.

War and Peace is another classic that's defeated me. I've started it at least four times and never gotten past page 20. That's probably as far as I got in Pride and Prejudice, too. I forced myself to read Crime and Punishment all the way through, but I'll be damned if I remember much about it or got anything out of it. The only way I got through Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was by skimming it and concentrating almost exclusively on the dialogue.

There's a certain pattern here -- I obviously have a problem with the 19th century (I count Buddenbrooks there, even though it was published in 1901), and it doesn't help if a book is long. (On the other hand, I love Dickens and Wuthering Heights -- it really is "the strangest love story every told" -- and I did read every word of Finnegan's Wake, though I now consider that to have been a colossal waste of time.)

I can think of other classics that failed to move me: The Aeneid, The Great Gatsby (which I have read three times, trying to get what everyone else gets about it), Henderson the Rain King (long!), A Passage to India. There doesn't seem to be a pattern after all.

It used to bother me that I couldn't get interested in these books. After all, they're classics, great works of literature. If I didn't get them, what did that say about me and my lack of intellectual heft?

I don't worry about it anymore. The infinite combining and recombining of DNA within our species results in an infinite number of individuals, each with sensibilities and tastes that set him or her apart. The womb is a sort of aesthetic Thunderdome -- no two individuals emerge from it the same.

What famous novel do you find insufferable?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Author Kathleen Hale Shoots Herself in the Foot Multiple Times Over Goodreads Reviews

Author Kathleen Hale, whose first novel was recently published, has confessed to stalking a book blogger who gave her a lousy review on Goodreads, earning her a bunch of 1-star ratings and generally pissing off book bloggers here, there and everywhere.

I can understand the impulse to strike back at the anonymous person who trashes your book. After all, it's like someone calling your baby ugly. I've been trying for a long time to get Barnes & Noble to remove one review of Tainted Souls, not because it's 1-star, but because it's homophobic. (Near as I can tell, the reviewer took umbrage at what he perceived to be anti-George W. Bush sentiment and hit back by metaphorically calling me a fag. Sigh.)

But, as Hale was warned by any number of people, doing so is a losing proposition. And Hale took her unhappiness to a new and obsessive level, tracking down the book blogger in question, calling her at work, and even showing up on her doorstep. Leaving aside the stalking part, what did she hope to accomplish? Did she really think she was going to strike a blow for liberty and justice?

Now some folks who haven't even read her book are giving it fresh 1-star ratings to show their displeasure at her actions. I think that's wrong, but predictable.

On the other hand, as the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, so maybe Hale's misadventure in obsession will pay off in the long run. Should be interesting to see.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Writing Every Damn Day Iz Hard

Jaime Todd Rubin tells the story in today's Daily Beast of how he cranked out over 400,000 words in a year by carving out time for writing every day, even if only for 20 minutes, learning also to tune out background noise like TV, kids, bats in the attic, small-arms fire, tsunami warnings, etc.  He also tracked himself on Google Docs, apparently allowing himself to create all sorts of statistical charts about his writing.

If you're into that sort of thing.

I have never been the sit-down-and-do-a-little-every-day sort of writer. I'm more like a volcano that bubbles beneath the surface, before it all comes spewing out in one long, semi-continuous flow. I write 10 or 12 hours a day until it's done.

I would like to be the kind of writer who sits down and does an hour or two every evening, Or who putters away at it mid-morning, preferably with a banana muffin on hand. I'd love to be able to go to Starbucks in the afternoon like clockwork every day, flip open the laptop and write for an hour, no matter what.

I'm so busy these days with other things that the 10- or 12-hour day of writing just isn't going to work for me.

So I will have to give that 1- or 2-hour-a-day session plan another try, though there's something about my personality that resists it.

What about you? Are you a compulsive word-vomiter like me or the type that can make writing work in small increments? What are your secrets for keeping the creative juices flowing when you only turn them on for an hour or two a day?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Finnegans Wake - Work of Genius or Gigantic Waste of Time?



I used to think Finnegans Wake was a work of genius. (I even took a whole class on the book in college. I read the whole thing, believe it or not.)

Now I sort of think it's a wasted effort; if you spend 17 years writing a book that basically is impossible to understand, what's the point? Except to show how many obscure allusions you can throw in and generally what a smartypants you are? Does art have any worth if no one can appreciate it?

Anyway, the Chinese will apparently soon be able to decide for themselves.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Your Characters -- Thinly Disguised People From Your Past?

An article in the New York Times today touches on whether it's OK or not to draw from real-life relationships for literary material.

Is this even in question? Every writer draws from real-life experience to write fiction, whether consciously or not.

The real question is, how much do you take from real life and how closely do your fictional characters resemble their real-life counterparts. And what are your motives in portraying them? Some people you meet in life are so interesting it would be a crime not to portray them in fiction if you have the chance.

The writers in the Times article say, of course, draw from real life, but be careful and avoid the kids. I think of that admonition when considering Joseph Heller's Something Happened, which, having read his daughter's memoir, certainly seems to mirror the annoyance he felt in middle age having to deal with his (real) children's problems. Philip Roth's I Married a Communist is supposedly a "a barely disguised riposte at Roth's ex-wife, Claire Bloom" for portraying him unsympathetically in her memoir.

I suppose it matters most if the fictional characterization is unflattering or one that makes fun of a real-life person.

What's your opinion? Where do you draw the line on how closely your fictional characters resemble their real-world doppelgangers?


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Real Life Mystery of My African Ancestors

23andMe, which I had analyze my DNA not so long ago, recently re-classified a tiny fraction of it from "undetermined" to "of West African origin." (99.6 percent was termed "Northern European," no surprise.) Specifically, "less than or equal to 0.01 percent" of my DNA is traceable to West Africa.

You have to go back at least 14 generations to get that kind of percentage -- say to the early to mid-1600s. Fourteen generations means more than 16,000 ancestors. (Probably less in actuality, since for most of history folks never ventured farther from their villages than 20 miles and thus inevitably married distant cousins. Certainly less in my case, since -- scandal in the family -- two of my great-great-grandparents were first cousins, it being rather lonely out on the Indiana prairie in the mid-1800s.)

How cool is this? What a great mystery. Who was this African? A slave girl at a Virginia plantation? A freebooter on some Caribbean pirate ship? The son of a West African chief sent to London to get an education? (I just read the other day that this was fairly common.) I'd love to solve the mystery, though I'm sure it's next to impossible. One just has to let the imagination roam.

I've learned quite a bit about some of my ancestors in the last decade, thanks to the Internet and Ancestry.com. I found out about the life of my mother's father, though he had disappeared from view since the 1930s. Recently a distant cousin in Norway got in touch and provided even more info on my father's side of the family. But this snippet is something I would never have known without the DNA analysis.

In my more pretentious moments, I like to point out that we are all Africans, since all of us whose ancestors later called Europe or Asia home are descended from the same small group of individuals who left Africa some 50,000 or 60,000 years ago. Finding out that I have a more recent connection with sub-Saharan Africa just makes the point more solidly that humanity is just one large, genetically mashed-up extended family.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Suckiness of Sci-fi

My daughter has me reading Ender's Game. So far, I am unmoved and mostly uninterested, and have actually finished three other books as I ponderously make my way through this tale of a kid trained as a super-warrior against "buggers." (Given the author's apparent homophobia, one wonders if the aliens are all supposed to be evil Sodomites out to recruit the young boys in training to their nefarious "lifestyle"; I haven't gotten far enough to know why they're called "buggers." Maybe they're insects? What is this, a reprise of Starship Troopers?)

Anyway, to the point. I rather like sci-fi as a genre of speculation. I even watched "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" for a season or two. Some of my favorite movies are sci-fi -- Alien, Terminator, Road Warrior. I even enjoyed the campiness of Starship Troopers. But I've never read a sci-fi novel that impressed me as a literary effort, or even entertained me much -- unless you count Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five as sci-fi.

I know, I know, I should read Isaac AzimovRay Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin. Done, done, done. I've slogged through them all, but without enthusiasm, like a neurasthenic Victorian woman fulfilling her wifely duties by lying on her back and thinking of England.

The most boring of them all? Arthur C. Clarke.

I am not sure why this should be. I think it may have to do with how much space is devoted to explaining the ins and outs and backstory of the alternate reality in which the story takes place and I don't have the patience for that. Then again, I liked reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit even though I'm not a fan of the "fantasy" part of "science fiction and fantasy," and certainly there was a lot of explanatory Shire-, hobbit-, elf-and-etc.-related verbiage in that.

OK, all you sci-fi geeks can now weigh in to tell me what an ill-read ignoramus I am.