Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Opening Sentences (Part One)

ISBN-10: 1781162646 ISBN-13: 9781781162644 Published: Hard Case Crime, 06/04/2013 Pages: 288 Language: English
I'm going to have start giving the good folks over at the Slate Culture Gabfest a royalty check (what's 15 percent of 0 dollars?) for inspiring yet another blog entry with their discussion of great opening sentences, a discussion inspired in turn by a fantastic piece on the Atlantic: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences. In keeping with his pulpy roots and the crime fiction genre that he explores in his new novel, Joyland, many of his favorite opening lines featured in the article were penned by the likes of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. King not only has great taste, but is able to parse out exactly why a seemingly simple opening line such as: "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" (from The Postman Always Rings Twice) is the stuff of genius. Here's his concluding paragraph:

"A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen."

King focuses on establishing voice above all else, but there are many great opening lines that have other aims. On Slate's podcast, Julia Turner loosely separates great opening lines into these categories (to which I have appended relevant quotes):

"A couple of these books start with generalizations about life and the world... aphorisms. Jane Austen and Anna Karenina, they're both sort of 'let me establish my authority as a teller of stories about humans by starting with some wry observation about the nature of humankind.'"

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (Tolstoy)."

"Then there's super-telling detail about character..."

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself (Woolf)."

"Then there's the kind of meta-opening, like Huck Finn or like the David Copperfield, which is 'let's acknowledge we're at the beginning of a yarn here and what my relationship is to it and what your relationship to it is going to be."

"You don't know about me without you have read a book called "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter (Twain)."

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show (Dickens)."

"Then there's the Hamlet-- there's the kind of picayune detail that turns out to contain the massive multitudes of the entire story within its compressed little phrase..."

"Who's there? (Shakespeare)."

"Call me Ishmael (Melville)."

This is by no means a complete taxonomy, but I thought it was an interesting starting point. For further reading, I would suggest another article from The Atlantic where famous authors are asked to give their favorite opening sentences. There are plenty you might expect, but also some wonderful surprises, such as the opening line of Charlotte's Web:

"'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast (E. B. White)."

Naturally I have a few favorites of my own, but I've decided to save those for a dubiously necessary Part Two. In the mean time, dear reader, what are some of your favorite opening sentences?"

Monday, July 29, 2013

And Then We (Never) Came to the End

Finish it, or use it as a coaster? Shakespeare would be able to couch this more elegantly. For my part, I imagine the debate between finishing a mediocre book or chucking it for something else a lot like an old fashioned cartoon, in which an angel and a devil are perched on either shoulder, playing tug-of-war with my literary conscience.

Currently, I'm slogging through a book (which shall remain unnamed). Slogging, here, isn't hyperbolic, unless you're envisioning me in galoshes in a swamp, which so far hasn't been the case (unless we're speaking metaphorically). At night, I turn to look at my nightstand and gaze at the stack of graphic novels and beach reads beckoning, revisiting the pages of my current book with a sigh and an ever-weakening resolve to finish this thing, once and for all.

Unlike a lot of issues that provoke some sort of ire or anxiety in me -- voting, adopting shelter pets, and female characters in young adult literature, for instance -- I see the merits of both sides here. Would Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! lie on some table right now if not for this persistence, untouched except by the bottom ring of a coffee cup? Would I be able to chime in on the Twilight series or The Hunger Games if I hadn't read the first volume of both series front-to-back, thoroughly, even though both of them felt problematic in certain ways? There's certainly something to be said for commitment, particularly when the material is more complex than your typical fare or culturally important in one way or another.

That said, it's murkier when the novel in question isn't a Modern Library Edition, a certified classic, or the next sleeper hit of the summer. Of course it feels good to finish The Red Badge of Courage or Brave New World, even if neither rank in the top 50 on your Goodreads queue. At least you can say you've read them, and you can apply those ideas to everyday life even if the prose or storytelling didn't grab you. The same can't be said for an obscure, unknown title or fledgling author, even if they're lauded as the next coming of Herman Melville. Only time can brand something as a part of the canon, and in an age where marketing and PR gets its grubby fingers on everything from the author's Facebook page to their book jacket, the conversation trailing a new release isn't a reliable indicator of its actual merits or significance.

As a writer, this conundrum reduces to a simple equation: if people don't care, they won't read it. Most people aren't foolish enough to suffer this sort of crisis for the sake of literature. Most people would pick up a book, read 20 or 30 pages, and move on to the next thing, because life is short and there is an abundance of books within your physical or electronic reach in any given place.

A little insight, while still maintaining whatever shroud of mystery I had going on before (feel free to LOL): the book I'm reading now is a jolt from my usual genre preferences, has been highly praised by critics, and is one of the author's first endeavors. It's rather lengthy, and I'm already more than halfway through.

Finish it off? Abandon it for something more compelling? I know what I'll probably end up doing, but you wiser souls should tell me what you think.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill Hollywood

ISBN-10: 1932907009
ISBN-13: 9781932907001
Published: 05/25/2005
Pages: 195
Ingram Discount Code: REG
The relationship between literature and film has always been a complicated one, but in a recent Slate piece Peter Suderman makes a compelling case that a single book published in 2005 is at least partly responsible for the formulaic blockbusters that dominate American cinema today. That book is Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, an extremely popular guide to writing and selling your screenplay. Suderman argues that, while previous screenwriting gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee were primarily interested in theory and promoted a fairly flexible three-act structure, Snyder's book is much more quantitative and practical. 

In fact, Snyder's book provides potential screenwriters with 15 story beats to hit, along with approximate page ranges to correspond with those beats. It reads more like, well, a formula than a theoretical framework. That formula is obviously effective when executed well, or the book wouldn't have met with such success, but Suderman also points out that "once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs." As anyone who has ever dealt with academia or taken a creative writing class can tell you, excessive instruction can scrape away the idiosyncrasies or personality of a particular work and leave it feeling stale and samey. 

I'm still not entirely convinced that Save the Cat! is a cause rather than a result of Hollywood's long-standing formulaic drift--after all, the beginning of the blockbuster era is usually traced to Jaws' release all the way back in 1975-- but the book's considerable influence is undeniable. Suderman even chose to write his piece using Snyder's 15-beat structure, a clever touch proving the soundness of Snyder's technique while demonstrating how it straitjackets the creative process. I find it strangely heartening that the written word still has the power to manipulate entire industries, even if I'm not entirely happy with the results.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cat's Out of the Bag: Bill Willingham's Down the Mysterly River, Pamela Erens' The Virgins, and Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face

I might've started a series like this before, in blatant imitation of Nick Hornby's Stuff I've Been Reading column for The Believer, but hey -- between all those 5ks I've been running, orphaned kittens I've been pulling out of trees, and novellas I've been penning, it's pretty hard to find the time.

Just kidding. I totally forgot about this thing.

So like the still-newly-minted college graduate that I am, I'm going to pick up where I left off, only under a completely new title and following a slightly different format. Come along for the ride!

This feature will highlight what might be generously called my compulsive book buying habit, aided and abetted by Flyleaf's employee discount and my obstinate belief that toppling piles of book can really make a house feel like a home. My guests should either agree or leave me alone with my cats and books, where I am very happy thank-you-very-much.

ISBN-10: 1935639625
ISBN-13: 9781935639626
Published: Tin House Books, 08/01/2013
Pages: 288
Language: English
Today I went with three selections from three entirely different sections of the bookstore. While some might deem it erratic taste, I like to call my inclinations "eccentric," so this week, I'll be taking home Pamela Erens' The Virgins (a new literary fiction title whose cover blurb had me at "the next James Salter," or some such praise), Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face (Grealy's memoir about her childhood battle with cancer and the way in which it irrevocably changed her face), and Bill Willingham's children's novel Down the Mysterly River, which appears to have some talking animals and lots of adventure.

I first caught wind of The Virgins via Twitter. Author Leigh Stein, who did a fantastic reading at the store several months ago, had posted a link to her review for the Los Angeles Review of Books (worth a read, if you're hunkering down with the internet for a minute or two). I read the piece, remembered how much I liked Stein's prose, noticed the understated and aptly-designed cover, and filed the title away under "I should check that out sometime." When it came time to shelve the paperback this morning, I decided to take it home. The plot centers on two young lovers at an elite Northeastern boarding school, and Stein's review clued me in to the fact that its narration takes an unconventional tact. We learn about protagonists Aviva and Seung through the perspective of privileged, indecisive Bruce, whose feelings towards Aviva waver between disgust and borderline obsession. This roundabout delivery -- mostly speculative -- seemed to bother Stein a little bit, but I'm trying it for the Salter comparison and the evocation of bougie boarding school politics, a world I can only access through fiction.

ISBN-10: 0060569662
ISBN-13: 9780060569662
Published: Harper Perennial, 03/01/2003
Pages: 256
Language: English
Grealy's Autobiography of a Face was recommended to me by my coworker Erica, an established author herself who has steered me towards interesting fare many times before. After babbling for weeks about Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant, which I read in that order, she said I ought to try this one, which would coalesce the best of those two worlds -- striking nonfiction from Patchett's own bosom buddy. Though I don't know quite as much about this one, its premise is compelling without too much adornment or praise. Grealy's bout with cancer as a child left her face permanently marred, and its effect on her lives both inner and outer -- as a public person and a writer -- seem like perfect memoir material.

ISBN-10: 0765366347
ISBN-13: 9780765366344
Published: Starscape, 09/25/2012
Pages: 336
Language: English
Finally, Willingham's Down the Mysterly River will be my way of escaping the world of Fables, the graphic novel series he penned with which I've been unhealthily obsessed these last few weeks. I figure I can taper off by moving towards something written with the same blend of fantasy and humor, only minus the pictures. While it's targeted towards middle school readers, I've always been of the mindset that well-written fiction is well-written fiction, and if his work with Fables is any indication, Willingham could make the pebble caught in your shoe into a tragic hero. I'm also attracted to the idea of finishing a book quickly, because the historical epic I recently took up has required every ounce of concentration. Worth it, but we all deserve to reward ourselves with lighter fare.

That's it for now. Check back soon -- I'll try to keep the habit at bay until next week.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Species Argument

I have to give my fellow blogger Laurie Cochenour credit for alerting me to this piece of fascinating internet ephemera: What Reader Species Are You?. Posted on the Paris Review blog, this infographic attempts to taxonomize readers into more and more specific subcategories, modeled after the Linnaean system (domain/class/family/genus/species). Take a moment to appreciate the diversity that exists under the umbrella of "reader" and see if you can spot where you fit in. I am, to quote the infographic, a "cross-bred reader mutt." 

Hankus Stephenicus
Domain: Reader
Class: Book Lover
Family: Compulsive
Genus: Book Cherisher
Species: The Hoarder/The Chronological Reader/The Immersive Reader 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Don't Judge A Book by its Readers, and Vice Versa

ISBN-10: 0451191145 ISBN-13: 9780451191144 Published: Signet, 09/01/1996 Pages: 1088 Language: English
Just like the real world, the internet can be a mean and judgmental place, and I was reminded of this sad fact by an article/list-- I've even heard the horrid portmanteau "listicle" used in connection with this piece-- posted on Buzzfeed called: "28 'Favorite' Books That Are Huge Red Flags." The subheading reads: "These books are harmless. Until a friend or loved one tells you that one of them is their favorite." The basic premise of the article is that certain "favorite book" choices are indicative of character flaws in the chooser. At this point, you would be correct to fasten your seat-belt and prepare for a barrage of lazy jokes and broad stereotyping. A representative passage following The Great Gatsby: "Unless you can show me your dissertation about Tom Buchanan’s biceps or something, this means you stopped reading in 10th grade. Shoo." Ugh, right?

I wouldn't normally give this article the time of day, but it has been making the internet rounds and thankfully earned a very thoughtful take-down from Matthew Weddig on NPR's website. Weddig observes that the Buzzfeed author operates under the false assumption that there is only one reading of any particular book:

"There is, in fact, no capital-R Reading of a book that says, 'This is what this book means and this is why,' no matter how much Bernstein takes for granted that there is. I like Harry Potter now for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's '5-year-old' reader who doesn't 'know where Afghanistan is' does. I just read Perks of Being a Wallflower a month ago, and I liked it for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's 'sensitive teenager' does. I disliked The Catcher in the Rye, but I can appreciate The Catcher in the Rye, all for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's 'no one understands' reader does."

Bravo, sir. That different readers can comprehend a single book in different ways is both obvious and easy to forget. I may not personally care for Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, but it's my own failing if I stereotype Ayn Rand's readers. Just a few years ago, I read Rand's book Anthem and enjoyed it despite completely disagreeing with her philosophy. To like a book, you don't have to accept it as a manual for living. For example, Moby Dick is probably my favorite book, yet I have killed very few whales.

Weddig also points out that you can't judge a book based on what you perceive to be its most ardent fans. There probably are Fight Club fans who think the book's message can be boiled down to Buzzfeed's imagined theme-- "Oh, it’s so haaaaard to be a white-collar man nowadays, what with laws and feminism and Ikea restraining our healthiest instincts"-- but that reflects nothing on the source material. As Weddig notes, "the formalist argument that the meaning of the text is in the text" is ignored by the Buzzfeed author.  Whether or not some gung-ho fans have misinterpreted a specific text shouldn't render it worthless for the rest of us. 

Well, I'll make my exit before I start pondering my own hypocrisies in this matter too thoroughly. There are things I've said about a certain young adult book series that can't be unsaid. Here's to an nonjudgmental future!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Twilight's Last Gleaning

ISBN-10: 0385520778 ISBN-13: 9780385520775 Published: Nan A. Talese, 02/12/2013 Pages: 224 Language: English
Jim Crace was recommended to me by my co-worker Erica Eisdorfer, an author in her own right and a massive Hilary Mantel fan. I had just finished being utterly blown away by Wolf Hall, and Erica suggested Crace as having a similarly masterful control of "voice." So, I picked up Harvest, Crace's eleventh and most recent novel, a deftly told story about a way of life collapsing in the English countryside circa the early 17th century. As a history geek, it was a real pleasure to see the enclosure movement depicted realistically (it involved fencing in land and replacing peasants with more profitable sheep), but Crace's novel is so devoid of leaden historical novel cliches-- endless name-dropping, shoddy attempts at authentic dialogue, grafted-on action scenes, etc.-- that it reads equally well without any context or knowledge of the time period. 

Crace depicts a small feudal village where peasants live an agrarian life in huts clustered around their master's run-down manor. A fire starts a chain of events that leads inexorably toward the peasants' ruin, but plot is hardly Crace's concern here. Harvest is one of the few books wherein language is the point rather than a means to an end. The narration reflects peasant pragmatism while also lyrically contemplating a dying era. An example:

"Any hawk looking down on the orchard's cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of tree, line on line, the orchard's melancholy solitude, the jewelry of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two gray heads, swirling in a lover's dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they'll come to ground again."

Although Crace's prose is a little more clear and earthbound, I was reminded repeatedly of one of my favorite books, Faulkner's masterpiece As I Lay Dying, and of one of my favorite lines from that book and from all of literature:

“I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” 

Just like Faulkner, Crace's language makes a kind of visceral sense that doesn't require exegesis, even if it deserves it far more than most critically-lauded texts. Also like Faulkner, Crace feels earthy and unpretentious-- his massive ambition doesn't feel like ambition. To quote Castiglione (and to prove how pretentious I am), Crace has "sprezzatura": "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them." Harvest is a beautiful book that feels as natural as the world of Crace's protagonist, as if it grew from a seed rather than a word processor. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On Liking Likeable Characters

ISBN-10: 0307596907 ISBN-13: 9780307596901 Published: Knopf, 04/30/2013 Pages: 272 Language: English
In an interview with Publisher's Weekly promoting her widely acclaimed new novel, Claire Messud was rather irked by this particular question: "I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim." "For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?" Messud responded. "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet?" She follows with many more examples, then adds: "If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t 'is this a potential friend for me?' but 'is this character alive?'" The internet has responded in a myriad of ways, with a whole panel of literary heavyweights in the New Yorker almost unanimously echoing Margaret Atwood's statement on the matter: "I stand firmly with Claire Messud." 

There are notable exceptions, however. Jennifer Weiner wrote an impassioned response in which she defends her preference for likeable characters and accuses female novelists such as Messud and Meg Wolitzer of dismissing the work of Weiner and other female writers' for making use of these characters. Weiner writes: "Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?" Others have accused Messud of simply being rude to her interviewer, or of being too self-righteous in her response. 

Messud and her defenders have understandably referred to the frustration of repeatedly receiving questions on likeability rarely faced by their male counterparts. Rivka Galchen writes: "I would suggest that we are well-trained to like 'unappealing' male characters—so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge... Conversely, we are not well-trained to like anyone other than the basically virtuous and proficient female protagonist. Au contraire." Is character likeability a gendered issue? Galchen and Messud seem to believe so.

The whole debate is fascinating no matter where you stand on the question. Personally, my own affinities have always leaned towards the antihero. I have distinct memories of cheering on the Power Ranger's foes, who were always more interesting than a bunch of Boy (and Girl) Scouts in colored tights. Even today, among my favorite characters are Ahab, Macbeth, Dexter, and even John Milton's Satan, a surprisingly complex and sympathetic figure. How to justify my satisfaction in watching Batman beat the tar out of Superman, time and time again? As John Hodgman pointed out on a recent Judge John Hodgman podcast, Batman always wins in the comics because he is a ruthless sociopath, while Superman's idealism ultimately cripples him. To me, saints are less interesting than sinners because saints are not truly human. Real people are flawed. Shakespeare is famous for his compassion for and even celebration of human foibles, and characters who don't comprehend moral shades of grey (Othello, Claudio, Coriolanus) often end up performing horrible deeds. I guess what I'm getting at is that perfect, surface-likeable characters often strike me as hollow, two-dimensional, dead. 

 The question is even more confused by the fact that skilled writers make you genuinely like characters such as Humbert Humbert. Milton intended for his Satan to be appealing so that the reader could understand the true temptation of sin. So, are Humbert Humbert and Satan likeable characters? A difficult question to answer. Along with the rest of this complicated debate, I'll leave it for wiser heads to decide.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Let's add a little bit of YA to the Flyleaf Blog, shall we?

ISBN-10: 9781416955078
ISBN-13: 978-1416955078
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (March 27, 2007)
Language: English
Pages: 496

So you've read Twilight, and you're looking for more supernatural romance?  Possibly with a little more monster-slaying, a little more New York City?  A little less vampire pregnancy?  If so, The Mortal Instruments may just be the one for you.

The first book of the series, The City of Bones, opens with teenage Clary Fray witnessing a brutal attack in a Manhattan nightclub, perpetrated by a group of strangely-dressed and heavily-armed people who, apparently, only she can see.  She later returns home to find her apartment ransacked, her mother missing, and a nasty slug-demon monster...thing waiting for her.  Also waiting, of course, is a blond-haired, amber-eyed stranger, ready to whisk her off into danger and change her life forever, because no urban fantasy is complete without a sexy and somewhat caustic love interest, am I right?  Through Jace, Clary meets a whole mess of interesting individuals, from a bespectacled werewolf, to a whip-wielding, dinner-burning huntress, to a warlock with a thing for glitter eyeshadow and throwing birthday parties for his cat.

I love Young Adult fantasy, for a myriad of reasons that I won't go into here, and The Mortal Instruments has all the ingredients I look for--a competent and relatable heroine, a cast of diverse and interesting characters, and an immersive and expansive world.  The series, while fun and breezy at times, is complex and surprisingly morally ambiguous, and the love story goes to some very unexpectedly dark places.

So if you, or the YA lover in your life, is looking for a summer read, I highly suggest giving this one a try.  The movie of the first book looks like it's going to be one of this summer's blockbusters, and believe me when I tell you, it has some really good-looking people in it.  Might as well read the book first, right?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Great American Novel or the Greatest American Novel?

ISBN-10: 0142437247
ISBN-13: 9780142437247
Published: Penguin Classics, 12/31/2002
Pages: 720
Language: English
Got to thank Sam Stephenson for throwing another great link my way, cause this one's a doozy. The Millions asked 9 English scholars to give their opinion on what book should be granted the distinction Greatest American Novel. There are some expected but worthy picks such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, and House of Mirth. Others are slightly more out-of-left-field: The Ambassadors, Corregidora, Lolita, and The Making of Americans, for example. One-- in my humble opinion-- is plain bonkers. The Godfather!? Come on, Tom Ferraro!

However, only one scholar, Hester Blum from Penn State, chose correctly: Moby Dick (I would have also accepted The Great Gatsby, for reasons specified earlier). Moby Dick may not have even been read by 1% of the population-- it was not a best-seller in its time, and, in fact, received poor reviews-- but its cultural and societal penetration is immeasurable. Ask a random American what comes to mind when they think of The Ambassadors. Unless it's a professor of literature, they're probably not going to have even heard of Henry James' famously difficult book. Just about every single American knows that Moby Dick is a book about a dude with a peg-leg who wants to kill a big whale. They may not know "Ishmael" but I'd be shocked if they didn't recognize "Ahab." Even Moby Dick's major themes of pride, obsession, and over-weening arrogance are common currency. The only other book listed that has that amount of socio-cultural weight is The Godfather, but that's mostly attributable to the vast, Brando-shaped shadow of the much, much better film.

So, why is Moby Dick largely unread or cursed in English classes but still quintessentially American? Because nothing is more American than setting impossible goals and failing at them so epically that the attempt becomes strangely beautiful. Nothing is more American than insisting that you aren't just an ant crawling across the face of the world, despite the evidence to the contrary. Nothing is more American than starting your novel with the unforgettably blunt line: "Call me Ishmael." Nothing is more American than a plain-spoken, almost brutish "outward show"-- to borrow a phrase from Thomas Wyatt-- thinly veiling poeticism and overwhelming ambition. Nothing is more American than horrific violence and mythic compassion existing side by side. Bluntness and subtlety, brutality and love, rationality and idealism-- Moby Dick is all contradictions, just like us.

I understand the objections to Moby Dick as an example of America's finest and most American work. For example, the novel lacks truly significant female characters and, if I may make a broad and therefore inevitably sexist claim, has traditionally been thought of as less appealing to women. Other than the simple necessities of plot-- not many women hanging around on whaling ships in the 1800s-- the only counterargument I can raise is that the book is so far-reaching in scale that it's really about human existence, a subject that is, of course, genderless. Consider the famous chapter "A Squeeze of the Hand," in which Melville demonstrates his ability to transform the quotidian into moral philosophy. The crewmen are tasked with squeezing lumps of sperm-- yes, ha ha-- into fluid: 

"I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."

To my knowledge, there is nothing specifically masculine or Caucasian or-- though this may undermine my point-- even American about this passage or the sentiment it expresses. Plus, male readers were probably too busy laughing at the word "sperm" to pay attention anyway. I have to face facts; I can't sum up the greatness of this book in a blog post, and I probably did a poor job of explaining my reasoning. So, like Ishmael, let's be blunt: Moby Dick is beautiful, entertaining, meaningful, and kind. What else can you ask for in the Greatest American Novel, Play, Album, Film, or Anything?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Failing Up

The Guardian is a treasure trove for lit fans, but this article deserves special mention: Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure (full props to Sam Stephenson for sending me the link). The title delivers on its promise with literary giants such as Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, and Lionel Shriver weighing in on their experiences of failure both personal and professional. The literary world can seem insular and snobbish, but failure is thankfully (?) universal, so many of these confessionals might resonate with readers.

Barnes' essay posits the importance of 'failure models': "There were a fair number of failure models on view: the drunk, the incompetent, the placemen and the pompous. I was astonished to find that it was possible to spend your life surrounded by great literature and remain (or become) paralysed by snobbery." I would quote much more, but the essay is rather liberally peppered with profanity. Without spoiling anything, Barnes, like many of the other writers, soon comes to realize the relativity of success and failure.

Meanwhile, I found this passage by Anne Enright strangely inspiring: "I have no problem with failure - it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do." Her essay is most representative of my own feelings regarding writing and the curious mixture of pessimism and optimism that frustrates and spurs me on:  "I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail."

There are plenty more chestnuts scattered throughout the article-- too many to quote-- so I suggest you give it a look.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Monster at the Heart of This Book

ISBN-10: 0062255657 ISBN-13: 9780062255655 Published: William Morrow & Company, 06/18/2013 Pages: 192 Language: English
A few years ago, I had the privilege to see popular fantasy/horror/comics/children's author and general polymath Neil Gaiman be interviewed by another one of my heroes, literary critic and fellow fantasy author Lev Grossman at a large theater in New York. The venue was sold out and filled with fans willing to scream at the mere mention of American Gods or Coraline. Gaiman was his usual charismatic, thoroughly British self, practically bursting with anecdotes and potential projects. That was my first in-person encounter with what I might call a "literary rock star." They are a rare breed these days, and, enamored as I am with the tortured artist archetype, I usually distrust them. 

Gaiman, however, is an exception to my irrational rule. His output is massive, diverse, somewhat inconsistent, and more than occasionally self-indulgent. That said, I think he hits more than he misses and his highs can be exceptionally high: the stone-cold comics classic Sandman series, the aforementioned American Gods, his award-magnet children's novel The Graveyard Book, and, of course, his marriage to Amanda Palmer are all impressive achievements. His children's books have traditionally taken a different tack from his adult fiction, paring down his sometimes excessive language to flex his considerable narrative gifts and trademark dry humor. 

Gaiman's newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, reads like his first attempt to marry thematic ambition with a more economical prose style and structure. In truth, "Ocean" is so short-- it weighs in at a mere 180 pages-- it could easily qualify as a novella, but I was perfectly willing to forgive this stretch as the book is easily among the best work of any kind Gaiman has put out. The plot follows a seven-year-old boy growing up in rural England, who is abruptly introduced to both mysteries of the adult world and mysteries of an unspecified fairy-like world that, in typical Gaiman fashion, is hidden just out of sight of everyday reality. Don't worry, the book isn't another entry in the seemingly endless series of "gritty" fairy-tale re-tellings clogging the creative arteries of young adult fantasy these days-- it's far more complicated than that. This is a horror book, of a sort, with the fantasy elements as eerie and horrifying as they are majestic.

"Ocean" is frightening because Gaiman recognizes that the primordial fears that adults try to dismiss as childish are enduring for very good reasons. The novel begins with this quote by Maurice Sendak: “I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know. It would scare them.” I'm glad to say that while Gaiman may have attained rock star status in the nerd world, he has not lost his appreciation for a very specific vision achieved with minute, exacting detail. More importantly, Gaiman hasn't forgotten the ancient terrors that are most sharply perceived by the youngest among us, who haven't yet managed to fool themselves into thinking that there's nothing to fear.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bleak Chic

ISBN-10: 0399162410 ISBN-13: 9780399162411 Published: Putnam Juvenile, 05/07/2013 Pages: 480 Language: English
Rick Yancey's newish young adult novel The Fifth Wave doesn't exactly come off as a gamble. The current YA audience seems to have a nearly endless appetite for dystopian romances right now, and Yancey's book checks off many of the seemingly requisite boxes of this blockbuster genre: 

1) Everything is mostly terrible but...
2) On the bright side, at least there's still cute boys
3) Female protagonist who is smart and capable except in dealings with said cute boys
4) Love triangle. Gotta have one. The Fifth Wave ups the ante with a freaking love quadrangle.  
5) Twists that are about as surprising as the ending of the film Titanic
6) Annoying runt strong female protagonist must constantly protect
7) Said cute boys are so uninteresting that it translates to a kind of stealth feminism

I could go on-- snark is a resource of which I am rarely short-- but the point is, there's a formula at work here, and Yancey doesn't really deviate. This could be read as cynical commercial strategy, and, indeed, the book's film rights were optioned even before publication, but there is also such a thing as executing a formula well. I believe Yancey succeeds on this front with mostly flying colors. The things that annoy me about The Fifth Wave are regular genre mainstays, as Todd VanDerWerff points out in his dissection of the novel, so if you're a veteran of the dystopic trenches they may not bother you at all. 

For the most part, though, the Fifth Wave is a cracking read, a real page-turner with (as is also de rigueur since The Hunger Games kicked off the current trend) heavy allegorical overtones that demand some consideration. In addition, Yancey is simply a better writer than most in the field and can turn a phrase almost as well he constructs a fascinating world. The plotting is drum-tight and the phrase 'thrill-ride,' though overused, could be aptly employed to describe this novel.

But does the novel differentiate itself in any real way? Well, I would hardly recommend the book if it were only capably written. What sets The Fifth Wave apart is its premise and the nearly unrelenting grimness with which that premise is explored. Grimness is nothing new to the sub-genre, certainly, but there are degrees of grimness, and The Fifth Wave is practically YA's answer to The Road. See, aliens have arrived, but they aren't E.T.-cute or War of the Worlds-aggressive. Instead, over the course of four "waves," which are described in flashbacks, the aliens-- called "Others"-- decimate almost all of Earth's population with floods, disease, and fear. 

The story picks up during the tail-end of the apocalypse, and things really only get worse. Without spoiling anything, the first part of the book openly mocks human arrogance-- our entire species is frequently described as an insect being crushed under an alien boot. The second delves into the psychology of indoctrination and heavy doses of unsubtle Holocaust symbolism. Whether this is manipulative is arguable, but the effect is undeniably bracing. The world of The Fifth Wave makes Katniss Everdeen and Friends look like a bunch of bourgeois whiners. If you or your teenager are up for a deep delve into humanity's last days-- with the added bonus of cute boys and thrilling action-- The Fifth Wave is among the top contenders.