Are you in the mood to read a page-turner? If you’re not afraid to read something in the mystery section at your local bookstore, try Paranoia by Joseph Finder. I keep hearing people talking about it, and it’s getting good reviews. Check out this one at Slate.com (the reviewer gets to it after he reviews John Le Carre’s latest, Absolute Friends).
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn’t changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words “The Best Books of 2003,” so, naturally, I took a gander. It’s not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book’s official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you’ve been lurking around here for that long you’ll remember. Several folks have called it “the book of the year,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I’ve mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague’s dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm… didn’t this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the “best” readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I’m afraid I don’t get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn’t really heard of this one, but it’s one of those “f’d-up-childhood” memoirs, but this time it’s not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
On Friday in a flurry of commerce, exchanging currency for goods, frenzied gift wrapping, and the filling out of shipping forms, I finished (almost) all of my Christmas shopping. I’m dying to tell you what I got everyone, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for my family, members of which like to lurk here from time to time. So instead, I’ll tell you what I got myself for Christmas. Like most years, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things for myself. I don’t really shop very often, and I like to do it all at once. Plus, there are so many books out right now that I would really like to own, all but a couple of which I was unable to purchase due to lack of funds Still, I did get a few, and I can’t wait to read them. Here’s the rundown: I picked up a copy of the new Edith Grossman-translated edition of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and I have enjoyed Grossman’s translations of some of my favorite Latin Americans. Also, (along with the new John Updike story collection) it is one of the most good-looking books out right now. Grossman’s been busy this year because the other book that I have been looking forward to reading all year was also translated by her. It’s the first volume of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Expect to hear more about those two books sooner rather than later. I also got a copy of The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapusciski, which I’ve already begun to read. Kapuscinski, whose bio notes that he has witnessed 27 coups and revolutions worldwide and has been sentenced to death four times, is a wonderful curiosity of a writer. He has spent many decades as the foreign correspondent for a Polish news agency, and his travels have brought him to every corner of the earth. Peppered throughout each of his books are his accounts of the terrifying situations one can get themselves into while covering a revolution in the Congo, for example. There are quite a few writers out there who make a career out of this sort of sport, but Kapuscinski alone writes with a compassion for his subjects and a gift for illuminating both the similarities and the differences that define humanity. His observations always feel fresh, and I think this because Kapuscinski spent his career with one foot behind the iron curtain and the other firmly planted in the so-called Third World. This peculiar combination must account for his singular voice. Finally, in anticipation of a possible trip to Ecuador next summer that is still just a twinkle in the collective eye of myself and Ms. Millions, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to help out with some preliminary factfindingDo you want to give someone a book as a gift, but you don’t know which book to get? Ask a Book Question and maybe me and my colleagues can lend a hand…
The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…
The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.
1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.
To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”
What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.
2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.
“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.
You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.
3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.
You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.
This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.
Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.
“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”
“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.
“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
As the baseball season gets underway, it looks like this summer’s big off-the-field story will be steroid use. (More serious allegations are beginning to surface as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that federal investigators were told Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield all received performance enhancing drugs from a lab that is currently under investigation.) But last year’s story, the fallout from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, still has legs. The March 1st issue of Sports Illustrated (on newsstands last week) contains a vociferous epilogue to Moneyball in which Lewis catalogs some of the more outrageous responses that his book received from baseball insiders. He takes to task particularly egregious offenders, like Joe Morgan, for continuing to dismiss the book out of hand. It’s a must read for anyone who was swept up in last summer’s Moneyball furor.
An uncharacteristically thorough post at Gawker goes in depth on the make up of the current staff of the New Yorker, pointing out that the resurgent magazine under editor David Remnick is staffed by a disproportionate number of writers brought on during the tenure of reviled editor Tina Brown. Interesting stuff.