Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

A Book, Two Dogs & Thee…

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

In Which the Writer Takes a Vacation

Greetings from the top secret vacation spot of yours truly. I had no idea how great it would be to get away with the dogs … and spend a few days looking out a window at the ocean.

inherent_vice.JPG

Yesterday I purchased a fresh new First Edition of Thomas Pynchon’s just-released novel, “Inherent Vice.” What a dreamy read, so far. This reclusive writer knows how to craft a sentence.

Here’s an example

Doc took the freeway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations, under a sky like watered milk, and the whilte bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you’d call psychedelic could ever happen, or if — bummer! — all this time it had really been going on up north.

He sparingly drops in those sentences — perfectly wrapped creations — so they stand out in eye-popping wonder. Other, shorter, sentences ring sonorous with far more melody than they hold in meaning or plot.

Will keep you posted in Fiction Dailyland … and wishing all a Happy Labor Day.

PS
… My step dad, Sim Wilde, retired academic dean, essayist and fiction writer, has begun a blog. You can check it out here. Expect his personal flavor of salt-of-the-earth stories, poems and reflections.

With Love, Sherlock Holmes

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING, MY DEAR WATSON

200px-adventures_of_sherlock_holmes.jpg

Today marks a big celebration in Fiction Dailyland: It is the 150th birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of that marvelous character for all times, Sherlock Holmes.

Nothing compares to Conan Doyle’s writing for clarity, subtle humor and mystery. It’s interesting to note that prior to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, never had there been a true detective character in a novel. We indeed had the masterful Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. August Dupin, in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a short story. (He also appeared in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter,” one of my personal favorite short stories.)

We also had an early prototype of a detective story penned by Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. I can’t remember at all how that one turned out, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. That novel centers on a missing, exotic, gem and the family who possessed it. There were strange bands of touring gypsies, magicians and Indians; ladies with honor; families with class and wealth. (They just don’t write them like that anymore.)

In 1892 appeared The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sir Doyle also gave us these stories: “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of Four” and “The Red-Headed League.”

On today’s “Forgotten English” calendar (by Jeffrey Kacirk), a fascinating story with which we writers can find considerable affinity. Trained as an eye doctor, he took an office at 2 Devonshire Place, and

… Every morning I walked from the lodgings at Montague Place, reached my consulting room at ten, and sat there until three or four with never a ring to disturb my serenity. Could better conditions for reflection be found? It was ideal, and so long as I was thoroughly unsuccessful in my professional venture, there was every chance of improvement in my literary prospects.

Imagine if he had instead collapsed with self-pity and done nothing all day; instead, this stellar “failure” gave us one of mankind’s most delightful writers.

HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY FROM FICTION DAILY

Pulitzers

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

KIESLOWSKI WEEK RESUMES NEXT TUESDAY

We here at Fiction Daily apologize for iterrupting Kieslowski week. In recognition of the new Pulitzer Prizes, we feel it’s only fitting to spend a few words in honor of W.S. Merwin, who yesterday received his SECOND one.

I admit I am unfamiliar with his works. But as a rule, whenever a writer has a Pulitzer, he or she becomes a no-questions-asked selection. That was how I found “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck.

It’s worth having a look at the entire list of winners this year. It’s notable that many of them are related to uncovering abuses perpetuated under the Bush administration.(We can hope for more light and corrections in years to come.)

Modern Library also has a valuable list of its 100 Best Novels. “Under the Volcano,” by Malcolm Lowry is number 11, and that’s how I found this quirky, but deeply rewarding novel. Hang with it for as many pages as you can stand … worth the ride, but difficult.

But back to the poet Merwin. If you haven’t read his works, you can probably bank on an outstanding reading experience. Dip your toes in online here … but be sure to visit your local independent book seller and buy copies for yourself.

Existential Waters

Friday, April 10th, 2009

theplague.jpg

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Today, for the first time in several weeks, I’m not sweating blood to meet a deadline, or tearing through piles of receipts for taxes. Heck, I may even have finished the article I’ve been working on for several months!

And so I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to take out the garbage and recycling, and about to start work on a Web writing assignment. And maybe take a long run later today. And that’s it.

In a big-picture way, I’m feeling pretty “free.”

… but not in the existential sense.

Why not, then, take a look at what we mean by free … and why we never really are.

In college, I was a devoted French major, with a minor in Political Science. I also have a master’s degree in French literature and language. I know, it sounds so, well, frou-frou. But when I was offered a choice in school at age 14 and someone said “French” I knew it was all over.

My French I class was heaven … and I dreamed of the castles and art museums, all the beautiful ladies who lived there, the incredible literature like Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Soprano) and Albert Camus (The Plague, The Stranger, The Fall).

French took me far from the tobacco fields where I grew up, and out of the small town, split by railroad tracks, where I lived. Before it was over, I was living in France. For two years, including a year in Paris.

I was a big fan of Albert Camus. Most of us know him as an “existential” writer, along with Jean Paul Sartre. But the two could not have been more different.

My soft spot for Mr. Camus comes from his masterful novel, The Plague, and the tender way he writes about humankind. On the surface, “The Plague” tells of a deadly disease that strikes a village in Algeria. The main characters are doctors working there.

This novel is often considered the epitome of existential writing, but let me say it’s quite simply a very very excellent book.

What makes it a keystone novel for philosophy is that the characters don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the pestilence persists. Nor do they wail about their lot. They accept it, working humbly and without fireworks, saving people, one day at the time.

I’ll never forget the scene in which the doctor goes into the ocean for a swim one night. Exhilarated by the freedom of body and movement in the cool water, he feels a temporary, but profound, sense of joy and release.

That night he is free. The next day, he is back at the bedside of his dying, suffering, patients, working against the overwhelming tide of plague that threatens to overwhelm them.

So today, I take my swim. I will breathe and write without constraints of time or cruel editors. I will take big deep breaths of fresh spring air and not think about anything beyond what’s in eyesight. I will be free.

SF: New Wor(l)ds

Friday, March 27th, 2009

page215.jpg

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Since we’re looking at Science Fiction, today FD turns to the words of SF.

If you’ve ever picked up a SF novel, you know there are going to be names you can’t pronounce, planets you’ve never heard of and words with more consonants than all the Slavic languages put together. In many cases, these languages are simply allowing the writer to establish an alien world.

In other cases, these languages serve as a commentary on our own world.

One of the best examples is taken from George Orwell’s 1984. In his own marvelous essay (taken from the book The Language Experience, Somer and Hoy, eds.), he examines how corrupt language is linked with corrupt politics … and the further we stray from clear, precise language, the closer we come to degenerate politics and evil rule.

He describes “operators” and “verbal false limbs,” which, he says, “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns and at the same time, pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it the appearance of symmetry.” Such as: render inoperative … instead of kill … make itself felt or play a role in … instead of stop.

He also points out the use of passive voice as another way to rob language of its power … and in doing so, taking away our political power, as well.

We all remember how Orwell used his observations to excruciating effect in 1984 … the language he invented for that work was called “Newspeak” and it drained every experience of truth, leaving Winston and Julia and everyone else suffocating in a lying world.

At this site you’ll find an entire Newspeak dictionary, but here are some highlights:

Blackwhite … the ability to accept ridiculous ideas as true.

Crimethink … to consider any action not sanctioned by the party. Akin to Doublethink, i.e. holding contradictory ideas in mind at the same time.

Ministry of Truth … department of propaganda. Along with Ministry of Love (police) and Ministry of Peace (defense and war).

It’s interesting to note that not all SF languages are as bleak … for instance, there are people who actually speak the Klingon language that was developed for Star Trek, and other SF languages also have their own grammars.

SEE YOU NEXT WEEK!

SF: Literature, Beyond

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Today, just a few words about an often neglected fiction form.

Science fiction.

Most of the time this form is relegated to the back of bookstores, the bargain bins, or dusty boxes where these humble paperbacks languish. Rejected by mainstream literature, marginalized as “fantasy” or “role playing,” these story lines are nevertheless quite rigorous when done right.

Why is this so? Maybe it’s because of our national character, which emphasizes hard work, practicality and productivity. What could be less Protestant WASP-y than fantastic characters with strange habits on far away places that don’t even have gravity?

Yet, who can deny the power of science fiction? Star Trek has been with us for more than 40 years now. Let’s not forget 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain and other movies of those days, even A Clockwork Orange.

Can any writer, anywhere, top The Martian Chronicles? I place it among mankind’s greatest fiction, ever.

So for the next few posts, FD will take a look at this humble form, pluck out a few titles and open the floor for suggestions.

‘The Pale King’

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

A moment to pay tribute to the late writer David Foster Wallace … a deeply perceptive writer … author of Infinite Jest, the 1000+ page opus from the 1990s. He died last September, at his own hand.

He was working on another large novel, The Pale King, which was about one third finished. His long-time publisher will issue this unfinished novel sometime in 2010, the New York Times reports. The novel explores the business of a group of IRS agents somewhere in the Midwest. It will be published by Little, Brown and Company.

topics_fosterwallace_190.jpg

Meanwhile, the New Yorker has published an exhaustive portrait of Mr. Wallace in its March 9 issue. (I stopped reading the New Yorker after it published a slanderous article about His Holiness the Dalai Lama by someone interested in taking him down for the pettiest of reasons. The cover cartoon of Mr. Obama sealed the deal for me: No more New Yorker.)

What interests us about David Wallace is his incredible energy, turned inward — into the minutia of our lives and decisions. He has boundless interest in the hidden recesses of the human mind, tosses off the weight of convention and connotation, strips language and humankind to a cleaner, clearer layer.

His stories, essays and novels, therefore, are not for the faint of heart.

I struggled with Infinite Jest because it contains so many identifiable cultural references. My preference is to use vague settings without commercial intrusion. Yet as I understand it, Mr. Wallace wanted to document, in his novel, the effects of these commercial infusions into our lives.

My experience with his writing began in the 1990s with his benchmarking essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (“Shipping Out” in 1996 Harper’s Magazine). It deconstructed a cruise “vacation” and revealed it for the infantile experience it was.

Another memorable essay was “Consider the Lobster.”

Mr. Wallace manages to humanize this sea insect … and for me, the connection has always been there … he dissects our fascination with this freshest food, and even, in the pages of Gourmet magazine, asks if it is morally justifiable simply to satisfy our morose culinary whim? (He gives props to PETA, too, pretty darn remarkable in such an august, and decidedly not animal-rights-friendly, publication.)

So I will be anticipating the release of The Pale King, along with the rest of us devoted Wallace fans.

Photo of David Foster Wallace by Marion Ettlinger

Language & Life

Monday, January 26th, 2009

memo_bridge1.jpg
Photo courtesy Medoc Mountain S.P.

It’s Monday across the world (well, most of it) and here in Fiction Dailyland we’re celebrating a hike to Medoc Mountain State Park on Saturday.

We left early morning in a slight rain and when we arrived at Medoc, it seemed a drizzle was waiting for us, but left only a few drops. The day remained overcast, but what an awesome day it was. We hiked the Bluff Trail which led us to an uncharted section of the park, likely the new acres added in the past few years by donation.

This area is used for horse trails and because it was January, and an overcast bleary day at that, we saw not a soul. Well, we saw some small souls — birds everywhere — and in this new part of the park, perhaps unused to seeing human creatures like us, they dipped down to explore us curiously.

images1.jpg

Yesterday, reflection and reading, including a used book I picked up in Durham recently.

The Language Experience contains essays by several writers, linguists and thinkers. While the book shows its age (it’s 1974, and whale songs are first being recorded), it shows remarkable longevity and truth.

The first section explores language as symbol … and begins by reminding us that language is like an iceberg … behind our seemingly simple utterances, formed by the larynx and ejected with our breath, are nearly unfathomable thought chains, reflecting incomprehensible complexity and intelligence.

Looking forward to reading these essays, which includes thoughts from George Orwell on developing a complete language system, Newspeak, for his seminal work, 1984.

The New York Times has an article on novelist Yu Hua, from China, whose two-volume work, Brothers, is stirring controversy at home and abroad, among writers and nationalists.

The Rest is … Alex Ross

Monday, December 15th, 2008

pbcover4.jpgNow that everyone is taking stock of the best books of 2008, I’m just getting around to reading one of the best books of 2007.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross.

As soon as I ordered it last January I wanted to open it, but in that old-school, protestant way, I put it off, reminding myself that I was reading two books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one or two by Jack Kerouac, a couple of French novels, not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (for the past two years).

Well, yesterday, I reminded myself that I had actually finished many of those books (though not the ones by the Dalai Lama; I have a bookcase full).

So why not just read it. And so I got started.

The Rest is Noise is a look at so-called “classical” music of the 20th century. It begins with Gustave Mahler, Richard Strauss (hint: he’s not the waltz guy) and Arnold Schoenberg and explores the music as it emerged from the times, and the writers — their personal relationships, how their work was received (or rejected), even their own personal struggles. Schoenberg, for instance, comes across as quite sensitive, concerned about the depths of poetry and even subject to personal depression, when I always thought of this abstract, whole-tone scale composer as emotionless.

From the opening words of the preface, Alex Ross rushes out of the gate with excellent, studied and meaningful writing. What a pleasure!! He really cares!!

Not only does he care, but Ross approaches topics in a modern way. If you’ve ever tried to read dry, fusty non-fiction … especially music critiques … then you know how easy it is to bore the reader to death.

It’s always been my personal approach in writing to invite the reader in, to invite the reader to care. And so with Alex Ross. He wants us to follow him; he’s not just showing off.

Though he could. It’s clear Mr. Ross not only adores music, but he understands how it works. With just enough description of chords, scales and harmonics, he allows us to see why music is daring, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with details.

If you’ve read the New Yorker, you know Mr. Ross as the magazine’s music writer. Not that he needs any qualifiers after this book!! (and not, frankly, that I hold TNY-er in esteem any longer, after that Obama parody cover, and an article last year trashing the Dalai Lama. Who trashes the Dalai Lama???)

So music lovers, treat yourself this holiday season to The Rest is Noise. And get ready to listen.

FD will return with Figuratively Speaking Friday.

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

A study of two novels
The Gold Bug Variations
and Darconville’s Cat

Why these two novels? They capture the elusive qualities that for me, take a novel beyond its words and make it a sublime window on humankind. One succeeds; one fails.

First, the failure.

Darconville’s Cat, by Alexander Theroux. I was so excited to find this book!! A great title, a tormented, intelligent narrator, a nontraditional structure. A cat in the title!! The plot, however, took the novel south and I kept reading, disappointed, nearly to the end.

Critics didn’t necessarily pan the book, nor have readers. Some sing its praises. Still, I felt betrayal, because of the books shabby plot, its superficial, cliched and sexist approach.

The narrator is a writing teacher at a Virginia girl’s school. Who falls in love with a student. Who is crushed when she leaves him.

First rule: Please, unless you’re Paul Auster, do not write about writers!!

After several solid chapters, once his girlfriend leaves him, the narrator falls into a funk, and so does the novel. In meandering chapters, the narrator vents, as you might say; expectorates in several thousand words.

The biggest indication that this book has failed? The fate of the beloved cat of the title is completely unresolved … in the middle of a rant, the narrator mentions that the animal ran away. There is no emotion, no sense of grieving or loss, not even a speed bump for the feline.

If you’re going to put a cat in the title, then you better be prepared to make it mean something.

Now, the success.

The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. Another novel written in a nontraditional form. Richard Powers is a fascinating writer. He studied physics, then instead of going off to calculate quantum projections, realized he wanted to write. He has worked as a computer programmer in addition to his writing.

His 2006 book The Echo Maker was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

The plot focuses on a trio of DNA researchers, but as the name implies, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are also involved … music and its power over us. Like the great book (I’ve never finished) Godel, Escher and Bach, the Gold Bug Variations incorporates themes of all stripes — love, passion, science, melody, human striving and failure.

The framework, however, is striking for its unexpectedness. Anyone can write a love story set on a college campus (or a Virginia girl’s school). But who can pitch a love story among DNA researchers, with a beloved music-loving older scientist in the mix to give it heart?

In the end, despite the science, The Gold Bug Variations captures what it is to be human, to love and to hope, to search and to discover.

Do I feel touched by Mr. Powers’ work? Absolutely. Do I feel betrayed by Mr. Theroux’s? Yes.

Novels are profoundly complex, emotional creations. Until a writer can be humble, we cannot succeed. I believe Mr. Powers brings that humility to his work, and that’s what gives it life.