Tuesday, April 20, 2010

fooled you!

Ah ha, I'm not a Bad Blogger after all -- I just decided to blog on Tuesday instead of Monday. Or so I tell myself. I got back to work from a small break that was not a vacation and had a lot to do. And I was exhausted, because my break was not a vacation and I did a lot of work (some of it fun, yes) and no writing and I have a big deadline this Friday and I did NOTHING to prepare for it...etc. But it's Tuesday, and here we are!

So I'm going to follow up a little on what I wrote last week. After finishing the spectacular book, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I was on a high. And I was terribly excited because I had brought three, count 'em, three other books with me on my break that was not a vacation and even though I was not on vacation I did get to read. And two of the books were very small and by noted author Ian McEwen and I was psyched. Psyched, I tell you, dear Reader.

Reader, I was disappointed. Oh, so disappointed. The first one, The Comfort of Strangers, had these great blurbs on the back. I quote: From The NY Times Book Review, "Convincing and clinging as a nightmare...[McEwan is] an alluringly gifted writer." From the Chicago Tribune, "An exquisite miniature gothic." This sounded good.

Plot: Mary and Colin are on vacation. They've grown tired of each other. They go out wandering (they may be in Venice, but McEwan never says) and meet a man named Robert, who takes them to his house. He's creepy, as is his wife, Caroline--so creepy that (a) colin and Mary wake up naked, and Caroline says, 'oh, I'm just washing your clothes, and no, you can't have them back until I say' and (b) they realize Robert has a FRAMED PHOTO OF COLIN on the balcony of the hotel and (c) at one point, unprovoked, Robert PUNCHES COLIN IN THE STOMACH and levels him. Colin and Mary leave, have a lot of sex at their hotel, go swimming, and then GO BACK TO ROBERT'S HOUSE where Caroline drugs Mary and Robert kills Colin. The end.

Oops. Spoiler.

Okay, now really: you didn't see that coming, Colin and Mary? Really?

Here's my beef. Well, there are many. Here's my first: The NY Times Book Review called it CONVINCING. Really? On what planet does someone return to that house? What, did Colin leave his wallet? Some lifesaving medication? No. Even then, if he had, wouldn't he say, "I'll cancel the credit cards and figure out the ID later" or "I'll phone my doctor and get a new prescription"--either way, "No way am I going back there" ??? Please. Second, people, this is Ian McEwen! The writing was fluid and smooth, and maybe I'd even go with the back jacket copy that calls it "masterly precision," but...this is the man who wrote Atonement! Yikes. Did not like the plot, did not believe the plot, did not feel anything in this story was "inevitable" or a tale of "erotic menace"...hmph. Having just finished The Book Thief, when I finished The Comfort of Strangers I threw it on the floor. Bleah.

and then I went to another Ian McEwan book, Enduring Love. Plot (with spoilers, yes): a man named Joe and his wife Clarissa are on a picnic and see a child about to be carried away in a hot air balloon, so he runs to save the kid. He arrives at the same time as several others and they all jump onto the basket, but a gust of wind takes it up and everybody drops off safely to the ground to save himself--all except one man, who holds on way past the time of safety and then falls to his death. Joe rushes to the body and arrives at the same time as Jed Parry, who instantly and insanely falls in love with him. Jed begins harassing Joe with letters and phone calls. Joe erases the messages and the handwriting looks like his, so no one believes him. His wife Clarissa instantly decides he's nuts and she is going to take some time away from him. They go to a restaurant and an anonymous man walks to another table and shoots a second anonymous man; Jed rushes to Assassin Anonymous Man and knocks the gun from his hand and runs away. Joe knows the assassin was meant to shoot him. Police and Clarissa don't believe him. Joe buys a gun (apparently a terribly illicit thing in refined England) and on his way back Clarissa phones and says Jed is holding her hostage. He returns to his flat and shoots Jed with his new gun. Jed is institutionalized and Clarisas leaves Joe. The end.

Again, this damn thing just doesn't make sense. Why is Clarissa so eager not to believe her husband? This is never explored. Nor is it explained why the police just don't care. At a certain point I really wanted this all to be in Joe's head; I wanted the unreliable narrator and a surprise at the end where we find out that he really does protest too much. I was excited that this might happen, especially since Publisher's Weekly called this story "Stunning..." and said it is "Graced with intelligent speculation and dramatic momentum." Sigh.

Now, please know that I am not saying I am superior or I write better stories or there's so much crap out there and I would do x, y, and z somuchbetterandwhyamInotpublished and blah blah blah. I'm not putting myself into a comparison at all. So what am I saying?

Am I saying that sometimes certain authors might get more favorable reviews based on their past work?

Am I saying that writers might become complacent based on their past work and not look too closely at their stories?

Am I saying that even masterful writers (and I do agree that I. McE is) need a writer's group?

I don't know. But I know that I read one tremendous book and followed it with two books for which I had high, high expectations...and I was disappointed. Sigh.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bad blogger, part deux

I am inching back toward my Bad Blogger ways. Last week I forgot to blog until about 4:30, and by that time I am usually in full-swing “I’m going home soon” mode and useless for anything besides something I’m already doing. I told myself I would blog on Tuesday, but let’s face it, once you’ve failed at something (my Monday blog promise) it’s quite easy to keep failing. Tuesday became Wednesday, and then I said, “I’ll just wait until next Monday.” So even though it is kind of late to be doing a Monday blog—my New York readers have probably left their desks by now—I am trying to be faithful where I can be faithful.

I am on vacation this week, officially. I am in Utah to help out the fam with various crises (I’m only being semi-blasé right now) but the crises don’t seem to be at any peak right now, so I have time to do other things. I am trying to download iTunes on my parents’ ancient laptop upstairs. I had downloaded version 8 about 15 months ago, but my mom bought herself a nano (planning on my setting it up for her—this blind faith may or may not be rewarded) and this new nano doesn’t work on 8, and requires 9. So I downloaded 9 (which took 45 minutes on previously mentioned Ancient Laptop) and then I had to hit “Install” which took another 45 minutes and didn’t work, so I hit Install again and that’s where we stand with that. Whew.

So the real purpose of today’s entry is to tell you to run, don’t walk, either to your local bookstore or library to read The Book Thief, a 2005 YA novel by Markus Zusak. I checked it out from the library last Thursday and finished it (500-plus pages) on Saturday. I could not put it down. It’s a fairly easy read, being YA, but the speed with which I got through it was more because of the author’s skill in drawing me in. I could not put it down. When I did put it down I was disappointed and found myself thinking about it and wanting to pick it up again. I spent all Thursday after work on the couch, reading it, and telling myself that I am actually doing work when I’m reading, because after all I’m a writer and you’ve got to research others’ styles/see what’s out there/fill your creative well, right?

And it was educational. The Book Thief has an omniscient narrator, which is something I’ve been struggling with. I am about halfway through a draft of a new novel, but I’m struggling. I have stopped the forward momentum in order to revise what I have, and one thing that I’m having a hard time figuring out is the voice. For a while I tried to write it in Close Third, because we have 5 different characters whose perspectives will be given. So when I write a passage with the 10-year-old girl, it should sound a lot different than the passages of the grizzled veteran detective who has seen it all, even though they’re not first-person narratives. The passages of the 10-year-old girl are more energetic, generally happy, because the narrator is kind of “sitting on her shoulder” and seeing what she sees. But I don’t want it to be exclusively Close Third. When you’re doing true Close Third, the voice always has to be that character’s voice; you can’t state anything the character wouldn’t know herself, which is really limiting. I decided for a while that I would write in Omniscient Third, and in a fit of learning frenzy I got Anna Karenina, a well-known Omnisicent Third book, to see how they handled it. As I suspected, the different passages tell us what everyone is thinking; there’s one voice throughout (the anonymous narrator). So I tried that, and it didn’t work; it came across as “head hopping,” which is annoying. In another learning frenzy, I ordered a bunch of How To Write books. They are surprisingly helpful. (They are also helpful for making yourself feel like you’re procrastinating when you’re really working—the best of both worlds!) One of the books (whose title escapes me and I can’t look it up, because I didn’t bring it with me) talked about the range of voices and suggested that you don’t have to fall heavily into one category. There’s Omnisicent, and First-Person (“I did this, I did that”) and Third Person (“She did this, she did that”) and Close Third Person (“She did this, she did that, darn it all to heck!” – a shout-out to my Utah peeps)…but there are also shades of gray, if you will. The authors of this book described it as a pendulum that swings between things. You can do Close Third Person and insert the occasional “Darn it all to heck” if that’s what your character would be thinking, but you don’t have to stay 100% there. You can swing out of it occasionally, back and forth; the key is consistency. If you’re going to swing back and forth, don’t just do it once; it has to happen with enough regularity that the reader won’t say, “Where did that come from?” Or so I have concluded.

So this is part of the reason that The Book Thief is so interesting to me: the writer has chosen Death as the narrator. The book is set in Germany in World War II, so Death was hovering over everyone, and saw everything. It’s only logical that Death would know what people were thinking, know their hearts, know what’s good and bad about them. (I have a short story with a different-and-yet-slightly-similar conceit, so this was even more interesting to me...and I'm thinking of making it into a book, so I may read this again just for "research.") Death is telling the story of a young girl named Liesel who is given up into foster care when she’s 10. Her younger brother dies on the trip to the foster family's town, and from then on she has nightmares. Her foster father, Hans, comforts her every night when she wakes up screaming from them, and when he realizes she’s almost illiterate, he teaches her to read. When they buried her brother, Liesel saw a book on the ground, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and impulsively stole it, and that’s what Hans uses to teach her.

This is just the beginning…the book takes twists and turns and gets incredibly deep. I finished it on the plane, glad to be sitting in a window seat so I could turn away from prying faces as I literally cried at the end. I will occasionally tear up at the end of some books, but only very, very rarely do I break down. At the end of this book, I just wept. It was amazing. It was a great lesson in Omniscient storytelling and it was touching beyond belief. If you haven’t read this book—whether you want to learn or just read a good book—please, please, please read it. You won’t regret it.