- Last month I read How Fiction Works by James Wood. Wood is a novelist, but is best known as a literary critic for The New Yorker. I really liked the book. Wood writes about a variety of different elements involved in writing fiction: narration, character development, detail, language, dialogue, and even truth. I particularly liked the first section which focused on “free indirect” style of writing — a new concept for me. I also liked the section on language. Some of the Amazon reviews of the book are negative (most are positive). The negative one’s point out that Wood only focuses on literary fiction, downplays the importance of plot, and is a pompous, elitist windbag. There may be some truth to these comments, but I couldn’t put the book down.
- I polished off another Murakami novel, this time Dance Dance Dance. In it we follow the nameless character that we met in A Wild Sheep Chase. I really like Murakami — the weirdness, the prose, the strange sex, the mundane details. The plot in this one is thin, but I loved just living in the moment; Murakami can lead anywhere and I’ll follow. It proved, to me at least, that Wood is right — plot can be overrated.
- Over Christmas I tried to tackle Kafka’s last and unfinished novel, The Castle. The story resolves around a land surveyor who is hired by a town’s castle, but he never meets his bosses, never gets to the castle, and never is given a concrete assignment. Classic Kafka — the mind-numbing craziness of modern bureaucracy. Although I appreciated the book, I only read about two-thirds of it. Why? The prose. It was so dense it wasn’t a joy to read. Maybe I’ll try to finish later, but I feel I got the point.
- I recently listened to Miranda July’s short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. It was amazingly good. She reads them herself. The stories are typically a little off-beat, contain one or more weird sex scenes, and the characters are almost always looking to find love. She’s a talented woman.
- I just started reading Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith. The book is the first of a trilogy. He’s offering it for free as a download in the hopes that you’ll buy books two and three. I’m about sixty pages in and based just on what I’ve read so far, you can sign me up for book #2. I dig Smith’s work.
- Finally, I was saddened to learn that Roger Ebert died this week. I grew-up in Chicago, and Ebert and Siskel were established parts of the landscape there. I never watch a movie without first reading Ebert’s review. Where will I turn now?
Posts Tagged ‘Haruki Murakami’
Posted in Novel Review, Short Story Reviews, tagged Anthony Neil Smith, Book Review, fiction, Haruki Murakami, James Wood, Kafka, Miranda July, Novels, reading, Roger Ebert, short story, writing on April 6, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
In December, I read a New York Times article about a new Tom Cruise movie called “Jack Reacher.” It’s based on the Jack Reacher books written by Lee Child. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of Jack Reacher or Lee Child, and apparently those books are wildly popular and big money makers for Child. So I read the first book of the series, Killing Floor. Damn good. A page tuner. One of those books you can’t put down and are dying to get back to. There is an introduction at the start of the book, and Child explains that it was his goal to write a popular book, a blockbuster, a guilty pleasure. Although he doesn’t think of it as guilty. I found his approach to writing very illuminating, anti-snob. I tracked down a few quotes of his online; they are a little controversial, I don’t necessarily agree with him completely, but here they are:
Show, Don’t Tell (Child says to ignore this rule)
Picture this: In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars and other physical traits for the reader. “It is completely and utterly divorced from real life,” Child said.
So why do writers do this? Child said it’s because they’ve been beaten down by the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. “They manufacture this entirely artificial thing.”
“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”
Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.
After all, he added—do your kids ever ask you to show them a story? They ask you to tell them a story. Do you show a joke? No, you tell it.
“There is nothing wrong with just telling the story,” Child said. “So liberate yourself from that rule.”
Child believes the average reader doesn’t care at all about telling, showing, etc. He or she just wants something to latch onto, something to carry them through the book. By following too many “rules,” you can lose your readers.
Thriller vs. Literary Fiction
‘To me it’s a Zen proposition: if you write a novel and no one reads it, have you really written a novel at all? There has to be art, skill and creativity but you need an audience or there’s no point. I could easily write a work of literary fiction. It would take me three weeks, sell about 3,000 copies and be at least as good as the competition. But literary authors can’t write thrillers. They try sometimes, but they can never do it.’
I’m currently reading Kafka’s last novel, The Castle. He died before he could finish it. It’s definitely not a page turner, at least not for me. But it haunts me. The prose is dense and the plot bizarre. It’s dream-like. I like it, and I’m sure it’s be of those books that will stay with me.
Oh, and I just learned that my story “Poisoned Pawn” was accepted by Crime Factory magazine. That makes two for me in that journal. It will run in April. I’m pumped!
I’ve been a fan of Alix Ohlin’s work since 2009, when I read a story she’d written called “Only Child” that appeared in Ploughshares. I’ve since read a good deal of what she’s published, including her first short story collection, Babylon and Other Stories, her first novel, The Missing Person, and I’ve now read her latest novel, Inside. She also has a new short story collection called, Signs and Wonders. I’ve read a few stories in the new collection, but have yet to buy it. I’ve enjoyed all her work, and I think she has a particular talent for writing short stories. What I like about her writing is the prose – it’s both lucid and florid – and her plot structures. She tends to use fairly traditional plots (not a lot of experimental writing) but she does like to jump around in time, often abruptly. I dig it.
I just finished her new novel, Inside, and it is very good. The story is centered on four characters: Grace, Anne (aka Annie), Mitch, and Tug. It follows them over a 12-year period, from 1994 – 2006. A theme that runs throughout a lot of Ohlin’s story telling is people trying to connect, often romantically, but not always. Of course, since Ohlin writes literary fiction her characters don’t typically achieve the connection they want. (I can hear my mother – “Why are all the stories you read so sad? What’s wrong with happy endings?”). Inside definitely covers that “connection” territory, but it is primarily focused on what Ohlin says is, “What it means to be a good Samaritan. What drives us to try and help another person. And what the emotional complications of that are.” Each of the four characters try to help someone (or more than one person), and in each case the helper is hurt by the effort. Again, my mother: “Why to sad?”
One of my favorite chapters is focused on Anne, a sexy actress, who moves from Manhattan to Hollywood to join the cast of a TV sitcom. It’s a riot! I had a feeling that Ohlin really enjoyed writing it, and I suspect that was her easiest chapter to crank out. But that’s just a guess.
In another chapter, Tug recounts his efforts as a relief worker in Rwanda. Before reading Inside I had just finished Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and the Tug/Rwanda chapter reminded me of the scene in “Wind-Up” where an older man recounts his role in WWII and tells a story about a man being skinned alive. But I suspect I’m the only person in the world who would make that connection!
So, I was planning to write my blog entry on Inside last week. I did a Google news search of “Alix Ohlin” and discovered an extremely negative review of the book that ran in The New York Times. There was another article in The Wall Street Journal that said that review had fomented something of a firestorm on Twitter. Despite the fact that I work in Silicon Valley and I’ve written more than a few speeches for tech execs on the wonders of social media, I had never used Twitter before (don’t tell anyone). So, I got an account, read a few tweets and links to blogs/aritcles that all discussed whether the tone of the review was appropriate or not. Interesting stuff. I’ll leave it to others to come to their own conclusions on the review’s tone and approach. But, most of those articles and blogs that expressed offense to the review would include a line or two that went something like this: “I haven’t read Inside, and I’m not familiar with Ohlin’s work, so I can’t really comment on whether it was accurate or not…” Well, to me that was the problem with the review: its conclusion was wrong. Inside is a good book. Alix Ohlin is a very good writer. She clearly gives a lot of thought to the prose she uses, and carefully thinks out her plots. We’re all welcome to our opinions, and that’s mine.
The other day I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles. I feel like I’ve said goodbye to a friend. The book is over six hundred pages long, so I spent a lot of time in Murakami’s strange world. Murakami is well-known for his simple, readable prose, and the magical elements of his stories. I love that combination and he’s one of my favorite writers. The novel really worked for me, although I’ll admit that at times I would think, What the heck is the point of all of this? I can definitely see why others wouldn’t like the book. It is big and sloppy and the narrative jumps around. If you write a book like this I imagine you have to expect to get some bad reviews. I stumbled upon this website that consolidates a lot of reviews of the book. Some are good and some are downright brutal. To each his own.
If you’ve read The Wind-up Bird Chronicles I’m interested in what you thought of the book.
/ænˈtɪfəni/ Show Spelled[an-tif-uh-nee] Show IPA
noun, plural an·tiph·o·nies.
1. alternate or responsive singing by a choir in two divisions.
2. a psalm, verse, etc., so sung; antiphon.
3. a responsive musical utterance.
Chris Katsaropoulos’s excellent new novel, Antiphony, brings up two big questions. Can science identify a Final Theory that ties together everything; the ultimate secret of the universe? And, Does God exist?
The man who grapples with these questions is Theodore Reveil, “one of the leading lights in String Theory physics.” The book starts with Reveil in California, just before he is about to give a presentation at a conference called, the New International Perspectives on String Theory Symposium. The presentation will mark a pinnacle of sorts in the career of Mr. Reveil, but, unfortunately, he loses his notes. Flustered, rather than presenting the science-centered speech that he’d planned to give, he asks his audience:
What if the universe, instead of being a giant machine, as we have looked at it and studied it for the past three hundred years, is really a giant thought?
In other words, what if God truly does exist? Such speculation does not sit well with his colleagues.
When the book isn’t focused on the big questions, we’re asked to closely examine the mundane aspects of life. Reveil on the toilet. Reveil in his car. Reveil reading his work email. In the hands of a lesser writer, these scenes may have been banal, but they were actually my favorite part of the book. I enjoyed following Reveil as he “revealed” his day-to-day life. But I also think something more was going on. The scenes reminded me of something that the author Haruki Murakami says he tries to do in his work: “I like details very much. Tolstoy wanted to write the total description; my description is focused on a very small area. When you describe the details of small things, your focus gets closer and closer, and the opposite of Tolstoy happens—it gets more unrealistic. That’s what I want to do. The closer it gets, the less real it gets. That’s my style.” Katsaropoulos pulls us in very closely, and as a result it gives the reader a sense that things are not in balance. In fact, to me the novel shows Reveil as he slowly slips into madness. Or does he? Maybe he can just see something that the rest of us can’t – the truth.
Katsaropoulos has a beautiful and easy-to-read writing style. I breezed through the novel like a long short story. A big thumbs up from me, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this author has up his sleeve next.