Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: September 2007

Review: Pride

Pride, by William Wharton
8/10, a touching parallel story of a boy, a war veteran, and a caged lion

William Wharton’s “Birdy” is one of my favorite books, and his “Franky Furbo” is another favorite. “Pride” falls short of both of these, though its depiction of growing up in Philly in the Depression is worth the cover price alone.

It’s the story of young Dickie and young Sture, growing up half a continent and half a century apart. Dickie finds an abandoned kitten and raises her at home, even though food is dear, while his father struggles with the difficulties of the job he needs for the family to survive. Sture grows up a virtuoso at nearly everything he touches, even after being wounded in World War I, until he adopts a lion cub and meets a telephone operator who both complicate his life in different ways.

The two of them meet, late in the book, on the Jersey shore at Wildwood, though they interact very little. Both are at points of crisis in their lives, which come to a peak when Sture’s lion escapes from his cage.

Like most of Wharton’s stories, tragedy dogs the characters without ever overwhelming them. Sture’s bright future has become a murky, clouded present, while Dickie’s future occupies less of his thoughts than simply surviving the present. Both have family problems, the difference being that Sture is responsible for his family, while Dickie is a ten-year-old boy. However, also typical of Wharton’s stories, there is hope for both of them.

The strong points of Wharton’s writing have always been in the life he gives his characters, their rough edges and vibrant personalities. Even beaten down as he is later in life, Sture is drawn with enough passion that we feel the life simmering in him. 1930s Philly/Jersey come to life vividly in these pages, but mostly they come to life through the characters, Dickie’s description of the smell of grease paper, or Sture’s examination of the carnival act he bought, which has become not only his livelihood but his home.

It does take the story a little while to get going. It feels like most of the book is backstory leading up to the events at Wildwood. But you don’t mind that, because the characters and the lives they lead are so enthralling that you’re happy to lose yourself in their history. That makes “Pride” a worthwhile read, carries the book through the thin plot and gives it the kind of life that Wharton fans have come to expect, if perhaps not as vivid a life as some of his other works.

Writing what you want

I had a strange moment while writing last night, but it wasn’t the first time. I was trying to work on one of my many projects, and I just got the nagging feeling that I didn’t want to work on this story because I wanted to be working on something with a different tone. Problem was, I had no idea what that something was.

I ended up pulling up another project and getting absorbed in that. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but it was good enough. How do you handle it when what you’re writing isn’t what you feel like writing? Start something new, push through it, or do you take it as a sign that what you’re writing needs to sound different and incorporate what you’re looking for into that?

Review: Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
9/10, his trademark absurdist satire at its finest, or almost its finest.

I think every writer is tempted at one point or another to put himself (or herself) into his work. Once you reach a certain point in your writing career, you realize that this (a) has been done before; (b) is really hard to do well; (c) is fairly self-indulgent. Vonnegut, here, demonstrates a rare instance in which it is done well, and to excellent effect.

The nominal story of Breakfast of Champions is that of car salesman Dwayne Hoover, a recent widower who is afraid he is going insane, which is a perfectly reasonable fear, because he is. In this state, he meets science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who gives him one of his books written as a letter from God to his only creation. Dwayne, in his insanity, takes the book as fact.

The story around the story is that of Vonnegut at his fiftieth birthday, remembering his father and looking at the world around him through his eyes and the eyes of his characters, bringing them together at the Midland Art Festival. He inserts himself as a character into the book, first as the narrator whose sardonic tone and opinion imbues every scene, and finally as an actual character in the narrative, seated in the cocktail lounge where Hoover and Trout have their fateful meeting.

There are several themes layered through “Breakfast of Champions,” which I am not going to be able to cover in one review after my first reading. Still: I had a discussion with a friend who felt that a major theme of the book was ethics in writing, how you have a responsibility around what you write and what people make of your work. I feel that’s one of the themes, but for me, the major theme was in ethics toward your fellow man. At one point in the book, Vonnegut says he has become tired of the tyranny of the author, focusing a narrative on one character and one setting, when all the world is just as important as that one character. To that end, he makes frequent use of the phrase “and so on,” to indicate that life in all of his scenes goes on after the narrative has turned its eye from them (a semantic and syntactic echo of “Slaughterhouse Five”‘s famous “So it goes”). He also talks about his characters and how although they are entirely his creations and do whatever he wants, when he is not paying attention to them, they do whatever they want.

This is all wrapped up in the question of whether human beings are completely free beings or just programmed machines. Vonnegut sidesteps the question; his message, finally, is that it doesn’t matter. Another friend, in talking about predestination vs. free will, gave me a quote that I want to reproduce here: “Just because God knows what you are going to pick doesn’t mean you don’t get to pick it.” Vonnegut’s message is the same, and in the end, he says, what matters is how we behave toward each other, in everyday interactions, in the ideas we write and spread. Everybody’s story is equally interesting; everybody’s decisions are equally weighted. Even to an author, every character is important.

The narrative actually hangs together well, building tension legitimately as Trout and Hoover make their way to the fateful cocktail lounge. Vonnegut tells us they meet and what happens, giving us just enough to make us anticipate the meeting. And after the meeting, he has brought himself into the narrative and revealed his own personal dilemma, so we follow him to see what he will do. His revelation, near the end of the book, is a wonderful moment in a book filled with amusing, touching, strange, and wonderful moments, and when you put it down, you will pause to take stock of it all before flipping back to a favorite passage. It will be hard to resist the temptation to read the book again, but whether you do or not, you will think about it in cocktail lounges, car dealerships, truck cabs, midwestern towns, art festivals, basement apartments in the Bahamas …

… and so on.

Review: Halfway House

Halfway House, by Katharine Noel
8/10, Engaging family drama centering around a New England girl’s manic-depressive episodes

During the fabulist fiction workshop I took, our teacher took us to a reading from “Halfway House,” by Katharine Noel, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford who’d just gotten her book published. A year later, I took a workshop from her titled “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown,” which I have written about previously and which I found very valuable.

“Halfway House” showcases her considerable talent for dialogue, conflict, and description. Centering on a New England family, the Voorsters, it is rich in family drama and tension, conflict saturating each page. The story kicks off with Angie, a high school senior and swimming star, suffering a nervous breakdown of sorts; what really happens is that the manic phase of her bipolar disorder becomes too extreme for her to conceal. Convinced that she no longer needs to breathe, she dives into the pool in the middle of a race she isn’t entered in, and stays there.

Her father, mother, and younger brother all get more or less equal time in the story as they try to adjust to the way in which Angie’s illness affects their lives. Meanwhile, Angie herself tries to cope with not just her illness, but the ways in which it changes her relationship to her family and friends. The resulting tapestry is painful to read at times, but the journey of each character is rich and complex, as beautifully rendered as the New England setting. Noel’s prose flows easily, building characters and images with equal skill.

Certainly, her characters will stay with me. In true New England fashion, they remain fairly isolated from each other, dealing with the crisis in their own ways and rarely talking to each other about it. In some cases, Angie’s problems open wider cracks that already exist; in other cases, she allows them to find reserves of strength to handle their lives.

The breadth of the story makes it almost inevitable that there can’t be a tidy resolution. The characters are so real that this has the air of a slice-of-life biography, in which the particular episode may be resolved, but their lives are so detailed that there is no way to wrap up everything without resorting to gimmicks. I thought Angie’s story came to a good resolution, and her younger brother Luke’s ended well enough, but I wanted to see a little more resolution from her parents. It would also have been nice to see more of how the family reacts to Angie’s story ending–fittingly, her story ends the book, but left me with questions about how the others would react.

The only other quibble I had with the book was that there was no overarching tension. Angie’s battle with her illness doesn’t really reach a crescendo; it peaks and flattens, until it reaches a resolution that is completely believable, but slightly flat. From a screenwriting perspective, it doesn’t feel like Angie goes through a final “battle”–and this, here, is very likely just my expectation as regards a character novel. I’m just trying to explain why I felt the beats of the story were slightly off.

That’s no reason not to pick up the book. Just reading Noel’s writing is a delight, and observing the skilful way in which she handles character growth, dialogue, and not only description, but interaction between the characters and their settings, would be enough if she hadn’t also written an intriguing story about mental illness and its impact on sufferers and their families. I hope it doesn’t take her eight years to write another book, as she said it did for her to write this one.

The Passing of Inspiration

I’ve written before that Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time” is the first non-picture book I remember reading. With the recent news of her passing at age 88, I thought I’d say a few more words about her impact on my life and my work.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from her works, even just the ones I read. “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” wins a lot of points for its time-travel and “threads of fate through time” concepts, both of which are favorites of mine. “A Ring of Endless Light” is a beautiful tale of growing up and coming to terms with death and love. Those two would be at the top of any list, but I can’t leave out “A Wind In The Door,” “The Young Unicorns,” or “The Arm of the Starfish.” In a field of simplistic stories, L’Engle never talked down to her readers, trusting them to handle theoretical science as easily as complex human emotions. Meg’s anger at her father in “A Wrinkle In Time” is genuine, understandable, and loving; the relationship between children, teens, and adults, and the boundaries that separate them, was a recurring theme through L’Engle’s books, and I would have to search for a long time to think of someone who handled them better.

She taught me that the fantastic could be as terrible as it was wonderful (IT and the Echthroi versus Mrs. Whatsit, Proginoskes, and Gaudior); that people are real, complicated beings capable and deserving of love; that there were secret doors all over the real world that it took nothing more than a story to open. She was my first exposure to urban fantasy (Susan Cooper the second) as a novel, with character arcs and themes and imagery. She made me want to tell stories of my own. Her books were also one of the first ones I discovered I had in common with friends, when we started reading science fiction in high school. That was a huge step, finding out that these worlds that I’d thought were mine alone (the rest of my family had little interest in them) were actually shared by other people who loved them as much as I did.

It is hard not to be sad at her passing, but we should not be. She lived a full life and was recognized in her lifetime for the brilliant work she did. While her books are being read (and I know few people who haven’t read at least one), she will never really be gone. May our grandchildren’s grandchildren still be able to open a copy of “A Wrinkle In Time” and discover her world as we all did: with wide eyes and unfettered joy.

Review of my book

There’s a review of Common and Precious up on the Infinity Plus site. Elizabeth Barrette is a longtime friend of Sofawolf Press and a poet in her own right (full disclosure: one of her poems appears in Common and Precious). Anyway, she likes it!

A Milestone, A Reminder, An Experience

This is the 100th post of this blog. I think it’s traditional to yammer on about how I never expected and looking back and some other measure of blah blah blah. Truth be told, I started this blog with the intention of getting to 100, and beyond. I regret that it took me this long, but I am pretty proud of every entry.

The reminder, as I return from nearly a week with no internet (what do they talk about there in the backwoods of Pennsylvania?), is that in order to write convincingly about life, you have to go out and experience it. Not necessarily firsthand–I have never been drunk (true), but years in a fraternity watching and talking to people who were have allowed me, I’m told, to paint a rather convincing firsthand account of someone getting drunk. For me, travel is essential to experience. There is a feel to anywhere that is not here that is subtly different from here, and although you might imagine it, you can’t know it well enough to describe it to someone else unless you’ve been there.

For instance: Pittsburgh is a city in the midst of revitalization, but the surrounding areas crawl very slowly out of the past, walking backwards so they never lose sight of it. Innovations surprise them–a Home Depot? A Best Buy? Once they are safely visible in the past, they become accepted. But these towns, these hills do not seek out change in the way the Bay Area does, my home of Red Queens running as fast as they can to keep up with each other. I have the feeling that this is true in many rural areas, but agricultural rural areas have a different feel from industrial ones. The plains of Iowa and Illinois and Indiana have the slowness of the land, the sureness of the seasons and the patience of clouds. Pittsburgh’s body is coal and its bones are steel, and it has the weight of industry, the permanence of metal, but also the inevitable decay of rust. In the center of the city, where the three rivers meet, old stone sits in the shadow of new glass, the birth of an urban center in the new era. Steel and coal are still the life of the land, but their day is in the past, retreating every day.

I find it necessary to renew experiences from time to time. Memories can be tricky things, and sometimes we remember fondly things as better than they actually are. All of which is a roundabout excuse for me to talk about Dunkin’ Donuts, specifically the Boston Cream variety.

There are no Dunkin’ Donuts in California, though Krispy Kreme has made inroads. DD tried years ago but couldn’t sustain a presence here. Having grown up in the Philly area, I have many fond memories of Dunkin’ Donuts (at the age of sixteen, with a Cinderella license invalid after midnight, I drove to our Dunkin’ Donuts at three in the morning to pick up supplies for an all-night party that was going on and found no fewer than three police cars in the parking lot; I stayed in the car and escaped arrest, I was sure, by sheer luck). In my recent trip, I passed through the Dallas airport, which is blessed with a small Dunkin’ Donuts stand. Now, I eat donuts maybe twice a year. But the lure of a Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Cream was too much to pass up. We brought it home, and…well, there is a unique smell when you open a Dunkin’ Donuts bag. It’s something in the icing, a sugary aroma combined with the wax of the bag that is immediately identifiable. After inhaling that, we ate the Boston Cream, and I am here to testify that it is every bit as good as my memory. The dough is perfectly sweet and soft, the custard creamy with a rich vanilla-egg flavor that the chocolate icing blends perfectly with. I don’t even want to drink the milk I’ve poured because it would wash away the taste, and there’s something particularly delicious about eating it here in California, hundreds of miles from the nearest of its kin. But eventually you have to, because the icing also makes you thirsty. And then the taste enters into the realm of memory.

What’s your Boston Cream? What kind of details do you spice your writing with?

(There is, not surprisingly, more to read about Boston Cream/Kreme/Creme donuts…above image and one link from cake tourism blog)