Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: December 2009

Review: Self-Help

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
8/10, an evocative collection of short stories with wonderful language but little story

I first heard of Lorrie Moore in a writing class, because of her short story “How To Become A Writer,” included in this collection. It’s a wry look at the writer’s life in the second person (“Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin.”), a format that most of the stories in this collection follow.

They’re much more than just a gimmick, though. Moore has a real gift for language and description, real situations and three-dimensional characters. The stories are all rather depressing in tone, but the writing is lovely and immersive. Moore creates a world rich with detail, full of characters and places, and her eye for the important details is terrific.

What I missed from this collection was some sense of resolution to the stories. Moore’s characters move through their situations, changing and reacting, but their situations rarely come to any character resolution. While the stories themselves are engaging and quite well written, a real pleasure to read, none of them stayed with me long after reading the book.

To study the craft of writing, Moore is a great read. Learning how to pace a story, what details to include, how to build characters and situations, all of that is here in these stories. But it’s harder to figure out what to take away from the stories. Don’t worry too much about that and you’ll enjoy this collection.

Review: Number 9 Dream

Number 9 Dream, by David Mitchell
8.5/10, a surreal multi-layered coming-of-age adventure

The beginning of “Number 9 Dream” is tough to get into. Eiji Miyake, a young man in Tokyo for the first time, is searching for clues to the identity of his father, but sorting out his fantasies from reality is challenging; like the flood that overtakes him (or does it?), we are plunged into his narrative with little preparation or context. But the story eventually sorts itself out, the magical realism elements fall into their place, and Eiji’s story moves along.

Each of the first eight sections of “Number 9 Dream” is split between the present day narrative and some other narrative, whether youthful fantasies, dreams, letters or memories from the past, or something else. In most cases, the “background” narrative provides support and foundation for the ongoing one. In a couple of the chapters, the foreground narrative actually becomes more bizarre than the background. Through all of it, Mitchell explores the lines of reality and fantasy, desire and expectation, promise and hope with all the skill you’d expect from his other works.

One of the reasons I think he likes to play with split narratives (“Black Swan Green” is his only single-narrator book) is that he is so good at character voice. Eiji has a distinctive voice, but so do his fantasies, so do the memories and the other characters he encounters, and so, in fact, does each setting he passes through, from his job at the train station to the gleaming corporate tower where his father’s attorney works to his filthy apartment with its transient feline roommate to the countryside where he grew up.

If there is one flaw in “Number 9 Dream,” it is that, being used to Mitchell’s transcendant endings, the finale of this one does not quite measure up. Either it requires a bit more study and thought than I’ve put into it, or it simply leaves the narrative somewhat unresolved–which, given the rest of the story and the style, is fine. I’m not sure what I was expecting, only that “Ghostwritten,” “Cloud Atlas,” and “<a href="
http://timsusman.blogspot.com/2009/05/review-black-swan-green.html”>Black Swan Green” all had terrific endings, with “Cloud Atlas” and “Black Swan Green” among the best in modern fiction.

Still, as with a few creators like Kazuo Ishiguro, Pixar, and the Beatles, the weakest of Mitchell’s books is still a delightful, thoughtful experience, well worth picking up and enjoyable from beginning to end. Its complexity makes it probably the first of his books I would want to re-read, if only because of the feeling that there were connections between the various parts that I’d missed. If nothing else, it’s instructive to see him develop the techniques that allowed him to write “Cloud Atlas,” and to see parts of the stories begun in “Ghostwritten” continued here.

Flood of Reviews

Yes, I’m catching up on all the books I’m behind on reviewing. I want to have a clean slate to start the new year. Sorry for the flood, but hopefully you’ll have some interesting things to pore over when setting up your New Year’s resolutions for what to read next year. :)

Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a beautiful, haunting tragedy of a woman reminiscing about her life in Japan

I’ve made no secret of my writer-crush on Ishiguro in reviews of An Artist of the Floating World, Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans, and even The Unconsoled. “Pale View” was the last of Ishiguro’s published books on my list at the time I read it (he has a new collection out now), and it was his first published novel.

Some of the rough edges show, the techniques he would perfect in “Remains of the Day.” The narrative is by no means straightforward, skipping back and forth between present day in the West and many years ago in Japan. Etsuko, the main character, has gotten a visit from her daughter, which begins her reminisces of her years in Japan and a young woman she befriended there with her recalcitrant daughter, Mariko. As the narrative winds its way through the past and present, without the urgency of “Artist of the Floating World” or “Remains of the Day,” it is still engaging and fascinating, and it includes an element those later books did not: a touch of horror. Especially in the interactions between Mariko and Etsuko, Mariko behaves oddly (even for an Ishiguro child) and has a creepy fixation on odd details.

Mariko turned over her hand and the spider crawled into her palm. She closed her other hand over it so that it was imprisoned.
“Mariko, put that down.”
“It’s not poisonous,” she said, coming closer to me.
“No, but it’s dirty. Put it back in the corner.”
“It’s not poisonous, though.”
She stood in front of me, the spider inside her cupped hands. Through a gap in her fingers, I could see a leg moving slowly and rhythmically.
“Put it back in the corner, Mariko.”
“What would happen if I ate it? It’s not poisonous.”
“You’d be very sick. Now, Mariko, put it back in the corner.”
Mariko brought the spider closer to her face and parted her lips.

Despite the odd, semi-fantastical nature of the reminisces, Ishiguro still manages to build up to a revelatory climax that is emotional and shattering. Though this isn’t the most masterful of his works, and it takes a good bit of thought to read through, it’s still a terrific, skilful work. And it depresses me that it was his first book because it’s still really good.

Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
7.5/10, a dry but fascinating tale of family and mistaken identity in 1500s France

This story was published as a way to document the second ever documented case of circumstantial evidence, but Janet Lewis finds a human drama within the case as well. Bertrande de Rols is married to Martin Guerre at the age of eleven, and returns to live with him a few years later. His father, a stern disciplinarian, has rubbed off on Martin to some extent, but also bred in him a rebellious streak. After one particularly daring act of rebellion, fearing reprisals from his father, Martin flees, promising Bertrande and their young son that he will return soon.

Years go by. Martin’s father never forgives him for his transgression, not until he dies. And the year following his death, Martin returns, looking much different and acting more considerate and erudite. Perhaps the years have softened him? Bertrande welcomes him back into her bed; her family welcomes him as head of the farm. But as the years go by, she becomes convinced he is not truly the Martin who left her. She can only convince one old uncle that she is right, but when a soldier appears who seems to back her story, she gains enough credence to bring her returned husband to court to prove his identity.

Lewis hews closely to the facts of the case as they were presented, elaborating on some of the human interactions and the feelings of Bertrande. Bertrande’s sense of justice and propriety may seem a little outdated to us, but they’re important to her sense of honor, and they form the basis of her character. The story is short but clear, and the twists and turns are the more engaging for being real, or at least based in reality.

The story ends somewhat abruptly, but that’s where the reality of the story really takes hold. It would have been nice to have a clean wrap-up and a more emotionally satisfying conclusion, but all the ending does is remind you that these were real events and real people. After the conclusion of the case, there was no need to keep track of the litigants, so there are no records, and Lewis is forced to speculate. Though brief, her thoughts really tie up the narrative.

This was made into a movie, which I haven’t seen, but the premise itself is fascinating. For as long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the nature of identity and personality, and this story speaks strongly to those themes.

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
9/10, a wonderful tale that brings fantasy and magic into the real world

“Harry Potter for grown-ups.” An odd thing to say, since most of the Harry Potter fans I know are over 21. “Like a real-world Narnia.” Another odd thing to say, because Narnia was supposed to be based in the real world of 1940s England, from which the Pevensies escape to Narnia. But those phrases do aptly describe “The Magicians,” the most accomplished modern fantasy in years.

Quentin has just graduated from high school and is preparing for his alumni interview with Princeton. When his interviewer turns up dead, he gets another mysterious invitation and finds himself in a large exam room taking an exam that he doesn’t fully understand. After some on-the-spot interviews, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills, a school for magicians hidden away in upstate New York.

It’s not Hogwarts. The students drink, use drugs, have sex, and make mistakes. Magic, like many flashy things, is a lot more tedious on the inside, requiring not only talent, but dedication and attention to detail. Quentin makes friends and enemies, and graduates with little idea what he wants to do in life. Then one of his friends comes by with the bizarre claim that he knows how to get to the magical land of Fillory, the subject of a popular set of children’s books.

From there, the story goes on, but even in the magical fantasy land, it doesn’t get any less “real.” And besides the engaging journey, the book leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards. The characters learn more than magic; as we follow them through school, we watch them learn that the point of an education is not the learning, it’s what you do with it.

Grossman (who is on Twitter as @leverus and is entertaining to follow) writes well and creates a fascinating cast of characters, a terrific world to explore, and an engaging and thought-provoking plot. He eschews or subverts the conventions of fantasy, making pointed references to quidditch at one point, but the book stands on its own even if you’re one of the three people who’s unfamiliar with both “Harry Potter” and “Narnia.”

“The Magicians” is a terrific read from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it for anyone who liked “Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” or any other contemporary fantasy. It’ll leave you with a wistful longing, but only because it feels so difficult to say good-bye to the characters after having been with them through so much.

Review: Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín
8/10, a melancholy collection of stories of Irish families

Tóibín, author of Brooklyn, penned this collection of stories about families in Ireland. Loosely following the theme of mothers and sons, he tracks happy and sad families–but mostly sad.

The overriding theme, actually, seems to be “things aren’t great, but we’d rather they not change.” The characters in the stories are presented with opportunities to change their lives, to learn something, and in nearly every case, they put aside that chance.

That doesn’t make the stories bad. They’re engaging and interesting, written with Tóibín’s lovely touch with language, if not the humor of “Brooklyn.”

Every day he had planned his return [from military service], longed for it in detail, lived in the ordinary future where the smallest domestic detail–the sound of a jeep starting up, a chainsaw, a hunter’s gun, or a dog’s bark–would signify that he had returned, that he had survived. He had imagined this homecoming in all its satisfying comfort and freedom so closely that he had put no thought into how soon [his younger brother] Jordi’s turn would come, how soon his brother would have to submit himself to the humiliation of the haircut and the standing in the cold waiting for the lorry to take him to Lerida. Miquel knew how bad it would be for his brother, and it was as though some more vulnerable and innocent part of him were going to have the haircut, leaving an empty bed behind.

I have remarked before on the uniqueness of Irish writing. If you enjoy it, then this collection will not disappoint you. It’s a beautifully-written, sad world that is worth visiting.

Review: Amsterdam

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
7/10, a technically competent story that falls short of actual meaning

After seeing “Atonement“, I became curious about Ian McEwan’s stories. I found “Amsterdam,” recommended in various places as a “dark comedy tour de force,” or variations thereon, and I thought it’d be worth a read.

Certainly, McEwan creates memorable characters and extraordinary situations. The setup for “Amsterdam,” loosely, is two friends reminiscing over affairs with a woman at her funeral, and mutually despising a politician with whom she was most recently taking up. The friends are a newspaper editor and a composer, and their lives become further disrupted when some photos of the politician surface that might be embarrassing. Over the seemingly minor question of whether the editor has a moral obligation to publish the photos, the two friends have a falling-out, which leads to further extraordinary situations and a fairly unbelievable ending.

It might be called “dark humor”; I find that a lot of people who attempt dark humor end up sliding too far to the “dark” and not including enough “humor.” That’s the case here, where a macabre and grotesque situation is supposed to be funny simply because it exists. There isn’t enough time given to the setup of the two men and their friendships for us to appreciate the quick twists and turns of the story, and the extremes to which they go seem incongruous with the rest of the world they inhabit. Without giving too much away, the hinge of the whole moral dilemma seems weak, but perhaps that’s just my unfamiliarity with British customs and traditions as regards their politicians. Still, in a country that outdoes the U.S.A. for tabloids, I find it hard to believe that there would be that much furor over embarrassing photos.

I do have a thing about endings, and the head-shaking nature of this one rather ruined the experience for me. It’s possible that McEwan’s other books are more worthwhile, but I wouldn’t recommend this one.

Movie Review: Up In The Air

Since taking some screenwriting classes, our standards for movies have risen, slowly but surely. We pick at plot holes more, we attack dialogue, we scorn useless characters and sometimes entire movies (“Benjamin Button”). Yes, movies have been somewhat ruined, as our teacher warned us, but on the other hand, when we find a movie that really shines, the reward is that much greater.

“Up In The Air” is one of those rewards. It succeeds in a variety of areas: snappy dialogue, great acting, a great premise and imagery, good direction, and a story that makes you think for a while after you leave the theater.

It’s suited to our modern times. George Clooney plays a contract firer, a person hired to travel around the country and announce layoffs to people for companies that don’t want to make the announcement themselves. He has seen all kinds of reaction from the people he’s laying off, and he knows how to deal with it all. He loves to travel, and he loves the life he’s living.

Enter Anna Kendrick, playing a young business school grad who’s come to Omaha to change the company. She thinks the company can cut costs by firing people over webcam–which would mean Clooney would no longer be required, or permitted, to travel.

Also enter Vera Farmiga, a fellow traveler with whom Clooney shares a passionate night. They have an amusing moment of trying to synch up their travel schedules so they can meet again, and she seems the perfect companion for him.

Between these two women, Clooney’s world is in for some drastic changes, some of which he’ll handle better than others. But the movie is subversive: Anna has a steady boyfriend and expounds on the joys of stable relationships, and Clooney is required at one point to attend his sister’s wedding, leading one to think that this is going to be just another parable about the benefits of a family and how lonely the single life is. And then it turns it all on its head.

What this movie is about, as Clooney says eloquently in a speech to J.K. Simmons, is opportunity. Choices. Not limiting yourself to one thing, whether that thing be family, a job, or a way of life that keeps you on the road. In its own way, his addiction to travel is as confining as his sister’s complete inability to travel. And the movie is artfully done, with subtle touches and great performances from Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga, not to mention Simmons, Jason Bateman, and a host of other small parts.

The dialogue snaps and crackles, as good as the dialogue Clooney delivered with such panache in “Ocean’s 11.” Toward the later part of the movie, it becomes less amusing and more serious, but it never drags.

Along with “Up,” coincidentally, this is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s not getting much attention–perhaps Clooney, in his third movie in as many months, is overexposed–but it deserves an Oscar nom.