Posts Tagged 'Books'

Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

I’m writing this with two hands, 10 fingers

Pause for a moment today, March 7, to think of Jean-Dominique Bauby. On this day in 1997 he had his book Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly) published. Two days later, at the age of 44, he died.

bauby.gifThanks to the film his story is well-known. The former editor of the French Elle magazine, he suffered a massive stroke at the height of his career and recovered only enough to move his left eyelid. He retained complete cognizance of the world around him but suffered what is called Locked-In Syndrome.

Eventually he and his therapists developed a system of communication whereby, while stepping through the alphabet, he would blink on arrival at the letter of the word he wanted to spell. Then on to the next letter, and then the next word, and so on.

By such painstaking perseverance a book was written — and a beautiful, affecting book it is. You should read it.

The next time I feel a whine coming on about how difficult writing can be, I’m going to think of Jean-Dominique, feel truly humbled and thank my lucky stars.

Then get back to the keyboard.

There Will Be Sex; or, How Not to Write a Title

One thing’s clear 125 pages into Upton Sinclair’s novel of the California oil boom of the early 1900s: both it and the 2007 film version are atrociously titled.

sinclair.jpegSinclair called his work Oil!, complete with the perky exclamation point, which conjures up the idea of a broadway musical featuring singing toolpushers and dancing roughnecks.

Paul Thomas Anderson, in his screen adaptation of the novel, renamed it There Will Be Blood. If you overlook the adolescent portentousness, as well as the fact it serves as an annoying spoiler, you still get an undeniable suggestion of either horror or gang warfare. When I saw the gothic font promoting the film I thought – “Transylvania.”

twbb.jpegIt’s a shame – I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a book quite as much, and the film, by all accounts, is excellent – it’s in the running for a Best Picture Oscar.

Perhaps Sinclair (or his publishers) can be forgiven for reflecting some of the conventions of his day, and who knows? In 1926 maybe a one-word noun — emphatically punctuated — was even avant garde.

There Will be Blood, by comparison, bears the sticky fingerprints of Hollywood marketing winkies. You can almost hear the conversation:

“OK. Audiences aren’t going to be much drawn to a detailed historical account of an old-time oil boom. And they especially aren’t interested in any of the moral implications inherent in big concepts like capitalism or class structure or religion.”

“You got that right. Any car chases in this flick?”

“Nope.”

“Any sex?”

“Not really.”

“Any violence?”

“Well, a few people do get hurt.”

“How hurt?”

“Let’s just say, there will be blood.”

Alas, if only it were that easy.

Coming up with a good title may be one of the most overlooked and difficult elements of the fiction-writing process. In his book The Art of Fiction, David Lodge observes: “The title of a novel is part of the text — the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter — and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” It must serve several purposes — descriptor, teaser, emblem.

David Madden, in Revising Fiction, quotes Walker Percy: “A good title should be like a metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.” Madden continues: “Titles have a runic, iconic, talismanic, touchstone, charged-image effect.”

There Will Be Blood, however, seems to me less iconic charged-image, and more crass, cynical attention-grabber. Top of mind for the title creators, in fact, may have been the notion, There Will Be Profits.

Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!

winter.jpgWe’ve been enduring a prolonged cold snap here in the heart of the bleak Canadian winter, complete with frozen water pipes and killing wind chills.

Things break down or just get sluggish in these conditions, including cars, snowblowers and bloggers. Lassitude creeps in; maybe it’s brought on by having to wear long underwear much of the time, or twice daily blow-drying the ice out of a pipe in the basement. We scurry from house to bus to work, heads bent earthward to escape the searing cold. Where has the horizon gone? Is it still there?

Then there’s been news of an absolutely stupefying sort. Two little girls, ages 3 and 15 months, froze to death on a Saskatchewan native reserve earlier this week; details are still emerging, but it appears to be a case of neglectful parenting.

The heart breaks; the blood runs cold. Man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self?

It’s gotten me thinking about quite a few things, but among them, winter. And I mean the good old-fashioned it’s-so-cold-it-hurts-to-breathe Prairie winter.

There is some great cold weather writing out there, which surely begins with Jack London and “To Build a Fire.” For many of us this is an early reading favourite straight out of grade school. Here is a description of the story’s main character:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Oh dear. You can see what’s coming next, can’t you? Still, after all these years, a gripping read…

Another personal favourite is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which aside from being great adventure/biography, is also a terrific book on leadership. It’s about the race for the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Here’s a passage about Scott’s attempted return from the pole after finding Amundsen had already beaten him there.

The five men were crammed into a tent made for four. It was an eerie experience to live cheek by jowl with one of the number losing his reason. They could not know if Evans would turn violent, but most of the time he seemed sunk in a stupor, scarcely conscious of what was happening around him. In any case, they were all tired, hungry, weak and sluggish with cold and malnutrition. Nobody — least of all Wilson, the doctor — had any desire to face mental derangement at close quarters, when they could not bear to look too deeply into their own minds.

Maybe we’re all nursing a mild stir-crazy depression in conditions like these. I’m sure it probably taxes us more than we care to admit.

I’m going to keep looking for a few more passages about the cold, but now that it’s warmed up to minus 20 celsius, my interest is waning. Maybe you can help me fill out the list. The pipes, the pipes are calling….

Stay warm. Hug somebody. Don’t put your tongue on a lamppost.

Story catalysts, gift-warped characters and other creative prods

No, it’s not a typo in the headline. It’s how I’d like to think of some of the real live genuine authentic true-life people found on a few strange but delightful web sites I’ve come across. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

If this doesn’t get your creative pot boiling with ideas for characters and story twists, then go back to accounting.

PostSecret is a site where people creatively represent one of their secrets on a homemade postcard. Do you think it’s true? I wonder if there’s more creativity here than genuine secret….

In much the same vein is Mortified: Woe and Tell, where people share their most embarrassing moments. Hmmm….got a few of my own I could send here….

Found Magazine has a strong ring of authenticity with its sometimes obscure, inane, touching but generally interesting detritus picked up from strangers’ lives. Great stuff here.

And then there is the hilarious PassiveAggressiveNotes.com, a site to which people send the notes they’ve seen or been left by others with an axe to grind. The ensuing discussions are also worth a look!

Happy browsing, and happy writing.

It was a dark and stormy writing book

Writers and aspiring writers know the first sentence is where they should deploy their freshest bait, their best pickup lines and, when all else fails, their most irrefutable strong-arm tactics.

20789862_b9c013396b.jpgWhether it’s seduction, fishing, or just grabbing them by the lapels, first sentences succeed when they lead readers to the second sentence. This holds true for novels, short stories, newspaper articles, letters, news releases, magazine features, essays, works of non-fiction, backs of cereal boxes and ransom notes.

OK. Maybe you’d read the entire ransom note regardless of the quality of its first sentence. Assuming it’s to do with someone you care about. But everything else needs to be compelling enough to draw you in.

Which is why I find most of the examples that follow a little disappointing. They are the first sentences in books about the craft of fiction writing — some by reasonably well-known authors, others not so well-known at all.

Have a look at these five and see which inspire you to run out and read their writing books or, better still, their works of fiction.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.

I have listened to smart, well-educated people talk in circles, obsessively, even angrily, on the subject of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to.

To teach creative writing, or to be taught it, is a paradox.

Hmm….some of these sound like tough-sledding, don’t they? It’s unfortunate because they are all quite respectable writers with valuable insights to share. Is it too much to want them to communicate a little passion for something they’ve devoted their lives to?

Shouldn’t their first sentences be lit fuses?

Feel free to share your own examples — good, bad or tough-sledding.