Sunday, May 29, 2011

Wasted potential

Book: Petropolis

Author: Anya Ulinich

Publication: 2007 (Viking)

Pages: 324

There are two ways to make me instantly hand over book-buying money without asking any further questions.
  1.  Write a coming-of-age novel about an immigrant child with a flair for sticking out even in her hometown and a habit of sprinkling her native language overseas and a tired, single mother who doesn’t understand her daughter or their new world but does what she can to keep both alive.
  2. Write a novel about a dysfunctional family that never talks about how dysfunctional it is.

If either synopsis is on your book flap (ideally next to your author photo in which you prove you can wear a fedora and not look stupid), I’m yours. At least until I get home, settle into my reading chair, and gradually discover how you can ruin my favorite two storylines in the whole world of literature.
  1. Make your immigrant child stick out for superficial purposes, like a skin color that betrays an unaccepted cultural background—actually, you’re still okay at this point. But don’t give her an ounce of fight against what she can’t help. St. Francis de Sales* forbid you might actually make this a source of her spunkiness instead of turning her boring and having most people ignore what you say is a big deal until your protagonist makes it to Brooklyn and has to deal with racist old people who can’t tell she’s black anyway. </sarcasm> I like Petropolis’s story about Sasha, who grows up in Russia under a strict mother, has a lovechild, then goes to America as a mail-order fiancĂ© and runs away from that to find her long-lost dad. Sasha herself bores me to tears.
  2. Have an excellent first half exploring the idiosyncrasies of a Yale research psychologist and his rich female college discovering a medication for depression from a tropical plant, how this affects his career and how his career trajectory affects him and his intelligent-but-stuck-at-home wife and their kids. Add a depressed genius freshman who gets much more suave, then deranged, on his dose of the trial medication. Add a bushfull of escaped parrots. And then, in the second half, change to first person but get less personal (how does that even work?) and devolve into a very generic “We all fuck each other up” family mess. I’m looking at you, Pharmakon.

Gah. Dull books are for freshmen English classes, and even that’s cruel. 

*Patron saint of writers and editors. I’m sort of far from Catholic, but I want someone specific to swear to.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Comfort reading

This is what my copy of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile looks like.

I bought it at a flea market as a new paperback for half off the cover price when I was in eighth grade. Since then, I’ve gone through almost all of the rest of King’s non-Dark Tower repertoire, yet I keep going back to Paul Edgecombe’s story about Old Sparky and John Coffey and Melinda Moores’s brain tumor and how they all collide with each other in the unholy heat of a 1932 late summer.

I know its rhythm and plot beats and tone enough to recreate them in my head without really trying. So why do I still feel compelled to read the spine a little more tattered every six or eight months?

Because it’s become a 536-page talk with a good friend. I don’t know if thinking of certain books like that makes me incurable unsocial, but it’s extremely comforting. It’s like talking to a friend who just needs someone to nod and say “really?” in all the right places; it takes the pressure off you to do anything except listen to their amazing story.

It’s been with me as I’ve grown up, from when I first started reading it during middle school standardized testing time and showed off the cover as conspicuously as possible to the boy who wore Converse and was rumored to also like Stephen King; through high school while I learned what the crude parts really meant and blushed like a boiled tomato over the f word as I started scribbling my own stories; into college as I clung to something that felt like the best part of home in a strange new world. As I’ve gotten more serious about my own writing, I read it for the story structure, and as I read more things that are suppose to give me new ideas and ways of talking about them but mostly just make my head hurt, I read it for a palate cleanser. It’s my comfort brain food.

King, I think, is good at that because he’s good at writing conversationally. Everything else ignored, he writes well because his stories read effortlessly. He wrote in one intro or another of his that if you as a reader are looking for ol’ Uncle Stevie to come tell you a bedtime story, you’re barking up the wrong stack of dead trees, but that’s kind of exactly how I think of him. A big chunk of his pages curled up with a cold diet Coke calm me down every time.

It’s just great to have something reliable in the middle of the unknown. Does anyone else feel like that about specific books or authors?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Doing it for money

Book: The First Time I Got Paid For It… Writer’s Tales from the Hollywood Trenches

Author: various (edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro)

Publication: 2000 (PublicAffairs)

Number of pages: 253

I bought this book for three reasons.

Except touch typing is even sexier.

  1. I love the cover.
  2. It was $5 at the 2011 Columbia BookFest. 
  3. I thought it’d be about prose writers who went to write in Hollywood for money to support their authorial East Coast drinking and typing habits, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald did.

And it is, sort of, but not really. It’s a collection of essays by screenwriters talking about the first time they felt like they really made it in the movie/TV business. Okay. Still an interesting premise.

I have very vague ideas about how screenwriting and Hollywood work, culled from books like these and a screenwriting friend. My friend’s been a much more informative source so far. Most of these essays are short, a good chunk are light, and so very, very many make jokes about how publicists aren’t actual human beings.

This might sound snobby but I promise it’s just ignorant: I don’t know how famous these people are. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, I found out from the foreword, so he’s cool with me. And they caught Cameron Crowe right before Almost Famous; his bio at the end of his essay says, “Crowe is currently in postproduction on a DreamWorks feature film due out in 2000, which was not yet titled at press time.” Totally Almost Famous. Alan Alda is of course from M*A*S*H, but he managed to confuse me in his first two paragraphs.
“I was writing my first episode of M*A*S*H in a hotel room…I came back to town for the second season of M*A*S*H, whose first season had paid for the house in the first place.”
It took me a second to realize he said he was writing HIS first episode. OH. RIGHT. There were other people writing for the show before him. Thus the two seasons he mentioned. Gotcha.

I didn’t get as much insight into the screenwriting mind as I wanted. I feel like prose writers and script writers have such different processes in the same general creative field that it’d be great to read them explain themselves to each other. Funny anecdotes are charming reads and mentions of odd day jobs gave me a couple possibilities, but dammit, I wanted to go deeper.

Ah well. I guess I can just watch Adaptation again and put a few more pieces together.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Swimming in bowls and others

Book: No One Belongs Here More Than You

Author: Miranda July

Publication: 2007 (Scribner)

Pages of story: 201

“It’s indie quirk, and I eat it up with a spoon.”

You know what’s awesome about being in a relationship with a fellow hipster-in-training bibliophile who gravitates toward any story described as “quirky”? If you can’t tell me, I’m not sure we can be friends, but here’s a hint you can pretend I didn’t give you: borrowing access to things like Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. (Growing vinyl collections and staring at each other through ridiculous sunglasses are also big parts of the fun.)

July’s stories are insightful, disturbing, joyful complexities teased from grains of life blown into absurdity that made me laugh and then wonder if I should feel ashamed of myself for laughing. She touches on (no pun intended, I swear; oh now I feel so dirty completing this clause) perverse sexual relationships without acting like they’re anything out of the ordinary; she talks about a girl who teaches three senior citizens to swim by coaching them the right moves while they’re face down in bowls of water in her living room like it was a natural progression from overhearing the oldsters talking about how they couldn’t swim. (That was my favorite story, “Swim Team.”) She digs into insecurities and presents the weird ways her characters deal with them like she knows we all have weird ways of dealing with them, and that’s alright, that’s cool, that’s good and the way to go.

I also liked that she doesn’t use quotation marks. In the wrong hands, this drives your Constant Reader to book-throwing frustration because why the hell did you do this, writer? Because it LOOKS PRETTY? NOT AN ANSWER. July totally gets away with it, though. It’s clear enough whether her characters are talking or thinking, and at the same time lack of quotation marks brings their external and internal ideas closer together.

Good stuff. I’m off to Read Constantly. Lots of good words to you.

Of gods and little fishes.

Book: Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1: The Lightning Thief

Author: Rick Riordan

Published: 2005 (Miramax Books)

I think I’ve gotten all the title in the right order. I picked this one up at Sid and Nancy’s consignment shop in Five Points, Columbia SC during my last week of school up there.

A dark full bookshelf labeled BOOK EXCHANGE—TAKE A BOOK, LEAVE A BOOK sits among secondhand shoes and racks of other people’s pants and old doors strung with bath curtains for dressing rooms. Being the math wizard that all journalism students are required to become (much to our collective dismay), I figured if I brought five of my own books I didn’t want and left them, I could take five interesting books with me and whatever vintage clothes I could afford that weekend. Percy Jackson Book 1 (like hell am I going to write that whole title out each time) came back with me.

I didn’t start reading it until about a week after I moved back to North Augusta, but once I started it read like a horse at a good gallop: fast and smooth and exciting.

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s aimed at the decade below mine (my fifth-grade teacher mom says her students like the series), but I got too caught up in the story to remember that. Which, Constant Reader, is great praise.
It’s a great adventure, nicely told with sentences that move the action along but aren’t overloaded. Percy’s a snarky 12-year-old with his heart in the right place, and he always acts and talks exactly like that. His mom is Absolute Good and his stepfather is Absolute Evil but they’re not predictable, mostly because the situation isn’t either.

I really liked the Greek mythology system as a backbone, instead of a world completely made up by the author, because it makes it harder to justify a des ex machina. I guess you could call that ironic, huh? But established outside mythology makes it harder for the author to break his own rules. Plus it’s funny to see how Riordan uses the real world and the mythology world to influence each other without taking liberties.

Long review short, I enjoyed this book a lot. It was fun, and fun is good. Fun is excellent.

My happy face.

Your constant reader.

I’m the Constant Reader. No, seriously. I read all the damn time.

As a newly graduated journalism student who moonlights as a bibliophile and fictionist (wow, Microsoft Word, I thought I just made that up. Or did I blow your tiny little spell-check mind SO MUCH that you will now leave me alone forever? Let’s hope), I have a lot of time and a lot of unread books piled up.

Yeah. Like these.
So I’m going to be your friendly tour guide through my opinions about what I read between applying for normal people employment and trying to make my own writing grow.

I’m heavily partial to literary fiction, although I’m getting bored with it (one more Melodramatic Things Happen to Saintly People book and I will punch all the symbolically important corn in Iowa) and am dipping my toes into science fiction; I don’t understand poetry but I know people who do (hi Thomas!). My top five favorite authors are Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Lionel Shriver, Jeffery Eugenides, and Stephen King when he’s writing novellas.

Context is important, y’all. As is noting that I’ve lived in South Carolina my entire life so I can totally get away with using that. Uh huh. Let’s get to the good stuff already.