Posts Tagged With: Books

That Book

 

My rather large collection of books could politely be called “eclectic.” Impolitely, you might accuse their owner (me) of suffering from a multiple-personality disorder, because there’s no way that some of those suckers should exist in the same universe, let alone the same bookshelf. Fact is, I sample giddily from many different genres and a wide variety of authors. In my library you’ll find everything from high-brow literary tomes to … well, paperbacks that feature words like “heaving” and “throbbing.”

I’m not proud of that.

Though I sometimes try to organize my collection, several of the books have apparently become migratory over the years. For the life of me, I can’t explain how Jeffry Eugenides’ Middlesex ended up next to Retired Racing Greyhounds For Dummies. And just the other day, I found my lost copy of The Hunger Games hiding beneath Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Among the stacks and shelves there are some books that I seem to gravitate back to again and again and again. Sometimes I do that because they’re brilliant, although many of them certainly are not. Sometimes, it’s because of a neat plot twist or marvelous dialogue. Sometimes, I have to admit, it’s because a book crosses my mind and I can’t believe just how awful it was … so I go back and read it again to verify that YES, it really was that awful. It’s like a perpetual state of denial. (I regularly go back to certain restaurants for the same reason.)

The point is that every so often I get a craving for that book. That specific book. And heaven help me if I can’t find it, because I will tear the place apart until I do. They’re like my comfort food for the brain. They’re like popcorn. Only made out of paper. And you don’t eat them. Okay, so it was a bad metaphor.

Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to occasionally share a few selections from my That Book list,  along with a very brief explanation or at least a mea culpa. Mind you, the criterion for these books is that they are still in my reading rotation after at least five years. Some of them I’ve had for over twenty years.

I hope you’ll tell me about your version of the That Book list too! Seriously, don’t leave me hanging out here all alone with only my embarrassment for company! Please?

In no particular order:

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In Soviet Russia, book writes author! Seriously, Solzhenitsyn spent years incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp, and it shines through in this stark ‘day in the life’ account.  I must have read it a hundred times and I still feel a sense of suspense as to whether Ivan will somehow manage to get on the sick list.

Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax is possibly the greatest character in the history of characters, and Nanny Ogg can be Robin to my Batman any old day. The Time Of The Thing With The Bulls is side-splittingly funny. Honestly, pretty much all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels (those published prior to 2009) are destined to remain on my That Book list.

Debt Of Honor Tom Clancy

In my experience, books written by Tom Clancy must breed with each other. Seems like you can’t hit a garage sale or thrift shop without finding several Clancy books lurking on the shelves and looking furtive. I also have to say that Clancy’s series around character Jack Ryan used to be pretty good, until he ran out of ideas or started using a ghostwriter or something. Then they sucked.Out of all of them, I give this one the nod because it has a good balance with a fairly credible story and a nice ensemble cast of characters.

All Quiet On The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

A tale of young German soldiers in the trenches of World War I, this book is even less uplifting than Ivan Denisovich, which just should not be possible. But it’s an insightful and unflinching masterpiece of writing. If it didn’t hit a required reading list for you in High School, and even if it did, I do sincerely recommend it.

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

As a rule, I don’t like anything hinting of Chick-Lit. I just can’t relate to the genre at all. But I like Bridget Jones a lot! I love the self-deprecation of the writing and the great dialogue. (Although sometimes I get lost in the British-ness of it all.) Bridget’s meticulously kept daily log of lost/gained weight, cigarettes smoked, and alcohol units consumed just cracks me up.

A Good Day to Die (Star Trek: I.K.S. Gorkon, Book 1) – Keith R.A. Decandido

Yes, this is one I ought to be ashamed of.

It’s a Star Trek book.

Actually, it’s a book about Klingons.

Klingons with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Captain Klag throws his head back and laughs heartily. Doctor B’Oraq tugs on her braid which happens to be adorned with a pin of her family crest. Commander Kurak grasps her right wrist with her left hand when she’s irritated … which is always. Lieutenant Leskit’s Cardassian neck-bone necklace rattles when he moves. These things happen EVERY SINGLE TIME one of these characters appears in any scene in any book of the I.K.S. Gorkon series. It’s a wonder there’s room for a plot. But doggone it, I do love that Klingon perspective and for some reason, I just … keep re-reading this series.

How about you? What’s on your That Book list?

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Categories: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | 14 Comments

Somewhere In The Middle

Nope, somewhere in the middle is not a commentary on my political views, my social status, or even where I like to sit in a movie theater. Somewhere in the middle represents my philosophy on storytelling.

I was raised, and I’ll bet you were too, on the sorts of tales that began with “Once upon a time.” We always had a nice run up to the plot in those days, right? There’s this princess, beautiful of course, born in a castle in a fair land, and her parents loved her, and they were all happy—even the servants and serfs and vassals and…and the gosh-darn vermin were happy! But the queen apparently dropped dead of gangrene from an injury sustained in a loom malfunction, or from inbreeding, who knows? And the king got lonely and married some vindictive cow with a touch of the eldritch who doesn’t like kids, and NOW we’re going to find out what the actual story is all about.

(Note: If it’s a movie version, the story begins when the narrator finally shuts up. Unless the narrator is Morgan Freeman, in which case screw the story and let the man talk! I’d listen to Morgan Freeman narrating a shopping list.)

With all respect to the old traditions, it’s just not my thing. If I’m going to put my readers through an elaborate set-up, I make very sure I have a good reason for it. Otherwise, I’d rather start things off like this:

“That’s going to leave a mark.”

First line of my short story (novel-in-progress) Choreography.

The gun felt reassuring in my hand.

First line of the first chapter of my novella, The Bluff.

I tossed my duffle bag into the trunk, slammed it shut with more force than necessary, then turned.

First line of the short-short story, Volition.

His breath was stale. She would never forget that.

First line of my current novel-in-progress.

 

See what I did there? Four different stories, of varying lengths, with diverse points of view and completely different plots, but I drop kicked you straight into the middle, didn’t I? You don’t know these characters. You don’t know their names, their ages, their backgrounds, and with one exception you don’t even know their genders. These things don’t actually matter at this juncture. What you do know is that something is going on.

What’s going to leave a mark? Why does that person need the reassurance of a firearm? Someone tossing duffle bags and slamming trunks with more force than necessary is clearly a person with something on her (or his) mind…and wouldn’t you like to know what that something is? And hey, he of the stale breath is certainly making a memorable impression on her. Why?

If I’ve done my job right, I sprinkled a little itching powder across those introductory sentences. I’ve generated a question or two in your mind. And the only way you’ll be able to scratch that itch is to read the next sentence.

If I’d started with a vast meandering lead-up to the problem at hand, you still might read the story, but it’s also possible that you’ll wander off to play Angry Birds or check email or trim that pesky toenail that keeps snagging your sock or something. Instead, I’ve generated a sense of immediacy by dropping you in the middle instead of easing you through a beginning. Think of it as the difference between the beach and the ocean. You can stand on the beach forever and not even get wet, but if you get dropped smack into the water, I bet you’re going to start swimming.

At least, I would.

Oh, but in the interest of complete honesty, I have made one notable exception to the middle rule. I’ll talk about that another day.

Throwing out a question for the writers and readers out there: How do you like to start off a story?

Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writers On Writing – Three Favorites

There are a lot of good books out there by writers, for writers. None of them, let’s be honest, will turn you (or me, or the crazy cat lady down the street…oh wait, that is me) into the next Big Name Author. When push comes to shove, it still comes down to you and the dreaded blank page.

But the thing about reading advice by authors is that they also know what it’s like to sit down to the dreaded blank page, and they have a track record of having wrestled it into submission.

This interests me.

In any case, I’m going to share three books (and a bonus book) that I’ve found myself going back to time and again. I would love it if you, in turn, would share your gems with me! Mind you, these are books that I consider inspirational as well as instructive. You won’t find Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style here…but hopefully you’ve got that one on your bookshelf already. Right?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

Two things right off the bat. Number one: I don’t read King’s fiction. In fact, I don’t like the horror genre. Never have, never will, prefer to sleep at night thank you very much. Number two: If you never read any other author-to-author advice book in your entire life, read this one. You can even skip the memoir-y parts if you want and skip to the section that explains the nuts and bolts of the craft. But READ that section. Several times. Use a highlighter pen if you have one. In fact, post-high school, this is the only book I have ever used a highlighter pen on, and I would do it again. King is chock-full of terrific, pragmatic and accessible advice. You need this guy.

How To Write With The Skill Of A Master And The Genius Of A Child – Marshall J. Cook

This is definitely a lesser known book, especially in comparison to the aforementioned one, but it’s a good one. Marsh Cook spent many a long year as a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he’s published everything from magazine articles to murder mysteries. (Not to mention, Your Novel Proposal From Creation to Contract : The Complete Guide to Writing Query Letters, Synopses, and Proposals for Agents and Editors co-written by Marshall Cook and Blythe Camenson. There are times when I cling to that book like a drowning man clings to a friendly passing dolphin.)

Anyway, Marsh (I can call him Marsh, he signed my copy that way) writes with a very clear style; teaching and encouraging but never condescending. With equal parts common sense and good-natured humor, he gives a writer new things to consider and several ways to think outside the box. If you’re really stuck, there are even a few optional writing assignments and exercises to play with

Granted, there are a lot of writing books out there that cover much the same territory as this one, but out of them all, this is the one that has a permanent place on my book shelf and gets put through its paces on a regular basis.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Ann Lamott

For sheer inspiration and earthy fun, not to mention a terrifically well-crafted read, I go back to Ann Lamott time and time again. She makes me thoughtful, she makes me laugh, she is unflinchingly honest about the trials and tribulations of the craft, but she knows (like I know) that writers write. It’s what we do, and even when we hate it, we love it. Her humor is earthy and down to earth. Not too many books have one chapter called “Broccoli,” and another called, “Shitty First Drafts,” but they are both well worth reading. The best thing about Bird By Bird? When I put it down, I am inspired not just by Lamott’s advice, but also by her writing style. She is a writer who truly charges my batteries and makes me want to throw aside my self-doubts and serial-procrastination habits and just get on with conquering that dreaded blank page. Heck, it’s probably not so dread-worthy after all.

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