For a long time I thought that this book was about how to write the kind of story that makes a best-seller, or a big Hollywood movie. But when McKee s...moreFor a long time I thought that this book was about how to write the kind of story that makes a best-seller, or a big Hollywood movie. But when McKee started talking (I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author) about the structure of Tender Mercies as his idea of a tightly plotted story, I had to revise that opinion. By the time I got a quarter through the book, I had to take the hardcover (which I also had bought at some time) and put it in the bag I'm taking on my writing retreat later this month. It's important enough that I know I'll have to refer to it more than once.
In short, McKee is interested in how stories work on their readers or viewers, and he has analyzed that work and how it works. Using examples that range from The Terminator to Hamlet, he tries to give us the tools we need to understand what we write and make it better, no matter what kind of story it is. (He does dismiss certain kinds of stories, but mostly because no one is really interested in reading, for example, static teenage angst.)
This is definitely a book to read more than once, to annotate, and to keep handy. It's going on my shelf of indispensable books about writing.(less)
When you have three distinct personalities involved in telling a story -- Gore Vidal, Aaron Burr, and Charles Schuyler, the narrator of Burr -- it's h...moreWhen you have three distinct personalities involved in telling a story -- Gore Vidal, Aaron Burr, and Charles Schuyler, the narrator of Burr -- it's hard to tell who is reliable and who isn't. Of those three, I'm most inclined to trust Schuyler, who has nothing to gain by misleading us. Burr is the least trustworthy, and Vidal is a question mark.
Oh, yes, I'm sure that everything is as historically accurate as Vidal claims, but history is susceptible of interpretation, and historical personalities especially so. On the other hand, how can I tell how much of my annoyance with the attitudes in the book stems from the way certain figures are treated. I rather like Thos. Jefferson, whom Burr speaks of only with contempt. And Burr's first wife came from my home town, which is also treated with some disdain. In fact, most of the political figures of the first half-century of the Republic are spoken of with contempt, except Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren (rumored in the book to be Burr's natural son), and Burr himself.
On the other hand, the storytelling is masterful, even though we must know the end of Burr's story when we start the book (he dies; you did know that, right?). There are some minor mysteries about his attitudes toward some people, and about who is and is not his son, but everything else is according to the true history. Yet Vidal keeps us involved, if not guessing, to the end (where we are rewarded with one more mild surprise).
I've never read anything by Vidal that makes me believe his books will be read a hundred years from now, but his take on history makes him interesting now, at least.(less)
Damon Knight recommended this book to me when it was new, and for some reason I never quite got around to it until recently. Perhaps I suspected that...moreDamon Knight recommended this book to me when it was new, and for some reason I never quite got around to it until recently. Perhaps I suspected that a biologist wouldn't really have much to say about human history that was new and interesting.
If that's what I thought, I was wrong. Historians have tried over the years to find basic rules for how history works. I've done it myself (although not in print). Diamond seems to have found a few that really work.
They only work over the long run, but the edition I have, which includes a couple of chapters added to the original, shows that even relatively contemporary trends can be understood (or better understood) in the context of biogeographical distributions dating back thousands of years. I won't do the argument the disservice of trying to summarize it in a few words, but as it comes together the dominant impression it leave is, "Considering the data, this all makes sense." The reason Europeans conquered the world isn't because they are smarter or stronger or more Christian or anything, in fact, about them at all. They just got lucky in terms of biodiversity and the axis of their continent.
If you have an interest in how our world came to be how it is, this may just be one of the fundamental texts.(less)
I actually listened to this one, and not to all of it. Much as I like John Stewart and Sigourney Weaver (who reads the chapter headings) and the Daily...moreI actually listened to this one, and not to all of it. Much as I like John Stewart and Sigourney Weaver (who reads the chapter headings) and the Daily Show gang, this was just too much of a one-trick pony. Maybe as a book, where you can browse it a bit, maybe with lunch each day or on the toilet, it works better. But as a listening experience, where you listen to more or less the same joke over and over, not so much. It isn't even so much a joke as an attitude. And once it's been established, it doesn't seem to have anywhere to go. So I got about halfway through and decided I had better things to do with my time.(less)
Muriel Spark is always a pleasure and a surprise. Yes, many of her central characters are writers or artists, but they are not the same writer or arti...moreMuriel Spark is always a pleasure and a surprise. Yes, many of her central characters are writers or artists, but they are not the same writer or artist time after time. Fleur Talbot, the novelist whose memoir of writing her first novel constitutes this novel, is a narrator of uncertain reliability.
The novel is set in immediately post-War London, with many goods still rationed and many men fairly recently back from the War. Fleur finds a job with Sir Quentin Oliver and his autobiography society (other people's autobiographies, that is), and the novel she writes while working for him has a number of disconcerting parallels to events in his society. Did her novel (a copy of which, she says, has been stolen from her rented room) inspire those events, or take them as models? We know what Fleur tells us, but there is no other voice to confirm her information. In one sense, we have no choice but to believe her, and yet -- there is something about her that is sufficiently self-involved that this reader, at any rate, never came to trust her entirely.
That doesn't make the book unsatisfying, unless you demand a pat ending. It's a marvelous read, short-listed for the Booker in 1981, when it was published. But if you want the expected, you shouldn't be reading Spark anyway.(less)