I should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleI should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleasure in reading works such as How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.
This is not a dry textbook, though it does include writing exercises if you are interested. This is a quick read, but you would be wise to take your time. Each chapter is packed with great ideas about writing effectively at the sentence level. The book declares a relationship between analysis and appreciation. By extension, analysis and appreciation set one on a course to writing great sentences.
As this is a theory book, not a record of proven grammatical laws, you may find yourself disagreeing with various points the author makes. I did. Then he would point out his awareness of the very objections I was having. Astute, to stay the least. If you want to be a great writer, books like this are something to invest your time in. A great way to revisit fundamentals without killing the spirit of what makes writing so fulfilling: expression....more
It feels like a spoiler to say that Herman Koch's The Dinner is a psychological thriller. It starts out as conventional family drama. Its destinationIt feels like a spoiler to say that Herman Koch's The Dinner is a psychological thriller. It starts out as conventional family drama. Its destination in the land of thriller, about halfway through the story, felt like the book's big twist. Surprise, this is not a domestic melodrama; it is something far darker and more dangerous! Yet, since the first third of this novel was so damn tedious and unlikable in its culinary context, I'll risk the sin of spoiling. This novel becomes a psychological thriller. Get ready to be shocked.
From start to finish, The Dinner is well written (and translated). Yet it relies on one of the cheapest and easiest tools for suspense. We are told almost immediately by the first-person narrator that there is a secret. Well of course I'm going to keep reading then. Throughout the novel, the narrator hints at more tactical secrets, secrets he is keeping first and foremost from us the readers. Little choice but to read on.
What saves the novel from being cheap and easy is increasing depth of character. Add to that the temptation to change sympathies as new revelations take place. All of this feeds on the increasingly irresistible need to know how this dangerous situation will turn out. Again, I feel I am spoiling The Dinner just a little by saying that. I wisely opted not to read the dust jacket flap material beforehand. I went into the novel almost completely cold. This allowed me the maximum amount of surprise as the story unfolded.
I have said almost nothing about the plot. All you need to know is in the title. It's about a dinner. The less you know the better. Suffice it to say that by the end there will probably be things you wished you did not know. Notwithstanding being weirded out, you might proclaim as I did on Twitter, "Great novel."...more
There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disThere is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."
Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.
For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.
Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II....more
Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges theirPaul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges their disparate storytelling styles. In this novel, the stately bureaucratic world of Episode III provides a framework which is quickly torn asunder--quite entertainingly--by the Wild West outer rim of Episode IV. This book comes as close to being the Star Wars novel I’ve hoped for since the now long ago and far away Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.
In Lords of the Sith, we encounter an early attempt at a rebellion against the Empire. We follow a younger, more acrobatic Darth Vader. He flanks a quite nimble Emperor Palpatine eager to take his eerie needling personality on the road. They head for Ryloth, a planet key to Galactic Trade...no, no, don’t tune me out. This novel is no trudging prequel mired in trade negotiations. We get just enough political background to justify Vader and the Emperor taking a Star Destroyer to Ryloth to quell insurrection. Almost immediately, battle breaks out and does not stop until the novel ends.
As for the nascent rebel band scheming on Ryloth, I did not find any of them especially memorable. Isval, a hot-blooded second in command is easily the most interesting. She reminds me of a younger, impetuous Luke Skywalker, though without being a brat. The cast is not especially large, which serves the novel well. We get to know a few people, spend appropriate amounts of time witnessing their internal monologues, before embarking on the next action sequence.
As stories go, Lords of the Sith owes more to Episodes IV through VI than the prequels. It’s a relatively lean ensemble piece. There is even a bit of romance, similar to what we see between Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. Isval and the rebel leader Cham struggle to keep their feverish attraction at bay while chasing Vader and the Emperor to the surface of Ryloth. Most of this novel sees Vader and Palpatine on the run, but eager to make tactical stands and show off their Sith abilities. Making them, and their loyal soldiers, the novel’s prey, creates occasional odd moments of worrying about their safety.
This is an exciting novel. It does not obsess with tying every tiny string of subplot together from the movies it fits between. The plot is simple, the characters interesting if conventional. Perhaps its greatest weakness, in my mind at least, is its relative lack of humor or charm. Everyone is very serious and broodingly aware of their place in the galaxy. The novel is exciting, but it lacks the character-driven charm of Episodes IV and V. Yet, this is something I feel all Star Wars novels I’ve read lack. Capturing that charm may be impossible, given it was created by an ensemble of talent, not solely by George Lucas. So I suppose the next best thing is a really good chase across the deep of space to an exotic world tailor-made for adventure. Lords of the Sith is precisely that. ...more
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilSeeking a Particular Charm
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.
The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)
Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.
A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward
Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!
The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.
In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.
These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.
Wendig the Tinkerer
If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.
Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.
As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”
Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.
The Fate of Canons
At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”
Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.
As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most....more
Jon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subjeJon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subject matter with a dash of empathy via writing that drives to the point. So long as a group of people have come to both talk AND listen, Lost at Sea in particular makes for good discussion.
Our book club leader made a great choice to direct the evening’s conversation by asking a question for each chapter. Since each chapter covers a different story, that enabled us to cover the bulk of the material in a single meeting. Given that some of the stories in this book are troubling, one about pedophilia being the most obvious example, reactions had a cathartic element to them. We were getting our reactions off our chests so to speak. Ronson has a gift for getting people to open up, interviewees and readers alike.
That may be at once the greatest strength and risk in Lost at Sea: depicting people with the appearance of extremist tendencies in a manner that makes them sympathetic or even likable. Some readers may not wish to experience empathy for a pedophile. Ronson, as our book club has noted more than once, risks liking his subjects. This informs his writing, keeping it from becoming detached. Whether contemplating an Alaskan town that relies on the Santa Clause myth as means of denial in the face of violent threats, or robot makers whose lifelike creations beg all sorts of existential fretting, Ronson lets things get personal. His is not the safest form of journalism. For readers like me, that makes his books all the more worth reading.
I recommend Lost at Sea to be read with a friend or group. Read and then talk AND listen, like Ronson does....more
It may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic noIt may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic novel, the serial nature of this publication seems explicit. That being said, DC Comics ultimately packaged and sold this multi-part story as a single work, which is how I encountered it this weekend. Special thanks to the group of local public libraries that diligently engage in inter-library loan, making it possible for me to read this work at no charge in one of its delightfully color-saturated 1993 editions.
The title of The Death of Superman is also a good summation of the plot. From the first chilling ram of super villain Doomsday’s fist against his subterranean prison wall, this entire story is all setup and execution (pun intended) of Superman’s demise. I am not cynical about this, sincerely. Comic books are forever reinventing and re-adapting their icons. Superman the icon was never in jeopardy, just this particular incarnation of him in the comic book realm. And I think periodically killing off our superheroes is a perfectly worthwhile narrative experiment.
There are a handful of highly suspenseful moments, in the context of a story whose title is a wanton spoiler. At one point, Superman has to choose between rescuing a victim trapped in a fire or completing the more tactically important task of keeping Doomsday busy. Another gripping moment, late in the story, involves Lois Lane trying to convince Superman not to kill Doomsday--because killing is not what Superman does. What a shame the authors wait until the final pages to hastily address what could have been the paramount moral question of the novel.
The creators of The Death of Superman do not spend significant time, or emphasis, on character study. If this had been a graphic novel in genesis, perhaps they would have. But this is actually a high action, multi-part story originally told in monthly comic book form. With token exceptions like those mentioned above, it is a single relentless action sequence. In this respect, I found it grandly successful. Yet, it hits with all of the intellectual nuance of the last 30 minutes of any given superhero flick. Exciting? Yes. Thought-provoking? Not especially.
The creators can’t even be bothered to supply an aftermath. Superman dies. The end. They may have supplied a proper aftermath in the monthly single magazine format, but not in the graphic novel form in which this story now exists.
Like I indicated earlier, The Death of Superman is all setup and execution of a single story beat. And the setup is lots and lots of fighting and chasing. There is a TV interview sequence spliced into the battle. It plays as overt exposition, with all of the charm of a just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Nothing subtle or gray here.
Still I am glad I read this work. I was entertained. Superman has always been a messiah story, rightfully so. Messiahs usually die. Their mission seemingly demands it. Yet there is a risk for authors of getting lost in the spectacle of the hero’s demise. When this happens, something that could have been thoughtful winds up feeling merely sensational. In the context of a proper sendoff, that seems a missed opportunity to say the least...more