Stephen King, On Writing/Secret Windows (Scribner's, 2000 and BOMC, 2000) [originally posted 6Nov2000]
"Most of the things you find in books on writing aStephen King, On Writing/Secret Windows (Scribner's, 2000 and BOMC, 2000) [originally posted 6Nov2000]
"Most of the things you find in books on writing are bullshit." How can you not like a book on writing that begins so endearingly? Shortly after, King makes a promise to keep the book as short as possible, and for King, he does an admirable job (it weighs in under 300 pages, a short story for this guy). Capitalizing on the publication of On Writing, Book of the Month Club (who are the behind-the-scenes orchestrators of the Stephen King Book Club) contracted with the man to release a companion volume to it called Secret Windows as well.
Much of what King writes in On Writing is simple common sense ("the adverb is not your friend..."), but some of it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. King is a situational writer as opposed to a plotter, and the vast majority of "how to write your novel in days"-style writers' manuals are written by plotters. This alone makes the book valuable to the struggling author; when everyone's told you one thing, and it doesn't work for you, hearing someone validate another way to do things is sometimes the most important thing that can happen to you. And King delivers his advice in simple, straightforward prose, providing examples when necessary (at the very end, he gives us the opening paragraphs of Blood and Smoke's "1408," both in rough and finished drafts, and it's probably the best example of revision I've seen in a how-to-write book). Good, solid stuff, probably the best I've read in recent years, since Natalie Goldberg's first two books.
But even that isn't what makes this book shine. We're all aware that much of what separates great writers from run-of-the-mill hacks is the ability to take one's own events and make mincemeat of them on the page. The first hundred pages of this volume are an encapsulated autobiography of King. It's impressionist, deadpan, as minimal as it can be to give us an idea of where all these books came from (no, he doesn't really get his ideas in Utica). And while all of King's writing is marked with a particular kind of honesty that resonates with the average reader, these hundred pages stand out. If it's possible to be more than completely honest, he's done it.
Secret Windows is a compilation. Most of it's been previously published. There are a few things here that bear re-reading, a few unpublished (and perhaps should have remained that way, such as the early stuff from his brother's homemade newspaper), and one of King's early attempts at a one-voice tale, a style he mastered in Dolores Claiborne, called "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet." I can't remember whether this made it into Nightmares and Dreamscapes or not (can't find a full listing of N&D's contents online) [ed. note 2013: no], but if not, this story alone, about an editor's slow descent into alcoholic madness, with its catalyst a story by an already-insane writer, is worth the price of admission. It is not an easily-forgotten piece of work.
Taken together, the two make a good pair: a book on how to write and a collection of fiction, nonfiction, and interviews dealing with the craft of writing. The average non-writing Stephen King fan may be left cold, but for the writer (or the writer wannabe who's never attempted; if you liked Misery better than most King novels, you qualify), they're gold nuggets in the river.
Stephen King, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (Plume, 1989) [originally posted 17Jan2000]
By the time Plume released the first book in the DStephen King, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (Plume, 1989) [originally posted 17Jan2000]
By the time Plume released the first book in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, it had achieved almost legendary status. Copies of the first edition, printed by Donald M. Grant, were going for $1250 on the auction block; the copies of Fantasy and Science Fiction containing the original stories were going for over $100 apiece. Then Plume brought out a trade paper edition, and to some extent the bottom fell out of the market.
What's a fair price for a limited edition of an artist's work? And how can you trust anyone who says it's said artist's best work? There are those who will believe that about any limited edition piece of work by any popular artist, certainly; by 1986, I was convinced that The Gunslinger was the holy grail, the be-all and end-all of Stephen King books. And then one of my classmates at college, a guy whose father was a friend of Grant's, put a copy into my hand. I couldn't take it out of his room, of course-- it was worth about the cost of my meal plan for the year at that time-- but I could immerse myself in it for a while. And I did, for two days straight. And while it didn't have the solid, brutal power of The Stand, it had its own blissful, somewhat surreal magnetism. Trying to compare it to other Stephen King novels was like trying to compare Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai with John Sayles' The Return of the Secaucus Seven; there are some elements that pass from film to film, but the heart beneath it all is a radically different beast. Still, the human mind is destined to attempt to compare, and at that time I considered The Gunslinger the second-best book Stephen King had ever written.
Three years later, after I'd already worn out my first trade paper copy of The Gunslinger and made a failed attempt to purchase a copy of the hardback edition of The Drawing of the Three in a small Maine bookshop for $115 (it went for approximately $200, if memory serves), Plume brought out the second book in the series. This time, the transition from hardback to trade paper took less than six months. I bought, I retired to a place where no one could find me. I read.
News flash: The Drawing of the Three is even better than The Gunslinger.
No one who's ever even heard the name Stephen King needs to be told about the plot of the Dark Tower; there's a guy named Roland, and he's on a quest for... you get the idea. We find out about some of the allusions given us in The Gunslinger, we find out limited information about some others, and there are some other things brought up that have no explanation as of the end of this book (a new character form the old time, Alain, is introduced, and Roland gives us enough so that we know he was in the same class as Roland, and that Roland and Cuthbert killed him, presumably in a duel; we get all that in a sentence or two, and nothing else). We also find out the meaning of the Tarot-like reading Walter performs on Roland at the end of The Gunslinger. But we're left with as many, or more, questions than we had at the beginning of book one.
If the beginning of The Gunslinger put you off, don't worry about this one. Where The Gunslinger makes attempts to seduce the reader into Roland's world by putting him down gently and leaving him to his own devices, more or less, The Drawing of the Three begins with a scene that, coming from the world of The Gunslinger, is almost impossible to believe. It is, I think I can say, the most powerful scene in the series to date, and it has stayed with me from my first reading of those first pages up to now, ten years later. And this time, even though I knew it was coming, I still didn't believe it. That's good, solid storytelling.
I doubt the Dark Tower series is going to become immortal prose, and I doubt a thousand years from now it will be taught in schools as archetypal twentieth-century literature (as I believe The Stand will be), but from the perspective of Dark-Tower-as-part-of-the-corpus, this is some of King's finest material, and while King has written a number of damned fine books, The Drawing of the Three is without a doubt somewhere in the top five. **** 1/2 ...more
Imagine you wake up one morning and find that, as far as you can tell, you are the last living being leftThomas Glavinic, Night Work (Canongate, 2006)
Imagine you wake up one morning and find that, as far as you can tell, you are the last living being left on Earth. What would you do?
This is the premise of Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, his third novel (though the first to be translated into English). First off, let me warn you to ignore the copy on the back cover, which calls this a fast-paced thriller; it is anything but. Instead, it's a deliberately-paced novel of existential crisis taken to the extreme; the kind of thing Sartre might have been on about had he decided to take a crack at writing a fantasy novel.
Our hero is named Jonas, and not surprisingly given my opening paragraph, Night Work concerns his activities as (as far as he knows) the last living being left on Earth. Jonas, we quickly find out, is not a model of mental stability, and do much of his action focuses on trying not to lose his mind. In Glavinic's eyes, however, that seems to be an inevitable consequence of isolation, and we find ourselves watching his slow slide into insanity. There is one possible saving grace: Jonas' girlfriend, who was off in Britain at the time of whatever catastrophe caused the extinction of the rest of the planet's life. Stephen King once equated Hartford with hope; for Jonas, it's England.
It's an extremely interesting concept, the writing of an entire book with only a single character, and as an experiment, it's a great idea. I'm not sure the execution came out as well as planned; it seems Glavinic could have done a lot more with this conceit than he actually did. I readily admit that this is probably more a personal than a professional reaction on my part, as I simply couldn't identify with Jonas' anxiety from the very beginning; it seems to me that if one finds oneself in this kind of situation, the first priorities one should have would be more pragmatic, like stocking up on food and getting as many perishables as possible into the deep freeze. (I have this same problem with characters who just wander around clueless at the beginnings of zombie novels.) Because of that, I found myself considering the first few days of Jonas' enforced isolation as needlessly manipulative on Glavinic's part, and I never could shake that feeling as I kept reading. Still, the farther I got into it, and the more insight I got into Jonas' character, the more believable his actions became-- even his continually putting off going to England to see if his girlfriend had also survived. (I'm not going to let you in on whether he ever actually goes or not, you'll have to find out for yourself.) It's Jonas' character, and the gradual way in which Glavinic reveals it, that makes this book more existential drama than psychological thriller, as well; while there's obviously a plot here, it does take a back seat to Jonas' ruminating over his situation on many occasions, and the book puts me far more in mind of Sartre than it does, say, Dean Koontz.
Not bad. Worth reading if you're a fan of the character-driven novel. ***
This was L'Heureux's debut novel, but don't let that put you off; he was already an accomplished short story writer and poet. Oftentimes, short storyThis was L'Heureux's debut novel, but don't let that put you off; he was already an accomplished short story writer and poet. Oftentimes, short story writers and poets can't make the transition to the novel form, but that's not the case here. L'Heureux gives us the story of a husband, a wife, an insane murderess, and her homosexual bodyguard, and more than anything, underneath the gore and glitz, L'Heureux's real intention is to examine the relationships between these people.
There are few authors, in these days when the gods no longer have truck with humanity, that attempt to write tragedy in the classical Greek fashion. L'Heureux takes an inventive out by using insanity as the "god" whose mechanizations drive the narrative, and in doing so bring it closer to classical tragedy than to its modern cousin, metatheatre. It's a risky move, but one carried off extremely well by one of the American masters of letters. ...more
Flatland is one of those pseudo-scientific novels that has since become a piece of the scientific canon in the same way that Alice's Adventures in WonFlatland is one of those pseudo-scientific novels that has since become a piece of the scientific canon in the same way that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has; when attempting to explain theoretical physics to a class, and at a dead-end, a professor is most liekly to turn to an analogy from Flatland. Which makes sense. Flatland is the story of A. Square, a resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, and how he comes to understand that there are universes in every dimension. Previous to this, the idea of any universe but his own two-dimensional universe was unthinkable; by the end of the novel, he is positing the existence of a great, infinitely-dimensional being-- god. This is not surprising; Edwin Abbott was a theologist first and foremost. What is surprising is how modern eyes have seen this tale, and it gives us a perspective on the endless debate as to whether the author's belief about his story is the final and "right" one.
Abbott meant his book as a treatise on theoretical physics-- if at all-- in only a minor way. According to Abbott himself, his main goal in the writing of Flatland was to produce a kind of "satire of manners" on Victorian England. And, given what little I know of the ways of life in Victorian England, he seems to be right on the money. But what do I know? Abbott's assertion is backed up by the structure of the novel, certainly; the first hundred pages of this small (hundred fifty page) tome are devoted to the customs and mores of Flatland. How stinging a criticism they are of the values and mores of Victorian England is not for me to say. Thus, those of us who are not historians are left with the final fifty pages, and the impact of the first hundred pages upon them (which, aside form the knowledge gained therein, is minimal); and, at least as far as the physicists go, the book has metamorphosed into a trestise on theoretical physics.
I'm not a theoretical physicist, either, but I've always been interested in mathematics in a sort of hobbylike way, and the math presented in Flatland is good, solid theory that also happens to be thought-provoking. Seeing how A. Square's realization of how the third dimension works dawns on him, and seeing how Lord Sphere explains the mechanics of the third dimension to A. Square, it is easy to take those arguments and make them to postulate a theoretical fourth dimension (albeit one that is impossible to visualize, at least within the narrow scope of my mathematical knowledge) and its supercubes with sixteen points and eight faces, and the like.
The point is, however, we seem to have taken a minor part of the book's appeal to its original audience and made that its full appeal today. We still think it's good (or it wouldn't still be in print a hundred sixteen years after its release, no?), but we think different aspects of it are good. The opinions of the artist have passed on, and the work itself remains in a different perspective. ...more
Lionel Abel, Metatheatre (Hill and Wang, 1963) [originally posted 31Jan2000]
According to Lionel Abel, classic tragedy died with Macbeth, and a new kindLionel Abel, Metatheatre (Hill and Wang, 1963) [originally posted 31Jan2000]
According to Lionel Abel, classic tragedy died with Macbeth, and a new kind of pseudo-tragedy rose with Hamlet. Since "pseudo-tragedy" is a mouthful and Abel is a contemporary of those critics whose life's work, it would seem, was to add "meta-" to everything, Abel decided to call this new kind of drama "metatheatre." What is metatheatre? Simply put, it's the conversion of the tragic (anti-) hero's firm belief in forces outside his control-- the gods in Sophocles, or the Weird Sisters (Abel's take on them: a corruption of the Three Furies, a view I suspect myself) in Macbeth-- to the (anti-) hero's less firm belief in the motives of humanity, and more importantly, the (anti-) hero's ability to put on an act in order to deceive the other players. The layers of an onion-- the actor acting a part to the audience, and acting a different part to the other actors.
Hamlet, according to Abel, was the turning point. It not only contained this mechanism-- given free rein by letting the other actors in the play think Hamlet was mad, leaving Hamlet to essentially do what he liked—but was also metaphorized by the play-within-a-play Hamlet stages to uncover the treachery of his stepfather. If you believe Abel, Hamlet is, simply, the finest drama in the history of the form, and I'm not inclined to disagree. After this explication (a lucid and interesting one—unlike many) of Hamlet, Abel whirls us through the next three hundred odd years of playwriting, giving us examples of metatheatrical works which have been mislabeled as tragedy down through the ages, both in drama and fiction (he specifically contrasts Don Quixote with El Cid in one essay), and makes a strong case for metatheatre as a valid genre on the stage.
Unlike most works of theatrical criticism-- I'm not a big stage fan, so I find most of it way above my head-- Abel's little work is readable, understandable, and finishable by the average joe on the street with more than an eighth-grade education. It may even lead more people to want to experience the theatre (at least, as long as it stays away from musicals). A fine little achievement that I hope is still in print. ***...more
One often wonders, when one hears everyone and their brothers spouting superlatives about a poet from a historically repressive country, whether the sOne often wonders, when one hears everyone and their brothers spouting superlatives about a poet from a historically repressive country, whether the superlatives are based on the poet's actual work, or whether they're in some way based on the poet's admirable-- but irrelevant-- ability to perform within a culture that is repressive to the poet's art. In some cases, the superlatives are justified, for example Vladimir Holan's stunning book-length poem _A Night with Hamlet_, written while Holan was officially a non-person in Hungary in the sixties.
Akhmatova has been called "the greatest Russian woman poet ever, and perhaps the greatest woman poet ever." I can't help but think those lauding on these kinds of laurels are looking more at her life than her work. There are certainly flashes of great brilliance here, but to put Akhmativa's work up against that of, say, Elizabeth Bishop, Deborah Allbery, or even the underrated Dorianne Laux would quickly reveal many of its flaws.
This is not to say that Akhmatova's poetry is completely without merit, and one must be forced to consider the viability of the work of any translator who would consider "He, was it, through the packed hall/Sent you (or was it a dream?)" to be the best way to translate anything, much less poetry. And thus, perhaps, the original is far more eloquent than what we receive here. That taken into account, there is still the problem to contend with that much of Akhmatova's work is, for obvious reasons, overtly political, and makes no attempt to convey its message artistically; worse yet, a good deal of that work is imagist, impressionist. The end result is something that's thick, sludgy, and impossible to read.
However, every once in a while a good line will shine through, and occasionally we find ourselves staring at a poem that seems to exist well outside the boundaries of this particular collection:
* * *
And the town is frozen solid, leaded with ice.
Trees, walls, snow, seem to be under glass. Cautiously I tread on crystals. The painted sleighs can't seem to get a grip. And over the statue of Peter-in-Voronezh Are crows, and poplars, and a pale-green dome Washed-out and muddy in the sun-motes. The mighty slopes of the field of Kulikovo Tremble still with the slaughter of barbarians. And all at once the poplars, like lifted chalices, Enmesh more boisterously overhead Like thousands of wedding-guests feasting And drinking toasts to our happiness. And in the room of the banished poet Fear and the Muse take turns at the watch, And the night comes When there will be no sunrise.
* * *
Unfortunately, there's too little of this and too much of the rest. Giving the benefit of the doubt where the translation is concerned, I can still only manage ** 1/2. ...more
Let's not start with the spelling errors that are consistent enough that they can't be editorial mistakes. Let's not start with the subject matter, whLet's not start with the spelling errors that are consistent enough that they can't be editorial mistakes. Let's not start with the subject matter, which wavers over the line of political polemic once too often. Let's not start with the scareligious procedure of putting lines above the poem that explain it. Instead, let's start with the definition of poetry itself and the basic idea, always there even if not stated, that one of the primary functions of poetry is to elevate the language in some way, that indefinable something that makes you realize a poem is a poem and not just random thoughts brokwn up into lines.
There are times, more times than can be coincidence, that Wanda Coleman's work strays over that line of language elevation. The woman obviously has a command of the language that she is capable of unfolding and wielding with scalpel-like precision when she wants to:
when god passed out the baby fat she was first in line she wasn't pretty [enough] to be a j.a.p. lost her virginity in the back seat of a cadillac her shrink diagnosed her as manic repressive
anorexia as goddess words so think you're hungry again an hour after you eat them
but unfortunately such moments are all too rare in this eighteen-year two-hundred-twenty page compendium of work. Most of it sounds more like it came from the freely-flowing pen of those too drunk, or too tired, to do anything but automatic writing. While there are some poets who worked at their best that way-- Desnos, Bukowski, and a handful of others come to mind-- the majority who try to do it fail miserably.
she walks walking walked all through life walks restless like her people waiting to see what happens knowing it will never happen until after she's dead
...and the walking shall continue until we can walk no more.
Now, I'm all too willing to kick a lot of swine out of the way to find a few pearls, but there are some things that will make it an annoying process, like an inability to spell "enough" and "come" correctly for two hundred twenty pages-- especially when your command and grasp of the English language is at least at the college level. By the time I got to the end of it, I was skimming pretty hard. ...more
Plant pathology, and the development of modern methods of combating plant diseases, is probably not most peoples' first choice as far as what to readPlant pathology, and the development of modern methods of combating plant diseases, is probably not most peoples' first choice as far as what to read on a rainy night when you have nothing better to do. However, if you ever do get the urge, you could do a lot worse than Large's readable, and even somewhat absorbing, book on the subject. Starting with the first major outbreak of Potato Blight in Ireland in 1845, which resulted in the Irish Potato Famine, Large takes us through 1939 by looking at the ways in which science found ways to combat various diseases of crops throughout the world. Sounds dull, doesn't it? Well, it's not. Large is very good at explaining the things he's talking about, and he never gets above the reader's level of comprehension, while at the same time never talking down to the reader. A fascinating book, worth picking up if you happen across it in a used bookstore....more
While they were both still walking the earth, Graham Greene said of Brian Moore, "He is my favorite living novelist." And while Greene's place among tWhile they were both still walking the earth, Graham Greene said of Brian Moore, "He is my favorite living novelist." And while Greene's place among the canon for twentieth-century British literature is as solid as they come, I fear that (the late?) Brian Moore may toddle off into obscurity as we wander through the next century. As a writer of what I can only call "literary mysteries," Moore and his mentor, Greene, stand with a handful of others, almost all British-- Geoffrey Household and Stephen Gregory are, in fact, the only two I can think of off the top of my head, and they, too, are destined for obscurity.
In this, his eighteenth (and last?) novel, Moore gives us Pierre Brossard, a Vichy sergeant who was pardoned of his war crimes in 1971, but has since been re-charged with the international Crime Against Humanity for the murder of fourteen Jews at Dombey during WW2. Brossard has been hiding with the Roman Catholic church for forty-four years, moving from abbey to abbey, concealed both by the Vichy-sympathizing elements in Mother Church and higher-ups in the French government. But with these new charges come new dispensations from a new Juge D'instruction and a far more liberal Pope, and he finds the doors of many of his old hideaways closed to him again, just as a new terrorist group is sending assassins after him for the murder of the Dombey Jews.
The synopsis of the book on its jacket doesn't really give much in the way of hope for this being all too gripping a novel; to continue the comparisons to Greene, this is more an End of the Affair than it is a Third Man. But that doesn't mean it's still not a cracking good detective story. Interestingly, all the major players are given to you within the first few chapters; it's up to you to figure out who they are and how they tie in (it is eerily reminiscent of Heinrich Boll's novels in this regard). Beneath the detective story lies the story of France itself, still struggling to find a national identity more than forty years after the end of World War II.
Despite all the heavy-sounding material, it really is a rather quick read, and it moves along fast enough that you can keep the pages turning with minimal effort. ...more
Merritt was a million-seller back when being a million-seller meant something. Think of him as a depression-era Stephen King. The parallel's not all tMerritt was a million-seller back when being a million-seller meant something. Think of him as a depression-era Stephen King. The parallel's not all that odd; _Seven Footprints_ was one of the first books optioned for film before it actually came out (the film came out in 1929, starred Creighton Hale as Kirkham and Thelma Todd as Eve, and is probably best remembered for featuring, in a very very small role, Loretta Young).
James Kirkham is a professional adventurer who's caught the eye of, yes, the diabolic one. Satan puts him to a test: he's got a game rigged up where there are seven steps from the floor of Satan's chamber to the top of this ziggurat-like thing. A machine randomly assigns four steps to be good and three to be bad. The person playing the game steps on any four of those seven, and depending on how many bad steps he steps on, he pays the piper (zero: you get to rule the world, one: you owe Satan one service, two: you owe Satan a year of service, three: you're up the creek). The person playing can stop, voluntarily, after any number of steps.
While in the custody of the big guy, Kirkham meets, and becomes enchanted with, the beautiful Eve, and the two of them try to hatch a plot to escape the clutches of the guy with the big trident, aided by an old friend of Kirkham's who just happens to have found himself in the same situation.
Yup, it's sensational adventure-type stuff, easy reading, G. A. Henty for adults. Good for escapism, but is kind of like sherbet; it's close to tasteless, goes down easily, and by the time you're done with the next course, you've forgotten it. ...more