Saturday, October 28, 2006

We all had to start somewhere...

I just finished reading Mark Helprin's first novel, Refiner's Fire. As some of you might know, he is one of my favorite authors. (If you asked me my 5 favorite books, Winter's Tale would always be on that list.) His writing is some of the richest and most artistically beautiful that I've ever read.

Having said this, I have yet to read everything he's written. So I picked up a copy of Refiner's Fire and one of Freddy and Fredericka and prepared myself for some escape. (In case you haven't guessed, these are the only two of his novels I haven't read.)

Refiner's Fire starts out with an amazing story of a ship full of illegal immigrants off the coast of Palestine in 1947, where a child is born and orphaned during a battle. Once we start to follow the foundling and his charmed life, however, the story starts to falter. The boy, Marshall Pearl, is brought to America and adopted by a rich couple and raised in the Hudson River Valley. At this point, the character becomes a comic book superhero who, apparently, has no character flaws and always gets the girls.

The entire middle of the book took me several months to get through because I kept putting it down. I really didn't intend to finish it. But something compelled me to pick it up again and again. I think that through Marshall Pearl's story -- one that takes him through Jamaica fighting Rastafarians, to Harvard, to the desert southwest, through the slaughterhouses of the midwest, through a sea-crossing voyage on a British merchant navy ship, to the peaks of the Swiss Alps -- what kept me going was Helprin's amazing writing. He uses the poetry of the English language to paint such amazing scenes and descriptions that the weak characters, the Dickensian coincidences, and lack of compelling plot were almost minor annoyances.

However, the book ends rather dramatically with Marshall Pearl fighting in the Israeli army in the Yom Kippur War. Once I hit the last few chapters, I couldn't put it down.

Again, the reason I couldn't let this book go was because of the writing. And knowing this is Helprin's first novel, I really must applaud this incredible book. It's still definitely a must-read, especially for Helprin fans.

Now... on to Freddy and Fredericka...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A few small musings

  • I've always wondered why serious writers shy away from writing about sex, as a rule. I know there are exceptions, but one just doesn't see much of it. It seems to me, and to Emily Maguire, that such an important part of our lives shouldn't be neglected in literature.
  • And John Humphrys argues that proper grammar and punctuation should be preserved in the interests of communication and clarity:

Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live. It reflects our attitudes about the way we see things and how we are seen by others: in public life; in politics and commerce; in advertising and marketing; in broadcasting and journalism. Yet the prevailing wisdom about language seems to be that "anything goes".

Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we're happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings.


Wired Magazine asked writers to write stories in six words. Distilled prose at its best...

(Bonus: More entries at Metafilter.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wasting time

I have the week off and I get to waste a little time. It should be a rule for days off.

So I found out What Horrible Edward Gorey Death I Will Die in one of those funny quizzes:

What horrible Edward Gorey Death will you die?

You will be smothered under a rug. You're a little anti-social, and may want to start gaining new social skills by making prank phone calls.
Take this quiz!


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Smothered under a rug? Mom always warned me I'd come to this sort of end.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Stuff that has been sitting in my temp files

I haven't taken the time to post lately, but it seems I have had time to collect assorted musings and links, so here we go:

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Punctuation redux

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation now has her own website. It seems to be rather sparse now, but there's a section where readers can submit their own examples of bad punctuation. Now I just need to get out my digital camera and send some in.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Notes on recent readings

I read two short books during this last month that I feel I need to mention.

First, I read Saturday by Ian McEwan. Before I comment, let me say that I was mesmerized by Atonement - an intense book by McEwan that was well-researched and quite compelling. And I should also say that his book Amsterdam was one of my favorites. So I suppose I shouldn't expect greatness to hit three times. I liked Saturday, I just didn't think it was McEwan's best novel. His writing, as always, was breathtaking, even when he was describing highly technical neurosurgery details. I don't even mind that there was very little plot. I did mind that the plot seemed a bit too pat and too coincidental. A good read, but not, in my opinion, his best.

The next book I read was Everyman by Philip Roth. I am ashamed to say I hadn't read anything by him, and I thought this might be a good start, since it is short and recently published. I won't dismiss any of his other books because of this one, but I must say it wasn't one of the finest books I've read. The writing was amazing, the characters were well-rounded and real, and the details were nuanced, but it was essentially plotless and a little depressing. I enjoyed reading it, but I think I need to try one of his more famous books. If anyone has a suggestion... ?

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

Occasionally I like to browse the present and past winners of this contest. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest of bad writing, with the entries consisting of single sentences of some of the most horrible writing...

I don't usually mention my perverse love for reading these entries, but I just had to share a statement made by Michael Quinion, editor of one of my truly favorite websites, World Wide Words. I subscribe to his wonderful newsletter on language and in the July 22 issue, he had this to say about the contest:

I've always been ambivalent about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for Bad Writing. He wasn't that awful a writer and doesn't deserve such mockery. Admittedly, he wrote floridly, as did many authors of the nineteenth century, but we don't point the finger of accusation at Dickens, whose pages are often at least as enpurpled. To mock decidedly bad writing, it should be renamed the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code Bad Fiction Contest. Trying to outdo him really would be a challenge.

Heh. I guess I'm not the only one who is still mystified why Dan Brown is so popular.

Oh... and I highly recommend subscribing to the newsletter, especially if you love the English language.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Immersed in good prose

While away from the blogging, I have been reading quite a bit. I have three completely different books to recommend. (I never did like getting stuck in a rut as far as genre...)

First, I picked up the book The Fall of a Sparrow by Robert Hellenga from a pile of books at the top of my bookshelf. I had received this book (an autographed hardback copy!) as a gift several years ago, and hadn't picked it up because I tend to like to read paperbacks so I can carry them anywhere.

I wish I would've picked it up sooner.

The novel is about a classics professor at a small midwest college whose eldest daughter is killed in a terrorist attack in Italy in 1980. The story is about how he, his wife, and his surviving daughters cope with the tragedy. The book immersed me in the very believable lives of the characters and in the rich settings of rural Illinois and modern Italy. I loved being amongst the academia where people quote classics in everyday speech, switch languages with ease, and are comfortable with their extensive vocabularies. It made me stop on occasion and wonder where I could surround myself with this sort of crowd. Highly recommended book for those in love with the language and in need of an escape.

A dear friend recommended How to Be Good when I asked him if I should read any Nick Hornby. And I am really glad I read it.

It's a fast and funny read, but not always a light read. Kate is a GP living in suburban England and married to a sarcastic, often bitter man. The novel is told from Kate's point of view and is a sad and funny picture of a marriage going sour. Just when Kate is ready to leave the marriage, her husband meets a healer who calls himself DJ Goodnews, and he undergoes a spiritual transformation. The rest of the book is a funny look at Kate's (and her family's) attempts at being "good". It is a thoughtful novel about moral and ethical decisions while poking fun at modern suburban life and what it means to be good.

I can't say the book made me want to run out and read more of Nick Hornby's books, but I was told that this one isn't representative of Hornby's prose, so I may try another. A bittersweet book, but not one the best.

Finally, I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I hope it doesn't sound like a bad advertisement when I say that this has to be one of the best novels I've ever read.

I was a bit put off when I kept hearing the word "atmospheric" used in reviews of this book, but after reading it, I can see where the adjective is spot on.

The book begins rather innocently with the narrator, Kathy, describing her years growing up in an exclusive boarding school called Hailsham. As you read, you begin to notice subtle differences in the world Kathy describes. Ishiguro sets the story in England in the "late 1990's", but as the narrative continues, one begins to realize that this is not the world we live in.

I won't go into much of the plot, but I want to state that this is one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever had the pleasure to read. Highly highly recommended.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, Will

I decided that April 23rd would be a good time to break my hiatus and start blogging again.

Today is William Shakespeare's 442nd birthday and I'm celebrating in my own quiet way (reading some of the plays). I wish I could celebrate in other ways, but alas...

I've been slowly making my way through Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. I don't usually like to read biographies in general and I really don't much like reading about Shakespeare as much I like reading his actual works. But this is a very readable book with a lot of great insights. I love how Greenblatt takes the simple facts about Shakespeare's everyday life and childhood and links them to the content of his writing. It's fascinating and well-written and I would recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in Shakespeare or Elizabethan times.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Read Poetry!

I read poetry. Let me repeat myself: I read poetry.

I keep a shelf of poetry publications right behind my desk (see proof).

I mention this because I've been reading an awful lot of really bad poetry lately. All the poems were written by people who: (1) claim to write poetry "for themselves", (2) use poetry as therapy, (3) never read poetry regularly, and (4) want to be published.

If one wants to publish poems, one should read what is being published.

Having said all that, I am discovering that I am finding out what I like to read in poems. I am also discovering that I use that knowledge to steer the way I write. (I think I may explore this in another post. Stay tuned.)

And on a lighter note: How can serious literature compete??

Sunday, February 26, 2006

What makes a poem a great poem?

I finally finished reading Break, Blow, Burn : Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems . I'm sure everyone who's ever reviewed this book disagrees with some or all of the poems Ms. Paglia chose as 43 of the best poems. I will also disagree with most of her choices, but it was interesting to read her evaluation of each poem. It was an education to discover what someone considers when judging a poem. (And, yes, I mean judge a poem. Paglia did this as soon as she placed the word "Best" in the book title.)

Paglia does, however, give a great course in Poetry Appreciation 101, though one taught by an over-enthusiastic grad student with way too much knowledge and a need to let you know how much knowledge she has.

She starts the book with a very apt introduction. By this I mean she trots out a lot of erudite ways you can approach critical reading of a poem, then proceeds to tell you that you should "...make the mind still and blank. Let the poem speak." She drops words like "poststructuralism" and "neo-Romanticism" into the introduction and it hit me two ways: first it annoyed me that she was sounding as pretentious as the critics she was dismissing; second, it was flattering that she should assume her audience intelligent enough to ascertain the meaning from context or, at the very least, look it up. This was a perfect set-up to her way of approaching the poems.

I am not going to go into my opinions of her choices of poems because I think she justifies the choices well. I am, however, going to say that while I think she reads a whole lot into most of these poems, it's almost as though she's trying too hard.

But above all, her love of poetry and these poems is evident. Some of the poems I didn't like upon first reading (such as those by George Herbert) became transformed with her comments. I went back and read them with a new appreciation. Some others I have always loved (such as some of Shakespeare's sonnets) were enhanced by the commentary. Still others (such as William Carlos Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow) were merely confused. A sixteen-word poem followed by three pages of evaluation is a bit much.

I don't normally like to read about poems as much as I love to read the poems themselves, but this was a worthwhile journey with an author whose love of poems is as strong and feels it is "...akin to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love."

Monday, January 16, 2006

A few morsels

January is definitely my busiest time of the year. After work, I just want to stay away from computers. So here are a few things I stumbled upon during my hiatus that I wanted to share:

Have a good January. I hope to post before the month ends, but don't hold your breath.

It was only a matter of time...

My friend Jack turned me on to the Best Blonde Joke Ever...

Really funny in a Phillip Glass/ M.C. Escher sort of way.