Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke

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You may remember how Jonathan Strange basically made me say "Eff the rules of what makes a good book."

Well, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories maintained the same Austen-like quality of writing, preserved the same tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach, and applied the same standards to Clarke's modified world as the book's lengthier (by about ten times) predecessor. Which is to say, I should have simply loved it.

But part of what made Strange so appealing was its depth, its complexity, its nuanced expectation that the reader would pay attention, because what happened on page 7 was likely to come back into play eight hundred pages later. In this way, Clarke's writing is much like J.K. Rowling's. I hoped fervently that Rowling would let Harry Potter lie after the seventh installment, because in my opinion no further contribution to the world of Hogwarts could enrich it in any way that benefited my readings (or re-readings) of the original series.

Of course I was happy that Clarke was not done with the world of Strange. But at the same time, my idea of the world was whole. There was unexplored depth there, but it served as part of the magic and charm of the original. And these short stories, while they matched the tenor of Strange, could not hold the same depth. They are part of the foundation of the world, but just as I can appreciate the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal without knowing what keeps them from falling over, I don't think we needed more glimpses into Strange's and Norrell's world of magicians.

Or if we do need them, I'd rather they match the grandeur of her debut novel without merely serving as extensions of it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

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An idea persists about art that its creation, in any form it possesses, is somehow spontaneous and entirely right-brained; that it is emotional and not rational, free-flowing and uninhibited, not planned and not restrained or dammed or controlled.

Art, simply, is pure. (Or it would be more often, if in order to be considered "successful" by anyone outside the artist's community it didn't need to be made commercially viable.) But the belief among many that "purity" necessarily contains all those above descriptions contributes to some extent, I think, to the common conception that artists don't have to "work." Of course, the time needed to accomplish much art is recognized; artists, however, fail to obtain similar recognition of their time, efforts, and value. Many never understand that while the creativity of art may be spontaneous, the craft of it almost never is.

The need for planning, for working and reworking, for drafting and amending and cutting and altering, is as prevalent in the written arts any other. Which is why Save the Cat is as relevant to fiction writing as it is to screenwriting, and why it's fast becoming a bedside and writing-table standard for me.

We (and I'm as guilty as anyone) like to believe, love to feel, that quality films and books fulfill the standard of excellence just by being inherently good. We don't want to realize that behind the quality lies a structure, and that the structure applies to all sorts of works within and outside of the genre.

But it's there. Good artists can bend the structure, play with it (and, more importantly, within it), but we can hardly get rid of it. Rather than lamenting this fact of storytelling, I've chosen to embrace it, to study it, and to apply it to my own work. And so far, the results are telling.

(Fair warning, though: it's also made me an annoyingly critical movie viewer. In the middle of a film, I'll burst out with "Ooh, there's the whiff of death!" or "But he didn't save the cat!" I don't see how you could read this book and not do the same. Consider yourself cautioned.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Le Noise, by Neil Young

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With lots of blogging to catch up on, I'm going to shake things up a bit by:
a) going out of chronological order.
b) shamelessly suggesting that you obtain the object of the post.
c) writing about something that is not a book at all.

(Seriously, get the album. Download it. Rip it off a CD. Buy the vinyl, and a new turntable with excellent speakers to go with it. I don't care. Just get it.)

Everyone, quite literally, who knows me knows (or is entirely unobservant and dense to the fact) that I am a Neil Young fan. Or I would be, if "fan" adequately covered the unabashed respect I have for Young as a musician, as an individual, as a philanthropist, as an advocate. Goodness knows that such admiration falls far short of blanket admiration for his work. (Don't talk to me about Are You Passionate?, for chrissakes.) But even when I fail to enjoy the musical products that Young releases, I can appreciate that he is going for something, even if what, exactly, that is lies beyond my personal bounds of certainty.

And I'll admit that when I first heard rumblings of Le Noise, the fan in me was skeptical. Oh, sure, I could appreciate that Young was experimenting with new sound. I was ecstatic that he was writing, touring, performing, releasing new music. (Or, at least in the case of "Hitchhiker," old music I hadn't heard before.) I was tickled at the prospect of an album and a concert with just Neil Young and his instruments of choice--no band, no backup singers; just a cigar store Indian with haunting wolf's-eye reflection.

Then, eight days before the release of the record, I saw Neil Young in Panama City, Florida, where he performed six of the eight songs on Le Noise. The show--the entire trip--highlighted the best of what makes Neil Young so influential in my life (and, really, in my art). He brought people together from around the country. He put on this mini-tour to benefit the people along the Gulf Coast. He was accompanied by his family and by LincVolt, his converted electric Lincoln Continental, to promote his view of an alternate world. And alone on stage, none of that mattered. He was a man with his music, and except for the residual (and powerful) aura of Allen Toussaint, nothing else. Maybe seeing the new songs given the electric spark of life from all of twenty feet away made the album better in my mind.

Maybe. But it's a damn fine record, regardless. (And a film.)

I can say very little that hasn't been said elsewhere. Google the album, read the reviews. They're not all glowing, but they're largely well written. And they say everything I could say about the recording process, the sonics, the collaboration with the producer, the power and simplicity of the lyrics.

But what they can't say is that Neil Young, a musician who has shaped my personal views of art, of integrity, of relevance, and of the power of language, has once again revealed to me what is possible. On this record, he doesn't lose his voice, his style, or his drive, all of which combine awesomely on even his middling works. But he takes those same components and puts out anything but "another Neil Young record."

More artists in any genre could learn something from that approach. I hope to.

The Order of Things, by Lynne Hinton

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Lately I've become fascinated with the idea of "perspective" relative to any artistic endeavor.

A new concept? Hardly. But for the first time outside of literature courses, I'm finally tackling the concept and the ways in which it affects the story told, the feelings conveyed, and the effects on the reader/viewer/listener.

The Order of Things, through the use of extensive dialogue, accomplishes the feat of having, essentially, two narrators--the first person narrator of the text, and the next-door inmate at the mental institution who talks with her through the night.

I remember from high school English classes the term "untrustworthy narrator." I don't think that the narrator of The Order of Things is untrustworthy in any malicious sense; but, like all of us, her view of the story she tells--what is important, the intent behind actions, the way other people worded their statements, even the way in which events unfold--is entirely dependent on her own memory and interpretation of events. In a sense, then, the second narrator in the text is doubly untrustworthy because his recounting of events is streamed through two filters, leaving the reader to determine which bits are "true," which are fabricated, and which have been unintentionally altered in the telling.

The question of what exactly "truth" is might here be appropriate. I'd rather say, though, that while I agree with Hinton's use of first-person narration in this book, I would love to see the story done as a play. A one-act, even, where the audience sees two people who cannot see each other sharing stories through an air vent. Leave the audience to witness both narratives on an equal plane. Omit the inner musings of a single character--rely fully on the dialogue, the setting, the voiceless expressions of the actors to relay the intricate unfoldings of the night.

If anyone wants to take that idea and run with it, feel free. I don't expect credit for it. Just comp tickets to the world premiere, please.