Monday, April 30, 2012

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

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I just have to say that, as a writer of illustration-less fiction, I will forever be envious of the graphic novel for the effortless-seeming way in which it can tie multiple threads together in a single frame. See how this bit of dialogue from one place and time is juxtaposed over this meaningful image from another place and time? See how this motif shows up in the background of this picture just as another character is practicing lines from a familiar play, lines which are suddenly charged with subtext and weighted with heretofore unanticipated meaning?

Yeah, I love that effect.

Fiction has its own ways of pulling off similar effects, but seldom so neatly and smoothly as a good graphic novel. Alan Moore does it infamously well in Watchmen and other books; as far as I'm concerned, Alison Bechdel does it as well as anyone in Fun Home.

(What, you've never heard of her? I hadn't either, until someone recommended this book to me. Turns out I might have been in the ignorant minority -- on Amazon, Fun Home is currently in the top 250 books. Not graphic novels; all the books. Even Watchmen lags behind in the 700s.)

Bechdel's graphic memoir is well worth a good, thorough read for a dozen reasons other than this one. But if you should pick it up, do pay attention to this layering of meanings and interpretations. You won't feel disappointment at seeing the magician's wires -- actually, I suspect you'll be all the more amazed at how well the trick is played.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Thoroughly Good Blue - the ebook is live

Click to buy the ebook for your very own!
(It makes a lovely e-gift, too.)
(Also, when the contributors are famous, you can be all kinds of cool by saying, "Yeah, I read them before they were big.")

(If pricing information shows as unavailable, just sign in to your Amazon account.)

I posted about A Thoroughly Good Blue back in February, when this anthology was easing into the second trimester. The rush of conception was well behind us, and the basic building blocks were laid, but most of the development was still to happen.

Today, the fifteen authors whose poetry and short stories are included in this volume welcome the ebook into the world, and we thank everyone who supports up-and-coming writers the world over. You make it possible for folks like us to dream about feeding ourselves by doing what we love.

The ebook is available on Amazon through both the US and the UK sites for a steal of a price. (Proceeds benefit the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, by which I mean they get paid back for funding this project in the first place.) We're simply excited to get our writing into the wider world. It's one thing to have your friends and peers read a story; it's another entirely to know that complete strangers have (legal) access to it.

My inclusion is a story called "In the Haus of Broken Toys," which one advance reader called "impressively creepy" and which has convinced my number one reader that I ought to do Gothic. Look out, Poe!

The limited print version will follow its sibling in mid-May. I don't think hard copies will be available on Amazon, but if you're really really dying for one, get in touch with me and we'll see what we can work out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Evening of Long Goodbyes, by Paul Murray

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Without a doubt, this story is among the five funniest books I've ever read -- and I'm a big fan of such funnymen as Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Barry. For that reason alone, it's worth reading.

What sets An Evening of Long Goodbyes apart from so many other funny books, though, is not simply that its writing is so hilarious. I don't want to say that anyone can write a bunch of one-liners (though there are plenty of hack stand-up comedians out there who think they can), but this book contains a much more nuanced and difficult-to-deliver style of humor than the set-up-to-a-punch-line formula: the narrator, Charles Hythloday, is either the world's most oblivious man or else the master craftsman of denial, and through his perspective the reader is able to see his world as he simply cannot.

Even if Charles had a particularly developed sense of humor, it would be so aristocratic (not to be confused with the well-documented Aristocrats joke) as to be inaccessible. No, what we are privy to is the story of a man who puts himself in the worst possible corners, whose naivete about the world at large rivals that of a particularly sheltered kindergartener, whose delusions are so grand that we almost -- almost -- wonder whether he is mentally restricted.

He's not ill, though, which is to say he's fully recognizable as a human being with very human foibles and hang-ups that cannot be simply explained away by a clinical diagnosis. Therapy may help this character, without a doubt; but when we laugh at his story, we're laughing at the world he has built around himself. It's not so much finding humor in a person falling down as it is finding humor in a person stepping on the banana peels that he has spent his life strewing about his own lawn.

Unlike some funny writers, Paul Murray doesn't let his humor horse pull the plot cart. Charles has much growing to do, and his story of self-discovery and his claiming of self-awareness comes first. He can't help it if humor arises from the situations he places himself in, or from the delusions he has spent a lifetime building. The jokes never feel hollow, because we're never cheated out of the story's substance.

Life really is funny, when we think about it. Which is probably why those funny stories that take life itself seriously (including Murray's other novel, Skippy Dies) are the most hilarious of all.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Ramona books, by Beverly Cleary

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Back in November, I wrote about the deep and simple pleasures of reading aloud. The tradition continues in our home, and this time, we read three of the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary -- Beezus and Ramona, Ramona the Pest, and Ramona the Brave.

These books formed a crux of my childhood reading. Goodness knows how many times I checked each of them out from the elementary school library and gaped at the inevitable disasters that are a young girl's attempts to navigate the world. I thought I didn't remember anything that happened in these stories, though I did recall the vicarious thrill of getting into and out of trouble with good ol' Ramona Q.

Turns out, I remembered much more than I ever gave my mind credit for. These books had lodged themselves in the deep shelves of my mind, and with first-grade delight I recalled most of what was about to happen just before it happened. They evoked for me the incredible and rare experience of re-discovery -- in book terms, those cherished stories that you enjoy re-reading, not simply for the familiar comforts of a good yarn, but for that reiterated thrill that never quite diminishes.

Perhaps part of this thrill comes from how I read Ramona now that I am one of those adults who populate her world (seriously, I'm now older than her kindergarten teacher). You see, Cleary gets a lot of credit for not talking down to children, and I recognized many of Ramona's struggles in my own adult-level existence. For me, Ramona's adventures circle around her need to sort out her identity in life -- how to write her name, how her peers and her elders perceive her, how she wants to be perceived, and how she wants to behave within her own sphere when no one at all is looking.

Those aren't issues that go away no matter how well we resolve them as children. (Well, maybe except for the name-writing ones, but I for one have contemplated revising my signature at several points.) I doubt even the happiest and most self-assured among us never ask themselves questions about their own identities. Who we are is perhaps less important on a practical level than who we think we are, and who other people believe us to be.

Maybe, just maybe, Ramona Quimby helps us to be okay with our self-inflicted identity crises clear through life. Reading her stories again as an adult certainly doesn't hurt.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O'Connor

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Every major character in a story should always want or need something. That's what stories are, right? A person starts off in one position, has a desire or a requirement to change that position, struggles to do so, and either succeeds (Star Wars) or fails (The Empire Strikes Back, or you know, Hamlet.) Sometimes the desires are revolutionary, sometimes they are trivial; Kurt Vonnegut famously advised (I'm paraphrasing from here) that every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water.

And you know what? I think it's tougher to write that good story about a glass of water than to write the one about a murdered king-father or an oppressive other-galactic empire. Because the story isn't about walking into the kitchen and getting a glass of water -- it's about the obstacles a character has to face in order to accomplish that task. Big problems are somehow easier to conjure and then to work with.

Which is why Flannery O'Connor's stories are so impressive and so deceptively enjoyable. They seem so simple on so many levels -- a woman's just going upstairs, an annoying grandma just makes her family take a wrong turn on their road trip. But her characters have so many tumultuous folds that no simple task can be smooth sailing.

If it's true that the short story is coming back in vogue, what with all the talk of short attention spans and demands on our time (to which I normally say "bull honky," because I think we can all make time for more reading if we really want to, but that's another post, another day), then the least we can do is read stories as rich and as unsettling and as provocative as these.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 158-Pound Marriage, by John Irving

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Today's post, boys and girls, is about point of view.

You see, I've spent much of the past six months in writing workshops. Such workshops can provide an incredible opportunity for readership -- a captive audience willing (or at the very least obligated) to read your story the whole way through and then tell you exactly what worked, and what didn't. Some peers will take the big-picture approach to your themes, your structure, your premise. Other peers will pick at your nits and make you view the minutiae of your writing.

And some peers, boys and girls, will just not get it.

That's not to say that your work will be perfect. If it is, you shouldn't be workshopping it. No, it's to say that literature is not a carbon copy of what happens in the world. On a basic level, all literature has some kind of conceit. We are to suppose that the words on the page are in other people's thoughts, spoken between individuals not present, or written down by some chronicler (often fictionalized) who wants to give this hard-copy language some sort of context. Yet much of a workshop discussion centers around "How could this character know this?" and "Who's talking here?" and "I don't buy that he'd use this word," which are all fancy ways of discussing point of view.

First person point of view (basically, the use of "I") seems to be in vogue now, and while it is so simple to muck up, the rules of this perspective are simple: The narrator cannot reveal things that she has no way of knowing. Anything she is not present for, she must report second-hand or speculatively. Third person point of view has much more nuance: it can be limited to one character's experience, in which case the rules of first person more or less apply; or it can be what folks like to call "omniscient," though I prefer Ursula Le Guin's term "the involved narrator." This narrator has the ability to move between perspectives, seeing the world through multiple minds and eyes.

(Of course, a careful author won't just jump between characters higgledy-piggledy when writing. The shifts must be fluid in some way, so that the reader flows along with it. I like to think of the involved narrator changing perspectives as a baton-passing.)

Often, the involved narrator is not a character in the story, per se, even if it shades every perception the reader has of the story and the characters. That is to say, it's not matching any one person's voice. But if you find that you're getting into multiple character's minds, boys and girls, you might want to consider that you're dealing with an involved narrator rather than any one point of view. (I find that another recent trend has moved us as a reading public away from this omniscient voice to more limited perspectives; many readers tend to say of well-written involved narrators that they're jumping all over the place, and oh my god who is talking?)

The 158-Pound Marriage got me thinking about point of view not, believe it or not, because it has an involved narrator -- or rather, not because it has a third-person involved narrator. Actually, the unnamed teller of Irving's novel speaks purely in the first person, and yet he is incredibly involved. He relates the histories of his wife and of another couple with as much detail as a Russian spy set to tail all three of them.

I have this feeling that even if Irving brought his final draft to many workshops today, he'd be told that this narrator has no way of knowing all these facts and tidbits and stories that he details in the book. However, do you remember above where I said that anything the narrator is not present for, he must report second-hand or speculatively? Well, if you're a careful reader, you'll know not to take everything this fellow says at face-value. He acknowledges that he and his lovers spend more time talking than screwing, so there's part of his info source; more importantly, I believe, he asserts throughout that he is a historical novelist. His job is to take scraps of supposition and weave cohesive stories out of them.

That's how we get the story. Can we trust it? Nope. Can we believe it? Certainly. If you want an honest tale, as honest as any tale can be, go find an involved narrator; at least that way you'll get to hear the different sides of a story. All this contemporary belief that a limited story -- first or third, doesn't matter -- has more reliability is bunk. Every individual is biased. We all weave our own stories to make sense of our own experiences. A good storyteller in one of these limited perspectives doesn't tell a more trustworthy tale, but he'll be sure to make it a believable one.

In the end, which would we rather have, anyway?

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham

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About a year ago, I interviewed fantasy writer Daniel Abraham for a post on A Shadow in Summer. It was painfully evident at the time that I had not yet finished the entire series, called The Long Price Quartet (rounded off with A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring -- also subsequently published in a two-volume omnibus edition). Even so, I never came right out and said that I had not yet finished the series.

I had every intention of doing so. The first book intrigued me; any aspect of it I didn't care for I was willing to forgive because Abraham was at least doing something different and had clearly thought the book through. A friend and reader of this blog whose tastes I respect said that the rest of the series would blow my mind.

She was right. The intervening time has been filled with moving abroad, graduate school, and writing projects. But I finally read the rest of the Quartet. I breezed through it so fast that the pages are singed. And I still can't find my socks.

As a writer dabbling in world-building, I appreciate all the ways of crafting the novels which Abraham tackles. He creates nuances of communication. He makes his geography matter. He gets into the politics without quite going West Wing. But beyond all of those elements, he goes into the individuals that populate the world. He gives them their own motives, their own experiences, and never do they feel as if they are only mirroring his own moral code. How could they? His characters (especially Otah and Maati) are products both of their experiences and of their own stubborn personalities. When, by the fourth book, the two main characters are on opposing ends of a conflict -- and you, the reader, believe they are both right -- you know that this Abraham fellow has worked his magic in quite remarkable directions.

Whatever else I say, it boils down to this: I simply could not put down this series of books. Not many experiences are more beautiful than making the 1:00 a.m. decision between sleep and reading more chapters. The only reason to choose sleep is that it guaranteed the experience would last at least another day.