Happy Thanksgiving, One And All

 

th-2

What am I thankful for? In this moment, for having my metal knee repaired and for being on the road to recovery. We have one another, and the bounty we share. We’re truly fortunate in that regard. So eat heartily, give everyone you know a big hug, and enjoy the day as it was intended.

Bob

th-3

 

When Is A Story Not A Story?

th

A friend who is an avid reader read an in-progress manuscript of mine recently (bless those who volunteer to be beta readers), and as with any constructive critique, I learned from the reader’s side of the story. Readers, he reminded, want to engage with the characters – if not to like them, at least to care whether they live or die. And so as I dug into that in the context of stories such as mine and expanded on it, here’s what my takeaway from what that valuable experience tells me.

Many things can carry a story. Mine is a period piece, set in the heady years of the ‘sixties, with a large cast of characters, whose lives cross others, and cross again. To write about that most dramatic decade is a challenge – you know – what to leave in, what to take out. Here’s just a quick spin through that decade’s events and experiences to consider:

  • rebellion
  • drugs
  • Vietnam
  • the pill
  • family
  • the workplace
  • interpersonal relationships
  • assassinations
  • counterculture
  • music

So the test here is what defined this decade, and how to capture those things in the lives of characters. As a writer, you have to honor your audience. Some will be reading for the historic feel, for instance, others will seek out characters they can superimpose over their own personalities to perhaps learn about themselves. And others, as a witty fellow, once told me, “…don’t give a damn if it’s true or not, long’s it’s a helluva story.”

th-1

I’m finding that much of postmodern literature, especially of the domestic (USA) variety, tends to give short shrift to character as the paramount object in that form of the novel. Instead, it’s used to amplify setting, historical era, or other social perspective the author wants to express in story.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll currently find some real bargains on our books. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

Testy Times All Over

 

th

Something’s going on, and it’s not just limited to my immediate sphere of influence.  The recent election in the U.S. has been as contentious as any in recent history. Russia is at loggerheads with its erstwhile satellites of the Warsaw Pact. China, a good faith economic partner with the U.S., is rattling its swords. Even the Philippines is aggravating other countries in the South Pacific. Bob Dylan was offered the Nobel for Literature, and when Bob acted as Bob sometimes does by first not replying to accept and then by politely saying he wasn’t able to be at the presentation due to “other obligations,” it set off a Twitter war.

Everyone needs to take a chill pill, it seems, and that includes me.

We live in the era of the Internet and social media, where it’s all too easy to blow off steam, where conflict can be instant. Just ask Donald J. Trump. As for me, I should abide by the old saw which demands that one count to ten before blowing one’s stack. But Twitter and Facebook are soooo tempting.

I’m a writer, and lately I’ve been lambasting other writers, friends, in fact, who seem all too eager to lambaste back. The thing about writers is we rarely act nasty around family, co-workers, audiences. We attack each other. One reason is that writers live solitary lives. So much of out brainwork lands on the page. We look to others as relief valves for our impassioned leavings, and our first choice is too often other writers. Then when they object to those passions peeping out from our wonderfully wrought phrases, we feel violated.

Some of us look to the future when we write, others revel in the past’s coziness, and yet others project fear and loathing on the present. Some travel to exotic ports, craving their strangeness, seeking to understand, while others hardly ever leave the familiar boundaries of home. We are, after all, just plain people. We tend to think otherwise, and that vanity clears the way for us to delude ourselves, thinking our views of the world are certain, when all that sets us apart is that we’ve learned a craft. Just like plumbers. Beauticians. Auto mechanics. At the end of the day we’re not elite, and neither are our opinions. If anything, we’re a little too full of ourselves.

Writers, let’s let that last thought simmer a while.

When we return to the world, let’s do our best to understand others’ viewpoints, our own biases as well as our totally excellent insights. The world, this testy world, needs that now.

 

 

 

Harrison’s Hits and Misses

unknown

The Ancient Minstrel, by Jim Harrison

Being a writer myself, I’ve begun to realize how difficult it is to separate what I write from me. Some writers, like the late Jim Harrison (died this year – 2016), don’t bother with such trivialities. Nor did Harrison limit his range of writing to fiction (he was perhaps better known for his poetry), but fiction is the focus here. This slim book is a collection of three novellas, each unique in some way.

The first novella, The Ancient Minstrel, is a brilliant piece of writing; he does something I’ve never seen before. He writes an autobiography as fiction. In doing so, he orients his story – and life – about a bucolic phase raising pigs and going fishing. The joy of this life is there, alongside marital discord, in sometimes repentant tone. I imagine he omits quite a lot about his own foibles, but he writes whimsically, almost sadly of his life, and I believe the essence of that life is on these pages.

The second piece, Eggs, is to this reader a failure. In this story he writes from the point of view of a young woman whose central desire is to have a farm and raise chickens. The story wanders from the woman’s childhood in England during World War II’s “Blitz” to her motherhood, occasionally reaching afield to touch his recurring symbol: eggs. In the end, the story goes on far too long for what Harrison has to say.

The final piece, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, is a comedy, in the end a dark one. And what better way in this day and age, Harrison realizes, to elicit laughter than to focus on humanity’s reproductive and scatological tendencies. His central character here is a retired cop with a sex addiction who has a hard time concealing his desires, particularly those involving a horny sixteen year-old who lives down the street. What we have here is Nabokov in everyman prose.

images

Harrison’s writing is uneven; at times throwing off story bits as if discarded chewing gum, at other times as brilliant as the Hemingway he seems to be so affected by. What you have here is Jim Harrison, plain and simple.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll currently find some real bargains on our books. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

Are We Not Boyle?

th

 

I’ve complained here before that writers shouldn’t use fiction to advance their personal causes or issues. Never say never, of course, and it took author T. C. Boyle to show how to have your agenda and tell a good story too.

My writing mentor, Doris Betts, once told me that either you’re a novelist or a short story writer, that trying to be both will diminish your talent at the one you’re really good at. This doesn’t daunt the best writers, though. Consider the ones who continue to try, including T. C. Boyle. I’ve read some of Boyle’s long fiction and quite a bit of his short stuff, and while he’s a most capable writer across the board, I think in his case Doris was right; Boyle’s gift is in short fiction.

th-2

Which brings me to his story, “Are We Not Men?” in the November 7, 2016, issue of New Yorker magazine. Boyle apparently worries, as we likely all should, about the dark side of genetic manipulation. Gene tinkering hasn’t hit society full bore yet, which demonstrates another “ism:”social phenomena are born and have their first pronouncements through the arts. But back to how a skilled writer might editorialize and still have readers enjoy it.

I won’t go into a lot of boring classroom analyses here – just read the story. As you do, you’ll come across freakish, cross-bred pets which, if that were the sum of Boyle’s story, this reader would grind his molars, roll his eyes, and find a way not to notice Boyle’s wit, his cross-breeding of French and English. But he rolls all this into a family/marital drama I daresay everyone in the US of A can relate to, even laugh at.

This then is the trick, fellow writers: be subversive. grind your axe if you must, but slip it into a witty, trenchant story. All things register in fiction, perhaps in multiple readings, but they do register.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll currently find some real bargains on our books. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

The Alt-Movie Gambit

unknown

My being lately what Grandma called a “shut-in” has meant finding ways to relieve boredom at home as the promised healing takes place (first the heart surgery, then discovering sometime during that process that I had a dislocated shoulder, followed by a mysteriously damaged knee replacement, which is currently causing me no end of pain).

It’s been a grand time for napping – a phenomenon I had never seemed capable of before the heart surgery – and an opportunity to read the best books I could find. But variety is the seasoning of downtime, and so I’ve caught up on movies, too. I have enough channels to count twice on fingers and toes, but the pickings there are slim  and very repetitious.

Then came Amazon Prime. Prime Video, that is.

I don’t want to seem here a shill for Amazon, but I’d never realized all the ancillary benefits of the $100/year charge. One of them is free movies. Most are past their prime (yes, tongue is in cheek), but most weren’t ones I’d seen in theaters, so I filled up on those.

After I’d worked my way there through movies good and awful, I realized AP had documentaries, too. They recognize the best of those at the Academy Awards each year, you know. Historical documentaries vie for your attention, as do rockumentaries (about the bands of yesteryear, although these concentrate on drugs, sex and band conflicts more that the music).

And now I discover that YouTube also has movies. Most center on conspiracies and future space travel, but what the heck, they’re movies, right?

images

But how to watch: you don’t want to watch movies on your phone, unless you’re terminally geeky. And the iPad isn’t really satisfying. Me? I happened to have an Apple TV, so I’d crank that up, find a movie on my iPad, click the AirPlay icon, and watch movies via my big ol’ flat screen TV. You can access YouTube directly from Apple TV, but not APV – at least not yet. Bezos and Cook can’t seem to agree on terms for that to happen, but it’ll come to pass eventually.

You can see the effect of all this on TV shows already, and the movie biz is hurting. Maybe the alt-movie gambit will save movies. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll currently find some real bargains on our books. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.