False Praise, False Criticism

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A friend bought a novel of mine, which is a nice thing – always good to have friends support you in your creative endeavors. I never ask such things as, "Well did you like it?" because this is the surest way to get false praise. And I have had criticism of the book, to be sure, not the fatal kind – simply noting a few things I could have done better, phrases better turned. After all, there's never been a perfect novel written, certainly not by me.

But this friend, after a week or so, informed me he just couldn't finish the book – it was just too unrealistic. 

The book toyed with a lack of realism in places – by design. So, ever willing to learn something from a reader's perspective, I asked him to tell me what so disturbed him. As it turns out, my sins were – and this is arguable in the extreme – a possible misplacing of technology by a couple of years. We've exchanged e-mails three times over this, and he's adamant that this supposed misplacement, which constitutes some six words in the text, is too big a flaw to make the book worthy of reading. 

What's my lesson in this? First, while there's false praise, there's false criticism as well. Too, writers have to be discriminating in their assimilation of reader criticism. Some readers are astute, others puff themselves up by playing gotcha with all aspect of life. Still, his comments – and we remain friends – will make me do even more not to allow this sort of wedge into readers' perceptions of my writing.

Corruption and Egypt’s Humdrum

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Zaat, by Sonallah Ibrahim

 

About the time the recent Egyptian drama was settling in on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I came across an article on Egyptian writers and their travails in this deeply censored nation. Among the number of Egyptian writers listed was Ibrahim, who has been at the forefront of challenges to Egypt’s literary censorship, so I opted for this book, the centerpiece of his work.

Zaat is a story of a modern Egyptian wife, a middle class woman of no great thought or talent, it appears, married to Abdel Maguid, a man of no great achievement, and a stereotypically modern, Middle Eastern male chauvinist. He ends up in jail, and Zaat must deal with Egyptian life’s many incongruities – among them trying to gaint recompense for spoiled food she’s been sold.

Interspersed with Zaat’s story are listings Ibrahim has taken from the various news media that, viewed in sequence without time’s diluting effect, depict a corruption of Egyptian society based in overlaps of religion, politics, culture and the influence of European and American businesses.

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Ibrahim’s prose – or at least as it’s presented to readers in English by translator Anthony Calderbank – seems wooden, as formally rigid as a bureaucrat’s memos. But underlying this there’s an anger tempered somewhat by a sly, sometimes sarcastic wit. Zaat’s story isn’t an inspiring one, nor is it meant to be – it’s an unvarnished view of modern Egyptian life and what makes it so humdrum.

Clearly, the society Ibrahim reveals – its prejudices, suspicions, external influences and aspirations for the future  - are all part of the mix that recently brought down Hosni Mubarak.

It’s import to American, even European readers? This conflation of religion and business that has ruled over and depressed Egyptian government and the lives of most of Egypt’s population could ruin ours as well. To take the U.S.'s current political, social and economic pulse today to the extreme would seem to result in an Americanized version of Ibrahim's Egypt. The way out of this precipitous spiral for the U.S. need not be revolution, but that way out isn't yet clear.

 

My rating: 3-3/4 of 5 stars

 

Digging Deep with NEWSWEEK

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Note: I first feel obliged to give my sketchy view on the metamorphosis of popular media. To skip to my bottom line, scroll down to the picture of Tina Brown, NEWSWEEK's editor. 

I've subscribed to several news weeklies over the years, but the one I've held onto the longest is NEWSWEEK. Since something like 1968, I've seen the magazine morph to fit the times. Back in the day, i.e., the 'sixties, NEWSWEEK – as with other such weeklies – maintained a stable of reporters searching out the stories of the day, gathering information on them, analyzing their data, and then reporting. Back then, we trusted the veracity of such reportage, much as we trusted Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and others on TV.

Then, as life became more global, hence complex, readers seemed to ask for escape – hence a preoccupation with disco, Dennis Rodman, Donald Trump, and, even later, American Idol. NEWSWEEK and the other mags began to suffer losses in readership as magazine prices went up, corporate bean-counters ruled over journalism, and finally, the digital world of blogs and e-books began to threaten. For a while it became hard to tell NEWSWEEK from People or US.

By then, television had exploded from the three primary networks of the 'sixties to hundreds. That made it possible for news and politics junkies to select channels that fit their own biases, without much in the way of rational debate and analysis. NEWSWEEK had floundered into the world of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, Huffington Post, and CNN – and their separate variations on reality.

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So where does this leave news weeklies – and news reportage in general? For the conscientious news consumer, it's possible now to graze from magazine to magazine, from channel to channel, blog to blog, sampling opinions. Now, it seems, readers and viewers must make up their own minds as to the truth of events – and that requires digging.

NEWSWEEK recently went through a radical change of structure and heart in order to escape going under financially. The magazine hired Tina Brown as its editor and merged with the blog-news entity, The Daily Beast. What has this meant to their reportage? They are now a microcosm of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, CNN, et. al. For example:

In the mag's March 28, 2011, issue, we have a personal essay on Japan and its recent catastrophe by Paul Theroux. Niall Ferguson is carving out the same sort of irascible territory as George Will, his essays lightly populated with facts obfuscated by opinion – the sort of column you read because you hate the man's playing fast and loose with facts.  An op-ed piece on Obama and No Child Left Behind. Perhaps the most incisive piece is on NPR's lack of political savvy in rescuing itself from congressional budget cuts. It's most intriguing piece is on a possible discovery on the ancient city of Atlantis. These, and a double handful of blog-like snippets, along with enough pop culture to hold the trendiest of us faithful, and NEWSWEEK is back in the game.

The common thread through these pieces is a marked lack of analysis. NEWSWEEK is now giving its readers a mosaic of the world, much as TV does. But unlike TV, where you can opt to say glued to FOX or MSNBC, a session with an issue of NEWSWEEK now requires the thoughtful reader to dig into these sometimes cranky, myopic pieces – and then to pan outward until the mosaic makes sense with the multitude of detail. 

This then is modern culture in a nutshell: seeing the big picture in the details. NEWSWEEK apparently understands this dynamic and, as such, has forced itself to be reborn from the ashes of the 'sixties.

German Mysterious

The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch and Lee Chadeayne

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I seem to be a magnet for German writing lately.  Looking for modern German writing, I came across this book – a German whodunit set in the seventeenth century.

The story is set in the town of Schongau, sometime after what the characters call the Great War – apparently the Second Northern War, between Sweden and a group of European states, including Germany. A pair of children in the town have been brutally killed, and an odd mark is left on them, which summons suspicions of witchcraft. The townsfolk immediately suspect a midwife, Martha Stechlin, of being the witch/killer. The town’s hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is given the odious task of torturing a confession from Martha. However Kuisl believes she's innocent, and he sets out to prove it.

The story is an enjoyably convoluted one in which it takes Jakob, his daughter Magdalena, and Martha’s romantic partner, Simon Fronweiser, the son of Schongau’s physician, to ferret out the truth and to see the real evildoers brought to justice. But a caveat or two.

Pötzsch is credited as the author in German, Chadeayne as the English translator, the book wildly popular in Germany since its publication in 2008. The prose is something that, if turned over to a writing class, would have suffered an open vein. Pötzsch is a TV writer in Germany, and all too often the story reads like a TV script. But the talent here is in orchestrating a story. Pötzsch knows to slowly dispense clues and he knows to alternate tension and moments of relief while building to the story’s climax. Clearly he knows the mystery genre and what makes it tick.

Interestingly, Pötzsch is also a descendant of the Kuisl family, one of Bavaria’s most prominent dynasties of executioners. (Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that these executioners, while considered vital to Germany’s welfare, were looked on much as were moneylenders – they weren’t allowed to marry outside the executioner cult.)

Here, the characters are memorable, but not eminently so – plot is god in this genre – but Pötzsch does an admirable job of bringing both his multitude of characters and the town itself to life.

Despite his portioning of clues, Pötzsch had me going until very nearly the end. And, though I wasn't looking for such here, his book advanced my knowledge of Germany's culture and history in a way only fiction seems able to do.

 

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

 

The Rhythms of Writing

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Winter is my time for getting writerly things done. Spring is apparently here for keeps – we have toads singing in our pond almost non-stop – time for amphibian romance, you know. And our koi are all but jumping with energy. Cardinals and finches are making nests – I found a mass of moss, leaves and weeds in my newspaper box for three days running. Soon, it'll be vegetable garden time, time to tend my berry vines and bushes.

For the first time in months, I'm having trouble concentrating on writing. Maybe that's just as well – I have a backlog of fiction and non-fiction pieces to place, and that seems the perfect outlet for this time of the year.

Soon summer will be here and it'll be hot – even here in the mountains – and I'll be less tempted to the outdoors, except to mow and tend the garden. Then there's an out-of-print mystery novel to re-write and, hopefully, re-sell. Images

Funny how even writing has a seasonal rhythm to it. 

The Vagaries of Writing Contests

Following my own advice from a previous post: I'm entering contests. There's a cost involved, besides postage – the entry fees, which run about $15 per contest. I'll receive subscriptions to a handful of litmags- some I'm familiar with, others not so much.

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The reality: odds are against winning any of these. In fact, I received one gently negative reply from a contest official just yesterday. Contests aren't necessarily won by the "best." As yesterday's turndown letter implied, they most often receive many worthy submissions – hence they can award to one that fits some sort of judicial preference.

But should I (or you) win a contest, it puts your name in Poets& Writers, maybe in other writer mags, where agents can find you. 

Admittedly this is sort of like the lottery, or maybe American Idol, but that's how this new writing-to-publishing model seems to work.

A Deeper Look at Love and Forebodings

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – Part 2

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A new translation by Lydia Davis

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First the translation: Lydia Davis spent a lot of time on the project; she gives us copious notes on the significance of what Flaubert has written in the way of French culture during the post-Napoleonic era, of technology, particularly medical science, and, in passing, Flaubert’s view, and possibly that of a large portion of educated France of the time, on the Catholic faith.

So. To Flaubert’s writing. Today we would say he knew how to pace a character-driven novel. He marries Charles to Emma quickly, but only after we’re allowed to view them as individuals, unaffected yet by the mirrors of marriage. Flaubert takes us into his characters, particularly Emma, permitting us peeks at their innermost thoughts, which are often sharply contrasted by their outer acts. This allows the un-loving couple to resonate more strongly than his depiction of other, background characters.

From the start, Flaubert’s narration compels. He takes us into his scenes as might a modern writer, schooled to mimic the moviemaker’s cameraman. He appeals to every sense with vividness and sensuality, leaving this reader with images that will probably remain forever.

His dialogue is probably his least well done aspect – at least by modern day standards of technique. While he gives us witty, tightly drawn dialogue in places, Flaubert hasn’t removed himself well enough from the Romantics to make this characters’ speech reflective of the story’s often hard-bitten tone.

Flaubert may have been an emotional man; as he moves closer to Emma’s death, and particularly afterward, narrative, characterization and dialogue seem a tad maudlin. But then this is France, and it is the nineteenth century. However, this lengthy book in no way drags.

Flaubert's main characters come to life in Madame Bovary in ways we see today in both cinema and the best literature, and as such, his characterizations remain as yet another standard for writers to try to best.

 

My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars