Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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The Age of the iPod is Over/The Verge

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Time and technology march on, leaving us with drawers full of antiquated gadgets. Still, this is important news for readers and book marketers. The world is all about mobility now, mobile devices that can do more and more. Soon you’ll be able to read books, watch streaming TV and movies, in your car (don’t do this if you’re driving), read books, listen to audio books – all on a single, chosen mobile device.

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The Months and Moments of War

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

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War novels have always seemed their best when written by a combatant who has been there, lived it. Galloway’s novel, however, shows that a good writer’s empathic instincts are sufficient, even though he/she hasn’t been there. The story of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian wars, the longest one in modern warfare history, has in this author’s hands been compressed to a fraction of that time.

In doing so, he allows the reader to experience the siege from three different points of view: Kenan, a family man intent on securing water for his family from a far away brewery, Dragan, a baker who simply observes the street scenes, and Arrow, a female sniper. The cellist whom the story surrounds is given only one chapter, his mission to play an adagio for twenty-two days in memory of twenty-two people killed in a mortar attack at the site of his playing. The cellist and Arrow are based roughly on real persons, the other two the author’s inventions.

 

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In allowing his story to play out, Galloway gives the reader a true sense of war, its reducing life to a mere survival, its day-to-day routines that approach ritual. Still, he does more, and with irony. He depicts his characters’ reduction to self-preservation while showing how strangers become friends-of-the-moment. He depicts hours or moments of danger that seem to stretch to eternity for his characters. And while his characters are disparate, unique, he allows suspense to build in different ways for each as the book reaches its climax.

Galloway is a skilled, eminently talented writer. We’ll hear more of him.

 

My rating 19 0f 20 stars

 

 

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My Favorite Reads of 2013

I promised a list of books I read in 2013 that left me thinking. Remember, these aren’t necessarily new books on the block, just ones I turned to this year. So here goes, the best first:

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Fiction:

  1. The Son, Philipp Meyer
  2. Black Dogs, Ian McEwan
  3. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
  4. Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
  5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  6. How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Lyn Fairchild Hawks
  7. Life Among Giants, Bill Roorbach
  8. The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy
  9. Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler
  10. Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

 

Nonfiction:

  1. The Unwinding, George Packer
  2. American Lion, John Meacham
  3. Black Count, Tom Reiss
  4. Zealot, Reza Aslan
  5. The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash
  6. The Hemingway Patrols, Terry Mort
  7. The Art of Power, John Meacham
  8. Season of Terror, Charles F. Price
  9. Heaven and Hell – My Life in the Eagles, Don Felder
  10. Visiting Tom, Michael Perry

 

I’d be interesting to see your lists, too.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Stories and The Value of Reader Comfort

Yesterday I had a first appearance and presentation for my latest book, Sam’s Place: Stories, a collection of connected short stories that form an overarching drama similar to a novel.

I enjoy mixed media presentations – they’re works of art in themselves, rather non-linear and, in yesterday’s case, visual. I’d planned to add sound, in the form of music,too, but thought that would’ve been too busy. The primary purpose of such a presentation, of course, is to entertain attendees a bit, and to give them a feel for the collection.

 

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The collection? It’s a montage of character portrayals set in a rural Alabama town, principally in a pool hall/beer joint unimaginatively named Sam’s Place. Sam Witherspoon is the proprietor, and the stories’ common thread is slowly fructifying change in Sam’s life. And yes, the collection’s based on a few years of my visiting such places in the rural South.

Those attending seemed to like and even relate to the presentation – I kept seeing heads nodding, even mouths moving, wanting to comment, but too polite to interrupt. What I hadn’t expected – and I rehearsed the presentation many times over at home – was the subtler connection of both story and presentation to life in the South – – this occurring  in mid-presentation.

Societies such as my fictional town of Striven, Alabama, naturally fall into strata – first, functional ones based on the population’s interdependence: grocer, farmer, paper mill and its workers, police, mayor, banker, preachers, etc. But then these occupations become separated socially, roughly along classes of work and education, and this is where conflict starts. Where a town might begin in rather egalitarian fashion, soon some are deemed “better” than others, and the “others” are subtly pushed out of contact with the rest. These “others,” then, gravitate to places such as Sam’s. Moral qualities are assigned to these different strata, with Sam’s patrons deemed least morally acceptable. And this sets in motion the conflicts that Sam and his patrons experience in these stories.

Better that I didn’t orchestrate this in the beginning; the stories would have been less story and more didactic statement. But this is the power of story: such conflicts rise from the writer’s subconscious to fiction, and in this way they’re less personally indicting for readers. Readers are allowed to understand the conflicts in a deeper sense, perhaps subconsciously, and they take a fainter, safer step forward in social healing.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The Best Music Comes From The Most Experienced Sources

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Eric Taylor has been writing great songs for decades. His songs have been covered by some of music’s most respected voices, and he’s still going strong, as his most recent CD, Studio 10 indicates. Below is my tribute to Taylor and his music. His website is also included at the below link.

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Studio 10 is not unlike most of Taylor’s body of work; it’s loaded with vivid images, compelling, moody stories, and take-home insights. These mini-stories, these characters and their implied lives, while personal and specific in nature, are universal in that they speak to life, not only in Taylor’s home state of Texas, but from ocean to ocean: sometimes angry, even violent, sometimes replete with the beauty of love, and occasionally get-drunk-and-dance happy, all this despite those characters’ bad decisions, problematic family situations, and the angst of passing years.

There are elements of the finest poetic work in Taylor’s songs, and his musicianship seems designed to be deceptively simple. He knows how to occasionally slant a rhyme to best effect, and his chording and arrangements are more complex than the one-four-five changes of some of his contemporaries. He’s aware of the moods he wants to create with each song, and he knows how to orchestrate his guitar playing to evoke them.

Much of today’s singer-songwriter fare is self absorbed, often occluded, as if the writer-singer wishes he or she didn’t have to share those songs with the public. Not so with Taylor. He may put shards of his own psyche into his songs, but he has the good sense to wrap them in characters and stories that play well with any audience. In performance, Taylor is at heart a dramatist: lighting a smoke, stomping a boot heel in rhythmic emphasis, growling out his hard stuff or softly dispensing ballads in a manner that always seems innately fused to his songsmithing.

On Studio 10, he plays out his old themes with ever new characters and story lines. He honors those who have passed from his life – singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey and under-appreciated writer Jim Tully. He speaks of endings in Molly’s Painted Pony, in Adios, and Cover These Bones. But he finds time to frolic in Francestown and casts and artist’s eye over Amsterdam in String of Pearls.

Being a musician intent on honestly following his muse is hard today, but at day’s end it’s the mark of an enduring talent. Studio 10 testifies to that talent, that endurance, and once you hear it, you have to hope there’s a lot more to come.

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Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The River of Writing

 

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What is it that makes writers so passionate about their craft? By all rights, writing – writing well – would seem a chore of monumental proportions. I was reminded recently by good friend and musician/composer extraordinaire, Ken Bonfield, of the time, body and finger aches, the thought and inspiration that go into composing a musical piece.

For a poet, a fiction writer, a memoirist – and forget the time spent marketing, hoping to publish, either traditionally or DIY – the process can wear a good person down:

  • First you have to have a seed, a germ of an idea for a story. I’ve often been asked where mine come from. I just don’t know – from life experience? From imagination? Piggy-backing on history or a story someone else has written? Possibly. This is the work of the muses – something in the subconscious bleeding to get out, onto a page, to be told before the hearth, squirming to explain itself through the vehicle of real but imagined life. And this is perhaps the easiest part of the writer’s jaunt.
  • In today’s reading world, in which “reality” (true or contrived) rules, a writer must do research. I was once told that because I once had a cell phone’s existence some five years out of place in a story of mine, this reader would scrupulously avoid any stories of mine from that day on. Nice guy. The point being that imagined stories must be settled into a realistic setting, historically placed. And that means research.
  • Then there’s the writing itself: the labor intensive first draft. A 60,ooo word novel can take as long as a year to write well. Then there are the editing phases, in which story, characters, rising action, setting, narrative, voice, tone – all these must come about seamlessly, as if the whole thing had happened to perfection in spontaneous fashion.

This takes a lot out of a person, of course, physically, emotionally, psychically. Still, there’s the question of why the writer does it once, then does it again, and again. The only answer I have  is that it’s like being swept up in something larger than one’s self, a wild, primitive river, begging to express, to be understood, in some yet-to-be-determined fashion. We grab a laptop, a pen and pad of paper, and leap in, never afraid of drowning in it, but hoping that you will.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.