The Prisons of Home

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

The world of fiction is an organic, living one. That is to say, in regard to Kline’s fine book, there is a growing number of ways to write a biography. (Having written and soon to have published a similar biographic novel about one Hans Ulrich Rudel, I can attest to biographical life within just such a world). The author has chosen an interesting real-life character, Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a highly misunderstood neurological condition. But the book is also in equal parts about the generation of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of Olson, Christina’s World, and about life in early twentieth-century Maine.

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Told from Christina’s point of view, present tense, Kline explores what is known of Christina’s interior life, her family life, and the book explores an early-on romance between Christina and Walton, who later abandons her, leaving her as emotionally damaged as she was increasingly physically incapacitated. Too, Andy Wyeth weaves his own role into Christina’s life, and with him there, Kline’s novel directs itself inexorably toward the famed painting.

The deeper reach of this novel explores the ways in which home can become a prison, in this instance for Christina and her brother Al. Ironically, however, Christina’s stubborn avoidance of assistance and sympathy places her in the town of Cushing’s limelight. Kline’s recognition of this, coupled to dialogue passages that are among the most realistic this reader has experienced, makes this a book lending itself to the deepest understanding of the human condition.

My rating: 20 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

What Makes The Master Writer?

 

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Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.

 

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Smooth Writing, Smooth Read

Pronto, by Elmore Leonard

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I hadn’t read an Elmore Leonard book in ages, definitely not since I began writing full time, and I’m planning to write a sequel to one of my mystery novels next year, so I decided to read something by him again, to size up his chops. He wrote Pronto toward the end of his career, and I can note evidence of  dependency on formula, a certain casualness that comes with repeatedly writing in a genre.

Leonard’s genre is crime fiction – the tough guy, sexy babe, shoot-em-before-they-shoot-you sort of story. He’s read by the same crowd that reads Raymond Chandler, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley, and James Lee Burke (yes, there are female writers in this genre, but not many).

So as a writer/reader, how did this story set with me? I was more taken as a writer with the book – how he did what he did  – than with the story. But then that’s part of how Leonard shows mastery of his genre. Let me explain.

The story begins with a Miami bookie, Harry Arno, preparing to “retire,” i.e., to skip out on his money man, Jimmy Capotorto, from whom Harry has been skimming for years. But complications arise when Harry is hunted down by an Everglades hit man. Harry shoots the guy and is arrested for murder. But before the local cops and Feds can get their wits about them, Harry goes on the lam, ends up in Italy. A federal marshal, Raylan Givens, goes hunting for Harry and his gal, Joyce, as do a true Mafioso, the Zip, and a young muscle man, Nicky, who wants desperately to be a made man.

Here, under Leonard’s smooth story telling, Harry fades to the background and Givens comes to the fore. He saves Harry, steals his girl, saves Harry again, shoots the Zip, and the stage is set for subsequent Rayland Givens books, which end up as the FX TV series, Justified.

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Leonard’s characters are no more than six inches deep, largely defined by sex and circumstance. His dialogue is clipped, tense, and slightly tongue in cheek, as if he’s not really taking his characters seriously. He also works references to Ezra Pound and his poetry, Pound’s flirtation with fascism, his life in Italy, into short but effective narrative segments. It’s clear that Leonard is in this for the money, yet he doesn’t cheat the discriminating reader; his rather shallow storyline is perfectly executed, dragging his characters along with deceptively erudite writing. Leonard has drawn criticism for pandering to the baser human instincts, but that’s only the surface of his writing skills. His tone here seems instead to tell us that violence and depravity are a part of the human experience, but “Please, don’t give it more social worth than it deserves.”

 

My rating 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

Pushing Poets and Then Some

The Writer’s Chronicle, November 2013

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It’s not a clean sweep, but as far as interviews and articles go this month, The Writer’s Chronicle is focused on poets and poetry. I’m a little disappointed but not shocked, certainly. This is an academically based publication; and where do today’s poets run for cover? Academe. I’m no longer a poet, haven’t been for years, and I don’t feel qualified to critique such articles or their writerly content. What I do do, however, is to scratch around in such pieces for anything an aspiring fiction writer (long and short) might find useful. 

I didn’t find much here – not that what’s written isn’t useful – I just don’t find much that fits my own presumed needs. An interview with Jane Hirshfield by Amy Pence, however, holds that writers (poets, in this case) are tasked with divining the music of their deeper thoughts, placed somewhere beneath the surface chatter. This is good for all writers to understand, because your own speaker’s rhythm is an essential part of your voice.

But one article by Larry Feign on dialogue in historical fiction was a must for me, a veritable keeper. The thrust here: How does a writer come up with dialogue appropriate to a particular historical era? His answer: fake it. This isn’t as brash as it seems, because he merely cautions against using the overly stilted dialogue, say, of Elizabethan England for a modern take on the era. Instead, do such things as injecting a tad of appropriate formality, resisting contractions, throwing in an archaic word here and there. In other words, intimate the feel of that era’s speech. 

But if you’re a poet or an avid reader of poetry, buy the issue. you’ll learn something. 

 

 

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CNF Dishes A Few Writerly Tips

Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2013, Issue 49

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This issue of Lee Gutkind’s fine nonfiction mag is thematically about “Survival and Unlikely Events,” but the most impressive bits here are some tips for nonfiction writers. But don’t surf on just yet, fiction-er; these can apply in general to you as well. 

Tim Bascomb’s piece, “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” expands on the normal conflict/rising action/resolution/denouement dictum by showing the writer how to wander and circle about the subject at hand a bit in order to give background and to heighten meaning. It’s a piece I’ll cut out and save.

Also, in “Required Reading,” Beth Kephart gives some good pointers on “white-spacing memoirs,” i.e., what to strategically leave out of a memoir in order to dress a theme and entice readers. 

And Suzanne Hegland gives some very practical points on creating good, taut, dialogue in her piece, “The Spoken Word, Distilled.”

And I think the editors selected the CNF pieces in this issue to illustrate just these fine points. Good for them – this is a topical primer all prose writers can learn from.

 

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.

 

 

 

Vulnerability and Glamour, Past and Present

 

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Sutton, by J. R. Moehringer

 

Well, well. A Pulitzer-winning journalist that writes excellent historical fiction. One of the things that draws writers to historical fiction is a compulsion to fill in the unknown/unknowable gaps about events or characters and make the made-up gap fillers seem right in keeping with the known. But I should give a bit about Moehringer’s story at this point.

Willie Sutton, notorious bank robber of the early twentieth century, has just been let out of Attica Prison and is in his sixties. He’s suffered a life of hard knocks and it’s clear he won’t last much longer. A New York reporter and photographer corral him as he’s let out of Attica, and he cons them into driving him around the city so he can relive the significant events of his life: brutal beatings from his brothers, his life-long obsession with a girl named Bess, banks robbed, places he’s stayed on the lam, bars he’s drunk in. He’s trying to summarize his life at these two lads’ expense. But the jaunt ends, and with great irony involved, Moehringer allows the reporter to become obsessed with Sutton’s life.

It would have been easy to have cast Sutton in a society-done-me-wrong role, or to have written the story with an alternate version of Sutton’s life hovering over the famed robber’s – and the author’s – lives, an “I wish I’d done this here instead of that” rueful telling, but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with Sutton’s life. Instead Sutton simply wants a retrospective before he settles in to wait for the Grim Reaper.

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Moehringer’s prose is wry to the point of tartness in portraying Sutton, and his dialogue is as good as any by the best crime novelists. His alternating past with present in a way that allows them to be as seamless as past and present can be is excellent. In the end, the author gives us a stellar story and a sensitive character rendering.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

 

 

The Way It Was – Southern-Style

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The Orchard Keeper, by Cormac McCarthy

 

You may become puzzled trying to categorize McCarthy’s writing style, but you won’t find it hard at all to place it in the canon of Southern literature. McCarthy eventually moved on from this subset, his most famous books taking place in the Southwest U.S., and taking on a dystopian cant, but his early works, such as “The Orchard Keeper,” will find its place alongside Flannery O’Connor’s and William Faulkner’s, if they haven’t already.

This story takes place in the early 1930s in rural Tennessee and is, rather than a story with a traditional arc, a series of vignettes concerning a young boy, John Wesley Rattner, A bootlegger named Marion Sylder, and an old man, Ather (Arthur), who lives a life as close to the land as is humanly possible. McCarthy’s project here is exactly that – the ability of humanity to live much as the animals, taking little save the necessaries to subsist, and leaving little more than footprints.

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The charm of McCarthy’s work here is in three writerly things:

1 – His dialogue, which records the Southern dialect as exactly as is possible, a dialogue that has remained largely the same in the South’s rural areas.

2 – His narrative depiction of the Tennessee wilds, which will engage your senses at every level.

3 – His slightly overdone voice, which is near-poetry.

It may come as no surprise, but McCarthy praises this lifestyle. It’s unvarnished in its violence and its self-destructive individualism, but his depictions of it overflow with love, respect, and admiration. It’s a book about the mutual embrace between nature and humanity, and it’s one of the best pieces of Southern writing in decades.

 

 

My rating 19 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.