We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Because I’m one of Those People Who Will Be Watching the Royal Wedding.

Plus I’m keeping an eye on the gigantic storms across the South. A lot of my family is down there–so I’m sure that the swirl of taffeta and the blare of trumpets can wait a second or two. Cyber hugs to everyone with family and friends affected by the storms. Take care of yourselves. 

Thursday Reviews: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The trick to reading this with a straight face is to remember: This was First. Dames, gams, etc., are all Chandler’s (and Hammett’s). Today it’s hard not to think of Dragnet and a whole host of other movies or books that make fun of this. Stylistically, this is The Original so Chandler racks up points for writing in the same time period as Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, and P.G. Wodehouse and ripping in a whole new, American style.

For example, Chandler gets to write “Go _____ yourself” where the others don’t.

My rating is a reflection on the hangups (generally my own) I couldn’t quite get past. Biggest problem: I wasn’t sure what problem I was supposed to be focusing on. The legendary character, Philip Marlowe, is hired to deal with a blackmail issue involving the wealthy Sternwood family. Pornography seems to be the big focus, as well as protecting the Sternwood reputation. However, there’s a missing son-in-law.

Now, Marlowe tells multiple characters that he’s not looking for the son-in-law. So I took him at his word (I know, my own problem for doing that in a mystery, right?). Turns out, the reader needs to pay attention to the missing son-in-law. Otherwise Marlowe’s actions don’t make a whole lotta sense. Saying one thing, doing another….

The other issue I had, and this is an issue with the storytelling style, is the habit of giving a physical description for someone (usually a woman) I’ve already met and then giving the description again when the character reappears–and then not telling me that “Oh, by the way this is Sue who you met in chapter two” until the end of the new introductory paragraph. Irritation. There are only so many blondes with long legs I can keep track of.

However, the characters are colorful. I was reminded, pleasantly so, of L.A. Confidential. Especially when Chandler describes the ‘seedy underbelly’ of L.A. The thugs are good and convincing. Marlowe is also convincing as a character who can deal with those thugs. It’s entertaining and admirably crass. (And I consider that complimentary.)

View all my reviews

Random Post of Pity Me.

Hard drive crash. Will be using Shane’s computer for the next week or so.

Which is no big deal, right? Everything was backed up and all.

But still. It’s like driving someone else’s car. Sure, every car has a turn signal and wipers and hand brakes and all. It’s just not what you’re used to. You reach on the wrong side for the wipers. You want to reach down to shift, but the car you’re driving is an automatic and everything you need is on the steering column.

It’ll get you where you’re going, but it’s not yours and you always, always, always wind up on the wrong side in the gas station.

You know?

In Defense of Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse is not someone that I studied in school. In fact, if it weren’t for industriously reading friends, I wouldn’t know his name at all. Why is that?

I’ll be straight: I don’t know why. Without making broad negative assumptions about academia (which I don’t want to make because I’ve learned a lot from there) I can’t think of anything that would stop Wodehouse from making a terrific subject for English classes.

His language is sharp. I can see that argument that the slang is dated, but it’s not something that is distracting and slang, more than ‘proper’ language says more about the time a piece was written in–making it a valuable tool for understanding history and the development of language. (Yes, texting language says a lot about the tech savvy and speed of our current culture.)

The stories are developed in a classical style. There’s a three-to-five act structure involved in the pieces. Even if a story is about cow-shaped creamers, does the fact that the stories are shaped similar to Shakespeare’s comedies mean nothing?

Plus there’s the historical aspect of his stories–not just language, but subject matter. Most of what we’ve discussed the last couple months were Wodehouse’s works pre-WWII. (So, lots of butlers and whatnot.) But I bet an interesting comparison could be made between his pre- and post- works. So the pieces are relevent there too.

Any other ideas on would be good to study in Wodehouse? What writers have you studied in college/high school that would compare to Wodehouse? Any? Humor writers?

***Sorry for those who saw this post as blank earlier!  My own computer is in ‘the shop’ and I’m adjusting to the husband’s computer.

Formula Doesn’t Equal Easy

Humorists, like romance writers and, to some extent, mystery writers, catch some flak because, for whatever reason, it gives the impression of being ‘easy’. Which, as anyone who has tried to write comedy knows, it isn’t.

Why would people think it’s easy?

It occured to me as I was reading Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer (I was inspired to learn more about comedic writing because of Wodehouse) that one of the reasons people think writing funny is easier is because there are formulas. Things like reversals. Things that can be put into acronyms, pneumonics, and formats that can be otherwise memorized.

Meaning that if you stick to the pattern VOILA! you will be funny.

Well, in that case, why isn’t every comedian Robin Williams or any one of the Kings of Comedy or the Blue Collar crew?

Let’s take one of the formulaic pieces offered by Comedy Writing Secrets: knowing the audience. This seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? But this isn’t as easy to gauge as you think. Robin Williams has note-takers who tell him what got the biggest laughs and what didn’t and he adjusts his routine accordingly. The Blue Collar guys bank on the idea that, while you may not be related to the guy with the car under weeds in his front yard, you have seen it. And Bill Engvall’s schtick about stupid signs…he’s not making fun of a group directly, he puts the audience in the position of power because it’s a “You know that guy but you’re not that guy, of course” kinda bit.

But for every Robin Willams, Bill Engvall, Bill Cosby, and Steve Harvey you’ve got a bunch of unnamed comedians trying to break out in the club circuit. The club circuit guys know the routines, know the formula, but for some reason or other (maybe just dumb luck) they haven’t hit it yet.

However, my guess is that Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac (God rest his funny soul), and D.L. Hughley as well as Williams and the Blue Collar dudes, have skill sets that allow them to read and engage an audience differently. Perhaps it’s note-taking, perhaps it’s just paying attention to the local enviornment. Whatever it is–and playing at these levels, it’s not dumb luck–they have it and they use it.

Which is the same for writers like Nora Roberts, who gets simultaneously knocked and praised for being Queen of Romance. Just because there’s a formula to romances and just because, sure, you can predict happy endings and sex and what order they come in doesn’t mean creating something like that is easy. Roberts has a skill set which allows readers to engage with her writing, she mixes up the complications–capable of portraying medieval, Western, supernatural, mysterious worlds to mix it all up–and the reader is left satisfied.

If it’s so easy to engage the reader, to create creative complications within a framework, develop language that doesn’t come off too hokey (because let’s face it, there are only so many adjectives for ‘hard’ and the hard-core romance reader don’t buy into really hokey description anyway, regardless of what the outside world thinks), and to make characters an audience will keep coming back to…why isn’t every romance a mega-bestseller?

Dudes. Because it isn’t easy.

Thursday Reviews: The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse (A Mentor Review!)

The Luck of the BodkinsThe Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of early cinema this book–originally published in 1935–is for you. There’s plenty of in-jokes geared towards producers, nepotism, and actors. At one moment in the book I had to pause because Monty Bodkin (the Lucky Bodkin of the title) was compared to Leslie Howard and Clark Gable, both of whom were to star in Gone With the Wind four years after Wodehouse mentions them. Shall we give P.G. a pat on the back for smushing such stellar talent together before Selznick?

I know what you’re thinking and, no, you don’t have to be a fan of movie history to enjoy this story. It just helps.

There’s plenty of rip-roaring trouble. Monty Bodkin wants to marry Gertrude Butterwick, who misunderstands a tattoo of his and breaks their engagement. As he tries to win her back over the course of a six day crossing-of-the-Atlantic he has to thwart movie starlets (and boy, does Wodehouse nail the speaking patterns of the early mega-watt actresses like Katherine Hepburn/Bette Davis in Miss Lotus Blossom) novelists, movie producers, and the good intentions of his best friend Reggie. Mickey Mouse plays a part, as does Wilfred the Alligator.

The most enjoyable part of this book is spending time with the characters. Each one is so well-drawn that you don’t lose your place, which is tricky with a “cast” of this size. Gertrude is a hockey-playing sportswoman who can handle herself. Lotus “Lottie” Blossom is star of stage and state-rooms. Ambrose Tennyson is “not the right Tennyson”. Ivor Llewllyn is a three-chinned, Customs-fearing movie producer. Peasemarch is the feudal serf who can’t keep his nose out of anyone’s business. And Reggie is the intelligent blighter who somehow manages to pull everyone together.

If you’re looking for something to make you smile, this one’ll do it. Part of it is inexplicable.

No, literally. Part of it is the word “inexplicable.”

View all my reviews

Random Post of Awesomeness: Braggin on a Buddy and…Me!

Hey guys! I just got the great news that I won a copy of The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander over at Tracy Edward Wymer’s blog.

While I’m thrilled about winning the book, it’s going to an important cause: Getting kids to read!

Tracy’s whole contest was geared toward getting it into the hands of kids. You had to comment and tell what kid you would give the book to (after you’d finished reading it, of course). Well, my husband is switching gears from teaching high school to teaching middle school. First, I’m going to read this intriguing story. (See Tracy’s review here.) Then Shane’ll read it. Then it’s off into the hands of a passle o’ 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

We’ll probably grab a few more copies along the way….

So, cheers to me. Cheers to Tracy for having such a great idea. Cheers to writer Chris Rylander. And cheers to the students who will benefit.

Fun With Lists…or Not Really…or Reading Like a Writer

Wodehouse, I don’t think anyone will disagree, is a clever writer. There’s a dryish wit that feeds his prose. British, yes? Yes.

When Wodehouse describes a regular situation (man falls off bike) he conveys all the normal information like:

1. If you’re not careful, you can fall off your bike.

2. Falling off the bike will hurt.

3. A reader has empathy for the guy falling off the bike.

I’m a boring writer comparitively (See above, I made a list. So exciting.), so let’s look at Wodehouse. Here’s the passage from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie Wooster witnesses Officer Oates’s bicycle accident:

The constable, I say, was riding without his hands: and but for this the disaster, when it occurred, might not have been so complete. I was a bit of a cyclist myself in my youth — I think I have mentioned that I once won a choir boys’ handicap at some village sports — and I can testify that when you are riding without your hands, privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence. The merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie connecting with the ankle bone at such a time, and you swoop into a sudden swerve. And, as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller.”

Interesting bits of how Wodehouse developed the above passage (here’s another list):

1. He lets us fill in the gaps. We don’t actually see the Scottie dog attack the bike, but we know it happens.

2. He overexplains the situation. Wodehouse doesn’t just say “If you ride without your hands on the handlebars you need to concentrate.” No, it’s “privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence.” The situation is not an accident it is a complete disaster: “but for this the disaster…might not have been so complete.”

3. The overexplanation and use of elaborate wording is reversed right at the end with the slang of “smeller.”

Not to take the fun out of reading by overexamining, but taking small chunks of a writer’s work and examining it like this can lead to revelations in your own work. I mean, in this one paragraph we got: leave gaps to fill in, overexplaining, and reversals. I’m sure that if we continued to probe the language of this paragraph we would find still more tidbits.

But that’s not as fun.

Still…the next time you come across something that you really love in a work, you should read it, mentally note it, and come back to it after you’ve read for fun.

Always fun first, then work.

You don’t need to examine the whole thing (who has that kind of time?), just take a paragraph like I did here. You will definitely learn something.

P.S. Official Warning Label: Do not attempt this exercise with Chaucer, Milton, myself, or Shakespeare. Your head will explode. And I’ll just be embarassed.

Humorous Storytellers–I Love ‘Em

Normally, I don’t do funny writing.  I’ve tried to do some funny writing (or, at least, mildly laughable writing) but with mixed results.

But I really, really, really super-enjoy reading it. And, because I’ve tried funny writing, I know how good the people who  write it successfully really are.

I mean, I love a good tear-jerker, or a make-you-thinker. Still. There’s just so much McCarthy, McEwan, and McCullough you can read at a go, ya know? (And I do love them too…no shortage of love here. But!) Every third book or so has to be a funny book for me, or I start to hate reading. I appreciate wonderful language, deep characters, and all of that, but sometimes I’ve just got to laugh.

Wodehouse has become a go-to because he has so much material that I have a lot to read before I run out.

Three other authors that I run to when I need a break from the dramatic, emotionally wrenching stories of the Literati:

Christopher Moore–He does amazing retellings. My favorites are where he riffs on stories that already have a strong central structure that he can build off of and play with. (ie. Lamb and Fool) Or some kind of mythos that he fiddles with like A Dirty Job.

Anthony Bourdain–He’s not just for foodies, people. For those who have seen the quips and stings he lashes out during Top Chef and No Reservations…well, they work just as well in book form for me. Even his non-fiction is hilarious, like Kitchen Confidential.

Gideon deFoe–You may or may not have heard of this British author of The Pirates! series. But he is freakin’ Amazing. The books are short but will have you rolling. The Pirate Captain is one of the best-drawn cliched-but-not characters ever. There’s The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists (Darwin), The Pirates in an Adventure with Communists (Marx), and The Pirates in an Adventure with Ahab (Ahab). 

How’s about you guys? Who makes you laugh?