Thursday Reviews!: Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the first story of this book, “Murder in the Dark,” and when I was finished I turned to my husband, shoved the book in his hand, told him to read it and then he was to tell me HOW DID SHE DO THAT?

He didn’t really have an answer but his comment defined what I thought of the rest of the book: “It’s written with the confidence of someone who knows she can hit a homerun every time.”

Confidence oozes through every one of these pieces.

Least faves (because they just seemed a little too forced – and I wish I had a better word for that sensation, but that’s the best I’ve got!):
“Gertrude Talks Back”: Queen Gertrude gives Hamlet her opinion on her current and former husbands. Fine. But the tone somehow seemed dismissive – and the character of Gertrude never seemed dismissive in the play – which is doubly odd considering the information she is giving her ‘priggish’ son. And, this may seem an odd critique, but I think the white space between the paragraphs doesn’t do the story any favors. It gives it a fragmented feeling and I think that a piece riffing on Shakespeare would work better within the play framework – perhaps shaping the monologue in a block form like Hamlet’s own speeches would have allowed the words to have more impact instead of making the reader adjust both the form and the words.

“Poppies: Three Variations”: While this is probably the most complex exercise, it reads just like that: an exercise. She riffs on a verse about poppies by John McCrae by using the same words of that verse, in the same order, to tell three different stories. The first words of McCrae’s verse is ‘in Flanders’ and all three mini-stories have with ‘in’ followed somewhere by ‘Flanders’ followed somewhere by the next word in the verse. It’s a good way to stretch the literary muscle, but it’s like watching someone work out – we admire their physique but prefer not to see the huffing and puffing and sweat that go along with it. Just give me the calendar, ya know?

The stories that I absolutely adore are the ones that have a satirical bite to them.

“Simmering”: Oh! My FAVORITE by far. (I know, it’s unfair to choose favorites, but there you have it, anyway.) It’s all about what happens when men take over the kitchen. Go get this book and read that story.

“Murder in the Dark”: It set the tone for the rest of the book. Is the author just trying to manipulate the reader throughout (I’m totally okay with the way Atwood manipulates, by the way), is she just a magician showing nothing of reality? Puts the power with the writer…so I think my writerly friends will enjoy this a lot…as well as readers who like to figure out the trick. I still haven’t….

“Happy Endings”: A choose-your-own adventure marriage!

Atwood also illustrated the collection, and some are as provocative as the stories – which are also dominated by the bits and pieces of male and female anatomy. Interwoven among the stories is the question of objectifying the body: “Making a Man,” “Alien Territory,” “Dance of the Lepers,” and “Good Bones” hit on the question in a more direct way…but it’s everywhere.

Well worth reading – and it won’t take that long either.

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A Margaret Atwood Inspired Short

Intro: In September I participated in the Colorado Springs Writing Marathon. I’d just finished reading Atwood’s Good Bones and Simple Murders (reviewed tomorrow) and really, really wanted to try something small and twisty like the stories in that book. The following is the result:

The Crayon

It’s robin-egg blue and hidden behind a potted plant. The boy who left it behind used it to draw clouds on his napkin at the restaurant. The napkin sky was white, and the clouds robin-egg blue. He liked his picture because it was different from real life – where sticky sweet smells meant beer instead of cotton candy. His backward drawing was brighter, because white skies let in more light than blue skies. You just needed blue clouds for a bit of shade here and there, like polka-dots. Before he left the restaurant, he managed to grab hold of his napkin with its imaginary sky, but he lost the crayon, which was found later, by a writer looking for inspiration and she wrote about the boy and his cloud.

Twitter and the Part I Smackdown: Tuesday Post of Accountability

It’s Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Ah, it was a glorious week of progress!

1. Finished Part I of The Line on Saturday! Yes! I actually got to write “End Part I.” So that’s about 50,000 words finished all together. (Yes, I realize Part I is long, almost a novel in and of itself. However, you can’t write big, sprawling epics and have short little lead-ups. How boring.)

2. That isn’t enough for you?

3. Joined Twitter. (And one day I think I’ll even understand what the heck’s going on.) If you wanna follow me and my mini-steals then just clickity-click the link or the button to your right below my picture. 

4. Last, but certainly not least, I heard that my flash fiction piece “Judas Slouches Through Jerusalem” will be published by The Medulla Review. I’ll post the direct link to the story next Tuesday (because that’s publication day!).

NaNoWriMo Prep Time!

This year, I’m doing it. Last year I did not. Last year, I didn’t even try it because I was in the middle of big project that I didn’t want to interrupt.

This year, I can write an entire section of my current novel in one month – a section with its own beginning middle end.

Yep! It’s National Novel Writing Month!

Well, not yet. Soon. Starting November 1st, writers around the world will be participating in a the mad writing frenzy that is NaNoWriMo. Before we start though, I thought I’d share some NaNo linkage for those of you getting dusted off and prepped:

1. The official NaNo website. Here you can meet up with the other folks in your region who are just as crazy as you. At the very least sign up so you can get the pep talks – the pep talking crew looks pretty good this year!

2. The illustrious Nathan Bransford had a very smart series of posts last year about the pre-work for NaNo. Here are the Boot Camps:
Day One
Day Two
Day Three

3. And…if you’re in Colorado Springs, I’ve hunted down the NaNo write-in events for my writer’s group, The Under Ground Writing Project – and you can check out our calendar if you’re looking for places and times to meet up with the other crazies! I’d also like to give a shout out to the Pikes Peak Writers who are hosting the lion’s share!

Mostly National Book Award Linkage for Your Friday!

Okay, so first, the National Book Awards were announced. Congrats to everyone who made the cut. Unfortunately, in a bungling bungle to beat all bungles, they informed super-duper Young Adult writer Lauren Myracle that she was shortlisted…and then she was asked to withdraw:

Her [Myracle’s] book “Shine” was among the first five finalists announced live before an audience and radio broadcast in Oregon on Oct. 12; later that day, a sixth book, “Chime” by Franny Billingsley, was added to the list.

In explaining the addition of “Chime,” National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum said, “We made a mistake, there was a miscommunication.” That “Chime” and “Shine” sound similar was not explicitly stated but may have been a factor.”~The Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2011

(Note the apologetic note at the top of the announcements. $5,000 dollars is being donated in Myracle’s name to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. And if you’d like to donate as well, I would urge you to do so.)

As you can imagine, that irritated not a small amount of people. Here is Lauren Myracle’s own reaction via Vanity Fair (it’s beautiful, if you click no other link here, click that one). Libba Bray rushed to a passionate defense of Lauren Myracle’s dignity. Super Agent Janet Reid makes a very compelling argument for how we should show our support for Myracle: buy her book.

But that’s not all for the National Book Awards. Laura Miller over at Salon asks: Are they even relevent? And NPR asks What does the National Book Award really mean?

Plus, just because I love Stephen King – here’s his acceptance 2003 acceptance speech for National Book Foundation’s Medal for his Distiguished Contribution to American Letters Award.

Thursday Reviews: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars…it’s a first of series and, while beautifully written (because Atwood just does that) I found that I could put the book down a little too easily. So I started it a couple months ago and just now finished.

The Main Idea
Snowman (known in the life-before-the-plague-hit as Jimmy) is trying to survive in a post-human world with a bunch of genetically mutated ‘humans’ known as the Children of Crake. Food is short, Snowman’s resources even shorter, and he is carrying the burden of guilt for his part/non-part in the plague that damned the human race.

The bulk of the novel is dedicated to Snowman’s background and how the world has become the shithole that it is: genetically spliced “pigoons” and “rakunks” trying to eat him, threats of infection from bug bites or cuts are very, very real, there’s a distinct shortage of alcohol, and for all intents and purposes, he’s alone.

The Neat-o Stuff
Atwood has a superb gift for creating a futuristic world that sounds witty and real and disturbing. I didn’t think twice about a website called Hottots – a site dedicated to child pornography. Or a cosmetic/self-help corporation compound called RejoovenEsense. Or a coffee company called Happicuppa. These things felt silly enough to be exactly what a marketer would come up with to sell an idea to the public.

Then there are the animals that get spliced together. Rakunks are racoons spliced with skunks and apparently they make interesting pets….

Her ultimate creations, of course, are the Children of Crake. I’m very curious to see how these guys evolve…because they have been designed by Crake: a genius who tried to eliminate certain things like emotion, and disease, and hierarchies in the Children’s genetic code. His experiments seem to have worked so far. But now this group is out in this post-plague world with only Snowman to guide them (assuming they need guiding). This is only the first book in the series, but I’m betting they have more human flaws than Crake would’ve wanted…after all, they were created by a flawed human being.

The Less Neat-o Stuff
Why I give this book only 3.5 stars in real life:

Like I said, it was a little too easy to put down.

Snowman is interesting and flawed. He’s a shitty situation. I definitely had sympathy for him. However, the background information that builds the world is done in flashbacks that stretch on for quite a while. There’s a situation with his mother, he’s got a couple daddy issues, his best friend (Crake) is a budding science whiz who will eventually destroy the world, and his the love-of-his-life, Oryx, is a former child porn victim. Yes, this information is important – but the parent sections felt more navel-gazing because Snowman wasn’t really in control at that point.

The story gets waaaay more interesting later (and definitely less put-down-able) in the last third, where Snowman/Jimmy is all grown up, participating in the marketing scheme that’ll destroy the world. Plus, the flashbacks coincide with his present life – and he has to escape some devious pigoons, figure out how to fix his damaged foot, and sort out what the hell he’s gonna do for the rest of his life (however long or short that may be).

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In Related Margaret Atwood News…

Atwood’s new book on science fiction/speculative fiction In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is out and about!

For an excerpt:  From the National Post“Margaret Atwood: Utopias in fiction and their failed real-life counterparts”

What Do Chapter Titles Reveal About Your Book (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake)

I’m not a writer who titles her chapters – though I’ve considered it for various projects, including my WiP. J.K. Rowling titled all chapters in the Harry Potter series, Neil Gaiman titled his chapters in The Graveyard Book, and there’s a whole host of other authors who title their chapters. It’s something I think we grow up with because, well, most books that title chapters are children’s books. (Ever notice that?)

In Oryx and Crake (heads up!: totally not a kid’s book!) the chapters have titles and I think it works because 1.) the titles don’t give much away, and 2.)actually serve to intrigue the reader who has nothing else to go on.

Regarding 1.):
Atwood’s titles do not give away anything.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, Rowling actually titles a chapter “The Half-Blood Prince.” It’s like a glaring neon sign to tell readers Skip to here if you don’t want the mystery! I know, it’s not like she says who the Half-Blood Prince is, but still.

Atwood’s chapter titles tend to be one word, and a regular word at that – so it tells you absolutely nothing.

Examples include: “Mango” “Hammer” “Purring”

Titles like these require the writer to explain, through the story, what the hell the significance is.

Admittedly, Oryx and Crake is the first in the series and my previous HP example was the sixth in the series – so there’s a certain level of tension going into that new book. Year of the Flood, which I do not have in front of me at present, could have some questionable-give-away-the-story chapter titles.

Regarding 2.):
Atwood’s titles are intriguing.

Sprinkled among the seemingly innocuous titles like “Garage” are the more creative bits that Atwood made up and the story is going to have to explain.

Stuff like “Pleebcrawl” “Sveltana” and “Brainfizz.” These things mean absolutely nothing, but are interesting words in and of themselves. What do they mean? How are they important?

The juxtaposition of weirdness to normal is intriguing as well. How do you get from “Hike” to “RejoovenEsense”? The promise of the titles leads the reader – even with no other information from the story itself.

To me the table of contents reads like a writing exercise in and of itself. You know – the one the writing teacher always throws at you: “Write a story containing the words perfume, honor roll, and sandwich.”

Only Atwood’s words seem like way more fun to play with.

Reading, Writing; Writing, Reading: Tuesday Post of Accountability

The writing
There was far less actual writing this past week, and definitely more thinking about writing. Here’s what I thought:

“I’m almost done with Part I! I’m almost done with Part I!”

Here’s what I did:

False started the last Part I chapter about four times. First, I started it at the wrong time with the wrong character. Then I started it with just the wrong character. Then I started at the wrong time with the right character. Then I got the right character in the right place at the right time and got five pages in before realizing –

I needed to change the trajectory of the chapter!

…Which was actually pretty exciting because now there’s gonna be a lot more action instead of navel-gazing. However, it did make me re-think how I was going to handle the opening chapters of Part II. In a good way because now the characters have something I was trying to force on them before: motivation. I think this adjustment will feel more natural. (And, since I’m sort of cheating and doing Part II as my NaNo, it also gives me a lot to chew on for 50,000 words.)

All this thinking, however, led to small amounts of physical words-on-paper. Ah well. I just need to finish one chapter this month anyway.

The reading
As I was telling my friend Ali just last night: I’ve read about far too many bodily extremities this past week.

First up: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Awesome story.

Annnd also filled with genetically modified humans whose genitalia turn, um, blue when they’re ready to get-it-on. Which was fun, but probably just a little too much information after I’d been exposed to

Second up: Rebellion of the Beasts; or, the Ass is Dead, Long Live the Ass by Leigh Hunt.  Written in 1825, you’d think it’d be safe from any kind of extremity mention. Not so. In this pre-Animal Farm send up of monarchy, the animals of the world have rebelled and put a donkey on the throne. Fine.

But, in his description of ridiculous, frivolous royal-court manners…Hunt has a lengthy description of the fine art that is ass-kissing. Literally. Apparently it is a great honor to lick the donkey king’s tail. And, apparently, the closer you’re allowed to lick near the ‘root’, the higher-up in society you are.

Gross.

So, there you have my week of writing (very little) and my week of reading (too much of a good thing).

What were you guys up to? Hopefully it was a much more wholesome week all around for you.

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 Interview

The author of Norwegian Wood has a new novel out, a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, called 1Q84. I came across this interview and he makes a lot of interesting points, about being a writer and about being a person – my favorite being that you have to know what you love:

So, even though I was an only kid, I could be happy because I knew what I loved. Those three things haven’t changed from my childhood. I know what I love, still, now. That’s a confidence. If you don’t know what you love, you are lost.”~Haruki Murakami in an interview with the Guardian’s Emma Brockes

Another point he makes that resonated with me is a writer must be physically and mentally strong:

Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It’s a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it’s literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel.”~Haruki Murakami in an interview with the Guardian’s Emma Brockes

Definitely go check it out.