Books We Love

Any book that gets on the list of a book I love is a book I can read more than once and think, “Boy, that’s awesome” the second or third read through. Also, I hate being asked for favorite anythings, because my adoration for certain things evolves over time. So, here are my tops, in no particular order.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Part short story cycle, part confessional, part metafiction, this book has a lot of layers. Every time I re-read it, I get something new out of it. The metafiction as well as tellings and re-tellings of the stories sucks me in time and again.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. Master of the epic title, Sherman Alexie made a big impression on me when I read this one. I love the voice and the way the stories talk to one another and bump into each other, creating a whole panorama of story in my head.

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. This one has stories within stories within stories, all puzzled together like a quilt. It’s intricate and lovely. Alameddine is masterful in his weaving. Scheherazade would be proud.

I hope you’ll pardon the brevity here, but these are all awesome books you should totally check out. Also, I just realized that all of these books are based in short stories woven together to create a whole piece of cloth. Layers on layers. I clearly have a soft spot for that kind of format. Now, go hug a book!

The Place on the Shelf

For the last ten years, I worked for Barnes and Noble. Recently, I had the opportunity to finish school and go after my own writing career, which I’m happily pursuing at the moment–and that meant that I had to leave this wonderful place of business.

A business that, I’m sure you won’t be surprised, works very hard to place books on the shelves in an organized, efficient way. Fiction is alphabetized. Biography is arranged by the subject. Etc. The organization is not as elaborate as a library, but everything has a place.

Sometimes the question of book placement is more problematic than it should be. For example, after that whole James Frey debacle (you remember–the author who was one of Oprah’s picks and it turned out that he’d basically made up his entire memoir), there was some question of where to put the book. Then Jeanette Walls came out with Half-Broke Horses, labeled as a ‘true novel.’ What the –? Biography? Fiction? Make up a whole new section?
(Both of these are enjoyable books, by the way. No besmirching here.)

Turns out, this dilemma is nothing new.

The full title of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is Orlando: A Biography. When it came out there was much confusion. “But it is called biography on the title page, they say. It will have to go to the Biography shelf.” ~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

Virginia Woolf was concerned that the book-buying public wouldn’t be able to find her book. Unable to find book = no sales. No way to “make expenses,” as she puts it.

This is a legitimate beef. And I don’t think that there is any real answer to this dilemma, which still haunts us writerly folk today. Probably the best answer:

  1. write your book however you want to
  2. sometime during the process, figure out exactly what the book is
  3. explore the bookstore/library and figure out what the categories are
  4. communicate what the book is in query letters, phone calls, emails to agents and editors who may want your book
  5. after that, honestly, your on the marketing team’s good graces–so be nice to them =)

Is anyone working on a half/half genre that could be confusing? How do you plan to handle it?

***ANOTHER SUPER IMPORTANT SHELVING POINT–made by The Rejectionist (and if you’re not following her blog right now, I don’t know how to help you)

Books on Writing: Yes and No

Writing books are an interesting niche market. Writers, by their nature, are readers and reading about writing seems really close to actually writing itself–after all, we’re working on improving our craft, right?

Yes and no.

Yes–books on writing teach us different ways to approach this writing gig. After all, it’s easy to say “Just Write.” It’s like a Nike slogan. “Just Do It.” But the actual writing can sometimes be difficult. You run into snags with characters. Sometimes you just don’t have the ability to build tension the way that you want to. Then there are those moments where you think that you’re the only one who has had these struggles.

For direct problems like these, writing books can show you how other authors have pulled off those pesky character/plot problems. Books on grammar can show you how to construct a sentence if there’s something wonky in your structure. Plus, there’s loads of encouragement out there for writers who think that they’re all alone, and Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are probably two of the top books for that: both grant permission to fuck up and experiment while telling you to learn the basics.

No–There are other books out there that are not as useful, and I would argue can even be damaging. Generally speaking, if there is some sort of graph, plus worksheets, plus a ‘plan to get you to write your book in 24 hours’, I think that you can safely burn these and not lose anything. Any book that tells you there is just one way to write a book was probably written by someone who has only written ‘writing’ books.

Good writing does have its rules, but following strict guidlines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to the T right off the bat–it generally doesn’t happen and all you’re left with is a bunch of fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.

I would also make the observation that sometimes writers think reading writing books equals writing. This is just not so. If you’re looking for inspiration, fine. If you’re looking for a piece to the puzzle of the story you’re working on, fine. But all of these writing books should only be read in conjunction with writing. Always, always be working on a piece of writing while you read the books on writing. That’s the only way they’ll actually be able to help you. It’s the way they’re designed to work.

What writing books have you read that were useful? Have you come across any that you thought were damaging or just written by writers wanting to write about writing? (Say that three times really fast!)

I am seduced by the thought of reading…but recently I’ve been on a stop/start program.

Here’s the list of books currently in progress:
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Anne Frank: The Life, The Book, The Afterlife by Francine Prose
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Sun Stone and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, edited by Jorge F. Hernandez

I’m just not seeming to finish any of them, which is very strange for me because, believe it or not, I’m really enjoying each of them. It feels like a nice mix. Maybe I just need to read 200 things at a time? Have you guys ever gone a start/stop program like that? Did you actually successfully complete the books you were reading?

How’s about you guys? Finish anything recently?

Does a novel really need to have a story?

I’m reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. I’m loving it so far (I’m a little more than halfway through). But it occurs to me that it’s not really a story in the traditional sense of the word. There’s characters. And stuff happens. But there’s no one protagonist to latch onto. It’s designed so that we are given the information through a series of interviews with fictional characters. We spend a couple pages with a person and then move on, gaining a piece of the puzzle as we go.

The puzzle piecing is what makes it interesting. And it is really interesting. You start wondering where you’d be in the grand scheme of things. Would you be one of the survivors? One of the dead?

There’s a part of me that’s like an itch I can’t scratch as I read it, though. I want to either come back to a character or two, or have someone (like the person doing the interviews) as a focus character. Because, while Brooks has done an amazing job with the characters who have been telling the story bit by bit…I can’t remember a single person’s name or title. It’s all one big blur. So I have chaos on top of chaos on top of chaos. Which, ya know, is effective for a zombie story, but still!

Which brings me to my main question: Does a novel need to have a main character, with an arch, in the traditional sense? Or is what Brooks writing not really a ‘novel’ but a ‘fiction book’? Does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? (And apparently, in this book, not a whole lot matters in the grand scheme of things.)

Summer Reading Challenge Progress Report

I just finished reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I must say that I was more impressed than the high schoolers that are currently assigned to read it will be. Yes, the language is old and tedious…made even more so because Hawthorne, being that great writer that he is, also made the language more old fashioned to adjust for Puritan talky-talk. Thees and Thous all over the place. This could be confusing for students who may not understand that Letter is a historical novel.

But I’m really glad I read it. It was definitely a wonderful psychological piece. Talk about messed up children and all kinds of emotional damage.

If I’d read this in high school when I was supposed to, I know–deep down in my heart of hearts–that I would not have appreciated it. At all.

Part of the appeal also came from Hawthorne’s introductory “The Custom House.” In this little intro to why he wrote The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes me feel a whole lot better about being an author. Apparently, even back in the day, authors (genius authors even!) had to work tedious, shitty day jobs. Because of this, I’m going to make Hawthorne my mentor of the month. Stay tuned for further expansion on the day job and the genius!

Now, on to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass!

(I’ve begun these two Lewis Carroll works and I have to give the writing edge to Hawthorne. By a lot. It’s obvious Alice is totally kid’s lit, just from the language.)

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

Saving the World Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really loved the parallels that Alvarez created in this book:


Alma (woman touched by idealistic man in today’s world)-Isabel (woman touched by idealistic man in yesterday’s world)

Richard (idealistic man today)-Francisco Balmis (idealistic man yesterday)

Basically Alma’s husband is trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS in the Dominican Republic and Isabel is in charge of a group of orphans who are carrying the small pox vaccine to the New World. This story is about the casualties that are involved when you try to save the world. Who is affected? Who can be saved? Are people worth saving when there’s war and poverty and all kinds of man-made badness?

Alvarez avoids being preachy and she doesn’t judge her characters, which I really, really appreciate. This is all about what the reader puts in and pulls out. And, like I said before, the parallels are very interesting as they develop.

My only issue was the pacing–and it was slow. Very slow. Plus there is a subplot involving Alma’s dying neighbor that I’m still a bit fuzzy on. However, none of this put me off going out and buying How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. So we’ll see what else Alvarez has got up her sleeve….

View all my reviews.

An Experiment

The Age of Fable: Library Edition The Age of Fable: Library Edition by Thomas Bulfinch

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bulfinch likes the word ‘propitious’…at least that’s the word that stuck out the most to me as I listened to the narrator. Also ‘thither’–such an old word that it seemed really forced, even with the knowledge that the book was written Back in the Day.

However, as far as getting across the stories of the myths of Ancient Greece, and The Northern (read: Norse) Mythologies, he does a fairly accurate–and sometimes painfully detailed–job. All of the old favorites are there, though I did get confused because when I originally learned all of the stories, it was with the Greek names. Bulfinch uses the Latin or Roman versions so I had to mentally check myself everytime Minerva, or Juno, or all the others were mentioned. (Especially confusing when he reminds us that Athens is named for Minerva–who is Athena in the Greek).

Long story short (because this is kind of a long read) it’s a good introduction both to the myths and to a great deal of Romantic and Classic poetry. Definitely filled in some gaps of learning for me. I also think he did the best job describing the basic ideas behind Hinduism and Buddhism…though I have the distinct impression all he knew were these basics. There’s definitely a lack of detail in the Eastern Mythology portions of the work.

View all my reviews.

**This was an experiment to see if I could get the book review posted. Experiment=success.

Mentor of the Month: Toni Morrison: Knocking Narrators

“To make the story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken–to have the reader feel the narrator without identifying that narrator, or hearing him or her knock about, to have the reader work with the author in the construction of the book–is what’s important.”
-Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation”
from What Moves in the Margin

The reader brings something to the table in the reading of a book. Their experiences, values, even their training as readers (classes, etc.) inform what they get out of the book.

As authors, our job is to create a piece that helps the reader set aside their disbelief and enter the story itself, bringing all those experiences, values, and trainings to bear on the story.

But let’s face it: sometimes that’s really tricky.

The following are my own, personal observations as a reader where the author and I didn’t jive, where, as a reader, I felt the narrator ‘knocking about’:

  • Sometimes the words themselves get in the way of the reader–for me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (while I acknowledge the brilliance and creativity), is difficult. Just the magnitude of the words in One Hundred Year of Solitude in particular, makes me read a sentence two or three times. That’s a lot of work for me and I can’t get into the story. Other books that struck me as wordy: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (though, in all fairness, the structure of that book, with the narration within the narration kind of forces the reader to hear the narrator).
  • The Twilight series–I think I’m too old, or too unromantic for these books to work for me. I hated high school and the idea of winding up as an 17/18 year old forever horrifies me. Meyer sort of redeems herself with Bella’s truck (I loved the truck!) and the other vampires’ experiences. But I also felt the narration whined a little too much (does he love me or will he eat me?) Whiny repetitiveness gets under my skin. Other books that struck me as whiny and/or repetitive: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
  • I have to say the structure of a novel will get in the way sometimes. Right now I’m reading Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. This novel is about a man living backwards…it literally starts with him ‘coming back alive’. Even the conversations are told in reverse. I’m spending so much time getting my head around what’s going on that I feel I’m missing some important elements. I’m thanking heaven for studying literature. Also, I’m too busy thinking, “This author is brilliant!” but that doesn’t really serve the story. It’s more a reading experience…now, is that a bad thing? I don’t know, I just hear the knocking narrator. Other books with structure wildness: Nothing I’ve really read and finished…uh-oh.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I really felt the narrator trying push buttons in Beloved by our very own mentor! Augh! The humanity. But I didn’t hear it in Sula, which I really, really enjoyed (well, as much as enjoy can be termed…).

So, it’s hard as an author to try to get that sensation of invisible narration. To get the feel rather than the identification.

As I was going through that list, though, it occured to me that who the reader hears is kind of up to the reader. The talent and observation of a reader combined with the talent and observation of a writer. I think when the skill levels are on par, then there’s a better meshing–and you don’t feel the narrator.

This isn’t to say that the writer is excused from doing the work. Far from it. Nathaniel Hawthorne said easy reading is damned hard writing. I think that’s kind of what Morrison is getting at too. You have to make it appear seamless. You have to do your best to make sure that the reader’s suspension of disbelief is not shaken…that’s your job (same as an actor’s…if an audience can see the ‘act’ then you’ve bombed).

When it works, and the author and reader are working in tandem, when they meet in the middle–the author building enough of a reality where the reader can relate–that’s when the goosebumps happen. When the reader goes “Cool” and can bring it back into their real life…that’s just awesome.
Any ideas on how to make that happen? Any books where you just went: ‘Cool’?

I’m glad Christopher Moore is coming out with a new book soon. Between The Count of Monte Cristo and the book I just finished reading, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, my reading list is looking to be a tad on the depressing side.

Not that Reader wasn’t worth reading. I think it gives a valuable point of view after reading books like Night by Elie Wiesel. Basically, no one got out of WWII okay. Every single person was damaged, including the generation that followed. So, definitely worth reading, but better to be prepped for troubling perspectives (should we blame the executioner for doing what he viewed as his job?–it’s nothing personal after all. See? troubling perspectives…) and a doomed relationship.

I really want to see the movie version of this–the book is pretty straight to the point. I’d like to see how actors like Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes handle such topical matter.

But I’m definitely looking forward to Fool, Christopher Moore’s take on King Lear.