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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Where to Put the Good Blonde?

In Good Blonde and Others, the opening selection is about Kerouac, hitchhiking back from Mexico, catching a ride in a brand-new Lincoln Mercury driven by a beautiful blonde in a bathing suit. Throughout the section, Kerouac wonders who on Earth would ever believe that he’s so lucky?

Apparently, he didn’t think anyone really would, or he thought the section too lengthy, or he thought some other kind of editorial thing about it…because it remains as a fragment. He mentions the blonde in the second chapter of The Dharma Bums (imagine my interest when it suddenly appeared as I was reading along), but she is a brief, flitting literary construction to get him from point A to point B:

“hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted Benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City”

An almost-paragraph is all that’s left of some twenty odd pages of writing.

So, why not put in everything and make it a longer chapter?

This has something to do with the tone of the book The Dharma Bums. The main guy, Ray Smith (another Kerouac doppelganger), is all about enlightenment…and sex doesn’t enter into it. Now, I’m not psychic, but I bet Kerouac had that figured out. Rule of thumb: don’t put in lengthy sections that have nothing to do with your theme/point/story. Episodic as it is, The Dharma Bums, like On the Road, is a focused presentation of a period in Kerouac’s life – not everything is gonna make it in.

A lot of good writers do this: write way more than they would ever need. I read somewhere that Amy Tan wrote almost a thousand pages for The Joy Luck Club. The end product is around three hundred pages. That’s seven hundred pages of material that didn’t get in there. Same with Kerouac. “Good Blonde” is a twenty page episode cut down to about a paragraph.

How do you know what material is extraneous material? How do you know where to put the Good Blonde? Or do you even utilize your Good Blonde section at all?

A few things that I’ve thought of to help in the decision making process:

1. Finish your story…all thousands of pages of it…and take a real hard look to see what it’s really about. If it is about a mother’s love, do you really need the main character to be married five times and to focus so much on husband number three? Probably not. Stuff like that can be pared down. Throw it on a scrap pile to be cannibalized later into a short story or something.

2. Is the extra material all front-loaded? If it’s taking your forever to get to the real story – like a hundred pages or so – you may be doing what they call ‘a running start’. Most of the material you think of as character-building, or background, is extra. The Good Blonde portion of The Dharma Bums is up front. If Kerouac had spent twenty pages telling us about this unbelievably lucky pick-up he would have taken an extra twenty pages to get Ray (main character) and Japhy together – and that’s the central relationship in the story, so the Blonde is just a run-up. You can cut those. Scrap pile ’em.

3. Conversely, does the denouement of your story go on forever, like Lord of the Rings? Similar principles to #2 apply.

4. Can characters be combined? Do you really need enlightenment scenes with three different characters? Why not smush it all down to one scene and one character? If you find yourself repeating insights or details, remember: the reader will get it the first time! You’re not adding in new or essential information at that point and the scene, as well as the characters that go with it, can probably go.

Thursday Reviews!: Good Blonde and Others by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

Good BlondeGood Blonde by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best part about this book:

The sections where Kerouac talks his writing style. There are two selection/chapters that cover this “spontaneous prose”: “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.” Both are kind of checklists; but how-to lists might be more accurate. Interesting, downright fascinating…though I’m not 100% sure what to do with stuff like #14 in “Belief”: “Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.” But I can certainly get behind #29: “You’re a Genius all the time.” (I tell myself this everyday. Heehee.)

And speaking of genius — the essay “Are Writers Made or Born?” is AWESOME. Basically he separates the idea of great talents (what he refers to as interpreters…like a great violinist is not Mozart, for example, even though he/she plays well) and geniuses — the Mozarts — are people who create something new that hasn’t been seen before. Worth reading even if you read nothing else in this collection.

Other stuff that was pretty good:

His arguments for Beat and what it is. His definitions are meant to clarify a lot of the philosophy of the Beat movement. I don’t know if they clarify too much…but I think I caught a few details that I didn’t know before. Probably one of his most interesting observations in “On the Beats” is “The dope thing will die out. That was a fad, like bathtub gin.”

The stuff you have to wade through:

Sports. While he makes some really great arguments for why baseball strategy (walking the best hitters, etc.) makes for dull games and players who don’t know how to swing for the fences…for the most part the sports sections are dull. The games and seasons he writes about are long gone, and the immediacy of a sports article doesn’t reverberate through the ages like we would like. Even for a writer like Kerouac.

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