The push to get a few more books read before January is an odd sort of end-year resolution, and it prompts me to wonder if any of you has a similar deadline looming December 31st… something that isn’t work related, so much. Most of us decide to embark upon Personal Improvement during the holidays, and have forgotten all about it by April, am I right? Anyway, this is my quest. And I’ve failed, so far, to plump up my numbers by striking gold in the graphic novel dept: I did like Grandville, but I didn’t love it, and have set aside a bunch of the other prospects after 2-3 pages.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers covers bases I expected–cadaver research in a variety of contexts. It examined the ethics surrounding how donated bodies are used, stuff about Body Worlds, and lots of material on forensics, including the examination of decomposition by leaving corpses lying around outside. (You may have encountered this in procedural novels like The Body Farm). It also had plenty of things I’d never thought of: using corpses to make crash-test dummies, the cannibalistic use of bodies in medicine, for example, and a discussion of how much mercury is released into the atmosphere during your average cremation.
I read So Cold the River on Sunday, in a multi-part loafing session of epic proportions. The novel is a supernatural thriller by Michael Koryta, something Kelly had heard about and knew I’d probably enjoy.
So Cold the River is very much cut from the Peter Straub / Stephen King mold of a certain era. There’s a small town with a hint of magic to it, and some underlying but long-dormant evil. Then an outsider wakes it up, pissing it off in the process. (In some of these books, like It, there’s a variation, whereby the evil explodes every X number of years, like seventeen year cicadas But I digress).
Soon enough the outsider and the big supernatural bad are engaged in a freaky struggle for the whole ball of wax, by which I mean the lives of everyone in town who fails to reach minimum safe distance.
The heroic outsider in this case is a cinematographer, Eric Shaw, who fried a promising Hollywood career a couple years ago by breaking a famous director’s nose. Since then he’s been self-destructing as fast as he can: alienating his wife, refusing to work on anything meaningful and drinking more than he ought. Ooh, he’s a real bundle of joy, our Eric. He’s found one paying gig that suits his self-loathing: making souped-up funeral slide shows for well-off families who can’t operate Powerpoint. It is one of those vids–and the fact that he’s just a teeny bit psychic–that lands him a job doing a private biopic on a dying man, a patriarchal old tycoon who has never told his family the first thing about his past.
So Cold the River is good and spooky, and Koryta writes nice supple prose: It’s evocative but never overly busy, like this bit:
Past Bloomington to Bedford, and then the highway hooked and lost a lane in a town called Mitchell and began to dip and rise as it carved through the hills.
Carved. Good verb! And the cadence is just like a road trip.
The novel builds well almost to the end, and the answer to its central mystery–who is the old man whose family knew so little about him, and what is with his freaky bottle of eighty-year-old spring water?–is both creepy and satisfying. In terms of flaws… well, both Eric and his chief antagonist, the town redneck, have sidekicky friends who are far more interesting and (in Eric’s case) likeable than they are. And as things wind up to the piano-wire tautness of the necessary dangerous confrontation, the twists and turns get predictable. But these are minor complaints. So Cold the River is a well-crafted and engaging story, and it is an especially terrific example of a tale told with a foot in two eras–the digital now and the early, desperate, bootlegging days of the Great Depression.
Which led me to buy Bloody Crimes, which tells the story of the final days of two presidencies: the abrupt death and long funeral of Abraham Lincoln, and the flight from Richmond of Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America.
This is a pop history of a certain type: it takes the train journey of Lincoln’s coffin as it wound through the eastern U.S. to Springfield Illinois and highlights the similarities and differences with Davis’s stop-and-start journey southward as the Confederacy collapsed around him.
I know just enough Walt Whitman to have known Lincoln’s train had borne his body westward,but the sheer scale of the hoopla was new to me, and there’s always something delicious in that kind of reading: Holy Cow! Really? How much bunting did they drape on NYC?. The thematic tying together of the two journeys worked nicely, but when I think of examples of this kind of intertwined yet parallel story, I think of Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. This, though it’s good, isn’t quite as compelling as that. (It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because Larsen is so very good, and his subject matter in that book so deliciously dramatic and improbable.)
Final verdict: Bloody Crimes is a good and quick read for those with an already-fixed interest in its subject matter.
In addition to buying Bloody Crimes, I used the Amazon List to generate my usual end of the year monster pile of requests from the local public library. The first thing I chose to read from the borrowed stack was Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes.
Most of my Vietnam War reading is nonfiction, but a lot of it has the same ambience as this novel: accounts by people who fought in the jungle, detailed descriptions of the miserable conditions and various stupidities of war. But fiction lets one turn the screws on the drama that much higher, letting one create a more seamless effect without having to account for drama-disrupting truths or weird inconsistencies.
Matterhorn has this quality of artistic wholeness. It paints an unforgettable and grim picture. Its prose is functional and transparent, its characters convincing, its story inevitable and heartbreaking.
Novels and movies about war tend to also have a lot of soul-searching. Characters plumb their navels, looking at big picture questions: why do humans do this? And the small stuff, too: how did I end up here? What will be lost if I die? This is a story element that is most likely to strike a false note with me–Thin Red Line, for example, made me gag. But Matterhorn is very consistent about being in the heads of young men. There’s no mature philosophizing here: these are teen boys, groping with things that are far beyond them.
I don’t have a lot of people in my immediate circle who’d be drawn to either of the above books, but if U.S. military history is your kind of thing at all, Matterhorn is especially well done.
The first time I ever heard of Hiromi Goto’s name, the speaker was a stand-up comedienne. She cited Goto’s fiction as one of her inspirations, and went on to tell a deeply hilarious and thoroughly profane story involving a remote-controlled vibrator.
The second time I heard of her, she’d just won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which goes to works of SF or Fantasy that expand our understanding of gender.
You can imagine that when I finally got to meet Hiromi, I was expecting big things… and I’ll tell you now, she doesn’t disappoint. Witty, brilliant, dedicated to storytelling, and thoroughly awesome at it to boot, Hiromi Goto is currently in the midst of an exciting year. Not only did her novel Half World win the Sunburst Award in the Young Adult category, but now she’s getting even more kudos for the book… but I’ll let you tell her about that, and herself, personally:
I’m a grandmother-raised Japanese Canadian currently living on the West Coast of British Columbia. But I’ve also spent many years living in the Prairies. (I mention places because place has a tremendous impact upon my imagination and my writing.) I’m also super excited to share news that Half World has been long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award!
I’m currently working on Darkness, a companion novel to Half World, which is my most recent YA/crossover publication. It’s due out with Penguin Canada in 2012. I’m also juggling a few other projects—I’m hoping to finish an adult novel soon.
I started out “drawing stories” as a child, and shifted to words in my adolescence. Once I learned how to read I was sucked into the vast and wondrous universe of myriad experiences. I definitely read as a child in order to escape—and that books/stories (as well as the natural environment) could transport me so was a survival strategy as well as a path of learning. Several authors/books stand out from childhood: Bill Peet, especially The Wump World, The Hardy Boys, Heidi, The Girl Who Owned a City, Roald Dahl, the Little House books, A Wrinkle in Time, The Borrowers, Pippi Longstocking, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Cricket in Times Square, The Secret Rats of NIMH, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess (in Japanese), The Outsiders, Judy Blume books, horse books, and so many more!
I do have a memory from my childhood—I think I was probably between the ages of 9-11 years old? I had just finished a book that had transported me, and I had this realization that I had been whisked away, into another place and time, into someone else’s world, to feel and experience so much, just through words. Kind of like the moment in Alice in Wonderland when Alice realizes that the soldiers are just a deck of cards. I finally perceived the constructedness of the experience. “They’re words,” I thought. “Someone just arranged words, and I felt so much. It was like I was there…. A writer did that. A person. To make someone else feel this way—I’d like to be able to do that.” That was a seed moment in my process to becoming an author.
I began what I call “writing seriously” when I enrolled in undergraduate creative writing classes after I finished in BA in English Literature at the age of twenty-two.
I don’t think it’s possible “to quit writing” entirely—we ought to differentiate between writing as a profession and writing for oneself. We also write letters and emails, etc. So there’s the dividing line between the public and the personal. Writing professionally is about writing to a public space. Could I quit writing for the public space? I imagine so. One of my understandings of my writing is that I perceive it as a relational experience. It’s a creative articulation that’s meant to engage with a broader audience (beyond self, i.e. journaling, or intimate personal relationship, i.e. letters or family/friends/lovers, etc.). I write because I’m engaging in a kind of relationship with a broader arena, and because I still have something to share/say/explore. There could come a time when I no longer want to share my ideas with a larger public. That said, I suspect that most artists/writers do have a compulsion “to make” something. This compulsion can be channeled and directed in different forms.
I’m an omnivorous writer. Or an amphibious writomnivore…. I write across, through, with different aspects of genre. I recently blogged about this, actually! (Here: it’s the November 6, 2010 entry).
I’m a generalist researcher. A forager. I read several online newspapers every day (i.e. Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail, NY Times, LA Times, The Guardian, as well as visit news sites) as well as research topics specific to an area of interest for a particular story/novel. Site specific research is also necessary at times. For verisimilitude, etc. i.e. setting or occupations.
I began developing my professional writing path at the time my ex-partner was developing a landscaping company and we were raising young children. We had a mutual support structure, in order to develop our professions while raising a family. Along the way, I’ve taught writing workshops and picked up some freelance paying gigs, but my income primarily orbits my writing practice. I apply to provincial and federal arts councils for grants (in Canada), which is not a reliable source of income, and, in the past three years I’ve had the privilege to serve as a writer-in-residence at universities and a library. I’ll continue to apply for writer-in-residencies as well as apply for grants. Most writers’ annual income hovers around the poverty level… .
Poets have it waaaaay worse than fiction writers. It’s not a flush “lifestyle”. Basically, you really, really want to do this thing (writing) because on a financial level it can be rather stressful. Most of my writing friends are also teachers. This means they have more economic security, but less time to actually write. It’s not easy, either way. I guess the question is, ultimately, what is it that you need, in order to be able to write? Is a clear space for creativity necessary? Or, is the perpetual press of financial insecurity a creative damper that prevents you from writing anything at all? It’s about finding a balance that works for you. And, also, having a measure of flexibility.
My dream goal is a Danielle Steele mansion… . A dream project… ummm, I sometimes imagine I’d like to write a discrete lyric erotic novel, the kind that the French seem to get away with….
I began approaching writing as a serious practice (this does not mean the subject matter was all serious…) when I was twenty-two years old. I think I began publishing short stories in regional literary magazines a year and a half later. I took three consecutive full-year creative writing courses at the University of Calgary, and published my first novel one year after the completion of my last course.
We did not learn very much about structuring plot. But we were given room to stretch our thinking and our styles and, also, to understand social and political contexts in which our writing participated with/in/against. This had an enormous impact upon me as a writer and a thinker which ultimately affects how and what I write today. I can feel my lack of training in plot arise when my books are read or marketed toward genre venues. If you’re a writer who is intending to write in a specific genre, I think it’d be beneficial to review the structure of that form technically. In the same breath, I don’t think that writing workshops are de rigueur for all writers. Some writers, like Charles de Lint, are self-trained. This might be the best way for some people. It’s important to find the path that works the best for you.
I never thought I’d make money out of writing. I somehow eke out a living, and, honestly, I can’t really tell you how this has come to be. I’m more project-based, rather than career-based. I need to be excited about a project, be really passionate about it, in order for me to see it through. If it takes eight years, it will take eight years. If money was the motivating factor, I wouldn’t be writing because financially the rewards are few and far between.
Some of the exciting moments of my writing life: being awarded the James Tiptree Memorial Award and meeting Octavia E. Butler on the same day! Holding my first published novel in my hands and thinking, I wrote that. Being told by a reader, My life changed after I read this book.
An important artistic understanding that I have had is the idea that what I write matters a great deal, and, simultaneously, that it doesn’t matter at all. The nestling of these two seemingly dichotomous thoughts releases me from the restrictive contortions/confines of ego.
My writing career and motherhood began at the same time. When my children were young (birth to 3 yrs old) it was impossible to write, especially long-form fiction. I found this an extremely frustrating time, creatively, until I had a conversation with Sky Lee, who was one of the facilitators at a writing retreat. I asked her how she had balanced writing and parenting, because I was finding it extremely difficult. She said that writing was something we could do for a very long time, and that the children needed us to be attentive parents for a limited time. She said there would be time for writing, later, and to not stress about it. I took her words to heart and it released me from my frustration. Writers are not like, say, athletes. We’re not finished after the Olympics…. Our thinking and our skills should develop and stretch and grow throughout our lifetime (barring head injuries, illness, etc, of course!). Being able to take that into a kind of time-perspective relieved me of my conflict and enabled me to open up my creative process as one not based entirely upon what was placed on paper. I also garnered a great many short story ideas during the course of child-raising—experiences can become the substance of our creative written projects. Life is also a part of the writing process.
And, once both children entered elementary school, there was enough space/time to write it all down.