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Friday, May 30, 2008

There Can Be Only One: A Literary Smackdown

It's a beautiful spring in Los Angeles, and this is a beautiful week for writers. On Wednesday, LA Weekly released their 2008 literary supplement issue. The issue is overflowing with good stuff - John Banville writing on Belgian mystery novelist Georges Simenon; a Salman Rushdie excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence; an introspective on bookselling by Los Angeles bookselling legend Doug Dutton; and a check-in on the health of the novel by Joe Donnelly - among many more.

For my money (*cough*LA Weekly is free*cough*), the most enjoyable of the articles was a humorous complaint about the mystery surrounding the awarding of literary prizes and a commentary on what the author thinks should be the future of prize giving - "The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books" by Nathan Ihara. In the article, Ihara discusses The Morning News' Tournament of Books, a critics and readers showdown that pits books against each other in a March Madness NCAA style single-elimination tournament. You can see this year's tournament results here.

I've got a lot of links going in this article, all of them worthy of your perusal. Get to reading everyone!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I have finally come to the end of the rabbity journey that was Watership Down by Richard Adams. Overall, I found the book delightful. On its surface it is a thrilling survival adventure, but it's also a story about community, faith, fearlessness, and oral histories.

Throughout the narrative, Adams pauses to allow the bunnies to tell stories of their bunny ancestors. I think it would be easy to dismiss these narrative breaks as momentum killers or unnecessary nuisances, but for me they added a complexity to the story that made the rabbit characters feel more real and more alive than if it had simply been a children's-book-style narrative with complex human thoughts ascribed directly to the animal characters.

It actually reminded me of the original epic poems that A.S. Byatt wrote for Possession and ascribed to her Victorian era epic poet characters. By taking the time to write and include those, it added a completeness to the book that would have been missing if she simply referred to single lines here and there.

Watership Down wasn't at all what I was expecting, and while the ending thrilled me, it left me with that bitter sweetness that I would never spend any more time with those characters.

Goodnight, Hazel-rah.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I have writer's block. It's official. I've been working on one scene for nearly three weeks now. I can't move on until I figure out what happens in this scene. I know the problems:

1.) The scene is centered around dialogue instead of action.

2.) There is no conflict in the scene.

3.) I still don't entirely know what I need to accomplish with the scene, I just know that I need to accomplish something.

While I've uncovered some interesting nuggets while writing said scene, it's still just a sketch of something, and not coming to be anything.

What action can replace this dialogue?

What conflict could arise from this action?

Where do I want my character to go?

I'm hoping that stating these problems and questions plainly will assist me in thinking about them in a new way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In Pursuit of "The End"

Why is completing a draft so difficult?

Even when I know where I want to go with a story, sometimes getting from plot point to plot point is painful and grueling. Every word feels like I'm carving it into wood rather than simply typing it to the screen. When I work on longer pieces, I feel like every scene contains a potential boobie trap, where I'll realize that all of the careful plotting I've been doing doesn't make any sense, and the scene crumbles beneath my feet or sends poisoned darts flying at my neck.

So there is always something to be said for completing a draft. Just push through, no matter how good or bad you think the writing is and get to the end of the story. Once you have that first draft out of the way, you have a foundation on which to build the perfected story.

Last week, a friend left me a rather jubilant and exhausted voicemail message after finally completing a first draft on a project he'd been working on for more than a year. It was fantastic and inspiring to hear him get to that point after a very long journey. You have climbed a tall mountain, my friend, and I bet the view looks good.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Got Bupkes

I love it when the sound of a word evokes the same feeling as the word's definition. I don't mean straight onomatopoeia (e.g., boom, bang, etc.), though I'm fairly certain there's a word for what I'm describing and I just don't know it yet. Help dear readers?

Examples of what I mean can commonly be found in musical terms. For example staccato, meaning shortened or detached when played or sung, sounds like its definition with its three short syllables. Another example might be the word whine, which sounds a lot like the act of whining itself, helped along by the long I vowel sound (that usually kicks off a good whine session).

I'm certain that I'm not the only person who thinks about the way a word sounds when I write, though I imagine this is even more important in poetry, which I have no experience with. However, I do believe that word selection is very important in any writing to evoke the proper gut response in your reader.

Last night, my roommate mentioned using the Yiddish word kvetch, which means to complain a lot, and strikes me with the same sound/meaning effect, and I couldn't help appreciating how many Yiddish words fall into that category.

For your reading pleasure, here is a list - maybe not so well transliterated - of Yiddish words and phrases that you may or may not know that sound like their meanings:

alter cocker - an old and complaining person
balabusta - a bossy woman
bupkes - nothing or worthless
chutzpah - nerve, gall
ferblunjit - mixed up
fercockt - fucked up
kibitz - tease or joke around
klutz - an uncoordinated person (favorite example, Jack Tripper from Three's Company)
mishuggena - crazy person
nebbish - a nerd, loser
nudnik - a pest, an annoying person
pisher - literally a bed wetter, but used for an insignificant person
shlep - carry, drag from place to place
shlimazel - an unlucky person
shmooz - to gossip, chat
shnoz - a nose
shvitz - to sweat

More Yiddish words and phrases can be found here.

I half wonder, though, if I don't feel this way about these words because I learned them very early in my childhood and so subconsciously connect the sounds with their meanings. I would love to know what you all think.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to Combat Gloom with Literature

I have recently been fighting a vicious battle with the blues. Of course, that means that my "fighting" consists of lying in bed and resisting the urge to listen to Tom Waits or Tori Amos or other similarly melancholy "T" named artists.

I know I have the blues because this weekend I cried through an entire episode of Bones, a normally witty and humorous crime show that was having one of their rare serious episodes.

Thinking about ways to pull myself out of my funk, I started thinking about the comfort of my favorite children's literature. As a kid, my favorite books tended to be those of the fantasy persuasion. I am a rather enormous fan of The Dark is Rising Sequence written by Susan Cooper - a series of five books that I highly recommend to your fantasy loving 'tweens - and I have read my paperback copies worn. Those books, in particular the ones that featured Jane Drew, a heroine I could connect with, are deeply tied to my young adulthood. So I find myself returning to them, again and again.

I don't think it's the book itself that comforts me. I think it's reconnecting to the wonder and escapism of my youth. Because, of course, it was a simpler time. I can still remember lying in the fluffy pillows in the corner of my room beneath the windows, a rare rainy day outside, and reading for hours upon hours.

I'm certain that this has been written about extensively in the context of all things Harry Potter. The why of Harry has always seemed obvious to me. He connected with so many people, because so many people yearned to reconnect with those feelings of their youth: simplicity, imagination, adventure.

So as I lick my wounds, and try to recover from my blues, I'm looking forward to surrounding myself in the comfort of my childhood. It'll be me, my teddy bear, and some good old fashioned adventure tonight.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Daily Harpoon to the Cerebellum

In a moment of excessive enthusiasm I decided to read Moby Dick by Herman Melville as my introduction to the DailyLit service. DailyLit, if you recall, is a subscription service that sends users a daily portion of a book of their choice via e-mail or RSS feed.

I scheduled my daily portion of Moby Dick to arrive in my inbox every day at 4:30. I now dread 4:30. I'm five portions behind, and the e-mails are taunting me.

At this point, I'm not ready to blame the DailyLit service. It's all Melville's fault. I'm nine chapters in and Ishmael is not even on the boat yet. It's just... moody.

A friend has repeatedly called my decision to read Moby Dick masochistic. I've been insistent that it's not that bad, thank you very much, Monsieur de Sade.

But yes, it is that bad. In fact, it's torture, and not of the sublime kind. As a result, Moby Dick is being temporarily suspended until I'm ready to embrace my inner masochist.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I Can Haz Humanness? Anthropomorphizing in a Post LOLCat World

Last month I opened up my book pile for a vote to help me select my next read. The winner, which I am currently reading, was Watership Down by Richard Adams, a heroic tale of adventure centering around a group of rabbits that abandon their doomed home and begin a harrowing journey to find a new place to call their own.

What I find fascinating about Watership Down is the way that Adams uses distinctly rabbit-like behavior to tell his story. His bunny protagonist is not treated like a burden. Instead, Adams relishes the opportunity to explore bunny obstacles, bunny problem solving, and even bunny mythology and oral tradition. It is not a human story that uses bunnies in order to create a thinly veiled allegory. It is a story about rabbits. Though I do acknowledge that the book has themes about resisting totalitarianism, it is not nearly as obvious an allegory as say George Orwell's Animal Farm. These are not walking, talking bunnies (and certainly not revolutionary farm animals). These are rabbits living out their lives in a very rabbity way.

It is obvious that before writing this book Adams spent considerable time reading about and thinking about how bunnies actually behave. While he allows them a certain amount of human-like thought - feelings of brotherhood, affection, fear - he does his best to preserve their animal reasoning. More than once the protagonist bunny has described the terrified freeze that comes over him when confronted by the head lights of a car, a fear that he has little to no power to resist, or the emotional exhaustion of being frightened and exposed for long stretches of time without a hole in which to hide.

As I've been thinking about anthropomorphizing animals, I can't help but be carried from the elegance of Watership Down to the silliness of icanhascheezburger, the home for all things LOLCat. What is it about adding poorly worded captions to cat pictures (among other animals) that is absolutely hilarious?

Humorous Pictures

I think the humor comes from knowing that cats do not think or behave in a remotely human way, while at the same time we secretly suspect that they are capable of much more complex thought than we allow them in our minds. In film school, an acting teacher once taught me that one of the most difficult things for an actor to do on camera was simply to indicate to an audience that their character was actively thinking. That lesson comes to mind sometimes when I watch animals. Occasionally, I'm convinced that we are watching the animals think. Like watching a cat work out how to get from the floor to the top of the cabinet where that tasty looking fishbowl sits. What makes it funny is imagining that they are thinking just like us (only with poorer grammar).

Perhaps that's the beauty of what Richard Adams has done in Watership Down. He's not forced the rabbits to be creatures they are not. He has simply allowed them to think, allowed them to tell us their story, their thoughts instead of ours, their problems instead of ours. From where I sit, if you're going to anthropomorphize, this is the way to do it.