The Books We Read Make a World of Difference

 

Reading will always go hand in hand with writing. Current reads are the tools we use to find what works for readers. Sometimes it’s easy to forget during the solidarity of the writing process that we write for others to read. The accepted content varies over time. For example consider a novel like Vanity Fair. In the 1800’s, extensive backstories and drab descriptions of settings were in good form. Exactly like Shakespeare. In the 1600’s, iambic pentameter or heptameter of George Chapman was popular. These days it’s concise prose without too much unjustified extra content, like backstory and description of the mundane. This will be about a few books I’ve read recently. I won’t keep you in suspense. They are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher.

 

One of my writer friends recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The story is nearly an alt. history of the heyday in the comic books, the 1940’s through 1960’s. Along with Stan Lee and Sam Kirby, add Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Europe previously the apprentice of an escape artist. Clay is a misanthropic writer interested in comic books and becoming the next great American writer. Clay penned the inking and Kavalier did the illustrations. The story followed their lives for the next two decades.

kavailer-and-clay

This book taught me a few valuable lessons. Literary prose works for established writers. Getting people to read literary prose from a yet unpublished writer is asking too much. Chabon used lots of words that were new to me like prestidigitation, opprobrium, and razz among others. A pre-collegiate vocabulary isn’t enough to write at a high level. Chabon frequently went on tangents, devoting page space to the stories written by Clay. Large parts of the book detail the fictional comic book heroes, The Escapist  and Luna Moth. I liked these parts a lot. Chabon made me wish to actually read the comics he described. The Escapist thrilled me. Luna Moth was perfectly hot and written with style. Going on tangents can work if done expertly.

 

Two books by Gillian Flynn taught me a lot. I’ll start with Gone Girl, the one I read first. The story started with Nick Dunne waking up next to his wife, Amy Eliot Dunne. We follow along as Nick left their house that morning. We watch the events as he discovered his wife is missing. Nick’s experiences through the investigation is chronicled. In the meantime, we read through Amy’s journal from the night they first met onward.

 

Gone Girl was amazing. Flynn found a way to justify an incredible amount of backstory. In Amy’s journals, we are looking for an evidence that Nick is capable of killing his wife. Amy left a series of limericks as part of this anniversary tradition they have. This allows Nick a chance to relive even more memories as he follows Amy steps before her disappearance. Throughout Amy’s journal, she wrote a series of multiple choice questions. After all, she was a quiz writer at some magazine. The story is allegorical to the dynamic within a marriage. Strong writing brought the story through easily to the reader.

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This novel taught me a few important lessons. Great writing with a great story sells. Gone Girl was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over two years, won two awards, and was made into a movie. A well selling book is relatable. Intense literary tendencies can work if done really well or above par.

 

Sharp Objects is about a young reporter returning to her hometown, to follow-up on a serial murder investigation. Going home, brings back a lot of old memories. Everything is creepy in a way that adds character to a small town. The end is nearly impossible to figure out.

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A few lessons saw me through to the end. There is place for complicated sentences in modern, non-literary fiction. Feel free to include introductory, dependent, independent, and concluding clauses as long as the coherence or smoothness doesn’t reduce. Details are okay if it adds something like a feeling you want to convey, hints, misleads, or does something to make the story better. It doesn’t matter who you are, traditionally publishing a first book over 200 pages is incredibly difficult, if not impossible without something else going for you. Gillian Flynn was a reporter for Entertainment Weekly and her first book is 200 pages long.

 

Station Eleven is a literary science fiction novel that redefined what sells. The story follows the creator of a small batch comic titled as Station Eleven. The comic was about a lone doctor on space station destined for destruction. We follow the comic author’s life through her relationship with a previously famous actor and beyond to death. The actor connected with a young girl on the set of a play. We follow this young girl after some type of apocalypse. Another character is followed through the cataclysm. Basically a literary novel without an easily defined plot but gives a feeling of actually being there.

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Emily St. John Mandel is a great writer that has a lot to teach. I remember this one sentence that, simply put was amazing. I read this one sentence that perfectly summarized the work duties of an executive assistant. This sounds boring but encapsulated in a richly complex sentence made it interesting beyond belief. After reading the paragraph, it was stunning to see it was all of three sentence. I have a ton of work left to be that good, especially that smooth. Literary novels follow characters, things, and places through a series of event to shed light on existential questions. Keeping the reader oriented can be difficult, but when it works, you can do anything.

 

The Goldfinch follows the young Theodore Decker after his mother dies in a tragic museum explosion. He spends a years with his gambling father in Las Vegas. Then we see years an apprentice and an antique dealer. Finally married to a beautiful woman. Through it all, we feel his emptiness and longing for what he lost all those years ago.

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This book is dense. For maybe the first time, a modern book required me or the reader to slow down and take in everything. I can’t imagine writing and editing a book for ten years. My motivation wouldn’t survive that long for one project. Literary novels create experiences with beautiful imagery. This can be done by making the ordinary pretty or choosing events that allow lavish imagery. Donna Tartt does this through a series of drug experiences and smoky, dark scenes with nothing happening very fast. There is literary and then there is great literary.

 

Infinite Jest is the longest book I’ve ever read. David Foster Wallace wrote a book that’s a traumatic experience to read. It incorporates a little of everything from drug addiction, depression, film theory, world diplomacy, tennis, and North American diplomacy among other things. The story follows a family that owns a tennis academy, a rehabilitation center just down the road, and a meeting between American counter-intelligence agent and a double agent from a Canadian terrorist group. That meeting got annoying with the frequency Wallace returned to it and its length. The use of parentheses to denote the antecedent of pronouns was frustrating. The ending left me disappointed. There was such a long build-up and the ending was outside the time frame of the prose. Wallace doesn’t hold our hand through to the end and shoves us to figure it out. The length made me really struggle to put the ending together. All that aside, Wallace gives us an almost unabashed look into the human psyche at its worst.

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Wallace gave me a few irreplacable tips. Merging different styles can slow a read down but you need literary clout to keep a reader in it. Infinite Jest uses ebonics, first person, third person, monologue, footnotes, and various other styles throughout. Detours are again okay. A grasp of words beyond most, makes a book really hard to read.

 

Then we have Storm Front (Dresden Files #1). A wizard/private detective investigates two different cases. The plot is rote. The two cases have to collide right? Add in wizardry, a police detective, a overseeing wizarding board breathing down his neck, a few rules about what’s allowed, and dark magic to get Strom Front. The language simple and easy to digest. The wording steps out of the way and puts the story front and center.

storm-front

I learned a lot that supports everything I’m getting into. Simple construction works really well. Readers like familiarity. The woman characters are femme fatales with a slight variation, usually. We have a hot reporter with a pen instead of a gun. A pretty detective with a badge and gun. A true femme fetale with information and no gun. I really liked a scene where the wizard questions the woman with information. Butcher does a really good job describing her smoky, contralto voice. I did something like that but not really well in my first book. I need to keep working on maintaining a feeling for an extended period of time. Keep the action coming and use the lulls wisely. Choose when to give exposition and what to say with care. Add something new to the genre like the present day, vampires, and sex as used by Butcher.

 

Reading is invaluable to a writer. It has always been a big part of my life and will continue to be. These books were read over the course of a year. Another year of reading will bring more lessons and interesting worlds. I look forward to it. Come back in two weeks for the next post. Until then, Graham Kar out.

 

GK

The Sum Of An Empty Life

I praise the master, David Foster Wallace.


Walking in through the industrial-designed door, passing over the id scanning arch, reaching up to my forehead for a quick itch when something forgotten returns. Security wants me in for a new badge and posterity pic, some mundane ritualistic occurrence right over there at the guard’s station. On my way, a few sips halve my remaining third cup of lukewarm coffee. Norm as the badge says, parses the screen before him for my id scan, relevant data, and why I should stand before him. The mute Norm points to a lighted X just beyond the faux stone securities desk. A blinding flash of light averts my gaze with the classic id pic’s grimace.

 

Someone trapezes back and forth over the security scanner, each time flashing bright red sans alarm, until the gate arch engages green, the pacer crosses over, and approaches the stone faced counter alongside me. A hand on scapula tells me this person — whoever he is — knows me, but I haven’t seen his visage yet. I turn to Brian Whalen, the glassless math geek, college roommate, the always confidence of someone born with good looks, cleft chin, meaty eyebrows, the remembered mane trimmed to something corporate worthy, a bow tie with the black suit on white, a briefcase, and a bear hugger (familial trait). There it is. My face blushes with the blood rush from a breath dislodging bear hug.

 

I wait over, by a couple of sunk-in chairs festooned over the lobby, while Brian sorts his badge issues, drinking the dredges of the bitter waker-upper, and plotting the incidence vector for a cup tossed into the open garbage, toss, and yes. Next, dispossess myself of this grey messenger bag and wait for the approaching Brian. He settles within the low-slung chair opposite, assuming a similar crouched position, rid his black combination briefcase onto the equally low table. Then the reason for the wait.

 

“Brian, last I heard, you were in academia. What happened?”

 

“Well C, it just wasn’t working out. Everything just stagnated after the first year or so. There just wasn’t that much there for me any more.”

 

That still deviates form who Brian is, the existential one, and the perpetual idealist magniloquent scholar. There a memory comes across of Brian’s, always with me as the subject. He’s probably getting something from me, regrets and maybe rationalizations. The same things I quest to know. His college girlfriend, now wife of one child, laid out on a breezy fall day, in a yellow, blue flowered dress under a cream waistcoat, marred with a line of blood matching a mid-thigh laceration, head tilled back almost over possibility, and sharply at that, bent along one spot, eyes staring to me situated at her back, crying, moving mouth devoid of all sound, and her hand in mine. Her hand, chilled to the bone and sweaty, throbs in my hand with life-giving pulse. A slow inexorable deterioration follows, circumvented, really forestalled by squeezing onto her clammy hand. Each time again results in a desperate journey to rescure the febrile beat to life, always there, but generally assumed. The fear, guilt, debility, panic, and fear of losing her push everything else away. The spectrum from blue through red flashes across my face, cold light, lacking any warmth. And I’m back with Brian.

 

He just stares across at me in disbelief from what he received.

 

“Brain, how’s everything else, otherwise?”

 

“Everyone is great. Lizzie, our three-year old defines overzealous in terms of practical anything.  Meagan enjoys the city.”

 

“Well, Brian I’m nowhere near as put together. About the only thing set is work, at this here quant.”

 

“C, it’ll be a big change from non-Euclidean topography in relation to EM, G, and QFD.”

 

“Later, Brian”

 

“Later.”

 

Brian departs, leaving behind his briefcase. I burden the messenger bag over one shoulder, the rumored man purser being me, and add his mini-legal-sized-suitcase. “Brian!” He just waltzes across the lobby at speed, stops, and searches for who called his name, while I eat away at my ETA. He locates me at a mere 3 feet away, where I stop, lower the brief case (sic) the remaining 6 inches to the floor, and slide it across with the outside edge of my left shoe’s sole.

 

Brian shakes my hand. “Looking forward to work under the same corporate overlords, C.”

 

“If we’re not careful, we could become one of them.”

 

Brian looks surprised. He retrieves a red knife handle from his pocket, switches out the blade and brings it over our hands, then he seizes. His knife arm flings out, launching the knife. Amidst violent contractions that send each muscle stiff and jumpy, his knees buckle and pull me forward with him. His hand pops off with a red impression. I just grab his briefcase, tuck it under an arm, and grab his abandoned knife, all after scanning the empty lobby.

 

I skedaddle out into the dwindling sidewalk. People walk all around while I head north beside the empty street — all in pastels, green, yellow, red, blue, violet, and orange. The people ferrying umbrellas dominate with a few unprepared and drenched into black stained coal miners — clothes and all. The rain falls down in little black rivulets suspended from the heavens, black rain today. The pastels remain mostly unblemished, except near the street and sidewalk, where footsteps and vehicles would splash up. I just continue soaking up the rare drop or two. All my fellow walkers weep tremendously, like spigots turned on within each eye, releasing not a steady drip, but a laminar flow exuding hence from the entire lower eyelid just brimming over. This viscous outpouring stains a triangular swath following the contours of body and cloth.

 

Around the corner and the next block up, a dirty yellow cab picks me up for a trip home.

 

(—)

 

I disembark at a glass fronted lobby of immense double-width doors. Inside the vestibule, meter high copper planters sustain floating lilies and the like, surrounding every wall excluding the elevators framed with stainless steel panels and the other set of doors opposite. I call the elevator with the electronic ping, wait for my ride, enter, and leave on six. A walk to the end of the hallway — past the doors leads me to my apartment. I deposit my keys, bag, and rain dappled coat by the door, liberating the knife and briefcase.

 

I scan my apartment for anything out of place, not that I’m expecting it. My set of four chairs and a couch (all royal blue) form the usual half-pentaform facing an ordinary sidebar. Only a push down on the top shows it to be a raising tv stand, hiding the complexities of components below sight.

 

A narrow interstice leads to an inch or 2 thick slab of frosted glass cantilevered on a tied up bundle of steel pipes stood on end. The black grease stained metal dining chairs serve host to black covered cushions. The black-trimmed straw-printed-and-colored rug underlay this eating ensemble.

 

On back, the beech cabinets contrast the piecemeal, random dark and light pattern of knotted and clean bamboo. A dark marble of almost black — veined in yellow and purple covers these said cabinets. I probably neglected the beech trim framing man-sized mullions on the three glass walls, dividing the apartment in two at the top of the doors’ height and segmented at 3 meter increments all around. The culinary grade appliances dwarf the standard kitchen fare with a twelve-burner, fold down broiler, pot-filling faucet, double-wide fridge with a sliver of a freezer, small dishwasher of course, and garbage chutes scattered around. The electrochromic windows are actually one contiguous pane bent at sharp 90 degrees on the edges and bends.

 

On the left, the solid bedroom doors hinge open from the remaining wall of trimmed glass. I ferry the briefcase onto the puce sheeted bed on a Japanese wide-edged bed elevation mechanism which requires kneeing into and rolling out of. I turn to the windows for the stair-stepped buildings down to the river, a quarter-mile away for some clue to the combination. A pain just then torments my left belly of such severity — I brace against the dresser. My thoughts dwell on what Meagan will never do again. Climb a flight of stairs under her own power. Feel her husband’s hand in hers. Heft up her daughter now and hug her in the future. Never being alone for even a moment further in her life, constantly forced company upon. My crying might be from the tremendous pain or tremendous sadness or inability except now to feel. The tears dry out and the password is one-three-seven-one-three-seven. Our shared dorm room number times two as if he expected all these happenings.

 

I press the latches, feel a slight jiggle of restrained rotation, and drag the cracked open briefcase over to the other room’s coffee table amidst the padded furniture. Opening the case as allowed shows three pictures, one of the three of them, one of his wife, and one of his daughter. Underneath is just a stack of blank printer paper awaiting toner.

 

I lean back in the plush couch to withdraw the knife, placing it alongside the extracted picture frames and closing the briefcase. I look at each picture for the associated memory. The first one shows the three of them laid out in a circle on grass, holding hands. I look up into the top-heavy branches, stripped save the uppermost foliage. The sun shines, slightly shifted (off noon) through swaying leaves. I look right to Lizzie in a pink sweater and jeans. She’s one of those kids born with pants on. Meagan lies to the right in red plaid with a beige skirt, legs crossed. The lush grass streams through my toes.

 

The next picture shows a before and after. First Lizzie cries at poolside while the swim teacher beckons her into the water, then swimming with some semblance to happiness. I remember Meagan telling me to do something instead of taking pictures every 5 seconds. We wrap Lizzie in a towel and settle her down. Awhile later, Lizzie successfully treads water. Meagan punches me and says “Jerk!” I say, “We can talk about how big a jerk I really am later.” I lean in and whisper this in her ear.

 

The last picture is Meagan waving from the top of a cliff. We were arguing which way gets us back to the car quickest. Meagan points with accusation at the trail map. “We are here and have to go here. This is the quickest way.” Tempers running high after ending up at a closed lookout following half a day travel suggests we both go the way we think instead of debating the merits either way. I go left and Meagan goes right after we both check our radios. I walk through woods, until a clearing shows me Meagan up on that cliff. We both end up back at the car. I chose the best way back. I grab the knife.

 

GK