The Trouble with Writing and Reading

You have to sit still while you do them.  There is always the option of listening to books on tape, and when they are well done, it’s great.  But I don’t have a lot of books on tape, and I’ve listened to the ones I do have, even the lousy ones.

I absolutely have to get some house work done, so I’m going to put on the British version of The Office and tear around this house–vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the refrigerator, vacuuming some more, organizing my bills and such.  People will say, “Yard work?”  It’s going to be 105 degrees today.  (That’s 40.5 degrees C.)  I’m not going to work outside.  I’m going to have to beg my mother to limit her time outside.  She could cook herself out there.

I really should be painting the guest room upstairs, but I don’t have the motivation for that.  This afternoon I’ll plan my classes for the fall.  I’ll work on my plans.  Then I’ll get desperate, and I’ll go to Home Depot or Ace Hardware and look at kitchen and bathroom faucets.  None of it will be as fun as yesterday when I sat and read sad stories ALL DAY LONG. (But, I have to give my ample back-side a break!) I did exactly two pieces of work yesterday.  I made mother lunch, and I made mother dinner.  It was amazing.  I even took out our old World Book and read about Hawaii in the evening.

To have time to read and write without interruption and without interference is a great blessing.  I felt like a woman of wealth and leisure yesterday.  But, I also had to sit down most of the day.

Tomorrow I will tell the follow-up story of the mockingbird family.  I will include pictures.

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“So it goes.”

Since there isn’t anyone reading this blog, I think I will please myself alone and write about MY writer, the writer who wrote things for me, though he may not have known he was writing for a chubby girl in New Mexico.  How did he come into my life?  I’m not sure.  I am almost certain it was by way of my oldest brother Dean McCollaum.  Dean was always bringing home books that had been assigned to him in his various colleges, and I was drawn to them–moth to the flame, moth to the flame.

The first one I remember clearly is Cat’s Cradle.  It’s really an amazing book, about how things can go just terribly wrong, in a moment.  It centers on the idea of helping Marines get out of battling in the mud, an invention that causes water to freeze at much higher temperatures than it does now.  It’s a totally terrifying book, but funny, as are all Vonnegut’s books (except the beautiful and highly readable short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House).    The world is no longer a home at the end of the book.  It’s a hell-scape.  Every time I look out my window and see the sunshine; every time I hear the breeze rush over the needles of the pine tree in the yard, I am grateful for this world we have.  What a gorgeous home we have been given.  Perhaps that sentiment is the reason Vonnegut is my writer.  He would express goofy and cliche sentiments like that but in ways that were not at all cliche.

He once claimed that all his novels were actually of a piece, made to hang like a great tapestry of story, linked together in the same way the glow of stars along the galaxy edge form the Milky Way.  He didn’t put it exactly that way.  Still, he said they all went together, and they do.  I have read them all.  This is no small brag.  He wrote a good deal.  Still, I have read them all.  I love them all, some more than others.  I have a signed copy of Jailbird, thanks to Dick Wilken.  I have a first edition of Breakfast of Champions.  The one most people probably know is Slaughterhouse Five.

Vonnegut among his many accomplishments, lands his work like nobody else.  If you ever read him, you will not fail to be amazed by the way his brings his narratives to a close.  The endings are totally right, perfectly suited to the story he tells and masterfully crafted.  You can really see this in Slaughterhouse.  He uses the phrase “So it goes” ninety-nine times in that book.  I KNOW it’s not by accident.  It’s by design.  His works seem like easy, off-the-cuff rambles, but they most definitely are not.  They are crafted, designed and any number in them comes of careful consideration.

In Slaughterhouse he manages to create a story about war that does NOT allow the reader to cry, and he does this by reminding that reader when and how each character will die when that character is introduced.  You don’t get that cathartic cry at the end of Slaughterhouse because Vonnegut promised he would not let it be the “typical” war story with heroes and villains.  War is not noble.  It’s a shame, and Vonnegut makes it a shame on all of us.

I think I’ll start reading him again this week.  That is, after I finish re-reading Heart of Darkness.  So it goes.

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So…the other day I was feeling pretty lousy.  (I will not go into why.) I was in the midst of some daily chores.  There was a little dish of peanuts left out from the night before, and I was taking it into the kitchen.  I grabbed the Aleve bottle from the shelf and dropped one into my palm when I noticed what my mother was up to.  She had a new box of garbage bags and a long serrated knife.  She was getting ready to stab the box of garbage bags with the knife because she couldn’t get it to open any other way.

At that point I got officious.  I put down the peanuts, grabbed the knife and the box and from distraction threw the peanut-shaped pill into my mouth and bit down on it like it WAS a peanut.  I forced opened the box just as the caustic flavor and feel hit my mouth.

Let me tell you, that coating on those pills is a wonderful invention.  Biting down on one proved that.  For a few moments I thought my tongue was going to resign, my esophagus was going to scar.  I don’t know what I said.  I know I drank water and milk at a ridiculous speed in a sort of fugue state.  It took hours for the misery to finally subside.

My mom asked if the Aleve helped my headache.  I have no idea.

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“Write What You Know”

It’s the first and last rule of writing classes, but in the words of Montaigne, “What do I know?”  That’s one of the problems with the rule, one of the mysteries (if I put it more properly).  Writers don’t really know their own worlds, their own minds, UNTIL they write.  Still, the rule is perfectly sound, even for writers like Rowling and Heinlein.  They created their worlds, so when they wrote them, the created worlds felt real and full and offered us escape and even insight.

Fitzgerald certainly knew the world he created in The Great Gatsby.  East and West Egg were the geography of American money, old money dragged from the hands of dying ancestors, and new money dragged from a brutal field of battle.  And, boy, did Fitzgerald know money.

Once more I must say SPOILER ALERT because I am going to talk about one particular aspect of the book without being tender or respectful of the feelings of those who have not read it.  I’m going to discuss a narrow area of interest for me because it has been on my mind a great deal these past six months or so.  I need not discuss why.

Nick (the narrator) sells bonds in New York, the money capital of the Americas.  He has access to all the forms of money which make this economy percolate with activity and innovation.  Without the clear delineation of royalty or gentry that so asserts itself in other parts of the world, the brutal medium of money and acquisition casts a golden hue over everything in the novel, except (that is) the valley of ashes where the waste from this merciless pursuit is dumped.  The great gulf fixed between wealth and poverty is offered in detail, and from that garbage heap emerges the pathetic woman who hopes to escape her own life.  Myrtle is Daisy’s husband’s mistress.  I’m not going to go through all the evidence that Daisy knew about Myrtle and that she killed her on purpose.  It’s all there to be read in the book.  I will say that when Daisy has Gatsby and Tom together she is showing Tom what an acceptable affair looks like.  Gatsby may be ridiculous and naive, but his is not stupid and he is not vulgar, both of which are Myrtle’s trademarks.  Tom enjoys these qualities in Myrtle because (obviously) she is into whatever Tom wants, things he would never even begin to suggest to his WIFE.

I won’t surmise what all it might be, but we know Tom slapped Myrtle in front of guests in their sex nest in the city.  One would not be surprised to learn Tom liked some creepy and rough stuff on the side.

Here’s the thing.  Daisy and Tom manage to get rid of Tom’s disgusting concubine in a violent way, and Gatsby pays for it.  Now, we know that Gatsby would have taken the blame if it ever went to court.  God forbid that Daisy pay for her sins.  (Right now I want to slap Gatsby, and I think he’s a doll.)  Nick sees Tom again near the end of the novel, and Nick has an insight (Fitzgerald teaches us something).

“(Tom) was walking ahead of me along Fifth Avenue in his alert aggressive way, his hands a little out from his body as if to fight off interference, his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself to his restless eyes.”  We have seen this walk, no?  Everyone in the world has seen this walk.  Nick does not like him and confronts him with what he did, the way he set Wilson up to kill Gatsby and himself.  Tom has NO REMORSE, and Nick recognizes it.  That’s when he writes something that has portentous echoes.

“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.  It was all very careless and confused.  They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

He’s right, isn’t he.  Fitzgerald came from both money and poverty, from an illustrious family and a failed salesman.  He wrote about something Americans must eventually face–our relationship to money.  The lines of power run through pots of gold here, and the problem is what Fitzgerald taught us it will always be.  Entitlement breeds carelessness, a carelessness that breeds chaos and mess.  The only thing that will save us is resisting the urge to worship money.


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Well, It’s Over!

The Bookish Affair 2017 just wrapped, and before the Crazy Squirrel and Kahlua kick in, I must blog about a book our outstanding keynote speaker Robert Wilder mentioned.  You guessed it–The Great Gatsby.

I’m planning to do two different entries for this masterwork of American Literature.  This first will examine the way Fitzgerald lands the book.  It has one of those endings, that if you get it, you never let it go.  It is beauty and mystery made manifest in words.  If you don’t read the whole book, it might not have the same effect.  I don’t really know.  I’ve read the whole book, so I can’t be sure how much of my smitten feeling can be attributed to the total effect of the work, and how much can be attributed to the masterful way in which Fitzgerald brings his narrative to a close.  I am going to write under the theorem that it is as masterfully landed a work as one might read.

Here’s the SPOILER ALERT.  If you haven’t read the book, stop right now.  Go to some earlier entry of this blog you haven’t read, like the one about guacamole.   I proceed sans caution.

The story begins with the direct narration of Nick, the observer of our title character and the monster Daisy Buchanan.  Fitzgerald invents one of his great designs, a novel by a first person narrator who is not the main character of the narrative.  Nick is invested in everyone, the same way I get invested in characters in my favorite movies.  Nick is not neutral.  He is entirely vested in this world he is about to reveal.  He pretends an objectivity that he cannot maintain, but he tries.  Oh, how he tries!

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  Nick then explains to us that he has been advised to reserve judgement of others, to stand neutral, and thus he has been made privy to the secrets of “wild, unknown men.”  We are lead into Nick’s  world being ever so gently instructed not to pass judgement on the characters, not too quickly anyway.  Eventually Nick will take sides and show us the people we should value, the people we should recognize, and (most importantly) the people we should curb. By the time Nick tells Gatsby he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together” we’re totally complicit.  There’s a good deal more to the narrative at that point, some essential plot twists, but Nick has managed to point the way into his final bit of narrative poetry.   “So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Note how beautifully that last image, of boats fighting to move into the future, the “orgastic” future, are being forced into our past, to consider our past.  Look back at the first line of the narrative again.  Nick explains that he has been contemplating something he learned in his youth, in his past, ever since he first learned it, and each successive lesson has proven the futility of trying to escape our past and our foundation.  That’s what great endings are capable of doing.  They give readers lesson after lesson about what the author has learned, lesson after lesson about living in their world, and (sometimes) about living in our own.


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Master Class

Perhaps you suspect you are about to read about F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Good guess, but no.  I will write about that incomparable work soon, but here I am going to write about a book I fell in love with when I was fourteen years old–William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.  Anyone who knows me, knew this would be the first American book I would talk about, especially when discussing endings.  Consider this your SPOILER ALERT–I am going to talk about the ending, and I’m going to discuss it in detail.  Stop reading if you want to read the book first.  I mean it.  Go back and read my entry about the limits of physical space instead.

So…it begins, “This is my favorite book in all the world though I have never read it.”  What follows is a fictional description of the beginning of his reading life.  One assumes this is the story of William Goldman, but it’s not, not really.  It’s an exploration of how the life of a person can be changed by a great story.  The narrator describes a book by an author named S. Morgenstern.  The tone of the opening is so hip, so casual, so funny, it feels autobiographical, but it really isn’t autobiographical.  There is no such author as S. Morgenstern.  I figured this out when I first read the book because of some structural elements Goldman includes to prove this is the work of an American author in the pages after the opening frame.

Still, I know more than one person who was fooled by this frame and went looking for the “unabridged version.”  One of these souls was so mortified by the experience she still holds a blood grudge with the book.  So be it.

The book is really a treatise on the kinds of stories Goldman finds most compelling.  He really did his most famous and successful and (arguably) most artful writing in screen plays.  He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  He wrote Marathon Man.  He wrote All the President’s Men and The Ghost and the Darkness.  These are all great stories, and what do they have in common?  Epic greatness!  Even if the subject is epic TERRIBLE greatness, it’s still greatness, and that’s where he shines as a writer.  Princess Bride is full of EPIC GREATNESS–the most beautiful woman, the strongest giant, the evilest count, the greatest swordsman in the history of the world.

By the way, that throws into light one of his finest gifts–epic lines.  Inigo Montoya goes around saying, “You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”  No reader can forget that.  The same effect is all over his screen plays.  “Is it safe?”  “Follow the money.”  “Who are those guys?”

Throughout the book Goldman makes arguments about what works in narrative.  He argues against subtle irony (though he uses it).  It argues against excessive description (though his uses it).  Finally he presents a discussion, a detailed one, about what makes a great ending.  He presents three.  The first he presents is romantic and sentimental, a riff on, “And they lived happily ever after.”  The second plays with unresolved doom, which has its own dark appeal.  The third the narrator refers to as realistic, that these folks were great, and they had a good time, but things still slid down hill as they are bound to do with all of us.   He ends the book the way a great lecture ends, with a great closing statement.

“I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops.  But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair.  It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

The first time I read the book, I got to that last line, and then I turned to the first page and started reading it again, immediately.  That’s how much I learned from and enjoyed that book.  It’s one of MY books, a book that influenced me, that played to my strengths and began to teach me how to minimize my weaknesses.

If you must read it, see the movie first.  The movie is fine, and fun, but it’s just a fun little movie.  It’s not a movie that teaches writers how to think, how to compose, how to edit.  That’s what the book does.

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The Mystery

On Friday, 23 June, I am going to be giving a special presentation on E.M. Forster’s lovely little novel A Room with a View and the Merchant/Ivory film of the same title.  I can hardly wait.  So…before I do the presentation, I’ll set down a few notes to solidify my thoughts about the genius of Forster’s story of liberation and love.

First, I discovered the book when I discovered the film.  It won the Oscar for best costumes in 1986, and they showed pictures of the designs.  There was never a more deserved award.  The costuming in the film is sumptuous.  Every image is an impressionistic painting, saturated with color and light.  Once I saw the film, I had to read the book, and I was not disappointed.  (This lends evidence to my theory that you should see the film first and read the book next.  The film will never quite follow the book, but in masterful hands, it will find a way to pay homage to the book.)

The book and film begin in similar ways, and thus they make the arc of the story promising.  It begins with two women who have been traveling and are tired and cranky and arguing in a passive-aggressive way, which Forster describes as wrangling.  Lucy and her cousin and chaperone in her travels through Italy are wanting the romantic promise of that land to be realized in the view.  Of course, their host has not been sensitive to this need and given them rooms without views.  The view begins and ends the book.  The view at the end of the book is beautiful, and it is the one that Mr. Emerson, her new husband’s father, gave her because originally she had no view.

The film only lightly touches on how radical Lucy Honeychurch’s marriage to George Emerson is.  It makes a note of it, but you must be sensitive to the social subtext to catch the weight of their love from the film.  The book makes it more clear, and it also makes it obvious that there is more to love than just the romance of the newlyweds.  Lots of loving people had to do their part to make this revolution of contentment and sympathy work, including the woman who initially seems determined to thwart it utterly, Lucy’s cousin and chaperone, Charlotte.  Through the course of the story we have seen Lucy transformed not only by Italy but by her own realization of her desires.  She seems to do as she is told, to follow the instructions of her community, her family, her fiance, her vicar until George encourages her to move toward him, toward the liberty to think and feel for herself, to know her own heart and to follow it.  At the end of the story, the two who are meant to be together ARE together, but they owe it to Charlotte, who loved them in a way deeper than words can express.  This is how Forster lands it.  “Youth enwrapped them; the song of Phaethon announced passion requited, love attained. But they were conscious of a love more mysterious than this. The song died away; they heard the river, bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean.” The film ends in the same spot, the same beauty, and gives us all hope, even we dried-up old maids.  We can still do our part to make this world a loving place.  We can find our room!

So…tomorrow I’ll take a look at a bit of US Literature that lands well.  I wonder if it will surprise you.

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