Monday, August 31, 2009

Putting it in students' hands

Before we begin, read this. It’s OK. I’ll wait.

Finished? I’ve read through the story twice and think Lorrie NcNeill’s plan is brilliant.

I always liked reading as a kid, everything from The Phantom Tollbooth to Spider-Man, but I was generally indifferent to my English classes. It’s not that I dislike Catcher in the Rye, Othello or Lord Byron’s poetry; but that stuff didn’t speak to me as a high schooler. (I realize I’m probably the exception when we’re talking about Catcher. To my sophomore mind, Holden was a whiner.)

I came to appreciate classic authors as I grew older, but I was much more enthusiastic about the projects in which I had a choice. I did occasionally enjoy a book that was foisted on me, but I felt like I owned the selections I made. I only kept two English papers I ever wrote — one on the X-Men as a source of social commentary, the other on music in Langston Hughes poetry. I selected the subjects for both. (My wife did the same thing. She still has a copy of her Flannery O’Connor research paper.)

That having been said, McNeill’s plan is not perfect and Motoko Rich’s story does a good job of laying out the problems. Kids who don’t want to read are not going to become literary wunderkinds because they peruse the Maximum Ride series. Instead, their selections should be treated as gateway drugs.

Oh, you like Tolkien? Here’s Vonnegut. You like Picoult? Here’s du Maurier.

But the kid has to be willing to grow with you. Lazy readers are going to be lazy readers whether they’re critiquing Henry James or James Patterson. That having been said, kids who enjoy reading (whether it be The Phantom Tollbooth or Moby Dick) are more likely to read as adults.

I like how McNeill has a basement. No Gossip Girl, for example. Not all reading is good reading. I would personally raise the basement a little higher, but I’m not a teacher and don’t know how difficult it is to get a seventh grade boy to read something more complex than Patterson.

An approach like McNeill’s might work best when paired with some restrictions. Yes, kids can choose two or three books that they study during the school year, but they’re still required to read two as a group.

But, in general, I think McNeill and the other teachers who are willing to try something different deserve kudos.

-Jason Lea,

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is JK Rowling a hack? Revisited.

It’s interesting that Okcopatrick would post Harold Bloom’s review of the first Harry Potter book. The friend with whom I was conversing in my last post had previously sent me the same review.

I will restate the response I gave to Bloom’s review then: Rowling’s books improved over time. It would be fair to say that Rowling’s first and second books are steeped in cliché. The Sorcerer’s Stone? A three-headed dog? Witches transforming into black cats? These are well-worn fantasy ideas and Rowling adds nothing new to them.

I would contend that it’s not until the third book that Rowling’s series becomes something besides commonplace.

But let’s test it. Roy Peter Clark and Bloom each offered quantifiable ways to test Rowling’s writing. Clark criticized Rowling’s overuse of adverbs that modified the word “said,” noting she used five in a 2-page span to describe the manner in which characters spoke.

To wit:
said Hermione timidly
said Hermione faintly
he said simply
said Hagrid grumpily
said Hagrid irritably

Bloom counted seven identifiable clichés of the stretch-his-legs variety in a single page.

Let’s take a look at one of Rowling’s latter books and see if it is also infested with unnecessary modifiers and lazy clichés.

My wife and I only own Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final one in the series. We borrowed the rest.

I’ll read the first chapter and keep a scorecard of clichés and talking adverbs. (Because readers may disagree on what is or is not a cliché, I will try to include any phrase someone might consider a cliché.)

Talking Adverbs:

“sliding in and out of sight”
“(they) passed through, as though the dark metal were smoke”
“lingered for a moment”
“He was so pale that he seemed to emit a pearly glow.” (Better than pale as a ghost, but in the same vein)
“His red eyes fastened”
“his gaze had wandered”
“lost in thought”
“squared his shoulders”
“Voldemort stroked the creature absently”
“‘I speak nothing but the truth’”
“an eruption of jeering laughter”
“the laughter died at once”

In 12 pages, Rowling completely avoided using an adverb to modify “said,” “spoke” or “told.” However, it would only be fair to admit that the chapter did not lack for adverbs. They were legion and most of them added little to the narrative.

As per clichés, I tried to err on the side of inclusion. In fact, you could argue that some on my list are not proper clichés. However, laughter dies more often than it ceases (which is weird, because it never lived, but it does erupt.) “In thought” is one of the most common places to get lost, gazes often wander (or drift) and “smoke” is the most popular way to end the mad lib, “passed through, as though it were ____.”

Twelve in 12 pages is a considerable improvement when contrasted to seven in a page. But is it still an uncommonly high amount?

I took another modern writer who is well-respected in literary circles, Sherman Alexie, and read 12 pages of his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for comparison’s sake.

Seven. I counted seven clichés. So Alexie—generally recognized as a good author—has slightly more than half as many clichés as Rowling. (This does not bode well for my argument.)

Rowling’s first chapter also suffered from stilted dialogue—the kind of stuff you can only get away with in romance or fantasy novels. For example: “I speak nothing but the truth.”

Well, it isn’t an exhaustive study, but I seem to have hurt my own case. Rowling is a writer who, even after she matured, depends on unnecessary adverbs (though not the kind Clark noted) and uses clichés almost twice as often as Sherman Alexie.

This doesn’t change the fact that she’s good at characterization and longitudinal plotting, but I can’t speak for the strength of her narrative voice.

-Jason Lea,

PS According to Wikipedia, Harold Bloom discovered poetry through Hart Crane's White Buildings. Portage County stand up!

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What's Good Reading: A Discussion

Remember when Tricia and I had an argument about whether James Patterson was or wasn’t a hack?

I’ve been having a similar argument with another friend about J.K. Rowling; but this time it is me who defends Rowling and the friend who thinks of her as a hack.

What began as a continuation of the same argument we’ve been having for seemingly a decade stretched into some related tangents that are pertinent to this blog, so I’ve included it here.

(I should warn you, this will be a long post by my standards. If you were thinking about getting a glass of lemonade or relieving yourself, you may want to do it before you begin reading.)

It began with an e-mail the friend sent me that quoted Roy Peter Clark:

“I conclude with a disclaimer: The wealthiest writer in the world is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. She loves adverbs, especially when describing speech. On two pages of her first book, I found these attributions:

said Hermione timidly
said Hermione faintly
he said simply
said Hagrid grumpily
said Hagrid irritably

If you want to make more than the Queen of England, maybe you should use more adverbs. If your aspirations, like mine, are more modest, use them sparingly.”

or put another way: “Rowling is a hack.”

My response:

Normally I don’t bother responding to people who are commenting on books they haven’t even read. But I thought you might appreciate this Norman Mailer quote. (For context, he was describing his own The Naked and The Dead.)

“Overcertified adjectives are the mark of most best-seller writing.”

My opinion on Rowling remains unchanged. She has a knack for characterization, though not language. Her early books are kid stuff, perhaps above-average kid stuff, but nothing special. Somewhere around the third book, the series becomes genuinely good.

In later books, her storytelling becomes bloated but she maintains a knack for characterization and longitudinal plotting. Is she Shakespeare? No. She isn’t Margaret Atwood either, but she is not a hack.

James Patterson is a hack. Mary Higgins Clark is hack. Rowling is a decent storyteller who has had an unjustifiable amount of success. (But, to be fair, no one can justify having as much success as J.K. Rowling.)

The friend:

I do not doubt the ability of Rowling’s storytelling.

I’d advise her to go make movies. Oh, wait ...


So authors can’t be storytellers? Rudyard Kipling would disagree.


Everybody is a story teller. Go have lunch at Bumps. A novelist or poet do something more.

Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck tell stories, yes, but as stylists they do not need magic or creatures to move us. It’s like music.


An author can absolutely be “just a storyteller.” Mark Twain often stressed that he was just a storyteller. (Those looking for a moral will be shot, remember?) Granted, he was being humble; but not every author needs to be a Hemingway or a Steinbeck.

There is a vast ocean between Thomas Hardy and Patterson. Not every author that falls between is a hack.

And Shakespeare wrote science fiction, also. (Both “The Tempest” and “MacBeth” depend upon supernatural elements.) The genre, as a whole, should not be dismissed.


You’ve chosen to qualify Macbeth as science fiction in an attempt at a defense for J.K. Rowling?

I think that should be repeated.

You’ve said Hamlet was science fiction because of the appearance of a ghost.

No, not every author is a hack in between. And yes, there are some storytellers, like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, possibly Kurt Vonnegut, who are not just pure stylists, but have written great stories, but now I disagree with that as I’m typing.

Those men were stylists. Vonnegut rarely used adverbs and never used trite adverbs.


No, I classified MacBeth as science fiction to defend science fiction. You seemed to be dismissing the entire genre and I was replying to that.

And if you want to talk about bloated, British prose – Dickens. Excessive adjectives and adverbs are a turn off but we forgive them for authors we like.

Sometimes, I suspect you don’t have your own tastes when it comes to writers. You simply wait for someone with a doctorate to tell you it’s good. Name a non-classic author you enjoy.


Dickens is excessive in those categories. Agreed. And he is known more for his characters, stories, social justice, etc.

But, as you’ve said many times before, Dickens already established his place. We needn’t debate him anymore.

I have read Dan Brown, all of Thomas Harris’ novels, Chuck Palahniuk (I looked up that spelling), much of Christopher Moore, and many, many others that I cannot recall at the moment. Including novels about Warcraft, Spellfire, Dungeons and Dragons and years of comic books. Years.

I’m sure there many parts of these books I’ve enjoyed, at times. But while Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter is fascinating, those books teach us nothing about how to be writers, and mostly fall back on cliche gadgets of drama, suspense — and we turn the page because it excites us in some way, we are moved toward the end. I enjoy a good thrill as much as anyone, but like to save those moments for movies and media that does it much better.

Writing is a completely different animal.

Let me say, I enjoy writing, its techniques, its voice, its poetry, its phonology, its music, its play on words, its mechanics, far more than most people do or even should.

But to encourage people to read books just for pleasure, or thrills, like Tricia, I think, does not unlock their potential.

I totally disagree with your comment about people with doctorates. Most of what they write about exceeds both of our thinking, much of the time. It may interest me but does not govern my opinions.

As a former jock obsessed with all things sport, chronic video game player and someone who is heavily engaged in the news, gossip, politics — let me state this unequivocally for anyone who thinks that I enjoy some sort of mental masturbation:

Books, stories, plays, poetry engage us in a way that enriches our lives and helps us figure things out in our own way. If we want to watch Harry Potter, we should have already watched Lord of the Rings, and we are watching Twilight now. All the same. Marketing departments have figured out how to make us want to read the same things and enjoy them. It’s utter rubbish. And if that makes me a snob, fine sir, then let it be so!


I think you and I may be closer to agreeing than we realize.

Things on which we can agree:
1. There are different tiers of author.
2. The best authors should be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed.
3. The most popular authors are not necessarily the most popular. (In fact, popularity may indicate that they sacrificed some of their writing for the sake of popularity.)
4. We do not always read the best authors.
5. Lower quality books (whether they be Spellfire novels, Twilight or Harry Potter) can also be enjoyable, but they lack the edifying qualities of the best authors’ works.
6. While there are some general rules to writing, what makes a writer incredible is ultimately subjective and can only be reached by consensus (whether that be a consensus of two or 2,000,000.)

Things on which I suspect we disagree:
1. I think that books of medium quality are still worthwhile. They can have worthwhile features—a memorable character, an original plot or narrative device—that justify reading them. (This is just a restatement of my previous argument that an author can be something besides brilliant or a hack.)
2. I think that not every book needs to unlock the full potential of writing, just like every song does not need to push its genre forward. Yes, I enjoy books that make me look at writing in a different way—(I recently wrote about an Italo Calvino book that did that)—but a book is not worthless if it doesn’t.
3. I read to learn the potential of writing. But I also to read to meet new characters, learn facts and—gasp!—be entertained. There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.

Some final bits of minutiae: The “doctorate” shot I took was a low blow. Consider it rescinded.

I didn’t like The Lord of the Rings books. I think Tolkien created a thorough world, but his obsessions with Elvish languages and genealogies distracted from the story. Also, he tacked on about 200 pages of unnecessary epilogue to The Return of the King. He would have benefitted from more focus on storytelling.

I don’t dwell in mediocrity. The last four books I read are Their Eyes Were Watching God, Outliers, The Tao of Pooh and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’ll defend the quality of those two novels to anyone. Outliers and The Tao of Pooh are nonfiction on topics in which I am interested. Just because I’ll defend the merit of moderate books does not make me a glutton—someone who will read anything regardless of quality.

I suspect I’m just slightly less judgmental than you when it comes to reading (which is, I realize, a judgmental thing to say).

The friend got the closing words:

I agree to part or much of what you’ve said. Except for this sentence: There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.

That is the type of argument that gives us free passes, like “Such is life,” or “To each his own.” We don’t feel as though Jeffrey Dahmer’s lifestyle fell into those categories.

The problem is most people feel “good” books, plays, poems are unapproachable, boring, etc. and so they dismiss them. Sounding very judgmental, as if I know what’s best for people, I’ve found very few people who upon reading a poignant poem by Emily Dickinson do not feel it very deeply. If people can turn to Deepak Chopra for answers they surely can turn to Euripides. It isn’t he who fails the masses, it’s his marketing department.

The carpenter has more satisfaction after he has labored, choosing the wood, sketching the plans, and then saws and chisels and hews and nails, before presenting his cabinets with finished paints and layer of shellac — then he does preparing the shim. Luckily, spending a little bit of time reading each day is much less labor intensive.

-Jason Lea

P.S. No disrespect is meant toward Tricia from this post. I got nothing but love for her. I just disagree with some of her reading tastes.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

On Pooh and happiness, high school hockey and success

Today I compare and contrast books about Daoism, Bill Gates, high school hockey players and Winnie the Pooh.

This isn’t even the melange. It’s just the end of a long week.

I borrowed two books that both indirectly had self-improvement themes: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

Outliers — subtitle: The Story of Success — tells how seemingly self-made men and geniuses depended upon external circumstances to become successful.

The Tao of Pooh explains the tenets of Daoism through the exploits of a silly, old bear.

And what do they have in common? They can both make you a better person. Outliers may not make you a one-in-a-million success, but it will help you understand how the most successful are selected. And Pooh will bring you closer to contentment.

Outliers argues that you can be brilliant and work hard but that is only part of the equation. You will still depend on extenuating circumstances to succeed. Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker, draws his evidence from South Korean pilots, The Beatles, Canadian hockey players, and some of the world’s most successful businessmen and attorneys.

He notes that high school hockey all-stars are almost invariably born in the earliest part of the year because they tend to be the oldest players on the team. Likewise, Bill Gates and Bill Joy (the man who rewrote the UNIX operating system) had considerable exposure to computers before they became commonplace. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard — they did — or they aren’t brilliant — they are — but there are a lot of brilliant, hard workers who don’t become household names. This highest level of success depends upon contributing factors, not coincidence or serendipity.

These contributing factors vary from profession to profession. For hockey players, it’s date of birth. For attorneys, reaching the highest echelon is based on ethnicity, birth year and your parents’ profession.

The book is fascinating (and makes me feel better for not having won a Pulitzer yet. I can just say I was born in the wrong month or something.)

Meanwhile, The Tao of Pooh (and, by extension, Daoism) says that happiness is found by accepting your circumstances and working within them.

If you are unfamiliar with Daoism, I’ll do my best to summarize it in one sentence: The universe is best balanced when things don’t struggle against their nature.

The Tao of Pooh does a better job of explaining the ancient Chinese religion. In fact, if you’ve ever had a passing interest in Daoism, then I’d recommend Pooh as a primer.

Author Benjamin Hoff uses the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood to explain proper and improper applications of Daoist philosophy. Hoff says that Winnie the Pooh — by nature of being himself — is the epitome of the Uncarved Block.

(The back cover gives you a proper taste with the teaser “While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is.)

Now, to contrast our books: Outliers is about climbing to the top (and how we can’t do it alone) and Pooh is about being content with whatever rung we find ourselves.

Hoff (and by association, Winnie the Pooh) offers you a way to find happiness if you will have it. Gladwell offers a well-researched opinion on why some our geniuses and others are true successes.

Both are worth reading.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Personally, I’ve never been one to find contentment in the status quo. I find more joy in the struggle upward. (People older and smarter than me say I will outgrow this opinion.)

I think accepting your circumstances is akin to complacency. (If you happen to be a Daoist and reading this, don’t take this as an indictment of your chosen philosophy or religion. I’m sure it’s a wonderful thing to be content with your circumstances regardless of external pressures. But I come from Cleveland — home of the perpetually discontent. We fight against snow in the winter, midges in the summer and the Steelers in the fall. And when something good does happen in Cleveland, our first instinct is suspicion.)

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Worth sticking it out after slow start

I had a hard time getting into Alice Hoffman’s “The Story Sisters” (ISBN 9780307393869).
Fortunately it was so hot outside that I lacked the energy to get up off the swing and go in the house to choose another book from the stack. I’m glad I stuck with it.
The bond shared by the sisters is a little bit creepy at times, I have to admit. I struggled through the secret language stuff at the outset.
But I became hooked by Elv and by all that follows her decision to keep the events of one afternoon a secret from all but her youngest sister.
One ordinary afternoon destroys the family.
What could have made things go differently? If they had walked home another way? If she had let Claire stay in the car? If she had screamed? If she had told the truth of what happened?
At what point could the outcome have been made different?
“Would she know how to rescue Elv if the time ever came? Would she stand there mutely and watch her sister be carried away or would she dare to be brave?” wonders Claire.
We readers can ask ourselves the same questions.
- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Here if you need her

“Here If You Need Me” (ISBN 9780316066303) is Kate Braestrup’s account of rebuilding her life following the death of her state trooper husband.

She draws the reader in masterfully with her first sentence: “A six-year-old girl has wandered off from a family picnic near Masquinongy Pond, and she remains missing after a long day of waiting.”

Who doesn’t want to read on?

Braestrup was inspired by her husband’s sudden death to pursue his dream of becoming a minister. In her grieving, she returns to school and studies to become a Unitarian Universalist minister and ultimately a chaplain with the Maine game wardens.
I found the work to be very well-written.

It’s impossible to not feel the family’s pain as Braestrup and her four children learn to cope without their husband and father.

But ultimately this is a tale of moving on and finding joy again even in the face of unspeakable loss.

It’s a quick read, spiritual yet not preachy.

- Tricia Ambrose

P.S. To add to Jason's post about covers, I broke my own rule on "Here If You Need Me." Its cover features a photo of the author.

Generally the reason I don't like faces on a jacket is that I prefer to let the author's description of a character fill my mind and it's hard to do that when you've just seen a "picture" of them.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

One more reason not to judge a book by its cover

Authors do not control the covers of their books.

That might be common knowledge. I’m not sure. If you already knew that, I apologize for wasting your time. If you didn’t know, you do now.

Authors are asked for input regarding their covers, but publishers make the final call. My inner artist screams that writers should make that decision, but my outer pragmatist realizes that is unlikely (and, perhaps, unfair). Authors may produce the manuscript, but it’s publishers who risk their money to sell the book.

Sometimes writers and publishers disagree about what should be on the dust jacket. These disagreements rarely go public. Authors do not want to nip the hand that feeds them, so they swallow their misgivings and hope the publisher will want to work with them again in the future.

Then, there is the case of Justine Larbalestier. The first US cover of her novel Liar featured a white woman with long, brown hair.

Larbalestier’s complaint was simple. The book isn’t about a white woman. It’s about Micah, a black woman with short black hair who lies compulsively. (To Larbalestier’s credit, she did not discuss the cover until readers began to complain about it.)

Let’s briefly ignore the racial implications of the publisher’s decision. (Frankly, Larbalestier addresses it better than I could on her blog.)

Instead, I’d like to write about the artistic implications of the publisher’s cover selection. The publisher chose the white-woman cover because of its marketing potential, according to Larbalestier. (Publishers maintain — and I have no immediate evidence to disprove — that white faces sell more books.)

In other words, the cover had nothing to do with the book’s contents, but Bloomsbury thought it would sell. At best, that is dishonest to the readers. (To be fair, Bloomsbury has since issued another, more accurate cover for Liar.)

Larbalestier said the cover with the white woman confused some readers. They asked if Micah was also lying about her race.

When a cover causes readers to question the text, it is no longer a matter of what type of faces get better placement at bookstores, it’s about altering the book’s intent.

Hopefully, Larbalestier’s cover kerfuffle will cause publishers to be more thoughtful when selecting what images to accompany their books.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. I’m poorly suited to judge if the white-woman cover was effective from a marketing standpoint. I pick books based on author or content. I almost never pick a book because it “looks interesting.”

My co-blogger Tricia, however, often judges a book by its cover.

Things that Tricia hates on a book cover: science-fiction scenery, illustrations and faces.

And what does Tricia want on her dust jacket? Moody, nature scenes. In her words, “If there’s an empty lake with a rowboat, I’m there.”

P.P.S. Remember when I said someone should use Twitter to create an original piece of art?

No, well, I did. (You should pay more attention.)

The Royal Opera House is using its Twitter page to compose an opera.

No, it’s not book related, but I’ll be interested to see how it works.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

If on a summer's Sunday, a blogger...

If on a winter’s night a traveler should not have worked.

It’s an indulgent, experimental work of artifice. I can picture Italo Calvino snickering as he compiles his unused short stories into a “novel.”

His willful flouting of convention should irritate me. I should be complaining about how Calvino’s book is more interested in ideas or the art of storytelling than actually telling a good story.

But it works. It totally works.

I wasn’t sure until the penultimate page if it would work or not. In fact, I was ready to call it an indulgent blah-blah-blah, and then Calvino ended the fight with a knockout blow I never saw coming.

I can’t decide if I love, hate or envy Calvino for it; but, damn him, it works.

I haven’t read much Calvino. Before a winter’s night, I had only read his compilation of Italian Folk Tales. In my limited experience, Calvino seems to like stories about stories. And that’s what a winter’s night is. It’s a story about readers, writers and stories — the ones on the page and the ones beyond it.

There’s a plot. It’s about a reader — you, specifically, or at least an implied you. The “you” that Calvino tells you that you are. And You are trying to finish a novel that You were reading. It was interrupted by a printer’s mistake. This leads You to another novel. And another novel. And another novel. None of which You can finish for whatever contrived reason.

You meet Another Reader, and her hyper-intellectual sister, and an author, and a hack plagiarist, and a friendly police chief who is in charge of confiscating banned books. The characters are not important. They are just excuses for Calvino to espouse more opinions on reading and writing. Well, except for the Other Reader.

The “novels” are all Calvino short stories. So a winter’s night is actually a compilation held together by a seemingly thin plot and a whole lot of ideas that Calvino forces into the narrative. (I swear to you, this shouldn’t work. It’s like learning to fly by jumping off your garage or traveling in time by setting your clock backward. There is no theory to support what Calvino does but, so help me god, it flies.)

The short stories differ in tone and quality, but they are all about stories.

Calvino does not break the fourth wall. He obliterates it with a tomahawk.

For example, Calvino wants one “novel” to feel hazy and mysterious. He wants you to have a feeling that you are not being told everything of importance; so he writes, “The story feels hazy and mysterious. You suspect you are not being told everything of importance.”

The first rule espoused by every creative writing instructor is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me it’s cold. Show a character shivering.

But Calvino is not just telling, he’s telling you that he’s telling.

Of course, Calvino has the confidence to pull off such a blatant cheat.

I wish to conclude my review/rant with an anecdote involving my wife. Every now and then, I do some writing that has nothing to do with work. They are stories for the sake of stories. Most likely no one will ever read them except for my wife.

She once suggested that I try writing a piece of fiction in second person. I told her that she was crazy. A second-person story would never work. It would drown in its own conceit.

Calvino proved me wrong. And I don’t know how he did it.

-Jason Lea,

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Organize your library like an Italian genius (or a lazy blogger)

I’m tired of seeing Obama on Sportscenter. I’d rather watch Ozzie Guillen on C-SPAN.

It’s Friday. Welcome to the melange.

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino classifies books not by genre or author but by our excuses for not reading them. I have since applied the Calvino System to my library.

1. Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
That would be Gone with the Wind.

2. Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. If either of my readers has a copy, they can name their price.

3. Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
Because I’m blogging about it, If on a winter’s night a traveler.

4. Books You Want to Own So They’ll be Handy Just in Case
The Handy Religion Answer Book. (A wonderful reference, not comprehensive but has often prevented me from asking stupid or offensive questions.)

5. Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read this Summer
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

6. Books You Need to go with Other Books on your Shelves
That would be any Leatherstocking Tale after The Last of the Mohicans.

7. Books that Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King.

8. Books You Needn’t Read
Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. Obviously, I’ve read neither, but my wife has finished both and she compared Scarlett to a root canal without the laughing gas.

9. Books Made for Purposes Other than Reading
I think my psychology coffee-table book would qualify. Instead, it’s intended to be used as a talking piece or, in lieu of that, a bludgeon.

10. Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
The Mary Higgins Clark joke would be too obvious; but, yes, I’d assume most of her library qualifies.

11. Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
Brothers Karamazov

12. Books You Mean to Read but There Are Others You Must Read First
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

13. Books That Are Too Expensive So You Are Waiting For Them To Be Remaindered or Sold in Paperback
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I’m a cheap man. I haven’t paid full price for a book since college.

14. Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

15. Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Read Them Too
Probably my most shameful admission, but I’ve never finished Moby Dick. I’ve started it at least a dozen times, but I couldn’t get through that thing with a harpoon. Its page count is not the problem either. I just can’t stand Melville’s pace. The man will expend entire chapters describing a single room.

I get that pacing has sped as attention spans have shrunk, and to judge a historical author by modern standards is unfair; but I shouldn’t be able to use your novel as a soporific.

Fortunately, everyone else has read Moby Dick and talked about it enough that I can discuss it with my normal level of competency. (My normal competency level hovers between “troglodyte” and “drummer in Run DMC cover band.”)

Jason Lea,

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Mo' Mondays, Mo' Problems

I want to apologize to both of my readers for my unscheduled hiatus. (You may cease your weeping and gnashing of teeth.) Sometimes, work gets in the way of writing about Langston Hughes and The Onion headlines.

(What? I haven’t written 'bout Onion headlines yet? I need to fix that.)

But I’m back and writing about a topic I’ve beaten to death — zombies.
(OK, technically I’ve beaten the topic to undeath. No more parentheses — back to work.)

After my 9-part dissection of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, most of my two readers assumed I was a zombies fan. They would ask me how I felt about zombie flicks. (I love Evil Dead II. I haven’t seen any others.) They’d also suggest other zombie books, including World War Z.

Loaned to me by our intern, Erich Hiner, World War Z reads more like a war memoir than a zombie romp. That’s the best part of Z. It takes itself completely seriously.

The author, Max Brooks, researched the militaries, governments and even the topography of several countries around the world and has written what he considers a likely outcome should the living dead attack.

He writes about Chinese suppression, media distortion, American overconfidence and Russian decimation. It’s clever and seems plausible — y’know, as plausible as anything involving zombies.

The only problem is Brooks does not give you any characters with whom to identify. He chooses to tell the story from a macro-perspective, interviewing survivors from all around the world. He, then, strings their vignettes together.

The jaded American, the Russian loyalist, the Chinese doctor, the profiteer who made a fortune on a zombie “vaccine” — all of them are individually interesting, but none of them are gripping. Consequently, my interest waxed and waned with each section.

My favorite character was Tomonaga Ijiro, a Japanese man who was blinded by an atomic bomb. During the war, he lived Spartanly in a forest and trained followers on the most efficient way to dispatch a zombie. Meanwhile, the country abandons Ijiro by evacuating the islands.

Ijiro’s story garners sympathy and respect. Few of the protagonists inspired an emotional response. I liked the book, but I never cared about the book.

So if you’re a zombie fan — and apparently some of the two of you are — Z is worth a read. If you’re fascinated by the art of war and don’t mind dabbling in the ridiculous, you’ll love it.

If you’re wondering when I’ll stop writing about zombies, the answer is “now.”

-Jason Lea,

P.S. For Harold, I put now in quotation marks because I considered it a quote. As per the following dialogue:

Q. Jason, when will you stop writing about zombies?

A. Now.

The quotes were probably unnecessary. Maybe it would have been better to italicize.

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