Category Archives: reading

Hearts in Atlantis (a book review)

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I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend.  And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.

This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack.  I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author.  He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant  (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett).  He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category.  I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read.  And then I did.  But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired.  And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring.  He is mimicking someone else’s voice.  I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.

But this book proved me totally wrong.  I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer.  It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”.  But it is a total trick to draw us in.  And it is even a very good monster story.  Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster.  And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot.  Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future.  Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.

But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two.  The hearts in the title is actually the card game.  It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s.  They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war.  Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.

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The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot.  I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler.  This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster.  I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember.  And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.

 

 

 

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If I Thunk It, Then Wrote It, I Will Leave It In There

One good thing about being a humorist is, if somebody calls you out for an error you made in your writing, you can always say, “Well, it’s a joke, isn’t it?”  Errors are for serious gobbos and anal-retentive editors.  I live with happy accidents.  It is a way of life dictated in the Bob Ross Bible.

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Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be “oops” not “OPPS”, but after all, this isn’t even a list I made up myself.  I stole the whole thing from another writer on Twitter.

You have no idea what a cornucopia of ravings from knit-wit twit-tweets Twitter really is.

Oh, you waste time time on Twitter too?

Then you know already.

Twitter makes you want to shout at your computer, and has so many Trump-tweets and conservative blather-bombs on it, that it can seriously impair your editing skills.

So I look elsewhere and elsewhen to sharpen my critical English-teacher eye.

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Yes, the illustrator of that meme doesn’t get the blame for the content.  I wrote that violation of the sacredness of classic literature myself.  I think we should thank God for the fact that neither Charles Darwin nor Dr. Seuss decided to act on evil impulses.  The world is a better place for their decision on how to use their genius, and how to edit themselves.

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So, this is me writing today’s post about editing as a writer, and failing miserably to edit my own self.  I got the pictures from Twitter and edited them myself.  Or failed to edit them properly, as the case is more likely to prove.  But however I may have twisted stuff and changed stuff and made up new words, editing is essential.  It makes the whole world better.  Now let’s consider editing the White House for a bit, shall we?

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500 Words

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When I started this whole blogging-every-day thing, I decided the rule had to be 500 words written in a day.  And I meant to hold myself to writing 500 words somewhere in the writing day, whether it was my blog post or the novel I was working on, or a combination of both.  I followed that rule religiously through more than 1,500 blog posts and five first draft novels.  I found it easier and easier to surpass 500 words on a daily basis.  There are all sorts of bits of time available and I collect ideas faster than a rich kid generates empty candy wrappers.  The more I call on the well of words for more words, the more words are available.  Now, it seems, writing only 500 words is the trick.

I suppose I have become an Old Man of Words.  I know both the rules and the exceptions.

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Knowing that I can write more than 500 words easily, then the question becomes, why don’t I?  Well, the cardinal rule is “Say it short.  Say it simple. And say it sweet.”  That rule can generate a lot of wonderful writing, full of juicy ideas that splash with flavor when you bite into them.  Ernest Hemingway knew that rule.  Every poet knows it.  Readers generally prefer the easily accessible idea expressed with elegance.

Now, I also have to admit a guilty pleasure in perpetrating purple paisley prose.  That is the style of writing in which I generally write convoluted sentences with complex ideas that fold back in on themselves and over-use alliteration to criminal degrees.  Charles Dickens liked to do that with descriptive details.  Paragraphs about the boarding schools of London, the streets filled with child chimney sweeps and flower girls, and dingy mind-dulling workhouses could take up two or three pages per paragraph.  And two pages further on, he layers more details on the same setting.  Piles and piles of words and wordplay fill the pages of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.  And if you haven’t read at least something from each of those gentlemen, you will never know what you are missing.  But you can prune your paragraphs like a greenhouse master florist with limited space will do to his orchids, and you can actually end up fitting great beauty and powerful content into something even more limited than a 500-word essay.  In fact, if you take your ideas and distill them, and keep distilling them, over and over, you will eventually have pared the words down into poetry.

So, there you have it.  The reason my essays are about 500 words.  This one is four hundred and forty one words.

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Reading Other Writers

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Nobody who wants to be a writer gets by with just writing and never reading anything by anybody else.  It is too easy to devolve into some kind of human mushroom that way, thinking only thoughts a mushroom could think, all fungus-like and having no chlorophyll of their own.  You never learn to decode other people and other people’s thinking if you don’t read other people’s thoughts crystallized in writing.

And not every other writer is Robert Frost.  Or even Jack Frost who thinks he’s  Gene Kelly.  There has to be some interpretation, some digging for understanding.  What did that writer mean when she said political correctness was like a tongue disease?  And what does it mean when a commenting troll calls me a nekkid poofter?  Is that how he spells “exceptional genius”?  I think it is.  Trolls are not smart.

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I know people have to make an effort to understand me.  When I write, I am writing under the delusion that I can produce literary quality off the top of my head.  In fact, I can barely produce hair off the top of my head, and it is gray when I do it.   See what I did there?  It is the kind of joke a surrealist makes, pretending the idiomatic expression you use is to be taken literally when it doesn’t literally make sense.  That kind of nonsense is what my readers have to put up with, and probably also the reason why most of them just look at the pictures.  If you have to think too hard when you read, your brain could over-heat and your hair could catch fire.  I like that kind of purple paisley prose that folds back in on itself and makes you think in curlicues.  But most people don’t.  Most people don’t have fire-proof hair like I do.

20180103_082404 Of course, there is the opposite problem too.  Some writers are not hard to understand at all.  They only use simple sentences.  They only use ideas that lots of other people have used before.  You don’t have to think about what they write.  You only need to react.  They are the reasons that words like “trite”, “hackneyed”, “boring”, and “cliche” exist in English.  But simple, boring writing isn’t written by stupid people.  Hemingway is like that.  Pared down to the basics.  No frills.  Yet able to yield complex thoughts, insights, and relationships.

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Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a word to make the point.  For instance, why, in the picture, is Fluttershy trying to drink out of the toilet in the dollhouse bathroom?  For that matter, why does a doll house even need a bathroom?  Applejack doesn’t even fit in that yellow bathtub.  I know.  I tried to stuff her in there for this picture.  And, as you read this, doesn’t this paragraph tell you a lot about me that you probably didn’t even want to know?

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When I am reading the writing of others, I am looking for a cornucopia of things.  I want to not only understand their ideas, I want to detect the limping footprints across the murder scene of their paragraphs and come to know the deeper things about them as well.  I spent years decoding and trying to understand the writing of preliterate kids in my middle school English classes in order to be able to teach them to write better.   And I learned that no writer is a bad writer as long as they are using readable words.  I also learned that very few writers are James Joyce or Marcel Proust.  Thank God for that!  And given enough time I can read anything by anybody and learn something from it. I read a lot.  And it may not always make me a better writer to read it, but it always has value.  It is always worth doing.

 

 

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Mickey the Reader

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I like to think that I am different than other readers, that the quirky, insane way I practice reading makes me somehow unique and individual.  But if you have read very much of my goofy little blog, you probably realize already that I am a deeply deluded idiot most of the time.  So let me explain a little about how I go about reading.

  1.  I am basically guilty of reading anything and everything I can get my hands on.  And the stupid internet puts an infinite variety in your hands.  Some of it is toxic and probably will kill me… or land me in jail.  (Does the NSA really care about what Mickey is reading?)
  2. Here is an example of my internet reading this morning;  Diane Ravitch’s Education Blog , An Article from British NaturismRachel Poli’s Article about Fantasy Writing, and Naked Carly Art’s post about creating a painting.  My browser history portrays me at times as some kind of communist brainiac pornography-loving terrorist painter or something.  I hope the NSA is using telepaths to investigate me, because the reasons I look at a lot of this stuff is important.  It is a good thing I don’t write mystery novels so they would be upset down in the NSA break room about my searching out creative ways to kill people.
  3. Besides being Eclectic  with a capital “E”, I am also obsessive.  My daily reading project now is Garrison Keillor’s novel, Lake Wobegon Days.

I only spend about an hour a day reading this novel, but I am totally immersed in it.  I am living inside that book, remembering the characters as real people and talking to them like old friends.  I tried to read that book before and couldn’t make progress because I like so much to listen to Keillor tell stories on A Prairie Home Companion on the radio and it just wasn’t the same entirely in print.  When he tells a story, he pauses a lot.  In fact, that moment when he stops to let you reflect on what he just said is critical to the humor because you have to stop and savor the delicious irony of the scene.  His pauses are funnier than the words.  Man, if he just stood there and didn’t talk at all, you would probably die laughing from it.  So, in order to get into the book, I had to read it with Garrison’s voice in my head, pausing frequently the way he does.  Now the stories of Clarence Bunsen and Pastor Inqvist break me up all over again.  I will soon acquire and read everything he has ever written.  I truly love Garrison Keillor.

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So there is a description of how strange a practicing reader I am.  Think about how you read.  Is the NSA watching you too?  Do you ever read two books at the same time?  Do you read everything and anything in front of you?  If you are self-reflective at all, even if you are not pathological about it the way Mickey is, you may well decide that as strange as my reading habits are, they are probably normal compared to yours.

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Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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Three Books at Once

No, this isn’t some kind of multiple-book book review.  This is an ungodly silly claim that I can actually read three books at once.  Silly, but true.

Now I don’t claim to be a three-armed mutant with six eyes or anything.  And I am relatively sure I only have one brain.  But, remember, I was a school teacher who could successfully maintain a lesson thread through discussions that were supposed to be about a story by Mark Twain, but ventured off to the left into whether or not donuts were really invented by a guy who piloted a ship and stuck his pastries on the handles of the ships’ wheel, thus making the first donut holes, and then got briefly lost in the woods of a discussion about whether or not there were pirates on the Mississippi River, and who Jean Lafitte really was, and why he was not the barefoot pirate who stole Cap’n Crunch’s cereal, but finally got to the point of what the story was really trying to say.  (How’s that for mastery of the compound sentence?)  (Oh, so you could better?  Really?  You were in my class once, weren’t you.)  I am quite capable of tracking more than one plot at the same time.  And I am not slavishly devoted to finishing one book before I pick up the next.

I like reading things the way I eat a Sunday dinner… a little meatloaf is followed by a fork-full of mashed potatoes, then back to meat, and some green peas after that…  until the whole plate is clean.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is the meatloaf.  I have read it before, just as I have probably had more meatloaf in my Iowegian/Texican  lifetime than any other meat dish.  It’s pretty much a middle-America thing.  And Treasure Island is the second book I ever read.  So you can understand how easy a re-read would be.  I am reading it mostly while I am sitting in the high school parking lot waiting to pick up the Princess after school is out.

fbofw1Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse is also an old friend.  I used to read it in the newspaper practically every day.  I watched those kids grow up and have adventures almost as if they were members of my own family.  So the mashed potatoes part of the meal is easy to digest too.

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So that brings me to the green peas.  Green peas are good for you.  They are filled with niacin and folic acid and other green stuff that makes you healthier, even though when the green peas get mashed a bit and mix together with the potatoes, they look like boogers, and when you are a kid, you really can’t be sure.  Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter wrote this book The Long War together.  And while I love everything Terry Pratchett does, including the book he wrote with Neil Gaiman, I am having a hard time getting into this one.  Parts of it seem disjointed and hard to follow, at least at the beginning.  It takes work to choke down some of it.  Peas and potatoes and boogers, you know.

But this isn’t the first time I have ever read multiple books at the same time.  In fact, I don’t remember the last time I finished a book and the next one wasn’t at least halfway finished too.  So it can be done.  Even by sane people.

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