Thursday, January 28, 2010
No, bear with me here.
Imagine taking a pee on your coat, then dumping the contents of one of those ash trays they put out in front of big box stores on it. Next, take the coat, fold it up, and throw it in the back of a closet in the uninsulated attic of your poorly-ventilated house for three weeks during the summer.
That's what the guy sitting next to me on the Metro this morning smelled like.
And he got on just as some train in front of us was experiencing "mechanical difficulties," thus causing us to hold at each station for several minutes.
"It can't be the guy," I thought, as we sat with the doors open at Union Station. "This magnitude of stench cannot possibly be coming off a single human being. It must be one of those odd `station smells' you come across occasionally, like that awful burning brakes smell."
I looked over and he was vigorously scratching his head and his face (yes, I looked to see if I saw any lice or other assorted hangers-on flying through the air), fidgeting, and picking through his bag. One look and I realized - oh no, it's the guy.
I have sympathy for the homeless, and I know if I was ever in that position my hygiene would not be my number one priority. But wow. Had this been one of those super overheated herky-jerky train rides, and/or had I been hung over, I'm not sure I would have been able to make it.
Ugh, my stomach is still settling.
And the kicker: he wore a super-nice watch. Much nicer than mine.
Monday, January 25, 2010
I stayed up late last night to enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. The contest opened at midnight, and even though there are up to two weeks in which to submit, the contest closes once 5,000 entries have been submitted in each category. I was concerned this would happen quickly and wanted to ensure my entry was received.
So I spent a good chunk of yesterday afternoon and evening getting ready: formatting my manuscript, perfecting my “pitch” (basically a query but with some additional stuff), and writing an author bio. Most of the time was taken up in getting my “excerpt” together, a very educational process. They allow you to submit the first 3,000-5,000 words of your novel as the excerpt, but my first chapter was nearly 5,400 words, and I didn’t want to chop off the last scene. I didn’t think there was a chance in the world I could cut it down to 5,000, but I sat down to give it a try, hacking away with abandon. My wife had a hard copy and hacked away at it too.
Incredibly, we got it down to just under 5,000…even more incredibly, I think it reads even better than it did before. And this is my first chapter, which I’ve picked over literally 100 times or more (not to mention an earlier round of revision where I’d chopped about 10% off the whole manuscript). I said to my wife that the whole novel might benefit from this same axe-murderer style emergency treatment.
Well, at midnight the contest website was jammed (as expected), but within about 15-20 minutes it was running relatively normally. It froze on me a couple of times during the submission process, but I got my entry in by about 12:45 am - confirmation e-mail and all. The contest is still open, so I needn’t have rushed last night, but I’m still glad I did because who knows?
I know a few people, especially agents, are kind of down on contests in general, and Amazon’s in particular. Nathan Bransford, whose blog I – like every other writer out there – read religiously, and whose opinion I really respect, had a post about this back in December. Even bearing this in mind, I wanted to enter this one.
The winner gets their novel published by Penguin and a $15,000 advance. It’s been pointed out that $15,000 is kind of low, that you can’t negotiate the contract, that Penguin isn’t obligated to put any money into marketing your book, etc. But hey, at this point I’m just trying to get my manuscript read! Everything I’ve been reading would indicate that $15,000 is pretty fucking good these days. (For example, Leon Wieseltier - who, by the way, I don't much like - called $30,000 the new $100,000 in a recent column that I did enjoy but can't find on the convoluted New Republic website.) It makes no business sense for Penguin not to market the book. And, indeed, one would hope the most valuable things to come out of the process would be name recognition and a relationship with some editors.
Nathan says agents aren’t impressed if you tell them you were an Amazon semi-finalist, because even 50 (or, for that matter, 1) in 5,000 is a whole lot better odds than your average agent’s inbox. But including the information in a query can’t hurt, and the better odds is just another reason to enter the contest, in my opinion. Nathan basically argues that someone who can win this contest can probably do better with an agent, which I understand intuitively should be true, but it’s also tautological.
What I really like about the Amazon contest, though, is that it proceeds in stages, and you are kept informed of your progress. I’ve been complaining over and over about lack of feedback on my query and manuscript, and this contest is designed – especially at early stages – to give you that feedback (at least of a sort).
Stage 1 involves choosing the top 1,000 manuscripts (out of 5,000) based only on a 300-word “pitch.” So chances are 1 in 5. Let’s say I don’t make it through this stage. Well, that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that my query needs major work.
Stage 2 is based on the excerpt, and they pick 250 (out of 1,000). So 1 in 4. If I get cut here, my query’s probably OK, but my first chapter needs improvement.
And so on. (Though it seems to get a bit less straightforwardly informative at later stages, it’s also more exciting.)
Anyway, I don’t see much of a downside for me the way things have been going with agents so far. I entered the contest, and we’ll see how it goes.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Look, we all know postdocs (postdoctoral scholars, postdoctoral researchers, postdoctoral fellows, etc) are in their temporary poorly-paid positions because the academic pipeline is broken - and not because more training (and certainly not more training in science, as opposed to management, administration, and grant-writing) is actually necessary for them to be qualified. A generation ago, people got their PhDs and then got faculty jobs right away. Now...there is a huge glut, so take a number and get on line and hope for a Science or Nature paper to bump you ahead.
Postdocs have earned doctorates - the highest degree available - and now they are just hanging out in academic purgatory. It's true that some use this time to broaden their skills, but given the ultra-specialization of most universities, that strategy is a gamble. Most just hunker down doing something almost identifical to their PhD work. Anyway, it is just adding insult to injury to call them "students," as though they are working toward any goal, degree, or professional certification beyond getting a job.
Geez, it's been getting on five years since I was a postdoc myself, and when I hear "postdoctoral students" it still drives me apeshit.
This was one of the flaws I found with Tobias Hill's The Hidden. Though it was generally fairly engaging throughout, the characters just didn't like to say what was on their minds. The protagonist, Oxford classical archaeology student Ben Mercer, flees from a failed marriage to Greece. The failure, we are given to believe, was his fault...even though it was his wife who left him for another man (and one of their professors to boot). I failed to be moved by evidence of his "crime" - perhaps more words would have convinced me, or at least led me to believe it ultimately led to a different outcome than would have happened otherwise (since their relationship seemed on the outs anyway).
Ben is an indifferent student, husband, and father, so it's hard to sympathize much with him. His biggest weakness is a need to belong, which plays out to his detriment once he gets to the archaeological site near Sparta. Ben lacks much of a narrative arc and at the end it's not clear just what he has learned from the whole thing, whether he has grown at all.
My other big beef is with the pacing. A review on the back of the book calls it a "beautifully paced thriller," but I agree with the outraged reviewers on amazon.com who claim it is not a thriller at all. (Of course, this doesn't really bother me - I didn't buy the book expecting a thriller.) The book is quite slow to get started. Ben gets to Greece and spends weeks working in a restaurant in an Athens suburb. It's hard to understand why so much space is devoted to this, except possibly to create a buffer between his past life and this new one, to make him lonely, and to get him reintroduced to the acquaintance who will lead him to Sparta. (But as a PhD student in archaeology, one might think that getting put on a field crew in Greece would be something he could do with a couple of phone calls, so this all strains credulity.)
I know that the social dynamics in labs and field crews can be insular - the whole thing reminded me more of Donna Tartt than anything else. But what is "hidden" is political - not social, scientific, or archaeological - a complete surprise and yet unsatisfyingly random. Ben is drawn into the group largely through his romantic interest in Natsuko, a vaguely-drawn character who, typically (unless I am the densest reader in the world), shows up at his apartment for their first sexual encounter without any warning or word said. ("Face like a shi-tsu, arse like an angel" is how another of the group describes her, in perhaps the most memorable line of the whole novel.) They finally begin to trust him after a nocturnal jackal hunt. And what is strange is that in all the nights drinking together, all the days working together, the characters don't talk politics. It's as if Stalin, working as a meteorologist, hung out with his Bolshevik friends in the evenings and talked...meteorology. Are they really just trying to recreate the past (the title has a Spartan analogue) or do they care at all about the present and future?
Only at the very end could this book be said to be a thriller, and to his credit Hill paces this last part beautifully. Missy, the clueless young but matronly American overseer of the crew, is drawn absolutely perfectly and provides much-needed comic relief. Though minor, she was my favorite character.
On a side note, evidently British authors have simply given up on quotation marks and prefer em dashes instead. I am not a fan of this.
Overall, I was disappointed there wasn't more real archaeology, that there wasn't more at stake - for any of the characters - at the site itself. It turns out the Spartans were victims of mercury poisoning and deformed skeletons are found around the site...but, try as I might, I couldn't figure out the deeper significance of this to the rest of the story. Hill draws Greece quite vividly (or so I think, having never been there) and his descriptions are strong.
But it's not clear who I would recommend this book to. Anyone hoping for an archaeological story will be disappointed, as will anyone hoping for a political story. It's too slow to be a thriller, and the internal life of the characters isn't nearly as compelling as those drawn in other recent literary novels (such as Amateur Barbarians by Robert Cohen, where nothing much happened in the first half and I didn't care).
Donna Tartt fans might like it...for most others, I'd say take a pass.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Thank you, Travener, for asking what the agent said, because it helped me uncover this.
There were two sentences in the rejection that read: Thanks for sending along the opening pages of [my title]. Truth be told, though, I'm afraid they didn't draw me in as much as I had hoped.
To me, this indicated: hey, your query was pretty good, and it set up some expectations that your opening didn't meet. There were some extra spaces in the typing, too, which seemed to indicate she'd actually typed it to me. I didn't think I was being a pathetic hair-splitter about this, but evidently I was.
How do I know? Here. (And evidently I am not the only person to be confused by this form letter - one would think agents could, at the very least, send form rejections that don't confuse would-be authors into thinking they are sending some particular message beyond rejection.)
This doesn't mean I shouldn't think about strengthening my opening, of course. But it does mean this agent wasn't trying to tell me that - or much of anything, really - except that they, like everyone else in the literary world so far, thinks my book is crap and wishes I would burn the paper manuscripts and drop my desktop into a vat of sulfuric acid and chop off my fingers so I can't type anymore. Not that I take these things personally.
Live and learn. It's not the first time this process has made me feel like a total fucking dumbass, and I'm sure it won't be the last.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
That being said, responses - um, rejections - from agents continue to trickle in, and I received one today that actually contained a bit of feedback. There are all kinds of funny blog posts out there about would-be authors trying to discern the meaning of form rejections, and that's one pitfall I haven't really fallen into.
But the rejection letter I received today - albeit brief - did not read as form language (language I've gotten to know very well, and which reminds me of nothing more than those e-mails I used to get from girls I'd been on a first date with who didn't want a second), and seemed to indicate that: a) the query actually piqued this agent's interest, but b) the first five pages did not live up to expectations. That is valuable info, since I've been blaming my query for everything. So I am going to spend a bit of time thinking about revising my opening.
I'm grateful for the feedback! And that's all I'll say about that.
In other news, it appears unlikely that YB will be visiting this weekend after all, and I'm a little bit concerned that he is going to squander his time off and not use it to unwind and detach from work. He also seems to be shortplaying the other travel he was planning to do. I am not exactly sure what to do about it, though, and as my calendar fills in (and it is filling in) I have less flexibility to spend time with him if and when he comes.
I'm about through Young Stalin and may or may not post a review - we'll see. Evidently they might make a movie out of it. That could be either very good or very bad - if I had to guess, I'd guess very bad. Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting back to some fiction - I have books and books lined up to read.
And that, my friends, is it for now.
Friday, January 8, 2010
No feedback, either, which is really the worst part.
All a natural part of the process, I know. I'm no worse off than I was when I woke up this morning. Let's just hope this is not both my first and last partial request.
Now it's the weekend: time to laze about, have some cerveza, and maybe even do some actual writing.
Yes, 90 days and 40+ queries after beginning all this, a literary agent has said something besides no (or nothing).
That's right, I have a whopping one partial request to my credit now.
If this sounds snarky, I certainly don't feel that way. Baby steps, right? Partial requests might mean full requests, which might mean feedback if not acceptance. And at least it'll be about the manuscript and not about the query.
What is interesting, though perhaps not particularly meaningful, is that this agent's website asked for a couple of things in the query that I don't usually include - it asked me to talk about the market for the book, and how my book differs from others. (Most agents seem to say "leave the market, and judging how your book fits, to us" which in my mind certainly makes a lot of sense.) And I just wrote a couple of sentences instead of agonizing it to death. So, at least a little bit, this deviated from my usual query letter.
Let's hope this represents the beginning of something good. In honor of this momentous occasion, I present the below, which reflects my incredibly overblown mindset:
I'm clear tomorrow to just go home and drink some beers, which is awesome because I really want some. In fact, lately I enjoy buying really light beer like MGD or something and then pouring a shot of Jack Daniels into it.
(Hmmm, I mean I'm really all about drinking wine coolers and listening to Hannah Montana, since I'm actually a teenaged girl.)
This querying thing - it's nuts, btw. That's all I'll say about that.
With six new queries out, though, I'm in pretty good shape now (assuming all the queries I sent before the holidays aren't automatically negated/rejected simply because it's after the holidays) and maybe can spend the weekend and next Thursday working on SOME ACTUAL WRITING. That'd be almost as nice as a couple of boilermakers. Though not nearly as nice as a partial or a full request.
Oh, on that note, one last thing - it looks like Irene Goodman is going to be auctioning off a couple of partial critiques for charity each month. So if my stellar track record with queries doesn't improve, I can fight with other bidders to pay $500 or so to hear her opinion on how much my book sucks. (No, I'm not that cynical, and as I said before, it might actually be money well-spent.)
OK, I'm out of here.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
looks just like the Wordle for this blog for 2009!?!!!1!So my blog evidently reads just like a "teen diary".
Will somebody please shoot me in the goddamned head and put me out of my fucking misery already?
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
However, I thought I'd briefly highlight this interview with one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's sons, on the occasion of the translation into English of the full, uncensored version of his work In The First Circle, which English readers previously experienced as The First Circle.
The interview is interesting for the insight it provides into Solzhenitsyn's private personality vs. his public persona, but more interesting to me just for the announcement of the availability of the new work; though the edition's been out for several months, this is the first I'd heard of it.
Readers know I'm not really one for social networking, and the endless requests on online profiles to list your favorite TV shows, favorite movies, favorite books, etc. are one reason, albeit a pretty minor one. But if I did have to list my ten favorite books of all time, The First Circle would surely make the list. Perhaps it is just a case of reading it when I was most receptive and of reading into it what I wanted (for more detail on what I mean, see my earlier post here), but it is no exaggeration to say that reading this book helped change my thinking in a way that still resonates in my experiences more than five years later.
I hadn't been inclined to reread it, mostly because there are so many interesting books out there I haven't read before, but I definitely will obtain the uncensored translation and read it. The article also hints at more Solzhenitsyn that hasn't been translated into English, so there will be even more to look forward to in the future.
Still, as much as I like Solzhenitsyn, it's doubtful than any of his work will ever hold as special a place in my heart as (In) The First Circle.
Monday, January 4, 2010
MB (that's "middle brother" for those of you joining me relatively recently, and I have a tag on this blog called "family" - if for some reason you are interested in context, I suggest looking at some of the posts, especially the older ones, with that tag) just spent about three days with us, his first visit since I moved to D.C. He's doing fine - actively trying to unload his home and get out from under the thumb of my parents and numerous financial institutions. He wants to quit his weekend job (he currently works seven days a week, though only part-time on weekends) and will once he doesn't need the money. He's got a plan.
MB, suffice it to say, landed much "closer to home" than either YB (that's "younger brother") or me. He is the one who seems to have had the easiest time dealing with the parents, and he expressed the most skepticism when I was going through what I somewhat facetiously term my "voyage of self-discovery" in the wake of my grandfather's funeral. (Nonetheless, the framework for understanding the familial dynamic that came out of said voyage has proven air-tight, even to his examination.)
This being said, MB discussed his plans to grill my parents during his upcoming visit to Del Boca Vista (code for the retirement community where my parents now live, if that wasn't obvious enough) about some aspects of the way we were raised. He pondered aloud whether buying his house and getting buried financially was something my parents encouraged because they didn't like his old apartment and wanted someplace to stay when they visited NY. (And now both MB and my dad have separately said they didn't like the idea of the house but were sort of railroaded into it by the other - I don't particularly believe either of them, btw.)
This isn't really about MB, but I put this out there because he's the grounded one. This post is about YB, who - and I may be wrong about this - seems like he is "at the precipice of an enormous crossroads." I once wrote: "YB and I are like slight variants of each other, just separated by time and circumstance and physical appearance. Wind back the clock and adjust some of the knobs slightly differently and I might have winded up like him, or him like me." And so I feel as though I have fairly good insight into his psyche.
YB has been diagnosed bipolar and was taking medication for a while. He tried to kill himself twice (though this was about seven years ago), once for real and once probably for show. He got off the medication but has been an alcoholic for years now. MB and I and his girlfriend at the time and another friend tried to stage a little intervention with him about six years ago, but he was extremely resistant to changing anything he did. He smokes several packs of cigarettes a day. He has some medical problems, including gastrointestinal issues.
He is also a workaholic - to the degree that all other aspects of his life get shunted aside. He moved back to NY even though he hates it, and somehow manages to be both the hardest working and least liked person at his job (this is my interpretation from what he has said). He broke up with his girlfriend because she wasn't willing to accept being second to his job (and he, indignant, couldn't understand because he had told her flat out when he first came back to NY that she'd be second).
He is extremely smart, but he is very rigid and stubborn, and he always has to be right. A long-term problem he has had, in my opinion, is the inability to challenge himself in any way that might cause him to actually fail and learn something/change his behavior. So, for instance, if a problem can be solved simply by banging his head against the wall for 16 hours a day for a month he'll take it on, but he will forego more nuanced or intellectual challenges, where sheer time served may not be enough.
About a year and a half ago he got a better job: still low-paying but with health insurance and some paid vacation. He's finally started to use the health insurance - he went to the GI doctor several times, even had a colonoscopy, though I don't know what they told him (I'm sure "stop drinking so much" had to be part of the message).
He has expressed an interest in resuming talk therapy. He wasn't taking any of his vacation time and was working many comp days, so starting in about a week he has to take the better part of two months off. He has completely trashed his current apartment (which was a shithole to begin with) - the latest in a line - but he wants to move. He's recently started calling my parents up and keeping them on the phone until all hours, and (according to him) grilling them about the way they used to behave and telling them how it is.
YB on the phone is an interesting thing. He calls, and he rants, and hours pass, and still he rants, all while he gets progressively more wasted. At the end, he often can't talk any more (and I've seen him in person at this stage so I know what it corresponds to physically) and he gets off the phone. When he gets to this stage, he has trouble walking and his eyes get all crazy and - when he does talk - he either says some nutty shit that scares you or gets blubberingly sentimental. He's put on that show for me and MB and our cousin. The thing is: he hadn't done that for my parents yet.
So about a month and a half ago he keeps them on the phone until 1 am (not for the last time, though this was the time he went over the top) and then is basically incoherent. Frightened, my parents call MB (who lives about a half hour away) who winds up having to go over there and spend the night with YB (who was "fine" and didn't remember what happened).
When he sees them later this month, MB wants to lay it out there for my parents because he is always the one who gets stuck in these kinds of situations, which arise intermittently. I'm not sure I would bother in his shoes, but it's up to him.
Anyway, back to the main thrust of the post: YB has this long break coming up, and he's (tentatively) going to visit here MLK weekend. I would like to help him reset. You see, booze and cigarettes aside (though it goes without saying we'll purge the house of liquor - beer is probably OK, and we don't smoke and you can't in this apartment), I think what he is doing is basically living the adult equivalent of how we were raised. In this post, which essentially marked the culmination of my "voyage of self-discovery", I wrote:
"Among my dad and uncles there is a big underlying current of wanting to live up to expectations. I don't really feel that among myself and my brothers, though it's not really to my dad's credit. I mean that I at least am certainly very careful about what I share, and have been since I was a kid. The other is that I know I have wildly exceeded expectations - but that's largely because I don't think there really were any concrete expectations besides that I behave, be obedient, and get good grades. I don't think anyone ever translated that into adult terms (because it doesn't - not at all), and my parents' worlds were so small that as soon as I escaped to college my experience was totally beyond them (so different from all the friends I have - but didn't have while growing up - whose parents were more worldly and accomplished)."
I added the bold above to the most important part, because this is exactly what I think he is doing: living the adult equivalent of how we were raised, which equates to nothing but utter misery. In the post, I go on to talk about how this has affected me, and it also seems to be affecting him, but he doesn't seem to consciously realize the dilemma (though it seems to me he used to be more aware of it a few years ago).
So at a macro-scale, his problem is balancing work with the rest of his life. His entire identity comes through work, which he takes too seriously. He is also wildly inconsistent about how he expects to be rewarded for his effort. At one point he says it's about not fucking up (and he explicitly referenced dad on that one, even though he told me both that he could find another job with little effort and that he was scared of the career consequences of even a small error at his current job), at another about feeling worthwhile, and at another tells me he asked for a raise but didn't ask for any follow-up because they should just give it to him if they think he's worth it. Everything is all-or-nothing and there are no shades of gray. He told me on the phone the other night that he puts everything into work and comes home extremely irritated, which again - he sounds just like my dad. (And yes, part of me wonders whether deep down he knows what he's doing - acting out like this - and is doing it as some sort of revenge. But my dad is too dense to ever get it, and this just doesn't seem like YB's style.)
This break is a real opportunity for him to take a deep breath and gain some perspective. He needs to come into a better balance. So here is what I think, in no particular order:
1. He needs to move. He agrees he needs to move. MB and I thought it would be worthwhile for a variety of reasons for him to find roommates, but when I broached this to him on the phone he was extremely resistant, and as I mentioned, he is super stubborn. I think having a decent space to live, and spending less time on his commute, will be steps in the right direction. Also, if he thinks of home more as a haven, he might be inclined to spend more time there (and less at work).
2. He needs to get back into talk therapy. He is absolutely desperate for people to talk to, for one thing. For another, a trained professional could probably help him put some pieces together...as long as he is in a receptive mindset. Whatever he is hiding from by working all the time - he needs to face it. MB was trying to help him find someone, and we need to make sure this happens.
3. He needs to balance his life better. He says he wants a relationship, but good luck finding someone who wants to be second to his job. (Btw, one of my wife's friends met him at our wedding was totally smitten. She, unfortunately, lives across the country. But YB can turn on the charm when he wants to.) He also needs to learn to take the time to take care of himself - paying his bills, shopping, and looking out for his mental health.
4. He needs to take care of himself physically. He needs to go to sleep without drinking himself there. In my perfect world he would stop drinking completely. He needs to eat right...or at least eat (he is rail thin and a lot of food bothers his system). He should cut down on the cigarettes, too.
5. He needs a long-term plan. He hates New York - so how long is he planning to stay there? What's the next step? What will his life be like then? Will it make him happy? You can't know your future self, but he should at least try to think about what all his hard work is trying to accomplish for the future, instead of becoming trapped in a prison of the present.
This isn't a list I'm going to present him with - it's just my insight. It all comes down to taking care of himself and putting himself (not his job, which he somehow equates with himself) first. I am hoping that this long break will help him regain some semblance of normalcy in his perspective on things. He's hoping to do some travel and see family and friends, and maybe when he goes back he'll start taking some steps towards the light.
He is only 28 but it is pretty clear he can't go on like this forever.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The protagonist (Dale Barbara) is an Iraq war veteran who witnessed prisoner abuse, the antagonist (Jim Rennie) is a fan of a particularly vicious women's high school basketball player (shades of "Sarah Barracuda"? and the nonsense aspect of that nickname and the person who embodies it is reflected in the muddled, religious platitude-laden, emotion-driven way of reasoning embodied by Rennie and his weak-minded followers), "terrorists" are mentioned repeatedly, and at one point someone is threatened with waterboarding.
As with many King books, the premise here is simple and not particularly original: what happens when a small Maine town is covered by a mysterious clear dome, trapping the inhabitants and separating them from the outside world? I believe this same premise constituted the plot of an episode of The Simpsons (though this isn't a reason to knock it - and I have multiple reasons of my own for saying that). Inside the dome, how will people balance their rights with the need for safety against (perceived) threats? Will Rennie successfully convince the inhabitants of Chester's Mill to give him unbridled power so he can "protect" them? That the dome is clear means that the media can surround it and broadcast some of what goes on inside to people around America and around the world. No real spoiler here, but as the final conflagration approaches, it is easy to see shades of September 11.
Does the allegory work? I suppose, though I'm not really sure it adds anything that we haven't seen or heard elsewhere, and with no distance between the story and today, there's no particular wisdom or insight that comes from looking at the microcosm of society under the dome.
Of course, people don't look to King for societal insight. What I, as a Stephen King fan, look for in his books is the way he can take a simple premise and fill in the details, develop the characters, and expose the nuances of the horror behind any such situation. I'd been looking forward to reading Under The Dome for a while, and deliberately saved it for Christmas week as a treat for myself. And yet I found myself disappointed - not for any one reason. This book just suffers from death by a thousand cuts:
There are too many characters, and some aren't drawn sharply enough. One of King's great abilities, and the reason I think more "literary" types underestimate him, is that he can - with a few sentences - create unforgettable characters. And yet, even most of the way through this book, I sometimes had to jog my memory about who a particular character was. That he includes a list of characters at the beginning seems an implicit acknowledgement of this weakness.
Point-of-view is variable, including several scenes in present tense (the rest of the book is in past tense), a couple of scenes told by an omniscient narrator interacting directly with the reader, and (this is where it sort of "jumped the shark" for me) one or two scenes told from the perspective of a dog (including a puzzling "deadvoice" not explained or referenced anywhere else in the plot giving the dog instructions).
Some of the dialogue seems pointless, hackneyed. The scenes with the three teenaged kids (Joe, Benny, and Norrie) are often cringe-inducing.
This thing seriously could have used an editor. In some places it almost loses momentum because there is simply too much. I found myself thinking: "Oh, just get on with it already!"
In a couple of ways, the plot stretched credulity a little too much. It seems unbelievable to me that U.S. government civilian officials barely make an appearance in this whole book (who represents Chester's Mill in Congress? what about Sens. Snowe and Collins?), and seemed extremely reluctant to reach out to the town leaders. I'd imagine in a real life situation like this there would be almost constant communication.
The conspiracy to take back the town from the antagonist is basically the bulk of the plot. But no one ever considers, even for a second, just trying to assassinate the guy. It seems as though it would have been easy.
Several spoilers follow:
It strains believability that the tiny little town on which the dome descends just happens to house the world's biggest meth lab, all run by a small handful of locals.
Finally, and I really do take King to task for this one, he anthropomorphizes the aliens responsible for creating the dome and their motivations. Having done such a good job creating alien life forms that were truly alien in previous books (notably From A Buick 8), this is perhaps the biggest failure and disappointment of the book - it makes the reason for the whole situation coming to be in the first place incredibly thin. This extraterrestrial thread runs through a number of his books. We know King has read Lovecraft, and we know that the one thing that makes Lovecraft work (to the extent we could say Lovecraft "works", and I know that's arguable) is that he makes his aliens alien. Drop that aspect and we've moved from Cthulhu to Communion, and that is quite sad. King seems to have forgotten that here.
Would I recommend the book? If you're a King fan, yes. I feel like I've taken a hatchet to it here, but it wasn't that bad. I still plowed through it in well under a week. It still had its strong moments. I just don't think it is his best work, and certainly not on par with From A Buick 8, The Stand, Lisey's Story, and a lot of his earlier work.
I was expecting more.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Many of the books I read (both fiction and nonfiction) focused on World War II in Europe - less the military aspects and more the sociocultural and political aspects. I also read a lot of fairly recent (within the last five years or so) fiction - I tried to keep up with what was coming out, and I splurged on some hardcovers...thinking that - if nothing else - as a person who wants to publish his book, I'm barking up the wrong tree if I'm not also an active consumer of books.
Last year I wrote a book roundup post with some book awards from my own reading list, and I thought I would do the same this year. Since I read - for me - a relatively large number of books, and since I did such a poor job reviewing books this year, I'm not going to be terribly strict about sticking to one book for each category.
So, without further ado, here are Lt. Cccyxx's book awards for 2009:
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. My timing is fortuitous, as there is a new biography of Koestler out - reviewed here, here, and no doubt elsewhere. I have to admit I am not interested enough in the man himself to go buy it (yet), though I would be interested in reading more of his work. Koestler wins the award for a very idiosyncratic reason: I was doing a lot of reading focusing on some of the most totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and this book (though focused on communism) helped me understand them - and the way they subsume the individual - much better. So the book wins for the insight it provided at a time I was especially receptive.
(Runners-up: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Fallada gets more discussion below. I didn't particularly think I would enjoy Lahiri's short story collection, but she managed to make it both literary and accessible, both deep and interesting, and I found myself caring a lot about the mostly Indian immigrants she portrays in the stories. And the writing was amazing - she makes it seem effortless. She is clearly a master of the short story. By the way, I also read her novel The Namesake this past year, and while it was pretty good I thought it was somewhat thin plot-wise and uneven in terms of characterization. I don't think she pulled off the novel nearly as well as the short stories.)
It's a tie between The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney and Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer (obviously two very different books). Mullaney's a young guy (and Obama political appointee: though I've never met him, he is - not surprisingly - a third-degree connection of mine on linkedin) who has written a vivid memoir of training to be a commander in Afghanistan and his experiences there. He talks about his home life (including a father he idolized but who ultimately disappointed him), West Point, his time as a Rhodes Scholar, meeting his wife, and Army Ranger School. I liked his thoughtful voice as he straddles, sometimes uneasily, the largely separate worlds of scholars and warriors. I admired his seriousness and maturity in dealing with all kinds of challenges and winning victories large and small. It takes some hubris to decide to write a memoir at such a young age, but Mullaney is humble throughout, and his experiences are instructive. I, for one, am glad he decided to.
Speer's book - thick and with tiny print - had been intimidating me from my bookshelf for years. But I picked it up and found it so engaging that it was one of the prime reasons I've done so much WWII-era reading this past year. Having previously been interested in Stalin's inner circle and manner of ruling, this book got me interested in Hitler's. And, despite being a top Nazi, Speer is a very human narrator - having been an architect (rather than early party ideologue) who was tapped for leadership more because of his personal relationship with Hitler than anything else, and having genuinely become disillusioned with Hitler towards the end - he comes across as less self-serving and more insightful than one might expect.
Well, obviously The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller wins this one hands-down. It's not like I didn't anticipate that going in. I read the book for my own reasons (which I would rather not share), so it almost doesn't count.
Of the books I actually expected to be good, Fool by Christopher Moore was the worst. My first time reading Moore, I'd had high hopes (many others, including my wife and my brother, have enjoyed his work). This one was a Shakespeare parody, minus any real drama or even marginally likeable or intriguing characters. Just lots of witty repartee that wasn't particular witty, and lots of "bawdy" humor that wasn't particularly interesting or amusing. Though relatively quick to read, it was tedious beyond redemption. I didn't laugh and I didn't care what happened at the end (though of course it was all fairly predictable). I've been assured Moore's other stuff is much better, and I might give him another go. But I'd advise skipping this one!
(Runner-up: The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber. Did I miss something? Interesting premise, incredibly flimsy and lazy execution. Also, can I give a shout-out to Pastoralia by George Saunders? I saw a short story of his in The New Yorker and liked his voice - little did I know it's his whole schtick. What seemed like a novel way of portraying what goes on inside people's heads the first time began to strike me as needlessly disturbing and even downright patronizing as I read through the stories. Readers are clearly meant to look down upon, not empathize with, these characters. Saunders seems to want to be a psychological Vonnegut, but it doesn't work.)
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. Jump down my throat if you must, but know that my listing this book is most definitely not a political statement. Also know that I found the book well-written and generally pretty smart. But I came to the book with high hopes and found it an incredibly frustrating discussion of race in America. Maybe it's just because I am - as those schmucks on scienceblogs might (disparagingly, of course) put it - just a "d00d" (that means white guy), but I think not. Here is a man with a complex racial and cultural history (like many of us, even some d00ds, including me), and yet he seems to spend his youth brooding over inane simplifications of the subject. He ponders endlessly everything but his own seemingly arbitrary decisions to identify with this or that group, and carelessly smears the line between personal and group identities. He has a very strong desire to see things in black and white (literally) even as his own racial background and upbringing belie any such attempt.
At the very end he begins to develop a more mature understanding of things, and maybe the point was just to show his personal growth - warts and all - but without a guide throughout it is hard to know what to make of much of it, or what one might learn from his experiences and all the time he spent ruminating on these issues (which surely must have some value).
I was also frustrated that he seemed so utterly self-absorbed (then again, he did go on to become a politician), and didn't seem interested in studying something larger than himself and "his" group (however he chose to define it). (And one example of such a something would be science - of any kind.) I feel as though he missed the opportunity with the book to say something sophisticated and new. But of course he wrote it quite some time ago and I don't believe that even the Obama at the end of the narrative equates much with the Senatorial Obama, much less our current President. And of course it is wonderful to have a President who is actually literate - even if I quibble with the content!
Best New Discovery
Hans Fallada. One thinks of Soviet dissident authors, but German? The relationship isn't so straightforward, and Fallada was up and down with the regime. Little Man What Now? tells a story of survival in the Depression, before the Nazis took power. Every Man Dies Alone portrays life, political dissent, and death in wartime Berlin...and if it isn't a dissident book, then I don't know what is. Fallada outlived the Nazis, though not by much. Also remarkable is the speed with which he wrote these books. These and two others - The Drinker and Wolf Among Wolves - have recently been (or are about to be) republished in English. Why I'd not heard of him before I do not know, but I've much enjoyed reading his work this past year.
Most Memorable Book
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Imagine One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich in an even more bleak environment, written from the perspective of an Italian Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, there not even because of a political crime but simply because of his religion (and he being a secular Jew makes it all the more compelling), imprisoned with the explicit goal of being worked to death as slowly and painfully as possible. Stark, powerful, and yet spare - this work describes exactly what the title says, even as the true lesson becomes that survival in Auschwitz always had more to do with luck than anything else.
Least Memorable Book
For fiction, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, which I discussed here. Too bad. For nonfiction, Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, one of the few books I reviewed this past year - the review is here. Incredibly superficial treatment of interesting and complex subject.
That wraps up 2009's book awards. Here is looking forward to another great year of reading in 2010!
Books I Read In 2009
- The Bridges Of Madison County by Robert James Waller
- Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
- The River Of Doubt by Candice Millard
- Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
- Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Nuremberg Diary by G.M. Gilbert
- Amateur Barbarians by Robert Cohen
- An Honorable German by Charles McCain
- How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
- The Grift by Debra Ginsberg
- The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy
- The Drama Of The Gifted Child by Alice Miller
- The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler
- Fool by Christopher Moore
- Intuition by Allegra Goodman
- The Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe
- Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
- Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
- We Never Make Mistakes by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- The Best American Short Stories: 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor
- Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
- The Unforgiving Minute by Craig M. Mullaney
- Pastoralia by George Saunders
- Secrets You Keep From Yourself by Dan Neuharth
- The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber
- The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein
- The Delight Makers by Adolf F. Bandelier
- Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
- Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
- Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer
Friday, January 1, 2010
As I have said before, though New Year's is arbitrary, I like using it as an opportunity to assess, and to make resolutions and set goals. Last year I wrote a massive post reviewing my activities for 2008 and looking ahead to 2009. I don't recall exactly why I decided to get into such detail - perhaps I was worried that work would suck time and effort away from all the other things I wanted to accomplish, and I wanted to give myself some extra momentum.
This year I have some resolutions and goals but they are more general. I also have a writing plan for the year.
I discussed my blog resolution in my last post.
My wife and I want to talk to someone (a counselor) and try to begin working out whether we want kids.
For life in general outside of work, what I would like to do in 2010 is to try to have more of a routine. For example, my wife and I do a great job of grocery shopping each weekend for the week ahead, but not so great of a job (at least not on a consistent basis) thinking about what exactly we want to cook. I have a goal of going to the gym a certain number of times per week but haven't really nailed down a regular routine. Etc. etc. The idea is to be a little more efficient and squeeze more out of my time, since my life isn't just working and watching hulu.com on the couch - there are other things I want to accomplish.
I would like to continue aiming for three weight workouts each week and two high-intensity cardio workouts, plus one (less important) longer and more moderate cardio workout. I would also like to set aside one day each week and stay late at work, spending a couple of hours working on either writing (including blog posts, if I have been lagging) or work-work. What this would do is eliminate the distractions of home.
So here is my initial thinking:
- Sunday - weights and high intensity
- Wednesday - weights
- Thursday - work until 6, do 30 minutes of moderate cardio (we have a little gym at work plus our gym at home has reciprocity with two gyms within a few blocks of my work), then spend two or more hours catching up/writing. Maybe leave at nine-ish.
- Friday - make-up day if I'm behind on exercise for the week
- Saturday - weights and high intensity
Now one of the main underlying reasons for wanting to be more routinized/efficient is to free up more time for writing. So, that being said, here's my writing plan for 2010:
- First, I am going to keep querying for my completed novel (what other choice is there?). I would like to keep approximately 15 queries in play at all times. I'm going to give it three more months like this and then reassess: where am I? am I getting partial and full requests? what else do I need to do on the query? on the manuscript? I'm also going to keep my eyes open for local writers' conferences where I might be able to meet agents or editors and pitch the thing directly. At some point, if I get no bites, I need to think about possibly approaching small presses. I am also considering entering Amazon's 2010 Breakthrough Novel content, but I need to read the fine print. If I decide to go ahead with it, I'll post about it here. It is my fervent hope that I will be agented and/or have sold the novel by the time the end of 2010 arrives.
- Second, I have a bunch of short stories (well, four or five), and I think what I'd like to do within the first one to two months this year is to take a weekend (or a couple of those late Thursdays at work) and send the fuckers out again. Then forget about them...if rejections trickle back over the next few months, maybe I can try another blitz in the late summer or early fall. If inspiration hits for new short stories (and it does a few times of a year), then great. But I'm not going to force myself to spend too much time on this, because the real goal is to publish the novel.
- I have two ideas for a next novel - I've talked about both before a little bit (I am very superstitious about talking too much about my ideas before I have written them down, though, so I have been and will continue to be vague). Suffice it to say that one is a light-hearted hybrid parody, and the other is very heavy/literary/psychological. The heavy one also has some holes that need to be filled in - not least of which being that it might strike too close to home and may need some additional thinking to move it a bit farther afield. So what I propose for 2010 is to start background files for both projects. For the heavy one, write down everything I have in my brain and identify all the gaps, and then figure out how to proceed/work through them. For the light one, I need to do some reading and then basically use the background file to make some notes and decide how best to approach it. I can probably start actually writing within a couple of months at most, and it does not seem overly ambitious to think that by the end of 2010 I might have a first draft of this light project. I am not sure yet how the heavy one will proceed, but chances are the actual writing will wait.