Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An oldie but goodie from Stephen King

A couple weeks ago, someone in a LinkedIn group recommended the movie "Stand By Me" as the archetypical coming of age movie. I don't know that I've ever seen it, but I knew I'd never read the novella on which it's based, Stephen King's "The Body," one of four novellas in Different Seasons. Viking published the book in 1982 when King was 35, and he wrote "The Body" in 1975 when he was about 28.

The ages are significant because in "The Body," King is recalling himself and his world as a 12-year-old boy in a small Maine town. In some ways, the story is simple. Four buddies about the same age hear about the body of a boy who has been missing, decide to go to find it, and become heroes because they found the missing boy. Because the dead boy had apparently been hit by a train, they will follow the train tracks on foot for the thirty miles to reach the body. On the way they have a number of adventures including spending a night in the woods. I don't want to say much more, because if you have not read the story, I recommend it and do not want to spoil it.

"The Body," however, is much more than a boy's adventure story. It is a story about time and change and loss. The first two sentences of the story proper are, "We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There's a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone." The elm is gone and the narrator's youth is gone.

The narrator identifies himself as Gordon Lachance, a successful mid-thirties writer of horror stories, much like Stephen King. "The Body," which is not a horror story and has no supernatural events, does include two samples of "Lachance's" work, a student short story that the narrator criticizes more harshly than I would have, and a more polished story that "Lachance"sold to Cavalier magazine. Although these have nothing to do with the adventure of finding the dead body, they work within the story's context, adding depth and complexity.

And King has interesting things to say about writing and stories: "The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that's why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings . . . The only two useful artforms are religion and stories." One of "Gordon's" 12-year-old buddies tells him "Those stories you tell, they're no good to anybody but you, Gordie. If you go along with us [his three friends] because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt, makin C's to get on the teams. You'll get into High and take the same fuckin shop courses and throw erasers and pull your meat along with the rest of the grunts . . . Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll just be another wiseguy with shit for brains."

The story does show its age in phrases like "Do you dig?" "If anyone was rankin out my dad—" and more. And there's an occasional stretch that does not work for me: ". . . as I said it some guy pole-vaulted in my stomach. He dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart."

Nevertheless, I am glad I followed up on the recommendation and have read it. If you haven't, it's worth looking up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How to know when you're writing something real

Matthew Thomas, a former high school English teacher, who reportedly sold his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, for more than $1 million said something interesting in the September 7, 2014 New York Times Book Review.

"I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention. The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I'd look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don't want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It's much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you're writing to do so, kills it instantly."

As one who has avoided writing the emotionally challenging or conflict-laden, I know whereof Thomas speaks too well. It also explains why so many memoirs and amateur novels are so unsatisfying. The author has ducked and by doing so killed the work.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What if a critic hasn't played fair?

An acquaintance asks, "What do you do if the critic hasn't played fair? What do you do about negative reviews?"

Nothing.

Do nothing in public. Don't try to correct the record (unless the review has clear factual errors, and even then stick to the facts). Don't try to justify or explain yourself.

Privately console yourself that the reviewer is an idiot.

A case in point: Here is one of the 24 one-star Amazon reviews for a book I thought was a masterpiece: "Extremely hard book to read and understand what was going on. Could not even finish it. Could have been summarized in two pages with life principles it was raising." This reader is an idiot.

I am not alone in my admiration. The book has received 509 four- and five-star reviews, by the way.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moscow Bound, a thriller set in Putin's Russia

According to his biographical note, Adrian Churchward lived and worked in Moscow, Budapest, and Prague as an East-West trade lawyer between 1984 and 1998. He was "one of the few Western lawyers working in the day-to-day arena of President Gorbachev's liberalization process of perestroika and glasnost."

Scott Mitchell, one of the two point-of-view characters in Moscow Bound, is a young British human-rights lawyer who is living and working in Moscow. When the book opens, Scott, flying back to Moscow, has just won a significant case against the Russian army in the European Court of Human Rights for its crimes in Chechnya. This has had two effects: Scott is a hero to Chechnyians (which gives him at least a few people he can trust in Moscow's house of mirrors), and he has pissed off the Russian army (which removes him from the plane under guard and interrogates him).

Now add a gorgeous young Russian mother, separated from her oligarch husband (powerful enough to dine occasionally with Putin). Ekaterina, who with good reason does not trust the Russian government, asks Scott to help her find the father she never knew, someone spirited away by the KGB years before. Scott reluctantly decides to help her.

Now add a second POV character, Lieutenant-General Pravda of the GRU, military intelligence. A body has been fished out of the Moscow River, someone who Pravda knows should not have been in Moscow, someone who has been assassinated in a particularly suspicious manner. When an elderly pensioner is murdered in the same way, Pravda, an honest and patriotic soldier, realizes an explosive military secret is at risk.

The book is a lot of fun and I gobbled it down. How is it possible for an English human-rights lawyer, even one who speaks fluent Russian, to penetrate the various circles within circles to find a long-vanished father? What is the connection between the GRU and the murdered men? Who are the puppet masters above Pravda and his competitors in the Russian Federation Security Service? If you can't trust the government, if you can't trust the police, if you can't trust the military, how can you live?

Moscow Bound may be Churchward's first novel, but he handles the various threads competently and his knowledge of Russian life in the 21st century adds depth and color to the story. I noticed only one or two unfortunately convenient coincidences among the events, and there seemed to be one or two threads that he never tied off—although that may be my fault because I was having so much fun on the ride and wasn't paying attention. Nevertheless, it's a thriller set firmly in a world very much like our own, one of my criterion for a book worth my time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Here's a letter to make your day

A friend writes, "I just finished The Girl in the Photo. I have so much to say about it, but I'll try to be articulate and succinct as I write about my reactions and feelings.

"First—congratulations on producing a novel of such subtly and complexity, one that weaves family life, travel, death, love—all into one well-crafted tapestry. This book is even better than the last one, which I enjoyed immensely.

"One major thing that I really like here is that you don't have to rely on pathology, violence or deviance to create an interesting story. Like the Barchester novels by Trollop (which I love), you manage to make happy people interesting.

"Of course, by happy I don't mean free of problems. I'm sure you understand that. It takes a lot of wisdom and humanity to take 'regular' folk and weave a great plot around them with all the insight and compassion that you do. I stayed up half the night a few days ago in order to finish it. The ending was SO satisfying.

"I especially like the way you balance the two main characters, Abbie and David, with neither predominating, so that the reader can see things from both their perspectives. I like the way you use the father's memoir, leaving it up to the reader to interpret the facts about his life by placing his story against those of the other people who knew him, and letting us get a fuller picture of his personality.

"I like the way you so delicately handle the American-Japanese cultural issues—with just enough explanation so that the average American reader can sense some of the important differences. AND I like your description of life and values of the '50's while deftly switching to the 21st century.

"I like the political commentary and the way you touch on religion, music and atheism. Well, the list goes on."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Here's a resource for writers and readers: Forward Reviews magazine

Forward Reviews magazine, "The Indie Books We Love," showed up in my mailbox the other day causing me to wonder whose list the publisher has bought. This Fall 2014 issue is Volume 17, suggesting the publication has been around for over 15 years but I'd never heard of it.

Although I didn't count the number of reviews, the magazine is what it says it is: 150 reviews of fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry, romance, body/mind/spirit, memoirs, and more. The audience seems to be libraries, bookstores, book clubs, and book lovers. The advertisers are virtually all publishers; the largest by far is Author House and its various brands with 16 full pages. Which makes me think the reviews are trustworthy (or at least not pandering to the advertisers) because I did not spot a review of an Author House book. (Nor, for that matter, did I spot a review for a Createspace book.)

The publishers for the most part are firms I'd never heard of: Annick Press, Kregel Publications, She Writes Press, Publishamerica, Cypress Creek Publishing, Shadown Mountain, Greenleaf Book Group, Thoughtful Publishing Company, Rane Coat Press, Forest Avenue Press, Cavankerry Press, Word Horde, and more and more and much more.

I looked up five or six of the names, trolled through their websites, and felt as if I were exploring a whole new world of publishing about which I had known nothing. These firms are between the big publishing companies and the self-publishing independents. They do not, it seems, offer advances, but they do perform a publishing company's traditional function: editing, copy editing, proof reading, cover design, book design, and some promotion (after all, that's how Forward Reviews learned about their books).

A year's subscription—four issues—is $19.95. If you are a committed bibliophile looking for largely unsung books or an author looking for an independent publisher, Forward Reviews may well be worth the price.

P.S. I was interested enough in one of the books mentioned that I have ordered it and will, in time, be posting about it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fairy-Tale Success by Adrienne Arieff and Beverly West

The subtitle of Fairy-Tale Success is "A Guide to Entrepreneurial Magic." I don't know about the magic part, but it certainly is a lively, interesting, and practical guide for young women who are thinking of starting a business.

Adrienne Arieff is "a PR, digital, and marketing communications professional." Her co-author, Beverly West, is "an author, developmental editor and new media producer." They use the Cinderella story as the scaffolding on which they construct the book so chapters have titles like Reveal Your Noble Roots (know who you are, what you like, how you want to live); Wish Out Loud (vision statement, business plan); Make Practical Magic (funding); Summon Your Fairy Godmothers (networking); Hear Ye, Hear Ye (harnessing social media); Make a Grand Entrance (launching your brand); Keep Your Eye on the Crown (staying focused); When the Clock Strikes Twelve, Don't Panic (dealing with setbacks and obstacles); and If the Glass Slipper Fits, Wear It (enjoying success).

The book is written for young women. Indeed, sampling their own recipe the authors quote their own vision statement: "We want to write and publish a book that raises awareness about the opportunities for young women to become entrepreneurs in today's economy. We want to create a platform for young entrepreneurs to connect and engage with each other both on- and off-line...." All their inspirational examples and interviews—and there are several dozen—are from young women who have had or are having business experience.

Every chapter follows the same pattern: a chunk of the original fairy tale, a discussion of how it relates to the chapter's material, interviews and anecdotes from young women, quotes from well-known businesspeople, and the chapter's concluding principles. I found the advice solid. In Chapter 8, for example, dealing with setbacks, Arieff and West write: "Don't speculate. No matter how sure you are about something, don't suggest that you know things that you may not. The worst way to respond to a crisis is to create another one based on false information that you are presenting as truth. So know the facts and don't stray from then. Don't assume, or imagine, or believe, or guess, or wish. Only say things that you objectively know to be true, once you've gathered the facts and checked them twice." Good advice for all of us at all times.

I was also struck by a "Words of Wisdom from Fairy Godparents," these from Virginia Romerty, CEO of IBM: "I learned to always take on things I'd never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist."

My only quibble is with the throwaway line about SCORE in the "Resources" section: "If you find yourself in need of mentoring from en entrepreneur who's already been through it all, SCORE can help you find a mentor." In fact, SCORE's counselors can and will do far more to help a prospective entrepreneur develop business, financial, and marketing plans. SCORE is an affiliate of the Small Business Administration, and its services are free.

Nevertheless, if you know a high school or college student who is leaning in toward business, Fairy-Tale Success can be thought-provoking, inspiring, and useful.