Tag Archives: Book Review

Ron Carlson Writes a Story

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In college, there’s a whole culture of buying, selling, and trading new and used books. In fact, there are some professors who assign books with no binding just to decrease the cost of the book (and in turn, increase the cost by not having a used copy to be found.) So, as I jump back into blogging, I’ve decided to take on a new genre in nonfiction — the book on writing — and the used college textbook.

Used college books are terrible examples of bargain book hunting. Sure, if you’re shopping online it’s one thing, but at UC Irvine the bookstore themselves sold books in new and used form. I was a lazy online shopper, so I often succumbed to the yellow USED labeling that knocked down book prices by a few dollars. On the bright side, while being an English major meant purchasing about ten books every ten weeks, the books were usually novels, short stories, or could easily be used with older editions. Unlike science, math, or any practical degree.

Every writing student at UC Irvine has to read one book: Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Largely, because Ron Carlson directs the graduate program and it ties in nicely to the writing pedagogy of the school.

In One Sentence: …Ron Carlson writes a story.

Favorite Line: “The single largest advantage a veteran writer has over the beginner is this tolerance for not knowing.” – p. 15

Review: I was fortunate enough at Irvine to take a few classes with Ron Carlson. Being in the room with a writer is infinitely more rewarding to learning their process than anything they could write. Perhaps ironic given the profession. There was one day when he talked about writing the book. A student interjected that everyone had been required to read it. Carlson asked, “what’d you think? Was it a useful?” The student paused, smiled, and Carlson laughed himself. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” He acknowledged the question that learning about writing through reading about writing is sort of a moot strategy. You have to write. You have to write and write and write. Ron Carlson Writes a Story is about a writer learning about writing as he writes — to tell the reader exactly what he needs to know. Stop reading. Start writing. I’d recommend this book for pieces of writing inspiration, but as far as seeing deeply into a writing process I’d put Stephen King’s On Writing on a higher pedestal if only for the intimacy into King’s commitment and personal struggles. Carlson never goes too deeply into his own life as a writer, except to say that he’s having fun on the page. Maybe that’s all he needs to say on the subject. A useful book, but not required of every writer.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Ron Carlson almost wrote a story.

Now, Read Ron Carlson:

http://www.webdelsol.com/CLR/works/carlson_pirate.htm

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King Dork

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There’s only a handful of required reading texts that actually relate and stick with high school students. Undoubtedly, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye should be on the top of the list. It’s a book people loved or hated, but either way anyone could get through in only a few sittings. (Unlike the much shorter, but denser, The Scarlet Letter.) And why is that? Because of the narrator, Holden Caulfield’s, clear, unapologetic voice.

The best young adult fiction is all about voice. I found Frank Portman’s King Dork, an “impossibly brilliant” “myspace generation” version of Catcher cult, at a Goodwill Bookstore. Besides the rave reviews, I was drawn to the nature of how the narrator’s voice read across the pages I skimmed. It was bold, youthful, authentic. And I was one who had loved Catcher; why wouldn’t I like this book too?

In One Sentence: Boy rebels against Catcher in the Rye rebellion.

Favorite Line: “[The Catcher in the Rye] is every teacher’s favorite book. The main guy is a kind of misfit kid superhero named Holden Caulfield. For teachers, he is the ultimate guy, a real dreamboat. They love him to pieces. They all want to have sex with him, and with the book’s author, too, and they’d probably even try to do it with the book itself if they could figure out a way to go about it. It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.” — pg. 12

Review: King Dork follows “Chi-Mo” through a high school year with a murder mystery, sex, battle of the band scenes, and more. He finds his father’s annotated copy of Catcher and attempts to decipher codes inside. At the same time, other shenanigans ensue.  It’s a fun story about a kid who’s struggling against all of the adults in his life, not unlike Holden Caulfield. The humor in the book works really well against “Chi-Mo’s” strong voice. It’s also an interesting contemplation at the end with the conclusions the narrator comes through — he asks the questions of what he learned and reflects on how people piece together their own perceptions to form new conclusions. There were moments that dragged, and while each new “band name” was funny, it’s hard for me to read about music. Kind of a taste thing. If you like Catcher, this book is a must. Though, it will probably take more sittings just because the tension doesn’t carry the same way it does in Salinger’s classic.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: “Chi-Mo” sparknoted.

Glossary:

The book had a glossary. Written by the narrator! An even better example of voice. Here is my favorite–

epigraph (a-PIG-rape):

an obscure quotations at the beginning of a book designed to make the author of the book seem smarter and more well-read than its readers. An epigraph that doesn’t make the reader feel confused, small, worthless, and stupid is an epigraph that has failed. Therefore, the best epigraphs have no discernible relationship to the contents of the books they adorn. 

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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Technically, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is public domain. So the fact that I paid any money for it (even if it was just $1.50) should perhaps not be considered a “bargain.” But, hey, it covers the printing cost, right?

I picked up this book in a normal college book store in the “thrift” section where all the public domain classics are reprinted for student reference. (Dracula, Hunchback, etc.) I was drawn to it after I studied abroad and got to spend a few days in Edinburgh, Scotland. Walking through the city streets, I stumbled upon a small “Writer’s Museum” chronicling the lives of famous Scottish writers. Really — it was only about Robert Louis Stevenson. Who didn’t even stay in Scotland — he travelled to the Pacific and spent time on the Hawaiian islands and then settling in Samoa. He even spent time on Molokai with Father Damien in the leper colonies.

I guess the truth is I didn’t purchase Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because I wanted to read a good story. (Though, it was a perk.) I saw the book and I remember thinking about what I had learned about the writer and I wanted to know how his imagination worked.

In One Sentence: A doctor devises a chemical to expel himself of moral struggle.

Favorite Line: He was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age or colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe.” — p.3

Review: Only about sixty pages, this novella is interesting in how it wraps up the mystery of events and persons through telling the story through a limited perspective. The details focus on characters and their complexities, which makes sense when the big reveal is how these complexities are the driving point to why Dr. Jekyll seeks change. This is classic horror — tense, crying children, don’t go in a dark room, horror. So, read it if you haven’t. What this book does very well is establishing universal motivations in what would otherwise be despicable people. The main character, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, wants to see Jekyll happy and rational. Jekyll struggles with his humanity and wants more than anything in the world to not struggle anymore. Isn’t that what we all want?

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Dr. Jekyll had my chemistry skills. (aka NONE.)

Adaptation:

Like any classic, there are many adaptations that have come since. Here is one of my favorite “Mr. Hyde’s”.

From the film The Mask (1994).

What’s your favorite adaptation?

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In Cold Blood

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If there was ever a staple in the true crime genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would be it. Well deserved, too. This book was in a college town’s Goodwill, which was lucky not just for it’s $1.99 price tag but also for the pages of notes and highlights I found while I read. My mother saw me pick out the book and nearly shuddered, “I don’t know why’d you want to read that. It’s scary.”

Her reaction made it more enticing. It was one of the few books I’ve bought on a bargain hunt that I immediately started reading when I got home. And is it any wonder? It’s tense, literary, undoubtedly spellbinding as advertised on the cover. After I finished, I wondered how Capote accomplished so much. All based in fact, but how much is true? Plus, the interesting part of this story is not really why did two strangers senselessly murder a family “in cold blood” — but actually what made the writer investigate this story? How did it change him afterward? 

In One Sentence: Two young criminals murder a family for no reason in a quiet Kansas town.

Favorite Line: “At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them — four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople,theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again — those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” — p. 5

Review: From beginning to end, the details and prose of this piece are on point. Capote set the bar high with the idea of the non-fiction novel. Sure, there are the ever-present questions of credibility of scene and place but the story behind the creation of this book says enough as to Capote’s dedication to showing as complete an image as possible. (He spent years taking notes and doing interviews alongside writer-friend Harper Lee. Then again — he may have also been set on writing the masterpiece of his life.) Perhaps dramatic, perhaps clouded by his own biases, but it’s important nonetheless. The climax is in the full description of the gory details as opposed to the mystery behind the murderer as in the whodunit narrative. The reader knows how it’s going to end immediately. It’s still interesting and there’s more I want to find out. In an odd way, the only “truth” that is completely left out is the writer. Capote made himself a part of this case when he investigated the murder and got to know the culprits, Perry and Dick. Yet, he’s absent. There are long conversations and monologues taken from different people involved, but not a word on who they were talking to. I’m not sure it’s a problem, but it’s an interesting decision for a non-fiction writer trying to remain objective (and ultimately created it’s own mythology around the place of the writer as depicted in the film version, Capote.) Anyway, unless you are morally opposed to reading about violence, stop what you are doing and read this book.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: No one in Holcomb, Kansas spoke to Truman Capote.

The Influence of Short-Story Technique:

Truman Capote got his start writing short stories and credits the medium for allowing him to learn the art of control over story-telling. I loved this idea he explored in a Paris Review interview:

CAPOTE: … Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

INTERVIEWER: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

CAPOTE: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4867/the-art-of-fiction-no-17-truman-capote

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Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade

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This was my first dive into Vonnegut. There was another time, the year after college, when I sat outside of a library with a coworker handing out flyers and he read me a passage from another Vonnegut novel but I don’t think that counts because I can’t remember what it was or what was said except for the fact that it touched him deeply (the coworker, and probably Vonnegut too). I found a tattered 1960s edition of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five at a Goodwill. The yellow Goodwill sticker priced it at $2.99; inside from another thrift store was scribbled $3.00. Not much of a cut down if you ask me.

I wasn’t sure what it was about. Of course, I had heard of it, but it seemed to be a book you see more often on a reading list with no summary of plot, simply a detail of its notoriety in literary history. But, I’ve read it now, and all I can say is I understand why there is a whole school of writers studying Vonnegut.

In One Sentence: A writer tells the story of the Dresden Bombings through a man who has become unstuck in time after an alien abduction.

Favorite Line: “He did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way.” – p.150

Review: I didn’t expect to get as sucked in as I did. Such an interesting humor and perspective on people and the world. It begins with a writer, perhaps Vonnegut or maybe an unnamed Narrator, telling his friends about the book he is writing on Dresden. Then, we dive into the main story — Billy Armstrong’s story — as he travels through his own timeline full of war, death, and love after an alien abduction. The strange thing is is that this is not a science fiction story, not really. More precisely, it’s a story about telling stories as the reader feels Vonnegut circumnavigating the retelling of his own Dresden experience. And everyone who cares about reading or writing should pick this up.

This describes perfectly my feelings on this book:

nothinghurt

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: there were no survivors after the plane crash.

Actual Favorite Line: “She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.” – p. 152

 

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The Kiss

TheKiss

Sometimes I find memoirs more captivating than fiction. It’s not just a matter of truth is stranger than fiction, it also has a lot to do with voice. It’s my favorite part of writing — and reading! — to get a new perspective from a unique voice. Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss stood out to me on the Goodwill shelves because it was 1) a first hand account of a consensual incestuous relationship that didn’t involve Mackenzie Phillips and 2) a paperback book selling for $5.99?! Isn’t that a little steep, Goodwill?

I bought it. I read it. And even now that it’s over, I’m fascinated at the writer’s ability to find her voice and not be afraid of the consequences.

In One Sentence: Young woman develops a sexual relationship with her once absent father.

Favorite Line: “‘You know,’ [my mother] says, pointing, ‘this isn’t about you. It’s about me.’… She means the love my father possesses, the trembling hands and hot eyes. All of what  she has notices and is frightened by. So inappropriate, so immoderate. So abnormal to love me so completely: that’s what I hear her say. What I hear is that not only does my mother not love or admire me, but she will find a way to reinterpret my father’s love to make it all her own.” – p. 98

Review: Harrison takes on the task of telling us all about the skeletons in her closet and she succeeds not only in delivering a masterful writing style, but also feeling totally authentic. Overall, a strong, compelling voice. It jumps around slightly through time but keeps a consistent emotional arc that works wells to drive the reader forward. And, it’s a quick read. Besides the strangeness of the subject matter, the way prose is broken into short vignettes somehow makes it hard to put down. There is one hiccup about the story that would be more of a critical note in fiction, but in memoir really has no way to change. You get the feeling that Harrison had some agency to change the situation sooner than she actually did. Then again, since so much of writing memoir is about the power of hindsight, I got the feeling she realized that as well once she got the words to paper.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Harrison’s parents had never divorced. Seriously.

Artwork that Stole the Title:

Or maybe Harrison stole the title. Matches the theme of the story, depending on how or if you interpret art.

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

 

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The Giver

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Sometimes I need a book for a specific purpose and I’m forced to splurge. After college, I got a job tutoring writing for middle school students. I came up with prompts teaching techniques of literature analysis and went seeking a book that would hopefully inspire ideas and get them excited about the project. Okay, honesty moment? I bought Lois Lowry’s The Giver for five dollars at my favorite used book store “Book Off”. I used it a little in my tutoring, but ended up switching to The Hunger Games.

Even though The Giver has a slower buildup and payoff for a dystopian fable, I didn’t regret the purchase. I hadn’t read it myself. In sixth grade, my teacher read it to me but looking back this is absolutely the wrong book to read aloud. The transitions between past and present bleed into each other, and if you’re only half-listening it can get rather confusing. Luckily, rediscovering the young adult novel in my twenties gave me a new opportunity to appreciate the message of the story. Plus, catch up before the new movie comes out! (We’ll get to that later…)

In One Sentence: In a “perfect” new world, a young boy is assigned to become the new host for all of society’s memories.

Favorite Line: “I liked the feeling of love,” [Jonas] confessed… “Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.'” – p. 126

Review: Looking at dystopia through the eyes of a twelve year old is interesting because that time of your life is all about the transition from accepting the world as it is and questioning it. This book has a clear message on the importance of memory, that it is something to be treasured, but takes a different turn when it can only be harnessed by one person. Most of the book is just defining the rules of this world and the underbelly that the main character Jonas discovers to be less than perfect. Because it’s a complete new society, and a lot of the work is in integrating the reader into the world, I found the characters very awkward with each other. BUT as Jonas gained more wisdom, he became less awkward — less formal — more confident in lying. It’s an unlikely future, but begs the reader to think about ‘what if?’ The ending isn’t totally satisfying, but I recommend it as a Bucket List classic. Then, you can switch to Hunger Games.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jonas’s father decided not to nurse baby Gabriel at home.

Coming to Theaters:

Thoughts:

1. Why is most of this movie in color?!

2. Jeff Bridges. Phew.

3. Did they just show a possible ending?

4. Prediction: the rules of the world will be like the book, but they’ll add lots more conflict.

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