Tag Archives: reading

Ron Carlson Writes a Story

Ron-Carlson-Writes-a-Story

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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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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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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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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I’d like to introduce a new tenet into bargain book hunting — the borrowed book. No, not from a library. Borrowed books from friends, relatives, or even colleagues are great finds not only for the added recommendation of a book, but also for the excitement of being able to talk with someone about a book after you finish it (well, if you finish it.) Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was lent to me by my aunt and shared with others in my family.

The best books to borrow — or on the other hand, to lend — are those that invite discussion on complicated issues. Skloot’s nonfiction book is at once a biography, mystery, and exploration of many ethical questions surrounding scientific research and ownership. Is science truly an endeavor to better mankind or has it become too profit driven? I’m not sure. Maybe both.

In One Sentence: Writer seeks to discover the true story behind the first immortal HeLa cells.

Favorite Line: “I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.” – p. 238

Review: It’s books like these that make you realize how important writers are. Rebecca Skloot tells the story not only of Henrietta Lacks as a poor black woman in the 1950s getting her cells reproduced and sold without her knowledge, but also follows the story of the cells themselves as they become involved in the development of vaccines, cancer research, and more. I’ll be honest, science is not my favorite topic but somehow Skloot is able to take advantage of narrative structure and pacing to deliver the tension that has really come about with the Lacks family as well as the contamination of cells in the science community. Truly well balanced prose. I also loved the point of view of this story. Unlike Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, Skloot places herself in the story. She shared what inspired her to pursue these questions and included her struggles to gain the trust of the Lacks family. The writing really got me thinking about my own beliefs related to scientific research and how those ideas change constantly. I recommend this book mostly because I need more people to talk about it with!

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: The Lacks family never responded to the author’s calls.

“Borrowing” from Rebecca Skloot: On her website, there’s a page devoted to “What Rebecca’s Reading.” I explored and found very interesting science articles in the similar vein of exploring things otherwise less often explored. Topics include why doctors don’t die like the rest of us, experiments gone wrong, the ethos of Twitter/ Facebook, and takes on meta-nonfiction. Check it out:

http://rebeccaskloot.com/about/what-rebeccas-reading/

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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There’s a reason why coming-of-age stories remain staples in literature. Whether it is through classic like Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Outsiders or modern tales such as Youth in Revolt — we read these books early or late in life, and either way when we are finished they stay preserved on our bookshelves. They are the books you read, and you see yourself. 

Did you know there are Goodwills EXCLUSIVELY for books? No clothes. No VCRs. Just books. I drove by one with my family off of Foothill Blvd between the Walmart shopping center and a closed tavern. I found about four or five books that cost about ten dollars total. One was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I had recognized the name from writer’s quotes and short stories, but had not read any of his novels.  It seemed like an interesting find – a funny novel filled with comics like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, except with more awards and, hopefully, poignancy.

In One Sentence: A junior high cartoonist leaves his Indian Reservation school for better opportunities at an all-white school.

Favorite Line: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” – pg 13

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Review: A young boy has to deal with the natural struggle of identity but with the added complications of being the only Indian in an all-white school. He becomes the outcast not only in his new school, but also to his friends back home who see him as a  “part-time Indian.” Hilarious. Hard to put down. Totally inspiring in its ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time. This novel is all about voice. It masterfully captures the voice of the narrator and main protagonist, Junior. “Literary fiction” usually sets a certain expectation for a caliber of language, but there is also so much control and craft in a writer’s ability to create a convincing voice. Part of this success in Sherman Alexie’s novel is due to his own admittance that much of the text is auto-biographical, from his experience growing up on an Indian Reservation. I’ve come to discover that the best forms of art are not necessarily about a central theme or overall impact on society, but about honesty. Even in fiction, if I can feel a writer’s true intention and honesty – I’ll likely remember that book for the rest of my life. Everyone should read this book. Most importantly at schools where, unfortunately, it has been banned.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner if: People were more willing to look for things they had in common, rather than what made them different.

Banned: Throughout the country this book has been introduced into middle school curriculum, cursed by parents, and then swiftly banned (sometimes removed as required reading, other times taken out of libraries all together.) Why? The narrator, as a prepubescent boy, talks about masturbation. Watch Sherman Alexie’s reaction:

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