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BIBLIOGRIND

Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Books … I mean the ones with pages.

Penguin Hardcover Classics have them. So do Collector’s Library. Yes, they have 20th-Century classics and lots of literature going back to ancient texts. Yes, all of those books that you can find free on line, download to your e-reader of choice, and never worry about packing real books in real boxes the next time you move.

Yet what is Book Culture without books? The virtual book, in my mind, doesn’t count. You can’t turn its pages; you certainly can’t smell the ink and paper. You can’t make marginal notes. You can’t design a bookshelf and fill it with books whose spines are colorful, designerly, and have printed titles, and be of various sizes and thicknesses. Now that’s a book!

This is what Penguin and Collector’s and other publishers of fine hardback & clothbound books have realized: there are plenty of people out there that like the physical book. And they’ll always like them. And they’ll pay money for a beautiful edition.

Penguin Classics have various colors, with stamp-printed designs, and complementary colored endpapers; many have illustrations, because Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and the old fairy tales printers used illustrators’ woodcuts to make these stories come alive ever more. Proust’s Rechercher du Temps Perdu (In Search of Time Lost) comes in three volumes, each a vivid color, a good size for the hand, a volume that makes art on the bookshelf, as much as it holds between the covers. Dickens’s David Copperfield has a chocolate cover, with cream kites as in the sky, printed on its cover front and back.

The Collector’s Library editions are traditional maroon cloth, though newer editions are powder blue (a bit of an odd editorial/sales choice, as it sometime feels as if I’m reading from a child’s prayer book — hardly the effect I sought while reading of a Hemingway character having sex in the outdoors with his paramour under a woolen blanket). They are truly palm size volumes, and fit in most jacket pockets. Perfect for traveling, or being out and about on public trans.

I conceded the flexibility that e-readers offer the consumer. But where is the humanity from yet another robot? Don’t we stare at pixelated type and video screens all day long, and all too much? The book is civilization. The book is humanity. A book brings people together. I bet you haven’t heard much of, “Oh, I love the cover of your e-reader!”

Possible “MAX, the blind guy” cover

MaxCOVER

(design by Calvin Rambler)

 

What do you think?

 

[Book jacket copy:

Max, the blind guy is a complex, emotional story of love, marriage, art, and ego. Beyer’s nuanced story brings to life fictional characters from America and Europe as a group of recalcitrant retirees travel through Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice.

Maximilian Ruth daydreams in colors which his eyes can no longer see. His wife is leading them on a six-city European tour. Greta Ruth calls this trip their “last hurrah.” She hasn’t had the best from 40 years with Max. But Max takes their life differently: marriage is an affair of more than the heart’s journey. This pair of American originals have known passion, riches, and sorrow. Today, these roads lead them through Europe’s famed cities, but Greta wonders if the plan will see her through to the promised “champagne on the Grand Canal.”

Their Elite Travel tour-mates are getting on each other’s nerves. They are characters found next door, on everyday streets, under black-eye days, and across lost-memory nights. The highlights and sights, the posh lunches, the gamy conversation over drinks in the bar – and of course the “tour friendships” – all make their faux-camaraderie sometimes combative but never boring.

A story rife with modern perils – too much time, too much money, just enough libido, secrets revealed – Max and Greta Ruth don’t wait for what the future may bring. ]

 

Couples Reading

I’ve started reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (1992) and Asia is into the late first-quarter of Roth’s “Letting Go” (1961). This is not a battle, and we refrain from trading quotes (even though I recently re-read LG). Roth’s books, for us, are dense with human feeling and psychology, not to mention many beautiful sentences and ways of describing small parts of life we all know but often overlook. These happen on every page, at least once.

Sometimes we’ve read the same book, but not at the same time (no point in owning twin copies, considering the number of books now collected). When we do this, the person who’s already finished the book often asks the present reader “Where are you now?” or “What’s happening to …?” with that anticipation and look of the dramatic irony even the characters in the book can’t match. But we never ask “Haven’t you gotten to the part about …?” We’re ultra sensitive to never giving away what’s to come, even the smallest moment, or snatch of dialogue. This has been 99% successful.

Couples who read together love together. Before reading time begins, there’s some short chat to set the excitement level; after our couple’s reading has run its allotted time, a recap of emotions and character traits, or “what it all means” lets out the anxiety of what’s been discovered. I use “anxiety” because reading Roth — or any strong writer — is a time spent in media dramatica and sometimes one simply needs to get out of that world and into your own. Few enough authors do this to us on the level Roth is capable of inducing. The tension his characters create is incredibly real. You hate them, pity them, envy their audacity, despise their stupidity, and laugh with them. Seldom do you want to laugh at them; they are that real in their conflict, and only a jerk laughs at people for that.

We haven’t owned a television since coming together, and neither of us watched that thing for years before our coupling. There’s something stronger in a relationship that has books over television; I truly believe this. Because, while both mediums keep you occupied solo, the wealth of conversation that can be mined from books far outweighs whatever appears on television. Even the good TV programs have only so much in-depth-ness to them; their lack of individual character mental introspection leaves too much left untold. That’s the true failure of television, or even theater. Only Shakespeare’s drama can get away with soliloquies anymore.

Roth has stopped writing novels. Fortunately, I’ve not read all that he’s written. But almost. Yet there are other books of his that I haven’t read in ten years, or even twenty. Their impression stays with me like embossed paper; but re-reading good literature is essential, one of the true ways we pull more and ever greater pleasure from the human experience. Roth wrote more than 25 books, which makes for a good library if one only has a single author’s complete works to take with him on a desert island.

Or to take with you into your living room, where your mate is already on the couch curled up with her book, saving a spot for you under the blanket.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

What New Ways Can Lit Studies Be Wrecked?

I think that Historicism should be an afterthought to studying literature, never the focus. To push aside the characters, the theme, the setting, and thus the story in order to place the “story” in context with the time in which it is set diminishes the beauty and impact of what was otherwise the author’s point in creating that story. Most of the time — if a reader has any knowledge of history and historical eras — one can put forth with ease the simplest of explanations for historical-fiction connection: “That’s how they did things back then” … eg, slavery, war, child rearing, business, etcetera. Now the reader can get down to some deep reading in order to understand what these characters are doing and why they are doing it. Good has always been part of society; evil has always had its role as well. The people who lived within (and who shall yet do so) must tread across the same grounds as ever.

On a Tall Horse, Looking at the Horizon

I was engaged in a short (for me) but bitter (for some commentators) dialogue on LinkedIn two weeks ago that, at once, encouraged me to drop that group (The Writer’s Guild) and come to understand what I believe about writing.

The discussion began with my string “If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to be a Writer” for which I included the edgy, and intentionally provocative question, “Do too many people think they can write books? (I mean GOOD books…)”.

To make a long story short, the majority of posts took exception to my making myself some paragon of good taste, which I had not, only posed that question. People got nasty, said I was a snob, said I didn’t have the right to say what was “good writing” — or what was not. They said, as a major block of like-minded voices, anybody who finished of book, or story, or … anything … was a good writer and that — their reasons never extended as far as explanation — no one could tell them their writing was BAD WRITING.

To me these people sounded like amazingly stupid interlopers onto my turf. Yes, some of them had written books. Yes, some of them have been professional journalists for years. Yes, some have even “sold lots of books” and got “great reviews” on Amazon. But all of this really doesn’t mean anything, because unless you can make statements about WHY a book is good or bad, and WHY writing lacks everything needed to tell a story, and WHY the sales figures for books merely computers units sold, then you cannot be considered a reasonable judge of literature, of quality, or even literary taste.

I believe this because there must be some standards placed on GOOD, GREAT, BAD, OKAY, and AWFUL. “If you don’t know it, you can’t be taught it,” is not a fair statement about judging literature, because the teaching of standards is no less possible than the teaching of speaking or reading a language. Both have rules, and there have always been rules about what is literature and what is genre fiction — at least until the advent of Amazon publishing, and those writer manqués with thin skins who like to spout off. Listen: just because people say something over and over (“any book is good, who are you to question that?”) doesn’t make it true.

As an egalitarian micro-society, Amazon publishing lives up only to Robespierre and his blood-soaked henchmen. Their indictment of French society and opening the gates of prisons and letting loose the “freedoms of man” only served to, finally, murder a lot of people. This is what happens when you put the mob in control of government, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, and even taste.

“Fifty Shades of Gray” isn’t so bad!

Yes it is, and here’s why: the sentence structure is B-class; its imagery is pedestrian or not there at all; its dialogue is fatuous; the scenes are repetitive; the characters are lifeless (this, for a sex-laden story!); and its sex scenes are ridiculous and highly un-erotic. These aren’t merely opinion, or a matter of taste. If you like these books, like them for the story, if there actually is one there, but don’t claim the writing is what grips you.

Have books been dummed-down so much that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad? And that good and bad is NOT a matter of taste? That most best sellers are not good simply by virtue of selling a lot of books? It seems to me that, these days, to scale the proverbial “bar” once set to determine quality writing, one must walk downstairs into the basement.

Let me end this here: it is more than opinion that determines good writing, and love for craft is part of that, as is love of language, as is using dialogue that speaks to theme as much as drives story, as characters are fully realized without a reader’s need to “add” his own interpretation of who/what the character is, as scene is developed with an eye toward imagery that brings the five senses to play, as language is thematic and playful with the subject, as sentences are coherent and develop a coherent story that has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. No, not all stories that contain these are good (because then “taste” does play a part) but that’s a start. The authors that practice this craft? Roth and Updike, Atwood and Murdoch, McEwan and Bellow, Banville and Ackroyd, Naipaul and Theroux, Stead and Lessing … to name a few. Most of them are dead; where are today’s?

Someone in the thread made a comment directed at me, “You’re riding a very tall horse and I wouldn’t want to be you when you get knocked off it.”

This is my answer to that bit of wisdom: The horse on which I ride IS high, well high above the mud and slop and shit that a good portion of “writers” now stand, sit, or wallow around like pigs. I write strong literature, books that make you question why we are who we are; characters who challenge your self-identity; narrative that is striking and poetic and asks you to bring some level of intelligence to the page. And on this horse I hardly ever look down, for that is not my need, and my eyesight is on the horizon, where the scepters of writing-Kings and writing-Queens await me, where Knights-of-writing stand tall abreast of my steed, helping to keeping safe the idea, and my honest practice, of GOOD WRITING.

I hold my own books up for such scrutiny as anyone might make a challenge.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

The Divisions Among Us: Literature and Genre mix surprisingly well

“Literature and Fiction” — You’ll find this category listed on a plaque in the major bookstores. These titles are the industry’s marked division between contemporary/historical-themed stories that have been divided from the genres typically titled “Horror” or “Mystery” and “Thrillers” or “Science Fiction” — plot-heavy stories whose characters are, well, part of the plot. Oh, and then there’s one of the newer categories, “Dark Romance” (love that has an obsession with fangs, is my guess).

“To Categorize” has been an ordering device since Caxton’s day. Cervantes based his most famous character on the delusional fantasies one gets from reading too much — in Quixote’s case, Chivalric Novels. You need only jump a few generations to find what LeCarre and Fleming had developed on top of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” … and how Steven King brought back what Edgar Allen Poe had begun with most of his short stories a hundred years earlier.

Are there differences between the “literature” of Cervantes and LeCarre and Conrad and Poe and the “genre” of King and Fleming and (most recently) Larsson and Meyer? I can only answer with my opinion, not any difinitive answer. And my answer is…

Yes, but less are the differences in writing quality as there are with intent. You can investigate this yourself by going to the library, bookstore, or look through your own shelves. Pull out several genre-category books you know well, and the same for literature-category titles. How does each begin? How are the stories sustained? What happens at the end? Easy questions to answer, really. The more difficult questions to answer are What do you know about the three main characters? How did the beginning make you feel; and how was that different compared to the ending? What is the turning point in the psychology of the main character? Do the characters represent real life, and does the story say anything about the culture in which it was written?

If you answered the first series of questions with details about the events that take place, in which a character must do something in order to prevent, or make certainty, something happening; and if you can tell me only that this character lives in a particular city, likes wine over beer, and eats sandwiches standing up at the kitchen sink, then you’ve probably gathered the definition of genre fiction: plot heavy, light on character introspection, with “twists” at the end, or beginning, of each chapter.

If you answered the second series of questions by focusing on relationships, emotions, character action & re-action to each other, dialogue rich with introspection and investigating each others’ motivations and emotions, then I think you’ve gathered a good definition of literature: little or no obvious plot (or that which doesn’t turn every other chapter), focus on characterization and motivation and emotional connection to events/other characters, and an overall relationship and association with contemporary culture. Also, information that is left out is as important as that which is given. Likewise, on nearly every page you’ll find something wise.

But let’s face it, lots of classic AND contemporary “literature” sucks because its intent is not well planned and then poorly executed by a less-than-competent wordsmith whose best-formed sentences often begin with “The…”. On the other hand, such well-plotted — and highly crafted sentences — can be found throughout the novels of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Sophie Hannah, Larry Niven, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy, King and Straub.

However, they won’t be found in James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Sue Grafton. Heavy names on the Best Sellers lists every year, right? That’s true. But that doesn’t mean they write good story, nor good prose.

What people read is as personal as who they marry. This makes sense. Yet even a marriage has its ups and downs, and must evolve over time; evolution that’s not so much going toward something “better” by anyone’s definition, but at least something different.

My marriage with genre fiction ended shortly after I finished writing my second novel. It was crime fiction, and it was pretty good: lots of story, plenty of twists, some blackmail and murder, and sex that was less gratuitous and more in line with the plot. But I had found that, with this second novel, there was nothing more I could “say” to readers.

My divorce with genre happened because I married too young (first novel, 18; second, 24). And then I realized there was far more to talk about, and the stories in which I could say so much more, in the “category” of literature, where characters reigned, not plot twists; where life could be investigated against the backdrop of contemporary society; and, finally, a place and “person” whom I could love over and over, finding more inside her, getting more from her, giving more of myself to her, than anything from that youthful, whimsical love.

 

post-script…

Lit-Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by ITS THEME, then it’s literary (eg, “A man thinks the world is against him and his revolutionary ideas about architecture, but in the end he is proven wrong by his success.” — “The Fountainhead”)

Genre Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by WHAT HAPPENS, then it’s genre (eg, “A vampire tells his life story to a journalist, and we learn the chronicles of vampirism over a two-hundred-year period.” — “Interview with the Vampire.”)

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

The Thoughts between the Images

I’ve been reading “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell for a couple weeks now (it’s 975 pages!) and every bit of it is filled with contrasting images. From the Ukrainian forests overrun by Nazis, and used to hide the slaughtered “enemies,” to the garish nightlife of war-arrogant Berlin’s privileged aristocracy, Littell is intent on showing his audience life in Nazi Germany through the war years.

At first I was disconcerted with the story — not for its prose, or the character; both are compelling works of literary imagination — because the description of the atrocities inflicted on the civilian populations by the SS killers was a lesson in repetition of the striking image. This were as much a blitzkrieg to the senses of readers as war is to soldiers. Then he tempered these images by getting into the mind of the narrator, whose own careful observation of other soldiers brought about a picture that goes far beyond any film or war-time documentary can illustrate.

This is where “The Kindly Ones” took hold of me, and has not let go since. And here is found the focus of this column: the need for the author to get the thoughts of his character at just the right time; sometimes woven into the descriptive narrative, and other times coming abruptly, through memory or sense-triggering. Here’s where we writers can draw the reader along, after whipping her back and forth through the carefully developed labyrinth of images created to tell the story.

For example, after several such “actions” in which this narrator-cum-SS-Officer has watch in horror how (this is early in the war) regular soldiers were used to shoot civilians point-blank in the head and let them fall into a hastily dug trench, he sees what this has done to soldiers:

As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit.

Without this internal struggle, this book would have quickly become a “war book” filled with dirty language, “band of brothers” camaraderie, and sentimental feelings for home or family (or both). But this SS Officer is not so different from officers in other armies who have witnessed home-grown atrocities, and this makes all the difference.

In another episode, on the Russian front at Stalingrad as the Nazis are surrounded and being pummeled by the counter-attacking Russian army, under conditions known only to rats, weasels, and other rodents, our newly promoted (to captain) narrator is about to meet a partisan officer on the front lines, hiding in a room whose walls look like Swiss cheese from all the holes blasted through them:

What could this officer, cut off from everything, teach me that I hadn’t already read in some report? True, I could see for myself the miserable condition of the men, their fatigue, their distress, but that, too, I already knew. I had vaguely thought, on my way over there, about a discussion on the political involvement of the Croat soldiers with Germany, on Ustashi ideology: now I understood there was no sense in that; it was worse than futile, and this Oberleutnant would bprobably not have known how to respond; in his head there was room only for food, his home, his family, captivity, or his imminent death. All of a sudden I was tired and disgusted, I felt hypocritical, idiotic. “Merry Christmas,” the officer said to me as he shook my hand, smiling.

These paragraphs are instructive for any writer: in a world where so much imagery is dark, colored only by the red of blood from torn apart soldiers, we have the thoughts of an intellectual-turned-soldier to interrupt our own horror (a living nightmare few of us have witnessed). This is the humanity we seek within war’s theater, often left out, and unexplained; and these are the thoughts that make fiction the truth of humanity’s struggle with itself, no matter what conditions of splendor or squalor, heralded victory or murderous failure.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.