Thursday, June 26, 2008

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS #2: THE REPTILE ROOM, by Lemony Snicket


I tried reading the first Harry Potter book a few years ago, and didn't take to it. The other recent series to be aimed at kids but embraced by a wider audience is this one, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket. I found a copy of THE REPTILE ROOM, the second book in the series, abandoned with a box of books on a street corner near my house, and took it home. Yesterday I cracked it open at work, and two hours later I was finished. All in all I liked it, and I'll probably read others if they find their way into my hands, but I'm not really planning on hunting them down.

Still, I'm interested by this whole adults-reading-kids-books phenomena, and I had that in mind while I read it. It's been years since I've read another book aimed at kids. What is it that makes them catch on with older readers? What is it about kid's books that sets them apart from adult fare? I'm not sure if I know everything that defines or typifies a kid's book, but I noticed the following in THE REPTILE ROOM:

Simple Characters and a simple plot: The principle characters in this series seem to be the three Baudelaire children, their banker Mr. Poe, and their nemesis Count Olaf. Each of these characters is identifiable by just a few key things: the oldest kid is a girl who likes to invent and ties her hair up with a ribbon when doing so; the middle child is a boy who wears glasses and likes to read; the youngest is a baby with four sharp teeth, who likes to bite things and participates in conversations by spouting gibberish. That's pretty much all there is to them, and the plot is designed in a way that continually touches on and reinforces these basic traits.

Narrator who is a character: The aforementioned Lemony Snicket, who tells the story, also interacts directly with the reader. Usually, this interaction consists of warning the reader about the depressing nature of the book, and recommending that the reader put the book down and not read it at all. His narration generally borders on conversational, and he segues away from the plot here and there to explain a word or phrase, or describe a related-but-uninvolved situation. The narrator also speaks in a rather prim, archaic tone which brings to mind the narrators from Victorian novels by authors like Charles Dickens.

Repetition: Much of what happens, and much of the way those happenings are described, follows patterns that repeat throughout the book. Usually this repetition is focused on things that don't hold overriding importance to the plot, but rather affect the mood and feel of the story. For example, the three children often discuss what's happening and what they should do about it, and the baby always participates in these discussions by blurting a single multi-syllable word of gibberish, which the narrator interprets for the reader (example: "'Meeka!' Sunny said, which probably meant...").

There's more to note, but I'm clocking out from work now, so I'll end this post here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE LADY IN THE LAKE, by Raymond Chandler


I was very impressed with the other Chandler book I've read--THE BIG SLEEP. With this one, not so much. The plot is a little too convoluted, the descriptions a little weak, Marlow's thoughts a little strange at times, and the conclusion more than a little disappointing. It was still a decent read, but I had high hopes for this book, and it didn't measure up.

In all honesty, THE BIG SLEEP didn't have the most airtight plot either. That book felt to me like it wrapped up the story halfway through, fumbled around for a bit, and then worked the preceding events into a continuing story. But it was still a joy to read, and the bulk of that joy comes from Chandler's descriptive style, and his clever use of simile. He manages it at points in LADY IN THE LAKE, with lines like "The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips," but the quality of his simile isn't consistent throughout--a lot of other similes in the book are left reaching, they don't really grab hold.

What is consistent, what really does hold up throughout this book like it did in the other, is the quality of the dialogue. Chandler crafts conversations that are better than anything you'd hear in real life, and it leaves you wishing people were as witty as they are in his books. Here's a favorite example of mine from LADY: "I thought they cleaned this town up," I said. "I thought they had it so that a decent man could walk the streets at night without wearing a bullet proof vest."/"They cleaned it up some," he said. "They wouldn't want it too clean. They might scare away a dirty dollar."

What really works against this book, as I've already mentioned, is the plot and the conclusion. A lot of what I've come to admire about good detective fiction is the power of logic, and the ability to act logically, that so many of these detectives possess. But Marlowe doesn't strike me as completely logical in this book, especially toward the end. A lot of the time I was left guessing about why he was doing things the way he did. The decision that brings the story to the lake for its final scene is a good example. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth after I turned the final page.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Neighborhood Life


I recently wrote an article for a website called Neighborhood Life, and it just went online this week. I've published a few other journalism pieces here and there, but this was the first piece I pitched, researched, contacted and interviewed sources, wrote, and got paid for. The best thing about it was having an excuse to talk with people involved in a project I was interested in. I'm planning on pitching other stories to neighborhoodlife.net, and maybe I'll try to get motivated enough to pitch to other places too. If nothing else, it's a way to stay busy and make a little cash.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Walking

For a little over a week now I've been walking to and from work every day. I started walking because of a flat tire on my bike, which I still haven't gotten around to patching, and I've kept walking because I'm really enjoying it. I've always liked walking; it's my favorite way of getting around. I like having the time to think, and to take in my surroundings. Sometimes I wonder if the human mind is better suited to walking speed, and if we diminish its capacities when we exceed a walking pace. In a car, the world blurs by and we take in only a fraction of what surrounds us. Walk the same block you normally drive, and you'll notice a million things you'd never notice while sitting behind a wheel. Many of those things will seem big and obvious--that house is painted purple; they've got a tombstone in their front yard, etc. Even the speed of a bicycle cuts down on what you can see. And because walking is such a basic ability--we learn to walk far before we learn to ride a bicycle or drive a car--it demands less attention from the mind, leaving you free to observe more and think more.

Another good thing about walking is that it's great exercise. I honestly think that our sedentary lifestyles cause tremendous harm to our bodies, and walking is a way to limit that damage. Sixty years ago most of the human race depended on hours and hours of physical activity as a regular part of its life, and our bodies need that activity to maintain proper functioning. By removing that activity, by reducing the physical effort used in getting around and acquiring food and all that, we've removed an essential component to the maintenance of good health. Eating a salad for dinner and going on a half hour run three times a week is not going to do it; we need to be more active more of the time. Walking is a great way to reclaim some of our lost physical activity.

People think they're wasting time by walking, or that walking takes too long, but the truth is walking generates time. The more you walk, the healthier you'll be and the longer you'll live.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

THE THIN MAN, by Dashiell Hammett


I've only read one other novel by Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON, but I liked it so much that it (along with THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler) threw me right into the pulp-mystery reading binge I've been on for the last few months. Unfortunately, most of the books I've read since those first two haven't been nearly as much fun, and I'm starting to think I got confused at the start: it's not that I love mystery writing (in fact, I'm hardly interested in figuring out who-dunnit by the end of the book), it's just that I love Hammett's writing.

So I finally came back to Hammett with THE THIN MAN, his last novel, and I savored every blessed page. While I read I found myself wondering what it was that Hammett does with words that makes those words so fun to read. By the time I turned the last page, I had a few ideas.

First of all, Hammett is clever. His descriptions are always unique, unprecedented. He somehow finds a way to say something, in simple language, in a way it hasn't been said before. And on top of that, he says it in a way that feels more accurate, more perceptive and true, than the bulk of what most other people manage. He isn't using any special arsenal, any esoteric vocabulary, but the way he uses his words is masterful.

Here's an example, in which he's describing a dog's feelings, that sort of gets at what I'm trying to explain: "Asta liked Macaulay because when he patted her he gave her something to set her weight against: she was never very fond of gentleness."

Now, most people who spend time with dogs probably know that a lot of dogs are like this--they like to lean against you hard, to feel solid contact. Noticing this is not in itself especially clever, though it does seem (at least to me) especially true. But Hammett's way of phrasing it--"something to set her weight against"--is clever. I don't think many people would express the idea in this way. They might say "Dog's like to lean on you," but they probably wouldn't phrase it "they like something to set their weight against." They might say "dog's like to roughhouse," but they probably wouldn't come up with "they aren't fond of gentleness." Hammett manages to say what many know, and that those who don't know can still recognize as probably accurate, in a way that most wouldn't think to say it.

Another great thing about Hammett's books is the characters he peoples them with. The protagonists are especially compelling, and Nick Charles (from THE THIN MAN) is the best I've read so far. He's exceedingly competent and smart, yet still tough enough to dodge bullets and throw punches. And he's got a sense of humor, which makes him more like-able than Sam Spade (from THE MALTESE FALCON, who comes across as a little too eager to give the Limp-Wristed Levantine a slapping).

Because of these great characters, we get a lot of great dialog. Hearing Charles navigate conversations away from what he doesn't want to tell, seeing him drop hints for other characters to pick up, and hearing him cajole and tease his wife, is where a lot of the fun in book comes from. Hammett peppers his dialog with subtle innuendo and charm so effectively that it makes real-life talking dull by comparison.

I could go on about Hammett's story pacing; his short, punchy chapters; his stripped down, lean prose--all of that deserves mention, but it's time for me to clock out of work, and go home.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Titular Journal


Following up on my May 20th post, I've started submitting a few things to Internet Literary Journals. Last week I had my first acceptance, a piece called "The Mosquito Coast," which has been published on Titular. Titular is a site dedicated to publishing works that take their titles from movies, novels, and TV shows. It might seem like a strange premise, but it's resulted in some pretty intriguing stuff (check out Blake Butler's piece, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me").

My experience with Titular brings to mind two more benefits offered by online journals. The first benefit is incredibly quick response times. I submitted "The Mosquito Coast" to Titular by email at 10 o'clock at night. When I checked my email the next afternoon, there was an acceptance letter in my inbox. For a literary journal in general, such a response time is astounding. For a print based journal, with the traditional postal submission process, such a response time is impossible. The fastest acceptance I've had for a mailed submission to a print journal was around three weeks (for my short-short "grace" which appeared in Quick Fiction #9). The slowest acceptance I've ever had, for my short memoir "Jumper at the Hyatt" which appeared in Instant City #5, took eight months. The average acceptance would be closer to 10 weeks. When you take account of the fact that most stories are rejected multiple times before finding a home, every week of waiting compounds the total lag from writing to publication. You often end up with a story hitting print years after it was originally written.

The second benefit I've thought of, after this acceptance, relates to the greater possibilities in story types that online journals can offer. The Mosquito Coast is a story that probably wouldn't be suitable for very many journals. It's a straight-forward, un-funny, gimmick-free account of a man hunting and killing a mosquito. The subject matter is modest, the scope brief. The value in the story lies, as I see it, in the clarity and honesty of the prose, and in how that prose serves the subject (in my mind, even a story as simple as a man killing a mosquito can be interesting when written well). I think it's a good story, a nice story, but I can't imagine that many print journals would consider it. When every page is costing money, the editor is compelled to look for stories that make more noise, that have a more dramatic emotional impact. That's why we end up with so many "epiphany" stories--it's the emotional equivalent of the dynamite blast.