The Hook Brings Them Back

The calm between the storms: And just where do they plan on fitting another foot of snow?

They sure do like to rush the sequels these days.  Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2:  The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again.   As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008!  Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line.  They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back.   I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.  

I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form! 

Here are some of my findings: Continue reading

A Damn Good Flood

Specimen One:  Toby, a former high-ranking member of the now defunct fallaciously pacifist eco-freak religious cult, God’s Gardeners.  Specimen Two:  Ren, a former Gardener, and up until just now, an exotic dancer at Scales & Tails.  Could it be?  Are these two women the last people on earth?  Told in a series of alternating POV’s, flashbacks and flash-forwards, part of the fun of Margaret Atwood’s sometimes laborious novel, The Year of the Flood, is finding out if they are…or if they aren’t…and if they aren’t…who or what awaits them in a post-apocalyptic world?

Though it’s by no means a necessary pre-requisite, perhaps if I had read Atwood’s earlier novel Oryx and Crake (whose events run somewhat parallel to The Year of the Flood in the same futuristic and doomed universe) I would not have been as confused early on, and when certain characters made an appearance or particular events were referenced, there would’ve been more “AHA!” moments for me.   But you see, it’s not so much a grand serial epic or the apocalypse per se that Atwood is most interested in.  It’s the speculation… Continue reading

Bring Out “The Dead”

CAPTION:  Man dies from boredom on Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge while reading a very long novel.  *Photo courtesy of  Philip Pankov (www.philpankov.com) and www.thenocturnes.com.

Kurt Vonnegut once said of novels that “reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about.”

I couldn’t agree more while I find myself in a laborious relationship with The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl.  The novel is a fictionalized account of a Baltimore lawyer’s quest to solve the mystery behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe.  This is one of those books with an interesting concept ruined by the author’s insistence on telling the story in the static, unimaginative style of prose from the stuffy time period in which the novel takes place.  It’s makes for a dry, boring read.  Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, I fear I may never finish it.  I’m currently stuck at about the 100 page mark.  I should’ve known better when I saw Carr’s glowingly positive blurb splattered on the cover of Matthew Pearl’s magnum opus.  Though I find the topic of Poe’s death fascinating, reading Pearl’s novel makes me feel…well, dead.

And that brings us to James Joyce and “The Dead.”  Thankfully for every bad novel I torture myself with, there are dozens of short stories I can read in between chapters that are as Vonnegut once described, “Buddhist catnaps.”  Short stories provide perfect little meditative escapes from everyday life and respite from bad novels.  Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art.  James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one such story.  It’s possibly the greatest short story I have ever read.  Continue reading

My Summer with Graham, Kurt, and William

I feel the work of art displayed below, “On the Way, Open Book” by Quint Buchholz accurately displays the mindset I was in this summer while reading and writing…

 

During this long, hot seemingly endless summer while nursing the early stages of a new novel into being, I also dug deep into the classics for inspiration and went on a wild reading spree.  I caught up with some of Graham Greene’s lesser known novels, the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, and for the first time ever, tackled William Faulkner.  Taking a queue from Oprah (say what you will about the woman–I know no one in the public eye more passionate about spreading literacy and serious literature), I picked up her personally endorsed box set of three of Faulkner’s works.  Faulkner is one of those writers, like Shakespeare, who people endlessly study and write about–reading him is a daunting task that you should only take if you are truly prepared and ready.  I doubt I would’ve appreciated him had I read him in college.

Here’s the rundown:

Graham Greene:

After watching and loving the film adaptations of his End of the Affair and The Quiet American, I snatched up his gargantuan short-story collection and devoured it.  Now having read two more of his novels, he is hands-down my favorite writer.  Every time I visit the book store, I snatch up another one of his works.

The Tenth Man.  I read this twisty convoluted tale of switched identities and the things men will do to survive in times of war while on the North Carolina beach in late May.  It’s a shockingly effective and tense little thriller that would’ve made a great story for an Alfred Hitchcock film.

A Gun for Sale.  This deliciously wicked and psychologically complex “noir” tells the tale of a hired killer paid with stolen banknotes who hunts down the man who scammed him while trying to elude the police and the sharp-witted young showgirl who gets tangled in his web.  Greene called this one of his “entertainments,” clearly thinking less of it than his standard and more serious-minded work, but he did for the thriller here what Hitchcock did for the rote suspense flick during the same era–he raised it to the level of art.

Kurt Vonnegut:

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.  Vonnegut is the master of sparse, no-nonsense, modern prose full of satire, humor, the wonders of technology, and an exploration of the social mores of the Baby Boom Generation.  He’s also good for those ironic twists, which after reading four or five of his stories in a row become more apparent and predictable.  My favorites from this collection include “Any Reasonable Offer,” “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger,” and “A Present for Big Saint Nick.”  There’re some great bits in the introduction where Kurt discusses the need for the short-story form and offers some witty advice to writers.

William Faulkner:

As I Lay Dying.  Faulkner’s tale of the Bundren family’s tragic trek made to bury their mother in her hometown is an aggravatingly brilliant tour-de-force.  It features all of the hallmarks that make Faulkner so beloved and hated: roving 1st-person narration, often incomprehensible train-of-thought, dialogue in Southern dialect that is often unreadable, and long-winded flowery prose that occasionally reaches the level of transcendence.  A short work just over 200 pages, this is best read quickly and straight through.  If you stop and try to understand everything or attempt to dissect a piece, you’ll drive yourself mad.  I got the gist of it and moved on. 

The Sound and the Fury.  Oddly, the novel most quoted as his defining piece of work, I found to be the most un-involving as I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters in this tale of the highly dysfunctional Compson clan.  That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of shear stupefying literary brilliance, especially towards the end where he vividly describes the servants going to Church and the passionate sermon delivered by a visiting preacher.  Ultimately the novel goes nowhere, signifying, well, fancy that, sound and fury.

Light in August.  This represents Faulkner’s most traditionally structured and plotted work.  His hallmarks are all here, but kept in check: the flowery prose sprawling but intoxicating, the Southern-style dialogue used for great purpose to further the plot, and the train-of-thought kept to a minimum resulting in maximum effect.  He masterfully intertwines the tales of a young pregnant woman hunting down her baby’s father, a criminal haunted by his mixed ancestry, a fallen preacher, and many others in this epic treatise on life in the South in the 1930’s.  Light in August is a stone-cold masterpiece.

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Next up: The Orient Express by Graham Greene and the collected short stories of William Faulkner.  If anyone has any suggestions for a contemporary best-seller with literary merit, please feel free to leave your recommendations in the comment field.

Written by David H. Schleicher

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84

The following was taken right off the AP wire.  Vonnegut was one of the greatest American writers of the last century.  I’m currently in the midst of one of his short-stories collections.  His work and his life are an inspiration to all who strive to leave their mark by telling a story.  Here’s hoping his family uncovers some “lost” and previously unpublished work so that he can continue to have new success and be a voice for the sane in this insane world.  His words will surely live-on for decades to come.

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Associated Press – NEW YORK – In books such as “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle,” and “Hocus Pocus,” Kurt Vonnegut mixed the bitter and funny with a touch of the profound.

Vonnegut, regarded by many critics as a key influence in shaping 20th-century American literature, died Wednesday at 84. He had suffered brain injuries after a recent fall at his Manhattan home, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

In a statement, Norman Mailer hailed Vonnegut as “a marvelous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own. … I would salute him — our own Mark Twain.

 

“He was sort of like nobody else,” said another fellow author, Gore Vidal. “Kurt was never dull.”

Vonnegut’s works — more than a dozen novels plus short stories, essays and plays — contained elements of social commentary, science fiction and autobiography.

A self-described religious skeptic and freethinking humanist, Vonnegut used protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim (“Slaughterhouse-Five”) and Eliot Rosewater (“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”) as transparent vehicles for his points of view.

Vonnegut lectured regularly, exhorting audiences to think for themselves and delighting in barbed commentary against the institutions he felt were dehumanizing people.

“He was a man who combined a wicked sense of humor and sort of steady moral compass, who was always sort of looking at the big picture of the things that were most important,” said Joel Bleifuss, editor of In These Times, a liberal magazine based in Chicago that featured Vonnegut articles.

Like “Catch-22,” by Vonnegut’s friend Joseph Heller, “Slaughterhouse-Five” was a World War II novel embraced by opponents of the Vietnam War, linking a so-called “good war” to the unpopular conflict of the 1960s and ’70s.

Victim of, advocate against censorship
Some of Vonnegut’s books were banned and burned for alleged obscenity. He took on censorship as an active member of the PEN writers’ aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The American Humanist Association, which promotes individual freedom, rational thought and scientific skepticism, made him its honorary president.

Vonnegut said the villains in his books were never individuals, but culture, society and history, which he said were making a mess of the planet.

“I like to say that the 51st state is the state of denial,” he told The Associated Press in 2005. “It’s as though a huge comet were heading for us and nobody wants to talk about it. We’re just about to run out of petroleum and there’s nothing to replace it.”

Despite his commercial success, Vonnegut battled depression throughout his life, and in 1984, he attempted suicide with pills and alcohol, joking later about how he botched the job.

“I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations,” Vonnegut, whose watery, heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair made him seem to be in existential pain, once told a gathering of psychiatrists.

Vonnegut was born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, and studied chemistry at Cornell University before joining the Army. His mother killed herself just before he left for Germany during World War II, where he was quickly taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He was being held in Dresden when Allied bombs firebombed the German city.

“The firebombing of Dresden explains absolutely nothing about why I write what I write and am what I am,” Vonnegut wrote in “Fates Worse Than Death,” his 1991 autobiography of sorts.

But he spent 23 years struggling to write about the ordeal, which he survived by huddling with other POW’s inside an underground meat locker labeled slaughterhouse-five.

An iconoclast
The novel that emerged, in which Pvt. Pilgrim is transported from Dresden by time-traveling aliens, was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and solidified his reputation as an iconoclast.

After World War II, he reported for Chicago’s City News Bureau, then did public relations for General Electric, a job he loathed. He wrote his first novel, “Player Piano,” in 1951, followed by “The Sirens of Titan,” “Canary in a Cat House” and “Mother Night,” making ends meet by selling Saabs on Cape Cod.

Critics ignored him at first, then denigrated his deliberately bizarre stories and disjointed plots as haphazardly written science fiction. But his novels became cult classics, especially “Cat’s Cradle” in 1963, in which scientists create “ice-nine,” a crystal that turns water solid and destroys the Earth.

He retired from novel writing in his later years, but continued to publish short articles. He had a best-seller in 2005 with “A Man Without a Country,” a collection of his nonfiction, including jabs at the Bush administration (“upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography”) and the uncertain future of the planet.

He called the book’s success “a nice glass of champagne at the end of a life.”

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Kurt Vonnegut works:

— “Player Piano,” 1951

— “The Sirens of Titan,” 1959

— “Canary in a Cat House,” 1961 (short works)

— “Mother Night,” 1961

— “Cat’s Cradle,” 1963

— “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” 1965

— “Welcome to the Monkey House,” 1968 (short works)

— “Slaughterhouse-Five,” 1969

— “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” 1971 (play)

— “Between Time and Timbuktu,” 1972 (TV script)

— “Breakfast of Champions,” 1973

— “Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons,” 1974 (opinions)

— “Slapstick,” 1976

— “Jailbird,” 1979

— “Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage,” 1981 (essays)

— “Deadeye Dick,” 1982

— “Galapagos,” 1985

— “Bluebeard,” 1987

— “Hocus Pocus,” 1990

— “Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s,” 1991 (essays)

— “Timequake,” 1997

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Kurt Vonnegut Quotes:

I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

“If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.”

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before… He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”

“There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.”

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

“Humor is an almost physiological response to fear.”

“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

“Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.”

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”