Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Reading Difficult Books

The Daily Telegraph recently published an article that listed the 25 books you "Really DON'T Have to Read Before You Die".  Of course all lists are reductionist, and this one is a particular hodge-podge, listing the Twilight Series with Ulysses and Cloudstreet, as if the readership for these books was likely to be the same.  I have serious doubts that the author, Kerry Parnell, has read all 25 books on this list. She admits to giving up on Midnight's Children, though it looks like she got through all of 50 Shades of Grey, which was listed just before Crime and Punishment.  Some of the books listed are actually very easy reading and no less wonderful for that.  Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton are all easily read and utterly engrossing (these three regularly make my own reductionist list of the best books of all times).  That they're hugely original, and have such distinctive styles that the books have not been copied by other authors (unlike Twilight or 50 Shades) makes them no less wonderful or accessible.  But there are other books on the list that take a little more work.  Ulysses of course is the obvious example, and as a one time Joyce scholar, I've blogged on this book before.  I'm still reading it, some 30 years after I first opened the book, and though I've read it through to the final "Yes" of Molly Bloom's soliloquy several times, there's always something new that surprises and stimulates me, as both reader and writer.  So I guess I must be one of the 32 very clever people.  However, if you drop by Frank Delaney's Ulysses podcast ReJoyce you'll find yourself in the company of around 30,000.  That, I suspect, is a mere drop in the bucket of the many fans that Ulysses has.  No, it's not easy.  Yes, it helps to take it slowly and have a guide to point out the many references, some political and rooted in time and place, but by god, it's worth the effort to enter the places Joyce takes us in that book (which, I might add, is not at all unreadable - just very referential and rich).  I would say the same for some of the other harder books on this list (which, if you take out some of the more obvious anomalities of popular culture, could easily be a list of the 25 books you really DO have to read).  Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse for example.  To say that nothing happens is to completely mis-read the book.  This is, like many great novels, the story of an internal transition and those subtle emotional connections between us that we attempt to bridge as we make meaning out of our lives.  There are many other wonderful and sometimes difficult books on this list including The Slap, The Metamorphosis, On the Road, Catch-22 and Shantaram to name just a few.  None of these books are easy, but all of them are rewarding.  You've got to put a little effort in, but once you're engrossed, the power of the prose, the distinctive voices, the philosophical journey, and the depth of the narrative transition is all revealed.  Worth the trouble.  There's nothing I like better than being engrossed in the fictive dream, and I'm all for having that happen quickly and easily when I read, but I also know that there are specific rewards to be found with some books (and art in general - that includes poetry, music, painting and dance) that take a little more effort and a closer, deeper reading.  It's by making this effort that we grow, not only as readers, but as people.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Guest Post: Molly Cutpurse: Writing What Readers Expect

As a child, I possessed an unconventional and odious personality, matched only by my need to read and write. The problem was my education, which was hideous. Diagnosed with dyslexia, as a young adult, I wrote a novel; a rambling, self-indulgent and humiliating quarter of a million words.

With no guidance, I continued to embarrass myself, completely mystified as to why agents and publishers did not wish to take on my undoubted masterpieces. Eventually, I understood it was my lack of self-consciousness that was my problem.

 Stepping off my hedonistic high tower that prevented me from becoming that which I believed I ought to be was depressing yet illuminating. My feet only touched the ground when I was in my fifties, arriving at the conclusion that either I could write for myself or I could write for the pleasure of other people. That is, if I wished to earn a living from this writing malarkey.

Write what we know is common advice. However, it is more important to write as readers expect. Having little formal education, I wrote as I spoke, and that is not what publishers wish to read. If they want that, they can visit a pub and listen to people chat over a pint.

My task was to learn how novels with a proven history, the classics, were written. I choose authors whose works appeared in the top one hundred lists of the last century, and devoured them. I learned spelling, grammar and how to write. Not in the same voice as those whose work I admired, but at least with the same syntax and morphology. That was my first lesson.

Agents and publishers were still not buying my drafts though. What to do? I consider myself a little different. (Have a look at my web page!) It follows then that my writing is a manifestation of my experiences. And, I have written some strange novels. However...is that what the majority of the population want to read? I concluded, they did not.

There are not too many people who want to read about a peasant-devouring being called, Madgododa who comes from the starship, Plodgel and who possesses a magic shield called, Tersacal. I cannot identify with that.

I only began to sell in large numbers when I ceased to write what was a reflection of myself, and began writing what readers wished to read. You want to sell plenty of books? Then watch prime-time television. Those are the sort of stories the majority wants to enjoy. Producers have been in business for a long time, and they know what sells.

My life changed when I began a series concerning how a woman from the East End of London took her family through World War Two. Riding on that success, readers began to enjoy my other books. I am still unconventional, we must all possess a singular voice, but I have learned to play the game.

Molly Cutpurse

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sourdough - a poem (a starter and a loaf of bread...)

I wanted to blog about my sourdough starter, which is working beautifully, but as this isn't a food blog, and as I'm currently working on a food related poetry book with my writing partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson (that's the long awaited provisionally titled Persephone's Juicy Jewels), I figured I'd do better with my target audience (that's you) by making things a little literary and writing a poem.  So herewith, my untitled, freshly baked sourdough poem.  On the left is a little fresh bread - just flour, salt, water, and starter. Chewy, soft, crusty, and gone within the hour (an ephemeral loaf, but one that served its purpose). 

lactic acid bacteria
nothing to be scared of 
perking in anticipation

with all those excited 
microorganism queuing up 
all that potential energy

it seems wrong to 
curl fallow, soaked in inertia 
shivering below the covers

failing everything 
and everyone 
unfed and tasteless

wrong to keep 
this pot of kinetic joy 
unkempt and perfect

from its life’s purpose
to leaven, nourish, 
raise the lost.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guest post: Second Acts by Koethi Zan

This is a guest post from Koethi Zan, author of The Never List

Pieter van Hattem  © 2012
A little over a year ago, I was a Deputy General Counsel of MTV overseeing the business and legal affairs for series production on shows such as The Hills, The City, Teen Wolf, True Life, Buck Wild, and Catfish.  Now, switching gears mid-career, I’m a full-time writer with my first novel, The Never List, to be published in the U.S. on July 16. 

The process of going from professional executive to a creative type has been a strange one.  In my eight years at MTV, I dealt with issues as various as suicide threats, stalkers, nudity, plastic surgeries, and sex tape scandals.  I negotiated and re-negotiated talent, production company, and rights deals with big-time Hollywood agents.  Before that I worked at a boutique law firm, two major law firms, and as head of business affairs for an independent film producer.  I went to parties, premieres, openings and festivals and represented writers, directors, actors, and playwrights.  From the outside anyway, it seemed pretty glamorous, and in truth it was about as fun as a legal career can be.  But last June, after sixteen years as a lawyer, I walked away from it all.

I grew up in a tiny rural Alabama town in a family of scientists.  I was the black sheep, obsessed with literature and film, not chemistry compounds and electrical engineering.  And I wanted to get out of there, so I worked hard.  I was on the student council, the math team, the scholar bowl team, and ended up Valedictorian.  But I was also a “Goth kid” who dressed in black, moped in my room, and listened to Morrissey, the Cocteau Twins, and Psychic TV.  I stood out in a high school that had a parking lot filled with monster trucks decked out with rebel flags. 

And then I went to college.  Estranged from my parents by that time (a whole other story), I supported myself with scholarships and a small “cow fund” from my grandparents.  (When I was three they’d given me a Charolais heifer named Molly.  Every year, her spring calf would be sold and the funds put into an account for me.) In college, I hung out with the art students and we spent weekends in New Orleans, partying in the gay clubs.  I wanted to be a filmmaker or a photographer.  But I didn’t quite have the nerve.  The cow fund was all used up and I was afraid I could never be financially stable in a creative field.  And so I ended up at Yale Law School.

But I had this brilliant idea:  I’d be an entertainment lawyer.  I’d be close to the creative process.  I’d be surrounded by artists.  It would be practically the same thing!  Ha.  It was just like my favorite New Yorker cartoon:  a picture of a boy dressed in a cowboy outfit, looking at his father saying, “Well, if I can’t be a cowboy, I’ll be a lawyer for cowboys.”

I didn’t get to start out as even a lawyer for cowboys, though.  My first stop was at a major white shoe law firm in Manhattan.  I was in the banking group.  I worked on secured financings and revolving credit facilities.  I spent nights sending out two hundred page documents to eighty banks for a syndicated loan transaction.  And I cried in the ladies room almost every day.

I made it into entertainment law after a year, and learned that the “lawyer” part of “entertainment lawyer” was definitely first and foremost.  But I can’t complain.  Over the years I worked with many wonderful people and I have a lot of great stories to tell.  Or at least I would have them, if it weren’t for attorney-client privilege.

Then two and a half years ago, I started writing a crime novel.  I had never written anything before except some pretty bad high school poetry, but I was a huge reader and I had an idea that was nagging at me based on my long-held obsessions with, and fears of, sado-masochistic dungeons (that’s yet another story).  I gave it a try, using the Graham Greene method, more or less.  I assigned myself the task of writing five hundred words a day, five days a week, with the caveat that if I finished ten thousand words in any calendar month, I could take the rest of the month off.  I kept finishing earlier and earlier each month. 

While writing the book I was working full-time at MTV and renovating a house.  I had to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning so I could squeeze in one hour of writing before my kids got up.  I believed that if I ever missed my word count requirements, I wouldn’t finish.  So I kept going. 

And then somehow the fairy tale came true for me.  My husband, a writer, gave my manuscript to his agency.  They liked it, gave me comments, I revised it, and then we sent it to publishers.   It sold and then there I was with a second career.   I still sort of don’t believe it.

Then I had to make a decision.  My boss, who was General Counsel of Viacom Media Networks,
overseeing MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Spike, TV Land and Comedy Central, was leaving the company for another high-powered job, and I was in the running to step into his shoes.  It was a major fork in the road.  I knew if I pushed for the top job and ended up getting it, my life would change completely.  It would be impossible to write a second book under those circumstances.  And yes, I could have stayed in the same position, writing books on the side, but this dilemma forced the issue for me.  The universe was telling me the time had come to choose:  was I a lawyer or a cowboy?

Lawyers, however, aren’t known for taking big risks, and I was scared.  Financially, I could justify taking a break from the law, but it meant I would have to make the writing thing work.  Would this book be successful?  And could I write another one? 

Only time will tell.  But I took the plunge.  I left MTV last summer and have been writing full-time ever since, finishing the edit for the first book, and starting on the second.  Maybe I’ve given up a lifetime of steady paychecks and employer-provided health care, or maybe one day I will go back to it.  But for now I’m just happy to be out here on the range.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Poetry Monday: Vox Americana on Poetica

Photo Credit: Inky Bob,
Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Melissa Zexter
This Poetry Monday I have to draw your attention to the amazing Radio National Poetica. Produced by Mike Ladd, himself a fine poet, the show is always full of rich poetry read beautifully and peppered with music, commentary, and sound effects to give that full body experience.  The show is aways a joy to listen to (and I'm not at all biased by the fact that they once read a poem from my book Repulsion Thrust on the show), but the current two part series is like an encapsulation of my late teen years and made me hugely nostalgic. Sitting somewhere between poetry and rock and roll, the show is a sensory overload of beatnik New York City, moving between Tom Waits, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop (didn't know he was a poet, did you?), Allen Ginsburg, Leonard Cohen, William S Burroughs and lots of others. I felt like I was back in the bleachers at the St Mark's Poetry Project. Grab your beret and a cup of black coffee and you're ready to go.

Here's Part One:
Part Two:

Monday, July 8, 2013

On reading out loud (especially to our children)

A recent article in The Guardian titled "Modern Life means children miss out on the pleasures of reading a good book" provided the rather bad news that reading for pleasure is declining among primary-age pupils.  One of the key reasons cited was "time-poor" parents were no longer reading to their children at bedtime. This really saddened me. I can't imagine a person so time-poor that they can't spend 15 or so minutes reading to their children before bed. It's not only a chance to demonstrate, in a very literal sense, how utterly pleasurable a story can be - setting up children for a lifetime of reading enjoyment, it's a few moments of closeness that might otherwise be hard to find in our busy lives.

This becomes increasingly important as children get older and time-poor themselves. Though my two boys now feel they're too old to be read to before bed, we read together until they were each about 12 years old (the decision to stop was theirs, and it happened pretty naturally).  By then I was reading them books like Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I read the entire series with my middle boy) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, which really challenged my ability (or lack thereof) with the Scottish accent. No matter how tongue-tied I got, we always ended up laughing.

Last night I finished Black Beauty with my 10 year old daughter - my youngest child, and I'm hoping that I can continue reading to her for at least another few years.  I have to admit that my reasons for this are partly selfish.  As we choose the books we'll read together, I can choose titles I've always wanted to read but never got around to.  I can also relax into the reading process, put on accents, get dramatic and end on a flourish ("tomorrow night we'll hear all about The Devil's Trade Mark.").  Sometimes I give my daughter a little massage after her reading.  Sometimes we'll talk for a bit about what happened in the story or about other things.  It's the best part of my day and something I look forward to greatly.

My mother always read to me too, for a long time after I was past my preschool years, and I still can conjure up that sense of safety, comfort and joy of hearing a story - even one that I already knew well, like Where the Wild Things Are or On Beyond Zebra.  Sendak and Seuss were mainstays of my childhood, and I didn't need Mem Fox to encourage me to read these, and other books, to my children - it just seemed normal to pick up a book and read to them (though I agree with every word of Fox's Reading Magic).

If you aren't reading to your children (and other people's children too), you're not only eliminating a potentially powerful tool for helping children understand the relationship between letters, sounds, words, and the magic of stories, but you're also missing out on one of life's biggest pleasures.  Of course, I know that whatever demographic The Guardian surveyed, it didn't include you!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Poetry Monday: Ellen Mandel does it again

Ellen Mandel has done it again.  She's released a new CD full of beautiful, mostly classic poetry set to utterly appropriate music. The Cat and the Moon takes its title song from the WB Yeats poem of the same name:

Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn. 
The CD contains works by Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heany and Daniel Neer's own Haiku series which takes us through a series of ordinary moments in the life of a NY actor that reminds me a bit of Frank O'Hara.  Daniel also provides the vocals for all the music on this CD, in his exquisite voice that melds smoothly with Mandel's jaunty piano.  Neer's own brief pieces are quite funny and light ("who needs a day job?") while the Hardy is intense and dark:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.

The range of styles is well conveyed by the combination of piano and vocal and the arrangements are all deeply moving.  Nicely balanced, utterly listenable, and still pure poetry, The Cat and the Moon is another wonderful poetic offering from the maven of musical poetry.  Mandel's deep underlying respect for the poetry around which the music is built shines through this new CD.  To get hold of the CD, visit Mandel's site at  http://www.ellenmandel.com/