Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Random Book Review: "What the Dead Know" by Laura Lippman

I came across this novel my accident. I'd seen Eleanor Lippman on an author panel at The "Muse and Marketplace" Conference and had it in mind to read at least something from every author that presented there. So when I saw this audiobook on the library’s scant shelves, I snatched it right up.

But I got the wrong Lippman.

This turned out to be a happy mistake as "What the Dead Know" is crime fiction, a genre I rarely, well-- never-- read and one my plot-challenged little self could learn quite a bit from.

Here's the novel's back of the book blurb:

"Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who—or what—could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?

Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been? Why has she waited so long to come forward? Could her abductor truly be a beloved Baltimore cop? There isn't a shred of evidence to support her story, and every lead she gives the police seems to be another dead end—a dying, incoherent man, a razed house, a missing grave, and a family that disintegrated long ago, torn apart not only by the crime but by the fissures the tragedy revealed in what appeared to be the perfect household.

In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?"

Intriguing, right?

Even after I realized I had the wrong Lippman, I wanted to read this book.

And I wasn't disappointed. The writing is lovely, clear and detailed. Though not "literary" in its exploration of character, motivation and memory, it did exactly what it needed to do …and with beauty and elegance.

Even more, this novel is a lesson in plot design. There are few details that aren't purposeful. Scenes are constructed; they don't just happen or grow organically in every which way. I was conveyed forward from one point to another with scarcely time to stop and reflect.

I mean, I wanted to KNOW who that darn woman was, what happened to those girls.

Also the setting was marvelous. Lippman’s Baltimore-- in the present and in the 1970's-- is loaded with authentic detail. No doubt she has a strong connection here. To me, Baltimore is the faceless megalopolis we drive through on our way to Florida each winter. But the city, with its quirks and every-changing storefronts is like a another character here.

That said, I didn't care much for most of the actual characters. The handsome male "lead" annoyed the heck out of me. The meek goody-two-shoes social worker and barracuda lawyer where pretty much how you'd expect them. The mystery woman (I won't reveal anything about her) was not particularly likable. But this hardly mattered.

The novel did just what it set out to-- build an intriguing mystery, force the reader to turn pages (or, in my case, drive extra slow to get to the end before I pulled into the driveway at the end of the day.)

Check this one out.

(Please excuse all these crazy font changes. I just can't seem to get Blogger to cooperate!)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

Steve Martin is a pretty cool guy-- an expert banjo player, a writer, comedian, actor, playwright, art collector and, most importantly, a one-hit-wonder.

This here might have been the best thing about 1978.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lessons from the 99th page

Quite a while ago, I submitted my 99th page here, the 99 Page Test Website, which asks you to submit your 99th page for feedback.

I'd just finished up the awesome 99th page blogfest, and so this seemed like a swell idea.

Although it was mostly dialogue, I felt relatively confident in LOU's 99th page. I read a few of the other pages on the website and wrote detailed critiques for them, the kind of thing I try to do for my critique buddies: what seemed to be working and not, if I'd read further and why. And then I sat back and waited.

I thought I'd learn a little about my page-- the sort of feedback you'd get from a mini writing group. But mostly what I got was one or two word comments, some random, some hurtful, some enthusiastic.

There were many conflicting opinions:

" it's really beautifully written."

"Is this a 'Bonny & Clyde' story? Then perhaps, but it didn't come across like that. Not too badly written, though."

"Very good, crisp writing"

"this style is difficult to follow"

"I enjoyed the style and the characters made sense quickly."

"I liked this, it had an interesting voice to it and seemed well written."

And some rather blunt ones:

"The simile, "airtight as a laundry basket" seems like a pathetic attempt at humor in a scene that doesn't even require it."

"Horrible people having a rotten time doesn't fulfil my needs for literature – I can get that in real life, thanks!"

About 1/3were thumbs up/down without comment.

At first I was sort of appalled. But then I realized my 99th page taught me something important... not about how to improve ol' #99 or whatever else, but how to take criticism.

At first, each offhand comment landed like a haymaker. I mulled over what to fix on my page, maybe I should take out that damn laundry basket simile. But then I'd get the opposite reaction from the next reader, and some random thing from a third and in this way I began to learn to let it just roll off, to know my own heart and make sure the critiques I accept are either

a. From those I trust and respect


b. Common criticisms from many different people.

Maybe I could have learned all this from Rick Nelson: "You can't please everyone so you got to please yourself"

(Not a One-Hit-Wonder, by the way)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

Mungo Jerry with "Summertime"

Oh, I totally love this song-- and the hair. There's something so cool about the unassuming vibe of 1970. No glitz, just muttonchops and a jug. According to my research, Mungo Jerry made millions on this song.

Unfortunately, he didn't rest on his laurels. Here's Jerry in 2008 with a totally creepy performance.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Random Book Review: "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

Okay, I am probably the one and only person on Earth who didn't adore "The Time Traveler's Wife." I liked it alright-- interesting idea, love story with a unique hook, etc. Also, the last scene was worth the 200 pages of build-up (Interesting side note: I believe I read once that the last scene was Niffenegger's first. She built her whole book around it.)

Anyway, I didn't expect a all that much of "Her Fearful Symmetry," a ghost story, with a sort of twist-- part of it is from the ghost's point of view. It was on the scant shelf of audiobooks at the local library and so I picked it up.

There are a lot of interesting characters in the book. I really enjoyed Martin, the upstairs neighbor who suffers from seriously debilitating OCD, and his wife Marjike. The author also introduces an interesting pair of codependent "mirror twins", Julia and Valentina, who--aside from their fearful co-dependence-- seem to be suffering from a sort of prolonged adolescence and more than a touch of ennui. Valentina put me in mind of this:

There are many other characters as well, mostly well drawn and interesting.

The setting, in London outside of Highgate Cemetery, prompted me to look up actual pictures of the place. It's pretty amazing. See:

But--as you might already know-- I am working hard at teaching myself how to write the most engaging and twisty and interesting plot and "Her Fearful Symmetry" sort of fits into the 'what not to do' category.

First off, as Lynne Barrett said during one of the seminars I took at "The Muse" conference in April, all plot is by nature contrived. The trick is to come up with the most engaging and spectacular and naturally-right contrivance. The reader only notices the contrivance if it doesn't really work (I am paraphrasing here). Well, I definitely noticed in this novel. The plot feels forced-- characters doing things that seem quite out of character to move the mechanics of the plot forward. If Niffenegger hadn't done such a wonderful job of portraying the characters, perhaps I wouldn't have noticed this ...or if she hadn't swung for the fences in the stretching-the-bounds-of-realism category.

As the book moves toward its conclusion, it feels so rushed. Stuff happens and happens and happens but there is no time to get to the root or make sense of the seemingly extraneous twists.

There is almost no way to write about this book without giving up some monumental spoiler, so suffice to say: Engaging but with holes big enough to drive a Mini Cooper through.

There are some amazing moments though. I especially like the scene where James, a 90 some year old, describes waking in his room and seeing the ghosts of trees, or their shadows anyway, cast onto his bedsheets.

There is no doubt Niffenegger has a crazy-fertile imagination. It takes a certain fearlessness to come up with "Time Traveler" or "Symmetry," books that set about their own rules for the universe and stick to them. And she is clearly a talented writer. But in the end, the plot feels rushed and a bit um, contrived (and not in a good way).

Did you read this one? What did you think?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Being True

You know how there are some books that just resonate? Ones that long after the details have receded leave behind this feeling, like a long wake in the water, a sort of emotional imprint that you never really shake?

That's what I'm going for-- what most of us are going for, I imagine. Isn't this the very definition of art?

But the price for this sort of thing is steep.

An interviewer once made the mistake of telling Bob Dylan she really enjoyed his deeply personal and utterly wrenching album "Blood on the Tracks" his response was "Yeah, people tell me that all the time and I've never understood that, enjoying that kind of pain."

Oh, and here's Ernest Hemingway: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed."

What are we to make of this? Is it essential to bleed and heart-wrench and get sort of personal?

Um, yeah. Maybe.

Now that I've been re-revising my first novel, I've been thinking about this sort of thing, the way my own hard and often personal truths shake out onto my pages, whether they express too much-- or perhaps not enough-- to create the true experience I am going for.

You see, my first novel (which is tentatively titled "Left of Unsaid" and which I will--with thanks to "Bob" over at Mother. Write. (Repeat.)-- hereafter call "Lou" and is about two newly adult sisters struggling to reconcile after the sudden death of their father, has a pretty damn big kernel of truth in it:

My own father died in an accident during a family vacation. We were all there. We saw it happen.

For almost two years after, I didn't write a word. I couldn't fathom letting all that blood (as Hemingway so aptly describes it) gush out onto my pages, couldn't reconcile fiction with the hard truth of this thing that had happened. I grieved and cast about in a hundred non-writing related ways.

But the truth stayed put. Pardon the psychobabble here but, it needed to be expressed. Or anyway, I needed to express it.

So, on a cross-country motorcycle journey with my now-husband, with little more to do but watch the scenery speed past and listen to the constant BLAAAAATTTT of his '79 Yamaha's iffy engine, Lou was born.

Lou had it all: a sudden death, two nearly adult sisters, a Florida setting. By the time I arrived, I was primed to let 'er rip!

And I did.

At first, the pages captured little more than my own personal experience. The father in the story was a good man--a lot like my own-- he did his best at parenting, he was funny and sort of a square peg kinda guy, and the grief his girls felt was my own pure grief. I could not imagine writing even a mildly disapproving word about this "fictional" father.

And because of that, my first draft(ssss) pretty well sucked.

When I'd gained some distance, I did what had to be done: the father in my novel was no longer a saint. He was edgy and somewhat stingy with his love. (Of course, I fretted that people might think I was writing about my own father, but by then, I'd gotten the distance I needed to separate art and life... at least a titch.)

Still, however, the novel was lacking what it needed to be "true." (Also a working plot, but that's a whole other matter.)

I put it aside. And when I returned after a visit with Zorro and the gang (second novel "Family, Genius, Species" that perhaps I'll now call--what? Fargus?) I had the distance I needed and the father character became edgy, stingy, selfish, the sort of difficult man that keeps secrets-- big ones that will affect the people he left behind. In short, he's much more of an all-around bastard.

But this isn't a memoir I'm writing. It is a novel. And, as it turned out, it's not even about the father's death. It is about the lives the sisters lead after-- lives complicated by the circumstances of his death, the secrets he kept, the challenging sort of love they have for him and each other. It is THEIR story now.

And while it might not be as masterful as "Blood on the Tracks" or "The Old Man and the Sea", I think it's a true one.

How do you use "the truth" in your own work?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

Okay, so last time I'm afraid I hit a nerve with Madness and "Our House." Who knew Madness had so many fans? (Well, evidently A LOT of people knew. I heard about it at work, home, online, etc)

So I feel like maybe I'm sticking out my neck once again putting up Argent's "Hold Your Head Up" from 1972.

Don't tell me these guys are, like, superstars in on the international scene or something. (Well, actually, if this is the case, It'd probably be good for me to know.)