Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

"Montego Bay" by Bobby Bloom

It's summertime, and this, friends, is a sunny little hit from 1970.


Random Book Review: "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard Psychology professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease as she enters middle age.

I read this book a few weeks ago, and to tell you the truth, it's taken me a while to frame my opinion of it.

On one hand, the snark in me railed against the flat dialogue and lackluster writing. At one point, I actually hollered "Please, just, please, don't go and describe the new snowfall as 'A true winter wonderland'!" I actually turned off the audiobook at "the baby's pudgy, blotchy, pink cheek," had my little temper tantrum and turned it back on. (Maybe this is not so much snark as snob. I'll admit it. As a developing writer, I work so hard to give each sentence its due. This kind of thing just.... grrr.)

Beyond this, the novel had a Lifetime Special sort of feel that also ticked me off. It bothered me that Alice was a brilliant, happily married person before the Alzheimer's. This seemed too pat, too expected. Why not write about a more complicated, interestingly shaded person? I griped.

But, here's the thing; Still Alice does what it does brilliantly.

As the novel progressed, and Alice's internal language begins to disintegrate, looping and repeating and leaching precision, Still Alice gave me the sort of intimate experience that makes this book totally worthwhile. I swear, my own internal thought process began to echo Alice's (!) I didn't just read about the terror at being lost in one's own house, I felt it.

I can't deny the simple power of my experience in reading-- and living-- this book. And so, despite its flaws, I sort of recommend it. Check it out... if you dare.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

So Now You Know

I have a somewhat obsessive personality, at least where writing is concerned. I’d like to say I’m that way about housework too, but for the last week or so, I’ve been kvetching about how my kitchen floor—all of them really—needing mopping in the worst way. But have I mopped? Um, nope. Do I plan to? Maybe today. We’ll see.

One of the obsessive writerly things I’m been doing is reading interviews from agents and writers. And there’s a lot of contrasting advice there, especially when it concerns the possible conflict between the “art” part of writing and the business part.

People say to write what you love, regardless of “market forces”, that if for example, you write a teenaged vampire story, you might find the trend has moved on to say, historical thrillers or something.

But then they also say that serious writers must know the markets and how their work fits into it, that they must consider this brand from the very first sentence.

Some lucky writers find their tastes dovetail nicely with the trends market. They love YA paranormal, write YA paranormal and look here, the market for YA paranormal is ginormous!

But my own reading tastes are all over the map. I like some fantasy (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is one of my all-time favorites) and literary (Ditto with The Corrections, White Teeth, Lolita and Middlesex). I like some sci fi (The Sparrow rocked!) and some women’s fic, and historical too.

As a writer, I am all over the map too. When something—a character, a scene, an idea—grabs me, I go with it… whether it takes me to lit fic or sci fi or Toledo. I follow that aimless little muse (My actual muse is Julius Caesar, but that is a story best saved for some other time) and I don’t ever regret it.

But as a consequence, I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire (Wow! In this heat wave, this analogy feels more literal than planned!)

I’ve been struggling to settle down and focus on one of the projects on my back and front burners, my oven, toaster oven and campstove. So I thought, I’d list the projects for you and perhaps get a few nods in one direction or another. (Also, if you are a newer reader and wonder why the heck I have a gibbon on my header, a picture of a live oak draped in Spanish moss and keep posting all these durn One-Hit Wonders , now you know.)

So, kind readers, what do you think? Which of these projects seems a good place to put all this summer energy? Comments of any kind are soooo appreciated.

ORANGE LAKE (Literary Fiction) As children, Claudette and Leanne Taskett built houses of palmetto fronds and played at being “swamp girls” in the sulfur-smelling muck of North Florida’s Orange Lake, but as young adults they can’t hold a civil conversation. Twenty-one year old Claudette careens from one redneck boy to another. Leanne, determined to be her misfit family’s one success story is headed for college. After their father drowns and Claudette—despite all evidence to the contrary— claims responsibility and then disappears down the highway, Leanne must track down her sister, untangle the facts behind her father’s death and salvage what’s left of her tattered family. A southern sister story with a mystery at its heart.

STATUS: Complete with constant, slight tweaks

FAMILY, GENIUS, SPECIES (Quirky Literary Fiction) After a near-death experience in a motel bathtub, Rocker Roger "Zorro" Weitz, author of 1976's most forgettable One-Hit Wonder, stopped aging. Eternally 22, he’s slummed through almost three decades before a second brush with death prompts him to dedicate himself (and his prodigious, though now decades-old cool) to helping his girlfriend’s lonely, zoology-obsessed eleven year old find her own way in the world. Cool is beyond her, but the kid, a certified genius, has no trouble mastering the art of blackmail. Her quest to find and rescue a long-lost gibbon drags Zorro into theft, kidnapping, an actual car chase, and another, possibly permanent, brush with death. A rock-n-roll Peter Pan story with a touch of Pygmalion

STATUS: Complete. 3rd draft, undergoing substantial revision

FACE MOUNTAIN (Dystopian) Less than three generations into the collapse of civilization, people live in terror of The Bloom, a deadly fungus, and other new diseases. Mercenary "doctors" travel the remaining roads dispensing vaccines to those who can pay for them. Thompson Winter, a doctor, is on a mission to restore the last good place, the Face Mountain compound lost in a coup 10 years before. But Edward Whitingham, a mysteriously old man who remembers the long sunken cities of the east coast and doubts the power of The Bloom, is stranded with his family at the most tactical location. While trying to ascertain Whitingham’s questionable allegiances, Winter falls in love with the old man’s desperate young wife, Mary. With his life’s work in jeopardy, Winter must choose between love and honor in a world without much of either. FM is a bit of a sci-fi western, though based on an obscure Joseph Conrad novel.

STATUS: Working on first draft with—rare thing for this pantser-- a detailed outline!

ROADSIDE MEMORIALS (Literary Fiction/Magical Realism) Hillary Cohn, middle aged, between jobs and in the midst of an unwelcome divorce, witnesses the kidnapping of a strange baby with almost translucent skin and a touch that causes objects to briefly glow. What’s stranger, the woman Hillary assumes to be the child’s mother, denies it is hers. When Hill tracks the child, he is drawn into a strange world of religious zealots, shady detectives… and actual shades.

STATUS: Begun first draft, but still in planning stage.

FEINLAND (Literary Fiction/maybe Literary YA) Teenaged Ruth and her two brothers have grown up in isolation within the bounds of “Feinland”, their father Harry Fein’s “Jewish Amish” attempt at utopia in remote Northern New Hampshire. But when a troubled boy moves into a trailer in the field next door, stirring unexpected feelings in all three Fein children, Harry’s dictum to “protect and defend the family territory” turns deadly as Adam, the favorite and virtually non-verbal autistic eldest, takes this to the most literal end. FEINLAND is loosely based on the Yiddish story of “The Golem”

STATUS: Begun first draft, but still in planning stage.

ORCAS: (Literary/Women’s Fiction) Left alone with two young children during her biologist husband’s 4 month fieldwork, Joan grows desperate and heads across the east coast to surprise him. But along with his two specially trained moose turd-sniffing dogs, David has a hip young (female) research partner and no time for her. Stranded at his motel research base in the northwest tip of Newfoundland, Joan develops a dangerous obsession with the pod of Orcas sighted during a family whale watch and….?

Um, no clear plot yet, I’m still working out the details. This is a short story (at present), in early draft stage.

Whew! Now I'll get down to that mopping.

What do you think? Where should I invest my few writing hours?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Your (Long Overdue) One-Hit Wonder

Sorry I've been away. Summer is shaping up to be all about driving kids here there and everywhere, work and terrible crushing heat. It's all sort of fun though.

Thin Lizzie's "The Boys are Back in Town" is a great one. Doesn't it just scream long, hot summer.

Here are the guys in 1976

....and then some time later, much later

Friday, July 8, 2011

What John Henry Means to Me

John Henry is a folk character, the larger then life railroad man who challenged a steam drill to a race and won

... only to die of exhaustion in his moment of victory.

There are many ways to look at this story: John Henry is a low-skilled worker, fighting against automation on the job. John Henry (along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) is one of the last larger-than life American heroes lost in the age of “progress”. You can look at his story through the prism of race, class, masculinity, history.

Leadbelly sang about him

and Woody Guthrie

Here's Mississippi Fred McDowell:

and Bruce Springsteen:

You can also look at John Henry from the writer's perspective. Here is a man who kept at it, who discovered what he loved, what he was born to do (heck, he was born with a hammer in his hand, after all) and he engaged to the fullest. He didn't just drive steel he WAS a steel driving man.

Did he succeed? Not exactly.

Even in the most hopeful of versions, it's understood that in the future, steam drills will supplant spike drivers. So, then, is John Henry's life an example of futility?

I don't think so.

John Henry died satisfied. He died doing what he loved. Here's one version of his death scene:

"They took his hammer and wrapped it in gold

And gave it to Julia Ann;

And the last word John Hardy said to her was

Julia, do the best you can."

"If I die a railroad man,

Go bury me under the tie,

So I can hear old Number Four,

As she goes rolling by."

As I slog through one revision after another, I find myself thinking about John Henry. And though I don't always succeed, I try to approach my work with this sort of despite-everything joy.

Here's a lovely song-- one of my true favorites (and not even a one hit wonder!) about John Henry.... well actually about Elvis, who as Gillian Welch implies is sort of a sad counter point, a man who lost his love for his work and died "in long decline."

It's about John Henry, too, if tangentially.

When it comes to work-- both the paid and the aspiring variety—I would rather go out like John Henry, a hammer in my hand, satisfaction rather than success as my life's measure.

What about you?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!


Now, Right Said Fred is a more than a one-hit-wonder in Britain (those people are Crrraaazy) but in the US, this is their one and only.

And what a good one it is, too. 1992 never looked so, well.... 1992.