Month: July 2014

Book Review – Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

American literary fiction would’ve been much duller without Sinclair Lewis’s offerings. Because of works such as Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and It Can’t Happen Here I along with many others decided to try writing novels. I’ve always believed that Sinclair Lewis’ worst far exceeded the best novels I’ve read…until now. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to write that reading Cass Timberlane ranked among the biggest disappointments of my adult life. I read this book because Cass and Jinny Timberlane crossed over into the follow-up novel Kingsblood Royal. Lewis would’ve been wiser to save them for that piece.

The word pedestrian best described the overall premise of this book. The tale centered around a middle-aged man infatuated with a much younger woman. Is anyone still reading this review? Really? Okay, I’ll continue. Without the two knowing each other very well, they decided to espouse. I’m serious: does this plot line hook anybody? Could the overall concept be more banal? I hate to write it, but the answer is: yes. Predictably, trouble ensued due to the age difference. Imagine that. As the story wore on Cass suspected his wife of, you’ll never believe this, infidelity! Judge Timberlane tried to do everything he could to please her, yada, yada, yada.

But Cass Timberlane got worse. Sinclair Lewis possessed a genius for crafting sentences. I loved the way he’d begin with a phrase that led the reader to come to one conclusion. He would then throw a twist in the next one to reverse the meaning. Most times he’d do this while satirizing the foibles in American society. I didn’t read many such passages in Cass Timberlane. In the interest of fairness, Mr. Lewis did include several memorable lines. I’ll provide them here.

Fortunately Hudbury did remember him, and fortunately he did not remember that he had hated Congressman Timberlane after a party caucus at which the fellow had suggested that even Republicans ought to know that there was a new invention called labor unions. (Location 2837)

Here’s another sample of vintage Lewis.

The Senator looked confused, but he was used to it. For years and years he had been confused over something or other, and he would continue to be confused until someone in his State discovered that he was their Senator, and had him defeated. (Location 2849)

The best flash of Lewis’ clever expression occurred in the following.

During his first five readings of the masterpiece, he twice decided that she liked him, once that she loved him furiously, once that this was merely a routine answer with all the romantic flavor of payment of a gas-bill, and once that she was bored by him and intended, on his evening of oratory, to go off dancing with some treacherous swine like Elno Roskinen. (Location 1556)

Textual flourishes like the above first interested me in Sinclair Lewis. Cass Timberlane dissatisfied for not including enough of them.

One critique that Lewis received over the years entailed his not qualifying as a “modern writer.” A critic, who’s name escaped me as I wrote this, called his works more similar to those of Anthony Trollope than someone like William Faulkner. Structurally, I thought Lewis tried to make 1945’s Cass Timberlane more contemporary. At the end of several chapters, Lewis inserted a section called “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives.” In it, he described the travails of married folk in his fictitious setting of Grand Republic. None of these couples had any role in the overall story. It distracted from the narrative flow and did nothing to enhance the overall narrative. Lewis should’ve stayed with the methods he did best.

I can’t believe Sinclair Lewis wrote a boring book. It took me a week of long, ponderous reading to discover this unfortunate fact. There’s no reason for Sinclair Lewis fans to mope. If they want to read Lewis’ take on a troubled marriage: read Dodsworth. If they’d like to read a good example of plot development: read Elmer Gantry. If they read Kingsblood Royal and would like to learn more about Grand Republic or the Timberlanes, read Kingsblood Royal again. While the quality of Lewis’ other novels set my expectations quite high Cass Timberlane fell abysmally short of them.

Book Review – Pincher Martin by William Golding

Here’s life on an island in the sun as only William Golding could describe it. When I reviewed the plot summary of Pincher Martin, I knew I had to read it. It described the book as a seafaring tale about a British Naval Officer who found himself stranded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the course of the narrative he experienced flashbacks and delusions that melded past, present and future. As if the challenge of writing a book that followed the adventures of one man alone in the most prosaic setting imaginable didn’t challenge the author enough, the protagonist Golding chose was unreliable and unlikable. Just about every element of the book encompassed something we writers are taught never, never to do. And yet, in Pincher Martin, it worked.

As with any Golding novel, his brilliant use of language enriched the narrative far beyond the story. Mr. Golding began his writing career as a poet; in his Nobel Lecture he emphasized his great passion for verse. In Pincher Martin, it showed. I read so many poetic lines that I struggled to provide just a few in this review.

How can she hold the center of my darkness when the only real feeling I have for her is hate? (Location 1634)

When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place-burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. (Location 21)

The sun could illumine the mist but not pierce it. And darkly in the sun-mist loomed the shape of a not-ship where nothing but a ship could be. (Location 183)

I cite three examples in my reviews most times. The author inundated Pincher Martin with such a rich array of language, I need to add one more.

There is no center of sanity in madness. (Location 1982)

I’ve read all of Mr. Golding’s works currently in print. Phrasing like the above makes me wish that whoever has the rights to his 1935 work Poems would re-issue it.

As I’m sure readers inferred by now, Pincher Martin wasn’t one of the happier novels in the William Golding catalog. It almost made Lord of the Flies seem like an episode of Fantasy Island.

Golding showed exceptional skill at foreshadowing. The author inserted it sparingly and with great subtlety. The first time I read this book, I couldn’t believe the creativity of the ending. It met the classic definition of a proper conclusion: it surprised me, but at the same time, it hit me as inevitable. When I read Pincher Martin the second time, I picked-up on the clever hints Golding included along the way. As I strongly encourage readers to examine the book, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. In fact, a few weeks ago I recommended it to someone. She had a foreshadowing question with her work-in-progress. I encouraged her to read this book.

Another superb element of Pincher Martin entailed how the book left itself open to interpretation. That’s the difference between an art and a science. With a science, there’s a hypothesis, someone tests it and then we know every time we follow a certain procedure, we’ll get the same outcome. Literature is similar to the Kuleshov Effect in film: the mind of the person experiencing it contributes to the understanding. I read the afterword by Philipa Gregory. I also used Virginia Tiger’s William Golding: The Unmoved Target, to help me grasp the text. They presented differing evaluations regarding the significance of the rock among other elements of the tale. Once again, I don’t want to spoil the book for those planning on reading it. I’ll avoid providing details, but both critics presented lucid, well-reasoned analyses. The fact they differed showed me the true genius of William Golding’s art.

The next time readers find themselves day-dreaming about an island in the sun, check out Pincher Martin. It will provide a whole new perspective. While thoughts of hurricanes, loneliness and struggling to find water may not appeal, reading William Golding’s brilliant depiction of Pincher Martin’s struggles will make the journey well worth the time. Just bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

Book Review – Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Some of my writing lacked passion and excitement. At times I thought of it as the phone book with verbs. I’ve spent months struggling to figure out why. Thanks to Jill Elizabeth Nelson’s Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, I found my answer. I needed what she refers to as a “Deep Point of View.” Ms. Nelson described Deep Point of View as follows: “The narrative should read like the thoughts going through the character’s mind but without the need to italicize as in direct thought quotations.” (Page 17)

Someone in my critique group encouraged me to read this book. After feasting on an extra-large helping of humble pie, I decided to take the not-so-subtle hint. At first I didn’t think I’d get much out of the book due to its brevity; it comes in at only 59 pages. Just like a short poem in which every word impacts the finished product, each page presented valuable information for making one’s writing much more engaging for readers. I’ve read numerous books on craft, but never encountered a guide this concise, efficient and practical. I applaud Ms. Nelson for the accomplishment.

I can’t praise this book enough. In addition to the guidance on enhancing POV, the author provided much sound advice regarding the mantra “show don’t tell.” I thought I mastered this in my writing. Not so. In addition to the myriad “tell” words all us writers use more often than we should such as thought, felt, saw, etc., the author explained that we must also eliminate “prepositional tells”. Some examples of these include expressions such as “in agony” and “with smug satisfaction”. (Page 43)

Ms. Nelson included many examples to illustrate her points. I’ll refer back to them for years to come. The ends of the chapters contained worksheets. The author challenged readers to apply what they’ve learned and take a passage written in “Shallow” POV and change it to “Deep” POV. I struggled through several to discover this wasn’t easy to do. Following the worksheets, the author presented her suggestions on how to fix.

I’m thankful my colleague recommended Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View to me. I’m also greatful for the book’s short length. In order to apply its lessons to my own work, I’m going to need as much time as possible for editing.

Book Review – The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Several writers recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction to me on the grounds that it’s a “classic”. My interest in agreeing with fellow authors leads me to concur with that observation. The iconoclast in me struggles to find reasons for encouraging prospective writers to read the book.

I cannot refute Mr. Gardner’s erudition. He cited works from a varied group of authors…and cited them…and cited them. After a while, the repeated name dropping became tiresome. Did I mention he referred to a variety of different writers? The author conveyed the impression that he’d read everything ever written from Homer to William Gass. To put a positive spin on this, as I perused The Art of Writing Mr. Gardner convinced me he earned the right to opine on the topic.

I thought many of Garner’s points intelligent and well-reasoned. I enjoyed his twist on the old adage about “writing what you know.” He suggested, “Write the kind of story you like best.” (Page 18) The author discussed how the temptation to explain should always be resisted. (Page 111) He author also pointed out that an ending should be both “inevitable and surprising.” (Page 172.) As the subtitle of the book read, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” I liked these sound observations.

Which allows me to segue into my main issue with the book: a lot of the ideas I read seemed far advanced for someone just beginning to write. At one point Gardner used a concept from the field of physics to illustrate something involving writing.

But there remains one question, a central concern in all modern art, as in contemporary science; namely, the implications of the Heisenberg principle: To what extent does the instrument of discovery change the discovery, whether the instrument be “the process of fiction” or the particle bombardment of an atom. (Page 130)

Huh? I’m not a physicist, but I define the Heisenberg (Uncertainty) Principle as the understanding that it’s impossible to know both the speed and location of an object at the same time. What that has to do with literature exceeds my powers of comprehension. I can’t imagine how observations such as this benefit aspiring authors.

In addition to that, Gardner included other high minded concepts that could scare off beginners. One of his ideas terrified even me. The author included thoughts on how fiction has “the power to enslave”; Gardner used those exact words. Using a hypothetical protagonist as an example he explained:

The effect on the reader of this lonely, lofty hero could be very great indeed-but not necessarily healthy. If such heroes occur in very many plays and novels, if the appeal of such a character becomes widespread, then democracy, even common decency is undermined. We have been taught to admire, to submit to, or behave like the well-meaning Nazi officer, the business-world tyrant, or the moral fanatic. Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.
(Page 87)

To my mind the greater danger entails authors possessing such a degree of pretention that they believe the entire universe reacts to every word he/she writes.

The Art of Fiction came out in 1983 shortly after the author’s passing. With the advent of the internet and flash fiction, the early 1980s seem like a lifetime ago. Because of that I thought some of the concepts rather dated. I liked Gardner’s view that authors should include a good amount of detail in his/her writing. I agreed with his assertion that this makes fiction better and more believable to the reader. I thought his idea of what constitutes sufficient detail much too excessive for the modern era. He cited a passage from Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” that took up three quarters of a page. The author wrote this piece in 1915. I think a more modern example would’ve buttressed Gardner’s point better.

I did find some useful guidelines for aspiring writers in The Art of Fiction. The book serves readers better as a “classic” treatise on writing, however. It provides an excellent snapshot of the state of the craft in the early 1980’s. A wealth of information about numerous authors appears in The Art of Fiction. (In case I didn’t emphasize it enough before: Gardner cited a lot of different writers.) It belongs in a similar category with Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature or Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism. It doesn’t work as a practical “how to” book for young writers, though.

My Life with Cinnamon

Kevin and Cinnamon 110-12 Cinnamon and KevinKevin and Cinnamon 4

Most dogs beg for attention. I’ve got a pooch that begs to give attention.

A little over a month ago, my Dad and Step-Mom decided it was time for a new addition to the family. They went out and purchased a “Shorkie” puppy whom they named Cinnamon. For dog aficionados, Shorkies are a “designer breed.” If you’re a commoner like me, Cinnamon is just a plain old mutt. She’s a combination of Yorkshire Terrier and Shih-Tsu. That dual heritage would explain why she’s always at my feet when I’m drinking tea and barks whenever I read an issue of The Economist critical of Chinese trade policies.

At first I felt jealous of her arrival. I could no longer boast about having the best hair in the house. My envy quickly went away. As she doesn’t shed, she’s a good breed for allergy sufferers like me. I like that, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that I might start losing my hair and the dog never will.

After Cinnamon joined us I did a little research on Shorkies. One article I read described them as “friendly.” The word understatement comes to mind. She belongs to my Dad and Step-Mom and spends most of her day with them. When I come home, she races to the door and tries to lunge her fourteen inch frame all over me. When I lean down she smothers me with kisses for a good fifteen minutes. You read that right: she kisses me for a good fifteen minutes. Whenever I go into another room and then return, she doesn’t miss me as much. At those times she kisses me enthusiastically for only ten minutes.

A new thing that Cinnamon likes to do is to jump on top of me and go to sleep. Whenever I’m lying on the floor (aka procrastinating from writing) she’ll hop on my chest and doze off. I think it interesting that she does this on her own without being tempted with treats or anything. Besides, I don’t think my chest is that comfortable a mattress.

I’ve never heard of a dog that goes out of its way to shower attention on people. Cinnamon does it. If you’re a dog lover and are looking for a pet that will provide you with companionship, you may want to look into a Shorkie. Just be forewarned: based on the way Cinnamon follows people all over the house, I’m not sure how one would handle a restraining order.