My Life in Books

I’ve always loved stories. When I was a kid, my dad read me the entire Chronicles of Narnia a few pages at a time before bed. That was the beginning of my love affair with books, even before I knew how to read.

I remember at age five or six, picking up one of those Walt Disney Winnie the Pooh Probably not the book I picked up.books with the cardboard covers and opening it. My little sister, ever the killjoy, informed me that I couldn’t read. I said I knew, but soon I’d be able to. Even the idea of reading excited me. Once I finally learned to read, I was off. The first book I read with chapters in it (as opposed to those early reader things with a single story in 10-15 pages) was Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson.

It was an old copy I’d picked out from an antique bookstore in Wabash, Indiana when my family took one of our semi-regular trips. It was green and it was so old that the spine had gotten brittle and it broke off at the top while I read it. My parents assured me that this was OK. It was just old. That Christmas, my dad had found at a small bookstore in Muncie a book called The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, by John R. Erickson. Unlike Old Yeller, Hank talks to us. He’s the narrator of his adventures (of which there are now close to 60) as “Head of Ranch Security” on his master’s ranch in Texas. They were absolutely fantastic. Funny mystery stories, told by a bumbling sherriff-type narrator. They somehow managed to combine the Western feel with a jokey version of the hardboiled detective voice.

I read probably 15 of these before moving on to greener pastures.
By nine or ten, I was reading adult books because I thought I was cool. I had A Wrinkle In Timesomething of an identity crisis since I was a kid reading at an adult level and didn’t know what to read. Thankfully, after some confused hopping back and forth from adult to kid books, I found a home in fantasy. I read The Chronicles of Narnia for myself (twice), The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time and picked up the Harry Potter series sometime before Book Four came out.

In 7th or 8th grade, I saw my dad reading Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein. Here was something new. I’d watched Star Wars and Star Trek for nearly as long as I could remember, but science fiction in print? What a great idea! As soon as he was done with it, I read it as quickly as I could. Here was a story I could get into. A boy – older than I was, but so what? – who was a bit too smart for his own good wants to go to the moon and does, using his own intelligence, determination, and a healthy dose of luck, and ends up convincing a galactic court that the human race deserves to live. At the time, it seemed like the most novel idea ever.

From Heinlein, I picked up Asimov’s I, Robot and the rest of the Robot/Foundation Have Space Suit -- Will Travelseries, Orson Scott Card’s Ender books, followed by his other books, then occasionally back to fantasy with Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and many others.
When I was 16, we moved to a new state. I had some friends who kept in touch, and as grateful as I am to them, it was the great network of libraries connected to my tiny local one that got me through the day-to-day troubles that only a lonely 16 year-old boy can have.

I gave up on reading for a while in college. My first two or three years, I read just three or four books for myself each year. I started focusing on film, and discovered some incredible movies. But it just wasn’t the same. I was missing something. Last summer, I worked a job away from home and had very little free time, so all I had time for was reading. I read a chapter or two a night during the week, and a few dozen pages each weekend. I loved it. I knew after that I had to make time for personal reading. Reading’s come back for me in a big way. I’d missed it and didn’t even realize it.

Not surprisingly, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve known that was a profession. I gravitated toward English lit and Journalism/Communications in college, and got my degree last May.

My whole life has been about stories. I think of myself as a storyteller at heart, and most of my family tells stories. In the mid-90’s, my great-grandma wrote me a handful of letters telling the adventures of Sammy the Squirrel, which I always looked forward to. Both of my grandpas tell stories too. My life so far has been one of stories and words. I’m applying for jobs now. Some of them have to do with writing, although most don’t. I still want to be a writer. Maybe that means I’ll just have to keep up this blog in my spare time and keep writing short stories. I’d love to get published. Have a novel with my name on it, or a magazine with a story of mine in it. Science fiction, mysteries, or fantasy, of course. You’re not surprised, are you? You’ve read my story. What else could I write?

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A Wizard of Earthsea

Last night I finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I’m quite impressed. It’s one of those books that I’ve started and stopped reading three or four times in the past (once even getting halfway through it) but have only just really read. This is surprising because it’s really a very short novel (192 pages in my edition).

What threw me off I think, was, first, the writing style. It isn’t written like The Hobbit, probably my favorite of these modern short fantasies. It doesn’t have that knowing warm, grandfatherly narrator telling about a little hobbit going off on some crazy adventure. It’s written like an old fashioned folk tale, or maybe even the most interesting history you’ve ever read. Le Guin is almost journalistic in her tone here, by which I mean she packs a lot into a short amount of space. I realized at one point that when I had picked up my book after setting it down, I had skipped a paragraph that took up about half the page. In that half page, I had missed the main characters landing on an island, being received coldly, and setting sail again before the day was over.

Like I said, pretty packed.

The second thing that through me off the first few times I tried to read it, which was when I was 17 or 18, I was too old/too young for it. I was too old to enjoy a the simplicity of it. I remember I thought it was very childish. But I was too young to hear what it was trying to say about responsibility and pride.

Part of what made the book so good was that it was such a powerful morality tale and it never tried to hide that. So often stories try to sneak in the moral as if the reader, especially if the target audience is children, were too stupid to notice. But it also treated me, the reader, with a level of respect that I don’t always see in contemporary young adult literature. I tried to read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun a while back and it drove me nuts. He decided to throw out everything he knows about prose (and if you’ve never read him, he’s an excellent writer), apparently because he felt his audience was too stupid for the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I was told everything explicitly over and over again. I couldn’t get away from it. But Le Guin avoids that because she respects her readers, young and old alike.

I’ll recommend the book to anyone who likes a good tale, although I imagine that many people will, like I did, have trouble if they’re introduced to it between the ages of, say, 16 and 20. And for those who don’t feel like they can stomach learning about patience and the dangers of pride, I’ll suggest Le Guin’s equally great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different, but it contains a world just as exciting and wonderful to read about as Earthsea.

Spoilers

I’ve always been that guy that turns to the end of the book to find out what happens. I did this with every Harry Potter book, from the first one when I read it at 10, to the last one which I read at 18. In between, I was constantly scouring the web for information on what happens in the next book. I look for information about movies that are coming out that I’m excited for, and I avidly read reviews of books and movies before I buy them.

It’s a sickness. Really, I need help for it.

But in case you haven’t guessed it, one thing I don’t mind is spoilers. 99 times out of 100, I love them. Every once in a while, there’s a movie or book that I just don’t want ruined. And most short fiction I don’t need a blow-by-blow because, probably, the author will tell me better than you and in less time. But because of that, I’ve always been a little insensitive to people who are just scared to death of spoilers.

I just don’t get it. Who cares? But people apparently do. And according to a UC San Diego study, spoilers can actually make people enjoy stories more. This makes total sense to me. If I like a movie, I’m going to watch it again. And if I enjoy a movie better the first time than I do the second time, I don’t think very highly of that movie.

Books too, but because of the more time-consuming nature of reading a novel (time-consuming is not a negative in this case), I don’t reread things as often as I rewatch movies. But again, if the only thing a book had going for it was its element of surprise, that’s kind of a weak book.

Maybe a better example would be mysteries. I love mystery movies, TV shows, books, everything. But what I love about Holmes and Nero Wolfe and Castle are the way they interact with their colleagues. I’m interested in the intellectual mystery that’s going on, sure, and I want that to be good. But really, every storyline in each of those is the same. Detective encounters crime. Detective collects clues. Detective solves crime. I’m often surprised by the twists and turns, but I’m not looking for shock and awe.

I think what the NPR article says about a lot of the spoiler-heavy nature of modern drama being the fault of Lost is probably pretty close. Lost changed the way a lot of things are done in that sort of long-distance storytelling. But you’ve got The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects to blame too. (And by the way, without the twist ending, The Usual Suspects doesn’t hold up too well.)

Personally, I think it’s much more important to let ourselves fall into whatever plotline the artist has for us, whether that’s a filmmaker, TV writer, or novelist, and see what we can do. You don’t need to go spoiler-crazy like me, but calm down when we tell you that Planet of the Apes takes place on a future earth. Seriously, I knew before I saw it, and it’s still one of my favorite science fiction movies.

Sidenote: I totally have that shirt at the top of the NPR article. The “Snape Kills Dumbledore” business pissed off so many people before the Half-Blood Prince movie came out. Take that!

The Art of Fielding Review

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

*Possible Spoilers*

This book had a lot of potential. When I started reading it, I was really impressed by the fact that it was a “literary” novel with a plot and characters that seemed like real people, something that I don’t find enough in the more highbrow novels published these days. But around page 100 or so, the book just starts spiraling out of control. There are five main characters whose lives intersect, but not in a tight way that’s needed with such a large cast of characters. Each character slowly devolves from their position at the top of the world down to their own personal hell. You’ve got Henry, potentially the world’s greatest shortstop whose self-doubt may ruin his career; Schwartz, the Jewish baseball/football player/pre-law student who discovers Henry and trains him, maybe at the expense of his own career; Owen, Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate,” who’s extremely well-read and begins an affair with the school president; President Affenlight, a biology major turned Melville scholar who sees echoes of “The Book” (“Moby Dick”) in everyday life; and Pella, Affenlight’s estranged daughter, back at her father’s college after she dropped out of high school four years ago to marry a controlling architect in his thirties.

It’s a lot to take in. And in all fairness to Harbach, I never felt lost in what was going on with the characters. His prose is fantastic, and even though this book (over 500 pages in hardcover) should have felt dense, it was a pretty fast read for me. I understood who the characters were, I was never confused about what was going on in the plot at any given time, and I genuinely wanted to know if Henry would be able to achieve his professional baseball career, and if he and Schwartz would ever mend their broken friendship.

The trouble was, that was the only part of the book I really cared about. Pella comes in depressed and on anti-depression pills and who knows what else because of her husband, who we’re supposed to see as abusive. He was controlling and a jerk, sure, but I had a hard time disliking the guy too much. Pella complains in the novel about how he only wants to force his idealized view of their marriage on her, but in the brief time we see the two interact, she could easily just be making things up to feel sorry for herself. That would be OK, but that whole idea is dropped (and her husband apparently leaves after one dinner).

The gay romance felt awkward to me as well. The 60 year-old man accepts that he’s in love with a male student without ever questioning his sexuality or job security very much at all. And I have to say that for all of Pella’s internal monologues about sexism, Owen is essentially a romantic fantasy for Affenlight. He’s one-dimensional, and basically serves the purpose of being Affenlight’s Lover. If he weren’t that, he wouldn’t have much place in the book.

There really is a good book in here. The final baseball game is engaging, though I don’t understand the relevance of it to Henry and Schwartz and their friendship. I don’t know. I just didn’t get the book. I’m used to plots being about something. And there IS a plot in “The Art of Fielding.” I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. The plot pushes forward, but we focus on the characters on the periphery so much that we miss some key events. It’s like Harbach wrote a baseball book about a friendship between Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz, then went back and added a slew of characters and allusions to “Moby Dick” that seemed bizarre and out of place to me.

Chad Harbach is absolutely a good writer. And there are things I genuinely enjoyed about the book. But the characters in the book that aren’t depressed or disaffected, or drug-addicted are making horrible career choices and messing up their lives. There’s a lot of wallowing in self-pity and that hopelessness that seems to be everywhere in literary fiction. And frankly, I just can’t get on board with that. On page 412, Affenlight is thinking about his sudden interest in environmentalism. He says, maybe he was “a humanist back when humanity was popular, now moved on to bigger things….” I still like humanity too much to truly enjoy this book filled with characters who don’t like themselves, written by a writer who doesn’t seem to like anyone in particular.