Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blogging break

Hello and welcome! And now... it's time for a blogging hiatus. I don't see myself doing much blogging in the next few months, so here's a summary of stuff about me:

I recently had a story published on Pithead Chapel. Thanks to the kind editors for giving my work an audience, and thank you for reading. If you like that story, check out my other work. There are links above to free copies of my Internet romance/tragedy HempAmerika.com and my Beat Poet legacy novel Jack's Boys. My zombies-in-Korea novella, The MZD, is available from Amazon.com.

If you download and read my stuff, please leave a nice review on Goodreads or Amazon, and tell your friends.

I will continue to tweet on Twitter at @mramberg, and if you want to be my friend on Goodreads, it would be my honor.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to return to blogging when my schedule allows, and I have something to say that can only be said in blog form.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Field-goal kicking mules and stubborn authors

Time for a Round-up!
A semi-regular feature in which, having nothing important to say, I point out a few things that happened on the web, then make a few half-thought-out observations on them for your amusement.

Short Story: Calm by Clare Needham
I've been interested in smaller magazines, those in orbit to the Tin Houses and McSweeney's of the world, and found a little gem called Bodega. Here you can find smaller pieces with great impact like Clare Neeham's Calm, a story of a woman, a man, a road trip, and the kind of joy you can only achieve through denial. Enjoy!

Tournament of Books controversy:
The LA Times follows a (non) story about Scott McClanahan, author of Hill William, who allegedly tried to withdraw his book from The Morning News's Tournament of Books. There was no author reaction included, which I find strange. This didn't stop the article, or the commentariat of the tourney from typing furious comments on the matter: he was ripped for being ungrateful, a money grabber, and other sad things. All for a single Facebook post he never followed through on. It's a tempest in a teapot, of course, a single ill-advised post being exploited for clicks, though I'd love to hear Scott McClanahan's take on it. I kind of want to root for him now that he's been lynched in the comments section, but that would bust my bracket.  Sorry, Scott!

You can read the thread here, at the bottom of the play-in judging round.

Retro-movie due for a remake: Gus
Don Knotts and Gus.
Why the long face?

I had a few beers the other day and was reading a story about how the NFL is considering moving field goals to the 25 yard line because they're so easy. So I immediately thought of Gus, the field goal kicking mule from the 1976 Disney sports-sploitation movie. I even tracked it down and watched ten minutes of it, and realized that Gus sits at the nexus of so many movie genres it should be the subject of a much longer critical essay.

It's an animals do sports movie. It's got an all-star cast (Don Knotts, Ed Asner, Tim Conway) slumming for paychecks. Most intriguingly, it's among the last of the Disney studio's cash-strapped post-Walt pre-Eisner slump films (The Apple Dumpling Gang! The Love Bug!). Did I mention it's about a goddamn field-goal kicking mule?

And it sits in the heart of my childhood, released in that golden summer of 1976. Ah, childhood. Nothing else could make this movie sound good except that I watched when I was eight. So, seriously - is Gus any good? Nope, not really. Even Roger Ebert didn't like it. Here's his original review from 1976.

But seriously, NFL, why not consider mules?

Movie trailer of the week: 
And the award for best use of "Hooked on a Feeling" since the Ally McBeal dancing video baby craze of 1997 goes to: Guardians of the Galaxy:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quick Take: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Quick Take: Long Division by Keise Laymon
I came to Long Division with a certain amount of hesitancy. I'd never heard of Kiese Laymon, and books involving time travel, race, coming-of-age, and the deep south are mostly outside my comfort zone. (Which makes it sound like I have a pretty narrow comfort zone. Not true!) In fact to be honest there were two reasons I read this: 1) It's on the Morning News Tournament of Books shortlist and 2) It was free on Kindle at the time.

But I am happy to report I was sucked into this book by Layman's voice and his uncanny sense of insight. Page after page, City, the teenage narrator, speaks with a naive authority that made me nod my head in agreement. City is a happy blend of Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, and the plot is a hectic mix-up of time travel, racial tension, teenage romance, and US history. Hopeful, acerbic, dark, and joyous, eternally ambivalent about its own purpose and intent, purposefully murky in its conclusion(s), Long Division was a beautiful book and a great find.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing tip: Just, Scrivener, and me

I'm starting a new feature: Writing tips! Yes I hear you saying: Aren't there enough bad writing tips from under-published novelists out there? Why are you adding to the noise?

The answer it: I don't know. Except that I haven't seen this tip before, and I think it will help people.

But, before we get to our writing tip, let's start with a plug for Scrivener, the best app for writing novels I've ever used. Throw away MS Word, get yourself into Scrivener. It has tons of tools for the way writers build things - outlining, chapters, word targets, and ways to store research material on characters, settings, and locations. Plus when you're done you can export to dozens of formats including several varieties of e-Book. It's the best 40 bucks you'll ever spend.

Anyway, I was using Scrivener's word count feature, which is awesome. It's under Project -- Text Statistics. Here, you get a rundown of every word you used in your manuscript, and their frequency. I was wondering if there were any words I overused, and wow was I.

It turns out I have a nasty habit of over-using the word 'just.' It's my fault, absolutely. But just has so many meanings, I end up using it as shorthand for about ten different phrases. In all, I'd used just 180 times in a 90,000 word manuscript. (that's 0.2% of the words in my manuscript. Well over the legal limit.)

What's so weird about this is I almost never use the word in its most prominent definition: "based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair." Just is, as you probably know, the root of the word justice. But not for me! I only go for the five or six below that, which break down to: exactly, recently, barely, simply, really, or positively. With so many meanings, I also apparently use it as filler, whenever I think a sentence needs a pause. And with all those meanings, the justs pile up fast:

"He was just fifteen when he met her. She was just on the edge of the dance floor. The last song had just ended and the light hit her face just right, and he was in love. Just like that. He walked to her, just because, like he had nothing better to do. But what did he want from her. Just to dance? He didn't think so."

So I've lost all trust in this word. It's a dull word that instead of carving meaning out, smears it around.

My penance was to do a find and replace on the entire manuscript, weeding out the unJUSTified justs.

What I found was that in many cases all I had to do was delete it. It was sitting there like a speedbump in the sentence. Which is obvious. When in all your writing classes did anyone say: "Put a just in there. I think this sentence would be stronger with a fudge word." Nope. You never heard that advice.

Here are sample sentences for the many meanings of just, and the replacements you might want to use

exactly:  He knew just what she meant.
precisely: The cat stopped at just the moment his feet hit the floor.
in the same way: I did it just how you told me to.
simply: They just wanted a cup of sugar.
only: There was just one minute to go.
might as well: So he figured he should just go to the movies
barely: There was just enough toothpaste for one brushing of the teeth.
nothing more than: It was just a passing fancy, not love at all.

Some are harder to replace, of course:
in the recent past: I was just there five minutes ago.
(colloquially for a certain way): He tucked in his feet just so.

Anyway, I did a vigorous just-weeding. After half an hour, I'd reduced my justs from 180 down to an acceptable 80 or so (in the ballpark with 'make' and 'can't'. Because sometimes, frankly it's just the right word for the job!

Let's condense all this to the Writing Tip: Be careful about overusing words, especially in clusters. I sometimes go through first drafts and see six Justs sitting there in one paragraph. And it isn't always the word just, either. It could be any word: Gotta, or said, or a color - I once had two characters with a gravelly laugh within 5 pages of each other, for instance.

So, What words do you overuse? How do you weed them out? Comments are welcome.

PS: I'm not alone in overusing this word. Check out the Google chart on nGram. For the past fifty years, just has been taking over the English lexicon:

Here's a better link to that chart for all you stat-heads out there.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tournament of Books 2014: my Pre-Tourny analysis

What is our obsession with competition in America about? There's scarcely an activity any more that doesn't have a governing body and associated national tournament. There are beard competitions, rock-paper-scissors tourneys, air-guitar battle royales. There's nothing you can do that someone else won't claim to do better and start a tournament to prove it. Even stacking cups has become a competitive sport. 

Which brings us, of course, to books. The shortlist has been announced for the 10th The Morning News Tournament of Books, my favorite of the single-elimination tournaments that spring up in March to capitalize and satirize the NCAA basketball tournament. Filled with capricious judges, aggrieved fans, authors who sometimes chime in to the comments section - you never know where the Rooster will take you. It's both a legitimate study of what makes a book good/better than another and a perfect example of why rating books against each other is a fruitless path which ends only in madness. Madness I tell you! 

To more accurately sum things up: The ToB is a single-elimination tournament with sixteen (well, okay, this year, seventeen) initial slots. Books are matched up against each other, and a celebrity judge reads both and decides which book they like better, and writes a summary article of their decision. That book advances to face the winner of the adjacent bracket, and so on, till there is uno champion del mundo! 

Winner gets a live Rooster, as the legends have it.

Without knowing the first-round matchups, and having read only four of the books (sad shamey-face) I can only give vague impressions on relative odds. 

First, it looks like the selectors have done more to get some diversity into the field this year. Last year's list, while full of wonderful books, was surprisingly beige. It's nice to see that every inhabited continent has contributed to this year's carnage. 

There were several notable snubs this year: George Saunders, Meg Wolitzer, Khaled Hosseini, and Rachel Kushner, for instance, all wrote fantastic books, but without expanding the field and taxing everyone's patience, these folk will just have to settle for massive sales and great critical acclaim to keep them warm at night.

Judges this year include and eclectic mix of authors, critics, a musician, and a guest chosen from the ranks of talented hangers-on and fankids. Among them are Young Adult hearthrob novelist (and last year's runner-up author) John Green, the amazingly funny and talented Roxanne Gay, the legendary Geraldine Brooks. I'm expecting good things from all these people.

Overall, I think these are all good books and would love to read every page of them, but only one can survive.  I didn't link to anything because you're probably smart enough to highlight, right-click, and choose search on Google and also, I'm lazy.

* indicates books I've read

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón - A relative unknown though critical darling, this looks at first glance like yet another dark South American farce, this one with a guerilla theater troupe, though to be fair, those are usually pretty good, and the people who like them really like them. I'm guessing there are weaker books in the field, but if matched up against a heavyweight it's a first-round adios.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - One of the heavyweights, this book carries its Man Booker award pedigree and "Concept novel" gravitas into the ring. Like Roostarian winners Cloud Atlas and A Visit from the Goon Squad, concept novel isn't necessarily a bad thing. But one rap on The Luminaries is that it's a writer's book, not necessarily a mainstream reader's book, so which judge it gets will be critical. Gravitas gets it past the first round, then its a crapshoot. 

The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto - This is another sleeper from Africa about an isolated tribe contacting the modern world. A wise and knowing insight into a foreign culture, this book will gain respect for being exotic, even if it may not have the pedigrees of other entrees. A true wild card, though probably not a contender.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert - Will the author of Eat, Pray, Love be able to overcome her backlash and find redemption in the the Rooster tourney? By all accounts this is about as far from EPL as a book can get. On the minues side, it's also a doorstoppy idea book. Maybe it has enough punch for the semi-finals, but I doubt it.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid - An old-school political book, a second-person novel about making money in Pakistan. Satires play well with some but not others, though with the right pairing, say against an acerbic domestic drama, Hamid could score a moderate run.

The Dinner by Herman Koch - A divisive book about European scandals and privilege that takes place over a dinner table in Amsterdam. Reviews were mixed, though marketing made it a sales success; The same way it hit bookstores with a storm of publicity then didn't sell or get decent reviews, Dinner will flame out of the the ToB in the first round when faced with more lively books. 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri - Another awards winner with the gravitas and popular appeal that will threaten to go deep. 

* Long Division by Kiese Laymon - A dark horse in a field of dark horses, this is another high-concept book about time travel, race, and viral YouTube meltdowns. I love the idea, and halfway through I'm finding it funny, endearing, baffling, and charming by turns. But in the ToB, high-concept only gets you so far; this feels like a first-round upset but not much further. 

* The Good Lord Bird by James McBride - Pulitzer Prize winner, a race-and history based romp, this is a strong contender for the final four. See my review on this site for more information.

Hill William by Scott McClanahan - Surprisingly, this has the highest Goodreads rating at 4.24, which bodes well (although it has only 369 readers; surely a wider readership would drop that total?).** This feels like the sleeper pick, much like The Sisters Brothers was a few years ago.  

The Son by Philipp Meyer - I read Meyer's debut novel, and if this is anything like that the density of his prose will render one judge comatose, booting him in the second round. 

* A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki - I actually read this book! It's a great book with great themes and characters. Ozeki is a dark horse with a chance to win the whole thing. Unfortunately, the final chapter employs a deus ex hand-wavy metaphysical meta-narrative which may sink her in the round of four, due to some judges insistence on literal believability in all things fiction. 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell - YA books are always a dark horse; they tend to hit hard emotionally but don't hold up on reflection, much like your own teenage years perhaps. Probably a first or second round exit, though it could return in the zombie round, as its Goodreads rating tops this field at 4.22. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - The perfect combination of literary gravitas and popular appeal, The Goldfinch rode a tidal surf of buzz to best-seller status and squee-ing fan-boys and girls. The Goldfinch is my pre-tournament favorite, as even if it's bounced, it will probably be a zombie pick. It's only drawback is that it's really long and people get turned off by long.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - I'm not sure how I feel about a book that features lost Micronesian tribes and magic turtle meat. Guess we'll find out. I feel this has very low odds of winning, but maybe there's more magic in that turtle meat than I think. 

[Winner of the Pre-Tournament Playoff Round]

For the past two years, the sixteenth spot has been fought over by a surplus of books. Last year three war novels fought their way through; this year I can't sense a theme, so I don't get it. It's two books by women authors, one a seasoned vet, the other a relative newcomer. 

* Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - Ambitious, funny, idea-packed, Life After Life is also a gimmick book, and some judges will be shut down by gimmicks. In a fair world, Life After Life would make a deep run. Although if it gets booted, it may just employ its own narrative trick and re-birth the whole bracket from the beginning until it does win. 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel - The lowest rated book on Goodreads with a shockingly low 2.84, little is known of this upstart, who will face a stiff challenge from the compulsively readable Life after Life.

The Rooster crows in March!

Here's my compilation bookshelf on Goodreads.

** Goodreads ratings are a moving target. Two days later, Hill William had been added to 467 readers, and it's rating had dropped to 4.11. As of Jan 26, Eleanor and Park had the highest GoodReads rating at 4.22, and Hill William had dropped to third. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

So I'm trying to close the gap on my Morning News Tournament of Books reading list. When the list was released, I'd scored 2 of the 17 books (a record low), and now I'm on three. At this pace I'll have read maybe four or five when the gates open. I'm hoping to have a my uninformed rundown and odds as soon as the pairings for the first round is announced, but for now, please accept my notes on The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.

The Good Lord Bird is a great historical romp, a journey into the heart of the slavery issue when race was almost literally tearing the country apart. It's 1857, and Henry, a young light-skinned slave in Kansas territory, is liberated by the infamous John Brown several years before his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia sparks the US civil war.

As a reward, Henry travels with John Brown's party, sleeping in the dirt, eating wild game, and enduring Brown's hours-long prayer sessions as he plots the violent liberation of all the slaves in America. Also, because of a mix-up, John Brown thinks Henry is a girl, and so Henry spends four years living in a dress, indolently letting the menfolk around him do all the heavy lifting.

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker,
also known as the
Lord God Bird or, in this novel,
the Good Lord Bird
It's a great setup for a novel, and McBride plays it well for satire, humor, and pathos by turn. Like Huck Finn before him, Henry is a more or less innocent child, gifted in observing what the grown-ups miss: John Brown is insane, for example, and some blacks in slavery are better off than Henry is in his 'freedom.' That is, the situation is more complex than you think.

Then there's a lot of picaresque scene-hopping as Henry loses touch with Brown and lives in a brothel for two years of drinking and loose-living. This tests his disguise as a girl and his emerging 'manly urges.' Then, after reuniting with John Brown, there are a few Forrest-Gump-ish twists, where Henry manages to meet Frederick Douglass, who is painted as a drunken lecher, and Harriet Tubman, who is an unimpeachable saint, before the final inevitable showdown at Harpers Ferry.

Any quibbles? Sure. You'll have to put up with a lot of semi-ridiculous corn-pone phraseology that may or may not be authentic and/or your cup of tea. I can put up with several different euphemisms for boobs each starting with 'love' ('love sacks,' 'love knockers,' etc,) and endure a mouth being called a red lane ten or fifteen times (as in, 'I threw that drink down my little red lane...' ) because just as often, McBride's language is deliriously inventive. But I was forced to look up the etymology of three questionable words: mojo, drinkie-poo, and pixilated. I could confirm only one of them was in use in the 1850's. Bonus points to you if you find out which one.

The ridiculousness of Henry's masquerade isn't ignored by by McBride. Henry continues to question his own masculinity, which is an interesting tack for a novel that on the surface seems to be about slavery and freedom. By the end, however, Henry has thrown off his dress and accepted his fate: to live as a man and a disciple of God. It's a strange conclusion to what had seemingly been a secular novel about freedom, madness, and destiny.

"Be a man: follow God" isn't exactly the theme I was looking for. But that only confirms what I'd known from the first few pages: This is not, sort of, the novel you're expecting, but it's definitely worth the trip.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Over on Goodreads, I welcomed another member to my coveted Five-Star club: Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings! Now, why did it enter such rare territory, you ask? Well, it's hard to say. Is it a solid five-star like Delillo's White Noise, a modern classic destined for doctoral theseses and scorn from the unwashed masses? Well, how many books are?

But The Interestings is five-star good in ways that count: It's readable and believable. It's a good solid read, by turns enchanting and engrossing, that rarest of literary feats: a page-turner about mundane things done by ordinary people. The six core Interestings all met at a summer camp in 1974, and they were all Talented in various ways: The actor, the dancer, the animator, the musician, playwright, and the enigmatic prodigal. Mostly they went on to do non-artistic work, although one, Ethan, went on to be a Success complete with money and fame.

In fact Ethan Figman went beyond ordinary in many ways: he's a multi-millionaire cartoon king, morally scrupulous, ethically above board - a liberal superman, even. Which is no doubt what turns a lot of people off about this book (see white privilege, etc.) and I get your point. But it also drives the narrative in a believable way; he's surrounded by the ordinary, and he elevates them. Maybe this sounds like a strange point, and maybe I'm talking The Interestings out of five-star status just by mentioning it, but Ethan is even a bit... Christ-like, isn't he? (yeah, my eyes are rolling too. I'm backing off...)

Overall I loved being in this book, finding out what happened next, following along. Jules, the primary narrator, may have been a bit harsh and needy and jealous, but she was real. And I found Jonah to be entirely sympathetic and engrossing; his sections could have been a novel by themselves. And despite a bit of tidy wrap-up involving astounding coincidences and Just The Right Words from Ethan to Jonah, followed by a noble tearful death, The Interestings was an amazing, astounding read. Welcome to the five-star lounge, The Interestings!