On Books – Permission To Hate

(How’s this for the perfect Valentine’s Day topic?  LOL)

What do you do when you read a book that everyone says is a classic, but you didn’t like it at all? People whose opinion you respect rave about the book, but you don’t see it. Here’s my advice for the situation.

Go ahead and hate it.

Are you afraid people will think less of you? It might happen. Hang on and I’ll give you a way to deal with that. But first, let’s get serious about our right to hate the classics.

I’ll go first.

“Humboldt’s Gift” is a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by one of the great writers of the 20th Century, Saul Bellow. About ten years ago I started a process of expanding my reading pool. I was looking for books I didn’t automatically reach for when I needed a new read. Bellow’s book showed up on several “great book” lists, so I gave it a try. My rule of thumb is that I give any book 100 pages to win me over. Author’s should get the chance to develop their style, their storytelling techniques and develop their world. 100 pages is an arbitrary number, but it has been a useful standard for me. The inspiration for the standard is Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”. I started the book three, four, five times? I never got past page 32. This was before I fell in love with Bradbury’s writing (it’s possible this was the first of his works I read). For whatever reason, the book didn’t draw me in. One day I decided I would finish it, one way or the other. The rest is history. I vowed to always give an author room to work before I walked away. “The Martian Chronicles” is a short book, probably not a lot longer than 100 pages. For a novel length story, I chose the century mark for pages.

At 100 pages Bellow’s writing intrigued me but the storytelling frustrated me. It hadn’t grabbed me, and by my own standards I should have closed the covers and moved on. But it was a CLASSIC. It was a GREAT BOOK by a GREAT ATUHOR. I was sure I just hadn’t made the adjustment needed to appreciate the story and it would get better.

Let me cut to the end. It didn’t. The main character was annoying, we didn’t find out what the gift in the title was until three quarters of the way through the book, and it was a stupid gift. Utterly not worth the wait or the investment of my reading time. I was so aggravated during the last quarter of the book that my wife all but begged me to drop it. After repeated outbursts of “I HATE this <bleeping> book” she was right. I should have walked away. Instead, I can say I’ve read the book, and it’s become a watchword for endurance without reward.

So, I promised a way to deal with folks who can’t believe you didn’t love the book (or movie, or TV show or whatever. This works for all of them). It comes in two steps.

  1. Don’t make your opinion more than it is. Don’t declare the work as “awful” if you haven’t seen it the whole way to the end. It’s pretentious and egotistical. “It didn’t grab me, couldn’t finish it” is more than enough. Rejecting the work completely when you haven’t experienced that way makes you look like a fraud when the fact is discovered. Be honest about your experience and then go to-

  2. Know the “why” of your opinion. I will never say that Bellow is a bad writer. I will say in this book I found his storytelling technique unappealing, his main character a weak and unattractive person, and the object of the story (the “gift”) to be something I didn’t care about. Other people can disagree, but I can feel secure that I’ve gone beyond the “It sucks” level.

You are certain to run into some people who will inform you that your opinion is wrong, or that you didn’t understand the book. These people are pompous asses and you are free to ignore them. Is it possible you missed the point? Sure. As a general rule, I consider that a failing of the author. If I have given the work my attention, and given the author the room to do what they want to do, and I still didn’t “get” the work, that’s their fault. If reader told me the same thing about my writing, it would be my fault.

So read “Great Books”. Give them the chance to tell you their story. And if it comes to it, go ahead and hate them.

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What I’m Reading – Jimmy Buffett-A Good Life All The Way

Jimmy Buffett—A Good Life All the Way Ryan White (2017)

Hippie. Millionaire. Beach Bum. Rock Star. Pirate. Folk Singer. Drunkard. Philosopher. Legend.

Jimmy Buffett is a little of all those things but none of them describe him in full. That’s the challenge. His music spans genres – rock, country, with flavors from New Orleans and the Caribbean and undertones of jazz and the blues.

Jimmy Buffett is simply Jimmy Buffett.

In “Jimmy Buffett—A Good Life All the Way”, Ryan White takes us through the process that produced the man and the music. Filled with beaches and booze, music, and Jimmy’s charismatic personality, the book provides the kind of stories you would expect. From funny trivia (Buffett constantly loses his car keys) to the step-by-step process that created the legend, “A Good Life All the Way” gives the reader everything you could want.

Jimmy Buffett is the 20th century’s musical Huck Finn. He speaks our language, offering visions of a life that is both laid back and adventurous. Some songs are nostalgic (Pencil Thin Mustache) or in the moment (Margaritaville), romantic (Come Monday) or outrageous (Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw), reflective (A Pirate Looks at Forty) or joyously, well, Jimmy (Cheeseburger in Paradise).

He doesn’t deny that some decisions were ill-advised, but he doesn’t dwell on them. Whatever happened, he survived. Live a little, learn a little, live a little more.

Jimmy Buffett fans will love every page of this book. Ryan White chooses a breezy, sharing-stories-over-a-couple-drinks style that is the perfect choice for the subject. It’s a lot like sitting at a table while folks stop by to share a story or three as the night progresses.

I’ve been a Buffett fan since the mid-70s and have been to more of his concerts than any other artist.  Some music you outgrow.  With Jimmy, it feels like it fits at all ages. As a writer, I enjoyed the book.  As a fan, I loved it.

Like the man himself, the book is a collection of stories of life, love, longing, and laughter.

Rating – ****

On Writing – Where The Work Gets Done

Where do you get your best work done? There are lots of stories about where creative folk get their best ideas (mine usually come when I can’t record them – driving, in the shower, in the middle of the night), but I don’t see as much about the environment where those ideas can be created. In my own experience, I have discovered that parts of that environment are very important to being creative.

I want to note that what follows is WHAT WORKS FOR ME. I make no guarantee that any of it will work for you. For some people, what I’m about to suggest may be the worst thing for their creative process. Everyone needs to figure out what works best for them. Taking a look at what works for you may be the best thing you do for your creative process this year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what I’ve discovered.

1: I need a certain amount of order. Creative folk are stereotyped as disorderly, let the spirit flow types. A certain amount of that is true in my case. When I’m working on my writing, I am much more of a “pantser” than a planner (seat of the pants versus careful planning). I work best when ideas can just flow and I can work on them as they come. But to do that I need to have the tools at hand. I get many more ideas than I can work on at any given time. So I need some way to record and store them. There are lots of apps and programs for doing just that. And I don’t trust them, they don’t work for me. Ideas are stored on paper, in a folder, marked “Ideas”.

That’s not the only kind of order I need. Over the years, I have realized that when the desk gets messy, the creative force begins to slog. I have never had a “neat” desk. I visited a friends workplace once and was appalled at the rules in place. His company had specific parts of the desk that were the designated locations for everything. The phone had to be HERE, papers could only be stacked “THERE”. There was a reason for it (multiple people used the same desks) but it was a system that would have driven me crazy. It would have been an ongoing series of “pushing the limits” tests until I was either disciplined or fired. Best I never work there. (Given that it was a highly technical field, there was little danger of that).

So my desk can only get so messy. The main workspace needs to be clear, any piles of paper or other items can only intrude so far. Once they go past that line, it’s like a clog growing in the pipes. Creativity begins to slow, then stops altogether. So I need to keep things under control. Trash the unnecessary, file what I want to save, process the things that need to move on to the next level, whatever that may be. And the creativity begins to flow again!

Most recently I’ve realized that the lighting in my space is important. I need light, specifically in the area where I’m working. My current office space has a disappointing main light. The only window is west facing, with no trees in line with it, so light in the second half of the day is pretty good. But once the sun goes down, the room is gloomy. Not a good space for me to be creative. Maybe it was too many years on stage with those bright lights. When I’m writing or working on the computer a really bright desk light makes the immediate workspace acceptable. As soon as I push away from the desk, the room is a drag. I just made an easy change to the lighting and the whole room is much brighter and my mood followed right along. I’m thinking that my creativity will go up significantly now.

The last item that I’ve discovered to be important is music. I started working with music playing when I was in college. When finals week rolled around, I packed everything but necessary clothes, my books and notes, and my stereo system. Over the years, I’ve talked to many people who are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They can’t focus with any kind of noise or music. All of my best work has been done with music playing. My brain tends to be working on multiple levels at any given moment. If I want to focus I need to distract some of those inner “voices” and music always works. Vocal or instrumental work for me and headphones work the best. Shut out the world and reduce my focus to the work and the background music. With only two points for my brain to consider, a lot of mental energy goes into the work.

And that is the point.

So what works for you? What are the “must haves” in your creative environment? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

Peace

Jay

On Books – The Stories That Changed Me

Along the course of a lifetime of reading, some stories have a greater effect than others. These are the writings that changed me.

1: Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allen Poe – The story that made me fall in love with short stories. It began my journey to understand that storytelling was more than just telling the story.

2: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – The series that showed me that stories could be richly detailed and complex.

3: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a college reading assignment that stunned me. Again, a new way of telling a story, new ways of dealing with character.

4: Are You Running With Me Jesus by Malcolm Boyd – Showed me new ways to think about faith and prayer.

5: Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas – Poetry has never been my thing, but this one made me think about it. The power of words used artistically to tell a story. I’ve been a poetry dabbler ever since.

6: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress by Benjamin Franklin – More required college reading. The idea that an essay might be interesting, sly and funny was the revelation. Decades later that wonder sticks with me.

7: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams – Again, new ways of telling a story, and a role that brought out whatever talent I possess as an actor. I will remember Tom Wingfield to the day I die.

Looking back over the list, I am surprised to see it came up as one each of a play, a poem, a pair of essays, a religious book, a novel, an epic series, and a short story. That wasn’t the plan, because there was no plan. I just thought about the stories that have stuck with me over the years and how they have changed me as a reader and a writer. Some them I have read again and again (LOTR, Amontillado, and Are You Running), others I haven’t read in years (the Thomas, Swift and Franklin). But change can happen in an instant and stay with you forever.

Which stories have changed you? What are the stories that have made you the reader and/or writer you are today?

Peace.

Jay

What I’m Reading – Trafalgar

Trafalgar by Nicholas Best (2018) – One of the greatest sea battles in history is placed within its full historical context and introduces us to the actors in very human terms

I will get my only quibble with this book out of the way first. The subtitle, “The Untold Story” borders on the absurd. I can’t imagine that any sea battle has been more examined more often or in greater detail than this one. I would be hard-pressed to come up with another naval engagement that gets the attention this one has over the years. There’s good reason for it. If Napoleon and his allies had won this battle, or even damaged Nelson’s fleet seriously, the change in the history of Europe is profound. He might have been able to complete an invasion of England (although, as the author points out, there were still many problems to overcome).

While I’m not sure it offers much that is “untold”, the telling of the story here is a good as any I’ve ever read. Best doesn’t restrict his focus to the action on the sea. Instead, he places the battle into the larger context of what was going on in England, France, and Spain that brings those powers into conflict in the waters of the Atlantic. He also sidesteps two bits of lazy history in the telling. Napoleon is shown in both his brilliance and egotism (and at his actual height, an ongoing historical canard that has always annoyed me). The same for Nelson. The admiral’s story, especially those written by hero-worshiping English authors, too often falls into hagiography. Both men were brilliant in the ways that led them to greatness, but also bore flaws that created complications throughout their lives.

Best of all, this is history presented almost in the format of a thriller. This is not a linear repetition of the facts. It is a well-told story that weaves together the many characters and events surrounding the action at Trafalgar. Thus, this book is readable to an extent you rarely get in military history.

If you love history, military history, naval history or European history, this book will fit comfortably on your “To Be Read” list. Combining the attention to detail that history buffs demand with the kind of storytelling that makes those details accessible to mainstream readers, “Trafalgar” is an early star in my reading in 2019.

Rating – **** Recommended

(I received an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of this book.  The review is consistent with my published Review Policy)

What I’m Reading – Best of 2018

Every year I try to keep my reading list varied. I get bored reading the same kinds of things over and over. So when I assemble a list of what to read I try to include older works I’ve never read, recent books, and Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of books that are about to be published. I have found wonderful books in all three categories.

As always, let me remind you of my guidelines when it comes to this list. I am not presenting them as “great” books, or the “best of the year”. That’s not how I approach my reading. I love stories, and I love reading. After decades of reading and writing, my understanding of what makes good writing and a good story has been honed. But it remains my personal judgment. I prefer great storytelling to “great writing”. When the way an author writes gets in the way of what they are writing about, you lose me. Books like that may receive critical acclaim but they won’t score highly here. This list is of the books that stuck with me after I read them.

I read/reviewed around thirty books this year. Here are the Top Nine:

  • The Djinn Falls In Love by Various Authors (2017) – In my personal “Year of the Short Story”, it’s not surprising that four of the list are short story collections. This one was listed as one of the best collections of 2017. It offers a different look at the cultural icon of the djinn, what most of us think of as “genies”. Written from a different cultural point of view than most readers know, the stories are amazing.

  • Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)– The only author to make the list twice. My experience of Fitzgerald was zero prior to this year. I’d never read anything. Last Christmas I was given a huge anthology of American short stories which included “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz”. Which I hated! A kind of science fiction thing with strong racist overtones, it didn’t do a thing for me. But F. Scott Fitzgerald is F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I tried again. This collection turned me around. Some brilliant wordsmithing in service to the storytelling. That led me to read…

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – The first reaction from most people is “How have you never read this before?” I can’t explain it. I don’t remember it ever being required reading for me. After loving the short stories so much, I decided it was time to read his best-known work. It was every bit as stunning as promised. That he could bring such depth to characters who are so shallow is the work of genius.

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016) – Another Christmas present book. The story of the cultural changes when women receive a great physical power that changes the relationship between the male and female of our species. This is an “I couldn’t stop reading” kind of book. Loved the story, loved the writing.

  • Male of the Species by Alex Mindt (2011) – Third of the short story collections on the list. Recommended by my writer/editor child, I didn’t know Mindt’s writing at all. These are stories of men and boys and fathers and sons. The quality of the collection has moved him firmly onto the “Must Find More” list.

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (2016) – The first of a series, I suppose you might call this a post-apocalyptic novel. The world as we know it is gone, replaced by a new system of worldwide clans and laws. The punishment for the worst crimes has changed as well. These criminals must serve society, owning nothing but what is given to them by the people they serve. It is a punishment to serves justice and offers a level of punishment that makes our current system look comfortable. In the middle of this comes a special boy with what may be very special powers. One of two books where the author took me someplace unknown, unexpected and utterly amazing.

  • Seven Icelandic Short Stories by Various Authors (1950s?) – This collection was put together in the 1950s by the Icelandic government to highlight great writing going back to the earliest days of their culture. The stories begin in a different writing tradition and take the reader to some very different places. This selection was a total flyer. I was looking for something different for the Year of the Short Story, something unlike anything I’d ever tried before. The collection was all that I hoped for and more.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn – Another author that I had little to no experience with, despite their reputation. I have read in the science fiction and fantasy genres for decades but I don’t think I’ve read anything by LeGuinn. Here she creates a human species that has adapted to its environment on another world. The adaptation is an ability to shift their physical gender between male, female and a neutral form. A human from the mainstream of the species finds himself trapped on the world and in an increasingly complicated relationship with one of the natives. The story is fascinating, complicated and legendary in the genre.

  • The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) – A first novel and the book I have recommended most often to fellow readers this year. The book is part mystery, part horror, part science fiction and endlessly fascinating. The main character finds themselves jumping from body to body in the mystery, trying to determine why and how Evelyn Hardcastle is killed. As the mystery slowly unwinds, more questions are added. Still, the book that I am most excited about reading this year.

There were lots of other great books on my reading list this year. Looks like 2019 is already shaping up as another great year.

Agree? Disagree? Want to make a comment or a suggestion? Put it in the comments!

Peace,

JD