Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book #101: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Reality Hunger: A ManifestoTitle: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Author: David Shields

Do you view writing like visual arts, where experimentation and borrowing are routinely employed in highbrow works of art? Do you wonder if copyright laws are outdated and restrict creativity? Do you think that traditional novel and memoir are boring, dead forms, too focused on story and not willing to experiment with scratching away at a theme? Do you like "collage" writing with lots of short chapters and themes that could be easily reorganized and reordered? If so, you may be David Shields, or else one of his disciples.

Shields originally wrote Reality Hunger as a series of quotations from famous authors (and some of his own advice) to guide creative writing MFA students in his graduate seminars. After years of collecting, rewriting, and reordering his quotes, he published them as Reality Hunger, a book that argues for exploring the boundaries of creative writing, for not being hemmed in by traditional methods of telling stories.

I'll admit that I'm pretty skeptical about the idea. I feel that one of the main reasons I'm in an MFA program is to learn how to tell good stories, but Shields spoke to my class a few nights ago, and I hope I approached our conversation with an open mind. I agree that there need to be people like Shields (or Joyce, or Woolf) pushing the boundaries. But I don't feel equipped to push boundaries that I don't really understand yet. Maybe in another five or ten years I'll be able to approach Shields with more enlightenment.

I hate to toot my own horn but....

Did you see that last post? The number 100? In five years of blogging about books, I've never hit 100 books in a single year. But this year, with the help of the Whitney Awards, audiobooks, and graduate school, I managed to go where I'd never gone before. While I know there are people out there who read a lot more than I do, but 100 has always felt like an unattainable goal for me. After five years of trying, I finally made it.

Book #100: Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous CrewTitle: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
Author: Ursula LeGuin

The following comes from a presentation I gave on the book for my Young Adult fiction seminar:

As MFA students, we’re in an unusual position. We have writing groups built into our course of study, where we’re lead by people who know the craft and know how to share their knowledge with us.  Ursula LeGuin’s book is written for the majority of writers—the ones who’ve found small groups of like-minded “sailors” (she uses a sailing metaphor throughout) or for “lone navigators” trying to work out learning how to write on their own.

While LeGuin gives plenty of advice on things like point of view and active voice, the thing that makes her book unique is that it’s more of a workbook, a launching pad for writers. Each chapter has a short introduction of a principle, followed by models of how the principle is used well in classic literature. LeGuin then suggests writing exercises, with modifications for how the exercises can be used in groups and for people working through the book on their own.

LeGuin’s topics include: the sound of your writing, punctuation, sentence length and syntax, repetition, adjective and adverb, subject pronoun and verb, point of view and voice, changing point of view, indirect narration, crowding and leaping.

I think that LeGuin’s book could be a very effective resource for teachers of introductory creative writing courses. While I haven’t done the activities she suggests, I can see that they would work well in a classroom setting. The expository sections of each chapter are just detailed enough that they could easily be adapted to lesson plans for an instructor.

Example: Chastity

Write a paragraph to a page (200-350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue.

The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or an action, using only verbs, nouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc…) may be necessary but be sparing. Be chaste.

If you’re using this book in a group, I recommend that you do this exercise at home, because it may take a while.

If you’re currently working on a longer piece, you might want to try writing the next paragraph or page of it as this exercise.

The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try “chastening” a passage you’ve already written. It can be interesting.

For MFA students who have writing projects in mind and in progress, I can see myself turning to LeGuin’s activities when I encounter writer’s block. Keeping my story in mind, I could use one of her prompts, and get writing, even if it’s on another section of the novel.

Book #99: Mockingjay

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)Title: Mockingjay (The Final Book of the Hunger Games Series)
Author: Suzanne Collins
After reading the first two books in the Hunger Games series, I don't know why I expected Mockingjay to end happily. I mean, the first two books were pretty depressing, and they all ended darkly, with just a note of hope. Katniss and Peeta (and Gale) were pretty darn damaged after the second book. I also hate movies and books where a bloodbath takes place, but all the main characters end up unscathed (I think that was part of the genius of The Hurt Locker and LOST-- the famous people get killed off too, not just the throwaway supporting characters). I also think that we shouldn't pander to a YA audience and give them stories that are less "real" (in terms of realistic actions and reactions) than the books adult readers would expect. For both of those reasons, I really admire Mockingjay. Collins doesn't pander, and while the book arguably ends the way readers might want it to end, it's obvious that none of the main players left the battle unscathed.

I can't help but compare the end of the Hunger Games series with the end of the Harry Potter series. In both cases, the books ended with a recap that showed what happened to the major players several years in the future. However, in Mockingjay, readers get a much greater sense that Katniss and her family are still recovering from the events of their past. There's no discussion of Harry having PTSD, for example, or being unable to embrace life after nearly losing his to Voldemort. Furthermore, major characters die in both series, but the deaths seemed more tragic and more heartwrenching in Mockingjay. Dumbledore was, after all, an old dude when he died, right? I admire Collins for staying true to her story and her characters in Mockingjay, but it made for a much darker, less gratifying read. Maybe that's a good thing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book #98: The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector: A NovelTitle: The Cookbook Collector: A Novel
Author: Allegra Goodman

I've been listening to Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector for the last few weeks. When I was buying the book, I looked at a few of the reviews at and noticed that someone said that it was a book that "MBAs will like, MFAs will not." I was intrigued, and after reading the book, I'll admit that I agree with that simple assessment. The Cookbook Collector centers on the stories of two sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach, who both live in the San Francisco Bay area, but whose lives seem to represent different ends of the spectrum of stereotypes. Emily is a computer science geek with a internet startup company, a girl who goes from having no money to being a hundred-millionaire literally overnight. Jess is a grad student, hugging trees and whiling her way through Berkeley. The other characters they meet also feel somewhat stereotypical-- the high-flying venture capitalists, the startup CEOs who lose their souls, the guys who made it big at Microsoft and now collect wines and rare books with the same enthusiasm they once applied to cracking code. At times, the book felt like a satire. If it had been a satire, I may have liked it better. But, right there in the title, Goodman calls it a novel.

While the characters often annoyed me and it felt like there were too many stories for a single novel, all ideas that probably could be pursued in their own individual novels, I did love the passages with the cookbooks and those that take place in George's rare book store. It's obvious that Goodman loves her books, and she conveys that love to her readers. As for this book becoming a classic, one worth putting in my personal library, I'm not so sure.