Writing Exercise: Loneliness
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut
First Line: “This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”
I’ve been told that Vonnegut himself rated Slapstick a “D” so it’s kind of lame that this is the book that got me to focus in and reevaluate him. I mean, I shrugged off Vonnegut for years. No interest whatsoever in any of his titles.
And then I read this prologue.
The first 20 pages are everything to this book. To be honest, the rest of it annoyed me. Too fragmented. Weird apocalypse/political themes. I guess I interpret it all as a riff on the Adam and Eve aftermath. (Brother and Sister are One, and then divided…the fall of humanity, etc.) I only kept reading because of the voice in the beginning. To see how the complex personal essay prologue would interact with a plot-line.
Only I didn’t expect the looseness. The plot “line” is squiggly and faint and disjointed. Yet somehow, we can still feel the connections between author, narrator, and character. It makes me wonder about the writing process for Vonnegut. The prologue suggests that he wrote with themes in mind, but did he draft? Was there any “planning” before getting it out? The short sections and page-breaks remind me of a collage. I don’t think he took himself too seriously with writing…just a snap judgment, of course, but if so, was it liberating?
Also, how encouraging, the lines he quotes (in the prologue, of course) on work to his brother. First, “that a writer was a person who hated writing.” Yes, we’ve heard that before, but it bears repeating, especially when followed by, “Dear Kurt–I never knew a blacksmith who was in love with his anvil.”
Bottom Line: Hi ho.
Count Your Blessings in 550 Pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
First Line: “I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations.”
Death is the narrator and this opening line (I confess, it’s not the opening line) is a comment on his occupation. “Here is a small fact,” he says. “You are going to die.”
This book is not for the faint of heart. (But it’s Nazi Germany–what did you expect?) There are some heavy events, but I agree with the publisher’s assessment: it’s suitable for those as young as twelve.
My ho-hum review on this read stems mostly from the title. Young Liesel’s adventures weren’t as daring as I’d hoped. She takes one book from a Nazi book burning. She steals apples a few times. I think her “book thief” nickname is somewhat forced. Her collection basically comes from sneaking into the mayor’s library, and they leave the window open and have hundreds of titles, so it’s not terribly tricky.
Zusak has created some very touching relationships, though, and that’s what kept me reading. While I don’t feel compelled to rant and rave about this title, Liesel’s foster parents, her best friend Rudy, and Max, the family’s stowaway Jew, are very memorable characters. It’s also neat to hear Death’s view on life and war.
Bottom Line: Try this book if you’re in the mood for something depressing and/or your English class has assigned a paper for the historical fiction genre.
Fantastical Stories Transform Dull Weekend
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
First Line: “In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or ‘first flowering fruit,’ the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli.”
I discovered Karen Russell in 2010 when I chose St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her first story collection, to read and review for a creative writing class. The title hooked me immediately, and her experimental, dream-worlds do not disappoint.
I want to liken her writing style to that eerie darkness of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. She’ll occasionally play with magical, physical transformations of her characters, and her tone–I don’t quite know how to put it, other than ‘psychologically-spooky!’
This collection begins with a love story centuries old. Two vampires have retired in Italy, where they quench their thirst with lemons. Next we’re launched to a Japanese dystopia in which a metamorphous tonic turns young women into silkworm hybrids. (There’s the Kafka for you!) She also gives us U.S. presidents reincarnated into horses (hilarious), and a somber look at PTSD when a tattooed veteran collects his gratis massages at Dedos Mágicos.
My only critique here is that the final story fell a little flat for me. I wish the collection ended with more oomph, but by no means will that dismiss it from my bookshelf!
Bottom Line: Russell is unique and unexpected and budding creative writers can find wonderful tips from her experimental style.
Country-Vet. Living: Book I
If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot
First Line: “They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.”
It’s 1937 and rookie veterinarian James Herriot has just partnered with the eccentric (but established) Siegfried Farnon in the quaint English countryside of Darrowby. What happens when they get a midnight call for a cow with milk fever? Is there any hope for a champion horse with a torsion? Better yet–how does one treat the irksome “eversion of the uterus?”
Because Herriot continually faces literal life-and-death situations, each chapter is its own mini-adventure. The episodes are emotional and wonderfully comedic. Herriot introduces characters (humans and animals alike) that are distinct. The typical clients are gritty farmers skeptical of his qualifications, yet there’s also Mrs. Pumphrey–a wealthy widow who personifies and spoils her dog Tricki. Thus, Herriot’s work bonuses range from free suppers and slabs of butter, to elaborate party invitations and expensive brandy.
Herriot’s home life is equally engaging. Hilarity abounds when Farnon’s younger brother Tristan comes to stay. There’s trouble with the bill notifications, escaped chickens, and prank phone calls. What’s not to love?
I’m thrilled to say that Herriot’s adventures continue in seven other collections. Each has a permanent place on my “to-read” list, because, as Herriot reflects, “If you decide to become a veterinary surgeon you will never grow rich, but you will have a life of endless interest and variety.”
I think the same goes for reading about a country vet.
Bottom Line: Here’s your chance to job shadow one of the world’s most rewarding careers–all from the comfort of your armchair.
Hang Wallpaper the Hemming-way and More!
The Household Tips of the Great Writers by Mark Crick
First Line: “I sipped on my whisky sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin.”
Once again, the book cover enticed me. But what really sealed the deal for this library borrow was the title. Instructional fiction? With my favorite writers? Cooking and home repairs and yard work as dozens of mini-stories? Why didn’t I ever think of this! Crick is a genius.
The premise of the book is essentially a writing exercise. In each episode, Crick molds his writing style to mimic that of one of the great writers. He starts with the spirit of Raymond Chandler and pairs him with an entrée of lamb and dill sauce. The result is a guy throwing an evening meal together while waiting for some elusive blonde to show up. Two quick pages of first-person narration describing the process of how to cook lamb ending in classic Chandler style: “The blond hadn’t showed. She was smarter than I thought. I went outside to poison myself, with cigarettes and whisky.”
Naturally, I was drawn to the writers with whom I’m most familiar. Jane Austenian women had a discussion of suitable marriage matches while experimenting with eggs and tarragon in the kitchen. The John Steinbeck tone yielded the tale of a destitute young woman fixing risotto with dried mushrooms–humor to the literature lover!
“Painting a Room” completely mirrors the situations of Haruki Murakami’s protagonist in Norwegian Wood and the finale poem “How to Prune the Rose” reads as if it were freshly torn from a Pablo Neruda collection. The pastiches on the playwrights are equally impressive.
The layers to this compilation (the three parts were initially published independently) are profoundly entertaining. It’s study of literary styles–a joke book on the great writer’s ticks and trademarks. It’s a recipe collection and a reference guide for your next weekend project. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Bottom Line: For the perfect gift to a literature-lover, buy this book.
More Questions than Answers, and Giggles Aplenty
Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket
First Line: “There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.”
First, let’s talk about print. You know you’re in for a treat when you pick up this book. The dust jacket is magnetic, a word which here means that the art looks pretty damn cool. Plus, it’s got Lemony Snicket’s name on it. We’ve learned that leads to something delightfully twisted. Turn the pages, and there’s a stunning white, black and blue scene depicted at each chapter heading. And octopus wallpaper for the inside covers! That’s the charm of print.
Now for plot. Snicket still maintains the quick, dry wit we love from his Series of Unfortunate Events. This time, however, the story is about himself. Snicket recalls his days as an almost-thirteen-year-old, fresh from an “unusual education.” He’s part of some mysterious society and has just become the apprentice of a woman with crazy hair. Together they travel to the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea to investigate a theft.
With each chapter, the reader’s questions pile on—Snicket’s background, the stolen item, and the town itself are all foggy. It can be difficult to figure out the truth when the narrator keeps commenting on his own “wrong questions” I’m still kind of at a loss for what constitues as a “right question.”
Semantics aside, Who Could That Be at This Hour? is an exciting beginning for Snicket’s newest series. Ages 8 and beyond will get a kick out of the snappy dialogue and character quirks.
Bottom Line: Don’t worry yourself with questions about this book, keep reading, and enjoy the whimsy.