Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead  

I begin by saying that I know The Fountainhead is some sort of holy icon to a lot of people. Even more than fifty years after its publication it is selling very well, and is quite popular. When I took my copy down to the shop here in Venice where I can trade in used books for credit toward other used books, the owner of the shop

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: Ironweed, by William Kennedy

Ironweed Ironweed: A novel

Ironweed, by William Kennedy, is one of the Albany Novels, so called because they take place in Albany, New York. The book is about a bum named Francis Phelan, and his bum friends trying to survive as homeless bums in the winter in upstate New York, i.e., one cold goddamn place. I suggest wearing a sweater while you read this, even if you’re at the beach, because the writing is so good, and the description of the cold so biting, that you will feel it.

Francis had a family, a wife and kids, but booze got the best of him, and he ended up on the streets starving and freezing his ass off. All of his bum friends are on the street for the same reason. His friend Helen, for example, is a talented singer, but she is a fucking drunk and could

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: Across the River and into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway

Across the River and into the Trees 

Across the River and into the Trees, by Hemingway, is a novel about a fifty year- old Colonel in the U.S. Army immediately after WWII, who comes to Venice to die. He as been there many times before, and it is where he wants to be. He falls in love with a young girl of about 17, and they have a bit of a relationship. In the end he dies while being driven out of town in his car.

I know that Hemingway is revered as a great writer, and rightfully so. But I did not like this book— it’s not his best work.

The title is a reference to the last words of Stonewall Jackson: “. . . let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” The colonel had been a general, but we are

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, is one of the most famous and most misunderstood books in the world. From it came the term “beat generation,” and a lot of people think it gave rise to the beatniks and hippies. Maybe it did, but the interpretation of it that would do so was wrong.

Kerouac was on the road for about seven years, and claims to have banged out On the Road in about three weeks in 1951, typed on one continuous strip of paper created by

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

 Invisible Man

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, (not to be confused with The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells) is one of the best books you will ever read. It is brilliantly written, is from the point of view of a man, and does not go heavily into love and sex. It is therefore high on the list of Man Lit. It is a riotous and violent ride, and one that is difficult to put down.

Ellison starts the story at the end, where our hero is in his lightbulb-filled room in the cellar of a building, telling what happened to him, and bragging about the fact that he is stealing the electricity for his room, which is his way of getting back at society.

He begins as a promising young black man in the south wanting to go to college, and ends up a somewhat older man living in the room I have described. We never learn the name of the protagonist of the story, which I suppose adds to the notion of his invisibility. He is not really invisible, but he feels that people don’t see him.

Through a series of events and misfortunes, none of which are his fault, he is kicked out of college, fails at several other endeavors, and ends up in the cellar full of light.

The book, written in 1947 and published for the first time in 1952, on the surface deals with the treatment of blacks in the United States at that time. There is a certain amount of description as to how that was, but the book does not go overboard, or become preachy. But the book to me is about much more than black men living in a white world. In fact, the hero could have been any of us. It was not, to me, a black theme, so much as it was a human theme.

Writers are taught never to give the hero what he wants, at least not right off. Ellison had apparently learned that lesson. Nothing the guy did worked out—he was defeated at every turn. No matter what he tried to do, he failed, or the result was different than he expected.

For example, when as a young man he was going to give a speech to a group of white men in the south, for which he would receive some sort of reward, he first had to take part in a “battle royal,” where he and a number of other black men were expected to fight nearly to the death. In the end they fought on an electrified grid. He manages to come through it and give his speech through bloody and swollen lips, but he finally does, and gets a beautiful briefcase and a full scholarship as a prize. During that whole scene, though, I found myself wondering why he didn’t just tell them to go fuck themselves.

He does go to the black college, but because of another white man, ends up being expelled. And so his struggles went, all the way from being kicked out of school to not being able to accomplish even the slightest thing without failure and struggle. Sounded quite familiar to me.

The story is full of symbolism, some of which I suspect was obscure, but some of it was right out there. For example, there is an old iron bank in his room, which was being used as a doorstop, and which happened to be fashioned to look like a black man. He smashes it, but then has to hide it in his briefcase, and finds that he is unable to get rid of it. He ends up toting it around in his briefcase for half the novel. The briefcase was perhaps a symbol of the white man’s world, into which he would have to any dream of equality, and the bank is the weight of the past as slaves. 

This man finds himself scratching and clawing and fighting every minute of every day just to survive. This is not only the realm of the black with respect to the white, it is also the lot of the poor with respect to the rich, the citizen with respect to the state, the employee with respect to the boss, etc., etc. His greatest enemy in the story turns out to be another black man. What does all this mean? That the black man’s worst enemy is himself?

So far as I am aware, this was the only novel published by Ellison during his lifetime. I read an interesting theory that the invention of the word processor made it impossible for him to complete a book because he was an obsessive revisor, and the computer made doing that very easy.

This book is a must read for any Literary Man.

Click here to buy the book from Amazon

The Process and Tools of Writing

When I first started to write I looked for all the information I could on how other people did it. Things like did they outline? What word processor did they use? Did they use writing software? Here’s how I do it.

How do you write? To write, you sit in a chair and type words on a page. That’s it. Although that sounds flippant, it’s not. A writer has to be disciplined—perhaps the most disciplined person of all. We sit at home where it is very easy to be distracted. What’s on the internet? Maybe I should check my email. You will find yourself doing everything but writing. But you have to sit down and do it. Some other writer whose name escapes me said they used the AIC technique: Ass in Chair. So, if you want to be a writer, get some implement that will make marks on a page, real or virtual, and start putting one word in front of another.

Where to write? Someone else said that all the black turtlenecks and cafes in the world are not going to make you a writer. Writing is a solitary undertaking that needs to be done in isolation. You may envision yourself sitting like Hemingway at a Parisian cafe' writing, but you will never get anything done there. Stay home, write, then go out for coffee. Certainly observe and take notes while you are out, but the honest to God grunt work has to be done in solitude.

Do I outline? Yes, sort of. I find the task of writing a novel to be so complex that it is necessary to plan it out to a great extent before I start writing. Some people have a very complex system for it, saying they outline for several months, or a year. I don’t work that way. Before I start writing I usually have an idea how the novel starts and how it might end, and some ideas (perhaps) about what goes on in the middle. So I will make an outline to the extent that I know these things. I use a program called FreeMind Mind Map that is free. It is a great program because it is very easy to use, intuitive even, and very powerful. It is sort of a brainstorming tool. I start to write the outline, and brainstorm what happens. It helps get the creative juices flowing. One great thing about that program is that you can copy the outline from the Mind Map format, which is very graphic, to an outline form in a document.

When I start writing I follow the outline, but I am not chained to it. I often will discard an idea that seemed great when making the outline, but which sounds lame when I finally start to write.

There will inevitably come a time when I am writing outside the outline, or I have exhausted the outline. That’s okay. I sometimes go back and add more outline so I can figure out what is going to happen next. I also add ideas, which the software lets you mark as ideas, that may or may not end up in the novel.

Word processor wise, I use Atlantis. It costs about 35 bucks, but it’s worth it. It is much better than other software that is free or as cheap, and at least as good as very expensive software. You should give it a try. One thing I love about it is that it has sounds. I grew up using a typewriter, and I love to hear the sound of the keys hitting the page. I don’t know why, but my wife says she thinks it soothes me. Don’t know, but I dig it. The program also makes it possible to save a file as an ebook, and as html. It has a full screen feature for those of you who like a blank page. The support at Atlantis is extremely responsive. I mean to the extent of actually changing the software responsive.

For a long time I used a free program called Q10, which is great, too, but it is severely limited, and there is no support for it. The big thing with Q10 was that it had typewriter sounds and a full screen mode that did not have any distracting menu bars. But Atlantis has all the same features, and is a very powerful full blown word processor that is vastly superior, and at $35 is nearly free.

New writers are often interested in novel writing software, I know I was. I have tried them, and there are some very good and powerful programs out there for not much money. One free program I tried was Y-Writer. It is extremely useful and easy to use. My only beef with it is that it does not put out a document in a format that agents tend to like. I have to go through and do a huge amount of reformatting. With Atlantis, I write in the format the agents will expect to see. That might not matter to you—give it a try.

There are a plethora of other programs that I am sure are quite useful, but they were too complicated for me. For example, Scrivener (which is for Mac, but there is now a Windows Beta version) and Writer’s Cafe'. I think they are great, but for me, simple was better. You can try them free to see what you think.

What about editing? I work on a book until it is as good as I can get it. I type onto a computer, then print it out. Sometimes I print bits of it as I go, and sometimes I wait until the end, and then print the whole thing out. Either way, you must sooner or later print the thing out and read it and edit it that way. It’s the only way. I find that after about three revisions I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall.

Should you hire an editor? I did. Unless you have written a few books and have a real handle on grammar, punctuation, flow, character, and the whole kit and kaboodle, you need not only an editor, but a person who will look at the whole thing. I think your chances of getting an agent are slim if you don’t. Even if you self publish, you need to have it reviewed by an editor and writing coach. And believe me, it shows. I looked at one self-published book where none of the sentences were more that about five words. You can’t read that shit—it’s more like an outline of a story. A decent editor would have saved that person, and perhaps put out something that was publishable. As it was, though, it was unreadable.

How do you become a better writer? Write more. Get criticism and instruction, but in the end the real teacher is writing. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. When I first started to do it I felt like I had rocks for hands. After a while, though, it flows. Not all of it is good. Hemingway said that for every page of good writing he puts out, he has a hundred bad. The trick is that the hundred bad pages end up in the trash.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review: And the Ass Saw the Angel: A Novel by Nick Cave

And the Ass Saw the Angel, Revised Edition

One of the things a Literary Man should do is read books, and I don’t suppose you’d be reading this blog if you were not interested in reading books. For that reason, I intend to write a review on occasion of a book that I think fits into the Man Lit genre. Today I start with And the Ass Saw the Angel, by Nick Cave. That’s right, the musician Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

This book is the definition of Man Lit, although the protagonist (if such he can be called) is a young man or boy, and deserves to be read by all devotees of Man Lit. 

From the back cover of the paperback edition I read, the Daily Telegraph said: “As if a Faulkner novel had been crossed with Whistle Down the Wind and then narrated by a stoned blues musician . . .” I agree.

The title of the book is a quote from the Bible:

And the Ass saw the angel of the Lord
standing in the way, and his sword drawn
in his hand: and the ass turned aside
out of the way, and went into the field:
and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her
into the way. (and so forth)

  Numbers 22:23, et seq.

A rather cool quote, I think.

The story takes place in the deep south of the United States (although Nick Cave is a Aussie whom I believe presently lives in Berlin). The “hero” of the story, Eucrid Eucrow, is born into abject poverty to a moonshine filled mother, and a father who busies himself trapping little animals and throwing them into a wooden corral, which in my mind was rather like an old water tower tank.

He comes into conflict with his mother and his father, and the fanatically religious towns people, and slides more and more into insanity hides in a swamp, is found out there, and then builds a fortress around his house guarded by mean dogs that he thinks are alive, but seem all to be dead. Throughout most of the story it is pouring rain. It weighs on you like a big damp blanket, setting the tone of the tale.

When I pick up a book in a store trying to decide whether to buy it, I read the first line, and then I flip through the book to a random spot to see if the language is interesting. To The Literary Man, the writing style will always be of paramount importance over the story.

The book has a prologue involving crows flying around, which I found a little opaque, but I knew I was in good territory with the opening of Chapter 1:

“It was his brother who tore the caul on that, the morning of their birth, and as if that sole act of assertion was to set an inverted precedent for inertia in his life to come, Euchrid, then unnamed, clutched ahold of his brother’s heels and slopped into the world with all the glory of an uninvited guest.”

Good stuff.

Now in the middle of the book?

“Ah was scared — yes, ah was. Ah could feel mah innards become bundles of livid rope from which swung a chattering sabbat of hunchbacked bell-ringers.”

Even better stuff (yes, he is trying to give the impression of the southern accent, but he doesn’t over do it.)

With these two quotes, and the comments from the back, and my knowledge that Nick Cave had a way with words, I plopped down my cash.

Bottom line, the book is brilliantly written and a joy to read, although after reading it you may not be able to explain to anyone what it was about, and you may not even know what it was about. But that is not so important for the Literary Man. In popular fiction the story is king, and the writing style is of virtually no importance. We, on the other hand, want a story, of course, but the style of the writing is what counts. This book is a buy and hold. One of my favorite books of all time.

I note, however, at least in the edition I read, which was printed in the UK, they use British terms for things. For example, “torch,” when they mean “flashlight,” and “bonnet,” when referring to the hood of a car. Don’t let that stop you, though, it’s worth reading either way, and you can find humor in the silly names that the Brits have given to things. (I love Brits, don’t get me wrong. But they do use some funny words.)

The book mentioned here, as well as other relevant stuff, can be purchased through Amazon:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hello, and Welcome

This is the inaugural post of my blog having to do with writing. Specifically, it has to do with the writing of Man Lit. Now, this is not Male Lit, because I discovered that this means Gay Lit. I have nothing against gays or the literature that may be produced by them or on their behalf. But that is not the subject of this blog, and that is not what I write.

I have noticed a deficiency of new literature and fiction in the world written for men. There is plenty of history, biography, current events and sports books around. Even fictional books relating to these topics, but I see little in the way of literary fiction that is intended for a male audience. Chick Lit and teen girl lit abound. In chick lit they flit about shopping, obsessing over some guy, dealing with their issues related to getting old and divorced, or a combination of the two. It’s all about relationships. In teen girl lit it seems that the only theme these days is hunk vampires, and what is called “paranormal romance.” In my Man Lit, it is about the man. His relationships figure in because even the best among us does not operate in a vacuum. But that is not the focus. The focus is the man, or the protagonist, in the jargon of the writer.

I am in my mid-fifties, and there are certain themes that I am interested in as a man that don’t seem to be being addressed. I hope to do that in my writings. So, my work will contain a lot of talk about the concerns of people like me, and will be written in the language of people like me.

For example, I am concerned about death. Although interested in religious topics, and fascinated by religious texts, I do not believe in God. The heroes in my stories have the same affliction. This presents certain issues when contemplating death, and you might call it existential. The hero often quotes the Bible, or the story may involve religious elements and religious themes. But the message is never religious.

I also have a tendency to cuss a lot. I spent six years in the Navy, a lot of that on a submarine. By the time I got out I thought that the word “fuck” was a grammatical device used to separate the major parts of a sentence, or even as a word separator. It is a noun, verb, adjective, article, conjunction, and a meaningless interjection. So, in my writing you will find a lot of “fucks” and the occasional “cocksucker,” of “motherfucker.” I try to keep it down, though, because my goal is to create literature, not filth. The use of these words, and others like them, is intended to create realistic speech for people like me, but not be gratuitous.

On the topic of sports, of course many of us love sports, and I am no exception. I am not a fanatic, but I do love a good football game. Sports will be used on occasion in my writing because that is what we do, to a great extent.

Drinking is another thing that sets us apart from the beasts, such as women and teenage girls. (Although I know a lot of women who could hold their own in that regard). I love beer, wine, scotch and martinis, and so do my characters. They will occasionally have too much, but they do not become snot slinging drunk. That is for the twenty-somethings.

So, that’s it by way of introduction. I intend to post snippets of things I’m working on here, and to shamelessly promote my books. But I’m not going to be a prick about it.