Plot to Punctuation Logo

Reading roundup 2011

I started 2011 on a mission: read ten million words of fiction. I got to wondering what it would be like just to blast my brain with words, words, words, for a whole year. So I bought a lot of books and went to work. In the end, I didn’t make it, which is just as well because the stack you see here pretty well pushes the limits of what I can read and still get enough sleep to be a functional human being. And besides, if I had reached ten million, I’d never have been able to stack them all up. But still, I did pretty well. The stack you see is 70 books, and about 5.1 million words.

So what did I learn?

I have little patience for bad books

I finished them once I started, but reading that much, you want it to be an enjoyable experience. So when certain titles which shall remain nameless kept poking me in the eyes with awful writing, cliché plots, or horrible point-of-view abuses, it’s not fun. It starts to feel like work. Somehow, I doubt that’s the experience most writers want to give their readers. And while I won’t name the specific titles, I can say that the most disappointing books in the stack were all middle grade titles. Now, I grant you I am many standard deviations away from the mean age of a middle-grade reader, but I like to write for middle grade audiences, I have a budding middle-grader in my household, and I take to heart Maxim Gorky’s quote:

You must write for children in the same way you do for adults, only better.

Those titles didn’t do that.

I’m pretty picky about perfection

Not only did I do word count estimates of all those titles, I also rated them for my own amusement. And out of the 70, only three titles got a perfect 4-star rating from me. Two of them are classics, which I readily admit I judge differently than modern titles: Kurt Vonnegut’s stellar Cat’s Cradle, which is just sublime in its juxtaposition of deeply philosophical ideas against absurdist skewering of, well, everything. And antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which I simply adore because it is sweet and beautiful and utterly distilled down to its barest, simplest possible essence. If you want to study spare writing, that’s your textbook. Also, the scene with the fox kills me every time.

The only modern book to score a 4, well, that’s as good a segue into a top-ten list as any:

My top reads of 2011

10: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. By number of titles written in my stack, Beverly Cleary is this year’s clear winning author. I read the entire Ramona Quimby series and the entire Henry Huggins series to my kids for bedtime stories over the summer. If, like me, you like to write for middle-grade audiences you could do a whole lot worse than to blast your brain with a whole bunch of Beverly Cleary. I was particularly struck by the elegance and truth with which she captures the feeling of being a little kid. Really, several of Cleary’s titles were approximately as good as Ramona the Pest, but I pick this one for my top-ten list because of its utterly immaculate plotting. Everything in that book is there for two reasons. First, it all supports the scenes in which you find it, but second, it sets up lovely twists, surprises, and hilarious situations for later. It’s brilliantly done, and I’ll admit I’ve recommended that book to more than one of my clients as homework, just to study the plotting.

9: Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This is the Newberry Medalist winner from 1994, and I can’t really argue with the committee’s selection. It’s a lovely, quiet story, very intimate and personal to its protagonist. That’s a story oeuvre I particularly enjoy, and this title nailed it. But I was also totally impressed with Creech’s facile use of a parallel storyline structure, past and present, to explore the book’s overall theme of loss and healing. Great read.

8: The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L.A. Meyer. This is book 2 in the Bloody Jack adventures series. I absolutely adored book one of this series so much I went right out and bought the next five of them, and they’re so good I’m rationing them out to make them last. If you don’t know Bloody Jack, start with the first book—it’s amazing, and has such an incredible character hook on page 1 that I’ve used it as an example in lectures I’ve given on hooking the reader. Anyway, even though Blue Tattoo spends a lot of time setting things up that will clearly be used in later books, and even though it spends not a page on the high seas as book 1 does, it still presents a great storyline, good mystery and danger, and is a very credible sequel. If I ever dare write a sequel to any of my novels, I can only hope to measure up as well.

7: Factotum, by D.M. Cornish. I talk up D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series every chance I get, because they’re amazing books. Factotum is the third and presumably final in the series, which begins with Foundling. This is straight-up high fantasy, and it is arguably the equal of Tolkien. Them’s fightin’ words, I know, and I do not say them lightly. What’s amazing about this whole series—besides the characters, and the story, and the writing—the thing that makes me talk the series up, is the world-building. Cornish has a savant-like imagination. I don’t know how he fits the world of the Half-Continent and an understanding of the real world into his head at the same time. Tolkien was a great world-builder, but I promise you, you’ve never seen world-building done like D.M. Cornish. The contrast between the two comes in the use of invented language. Tolkien invented whole languages and alphabets for his fictional cultures, but they remain foreign languages; Cornish has taken the business of coining words to a whole new level, and does so in a way that at once adds marvelous texture and color to his world, while also being immediately understandable to the reader. You don’t need a separate glossary to understand D.M. Cornish’s invented language, although one is provided. I certainly hope Cornish writes more Half-Continent stories, and I feel comfortable suggesting that any modern writer of fantasy literature needs to put Cornish on their must-read list.

6: The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow. This is a crime novel set in the underworld of the Southern California mafia scene. What happens when a mob hitter tries to go straight? What happens when his past catches up to him? Frankie Machine’s the hitter, and his past is something else. What I loved about this book was, actually, Frankie himself. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a better example of how you get a reader to sympathize with a dark protagonist. Because let’s be clear, the guy’s no saint. And he doesn’t claim to be. Nevertheless, I defy you to read the book and not find yourself rooting for Frankie to win.

5: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I think if you took the whimsy and imaginative playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth, mixed it with the dark undercurrent of Alice in Wonderland, and rendered the result as a modern fairy tale, you’d get something like this book. At any rate, that’s how I found it: an utterly charming modern fairy tale, with a malignant darkness hiding, only hinted at, underneath. Just the sort of thing for kids of all ages.

4: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell. This is a southern gothic, paranormal teen novel. It’s quite short, and a very fast read, but it is oh so evocative of its setting. You almost feel like you’re there. The writing is lovey, and the story is brilliantly plotted with (at least to me) a great twist at the end. The perfect kind of twist that leaves the reader kicking themselves for not seeing it coming. Just wonderful stuff.

3: Chime, by Franny Billingsley. This is another teen paranormal, but this one bordering on fantasy, set in some nebulously-rural English village in the early 1900s. I loved the characters in this novel, but was especially impressed with Billingsley’s narrative voice. Or, should I say, her protagonist’s voice, as the book is written in first person. The story’s no small potatoes either. It builds to a high-stakes climax, piling layer upon layer of mystery as it goes. But oh, that voice. The book could have been twice as long and I’d have been glad to read every page of it.

2: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. I don’t know what’s up with me and the paranormals crowding the top of this list, because to be honest, I don’t actually read all that much paranormal. But, here in the number 2 slot, we find the most unusually-premised paranormal I can recall ever having read. I suspect all of us have, at some point or another, had that conversation with our friends: “what super power would you want to have?” Rose Edelstein’s super power is to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she eats. Super power, or super curse? That depends, and Aimee Bender does absolutely yeoman work in fully thinking through the ramifications of such an ability, while also wrapping them up in, as the Los Angeles Times calls it, an “ethereal and surprisingly weighty” story.

1: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley. This is the only book I read this year, outside of those two classics, to earn four stars from me. Mosley is a highly experienced writer, and it shows, although this is the first book of his I’ve ever read. I hardly know what to say about this novel, other than it’s astonishingly, shockingly, good. Brilliant, even. The writing? Smooth as glass. The voice? Impeccable and completely captivating. The plot? Quiet, but very high-stakes for its protagonist. And the love story woven through it? Like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you read nothing else on this list, read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I stand in awe.

So that’s what I did in 2011. What were your favorite reads of the year? Share them in the comments!

December 31, 2011 22:32 UTC

Tags: writing, reading

Permalink Permalink | Comments 4 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

The Origins of My Love Affair With Books

Yesterday, a client of mine named Joe Beernink blogged on the origins of his love affair with books. Oh, the nostalgia! And oh, my envy for the attic full of books his mother had collected! His blog post touched off a whole cascade reminiscence for me, and so while this is a bit off-topic for my blog, it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it, so I’m going to pick up the thread and add my own memories.

Two Works of Genius

If I had to pick one initial starting point, it would probably be this.

It’s one of the earliest books I remember reading all on my own. It was preceded by younger-age fare such as Puss-n-Boots and The Three Billy-Goats Gruff. I have vivid memories of being four years old and reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff out loud, but now that I have small children of my own, I suspect I was reciting rather than reading. Kids have amazing memories.

The Phantom Tollbooth was the first chapter book I actually owned a copy of. Prior to that, I got books from the school library. I have basically no memory of anything I checked out, except to know that I read an awful lot of Hardy Boys mysteries. Couldn’t tell you a damn thing about any of them today—they didn’t have sticking power—but I know I checked out as many of them as the librarian would let me.

Tollbooth, though. That, I remember. Vividly. I don’t know how many times I read and re-read my copy. But I do remember the way the paperback spine began to curl, and how the paper on the front cover wrinkled in that particular way that paperback book covers do, and the utterly singular feel of those wrinkles under my fingers.

I remember thinking that I should be more careful with how I was holding the book, lest it fall apart. My mom never had any money. Had it fallen apart, I knew I wouldn’t be getting another copy. To this day I hold paperback books very gingerly, like the precious things they are, a habit that has only grown stronger with time. These days, when I’m done with a paperback, it barely looks used at all.

But I said two works of genius. The other formative story for me wasn’t actually a book at all. It was a record:

For those not in the know, The Point! was a trippy, psychedelic, and obviously drug-influenced animated kids’ ABC Movie of the Week from 1971. I didn’t see the movie until I was a grown man and the Disney channel started showing it. In fact, I don’t think I even knew there was a movie until then. I had always thought it was just a record, because that’s all I had.

I was six or maybe seven when Mom brought the record from some second-hand store. It came with a weird booklet inserted into the package with stills from the movie, arranged in quasi comic-book form to tell the story. It was weird and strange, and I loved it. I listened to that record countless times, following along in the booklet, enthralled with the story of poor pointless Oblio—the only boy in the land born without a point on the top of his head—and his dog Arrow.

(Side Note: I also loved that the back of the record jacket had all the song lyrics printed on it. Even though I can’t say that I really understood the poetry of the lyrics, I grooved on ‘em to the extent that the first non-nursery-rhyme song I ever learned to sing—all the way through, all by myself—was Harry Nilsson’s brilliant Think About Your Troubles, off of that album.)

If asked to pick two works of storytelling for a seven year old kid to fixate on and consume repeatedly, selected to engineer a life-long love of books and stories, I don’t know that I could do a better job than chance and my mom’s utterly opaque sensibilities produced for me. Yet, when I look back on those two selections with the benefit of hindsight, a whole lot of life experience, and having spent the last few years analyzing stories for my clients, I think I know why The Phantom Tollbooth and The Point! were so effective.

Fantastic Worlds

Both stories involve kids having adventures in really, really wild lands. Norton Juster’s “Kingdom of Wisdom” was a fantastic place, in the most literal sense of the world. A place where some kids start with their heads at their adult height, and grow downward until their feet reach the ground. A place where days are conducted like symphonies. A place where banal physics need not apply, and yet, a place that operates according to its own internal logic: the logic of wordplay.

The Land of Point, similarly, was a place of impossible geographies, improbable morphologies, and even less probable inhabitants. Like the Rock Man—literally made of stones and accompanied by a deep bass-guitar sonic backdrop—"That’s it. You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear. You dig?” Or the Pointed Man, decorated on all sides and in all directions, with arrows, fingers, and other implements of pointing, illustrating that “a point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” It, too, was a world in which physics was more of a set of helpful suggestions rather than rules, but which rigorously obeyed its own logic: the conflation of metaphorical and physical pointedness. Of having a point with having points.

Those books taught me something incredibly valuable about storytelling. You can get away with damn near anything in a story, as long as there is, ahem, a point to it and as long as you’re consistent about it. Through their own utterly delightful and unique interpretations of story physics, Tollbooth managed to wrap a lesson about the value of imagination and the non-supremacy of any area of study over any other (in other words, don’t take yourself too seriously just because you got a degree in something) in a cracking good adventure about a boy and his dog freeing a couple of princesses. The Point! managed to convey a lesson about self-worth (even when it’s invisible to the eye), about not judging by appearances, in an adventure about a boy going off to seek his place in the world, only to find that it’s right where he started from.

Missing Pieces

But remember how I said I didn’t even know that The Point! was a movie until years and years later? Well, I didn’t. The record I listened to ad nauseum didn’t have space on two sides of vinyl for the whole story. And the little comic book inside didn’t either. In the reduction from screen to audio, some brutal editing took place. Obviously, there wasn’t room for the whole thing. (Side note: I remember being similarly disappointed, at a similar age, to discover that the soundtrack album for Star Wars: A New Hope contained only the music—not the dialogue and sound effects. Aw, man! What a gyp!)

While seven-year-old me didn’t understand the harsh realities of production costs and why this must necessarily be the case, I couldn’t escape the sense that I was missing something. That the record and the booklet weren’t telling me the whole story. But in a way, that may have been good. In a way, those brutal edits turned the experience of listening to the record into an analogue of the experience of reading a book: I had to imagine a lot for myself.

Similarly, brilliant though Jules Feiffer’s illustrations for Tollbooth are (they are marvels of evocatively spare, loose line art), again not every scene could be illustrated. Not every character could be pictured, not every moment shown. Much—as it should be—was left to the imagination.

This, too, teaches a lesson. It’s one I learned on some intuitive level back then, but never recognized consciously until I began devoting myself to the study of how and why fiction works. I’ve heard the lesson phrased several different ways: “The story you write isn’t the story the reader reads.” Or, “Every reader brings their own baggage to a story.” Or, one of my favorites, “A well-written novel is co-authored by the reader’s imagination.” That last one comes via fellow book-doctor Stephen Parolini.

The best stories are ones that engage the reader’s imagination. The best stories are the ones that leave room for the reader’s mind to spin. The best stories are the ones that leave stuff out.

My Love Affair Continues

I’ve never fallen out of love with books. I’ve read, I don’t know, probably thousands of books since I was seven. Some gems, some stinkers. Some read and re-read, others read and forgotten. All too many, alas, forgotten. For me, I think the hallmark of a truly great book is whether it sticks with you. Whether you can remember having read it at all, and when you do, do you have an immediate emotional reaction. A sense of “Oh, yeah! I loved that book!”

For as much Hardy Boys as I read, none of it stuck. But I have never forgotten The Phantom Tollbooth, and I have never forgotten The Point!. They stuck, and stuck hard. As a writer, I can only hope that someday, something I write sticks that well with a reader.

What about you?

I loved Joe Beernink’s blog on this subject so much I’m writing this response. I think it ought to become a meme among us writer-types. So to anyone reading this, I’ll make you this deal: post your own reaction on your blog, post a comment here with a link to your blog, and I’ll do my best to drive readers your way through my own social media network. Please share. Even if you don’t have a blog, give us your formative book experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear other people’s stories of how their literary love affairs began.

April 18, 2011 23:42 UTC

Tags: Norton Juster, Harry Nilsson, reading, nostalgia

Permalink Permalink | Comments 15 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar