Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 5

Cormac McCarthy is, to say the least, a divisive author. I know many readers (and writers) who, like me, admire his books. And I know many equally capable readers and writers who do not like him, for a variety of reasons.
McCarthy has little respect for the conventions of punctuation. He’s big on ambiguity. He often circles around a scene and sneaks up on you rather than confronting you head-on. He is not easy.
But, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, another author I admire, “So it goes.”
Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West, is among my favorite books and my favorite by McCarthy. Professor, author, and literary critic Harold Bloom calls it “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This, despite the fact that he was so overwhelmed by the book’s violence he set it aside twice before finally finishing it.
And there’s no question it is a violent book. It’s based on history—the exploits of a band of murderous scalp hunters operating in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
Whether it’s violence or just about anything else he’s writing about, McCarthy has a way of saying things that’s unsurpassed. His descriptions are so spare, yet vivid, they surprise you—forcing me, at least, to re-read passages for their beautiful language.
Bloom also has this to say about Blood Meridian: “The book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.”
Not bad comparisons for a Western novel.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 35: Nobody reads anymore.

A lot of the advice you get as a writer is discouraging: Writing a book is hard work. Publishers won’t read your manuscript. Self-published books don’t sell. Bookstores won’t stock your books. Nobody reads anymore.
There’s an element of truth in all those disheartening claims.
Except the last one.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that nobody reads anymore. It’s usually attributed to all the other distractions competing for former readers’ time: TV, movies, music, video games, social media, and so on and so on.
But, the fact is, according to the Pew Research Center, 73% of adults in the United States read a book in the past 12 months. And that hasn’t changed much over the past five years. Most of them—65%—read a printed book, 28% read an ebook, and 14% listened to an audiobook. Not only are people reading, they’re reading (and listening to) multiple formats (which is why that adds up to 107%).
How much Americans read is also holding steady. Readers read an average of 12 books a year, with the “typical” reader getting through four books. Obviously, readers like me are pushing up the average—in the past year I’ve read somewhere around 60 or 70 books.
There’s no doubt people are still reading.
I only wish they were reading my books.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Road trips.

If I were to wake up tomorrow and discover I had become wealthy overnight there’s not much I would change about my life.
Except one thing. I would travel. A lot.
There are many, many places around the American West I have yet to see but would like to. There are Civil War sites in the Southeast. Things in New England I’ve missed out on. I’d like to go back to England sometime, and Australia beckons, but other than that I would be content to stay within the States—mostly those Out West—save an occasional foray into Canada and Mexico in pursuit of history.
Most of my travel would be behind the wheel of a car. I like road trips. My wife tolerates them. She has what she calls “carcolepsy”—a condition that puts her to sleep when a car exceeds 40 miles an hour. She doesn’t think she misses much. Me, I like most everything I see through the windshield.
Way back when, there was a short-lived television show I liked called Then Came Bronson. It starred actor, songwriter, and singer Michael Parks as he rode around at random on a motorcycle. I still hear the theme song he wrote for the show in my head. The first two lines, in particular:

Going down that long lonesome highway
Bound for the mountains and the plains

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

History meets humility.

History is a messy subject. It’s never as simple as it ought to be. We tend to view history in black and white terms—good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, virtue and evil, right and wrong.
That’s particularly true when it comes to the history of something or someone near and dear to our hearts—our country, our people, our families. And it doesn’t stop there. This simplistic view of history devolves to the point that all semblance of actual knowledge gives way to belief, even wishful thinking.
And intellectual laziness. I read somewhere that instead of attempting to know what happened (which is no simple task), we cling to what we think happened, even what we wish had happened (which is much easier).
I once heard a radio interview with British actor Hugh Laurie. (House, Stuart Little, Jeeves and Wooster, Black Adder.) I remember only one thing he said, and it’s something I will never forget: “We must be humble in the face of facts.”
That bit of wisdom certainly applies to history. The facts of history—such as they are—are often uncomfortable. They sometimes contradict what we think (or wish or hope) happened. We squirm. We sweat. We tie ourselves in emotional knots. Our hearts and minds rebel.  But, eventually, we must come to terms with a revised reality.
Facts, in fact, can change our entire way of thinking—as they should, like it or not, if we follow Hugh Laurie’s advice.
What happened back when happened. We ought to know the facts of the matter as much as we can, with the knowledge that more facts may come to light and alter our understanding.
But that’s what humility is all about when it comes to history—basing the knowledge we have on facts rather than beliefs, and knowing that what we don’t know always outweighs what we do.

Friday, November 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 4

Plenty of historians pooh-pooh Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, complaining, among other things, it’s one-sided.
Two things about that.
First of all, Brown’s stated intention was to present the history of westward expansion from the perspective of the Indian tribes, which he did.
Second, it’s not as if the histories scholars had given us until that time were in any sense balanced. In fact, virtually no historian gave a fig about the Indian side of things until Brigham Madsen started researching and writing about it back in the 1950s. And very few followed suit until Brown’s book popularized the approach.
All that aside, Brown’s book opened the eyes of many Americans when it was released back in 1970. It certainly opened mine when I read it a year or two later while in college. (I wore out the mass-market paperback I bought back then and years ago upgraded to a trade paperback edition.) It was—and is—fascinating reading. Engaging, certainly, and informative. Even entertaining, though not in the traditional sense.
If you haven’t read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee do so. It’s still in print and readily available all these years later.
And don’t worry if you find it not exactly balanced—there are shelves full of history books that upset the scales in the other direction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 34: Descriptions, Details, and Depictions.

Be descriptive. Use adjectives. Depict people and places in great detail. Be specific. Writers hear those instructions all the time. We covered character descriptions a few “Lies” back, and this edition continues the theme. “Descriptive writing” is not necessarily bad advice, but a common mistake inexperienced writers make is listening too well and overdoing it as a result.
From time to time I am asked to judge writing contests. Some entries suffer from a malady I call adjective cancer. In prose suffering this condition, few nouns escape without carrying an adjective and some are burdened with compound adjectives.
Here’s an excerpt from a story that demonstrates the diagnosis:

The six-foot-two guide knelt in the rear of the fourteen-foot dark green canoe, his well-developed body rippling under his soggy white t-shirt while he worked the paddle. He shivered in the early morning air, the icy rain numbed his face, and water dripped off the bill of his blue UCLA cap. The neoprene gloves kept his hands from freezing.

I changed things up a bit to protect the patient’s identity, but not enough to treat the disease or relieve the symptoms. That’s what it reads like. Really. For page after page.
Now, I have no formal training in creative writing. Fact is, I’ve never taken a class in the subject. It’s altogether possible, then, that I am up in the (dark and dreary) night. But the kind of writing I prefer uses adjectives sparingly and allows the reader to participate in painting the picture. Abuse of adjectives not only excludes readers from imagining the scene, it bogs down the story.
Strunk and White say it best in The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs.” I’ll buy that. Give me spare, clean writing without a lot of adjectives every time (he said, using adjectives).
Don’t even ask me about adverbs.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A pair to draw to.

There’s a long list of pairs who displayed a certain chemistry on the silver screen. Bogie and Bacall. Hope and Crosby. Bert and Ernie. Brad and Angelina. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
But for my money, the most enjoyable acting duo has to be Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Without them, I think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be just another ordinary, everyday Western. But their rib-tickling repartee and witty quibbling made the characters come alive. They were likable, engaging, and altogether enjoyable. I suspect screenwriter William Goldman got a big kick out of seeing those two bring his words to life on the big screen.
I still watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from time to time, and it’s as good today as it was back in 1969 when the world was a whole different place.
Newman and Redford did it again in The Sting—an altogether different kind of movie and every bit as remarkable. Too bad they didn’t make more movies together. As a pair, they can’t be beat.
Then again, there’s always Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call….