Why I Threw the Book

Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.

It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.

But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.

Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.

Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.

There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.

The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.

Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.

For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.

One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.

Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)

But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.

“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.

There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.

I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.

So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.

Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.

One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.

Back to Class

Great day Thursday. Tori asked me to come in and talk to her her sixth grade English classes about writing, which she wants them to concentrate on this semester. She wants me to come in each Thursday and talk about how I write and read them my latest chapters. Thursday was the first time.

I’d done this before, back on St. Croix. I’d come in every Thursday afternoon with the new chapters and read to them. It let them follow the process of writing a novel and let me gauge their reactions to what eventually would become “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” It was invaluable. I don’t know how anyone can write a story for middle schoolers without having real kids to bounce it off. I assume they got something from it as well.

So I was looking forward to to it, although not without trepidation. The kids on St. Croix were fifth graders, these were sixth graders, and there’s a world of difference between the two. And unlike on St. Croix, where Tori taught one class of 13 motivated kids, she has two classes of about 30 kids each, ranging from bright, polite kids to kids who are, shall we say, less motivated and more difficult. And she doesn’t have the luxury of deciding the day’s schedule, when she’ll teach a subject and for how long, she’s got a firm schedule ruled by bells. I couldn’t just show up in the afternoon. I have to be there to get the last half hour of her second period class, then stay for the first half hour of her third period group.

But it went great. The kids were more curious than anything, but they listened and for the most part they stayed focused. I talked about writing, and the fact that I had been earning a living at it for more than 40 years. I tried to tie my own experience and ideas about writing into things that I knew they’d talked about on other subjects, why writing is important, how shared stories tell us who we are as a society, what we think is important.

And I talked about the magic of writing. It’s not an original ides with me, it may even be a cliche, but books are made of trees that are cut down and pulped then have ink smeared on them and are glued together. And when you look at those ink smears, the voice of the writer is in your head. It could be my voice, if you’re looking at “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Or the voice of someone who has been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years: Shakespeare, Homer. And that’s sort of magic, isn’t it?

Then I read them the first two chapters of my WIP, a sixth grade story about two friends who always get in trouble but are the world’s only hope in the circumstances of the story. The kids laughed when I hoped they would, seemed interested, and got a big laugh where I hadn’t really expected one. I took note and will be revisiting that issue repeatedly.

Afterwards I asked for feedback and ideas, and many of them had thoughts about what should happen next. (They were wrong, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.) I also talked about how you want to start a story as close to the action as possible, but you also have to set things up – the characters, the kind of world they live in, the circumstances of the story. Plus there are things I’m planting in the first three chapters that will pay off at the end, that will enable our heroes to figure out how to save the day. I told them the ancient Greeks (who they’re learning about in social studies) invented drama as we know it, and sometimes in their plays the situation was doomed, only to be saved at the last minute by an intervention from the gods.

“The Greeks called it deus ex machina, the machine of the gods,” I said. “Today we call it cheating. You’ve got to set up the story so that the solution is always there, but the reader doesn’t necessarily see it until you spring the payoff. Then they go, ‘Aahhhh! Of course!'”

In all, I was pleased. And Tori was even more pleased. And I’m looking forward to next Thursday morning. And working hard so that I’ve got fresh chapters for them.

Note: I haven’t written in a while, obviously. No excuses, but I’m back at it. The more I write, the more I write and that’s a good thing.

Dorothy, Heywood, the Babe and My Brain

I recently learned that Dorothy Parker did not say, “This is not a book for lightly tossing aside. It should be thrown with great force.” Turns out it was coined by one-time L.A. Times sports editor Sid Ziff. All this time I was certain it was Parker.

I know, what possible difference does it make? None, really. It’s still a great quote. But now I have to figure out what IS my favorite Dorothy Parker quote. No small task.

And this is how my brain works. I had started because I wanted to confirm the exact wording of the quote. I hate it when someone quotes something and I know they’ve got the words wrong, even if just slightly. It’s jarring, and I didn’t want to do the same thing. So I looked it up in several places and discovered to my chagrin that she didn’t say it, Ziff did. This led me to a precis of Sid Ziff’s life – interesting guy, he became sports editor of the L.A. Express at the age of 19 – then to Dorothy Parker and finally to a website – one of many – dedicated to the celebrated wits of the Algonquin Round Table.

From there I was drawn to a review of a play about Dorothy Parker being staged in Los Angeles (too late, it closed last week) and thence to a collection of some of the less-known members of the Round Table.

That’s where I found this short essay by Heywood Broun. It has several laugh-out-loud moments and it’s amusing all the way through. Reminds me of of the tone of Wolcott Gibbs, James Thurber. E.B. White and others of that era.

Broun is comparing Ruth and Roth – that is, Babe Ruth and Filibert Roth, a professor of forestry at the University of Michigan. Don’t ask, just read the story here. It contains this great line:

“Just what difference does it make if Mr. Roth errs in his timber physics? It merely means that a certain number of students leave Michigan knowing a little less than they should – and nobody expects anything else from students.”

I loved the essay. Also, in my poking around, I was relieved to discover that Dorothy Parker’s most famous line is both genuine and well documented. During a word game, she was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with this: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

A gem.

The Moment I Tossed the Book

I can tell you the exact moment I stopped reading The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader. It was when I read this passage.

“It’s amazing,” Moira said.
Bourne looked up from the file he’d snatched from Veronica Hart. “What’s amazing?”
“You sitting here with me in this opulent corporate jet.” … (description of what she’s wearing … “Weren’t you supposed to be on your way to Moscow tonight?

I closed the book. I checked to make sure the power bill I’d been using as a bookmark was removed. Then I walked the book across the room and put it in the garbage can.

Where it belonged. Because DAMN.

Robert Ludlum’s been dead for 17 and his memory deserves better than this. I’ve read the first two of his Bourne books and enjoyed them. They were pretty good. Having been written in the 1960s, they’re nothing like the movies. Nothing. Really no similarity at all. But they were competently written and pretty good page turners. I enjoyed the movies even more.

Ludlum wrote three Bourne novels and a bunch of others stuff, and died in 2001. His literary estate has hired this guy to write more Bourne novels (Sanction was written in 2008.) He’s written 11 of them, because there’s money to be made and who cares about the reputation of a dead author. The books sell and might get made into movies. More money for everyone.

Eric van Lustbader is a hack. I know he’s written more than 40 books, he’s terribly successful and I’m a schlub with one title to my name and plans for more. But this was crap, and it was crap enough to ensure I won’t bother reading another of his yarns. The story was cliched and the writing is just horrid. Terrible. That quote above is the worst I came across in the first 225 pages, but it’s not atypical. It’s standard low-context dialogue that’s supposed to convey setting or back story without going to the trouble of writing it well. Instead, he has people say things no one would ever say to advance the story. I would be embarrassed to have written the “dialogue” above. If the jet is opulent, SHOW the opulence. Don’t have one of your characters actually call it an “opulent corporate jet.” That’s a sentence no one ever said. Ever.

In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve read the word opulent hundreds of times over my life but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone SAY it. It’s impossible to believe a character who says something like that.

I can’t tell if it’s the author’s laziness, or if he really thinks that’s good writing. But it’s not. Oh, gods, it’s not.

Meanwhile, I’m chugging along finishing my new book which I hope to have done by mid-October. Then we’ll see if I’m any better.

Preaching the Power of Real Music

Litle Steven and the Disciples of Soul

When the show starts with a blistering version of “Sweet Soul Music” and just keeps getting better, that’s a good show. And that was only part of it.

We were at the House of Blues on Wednesday for Little Steven van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul, and the “teacher appreciation tour.” And Tori is a teacher. So she had the chance to sign up for the event as “professional development.” Usually that means a day listening to a speaker talk about diversity in the classroom, or new reading theories, or discipline or common core. All important topics, I’m sure. But none of them can hold a candle (or a Bic lighter) to Wednesday’s program, which included a two-hour concert. And because she’s a teacher, it was free and she could invite a “plus one.” That was me. (Our son Max, a music major at UNO, was the plus one of one of Tori’s colleagues. Thank you, Ruth.)

SvZ talks to teachersIt was a program by a group called Teach Rock. Check them out at teachrock.org. They’ve got a ton of resources – music and video – and lesson plans and hints for how to use them in the classroom. Not just so kids learn about the history of rock ‘n’ roll – not that that isn’t important. Do you realize there are kids today who have no idea who Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly were, or even Elvis!!?!

But this goes WAY beyond that. There’s material on how to use rock and pop music to teach English, social studies, even math and science.

And Steven van Zandt is a big supporter of the program. The event started with a three-song set by van Zandt and his band – 15 musicians total. It was – Wow! Then he talked to the hundred or so teachers gathered on folding chairs on the floor of the House of Blues, calling them “the most underappreciated and underpaid” workers in America – true that – and also apologizing for the hell he gave his teachers in high school. Then they took a “class photo” – van Zandt is front and center, of course, you can see Tori and Max in the back row, left of center, making peace signs.

Teach Rock class picture

The program itself took about an hour, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if it had gone twice as long. This group – Teachrock.org – has put a lot of thought in how to use popular music to engage kids who might otherwise not give a damn about school. Tori got a ton of inspiration and ideas that she can’t wait to bring to her classroom next school year.

Then they cleared the chair from the floor and opened the doors – people had been lining up outside for three hours. Yeah, some people had to pay to see the show, Imagine that!

And then – well, like I said, they opened with a blistering “Sweet Soul Music” – that hot horn opening, Do ya like good music (Yeah yeah) That sweet soul music (Yeah yeah) – and when the song was done I turned to Tori and said, “If we had to leave right now, I’d be okay with that.” It was that good.

SvZAnd it kept getting better. Van Zandt wasn’t just performing – he was preaching, singing the gospel of “real, live music.” Not computerized, no autotune or drum machines. Two percussionists pounding the skins and the horn section blowing their souls through hunks of hot metal. That kind of real music.

It was a great show. “Down and Out in New York City,” “Soulfire,” “Forever,” “Princess of Little Italy,” some Temptations and lots more – two hours of great, hot, real music.

And Tori got credit for professional development. And a lot of great ideas for using in her classroom next year. And a T-shirt!

If you’re a teacher or student, check out teachrock.org. You can register and have access to a ton of resource and ideas and maybe learn a thing or two that will liven your classroom next year and engage your students in a way they haven’t been before.

Tori and SvZ

Patience tested to the limit – But not over

I am typically the most patient shopper you will ever see at a supermarket. I try not to hurry people who pause (as they always do) in front of the one item in the aisle I am looking for. When there’s a near collision in the aisles I always smile, apologize, make a joke. At the checkout counter it is always my aim a) to not make the cashier’s day any worse, b) elicit a smile from the cashier and, if possible, c) get the cashier to laugh just a little.

I never complain if the line seems to move slowly – the line I’m in ALWAYS is the slowest, that’s just part of being me. I try to “possess my soul in patience,” as the Bible says (or words to that effect) If the person ahead of me is taking longer than seems reasonable, I’m sure I’ll get the same attention from the cashier when it’s my turn – whether I want it or not. Life’s short.

So when I say I did NOT strike the woman ahead of me, you may assume there was some provocation.

I was in a time crunch because I had to get Max’s car back to him so he could go take a final at college, and Winn-Dixie did not have an item I needed (power steering fluid. His car was moaning like a dieter in the candy aisle) so I would have to make another stop.

There were two registers open. One had a line – the person being checked out and three people behind her. I pulled into the other line, where I was next in line after the woman whose groceries were almost all rung up. You’d have done the same thing, although experience has shown me that that’s almost always a trap. Still I played the odds – and lost.

The woman – a perfectly coiffed, perfectly made up “Southern Lady” of about my age – was standing and flipping slowly through something on her phone. There was a muted discussion going on with the cashier (who I’m sure doesn’t get paid enough.) I finally figured out the Southern Lady was looking for an online coupon she had seen somewhere. Then she put the phone away and the two of them started flipping through the store’s coupon brochure.

It took a few minutes but they finally found what the Southern Lady was looking for. The cashier pointed out that it did not apply to the product the Southern Lady was trying to buy.

She had already been at the register for some time when I pulled in behind her. All her groceries were rung up and bagged. What I witnessed had taken at least 10 minutes. I finally couldn’t help myself. I literally have NEVER done this in a supermarket, but I spoke up.

“Excuse me, but some time today, please?” (Note the “excuse me” and the “please.”)

The Southern Lady turned toward me, her head swiveling like a lizard’s.

“Did you say something?”

My eyes widened as I repeated myself, “Sometime TODAY please.”

It would not be fair to suggest I shouted, although my voice had taken on a sharper edge. One of the three shoppers in line behind me snickered.

The Southern Lady didn’t smile, didn’t acknowledge that perhaps this had taken longer than was completely reasonable. She didn’t even blink. She just slowly oscillated away from me and resumed flicking through the online coupons.

It was another five minutes before the Southern Lady found what she was looking for, displayed it triumphantly to the cashier. The cashier showed her why that wasn’t the product she was trying to buy.

OK, I admit that at any time I could have returned my groceries to the cart, pushed my way back through the people lined up behind me, and gone to the other register. It would have been a pain in the ass, but I could have done it. But I just kept thinking, “This has got to be over soon, doesn’t it?” And long experience told me that if I went to the other register – where shoppers were sailing through like stock cars at Daytona – it would have come to a shrieking halt and the lane I was in would have sped up the moment I left it.

As near as I could figure, the Southern Lady was trying to save 50 cents on a jar of mayonnaise. This had all taken about 20 minutes – 3 times 20 is 60 minutes, 3 times 50 cents is a buck fifty. The Southern Lady had apparently decided her time was worth $1.50 an hour.

The mayonnaise was removed from the bag, rescanned to deduct it from the total, and set aside.

The Southern Lady paid for her remaining groceries and put them in her cart.

Then she oscillated back towards me and – with no trace of an expression on her perfectly made-up face, with the deadest eyes I’ve ever seen and the coldest voice I’ve ever heard – said:

“God bless you, sir.”

THAT’S when I thought about hitting her. I didn’t of course, I never would. But man! I could picture it.

Oh for a Few Thousand Extra Bucks!

Oh, for a spare couple of thousand dollars!
 
We went to a yard sale in the neighborhood. Picked up some office supply stuff, many paper clips and a heavy duty stapler for Tori’s class. A car jack for a buck. Couple of other things.
 
It’s what we DIDN’T buy that was so painful.
 
The woman was clearing out her house preperatory to moving to be nearer her daughers and granddaughters, and had a lot of her late husband’s stuff: tools, jackets – cameras.
 
And not just a couple of cheap pocket cameras. Nothing digital. These were cameras that just a dozen years ago were the top of the line.
 
A Hasselblad A HASSELBLAD! I can’t think of the last time I saw a Hasselblad. (probably a wedding in the early ’90s.) A large-format Bronica. A Nikon F3. A couple of Mamiya Sekors. A table covered – covered – with lenses (and judging from the lenses, there was at least a Canon or two back there somewhere.) Two boxes filled with filters for said lenses. Tripods, camera bags, light meters. The whole kit and kaboodle. And there was more inside, the woman said.
 
All film cameras, except for some older video gear.
 
The collection had no business in a yard sale. It was the sort of thing that you call a couple of people who deal with high end older camera gear and let them make you an offer on the lot. You can’t piece it out on a couple of tables in the front yard and get anything like its worth.
 
The last thing I need is an older camera that requires film. Still, I wanted one of ’em – the Nikon or the Hasselblad – or both!. But even at yard sale prices, they were WAY out of my range – by a factor of 10 or more. And in the real world, not the yard sale worls, by a factor of 20 or more.
 
The woman and her daughters who were running the sale were lovely people – they even bought a copy of my book! So that was definitely a plus! The copy of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” offset the price of the tripod I bought. A good one, not the best one there. They had a big, shiny German tripod she said retails for about $200. Asking 20 bucks – but it was so big it would have made my camera look silly. I got another German tripod, appropriately sized, for the price of the copy of “Chrissie.”
 
But man, if I’d had a spare thousand bucks or so lying around.
(NOTE: You might have noticed I haven’t posted in, what, six or seven months, anyway. I’ll make that the topic of another post really soon. Suffice to say, I’m back at work.)