Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner - book review

 Rating: 4/5

Well, this book could really be titled "On Becoming a Novelist in America" because it's really US-centric. The rest of the world, for instance, won't care that Iowa has a good creative writing program but that Stanford's is no slouch either. But that doesn't take anything away from it, a mix of craft guide, insider wisdom and above all the cumulative experience of the author's many years teaching creative writing in a university setting.

It's enlightening to read that creative writing teachers, while not exactly making it up as they go along, hold to a diverse set of values and goals, though he affirms that in the end it doesn't matter what values are used so long as the students are free to adopt or buck them. No values is bad values, because it leaves the student at the mercy of fashion and unending subjectivity.
Any fledgling writer will want to pay close attention to the section that highlights the signs that you may be in a bad workshop.

I really enjoyed the author's take on the pithy one-liners that circulate in writing circles. For instance, "show, don't tell" isn't widely applicable at all, it only applies to describing emotions and internal states, or which basic adjectives are often wanting. "Write what you know" is another one that, while not debunked, gets a deeper treatment than it suggests. Theme is not all that’s it’s hyped either.

There's stuff to keep from it and anyone reading it will disregard certain aspects or passages, but the
weight of experience in this work is apparent and enriching.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov - book review

Rating: 4/5

Mankind has conquered Time Travel and a society of guardians,  the Eternals,  regulate human activity by small interventions that are calculated to optimize human happiness in all the centuries in which man still exists. A member of the Eternals seeks to buck his responsibility to Eternity though,  when his love for a Timer contravenes the Eternal's code of conduct.

There's a good deal of world-building in the opening chapters of this book,  so much that I began to worry that that's all there was,  but small flaws in the description of the utopia described through the regulating actions of the Eternals build up and lead to a richly layered narrative that flits between the love story,  flimsy at first but steadily more believable,  and the larger context of the relationship between the Timers and the Eternals,   the politicking between the Eternals themselves,  and the light shone on the small mysteries in the fabric of the curated universe as they converge and coalesce,  becoming more gripping as the story moves into a conflict for the very survival of Eternity itself. Riveting read!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan - book review

Rating: 4/5

There is a lot of mention of sorghum in this book. Sorghum is a grain, and a type of wine can be made of it. From early on in the novel, it weaves into the narrative and enfolds the main characters together. After a while, you wonder how the narrative would hold if it weren’t for the sorghum, as a living embodiment of China’s Gaomi Township. If it weren’t for the sorghum, it’s hard to imagine what is keeping the story together, because it leaps across styles just as it leaps across a generation, encompassing the narrator’s grandparents and parents. It’s a country tale, then a love story, then a bandit tale, then a war epic, then a far-east western, then a martial arts story, then a mafia story, then a folk tale, back to love, then a fairy tale, and still it goes on with only the sorghum to bear witness as the narrator’s grandfather woos a small-footed woman promised to the wealthy and leprous son of a distillery owner. The distillery is for making Sorghum wine, and the narrator’s grandparents make a ‘special’ brew that draws instant fame in the surrounding area.

War looms large in the novel, the Gaomi armies fighting the Japanese almost as hard as they fight themselves. It lends the characters a heroism that draws their flaws into stark contrast and makes them relatable even as it seems they would be lost without the excesses that lead to their demise. An exciting, multi-faced and constantly transforming read.