Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel so lost.

That feeling is a type of insecurity borne from trying to speak in one’s true voice while trying to capture the voices of one’s inspirations.

Learning to read, that was a rush like the opening of a door to another land, but once I started to create my own sentences, my own stories, that was the universe opened up. But it was between the ages of eleven and sixteen that I found the books that would, for better or worse, define what appealed to me as a reader and a writer.

Five years of books read with no discernible pattern or goal that shaped, molded, teased and taunted, stretched, delighted, confused, numbed, and ultimately built the foundation of the person in me that I call the Writer.

But what was it about those books? What did I respond so strongly to that I was inspired to imitate their styles or themes?

More importantly, how long has it been since I read them? In some cases, its in the vicinity of forty years ago.

Perhaps its time for a refresher, a reboot of the drive, a chance look back at point A from point B and see what really happened on that journey.

And so, an answer to a question I’d posed for myself over what to read this summer. While I have plenty of new things to read I want to root out some of those old books, the familiar and the obscure, and see what I learn about myself.

I know this is going to have to include the Jerome Beatty kid-from-the-moon Matthew Looney series, and a thorough re-read of Lear’s Complete Book of Nonsense. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House along with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles will be in order. For a variety of reasons best saved for another day, I was traumatized by Saroyan’s My Name is Aram back in seventh grade and feel I need to give it a fair chance. And if — and this is a big if — if I can find the EXACT oversized collection of Little Nemo in Slumberland and the right Whole Earth Catalog then i think I’ll have all the proper ur-texts at hand for deciphering who I am now.

No less important are a handful of books that brought me back to life after some very dark times when I forgot who I was and what I wanted. Pinkwater’s Young Adult Novel is certainly due for a reread probably sooner than the others, and I need to touch down with Block’s Weetzie Bat again. And some books I once was impressed by and have now totally forgotten might be due for resurrection: Maguane’s Panama, Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, and perhaps if I’m really finally serious, I’ve been meaning to finish Zola’s Therese Raquin since 1983.

Equally important, but less so for rereading would be the Amphigorey books and the Kliban cat cartoon collections.

I’ll check back in one month from now (or so, vacation and all might make it more like five weeks) and then a month after than, and we’ll see what’s what. I suspect even just a handful of these books will be more than enough to show me the after-image of the lightning that supercharged my writerly stirring all those years ago.


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Those early months when i was just beginning to read independently, those were heady days. After years of decoding the meaning of language, facial expressions, cartoon narratives on television, finally the written world was made visible to me and it was magic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason children believe in magic is because they are still so close to the days when their literacy revealed itself as if through a secret portal.

Among the strong memories I have about those days was the summer Weekly Reader program. For some small fee that my parents paid through another of those childhood mysteries, the mystery of money, I received the occasional (I don’t think they were actually weekly) folded sheet of stories and puzzles that not only reinforced the magic of reading but added the gift of mail. These things simply came to our house with my name on them! Magic!

Then there were the books.

Oh, the books!

Once a month during the summer the Weekly Reader program sent an actual, real book to me in the mail! I later understood these to be similar to book club editions, hardbound with printed covers like a library edition only less expensive, with the Weekly Reader logo on the back. Every once in a while I see the Weekly Reader logo on the back of a used book, but one book truly stood out among them all: The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley. I have already discussed this book twice, and even linked scans of the entirety of it to my flickr account for all to see. The recent rerelease doesn’t do the boo justice, but I digress.

Among days of swim lessons and water fights in the neighborhood, hanging out at the local park making lanyards and collecting returnable soda bottles for enough change to buy candy, the afternoons that seem most golden were those where I was sprawled on the living room floor reading the Weekly Reader over and over. It could not have taken me more than twenty minutes to read it but it felt like hours, and I would revisit each copy several times until the next one came.

In time came bigger books, and regular trips to the library to bring home a haul of books, and the Weekly Reader faded away. I was years out of college when I remembered those summers fondly and held idle thoughts about creating an adult version of the Weekly Reader. By then I’d assumed the Weekly Reader was a thing of the past, no longer around, and how sad for kids that they couldn’t have the same experience I had.

And then I got the news this week: the Weekly Reader had been alive the whole time, only now it was being shuttered by its new owners.

I don’t care how plugged in and tech savvy kids are these days, it’s still fun to get things sent in the mail, and a magazine dedicated to fiction and word fun… how is this a bad thing? Perhaps the Weekly Reader struggled in recent years because parents assumed (as I did) that it no longer existed, or that they didn’t feel their children would be satisfied with so meager an offering as few short pages of throwaway material. And if the program no longer offered Club Editions of books sent periodically to kids, perhaps that’s part of the problem.

They say that kids who grow up with books in the home – books that are theirs, that they own – do better in school than kids who don’t, and this has long been one of the problems I’ve had with the forced march of summer reading: kids check the books out of the library, and the lack of ownership makes that reading feel throwaway, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t have many books at home growing up because we were sorta poor, but the ones I had I treasured and reread like crazy. I wish I knew what other books I received via the Weekly Reader summer program, but the fact that The Crows of Pearblossom stuck with me for over forty years is a pretty strong testament to the power of books on impressionable young minds.

While I may have been premature with my thinking some years back, the sentiment stands: how sad for kids today that they cannot have that same experience.

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At least I don’t think I did. Maybe I picked one up, struggled through it, and never went back. I can’t be sure, but I suspect I did because I’ve had a life-long dislike of detective stories that had to come from an early age.

Because those stories made me feel stupid.

Whether or not it was Encyclopedia Brown or the Hardy Boys or some generic detective stories I always felt cheated at the end. Either there was a key piece of information that I somehow glossed over early on, or the main character possessed the ability to wring out a logical connection between different clues that never would have occurred to me. Instead of a feeling of pleasant surprise and marvel I felt like the author was laughing at me for not figuring it out.

But I get it. There are people who love the thrill of following the clues, ruling out the red herrings, second-guessing motives. There is a secret delight in not knowing, a build-up of tension as the detective gets closer to finding out the truth at their own peril, and the release when it all comes together in the end. I simply found the exercise as excruciating as watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

Later, in college, I fell into the writings of Chandler and Cain and other hardboiled detective fiction because of the style. The mysteries themselves were incidental to the wise-cracking dialog and twisted metaphors the narrators used. In the end the mystery of who or why didn’t matter because the surprise of the double-cross was almost always a pretext for underscoring the main character’s folly. It was the detective who missed the key clues or trusted the wrong person and was made the fool.

Even later when I studied various forms of narrative storytelling I learned the structural underpinnings and the formula for the mystery became clear as day. TV shows are the most transparent when it comes to formula, telegraphing their plot developments in neat little packages. Movies, too. But as I became more adept at seeing the solution within the structure many people around me continue to marvel, as if the solution could only be gleaned through some supernatural power. I remember good friends who were willing to put down money (the cost of my movie ticket, plus snacks) that I couldn’t guess the twist in the movie “The Sixth Sense” because they, as wise and experienced as they were, were unable to see it coming. I remember leaning over in the first five minutes and guessing the movie’s big reveal a full two hours in advance. I didn’t do it to be obnoxious, but I also didn’t understand how they could have missed it. Structurally, it was pretty freakin’ obvious.

I suppose if I hadn’t been so easily frustrated with detective stories at a young age I might have developed a better sense of plot structure at an earlier on. It would have been nice to not feel like stories and storytelling was such a mystery for most of my school years, or that I was somehow stupid for not being able to guess a whodunnit.

Donald J. Sobel, the creator of the Encyclopedia Brown series of books, died this past week at the age of 87. The 56 books in the series have never been out of print and have been instrumental in helping generations of fledgling readers achieve a mastery of reading. I would personally be proud of that as an accomplishment, though it would have to be some other genre than detective stories.

Because I would hate to make some young reader feel the way I did when I was young.

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Toni Morrison said this the other night on the PBS NewsHour. Here’s the context from taken from the interview.

JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?



TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.



TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.

I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.

I have to say, I’ve been feeling this for some time about a lot of fiction. Adult fiction, YA fiction, Middle Grade fiction, all of it has been feeling rather bloated around the middle. I don’t know where writers pick up the literary equivalent of a spare tire (perhaps it’s MFA programs?), but whatever it is undermines a lot of good books that always leave me feeling like they could have been just that much better with a trim.

It is the middle of many books that are the problem. And from a writer’s point of view, middles generally are a problem. Starting out, you pretty much have to know where you’re beginning and where you plan to end up and then somehow connect the dots. There are various philosophies about this – the general divide is between “pantsers” who write but the seat of their pants, so to speak, and “plotters” who detail every step of the way – but no approach I know of has an advantage over the other. I have followed detailed outlines and I have winged it and it both cases revision has shown that many of my problem came from a flabby middle.

The one revelation I had about middles came when I was working on my creative thesis in grad school. I was working the story from both ends inward, a path I chose because I wanted to have the story elements “mirror” each other in a balanced way, when I got to the point that, in my mind, was one of those “cross that bridge when I get to it” moments. I had always assumed that the incidents and characters would help define what I needed to do to bridge these moments but I suddenly felt stumped. I was certain I had reached the point where I had no middle act, that the story required an additional element that seamlessly fused the two parts… and that I’d have to go back and weave these new elements into the two halves I’d already created.

Then a voice in my head asked: Do you really need to say anything more?

All it took was some slight changes to account for a leap of time and the two parts melded as if I’d planned it all along, and in my subconscious maybe I had.

Now, it goes without saying that I’m no Toni Morrison, but she’s right about the fact that it is harder to write less and make it “more.” Economy of language, or dialog, or scene and symbolism, boiling down those words into a condensed space makes it all the richer. It is easier to sit and write and throw it all out there on the page, much harder to weed and trim and make what’s already good that much greater.

Less is more. It isn’t a new thought, but perhaps it could become a renewed pledge taken to reassure readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Number 1 Rule of Creative Writing 101:

 Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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A New Year’s Eve cold and a truckload of graphic novel reading has kept me quiet lately. Well, it’s kept me from blogging and talking with a normal voice around the house at least.

A good deal of the things I’ve been reading have been as a Cybils Graphic Novel finalist judge and I really cannot talk about those books because them’s the rules. I have been keeping a sort of “diary of a judge” post running as I go so that on the 15th of February I can let the world know what was going on during the process. Not me giving away secrets about the other judges or gossip like that (like I’m clued in enough for gossip) but the process of how I came to the decisions I made. Or am making at the time. It’s weird to talk about the future in the past tense when it’s happening in the moment.

But to be fair, I have been reading a lot of other things as well, I just haven’t had a chance to write or review them. Which means that down the road there’s going to be a flood of catching up I’m going to have to do. That said, there are still some general things I can say about all the reading I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully it won’t sound too vague.

One thing I’d like to see less of are graphic novels about characters with powers or who fight crime. If there’s one thing that makes the graphic novel novel is how it differentiates itself from comic books. It’s just too easy to use the inherent action of superhero comics to give a story a false sense of plot and character development. Far too often the main character’s growth is patently shallow, and if you removed the action sequences (which more often than not have little to do with any inner character growth at all) what you have left is a laughable pamphlet that reads like a 1950s sitcom plot synopsis. “When the Beaver attempts to tackle a problem on his own he quickly discovers there is strength in numbers.”

What are monsters? What do they stand for? Aside from scaring us, or our hero, there has to be a reason they are there. Either they represent a surrogate for a tangible fear or they express a larger concept or idea. If they are merely obstacles to drive a plot or provide a character something to defeat, if they aren’t organic to the story, what’s the point? And if they are symbolic of the main character’s struggle, is it perhaps too much to ask that they be incorporated into the story in a way that they aren’t so heavy-handed, leaden, or obvious?

Fight scenes. They make for good action scenes, especially in a visual medium like graphic novels, but can’t we do something more creative in conveying struggles? A battle of wits, a battle of logic, I’d even take a bake-off as a climax provided it was chemistry that ruled the day. Honestly, sometimes when I’m reading a graphic novel and a fight scene is ramping up I feel as if I’m watching a Chuck Norris movie… which is fine if I’m reading a Chuck Norris graphic novel. Sadly, I haven’t come across a Chuck Norris graphic novel yet.

Finally, I understand – honestly, I do – that a writer or artist can only tell the stories that drive them. But there’s a line between the universal story told personally and what is so personal that reads like therapy. I acknowledge that there can be some great literature and art from pain and grief, that deep emotions can be mined to stunning effect, but no one wants to feel as if they’re going through grief counseling and psychoanalysis as a bystander. Maybe that’s just me.

So aside from my weekly Poetry Friday posts and the occasional check-in I hope to be back to the Grimmoire and delve into some new territory here in the coming weeks.

For you regulars, I thank you for your patience, and or you occasionals, for your kind attentions.

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Okay, so, this might have been a rising trend, what, ten years ago? This might have been newsworthy a couple of times maybe five years ago? Now it seem like every five or six weeks (around the same sales cycles that Barnes & Nobles shuffles its stock) some newspaper runs a feature about this “crazy” new trend where adults are reading YA books. Wacky, right?

Today’s article of note comes from the Boston Globe, and the hook this time is that the poor adults can’t find Twilight at the local book store because it’s not with regular fiction but “in the back” with the YA novels. Which is cute, and quaint, and a little ridiculous. Ridiculous because literally ten years ago I was filing Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books in both YA and Sci-fi/Fantasy. Ender’s Game as well. And we had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in fiction and YA. Maguire’s Wicked took it’s time leaving the adult fiction shelves but eventually was also shelved in YA.

The point, and the reason this is not news, is that savvy booksellers and retail merchandisers put books where people expect to find them. If you have a crossover book that straddles a couple of sections – Stephen King has been doing this for years – you put copies of the book in multiple places for the simple reason that for every person who asks for help finding a title there are three who don’t find it and assume it’s out of stock. You don’t give your retail customers a chance to walk away empty-handed, you figure out that there might be some customers who would expect a book to be in one place and don’t necessarily want to feel insulted that they didn’t realize there were strict marketing rules involved. Seriously, do retail booksellers want to drive people to Amazon, where they aren’t forced to guess a genre in order to find what they’re looking for?

Naturally, that’s not the whole story here, because once you start talking about YA book trends you simply must mention the most recent movie based on a YA series coming out, and perhaps ride the coattails of a couple other titles people have already heard of, and then interview a few local writers for their perspective, and call it a day.

I really shouldn’t complain that any books are getting media attention and perhaps boosting sales, but could we maybe stop with the blatant attempt to tell this same story as a means of selling news? YA, hot topic, braced by a very vocal, buzz-generating community, I get it. But how about instead of talking about the same books, or giving more publicity to established adult authors who have made the leap into the money pit of YA, why not do something radical: create a YA beat. Give some column space to talk about books and trends that haven’t been reported to death. Maybe an old-fashioned three-dot column with smaller news snippets, brief reviews, and the occasional interview.

Damn it, I want that job.

Dear Boston Globe,

It has come to my attention that you like publishing features about the books and trends in children’s publishing, but you tend to write only the most obvious stories. You may have had critics who would occasionally review a few titles here and there, but in an industry that is losing sales in every other area, children’s books is the one place where sales have steadily increased during the current we’re-not-calling-it-a-depression recession. And once full-function tablets and e-readers become cheaper than cell phones, it will be a youth-driven market that will fully define the future of publishing. Will you be positioned to break that news as it happens, or will you ride in the way-back of the family station wagon and give updates on the industry’s exhaust?

What you need is a children’s and young adult beat. Regular installments – weekly at least, not monthly or whenever someone decides to pitch a story – where people can go to find news and reviews of the literature that is shaping and entertaining the minds of the rising generations. You need someone who reads these books regularly, constantly, and talks about them openly via social media. You could become a valuable community asset that would lead the way in providing a resource for parents and young adults (they read the news too, you know, and they smirk at your current attempts to speak to them) to discover what is out there in the world of books. Think of the children!

Should this idea interest you, I am available to discuss it further. I have a varied background that I feel makes me uniquely qualified, and more importantly I possess the desire to see a real change in how books for children and young adults are discussed in the media.

What do you say?

I’m sure there are better, less back-handed ways to do this, but what can I say.


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