What makes a story engrossing? Is it a surprising plot? A new twist? Or is it about the characters? Maybe a little quirk in their personalities that we find amusing? Is it an ability to see a bit of ourselves in the pages? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself since reading "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas.
Have you heard the story of Dorothy Gale from Kansas? Either you know her as the spirited young lady who is swept off to a magical land where she has to face a wicked witch; or you know her as a governmental tool used to attack a revolutionary leader with a green face. The first example is from the pen of Frank L Baum, the genius behind Oz; the second is by Gregory Maguire, author of the very popular "Wicked" series, which is arguably the most successful fan fiction ever.
“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
After the enormous success of her book "To Kill a Mockingbird", the world belonged to Harper Lee. She could have done anything, the possibilities were endless. And yet, all she wanted to do was escape to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and be left alone. For more than 40 years, the world could only speculate about this important and very silent American novelist. Was she writing? Was there maybe something more serious psychologically going on? Why did she hate the attention so much? It is because of Harper Lee’s long self-exile that makes "The Mockingbird Next Door", a new memoir by Marja Mills, so initially seductive.
American history is not always pretty. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that, but it is true. As Americans, there are blemishes there we don’t like the mirror to remind us of. For over 130 years, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain has held up that mirror and dared us to look at the reflection.
It’s not an easy thing to pull off a twist in a story. And there are two important ground rules that must be followed if an author wants to attempt this difficult literary feat. First, there has to be enough of a surprise so that the readers jump, but also enough hints so that the readers don’t feel the author is pulling a fast one. For readers will go back to see if they missed something in the telling if a twist works. You can’t just have aliens arrive on Main Street, unless there have been conversations about weird lights in the sky earlier.
When your mind often swims in the written words of others, sometimes the water can get a bit muddy. You don’t mean for this to happen, but plots might intermingle in your head, characters might meet up even though they are in different stories and sometimes, honestly, you might point the finger at a possible murderer, not realizing right away that they are from another book and, of course, perfectly innocent. That is sometimes how my brain works.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” While some would take this quote from Shakespeare as merely insightful into human nature, author Christopher Moore takes it as gospel. Moore’s character named Pocket turns out is the very same fool from the great Bard’s “King Lear.” And this fool is the wisest person in any throne room.
Pocket first appeared in Christopher Moore’s wonderful satire “Fool,” reinventing the classic Shakespeare tragedy from the perspective of this intrepid character. In that novel, Pocket is the mastermind for the undoing of King Lear and his two wicked daughters.
Now Pocket has returned in a new book, “The Serpent of Venice.” In this comedy adventure Pocket is stuck in Venice, and it begins with him trapped in a cellar preparing to experience a slow and horrible death. From there the story grows to include mermaids, a best friend named Othello, a merchant named Shylock and a villain named Iago, who really doesn’t have a chance against a brain like Pocket’s.
We all leave a legacy after we shuffle off this mortal coil, but its size and influence isn’t decided by us. That power is in the hands of those we leave behind. Few writers have made as great an impact in literature as Franz Kafka.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” And with that poignant line, Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins his masterpiece “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
Sometimes the literary world can suffer from a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. We all know this story made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, of the ridiculous Emperor tricked into wearing nothing and the underlings around him too afraid to point out that he is only in his underwear. In the mind of the Emperor he is adorned in the greatest attire, but in reality there isn’t much left for the imagination.
Listen: One of my writing heroes is Kurt Vonnegut and for four years I had his home phone number sitting on my desk. That blessed number was a present from a friend of mine and every day it taunted me, teased me. When Vonnegut died in 2007, I threw the number away. I never had the guts to call it. So it goes.
Reviewing a literary collection can feel a lot like reviewing a local talent show.
It can be hard to sum up the entire experience, since every act is unique, and it is unfair to compare the performers to each other; even though we all do it, no matter what the focus of the talent show is or the age of those involved. And like that talent show, literary collections tend to have their writers who take your breath away and make you lean forward in your chair, as well as the ones who make you wonder what you’re missing on TV. "The Way North" is a collection showcasing some of the leading voices in the Upper Peninsula literary movement.
Believing in a destiny can be very addicting. It can add security, and maybe even help the world feel like less of a harsh place. But how do you tell the difference between destiny, luck and just the pure happenstance of living? In Matthew Quick’s new novel “The Good Luck of Right Now” he takes on this question through the character of Bartholomew Neil.
Traditionally, short stories are birthed out of what-ifs.
What if you go to Mars and find dead relatives? What if a sea monster confuses a fog horn with a mating call? Both of those examples, by the way, are from master short story writer Ray Bradbury.
In Donald Lystra’s latest story collection “Something that Feels Like Truth,” he does something very different from Bradbury. In many ways, his Michigan short stories are not what-ifs but episodes. They are brief glimpses into the lives of real people, and each is at a turning point or a moment of self-realization. These are character studies focused more on the emotional impact of a moment than on a surprising plot twist.
In Michigan one of the things we all accept are the supposed differences between the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. The stereotypes haunt the residents of both regions: rural versus urban; those who are stressed versus those who are relaxed; those happy with money versus those happy in long underwear.
Yes, books are printed out of dead forests and each story comes with its own customized ending or demise, but that is never really the end. Mythologist Joseph Campbell used to argue that all stories are variations on one story, what he called the hero’s journey. I always thought of that as a beautiful theory, creating a nice feeling of unity to all tales, everywhere, no matter the culture of origin.
I like to picture literature as a great tree with hundreds of branches. If one of the branches on that literary tree was Charles Dickens, the next one branching off from it would be Donna Tartt.
We live in a loud world. Our movies are loud. Our TV shows are loud, and the commercials are even louder. And sadly now, even our books are loud, filled with as many explosions and gunshots as any blockbuster film could ever hope to have. So in a bombastic world like ours, how does a quiet book like “Our Picnics in the Sun” by Morag Joss find publication?
Barack Obama was just elected, those on the left were ecstatic, the right was growing in anger, everyone was concerned about the financial crisis, avatars and transformers were in the movie theaters, and everyone was listening to Beyonce.
Author Wally Lamb hasn’t forgotten that lost year and tries to capture the essence and feeling of the country during 2009 in his new book, “We Are Water.”
Picture a bookstore as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Can you see it? There is the salad bar, the pasta, the breakfast area with the waffle maker, the giant slab of ham or beef. Okay, let’s skip all the healthy things and aim for the dessert table. You know how at every buffet there is that one enormous piece of chocolate cake? Well, for me, Mitch Albom’s books have always been that piece of cake.
Today on Current State: the "Pure Michigan Waste" campaign; a review of Dave Eggers' "The Circle"; an American Indian Tribe and the wolf hunt in Michigan; a one-woman play on bullying; and live Turkish music.
Christmas has "A Christmas Carol", "It’s a Wonderful Life", "Miracle on 34th Street", Halloween has… Yes, Halloween has a collection of monsters stolen from black-and-white horror movies and a long history with witches and the like, but when it comes to an actual story, a fable to be brought out each year with the pumpkins, the holiday is sadly lacking.
Today on Current State: Lansing's 'Marketplace Project'; HIV in Ingham County; what deregulation could mean for Michigan; environmental changes effect on Isle Royale; and a review of "The Ocean at the End of the Lane".
Today on Current State: Cristo Rey Community Center's new Executive Director; Public Poetry Announcement; MSU Symphony opens new season; Voices of Experience series with 'Eternal General' Frank Kelley; and Banned Books Week.
Today on Current State: August's biggest's stories in review; Chicago-based "Wavelength" trains Lansing teachers using humor; 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice; Michigan railroads; and a film commentary on End of the World films.