Tag Archives: war and peace

A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.

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Quote of the Day

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“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.” 

Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967

I don’t now why (though I sorta/kinda do), but I woke up (i.e. raised my torso after a sleepless night) and had Hunter S. Thompson on my mind. If you’ve read War and Peace, the above quote might remind you of one of Tolstoy’s most famous passages from his opus (the “Love hinders death” passage).

My first foray into Hunter baby’s world came with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To this day, it and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel remain  the two funniest books I’ve ever read. With Thompson, the man had an ability to live in and describe the world he was a part of like nobody else. While some may brush off gonzo journalism as hack writing or immature, drug-addled creativity, I have personally never read anyone like him before or since.

Another quote that came to mind this morning as I ambled around my apartment in the wee morning hours like a decrepit old man with failing bones was from the same book as above:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Finally, on a more positive note (I think), I’ll close off Hunter S. Thompson’s Quote of the Day with a simple line that has more value to it than you might think at first. In its quietly pessimistic yet sobering logic, there’s actually something positive to be taken from it:

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”

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Writing Your First Book

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There was an interesting article in The Guardian a while ago titled “How to finish a novel: tracking a book’s progress from idea to completion.” It’s about a go-getter named Wyl Menmuir and an app he used called WriteTrack (now known as Prolifiko) to keep tabs on his progress/set daily goals over his journey to write – and finish! – his first novel.

The original aim was to complete a 44,242-word book in 124 days.

Before we go on, I have to point out a couple of things. To begin, I first wrote about a similar subject when I created a Page on this site called “Evolution of a Novel.” I described how much changes in the years (plural) it takes most authors to write a novel. I cut and paste a single paragraph, the opening to A Father’s Son, from its inception in 2006 to its completion in 2012 to its published form in 2013, and the differences between drafts is pretty staggering. Why? Because time had passed and I could go in with fresh eyes at each new stage.

The fact that Tolstoy and Ondaatje each only took five years to craft War and Peace and The English Patient, respectively, is insane. Arundhati Roy, who took home the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, will be releasing her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, next month. In case you lost count, that’s 20 years for her follow-up work of fiction.

My own second novel is scheduled to be published next spring. I began the first draft of The Immortal Flower in winter 2001. By the time it comes out, the writing/editing/publishing of that single book will represent 39% of my life. Ouch!

Second, since when did a novel fall under 50,000 words? Doesn’t that get tagged as a “novella” anymore? It’s my understanding that most novels – even in today’s age of hyperconnectivity – fall in the word count range of 80,000 to 100,000 words.

Than again, maybe I’m full of **** and **** because Mr. Menmuir ended up completing his novel in one year, 10 months and two days. In the grand scheme of things, I’d say that’s still pretty fast, especially for someone who’d never finished a full-length novel before.

The real icing on this gravy train of literary sweetness, though? Menmuir not only finished The Many, but he got it published. Amazing. But there’s more! He not only got it published, but he was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016!

I therefore say to all of you out there who’ve been sitting on an idea for a book for years: Go do it! If you need an app, download it. Otherwise, read The Guardian article I linked to above and then tell yourself, I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Set aside a single hour a day at first – even 30 minutes in the beginning – and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you may be able to impress even yourself.

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Monkey Hunting (novel)

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When you hear the words “monkey” and “hunting,” what comes to mind? Searching through forests, rifle in hand, as you keep an eye  out for primates swinging from tree to tree so that you can kill them with one decisive pull on the trigger of your 12-gauge pump shotgun, blowing said Curious George to smithereens?

No, no, no. Obviously you are not a monkey hunter. That is your bad.

In her 2003 novel Monkey Hunting, author Cristina Garcia tells the story of four generations of a Chinese family, the patriarch being Chen Pan, a 19th-century immigrant to Cuba. In case you didn’t know, Cuba had a sizeable ethnic Chinese population until Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and said, “Thanks for your years of service (i.e. slavery), but your mother country is beckoning (i.e. get the hell out of our country, you dirty slaves).” Today, there are still remnants of a Chinatown in Havana, I’m told, minus the ethnic Chinese people themselves.

Although the novel starts on a page-turning note – we follow the struggle of Chinese immigrants to Cuba on their horrific journey across the world in much the same conditions as slaves brought to the Americas from Africa – the author soon loses the plot, literally and figuratively, and we start bouncing around the world at different periods in history, which in and of itself is always cool, but ends up being disjointed, fragmented and at times hard to follow in this particular case.

More specifically, the reader is not given the opportunity to form any real bond with the characters, as they fail to evoke even the slightest amount of empathy. The general rule to a decent novel is that it’s either highly plot-driven and the characters are one-dimensional (think Dan Brown or Lee Child, for example) or very much character-driven and the plot is almost secondary (think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Eleanor & Park or The Goldfinch). Rarely do the two combine to form a work of art (think of anything from Anna Karenina to Freedom).

Unfortunately, when you’re not invested in the characters and don’t really care what’s happening all around them, it’s a recipe for disaster. And this, sadly, is the case with Monkey Hunting. It’s an interesting premise with some well-researched information, but for that kind of story I generally turn to non-fiction. Or perhaps Time magazine, where – ironically enough – Ms. Garcia used to work.

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A Necessary Return to the Long Novel?

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@Borisk (Boris Kachka) over at vulture.com has come up with some rather hefty books he thinks we should all read. Entitled “26 Very Long Books Worth the Time They’ll Take to Read,” the list for me includes some obvious choices (Don Quixote, War and Peace, A Suitable Boy), some I’ve been meaning to read for years (Infinite Jest, Bleak House, The Stand), some surprises (Middlemarch [yawn], 1Q84 [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a much “bigger” book, if a much smaller published work]), and some I simply have to disagree with (Life and Fate, Underworld).

Still, on this day of reflection, I can’t help but wonder if our collective blasé/anti-establishment/angry mood couldn’t best be tempered by a serious sit-down with a tome heavy enough to buoy a ship in stormy weather and insightful enough to make us actually “think” (yes, it’s in quotation marks).

As Kachka points out, “Binge-watching is easy; just drag the laptop into bed and go. But savoring a book of, say, 800 pages or longer is a project.”

Although my book club would draw and quarter me if I suggested it, especially after our last pick, Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (128 pages), perhaps it is time for all of us to make at least one book a year one of those tomes we’ve been promising ourselves for years we’d read. For me, that starts with what is currently on my bedside table, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a paltry 608 pages. I know, I know. Weak. But it’s a start.

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On Love & Quotes

I like quotes. And, really, who doesn’t ? Bound by a cute pair of rabbit ears, a great quote can serve as a life mantra, a conversation starter, an impetus to change your life, a reason to learn more about a subject…the list is endless!

My friend and old ex-curler buddy, Stephen B., just tagged me in a Facebook Memory (didn’t even know they existed before this) and reminded me of a quote from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novel we read in our book club aeons ago. Wilder was in his own league when it came to English prose. I mean, here was a guy who really knew how to string together words in a way that hits you hard, not like a nudge on the shoulder, but more a hammer to the cerebral cortex that induces a shot of heaven-borne adrenalin to your organ of fire.

Check out this doozy from The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

Soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

(ed. note: If you like Wilder, especially The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I strongly encourage you to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Aside from The Bridge of San Luis Rey being one of Mitchell’s favourite books, he infused a lot from Wilder’s novel in his own epic, ranging from the character of Luisa Rey to the almost frequent mention of bridges at key moments in the story. )

While reading that Wilder quote again, I find it hauntingly similar to a passage I read years ago that was written by yet another literary giant more than 60 years before Wilder penned his ethereal prose on love. To quote Prince Andrei from War and Peace:

Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.

Now that I’m on the subject, though, I can’t but recall two of my all-time-forever-like-totally-can’t-forget-about-them quotes on this subject.

First, I present Lawrence Durrell from the first book in the Alexandria Quartet novels, Justine:

The loved object is simply one that has shared an experience at the same moment of time, narcissistically; and the desire to be near the beloved object is at first not due to the idea of possessing it, but simply to let the two experiences compare themselves, like reflections in different mirrors. All this may precede the first look, kiss, or touch; precede ambition, pride, or envy; precede the first declarations which mark the turning point—for from here love degenerates into habit, possession, and back to loneliness.

And I end with the man himself, Michael Ondaatje, and his swan song from The English Patient:

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.

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