A Bend in the River

bendCan you picture Africa in the 197os? I couldn’t. 

The decade doesn’t stand out for me. I was too young to care about world events or what was happening in small towns in Africa whether they were near a bend in the river or not. That was a long time ago.

I found myself stopping often as I read “A Bend in the River“. I had to educate myself on the social, political and economic pressures facing immigrants to Africa at an unstable time. I had to read about Mobuto. I had to understand what independence meant at the time and how it affected ordinary people. The time-outs gave me time to ponder the novel and enjoy it more.

Naipaul makes it so easy to picture the ancient lifestyle of rural Africa that a scene involving a fighter jet makes the plane and its payload seem anachronistic. Thank you V.S. for opening my eyes to another time and place. Thank you for reminding me that the world is not one place but a constellation of places, each one evolving in its own way, at its own pace. Sometimes the distance between the stars is greater than it appears.

This book is more than a record or account of the times. There are beautiful passages and observations on life that are as relevant on the river as they are at the Cineplex on Kermit’s opening night. So “A Bend in the River” lives up to its commercial and artistic praise. It’s a wonderful story of displacement, hope, disillusionment and chaos. It’s also a master class study in the art of writing and the making of beautiful sentences. I plan to read more of Naipaul’s work soon.

Ouch, the Python bites

CleeseWarning: It’s much of a cheese shop 

John Cleese and his over-educated pals gave me whatever comic timing I have. I owned every Python record and could pontificate along with any skit. So, when my sister Jennifer bought me a copy of “And so…”, the John Cleese autobiography, I tore into the text and finished it by New Year’s Eve. Like you other Python fans, I expected a book on Python, told in Cleese’s words, full of anecdotes told out of school. What I got was something completely different.

I have no basis beyond my opinion for what I’m about to write but I think John Cleese is trying to set the record straight before it’s too late and he’s only remembered as a high-stepping snob on a short-lived sketch comedy show. I believe this is why Python comes up so rarely in the book.

Cleese wants to be remembered as a writer, not an actor or comedian. He is most proud of his ability to write exceptional sketch comedy and he wants us to know how hard he worked at the craft. Don’t get me wrong. This is revealing and interesting stuff. It’s easy to think of Cleese as a lucky and privileged guy who isn’t the slightest bit stuck up but he’s more than that. He’s still a little lucky, privileged and stuck up but that’s not all.

I’m glad that “And so…” is not a tell-all. I feel more respect for Cleese after reading it but I’m also left feeling a little sad. I’m not sure he enjoyed the ride as much as we did.

If you’re expecting Python, this book comes with a message on the cover and the message is ‘beware’. At the opening of the Sydney bridge club, they were fishing readers out of the main sewer every half an hour…  oh stop.

Don’t expect a lot of Python but expect to learn a little bit about the craft of great comedy and how to get a laugh. That ought to be reward enough.

 

Sweet reading

SweetlandSweetland 

The story of Moses Sweetland is wonderfully conceived and masterfully executed. I was to have read it for a meeting of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society but I didn’t. So, I had the advantage of sitting through its review before I later broke the spine with some knowledge of what to expect. I thank Bill Coristine for insisting that I read this book. He gave me his copy and said, YOU will love this book. I think he did it because we both loved “Suttree” by Cormack McCarthy. Moses Sweetland will stick with me as a character. Thanks for the nudge Bill. And thanks for the great work Michael.

Sweetland is both the name of the main character and the name of the island where he lives, which bears his family name. Moses Sweetland is a stubborn holdout that won’t accept the federal government’s voluntary relocation deal and so he comes into conflict with all of the residents (of Sweetland the island) who want the deal (the cash). It’s a simple and compelling plot driven by the questions: why is he so stubborn and why won’t he leave? Below the surface are darker themes of aging, craziness, loyalty and inevitability. The life of Moses dissolves at the same rate as life on the island of Sweetland. Perhaps it’s a little sad. But don’t we don’t all want to die in our bed, so to speak? (Not a plot spoiler.)

Michael Crummey shows great respect for his readers by providing clues throughout the ages and letting the reader ponder Sweetland’s motivation at his or her own pace. Nothing is rushed or spoon-fed and all is revealed in a beautiful and believable conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

On “On Writing” by Stephen King

I wish I had read Stephen King’s “On Writing” before now.

I made the mistake of believing that I understood his principles because he has been quoted so many times. “Kill adjectives! Kill adverbs! Kill your darlings!” He said. It made sense to me. Quoting E.B. White he said “Eliminate unnecessary words.” And so on. I thought I understood.

I bought “On Writing” expecting to find lists of dos and don’ts. I felt I had purchased a text book and my mindset was academic when I broke the spine. What happened next transformed my view of Mr. King. Over the first hundred or so pages, I got to know the man behind the legend. There is no talk of dangling participles or reflexive verbs, just King’s resume, written with great clarity and honesty. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking problem. I didn’t realize that he may have been operating outside of his faculties at the time when the world first embraced him as a favourite son. I didn’t know how hard he worked.

In the second half of “On Writing” King delivers on his promise to provide some guidance to would-be authors but there are no lists and no short cuts. The only formula that works for King is hard work and he’s very clear in his belief that there are no substitutes for talent and effort. Unlike lists, this full-length discussion of style gives him time to explain why and how his approach to writing produces superior work. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like the kind of conversation you might have with a successful but modest Uncle over lunch or a round of golf. But this Uncle is very clear about one thing: If you aren’t prepared to read and write a lot, you can probably find better things to do than writing novels or trying to become a professional content writer.

Should you read “On Writing”?

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, yes, of course. This is a humble and honest biography. You’re likely to put it down and be a bigger fan than you were. If you’re a reader, “On Writing” will help you become a more discerning one. If your job requires you to communicate with people in writing (most of us), it’s almost guaranteed that your style could be improved and your effectiveness quadrupled as a result. If your job is to create content in any form (video, web copy, editorial, social media, print) than you absolutely need to read it. If none of these apply to you, take a pass and rent the movies. You don’t have to read “On Writing” to love the work of Stephen King. But if you do, you’ll probably love him a little more.

If you can’t afford Stephen King, or he isn’t interested in the kind of content you need, you can always hire John the Writer.

 

Born Weird – not a confession

If you have siblings, this won’t seem so Weird

Andrew Kaufman’s novel “Born Weird” was nominated for the Steven Leacock Award in 2013. It’s the most recent book selection at the Wheatsheaf Literary Society – the oldest, established, permanently floating, men’s book club in Toronto. I’m one of 7 children and I found the sibling relationships well developed, pretty indicative of life in a large family and a little familiar in places.

I recommend this novel as a highly entertaining work of fiction with a happy ending although it has been dogged by a few lukewarm reviews. The Quill & Quire offers a nicely balanced review that shouldn’t prevent you from supporting Mr. Kaufman and his weirdness. He seems like a funny and talented guy. You can read the Quill & Quire review or just buy the book. The Wheatsheaf Literary Society will be interrogating this work on humour in mid-March. I may revisit this post with an update.

The meaning of happiness – for busy people

Too busy to read? Flickr to the rescue.

You could read all of ‘The Cossacks‘ by Leo Tolstoy or you could  just search the Web for the book’s real meaning. If you opt for the second, easier, lazier alternative, you could end up on this dude’s Flickr page. He’s scanned the one page that sums up the nature of happiness for Olenin, the “wealthy, disaffected Muscovite who joins the Russian army and travels to the untamed frontier of the Caucasus in search of a more authentic life.” Let’s hear it for the Internet!

What’s really funny is that this dude (in a rush to wisdom) was in too big of a hurry to generate a decent scan.

Now – what to do with all the time you’ll save by not reading all those old Russian novels?

BTW – Anna throws herself in front of a train. You can skip that one too.

Pretend you read it.

Great read. All Quiet on the Western Front

100 years later and little has changed

This month the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is tackling the war classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. Advertised as The Greatest War Novel of All Time, this is an account of a young soldier’s struggle to understand why he should be killing other young men who are just like himself at the request of an administration. These ideas are as poignant today as they were  in 1933, when it was published and during WW1, in which it is set.

With so many wars being fought on the ground today, I have to imagine that many young soldiers struggle with the same issues. Remarque’s young character Paul Baumer could be a combatant in any army, anywhere on earth, right now.

This is a powerful, well written account of humanity. Certainly worth the read.

 

For lighter fare, check my portfolio of not so heartbreaking material at Hire John the Writer.

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Interesting rituals of highly creative people

Daily Rituals is being published in the U.S. and Canada by Alfred A. Knopf, in the U.K. by Picador, and in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey by fine publishers in those countries.

Notice that blogging and surfing the web never show up.

I’m glad to see that so many writers stick to routines. I always found that my most productive days happen when I hit the keyboard at 8am and avoid opening email until 9:30. This hour and a half is quiet and productive. My actual output is closer to what I might achieve in 4 hours during the busier times of day.

Here’s a good review of “Daily Rituals” on Good Reads.

Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Read more…

 

Should you bother reading Camus?

Albert Camus on Ellisism, posted by John EllisCamus himself may say, “Why bother reading Camus?” 

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society is currently exploring the work of Albert Camus, a self-described anti-nihilist writer who denied any involvement in the french existentialist movement. He knew Jean Paul Sartre, the great existentialist, and the two men agreed that Camus was not an existentialist. But does it matter? Should you get past the intellectual bullshit and read Camus? Yes. Once you start, you’ll find yourself in used book stores buying up all of his short, remarkable clear, memorable works. ‘The Stranger’ is as good a place as any to start. You’ll find an excellent review in the New York Times.

 

 

 

 

Last-minute books for real men.

If you still need to buy gifts for the real men on your Christmas list, buy scotch.

If you don’t buy scotch, consider one of these manly choices, courtesy of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society. My favourites are highlighted in holiday red.

A Fan’s Notes Frederick Exley

A Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz

A Man in Full Tom Wolfe

Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler

Beside Still Waters Barry Callaghan

Billy Bathgate E.L. Doctorow

Black Bird Michel Basilères

Blood Meridien Cormack McCarthy

Chump Change David Eddie

Dirty Sweet John McFetridge

Disgrace J.M. Coetzee

East of Eden John Steinbeck

Faceless Killers Henning Menkell

Factotum Charles Bukowski

Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk

Flaubert’s Parrot Julian Barnes

For Whom The Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway

Getting Away With Murder Howard Engel

Gould’s Book of Fish Richard Flanagan

High Fidelity Nicolas Hornby

Legends of the Fall Jim Harrison

Master and Commander Patrick O’Brian

Ninety-two in the Shade Thomas McGuane

Skinny Dip Carl Hiaasen

The Bishop’s Man Linden MacIntyre

The Englishman’s Boy Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Great Santini Patrick Conroy

The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love Oscar Hijuelos

The Man Who Was Late Louis Begley

The Night Manager John le Carré

The Road Cormack McCarthy

The Rotters Club Jonathan Coe

The Sirens of Baghdad Yasmina Khadra

The Sportswriter Richard Ford

The Stowaway Robert Hough

The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien

The Van Roddy Doyle

Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller

Trout Fishing in America Richard Brautigan

Listen to a great description of ‘Trout Fishing in America’ here on npr.

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