Writing

Of Alan Bennett and Bumper Stickers~

On the recommendation of a writer friend of mine, I have been reading Alan Bennett’s “Writing Home,” lately. I peck away at it here and there, reading a few entries and then I let it rest on my bedside table for a while. It’s like having a box of chocolates (semisweet, please) at the ready.

Bennett is a remarkable person, and it occurs to me that this book of his is a kind of printed Blog. There are entries that are full-fledged stories, but sometimes it is just an anecdote, or his often-random thoughts of the day.

I guess they used to call them journals.

His stories of The Lady in the Van, the homeless woman who came to live outside his house in a derelict van, are funny, intelligent, and ultimately heart rending. In one entry he discusses her funeral in depth and it is not until then that he fully learns of her past.

He also threw items into the book he had seen written on bathroom walls, in the underground, or something someone said. I enjoy reading these little tidbits. So, in honor of Bennett, and because I don’t want to lose this, here is a bumper sticker I saw in the U.S. the last time I was there:

If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.

My sentiments exactly!

Good Junk Books~

These days I read nonfiction almost exclusively. If I read fiction at all it is seldom a murder mystery that I choose, but at one point in my life I devoured them like candy bars. My mother calls them Junk Books, a bit like watching TV but more active for the brain, and we both agree that there are good Junk Books and bad Junk Books. Of the good variety, I think I have read all of Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, the MacDonalds- both Ross and John D––, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and many, many others. These days I find the real world at least as twisted and gripping as any mystery.

So it was with great pleasure that I encountered a writer of mysteries that I enjoyed again. The author’s name is Arturo Perez-Revete. He is Spanish, and one of the most widely translated of that country’s contemporary authors. He was a journalist (how many times have we heard this as a valuable background for a writer), as well as a war correspondent before he took up writing fiction. His favorite subject is finding mysteries surrounding ancient documents.

I recently finished his mystery, The Flanders Panel. Published in 2004 it is the story of a young art restorer, Julia, who has been commissioned to document and restore a 500-year-old painting going to auction. Working on it in her studio she becomes engrossed with the subjects of the painting, the Duke of Flanders and his knight locked in a game of chess while a lady in a dark dress sits in the background, reading. Julia also discovers a message hidden under all the paint, left by the painter himself. She is determined to solve the puzzle and it takes her on a mysterious and dangerous journey.

All this is par for the mystery writer. What I enjoyed about Reverte’s writing is his use of language. Granted the book has been translated from its native tongue, Spanish, but the imagery is really lovely. He is also a complex thinker, delving into art, chess, and human nature as the story progresses. He also describes in detail scenes not particularly central to the story. I liked this one where Julia is wandering through a flea market:

After a while she went back down the steps and stopped at a shop full of dolls. Some were clothed, others were naked; some were dressed in picturesque peasant costumes or complicatedly romantic outfits complete with gloves, hats, and parasols. Some represented girls and others grown women. The features of some were crude, others were ingenuous, perverse. Their arms and hands were frozen in diverse positions, as if surprised by the cold wind of all the time that had passed since their owners abandoned or sold them, or died. Girls who became women, thought Julia––some beautiful, some plain, who had loved or perhaps been loved––had once caressed those bodies made of rags, cardboard, and porcelain. Those dolls had survived their owners. They were dumb, motionless witnesses whose imaginary retinas still retained images of scenes long erased from the memories of the living: faded pictures sketched among mists of nostalgia, intimate moments of family life, children’s songs, loving embraces, as well as tears and disappointments, dreams turned to ashes, decay and sadness, perhaps even evil. There was something unbearably touching about that multitude of glass and porcelain eyes that stared at her unblinking, full of the Olympian knowledge that only time possesses, lifeless eyes embedded in pale wax or paper-mache faces, above dresses so darkened by time that the lace edgings looked dull and grubby.

I could go on with this passage, but I will stop. It does relate to the story in the end, the philosophy behind that passage. Reverte weaves these throughout the book slowly building the tension and the underlying theme so subtlety. Gorgeous writing, I have to say.

On the down side, I was a bit disappointed that it was one of those mysteries so complex that the writer finds it necessary in the end for the villain to confess and then explain his motive in the crime. I really didn’t mind, in this case, because the writing is so good. My only other minor complaint is that our heroine, Julia, happily smokes like the proverbial chimney whilst stripping varnish off a 500-year-old painting. But Spaniards do smoke like campfires, God love them, so it is probably in character for her to do this.

I will try another of his books; fortunately he has many.

At Large and At Small at IRB~

The editors of the Internet review of Books asked me to review Anne Fadiman’s latest book At Large and At Small: Familiar essays for their March issue. What a gift. I loved this book and highly recommend it to any and all readers. Fadiman is witty, curious, intellectually stimulating, and a joy to read. You can read my full review as of today at IRB. I warn you though, you will want to go out and buy the book. And why not? It’s a perfect book for the bedside table.

I am reading Alan Bennett’s Writing Home at the moment. There is another wonderful book of essays, diary entries, and other oddities. Bennett is so funny and his ability to write dialogue uncanny. A writer friend of mine recommended the book because of the dialogue, but the whole thing is totally absorbing.

Page 123~

A friend of mine who has a wonderful blog sent me a continuation game.

Rules:

1. Grab the nearest book of 123 pages or more.
2. Open it to page 123.
3. Find the first 5 sentences and write them down.
4. Then invite 5 friends to do the same.

This is from “At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays” by Anne Fadiman, which I just reviewed for the Internet Review of Books. I love this book. The author is witty, curious, and intellectual all at once. She makes me want to read more and write more. You’ll have to read my review when it comes out later this month. But, back to the game…

Okay, page 123. The essay: Mail by Anne Fadiman

But wait, you pipe up. Someone just e-mailed me a joke! So she did, but wasn’t the personality of the sender slightly muffled by the fact that she forwarded it from and e-mail she received and sent it to thirty-seven additional addresses?

I also take a dim, or perhaps buffaloed, view of electronic slang. Perhaps I should view it as a linguistic milestone, as historic as the evolution of Cockney rhyming slang in the 1840’s. But will the future generations who pry open our hard drives be stirred by the eloquence of the e-acronyms recommended by a Web site on “netiquette?”

Those were the five sentences, but let me go on, because Anne Fadiman sums it up with these fine examples:

BTDT –been there done that
FC –fingers crossed
IITYWTMWYBMAD –if I tell you what this means will you buy me a drink?
MTE –my thoughts exactly
ROTFL –rolling on the floor laughing
RTFM –read the fucking manual
TANSTAAFL –there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch
TAH –take a hint
TTFN –ta ta for now

Well, I’m in full agreement here. What will the archeologists in 2150 AD think of these gems when they take a look in the computer files of Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe? I can hear them now.

“Toanfd, flassreak!” diu8 Jlakldsj.

“Yofnel ti akepiamn usoi,” diu8 wenalopa, “weiha sesm walmjfs?”

“Fuck!” diu8 Jlakldsj.

Some words won’t ever change. Of that I’m sure.

So, I will pass the torch to as many bloggers as I can think of:

Mridu Khullar

Bob Sanchez

Gary Presley

Meraiah Foley

To MFA, or Not To MFA~

I belong to an Internet group of writers, some of whom have applied themselves to higher education in the form of an MFA in creative writing, and some, like me, are learning by the seat of their pants. I have always wondered if I was simply floundering in the dark and it would behoove me to go back to school, or whether I could succeed without it.

One of my writing buddies from the list has compared himself to Grandma Moses in his approach to writing. He is publsihed many times over as an essayist and has a memoir due out in the fall of this year. Although I admre him, I still wavered in my thinking.

I am currently taking an online class in creative nonfiction from UCLA’s outreach program, and someone in the class asked our instructor about MFA programs. Here is what Gordon Grice, MFA said:

“The main benefit of an MFA program is that it gives a writer a few years in which he’s allowed to write as his main occupation. You can learn a lot there, but the learning mostly happens because you’re reading a lot of books and forcing yourself to write. Those same techniques will work outside the academy… writing is writing, and a lot of the distinctions academics draw are artificial.

Don’t get me wrong. Being with other writers in a concerted endeavor can be a great and life-changing experience. It may even be a good learning experience. But its success depends more on the teacher, the other students, and the attitude of the writer than it does on the specifics of the plan.”

So, I will continue to learn by the seat of my pants, write and submit, submit, submit.

Signed, Ms Moses.