Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

SPOILERS

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In my opinion, this is the most overhyped book of the summer. Basically, Ms. Cline uses the backdrop of the Manson murders to frame a coming-of-age story. This is an interesting premise if not potentially fascinating, except you can't have a coming-of-age novel if your character never comes of age. That is only one of the problems with this book.

First of all, the character doesn't move emotionally. She starts out as a confused, clueless teenager who obsesses about the mosquito bites on her legs and ends with her being a forty-something confused, clueless middle-age woman obsessing on her varicose veins. On her legs. Horrible things happen and yet she doesn't move one emotional inch. This seems to be a theme these days in literary fiction. Nothing much happens, but a lot of flowery prose makes you think something has happened. I have read several books like this in the last year, where I feel like Dorothy petitioning the Great Oz, only to find him unmasked by a curious little terrier and then being told to ignore that man behind the curtain pulling the levers. It's a lot of smoke and no fire.

Anyway, I know I will get heat for this, but this book could only have been written by a millennial, and I'll tell you why. There is an obsessive sense of self. This is the generation that defines itself by the selfie, after all. I was thirteen or fourteen years old when the Manson killings occurred, so you'd think I should be able to relate to the protagonist of this book, and yet I'm stymied by her. The book doesn't read like a fourteen year old. It reads like a twenty-seven year old trying to write like a fourteen year old, but with a much older viewpoint that made me question, is this a fourteen-year-old girl? At several point the narrative slips and it begins to sound like as it were told by the older self in flashbacks, which actually works, but then we are yanked back into her "present" again.

There is an appalling lack of fact checking that several commenters have noted. Oi, the credit cards are just one example. If you're going to set a novel in an era that is acknowledged as a monumental cultural shifting of values, then at least get the details right. It's not like there aren't hundreds of thousands of people--like me--who were the age of this protagonist and can spot the errors without even trying. This is just pure sloppiness and takes us out of the story.

Okay, let's get on to the writing. Wow, this is difficult to parse, because there are brilliant sentences that are followed by sentences with descriptors that literally make no sense whatsoever. There are least three of these on every page, and the editor in me was dying to take out a red pen and slash through these modifiers. I opened a page at random, and there is an embarrassment of riches. "The copse of trees that had always vaguely attended by evil." What does this mean? Evil isn't vague. And evil doesn't attend anything. Another page: "Come here," she said, and I sat down on the itchy pile." What does this mean, itchy pile? Is the carpet itchy against her legs? These sentences sound pretty, but ultimately they are hollow because none of these descriptors make sense. Also there is a tick through out that should have been weeded out, and that is the sentence fragment. I use this every now and then, and I appreciate it as a device. But it can be overused and it IS overused in this novel. I'd say at least 20% of the narrative are sentence fragments. And in many cases for no reason (hee!). It's like she'd used up her subject/verb allotment for the day.

Essentially, I felt that the written language in this book needed a firm hand to cultivate this author's truly wonderful facility with language. But pages of lush language do not make a book. I would have liked to see a LOT less manipulation of adjectives and adverbs that are merely window dressing and a lot more attention paid to character development. No one took her by the hand and said, "But what does this mean and why is she doing this?"

And then there is the ending. Why does this ending remind me of Gone Girl, which is another book that lacks a moral center. I suppose had Evie spoken up and exposed these murderous cretins for the evil bastards they were, then this would have actually had her grow up; however, belonging or being "seen" was more important than having a moral core. The fact that Evie did not speak of these atrocities at the hands of her "friends" might be more "literary," but as a reader we are left with a sour taste in our mouths. I didn't understand this stunted allegiance to Suzanne post-murder, or even less so the bizarre envy expressed by the protagonist as Suzanne enjoys her fame as one of the "girls," and a sense that Suzanne robbed Evie of being one of the "girls."

If this girl/woman can't speak for a murdered child, then why should we care about her? I don't feel sorry for her. I hated her by the end of the book. Her silence was beyond odious. It was craven, and no amount of fancy writing can absolve the book of this fact. If you don't care for the protagonist, then I think the writer has lost the reader. You don't have to like a protagonist, but you have to relate to their moral dilemma, and there is NO moral dilemma in this book. There is nothing learned. If the murder of four people doesn't move a protagonist in some direction to jolt her out of herself, then what would? This book reads like an emotional selfie. All image, no heart.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Interview with David Alan Binder

Hey, I'm interviewed today by David Alan Binder. Check out his blog. I say somethings about writing, publishing, how the market has changed, and what I have learned over the course of twenty years doing this. Check it out!

https://sites.google.com/site/dalanbinder/blog/clairejohnsoninterviewwithdavidalanbinder

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Piracy

A good friend of mine wrote a brilliant post about the issue of piracy: Dear Broke Reader: Your Sense of Entitlement Is Killing Me. As writers, it threatens all of us, from the best-selling author to the no-name author like me. It affects ALL of us. Even before my books were published, there were pirated copies available on the Internet. I suppose they took arcs apart and scanned them, who knows, but it's across the board obviously. Complaining to Google could be a full-time job in itself.

I think that Sarah's blog is so well written that I can't add anything to her central point. But what I do want to point out is that not only are authors losing $$$, they are also losing clout. Your sales are not just about the dollars. It's also about generating clout in the marketplace. It's about getting that contract renewed for additional books. It's about getting speaking gigs to further your presence in the book buying market. It's about publishers being interested in you and wanting to further your career because it makes them money for them. In short, piracy is the gift that keeps on taking. Not only do you lose sales, but you also lose market share in an extremely competitive sphere.

I honestly do not think that the publishers are quite aware of how pervasive this practice is. Seriously? The Austen pastiche I published is available for free on some torrenting sites! It affects everyone who has ever put a finger to a keyboard.

I have no solution to this. I just know that I have been impacted by it and so has every writer I know. Once books became digital objects, then the writing cows were out of that frigging barn and scampering across the fields. You might as well close THAT barn door.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

More Hitting Head Against Brick Wall

So, if there are any writers in the crowd, this article will confirm what you already know: the title says it all. Income for U.S. authors now has fallen below the poverty line. News? HAHAHAHAHAHA! The usual culprits are trotted out, the number one villain of course being amazon, who has single-handedly destroyed the book market. I understand that indies are sort of making a comeback, but that's basically a drop in the bucket compared to all the stores that went under in response to amazon's predatory pricing.

Some juicy quotes include:

Analysing responses from 1,674 authors in its first survey since 2009, the US organisation found that the median income from writing for an American author in 2014 was $8,000, down 24% from $10,500 six years ago. The majority (56%) of writers, it said, earned less from all of their writing-related activities than the $11,670 judged in 2014 to have been the minimum income needed by a one-person household in the US.

and

Earnings for full-time authors dropped 30% between 2009 and 2014, from $25,000 to $17,500, while the median income of part-time writers fell 38% over the period, from $7,250 to $4,500. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to the survey said their sole income came from writing.

Another interesting tidbit is that even if you are forced to self-publish (like I was):

Thirty-three percent of author reported self-publishing at least one book. Educational authors with traditional publishers, meanwhile, had the highest writing-related income in 2014, at $17,750, followed by traditionally published trade authors, at $10,250; self-published respondents earned $4,500. The biggest decline in income over the period was for traditionally published trade authors, at 28%; earnings for self-published authors were down 25%.

with the depressing conclusion that:

The rise of indie authors and their fan bases may be taking sales away from traditional publishers,” said Rasenberger. “Self-publishing may be a good way forward for many authors, but by and large indie authors are not making much money yet.

There you have it. That sound you hear is my head hitting the brick.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Dear Hillary Letter No. 1

Dear Hillary: I have listened to a number of debates between you and Mr. Saunders, and I think we all know your positions on most things. Your criticism of Bernie is falling on deaf ears because you are so determined to get out your policy points that you're letting him get away with murder. Instead of hammering home your position, start using your debate time to ask him questions that the moderators are ignoring. He is increasingly sounding like he alone will make these changes. That he ignores the fact that all these promises he makes, unversal health care, free colleges, etc., that nine of this is possible in the current political climate. That the hard fought battle over the current health care model, which is still being undermined by the GOP, is nothing compared to the fight that would ensue in a bill for single payer health care system. How he keeps making promises he can't keep, only fanning the flames of an electorate that is sick and tired of being told they can have the moon.

Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

I have three historical periods and the writers of that era that I'm somewhat obsessed with. One is the explosion of writers (mostly gay men) who wrote in the aftermath of WWII. This includes Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, only to name a few. The second is the mostly British expat community in Kenya in the 1920s and 30s, Isak Dinesen the obvious draw there. And the third is the ex-pat community of writers in Paris in the 1920s, of whom Fitzgerald and Hemingway loom the largest.

So I'm writing this review with something of a caveat because I know the personal history of Hemingway extremely well (it's a little embarrassing how many biographies I own of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their circle) and mentally I could be filling in gaps. Another reader might feel that parts of this book feel thin or there isn't enough, but all readers bring their own history to the page--we can't help that. Thus, I felt it only fair to start this review with that warning.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood presents the POV of the four Hemingway wives as their marriages to him begin to disintegrate. All four POVs--from Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pffeiffer, Martha Gellhorn to Mary Welsh--have a distinct voice. If you're interested in the history of this period, this is not that book, but its character study of each woman is excellent. The greatest strength of this book is a seamless back and forth between the ending of their marriages and all the unfortunate emotional history leading to the end of their marriages. This back and forth is exceptionally hard to do without giving a reader mental whiplash, and I think that Ms. Wood does an admirable job of weaving in various episodes. The language is lush and descriptive, and on nearly every page there was a sentence that I would read and say to myself, wow I wish I'd written that.

Hemingway was something of a serial husband. He always had a woman waiting in the wings before he disposed of the previous wife, so these stories all overlap. I think the weakest "wife" in the book is Ms. Wood's portrayal of Martha Gellhorn, but then she would, IMO, be the hardest to mentally coral. A war correspondent in her own right, Martha Gellhorn was the only one of his wives who didn't have a somewhat synchophantic relationship with her husband. And, naturally, she's the only one who left him.

By and large the book seems historically factual to a point. The section where the most liberties have been taken are with Martha Gellhorn (wife no. 3). Based on the several biographies of hers that I've read, an extended scene that takes place at the end of their marriage never occurred, but other than that, it reads as historically accurate to me. But the history here isn't the point.

What is the point is the evocative language, the deft handling of four distinct voices, and the masterful weaving in and out of their respective histories. This was a wonderful read.

If you're interested in a more historical and in-depth treatment of Hemingway's wives, I highly recommend Bernice Kert's The Hemingway Women. This is a superb history on the various women who loomed large in Hemingway's life. I can't recommend this book more highly.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Open Letter to Salon.com

I am an extremely political person. I try to keep politics off this blog because given the state of politics in this country and the obstructionist mentality of the GOP and the hijacking of the GOP by racists, homophobes, and sexists, there really doesn't seem any point on commenting about them. When you have major candidate in this race--who is THE front runner--waffling on the support of a white supremacist, then these truths are self-evident, as they say.

I'm curious what the fate of the GOP will be after this election. I doubt it will survive intact, because this election has exposed "the base" to be unrelentingly racist at the expense of the traditional bean counters. I imagine this election will split the party in two. Because, hello, the genie is out of the bottle. The Tea Party isn't about small government. It's about hating anyone who isn't white. End of story. Will the Eisenhower model emerge or the racist contingent? Clearly there isn't room for both.

However, something interesting has been happening on the Democratic side. Salon.com is a fairly left site that I read for political and entertainment value. It's an echo chamber more or less, and I freely admit that. But not so much anymore. It has become the Hillary bashing site. The number of articles that paint Hillary Clinton as nearly as horrendous a political choice as either Trump, Cruz, or Rubio are growing in direct proportion to her seemingly inevitable win of the Democratic nominee for president. The Super Tuesday election has brought the knives out. Wow, it's getting uglier and uglier by the day. The number of photos of her appearing smug, angry, arrogant, and insert a modifier in here of your choice that is highly unflattering are increasing. You get the "picture."

And yet, when Hillary Clinton was a senator she and Bernie Saunders voted in unison on issues 83% of the time. Okay, let's repeat that; 83% of the time. And yet as she begins to sew up the nomination, you'd think that she was basically Ted Cruz's older sister.

The progressive left has begun to paint her as a war monger. I don't see her as a war monger. I can see a rational argument being made for toppling bat-shit insane dictators like Khadafi, where there is a hope that one can now have democratic elections in a country that has suffered under the rule of the type of man who had no compunction in blowing up airplanes, who had a long history of terrorist acts and who was, by all accounts, INSANE. Hillary is being pilloried for voting for the war and yet Bernie Saunders voted for U.S. troops in Afghanistan--the country where no invading country has won a war in something like 400 years. So there's that. 

Speaking of pictures. The really distasteful part of this whole campaign against Hillary is that at its heart it's beginning to feel misogynistic. Have you noticed how much the press shows close-ups of her face, All the lines, the puffiness, the general hallmarks of an older woman. It's becoming on par with the sort of ridiculous photographs they show of Trump. 

Salon, stop it. In your zeal to champion Bernie Saunders you're losing my respect. Again, I like Bernie, too. But there is never any discussion of how someone like Saunders, who is so much more left than probably 90% of his colleagues in the Senate, is actually going to govern when even a majority of his own party cannot support his platform. When you have a sitting President, who in another era I would consider a moderate Republican, is basically inert because of an obstructionist Congress, how is someone as progressive as Bernie Saunders going to govern? How? How does Bernie plan to implement all these pie-in-the-sky programs. The current president can't even get bridges fixed and the roads paved. How is Bernie going to PAY FOR ALL OF THIS?????

These questions are never asked, and I think they are as legitimate as someone asking of Ted Cruz: since many of the people in this country are not religious (and increasingly are not religious), how can Ted Cruz possibly govern when a huge percentage of the electorate is not evangelical?

You have a bias. You like Bernie Saunders. I like him, too. Politically, he's much closer to my viewpoint than Obama. But Hillary and Bernie are VERY CLOSE politically. The first debates were marked by the other saying, "I agree..." So cut this shit out. Champion Bernie. He's a man with a tremendous amount of integrity and smarts. That should be enough. You don't need to stoop to what is becoming a sexist, stealth smear campaign against Hillary. I'm going to say this again. Stop it.