Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Rec and Whining

I've started my new book. This is a bit of a departure for me, and I'm having a whole hell of a lot of fun with the concept. It's the first idea in a long time that's actually excited me. I'm up to roughly 13,000 words, and I've made a vow to finish this by Christmas, which isn't impossible, although extremely ambitious.

And then I got derailed for a couple of weeks by what Truman Capote called the mean reds. Because I read a book. One of the most marvelous books I've read in ages. I keep haphazard, barely legible lists (I found a napkin the other day with five book titles on it!) squirreled away in odd places, and this book's title kept cropping up: Call Me by Your Name, by Andre Aciman. It is a stunning read. A coming of age story set in Italy, the protagonist is seventeen-year-old boy named Elio and his lover is a twenty-four-year old academic named Oliver. Note I use the word lover; I don't use it lightly. This book is about falling in love. This book is about falling in love so deeply and completely and totally that it ruins your life in a sense. The bar has been set so high that no one else comes close. I'm sounding like the blurb off the back of a cheap romance novel. He doesn't. Trust me on this. This is best book I've read in couple of years and ranks up there with one of the best books I've read period.

So why the mean reds? Because it’s so beautifully written that it sucked all confidence out of me. Even at the top of my game (I use that term lightly), I couldn’t write like this because it’s not my voice. Truthfully, the author whose voice probably most resembles mine is Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. That’s my voice or what my voice could be and I’m not complaining. But. Mr. Aciman’s voice is one rich sentence after another, evocative yet simple writing, that manages to pack a wow on every page. I will not be that writer. But I can certainly be a better writer. I’m working on that. Even while fully acknowledging that, well, my brain just doesn’t work that way, it still gutted me.

I know a lot of authors who stop reading when they are working on a project. I’ve never been one of them, but, hey, now joining that bandwagon because I’ve lost two weeks here. Frankly, it’s rare when I read a book that silences my own ego. That says quite a lot about me, I know, and another book I would recommend on this subject is Betsy Lerner’s Forest for the Trees. She does a fab job of getting into the writer’s psyche and laying out the ridiculous (and, obviously, as neurotic as hell) pinball mechanism of the writer’s id: rampaging, insufferable egotism going hand in hand with crippling self-doubt. Welcome to my world. Anyway, part of why I’ve never bothered to adhere to that dictum is that I rarely read anything that wows me. And I mean truly wows me. Aciman’s book had me gasping in delight with every page. That just doesn’t happen anymore, so I’ve never felt the need to not read while knee-deep in a book project.

Some of this is because, well, books just aren’t that good anymore. They are rushed through the publishing process, the most important criteria being their sales potential. Being the hot book. Not being the well-written hot book. No, the operative word here is hot. Books aren’t edited anymore, and I’m now convinced they aren’t even copy edited anymore. Spell check and slap a cover on it. That’s about that size of it these days. So books that might have been great with a lot more work are mediocre. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read in the last five years that had the bones of great. Another six months of hard work would have propelled that book from okay to decent or from decent to marvelous (and for those who know me, no, I’m not discussing the last Harry Potter book because that’s flat out stroke inducing).

Since mystery is the genre I write in, do we even need to say major plot busts? Do we need to say sloppy construction, contrived endings, half-realized characterizations, and, sigh, on and on. It’s all about sales these days. And while I understand better than most people why book sales are plummeting (I have a fifteen-year-old son and reading is just another word for torture), I also say to you, well, you’re producing schlock. Maybe why your sales are tanking?

Anyway, Mr. Aciman’s book is so far from schlock that I urge you to read it. Other books that wowed me: Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. It’s more accessible than Aciman's book, but if multiple POVs bother you, then this isn’t the book for you (although I thought that part of the power of this book was how well he manipulated the POVs). What a touching, lovely book. Speaking of touching, read Calvin Trilling’s About Alice. This is also about finding true love. He wrote this after his wife had died, so it’s from the other end of the spectrum, at the end of a great love as opposed to the beginning. I loved Alice, too, by the end. Another book that I thought was stunning, certainly along the lines of Aciman’s book, was Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I was cooking when AIDS started to devastate the S.F. chef community, so this book packed a punch like you wouldn’t believe, but it doesn’t need that backdrop to be a powerful, gorgeous read. All these books are completely different in style, but they share one thing. They say what they want to say well. Language is a song to them.

Back to writing.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I'm slogging (and even calling it slogging is putting a positive spin on the torturous process I'm going through right now!) through a re re re rewrite right now and I'm not sure if I should run out and grab any and all of these books, or avoid them all like the plague.

I don't think of genre novels (or your novels) as schlock, though. I honestly think of them as an escape from the heavy hard business of living. And if my @#$%ing novel ever gets published and I help a few people through their hard days, then I will be happy with what I've done.

Keep on keeping on. I'd love to hear more about your project whenever you have the inclination to talk about it.