Writer, Editor, Designer

Posts tagged literature

There are times when one has to read a novel and for whatever reason, you’re just not into it, you’re not in the mood to read it, et cetera, you can’t seem to read, your mind wanders and the reading isn’t getting done. But you’re on a deadline. You need to be able to discuss this novel for your graduate seminar tomorrow!

What do you do?

I’ve discovered that if you download the audio version, listen to it at 2x speed while following along in the book, you can burn through, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned in about six hours.

The speed is a little slower than average reading pace, but having a narrator whose mind doesn’t wander and procrastinate, it more than makes up for the slightly slower pace. This also works spectacularly for Shakespeare. Can’t get into it? Listen to a performance and follow along.

I wish I’d discovered this much much earlier in my educational career.

I went to see Margaret Atwood at the Music Hall is Portsmouth last night (which is a lovely theatre, by the way.) This is the second time I’ve seen her, the previous time was at a Nelson Institute thing in Madison. There was a much longer Q&A section this time, with a sit-down interview.

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Margaret reading.


I noticed a particular quirk. When she explains something that she feels is fairly self-evident, she adds “Is it not?” or a variation of that as punctuation to her statement.  It’s charming and funny and much classier than saying, “Duh!”

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Margaret being interviewed.

Her novel, Blind Assassin, is one of my favorite books and really solidified for me what kind of literature I want to write.  It’s often my go-to book when I’m trying to turn literary fiction fans onto scifi or vice-versa.

I got to meet her at the VIP thing afterward and I told her the story about how she ended up in my MFA application essay, of which the following is an excerpt:

I saw Margaret Atwood speak a couple years ago and someone asked her why she writes the kinds of stories she wrote. She said that she thought that writers write what they are (secretly, or not-so-secretly) afraid of. That illuminated something in my own writing and most of the writing that I love. I love trying to recreate complicated mental states in my readers, like the terror of being unable to trust your own mind. I love atypical neurologies, I love unreliable narrators. I love normal people lovingly rendered, faults and all, thrust into outrageous circumstances. One of Vonnegut’s rules of writing is that you must make awful things happen to your characters in order that the reader can see what they are made of. Between Vonnegut’s axiom and Atwood’s insight, the project of my stories finally made sense, the arc of my relationship to writing rendered visible.

Atwood was pleasant and adorable, but I could tell she was much interested in eating the pastry in front of her than in my story.  And that’s okay, those were some damned fine pastries.

Does it really count as by-the-bootstraps if someone else is doing the pulling?  

For my seminar on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the first thing I had to read was Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (which is not a euphemism for a venereal disease).  From what I understand, that book is one of the founding texts of the so-called American Character.

In it, Richard “Ragged Dick” Hunter is an orphaned bootblack in NYC and by self-denial and careful saving he is able to bring himself up from poverty and become ‘spectable.  It was hilarious, as Dick is one funny motherfucker.  But he really didn’t get there all by himself. Along the way, he’s given clothes and money and a job by some very philanthropic rich people and a  preacher.

I can see the influence in the Gatsby character, another by-the-bootstraps kind of kid, helped along by a rich guy, but Fitzgerald subverts this by having Gatsby’s gain ill-gotten and illustrates that the veneer of the ‘spectable people is just that, veneer, surface, an act.

I wrote this back in 2006 or so.  It was originally published in Clavicle Magazine.


Dick Cheney shuffled into his office like an aging prize-fighter.  Three fire-bellied toads sat on his desk.  More specifically, they were Lichuan Bell Toads of the genus Bombina lichuanensis.  Dick took this odd event in stride.  One must be able to deal with these sorts of eventualities if you’re to run the world.  So, to the frogs, I mean toads, the Vice President said, “I’m Dick Cheney, who the hell are you?”

“We are the Frogs of Firebelly Three!” they squawked in response, “We come to ask you a question; a riddle it be!”

“Well shoot it up, fire away!” shouted Cheney from the side of his mouth.

Just then, like in a spooky book, the lamps flickered and a chilling breeze shook the curtains, though it was over ninety degrees Fahrenheit with humidity hanging around eighty-eight percent.  Did I mention it was mid-August?

Anyway, those atmospheric effects set the mood for those creepy Lichuan Bell Toads and their infernal bloody riddle.  After all that pomp and circumstance, they croaked ceremoniously, “If you eat it, you will die.  The poor have it and the rich don’t need it.  It is greater than God yet more evil than the Devil.  What is it?”

Dick Cheney sat with furrowed brow and slouching spine, staring his best one-eyed pirate stare at the Frogs of Firebelly Three.  Seriously, why do they call themselves the Frogs of Firebelly Three when they are really Toads?  Weird.

Eventually Dick smirked and said, “It’s oil, you fool!  If you eat it you’ll die.  The poor have it because they’re buying it!  The rich don’t need it because we control it all!  It gives you power greater then God and… and, uh…”

“Yes?” said the triune amphibians with an air of infinite patience.

“Who said, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’?”

“It was Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” answered the middle Lichuan Bell Toad.  The other two flanking Toads looked at the center Toad with a sort of sly and amused shock.

“I saw it on A&E last night,” explained the informative middle frog.

“Oh,” said everyone else.

So Dick continued, “So, it isn’t oil, is it?”

“No, Dick, it’s not,” confirmed the Toads in unison, “It’s nothing.”

“What do you mean?!” exclaimed Mr. Cheney, “Oh, wait, I get it.  If you eat nothing, you die.  Ha-ha, the poor have it, the rich don’t need it.  But then you’re presupposing that ‘nothing’ is greater than God and ‘nothing’ is more evil than the Devil.”

“Quite so, Mr. Cheney.  God and the Devil are symbolic representations of energetic polarities, archetypes of the mind.  God is a symbol of the greatest of the great and the Devil is a symbol of the evilest of evil.”

Dick scratched the side of his liver-spotted head with his right index finger and said in a haltingly jarring voice, “I, uh, you kind of lost me in all the metaphysical mumbo jumbo.  If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting with the President of Halliburton.  They have a check for me.”  Dick then rose from his chair, strutting like an aging pimp and exited the office.

The Lichuan Toads who call themselves the Frogs of Firebelly Three said, “Well shit, we lost another one,” and vanished with a theatrical poof of genie smoke.