When is it too much?

I just emailed the most graphic scene in my work-in-progress to a couple of pre-book reviewers. Friends I trust to point me in the right direction, who see things (mostly) the way I do, but who stand as the voice of reason. Because anyone who’s written a book, especially a fiction novel, knows that it can get away from you. That reason and creativity aren’t the closest companions.

I sent these friends the first draft of what has to be the most horrific event in the book, the event around which seventy-five percent of the story spirals. So this event, this scene should be disturbing, right? But I have to ask myself (and them) when is it too much? I posed to them the question: is this scene too graphic for my style of writing?

I usually don’t have a problem with graphic scenes, where warranted. I love detective novels and TV shows. I’m sad to say it, but I enjoy stories about serial killers. I enjoy the psychological part of the story. But there are also instances of books, TV shows, etc. that are overly graphic for no reason.

I’ve put down several books (and decided to never buy from that author again) because of gratuitous violence, violence that doesn’t add anything to the story other than shock value.

There’s a big difference between alluding to what’s behind the curtain and ripping the curtain down and shoving my face in it.

For a long time, I would buy Minette Walters’ books as soon as they came out. But I almost stopped following her completely after reading the animal abuse scenes in one of her books. I can’t deal with violence against animals. It’s another sad to say situation that I can deal with violence against humans, that it’s become not so shocking for me. But, to me, people who abuse animals or children deserve an especially hot place in hell. And I don’t want to think/read about the things those people do, or why. There’s no valid reason to harm something that vulnerable.

And I know it all a matter of what you enjoy. I’m not judging. Really. But I also know that I have certain expectations of the genre and the author. I don’t like it when I’m disturbed enough by what I’ve read that I have to put a book down. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want to turn off my readers by making them think I’m including things just for shock value.

Getting to the middle of what starts out to be a good book and then not wanting to finish it is like finding that half-eaten worm in your apple. Like having the friendly-looking bee buzzing around that beautiful flower sting you on your nose.




Book.Review: Blindness

blindnessI’m not sure how Nobel prizes are handed out. I believe it is based on an author’s body of work, not just on one book, but after reading Blindness, I’m unwilling to read any more of José Saramago’s books to find out if, in my opinion of course, he deserved the prize.

You can think what you want, that maybe I’m not intellectual enough to appreciate this book that “has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses-and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”*  To be very blunt, I thought this book, Blindness, was crap.

[Sorry, but crap is a funnily appropriate term considering Saramago’s obsession with shit.]

The books wasn’t compelling, and it could easily have been. The story was there, the storytelling was not.

I got past his “…long blocks of unbroken prose, lacking conventional markers like paragraph breaks and quotation marks…”**  I struggled with how the point of view was all over the place: third person, head-hopping, first person, and the much confusing we used when Saramago interjected himself into the novel to have a short conversation with the reader, just in case you, the reader, weren’t smart enough to get the point. Near the end, even the dog got a chance to share its point of view.

I don’t have problems with difficult books. I’ve read Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, for goodness sake. I actually love Faulkner, and have read most of his books. I’ve read Dostoyevsky and Eco, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’ve read Borges and Marquez. And I’ve read quite a few of the other Nobel Laureates, and that’s why I don’t understand how this book could have gained the following it has. These other authors, their stories engaged me as a reader. Blindness did not.

What bothered me was two fold.

One, I didn’t care about the characters, not really. [I told myself I was going to finish this book whether I wanted to or not, because I felt it had to have some redeeming qualities. It didn’t.]  It wasn’t until I was about half-way through, when the doctor’s wife realized she had the scissors, that I actually got just a teensy bit interested in what might happen, but even that fell a flat, was too predictable.

The doctor’s wife would have been a great protagonist. The one person who can see in a city of blind people, how could that not be more engrossing than the “village chorus”**?

Did I mention that no one had names, that they were the first blind man and the doctor’s wife and the boy with the squint, etc? Maybe that was a way of being clever, of trying to show how blindness can de-humanize us, but it put distance between me and the characters. I didn’t connect with any of them, not even during the most horrific scenes.

And finally, regarding characters, it felt very obvious that this book was written by an old man. The women were two-dimensional, more so than the men. They were either whores or mothers or crazy, mostly whores. I really disliked his treatment of women, and not in the way you would imagine. The rape scenes and the surrounding text did not anger me because those scenes felt like possibly the only true to life scenes in the book. I just felt like I didn’t care about these women. They were all whores or crazy, and uninteresting whores and crazies at that.

Two, the book felt antiquated. I kept thinking it was written in and about the 1930-40s, until he would throw in a term like microwave or AIDS that made me stop and wonder too many things that kicked me out of the story.

Why were none of the women concerned about birth control or the spread of venereal diseases? With all the shit everywhere, why did none of the women get infections? [Old man writing?] Why did no one have a computer? And considering the problems the sighted doctor’s wife dealt with in the city, were there no flashlights with batteries? Really? In a city of blind people, you’d think flashlights wouldn’t be in high demand. Where were the malls? the REIs? Where were the religious fanatics? Surely someone in the hospital would have been shouting how this was all God’s will, that he was punishing sinners. Where were the drug addicts going through withdrawal? Why did no one in the hospital have cancer or diabetes or require special medicines? Did no one get a cold or have a headache?  Did no one bring a bag full of drugs, over the counter or not? Why, out of 200+  inmates, did only one person bring a gun?

Did the blindness intentionally take the good, the old, the boring people first?

I just couldn’t relate to these people or the problems they were having. The people in Saramago’s world were more concerned with filth, with how everything was covered in shit and piss, than with realities. Saramago must have had some psychological problem with cleanliness. I get it. It smelled really bad and felt really bad, conditions were unsanitary, but if you say it more than three times you’re beating the reader over the head with it and showing the world your own obsessions.

He needed to show us what real people deal with everyday, things that would have been exacerbated by blindness. Things besides their bathroom habits.

Maybe a lot of these things were in the book but I just didn’t care enough to remember. Maybe they were too subtle for me to notice, or maybe I’m not intelligent enough to get it. Or maybe they were covered over with shit.

I gave this book two-stars because I did finish it. I didn’t want to, but I did.

 * Blindness (Amazon)

** José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Portuguese Writer, Dies at 87

10 Books that Have Never Left You – What are Your Ten?

IMG_20140906_140406A while back a friend–I think it was Kathleen–pinged me on FB to list ten books that have stayed with me over the years.   I know the challenge is to just list them without really thinking about it, but that’s not who I am. I over think everything. No, really. I know I do.

I’m challenging you to do the same. Whether it’s here as a comment or on FB.  I ended up with a dozen, because I can never follow the rules, well, not exactly.

But you only have to do ten.  Unless you want to do more.

~ o ~

This challenge provided me the perfect opportunity to think about two of my favorite things: books and me.

So the real question is what does it mean that a book, its story has stayed with me. I can remember many–I’ll even go as far as to say most–of the books I’ve read. That doesn’t imply that I can remember the title, because I have been known to buy books that are either already sitting on my shelf or that I’ve already read. [I love that Amazon tells me, umm, yeah, we see that you already own that book. With an implied: dumbass.]

Anyway, instead of pondering why books stay with me, I’m just going to list the books that have most influenced me, in my life and my writing.  And a short bit about why. Most of these I have read multiple times. That I’d go back and re-read a book, several of them many times, when there are so many good books available, says more than any theory I can provide as to why they stayed with me.

(1) Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

000download (2)I read this in high school and was enthralled with Mr. Vonnegut’s writing. But it was the idea behind the book that kept evolving in my head that made me love this book. The story is funny and sad at the same time. It gave me perspective, if that is possible in a sixteen year old, on man’s stupidity, man’s willingness to destroy everything around him in the eternal search for more/better/happiness. And it helped developed my style of handling authority. I will never forget the ending, the image of Man’s final act of giving the finger to You Know Who.

(2) Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

This is another one I read in high school, only this time I was scrunched down under the covers in a spooky, supposedly haunted house. Haunted, interestingly enough, by Mr. King, or so said Nettie, our housekeeper. But back to the novel… I had always loved scary movies, so this was a natural progression. Back then kids didn’t have TVs in their bedrooms. And in the living room, we only had three channels. We read books. But what impressed me about this book was how well, how easily Stephen King could get into my head. And scare the crap out of me. If you’ve read his better books (and there are some I sincerely do not like), you’ll understand what I mean. Since reading Salem’s Lot I have been an ardent fan of Stephen King.

(3) Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

You’ll see references to Practical Magic in my own novel, An Untold Want.  My story is nothing like the one told in Practical Magic, but it is the story that nudged me to write my novel. I love Alice Hoffman’s way of telling stories.

(4) The Odyssey by Homer

You’re thinking, finally something classical and meaningful. Yes, this book was so meaningful to me, so powerful that I ended up with a degree [one of three] in Classical Culture and the ability [sadly, a skill that has faded into oblivion] to read ancient Greek. How amazing is it that someone living 2500 years ago, without the use of a laptop, without even writing it down, created something so brilliant, so beautiful as the story of Odysseus and his efforts to return home? This book has everything. Action, intrigue, romance, betrayal, murder, magic. Everything.

(5) The Mystery of the Gingerbread House by Wylly Folk St. John

000downloadThis book would be considered pre-teen now; back then it was just a kid’s book.  I read it when I was nine, maybe ten. And it started my love of mysteries. The book blurb: “An abandoned baby. A locked trunk. A man called Finch. A stolen car ring. And a missing grandmother. Ronny and Greg Jameson didn’t realize that one girl could be so full of mystery. But that was before they met Evie Hollis.”  What inquisitive kid wouldn’t want to read it?

This book is so old, when in a nostalgic moment I looked for it on-line, it was out of print, but I did find a copy recently on eBay or some such site. Amazon now has some re-prints, though third-party vendors.

Wylly Folk St. John wrote the Southern version of Nancy Drew. And when I go back and read these books, it makes me realize that there is some of Ms. St. John’s style in my writing.  She even wrote one called The Secret of the Seven Crows.  If you’d like to read more about her, there’s a nice post here on WordPress:  Wylly Folk St. John -A Life In Words

(6) Shingebiss — unknown

This is not a novel, not even a full book, but I remember it so well from my childhood, from my mother reading it to me from a big book of fairy tales, that I went and found it in print.

Shingebiss is the story of perseverance and self-confidence, or at least that’s how I remember it. If you know anything of my history, you’ll know that it’s an interesting concept that my mother often read this to me.

The book blurb [a re-print]: “… this ancient Ojibwe story captures all the power of winter and all the courage of a small being who refuses to see winter as his enemy. This sacred story shows that those who follow the ways of Shingebiss will always have plenty to eat, no matter how hard the great wind of Winter Maker blows.”

(7) Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

How can you not love social statements encapsulated in humor? The main character is Brother Brutha.  If you haven’t read this book, you should. ‘Nuff said.

(8) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

To be honest, I don’t even remember what the story is about, but I loved that it is a story within a story within a story. I loved the writing. I need to go back and read it again, for the third time.

(9) Light in August by William Faulkner

061281b0c8a0fdff169c9110.LAnother perseverance book, by one of my all time favorite authors. I love long complex sentences. Faulkner gives me something to chew on and has affected my writing style significantly.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

— William Faulkner, Light in August,”Chapter Six

(10) Throat by Peter Straub

A dark, intellectual thriller, it is the last in the Blue Rose trilogy. I read this one first, and then read the other two books, then re-read this one, several times. Like Stephen King, Peter Straub understands and expertly uses the mechanics of writing a dark story that gets in your head and burrows into the soft brain matter, taking root. That’s what makes it disturbing. Not that it’s a dark story. It’s disturbing because it makes you wonder, long after you’ve put it down.

(11) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is one of the books that I’ve read many times. I will say that if you aren’t versed in mythology it may not make any sense, or at best be difficult to understand. I love this book because of the layers and layers of complexity. I read it the first time because of the mythology. Read it again for depth of the story. It’s like one of those movies where every time you watch it you see something different.

(12) Imagica by Clive Barker

000567704Last listed, but certainly not least, is Imagica. Take the complexity and depth of Straub’s and Gaiman’s books, the in your head style of Stephen King, and add a lot of grizzly, disturbing horror to it, and you’ve got Clive Barker. Imagica is 900 pages of earth-based, dark, violent fantasy which questions everything we know about the universe. About “themes such as God, sex, love, gender and death.”

~ o ~

I could go on for days talking about books that have stayed with me, but this has become a long post, and I’m tired after a long week at my soul-sucking job. If you want more info on books I’ve read, you can check my Goodreads author page.

Or you can pick your own.

Flavor #32: bookend robbins

Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt is Flavor #32: A local ice cream parlor invites you to create a new wacky flavor. It needs to channel the very essence of your personality. What’s in it?

I immediately thought about a favor based on the way books [physical books] smell. I know from experience there is a slight vanilla smell when you crack open a book and shove your nose into the crease, but I couldn’t pin down all the other subtle factors and wanted to know more before I submitted this brilliant [even if I do say so myself] idea of a book scented ice cream.

So, of course, I went to the web. According to Smithsonian.com, that old book smell is a combination of grassy bits and vanilla. Yes, I’m paraphrasing.

Based on that, in my mind, the ice cream base would be a rich French vanilla with tons of those lovely black vanilla specs in it. Swirled through would be a puree of wheat grass and finely chopped sugared dandelion leaves. I think it would be beautiful, and as long as the sugar out weighed the acidity of the wheat grass and dandelion leaves, it would be pretty damn tasty.

But what to call this new flavor?  I’m not very good at being witty. Sarcastic, yes. Witty, no.

I finally came up with bookend robbins.




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