Rita Writes

February 9, 2010

Bill Bryson and the Thunderbolt Kid hit the mark

Bryson’s works always cause massive upset for me. He writes in such an apparently easy-breezy style, I feel intimidated and as a somewhat heavy-handed tyro by comparison. He has not yet written a book that disappoints or that is not noted by me as well written.

But the Thunderbolt Kid was especially threatening since he writes of things I hope to share in my own manuscript. Can I capture the mood as well? Will the reader conjure the smells and feel the nostalgia? Will my writing bring the compassion and head-nodding familiarity Thunderbolt evokes?

To be sure I am partly transfixed because he writes about a time and nearby place to my own personal history. But even if I had not walked similar streets and visited similar regal Egyptian-style movie theaters, the descriptions would resonate. And the antics he and his buddies survive made me want to be one of them, then and now. Not a small triumph for a writer.

Most of Thunderbolt’s tale is not remarkable. We have read often of pubescent males finding their way towards Playboy Magazine and their awakening lust for soon-to-be voluptuous classmates. What makes Bryson’s review of such familiar ground unique is how it fits with the whole; how he shares his search for female pulchritude, beer and cigarettes as part of a normal life with equally unremarkable friends who are in fact, quite remarkable.

How does Bryson do it? I can’t speak for him but I can speak of him as a reader. He engages me immediately. He makes me feel he is talking just to me and is glad I am listening. He does not indulge in overly written prose with conspicuous analogies or similes, and while he doesn’t insult the reader by writing down, he refrains from using a vocabulary that requires the reader to pause. He just lopes along telling a tale and brings the reader along by enticements to see what happens next.

And that’s the trick. I recall reading Joseph Heller’s Catch Twenty-Two with the same result. Try this experiment if you don’t believe me. Pick up the book and let it fall open to any page. Heller crafts each paragraph to force you to read the next. My guess is both Bryson and Heller edit mercilessly, removing any word or phrase or story line that does not give an immediate result to the reader. I am convinced this is the hardest part of writing and what makes books memorable and enduring.

And with Bryson, now that I finished his last contribution to my reading stack, I am similarly impatient for his next book. Now that’s a good story-teller.


January 21, 2010

I don’t like Terry Pratchett’s books about Discworld

Filed under: Review,Uncategorized — Rita @ 1:12 am
Tags: , , ,

It doesn’t take much to be a critic.  Opinions are like elbows, we all have them.  For me, in order for an opinion, mine or any one else’s, to have meaning, it needs an explanation.  Why I like something adds value to the opinion.

For instance, if I say I don’t like Oreo cookies, it means nothing.  But if I say I don’t like Oreo cookies because I don’t eat sugar, I provide a frame of reference; one the listener can either accept or reject as their own. The very act of explaining gives credibility to my critique.

A thoughtful friend sent me two brand spanking new Terry Pratchett books.  She intended the gift as an introduction to one of her favorite escapism treats and private entry to Discworld.  Always delighted to read an author who surprises me, I am conflicted by my reaction.   On the one hand, I believe the writing worth lingering over.

On the other, I just don’t seem to be able to embrace his phantasmagoric world of dwarfs, invented demons and dark powers. I love vintage science fiction, but science fantasy irritates me.  I have long ago abandoned any interest in dragons or magic. Thus, my overall critique of Mr. Pratchett’s books is negative.  It isn’t an issue of ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ it is simply that I don’t enjoy this particular invented world.  One of my favorite series of books is of a contrived, “Riverworld,” by Larry Niven.  So I pass that test. I simply accept that each of us has a different reader’s palette. Guess that’s why there are so many genres from which to choose.

Yet I confess his turn of phrase and imagery are delightful.  His writing, were it in another, more traditional genre, would put him at the top of any literary list.  Much as Author C. Clarke was one of the best writers of the 20th century but was ignored because he wrote science fiction, so I see Mr. Pratchett.

I certainly hope she continues to send me books to enlarge my literary world.  Few things delight me more than the gift of books I have not read.

January 19, 2010

“Men of a Certain Age” = Entertainment AND good writing

Filed under: Review,Uncategorized — Rita @ 1:35 am

While I accept TV as entertainment, I am always delighted when a program comes in a literate and intelligent package.

The new TNT program, “Men of a Certain Age” captures the real life angst of certain middle aged men without the hype.  It flows so naturally and the dialog is so unpolished, I feel like a voyeur; that I am peeping into the private lives of three flawed men grappling with living life on their own terms and missing the mark.  I guess that is the gift bestowed by good writing.

Gay employees, cut-throat car salesmen and unfaithful spouses are not memorialized, they simply populate a landscape these men can neither change nor accept.

The blundering antics of Ray Romano as a reluctant and new-to-the-dating-world man are accepted as normal because the writers have drawn a portrait of a man for whom lying about leg cramps to avoid premature ejaculation is almost inevitable.  His is an entirely consistent portrait. No mean fete.

How’d they do that?  Well, first, the acting is so profoundly understated (except Scott Bakula who is too good looking to be believed as a failed actor) that the writing is the star. The dialogue is natural and the characters are people we know.  Even Braugher’s over the top father is someone the viewer has met. His demands are harsh but he is so real we cannot help but respond with the same gut-wrenching agony as Bruagher.

The dialogue, always the bugaboo for talented writers, conveys much without underestimating the intelligence of the viewer.  We are allowed to know what we know and understand what is meant. All of which is aided by Andre Braugher‘s ability to conduct a complete conversation with facial expressions.

As writers, what can we learn from this visual example of excellent writing? That authenticity should never be sacrificed in the name of a wise crack, interesting side note or other literary distraction. Let our characters be exactly who they are in spite of our writing skill and creativity. Let us always create a world in which nothing is over explained.

Hats off to the writers and good Joss to the actors of “Men of a Certain Age.”

January 12, 2010

A dark character and how he becomes so

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rita @ 10:38 pm

Benjamin Bernstein, American

To say Benjamin Bernstein is a troubled soul is akin to saying cows moo.  He saw little if any kindness in his early life and he, like so many Jewish immigrants of his day, was witness to horrors over which he had no control and which resonate for his lifetime. Pogroms and murderous dismissal of Jews in his native Poland are the backdrop for his leave-taking and a lifetime of feelings of powerlessness and paranoia.

Ben becomes a violent, silent man whose affect on other people completely escapes him, not that he cares. He has survived with an intense isolation that leaves him taciturn and watchful.  He is the vehicle for a story about the true beginnings of the American dream and the impact immigrants had on forming our culture.  It is  a story about America’s love story with automobiles and in many cases, the self loathing that left many always wanting more.

With fists flying and cheeks aglow with barely submerged anger, Ben walks the reader through the Polio Epidemic of 1915 and Pershing’s efforts to push Pancho Villa back into Mexico.  He shows us how an uneducated boy  becomes a man who provides for a family, owns a decent home, religiously replaces his car every three years and becomes part of what will be called, the “American Dream.”

How does the writer make such a character sympathetic.  When we see Steinbeck’s Lenny commit murder, do we hate him?  No.  Why?  Because we understand what makes him kill.

Will this same device, knowledge of how Ben became the man he is, give the reader the compassion necessary to keep reading as Ben grows up, falls in love and has a family whom he brutalizes but never understands?  I have to believe this to be true in order to continue work on the manuscript.

January 9, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Rita @ 12:45 am

Everyone needs feedback on their writing to improve.  Please use the comments section to let me know your impressions, how you’d see the work made stronger and anything else you’d like me to know.  Or go to these stories and add your comments there.  Featured on Pearl Luke’s site Be a better Writer.

Polio Cats

Thief Among Thieves

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