Monthly Archives: March 2010

Book Review: One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding

(Note: Okay! Because my posting is sporadic and random, I’ve decided that if I’m going to be a jobless bum like I am, I might as well try to put at least one thing in my life in order. So, from now on, Mondays are going to be book review days.  There are plenty of books sitting around the house that I haven’t read/finished, and it’ll be a good exercise in sensible, meaningful blogging.  If I can get into a rhythm with this, maybe I’ll add other regular sorts of posts to make this the kind of blog where stuff gets discussed and not just a place for whatever comes into my head.)

So, I said in the way back whens after NaNo that I read books. It’s true! I also mentioned that I’d do book reviews and stuff. Apart from that post down there where I said I’d lately been starting a lot of books I hadn’t finished (or struggled to finish), I’ve pretty much not been doing that.

One Big Damn Puzzler also ended up as one of those books. I can’t remember exactly when I bought it, but I know it was bought specifically on one of the days when I was due to come back from my apartment to the house, and so I needed something to kill some time. Read some of it, though it was kinda cool, and then when I came home, it was ditched for shinier things.

Over the months (possibly/probably years), I would pick it up and read the first fifty or so pages again before ditching it once more. The reason here tended to be along the lines of ‘I’ve already read this fking thing before, why do I want to slog back through these fifty pages again to get to new stuff’, but then without reading those first fifty, wouldn’t understand what came after. The eternal conundrum. Anyway, the other night, I picked it back up as a light read. And read the damn thing (finished it) by about five in the morning. Awesome. Thanks, Mr. John Harding for causing me to stay up all night.

On to the actual review.  The book is essentially about an American lawyer who goes to visit a tribe of natives on an island which the United States visited, used up, and left plenty of landmines for the natives to trip all over. As a result, many of them have lost limbs or their lives. The lawyer, William Hardt, seeks to get these natives compensation for their suffering. The only problem? They don’t have a clue what ‘compensation’ means or why he’s trying to give it to them. And when he finally gets it for them, the only thing he wishes for more was that he had never come in the first place.

In between the tale of the island, there are chapters of William’s own fairly screwed-up life, which bring moments of unexpected levity and his struggles with OCD help to explain why he’s so adamant to get these people what they ‘deserve’. There are also chapters from a book the other white person on the island, an ethnographer named Lucy, has written about the customs of the people. While interesting, these only served to take me out of the action and most of the information therein was explained in other ways in the text.  The stories of Lucy’s childhood more than made up for the dryness of the chapters of her book, though.

Stylistically and structurally, the pidgin speech of the natives was hard and annoying to get used to, throughout the bulk of the book. By the end, I was only just starting to get used to it. As it probably does represent the actual pidgin speech of native islanders, there’s not much I can do but get used to it.  The arrangement of chapters – the natives, William’s childhood, Lucy’s childhood, the chapters of Lucy’s book – seemed to be fairly random, and I like reading books where I don’t know which storyline the next chapter’s going to be following.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. As I mentioned up there, I stayed up all night to finish it. It’s not representative of the books I usually read, but there’s no harm in going outside one’s comfort zone every now and then.

Rating: 4/5

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Ugly vs Pretty

I was talking with my mother a couple of days ago about words and language.

In part, it was because she belittled me (no, not really) about my computer-wise incompetence. For someone who seems to be pretty smart about a thing or two, I’m just about as dumb as it’s possible to be when it comes to computers. Anyway, she was explaining something to me, and had to dumb it down to the level of about a five-year old. ‘Scool, I know I’m retarded like that.

A little while later, while she was still working on her computer, she opened the door for me by asking about how to make a sentence better (or along those lines), which gave me my opening to talk about the ways in which sentences can be constructed and talked to her in much the same manner which she had earlier talked to me. (Ok, I’m petty. ‘Scool; I’m a person of many flaws).

Finally, I told her that some words are ugly and others are pretty. She laughed at me, and told me that now I was going too far. But it’s true, I insisted…words like ugly look physically unattractive when written down. Scoffing, she got back to work and the conversation was dropped for a little while.

But then later, she told me that ugly did look pretty unattractive. We went through a number of other words, and it was really strange to see the way perceptions can change. I’m not sure she bought all of my spiel – hell, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy most of it – but it’s a neat thing to think about. Some words just are inherently more pleasing than others.

What would be interesting to me (and I don’t want to know badly enough to actually do the research – laziness, I know) is if, stripped of all context, words still appear beautiful or ugly to non-speakers of a language as to those who are fluent in it. I.e., does ugly look physically unpleasing to me because of the connotations of ‘ugly’, or would it look physically unpleasing to anyone, even someone who had never encountered the word and didn’t know what it meant? My money’s on them not finding it as unpleasant as an English-speaker, who could call up memories, images, thoughts about what ‘ugly’ was, and then let that affect their judgment.

Having done a brief google search, this looks interesting, but doesn’t answer my question. Another google search suggests that diarrhea is a word found beautiful by many non-native speakers, but I couldn’t come up with anything more than a couple of blogs referencing a study; maybe my google-fu is weak and someone can come up with something on this actual study.

In any case, it’s something interesting to ponder. Especially when writing, and you want to create a certain mood, using one word in place of another could change the whole thing, just because of how it looked.

(fwiw, I don’t find ‘pretty’ that visually pleasing).

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Navel-Gazing

So, you write something. And it’s your baby. They’re your words, it’s your story, your world, and everything makes complete and utter sense in your head. It couldn’t be clearer if you tried.  So you save it and go on your merry way. A few months later, you come back to it, read it, edit it, and think that it’s still pretty damn awesome. Everything makes sense, and there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be on the NYTimes Bestseller List. In fact, it would be a crime for it to not be.

And then you start letting people see it. Quietly, you’re jumping up and down and shouting with glee in your head because you know, just know that they’re going to love it, want to read the rest of it, and then dedicate their lives to the cause of making sure your book is known. That’s how freaking awesome it is.  They read the first few pages, and then they turn to you.

That’s when you see it. The faintest glimmer in their eye, the one that says they’re about to tell you something you’re almost certain you don’t want to hear.  That glee inside you starts to fade. Then they start to speak and every word is like a spear through your chest.  You smile, thank them, and head home, all shriveled up inside.

A couple of days pass. “No!” you tell yourself. “Things are great! That’s just one person! They didn’t know what they were talking about!”

But for the sake of argument, you go back to it. You rewrite the beginning, because you can only make it awesomer.

Yet, as you write, those words come creeping back into your head. Oh, they’re not negative comments for the most part. They’re observations, they’re ‘well, this could be better’, they’re ‘well, does the story start here or not?’

That’s when you realize: they’re right.

The goddamn story doesn’t start where you’ve been starting it for the past two years.

And you know what? Without the help of fresh eyes, I’d never get to that point. I’ve been sitting here, staring at Burning Eden for ages. It doesn’t start with his father dying. It doesn’t start with him being disfigured. Nope. They’re interesting things that happened to him, that influenced him, and which can certainly be used as backstory during the actual story, but it’s not where it starts.

Am I happy with this knowledge? Not totally. Starting somewhere totally new means revamping the way it’s told. On the other hand, I really do think that it will tell the story better than the first goaround.

Moral of this particular story: other people rock.

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Some Books I’ve Been Reading Lately

I don’t seem to be having much luck in picking books I’m motivated to finish until the end.

When I went looking for Ralph Nader’s latest book, I knew to some degree what I was getting into. But then again, I’ve read Ayn Rand (both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged), and while I’m not a Randroid, I did enjoy them on one level. I disagree with pretty much all of her positions, but nonetheless, I found them enjoyable reads. So I figured that Nader would be the same. But it’s not. I’ve made it approximately 150 pages in, and all I’m seeing is billionaires doing super-cool-awesome things to help the country, and how awesome they are for doing it, and then they get together in Maui and talk about how awesome they are and how they plan to be awesome next. Maybe I’ve not read far enough, or maybe because my eyes glazed over and I started skimming it, I missed the subtleties. And while I’m doing my damndest to finish it, I’m not very optimistic.

And recently I made my severalth attempt at finishing Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy. I loved two of her previous trilogies (the farseer trilogy and the tawny man trilogy), and I assumed I’d like this one as well. I enjoyed the first book (but then again, I’ve always been a sucker for school stories). The beginning to early middle of the second one interested me as well, but then the main character just goes on a long wandering journey for a while. The ending is pretty good, but in my opinion, the middle is very draggy.  I bought the last one quite a while ago (as in, probably about a year ago). And I don’t think anything really important happens until about 200 pages in. The style of writing pisses me off, and I’ve been having to really push myself to read thirty or forty pages at a time. Also, the obsession with eating. Now, it’s one of the crucial points  about what makes the MC what he is, but I got that the first time it happened; I don’t need it to happen every third page. It’s more likely I’ll finish this one than Nader’s, but that’s only because there are fewer pages left to read and because in this one, stuff actually *happens*.

I miss being near a bookstore. When I lived in my apartment, I could walk half a dozen blocks to the bookstore, or fewer to the used bookstore. And yeah, I can order books online if I want, but it’s not the same *thing*. I don’t typically browse for books when I’m online. I go to look at a specific book and order it or not. I can spend a good hour or two (or more) just browsing a bookstore. Being as carless as I am and trapped in the middle of suburbia, it’s just not an option.

Back to slogging away at The Kindly Ones

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The Importance of Keeping Scraps

So, I’ve been working on Burning Eden since I wrote the first draft of it in NaNoWriMo 2007. It was 50,000 words long and was missing the entire current middle section. I rewrote it at some point in 2008 and extended it to about 85-90k. Several people have read that version and most of them find my MC fairly unlikeable, most of the other characters not nearly fleshed out enough, even though they like the idea. So it occurred to me a while ago to switch it from third to first. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with writing things in first person, but I figured that I’d give it a go. As that particular scrap of work indicates, it didn’t even hit the 10k mark before being abandoned (that said, it’s more likely because I got bored of it and excited about something new; I can be a bit flighty at times).

Fast-forward to now-ish. Yes, some of my projects go a very long period of being ignored.  I decided that of all of my projects, this and one other are the most feasible first-novel projects. (the other being the 50k fantasy piece I wrote this past November). I’ve had both documents open on my computer for quite a while, and neither of them have been progressing very well. I attribute this to the lethargy of being unemployed, and it’s really a habit I’m trying to break myself of.

So I’ve finally settled on working on Burning Eden. The single major problem that I’ve wrestled with since its conception is that something really interesting happens to the MC when he’s five, and then nothing of any real note happens until he’s 16 or so. I already had a prologue (that I wasn’t willing to drop, still am not), so I couldn’t shift the first event forwards to a prologue.

In this most current rewrite, I’d just minimized the (really pretty important) event to a couple of paragraphs and started the story when the MC was 16. But it bothered me to no end, and today when I was in the shower, I made the executive decision to go back to the scrap of first person that I’d written at least a year ago and see if I could copy-paste some of that into the current version, as I decided that the first bit really was important and didn’t want to have to rewrite it if I had a salvageable piece already tucked away somewhere.

Lo and behold, not only is it perfectly viable as first-draft material, but I didn’t remember that I’d found a semi-decent way of working around the decade-long gap in the story. So I’ve learned my lesson today: no matter how silly or going-nowhere a piece of draft is, it makes more sense to keep it hidden away somewhere rather than deleting it. You never know how useful it might be in the future.

(In other, totally unrelated news, I might be getting a job soon – final interview on March 20!)

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