“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs. As a result, most of the essays are directed at other college writing teachers, particularly those teaching undergraduates. This reduces the book’s value for the working writer.

Second, while all of the authors are published, many are award winners or New York Times best-sellers, and a few are big names in literary fiction (John Barth, Alberto Ríos, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley), because of their literary backgrounds, they pay scant attention to the genres besides “literary.” Further, the essayists assume that readers will be familiar with the predominantly literary stories and novels they refer to. Academics likely are, but writers in other-than-literary genres may not be, which makes the references less valuable.

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The Lady of the Lake Review

3-star rating

“The Lady of the Lake” is Sir Walter Scott’s epic poetic tale of two, or possibly three, men who seek the hand of Ellen Douglas, the beautiful daughter of a Scottish nobleman (?). She lives with her father and retainers on a remote island on Loch Katrine, a lake in southwestern Scotland. One of the men, Malcolm Graeme, has been wooing her for a while; the second, James Fitz-James, is presented as a hunter who discovers Ellen and the isle after getting lost while chasing a deer; and the possible third suitor, Roderick Dhu, is the chief of a rebellious Scottish clan.

Conflict ensues between the men, of course, while at the same time Dhu is making trouble for the English king at Stirling Castle, not far away. The end of the tale is more or less happy (depending on your point of view), with the rebellious clan defeated, the hunter’s true identity revealed, and the long-time suitor winning the fair maiden’s hand.

I’m not used to reading long-form poetry. The combination of the sing-songy iambic quadrameter of the rhyming paired couplets that make up most of the poem, the turns of phrase needed to make the words fit into the lines, and the archaic and foreign terms, made the story hard for me to follow. For that reason, it’s hard for me to give a fair or complete evaluation of the poem, which is one of Scott’s most popular.

On top of that, my copy is a 1915 book for students. (That explains the odd cover image above.) The pages are fragile, the binding failing, and many pages at the end, containing explanatory notes and instructions for those students, are missing. I’m not even sure which side of my family originally owned the book. There’s no student name written inside it—although whoever had it certainly scribbled all over many of the pages—and it was printed the year my late mother was born. Perhaps if I’d had a more complete edition that was in better shape, I would have been able to concentrate more on the story.

“The Lady of the Lake” is considered a classic, so if long-form poetry written in the 1800s is your thing, I suppose this is one you have to check out.

“Seven Arrows” Review

4-star rating

Hyemeyohsts Storm’s 1972 book Seven Arrows is a very unusual work, a cross between historical fiction and an exegesis of the religious beliefs of the Native American people we now think of as being the tribes of the northern high plains of the United States, specifically the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow. Storm takes pains at the beginning to provide the names these tribes used for themselves: the Painted Arrow, the Brother People, and the Little Black Eagle. (These names may not be in the same order as the first list.) The only book in my experience that similarly combines a historical record with religious philosophy is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Seven Arrows weaves the two together, while the Bible’s historical parts are largely in the Old Testament.

Seven Arrows begins with a series of short pieces which introduce the reader to essential religious concepts: the Medicine Wheel, the Circle, and the Seven Arrows. “Medicine,” in the usage of the Native peoples, means far more than the limited way it’s used among whitepeople, as Storm calls those of European descent. I admit I have not even begun to really grasp the full depth and meaning of the term.

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Russka Review

3-star rating
Russka novel cover

I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, Edward Rutherfurd’s 760 page doorstop of a novel has its good points, but ultimately I came away unsatisfied.

“Ambitious” is a good way to describe the effort. After all, in order to tell “The Novel of Russia,” as the book is subtitled, Rutherfurd chose to cover the period from 180 A.D. to 1990. To make this Michener-esque task manageable, he follows generations of the Bobrov family (and a few others) through each major historical period of this vast country. Of course, that means that he also ends up with a vast, Game of Thrones-size cast. Generally, he handles this well: the major characters are all well developed and distinctive, which is no small task. More on the characters later.

The book starts slowly, and by the end of the first chapter, about a small village located at the edge of the Russian steppe, and the future site of one of two towns named Russka, I almost put the book down. I simply wasn’t interested in the characters or their subsistence farming life. The quality of the writing was just good enough for me to be willing to continue.

For the next several chapters, Rutherfurd follows the development of Russia through the eras of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church. He clearly did a lot of research on these eras, and wants to make sure readers see the full result of all of it. I could have done with less. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, who was just as terrible as Ivan in his own ways, get their turns on stage.

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“Close Enough for Jazz” Review

4-star rating
"Close Enough for Jazz" cover

When last we left our hero, author Steven Smith, he had just escaped the fell clutches of a tyrannical Staff Sergeant for the idyllic life of a trumpeter in the Kitzingen Area Band.

And at first, life was indeed idyllic. The band was, in a word, untouchable. No morning PT (physical training), no onerous details, no inspections. All the band members had to do was practice and play, welcoming the 5th Artillery Division’s Commanding General when he arrived on post each morning, conducting a “rouser march” to get the other soldiers’ day going, and playing gigs off post to keep up good relations with the local community.

The band had been formed at the General’s insistence, and one of the junior members of the band had grown up next door to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm. That caused more than a little excitement at Flak Kaserne when a card from the White House arrived, congratulating the band member on his latest birthday.

Life was good. Until it wasn’t.

Like in any military organization, long-time members depart when their tours of duty are up, and new ones come in. The band, being a small unit, was more susceptible than most to the changes in personality those departures and arrivals bring. As the original band members departed without being replaced right away, the band’s performance suffered. After one particularly poor unit parade, the General threatened to disband the band.

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“The Everything Screenwriting Book” Review

Of all the books out there on screenwriting, this on one not to waste your money on.

"The Everything Screenwriting Book" cover

Because it was published in 2003, it contains a lot of unavoidable “errors.” For example, author Robert Pollock could not have foreseen the death of the video rental store or the rise of video streaming or social media. We can forgive and ignore these and other things and move on to the more serious problems with the book.

First, it’s easy to wonder why Pollock was hired to write the book in the first place. He has only one screenplay that was turned into a movie to his credit, a generally panned 1981 film called “Loophole.” At the time the book was written, he was a professor at a community college in Connecticut, and while he “had connections” with the Hollywood film industry, they do not appear to have been deep. (In a made-for-Hollywood irony, the book was published eight days after the author’s death.)

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“Faeries” Review

5-star rating

I don’t remember when I got this book, probably not many years after its 1978 publication, yet until recently I’d hardly ever cracked it, much less sat down to read it. My loss, absolutely.

The book has two components: the artwork and the prose. The prose is surprisingly academic, very readable but a straight-up discussion of the various stories and legends about the many varieties of faeries. Most come from the British Isles, but there are a few from northwestern Europe: Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Authors Brian Froud and Alan Lee relate some of these legends without themselves becoming too mystical or too analytical. They even kindly provide pronunciation guides to the Gaelic terms sprinkled throughout the work. (If you’ve never learned Gaelic, you wouldn’t know that “sidhe” is pronounced “shee.”)

The real strength of the book, however is Froud’s and Lee’s artwork. There are nearly 200 pen, pencil, and charcoal drawings and watercolor paintings, and many are simply spectacular. While a few of the beings portrayed are beautiful (but dangerous) and a few are whimsical, many are grotesque, even disturbing, yet the artists make each distinct.

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“Single Striper” Review

3-star rating
"Single Striper" book  cover

Having read some of Steve Smith’s previous work, I was looking forward to a wild and wacky account of the first part of his two year hitch in the post-Korean War Army of the late 1950s. That expectation was only partially met.

My overall impression is that Smith was deeply disappointed in this part of his Army experience. Rather than a time of adventure and challenge leading to wisdom and maturity, he found it to be a time of boredom and drudgery, interrupted by pointless meanness, sometimes bordering on cruelty. It’s not clear when he adopted the draftee’s cynical distrust of officers, sergeants, and “lifers” generally—that is, the soldiers who were serving beyond their initial enlistment—but it’s clear that he did.

That’s not to say that this distrust was unearned. In his view, most of the officers were distant, lazy, and cared about little except advancing their careers. The non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were often worse: petty tyrants and martinets, intent only on making the lives of the draftees under them as miserable as possible. There were a few who did not live down to this low standard, but they were the exceptions.

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“The Elements of Grammar for Writers” Review

3-star rating

This little book is outdated in some ways, yet it has certain charms and retains some value.

Written in 8 BG (“Before Google”)—that is, in 1990, when BG still referred to the Brothers Gibb, personal computers were a new thing, and the internet was mostly a gleam in technologists’ eyes—it’s amusing to see references to hand-written student papers and reminders to make sure you use a new typewriter ribbon when getting a paper ready to turn in.

It was also clearly written primarily for college student writers facing the near-future prospect of having to write papers for employers, not just professors. And it relies on memorization of some rules (only a few, mercifully) and tables and appendices in which the reader can look up grammatical terms and irregular verb forms, because, of course, at the time there was no Google to ask and get 3,578,227 possible answers in 0.0286 seconds.

These quaint antiquities aside, this little book’s first five chapters, and parts of the sixth, do have some value. For example, Chapter 1 kindly clarified for me exactly what a comma splice is, and Chapter 2 reminded me that what I’ve been calling a gerund (like “calling” just now) is actually a verbal, not a verb. Well, dang!

Professors Funk, McMahan, and Day, the authors of this little tome, are still at it. The 9th edition of this book’s replacement is available on Amazon, but at nearly $50 a copy, I have a hard time believing it has the same value as this one, also available on Amazon for a mere $4.59.

“A Heap o’ Livin'” Review

3-star rating
"A Heap o' Livin'" book cover

This 1916 book could just have easily have been titled “A Heap o’ Preachin’” or “A Heap o’ Homilies,” given its content. But author Edgar A. Guest knew his audience, and wrote for them.

His readers from over 100 years ago expected the simple ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump rhythm patterns of the poems they may have read as children, and Guest delivered. They expected the simple rhyme patterns (such as ababcdcd or aabbccdd) of those same poems, and Guest used them.

They expected poems on the themes that resonated with them—honesty; integrity; humility; generosity; the values of hard work and work for its own sake; the joys of boyhood, manhood, and fatherhood; faith in a Creator and His ultimate plan; patriotism; bearing up without complaint in the face of life’s trials; and so on—and that’s what he wrote.

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