Archive

Tag Archives: good characters

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s also the book I chose to give out on World Book Night, which is today/tonight, April 23.

World Book Night is something I only found out about a couple of months ago, and I signed up to be a Giver. I picked a book title, and was sent 20 special copies of it. These titles are to be handed out today to people who are light or non-readers. We’re supposed to choose a book we loved, so that we can hand it to someone and say: Here, read this, I loved it and hope you do too.

And so, today, tonight, I’ll go out and give these copies away to whoever will take one (I also gave some copies to coworkers to help hand out, too).

In order to be able to talk this book up, I started to re-read it. I knew I liked it but I couldn’t remember exactly why.

I do now, though. As the New York Times put it, it’s “a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus.”

I agree with that. The story itself is cool, but the writing is, too. Mr. Diaz writes like you’d imagine an energetic storyteller would talk – for one chapter. Then he switches voices, telling the story from another character’s point-of-view. He sprinkles in Dominican slang words throughout the text, and you don’t always know exactly what the word means, but you still get it.

I was looking up a couple of the words, just to get an exact meaning, and found this site, which provides definitions and annotations on things said/written in the book. I like some of the things on here – the annotations cover comic book character descriptions, in case you’re not familiar with Galactus, as well as historical figures and events, and translations. It’s a handy resource to have as you read the book, should you want to really get into the nitty gritty. And it’s worth it – there’s a lot there. But I say, save that for the second reading. Get through it once and enjoy the words, the story, the language.

There’s something to enjoying the feeling of a foreign word, even if you don’t know exactly what it means, maybe because you don’t know exactly what it means. Much of the joy of reading a book is that you can imagine whatever you can – for the characters, how they sound, what they look like, what they mean. Having words that you don’t know the meaning of here and there doesn’t mean you won’t get the idea, and they allow you to focus more on the idea of the sentence, to put a little bit of your own meaning into it. That allows you to make the book yours.

I think that’s the definition of good literature – on one level, the story is good, told well, and characters are fully-developed. You know these people. On another level, it leaves enough OUT of the story, some part of it, that you can put yourself into it, you-at-this-moment fill the holes, create the final story in your head. And it’s those works of writing that you can revisit in 5, 10, 25 years, and the story will still be good, but for some reason, it’ll be different. Because you  are different. What more can you ask for from anything? Be it a story, a parent, a lover – a good one allows you to grow, grows with you, still remains true to itself.

Why do people often shy away from short stories? Our attention spans have apparently gotten shorter, and many people looking for summer reading books made their picks based on length–-the shorter the better. So why has there not been a boom in collections of short stories, where we can pick and choose the length of time we want to dedicate to a set of characters?

Perhaps because we like to be friends with our characters. We need to slowly get to know the characters we’ll root for, cry over, laugh with (and at)… We don’t trust fast friends who overshare, and we don’t trust characters whose lives we jump in and out of, seeing them at their best or worst times.

But. Short stories don’t ask to be our friends. They show us glimpses into lives, many times our own. The brief, intense nature of a short story can be overwhelming, and there is often no closure for those feelings. We are left to deal with them on our own.

Because of that, short stories can resonate, creating stronger feelings over time and upon re-reading. They are they are vignettes of a time that tends to be timeless. The more you reflect on that story, the longer and deeper it seems to grow.

I recently read Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. A friend and I were casting around for a book we could each read and then maybe talk about.. if we felt like it. We had tried to do The Pale King by David Foster Wallace a while back, but couldn’t get very far – DFW’s writing just being too tedious in this one. So I chose Both Ways, mainly because I liked the title. It reminds me of something by Raymond Carver, a great short story writer and creator of characters.

How can you not love a short story with a Beatles' song for a title?

I enjoyed Meloy’s collection of stories, and my friend did, too. He emailed me his thoughts about the book, and I really enjoyed HIS comments-–he agreed to let me share them with you. Thanks, Jonathan McNicol!

I just finished the first story in this book with the title with too many words, and I wanted to say a couple things about it. Things I liked and such.

I learned a word! Chinook. That’s fun, learning a word. According to Wikipedia, in the more Frenchish areas of the ‘interior west’ of the country, it’s pronounced more like ‘shinook.’

I liked when Beth asks Chet his name, and he says what it is, and then she, “nodded, as if that were the right answer.” That’s a nice touch.

There’s a part where they’re in the café, and it’s when Chet’s brought his horse, and the waitress comes out and asks if it’s his horse and if the cook can give it water and stuff. It struck me that in that little conversation, the waitress actually says things, things that go between quotation marks and everything, while Chet doesn’t. He’s just paraphrased that whole time, his words are turned into actions. That’s interesting.

I wonder how often writers do that and I don’t notice it. It’s interesting the way doing that makes the whole thing, the whole story more from Chet’s point of view. It’s like he’s not listening when he’s talking ’cause he knows what he means.

There’s a sentence near the end,

He gave them each another coffee canful of grain, which slid yellow over itself into their buckets.

‘Slid yellow.’ Just from the words, that’s basically meaningless. How does something slide yellowly?

But it’s perfect, and you picture it instantly, and you picture way more than she says there—sunlight and crisp dusty air and wrinkled glass in the windows. There’s this certain kind of detachment there; it’s like those Magic Eye things, the way you have to look past them to see them. That’s the way that is. ‘Slid yellow over itself.’ That’s good.

 And the thing that really hit me is the parts about the girlie magazines. The way Chet gets to know them better than he’d ever know a person and how in the new magazines, the girls are strangers.

That whole idea made me think… Ya know how there are things that you think about so much that you forget that you think about them? This is a thing like that for me: One thing that makes me sad about being a grownup is how limitless things are. Like, I can do whatever I want. I have all this stuff.

When you’re little, you just have the few things you have, and you don’t have a ton of choices about what you can do with your day. So, for me anyway, that meant that I got to really know all of my crap. Every square millimeter of the surfaces of things. All the little imperfections. The little raised plastic letters on the bottoms of things that announce the appropriate patent numbers and made-ins and whatever else. The way everything smaller than my hand tasted. The way it felt it my mouth. The way my tongue renders things as so much larger than they feel in my hand or look to my eyes.

I feel almost bad about the stuff I have now. Like I’ll never get to know it well enough. Like I’m doing it a disservice, being a bad friend to it. Like if I’m gonna keep up my end of these relationships, I need to just put my DVD player in my mouth and get it over with.

Jonathan certainly has a way with words, and so do most short story writers… maybe with some encouragement, my friend will turn out some short stories of his own. In the meantime, I’d highly recommend Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, as well as stories by Raymond Carver. I’ve heard Flannery O’ Connor is another great short story writer. And, I’ve started The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway… I’ve read one of his novels, and didn’t fall in love with him as a writer, but I’m giving his short stories a go. So far: one down, and it was pretty good.

Any short story authors, collections, tales you’d recommend? Any good reflections caused by short stories?

ALSO: If you care to join an online book group with me, Jonathan and a few others, we’re happy to have you!  Search Facebook for the Shoreline Book Group and join us! We’re reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.