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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Started 1/26, finished 1/28.

This is a beautiful little story about a big idea: that every person in the world has their own Personal Legend. The thing that people would write about if you achieved all you ever dreamed of achieving. I remember having lunch with my father about ten years ago, where we sat at KFC and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. He told me to look around.

"You see that chair? The cheap upholstry on it? The paper cups on the table here? The salt packets?"


"Well, every single thing you see in this place, or in any place, really, came from the same thing. Someone decided that "something" would be Their Thing. It takes a lot of engineering, wrangling, and sweat just to make a sugar packet, and you can bet that the good part of someone's life went into making sure it sat on this table right now. It's the same with everything in here."

It's something you know instinctually, but until you look at it in the right way, you just don't grok it. That's the Personal Legend. And that day, I realized that I would be a novelist. My guidance counselor told me that in the 11th grade, and I had been sitting on it long enough. I sat on it for 7 more years after that, but you get the idea.

The Alchemist brought this memory back to me, and the moment I put it down I wrote 1,400 words in 45 minutes. It was pretty good, because I shouldn't have waited as long as I did to turn my thoughts into a coherent narrative. It was a good feeling, and, if Mr. Coelho's reading, I have you to thank. I have 2 more books of his to read before the year is out, so here's hoping they help drive me toward my own Personal Legend, the thing "the universe will conspire to help [me] achieve".

Now, on another note:Our own Pamela once told me that my writing style (specifically in "The Calligrapher") reminded her of Coelho, and that the story reminded her of the Alchemist.

Holy crap.

If I had just read The Alchemist, then went and read "The Calligrapher", I would think that I was just about plagiarising. Sure, the boy in Coelho's work has a name, and mine doesn't, but then I analyzed the situation a bit more: the shepherd's name, Santiago, is only mentioned once. In the entire book.

In the first sentence.

That's not where the similarity ends, either. The Alchemist is a fable, where people don't talk like they talk in real life: the characters talk as though every one of them consults a poet before they open their mouths. That was one of my goals as well. When I wrote "The Calligrapher" I wanted it to feel as though it had been translated from a story that was written a thousand years ago, and The Alchemist has a very similar feel.

It's spooky.

Enough about that. I wrote mine never having heard of Coelho, and, well, if the comparison is made, I honestly don't have much to complain about. I could only be so lucky (as long as I'm not being called unoriginal).

Book #5 will be Lullaby, by Chuck Palahniuk



Friday, January 27, 2006

Blood Memory, by Greg Iles

Book #3, Blood Memory: started 1/18, finished 1/25

I've been struggling with where to fit Greg Iles in terms of genre, or in terms of comparisons to other writers. The best comparison I can make would be to filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh, the director of sex, lies and videotape, Traffic, and Kafka, but also Ocean's 11 and Erin Brockovich. It's not that they're great artists who start small, but then work on mainstream topics, it's that the work is unabashedly mainstream. It's so mainstream and so high quality that, hopefully, it will raise the bar.

I'm a slow reader, and at 764 pages I expected to be finished in a month, but I finished in 6 days. Now, that in itself doesn't say much (I finished the Da Vinci Code in 3 days and have nothing but contempt for Dan Brown's writing style), but this was different. He made these characters live in my head, and he made me live through their lives.

The story is about a Cat Ferry, a "forensic odontologist" from Natchez, MI, who must solve a serial murder case in New Orleans. Several men have been found shot to death, but some antemortem bite marks spark her involvement. The crime scenes spur panic attacks and blackouts, and combined with her alcoholism and chaotic relationship with a married NOPD detective, she is quickly removed from the case. She goes home, and the panic attacks become flashbacks. Hijinks ensue.

I haven't done much reading about repressed memories and child abuse, but from what little I have read, the victims are made to be saints and angels, who have spent their lives in fear. What makes Blood Memory different is just how deeply flawed Cat Ferry turns out to be. She drinks even though she is pregnant. She violates all criminal investigation protocols for selfish reasons. She has no qualms about being termed "homewrecker". She is so flawed that, until you learn her history, it is difficult to sympathize with her. So when the history is revealed, the tragedy is made even more horrific when contrasted with these flaws. The abuse has destroyed her, and she is only barely capable of redemption.

Set against her character is the story itself, which is excellent. Sometimes it stretches a little thin and there are some convenient coincidences. I was able to forgive them, because this is probably the first plot-driven book I've read where the characters are what keeps me turning the pages.

It has also brought some unpleasantness to my family memories--Cat Ferry's aunt, Ann Hilgard, is a long-term sufferer of abuse, and her memories were not repressed at all. This person IS my mother's sister. As I read the description of her I went cold, my mouth was dry, and I had to put it down and talk to my wife about it to calm me down. I've looked into 2 or 3 case studies, and now I know that what I always thought was loopy or erratic behavior in her was most likely a symptom of something much, much worse. Nearly everyone on that side of the family is dead now, so I'm not going to shake any trees, but it has the potential to make me cancel or put one of my projects on hold: that is the story of one of my male relatives who once had a promising career in sports, and who spent his life thereafter working with children.

So I'm going to have to go get Iles' back catalogue now. This is the fourth of his that I've read, and like the other three it manages to thrill, instruct, hypnotize, and make me feel a profound catharsis.

I met Iles a few weeks ago at a signing in Austin. If he ever comes to your town, go see him. He doesn't read out loud, he just starts talking. He's honest, open, and cynical. Everything a writer needs to be, right? I spoke to him for about 5 minutes about "the writing life" and he was candid about his opinions--a) it was much easier to be a writer 15 years ago when he started (when he was exactly my age, we figured out), b) the printed book is a dinosaur that will die before he does, but that c) if you really do it well, you will make it.

What had me skipping on clouds was when he asked me what I'm working on. I told him briefly about the story, and his eyes lit up. He said, "man, that the kind of thing that sells. That sounds like Arturo Perez-Reverte or something."

It was small, but big things have small beginnings. I'm ecstatic.

Book #4 will be The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.



Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I'm trying something new this year: I'm going to read 25 books. Somehow, compared to the number of books there are in the world, 25 seems small. But I'm a slow reader and I have a big backlog, so here it is. 2 per month, with one extra to fit in somewhere. I won't write reviews of all of them (do you really need another review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? That was #1), but I will review the really good ones as faithfully as I can.

Book #2: Of Love and Other Demons: started 1/16, finished 1/18

This has turned out to be a combination of book review and reflection of my own foibles. I apologize if it rambles, but it feels good to get it out a bit, even if it's confined to 1s and 0s.

This was my first Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and I think it's about time to go get One Hundred Years of Solitude and the rest of his catalogue.

It's funny--the "rule" I concern myself with the most in all my writing (and in my critiques of other writers) is "show don't tell". People in my writing groups get sick of hearing me say it, but I keep saying it. Normally when I come across a case of telling, I get what amounts to a prickly feeling, and a sense of loss. This "rule" exists because when someone tells, they miss the opportunity to convey something, to make the reader feel the appropriate emotion. Catharsis becomes impossible, empathy is blunted, and the connection between the reader and the writer suffers.

Most of the time, that is.

Marquez mixes telling and showing, to a point where, in an amateur's hands, the novel would never come together. I still don't know how he did it, but what he seemed to be doing was saying, "I will tell you about the general facts in this story, of the years wasted and the lives devastated, because we have all wasted years and devastated our own lives. I will show you the smallest hair rising on the priest's arm as he sees his forbidden lover's smile, because that is the only thing worth feeling." The book was a clinic on how to focus the reader's emotions like a laser beam on "the point", while still telling a story where the plot matters.

The book was also tragic and devastating. And probably controversial, though somehow I managed to look past that. It takes place in the XVIII c, on a crippled and dying coastal estate near the Yucatan peninsula. It's the story of a 12-year-old girl who is bitten by a rabid dog, and though she develops no symptoms, she is determined to be possessed by demons, and an exorcism is ordered. The priest in charge of the ritual is in the midst of a crisis of faith, and his life changes when he meets the girl. I don't want to say more... the plot is secondary.

When I finished the book I felt more than ever that this was the kind of book I want to write. My languishing Door Carver character was reflected in this priest's crisis of faith, and perhaps all I need to help him through it is to be 78 years old when I continue the story. Right now I'm concerned about research, wood-carving materials, calligraphic styles used in the 14th century, and "how the economy worked back then". Marquez wouldn't have thought twice about these problems. Those aren't the point of my story or any stories I want to tell, so I should just grow up and say, more or less, "he used a thin instrument create the leaf's fine webbing", right?

Still, as I sit here, not working, I can't let them go. It's probably youth. I'm going to fight past it. Or maybe if I read more Marquez and less Dan Brown, I'll finally break past my block and concentrate on separating what's good from what sucks.

When I went to sleep last night I didn't dream about the priest's elaborate staging of the exorcism. If I had written the book I would have gone into exhaustive detail about it, and you wouldn't have dreamt about that either. What I dreamt of is the love I lost when I was 12 - the look in her eyes as she didn't know what was happening to her, the heart pounding in my chest as I felt like something was supposed to happen after the kiss, but I didn't know what. Marquez telegraphed that into my brain with the skill of a surgeon. The rest was just the filler he didn't care about, but which sells most books on the NYT list and makes said books mostly meaningless.

I'm melancholy now, but I have hope. I hope that I can remember and convey as well at 32 what he does at nearly 90. I hope that with mentors like him around and still writing, I can still learn some new tricks from old dogs. I hope that I can be fight through this and concentrate on what matters most.

Book #3 will be Blood Memory by Greg Iles.


25 books this year

That's my goal. I'll post the reviews of the good ones.