Selling Soap – The Books I Read

I knew I’d have a lot of time on my hands on set, so with bleary eyes I surveyed the small stack of books awaiting my attention. On this first day of shooting More Booze Than Blood by Sean Meagher joined The Art of the Novel, a collection of essays by Milan Kundera, in my backpack.

On the metro I slowly digested some of Kundera’s “Sixty-three Words”. That essay is dedicated to defining some of the words he uses and the particular meaning they have in the context of his work; it was inspired by horrific experiences Kundera has had when The Joke was translated from the original Czech. To quote Kundera directly: “In France, the translator rewrote the novel by ornamenting my style. In England, the publisher cut out all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, changed the order of the parts, recomposed the novel.” Subsequent translations were based on one of these two, not the original Czech. It reminded me of my eariler episode in which I mention the copy editor for “Memory of a Thing that Never Was.” That was a very clean manuscript, but only if you accept my rambling style. A good translator has to have the courage to defy the traditions of the language to be stylistically faithful to the original work. To paraphrase Kundera: Critic: “That’s not how we say it in our language!” Kundera: “That’s not how we say it in Czech, either!”

I’ll discuss the substance of Kundera’s essays elsewhere, I think, or just practice dropping them into conversations when I’m playing the ex-pat writer game.

Once on location, dressed, and painted, I settled into “hurry up and wait” mode. I pulled out More Booze than Blood. I really, really liked this book. Meagher writes with balls, giving us a cast of characters broken, flawed, and unlikeable in every way, and makes us like them. We cringe and hope and want to smack them and say “Just stop it!” As the reader you see the waste, the futility, as everything slides towards violence, and they see it too. What unites these people is a sense that life is futile, stupid, insane, but there’s no sense worrying about it, because it’s not going to change no matter what you do. I was dog-tired on the metro home that night, but I knew I wasn’t going to go to bed until I finished the book. I almost missed my metro stop, I was so wrapped up. (Note that this book contains some sex, some violence, and a lot of profanity.)

Having said that, the subject of a copy editor comes up again. This book is self-published, and could really have benefitted from a good edit. Many times I got bumped out of the narrative by a distracting grammatical error. (Lay and lie are pretty much backwards throughout.) It’s a pity, but with a little attention from a friendly editor this book would be deserving of a lot of notice. If you like writing with balls, go out and buy lots of copies of this book so the next one can get the support it needs. If errors like that will prevent you from enjoying the work, buy lots of copies, don’t read them, and hope for a reprint later.

Day two of the shoot I didn’t pack the laptop, so I knew I would need even more reading material. I had no idea how right I was, as the day stretched on and on. I packed two more titles from my birthday plunder, Something Grand by John Flynn and Into the Forest by Jean Hegelund. I finished the Kundera on the van to the location, but there are parts of that I will need to go over again.

Something Grand is not in the style of Chandler, as I previously asserted. It is a series of shorts stories, most revolving around the theme of the hardships of the working poor, the impossibility of getting ahead and the passing of demons from one generation to the next. Many of the stories are very good, a couple of them hauntingly so, but others sag under the weight of too much imagery and metaphor — too much salad and not enough meat. I think there’s a school of thought these days that, much like you can’t overhop a beer, you can’t use too much imagery. There’s something for me to learn in that. There is a time for rich imagery and grand metaphor, but at some point you have to climb down into the muck with the poor SOB’s you’ve forced unwillingly into existence and make them work.

Into the Forest is, as I mentioned in a previous episode (after reading only the first paragraph), one of those books where you read the first paragraph and know you are in good hands. It is a very hopeful book about the end of western civilization, an eloquent back-to-nature piece that brings you to the mystical reconnection of mankind and nature gradually, and along the way touches on all that makes humanity grand and frail. I must confess there were parts that got too sentimental for me, but I’m not really a sentimental guy, you know? There are characters in my own writing who are far more sentimental than I am, but if there weren’t, my stories would be bleak, indeed.

Finally, having exhausted all the words I had at my disposal, I accepted from another extra a series of essays by James Baldwin, and read an interesting piece on his relationship with Norman Mailer. When he talked about his reaction when Mailer announced he was going to run for the mayor of New York, it had a strange echo with something Kundera said to me just that morning — that any public life the writer exposes undermines the work, and doing that is irresponsible to the art. Neither of them quite said it that way, and Baldwin might accuse me of putting words in his mouth, but in any case it is something for a blogger/writer to consider.

Consider, consider, consider… OK, done! On with the blog! Baldwin and Kundera would both consider me a hack anyway, though I prefer “storyteller”. (We’ll have to see if The Fish can change that.)

So, what have you read lately? There has been some of this theme stirring in the comments lately, but now I want to hear what you’ve finished reading lately and what you thought of it. What do you plan to read next and why? Am I being too shameless pandering for comments?

NOTE: If you use the above Amazon link to buy the book I get a kickback. It really was a good story.

2 thoughts on “Selling Soap – The Books I Read

  1. Still working through “Churchill”, grazing on “The Closers” by Micheal Connelly and “World Class Contracting.”

    /the good, the bad, and the ugly, if you will

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