Skip to content

Literary Glance: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

When it comes to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, everybody knows about the “worship” scene.  I mean, everybody who’s read (part of) the novel knows about it.  It’s within the first few pages of the book, and if you’ve never read American Gods, I’m not going to explain it to you, but the scene stands out.

My youngest daughter walked in on my wife while she was watching the first episode of American Gods on television, and of course it was during the “worship” scene.  My youngest daughter usually walks around the house staring at her phone while wearing headphones, but this time she was well aware of her surroundings and saw exactly what was going on in the worship scene on the TV.  Now she’s traumatized.

When I checked out the novel American Gods from the library and opened the book, the pages turned right away to the “worship” scene.  That told me everything I needed to know about the book’s popularity.  Maybe American Gods is well-written.  Maybe it has a fascinating blend of old mythology with today’s culture.  Maybe the unique plot holds readers’ attentions.  But a lot of people like the “worship” scene and probably hope there’s more scenes like that.

A couple years ago, one of my daughters had to read The Graveyard Book, also by Neil Gaiman.  She liked it but not enough to go out and read more of his books.  I’m glad because she might have grabbed American Gods without me knowing about it and turned straight to the “worship” scene.

There’s a lot more to American Gods than just the “worship” scene, but even if you don’t read the whole book (or watch the whole television series), at least the “worship” scene is memorable.  Nobody forgets the “worship” scene.

*****

What do you think?  Were you traumatized by the “worship” scene, or do you know anybody who has been?  What else is great about American Gods?

The Literary Rants: James Patterson and Bill Clinton Team Up

(image via wikimedia)  The world wants to know…

… whose name will be first on the book cover. (image via wikimedia)

The big James Patterson news this month is that he and former U.S. President Bill Clinton are teaming up to write a political thriller called The President Is Missing.

If you read books, it’s almost impossible to escape James Patterson. When you walk into a bookstore, you can’t miss the shelves devoted exclusively to Patterson novels.   Several of my coworkers read different James Patterson novels at any given time.  One coworker even listens to James Patterson audio books.  A few years ago, my daughters read Patterson’s YA novels, even though I had asked them not to.

If James Patterson put his name on a phone book, readers would buy it.  They might get mad after they realized it was a phone book, but most of them would continue reading his books anyway.  He has a lot of fans, and they’re loyal.

Bill Clinton fans are also loyal, so he’s a perfect choice for a Patterson coauthor.  I might not exactly be a Bill Clinton fan, but I at least recognize his name, and I can’t say that about most of James Patterson’s coauthors.  Clinton could write a novel by himself, and it would probably become a best seller, even if it wasn’t any good.  He doesn’t need James Patterson to become a best-selling novelist.

It’s almost ironic that Bill Clinton is co-writing a political thriller.  25 years ago, he was the inspiration behind a political novel, Primary Colors by Anonymous, who turned out to be a journalist named Joe Klein.  If I’d been Bill Clinton, I might have been ticked off that a journalist used insider information to make a lot of money off of a fictionalized account of my life.   Now it’s Bill Clinton (and James Patterson) who can make a lot of money off a (maybe) (fictionalized) account of Bill Clinton’s life.

Conservatives are making fun of the name of the book The President is Missing, but I won’t relay any of those jokes because I’m not a political blogger.  Liberals will say that conservatives don’t read books, but I know that’s not true.  I know both liberals AND conservatives who read a lot of books and sometimes they even… read… the… same… books.

But they usually don’t read the same books about politics.

Bill Clinton isn’t the only politician who writes fiction.  His 1990’s nemesis Newt Gingrich has written a bunch of Civil War novels, and I think those sell fairly well, so a former politician doesn’t need James Patterson to be successful.  But James Patterson guarantees a certain level of success that a former politician can’t reach on his/her own.

For a fiction author, it has to be risky teaming up with a politician to write a book.  I’m sure liberals didn’t want to give their kids a children’s book coauthored by James Patterson and Bill O’Reilly (who’s considered by some to be conservative).  Conservatives won’t want to read a political thriller coauthored by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.  If one political side decides to boycott an author, that author can take that as a badge of honor to make money from the other political side.  If both conservatives AND liberals boycott an author, then he/she has to rely on the nonpolitical, and I’m not sure how many of us are left.

Since James Patterson writes so many books, he takes a lot of short cuts that most authors can’t get away with.  Sometimes I write posts that highlight his sloppy writing.  I know my own writing can be sloppy too, but I don’t get paid.  Plus, my mistakes are my own.  I just have the feeling when I read his books that he hasn’t put a lot of effort into them.  At least I put a lot of effort into my mistakes.

James Patterson had better not get sloppy while co-writing Bill Clinton’s novel.  If there’s anybody who is precise with language, it’s Bill Clinton, who once said “…it depends upon what the meaning of is is.”

When you coauthor with a guy who’ll argue about the definition of is, you had better get all your words right.

Literary Glance: The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline has lots of very well-written sentences in it.  I mention this because it’s tough to find books with lots of well-written sentences.

Maybe I need to be clear about what I think a well-written sentence is.  All I mean is that well-written sentences have interesting phrases and don’t get long-winded, like some literary authors tend to get.  Some literary authors sound like they’re trying to impress readers with big words or long rambling phrases, and then the author’s thoughts become hard to follow.

I’m not saying most published books have poorly-written sentences.  A lot of books just tell the story with a bit of imagery or an occasional metaphor.  Every sentence in The Girls so far has something interesting in it, especially if you read it from a writer’s point-of-view.  I mean “every” in a hyperbolic way.  Not “every” sentence is great, but a lot of them are pretty good.

Sometimes I’m a contrarian.  If somebody else told me that I should read a book because the sentences were well-written or interesting or descriptive, I’d automatically start looking for flaws in those sentences.  The analogies are illogical, I might say.  The similes are too imprecise.  Or maybe they’re too precise.  I can’t help it.  Maybe it’s a character flaw.

I also mistakenly assume that other people share my character flaws.  Just because I automatically get critical of something that’s popular doesn’t mean everybody else is like that.  Maybe other people can appreciate well-written sentences after a critic points them out.  Maybe other readers aren’t as quick as I am to find flaws in a popular bestselling novel.  I guess I’ll find out.

Here’s a pretty good example of well-written sentences from the second page of the book:

They (the three girls) were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.  Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name.  Women reaching for their boyfriends’ hands. The sun spiked through the trees, like always- the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets- but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world.  Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.

Some books start off strong, but then the quality of writing fades as the novels continue.  Just to make sure this didn’t happen with The Girls, I flipped through the rest of book.  I don’t know what happens in The Girls yet, but the sentences are still interesting.

p. 132- As soon as I heard the car back out of the garage, I got out of bed. The house was mine again, and though I expected relief, there was some sadness, too. Sasha and Julian were aimed at another adventure. Clicking back into the momentum of the larger world.  I’d recede in their minds- the middle-aged woman in a forgotten house- just a mental footnote getting smaller and smaller as their real life took over.

p. 204- I was scanning the contents of my mother’s refrigerator, the glass jars mortared with dried spills. The fumes of cruciferous vegetables roiling in plastic bags. Nothing to eat, as usual.

I had to look up cruciferous.

p. 319- Already my grief was doubling, absence my only context. Suzanne had left me, for good. A frictionless fall, the shock of a missing step.

These were just sentences on random pages that I turned to.  Despite the high quality of sentences, though, it might take me awhile to finish reading it.  The story hasn’t gripped me yet (I don’t summarize plots because you can get that on almost any book website), and I have some other books I want to read before I commit.  That’s not meant as an insult.  No matter how long I take to finish reading The Girls, I’ll think of it as a well-written novel.

*****

What do you think?  Do you see these kinds of sentences as well-written, or am I missing something?  Do you get hypercritical of popular books?  Will you finish a book if it’s well-written but you’re not interested in the story?

Literary Glance: The Nix by Nathan Hill

I’m not a fan of present tense usage in fiction, but it’s tough for me to say why.  When I tried explaining this in a writer’s group over 20 years ago, I couldn’t find the right words.  I ended up saying something like “I just don’t like present tense.”

Another writer in the group said that was a stupid reason and then he called me an a-hole.  Maybe I didn’t have a good reason for not liking present tense, and maybe I was an a-hole, but if I was an a-hole back then, it wasn’t because I didn’t like present tense in fiction.

This would have been a great opportunity in our writer’s group to discuss whether present tense adds anything to fiction (or even what makes a person an a-hole), but somebody quickly changed the subject back to the book we were discussing (which I don’t remember… it was some 1990’s literary stuff.  It might have been The Shipping News.  The guy who called me an a-hole loved The Shipping News, but I don’t remember if The Shipping News used present tense)

A couple weeks later, the guy who called me an a-hole had a flat tire after our meeting and I wouldn’t let him use my jack.

Okay, I’ll admit, at that moment, I was being an a-hole.

*****

There’s a reason I’m thinking about present tense and whether or not I’m an a-hole.  I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of The Nix by Nathan Hill.  It seems like a good book.  The short prologue was great.  The first chapter is good, but huge sections of the book are written in the present tense.  That still bugs me a little bit.

For example, the first chapter takes place in 2011, but it’s written in the present tense.  The portions of the book that take place in 1988 are written in the past tense.  To me, the tense change is unnecessary.  If anything, the tense change is distracting.  Maybe that’s what the author wants. I might be missing something.

Here’s how Part One opens:

The headline appears one afternoon on several websites almost simultaneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!

Television picks it up moments later, bumping into programming as the anchor looks gravely into the camera and says,”…

I know this isn’t a large enough sample size to judge the writing style for an entire novel (I’m trying to keep my blog posts short), but I don’t think the book would lose anything by being in the past tense when the author was clear this is supposed to take place in 2011.

Here’s how the sample would look/sound in the past tense:

The headline appeared one afternoon on several websites almost simultaneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!

Television picked it up moments later, bumping into programming as the anchor looked gravely into the camera and said,”…

Maybe I’m wrong, but using the present tense doesn’t make this excerpt any better.  In fact, if this section had been written in the past tense, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the author’s writing style.  To me, the present tense should be used sparingly, and it wasn’t necessary just to remind the readers that we’re in a different section of the book.

I have to admit, I haven’t finished The Nix yet.  Maybe the tense changes make more sense once the entire book is finished.  If so, hopefully I’ll figure it out.  Sometimes I don’t pick up all the literary cues.

I’m probably going to keep reading The Nix, and I mean that as a compliment.  I don’t finish reading many books.  I sample many but finish few.  If I told that guy in my old writer’s group that I didn’t finish most books that I started, he’d probably call me an a-hole again.

*****

What do you think?  Is present tense overused in fiction?  Am I an a-hole for not articulating a good reason for not liking present tense in fiction?  Was I an a-hole for not helping out the guy with the flat tire after he called me an a-hole?

The Poetry Professor Who Stole My Ex-Girlfriend

Just two days after she broke up with me, my ex-girlfriend was spotted holding hands with the poetry professor. (image via wikimedia)

I’m not sure if the guy was really a professor.  He wrote poetry and taught poetry in a class I took my sophomore year at the State University 30 years ago, and even though I was a lousy poet, he encouraged my effort and even highlighted to the class a humorous piece that I wrote.  As a teacher of poetry, he was pretty good.  I give him credit for that.

But a couple years after I took his class (I got an A), he stole my ex-girlfriend.

It was my senior year, long after the incident at the University Library  (which I’ll finally get around to explaining).  People still remembered what had happened, but they rarely associated me with it anymore.

My ex-girlfriend was a junior, and we had been dating since the summer.  She was extroverted but liked to read, so we could talk about a bunch of stuff.  When I told her that I didn’t like Interview with the Vampire and I couldn’t articulate a good reason (I might have said “It just sucks.”), she broke up with me.  There were some other issues too.  I had to work a lot, I had already set up a job interview several states away, and it was autumn so I wanted to watch a lot of football and she thought that was beneath her/us.  Interview with the Vampire was the final straw.

Just a couple days later, I heard that she had been seen several times on campus holding hands in public with the poetry professor.  I was floored.  I had expected us to get back together after she’d had a few days to be mad at me.  That type of reconciliation had already happened once during our times together.  I was pretty sure it was going to happen again.  Then the poetry professor had to go and ruin it.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the poetry professor had been a nice-looking smooth guy.  Instead, he was old, bald with a scraggly beard, and wore ratty jeans, and all my friends gave me grief about how I’d been replaced by a guy who looked like Shel Silverstein.

A couple weeks after I heard about the poet and my ex-girlfriend, I noticed him standing next to me while we were both taking care of business in a public men’s bathroom on campus.  Since men aren’t supposed to make eye contact in that situation, I wasn’t sure it was him until I stepped back.  At that point, you’re always supposed to look upward (without making eye contact) anyway, and that’s when I knew.

We both washed our hands at different sinks at the same time too.  Yeah, the guy had been my poetry instructor a couple years earlier, but I wasn’t sure he recognized me or if he knew I was his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend.  He avoided eye contact, so he probably knew I was somebody and wasn’t sure what to say.

I wanted to ask him how he had managed to get involved with my ex-girlfriend so quickly after we had broken up.  Two days was fast.  They had to have had something going on before she broke up with me.  There was no way I could ask that, though, and I probably was better off not knowing.

On the other hand, I couldn’t walk out of there without saying something.  If he knew who I was (and I sensed that he did), then he’d tell my ex-girlfriend that we’d met face-to-face in a bathroom and I hadn’t said anything to him.  I couldn’t let that happen.

“I read your book,” I said.

I could tell that startled him.  At the end of his course, he had given all of his students a copy of his poetry collection.  He didn’t do it to brag.  He said he didn’t want any of his students to feel compelled to read it.  Since it wasn’t forced on me, I had read it when there wasn’t any football on.  It was a thin paperback, and I hadn’t understood all his poetry (I don’t think in metaphors), but a lot of it was comparing/contrasting where he was from to our campus, which was almost a completely different side of American culture.

“What did you think?” he asked after a little hesitation.

I don’t remember the exact words.  I thought about telling him that his poetry sucked, but I didn’t.  Instead, I said that his poetry wasn’t what I expected.  I told him that most people on campus who move here from other parts of the country brag about where they came from.  He could describe the shortcomings of his home and our campus without being mean or condescending.  He had never made fun of people in class, but he was good at gently mockery in his poetry.

He didn’t say anything, so I inwardly panicked.  Did I misinterpret his book?  Was it even the right book? He was going to tell my ex-girlfriend that I was too stupid to read his poetry.

“Did I get it wrong?” I asked.  “It was two years ago.  Maybe I was thinking of a different book.”  Somehow I had made an awkward situation even more uncomfortable.  I have that talent.

“No, you’re right,” he said.  “I’m always surprised when students read my book.”

“I know I’m not the only one who’s read it,” I said, which was true, and I wasn’t even thinking about my ex-girlfriend.  I had discussed the book with another student a long time ago, and that might have been the only reason I remembered the poetry enough to mention it.

As we left the bathroom, I told the poetry professor that I was getting a job in another state after the semester and we might not run into each other again.  He wished me good luck, and we shook hands, and that was it.  Nothing dramatic.

Months later, I went through a spiteful phase where I kicked myself for not telling the poetry professor that his book sucked when I’d had the chance.  That would have been perfect retribution; at least that’s what I thought at the time.

Now, I’m glad that I didn’t do that.  You should never tell a poet that his or her poetry sucks.  It’s too emotionally damaging to the poet.  As retribution, it’s too harsh, even for the poet who stole your ex-girlfriend.

 

Literary Glance: The Fix by David Baldacci

When I read from a writer’s point of view, the strangest things can stand out.

The Fix by David Baldacci starts off with a fast-paced scene that juggles the actions of three seemingly random characters.  You know something bad is going to happen to one or more of them because it’s a thriller and good things rarely happen to characters at the beginning of a thriller.  The only character whose thoughts are revealed is Amos Decker, and his name was listed in the book’s blurb, so I figured he would survive the upcoming horrific event, whatever it was.

All three random characters seem to be going to work in Washington DC when a guy named Derbey (we don’t know much about him) shoots a woman named Berkshire (we don’t know much about her either) in the back of the head in public.  Here is how the murder is described as Decker watches.  It’s kind of graphic, but not really:

Berkshire jerked forward as the round slammed into the back of her head at an upward angle.  It blew out her medulla, pierced her brainpan, banged like a pinball off her skull, and exited through her nose, leaving a wound three times the size of the entry due to the bullet’s built-up wall of kinetic energy.  She fell forward onto the pavement, her face mostly obliterated, the concrete tatted with her blood.

To me, this short paragraph stood out from the rest of the chapter for a couple reasons.  First of all, some of the details seem unnecessary to an action scene. The author uses specific anatomical terms such as medulla and brainpan.  I think I used to know what a medulla was, but I’ve forgotten, and a brainpan has something to do with the brain.

I’m not against specific (or clinical) details in a thriller.  I’m not even against this paragraph.  To me, this was just an odd description of a murder when the rest of the scene was moving at a fast pace.  The next scene a couple pages later was the autopsy, and all the details about bullet entry and exit could have been put in dialogue as the body was being discussed.

Also, the second sentence in the excerpt (the one describing the bullet’s path) has four verbs in it and then a participial phrase.  I know it was a participial phrase because I looked it up.  I don’t usually gripe about participial phrases in sentences.  My point is that a sentence with one subject followed by four verbs and a participial phrase is most likely going to make a sentence feel awkward.  Maybe I’m wrong because David Baldacci keeps getting books published, and I have a blog that a few people read.

Anyway, I thought that the four-verb plus participial phrase sentence was unnecessary and maybe confusing, so I rewrote the action to get rid of the clinical details and maybe speed up the action.

Before Decker could respond, Derbey shot Berkshire in the back of the head and ran.  Berkshire fell to the pavement, the concrete tatted with her blood.

My version isn’t perfect.  I’m just saying that Decker was watching the action unfold, and it would have happened quickly, so his point-of-view would not have anything to do with the medulla or brainpans or pinballs.

Also, the bullet banging “like a pinball off her skull” might not be the best phrase to use.  The bullet could have ricocheted a little, but I see a pinball as bouncing off wall to wall, and I’m not sure that’s the visual the author intended.  Does the bullet bang off the skull more than once?  Maybe I’m being too literal with a simile.

I don’t mean this as criticism (though it might sound critical).  As an aspiring writer, sometimes I read a book NOT to see what happens, but to see how an author writes what happens.  Unfortunately, that means I can get stuck on whether a bullet bangs “like a pinball” or words like medulla and brainpan should be used in a different scene.

It’s usually easier just to read a book as a reader.

*****

What do you think?  Do you ever read books from a writer’s point of view?  If so, what types of things do you notice?

Literary Glance: Golden Prey by John Sandford

Beginning a book is easy, but…

With so many books available today, it’s tough to choose which ones to read and what to finish.  A discriminating reader doesn’t want to waste time with the wrong book, and it doesn’t take much to set off a warning that sends us to other books.

While sampling the bestselling mystery novel Golden Prey by John Sandford, I got thrown off by a minor detail in the opening scene:

The flagstones underfoot were cool but dry; not much rain this year.  The moon was up high and bright over the garden wall, and he could hear, faintly, from well off in the distance, the stuttering midnight sound of Rihanna singing “Work.”  He opened the shed door, turned on the light, sat down in the office chair, fired up the joint, and looked at the guitar he was building.

The paragraph is fairly bland with adjectives like cool, dry, high, and bright, which is typical for a thriller.  But then the author mentions Rihanna and her song “Work.”  I’m over 50 years old, and the only reason I know anything about Rihanna and “Work” is because I have two daughters, one of which plays a bunch of pop music, so I know a bunch of today’s references that I probably shouldn’t know.

If I didn’t have kids, I might not have known who Rihanna is and I would have been confused.  Who is this Rihanna and why is she singing faintly “from well off in the distance”?  And why isn’t this singing character ever mentioned again in the chapter?

Plus, I think this song is kind of annoying, and once the author mentioned it, the tune got stuck in my head, which ticked me off and kept me from wanting to read further.  I didn’t want to blame the book, though.  It wasn’t Garvin Poole’s fault that somebody else was listening to Rihanna.  Since Garvin Poole is the character in the first scene, there’s a strong possibility that he’s about to get killed off.  I don’t want to criticize a guy just before he gets killed off in the murder mystery.

Either that, or Garvin Poole is the villain.  If he’s the villain, then I have no sympathy if he has to tolerate annoying music in the background.

Just so you know, it’s not just Rihanna.  Almost every song from today is annoying.  Before I go into an old fart rant about how today’s music is horrible, I’ll remember that most stuff played on the radio in the 1970s was pretty bad too.  The cool classic rock that we remember fondly often wasn’t played on the top 40 stations, so kids back then listened to pop schlock too.  And it’s almost all been forgotten.

I’m pretty sure that Rihanna’s music will be forgotten in 30 years.  That’s not meant as an insult.  Most pop culture disappears quickly.  And the only reason I mention it is because if people decide to read Golden Prey 30 years from now, they might be confused about who Rihanna is and why she’s singing “from well off in the distance.”  That’s the danger of putting a pop culture reference in a novel.

People might actually read Golden Prey in 30 years.  I remember reading a couple Prey novels in the early 1990s.  That was almost 30 years ago.  I had no idea at the time it was going to be such a long series.  Maybe Sandford will still be writing mysteries 30 years from now too.

I’m not a published author and I don’t know much about publishing, but if I’d be careful about which pop culture references I put in my books.  I wouldn’t want to make my book feel outdated after just a few years.  Maybe instead of saying Rihanna, the author could have mentioned the character hearing a pop song faintly “from well off in the distance.”

Yeah, that’s what I’d do.  But I’m not a published author.

*****

What do you think?  Does it throw you off as a reader to see a pop culture reference in a novel?  As a writer, would you put a current pop culture reference in your stories?

Literary Glance: The Murder House by James Patterson

A coworker listens to audio books without headphones, and it usually doesn’t cause problems.  She keeps the volume down, and she turns it off during conversations and meetings, so nobody cares.  At least, I’ve never heard anybody else mention it in a negative way.

One day this week I stood next to her in the elevator and realized an explicit sex scene was quietly being described in her audio book.  It wasn’t just a sex scene.  It was a poorly written sex scene. At least I thought it was, but maybe it was a good sex scene and I was reacting in an immature way.  I wanted to laugh, but I knew that she would ask what I was laughing about, and I didn’t want to admit that I was eavesdropping on a sex scene from an audio book.

With sexual harassment charges getting thrown around, I didn’t want anything that could be misinterpreted.  True, she was the one listening to a sex scene, but if I made her uncomfortable by mentioning it, the fault could be seen as mine, so I kept my mouth shut.

Later that day, when I saw her, I asked, “What book are you listening to?”

The Murder House,” she said cheerfully.  “You know who James Patterson is?”

Zoo was really good,” I said in my monotone voice.  And that was enough for her.

Once I had the title, I looked up The Murder House and found a sex scene in the first chapter, and now I’m wondering if I was wrong for almost laughing inappropriately.

Just so you know, everything in parenthesis is my thoughts as I read the scene.

WARNING: OFFENSIVE MATERIAL ALERT!!!!

 

SECOND WARNING!!!  THIS MIGHT BE PRETTY BAD!!!

 

THIRD WARNING!!!! I’VE WARNED YOU (which is more than James Patterson and his coauthor did)!!!

*****

The electricity between them is palpable (cliché).  His big (lazy adjective) rough hands (well, if he has big hands…) trace the outline of her dress, cup her impressive (lazy adjective) breasts, run through her silky (lazy adjective) hair, as she lets out gentle moans (in this scene, only the woman moans) and works the zipper on his blue (do we care?) jeans.

It continues a few sentences later.

Noah carries Paige into the family room (with his zipper undone?).  He lays her down on the rug (there’s no comfortable furniture?) and rips her dress open (very inconsiderate of him), buttons flying (What is she going to wear when she leaves?), and brings his mouth to her breasts (I’ve heard they were impressive), then slides down to… (and I’ll stop here).

*****

I admit, it’s tough to write an adult scene.  I’ve tried it once, and I’m not sure I’ll do it again.  To me, the worst part of this scene, the breaking point, the part where I almost laughed inappropriately, was the “button’s flying” line.

I always thought ripping buttons off a woman’s dress was poor etiquette.  Every woman I’ve known (in that way) would have ended the romantic encounter at the moment I ripped the buttons off and made them fly.  At least, I think they would have ended the encounter.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe women like their clothing being destroyed, and I’ve been too stupid to know that.

I think I’m reasonably intelligent and empathetic, but I have gaps in my knowledge.  Have I missed this?  Have I gone through half a century without realizing that women like to see their buttons fly?  If I’ve missed this, why did I have to learn this from a James Patterson novel?

I’ll be really depressed if I’m wrong about this.  I would ask my coworker, but I’d probably get sued for sexual harassment.

*****

What do you think?  Is it appropriate to listen to a sex scene in public?  And was I wrong about the buttons flying?

Literary Glance: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood decades ago because of a college girlfriend who recommended it.  If I remember correctly, she wasn’t exactly my girlfriend until after I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Maybe the book was a litmus test for me, but if it was, I passed, at least for a few weeks.

I didn’t really enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale back then because I never like books that I’m forced to read.  Plus, I remember a slow pace and a bunch of sentences that I had to read more than once.  Now that The Handmaid’s Tale is making a comeback (it’s a television series now), I thought I’d go back and see if my original perception of the novel was right.

The Handmaid’s Tale starts off simple enough, with a Chapter I titled “Night.”  And then the first few sentences:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Good opening sentence.  I get it so far, and I had to read it only one time.

The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone.

Here’s where I had to start thinking while I was reading.  I wondered if Atwood thought her readers wouldn’t understand that the stripes and circles were for the basketball court and that’s why she mentioned “the games that were formerly played there” and basketball nets when she could have just said the hoops had no nets.  I watched a lot of basketball in college when I originally read this.

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.

I had to read this sentence more than once.  It started off okay, and then there were a bunch of commas and girls in skirts and miniskirts and pants and earrings.  I’ll give myself credit, though; I figured it out the second time I read it.

Dances would have been held here; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

I had to look up the word palimpsest.  And I had to read this sentence more than once.  That’s two sentences in a row.  If I have to read that next sentence more than once, I’m going to have to rethink rereading this book.

There was old sex in the room…

… yeah, and I’m going to stop right there.  I have to be in the right mood to read prose like this, and I’m not in it right now.

30 years ago when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I had incentive to finish it.

Besides The Handmaid’s Tale, I read The Mists of Avalon and later on Interview with the Vampire for that girlfriend.  When I told her that I didn’t care for Interview with the Vampire, she broke up with me and shacked up with a professor a couple days later.  I bet he told her he thought Interview with the Vampire was awesome.

I always thought being a professor was scam, and that incident just confirmed it.  It still chaps my hide.  He wasn’t even a young professor.  He was an old guy who dressed in ratty jeans and looked like Shel Silverstein.  I felt cheated.  This girlfriend told me she distrusted the patriarchy, and then she got attached to an old dude authority figure.

I could have been a professor, but I chose not to.   Maybe I couldn’t have been a poetry professor, but I could have been a professor of something.

*****

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books where you have to read a bunch of sentences more than once?  If you could be a professor, what would you be a professor of?

The Literary Rants: Bill O’Reilly and Sexual Harassment

(image via wikimedia)

Bill O’Reilly has had a rough couple weeks.  He just lost his show on Fox News.  A bunch of women are accusing him of sexual harassment.  Late night comics are making fun of him.  Advertisers want nothing to do with him.  In other words, it’s the perfect time to write another book!

The common joke is that he’s going to title his next book Killing O’Reilly.  That’s too easy, but O’Reilly set himself up for it with book titles like Killing Jesus and Killing Kennedy.

Normally I stay out of celebrity/political stuff, and I don’t want to pile on O’Reilly when everybody else is creaming him, but Bill O’Reilly sells a lot of books.  As long as people keep buying his books, some publisher will still be willing to put those books out.  And I’m curious if these charges will affect his book sales at all.

After covering news and politics for so long, Bill O’Reilly should have known that sexual harassment is nothing to mess with.  I take it so seriously that I make sure that I’m never alone with a woman at work.  I keep doors open.  I don’t make comments about appearances.  I don’t have lunches or dinners with them.  When I talk to women, I always look directly at their eyes and foreheads and that’s it.  I’m an expert on women’s foreheads.

I’m not in a position of power (plus I’m not rich, famous, or attractive), so maybe I’m not the type of guy who gets accused, but there are a lot of rich, powerful, and famous people out there who never get accused of sexual harassment, so if it happens a lot to one guy, it makes me wonder. When it comes to the work environment, there are things you can do to make sure you don’t get accused of sexual harassment (besides paying women not to say anything).

I’ve probably just jinxed myself.  Great.

My issue with Bill O’Reilly (besides the possible sexual harassment thing) as a celebrity author is that celebrity authors often don’t write their own books.  To me, it’s a dishonest way to make money.  True, it’s also a victimless way to make extra money.  Nobody really loses from it.  The celebrity makes money from the book.  The unknown coauthor makes money that he or she otherwise wouldn’t have made.  The publishers make money.  And fans of the celebrity get pleasure from reading (or at least buying) the book.  Nobody really cares if the celebrity really wrote the book.  Even so, it seems dishonest to me.

Now that O’Reilly no longer has a show on Fox, he can take this opportunity to write a book all by himself.   If he wrote his Killing O’Reilly book, he wouldn’t need a coauthor for research or anything like that (except for maybe a lawyer to strike out everything that’s incriminating).

I rarely watched O’Reillys show, but his meltdown video  from his Inside Edition days is a family favorite.  My daughters have never watched The O’Reilly Factor either, but they’ve seen his “We’ll do it live!!!” meltdown several times, and it never gets old.  That’s how people under the age of 20 (or 30?) know who Bill O’Reilly is.  And whenever somebody in my family gets frustrated with a task, we shout: “I’ll do it live!!!”

Bill O’Reilly’s first step to potential media recovery is the podcast, which makes sense because he has a built-in following and people want to hear his side of the story.  But he might not want to talk too much about the sexual harassment thing, not if he wants to write his bestselling book about it.  He could still use a podcast to talk politics and do interviews and it might look a lot like his old show.

The other good thing about a podcast is he has complete control over it, with no corporate execs looking over his shoulder or bungling crews forcing him into a meltdown.  In other words, Bill O’Reilly can “do it live!!!!” whenever he wants.  If we learned anything from O’Reilly’s Inside Edition meltdown, it’s that he likes to “do it live!!!”