Even though I said right from the beginning that I wanted some flexibility in a reading challenge, September was the month where I just couldn’t get my selections sorted and keep my reading on track, and so my scorecard only shows three books completed over four weeks.
Most of my lost reading time was due to this little guy during the first week of the month. But I lucked out when I picked up Salman Rushdie’s memoir and Lisa Cron’s writing book. They’re just the kind of treats – great writing, thrilling adventure, juicy details, motivational – that make you fall in love with reading (and writing) all over again. They helped me feel renewed for October.
Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of September’s selections.
Standard disclosure: I bought all three books. Two are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.
3 down, 11 to go!
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
It would be comforting to believe that 1989 was a simpler, less violent time, but, as Salman Rushdie reminds us in his memoir, the “terrorism-by-fatwa” sponsored by Iran in the wake of publication of The Satanic Verses left many people, in both Europe and the Muslim world, dead and injured – even if it, thankfully, failed to destroy its primary target.
The past is prologue, Rushdie quotes Shakespeare in his epigraph, and he likens his troubles to the first crow that appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” before the beating wings of thousands cast a frightening shadow over the world.
“Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance,” Rushdie writes. “It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know…A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent.”
The memoir unfolds chronologically, detailing the historical origin of “the satanic verses” debate within Islam and the ideas that became the novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie notes, a bit miffed, that when the book first came out, it received some indifferent reviews and was dissed as a story you couldn’t follow past page 15.
Then came the death warrant from a dying Ayatollah Khomeini, urging the faithful to make the author (and anyone else responsible for publishing and selling the book) pay. The book found its place in history.
Thanks to a dedicated protection squad, loyal friends and a good sense of humor, Rushdie survived nine long years as a hunted man. He shares the claustrophobia and deep frustration of being essentially under house arrest despite being the victim rather than the perpetrator of terrorism.
It’s a long book, but reads like a political thriller, partly because it’s told in third person.
Along the way, we learn about the efforts of free speech groups, booksellers, organizations dedicated to intellectual freedom, nations and individuals to alternately shame Iran or rally moderates in the Iranian government to remove the bounty on his head.
“He wanted to speak, too,” he says, “for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not…a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. As ‘respect for Islam,’ which was fear of Islamist violence cloaked in Tartuffe-like hypocrisy, gained legitimacy in the West, the cancer of cultural relativism had begun to eat away at the rich multicultures of the modern world…”
Gradually, he begins to emerge, often in the United States, where he was allowed to move freely, without bodyguards tracing his every step.
Rushdie’s writing on his attempts “to defend the book against the burners of books” is eloquent throughout. In a 633-page memoir, though, there were a few areas that needed editing.
It’s interesting that the media characterization Rushdie repeatedly strained against was the idea that he is a less than pleasant person. He defends himself, then provides picayune details that highlight the inadequacy of others, including close friends.
There’s the moment where Ian McEwan defends him in the press, writing about standing in his kitchen with Rushdie, hearing a news story about a group condemning the author, and gets the group’s name wrong. Understandably, Rushdie was taking copious notes about his ordeal. It doesn’t mean everyone did. Calling out such a minor error is just picky.
There are scenes that exist only because a bold-faced name appears in them. One, also involving McEwan, describes two separate visits to get takeaway with the Atonement author and seems to be there only because Rushdie wants to insult the Thai proprietor’s English pronunciation. (Yes, he does the whole insulting Ls-pronounced-as-Rs bit.)
Petty and pointless, these vignettes diminish his dignity when his arguments for tolerance are otherwise so profoundly moving. It’s in these latter moments where the writing takes wing – not like the harbinger crow of “The Birds” – but with a soaring appeal to great ideals:
“We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom.”
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
I was three-quarters of the way through Chapter 1 of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story when I realized what wasn’t working with a short story I’ve been stuck on for years. I filled up my white board three times with notes, a new outline, and a stronger sense of what’s at stake for my protagonist. When I was done, it was clear new scenes had to be written and that my opening had to go.
As Cron notes, a story needs to grab readers from the very first line and make them feel there’s something important about to happen: “This means that whether it’s an actual event unfolding or we meet the protagonist in the midst of an internal quandary or there’s merely a hint that something’s slightly ‘off’ on the first page, there has to be a ball already in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself.”
I was hardly through the first chapter, but it put me back on track – got me sitting down to write my story again!
I’ve mentioned I’m a little leery of spending more time reading books about writing than doing the writing itself. But Wired for Story is more like the reference book you keep at your desk to remind you of what you need to focus on than the book you read for inspiration and then let gather dust on your shelf.
I’d taken a class several years ago with Lisa Cron at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and found her an astute reader. What a pleasure to discover she’s a great writer, too. With concepts from neuroscience and psychology, she provides tremendous insight into how our brains are hard-wired for storytelling – “what, specifically, the brain is hungry for in every story it encounters” – and what that means for writers who want to hook the reader with memorable characters, coherent themes, exciting conflicts, and endings that feel earned.
Cron, who has worked in publishing, and as an agent, producer and story consultant in the film and TV industries, is especially good at breaking down the key components of stories we know, such as Gone With the Wind and “Sullivan’s Travels,” to provide specific examples. Checkpoints at the end of each chapter serve as user guides for revision.
She also makes sense of the rewrite process and is wonderfully encouraging about the payoff of perseverance – “Butt in chair. Every day. No excuses. Ever.” – which ultimately enables the writer’s vision to be experienced by readers.
This is one writing book that’s a great read and a valuable deskside reference.
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
I ordered this novel from the U.K. (it publishes in the U.S. in February) because it’s been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and the story, about inventing a teleportation device during the rise of the Third Reich, sounded intriguing. Instead it left me baffled. How did this poorly plotted, tediously paced story ever find its way into the hands of Booker judges, much less make the list?
It’s 1931 Berlin when Beauman introduces us to Egon Loeser, whose not-so-subtle surname describes his protagonist’s trajectory in love, career, friendship and life. There’s nothing driving this character. Even his use of drugs like cocaine and ketamine doesn’t fire him up.
There’s an ingénue, “It Girl” Adele Hitler (no relation; like bad punk rock, it’s there purely for shock value, not clarity or insight), whom he chases from Berlin to Paris to Pasadena, which is supposed to propel the plot, but only detours it. At one point, Loeser is blackmailed by a spy who nevertheless gives him six months to come up with the goods. Six months? Way to build tension!
There is a section entitled Four Endings, which are more like appendices, providing minor additional details about various characters and taking the plot back to 1691 and forward to 1947, 1962 and 19310 – a long, long way to go for very little.
Job-wise, Loeser is mildly interested in recreating a device by a famous Italian set designer, Lavicini, that was meant to teleport actors from one part of the stage to another and instead wound up destroying a theater and apparently taking the lives of dozens of audience members.
This sounds like it’s going to fulfill the promise of the title, but the potential for mystery is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up while the reader trudges through almost a decade of boring details before Loeser begins to do anything remotely related to wooing Adele or investigating the possibility of a modern teleportation device. During long years of inaction, he willfully ignores what’s happening to friends back in Berlin, particularly his Jewish mentor, and ultimately he and the book shrug off the massive destruction of lives brought about by the Nazis.
At one point, when the plot transports us to the past, we hear Lavicini tell his biographer: “…the hero of a successful play must be a man the audience would be happy to invite into their homes for supper. Otherwise no one will want to sit through the whole thing. Your ‘hero’ who abandons his friends to their deaths – he doesn’t sound like that sort of man.”
Like many of the characters in Chuck Palahniuk’s books, Beauman seems deliberate in his invention of a protagonist the reader despises (under interrogation, a government official asks, “Mr. Loeser, one last question. Why are you such a total prick all the time?”). Which begs the question: Why would anyone, writer or reader, spend their precious time on such a character?