Comfort Reading

While waiting for Simone Darling No. 2 to percolate (this time she’ll be somewhere cold, brrr), I thought I might dip my toes into the waters of Key West again for the re-release of Laurence Shames’ The Naked Detective. It should be obvious by now that I’m a big fan of Shames (see post below), so it’s no great surprise that I loved this new old book all over again.

In fact, once you’ve found your feet in Shames’ Key West world it is hard to see the island in the same light as before. Instead, you expect the place to be teeming with retired Mafia mobsters, rheumy Chihuahuas, runaway virgins, and other assorted misfits, just like Shames tells it. Shames transforms Key West takes into a very specific fictional world that is instantly recognizable as his creation and therefore predictable (in a good way)–and this is why his books make it onto my list of comfort reading, i.e., books I like to read over and over again.

Like comfort food, comfort reading is different for everyone, but books that create a fictional world that is somewhat–but not too much–removed from real life are the most common comfort reads. In a thread on mumsnet.com called “What’s your comfort book?” it is striking how many people nominate authors or a series by a specific author as their comfort reads, rather than one-off titles.

Yes, the nominated books might be riddled with murder, mystery, and adventure, but in a “cozy” kind of way, rather than a gritty, scarily realistic way–hence the preponderance of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers on the list. Patricia Cornwall et al need not apply. (Not to say there aren’t any hardy souls who’d consider the Kay Scarpetta series a comforting read, but I don’t know any.) Not surprisingly, childhood favourites get a big mention, and, again, these are mostly series, or authors writing in a consistent voice.

Here is my unscientific and statistically dubious list of the most commonly nominated comfort fiction:

  • Jane Austen
  • Enid Blyton
  • Barbara Pym
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Marian Keyes
  • Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Agatha Christie
  • P. G. Wodehouse
  • Harry Potter
  • Jane Eyre
  • Winnie the Pooh 
  • James Herriot

Yes, Winnie the Pooh and Enid Blyton make regular appearances on adults’ lists.

On an interesting side-note, a recent study suggests that children transitioning from one school to another choose to read books below their actual reading level, usually books they have read and re-read before: Comfort reading in times of stress. If this holds true, my son will be reading The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren until he starts high school . . .

My personal comfort fiction list includes Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer. And Jane Austen, of course. Wait, and John Mortimer, and David Lodge, and . . . okay, I’ll stop now. What are your favourites?

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (Quickie Book Review)

This past Thanksgiving holiday I was put out of action by a dodgy knee while my nearest and dearest slithered down the slopes. It was not all bad, because I got the chance to read Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (with nary an interruption—bliss!).  Drawing on neuroscience, Lisa Cron contends that our brains crave story, because story is what helps us survive and thrive. A good story engages our brain in a pleasurable and rewarding way, and therefore we want more of it.

So what makes a story good?

Lots of things, but—surprisingly—none of them have to do with beautiful writing.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t write as well as possible, but beautifully wrought sentences are certainly not required to hook the reader. Just think of some of the bestsellers you have read over the years where the writing is more prosaic than poetic. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code comes to mind, and apparently it’s the same with E L James’ Shades of Gray (I haven’t read it yet), and no doubt with a slew of other bestselling novels. What makes these books irresistible to the reader is not gorgeous writing, but—repeat with me—a good story.

This may come as a shock to anyone going through an MFA program that emphasizes style, often at the expense of story.  But without a good story, beautiful is boring. Just ask the MFA student Cron mentions who was reduced to tears by the mind-numbingly boring books she had to read for her courses. I’m sure most of us have read, or were forced to read, books that didn’t have much to say by way of story, but said it beautifully anyway. Story is what drives the whole thing, and unless you get it right your reader may well end up crying with boredom, no matter how many hours you labored to find the perfect metaphor to describe the exact sensation of a grape bursting in your mouth.

So what is story? Well, it’s not plot. Plot is simply what happens.

Lisa Cron argues that a book can still tell a riveting story without much of a plot (i.e. without much external action).  Story is how what happens affects your protagonist. Everything that happens, every detail you include, must in some way affect the protagonist.  Which brings me to another problem area she identifies: description that does not, in some essential way, pertain to the protagonist’s story.

Think about it: which parts of a novel do you tend to skim over? Exactly. Lengthy descriptions of weather, countryside, interiors, battles, clothes. Descriptions that are there just for the sake of it. Just because a spring meadow is colorful doesn’t mean the reader wants to know about every single flower growing in it—unless the flower relates to the protagonist and has a role in propelling the story. Nor do readers care about arcane architectural flourishes—unless, again, they affect the protagonist’s story (think Harry Potter).

Very few writers (including myself) can resist the temptation to describe. At the very least, we feel obliged to drop in serviceable, though mostly pointless, descriptions, because it’s the “writerly” thing to do. Obviously, since a novel doesn’t take place in empty space (and even there you’d be surrounded by stars and planets), it’s important to know where the action occurs. But a brief nod to the surroundings is usually enough to clue in the reader—unless the environment affects the character and becomes part of the story, as it does in novels like Heart of Darkness, The Name of the Rose, and Harry Potter. 

Wired for Story not only leads you through all the elements that make a story compelling, but also provides convenient check lists at the end of each chapter. It’s almost like having an editor look over your shoulder! This is one of the few writing books worth reading again and again: before, during, and after your writing project. Lisa Cron presents her advice with wit and the wisdom of many years of teaching, agenting, and consulting—which makes her book not only useful, but  also a pleasure to read.

If you are serious about learning or reminding yourself about what makes a good story, do yourself a favor and read her book. You may even end up writing a story,  beautifully.

Check our Lisa Cron’s webpage for more information.

 

Free book promotion on November 2 and 3

On November 2 and 3, my mystery novel Spitting Image  will be available for free on Kindle. Just in time for the weekend!

Mystery and mayhem in the Florida Keys! Fans of Evanovich and Hiaasen: check out Spitting Image.

Here’s the in-a-nutshell:

Simone Darling has an empty bank account, a boring boyfriend, and an irrational fear of Miami, capital of vice and crime. No way will she set foot in Florida, not even to visit her mother. But when her mother offers her a quick job for a lot of $$$$, she relents and to travels to Florida, her boyfriend Kevin in tow.

First stop: Miami. All seems normal—until Simone finds a dead man inside her mother’s fridge. A man who looks like Kevin.  Too late she realizes she has walked into a trap where Kevin is the bait. Can Simone rescue her boyfriend before ruthless drug smugglers and the FBI get to him?

Troubles follow hard and fast, as Simone and Kevin embark on a hilarious adventure from Miami to Key West, while trying to rekindle their passion for each other and survive a family reunion marked by murder and mayhem.

Lost in translation? The tricky business of translating children’s books

This summer my son discovered the Findus and Pettson series by the Swedish writer and illustrator Sven Nordqvist. On the face of it the series is an unlikely hit with kids: the main characters are a lonely old man and his cat—not exactly bestselling children’s fodder, especially not in the age of Disney and Pixar. But bestselling it is: the books have been translated into many languages and have sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Findus and Pettson are superstars in Sweden, very popular in much of Europe, but not well known in America. Why?

Old man Pettson is not magical or super-heroic, or special in any sense. He has no twinkle in his eye. No, he is well over sixty, frumpy and occasionally grumpy, drinks coffee by the gallon, and lives in a farmhouse in the wilds of the Swedish countryside. His neighbors consider him a bit of an oddball, not least because he talks to his cat. (But don’t we all?)

Findus the talking cat is the undisputed star, but not in a cute, Disney-esque sense. Opinionated, stubborn, curious, and not always nice, Findus is the feline equivalent of your elementary school child—and herein lies the attraction for kids. The 5+ crowd can identify almost instantly with Findus, but I suspect that many adults (who would be reading the books to their children) are disinclined to identify with Pettson and his coffee-drinking, hermit-like habits. In an American environment, adults—especially when in charge of a cat/child—are expected to be positive role models, not oddballs! This cultural difference may be one reason why the series has not caught on in America.

However, the other reason may well lie in the translation of the text. One translation is published by Hawthorn Press (UK) as the Findus and Pettson series. However, Carolrhoda Books (USA) published an slightly earlier translation targeted specifically to the American market. This edition is called the Festus and Mercury series, with Mercury being the cat. Why the name change? You may well ask, as did I.

So off I went on an Internet hunt and came across an article by BethAnne Yoxsimer Paulsrud that gives an interesting account of two warring theories of translation being at work here. The American translation “domesticates” the foreign work to make it more accessible to American readers and includes references to Fourth of July fireworks and the Star Spangled Banner anthem—not something likely to be found in Sweden, where the stories are set!  Furthermore, the characters’ names were changed to sound American (however: Festus?). The UK translation, on the other hand, proceeds on the assumption that children are clever enough to appreciate the “foreignness” of a book and don’t require a domesticated version.

In the case of this series, the differences in the two translations are eye opening. Here is an example taken from Paulsrud’s article:

Domesticated Foreign
“Looks great,” said Mercury when they stood the exploding hen in the yard They set up the hen on the ground in the yard and stood looking at it.“It’s fine,” said Findus.“Mmm,” said Pettson proudly.Then they were silent a moment.

And here is another one:

Domesticated Foreign
But the more he thought about it, the more of a challenge it seemed. He looked all around the farmyard and had an idea. Then he led Mercury back to the toolshed. But at the same time he began to wonder how he could arrange a good spooky scene. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like fun.So soon he was back in the yard again mumbling to himself and looking up into the air to the right and to the left. Then he said: “We’ll build a ropeway now. You’d better come too, Findus, so you don’t get any firecrackers going off your backside.”“Sss, rubbish,” said Findus, but he went along anyway.

The difference is startling, isn’t it? The “domesticated” translation has none of the quirkiness and detail of the “foreign” one, which is an almost a word-for-word equivalent of the original Swedish text. And while the “foreign” translation may not use elegant prose, it is nevertheless much more lively and challenging.

Now I’m wondering: how many books in translation have we read as children and not appreciated, because they were too “domesticated”? And how many “foreign” ones did we appreciate? And which were more memorable?

As a child I found it thrilling to read about children in faraway places, even if their environment was utterly unfamiliar to me. Girls from Africa, England, Sweden (Pippi Longstocking, anyone?) were part of my imaginative world, and though I probably found it challenging to imagine life in a Tanzanian village, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying reading and puzzling about it. In my view, translations of foreign children’s books should challenge kids to look at the unfamiliar—this is how they develop curiosity about the world they live in, which can only be a good thing.

But let’s get back to the series my son loves so much (and yes, we read the “foreign” translation). As mentioned, the book’s author is also its illustrator, and, thankfully, the pictures need no translating! In fact, the illustrations really make the books stand out. Nordqvist draws images you linger over and savor for their inventive quirks and irrelevant details. The more you look, the more you find. They gives the stories a whole new dimension and ensure that children and adults alike are entertained.

In case anyone is on the quest for interesting and fun children’s books—especially something a little off the beaten path—I highly recommend this series. You can find Findus and Pettson on Amazon.

Of cats and butterflies and the pitfalls of old words

I recently perused a website devoted to plucking deserving old words from the jaws of oblivion (Word Warriors).  You can also nominate a word you like, say why, and other users can give it the thumbs up or down. With some luck, your favorite word will make it onto their word list.

Among their top ten words for 2012 is supercilious, which surprised me, as I didn’t realize it had gone out of fashion. I use it all the time. But perhaps that’s because my choice of vocab. can be somewhat antediluvian (another gem on their list). They also list transmogrify, which has a distinct Harry Potteresque quality, and which, if you’re British or Australian, reminds you of cats (moggie = ordinary, non-pedigree cat).

Speaking of cats, I was delighted to find concatenation on their list. This is a word that is hard to forget once you have read an account of Bertram Wooster conversing with his butler Jeeves, with Wooster grappling, as usual, for the mot juste:

 “And owing to…what’s that something of circumstances you hear people talking about? Cats enter into it, if I remember rightly.”

“Would concatenation be the word for which you are groping?”

(“Jeeves and the Greasy Bird”)

In case you’re wondering, concatenation has nothing to do with cats and everything to do with linking things together, as in a chain of events. Too bad – cats would be infinitely more entertaining.

There are a lot of old-fashioned words that appeal to me. Such as flibbertigibbet. I like it because it’s fun to say and because P. G. Wodehouse used it to describe one of his flighty young female characters (although I can’t for the life of me remember which one, and I’m not about to dive into the Master’s opus—after all, there is a considerable number of volumes to plow through).

For some reason, to me the word flibbertigibbet conjures up an image of colorful butterflies flitting hither and thither. Plus, it is usually applied, often in an indulgent way, to chatty and somewhat scatterbrained young women, so I assumed that the origin of flibbertigibbet was something sweet, even innocent.

Far from it. To my horror, Wikipedia—the Internet’s reigning fount of wisdom—has something quite different to report: one possible origin relates to birds flying by and pecking the remains of executed criminals set out for display on a platform or gallows (a gibbet). Yuck!  And it gets worse. Well, actually, it doesn’t, but it’s just as bad: in naval terminology, a gibbet is

A wooden frame from which dead pirates are hung, often in a metal cage especially fitted for the dead man. This is done as a warning to others who would think of taking up a career in piracy. (see here)

An alternative explanation offered is more benign and refers to the jib sail that may flutter in the wind, depending on how tightly it is rigged. Better, but not great. And nothing at all to do with butterflies.

Whatever its origin, flibbertigibbet has an illustrious lineage: Shakespeare used it in King Lear. Alas, butterflies were far from his mind:

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. He begins at curfew,

and walks till the first cock. He gives the web and the pin,

squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat,

and hurts the poor creature of earth.

(Act III, Scene 4)

Flibbertigibbet: a foul fiend? This is definitely a far cry from the contemporary use of the word, which is perhaps not terribly complimentary, but at least a flibbertigibbet is harmless.

But perhaps all these attempts at delving into the supposed etymological roots of the word are misguided, and flibbertigibbet is simply one of those words that attempts to sound like the thing it describes. Think barnyard words like moo, oink, and woof.  This, indeed, is the explanation offered by Evan Morris (whose excellent site The Word Detective I have just discovered):

 “Flibbertigibbet” almost certainly arose as an attempt to duplicate the sound of someone babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter. 

Yes! Onomatopoeia to the rescue! This is now my preferred explanation, as I am not partial to the idea of birds pecking at a person’s exposed remains . . .  which brings to mind the unfortunate Prometheus of Greek mythology, who had to undergo the indignity of  having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. Fortunately, his liver was self-regenerating, much like a gecko’s tail, so there’s your silver lining. Such as it is.

The Angels’ Share by Laurence Shames (Quickie Book Review)

When one of your favorite authors suddenly stops writing, you naturally assume something calamitous has happened. So you trawl the Internet for information–only to be confronted with the stark reality that, though alive and kicking, said author has simply hung up his novelist’s hat until further notice, and all because he moved from Key West to California.

Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to pause in their tracks and rethink life as they know it. Nevertheless, you, the reader, feel bereft. At least, I did.

But Laurence Shames fans can now rejoice. He has at long last published a new novel: The Angels’ Share.

But it’s not what you might expect. It’s not a Key West book; in fact, it doesn’t even mention Key West. And there is not a single mafioso to be had. Instead of taking up where he left off, Shames has written a love story, or rather, three love stories that take place in Santa Barbara wine country and–brace yourselves–in the afterworld. And it has angels in it. Angels who descend to earth and meddle in the affairs of still-living humans. But it is not what might come to mind with a romance involving angels. It is not soppy, and it’s not twee. For one, Shames doesn’t do soppy and twee. As always, his style is elegant, sensitive, and smart, with an underlying dry humor that suits the story perfectly.

The plot is simple: Darcy’s father, a philandering cheat, dies on the operating table and goes to the afterworld. There, he meets his still-resentful ex-wife. Despite her frosty welcome, they find a common ground in their concern for their daughter’s happiness. Before long they start interfering in her budding romance with Paul, a wine maker. But love is not for mortals only. Up in the afterworld, Darcy’s parents confront old regrets, lost opportunities, and the potential of love everlasting. The third love story involves two musicians who met and parted too young and spent the last fifty years on earth pining for one another. That’s basically it, albeit in a very small nutshell.

There are no cliffhangers here. But you don’t need them, or even want them, because this novel is not about the plot. It is about feelings and understanding that may come too late, about redemption, forgiveness, hope, and the strength to follow your heart–all good stuff. And Shames writes in such an engaging style that you’ll want to finish it in one sitting, and you don’t mind at all that it ends the way you thought and hoped it would end. In short, The Angels’ Share is a sweet, philosophical novel told with sensitivity and sense, and if you’ve enjoyed Shames’ previous novels, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

Short grumble: I just wish he had written it sooner!

Oh, and it’s only available as an e-book on Amazon. It looks like Shames has joined the growing band of indies.

See http://www.laurenceshames.com

Writer Olympics

The Olympic games are upon us. All that farther, higher, faster, stronger business is quite exhausting, even when viewed from the proverbial armchair.

I’m not much of an athlete, armchair or otherwise, so while watching gymnasts turn themselves inside out and runners huff and puff around the stadium like ants around a clock, my mind inevitably turns to other things. And as it happened, I recently started thinking about literary feats of Olympic proportions, in particular prolificness, or prolificacy, if that’s the term you prefer, though I don’t, because it sounds too much like profligacy, which is a state of shameless debauchery. And I wouldn’t even accuse the author of Fifty Shades of Grey of such unseemly conduct. Or perhaps I will, once I have actually plowed through her tome and not just read about it.

Back to prolificness. P.G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and other popular writers now deceased produced dozens of books in their lifetime. And there is slew of contemporary writers who are busily adding to their equally considerable oeuvre, book by book. These are Olympics-sized achievements in my book, and I was properly in awe.   Until I found out that there were writers who have published books by the hundreds: Isaac Asimov (506), Enid Blyton (600), Barbara Cartland (722). And that’s just those writing in the English language! I cannot imagine writing 722 books in any language. Not ever. Not even for Olympic gold.

But English-writing authors are not alone. The list of literary prolifics is an international one, and the one who beats them all is a lady from Spain, Corín Tellado, who clocked up a whopping 4000+ published works, mostly novels.

Four. Thousand. PLUS. The mind boggles.

Now these people, I assume, glued their bottoms to their chairs, and actually wrote every single word themselves, be it on a typewriter, a computer keyboard, or a note pad. Blood, sweat, and tears—not to mention the wearing-off of fingertips—went into their work. If that’s not an Olympics-worthy effort, I don’t know what is.

Enter Philip M. Parker, whose tally of works totals 200,000 and counting. Yes, he is the world’s most prolific author you may have never heard of. But here’s the thing: Mr. Parker, a Professor of Management at a business school, didn’t go for the old bum glue routine to reach this dizzying height. No, his method of production is as new-fangled as it gets: his works are created with a computer algorithm that trawls data bases and puts the information together into readable form, conveniently sorted into genres. Romances, dictionaries, thrillers, self-help, medical texts—you name it, there’s an algorithm for it. His publications are original compilations clobbered together from bits and pieces of publicly available data found on the Internet (though there may well be questions about copyright infringement, but let’s not go there right now). The question is: is this writing? Is this writing in the bum glue sense of the word? I concede that bum glue is required to develop the algorithm, but that’s where it stops. Computer programs do the vast majority of the work that results in a new book.

The question is, does he qualify as an entrant to the Writers’ Olympics? Well, given the general absence of bum glue in the production of the actual volumes, my vote is “no.”

Which still leaves us with Ms. Tellado. I have no idea how she did it. My mind is stuck in a boggle when contemplating the 4000 plus.

So, without further ado, the Writers’ Olympics Gold Medalist in Prolificness for Writers Past and Present goes to:

CORIN TELLADO!

CUE:  Olympic Fanfare

(I hope this works – if it does, you will have leapt 2 feet into the air)

Here are some links for those who love lists:

Wiki list

Subhakar Das’s blog

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