Thursday, December 31, 2009

From A Rhetorical Perspective

Again...not a political blog, but rather a question of rhetoric, something I've been studying on my own thanks to opencourseware from M.I.T.

In the current forum of public discourse people are mulling over the recent attempt at a bombing on an airplane coming into Detroit. My representative, Candace Miller, in an interview on public radio, was irate that the young man was being prosecuted as a criminal, insisting that he should have been handed over to the military where experts could work on him with aggressive interrogation techniques (her words).

Here is the question for people who enter into this discourse. If you disapproved of hate crime legislation, arguing that it was unnecessary and that intent was unimportant, then how can you now argue that this young man should be tried as a terrorist? What points of debate would you use? Note, I'm just pondering this from a rhetorical perspective and not a political one. I know, I know, politicians don't have to be consistent, nor do pundits, but it's fascinating, isn't it? I wish the interviewer had asked this question, or better yet, I would love to hear two informed individuals sit across the table from one another and enter into a dialog (and by dialog, I mean listening and responding to one another in a calm and intelligent manner).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Making Lists and Checking Them Twice

Before the year ends, let me post some of the books that have left an impression on me over the last twelve months. I should do it for the decade...but most of the decade is a haze.

PETER PAN by M. Barrie
I was astonished at how smartly written this was. Aimed at children and adults, it presented not only a magical world which the little ones could roam around in, but it offered a Freudian glimpse at the adult psyche and explored the difficulty that some have with relationships due to the tensions of personal development. Of course, it did this with a smile and a nod. And then there was Tinkerbelle. Hot. Very hot.


This is how to bring history to life. Roosevelt has received no small amount of criticism from the right (Glenn Beck) due to his role in the progressive movement, but those critics should read this book and Morris' "Theodore Rex" to educate themselves regarding the man, his actions, and how those decisions were made in context of their times. This is brilliantly written and a vivid portrait. More importantly, it is carefully researched and sources are carefully noted.


I stood up and applauded after reading this account of the Battle of the Bulge. Kershaw follows one platoon through the battle, through their capture and the time they spent in the prisoner of war camps. I rarely cry when reading a book, but I will state here that tears streamed as I neared the end of the book and felt the pain of those who refused to give up hope in the face of death. This is masterpiece of non-fiction. Kershaw knows what details to include and is careful to bring his figures to life without adding his own words. Again, careful research and exhaustive interviews have paid off.

Sometimes we read a book because we want to and sometimes we read a book because we feel we should. I forced myself through this abomination. Ford is one of those tiresome writers who the new literary circles hold up for our admiration. He is undeserving. He goes off on tangents, has no sense of economy, and writes as though his every thought is worthy of our attention. This novel is a tremendous conceit. I've read several other novels in this category this year, among them "The Namesake", "The Kiterunner", and an anthology by R. Carver "Catherdral". I mention these here because they have helped solidify my appreciation of enduring literature by reminding me that the self-absorbed and trendy world of the literary elite is self-perpetuating and often shows little appreciation for the real reader or the real world. It always astonishes me when the working class is written about by those who have lost touch with it or never had any connection to begin with.

GET REAL D. Westlake
This was not a good book, but it's here because it is the last Donald Westlake novel written. Westlake passed away last year. The novel has its moments, but reading it, reminds one of Westlake's better creations such as "Dancing Aztecs", "The Hot Rock," "Fugitive Pigeon" and "The Busy Body". Just pick up one of the Dortmunder and Kelp books. They are well plotted and Westlake knows how to make you laugh. "Dancing Aztecs" was a scream.

Honorable mentions: "The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Daoz" by Diaz, "Murder On the Links" by Christie, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" by Christie, "Tales of Dark Wisdom" by Jones, " Memorial Day" by Flynn, "Small Favor" by Butcher, "How Fiction Works" by Woods.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Feeling All Tense

All men want to be me. All women want to be with me....

Now where was I. Ah yes, present tense.

I have recently noticed that several authors I've been encountering have been jumping into the present tense pool without waiting an hour after eating. As a result they splash their readers and ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Here is an example, just so we're all clear, what I'm talking about:

"I'm standing on the corner, waiting for Tillet, listening to a song inside my head. It's begins with a raucous bass line and some outstanding guitar. I tap my feet and hear the first growl of lyrics..."

When I see someone using tense like this my first thought is WHY? I believe in deliberate writing, and I hope that when they started working that they had a deliberate purpose. I hope they thought: "I'm going to use present tense for reason "A" and "B".  Too often it's a marker, an overused literary device where the author is actually jumping up and down screaming: “Look at me, I’m a serious writer. I’m stepping outside the box and being bravely literary.”

More often than not, it's probably laziness.

The author just comes with it, not bothering to worry about structure and offering a defense of spontaneity. Others will defend this pretentiousness by lamely offering: "It breaks down the wall between the reader and the author. It's what James Wood, the literary critic, would refer to as 'free indirect style'."


Yesterday I read about two chapters of Nancy Mauro's "New World Monkeys". Mauro was an advertising creative director and copywriter in Canada and the United States. And then most recently, she received an MFA. Now, she writes in present tense. To be fair, I'll probably return to her book and see if I can fight my way past this distraction, but as I read through the opening I kept asking: "What? Why are we in present tense? Why? WHY? WHY?!!!!"

Writers, stop distracting the readers by stepping outside the box when stepping outside the box is an empty gesture. Stop trying to break convention for the sake of breaking convention. You owe it to the reader and to the form.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"I used Aardvark to do a search for information about security details and the Navy."

He looked at me, bemused. "You did what?"

"I'm writing a story about a vessel in WWII and things happen on the ship. I needed to get information on how security might have been handled. I ended up communicating with some informative folk."

He shook his head. "You know that Homeland Security is going to have you tagged."

I laughed and shook my head, about to disagree. That's when I remembered the searches I had been doing about the Wolf Creek nuclear reactor and the National Guard armory in Illinois. Legitimate searches for a novel I'm writing. But surely, no one pay attention . I'm doing research. Right?

It's a funny thing about the black heliocopters. You don't notice them until they're there. And the guys in the suits lounging on the street corner? They blend.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Late Night Conversation

The following conversation was overheard late in the evening as I drowsed in a chair. I recall three distinct voices.

"Dad, the cat is crying for food. You should feed her."
"You don't give a damn about the cat. You only want to steal her food."
"That's not true."
"Mr. Svelte."
"It's glandular."
"Smell my butt."
"Dad, the cat."
"Shut up."
"Do you think he's dead?"
"Dad. Do you think he's dead? If he died, who would feed us?"
"What? What the hell? Shut up."
"I'm just saying."
"Smell my butt."
"You shut up, too. Quit saying that."
"No, look...he's still breathing."
"Maybe we should kill him."