Life Beyond “Good” and “Bad”: Off the Cuff Review of Reviews

When I first started my journey through reading 52 books this year, I only had one criteria that I thought needed to be sated: did I enjoy the book or not? This is the simplest, most direct way of deciding whether or not a book is “worth” your time usually.

But, as with many things I do, it’s become more complicated than that as the weeks have bore on. For everything that I do in my life, there seems to be an ever changing criteria sheet which I use to make value-based judgements on my performance. I believe I inherited this from my father. The 52 books challenge has been no exception, and of late I would probably afford myself a C. Despite being proud of how my writing is progressing, I think my main concern was immediately noticing how I was following a set pattern.

The structure is as follows:

> I didn’t know if I’d like this novel or not.

> But I did end up liking this novel.

> Clever one liner for personality flare and points for style.

> Light analysis unsupported by evidence.

> “Ultimately I liked this novel but it might not be for you, I don’t know.”

Knowing your structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing, but for me the fact is that I’m essentially saying the same thing for each book. Perhaps the pitfall with reviews is that we get caught into that trap of deciding whether or not a book is good enough in our opinion to be worth someone else’s time on a grand scale. That is, I’m tasking myself with the responsibility of deciding whether or not a book is suited to everyone who may or may not read my reviews.

The answer to the question of if a lot of people will like something is almost always going to be yes. When you try to wrap a piece of literature into a neat package of objectively “good” or “bad”, it almost always ends up being good unless it’s a complete train wreck.

Besides that, for as much as I talk about avoiding homogenising culture, literature, society, etc., I end up homogenising my own content in following my review structure. This is the final irony which does not escape me.

In my life as an under grad I got to a point where it was less about whether a text was “good” or “bad”, or if the story was enjoyable or not. Every part of the process was enjoyable for me. When you penetrate a certain level of analysing literature, it becomes less about the thing as a whole and more about tiny pockets of what it is that you’re looking at.

Recently, I read a fabulous Musing from Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha on my WordPress reader. In his Musing, he reflects on the need to approach people’s actions as neither “good” nor “bad”, and rather to approach them instance by instance. I of course, being me, misread this entirely and for whatever reason thought he was talking about books at first glance. This is the price I pay for constantly being focussing on creating content: many things are slipping through the gaps unless they appear immediately relevant. I’m learning to closely re-read again, little by little.

I think that the advice given in Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha’s musing can be applied to what it is that I’m trying to do. Perhaps it’s time to not look at each book as another point towards my end goal. My reading chops are back up enough again that I don’t need to look at the big picture of a novel anymore, and I can take the time to appreciate all the little parts of it that make it interesting or compelling.

We’re in a constant state of evolution and appraising what we can do better. Or at least, I know that I function that way. And so I find myself in the wonderful position of loving everything I am learning through this process, getting to read a lot of great books, and getting better and better at my craft in my own eyes.

2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.

1/52 books of 2019: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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Image credit to: Paste Magazine

Please note: this review may contain spoilers for the novel in question.

When I think about what drew me into reading in the first place, a large part of it was being able to be transported to another place and time. To plunge headfirst into a life that I had never and would never otherwise know was something that I kept coming back for. As an adult I rarely have the same experience with a book as I did when I was a child. In some ways I feel like I’ve traded imagination and whole-hearted focus for all the other things I need to be on top of.

Typically, when I’m deciding on a book to read, I either go by recommendation from someone, whether or not I’m familiar with the author, and whether or not the blurb or first few pages grab me. I don’t like to let the popularity of a book influence me when it comes to selecting something, because I feel like that makes it easier to miss what might be a great gem of a novel. I remember years ago reading an article about Die Antwoord in which Ninja (the male counterpart of the duo) was talking about how he didn’t really listen to other rap because he didn’t want to be influenced by it to create something that wasn’t authentically them. Depending on whether or not you consider their music audible, your reaction to this statement may vary. However, my point is, I try to go into selecting books with that same anonymity so as to avoid homogenising the types of things I’m reading.

When picking up Warlight from my local library (and please support your local libraries), I was drawn at first to the fact that this was by the author of The English Patient. This might be me admitting to a cardinal sin of literature, but my only familiarity with The English Patient is the fact that it was the butt of a joke in Seinfeld. Nevertheless, I knew that this would at least probably be a trustworthy novel to read, and one that I would probably get enjoyment out of. While I may not want to make decisions based on popularity, I do like making decisions based on the probability of my enjoyment.

Right off the bat, the narration style of the novel drew me in. I love retrospective story-telling, probably most recognisable from Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As someone who has a preoccupation with the transgenerational phantom and the narrative style of reflecting on youth, I was already going to be sold based on that alone.

But there’s so much more to this novel. To put it lightly, this novel charmed me. To go into it more, I believe that I fell head over heels for it. I read through it ferociously, feeling as though I was enveloped in the world that Ondaatje had created. Even as I read, knowing that it would have to come to an end, this seemed to me to be an impossibility. I didn’t want it to end; I wanted to live in this world forever.

When I finished the novel, I felt as though that little world I had only just become privy to had died, and I mourned that.

Interpret this as you will, but I found myself identifying with the young male protagonist, Nathaniel, quite a bit when it came to navigating a place between childhood and adulthood. I understood the anonymity he felt for his family, the fact that he enjoyed having his own secret life away from his real life, and the heartaches he encountered in the novel. Much like when I was reading The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, I found so much of my own youthful experiences in Nathaniel – and so much of myself.

Beyond Nathaniel, the narrative’s treatment of the transgenerational phantom was superb. When examining trauma and negative experiences of childhood, very rarely does resolution of these experiences come in a linear fashion. It is ongoing typically, and experienced in layers; a wound that just about heals without ever really going away. In reading Warlight, we see a character who defines himself as without family. However, it is in this definition that we see that Nathaniel’s identity cannot exist without family. Even in the absence of his parents and the estrangement from his sister, he is defined by his feelings of isolation and separation. Even in his discovery of a pseudo family unit, it is defined by the fact that it is not a real family. Nathaniel is an orphan with a family at the ready, who is unable to repair what was damaged in World War II era Great Britain. We see how these experiences shape a person, for better or worse.

As my first novel for the 52 books challenge, this was such a lucky find. Much like when I read novels such as The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald or Revival by Stephen King, I would love the opportunity to read this book for the first time again – to feel it all over again. It stays with me, even weeks later, and I find myself thinking fondly on Ondaatje’s little world.

I definitely recommend giving this book a red hot crack.

January Whip-Around: the future of Remi Gallagher

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Well, here we are: 2019.

I made the decision a long, long time ago to not touch this website until I had a better idea of what direction I actually wanted it to go in. I’ve gotten burned out with writing fiction if I’m honest; my heart isn’t really in it as much as I think it probably needs to be in order to be successful. Call me an old fashioned stiff, but I think if I’m going to do something I should either do it with my heart or not do it at all.

Upon taking the time reflect on what I had originally wanted this website to be for me, and thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be, it was never about fiction. Rather, my joy comes from the art of intelligent discourse about such frivolous topics as pop culture and media in general. If I’m honest with myself I think it’s always been there, though the allure of being a fiction writer is surely quite a hard one to resist.

Growing up, when I thought about fiction writers, I saw them as representative of reaching a higher level of intelligence; of knowing the secrets of the world and human behaviour that mere mortals do not possess. Maybe I’m too old (lmfao), or a little bit jaded, maybe both, maybe neither, but that image of a writer has been disillusioned for me. Not because I think fiction writers aren’t all those things, but because I’d assumed a level of arrogance and superiority came with it. Every time I meet a fiction writer, I am meeting someone who presents their own window into the world and has the grace to share it, along with the humility of someone who I suspect may have been born without an ego.

Anyway, as most of you know I probably have double the amount of ego I should  have, which makes me perfect for writing opinion pieces!

So in 2019 the content I am bringing is more focussed on my musings of pop culture and literature, and less to do with my own creative works. Who knows, I might come back to them one day. Then again, I said the same thing in 2009 about wearing band shirts and listening to metal that boys liked. Needless to say, now I wear a tropical fantasy wardrobe with every colour of the rainbow and listen to Lady Gaga.

Who knows.

This year I’m doing my best to fulfil the 52 book challenge. One of my favourite things to do in 2013 when I was deep into writing novels was to read blogs that took the challenge upon themselves. I loved to read other people’s opinions on things, and found myself exposed to a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have been. In fact, not for the first time in my life, I fell really in love with blogs and the writing on them. I’ve been reading blogs since I was 13, and I still love and defend it as its own art form.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to start uploading an extended piece on each book I’ve read thus far, one at a time, at a pace of my liking. I’m also going to provide my commentary of different things going on in the media – from pop culture contributions to critiquing controversial advertising and so on.

Thanks for all being here on this journey with me.

From Paris (it’s pronounced “Brisbane”) with love,

Remi.

I WRITE THINGS: On using “The Snowflake Method”: moving from stabbing in the dark to stabbing in a pleasantly lit room

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I am not an effective planner. That’s not to say I don’t plan things – this is an essential part of being a teacher. It’s that key word “effective” that most often trips me up.

However, as an analytical person who is solutions based (use this information as you will), I am particularly adept at finding things I’m not good at and figuring out how to fix it. Again, the application of this skill is often also not very effective.

In the past two months I wrote two first drafts of two different novels. These were both roughly 30 pages long, with about 15 pages devoted to a really compelling and engaging exposition to the novel, and then the remaining pages being akin to the story telling skills of a five year old telling you about a birthday party they went to. The “and then” story telling structure is strong with this one.

With both of these first drafts, I have done what some would call “diddly squat”. I didn’t plan for either of them – I wrote them by the seat of my pants. This has been my method for most of my writing career. I get an idea and I just sort of go for it without stopping. What I end up with is great little bits of writing amongst an otherwise on fire manuscript where the fire extinguisher is also on fire.

Herein lies my problem: at the end of writing something, I’m usually staring down the barrel of something that’s gotten way out of my control and I don’t know how to get it back under control. That sentiment in itself is one I have trouble wrapping my head around. Every time I’ve written something, there comes a tipping point where it feels as though I’ve relinquished control of the narrative and I don’t know how to reign it back in. Here I am, the God of the universe I have created, with no idea how to actually write a compelling plot.

Herein lies another problem: my longer pieces of writing tend to not really have a plot. Or at least, their plot isn’t strong enough to carry the whole novel. I would liken this to playing an RPG game the likes of Fallout or Skyrim: after five hours of game play, I’ve suddenly remembered there’s actually a story buried in there, somewhere.

In the past when I have encountered a problem, I have chosen the Quit and Accept Futility Method, which is 100% ineffective and does nothing to serve me.

Recently, I have been trying a new method, called the Find Help From an Outside Source and Accept That You Are Not Perfect. As a result, I’ve found out about another method, the Snowflake Method. I’m not going to explain it to you because I assume you can read, but I’ve found this planning method to be invaluable to me in my current writing endeavours, and also to stop me from my aforementioned use of QAFM.

It’s forced me to stop and really think about what’s going to happen next in my stories instead of just panicking and hitting the “fuck it” button. Usually, my writing technique is to go with whatever idea pops into my head first and assume that it’s the right one. Have human sized crabs featured in the story up to this point? No, but okay brain, let’s do it!

There’s a lot to be said about the value of writing for the sake of writing and just enjoying the discovery process, and that certainly has it’s place, but I’ve come to realise that the issues I ran into when I first started writing haven’t changed, and that’s because I didn’t plan then and I certainly wasn’t planning when I first picked it back up a few months ago.

There are only so many times one can hit their head against the wall, and I suppose I reached my limit.

So, in adopting the Snowflake Method, have I got a best seller novel on my hands? Probably not. Have I found the hack, the “easy” way to write a novel? Also, probably not. I think what I have got though is a greater understanding of how to construct a novel. I’m being forced to stop and think about my characters more. I’m forced to have to think about, what’s actually going on in this story?

Stephen King once famously said that writing ideas down is a good way to immortalise bad ideas, and maybe he’s right. But an even better way to immortalise bad ideas, I have found, is to write without thinking and excuse it as getting into a “creative” flow.

Change is difficult. It is not easy to change something about yourself. It is not easy to change my mindset that I just can’t write novels, that I have no good ideas, and that what I’m doing is not worth my time. These are all difficult things. But the difference between people that do and do not is just that: it’s up to whether I chose to write or not to write. There isn’t really an in between.

Anyway, I have a head cold so I hope some of this is lucid and understandable.

I WRITE THINGS: Things I’ve learned so far in trying to write a novel and Toni Morrison

I knew when I started this website that, ultimately, I would want to eventually get to a point where I was able to produce something that was at an acceptable length for publication. After all, that is typically what writers want – to put what they have made out into the world for public consumption. What I have found immediately is that an extended piece of writing is a lot harder to produce.

 

When I first started writing seriously at the age of 19, I used to have idea after idea after idea present itself to me. Like apples on the proverbial idea tree, they were all just as delightful and engaging as the last. Then one day, I stopped getting ideas. This happened right around the time I finished writing my second full length novel and promptly decided it was unreadable garbage.

 

In the painful process of having to become the person I am 4 years later, I didn’t have the capacity to even think about writing. As I mentioned in my other post of a similar topic, for the past four years I’ve been drawing a blank. Especially going into my first full time job in an intellectually and emotionally demanding field, it’s hard to be distracted enough to imagine these ideas.

 

And so, moving ahead and taking the first step to write a novel is difficult. To date I have two half-baked first drafts that require far more planning and forethought. These were products of feverish discovery writing, where I took a character and went with it. These will require work. Hard work. They will take time, because I do not have all day to write. They will take a commitment to writing, even when I don’t feel like doing it.

 

Luckily, I have more of patience with my writing, and more of a tolerance for the fact that, frankly, ideas don’t just pop into my head. I may be lucky enough to be given a scene, or the portrait of a person, or even a desire to write about a particular theme or topic, but for the most part I’m on the front line alone while the ever elusive muse is off in another field.

 

Perhaps my patience comes from the knowledge that if I don’t just sit myself down and start writing, I’m going to blink and have missed all the time I could’ve spent on something I am so passionate about.

 

For what it’s worth, I don’t put a lot of stock into the idea that I don’t have any ideas. Of an evening, I may only have 2-3 hours to write stuff, and that is not time I can spend feeling sorry for myself that I haven’t had a whole story jump out in front of me ready for my willing hands. One very important lesson I’ve learned in these four years is that if you want something, you have to work for it. This can be applied to writing, too.

 

And so, I watch YouTube videos interviewing my favourite authors to see what they have to say about the topic or motivating yourself as a writer.

 

Tonight I watched an interview with Toni Morrison, who is arguably my favourite literary fiction author. Morrison writes about the plight of African American women navigating their lives as the least privileged members of society. Her intent was to make people feel that hurt experienced by the group she belonged to, and time and time again she has achieved this tenfold. Hurt is a word she uses quite a lot, and it is a powerful one at that.

 

She reflects on the African American literature of the time when she was first coming up, about how focussed on being empowering it was, and how she saw a gap. Morrison stated to the interviewer, “They’re going to skip over something. And no one’s going to remember that it wasn’t always beautiful.”

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I WRITE THINGS: Representation and Me Talk

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In my last blog post about Mission Impossible: Fallout I touched on something that I haven’t ever really engaged with before, mostly because in the immortal words of Rick Springsteen, the point was probably moot. By which, I of course mean, contrary to what Springsteen thinks he is singing, there is almost too much to say on this particular topic. I don’t feel that I am able to adequately address it in a way that I’m comfortable with in a 500 word blog post.

 

The topic is, of course, representation.

 

Representation is one of my favourite words and concepts to unpack. As an English teacher, much of what my students and I engage in is discussion of how groups or people are being represented and why it matters. As I alluded to in my prior post, representation does matter to me, and it does have an impact on my life day to day.

 

The reality of my situation isn’t lost on me. I am fortunate enough to not only have a functional literacy level to the point where I am able to write prose and enjoy myself, but also to have the means to do so. That’s a level of privilege many people are not afforded. Even as someone technically a part of a minority, I have never personally faced direct persecution or disadvantage (to my knowledge) for the fact that I am gay.

 

At the end of the day, I am a 20 something year old who writes stories for personal enjoyment and shares them on the internet. It matters to me, I love doing it, but I’m not on the precipice of some astronomical discovery.

 

However, the reason I wanted to discuss the concept of representation, and specifically heteronormativity and writing, was because something sort of funny happened to me this week. I finished a first draft of a novel (yay!) and began thinking about what sort of story I want to write next. For me personally, story almost always starts with character – I find characters more compelling than plot.

 

As I started to plan who my next story would be centred around, I had a moment of hesitation. The question that crossed in my mind was, “if I keep writing stories about lgbtq+ characters, are people going to criticise me for it? Am I being predictable?”

 

Of course, when it comes to writing I do write for myself first and foremost, but reader enjoyment plays into the equation. I was stumped by my own question, not knowing the answer. There is of course the argument that authors like Stephen King typically write about relatively similar characters in terms of those basic features – that is, many of King’s characters are straight white middle aged men.

 

I’m still genuinely stumped on where I stand on this, and whether or not it is an issue at all or if I’m overthinking it entirely.

 

So I throw the question back to you, dear reader – what do you think? What does any of this mean? Am I over thinking the value of representation? Did I leave the stove on?