Tuesday, April 28, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr

Saint Malo
Congratulations to Anthony Doerr for wining the Pulitzer in fiction for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I was amazed to find a Pulitzer awarded to a book I’ve actually read. Further more, I found the book tremendously enjoyable.

It’s a historical fiction story set in France during World War II. The heroine, Marie-Laure cannot see. She lost her sight at the age of six. A few years later the Nazis invade Paris. Marie and her father, Daniel LeBlanc flee to Saint Malo on the French coast to live with her odd Uncle Etienne.

Her father is a curator at a Paris Museum of Natural History, and he is entrusted to protect the Sea of Flames from the Nazi horde. It is a rare diamond highly sought by the Nazis.

Werner Pfennig lives in an orphanage with his sister in Germany. He has a knack for technology and radios. The Germans send him to a Nazi youth camp to further his knowledge. While there he designs a system for locating radio messages. After graduation, he uses the device to hunt resistance fighters through radio waves.

Doerr weaves the three story lines in an intricate pattern. Less skilled authors would lose things in a complex story including the reader, but Doerr masters the writing art. He keeps everything neat and tidy so the story flows smoothly through the transitions. He weaves description and science into the story in adequate amounts making for an entertaining read.

I found the story suspenseful and intriguing. It was not a quick read. This is not a beach book or a story that can be finished on the red eye from Atlanta to Seattle. It will pique your interest and cause you to seek more information on the topic.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Happy Earth Day

"The Earth seen from Apollo 17" by NASA/Apollo 17 
April 22, 2015 marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Today people in general seem so much more aware of conservation and ecology. They drive hybrid cars, and refuse to drink water from plastic bottles.

My first Earth Day was in 1980. We sat on the Union Green at Penn State and listened to bands all day and into the night. We played ultimate frisbee. We sat on sheets from our dorm beds. Life was much different. 

We didn't have hybrid cars, and Perrier had only recently reintroduced bottled water. No one had cell phones, and you wandered through the crowd trying to connect with friends. In the process you met new friends, shared a drink and a smoke. This was BI, before Internet.

Even though people seem more aware of the issues, Earth Day seems to have shrunk in importance. Celebrations are held when it is convenient rather than on Earth Day. People fear skipping out on work or school to enjoy a few minutes. 

Celebrate Earth Day today. Don't eat lunch in front of the computer, instead eat outside. Get some fresh air, and see what the weekday sun looks like. Just maybe you'll be a little less stressed out at the end of the day.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings - The Yearling

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
While preparing an article about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, I decided to read her tearjerker, The Yearling. It has been decades since I read it, and I find the story even more depressing than I remembered.  

It’s a young adult novel about Jody Baxter growing up in North Central Florida. It takes place close to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida Gators. They have a dormitory, Rawlings Hall named after the author. There is also a Florida State Historic Park comprised of the property where Rawlings lived and wrote the book.

The story occurs around 1870, and the Baxter family farms a parcel of land they cleared. It’s a piece of scrubland in the middle of some Florida swampland. For a taste of what the Baxter’s must have endured, go for a walk in the Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park just south of Gainesville.

Imagine Jody’s life. He has no cell phone, no cable, no bug spray, and no air conditioning. He had to be fairly hardy to survive under those conditions. In the brief year we join the Baxter’s in the story, they encounter drought, disease, bear attacks, a hurricane, a rattle snake bite, and less than pleasant neighbors.

Poor Jody gets mentally and physically clobbered through out the story, but he keeps on going. He encounters death on many occasions, and each time it hits closer to home and has more impact. We watch Jody turn from a little boy into a man.

Rawlings’ uses dialect for her dialogue. It makes the story a bit difficult to read. It is very similar to the dialogue used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Be warned, in the version I read, the text hadn’t been sanitized like Mark Twain’s books. The language could be offensive.

Rawlings demonstrates her love of nature throughout the book. She describes the plants and animals in great detail and correctly. Her story follows the seasonal changes accurately. Her story demonstrates the cycle of life, and the dependence of animals, plants and man on each other.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

First Draft

Bok Tower, Photo by Bruce G. Smith

The first draft doesn't have to be perfect.

It just has to be written.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald 1921
I had finished The Great Gatsby, and was looking for something else to read when I noticed West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan. It’s about the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life. He did justice to the phrase live fast, die young, stay pretty. He died of heart complications at the age of 44.

O’Nan wrote the biography in a creative fiction tone. It reads smoothly like a fiction story rather than a regurgitation of facts. He draws the reader in, and keeps him hooked throughout the rest of the book.

The story begins in 1937. The United States starts to climb out of the Great Depression. Europe gallops towards another war. Fitzgerald’s career has ended. People are no longer interested in reading about partying, extravagance and the Jazz Age. They are still trying to put food on the table.

Fitzgerald's wife Zelda lived in an asylum, and his daughter Scottie attended a private school. Scott has become broke and homeless. He started working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway has returned from Spain, and Scott gets assigned to adapting one of Hemingway’s short stories to the big screen.

Unfortunately and no big surprise, Fitzgerald has a problem with alcohol. He can’t manage to stay off the gin long enough to put his life together. He worked on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz scripts, but got fired before the projects were completed. He received no credits and no royalties. It was sad to read about his inability to defeat his demons. He would get so close, and then plummet once again.

His friends and associates continued to bail him out. They would loan him money, find him jobs, and give him cash advances against projects that he never finished. He had tremendous talent and opportunities. Even at the end he remained charismatic.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he had a long time girl friend, Sheilah Graham. She would get tired of watching his self-abuse, but she always felt sorry for him and would come back. He had a housekeeper and a secretary that by the end he couldn’t pay, but they also adored him and stuck with him.

It’s a sad story, but O’Nan manages to keep it light and entertaining. I loved this paragraph, and I have to share.  It’s Christmas, Sheilah and Scott go tree shopping. 

“Here they drove to a used-car lot on Pico and chose from a few drooping specimens lined up against the fence like prisoners while a loud speaker hectored them with tinny carols. The salesman charged him an extra fifty cents to wrap the tree in burlap and lash it to the roof of the Ford, and then, on Ocean Boulevard, as Scott braked for a light, it slipped its bonds, sailed free like a torpedo or a body prepared for burial at sea, banged off the hood and continued into the intersection where it finally came to a stop.”

I enjoyed the book despite its sad topic. O’Nan wrote descriptive narrative that treated Scott with respect, and also made the reader feel like they were living the experience with the cast.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Great Gatsby: Would it be a popular read today?

Henry Ford Museum
I enjoyed The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald spins the language with a touch of elegance not seen in the pulp fiction stories today. Our reading mimics our life style. It has become short sound bites filled with action. People don’t want the story gummed up with text. We want a story in 120 characters.

If Fitzgerald wrote this today more than likely he would need to self-publish. The big publishing houses wouldn’t touch it. They want a fast pace and lots of action. It’s an unfortunate loss for the reader. 

Fitzgerald uses the language to its full extent. He takes advantage of beautiful poetic prose and metaphors. Unfortunately, I felt most readers wouldn't get it.

At least that is what I thought as I read the book, but I checked Amazon’s sales list. The Great Gatsby is ranked 106 on the bestseller list, and number 6 on the classics list. Wow!

Then I thought, maybe it is because of the movie. Maybe DiCaprio’s role in the movie is selling books. Again I turned to Amazon. It has been reviewed over 5,000 times, and only 5% of those gave it one star while approximately 60% gave it five stars. Most of the bad reviews were because of formatting quality rather than the content.

Readers get the story. Readers enjoyed the poetic language. They didn’t mind the slow story with very little action. They like Fitzgerald’s use of metaphors. Or maybe they like a story about the filthy rich living a life of drunken debauchery. Either way the book has been around for over 90 years, and it still sells. Who wouldn’t want to write a book with that kind of track record.