Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chester Update


I think Chester injured his back leg a few weeks ago. The tireless brute must have strained something while careening down a steep hill after his beloved ball. It’s hard to know when he’s in pain because he never makes a sound, but he seems to be putting less weight on that leg. And he’s so ball crazy, he wouldn’t stop chasing the thing if he had a jagged bone protruding from his thigh. So I’ve had to force him to take it easy. And this means no ball-throwing.

Oh, the disappointment in those eyes when we get to the park and Chester realizes I didn’t bring a ball. He always holds out a dying hope... he bounds away, turns around and crouches in his ready stance, bewildered eyes darting from my hand to the ground, behind him, then back to my hand. That implausibly long tongue flapping. If I make the slightest move toward my pocket, it becomes a gunfight in the Old West, Chester ready to draw at the twitch of my finger.

Two weeks without his ball and Chester’s getting delirium tremens, probably seeing things. So it was in this state of lunacy that he accompanied me to the park on a particularly warm day near the summer solstice. The sweet tinge of fresh cut grass filled the air, and insects buzzed, sluggish in the rare heat. Chester was on the leash next to me, pulling less than usual – perhaps the ball hiatus has finally cured his leash pulling, I thought with a smile. Then – SNAP – the leash pulled taut, almost knocking me off my feet.

Chester was suddenly behind me, pulling violently, and my shoulder’s tweaked at an odd angle. Then a voice, at first low and stammering, then gathering steam, and Chester’s making a strange noise too – and why is he pulling so hard? I turn my head and all at once the scene becomes clear. The bus stop. A wrinkled old man, struggling not to fall over. Two bright green pieces of felt, deliciously round. It’s a walker with tennis balls stuck on its front legs, and Chester’s trying to wrestle both of the balls off at the same time.

Maybe it’s time for an intervention.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What are you reading?


Right now I'm reading The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. After Erica referenced the novel on my blog, I realized I had it on my shelf; it was one of many books I scored for a dollar at the Friends of the SFPL Annual Big Book Sale. I've gone through a string of mediocre novels lately -- I didn't even finish the last three I started -- so Pearl's ingenious novel is all the more refreshing. I have nothing against mainstream fiction (after all, that's what I'm writing), but if you want to know the difference between a "literary" mystery and a "genre" mystery, read The Dante Club, and then pick up something by James Patterson.

Sure, Pearl skated summa cum through Harvard and Yale, and he won a prestigious prize for his thesis on Dante, but that doesn't automatically mean he can write fiction. And boy can he write fiction. The Dante Club is one of those auspicious debuts that simultaneously reignite my passion for writing -- and make me want to give it up for good.

So, that's what I'm reading.
What are YOU reading? And would you recommend it?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And now we come to the end


I am not worthy.
Some authors, when they talk about their writing process, they make it seem almost doable. Not easy -- don't get me wrong -- but at least something you could emulate with enough practice. I felt like this when I read Stephen King's On Writing, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

Then there are writers like John Irving, the ones whose thought process is more like something Yoda would conjure; an otherworldly power you can't touch. Longtime Leaf Blower reader Daniel Mason sent me this video from the New York Times, about Irving's unusual process for writing novels. Irving says that knows he has a novel when the last sentence comes to him. Not the first sentence, mind you -- the LAST sentence. Once he writes down the last sentence, he says, he never changes it. Not a comma, not a period. Then he works backward from there. It's been that way for all twelve of his sprawling novels.

Watching the video, I thought, wait a minute, maybe his last sentences are written in such a vague, non-committal way that they could easily be written around, massaged, manipulated. So I pulled out a few of his books and turned to the last page. The final sentence of The World According to Garp is "But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Okay, fair enough. I can see how that sentence could come to you first, and inspire a book. It could be a first sentence, really. But then I looked at A Prayer for Owen Meany. The last sentence is "O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking You." What? THAT's what came to him first? THAT's what inspired him to develop one of the most distinctive and memorable characters in modern literature?

When I started writing Double-blind, I didn't have the slightest idea how it would end. But I have a secret. I've been practicing this skill. In fact, before I started this blog post, I knew what the last sentence would be. It just came to me out of the sky, like lightening in a summer storm. And by the time the sound caught up to the flash, I'd already conceived a whole blog post to preface that last, brilliant sentence: and now we come to the end of my blog post -- see you next week.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review of the Kindle 2.0



I've had my Amazon Kindle for a week now, and I've been testing it on all kinds of media -- books, novellas, word docs, magazines, newspapers -- even a clinical research protocol (not recommended).

The Kindle's crisp screen and electronic ink technology live up to the hype. It's just like reading a printed page, although the background is more light gray than white. I still can't get over the fact that you can read the Kindle in bright sunlight. Also like print, the pages can't be read in dim light. This is so contrary to every other electronic device I've used my entire life,  it takes some major mental adjustment. Another aspect that takes some getting used to is there are no page numbers on the screen. This is because you can adjust the text size, so it throws off the page count. Instead, it tells you your "location" in the document and the percentage you've read.

Once I adjusted my old way of thinking, and got into a book and started turning (clicking) pages, the device melted away and I was totally into the story -- almost more into the story, because I wasn't flipping forward to see how many pages were left in the chapter, or turning to the back cover to re-read the plot teaser. I got into a rhythm, and after a while I think I was actually reading faster than normal.

My favorite thing about the Kindle is its simplicity and utilitarianism. It doesn't have a color display or flashing graphics or a fancy interface; its main reason for existence is to allow you unbridled access to words. Many reviewers complain that the device lacks a touch screen. I actually see this as a positive. To me, a touch screen on an e-book reader would be smudgy and distracting. The 5-way joystick navigator and page-turn buttons work just fine -- and they don't get in the way of the text. I also love that the wireless is included. This was what put me over the hump to purchase the Kindle in the first place. I was about to order it when I balked and thought, wait, will I have to sign up for yet another monthly service plan? I was ecstatic to find out that the wireless was built in, with no service fees. When you factor that in, the Kindle is cheap compared to many other wireless devices.

Of course, this wireless access makes it almost too easy to buy books. Now, I'm sure I'll be less likely to drunk download an e-book at midnight (like I would an iTunes song), but it's a little scary to have the ability to deliver any NYT bestseller into my hand in 30 seconds flat -- for a mere $9.99.

One of the new features of the Kindle 2.0 is the text-to-speech function, where the device will read to you. This is an utterly useless feature. While the computer is surprisingly adept at recognizing words, it's not going to sound like an audio book because it doesn't know where to place the emphases, inflection and pauses. So it sounds like what it is -- a robot reading words. The only time I could see turning on this feature is if I find myself without the use of my eyes.

The other quibble I have is the slight delay between changing screens. When you push the page-forward button, the screen washes black for a millisecond before displaying the next page. Overall, it's probably less than the delay you cause by turning a physical page, but it still has occasionally caused me to hit the button twice.

I read a lot of other people's work for my writing groups, and the Kindle worked great for this. It saved me from having to print out dozens of Word Doc pages, and I can still highlight passages and comment on the document as I'm reading it.

As for newspapers, I downloaded an issue of The Wall Street Journal to see how the Kindle handled it. It's pretty cool, and would be great if you were on a plane, or eating breakfast at my tiny kitchen table, but it doesn't beat sitting on the couch with that crinkled paper spread over your lap. When I read a newspaper, I like to scan the pages quickly, take in the pictures and graphs; I probably only read a few articles in their entirely but I want to look at the whole paper. The Kindle is just a different experience. There are no pictures or ads. And the articles are categorized in a straightforward, easy-to-navigate menu, complete with word counts of each article. So, if your primary goal of reading a newspaper is to absorb as much information in as short a time as possible, then the Kindle might be your answer. For me, I'll stick to good ol' newsprint -- at least until the bigger, next generation Kindle DX comes out.

A few notes about the hardware. The Kindle looks fantastic and feels great in your hands. The buttons and keyboard are slick and functional. The battery life is amazing -- up to two weeks between charges if you turn off the wireless.

Overall, while the Kindle is not perfect, once you get used to it, it's a remarkable device and a viable alternative to printed books.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

WWHD (What would Hemingway Drive)?


If the implosion of General Motors is any indication, Americans have fallen out of love with the automobile. But cars still, to some extent, define who we are. A quick count of Priuses on the road in San Francisco will tell you people haven't stopped using cars to make a statement. So I wonder, what's the ideal car for a writer? 


Hemingway drove a green 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom II Short Coupled Saloon, specially equipped with a mini bar and compartments for golf and hunting equipment:



According to an excellent 2007 Rolling Stone interview which I can't seem to find online, Cormac McCarthy "lives so far off the beaten path, he drives a flatbed truck."



Now a flatbed truck and a Rolls Royce minibar are a little extreme, but what is the ideal car for a writer? Is it the weathered Saab, signifying you're part of the literary elite:



Or a beat-up van which moonlights as your home, writing studio and kidnapping chamber:



Or maybe something like a Pontiac Aztek, which says you're ironic and you just don't give a crap:





What do you think?