Archive for November, 2007

Somebody to Love: John Hiatt

November 29, 2007

John HiattAs I was listening to the radio last night, I heard a song by John Hiatt on the radio, and was instantly hit smack over the head once again with the fact of what a phenomenal songwriter he is. It made me run back home and look at all the CDs we have by him.

Now, hopefully, you’ve heard of John Hiatt. He’s been a working musician since the early 70’s, releasing his first LP (remember those round flat things?) in 1973. Even if you’ve never heard of John Hiatt himself, I’d bet money you’ve heard his songs, which have been covered by Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe, Emmy Lou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and other artists. He’s got a funky, goofy voice with lots of crags and slides; but he always sounds like he’s singing part of his soul away, which is why I always prefer his versions to covers by people with, shall we say, prettier voices.

But back to the songwriting. Man, he’s good. Take “Icy Blue Heart” for example, from his 1988 album SLOW TURNING. This song is nothing but a ballad cloaked in an extended metaphor of cold — but boy, does it work:

She came onto him like a slow moving cold front
His beer was warmer than the look in her eye

He can also write a love song like nobody’s business. In his song “Before I Go,” from his 2000 album CROSSING MUDDY WATERS, he writes:

red tail hawk shooting down the canyon
put me on that wind he rides
I will be your true companion
when we reach the other side

So do yourself a favor. Check out some of the music on his website and see for yourself if you don’t find yourself loving the music.

Kindle or Kindling?

November 26, 2007

I have been reading the brouhaha over the release of Amazon’s new wireless reader, Kindle, over the past week. My goodness, but it seems to have twisted some peoples’ knickers! Maybe it’s just the blogs and articles I read, but I don’t recall seeing this amount of passionate discourse over a product since the iPhone — okay, so that wasn’t that long ago. But still. . . .

KindleWhy am I jumping into the fray? Because this site celebrates great writing, which by extension, can include the manner in which such great writing is read. Besides, I love gadgets, and have been more intrigued by the Kindle than any other e-reader to have come down the pike. But the venom this gadget has wrought forth in the week since its release is almost as interesting as the reader itself.

Here are some Kindle facts and stats, for those of you who haven’t been obsessively following the tempest:

  • It retails for a whopping $399, but you can buy multitudes of books for $9.99 at the Kindle Store
  • Its wireless capabilities let you connect to the Kindle store to buy its books from the device itself
  • It has received (as of the time I am writing this post) 720 comments, with an average rating of 3 stars; thus far, it has received 169 5-star ratings, and 235 1-star ratings
  • According to Technorati, it has inspired more than 5000 posts — most of which, one can safely assume, have occurred subsequent to its release date

Because, as I mentioned, I am a gadget geekess, I’ve been reading a lot of posts about Kindle, and most of it has been not very complimentary. The TeleRead blog has provided some of the best and most varied commentary about the device, including the latest scathing review by Robert Scoble, heavyweight blogger and former Microsoft tech guru. As far as I can tell, the complaints seems to fall into these categories:

  • The device is too expensive. It’s hard to argue with that beef; at the moment, I certainly can’t afford it.
  • No ability to buy things other than Kindle books from Amazon off of the device. Hello?!! It’s not a PDA, or a Smartphone, or a tablet PC. It’s a wireless reader. Why should you want to buy anything with it other than books that you can read on it?
  • You can’t drop it in a mud puddle or sit in a hot bath with it like a paper book. Seriously? This is what people are wigging out about? It’s not replacing paper books, but simply joining as an adjunct. Piece of advice: don’t take a cell phone or laptop into the tub either. And frankly, I tried to read a book in the tub exactly once in my life and it was a horrid experience – paper is yucky when it gets wet, and your arm gets tired from holding it above water.

Now, there are some pertinent business and publishing issues involving pricing and restraint of trade. But that’s for people even more obsessed than myself. Here’s my own humble, yet oh-so-right opinion on the topic.

The Kindle is meant to be a wireless e-book reader. From all that I can see, it accomplishes this task. You can read books on it, and it even lets you change the text size if you’re growing old and decrepit like myself. You can purchase other electronic books to be read on the device through the device — a nifty idea in my book, although pretty dangerous to my financial well-being, based on how easy it sounds to do. If it makes reading easier for some people or brings more reading choices to more rural areas that don’t have a lot of libraries, or the Barnes and Noble or Borders uber-bookstores, then more power to it.

Does anyone have a Kindle yet? What do you think? Can I borrow it?

Giving Thanks, Part III: Television

November 26, 2007

The turkey has been eaten, the pants have been unbuttoned, the scale has been temporarily banished. It was a fine holiday. I did give thanks for the many big-ticket items in my life — family, health, a job, and living in the most beautiful place on the planet — but it occurred to me that I needed to complete my triptych of WordHappy posts.

Pumpkin PieI do love television. From back in my formative years, where my judgment skills were being forever warped by repeated rerun viewings of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch and Family Affair — did I mention my most cherished toddlerhood possession was a Mrs. Beasley doll? — to the present, television has been a daily member of my family. So when I stumble upon a new series, and lo and behold, it is fantastic from its very first moments, well, I feel like a proud distant cousin or some equally tortured family metaphor.

That’s how I felt when I watched the series premiere of Pushing Daisies, the latest creation of Bryan Fuller. God bless the man, he started as a writer for Star Trek:Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and yes, I say that without irony, as a full-fledged fan of all the Star Trek incarnations: Resistance is futile.). Next came one of my all-time favorite too-good-to-last shows, Wonderfalls, about a very world-weary clerk in a Niagara Falls giftshop who begins to have inanimate objects like brass monkey bookends talk to her. Do me a favor and rent the box DVD set or go buy it or something. It’s so well constructed that watching it is time well spent. Fuller also created and wrote episodes for Dead Like Me, and has written two episodes of Heroes, another of my weekly appointments. So the man has good writing precedent going for him.

Happily, despite the high expectations held for Pushing Daisies, they have been met and exceeded. You’ve probably read about the hook already: a piemaker has the dubious “gift” of being able to bring dead people back to life with his touch — but only for a minute, otherwise someone else must die in their stead. And if he touches them a second time, boom! back to dead forever. So having brought his long-lost childhood sweetheart and one true love back to life, the piemaker can now never touch her. And complications thus ensue.

Now, the premise is fraught with the danger of being too twee to survive. But the show has adroitly scuttled around those dangers in a number of ways. First, the show is gorgeous — hypersaturated with color, with a heavy dose of Amelie influence. Second, Fuller is quite good at writing magical realism, to the degree that he holds his own, in my own opinion, with writers like Alice Hoffman. He takes the magical element and has his characters commit to it one hundred percent, even if it makes no logical sense in an otherwise logical universe. The piemaker, Ned (played wonderfully by Lee Pace) is a very logical man saddled with a very illogical gift and now suffering from the most illogical of conditions: being in love. The bedtime story quality is only enhanced by the providing of an omniscient narrator, voiced by (could it be anyone else?) Jim Dale of Harry Potter audiobook fame. And clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of Sebastian Cabot narrating the old Disney Winnie the Pooh movie, because the third episode of the series has a great running gag about Winnie the Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit’s hole:

Emerson, the private investigator who uses Ned’s gifts to solve murders for financial gain, gets stuck in a funeral home window. He has the following exchange with Chuck, Ned’s newly reanimated true love, who is standing outside:

Chuck: Remember, mind over matter will make Pooh unfatter.
Emerson: I might be stucked, but I can still reach my gun.

It’s just the most fun to watch. If you aren’t already a fan, definitely check it out.

Giving Thanks, Part II: Songwriters

November 20, 2007

A really well-written song can change your mood, stop you in your tracks, make you wonder if the artist has somehow placed a bugging device into your house, your heart, your soul. Songwriters can put words to feelings you didn’t even know you could express.

TurkeyIn no particular order, these are a few songwriters for whom I am thankful this holiday:

Lyle Lovett

Oysterband

Patty Griffin

Brandi Carlile

Guy Clark

Pink Martini (China Forbes and Thomas M. Louderdale)

Who will you be listening to and enjoying this Thanksgiving?

Giving Thanks, Part I: Fiction

November 19, 2007

Well, it’s Thanksgiving week, which is one of my favorite holidays. CornucopiaFirst, because it involves turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie. But even more because it involves giving thanks, which in my humble opinion is a very underrated activity. There are so many instances during the day when I hear news that makes me want to bang my head against a wall repeatedly and with great force; or someone does something mean or irredeemably stupid; or other injustices occur that I have no control over. So the chance to stop for just a moment and give thanks for something that’s right in my world. . . well, it has a way of recalibrating the balances, as it were.

With that in mind, I will take this week to give my own ever-shifting, very personal list of great writing for which I give thanks. Today’s focus is on fiction writers. I’ll try to hit songwriting and tv/movies before I’m too full from turkey to sit at the keyboard.

Anita Shreve: SEA GLASS

Mark Helprin: WINTER’S TALE

Ann Patchett: THE MAGICIAN’S ASSISTANT

Kent Haruf: PLAINSONG

Julia Glass: THREE JUNES

Harper Lee: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Dennis Lehane: GONE, BABY, GONE

What books and writers are on your list of things to be thankful for? Tell me in the Comments section. Honest — you’ll feel better.

Stranger Than Fiction: The Good Kind of Strange

November 17, 2007

I watched a really terrific movie last weekend, STRANGER THAN FICTION. Yes, I know this was a movie that came out in 2006. But with two short people running around my living room, I now see movies when: (a) they show up on HBO or the free weekends on the other cable channels; (b) when I can stay awake long enough; and (c) I can remember from the title what the movie was supposed to have been about.

So this movie was about a man, Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell), who suddenly hears his life as he is living it in real-time being narrated by this disembodied voice (Emma Thompson, who could recite a user manual for vacuums and have me hanging on every word). Events take on a titch more urgency when Harold hears this narrator forecast his imminent death. It’s a very meta- movie, and great for book readers, with its references to all the different fiction genres.

The movie was penned by a relatively new writer, Zach Helm. Helm is moving on up in the world, having written and directed tbe new film MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM, just being released this weekend, if I’m not mistaken. This of course means that I won’t see this movie until 2009 or so. Alas.

But the guy can write. Here’s a brief snippet from STRANGER THAN FICTION, one of the narratives that Harold hears being said by the voice who turns out to be a writer, Kay Eiffel (Thompson):

This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch. Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less. Every weekday, for twelve years, Harold would brush each of his thirty-two teeth seventy-six times. Thirty-eight times back and forth, thirty-eight times up and down. Every weekday, for twelve years, Harold would tie his tie in a single Windsor knot instead of the double, thereby saving up to forty-three seconds. His wristwatch thought the single Windsor made his neck look fat, but said nothing.

Impressive, yes? So the writing, combined with a great cast — Will Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson — and terrific, understated direction by Mark Forster, makes for a most enjoyable movie experience. So if you missed it in the theaters, see if you can find it now. It’s well worth watching.

Hot Dog, I Won the Lottery! An Interview with Author Patricia Wood

November 13, 2007

Did I promise you interviews? I believe I did. And let it be said that I delivered said interview.

A little background, if you will. I was a devoted Snarkling of the dearly departed Miss Snark blog for writers and writer-wanna-bes. That blog received scads of comments, some snarky, some quite civil. One of the most civil and helpful of all the commenters was a writer named Patricia Wood. Lo and behold, she reported to us all that she’d gotten the most wonderful agent who’d gotten her the most wonderful deal for her novel called LOTTERY. And because angels clearly adore this woman, the book was released this past August (Putnam Adult) to glowing reviews and great buzz.Lottery

Guess what? The hooplah is well deserved. LOTTERY follows the adventures of Perry L. Crandall, resident of Everett, WA, after he wins twelve million dollars in the Washington State Lottery. He may only have an IQ of 76, but he’s no dummy. Seeing who his true friends really are and watching Perry as he grows more comfortable in this new skin of his provide some real joys during the reading of this book. And I won’t give away the ending, but let me just say, it’s one of the very best conclusions of a book that I’ve read in recent memory.

So because she is a very nice lady, and because I told her I would say nice things about her (and perhaps because she lives in Hawaii on a boat, thus having been utterly brainwashed that she is in a permanent happy place), Pat has graciously consented to an interview on this very blog. Yes, readers, you are here at the first celebrity interview of WordHappy. Bask in the rush of warm fuzzy pride for a moment, and then, settle down.

Since this is a blog that celebrates all kinds of great writing, let’s begin there. Whose writing (books, songs, tv, movies, you name it) gives you goose pimples and makes your toes curl up, it’s that good?

I am a huge John Irving fan. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, was one of those books that I wished I could start all over again and read it over and over. Another of my favorites is THE RAZOR’S EDGE by Somerset Maugham. I am both an eclectic reader and music lover. I have varied tastes and depending on my mood can curl up my toes over anything from Harry Potter to Camus!

When you’re writing, do you find yourself influenced by or gain inspiration from different writers? Do you find yourself reading more or less when you’re in the midst of writing a novel?

I’m rarely influenced but there are times that I say,”Gee I wish I’d written that.” I read less while I’m writing my first draft because I don’t like the distraction. I like to immerse myself in my story. After that I speed read. A book has to be really compelling to hold me.

Do you feel like the reader response to LOTTERY has been what you hoped for? In other words, in readers’ responses to you about the book, do you feel like they’ve gotten the message of what you wanted to write?

I am overwhelmed by the reader response. It was unexpected to me to have the kind of passionate outpouring of positive energy. When I talk to book clubs it is obvious to me that readers “got” the whole book. They have even discovered things that I subconsciously intended. I am also amazed at how many men have emailed me saying they were profoundly moved.

LOTTERY is your debut novel. What’s been the funniest/weirdest thing that’s happened to you since the novel came out?

Besides people bringing their manuscripts to me at my book signings? Probably people that haven’t read it and who don’t really know any thing about me, seeing the title- joking- saying, “Oh gee did some one you know win the lottery? Ha Ha!” And I say “Yeah, my dad,” and they stop laughing.

If you could be a character in any book, who would you be and why?

I’ll cop out on that one. I am very happy being who I am and doing what I’m doing. I like to watch characters in books – not be them. [WordHappy aside: So much for my Barbara Walters’ moment. . . ]

Can I have a ride on your boat?

Only if you promise not to get sea sick!

So there you have it. Pat, thank you soooo much for being my guinea pig, as it were, and allowing yourself to by my first interview. And everyone else, go read LOTTERY!

In The Woods: A Great Book for a Bleak Weekend

November 11, 2007

Today, the Seattle sky is as grey as old, unwashed linens. I have a cruddy cold, but I just finished the BEST book, the perfect antidote to a yucky day. IN THE WOODS by Tana French (Viking 2007) is a mystery/thriller/police procedural that is beautifully written, and relies on its characters for its drama, as opposed to cheap ending twists. You know the mysteries I’m talking about — the ones that have the third tier bit character who shows up in the first act, finds a seemingly random way to insinuate him/herself into the main detective’s life, and turns out–SHOCKINGLY–to be the killer. It’s reached the point where when I read a mystery, on the basis of that formula alone, I generally can guess the identity of the killer within the first fifty pages.

In the Woods CoverIN THE WOODS is nothing like that. French ties together a 20-year old mystery involving two missing children with a recent murder. The lead detective of the current case, Rob Ryan, is part of that link; he was with the two children–his best friends–on the day they went missing, but has no memory of the event. Given his background and emotional baggage stemming from that traumatic event, both he and the reader are frequently left to second-guess the reliability of Rob’s observations and conclusions. Fortunately for him, he’s not in it alone. His partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, provides a stabilizing influence, as does the third detective, Sam O’Neill.

The characters in this book are its greatest strength. As I vicariously lived through the friendship of Cassie and Rob, it reminded me a great deal of one of my other favorite detective pairings, Dennis Lehane‘s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, in his series of novels starting with A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR. Cassie and Rob’s verbal spars are like the best kind of brother-sister insults cushioned by affection and fondness, giving the fate of their friendship a real stake in the novel. The plot as well is complicated but logical, and the book’s surprises are well earned. But best of all, there are just a few threads left loose, making the novel’s ending feel like a symphony whose final chord is in a minor key.

Who writes your favorite mysteries?

30 Rock: Couch Potato Heaven

November 8, 2007

I’m a couch potato and proud of it! But I’m a discerning couch potato; I have my standards. Only the finest written television makes the cut in my household.30 Rock

Which is why I’m so deeply in love with the show 30 ROCK. This show has inspired lunacy, week after week after week. I am guaranteed to laugh loud and hard several times in each episode. 30 ROCK is a true workplace ensemble piece, with fully realized characters: Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), the head writer for a comedy sketch show and perhaps the sanest person in the room; Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), former GE microwave maven and now network exec; Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), a roiling mass of actress insecurity; and Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), the most devoted page NBC could ever hope to have.

In the grand tradition of comedy classics like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and WKRP IN CINCINNATI, the writers of 30 ROCK give their characters outrageous situations to get themselves in and out of. In one of the funniest episodes so far this season, “The Collection” (written by Tina Fey and Matt Hubbard), Jack is being vetted for a promotion, so hires a PI to find dirt on him before NBC can. There are all sorts of priceless mini-moments in the show: as Liz is beginning to tell Jack about a breakthrough she had with her therapist, he says, “Ring, ring” and picks up an imaginary phone. Speaking into his hand/receiver, he says hello, then looks at Liz and says, “I’m sorry, I have to take this.” Or Jenna, grown obese from acting in a run of “Mystic Pizza, the Musical” over the summer, and now chosen to be the spokemodel for Enorme (“Make him chase the chunk”).

But the prize dialogue arrives in a scene between Jack and the PI, played with hard-boiled aplomb by Steve Buscemi:

Len the PI: Oh, Jack. One last thing. You don’t have a massive collection of cookie jars, do you?
Jack: How did you find out about that? (Flashback to Jack winning Collector of the Year)
Len: This is bad. CEOs don’t have thousands of cookie jars; weird little guys in bow ties do. You hear what I’m getting at?
Jack: What? You’re saying it’s a gay thing?
Len: You wish it was a gay thing. This is worse. You gotta get rid of them.
Jack: No. I’m not doing that. I’ve already made enough sacrifices for this company. They’re not going to get this.
Len (showing photo): This is Rudolph Guiliani in 1987 with his collection of antique wooden dolls.
Jack: That’s a fake. Guiliani doesn’t collect dolls.
Len: Yeah, you’re right! He doesn’t! Because he incinerated them. In 1989, the year he ran for mayor.
Jack: He looks so happy.

That kind of scene is why this show makes me so darned happy I could cry. Watch for yourself. And pray the writers’ strike ends amicably and soon.

Has Partisanship Ruined Political Writing?

November 6, 2007

Since today is election day (EVERYBODY REMEMBER TO VOTE!!!), I thought I’d throw caution to the winds and talk politics. But wait, you say, isn’t this a blog to celebrate good writing? Why yes, it is. And that is exactly the question.

I know that there are a number of politicians and those who work in government who are actually excellent writers. Certainly, historically, some beautiful writing has been composed by the leaders of our country — hello, Gettysburg Address, anyone? But, at least to me, it seems that in recent years, books are written with a distinctly red state or blue state point of view. If there is a liberal Democrat who loves Ann Coulter’s way with words, or a conservative Republican who thinks James Carville has a snappy style, please let me know.

As I was Googling this topic today, I found a really interesting website, orgnet.com. This company licenses software that does network analysis and network visualization. What I found intriguing was one of its network visualizations showing the patterns of top-selling political books at the end of 2006 (click on image for a view that doesn’t require a magnifying glass):

Top Political Books, Dec. 2006

Visualization reprinted by permission of orgnet.com.

What this visualization shows is clusters of readers, based on book-buying data. Politically right readers are represented in red, and unsurprisingly, focused on books reflecting their political views. Similarly, politically left readers (represented by blue) bought books espousing a more liberal bias. Books represented by purple tended to be linked more toward the blue than the red, and started to subdivide into clusters centering around religion or the economy. According to Valdis Krebs, the only “bridging” books, i.e. books bought by both red and blue readers, were THE LOOMING TOWER: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Lawrence Wright), and a novel, THE INNOCENT MAN (John Grisham).

Now, a caveat: I know I am probably grossly oversimplifying what went into this visualization. Everyone is encouraged to read Mr. Krebs’ 1999 white paper on book networks, “The Social Life of Books: Visualizing Communities of Interest via Purchase Patterns on the WWW” to gain increased understanding of the topic.

I believe the question still stands, however. Is there any political writing out there that you all believe is worthy, regardless of the politics behind the writer? I honestly want your opinions on this one.

Remember to vote!

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address