Monday, January 11, 2010

Two takes on war

First two books of 2010: a nonfiction view of life in the US Army--Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams--and a fictional view on the last few moments of John Kipling's life--Kipling's Choice by Geert Spillebeen.

Love My Rifle More Than You ... I've been trying to write this review for a couple of hours now, but it's coming out like crap. Saying I liked it feels wrong, and I don't know that you can like a book like this.

It's not a likable book. It's a demanding book. It's a hard book. It's a challenging book. It dares you to acknowledge things, issues, problems and then deal with them. It wasn't an easy book. Still, I think I liked it.

From the prologue:
A woman soldier has to toughen herself up. Not just for the enemy, for battle, or for her death. I mean toughen herself up to spend months awash in a sea of nervy, hyped-up guys who, when they're not thinking about getting killed, are thinking about getting laid. Their eyes on you all the time, your breasts, your ass--like there is nothing else to watch, no sun, no river, no desert, no mortars at night.
And her story just runs from there.

My back went up a few times, not because of Kayla's actions--OK, sometimes her actions, but more the situations she found herself in while in Iraq. I couldn't help but picture myself in those situations, trying to understand how I would have dealt with them. I honestly don't know what I would have done.


I linked to Colleen's review of Kipling's Choice above because her review was the reason I read this book. I really don't know much about Rudyard Kipling--I watched The Jungle Book cartoon, but that's about it--but a few months ago I happened upon a line from one of his poems and I decided it was time to read more.

As I understand, Rudyard Kipling desperately wanted to serve in the Navy, but couldn't because of his horrible eyesight. Despite all of his future successes, this failure would haunt him throughout his life. His son, John, had the same problems with his eyes, but at this point Rudyard had enough clout to get his son into the Irish Guards as a second lieutenant. Untried, untrained, and just days after his eighteenth birthday, John dies in a ditch somewhere, body destroyed by poison gas and mortar, his family left without word of his fate.

Kipling's Choice moves from the moments leading up to John's death to the days, weeks, months, and even years that lead him to that point. It's skillfully done, with John flashing back and forth, moving from moments spent with Daddo to letters home to tearing around the country side to leading him men into battle to lying flat on his back, bleeding, to smiling at a pretty girl, to letters home, to his days at school hunting ghosts to letters from his father.

The story's written incredibly well, in my opinion, both detailed, well-researched, and interesting. I've gone from knowing very little about Rudyard Kipling and his family to knowing a bit more and eager to read more.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Interview with Scott Stein, author of "Mean Martin Manning"

A few months ago, I read a novel called Mean Martin Manning, the tale of a man who just wanted to be left alone--dammit--to eat his cheese and salami and to collect his ceramic frogs. Scott Stein, the author of that very funny, satirical novel, agreed to answer a few questions for me here.

Bibleeohfile: What gave you the idea to write this novel?

SS: I guess the initial idea was to jab at the “blank slate” view that some have of human nature and behavior—that it’s infinitely malleable, if only we have the right environment or program to improve people. I address the development of the novel in some detail here.

What do you think of what’s currently going on with some restaurants being required to post caloric information, the “war on obesity,” and the recent news that Mayor Bloomberg is trying to get smoking in New York City’s public parks outlawed? Were you foreshadowing with Mean Martin Manning, or just a coincidence?

SS: I wasn’t thinking specifically of the war on obesity, or Bloomberg. I wasn’t trying to foreshadow a particular policy direction. But it isn’t just a coincidence, either. As a writer of satire, I pay attention to the news, to emerging attitudes, and Mean Martin Manning, exaggerated though it is, was me addressing and making sense of what I saw happening: The redefining of individual behavior and personal choices as public concerns, and what enables a society to go in this direction, and what a toll this takes on the individual. I have addressed some of the specific policies you mention and current developments on my blog.

How did you come up with your main characters? Are there pieces of your personality in Martin? Is Alice based on anyone you know?

SS: Neither character is based on a real person. I don’t think I am much like Martin. We have some things in common. I don’t like being told what to do. I can be stubborn. I see absurdity.

I came up with Martin through writing. Without any ideas or premises in mind, I wrote an initial paragraph:

His mother would sing to her baby in his crib with the voice of an angel. But when the angel sang Martin wept, because Martin was a mean baby. Some might say that babies are neither mean nor nice, that babies simply are—like moldable clay or blank slates. But Martin was mean all right. A mean baby. Later, he was a mean boy, still later, a mean adult, and his meanness, like a garden well tended, grew with age. He was, at 83 years, meaner than in his youth, not the result of a hard childhood or bitterness at old age, but the predictable culmination of a life steeped in cruelty and uncaring.

That paragraph didn’t end up going anywhere – I shifted to first-person and the voice and tone changed dramatically. But I was just playing with words and sentences and got that paragraph, which set up the basic premise of his character. An old, mean guy. He became a bit younger in the actual book. And it’s debatable whether he’s really all that mean. But the opening paragraph got me started, anyway.

Some time later, a hint of a plot developed. Not only was he mean, but he was isolated. He hadn’t left his apartment in a long time. Working out why he was in his apartment, and what he did there, led to details about his character.

Pitney began as a plot device. Martin had to leave his isolation for the plot to develop. “What would get him to leave?” became “Who would get him to leave?” And Pitney was born and became his foil. She took on a life of her own. She was fun to write. Her developing character helped clarify to me that the book was a satire of a certain kind.

To me, some of the funniest parts of your novel were the scenes where you describe how Martin was going to get his revenge on Alice, Henry the dog man, the court, and then on the world. Did you have a favorite part?

SS: I loved writing that whole fourth part. It was fun to invent ways, relevant, appropriate ways, for him to go after those who’d wronged him. It was fast writing. I enjoyed letting Martin Manning loose and watching him do his thing.

Your bio says that you teach writing fiction, writing humor and comedy, creative writing, and freshman writing at Drexel University; do you find yourself drawing on things from your courses for your writing?

SS: I don’t draw on my courses for my writing.

Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" writers. Which are you? What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

SS: Fiction writing is all hard. Until it’s easy. Getting started, finding the right voice and pace, finding the approach that works for that book, that’s very hard for me. Once I’ve found that, it’s still intense, draining, but it’s fun, and easy in that it feels right and moves quickly.

I am a character and plot writer. I can’t separate them. For me, the character dictates the plot very, very early on. Who is the character, what would challenge him? That is the beginning of plot. Then the plot goes forward and shapes the character. How he responds to the challenges of the plot is what makes him the character he is. Character and plot feed off of each other.

What are your goals for the future? Do you have other ideas for novels that you'd like to write or do you plan to focus more on your online magazine, When Falls the Coliseum: a journal of American culture (or lack thereof)? (Personally, I hope you're writing another novel featuring Martin campaigning for president.)

SS: I am working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it except that I’ve got a long way to go. I plan to continue to work on When Falls the Coliseum. No sequel for Mean Martin Manning is in the works. If there were to be one, I don’t see Martin as a willing candidate for office.

As a reader, what do you enjoy reading? Any favorite authors?

SS: I read a bit of everything—history, biography, fiction, philosophy, and science. I don’t have a favorite author.

Do you read your reviews, and if so, what's the oddest one you've ever received.

SS: I do read the reviews. In publishing these days especially, authors have to be willing to do their own self-promotion. So reading reviews and trying to get press attention for your books is a part of the process that I participate in. I don’t know if I’ve had odd reviews. I can think of one where the reviewer didn’t get the book, didn’t appear to have read carefully, but I’ve been lucky. Most of my reviews were written by people who clearly read and got the books, and thought about them. Both the Philadelphia City Paper and The American Spectator reviews made the connections to the larger issues Mean Martin Manning addresses while still appreciating the humor and fun of the novel.

More of Scott's writings can be found online at his site, When Falls the Coliseum. His book, Mean Martin Manning, can be purchased online through his publisher, ENC Press.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Book 1 of 178, done

Finished Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams on the subway yesterday. Actual review to come, but I'll say quickly that I liked it. It was a different take on the military and the war, with the additional trials and tribulations of being a female in the military.

Monday, January 04, 2010

One year ago

...I broke down my reading for 2008. I'd read 168 books that year and my goal was to add ten books to that number in 2009.

I read sixty-eight books in 2009. Sixty-eight books. I can't even begin to wrap my head around this small, pitifully tiny number. Sixty-eight books.

Do you think I'll jinx myself (again) if I say I'm going to read 178 books in 2010?


Sassymonkey just posted her 2010 reading goals, which got me thinking about my own. I've already sworn off reading challenges this year, have already stated my desire to read more military nonfiction, need to finish reading the books I started last year (like Mere Christianity and Bleak House--actually, Bleak House should be started from the beginning, if we're being honest, it's been that long.), need to read 2666 (my roommate gave the set to me eleven months ago and I haven't started it), and I too should spend some time reading the books on my shelves.

That's good, right? I should be able to hit 178 books. That's only ... 14.8 books per month ... 3.7 books per week ... .5 books a day...