The Internet, Jonathan Franzen, and distractions

About a year ago, literary novelist Jonathan Franzen shared his “10 rules for novelists”. Number 8 was:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure I would be this absolutist about the matter. But as someone old enough to have reached adulthood before the Internet was “a thing”, I can appreciate just how distracting cyberspace can be.

It was bad enough in the beginning. But then came social media (I’ll spare you my usual rant), and those damned smartphones. 

As for Jonathan Franzen: The guy gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. Yes, he is quirky and eccentric. Yes, he is fashionably progressive and eye-rollingly politically correct in his politics. But no more so than many other people in the arts.

I’ve read two of his novels: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). I thought both books were pretty good. 

Perfect autobiographical memory

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), or hyperthymesia, is a rare condition in which an individual remembers every single day of his or her life in precise detail.

Less than a hundred people in the world are believed to have perfect hyperthymesia. One of them is actress Marilu Henner. In 2012 she published a book about her memory (with tips for how to improve yours) called Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. 

(I’ve read it, by the way—it’s a worthwhile book if you’re interested in this topic.)

‘The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon’ by Dana Schwartz

I was poking around on Twitter today when I came across news of The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz, which is soon to be released.

At first I groaned, thinking that this was another  bitch-fest about white people, white males, blah, blah, blah. (Think Sarah Jeong…)

But as I dug a bit deeper, I discovered that it might be something rare in these humorless times: an unabashed book of satire. 

And here is where Dana Schwartz parts ways with the likes of Sarah Jeong. Whereas Sarah Jeong made nasty tweets about inflicting pain on white men and white genocide, Dana Schwartz is making Dave Barry-esque puns on F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Shakespeare. Her sales pitch, “Whether you love the big White Male Writers, or you love to hate the big White Male Writers, you’ll enjoy this book…” suggests to me that she’s all about humor, not hate. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt until I learn otherwise, anyways. 

I’m from the 1980s. We aren’t sensitive back there. The 1980s was the era of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (a parody of stereotypical masculinity) and Robin Williams uttering the memorable line, “You are in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history,” in Good Morning, Vietnam. The 1980s was the era of Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck If

But it was also the era of Eddie Murphy satirizing gay men in Beverly Hills Cop. There were jokes about Young Outraged Militants and Minorities (YOMAMas). There were jokes about women, and yes—gasp!—transgenders. 

Everyone—straight white men, African Americans,  women, gays, etc.—were fair game in the 1980s, as long as the gags were done in a spirit of humor, not hatred.

And that’s the way it should be.

View The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz on Amazon

“Why I hate Goodreads”

No, not me, but this guy: a YouTuber who goes by the moniker “the Bald Book Geek.”

(And no, the Bald Book Geek and I are not related, just because we’re both bald and pale!)

There’s a lot to unpack in the video.

He complains that Goodreads, a US site, is US-centric. Well, most websites based in France tend to be Franco-centric, most Chinese sites are Sino-centric, and so on. But okay, I get it…Yankee imperialism, and all that. 

I agree with him about a few things: The website is YA-centric, and there is a tendency toward a mob mindset. (The Bald Book Geek mentions the mindless mob attacks on The Black Witch of a few years ago.)

On the other side, there have indeed been cases of authors harassing reviewers who  pan books. 

In short, Goodreads is a social media site, and it is therefore prone to all the normal problems associated with social media. (As many of you will know, I am no fan of social media in general. Don’t even get me started about Twitter….)

I wouldn’t say that I hate Goodreads, but I don’t exactly love it, either. And perhaps that’s for the best. The general consensus is that authors aren’t really welcome there, which is fine with me.

Goodreads is a site for readers, and review culture. That vibe would obviously change if authors were constantly posting “buy my book!” messages, and sparring with reviewers who failed to leave 4- and 5-star reviews. 

What I’m reading: ‘Judgement’ by Joseph Finder

I love Joseph Finder’s corporate and legal conspiracy thrillers.

Some of you have asked me which authors I enjoy reading, which ones I look up to artistically.

Well, Joseph Finder is definitely on my A-list. His books have been a major influence behind several of my corporate conspiracy thrillers, including The Eavesdropper.

Finder doesn’t have quite the name recognition of a Clive Cussler or a David Baldacci, let alone James Patterson.

Finder’s books are categorized as thrillers, for bookstore shelving purposes, but what they really are is suspense.

That means fewer car chases and shootouts than you’ll find in something written by Patterson or Cussler. His books are highly entertaining, but they aren’t pure escapism. They are very lifelike. Patterson has said that he doesn’t do realism. Joseph Finder does do realism, and he does it quite well.

The typical Joseph Finder novel involves a lawyer or a corporate professional in an unusual situation, with lots of conflict and menace, but–I repeat–not the over-the-top action you’ll find in most thrillers.

Judgement is about a married female judge who is presiding over a sensitive, high-stakes case. One night while she’s out of town on business, she sleeps with a handsome stranger on a whim.

But that stranger is not who he appears to be. (Handsome and beautiful strangers in novels almost never are.)

***

Another thing about Finder’s books: They often involve intersections of crime, sex, and business.

Good stuff, all the way. I’m reading Judgement on my exercise bike each morning. Great entertainment for those 5:00 a.m. rides in the basement!

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

‘Tartuffe’ by Molière (Richard Wilbur translation)

If you are in the mood for some 17th-century French drama (and why wouldn’t you be?), then you can’t go wrong with Tartuffe, by Molière.

And you don’t even have to read French. This translation by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) is excellent, and quite probably an improvement on the original French version.

I’ve written about Richard Wilbur before on this site. His poems are probably the best examples of American poetry written during the twentieth century. Wilbur brings all of his skill to bear in his translation of Tartuffe.

Lewis Thomas made biology fun

During my freshman year in college (1986-87), one of the more eclectic items on the reading list of my honors English class was Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

The book gave me several gifts.

First of all, I learned that the sciences can be fun. Secondly (and closely related to the first), I learned the value of being well-rounded, both academically and experientially. 

At that point in my life, I considered myself an “arts and letters” person. I often disdained science and math, as well as more practical tasks like automobile maintenance. 

Now I know better. I want to learn everything. I am, in many ways, far more open-minded at 51 than I was at 19.

While this book is not entirely responsible for that shift, it did play a role.

When ordinary life goes awry

Joseph Finder is the master of the suspense novel in which ordinary people are thrust into extraordinary situations.

His stories often take place in corporate settings. (His books were a major influence on at least one of my novels, The Eavesdropper.)

The Switch is a novel about what can happen when you pick up the wrong laptop by mistake in the airport security line.

An ordinary situation…but not so ordinary.

 


Basic economics in one volume

Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, now in it’s 5th edition, is one of my favorite economics texts for the lay reader.

This book gives you the equivalent of a college-level Economics 101 course. (And I should know: Economics was my undergraduate major.)

I will warn you: This book is long (about 700 pages) and parts of it are a little dry. But it is well worth the effort, if you want a basic understanding of how modern economies work.


You can learn a lot from a rock star

I am old enough to remember when KISS lunch boxes were all the rage among the elementary school crowd.

The music of the rock band KISS is admittedly an acquired taste. So, arguably, is the personality of KISS bassist Gene Simmons.

Simmons is outspoken and politically incorrect. He has never been hampered by a lack of self-confidence.

But Simmons also has an inspiring life story–from early childhood poverty in Israel, to mega-riches and fame in the United States. His is literally a rags-to-riches story.

Wouldn’t you like to know how he did it? I sure did–which is why I bought and devoured his book, Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business