Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The New Pat Conroy Novel

Pages from Conroy's manuscript

It has been almost 14 years since Pat Conroy published Beach Music. 22 years since The Prince of Tides. In the intervening years, he's done a memoir on basketball from his years playing at the Citadel. He wrote his passion project, a cookbook with essays and stories. Yet in the back of his mind, he's always had the idea for the big Charleston novel, a story that's been brewing since he moved from San Francisco back to the east coast in the mid-nineties. He's had things to say about the Holy City since he last left it (fictionally) in The Lords of Discipline in 1980.

South of Broad should be out next September. For those who expect the inevitable delays with a Conroy novel (Beach Music was delayed for years), I would say rest easy. The novel is finished; it's edited (original manuscript weighed in around 1400 pages), and no one is happier about that than Mr. Conroy himself (perhaps Sandra, his wife, is happier).

The novel will be big, epic, like the others (final book weighs in somewhere around 600 pages). Stylistically, Pat remains acute in his sensitivity, sprawling in his images, and is still the overwriting show-off that I love him for--except even better. He continues to grow as a writer, a claim he's shy about, but one I think is true.

Leo, his protagonist, is a newspaper reporter in Charleston, and a large chunk of the plot revolves around a serial killer and a high-profile murder in the 1980s (all invented [no ripping from headlines here]). But Conroy has not morphed into the thriller writer by any stretch. His main character remains the Lowcountry of South Carolina, his story centers more around relationships and his eminently likeable Joycean protagonist. At the height of the novel's intensity is a mind-blowing chapter involving the serial killer and Hurricane Hugo (the still legendary storm that leveled Charleston and several towns to the north in 1989). If you are a Conroy connoisseur, you can look forward to a novel that recalls The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in terms of scope and style.

Note: As a favor, and because I love Pat dearly, I typed the last third or so of the book, but because I am still first a fan (I will do a big blog entry soon on my friendship with Pat), I asked him not to send the final two chapters. I have not read the entire novel and don't want to until it comes out. I want the all-absorbing experience of curling up on the couch on a rainy day, cracking the cover on a big new Conroy book, and swimming in his worlds--just like you do.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Life seems to be injecting lists into my daily experience. The NY Times has the best books of 2008 (already). Another blog I read has 75 books every man should read. There were the 10 Commandments on Sunday. Another blog I came across has 101 things you don't know about [him the blogger]. And just last week someone asked me about my favorite books.

Lists are hard. But I like them. They interest as much for what they include as for what they don't. They elicit opinions--sometimes strong ones. They force self-reflection, solicit new lists, promote discussion. I'm not David Letterman, but I think I'll try some of these.

Here's a top ten contemporary novel list with a tie for ten:

1. The Prince of Tides (turned me on my head at age 20...had no idea language could do this to a person)
2. Sophie's Choice (a dilemma that leveled me...I was never the same)
3. Lonesome Dove (I didn't know I could love two characters, fictional characters)
4. Pillars of the Earth (epic, beautiful, and what medieval times must've been like)
5. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb is a small god that stirs my soul)
6. Shantaram (a true story, haunting, and so evocative I dreamed about it)
7. Middlesex (writing so beautiful I called people on the phone to read to them)
8. The Things They Carried (the best book about war ever written)
9. The Secret History (the most brilliant first novel I've ever read)
10. The Cider House Rules (John Irving is a genius, pure and simple)
10. A Prayer for Owen Meany (I'll say it again...John Irving is a genius)

And how about a top ten classic American novel list:

1. The Great Gatsby (I want to live in Nick Carroway's spare bedroom)
2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus is my hero and role model)
3. Fahrenheit 451 (one of the coolest plots and best titles ever)
4. Crime & Punishment (Raskolnikov is one of the best characters ever created)
5. A River Runs Through It (contemporary, but a classic. A heartbreaking poem really)
6. Of Mice and Men (Lenny--unforgettably tragic; George profoundly just)
7. A Lesson Before Dying (how to be a man, applicable to any generation, any race)
8. Huck Finn (no comment necessary)
9. The Sound and the Fury (Quentin, the existential man)
10. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway's opus)

Wow, I should've done top twenties. Huge gaps, huge gaps.... Got thoughts of your own? I'd love to hear them.

Dear Friends, Here's a DEAL for YOU!

But first a small rant: the handwritten letter has died. It is no more. I see desks with no pens, no stationery. I receive mail with no handwriting whatsoever on any part, not even the envelope. Why is that? Too many things vying for attention...Frenetic society that allows no self-reflection...unwillingness to handwrite what could easily be communicated by email (w/ all its attendant shorthand, LOL! BFF...GMAB)?

I don't have an answer for you. But I have a solution. Let's not lament. Instead, let's write some letters. Not typewritten, not printed on the laser printer, but handwritten. I confess, it's difficult. But here's the deal.

I'll write you a letter. Just send me your address (for this part, yes, email is perfect). You just have to promise to write someone else a handwritten letter. Pay it forward. Deal?

Write soon.

Love, Sean

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Apologies in Advance to Kindle Lovers

I know I'm going to make some enemies here, but I have to say it: I don't want a Kindle. My dad wants one. A few friends of mine have them. I've used them. I see what it's about. If you have been asleep for the last year or two, then you may not know that this white slab of genius circuitry allows one to read books, newspapers, magazines, anything electronic really, on a glare-free magnifiable touch screen. You can access online newspapers, read this blog in fact. You have access to Wickipedia, your own Word docs, and a special website where you can download complete books in under a minute.

Let's face it, the utilitarian benefits are undeniable. And, sure, I could definitely use one. For example, I travel quite a bit still (yes, unusual for a real estate agent, but what can I say?), and having a Kindle in my bag would make life far easier than my last trip where I had the latest Entertainment Magazine (love the reviews in there), the two latest novels I was reading, along with a book on writing. Add to that two journals and the business material I needed for the trip, and I looked like an evicted librarian skulking away with a bag full of loot. Would my trip have been lighter with the Kindle in the bag? Sure. But I still don't want one.

Cue Violins: I have to smell the pages. I have to hold the book, feel the crispness of the corners. I like the paperbacks to have the even creases along the spines after they're read. I get a little giddy when a signed first edition has the glassine jacket protector and it crinkles just a little when you open it to the signature. And I want the bookshelf stuffed full. Gotta have the books.

I like to lay down the book, fan the pages, reread an earlier chapter. Some books I underline, highlight, fold pages. Some I put between bookends, showcase their aesthetic beauty (right now, I have signed first editions of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End in perfect blocked beauty atop an end table). The rest color the shelves.

I am not a Luddite. I just don't want the Kindle. A new book lamp might be nice, though.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Argument for the Library Card, Part II

Writer Susan Cheever's bookshelves (ah, the envy)

Book Selectivity: it's like promising yourself you won't go out with an unattractive girl. Picking what to read is a dance: flirt with the cover, read the blurbs on the back, scan the jacket copy, see if you know anyone in the acknowledgments. I like to read the first sentence, the first page or two. Sometimes, I read the first chapter, and sometimes, I find myself in line buying the damn thing. Can't not buy, can't not buy.

But sometimes (and as a writer, this genuinely pains me), I give it the three minute appraisal and put it back on the shelf (can't we just be friends?)--reducing what was probably thousands of hours in the making to a mere three-minute consideration. I assert this is life, kids, but oh, how unfair. Like the audition, like the college application, like the demo CD (speed dating, anyone?). Consumer subjectivity becomes the bane of all artists. Taste be damned. Could there ever be a written work that has 100% universal appeal? NO, and if I put your book back on the shelf, I apologize. It's not fair, and I admit it.

If I can commit to reading 50 books a year, then that means statistically I am reading .00029% of all the books published annually (isn't it fun to think that every single one was written by SOMEONE, and was read by SOMEONE?). I do my part by buying the ones I read, and the selection process is a tough one. On a certain level, I do understand the capriciousness of the book editor. On the other hand, what makes it onto the shelf is well-loved.

How I wish to be like Carol (her comment to my last entry was that she reads nearly a book a day): less discriminating, more inclusive, better read. Better conversationalist. Her library card is flat worn out. She buys only what she must. She reads the way a great white eats: whatever is in front of her. And I know first-hand. I sent her my novel; I had a two-page synopsis/critique the following afternoon.

For whatever reason, this dichotomy fascinates me. One approach is like breathing, the other aroma therapy. Necessity? Luxury? Either way, it's all good. Here's to pages turning.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Argument for the Library Card

Okay, I have a friend (Carol would be most upset if I shared her name) who reads books like one breathes oxygen. Note: please resist the urge to channel my bad metaphors entry from yesterday.

Unnamed friend Carol makes a habit of reading all the fiction and poetry submissions for the National Book Award each year and then deciding who she thinks should win. I would never have known this had I not casually mentioned an entry or two as being particularly noteworthy. Aside from her prodigious skills as a quick and thorough reader, I find it remarkable how many books she reads--I will guess on average 100 books a year. BTW, Matthiesen is a shoe-in.

I read around 50. I am proud of this fact. Some years it ends up being fewer (particularly this year where I have been working on a novel), some years more. My personal goal is a book a week. Well, this type of reading, though it may sound like a lot--requires discrimination and selectivity. I had this discussion with another friend of mine, and her comment was that I am nuts if I buy all the books I read.

Confession: I do. I spend obscene amounts of money at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, ABEbooks. I have a library card, and it gathers dust like an old library card in an attic with poor ventilation gathers dust (okay, channel the bad metaphor discussion). Unnamed friend Carol does not buy her books. Other unnamed friend does not buy her books either. They borrow. They return. They own no bad books.

Me, I have to have them. Have to have them all (the REALLY bad ones, I do return). They're a visual history. They tell me what I know, where I've been. I pull them off the shelf, smell the pages, fell the edges. If my brain had a picture, my bookshelf would be it. Book knowledge by photo. Tactile history.

Thomas Jefferson when he died was the last person who could legitimately claim to have read every book in print. His library numbered 10,000 volumes. This has become another goal of mine--not the reading part. With 175,000 new books a year, it can't happen. But the 10,000 volumes? I'm working on it. By the time I'm senile, my books should hold up the roof. By then I won't remember what's in them, and I can start over.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bad Writing: Let's Go There

Here are some nuggets to make you feel better. Some of these horrific examples (a few of which are actually pretty clever) come from student essays (allegedly), and a few are from my own experience.

Let's look at some of great failed metaphors. These people really took the teacher's advice to heart of avoiding the cliche, but oh, what a mess they made otherwise.

1. He was as tall as a six-foot-three inch tree.
2. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
3. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for while.
4. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
5. It hurt, the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
6. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
7. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.
8. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a landmine or something.
9. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”
10. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef

Then there are the horrible descriptions, such as "He began to think about starting to run." Or maybe this one: "Utterly dismayed, she threw up her arms." (Kinda gross if you ask me).

Then, there's the worst dialogue phrase ever written (courtesy of Richard Connell in "The Most Dangerous Game"): "Pistol shots," muttered Rainsford, swimming on.

Who says this to himself?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm Such a Sucker

AP photo by Jim Cole

I'm a flag-waver, but not a sign carrier. I tend to keep to myself politically and regardless of my affiliations, I carry immense respect for whoever occupies the Oval Office.

I met Bob Schieffer once, and I asked him what it was like to stand in the Oval Office with the President of the United States, and he said it was the closest thing to a religious experience he'd had outside of a church. It was a comment that derived from a respect for the office and our nation's history, more so than the person occupying it.

But to my point, regardless of our presidents (or presidents-elect), I'm a sucker for the ones with literary bent. I've shaken Jimmy Carter's hand as he signed a book of poems for me. I've met John McCain as he inscribed his memoir. I admire Bill Clinton's literary acumen and fondness of Southern fiction. Kennedy's love for poetry. But I especially respect Barack Obama for his literary accomplishments--more precisely his reputation as a writer before he became an elected official.

While The Audacity of Hope chronicled his political thoughts garnered his freshman year as a U.S. senator, his first book Dreams From My Father was written well before his documented path to president became a focus. Consider this excerpt from the October 13, 2008 New Yorker:

Not since Theodore Roosevelt has an American politician this close to the pinnacle of power produced such a sustained, highly personal work of literary merit before being definitively swept up by the tides of political ambition....

A Presidential election is not the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize: we elect a politician and we hope, a statesman, not an author. But Obama's first book is valuable in the way that it reveals his fundamental attitudes of mind and spirit. "Dreams From My Father" is an illuminating memoir not only in the substance of Obama's own peculiarly American story but also in the qualities he brings to the telling: a formidable intelligence, emotional empathy, self-reflection, balance, and a remarkable ability to see life and the world through the eyes of people very different from himself.