Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wait, like, that Cold Water Flat?

finished: Tinkers by Paul Harding
next up: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves

current audio listen: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

From the "Who Knew?" files: Paul Harding, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, is Paul Harding, who was in the 90s band Cold Water Flat.

OK, so I'm a bit late to the Tinkers party. But here's the thing: I was totally one of the few who were AT the Cold Water Flat party, so what do you have to say about that, huh?  It's true. When it comes to mid-1990s alterna-pop and non-top 40 radio, I am your girl. Better than Ezra? Jennifer Trynin? Grant Lee Buffalo? Sinead Lohan? Freedy Johnston? Bring it. Been there, done that, bought the CDs, because those were the days when you liked the single played on the radio so much that you went to Zia or (R.I.P.) Tower and bought the CD, not like now when you like the song played on the radio/Lastfm/Spotify/YouTube so much that you go to iTunes and buy the song. Which you already know and hear all the time. What's the fun in that?

Anyway, so Cold Water Flat is in fact one of the bands that is even a tiny bit more special for me because I was also at the Internet party in 1995 (when many of you -- don't deny it! -- were still a bit befuddled by all this talk of Telnet and chat rooms and the beginning to appear under the names of readers who wrote letters to the editor of Newsweek. So it was still somewhat of a novelty for me to e-mail Cold Water Flat at the e-mail address printed in their liner notes and talk about how I worked at my (ASU) college radio station and their upcoming show in Phoenix and so on ... and I got a response! I totally emailed with someone from Cold Water Flat back in the day! And no, I can't remember any of the details. Or even that long gone ASU e-mail address of mine. I transferred to USC the next year, and eventually the whole world got online, and the past faded away.

Fast forward to 2010. I'm in Chicago. I've got 700 books on my Goodreads "to-read" list. Tinkers by Paul Harding wins the Pulitzer for Fiction. No one has ever heard of this book. The interesting story in all the press and interviews and newspapers is how it was rejected by publishers before the tiny Bellevue Literary Press printed it in all its small but remarkable literary silence. The New York Times' "Look who wrote a Pulitzer" piece doesn't even mention that he was in a band until the fourth paragraph; the name Cold Water Flat comes in paragraph 14. I didn't read that New York Times piece in 2010. I noted the Pulitzer winners (because, um, I always do, since I kind of am obsessed with the Pulitzers) but all I remember thinking about Tinkers was, "Oh, that's really small. What is it? Oh, it's a tiny little white book. Note to self: read Tinkers."  The title and description evoked in my mind someone older than, you know, my approximate age or a few years older. The author was obviously literary, an Iowa Wrtiers' Workshop graduate, and I mentally placed him in his 50s. (Oh, hush, you know we all make random judgments like that.)

Fast forward again to May 2012. I'm catching up on recent Pulitzer winning fiction, and I check out Tinkers from the Phoenix public library. I read it in a day or two. I like it a lot. I start reading some of the post-Pulitzer  press, no longer afraid of spoilers, devouring the info about this literary wonder author who was checking the Pulitzer web site to see who won when he discovered that he won. And then I see: the drummer for Cold Water Flat. Such a flashback! Two of my worlds colliding!

I try to picture myself driving around Phoenix or L.A. in the late 1990s. I may have sold my Cold Water Flat CD in one of my great used CD purges -- back when you could actually get some money that way. Would I have ever imagined that one of the members of this band would write a novel that would surprise everyone by quietly becoming a Pulitzer Prize winner? Would the members of the band have imagined it, either?

I love creative people.

Oh, and guess what? Jen(nifer) Trynin has written a book, too. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The beauty of Tinkers

now finished: Tinkers by Paul Harding

I've caught up on another Pulitzer winning novel, and this one is small and wonderful. Most summaries say something like, "A dying man thinks back on his life" and while that is true that is not the entirety of this work. I think the real magic in Tinkers is the way that two stories are told, of two different men, and yet you slowly come to realize how connected we all are, even when separated, and how much our stories are part of one another's stories.

Also, the Maine setting works painfully perfectly for this novel. It, too, is vivid and magical. And so literary! And, yes, a wee bit mournful, I'd say:

"Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn't it? ...And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough. - p. 72

There are several surprising, delightful moments, like when Russell the Cat makes an appearance. I immediately loved Russell the Cat, and remember him well, brief though his time was on the Tinkers stage:

"The children were astonished by the ham that Kathleen had cooked for the Christmas meal. It was the largest they had ever seen. It was covered in a crust of brown sugar and molasses. Buddy the Dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners. Kathleen shooed him with a kick in the ribs, but he just let out a yelp and stayed put. Russell the Cat came into the room, too, and sat facing the wall, away from the table, cleaning his paws, as if an affectation of utter disinterest might be the trick to getting a scrap." - p.83

Why did the Bellevue Press publish this book? In part, this is a story about epilepsy. In part, it is about humanity.  It is about what it means to work, to feel, and to make a life. In part, it is about what it means to be mentally ill and the judgments we freely cast on one another.

"Is it not true: A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools?" - p. 124

When I used to review advance reader copies as a Borders front-of-store person, the cards I filled out for the Random House rep asked me to compare the book to another work. (This, to get the bookseller thinking about recommending it to readers, obvio.) I think Tinkers feels a bit like "The Little Match Girl."

Also, when you read Tinkers you will learn about clocks. And you will like doing so.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Island of the Day Before

now finished: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was one of the sure bets in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project to make the top half, in which I am revisiting my top 13 authors by reading another book of theirs. The book I read for 'E' is for Eco during the original project, The Name of the Rose, was so perfectly what I expected it to be -- including interesting and good, along with much more -- that I became convinced he would continue to be perfectly what I expected of him in his other works. I had always thought I'd read Foucault's Pendulum  next, it being so "the other book by Umberto Eco" famous and all, and I've even touched it many a time, but instead I am in hanging out in Phoenix and my local branch of the library had The Island of the Day Before on the shelf and I was there and could have put a request for the Pendulum to be transferred from another branch but The Island of the Day Before was about a man shipwrecked on a ship, and it was blue...I like blue things...

OK, so this was a strange book.

I can truly appreciate the Goodreads reviewer who referred to its "150 page screening process to weed out the unworthy."  I really did not know what was happening for quite some time and I wasn't sure if I was enjoying the book at all, but it ends up getting kind of trippy and good, at least in parts.

I know, I know, it doesn't sound like a very enthusiastic recommendation, and there are so many of you who are all like, "I ain't gonna work to read a book" and that's fine, just go on back to your Hunger Games, now, really. Run along. Umberto Eco melds philosophy and whimsy and wink-wink cleverness and social criticism and story and literary allusions (including to himself) and some weirdness and some history and god knows what all else. There is no "OMG I literally hunger for these games" here.

Sometimes The Island of the Day Before is straightforwardly clever, such as when Roberto della Griva's father advises him, "Well, war's an ugly animal, that's sure. Anyway, my son, never forget: always be good, but if somebody comes at you and means to kill you, then he's in the wrong. Am I right?" - p. 51 

Sometimes it's wry:  "He was now so sure an Intruder was on board that his first thought was this: Finally he had proof he was not drunk. Which is, after all, the proof drunks constantly seek." - p. 200

Sometimes there's a kind of winking sympathy directed at the reader: "We could say that Roberto had definitely lost his mind, and with very good reason; no matter how he calculated, the figures would not add up. The paradoxes of time can indeed unhinge us." -p. 338   This basically sums up the experience of the main character and yet also the reader of the book.

I personally think the book became excellent when he started philosophizing with Father Caspar about religion, swimming, the universe, and so on.

And really, who else but Umberto Eco could use the word "hircocervi"? I mean, sure, he wrote in Italian and the translator used the word "hircocervi," but the Italian could very well be the same, and I'm sure you get my larger point. Who writes about hircocervi, mentioned in a passing metaphor? Umberto Eco, that's who.

Have I mentioned that the ship on which Roberto della Griva is shipwrecked, as well as the island he can see but can't swim to, as well as the story he is writing, as well as a few other things are these incredibly layered metaphors?  Have I mentioned that "the day before" refers to the international date line, which thoroughly trips out our hero Roberto, as he thinks about the ramifications of swimming to yesterday?  Have you ever thought about how central figuring out longitude calculations can be to life on Earth as we know it?  These days, we see how nuts some religious folks can be about evolutionary biology, dinosaurs, and prayer before football games. I thought about that as our characters grappled with what longitude says about papal conceptions of Earth's place in the universe, and as they matter-of-factly discoursed on whether God created infinite worlds and the meaning of atoms, The Void, and all being essentially being nothing.
Some books are easy to talk about. This isn't one of them. I enthusiastically recommend this book, but unlike The Name of the Rose, the list of  people to whom I'd recommend this one is pretty small.

Page numbers I cited are from ISBN 0-14-0259198

Friday, May 18, 2012

Everlasting: Then and Now

just re-read: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Anyone who was in Mrs. Muscato's SAGE reading class at Sunrise Elementary undoubtedly remembers the "Good Books" quarterly(?) book report projects. Each student read a different book and completed an extensive report/questions/activities, and then for the next go-round selected a different book, which might be the one a friend had read the previous quarter, or the one a different friend would read the next quarter, or even the next school year, as SAGE students attended SAGE Reading from third through sixth grades. The rotating list of titles included loads of classics: A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch at Blackbird Pond, My Brother Sam Is Dead, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, etc., and we were all aware of which ones our classmates were reading. I never got around to some of the books, such as A Separate Peace, although I read that later in life. Everyone did Bridge to Terabithia at some point in SAGE; that was sort of the all-around acclaimed favorite. "It's soooo good!!" we would gush to one another when we were on our Terabithia rotation. But I had a secret, at ten years old: I liked Tuck Everlasting more.

Not everyone cycled through Tuck Everlasting; it was a bit more obscure of a choice. I remember being drawn to it and feeling a sense of calmness in its pages, a depth. Occasionally when I worked at Borders during my twenties I spied a copy of it in the children's section and was glad to know it was still around. I noticed when the movie was made a while back, but I didn't go see it -- the vivid image from my childhood reading was still sufficient in my mind. Last week, as I strolled through the Phoenix Public Library looking for something else, I noticed the book on a shelf and picked it up, wondering if I would like it as much now as I did 25 years ago. I stood there and started reading.

I ended up checking it out of course, to bring home and savor again.

There's a mention early in chapter one of the wood that belongs to the Fosters. "The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it," the narration tells us. "How deep after all can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he own it all the way down...Or does ownership consist only of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of trespassing?"

Interesting, I thought, standing there in the library children's section. This is how I think.

I began remembering how philosophical Tuck Everlasting is. Then, Winnie starts talking to the toad, and I remembered the toad. I remembered that the toad was significant --significant enough, as I recall, that there was a question about him in the Good Books set of activity questions.

When I got home from the library, I lay on the couch and quickly devoured the book, relating once again to the part where Winnie doesn't want to keep the fish they catch so they throw it back, remembering the house and the pond and the man in the yellow suit and the sheriff, reliving the jail switcheroo late in the book, Jesse's offer, and the fate of the toad.

At our ten-year high school reunion, a friend of mine observed that while people had changed quite a bit since high school in many ways, there was something about the essence of a person that remained the same, recognizable, an inner something that was still just them. There is some Linda-ness in me that was in me at age nine that is still in me in my thirties. This book, with its profound message and big philosophical questions and somewhat earthy-crunchy/somewhat atheist sensibility, spoke to that Lindaness then -- before I even knew how much those things were a part of my Lindaness -- and still speaks to that Lindaness now. 

I guess my love for Tuck Everlasting is...well...everlasting!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Yearling

now finished:  The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
What did I know about The Yearling before reading it? Let's see:

1. It's about a boy and a deer.
2. It's sad.
3. It won a Pulitzer.
4. It was a movie. Father Mulcahy goes on and on about the movie in a particular M*A*S*H episode.
5. Have I mentioned the deer?

Well, I am now pleased to inform you that I know much more about The Yearling, having finally read it and checked off another Pulitzer winner/classic/book-we-should-have-read-in-high-school/American gem from my list(s).  I savored the experience of reading it and promptly gave it five stars on Goodreads.

I want to talk like the Baxters and Forresters and other people around those parts where the book is set, in northern late 1800s Florida. Pa Baxter, aka Penny, is maybe my new hero, although I sure do like Buck Forrester as well. Jody's Pa is just so wise and wonderful, though, and I love when he says things like, "There's dogs is bear dogs, and dogs that jest isn't bear dogs" and "When there's trouble waitin' for you, you jest as good go to meet it" (promptly followed by a snake bite -- ouch!) and, in response to Ma saying that he would stick up for the devil himself, "I reckon I would. The devil gits blamed for a heap o' things is nothin' but human cussedness."  This man, simply put, rules.

Neighbor Buck, on the other hand, won my heart when he said, "I git that-a-way. I like to come and I like to go. Wherever I be, I'm content a while, and then I jest someway ain't content no more." - p. 185  He was also nice enough to help out the Baxters while snakebit Pa was lying in bed recovering. I might add that another wonderful character in that chapter was the drunken Doc, who admitted that he did little to actually help cure Pa, and who was funny about the whiskey and other things, like in this exchange:

Jody said, "I'll be back shore, before dinner."
"Reckon you'd not git home a-tall," she said, "if 'twasn't for dinner-time."
Doc said, "That's man-nature, Ma'am, Three things bring a man home again -- his bed, his woman and his dinner." -p.166

There is also the use of the marvelous word "faintified," more than once, in this book. I swoon.

But in addition to the perfect vernacular of certain characters' dialogue, there is also the subtle philosophy to consider.

"He climbed to the top of the load of hay and lay flat on his back, staring at the sky. He decided that the world was a very peculiar place to live in. Things happened that had no reason and made no sense and did harm, like the bears and panthers, but without their excuse of hunger. He did not approve." - p. 269

This is just a really well-crafted story, a gem of a book, that speaks to all of us with life experience who have ever had to go through the loss of something and learn things. (All of us.) Like Moby Dick and pretty much all of U.S. History class, I think The Yearling is wasted on young'uns.

"None of us don't know what we want 'til it's mebbe too late to git it." - p. 347

The way nature is woven into this book is well done. Some people don't really go for a lot of nature in their books. Sparkly vampires are apparently OK, but actual frogs and panthers and trees are "boring." However, the whole point of this entire novel is how these people live off the land and depend on the Earth and on one another. It's a different kind of community, and the fullness of emotions that Jody feels when at the sink-hole or on a hunt suck the reader in. I especially relate to this: "He decided that sunrise and sunset both gave him a pleasantly sad feeling. The sunrise brought a wild, free sadness; the sunset, a lonely yet a comforting one. He indulged his agreeable melancholy until the earth under him turned from gray to lavender and then to the color of dried corn husks. -p. 397

Of course, what many people remember about The Yearling is the sad ending. Naturally, I knew a sad ending was coming and I braced myself for it, but I found it not nearly as gut-wrenching as I expected. I think it's because I was so philosophically prepared for it not just because the book is so famous and all but because I was so wrapped up in what this book teaches us about the way life's cycles invariably complete themselves, not to mention the inevitable fact that life is hard. Totally awesome, and totally hard.

"He lay in a stupor of weariness. He hung suspended in a timeless space. He could go neither forward nor back. Something was ended. Nothing was begun." - p. 422

And then it was over, and I moved on from reading The Yearling. But not before telling you to read it, too!

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Mattie and Margarita

now finished:
Nacer Bailando by Alma Flor Ada
and True Grit by Charles Portis

During the last weekend in April I finished two books. Don't be impressed; they were both short and sweet.I checked out Nacer Bailando from the library because I like reading in Spanish and French from time to time to keep up my language ability (although I recognize that what I really need is to improve my speaking ability in both of those languages). My intention is to read a Spanish and a French book each month, which is why I sometimes pick up young adult books, to at least get a bit closer to that goal! So much fail, there. Anyway, True Grit was cosmic because my mother and Brian and I had recently watched the original John Wayne movie after discussing how much Brian and I loved the Coen brothers' remake, whereas the original is a film beloved by my mother that I recall being on in the living room quite often during my childhood. The three of us also went to Utah recently to clean out my late grandfather's garage, and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a copy of that novel. Needless to say we did not include it in our donate-to-charity boxes, but instead brought it down to Phoenix and all read it in succession.

Nacer Bailando was good. I want to give it to my niece and nephew (in English--they are so resistant to my wishes that they become bilingual at an early age!)  Its central characters are Margaraita, a Texas-born California resident of Mexican heritage who discovers when her Mexican-born cousin comes to live with her that it's okay to like her Mexican heritage as much as her U.S. life and heritage. It sounds kind of simplistic and "politically correct" but it's really not treacly at all. And it totally celebrates and exposes the young reader to a famous poem and some other cultural things.

True Grit is an even quicker read than the children's fiction, I think! You just zip through it, so if you're even considering reading it, you really have no excuse not to go check it out from your local library; you'll be done a day later. Of course Mattie Ross is awesome as always, and the mentions of my boy Rutherford B. Hayes  don't hurt.  As much as I grew up with John Wayne and will always recall waiting for "the snake part" to come along as a child, and as much as I adore General Sterling Price, I am kind of into the Coen brothers' flick, particularly Hailee Steinfeld. Did you know she is working on Romeo and Juliet now? I do believe that will show us whether or not she is as magical as she seemed in True Grit. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

A Visit From the Recent Pulitzer Winners

recently finished: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Delayed blogging...I actually finished this book in late April. In fact, it was good timing that I had checked it out of the library shortly before the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. The 2012 winner for the Fiction category was: nobody!  But I just picked up last year's winner, Goon Squad, from my to-read pile and carried on as if something had happened, because I had not got around to reading the 2011 winner yet.

So, then. Did I love it? Well, I wasn't sure I was going to love it, but then it got better near the end. I do not refer to the Power Point chapter, about which I am still decidedly "Whatever" but I just really liked how aptly she illustrated the disconnect between those in the younger generation who aren't willing to say anything that might offend anyone and, well, the rest of us. That got this book so many points from me. More points than all the drugs and rock n' roll and random New York and California moments.

As I mentioned on Goodreads, I think the joke is on the reader in a way. That is, to the extent readers marvel at its incisive criticism of technology -- while reading it on their iPhone or whatever. As I also mentioned previously, I really liked that instead of capitulating to this whole "Woe is the music industry" thing she just wrote about it, accepting that it is changing but not buying into the hyped idea that it is dying.

All in all, I consider this worth a read. I also firmly believe that even if you create individual works of art, you can link them together into a greater work of art, and thus make a new work of art. In other words, it's a novel, not a collection of short stories.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

It's About Meat War

now finished: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A decade or so ago in a galaxy not too far away(L.A.), some friends and I had a book group at Borders (R.I.P.) called "The Books We Should Have Read in High School." One of our selections was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. One member of our book group triumvirate was skeptical about reading this particular work and he would offer up as a reason "It's about meat." It was very funny, the way he said it. Of course it turns out that The Jungle is about far more than meat; in fact, I found that meat played a decidedly small role when compared to the struggles of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants and all the horrible things endured by factory workers and people who weren't rich (you might say the 99%). "It's about meat" became a kind of code-phrase of ours to use for a pre-reading simplification and/or rejection of a book. You know, like, All Quiet on the Western Front: "It's about war."   Or Twilight: "It's about sparkly vampires." If only more people had the good sense to reject that "book," for that or any other reason. You get the idea.

ANYWAY, I don't suppose The Hunger Games could be so simplified, as the title of this blog post would do, but I am here today to tell you that yes, it is about war. The reason I am telling you this is because some friends of mine - who have read it - recently engaged in a discussion about whether The Hunger Games was anti-war. This surprised me because I, who had obtained the vast majority of my Hunger Games knowledge from two years of incessant Entertainment Weekly coverage including an interview with author Suzanne Collins, was decidedly under the impression that it was an anti-war novel. You know, governments plucking teenagers from their homes and families to fight to the death in a breathlessly followed/televised spectacle for no discernible reason, other than to further the power and glory and control of said government? Um, that would be---> war.

Well, I have now read The Hunger Games, and while it is not "amazing" or "soooo totally well written" or even a little bit well-written, it is okay, and it has an interesting premise. Which is about war.

A few quotes from the book:

"What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?" - p.55

"We both know they have to have a victor. Yes, they have to have a victor. Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemakers' faces." - p.344

"It must be hell to mentor two kids and then watch them die. Year after year after year. I realize that if I get out of here, that will become my job." -p.386

War, war, war.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

From the "Nothing Attracts a Crowd Like a Crowd" Files

They tried to make me love the latest hyped bestselling trilogy, and I said no, no, no...

I can hear it now. Now that I have finally read The Hunger Games, I will discuss its flaws and then people will accuse me of disliking it because it's popular. Please let me assure you that popularity is not what I dislike about The Hunger Games.

Oh, wait. Perhaps I should rewrite those sentences so Suzanne Collins and her fans can better understand them. Let's try this:

I can hear it now, that I have finally read The Hunger Games, I will discuss its flaws and then people will accuse me of disliking it -- because it's popular -- please let me assure you that popularity is literally not what I dislike, about The Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, that is how Suzanne Collins writes  in The Hunger Games, way too often for my liking. Yes, my basic idea is still communicated in the above paragraph. Yes, someone might write that way on a daily basis -- someone like a blogger, or perhaps a junior high student writing a note to a friend. You know what should not be written that haphazardly and punctuated that poorly?  Books! The atrocious writing in itself would be bad enough, but then you have to think about the editing. Who are the people at Scholastic Press who let sentences like that go to print?

I do have things to say about The Hunger Games' anti-war allegory (oh yes! there is one!) but first we have got to talk about the punctuation. I was not aware that as the publishing industry crashes and burns their plan was to just release books without bothering to copy edit them, but I really have no other explanation for what happened here. I am not sure when I have ever been so frustrated by run-on sentences, missing commas, extra commas, and missing apostrophes. I thought maybe I was reading my Facebook news feed, but no, it was an actual published book.

You want examples? OK!  Page numbers are from the hardcover edition I borrowed from my local public library.
  •  "Electricity in District 12 comes and goes, usually we only have it a few hours a day." -p.80
  • "When suddenly I notice Peeta, he's about five tributes to my right, quite a fair distance, still I can tell he's looking at me and I think he might be shaking his head." -p.150
  •  "But I don't dare leave the jacket, scorched and smoldering as it is, I take the risk of shoving it in my sleeping bag, hoping the lack of air will quell what I haven't extinguished." -p.173
  •  "The girl with the arrows, Glimmer I hear someone call her -- ugh, the names the people in District 1 give their children are so ridiculous -- anyway Glimmer scales the tree until the branches begin to crack under her feet and then has the good sense to stop." -p.182
  •  "They know I have the bow and arrows, of course, Cato saw me take them from Glimmer's body." -p.241
  •  "I chew a few mint leaves, my stomach isn't up for much more." - p.282
  •  "The strong fatty cheese tastes just like the kind Prim makes, the apples are sweet and crunchy." - p.309
  • "Portia and Cinna receive huge cheers, of course, they've been brilliant, had a dazzling debut." - p.360
I'm pretty sure Suzanne Collins' computer might actually be missing its semi-colon key. 

Meanwhile, she manages to do something else terrible. In multiple instances, first-person narrator Katniss explains that a character "literally" did something or other. I noticed at least four, such as:

  • "To say I make it in the nick of time is an understatement. I have literally just dragged myself into the tangle of bushes at the base of the trees when there's Cato..." -p.223
  • "He tosses his fork over his shoulder and literally licks his plate clean with his tongue making loud, satisfied sounds." -p.312
There is nothing more colloquial, current, and annoying than the use of the word "literally" in all kinds of sentences where it doesn't belong.  Turn on your television or radio and you will hear everyone from sportscasters to politicians adding "literally" into their sentences for emphasis. You will hear them use it in place of "very" or "actually" or even "not literally at all" such as when an ESPN commentator the other night said the NFL draft was "literally consuming New York City." No, it was not literally consuming New York City. That's the whole point of using a metaphor, or speaking in entertaining hyperbole.

It is becoming rarer and rarer to hear or read a use of the word "literally" in which the word means what it means, namely, the opposite of figuratively. Millions of us have been guilty of overuse of "literally" in excited casual speech. That's bad enough, but the misuse is even more annoying than the overuse, in my opinion. I recognize that word saturation happens; sometimes words achieve a weird place in the vernacular. Does this mean published, edited books should succumb? No! That is why it annoyed me in The Hunger Games. It's too easy for Suzanne Collins to write as if she is blogging. It's too easy to fail to be careful and creative with language. It's too easy to require nothing special from our writers and editors, in a world where everyone can self-publish and cheapen the value of the written word.

I'm sure someone will say that Katniss talks that way. Katniss is supposed to be our postmodern heroine, telling her story in a casual, personal, freewheeling tone. Yes, creating a narrative voice -- even a casual one -- is a literary achievement. The writer should create a voice, maybe even a jaded one peppered with slang, like Holden Caulfield.  Consider all the ways J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is nothing at all like The Hunger Games. The author isn't creating a magical Katniss voice if Katniss just sounds like the author herself. That is my objection to "literally." It doesn't sound like a young, fierce hunter from District 12 in the dystopian future. It sounds like Suzanne Collins. Today.

This stuff bugged me to no end as I read The Hunger Games.  The story is all right. In my next post, I will address how very much it is indeed an anti-war novel. But I find myself once again disappointed by the latest hypity-hype-hyped bestseller, and I have no immediate desire to rush out to get my hands on the next installment in the series.The fact that shoddy work can get published and that millions will breathlessly enthuse about it without stopping to notice or care about such basic mistakes offends all of my writerly and readerly sensibilities.