Books, books…

I remember a conversation I had with a friend almost 15 years ago. “Ray, what’s your favorite TV show?” I asked him.

“I don’t watch much TV, Richard,” he said. “I prefer to read books. Non-fiction and biographies are favorites.”

Ray’s words gave me a lot to think about lately as I perused the channels. Golden Girls. Conan O’Brien. Goodfellas. NBA Basketball. Seinfeld. An episode of Big Bang Theory I’ve seen several times already.

In other words, nothing was on.

I have somewhere around 750-1,000 books in my apartment. I’ve read maybe a third of them. I also have a nasty habit of adding to my collection each time I visit a thrift store. Sometimes it’s a book I want to read, have another copy of, or one I want for sentimental purposes.

So, here I am, currently reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline. I also am trying to listen to Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep on CD when I’m not too tired. And next on my list are books I’ll probably have to return to the library and then check out again: Volume 1 of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People, along with a biography of Ray Bradbury.

If only I had the ability some have–reading several books a week.

Post comments here or email them to richardzowie@gmail.com. 

Advertisements

Richard reviews Vladimir Sorokin’s ‘Day of the Oprichnik’

While perusing a monthly magazine of published novels, I read that retired Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov recommended Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik. I like Kasparov, so that was good enough for me.

The novel, translated from the Russian (original title: День опричника), is about a day in the life of head oprichnik (a KGB-type agent who serves the Russian tsar) Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. We follow him around as he maintains order for the tsar. It’s set about 15 years in the future, and the tsars again rule Russia. Komiaga maintains order by murdering a treacherous noble, gang-raping the noble’s wife (we learn Komiaga has a foot fetish), and traveling around Russia to subdue uprisings and gather information. He also has to deal with a major scandal in the tsar’s family, and we learn Komiaga has the hots for one voluptuous member of the family (she is strictly off-limits). He and his fellow oprichniki indulge in activities strictly prohibited for normal Russian citizens. Then there’s a homosexual orgy near the end as they indulge on Viagra.

I suppose the drugs and weird sex are products of a very busy, stressful schedule that allows for little sleep.

Ray Bradbury famously said he wrote Fahrenheit 451 to prevent the future, and I wonder if Vladimir Sorokin wrote this novel as a way of reminding Russians what it would be like to be ruled by a tsar again. Terror, oppression. For many Russians who view their country objectively, there is little difference between the corruption of the tsars and corruption of the communists. The happy balance would be some sort of democracy, but of course, the situation is far more complicated.

I found this book to be fascinating, overall. It’s an introduction into Russian literature for me. I’d love to read the classics along with read Russian science fiction.

Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Finished reading ‘I, Robot’ by Isaac Asimov

It took longer than I would’ve liked, but I finally finished reading Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot.

This book, for those who haven’t read it, bears some resemblance to the I, Robot movie that starred Will Smith. Perhaps I’m being generous to say “some”: in the movie, I can remember robots doing some harmful things to humans. It was a fascinating tale, but after reading these short stories, I detect a strong sense of disconnect. Perhaps because most of these stories were written in the 1950s while the movie came out a few years ago. And we know how much Hollywood butchers great stories (such as Michael Crichton’s great novels Sphere and Rising Sun).

It would take too long to discuss each story individually, so I’ll provide an overview and then discuss what I liked and didn’t like.

It’s very difficult to encounter a science fiction story that doesn’t feature a robot in it. Writers of today see a world of tomorrow where robots serve our every need. Some are cooks, some are butlers, some are police officers, some do labor while others provide the calculations necessary to help exploration of other planets and even stars. Asimov is no different. In I, Robot, robots serve as babysitters, miners, lawyers and even giant computers used for calculations to improve the economy, promote peace and, best of all, further the human race. Each story is a story related by “robopsychologist”* Dr. Susan Calvin at the end of her life (she dies at 82 in 2064) to a reporter.

Some stories deal with amusing problems that go beyond the malfunctions that are commonplace today with computers. What if robots on Mercury refuse to believe a) that humans created them, b) that their robotic origins are on earth and c) that they’re accountable to humans? Further problems arise when a robot programmed to read minds decides it doesn’t like what it sees and starts doing the unimaginable; another robot decides to hide from humans out of a weird superiority complex; another robot gives the blueprints for a spacecraft that when built, takes humans onto a distant trip to the stars.

My two favorite stories were Evidence (where an honest, squeaky-clean district attorney/aspiring mayor is apparently a robot, but nothing’s done about it since he does such an outstanding job) and The Evitable Conflict (where robotic computers control the world’s economy, peace and make humans wonder why they seem to be giving odd data that suggest errors).

What I liked: Asimov was an excellent story teller. While the book took three months to read, his stories made you think. Robots can certainly be a blessing or a curse to mankind, and Asimov posed plenty of healthy “what if?” scenarios?

What I didn’t like: Sometimes it was a little too technical, which might explain why it took a little long to read. Asimov’s style is vastly different from Ray Bradbury’s energetic, comic-book style of description, and he reads similar to Crichton.

Overall, I liked I, Robot. Someday I’ll re-read this book and add it to my personal library.

*Dr. Calvin is a scientist who specializes in robot psychology rather than being a psychologist who’s actually a robot.

Richard Zowie is a writer. As a child, he wanted to be an astronaut. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

How much do you read?

If there’s one dream I have as a writer, it’s being able to write full-time for a living. I’d love nothing more than to be able to write fiction, be a journalist, blog and write columns and essays full-time without the need for a second job.

Many successful writers, when asked the secret to their success of writing for a living, will tell you that any successful writer must do two things daily: read and write. Some writers will spend several hours churning out thousands of words of fiction, blogs, columns, essays, journals before settling down later in the day with some great books. And perhaps a few magazines.

I am envious of those who can maintain a heavy book-reading workload. Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes himself as a slow reader but somehow manages to read scores of books annually. Wow. It makes you wonder what he considers to be a fast reader. Maybe, perhaps he had in mind the older brother of one of my friends. Andy told a reporter once that his brother, Peter, could read about seven books per week.

Not per year or per month. Per week.

I am in awe and honestly wish I were like these people. One of my goals in life, both as a writer and as someone who wants to learn about the world, is to become someone who’s “well read”.

So far in the past year I’ve read four books that I can remember. One was a biography on Jim Morrison, another was Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing while two were novels by science fiction writer Ben Bova. I am currently finishing up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and plan next to read a collection of Bova’s short stories. After that, who knows? Whatever catches my fancy.

It is, of course, best to discipline yourself as a writer to read daily. By reading, you get an idea of what flows, what works and what doesn’t flow and what doesn’t work. Sometimes terrible prose can not only teach you how not to write, but it can also inspire you (“Hey, if this person can get published, so can I!”).

Perhaps this evening, when I get done blogging, I’ll do a little reading. Besides the two books I have checked out at the library, I have more than 100 books at home that I have yet to read.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Reading Asimov, Writer’s Digest, battling procrastination

Am currently reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Funny collection of short stories. Have read about five so far, none of which seem similar to the movie made a few years ago. Maybe I haven’t reached the story yet, or maybe it’s just Hollywood for you. J.D. Salinger was said to be so furious over the butchering of one of his short stories into a movie that he turned down all requests over the years–including Jerry Lewis–to make A Catcher in the Rye into a movie. I also have a collection of Ben Bova stories I’ll read once this is done, along with a book titled The Sacred Romance.

Asimov’s style is similar to Ray Bradbury’s, but he gets into more technological info and he doesn’t get into the flowery, nostalgic language that Mr. B does.

I recently received the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest and will be perusing through that. The economic survival guide sounds like it will be very beneficial along with the formula for freelance success.

Procrastination. I hate it. But it comes very natural for me. I pray for the strength to overcome mental road blocks and blog on a daily basis. And write on a daily basis.

Done reading ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ by Ray Bradbury

Well, except for the segment called …On Creativity. Perhaps I’ll read those poems someday when I purchase a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing. At this stage, the poems just didn’t work for me.

It’s only fitting that the last essay on writing in this book is called “Zen in the Art of Writing”. Mr. Bradbury says he chose the title for the shock value, as a way of getting more readers. Until recently (he wrote this essay in 1973), he didn’t know what zen meant. I imagine that in 1973 (the year of my birth), people were far less open to the idea of Zen Buddhism than what they are now in 2010.

I’m not a Buddhist, nor am I a follower of far eastern religions. While I hear the word “zen” frequently used I still had to look it up since I didn’t really know what it meant. From what I gather (and this is subject to change based on what a few friends who’ve studied Far East cultures might say), zen is the idea of enlightenment following a period of study or concentration. Hence, Zen in the Art of Writing is about studying writing and meditating on what you’ve gathered and coming to a period of enlightenment.

For many, Mr. Bradbury believes they have writing all wrong. Writing is not about writing solely to make money or to appease snooty critics (please, oh please do NOT get me started on how some filmmakers worry about whether or not they’ll get Roger Ebert’s coveted “Thumbs Up”). It is about learning the science of writing (grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structures) and then the art of writing (developing your own style).

In Bradbury’s experience, writing is a three-step process: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think.

First, you work.

This, no doubt, is a major letdown for those excited by writing. I’ve been writing for most of my life, professionally for the past 10 years. Let’s face it: it takes work to write. Mr. Bradbury notes that surgeons practice on countless cadavers to prepare for an operation on a live person. An athlete will run miles and miles to prepare for a 100-meter race. A sculptor will practice chiseling countless rocks to prepare for that masterpiece on one slab of granite. Myself, I’ve written many short stories over the years (most of which are unpublishable) and am working on short stories and a novel in hopes of achieving a fiction writing career someday. For every column I write, there are the countless ones I’ve started and thrown away. There have even been those I wrote, completed and then didn’t publish.

We never quit learning to be writers (I imagine Mr. Bradbury would admit that at 88, he’s still learning how to write), but once you’ve put in enough countless hours of blood, sweat and tears and have worn down enough keyboards, pens, pencils and have cut down enough trees to produce paper and notepads, you finally reach the stage of relaxation. This is when writing evolves to where you can put it out without having to put in so much rudimentary work. Specifically, it feels natural and fluid, not so laborious.

Remember the first time you rode a bike? It felt awkward. But as you rode more it grew to where it was easier, and you could relax rather than worry about falling off all the time.

After work and relaxation, you reach the “Don’t Think” stage of writing. This is an advanced stage of Relaxation. At not thinking, it doesn’t mean you put things on autopilot and watch the words magically appear on your screen, out of your typewriter or on the piece of paper as your hand magically writes. Instead, it means you’ve written for so long that you can let the ideas flow and you can write using the basic principles and styles you’ve learned without having to think of them all the time.

Using the bicycle principle, how many of us really think of how we pedal and maintain balance? We’ve done it for so long that it’s almost automatic.

Mr. Bradbury recalls when he first began writing, he wrote for quantity. As he became a better writer and started to write publishable work, he evolved from producing quantity to quality. Experience yields good writing.

How do writers lose their way? Mr. Bradbury believes it’s from pursuing fame and fortune. The same rings true for other professions: one professional actor once told me that if a person’s motivation for becoming an actor is for fame and fortune, don’t bother.

A writer, Mr. B, should see themselves as a prism and should focus on beaming a new light into the world. Develop your own style that’s different from others.

This book, hence, is “zen” in that these essays are what Ray Bradbury has learned about writing. Someday, I hope to read it a few more times and add it to my library.

Next, I’ll be splitting my time between three books: short story collections by Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova and the book The Sacred Romance. I will probably blog about the latter on my Richard’s Two Shekels blog.

Richard Zowie is a writer, blogger and aspiring fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘The Secret Mind’

Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy this chapter as much as I did previous ones. The Secret Mind deals a lot with playwriting, and, to be honest, when I first saw that, I cringed. Writing plays is one area of creative writing I’ve never really been particularly interested in. If this posting seems abridged, it’s because the chapter deals with a segment of writing that’s not really my forte. Perhaps someday when I read it again…

Be that as it may, I read the chapter anyway. Ten years ago, I probably would’ve skipped it. When it came to reading, I used to be this way: if the first few paragraphs weren’t interesting or if things dragged on after a few pages, I’d skip and skim from there.

But this time, I read. There was that little voice whispering to me, encouraging me to read. You might miss something crucial, it said.

Mr. Bradbury talks in TSM about traveling to Ireland and, as per film director John Huston’s request, wrote the screenplay for the screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Mr. B described it as seven miserable months spent on the Emerald Isle as he braved the weather and dreariness of being far away from home. After the screenplay was written and submitted to Huston (Anjelica Huston’s father, by the way), he returned back to the warmth of Southern California.

What Mr. B didn’t realize is that while he was focusing his energies on writing the screenplay and thinking of how much he loathed Ireland, his subconscious was recording the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches of Ireland and its people, culture, buildings, landscape and weather. All this information went into a memory bank inside his head, where he could draw from it and produce plays and short stories. It came to him the same way stories came to him from his visit into Mexico years earlier. As he relived memories, out came the stories.

Even as I go out and about, I try to make note of as many things as I can–people, scenarios, weather, clothing, everything. You never know what can become a story idea. The possibilities are indeed endless. It’s fun to just out and observe.

What I found fascinating is Mr. B earlier in his career had aspirations of acting and being a playwright. He writes that the plays he wrote when younger weren’t very good. How many other writers out there look back at stories/plays/novels they wrote when teens and have favorable recollections?

Over the years, Bradbury would receive letters from countless readers telling him of how his stories have been performed, like plays. This apparently inspired him to get into writing plays again, as did watching plays, seeing how poorly they were done in their frailness, lack of wit and lack of imagination and concluding he could do better.

And he wrote plays.

And did he ever.

The ideas flowed like water spewing throught he cracks of a dilapidated dam.

 Richard Zowie’s a writer who might someday try writing plays. He’s content for now writing fiction prose and blogging. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

Maybe I’ve been working too much too lately or am just getting old (I’m 37), but I thought I’d posted this chapter commentary already. I haven’t, so here it goes…

Much of this chapter has to do with what was once a taboo genre of literature. Once dubbed inferior and not worthy of being read by those who desired to read fiction, science fiction has over the years slowly gained an acceptance. Currently, the top grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is science fiction.

Mr. Bradbury starts off this chapter with a reference to a poem of his about a boy in a semi-animatronic museum in the future. The boy stumbles upon Plato, Euripedes and Socrates.

Kids, Mr. B asserts, became teachers early on in this first time in history as they moved art and teaching “back in the form of pure illustration.” Sci-fi gives us a chance to ask “what if” and be creative.

When I think of some of my favorite sci-fi movies and books, I think of the “What if?” questions they answered…

What if man could design a pressurized space craft to enter into Jupiter and explore its oceans? (Ben Bova’s Jupiter)

What if artificial intelligence took over the world, lost a critical battle to humans and then invented time travel to try to kill the human resistant’s leader’s mother before he was ever born? (The Terminator)

What would it be like for humans in deep outer space with nothing to do but do scientific research? (Frederick Pohl’s Starburst)

What would happen if a corporation’s greed for profits almost allows a hostile lifeform to take over a ship and destroy the crew? (Alien)

What happens when robots do the unthinkable and start thinking for themselves? (Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc.)

I wasn’t born until 1973, so I was pretty surprised to learn that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no science fiction in school curriculum and few in any libraries. Even up to 1962 it was difficult, according to Mr. B, to find anything written by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred van Vogt or Bradbury.

Why was this? I defer to Mr. B, since he was an adult and aware back then. He believes the perception then was that facts and not fiction were worth reading. Fantasy literature was considered escapist and a waste of time.

But inevitably, kids grew more and more curious and wanted to read these books. This led to an explosion. Sci-fi flooded the market. Instead of being confined to pulp fiction magazines or paperbacks in dime stores, sci-fi graduated to hard cover and was soon in libraries and first-hand book stores.

More importantly, according to Mr. B, sci-fi brought with it new ideas that then turned into advances in technology. People read these books and get ideas. Perhaps someone long ago read Jules Verne’s book about traveling to the moon and thought, “Why can’t we travel to the moon?”

This is one reason why I’ve grown to love the fantasy science fiction rather than the “hard” science fiction. Hard bores me. I’ve tried to read a few of these books and am amazed: unless you have an advanced science degree in physics or engineering, you’re often lost. Too often far too much time is devoted to technical information while the story line is left to wither. I like the stories that ask “What if?” and let the imagination take them where they will.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer who likes reading science fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Just this Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’

I’m not an expert in Byzantine-style of writing, but from what little I gather, it’s a very ornate style of writing. It sounds like a style very different from Ray Bradbury’s. Some have asked me how I’d describe Mr. Bradbury’s style, and, again, I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

That being said…

When I was younger and an even worse writer than I am now, I often would try to write fiction using strict outlines. I think it came from the times I’d occasionally get 15 minutes at church to preach miniature sermons. I’d take a story idea, outline it and then write according to the outline. Whenever possible, I’d employ alliteration.

Don’t misunderstand–there’s nothing wrong with writing by outlines. If you’re a very organized person, perhaps it’s the best way to go. In many ways (especially in my journalism and freelance writing careers) I still like to do that as a way to have a starting point that points towards a faint, distant, illuminated end of the tunnel. But there are many times when writing fiction where it’s sometimes best to go with the flow and write as the spirit moves you. Let your imagination guide you.

Mr. Bradbury notes that even at an early age his preferred style of writing was word asociation. Take a story, write down as many words that come to mind and then write the story based on the word list. Before this, he used to “beat, pummel and thrash” an idea into existence. He believes that word association allows you to write faster as the ideas flow much better.

To illustrate this, he explains the term “Dandelion Wine”, which he would use in a collection of his published short stories. Dandelions sprout in the spring (as they will very soon do here in Michigan), and each dandelion represents a fascinating story idea. As for the wine, oenophiles tell us that the best wine is properly aged. Take a story idea and allow it to age, breathe and build up color, aroma and flavor in a cask and then in a bottle and soon you have a story that people will pay good money to read.

That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon? (a young man commits suicide out of despair, gets to heaven and sees how God could’ve richly used him had he not ended his life on a lark); God’s Final Call (a young man raised in a Baptist church knows he’s not really saved and has a decision to make: become a Christian or ignore God one last time); Dear Billy, Sincerely, Billy (a time travel story involving bullies, new opportunities and receiving a letter from yourself in the not-so-near past). Perhaps these dandelions will someday soon turn into very fine wines.

Mr. Bradbury notes how some critics who, aware of his humble childhood and some of the perceived ugliness of that area of Illinois (such as the trains, boxcars and smell of coal) wonder how he could convey excitement about these. It’s all about perception, he reasons. A carnival or railyard deemed ugly by a dignified, stuffy Byzantine person is, to a Midwest boy who grew up in the 1930s a paradise.

To Bradbury, his humble surroundings were Byzantium: a wonderous, exotic, beautiful place very ornate and rich to him.

Finally, Mr. Bradbury talks about the pear-shaped, red, white and blue-striped paper balloons filled with hot air during 1925 Fourth of July. They floated and seemed to have a wonderful, mysterious life of their own. I wonder if these balloons were the inspiration for his short story The Fire Balloons (which can be found in his book The Illustrated Man).

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who blogs, works in journalism, writes fiction and essays. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451’

It cost Ray Bradbury $9.80 in dimes back in 1950 to write The Fire Man (which would later become Fahrenheit 451) on typewriters at the UCLA library. In today’s money, that may not seem like much. About $10 in quarters will do laundry for the Zowie family for about a week. But 60 years ago? It must’ve seemed like a small fortune.

Why the trouble? Mr. Bradbury and his wife Marguerite were married with children and were doing what so many do in the first decade or so of marriage: struggling to make ends meet. They couldn’t afford an office for him to work in, so he set up his typewriter in the garage. His daughters liked to go out there and play, and according to Mr. B, he would choose playing with his daughters to working. And since much of the Bradbury family income came from fiction writing…

So, a Plan B had to be implemented. At the University of California at Los Angeles library, typewriters could be rented for a dime per half hour. So, he went and typed. And typed. And typed. In nine days, he had 25,000 words–the makings of a solid short story. I’m sure to some this may seem extreme, but when it comes to writing, you have to be someplace without distractions. Distractions can be the death of great writing. Much is made about Jack Torrance chewing out his wife in The Shining for interrupting him while writing, and Melvin Udall made no friends getting angry at his neighbor Simon for doing the same. While the admonishments were handled poorly, I can sympathize with both of Jack Nicholson’s characters.

For the benefit of those not familiar with Mr. Bradbury’s work, let me summarize Fahrenheit 451: Guy Montag is a futuristic fireman, except that he’s not a fireman the way we’d define it. Instead of putting out fires, he uses fire to destroy books and the houses where they were stored. All books were banned, from the Holy Bible to the Quran and from Mein Kampf to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each book offended someone, and society felt that with no books, there would be more order and fewer occasions to offend. Montag, like so many in literature, becomes curious about books and starts privately wondering if banning them is such a great idea after all. He rebels, starts storing books at his house and eventually is forced to burn down his home. After turning his flame thrower on his chief, Montag escapes into the underground and meets people working feverishly to memorize and preserve the great works of literature. The book ends with him wondering what the future holds for society.

I understand that in the Wall Street Journal Opinion journal back in 2003, Mr. Bradbury denied his book was an attempt to predict the future. Instead: “I was trying to prevent it.”

Writing this book, Mr. B reports, inspired him into an explosion of reading and writing as much as he could. Besides the thousands of books lining the shelves of the Bradbury home, he wrote in countless genres: short stories, books, essays, plays, screenplays and even poems. One such story he mentions in this chapter is one where he uses a time machine (a favorite science fiction theme of mine even though I personally don’t believe time travel is possible [and even if it is possible, it would create far more problems than it would solve]) to visit and encourage Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde in their final hours.

Mr. B decided a few years down the road to write what turned into a two-act play and revisit the characters from F-451 and see what they were up to. Among the things discovered was that the fire chief actually had a large treasure trove of books. Having the books isn’t illegal, he tells a flabbergasted Montag. Reading them is.

It seems that $9.80 in dimes was a reasonable investment for a book that would make 20th century readers think long and hard about the consequences of banning books.

Richard Zowie is a writer and active blogger. Post comments here or drop him a line at richardzowie@gmail.com.