N. Renee Brown

Part-time Author, Full-time Book Junkie

Whose American Classics? Mine or Yours?

Talking with Day on the way home from the gym she said to me, “Haven’t you ever had the urge to the American Classics?”

My answer was a smile, “No.”

Why?

Well, because I’ve read a few but have never much been into the style of writing that is considered an American Classic. What’s worse, I’ve never had the urge to read them. I’ve got too many things on my list I want to read now to force myself to plow though something that will not only take time but will not reward me when I am done. Ok, ok, I think it will not reward me I have no guarantee that is true.

It’s not that I don’t like classics. I really like Shakespeare; I’ve read quite a few of his plays (some more than once). I love Italo Calvino, and must re-read his books when I get them back from my mom and dad. I am a big fan of Louise Erdrich. I’m an even bigger fan of Anne McCaffery (seriously folks wrote about gay boys when being a gay boy was not fun nor cool). It’s just names like Hawthorne, Melville, Williams, and Fitzgerald make me yawn mentally.

I have no desire to read anymore than has already been forced upon me thanks to high school, college, and grad school. I’m not itching to pick up copies of titles I have not plowed through before, and when I see those names on the 10 cent shelf at the Library Book Sale I pass them by rather than snatching them up. They are books that can pass me by, movies I don’t need to see, and time (in some cases) I wish I had back. As a matter of fact, I remember a friend READING The Scarlet Letter to me, out loud on my balcony while we picnicked…it was still boring. Perhaps if we were playing paint ball at the time? Even then, I doubt it.

Then again names like Twain, Henry, Salinger, Vonnegut, and Miller make me salivate in anticipation. A combination of required and elective reading has made me happier for having spent time with these authors (although Mr. Miller has a better diary than novel in my eyes). Each name has wonderful memories attached to it for me, quite a few of them related to those wild days of college.

So perhaps a better answer to Day should have been, “I HAVE read the American Classics, just not the same ones you have.”

For instance, let’s look at what am I carrying around right now. Stone Butch Blues…an American classic, albeit a gay American classic.

It is a very good book. I am captivated by it. While there times I am thrown completely out of the story due to badly planned time jumps or awkward dialogue other times I am in heaven. When the author lets us be alone with the main character, just her and us, it is magic. It is a cadence I find song in, and it’s a song that sticks with me when I hit the rocks and convinces me to keep on paddling. See, rewarding me already. Punishing me as well, but seriously rewarding me for my devotion.

In the end I guess my classics and your classics don’t all have to be the same…As a matter of fact, I’m sure if I read the entire library of American classics the day I was done another “classic” would be published and pushed upon me.

So this is me saying…find your peace and live it, even if the landslide of classics never stops!

-Renee

Zombies, oh my!

Day and I went to see Max Brooks, author of “The Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z” Monday night at the Jewish Community Center of D.C. It was such a wonderful event, in a really intimate venue with a lot of really crazy folks and Max making it worthwhile!

He is so effortlessly funny and engaging, that it didn’t seem like a lecture so much as a stand up routine (which is what it was SUPPOSED to resemble, I am sure). The lecture was presented in the form of an actual “informational lecture” on defeating the zombies. When someone asked him where he got the “idea” for his book he looked at them, as serious as could be and said, “This is from actual documented historical fact!” After that the crowed got into it asking questions like, “In the recent movie ‘I Am Legend’ there was a contention that zombies might be able to be cured and returned to a human state.” To which he responded, “You’re with the ACLU, aren’t you?” – his basic ‘serious’ answer was no, btw, because when you are dead there is no cure.

Some of the best lines of the night included a discussion of “zombieploitation films” that he has issue with, such as the new “Dawn of the Dead” who’s only redeeming scene was the one where they stood on top of the building with a sign that said, “PLEASE HELP” and the helicopter just flew by… “Because THAT’S never happened before.” *lol* There was also a live demonstration of the single most effective move you can use to defeat a zombie. He invited someone up to “pretend” to be a zombie, limbered up a bit, took off his jacket, got in fighting stance and when the “zombie” took a step toward him he walked away.

Still the best thing was all the writerly food for thought he gave me! Let me share…

First, he used the word “micro-horror” and my little writer brain began to turn. He described horror (world encompassing, disaster horror) as being very micro in scope. One guy, one group, one select area being followed and explored. He said he had always wondered what was going on in the rest of the world as he read/watched these things. He even went so far as to say: “During Independence Day I didn’t care what Jeff Goldblum was doing, I wondered how the Chinese were handling the aliens.” Thus he wrote World War Z as an oral history…basically in answer to all the questions he’d had that had never been addressed.

For me, as a lover of disasters and a writer of horror, this was a mind-blowing statement.

Would I have come up with this concept? Well…no, because I didn’t. Instead in my world disaster book I would have had my characters do the same things all the other characters do in all the other books/movies. Suddenly there would be a communication from the outside, the radio crackles to life or someone has a working television or passing groups exchange gossip on the road…very typical and expected but that is what happens to genre it gets very typical and expected (why? Likely because it has other things to keep it fresh, I mean hey, monsters are often strange enough to carry an entire book with little other support…but that is another blog).

So now my personal challenge, my goal, is to try to write a macro-horror like Max did. Find a way to broaden my horror/disaster scope and show the world in the throes of its chaos…and not just in the typical ways either. I’m not sure how, exactly, to accomplish this yet…but let me think on it.

The other thing I realized after listening to Max speak was that the man basically wrote an entire novel of short stories and sold it without having a name to hook it on. That’s amazing. Short story collections are nearly impossible to sell (or at least that’s what I’ve heard) unless you’ve got a name that is recognizable to a majority of your target audience…and I don’t think “The Zombie Survival Guide” shot him into that level of notoriety. Not just that, but the stories he wrote all in the same world, revolving around the same events, but with different characters and he still managed to pull it off.

Wow.

It shows how truly talented this man is, that he can write a two page story that to this day gives me shivers when I think about it (the one I have in mind is about the “feral child” talking about her mother trying to kill her before the zombies arrive). He is such an effective writer, so crisp and yet powerful. He has distilled his writing down to such a concentrated form that digesting them seems easy until they lump in your stomach and you find yourself planning your escape with loved ones. Or worse yet, you look over your shoulder at night…not for muggers or rapists, but for zombies. I’m so impressed with him, so very, very impressed and not just with his writing either. He was personable and sweet…and damn that man had a smile that could light up a room. He was great, and if you get the chance go see him!

While there we picked up our own copy of World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide and had him sign them both. Squeee!

I know I talked about the book before, but let me use this time and place to once again plug “World War Z”…where one is encouraged to “don’t run, walk fast.”

-Find your peace, and live it…even if it has zombies!

Renee

A Book Endorsement

It has been a while since a book has moved me, even longer since one has inspired me to read all weekend just to finish it. I’m not saying I haven’t read some good books lately, I have, but…Well, there are books out there that grab you and don’t let go. You know the kind. Those are the ones you DON’T curl up with…but instead take with you everywhere, reading each word/paragraph/page in every spare instant you’ve got. Risking a look at red lights and sneaking it out of your desk at work. Yeah, those books.

Well, I found one this past week. A young friend of mine, S., was reading a book that caught my attention…I thought it had a neat (if not terribly original) plot behind it and asked if I could borrow it. He was using it for a school project, but told me I could read it when he was done. Then he said, “If you think you’ll like this one, you should read this other one I’ve got.  It’s fantastic.”

That was Monday, on Thursday he brought “World War Z: Oral Histories of the Zombie War” to me.

It is a week later and I am done reading it.

I’m not going to say it was perfect, it wasn’t. It desperately needed another editing pass, or just a better editor. There are so many passages were I could see simple things the author could have done to tighten it. What I will say is that it was a great idea that resulted in a stunning work. Who would have ever thought to tell stories about a war that never happened, and likely…ok, ok, hopefully (that is how powerful this book is)…will never happen.

The stories are not about great battles, 5-star generals, or one man taking on the world but about the small events, the personal stories, a ground level view of a war…All those individual events that make it a war. The failures, the great loss of life, and above it all the seemingly endless enemy. Even knowing all these people make it, because they are telling their stories, the fear they felt comes through with every word. Wow.

This was such a good book that I read a few of these stories out loud to Day.  She has vowed not to read it because what little I did read her unsettled her.  Ok, ok, I guess this is the point were I confess that it kept me up one night (traditionally, I am not the scared type so this IS a shocker).

Visiting the site, I’ve discovered the “tapes” of these interviews, I encourage you to go listen. Again, it is not perfect…these are not amazing readings…but even here with the flat monotone you get the power behind these stories. I encourage you to click on Japan (it is an excerpt from one of my favorite stories)…and Bethlehem (that is one of the ones I read to Day).

Anyway, my own personal vote for World War Z, in all its imperfection. Read it if you have the stomach for it.