Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Reviews

I had a blog a while ago, and decided to reformat (which became the page you're reading now). Most of what I wrote over there is fine where it is, not being read by another human being -- but some of the book reviews, I've decided to move here. Some of them were written a while ago.

When I borrowed Dear American Airlines: A Novel by Jonathan Miles from the library, I expected a scathing, funny account of a character annoyed with air travel. Since this is something we pretty much all have in common, I was eager to get started.

The first little bit was fantastic -- and if the entire novel had stayed with the airport and the guy's ire, the novel would have been perfect. However, the character goes off on tangents, talking about his past, translating another story about a Russian soldier, leaving only about 20% of the book about what I expected it to be about. I almost felt like the author had tricked me: luring me in with one story, and making me sit through two others.

Anyway, it was well written (although I'll admit I skimmed the last half). Go read the excerpt on -- it's very good.
Another book I finished was I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Like David Sedaris, it's best to have her read the stories to you. I'm sure she's got a busy schedule, so I got the audiobook instead.
Besides the amusing stories and laugh-out-loud moments when she said she experienced something I thought only I went through (like finding it annoying when a movie character shares my name), I was impressed by her writing ability. It was smooth, easy, and very smart. Looking forward to her next book! Listen to "The Pony Problem" 
Finished listening to Carrie by Stephen King. Boy oh boy, the man can tell a story! I love the suspense technique he used through the whole novel - I've never seen the movie or read the book before, but basically from the first chapter you know what's going to happen at the end. That's what makes it scary, though, because you're left guessing exactly how it's going to happen, or when. I'm also really impressed with the way Mr. King portrays his characters: in this story (haven't read all his stuff, so I don't want to make a blanket statement), everyone is very human. Carrie is picked on and humiliated -- oh yeah, and has telekinesis. The story ends at the place the characters logically take it, without anyone suddenly turning into a freaky monster, void of any emotion.
I finished David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I absolutely love his essays, but when he branches into fiction (as he does in one title), he exaggerates so much that the story becomes difficult to relate to (at least for me). But listening to him read his own work is half the pleasure - I'm not sure I can read one of his books to myself anymore because I've been so spoiled. In fact, have a listen here.
I listened to Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries). I've read her other books, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies, and this collection was comparable with those. Nice descriptions of the emotions of everyday people, but sometimes those emotions run pretty dark; one story (Only Goodness) left me pretty drained and wanting to be out of that situation at the end. Luckily for me, it was just a story, not something I'd actually experienced, so I went about my day as though it never happened. That's the beauty of Lahiri's work, though -- she can really make you believe you've gotten your heart broken.
I gave up on The Girl Who Played With Fire because it was pretty confusing with all the Swedish names and places (and then it got started with drug people and and lesbianism, and most importantly, I couldn't figure out where the guy was going with all of it). Then I ran across this parody from The New Yorker, and it addressed most of my complaints.
More enjoyable, and just as exotic, is Miyuki Miyabe's The Sleeping Dragon. Her images are very real - like when the characters are outside in a typhoon. Without being redundant, she reminds the reader just how drenched everyone is.

 Took me a little while, but I've finished Persepolis (part 1).  Like Delisle's Pyongyang, I went into this story not knowing a whole lot about the culture behind it.  
The story was a little slow, but if the narrator is to be believed (and since the book is labeled "memoir", I think she can be), Iran was not a nice place to grow up in the early 80's.  I'm looking forward to reading the second part -- possibly even watching the movie after that.


Today I finished reading my first graphic novel.  While superhero stories and stuff with a lot of violence isn't my favorite thing, I've shied away from them for a long time.  But after talks from my sister (who just wrote a short graphic novel), and seeingPersepolis everywhere, I thought I'd see what was out there.

The one that immediately caught my attention was Guy Delisle's Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.  I love to travel, so realizing there are a handful of countries out there I'll never be able to visit simply because I'm American leads me to be curious about that place.  Once I saw pictures of North Korea'sRyugyong Hotel (and how creepy it is), I thought a little research about it might be worth my time.  (I mean, talk about secluded: Google maps doesn't even have anything labeled in that country!)  So when I saw this graphic novel, I was intrigued.

The story impressed me.  No one turned into a robot, and there were no vampires.  With pictures accompanying the text, reading was almost like watching a movie ... or almost like being there.  I guess there's the appeal of comics!  Well worth checking out: the author mixed humor and curiosity into a very strange subject.
 In paper form, I've been reading Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries.  This involves Oscar Wilde not as the author, but as the character.  Now, I could think of a lot that could go wrong with a project like this, but Oscar Wilde is the MAN, so I had to give it a shot.  The first scene opens in Madame Tussaud's, so that settled it.  (Yes, Madame Tussaud's was around in the late 1800's.)
I have, unfortunately, not been diligent at reading, so in a month, I've only read about 200 pages.  While a little dry in places, it's well done.  The dialogue isn't so stiff that I can't find the humanity in it (although, being a period piece, it's much more stiff than this blog, for example).  A few of the side characters are boring, though -- however, I've just gotten to the murder (i.e. the good part), and I'm totally slacking.  Gyles Brandreth 1, Melanie 0.

If you like short stories, I recommend Appetite by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh.  It's about a guy who is a waiter and his adventures, if you will.  The thing I loved the most about this story is that he describes almost everything I've ever felt about work (anywhere - retail in particular, but some of it goes for the office, too).  The opening scene where the main character wants to ask for a raise is painfully vivid (in a good way).  Also, the character has a dream, but instead of faking out the reader by having something good happen and then PSYCH!! waking up, the author accurately describes a confusing jumble of memories and TV shows, and conversations that might have been.  When the character wakes up and realizes he's been asleep instead of watching TV, instead of feeling played, I think, "aww, that's happened to me too."
What bothers me about modern literary fiction in general (and what happened with this particular story also), is that sometimes nothing really happens.  There are a bunch of good characters who flash back and dream and interact, but when it comes to the ending, I'm left feeling a bit ... blah.  I will tell you that I'm totally lost when it comes to symbolism, and that might be holding me back with the genre.  Someone please clue me in: when reaching the end, am I supposed to feel something other than, "huh.  Well ... that's it, I guess"?
I listened to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after a failed attempt at watching the movie.  Really, after listening to the original short story, I can see why I had trouble watching the film -- it's sort of a novelty piece.  What happens when a guy is born old and slowly becomes a baby.  Not my thing when it comes to plot, but whatever.  It's short.

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner was an excellent book.  I liked the characters, and the story was cute (and sometimes heartbreaking).  I chose this book because I was reading Miss Snark's blog, trying to figure out how to tweak my query letter.  She said the first few pages of Good in Bed were exactly the kinds of first pages she wanted to see from new authors.  Naturally, I had to check it out, and I got sucked into the story.  Of course, that's what you want.
I tried hard to "read as a writer" and pay attention to why the story was so good -- why the words flowed so effortlessly.  But since it was so smooth, I glided right through and I have no idea how to emulate this woman.  Perhaps reading a few more of her novels will teach me a thing or two.

So I went to my library, and ended up borrowing Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser, who is, apparently, pretty popular in Sweden.  I thought, Good! I like European things, and the description of the story sounded interesting.
The mystery starts out really promising.  Guy wakes up and doesn't know what happened (quite like what I just wrote -- one reason I chose this book), and discovers his wife is dead.  Guy goes to prison, but he didn't do it -- and gets murdered himself (don't worry, this is all in the blurb, so I'm not giving anything important away).  
That's all good.  Interesting.  Okay, now what?
The investigators investigate.  They talk to people.  Halfway though, they're talking to people.  At the 3/4 point, they're talking to people.  At the end, they're talking to people.  
I don't know.  If you read on Amazon, it got really good reviews, but I didn't feel it.  It was sort of like the middle sagged all the way to the end, and all the questioning became really repetitive.  Very much a plot-driven story, since the characters didn't really have lives of their own (not as much as I like -- i.e. they didn't really do any extra-curricular activities that weren't mentioned as a side-note).
Nothing strikingly "wrong" with the story or the writing style, just not my cup of tea.
Reality TV Bites by Shane Bolks
I've decided to branch out and read some stuff I normally wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole, such as the above listed book. Chick-lit/Romance has never really been my thing, and I avoid reality TV like the plague (most of the time). I'll say this right now: this book isn't badly written. Light, yes. Shallow, yes. But sometimes we need something that's "just entertaining", and for that, it does its job. However, one thing I'm having difficulty wrapping my head around is the abundance of brand names (especially the uber designer ones).For example: (a spur of the moment composition by me, not a quote)

nail polish. "Oh dammit!" she said into the phone.
"I mean, hello?" she covered her eyes, careful not to touch the
Maybeline as she tapped her Prada heels on the linoleum.
Is it just me, or does it seem a LOT like a bunch of product placement? An elaborate commercial? I understand saving time by saying "the Volkswagon Beetle" rather than describing the car in painful detail -- but it's a shortcut, am I right? It seems as though if I'm not familier with the product itself (like So and So's Dashing line at Boss), I almost need to look it up in order to get the picture the author is trying to paint - a hinderance instead of a help. And what about the people 50 years from now who might read the book? A certain super-cool very specific cell phone 1) isn't going to be cool anymore and 2) there's the possibility that NO ONE will know what it is.

While we're at it: cuss words (not a problem in Reality TV Bites, but a pet peeve nonetheless). When anyone says (or writes) ANY word way too much, it's irritating. Another example? I'm glad you asked:
"I waited for the bus for over an hour. The bus was supposed to run on the
bus' schedule of 15 minutes. Busses are usually punctual, but this bus
kept me waiting. When I turned my head, the bus came and I missed the bus
and I had to wait for another bus. That bus was also a little late because
the bus didn't stick to the bus schedule."
Ok? It's like that with gratuitous use of the F word. ANY word. So please, all you Hollywood screenplay writers, that guy who shouts on the street corner outside my bedroom window, and Chatty Chatterson on the cell phone across the aisle from me: USE SOME OTHER WORDS!

Rant over.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Write: Sex Scenes

Right now, I need to tell my parents to stop reading. I appreciate your love and support, but this is not the post I want you to remember me for. Click here instead. (goes doubly for grandparents)

Anyone else who doesn't appreciate R rated material should also skip this one.


My current work in progress, Awake, has something none of my previous works have had: a sex scene. Believe me, I've been trying to figure out how I'm going to show this novel to my parents without chopping out a whole chapter. Actually, when I first picked up the book Sex, Murder and a Double Latte the first sentence resonated with me:
"The downside to writing sex scenes is that my mother reads my books."  
Yeah, obviously, I'm not the first person to have this problem. I guess I'll figure something out when the time comes. (Just now getting a lot of unnecessary anxiety about this.)

Barring the difficulties of sharing scenes as intimate as these, getting the words out can be difficult too. This post's aim is to help with that.

There are different kinds of sex scenes for various situations.

For realistic scenes in which you don't want the girl to seem too easy, or the guy to be a coarse, ill-mannered brute, there's a specific order to the action, starting way before the scene itself. It's not so much what is done – ‘petting’ (kissing and limited fondling), ‘heavy petting’ (breast fondling with direct skin contact, stimulation through clothing), or even actual intercourse. Assuming mutual attraction in the first place, what matters is actually the order in which the characters do these things. As long as they each go through the same stages step by step and it is accepted by the other, everything is usually okay, even if the stages are gone through quickly. 

If you follow the stages in roughly the right order, sex will always seem consensual, and therefore acceptable. Some of the later stages often merge or are skipped altogether without problem. The faster it happens, and the more stages you skip, the more explosive and lust-based it seems, BUT you have to show both parties at same stage for it not to seem like rape for one or the other. The slower you take them through the stages, and the fewer stages you skip, the more it becomes love-making, and the more erotic it becomes. This order is roughly: 

  1. ‘Accidental’ hand touching.
  2. Hand touching/holding.
  3. ‘Accidental’ body contact. e.g. arm brushing breast or vice versa, hips/legs brushing while walking/sitting.
  4. Deliberate contact. Arm round shoulder/waist.
  5. Touching other’s face/hair.
  6. Kiss, with minimal body to body contact.
  7. Long kiss, full body contact.
  8. Brief contact with lesser erogenous zones. e.g. Ear lobe, neck, back.
  9. Longer deliberate contact with major erogenous zones (breasts, followed by thighs/legs, followed by inner thighs and upward, through clothing.
  10. Naked contact between torsos. Strong genital to genital contact through clothes, accompanied by strong pressure and movement.
  11. Full naked contact.
  12. Actual intercourse.

How to describe the sex scene:
  1. Making it coy, old-fashioned, clichéd and funny
    1. Use pet/old names for the sex organs. 
    2. Recycled metaphors and similes. “His train entered her tunnel at full steam ahead.” “Her maidenhead opened for him like a flower to the sun.” “His honeybee sipped her delicious nectar.” “His rocket launched into her orbit.”

  1. Making it pornographic:
    1. Rapid invasion of personal space.
    2. Make the sexual response one-sided.
    3. Focus on the sex organs and intercourse.
    4. Use lots of the four letter words repeatedly, and the more insulting slang.
    5. Repeat words like thrust, rammed, forced at regular intervals.
    6. Keep repeating the same actions over and over.
    7. Skip lots of stages.
    8. Focus on physical descriptions rather than emotions.
    9. Avoid gentle gestures, or touching non-erogenous zones.
    10. Skip kisses unless they’re brutal and forceful.
    11. Lots of loud cries, especially four letter words.
    12. Significant use of force or pain.

  1. Making it love-making:
    1. Go slowly through each of the stages, at least to start with, and show that each is enjoying and accepting it.
    2. Place the emphasis on how it feels rather than on what is being done.
    3. Loving touches on each other’s bodies away from erogenous zones, kisses and eye contact. Whispered endearments (but not coy ones). Lots of foreplay in other words.
    4. Show each showing their pleasure to the other. 
    5. A small amount of scratching and biting is okay, but it’s easy to overdo it. Qualify it to stay safe e.g., gentle scraping, nipping.
    6. Show mutual surrender to the pleasure as you approach the climax.
    7. Both achieve climax; together is best but not compulsory, as long as the one who reaches orgasm first continues until the other does. Let the climax continue for a reasonable time, at least for the woman. Average time for a man from initial onset to final contraction is up to about 7 seconds for a man, 30 seconds for a woman, though the last ten seconds or so, they’re fading down. 
    8. Don’t be too graphic/specific. If you need to be specific, stick to the accepted words and/or the commonest, least coarse alternatives/abbreviations. Even so, keep it the minimum.
    9. Gentle sounds if any.
    10. Remember intercourse is simply one stage in love-making.
    11. Repeat 3c after climax.

  1. Making it fairly steamy/ erotic/spicy:
    1. Go through all the early stages very quickly. Can put up to three in one sentence.
    2. Skip odd later stages, but mix in foreplay/kisses/eye contact even during intercourse.
    3. Include the same loving gestures as in love making. But make them more forceful and produce a stronger and noisier response.
    4. Can use more graphic/specific description but stick to the ‘acceptable’ options as in 3g.
    5. More of stuff in 3e, but more strongly, but make sure you show a pleasure response by partner, and have them return it.
    6. Make it noisier, quicker and more forceful for both.
    7. Make them collapse with exhaustion afterwards, if only for a few moments while they get their breath back.
    8. Even more important to repeat 3c afterwards.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I've decided to buy a cheetah

New York can do some crazy things to you. There are people here -- a LOT of people -- and after a while, you just stop caring what they think about you. Before when I'd make an idiot of myself in public, I'd be embarrassed for a while. Now I realize no one's ever going to remember me because they've all seen something 10 times crazier than whatever it is I just did (tripped over a sidewalk bump or something).

Also, 99% of the men here have no chivalry. I understand that women want equality, and that means that we have to give up our seats every now and then. But seriously, nothing's going to make me snap faster than when I get off work (standing all day) and the jerky guy in the headphones pushes me out of the way for the last subway seat.
all right, it could be worse.
My year of crazy changes is winding to a slow conclusion: within the next 2 months, I'll find a permanent apartment and reconnect with my kitty.
Since work is under control (i.e. no longer sucking), and my home will be back to normal, and I won't be training for anything, all I'll have to do is moan and whine that I'm not eating croissants on some street in France. Boohoo.

Which brings me to my title: Cheetahs. Bad idea or no, the idea of buying a cheetah and walking it around the streets of NY really appeals to me. It's the size of a big dog. No one would mess with me. So long as it doesn't decide to run at 60mph with me dragging on the leash, they can be nicely domesticated. Cheetahs purr (unlike a lion or tiger -- which would also be awesome to walk on a leash) and make meow-y noises, which is a huge selling point for me. Just watch this squeaky baby and TRY not to shell out $15,000!

Okay, okay. I dream big. I have a huge imagination because without it, I'd be bored all the time. This is why I write books: it's the easiest way for me to flesh out all these crazy ideas without having to do them in real life. This is good news for the guy on the subway who knocked me over and for my neighbor getting on the elevator with me and a frigging cheetah.

Before I go, I'd like to announce that The Silent Treatment is officially for sale in paperback. There are some minor flaws with the back cover that I've decided to let slide because I can't afford to buy any more proof copies at the moment. With enough sales, I'll make the minor adjustment and re-issue. Until then, get your piping hot first editions here: I've put at 30% discount on it because I'm cool like that. Expect a cheesy "author holding book" photo soon.