Books I’ve Read Lately (14 of Them)

Lately I’ve been finishing books I started reading in the last year or two — and enjoyed, but left unfinished. Today I’ll tell you about some of those, plus some books I finished more quickly, without leaving them to languish for months or years.

Meanwhile, the poster child for my problem is still unfinished: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (first published in 1862). I got about 150 pages in, loved it, and stopped. I recently restarted from the beginning. I’m further in now, but I still have over 1,200 pages to go; it’s the unabridged translation. I’m still loving it, but it’ll be a while before I can report completion.

Among the books I’ve finished, I read some just to read them. Others I read for research, because I’m attempting, as time permits, to learn the art, craft, and business of writing fiction. I enjoyed most of the books I list below in printed form and the rest as audio books.

After I decided this topic might make a fun blog post, I asked myself why I wanted to write it. There was time enough to wonder; some of my writing languishes unfinished for months, like my reading.

On reflection I don’t think my motive is to dazzle you with the breadth and depth of my reading; I know too many people who read far more than I do to be impressed with myself in this way, or to think you’ll be impressed. Besides, if I were trying to impress you, I’d probably exclude at least two or three of the books I’m about to mention. You’ll know which, I think, when you get to them.

It’s more a matter of my enthusiasm for books in general, for some (not all) of these particular books, and for people who read books. When I read a book, I want to talk about it. You’re welcome to join me.

Huntley Fitzpatrick: “I passed on the scotch and the smokes, but kept writing.”

Yesterday, somewhat randomly, I ran into an author’s biography at Amazon.com, to which I point you for its style as much as its insight. Her name is Huntley Fitzpatrick. Apparently, she writes young adult fiction — how well or how prominently, I cannot say. I know of her only what I read there.

Here are some excerpts from her Amazon author page, where you should read the whole brief bio, if her charm speaks to you too.

I was lucky enough to be born to parents who read every kind of written material with interest and enthusiasm, and let me do the same. From the start I searched for books that let me fall in love…with the story and with the boy. For most of my childhood I divided my devotion between Almanzo Wilder from The Little House books, C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian and Tom in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl.

I figured out early that stories were what made sense of the world when it was confusing and made the best moments permanent. I was shy and nearsighted but good at anything that involved reading and imagining, so quickly decided the only logical career to pursue was writing. To this end my father gave me a typewriter (it was a long time ago), a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a bottle of Scotch and a note advising me to “Be Bold, Be Bold, Be Bold.” For my tenth birthday.

Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.