Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I read instead of reading - The Experiental Review of "The Sweet Hereafter"

I've got three kids: 12 year old boy, 10 year old girl, 4 year old boy. They are all smart, funny, unique and beautiful. The thought of any of them ceasing to be is unimaginable, and I refuse to speculate on how I would be able to work through such a tragedy.

Now, I knew the general plot behind Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter before I started reading it - it wasn't like being waylaid and destroyed by the heartbreaking beginning of Pixar's Up. I first heard of the story through press for its film version, and then picked up the novel at a library sale. So I knew that it was a sad book that involved the death of children in an accident, but when I decided to read the novels I own by Russell Banks, I felt forewarned, and confident that I could treat it as any other tragic drama that I would encounter; I felt that I was a strong enough reader to separate the book's narrative from my own.

The book is split into five parts, with four narrators. The first section is narrated by Dolores Driscoll, a small-town school bus driver, and details the everyday procedures and bus route she takes to pick up many of the town's children and get them to school safely on a snowy winter's day, and how the mundane instantly becomes life-shattering as the bus goes off the road into a half-frozen, flooded sandpit. This section is thick with foreshadowing and imminent tragedy, with a strong-voiced narrator, and does an excellent job of introducing the community. When the section suddenly ends, just over the brink of the accident, at the starting point of action, I was compelled to continue reading.

The second section is narrated by Billy Ansel, a widower who was the only witness to the accident, who loses his two children. His narrative involves the dissolution of an affair he was having with another parent who lost a child, some back story on his past marriage and his relationship with his kids, and how his way of dealing with the tragedy is to lose himself in the bottle. As a father this section was certainly hard to read, but I felt so removed from the characteristics of Ansel that I was able to keep my emotions somewhat in check.

Now I considered taking a break from the book at this point - to read something with a lighter tone for a while - and would have if not for Banks' excellent structuring, having the narrator of the next section be Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to town looking to help out the victims' families. Now, while Stephens has his own family problems (a drug-addicted daughter), exploring the legal dimension of the tragedy provided the emotional break I needed to stick with the story.

But then there was the fourth section, which is narrated by Nichole Burnell, a fourteen-year-old girl who was paralyzed in the accident. Her voice, and the layers of emotion and tragedy that come out on top of that of the accident (such as a history of sexual abuse by her father), sapped my motivation to continue the story.

It was summer vacation for me by the time I got into the fourth section. I had time on my hands for reading, and didn't want to read my book in progress. Now, where was an avid reader to turn, to take a break from a heart-rending story? Should I read a lighter book in the interim? A so-called "summer-read?" A trip to the local library gave me the answer: graphic novels!

In high school I was an dedicated comic book collector. My interest waned in college, but I would pick up the odd graphic novel or comic collection from the library every once in a while to feed my love of graphic narration. My early tastes in comics were heavy on Marvel, with only a smattering of Batman comics, and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" mini-series comprising my DC holdings. Over the past decade my graphic novel reading has mostly involved DC's Vertigo imprint series (Alan Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing", Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" & "Black Orchid", Bill Willingham's "Fables", anything with John Constantine) some mature Indies (Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" & "From Hell", Frank Miller's "300") and titles I could enjoy with my kids (Jeff Smith's "Bone", Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet", David Peterson's "Mouse Guard"). Besides Kevin Smith and Frank Miller's work for DC, I generally had no interest.

But, driven by my desire to read anything else but The Sweet Hereafter, I read a few DC graphic novels, including:

Batgirl: Year One
Batman: Battle for the Cowl
Batman: The Black Glove
Batman: Blind Justice
Batman: Death in the Family
Batman: Golden Dawn
Batman: Haunted Knight
Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush 2
Batman: Hush Returns
Batman: Heart of Hush
Batman Incorporated
Batman: Private Casebook
Batman R. I. P.
Batman: Under the Hood
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Blackest Night
Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
Brightest Day: Volume One
Brightest Day: Volume Two
Brightest Day: Volume Three
Catwoman: When in Rome

Final Crisis
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds
The Flash: Rebirth
The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues
Green Lantern: Secret Origin
Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
Green Lantern: Agent Orange
Green Lantern: Brightest Day
Green Lantern: War of the Green Lanterns
War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath
Green Lantern Corps: Fearsome
Identity Crisis

Like I said, a few graphic novels.

Then I read "Kick Ass: Hit Girl", and finally, all five volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant and affecting "Y: the Last Man" which was the first time I can remember being moved to drop a tear for a graphic novel.

At that point, though there are a few more random graphic novels available at my two local libraries, I broke down and finished The Sweet Hereafter in the waiting room while getting my car serviced. It did not wring any tears from me, but I think that it because the sadness the novel instills in its parent readers is like a deep ache. But I was able to use denial that such tragedy could occur in my family to finish my reading: I was able to stop questioning how I would ever get through losing a child, and keep the story's characters at a distance. So, as another Dolores Driscoll section bookends the narrative, and the characters are shown beginning to move on, I moved on as well, and finished well before my oil change and tire rotation did.

Next on my reading list is Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter - and I have no idea what it's about. I just hope it's not as sad as The Sweet Hereafter - I don't have enough graphic novels available to get me through!

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Update on Updates

It took me a while to come around to the idea of updating published works. When I gave up the idea of having my books traditionally published, I had no idea that there was anything more to Ebook self-publishing than 1. write a book; 2. make a cover; 3. publish! With the exception of Stephen King's The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, publishing meant finality: like it or no, the words were set, and weren't going to ever change.

But then after becoming part of the self-publishing community, particularly through Smashwords, and following founder Mark Coker's blogs, posts, and guides, I found that clicking the little publish button didn't have to be the end of any story. So when I started getting feedback from readers I respected on my novel, I found that there were things I should change, and things I wanted to change.

As a part of the self-publishing community, I found an editor who volunteered her proofreading skills to find the unintentional grammatical & mechanical errors (& more), and solicited feedback from willing readers - something I probably should have done before publishing I know, but didn't know how to before becoming part of the Goodreads community, and discovering "beta-reading."

The outcome of that proofreading, and beta-reading, is the 2013 edition of my novel Alexander Murphy's Home for Wayward Celebrities, which features a draft significantly more free of unintentional grammatical/mechanical/spelling errors (some were intentional), a revised chapter system, and over 17,000 words of new content - including a new character, and an new ending. I even threw some color on the cover.

I was happy returning to the world of the novel, finding that there was more going on there than I had first imagined. So then, is it finished? All I can say is that it is finished for now, but if there is something I find later that belongs in the book, Ebook self-publishing means that my story will remain an open world that I can return to to play in.

My second update was to my story collection, My Governor's House & other stories. Now, though I have embraced self-publishing for my books, I still like having my short stories traditionally published through literary magazines before I compile them into my own collection, and some of the stories I want to include in My Governor's House are still looking for that lit zine first home. After they are published in zines, and the rights have reverted back to me, they'll get added to this collection, or the next collection. EBook self-publishing gave me the opportunity to publish a small collection of my previously published stories, and watch it grow to full as my orphan stories get placed. So this update was to include the story "The D. C. S. G. Meeting," which had been published last year in the fall 2012 issue of Menacing Hedge; audiobook fans can also find a reading of the story by the author there as well.

New readers will get the updated editions automatically; previous readers can update their files at any time to get the new edition - there is no extra charge for this: once you've bought the book, you have access to every future incarnation of the book.

Happy reading!