Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “A Dog’s Ransom”

I’ve been catching up on reading as I recover from surgery, and I picked this book to read next because I like mysteries and our Lady friend Marie mentioned that she’d read a Patricia Highsmith. I thought I’d see how A Dog’s Ransom, the book I have, holds up.

First, let me say: Patricia Highsmith. This woman can write psychological horror really well. She wrote Strangers on a Train, which was made into an Alfred Hitchcock film (two strangers on a train agree to murder each other’s’ wives) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (a man takes over another’s identity). I haven’t read all her books, but I’ve read these two, and they are both very unsettling. Random acts spin slowly out of control, events spiral downward without anyone able to stop them, bad things happen to good people, the crooks go unpunished—it’s like that, on Every. Single. Page. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “Sleep No More” and “One Night Stands and Lost Weekends”

I’m continuing my pursuit of tidier (and ultimately empty) shelves—reading and then passing along the books in my office—and I’ve shot through two anthologies of short crime fiction by two well-known writers.

The first, a short (194 pages) collection called Sleep No More by P.D. James, is just terrific. I’m not a huge fan of the short story; it always seems to me that characterization can suffer with the shorter length. But James (whose novel-length detective protagonist is Adam Dalgliesh) has really nailed these. Dalgliesh does not appear in any of these stories; each presents a new set of characters who, remarkably, might get found out, but often get away with murder.

My favorite story, I think, is the longest one (maybe because it’s also the most amusing): “The Murder of Santa Claus.” It’s a rather satiric nod to the old-fashioned, country house Christmas story, where the characters eat goose, pull crackers, and sit before the fire, drinking sherry. Here’s how it starts: Continue reading

Kay: Stealing Material: Is It Theft or Misappropriation?

Poster for Disney’s “The Lion King”

Today concludes the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, in which the writers and publishers of romance fiction come together to discuss the latest trends in the romance publishing industry. It’s a time of celebration: goals achieved, books noted, writers and publishers rewarded. It’s a time to celebrate creativity.

Which was why I was particularly disheartened to read a couple of stories this weekend about plagiarism and the theft of creative ideas.

The big one is that there’s been a discussion that the plot and characters of Disney’s The Lion King were ripped off from Kimba the White Lion, a Japanese anime series created by Osamu Tezuka that NBC syndicated in the United States in the 1960s. The charges of appropriation, dating back to the film’s first release in 1994, clouded the American film’s release back then and have returned with the latest remake. According to the story in the Washington Post, the Japanese anime tradition is one of borrowing, but it’s the lack of credit or acknowledgement that is disturbing.

The second article is an op-ed in the LA Times by Douglas Preston. He and Lincoln Child write a thriller series under the name “Preston & Child.” He describes how plagiarists using the name “Preston Child” have ripped off their books, and how other scams are stealing copyright and income from hardworking authors. (According to Preston, author incomes have dropped 42% in the last 10 years.) In fact, I’ve noticed this Preston/Child discrepancy myself on Amazon. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “In the Pond”

I’m reading the books that I’m clearing off my shelves, preparatory to making more room in the office. This week I finished In the Pond by Ha Jin.

It reminded me of a family event. Years ago, at the high school graduation party of her daughter, my cousin lifted the three-tier, professionally decorated cake off the table to show it to her guests. In a sequence of moves that would put a Melissa McCarthy movie to shame, my cousin slipped on something, her foot shot forward, and her arms jerked up. The cake separated from the plate and summersaulted high into the air before the horrified gaze of all the guests, doing a beautiful swan dive straight into the retired, but still usable, chamber pot.

Somebody went out for donuts.

The story of Shao Bin, as Ha Jin writes it in In the Pond, is like that. A self-educated scholar and self-taught artist who works at a fertilizer plant in China, Shao Bin feels deeply wronged—and his wife deeply disappointed—when he is not assigned a bigger apartment for his growing family. Instead, only the party cadre “earn” larger spaces. Shao Bin—everyone—knows that the apartments are not allocated by need, as party rules dictate, but by party alliances, kickbacks, and bribes. He takes action, drawing a cartoon mocking the party leaders, which the local newspaper publishes.

This maneuver sets off a cascading series of events in which things can only go from bad to worse. Shao Bin applies for other jobs and is accepted for one, but the fertilizer factory party chairmen refuse to let him go because they don’t want the other workers to know that Shao Bin is qualified for such a good position. Bin applies to college and is accepted, but the factory party chairs refuse to let him attend because he is needed to draw propaganda at the plant. (And with slogans like “Utilize Methane; Turn Waste into Treasure,” who can blame them?)

Shao Bin challenges the leaders at every opportunity, breaking up meetings, writing letters of complaint, drawing cartoons and even graffiti to protest the actions against him. In time, the leaders at the factory find a solution for their troublesome worker, but it comes at a price—and it’s not exactly what he expects.

Winner of the National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting, Ha Jin paints a picture of life in a provincial Chinese town, with its depictions of the pettiness of the officials and their scheming to maintain status, that feels very true to life. And I had to root for Shao Bin, who takes up his narrow calligrapher’s brush to confront the powerful party leadership, with repercussions that reach far past his home town and the Harvest Fertilizer Plant. This book is dark and funny, even as you see the cake take off into the air and know that it can’t land anyplace good.

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got American History

In honor of the American Independence Day, and while I recuperate from surgery and read and relocate the books on my shelves, I’m taking a look at a couple of volumes of American Colonial history. I haven’t read these since I was a graduate student, when they were required for my degree, but it wasn’t a hardship opening them again.

That’s because I like history, I like old stuff, and I like stories. And let’s face it—the story of the American Revolution is a good one, and the ideas that the colonialists brought to the political discourse are thrilling. The values and principles the colonialists debated and ultimately went to war for have been battered in recent times, but to imagine that people sat around the dinner table and read Patrick Henry’s speech in the newspaper (the “give me liberty or give me death” one) or the words of John Adams (“Let justice be done though the heavens should fall”) just makes me glow. Talk about stakes! They could not have been higher. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “Save Me the Plums”

One of the most famous of the Gourmet covers, which many readers hated

I’m in a long-term project to read and give away all the books on my office shelves and then move out the shelves. It’s been interesting so far, since I bought these books over a long period of time, and my tastes and interests have changed. Or in some cases, I was in an airport, and I needed something, and whatever I chose seemed to be my best bet at the time.

I’ll be recovering from surgery for a while, so this is a great time to catch up on my reading. The book I just finished is the new release Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl, a memoir of the time she spent as editor of  Gourmet magazine (she also had been the restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times). As a former small magazine and newspaper editor myself, I was particularly interested in this one. Continue reading

Kay: Altered Books, Altered State of Mind

Most of us who come to this site are readers. We get a lot from books, starting with pleasure and comfort and ranging to education and creative stimulation.

I recently went with an artist friend to a juried exhibit of altered books. The artists had taken books as a starting point and cut them apart! Glued them down! Stitched them up! They created a whole different set of artistic variables with the texts and covers to view the book elements in new ways, and I think, to investigate reading and the value of books.

I loved some of the pieces. One of my favorites was a wholly new creation—a wooden, hinged “book cover” encasing pages showing a series of graphics all done in the same color scheme, of a figure leaping a mountain in joy. There was a tree made with the fanned, sculpted pages of a book. Also a giant bug made of sculpted book pages with human legs. There was a rather unimaginative (in my view) framed sequence of Harlequin covers, one from each decade. There was a way-too-large stack of annotated titles, an homage to banned books, and another about piece about resistance that had thorned rods running through the pages. There were one or two pieces that I thought were a waste of a perfectly good book.

(I apologize for the quality of these images: they’re enlarged screen grabs from YouTube, because I forgot my camera.)

It was fun to see the exhibit with an artist and to get her take on the objects. And it was fun for me to see how an artist had interpreted, and altered, books like Mother Goose and Naked Lunch. (Here’s a link to a one-minute video showcasing the exhibit.)

Did it stimulate my thinking? Absolutely. Did it stimulate my creativity? Well, better ask me later, when I get that WIP finished.

What about you? Have you guys seen any exhibits lately that made you think about your writing life?