Wednesday Reviews: The Autobiography Of Mark Twain by… Um… , Jimmy Benchpress by Charlie Stella, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

By Mark Twain

This book lists at least six editors aside from Mark Twain himself. In fact, if you get the full edition of this first of three intended volumes, you have more notes than you have actual text. The notes themselves make up an entire second book about Twain. I blogged here a few weeks back about ditching the audio version. I’m not a big fan of putting footnotes and citations in audio works. I know why it’s done, but in this case, it took over ninety minutes of listening before I heard one line of Twain’s prose. Thus, I sent the audiobook back to the library and downloaded it on Kindle. If you’re looking to read Twain riffing on Twain, get this in print or on Kindle. Much easier to flip pages and get to the meat of the work. Plus, if you want to do some research of your own, the notes provide tons of material ripe for study.

I, of course, wanted to hear from the man himself, Twain. Twain, Samuel Clemens to his family and friends, stipulated that this three-volume set not be released until 100 years after his death. There were two earlier, shorter versions he authorized, and the introductory notes explain the editorial decisions, good and bad, that were made. In those versions, certain material was omitted as Twain did not want it released in certain people’s lifetimes. During World War II, there were people who knew Twain still walking the Earth, though if Volume 1 is anything to judge by, they had little to worry about.

Twain puts everything in, all his false starts, some character sketches of people he knew (most notably Ulysses S. Grant), and finally settles into some dictations made during the last four years of his life. The result is a rambling monologue of Twain talking about everything from his mechanical ineptitude, his adventures as a miner in Nevada, how US Grant came to write his autobiography, and anything else that crosses his mind. The rambling, unstructured format is intentional, and it took Twain nearly three decades to settle on it, when he found the perfect stenographer to take dictation. Within the manuscripts from these later years, Twain adds passages from an unfinished biography written by his daughter, Suzy, who died when she was 22.

Twain spares no one. He dislikes President Roosevelt, though he is fond of Theodore Roosevelt. He is close friends with John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisers. He seems to be well-versed in Christianity, but hates religion. He is as disparaging about himself at times as he is about others, many times offering the criticism with tongue implanted in cheek. The funniest stories often feature Twain as a boy and the unfortunate victim of his own mischief. It’s pretty clear from this volume – as if we didn’t know already – that Twain is Tom Sawyer, and the white wash incident has several real-life inspirations. We also learn who the real Huckleberry Finn was, and at least his father wasn’t nearly as racist as Huck’s pa (though, from what I can tell in this tome, he was three times as drunk.) Twain doesn’t say much about his aborted career in the Confederate army, but since his family was a group of unenthusiastic slave holders, and his brother Orion was an abolitionist, the Glorious Cause definitely didn’t seem glorious to Twain.

The book is funny, and there’s a reader’s edition on Amazon (produced by the edtiors of this edition). I highly recommend getting that version if you can. I can’t wait to read the next volume as Twain has more thoughts on that “damnable human race” and stories about other luminaries of his time, such as Nikolai Tesla. The original plan was to release volumes 2 and 3 by 2015. If so, I would suggest making the reader’s edition the primary audio version. I’m sure Hal Holbrook wouldn’t mind doing the reading.

Jimmy Bench-Press

Charlie Stella

Charlie Stella’s second novel tells the tale of Jimmy Mangino, aka “Jimmy Benchpress.” Jimmy is huge. He can bench press 400 pounds. Hence the nickname. Fresh out of prison, he’s looking for work and looking for a big score that will pad his bank account nicely. He finds it in Larry Berra, a Mafia wannabe and probably the dumbest loan shark ever. Berra hires him as muscle to get back $58,000 from an elderly barber who clearly didn’t have it to pay back. While working for Larry, Jimmy decides he’s going to help himself to Larry’s money. But first, he helps himself to Larry’s girlfriend. He has a few other scams working against people who employ him, but let’s be honest. Jimmy’s in it for Jimmy. That puts him in the crosshairs of Alex Pavlik, an organized crime cop who already is in hot water for giving a pedophile killer a twenty-minute beating. So Pavlik and his rage control issues are sent to the OC squad where life is supposedly quiet.

Stella, himself a former knockaround guy, paints a very unglamorous picture of life as a Mafioso and as a cop. The street level soldiers in the mob and their counterparts in the NYPD are often the victims of those above them who lose sight of what their purpose is. Plus there’s always one guy on either side whose ego and rage threaten to crash the whole works. For the mob, that’s Jimmy.

Like Eddie’s World, Jimmy Bench-Press is a very working class novel. Whereas Eddie Senta, though, is a likeable sort just trying to survive and flirting with going straight, Jimmy Mangino is an unlikeable protag. Like Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger’s Joker, this guy is walking chaos, simply doing what he does because he’s smooth and he’s intimidating. Unlike Lecter or The Joker, Jimmy’s unlikely to trigger a nationwide manhunt or hold an entire city hostage. One of his own would likely shoot him in the head if it came to that.

It’s actually Pavlik who is the eyes and ears of the outsider in this one. Pavlik’s rage is over how innocents are treated. While police must deal with that sort of violence everyday, they are expected to handle it with a certain amount of restraint. Reading Pavlik’s reaction to the murder of young boys by a pederast or how Jimmy pushes around an old man, you’re right there with him saying, “Screw restraint. Where’s my Louisville slugger?”

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition

Christopher Vogler

Why are so many Hollywood movies written to a certain pattern? Blame Joseph Campbell. His The Hero With a Thousand Faces has become the yardstick by which everything from science fiction epics to horror movies to even romantic comedies are measured. So why read Christopher Vogler’s distillation of Campbell’s tome?

Well, because it’s a good way to tell a story. Mind you, not every story follows what Vogler calls “the hero’s journey.” Indeed, Vogler points out that some cultures are not big on hero stories. Australia is a country where this type of story-telling doesn’t work. And in Germany, Kaiser Willy and Adolf Hitler pretty much killed the form for an entire nation. But Vogler is not about praising the journey or burying it.The Writer’s Journey is about doing this type of story right. He breaks a story down to distinct phases. Done properly, these phases can be used to shed light on a story to shore up its weaknesses or point a writer to a path out of a confusing plot problem. But the hero’s journey, he says, has to be done right. If it’s used as a model instead of a formula, stories will sing. When it’s used as a crutch…

Well, if it has enough explosions, Michael Bay might want to make it into a film.

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Writing Tomes

I’ve actually avoided books on writing over the last few years. A lot of them are written by writers who don’t have the success to justify 200-400 pages of advice. There are similar books and blogs about marketing your books and finding a publisher. Still, there are a few books over the years I’ve found helpful.

The first serious writing book I read was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. For the first time, I got to look under the hood of paperback novels to see how they were put together. It was still a daunting task to write a novel. Two hundred or three hundred pages? Really? That’s a lot of typing?

It was 1988 or so, and word processors were a rumor to me. I had an electric typewriter with automatic margins and correct tape. Real state-of-the-art stuff that I never really learned how to use. But I could clack away on the typewriter just the same. After reading Block’s book, I tried to write a novel. After several false starts, I wondered if it was endurance. Block recommended an outline, so I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. For one thing, I literally used Licence to Kill, the James Bond movie, as my outline.

Then I moved to Cincinnati and discovered the Canon Wordstar. This gave way to a Packard Bell with Microsoft Works. Yes, they had programs that looked like typing and would format your text and set your margins for you. Helped that I learned to really type about this time. I reread Block’s book and made a couple more serious attempts at it. By 2002, I was working on the early efforts that became Northcoast Shakedown. It was around the time I shopped it around that the next writing book that actually gave me something came out.

After the accident that nearly killed him, Stephen King put out his famous memoir, On Writing. Part autobiography, part writing clinic, On Writing was simply one guy talking about what he did for a living and how he came to do it. I think I got more out of the biographical part. Obviously, I’ll never have the success King has had. I doubt any writer will again. But the pitfalls of success that snared King can happen to anyone in any walk of life. But there were things that gave insight into what gives King’s writing its humanity, something a lot of horror writers fail miserably at. Before I started each follow up to Northcoast Shakedown, I reread On Writing and Writing the Novel From Plot to Print.

Now, as I dust off Holland Bay and lay the groundwork for a science fiction novel, someone recommended to me The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler basically condenses and expands on Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler writes from the standpoint of screenwriting, but the “hero’s journey,” as he calls it, applies to novels as well. Apply it without imagination, and the hero’s journey looks just as formulaic and trite as its critics accuse it of being. Applied skillfully, and it becomes a roadmap for a writer to put together a screenplay or a long work. Vogler also makes it clear that this is not the only type of storytelling. It is, however, what Hollywood uses to judge a screenplay. If you look at the best movies, most of them (not all, but most) confirm the validity of the hero’s journey. If you look at the worst ones, either they fail to follow the hero template (or any other type of storytelling out there) or they simply follow it by rote, adding nothing new or of substance.