Seeing-Shain

Seeing the Real You at Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan

Seeing the Real You at Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan
by Britta Lee Shain
Jawbone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“How could he embarrass his children this way? How could he embarrass himself?”

Shain’s tale of her brief affair with Bob Dylan takes us from her college days, through early trials and successes, and the struggle to find love and relevance as an artist. It eventually peaks at her star-crossed intersection with Bob Dylan. Along the way, we get glimpses of a Dylan at work and play, as well as the infamous number of masks that guard him from the public. When Shain ultimately unveils him, we discover the portrait of an atypical artist trapped inside an ordinary drunk and womanizer.

The travelogue aspects of this book really shine, especially during a mid-80s tour through Europe when Shain and Dylan finally hook-up. Dylan’s album releases form signposts throughout the story, where the author draws life parallels if only at times a loose association. Even prior to meeting Dylan, Shain makes personal connections to his lyrics and interjects them throughout the book. You never have to have met Dylan to graft to his lyrics. His art is truly brilliant in that way.

The book takes a while to get started. It is intent on mapping every nuance of the heart, and its narrative arc runs long, delivering tedious personal details and a fair amount of name-dropping. It takes two hundred pages for Shain and Dylan to consummate their relationship. Within that run-up, there are on balance only moderate appearances by and little unique insight to the famous songwriter. However, there is a larger tale of life, which builds within the context of the entire story. For in tragedy, this story becomes real.

Shain grew up the child of alcoholic/mentally ill parents who may or may not have been drinking to self-medicate. The legacy of an alcoholic’s child is that of an adult searcher who desires to fill the missing spaces of the past. Often the result, or at least one stop in the journey, is to find another drinker in the hope of resolving childhood pain. Dylan fills this role with gusto for Shain. He is charming, smart, and willing to focus his considerable attention on her, and he can drink a lake of booze and remain on his feet. While Shain is a searcher, Dylan is a hunter, perhaps using women to improvise love inside the bubble of fame. The past will not be repaired for her at this stop. When Dylan’s wife learns of their affair, it becomes a threat to Dylan’s comfort level, and Shain is banned from his inner circle, debasing their genuine physical and emotional intimacy. She is heartbroken and must become realistic about her expectations and the aftermath of what she’s done.

This is a tale that has been scripted by the privileged throughout the centuries, and in another time, Shain might have been cast on the roadside to die. An alcoholic does not consider his sins, unless sober when his conscience can become so weighty that he quickly returns to the drink to erase the guilt. Dylan, for all his unique and transcending artistic abilities, lives a cliché life. Polished up to glittering effect by celebrity, he appears to be surrounded by adoring enablers who allow him to outrun the consequences of his actions for as long as he can. He gets what he wants and moves on, and Shain ends up being just another of the musician’s dalliances—many of whom will never be known. It would have been interesting if Shain had unearthed Dylan’s motivation for living this way, but that’s a different nut to crack. If his latter music is any indication, he has since given up the bottle and at the very least reinvigorated his art if not his life.

Shain will undoubtedly receive a backlash from Dylan fans for this betrayal of the secretive songwriter’s confidence, and she will be cast as a groupie with gossip. An honest assessment says, that she was a casual friend who leapt starry-eyed into his self-destructive path. Furthermore, she is an unpublished novelist, and her book with Dylan’s name attached will likely form her best attempt at literary relevance. However, it’s enough that Shain has unwittingly given voice to the many women Dylan has left in his wake, more specifically his lesser known conquests who apparently include many backup singers and female acquaintances. Shain does not lay blame, and there is nary a trace of bitterness. She takes responsibility for her part in the affair and reflects inwardly upon the damage to herself, his wife, and his children. She admits that her ideal image of Dylan ran headlong into a very human Dylan, and while she’ll forever be charmed by him, she has pulled herself together and moved along her search to better places.

Dylan could write a song about their meeting, but he will likely never glance at this book. Instead, his behavior is repeated by thousands of others each day across the globe. Like many iconic figures, Dylan has always taken advantage of the fact that what he does in his personal life just doesn’t matter to the public. We only want the songs, while we fantasize about the songwriter. Shain reminds us that our notion of the songwriter is just that—a complete fantasy.

Writing

Know What You Write

Every once in a while the following advice pops up in blogs and at writers’ conferences like a bad rash.

Write what you know.

What uninspired genius devised this rule? It wasn’t a writer of fiction. If authors heeded those words, the balance of modern literature might encompass little more than travel logs, odes to typewriters and keyboards, and tours of every gin mill in the country. Let’s face it. We don’t do much else. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman. That would make a gripping action-packed thriller: Broker Bob Jones is hot on the trail of client Donna Smith. Can he get her to sign a life insurance policy before the monthly quota statements?

Consider the authors of great novels. Was Tom Clancy a Russian submarine commander? Was Thomas Harris a genius cannibal? Was Ralph Ellison an invisible man? I don’t think so, but they did the research and wrote from those viewpoints with confidence and style. It is better to say ‘know what you write.’ That makes more sense.

When it comes to choosing your story details, you are only limited by research and the depth of your determination to uncover the details. What interests you? Go after it. Submerse yourself if necessary. We live in the Information Age with access to people and data like never before. It’s so easy that you can become lazy if you aren’t careful.

And how do you research being an invisible man? Observe anyone handing out flyers on a street corner.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

Beauty-Kurniawan

Beauty is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”

Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.

Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.

In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.

Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.

Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.

Shuttle-Cockpit

When Writing, Know Your Control System

Like the cockpit of the space shuttle or even the thermostat in your residence, a written piece has specific parameters to guide it successfully. If a cockpit needs airspeed and attitude controls to maintain flight, then a written piece requires unique methodology to garner truth. Not only does the terminology need to be established, it also needs to be consistent and replete throughout the piece. Careless, mixed, or wandering terminology undermines the entire work.

The concept of a control system in writing inevitably drills down to word choice. A writer must be aware of the words, phrasing, and cadence associated with a specific passage, as well as the entire piece. If the passage involves quick action or comedy, the sentence structure tends to be short, even blunt. If the scene takes place inside a military installation, acronyms will flow through both the dialogue and exposition. If the scene takes place in history, the words selected will match the time period.

Consider the following passage from a prehistoric age genre novel: The clan leader leapt from the bushes and came down upon the beast like a bus at rush hour. This type of metaphor happens more often than one might imagine and in subtle, less obvious ways. When digesting the aforementioned sentence, the reader understands that the clan leader was moving quickly and heavily upon the beast, but the reader is also jarred from the time period by the writer’s unfortunate out-of-time-period metaphor. If the clan leader were waiting for a bus at rush hour, he’d be waiting a very long time.

The control system selected for a piece will be pervasive, extending beyond the obvious passages. One of the joys of reading is to enter the mind of the characters on the page. If that character is a professional diver, his/her actions and viewpoint on life will be reflective of the sea and perhaps the constant dangers he’s exposed to. Even in relationships with others, that character will measure people against what he knows—brooding dark waters, a relentless shark, or the fanciful circus of a coral reef—otherwise that character will be acting out of his/her own control system. Even if that character is a mad, unpredictable genius, he will be guided, and therefore described, by a specific set of parameters using the precise words to delineate his actions or speech. And all of this will be moderated by the overarching terminology of the entire work.

Establishing and employing the proper control system establishes both authenticity and confidence in writing, and it requires a level of detail that many journeyman writers either overlook or fail to do the research and editing required. Study any master writer—a real master writer, not a self-proclaimed master bestseller on the Internet—and uncover the details of the control system established for a specific work. Once you’ve put in the effort, you’ll find yourself reaching for the correct dialogue and descriptions that fit the piece.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

 

 

Green-van-Cuylenburg

The Green Stick: A Memoir

by Reg van Cuylenburg
Blue Palm Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Behind us the moon floated in the waters of the Paralrama Samudra… Nightjars laughed like goblins, the cicadas sawed incessantly, and in the distance across the lake we heard the lonely trumpeting of a herd of elephants.”

Reg van Cuylenberg, Ceylon-born (now Sri Lanka), leaves behind a captivating memoir of growing toward manhood in The Green Stick. Beginning around the age of three and ending at seventeen years of age, the author, who was also an accomplished artist and journalist, unpacks memories like a Chinese fan, revealing unique insights and beauty.

This coming of age story weaves through the magic of self-discovery, as well as it navigates the history of Sri Lanka. All of it is wrought through Reg’s journey—his friendships, loves, trials, and victories. The ache of his absent mother, who died shortly after his birth, resonates throughout his early days, but the boy is rescued by his loving grandfather and their enduring friendship. Thus, a man is crafted for the years ahead.

Simultaneously, the portrait of a budding artist arises, as Reg explores drawing, painting, and eventually photography. As in much of the memories revealed, poignancy is gained through the artist’s eye—what to leave out, what to leave in, and how perception and vision transform into the inner sight of the artist.

The end of the story is only the beginning of Reg’s life, as the narrator gets his first footing with maturity. Like the shrinking family legacy and the changing landscape of a post-twentieth century world, Reg seems wide-eyed and prepared to take on the world.

“The sky above Burnt Head is a pale iridescent green, a color that would defy any painter. Behind me the sun sinks slowly behind the rim of the hills.The gulls mew and cry, calling to mates and young ones. … It is over, and I lie here dreaming of them all. …

As in the best of memoirs, his writing transcends the personal and creates a work of art that contains superb storytelling and luminous literary passages. The narrative is at times so gripping and the writing is of such high caliber that this book should not be overlooked. The Green Stick was the 2016 Eric Hoffer Award for Books grand prizewinner.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Previous Review

Obsession

The Writing Passion… Obsession

We are told that obsession is wrong. However for any artist, their craft is an obsession. We split our thoughts between the task at hand and our projects in waiting. We search for channels of inspiration even within the mundane. We passionately revise and rework. Time spent working can be absorbing and rewarding, while time spent away from our art can be breathless. Long droughts away from work transform life into a spiritual desert. For most artists, everyday life forms the gaps between creating the new.

“You become what you think about all day long.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The question of whether or not you will write is not one of “if” but a question of “when.” Dedicated writers offer their best hours to their craft. For many, this is the morning hours after the soul of the artist emerges from its nighttime meditation. Throughout the centuries, great minds have cultivated a habit of pondering questions prior to sleep, often awaking with viable solutions. Sculptures, songs, and stories can be structured in this way. Rare connections can be achieved with the constant mulling through the woods of disparate ideas.

“Even when I’m dead, I’ll swim through the Earth, like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones.”  -Jeffrey McDaniel

When these connections are made, they are not only unique; they are universal. They strike a person’s soul in the way truth satisfies the mind. It resolves. It lingers. It is the most an artist can ask for, and it calls upon all of the writer’s best energies.

“I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.” -­Margaret Atwood

Being obsessed with your writing is not only good; it is required. A half-hearted effort can get an artist through the laundry, dinner, and most tasks at their day job, but writing requires every resource at optimum speed.

book-bullet

The Book Killers: Unfocused Openings

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Whether you are a commercial mystery writer or a high-art literary prose specialist, very few people will stay with a book if the opening chapter does not deliver a clear message. With the growing availability of media venues, the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. Even with books, the most successful entertainment or information offerings seize our attention from the outset. Here are some factors to consider when planning, drafting, and revising your opening:

Engagement

As emerging writers, we are told to create action or drama at the opening of our stories. Nonfiction writers, especially biographers, often foreshadow a significant event in their subject’s life, while fiction writers do the same by cherry-picking a critical point on the timeline, but this is not always practical. In general, reader engagement arises by presenting an aspect of the story that generates keen interest. For example, it could be humor or tension that is exemplary of the entire book. The biggest mistake is presenting large amounts of backstory or introductory information at the start. Another version of this misstep is beginning too soon on the timeline. Both of these approaches throw water on the spark of the story. This set up information can be folded into the story at a later time or even removed altogether. In modern times, think about eliminating chapters that begin with the words Foreword, Introduction, Prologue, and Preface—or even Epilogue for that matter because they sap energy from the book. Many readers receive these appendages like homework and skip them to get to the meat of the book.

Mission

A book should have a clearly defined purpose, otherwise it’s just a long and wandering diatribe. A nonfiction book has a thesis, while a work of fiction has a story question. Don’t let any fine writing teacher talk you out of this essential element of a book. All art from poetry to painting has a point. When it’s focused—because its creator knows precisely what it is—the reader or viewer becomes involved with the piece. The writer who says “I write to discover what the story’s about” should be pushed down a flight of stairs. This statement is disingenuous and impractical. While writers discover aspects of and hone down a story during its development, there comes a time when the writer makes a firm commitment to the mission of the book and then goes about amplifying it. A smart writer makes it clear in the opening pages and sometimes even the title.

Presentation

Book openings are like a first date. The writer features what he does well and goes to it often during the course of his relationship with the reader. If the opening is phony, disorganized, or confusing, the reader will never get to the next chapter, and a match made in heaven has been squandered. Quickly establish as many of the following items as possible: the predominant point of view used, the main character(s), the typical setting, and the sequencing. While these aspects help authenticate the story, the latter involves the structure of the book. If the book darts back and forth through time, events, and/or characters, it’s critical to present a pattern from the start. As a result, your story organization will become a silent rhythm in the reader’s mind.

Tone

The tone of the story involves everything from word choice, to sentence structure, to the overall attitude of the narrative and characters. Most stories form a conundrum that ranges from solving a mystery to battling the internal complexities of the human spirit. This can be presented on a scale from terrifying to hilarious. Even if the story tone shifts for dramatic effect, the main tone should be delivered at the start. If the story is a romance, then it’s the longing of the heart. If it’s an intense mystery, then it’s a mangled corpse. If it’s an enduring quest, then the journey’s gauntlet must be cast down.

Epilogue

It’s a self-indulgent or inexperienced writer who does not recognize the trend to immediately engage the reader. In fact, it isn’t a trend, but a well-established precept of successful writing. If you are currently writing to figure out what the story is about or where the story begins, then stop! Park your pen and take a moment to do some sketching and outlining before you draft another word. Ask your characters why they’ve entered the room and what they want from the story. If they can’t tell you, then they either need to leave or you need to get to know them better before pushing them along their story line. Once you know their stories and what they want, find the first worst moment on their timeline and begin the story right there.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing