How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency

by Akiko Busch
Penguin Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Exposure is an inevitable by-product of the connectivity so many people today find vital.”

The conundrum of being unseen in a world that lauds and demands visibility is explored in Busch’s thoughtful series of essays. It’s too simplistic to say that some people and things are overexposed, while others create an enigma. An inclusive or disruptive formula arises in all appearances. Through her poignant writing, Busch explores various ways people and things present themselves and achieve new interpretations.

The approaches here are more vast than you might imagine, covering the entire karmic spectrum of body, mind, and spirit, as well select nonhuman elements of the Earth. Busch effortlessly proceeds from her invisible friends of childhood and the concept of self-awareness and existence through the philosophical and psychological aspects of identity across cultures and landscapes. Identity is more than our self-perception. It relies on external factors, such as association, impact, and even where we place our feet on the planet. Ironically, the more we reveal ourselves to the world, the more we lose ourselves, increasing our invisibility in plain sight. For example, this reviewer is an author, at times in the bulls-eye of various public forums by necessity of trade. Most authors are well aware of the game afoot, cloaking themselves for privacy and security yet remaining in-part authentically exposed to the audience.

While there is a fundamental need to shelter our more valuable and vulnerable assets, there simultaneously exists a need to exploit them for advantage, which for some has reached a psychosis stage of “look at me.” Much of this is observed through digital media, although artists have been employing funhouse mirrors and other screening devices for years. For example, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan simply manufactured their histories and lived forward and still exist through the prism of a celebrated popular view. In a way, we all revise our childhoods wrought sometimes painfully through circumstance in order to thrive by a more self-described version of ourselves in the present. To various degrees, we dream of alternate futures, where we look, feel, and move differently. This commotion roils below the surface and hides within dreams, eclipsed from the naked eye. In effect, everyone’s true self is invisible, sometimes even to our own consciousness.

At times, Busch’s essays read like ruminations, more intent to span the colors of thought through numerous examples rather than land on a singular point. While this method inspires debate, a blurred image is the seed of invisibility: to resist understanding or at least skew perception if not outright manipulate it for effect. It’s all camouflage in the end. We want to be appreciated for who we truly are, yet we offer skins to the world that we think are better suited to preference, success, and survival. In the modern world of endless surveillance and staring, it might be increasingly harder to become unseen, even hold onto ourselves.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

by Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Their subsequent conversations, gathered in an interview for an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts.”

Why do legends exist? Perhaps to capture the boldness of a moment in time. Perhaps to whitewash its dirtier element. Or perhaps to underscore the human desire to become bigger than we are. Sometimes a person of unique caliber intersects with the right moment in time and the stories of their adventures take on a life of their own. They transform into an enduring legend.

Wild Bill Hickok is one such legend. Born at the dawn of the great American western expansion, his above average height and looks, as well as his cool demeanor and superior shooting skills, cut the image of a remarkable man. He was the first American gunfighter, or shootist as they were called. He could fire with either hand and punch lead through your heart before you raised your gun very far from its holster.

Spending time as a military scout on the frontier during the Civil War, he learned the ways of wagon trains, cattle drives, and Indians. He knew the front trails and back trails and even served time as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down criminals but mostly military deserters escaping miserable conditions. He loved various women—Calamity Jane being the most famous—and was loved by women, more than he’d know. And of course, he savored the occasional whiskey and a good card game for stakes. It’s the type of life that many a man tries to recapture even today, but the lawlessness and landscape are gone forever. Any man who tries appears like a cheap and cowardly criminal and is quickly extinguished. Hickok himself would be gunned down in the end, because that’s where the tracks run afoul for every man who lives by a pair of six-guns at his side.

Author and historian Clavin brings us through it all. He tells us that Hickok wasn’t exactly the legend we know today, although the famous gunslinger did little to deny the tall stories circulating in his name. Americans wanted to believe in the luster of the great move west. They needed to. The reality of traveling through and settling in the harsh landscape was much different, deadlier even. Still, the tales of Hickok ran close enough to the facts that the man and legend soon became difficult to separate, and in the end, even Hickok passed those stories as his own.

Clavin is not a flowery writer, but engages as storyteller who might keep you rapt around a campfire or across the bar with subtle, wry commentary. With on-point side excursions into western lives, he covers not only Hickok but those tangent to his biography. In doing so, he paints a wider image of perhaps the widest American landscape in history. Well done.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

by Stephen Hawking
Bantam Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

Written at the end of his life, although formulated during and published posthumously, the once in a lifetime scientist Stephen Hawking lands serious scientific questions with a philosophical bent. He guides us by the hand through the creation of the universe, the mystery of black holes, and the possibilities of time travel, giving nods to the seminal pioneers of each discovery along the way. And like all the great thinkers, he’s unafraid to tackle the existence of God and the future of mankind on the planet.

The deft way in which Hawking nails down his points is one of his great gifts as a lecturer. For example, he explains why alien sightings are likely a ruse: its secretive nature. It’s a forgone conclusion that a visiting alien species would be superior in knowledge and ability, but the alleged well-meaning aliens are doing a very poor job helping us with future concerns. Conversely, a less than noble alien visitation would be painfully obvious to all. Anyway you position potential alien visits, it’s likely they’d be obvious by now.

When it comes to time travel, Hawking muses that it hasn’t happened. Perhaps Einstein’s limitation that nothing can move faster than light—the theorized condition for moving backward in time—is true, or perhaps man never achieved the ability in the future. Either way, Hawking makes plain, if man could travel back in time, we’d be bumping into time travelers from the future visiting us in present day. Furthermore, it’s human nature to meddle, as time travelers certainly would in our current day and age.

Superior at scientific explanation and pedestrian at philosophy and politics, the answers to the larger, cutting-edge questions of physics, and a few cultural musings, are delivered with aplomb. Hawking’s good heart and humanity shine through and charm the reader. Quantum physics is the central theme, although much of the verbiage if taken slowly will be accessible to the layman. It’s not important that you understand everything, only that you witness one of the century’s great minds at work.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss
It Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“We lived in preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”

Before STEM Programs, before Title 9, before the Suffragettes, Marie “Madame” Curie blazed a path for science and women that marks history. Pioneering research in radioactivity—a word coined by her—Curie discovered two elements (Polonium, named for her beloved Poland, and Radium). In doing so, she established a new science and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only person to win it twice for science. For a scientist, filling in even one square on the periodic table is a big deal, and she discovered two. Her research sprawls through chemistry, physics, and medicine to this day, including its long-lasting cultural implications. She ultimately sacrificed her life, dying from radiation exposure prior to a true understanding of the risk. Effectively she pioneered this research as well.

Curie is a progenitor of the Nuclear Age, and the book branches out tangentially in subject matter, never leaving the realm of radiation and its effect upon society. In addition to Curie and her beloved co-scientist Pierre, alternate voices speak throughout the narrative, such as friend and colleague Albert Einstein or the man who dug nuclear bomb test site tunnels in Nevada. Some of these witnesses to radiation knew Curie; others only benefited or saw their life redirected by her discoveries. Together they quilt a complete picture, not only of Curie’s life and work, but of the way we live now.

Few books form a lasting record. Insightful, gorgeous, a luxury of thought and sight, Redniss’ book delivers one such gift. It tantalizes both the scientist and the layman with gorgeous illustrations, accessible science, and personal reflections of the great scientist. It steps back to take a wider view, examining the course of history through radiation, and it’s bound together with an artist’s touch. It’s the kind of book that makes you think who should be awarded it as a gift.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

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.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

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.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

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.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice