Friday, October 26, 2012

My Stars

I know I'll be castigated for this post, but isn't anyone else worried about review-star escalation?

Years ago when I was teaching at the university level, grading was a mess. I had a joint appointment between a state and a private university. Both huge. Both elite schools. At the state we were encouraged to give honest grades. If a student earned a C grade, s/he got it. Ditto an A grade. But at the private university we were arm-twisted to give almost nothing below a B-. Why? Because a student might wash out and the elite university would lose money. I only gave grades that were earned. I didn't wash out, but the faculty was not amused by my stubborn stance.

Now, it seems as if the "give the student a very high grade" has transmogrified into review ratings for books. Since we writers are always following our reviews, it makes sense to be elated with five-star reviews (maybe even a four-star review if we are honest with ourselves). But to be told that we should never, ever give anything less than a five-star review undermines our credibility as writers.

We are not objective, we writers as a whole. And we are thin-skinned, too. Maybe we are afraid that a fellow author will extract revenge, but to ask or tell people to inflate their reviews does as much of a disservice to the writer as elevated grades did to a student who couldn't pass a course.

I hate gushing reviews. I know, I'll probably change my mind when my book comes out next year, but I can't imagine 100% of those I hope will read it will gush. I hope they'll be honest. I've given three- and four-star reviews for self-published books as well as those published by the Big Six. I've given very few five-star reviews. That's reserved for books that knock my socks off.

I have never given a one- or two-star review. Why? If I didn't like a book enough to give it a bad rating, I wouldn't post it. Someone else will do my dirty work for me. Call me a chicken, and you'd be right, but it's also about manners. Remember our grandmothers telling us, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything." Kinda like that. If I truly don't like a book, I'll never review it. Not here. Not on Amazon. Not on Goodreads. I don't hide behind Anonymous, so my name always appears on a review.

So, if you want a five-star review, write a five-star book. Simple as that. And if you don't agree with me, you'll have a chance at revenge come April 2013 when Mad Max: Unintended Consequences comes out from Koehler books.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Author Interview: Clifford Garstang, What the Zhang Boys Know

I am honored to have Cliff on my blog today talking about writing and his new novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know. Let me introduce Cliff.

       BA:   Readers of this blog may not know your works. Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell us where you live?

CG: When I got serious about fiction writing in 2001, I moved from Washington DC out to the Shenandoah Valley. I live near Staunton, Virginia. I began publishing short stories in literary magazines in 2003 shortly after I received my MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, a collection of linked short stories, was published by Press 53 in 2009. My new book, is What the Zhang Boys Know, published on October 1 this year by Press 53.
BA:  Before we learn about your latest book, can you tell us the last two exciting places you visited? Why did you pick these destinations?

CG:  I love travel, so there’s no shortage of answers to this question. Last year I made two exciting trips. The first was South Korea. I lived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1970s and have been back a number of times, but my 2011 trip was unique because it was something of a Peace Corps reunion at the invitation of the South Korean government. I visited Seoul and also my old duty station, the city of Jeonju. The second trip last year was to Toulouse, France and the nearby village of Auvillar. I was in Auvillar to work on a book and I included Toulouse on the trip because I had never visited that part of France and it’s such a historic city.

BA: I know What the Zhang Boys Know is your second published novel. You call it a novel in stories. Can you tell us what that means?

CG: Some collections of stories are just a bunch of disparate stories that have little to do with each other. Some collections, like my first book, are linked in some ways. Either the stories have overlapping and recurring characters, or they share a setting, or they have a unified theme, or some combination of the three. A novel in stories, though, carries that linkage further. In the case of What the Zhang Boys Know, all the stories are set in the same condominium building and serve in some way—to a greater or lesser extent—to move a single narrative forward. The stories are independent of one another, but they also contribute to the overall story of Zhang Feng-qi, a Chinese immigrant who is looking for a new wife for himself and mother for his sons.

BA:  Do you model any of your characters after real people or are they a composite of many different people?

CG: None of the above! For the most part, all of my characters are figments of my imagination. Having said that, I may endow a character with some aspects of real people if it helps to bring that character to life, but mostly I’m doing that subconsciously.

BA: Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer?

CG: When I was a kid, especially in high school, I wanted to be a writer. Oddly enough, I didn’t do much writing then—I just imagined myself as having written. Who knew it was such hard work! I began to prepare myself—or at least that’s what I now tell myself I was doing. I studied philosophy in college and literature in graduate school than then . . . I got sidetracked. I somehow found myself in an international legal career that was completely absorbing and my writing ambition was all but forgotten. Until, that is, I began to be somewhat disillusioned with the practice of law. I started toying with an idea for a novel and that eventually grew into a complete draft. And while I now know that it was pretty terrible, the fact that I had completed a draft gave me the courage to take more concrete steps. I took some classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., just outside of DC. And that was sufficiently encouraging that I moved on to an MFA program and started taking the writing very seriously.

       BA: You can help your fellow writers with this question. What are you doing yourself to promote What the Zhang Boys Know?

CG: Because my book is published by a small press, which means that many traditional publicity channels are not available to me, I’m trying to be as creative in the area of book promotion as my natural reticence will allow. I have maintained a blog for many years and I recently merged that with my website ( The blog has a following, and I like to think that I offer some valuable material there in the way of posts. 

I also have an extensive social media presence—Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Goodreads, and so on—and I make myself available to readers through these outlets. Similarly, I’m reaching out to book bloggers as well as reviewers in commercial media, both print and online, to widen my reach. I’ve hooked up with a website that reaches out to bookclubs to appeal to their members. And finally I am putting together readings and book signings at some bookstores, but also at other venues, such as libraries and clubs, including the alumni clubs of my university.

BA:  Do you have another book in the works?

CG: Yes. I’ve completed a novel that is set partly in Virginia and partly in South Korea. I am currently in search of an agent and publisher for that book. In the meantime I’m at work on a novel set in Singapore (where I used to live).

BA:  What are the last three books you read and why did you choose them?

CG: I read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which is set in Haiti, because I’ve always enjoyed his work but also because I was interested in a book that addresses with some subtlety the sensitive political issues in an underdeveloped country. I also read Susan Woodring’s Goliath, a novel book about a small town in North Carolina that is entirely dependent on a furniture factory on its last legs. I read that because Susan was an MFA program classmate of mine and I wanted to interview her on my blog. And in the area of non-fiction I read E.J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart for a book club, but also because I’m struggling to understand the great political divide in our country.

BA:  What haven’t I covered that you’d like to add?

CG: I'd like to add how much fun this book was to write. Not only did the setting and theme allow me to explore several subjects that were important to me, but also the format—the novel in stories—allowed me to give voice to a wide variety of characters. There is the family at the heart of the book, but also their many neighbors: the painter, the sculptor, the teacher, the lawyer, the copywriter, the novelist, and so on. It's a bit like play-acting when we were kids. You sit down at the keyboard each day and you ask yourself, "Okay, self, who do you want to be today," and then you make it happen. It's magical.

Cliff, thank you for your candor and for your two great books. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review: What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang

If you are looking for a different experience in fiction, I invite you to read What the Zhang Boys Know, a novel in stories by Clifford Garstang. Twelve interlocking stories, each one capable of standing alone, weave a story about a disparate group of characters who inhabit Nanking Mansion, a semi-gentrified building in a marginal area of Washington, D.C.

We first meet Zhang Feng-qi, widowed father of two boys under six in "Nanking Mansion." Faced with losing his boys to his pushy mother-in-law who doesn't really want them, he brings his father from China to take care of them. The boys, Simon and Wesley, teach their grandfather about life in the United States, while he teaches them about their heritage. The boys are our conduit to everyone in their building, from the sculptor, to a minor poet, to a painter and an interior designer, thereby providing a link between the tales of each of the characters.

The setting is everything, just as it is in classic movies like Grand Hotel. People of different strata in society come together, interweave their stories, and move on. The gay couple lose one of their pugs when one is mugged. The dog's loss leads to a break up of the long-running couple, who eventually get back together by the end of the book.

The boys learn about "Hunger" after Claudia lives on dried noodles and sells off her few valuable belongings. They watch their grandfather deliver soup to help her stay healthy through her pregnancy.

The second to last story, "The Replacement Wife," illustrates cultural clashes and familial needs in a way that is almost painful. Feng-qi loves Jessica, a Chinese-American woman facing a hysterectomy. Her fears about the operation and its aftermath render her mute in front of Feng-qi. With no one to talk to, Jessica has an affair with a writer in the building. Feng-qi finds out about the affair and is willing to forgive her and marry her. Jessica has an epiphany about becoming Feng-qi's replacement wife. She believes Feng-qi is looking for a surrogate for his dead wife, someone to help him raise his boys. She's right. Jessica doesn't want to be a surrogate for anyone and leaves for Paris with the writer. You'll have to read the story to understand the irony of the situation.

Garstang's prose is poetic. His grasp on cultural norms and misunderstandings brings the reader to tears and chuckles, often in the same paragraph. Although there is no consistent plot, each story stands alone and also drives forward sketches of the characters who inhabit Nanking Mansion. A wonderful read. Well worth the time. You'll want to finish it in one sitting, but sip it. Read a story, think about it, then go on to the next. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Even Big Writers Need Editors

Terry and I took a road trip recently. We always pick audio books to make I-95 more palatable.  This time we selected a book co-written by a very big New York Times bestselling author and a scientist. I've read several books by the very big New York Times bestselling author. Before I go further, I will not name the book or the writers. As you read on, you'll understand why.

We thought the book would be exciting because thrillers about mad scientists and evil corporate exploiters are such fun to listen to. We got all that and more. The book was 12 CDs, a warning that it might be a tad too long. But, a well written thriller doesn't have to be short. It has to be intense. This was 4 CDs too long.

The plot included bad guys drawn so evilly it wasn't hard to see who was going to do in the plucky band of heroes. We were introduced to about ten characters in about ten minutes. Because I didn't have the written book in front of me, I had difficulty for a couple of CDs figuring out which member of the plucky band had which talent that would be needed when they went on the run from the evil corporate exploiter. We have long, tedious lectures about the science that must be the passion of the second writer. Pages of it.

The book is a mash up of too many plots. Where some writers would have made this a send up of great science fiction movies, these didn't. We have a quest to say alive. We have monsters, human and natural, who chase our plucky band. We have science gone mad, already done in several movies and more books. We have a leader of the plucky band who grows from lab rat to a real leader. Then, four, count them four, CDs before the end, he is killed, leaving us with no one in the plucky band to like.

I could go on about the plot (way too much of it) and growth of the characters (a couple grow, most are fixed in time from the first page). I won't.

I will say the book would have been better with the heavy hand of an editor who is not afraid of the very big New York Times bestselling author. Maybe said author should have read the book his name was on before it was released. I'll give you one example out of thousands in the book:  "He picked up the head lamp and put it on his head." Think about that. Where else would you put a head lamp? On your butt? And it goes on and on and on.

Leave it to say, I won't be buying or borrowing any more books by the very big New York Times bestselling author. Today, I'm going to put the hard copies of his works in my Goodwill box. This experience soured me on everything he's written.

So writer beware. Edit until you are blind. Then find someone to edit your book. Not your mother, unless she's an editor. If you can, hire a professional who will not only proofread your book and correct the grammar but who will also tell you where to cut, what to leave in, what plots are too many. It will pay off in the end.