Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.
A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.
But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)
What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?
Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.
It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.
Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…
What do Dick Van Dyke and Ciaphas Cain have in common?
Who the hell is Ciaphas Cain? Though it’s a terrific name, don’t you think?
And why oh why is there a brussel sprout on my shoulder?
- My Lucky Life in and out of Show Business: A Memoir, by Dick Van Dyke with Todd Gold
- For the Emperor: A Ciaphas Cain Novel by Sandy Mitchell
Why do I read memoirs or biographies? Especially of actors? Mostly because of the story they tell of time and place. Dick Van Dyke was born about the same time as my character, Cid Wymann in Open Wounds, was born yet his life was so different. Dick Van Dyke as he says, was in the right place at the right time to be chosen for some choice roles – from Rob Petrie to the chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins. When actors tell their own story I learn about their character from how they portray themselves, how they seem to want to be seen, what they leave in and what they leave out. For example, Van Dyke starts off saying he’s not writing a tell-all with lots of dirt to uncover then tells – in his first bit – how he found out when he was in high school that he was conceived out-of-wedlock. Memoirs are great for teaching me how to not only get inside someones head but how to shade a narrative so it presents (either knowingly or unknowingly) a certain face to the reader.
For the Emperor is a story set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a memoir translated through a narrator who has edited it and included footnotes and other accounts to balance out the memoirist point of view. The author has done a fascinating thing with Ciaphas Cain, the writer of the memoir – a Commissar (high-ranking Emperor’s man usually working with Imperial Guard units across the galaxy). Cain is an unreliable narrator. Here’s how he starts his narrative:
One of the first things you learn as a commissar is that people are never pleased to see you; something that’s no longer the case where I’m concerned, of course, now that my glorious and undeserved reputation precedes me wherever I go. A good rule of thumb in my younger days, but I’d never found myself staring down death in the eyes of the troopers I was supposed to be inspiring with loyalty to the Emperor before. In my early years as an occasionally loyal minion of his Glorious majesty, I’d faced, or to be more accurate, ran away screaming from, orks, necrons, tyranids, and a severely hacked off daemonhost, just to pick out some of the highlights of my ignominious career. But standing in the mess room, a heartbeat away from being ripped apart by mutinous Guardsmen, was a unique experience, and one that I have no wish to repeat.
And so we are introduced to a character who is heroic in spite of what he says, self-serving, caring, and always trying to surround himself with warm bodies in case the bullets start flying and he needs a shield to protect himself from them. It starts off with perspective, clear voice (amusing also), and action.
The narrator who finds and annotates Cain’s memoir is a colleague of his – only to what degree, we have to wait until the end of the story to find out. Short asides of secondary characters are inserted to fill in information about what is happening in other parts of the city Cain ends up in. They give us further views into Cain’s world, Cain, and the narrator. It leaves me with a fuller picture of what probably happened and keeps me smiling at the number of times Cain would like to (as in a Monty Python movie) run away, but ends up charging forward instead.
Finding new ways to tell a story is like stealing a golden chalice from Smaug’s treasure horde under the Lonely Mountain – satisfying in the dark and even more so in the light of day.
I’ve thought about this a lot.
There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.
I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).
But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.
Salt and pepper?
Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.
Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.
Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.
The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.
Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.
The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.
For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.
So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.
I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.
Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.
As a writer I love to read and I read a little of everything with a lot of YA, some non-fiction (biographies too), and a graphic novel when I can find one that hits the sweet spot.
I’ve never done a top ten list before on books but there’s always a first. Here are my favorite books that I read this year (some are from prior to 2012 and some will come out in 2013) in no particular order except for the first one – which is hands-down my favorite and I even read it twice, once in 2011 and once two months ago.
- Winger, by Andrew Smith is the first and easily worth two readings. It hasn’t been published yet but is coming out in 2013. If you’re not already an Andrew Smith fan this book will make you look up all the rest of his work and start reading them one after the other. The main reason I loved this book was the voice of the narrator. He is 14 and Andrew really captured the voice of this boy perfectly. It is incredibly funny and sad for different reasons at different times. Did I mention the protagonist plays rugby? And that it is illustrated perfectly (the narrator draws so “his” drawings are included throughout). This is storytelling at its finest.
- The Maze Runner (trilogy and prequel – 4 books total), by James Dashner is rough reading. This is really four books but it all starts with The Maze Runner. My son read it first (might not have been such a good idea as he’s 10 but…) and when I finally got to the first book I had to read through them all. Do I have gripes about the storytelling? Yes. Was it one of the most compelling reads of the year? Yes. Is it good sci-fi? Yes again. Thought provoking? Brutal? Depressing and terrifying (especially the prequel)? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
- Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a Warhammer 40,000 novel about space marines called the black Templars. I know, I know. Space marines? Warhammer 40,000? Hey, the man can write and as far as these novels go this is a keeper. Hordes of orks (don’t ask) in a Waagh (don’t ask again) swoop down onto a planet that is protected by the black Templars and they fight the battle literally to the last marine. Absolutely fascinating novel of warfare in the 41st century with some interesting work on the writer’s part in bringing out multiple viewpoints. This book was just plain muscular fun.
- The Wind Through The Keyhole, by Stephen King is wonderful, vintage King. The Gunslinger series is my favorite of his works and this adds another notch to the belt of the tale. This is a haunting tale of Roland as a boy out on his first mission. I don’t read King too often any more but this one just sang.
- The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi is a challenging read. I bought it for my son because we both read his other great book Shipbreaker and this continued the tale of the bioengineered war beast Tool. How could you turn that down? Then I read it quickly to screen it before I allowed my son to read it and I’m glad I did. Wow. The violence depicted is absolutely brutal. Children doing horrendous violence to children during a time of total war. This is a great book, wonderfully written, visceral to the point of making me put the book down and cringe at least three times. It is also a book of great, harsh, truth. The scope of the story is small and the pace is quick. It is an exercise in focus. This guy is good.
- Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S.King is simply wonderful. It’s the first book I read by A.S. King and I immediately picked up Please Ignore Vera Dietz as soon as I was finished. Ms. King is another writer (like Andrew Smith) who nails the teenage voice (in her case both male and female in different books). Writing well, with a ring of authenticity from a young person’s perspective is a huge challenge and this story of a boy who has been bullied and his family just broke my heart. What I especially like are the realistic adult characters and how they give such great texture to Lucky’s story.
- Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King is the second King book I read and it was also a powerful tale of loss and coming of age. She’s got a new one out in hard cover called Ask The Passengers that is going on my to-read list for 2013…
- Passenger, by Andrew Smith is a follow-up to The Marbury Lens and is a hallucinogenic thrill ride that is deeply frightening and moving. This is a painful book to read, brutal, gory, with imagery that made me squirm. If you read Marbury then you owe it to yourself to read this as it makes the wonderful worlds created in Marbury expand into even larger more epic (does that even have meaning?) proportions. This book and Smith’s Winger are on two ends of the spectrum in style and content yet they both move from that same incredible strength of voice in their main characters. This book has already won a bunch of awards and I won’t be surprised if it wins more in 2013.
- Playing for Pizza, by John Grisham. Okay, okay. John Grisham? I’ve never read a book by him (nothing against him and I’ve seen his movies just never had the urge to read him) but my father-in-law recommended this book and it was a lot of fun so for its uniqueness it makes the list. This is a book about a football player from the NFL who ends up playing for beer and pizza in Italy. If you enjoy football stories (I do) and Italian food (I do) then you will enjoy this quick and smile inducing read. Something tells me this will be made into a movie…
- Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson is an exhausting read but well worth the trouble. Steve Jobs was not a nice guy and it’s hard reading about your hero and seeing all his warts but if you can get past that it is really a fascinating story of Apple, the computer industry, and Steve Jobs all wrapped up in one. You will never look at Apple the same again (and you will probably still buy ’em or change to them if you have never tried Apple products before).
There you have it. The literary might of the year from my perspective (as limited as it is).
It is summer.
We’re at my in-laws home in Rockaway recovering from yesterdays annual block party. My son is playing wizards 101 on his aunt’s PC. We only have Macs at home.
My son goes away to sleep-away camp in 7 days. He’ll be gone for two weeks. Can you hear my silent scream? It’s in Connecticut so only a couple of hours away. We’ve never been away from him for more than a day. Well, my wife hasn’t. I travel for work so I’ve been away, but I’ve always known he was with her. I’m having a hard time with it. I can’t imagine what it will be like when he goes to college. Thankfully he’s only 10.
Recently my wife asked my son if he wanted me to run a small writing workshop for him and two of his friends who also like to read and write. My son said no. It works that way sometimes. There are some things he doesn’t want me to teach him. He lets me read his work. That will have to be enough for now.
Sometimes, when we cross streets together and are talking (about a book he’s reading or a book he wants to write one day) we reach for each other’s hand and hold as we cross. Sometimes he doesn’t pull away and we walk that way for a block or so before our hands part ways again.
Now he’s going to sleep-away camp for two weeks. 7 days and counting.