Writer’s Review of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree

I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how? Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt here will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.
As a writer in training, I am learning the different ways to express character. Physical descriptions help the reader see the characters in their mind’s eye. The actions of a character show what is important to them. The speech and mannerisms develop character, and the thoughts, actions and words of other characters reflect on the main characters. And the strongest method in first or close third person is to give the reader access to the mind of the characters. In close third person a reader can become intimately involved in the main characters’ minds and emotions.
McCarthy provides superb descriptions of setting and often uses these descriptions to reflect on the mood of the characters. But the reader’s understanding is inferred and not confirmed. The physical character descriptions are rudimentary enough to differentiate characters, and the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks. The language of speech is stilted and barren. ‘Hidy, says one. Hidy back, says another. Come back soon.’ This suffices for conversation. We fall back on the actions of the characters, and the actions of the main character Cornelius Suttree speak well of him. He checks on his friends, arranges food and shelter. He cares. We think. He didn’t care for his family or provide for them, so we don’t know what to think about his character beyond superficial friendship. He drinks, falls down, gets in fights, gets arrested and passes out. Near the end of the book he lives on the avails of prostitution, not quite a pimp. So much of McCarthy’s work is like turning over a rock and watching what levels of degeneracy man can fall to. I suppose it makes a statement about nihilism and shakes a fist at good society. But as incisive an eye as he has for scenery, he balks at exploring the inner mind and heart of men. I am left wanting more.
Writers are told to be brave. Here, I think McCarthy fails. He is afraid to look into that cold dark place, the actual heart and soul. He muddies the water with senseless violence, hoping to distract from the real issues. Questions remain about why and how. Questions literature is supposed to at least try to tackle.
I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’ and I enjoyed it, but it was ultimately unsatisfying. I am learning to read as a writer and so I can better see why I am unsatisfied. McCarthy describes in great detail and with an amazing vocabulary the settings of the stories. The river in Suttree is a character we get to know through a full wave of sensory language. The impression verges on poetic as the flotsam and jetsam of society flow down in front of Suttree’s houseboat. The plants and birds and animals are all observed in excruciating detail. Sights, smells and sounds envelop the reader, almost to excess. Yet the people, the characters, are barely explored. Why Cornelious Suttree abandons his wife and children the reader is left guessing at.
I think ‘Suttree’ will be the last Cormac McCarthy book I read. I am disappointed. The story degenerated into debauchery. Maybe rich, cultured Texas folk can take pleasure in that, like a guided tour through Amsterdam’s Red Light district. But anyone who has seen this thing in real life knows there is no honour or grace in it. Drunks are all alike. And the pained existence of an intellectual outcast is too much of a cliche. You’re not twenty-one anymore, grow up Cornelius.
This is what passes for intellectual art, edgy storytelling. This idea that unless an artist has suffered outrageous misfortune their voice is not worth hearing. Bullshit.
So I was disappointed. While some of the writing is great, it borders on self indulgent. The descriptions go on too long. But I was most disappointed with the characters, the understanding of their thoughts and motivations, and the weak story.
The reader is left guessing at too many points. Why did Suttree abandon his family, what happened to his mother? (Was she mentally ill? It ran in the family. Is Suttree ill?) What did he study at University? Why is he a bum? Is it just the alcohol?
It is a long book, over 400 pages, but not much happens and we don’t know even if Suttree grows. Does he leave town for a better life or just to run from the law?
There is a term in literature, third person. Third person omniscient, third person single character, third person close. My writing and reading preference is close third person, where the reader experiences the action of the novel with a main character, and gets to know the thoughts and feelings of that main character. I think McCarthy’s writing can best be called distant or remote third person. We don’t get close to the main characters and so are held at a remove. We are observers of the action, watching a city from the safe confines of that hop-on-hop-off tour bus. Look at that, we think, but we are unmoved. It is a movie rather than an experience.
And that is the greatest flaw of ‘Suttree’. A reader reads to ‘Experience’ a different world. Good literature immerses the reader into the story and allows the reader to feel the thoughts, fears, hopes, needs and wants of the main point of view characters. We can engage in a bar fight without the fear of being killed. We can fall in love without risking a broken heart. We don’t have to take that real risk. But ‘Suttree’ keeps the reader at a distance and we never feel what they feel. We watch them, and can pity them. But we never connect with them.

Book Reviews for Writers


I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how?  Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.

Book review of Jeannette Wall’s ‘The Glass Castle’

I re-read Jeannette Wall’s ‘The Glass Castle’ this week, after reading a weaker book about a dysfunctional household. I wanted to remind myself what good looks like and try to document what makes for a great family history.
In a word: Love. As sad as the Wall family saga is, Ms. Wall captures all the foibles and despicable behaviour with eyes that see with love. Showing the failures of her parents to provide for even the most basic needs of their children explores the needs of those dysfunction adults, and the probable trauma they had endured themselves.
There are many moments of laugh out loud humour in ‘The Glass Castle’. There is a lot of painful living documented here, but the energy and life force of the author and her siblings never allows the narrative to become too depressing. We are rooting for them.
The love of learning, reading, and the damn hard work the children exhibit is inspiring. The way the three oldest kids stick together is awesome. They are a team, a clan, and together they are invincible. Team work gets them out of Virginia and all the way to Manhattan.
There is a pathos to ‘The Glass Castle’, and too often books like this become dissociated in the minds and hearts of the reader. It becomes a bus tour through the part of town you would never want to live in. But Ms.Wall keeps the reader involved and emotionally connected throughout. We experience the trials with little ‘Mountain Goat’, feel her hurts and losses, and share the elation of her victories. And that, I believe, is why we read. We want to experience these things, know what it really feels like to live in a house with no heat or plumbing, to root through a garbage can for your only meal of the day, and to find your calling at a high school newspaper. The reader experiences life with Jeannette, with the luxury of setting down the book and going into the kitchen for a warm dinner.
This is a wonderful book. The world is indebted to Ms.Wall for having the courage and heart to share it with us.

Review of Lindsay Wong’s ‘The Woo Woo’

I finished Lindsay Wong’s ‘Woo Woo’ today. I didn’t like it, but it was a book club selection and I made a commitment to read it. I will explore why it didn’t work for me.
This is a brave book. To expose one’s family by sharing all of their dirty laundry is to be, if not applauded, acknowledged. The horror of mental illness is a tough subject to discuss, and Ms. Wong takes a good shot at it.
’The Woo Woo’ book reminds me of two others, Jeannette Wall’s ‘The Glass Castle’ and Cea Sunrise Person’s ‘North of Normal’. ‘The Glass Castle’ is the best of the three and highly recommended.
Written in first person, the reader is along for the ride with Lindsay. One of the great attributes of first person narrative is that we get to know the narrator. It is an intimate device that has the reader understand the thoughts and feelings of that character. The reader can share the sensations and experiences as the story progresses.
But in ‘The Woo Woo’ the reader is blocked from knowing the narrator by a Smart Aleck exterior.
People are all labeled, Pizza Head and Beautiful One. Thus labeled they become caricatures and un-relatable. The effect is of watching a farce. Funny but un-relatable. There is no emotional investment by the reader, as there doesn’t seem to be one by the writer.
There is a wall of action coming at the reader such that the pace becomes numbing. A few breaks would have served the work well.
Lack of introspection hurts the book. The author admits to being a mercenary bully. We need some decent thoughts and actions to balance these out, and to give us reason to root for, to care for, the author. But the Smart Aleck, tough exterior, (understandable for self preservation), keeps the reader from knowing the author. This emotional distance is the weakness that demotes the entire work.
Telling the story two or even three times, jumping back and forth in time, works as a device when it is a hook. But when the final scene of the jumper on the bridge comes, it is something we already know. And even then, it is told at a remove, by an author who wasn’t there, but learns about it secondhand. Incorporating the narrative of a cousin who was there would have made the scene more compelling.
The language these people use with each other is harsh, but it becomes repetitive. I began thinking, ‘I already read this’. And the foul language, while it may be accurate, detracts. Maybe a thesaurus for the words ‘Fuck’ and ‘Retard’ could have been consulted.
Reading ‘The Woo Woo’ had the effect of watching things from a bus tour, rather than being involved and caring. We read to experience the actions and emotions of the people in the stories, without the risks they take. We want to know how it feels to live with mental illness, especially when the ill person is a loved one. But that love and empathy are missing.

Review of Sol Stein’s ‘Stein on Writing’

Sol Stein’s ‘Stein on Writing’ might be labeled a tome. Over a thousand pages on my Kobo the book is nothing if not thorough. He covers everything important on the craft of writing. I’ve read over a dozen writing books in the last six months (I have lots of spare time) and I nodded again and again at the good advice offered. These are the kind of rules and suggestions that every writer should have in the front of their mind while editing and re-writing any work of prose.
It is a dry text, more of a textbook than a conversational encouragement. Very little of the author’s personality shows through. And the part that does reminds this reviewer of being cornered at a cocktail party by an expert in his field who enjoys hearing himself talk. The reader will learn a lot of the craft if he can get past the self righteousness.
I am reminded of a great quote from the recently deceased Jim Lehrer of PBS. ‘Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.’ I did not get the feeling Sol Stein subscribed to this thinking. Which is too bad.
Purchasing and reading a book is a commitment of money and time. You will spend ten, fifteen hours or more with this author. In the case of ‘Stein on Writing’, I found I couldn’t spend more than an hour or two at a time. I did learn a lot from it, and I do recommend budding writers read it and note the tips.
There are lots of other authors, who have written books on writing, who are more fun to spend time with. Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Steven King, Dorothea Brande, Ariel Gore, Brenda Ueland. Each of those authors left me feeling stimulated and encouraged. And thinking I would LOVE to run into them at a cocktail party.

Review of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’

I don’t burn books, but on finishing ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’ I nearly tossed it into the fire. I was angry: with Tess, with Alex, with Angel, and with all the Victorian moral hypocrisy this novel explores. Good riddance to it. And good literature should move a reader, so this is a success.
I began reading Tess knowing it was on one of those great pieces of literature taught in university courses everywhere. How had I completed my major requirements in English literature and never read it? Well, never mind, now it was time.
Spoiler alert, I will reveal plot elements, as so much of my dislike of this novel is plot related.
I knew it was a story of a woman (Tess) who is taken advantage of (By Alex), it surprised me how early in the book that happens. And that she had a child. I think having the child die is a weak plot device to clear the field for act 2 (Angel Clare). But so far I enjoyed the novel, especially Thomas Hardy’s language. It is inspiring.
But the social structures are stifling. My biggest knock against George Eliot is the fatalism her characters embrace. I suppose Hardy’s book makes me better understand that fatalism.
A good book requires a certain ‘suspension of disbelief’, the reader immerses into the narrative and let’s the author’s world envelope them. They act and react to the narrative as if it were real, feeling the emotions, thoughts and feelings with the main characters. This is one joy of reading great literature.
But at about two-thirds through Tess I lost my disbelief. There are just too many author constructed coincidences to be believable. I am surprised Hardy’s editor didn’t point out the improbabilities piled on top of improbabilities. Or maybe he did. Regardless, the last third of the book is weak.
But it still moves the reader. I so wanted Tess, the woman, to succeed in some way, some form. The frustrations mount and it gets harder to read on.
It is a great book, and everyone should read it. But only once. I cannot see reading it again.

Review of Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery VAG on January 17, 2020 led me to this book. On the third floor was an exhibition titled ‘Transits and Returns’ a display of Indigenous artist’s work from around the Pacific. Continuing to the fourth floor I found the works of Emily Carr and her inclusion (Some might say appropriation) of First nations themes. My mind opened to learning more as I walked through the VAG gift and bookstore on the way out.
Where to start in this I wondered, when I saw Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’.
There is so much I don’t know. I have vaguely heard of the Residential Schools and know the Canadian government issued an apology. I had heard of the Sixties Scoop, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. But it was all just alluded to in school and the media. Background noise in a busy life and society.
I wanted to know more, but was also worried about learning more. I had good reason to worry.
This book is a wall I ran into. It stopped me cold. It hurt and stunned me. How could the country I had been born and grown up in been so cold and callous to people?
The book imparts a lot of information and history in less than three hundred pages. But I found I had to read it in installment. It is just too bleak and depressing to read in one session. And that was much of what I took away. This problem is far too big for anyone to address. Where do you start?
The last fifty pages felt like a bit of piling on. Ms.Gray was delivering a list of more and more issues that needed attention. My mind disengaged. I was clutching for something positive.
Well, the book closes with some hopeful messages and calls out the work being done by volunteers, athletes, artists and performers, writers and speakers. It is not all bleak. There is hope.
This is a very condensed book that delivers on what I would expect from an entry level course. It left me wanting to know more and I will actively seek out more. This week the North Vancouver Writers association had another presenter who talked about her book, ‘The North-West is our Mother.’ I will read and review that book too.
Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’ is a great introduction to issues that all Canadians should be aware of. Well done.

Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft : A 21st-Century guide to Sailing the Sea of Story’.
It is a short book and covers a lot of the craft of writing. I nodded in agreement over and over. ‘Read your Prose Aloud’ is something I stumbled on years ago. It is amazing how much awkward writing can be found with this tip. Her admonitions about adverbs echos so many writers, but her observation that ‘Those of us who were brought up to be unaggressive in conversation are liable to use qualifiers … that soften or weaken words they modify. In conversation they are OK; In written prose they’re bloodsuckers.’ The chapter on point of view and voice was excellent. I didn’t complete all the exercises in the book, but only because I had seen from experience how well a chapter or scene can be improved by re-writing it from another characters POV. And again how re-writing from third person to first, and vise-versa can have a huge change in affect. (And the difference between affect and effect.)
Le Guin also uses extracts from some great literature in her examples. Now I need to read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room’ and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ again.
This is a great book for writers. I find as I am rewriting and editing books like this one help put me in the right frame of mind. Well recommended.

Review of Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’

Brenda Euland’s book ‘If You Want to Write’ was recommended in Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way.’ I am working through the twelve-week program in Cameron’s book and will post on it separately.
Brenda Euland’s book reminds me of the Dorothea Brande book ‘On becoming a writer’ and they published both in the 1930s. Euland’s ‘If you Want to Write’ is an inspirational, almost spiritual book. Rather than speaking to techniques for writing, she encourages and coaches writers. She is a cheerleader to the writer’s soul, but not by repeating slogans but by encouraging each writer to find their truthful voice. It is this truthfulness that will give a writer a voice that readers believe.
I generated a list of things I took from the book:
Ueland is encouraging slow, thoughtful behavior rather than frantic grinding out of material.
Learning to live in the present and seeing, really seeing, what is around us.
Writing honestly and truthfully. Simply. Truthful writing is good, and easy to spot as good.
Art is Infection. To infect the reader with the same thoughts, feelings and ideas as the writer.
The Imagination works slowly and quietly.

Her chapter titles are great: Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When you write.
Why you are not to be Discouraged, Annihilated, by Rejection slips.

And even in the footnotes I found gems: 31 – I know a fine concert pianist who says sadly of a terribly hardworking but hopeless pupil: “She always practices and never plays.”

This book is going on my list of strongly recommended writing books. A small book that is well worth the time and effort to read.

Week One of ‘The Artist’s Way’ Program

I have begun working through a program as prescribed in Julia Cameron’s  https://www.goodreads.com/series/246709-the-artist-s-way ‘The Artist’s Way’. Saturday I completed the first week and so today seems a good place to check in.
The entire book is very good, inspirational even. I will do a separate review after the program. The core of the program is to keep ‘Morning Pages’, a daily journal of approximately 750 words, to complete a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’, and to complete the exercises for each week.
My first thought was that the Morning Pages would be easy. I already keep a morning journal so that bit will be easy. Wrong.
My journal entries averaged under 300 words a day, sometimes just a few sentences complaining about my health or the weather. And because I am recovering from a spinal and head injury in June, I have lots to moan about. I found that 250 to 300 words was my easy and normal output. 750 words was a stretch. I ran out of stream-of-consciousness rambling and found I needed to start thinking more. I started summarizing the previous day’s activities, but soon found that un-fulfilling. So I started developing my plan. Putting my goals for writing down on paper.
My plan:
Complete some short stories, get them critiqued on ‘Critique Circle’, an on-line writing group I am a member of, and then try to get them published. I borrowed a copy of the 2019 Short Story and Novel Market book from the library and started the research. My goal is one short story out the door every month.
Read and Critique 50 books this year, alternating fiction and non-fiction.
Finish my novel, ‘Hopes Up’, and get it beta-read by a few people I respect.
Start on a non-fiction book I have been thinking about.
Start a second novel.
Continue with both Critique Circle as a method to develop my craft, and as a monthly book club member at the library.
Evaluate my life, consider my over-riding goals, who do I want to be?

I realize that this accident, that changed my life so radically, is also providing an opportunity to re-invent myself and decide how to spend the next twenty years or so.
So the program and the ‘Morning Pages’ are providing me with a forum to work through all of these thoughts, plans, hopes and dreams. Seven days in and I am already seeing a huge value.
It takes more of my time. I used to write in my journal while having breakfast, now I am still writing 45 minutes later. My dog Sawyer doesn’t like it, he has to wait longer for his morning walk. But if a writer is defined by writing, I am now twice the writer I was, my output has more than doubled. A good result. And the material is more focused, also good.
A slight digression, in Julia Cameron’s book she suggests other books that have inspired her. One is Brenda Euland’s ‘If you want to write’. A short, easy book, I also read it this week and found it very inspirational. Both Cameron and Euland have some spiritual ideas about God and creativity that I will learn more about. I will review Euland’s book separately.
So from the first of the three requirements in Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ I am seeing great value. I am committed to the twelve-week program.
The second requirement was a bit of a bust, this week anyway. Cameron prescribes going on an Artist’s Date. I am working up a list of things I want to do, including the museum of man out at UBC and the Vancouver Art Gallery. But her suggestion to visit a dollar store and have some fun, for the first date, fell flat. It was easy as there is a dollar store beside one of my favourite coffee shops, Waves in Lynn Valley. But as I wandered the isles, the fun disappeared and the cheapness, gaudiness and consumer crap just overwhelmed me. I will try again next week.
But the third requirement, completing the exercises hit pay-dirt for me.
There was some taking stock, reviewing the morning pages process, (Rather than the material) and confirming the positive affirmations and the negative blurts. But the exercise that surprised me was the time travel, going back in time to remember three people who had been ‘enemies of your creative self.’ And then to write out one of those horror stories.
Mine was an English teacher in High School, very last term. We had read D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’, frankly a tough text for high school. And I had struggled with some of the material. But I loved books and reading so I wanted to understand it. I asked a question, and the teacher replied with such vile venom that I remember my cheeks burning. He had attacked my work ethic, my intellect, my decency. I was horrified and very nearly cried. I could never understand the response. I put down books and literature for over five years after that.
But I came back to literature when I went to UBC at night, and had to choose a major. I chose English Literature. I have read dozens of novels, and have found that Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ is one of my all-time favourites.
So the question stirred up some ashes from a long dead fire. Why had he been so mean? And instead of hate, I found sympathy. As well as being a teacher he was a local elder in the Baptist Church. I remembered him as leading a youth group called Sentinels, much like Boy Scouts with a more Christian leaning. He was probably a moral man, maybe even self-righteous. And ‘Sons and Lovers’ is a difficult text. It deals with love, passion, and sex. It was probably a prescribed textbook from the Ontario provincial education ministry. And he didn’t know how to talk to young adolescent men and women about it.
So the course is stretching me, making me work and think. And opening my eyes to things I might not have seen before. I am getting value and enjoying it. I will post an update each week.