Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What I'm Reading: Song of the Vikings

Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown, gives us the story of Snorri Sturluson, a wealthy and powerful Icelandic landowner of the early 1200s who at one point was as close as Iceland ever got to a native king.  He lived a full and dramatic life, but most importantly for us today, he was also a poet and a collector of the old Viking stories.  In his three main works he preserved the majority of what we now know of Norse mythology.

Snorri wished at one point to become skald, or court poet, to Norway's new sixteen-year-old King Hakon, who had come to the throne in 1220.  Up to that time, Scandinavian kings had always had skalds to entertain the court with tales of heroes past and to create the stories that would spread their fame and preserve their names for posterity.  To Snorri's dismay, however, young Hakon had no interest in the musty old Viking tales, preferring instead Latin stories about Christian heroes, like King Arthur.  On the theory that Hakon simply didn't understand them, Snorri decided to write a handbook to explain the forms and meaning of the traditional poetry and stories.

Hakon never did see Snorri's work, known as the Edda, but copies survived.  Without it, we would today remember only a handful of the Norse myths and our understanding of them would be fragmentary.  The Edda provides us with a framework, a complete explanation of the old Norse pagan view of the world and its gods, the world's creation and eventual death, the heroes and dwarves and elves that populated it.  It also teaches us how to read the elaborate, metaphor-laden skaldic-style of poetry that preserved the myths and histories.

Song of the Vikings is really three works in one: a biography of Snorri, as well as such a thing can be put together from our limited sources; a re-telling of many of the key myths he so loved; and a social and political history of Snorri's time, giving us the context we need to appreciate his life.  The final chapter is a commentary on how Snorri's work has shaped our modern artistic world, especially his profound influence on Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien, on Johann Herder, the "father of German nationalism," and on the nineteenth-century Gothic novel and the modern fantasy genre.

Before reading this book, I had a vague idea of Snorri as an old Norse storyteller, but I didn't realize just how critical he was in literary history.  I doubt most people have any clearer idea of him than I did, if they've heard of him at all.  This book is a corrective, and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in Norse mythology and its huge impact on the Western tradition.  I hope that doesn't make it sound like an academic tome, though, because this is also one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I've read in the past year.  Brown skillfully untangles the threads of Snorri's complicated life and has a nice way of illuminating its various milestones with the myths he wrote down.

Let me put it this way: Do you like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?  Well, this book explains where Tolkien got his ideas from, and in a style that Tolkien lovers will enjoy.  But this is perhaps even better, for it's real history, straight out of that age just after the Vikings when forceful, charismatic men furthered their ambitions for honor and wealth with swords and poetry.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Let's do another roundup of what I've been poking my eyeballs at lately.

Very Casual: A graphic novel collecting some of the strips and short cartoons done by Canadian underground artist Michael DeForge.  The mode of this I will term smart-ass surrealism.  Some narrative flow in some of the pieces, but often following only a dream-like logic.  At its most coherent it has a sort of 90s Kids in the Hall-style irony, as in the story of a street gang that gets its thrills from littering.  Banal situations such as eating at a diner or going to see a band at a club will include encounters with monstrous chimerical creatures or bizarre violence with no further explanation.  Some cartoons have no real point, just depictions of body morphing with erotic overtones.  If this were scary, one might call a lot of this body horror--limbs being cut off and the wound spouting replacement tentacles or genitalia, for instance--but it's played more for laughs.  Weird stuff for those who are into it, others should stay away.

Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You: Another graphic novel.  For those who don't know, Neil Gaiman has returned to comics with a new Sandman series, coming out now in single issues, and which will surely be collected in graphic novel-format next year sometime.  It is the first new Sandman work in 15 years or more, and a huge event in comics.  Before tackling the new issues, I've decided to go back and read a couple of the old collections I had never gotten to.

I've read Vols. 1-4, so this one was up next.  The Sandman is also known as Morpheus, or Dream.  This is the guy who visits you at night and gives you all those stories in your head.  He is the king of the Dreaming, a land made up of all the various nighttime places we go to and people and creatures we see there.  Vol. 5 concerns a woman, Barbie, who has always had vivid dreams, but has stopped dreaming since a certain man moved into her apartment building two years before.  Barbie misses her old dreams, which all took place in a fairy tale realm where she was a princess.  The people in this dream world miss her, too, for in her absence evil forces in the realm have taken over.  I guess it is no surprise that the man, her absence from this world, and her lack of dreaming are all connected!  Teasing out the connections will involve a trip deep into the fairy tale world, which is a metaphor for traveling into Barbie's psyche, and this adventure has wider implications for the Dreaming, as well, prompting the Sandman to get involved personally.

Of the volumes I've read so far, this was actually my least favorite.  The surface story concerning the journey in the fairy tale world is facile, and although Gaiman does have deeper concerns here, I couldn't find enough in the main story to keep me interested.  I did like Barbie's neighbors in the apartment building who end up joining her in the journey, especially a shy, mousy woman who lives next door who harbors an unexpected secret, and the lesbian couple upstairs are fun.  Still, I hope the next volume returns to the quality of the earlier ones.

Collected Poems of A.E. Housman: I don't know a lot about poetry, but I do have a few volumes that I own.  This one by A.E. Housman I like to get out every winter and read a few pieces from.  Winter seems like the right season, as the poems are almost invariably about death or lost love.  The wording is deceptively simple and precise, but each turn of phrase carries loads of meaning.  Here's a good one that seems fitting for the weather we've had here lately:


The night is freezing fast,
To-morrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold.

Fall, winter, fall; for he,
Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
His overcoat for ever,
And wears the turning globe.

Monday, December 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: Cultural Amnesia

In an earlier post, I discussed a book I described as a "Shortcut to Smartness," by which I meant a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself.  Here I have another book that fits that description: Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James.  James is a book and television critic who writes for various newspapers and magazines in Britain, as well as an essayist, novelist, poet, extensive world traveler, and general cultural commentator.

Cultural Amnesia is a collection of a hundred or so biographical sketches, mostly on political and cultural figures from the twentieth century--Albert Camus or Margaret Thatcher or Leon Trotsky, say--although there are entries as early as Tacitus.  It is James's belief that Westerners today are so distracted by technology, fashion, and celebrity that we are losing touch with the humanist, democratic values that built our society, and in danger of forgetting the lessons taught to us by the wars and political catastrophes of the last century.

Despite that overall thrust, each essay is liable to go off on any number of tangents as James's exceedingly well-educated mind wends its way through its topic.  One of the essays I read on this occasion, on Coco Chanel, French perfume maven and Nazi collaborator, included a discussion of how male children dress up in their mother's clothes, a comparison of the high-quality fabric in American soldiers' uniforms in World War II as opposed to their inferior counterparts in Britain and Australia, a paragraph or two on the greater shopping opportunities in the Soviet Union for ranking party members versus the average citizen, and concluded with a very wise discussion of the critical role played by small luxuries in everyday life and how communism denied those luxuries to its citizens.

And so each essay goes, with discussions of antique book sellers in Buenos Aires, the Marshall Plan, film noir from the 1940s, the aesthetic qualities of pornographic movies, how to talk a friend who's decided to write a novel out of it, the advantage of youth for a poet, why not to be embarrassed when you pronounce a hard word incorrectly, and on and on.  But I hope this doesn't sound too difficult to read--it's not.  Clive James himself is a somewhat intimidating figure, reading in five languages and referring to his personal encounters with many of the great figures of our age.  I mean, I consider myself pretty well-read and I feel like my lifetime of reading is about what he gets through in six months.  Yet his prose is easy and quite readable, and each entry is only five to ten pages and endlessly fascinating.

For those reasons, it's also a good book to pick up and put down.  It came out in 2007, and since purchasing it I'll pick it up once a year or so and read half-a-dozen entries over the course of a week.  This year, for example, I read the aforementioned Coco Chanel, Mao Tse-Tung, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Charles de Gaulle, Josef Goebbels, and Leszek Kolakowski.  That's the right way to read it, I think.  A couple familiar figures, a couple less familiar, and a couple I know only by name, if that.

Similar to Boswell's Life of Johnson, the first book in my "Shortcut to Smartness" series, I think this book would be perfect for a recent high school graduate before entering college.  A summer reading through this book would give a freshman an incredible advantage in historical sense and familiarity with the important people and themes of recent history.  But really, it would be good for anyone with intellectual curiosity and a love of dabbling in history, politics, and the arts, and its hard for me to recommend it highly enough to such a reader.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

New anthology available: Etched in Memory

Readers of this blog are surely aware that I'm a member of a very active writing group, the Writers of Chantilly.  What they may not know is that this year I edited the group's annual anthology, which just in the past week became available on Amazon and Kindle.

I am quite proud of my work on this, and I learned a lot from my first time as editor, about both the editing process and about writing.  Unfortunately, I do not have any stories appearing in this anthology, though I tried writing two.  The first took a twist (into erotica, oddly--never had that happen before) that I felt made it inappropriate for the book, and the second I was unable to finish.

For fans of my writing (all two of you!) I promise that next year's anthology will definitely have one or more of my stories.  In the meantime, I can heartily recommend this book as being crammed full of fascinating short stories and essays.  Here's the book's description from its back cover:

In this latest anthology from the renowned Writers of Chantilly, you will discover a variety of unforgettable stories describing incidents that have left an indelible mark on their participants. Some are from the past, some from the imagination, all are Etched in Memory.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thank God Almighty, I'm Done at Last

Tonight I finished the first draft of my latest novel.  It came in just short of 45,000 words (and after edits will probably land at closer to 46,000), which I think is about right for an upper-middle grade novel.  In a macro sense, I think finishing it now really shows how much better I'm getting as a writer.

First novel: Took 24 months, had some good scenes but frankly, was terrible overall.

Second novel: Took 18 months, both I and my writing group, the Writers of Chantilly, judged it to be pretty good, I think, but no interest from agents.

Third novel (this one): 14 months, at least for the first draft.  It may take another 4-6 weeks for revisions, but honestly, I don't think it needs that much more work.  For one thing, I've already read the first two-thirds or so to the group, and I always do my best to get each chapter in good shape before I read it to them.  So, I need to give the final one-third a hard revision, make a few adjustments to the early chapters to account for unforeseen developments later in the book, and give it all a final go-over with 400-grit sandpaper.  Final time elapsed will probably be 16 months.

So, I'm getting faster, more confident, and hopefully better.  I have a good feeling about this book's prospects for interest from agents, publishers, etc.  I think the hook for this one is clear, the characters well-drawn, the pace is quick.  I just hope the professional publishing world agrees!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls is the latest collection of essays and short stories by humorist David Sedaris.  If you're not familiar with him, he grew up in an eccentric but close family with five kids, a chain-smoking mom with a wry sense of humor, and a no-nonsense but over-matched father.  Many of his stories revolve around childhood incidents--I generally find these the funniest of the bunch.  Others deal with his career as a pretentious but not-especially-talented artist when he was in his twenties, when he worked a series of minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and lived in Raleigh's rougher neighborhoods.  Still others mine the humor in his current situation as a middle-aged gay American living in London and Paris.

I was once friends with a guy who was always encountering ridiculous situations and acted like a magnet on strange people.  Every time I saw him something odd would happen: a pair of very nice but persistent Buddhist monks trying to convince us to give up meat, or a search for a bathroom in a hospital leading us unexpectedly to an operating room where an operation was underway (shouldn't there be a sign on the door or something?), or a high school runaway teaching us relaxation techniques.  Hanging out with him had the same general tone as reading David Sedaris.

A couple stories in this book are especially funny.  There's one about a trip to Australia where an overly friendly waiter lets him hold a kookaburra (a type of bird), and another about a night spent with the drunks in the bar car on a train trip from Chicago to New York.  My favorite, though, was the story of the day a kid named Tommy in the neighborhood called his mother a curse word, and his dad dragged Tommy home to put the fear of God in him, only it turned out to be another kid in the neighborhood with the same name.  Sometimes the premises alone are funny, but generally the humor is in his observations of absurdist details--the way his dad removes his pants for comfort as soon as he comes home from work and does not put them on again in the evening for any reason, or the restaurant patron carrying around a doll as if it were a real baby.  Another frequent source of humor is in the overreactions of the people around him to everyday annoyances.

The book was enjoyable, but I think his earlier books were sharper--especially Me Talk Pretty One Day.  I don't know if he's actually getting less funny--maybe he used all his best material in the earlier volumes?-- or if it's just because his style is no longer a novelty to me.  In his past couple books, I've also noticed politics creeping in.  In the chapters where this occurs, Sedaris betrays no great understanding of the political scene, and they very much have the feel of an old man grouching about the world going to hell in a handbasket.  The man's entitled to his opinions, of course, but that doesn't mean they make his books better.

If you're a David Sedaris fan, you probably already have this--his following is devoted and fairly large, I believe.  If not, this isn't a bad one to start with, but it would probably be worth seeking out Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice, which I think are his best.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nick's annual reading goals

Over the years I've established a set of goals, or at least traditions, for my reading.  I try to read a selection from each of the following categories every year:

1) Bible.  During Lent, I try to read daily from the Bible or a book on a religious topic.  Each year I try to read a Bible book I haven't read before, although as I get older there are far fewer that I haven't read and that strike me as something I'd like to read.  (The Psalms or Proverbs, for instance, may be great individually but would be a little tedious to read straight through; Leviticus and Deuteronomy are basically unreadable for a casual reader.)  I also revisit a few particular favorites every so often--the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of John, and Ruth are at the top of my list.

2) Baseball.  Sometime during baseball season, I try to read a book on baseball.  Most years, I get to it during or April or May when my interest in the subject is at its height (and the Nationals are still in contention).  This year, for whatever reason, I didn't get to it until the World Series was almost over.  I'm no Yankees fan, but I think the best baseball book I've ever read was a couple years ago when I hit Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.  Great book on a man with an almost wholly admirable life, cut tragically short, but with that beautiful "Luckiest Man" speech at Yankee Stadium the summer before he died, when he showed he had no bitterness in his heart for anything that had happened to him.

3) History.  Every year I try to read a popular history book.  For some reason, I like to read these in late summer while I'm at the beach.  This year's book was fun, if not fully satisfying.  The best history books I've read, at least in the past five or six years, are Gotham: A History of New York City, a monumental undertaking but endlessly fascinating, and Last Call: A History of Prohibition.  

4) YA.  My wife says I should read more YA, since I'm trying to write in the genre.  She's not wrong!  Still, since I write almost every evening, and read a wide variety of books, I really only have time to get to four or five YA books in any given year.  The best YA book I read in the past year was John Green's Looking for Alaska.  I'm not going to praise it anymore here.  In fact, I'm angry at John Green for writing so well and making me realize I'll never live up to the standard he sets for the genre.  If you must read a YA novel but don't know what to get, pick one by John Green, doesn't even matter which one.  They're funny and heartbreaking and stay with you long after you've finished.

5) Literature.  With a capital L.  At least once a year I try to read a book that an English major would love.  Sometimes I really enjoy them, other times it's more of a trophy to put on the shelf.  Earlier this year I finished Boswell's Life of Johnson.  It's the second time in my life I've read it and it's well worth revisiting.  The one I'm working on now is Moby Dick.  I like it so far, but, umm, I'm taking a little break from it.  I'm about halfway through.  I'll pick it up again in a couple weeks and finish it.

What about my readers?  Do you just read whatever catches your attention, or do you have goals in mind and try to stick to them?  Or do you have an actual plan?  I think the most ambitious reading goal I've ever heard was one that of the husband of one of the librarians at my wife's library, who was trying to read a biography of every American president, in order.  He was up to Thomas Jefferson at the time, a couple years ago.  I wonder if he ever finished, or where he is now?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Wrong Stuff

Bill Lee was a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos in the 1970s and early 1980s.  He was well-known for his outspoken views, free-spirited approach to life, and (controversially at the time) unabashed drug use. Oh, and he was a pretty good pitcher as well.

The Wrong Stuff is an autobiography he wrote with ghostwriter Dick Lally.  I'm not sure how much of this Bill wrote himself, but he seems pretty intellectual for a ballplayer, and his voice comes through very strongly, so I assume he contributed a lot more than in most of these celebrity ghostwritten books.  The book was published in 1985, and I wonder whether it made a splash when it was printed.  Bill certainly doesn't hold back in expressing his opinion or in naming names, so I have to think it must have raised quite a few eyebrows.

It's also hilarious, full of anecdotes about baseball life and especially the nightlife after the game is over.  He has a skewed view of the universe that imparts a stand-up comic's wit to his observations, sort of a baseball version of George Carlin.  Despite the fact that he holds a lot of new-agey beliefs--karma, and Eastern medical practices, and that sort of thing--he nevertheless comes off as saner and more down-to-Earth than most of his teammates and managers, competing hard when the game is on but not worrying too much afterwards if was a win or a loss, nor obsessed with the money, fame, or groupies that so preoccupy those around him.

I checked Amazon and this book recently became available again after years of being out of print (I found my copy on a giveaway table at work).  I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in baseball, especially the Red Sox or baseball in the 70s.  But I think it would entertain a far broader readership than that, as Bill also peppers his book with his unique views of inter-gender relations, politics, the merits of various US cities, and anything else his curious mind happens to land on.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Is Lost

And Jesus was a sailor 
When he walked upon the water 
And he spent a long time watching 
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then 
Until the sea shall free them" 
-- from Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen


Man, do writers have it easy.  Set your own hours.  Doodle away on the keyboard for half a day, waiting for the mailman to arrive with your big check from the publisher.  Don't forget to set aside some time for all the magazine interviews.  Oh, and you have that cushy book tour coming up, too, with all those reservations for five-star hotels and fine restaurants in glamorous cities.

Okay, maybe you don't think of the writing life that way.  You're realistic.  You know it's hard work.  But you're ready for it.  After all, nobody ever achieved success without putting the old nose to the grindstone, right?

But I bet you still haven't thought of everything.  You haven't considered what you have to lose.

Lose?  What's to lose?  Sure, you'll have to sacrifice some evenings to get the manuscript done, but who cares about missing a little TV?  What else is there to lose?

Your career, for one.  After all, you just have your day job to pay the bills until you finish your novel.  So when your boss asks if you can work late, you turn him down.  Who has time for that?  You have something more important waiting for you at home--your writing.  Your colleagues think you're unambitious.  But who cares what they think?  They'll realize why you were so uninvolved with your work when they see your name on the New York Times bestseller list.

Except that first novel doesn't sell.  Nor does the second.  And now five years have passed, and you're working on that third novel, and the boss has passed you over for promotion, and your colleagues whisper behind your back.  Hey, if things aren't working out here, maybe you could move to a different job.  Except, who's going to write the recommendation for the distant employee who was never really interested in being in the office?

But not everyone is cut out for a career, right?  You still have your family.  Sure, you spend a lot of time locked away in the computer room, night after night, pecking away at those keys, and when the kids interrupt your writing time, you get so grumpy.  Not that they bother, after awhile.  They find somebody else to read them their bedtime story.  It's okay, though, once the money starts coming in, you'll make it up to them.  And after writing for six months, that might be possible.  But after writing for years?  When you've been holed away long enough, they forget all about you, the family troll in its cave.  Don't disturb it, it's been known to bite.  And the odor!  When was the last time that thing bathed?

You know, never mind the kids, your spouse will always have faith in you.  Your spouse, who was so loving, so supportive when you started this project.  Except, by the third novel, the fourth, the fifth--well, that's a lot of lonely nights.  And if your spouse finally has enough and walks out the door, who's really to blame?  The wedding vows speak of sticking together through sickness and health, good times and bad, but they don't have anything to say about disappearing from the real people in your family so you can spend time with the fictional ones on the page.

OK, sad to say, relationships aren't you're strong suit.  No matter.  You're an idea person, a word person.  That's why you got into writing in the first place, isn't it?  Because you love to read.  Books were always there for you when people weren't, and nothing is better than curling up with a good one.  Are you a mystery fan?  Or do you prefer science fiction?  Maybe you like to read the great novels, really getting into the deep questions about life and love and the beautiful language.  What could be a better complement to your reading than writing?  Yeah, you'll get to that stack of books later tonight.  Right after you get this paragraph perfect.  Shouldn't take too long....  Okay, it took two hours, and now it's late.  Well, there's always tomorrow.  Or maybe the next day.  Or perhaps next week....

So you've lost your job, your family, your personal time.  You still have one, very important thing: your self-confidence.  Nothing's going to stop you from achieving your goal.  Except those pesky agents and publishers, that is.  Rejection after rejection.  They do pile up, don't they?  And your optimism drains away with each plot hole you can't fill.  Why is it no matter how long and hard you work, how many metaphors you formulate, how many scenes you nail, your writing never seems to achieve its potential?  You know it can be better, but you can just never reach it.  Stupid!  How much of an idiot do you have to be not to get it right after three novels?

Eventually your dreams die.  A tree that's never watered doesn't bear fruit.  You didn't ask for much, really.  At first, fame and fortune seemed within reach, but later, all you wanted was to see one of your books on the shelf.  But that victory never comes and never comes and never comes, and the dream withers, and finally you reach a point where even if the success did come, it wouldn't mean anything after all the failures.


We know from the Bible Jesus was a carpenter.  He found men rough, unfinished, and sanded and sawed and fitted them together, until he built chairs and tables.  And with those chairs and tables, he had a supper, and though it was his last one, the things he had built lasted.

But Jesus must have been something of a fisherman too.  He certainly knew quite a few, to whom he said, "Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men."  And with him they went.  He pulled men in by the thousands and landed them on his craft, the Good Ship Salvation.

As for me, I believe God is a writer.  After all, when he saw how his first draft turned out, he tore it up, sending a great flood to destroy it.  I know the urge.

He certainly has a way with his characters.  He creates them, breathes life into them, sends them forth onto the paths he has planned for him.  As characters tend to do, they don't always go the way he intended.  My characters surprise me all the time.  How is that possible, if they're only fiction?  Sometimes I gnash my teeth at how my characters refuse to behave.  Of course, you have the power to make them do as you wish, but a good writer honors their integrity.  And you know, in the end, sometimes their unexpected choices have made the story stronger.

We were made in God's image, and when we write, we're coming as close to God as we'll ever get.  He's the author of all Creation, and we're the author of our creations.  We establish our little world, populate it, people it, allow our creations the freedom to bite the apple, if they dare.  We provide the challenges that will let our heroes shine, and throw in a little romance, villains, and adventure.  We work in some themes and pack the pages with imagery.  And when we get to the end, we provide justice: in a satisfying story, the good are rewarded, the evil punished, and all have a chance to redeem themselves.

And so it is with the book God is writing, the story of Everything.  After all, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  Amen.

Cross-posted on the Writers of Chantilly blog.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted!  I've been reading a number of things, most notably Moby Dick, which explains why I haven't been posting.  Still working on it, I'm about halfway through.  When I'm finished, I'll put up a lengthy post on what I think about it, but so far, I love it.  Hugely epic in scope, language that if maybe not quite biblical is only one step from the King James Bible, characters that are fully rounded and motivated yet archetypal.  And of course, this is where Khan in Star Trek II got all his quotes!

Here are some other things I've been reading:

Prophet: Remission:   A 2013 reimagining of the 1990s comic series by Rob Liefeld, a terrible artist who was inexplicably popular for a few years.  I think that's why I overlooked this series when it came out earlier this year--I just saw the name "Liefeld" and my brain shut down.  What a mistake that was!  I'm lucky somebody loaned this to me with a strong recommendation because this is awesome.

Writer Brandon Graham places John Prophet, a genetically-engineered human with a rather taciturn, Conan-like attitude towards violence and morality (i.e., he has a moral code, but doesn't let it get in the way too much when action is necessary), in the very distant future, when humanity has died out and Earth has been colonized by various alien species.  Prophet awakens and embarks on a mission to restart the once-mighty human empire, which requires visiting certain key sites, if they are still around, to send out signals across the galaxy that will wake frozen humans from their eons-long sleep.

The real attraction in this book is the huge variety of extremely weird creatures, aliens or bizarrely-evolved earth creatures.  I especially liked the Jell City, a living ship that has landed on earth and which gradually decomposes while its inhabitants eat it until they're ready to emerge on their new planet.  The desert caravan of massive elephant like-creatures who sell their dung as architectural materials are a nice touch, and the continent-wide once-living giant floating in space whose innards provide a living space for species not even around when he died is impressive.  If you are at all interested in science fiction with a heavy dose of weird, this is a good bet.

The Wake: A horror series by DC's hottest writer of the moment, Scott Snyder.  I just finished the fourth of ten issues, which I'm sure will be collected in a graphic novel once the whole series is out.  Its set on a deep-sea research station run by an oil company.  The company has brought together a band of scientists to address a problem: the crew has come across a murderous creature that's a...mermaid.  Or rather, a merman.  But it's not beautiful, it's hideous, and it has to be confined in chains so it doesn't get loose and rip the station's crew apart.

We learn where mermaid myths come from when the merman sprays a fast-acting neurological venom in a crew member's face.  After recovering, he reports it causes euphoric hallucinations, meaning, for instance, the creature's hideous form appears as beautiful and its awful shrieking as an angelic song, rather like the mermaids and sirens from stories in human history.  In the latest issue, has call has attracted others of its kind from the deep sea, who are attacking the station.

There's not really a lot in it that's original, but it's very well executed and truly scary.  I get a strong John Carpenter's Thing-vibe from it, something about highly-competent individuals trapped in an isolated area with an alien killing machine.  I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Hive

The Hive is the sequel to X-ed Out, which I wrote on about a month ago (click here to see that review).  Again, this graphic novel was loaned to me by a friend.  This one had pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as the first volume.

Again, we join Doug, a troubled art student who can't seem to find meaning in life, but who comes alive in a bizarre nightmare world he enters when he sleeps.  In this volume, he's found a job in the hive where female breeders live, though we don't see what it is they're breeding.  He's even located the woman he had seen earlier and knew he had to follow.  She stays in something like a hospital bed all the time, and speaks of her fears that soon she's be like the women she hears in the other rooms, screaming all through the night.  He brings her a series of romance comics she enjoys, and we even get to read a couple pages from one.  As you might expect, it's as surreal and sinister as the rest of his nightmare world.

Meanwhile, in his waking life, Doug is now dating the girl he liked in the first volume, so he's progressed a little.  Also, his haranguing father has passed away, which seems to free him a little psychologically.  But the girlfriend has an ex-boyfriend who leaves them threatening phone messages, and his discovery of a box of photos of his father's life before he has born, when his father seemed happy and not to have entered the unemployed-depressive period Doug remembers, does little for his self-esteem.

As before, the dream sequences were the best.  The hive world is cool and creepy.  This time around, we've already seen its bizarre lizard and feral pig inhabitants, but we're starting to get a better sense of how things work, in a dream-logic sort of way.  I really like the art in these sections: the forbidding mix of industrial landscape and east Asian village, the toxic caves that make up the interiors of buildings, the sushi made of fish you really, really don't want to eat.

And still, Doug's waking world is less interesting.  Doug himself is still passive-aggressive, and not a very likable person.  He lacks the energy and drive to really improve his situation, and wants everyone to think well of him without being willing to actually be a good person.  There are signs he's starting to break out of his deep-freeze, but if I were his frustrated girlfriend, I wouldn't bother waiting around for him.  Indeed, it seems to me she's with him less because he's interesting and more because he might offer some sort of protection against her ex.

I feel like we're about halfway through or so, and I expect Charles Burns's next volume will finish up the story.  I'm interested enough in seeing how the nightmares work out that I might accept a loan of the third volume, whenever it comes out, but I probably won't seek it out on my own.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Remembering Frederick Pohl

According to an obituary a few days ago in the Washington Post, science fiction author Frederick Pohl died on 2 September, aged 93.

In junior high and high school, I read science fiction voraciously, and Frederick Pohl was one of my favorite authors (another was Frank Herbert, whom I have previously written about).  The Post obituary describes his works as "sociological science fiction," and that seems right.  Although his books were what I would call "hard" SF, meaning they were real science-based rather than space opera, they were more concerned with the effects of space travel and future technology on human society and individuals than on the gee-whiz aspects of the technology itself.

His most famous books, which I read multiple times, were the Heechee saga.  In these books, humans discover a hollowed-out asteroid where thousands of spaceships belonging to a long-dead alien race have been stored.  After some tinkering, humans figure out how to make the ships fly, but are unable to interpret the controls to allow them to control the destinations.  A few of the ships fly to resource-rich planets, but most end up at useless or dangerous spots.  The adventurers who take these ships stand to earn vast fortunes, but only at the risk of death.

The first book in the saga, Gateway, concerns Robbie, a man who earned a great deal of money on a voyage on a Heechee ship, but at the cost of the life of his girlfriend, who was the love of his life.  He escaped the ship only barely as it approached a black hole, while the other crew members didn't make it.  What makes it even more difficult is that he knows the other crew members aren't dead yet--thanks to the odd (but true!) nature of extreme-gravity physics, time is ever-slowing for them as they approach the black hole, so while a decade has passed for him, only a few seconds have gone by for them.  He worries that his girlfriend believes he betrayed them to escape, and the guilt from this haunts him.  The book alternates chapters between his visits to a computer psychiatrist named Siegfrid and the action as it took place in the past.  Over time, his psychiatric sessions help him come to terms with the tragedy.

As mind-blowing as his books were, the real reason I am writing about Frederick Pohl is that he once helped me with a school project!  In the ninth grade (this would have been 1990), we had to write a long report on America.  I forget the exact parameters of the report, but it was open-ended enough that for my topic I chose "America in the Year 2020."  As part of my research, I wrote to a number of people about what they thought America would be like in 30 years.

One of the people to whom I sent a letter was Frederick Pohl, who wrote back with a well-thought out response.  His view was that the main challenge facing Americans in the future was the environment, and the stress the American way of life placed on the natural ecology.  What a thrill it was to hear from a man I much admired!  I still have the letter to this day.  I might also add, I received an "A" on the paper.

Good-bye to a fine author, and one who was admirably generous with his time for a fan who asked for his help.  Though it's been twenty years since I've read a book by Frederick Pohl, his works have been a huge influence on me.  I can only hope some bit of his classiness has rubbed off on me as well.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1979-80

So this is the second volume of the Complete Peanuts I've read in the past few months.  The Complete Peanuts is a project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project is now up to the late 1980s, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1979-80.  (See here for my review of the 1977-78 volume.)

This volume introduces only one new character, Henrietta, a girl bird who joins Snoopy's Beagle Scout troop for their hikes.  She figures prominently in the book's longest sequence, a six-week (!) arc of strips when she and another of the birds get tired of camping with Snoopy one night and go into town, where they get into a fight with some bluejays. Charlie Brown gets a call to come bail Henrietta out of jail.  Walking her back to rejoin the Beagle Scout troop, he gets lost in the woods and Peppermint Patty and Marcie have to go searching for them.  Of course they all manage to find each other, with Snoopy, who in story time has been gone from home just two or three days, only vaguely remembering "that round-headed kid" when he encounters Charlie Brown.

Another lengthy sequence is an unusually somber arc where Charlie Brown feels woozy and checks himself into the emergency room.  The problem may be that he's been hit on the head with too many fly balls.  During his stay in the hospital, the other characters react to his illness.  Sally moves her stuff into his room, Peppermint Patty and Marcie wait on a bench outside the hospital, and Lucy uncharacteristically grieves that he might not come back.  As Schroeder points out to her, "It's interesting that you should cry over him when you're the one who always treated him so mean."  So distraught is she, that she promises when he gets out, she'll hold the football and really, truly let him kick it.  The punchline is that when he does get out and she holds the football, he misses entirely and kicks her in the hand, requiring her to get a cast.

Not as solid as the 1977-78 volume, but still pretty good.  Schulz isn't quite sure what to do with his new character, Eudora (introduced in 1978), and some of the running gags, especially with Peppermint Patty's poor grades, are getting pretty threadbare.  Still, the two sequences described here, and a couple other long-ish ones, are quite entertaining.  As with the past few volumes, I have to ask myself after this one whether I'll get the next volume.  The answer this time is yes--I bought this and the 1981-82 volume as a set to save money.  After that, we'll see.  The strip has started its slow decline--it's still good at this point, but each new year of strips brings less delight than the last.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What I'm Reading: City of Scoundrels

City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist is historical non-fiction covering the story of a particularly horrific week-and-a-half in the history of Chicago, specifically, July 21st to July 31st 1919.  The experimental flight of an airship kicked the eleven days off when it caught fire above the Loop and crashed through the atrium of a bank building, killing airship riders and bank employees alike.  The next day, a six-year old girl was kidnapped, the prime suspect a pedophile living next door, kicking off a media feeding frenzy. An incident on the border between a white beach and black beach a couple days later sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, exacerbated by a transit strike that forced thousands of city workers onto the dangerous streets and nearly shut the city down.

It's a dramatic period to cover, and Krist does a good job of giving each of the events its due, but without crowding anything out.  He provides context and background, bringing readers up to speed on how and why each development occurred, and to what extent they were inter-related.  He also does an excellent job of bringing interesting little details to light, helped by his use not only of newspapers and official reports from the period, but also diaries from contemporary Chicago residents, particularly that of Emily Frankenstein, a nineteen-year-old with an interest in current events.

That Krist was able to assemble such a complete picture of the period is largely due to the existence of eight daily newspapers in Chicago at the time.  The different newspapers served Chicago's left, right, and centrist readers, its labor sympathizers and big business, its blacks, Germans, and Poles, assuring that any major event, and lots of smaller ones, would receive coverage from several viewpoints.  Should an American city now experience such an eventful week, I wonder if historians decades from now will be able to research it as thoroughly.  That even major cities now rarely support more than two, and often only one, daily makes me doubt it.  The typical response to that would be that of course blogs and micro-newssites on the Web cover cities with a wealth of detail not possible in earlier times--but will these blogs and sites still be accessible in fifty, eighty, or a hundred years?

Rather less successful was Krist's attempt to show that this sequence of events had far-reaching consequences in Chicago.  In fact, the whole point of the book is that this eleven-day period somehow forged modern Chicago, but I just don't see it.  The airship disaster was a freak accident, the kidnapping of the six-year old was regrettable but not especially important (except to her family, of course!), and the transit strike was only one in a long line of labor unrest incidents in Chicago, not the first and far from the last.  The only one of the incidents that really had a long-lasting impact, from what I can tell, was the race riot.  Up until then, in Krist's telling, Chicago had been relatively welcoming to blacks migrating from the South, but the riot seemed to have ignited a period of racial animosity that smoldered for decades.

In fact, I'd say the very facts Krist present show that Chicago went on pretty much as it always had, despite its hellish summer in 1919.  The same Republican-machine mayor, Big Bill Thompson, was re-elected that fall.  No important businesses began or failed, no social movements or major reforms had their seeds in the events.  Big Bill did manage to pass his Chicago Plan a few months later, a framework for vastly expanding and modernizing Chicago's roads, bridges, parks, and civic institutions.  While the events in the book perhaps gave fresh impetus to the Chicago plan, it had been in the making for almost ten years and very likely would have passed in any case.

No, the real event of 1919 that impacted Chicago was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution on 16 January, with entered force a year later.  This amendment, prohibiting alcohol, was the prime cause of the rise of organized crime in Chicago, which really defined the city in the 1920s.  Except for the race riot, the events related in City of Scoundrels, as fun and satisfying as it is to read, are little more than historical footnotes, notable only for their close temporal proximity.

If this sounds interesting to you, by all means read this book--you won't be disappointed. I highly recommend it for the armchair historian.  But if you're hoping to find out what really made the city tick in the 1920s, you should instead read Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the definitive history of Prohibition, and one in which Chicago plays no small role.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What I'm Reading: X'ed Out

X'ed Out is a graphic novel by Charles Burns.  It was loaned to me by a friend who lauded it as one of the better things he's read lately.  It follows Doug, a 20-something art school student who's been having a tough time lately.  His relationship with his girlfriend is going bad, his mom is sick, and his dad is descending into pain pill addiction.  Worst of all, he's taking pills (for depression, maybe?  It's not made clear.) that give him bizarre nightmares.

I have to say, the nightmares were my favorite parts.  In them, the art turns more cartoony and Doug looks like an adult Tin-Tin.  It's nicely surrealistic and horrifying, while mixing-up the events of his daytime world with dream logic.  They take place in a sort of South Asian village, where bizarre creatures curse Doug out when he slows them down on the sidewalk, people eat strange worm-like creatures with human facial features, and biotoxic waste spills openly into the waterways.  Yet, like dreams, there is a sort of internal logic to this world and indeed, Doug seems to be on a sort of mission there, something involving a queen imprisoned in a big beehive in the center of town, even if he doesn't understand fully the mission or why he must carry it out.

Of course, Doug's waking life is hardly any better.  These parts didn't work as well for me, largely because Doug isn't very sympathetic.  His life is aimless, living at home with his parents, attending art school because he doesn't know what else to do, passive-aggressively trying to break up with his girlfriend when he meets someone new.  Actually, passive-aggressive is a good term for how he lives.  It's no wonder he's depressed and finds it easier to live meaningfully in his dreams.  He rejects anything that might make his waking life worthwhile, but doesn't seem to have the energy or gumption to create his own way.

Not that his character doesn't ring true--I've met plenty of people like him.  Like those people, I kind of want to give Doug a shake.  Wake up!  Set yourself a goal!  It frustrates me to be around people like that, and it frustrates me to read about them.

Of course, maybe the point of the book is that Doug finds his way.  I don't know because the book ends just as Doug is about to enter the Hive, where the queen in his nightmares has been taken.  The next volume is due in, let's see...2012.  So I guess it's probably out already.  I might check out, the art was pretty great, and I'd like to see what the Hive looks like.  But if I don't get to it, I won't miss Doug.  See you around dude, hope things work out for you.  You want my number, maybe we can hang out sometime?  Nah, I'll see you when I see you.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Again With the Importance of Writing Groups

So I was on vacation last week, and the week before that was just crazy, and maybe the week before that I'd been kind of lazy.  But for whatever reason, I hadn't written in my WiP for three weeks.  I was really dreading getting back to it, too.  After you haven't worked on your project for a while, it's hard to get back into the groove.

But on Monday I went to my Writers of Chantilly meeting, and I came away charged.  Ready to return to my work.  Maybe it was the positive comments I received on my latest chapter.  Maybe it was being around other writers excited about their work.  Maybe it was simply thinking about the writing process.  Whatever the reason, last night I sat down at the computer and made a number of changes to my novel I've been meaning to for a while, and got in some actual writing as well.  All in all, a solid night, and I'm still ready to write again tonight.

So here's another reason we could add to the list of why you, a writer, should definitely be in a writer's group: getting back on track when you've lost your way.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: Daytripper

Daytripper is a graphic novel by Brazilian brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá.  The two have illustrated American comics in the past (notably the Umbrella Academy series from a few years back that was popular with the artier portions of the comics readership), but I think they might be better known in other parts of the world.  I remember Daytripper receiving quite favorable critical reviews when it appeared in serialized single-issue form in 2010, though I passed it by at the time.  I think now doing so was a mistake and am glad that my brother sent me the collected version last Christmas.

The story follows Brás, a journalist in his early 30s whose career is stuck at a small newspaper in Sao Paulo, where he writes the obituaries.  To make matters worse, his father is a famous and respected novelist in Brazil whose accomplishments will always overshadow Brás's, no matter what he does.  He's depressed over having to attend a reception for his father, although things are looking up when his best friend Jorge, a staff photographer, also ends up assigned to the reception.  At the end of the first chapter, Brás is unexpectedly shot in a robbery at a bar near the reception hall, and the final words are his own obituary.

This sets the pattern for each of the ten chapters (corresponding to the ten original issues), each of which visits Brás at a certain period in his life and ends with his death, giving the overview of his life up to that point in obituary form.  Obviously, the point here is not a straightforward narrative of his life; indeed, the chapters are not even in chronological order, jumping around to various important points in his childhood, adulthood, and old age.

Rather, I think the purpose is to show how the meaning of Brás's life changes with the context, his roles as lover, friend, son, father, husband, employee, and so on coloring the way his life is interpreted with each succeeding obituary.  It's not surprising that Brás has a certain everyman quality about him, allowing the reader to easily identify with his different life stages.

It's perhaps a little odd I should have gotten this far in the review without discussing the art.  After all, it is a graphic novel, and one with spectacularly good art.  Perhaps it's because the art so perfectly fits the story, realistic but loose, catching all the little details and illustrating characters' emotions so well, it hardly seems necessary to comment on it specifically.  Odd, but I think perhaps making art that is unobtrusive is harder than something that really calls attention to itself. 
Some nudity and sex makes the book inappropriate for younger readers, but it's not salacious in nature and shouldn't put any older readers off.  I would recommend Daytripper to any adult or mature teen-ager who is interested in a quiet but beautifully told and drawn story delving into what life means as we assume different roles as we age.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What I'm Reading: Children of Dune

When I was a teen-ager, I was a little obsessed with Frank Herbert's Dune series.  It's a science fiction series with deep world-building and lots of political intrigue, and has become a cult favorite since the publication of the first book in the mid-1960s.  Over the past year, I've been re-reading them to see how they hold up. 

The series is set on Dune, a harsh desert planet with scant rain or life.  The only humans native to Dune are the Fremen, a primitive people possessed of a rigorous code of honor.  Despite all that, Dune is the most important planet in the galaxy, for it is the source of spice, a substance produced by sandworms, a creature that lives nowhere else.  Spice extends life, so that those wealthy people who can afford to use it daily live up to 200 years.  Taken in large amounts, it also allows a user to see into the future, although this is a dangerous practice as overdosing is fatal.  The only ones who would take such a risk are the navigators of the Space Guild, who use the prescience provided by huge spice doses to keep from steering their ships through stars when traveling faster than the speed of light.

At the beginning of the first book, the noble Atreides family has been awarded the planet Dune by the emperor, and because of the importance of Dune, they move their capital from the lush world of Caladan to Dune's harsh environs.  The award turns out to be a trick, however, a conspiracy between the emperor and the cruel Harkonnen family to rid themselves of a pesky rival House.  The head of the Atreides, Duke Leto, is killed, and his wife, Jessica, and sixteen-year-old son, Paul, flee into the desert, accompanied only by the loyal master swordsman Duncan Idaho and family bodyguard Gurney Halleck.

They find shelter with a group of Fremen, and Paul insists on risking a spice overdose so he can see how to lead his family back to power.  He realizes that the Fremen, toughened by desert life, make perfect warriors.  For their part, the Fremen worship Paul as a Messiah, for their legends foretell a man who will live through the spice trance and lead them to glory.  With Duncan's and Gurney's help, Paul trains the Fremen in modern weaponry and they start attacking spice mining vessels.  The empire sends legions of elite Sardaukar troops, led by the emperor himself, to put down these rebels who are disrupting the vital spice trade.  Taking advantage of a massive sandstorm that renders electronic communications impossible, and leading huge sandworms that can swallow entire ships at once, the Fremen defeat the emperor's troops and force him to surrender to Paul Atreides.

The second book, Dune Messiah, takes places about ten years later, when Dune has become the seat of the empire, led wisely but firmly by Paul and his Fremen warriors.  No matter how benevolent his rule, however, some of his subjects will inevitably be disgruntled.  He discovers an assassination plot against him but willingly falls victim to it after a spice trance reveals to him a terrible fate for the empire, and all humanity, if he remains alive.  Sadly, his Fremen concubine Chani, who is his true love--rather than his wife, the late emperor's daughter, whom he married for political reasons--dies during childbirth just before Paul's own demise.

The third book, Children of Dune, follows Paul's nine-year-old twin children, Leto II and Ghanima.  Due to his spice overdose, Paul's genetic material was altered and the children have the power to recall past lives, even into far history when humans still lived on earth.  Since Paul's death, the empire has been ruled in their name by their aunt Alia, who has fallen under the sway of the evil Baron Harkonnen.  Alia has no intention of ending her regency and giving the children power, and under her the empire has become a stagnant, oppressive place filled with spies and dungeons for those who oppose her.  When they discover Alia's plot to marry Ghanima off to a nephew of the old emperor and to kill Leto, the twins hatch a plan to overthrow their aunt and assume their rightful place on the throne.

So what's my conclusion on re-reading the series so far?  My estimation of their quality has fallen a few notches from 20+ years ago, although it's still mostly positive.  I really admire the political intrigue in a galaxy that is simultaneously futuristic and medieval, and how carefully Herbert has designed his world to retain a human element, rather than overwhelming the reader with all the technology from thousands of years in the future.  For instance, humans outlawed computers centuries before, and personal shields have rendered laser and energy weapons pointless.  Instead, humans have reverted to using human computers called Mentats and fighting with swords.  This allows Herbert to avoid a lot of clichés of space opera.

Also, the extensive, completely immersive world is super-cool, with the human computer Mentats, mutated Space Guild navigators, galaxy-spanning religious orders whose nuns possess powers of hypnotic suggestion, the various noble houses and how they interact, insect-sized robots that carry poison needles, the desert society and religion of the Fremen, the well-thought out ecology of Dune itself, and much, much more.

On the other hand, the writing style, which I suppose I didn't care about as much as a teen, leaves a lot to be desired for the adult me.  The dialogue, especially, tends towards the stilted, and the constant need of every conversation to have hidden meaning and layers of intrigue is hugely annoying.

My rank ordering of the books remains the same 20 years later, however.  Children of Dune is the best, perhaps because Herbert has moderated some of the excesses of his writing style, but mostly because it contains a truly tense story (after a fairly slow start in the first fifty pages or so).  The original Dune  is ranked second, for its drama, mystical overtones, and epic sweep.  The second book, Dune Messiah, is the weak one of the bunch, with a fairly boring story and terrible dialogue.  We'll see how the fourth, God Emperor of Dune, holds up when I read it in a few months.  I recall that one as seeming almost to be from a different series, as it is set 1,000 years after the events of the first trilogy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: Butter

Most of the YA I read is recommended to me by my wife, the teen librarian at a local library.  However, Butter is something I picked out from her pile of reading material.  I liked the title and read the first page just to see what it was about.  Once I started, I couldn't stop.

Author Erin Jade Lange has a killer premise here.  Butter, a fat kid in high school who tips the scales at 421 pounds, is tired of sitting alone at lunch, tired of the snickers and wisecracks behind his back in the school hallway, but mostly tired of trying to lose weight and failing.  When he comes across a website where kids at his school have rated other students' "Most likelies" and discovers he's been voted "Most likely to die of a heart attack" and that half the kids in school have left a snarky comment, he's had enough.  He puts up a website promising that on New Year's Eve, about a month away, he will literally eat himself to death on a live webcast.

Much to his surprise, the site attracts the attention of the popular kids at his school, who sort of adopt him for the month.  Of course, they're not really making friends with him--they're just impressed with his vow and have made him their temporary plaything.  But he revels in the attention, party invitations, and opportunity to have fun, even knowing the same kids are morbidly laying bets on whether he'll go through with it.

Aside from the premise, Lange has also made Butter (real name Marshall) immensely likeable.  He's funny, so gifted on the saxophone his music teacher invites him to sit in when his jazz quintet plays local clubs, and quite aware of how others perceive him.  When the other kids give him a chance to be in their group after his vow, they discover he's actually charming and fun to be around.  You can't help but root for him.

His situation is believable too.  You see his well-meaning mother cook his favorite fat-laden comfort foods when he feels down, and come to understand how an argument with his dad or a bad day at school can lead Butter on a self-destructive binge.  And you start to realize how his vow to eat himself to death is a way for him to take control of his situation, a natural if not quite rational response to a life where so much is out of his hands.

I'd recommend Butter to any teen.  Teens with weight problems will of course find it of interest, but in a more general way, Butter's deficient self-image and difficult relations with his peers are universal among teen-agers.  Adults who like a witty, self-deprecatory narrator and a fast-paced but realistic story would also enjoy this.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How Often Should You Write?

So after a week-long vacation, and several extremely busy days after getting back, I've finally returned to writing on a daily basis this week.  The first couple days were tough, but now the words are flowing.  I'm struck again, as I have been in the past, how important it is to write every day.

For the novelist, it's critical.  You simply can't get any momentum going if you take days off between writing sessions.  When you take a couple days off, you have to read over what you've previously written, re-calibrate, take a few paragraphs to warm up, and only then does real writing come out, maybe.  You'll never finish that way.  But write daily, and each new session flows beautifully.  Your mind has been working on the problems of the previous session and you start exactly where you left off previously, with new ideas and energy.

I'm not the only one who thinks this.  Stephen King's a big believer in writing every day. Raymond Chandler prescribed four hours a day for writing, and even if he couldn't think of anything, he forced himself to sit in the chair and look out the window.

That's novelists.  Surely other types of writers are different?  Well, maybe, but I'm not so sure.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe started writing a poem every day when he was a teen-ager, and continued the habit throughout his life.  It worked out pretty well for him.  I bet most successful writers make it to the writing desk daily, or nearly so.

If you miss a day here and there, it's probably unavoidable.  Don't sweat it.  But try to write at least six days every week.  Avoid missing more than one day in a row.  That's how you keep your brain bubbling.  Here's a secret: Writing is not the product of inspiration; inspiration is the product of writing.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I'm Reading: In Cold Blood

Another recently finished book I'm only now getting around to writing about.  "But isn't In Cold Blood true crime?" you may ask, more in Dana's wheelhouse than mine?  Indeed it is, but since reading Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James last summer, where he mentioned ICB as the best true crime book ever written, I've wanted to tackle it.

So ICB tells the story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two ex-cons who had briefly shared a cell in the Kansas State Penitentary and got together after their release to commit a robbery.  Their target: the Clutter farm, a prosperous spread in western Kansas described to them in detail by another prisoner.  A farm may seem an unlikely robbery prospect, but they were told (erroneously, as it turned out) that Herb Clutter kept a safe in the house with at least $10,000 in it at all times.  And the place was isolated, giving them plenty of time to work without interruption.  All the time they needed to locate and open the safe, and kill any family members in the house, if necessary.

They broke in with no problems, but when they found no safe, they woke Herb, his wife Bonnie, and his teen-age children, Kenyon and Nancy, and tied them up.  They knocked Herb around a bit but realized quickly the safe didn't exist, and proceeded to execute the family.  Then they drove to Kansas City, floated a few hundred bucks worth of bad checks, and took a little vacation to Mexico.  Eventually they returned to the United States and were located by Kansas detectives a few months later in Las Vegas.

The murder spree was nationwide news in 1959, and attracted the attention of Truman Capote, who traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, in 1960 and spent four years interviewing residents and following Hickock's and Smith's trial and death row appeals.  He published his book in 1966, the first "nonfiction novel," in which a real-life narrative is elaborated with fictionalized thoughts and conversations.

One thing that struck me about the book is that neither Dick Hickock or Perry Smith could have committed the murders on his own, but their respective character flaws added up to a complete sociopath when together.  Dick lacked a conscience and was the mastermind of their misadventures, but didn't have the guts to kill.  Perry was an interesting character, sensitive, intelligent, and a natural at any instrument he picked up; he might have been a musician if a childhood of neglect and abuse hadn't twisted his personality.  He too was no real murderer, but was capable of brutal violence if pushed, or when goaded and guided by Dick.

I'm probably not cut out for reading true crime.  I have no problem with scary or gory books and movies in general, but I do prefer them to be fiction.  There were several points when I was really getting into the story, only to realize that it had actually happened and become a little sickened at my own eager response and identification with the charismatic criminals.  The only one I remember reading before this was something I picked up at my grandparent's house when I was in high school, a book of my grandfather's on Richard Ramirez, the 1970s California serial killer known as the Nightstalker.  I was bothered then, too, by a feeling of what almost might be termed bloodlust when reading it, an unhealthy desire to see how the horror played out.  (And what fascination with evil drives my grandfather, a gentle retired country doctor, to read such books by the boatload?)

But if this is your thing, I agree In Cold Blood is probably as good as it gets.  The writing is precise and elegant, the characters well-presented and incisively analyzed.  I'm not qualified to say how close Capote got to real life, but it feels as real as possible.  There's nothing sensationalized in his telling, but be aware he does describe the murders in clinical, policework-like detail.  In the end, I'm glad I read it, and can recommend it to adult who likes good writing and has a moderately strong stomach.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Complete Crumb, Vol. 5

So it's been awhile since I've written in here about what I've read.  I was out of town last week on a family vacation (Disneyworld!) and spent this week getting caught up.  I might write up another of these later this week, but I'll start with the Complete Crumb, Volume 5.  This collects underground comic artist R. Crumb's work from December 1967 to April 1969.

Wow, is this one ever not for kids.  Drug use, extremely uncensored sexuality, and all sorts of adult situations and scatology, all done in the cute, "big-foot" style of art Crumb is best known for.  This is what most would consider his classic period, and includes the Janis Joplin album covers, as well as multiple episodes of his best-known characters taken from underground comix and alternative newspapers of the period.

Fritz the Cat, the motivationally-challenged cat who stumbles, smokes (not tobacco), and sleeps his way through San Francisco's hippie underworld, receives the book's longest section.  It's a fairly episodic story culminating in Fritz's almost accidental involvement in a Marxist cell's plot to bomb San Francisco's bridges.  Fortunately, the cell is utterly incompetent, many of its members more interested in free dope than revolution, and the plot fails.   Fritz himself is dopey and affable, and it's hard not to like him even when he's involved in terrorism--after all, he doesn't really mean it, he's just going along with what his friends are up to.  I do have to wonder what Crumb really thought of his friends and acquaintances, if the bumblers, psychotics, and druggies depicted in this story were typical of his own circle.

Mr. Natural, the white-bearded philosoper who instructs his "clients" in overcoming their hang-ups to achieve sexual liberation and spiritual fulfillment, appears in several one- or two-page strips.  In one series of strips, he even goes to heaven and meets God, only to decide the scene is too boring and he wants to go back to Earth.  Mr. Natural is the opposite of Fritz, perhaps something of Crumb's ideal man: funny, wise, able to see through the various falsehoods the world presents to discern what's really important in life.

Another recurring character is Angel McSpade, a sort of hyper-sexual Aunt Jemima who's used in several pieces satirizing white men's attitudes towards black women.  I found these strips to be the most uncomfortable to read, although I can see the point Crumb was making.  In fact, they are probably the most pointedly political strips in the book. 

Much of the remaining material is little more than humorous scatological skits, fairly juvenile but funny if read with the the right attitude.  As a whole, I would recommend this book only to a fairly narrow segment of people.  If you have an interest in comics history or the 60s counterculture, and a high tolerance for raw language and graphic (though cartoon) sexuality, this is an important document of the era not to be overlooked.  For anybody else, this should be avoided.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Life of Samuel Johnson

There's little I can say about James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson that hasn't been said before, and better.  Thus, I won't attempt a real review, but I'll just put down some of my observations.  It is simply the best biography and one of the most entertaining books in the English language.  Along with Alexander Pope, Johnson was one of the two towering figures of 18th century literature.  Unfortunately, he's not as well-remembered today as he might be, I think because his greatest achievement, writing the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, has been supplanted by the OED and Webster and others.

He was also a poet, an essayist (almost singlehandedly penning both the Rambler and the Idler, two magazines of the time), a literary historian, one of the foremost Latin scholars of his century, and possibly the best English conversationalist ever.  That last point is especially made clear in Boswell's biography.  Boswell, a wealthy member of the Scottish gentry, and probably Johnson's best friend for the final 30 years of his life, accompanied his friend to dinner parties and on excursions around London and the English countryside, all the while recording everything Johnson said throughout the day in his journal.  Rarely a page goes by without one of Johnson's finely honed witticisms, trenchant observations of human life, or a funny or enlightening conversation with a companion.

And the companions Johnson had!  Just off the top of my head, Joshua Reynolds (foremost English painter of the 18th century), Edmund Burke (famous conservative philosopher), Oliver Goldsmith (leading playright), and Edward Gibbon (wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) turn up with regularity.  There are also cameos by King George III, Adam Smith, John Wesley, and dozens of others I can't remember at the moment.

That cast of characters is one reason this book is what I refer to as a "Shortcut to Smartness."  By this, I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself.  First, you learn everything about Samuel Johnson himself.  Second, you learn a lot about all his famous friends.  Third, you improve your grasp of 18th century British history, for many historical events are referenced.  Fourth, more so than in most biographies, you learn about everyday life in the past, because the book covers not only the major events of Johnson's life but also the little day-to-day oddities and intersting happenings.  Fifth, you become wiser about human nature and the best ways to live, for Johnson's insight can't help but sink in.  (In the future on this blog, I'll talk about more books I think of as Shortcuts to Smartness.)

Now, Life of Johnson is a thick book, but don't be intimidated!  This is my second time through, and it's taken me more than a year.  But that's not at all because it's so difficult to read, but because I read twenty or thirty pages at a time and then put it aside for a few days.  It's actually the perfect book to pick up and put down like that as so much of it is episodic--a few pages are devoted to, say, a visit to Johnson's alma mater, Oxford, or an evening meeting of the Literary Club, or Johnson's thoughts on the occasion of a friend whose son was hanged, etc..  But I always come back to it because it's so funny and wise.  I think the perfect reader for this book would be an aspiring English or history major during the summer before college--it would give a student such an edge up on the competition in so many ways.  But really, any adult who wants to learn about a witty, humane, learned man who had a huge impact on English letters would find Life of Johnson to be of interest.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What I'm Reading: Compulsion

Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe, is a YA novel about Jake, a senior in high school with a serious case of obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD).  Jake is a standout soccer player being recruited by several colleges, but except for those brief periods of time when he's on the field and they disappear, his life is completely dominated by a number of compulsions: a need to manipulate numbers in his head, to obsessively track the time, to brush his teeth a certain way, chew his food a certain number of times, take a precise number of steps to descend a stairway, etc.

His compulsions get in the way of his social life, and only Luc, a fellow soccer player he's known since kindergarten, puts up with his bizarre behavior.  Jake is routinely late to class because he can't leave his house until he's performed his waking ritual a certain way.  Despite the fact that pretty girls  practically throw themselves at him as the school's star athlete, he has never had a romantic relationship--touching other people is too germy.

Still, there is one person who could help: Mera, a weird girl who used to play with Luc and Jake when they were kids, but is now a school outcast due to her aggressive vegetarianism and take-no-bull attitude. She seems to understand his problems and instinctively does the right things to calm him. It's too bad she's not one of the popular kids.

He can't even describe his problem to anybody--he feels he has to maintain his image as an athlete with a perfect life, and his OCD in no way fits into that agenda.  Anyway, he's not aware that his compulsions are a disease.  His family is working-class and even though his mother is positively crippled by her own OCD, she's apparently never been to a doctor about it.  This was actually the weakest point in the book for me--surely at some point somebody in the family would have seen an episode of Oprah or some other television show about OCD and realize it can be treated?

Other than that point, which can probably be explained away though it wasn't addressed, the book is powerful and emotionally affecting.  It really resonated with me because I've had OCD tendencies all my life.  In late elementary school, I even suffered from mental number manipulation in my head, just like Jake.  I suppose I have/had a mild case, but there was a point when much of my time and energy was taken up with this compulsion.  I thought it was a bad habit, and at one point decided to break myself of it.  Over a period of weeks I forced myself to stop manipulating numbers whenever my brain would start to do it, an exhausting effort which became easier over time.  Maybe if Jake had fought it earlier on, his OCD wouldn't later have become so all-consuming?

I assume my wife brought this home from the library because of my own OCD issues.  Nevertheless, I could recommend this book to anybody who wants to learn what it's like to have OCD from inside the head of a sufferer.  I can attest from personal experience that the book's treatment of it is realistic.  It's not a "fun" book, indeed it's fairly harrowing, but it's quite accessible and readable.  It's aimed at teens but I think adults interested in the issue, or who simply want a powerful, well-written story, could read it as well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Best books of the Bible

My final post of Lent, a list of the top five books of the Bible!  Of course top favorites lists are kind of ridiculous.  Boiling down all the artistry and importance of, in this case, books of the Bible, to one dimension is an overly simplifying and even arrogant exercise.  So let's get to it!

#1) The Acts of the Apostles.  I find these tales of the spread of the early church to be endlessly fascinating.  The second half of the Apostles gives us the terrific story of Paul, from his conversion on the road to Damascus, through his spreading Christianity across Asia Minor, to his trip to Rome to appeal a prison sentence to Caesar himself, at which point the story abruptly ends.  I think my favorite part is his visit to Athens, when he tailors an intellectual argument to the philosophical Athenians, who have gathered to hear him speak as they might any other thinker presenting his theories.  Paul is immensely charismatic, a complicated character with an adventure-filled life.

#2) Ruth.  A gentle, touching recounting of Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi, even after her husband has passed away, and her mother-in-law's compassionate response, finding her a new husband who will take care of her.

#3) The Gospel of John.  The weirdest of the Gospels, and also the only one written (or claimed to be written) by someone who was actually one of the Apostles.  Beatifully done and with a tight but well-chosen selection of miracles.  I know a lot of people like the Gospel of Luke because it explains so much, but I simply can't believe all that stuff.  John leaves out everything unnecessary, including all the nonsense about Jesus's birth.  Yet he also includes episodes not found in the other Gospels, such as Jesus raising his dead friend Lazarus, which I think is one of the most humanizing events in his life.  Yes, if you can read only one Gospel, I definitely feel that John is the way to go.

#4) The First Book of Samuel.  The second half tells of David as a young man, his rise to fame (killing Goliath, remember?), and his gathering together a sort of outlaw band that eventually topples Israel's cruel king Saul.  An interesting story, with lots of parts you never hear about in Sunday school.  His friendship with Saul's son, Jonathan, in particular, is strongly homoerotic.  The story is interesting and David himself a remarkable character.

#5) Micah.  Well, this one mainly because my son is named after him.  The book itself is kind of a downer, mostly a long prophecy about the coming downfall of Jerusalem.  Still, you can't top this quote: "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."  Still trying to get my son to reflect his namesake!

So, what did I get wrong?  What are your favorites Bible books?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Job

My final reading for Lent: Job.  I'm sure everybody knows the basic story.  Satan comes to God, who asks him what he thinks of Job, an especially devoted man.  Satan responds that of course Job is devoted to God, for God has blessed him.  But take away Job's riches, family, and health, and he would curse God as anybody else.  God accepts the wager, and Job is made to suffer the loss of everything he holds dear as part of this divine contest.

I'm not sure I realized beforehand that much of Job is poetical.  After the brief prose introduction setting up the situation, there are a series of alternating poetic speeches between Job and his friends.  Job laments his situation, but never does curse God.  Meanwhile, his friends encourage him to repent, claiming he must have sinned in some way for God to punish him so.  Job knows he's done nothing wrong, however, and longs for a hearing or trial so he can hear God's charges against him and plead his case.

In the end, God comes in the shape of a great storm and does respond to Job, though it is not the response Job expected.  Rather, he demonstrates to Job that his wisdom and power are beyond human understanding, and that Job must simply put his trust and faith in God no matter the circumstances.  He never reveals the wager (which in any case he has won--for Job did remain faithful, despite all his complaining) or otherwise explain himself, essentially for the same reason you don't explain yourself when you tell your two-year old child not to run in the street or that he can't have a juicebox right now.

The language in Job is quite beautiful, full of metaphor and grandeur, if quite ornate by modern standards.  I wouldn't have minded it a bit shorter, though it's not difficult to read.  The arguments between the friends do seem to go in circles after awhile.  On the hand, I would have liked more on the relationship between Satan and God.  Oddly, they speak to each other almost as old friends--it would have been interesting to have this explicated at more length.

It occurred to me while reading it that the author (who is thought to have written this down around 600-400 BC) was himself writing ancient history, for the story is set in the time of the patriarchs (i.e. somewhere around 2000-1500 BC).  Not sure whether he considered himself to be recounting an actual historic episode, or if it's meant purely as a fable or parable.  Wikipedia suggests there are "Jobic" stories found in earlier Sumerian and Egyptian literature, although no direct antecedents.  Whether the author knew of these or not is an open question.

Interesting that in Job, riches consist of flocks of camels and goats, and Job, who is said to be the richest man in his area, lives in a tent.  I would guess even by the author's time this was considered a pretty rustic way of life.  I imagine some Jewish scholar in a town, perhaps Jerusalem itself, imagining how life had been 1,000 years earlier.  He does a good job of it!

For those interested in reading the Bible, I would probably not recommend you start here, unless you have a special interest in the question of how a just God can allow humans to suffer.  Ruth or Esther offer gentle, beautiful stories, while Exodus is full of action, and the Acts of the Apostles is a fascinating history of Christianity's early days.  But for those ready to tackle deeper questions, Job provides a thorough and tough examination of one of the thorniest theological issues.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Words to leave out

Keeping to the theme of the last post, today I'm going to list some words you should leave out of your writing.  After you finish a piece, go through with the word search function and see how many of the following you can remove.

Note: I will revisit this post from time to time as I think of new ones (i.e., come across them in my own writing).

very--A strange word in that it does the opposite of what you think it does.  You think it amplifies or emphasizes, but it actually diminishes.
Dr. Brown's new car was very shiny, very sleek, and very fast.
Dr. Brown's new car was shiny, sleek, and fast.
See?  All those verys slow the reader down.  Take the advice of Depeche Mode: Very is very unnecessary; it can only do harm.

begin to, start to--Normally, people don't begin to do something, they just do it.
The wolf approached me, drooling and snarling.  I turned and started to run ran.

just--This is a problematic one for me.  Nothing wrong with the word, I just seem to use it once or twice a page when I write.  I think I just don't realize I'm putting it in.  I just have to use the word search when I'm done and I can eliminate three-quarters of the justs.

saw, look--Nothing wrong with these words.  They're good, solid words that will appear many times in your writing.  However, they can be a little boring.  See if you can't replace a few of them with eye, focus, gape, gaze, glance, observe, ogle, regard, scan, spy, view, watch, etc.  Don't take this too far though--the goal isn't to bedeck your manuscript like a royal crown!  A little goes a long way.

actually--Thanks to Dana for a link to a similar post!  From that I got the idea for actually.  I checked my own WiP with this and found 8 actuallys.  Four could be crossed out without changing or harming the sentences; actually, improving them.  Two were in dialogue and could stay; two more were truly transitions between sentences.  Whether because she hadn’t heard or was ignoring him, Sully wasn’t sure.  Actually, it was all as new to him as to her.