Thursday, December 31, 2009

A few books I'm reading right now, part something

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson: Finished Mistborn: The Final Empire miffed that I somehow got the version with art I personally find hideous (partly because it does not match the art of the other two in the series, which nicely match each other).  Fantasy full of mystery, terror, sacrifice, and smiling, dang it, because they can't take your happiness away unless you give it to 'em (or they rip your head off).

Ten Steps to a Federal Job by Troutman: Not terribly exciting, but quite fascinating.  Applying for jobs with the government is every bit as grueling as I remember, and it's unlike any other job application process ever.  Best to go into this battle well-armed.

Moyasimon Tales of Agriculture: What I have discovered from this graphic novel so far is that people will eat things that are so gross I could have been completely happy going through my entire life without knowing about their existence.  (I would probably have preferred an actual human corpse to have been dug up because there are some things you unfortunately can't unsee.) The book itself is sort of about two childhood friends who go away to university and get involved with assorted whackjobs and nutjubs on campus.  One of the friends can see bacteria, which leads a professor and grad assistant obsessed with fermentation and fermented food to pursue him while eating horrible things that no one should even talk about.  It's pretty gross and pretty great (and sometimes highly [revoltingly] educational). Also, the bacteria have makeovers and are incredibly cute, leading to me actually getting a couple of cell-phone straps and stickers of them while visiting my sister in Japan.

Friends Like These: My Worldwide Quest to Find My Best Childhood Friends, Knock on Their Doors, and Ask Them to Come Out and Play by Danny Wallace: Yep, that pretty much says it all.  Danny is bored and alone and apparently in possession of quite a bit of discretionary income.  So he does what we'd all like to do and goes to find all those childhood friends he lost track of because they're all over the world, for Pete's sake!

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti: Oooooooh.  I have been looking forward to reading this for a while, and it is sooooo goooooood.  If you liked Kidnapped and Dickens (books or movies), and you love a great adventure, you should be reading this now!

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by ?:  Culture shock is a good descriptor for this book about a Liberal Sinner who goes undercover to study abroad at one of the most conservative and straight-laced church-affiliated colleges in the US.  Learning and hilarity ensue.

What about you?  What are you reading at the moment?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ballet and other book-related obsessions

I just finished with a new volume of a series I love that is set in the world of professional ballet.  I am an armchair ballet fan and have been probably since I was working at the public library as a teenager and found all those biographies about Maria Tallchief (you should go find some yourself because she is completely fascinating, and be sure to watch her on DVD in The Art of Maria Tallchief).

I am not a big fan of modern dance, and the last two volumes of this story have been focused almost exclusively on this kind of dance.  I love the story anyway because I care about the characters, and I can identify with their struggles (especially the main character's inability to fully grasp modern dance).  She seems to be closer to connecting to it, and I am probably better able to appreciate it, but I'm still unlikely to enjoy it.  Not the book's fault.  :)

One of the results of reading this series, published sporadically, is that whenever a new volume comes out, I find myself needing to read Dance Magazine (Yuan Yuan Tan rocks!) and move some ballet DVDs higher up my Netflix queue and maybe see if the library has any more photo books.  One of these days, I'll have to see The Red Shoes and The Turning Point.  I should also see Dancing for Mr B, again.  I kind of want to watch Fame, too . . . 

Are there any books that do this for you?  (Make you passionately want to learn more about a subject or just immerse yourself in a non-fiction world that isn't yours?)  What are the books or what are the topics?

Monday, December 28, 2009

When the past creeps up on the present

I just read Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, and it made me think of Kristen Britain's First Rider's Call from the first page, which is interesting since they're not really similar at all.  I think the reason was the way that someone's diary from the past was used as at the beginning of each chapter to tell a different story that had a bearing on the main story.

I would just like to point out here that you should start from the last entry whenever you get a mysterious diary.  Just saying.

Orson Scott Card used a similar device in Ender's Game, although that was more of a parallel story giving insight outside the point-of-view character's sphere of knowledge.  I really liked that way of getting around the proscriptions of a limited POV.  It keeps the rest of the story more unified than varying the POV for each chapter, another structure I've been considering.

I've been paying attention to this device because I like what it can do, and I'm considering using it in The Napkin Epic somehow.  I thought it was quite effective in FRC, a tad less so in Mistborn.  If I do it, I'd kind of want my attempt to be more like FRC.  Although, for people like my sister who "read ahead" and try to figure out the twists, such a device could ruin the story.  Not so with Sanderson's use of it, which I guess is a strenth and a weakness . . .

So many ways to write a story!  It's quite overwhelming sometimes.

Have you read any other books that use this snatch-of-a-diary-to-head-each-chapter device well (or poorly)?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas presents and other plot devices

As a child, I took Christmas presents very seriously.  We were told that if we touched the wrapped presents under the tree, our parents would know, and we would not get the presents.  Putting aside my willingness to believe that my parents would just somehow know, I wanted to get the presents, so I never touched them.

I was careful not to even get too close to the tree in case I fell over and accidentally touched one and then lost it.  Yep, I've always been a bit of a dork, and I'm proud of it.

I assumed that my sisters were the same way, but my sister has since informed me that she didn't need to touch the wrapped presents because she could always find where my mom hid them before she wrapped them.  I am seized with a sudden desire to look through photo albums to see how obvious it is that she is never surprised.  Maybe she was just a good actress.

Needless to say, this idea was a shock to goody-goody me.  I had honestly never even thought of searching out gifts before they were wrapped.  Such deceptiveness!  About gifts people were giving you!  Why would you want to spoil that moment of discovery for yourself, especially as a child?!  Better to be patient and get the whole reward.

I was talking with some folks lately, and only one person in the group was like me.  She never looked for presents.  The others were varied.  Some always looked and found everything every year; others did it for a while but then decided they wanted the surprise and stopped doing it.

My sister proudly admits to turning to the last page or the last chapter to find out who makes it to the end or whodunit.  I cannot imaging doing such a thing.  Why spoil the end for yourself before you get all the anticipation leading up to the end that makes the ending a real payoff?

When I started getting into Japanese pop culture, their habit of often telling you what was coming up in the next episode or the next volume really threw me off.  I felt like the next bit was spoiled if I knew what was coming.  Eventually, I adjusted because knowing what plot point will happen next does not have to ruin the road to that point and the road from it. You can manage a lot of suspense even if you've already told folks what's coming.  

I've started experimenting with how I might be able to use this device in a story I'm working on. I'm studying works that use it to see what might work for my story.

But I still don't want to know what's behind that wrapping paper or in that closet awaiting wrapping paper.  And I refuse to read ahead.

How about you?  Where did you fall on the gift discovery scale?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What makes you revisit a work over and over again?

A reader pointed out that maybe I asked too many questions at once in this post, so I decided to break it down and ask one at a time.  Sort of. :)

Do you have a movie or a book you just keep re-reading or re-watching?  What makes you keep coming back to that particular work?

Monday, December 21, 2009


All my thinking yesterday reminded me of a blog post I read last week about the doorways into a work of literature.  That sounds really stuffy, but the article is not. 

Story, character, setting, and language are suggested doorways people take into books.  Some people have one preferred doorway; others probably have favorites from each doorway.

What are the doorways that led you to some of your favorite books?  (And what are those books?)  If you've read them more than once, do you find yourself being grabbed most recently by the same doorway or another one?  If that's too much, maybe just pick one book you've read a lot over a long period of time.  I'd love to hear about it.  :)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What makes something worth revisiting?

I am sobbing right now.  You see, this character died suddenly and with little fanfare, and it's kind of rough.  Even though this is the fifth time I've seen the show.  In fact, this time, I started crying early, in the episode before, because I knew it was coming.

It reminds me of the way I cry earlier in The Warrior's Apprentice the more times I read it.  This is why I think I don't ever want to be involved with any prophecies of the future and stuff.  I'd be (more of) a wreck if I knew it was coming.  (Or maybe I'd get really stubborn about making a different future happen . . . :)

Anyway, all this crying and reflecting got me thinking about the topic of what gives a book good reread value (or a show/movie good re-watch value). 

Some books are harder for me to reread because of the tragedies (Mirror Dance); while the tragedies in other works are the things that make them worth revisiting.  Some comedies are great for one watch and then pointless while other funny works need to be appreciated over and over again (Hogfather).  One friend once said that he reads David Eddings' books just for the chance to hang out with the characters again, and some people reread the same mystery over and over because they love the plotting.

What is it for you?  What makes you revisit a work over and over again?  (How long do you usually wait?)  What works do you regularly revisit (and why)?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

O, the Neighbors Inside Are Frightful

Ah, last night brought back memories.  'Tis the season to be jolly, and some of my neighbors were being extremely jolly last night, though why this should involve so much cigarette smoke that you could see it in the hallway is beyond me . . . 

Anyway, back in college, it used to drive me crazy when the RD would do curfew checks to make sure we were all in our rooms by whenever we were supposed to be.  I always was because I was in bed before 10 most nights because I cannot function well on less than 9 hours of sleep and always seemed to have 8 'o'clock classes.  Unfortunately, I was a light sleeper, so even if she didn't open the door and look in, I would wake up as soon as she touched the doorknob.  This has always been irritatingly true.

I am paranoid since the last roommates I had refused to lock the door and got me robbed in broad daylight while one of them was actually in the apartment.  It's a good thing I am paranoid because if I weren't, I would have had several strange men wandering around in my 385 square feet being jolly.  Probably five or six of them tried my door by mistake, the last one at around 1 am.  (Quiet hours in our building are supposed to start at 10.)  Ho ho ho!

Do you have any amusingly grim holiday neighbor stories you'd like to share?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thanks to my parents for a great and dangerous childhood

In honor of Time Magazine's November 30th cover story about overprotective parenting, I would like to thank my parents for allowing me to do the following (whether they knew about it or not):
  • Climb trees.
  • Ride my bike.
  • Jump off playground equipment.
  • Do what I liked with my free time.
  • Go camping.
  • Help neighbors sell girl scout cookies in distant neighborhoods.
  • Climb trees.
  • Use a bow and arrows.
  • Play dodge ball.
  • Hang out once homework was done.
  • Go to the park and play on the merry-go-round, witch's wheel, monkey bars, and tornado slide.
  • Shoot a Bebe gun.
  • Do community theater.
  • Play football in gym class instead of being forced to do a unit on "jumping rope."
  • Climb trees.
Anything you'd like to thank your parents for letting you do as a child that might be considered dangerous by modern over-protective parents?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why I adore Kristen Britten's First Rider's Call:

  • The imperfect main character just keeps going until she can't go anymore, trying to do the right thing. 
  • The main character respects herself enough not to get entangled in an affair with the guy who likes her (who she likes) who can't marry her.   (Rock on.)  
  • She's decently smart and determined and stubborn. 
  • She's surrounded by other great characters.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Waiting for death

I waited 17 months for this character to die. 

It's not like I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.  I probably forgot about it within a week of reading the last volume back in July of 2008; that's just how my book memory works, but when this volume came, I decided to brush up on how that last volume ended, since I knew it had been quite some times since its release.  Of course, that little catch-up made me want to read the whole series again, but I have job applications to work on, and I do have some self-control.  Sometimes.

I waited for most of the whole volume for him to die.  I was in agony. 

Maybe they'll surprise me, I thought.  Maybe I'm forgetting something; it has been a while.  Maybe I'm misremembering the absence of this character from the book's present in earlier volumes.  I can't keep all these characters straight, especially when they're supposed to look like each other!  I tried so hard to convince myself that he wasn't necessarily going to die. 

As the end of the story arc neared, it looked like I might be right.  They survived the dicey situation, and everyone was planning relatively-happily-ever-afters, sort of, and then it happened.  I knew he would die on the next page.

I wouldn't turn the page.  I didn't want to see.  I didn't want to cry.  I had another book to read next.  I didn't want to be right.  But I couldn't just stay stuck like that.  I couldn't leave the book unread.  I owed it to the character to see his life through to the end even though I didn't want to be right.

But I was.  Sometimes I hate being right.  A lot. 

It didn't make me feel better that this revelation about the past helped the more recent past and the present make a lot more sense, that it explained some mistifying behaviors logically and powerfully and with quite an emotional impact.  I just didn't want him to die, dagnabbit.  I liked him.  I didn't care that the logical conclusion of his beliefs, the acting out of his ideals, the very integrity that made me like him necessitated his demise in the world of this story.  I just didn't want to lose him. 

It's a good thing writers don't always give us what we want.  I would have been disappointed if he had survived after all that set-up.  I would have felt betrayed by the author, would have thought her weak for being unable to follow through this time, would have been irritated at this missed opportunity to tie up some niggling, bothersome loose ends/plot holes.  I hated being right, but the alternative would have been worse.

Can you remember any books like this?  Any times you really wished you had guessed wrong about the fate of a character?  If you were the writer, do you think you would have been able to find a way to save the life and somehow make the story have integrity, too?  (Or is that why you don't want to be a writer? :)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sci Fi and Memory

One of the things I love about science fiction is the way it can explore things like human memory from an outsider's perspective.  Heading off to the imaginary future and throwing in some robots or something is still a viable way to make us consider the value and nature of our own humanity in the present.

One series I read lately has androids who only remember the last 22 years of their lives.  Sometimes, there are memories they want to keep, and their torment as that 22 year deadline approaches got me thinking.  As a writer, would I want that kind of clear and detailed memory completely accessible to me for 22 years and then irretrievably gone, or would I rather have my increasingly spotty memories that come and go seemingly as they please, unbound by time?

Another series (recently named one of Publisher's Weekly's top comics of the year) deals with the consequences of creating artificial intelligence in our image, making rules to protect them and us, and then breaking them.  What happens when we try to forcibly remove memories?  Would it be better if we could get rid of the memories that haunt us?  Or is dealing with them part of what makes us human?

Ah, speculative fiction.  The older I get, the more fully I appreciate questions like these as my stock of memories I wish I could retrieve and destroy grows.  :)

How about you?  Any good science fiction that got you thinking about the nature of memory?  Any thoughts on what you wish you could do if you could control your memories?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is lack of rejection similar to acceptance?

At this point, I haven't heard back from any magazines or journals I've sent work to.  Right now, I'm fine with that.  If they haven't actually sent me a rejection, then it's as if I haven't been rejected.  Even if I sent them a self-addressed, stamped envelope.  Seriously.

What is with this trend of rudeness, I wonder?  I've encountered it a lot as I've been searching for jobs.  They don't even bother to tell you to give up hope.  It's probably because they're too busy sorting through all the applications they're inundated with because of the high unemployment rate, but I still feel like there are standards of common courtesy.

Oh, well.  There's not much I can do about it except keep sending out work and hoping that someone will send some acceptances instead.  :)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Lois McMaster Bujold Is Awesome

I was having a rough week.  A really rough week.

I came home to find an email from Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my favorite authors for the last seventeen years or so.  She'd been cleaning out her work room and stumbled across something I'd given her at a signing event a couple of years ago, and she went to the trouble to write me a note and to let me know that there is a new book coming out in time for my next birthday.  (!!!!!!!!!!)  She didn't, of course, know that it was in time for my birthday, but I did.  :)

She was funny and self-deprecating and told me about her own experience with chronic pain and about a pain textbook writer who used a Miles quote in a textbook to head up a section about pain management.  Hooray!

She was responding because of an essay I wrote that was basically made possible by Miles.  I had been having trouble with my writing because chronic pain and sleeplessness were taking their toll on my concentration, and I could no longer create the longer form essays I wanted. 

With the help of "Miles Quotes" written by Lois McMaster Bujold in her Vorkosigan series and a wonderful professor who encouraged me to create my own essay form, I was able to create an essay about my helplessness and some of my experiences with pain.  It was held together by quotes about pain, most of them from Miles Vorkosigan, a wonderful con-man with a lot of experience with pain.

I included a note telling her I wasn't looking for comments or criticism; rather, I just wanted to thank her and show her how important her work has been in my life.  That's why I was so surprised to discover a response.

If I ever become an author, I will remember this.  If I can make someone as happy as this favorite author made me, I would like to do so.

Now, you should all go read her books.  They are wonderful.

Do you have a favorite Miles book?  A favorite series?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Quote about poems

"A poem seeks equilibrium, interaction between sense and sound."

from "Tritones"
by George Stein
Salmagundi Spring-Summer 2009
page 51

This fabulous essay features a debate between a musician, a mathematician, and a poet.  If you're any of those three or are interested in such an argument, be sure to check this piece out.  It has a little Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid energy going for it.

Do you agree (with the quote)?  (It's much more striking in context. :)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Painful book binges and other hazards of being a book nerd

I guess I lucked out in my self-control battle.  I forgot how when I use my arm on my days off for things such as moving books (or washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom), I pay for it in added pain.  Depending on how much I use it, sometimes I end up not being able to sleep at night.  This used to just be frustrating and exhausting, but that was before I started reading No More Sleepless Nights.

This book actually helped with an inner debate I was having about sleeplessness and reading.  It advises that on those nights where you're not sleeping, you need to get up, turn on the lights and do something (such as reading something you like). 

The book did not comment on whether your brain will then see sleeplessness as a reward, but, seriously, with the exhaustion, loss of coordination and coherence, and stress from trying to keep alert while driving, I don't think my brain could be messed up enough to equate sleeplessness with happy things.  I guess we'll see.

So I still kind of had my book binge, just in the wee hours of the morning the day after Thanksgiving.  I was kept company in my lack of sleep by all those folks out shopping at stores open insanely early in the physical world or online.  At least they got something done.

So did I: about 200 pages.  I stopped when I hit a patch of something that screams Too Convenient Plot Device Designed to End This Madness at Book 6, So I Can Get on with Writing More Dresden Files Books.  I realized that I didn't have a problem with that.  :)

I'm waiting to find out what will happen to the Codex Alera's most notorious traitor because I am desperately and shamelessly still looking for a way to save my own traitor in my story without it feeling cheap. 

I think reading the Night Angel Trilogy was bad for me because it set new standards of honest author brutalityagainst characters in keeping with the world one has created, and anything less than that amount of darkness feels like a fakey happy ending.  Uh-oh. 

Not that a completely happy ending is likely at this point for many reasons, but, you know, some things will end well.  Probably.

When you can't sleep, what do you do?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Happy Thanksgiving, Booknerd Style

I had all sorts of plans for Thanksgiving, but because I am a big, huge, booknerd, I spent a significant amount of time rearranging my book and DVD collection, and I feel fantastic!  No more clutter; everything alphabetized (mostly) and neat, thoughtful decorations spaced well, no more dust.  My 385 square feet feel much better.  I feel much better.  Even though I didn't get much else done.

At least I managed not to book-binge on First Lord's Fury.  Successful use of willpower!  Kind of.  Since I didn't manage to do anything else I wanted to . . .  I'm so glad to have so much to read!  What a blessing!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fighting temptation (First Lord's Fury)

I am trying to prevent myself from going on a book binge on Thanksgiving.  I blame peer pressure.

Jim Butcher's new book is not a Dresden Files book (to my sadness), but it will still be great, and all my book friends will read it.  If I don't read it now, while I have the chance, I'll have to put it off until after I find a new job, which could be years from now.  (If I don't get fired, but that's another story.)

Anyway, I hate having things spoiled for me by people, and the more people I know who will be reading a book, the higher the chance of spoilerific actions.  My solution is to try to read it first.  Unfortunately, I have all manner of plans for my waking hours tomorrow, such as cleaning, job applications, writing submissions, a really nice dinner, and a whole lot of peace and quiet, with no crying. 

If I read this book, I'm sure there will be crying, and I'm sure that at the end of it, the story won't actually be over, and I'll be left hanging like at the end of the last one, and it will make me crazy.

Clearly, for the sake of my sanity, I should read the book.  But I can't afford the time.  Self-control, wherefore art thou?  Stay tuned.

Has this ever happened to you?  Did you stay strong or give into temptation?  What was the book?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving for writers '09

I sent out another submission yesterday.  I picked up the journal in question last time I was at the library, and I found some really great stuff in it, which makes me despair because I'm not nearly that good, but it also makes me excited at the chance to try to be published alongside those great writers. 

I think I'm going to try to get another submission or two out on Thanksgiving since I have the day off.  I'll need a break from resumes and job applications.  Maybe I'll read one of my rainy day books, too.  It's supposed to snow, so I'll be watching for that, too.

What are your Thanksgiving plans?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Uses for sweaters

In Japan, I discovered that I am allergic to buckwheat pillows, which should be illegal anyway.  We spent several nights in some cute business hotels that reminded me of home because they were small and efficient.  These establishments seem to prefer the buckwheat pillows, which are probably slightly less uncomfortable than, say, buckshot pillows would be.

It's a good thing I had packed those ridiculous sweaters (in case the temperature dipped and I needed another blanket) because they rolled up decently to serve as pillows and could be worn on the way home to make more room in the suitcase for the ridiculous number of used books and cute toys that came home with me.  At least I'm consistent.  (And much more souvenir-savvy after my travels. :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Books for Dessert

Do you ever withhold books from yourself?  Do you refuse to let yourself read something you really want to in order to use it as a reward if you're good?  Do you save them for the next bad day, so you can read them and feel better?  (Or do you go for books you've already read and know are excellent to pick you up after a bad fall?)  Are you doing this with any books right now?  Do share. 

Here's a partial list of mine:
  • Front and Center by Murdock
  • Pluto 6 by Urasawa 
  • Grace Notes by Dove
  • Crocodile Tears by Horowitz
  • Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
  • Apprenticed to Hope by Julie Neraas
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Fry
  • Unseen Academicals by Pratchett
  • The Clown in the Belfry by Buechner

Monday, November 16, 2009

How writing is like being a cow, kind of . . .

I enjoyed this bit of an article a lot as a creative person.

The best example of this third kind of time wasting is a cow. A cow is a miracle on four legs, producing milk that fuels all kinds of people. But if you look carefully at a cow through the day, it looks remarkably unproductive. It spends hours chewing and then re-chewing. It takes less than five minutes to download the milk that it took 24 hours to produce.

But when you're creating milk, you just can't make it go any faster. There are limits in the creativity game.

If you are going to create, you need some time to chew the grass and stare into space.

In my experience, the more creative people are, the more space-staring they need to do. You can make instant coffee. But milk takes time.

For me, production-enhancement time wasting usually involves some activity that I love just for its own sake. I read history. I go to the ocean and stare at the waves. I do a crossword puzzle. I call up a friend. I put a fire in the fire pit outside. I play the piano.

What do you do?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

autumn haiku

today I feel dry
leaves drag across the asphalt
swept by wind brooms

or something like that

I'll keep tweaking it

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why I copy quotes from what I read

 "Writing is, in short, the most perfect and passionate way of reading, which is doubtless why adolescents, who usually have more time on their hands, often take the trouble to write out a poem they really love: rewriting is not only a way of appropriating a text, of adopting and endorsing it; it's also the best, most exact, most alert, most certain way of reading it."

"My Favorite Book"
by Javiar Marias
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
The Threepenny Review
Fall 09 Issue, page 15

Monday, November 9, 2009

What I considered naming my car

What I considered naming my car
  • Dumbo (you should see the side view mirrors)
  • Deathscythe
  • ARC (until the license plate got stolen)

What I call my car

  • (Poor) Little Car

What I have decided I would name my car if I drove a Chevy Impala
  • Vlad

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Someone else's good rant for anyone with a job (dreamy or otherwise)

Well, Patrick Rothfuss is still at work on his next book(s), for which I am happy!  He recently posted this bit about being a writer.  It made me laugh.

"But the gist of my theory is that, in general, people think of writers as a different sort of person. And by extension, writing is a different sort of work. It's strange and wonderful. It's a mystic process. It can't be quantified. It's not chemistry, it's alchemy.

"While some of that is true, this belief makes it really difficult for me to bitch about my job."

Ah.  It is indeed "an inalienable right," in my opinion, to complain about one's job.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An epigraph I might want to use for a book of poetry

"Poetry starts a conversation, like a story - it's a great way to begin a conversation."
- Julie Neraas

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quote about acknowledging the weird

"I'd like to thank people who read and think and people who have made me think and read and those who think while reading and read while thinking, but you shouldn't read while driving because that's a safety issue."

- from Going Bovine by Libba Bray on page vii of her hilariously kooky Acknowledgments section

Friday, October 30, 2009

quote: asking hope to dinner

"Please.  We know.  These are hard times.  The world hurts.  We live in fear and forget to walk with hope.  But hope has not forgotten you.  So ask it to dinner.  It's probably hungry and would appreciate the invitation."

- The Copenhagen Interpretation in Going Bovine by Libba Bray (page 428 of the hardcover)

Friday, October 23, 2009

ice cream of the gods

Today for no apparent reason, I am craving sweet chestnut soft serve ice cream, something I nearly missed a train for while visiting my sister in Japan.  Even if I had missed the train, it would have been worth it.  I thought nothing could beat sakura soft serve, but I was wrong.  So, so wrong.

Have you ever craved something you ate once while traveling abroad and have little chance of obtaining?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reading Tokyo Vice

And now for something completely different.  Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

I'm reading Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein.  If you're interested in Japan or investigative journalism or organized crime or those who fight it, you might want to check this one out.  Adelstein is an American journalist who spent years in Japan reporting on crime.  Needless to say, in an insular place like Japan, this opportunity is kind of rare. 

The prelude section starts out with the yakuza threatening the author's life.  I'm particularly proud of the fact that I realized this particular organization is the one based out of the capital city of the prefecture my sister taught English in while she was living in Japan.  She didn't recommend visiting that area when we went to see her.  (She didn't want us to become statistics, and there were plenty of other wonderful places to visit that weren't infested with yakuza.)

Knowing that the author survives gives the book its own kind of tension.  Does he pursue this story mentioned in the prelude?  How does he not get killed?  What led him there?  What led him to later combat human trafficking? 

I've been interested in the topic of the justice system and the Japanese underworld pretty much since I read my first manga touching on it maybe six years ago.  I am intrigued by the lens Adelstein provides the opportunity to look through, and I'm looking forward to the insights into culture, justice systems, and humanity I gain through the book.  I just hope it doesn't get too gritty . . .

Do you know of any good nonfiction books about aspects of Japanese culture?  Do recommend.

Monday, October 19, 2009

To kill or not to kill

I am being a big, huge coward right now.  I am not only not writing a story I really want to write but am actively avoiding even thinking about it because someone in the story does something that is worthy only of death, and I just don't want him to die. 

It's not that he doesn't deserve it, and it's not that I feel sorry for him.  He's an adult who made his own choices, and he chose to betray everyone who loved him.  I just feel bad for the people who must pass judgement on him.  They are the ones most cruelly betrayed because they really love him.  To ask them to condemn and execute him is really hard on me.  (It's like that bit in Barrayar.)  But coming up with any other outcome seems fake and forced and thoroughly unfair. 

He doesn't want pardon; he wanted to betray everyone and then die.  It's not that he hated them.  He was mostly trying to get back at someone else entirely, but he had to go through them.  He's consumed by bitterness.  His revenge plot was thwarted (yes, I think he was relieved about that, but despair can warp you).  You can't leave dynamite like that sitting around for so many reasons both general and specific.  The only appropriate ending in this fantasy world is death.

But I still want pardon, somehow, or mercy or grace that isn't forced but flows organically from the plot, the story, the characters, the world.

I really need to just start writing and see what happens, but I'm afraid I know how this ends.

Have you ever read a book like that, where you start liking people and suspecting that things just won't end well, and you drag your feet reading it?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Drama vs. Melodrama

What is the difference between drama and melodrama?  Can you think of any good examples of both or either?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The bicycle graveyard in Oxford

For some reason yesterday, I thought of the bicycle graveyard.  I think it was because I saw all the bike racks that look like poles with the London Underground symbol attached, which made me think of England and bikes and that short stretch of fence in Oxford where the street divides around a tiny catholic church and its tiny graveyard right before you get to Cornmarket Street.

For some reason, that fence was always adorned with bits of bicycles left behind when other bits of the bicycle were stolen.  There were a lot of seats and front tires with attached bike chains clinging to that wrought-iron-y fence around the ancient graveyard.  It was like a zombie movie, night of the living dead bicycles.

That area always seemed very chilly to me.  Probably this was because the wonky intersection and the tall buildings around it blocked out the sun as I would walk through there in the morning.  It could have had something to do with the Martyrs Memorial at my back as I walked south.  There were a lot of trees in that graveyard, too, muffling what little light would have been left. 

Often I would take the western branching of the road so as to avoid that oddly cold spot, but it was mostly because there was a patisserie on that side of the divide, and a fist-sized quiche Lorraine covered a multitude of hardships on a two mile early morning walk to class.  Mmmmmm, quiche Lorraine. 

I wouldn't always get a quiche because if I didn't leave early, the patisserie would be sold out by the time I got there, which would make me want to cry a little. It was tough to talk about Augustine and philosophy that was way over my head on an empty stomach after a late night trying to write smart 8-10 page papers every week.  The quiche made it better.  Or some real hot chocolate from that cart vendor just on the other side of the High Street. 

No cream, thank you.  It was like putting butter in your hot chocolate and left little oily bubbles covering the top of your chocolate as the skin formed so fast on the really cold mornings.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why the bad guys should win

I was watching a show recently where an antagonist challenged the protagonists by explaining to them why they would never win.  He said that since he was a child, he never got into superheroes or hero shows because they seemed so fake.  The good guys would always win just because they were the good guys when any logical person could see that the bad guys should have won.  The bad guys, he said, can do anything while the good guys are constrained by morality and such.  The bad guys should have won because they bad guys can do whatever they want.

I've had that cynical thought myself.  Maybe it's the time and culture we live in, but it's often difficult to look around and see evil triumphing all over the place because it has no scruples and still believe in the simple hero triumphing because of his or her virtue.

Have you ever struggled with this strain of cynicism?  What are your thoughts about it now?  When you read stories that contain conflicts set in the current world, do you need this imbalance acknowledged, or can you get into the spirit of good triumphing over evil even if it doesn't make sense?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stories for children (lies)

I sang with my choir at a homecoming service recently, and the children's sermon kind of made me gag, though I was professional enough not to let it show.  The gist of it was that if you put Jesus first, everything else will fall into place, and your life will be perfect and happy.

Riiiiight.  I just don't think that's biblical.  I know they dumb down sermons for kids, but that's not a story I've really seen in the Bible (and I've read it more than a few times) literally or figuratively.  Why do we lie to our kids by telling them stories that are not only not true but are completely false? 

If this is the kind of story we want to build the foundations of their faith on, should we be surprised if they grow up and out of this "faith"?  Basically, the first storm that comes will wash these lies away and leave them with . . . what, exactly?  They will have no true stories, and that seems sad to me when there are so many true stories out there.  We seem to avoid the true stories because we think we are helping our children by "protecting" them from realities they will face some day.  Shouldn't we instead be equipping them to deal with a harsh, fallen world?  Why don't we?

Do we really have to dumb down our faith stories to children until they become lies?  Is there a better way to teach true stories of faith to kids?  Have you seen this done well somewhere?  (Or poorly but in a way that can give us constructive suggestions?)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Graceling: a book that took self-control to stop reading

I just read Graceling by Kristin Cashore!  I am ecstatic!  I am on an adrenalin rush!  I want to go write something great right now!  I loved this book!

Some reasons why it's great:
  • It's a standalone novel.  Yes, an entire story and world in one book!  I have no patience for series right now!  Bring on the standalone novels!
  • There is action.  Much is kicked.  Fighting is integral to the plot and characters.  Hooray.
  • The characters rock.  I love me some grouchy characters.  They tease each other.  You can tell they have known each other for long times.  They relate to each other like people.  I like them.
  • It has a sweet, funny, heart-twisting romance.  Wow.  Just, wow.  (No, really.  Woooow.)
  • My sister will like the ending.  Yes, I said it, ST!  You will not hate the ending!  (Maybe a little.)
  • It's in great company.  In a spot on review, Publisher's Weekly said, "Tamora Pierce fans will embrace the take-charge heroine; there's also enough political intrigue to recommend it to readers of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia trilogy."  PW is so right!  I love both of those authors for those reasons among others, and I found similar things to love here.  Now I want to go re-read Turner's stuff . . .

If I were looking for a good example of world-building and seamless, organic plotting, I could start right here.  Too often, characters behave in certain ways because of cliches and tropes that have been established in certain kinds of genre literature.  They don't act like people; they act like characters.  A great author can take those tropes and cliches and 2-dimensional characters and turn them around so that the very same actions/set-ups/character relationships have meaning and are integral to the plot and world, so that there are people populating the world, and they do things the way real people in the real world do. 

For example, sometimes you might find yourself rolling your eyes because the young, male character says something wise and tender beyond his years, and you think of the times you've seen that (so many times) in YA fantasy books or romance, and you get to thinking about those guys and how it doesn't work for those words to come out of their mouths because it's obvious they're present in the story to play that role of the wise, supportive male character who will help the female character become empowered (blah blah blah), and then you remember the circumstances the actual character you are reading about in Graceling grew up in, and of course he said that, of course he would say that and think that; it's who he is, and you know why, and it practically breaks your heart watching them interact. 

I'm explaining this badly.  You should probably just go read the book right now.

It's impressive.  For every cliche (meaningless action or set-up), the author negates its status as a tired, pointless device by showing you how it is a necessary part of this world and by revealing enough about the characters that you know things really would be this way if this world existed.  It's just wonderful. 

I am adding her to my list of authors I will read no matter what they come up with next.  (In this case, Fire!  Also a standalone but vaguely related to this world.)

Have you encountered any authors who made you excited like this lately?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Beautiful music makes me feel happy to be alive

We performed a couple of songs in a lovely little cathedral for the Homecoming service today, and I was able to be pretty mellow all day as a result.  I felt all glowy.  Not even the fact that I got all choked up on page 2 because of how shiveringly beautiful we sounded could get me down.  Not even the Crazy at work could drag me out of my cloud of bliss.  It's even better than a good book. 

Yes, I said it.

I'm trying to figure out why, and I think it's because a musical performance is short and over quickly.  A book lasts longer, takes more from you, and leaves you really frustrated if you can't read it all in one sitting or if the story doesn't end with the end of the book.  When that happens, I'm kind of grumpy because I want to be at the end, where I can just be all glowing and reflective and mellow, where I can remember the beauty (as it used to be defined--as completeness).

Are you a fan of classical orchestral or choral music?  Are you a performer or a listener?  How do you compare what you get out of it to what you get out of other art forms? 

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why having your own stories to tell can be scary

It's Homecoming Weekend, so some writing program alumni got together at a local pub.  I hardly had a problem with the smell of alcohol (I can't actually smell anything right now because of my allergies); I didn't get anxious about being around it at all.  I talked and listened to stories about finished novels and teaching and creepy store clerks who use your first name after seeing your credit card and try to hook you up with eligible members of both genders without feeling like I was going to throw up.  Yay, me! 

When I got home, two young men dressed in suits were walking slowly through the parking lot, and I got a tad nervous.  I sped up, so I wouldn't cross their paths, and then so did they, which freaked me out completely, so I sped up more and did my special only-open-the-doors-enough-to-get-through-and-then-let-them-shut-and-lock move, hoping they were there to pick someone up and would have to wait to get in, giving me time to flee up to my apartment.

No such luck.  They sped up more but still had to reopen the door with their key cards.  I could tell they were suddenly in a worrisome hurry, and I started bracing for a confrontation. 

I should have taken the stairs, no matter how much my feet hurt, but I knew I didn't want a chase up a stairwell, so I waited for the elevator.  I don't know if he was drunk or high, but one of the guys got way to close to me and started mashing the single elevator button, apparently so addled he didn't realize the reason the button stopped glowing was because the elevator had arrived. 

I wondered if I should let them get on, pretend to tie my shoe, wait for the door to close, and sprint/limp up the stairs, hoping they weren't getting out on my floor.

Then a marvelous thing happened.  The other guy with Mr. Under-the-Influence (UtI) actually pulled Mr. UtI further away from me.  When the elevator opened, he sort of manhandled Mr. UtI into the elevator and effectively trapped him on the other side of the elevator until I got off and limped as quickly as possible to my apartment where I locked the door with great enthusiasm, trying not to remember the way Mr. UtI had been trying so hard to reach past his companion, so he could touch me.   

I never saw any of this directly because I was Not Making Eye Contact with all my might, but I was impressed by what I saw out of the corner of my eye.  It was like a sheepdog herding sheep.  Maybe the good guy was a post position basketball player?  Nah, too small.  Maybe a wrestler?  Anyway . . .

To the guy who shielded me from his drunk friend tonight: my thanks.  Seriously.  (Thanks also to God and whatever guardian angels may or may not exist and have to work overtime to keep my mom from freaking out.)

To the bartender who mocked my my sadness that his bar did not serve hot chocolate or root beer: just saying.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Terry Pratchett strikes again!

Yes, my lovelies, it's true!  There's a new Discworld novel out by Terry Pratchett.  What will happen when Terry Pratchett takes on the sports novel genre?  God (and fast readers with time on their hands) only knows, especially since the book is set at good old Unseen U.  I can't wait to find out how the Librarian contributes to the team.  I just can't wait, in general.

Anybody read it yet?  Any non-spoilerific comments?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What is permissible

A friend of mine recently read a book series I recommended to those who could deal with adult content in literature.  He enjoyed the series but had this to say about it. 

"I don't think I could bring myself to produce that many swear words and 'scenes' in a book and still claim to be a Christian . . .."

I am interested in this topic as a reader, a writer, and a Christian.  I know that a lot of believers, especially those who grew up in the church, automatically equate depiction with endorsement in stories.  (This sometimes makes me wonder if people have actually read the Old Testament of the Bible because if depiction is equal to endorsement, then we have some serious problems to discuss about lots of those books.)

I think maybe Sarah Zarr, a National Book Award Finalist, said it well recently when she talked about stories.

"The world is not always a beautiful place. Sometimes it is. Sometimes life is beautiful. And I love to see that reflected in stories and art. But, often it is harsh, and perplexing, and sad. Often there’s no justice. Usually there’s a gulf between how things are and how they could or should be. Can stories step into that space between what’s beautiful and good, and what’s broken and unjust, and make a bridge? Walk along side? Hold a hand? Shine a light? Expose what’s wrong or evil and call it what it is? Flash a warning? Redeem?

"I say yes, and without intending it, that yes is there in everything I write, because that’s what I believe about stories."

What do you think?  Is there content that Christians shouldn't depict?  Is there content Christians shouldn't read?  (I'm not talking about pornography/erotica here; let's exclude that from our definition of stories for this debate.)  How should we shape our discernment in this area?  How should be be "sensitive to others" while not flinching from the hard and unlovely things (and the grace and mercy and hope) in real life?

flare up

I hope not to have to post this too much, but I've been having trouble with my tendonitis and an illness affecting my voice at the same time.  This renders me unable to type or write & dictate my posts.  That explains the absence of posts, I hope.  I'm working on it and hope to have more posts ready ahead of time for whenever it happens again.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

What came first? (identifying with characters)

There are different reasons people like books.  Some read for plot, some for characters they like or identify with.  I was reading a book recently, and I found myself playing the "if I were asked why I like this book, what would I say" game.  It's more like the "how I would justify liking this book if someone asked me" game.  I've been playing this game for years, but I've started wondering about it recently.

I start out liking the book.  If someone asks why, I have to give them something they'll understand, so I usually talk about characters.  It's almost like acting, where there's that school of thought that says to play a character, you have to identify something in you with something in the character first.

It could be completely true that there is something about a character that I really identify with, but that's not necessarily what makes me like a book or keep reading it.  Now I'm wondering what came first: liking the book or identifying with the character?

What makes you like books usually?  Plot?  Character?  Something else?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Interesting quote from a writer

"Reactionary people without critical thinking skills aren’t really my target audience."
"There’s actually a pretty large and growing contingent of Christians out there who embrace all kinds of art and its capacity for delving into the gray areas that make up most of our lives. Anyway, I’m not really about making other Christians happy by being inoffensive. Life is offensive. If we, of all people---Christians, who claim to be offering some kind of hope for mankind, in Jesus---can’t grapple with that, then the claims of hope are pretty much empty. If we can’t deal honestly and authentically with the smaller heartbreaks of family and identity and friendship, how can we even open a newspaper? Christians who seek a squeaky-clean, inoffensive version of life are, in a way, denying that we might possibly need help with some of this, thereby rendering faith, well, pointless. That said, I do think there is a place for the good and beautiful and uplifting and clean, as long as it’s not sentimentalized and does not replace an at least occasional head-on stare into the world as it is."

- Sara Zarr (national book award nominated author [also a believer])  

I thought of this quote again when I heard the morning show hosts on the radio talking about some American Idol singer who chose a country contract  instead of one within contemporary Christian music (CCM) because he didn't want to exclude anybody with his music. 

The radio hosts did not like that at all, which doesn't change the fact that much CCM excludes a huge percentage of potential listeners because of its sometimes limited range and its associations with church and people's bad experiences with Christians and Christianity.  I say that as one who listens to "Christian" music almost exclusively.  It's true that it's nice to have uplifting and positive things on the radio when you're snarled in traffic, but sometimes you need other things, too, and it seems that CCM doesn't always have room for those things.

How do you feel about what Zarr and this American Idol guy seem to have to say on this particular topic?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Plotting from left field

I'm watching this show right now where the plot keeps twisting and turning.  There's a lot of conflict and fighting and philosophy and moral quandaries and horrible, awful tragedy.  The plotting is pretty brilliant.  Every so often, things start lining up so that you can see a future that doesn't involve characters dying horribly or living miserably.  Then, something screws it all up beyond repair, and things get worse. 

It's kind of brilliant but dangerous.  It has that feeling of thrill, like what you feel when you think it would be fun to run down a hill and realize part of the way down that gravity has taken over.  You want things to end well, but you don't know if they can (or if you can hold on until they do).

One reviewer mentioned that this tactic is dangerous because it can't be kept up indefinitely.  Maybe people will only watch until they think there's no more hope for anyone's happiness?  I guess it's different if you go in knowing it's all tragedy and that the ending will leave a lot of people crying, but many people won't even start a show like that because they don't like that feeling of hopelessness and fate/destiny.

What do you think?  Will you start a show or book if you don't know how things will end up in terms of tragedy? 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The scattershot method of submissions

I have decided to approach publishing the way I approached financial aid for college: send out everything you can, and you'll have to win sometimes.  I just wish I had as much energy now as I did then.  Well, we shall see how this goes.  No more excuses.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Composition arguments and teaching cynicism

I am having a cynical thought.  The shock!  Sorry for surprising you like that.  :)  I watched a training video at work where once again only evidence supporting the management's policy was shown, and the management openly concluded, "See, we were totally right!"  I thought back to some of the arguments swirling around college composition over the last decades and had to smile a bitter little smile.

I think maybe when I teach composition I won't use the reasoning, "We're teaching you how to make proper arguments, addressing both sides and proving your point, because you will surely need to exercise this skill set wherever your job takes you no matter what your job is!"  This is a lie.  A huge, huge lie.

However, I think it helps you to know how to make a good argument, so you can recognize a bad one your employer is making, so you can feel a little bit superior to those suits making tens of thousands more dollars than you from their corporate ivory towers . . .  Yes, a cynical moment.  Ahem. 

I am prepared for the smart aleck reply/question from a student challenging this belief about the benefits of composition classes in college.  It really is in your best interest to know how to spot a bad argument, not just for the feeling of intellectual superiority it gives you but also because bad arguments are everywhere.  People are constantly trying to persuade and convince you, and you need to know you need to know how to stand your ground and push back.  Unless you want to be swayed by the mindless beast of opinion, you need to know how to sift through what's being flung at you and arrive at an intelligent, reasoned decision. 

Your employers do not.  Your employers do not have to convince you.  You have to do what your employers say because they pay you, and unless it's morally objectionable (ASIDE: If I get stalked and killed, please sue my employer because it's their fault for making dumb and dangerous policies they don't have to carry out in the field), you have to bend to their arguments. 

But, no matter what, you have to keep thinking, or you'll be drowning in a sea of bad arguments you can't even see, suffocating for lack of reason both at work and outside of work.  I think it's better to see the world burning up around you than to be someone who blindly sprays gasoline around or throws more wood on the flames.  Maybe if you pay attention, you'll be able to help others around you by reminding them to stop, drop, and roll or stay low to get the better oxygen until you can find your way to fresh air again.

What explanations did your college composition teachers give you about the purpose of college comp?  Did anyone even ask about it in your class?  Have you ever thought about it?  What are your thoughts about composition's place in liberal arts education?

Monday, September 28, 2009

How to fail successfully (or, at least, artistically)

I have been thinking of how to tell the story of a failure with a happy ending.  I can think of all kinds of stories about those who start out winners, experience a period of being losers, then overcome that to become winners again.  I can think of plenty of stories about those who start out low and pull themselves up somehow and end up high.  I can't really think of any books where the protagonist keeps trying and failing that are ultimately uplifting and not cheesy and unrealistic.

Can you think of any?

It's true that I'm not very widely read, so maybe I've never come across anything that fits this description. It's also true that I have an extremely spotty memory that's getting worse the longer I go without good sleep, so maybe I have read some great examples and just can't remember them. 

Any help you can give would be appreciated on both a personal and artistic level.  :)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

God and Grammar Snobs

I wonder if another reason people feel comfortable believing that the church is full of ignorant people is the grammatical errors in worship songs . . .  It's kind of hard to ignore when you're not only hearing it but seeing it in print and obviously incorrect.  Sometimes it's so distracting, I can't sing and have to close my eyes until the next slide shows up.

It's true that I can be a grammar snob, and the new book I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar cracked me up, but the reason why poor grammar writ large on a projection screen is particularly irksome in church is because it distracts me from praising God.  If I'm trying to figure out what the song means, so I can decide if I agree with it and want to sing it, and I just can't, I'm afraid you've lost me with your song.  You are not helping me engage in praise.

I'm aware that I'm too sensitive about this, but what are your thoughts?  Has poor grammar or lack of sense in lyrics tossed you out of a song that's supposed to be drawing you in?  What do you do about it?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Escapism and fantasy

"Escapism is one of the places where morality comes from." - Jason Thompson

I read this quote, and then I read it again.  Ah, I thought, this is one of the reasons I read fantasy and science fiction, or speculative fiction as it is sometimes called.  It's the what-ifs, the what-would-I-do-in-these-situations (even though it could never happen because this is the real world) that atrract me.  I like the ways speculative fiction shows me what humanity is in its essence, what wouldn't change about the nature of human beings even if the setting and environment change.  What is right and what is wrong (and what depends on the situation)?  These are things I think about when I read or watch speculative fiction, which some would call escapism.

I wonder if that's what Thompson was talking about.  Any thoughts?

Friday, September 25, 2009

More dead characters

So, continuing yesterday's morbid thoughts on character mortality . . . 

Some authors go out of their way to bring mortality into the story early.  It's part of the world they're building.  They want you to know that in their world bad things can suddenly happen to anybody, that sometimes people die by accident or for stupid reasons, that good things can be smashed and destroyed between eye blinks.  Brent Weeks mentioned that he learned from George R.R. Martin that killing off a main character early on shows you're serious and gets people to pay attention. 

Or, as my sister points out, it makes some people stop reading.  Her philosophy is that the world is dark and sad enough, thank you.  Why spend additional time reading depressing things?  She doesn't like to start watching epic shows unless they're over, so she can know who dies and who lives.  She wants to know who she can safely attach to. 

Don't we all.

However, in real life we have no guarantees.  We can't take anyone for granted because we could all die really at any moment.  To take it down a notch, we don't make friends only with those who we foreknow will stick with us through life.  I frequently strike out in this area.  I befriend people and enjoy their company immensely and think they enjoy mine just as much, but then they drop me and leave. 

It's true that I am more cautious about investing in people now, but I seem to have transferred that fearless befriending ability to characters in stories.  Shows where everyone dies in the end?  Bring it on (and bring the tissues).  Books where everyone pretty much dies in the first chapter?  Hit me.  Stories set in dark and horrible worlds full of unexpected mortality, cruelty, and the evils of humanity?  Yup. 

Sometimes experiencing works like this is like being spiritually pummelled.  It's like having your face ground into the broken fallenness of humanity.  Of course no one likes that!  That's not what I like about these works. 

What I like is hope.  I have become a bloodhound of hope.  I sniff out the faintest traces in the story, the smallest whiffs of grace and mercy and God, and when I find them, it's like He's whispering in my ear, "See what I can do?  I love you."

I think maybe most of us in American are too used to being comfortable and having things our way.  We like nice things.  We don't like to think about things that aren't nice.  We are self-deluding and blind, aren't we?  We like to imagine the world is a nicer place than it is, and so we try to only listen to stories that make us feel good and safe and happy.  We only want our children to know about nice, safe, happy things.  But is that what's best for them?  For us?  Is that's what's best for the world we live in?

It's not that I like pain.  I think maybe I love pain transformed.  I want to write stories like that.  I'm sad that I will lose a lot of readers who aren't willing to go through the grit and dirt and sludge to see just how amazing that hope is, shining like a diamond in a swamp. I wish more people would brave the swamp for the chance to see the beauty.

I wonder if this is part of my wishing for the last lines from the story "Aftermaths" from Bujold's Shards of Honor to be true: 

"Yes, he thought, the good face pain.  But the great--they embrace it."

How do you react to character mortality in stories?  Do you try to avoid the sad ones?  Do you try not to read anything too dark and gritty?  Too graphic?  Do you read just about anything?  What will make you stop reading a story, and why?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Kill 'em all, etc.

I am sort of in awe of the show I have been watching.  I think it will be 26 episodes long, and the first five were intriguing, atmospheric, nuanced, stylish, and a lot of fun.  And then everybody died.  Seriously.  Hello, episode 6, aka, the episode of slaughter.  I think a grand total of two characters will carry over for the rest of the series.

What audacity for the creators of a story to build all these great characters and then just slay them all.  I wonder if that could work in a book?

P.S. ST, you would maybe not want to watch this.  But you kind of might . . . if you knew not to get attached.

Have you read or seen anything like this, where the cast just gets taken out suddenly all in one episode or chapter very early is the series/book?  (I'm kind of still reeling.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maliel gives me a laugh

 I keep seeing this car everywhere.  It's creeping me out.  The first time I saw it, I was stuck behind it for a while, and I looked at the model name as I usually do.  It made me laugh.  Maliel?  I thought.  It sounds like an evil angel.  Who would make a car and name it that?

Chevy apparently.  They also make those new cars that look like hearses, right?  Chevy Maliel.  Snort.

Then I realized it was a really old Chevy Malibu with letters partially missing due to age and rust.

I still call it Maliel, and I keep ending up parked near it.  This means I get a laugh frequently.  Thank you, Chevy Maliel.

Ever seen something transformed by rust into something else (particularly something funny)?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's so bad about Ohio?

I read The Patriot Witch by C.C. Finlay (it was pretty fun and based on an interesting idea: that all those unexplained bits of the Revolutionary War were because of the battle fought between Patriot and Redcoat witches). 

Finlay's author's note mentions that he was born some place exciting and then exiled to Ohio.  In the book, when the main character is given the chance to go lay low in Ohio or stay close by and risk getting killed, he quickly and enthusiastically agrees to risk getting killed, er, to help his country because, "Anything's better than going to Ohio."

I like Ohio.  Some really great authors I like were born or live there (Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi), so it isn't exactly a sucking dungeon of anti-creativity.  In fact, Bujold's most recent works were partially inspired by the Ohio River.  So there.

Anyway, I'm gearing myself up to submit a longish collection of short pieces that center around one of my favorite places in Ohio as a child: The Ditch in my closest friend's back yard.  I also talk about how my part of Ohio was so flat we had to have an artificial sledding hill created from all the dirt when they were building the county hospital in the next plot of land.  (Quite convenient, if you think about it.)  I also talk about its former status as The Great Black Swamp and friendship and trees and ditch creatures and some other stuff that is neat.

Yeah, you think, how interesting can a ditch be?  You may even think ditches are gross.  Well, I'll show you; I promise to let you know if it gets published.

And now I think you are laughing because it seems a tad odd to say "Where I come from is cool because of ditches!"  Some day you'll see . . .

What landscapes did you own in your childhood that you miss and would like to recreate?  Have you ever tried writing about them?

Monday, September 21, 2009

A little quote about discipline

It seemed appropriate. 

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man's training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly." - Thomas H. Huxley

 Now, then, I'm off to meet a self-imposed deadline.

Do you agree with the sentiment expressed here?  Do you think this is still the case with education?  Have we lost sight of it?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Plot summaries and other challenges

Have you ever tried to give a plot summary of something you really like?  I've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books over a dozen times, and I have a long, deep relationship with them.  I find it nearly impossible to give an elevator pitch about what makes them so great.  (It's the same with most books I love and have read multiple times.  It's also the same with books I've just discovered and read once recently.)

Often, I'm reduced to mentioning a scene that I think will make someone interested.  "You should read this one," I say, because it has a zombie dinosaur.  Or "There's a beautiful scene in this one, one of the best I've ever seen that shows (instead of telling) the characters getting so drunk that they eventually drop a bomb in a lake, so they can 'fish' successfully."

Some books, like The Name of the Wind, are slightly easier to describe because you get such a strong feeling/impression from them that you can say, "You should read this book because it's written beautifully like the most tragic, adventurous ballad ever told by one of the best storyteller's you'll ever meet."

How do you summarize books (or movies or musical groups or whatever else you try) to recommend to people?  Do you go for concise and pithy?  Talk about character?  Plot?  Ramble on and on hoping your passion will be contagious?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book I am too stupid to read but read anyway

The Prisoner by Disch

Rarely do I read books that make me feel incredibly stupid, but when I do, they are usually science-fiction books.   That was the case with The Prisoner, which is based on the British television show of the same name.   I think this show originally aired in the sixties, and it was something of an enigma even then.  

The Prisoner chronicled some days in the life of a man known only as Number 6 who lived in a village full of other people known only by numbers.   The viewer picked up the idea that all of these people had at one point had very high security clearance jobs.   When these people had wanted to retire from their secretive lives, the people they worked for wanted to make sure that the secrets in their heads remained secrets.

Number 6, played beautifully by Patrick McGoohan, was not very happy with suddenly finding himself in some weird village with crazy architecture and even crazier people when he thought he was going off to a happy retirement in a seaside village (it was by the sea, I guess).   Despite subtle and not-so-subtle warnings from the townsfolk and the mysterious people in charge of The Village, Number 6 decided to try to escape.  

With its unique visuals (you really have to see The Village to believe it), heavily philosophical themes, openly political commentary, and Rover, The Prisoner was definitely not your same old run-of-the-mill TV show.

Since I'm dictating this using voice-recognition software, I don't feel that I am accurately able to get across to you exactly how cool and bizarre and confusing and fascinating the show was.   I caught it in reruns on the Sci-fi Channel, I never even saw more than half of the episodes, and I never understood half of what I was seeing, but I was still drawn to the show and the idea of the show and the underlying theme of what it means to be a prisoner.  

When I saw a novel titled The Prisoner, I picked it up in the interest of finding out exactly what happened in the parts of the series that I had missed.   (I could've simply gone out and purchased the series, but it is still insanely expensive even in the boxed set.)   I was intrigued when the marketing copy on the book cover stressed that this was not a novelization but was a novel based on the series, so I ended up checking it out and giving it a read.  

Pretty much from page-one, I began to feel my ignorance very strongly.   It was not just the fact that the literary and philosophical references were being scattered roughly every other word.   It was not just the fact that the banter was going nearly faster than I could follow despite the fact that I could stop at any time at read it again.   It was not just the fact that they were setting up a fascinating and tragic relationship from the beginning.   It was not just the fact that I felt like a kid eavesdropping on the adult table at the graduate school faculty's Christmas party.   Let's just say it was a lot of things.

Any books you enjoyed even as you knew they were going way over your head?

Who is Hannah Montana?

While on the topic of how Disney bought Marvel Comics, a co-worker and I started talking about good crossovers.  My favorite one of his: Hannah Montana is really Miley Cyrus, but did you know about her third alter ego?  Bruce Banner.  Yes, Hannah Montana as The Incredible Hulk. 


Every so often, I'll be reading and think, man, I wish this series could cross over with X.  Most recently (so it was a while ago), I was reading Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, and when they were spending a bit of time with the Fey, I thought, "I wish this world could cross with the Jim Butcher's Dresden Files for a short story."  Impossible, of course.  The worlds don't quite mesh, but I would have liked to see one anyway.

How about you?  Any crazy or not-so-crazy crossovers you wish you could see?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rogues, wusses, and humanity

Sometimes, you come across characters in stories that give you mixed reactions: you love parts of them and other parts make you crazy.  (People are like this, too, as I'm sure you've noticed.)


There's a character in that baseball show I've been stuck on.  He's pathetic in both the traditional and modern sense of the word.  Sometimes, he makes you so irritated you just want to smack him (even if you come from a family where physical violence is not natural at all).  Other times, he just makes you want to cry and hug him.  Sometimes, you want to do both at the same time. 

In a lot of ways, there are perfectly good reasons for him to be neurotic, and these reasons are explained from the beginning so you can't just hate him, but whenever you try to think of how to "fix" him, it frustrates you more.  When people are this damaged, a band-aid just isn't enough to instantly make things better.  People change slowly, and this show respects that, but it doesn't make it any easier to not want to smack him upside the head metaphorically.


Another character that's pretty popular in stories is that roguish character.  In a series I'm reading right now, there's this sort of weary/wise character who's also something of a reknowened skirt-chaser, and the alternating of wisdom and lechery sometimes jars me. 

I'll think, "Man, he'd be such a great character if he'd quit with the lusty obnoxiousness."  Then I'll remember that he's led a life of violence and is pretty sure he'll die young.  It still bugs me, but I can understand how fatalism can lead to acting like you take everything lightly because you know you can't hold onto it even if you want to, so why waste the energy?  I can't write him off as a character.  It's like he's given blood for that wisdom, and you can tell he has, and you wish he'd be a little more serious, but he's sort of earned some goof-off moments.  I'm pretty sure he isn't going to make it to the end of the series, and I will cry when he dies, crude jokes and all.


I'll catch myself thinking, "This character would be perfect if he wasn't like this!"  Then I remember that most people think "perfect" people are boring, especially in fiction.  It is our flaws and bad decisions that make for better plots.  I've got to remember this, so I can avoid the pitfall of trying to make my characters too "perfect."  I'd rather make them more human.

Any characters that make you want to alternately hit them and cheer them on?  Any really great flawed, realistic, human characters you've come across that you want me (and others) to meet?  Do introduce us, please.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Japanese baseball and other curiosities

I should so be in bed right now.  It is criminal to make a single baseball game last that long.  I loved every overly-analytical, hyper-dramatic minute of it, but it really messed with my plan to be in bed by 10.

If you are ever in Japan, you should go see a professional baseball game.  In fact, it doesn't have to be a professional game.  It could be a regular high school game.  It's one of the best ways to realize how very different Japanese and American cultures are. 

It's the same game, right?  Except that it's really not.  What they play on the field is mostly the same, except for the bowing and a few other things that may have changed since I was obsessed with the sport too long ago.  (Dude, if you're tagged by the catcher before you touch the plate, it doesn't matter if you knock him over as long as he holds onto the ball, right?) 

What you should be watching is the stands.  If you are at a game with an audience and a cheering team, they are the people you want to have a good view of.  It's kind of unbelievable.

I was reminded of this experience (my dad and I visited my sister in Japan this April, and we were lucky enough to get great seats at a game in a new stadium) as I was watching this Japanese baseball show.  Even in high school, they take their cheering very seriously.  If you want to be in the official cheer squad, there are uniforms, protocols, hierarchies, cheering routines, songs, and all sorts of things you must know, remember, and perform.  I swear they must practice as much as the baseball teams themselves. 

It's bizarre, ridiculous, and utterly compelling.  I cannot describe to you how seriously they take it, and nothing can replace the experience of being there while it happens.  Especially during the seventh inning stretch and that thing they do with the balloons.  Words fail me.  Seriously.  (Actually, if I try to describe it, I will laugh too hard to finish, and I will need my inhaler, which is bad before bed.)

If you want to get a glimpse of this and aren't afraid of Japanese animated TV shows, check out the second part of season one of a newer show called Big Windup! Oofuri in the U.S.  What you'll see there is pretty tame (it's the first round of a high school tournament), but as you watch the game unfold, pay close attention and notice that you almost always hear music in the background this entire, rain-soaked game.  (Did I mention it's only the first round of the tournament?)

You really have to experience it some time.  Please.  Then you can try to write about the balloon thing, if you dare.

If you've been to Japan or another country and been astounded by how differently they do something (rock concerts are another interesting experience) than the way we do the "same thing" in the United States, do share.  What activities that you expected to be familiar caused massive culture shock instead?

Quotes, roads, and home

A quote that seems really appropriate for this blog (considering the source of its title ["Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost]):

     "I always did like this road," I said out loud to Mr. Potter and Murphy. "I always liked where it took me."
     Mr Potter nodded. "I suspect that's the highest compliment you can give a road."
     "That's the only road worth driving on," Murphy agreed.

It's from Frances O'Roark Dowell's Where I'd Like to Be. (Page 126 of the hardcover)  This book stars a bright, young female protagonist who is searching for the meaning of home and family.  As a foster kid, she finds the search to be a special challenge.  This book was sweet but not sappy mostly because the protagonist has a very straightforward voice, and she's frank about her weaknesses as well as her strengths.  The characters were each distinct, and their interactions with each other rang true.  It really held me while I read it because I wanted to know what happened to all of the characters (who were closely involved in the story and the resolution).  It was dramatic but not melodramatic.  Of course, I cried at the end.  I liked it.  One of these days I should definitely read the other book this author wrote that won an Edgar Award (Dovey Coe, I believe).

And now for the quote again because it's so great.

     "I always did like this road," I said out loud to Mr. Potter and Murphy.  "I always liked where it took me."
     Mr Potter nodded.  "I suspect that's the highest compliment you can give a road."
     "That's the only road worth driving on," Murphy agreed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

6 books in the queue (patience)

I did it!  I waited until two different trilogies were out before starting them!  This is what can happen when you pay attention.

John Twelve Hawks' third book came out recently, so I'm ready to start The Travelers

C.C. Finlay's alternate history fantasy trilogy was published using the new trilogy-published-in-a-three-month-span strategy people are trying out. (Brent Weeks' Night Angel Trilogy from Orbit was the first big success story of this kind, I think.)  Finlay has multiple degrees in history, and he loves to write, so he decided to combine the two loves, and we have the Traitor to the Crown series as a result.

There are apparently a lot of historically inexplicable things that happened around the Revolutionary War, so Finlay grabbed those and came up with a plausible explanation: there was a magical battle going on behind the scenes of the war with British and American magic users tearing at each other.  Kind of fun.  The Patriot Witch is the first one, and I'm looking forward to reading it soon.

Any other trilogies published at once that you've taken note of or read?  Do you like the idea?  Only if it's published in cheapie paperback?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Something like a hope song

I'm trying to pull together something like an essay for The Other Journal's Economy and Hope Issue.  Usually when I see themed issues, it frustrates me because I have nothing to say on the themes, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about hope and struggling with the economy for the last several years, so if I don't have something to say about it by now, I haven't been paying attention.

It's exhilarating to be working towards a tight deadline like this.  There's a very real fear that I won't be able to pull together something new that's polished enough to submit, but I'm trying anyway, partly because I have a lot of poetry I could send if this new essay doesn't pan out.  (Hope lends itself well to all forms of poetry. :)

I've become preoccupied with what we mean when we say the word hope in our culture, especially during that last election.  Two quotes have stuck with me through much of my writing about hope.

"Hope is only as strong as the object of that hope."

" . . . and hope does not disappoint."

Hope is not a vague thing that rhymes with dream or wish.  It is solid, anchored to something or someone.  That anchor chain sometimes nearly strangles us.  Hope is not tame; it can be dangerous and must be attached to something strong enough to keep storms from dragging us away or battering us to pieces.  Sometimes I think there's a reason it was in Pandora's box with all the evils in the world:  maybe it's a necessary evil? 

Without my Hope, I wouldn't care about beauty or meaning or art or communication.  I want to send in something that conveys at least some of what I want to say about the terribly splendid thing that is hope.

What does hope mean to you?  How do you use it in conversation, and what does that reveal about what it means to you?  Do you say hope when you mean something else?  (I sure do, but I'm working on that . . .)