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?