Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: December 2006

Milestones and future lists

That last post, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was my fiftieth, and this one is likely to be the last of 2006. I hope the folks reading this have found it useful or interesting, and stick with it in 2007!

As a result of many generous friends and family over Christmas, I now have a big stack of books to read, so I thought I’d share the list. The first three were actually rescued from Tower Books before they went out of business, the rest are new additions to my stack. I can’t wait to get to them!

Fudoki – Kij Johnson
I loved “The Fox Woman,” Johnson’s first novel, and this one is set in the same semi-mythical Japanese universe. The clerk at Tower told me when I bought it, “This is really good!”

Get Shorty
– Elmore Leonard
Loved the movie, kept hearing about his writing, have never experienced it. Can’t wait.

Time and Again – Jack Finney
An old writing friend of mine loved the Jack Finney “Time” books, but I never managed to make time to read any, until now.

The Hunt Ball – Rita Mae Brown
Okay, just because it has foxes in it. And it’s a mystery. I’m always a sucker for a good mystery. Or even a mediocre mystery.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy – Jonathan Stroud
Relatively new books that people keep telling me about. I’m all excited to read these.

American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now
This one looks really good. Lots of movie reviews collected from this past century.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Another one that’s pretty new but looks really cool!

Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man – Dale Peterson
I met Dale Peterson while he was researching one of his books. He’s written a few with Jane, and now he’s written one about her. Curiously, I found a positive review on this one just a few days before I got it, and had been thinking I should check it out. Bonus!

So that’s just a taste of the reviews you should be seeing in 2007. I’ll also be immersed in numerous writing projects, so there’ll be writing posts as well.

Happy New Year, everyone!

"New" story for sale

“Life Is Beautiful,” one of the stories from the “Shadows In Snow” anthology, is now for sale as an Amazon Short. If you’ve already got the collection, no need to buy this one. I cleaned up a couple minor things, but it is largely the same as the version in the book. The Amazon Shorts folks decided to open up the program to previously published works, and since SIS is also being sold on Amazon, they thought it would make for some nice cross-linking.

The Amazon Shorts people, on the whole, have been extremely helpful. Phil Geusz, a friend of mine who also writes, has also found their program to be a good outlet for short fiction, and they have a bunch of stuff there by more famous authors. I’m not sure how to judge whether the program is a success, but if you judge by the catalog alone, they’re doing great, and I hope to see their program continue. The venue is much appreciated for smaller-name authors like Phil and myself, because most people will happily spend four bits for a story, and with Amazon’s delivery mechanism and trust behind it, it’s nearly effortless for the author and reader both.

At any rate, the link will be in the sidebar sometime soon. I need to send them something unpublished next.

And a very Merry Christmas (belatedly) to you and yours. Here’s hoping for wonderful things in 2007.

Review: Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower V), by Stephen King

7/10, an adventure story that’s more about the action and world-building than about the characters

Going from Kazuo Ishiguro to Stephen King is rather like getting up from Le Petit Bistro (a fine French restaurant in Mountain View) and going next door to the El Paso Cafe (a fine Tex-Mex taqueria). No offense is meant either to King or to the El Paso Cafe, both of whom produce fine quality fare of which I am a big fan. It’s just not the kind of fare that feels like an experience. They are also aimed at such different markets as to make the comparisons nearly meaningless unless you’re just trying to open a Stephen King review with an amusing comparison that hasn’t been done before.

The Dark Tower series is King’s most ambitious work, a seven-volume epic chronicling the quest of Roland of Gilead to find and save the Dark Tower, the hub at the center of all the worlds that holds them together. Book 1, though I didn’t particularly like the style, was inventive and concerned primarily with Roland. In Book 2 (or II, I suppose), Roland acquires two companions, Susannah and Eddie, from various times in New York. Book III follows their travels to and from the city of Lud, while book IV is mostly taken up with Roland’s tale of his childhood first love, a story that, while interesting, seems not too relevant to the quest. In book V, the quest is again sidetracked by our heroes’ encounter with a small town periodically raided by sinister Wolves, who take one of each set of identical twins. That doesn’t sound particularly harmful or sinister until you learn that the proportions of twins to single births that we are familiar with is reversed in this community, for reasons never explained. Everyone has twins; singletons are rare and prized, because they are safe from the Wolves.

It’s an interesting setup, unfortunately used more for effect than for any real social exploration. The main theme returned to again and again is that some in the town don’t want to fight the Wolves. After all, they only come every twenty-some years (in this farming community, there are no reliable calendars), and they leave half the children. That’s better than taking them all, right? Well, by use of clever analogies to orchards and displays of fighting prowess, Roland’s group convinces the townspeople to stay and fight. Meanwhile, in New York, there’s another sort of battle going on, more relevant to the quest itself. In addition to which, each member of Roland’s group has some secret he or she is struggling with, resolved to various degrees over the course of the nine hundred page long book.

The central character in this book, and the series, is Roland. His dour determination to finish his quest at any cost, built up over the thousands of years he’s been alive (calendar years, one assumes, not human-lived years, due to time-slips) is his defining trait. At one point, when asked to make a special effort to spare some individual life, Roland replies that he seeks to save the Tower, which will save all life in all universes everywhere, and that one person can’t be weighed above that. Now that’s perspective. He’s mellowed somewhat since the first book, though, and at least experiences some measure of regret that he has to be so determined, and that he has to force the same determination onto his companions.

Roland and his group are the best-drawn characters, though we spend a good many chapters reliving the tale of Don Callahan (more on him later). Still, we don’t get the sense of progression from them very much. Although there is relatively little action in this book, it is very much an action-adventure story. The three main stories (the Wolves, the New York drama, Susannah’s secret) would seem to have little to do with each other, but then, there are two more books to go, and perhaps King intends to weave them all together. As an action-adventure book, it’s maybe not a “ripping yarn”–too many digressions, side stories, ponderous moments, and a strange romantic subplot–but it is a page-turner, if only because King’s worlds are so inventive that I just love seeing what he’s come up with. Whether it’s Calla Bryn Sturgis, 1977-era New York, or a strangely shifted early 80s American collage, he has (as always) a terrific feel for detail, how to paint a picture, how to give you just a few details that are exactly the right degree “off” to make you feel creepy, and how to place his characters within the world perfectly.

He’s pretty good with his characters, too. Just because they don’t grow doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting to follow. Roland could easily become boring because of his extreme confidence and competence, but he is open to mistakes. The others have adapted pretty well to their new life, but still raise echoes of the old. And the action and suspense, of course, are very well done. That’s King’s bread and butter, and even if the pacing suffers from the scope of what he’s trying to do, it works anyway. Even the digressions are fun to read.

The part of this book that started to annoy me was King placing his work inside it. To rescue Don Callahan from “‘Salem’s Lot” and place him in the Calla, fine. I liked his story and the torment he was going through. But in a couple places in New York, King has inserted his own books, and eventually a copy of “‘Salem’s Lot” turns up, leading the characters to the inevitable and trite “what if we’re all just characters in a story” theme. Again, with two books left to go, perhaps King has some new take on it, but it seems to be a completely unnecessary twist to a story already complicated enough that it doesn’t need more twists. Besides, it’s been done, and better.

In all likelihood, of course, this review is meaningless. If you’re a King fan, as I am, you’ll read the book regardless of the flaws. All you need to hear is “it’s better than “The Tommyknockers“.” If you’re not a King fan, you’re certainly not going to start with a seven-book epic. And if you’ve enjoyed the Dark Tower series so far, you’d read book V even if I said it was worse than “The Tommyknockers.” But it isn’t. It’s a Super Burrito from El Paso Cafe: a huge portion of good food, well made; you know what you’re getting, and it’s worth having even if they can’t keep out the cilantro, or the hubris.

Review: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro
10/10, a gorgeous memoir/adventure of an English detective in pre-war Britain and Shanghai

Kazuo Ishiguro is fast making his way up my list of favorite writers, and the one he most resembles, I think, is Joseph Conrad. This similarity is most apparent in “When We Were Orphans,” an adventure set in the 1930s first in England, then in Shanghai, although in Ishiguro’s typical style, the present-day narrative is interspersed with memories from the main character’s childhood in Shanghai. The older setting recalls Conrad, as does the pervasive sense of melancholy and the character’s battle not only against implacable external forces, but also against himself.

Christopher Banks, the child of British parents in Shanghai’s International section, has not always wanted to be a detective, but was driven to that goal by a set of incidents in his childhood. We get the gist of those incidents almost immediately, but the details are doled out slowly and methodically, paced beautifully throughout the story.

Even when Christopher becomes a successful detective, he remains unable to objectively examine his own life. Ishiguro uses the “unreliable narrator” as a common device in many of his books as a way to add depth to the story; here it is the story. Christopher trusts his own perceptions and memories of his life above all else. When a former schoolmate remarks on how they were both loners and outcasts, Christopher assumes he must be mistaken because he, Christopher, doesn’t remember being an outcast.

The filtering is so extreme that in many cases it becomes as difficult for the reader to piece together what is really happening as it is for Christopher himself. He perceives that there is great demand for him to help with the international situation, and when a country policeman comments offhandedly that someone should go to where the “heart of the serpent” is, Christopher immediately assumes he means Shanghai. His past, seen through the lens of current troubles, draws him inexorably back there. Once in Shanghai, he undertakes the investigation he has wanted to since childhood, but the war makes every move difficult. He makes progress towards his goal, but as the war tears apart the city, the illusions he’s shielded himself from fall away as well.

This is a double mystery, for the reader has to unravel not only why Christopher’s past unfolded as it did, but also what actually happened, given only Christopher’s memories to serve as guide. The story is engaging and fascinating, the characters wonderful, and the language pure delight to read. Only the denouement disappointed me, and then only slightly, as it seemed to be a little less elegant than “The Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go”. I wavered on the numeric rating for this book a couple times, going from 9 to 9.5 and then finally 10, reminding myself that it is not being measured against his other books, but against all books. Maybe 9.9 is correct. In any event, like the worst Joseph Conrad book, it’s still better than 99% of what you could pick up in the bookstore.

Plot Peeve

Reading a Stephen King book now, which I may or may not post a review for because it’s book V of the Dark Tower series. Anyway, with the disclaimer that I like a lot of his work quite a bit, there is one thing that came up in this book that annoyed me, and I recalled the same device from “Pet Sematary.”

This comes about when a character knows something that, if he or she were to communicate it to the other characters, would seriously change the direction of the plot and would better prepare the good guys to battle evil. But of course, it makes for better tension for the character NOT to tell the others. This is the kind of thing where, if you pull it off right, it has great tragic gravitas. One of the best examples is in the film “West Side Story,” where after Anita is taunted and bullied by the Jets, she bursts out into the lie that Maria is dead, which leads to Tony’s death.

Now, we’ve got that situation in “Dark Tower V,” except that the character who knows the information is a sworn companion to the others, a member of a bond stronger than friendship, and the information he holds is, if not immediately relevant and important, at least strange enough that we as the reader can put it together and say, “Hey… you should mention that, because I bet that’s got something to do with what’s happening.” (Given, we have the advantage of knowing what the author chooses to show, but still.) So how does King work his way around this? The character doesn’t tell any of the others because of “a feeling.”

This is SO unsatisfying for me as a reader. I mean, come on. Give me more than that. In “Pet Sematary,” he wrote himself into a situation where he couldn’t reasonably have a character arrive too late to save the main character unless a string of bad luck happened. So of course the bad luck happens and he blames it on this vague villain called the Wendigo, without explaining why it is that if the Wendigo can reach all the way to Portland to knock out someone’s car, it’s so fixated on getting this one guy in a small town in upstate Maine to bury crap in its field.

So anyway. I know it’s hard to make all your characters seem realistic. You want them all to do the right thing, but sometimes it’d work better for the plot and tension if they don’t. That’s okay. But give them a reason of appropriate proportions. If you’re withholding information from your ka-tet (loosely: band of brothers), it better be something really fundamental and terrifying to you.

That’s all for now.

Food, Glorious Food

I had a revelation a few months ago: I love food. That doesn’t sound too astonishing; I mean, who doesn’t? But it was interesting considering I have been making a conscious effort the past couple years to eat less, and eat healthier. Maybe when I was just eating whatever I wanted, I appreciated food less, but I don’t think so. I think it’s just that food is so plentiful that we don’t normally think much about it. I really associate my home here in California with terrific food, and part of that is through the unceasing efforts of my partner to keep us eating high quality stuff at home and in restaurants. It’s easy to take for granted when so much of it is so good, and so fresh, that it’s only when you go elsewhere and are unpleasantly surprised that you appreciate it.

(And I don’t mean to be all arrogant about California, though I have heard friends who moved away complain wistfully about missing the quality and/or breadth of dining choices here. I think any urban area now has pretty good food choices, in general. But still, we are an agricultural and coastal state, so our fruit and fish are going to be a little fresher here than, say, in Kansas City–though our barbecue won’t be as good.)

For that reason, I think, it is an often overlooked detail in stories. If you’re just trying to get your hero from his hotel in St. Petersburg to the top of Big Ben where he has to meet and dispatch his nemesis, who cares what he ate along the way? You can write a quick note about how he stopped for dinner and then went to bed and not have to make up a whole three-course meal that isn’t relevant to the plot.

Well, think of it this way: what would you think if James Bond stopped at a McDonald’s for a sandwich on his way to the Atlantis Casino? Just that quick phrase, “stopped at a McDonald’s,” tells you about the type of food he ate and about the type of character he is. Doesn’t it say something if a character goes to a steakhouse and orders a salad? Or if he selects the cheapest wine? Food also brings the reader closer to the narrative–just describing “a succulent steak, cooked just right” is all you need to give the smell, taste, and look of the meal, and if you don’t want your readers drooling, you can turn it around and tell them about “the mushy tomatoes and wilted lettuce leaves in the uninspiring salad.” Good food and bad food all form a part of the overall atmosphere, and are a nice rounding touch to your scenes. Recall the Narnia series: Turkish delight, the meal the Witch creates out of snow in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”; the apples the children eat when they return in “Prince Caspian” (and the description of bear meat); the toffees in “Magician’s Nephew”.

So as you’re writing your story, don’t forget the food. One story to close: For the longest time, after reading early fairy tales and their descriptions of “cunning marzipan sculptures,” I thought marzipan must be this amazing sweet treat, because it was always associated with high class, royalty, and elegance. Of course, it was mostly prized for its ability to take color and keep a molded shape; in reality, it’s rather almondy and not terribly sweet. I was disappointed, but because of those early stories, there will always be a part of me that reaches out to try it, and for the moment before the taste kicks in, will imagine that I am at a banquet in a castle, among princes and fairy godmothers and magic.

Review: Sister Noon

Sister Noon, by Karen Joy Fowler
8/10: a twisted, semi-magical tale of self-discovery in turn of the century San Francisco

In our fabulist fiction class, we read a story by Karen Joy Fowler titled, “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man,” which was not very fabulist but was extremely funny and very well written. On the strength of that story, I picked up “Sister Noon,” one of the quartet of Karen Joy Fowler books available online.

I was a little disappointed in that “Sister Noon” lacks the pervasive humor of “Invisible Man.” It is, however, a fascinating exploration of the landscape of San Francisco, of the link between race and identity, and of the role of women in the 19th century. Her dark humor still comes through in many passages, fortunately, and the characters are so well drawn that once I got into the story, I didn’t miss the humor–much.

“Sister Noon” is the story, mostly, of Lizzie Hayes, an aging spinster who manages the finances for an orphanage. Mammie Pleasant, a servant who is black but used to be white, drops off an orphaned girl whose race is just as malleable as her own, and in whose case Lizzie takes a special interest. Lizzie herself is drifting through life, so the arrival of Jenny and the resulting turmoil is not entirely unwelcome. As a result of Jenny’s stay at the orphanage, Lizzie finds herself encountering voodoo magic, migraine headaches, the ghost of her mother, and Mammie Pleasant’s history, which reveals the astonishing power a woman–a black woman, at that–can have over the highest echelons of society.

In the process, we discover with Lizzie a meticulously rendered San Francisco, from the houses and carriages to the shine of a gentleman’s coat and the blooms of certain flowers. It occurs to me that, at least in this effort, “Sister Noon” reads as though it were written by a female Tim Powers, and you know what I think of his work. The magical elements in her world lack the coherence and breadth of his, but the feel is very similar, that these elements are a part of our world, available to anyone who knows how to contact them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and liked the resolution, but the narrative was rather episodic and a little scattered. It took a good deal of thought to assemble the description of the plot for this review, and even so I dare say you’re still not sure what the book is about. The best I can do is to say that it’s about Lizzie’s search for her own identity through her interest in Jenny, but the primary pleasure of the story is learning about the history of San Francisco and the backstory that Fowler weaves effortlessly into it. And of course, there are numerous passages like the one I excerpted that just make you laugh.