Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: October 2008

Review: Cybermancy

Cybermancy, by Kelly McCullough
8/10, a solid, fun adventure in urban fantasy with great setting and characters.

Disclaimer: I read Kelly’s writings over at Wyrdsmiths and have corresponded with him.

When last we left Ravirn, McCullough’s hacker/spellcaster/immortal from Webmage, he’d defied his powerful ancestors, the Fates, who had in return cast him out from their family and given him a new name, Raven. It seems that the biggest difference with the new name is that it’s easier to pronounce(*), but while Ravirn thinks so, most of his friends seem to attach a greater significance to it.

(*) I know exactly how this happens. You’re writing a story, you’re trying to come up with a unique name for your protagonist, and you get this weird combination that ends up getting attached to the character. It sounds okay in your head and it looks great on paper, but you never really try to pronounce it aloud until you’re already well into the manuscript. Then you realize, hey, this might be a bit tricky, but it’s unique! it’s different! People will figure it out. And then the book gets published and everyone’s like, “is it RAY-vurn? rah-VEERN?” and some people come up with crap out of nowhere like, “well, according to the ancient Gaelic, it would be “chrah-VEYE-ur-enthch”,” and you just throw up your hands and say, “Okay, fine. It’s ‘RAVEN.’ It’s in the dictionary, you can look it up. Are you happy now?”

Anyway, Ravirn has a problem. His girlfriend, Cerice (“say-REESE”? “SEH-ruh-say”?), is uber-stressed about finishing her dissertation in computer science without her webgoblin/laptop Shara (“SHAH-rah”–sorry, I’ll stop now), who was sadly killed in the previous book. But hey, Ravirn and Cerice live in a modern world built on the underpinnings of the Greek mythos. So no problem: he’ll just go to Hades and get Shara back.

From there–and this is in the first few pages–the action rarely stops. When it does, it’s to explore the relationship between Ravirn and Cerice more deeply, and what’s great about that is that they feel like real people with real relationship problems and pitfalls. As I’m discovering is usual for McCullough, he fills his book with distinctive, likable characters, and of course, having grown up with D’Aulaires and working in software, I love his Greek Myth/twenty-first century Internet setting.

McCullough knows how to keep a story moving along, and behind the surface adventure of getting someone out of Hades, there are questions of relationship and identity to be addressed. Some of his resolutions may feel a bit like deus ex machina, but as Ravirn/Raven is a demi-god, that’s not entirely inappropriate. As with the first book in the series, “Cybermancy” is an enjoyable, fun read.

More on Tension

I’m reading Connie Willis‘s “Passage,” picked up (and signed!) at ComicCon, and it’s almost a textbook in how to build tension.

Willis is the author of one of my favorite short stories ever, “The Last of the Winnebagoes,” and a terrific time travel/British comedy novel, “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I grabbed “Passage” at ComicCon because it was there and she was there (I also picked up “Bellwether,” because they were giving it away, but that was later). A full review will come later, but here are a few of the tricks I’ve noticed her using:

* The main character always, always goes into a scene wanting something. Either something as prosaic as food, or to get away, or to get a crucial piece of information.

* She often interrupts the back-and-forth of dialogue where something is being revealed to the character to insert a little description. Lets the reader pause and makes them wait before going on.

* She often interrupts conversations altogether. There are a couple characters in the book who are always trying to corner the main character to tell her something, but they never say it right away, and she always finds an excuse to get away. She’s convinced that they don’t have anything important to say, but as the reader, the interrupted conversation plants the seed of doubt. What if they DO have something important to say and it comes back later?

I am having serious trouble not reading this book whenever it’s around. I had to leave it at home because if I brought it to work I would be taking two-hour “coffee breaks” with it down at It’s A Grind. But I’m also trying to learn from it and admire what she’s doing and WHY I can’t put it down.

Just to clarify

PRINCIPAL: primary or main: The principal reason Columbus sailed to America was to find a trade route. Also, the head of a school: Principal Skinner was caught with his pants down again.

PRINCIPLE: 1. an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct: a person of good moral principles.
2. a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived: the principles of modern physics.
3. a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion: the principles of the Stoics.

Okay? Dictionary.com is your friend.

That is all.

Spellchecker Rant

Okay, so I’m reading though and it takes me about two sentences to identify that it is Spellchecked. I have ranted about spellcheckers before, but let me be 100% clear on this: Spellcheckers are the worst things to happen to amateur writers since Papermate Erasable Ink Pens(*).

(*) Papermate Erasable Ink Pens smelled horrible and, what’s more, DID NOT ERASE, at least not completely. In grade school and junior high, we thought these were the best things ever. When our sadistic teachers would demand that we take our tests IN INK (for some odd reason that I find hard to process even now–something about how if we made mistakes we’d have to cross them out and they could see every mistake?), we would gleefully whip out our erasable pens and take the tests, secure in the knowledge that we could cover up our errors if need be. Of course, we never could, because the pen always left faint lines. Did I mention the smell? Still, it’s interesting in that it was, I believe, my first experience of a technology vs. authority arms race. The teachers did eventually forbid the use of erasable pens in ink-only test taking, but at that point we were in high school and didn’t care.

This manuscript that I was reading had every word spelled correctly. The problem was that the correctly-spelled word was, almost more often than not, the WRONG WORD. A spellchecker will not tell you that “where” is wrong in the sentence, “My parents where sad.” It will not pick up the mistake in, “I came form a small town.” It will not, further, tell you that the sentence, “I found my father in the shed we called it that, even though it was a garage that, we could have parked a car in if we had on, doing drugs” is an abomination.

What a spellchecker will do is give you the illusion that it is editing your manuscript for you. “Just run it through a spellchecker before you hand it in,” the amateur writer’s instinct, with all the wisdom of Candlewick, tells him. And so he does so, congratulates himself on catching all those misspellings, and turns in his manuscript.

There is no substitute for reading through and editing your own work. No spellchecker, no grammar checker, no proofreader can do this for you. Yes, it’s not as much fun as the writing part. Yes, there are often two or three words at a time that don’t need any more editing. But yes, it is an essential part of being a writer. And when you turn in a spellchecked manuscript, it is blindingly, glaringly obvious that you are missing an essential component of being a writer, and the manuscript reader will treat your manuscript accordingly(**).

(**) In my case, writing blog posts about it and complaining about it to my friends.

Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
8.5/10, a touching and richly textured story of family and atonement

Stories of redemption and atonement pluck at our heart more strongly than any other theme. In our past, we’ve all made mistakes, but the opportunity to make up for them rarely greets us in as perfect a fashion as it does in fiction. So we live along with our fictional hero, cringe at his fall, and return with him to the state of grace.

Of course, our own mistakes are rarely as life-altering as the one made by Amir, the hero of “The Kite Runner,” who doesn’t quite abandon a boat full of people to fire, but it feels about the same to him. His best friend Hassan, the son of his family’s servant, gets into some rather serious trouble, during which Amir stands by and does nothing. He isn’t sure Hassan has seen him (at least, I’m not sure whether he knows or not), but that isn’t really relevant: Amir feels the press of guilt immediately, and even though he’s only twelve at the time, his life is forever altered.

Thrown into the mix is Hassan’s race: he is a Hazara, while Amir and his family are Pashtun. Amir’s peers mock him for his friendship with a Hazara boy, a taunt which Amir is not strong enough to confront. His strength is an issue for his father Baba, who wants him to become as strong and proud a man as he himself is. Baba seems, in Amir’s eyes, to prefer Hassan to him, which further stokes his resentment and his guilt.

How does a young man become worthy of his father and his best friend? This is what Amir must ultimately discover, after leaving Afghanistan for California. Though he has a reasonably good life in California, he knows there is something missing.

Hosseini writes vividly, with wonderful detail. He shares my love of food, never hesitating to tell us what is being cooked. The smells of the city are an integral part of the landscape, and his portrait of post-war Kabul is one of the most heart-wrenching cityscapes I’ve read since war-time Shanghai. The characters are just as vividly drawn: Baba, the demanding father; Hassan, the devoted best friend; Amir, the conflicted young man struggling between what he feels and what society and his family tell him.

Indeed, if the story has a weakness, it’s that the characters are too perfectly drawn, making this almost more of a parable than a story. It seems to shift between the two: the characters stray little from their archetypes, but the setting they move in is lovingly, richly detailed. This story has the feel of a fairy tale, but a fairy tale set in our unpleasant, gritty, modern world.

Certainly I recommend it, especially as our involvement in and attention to Afghanistan creeps back up. Apart from the wonderful characters, the book does provide a nostalgic look at what life was like once for the Afghanis, how they suffered from the Alliance and then the Taliban, and what exactly has been lost. I don’t quite see a connection to Amir’s own story–Afghanistan seems more the victim of a whole schoolyard full of bullies than a country trying to atone for some transgression–but then, there doesn’t really have to be. The writing is simple but effective, and the story keeps moving briskly all the way through.

Be Yourself

Good advice in any profession. Joe Posnanski (yes, I read a lot of his columns) has a take on what this means to a major league manager. The same goes for being a writer. Don’t write in a way that isn’t you just to please an audience. Write what you love, be who you are, and then find your audience. It’s much more worthwhile in the long run.

Review: Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson
9/10, lovely sweet Finnish stories about a family in a magical world

I was somewhat apprehensive that the Moomin books would turn out to be pixibooks, but after picking up the lovely Drawn & Quarterly collections of Jansson’s daily strips, I finally bit the bullet and dropped five bucks to get Finn Family Moomintroll, the first in the series.

I don’t remember how many of these we had when I was growing up, but it was a lot of them. This one, though it is the first, seems to take place in the middle of the lives of the moomins. There’s reference made to the comet which is a story in a later book, and we seem expected to know all the characters already. Fortunately, Jansson is so sure of her characters that we have no trouble picking them up right away and growing very fond of them. They are more or less at the center of the stories, so a quick dramatis moominae is probably better than a plot summary.

Moomintroll, the main character, is sort of a young teenager. He lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpappa, and his friends Sniff and Snufkin. He has a little thing for the Snork Maiden, who lives with them along with her brother the Snork. If that weren’t enough for a house, you have the Muskrat, whose favorite book is “On The Uselessness of Everything,” and the Hemulen, who is quite despondent when it turns out that he has collected all the stamps and his collection is complete; he has nothing more to do. Snufkin is sort of a tramp of a character, who loves his friends but also craves solitude and the open road. Sniff also loves his friends but also loves himself (when they discover a boat and are arguing about what to name her, Sniff’s contribution, yelled out loud, is “SNIFF!”). The Snork Maiden is a perfect teenage girl, young and romantic but also slightly insecure and prone to snubbing Moomintroll for slights against her that he hasn’t realized he’s made.

The gang have many magical adventures, many of which center around the Hobgoblin’s Hat, a large top hat that mysteriously transforms anything that falls into it. This is a children’s book, but doesn’t shy away from some mature problems: how do you get your friends to like you, how do you get something back that someone’s taken from you, what use is a lot of money? All of these problems, it turns out, have relatively simple solutions for the Moomins, but the wit and charm of this series lies in watching the characters go through the ridiculous predicaments and resolutions that Jansson’s vivid imagination concocts for them. Her little asides (Moominmamma makes orange-peel teeth for her children to play with; a footnote says, “Ask your mother how to make them; she is sure to know.”) are as delightful as the story itself.

If you like stories of children’s adventures and magical fantasy worlds, it’s hard to imagine that you would not enjoy Jansson’s Moomin books. Thanks to Drawn and Quarterly, her comics are enjoying a renaissance; let’s hope this spreads to the books as well.

Review: Swann’s Way

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust (translation by Lydia Davis)

9/10, a classic of literature in a new translation


Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time" is one of the most lauded and least read classics of literature. A staggering seven thick volumes, it’s a daunting read for even pretentious Ivy League graduates. But I decided I wanted to read it before I turn 50, which seems like an achievable goal, and a journey of a thousand books starts with a single page, so I picked up "Swann’s Way." The new translation is getting rave reviews for capturing the spirit of Proust more elegantly than the older but classic Moncrieff translations.

There’s a lot to love about Proust, and one big thing to dislike, or fear, or grow tired of, which is also one of the things to love: namely, his tendency to write sentences that stretch into paragraphs so long and dense that after hacking your way through the undergrowth of dependent clauses, some of which decide to tell their own story in the middle of the sentence, rather like one of those hard candies that abruptly shifts from one flavor to another on your tongue as you’re holding it in your mouth, you will sometimes turn around, look back, and realize that although you’ve quite enjoyed the path, you have in fact lost sight of your subject. Sentences the size of paragraphs; paragraphs that go on for pages; it’s like "The Lost World" for literature.

The good, though, is as monumental as the prose, and it’s hard to read even a few pages without gaining a huge amount of respect for both Proust and translator Davis. The first twenty or so pages of the book describe what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night. Really. But Proust gets away with it, by examining every nuance of feeing and perception and exploring its relation to his own humanity and ours in general. If this sounds dry and academic, it’s because I’m not doing it justice in the least. You end up reading passages and thinking, "I know exactly that feeling"–he describes them more thoroughly and accurately than anyone else I’ve ever read.

You don’t even notice, at first, that there is no real story, that you’ve been reading for thirty pages and the narrator is still lying in his bed in the middle of the night. But Proust slides easily from the general to the specific, and in the middle of a discussion about his neurotic need for a good-night kiss from his mother, mentions the cases in which this became embarrassing, usually when company was over, and thus M. Swann enters the picture.

Swann dominates the first book: as a guest in the first part, the subject of the second part, and the father of the narrator’s sweetheart in the third. By the time we’re done, we know him backwards and forwards, as a young man pursuant of ideals and trapped in his own conceptions of what is worthwhile and proper; later as a father, mellower but still kind at heart. We know our narrator well, too: his insecurities and desperate need for female affection.

There are other terrific touches of character, like this, one of my favorites in the book:

[Mme. de Gallardon has drawn the attention of her cousin, the Princesse des Laumes, to M. Swann at the party they are attending, where the pianist has just begun to play a polonaise by Chopin.]

[Mme. des Laumes] belonged to that half of the human race in whom the curiosity the other half feels about the people it does not know is replaced by an interest in the people it does. As with many women of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the presence in a place where she happened to be of someone from her set, though she had nothing in particular to say to him, monopolized her attention at the expense of everything else. From that moment on, in the hopes that Swann would notice her, the Princesse, like a tame white mouse when a bit of sugar is offered to it and then taken away, kept turning her face, which was filled with a thousand signs of complicity unrelated to the feeling in Chopin’s polonaise, in Swann’s direction, and if he moved, she would shift in a corresponding direction her magnetic smile.

"Oriane, don’t be angry," resumed Mme. de Gallardon, who could never stop herself from sacrificing her greatest social ambitions and highest hopes of someday dazzling the world to the immediate, obscure, and private pleasure of saying something disagreeable, "but people do claim that M. Swann is someone whom one can’t have in one’s house, is that true?"

"Why…you ought to know," answered the Princesse des Laumes, "since you’ve invited him fifty times and he hasn’t come once."

If you love language, you owe it to yourself at least to pick up Swann’s Way and read a couple pages in the bookstore. It’s a daunting task, and I’m glad to have a friend reading it at the same time I am, or else I’d never get through it (that and a lot of plane flights helped). This translation is copiously footnoted, in case you are curious about questions like "what is Les Filles de Marbre?" or "who is Nicolas Maes?" Proust is sometimes a struggle to read, but the moments of delight, like the one listed above, are so unique that they are worth the effort.

And now, on to book 2…

Review: Darwin’s Radio

Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear

7/10, a well-written but ultimately scattered hard science fiction story with an interesting premise


I love Greg Bear’s Songs of Earth and Power (originally The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage). It’s one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. And yet, I was strangely reluctant to pick up his science fiction, for some reason. Darwin’s Radio had been on my radar for a while–Nebula award-winner and one of Bear’s most popular books. So I was pretty excited to get the chance to start it recently.

It kicks off with an almost literal bang, an exploration of a glacier in the Alps that ends in an avalanche and an exhumed mass grave in eastern Europe. It turns out that there has been an increasing incidence of miscarriages in the United States, which is also linked to the discovery of prehistoric corpses in the glacier and the recent corpses in Europe. It transpires that the fetuses being miscarried are deformed, and it’s up to Kaye Lang, chromosome expert, and Mitch Rafelson, explorer and biologist, to work from opposite ends to figure out the connection between these different incidences.

The scientific mystery is engaging, but by the middle of the book it’s pretty much resolved. Bear focuses on the United States’ political response to the crisis, as the number of miscarriages mounts and the public grows restless. Combining this story with the biological story is a bit overwhelming for the book, and about two-thirds of the way through it collapses under its own weight. The political story becomes rather fragmented, and taking the place of the biological mystery is a personal story about a mother going through the pregnancy and experiencing the political changes (most of which consist of the government insisting that she register with them).

I’m sorry to say that I have a hard time seeing why this book won a Nebula. The science is interesting but ultimately left me with questions–for example, why, if the biology is correct, were there sporadic outbreaks everywhere except the United States until the mass outbreaks started? Does that mean there were mass graves somewhere in the U.S. that we don’t know about? There are some other, more specific questions that were left hanging, both about the biology and the politics, but by the end of the novel we do have a sense of how the whole thing is going to play out.

It just seems to happen a little too abruptly and easily. Things change, and Kaye comes up with a theory to explain the change, and it’s correct. There are entire periods of the political process that are just skimmed over. Most of the personal section of the book focuses on Mitch and Kaye struggling against the politics that have been set in place, with some introspection about what this whole change means for them and for humanity.

It’s engaging stuff, and Bear’s touch for characters is terrific. Kaye, Mitch, and several of the supporting characters are three-dimensional and engaging. His imagination and science research are beyond reproach as well. The theories about what might happen as a result of the DNA wound in our chromosomes that we don’t really understand are fascinating and believable. It’s just that the book needed to choose the political path or the biological path, and it tries to encompass both, ultimately fulfilling neither.

Review: Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg

8/10, a mystery with beautiful evocative writing, a carefully constructed plot, and a rambling third act

I have no idea how they made this book into a movie. It’s dense, from a writer who is clearly from the "beautiful sentence" school rather than the "plot" school, which makes it somewhat of an odd duck because those kinds of writers don’t usually tackle murder mysteries. But Hoeg acquits himself well, setting up a strange and intriguing cast of characters and an engaging mystery.

Smilla, a Greenlander living in Denmark, comes home to find a friend of hers lying dead in the snow, having apparently jumped from the roof. That’s what the police believe, but Smilla knows better: he was afraid of heights, so if he wanted to kill himself, why would he jump from the roof? She thinks he was chased up there and off, and her unraveling of the mystery surrounding her friend’s death is a confusing but compelling journey through Copenhagen’s upperworld and underworld, and through the tangled trauma of Greenland’s assimilation into Danish culture.

Sounds like a great movie, huh?

Anyway. Smilla is a terrific character, and her "sense of snow" is a peculiar ability she has to know where things are and which direction to go, which has not helped her do the same in life. She’s scornful and afraid of love, inconvenient considering she begins to fall for the mechanic who’s helping her unravel the case.

Hoeg does a terrific job at doling out information piece by piece, occasionally keeping too much back but generally giving you some great surprises. One of my favorite structures in a mystery is the scene that the protagonist plays along with you, and then at the end pulls out that one detail you might have missed that is the key to moving forward, which changes the whole cast of the scene before and the story to date. That’s hard to do, but Hoeg pulls it off a couple times here.

He’s also great at building tension throughout the book, though by the end there’s so much tension that you feel it’s impossible to get a real payoff from it, and in some sense you’d be right. The end is rather anticlimactic and deliberately obscure–a disappointment to someone who considers endings the second most important part of a book. But there’s enough other good stuff here, albeit densely packed in, to make the book definitely worth a read.