Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some reading not previously mentioned

Recently, I read Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three. The only Bear I'd read before was his short story "Blood Music"; I didn't read the novelized version. If you're interested, I give a full critique of Bear's latest in this discussion at the Asimov's forum. In short, the book was intriguing but disappointing, busily racing from one thing to another as if the writer, and not the character, were pursued by unearthly beasts. It's too bad, because Bear certainly had adequate material for a rich and complex novel, had he let it become fully enfleshed. It did move quickly, in any case, whereas some other sf I've read in the past few years—as part of the loose readers' group at the Asimov's forum—has disappointed but also been enormous work to get through.

As I'm on break, I felt compelled to order several comics collections (they aren't graphic novels, these) from the library.

For decades, I've heard about Marvel's famed "Kree-Skrull war." I own two of the Avengers issues in which the war takes place, but never had a full sense of what happened. Well, not much happened, as it turns out, and the storyline is borderline incoherent. Had this been a modern story arc, like Marvel's "Civil War," I'd suspect that what's missing is the narrative threads from the dozen or so other books implicated in the tale, but nobody did anything like that back in the '70s, and aside from some information and characters coming in from earlier stories in Thor, Fantastic Four and adventures with Captain Marvel, the tale is meant to appear intact in the Avengers. There's terrific buildup, especially in the penultimate, Neal Adams–pencilled issue, but the conclusion is something of a mess, with heroes from another age emerging from the head of Rick Jones . . . for about two panels each. Also, Rick Jones is sort of the Wesley Crusher of '70s Marvel: you really wish he'd move on or finally get killed. His catch-phrase? "Faaaan-tastic!" Not sure who's to blame for that, Stan Lee or Roy Thomas. Of course, all the characters speak too casually or pseudo-hip-ly, except Thor, who is utterly joyless. The collection has a new Adams cover which, for some reason, was chopped in half and stuck on the back cover of the paperback, which makes Roy Thomas's essay about it approximately 50% confusing.

Also read a Bruce Jones–scripted Hulk collection. (Everyone who gets killed comes back. I guess there's an explanation in a later collection. I've got more coming.) In addition, I read the first volume of Thor's return from the netherworld. I like the new costume. Looking at that, then going back to those old Avengers issues, you can see how hard Neal Adams had to work at not making Thor look like an idiot. The Buscemas were far less successful at this.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A black man in Asgard

Here's the news:

White Supremacist Group Boycotting Thor; Because of Elba Casting

"The Council of Conservative Citizens attacks Marvel for giving the role of the deity Heimdall to Idris Elba, star of The Wire."

The CCC is calling the casting of Elba "left-wing social engineering"—because of course the portrayal of a Norse god will have some effect on the actual society of Asgard, which, as we know, exists in a realm reachable by the rainbow bridge but not the Rainbow Coalition.

When I saw Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor trailer, I was thrilled, because Marvel was doing what the narrow minds behind the Lord of the Rings movies failed to do, moving past the definitions established by the myths. Keep in mind that that's what we're dealing with, myths, not historical dramas.

Sticking with Lord of the Rings for a moment, it doesn't matter how Tolkien saw his characters—and certainly he saw the hobbits and elves and all of the good guys, all the "races of men" on the side of right as white people, because he's thinking of Northern Europe and the Eddas and a particular kind of world. But when you translate those tales into images in the 21st century, how can you not see that only white folks were on the side of goodness? Every indigenous actor who showed up to audition: you're getting covered with dark stuff and made an orc. Some other people, we'll give them dark complexions, dress them as Arabs and stick them on elephants or on pirate ships. Did no one notice this sharp line? There was no need for it, because "black and white" wasn't part of Tolkien's calculation, nor was it essential to his tale.

Must every god in Asgard be white because the Norse were white? If the Norse mythology is true, and all people of all colors are their people, wouldn't the gods also share that variety? And that argument aside: it's all made up. They can look however we want! I mean, shouldn't they all the male gods have beards? Any good Norseman would, after all.

At least bigots continue to make it easy for us to find them.

Monday, December 20, 2010

At last

I have the climax of "Unearthed." Half I'd known. All right, a third. Now that it's clear, I've written some of it and left much to fill in. It all seems perfectly logical (in a dreamlike way), the right outcome for the story and my protagonist, and so I have to recraft everything around where the story is heading.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rejection, submission and fortuitousness

"The Dearness of Bodies in Motion," a realistic fiction tale, came back today from Alaska Quarterly Review, which is located in New Jersey, since no one actually lives in Alaska. After some research (and factoring in the relevant data that a street in my childhood hometown was called Sycamore), I sent the story on to The Sycamore Review.

I realized a day or two ago, though I then forgot, only to later recall, that a male character in my story "Unearthed" should be female; it made the character's presence much more plausible and opened up the story in other ways. This led to some research which turned up facts that made my choice of a this particular female protagonist (who is a Mohawk; and who was a Mohawk when she was a he) in this particular occupation even more perfect than I'd known, and this led me further to a legendary tale related by Canadian Mohawk writer Pauline Johnson that fit my story so perfectly, I had a bit of a scare. How strange and wonderful, and now I feel more confident about my tale.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"The Life to Come"

In the space of less than two weeks, I wrote a new short story, "The Life to Come," in response to an anthology (which shall remain nameless for now) request. Once it was finished, but before the final run-through (every sentence said aloud), I sent it to my friend Berry, who heaped it high with praise or tossed it atop a heap of praise or praised it heapishly or something. He found one dud line that had been a line that stuck out to me as well. All right then. Cleaned it up, sent it off, and now I wait. I think it's solid and does what it's supposed to do. I had a hard time judging it, since I knew where it was going from the outset, and since it's short--a little more than 3K--it doesn't contain the number of surprises for me that my recent longer works have contained. Still, I think it's properly packed and concise and sounds good throughout.

I had been reading Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories for a few weeks. I have a giant compendium from the library. Struck the other day that I'd had the book out for so long, I checked my library account: the book isn't signed out. Guess somebody's electronic scanner wasn't working right that day. Anyway, if you read them, I suggest spacing them out. Early on, Bertie Wooster himself concedes the formula of the tales: if a problem arises, tell Jeeves and he'll sort it out. That's pretty much the length of breadth of the business. Jeeves serves as a kind of deus ex machina for the stories, so that, as with many a Sherlock Holmes tale, the fun is in the setup more than the resolution. Holmes always notices something no human would have noticed to solve the case; Jeeves always knows somebody who gives him a piece of information that resolves the difficulty. Priceless, though, is Bertie's voice, slangy and marginally self-aware of his purely comedic self and absurd world.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Subscriptions and a new opening

Money comes on my birthdays. Back in September, I chose to spend it on, among other things, subscriptions to Asimov's and Locus (the sf review and interview magazine). Asimov's took perhaps six weeks to kick in. Locus still hasn't shown; I'm told it mailed Oct. 18. I do believe one could have thrown the magazine from the moon and had it reach here sooner.

I had a lovely opening for "Unearthed." But then it took much too long for anything to happen, since a lot had to be explained after my two protagonists meet at the beginning. Realizing that that was boring and a poor structure, I broke into my talk-filled intro with some action, bringing in much sooner another plot element that I hadn't meant to have intrude until nearly the end. So now I had a nicely time barrage of gunfire. Still, there remained too much to explain, too much information to share between my two main figures (one being "the old man"--though since it's 1925, he ain't old yet--and the other, Qwerty, a Mohawk somewhat out of place at a South American mine). The solution was to back up somewhat, providing the mysterious precipitating event rather than simply referring to it in retrospect. I wrote some of that new opening tonight, and I like it quite a bit. It kicks off the story well; afterwards will come some of the other pieces I've written. I hope to get some work done on this over Thanksgiving break, and I would love (though it's only faintly possible, given how much I revise) to have a solid draft in place by year's end. Schoolwork makes this difficult.

Monday, November 8, 2010

If you've read one of my stories . . .

This is especially for the folks who've visited via Coming Attractions or All Pulp: Let me know what you thought about what you downloaded. (I know I've probably missed a lot of people who've already blown through, judging by the blog stats, but perhaps I'll catch some.)

I hope you enjoy the work. More is on the way.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I received the galleys for "Clockworks" this evening. Like their contracts, Asimov's now sends these as PDFs; though I had to print out (in order to sign) and mail back the contract, the story itself will remain in e-form. I've been reading it aloud, certainly the best way to catch mistakes or simply moments that might be improved. All I've noted in the first five pages is my using the word "before" in two sentences in a row, which I'll fix.

I'm quite enjoying this tale. It's been long enough since I wrote it that I remember almost nothing.

In the next entry, I'll talk about what I've been reading.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who ARE you people?

Perused my stats for this blog just a moment ago. (Had never before noticed the map feature.) So who is checking in here from Russia, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Bulgaria, Poland, South Korea, and Mexico?

Stand and be recognized! (I'm just so curious . . . )

A sorrow, isn't it, for those who've come from so far (albeit instantaneously), that I have so little to say? This week, much mental energy was expended on school. And then, of course, there was the OK Go concert Tuesday night. (No, that didn't tax me mentally except as a consequence of my getting little sleep that night.)

At some point this week, I did write a page of the sixth "old man tale" (I'm supposed to be working on the third tale in the disordered sequence). Coming up with a cool opening now for that final segment makes the whole thing look much more possible. Not that the completed series seems impossible, but the slowness of my labors (and incompleteness of my knowledge about every remaining tale) makes the process seem like a function more of time than of effort—that is, I know it'll eventually happen, but it's as remote as a promise to yourself that you forgot you made.

Did that make any sense? Too much narrative uncertainty in my life, what with "The Secret Sharer" and Wuthering Heights on my lips and banging about my brain.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

More to read here

Since Fictionwise has now stopped selling the March 2010 Asimov's (thus ending the six-month embargo on my use of the story), I'm posting a PDF of the tale over to the right. If you missed it before, have a look now. I figure it's useful to provide for anyone who comes upon the next story, "Clockworks," and wants to see the other existing component.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Roth's *Nemesis*: I'm not feeling it.

Before setting down my own thoughts on Roth's new novel, I checked out the two reviews run by the New York Times. Two questions, I have: Why did you both give away nearly every plot point? Why did you both ignore the book's weaknesses? Kakutani at least allows that the final section is melodramatic and the entire plot unsurprising (so that makes it okay to reveal it all?), and the reviewers are right to praise aspects of the novel, but neither Kakutani nor Leah Hager Cohen gives the full picture.

The plot (I'll spare you the details you shouldn't know) involves morally upright Bucky Cantor, phys ed teacher and playground supervisor, living through and with the outrage of polio in the summer of 1944 in Newark. Weak eyesight has kept him from the war, and he wishes he could be a heroic man like his two friends fighting in Europe, but his life forces upon him other choices which might prove heroic. Complicating matters is his girlfriend, who wants him to join her at a summer camp a safe distance from the Newark outbreak.

The novel is short, though one problem may be that it's not short enough. Roth's narrator (who remains hidden by the narrative for a good long time, though Roth's purposes with this construction feel inconsequential or even poorly considered) is repetitious. In a short book, you don't have to keep reminding me about the girlfriend's favorite song or mention that he'd just heard it the other day, because I just read that. That's a persistent issue, as the narrator, representing Bucky's thoughts, lets play out circular arguments that simply aren't that well composed. The language is flat—except for some lovely descriptions—and made me long for the lines of powerful writers who could bring some rhetorical heft to a character's thoughts. A much tighter book would have been better. Even the third act, though relatively short, is told in such a circumlocutious way, it feels like an early draft—and, again, raises the issue of why this particular narrator is of any use.

Roth does capture an era well, and the book is full of beautiful moments, though quite a few of them get pounded into the ground. It's a sentimental book, but the sentiment clouds its seriousness, so that the questions raised don't feel like real questions. And the questioner, Bucky, seemed less real to me as the novel continued. For some reason, he remains more a set of behaviors than a real human. Kakutani, too, says that he's flat. But he's the center of the story.

I wanted to like the book, but from the reportorial opening to the overwrought middle to the not-terribly-credible blather at the end, Roth let me down. At its core, I think there's a great novella, but instead it's a meandering essay on the burden of conscience.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Creeping along

During the school year, it's tough to make much progress with either reading or writing, except during breaks. As such, here's the slim report:

A little bit of writing on this today. Now pretty sure it's taking place in 1925. I wrote about a page two days ago, realizing that I needed to stop doinking about and actually produce some text. As a result, I now have something resembling an opening page, and I moved some things around to give myself a fair sense of how the opening scenes will develop. Still, large chunks of this story remain a mystery to me. In order to take on their necessary flesh, they'll likely become pretty sizable, so I won't be surprised to have another novelette on my hands. (I think each of the "Old Man" stories should be a novelette, but every time I begin, I start with rather slender elements.) For "Unearthed," and for another story (or set of stories, or perhaps a novel--all set in an alternate world), I've been drawing some inspiration and information from . . .

The Day We Found the Universe, by Marcia Bartusiak
An excellent book so far, it details the history of modern astronomy and astrophysics, focusing on events that led to the 1925 announcement of certitude regarding the actual (and once unthinkable) size of the universe. To realize that, only a little more than a century ago, most people thought the Milky Way was coequal with the universe is to enter such a profoundly different way of thinking, and Bartusiak then makes us feel the shock when the wide world gets immeasurably wider.

I also started, just yesterday, Philip Roth's latest novel, Nemesis, about the polio epidemic coming to a small New Jersey town. The story is interesting, so far, but the writing feels flat. Roth has never done much for me, and I've been amazed for some time how he's become a kind of literary elder statesman.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Laird Barron

I grabbed his book Occultation and Other Stories at the library, in large measure because he won a Shirley Jackson Award (this being mentioned on the cover).

First I read the second story, "Occultation," because it was short and because it was the collection's title (thus suggesting some conviction that the tale can carry one's expectations for the entire book). It was duly creepy, but at the end it felt like all that had been accomplished was a juxtaposition of disturbing imagery and a set of cheap shocks rather than a coherent story. This reminded me of two things: poetry by John Ashberry and the "language" poets (on my mind because of an essay in last month's Poetry); and the short fiction of Kelly Link. Sure enough, the back of the book sported praise by Link, whose work has always seemed to me more like an acrobatic stunt than real storytelling. Also, a story with similar imagery but infinitely superior workmanship and far more satisfying fright appeared decades ago with John B. L. Goodwin's "Cocoon" (1946), reprinted in Bradbury's tremendous anthology, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow. Find it and read it.

Next I tried the collection's first story, "The Forest." The writing didn't exactly sing (and I suppose neither he nor his editor knew the difference between uninterested and disinterested), and the story slogged along through clumsy sentences and cliché characters. Then there came the interesting part that didn't make sense—but was, at least, interesting. This was then left behind for an embarrassing, um, climax. 'Nuff said.

What bothers me most is that this writing is associated with Shirley Jackson (through the award in her name). Jackson is not merely a fantasist or horror writer. Jackson's theme, typically, is what people do in uncomfortable situations, be they mundane or terrifying. And Jackson's prose is always clean, smart and precise. She is, for me, one of the premier stylists of American prose. Work in her name should go to the finest writers. Perhaps Barron has better work. Given that I'm moving on from this book, I doubt I'll come across it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In praise of limestone

Prodded by some errant ideas and a mention of my yet-unwritten story on last week's "Book Cave" podcast, I did a tiny bit of writing this evening for "Unearthed." The text accrues drip by drip. I've become a literary pointillist, writing the smallest components on the way to making my stories. Later in the process, I smooth it all out and connect the pixels, but in the meantime it's nothing but a bunch of dots.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books bought

A spittle's-worth of writing in the past week, and so we speak of other things.

Books purchased at the annual library sale ($1.50 for hardbacks; $1.00 for papers; $.50 for mass market paperbacks (the penny dreadfuls of the sale)):

Amos Oz, Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories (hardback; dust cover like a paper grocery bag)—stories Oz wrote in the '60s and revised in the '70s; this English first edition came out in 1981

Michael Cunningham, The Hours, (hardback, signed)

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (hardback, hefty, contains "all 356 original illustrations [from The Strand Magazine] by Sidney Paget)

Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers (paperback; Carter is a gap in my reading knowledge, and my colleagues have recommended her)

Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier (paperback; I know nothing about this novel, but I like the title and the style of the cover)

ed. Nick Caistor, (The Faber Book of) Contemporary Latin American Short Stories (hardback, 1989; seemed useful to add to my international reading knowledge)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Collected Stories (paperback, but solidly built; I have the collection Crown of Feathers, but in a smaller, weary paperback; this has more in a better package)

Katherine Mansfield, Stories (paperback; given that I just taught "The Garden-Party," a favorite story of mine, this past week, this seemed a fortuitous discovery)

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (paperback with something sticky that must needs be removed from the back cover; I've never read her, I confess)

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Vintage paperback; I've been meaning to reread this (I must have read a borrowed copy in college) ever since reading Pnin and seeing again Nabokov's greatness, so now I have it)

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer (hardback, a load; a few years ago, I bought this same edition over eBay, but its binding is loose, the cover roughed-up, and many of the pages marked; this copy is beautiful inside and out, and thus certainly worth a buck-fifty)

All of the above: $13.50 plus a three-mile walk and running into various friends. A good day.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Russia, with love

I keep forgetting to mention: "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" will appear in ESLI (translation: If), Russia's oldest science fiction and fantasy magazine. The editor contacted me recently to express his interest in reprinting the story in translation.

I love the idea of Russian readers (and a Russian editor thinking well of the story), and I hope some of those readers will let me know what they think.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On stories; Lasdun; Lloyd; my stuff

I was disappointed to see, in a book on literary terms I’ll be using with the AP Lit. students, that the opening attempt to describe short stories harks back to Poe’s language about “total effect.” It’s not that I disagree with that definition per se (though it’s only applicable to a certain kind of story, perhaps), it’s just odd that we haven’t moved farther in our thinking—especially given Poe’s unreliability as an authority on, well, anything.

In any case, quite often when I read a collection of short stories, I think, “Really? That’s a short story?” There might be that total, unified effect, but it’s subtle. Or it doesn’t add up to anything. It seems to me that, at the very least, you need an entire story.

With this in mind, I read, some weeks ago, two stories in James Lasdun’s latest collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt. The stories seemed to end either too soon or too vaguely, but a friend of my oldest daughter’s told me she’d taken a class with Lasdun and that I should keep reading. I did, eventually increasing my pace until I finished the whole thing (a rarity for me with new fiction collections). I can report it’s a terrific book. Most of the stories really are stories and set us up for some small adventure on the part of the protagonist. A large majority involve infidelity. They all have the same tone of the sadness of middle age and heaps of regret and a kind of amoral inactivity with regards to the world. No one is particularly likeable, though that doesn’t bother me. There’s a light touch, a good way with the prose, and a somewhat bitter humor throughout. The one stylistic problem I have is that Lasdun, in nearly every story, takes on the voice of a teller of a tale, giving me background information in a solid paragraph or—as an approach that accomplishes much the same via different means—has a character reflect overlong in too detailed a way. The tale-teller voice is simply a matter of taste; I don’t care for it at the start of a story, but I got used to it in Lasdun’s stories, even as I felt he often didn’t need it.

A disappointing collection, which I did not finish, is David Lloyd’s Boys (I had ordered it from the library because Lloyd directs the writing program at nearby LeMoyne College; I was curious). The book is, purportedly “Stories and a Novella,” but the dozen stories are all placed under a single heading, and few of them are intact stories. They're vignettes. Only one, as I recall, truly gave us a complete “gesture,” and even there, I wanted much more. What Lloyd has done seems easy. The writing is fine, but a story is a hard thing. I did not read the novella, as I was worn out with being thwarted by the other bits.

As for my own writing, yesterday I finished a draft of “Not What They Imagined,” a piece of realistic fiction. A friend provided a good critique of it today, so I have a good sense of what I need to change. It feels fixable.

I also wrote a little on my next “old man” story. I’ve begun reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (yet another insanely good book, following on the heels of Wuthering Heights) and the novel suggested to me a solution to one of the problems with my story. Thank you, Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


In the midst of reading Wuthering Heights, Entering the Stone (see the Shelfari link at right), and slices of various other things (gave up on Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit about a quarter of the way in: though I agreed at the start with her thesis that a liberal arts education is necessary for a vibrant democracy, she made broad statements that kept returning to the same details for support, jumping back and forth between Dewey and India's Tagore for her sole touchstones, so the whole thing felt like a weak undergraduate paper), I'm reading large pieces of William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies (was there ever a worse subtitle?), a new work by John Carey.

I read most of what there was about Golding's childhood and his teaching career, but none of the chapter about the war years, being more interested in how his writing career took off. Lord of the Flies is a testament, it turns out, to having a terrific editor. Charles Montieth happened to see Golding's novel in the rejection pile at Faber & Faber, and he became a champion for the book. He had Golding strip away several sections that weren't in Golding's first manuscript but that Golding had added (the set-up for the novel; an air battle at the halfway point; a naval battle at the end); he actually removed much of the explicit religious and theological weight of the novel (mostly centered on Simon) so that the book had a more realistic core and understandable motivations on the part of its characters; he helped Golding tighten the writing.

Golding took those lessons about writing into his next two books, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, both of which I've read and both of which are marvelous. Now I want to read more Golding. The more I come to know of him, the more I appreciate his work. His Nobel lecture, here, reshaped my view of Lord of the Flies, expanding it to see a greater soul than I'd realized behind the work.

As I work on my latest short story, I'm also emboldened to push the narrative into odder places. Its ordinariness had been bothering me in any case. Hopefully I've come upon a stronger structure and story engine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Story sold; book read

"Clockworks" has been sold. It should appear in Asimov's in the late winter or early spring, about a year after my last Asimov's publication.

Gotta pick up the pace on those. The next one in the sequence (also a prequel) is stalled because a) I've been working on another story and b) I have quite a few questions about both the plot and the physical details. It's a challenge.

I finished The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald's Booker Prize–winning novel. I hadn't read Fitzgerald before. I have a novel (unread) of hers that I picked up at a library book sale, and I've seen her name listed often enough among the great English writers. She came to writing late, it seems.

I knew nothing about the novel before getting it from the library except that it was highly recommended. (I'm looking for contemporary novels to add to my AP Lit. class.) Had I known the plot, I'd have probably balked; knowing nothing (which is how I like to approach a book), I instead was drawn in by the story and the voice, having no idea where the thing was headed. It's the story of Fritz von Hartenburg, a real-life German poet of the late 18th century; he took the name "Novalis" as his pen name. Rather than a description of his career, it's the tale of his first love. It's also the story of the people around Fritz, family and friends who are mystified by his attraction to young Sophie ("my Philosophy," as he comes to call her); in addition, it's a vivid rendering of a time and place, the era of Goethe (who puts in a brief appearance) and a time of civil upheaval. It's a wonderful novel that defies categorization.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's done, what's undone

Regarding Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I'll quote from my post at the Asimov's forum:

Finished yesterday. I think it's a brilliant novel. Whether or not a particular reader enjoys it is a different issue; the thing is a great work, both entertaining and challenging, making me both feel and think. The resolution does tie together everything--and you see it coming, that Bulgakov is going to pull the past and present together somehow--and is a prompt for further discussion.

One has to discard traditional theological notions, given that Satan/Woland isn't evil and the Pilate/Jesus story is laden more with philosophical and humanistic concerns than religious ones (in fact, religion is avoided in the novel); however, I see a straight line between this narrative and Milton's. Just as Satan hopes to undo God's plan (and for reasons Milton helps us understand) in
Paradise Lost, so Woland seeks to undo bureaucracies, systems that stifle the artist, selfishness and even rationalism. He inserts himself into the Soviet scheme and, with his wilder associates, damages whatever he can.

The novel is subtly structured, with its protagonists slowly revealed and its agenda unclear for much of its length. The writing, especially in the sections supposedly written by the Master, is at times beautiful but at all times skillful. The narrator, both in the book proper and in the Master's tale of Pilate, is very much a presence, sometimes apologizing for what he can't explain or perceive.

It did take me a long time to read the book. It's not a page-turner, but it's well done throughout and worth the time. Only one section, "Satan's Ball," felt like it needed a trim. What a strange, strange book.

I'll have something to say about my story "Clockworks" next week.

Tangentially, given that both "Clockworks" and "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" contain a character who is an homage to Doc Savage, I want to mention Warren Ellis's Planetary, a comic book series. I read the first volume a few days ago. Sadly, my library does not have all of the subsequent volumes. In any case, Planetary contains a character named "Doc Brass" who is clearly based on Doc Savage ("The Man of Bronze"). Visually, he's the spitting image of the James Bama version of Doc on the Bantam paperbacks. There's no mention of "thanks for the trademark steal" in the front of the book, but I suppose Wildstorm Comics, owned by DC, had permission to use it, given DC's flirtation with the character over the years.

I've been reading short stories by James Lasdun.

I mostly finished a draft of a new story, "Unimagined." It is not a "genre" piece. A few gaps in the narrative remain, though I know what goes where. As often happens, I'd started the story thinking it was about one thing, but once I figured out who the characters were, it became about something else and ended in a way I didn't see coming . . . which is partly the point of the title.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More reading than writing

I just finished Logicomix, a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell's attempts to find a way of talking with absolute certainty about mathematics and logic—and how that lifelong project relates to what we can say, with any certainty, about morality and judgment. The story is interesting both intellectually and emotionally; in addition, the authors add a metafictional layer, letting us see the process by which they worked through how to narratively address abstruse concepts. Ultimately, the framing story becomes a way to understand Russell's story (which itself is framed by Russell as a story told to help answer whether the United States should involve itself in the second European war). Excellent, literate work; the artwork is restrained yet expressive, giving the feel of a cartoon documentary.

I'm still reading The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's posthumously published novel of the 1930s-era Soviet Union. The book combines the moral urgency of Dostoevsky, the operatic largeness of Hawthorne, the goofiness of Gogol and the paranoia of Kafka via a tale of the devil and his assistants wreaking havoc in Moscow. It's entertaining and exciting.Though I've linked to the most recent translation (by Pevear and Volokhonsky), my copy is the Vintage edition, translated by Burgin and O'Connor.

"On the Brink of That Bright New World," by Robert Reed (and first published in Asimov's), the first story in his collection The Cuckoo's Boys, is quite a kick-in-the-chest way to start a science fiction collection. It gets at a familiar theme—regardless of what changes come in the future, humans will continue to behave in the same way—through a story that makes the them the plot. "Here's what I did while the rest of you were focused on messages from space," an unrepentant man tells a helpless scientist. Reed also lets us see—vaguely, through a train window—that the larger world hasn't changed either. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.

I've set aside the next chapter in my "old man" sequence, but only for a time. I need to do more research before proceeding, but I'm also interested in writing some other fiction. I started something that could be much longer, though I haven't gotten very far on it yet. I'm anxious to hear back about "Clockworks."

Additionally, I have a lot reading to do to prepare for the school year. I just picked up Henry IV (having first dyslexically ordered Henry VI), which I haven't read since college. Fun stuff.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A book gone wrong

What went wrong from conception to execution with historian Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History? The premise is simple enough—perhaps too simple and ill-formed: history is, to borrow a phrase, everyone's "last refuge," used to promote peace, fight for justice, defend indensible actions and make claims for land or power. One could easily make the same argument for religion, which might make for a more interesting book since in religion you're with with elements inherently open to interpretation. MacMillan doesn't exactly say that "history" has the same plasticity, as events themselves can't be argued with, but people and principalities are selective with their history . . . when they aren't outright distorting or elliding facts to shape the narrative toward their benefit.

Hardly a thesis against which one can argue.

The issue, perhaps because of this loose thesis, is with the book's structure. Each chapter seems aimed at approaching a different way history is misused, but I couldn't identify any difference between the chapters. There's repetition, as MacMillan goes to the same historical events for her examples, and the chapters become laundry lists of how countries (and un-countried populaces) manipulate their people by how their tell their histories. The process by which the book was assembled comes into question when you read the same aphorism twice within a few pages. Too, it's obvious who's buttering her ideological bread, which weakens the tone.

MacMillan is a Canadian professor whose book Paris 1919 won praise and awards. It has to be put togethere better than this, which reads like an inflated essay.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More submitting

A third story is out for consideration: "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" is at TriQuarterly, which is now an online-only journal. I made a dozen minor alterations before sending it out.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Short story reading; Verne's journey

From Thomas Lynch's Apparitions and Late Fictions, I read three short stories. They're something of a blur to me, and I've returned the book to the library, so I can't summon the titles. The blurriness is due to a commonality of tone and a similarity of subject. Lots of deaths and funerals. The author has written a book about the job of running a funeral home, so this materials has infiltrated his subsequent fictions, it seems. The writing was good, and one story, which had won a mystery award, had a nice way of delaying its surprises.

From James Lasdun's collection It's Beginning to Hurt, I read his prize-winning "An Anxious Man." A few moments and descriptions struck me as common, and some observations seemed obvious, but the story grew on me, the protagonist, a weak soul, shaped the events and outcome nicely, and the narrative became troubling, then harrowing. I wanted something more from the ending. Lasdun suggested some of that "more" with a late line meant to echo and earlier moment, but I didn't find the resonance convincing. Lasdun is English, but now lives here.

I finished Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. I've seen the old movie version (James Mason and Pat Boone? Is that right?) and recall: the large, quiet Icelander who assists the professor and his nephew; them being trapped in a large chamber; their expulsion from the volcano. I was surprised to find the book actually ended that way. Verne spends a great deal of time being very precise and scientific (though of course the scientific theories were shifting even as he wrote, and he added a goofy scene to the book to accomodate new information), which is why the utterly preposterous moments seem even less believable. And there are plenty of preposterous moments, usually involving tremendous falls, racing at great speeds, or being propelled upward. Had he been writing in the present day, he'd have had his characters outrun a fireball. They all should have been killed many times over (or at least lost their provisions a lot sooner). What Verne does get right is a kind of feverish tone for his narrator, who is either terrified or excited much of the time. His fears, and his experiences of vertigo, are captured well, and are the best moments in the tale.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Still waiting to hear back about "Clockworks." I'm expecting to hear this week.

Sent "The Dearness of Bodies in Motion" to Glimmertrain for its June contest. I'm quite pleased with that story.

Over the weekend, I finished the short novel Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers, late science-fiction-writing siblings. The translation was awful, loaded with weak verbs and redundancies, and the PDF itself was riddled with errors. Some terrific speculative and spooky elements in this tale of a future earth that's been "visited" by aliens who left behind, well, stuff--like interplanetary travelers who stopped to have a "roadside picnic" and didn't clean up their trash. The story is less concerned with the facts of this visitation than with the "stalkers" who make a living by sneaking into these forbidden zones and steal items for the black market. The logistics of the story are nonsense: people creep in and out at will, despite supposed oversight by the government; decades have gone by since the "event," but no one even has good overhead images of the layout of this particular zone; there's little sense of what effect this has had on the larger world. Too much is left off stage or to the imagination. What's there is fun, if undeveloped, and the ending isn't prepared for well.

I'm one-third of the way into Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Amazingly, our travelers still haven't set foot below the surface of our world. That's frustrating, but otherwise the story is excellent, entertainingly told and, as with all Verne, careful (and overelaborated in spots) in its details.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Yoon, dinosaurs, other bits

Some interesting moments in the Yoon book (Naming Nature), though the writing could have been a lot tighter. The editor should have stopped her at the 300th use of the word umwelt. Less of the conversational tone would have helped considerably, as would sections within the chapters to keep them more narratively focused.

At one point, Yoon brings up dinosaurs as an example of how young children love to find diverse life-forms to organize (or, in terms of the book's subject, to fit into a taxonomy); she sees it too in the Pokémon craze. Something struck me as off in this. Yoon says a child in the wild would bring into its natural ordering tendency the various wildlife of that place. City-dwelling children have only dinosaurs. I grew up in a rural area. I suppose I could have organized birds. I had a book of natural history that I loved looking at, and, in addition to living organisms, I was interested in rocks and minerals, which I collected. Like a lot of children engaged in creative play, I systematized my toys. But dinosaurs' pull is unique, I think. They're extinct, so playing with little dinos--even just thinking about them--makes them live, and gives a child some control over these monstrous things which, because they're not truly present, become non-monstrous. Playing with dinos is a lot like talking about comic books. Mastery of dinosaurs and superheroes gives one a kind of outsized power. And the species names possess a kind of magic, don't they?

Reading some Skrulls-taking-over-the-world comics from Marvel's "Secret Invasion." Fun. Last week I read a Red Hulk comic sequence. Much Hulk-smashery.

Enjoyed some Billy Collins poetry from Picnic, Lightning, but he gets thin after a while. What's most effective are his poems that focus on the quotidian, and self-conscious about the nature of poetry writing, and then turn in some way to probe something in Collins or the reader. When he leaves this sly (it's always surprising) formula, the work isn't as strong. Reading him did push me to draft a few poems, my first in a while.

No writing on my latest short story today, though it's on my mind most of the time. Even some ideas from Yoon have crept in.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Nature; new story

Started reading Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, who writes for the New York Times. It appeared on the new book shelf at the library, and concerns a topic that had been on my mind recently, namely the system of classification for living things. Yoon posits that the scientific approach shouldn't simply trump our (evolved) approach to categorizing living things, and she walks us through the history of classification.

I have out from the library two books on caving. Haven't started them yet. They're to be resources for the next short storry in my "Old Man" set of tales, to be titled either "Unfathomable" or (looking more likely today) "Firmness of Earth." This is another prequel to "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," taking place in the 1920s.

My process for these stories is increasingly non-linear. Maybe I've discovered how I think. Or maybe I just have zero attention span for writing. I've typed up three pages containing summaries of scenes, bits of dialogue, one coherent paragraph (that almost certainly won't end up in later drafts), some background notes, and a rather detailed description of . . . some creatures. While doing dishes just now, I figured out something about the theme and a few more plot points that are essential.

Still waiting to hear back about "Clockworks."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fischer; Bishop

Last night I finished Rudolph Fischer's The Walls of Jericho, a satiric novel of the Harlem Renaissance. Fischer's lightly elevated prose perfectly captures the machinations and meanderings of the various characters involved therein, and his dialogue demonstrates a great ear for not just black speech but for individualized speech. The story revolves loosely around Joshua "Shine" Jones, who is overseeing a pair of at-each-other's-throats comedic types moving a pale-skinned black man into a white neighborhood when he espies a lovely young woman. It's not clear how exactly the various lives and lines of plot will connect, and Fischer doesn't push the narrative into too solid a form, allowing each scene to serve an internal function as well as gradually advance the larger story. The one faltering, to this reader, is that Fischer allows too much sentiment in the relationship between Shine and Linda; he's aiming to be humorous there as in other places, but it comes off as merely sincere, instead. Still, it's a fun novel with smart dialogue and great insights into a time and place that Fischer seems to know, even as he's writing, will soon be past. I may order Fischer's collected short stories; that's how much I liked this.

From Michael Bishop's collection At the City Limits of Faith (picked up at a used book store), I read the first story, "Beginnings." It concerns one of the theives crucified alongside Jesus; still alive, he sees Christ taken down from the cross, which recalls to him a telling encounter with the infant Jesus. The story is beautifully and strangely told, a tale about how our ends are prefigured in our beginnings. Bishop is a science fiction writer, for the most part, but he works outside the genre as well.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing; Farmer; Borges

The writing: "Clockworks" is back from my reader. Now I'm convinced that it's good.

Philip José Farmer: I picked up Riverworld and Other Stories at a used book store last week, thinking the story "Riverworld" would be Farmer's introduction to the planet on which everyone who ever died on Earth finds themselves resurrected. Farmer's confusing introduction to the tale, however, reveals that, seminal-seeming title aside, the story was written a decade after his first foray into Riverworld, and is just one of the many novellas that make up the story. The other novellas are collected in the "novels," which aren't novels.

It starts off like a joke: Cowboy film star Tom Mix, Jesus, and an Israelite woman named Binthia are in a boat . . . The story doesn't actually improve upon the set-up. Jesus is named Yeshua, which is correct (that or Yeheshua would be the Aramaic form of the name; "Jesus" is the result of running it through Greek, Latin and English), but evidently Farmer assumed his readers wouldn't know that this character is Jesus, since none of the other characters can figure it out. Farmer keeps dropping huge hints, but still no one puts it together. It would be one thing if this weren't crucial, but it turns out that the whole story is about how no one figures out who he is (and he's miserable about who he is anyway), which lets Farmer finish the story with a pretty lame punchline that's only good if we didn't figure out the man's identity 80 pages earlier. It's like a print version of The Sixth Sense. Five minutes into that movie, I was saying, "This can't be the whole deal. I mean, obviously that guy's dead, but there's going to be more to it that that, right?" No. There wasn't. What torture.

Farmer's writing is adequate, but what's more frustrating is his inability to address any interesting topic that comes up. A host of fascinating problems are alluded to, but Farmer's got a supposedly rollicking plot (it isn't) to attend to. Maybe the books are better.

As for Borges: My eldest daughter's reference in a magazine piece to a Borges quotation has led me to some questioning. In his essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," Borges informs us that Wilkins's entry has been, sadly, removed from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wilkins, a 17th-century clergyman (of course) and author, created a universal language; this leads Borges to reflect on various systems of classification. In particular, he refers to Dr. Franz Kuhn's mention of a Chinese tome entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which classifies animals into categories which include "innumerable," "those that are included in this classification," and "those that have just broken a flower vase." Hilarious, but it sounds true enough to be possible. My daughter says Borges made it up. I did some checking. Kuhn is real, known for translating Chinese novels into German. However, Borges appears to have made up the book to which Kuhn refers—which didn't stop Michel Foucault from referring to it.

Ah, Borges.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pullman's latest; etc.

Finished Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a book that had me wondering throughout why Pullman had bothered. Then I read the blurb at the end that explained the book was part of a series of books by well known authors tasked with revisiting familiar myths. I suppose Pullman seemed like the obvious (in which "obvious" is a synonym for "most likely to provoke controversy") choice for a book about the life of Jesus because Pullman is vocally opposed to organized religion. Fair enough, but could he have at least approached the material with somewhat less transparent aims and a less silly premise?

In rewriting the tale of Jesus, he posits a twin brother named Christ. (See, so when people later talk about "Jesus Christ," it's ironic because the religion is really the result of both of them. Get it? There should have been a third brother named "H." . . . ) Jesus gets in trouble a lot as a little kid, and his brother Christ talks him out of these troubles by glibly using his familiarity with scriptures. Later, when Jesus takes up a public ministry, Christ, who has tried to talk his brother into the practicality of forming a "church"—never mind that that's not a Jewish term—is approached by "an angel" who persuades Christ to write down everything his brother says and does. This leads to some discussion about the difference between truth and history—truth winning out, in the eyes of the angel and Christ, who revises some of Jesus' statements to make them fit in better with the narrative he's constructing.

Jesus is still doomed to the cross, but since Christ is his twin brother . . . well, you can see early on where this is going.

Pullman spends a lot of time picking on the idea of "church," of organized religion. It's certainly as easy target (though even Pullman has to admit that the presence of the church in history has been a force for individual good as often as it's a force for institutional evil), and there's even a not-veiled reference to pedophile priests, but it's a clumsy aim for the story, which would have done better to focus on notions of how narratives get constructed from history. Why the twin is of use is questionable, as Pullman could have had any character fill the writer's role. Christ's implication in his brother's downfall (and "resurrection") just feels forced, especially since it's clear the brother doesn't believe what he finds himself saying. Pullman spends a lot of time simply retelling the gospel stories without their miraculous trappings, treating this as a new idea (as if Thomas Jefferson and a host of others didn't do the same thing), and he seems to think he's radically stirring the pot by proposing non-miraculous views of seeming miracles, as if that weren't an old and familiar way (among progressive branches of Christianity) of looking at the Bible. There's a nice scene in the Garden of Gethsemani with Jesus talking to God's silence (a conversation his brother never hears), but even that is hardly new.

In the end, this felt competent but dashed off, an easy buck for Pullman.

In my own work, I'm nearing completion of a readable copy of "Clockworks," which I hope to send to two readers this weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Never ceases to amaze me: how one can move between polar positions on a story in progress. Even within the course of a day, I can't wait to get to work on it again, so hopeful do I feel, and (contrariwise) I account it rubbish. It's nothing so virtuous as humility, this second position. Its rather a species of doubt informed by fear. Thinking something is pointless is not the same as wondering whether oneself is the best person for the job.

And so: Back to it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Clockworks" continues to expand (and deepen, I believe). Heading for 14K words. It's possible that the piece will get tighter at the next revision stage, but I wouldn't be surprised if, for everything I remove, more materials shows up. At this point, the climactic scene needs the most work, as it still contains some false starts and uncompleted actions.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Still working toward an intact draft of "Clockworks." Some sections have seen multiple revisions. Some remain sketchy. Most of what needs to be tossed has been tossed, but some (small, I think) pieces are missing, and nothing is in close to final shape except perhaps the first page. I'm at about 12.5 K words; the final piece will be around there, it seems. However, I wouldn't be surprised if some new moments that suddenly seem needed bubble up in the course of revision. I'm looking forward to having this phase completed so I can go over this creature line by line and word by word. There'll probably be two go-rounds of that before I send it to the friends who've helped with the editing in the past.

Meanwhile, I've started reading Philip Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, which directly (maybe) confronts (kind of) the issues of one's biography in the construction of fiction. To this point in the book, Roth has been addressing himself to Nathan Zuckerman, the fictional version of himself from some of his novels.

Oh: And hello to any folks from the Pulp Factory who stop by!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Finally got around to finishing Nella Larsen's Passing. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen produced only two novels and a few stories. The short novel reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a book full of thoughtful revelations that has too many essayistic qualities to be a fine novel. Larsen's book is actually better, in that there's a narrative arc derived from the interactions of particular characters, but much of the book's dialogue involves the stating of ideological or ethical positions. Very little happens in the book, which moves slowly, much of it taken up with interior reflection by the narrator, and said reflection involves pausing the course of events to let thought processes be fully spelled out. The male characters are not credible. The protagonist never stands back enough from herself to allow us to see the particularities of her own situation. Though the title of the novel refers to how American blacks "passed" among whites, the narrator, Irene, spends more time observing with horror how her friend Clare has passed than detailing how, at times, she's done it herself. She makes oblique references, in conversation, to how blacks can not only identify one another but also how they can't spot an "ofay," a white who's trying to disguise his or her racial identity; however, the narrator never lets us in on the finer points of how to remain hidden or how to find the fakes. It does offer, at least for this white reader, some fascinating insights into a cultural moment, but it doesn't say as much as it should. (In this, it's weaker than Gilman's "first-wave feminism" novel, which, though bogged down in exposition, is more bold and direct in detailing the differences between men and women and the difficulties in their attempts to live together. Gilman's book also has the fun conceit of a land which has seen no men in centuries.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Patience Stone

Over the course of three days (though it takes only a few hours; it's very short), I read The Patience Stone, by Afghan author Atiq Rahimi. The story is simultaneously realistic, a piece of absurdist theater, a monologue, and a parable. Some moves seem false, but only, I think, if the reader requires this to be one particular type of tale, when in fact it's several types of tales. It's even a meta-tale. The "patience stone" is a fabled stone that absorbs everyone's sorrows and that will, at the end of the world, explode. The reader becomes a "patience stone" as we're forced to listen to a woman pour out her previously unspoken sorrows to her husband, who lies unconscious with a bullet lodged in his neck. The entire book takes place in one room and, as if we were watching a play, we are never allowed to see beyond this room, though we hear sounds from beyond it. Certainly the story takes place in Afghanistan in a time of war, but it might be Iraq or another Muslim nation just as easily. (Though a few minor details probably fix it in Afghanistan, the country is never stated.) The author is male, but he effectively "vents" a host of female grievances and leaves us with a full picture of the possible roles for women in this society (all of which are viewed in the protagonist or through women she mentions).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Interviewed, among other things

I was contacted this past week by Art Sippo and Ric Croxton regarding "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down." Both are pulp and comics fans, and they run a site where they post interviews with people who have something to say about either or both. My interview is "Book Cave Episode 70." (I think it can be saved rather than just listened to through iTunes, but I couldn't get that to work earlier.)

Still enjoying Lost Books of the Odyssey.

I'm also reading John Dominic Crossan's The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story, which I picked up from a friend who wanted to get rid of a few books (out of many thousands) before she and her husband moved to a new house. It's been years since I read Crossan. I've appreciated some of his books; one in particular, The Cross That Spoke, ended my reading of him, as the theory at its heart (that the goofy "cross gospel" is a precursor to the relatively tame Easter narratives of the gospels) seemed not credible, at least from a literary standpoint.

Also reading Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms, by Gloria Ladson-Billings. More about that once I'm farther along.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Finished In Cold Blood a week ago. Outstanding. What Capote achieves is rich insight into the minds of the killers without at any point granting validity to their reasoning. He presents it and explains it—as they see it in themselves and each other—but doesn't suggest that their reasoning is, in fact, reasonable. Rather, we're witnessing a kind of amoral Rube Goldberg device that results in the killing of the Clutter family. For me, what's most fascinating and trouble at the same time is the sense of how many such people move among us, those whose essential selfishness provides no brakes to their actions. Rarely does this result in murder; the consequences are, I think, more ordinary.

Such issues fit well with the considerations at work in "Clockworks," still on hold as I complete the revision of "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth." I'll finish that tonight. It's much stronger now, having lost the second narrative voice and a large chunk out of the middle that had come from an early and far different version.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is well crafted and thoughtful. Each small story (it is not, despite the claims on the cover and in its marketing, a novel) employs both the elements of ancient tale and (post)modern short story.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Good stuff

Alternating between The Iliad and In Cold Blood.

The Fagles translation of Homer surges with energy; there's a wonderful pulse to the writing, even when Homer's merely detailing the troops arrayed for battle. I haven't read the book before. It's been a gap in my learning.

About In Cold Blood, I perhaps know too much already, having seen the film Capote and read the Capote in Kansas graphic novel. Nevertheless, Capote's style—even though it's now a commonplace of novelistic journalism—feels like a revelation. You can sense him inventing the structure of this new form. He's done an outstanding job using details both lovely and disturbing to evoke dread in the reader.

In writing: "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" came back (after 10 months!) from StoryQuarterly. The rejection contained positive comments as well as a suggestion to cut "judiciously." Since they provided none of their own judiciousness in this comment, I'm having to make do with my own. I hadn't looked at the story in probably two years; it obviously needs some trimming. It'll be much stronger after this. I've already marked it up.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Giving up on le Clézio; moving on

I did try with Desert. I had stopped after the first chapter (I nearly stopped on the first page, in truth) because the style seemed so intentionally resistant to forward movement. The author appeared to be announcing with every phrase, "I am writing literature--not a story." It reads like an anthropological study rather than a tale of actual people. In any case, I tried another chapter, but found myself defeated by the book's insistence on inertia as a narrative principle.

Maybe Fagles's translation of The Iliad is next.

Also, I've made additional notes for expanding some scenes in "Clockworks" and jotted down a few starts for other stories. Don't know when I'll get to those.

I learned today that "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" was praised in the latest Locus magazine.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

It's going to be a challenge, now that I've finished Conrad's The Secret Agent, to move on to a book that's less brilliant. With a (Henry) Jamesian attention to psychological detail--and an ability to simply stop a scene and analyze it from every angle--Conrad takes a tale of would-be terrorists and anarchists and makes it into something rich and strange. At no point did I have any clear idea where the story would go, and Conrad plays at misdirection so that the tale's true protagonist (and I think it does have one) is revealed until near the end. Conrad lets us be misled even as many of the characters are misled.

The tone differs from what I remember of other Conrad works: for every character except one (plus a minor character), the narrator demonstrates outright disdain. He makes a show of revealing the thought processes of every major character, but even as he defends them, he makes them absurd. The narrative is laced with sarcasm as Conrad sets about eviscerating both anarchist and "servant of the law" alike, and such is the specificity of psychological complexity, each person is awful in a different way.

You can see how this novel sets the stage for everything Graham Greene would do with the spy narrative.

I also read Capote in Kansas (subtitled "A Drawn Novel," by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee), a graphic novel that was well done but which didn't seem to need doing. Haven't we heard this story way too many times recently? I quite enjoyed it, but its only contribution to the tale is a layer of fiction, having Capote interact, awkwardly, with the ghost of the girl who was murdered. I do now want to read Parks's Union Station, also based on actual events.

I read the first few pages of Simak's classic Way Station, but it's a deep drop from Conrad. Maybe I'll try again on Le Clezio's Desert, which started slowly (and at too much a remove from its characters for my taste).

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl disappointed me, in the end. The third act collapsed into much bloody running around, easy hero/villain situations, and a plot device (a dead man who won't leave the story) that might have been good if used sparingly but which is here a huge miscalculation. The story becomes, due to all these components, less serious and less capable of being taken seriously. The world Bacigalupi imagines is coherent and interesting, and some of his characters were truly worth the time. I fault either the editor who didn't push him in the right directions or whatever force it was that drove him to take short stories (two of them went into this book) which were reportedly excellent and expand them ill-advisedly.

I read A Reader's Manifesto (see my bookshelf), by Myers, which I quite enjoyed. Though I didn't agree with every aspect of his criticism (he goes after several acclaimed authors who, he feels, are unduly praised), the grief he takes from book reviewers reveals--what any good reader should have already detected--a defensive culture of mutual promotion and the desire to believe that some new great thing is always being released.

I'm writing. Baffled a bit, but writing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I finished Auster's In the Country of Last Things several days ago. Reading it while reading Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl proved to be somewhat problematic, in terms of getting my head into each text, since both took place in the profoundly wounded cities of dysfunctional futures. Both feature characters wandering through those cities in search of meaning and assistance. Auster's novel uses this—even on its face—metaphorically, and the "facts on the ground" shift from one day to the next for our protagonist, Anna Blume. Bacigalupi's tale has several protagonists, and certainly part of its agenda is to suggest that their city joins them while it separates them at the existential level, and none of them is seeking the same sort of satisfactions. The styles of prose differ radically: Auster is spare; Bacigalupi somewhat self-consciously ornate, though one could argue that it fits the exoticism of the novel's locale as much as Auster's honed prose fits the deprivations of that novel's world. Auster's tale is a fable and Bacigalupi's science fiction, but both are grounded in realistic appraisals of character.

Did a fair bit of work on my story "Clockworks" this past (vacation) week. I'm feeling confident about it. I just need to somehow apply myself to the work in the days ahead, as I return to teaching.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I like revising. Working on "Clockworks." It's like organizing a room, but in this case there's a place for everything you need to keep and the trash is easy to take out.

Also: reading Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl and . . . some Green Lantern comics.

See Shelfari (at the right) to link to the books themselves.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lydia's Davis's book of short fiction, Varieties of Disturbance, makes for a unique reading experience. I picked this up because a friend of my eldest daughter's had given her the book and I'd read James Wood's piece in the New Yorker about Davis's collected stories (which he considers as important a collection as Flannery O'Connor's collected fiction; quite a judgment). Some pieces are as short as a sentence, which makes the transition to her ordinary-length stories akin to a forced march after a stroll across a room. The pieces are all funny and often possess a detachedly ironic tone, a kind of weariness with language even as language makes profound demands.

I finished Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone a while ago. I liked the main character, or at least was intrigued by her; a "female" automaton, she's tasked with finding a way to transform her home city's living gargoyles into flesh. The book is shy with its details, so the world Sedia has created doesn't feel (no pun intended) fleshed out; rather, her focus is on the way in which one thing becomes another—the servant robot becomes free, metal learns to feel, stone becomes flesh, the living enter death, a city's government is transformed. The writing needed to open up some, I felt; the simple style fit our automaton's perspective, but the gargoyles' interior narrative sounded identical, and as the story increased in drama, the prose should have been reshaped, but instead felt flat. And through it all, I never had a strong sense of how exactly the automaton looked; the narrator held back, and I felt something more tactile would have helped. Some very nice moments in the piece and some surprising scenes that took the story and main character into unexpected narrative crannies.

Just started John the Revelator, by Peter Murphy. More on that another time.

I've been reading poetry, mostly, since that's what I'm focused on now in the early weeks of the creative writing class I'm teaching.

My story at Asimov's is getting positive responses from people. If only I had time to do more writing.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Writing in the new year

"Clockworks," the prequel (of sorts) to "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," is progressing well enough. As with some other recent projects, my approach is nonlinear. I toss ideas and scenes into the document as they occur to me. I've had the story's arc long in place, though there have been some revelations (for me) along the way about how to get there and what it all means. I'm at about six thousand words; it may end up with around eight thousand, but the length isn't a concern or consideration. It'll be as long as it'll be, and I'm hoping it will be published at Asimov's as a follow-up to the other story. It's nice to feel some confidence about that, and to note that such confidence isn't impairing my aims for the story's quality.

A rather short piece of non-genre fiction, less than two thousand words, is nearing completion as a full draft. It's called "Set It Down."

"The Dearness of Bodies in Motion" was revised, in only the smallest ways, and sent out a few days ago to two venues (after having been rejected in accordance with the promised timing by Tin House). I hadn't reread the story for many months, so the sentences and the story's structure kept catching me off-guard. As always, it's nice to be surprised by one's work.

I should hear back any day now about "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth."

And reading

Currently, I'm finishing Chris Hedges's jeremiad Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. I don't disagree with anything Hedges says, but the ranting tone doesn't help with make his points, and he's often too narrowly focused to provide a satisfactory argument. On a chapter seemingly condemning all of the U.S. higher education system, he targets his alma mater, Harvard, as well as UC Berkeley and Princeton for glaring stupidities, and he also condemns the elitism intrinsic to the system (and to the private schools feeding the system). But he leaves out every good thing and ignores the vast majority of the higher education system--which might be condemned for letting in everyone rather than keeping most people out. What's wrong with that chapter is what's wrong with the book, as the coherence of his arguments aren't allowed room to breathe and his personally ground axes flash on every page.

Highly recommended is artist and author David Small's graphic memoir, Stitches. If you've read Small's children's books, you'll be utterly unprepared for this. The art serves the story well, and both are gripping.