Friday, December 30, 2011

Books abandoned; stories read

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Huburt Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, fell apart for me. I'm somewhat curious about where the book's thesis was headed, but the shambling structure, both narratively and philosophically, made me suspect their methods for getting there. After a lengthy analysis of why David Foster Wallace made them feel hopeless (I'm woefully shortchanging their ideas here, but in the end, it's not that important), they spend much time among Greek heroes, considering how they responded to the universe. The problem with this is that they're constructing a way to use literature to help us find meaning, but they're equating the narrative strategies of playwrights and poets with how actual Greek people responded to the sacred in their lives, and that's not an historically valid equation. The book seems to give a lot of credit to Jesus' insights into what it means to be human, but they somehow manage to not really talk about him. Great swaths of philosophical thinking a given short shrift, and then they declare that Decartes is the next great insight-provider (after Jesus). I had a hard time finding a coherent argument holding the whole thing together, and the structure of the book seemed ill–thought out. I dropped it at about the halfway point.

I'm disappointed to have stopped reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion three days in. The book started out well, and almost immediately it communicated its intention to use The Canterbury Tales as a structural method for the "pilgrimage" of the novel's seven travelers. However, the length of the first tale made me realize that the tale-telling would be the bulk of the novel, unless the other tales were radically shorter. I quite enjoyed "the priest's tale," with its gothic, grim science fiction. The next story, however, let me down rather quickly, the moment it announced we were going to be exposed to a standard suspense genre sex scene. Absolutely dreadful writing took hold, and I lost all confidence in the author's project. (I very much enjoyed Simmons's "Muse of Fire," a novella from the Dozois and Strahan–edited The New Space Opera—that is, with the exception of the ending, an awkward and unconvincing reminder of the conclusion of Star Trek: The Movie, a conclusion some wag deemed "a $40-million f**k.") Undone by the writer's misstep, I looked ahead to see whether, indeed, I wasn't going to get much of a novel out of this novel (a fact confirmed by a friend who'd read it some time ago), then elected to read the concluding 20 pages or so. Overloaded with sentiment, the book merely sets you up for the next book. No, thank you.

I also read several short stories from 1983's The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces, edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Greenberg. (I keep seeing "Arkham" for "Arbor.")

Clifford D. Simak's "Desertion" seems like an episode of The Outer Limits, which focused at least once on turning a human into an alien. Every bit of science in the story is goofy, and there's not much to the characters, but the story is a sincere little parable that, at the end, becomes beautiful and manages to carry more weight than you'd suspect it could. The editor's note at the start that Simak wrote the story in response to first reports about Nazi death camps sets you up in a way the story doesn't deserve; it's better to know this afterwards and allow the story its own argument without tying it to some particular human atrocity.

"Warm," by Robert Sheckley, is what I'd expect from this writer I was introduced to 32 years ago by a high school friend. Either humorously grim or grimly humorous, the story doesn't go where one might expect, but gets there through a method I wasn't expecting, something more thoughtful and philosophical. I know how Bradbury would have done this story (and I'd like to see that); he'd have ended in the same place but taken a radically different route. The structure springs from the notion that one is "warm" when locating something hidden or coming closer to understanding an idea. A voice from who-knows-where tells our protagonist he's getting "warmer" to where the voice is trapped. The protagonist's attitude toward the voice is what's comic, since he treats it as real yet doesn't seem all that bothered by it, as if this sort of thing happens all the time.

Lastly I read "A Bad Day for Sales," by Fritz Leiber, another parable, this one having as its target our commercialized world. A socially awkward robot/vending machine is going through his shtick with a city crowd when disaster strikes. Leiber does a great job with the scene, switching from a vaguely threatening looniness to a nightmare scenario smoothly. That various people start picking themselves up at the end seems unlikely given the description Leiber provided, but it's a neat effect and keeps the story from stopping dead.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Love the writer, hate the editor

Mishna Wolff's I'm Down is, for much of its length, the funniest book I've ever read. Her outsider younger self—a white child being forced by her white father (a man evidently more comfortable about black folks than white folks) to fit into her black community—is a source of much self-deprecating humor and increasingly profane responses to the messed-up world(s) around her. Once she finally learns how to have cred in the black world, she's sent to a largely white school for gifted kids and once more finds herself having to navigate strange waters. Part of what makes the book work is Wolff's refusal to explore issues surrounding race; rather, she shows us how particular people of varying races live their lives, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about culture and class. The center of the book, as with many memoirs, is less the author than the parent, in this case the father. As the book moves through time, we see Wolff become more distant from her father, only to have a redemptive reconnection with him in one longer, more serious chapter at the end.

The book has problems, but I'm going to blame them all on the editor who, absurdly, Wolff singles out for thanks in the acknowledgements. Wolff has great material to draw on, and she has a gift for comedy. The challenge for the editor becomes how to turn the book into a coherent whole. For much of the book, when we're dealing with Wolff's earliest years, the material manages to do this itself. But as time passes, the book feels more fragmented; there's no strong sense of how much time she's spent somewhere or how something from a previous chapter affected the current one. The book's tone shifts, too, as Wolff's issues change, until we reach the conclusive scene with her father. My problem with the father's redemption, however, is less the shift in tone than the shift in the way we're expected to see this man. The scene, in which he joins his daughter's for a swim across a lake, seems to involve a different character than we've come to know. This is the guy who never works? Who never finishes any project? Who is tugged about emotionally because he seems to have no real certainty about himself? I'm not saying the scene didn't happen, but there's no sense from the author about how to connect this man with the character we've come to know. 

There's also an unresolved undercurrent of the writer not telling people what she needs to tell them. Repeatedly, she lies about her own motives and actions in order to defuse situations. It's an interesting motif, but she never explores what it means. And that's true for a host of things. So while I appreciate the youthful-observer perspective on issues of class and race, there's some oddly unexamined material that leaves the work feeling incomplete and thin. This sense isn't helped by the prose; the youthful voice at the beginning is the same voice at the end, and it never rises much above stylistically serviceable. 

I blame the editor. Again, Wolff has great source material and a good sense of how to set a scene and build a funny narrative. But the editor needed to take this book to the next place. The editor also needed to actually read the book. Increasingly as the pages go by, errors (typically homophones) pop up, along with missing words or sentences that don't parse. It's the homophones that are most jarring, for me; they announce that the writer tends to make these kinds of errors, which means that the editor, if she is doing her job, is going to watch for this kind of thing. What is the editor being paid to do?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

So Far Gone

So Far Gone, by Paul Cody, ended well. The author pulled it off, executing (oh dear, no pun intended) a beautiful ending, I thought. The protagonist of the tale, Jack Connor, will be the first person in decades to be put to death in Massachusetts, having murdered his parents and grandmother. We don't see a court case—this isn't that kind of book. Instead, we get Jack's interactions with the priest who visits him, repeated flashbacks to his early childhood (though out of chronological sequence) and later years living his parents, and the accounts of "witnesses" who contribute outsiders' perspectives on Jack and what he's done.

There's an enormous amount of repetition in the prose, and I think several chapters could have been tightened considerably with no loss. Halfway through, I didn't have any sense of the book's momentum, but then events begin to link more tightly and the noose of the narrative tightens. It's a marvelous book that doesn't settle for the standard steps one might expect to see in such a story. Cody generates sympathy for Jack by having us live through his hellish childhood. At first, I think the grandmother is overplayed, demonic, but later we get a better sense of the wildness of her moods, and eventually we sympathize with everyone in this horribly wounded family, and Cody does a nice job building that sympathy in careful stages. It's a terribly sad book, but there are redemptive and humane cracks of light showing around the sealed cellar door at its heart.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


About one-third of the way through the intense revision/completion of "Unearthed," a tale that has crept up to 18K words. There will be some additions, but some trimming is ahead, too, so I don't expect the total to be too far from 18K. Finally having time to work on the thing, I'm moving through line-by-line and not leaving anything for my future self to have to figure out, which means I have to solve any problems now. (I've put off quite a few decisions, I'm finding; thanks, past self!)

I am, meanwhile, reading Paul Cody's So Far Gone (which will make or break itself in its final quarter; I'm reading Cody because he was the editor who selected a story of mine for the next issue of Stone Canoe), All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly (which may be moving a bit too swiftly through the history of Western thought to be completely credible), and Mishna Wolff's incredibly funny I'm Down (the true story of a poor (literally) little white girl who lacks are cred with her black neighbors, but whose father, white though he is, moves with ease in the black community).

In other quasi-news, a Los Angeles–based producer is working with me to get my story "Clockworks" attached to some people in the business of making movies; there's no money in our agreement, at this stage, but if he manages to find a buyer, I'll let you know.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Working on "Unearthed."

Reading Errol Morris's marvelous Believing is Seeing.

Later . . .

Friday, November 25, 2011

Against obliteration

I'm in the "every sentence sounds kind of stupid" mode of revision on "Unearthed." Some of them may, indeed, be poorly done; as there's no ideal sentence, each is less than ideal; the broader problem is the usual one of voice, of making the narrator sound like one person (who isn't me) rather than like me at various times of day or states of mental with-it-ness. I keep seeing sentences that make me say, "Yeah, that's exactly how I'd write that," which makes me revise to be less-like-me, though, no surprise, that's still me because who else is there to judge how the sentence sounds?

Last night I began All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Is that the same line drawing of a whale that was on the Philbrick Moby-Dick book? Hmm. I started this as a way to pull myself up from the obsessive thoughts of death spurred by Julian Barnes's excellent Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It may be "nothing to be frightened of," but it's also "nothing one wants to obsess over to the point of distraction," so rather than dwelling, in my reading, on my eventual obliteration, I moved on to a book more focused on the bright bonfire of storytelling and not the encircling dark.

The book moves briskly, though the culture its aiming to cure, no longer god-saturated (a process that started hundreds of years ago), isn't the whole picture. Certainly there are plenty of folks who, contra the fallout from the Renaissance and Enlightenment, still see the world as under God's command. Yes, even these "believers," of whatever religious background, approach things more independently and existentially than, say, their 14th-century peers, but they nonetheless inhabit a different reality than these writers. In any case, after an analysis of our current "nihilism," they move into a discussion of how David Foster Wallace both probed this radical uncertainty and succumbed to it. I'm only about 50 pages in.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Revision, first steps; Philbrick's Moby-Dick

How long since I'd read this opening to the draft of my story-in-progress, "Unearthed"? How long ago did I write it? It's wonderfully unfamiliar. It needs work, but there's a lot to work with, as well. Interesting. "My words are cicadas." Hm.

Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick
After reading Philbrick's book, you don't necessarily need to read Melville's novel. I read two-thirds of the book, a few years ago, before running aground on yet another digression in the narrative. Philbrick's book, wildly overpriced at $25 (it's about as long as a good-sized short story), visits many of the book's finest moments, lines I underlined when I made my own foray into the text. There's also interesting material about Melville's pushy relationship with shy Hawthorne. Less good are the attempts to force the book to make statements about the way America is heading toward the catastrophe of the Civil War; these line readings don't seem to fit, and, even if the argument felt more solid, it's clunkily done in this small space, with sudden shifts of intent in a tiny chapter's final paragraph. This seems more like an essay to have run in The Atlantic, and I can't imagine what audience would buy it. But you ought to get it from the library and fly through it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Clockworks" posted

I considered—on the advice of some friends—creating a Kindle version of "Clockworks," my "Old Man" prequel that came out in Asimov's this year. But you know what? I feel like I already got paid for it, and at this point, I'm just happy to have more people read it. Better here than on some bit-torrent site that scanned and chopped the Asimov's issue. In addition, making a "cover" for the thing seemed like too much of a hassle.

So: Here's "Clockworks," at your right, clickable as a PDF. Yeah, I turned off the widow and orphan control when formatting it; it was simpler than the other options.

Please let me know what you think. I'm curious as to how many people download it. Today I printed out a pretty-much-completed draft of the next story, the prequel "Unearthed." I've still got a fair bit of work to do on it, but I think those of you who enjoyed the other "Old Man" stories will enjoy this next one at least as much.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More about "Mote": other stuff as well

I wrote a follow-up to my review of The Mote in God's Eye, but my blog took a distinct dislike to what I'd written and, after first leaving it stranded mid-sentence, then deleted it (okay, that was my fault, but it didn't give me a chance to say, "Wait! Don't!").

I didn't talk, the first time, about the title itself, which has to do with both the world from which the "Moties" come (near the "eye" of the Coal Sack's "Face of God") and the biblical aphorism about removing an obstruction from your own eye before daring to pluck the smaller obstruction from the eye of another person. This is, I suppose, the point of the book, though it dealt with in a way that is somehow understated while also being clunky.

Niven and Pournelle set up parallels between the humans and aliens: command structure, sexuality, rising and falling civilizations. It might have helped the point had someone on the human side provided a critique of human systems in light of what they saw in the Moties, but instead everyone blunders along rather ignorantly, though a few passing comments are made to draw attention to the similarities. In a literary work, this would have surfaced as a theme; here, it's a motif that never rises beyond a surface depiction. In fact, had someone ever pointed it out, the clunkiness would have become more evident: the exact parallel of having a hidden commander about whom both sides wonder; the exact parallel of stranding three people on Mote Prime and three Moties among the humans. You can Niven and Pournelle saw this conceit as central to the novel, but it doesn't actually go anywhere interesting or take the reader deeper.

Last week I read Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. I've read a lot about Scientology—I find quackery and homegrown religions and hoaxes fascinating—so I already knew a fair amount of what was in the book, though Reitman's information about the current leadership and the Gold Base was new to me. The one thing I feel wasn't conveyed fully was the sense of what exactly happens in "auditing" sessions, the Scientology equivalent of the confession. Everything she said about it, I knew, but I hadn't had, previously, the sense of endless hours people put into the process, and I left without a clear sense of how exactly one spends that time. And though she may have gotten at this aspect, it's pretty clear that such a process, by itself, must do so much to make the recipient susceptible to the mindset necessary to proceed further. Of course, that's the upfront point, but it's frightening to think of how, Stockholm Syndome–like, one's mental defenses must be so reduced by the process, much like the mental defenses of someone who, grilled for hours by police, confesses to something he or she didn't do. I do recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject. Reitman is pretty fair, I have to say: she doesn't just outright say that the practices Hubbard invented are stupid or dangerous; she doesn't damn the "faith" so much as she damns the way it's been run, with Hubbard drifting into megalomania and the current show-runner demonstrating some kind of narcissistic personality disorder (at best).

I've started both Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes's personal reflection on death, and Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's proto-novel. Both are funnier than I thought they'd be. Defoe's protagonist is sort of an idiot, so far. Barnes's voice is just so marvelously English; an American could not have written these sentences.

I did some work on the final section of "Unearthed" today. It's coming along. Now I have to decide (though it's hardly urgent) whether to post "Clockworks" here as a PDF or format it (and stick a picture of some kind on the front) for sale at Amazon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Recent reading

There's little writing to report. I'm waiting to hear back about two short stories. School- and (eldest daughter) wedding-related activities have contributed to a severe slackening in my writing. I did manage to do some reading in the past week or so:

The Mote in God's Eye, the 1974 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, turned out to be  . . . I want to say "pretty good," but I'm hesitant. I'm glad I read it, but it's also, for me, one more nail in the coffin of "classic science fiction novels." I'm at somewhat of a loss to explain why I didn't read it in high school, when I went through a Larry Niven phase, reading everything I could in his Known Space–related books (except for The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, which struck me as having a dull subject), in addition to all of his short fiction collections. This novel may have seemed dauntingly long as well as less interesting due to its non-participation in the Known Space universe. It being a collaboration may also have put me off, though I enjoyed the Niven/Pournelle Inferno. Still, I doubt I'd have enjoyed it back then.

A "first contact" novel, built around the humanity's early interactions with a sentient race from another star system, the book does take the premise and problems of alien interactions seriously. While the aliens aren't all that alien (and the focus on dialogue leads you to imagine them looking pretty much like us much of the time . . . only hairier), the book does finally hinge on incompatible ideas about culture and worldviews.

It took me a while to get accustomed to the writing, which is utterly flat and colorless, though serviceable. It's not bad or clumsy writing, by any means; it's just that none of it stands out, and no passage is particularly thrilling to read. The focus, in consequence, becomes the dialogue, which again isn't compelling, but largely sounds like humans talking and is clear. The book smacks of Star Trek, unexpectedly: several characters have annoying Old Earth accents that just seem ridiculous in the distant future, despite the authors' explanations. Giving the engineer a Scottish-English dialect to speak too obviously would remind any reading of Star Trek's Scotty . . . which should in turn remind everyone that he was faking his accent, making the novel's Scot sound doubly fake.

The book is paced oddly. A dramatic sequence in the book's second act leads one to expect another exciting sequence late in the game. A host of precautions taken against alien incursions during the journey home suggest that the humans have missed something—but they haven't. The end of the book, after some delaying personal scenes that aren't interesting at all, reads like a courtroom drama, with verbal revelations from unexpected quarters standing in for any physical action. The conclusion works pretty well, in fact, but it takes an awfully long time to get there and relies on quite a few people being more thick than they really ought to be.

In addition, portions of the book on Mote Prime, the aliens' homeworld, left me feeling as if I were watching a Saturday morning cartoon. In part, that was the result of the adolescent-level writing, but it also came from the silliness of some aspects that made the proceedings feel less real.

I also read the comic book collection Messiah Complex, a recent X-Men book that crossed among the various X-titles. It was much easier to follow than many such "events," since it didn't rely on other narratives taking place in yet more titles uncollected in those pages, but one still had to know a few things about X-Men backstories. (I didn't know quite enough, in truth, but I was fairly well equipped.) The story read well and consistently, though several writers contributed; the artwork was all over the place, but I came to appreciate the varying styles, even the manga-ish one that gave everyone Japo-Bambi eyes (surely among the most annoying traits of that style). All of the artists tended to overbusy their panels, but at least you didn't think anyone was being lazy. One artist clearly felt the need to make Professor X look exactly like Patrick Stewart, which I found distracting, but the others didn't bother.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Oh, my stars.

I see that I never posted a full review for Bester's The Stars My Destination. I made some concluding comments at the Asimov's forum, but that has crashed or been deliberately offlined yet again, so I can't access my more immediate responses.

Yes, in the end, it was a waste of time. There are a few fun moments, but the main character isn't much of a character. He does whatever the plot demands of him in order to move itself erratically along, and Bester seems to think the protagonist is somehow worthy of our interest, a common man of note, but he's just a brute, and the story is little more than an adolescent revenge fantasy that drifts into self-importance and forays into the realm of whoa-man cosmic awareness. In classic SF fashion, the female characters are an insult to all females both fictional and living. Both major female figures enter the tale intriguingly, but Bester manages to ruin them. Then there's another who simply serves to be sexually victimized by the protagonist.

Nothing to see here, folks, but the sad missteps of a mid-century genre riddled with self-importance and misogyny.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A brief review of a book briefly viewed

Blame Twitter, which channelled plugs for Christopher Boucher's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive as if publisher Melville House were sending secret codes to start another Middle Eastern grassroots uprising. I ordered the book from the library. I read some of it.

I cannot gain traction in this book. It lacks characters and a plot. Aristotle thinks those are important. He also thinks light things fall more slowly than heavy things, but that's because he was afraid that if they didn't, his world would be far-too-rocked. History has proven him right about the plot/character thing. Likewise the diction-and-thought thing. I can do without "spectacle" and "singing" in my novels, though sometimes those make for nice additions.

The author says some funny things and has an amusing way of giving you completely the wrong word for something. He also gives people "kennings" like Chest of Drawers (a guy he knew) and The Lady from the Land of Beans (a former lover). The book reads like an essay from McSweeney's that should have ended after maybe 500 words. That would have been good. One thousand tops. After that, you're reading words, words, words and nothing else. The eyes move like feet upon a treadmill. And it's not even one of those inclined treadmills or one that features a change-of-pace setting. Perhaps later all of this materializes into some beautiful, intact vision, like a Tralfamadorian novel, but it's too insistently incoherent for that. It does seem to be merely a scam.

Done. Moving on.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Aleph" and other bits

At least twice in the past month, I've seen references to Borges' "The Aleph," which I have in my giant Borges fiction paperback. "The Aleph" of the title is not—at least for the purposes of the story—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, spoken by God (in Kabbalistic theology) into the void to birth the universe, though certain Borges has that in mind. This Aleph is a point in space which, when viewed, reveals all other points in space and time. In Borges' story, this allows a mediocre poet to write an epic poem which spans the globe. A version of Borges himself narrates the story, explaining how his devotion to the poet's late cousin leads him to deeper involvement with the family and to his somewhat traumatic introduction to the Aleph—though he later won't admit to the poet that he's seen this wonder. Though the narrator says little about the dead Beatriz, the name suggests that she serves the same purpose as Dante's Beatrice: a figure that leads the narrator toward some ultimate knowledge. Rather than encountering God, Borges discovers an impersonal substitute, a point of omnipresence if not omnipotence or omniscience. Borges also remarks, as a frame to the story, that he is forgetting Beatriz. What can we know? How can we hold onto it? How much must we know in order to write about something? And even if we could re-view every moment, would that supplant memory and imagination?

Memory is also the subject of the essay ("On liars") I'm reading from Montaigne's Essays (ed./trans., J.M. Cohen). Montaigne begins by announcing that his memory is so poor, he should gain fame due to the profound weakness of this quality in himself. He also suggests that people should be forgiving toward him: he doesn't mean to be so unreliable—it's his memory that the problem, not his intentions, and what can he do about an innately bad memory?

Memory seems to be a theme that runs through my "Old Man" stories as well. It's come up in "Unearthed," and I suspect will be a unifying theme for all of the tales once I'm finished with the series. I wrote more yesterday; my characters are finally underground, which is some kind of achievement. Little do they know what they're heading toward . . .

I'm about halfway through Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and am tempted to stop. Grandiose title and cover aside, the story, at this point, seems unserious, and the characterization is below the level of a comic book. At the Asimov's forum, I posted my concerns; it was suggested that I have patience and proceed. The book's not painful to read, but I do have the sense of having my time wasted.

For school, I'm continuing to make notes in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel, both of which I'll teach early on in my AP classes.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Unearthed" and reading

Plugging away at my usual plodding pace on "Unearthed." I have a few weeks to get this thing done and offered to Asimov's before the school year starts. I have, at last, a great deal of confidence in the voice of the narrator, which is giving the story a tone it hadn't previously possessed. My narrator, nicknamed Qwerty, is a young Mohawk woman; she has a directness and frankness in her narration, but she doesn't always say what she's thinking, which I like. I'm a little concerned about the length of this story, though most likely it will only be as long as the previous "Old Man" tale, "Clockworks." I may have to alter the pacing of the key plot points after this draft is done.

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
I finished this highly enjoyable book a few days ago. The book is somewhat imbalanced structurally, with sometimes entire chapters devoted to individual ballplayers, but each section is enjoyable nevertheless. And it's always nice to hear someone rip into former FOX baseball commentator Joe Morgan. The book felt like it carried lessons for teachers, and I asked some of my fellow teachers whether the book's premises are applicable. At the very least, it made me think—in its ruminations on why some ballplayers succeed and some never make it to (or in) the majors—about how incoming students might be better evaluated for their chances at success, and how we might better those chances.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm
Malcolm's journey into the dark heart of Plath scholarship is really an investigation of the ethics, artistry and compromises built into any biographical endeavor. Malcolm (over)states the case that nonfiction always comes from a place of narrative uncertainty, since there must be many versions of the "truth," whereas fiction possesses greater narrative certainty, since the writer knows what's what; given the longstanding existence of the unreliable narrator—often intentionally—it's odd that Malcolm would describe the contrast in such terms. But I take her point about nonfiction, that what it describes is just as much a product of authorial voice even though we don't like to view it that way. A terrific book, it has sent me back to Plath's later poems as well as to Hughes's Birthday Letters (which I own), the posthumous collection of previously unpublished poems directed (mostly) to his late wife.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Final report on Invisible Man. Plus: Several books at once!

Ellison's Invisible Man is of that breed of novel that, driven by uncontained impulses, so surges and rages that, at its end, both narrative and reader continue to roil and be unsettled. To me, it brought to mind Moby Dick and Brothers Karamazov—though the Dostoevsky novel it almost certainly aims to recollect is Notes from Underground. Likely someone has assayed and essayed this topic already, but is the narrator who insists, at the outset, that he has no name and sets forth his travails in combating a white world meant to nod to Melville's Ishmael, who names himself from the first and then regales us with the story of a man, not himself, who combats a white whale? There's somebody's Ph.D. thesis . . .

The epilogue, written very much in Notes from Underground mode, disappointed me. It was the one part of the book where I felt Ellison flailing about in search of a rhetorical moment that, to my ears, didn't quite arrive. Otherwise, what a wildly inventive, and just plain wild, book, oddly paced (dwelling for a long time on events in close sequence, then jumping ahead, like a film moving between set pieces), inconsistent in tone, and providing a character whose speechifying voice bore no resemblance to his narrative voice (nor even, in some cases, his ideas, as the narrator's speeches always seemed to get away from him). Wonderfully enjoyable.

A Bradbury story
I reread, after a gap of probably 30 years, Ray Bradbury's "Jack-in-the-Box," from the October Country collection. The story came to mind because I'll be teaching Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle which, though possessed of an utterly different plot, also relies on a tight, insular point of view that locks the reader into a naïve perspective on events. (A little boy has been raised to believe that his father, also sometimes called God, who built a huge, elaborate house, has contained the world in this house and that, as his mother tells him, nothing lies beyond the surrounding trees but the terrible beasts who murdered God.) I didn't recall that Bradbury lets you in on the secret so early, but the story is still a bold little devil, great fun, and solidly written.

Reading now
I'm having a good time reading Beowulf (the Heaney translation), which I'll be teaching this year. Heaney's introduction has helped me think about poems to read (Heaney himself; Hopkins) to demonstrate how something of the Old English sound and poetic structure endured.

I'm also reading Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, the story of how using statistics to ask the right questions reshaped the drafting process for the Oakland A's. Lewis's writing is funny, sharp, and visual, giving us both images of and insights into the characters he presents. He also lets us read some of Bill James's writing. James, who instigated, even if he didn't found, the modern science of analyzing baseball statistics to discover truths (rather than support illusions), is an astoundingly good writer, so good that most writers would be wary of letting James eat up space in their own books, but Lewis humbly steps aside frequently so we hear James's oracular words.

I didn't intend to be reading three things at once, but Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, clutched at my collar from the first page. I read about Malcolm in . . . well, in something last week. Hm. Maybe an online article? Something about the problem of biography. This is what I get for not taking notes. In any case, I love the writing and I'm fascinated by the subject (both the human beings and the ethical issues involved in writing biography). Malcolm, too, is generous enough (and confident enough in her own strengths as a writer) to stand aside and let other smart writers speak in her book, notably Anne Stevenson, author of the controversial Plath biography Bitter Fame.

I did some writing yesterday. During a long drive today, I think I finally heard the narrator's voice. Once that's pinned down, the story will take off. (Wow, that line's a metaphorical mess.)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A story by Justin Torres

I saw Torres's name in today's paper; a graduate of a local high school, he has his first book coming out, and he has a story in this past week's New Yorker. Given that I habitually avoid New Yorker fiction, with exception made for George Saunders, I had skipped his story.

"Reverting to a Wild State" is quite good, though I couldn't tell you what the title means. It's the story of a relationship that has ended, told in reverse chronological order. Having tried a reverse-order story myself a few years back, I know what a challenge it is, and I think Torres got right the way the story has to feel at both ends like you're at a key moment of discovery. He pulls this off largely by having the narrator back away from the story's conclusion, as if the past is too much to confront given where, now, he knows his story has headed. There's a bit about a golden feather found on a train platform that made the story, at the outset, seem like a fabulist's tale, but that tone was dropped and I don't think the feather—whatever it was doing there—paid off.

As usual, the New Yorker has run a story by someone with a book coming out; regardless of the quality, this always makes a story look, to me, like the tie-in action figure included in a Happy Meal. According to my local paper, the Houghton Mifflin publicity engine is firing on all cylinders: Torres has another story coming out in Harper's next month (congratulations) and will find himself mentioned in a host of high-profile magazines.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New submission

"You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" has been submitted to the Normal Mailer Awards, run by the National Council of Teachers of English. It's open to high school teachers.

They'll announce the awards in September.

I'm pleased with my work on that story.

Next up: Finally getting back to "Unearthed," the next "Old Man" tale. I have to get it in good shape before school starts up again.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some work to do

An error that must be fixed (identified by a reader) in "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" and some other areas to address for my own satisfaction when I take on another revision this evening. (I have to wait till the day's heat passes.)

How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One), by Stanley Fish
I'm finding good ideas for my teaching, ways to simply launch students into sentence writing without having to think first about the terminology I'm teaching. However, the book so far (I'm halfway through) seems inconsistent, as Fish counsels that we avoid technical language while using technical language to describe what he's up to. There's also some sloppiness (his four-word-long "three word sentence" notably). Colleagues and I are reading this for the summer.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
I'd read the early chapter that Ellison published separately as "Battle Royale." The scene is altered slightly for the novel, but it's a poor fit. Yes, the subsequent scenes also have their surreal moments, as the poor narrator enters one Kafka-esque, dreamlike trap after another, but they don't match the battle royale scene in their wildness and weirdness. The book is pretty goofy, willing to spend enormous amounts of time—à la Don Quixote—fixated on somebody who isn't the protagonist, so there's a looseness to the narrative that I didn't expect. Enjoyable and strange so far.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some recognition; some work

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (available at your immediate right) earned fourth place in the Asimov's Readers' Awards for novelettes. It also joins a host of other stories given honorable mention in Gardner Dozois' 28th annual "best of" collection.

Finished a quite good draft of "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot." A reader is giving it the once-over, and I'm sure I'll be beating it into shape a little more before submitting it to a contest in a week.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Faulkner! Faulkner!

There are two kinds of Faulkner novel: accessible and not-so-accessible. Absalom, Absalom! seemed in the second category, slipping over into inaccessible or maybe just not-worth-the-effort. I set it down at one point, feeling rebuffed by the novel. But a brief step into a contemporary novel left me feeling as if I were experiencing a fictive world that lived only on the surface, and so I returned to Faulkner, though the text was challenging, because at least you're immersed in an actual experience that's working its way through your system like a virus, and that swims in your brain like a dream from which you can't quite awaken.

Is Faulkner joking? At two points, the characters Shreve and Quentin remark on how similar their stream-of-consciousness—styled talk sounds to the discourse of Quentin's father. Of course it sounds similar: No matter who is narrating, they slip into this Jungian overmind–sounding prose style built of clause piled on clause and page-long parenthetical digressions and grandiose meanderings. Everyone sounds that way once they get going. Surely Faulkner is making fun of the style . . . ?

The story plays out like a Greek tragedy, but in American terms. Not only is the Sutpen family cursed, they're cursed because of the South's great sin of slavery. Thomas Sutpen comes from rough beginnings, but the sight of a white man lying in a hammock on a plantation, and his treatment at the door of the big house by an old slave, gives him a sense of mission, a vision for his own life. He doesn't factor in the moral aspects: that such a life is built on injustices large and small. This blindness to the profound failings of Southern culture, a culture that must inevitably destroy itself, leads Sutpen, and all like him, on a quest for something they never should have wanted in the first place, and, like the rest of the South, Sutpen is tripped up by issues of race.

The novel suffers enormously due to Faulkner's complete inability to get inside the head of a black character, or to even see the black characters in anything more than symbolic terms. They are not people, but lessons or obstacles. Charles Bon, partly black, is something of an exception, but we never quite sympathize with Charles, whose role is more to create problems for others, and his death is not felt by any character nor, it would seem, by Faulkner. The book is notable for how often Faulkner employs "the n-word"; I can't recall any other book using it so persistently (when often he could say something else) or with such a sense of otherness inherent in the term. Sutpen's slaves are "wild" (they would have likely eaten the escaped architect of Sutpen's dream house if Sutpen hadn't stopped them); the black man who stops young Thomas Sutpen at the plantation's front door is, repeatedly, "a monkey." Black characters are sometimes nameless, always figures meant to disturb the white characters. It's a problem.

The book's structure is almost a visual trick. You can read much of a chapter and find very little happening, like a train you see in the distance that remains so far off, its size changes little even as it approaches. Then, abruptly, the train is on top of you. Faulkner suddenly accelerates the narrative, allowing half-stated ideas and vague images to finally take shape and find their proper words as a chapter winds up. It's a startling effect, and it happens at both the micro and macro level of the novel.

I read it over the course of several days and read nothing else most of the time. Even so, I completely lost track of a character that had been previously introduced, and so the ending left me confused until I looked up a summary of the novel online. I didn't think I'd been inattentive, but the character had been dropped, and the novel doesn't aim to reassure you of narrative integrity throughout, so it's up to the reader to hang on to some of the threads Faulkner sets aside.

Next up: Ellison's Invisible Man.

Also, I'm working to finish a revision of "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" for a contest.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


So tempted, I was, to set down Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! about 60 pages in. Repetitive, elliptical, circular (yeah, that's two shapes), and evidently never-to-veer from a structure in which ridiculously voluble people who don't talk like humans give us pieces of a backstory we're to slowly construct. It didn't feel worth the effort.

Then I picked up Carolyn Cooke's Daughters of the Revolution, which I'd seen praised. Yet the prose felt flat in the early going. The opening chapter, which probably started life as a short story, had a few shining moments, but several awfully cliché and awkward moments, and several elements that didn't feel credible. I don't know whether I'll continue reading it, but I now felt drawn back to the Faulkner because, look, it's an utterly immersive experience, a kind of vivid dreaming in which you know you're in a dream but you want to follow it through to the end. So now I'm on page 110 of Absalom, Absalom! It's crazy, it's wearying, but you know you're having an experience you're going to be glad you lived through.

Meanwhile, having finished an apparently unsuccessful draft of "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live" and set it aside for a few days, I'm back to rewriting "You Have No Idea What I've Forgotten." The key, while reading Faulkner, is to avoid picking up any of his habits. Both of these have to be finished by the end of the month to be entered in contests. That gives me August to rewrite "Unearthed," which I think will be grand.

Highly recommended movie: Happy-Go-Lucky, one of Mike Leigh's cast-and-crew-constructed films. You leave it having felt you were in the company of actual people, not actors, which is a credit to everyone's talent as well as Leigh's way of building the movie out of improvisation followed by rehearsal. It's beautifully shot, too, and in a gorgeous, eye-popping palette that makes the real world (mostly) beautiful.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Line by line (Pt. 2)

That was exhausting. And all for 2000 or so words. Who are these "novelist" people of whom I've heard tell?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Line by line (Pt. 1)

Still moving some pieces around in my new fictional something-or-other, "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live," but I've also got a full line-by-line stalk-through to do. Getting there. Just just sure where "there" is or what the weather is like.

Finished The Man of Bronze. It's a good thing I read it after fully plotting out and quasi-drafting "Unearthed," because I have several elements that touch on the original novel, and if I'd read the novel first, I wouldn't have put them in. Instead of direct references, we've got synchronicity.

Read some bound issues of the late Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League of America (The Injustice League). What makes the story stand out is the small stuff: clever exchanges between the characters that give you insight into motivation; sharp dialogue that reflects intelligence on the part of (some of) the villains and heroes alike. McDuffie was one of the few black writers in comicdom. You can tell when he's around. During his run on the Fantastic Four, the Black Panther took control of the team for awhile. Here, Green Lantern John Stewart, who is black, takes charge while Hal Jordan is away; Black Lightning plays a major role; other black characters show up; and, most tellingly, more than one discussions touches, comfortably, on issues of race. Still waiting for McDuffie's Static Shock to come for me from the library.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trying Twitter

I know, I know . . .

But I have some ideas in mind for it. My user name is wmpreston.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aristotle, for starters

That Aristotle. I'm reading his Poetics. Quite entertaining. His genius lies, even when he's clearly pulling something out of his ear and making an unsupported opinion sound like a fact, in categorizing everything, which at least has the effect of making you look at something in terms of its parts rather than its entirety. It's too bad his only points of reference are prior to the fourth century BCE; this tends to limit you when every time you want to give an example, you say, "Let's consider the Odyssey . . . " I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower
With such a cool name, you'd better not be just a public relations invention! He's not. I've only read the first story in this collection, "The Brown Coast," but it's a winner. Great writing, witty observations, and one of those situations that does what Aristotle says tragedy should do, evoke pity (for the character) and fear (that this could happen to you). A guy who's been thrown out by his wife is given by his uncle a make-work task of fixing up a run-down house that's been in his family but that no one has taken care of for years. What he thinks will be his salvation, the presence of the ocean, is undone by the sheer ugliness and foulness of the coast, but still he finds moments—and strange creatures, human and otherwise—full of grace . . . and awfulness.

Still reading Lester Dent's The Man of Bronze, the initial Doc Savage story. I'd thought Dent's personal history as a traveler and kind-of adventurer would intimidate me into feeling utterly inadequate in my descriptions of what befalls "The Old Man," my homage character. However, please note my surprise. Dent does pepper things with the occasional detail that gives you the vague sense he knows what he's talking about, but much more often, the narrative flails about so spastically, it's evident that verisimilitude is the last thing on his mind. (Near as I can tell, in the last scene everybody on Doc's plane was shooting at someone on the beach—while they were still inside the plane. [Dent doesn't seem to have noticed.] Only later did they climb out and, obviously foreseeing the next scene, in which a plane would dive at them, set up a machine-gun on one wing.) Anyway, I now feel like any realism I've brought to these stories, including in the action scenes, stands up far better than I'd first thought.

I'm now working on three stories somewhat simultaneously. (I'm increasingly inattentive.) Two of them I hope to enter in contests. I think they all sound quite different, but I could be wrong. Much to my surprise, two have ended up as first-person pieces (though they didn't start that way). It's good to have deadlines (end of July).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The executives

Reading Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature, I came upon her brief discussion, in her introduction, of Auden's poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" (1939). Garber uses the "Poetry makes nothing happen" as part of her discussion about whether literature is or should be "useful"—and here she's addressing it through Auden and Yeats, both of whom had political, social and moral impulses guiding their work. I looked up the Auden poem in my copy of his Selected Poems:

. . . Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper . . .

That line about "executives" rang a bell. I half-remembered a line and thought it came from a poem by Robert Bly. I have a dozen or so of his poems in a hip 1975 collection of poems, Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A. Poulin (and owned previously by my former sister-in-law). Didn't find it there, but dug out the line using Google (I must have the poem in some other collection). Here's the complete poem:

Romans Angry About the Inner World

What shall the world do with its children?
There are lives the executives
Know nothing of:
A leaping of the body,
The body rolling—I have felt it—
And we float
Joyfully toward the dark places.
But the executioners
Move toward Drusia. They tie her legs
On the iron horse. “Here is a woman
Who has seen our Mother
In the other world.” Next they warm
The hooks. The two Romans had put their trust
In the outer world. Irons glowed
Like teeth. They wanted her
To assure them. She refused. Finally
They took burning
Pine sticks, and pushed them
Into her sides. Her breath rose
And she died. The executioners
Rolled her off onto the ground.
A light snow began to fall from the clear sky
And covered the mangled body.
And the executives, astonished, withdrew.
The inner world is a thorn
In the ear of a tiny beast!
The fingers of the executive are too thick
To pull it out.
It is a jagged stone
Flying toward us out of the darkness.

I'd like to ask Robert Bly: Did you have that line about "executives" from Auden in mind when you wrote this?

Monday, June 27, 2011

In which I talk only about The Quantum Thief

I finished Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief which was, I must agree, an impressive debut. For a string theorist, he writes well. (Joke. I have a daughter who's a physicist.) As other reviewers noted (I only read them after reading the novel), the book is rather laden with invented jargon, especially in the early going, which makes following the details quite a bit of work. Sometimes, you know what he means; sometimes, I'm convinced even he doesn't know what he means; I do think he's sometimes just having fun with us. (Really, she has a thermonuclear reactor in her hip?) I was unsure whether to take anachronistic phrasings (a computer-ship comments, "You go, girl!") as a sign that the author was being intentionally goofy or just careless. That character of the ship is perhaps too much of a common device, and it plays exactly the expected role once it's clear what that is. Therefore, much of the jargon and quasi-science serves to distract you from the more ordinary parts of the plot, though the plot as a whole is clever and interesting. And there are several intentionally silly moments—two otherworldly gamers dressed as Batman and Robin; the main character playing a part in a dance-death that spells out "memento mori"—along with sly genre references that let us know Rajaniemi is in on the joke.

Had I known it was part of a trilogy, I wouldn't have picked it up; I though I was signing on for a single book of not-extraordinary length. A lot gets resolved—the book mostly stands on its own—so I don't feel like I have to know "what's next." And it's not as if the characters made me want to stick around. The one interesting character, though, may be the subject of the next novel, if The Fractal Prince means who I think it does.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Clearly, too many books at once.

Details on each book are available on my Shelfari shelf, at right.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
I have about 80 pages left, but the pace has slowed considerably. Maybe it's me, but I think it's the book's structure, as MarItalicable has lapsed into a day-to-day recounting rather than providing overviews. Is all of this necessary? Not by my lights. My impression is that he's breaking the story down this way because he's got Malcolm's diaries to rely on, as well as news accounts (during Malcolm's final journey to Africa and the Near East).

More Jim Shepard
Read another story, "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," from the collection You Think That's Bad. Again, you see in the details about four scientists studying the nature of avalanches in the Swiss Alps Shepard's research-backed approach to these stories, and in this one, I think he gets the balance right, with a moving story about the protagonist's loss of his brother in an avalanche years before and his reconnection with a young woman they both loved. Everything's just right until the end . . . or including the end, depending on how you look at it. The ending fits the story perfectly, but it's the same ending (jumping ahead in time to see his looming fate) Shepard employs in another story in the collection (a device also used in his previous collection), so, having read those other stories, the conclusion feels like an easy stunt. Too bad.

The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes
I tried. Some beautiful writing; gorgeously long sentences. Nothing happening in the first chapter, however. I didn't have the energy.

The Man of Bronze
Till now, I've avoided rereading any Doc Savage adventures because I didn't want them influencing my homage to the character in my "Old Man" stories. I needn't have worried, at least not where this first Doc novel is concerned. Everyone runs around in a rather silly way; even in the opening scenes, the thing is borderline incoherent, the logic of how one scene connects to another absent as the narrative is obviously being constructed on the fly. As a figure, Doc is interesting—or rather Doc's abilities propel the story forward. Doc himself has no consistent voice. Dent seems unfamiliar with the slang of his own era, as Monk talks like someone trying out expressions. (Rudolph Fischer captures New York black slang beautifully in his stories, by contrast.) I've lost count of how many times Dent has referred to Ham as "waspish." Nearly every time the character's name appears, so does the adjective. Awful. The constant appearance of cool inventions and the kind of falling-down-the-stairs progress of the story do make it entertaining.

The Quantum Thief
This is one of those SF books in which you just have to keep up with the terms-for-things-that-don't-exist, as the narrator avoids info-dumping. I think I'm getting a fair amount of it, but, really, I'm not understanding some key concepts. I haven't done adequate reading in those futures in which everyone is uploaded or downloaded or whatever. It's fairly short, and it won a lot of praise, so we'll see how it goes. I'm about 30 pages in.

Barnacle Love
I can't decide about this book, though I'm halfway through. Each chapter takes place in a discrete time of the main character's life: he's a Portuguese sailor who was lost at sea, landed in Newfoundland, and stayedBold, partly by his own wish and partly by the machinations of others (though I found confusing exactly why he's such a victim). There's a gap between each section that's jarring; the thing needs more contiguousness, I think. After the last jump, I felt burdened by knowing I'd have to labor to fill in the space again, and I'm not sure I care enough to do so.

And as for writing . . .
I've gotten back to "Unearthed," now from the point of view of the character Qwerty. I haven't quite caught her voice yet, but it'll come. Switching to first person will allow me to have her think things that she won't have to reveal to "the Old Man" (in this story known as "Little Boss"), and I can maintain that narrative distance from him that's necessary to keeping him enigmatic, even as we see more of his humanity this time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is this thing?

Not sure what I'm writing. It's called, at present, "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live." The piece that developed out of some story notes I dictated, it may be part of a larger project entitled Only Child. I'm looking to see whether any existing (draft) stories, such as my oldie "When We Have Our Mansions in Paradise," might be a part of the larger scheme.

"Unearthed," meanwhile, sits untouched lo these many months. I'll get back to it once I've polished "I Tell You."

A few weeks ago, I sent "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" to Stone Canoe, run out of Syracuse University. We'll see what they think.

In the Mail

Arriving in the mail today were George W.S. Trow's Within the Context of No Context (frequently mentioned last year everywhere I turned, including by writer Mark Pontin) and short story writer Christine Sneed's collection Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry (recommended by my friend—and "Old Man" fan—Scott Johnson). Additionally, under separate cover from the folks at Radio Archives, came (on the same day!) the first volume of the Doc Savage reprint/reproduction magazine, containing the novels The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror. I've avoided reading any Doc Savage stories so as to keep my "Old Man" character distinct, but everything I have in mind for him now is quite clearly my own invention, so I think I'm comfortable now reading (or rereading) one of the original stories.

Still to come in the mail: In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems 1955–2007, by X.J. Kennedy. (Note my proper use of the en-dash.)


Still reading the Malcolm X biography. As he heads towards his assassination with every action he takes, my frustration builds: I want to catch his attention from out here in the future and warn him away from the coming bullets. But he seems to know what the future holds, and still he grips the wheel.

Reading some other things, too, but enough for now.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Recently: Mostly Malcolm

Much of my reading recently has been in the late Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention; I'm coming up on halfway through. The book moved me to look at some videos of Malcolm online. The man impresses. How is it that I've come to discover him so late? My education—what was provided to me and what I've sought out—has clearly been lacking. And not only should we still mourn the loss of the man, we should also mourn the loss of the kind of intelligent public discourse he exemplified when at his finest.

Marable's book is quite good, though I have to triangulate more by reading the Autobiography and some more texts about the era.

Schmitz, two stories.

I read two James Schmitz science fiction stories, "The Witches of Karres" and "Novice," the latter featuring Telzey, a young girl of many gifts who appears in other Schmitz stories. Schmitz's stories are fun, accessible for young people yet written cleverly enough for adults. "Novice" recounts how Telzey's manipulative aunt schemes to take away the girl's sentient, endangered cat for government purposes. Telzey and the cat team up to undermine the plot and change the balance of power on this alien planet. "The Witches of Karres," which was later expanded, jumps through its plot hoops rather quickly, and the descriptions are so thin, you never get a strong sense of most of the settings. A ship's captain ends up taking possession of three young girls, each of whom has special powers, with the aim of returning these former slaves to their home planet. He's a paper-thin creation of utterly unclear motivations, but the mischievous girls bring life to the story, and their home planet introduces some nice twists to the tale.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Shepard and Atkinson again

"Happy with Crocodiles," Jim Shepard

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, a tale of an American soldier heading into certain doom against the Japanese while he replays in his head the confusing circumstances of his girlfriend situation back home. The title is a metaphor for "thick with danger" or "surrounded by enemies," which he is on the battlefront and homefront. The ending, with its projection into a terrible future, leaves you unsettled and trapped.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

Just brilliant. Some complaints surfaced late in the book, as chapters flipped back in time to gather events from different perspectives, but each time I felt this device slowed things down, I saw how necessary it was to the narrative's secret progress, so that the final chapters, hurling us back to the beginning of the book, become a perfect complement as well as key to unlocking the last mysteries. A complexly organized novel, written in striking prose that could be laugh-out-loud funny, simply smart, wonderfully off-kilter (as characters' attentions wander) or unbearably sad from moment to moment. What a terrific writer. I must read more of her work.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More Shepard; new novel reading

In the midst of various forays into fiction writing, I've also started work on a play. At this point, I'm just trying to see whether I can pull off the particular conceit that drives the narrative. It's tricky. More on this eventually.

More from You Think That's Bad, Jim Shepard
The strength and potential weakness of Shepard's fiction—in his most recent two collections, at least—is the depth of his research. The stories work when the research add illuminating details or enriches something deeper about the story; the stories don't work when the research overwhelms or unbalances the narrative. "In Cretaceous Seas" starts with a heap of information about Cretaceous critters; Shepard's use of language makes the details exciting, makes the lost era live. But after that first page, the four-page tale, a contemporary story of a sad sack of a man, loosens its narrative grip, and the opening never comes back to us as a necessary piece. "The Track of the Assassins" is much better, but the tale of a young English woman's journey to find the ancient cult (while simultaneously reflecting on the catastrophe that is her broken family) doesn't end satisfactorily, never paying off on the promise of all the historical and geographical detail that pushes the tale forward. In addition, whatever connection Shepard was after between the two narrative strands was lost on me.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
I believe I ordered this book from the library based on a reference somewhere to the author's talent. I had no idea what kind of book it was, and even now, I don't know where it's heading. It starts off (a bit languidly) as a family drama, but once the first chapter ends, you know that's not what you're dealing with. With each chapter, your sense of the book's intent shifts, as tragedy piles on tragedy. And then a detective is introduced, though so casually, it seems as if he's just another domino in the sequence. Apparently, the novel is "a mystery" (one in a series), and the novelist is renowned for her mystery novels, but this doesn't read like a mystery; not only is the book literary and finely constructed, it doesn't tip its hand to indicate that the author is working within a particular genre. So far, it's immensely enjoyable, and contains of the saddest passages I've ever encountered.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Not exactly writing; plus, Jim Shepard's latest

I've long noticed that, when teaching, or simply conversing, I make sharper connections, better metaphors, and more interestingly phrased statements than I do on the first drafts of my fiction. There's something about working with that speed, with an audience, or bouncing off somebody else, that brings out better rhetoric and greater focus. As a consequence, I've considered writing my first draft orally, recording them onto the computer and then typing (and revising) from that. Today I got to try that with a larger story idea (or set of ill-formed ideas, really) that I've been batting around. I think it went well. We'll see whether this leads to something.

"Minotaur," Jim Shepard (from You Think That's Bad)
The cover of Shepard's latest collection of stories features a photo of a contortionist doubled over backwards so that, it must be said, his head is only microns away from being shoved up his butt. It got me to laugh, anyway. I'd thought of ordering this collection, but it was at the library today, so it came home with me. The first story concerns a man who's spent years working in black ops for the military; this night, he reconnects with a colleague who went even deeper underground three years ago. Oh, how he's missed this man. And it's a connection that the protagonist's wife doesn't understand and that she comes to realize is perhaps more significant than the connection she has to her husband. Like the fabled minotaur—and like the mysterious military program of the same name—these relationships involve labyrinths and monsters who stumble about in the dark. Great little tale.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Delany. Thon. Together for the first time anywhere.

"Aye, and Gomorrah . . . " and "Cage of Brass," Samuel R. Delany (from Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories)
I've previously read a few stories from this collection (which I think I picked up at a library book sale). "Aye, and Gomorrah . . . " is one of those I've read before. It's a tale of spacers and the people who love them. Really. "Spacers" are astronauts; given the radiation and other rigors of space travel, they've all been neutered (and they have other oddities about them from birth which make them prime candidates); some people, "frelks," find themselves profoundly attracted to spacers. Rather than simply making the attraction like that someone might have for a eunuch, Delany concocts and wonderfully goofy psychiatric explanation having something to do with freefall. The story follows one spacer in a small group of them bouncing from planet to space and tasting the joys of Earth in their unique, alienated way. One particular encounter with a woman is described. It's a smart story that demonstrates one thing Delany did well even in that novel of his that I thought so dreadful (Nova): he articulates into being another world. "Cage of Brass" achieves this as well, though entirely through dialogue. Our "hero," Jason Cage (a comic-bookish name, unfortunately), has been dumped into a self-regulating prison ("Brass") on another world. In this prison, you stand in total darkness, largely submerged in a gel that tends to your body, leaving your tiny cell one hour a day to exercise in yet another dark space. But Cage is, fortuitously, able to talk to two nearby cells, and the men share their stories, the other two men briefly painting their worlds, Cage detailing the architectural wonders of Earth. It's a smart tale that relies on Cage's past to make sense of the present.

"Girls in the Grass," Melanie Rae Thon (from Girls in the Grass)
Sharply observed first-person tale of ninth-grade girls taking risks, playing Truth or Dare, experimenting with themselves and each other. Alcohol, sex and pills come one after the other in quick succession (each leading to the other, as the drinking grants them permission for sex and the next day's discomforts lead to the protagonist filching pills that do God-knows-what for her mother). It's one of those modern stories that doesn't have an ending that ties up dramatically; rather, it ties up rhetorically, which a biting final image. Still, it's satisfying and well told.

Blogger was down . . .

. . . so I didn't get to post yesterday about Samuel R. Delany. Later tonight, I'll post about both him and Melanie Rae Thon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another world

Today's short fiction review:

"Blue Light in the Sky" and "The Bizarre Wooden Building," Can Xue (from Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories)
This book's presence in my collection is the result of shelf-surfing at the former 2nd Story Bookstore, now known as 2nd Story, the owner now "out of the book business" and doing well selling coffees, sandwiches and soups (and a few literary magazines). The story never carried much stock, but what they carried was interesting, not Barnes & Noble fare (and a few times I ordered books from them just to give them my business). This book would never have appeared on the racks at a giant chain.

Xue's stories connect with readers in a way Jung would appreciate: her worlds are dreamy (or actual dreams), slippery, uncertain, hostile. "Blue Light in the Sky" concerns a girl who cuts her foot, an event that leads her unpleasant older sister, who tells her she'll likely die of tetanus, to construct a plot to take the narrator's prized (and stolen?) set of woodblocks. What's dream and what's not is unclear for much of the story, and by the end this somehow works. The work clearly owes much to Kafka. "The Bizarre Wooden Building" is even more labyrinthine, with a less solid set of relationships and images that provide the creeping sense that the author is up to something even more parabolic or allegorical, though I'm at a loss to say more than that about the meaning. A man marvels at a very tall building made of horizontal wooden pieces; he goes upstairs to find a man, huddled in a quilt against the cold, seemingly expecting him. An arrogant boy shows up who challenges our narrator and presents a confounding view of how to interact with the man of the place: by merely thinking of stories from the outer world, which he collects on pieces of paper kept stuffed in his pockets. Our protagonist is finally chased from the place, and looking back from the street he finds the upper floors obscured by mist.

Xue's writing is simple and compelling, the stories unsettled and unsettling.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What people? White people.

Today's short fiction review is of . . .

"Nativity, Caucasian," Allan Gurganus (from White People)
My first exposure to Gurganus came via the radio program Selected Shorts, which broadcast a reading of his story "The Doctor." (I think that's the title.) While the story was simultaneously obvious and unlikely, I appreciated the way the tale was told and the clarity of vision. Some years later, I ordered this collection. There's not much to "Nativity, Caucasian." It's the story of the narrator's birth, taking place in the middle of a contract bridge party. The host's Pekingese is doused with birthwaters, dishes and women fall to the floor, ambulance and fire truck collide en route, and two doctors knowing nothing of childbirth arrive late to the scene from the nearby golfcourse and attempt to attend to the wrong (albeit unconscious) woman. It's an amusing set-piece, finely told, and a record of a people and time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mansfield Monday

All I have is a short story review:

"The Woman at the Store," Katherine Mansfield (from Stories)
As "The Garden-Party" has long been a favorite story of mine—for its subtlety, power of observation, and moral irony—I bought this book at a library sale a year or two back, but I haven't probed it, near as I can remember. This story lacks the elusiveness of "The Garden-Party" and is told in a more straightforward style, with a more formal resolution. The tale involves three people, at least two of them siblings (the female narrator one of the siblings) riding on horseback through a hot and barren region. They stop at the store Jim has mentioned, Jo picturing a lonely beauty of a woman waiting there, per Jim's description. The woman is nothing like her description, the geography and loneliness having taken their toll, as her husband has gone off shearing for a month—a story everyone doubts. There's a child drawing pictures she shouldn't, and Jo making romantic moves. And the ending, with a drawing and its implication of violence, mirrors the "slate" sky of the story's first paragraph and the red-flecked (as if with blood) kerchief of Jo one paragraph later. A fun story, solidly told, with haunting moments and suggestions.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Today's short fiction review

I've got to get back to regularly reading short fiction. Forthwith (Am I using that word correctly? I've never used it before . . . ) I'll read at least one short story a day, mostly from collections I have at hand but have never finished reading.

"Unterseaboat Doktor," Ray Bradbury (from Quicker Than the Eye)
I've read a few stories from this collection, which was a gift. Starting in perhaps ninth grade, I was a huge Bradbury fan, reading everything he'd done. Even by the end of the '70s, however, the downward shift in the quality of his writing (which varied wildly in any case) was evident. I've long said the Bradbury learned the wrong lessons about his work as he went along. His dialogue was never strong, but, perversely, it came to predominate, and eventually most all of his characters sounded like him: breathless, bombastic, rich in not-terribly helpful allusions, and in love with their own voices. And the spare, Hemingway-influenced prose that shaped some of his finest work either took on that same voice (first person) or felt forced. Those problems mar this story, which could have been fun and smart, but which falls apart at every potentially interesting moment, Bradbury letting voluble chatter stand in for a telling description or two. The story is about a former U-boat captain who becomes a therapist; his office contains a periscope that shows . . . I'm not sure. Everyone's unconscious gunk? His own? Bradbury just gives a heaping list and fails to explore its significance. The narrator is a patient who sees this secret periscope and spills the beans to others, causing some kind of unclear crisis. And throughout, I kept wondering why the doctor only uses the German term for "under" but not for the rest of a submarine: Unterseeboot rather than Unterseaboat.

"The Ugliest House in the World," Peter Ho Davies (from the collection of the same name)
I've read this at least three times over the years (first in an annual "best of" collection which led me to seek out the writer; at least once since purchasing the book; now again) but the story always drops from my brain. That's good, since it always surprises and impresses me. (It's not good because of what it says about my brain; I have no recollection of whether I've read other stories in this collection.) The story concerns a young English doctor whose father has returned to the place of his origins, in Wales, moving into a somewhat dilapidated place next door to the "ugliest house" of the title. In London, the doctor doesn't fit in because everyone picks on him for being Welsh, and in Wales he doesn't fit because he's so emotionally remote; until the dramatic pivot around which the story turns, his father, contrarily, does fit in, in his odd way. The story starts funny. Later, it's quite sad and moving. Fine work.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Talking vs. writing; recent reading

Writing as a physical act—by which I mean typing—feels uninviting to me right now. Not sure why. If I had the place to myself, I'd try composing by recording myself, see if that got me somewhere.

I'm perhaps coming to associate typing with all of the tasks I do for work (I even type the comments for major student papers); speech, however, is where I find myself being most convincing. In class, I can spontaneously ramp up the level of rhetoric with such ease, typing/writing consequently feels like it taps a duller part of my brain.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch
A delightful and clever graphic novel that ends too soon. Mirka's an Orthodox Jewish girl from a small village, and she wants to fight a dragon. Instead, she encounters a witch, a curse, and a troll. (I was disappointed that the dragon never entered the narrative.) Yiddish words abound (and are defined in footnotes), and the book is saturated with the culture of a particular (albeit indefinite) time and place that's tied with the plot. The visuals are terrific, very much in comic book mode but inventive nonetheless, with a clean, sharp style. Excellent.

Incognegro, by Mat Johnson
Speaking of graphic novels: Incognegro is a great story from the era of the Harlem Renaissance and Jim Crow. The protagonist, a black man pale enough to pass (like the author), has made a career of covertly reporting on Southern lynchings for his New York newspaper, but he'd like to retire his "Incognegro" byline and get some personal recognition for his work. One last story that he must cover—for personal reasons—comes his way, and he heads southward again with a naive friend in tow. There's humor, violence, fear, suspense, mystery and sharp observations about the era. Great, gripping book with fine artwork.

Pym, by Mat Johnson
And as long as I'm on the subject of Mat Johnson: Pym is among the strangest novels I've read, largely because the type of book it is, exactly what kind of story it's telling, shifts from chapter to chapter. This, like everything else int he work, is intended as a nod toward Poe's original story, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Johnson takes the herky-jerky, abruptly concluded and casually bigoted tale and flips it, repeatedly, as he dissects race relations, blackness, whiteness, politics, genocide, junk food, kitsch (nice to see someone so directly take a whack at what exactly is so wrong with Thomas Kinkade) and the age-old question of why six black people on a boat just can't get along. Some lines are laugh-out-loud funny, and the plot is increasingly goofy and harrowing at the same time. An enjoyable work that doesn't quite exceed the sum of its parts (I wasn't surprised to see Johnson say in his acknowledgements that he'd considered abandoning the book several years into it), Pym nevertheless has plenty of fine moments and twists to remember.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky
I love Wallace's essay on David Lynch, but his fiction puts me off and other essays of his bog down for me. The late writer has been in the news recently because his editor put together an unfinished novel of Wallace's—an idea that seems, to me, lacking in merit. In addition, Jonathan Franzen's essay in a recent New Yorker dealt with Wallace (and Robinson Crusoe and rarely seen birds), so Wallace is in the air, which led to begin reading a road trip/interview book about a writer I don't typically enjoy reading. (I also watched on youtube Wallace's last appearance on the Charlie Rose show; I liked it, though the voice of that man doesn't seem like the voice of the interviewee in this book, leading one to ask which pose is closer to the actual person.) I got about a third of the way into the book before feeling I'd taken from it much of what it would likely offer in its remaining two thirds. Problematizing the text was that, though the author used it as the basis of an old article for Rolling Stone, this raw version is peppered throughout with references to Wallace's suicide, so that every grim moment becomes an omen. We know Wallace lost his struggle with depression, and hearing him in this book seems less a glimpse of a man burning brightly than a man inhabiting the valley of the shadow.

All Quiet on the Orient Express, by Magnus Mills
I loved two other Mills novels; Explorers of the New Century is shockingly good (and good 'n' shocking) and Three to See the King is stunningly strange. Like those novels, this one is parabolically told, the narrator's flat affect unable to conceal with the world is somehow bent even more than usual. The title doesn't do much—I get it, but it's not particularly clever—and the devices by which the story proceeds are somewhat too familiar by this point (though this is his second novel, after The Restraint of Beasts; I'm not reading his work in sequence), and it's somewhat less successful because, unlike the others I read, it doesn't take you to a new world. Instead, it takes you to rural England, which already seems creepy if you've watched the old TV show The Avengers or seen any British horror from the 20th century. We know what these people are capable of, we know little towns have secrets, we know the traps in place for a man alone. Mills's contribution to this narrative of British complicity and passivity (these seem to be the traits he's attacking) is different, though: the thing that entices our traveler from elsewhere to stay is useful work accomplished with some handiness. Planning only a holiday, he instead becomes, through his unpaid (or is it?) labor, integral to the town and a participant in an economy of clutching dependence. Enjoyable and disturbing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some books: reading and ordering

This morning, I read parts of two books: The Girl in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Michael Heatley & Frank Hopkinson) and More Prefaces to Shakespeare (Harley Granville-Barker).

Granville-Barker was an actor, playwright, director and critic who began writing prefaces to Shakespeare's plays back in the '20s. He addresses issues of the text, casting, performance and directorial decisions in these prefaces, which, while academic, possess a lively tone that's smartly conversational. When explaining what one must cut from the text of Macbeth, he writes, "Hecate may be ruled out with hardly a second thought. If this be not true Middleton [the playwright who revised Macbeth], it is at least true twaddle, and Shakespeare—though he had his lapses—was not in a twaddling mood when he wrote Macbeth."

What The Girl in the Song lacks is a CD, or some sort of implanted device that would allow you to hear each song as you read about it. The premise is simple: What female (in same cases, girls rather than women) inspired such-and-such pop/rock song? Each article is two or three pages; there are pictures aplenty; the tone is simultaneously gossipy and circumspect, treating writers and subjects alike with kindness even while giving us the lowdown on sometimes notorious events.

Who knew there was an actual "girl from Ipanema"?

This happens regularly: I pick up at the library a book I've ordered some weeks before, having no idea what prompted the order. (Sometimes it's one story or essay in a collection, or one song on a CD.) To avoid this, I'm going to keep track of the originating events.

The New York Times review of David Foster Wallace's posthumously published The Pale King includes this passage: "I have to say, I’m with Dad here: the world of analytical philosophy appears to me as so much bean-counting — or, rather, enumeration of the ways in which beans might be counted. Literary types tend to be drawn more to the poetic visions of a Heidegger or a Blanchot than to the logical conundrums of a Russell or an Ayer," leading me to ask, "Blanchot?" My public library has one book on BlanchotFoucault, Blanchotwhich seems to be authorless, so I don't know whether it's an analysis of those two philosophers or writings by them or both.

I also ordered a Magnus Mills novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express. I love the two Mills novels I've read, Three to See the King and Explorers of the New Century. The NYT review of the Wallace novel was by Tom McCarthy, who, his byline explains, is the author of the new novel C. I'd seen a previous McCarthy novel on the shelf at the library and wondered whether he was the same Tom McCarthy who wrote and director The Station Agent (one of my favorite films) and The Visitor. Nope. Not the same. A review of one of McCarthy's novels left me a bit cold, but put me in mind of the ever-reliable Mills, thus leading to my ordering another of his works.

Aren't you glad you asked?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Swamped, but I sent something out

Schoolwork is keeping me busy right now. I started to read Who Fears Death, by Nndedi Okorafor—a fantasy that takes place in the shadow of African ethnic violence—but I haven't gotten very far, and read none of it today. So far, it's quite good.

On Fictionwise, the current Analog and Asimov's sit atop the best-seller list (I wonder how many they sell). Perusing the rest of the list, I saw another Dell Magazines digest, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I linked to the mag out of curiosity, then realized it might be the perfect place for "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth," a piece I've tried for years to place in mainstream literary journals without success. Last year, I streamlined the tale quite a bit, removing one of its voices. Yesterday, I sent the story electronically to EQMM. I hope they like it. I'm even thinking that the main character, a mildly retarded man, living in a group home, who needs to solve a mystery, might be a character I could employ again in a similar way. We'll see.

In addition to friendly notes I've received about my latest story, Andrew Salmon has posted a kind review of "Clockworks" at All Pulp: here. Additionally, over at the Asimov's forum, John Rogers has judged "Clockworks" to be his tale of choice in the April/May issue. He writes:

Second Old Man entry - though here he's simply the man, the big man or the man himself. Not the old man "just yet." He's a sort of complex, gray-shaded Doc Savage. A Doc Savage for grown-ups. For those who need to peer deeper into the abyss.

Unusually layered powerhouse of a story - employing both the soft strokes of an old timey SF homage and the hard lines of a serious exploration into who and what people are - focusing on the emotional, perhaps even - given things - spiritual, journey of a first-person archvillain who has undergone an apparent rehabilitation via involuntary surgery at the hands of the man himself.

Once again we are faced with the disturbing problem of the man's methods. From one standpoint, he is close to as savage (so to speak) a criminal as the narrator - the former Doctor Blacklight. An officious, almost high-handed - albeit graced with commanding presence and sureness of mission - actor - taking criminals into personal custody and "fixing" them - without state sanction. That's a frightening concept for a mature reader. A little boy reading a gee-whiz pulp in the sixties will nod in delight at the idea. That same reader reading that same passage at 50 in 2011 shudders in apprehension. For - truly - Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The God or Jesus connection is stronger here than in the first story. The man's group seems even more disciplish. His followers are dedicated to "The Work." They trust the big man. "Whatever he says to do, it's going to be right." He's seen as a sort of distilled ultra-man - Man as he shouldhave been (before the Fall?) - or, as Birdy puts it, "the only fully intact human I've ever met." Not perfect - but the perfect man.

Is he more than that? Something divine? Just a brilliant, genetically-blessed megalomaniac? A charismatic supernut? A savior? Who can say?

And the man's methods seem even more Christlike - repairing the wayward - giving them "choice" - not changing who they are, but altering their "moral capacity" - making it "possible for [them] to be good." But not interfering in the ways of kings.

One wonders just what "obscure texts" the man relies on to take these actions, make these "repairs."

The clockwork theme of the tale resonates. Delicate machinery - be it a clock, a mind, an interdimensional death portal, can both be repaired and, as the case may be, disrupted (with sufficient courage and sacrifice). They are only as strong or as broken as their weakest spring, their loosest dial.

The man repairs the clockwork of the protagonist's mind, the protagonist halts the deadly clockwork of the apparatus. And so on.

The little boy in me loved the arctic base, the interdimensional rift, the time machine and Hopi village stuff. The grown-up loved everything else.

Truly masterful work.