Monday, December 31, 2012

Class Warfare in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Silltoe

from here
There is a war coming. While a war between countries will grab the headlines, it is the war between the classes that is will do the most damage- because the lower classes are growing, the chasm between the bottom and the top is impenetrably deep, and the well-meaning middle class (because they want to avoid the war, or because they don't think war is really necessary) serve as tools of hegemony.

It's hard not to read Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner through the prism of our American fiscal cliff.

In story after story of this slim collection, the lower class Britons on the eve of the Second World War slouch from birth to death. They make terrible choices for lack of options across nine stories: robbery; a fight between a teacher and student; a man kindly assists his ex-wife in drinking herself to death; two boys beg, lie and steal to scrape together enough money to enjoy a fair; a man hangs himself with the help of a young boy; one man alleviates the misery of his life by beating his wife and children, while another exposes himself to little girls.

In the cruelest story of them all, "Uncle Ernest," the title character (a hard working upholsterer) finds joy in his hand-to-mouth existence by caring for two young girls. It's unclear if they needed his care: their mother has a job, and they go to school. When they first meet Ernest, they have the money for the bus ride home from a small cafe. Still, they accept his charity- he goes hungry and runs up debt to buy them tea and sweets. In kindness, he finds companionship and a hollow measure of happiness. The world, of course, punished him for that. A pair of coppers show up, responding to complaints or questions- some people thought the little girls were taking advantage of the old man's generosity. The police, acting on the best behalf of society, accuse him of untoward acts that have never crossed his mind, and they finally fling him into the street with orders to never contact the girls again. Uncle Ernest retreats to a bar, for the only escape society allows him.

This is how the world ends.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

from here
Running with Scissors, written and read by Augusten Burroughs, was one of the best audiobooks I listened to this year, though it was hardly one of the best books I read.

Much like hearing David Sedaris read his own work, Running with Scissors was well served by its author's practiced story teling style. If Portnoy's Complaint was Philip Roth stand-up, then this worked the same way- the larger than life exploits and the unfathomable relationships.

Running with Scissors is, in its own way, a worthy memoir. More than a collection of events, it tells the story of Augusten as a casualty to his mother's struggle with her mental health. It carries the usual defamation law suits associated with modern memoirs; but I'm utterly uninterested in its truthfulness- it's structure is what makes it worth reading. What kept me interested in Running with Scissors was how it functions as a bildungsroman.

Background: The bildungsroman is a novel about growing up;  the main character sets out from home, usually scarred by some tragedy and at odds with the world. Over time, he grows into a better version of himself, usually now comfortably a part of society and in a position to help others on their own journeys.

Book Review: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

from here
I don't remember when I acquired my water damaged first edition of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Just like I don't remember what made this the year of Philip Roth for me: first The Humbling, then Goodbye, Columbus. Both things just sort of happened (as Joe Poz recently pointed out, Roth books have a way of reproducing while you sleep).

The thing about memory is this: it shapes us, even if we don't understand how. And that's Portnoy's Complaint: down memory lane we stroll, privileged to (and trapped by) Portnoy's novel length monologue to his shrink.

Laugh out loud funny, I wouldn't say it's Roth at his best, but I can see how it kicked up a lifetime worth of controversy.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

from here
The end of the year seems the right time for nostalgia, and Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending nestles onto my reading list alongside Black Swan Green, Mary, and The Zeroes.

Like Black Swan Green and The Zeroes, we follow Tony, our first person narrator, through recollections of his adolescence, and then we return to him in adulthood. As a part of his midlife crisis, he tries to figure out what happened back then, why he and his closest friends drifted apart, and why (later) one of his friends killed himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a philosophical tract wrapped in a murder mystery. I should love it. I want very badly to love it because of the themes it treats, and because of the how deftly Barnes unravels the story; I am a sucker for layering.

Does it qualify as irony that I love everything except the ending? It's a little too much like real life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

from here
I picked up Black Swan Green from our local library's annual book sale. I didn't remember much about it, beyond recalling the title on some "best books of Two Thousand whatever" from a few years ago. I didn't immediately make the connection to Cloud Atlas, also by David Mitchell.

So, it sat on a shelf, waiting to be read. When I needed a book for the flight down to Florida for my grandfather's memorial, I brought it along. And devoured it.

I rave about a lot of the great books I read. Of the books I read this year, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Let the Great World Spin, and The Monsters of Templeton all occupy space in a top tier above raving. It's a spot where the material and skill of the author is so strong that it makes spend several days afterwards telling everyone I know about it. They're great books, steeped in their own worlds and messy at the edges in the way real life is. Their stories are tightly woven, but told in a way that is so authentic that we can't see the seams where the author guides us along.

Add Black Swan Green to the list.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: The Zeroes by Patrick Roesle

from here
True story: I met Pat Roesle, author of The Zeroes,  in a diner in New Jersey a couple years ago. He had worked at a Border's with my then girlfriend, now wife.

Also true: While my wife chatted about hometown stuff with the other folks at the table, Pat and I discussed William Carlos Williams' This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

My position was, and still is, that the speaker is a prick, and that if your significant other ever eats the food in the fridge that he/she knows you are probably saving for breakfast, you have every reason to expect that person to drive you to the nearest diner and feed you.

Also true: My now-wife and I were not in the diner because one of us had eaten the other's potential breakfast.

Final true story: I'm a big fan of Pat's blog.

So now you know the background. You know why I read Pat's book, why I've spent a couple weeks thinking about what to say about it, and why I'm willing to admit to not being able to get beyond my biases. Still, from here on out, he's Roesle, the author. I want to talk about his book, which I think you should read. If I'm lucky, I'll even manage to talk about the things that The Zeroes made me think: about being young, about writing while young, about writing about memory.

Because I like The Zeroes despite its flaws.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

from here
It's been years since my sci-fi loving friend Diane told me to read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. It's been nearly two years since I picked up a copy from the fantastic used book store Ray & Judy's, near where I used to live.

What was I waiting for?

Sci-fi recommendations rarely work out for me, mainly because my expectations are too high. I want a novel, with characters I can believe and with a story that doesn't need a deus ex machina to reach the denouement. Basically, I want a great book that happens to be sci-fi. On top of that, I want great world-building.

Ender's Game delivers, as we would expect from a book that makes most Sci-Fi Top Ten lists (1, 2, 35, etc.), that won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award (sci-fi's top prizes).

Basic plot: A child genius, Ender Wiggins, is enrolled in Battle School, where other children learn military tactics to prepare for the dreaded Third Invasion, when aliens called "buggers" will attack Earth for a third time. Ender's Game touches on several themes that mean a lot to me- technological desensitization especially around violence, the social chasms separating people from connecting, the impossibility of living up to expectations.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

2012 has been my year for Vonnegut. I've re-read 2 of his books (Breakfast of Champions, which was my introduction to Vonnegut years ago, and Man Without A Country), and I read a fun little book of Vonnegut criticism.

So on a recent roadtrip, I was excited to bring along the audiobook of While Mortals Sleep, the recently released, previously unpublished Vonnegut short story collection.

(A note:
These are stories that were never published while Vonnegut was alive, though many of them were submitted for publication. As with the works of JRR Tolkien that never saw the light of day, I think we have to approach them fully conscious that the author may not have been done with them, that the author may have even preferred [since there was ample opportunity to repurpose them into a collection]  that they never be published. That said, as with Kafka, while we recognize that the works are not as the author may have intended, they exist as the author created them.

So I can't read a posthumous collection and level against it the same criticism I would against one of the collections Vonnegut published in his lifetime. If there are flaws, at least some of the fault lies with the publisher and with the author's estate).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: The Southern Tiger by Ricardo Lagos

from here
I've been far too long in hitting publish on my review of Ricardo Lagos' Southern Tiger, because I've struggled to unify what I have to say about the book's three acts.

What do you know about Chile under and after the reign of Augusto Pinochet? Too much or too little.

I came to Lagos' book knowing these things:
1) Pinochet ruled Chile in the modern autocratic fashion, by pretending to have been elected;
2) He came to power in the '70s, backed by the US amid a string of disastrous Cold War medling with South American politics, and he ruled into the late '80s;
3) He died in 2006, having never been punished for the war crimes he committed against the people of Chile.

The first third of Lagos' book was exactly what I had hoped for from the former opposition leader and Chilean president- an insider's account of the movement to oust Pinochet, and pride for the peaceful and democratic process that followed that transition. Lagos presents himself as (and may feel himself to have been) a key leader in the opposition, but his positions in the first post-Pinochet coalitions make him look more an observe of history, rather than a shaper of history. Still, that transition seems so much more remarkable as I watch the violent aftermath of the Arab Spring, of the collapse (re-collapse?) of the Congo, of the drug lords turning Mexico into a failed state to expedite their with the United States. Souther Tiger may suffer, after all, from a politician's gloss on history, but that doesn't diminish, for the me, the importance of that history.

The final third of Southern Tiger was just as eloquent- an idealogical manifesto for the future of Chile and the world, with (of course) Lagos' socialist slant at its core.

The middle section, though... I just lost interest. My limitation are no small part of the problem- reviewing Lagos' time in government after Pinochet was just too much inside baseball. With no prior knowledge of Chile's domestic struggles or dreams, I have no way to contextualize, no way to appreciate Lagos' achievements, nor do I have any knowledge of his failings. But the story also lacked a grand vision, a unifying arc to make Chile's struggles compelling to a foreigner.

Ultimately, Southern Tiger was a political memoir, neither the best nor the worst I've read in that genre. A fine enough book, but the wrong book for me.

Book 42 of my book-a-week challenge.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov's Mary is the story of a man with the opportunity to be reunited with an old flame. Nostalgia is a difficult emotion to build a book around. Our fond remembrance of our past, or at least my remembrance of mine, is built around a thousand little moments gone forever.

I am not nostalgic for a holiday. I have no fond memories of this or that Thanksgiving, a wonderful New Year's Eve or a splendid Fourth of July. I have memories of those events, some are even good. But the holidays and big events are simply built up too far. I dislike most of them before they are over; and I can't think of one I'd wish back.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

from the author's website

In undertaking a my little New Year's resolution to read 52 book, I expected a fair number of lousy books. And I've learned that writing about several weeks worth of mediocre or merely good one can sap some of the joy from writing. I'm sure that's why bad reviews are often funniest- what else is there really to say?

But writing a review is easy when the book is brilliant. And Heidi W. Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is brilliant. The semi-autobiographical 2010 debut novel is about a girl of mixed race, her mother Danish and her father an African American GI, struggling to find her place in the world. Race is the most obvious theme here, closely followed by alcoholism, sexuality, and despair. In most of its handlings of these themes Girl feels like a first book- too often ham handed in tackling the issues head on.

Still, it's hardly a surprise that Barbara Kingsolver chose Girl as the winner of the 2008 PEN/Bellwether prize for a novel addressing social issues; the novels chapters rotate narrators in precisely the way of Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

from here
It's been a year of dystopia for me- from the five star (a couple books of Vonnegut, Habibi, and BFG) to the mediocre (World Made by Hand,  Hunger Games).

So, on a recent road trip, I brought along the audio-book of Brave New World.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Happy Friday

Best buddy Adam's in town, I'm way behind on blogging and National Novel Writing Month, and next week I'm getting my wisdom teeth pulled out.

Warren Zevon it is:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

It's a funny thing for me, that I love the real world, but I spend most of my time in worlds of fiction through books and movies and theatre. What I love, I suppose, is the depiction of the real world.

It's a very meta-literary distinction, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why I enjoyed Alison Bechdel's new graphic novel memoir Are You My Mother?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Happy Friday

I've got friends up the East Coast who are still in the dark. Other friends are going to the chapel and gonna get married. Bright wishes for both groups.

If you need me, I'll have my feet up by the fire with a book or two.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Notes on Surviving a Hurricane

from here
Take the candles out of their hiding spots, all of them. Pull the tea lights from the back of the cabinet with the blue table cloth. Spread the table cloth across the dining room table and array the lights.
Take the thin tapers from behind the liquor bottles- take out the whiskey and the rum while you're there.  Pour. Fill as many candle holders as you own with tapers, and leave the rest on the mantle.
Set multi-wicked jar candles in the bathrooms and along the hallways leading from the dining room to the bathroom.

Light them all while the power is still on. Let them make up for the missing warmth.

Let each sputter lead to another and wait for the freight train wind lashed with rain, the approaching sirens. Breath, quick sharp shallow huddled. Breath, the sirens are not for us. As iron skinned engines doppler into the distance, thankfully count problems like blessings. Count problems like candles, like lit wicks burning down, that must burn down and die.

Place buckets beneath anything that leaks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When We Talk About Mental Disorders in Fiction

When I listen to music, I've found, I alternate between two kinds of favorite musicians. I love bands with multiple voices, who alternate the lead, who create music with tight harmonies- Barenaked Ladies, the Weepies, Slow Club. Or I love male singers who who are better writers than singers: Bruce Springsteen, James McMurtry, to a lesser extent Jackson Browne.

It's my preference, and it leaves me blind to the value of plenty of other performers. Most female soloists, especially pop singers who hit the high notes, do nothing for me. I'm sure it's often pretty, but if I can't sing along, I'm just not that interested in sitting through more than a song or two.

So when I read, I'm usually on the lookout for a few things. In one of the books I'm reading now, Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here, I get many of the things I most enjoy- short stories, deftly drawn people, a variety of settings.

What I'm missing- what has me stalled about 30 pages from the end- is a variety of characters pressing against the boundaries of themselves. Haslett's characters are all pressed against the same boundary; they are a slew of people in the midst of mental health crises, and we either learn that nothing can be done to help this person, or we learn that the one in crisis is really the sane one.

Here's the thing about mental disorders- I don't understand them. Sure, I joke about my quirks- ADD with workaholic OCD, but I know (or I think I know) that I am painfully normal. The challenge of great art is to take us to a place that we can hardly imagine and make it understandable- Lolita, Lord of the Flies, As I Lay Dying. And as much as Haslett captures the tone of mania and the tone of depression (I recognize those people, those voices), he does not bring me to a point of understanding, beyond the certainty that something is wrong. Maybe that's the point and I'm missing it, but I remain uncompelled by all be the best stories of unstoppable forces and immovable objects.

It's interesting how much how I read influences my enjoyment. I started Stranger months ago, reading a few pages in bed each night. Then, because I was finally hooked enough to not be able to put it down, the lack of variety sapped my enthusiasm. I kept waiting for another change of pace, like the story "Divination," a blend of magical realism and parental shame that felt like an homage to the JD Salinger story "Teddy."

Book 37 of my book-a-week challenge.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Formulas of Fiction

I think about formulas a lot.

I don't think we live in an era of more formulas than the past. When I talked to my grandmother, when she was still alive, she would talk about going to see movies with her friends, and the terribleness of them. She didn't think of them as terrible, though. She knew: this one is a pirate movie, this one is a love story, this one is a western.

In the formula is comfort, routine, a series of rules that order the universe and define our place in it.

Most of television works within formulas: sit-coms, reality shows, contests, game shows, even the nightly news. If you watch regularly enough you can say: Oh, this is my favorite segment.

Games work the same way. Chess is a game of pattern recognition. Even games of luck, Samurai Swords or Settlers of Catan, depend on pattern recognition, weighing the odds, choosing when to play defensively or when to try your chances.

Books, I think, depend on this most of all. The genres, of course, sci fi and mysteries and romances all use a short hand in their settings and characters to define their places and people. Even when an elf is not a Tolkien elf, the author either defines the difference clearly or doesn't call the creature an elf, because he has to let us know he's changed the formula.

I love things that break patterns. A brilliant move in chess, a great episode of Doctor Who or How I Met Your Mother, the twist of a good book. But I love to fall into my routine as well, playing a stupid game for hours as a way to keep busy without engaging. It satisfies some very basic need. I'd call it relaxing, if not quite fun.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The BFG and The Hunger Games, Locke and Hobbes

In the last few weeks I've read several books, all of which I intend to review.

But I keep circling around these two children's books: The BFG (by Roald Dahl) and The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins).

A strange combination, I suppose. I didn't intend to read them in succession, and I'd never read them before. I didn't know a thing about BFG until my wife brought it along as an audio book for one of our road trips. On the other hand, I'd heard all about The Hunger Games. Expectations are funny things. Friends of mine, people who know me but must not really know what I read (and why), kept recommending Hunger Games. And I kept resisting. I know myself.

I enjoyed Harry Potter, but I didn't read it until all the books had been published, and I came very close to not finishing the series. I blew through the first 3 books and promised myself that if the fourth book didn't pick up considerably, I was finished. Thankfully, the fourth book improved in the complexity of its plot, the depth of its characters, and its tenor. But Harry Potter was an exception to this simple rule: Young Adult books are too simple.

And Hunger Games was. Of course, I see (or think I see) all the injustices the author wants us to see: the brutality of wealth, the disenfranchisement of the oppressed, the divisions within the oppressed that prevent an overthrow of the system.

BFG traffics in many of the same themes: we meet monsters who force us to admit that our "civilization" is barbaric in its own ways, we see how hard it really is for someone who perceives him or herself as weak to stand up to thuggery.

Both protagonists are young girls snatched from their homes and put in a hostile environment. Food is central to both books (the hunger games tournament revolves around the threat of starvation, while the giants of BFG show their evilness by guzzling humans). 

But where the prose of Hunger Games felt static and lifeless (in fairness, largely because the bulk of the book was exposition by a character who is profoundly isolated from the people around her; it would be interesting to see how similar internal books fared in movie adaptations), BFG was brimming with dialogue. The voice of the giant who is the focus of BFG is unique, in the same fractured syntactical way that so many of Lewis Carrol's characters are.

In the denouement of both Hunger Games and BFG, our protagonists realize how their previous view of the world was too simple, that the real world is more complex than they had considered. But where Katniss raises her guard and begins to see enemies everywhere, Sophie finds friends. Maybe its wishfulness, the mix of nostalgia and childishness, that makes me prefer Sophie's ending.

The people of Sophie's world are, ultimately, good people. They are competent and capable. Though they need help to see past differences, with a little guidance from a young girl, they can. Katniss' world is darker, more filled with people willing to sacrifice each other. Thinking about the political science distinction between Locke and Hobbes, whether we are social creatures who come into conflict only when we delude ourselves into thinking that force is justified by the scarcity of resources, or whether we are individualists only bound together by the strictures of society.

I've always come down in favor of Locke- just as I prefer Dahl to Collins.

Books 35 and 36 of my book-a-week challenge.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Worst Community Theatre Production Ever

It wasn't, of course, the worst performance ever. I probably shouldn't even call it the worst production of my life.

I've been in a version of Guys and Dolls with a Sarah who couldn't sing, and in a 42nd Street where we didn't run the entire show uninterrupted until opening night.

But a show I've been a part of the past few months, one that has taken my evenings and my energy away from this blog, crossed a line tonight.

Background: the show, which is not your typical musical, which does not end on a happy note, was great. Our best performance to-date. In the showstopers the audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and in the heart breaking moments at the end of show, when turn arrives and we slip from dark into tragedy, you could have heard a pin drop.

That's the magic. Theatre does that, and I don't think any other art does, except perhaps dance. Music can transport and inspire, and painting and sculpture can make profound, provocative statements. But only theatre, really only musicals, can bring together all the other arts and then add the response of the audience to completely overwhelm your emotions.

I love this show. I would not have spent the last 3 months working on it otherwise. And I auditioned- I decided a year ago that I had to do this show- and I took a part in the chorus, because I really do believe that I would rather be in the chorus of a show so brimming with talent that we can break the audience's hearts, than to be the lead in a mediocre show.

And we could have broken their hearts tonight, until the curtain call and the final bow. And we had to sing a verse of Happy Birthday to someone in the cast. And I could feel the magic slip- this was just another community theatre again, just another show.

It broke my heart.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

from here
When I was younger (which may only mean last January when I started this project to read 52 books in 2012) I divided books into those I love, those I like, those I'm indifferent to, and those I actively dislike.

As this project goes on, I find myself liking fewer books, but also disliking fewer books as well. Instead, I begin to see flaws. The best books I've read this year (Asterios Polyp, Cutting for Stone, Death in the AfternoonThe Imperfectionists) have the fewest flaws, which is not to say they are flawless. But their strengths outweigh their weaknesses by a considerable margin.

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin started off with several points in the bank: it's set in a city I love (New York City), in a time period I find fascinating (the 1970s, amid the tide of urban blight ready to swallow New York), and in a format I adore (a series of interconnected, only marginally sequential short stories).

McCann builds from there: his stories revolve around Philippe Petit's August 7, 1974, tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Petit is a reoccurring character, taking a couple chapters for himself, and in some way touching the lives of every other character in the novel.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

from here
I finally finished Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackes. I spent a lot longer reading it than I intended to, because the story bogged me down a little over the three-quarter mark.

I am probably not an average reader for a book like this. I love science stuff; I spend time reading the NYTimes science pages and anything related to outer space and dinosaurs that I come across. Maybe I just never really got over being 8 years old.

So Skloot was phenomenal turning the history of cancer and genetic research into page turning material. When Immortal Life was focused on fifty years of false starts and breakthroughs in cellular research, I was engrossed.

But, (and you knew there was a but, didn't you?) when the time came for Skloot to step into the story, she lost me. She connected with the Lacks family in a way that must have been authentic. She earned the Lacks' trust through the family's opposition- their distrust of outsiders, especially white outsiders; their layers of misunderstanding and misinformation about what Henrietta's cells were doing and who had them and how they got there; their lack of education and their susceptibility to hucksters.

I see why Immortal Life is a part of high school curriculums, especially here in Maryland (most of the action occurs in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins and the surrounded neighborhoods). Skloot deftly juggles the intersection of history, science, American socio-economics and race relations. She tells a difficult, potentially abstract story in a concrete way.

Maybe I'm dissatisfied because it is a story without resolution: justice is never really done, not for Henrietta nor for her family, who have unwittingly become a conscripted cornerstone for modern genetics. Maybe my reading slowed because I knew how the story ended: with the pharmesutical companies and the major research universities raking in profits hand over fist; while the little people, the victims of disease upon whose backs progress has marched, get nothing.

Book 33 of my book-a-week challenge.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Open Mic

It's Hazel & Wren's Open Mic today.

Go comment on all the poems, but especially on mine.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back on the Horse

I've been neglecting the blog for a couple weeks because work and a production of Cabaret have eaten my soul. It is a wonderful problem for me to have, a result of my new life here on the Eastern Shore. I have the time to do more than work, to do more than type a few words into a my computer before falling asleep each night.

But there's content coming, I promise.

I've recently finished three books worth talking about: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Hunger Games, and Let the Great World Spin.

And I'm nearly done with three more: Zeroes, Southern Tiger, and You Are Not a Stranger Here.

Plus next week is Open Mic week. That's always reason to celebrate.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Friday

We have to start moving if we're every going to get there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Buying Book Reviews, or Am I Doing It Wrong?

People make money reviewing books. I knew this.

People make money posting fake reviews on websites like Amazon and Goodreads. I suppose I understood this to be true.

But people make a living doing this?

It sounds like a scam; if I put it in email format, it would get sucked into your email junk box along with the Nigerian prince and the chain letter from Aunt Martha.

But when I read about people making $28k per month, I think to myself, am I doing it wrong?

Not that I'm interested in selling out, posting fake praise, boilerplate reviews, or demanding money for a review. To consider reviewing a book, all I ask for is a copy of the book. And I've got a queue of reviews to write, including some books that, damn it, I am going to finish reading just in case the last chapter moves me in ways the first two dozen chapters haven't.

I'd like to rush to a moral judgement. I mean, seriously, Todd Rutherford and people like him seem to be savvy enough to make this buck another way. So, muddling the process of reviewing books with money is a desecration (and yes, I'm willing to invoke desecration in all its contexts; it is blasphemous, it is profane, it is a violation of the divine).

But there's a small part of me that wishes, though I'm keeping it tucked away beneath the part that swears I would never- there's a part of me that wonders:

Why didn't I think of that?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick

In his memoir One Bullet Away, Nate Fick shares his story of joining the Marine Corps as an officer, and deploying just before the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Fick's story, told in ways that are both too glib and too frank, confuses the hell out of me.

I understand the call to serve. I understand the frustration that clearly mounts as he is thrust into war zones, in Afghanistan and again in Iraq, that his training did not fully prepare him for by commanders more interested in jockeying for promotion than in the safety of Fick's platoon.

But I don't understand who Fick was writing for. Who does he think will love his book?

Fick starts off with a glorification of war, of the Marines, of martial life that is, to me, off-putting. "The grunt life was untainted," he writes. "Being a Marine... was a rite of passage in a society becoming so soft and homogenized that the very concept was often sneered at." I could spend all day trying to unpack what Fick means by "soft," but I think the quote shares the flavor of the opening chapters, and the hard-soft motif resurfaces throughout the memoir's nearly 400 pages.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

My lovely wife brought me the audiobook of World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler, so we could listen to it together on our way to my 10 year high school reunion. And I have to think back that far to remember I book as terrible as World Made by Hand.

I love post-apocalyptic literature, from the deathly serious, like Lord of the Flies, to anything as glib as Slapstick. I think that this kind of science-fiction gives us the chance to see humanity reduced to its roots. In the same way that Hemingway strove to boil things down, to write "one true sentence," the post-apocalyptic world brings the true things into focus.

There are two common mistakes.

The first kind of mistake is what I call the Rabbit Hole Mistake. The author imagines a world so vast, so complex, so different from our own that describing that world takes all of the air out of the book. Tolkien didn't make that mistake in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but if you've ever tried to read any of his notes, The Silmarillion, or the unpublished tales, you quickly understand that you've gone too far down the rabbit hole.

The second mistake (I think, the worse mistake) and the mistake of World Made by Hand is the Tract Mistake. You'd know a tract if you saw one. The Bible thumpers hand them out on street corners. At restaurants where I've worked, the after church brunch crowd would always leave them on the table, often wrapped in (or in lieu of) my tip.

A tract is poorly written, littered with straw men and false corollaries, and exists only to foist the author's belief upon us. A tract novel exists in a limbo, marketed to adults, but written with all the grace and subtlety of a children's chapter book (which is to say, none of the grace or subtlety that makes writing interesting to me).

Kunstler believes that the United States is hurtling towards the end of the world's oil supply. In World Made by Hand, America loses the war for the last oil, and nuclear bombs destroy Los Angeles and Washington DC. Somehow, in his telling, America has the resources for war, the world sees the end coming, but instead of dumping billions of dollars into solar, hydro and wind power, our leaders (and all of us) step happily off the ledge. But don't think too much about how we got here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How Cruel to Be in Reviewing a Book

I recently finished the audiobook of one of the worst books I've ever read.

I mean it. It was terrible. So this site has been silent while I dig around for what to say.

I love reading the NYTimes' movie reviews. Their reviews are always informative, written at a high level and show a mastery of the genre. But they become something magic when it's time to pan a lousy blockbuster.

Go ahead: read A.O. Scott's review of The Cat in the Hat.

I want to write like that: to eviscerate an author who probably spent less time thinking through the premise of his novel than I've now spent thinking about what to say.

At the same time, I never want to be cruel to someone who has endeavored to create art and failed.

Writing is hard. Impossibly hard. Doubt it? Go ahead: click the link to "Next Blog" that's at the top left hand corner of this page. I had to click 5 times to find a blog that had been updated this month. To write demands discipline, focus, and talent.

I never want to mistake a lack of talent for a lack of focus or discipline. So, although there are more and more calls out there for us to be brutal in our book reviewing, I try to let my gut reaction settle before I write. I will not say untrue kindnesses, but I will find (if I can) points to praise before I find points to demean.

Unless the book is World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler. The worst book I've read this decade.

Full review to follow.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Happy Friday

Posts coming-
I've had a post-apocalyptic week of reading including The Hunger Games and World Made by Hand.
I've let work swallow big chunks of my time and mind, but in between I've been thinking about some board games and I've been buried in an old video game, so there's a post peculating on the comforts of a familiar game.
Later today, I'm off to the Chess & Rockets summer camp (oh yes!) to be a part of their camp ending Bughouse tournament.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Happy Friday

So this weekend is my 10 year high school reunion.

I don't have any of the stereotypical feelings- there's no one I dread seeing, I'm perfectly content with where I am in my life and how I look, and 10 years doesn't make me feel old.

But I know I'm getting older because I'm not looking forward to the road trip, 6 hours in the car probably through the rain.

So here's a song that was stuck in my CD player 10 years ago.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Drift by Rachel Maddow, Book Review

from here
I don't write about politics much here, but Rachel Maddow's brilliant Drift demands that I do.

America is in a weird place in regards to its military right now, and Maddow makes a compelling case that our historical moment is unique and the unintended consequence of a series of well intended decisions.

We have an all volunteer force, a political necessity as part of the post-Vietnam reaction to the draft. But part of the reason that Vietnam War dragged on was because the draft, at that point, had been watered down with exemptions. By allowing so many young men out of military service, we lessened the war's impact at home.

We've continued this trend in the years since: outsourcing security details to mercenaries like Blackwater, issuing stop-loss assignments for members of the National Guard, and acting at home (from a policy perspective) as though we're not at war abroad.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Open Mic Day

It's Open Mic Day over at Hazel & Wren, so I'll be leaving comments on people's poems over there.

You should leave a comment on mine.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Happy Friday

Happy Friday!
Counting minutes because it's First Friday, so it will be a night out and I need it.
I wonder how many games of Catan I can cram into this weekend?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Room to Imagine: The Hobbit, Movie Musicals, and Translation

One of my "in real life" passions is for theater, especially for musicals. They're often silly: most people don't break into song when we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotion (whether stressful or positive).

So when I heard the recent announcement that Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit would be a trilogy, I started thinking about recent musical adaptions I've seen (The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Sweeney Todd) and ones I've skipped (Mama Mia, Rock of Ages).

A stretch? Not for me.

The thing that a stage does, with curtains and cardboard houses and lighting instruments suspended from the walls and ceiling, is demand a suspension of disbelief. The cinema doesn't (or rarely) ask for the same level of disbelief- a production on stage will include errors, alterations, and imperfections that movie won't. The version of a film that makes it past the cutting room is (almost always) the director's vision.

Reading is much more like a trip to the theater than a trip to the cinema, which is, in part, why even film critics agree that most every film adaptation pales in comparison to the book. In reading, we snap to attention at words, paragraphs, pages almost without understanding how; we can skim for pages when suddenly we're drawn a level deeper into the book. In film, the director guides us, makes it harder for us to miss the nuance- often, the director gets so heavy handed that we wish we could miss a little (I'm looking at you, Dark Knight Rises).

Which brings me to The Hobbit, which I can't imagine warranting a narrative arc equivalent of the entire Lord of the Rings.

Monday, July 30, 2012

For the Comfort of Automated Phrases by Jane Cassady, Book Review

from Sibling Rivalry Press
Jane Cassady's For the Comfort of Automated Phrases was released this month by Sibling Rivalry Press. It is a collection of poems about human failing, about the connections we want but cannot have. It is about trying to make those connections anyways.

This is how the poems unfold: slowly, with a cascade of details to parse, because one of them is a key to unlocking everything else that came before and that follows.

The third section of the title poem is written in the second person, to someone who needs to be dressed:

You have one shoe on.
Attempts at the other make you shriek
and cry and lay down and as I hug you,
you have the strongest elbows.

Suddenly the autistic boy mentioned in the second section of the poem takes on new relevance. The first section's road trip through America, which we're told God created on the third day, is something much bigger and longer than we might have originally signed up for.

Cassady's writing is full of love misplaced or misdirected, because she is willing to give so much love in every direction. There are love poems to cities, to states, to tour guides, to parents who don't get it but keep trying, to jobs that don't deserve our work, and to women dancing in a Zumba class.

Life is messy, she says. Too many stray signals to misunderstand. But keep trying because sometimes, like in the book's final poem, an ode to the impossible could have been To Amy and the Rained-Out Science Carnival, even though we don't get the thing we set out for, sometimes life gives us something just as special.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Listening for Earthquakes by Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Book Review

Listening for Earthquakes, Jasmine Dreame Wagner's book of poems published by Caketrain Journal and Press, is a love letter set to everything poetry can be. Alternating stretches of prose with stanza poetry, Wagner must be read like Whitman- the clang of the words mean something to the ears, but the sight of the words on the page are designed to have just as much impact. Wagner delights in shades of ink, and in words located on lines in ways that can't be spoken or performed. You have to see the book, which is itself as much a work of art as the words it contains.

My favorite poem in the collection, "There Is No Part of the Body That Hasn't Been Pierced," demands that the entire book be turned sideways to be read. The Beatitudes that pour off those pages are an affirming and often mind-bending collision of words.

    Blessed are the firecrackers, cherry bombs, snapdragons, for they are 

        the waterworks, sweaty palms, calendulas of sudden vision.
In that poem, Wagner rolls on, exclaiming (not asking with a question mark; these sentence end with a period) of the sun: is it not unlike a feather headdress on a mule...

    ...a silk-bound door... is it not a stoplight...
from Caketrain Press
Wagner's approach to definition is through the impossible- prove to me the negative, she says over and over again, and then I will be willing to see the world your way.

Listening for Earthquakes is a book about the world as a canvas, about the painful painting we do in it. It is a book filled with bridges and doors and pathways marked by missed connections.

One thing more I love about Wagner's book is that she is not afraid of her stupendous vocabulary. It has been a long time since a book made me read it with a reference at hand, but Listening for Earthquakes is that kind of book. Hepafilter. Filigree. Ameliorates.

Don't read passively, she says. Turn it sideways, crease the spine. Maybe even put the book down so you can grasp at the meaning.

Book 28 of my book-a-week challenge.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato

Did I just have a delicious BLT for lunch with my lovely wife, featuring tomatoes we grew in our ridiculously overgrown garden?

Oh yes.

How awesome is my life?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Vietnamerica by GB Tran, Book Review

from here
I read graphic novels in hopes of finding ones as good as GB Tran's Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica is not an easy read, visually nor narratively. I suspect that is why it didn't win the Eisner Award it was nominated for at Comic-Con earlier this week.

Tran's drawing style is broad, really
too universal. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that drawn characters fall on a matrix ranging from the universal (think of a smiley face, that could represent anyone) to the specific (imagine a photo-realistic image of someone you know). Tran's characters weren't quite distinct enough to tell apart at times, especially as the story swirls around in time from the French occupation of Vietnam, to the American invasion, to the present day. I loved the way Tran wove together the generational decisions that led him to his American life, but I doubt that most readers have my patience for being confused.

Some of this confusion mirrored a disconnectedness that Tran admits feeling- because his family was not a family of story-tellers, much of the background that colors the decision making is lost to time.

The part of Vietnamerica I enjoyed the most was its open-endedness. I had a choir teacher who used to say "Art is like what life is like." Most acclaimed graphic novel memoirs (I thinking of you, Maus and FunHome and Persepolis) feature some sort of guiding structure, a motif that gives order to reminiscence. Tran's structure is his family, as their words and actions circle back to us: choices were made so the family could survive. We start the book with that reality, and there are no big revelations later on. Vietnamerica reinforces that simple truth over and over again.

Book 27 of my book-a-week challenge.

Happy Friday

Off to see Dark Knight tonight, and tomorrow I'll cross Citipark Citi Field off my list of MLB stadiums to visit.

Happy Friday!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: Falcons on the Floor by Justin Sirois

I was recently sent a copy of Justin Sirois' Falcons on the Floor by the kind folks at Publishing Genius Press.

Sirois pulls no punches, sending us straight into Fallujah on the eve of the siege that marked one of the bloodiest chapters of the Iraq War.

This was not a place I wanted to go. I never served; I opposed that war even as my friends and family members found themselves in places I followed on the nightly news. Sirois dragged me there with a compellingly simple story: two friends walk out of Fallujah the night the fighting begins to try to find someplace safer. What Sirois did masterfully was create two friends with many personal, political, and moral differences. The tension that filled their walk across the desert kept the book marching forward.

Sirois' willingness to change forms was a key to winning me over. After a prolog set in America, the first section of the novel hovers in a limited omniscience following Salim and Khalil. The second section is where the novel takes off, when we move from the more traditional narration to an epistolary style seen through the computer diary entries written by Salim during the journey.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Happy Friday

This week, with Muppets:

Can the frog tap dance?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Character Death

The death of a character is, for me, the trickiest piece of artistry an author can undertake.

Mainly, it's been done too much and too well too many other times. You can't kill a character without echoing other deaths. I remember laughing out loud when Clint Eastwood's character dies at the end of Gran Torino, because it was so heavily foreshadowed. He even fell to the ground with his arms outstretched, like he was on a cross.

The same way Jay Gatsby dies in The Great Gatsby.

The real flaw I find in most character deaths, and I'm thinking here especially of books I've read lately like Cutting for Stone and The Art of Fielding, is that the author has spend hundreds of pages investing a relationship with tension and conflict, and then in the final scenes lets that conflict go.

It is natural to remember people fondly after their death. We don't speak ill of the dead, and I think that's a credit to the angels of our nature. I remember when my grandfather died, one of my aunts (by marriage) saying something along the lines of "he was a saint!" Well, it's nice to remember him that way, but he had a feud with his brother-in-law that was so vehement that the two didn't like to speak to each other.

I've got a couple book review percolating that involve stories in which characters die, so I've been thinking about this a lot. Only one of the deaths was very well done. Does that mean that for the others it was the author's easy out from a too-complicated piece of plot, or is that a sign of what a feat of artistry the well-done death is?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing Life, Reading Life

Sunday involved my perfect morning.

I got up before my wife, and spent the morning reading the newspaper on the back porch before the day got too hot. I'm captivated by the Supreme Court's health care decision, and by the reaction to it.

As I was reading, I was reminded how little blogging I've done lately. I feel a little guilty about it.

I know that it is the writer's standard response to claim to have not written enough or well enough lately. I know that this claim is two-parts deflection and two-parts ego. I've claimed it all my writing life.

If I am not writing enough, it is because I know I am capable of more, of better. "Don't judge me by my output; judge my potential."

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Week That Was

June 30th is the end of the fiscal year where I work, and therefore, my daytime has been heavily demanded upon.

Likewise, my evenings have been packed with goodness and a mix of happy and necessary.

One of my good friends is moving away, so Monday was for board games with him. Tuesday was for board games with my lady. Wednesday went to Philly for poetry (see link above). Thursday was chess at the coffee house. So, that's a week.

In between all that, I've read a couple books that have been sent to me by local publishers, so those reviews are coming. Plus, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte both hit the DL, and I ate two different  baked goods with chocolate and banana. So look forward to those posts as well.

Happy Friday!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Happy Friday

It's a scorching Friday, but I'm still happy to see it.

Hope you find a way to enjoy the heat.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

I recently finished the audiobook of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. It was a treat.

Sedaris' essays span his life, beginning with his childhood in North Carolina, through his college years and after, and into what the reader presumes is his present life living and writing in France. He is the center of all of his stories, and he spends most of his time examining his loneliness, his isolation from the world, and his disillusionment with the prospects of his life.

The way Sedaris charts the limits of hope are self-deprecatingly humorous. Whether its needing his mother to rescue him from a neighborhood child he has tried to befriend, or his realization that his house looks like a serial killer's home to the stranger who has just walked in, Sedaris is at his best at the moment when his eyes open and he sees the world from another perspective.

If he wasn't so funny, I wouldn't tolerate some of the solipsism involved (and yes, I am acutely aware of the irony of writing a blog and accusing other writers of solipsism). There was nothing world shaking in the essays, and I wonder at the line between fiction and non-fiction, especially in Sedaris' characterization of his family. One of my favorite chapters featured his redneck brother, an expectant father, suddenly transformed by the nervous energy of dreams for his unborn child.

What made the audiobook especially enjoyable was that several of the chapters were not studio recordings, but live recordings of Sedaris reading to an audience. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one laughing.

Book 25 of my book a week challenge.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli: Book Review

What has your life been for?

It's not a rhetorical question; it's the central thesis of David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel Asterios Polyp.

The eponymous character spends his 50th birthday alone in his apartment, watching videos of the old times, the better times. And then the fire alarm goes off, and all record of that old life burns. Asterios buys a bus ticket to go as far as he can, and when he gets there he begins to build the scaffolding of a life.

Asterios is as resilient and self-confident as he is unreflective. He is an architecture professor but not an architect. While he begins to rebuild his life in his new town, renting a room from his boss, he's forced to begin to engage with members of the family. He tries to figure them out, and they, in turn, struggle to understand him. 

Asterios, of course, doesn't give up much information about himself. His background unfolds slowly, and each revelation rearranges our image of Asterios.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Happy Friday

Here's how hectic Friday has been:
I forgot to pick a song.

Hope you make it!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Open Mic at Hazel & Wren

It's the second Wednesday of the month, so that means it's another Open Mic at one of my favorite places.

Here's the direct link to my poem. Leave comments so writers like me can improve our drafts.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Natasha, and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis: Book Review

Natasha, and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis has traveled with me for a long a time. Published in 2004, I'm pretty sure I grabbed the small hardcover off the shelf the first time I saw it. I read it and forgot I'd read it, even listing it as one of the books I own but haven't read.

How could I forget?

Natasha has nearly everything I love: it is a novel in short story form, each story connected to the other but independent; it has a family newly arrived to a place where the possibilities are as limitless as they are unattainable; it has (for the first few stories) an articulate but believable child narrator.

Short stories are, perhaps, the most challenging form of fiction. The author has only a few hundred words (if that) to establish his characters and setting. Bezmozgis solves this challenge skillfully, weaving life's hard lessons into his stories.

My favorite story from the collection is probably "The Second Strongest Man." The narrator, Mark Berman, grew up around body-builders in the USSR because his father was one of the top trainers. His father's top recruit had been Sergei, a former soldier possessing preternatural gifts as a weightlifter. Faced with an impossible bet to life a car, a fellow soldier introduces: "Sergei, show Chaim what's impossible."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Happy Friday

A big week on the homefront:
Sound of Music opens in Church Hill tonight;
my wife is away, so tomorrow morning is breakfast and board games at mi casa;
I'm within 100 pages of finishing 3 different books, and two more book came in the mail this week;
I still have to finish my review of Natasha, and Other Stories.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

I have always been a streaky writer.

Both my output and my material happens in bunches, like a basketball team on a 12-0 run; strong defense leads to less time on defense, leads to a fast break, leads to excitement to get back on defense again.

My May was dedicated to the Blogathon, to prose. I have a couple more book reviews to write, with several more books nearly finished, and I have some ideas about video games and learning curves, and about the effect of America's stratifying levels of education on unionization and the middle class. Beyond that, my horizon is kind of prosed out.

But a part of that is because I've found myself in some great poem building situations.

I love the monthly open mic I've found, and after a workshop last Saturday with Jane Cassady (whose new book is available here), I'll be joining her on Wednesday nights throughout the summer for a poetry workshop.

Why is it so hard to shift gears?

The clarity and precision demanded by prose is often unnecessary, or even unwelcome, in poetry. Likewise, the tactile qualities of poetry can make prose feel stilted. So there's some of that.

But I also feel, at times, that I need to go to a different place within myself to write good poetry. Not a better or worse, brighter or darker place. No qualifiers. Just that the spot within myself where the poetry bubbles has a taste that distinguishes it from the prose place. The way water tastes different in different towns, and how that difference seeps into the breads and the drinks and memory of the place.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Polymath: Discovery and Definition

In reading (sort of re-reading, more on that later) Natasha by David Bezmozgis, I stumbled across an unfamiliar word:


It's not that I have an extraordinarily large vocabulary, but I'm a good reader so there are few words that don't surrender their meaning through context clues.

My uncle was a good man, a hard worker, and a polymath. He read books, newspapers, and travel brochures, He could speak with equal authority about the Crimean War and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Short months after arriving in Toronto he took a job giving tours of the city to visiting Russians. But he wasn't rich and never would be.
A polymath is obviously a smart person. Poly means many, so based on all the things the uncle can do, it could mean that he's multi-talented, or interested in many things. I could stop there, but I'm interested in the other root; the "math" part of the word.

 So apparently, the Greek word that gave us mathematics really mean to learn. So our polymath is many-learned (that's learn-ED, stress on the second syllable).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese presents the story of two conjoined twins, from the recollections of one of the twins, Marion Praise Stone. His mother was a nun, his father was a surgeon, and his brother is Marion's mirror image. So, we begin.

I can't tell you what Cutting for Stone is about, anymore than I could tell you what The Old Man and the Sea is about. It builds in layers, as chapters slip away and years pass, we know we're building toward something, but the narrator never lets slip what is coming; the moment always presses urgently in. Everything is subtly foreshadowed; we see the past repeated by the younger generation.

Cutting for Stone is about being a man; being at once a brother, a son, a doctor. It is about being profoundly broken and living anyway. I love stories that can contain their own immensity. Verghese makes that look effortless.

Above all, I think it's a book about relationships, and, for Verghese, relationships manifest as sex. There's a lot of sex in here: we meet two different nuns who have sex (in bizarrely dissimilar ways with bizarrely similar partners), the twins, their foster parents, the girl who grew up with the twins, her mother, and a former prostitute; I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting, but either way, that's fornication on a biblical scale.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Happy Friday

They don't get much happier than this:

I just pre-order my copy of For the Comfort of Automated Phrases by Jane Cassady, one of my poetry idols (this is the part where all you poetry lovers click the link and buy the book- it's on sale!);

Tonight, we kick off our weekend with First Friday, first with the regular cocktail hour, then heading over to a local pub to listen to a buddy and his jazz ensemble play;

then Saturday, the aforementioned Jane Cassady is leading 2 poetry workshops at the Elkton Public Library at 11:00 and 1:30 (this is the part where you poetry lovers click the link and register- it's free!);

then Sunday, I start tech week for the production of The Sound of Music that I'm stage-managing (it's a sign of how long it's been since I've done a musical [2007 when I still lived in Binghamton] that I'm actually excited for tech week).

In honor of this happiest of Fridays, I present you a song of joy, from Rubber Soul (which, if I recall correctly, is Jane's favorite Beatles album):
Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

End of the Blogathon

Today marks the end of the 2012 Blogathon, and it's been a lot of fun.

Some highlights for me:

A batch of book reviews-

The Art of Fielding
Goodbye, Columbus
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
The Monsters of Templeton
Wild Fermentation (guest post by Aundra of Fit for Life)

Thoughts about writing, the internet and books-
Charles Dickens Hates a Good Ending

Dealing with Spam

Learning How to Write from Shakespeare
Mothers in Literature with An Addendum
The Reading List
Thinking About All Books as Comedy, Tragedy or History
The Value of Workshopping a Poem and an Open Mic

Injuries and the Yankees
Facing Life After the Great Rivera

And the well-lived life-
Creating a Board Game: Chuck Fluxx
Congratulating Myself on a Job Well Done
Haikus on My Day Off
Loving Board Games Like Settlers of Catan
Recipe for the Perfect Mojito

Hope you've enjoyed reading.

But! The new post every day will continue for at least 3 more days. Tomorrow is my review of Cutting for Stone, Friday is Happy Friday, and Saturday has some thoughts about character death in novels.

Hope you'll be back.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Dickens Hates a Good Ending

from here
Life is messy. I think art should reflect life, so I expect my art to be messy. Mix some discordant notes into your next symphony- please, please, please don't tie up the endings of your novels too neatly.

This is what drives me nuts about the Victorians (Dickens especially) and about the entire mystery-thriller genre. If all the loose ends tie into each other, something has gone wrong.

Charles Dickens hated good endings- he needed perfect endings, impossibly perfect endings in which (just as your life is about to be ruined by the cascade of your own bad decisions, like you deserve) your brother-in-law/ father figure steps in to save you, or else the woman you were going to rob who took you in and cared for you out of true Christian charity turns out to be your long-lost aunt.

Not always, but all too often, the author builds a brilliant house of cards, and I'm ready for the house to fall. The characters are making mistakes and poor decisions, and consequences are on their way. What will this mean? How will lives be ruined, and how would the strong recover?

And then the author pulls this nearly Deus Ex Machina garbage that results in a happy ending for everyone (or nearly everyone) involved, with as little actual heartbreak or sacrifice as necessary. I feel cheated of tragedy.

I'm gearing up for my review of Cutting for Stone, and I'm pleased to say that this lovely little book did not fall prey to the perfect ending. But for a little while I was worried.