Wednesday, February 27, 2019

QUOTES part two: Anna Akhmatova "My Half Century"

Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th century.  It's likely you've not heard of her.  Between 1912 and 1921 she had five collections of poetry published, to critical acclaim.  But when her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed for wrongly being accused as a counterrevolutionary, Akhmatova and her son Lev were also implicated.  By 1924, critics panned her verse as simplistic and anachronistic, and a party resolution by the Soviet government essentially banned her from being published, though she continued to write poetry.  Stalin intervened in 1939, allowing for a new publication of verse, but by 1946 another resolution censored and censured Akhmatova, leaving many of her most realized works, such as "Requiem" and "Poem Without a Hero," unpublished.  But she still wrote and would share her work with confidantes, who would memorize poems and circulate them orally, so they would not be lost.  Shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, not until 1988 was the resolution banning her poetry in Russia rescinded, allowing for a new and better understanding of this important 20th-century poet.

I am currently reading a "My Half Century," a curated collection of Akhmatova's prose, much of it taken from her diaries and letters.  It's a fascinating book, and I wanted to share some quotes from it, through a series of posts here.

Remember Rousseau, who said:  "I only lie when I cannot remember."  

These both stood out for me because they speak to the heart of what it means to be a writer, particularly a fiction writer (and poetry would certainly fall under this, as well).  The first is about the primary job of a fiction writer --- lying.  Fiction authors lie for fame and money -- or, at the very least, to be heard by an audience of one -- but it is also about trying to get at the truth, a great truth than just the facets of a narrative.  Great, and even good, fiction must be about something.  And very often the fictions crafted by writers come from something in their past, whether directly transposed to the page or morphed into something more dramatic (or possibly less close to reality), and I believe that when they cannot remember, they lie.

Sometimes I unconsciously recall somebody else's phrasing and transform it into a line of poetry.

The second quote makes me think of an anecdote from Harlan Ellison, whom you may have heard of if you've read a few of my posts here on the site.  One of his best-known stories, and one of my personal favorites, is titled "Jeffty is Five."  It's a tragedy about a young boy who remains five years old, even while his boyhood friends grow up and start to have lives of their own.  But, not only does Jeffy remain five, but he is also still able to access that olden time from when he and his friends were five, a time when radio dramas curled your blood and secret decoder rings were ubiquitous, when comics were a nickel and real chocolate was used in candy bars.  It's a poignant, affecting, amazing story, and I would recommend you seek it out.
But I digress:  the inspiration for this story came when Ellison was at a friend's home for a get-together.  It was Walter Koenig's home, and while in conversation, Ellison overheard a snippet of another conversation wherein they were discussing a boy named Jeffery, who was five, if I'm remembering this correctly.  Ellison misheard it as "Jeffty is Five," and his brain immediately started building that story, right there, in the middle of the party.  In the end, it allowed him to craft one of his best stories, and it all came from something similar to the unconscious use of another's phrasing and transforming it into a bit of poetry.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

BLTN (Better Later Than Never): "Other" Books read in 2018

For the past few years, I've been tracking my reading, splitting it up into three categories:  Novels, Non-fiction, and Other.  The first two are relatively self-explanatory; the last one is more malleable, a hodge-podge categorization that allows me to dump whatever doesn't easily fit into the first two into it.  Books I've read under this heading include plays, collections of poetry or short stories, screenplays, novellas, even, this year, an illustrated children's story by a noted novelist.  It's a grab bag, and there's some great stuff to be found in "other."

As noted in previous posts, I've been trying to read works from authors who fall outside my personal demographic -- white, hetero, cis, male, American, in whatever order you choose -- and as I slide across my spreadsheet from left to right, I find myself veering farther away from this self-imposed mandate.  Which can definitely be seen as a failing on my part, but it is also an opportunity to do better this year.  Without having logged my reading, in this manner, I am certain that, anecdotally, I would believe I am doing very well with this aspiration; the data states otherwise.

Only 3 of the authors in this category are female.  Of the 15 men remaining, one is gay, that I know of, one is African-American, one is Japanese, and one is of Afghan descent.  Not stellar work on finding diverse voices, on my part.  But it gives me something to aspire to this year.

I read three plays in 2018 (one of them in two parts):

"All the Way" by Robert Schenkkan about LBJ's effort to push through civil rights legislation.  Having seen the film adaptation first, I was curious to understand how the playwright and director managed to switch between so many different settings.  It was a fascinating conundrum, and one they achieved through a minimum of set dressing, while utilizing a chorus section for the many players to go in and out of, utilizing the audience's imagination to fill in the details needed for the drama.  It's something I wish I could have experienced, myself.

"Angels in America" parts 1 & 2 by Tony Kushner.  The epic play about the AIDS epidemic in America, during the 80s and early 90s.  This was just an amazing piece of writing.  The dialogue, the characterizations, the settings and experiences of the characters.  A powerful play and something to aspire to.

"The Piano Lesson," by August Wilson.  This is the second play of Wilson's that I've read, and it was just as incredible as "Fences."  Set in early-20th century America, in the middle of the Depression, it follows an African-American family as they argue over their legacy.  What should they do with the piano that sits in the front room, unused.  A family heirloom, one member wants to sell in order to buy land, while another insists they must keep it.  The drama, and tension, surrounding this disagreement escalates until the threat of violence becomes all too real.  I won't spoil the end, but will only say:  seek out the work of August Wilson; you won't be disappointed.

Surprisingly, I did not get to any Shakespeare last year.  I need to remedy that, soon.

A couple of notable short story collections I read were Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" and Mariana Enriquez's "Things We Lost in the Fire."  Both of these collections were incredibly satisfying.  Lahiri's deft use of language and ability to craft stories that, although steeped in her Indian heritage, are terribly relatable is, if not unmatched, at least unsurpassed.  Her writing is always engaging and enthralling.

Mariana Enriquez was an author I'd never heard of, but found in my search for female authors outside of the American/European mold.  An Argentine author, Enriquez's stories were affecting and engaging, infusing family dramas and teen rebellion with a spark of magical realism made popular by writers south of the American border.  This was a great collection.

Four Harlan Ellison books made it into this category, meaning I read six books from Ellison, last year.  Two of the books were short story collections, "Harlan 101," which also included a number of essays on writing, and "From the Land of Fear."  The other two included "None of the Above," an unfilmed screenplay and "Brain Movies v.6," a collection of his teleplays.  It may seem surprising, but, despite the fact that a teleplay or screenplay includes a basic description of the scene interspersed with dialogue, Ellison's screenplays are always enjoyable and have as much lyricism and verve as his finished prose.

My favorite from this selection of books read, in 2018, might be Richard Russo's "Interventions," a print-only collection of four chapbooks in a slipcase that reprinted two short stories and one essay of Russo's, along with a new novella, along with paintings for each chapbook from his daughter, Kate.  Russo's prose is precise and lyrical and insightful.  His Pulitzer for "Empire Falls" was no fluke.  The man can write, and the stellar heights of his writing is something I truly aspire to, even if I always find myself falling far short of the goal.

Other authors whose work I read last year, in this category, are Neil Gaiman, Gary Gerani (Topps Star Wars cards reminiscences), Haruki Murakami, Anna Akhmatova, and Khaled Hosseini.  Not a bad crop of writers.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

QUOTES: Anna Akhmatova, "My Half Century"

Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th century.  It's likely you've not heard of her.  Between 1912 and 1921 she had five collections of poetry published, to critical acclaim.  But when her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed for wrongly being accused as a counterrevolutionary, Akhmatova and her son Lev were also implicated.  By 1924, critics panned her verse as simplistic and anachronistic, and a party resolution by the Soviet government essentially banned her from being published, though she continued to write poetry.  Stalin intervened in 1939, allowing for a new publication of verse, but by 1946 another resolution censored and censured Akhmatova, leaving many of her most realized works, such as "Requiem" and "Poem Without a Hero," unpublished.  But she still wrote and would share her work with confidantes, who would memorize poems and circulate them orally, so they would not be lost.  Shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, not until 1988 was the resolution banning her poetry in Russia rescinded, allowing for a new and better understanding of this important 20th-century poet.

I am currently reading a "My Half Century," a curated collection of Akhmatova's prose, much of it taken from her diaries and letters.  It's a fascinating book, and I wanted to share some quotes from it, through a series of posts here.

In a diary entry, toward the end of her life, Akhmatova looked back to the early 1900s and to the funerals she witnessed in the streets of Tsarskoe Selo, when it felt like a shift had taken place, as Russia cast off the 19th Century and moved into the 20th.  Her language, and the details, such as "fresh greenery and flower...dying from the frost," add so much to her insights, offering a distinct image that also works as a metaphor, not only for the funeral described, but for the world at large and the changes rushing headlong at them, with the onset of WWI.

...And sometimes on that same Shirokaya Street a funeral procession of unbelievable splendor would pass by coming from or going to the station:  a boys' choir would sing with angelic voices, and you couldn't see the coffin for all the fresh greenery and flowers, which were dying from the frost...The carriages with formidable old women and their dependents followed the catafalque as if they were awaiting their turn, and everything resembled the description of the countess's funeral in "The Queen of Spades." 
And it always seemed to me (later, when I would recall those spectacles) that they were a part of some grandiose funeral for the entire nineteenth century.  That was how the last of Pushkin's younger contemporaries were buried in the 1890s.  This spectacle in the blinding snow and the bright Tsarskoe Selo sun was magnificent, but the same thing in the yellow light and thick fog of those years, which oozed out from everywhere, could be terrifying and even somewhat infernal.

Beautiful, and haunting.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 2/16/19

Back again!  Two weeks in a row with my weekly roundup of . . . stuff.  Primarily, I'm looking at my writing, how I'm doing, what I'm doing, and what I'm "ingesting" as inspiration.  Whether I can easily connect the dots between the writing and the inspiring, that's another story, but it all goes into the soup bubbling at the back of my brain and will eventually come splurting out onto the page, in one form or another (to use a hackneyed turn of phrase).  Anyway, let's get to it.

Certainly, reading is one of the most important things to do, if you want to improve as a writer--read what's good to help you level-up (it's homage when done artfully, stealing when not so deftly realized).  But there's story all around us now, and with the current "golden age" of television, one could do worse than looking toward Hollywood for ideas and lessons.  So:

The year is 2258

Babylon 5 --
B5 is one of my all-time favorite television shows, and my favorite science fiction show, period.  (The X-Files isn't straight sci-fi, otherwise, there'd be a tie for fave sf tv)  I've slowly--very slowly--been rewatching the first season of J. Michael Straczynski's epic series and watched the penultimate episode of that initial season, "The Quality of Mercy," this week.  One of the things that so impresses me about B5 is how even one-off episodes like this one--revolving around the sentencing of a convicted murderer and a former doctor using an alien device, which she doesn't fully understand, to heal the impoverished denizens in Down Below--have threads that will tie into the larger mythology, a few seasons hence.  It's really impressive and the ability to insert plot threads into my stories in a manner that makes them interesting on their own without giving away possible future plot points is something I aspire to.

Trouble in paradise?

The Americans SPOILER ALERT--
Four episodes into this final season and things are just getting more complex and more dangerous for our protagonists.  As talks for limiting nuclear weapons between the American and Soviet governments forge ahead, Elizabeth is working to help those in Russia opposing Gorbachev and this apparent capitulation to the Americans, while Philip is trying to find out specifics about what she is working on, in order to help those loyal to Gorbachev, who believe in and seek peace with the United States.  Philip's and Elizabeth's differences of opinion, about America, about their life, about Russia, have never been so starkly framed.  With the end fast approaching, I wonder if the creators will have the bravery to permanently fracture their relationship and leave us, the audience, wondering if they could have salvaged it.


Community --
Before heading up to bed, my wife and I sit down with our eleven-year-old son to watch something on TV (not "real" TV, but Hulu or Netflix or a DVD).  Our current "crush" is COMMUNITY.  We're halfway through the third season, and sitting on the couch laughing at Abed and Troy, Shirley and Annie, Jeff and Britta and Pierce is a great palette cleanser before going up to read and sleep.  We just watched the episodes surrounding the pillow fort/blanket fort battle, with the schism between Abed and Troy (didn't like that, at all) and the culmination with the homage to Ken Burns (brilliant!).  There's so much good writing going on in this show--the characterizations, the infusion of familiar television tropes in new and oddball ways, the jokes, and the social commentary, it's a blast!  It's also daunting.  But, at the very least, I can take away the desire to work harder with my own writing, and that's not a small thing.


The Hundred Secret Senses --
I'd never read anything by Amy Tan before, but was aware of her.  This book was a great introduction, for me, to her writing.  Great story!  You can read my full thoughts here.

Mignola, pre-Hellboy...gorgeous

Cosmic Odyssey --
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this.  Written by Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos), drawn by Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy), this series brought together Superman, Batman, Starfire, Martian Manhunter, the Demon, Orion, Lightray, and Forager of the New Gods, as well as Highfather and Darkseid (with Dr. Fate coming in to save the day, at the end) to combat the Anti-Life Equation, which is more an entity in this imagining of Kirby's Fourth World mythos.  The books moved along at a brisk pace, the art was beautiful (I love Mignola), and Darkseid was particularly manipulative.  A fun romp with the DC superstars.

The Tripods are coming.

The White Mountains --
I was introduced to John Christopher's "Tripods Trilogy" through a comic adaptation in Boys' Life magazine.  I then found the actual novels that was based upon, and, as a kid, I loved these books.  Now, I'm reading the trilogy to my youngest boy (having just completed the Harry Potter series, over the course of a couple of years).  I have to say . . . they don't really hold up for me.  Which isn't surprising, as they were written for children.  There's some good world-building by Christopher and interesting scenarios, but his biggest pitfall is that, when he puts his characters into harm's way, he quickly allows them to extricate themselves, within a page or two of the obstacle revealing itself.  It's been frustrating to watch them so easily and quickly get out of trouble, at every turn.  There's no opportunity to inject the narrative with any tension or drama.
Which is a good lesson to take away from this:  don't allow my characters to quickly get out of the traps and troubles into which they fall, it will leach the work of any drama I might have infused it with.

Things I Discarded Before Finishing
As I've slipped through my forties (apologies, I wanted a better verb than slipped, but sometimes you're on deadline, even if it's a self-imposed deadline), I have found my patience for books or movies or television shows that aren't entertaining or engaging me in a meaningful way lacking.  I realize, more consciously than ever before, that I have a limited amount of time, and I want to make sure I'm using it to my fullest.  So, I now set aside books and comics and shows in the middle of reading or watching them, to move onto something that will engage me.  Admittedly, I'll be the first to tell fans of science fiction they need to push through that first season of Babylon 5 to get to the really good stuff, and if they just give it a chance it will all be worth it, which is obviously a bit hypocritical given the earlier points made in this paragraph.  But I stand by that.  Guess I should be happy I came across B5 when I did.  Otherwise, I might have missed out.
Still, doesn't change anything, for me.  So:

The Compleat Moonshadow --
This is an essential read for many serious comic book fans.  I've wanted to read it for quite a while now.  And though I am a fan of J.M. DeMatteis, the writer, and the painted art from Jon J. Muth is amazingly beautiful, I could not get through the second issue of this thirteen issue epic.  Sure, maybe there's some great stuff later on, but I did not care for the characters at all, and the idea of reading that next chapter felt like work for me.  So, I'll send this back to the library, and maybe, someday, I'll return to it.  But not for a while.

Beautiful art

Captain America: the Winter Soldier --
Apologies to Dan . . .
I am a fan of Ed Brubaker.  Currently, he is creating my favorite comics, through Image.  I've long planned to read his monumental run on Captain America because it's what put him on the map.  So, I requested the first few collections through the library.  [I should note I've read the "Winter Soldier" storyline before, but never moved past it]  I read the first three chapters, and then I tapped out.  Again, I just wasn't interested in the characters.  I'm more a DC guy (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) than a Marvel fan (Cap, Spider-Man, She-Hulk).  So, sending that one back too.

What did I take from these experiences?  I'm not sure.  But, again, it makes me want to be better with my writing, to try and be entertaining while creating relatable and interesting characters, and to make sure not to be boring.  Obviously, I think the most important thing to assure this is possibly out of my hands--it is essential that one's creative work get in front of the "right audience."  People with different backgrounds or different perspectives on writing, than my own, may not have as positive a reaction to what I'm writing.  But, if I make it as good as I possibly can--something that is within my power--then I will, at least, have done all that I can to make the right first impression.

So, the writing continues.  I've now logged 15 consecutive days of writing (not a record, but not a bad streak, considering I've been letting weekends go, recently).  One of the more important bits of writing advice I've come across is not to wait for the muse to hit before sitting down at the keyboard.  There's no such thing--or, at least, very rarely--as divine intervention for your creativity.  Like luck, one has to be prepared to accept the muse, rather than sit around waiting for it to happen on its own. 

The more you write, the easier it becomes (though, of course, there are many, many days when it will feel like a slog).  Creating habits is a good way to go about improving your writing output--the same space, at around the same time, with the same background elements, which, for me, means music that I can listen to but won't distract me.  Your body, and your brain, will begin to associate this setting with the act of writing; it will allow you to more quickly enter that state of mind necessary to get the words onto the paper (or the screen).  And, as you become used to writing within this set of physical parameters, the words will seem to unlock more readily, metaphors will reveal themselves, and you will find yourself not having to force yourself to get those sentences down.  It can feel magical. 

Keep typing away.

Of course, this all sounds romanticized (hey, I fancy myself a writer, might as well try to flower that shit up, yo), but it's true.  Which does not mean that there won't be days, many days, when you can't even remember simple words and you might as well give up this pipe dream.  Writing is hard, writing well is a huge challenge, but if you love it, the work and the frustration can well be worth it.  I know I always feel better on a day I've written, and there's nothing like punching that final punctuation key upon completion of a new story.  It really is something amazing.  So, keep pushing onward and upward. 

That said, I have slowly been working on the end of the current short story, which will come in a bit longer than a typical short story but not quite long enough to fall into the novella category, I think.  We'll see.  The latest bit I wrote on it was a horrendous chore, and I know why.  It was a news story that my protagonist discovers in a scrapbook, which will have a huge impact on him.  It's about a massacre of American troops ambushed by Viet Cong regulars in the Vietnam war.  I knew what I needed to happen in this news story, but I was lacking the specific details necessary for it to feel authentic.  This is information I have at hand, here at home, and can readily find with a few hours of rummaging and reading, but the fact that I didn't have these details fresh in my mind kept me from easily getting the words down.  I was hesitant because I knew that what I was writing was not at a level I was comfortable with, and not having details to work from also made it a bit challenging to properly lay out the story, in my head.  I need to do some research to get it right.  But, this is the first draft.  I know things will be changed when I revise it.  So, I pushed through, got it down, and now I can move on to the final bits.  This should wrap up in the coming week, at which point I can finally get to the second novel.  That should be easier(?) since I already have a pretty solid skeleton to work from.  We'll see.  Hopefully, I'll have an update next week. 


Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

This was a great book.  Not as complex at Margaret Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN, of which I am still terribly enamored, or the works of Toni Morrison, Amy Tan's THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES is still deserving of being in discussion with those novels.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading this book. 

Set in mid-90s San Francisco, the story is about Olivia, a Chinese-American woman, and her half-sister, Kwan, who came to America at the age of eighteen to live with Olivia's family, when Olivia was only four.  Their relationship is fraught by the fact that Olivia, as a child, felt embarrassed by her new sister, whose lack of understanding with regard to American customs and limited ability to speak the language made her the butt of jokes, which the younger Olivia took as a reflection on herself.  Kwan also shared with Olivia, secretly, that she could see ghosts and would share stories of these "yin people," many, if not all, of whom lived in the previous century.  Olivia eventually came to indulge her older sister, telling her she believed the stories, and even said, as a child, that she could occasionally see the ghost, as well. 

In the narrative's present, Olivia and Kwan, who calls her sister "Libby-ah," their relationship is still strained, though only from the perspective of Olivia, who finds her older sibling's continued adherence to an ability to see ghosts, troubling.  Kwan, on the other hand, has nothing but unconditional love for her younger sister.  This, due to Olivia's guilt at how she treats her sister, only exacerbates the frustration she feels with this relationship.  Add to this, her recent separation from her husband of seventeen years, Simon, and Olivia is having a bad time of things. 

Kwan plans a trip home, to China, and Olivia and Simon, who have an assignment to write an article about the native food scene of China, join her--though separated, they still have a joint business they run, are still friendly with one another, and are trying to figure out what their relationship should be and whether they will get back together or not; they are searching (or, more to the point, Olivia is searching) for something that went missing in their marriage long ago.  In the tiny village of Changmian, far off the beaten path, with no electricity and no modern conveniences anywhere, the village where Kwan grew up, Olivia and Kwan's common, family history feels very close.  Being here unlocks something, not only in the connection between siblings but also between husband and wife, and the stories that Kwan has told, over the years, about the yin people and their lives in the mid-1800s come to have new meaning.  It's a profound discovery for Olivia, one that changes the course of her life forever, and one that does not come without consequences. 

I cannot get more deeply into this change that occurs, because it would ruin the novel.  Suffice to say, a dramatic shift happens, in their and our understanding of these ghost stories, and though it's a surprise, it's also something that was laid out from the very beginning, by Ms. Tan.  As with any great story, the end is unexpected and predestined, all at once.  It's an emotional culmination that works, and that is no easy task to accomplish. 

Like Atwood's Assassin, and everything I've read by Ms. Morrison, Amy Tan writes with a confidence that is captivating.  She takes her readers by the hand, leads them where they need to go, parsing out information methodically, in a manner that, at times, is confusing, but which, in the end, allows one to look back at what came before and see how all the pieces fit neatly into the culmination of the story.  Tan feels no need to tip her hand too early or spoon feed her audience.  This is something I appreciate greatly.  It appears I will need to include more works from Tan, in my reading diet, going forward. 


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Nonfiction read in 2018 (BLTN; better later than never)

It's been interesting for me, in just these recent handful of years, to find myself more engaged and excited about reading nonfiction, which was not the case for most of my life.  I had a prejudice against nonfiction -- it was too much like homework, its prose couldn't possibly be magical like the fantasy novels I read, it would probably put me to sleep.  That has definitely changed.  I couldn't pinpoint when or why, but I do remember the first nonfiction book I read that was as dramatic -- every page laced with propulsive, elegant prose -- as any novel I'd ever read.  That book was David Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets."

This past year I read 11 nonfiction books, one down from last year (surprisingly).  Sadly, though the subjects covered were wide, my breadth of authors was not as diverse as I would have liked:

COMPANERO by Jorge Castaneda
EUREKA by Edgar Allan Poe
HOME IS THE HUNTER by Hans Carlson
IN OTHER WORDS by Jhumpa Lahiri
STRANGE JUSTICE by Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson
THE TURQUOISE LEDGE by Leslie Marmon Silko

Only four of the nonfiction books were written by women, though each woman, or pair of women in the case of "Strange Justice," came from a different background:  one of Indian descent, one African-American, one pair was white, and one Native American.  Each of these authors offered a distinct perspective on the world that was new to me, which I found exhilarating as well as enlightening.  One thing that has come from reading more nonfiction, and trying reach farther afield with regard to the authors I read, has been the new eyes through which I can view the world and view humanity.  Sure, that can sound trite or cliched or overly simplistic, but it does not make it any less true.  Every one of these four books written by the above female authors stayed with me, long after I finished them.

With "Strange Justice," Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson wrote about the Clarence Thomas hearings, doing the reporting contemporaneously, as well as in the time shortly after, laying out the evidence that was not shared with the public, revealing the multiple other women willing to testify alongside Anita Hill, who were not offered that opportunity, all contemporaneously to the divisive hearings. 

Leslie Marmon Silko's "The Turquoise Ledge" was a memoir, wherein you not only learned about her writing, but also her art, and her spirituality.  It was a wonderful story about an important Native American author and the harmonious way in which she approaches living in the American southwest, with snakes, scorpions, and drought, among other hardships.

Imani Perry wrote about rap, dissecting and examining it in a way that was not only academic but also very real.  She made it relatable for everyone, delving deeper into the societal realities that helped birth this American artform, while also discussing the problematic aspects of rap.

Jhumpa Lahiri's "In Other Words" was magnificent.  She is an author whose work I have come to quickly revere, in recent years.  In this memoir, she wrote of diving headfirst into learning Italian -- of moving to Italy, bringing her family along, of speaking and writing only in Italian -- revealing her uncompromising will and intellect, through a dual-language book, wherein she wrote the Italian manuscript and then had someone else translate it.  Even in a second language, her prose sings with a beauty that few can match.  Possibly my favorite book I read last year.

Among the other nonfiction books, there were many enjoyable and engaging reads, but few as memorable as the four above.  One such book would be Harlan Ellison's "Sleepless Nights..."  Noted for his short fiction, and more likely for his television work, Ellison was a noted essayist, winning the Silver PEN award for journalism in 1982.  The essays in this work cover a wide range of topics and the electricity of Ellison's prose is always a guarantee for one to be entertained and engaged.

Others of Note:

"Companero" was an interesting look at the life of Che Guevara.  I only knew the broadest, simplest strokes about Guevara's life.  This book certainly filled in the life of this revolutionary.  I think it's fair to say that Guevara was an idealist, who worked hard for what he believed in.  But he was more complicated than that, eventually coming to believe, to a certain extent, the myths surrounding him, while failing many of those who loved him most because of his human failings, most prominently revealed in this book his appeal for beautiful women and the resultant infidelity that came of this.  This was a well done and even-handed book about an important figure in 20th-century world politics.

"Home is the Hunter" was a fabulously propulsive book looking at the James Bay Cree of northern Quebec, looking at their legacy and the manner in which their culture has been changed by modernity and the need for energy, in the form of a series of large dams for a giant hydroelectric project beginning in 1971, for the whole world and the compromises that come from the schism between cultural and governmental needs.  Living in Maine, I found this to be a fascinating book that revealed a reality I was unaware of, previously.  Hans Carlson's facility with language, as well as his open-minded approach to reporting on this topic, helped make this a memorable book.

"Stranger in the Woods" told the story of a man, Christopher Knight, who hid out in the woods of Maine for more than a quarter century, with nobody being the wiser.  Living alone, he braved Maine winters with nothing but his wits and what he could procure, doing so in as little an intrusive manner as possible.  It's an extraordinary story that many believed, and still believe, to be not wholly accurate.  How could a human, in this modern age, live for almost 27 years without contact with another human being, and survive?  It can't be done.  Except it was.  Though it manages to tell Knight's story in a comprehensive manner, this book breezes along at a breakneck clip, pulling you from chapter to chapter, until you reach the end, wondering how you managed to get through it so quickly.  A great read!

All right.  We haven't quite reached the middle of February, and I'm two-thirds of the way through my reading recap of 2018.  Next, all the rest of the books I read.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending February 9, 2019

It's been a while, a few years at least, but let's see if I can do this weekly roundup thing more than once . . . in a row.  Here we go:

My wife and I started watching the final season of THE AMERICANS.  Without spoiling, the writers managed to bring separated characters together, in a natural way, while also setting up an interesting dynamic between Elizabeth and Philip.  We're two episodes in, and already the tension is ratcheting up.  Looking forward to seeing how it all ends.

I've also been watching season 3 of BETTER CALL SAUL.  Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould continue to head a stellar writers room that continually manages to drive Jimmy McGill into a corner that seems impossible for him to extricate himself from, only to watch his wizardry with words and emotional manipulation do just that.  The characters, the settings, the reintroduction of characters from BREAKING BAD are all seamless and wonderful.  A master class in television writing.

I finished reading ZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME this past week.  You need to read this book.  My quick review of it leans heavily into hyperbole, and it's all warranted.  Audre Lorde's memoir, or biomythography as she calls it, is direct, unflinching, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, detailing her early childhood up through her early 20s, in the NYC of the 1940s-50s.  Essential!

And I started reading my first Amy Tan novel, THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES.  I'm 200 pages in, in four days, and it's wonderful.  Her use of language and the way she connects up disparate scenes in a natural and poetic manner is laudable.  I know I can learn a lot from reading this, the only trouble will be how well I'm able to put those lessons into practice.

Most importantly, I figured out how the latest story I've been writing would end, you can learn a bit of that at the end of this post on writing I shared a couple of days ago.  This should allow me to wrap up this story in the next day or so.  After that, I can finally get to work on the second draft of my latest novel.  It's been percolating for well over a year, so I'm anxious to get to it and see what I wrote.  Then, it'll be onto the next thing.

Since I haven't updated here in a couple years, after revising my first novel to as high a polish as I could manage (note: the 5th novel I started, and the 2nd one I completed), followed by writing the first draft of the second novel (the one noted in the paragraph above, waiting for a heavy revision), I began querying literary agents in the spring of last year.  I got no bites with my initial efforts, so I revised my introductory letter with an emphasis on infusing more personality into the letter.  From that, an agent has asked for the full manuscript.  That was a number of weeks ago, and I'm still waiting.  But it feels like I'm on the right track with this writing thing.  So, onward and upward.

Also of note, I had a new short story recently accepted for publication as well, having gotten back into that game after focusing on novel writing.  It felt good, and the journal is available for purchase through the publisher, both digital and physical editions, in the sidebar.  It's the one titled "A Stone Wall Between Us," in MEAT FOR TEA.  Thanks!


Friday, February 8, 2019

Writing is how you learn to Write (TM dept. of the obvious)

The best advice published authors give to aspiring writers -- write!  (also read, a lot, but the writing's the thing.) 

Truth, from Neil Gaiman.

Now, it may seem obvious, but there are many writers who are just talkers, or dreamers, wishing they had the time, the energy, the inspiration to write, but they just can't make time in their busy schedules. 

Don't get too pretentious, it's unbecoming.

There are also those who wonder how the mere act of writing can help one become a better writer.  I mean, don't you have to take college courses?  Or shouldn't you join a writing group?  Or, better yet, shouldn't you buy one of those "How to Write..." books?  Don't you need to learn how to write before you start to write? 

It's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and you might need those sweatbands.

Well, a basic knowledge of language is essential.  And if you've ever told a story, whether relating an anecdote from your past or conjuring up some horror around a campfire, that's a plus.  Certainly, as noted in the parenthetical above, having read a goodly number of books and stories can only help -- I think Neil Gaiman has said, on many occasions, that humans are storytellers, that it's something that sets us apart from other animals.  All of these are good building blocks for writing your own stories.  But if you don't write, you'll be stuck in first gear. 


So much goes into crafting a good story, worthy of publication, and there's much you learned in school that you can discard, but you'll never realize that until you start getting your own stories written and start submitting.  I admit, though it seemed obvious that one needed to write in order to become published, I did not truly understand how this could help my growth as a writer, in a general sense.  Now, I have a far better appreciation for this bit of intuitive advice.  

Sometimes, you do a pretty good job.

I've been writing for a number of years now, as a lark for the first part of those, seriously, now, for at least a decade.  In that time, I've managed to get some of my short stories published [see sidebar for where you can find some of those stories].  But even the stories that were not accepted for publication, along with the three abandoned novels and the first draft YA novel that I realize is a story better suited to a different medium, were beneficial.  Because in the writing of all these stories, and essays and comic scripts, I have slowly ingrained facets of the writing process that were "outside of myself" before, things that I needed to be reminded of, that did not come naturally--or more naturally--in the way they do now.  This would never have happened if not for my writing and revising and writing and revising and submitting and revising and writing and submitting, etc. etc. [cue dynamic writing montage]. 

Don't forget to revise, heavily, as well.

Two examples:  

The first aspect of my writing that, at some point, I became cognizant of was the fact that I was writing in a passive voice.  Stephen King stated in his memoir, "On Writing," that he felt newer writers wrote in the passive voice out of a sense of fear and timidity.


The thing was, for the longest time, I did not realize I was doing this.  I don't think I was even fully aware of the difference between active and passive voice.  I must have had this as a topic of discussion in my language arts classes (we called it myself, here) in high school.  But if we did, I don't remember, and I certainly didn't retain it.

When I realized the difference between active and passive voice -- arrived at, on my own, through hundreds and thousands of pages of writing -- it was a revelation.  At that point, I would always make a note at the top of a manuscript to do a revision looking specifically for passive voice transgressions to fix them.  I had learned it, but I still needed to be made conscious of it.  Now, many years after this realization, it's something that sticks out, immediately, upon a re-read. It's become a part of my writing brain in the way that capitalizing the opening of a sentence and using a question mark for interrogatives, and I no longer need a reminder to look for it.  (caveat: if I use the passive voice in this post, it's either intentional or because I rarely do a hard revision on these; apologies if I fail to walk my talk)

In the end, you have a stack of paper that's a story.

A second aspect, and one that I was aware of as a bigger hurdle for me as a storyteller, was the fact that I find it difficult to throw roadblocks in the way of my characters and, more importantly, am prone to a resolving any dramatic obstacles too quickly and too tidily.  It is something, as a writer, that I struggle with, but even knowing this about myself, it was a challenge to infuse this necessary dramatic tension into my stories, at least at a level I was pleased with. 

But, with the latest story I am writing, it feels like I've finally broken through.  Without giving too much away (and if the vagueness just makes things too obscure, I apologize):  I had introduced a character into the story that it had been intimated was dead, the ex-wife of my protagonist.  It seemed obvious, with the setting and the main character's state of mind, that they might end up in bed together, even though he's having feelings for an old friend he just reconnected with.  Since my protagonist and this reconnected friend lived an hour away, I knew he could get away with sleeping with his ex-wife but not get caught.  There would be the guilt he would have to deal with, but there would be no ugly confrontations because his ex-wife didn't want to get back with him, she did it to ease some of her own tension--easy-peezy.

EXCEPT, that would be too easy (the narrative road I feel I walk down too often).  Laying in bed, thinking this over, I realized I needed to have this quick tryst insinuate itself into this new relationship my protagonist was hoping for.  So, I have added a few other bits to the previous scenes that will spur this reconnected friend to surprise my main character, and she will catch him having breakfast with his ex-wife, whom she knows, and it will not be pretty.

It may seem a little thing, but being able to recognize that this was what was needed to heighten the drama of the narrative, while also finding a simple way to bring these three all together in a naturalistic manner, was another important revelation for me, as a growing writer.  Now, the hope is this lesson is another one I can add to my writer brain, in order to move onto whatever is next in my arsenal.  We'll see.  Either way, it was terribly exciting.  


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Audre Lorde's ZAMI: A New Spelling of My Name

While a young child, Audre Lorde didn't like the way the "y" at the end of her first name fell below the line on the paper, so she changed how she spelled her name.  Unsurprisingly, Lorde grew to be a strong, intelligent woman who fought for what was right and refused to be pigeon-holed or disrespected.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is an amazing book.  A memoir covering Lorde's early childhood up through her early to mid-20s.  Her facility with language pulls you in, as a reader, to 1930s, 40s, and 50s New York (with a quick aside to Mexico), filling your senses with her words, allowing you to picture the place that birthed her.

Self-described as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Lorde shares the heartache of growing up black in america through the Depression and WWII and into the nascent Civil Rights Movement, while also revealing what it meant to be a lesbian during this time, as well.  When asked how long she'd been "in the life," Lorde didn't know how to answer, because she only had one life and only knew one way to live:  honestly, but with an invisible wall erected around her, to try and protect her against the prejudices threatening her from all sides.

Lorde's prose is direct, harsh, and also poetic without being too flowery.  She propels you along, even as you wish to remain and linger in certain sections -- the discovery of a new lover, or the enjoyment of a gathering of friends.  I can't remember where I first heard Audre Lorde's name, probably from one of W. Kamau Bell's podcasts, but I'm sure glad I did.  Otherwise, I would not have had the opportunity to experience this powerful biomythography of Lorde's.  And that would have been a shame.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Novels read in 2018 (better later than never)


As stated in the prologue, I've been working to "read harder."  This translated into fewer novels read by me than probably any time since I turned five and is definitely the fewest novels I've read in the handful of years I've been keeping track.  8 novels, only two of which you might easily categorize as science fiction or fantasy, my go-to genre for so long.  (I've already read "God Emperor of Dune" in 2019, so the sci-fi could be rising in this new[ish] year)  Holding with my credo of branching out, I managed to split it right down the middle as far as male to female authors:


                                                     Male Authors     Female Authors
                                                    Harlan Ellison     Sayaka Murata
                                                     Stephen King     Charlotte Bronte
                                                      Neil Gaiman     Banana Yoshimoto
                                             Colson Whitehead     Margaret Atwood

Being a Maine resident (tried and true, from birth to now), it's an unofficial law that we must read and regale our favored son, Mr. Stephen King, so having him on the list is unsurprising.  Too bad I didn't enjoy this year's offering, "Elevation," as much as many of his other works, but, hey, they can't all be grand slams.  

Neil Gaiman has been a favorite author of mine ever since I discovered his comic series, "The Sandman," one of the all-time best long-form series in the medium, in my opinion.  This year, I finally pulled down his "Norse Mythology," after my 11-year-old son read it for a second time.  Certainly, one could argue it's not a novel, but each short story builds toward the climax of the book with Ragnarok, so I include it here.  It was pretty great, by the way.

Harlan Ellison is, perhaps, my favorite author, ever...full stop.  He passed away last year, after suffering a stroke a few years prior, but one of his long-delayed books was finally published, shortly after his death:  "Blood's A Rover."  A hybrid-novel, consisting of previously published (and newly polished) short stories and a novella that comprised the story of Vic & Blood, to that point, woven with revised and retrofitted bits from a teleplay Ellison wrote in the eighties for an aborted TV-movie of the adventures of Vic & Blood, and Spike.  It was a tour-de-force that only solidified Ellison as an all-time great writer, and it was a wonderful exclamation point to a storied career.  [note: Ellison will show up later, with four or five more entries in other categories]

Colson Whitehead . . . damn.  "The Underground Railroad" was a tour-de-force book.  Amazing.  It felt so real, was so full of emotion, and just hit you in the gut.  I am so happy I read this book.  Now I need to hunt down more of his work.  Just effing brilliant!


Sayaka Murata & Banana Yoshimoto are Japanese authors whose work I found in the main reading room of Fogler Library at the University of Maine, where I work (library work has its privileges, like walking around on break and discovering new books to read).  Both of the books I read of theirs, "Convenience Store Woman" and "Moshi Moshi," respectively, were engaging, layered stories that offered me a chance to walk in another's shoes.  Murata's novel was breezy, but not shallow, following the life of a woman who found it difficult to interact socially, leading to her becoming a long-time convenience store worker, while the other followed a protagonist coming to grips with her father's death, a suicide pact with another woman, while trying to comfort her mother as she searches for her own identity.  Both of these novels were touching and heartfelt, beautifully written with distinct premises that kept me wanting to turn the page.  Highly recommended.

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte.  Damn . . .
I have an aversion to Victorian literature, a direct result of High-School-Literaryitis, an affliction caused by your high school reading (or literature) teacher overwhelming you with minutiae and insignificant assignments meant to illuminate the work of Dickens, which, in the end, only makes his long, ponderous prose even more lugubrious.  For thirty years, I've steered clear of most novels from this era (surprisingly, the one exception that comes to mind is Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," which is a wonderfully amazing story), but after hearing an episode of the BBC Radio's In Our Time examining the novel, I was compelled to read it.  And it was a great experience.  I will definitely be seeking out more of Bronte's work.  Hopefully, it will treat me better than Dickens (apologies to my youngest sister).

With all the praise heaped upon the above novels, I have to say the best novel I read this year was Margaret Atwood's "Blind Assassin."  This was an amazing bit of writing wizardry, with an elderly woman in the present, the late 1990s, relating the story of her family throughout the late 19th century up through the end of the 20th, with particular attention paid to her scandalous sister, who died at a young age, an apparent suicide, after publishing a shocking roman a clef, that left all of those in their hometown, where their father was once a wealthy manufacturer of buttons, wagging their tongues.  And, as an added bonus, Atwood includes chapters of the fictional novel in questions, interweaving the various narrative threads with an ease and agility that was wonderful to experience.  Not unlike the works of Toni Morrison, Atwood's command of her story, with "The Blind Assassin," was laudable and impressive.  She never worried about whether her readers understood what was happening or how it all connected, because she was steering the boat and knew exactly where she was heading.  This is a novel you have to read!  Check it out.