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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gina Berriault on learning the craft alone

"One thing I'd do was put a great writer's book beside the typewriter and... type out a beautiful and moving paragraph... and see those sentences rising up... and... think, 'Someday maybe I can write like that....' It was like a dream of possibilities for my own self. And maybe I began to know that there was no other way for the sentence... to... arouse the same feeling. The someone writing whose words were rising from the typewriter became like a mentor for me.... You shouldn't do it more than a few times because you must get on with your own work."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Manliness and Manitude (pt 1) in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's Hurt Locker

Someone said she wouldn't read a book without females. Dave Wolverton suggests you populate your stories with a maximum of character types to maximize your audience. No doubt that's true, but life happens outside mixed groups, and fiction can get interesting when the focus narrows.

Bigelow and Boal's Hurt Locker tells (yes, there will be spoilers, so go watch it) with a three-man EOD team or a bomb diffusing squad.

Death: Amazingly, they toss big actors Guy Pearce and Ralph Fienes, and we the audience believe they'll be around for awhile. Boom. Nope. They want you to think this is life and death. The people you're used to rooting for, can die. That's war.... But it's also something that fascinates men--violence, death, honor, codes of conduct.

Violence, Honor, Codes of Conduct: The lead, Sergeant First Class William James [Jeremy Renner], takes an unnecessary risk with the smoke screen, which I doubt this character would take. It seems to me likely he'd take risks to defuse bombs, but not stop his mates from helping (unless he has reasoning we're not privy to). So in this case, we agree when Sergeant J. T. Sanborn [Anthony Mackie] punches James in the gut.

Violence, Honor, Codes of Conduct: Of course, not all men are equally drawn to these subjects, but most of us are to a degree or are fascinated by other men's fascination. The scene involving traded gut-punches evoked memories. One young wanted a group of us guys to organize wrestling matches. When I broke my arm playing rugby, he urged me to play again, with the broken limb. A river, inner-tube trip with another group of guys ended up in an impromptu mud-wrestling match. You play or you're a spoil sport. Or say, the pointless grade-school fight (started by someone claiming I said something I had not--someone bored, no doubt) ended up in friendship afterwards.

A Man's Life: We wind up focused on one man's life, William James (perhaps named after the famed 19th century philosopher/psychologist). He befriends a lad, threatening his life one minute, then saying he's joking the next, proving the joke by buying things from the kid and giving him bonuses (earned by defending James's terrible soccer kick). When James find a dead kid looking like the kid he befriended, he must avenge the kid's life, as if the kid were his own. He holds the man for whom the boy works. He interrogates a family. He shoots down three men in the street, one of whom is part of his EOD team. And it turns out James misidentified the kid.

When James goes home to the States, he tells his baby boy (not his wife) that for men all the things in life you love whittles down to one or two things. For him, there's only one. He returns to Iraq for another tour.

Part 2 regarding Michael Chabon's "Along the Frontage Road" appears here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Manliness and Manitude (pt 2)* in "Along the Frontage Road" by Michael Chabon

"Along the Frontage Road" first appeared in The New Yorker. Reprinted in Best American Short Stories.

Someone said she wouldn't read a book without females. Dave Wolverton suggests you populate your stories with a maximum of character types to maximize your audience. No doubt that's true, but life happens outside mixed groups, and fiction can get interesting when the focus narrows.

Chabon's story examines this from an angle different than Bigelow and Boal's (scheduled for release 10/21)*. Here the narrator seems less preoccupied by death and violence and yet it's there if buried. Mostly, perhaps to his surprise or chagrin (though his emotional response isn't recorded), the Manly Code of Conduct permeates their consciences--consciously or unconsciously--written differently on each "man" (term used loosely). Another difference is that manliness is on this character's mind, which the more pensive men tend to do.

Again there are spoilers, but it's hard to spoil literary stories.

The story opens with the narrator's family tradition: pumpkin selection for Halloween. So the weight of tradition, of generations hangs heavy on this story. There's a brief allusion to an infant child who died. Another gave this the story's full weight. But I don't read it that way. The story spends it's time on men interacting with men. The death (again, death) plays more of a catalyst's role, a way of bringing the men together. 

The Jewish narrator spots a young black boy bored and irritated that he's been left alone in the muscle car while his dad does manly things in the Bait shop (the narrator turns out to be correct). The boy, in other words, is left out of manly discourse. Note all or the manly things mentioned above. 

Meanwhile, the narrator's son selects his pumpkin. It is small, possibly too small to carve. The narrator is disappointed in his son's selection, agrees with the other boy who walks up to offer his commentary. When the other boy's father arrives, disappointed perhaps that his son would consort with Jews or other men?

I choose to follow a non-race interpretation, but yours may be different (after all, the narrator also quickly judged the other man's manhood, guessing him to be a drug dealer with no apparent evidence that I noticed). Instead, I see this as men disappointed in other men's manliness. That disapproval and perhaps guilt over telling his son what kind of pumpkin he should pick, causes him to attempt to erase what he said about picking a larger pumpkin. The boy should pick his own, say, manliness or pumpkin. The boy chooses both--his own, for the sister he'll never have, and a larger "normal" one for carving.

A "frontage road" is a service road, the one off a main road. According to Merriam-Webster, "frontage" can also mean "the act... of facing a given way," which verifies the different direction all of these men are pointing. Possibly, also "affront" is intended, the causing of offense. If so, these affronts are buried, unstated in each man's sense or orientation of what manliness is.

* * *

My point in examining these two works is to show the potency art can attain by limiting its focus. The same goes for women, of course (or any group). As an editor, I recently tried to vote for a wonderful tale set in an all-girls school. I've selected poems about being a woman from women and asked men to do the same. Crickets chirped. No one took the bait.

This isn't to say that literature has to be purposefully segregated or isolationist group--just that it can make for great art.

Those of us interested in humanity are interested art and life in their various manifestations, not limiting art and life to any one kind of ideological interaction. That said, many solely manly or womanly arts may not be to my taste. So it goes. No one is required to like everything.

Some may only want one type of literature--all men, all women, all mixed, all fantastic, no fantastic. That's fine, but please don't limit others in what they like to read/view/etc. Don't deprive others of art's richness. We live in a world of genetic variety. And don't threaten people's lives or livelihoods because you disagree, either, for that matter. Please. Play nice.

* * *

Aside:  Here was an amusing pair of lines, amusing in how Chabon switches tone:
"Toward the end of the year, however, with a regularity that approximates, in its way, the eternal rolling wheel of the seasons, men appear with trailers, straw bales, fence wire, and a desultory assortment of orange-and-black or red-and-green bunting. First they put up polystyrene human skeletons and battery-operated witches, and then, a few weeks later, string colored lights and evergreen swags."
* The point of reversing the order of the essay is so that they may appear in order later (first to post appears below the following post).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gina Berriault, author

Here's a writer I'd heard of but doubted I read anything of hers. It turns out I had. I suspect a number of us have read "The Stone Boy" by Gina Berriault:

  1. Story (in Points of View anthology) -- definitely read this one. I must have read at as a lad and it's still stuck with me.
  2. Film, won the 1972 New York Teenage Kodak Movie Award for Best Cinematography. It seems pretty bad until you realize these guys are amateurs. Then it's impressive. They pull off some good moments despite limitations of budget and acting classes. Kudos.

Other stories:

  1. "The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress" at Narrative
  2. "The Infinite Passion of Expectation" at Vice
  3. "Around the Dear Ruin" [page down] at Vice 
Interview and articles:
  1. Passion and Craft interview (Here's an author who takes early influences seriously. She includes genre fantasists like George MacDonald. Usually names get rattled off.)
  2. Daphne Kalotay
  3. Marianne Rogoff's student remembrance
  4. Here's Richard Yates on the beginning of "Around the Dear Ruin"
  5. Here's Whitney Otto on its ending
  6. The best I can't find, but if you can find another here's a place holder

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Resurrection Points" by Usman T. Malik

Appeared in Strange Horizons, which is doing their annual fundraiser.
This is a solid performance by newcomer Usman T. Malik. The imagisitically stimulating story relates how Baba leads Daoud and through his ability to animate a murdered young man through resurrection points. Slowly, Daoud develops his ability to animate a dead chicken, a cat, and a human who seems to shrug on his own. Meanwhile, some community Muslims don't want to bury the dead boy in the graveyard because he was Christian. Baba pushes against them, but the Muslims overreact, torching a small village, killing many Christians.

Spoilers & Commentary:
His mother has been hiding her Christianity. The local Muslims found her birth name and used it to get back at Baba, and Daoud discovers he had family in the village. Even Baba has passed away. So Daoud raises the entire village of dead people.

The tale itself is compelling and sure to satisfy. Malik has developed Daoud into a Christ figure. Daoud paraphrases certain sentences, raises the dead, and bleeds from the palms. Presumably, he will drive the dead in to give these local Muslims a reckoning for their behavior, but it's not clear how long or strong these zombies will last. It's a great final image but hard to imagine what it will accomplish except to show discontent and cast Daoud in an evil light among the Muslims (perhaps a sequel is forthcoming). The tale seems to reveal discontent with violent answers to religious disagreement.

Although much of the tale is outside Daoud, it is solidly told. Likely, Usman T. Malik will be a writer to watch.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Million Dollar Professionalism by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

The "Million Dollar" phrase is used to indicate that the authors have sold at least a million dollars worth of books, a marker intended to show the authors know what they're talking about. I read David Farland/Wolverton's Million Dollar Outlines (reviewed here) mistakenly thinking it indicated popular methods of writing (although that is Wolverton's purpose).

In Anderson and Moesta's modest book (about the length of a novella or so), they turn their gaze upon how one behaves as a writing professional. Some of it should be obvious: Bathe. Others we need reminders: Thank you's and unexpected generosity can win you fans. They supply examples. Also, I've thought of conventions as times to relax, but they show that for writers, it's the opposite.

And be nice. To everyone. It's something we've lost sight of, in this age of outrage. Anderson and Moesta do state that writers may choose to stick their necks out for different cases, which may earn you attention for one group, but the book's authors ask if that's worth alienating part of your readership. It doesn't discuss diplomacy and whether it can be executed effectively.

Although I've tried kindness and diplomacy since I've been in the field, the book lists things I still need to work on. I highly recommend this book of writerly etiquette -- comparable to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People for the genre writer. Carnegie's book was so popular at one time that it became an object of scorn. If you read it, though, you'll find it packed with sound advice. Anderson and Moesta's Million Dollar Professionalism may fall into the same category.

Amazon had it on sale for $6.99, so snag this with several other volumes of writer advice at Story Bundle.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Real Mad Scientists from the 1940s

Aside 1 (pointless gender battles): This propaganda presumably came from a guy who was tired of hearing from women that they have to give birth to babies (though it is possible that a woman, tired of hearing about other women's birth pains, wrote this). Birth pains may be a badge of pride or shame depending on which woman said it. So the guy came back with this.

He captions the picture: "No right to moan about child birth." The guy and the people he's arguing with must be teenagers or in their early twenties. Who cares if someone moans about pain, whatever kind?

Aside 2 (impressive photoshop):  I am impressed with how well they matched colors in this photo. The black and white probably helps. Here's the original:

Mad Scientists
I did some fact-checking: A pain unit of measurement does exist, they're apparently called dol (for dolores) -- not del. I have no idea where this guy gets his numbers or how they should be used (I've had broken bones worse than kick to the nether region). One friend said giving birth wasn't bad, others hated it. In med school they said the worst pain was kidney stones, followed by childbirth, but who knows? The guy who said it was a urologist. Was it a badge of pride for his profession? Pain is hard to measure because people are different. Surely, scientists noticed this phenomenon before undertaking an experiment of dubious ethics. Can't you hear scientists mu-ah-ah-ah and rubbing their hands?