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Monday, July 3, 2017

Review with Commentary: Never Stop on the Motorway by Jeffrey Archer

Never Stop on the Motorwayby Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's Press
General Fiction (Adult)
Diana, successful business woman and single parent, feels pressure on multiple fronts. She still feels the sting of the year-old divorce. Yet she chooses to remain single, partially because the single choices left much to be desired. And the men tend to think of her promiscuous after a single mistake:
"[E]very other man on the premises either smirks behind your back or treats your thigh as an extension of the arm on his chair."
 Driving her Audi suburban and jamming out to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." She does have a good friend, Daniel, who has been married for twelve years with three children, she being the godmother. It is their family she is driving out to visit in the country.

After she accidentally hits a cat and mourns its passing, headlights gleam in her rearview mirror. She tries to let him pass. She slows down. She speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour, hoping to get pulled over by the cops, but he won't stop tailgating. His bumper won't leave hers, no matter what she chooses to do.

The story leaves one surprise for the end. This pulse-pounder will leave fingernail impressions in the couch. The price for this story is reasonable. If you're into thrillers, you'll want this one. If there's any critique, it's that there feels like we need one more story beat after the surprise--not that it's needed.


Okay, stop reading until you buy and read this for yourself. Commentary with spoilers below for those who like to discuss stories.

Link to Kindle version (available July 4)
Commentary with Spoilers
 You have read the story, yes? It's only a dollar.

Unless there's a nuance I'm missing, the title "Never Stop on the Motorway" suggests this is a thriller, nothing more and nothing less. However, a quarter of the opening text or so deals with the problems women have with men. Yet she goes to a man for help. This may irk some feminists, so I was pondering what more could be meant.

If anything is meant to be said here on the topic of feminism, it may be that men can be allies, not necessarily in the background. And some men only seem to be the problem (you'll have to read the story to know what I'm referring to.

That is an "if"--whether author wanted anything more than to thrill. Nothing wrong with stories that only aim to entertain.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ivory by Mike Resnick

This was up for the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll Awards.

Elephant tusks get gambled away in an alien game. The last member of the tribe is seeking it. He has employed in order to find it. This novel tracks those movements over the centuries of its displacement.
This is a book I rather love and I have a hard time accounting for it. It's a minor SF masterwork--that illustrious tier when you have read SF classics like Dune and Foundation, etc. and are scratching your head about what to read next. This has nothing to do with awards. This outshines some winners although a few award-losers might might outshine this one. But not many.

Like the movie Red Violin, the story follows the history of an object through time except Resnick's predates the movie by a decade. The risk of such connected stories is that they are merely connected stories. What a book strives to do is become more than the sum of its parts. This achieves that.

This amounts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Blade Runner -- analysis and commentary

Note: Work will slow down my posts here. I hope to do one a week, if possible.

The Dilemma
A friend watched Blade Runner while distracted, she admitted, but didn't appreciate it. I looked for a simple webpage to point her to, but nothing obvious cropped up although Wikipedia quotes it as showing up on multiple Best lists (mostly belated as a cult classic). Worse,  Siskel and Ebert panned the movie when it first came out:

They picked the worst scene of the movie to highlight, which allowed them to say it was cliche but with great effects and cinematography. So I decided to tackle the movie myself.

Note that there are multiple versions. Yes, I will ruin the movie. But you have probably already seen it. If not, go see it and compare notes. If you have questions the remain unanswered, you are supposed to ask and see if the work supports them. Yes, you may need to re-watch the film.

The Set-Up
What are Blade Runners? "Blade runners are people assigned to assassinate 'replicants.' "

You have to realize what this film was doing. The old noir movies had a small resurgence. This was an SF version of that. Is that a cliche or an homage? The change of setting, I think, is enough to make it original. Plus, how many other SF movies were noir up to this time? Cliche, on rare occasions, but most of it dealt with the lives of artificial people destined to die in four years. Was that a cliche at the time?

Luckily, few listened to the lazy critics and watched the movie, anyway.

This is an SF mystery. It's easy to miss out on critical details if distracted. Especially, early on, missed details will confuse you. 

The mystery is something of a macguffin for the thriller and speculative aspects, but it asks the viewer to buy into the detective scenario because it will play off mystery expectations and surprise viewers with a different perspective.

It opens with an effective mood-setting scene. It creates a tone of dark futurity, alternating bright and dark. The music does not work as well today as it would have then since back then the sound was fresh, electronic, futuristic although some of it is nearly as effective as it would have been--usually the sexy sax.

Next is a scene that at first glance seems to be an interview with an unintelligent man, but the man reacts with murder. So the stakes are higher than we thought, Rewatching the scene afterwards (yes, you should rewatch it), you realize the man is trying to evade detection through misdirection.

Deckard is taken in to hunt down killer androids who have escaped, learning they have only four years to live since they might become fully human. Deckard doesn't want the job, but their best guy was shot (not dead, after all). Fairly classic scene. 

Deckard interviews Tyrell and his beautiful assistant. With difficulty, he identifies her as a replicant. Along the way, she plants seeds of doubt about who she is and what he does. She becomes a love interest.

Analysis with Spoilers
Basically, the subtext here is that the replicants are effectively becoming human, indistinguishable. They are being killed to prevent that. Deckard buys into his job at first but begins to question it.... even before the movie starts.

The main romance scene left much to be desired (the worst bit of the film). Maybe the point of that scene is that she is too emotionally young (less than four years old and only beginning to feel emotions) and needs to be taught how to love, but the smaller shots/reactions were more effective. There are voice-over clips that spell things out, but I think the narrative does a decent job. That photo of her make-believe childhood, in fact, is what the director uses to show us how he is falling for her as he keeps returning to it. 

We aren't in her POV much, so it is difficult to say why she falls for him, but her vulnerability and her ability to cut him where it counts is what draws him to her. Plus, she saved his life. One can only presume that she is interested in his returning to her. Here is a man who knows who she is--a type he has killed in the past--and not only accepts her, but also finds her fascinating and wants to run off with her.

Batty, as one might guess from his name, is erratic. He establishes himself as such. His whole chase scene with Deckard is a game of cat-and-mouse. Where did the dove come from? The dove came from the rooftop. It is used more as a symbol, but it adds to his strange character. Every time we see him, his behavior is off, so for him to grab a dove should not surprise us any more than the rest of his behavior. In fact, all of these replicants are a little off. Attacking someone via somersaults? The most normal was the snake gal. 

Batty knows he is dying. He drives a nail into his palm as it is clenching up. The dove shows physically and mentally that he has had a change of heart although we don't know that. His speech tells us that he wants Deckard to feel what they feel. If he succeeds and kills Deckard, what does that accomplish? Maybe Deckard's replicant girlfriend has suspected Deckard's heart is good, but I'm not sure if Batty's seen that. Maybe it's a risk he's willing to take. If Deckard can pass on the knowledge, maybe he change the lives of future replicants.

Clearly, Batty is a Christ symbol and one of the best I've seen. The nail in the palm. The dove. His dying instead of Deckard, sparing Deckard's life even though he deserves death.

The unicorn dream is clearly symbolic. I would have to watch again to decide on a more exact significance. The final origami was a unicorn. That may be what she is to him--an impossible fantasy but one worthwhile. But is that your interpretation? That's you're job as a viewer. You have to interrogate the art/text.

It's a good movie with minor flaws. I'm not crazy about that love scene or the Batty's final monologue which everyone quotes, but the imagery is stunning and evocative. The themes and symbols were effective. It's a good SF romp with heart. 

Watch it again.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Dragon Flight" -- from the novel by Anne McCaffrey

Lessa is champing at the bit. She is supposed to be Weyrwoman, which is supposed to mean something, but she's kept uninformed and occupied with busywork. She wants to be out flying her dragon with the other riders. Instead, she's memorizing ballads.

She does get to soar, through the in-between, and learns things about herself she never knew.

This is the section connecting the two award-winning novellas, including "Weyr Search" and "Dragonrider". It is the stitching holding these two tales together. It has wonder of its own, but the stitching bears some of the more interesting parts. This section also matches the title, lending the section additional weight.

The section opens with poetry or verse. Lessa, the narrator, is required to memorize and write them perfectly. She calls them ballads, but ballads have a specific structure, which these do not follow. The form requires an ABCB rhyme, with iambic rhyme and alternating four and three feet. Perhaps these are rough translations from the far future. Or maybe the idea of what a ballad is has changed in the far future.

Here's a sample:
Seas boil and mountains move,
Sands heat, dragons prove,
Red Star passes.
Stones pile and fires burn,
Green withers, arm Pern.
Guard all passes.
The lines are taut with strong enough imagery. It even surprises with the changing of "passes" from verb to noun. Separate from the narrative, the verse--while good--are not especially remarkable. But McCaffrey does infuse these with a mythic power. In one of my first workshop classes, a young woman imitated the use of these verses mixed with narrative. Even should a young poet manage strong lines, it is only when Lessa ponders their purpose that they gain particular significance. Just picking at the lines seems to lend verse more gravity.

Should one want a more mythic quality, one might study the old masters like Ovid or Homer in their invocation of Gods and try to extrapolate that into a new context. Most writers, however, will probably not that interested in poetry, so McCaffrey's method should suit writers well enough.


If you've tasted McCaffrey's style before, you already know what I'm about to say and don't care, or you have turned your nose up at her prose and are baffled I am taking her seriously as an artist. As a bestselling author, McCaffrey clearly has plenty of readers where this isn't a problem, but the work tends to explain emotions and motivations, for example:
"Manora regarded Lessa warily. Lessa smiled at her reassuringly."
 Some readers want to be told how to react, some do not.


Much of the novel is about Lessa's striving for her place in the world, which is typical for most young people. But here the context can be viewed through a feminist lens: a young woman jockeying  for position among the other, older men. She has cards up her sleeve that she is waiting to play.

The large speculative treat is the "between" time-traveling. For award-winning stories that first appeared in Analog, the absurdity of time-traveling dragons must have been a consternation to voters. Despite the novellas garnering attention, the novel received no recognition until years later.

And yet the bizarre idea works with readers. Why? One might suspect that it is well integrated into the narrative. It utilizes earlier ideas and brings things that might seemed like chance and made them sound suddenly more probable (if you are willing to suspend disbelief).

Monday, May 22, 2017

William Stafford

Rumored to have written 22,000 poems, William Stafford won a National Book Award and for thirty or forty years won the hearts of poetry readers across America. You can see his style of simple lyrics full of wisdom bubbling through the boiling cauldron of a particular era in our country's poets.

His "Way of Writing" was associative. Allowing himself plenty of time without distractions, he would get up early to write (a habit from being a conscientious objector during WWII and working in camps in the States before they put him to work) and he would write whatever came--sensory, visual stimuli; words. This seemed to be critical to his process which he called receptivity. He'd let that suggest something else. From there he felt free to use reason/intentionality/eloquence.

In writing "Ask Me", he states that in both the writing and revision, he was following a feeling. [Turner's 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process]

Curiously, his influence as a poet has waned. It's hard to pinpoint when, but sometime after his death, the space he occupied in retrospective anthologies (even ones that expanded) decreased to match the relatively minor poets. Why? Is it the seeming simplicity? Or a desire not to see "The Way It Is" or "accepting what comes"?

If it's his plainspoken simplicity, possibly it has outworn its welcome for a time and may circle back around again.

Here are five of my favorite Stafford poems. Stew on them until they release their savor to you.

  1. "Traveling through the Dark" -- heartbreaking signature poem, emblematic of his perspective: "The Way It Is"
  2. "At the Bomb Testing Site"
  3. "A Story That Could Be True"
  4. "Waiting in Line" (at the end of file)
  5. "A Certain Bend" (The whole poem is there, but it isn't properly lineated. Definitely, look up the original. From the first issue of Missouri Review. 

Great lines from "Waiting in Line":
the nation of the young, like jungle birds
that scream as they pass, or gyrate on playgrounds,
their frenzied bodies jittering with the disease
of youth. Knowledge can cure them. But
not all at once. It will take time. 
A poetry writing book pointed out the attitude toward the young in the first two lines. But zeroing in on that misses out on the larger picture since it is a poem about the continuity. See the title again. Genius. Beautiful, funny and moving.

Hundreds more poems:
Poetry Magazine (their lengthy biography)
poet's website

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Your job is to find what the world is trying to be."
--"Vocation" by William Stafford

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Had I known what kind of book this was, I might not have bought it. But then again, I might have. It is a strange hybrid on poetry, writing poetry, myth (fairy tales--not in the pejorative sense, but I'm sure some would like to apply that as well), self-help, and pop psychology. Clearly, Bly saw a deep connection between all of these things, and part of the appeal is how strongly integrated he views them. He takes the entire field of poetry (especially Wallace Stevens) to task for not using these ideas as he has. Most writers consider their field of study as pointless. See my review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless, so it is gulp of cool water in so vast a desert to come upon Bly's drinking trough.

Note: I do not tend to write glowing reviews. I try to steer away readers who would dislike such a book. Most books, like humans, are flawed and sometimes those flaws are part of the appeal. I hate to state this over and over for every review, though.

I also bought the audiobook that followed after this edition. It is always curious to read (or hear) how a writer revises his work after second and third thoughts. Bly is uncannily honest and states in the audio that his work has truth and lies, but he doesn't know which is which.

There is a great deal of useful information in here, and a little that rings less useful. The overview: Bly asks that people find balance in their writing and their lives. We have a tendency to blame our failures on others, but Bly states we should take ownership, pull out the aspects of our personality that we've hidden away, and develop our lives fully.

First, a definition, if possible: The shadow is the darker side of ourselves, which we need to embrace. The shadow is not evil, Bly said. Following Bly's definitions requires paradigm-shifting, not to mention accepting squishy definitions.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Problems in the Ark. This details the author's own experiences in finding his shadow and dealing with it in his poetry. Later, he points out that some of the things he hated in others (Alexander Pope, businessmen) he had in himself, and he had to accept this before he could appreciate such men. Paradoxically, he mentions politicians he also hated (or at least he suggested he did), so perhaps this is a never-ending process.
  2. The Long Bag We Drag behind Us. Society tells us to hide certain aspects of ourselves. These aspects (the feminine, the masculine, the witch, the giant, the shadow, among others) we hide in a bag and drag it around with us.
  3. Five Stages in Exiling, Hunting and Retrieving the Shadow. We start at birth and, say, hand our witch to our mothers (who expresses it for us) and later hand it to our wives. The witch is what allows us to get what we want. We need to retrieve this by asking for these missing parts back.
  4. Honoring the Shadow. This is an interview with William Booth, the editor, who gets Bly to expand on ideas he mentions only in passing earlier, such as eating one's shadow, etc.
  5. Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll. Bly believes the personality is also a part of the poet and needs to be examined as part of a poet's oeuvre. Stevens, Bly says, brought out the shadow in his poetry, but never lived it out in his own life, so the gifts of the shadow were wasted on Stevens and this shows up in Stevens' late poems.
The positives of the book outweigh the negatives. The main positive is asking people to face themselves, instead of shifting responsibility on others. This could also be a negative since people often create or contribute to a problem, but at some point, we must realize the person who may have done damage doesn't care, and we must work through issues for ourselves. One can read an abundance of poetry where that is its primary failing. It keeps stumbling over the flaws of others as if that were one's only failing in life: other people.

This is where Bly's methodology steps in and tells you to ask for your missing parts, the aspects of yourself you gave away. I keep imagining how this might play out in real life: the puzzlement on the other person's face. 
"Hey, give me my witch back." 
"You want your what? 
"My witch!"
"Oh. Okay. If you lost your witch doll, I'm sorry, but I don't have it."
Still, it is a physical statement, a stance that makes the metaphor real, which is both good and bad. The good is that you are telling yourself that you are changing. The bad is that it is a metaphor:
"Projection without personal contact is dangerous. Thousands, even millions of American men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. If a million men do that, and leave it there, it's likely she will die. She died."
It may be within the realm of possibility that that is why she died, but it seems doubtful. Unless she were part of a hive mind, she probably had her own issues. One of the measures that some poetry readers use to decide the quality of a poet is their personal mythology. It seems likely that Bly's is unique, so maybe he'll remain within the canon for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, Bly does judge Stevens by a measure that maybe Stevens had not considered or might have rejected as part of his poetics. All humans are problematic, so to judge one because he does not follow your aesthetic is dubious at best. If we had a time-traveling recorder to mark our every misstatement, we would all be exposed as cruel. This is where David Orr's "pointless" perspective on poetry gains legitimacy.

No matter. A Little Book on the Human Shadow has plenty to recommend it. The audiobook is similar, covering overlapping territories, but it goes a little further into fairy tales and skips much of the later discussion found in sections four and five of the book. I do recommend both but with caveats, We should be examining our various aspects of personality we may be leaving out.

What book doesn't require caveats? Maybe that is the  measure of a book that takes risks. Flaws are, after all, where the personality shines through.