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15 posts from September 2008

September 28, 2008

I Am So Sad About Paul Newman

Newmanwoodward

I did not know that he meant anything to me, but I guess he did. That kind of beauty, combined with intelligence and goodwill, can be a profound thing.

September 23, 2008

Readin' Update

I finished Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam, the first of the Blanche mysteries. Took me two weeks.

I read the second or third one many years ago when it first came out (my mom had it), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and was surprised that this story of a black domestic worker among richer, lighter-skinned members of "the race" would ring familiarity bells with me. It was the first book I ever read that described a (small) part of my own experience. Don't ask me now how that can be, I'll have to read the book again. Something about Blanche being one of them yet being repudiated.

Anyway, I always meant to go back and read the others and I was recently in Marcus Books on Fillmore and found this one on a table. It took me two weeks to read, even though it's only 200 pages, because Neely was so intent on exploring the contemporary master/servant relationship from the point of view of the servant. The murder doesn't actually happen until more than halfway through the book. The relationships in the book are complex, complicated by race and class and personality.

The book is terrific until the end, when the bad buy deteriorates into a caricature. But definitely worth reading.

September 22, 2008

Vote on Sarah Palin Poll!

I just got an email saying that PBS has a poll on Sarah Palin's qualifications that the Repugs have organized a yes vote for.

So be sure to vote yourself!

September 18, 2008

Reading Update and APAture LIVEBLOGGING!

Also, I just finished Maugham's The Painted Veil. Can't write about it right now. I'm reading it as material for an essay I'm trying to write about politics of narrative. Maybe I can work out some ideas here but not for the next couple of weeks because

I'M LIVEBLOGGING APATURE!

APAture is a festival I started with a group of people at Kearny Street Workshop ten years ago. This year is its first big anniversary and I've started a liveblog where I'll be documenting all the events. I've also put a feed to this blog in the upper left hand corner of the page you're reading now. Look over there! It says "APAture Live." That's it!

Please follow along with us, dudes and dudettes.

I gotta run now and start blogging. The gallery opening starts in 45 minutes.

Reading Update

I can't believe I haven't reviewed this yet!

I just read E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I think at Gwenda's recommendation. Despite my absolute moratorium on "The BLANKITY BLANK OF NAME-ITY NAME NAME" titles, I have to say ... Wow. This is a book about a wealthy-ish (not super wealthy) girl at a top board school discovering sexism and acting out. And it's amazing.

When I first started the book, although I enjoyed it, I was disgusted by the Gossip-Girl-esque fascination with the unattainably rich and the assumption that what concerns the rich will somehow be universal to us all. This girl doesn't really have any problems, and her bratty distress at being treated like a child (at all of 15 years of age) by adults and older kids is a really extended boo-fuckin'-hoo moment. Plus, she suddenly grows good looks and becomes arm candy for her crush, the most popular boy in school. So what's the problem?

But then, as I read on, the real sexism that even privileged women are subjected to started leaking in to the scenario. Unlike what this book would be in the hands of a lesser writer, Lockhart doesn't turn Frankie into a sudden, total, feminist heroine. Frankie doesn't quite get what's happening to her when her new boyfriend starts ignoring and excluding her in favor of his guy friends. She doesn't really understand why it upsets her, especially when she looks around her and sees all kinds of examples of relationships where it either isn't happening, or where the girl lets it happen. What's never mentioned here is that this is exactly what happened in her (divorced) parents' marriage and her mother set her the best example of how to handle it: leave.

So Frankie starts acting out in a typically (for women of this class) passive agressive way. That is to say, she takes over, by email, the all-male secret society her boyfriend nominally runs, pretending to be another boy, the other secret-society "king" (who gets so much credit, he doesn't dare out her), and ordering the rest of them to commit culture-jamming pranks the quality of which the society hasn't committed since its inception. In the process, she starts to recognize qualities in herself that she simultaneously likes and dislikes. She is clearly an alpha (like the boy she's impersonating, whose actual nickname is "Alpha"), with all the concomitant desire for attention and control, and also the ability to think for herself and to synthesize others' opinions. She also has creativity, a sense of humor, physical courage, and a profound, motivating, egotistical irritability.

It's entirely to Lockhart's credit that she never comes down on the side of "good? or evil?" with regard to Frankie's alphaness. It's neither and both. It's a force of human life; a social force, and ultimately, that's what Lockhart is examining in this book: power. I know, it sounds crazy that a  boarding school book about a prankster girl could be the best novel in this election cycle about sources of socio-political power and effective dissent. But that's exactly what this is.

Lockhart doesn't fail to make those connections increasingly througout this book. She shows us Frankie thinking through the implications of all these ridiculous high school hijinks. She notices that more than one former member of this secret society has become President. Frankie's father, also a former member, is shown in his circle of high-powered professionals, who are not only at the top of their professions, but also at the top of mainstream society. The silliness of these boys' games is there, but their importance to society as a whole can't be gainsaid. This is truth that exists in the real world: a three-month-long high school rivalry or friendship will have more effect on world politics than decades of community activism. We all know this, but we like to let ourselves forget. And by the end, Frankie can say to herself that, as much as she is excluded, she still needs to be near to the sources of power so that she can express her alpha personality in the ways she wants to later in life.

Reading this book has helped me to understand Hillary Clinton better than a thousand magazine articles and pundits' pootles. Of course, Frankie is idealized and likeable as a teenager, but I can easily see her turning into another Hillary: compromised, hard-edged, cynical, and still a little idealistic. This book is clear-eyed, but essentially optimistic, with the understanding that, beyond high school, our society has many mansions.

The book is, in more than one way, the anti-Chocolate War, looking at a privileged, attractive girl's secret fight against a prankster secret society, as opposed to the dark and pessimistic look at an underprivileged, unattractive boy's public fight against a bullying secret society. The two books should be read together, really. In school. And then A Little Commonwealth, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Second Sex should be read.

September 16, 2008

Nicknames

What my political opponents really need is a nickname, sorta like Perez Hilton and his relationship mashups. So McCain and Palin are now McSame and Failin'.

Or should it be McSame and Trailin'? As in the polls? What do you think?

And how do I get these out there?

So I just went to their website to see about grabbing an image for a little parodic action, and I noticed how hard it is to get INTO their website/s. There's a McCain adword, and a McCain/Palin adword at the top of Google results, and both take you directly to a donation site. You actually have to go down the first results page, PAST the google news results link, to get to McCain's infosite. And it STILL gives you a donation page first. Wow. What does that tell you?

Well, it tells me that McCain's constituents aren't interested in his purported "platform," that his campaign is much clearer on its need to fundraise, and maybe that McCain voters don't read.

Obama, on the other hand, doesn't have the top of the page adwords (as if his campaign site wouldn't be the top result anyway.) He has only one campaign site and the link takes you directly to a page where you can sign up (by giving your email and donating $15). Who are THEY targeting and what's THEIR strategy, I wonder. There's a very clear button at the bottom that lets you skip the sign up and go into the info-heavy website.

So they're serving the young, the unmoneyed, the wired, the social networkers, and the ones who will go to Obama's website for information, and who will go FIRST to Obama's website for information on Obama.

Fascinating, and scary.

Okay, McSame and Failin'. Pass it on.

September 15, 2008

iWordle? iTurdles? WordTunes?

Scott Westerfeld has started a new meme in which you:

1) In iTunes, select View Options under the View menu.
2) Turn off everything but “Artist.”
3) Select all and copy.
4) Search and Replace the word “track” with nothing.
5) Paste the results into the Wordle.net Create page.

Yes, it is awesome. Here's mine:

Wordletunes

Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Book List

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month y'all!

If this looks familiar to you, it's because you've seen this sort of thing before.

Every national heritage month, members of the Carl Brandon Society (an organization of writers of color working in the speculative fiction genres) create a list of ten speculative fiction books in print written by writers of that particular heritage. The 2008 Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Recommended Reading List (I know, it's long) is below.

Please forward and post everywhere, take to your bookstores and libraries, tell all your friends! These are books worth reading, and it would be great if you could read one of them between Sept 15 and Oct 15 and blog about it! Yes?

*****

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends

the following speculative fiction books by writers of Latin American heritage

for Hispanic Heritage Month:

  • COSMOS LATINOS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION FROM LATIN AMERICA AND SPAIN: a terrific, five-year-old anthology of early-to-contemporary SF stories from Spain and Latin America, showing the breadth of Latino social concerns and imagination.
  • Jorge Luis Borges LABYRINTHS: A short story collection very like FICCIONES, his other book. Am not sure which one has my two favorite Borges stories: A) the story about the man who is on a bus trip and who is fated to die 2) the story about Judas being the real savior because he was the one who was despised and rejected of men. Just turning the entire Jesus story around and saying Judas was the lamb who sacrificed himself.
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares THE INVENTION OF MOREL: Casares was an Argentine writer in the circle of Jorge Luis Borges. MOREL steps directly into the realm of science fiction, in the tradition of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, dealing with unnamed technology and its very specific effects on human psychology.
  • Julio Cortazar HOPSCOTCH: Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you get to choose your own endings, make your own timeline, and generally skip around and rearrange the chapters? This is the best of the best. It's a novel about philosophy and order and meaning and quite fun.
  • Carlos Fuentes DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ: This is the first book (the only book?) I ever read where each chapter is written in a different person. First person, Second Person, Third Person. There is also the great f*ck chapter. An old revolutionary is dying and thinking about his life. We see a lot about the Mexican revolution and get tons of stuff about political corruption.
  • Angelica Gorodischer KALPA IMPERIAL: a quirky collection of stories about a fictional great empire that rises and falls and rises and falls. Translated by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Mario Vargas Llosa AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER: hilarious, mischievous, and masterful...a wonderfully comic novel almost unbelievably rich in character, place and event.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: Totally wonderful love story with folk-legend. It's like listening to one's hoo-doo believing grandmother telling you about events in her life. A lot of brothers, a lot of love, a lot of passion, a lot of spiritual cause and effect.
  • Guillermo Gomez-Peña THE NEW WORLD BORDER: the strangest book about performance art you've ever read, Gomez-Peña casts forward into, and writes news reports from a borderless future where whites are a minority and the language is Spanglish.
  • Juan Rulfo PEDRO PARAMO: A man goes back to his parents' village to try to find the father who abandoned him. Trapped there by ghosts, he learns the horrifying story of his father's evil deeds. One of the first "magical realist" novels from Latin America.
       

For more information, please visit www.carlbrandon.org.

September 12, 2008

My First Blog Take On Palin

So recent history is proving my thesis. Let me quote myself:

It seems that these are the two avenues to political power for women: align yourself with the political party that would most oppose having a woman leader, and become more hardcore than your compatriots (look at how Meir and Thatcher inspired frequent jokes among their conservative colleagues about their masculinity); or marry into, or be born into, a political dynasty and work your husband's/father's legacy hard.

... It's clear: women politicians are ... iron ladies who sacrificed their marriages and family life for politics, or privileged wives and daughters. Liberal or moderate women don't ascend to real power without the power of a political family behind them; they must be linked by flesh and blood.

"Iron lady" is already taken, so everybody's calling her "pitbull" and "moosehunter," but the implication is clear: it's not Palin's "femininity" that people are interested in, it's her masculinity.

And like Meir or Thatcher, Palin's husband, while masculine, is not a politician, so her success in politics doesn't compete with or detract from his career success.

God, the world is sooooo typical.

September 08, 2008

Reading Update with SPOILERS!

Wow, I really get behind.

So I read the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud and loves it. It's the only successful commentary on the Iraq war that I've seen so far in fiction (not that I've read that many attempts.) It should feel heavy handed, but doesn't, because the secondary world created here is so weighty and balanced and alive. It shares one thing with Harry Potter and that is the depth of the world-building. But it also shares this with the Temeraire series and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

My one real quibble (SPOILER!) is with the very end when John Mandrake sacrifices himself for the others. It sort of needs to happen, but it feels way too much like the proper punishment for the radically flawed character ... his only way to redeem himself. I don't like that and it brought the book down for me. I can't quite see how else it could have ended, but this was just a good ending--just a neat wrap-up ending--not a great ending. The quality of the book was such that a great ending could have raised the book (or, I should say, the series) to greatness. But just a good ending make the book/s just good. Not really a problem, though.

Then I read Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler and loves it. Dewd. I'm not allowed to review friends on this blog but I'm so relieved. What if your friend wrote a book and it sucked? What if your friend wrote a book and it didn't suck but all you had for it was faint praise? Dodged that bullet. Why are you still here? Go read the sucker already. I might even review it on my udder blog but you didn't hear that from me. Oh, and here's Liz Henry's review.

September 05, 2008

My Own Personal Muse

And you wonder why I love Jay Smooth.

Just a little something to remember going into my next phase (or draft, whatever.)

September 04, 2008

*Triumphant Screech!*

I have finished Draft Two of da nobble!

\o/

I did it by employing a little trick. I was in phase two of three phases of Draft Two. Phase one was a major revision of a problematic area of the book and fixing the outward ripples of this revision. Phase two was then going back and writing in all the peripheral material I had always wanted to include but didn't in the first draft (which was about creating a coherent novel, without necessarily the richness of a complete thing.)

Phase three was going to be going back in and fixing all the fixes I had noted throughout draft two.

BUT. Draft Two has now taken a year all told (although that year was spread out over two calendar years). And the list of fixes now comprises about ten pages in Word. This is not a Phase. It is its own draft. So the list of fixes is now Draft Three, which shall commence next week.

Woot!

Also, Draft Four will be me going back in and doing chiropractic work. (Structure and deep character fix.) Then there will be a spit and polish and we're done. I have until August 2009.

Deep breath.

ETA: oh, ... uh ... and actually, there's that little matter of cutting out 50 or 80 thousand words. The MS at this moment is 203,036 words. I shit you knot. I'm gonna hafta rethink the whole draft numbering system. Maybe I'm back to Phase three of Draft Two. Sigh.

September 03, 2008

Oh My oG

I'm so close to done with phase two of draft two I can TASTE IT.

September 02, 2008

Naomi Novik Is The Best Writer Working Today

Hyperbole? Absolutely. And I really mean: one of the best writers. And I know very few of you will agree with me. And I don't care.

I grabbed Victory of Eagles when it first came out and finished it in one day. I am humbled, truly. And  I don't say that easily.

I am not overtaxed with humility, despite the purity of my lack of literary accomplishment ... as anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows. I don't claim--or feel--humility when I read most of the "literary" works most heralded as "genius" by the snob-squawkers. I applaud artistic ambition, the more so when it is at least somewhat achieved. But too many of the most praised novels aren't truly ambitious: achieving their ambitions is little more than a matter of maintaining a less-than-natural style without seams, producing a consistent melancholic mood, completing an emotional arc that produces catharsis without sullying itself with an apparent plotline, and proving the ultimate spiritual beauty and likability of their autobiographic protagonists.

What's lacking among these writers is:

  1. energy: it seems as if lit fic writers are mostly children of older mothers, born from aging ova that lack vitality ... which would also make sense given the fact that they have so much free time on their hands to write worthless stuff: their mothers postponed conception until they had lots of income (yes, I'm joking, bitterly).
  2. the possession of a real pushy story that insists on being told: you'd be shocked--SHOCKED--at the number of idiots in creative writing programs who complain in public among other writers that they "don't know how to finish a story"or "have trouble knowing what happens next" or "can't see very far into the story" when they begin and trust to their ... whatever (muse? talent? god forbid: imagination?) to supply material as they go along. I can think of no more direct way to say "I have no real story to tell." This also explains why their "stories" are all about people exactly like them in situations exactly like theirs: it's not their imaginations supplying them with material, it's their lives.
  3. balance: the ability to make every element of the story serve the story, each in its proper measure, rather than placing undue emphasis on one element (say, "poetic" language) to the detriment of other elements (say, imagination, plot, velocity).

Naomi Novik has all of these in spades. On top of that, she's a great writer because she does the following:

  • Fits her writing tactics and style to the purpose of her writing project
  • Balances the different modes of writing--action, description, exposition, dialogue, internal monologue, image and metaphor--relying on none to the exclusion of any others, and making all vivid, fresh, and fully integrated. This is to say that nothing she does draws attention to itself as writing; it's all there in the service of the story, and you can only see what good writing it is if you pull yourself out of suspension. (Yes, I already mentioned this above, I'm restating it slightly differently here. Get over it.)

  • Employs conciseness, which is neither economy, density, nor understatement, but rather precision (if precision was about providing meat as well as being exact.) Look at this one-paragraph battle scene:

"Signal the attack," Laurence said, and Temeraire roaring plummeted with the rest; the Chevaliers panicked and flung themselves aloft, instinctively. One leapt only to meet Maximus's full weight upon her back, and bellowing dreadfully was driven down, straight down, into the ground again, and with a snapping crack went silent. Maximus staggered off and shook himself, dazed by the impact; she did not move, and her captain crying her name flung himself heedless across the field toward her.

Novik's a bit profligate with the semicolons and stingy with the commas (and somesnob versed in "should-be's" would call her out for excessive adverbiage), but this is a perfect scene otherwise. In one sentence (that should have been punctuated as two) we see the movement of the attackers down, and the defenders up. We see a vivid kill, and you don't need to know that Maximus is a heavyweight to get how the deed is done. You hear the bellowing of the dragon and know that it was her spine that was snapped. You see the whole story of her relationship with her captain in the clause that has him crying her name, and flinging himself after her, heedless (ly?).

I can scarcely think of another writer that wouldn't be betrayed by grandstanding impulse--or sheer, unacknowledged awkwardness--into stopping the action and giving us a brief glimpse inside the head of the bereft enemy captain, or at least having Laurence internally monologuing about what the captain must be feeling. Novik only gives us two more images of him in later pages, one of him being led away from the dragon, weeping, and the other of his hands bound to a stake in the ground. That's all we need for a minor character whose main purpose is to give texture to the corps' exploits in this part of the novel, and create emotional complexity around their very ethically compromised mission.

  • Permits the necessities of plot to drive the action, and the necessities of action to drive the plot. In other words, she doesn't force nifty scenes onto the book, or measure out her structure carefully. What happens is organic, and yet the shape of the whole is harmonious, part flowing into part.
  • Over the course of the series she allows the situation of her characters to become increasingly ethically compromised ... and allows them, increasingly, to see it. This is true to life and false to most fiction: our conscience troubles increase the older we get, though so does our ability to ignore or manage our guilt. Temeraire and Laurence are heroes because they don't merely manage their guilt; they act upon their consciences. In fact, we get a long sequence in Victory of Eagles in which Laurence does simply manage his guilt, and it becomes clear that it is Temeraire's presence in his life that forces him to deal with his conscience and behave heroically. Sure, this is satisfying--heroism is always satisfying--but the way Novik deals with it is above all interesting, and she's willing to risk some of Laurence's stature to make him a more interesting hero.
  • Continues to be a master of characterization. All of the above weave in together, of course, and all contribute strongly to the characterization, which is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this series. The characters are consistent, but consistent in the way that people are consistent: moods take them, the vagaries of life begin to weigh on them. They behave in ways recognizable to their characters, but over time, the accumulated burden of their experience begins to warp their characters into new shapes, and much of their struggle--as is our own--is to find their way back to the best parts of themselves. Victory of Eagles is, more than anything, about this struggle in the adult Laurence. It is also about the struggle in the adolescent Temeraire to achieve adulthood and take on the mantle of leadership. He is both helped and hindered by Laurence's terrible, and often selfish, conflict in this book.

I believe I've written and talked before about the power that speculative fiction can bring to representations of reality. It's the power of diagonality: not a mirror reflection but a distorted reflection; an image created moving diagonally out of mimetic reality into a world that reflects ours by changing important things. The paradox is that this diagonal reality is only effective if its creator commits to it completely, commits to making the illusion of its separate reality complete.

There is no real relationship in our reality like the captain/dragon relationship in the Temeraire series. It is a marriage, a best-friendship, a lover configuration, a parent/child relationship, a dog/master, ship/captain, actor/manager, warrior/quartermaster relationship. It is this relationship, and not the existence of dragons, that is the biggest difference between Temeraire's world and ours. And yet, the existence of this complex and unique relationship illuminates all of our relationships. It's the sort of friendship we all desperately hope for ... and have no chance of acquiring; there are no people as loyal and strong as dragons, no beings whose friendship can make us more loyal and strong than we humans naturally are.

This potential for the perfect relationship is thrown into a world only slightly better, and more honorable, than our own. (The secondary characters tend to have too much consistency, too little complexity, but that's as it must be.) The perfect relationship is thrown into war and left to make its way through the impossible ethical binds that war, and the world in general, creates. And it is only a perfect relationship that can show us so clearly the way these slings and arrows strain and distort love, loyalty, and responsibility.

Okay, enough writing. Loves it. That's all.

September 01, 2008

Overdue Review

I started this a while ago but never finished it. I'm posting it now.

This is why everybody hates me: I just read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I'm struggling to find good things to say about it.

It flowed very easily, that much is true. Perhaps that's a feat, but coming from a celebrated poet, I tend to think that's just a basic prerequisite. On the other hand, though, as we know from early Ondaatje and Li-Young Lee's memoir, poets do have a tendency to strain fiction readers' patience, rather than feeding their desire for flow. On the third hand, this is not Alexie's first fiction.

That aside, the book was a muddle of no conflict, no action taken to resolve the conflict, little convincing emotion, and a poor understanding of how kids think and speak.

This is what our protag, upon finding out that they have to shoot his dog because they don't have the money to take him to the vet, says:

Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.

I wanted to hate him for his weakness.

I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.

I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sickness in the world.

But I can't blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them.

And it's not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It's not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.

Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.

Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.

This is a fourteen-year-old boy. At the beginning of a novel. Seriously, what does he have to learn?

As the book goes on, the protag encounters problems and ... solves them. Every. Single. One. Each one solved, in one shot. Everything he does works, even when he doesn't think it's going to, even when he shoots from the hip, even when he's not trying. He's supposedly ugly and geeky, but then all he has to do is switch to a white kids' school and all of a sudden he's the star basketball player, beating up the king jock, and dating the hottest girl in school. Plus, the king jock is paying his way and giving him rides. He makes no mistakes whatsoever. All of his problems are somebody else's fault, and most of them nobody's fault, just The System's. And he overcomes them easily.

Yawn.

It's supposed to be a gritty, realistic portrait of the hopelessness and poverty of life on a reservation ... but also an uplifting wish-fulfillment vehicle about the Power Of One. Or something. Can't be both, dude. It really reminded me of my best fantasy lives when I was a teenager: things were only satisfying if my alter ego came from extreme poverty, suffered death and horrible loss and abuse in her family and community, but climbed up out of all of this through a combination of hard work and absurd good luck.

I'd recommend it to kids who show an annoying tendency to exotify Indians, but otherwise, what is everybody cheering about?

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