Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Alone in the dark with Absinthe

The power going out the other day put me in a rather rustic state of mind.  I grabbed a stack of bills and used them to blast my face with hot air as I lacked a proper fan, and then proceeded to be a wuss and cheat myself out of the true old school experience by using my laptop as a source of light and music, and my cell phone in a vain attempt to harass the power company.  

The first thing I noticed was that it was dark.  Really dark...  Candles ain't gonna do anything for you in this darkness.  After creating light by pressing the power button, the next revelation that was impossible to ignore was the heat.  I read the weather report that morning--which is rare for anyone to do in my part of the world as the expectation of heat is ever present.  The weather woman noted it was going to be, 'abnormally hot.'  For all I know that is a meteorological term but in practice is means that it was 75 degrees at 9:30 pm when the power went out.  Really Hot.  

How is it old people can say with such ease that the world was a better place xx years ago?  And they always do.  Find a old person.  Ask them.  Be prepared as they may prattle on this topic for hours, whether or not you are attentive doesn't matter.  The dark is temporary and altogether manageable but the heat makes people crazy...  I can't begin to imagine--nor do I want to--the wide host of other 'setbacks' that made things better back in the day.  

"So grandpa, did you actually enjoy walking in the snow to and from school, three miles, both ways, with the wind in your face at all times?  No?  Really?  Well, why don't you tell me of the glories of using an outhouse..."  

I'll grant them ten points and a badge of courage for putting up with the innovations of the time, but it's not like the people who live through this were part of an elite club: the whole planet was affected.  I equate the old people who like to talk about how much better things were back in the day to Europeans living in America who do nothing but bitch and moan about how much better things are back in Bulgaria: take the same person out of their present circumstance and put in in the time or place they want to be in.  Then lets see what they have to say.   

The ice machine may well be the single greatest innovation of all time.  When the AC goes out and it's 75 degrees and raising, Apocalypse or not, you're going to want a cold, tasty, beverage.  I can state with absolute consternation that the separate processes of crafting and creating liquor have been much improved from generation to generation.  I firmly believe the Saint George Distillery of Alamede, California to be one of the premier distilleries today.  That said, despite their best efforts, somethings are universally bad and no amount of time can help: haggis, venereal disease, kimchi, military dictators, absinthe.

It taste horrible… absinthe that is, well, haggis too I should think.  Not to mention that the color is rather disconcerting.  You'll want a cold drink to distract you from the fact that you're alone in the dark, sweating like a slave, but inexplicably not in Hell when your AC shuts down.  Make sure your stash has some better tasting hooch than this because romantic inclinations, nostalgia of that trip to Europe where you'd swear you got 'high' on absinthe (and no, you didn't) or whatever other novel ideas you have of 19th century literary people talking about how much better their work is than everyone else's won't help.  Room temperature, on ice, in the light, or all kinds of dark; this stuff is awful.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's a Savage World so beat your children!

I couldn't read this without my own little commentary. I've never been one to listen to Hannity, Savage and their ilk, because I do find the presentation of the their material offensive; I believe that is intentional on their part. While they often talk about news worthy topics, they aren't the only ones.

What I admire about Savage is the fact that he is standing by his words. It would be real easy to flip flop and apologize to appease the public or perhaps save his job if it goes that far. But if he did what would be the point? Imus got put through the ringer for saying something that I thought was pretty mild by today's standards and as a result did all the damage control he could. Where exactly do hypocritical shock-radio jocks fit into todays world?

I would lose respect for the New Yorker if they apologized for the Obama satire. The idea is so absurd to me that it makes my head hurt.

Something else Savage touched on that I've made mild allusions to as well, is with society's current trend of increasing the gray area that obscures 'normal' people, those who 'just ain't right' and 'everyone else.' I know nothing of autism or ADHD other than the fact that I'm 27: not old, and my classmates and I didn't have those excuses growing up... I mean, disorders... medical conditions, or... whatever they are.

Don't call me insensitive. I jest, I jest. Truly, I can assure you that I feel there are a good many people on planet Earth that, 'just ain't right.' However, in this touchy feely world where children can sue you if they don't get their dessert and hippies working for the EPA are licensed to kill because you want to change your landscaping, it seems there isn't much room left for humor; let alone something as subtle and potentially dangerous as satire.

On a mildly related note, isn't it pretty badass to have such a forceful adjective as part of your name? Savage. Not only would it be fun to have a radio show and call it The Savage World, but think of all the expletives you could throw in there.

Chad Hull. I've come to terms with it. But it doesn't really have a lot of presence. Unlike Micheal Savage or Chuck Norris which conjure images of 90's pro-wrestlers or a room full of dead bodies laid low by roundhouse kicks.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Yeah, I'll have another...


How, could you possibly need more than one book to tell a story? I’m gonna grab two books off my shelf as best I can at random… what do we have; Brandon Sanderson Elantris and Nicolai Gogol Dead Souls; two great, contrasting examples: complete and fulfilling, and not multi-volume epics. In a publishing world that seems to appreciate concise storytelling, the need for book two and three in a ‘series’ seems to be an oxymoron. Naturally, you can have it both ways if you’re making money.

It would seem that some genres lend themselves better to a series than others from the point of view of the publisher (can you imagine Water for Elephants or 19 minutes as a trilogy?) In my mind, the only thing worse than a planned series is a successful ‘first’ that found an audience and then some how turned into a series. Happily, I feel this happens more often than not in film where the revenue gain is higher in both percentage and dollar value (can you recall the sequels to the Matrix or Pirate of the Caribbean?)

Why can’t a complete story be told in 450 pages? 99% of the time that I read book two of three, I always wonder ‘what is the idea/character that is so inflated in this story that it needed more than one book?’ Weak characters that take up pages, plot elements that aren’t essential to the main story and host of other reasons are the main issues.

Gogol didn’t exactly have to end Deal Souls when he did; point in fact he didn’t. The book, ends with an ellipsis and an author’s note saying “here the manuscript breaks off.” But how many sequels did Gogol write? (None) Elantris left me fully satisfied but raised many unanswered questions. It is perhaps begging for a sequel, but on top of not burdening me--the reader--with superficial fluff, I was allowed to make the book my own.

I, the reader, can come to my own conclusion from what Sanderson gave me but perhaps didn’t explicitly conclude. The narrator; in Dead Souls calls the reader out (in that weird fashion that only 19th century writers could do and get away with…) and challenges you to take up his train of thought. Again, at that point it is my book. I would think it a mark of success to tell a story and have the reader be able to take part in it and not just at the end but all throughout. Anyone can dictate, but to engage is something more subtle, difficult to achieve, and infinitely more rewarding. (I dare you to imagine how brilliant Harry Potter or Robert Jordan’s twelve volume epic--that he DIED before he could complete because it was so long!--would have been in one story…)

There are always exceptions: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all kinds of long as was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova for two off the top of my head, but they are two very controlled and patient authors (perhaps even too much so for her own good in the case of Clarke; I kind of wanted another 200 pages from Kostova) but these are indeed exceptions and not the norm.

The publishing world has raved about The Name of the Wind for a few years now. The reason I haven’t read it is because it is one of three and only one is out at retail. I like fantasy and generally when that many people say, ‘it rocks,’ it does. But even still, I have to wonder does any one story merit three plus books at 700 plus pages each? I mean, I got bills to pay and life to live, sadly I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. Let’s be real, War and Peace, Don Quixote; both are only one book and 1,200 pages. What does an author have to say that is so important that it demands at least three years of my time and 2,100 pages to say? There are some fantasy series, not to call anyone out by name, that span seven years of wizarding school or twelve volumes of early adulthood ass kicking…

To play the part of Machiavelli, (Wayne, have you read The Prince and The social Discourses? They perfectly explain our: America's--and yes, you are an American!--folly of Iraq) I should say I have no problem with extended world building. I would argue James Clavell didn’t write direct sequels and there are many others that build upon previous settings, history and characters as he did.

Perhaps, I’m not that good a writer yet. Perhaps, I’m lazy, or just not focused enough on the needs of the publishing industry to make money as opposed to superficial 'artistic interest' of the story (which are subjective; I know, I know). Either way, sequels--outside of the bartender asking if I want another-- just don’t do it for me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start book three of Gene Wolfe’s series concerning Latro and I’ve heard Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is quite good as well...

Friday, July 4, 2008

On the plane with Latro

I’m currently in the middle of the five hour flight to San Francisco.  To keep me company I have Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist, an omnibus of Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete.  I love Wolfe’s writing, but he makes you--the reader--work to appreciate it.  Of his works that I’ve read, I wouldn’t say any were easy to read, nor would I call them difficult but he is far from a conventional storyteller.

Is it okay today to ask a reader to, ‘work’ or do we expect to pick up a book in the same passive manner we do the remote control?  The work that Wolfe ask of his readers (and I’m sure there are many other who write in much the same style) is not so much work in the sense of a murder-mystery, who-done-it sort, it is the expectation that the reader really take an active role in the story: making inferences about events, characters, and supposition about untold things based on what is known.  Is there a regular audience for such writers?  I’m wondering if a book can be written today where the reader is the detective and not the main character doing all the work for the reader, or would today’s book buying populace shy away from such effort.    

What I don’t want to digress into is, what is ‘commercial’ and what is ‘literary.’  I have no idea what the real or perceived connotation of those words are and as a matter of principle I wouldn’t accept an explanation from anyone that dared to tell me.  

Soldier of the Mist was written in 1986.  Writing trends, publishing trends, and the all-mighty consumer trends have changed since then.  In a time where it seems that all things are becoming increasingly streamlined and ‘commercial’ and vendors adhere to the ‘give what’s proven to sell’ ideology it seems that their is a distinct opportunity for true originality to be obscured and forgotten, or deemed unsell-able and never truly ‘discovered.’  Happily, I’m not an agent nor editor but that “unique voice” (oh, how I hate the phrase!) that is so highly sought after probably hasn't been proven at retail and logic would lead me to believe that such a voice probably wouldn’t be a successful retail endeavor.  (I feel it necessary to say that I am not that ‘voice.’  To indemnify myself--if you will--from being portrayed as the jaded wannabe author.  I’m speaking in generalities, not personal specifics.)  

Returning to Wolfe and his work, the main character is named Latro and the Mist is a reference to his memory.  He forgets everything upon going to sleep and writes down as much as he can when he is able in a book.  (Latro only remembers this fact as the first chapter of his book--Wolfe’s novel--is called “read this each day.”)  

The book is written in first person and while Latro isn’t exactly a standard unreliable narrator he certainly has his flaws.  Who is manipulating him, to what end and how far can I trust Latro in terms of how he spins things?  This is complicated by the fact that Latro is trying to figure out all of the same issues while trying to keep some manner of focus on what he thinks is his objective.  On top of which, a great deal of what Latro recalls, and thus writes, is given to him second hand; as in he forgot and someone else told him about it.  How believable is this information?  It is an interesting story mechanic to be sure, but makes for anything but a casual, light-hearted, ‘fun’ read.  

Is that okay?  Most great books are dictated to the reader more than a little bit and I don’t just mean 19th literature where everything was ‘told’ to the reader.  Sure authors employ more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’ but it still comes down to giving a reader something that will make them turn the pages really fast. 

I compare this kind of literary work to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (obviously, I’m speaking of the films.)  In the first as the moviegoer you sit there and enjoy what is given to you.  You get a fairly simple story, phenomenal dialogue, and brilliant acting.  Everyone leaves the experience understanding what went on.  You can’t sit and watch Part II in the same way.  You’ll probably hit pause a few times and ask yourself: “Why are they in Cuba, who is this Jewish guy, and when was it okay for Corleones to kill family members?”  I don’t think the experience is any less enjoyable than the former--in fact I think it’s better on all levels--but at almost all times I would rather watch the first over the second.  

Is it okay to write books today in the same manner as Wolfe has, and still does?  Well, obviously he can.  But a first timer?  I doubt it.  I don’t know that such a ‘unique voice’ would be accepted on any level without a preexisting a fan base.  

So which do you prefer, the easy road of, take what’s given no thought necessary fiction or do you enjoy reading for some unknown ‘beautiful and lofty’ pretentious reasons that I’ve alluded to here?  As for me, I can say a little of both.  

Wow, I surprised myself.  I almost made it through a post concerning Gene Wolfe without mentioning The Book of the New Sun.