Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Tournament of Books: The Odds

The winner gets a rooster!
Well it's that time of year again, when the good folks over at The Morning News go and make a mockery of book reviews, literary awards, book club picks, and anyone vain enough to think one book is objectively better than any other book. It's the Morning News Tournament of Books, where sixteen books of Proven Literary Merit are seeded into a single-elimination bracket, and chosen to advance by an illuminating, often infuriating, set of esteemed judges chosen from all walks of life: Book reviewers, novelists, musicians, bloggers, and the occasional escaped mental patient. Furious and often hilariously pointless debates ensue.

I had sort of an off-year for current fiction; of the field I have read only three books, marked with an asterisk. All odds are therefore set by a complex algorithm derived from GoodReads chatter, selected reviews, gut-feelings, and past lunacy. There are a few reliable guideposts: short story collections do horribly, award winners do better than you'd think, plucky underdogs almost always get their come-uppance, and the only winners are the commentariate, who enliven all festivities with their insights, which are often better than the judges but in no way affect the outcome of the tournament, I think.

Other things to note: There doesn't seem to be an oddball from a weird category this year. No box-of-poems, no graphic novel, no YA angst machine. Also, no play-in round!

The Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, got a curious pass this year. Not only would it have brought Oceania further into the mix (Evie Wyld is also Australian), but it could have been a nice matchup with David Klay's war-based collection of stories.

So, in order of alphabet (author's last name) here are my uninformed rundowns of the 16 entrants and my grebmaR-certified odds for the author to have barnyard fowl in their yard (or dinner plate) come April.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
An oddball, Kafka-esque noir mystery set in Japan, I can see this novel having some appeal, but don't see it going deep into the tourney. The ideal reader will be a Zenn-diagram intersection of readers fascinated by: 1) Mysterious unknowable Japan 2) Kafka-esque dysphoria, and 3) Compulsive meditators on the nature of Truth. The odds of this book getting that reader four times in a row are approximately 100-1

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor -
Billed on Goodreads as a cross between The Art of Fielding and The Flamethrowers, ABMSST looks high-concept to death: A 7-foot, one-eyed former athlete travels to Berlin to be an Artist; his father tries to become a great intellectual. That's a lot of pretenses, and when this novel meets a reviewer more interested in meat-and-potatoes Normal Rockwell than foie-gras meets faux Warhol, potential is high for an undignified exit. 50-1.

* All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A beautifully written novel that plumbs the fathomless depths of World War II. It's about a blind girl struggling to survive in a beseiged French city, and a young radio enthusiast whose talents are exploited by everyone's favorite unforgivable inhuman bastards, German Nazis. I loved this book, and so did a lot of people - it's 4.24 GoodReads ranking puts it second on the ToB list. On the other hand, books I love never do well in the ToB. 10-1

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
The third part of an Italian cross-generational romance, TWLaTWS seems again to have limited appeal, though with its GoodReads score of 4.3 (with far fewer votes, which tends to skew books higher), it is well loved by those who did read it. I can't see that being the third part of a trilogy and having five pages of character biographies at the beginning, and an exposition-heavy first chapter (I read a kindle sample) can possibly be overcome, but stranger things have happened when the Rooster begins to crow. 100-1

* An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
(GR 4.16) A pre-tournament favorite if only for Roxane Gay's towering status in the blogosphere and literati zeitgeist. A chronicle of a kidnapped Haitian heiress who endures rape and torment for 13 days, and the just as traumatic aftermath, for many readers AUS was the book of the year.  An important book and a deep contender, definitely, though any judge coming at this from outside the hype machine may take it down for any number of reasons, which may include it being unrelentingly grim, rhetorically repetitive, and a heartbreakingly frustrating read. 8-1

Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer 
A melancholic, tormented philosopher, his ennui-ridden Oxford students, this novel of the life of the minds seems like a sleeper targeted, once again, to a very narrow demographic. Given that the average Goodreads score is 3.37, the lowest in the field, I don't see Iyer advancing far unless he meets a series of like-minded philosophy majors in the judges chambers. Or, as Linda summed up on her 1-star Goodreads review: "ugh. If you did not read Philosophy or go to Cambridge, do not read this book." 150-1

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I feel like this is going to be the dark horse of the tourney, and not just because the author has ties to my home state, Minnesota (Go Gophers!). Anything combining murder and Bob Marley is okay by me. This one could also pair up nicely with Roxane Gay - two novels of the violent legacy of Caribbean nations. 15-1.

Redeployment by Phil Klay
I read one of the stories in this collection, and it was wonderful. Klay comes from the tough-guy sentimental school, the storied, battle-scarred genre of war-and-its aftermath where men silently go about the miserable, violent job of being a Man. Paired with Roxane Gay's novel, and at the hands of the right judge, we could see an epic evaluation of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome viewed through geopolitics and gender issues. I would love to see that. Downsides include short story collections natural tendency to sag against the taut narratives of a single volume novel, so I'm putting the odds at 15-1 on winning the tournament, and 10,000-1 on seeing that insightful conversation of violence, gender, and geopolitics.

* Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
Another critical darling. Station Eleven takes literary chops at a shopworn genre cliche, in this case a postapocalyptic America in which a caravan of Shakespearean actors are on the run from a Mad Prophet. The climax may be a little weak and the themes - Art and the Assholes who make it - a bit twee, and some may say the intricate plotting relies a bit too much on coincidence, but overall this is a fine, inspired piece of imagination, and will match up well against any contender in this strong field. 8-1

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Perennial literati darling David Mitchell returns with another dense clockwork novel; I won't even attempt a plot synopsis. I have not read any Mitchell and intend to start one day; he strikes me as a Pynchonesque madman. Mitchell could become the ToB's second winner (He won for Cloud Atlas several years back). Drawbacks: Mitchell fatigue. 10-1

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Another book with a great hook: a mixed-race family in the 1970's experiences turmoil when their beloved daughter dies. There's no better set-up for exploring what America is or does or can be. If Ng executed even half of this premise, there's no reason for this not to be the upset special of the tournament. 15-1

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
A tender, moving portrait of a middle-class marriage. It's themes seem if not slighter when compared to the war-and-trauma heavy contenders elsewhere in the feed, then there seems to be a subtle lack of gravitas. It's always a strange matchup when a family potboiler goes up against a so-called Book for the Ages. Due to a perceived gravitas gap, I'm putting this book at 75-1

Adam by Ariel Schrag
A young boy goes off to college and masquerades as a trans to win the heart of the girl he loves. A brilliant combination of queer studies, 00's nostalgia, and the coming-of-age novel. This one feels wonderful, I love the idea of this farce from a former graphic novelist. Again, there's a gravitas gap at play, but there are enough intangibles to make this novel the little horse that could. Then again, in the Rooster, the big boys and girls tend to crush delicate quirky flowers of a book like Adam. 30-1

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A period piece with a fairly conventional premise, The Paying Guests is probably the darkest horse in this race. It's 1920's London, and a down-on-their luck family takes in borders who according to the weirdly vague synopsis will shake up their lives in unexpected ways. It's probably better than the weak synopsis makes it out to be - are the boarders ghosts? anarchists? theater people? - but with the heavy hitters in this year's field I'm afraid The Paying Guests will be evicted early. 100-1

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Gravitas, Gravitas, Gravitas. An eco-thriller set in some anarchic eco-disaster future, Annihilation probes the dark regions of Area X, where teams of scientists enter and, if they return at all, come back scarred and transformed. Look for a matchup with the field's other post-apocalyptic potboiler Station Eleven for a discussion on how different two visions of a nasty future can be. I'm giving Annihilation long odds based on it being the first of a trilogy and the always elusive but fairly predictable 'this-is-just-not-for-me' factor. 25-1

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Moody atmospherics on a haunted island, you say? A woman sheepherder with mysterious scars? Foxes, sheep, and wind-battered vistas? Interesting... Again, the synopsis is light on details - apparently sheep-herder Jake Whyte has a Haunted Past - but there's a likeable elegance to the prose I sampled. And this book was selected for the field by a small, independent bookstore in Glen Elyn, Illinois as their most-hand-sold book of the year, so there has to be something brilliant lurking in the rain-swept highlands, right?  Right? 30-1

* Books I've read as of 1-18-2015

Well, that's it. Please remember to keep all wagering on a gentlemanly level. I will post updates when the final pairings are posted in March. Till then, happy reading!

Let the Rooster Crow!


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mistletoe Drone.. of DEATH!!!!!: (a one-act Christmas melodrama)

They ordered Love...
....they got MURDER!!!!!
Here is my Christmas gift to you all:

Mistletoe Drone ... of DEATH!!!
Inspired by a true story

*** Mistletoe Drone Operator at TGI Friday’s was the best job this "kind-of-a-loner, kept to himself" could get.***

SCENE: TGI Fridays, interior. BARRY, pimpled and bitter, is dressed in TGI Friday's shirt and suspenders with lots of flair. His hair is lank and greasy, a sneer on his face. He holds the MISTLETOE DRONE controller and scans the restaurant. It’s filled with young couples in love, feeding each other french fries and sesame jack™ chicken strips.

BARRY (Voice-over): (Bitterly) Look at all you happy couples. Sitting there with your thai pork tacos, staring into each other’s eyes, longing to kiss. Here, I'll make you kiss!

He controls the MISTLETOE DRONE toward a SEXY COUPLE. It stops, its mistletoe payload directly over the WOMAN's head. The SEXY COUPLE looks up. WOMAN laughs, and MAN kisses her.

MISTLETOE DRONE dips closer, closer, while the SEXY COUPLE’s kiss becomes more passionate.

Ominous music swells.

Enter MANAGER

MANAGER: Hey, Barry, that drone’s a little close, don’t you think?

BARRY (falsely cheerful): Hey, yeah, oops! Guess they looked a little too happy!

The MISTLETOE DRONE rises, ominous music fades. The SEXY COUPLE's kissing becomes more passionate.

MANAGER: Want me to take over for a while?

BARRY: Nah, I’m good.

MANAGER (Looking at SEXY COUPLE, who knock dishes off the table and climb on to continue making out and groping each other): Well, you’re doing a great job.

BARRY: Thanks, boss!

Exit MANAGER

BARRY scans the room again. His eyes squint.

BARRY (Voice-over): Oh, you blissfully ignorant fools. All of you, believing love is anything but a bittersweet prelude to a lifetime of solitary misery.

His attention becomes focused on a YOUNG INNOCENT COUPLE making lovey-eyes at each other; it’s apparent they are on an early date, infatuated but shy.

BOY: Hey, they have that mistletoe drone thing. (exaggeratedly casual) That's cool, I guess.

GIRL: Oh, I hope it doesn't come here. It would be a *shame* if I had to kiss you. (She smiles and blushes.)

BARRY (Voice-over): Is that... Tiffany? Tiffany who once spurned my advances? I spent the night of Spring Fling alone because of you, Tiffany! Oh, and now, you flounce and rut with this unworthy cur?

BOY stabs a shrimp, puts it on GIRL'S plate

BARRY: (voice-over) Ah! You split with him a Jack Daniel's Shrimp and Ribs that should by rights be mine? Oh, yes, kiss him, by all means ... I’ll make you kiss. I’ll make you kiss... in hell!

BOY: Hey, that operator is looking at you funny. Do you know him, Kelly?

GIRL: Never seen him before.

MISTLETOE DRONE-view camera, closing in on the YOUNG INNOCENT COUPLE who smile and set down their cutlery as it approaches, and give each other a bashful glance.

BARRY (voice-over): Oh, sweet revenge best served cold, with Tennessee Whisky Cake for desert, on special this week!

The BOY moves close to the GIRL, puts an arm around her shoulder. She touches his hand as they wait for the MISTLETOE DRONE...

MISTLETOE DRONE-view camera as their smiles turn to confusion, then fear as the MISTLETOE DRONE buzzes ominously closer, closer.

BOY: It's coming in kind of... fast...

GIRL: Hold me!

BARRY begins to chuckle, rising to laughter, rising to maniacal laughter.

Cut to SEXY COUPLE, now half-naked, making out on their table. BLOOD SPATTER hits them. They look up. WOMAN screams.

MANAGER: Oh, for Pete's sake, Barry.

Fade to credits as BARRY’s laughter grows ever louder and the screams of patrons drown him out.

-- END --


Friday, October 31, 2014

eMail to a Demon ex-Lover

To: Soul_D-vour_666@yahoo.com
From: The_Trishinator@gmail.com

Subject: Hey, stranger!
I was on the 11C the other day, and smelled brimstone, and thought of you. Then I looked up and there you were, in the back, talking to some trashy blonde in a cheap Victoria’s Secret houndstooth. It was so weird! I wanted to say hi, but you were busy and I was too embarrassed, and then it was my stop.

I know, Gurlax, we had a wonderful night together in the woods of Lake Nokomis, and that I danced a pagan dance and promised my soul to you for all eternity and all, but I don’t know. Please don’t think me a tease. I was drunk and vulnerable, and going through a phase where I liked bad boys and naked worship of hell-mouth portal entities conjured from books best left unread. At first I was flattered: Gurlax the Defiler, known to all as Satan’s Consigliore! And Me! What are the odds? And you were sweet, really, with your tickly forked tongue and that trick you do with your tail. You were not at all the vicious creature of legend, and I defend you as much as I can whenever your name comes up.

But let’s be honest, Sweetie. I think you have issues with commitment. I think you are needier than you let on, and have a deep lonely void in your life that no amount of soul-devouring can ever fill. This endless need for conquest, and the inevitably petty unsolvable drama that ensues. I want you to know it was nothing you did, but only the by-product of who we are, residue of an outdated moral filter instilled in us by generations of religious inbreeding. Perhaps in another time or place…

And the truth is, I’m just not ready to commit to you, or to anyone, and may not be for a long long time. The prospect of giving myself completely to any one manifestation of a culture's mores re: sin and redemption, now or ever, terrifies me.

So: I’m sorry if I caused you any pain when I tricked you, using the souls of my roommate’s virginal teenage sisters as bait, into returning my soul to me under the ancient rules of the Codex Gigas. I still fondly recall your pitiful cries as I held you in the spell of the omnivus ring and held the iron of Flinx to your hooved feet until you relented, releasing my souls and the souls of my roommate’s sisters (Amanda’s in Bethel now, can you believe it?) back into our own custody – and yes, I believe you felt remorse in that moment, but only for that moment.

Such is life. So no, Gurlax, we can never be together. But, no hard feelings? I really wanted to catch up, but you looked busy, and I had Pilates, then dinner with Greg, my new guy, who’s in investment banking. I know, I know, investment bankers, demonic hellspawn, I sure do know how to pick ‘em, don’t I? (Ha ha) Okay. Hey, who was that girl you were talking to? She seems nice.

-Trish

Monday, October 20, 2014

Casting the Plastic Man Movie

When DC/Warner announced their "road to 2020" superhero movie guide a few days ago, I noticed a glaring omission: Plastic Man. Why no Plastic Man?! Ant-man is getting a movie. And Guardians of the Galaxy made a star of a mutant raccoon. What is it about Plastic Man that the studio thinks America won't like? I for one think it's time.

As everyone knows, Plastic Man first appeared in Police Comics in 1941. He started life as petty criminal Eel O'Brian, who fell into a vat of acid that changed his body into a malleable, rubber-like substance. He was nursed back to health by a mystic order of monks, and pledged himself to a life of fighting crime.

For the first few issues, Plastic Man investigated crime rings from the inside as his original identity, Eel O'Brian, then foiled them as Plastic Man. He soon abandoned that ruse, and the plotlines went very very strange. One memorable issue saw Plas battling an undead brain placed in the body of a wheelchair-bound giant, who learned to walk on his hands and destroy villages.

Plas had no choice but to be swallowed, where he swelled up in the Giant's esophagus, thus strangling the monster, whose brain is still alive awaiting its chance to wreck vengeance on humanity. We are not kidding.

But the comic potential of a man who could shape himself into virtually anything eventually succumbed to the ridiculousness of that concept, and Plastic Man became more comic than heroic, as the covers show. Plas was something different, not quite superhero meta-commentary, but not wholly of the genre; he never fit in with the DC universe, much as they tried. He was perhaps, like Peanuts or Li'l Abner, too attuned to the sensibilities of his creator, Jack Cole, to be coherently integrated into other people's worlds.

Which is what makes him a tough sell. Plas is a niche guy in a mass market world. He saved women from phony curses and tracked down kidnapped atomic scientists. He never took himself so seriously as to save the whole damn world week after week; he was a lunch-bucket street-pounding beat cop superhero who happened to also be kind of batshit crazy.

Todays auteur directors of high-angst cookie-cutter mayhem wouldn't know what to do with an essentially self-mocking hero. Let's face it: there is no real imagination in popular culture these days. Today's Hollywood comic industry marches to a single drum: a grim pounding of grit and despair, of self-important sci-fi soap operatics and dimension saving, city crushing melees. Only the costumes change.

But that doesn't mean Plastic Man shouldn't be done. On the contrary, that means Plastic Man MUST be done. There has to be room for a jokey, impossible man on the silver screen. I think Plastic Man is the hero we need right now.

Okay, let's cast this sucker.

Plastic Man
Anarchic force of nature. Free-thinking crazy man whose heart stays on the side of justice. But he was once also the hard-boiled criminal Eel O'Brian, scourge of the underworld. Dark haired, with a strong chin and baffling white sunglasses, Plastic Man could be played by many people (and will require extensive CGI, of course). But I believe he requires a comedian at heart, and one with a deft touch and a surprising depth of humanity. Traditional leading men - Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Bradley Cooper - need not apply. We're going for fringe element cult status folks here. Let's burn through some obvious but past-their-prime choices first:



Bruce Campbell
It's a measure of how old I am that Army of Darkness era Bruce Campbell was the first name that came to mind. He's got the chin, he's got the hair, he's got the rogue-chaos personality. But Bruce isn't exactly a spring chicken. If this were a reboot of a Justice League going through a collective mid-life crisis, Bruce C might be our bet, but for a franchise starter, we need someone young and fresh.

Jim Carey
Twenty years ago this would have been a lock. (I am indeed very old.) But now we're in the Twitter era, and Jim Carey is dead to Hollywood. He'd have to be pried like gum from his reclusive mansion and cattle-prodded back to his Mask-era prime. This would be a direct-to-video disaster, twenty years too late.

Keanu Reeves 
Dark hair, pointy chin, clueless persona, check check check. K-Rev was even considered for the role when the Wachowski Brothers developed a script. Wait, that happened? Yes, yes it did. Wearing the sunglasses wouldn't harm Reeves acting range at all, and Keanu's surfer/Bill and Ted vibe might give a cute twist to the character, but let's face it, Reeves might as well be as in-demand as Bela Legosi for today's millenials.

Which brings us to some contenders. I've used my mad photoshop skills to give you an idea of what they look like in the the Plas-shades.

David Tennant
About a year ago, Tennant was rumored to be in talks to play Plastic Man in the Justice League movie. And I can totally see it. Tenant's has range and talent. But as big a Tennant fan as I am (His Doctor Who incarnation is far superior to Matt Smith's dead-eyed quip machine. (And yeah. I went there.)), I don't see him being a low-life gangster.

Plus, he's British, and I'm kind of against Brits playing Americans. They wouldn't let any Americans into Harry Potter, why should they get to poach Superman, Spider-Man AND Plastic Man? This is our Bunker Hill, people.

Lastly, the best thing about Tennant is his incredibly expressive eyes, and being forced to wear white goggles the entire time would cripple his range. Still, it's an intriguing choice.


Steve Carrell
I'd love to do screen tests of all these actors, then do a YouTube supercut of them saying Plastic Man's iconic first line: "Great Guns! I'm stretching like a rubber band!" I think Carrell could nail that line. I think he could bring his Maxwell Smart sense of adventure to Plastic Man. He'd also lend some goofy nice-guy schmuck charm to the romantic subplot. And with the Oscar buzz generated by his recent turn as a sociopathic millionaire wrestling mentor in Foxcatcher, he can pick his own roles now. Why not a wiseacre stretchy superhero guy?





Andy Samberg
Here's a dark horse choice - funny, relatable, laid-back and confident. A Plastic Man for Generation Now. The kids like him, and he's on a TV show, which is exactly what Chris Pratt rode to StarLord fame. And with the glasses covering the eyes, you need a good smirk to do your acting for you, and Samberg definitely has the smirk.

Bonus: With his SNL digital shorts resume, Samberg could turn Plastic Man into a viral sensation.






Woozy Winks, sartorial genius.
Woozy Winks
Woozy Winks is a lovable schlub, the man whom nature cannot harm. Originally introduced as a bumbling criminal, he turned into a bumbling sidekick with horrible taste in shirts. He's mostly comic relief but also charmingly heroic.







Let's look at the contenders:
Zach Galifianakis
Zach's a natural for this. He's a lovable doofus with a streak of evil. Cons: He'd have to shave the trademark beard. Also, he's recently lost weight, and it's hard to believe he'd either put it bock on or wear a fatsuit, so, unfortunately Zach is just a maybe.









Michael Cera
Is it just me, or is Hollywood in a golden age of cuddly bumblers? Galifinakis, Cera, Jonah Hill, and Seth Rogan could all be on this list. But Cera is an intriguing choice - he's been a bit quiet lately and a high-profile sidekick gig could be his ticket back to the big time. He could use his stuttery, shy-boy charm to great effect as a sweetheart bumbler who falls in love with the movie's femme fatale, and every other woman who gets screen time.






Paul Giamatti
Yup, Hollywood is definetly schlub-heavy these days. I also thought about throwing William H. Macy into the mix. Because the thing is, Woozy Winks is older, and absent-minded, maybe a heavy drinker. He needs a more mature presence, a guy who's played the schlub to great effect in the past. Someone who can bring the appropriate gravitas when things get crazy. So, maybe Paulie G is the right schlub for the job.






Love interest/femme fatale
The original Jack Cole Plastic Man never had much in the way of love interests - he was too busy fighting crime. But all that's going to change in my noir-ish reboot. Who can steal Plastic Man's heart? I've got a couple of ideas - Anna Paquin, who probably is sick of playing supernatural parts. Also, Sofia Vergara, who is a smart bombshell with a sexy accent, perfect for femme fatale-ing.

But this is a bold project that requires bold casting, and so my femme fatale is none other than...

Lena Dunham
We're going for outside-the-box on this whole thing. And why wouldn't Lena Dunham want to shake off her comico-serious voice-of-a-generation shackles and just have some fun as Gazelle van Gonder, the accursed heiress? I mean, look at that picture - she can totally do bombshell chic and turn it on its head at the same time.

I'm not sure if she's going to be a love interest or a diabolical femme fatale or both - I'm still working on my treatment - but Lena's going to smash all barriers in this, her breakaway, Oscar-bait performance.

I'll return with casting notes for the FBI chief (I'm thinking Angela Bassett) and the lead villain (maybe Morgan Freeman - totally going against type - as Marcel Mannequin? Just spitballing here, folks.) in my next post. Maybe. We also need a director, someone with vision and drive. If you have any ideas, jot them in the comments section below.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Colchis is famous for the Golden Fleece


Jason and Medea

Excerpts from a new international version


Cast
Chorus: various fifth and sixth grade Korean public school students whose vocab consists mostly of phrases from their textbooks.

Jason: A greek warrior, prince of Iolcus
Medea: Sorceress and princess of Colchis
Creon: King of Corinth


Part 1, Colchis:

Chorus:
Hello, how are you? I’m from Colchis.
Colchis is beautiful and special.
Colchis is famous for the Golden Fleece.

[Enter Medea]
This is Medea. She is very pretty.
She can do magic too.
But, she is very sad. Let’s listen!

Medea:
Oh, but that the world could know of my laments,
of the darkness in my soul. For it has
been said that tragedy should bite my heels
until time’s bitter end, that I should be
the ruin of great men through magicks and treason
most foul. But in truth I know not whether
my mind’s contents are fair or foul, for a life
of shelter tells me that should the test come,
I may not know it. Hark? What silver flash
upon the sea’s wine-stained horizon do I spy?

Chorus:
Look! It’s a boat! Such a big boat!
Who is it? Who is in the boat?
Medea does not know.
But, he is handsome.

ENTER Jason

Chorus:
That is Jason. He’s from Greece.
He’s very strong and kind. He wants to be King.
Let’s listen again!

Jason:
Long I have journeyed and hard, to this land
to seek and claim the fleece of gold foretold
as birthright destiny. But unseeming
of kindness is this land, and people here
shall surely prove awesome strange indeed.
But lo, what shape is that of woman shone
on distant parapet? Let us move close,
that providence may to me her hand reveal.

Chorus:
Medea likes Jason. She will help him.
She gives him many things.
She helps him get the golden fleece.

----

Let me know in the comments if you want the rest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writer's Corner: a close look at The Deep-Blue Goodbye, by John D. MacDonald

An inexcusably pulpy cover
John D. MacDonald was a very successful crime writer from the 1950's through the 1980's. He's best known now for the Travis McGee series, which starred an observant, cynical houseboat beach-bum in Lauderdale, Florida. MacDonald also wrote more hard-boiled fiction such as the novel The Executioners, which was twice filmed under the title Cape Fear. But Travis McGee, the blue-collar James Bond who took on cases where he can recover money and take half as the fee, was his most enduring creation.

His first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, appeared in 1964, and while it seemed to ride on the coattails of James Bond's runaway success, there's a lot more to it than that. Strange as it seems, the McGee books were part of a thriving culture known as 'books for men,' in an age when men - mainstream, actual men - read books. Books on war, books about cowboys, books about private detectives. Pulp writers like Zane Grey pumped out western after western, and war titles were also numerous. Somewhere along the line, (I'd say about 1980) men stopped reading, and mysteries almost died out with them, until Sue Grafton and Sara Paretzky came along with female leads to save the genre. But that's another post.

Approaching the McGee novel's from a writer's perspective, there's an awful lot to learn from the success of one of America's great mid-list genre authors. So let's tear into one specific passage, looking at its key strengths and weaknesses, to answer the one question every author needs to ask: Why should my reader keep turning the page?

This passage occurs on the second page, after McGee introduces that he's on his boat, The Busted Flush, and the location is Lauderdale, Florida.

Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.  
She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board. 
Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.


There's nothing fancy here, it's just clean simple prose, a bunch of facts with only a few moments of inspired writing. But for a moment, let's just soak in that first sentence: Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. Here are my reactions to that sentence:

1. What kind of name is that? It's great, a mix of hard consonants ending with a soft l; it speaks of a mind tuned to whimsy and seriousness in equal measure.

2. We know Chookie's a dancer, but not just any dancer, she's one who does choreography. In 1964, most men would be happy to date a dancer, but Trav has met a woman who goes one better - she 'writes' dance.

3. From 'some fool thing' we know all sorts of things. First, we know Trav doesn't know or appreciate much about dance. Second, we know that even if he doesn't care about dance, he cares enough about Chookie to let her do her job on his houseboat.

That's pretty cool, that he can pack all that information into one short sentence.

Overall this scene is a great indication of the compassion Trav feels for women. As it turns out, Trav and Chookie aren't sleeping together. As the book develops, Trav's feelings for women separate into a strange mishmash of 60's paternal chauvinist condescension with a fig leaf of equality-of-sexes neo-enlightenment. This little bit here on the boat, where Trav is both patron and companion is a great bit of foreshadowing.

The paragraph continues with a bunch of things they tell you not to do in writing school, namely start four consecutive sentences with the pronoun She. There's a lot of descriptive tour-guiding with one stellar phrase (rackety little metronome), and I'm willing to let MacDonald break a workshop 101 rule because he's given me enough confidence from the opening of the book and his 'some fool thing' line that I move along the bridge of description till we get to the payoff: 'Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work.' Here we get a sense of Trav's appreciation for Chookie and her career even if he knows nothing about it. He's a guy with some insights. In other words, he's a voice worth listening to.

Then he spends a few sentences of pure 'male gaze,' reducing Chookie to her body and its smells and the pleasure he gets from them. It's really kind of piggy, and justified only because she's a dancer, and dancers are a reduction of body to art, but it's still a male privilege thing, which, while offensive, plays to MacDonald's audience. Which is another measure of MacDonald's talent. You can reduce McGee to sexist pig, or you can try to rationalize it by saying MacDonald created actual empowered women - and he does have a lot of strong female characters - but - and this is not a small point - you still trust McGee as a narrator. McGee is self-aware, confident, and reliable. This goes a long way in securing the trust of a reader.

You may think MacDonald wasn't smart enough to think through all these issues of gender and patrician attitudes, but later passages, where McGee thinks of himself as a modern knight errant, saving damsels and feeling guilty for bedding the women he saves, would prove you wrong. These are exactly the kinds of things writers think about, and when he was on, MacDonald was in tune with everything he was doing, and with his core audience.

And so, let's reduce everything to one rule: Find your audience, and give them a reason to keep turning the pages. Everything after that is gravy.



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Emma Straub: Other People we Married, a Review

Blah cover, good book.
Short stories, as I've said before, make for odd books. There's the problem of the stories having already appeared before, as is the case with popular writers like Alice Munro or George Saunders, whose stories show up in The New Yorker and Best American series several times before appearing under their own name.

Emma Straub present another problem of the Short Story collection: voice fatigue. Straub is a good writer, with a clever eye and a great wit. She writes about quirky people on the inner edges of sanity. People flirting with the idea of changing their lives forever by running away or getting a divorce. She writes about it very well, and writes about it a lot.

But, you know: Voice fatigue. The feeling that you just read this story. That you met some characters, found a theme, and reached a satisfying conclusion. And then, another story. Similar characters, similar themes, another satisfying conclusion. The law of diminishing returns sets in. Do you continue? In this case, I did, and I'm glad.

In the opening story, Some People Must Really Fall in Love, a young creative writing teacher develops a crush on a student. To compensate, she jumps into a relationship with a man she doesn't love, then is left wondering what could have been when she sees her student at the mall and stalks him. It's a dubious opener for my tastes: stories about creative writing teachers are among my least favorites, the crutch of embittered faculty writers stuck in a creative rut. Luckily, this is the only story that stays on campus.

The best of these stories is probably Abraham's Enchanted Forest, about a teenage girl who lives with her parents at a fairy tale village/roadside attraction. Her father, Abraham, is a large-personalitied man who impersonates Walt Whitman for the local high school. It's a witty story that encapsulates the best of Straub's fascination with the idea of change as an internal force that never manifests itself in reality. You get the characters longing to be somewhere else, to be different people; their sense of being permanent oddballs at the mercy of mainstream sensibilities, and their ultimate resignation to the fact that you can't ever run from your problems: you are the problem.

It's a theme that stays rich but whose shelf life doesn't quite fill the entire book. Puttanesca, about a mis-matched pair of widowed New Yorkers in Rome, mines territories of grief and healing. Orient Point is a poignant vignette about an accidental couple driving out to Long Island in a heat wave. Hot Springs Eternal is about a mis-matched gay couple on vacation, on the edge of breaking up. You get the pattern.

Luckily there are some great stories here. One other star of this collection, Fly-over State, is about a stay-at home faculty wife stuck in Wisconsin, who strikes up a dangerous friendship with the neighbor's 28-year old redneck kid. She thinks his name is Mud, and he doesn't bother to correct her. There's a strong undercurrent in this story about how depressing it is not to live in New York City, something bordering on condescension, even, that made me want to not like it - another snooty Brooklynite hating on places without authentic hipsters. But the NYC longing is really something else - the character's own deficiency at connecting with reality, her entrenched rootlessness, her inability to understand what is real about human connections and what is artifice. I get the feeling she'd have been just as lost back home.

There's not much you can do about voice fatigue in the end - you have to have enough material to fill a book, after all. And when the voice is Emma Straub's, and you're willing to pace yourself, you can enjoy the ride while it lasts.