Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Dilemma

First, the good news. My lovely wife bought me a new pair of barrister bookcases for the den as an early anniversary present.

On the downside of this is the fact that while I’m always in need of new bookcases, I’m officially out of available space for them without some major redesigning of the room. I was able to shift a bunch of stuff around and squeeze one of them in along the wall. The other…? No clue. I don’t have enough books to fill the second yet anyway, so I’ll put that problem off into the indeterminate future.

As of right now, everything is in disarray as I pull books out of storage and rearrange them all again. It’s a time-wasting and comical event that occurs every time a new bookcase arrives. There's a method to my organization, after all.

I'm beginning to think the haphazard, stick-em-where-they-fit approach might be better. Two days and many hours later, the new bookshelf has finally been filled.

Now I just need to figure out how to turn the room into Mary Poppins’ satchel. Or perhaps the Weasley’s tent. Now that would be an item worth owning. If anybody knows the spell for that, let me know.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is probably the most lauded and widely-respected speculative fiction writer alive, and for good reason. I’ve been working my slow way through her various novels and short stories over the past several years, and she continues to surprise and delight.

Her Earthsea books are among my favorite fantasy novels. Few other novels deserve to be in the discussion. Her short fiction is full of little gems that I come back to over and over – “The Poacher”; “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”.

Her novels disdain the plot-driven mechanisms so typical to speculative fiction. They are powered not by great battles or endless action, but by the hero's or heroine's internal journey, a journey toward self-discovery. That is not to say her novels are devoid of action - they're not - but that they do not depend upon it. Her characters go where they go and do what they do based upon their internal logic. They are not dragged along like marionettes without wills.

I’ve just completed Lavinia, her novelized account of Vergil’s Aeneid, told from the perspective of Aeneas’ Latin wife of that name. Lavinia is an afterthought in the great poem, a mention in passing at the end of the epic. Le Guin felt the need to expand on Lavinia’s role, to give her the voice she was denied.

Le Guin’s writing is always spare, but perhaps even more so in this book. That is not to say that it does not have splendor. One doesn’t need an ornate writing style to convey poetry. The simplicity just makes it appear effortless.

Of all the great writing qualities that Le Guin possesses, the most evident is her restraint. It is the gulfs of silence, the meaningful glances, the interior dialogue that suggest such emotion and humanity.

Her characters struggle against both internal and external forces, and Lavinia is no exception. She is wonderfully self-aware as a character. She tells us in the very first chapter:

    No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.

So her story begins. As a King’s daughter in a primitive culture, she is pawned out to suitors, none of whom she intends to marry. She visits the sacred wood of her people to seek guidance from her ancestors. Instead, she meets Vergil.

He is nothing but spirit there, a dream. He tells Lavinia the story of Aeneas as he has seen it. His arrival, the war that will come, their marriage. The Aeneid has already been written, in that far-off future. Having now met Lavinia, Virgil is morose, disillusioned about his great work – “…what I thought I knew of you – what little I thought of at all – was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde!...I will tell them to burn it.”

Le Guin’s gift is an incredible insight into humanity, particularly of her female characters. Lavinia is a worthy successor to Tenar, the heroine of Earthsea. Le Guin captures the complexities, the struggle between the domestic and the sacred, the everyday and the timeless.

    “Who was my true love, then, the hero or the poet? I don’t mean which of them loved me more; neither of them loved me long. Just sufficiently. Enough. My question is which of them did I more truly love? And I cannot answer it.”

Ursula Le Guin gives us speculative fiction writers something to aspire to, something to look upon and say – aha! So that’s how it’s done! We can hope she continues to churn out her timeless writings for many years to come.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Deliveries 1-10

The UPS stork arrived with the post-Christmas haul from my Barnes & Noble gift cards. I’ve been looking forward to several of these for a while, even though they’ll probably sit on the shelf for a few months until I get around to them.

Two trade paperbacks by Catherynne M. Valente:

  • The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden

  • The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin & Spice

And two hardcovers:

  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar

The bad news is that Under Heaven will probably need to be returned. It’s a little banged up, and for some odd reason the text on the back of the book jacket is smeared.

A new(ish) Kay novel is always cause for celebration, and it has gotten rave reviews just about everywhere I’ve looked.

Enchanted Hunters has been on my radar for a year or so, since I read a review by AS Byatt in The Guardian. Tatar is a Harvard University professor, and the book is a study of children’s stories, of what children want and need from stories, and how what they take away from those stories is not always what adults (parents) imagine it to be. The risqué title is taken from the name of the hotel in Lolita where Humbert Humbert first debauches his nymphette (or, as Humbert says, “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury…I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.”)

The central argument of the book seems to be that the mind of a child feeds on a mix of beauty and horror. Nothing exceptionally new there, though I think she wants to show that the darker sides of fairy tales and children’s literature – those things that we so often try to sanitize for children – are the very things that give the stories their power. But I’ll withhold further comment until after I’ve read more than the jacket blurb.

The two books by Catherynne M. Valente have also been on my “want” list for a while. The first of the two, In the Night Garden was a 2007 World Fantasy Award nominee and the pair won the 2008 Mythopoeic Award. I’ve not previously read any of Valente’s novels, but I have experienced (yes, that’s the right word) some of her short fiction in Clarkesworld Magazine.

Her prose is beautifully surreal. Dreamlike. I strongly recommend you check out her short story, available online, “Urchins, While Swimming”. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to these.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Muskrat Ramble

My 2nd grade daughter came home from school Friday talking about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I usually take it upon myself to expand on what she learns at school because I like to hear myself talk and I enjoy torturing my children (metaphorically, of course).

I filled her in (briefly) on slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and lynchings, the KKK and Mississippi Burning (incidentally one of my favorite movies). I read a couple of Langston Hughes poems, while her attention slowly drifted.

We concluded by listening to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, a song she was already familiar with but had never really listened to. Like most children, she has a fascination with the morbid, so once I told her it was about a hanging she was all ears. That song has always given me the chills.

Overall, a winning and informative afternoon. I fulfilled the role of fatherly teacher with aplomb. Even my three-year-old jumped into the conversation when it turned to crows eating dead bodies (a weighty and important subject to all three-year-olds.)

I probably scarred them both.

The offshoot of all this is that I rediscovered some of the great jazz CDs in my collection. I haven’t listened to them much in probably a year. I broke out Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Hot Sevens on the way to and from work. Bix Beiderbecke & Miles & Wynton Marsalis on Rhapsody at the workplace. What fabulous music.

I’ve resolved not to let the discs gather dust again this year.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Defense of The Wheel of Time

I’ll tackle this one since I just finished the 13th(!) tome in the Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time series, The Towers of Midnight, and its all so fresh in my mind.  These are books that linger with you, whose characters and little mysteries bustle around in your brain for weeks.

It’s hard to believe that I started these books oh, fourteen years and three million words ago. Ninety-one hundred (hardcover) pages of a single, continuous narrative. It’s ludicrous. And a bit overwhelming. The Lord of the Rings times seven.

Each time, during the lull between books, I almost begin to believe all the negative buzz. How it drags on and on, how inferior it is to other books of its kind, how derivative it is.

Then a fresh copy is delivered into my hands. And I’m whisked away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Wheel of Time has its faults. Many, many of them. I’m not (and never have been) blind to those. Some of the characters rub on you. There’s a definitive pattern to each book, a slow (at times glacial) buildup toward a confrontation between the series’ primary protagonist and one of the “Forsaken” - the chosen generals of the Dark One. Of the thirteen books, at least nine of them finish in this fashion.

To boot, you have that customary fantasy epic dichotomy of “good” and “evil”. The Creator and the Dark One. Doesn’t sound so unique, eh? It’s Paradise Lost meets The Lord of the Rings. The good are never wholly good, but they are mostly good. And the evil are almost always despicable, heartless characters (though often given human motive).

There is the typical fantasy "cannon fodder". Trollocs are nothing so much as orcs in disguise. The Forsaken? Ringwraiths. The Dark One? I won't even go there.

And the repetition!! I think it almost goes without saying that when you travel with the same cast of characters through 9000 pages, things will be repeated. Nyneave tugs at her braid. Mat curses and rolls his dice – “Blood and bloody ashes!” Perrin just wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want to lead. He’s no bloody lord. Rand hardens himself, argues with the voices in his head. Lews Therin’s refrain of “Ilyena!”

I have occasional problems with the pacing and, in spite of the kudos I have to give Sanderson for the job he is doing in completing the work, I have problems with Sanderson’s heavy-handed use of foreshadowing.

I have issues with the heavily southern Christian mythology of the world. The Creator is far too similar to the Christian God. The protagonists are like conservative backwoods southern farmboys. Rand bloody Al’Thor (the main protagonist) is too damn much of a Christ figure, especially since he’s transformed from "Rand the Grey" to "Rand the White" (not literally, the Gandalf reference is mine).

So what is here worth salvaging? Why dedicate the kind of time and effort required to wade through such a repetitive and oversized monstrosity?

Because it works.

Because for all of the problems, the world is there. It exists in a way that Middle-earth exists, in the way that Gormenghast and Ryhope Wood and The Seven Kingdoms exist. Full of raw hope, intrigue, and emotion. Full of characters we care about, however much they dance on our nerves.

The characters struggle with inner demons. No one in this world is perfect. The wise make mistakes. The heroes slowly crack beneath the strain. But their biggest foes are always themselves.

Talk of The Wheel of Time as derivative all you like. Jordan was brilliantly inventive.

The Aiel are his masterpiece, a fallen warrior culture with a shady past and an intricate, fascinating system of honor.

The Seanchan – however they may resemble a far eastern fighting force – are remarkably detailed. Their culture, their complex system of alliances and politics.

And that doesn’t even touch on the Aes Sedai. Schools for wizards (since that is what they are based on, at least in part) are far from original in fantasy novels. But schools solely for female wizards? And the level of intrigue and political maneuvering that takes place amongst the Aes Sedai is mind boggling. Jordan makes extensive, and effective, use of game theory (at least in its political aspect).

We also get in Jordan (a writer with an extensive military background) the body language of power. Body language plays a larger role in The Wheel of Time than in any single fantasy I can think of. Warders emanate lethal abilities. Aes Sedai give nothing away, but hide all emotion behind a cold mask of utter control. The darting of eyes, the stance of the body, the deadly agility of a stride.

Tel’aran’rhoid? Jordan’s world of dreams? I won’t even get into that. It’s too incredibly wonderful. Jordan sets the bar for dreams.

Jordan is not a great stylist, and Sanderson follows in his footsteps. They are not Patricia McKillip, who writes fantasy with a dreamlike, poetic flair. The writing all but disappears beneath the surface of the story. There is nothing to trip you up, no roots to snag at your boots as you dart past. And that is as it should be. It gives the narrative urgency, like a horse at the gallop. Even when the plot moves ahead at a mere trickle, the writing pulls you along for the ride.

More yet, Jordan thrives with battle scenes. He understands tactics. He knows the exhilaration of the fray, the lust for battle, the fear and dust. He understands how to share that burst of adrenaline with the reader, to transfer it through the page and into the sweaty hands gripping the edges of the book.

I could go on and on, because I think for all its shortcomings The Wheel of Time repays patience and dedication. I’m anxious to see how Sanderson wraps things up with the final book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with The Wheel of Time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome 2011

Since I don’t have nearly enough going on already, I decided to start this blog to keep track of all the myriad of oh so important thoughts that go through my head on a daily basis. No, not those thoughts. You aren’t privy to them. (Unless, of course, you can read minds, and if that’s the case you’ve already hit the “Back” button).

My actual intention is to make this something of a chronicle of my writing, even if nobody else really gives a damn. Because I need some place to crow about my accomplishments, weep about rejection, and generally vent about my ineptitude. I’m thinking that if I feel I need to update my one regular reader on the progress of my novel or stories, perhaps that will give me one more whisker of incentive to sit down and actually – you know - write.

See, I’m not exceptionally self-motivated. Even a little. I sit down to write and immediately think of oh, say, two dozen or so things to do. Get up and get some water. A cup of coffee. Some chocolate. Oh yeah, let’s check the stock market. eBay.

Oh, dammit. One hundred words? In six hours? Somebody kill me.

As much as I enjoy writing in the sense that I feel good about it and it gives me a sense of accomplishment, it is frustrating and sadistic to sit down at a keyboard and try to wring stories from your brain.

I'll begin this blog by looking back at 2010, since I need a starting point. I began my unnamed fantasy novel at the end of 2009. And I’m now ~45K words into it. Near the halfway point. Not bad. More importantly, I’m happy with the novel thus far, even if I’m not so thrilled with the pace. So +1. Semi-warm pat on my own back.

Just as importantly (for me anyway, I don’t expect you to give two figs), I dove back into writing short fiction again. I took a break from the novel and pounded out 3 1/2 short stories in November. That’s record pace for me. And, again, I was happy with them. (Is this entry too happy for you? Me too. I promise angst and pain before the end.)

So I immediately sent them soaring along to my favorite magazines. Two weeks later - two rejection letters in the oh so polite and heartless forms. Bang! Bang! Like shooting a quacking, flapping ego from the sky.

So I did what all good writers do. I wept. I gnashed my teeth. I considered suicidal measures (not really, Mom).

And then I sat down and viciously edited those stories (like I should have done to begin with). And sent them on their merry way again.

So I currently have the first two stories out. The first to Apex Magazine (one of the best spec fiction magazines around). The second to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest (pie in the sky, but fingers crossed).

The third story I mentioned? Don’t ask. It’s still in the corner of the workshop, covered in a dirty old dropcloth so no one can see it. It’s what we call a work-in-progress, which is fancy language for “it didn’t turn out the way I hoped and now I’m awaiting divine inspiration”.

So, that's pretty much what I've got for today. Whew!

I'll try not to make this blog all tediously dry writing stuff in the future. I'll mix in some book reviews, some thoughts on literature and music. Maybe some random, humorous bits of daily life as they happen.

Thanks for checking in on me. I’ll keep you up to date as I meander my foggy way through life.