Wednesday 11 December 2013

The Shack: "The latter was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now"

The Shack by William Paul Young was a tough one for me to get through, but I needed only three hours to read it--I got off more lightly than I did with Fifty Shades of Grey and its War and Peace dimensions. As a non-Christian, I knew I would get satisfaction only from an argument that was more sophisticated than the idea that God exists, so if you don't believe in him you will go to hell.

This book has enough new-age infusion to avoid the harshness of that credo, but basically, the book's answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people is that God works in mysterious ways. As the character Papa (God, that is) tells Mack, who wants to know why God let his young daughter be kidnapped and murdered,

First, by not creating at all, these questions would be moot. Or second, I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance. The first was never a consideration, and the latter was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now. (page 244 of the paperback edition)
I had to read 275 pages of mediocrity for that? What Mack is supposed to do to is know that God loves both him and his daughter. To acknowledge God is to acknowledge good. Evil, according to The Shack, arises from "[d]eclaring independence" from God. As the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman named Sarayu, says, "I am light and I am good. I am love and there is no darkness in me. Light and Good actually exist. So, removing yourself from me will plunge you into darkness" (144). The idea that evil is the absence of good is a standard answer to the question of how good and evil works, at least when the god that ought to be worshipped is only responsible for the good part of life. Some religions have separate deities of good and evil.

At one point I became quite excited because it seemed like the book was expounding a view of God that was like Spinoza's notion of Nature (as my philosophy-loving husband has explained to me but is also explained here). Young, however, does not want to be as heretical as Spinoza has proven to be for Christianity. For example, The Shack takes literally the creation story of Genesis. It argues that God indeed created man first and woman second and that Adam and Eve betrayed God in Eden. There seems to be a form of heaven, such that Mack gets to see his dead daughter Missy in an alternate world that is full of waterfalls, and there is a hell (a place of eternal torture of a non-specified type). In Chapter 15, angels appear and put on a kind of light show with their auras among some "children of the earth" (spirits of humanity in general as well as the specific dead).

Still, the theology in the book has enough going on to be heretical to most every Christian group, especially those with formal institutions, since the book explicitly states that Jesus is not interested in institutional churches, each of which is "a man-made system" of "buildings and program": "That's not what I came to build," says Jesus (192). The book introduces a fourth being, Sophia, the spirit of wisdom, who tells Mack that he cannot judge God or any of God's children; the book says is not a fourth person of God (too extreme a Christian heresy) but part of the Holy Spirit. That's splitting hairs, though, clearly. Unfortunately, it's easy to be a heretic when the dividing lines of theology between different sects are very thin.

Just about anyone can tip over to the side of heresy with little effort. This books tips over, though it seems to try not to be heretical. A quick Google search will locate Christians who are happy to explain how heretical the book is.

As theology, it is unsophisticated and unconvincing. As a book it was dull and at times offensive to both the writer and thinker in me. God makes his/her/whatevs presence known to Mack by putting a letter in his mailbox--indeed, the first chapter relates the tedious adventure of Mack stumbling over an icy driveway to get his letter. The three persons of God are three ethnic types--a vaguely Asian woman for the Holy Spirit, a vaguely Jewish man for Jesus, and an outrageously African-American woman for the Father, though she turns into an old white guy with a ponytail later to make the sad middle-aged white man more comfortable. The murder mystery aspect was a thrill-less combination of folksiness and aimless running through the countryside in search of a girl that the story reveals early on has already been missing for three years.

The book is well-meaning--it does not want to increase suffering or doubt but rather to boost confidence in believers who want their views reinforced.  It can't boost or assuage anything for me, though. Honestly, it did nothing for me. For me, it is hokey hokum.
. ___

I now have chosen my last book, the number 1 fiction hardback on the Globe and Mail bestseller's list. The book is John Grisham's Sycamore Row. I have not read any John Grisham, so I am kind of excited. I have to get hold of a copy.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Shack by William Paul Young: First Chapters, First Impressions

The foreword has prepared me for what is to come. This is a work of devotional Christian writing with a desire to infuse folk wisdom into a meditation on why bad things happen to good people. I am not a Christian (I'm an atheist, actually), and I am not attracted to folksiness, so I am feeling a bit down right now about the prospects of my enjoying this book.
The pretty cover of an English edition of the American Gates Ajar
I was not fooled by the foreword's insistence that the book is a transcript of something a real person said. That is an old trick that fiction writers have played for a long time. Ever since A Million Little Pieces, though, publishers have been more careful about labelling fiction as fiction, so my edition of the book, at least, takes pains to indicate that The Shack is a novel.

The book is looking to be similar to some popular devotional writing of the nineteenth century I have read like The Gates Ajar. In that book, a woman seeks comfort from an angelic aunt who explains why the woman's brother had to die in the Civil War and how wonderful heaven is. I actually could not get through that book, but I will get through The Shack. Maybe Young will make heaven interesting.

The Shack is the third book on my reading list that is set in the Pacific Northwest. I wonder why.

Seventh-Inning Stretch

Before beginning The Shack, I decided to look at Must Read, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith. Their book discsuses different bestselling books in the United States from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century. introduction gives an overview of the history of the bestseller, as well as a summary of scholarly attitudes towards bestsellers and a discussion of popular American reading through US history. I have already discussed what the introduction says about bestsellers and scholarly attitudes towards bestsellers. I have to admit that I had a good understanding on the history of popular reading, at least up to the nineteenth century, since I did research on that subject for  my dissertation.

Churchwell and Smith point out that since literacy in the United States has always been fairly high, the market for reading materials has always been significant. The US was born at the same time that mass production of printed material was burgeoning in Europe, so that the US has always been a place of readers. In the early US, much popular writing was practical--almanacs--and religious--bibles and theological tracts--but the novel and mass-market periodical publishing made fiction an early presence in the US.

Because of weak copyright laws, the US and Great Britain were mutually flooded with pirated copies of each other's literature. While Americans tended to read the same things that the British read, the British often had access to American books too.

Certain kinds of materials tended to be more popular than others--the thrillers and romances of today's bestseller list have their counterparts in the nineteenth century. What made one book a raging bestseller was often a combination of good marketing and good timing. Some writers were well aware of the need to promote their "brand," for example, and those who did, such as E.D.E.N. Southworth, helped maintain their audience over many titles. Topicality also benefited a book.The anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin came at a time when the U.S. was seriously reconsidering its pro-slavery stance. A tie-in to other genres and the multivolume series were other ways that a book could have above-average popularity. Film tie-ins explain the fame of Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath, for example, whose film versions came out only two or three years after the books were published.

To explain why a particular book becomes a bestseller requires an examination of its particular circumstances, a mapping of the book's content to its social context. Two of the articles in Must Read are on my reading list:  The Kite Runner and The Da Vinci Code.

Georgiana Banita's "The Kite Runner's Transnational Allegory: Anatomy of an Afghan-American Bestseller" argues that The Kite Runner's popularity arose in part from good timing: it had readers who had an interest in US-Afghanistan relations after 9/11. The author argues that the book marks out American guilt over its treatment of Afghanistan.The story's protagonist, Amir, returns to Afghanistan out of guilt of his ill-treatment of his half-brother Hassan, just as English-language readers might use the book to connect to Afghanistan out of their guilt for their countries' involvement in Afghanistan and its neighbours. The book's protagonist is suited to this reading agenda. Amir is both an American "saviour" and a world citizen; his attitude towards Afghanistan is mediated by the view that the country needs American intervention to fix it as well as a internationalist's insistence for humanitarian assistance for all peoples.

In "The Fiction of History: The Da Vinci Code and the Virtual Public Sphere," Stephen Mexal claims that Dan Brown's book appeals to people who are interested in history yet want that history to be transmissible in a single, coherent narrative. The book offers the excitement of an international thriller through frantic trips through the streets of Paris and London, travelogue style. Buildings, works of arts, and history figures are all readable as part of one theory hat explains how all the buildings, works of art and historical figure are related. The Louvre is not just a standalone museum, in other words, holding a mass of information that would take intense study to completely understand: instead, it is easily connected to a cathedral in London and all the history that London reflects.

Thus a straight line connects Italian Leonardo Da Vinci to Englishman Isaac Newton. That line then moves backward to touch upon all that the Western World views as important: namely, Christianity. The straight line is not obvious, but all someone has to do is to solve a puzzle or observe closely to see the straight line: history is "the sort of thing that can be hidden and discovered, like an artifact or secret plot." This view of history is comforting to those who dislike the ambiguity in and multiplicity of interpretations that historians today tend to value. Mexal discusses the customer review section for The Da Vinci Code at Amazon and notes how many people dismiss the book based on even the smallest errors, especially errors in street plans. (Mexal notes that Brown "lacks credibility as a cartographer.") The desire for an absolute narrative makes Brown's book both questionable for many readers but also attractive, for at least Brown offers a single narrative, even though, inevitably, it fails to provide an unassailable explanation of history.

Sunday 8 December 2013

A Game of Thrones: Perpetual Motion Machine

A Game of Thrones generates stories like mad. The characters are so numerous that the death of even key characters gets absorbed easily by the machinery that generates the crises, both personal and political, that beset George R. R. Martin's invented world of the Seven Kingdoms. The potential for storytelling is massive in this kind of scenario, but the centre of the storyline is empty. That emptiness is reminiscent of video games, which are full of melodrama and action and the trappings of realism but really are simulacra of realism, the realism of people who have no grasp of history and thus of what underlies daily life.

As a result, who lives and who dies seems determined by a roll of the dice. Some prophecies come true, some don't. Some good characters succeed, some don't. Battles that seem destined to fail end up routing the enemy, while reasonable plans collapse after sudden defections or bad luck. Just as the loyalties of the different family factions shift, so must the reader's. Getting attached to any particular character doesn't yield any rewards. That character may die at the whim of the many mad, bad warriors and kings, or fall ill, or die after a wound goes bad. Petrified dragon eggs are not actually petrified, cruel warlords are loving husbands, loving children actually hate their parents.

The wight of Waymar Royce
Do zombies have to be in everything?
This kind of storyline mimics the military histories of many nations, but if I wanted to read a long narrative about the military history of a nation, I would read a history of a nation. At least I could put those events in the context of the now. The real world has no dragons, no zombies, no magicians, no Seven Kingdoms.

This book is a soulless Lord of the Rings. In that series, people seemed to be fighting for a reason, and that reason keeps the narrative going. This book has no reason but to produce narrative. The quixotic plot twists bored me, as did the shallow characterization of most characters (save one or two characters I ended up liking, one of whom dies for no good reason). Political intrigue are the actions of insane or angry or sad people taking bloody vengeance on one another (the emphasis being on the bloodiness).

I suspect that the violence and sex is what attracts people to the novel and TV series.The slaughters and betrayals and rape scenes and incest and prophecies do not titillate me or even shock me. I've read Beowulf , the Nibelungenlied, Wagnerian opera, Shakespeare's history plays, and yes, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among other literary texts, not to mention books on early European history.  I have read enough of this kind of revenge story already to have wanted something new from Martin's novel, and after 400 pages, I realized I wasn't going to find it.

If the series were shorter, and if I hadn't had as much reading experience under my belt as I have, I would have more patience. But the series goes on for four more books, and it seems likely to be four books of the same damn thing. I don't have time for this kind of repetition.

I have The Shack left to read as well as the TBA bestseller on the Globe and Mail bestseller list left to read. I have also acquired a copy of Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers, which I hope to bring to bear here in the near future.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Game of Thrones: First Chapters, First Impressions
My Home Town, Actually
I am familiar with this kind of book: its endpapers includes a map of the imagined land, it has characters with vaguely familiar but ultimately non-Earth names, and it uses language that lightly imitates the diction and structure of medieval English. Its familiarity is comforting, but I am hoping for more than a routine fantasy novel (there are so many of them).

I like the idea of a story set in winter, though, there again, the idea of a land cursed by an evil entity goes at least as far back as JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Kite Runner: Comparing Bestsellers

Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers: From Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code, edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, seems a topical book for this blog right now. I do not yet have a copy, but I have been able to preview its introduction, written by Churchwell and Smith, on Amazon.

I found myself both congratulating myself on my standards and wincing at my weaknesses while reading these pages. Churchwell and Smith quote with approval (and I agree with) Jane Tompkins's statement "it is morally and politically objectionable, and intellectually obtuse, to have contempt for literary works that appeal to millions of people simply because they are popular." Wince.

At the same time, the editors draw attention to "the modernist exultation of the difficult" that likely has affected my own resistance to bestselling books. Wince. I have assumed that bestsellers are likely, though not necessarily, easy to read and thus not challenging. I need my books to challenge something, either in their content or their form.

The Eyes of the World: A Fiction and Literature Clasic By Harold Bell Wright! AAA+++
Bestseller of 1915
My bestseller for the week, The Kite Runner, is not a challenge in its form. It is narrated in the first person by the main character, Amir. This is a common point of view (Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight both use it.) Because the book describes the narrator's development as a person, it is a Bildungsroman. As well, the book's narrator becomes a writer, and in that sense the novel is also a Kunstlerroman.  The writing style is solidly in the realist vein too. Hosseini is not an experimental writer that way.

The book describes the lives of Afghan people during the terrible end of the 20th century. That part of the book is where the challenging material lies. The novel certainly has sympathy with the lives of ordinary people at the mercy of the warring factions who have tried to make Afghanistan into their own images, but the main Afghan character Amir is not exactly likeable. Only through the concerted efforts of people nobler than he (his father's friend, his wife, the well-meaning Afghan people he encounters in America and abroad) does the hero Amir return to his homeland to repair the damage he and his father have done to a family of ethnic minority Hazaras. Near the novel's end, Amir has enough self-knowledge to realize that his lifelong enemy Assef, now a Taliban, and not the loyal Hazara man Amir was raised with, is his double.

 The novel is mostly realist, though it does employ the strategies of other types of fiction. The appearance of Assef at the beginning and at the end of the novel constitutes the kind of circularity that fable often uses to emphasize the connectedness of the past and the present. Amir eventually acquires a scar on his lip that mirrors the scar on the lip of his childhood friend Hassan, cementing the essential ties between them. Such strategies may seem like clunky attempts at creating links between Amir and his roots, but the clunkiness is sign of its turn to myth and fable rather than realism.

The book's moralism is strong too, a temptation that even Dan Brown can't avoid using in his thriller. In Khosseini's book, however, these strategies are perhaps unnecessary appurtenances to a strong moral sensibility, when in Brown's book the moralism is simply there to give a reassuring ego stroke during an otherwise low-stakes stroll through a short-walled labyrinth.
Charlotte Temple: Bestseller

The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were bestselling books. None of these books compare with The Kite Runner in terms of creativity, originality and tension. Yet they are all bestsellers.

Perhaps I am making a false comparison, however.  According to "Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the “Harry Potter Effect”" by Rebekah Fitzsimmons, the "bestseller list" has served different purposes over time. In the United States, Harry Thurston Peck's 1895 invention of the bestseller list in The Bookman was a corollary to the 1891 Copyright Act, for this list connected specific titles and authors with specific publishers, thus cementing the idea that a book "belonged to" a writer and the writer's publisher. Before then, writers had to contend with publishers in other countries republishing books without giving the writers any royalties.

The bestseller list later became more than a record of books that sold well, Fitzsimmons argues. It became a way to give a certain kind of approval or notice. A bestselling book may or may not be a book worth reading. Fitzsimmons suggests that the idea of "middlebrow" and "highbrow" may reveal an attitude towards bestsellers. The middlebrow label applies to books that are popular (that is, that sell well), whereas the highbrow label applies to books that meet some critieria of quality irrespective of popularity. The  bestseller list became associated with popularity, that is, of middlebrow books.
The idea of a bestseller list was picked up by other publishers after The Bookman. Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times were two early compilers of bestsellers lists.

The creation, and hence the analysis, of a bestseller list is not easy, for tracking sales means cooperating with both publishers and booksellers. These lists derive from formulas, necessarily, considering the different ways books get distributed. Nowadays, The New York Times has several bestsellers lists (the "Harry Potter Effect" refers to a splitting off of children's literature from the fiction list), which means it needs different formulas for calculating what is a bestseller in different genres. Different list-makers offer varying degrees of clarity on how they calculate their sales. 

I am thinking of gathering up some data on the sales of the books on my humble list, but I am afraid of attempting this. Whose list do I use? I could use the New York Times or Publisher's Weekly; in Canada I can use Globe and Mail. These lists derive from data collected (somehow or other) from publishers or booksellers. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have bestsellers lists that reflect the sales of books that they sell (not what anyone else sells); in Canada I can use Chapters-Indigo. How about a list that covers world sales?
For this humble blog, my stakes were not that high, so I just poked around different lists to get my list; I mainly used As for finding specific sales numbers, I don't know how to go about it.

Now I am confronting the beast behind my list: the idea of sales. I am reading these eight books because of their sales. This is a data set that may seem easily quantifiable but in the end is not. Sales figures derive from financial statements belonging to businesses who have good reason to want to present their numbers in a certain way. Popularity may seem quantifiable and thus may seem "value-free," but quantifiability is not equivalent to objectivity. What can sales figures tell me about a book, in the end? 

Monday 11 November 2013

Guest Column: Reflection on Twilight by Vivian's Son

This is probably the worst book I've read and/or will ever read. The only reason I read it was that I couldn't justify disliking it without reading it. (I hadn't read any of the books nor had I watched any of the movies before reading this book.) Bella is constantly pessimistic, even when nothing's wrong. Edward is too perfect, so there's nothing surprising or interesting about him that we find out about. The reader pretty much knows everything about his personality right when he's introduced. The relationship between Him and Bella is pathetic. He's trying so hard to be flawed when the book literally describes him as "perfect." He's trying to act mysterious even when he introduces them to his vampire family and goes over their history. The climax is rushed, over-the-top and brought in with with barely any explanation (Seriously, I've read it over and over and still don't get it). There are several other problems with this book, but why should I spoil all the fun? Read it for yourself and see how bad it gets. I give this book a 9/10 because it boldly goes where no bad book has gone before.

Sunday 3 November 2013

First Chapters, First Impressions: The Kite Runner

This is a very masculine book. The mothers of the two male characters are gone. One is dead, and the other ran off a week after giving birth. A few more chapters in, and this characteristic broadens into the novel's main theme of how the accident of birth determines the course of one's life: male or female, elite or plebeian, ugly or handsome, "good" race versus "bad" race. I am rankling at the exclusion of woman in the novel, but I have to read on before I can make fair comment on that.

Already, though, what is at stake in The Kite Runner is much different than in the other books I have read in this popular reading series. The stakes are much higher, clearly. Likely it will not be giving easy solutions; in the first chapter the novel reveals that the main character has come to grips with a past that he is not proud of.

I am not as worried about fact-checking Hosseini's novel as with The Da Vinci Code.  I did look up "Hazara,' for example, and, not to my surprise, found out that the novel didn't make up this culture.  Something about the book leads me to believe that Hosseini knows something about Afghanistan. He also knows something about history, and he wants to teach others about that history. That's my kind of book.

Friday 1 November 2013

Twilight: or, Vampires Love Us (a Halloween special)

If I had read Twilight when I was a teenager, I may have liked it. Its appeal to teenage girls seems manifold. The story, basically, is that an ordinary teenager, Bella, finds an unbelievably awesome boyfriend. Edward is super-hot and super-smart. He has a garageful of cool cars at his disposal and a great (nice, close-knit, good-looking, wealthy) family. He even has a really sweet sister (Alice) that Bella gets along with like her own sister.
Philip Burne Jones's vampire (Wikimedia Commons)
Edward is extremely moody, but that is because he thinks that he is not good enough for Bella so is not sure he should be with her. This humbleness is matched by extraordinary physical strength (useful for someone whose girlfriend is extremely clumsy) and fierce loyalty. He can never die, either. When he says, "I'll love you forever," he really means it. He is immortal, after all--"till death do us part" is a quaint limitation that only the profane love of ordinary mortals must contend with.

As it turns out, I was not a teenager when Twilight was published. I did, however, latch on to Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Twilight is a lightened version of that book, though Interview with a Vampire seems to be the model for Meyer's vampires. Moody Edward is a version of moody Louis; both vampires must explain the difference between the myth of vampires and the reality of vampires to their naive human companions. Louis, like Edward, does not like having to kill humans to survive.

Edward's world, however, is much easier than Louis's. Louis cannot easily turn away from human prey like Edward can. Louis's torment is more existential than Edward's: Edward worries that he cannot control his bloodlust with humans, but he is more or less at peace with himself, thanks to the guidance of his vampire family. Louis is anguished about his entire existence, and he doesn't have the luxury of a nice family to show him how to live among humans--his vampire father is the gleefully murderous Lestat.  Louis's adventures, in the end, are more complex--he travels farther, has lived longer, and has engaged in relationships that are more morally contentious. Rice's stories are more erotic too. As I look at the two books side by side, I can see how one book is in the young adult category and the other is in the adult category.

 The difference between Anne Rice's books and Stephanie Meyer's books is that Rice makes the restraint of passion a very difficult prospect. Even if Rice's vampires don't actually ever have "sex," the sexual passion among vampires--whether male to male, female to male, female to female or adult to child--and between vampires and humans is a constant presence. Relationships in those books are more tenuous, too, except perhaps for the primary relationship of Louis and Lestat. (Anne Rice has, unsurprisingly, had a few things to say about Twilight.)

In the end, I am an adult, not a teenager. Even when I was a teenager I was reading adult books--I left children's literature behind me after I finished reading The Black Stallion books in Grade Six. I have to pick Anne Rice over Stephanie Meyer now, and I probably would have made the same choice when I was a teenager. I was not a prom-going, high-school gossip kind of girl, and I didn't watch or play baseball (the Cullen family plays baseball).

The question for me, though, is why so many adults have read Twilight. Anne Silver, in her article "Twilight Is Not Good for Maidens: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series," argues that the series advertises the benefit of the traditional nuclear family by having Bella, a child of divorce, acquiring in the Cullens a better family than her biological family. Bella does not become truly herself until she and Edward marry and she has a child. Edward turns her into a vampire, and from that moment, Bella  becomes competent and equal to her domineering boyfriend--she can hunt and fight as well as he can.

People who value that kind of traditional family would, I would say, find the book's tension lying not in the feud between the different vampire and werewolf clans, but in the conflict between the Cullens' closeness and Bella's desire to root herself somewhere. The right thing to do, Bella knows, is to become a vampire (that is, join Edward's family). Many things get in the way, though, before that happens (beyond the boundaries of the first book, certainly). Getting into a traditional family is difficult, not easy, in the dystopia of the human world. Like in Harry Potter books, in which the wizards, not the Muggles, are truly human, the Cullen clan is a moral and familial elite. Belonging to that elite is not just a matter of paying a membership fee or attending meetings. Bella is special; that is why she can become a vampire.

Meyer, a practicing Mormon, is pro-abstinence and anti-abortion per her belief system. Silver says that this moral orientation is overt in the later books. The two heroes do not have sex until after they are married; in the later books, this abstinence becomes a bigger focus than it is in the first book, though it is already present in Edward's fear that he could accidentally hurt Bella in a moment of passion. I know of someone, actually, who said she wanted her daughter to read Twilight as a kind of pro-abstinence education. Some readers of Twilight also see this aspect of the book highly desirable. Those who see marriage as the only place for woman to have social power and physical security would also like the book. There are the  Twilight Moms, for example. Perhaps these mothers are the kind of mothers that have made Twilight a bestseller.

Are these the same moms buying Fifty Shades of Grey? As I noted in my previous  post, E.L. James's book started as fan fiction. The plots of the two books are parallel to each other in a shameless way. They are so parallel that my complaints about that book pretty much also apply to this one, except Meyer is a slightly smarter and much better writer in terms of language.

Twilight is better than the previous two I've read, but that isn't saying much. I must confess I am getting tired of reading books that disappoint me so broadly.

The next book should be a change of pace. It's The Kite Runner.

Monday 21 October 2013

Twilight: First Chapters, First Impressions

My son just finished reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. He said he was reading it to see what all the fuss is about--the same reason I am reading it. He said, "Chapter Nine is the worst."

I have not reached Chapter Nine yet. At this point, it is much the same as Fifty Shades of Grey: a young woman meets a mysterious young man. Bella is fairly banal in personality. She is also clumsy, which leads me to believe that very soon she will be stumbling and falling into Edward Cullen's arms, just like E.L. James's heroine stumbles and falls into Christian Grey's arms. The Cullen family is rich and handsome, just like the Grey family is. I read that Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction, and so far the first chapters corroborate this. Meyer's writing is better than James's, though.

Thursday 17 October 2013

The Da Vinci Code: Page Turning as Entertainment

The Da Vinci Code is designed to be a page turner. Even though I was not always pleased with what lay on the next pages, I was certainly turning them. The chapters are very short, and they sometimes end with a piece of information whose details are not immediately revealed. That means having to turn to the next chapter to find out what the details are.

Actually, that usually means turning through three chapters. The book has many characters with many subplots, and the shifts between the subplots means that two or three chapters may go by before the story returns to the plotline that has ended so abruptly. The existence of subplots was a welcome change from the previous book I read (Fifty Shades of Grey). 

At first, I liked reading about the various holy sites and relics that the book describes. I read the illustrated version, which has nice stiff paper and many colour illustrations. I value books that teach me something. At some point, however, I realized that the details about these sites were often incorrect.  I have never been convinced about the pseudohistorical coverup of the Catholic Church and the Priory of Sion, but I thought the details about the places and relics were true--the book gives many details, often revealed in long speeches that the characters give to each other.

The first time I did my own fact-checking was in Chapter 20, a flashback to when the hero, symbologist Robert Langdon, is telling his students about the number phi, or the divine proportion.  Langdon tells his students that this number represents a ratio found not only in geometry but also in nature, so that, for example, the ratio of the diameters of the adjacent concentric spirals in a nautilus's shell equals a numerical constant called phi. I had never heard of this, and I was surprised because that is an extraordinary piece of information.

The reason, I found out through a series of Internet searches, I had never heard of phi in nature is that the claim is not true. The divine proportion, also called the golden ratio, is a ratio in geometry that artists have used in designing objects, but it is not true that this number appears consistently in proportions of the human body or in a nautilus shell. People certainly seem to have tried to find the golden ratio in nature (like in a romanesco broccoli head), and individual objects may have this ratio somewhere, but the only ones who are convinced of its absolute imminence in all nature are, well, crazy people.

Sacred vegetable [picture from Wikimedia Commons]
I kept reading, though. More codes, pieces of history, and descriptions of buildings flew past me.

At Chapter 26, the adrenaline of turning pages turn into something else--a spider-sense-is tingling hormone?--when I began to read about the book's details about Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was into goddess religions. That was news to me. The book does another flashback to another scene of Langdon in the classroom, this time with a class of convicts in a penitentiary. Here, Langdon tells his students that the woman popularly called the Mona Lisa looks androgynous. I looked at the picture that my illustrated book provides. She didn't look androgynous to me. Then Langdon says that "Mona Lisa" is Da Vinci's anagram for Amon L'Isa, a term that represents a union of male and female power. I said to myself, huh: did Da Vinci really use the word "Amon"? Did Da Vinci know English?

More Internet searching didn't reveal any evidence that Da Vinci knew English. More importantly, Da Vinci did not give his famous portrait any title at all. A sixteenth-century Italian art historian, who was born many years after Da Vinci died, gave the painting an informal title. English speakers call it "Mona Lisa" because Giorgio Vasari calls it that ("Lady Lisa," basically, based on the theory that this is a portrait of someone named Lisa Giocondo). Italians call the painting "La Gioconda," rather than "Mona Lisa." (Footnote: I became familiar with the use of "Mona" to mean "Lady" when I read The Decamaron. All the women are called "Mona" something in that book.) Doing this research made me take more seriously the many Da Vinci Code debunking websites out there.

The last straw for me was when I found out that Brown changed the name of a Da Vinci painting, Virgin of the Rocks, and switched the identities of two of the people in the painting, a big switcheroo, too, between Jesus and John the Baptist. These changes make Da Vinci seem like a better candidate as the grand master of the Priory of Sion, a hoax created by Pierre Plantard, who tried to convince people he was the king of France.

That is when I became angry. All this effort to send characters (and the readers) around France and Great Britain, dumping all kinds of data on us through long dialogues between the different people looking for the different mysteries, and much of this data is wrong?

The book goes on to make many other claims believed by, well, crazy people, and not by the unnamed historians and scientists that the book often invokes.

Perhaps it served me right to think I would actually learn something through this book. The book is not based on history,  but on pseudohistory.  I suspect that this book sold so well because people believed the pseudohistory. Many people would rather believe conspiracy and pseudohistory than learn actual history, which is more difficult to do quickly and sometimes is more banal.

I decided that this book was no better than those narratives that attribute all kinds of historical events to the machinations of the Freemasons, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Jews, the FBI, the mafia, Teletubbies, and African-American presidents. I enjoy some of those books, but they are a low level of enjoyment (I laugh at them, not with them).

I also noticed that the page-turning devices were just tricks to get me to keep going, like eating the mediocre hors d'oevres at a dull party keeps me going. Soon the codes began to sound stupid (the code writers like to write in eighteenth-century poetic language for no good reason I can see), and the answers to them are disappointing. The point of view shifts became clumsy attempts at creating suspense. A supposedly heroic character describes his actions in his own point of view, but he never reveals, even in his thoughts to himself, that he is the one behind all the murder and blackmail. This book has a kind of narrative crudeness that I expect in low-brow and middle-brow mystery stories.

Finally, the book that is about a pro-woman religion still has men doing all the rescuing and men in all the positions of power (even in the so-called pro-woman religion).

The book had no real intellectual or even spiritual content, in the end. Its content betrays everything that the book's characters purport to support. It is empty page-turning.

I lost faith in the story, and the page turning became more like the page turning I did for Fifty Shades of Grey: I was trying to get it over with.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Da Vinci Code: First Chapters, First Impressions
A monk, from the novel The Monk by Matthew ("Monk") Lewis

The first chapter is a prologue in which a large albino shoots a curator in the Louvre after extorting a secret that the albino already know about. The curator dies slowly, digestive fluids flooding his body, with a large painting by Caravaggio lying on top of him.

This opening unleashed all my fond memories of the sensation fiction of the early 19th century, especially that magnificent outpouring of paranoia and moralization, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall, by George Lippard, or the monk-loving gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe  and Matthew Lewis. I anticipated some fun.

Into the first and second chapters (the chapters are short), I became disappointed. The writing quality is below that of Lippard's, unfortunately: Brown's is the Spartan writing of screenplays. The thoughts coming out of the main character, Langdon, are banally juvenile, more like what a teenager might think than a scholar. This so-called "Harrison Ford in tweed" is so blatant a copy of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones that to have another character say so explicitly is an anticlimax. I actually winced when Langdon pulled the old "look in the mirror" trick so that he could describe himself to the readers, another trick that writers of low imagination and inexperience pull. I pursed my lips with impatience when a police inspector absurdly flashes a photo of the dead curator to the good professor (why?)  and drags Langdon out of his hotel room (at the Ritz, of course--this is going to be another one of those books where everyone has to be rich) in the middle of the night to take him to the scene of the crime (that seems rather irregular police procedure). Well, I guess this book isn't aiming for realism.

The mystery is compelling, though many years ago I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the book which served as the source for the novel's overarching mystery, so I know already where the plot is heading. My foreknowledge of the novel's premise may make this book drag for me.  This edition has pictures (it's the illustrated edition), so perhaps that will help keep me turning the pages. Well, I have to keep turning the pages: I've promised to read this book.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Colbert, Munro and Murderous Albino Priests: A Miscellany

In an earlier post, I noted that The Colbert Report had a book club, called the cOlbert Book Club, and I wondered if it was a one-off thing to help promote the film The Great Gatsby. It turns out that there are now two books in the book club. The new book is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. On September 11, Colbert had writer Tobias Wolff and documentarian Shane Salerno as guests. Wolff spent much of his segment negatively criticizing Salinger's other writings. Salerno was more neutral about the subject of his film, which digs around Salinger's private life, something that may actually be easier to do now that Salinger is dead. Over the next decade, new Salinger books are going to be published.

Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The news made my day.

I just picked up my copy of The Da Vinci Code from the public library. I am reading it now and will post a First Chapter, First Impressions on that book soon.

Monday 23 September 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey: Dull and Sad

Fifty Shades of Grey bores and saddens me rather than titillates me. A person only needs to read two Dan Savage columns to get up to speed on kinky sex. The book's sex scenes are hilarious rather than erotic or sexy. Here is a "hot kiss" in an elevator:

"My tongue tentatively strokes his and joins his in a slow, erotic dance that's all about touch and sensation, all bump and grind" (78).

"Touch" AND "sensation": those two people are off the hook.

It turns out that Christian Grey, the supposed kinkoid, just likes cuffs and light whipping--no blood or drugs--and he insists he and his current partner are monogamous. What a sissy! This is not the book to get your naughty on, or even any sex at all. I suppose, though, there are enough people out there who just need to see words that relate to sex to get turned on. But that's easy enough to arrange. No one needs to read a five-hundred page book for that: kiss kiss intercourse intercourse kiss kiss intercourse intercourse climax. There. For those who just want a hug and a cuddle, here: hug hug cuddle.

With its supposed entertainment value gone, the novel does not offer more than what a run-of-the-mill Harlequin Romance does. The names of the main characters in Fifty Shades of Grey give away its genre:  Christian Grey (the kinkoid) and Anastasia Steele (the sweet yet spunky heroine--well, not too spunky or she'd be too uppity--change that to "borderline lobotomized heroine").  These are TV soap-opera names, or the pseudonyms of romance writers, interchangeable with each other. The goal of this genre of fiction is to create a situation where a woman can marry a wealthy, handsome man from an aristocratic or old-money family. The woman's qualifications are that she must have the potential to be a beautiful, sexually compliant, fertile wife with just enough education and manners to make a pleasant impression at a reception at a senator's house. (Oh, spoiler alert! They get married in Book 2. By Book 3 they have two babies.)

The narrative has no subplot, either, so the entire story revolves around the dragged-out courtship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. This means that even when Christian tells Anastasia that he can't see her anymore, he has to see her again within five or six pages. Anastasia calls Christian a stalker, but Christian has to be a stalker, structurally, to get the novel past page 4. Anastasia must also be able to run into Christian in all sorts of weird places. Christian shows up at a home hardware store, a university student bar, a restaurant--just because he has to show up for there to be any novel at all. He has to be distant and conflicted to make a cat-and-mouse courtship possible. And for god's sake, he can't be gay (that would be sick).

As well, Anastasia has to be totally hot for him (something Christian will require, being the man, since men "need it") and yet give him every opportunity to make her dependent on him (this genre of romance values traditional gender roles). In other words, the dominant/subdominant trope in the novel is the same one that all Harlequin Romance novels have. The female protagonist has to be poor (well, middle-class--who wants street people in a romance novel?) so he can buy things for her that she can't afford. (He buys her a laptop, which is too bad, since the readers then have to read their stupid emails to each other--did you know that dominants like to use smiley faces in their emails?) She has to be clumsy so that he has the opportunity to catch her in his arms every time she stumbles around (drunk or sober, it doesn't matter). Oh yes--she has to get drunk at a bar so she can drunk dial him on her cellphone and thus summon him two pages after she makes the phone call (how? he has cellphone tracking software on his computer, of course!).  She can't be a slut (yuck), but neither can she be mousy: all the other men in the novel have to throw themselves at her so people don't think she is unattractive or a lesbian.

The novel's blurb claims this book is witty. I struggled to find any sign of intelligence in its characters or its writing. A novel has to do more than mention Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen in passing to be witty.

I found many more examples of witlessness. For example, at one point Anastasia says her face turns "the color of The Communist Manifesto" (28). What colour would that be? The original manifesto, first published in 1848, was printed in a black and white pamphlet and soon after in a newspaper (in those day only printed in black and white). But whose face turns black and white, or even greyscale? The copy of the novel I'm reading has a grey cover. Hey, maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is a crypto-communist parable! Naw. Okay, then. Maybe the cover is pink, since Anastasia blushes and flushes, and people who blush (and, I suppose, flush) might get a pink face. Why would Anastasia think The Communist Manifesto is pink? What a weird association. Sometimes romance novels for women have pink covers--does Anastasia think The Communist Manifesto is chicklit? That's one possibility. What else? Maybe she thinks the book cover is red. That could be it too, since cliched writing often describes blushing (or flushing) faces as being red. A twenty-first century book publisher might indeed makes the cover of Marx and Engels's book red to associate it with the red of the socialist movement and later the communist movement and government of the USSR. A glance through showed some publishers put red on the covers of the book, though not all of them do, and some of the covers have red details only, not fully red covers (only one publisher has done that). Huh. Maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is more complex than I thought!

While I was reading the book, I came to understand how non-readers think. A nonreader will pick up a book, read one or two pages, and say, "Wow, I really don't care what's going on here. Who cares? What's the point? How can this book make my life any better than it already is? I really don't want to read this."

 This book contains all the lessons on not what to do that I tell my writing students about. Too bad. If the author is able to publish and make money off this crap, it's difficult for me to explain why, for example, using the word "very" all the time is stupid, or why cliched writing strangles creativity and removes the specificity that distinguishes not just one event from another, but one writer's work from another's.

James has made a swack of money on this book and its two sequels and movie deal, and she doesn't deserve it. When people say, "Talent will out," I usually just shake my head; now I can laugh, point to this novel and respond, "Well, shit will out too."

What's next on my list? It can't be worse than this.

Friday 20 September 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey: First Chapters, First Impressions

I have entered a world where everyone is "smartly dressed"--no, make that "very smartly dressed"--and where a woman's knee-length boots are "sensible." It's also a world where a writer can write this sentence:

     "It's a stunning vista, and I'm momentarily paralyzed by the view."

and then follow that sentence with



Popular Fiction Read-in: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

The story of Harry Potter was a natural choice for me to put on my list of eight books. Many (most?) people I know have read at least one of the books. One friend has become an attender of Potter conferences and reader of Potter fan-fiction.

Younger people in particular have most likely read the book in school, either by desire or by force.  One day at my cellphone store, I watched the TV screen near the customer service desk, which was showing one of the Harry Potter films (I don't know which one), and my family and I discussed the merits of the different famous actors who were in the Harry Potter films (we compared Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes), and my husband (who has read four of the books) was struggling to explain the details of a running joke about the revolving door of professors who teach a particular class at Hogwarts. The young man behind the sales desk helpfully filled in the blanks (the course is Defense Against the Dark Arts).

I don't think I will ever get to the fan-fiction point, and I am not sure that I will even read any of the other books, though I do have a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My husband bought the first four books when the older kids were around, and now only that book remains--the other books have dissipated into the aether, so I am reading a library copy.

I have seen parts of all the movies on television; I know I have seen all of the last film, which is the only one that I went to the theatre to see. The film was grim because the story had reach the point where the iterations of Voldemort had led to a villain able to walk around on his own and use his various acquired resources to attack the heroes full force. Because I saw the last film, the suspense in the first book was slacker than it likely would have been otherwise. I know Snape's secret, for example, and I know that Voldemort will continue to grow strong. I also know who lives and who dies.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of this book. In fact, I liked the book very much.

The first chapters remind me of Roald Dahl's books, with the parents and supervisory adults trying and failing to drive the naturally good child to their level of small-mindedness and cruelty. The book is in favour of family, but it does not assume that all families are created equal--good people stick together, and if a family isn't good, it is not worth supporting wholeheartedly.

Once Harry is on the Hogwarts Express, he leaves the Dahl world. The world of the Muggles is a netherworld or hell, and the world of the wizards is more like the real world. Not everyone is nice, but there are enough nice people around who make life worth living and even make life fun. Each school year, Harry must negotiate hierarchies of students and school staff, and he learns which rules he shouldn't break and which rules he has to break.The book is quite a bit like the books set in schools, such as Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that children like to read; adult versions of this kind of story are called campus novels.

The novel is not a work of realism, though. It borrows from genres of fantasy. Harry comes out of the folk  tradition of the secret prince, a child orphaned early in life and only after a series of adventures learns that he is not an ordinary person at all, but an extraordinary person, by virtue of his parents. His natural superiority makes him noticeable to all those who are able to notice it--at Hogwarts, most people know Harry is superior to them, though a small number of people are resentful (the Malfoys, for example). The Star Wars films have this aspect of folktale about them, too, such that Harry Potter is a version of Luke Skywalker.

For Harry to have turned out so well despite having been treated so badly by his foster family defies plausibility in a work of realism. In a fantasy story with folkish roots, Harry is perfectly consistent, though. The stories are formulaic, since these genres are formulaic (as genres are). In that sense, when I reached the part of the story where Harry and his friends try to find out what is going on below the trapdoor, I had a sense of deja-vu from the bits of the movie versions I have seen. A trusted person turns out to be a villain, or a suspected villain ends up being a person willing to sacrifice himself for Harry.  This deja-vu also comes from folktale formulas that structuralist analyses of folktales by people like Vladimir Propp have revealed . I suspect the Rowling books conform to these formula.

The characters are appealing, even the villains. Harry is good, but not good to a fault. He has cunning, and he knows that he can do things other people can't, so he will break rules to achieve his goals. Hermione is the pure one at the start of the book, but by the end she decides that she needs to work the system in order to achieve meaningful goals--rid the school of evil influence and support her friends.  

Even though I was not expecting a plot surprise, I still had surprises. The novel is full of imaginative details and subplots. I liked the flying keys, and I liked Hagrid's troubles while he tried to raise a baby dragon in his hut. I also liked how the book portrays the children and their normal obsessions: candy, cliques, sports (whether football or quidditch), and the balance between keeping on the right side of authority and getting into trouble. I was also surprised with Rowling's light touch. The movie I saw in full was pretty serious and glum.

I was surprised, but in a disappointed way, that the philosopher's stone didn't make itself more present in this book. Its extreme powerfulness turns out to be too much for even wizards to handle, and, for the sake of happiness and world peace, the inventor agrees to its destruction before anyone really gets to use it.

I worry about reading the other books. I think the books are about a boy who lives in a recurring nightmare in which he spends months of suffering among his cruel family, escapes after much struggle, and spends several more months in a world that has less cruelty and more pleasure, yet which ends with his having to confront the force that destroyed his real family. He achieves victory, but only after some great loss, and then he must return to his cruel family for a space of time so that the nightmare cycle begins. Unlike most books out there, wealth and power isn't everything. Evil is more powerful than good, but moral goodness trumps power.

I suppose that these stories may be a parable about life, but it is not a naive view of life, necessarily, although the overall lightness of the adventures, the giddy silliness of it all, is a way that the novel shows their overall optimism.

I am ready to move to the next book, Fifty Shades of Grey. It is waiting for me at the public library.

Monday 16 September 2013

Popular Book Read-in: Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone

First Chapter, First Impressions.

What strikes me from the first page is that this is a children's book. The writing is pitched at a child, not an adult, even though this book is popular with adults. What also strikes me is that the book is suspicious of  middle-class adults. Mr. Dursley is a caricature of a stolid office worker: a seller of drills at a grumpily titled company ("Grunnings"), he deliberately chooses "his most boring" tie for work. Mrs. Dursley fears what her neighbours might think of her eccentric sister Mrs. Potter, and her obsession with knowing what people are doing and what they may think of her has led to her acquiring a Lamarckian long neck developed for over-the-fence snooping.The wizards are hippies.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Web blog Series: Popular Fiction Read-In

Wall of Ideas, Berlin
No book by any author listed on this monument is on my list.
I am embarking on a popular fiction read-in. I have avoided reading bestselling popular fiction, and now I want to read them to see what drives people to read books that I would not ordinarily read. The list is below: 

1. Harry Potter series (just the first book) by J.K. Rowling
2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
4. Twilight series (just the first book) by Stephenie Meyer
5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
6. The Shack by William P. Young
7. The Game of Thrones series (just the first book) by George R.R. Martin
8. The bestselling fiction book at the time I get to number 8 (if it is not one of the above 7) as listed by the Globe and Mail.

I chose these books because they have been bestsellers of the last decade. I decided to stay with fiction rather than nonfiction (though The Shack may be a work of creative nonfiction--the use of fiction techniques in nonfiction, though I won't know until I read it, I guess).  I chose eight books because five seemed too few and 10 too many.

I may go to 10 books based on people's suggestions. Right now, however, I plan to read eight.

I plan to cleanse my palate between these books with other reading. Right now I am finishing a book of Anton Chekhov's short novels, and I am on Day Eight of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.  

I have preconceptions about the interaction of the palate-cleansers and the list. For example, I expect that my Chekhov reading will be enhanced by Hosseini, while I think The Decameron will prepare me for Fifty Shades of Grey

Some of these eight books I look forward to reading; others I dread. Some I expect I will rather hate; others I think I will like. I will try to be fair to all of them, but I can't hide my own reading habits, which have gotten more particular over time. The more good books I read, the more I lose patience with things such as sentimentality, misogyny, racism, sensational violence, and substandard writing skills. I dislike cliches, but I have more patience with plot cliches than with language cliches. Books that hit one of my negative hot-buttons will likely not get a positive reception from me. 

I will start with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Software for Writing Novels

Novels can be complicated, so many people have written specialized software to help people write their novels. None of these actually "write" the novel--rather, they are organizers. An acquaintance of mine, Michelle, clued me on to novel-writing software.

I must confess that I am skeptical about this kind of software. I am also cheap, and I hate to pay for things that I suspect I don't really need.

I decided to check out what CNET Download says. Titles I found there include The Writer's Novel, StoryView, Dramatica Pro (which claims to help solve plot and character problems), Writing Type, StoryLines, and MyNovel. I keep telling myself that I just need to learn how to make a relational database using MS Access and I will be set. Before I try that, though, I downloaded a program called Writer's Cafe 2. I made a minimum effort to use it. It may or may not be useful for me. It's possible that I will comment on the software later.

Software makes sense for people who use computers anyway to create--I am using a laptop right now, so moving to a different piece of software is not a big deal. I don't know how useful creative software is for the plastic arts, for example, although digital visual artists do use computers, of course.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Colbert Report has started a book club. It may be a one-off thing: the show seems to be promoting a particular movie. The single book on the book club reading list is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Baz Luhrmann has made a film version of the book, and Colbert is having Baz Luhrmann on in a May episode. Also in attendance will be Pulitzer-Prize winner Jennifer Egan, who will lead the discussion. The Great Gatsby is sometimes treated as the Great American Novel (a phrase coined by not-famous-anymore writer J.W. DeForest). Colbert seems to mobilizing his Colbert Nation into a mass reading of this novel. I watch The Colbert Report religiously, so I will see it anyway, but I am curious to see if Egan comments on whether or not Gatsby has influenced her writing. Her book A Visit from the Goon Squad addresses the idea of the American Dream, a major theme in Fitzgerald's book.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Haiku story

I have an idea about using a short poem as the source of a story. I will try it by using a haiku (an English haiku) and see what kind of story opening I can develop from it using all the words in the haiku (in addition to my own). My goal is to use more than the words; I would also want to use the sense of the haiku itself in some way.

from Morning Haiku by Sonia Sanchez

your fast beat
riding the air settles
in our bones

     She held the wooden stem of the puddle jumper between her palms, arms extended. With a fast movement of her arm, she pushed the stem across her palm away from her and into the air. The puddle jumper flew from her hands across the restaurant parking lot. It was riding just above the top of the first car in front of her, but inevitably it dipped and struck the windshield of the next car hard, like the sound of bones breaking.    
     She tracked down the puddle jumper at the feet of the car it had hit. One blade of the plastic propeller had snapped. The blade dangled limply from the stem.
     That settles it, she thought. Our chances of making it in this town are gone. You have beat it down.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Poetry Reading

A poetry reading is taking place during the writer's circle group I am part of. I am here to write fiction. I will sit quietly (alone among poets listening) and write fiction, but in their spirit of creativity I create. I don't usually enjoy poetry readings. Is that wrong? Yes. I will try to enjoy. The poets seems dedicated, and the group is launching a chapbook, so I support them even as I create and ignore them.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction, or postcard fiction, is a genre of fiction with a short word-length limit, usually under 500 words, but sometimes under 250 words or 1000 words, depending on the source.

This genre of fiction requires attention to detail and a willingness to compress experience. Short fiction is not easier to write than long fiction, at least for most people. Excess, a sin in some artistic orientations, is nearly impossible in flash fiction. The brevity of this genre makes it attractive to periodical and web publishers.

Finding flash fiction online is not difficult; I suspect the Internet has made flash fiction attractive because of the interest in blogs (which usually have short entries). There is now a national day in the UK (with a contest). A writer for the Guardian chronicles his attempt at generating a series of short short fiction (and he does quite well).

I have downloaded an app called Flash Fiction Prompter that generates prompts. Nothing about the generator makes the prompt more amenable for very short fiction only, but it works. I gave it try and wrote a 250-word story.  I gave my iPhone a shake and got these results:

Character: Male Stripper
Setting: Church
Plot: A character's son or daughter is recruited into a  [the plot description ends here]


Off the Guest List

Enterr didn’t hear about his son Melvin’s wedding until the day of.  His boss Gina was chatting with him in the break between his nooner routine and his teatime routine, and she said she noticed a wedding announcement in the paper. (She did crossword puzzles.)

"Can't be too many people out there with the last name 'Here,'" Gina told Enterr.

Enterr immediately called a cab and went to the Church of God's Children. The church was in an old strip mall next to a tattoo parlour. The doors were locked.  “So, it is a cult after all,” Enterr muttered.

 He waited outside until the doors opened. The first people out were his son Melvin and a woman Enterr didn't recognize. Both wore white robes. A small crowd of guests in church attire followed, throwing rose petals.

"Mel!" Enterr shouted.

Melvin turned around and saw Enterr. Melvin's mouth dropped open.  The guests stopped throwing petals and stared.

Enterr looked down.

He was wearing his teatime costume: a tophat, an unbuttoned tuxedo jacket and bowtie over a sparkling mesh t-shirt with bell-pull tassels sewn where his nipples were. He wore spats with black sequined socks and garters that went up to the tops of his legs, held up at the waist by a silvery belt. He wore a tiny black thong.

After a long silence, Melvin said, “Well, at least you wore a tie.”


A legend has arisen about Ernest Hemingway having written the world's shortest story (see about it). To see some flash fiction with less controversial authorship, see