27 October 2015

Starting from Scratch

Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch. NY: Bantam, 1988.

Subtitled “A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual,” it is definitely different. The first fifth is an admonition to be healthy, because that allows productivity: work requires food, sleep, and exercise! Oh, and learn Latin.

Now to writing. On plots: you’ll want one. Plot comes from character and conflict, e.g. self v self, another, the state, or nature. Those are your choices.

On to the subjunctive. You need it to explore emotions, the connections between character and characters, &c. Well, no, according to the noir authors. That’s (quite literally) immaterial, unobservable, and ultimately unknowable. It can only be “made up”, and thus calls attention to the fiction as fiction and, in effect, destroys the fiction. But it’s also generally the most interesting stuff, where we see the author exposed and learn how others might think. Oh, the conflict (and now we have a plot!).

That Latin mentioned earlier comes in handy for the section on symbolism, because you'll need you some of that, too. Maybe you need the symbols to express the (or a) painful truth honestly. Remember, its not art if you don’t.

Really, what Brown says is all important -- important background training for the trade, right down to her extensive reading list. More useful for one (who feels) ready to write are the exercises, and the short discussions of particular genre approaches for articles, stories, screenplays, and novels. Today’s publishing environment may be even more difficult to enter than what Brown faced, although the Internet does allow some writers to develop the critical audience mass necessary for publisher investment. Yet the book, now nearly twenty years old, is probably most important for autobiographical insight into an interesting author. For Brown, writing is just a (really good) job -- so get to work!

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13 October 2015

2015 reading list, July - September

Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. NY: Pantheon, 2000.

Jimmy is not the smartest kid on Earth. He is, instead, the thirty-six year old emotionally crippled child of multi-generational dysfunction. He is taking a trip over Thanksgiving to meet his father.

It goes badly, but it makes a beautiful book. This graphic novel, compiled from the original strips, while very different visually, has an R.Crumb Everyman inevitability. Fortunately, the oft-foreshadowed final scene does not go entirely as expected.

Jim Sherman, Facing the Big Hairy Monkey-Thing. Self-published, 2015.

Sherman is a high-school history teacher in Michigan. In his spare time, he hunts for Bigfoot. This memoir describes how he became interested in the search for Sasquatch, some of his findings, and the group of fellow researchers he found at the Bigfoot Field Researchers’ Organization. Most importantly, it is about facing the things that go ‘bump’ in the night and mastering fear of them -- whatever those things might be.

Joyce Carol Oates, Zombie. NY: Plume, 1996.

As the title suggests, this is a horror story. The monster, Q.P., is an apparently schizophrenic homosexual man. We never get an exact diagnosis, but one of his prescriptions is for lithium, so schizophrenia is very likely given the era depicted. He does, at points, admit his sexual preference, which his actions verify. And like anyone else, Q.P. wants somebody to love. Zombie is difficult in part because it is so easy to read, and, like John Garner’s Grendel, so easy to begin feeling sympathy for the monster. This feels very wrong, while reading, yet must be embraced.

The title describes both Q.P.’s goal and his mental state; the horror is his own zombie-like lack of empathy or connection to other people. Q.P. has no emotion, or more precisely, admits no emotion and displays no emotion in his record of events. He does, however, give us his motivation. He collects specimens so he can create a ZOMBIE sex slave who “would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, 'I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master.'" Then, “WE WOULD COUNT THE CHIMES UNTIL WE FELL ASLEEP AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT.” He tells us this twice, in exactly the same words. We should believe it is what he wants.

Howard Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships. NY: Bonanza, 1935.

The History seems, at times, as if it must be a complete compendium of every ship built in the United States between 1700 and 1900. In seven chapters, Chapelle covers craft from the colonial period through the Civil War,with special attention to technical developments in ship design. If there is a thesis driving the work, it is that the American Schooner is not, as often claimed, based on French models but likely a product of the Baltimore area shipyards.

Gregory Maguire, What-the-Dickens. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2007.

What-the-Dickens is a tooth fairy, but he doesn’t know it because he is an orphan. His story begins when he falls in love with a beautiful white cat, and is recounted by an important participant over the course of a dark and stormy night.

Allan Ahlberg & John Lawrence, A Pair of Sinners. NY: Granada, 1980.

The story, told in verse, of a brother and sister who stock their mother’s shop by stealing clothes from children -- until, one night, they snatch the prince.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (ed. Pamela Smith Hill), Pioneer Girl. Pierre, SD: SDHS, 2014.

An indispensable adult guide to the beloved tales of American expansion, this volume presents the source material: an autobiographical essay by Wilder from which she then drew the tales around which she formed her fiction. It provides fact-checking, context, and additional information, including editorial essays, an extensive bibliography, and images of the original manuscript. Heavily annotated and well-indexed, it may be enjoyed by curious twelve-year-olds, and would be an excellent supplemental high school (or home-school) history text.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Exploration of Space. NY: Harper, 1951.

“This book has been written to fill a need that has become increasingly apparent”: in the early 1950s, the public was interested in outer space. Rockets and nuclear energy had come out of the World War, and the Cold War created need for hope of something better.

Clarke outlines the basics, discussing rockets and escape velocity, planetary orbits, and interstellar distances in the straightforward, easy-to-understand manner that lead to his ultimate position as the unofficial public spokesman for outer space advocacy. The confident optimism (“When we meet our peers among the stars, we need have nothing to fear but our own shortcomings.”) may become annoying, but was necessary boosterism at the time. A delightful, and still largely informative, introduction to and artifact of the early Space Age.

Louisa May Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase. NY: Dell, 1995.

Say it ain’t so, Jo! Before Alcott hit it big in children’s lit, the author of Little Women had a go at the serial romance genre. It didn’t sell and wasn’t published during her lifetime -- but it is better, and much darker, than most period romance, offering a completely new view of a beloved author.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. NY: Signet, 1968.
See full review here

Mary DeYoung, Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750 - 1950s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

This is a delightfully horrible book. By detailing, to the extent possible, the catalog of abuses mete upon the ‘insane’, deYoung creates a a true book of nightmares. Here, in clinical precision, are methods more appropriate to the torture chamber than medical treatment, laid out alphabetically by broad category, then alphabetically again for subsections describing particular variants of the method or applications of the principles behind them. Each entry starts with a brief definition and synonyms, and is followed by detailed references. Also well-indexed, it is a fine reference, and should pair well with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

John Thorn and Pete Palmer, The Hidden Game of Baseball. NY: Doubleday, 1984.

This volume changed the way we understand baseball. Before Thorn and Palmer brought statistical analysis to the mainstream, there was no publicly available means of accurately determining player value, in terms of individual contribution to winning. Palmer’s Linear Weights, though, broke down run-scoring to its constituent parts, revealing that, for instance, a single is (on average) worth .46 runs. Every event has a similar number; add them up, the total is the number of runs a player contributes. Baseball management has been scouring the numbers ever since, looking for any hidden advantage: Moneyball is a direct spiritual descendant of this book.

The 2015 University of Chicago re-release updates all statistics through the 2014 season, and uncovers a stunning truth: Babe Ruth, after nearly a hundred years atop the player rankings, was not as valuable a player as Barry Bonds once defense and base-running are accounted for.  If Ruth’s career as a pitcher were added, his total value would still exceed Bonds; fans loved Ruth and hated Bonds; Ruth changed how the game is played. Bonds simply played it better than anyone else ever has.

Dirk Hayhurst, Bigger Than the Game. NY: Citadel, 2014.

This third autobiographical installment from the former pitcher reveals another dark part of the game: injury. Hayhurst hurts his shoulder during off-season training and spends the year fighting depression as he begins to confront life after baseball. And while the season ends with his release, by then he is healthy again and ready to move on with life and, maybe, baseball. Like his earlier books, Bigger Than the Game is both easy to read and insightful, providing a unique view of how the players who entertain us go about doing that job.