Feeds:
Posts
Comments

—-

first light begins its
slow creep toward younger hours
dreaming of new life

—-

I wrote that haiku yesterday or, more accurately, I copied that down yesterday, as I awoke with it fully formed in my brain. All Things Natural have been “front of mind” lately, as this week we had our first real break from the rain, and I’ve been spending time outside.

Every afternoon this week, for an hour or two, I’ve been out in the gardens—pruning, raking, trimming, clearing, gathering—in a futile attempt to complete all my cold-weather chores before the season warms and the now-dormant plants awaken. While this is arguably less of a workout than time on the elliptical, I keep at it longer, so I’m calling that a wash.

One thing I cannot do while gardening, though, is watch a video (my go-to for indoor workouts). So, because I’m a over-achiever by training and cannot do merely one thing at a time if I can do two (or three), I indulge in the next best thing: I listen to podcasts.

I’m relatively new to podcasts. I’ve tried audiobooks, but since I have no commute and thus no regular activity where I must remain eyes-alert but idle-eared, I usually got a few chapters into a book and then didn’t have a chance listen to it for a month or more, disrupting the narrative.

Podcasts, though, are perfectly suited to this task, even the hour-long ones. Encapsulated, whole, pithy, geared toward the audible rather than the visual, I can set them up in a row and burn through them whilst puttering with ferns and maples, roses and lupines, listening and working simultaneously.

The two I’ve been listening to this week are both language-oriented, and I recommend them to writers and readers of this blog.

Science Diction:
This podcast is an offshoot/subset of the more well-known Science Friday podcast. I’ve never liked Science Friday, as the faux banter they use to tie together the various “articles” is—sorry guys—cheesy and painfully obvious. Science Diction is a subset of those “articles,” was hosted by Queen of the Vocal Fry, Johanna Mayer (at least through 2021), and focuses on the meaning, etymology, and historical context of science-y (and not-so-science-y) words. Ambergris, jargon, hurricane names, gene names, robots, mercury, these have all been topics of this 12–20 minute segments, and I’ve burned through them all, loving each one.

The Allusionist:
Helen Zaltzman hosts this language-centric podcast, with a voice that is the perfect juxtaposition of posh British tone and working-class American idiom. I’m only a handful of episodes into this (working from 2015 toward the present), but already they’ve covered the origins and history of words/phases such as “bra,” “going viral,” and the c-word. As with all good (IMO) podcasts, they spiral outward from the base topic a bit, to give a broader view of the surrounding context, showing the wider connections to the world at large. They vary in length from 10–30 minutes, and come out once a fortnight.

There are other language-focused podcasts out there, but I haven’t spent time with them so cannot recommend. If you’ve listened to any, please leave a recommendation in the comments. I expect I’ll be burning through a lot of them this season.

k

 

I was in a foul mood all last week, so when a friend offered her opinion of a movie I’d recently enjoyed, deeming it “fairly good, while predictable,” I took it as a passive-aggressive reference to my low-brow viewing choices.

Naturally, she did not mean it that way and (thankfully) I have a strict “reread before hitting enter” policy when posting to social media, so no damage was done, but it did get me thinking.

The movie in question is of the “coming of age” variety and my friend’s evaluation was, to be frank, pretty spot-on. The movie is predictable, as we follow a young man growing up, navigating the pain of early adulthood until, at movie’s end, he comes to terms with his father’s history of absence and utter unreliability.

Predictable. Trite. Cliché. I’ve used these words to describe (in negative terms) both books and movies. I’ve done so here on this blog, and usually I’ve not been kind about it. So, why do I look down my nose at some formulaic works, yet enjoy others? Why do I consider some works to be entertaining, even though they are utterly predictable?

We’re all familiar with the old argument about story archetypes, how many there are, and how old. According to common wisdom, there are only seven archetypal plots (though opinions differ, and widely so). Whether this is true or not, formulas are used to build stories, especially in film—the coming of age plot, the rom-com, the murder mystery—and they are often followed to the point where you can set your watch by what happens on screen. Eighteen minutes into an episode of Murder, She Wrote? A body is going to drop in three . . . two . . . one . . .

Why do we enjoy such stories, even when we know how they’ll work out? And when do we not enjoy them?

I returned to the movie under discussion, and found that my enjoyment had nothing to do with the story’s predictable nature. I knew the boy would grow up and be happy. I knew the boy’s father would remain an irredeemable two-dimensional deadbeat dad. I knew the boy would have some sort of confrontation with his father and, in so doing, accept his own adulthood. I knew all this would happen, and to be honest, those were the least engaging sections of the film.

What grabbed and held my interest were the differences, the ways in which the writers deviated from the expected. As one example, it was how a collection of men—grandfathers, uncles, and pseudo-uncles—cooperated to raise a boy, communal fathers to an abandoned son, a composite role model that was both counterpoint and counterpart to the flawed original. The formula, that’s the foundation on which the whole is built, the scaffolding that supports what is new, but it’s the differences that set it apart.

Absent these differences, that’s when formula is a problem. That’s why the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was a flop: simply filming it in color wasn’t enough of a difference.

But with sufficient differences, ah!, now we have variations on a theme, the same story told from a different point of view, and we enjoy the result. Otherwise, we’d never watch another rom-com, see a new staging of Macbeth, or read another mystery novel. We’d be all “Been there; done that,” and set off in search of the totally new (and good luck with that).

Some will argue that there are no original stories; that everything is an interpretation of one of the seven archetypes; or a fanglement, a mash-up of two or more to fashion what merely seems new. I disagree but will allow that, in most cases, it is true. We do tell the same stories, over and over, and we enjoy the retelling, the predictability.

So, when I begin to fret that my current work-in-progress is just another old tale retold, I’ll make a point of remembering the differences I’m working into it. Style, setting, sub-plot, backstory, characterization, tone, structure, pacing—differences large and small all adding to a unique outcome.

Formulas just are; it’s how we employ them that determines if they’re worth the time.

k

As She Entered

I could say that, as she entered the drawing room, all skirts and leg-o-mutton sleeves of emerald silk over petticoats of crinoline and stiff cotton, the dark skin of her pearl-draped throat rising above her off-the-shoulder neckline, hair piled up in thick black plaits, dark eyes meeting each guest with a warm and welcoming glance, that she moved with the sound of rustling leaves, but such simplicity would be unfair, for the truth was more specific, more evocative, as with her smallest step we heard—all of us—the memory of an afternoon’s respite in the shade of a chestnut’s overarching boughs on a bone-dry summer day when rain was but a fond wish and the tree’s huge, canoe-like leaves, jostled by the gardenia-scented breeze, caressed one another with a dry and papery sweetness that was at once both gentle and substantial; such was her effect upon her parlor of admirers.

Retroscope

06Jan2022

One year ago today, my journal entry ended with: “Self-medication was required.”

This year, it’s still too early to know what the day will bring.

What today is supposed to bring is suffused in mundanity—an appointment with a chimney sweep, a couple of deliveries, an inch of rain—but if 2021 taught me anything, it’s that we can never really know what the world at large will toss into the mix.

Looking back on the year between, though, I’d have to say the auspices are not promising.

Monday, we both got our COVID booster shots. Our immune systems kicked into high gear, building the desired antibodies and so, by Tuesday, as expected, we were a bit under the weather. Some of our social media contacts chided us for putting such “poison” into our bodies; one even sent us a ten-minute video on how it magnetizes our bodies. (FYI: it doesn’t.)

In a friend’s most recent letter, she told me that some people in her circle—all functional adults capable of holding down a full-time job—upon reading a book that could be classified as “magic realism,” were of the belief that because “back then, people were closer to nature,” the magic described in the book was real. (FYI: it wasn’t.)

Recently, heavy snows—in winter—are being pointed to as clear evidence that climate change is a hoax, while tornadoes and wildfires in December are dismissed with the label “God’s will.” (FYI: it isn’t and they aren’t.)

And, to bring it back around, two in five Americanstwo in five—believe that hundreds of individuals across the nation somehow conspired to flawlessly submit thousands of fraudulent ballots, all without leaving the slightest trace of their crimes, all to oust a sitting president whose approval rating on its best day couldn’t touch the 50% mark. (FYI: they didn’t.)

“I did my own research” has become the mantra of the age, with grand swathes of the American population opting to trust a few hours spent on Google, searching for what they want to hear, rather than give an iota of credence to the knowledge and experience of experts who’ve studied these topics for decades.

We are in a Desert of Reason, where logic and critical thought are as rare and precious as water in the Sahara. Common sense is not only uncommon, it is strenuouslyand at times violentlyeschewed.

Today will play itself out, ending as it will with a bang or a whimper, but either way, as it was last year, self-medication may be required.

k

Back when I was a panelist at writing/sci-fi conventions, I would occasionally pop in at the workshops, where pros read/critiqued story submissions and provided a professional’s view. The critiques were honest assessments, often served with actual “pro tips,” but the stories submitted were usually—to be honest—pretty awful.

On one such occasion a pro author/editor I knew provided a critique that was both the shortest I’ve ever heard as well as the definition of “damning with faint praise.”

Her critique: “It’s very nicely typed.”

The newest title in the Firefly novel ‘verse is Una McCormack’s Firefly – Carnival, from Titan Books, and sadly, the best thing I can say about it is that “It’s very nicely bound.”

I’ve complained loud and long about previous titles in this series—the lone exception being Tim Lebbon’s entry, Firefly: Generations (also the only one with a title that comes with a colon instead of an en dash . . . go figger—as the entries written by James Lovegrove have been massive disappointments. Learning that this title was penned by a different author gave me hope.

Misplaced hope, as it turned out.

The basics of the plot are: Mal and crew are hired to provide security for a shipment and escort it across town from the train station to the space port where, once loaded, it flies off and they get paid. Naturally, things go wonky, the shipment goes astray, and two of Serenity’s crew are taken hostage—by the employer who hired the team—as collateral pending return of the goods or compensation for the loss. Failure, within 48 hours, and the “collateral” will be sent back in boxes.

Now, if that’s not a goofy enough setup for you, it gets better. Or worse. Example: the job pays 200 platinum (a ridiculously high wage for a few hours’ work) but when the crew is told they have to cover the losses, the sum is only 500 platinum (more than they have, of course, but 200 Pl is an unreasonable chunk of that profit margin).

The story unfolds and we learn that (unsurprisingly) nothing is as it seems, and therein lies the tale.

McCormack is a best-selling author of many television and movie tie-in novels, but reading this I came to the conclusion that those titles were best-sellers based on an established fan base and not on the style or content because . . . damn.

For any book set in the Firefly ‘Verse, you have to deal with the show’s excellent use of dialect and language. As with other books, the occasional sprinkling in of “g-less” gerunds (i.e., shootin’ and flyin’) helps evoke the tone from the show, and the reader fills in the rest. Lovegrove, for all his faults, did this well. McCormack does not. They pop up all over the place and, most troublesome, she throws them into non-dialogue sections, including those that are straight narrative and not part of a character’s internal thoughts. In addition, she decided to spice it up with other dialect elisions, such as “platinum” becoming “plat’num” which (to my ear at least) has no audible difference and only disturbs the eye as we trip over it. (In her defense, McCormack is a Brit who may very well have better diction than we Americans, so this may have made sense to her.)

Stylistically, the prose is pedestrian and flat, without any beauty. At regular intervals—presumably to evoke a feeling of action or a character making a quick assessment of surroundings—McCormack drops into a paragraph of fragment sentences. This in itself isn’t a bad practice, as it reads with more urgency, but when she drops pronouns and subjects from the beginning of the sentence, we have to re-read to make sure we get it, which obviates the point of the fragments.  In fact, McCormack often creates sentences where the syntax is imprecise or vague, and it can be read with one of two (sometimes opposite) meanings depending on inflection. This is simply poor writing, and should have been caught and fixed.

Sadly, the editors seem to have taken holiday on this book. And, halfway through, the proofreaders seem to have gone to join them. This is less McCormack’s fault than Titan Books’, though the author is not off the hook either. Content errors. Out-of-place references to current pop-culture. Missing punctuation. Typos. For all of these, the author gets proofs, too, and there are simply too many errors late in the book to deny a lackadaisical process from start to finish.

In short, it’s a hot mess and I found myself remembering Lovegrove’s less-than-stellar titles in the series with something approaching fondness.

The Firefly novels are now one for six, with Lebbon’s book being the only one worth the time. It’s sad, but it’s clear at this point that these are simply revenue streams—something I should have figured going in—hackwork without interest in the actual art and craft of writing.

Frankly, I don’t know that I’ll bother with any future titles. My love for the show, its original use of language, the depth of its characterizations, begins to suffer from such low-bar fare.

In short, these books are beginning to damage my calm.

k

The Art of Creation

OK, Boomer. This is for you.

Last week, we signed up for a month of Disney+, and did so specifically to watch Peter Jackson’s documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back.

The Beatles were the soundtrack of my earliest youth, before I even knew who they were. I saw them on Ed Sullivan (“Why are all the girls screaming?”) and when my family took a road trip to Disneyland, I saw posters for them pasted on every block in L.A. (“Hehe. They spelled ‘beetles’ wrong.”). By the time I really knew who they were, they had begun to change, shifting from the classic rock and roll of Hard Day’s Night to the more musically complex tracks on Rubber Soul and Revolver. I followed them devotedly into their psychedelic phase, reveling in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that swirled around them during the Sgt Pepper/Abbey Road years. And, like most people at the time, I blamed Yoko for everything in the global post-mortem of the band’s break-up.

It’s no surprise, then, that I was willing to drop eight bucks to sign up with Disney+, just to watch Jackson’s three-part documentary about that final period.

What was a surprise was how moved I was by it, and for totally unexpected reasons. Continue Reading »

Upon Waking

Waking is hardest
with heart still open
from night’s departing shades
and the dawning world without
so harsh and saber-sharp
eager for blood

My somnolent soul
has yet to splash its face
much less don plate or shield
and so lies bare before
the onrushing sweep of
life’s unforgiving blade

But since memory shows
my every morning has seen its afternoon
courage pulls thews taut
and thus is joined the daily battle
between my dreams
and the unsleeping world

k

 

%d bloggers like this: