I use this book all the time. It's a great resource. But does anyone else think that cover photo is a bit...well, sad? I imagine that toad made a pretty good dinner.
Oh, and if you have this book, check out that picture of a gator getting ready to chow down on a baby egret. And the snake bite photos are interesting. And there's that one dude with the huge Indigo Snake.
We experienced a real rarity today in Northeast Florida.
There was a gentle rain. Not that angry rain we seem to get almost every day in the summer. Not that screw-your-shingles, there's-a-river-in-my-backyard kind of rain.
No, today's rain was a pleasant surprise. It fell for about thirty minutes and when it was over, I took a run out to the Round Marsh.
When I pulled the truck in at the trail head, the place was buzzing with cicadas. There were birds chirping in the trees and couple dozen frogs were barking in the bushes. I slipped into the woods and watched as Bluetailed Mole Skinks skittered over the boardwalk. The trail climbs a couple of dunes and then transitions into oyster shell the closer you get to the tidal marsh. There's constant movement in the bushes on this jog--you hear stuff crashing around out there the whole way through. A couple weeks back I spooked about a six-foot Indigo snake. That's a pretty animal.
But today was different. I paused at one point, trying to figure out the sound that seemed to be pacing me. It was a quiet, sustained rustling. Half expecting to see that creepy smoke from Lost tracking me through the woods, I scoured my surroundings for the noise's source.
That's when I saw the crabs. Thousands of them. Hermit crabs, scurrying up and down hills--no doubt drinking the fresh water collected on the hillside. Maybe they were playing in it. Whatever they were doing, it was an amazing thing to see.
About half of them had a single huge claw. They lifted them up and down, up and down--over and over and over again. It was mesmerizing. I'm not well-versed on crab culture, but here's an interesting tidbit for those that want to consider the value of starting a crabitat.
I spoke with a park ranger once who said that there are loads of deer in that stretch of woods. There are sixty-pound bobcats. They once counted over sixty alligators sunning themselves down at Alligator Pond. It's wild out there, to be sure.
When I got to the birding platform, I looked out across the marsh and saw a huge oak tree simply pregnant with egrets. There had to have been a dozen of them up there, creating a tree decked out with fluffy white ornaments. Then I felt a searing pain and looked down at my shirt. It was pregnant with yellow flies.
Lesson learned. Bring bug dope or keep moving. I ran hard back to my truck and, despite the insects, it was a great day in the woods. I'm revising a story this afternoon. I'll be back here in an hour, in front of the glowing computer screen, in the comforts of my air-conditioned study. But after a nice rain like that, and a chance to commune with the woods and work my heart and lungs and participate in the natural world, one small part of me will already be thinking about tomorrow's chance to get back out there and do it all over again.
Then Blockbuster bought Videoland. Things changed. The store was much different the last time I visited, maybe a decade ago.
Hmmm. Where is this going? I pay Blockbuster 21.99 a month for my online rental (and five in-store swaps) service. I watch, probably, fifteen to twenty DVDs a month. Sound like a lot? It's sparse, compared to where we used to be. When Jeanne and I were back in college, it was a movie a night. Often, it was a double feature. And there was some time left over for us both to make some decent grades on the side.
But now my only choice is Blockbuster. I have a store two miles from the house. And I've found they have a lot (not all--not nearly all) of what I'd like to look at in the online catalogue. And I can drop the discs in the mail and not feel too bad about watching the stinkers. Which leads me back (see--tangents always come home!) to Day of the Dead. If I'd rented this one from Blue Mountain Video, our local shop back in John Day, Oregon, well...I'd have been angry about spending my $2.99. It would have dissipated quickly because my mom would have also rented Double Dribble for me and we would have had pizza from Klondike's (Canadian Bacon and hot cheese), but still...
Another question. Why did VHS rentals, regardless of the national economy, always rent for $2.99? It's like there was a national collusion to only rent a tape for three danged bones!
Ok, Day of the Dead is not completely without merit. I'm sure those aren't the words director Steve Miner wants to hear from anyone commenting on his film, but there's not a heck of a lot to write home about on this one. That said, Miner can frame a scene and some of his work here is solid.
The shambling, stumbling horde is back in this one. Or are they? Actually, we get screaming, sprinting, ceiling-crawling(?) zombies. I like my zombies slow and shuffling. The fast ones were pretty cool in 28 Days Later. But what can I say? When it comes to my undead, I'm a bit of a traditionalist.
Miner sets the tone poorly in the opening scene by using a slow-mo/speed-up technique that has become soooooooo played out now in the horror field over the last three years. I'm sick and tired of the tricks with the camera! Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was awesome because of its slow build! Jeepers Creepers' first forty-five minutes were great! Then someone had to drop that ridiculous monster into the thing. We horror fans can sit still. You guys don't need to whore out the pathos to the detriment of the story.
Stop. With. The. Camera. Effects.
The casting was interesting. Mariah's boo Nick Cannon shows up here as a caricature. Ving Rames is Ving Rames. And Mena Suvari, she of the excellent American Beauty, makes an appearance. None of them can do anything with the script. I liked Cannon, by the way, in Drumline. That was a pretty good film.
The story is set in Leadville, Colorado. It's a fine town. My dad spent some time up there during his years with the United States Forest Service (we lived in Pueblo, Colorado, for eight years prior to moving to Oregon). Here, it's repeatedly disparaged as a "shithole." It's a running joke.
Yeah, it's that kind of movie.
But, like I said, Miner's work isn't all bad. He can build tension adequately. I liked the scene in the hospital waiting room, when the infection begins to manifest itself and all of the injured seem to "go blank" at the same time.
But the story just has too many holes in it and not enough to redeem it. My 'C-' is probably generous, but I didn't have to drop three bones on it so I'm feeling charitable.
But guess what came in the mail today? A real zombie movie.
Tangent: Supposedly, when he was living in Cuba, Ernest Hemingway would put his typewriter on a high dresser. He would pace back and forth as he considered plot and dialogue, then stand at the dresser and blast away on the machine. He wouldn't let himself rest until he hit 750 words.
Stephen King's On Writing is filled with snippets about James Joyce (he used to write in a milkman's uniform). And I learned much about Raymond Carver in a class I took at Portland State from his friend (and excellent poet) Henry Carlyle.
In King's book, he (rightfully, I think) espouses the value of reading as an artistic catalyst.
When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote Ray Bradbury--everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hardboiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine.
And I read a post last week by Jeff VanderMeer in which he outlined his playlist for composing fiction. I think that's pretty neat. King talks about certain novels having particular soundtracks, and I admire that level of artistic influence. I've actually grown comfortable listening to Pandora while I work. I like the fact that I can govern the general sound of the music while still allowing for some variety. I set up stations for Bruce Hornsby, Phil Collins, Jason Mraz, Pearl Jam and Counting Crows. I've had the best success, though, with Matchbox 20.
I also like to write with a ballgame (baseball only) on in the background. I love it when the Cubs are on at 2:00 on a Thursday afternoon...
I think seasons influence the writing process. I think a person's circadian rhythms do also (I have students e-mailing me essays at 3:30 a.m. all the time).
So let me pose the question: which outside influences shape your creative process?
The DVDs are grouped, it seems, thematically. Some of the stories look pretty promising. If you get a chance, take a look at the introduction. On the whole, it's an ambitious concern...
Is the business model antiquated? To be sure. Do many (any, really) other industries operate on the archaic "product return" model (a practice dating back to The Depression, as I understand it)? None that I know of, off the top of my head.
But I tend to agree with the view that entrusting a huge corporate entity with the responsibility of publishing, packaging and distributing the bulk of wares for a 32 billion dollar industry (domestic) is dangerous. Who is the ultimate arbiter of taste? Jeff Bezos? Does the potential for abuse exist in a monopolistic situation such as the one outlined here (couched as democratizing the publishing industry)? You bet.
What's to keep Amazon, in Mitra's scenario, from unilaterally slamming the door on some writers after becoming the publisher of majority? We already see implicit censorship in companies like Wal-Mart, whose push for publishing works espousing "family values" has consciously altered the creative process for popular fiction. Do you think Wal-Mart would carry Nabokov's Lolita in its stores if that novel were published today? I seriously doubt it. And because Wal-Mart accounts for 25-50% of sales in some genres, isn't it logical to believe that some authors are sanitizing otherwise creatively risky works to get that shelf placement in a company that generates stronger sales than many foreign GDPs?
I think that independent booksellers have a direct impact on the content and cultural pulse of the reading community. I also think that the system of agents, editors and critics serves as a fundamental tradition of checks and balances. These systems filter the massive body of content out there to the extent (I've read on various industry blogs) that only 1-2.5% of work is published by the "big" (read traditional) houses.
Does that increase my competition to get a book published? Sure (I'm happy to take my chances). But does it also mediate a pool of work (400,000 titles published in 2007--a record, according to Galleycat) that is diffuse with shabby product already? Maybe being a small fish in a small(er) pond is better than being a small fish in Lake Superior.
There aren't any easy answers on this topic and, sure, I'd love to see authors more fairly compensated. But Mitra's scenario doesn't seem like it would be healthy for publishing over the long haul. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And for those of you wondering whether this economy is negatively affecting editors and their purchasing power, I've heard (anecdotally) that it is. Here's a post from an agent speaking to that...
On another note, I looked at Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian on Friday and found it a bit underwhelming. My short review was collected at Bloggin' Outloud. Take a look and, if you saw the picture, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
I wrote a short story called "Dust Country" awhile ago, and Editor Lyn Perry will publish it in the July volume of Residential Aliens. Man, I love that current cover art--really nice! If you have some speculative fiction ready to go, note that Lyn (an author himself) is currently reading for his October issue. It might be time to write that Halloween tale...
The casting was superb. It's a real joy to watch Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts share the screen. They feed off of each other in this one, each of them delivering the sharp dialogue in a syrupy Texas drawl. Hanks' Wilson is pitch perfect--flawed and arrogant and observant all in one crazy salad. And Hanks can still deliver the goods. Watch him closely in the scene in which he pines after Roberts' Joanne Herring. His yearning is palpable...
Mike Nichols really ratchets up the pace after that first scene, and his use of fades and overlaps is pretty creative. The first batch of combat scenes are riveting (the others feel pedestrian after that first set--watch as the fleeing civilians are chopped down like so many stubborn weeds in the back yard) and Nichols does a nice job of orchestrating the timing in a number of complex scenes. I love Wilson's first encounter with Gus Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He's about to get indicted, and so he herds his staff in one door and the CIA stooge out of the other. Back and forth they go, and Nichols plays it to really strong effect.
And Hoffman. That man can seriously act. I love his cocksure turn as Avrakatos. He's a womanizing, boozing, scene-stealing delight throughout this film, and this time, it feels like he's playing a character. In many of his films, it just seems like it's Hoffman being Hoffman in a movie. Whiny. Petulant. Slighted. Neurotic. Here he gets to stretch it out, and with that moustache and that sweet 'do, he owns many of the scenes in which he appears.
This one is awesome. I think it fizzles a bit in the conclusion, coming to an end all too quickly. That's the only thing separating this one from that top echelon of last year's films...
Man, I can't wait to see Prince Caspian. Manana, folks.
So earlier I linked to the theme from Reading Rainbow. This show opened up lots of avenues for young readers. It also leads to an interesting question: What was your greatest adventure in reading?
For me it was finishing King's Dark Tower series. This series took up a decade of my life. I started reading it years ago, then waited anxiously for Stephen to finish up the series that would come to stand as his finest achievement in writing. My favorite book was Wizard and Glass, but the final installment was excellent also. I read most of it on an airplane on a trip back to Oregon, but the closer I got to the conclusion, the more anxiety I felt about the act of reading.
I didn't want to finish something I'd put so much of my time and energy into on an airplane, for the love of the Beam!
So I put it aside and made a trip to Cedar Key when we made it back to Florida. I read the last thirty pages on a beach, watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. And as darkness fell and the story came to its conclusion, it felt good. It felt right. And it was a fitting way to say goodbye, for the time being, to Roland Deschain and his obsession...
So which book stands as your greatest literary adventure? Have you ever planned a vacation around a particular book you've been anxious to read?
Also, take a spin by Abyss and Apex. They read in May, so you still have time...
Here's the nitty gritty:
We set out to create a better way to read on-line; our goal was to make something different, engaging, intelligent and digital. The concept was born, as many good ideas are, on a crumpled cocktail napkin late one evening in 2006, and we’ve been working to build it ever since. Our intent: build an experience that is simultaneously a book group, a computer, and a book.
We believe firmly that people want to read, annotate and discuss, right there, immersed in the text. That’s the best time to talk about a book. We also respect the solitary side to reading: people should have the chance to tune out the community. We wanted it to be attractive, too; to be an experience. It was designed for the laptops people carry to their coffee shops, and meant for the network, not the desktop. Finally, it had to be something we’d want to use. Naturally we’ve got a list of improvements. Like any creative endeavor, we’re always seeing new ways to tweak it. And we’re open to suggestions! You can suggest features or give us general feedback.
It's an interesting concept, particularly that part about user feedback and criticism. A short review of the site shows a huge selection of the classics (Poe, Austen, Dickens), as well as work by writers such as Cory Doctorow.
If you register, you'll be able to select a book for review from their catalogue, or download a piece into their reader and discuss it with a group of your choosing. It's a free service, and I think it might be a pretty valuable one for folks working on peer critique. The reader looks solid.
What do you think? Will you sign up? How would you use this service?
I've written a half-dozen short stories that I'm proud of. I think they represent solid growth in my ability to tell a story. I'm feeling more comfortable with my abilities to structure a tale and keep it moving through dialogue.
And I finished a good working draft on a novel of supernatural suspense set in the ranching community of Pendleton, Oregon. It feels like a solid work--I think I got the setting right, which is pretty gratifying.
And I've discovered the work of two amazing writers. I don't know why I hadn't read Neil Gaiman's fiction prior to picking up Fragile Things, but I'm now in the obsessive zone. You've all been there. It happens when you read an author's book and then you don't read anything else until you've exhausted said writer's full catalogue. I did that with Hiaasen. And Lansdale. And I'm never without a Stephen King novel on my bedside table.
Fragile Things is filled with, as the subtitle suggests, short fictions and wonders. Gaiman is a literary writer with an agile imagination. His writing has a fluidity--a cadence--to it that makes these stories a pleasure to analyze and digest. And his observational qualities are superb, allowing him to render characters that stick with you long after you've finished the story.
Gaiman knows his mythology. Many of these stories are re-imaginings of classic fairy tales and fables. There's some Lovecraft in him. Also some Bradbury. But make no mistake, just as Lansdale's stories are clearly "Lansdalien" in nature, these are all Neil Gaiman. "A Study in Emerald" is an entertaining (Hugo Award winning) exploration of the Cthulhu Mythos. It's high concept, high ambition stuff. Sherlock Holmes investigating monstrous royalty? Shoot...And he nails it.
"October in the Chair" is pure Bradbury. In this one, the seasons meet for a bit of yarning...
"The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is a wondrously creative blend of the freak carnival and the blind date gone bad...
"Feeders and Eaters" is a very weird tale. Think King's "Survivor Type" with a twist...
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is one of my new favorite stories (right up there with Joe Hill's "Involuntary Committal"--Hill, by the way, is the other new great writer I referenced above). That's not the kind of party you want to blunder into, and the final scene is achingly haunting...
The poetry is sharp. But the stories...the stories are amazing. I'm very sad that I'll be finishing it tonight.
The term vignette* takes its origin from the French term vigne, which means "vine" and refers to the use of vines as decorative borders in early literary works. Over long usage, it's also come to refer to:
- a short, usually descriptive literary sketch;
- a short scene or incident, usually from a movie.
The focus is on brevity in storytelling, regardless of the medium. I remember the cultural reaction to Pulp Fiction when it first scorched through American theaters in 1994. For many in my generation, it was our first exposure to non-linear storytelling on the silver screen. It left a huge impression on me, and I think of it as one of the better films of that decade. Its genius rests in its dialogue, to be sure, but the clever pacing and overlapping narratives split and converge in a way that really impacts the story positively. I mean, you find yourself rooting for gangsters in some scenes, and that's because of the exposition Tarantino provides early on in developing Jules and Vincent.
Tangent: In the great pantheon of cinematic deaths that are incongruous with the characters that suffer them, Vincent Vega's unceremonious demise after a trip to the bathroom is up at the top. Vega's cool. That's all there is to it. He's perceptive. He's curious. But mostly, he's just cool. And to die like that? Well, there's no dignity in it...
Ok, so from there we have Tarantino's average Four Rooms. We get 11:14, and dozens of others that employ this style up until we get the staggeringly good Crash. This film won me over on every level. I still don't think it gets its critical due...
Yarning through vignettes is effective because a storyteller can cover a lot of ground. It's a fine compositional tactic. Stephen King's Duma Key was really an excellent story. I liked it an awful lot, despite its slightly flawed third act. I think its cinematic "feel" is, in large part, a product of King's tactic of designing long(ish) chapters comprised of vignettes. He used lower-case Roman numerals to divide the scenes and included a dozen or more in his chapters. It kept the writing lively and the pacing fluid. Richard Matheson's Hell House does this to even greater effect, creating tension and intrigue in what could have been an otherwise pedestrian set-up (paranormal investigators enter a haunted house).
The chapters are dated, the opening vignettes marked by a time stamp. This adds a sense of urgency to the narrative. In five vignettes, spaced out over seventeen pages in the opening chapter, we get the details we need: eight people died or killed themselves in two separate investigations of Maine's infamous Belasco house. Our protagonist is offered a healthy sum to investigate the spirit activity. It will a) provide him the chance to prove his life's scholarly work and b) set him up financially through his golden years.
It's the proverbial "one last score" that has been bandied about in so many noirish crime films. That said, Matheson's artistry with language and his organization make this one an irresistible read.
My advice is to think about this early. When you're sketching out that project, give it some consideration. How do you want your work to flow? How many characters deserve a share of the spotlight? How will these stories converge?
In terms of movies, it's the quiet before the storm (Indiana Jones and Chronicles of Narnia). But in terms of superhero movies, you can't beat Ironman. Yeah, I side with all of the critics (sorry, I have nothing bad to say about it).
But if you need to get out to the movie house this weekend, I think The Fall looks interesting. It'll all hinge on how much Roadside Attractions shelled out for production on a story synopsis like that, but it sounds pretty neat...
*From the American Heritage Dictionary, 2000
I've been writing ghost stories.
Not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that many of my protagonists have internalized a haunting. Whether they're being chased by regret, or guilt, or a rogue voice calling from the margins of the psyche, my recent output (short fiction exclusively) has definitely trended toward the metaphysical.
We often take a ghost tour as a portion of one of the American Literature classes I teach. We study local oral folklore and urban legends, and then we strike out with a tour group to ooh and aah at the buildings that once bore witness to scenes of depravity and sorrow. It's an interesting class because, while the majority of my students don't believe in "ghosts," they almost all admit that places can carry the psychic residue of the things (good or bad) that took place there. It could be a house, or a section of woods or a span of beach. In that sense, they are admitting to a belief in, for lack of a better term, the supernatural.
I've never written serial killer stories. Never written about explicit violence or gone to the well of vampire stories. That's not to say that I won't, because I'm sure I will at some point. But it feels like we often go through spells of sustained thematic composition. You tend to harvest a certain patch of the garden until it feels complete, then you move on and let that land re-charge.
And as Stephen King says in On Writing, one must read a lot to write well. I think that's why the content tends to run in spurts--most often correlating pretty closely with what you're looking at.
My next project is based on a news story I read over the weekend about jumpers on Tampa's Sunshine Skyway. The state is pulling funding (budget crisis) for the 24-hour watches that have saved over 90 lives in the last couple of years. The article mentioned that people have linked the place, which is one of great beauty, with the act of suicide. What draws people to a particular place to take their lives? And if a place can carry the residue of all those lost, how much build-up must there be at the crest of that great bridge?
So what do you think? Do ghosts exist? Do places retain energy? Fire away...
So I'll hit rewind and pontificate on one of the better technical films I've seen in a long while. The Coen brothers know how to create suspense. They are also sensational at framing a scene. And they excel at pacing a film. No Country for Old Men is a fine example of these talents, and I think it deserves all of the critical accolades it has received.
I'm going to substitute the film into our criticism course at the college. Sorry Memento. You're great, but not quite this great.
The performances are stellar across the board in this gem. And if we're to believe the adage that the lion's share of direction is coaching performances, then we have to call these guys great.
Brolin's Llewelyn Moss is a compelling underdog. Brolin establishes a really appealing form of pathos with the audience in his portrayal of a no-nonsense everyman who blunders into a fortune. He makes some mistakes (as most of us would). He has some great luck (as most of us hope we would). He manages to stay a step ahead of pathological Anton Chigurh in a way that we come to admire, however clunky it may be. He's likable and competent and he ultimately pays with his life because he's not quite up to the challenge that his adversary represents.
Close, but no cigar.
Oh, and that adversary? Bardem is very, very good. If you liked his turn here, go look at Before Night Falls. He can flat out act, and his turn here will live in critical infamy. I think critics will both refer to the actor and the character whenever they want to measure an antagonist that represents pure evil. I love his soliloquies in this film. His heavy-breathed diction and blank-slate demeanor add menace to the scenes in a way that you can feel. I mean, your skin physically crawls. And his chosen weapon? Don't get me started on that thing. Crazy scary.
Kelly Macdonald is good as Carla Jean Moss. I'm sad that she turned into collateral damage.
But the film is about Tommy Lee Jones (a national treasure, if you ask me) and his turn as aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. This movie is about him (and it becomes clear in the third act, in the exchange he shares with his old man). Don't mistake that. The ingenuity of the Coen brothers' vision is that the bulk of the film, the cat-and-mouse between Moss and Chigurh, only serves the story in underlining the issues of man's fallibility and utility in the changing face of his mortality. And I can't think of an actor that can better pull this off than Jones. He was also very good in the underwhelming In the Valley of Elah. The man can act, and he seems to only get better with age.
The Coens make the setting come alive here. They do a great job of showing ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The film is great, and I give it a solid 'A' grade.
So what can we look forward to? Well, this comes out soon. I thought the critical reception of the first installment was a little harsh. I liked the performances and found it a solid adaptation of the book (the problem in this genre is comparing anything to Jackson's LOTR films--don't do it!). If my memory serves me, this was one of my favorite books in Lewis' series.
Anybody see The Golden Compass? I'd love some input on it...