12.29.2009

Julie & Julia


We had something of a perfect storm in our living room a few nights ago. There was a great movie (love those--check) about cooking (check), blogging (check), writing (check), eating (check) and living (extra check).
It's that last part that really should resonate with audiences that get a look at Julie & Julia. The story is a dual narrative, following the life of a frustrated novelist (Julie Powell) who takes to blogging about French cooking as an outlet for her creative energies. She treats the blogging like a training regimen, and slowly builds something real out of that crazy world of accumulated protons and electrons that we call the internet. Powell is admirably played by Amy Adams, a fine actor who also shined in the excellent film Doubt. Adams plays Powell, for all her manic tendencies and mood swings and insecurities, to the point of annoyance. That's a good actor, the kind that can make a character seem suitably annoying. Still, she balances the performance with illustrating Powell's gracious side.
Powell's muse, figuratively and literally, is the great Julia Child. I think this is the more fascinating of the two narratives; delving into Julia's single-minded focus to publish something great is truly an inspiration to those who peck away at manuscripts on a daily basis. Her love for her husband Paul (excellent turn here by Stanley Tucci) is equally impressive, as is her zest for life. Child embraces each day, and the challenges life holds, with passion and pragmatism. And, she's a bit of a sexpot in this film (there's a great line that I won't repeat here, but you'll know it when you hear it; priceless!), and she doesn't suffer malingerers lightly.
I have a great deal of respect for Meryl Streep. Her turn here is--well, it's uncanny. My mother, a servantless American cook of the highest caliber, watched many episodes of Julia's show while I was growing up. I distinctly recall Julia's sincere love for cooking, her passion for eating and that hilarious sing-song voice she had.
Meryl does all of that perfectly here. In fact, after her turn in Doubt, I can't think of an actor who's doing better work right now in Hollywood.
But, as I said in the introduction to this post, this movie is about life. Julie Powell is treading water in hers; Julia Child takes each day on. This is illustrated in her dogged pursuit of her culinary degree, her challenge in the face of a patriarchal cooking culture in Paris, France, her love for the city itself and her insistence that those who don't contribute shouldn't also receive credit. There's a simple shot of Child dicing a whole bag of onions, working on her knife skills like Mike Jordan raining hundreds of jumpers in the gym during his rookie season in Chicago.
Julia doesn't do anything halfway, and when she commits to her cookbook, the first volume checks in at over 700 pages!
Julie Powell learns, with the fullness of time and after lots of emotional breakdowns, that finishing is the key to success. Huh--who would have thought, right? She completes her goal of cooking 524 recipes in 365 days and, ultimately, gets her book deal.
This movie is a 'B' overall. The third act feels rushed, and director Nora Ephron doesn't effectively address the fact that Child, in reality, didn't endorse Julie Powell's efforts with the blog. That's a serious bit of unfinished business. Still, it's a charming film and well worth a look.
I signed a contract for the publication of a story I wrote in the summer called "The Mermaids of Ichnipopka Springs." BYU's Leading Edge will be publishing the tale this winter. The editors at Leading Edge were great to work with, and I'm excited with the version we came up with. Some solid whittling of the prose took place, and the final version feels like a good, lean read.
If you've e-mailed me over the break and are awaiting a response, sorry about the delay. The college is doing maintenance on its systems. No e-mail for any of us until after January 4. That's pretty cool, because I've been getting a fair amount of writing done, as well as spending loads of time with my wife and daughter.
John Connolly's The Gates is superb. We'll be watching Paranormal Activity tonight, and of course, Oregon plays this Friday...life is good!

12.21.2009

Holiday Recommendations...


Avatar is garnering much snarky commentary out in the blogosphere. You won't get that here; I thought it was a fantastic film.

I looked over at my wife after thirty minutes and told her I'd enjoyed the film back when it was Dances With Wolves (1987). She agreed. Recycled plot points aside, James Cameron's vision here is so creative, so vibrant, so enthralling that the film is well worth seeing in the theater. I loved the framing (the shots of the destruction of the tree of life are so well rendered that the CGI's insistence disappears, allowing for raw audience emotion to surface), and the effects are stunning. The writing is clunky at times, but not to the utter detriment of the narrative. These are more like minor annoyances (Jeanne and I traded dubious glances when the talk of a "flux vortex" came up).

It's like this immortal line uttered in the disappointing film Sunshine (2007): The mainframes are out of the coolant!

Now, whenever we become a little vexed, Jeanne and I discuss the mainframes, the coolant, and the rest of the fubar mess...

Here's a review by my favorite film critic, always the eloquent arbiter of celluloid goodness. Shawn Levy's thoughts on the film coincide with my own, only I actually liked the film, in its totality, a bit more than he did. It's an 'A' for me, and I actually would like to see it again in IMAX, just to check out the 3-D.
Less successful in its execution, but not in its intentions, is Roland Emmerich's 2012. Bombastic in scope, this one is pretty fun if you look beyond all the ridiculous destruction. Woody Harrelson is awesome, John Cusack is...John Cusack, and the CGI makes for a few exhilarating moments. This one is a 'B-' for me, but still worth seeing on the big screen.

Gotta love the holiday popcorn films...

My third recommendation is Stephen King's Under the Dome. At over 1,000 pages, this one's not for the faint of constitution. That said, King needs that kind of canvas to truly diagram the destruction of small-town New England. King drills down (often with an annoying but necessary omniscient narrator) on no less than three dozen characters. Seriously, I wonder how he kept all the names straight. His office must have looked like that dude's classroom in A Beautiful Mind.

This one is about environmental catastrophe, political tyranny, post-9/11 detention tactics and, most importantly, the psychic bruise we all carry from harming others, whether that harm is physical, mental or emotional.

King is good here--as good as he was in Duma Key and Bag of Bones. Much better than he was in Lisey's Story. He takes his liberties with pacing and a portion of the text drags. Still, it cooks over the last 200 pages and the conclusion is satisfying and appropriate.

By the way, Grisham's Ford County is also pretty solid. Some of these stories are hilarious, others heartbreaking. Damn you Lawyer Wade, why must you lie all the time?

12.11.2009

For the Love of the Game

The always thought-provoking Nick Mamatas has written an enlightening post on the "market" for short fiction. Nick hits the nail on the head when he says the best motivation for composing short fiction is for the enjoyment the author feels in typing those two wonderful sign-offs, "The End."

It sounds corny, but that notion of the love is the primary reason I write short fiction. I try to compose a longer project every year. It took me two years to write my first novel, which helped me get an excellent agent. Wendigo was largely written, in sips and swallows, in 2006 and 2007. It made the rounds to some very kind personal rejections, and I think it, at a minimum, created an impression on some of the editors who read it.

Bernadette Baker-Baughman, by the way, is taking names and whooping ass in the book-selling universe. Take a look at that sight and buy a few of those books--lots of diversity and many interesting titles on that list.

I wrote another novel in 2008, and a third this year. I have high hopes for ol' number three, of course. We'll see what 2010 holds.

But I never go long without a short project simmering. I typically have two projects going at the same time (in addition to the half-finished purgatory file on my desktop). I like the creative outlet that short fiction gives me, and I read a lot of short fiction every year. I subscribe to four magazines filled with short stories, and I read a dozen or more anthologies per year.

I love the stuff.

Have I made much selling it? Nope. But that's beside the point for me. Creating the stories, typing "The End," working through the revision process and attempting publication is its own reward. And if my story finds a home in the pages of the magazines I like to read, then that's all the better.

It's pert near impossible to make a living writing short fiction. I know this intellectually--not empirically (I've never tried it; I suppose if I was really hungry and cold, I might write more stories and maybe some of them might be stronger), of course. But I can't envision a future for myself as a writer in which I don't write in the short form.

12.01.2009

Happy Holidays!

Hey there, December 01! Nice to see you...

I hope Thanksgiving went well for everyone. We've been eating carcass for the last week. It's a losing battle. I went to the fridge today and there was twice as much bird as yesterday. Who knows what's happening in there at night?

Honestly, roasted turkey is my wife's favorite dish, so we usually do a large bird. The only difference this year is that, outside of the nineteen-pound homie we made our-damnselves, we didn't have any visitors this year. First time in the four years we've been in Florida. It was a relaxing weekend. We took two trips to the beach (Lyla has a taste for sand--no joke; the kid pops handfuls of the stuff into her mouth) and watched loads of college football.

This weekend will be comprised of the Christmas cookie bake-athon, coupled with the mad dash to ship gifts to the West Coast. The tree is already up, and I'll try not to bust my neck this weekend putting lights on the eaves.

In writing-related news, I haven't been able to much else than work on grad-school applications. Seriously, the last ten days of personal writing have been spent on cover letters, personal statements, prompted essays, revisions to the C.V., actual application, solicitations for letters of recommendation--sheesh. The nice thing is that I sent the applications to UMass and Florida last week. I'll be express shipping to the University of Oregon tomorrow, I think.

I plan to return to the world of stories this afternoon. 2009 has, with a month left to enjoy, been a good year. The tally:

  • Draft zero of this year's novel is almost finished. The first 242 pages are clean and ready. Forty more to go, then I'll send it off and begin next year's long project;
  • I wrote eight short stories and three flash fiction pieces. I had five stories published in 2009, I have three slated to be published for the first quarter of 2010, and I have four stories in revision that might see print;
  • I wrote a longish research essay on American narratives of the apocalypse.

Pretty solid year, with so much else going on in my life (the blessing of our daughter joining us being the largest).

In other news, I think:

  • Tiger Woods deserves his privacy and has no public obligation to discuss his "accident" or any ongoing marital issues with the rest of us. Leave the man and his family alone.
  • The Oregon Ducks make my heart sing. Please tune in to ESPN this Thursday at 9:00 p.m. EST to watch the Civil War. Never before in the history of the state of Oregon has a college football game meant this much.
  • Stephen King can flat-out write, and I'm really enjoying Under the Dome. I crested the 400-page mark last night and I'm not halfway finished with it. That's a delightful notion!

Finally, and I'll have more numbers on this when the food drive runs its course, I'd like to say that I'm astounded by the generosity of the students and faculty I work with at Florida State College. My students in ENC 1102 are helping to collect baby food and diapers for a local shelter that helps women and children get back on their feet. The early returns have been amazing! I have sacks filled with supplies in my office, and we're collecting more each day.

The notion that there are so many hungry children in our city is hard to reconcile with all my family has to be thankful for. It's even harder to consider the emotions that must be felt by a parent who lacks the resources to provide for that hungry child. In this rough economic climate, however, it's truly inspiring to see the Jacksonville community rally to help those in need.

11.19.2009

11.18.2009

Shivers V


Shivers V is not a themed anthology, and that's a good thing. Themed anthologies, for a couple of different reasons, often present uneven reads. I think that pigeonholing a writer into a story doesn't always lead to the best piece, for one. I also think that reading different takes on the same general idea, over and over, wears thin over time.

Shivers V doesn't offer anything other than a batch of fine stories (and two poems, incongruously collected here). Seriously, I liked them all, and that's been a pretty rare occurrence these days.

In terms of the stories that struck the strongest chord with me, I'll begin with Norman Prentiss's collection opening "The Albright Sextuplets." This one was unsettling and stylish. Prentiss knows his way around the tricks of the trade when it comes to doctoring photographs, and his creepy tale about parents capitalizing on their freakish progeny is disturbing (take note, Jon and Kate Whatever). Prentiss has a compelling voice, and I liked the narration in this one. The first-person narrator, driven by his suspicions, unravels a mystery that will put a chill into parents and fertility doctors alike...

Sarah Langan's "The Burn Victim" is a vicious little tale--not for its sideline conflict with the hitchhiker, but for her sharp depiction of a couple in free-fall. Seriously, the horror here is what adults do to one another in the battlefield of life...

Scott Nicholson's "Good Fences" is a pitch-perfect neighbor battle. Pitting an old-school conservative against a homicidal hippie leads to a delightful and, as we progress through the second act, anxious climax...

Graham Masterton's "Dog Days" is just a great yarn. You'll need to suspend disbelief for this one (that means all of you "that could never happen" types can skip this one), but it's well worth it. I just can't get into the plot, but I'll say that the betrayal is heart-breaking, the plot twist is sick, and the story is great. This is one of those stories that will compel me to buy a Masterton novel because of the accessible narrative tone and clean prose.

Steve Vernon's "The Forever Long Snake of Olan Walker" takes home coolest title award. It's a chilling tale of punishment and evil--we're talking Old Testament stuff here. Olan Walker is a walking thundercloud, and the narrator and Southern setting are delightful. One of the highlights of the bunch.

Nick Mamatas can write. If you need proof, take a look at his story "The Pitch." Mamatas's protagonist, foul-mouthed Hollywood producer Hiram "Call Me Manny" Bursky is a hoot--profane and vulgar and vile in a way that keeps you paging forward. His two o'clock appointment has a movie to sell--only this film might be the biggest in the history of humanity.

The anthology concludes with Kealan Patrick Burke's "The Acquaintance." A brutal story of revenge, imprudent homecomings and unchecked rage, this is a very fluid short story. Burke's characters leap off the page, and the depiction of the bar-room chat is really well drawn.

This is a fine collection, filled with excellent tales--many more than I recounted here. Do yourself a favor and take a look at Shivers V. It kept me up past bedtime a couple of nights in a row...

11.12.2009

Doing The Work

Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of Course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
Yes.
So we'll be warm.
Yes.
Okay.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
Okay.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Okay.

~The Road, Cormac McCarthy, page 9
Once or twice each night, my daughter cries out in her crib. Sometimes her mother goes to her, and sometimes I go. We try to share the load. Last night, Lyla began to cry and I went to her and gathered her up and we sat in the rocking chair for twenty minutes. She put her head against my chest and I rocked us gently and her breathing, ragged and fussy at first, leveled out and she fell asleep.
It's The Work, you see, and it's the best work we can do.
The beauty of The Road is its message that the light of humanity rests in the next generation. It's our charge--as parents, teachers, citizens, as people--to bring these young ones into the world well equipped, so they might do the same for their own children.
Today, we bundled up (cool weather finally arrived!) and took a walk around the neighborhood. As we passed the school at the end of the street, I stopped and we looked at it together.
"There are good things happening inside that place," I said to her. "You'll enjoy your days in school, I think, and your mom and I promise to help you whenever we can. We'll celebrate your achievements and we'll work hard on the challenges. We'll get there together, heart of my heart."
She made a few sounds and smiled wide--this one is filled with smiles--and we continued on our way. When I got home, I thought about all the work ahead, and how committed we need to be to the things that matter the most.
Whether it's the writing, the teaching, the grading, the committee work, the miles on the treadmill, the yard, the house cleaning, the book keeping--it's all secondary to The Work. That's the task of passing on the light of humanity to the next generation...

11.10.2009

Anti-Intellectualism in Horror?

The Internet Review of Science Fiction has a new column called Dead Air. In the first two installments of what I hope will remain a fixture at IROSF, Nicholas Kaufman tackles the notion that an air of anti-intellectualism pervades the horror field. His article is based, in part, on an interview with Jack Haringa.

The discussion treads into both the scope of horror production (scant, since its publishing high tide in the '80s) and the tropes that have marked the field in recent years (namely, paranormal romance and the zombie craze).

I understand Haringa's angst and I agree with a lot of Kaufman's analysis. I mean, as a fan of the genre I can only communicate the impact that quality reads like Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's Salem's Lot had on me. Here were novels of literary merit--novels that stood among the best of the work done by the world's best wordsmiths--that tackled larger issues than things that go bump in the night. I didn't get into them for their popularity (these are two of the best sellers of an era), but for their quality and subtlety.

I like mundane horror. I like quiet horror. I'm more interested in the shuttered house at the end of the street than the drooling madmen that exist all too realistically in this, the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I'd much prefer a story like C.P. Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" to the schlock you can find posted up on the latest Friday the 13th fanzine. That said, I do think that the attitude about horror that exists right now in mainstream publishing (I base this on talks with my agent, reading industry news online, chatting with other writers in the genre) is one geared toward either creature features or paranormal romance.

Yeah, the Twilight thing has had a bit of a shift on what the larger presses have been doing in terms of how they purchase and market "horror," I think. Is that anti-intellectualism? I'm just a horror writer, so I'm too stoopid to answer that right now, but maybe...just maybe, Haringa and Kaufman have a point there.

11.09.2009

Writing Weather, Where Are You?

It's funny, because in most parts of America right now, the fall is happening. Some places are even getting a little winter. Kids are bundling up for the walk to school. That little area near the front door with all the hooks and the shoe caddy is laden with galoshes and honest-to-goodness coats and scarves. Outside the trees are losing their foliage.

People are eating soup.

Ah, but here our air conditioner is running. Here, it's summer. And not even Indian Summer--not that fleeting little bit of bonus summer that hits the north like an unbidden note in the mail or a package of cookies from Mom. No, here it's hot and sweaty--warm enough to make a person reach for a cold one and a dozen oysters when the internal CPU is screaming for a hot chocolate and a bowl of potato soup.

And this does affect the writing. Admittedly, I'm a little off track for hitting my goal of getting draft one knocked out by Thanksgiving. I'm working on three application packets for graduate school, as well as juggling a pretty demanding teaching schedule at the college. Plus, I'm a bit of a father now, so (thankfully) my mornings are occupied by time spent with Lyla.

She makes that pretty easy, by the way. What a kid...

But when I do have that spare moment to peck away at the word processor, it's awfully tough to get into that Oregon state of mind when the beach is calling and I get that hankering for a grouper sandwich from Slyder's. I've got some grading to do this week, but I really hope to get six hours of uninterrupted time on the piece toward the end of the week.

In the meantime, here's to Ol' Man Winter heading south for a little while. Seriously, buddy, come freeze my citrus...

11.02.2009

Link Roundup and General News

Michael Connolly's The Lincoln Lawyer is the best of his books I've read. Intricately plotted and compellingly narrated, it's interesting to see how an author's stories differ in the first and third person. Connolly's Harry Bosch series is told in third-person limited; it's good, but it's not nearly as engaging as his creation of Mickey Haller in the first person. Connolly, a former journalist, knows his legal procedure and, in the form of Haller, he's created a conflicted anti-hero (the dude's a defense attorney) whose bleak outlook on the world is both depressing and spot on. Hate to say that, as I'm a glass-half-filled kind of person, but I think Connolly's backlog of zany crime stories that he reported have since come alive in the passages of his fiction.

The book on the right side of the screen there has been a joy to get into. Kenneth Cameron's turn-of-the-century London is fascinating to explore with Denton, our American literary lion blundering through the city in his pursuit of a Ripper-style murderer. So far so good on The Frightened Man--review forthcoming.

Escapism is good when the storytelling is strong enough to suspend disbelief. I had the pleasure of experiencing a pair of narrative excursions this weekend when I watched Transformers II (2009) and The Last House on the Left (2009). The former squandered much of the goodwill it had established in the original with its hugely exaggerated fight scenes and stilted dialogue. It doesn't help that Bernie Mac passed on and couldn't lighten the mood as he did in the first. The CGI was clunky and the whole thing fell apart by the third act, I think. I don't know, because I didn't finish it. The animations stripped it of any worthwhile human emotion, and I couldn't get behind it enough to believe that things were really that bleak for the human race.

The latter, on the other hand, was too hard to take in spots. It's a simple premise. What would you do to the savages that hurt someone you loved? When a couple of Samaritans find that they've harbored their daughter's rapists, they answer the question with hammers, a handgun and, to gruesome effect, a microwave. Escaping into this film awakens some pretty grim emotions and, while the film isn't top shelf, it's effective. It doesn't pull any punches, and the cast pulls off a brutal story with appropriate gravity. I'd recommend watching it, if you enter into the experience knowing it'll be a hard watch.

The Oregon Ducks did a great job on Saturday against USC. I haven't seen an effort like that since last year's Civil War, and I couldn't be prouder of my team and my state. Stay humble and hungry, fellas, and let's get another win on the road this weekend in Palo Alto.

Lyla cut her first tooth on Saturday, just in time for her first Halloween. That kid is amazing, and a joy to be around. She's learning a lot, and is growing up so fast...

I'm revising my recent long project and had the good news that I placed a story with a journal I've been hoping to break into. I don't want to jinx anything until I sign a contract, but I hope to have some good specific news soon. I hope things are well where you are.

10.28.2009

Is Life More Dangerous in 2009?

Forgive me if this post seems a little heavy for the season. The Orange Park Police Department held a news conference yesterday outlining the profile of the suspected murderer of seven-year-old Somer Thompson.

It's a nasty word, "profile." It's one of those paranoid, suspicious terms that divide communities and diminish our shared humanity. Still, it's one of those terms that we see more frequently. In political terms, it haunts the stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats, often becoming a barrier to any meaningful discussion about the actual issues. The word "profile" has a special connotation in communities like Portland, Oregon, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Florida, where accusations of racial profiling have been levied against local law enforcement agencies. And, in the instance of Somer's murder, it's used as a tool to potentially identify an individual who has created an atmosphere of outrage and fear in a close-knit Florida community.

Mark Woods is a good writer. I like his outlook on life, and I admire his willingness to ask some good questions. Take a look at this article. The crux of his piece is an investigation into whether times have changed (in this case, taking a turn for the worse), or if the proliferation of information (amber alerts, blogs like the one you're reading, 24-hour cable news) has magnified the impression that we live in a dangerous world.

Woods's final summation is that the crimes haven't changed, but the technology used to discuss and investigate them have changed our perceptions of them.

I agree with him.

Michael Moore, lightning rod that he is, used the notion that our information-dissemination systems are trying to titillate and shock us in the interest of creating ad revenue as the thesis to his documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002). Portland television critic Pete Schulberg called it "fearful world syndrome" back in the early portion of this decade, and there are scads of articles in the academic world on what sociologists are calling "mean world syndrome."

I think depravity--true and shocking depravity, like the type we're seeing play out in Orange Park right now--is as original and enduring as our species' kinder impulses, such as compassion and community building.

Thankfully, there's far more of the latter than there is of the former.

I think the knee-jerk reaction is always to wax nostalgic when we compare generations and eras. Our personal biases color our views but, in my view, life is cyclical. Culture was outraged when Elvis Presley swiveled his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was outraged in the '80s when Madonna made music videos that flaunted her sexuality. Culture grimaced when Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction in the Super Bowl.

No doubt, it will become outraged again soon. That said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

To bring this whole post full circle and put it, if ever so tangentially, into a writing context, I'll say that, while I thought King and Straub's novel Black House was decent, I can't write about violence against children. Just can't do it. It's a horror staple and a well-worn trope, but I've said before that part of my writing garden just doesn't bear fruit.

The birth of my daughter has changed my perceptions of such topics more drastically than I could have ever predicted. It's not that I can't look at films or read stories that feature such subjects, and I'm not a full fledged Disneybot or anything like that, but I will say that my impressions of such artistic works is far more critical and much less forgiving.

Sorry for the rambling post here, but I wanted to jot a few thoughts in here on the topic. It's an interesting question, I think. Is life more dangerous in 2009 than in previous eras?

10.24.2009

Go Ducks!


So the University of Oregon is now 6-1 on the year. We had a dominating 43-19 victory tonight against our most-hated rival, the evil and spurious University of Washington. Yes, they are spurious.
The Ducks' win, another game when we pull our QB prior to the fourth quarter, has aligned us with a game at Autzen against the hated Trojans.
Bring them on.
BRING. THEM. ON!
This Oregon team knows how to play football. I've never been more impressed with an Oregon team, or more happy with the way they are being coached. I like that our defense and special teams are actually our strengths, and I'm amazed by the fact that our offense is still evolving.
Thanks LaMichael James. Thanks JM. Thanks Coach Kelly. Thanks fans of Oregon.
Lets keep this thing rolling!

10.20.2009

Alas, Babylon and Apex Magazine

I don't know how I got this far along in my life without reading Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. The novel, published in 1959, is purportedly one of the best selling works of apocalyptic science fiction--and for good reason. It's a ripping yarn and a sobering political narrative, populated by round characters and creative plot developments.

Frank, the pen name of journalist and government consultant Harry Hart, writes actively, with a simple approach to sentence structure. The novel is heavy on good dialogue, the Cold War-era phrasing adding a measure of grim realism to the novel.

Frank touches on sentimentality (the joy of hot coffee and the importance of a gallon of gasoline) without becoming sentimental. To the contrary, some sympathetic characters in this one don't survive the nuclear annihilation that wipes out half of America's population (the new capital is Denver, Colorado).

In one typically chilling passage, the head of Fort Repose's bank tries to push a telegram through to the regional Federal Reserve branch in Jacksonville.


Florence rose and walked to the counter with Edgar's message. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Quisenberry," she said, "but I can't send this. Jackosnville doesn't seem to be there any more."

It's this spare prose, in the revelation of just how complete the Russians' annihilation of the United States really is, that gives this text its edge. I won't reveal who won the war, but it's not a spoiler to include this final sentiment in a quick nod to the book's impact:

The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.

It's not a story about the how or the why, but more about the what if? What would happen to our culture? How would the survivors go on with their lives?

It's chilling and absorbing and more than a little frightening. After reading the chapter where Frank details the failure of the paper-money system, I was tempted to go out and invest in gold (but that only gets its worth because people say it has some, so it's not much different).

In terms of online magazines doing great work, I can't say enough good things about Apex Magazine. This magazine features some of the freshest fiction on the internet. Give it a read (and look at the archives--lots of fine stories published in the last three issues) and drop them a comment if you enjoy it.

10.14.2009

Zombieland


From time to time, a director will come along and take the best of a popular tradition of storytelling, tweak it slightly to add a few fresh nuances, then package the whole thing together in a crowd-pleasing format. Despite the mixed critical appraisal of Zack Snyder's 300 (2006), I think that film is a fine example of such an artistic hodge-podge.
Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland is similarly delightful.
The casting in this film was top notch. Woody Harrelson is a damned hoot as the zombie-ass-kicking Tallahassee. A brutal butcher of blood-soaked brain brunchers, Harrelson also has a soft side. His losses in the wake of the zombpocalypse, revealed late in the film, are substantial and heart-breaking. Plus, the man simply longs for a twinkie. It's the carrot that drives him--life's simplicities.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as the neurotic Columbus, whose rules for survival literally flash on and off the screen throughout the film. He's got the dork thing down pat, but he rises to the occasion when needed. Eisenberg shows some promise; I think he might have more chops than the rest of the Micheal Cera, Jonah Hill set.
Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are solid as a couple of hard-as-nails sisters with "trust issues." They hold up well against their male counterparts, though it's certainly not their film.
Oh, and there's a cameo in this one that simply slays. I won't bust it out on the blog, and stay away from IMDB if you want to enjoy that surprise. It's awesome (stick around for the quick post-credits deleted scene).
These zombies look like Romero's dead-eyed scourge, but they run like Danny Boyle's faster creatures--hence Columbus's first rule to survival: cardio.
It's an entertaining, fast-paced romp through the United States of Zombieland, at times a touching buddy comedy, at times a sad ode to existentialism. Fleischer gets in, gets messy and keeps the action moving forward. At a little over eighty minutes in length, the film blazes by.
Oh, and check out the effects on Columbus's rule about seat belts. I've never seen anything like it, and I'm not talking about all the pre-pubescent zombie girls hanging off the minivan, folks. Killer effect.
Zombieland earns an 'A'. Nice to see some quality films coming coming down the pipeline of late...

10.08.2009

Perfume

Tom Tykwer, the accomplished director of such fine films as Paris, je t'aime (2006) (contributor) and Run Lola Run (1998), did a fantastic job with 2006's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

This film succeeds on almost every level. Shot beautifully by DP Frank Griebe, this film is pretty to look at. Tykwer engages his subject, the gifted Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, with tight close-ups. He plays with foreground, middle ground and background to great effect, making grimy Paris come alive all the while (love the still shots of the row house slum on the bridge).

The film is very dark. Most of the scenes, with the exception of the beautiful panoramas as Grenouille makes his way over the mountains, are shot in muted greys and washed-out browns. When Grenouille is collecting his scents, however, Tykwer lights many of the women in innocent whites and soft oranges. There is an arresting, difficult montage early on in the film, illustrating the minutes-old Grenouille's superior sense of smell.

The narrative is pretty unique. It's a common story (outsider with a gift seeks fortune by creating something transcendent), but with an interesting twist: Grenouille is trying to create the world's most powerful perfume, and he's obsessed with collecting the finest essential oils.

To create said oils, he needs to capture the essence of beautiful women.

That many of his victims are virginal, including a nun, only adds to the complexity of his creation.

Alan Rickman gives a good performance as the protective and wealthy father of one of Grenouille's targets. Ben Whishaw is more than up to the task as Grenouille; his turn was so unsettling (all those flared nostrils!) that he'll have a hard time putting this performance behind him. Ed Norton was able to get well beyond what he did in Primal Fear. I'm not so sure Whishaw can do the same.

Whishaw's excellent performance aside, the scene stealer here is Dustin Hoffman, an exacting perfumer on the downside of his career. He traipses angrily through a couple of scenes, drinking splashes of wine here and there and growling in his French accent. Funny and compelling and wholly entertaining.

I give Perfume an 'A' grade. My wife thought the third act a little unnecessary, but I think it suited the story. And the final twist is just delicious--if you've seen the film, you know what I mean.

Rent this one, folks. It won't disappoint.

10.01.2009

Writing Dialogue and the Apex Halloween Contest

I'm really enjoying Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. His research is meticulous and I really like his pacing. Crisp, ten-page chapters that move well and are nicely stuffed with Bosch's personal and professional tribulations abound in these books.

Bosch has his requisite demons and he's more than driven, but he's also a fighter with a sense of fair play. He's one of the good guys, despite his questionable methods, and the kind of character you hope truly exists in law enforcement.

Connelly's Los Angeles is well rendered. A former reporter, he knows the city and its flavors well, giving each of the hundreds of neighborhoods in greater L.A. a fair shake. In that way, he reminds me a lot of Jon Kellerman.

My only gripe is with the dialogue. Almost none of his characters use contractions when they speak. It seems disjointed in spots. These are cops, right? Notorious manglers of the English language...

Still, the books are great. I'd say they're required reading for any aspiring crime writers.

Also, in terms of a market update, Apex Books is hosting its fourth annual Halloween Contest. This one closes on October 15, so try to work up something quickly if you'd like to enter. The prompt (sci-horror blending urban legends and aliens) is awesome, and I'll be ordering the finished anthology.

9.28.2009

The Turning of the Seasons

My mother, bless her heart, got a kick out of Halloween every year. I remember when I was a kid, growing up in Colorado, when she would scare me throughout the month of October.

"Strange things happen in the month of October," she'd cryptically remind me.

I'd head off for school and come home to find a cut-out of a skeleton or a witch taped up next to my bed or over near my desk. It used to tickle the heck out of me, and is probably why I have such an affinity for the fall and the Halloween holiday.

She carried the tradition well into my adulthood, sending me Halloween cards with a couple bucks tucked inside while I was attending Linfield College. I'll try to do a similar thing with Lyla. I want her to enjoy the fall as much as her parents and grandparents do.

It is, without a doubt, my favorite time of the year. I love the cooling evenings, the little blasts of steam that punctuate conversation (yes, we get those in Northeast Florida also), the college football games and turning leaves. I love making soups and roasting turkeys and actually using the heat.

I love the robust seasonal beers (mmm....Jubel Ale) and the mystery of Halloween.

I used to try to watch thirty horror movies in the month, but now I just look at a few of the standards. This year, I'd like to stretch my wings on my October reading. If you have any must-read horror novels, I'd love to hear some recommendations. The most frightening book I've ever read would have to be Lansdale's The Nightrunners. That one got under my skin, friends.

We're suppose to get our first cold front of the season tomorrow, and it couldn't come at a better time. We'll hit 93 today, then maybe top out at 82 tomorrow...

9.26.2009

NICE

Oregon rules. We simply rule everything. Oregon 42...Cal 03.

Nice

I'm watching UW vs. Stanford. Sad.

Stanford just smothered it...

9.23.2009

I Are An English Major?

Uh oh...William Chace has composed an interesting look at why fewer students are pursuing degrees in communications, and specifically why English programs are struggling. Like most scholarly works, some of his theories are excellent, while others miss the mark a bit, I think.

Get a look here.

9.22.2009

Welfare Brat and Doubt

Doubt (2008) is the finest film I've seen in a long while. Nominated for five Academy Awards (unfortunately, it took the goose egg), including best leading actress and best supporting actor, this film was a delightful combination of steady direction, uniformly strong turns and excellent mise-en-scene.

John Patrick Shanley, who wrote and directed Doubt, has the sum total of one other director's credit under his belt. That fine film? Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). Shanley must have spent those eighteen years percolating on the creative process. If that's the case, the man struck gold with this film.

Shanley moves the film forward with quick jump-cuts, interspersed with beautiful still shots of staid churches and conservative rectories. One of the editing techniques he plays to great effect is the juxtaposition between the boozy, bawdy priests and the quiet, milk-quaffing nuns. The shots are stark and visceral--the priests' shot opens on a blood-soaked rare steak. The nuns' turn is focused on a pitcher of milk.

The whole thing seems to reek of double standard. They're all working toward the same goal, right? Well, actually they're not. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn is an altruistic dreamer. He envisions a church that welcomes its parishioners. He wants to broadcast a progressive message of tolerance.

His antagonist here, the superb Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is a living symbol of the old ways. She thinks ball-point pens are the end of penmanship; she is convinced that barrettes are the calling cards of future street walkers.

A classic morality narrative, this film is bolstered by the great performances turned in by Streep and Hoffman, and a surprisingly effective turn by Amy Adams. She snatches a couple of scenes here, but the focus is on Hoffman and Streep. That final showdown between the snarling Hoffman and the sneering Streep is worth the price of admission alone.

I'm also reading Welfare Brat, a complex, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir by Mary Childers on her family and its dependence on the welfare system. Childers, a PhD who now works in discrimination mediation for colleges and universities, was the first in her family to attend college. Her portrayal of a fatherless childhood is crushing; her depiction of her alcoholic mother is depressing.

Still, there's a plucky undercurrent of survival in this book. Childers and her sisters and brother (she hatefully refers to them at one point as an infestation) stumble through ups and downs (but mostly downs), all the while fiercely protecting one another.

Childers is an excellent writer--perceptive and humorous and blunt.

...the neighbor charges. "You wanna know why folks are pouring buckets of water on the street?" Then she blurts out the answer. My youngest sister Alice is in the hospital, maybe dying and definitely brain damaged. En route to a box of Cracker Jacks, she was hit by a car speeding though a stop sign. Her head bounced twice on a manhole cover. The neighbor proudly tells me a specialist has been summoned from another state. I visualize Alice's blood collecting int he decorative cast iron and dripping into the sewer.

Yeah. Very hard to read in places. Still, we'll be doing a series of assignments on poverty, women and children in poverty and issues of food insecurity in the fall and spring here at the college, and this will be an excellent resource.

9.18.2009

The Menu


The Ducks play Utah tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. EST. Huge game on ESPN.
We Powells will be dining on the following:
  • Fried alligator tail with spicy cajun aioli
  • One dozen Apilachicola Bay oysters
  • Smoked mullet dip with French bread
  • One dozen hot wings
  • Cold American beer

Go Ducks!

9.14.2009

Recognizing the Postulate

It seems that the more I write fiction and the closer I get to publication with some of these tales, the less I have to say about the actual process. I suppose that's a positive development, because it feels like the fiction I'm producing is flowing more organically. There's less apprehension when I sit at the word processor, and more of a "grip-it-and-rip-it" mentality (golf term--my apologies for the mixed metaphor).

If I've learned anything recently about the creative process, though, it's just the importance of writing things down. Everything. Strange encounters. Bizarre dialogue. Individual lines that run through your head.

It seems like every day, we each encounter dozens of fiction postulates. These are what-if? moments, what one narrative theorist calls literary "reception moments" when a human truth breaks through and an artist ponders how the subject would play in the pages of a story or poem.

Late last year I encountered just a scrap of a note scrawled on the back of a receipt. This was during the holiday season, a time (for most) of happiness and celebration. This note, which I found in the parking lot of a park near my house, was decidedly somber. It struck me as very sad to find that note in the midst of a time of year I've always cherished.

I went home and started a story based on that single scrap of paper that will be published early next year.

I'm proud of that story for its postulate, what Henry James called a donnee (something given) that every work of fiction must consider in order to create an impact.

This postulate governs the direction of a story and defines its boundaries, including any limitations that might impact the plot. For Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," that donnee is phrased something like this (from Edgar Roberts's Literature):

Suppose that a small, ordinary town held a lottery in which the prize was not something good but instead was something bad.

In my story, I combined a Lovecraftian Mythos angle with a series of somber messages and the high suicide rate of jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge.

I'll agree with Stephen King that good storytelling begins with character, but even before that it starts with that great ah-ha moment. The trick is recognizing those moments and capitalizing on them. Next time you say, "Hey, wouldn't this make a great story?" make sure you answer that question with your word processor...

9.10.2009

One-Minute Weird Tales and the Florida Heritage Book Festival




Stuart Jaffe's ultra-flash tale above is great.


For those of you looking to consort with bookish types in Northeast Florida, the Florida Heritage Book Festival is happening this weekend.


We'll have the Amelia Island Book Festival this fall, and I haven't heard any news on Much Ado About Books (budget cuts have killed many of the city's traditional civic celebrations, so don't hold your breath), so this might be a nice opportunity to meet with agents and editors if you're in St. Augustine this weekend.


Here's the schedule of events. There are some attractive workshops in that bunch...

9.09.2009

Ultra Creepy

This little number by Kyosai is among many of the
creepy findings over at Pink Tentacle
Click on the painting for a larger image...

9.08.2009

Bits and Pieces from the Last Week

It's a beautiful day here on the peninsula, and part of that luster comes from the simple fact that Miami and Florida State played a great game last night in Tallahassee. As much as this is a Florida Gators part of the country (with Georgia coming in a close second), the Canes and Noles have their vocal supporters. And the simple fact of the matter is that things are better when the Canes and Noles are relevant. I couldn't make the fourth quarter last night, which is sad because it was a great finish.

Speaking of college football, I'll simply say that Boise State broke my heart with their win over my beloved Ducks last Thursday. And to add insult to injury, we lost one of my all-time favorite players when LaGarrette Blount threw the punch heard round the world. I support Kelly's decision to pull the plug on Blount's season, though I think maybe we should have put a little more deliberation into the decision. Five or six games seems a little more judicious, but I trust Coach Kelly's call. It's his program, and maybe Blount is more of a distraction than just that punch would indicate.

Elmore Leonard's Road Dogs is muy macho. Combining characters from a number of his finest novels, Leonard is on top of his game with this thriller. It's a heck of a sidewinder, this book, with about six angles being played in the third act. Cundo Rey is a great character; he's got heart to spare. Jack Foley? Cooler than the other side of the pillow, friends. And Dawn Navarro is simply scandalous. That woman knows no allegiance outside of the almighty dollar. It's a great read...

State of Play was excellent (A-). This one was a throwback in terms of the pacing, framing and overall look. Crowe does a fine job and Rachel McAdams is up to the challenge. Even ol' Ben Affleck brought the goods on this one. A very good thriller.

Finally, today's the day for paranoid ultra-cons across the country who seriously fear embedded socialist messages in our President's academic address. Many are keeping their children out of school here in Duval County (home to some of the first tea party events and that deplorable Obama/Hitler sign). It would almost be funny if it weren't so sad.

But what's even worse is that NBC Nightly News reported that our country's overall high school dropout rate is almost 30%. That would be great in Duval County, Florida, where it's a staggering 50%. That's right, one in two entering freshmen leave the DCPS with a diploma in hand.

And our mayor wonders why he has a tough time getting Fortune 500 companies to relocate here. When the public schools suffer, the apathy trickles upward to the universities and colleges. Our best and brightest frequently flee Jacksonville at their first opportunity, heading to Tampa, Miami, Atlanta and Raleigh.

Sheesh...

8.31.2009

Dark Places: Empty Auditoriums

We had our annual college-wide communications last week at the college (we're now a four-year state college, by the way!) and I was struck by the ominous feeling I always encounter in empty auditoriums. In our case, we've always met in the bleachers of a rehearsal stage in the supposedly haunted Wilson Center for the Arts.

Why do empty auditoriums tickle the old fright instincts in me? I suppose it's a couple of things. It's the odd juxtaposition of the absence of vitality in a place designed, by natural right, to be bursting with it. It's the echo of footfalls against the high ceilings and the shadows of scaffolding and set design, thrown at odd angles against the walls.

It's also the idea of masquerade. It's the fact that, even when filled with people, the natural paradigm of dramatic theatre is to lie, to be something one is not, if only for just a little while. Sure, there's freedom in that idea. But there's more than a little menace too, I think.

At any rate, like abandoned sheds and attics and closets and pools of open water and shuttered houses and dark tracts of woods, empty auditoriums are yet another place that kind of freak me out a little bit...

8.29.2009

Navigating Narrative

This post's moniker, outside of being a pretty nifty title for a text on creative writing, accurately articulates my view of writing fiction. While Stephen King makes the analogy of discovery, comparing fiction writing to unearthing fossils, I've always thought of it as walking the path, both wary and eager for the forks that lie ahead.

Bearing in mind that ever-useful discussion of exposition, complication, crisis, climax and resolution, I feel like a I turned the corner on the novel I'm writing this wekk. I'm heading into the third act and, at about 50,000 words as it stands, that feels about right for draft zero.

I spent February creating character sketches, considering setting, writing about twenty pages in notes on how I wanted the story to unfold. In March, I set to it and began drafting. Despite the usual plotting insecurities, I think it's turning into a wonderful yarn.

This is my first first-person narrative (that's an awkward construction, eh?) in the long form, and it just feels more natural. I was initially reticent about composing in the first person, not because I don't enjoy reading it, but it felt a little...well, presumptuous.

But I'm glad I took that chance with this project. It moves better than my previous two long works (third person), and it feels crisper and more accessible.

I think draft zero will check in at around 75,000-80,000 words. That's an ok figure to begin with. Then, the real work begins when I run through it again.

There's an old saw in the writing community about the third novel being the breakthrough tale. Here's to hoping there's a kernel of truth in those old axioms...

8.24.2009

District 9


So I've been thinking a lot about the movies. Since my folks took me to pictures like The Goonies, Ghostbusters and Superman, I've had a fascination with the moving picture. I like everything about experiencing good visual storytelling on a huge screen. I love the campy promotional cartoons and I've even grown fond of watching the trailers.
I've missed going, let me tell you.
Lyla is the greatest gift we ever could receive, but I won't deny the fact that, when Friday night rolls around, true north in my internal compass is the Regency 24 on Monument Road. For five months we've plied ourselves with copious amounts of Blockbuster rentals. It's been ok, and I've actually probably increased my film viewing, if anything.
But nothing beats being there, and that's where Autumn comes in. That's right, we found a babysitter!
So the next issue was, which film would break the five-month seal? What if we had a lapse in judgment and found ourselves in the equivalent of Beverly Hills Chihuahua?
Thankfully, that awkward situation was avoided when we decided to see District 9. Smart, energetic and wholly compelling, this film was a great reintroduction to our native habitat.
South African Neill Blomkamp co-writes and directs this speculative tale of discrimination and segregation. The premise: for thirty years an alien ship has been stalled above Jo'burg, South Africa (setting=symbolism here, of course). The aliens, dubbed "prawns" because of their frightening appearance, are loathed in South African culture. Segregated to District 9, they are bullied by the government, preyed upon by parasitic Nigerian thugs and generally despised by ordinary citizens.
It's a classic esoteric/exoteric social dynamic.
It's really two films in one: a mockumentary and a straight-ahead Hollywood action thriller. The exposition unfolds with "experts" on the prawn problem. That style of film making works best in the chronicling of the tale's reluctant anti-hero, Sharlto Copley's Wikus Van De Merwe.
Make no mistake, Copley is this film. As a mild-mannered, likable government patsy, he gets the untenable job of collecting alien signatures when the government proposes the relocation of 1.8 million prawns. He does it ernestly, until he becomes infected.
As he begins the transformation into a prawn himself, his attitude slowly shifts (in one horrible scene, he shouts happily as government agents "abort" prawn children with a flame thrower). But, after being forced to literally walk a mile in the prawns' shoes, he sees things differently. His redemption is complete in the third act, but Blomkamp wisely spells out the inevitable sequel. District 10 will be much anticipated.
The story excels on almost every level. The action is superb, the plotting is crisp and the writing is smart. It moves well, and the action sequences are nicely done. There are a few white-knuckle moments here.
But the piece is a success (B+) because of Copley. I've been running a few of Wikus's choicer lines through my head over the last few days; he's just so darn likable that this film ultimately succeeds because of Copley's portrayal.
This movie was excellent, and I have to say that the trailers caught my attention as well. Surrogates, 9 and Shutter Island all made my list, along with 2012, of course.
Oh, and speaking of signs of the apocalypse--we had a short talk today about the college's still-in-the-works protocol for the H1N1 Virus. Wow.

8.20.2009

Progress

Finished the first draft of my scholarly explication on American narratives of the apocalypse. Seventeen pages, eighteen sources and lots of speculative goodness. I referenced:
  • The Day After Tomorrow
  • The Road
  • Escape from New York
  • High Rise
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Land of the Dead
  • "Pump Six"
  • "Bread and Bombs"
  • "The Mist"
  • "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

I'm missing a bunch, but it turned into a good look at the sub-genre. I also used about a half-dozen attendant reviews and biographies. It's a solid read and, if I can't place it with a couple of the markets I'm targeting for publication, I'll put it on Scribd and get it up here at the blog. It's been a lot of fun.

Big scene tomorrow in the piece I'm writing (Dan does ol' school calisthenics); wish me luck...

Uncovering Original Ideas

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope....