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...



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


I'm watching UW vs. Stanford. Sad.

Stanford just smothered it...


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.


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.


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!


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...


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...


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...


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.


You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...