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.

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....