Cat Valente's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time"

Tomorrow begins a new term at the college, and my first foray into teaching literature over a sixteen-week term. As I was mapping out a plan for the term, I rounded up my usual collection of stories available for free online. I use stuff from Doctorow and Palahniuk, and many of the classics can be found online. It's a great boon to the world of letters, that level of access.

I try to read widely online, and boy did I ever come across a great story recently. Cat Valente's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time" is a beautiful story--a strong marriage of elegant prose and keen content. It's a science fiction story that really transcends the science, using it more as an ancillary to a metaphysical core that really can't, for all of our attempts, be easily explained.

It's science and faith and philosophy, encapsulated within a great structure (the chapter headings build upon each other, and make their lessons both accessible and distinct). It's heady stuff, but the structure and tone contribute to one of the better, more impactful tales I've read this year (Peter Beagle's "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" is also in that group, as is Piccoult's "Weights and Measure" and Gaiman's "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains").

Do yourself a favor and take a look at that story. It's about beginnings and endings, and it makes me want to give my daughter a kiss while she's asleep in the next room over...


Thoughts from Left Field

I must admit that I am a fan of David Garrard. I live in a town where that is not a very popular opinion. While David has a vocal minority of supporters such as myself, his skills and personality are really under appreciated in Northeast Florida. As a player, I like his skill set. I was in the stands last year when David calmly marched the Jags down the field, Mojo took a knee on the one-yard line, and David floated a little touch pass over the defense to seal the win with less than a minute on the clock. David made that drive happen, but he made that play happen with his feet. We're talking gutcheck time, fourth quarter in the NFL, and David is making guys miss and evading tacklers before he makes a touch throw that only a handful of guys in the league make in that situation. Sure, Peyton is a better passer, but he doesn't make that play.

David is big in this community. He gives much of his time and talent to worthy causes throughout Jacksonville. He is humble and intelligent, and he represents the city well. Now David has some very vocal critics, with the loudest and most influential probably being Pete Prisco. I love Pete. He's the best in the business at what he does, and I was listening to Colin Cowherd (another good one) before he went national at ESPN. Colin made his bones in Portland.

Pete's right about a lot of things, but not about David. He doesn't get through every read, but even Pete will admit (as he did yesterday) that David offers elite play over long periods of time. In 2007, he had an 18-3 touchdown to interception ration. He also won a playoff game, almost by himself with a thirty-plus-yard run against the Steelers.

Pete rips David on the air every day. Yesterday, David answered the call, and it's just another reason I like the guy and I admire him and am happy he's backing the Jags. David was courteous but stern. He was professional and reserved. He didn't let Pete bait him, and he seriously handled his business.

That was a good man answering the call there.

David needs to win, and he'll admit that. He's a .500 QB in his four years as a starter, and that's about where he is overall. I like his skills more than most, so I put him in the top thirteen or fourteen in the league. He's definitely above the 60th percentile. And I think the people here, as much as they like to tear him down, know it too. When Dave got his bell rung in the game last week against Miami, there was a serious pall over the stadium. It's his job, and he's earned it. He needs to win this year, for sure, and I think he can.

In summary, this is David: talented player (not an elite passer, but a very good overall football player), stand-up man, community asset, strong leader. Those tearing him down should reconsider. We could, after all, have someone in town like Roethlisberger.

Bobby Bowden is out making the rounds on promoting his book, and he's come out and said that FSU President T.K. Wetherell told him to go be a figurehead in the booth or his contract was kaput. Seriously? Bobby wanted one more year. And yes, these aren't the 2000 'Noles, but I think the university would have done well to honor that. Jimbo could have waited twelve more months (although I like where he's taking the boys, and I think they can compete now with Ponder) and Bobby deserved the chance to do his farewell tour. When it comes to Southern football, I go Gator every time, so take my opinion for what it's worth. Still, I think Bobby got a raw deal in Tallahassee.

Tiger and Elin's divorce went final yesterday. So, will this lead to better play on the golf course? Is Tiger now past all the guilt, feelings of failure, financial kick in the nuts and angst about the future of his kids? Will this lead him toward redemption and finally finding his place on the course? I doubt it. I think Tiger, who has made eight of nine cuts in his worst year ever (and two top-tens at majors), was on his way to figuring it out on his own prior to yesterday's announcement. When the dam breaks for this guy, it's going to be a low round out there...

Coming soon: my PAC-10 preview...



The Ultimate Anthology: The Small Assassin

Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell. There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as a sea tide in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.

It's beautiful and horrible all at once, that fantastic paragraph above.

Writers long to create such lasting impressions with their prose, and so also should editors hope to begin their collections. I've heard that that the S.O.P calls for starting out with the second-best story. Then, arrange the tales thematically, but save the best for last.


I disagree.

Readers will always try the first story, so it should be great. But why not then hit them with the strongest tale right after that? Make them read them all, just so they are thorough...

I start with "The Small Assassin" not because it's the best, but because it's universal. This tale is too well written, too simply wicked, to be overlooked...

"The Small Assassin" is a tale that challenges the very notion of "innocence." What if a child came into the world with bad intentions? What if a child came into the world, resentful of the disassociation from what were comfortable standards?

What if this child hated his or her parents?

Bradbury's prose is pristine and measured:

Alice was dead.

The house remained quiet, except for the sound of his heart.

She was dead.

He held her head in his hands, he felt her fingers. He held her body. But she wouldn't live. She wouldn't even try to live. He said her name, out loud, many times, and he tried, once again, by holding her to him, to give her back some of the warmth he had lost, but that didn't help.

This is Bradbury at his very best--nostalgic and romantic, and also thoroughly weird. This story, if you haven't read it, concerns a homicidal infant.

But here's the thing: this tale picks the bigger scab. All good fiction, at the very least, flicks at the scab...

What if it's better on the inside? What if life is better in the cloistered habitat of the womb? What if birth is far more violent than it is liberating?

Bradbury's tale is, I must say, a downer. That said, it's one of my favorites for the sheer audacity of its premise...


The Ultimate Anthology

I believe that most writers of fiction, at some time or another, entertain the idea of editing. I've worked as a copy editor (Clackamas Literary Review) and occasional slush reader (CLR and others), but I've lately been interested in the kind of creative energy that goes into marshaling a stable of stories into an accessible package. I hope to bring you some observations from the best in the speculative field in the coming months but, in the meantime, I'd like to compose a series of posts on what would be, for me, the ultimate anthology.

I'll have to raid my library at the college and maybe hit the bookstore, but I'd like to offer a few notes in the coming weeks on why each of these stories struck a chord with me. In terms of ground rules, let's say I get 100,000 words. No limitations on genre, of course. We're not that kind of people around these parts. No borders on theme, either. No dictates on "literary" quality, and no predilections on era either.

We fancy the idea of the eclectic.

I just got the ominous battery pop-up stating my time is finite (no shit, right?), but I think I'll start the conversation tomorrow with Ray Bradbury's "The Small Assassin"...


Cemetery Dance

I really enjoyed Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston's Cemetery Dance. This is the kind of page-turning mystery that will set me down the path toward devouring the rest of their catalog. Their work is quite popular and, if the rest is as fun to read as CD, then I'm in for some late nights.

The novel opens with a brutal murder. I was reading the book on the couch and, as ol' Smithback was assailed by a thoroughly unpleasant villain, I had to remark on it. "I can't believe I'm reading this!" I called to Jeanne. She shot me a quizzical look and I just dove back in. These authors hit the ground with track spikes, and there's a good lesson in it: set it on fire early!

This one features Obeah and Vodou rituals, a colorful cast of characters, a horrific secret society living in Manhatten (144 cultish males in robes--awesome!) and a historic, corpse-laden setting called the Ville. It's all very Edgar Allan Poe, if you took the master out of Baltimore. The writing is solid--clear and accessible:

"Bill!" Caitlyn said, shrinking back against the podium, her voice half lost in the rising cry of the crowd. "Wait! My God, no! Not me! NO--!"
The knife hand hesitated, shaking, in the air. Then it plunged down--into Caitlyn's chest, rose again, plunged, a sudden fountain of blood spraying across the scabby arm that slashed down, up, down. And then the figure turned and fled the stage, and Nora felt her knees give way and a blackness engulf her, blotting our everything, overwhelming her utterly.
Sure, I was on adverb alert in reading this, but the pacing and tension-building are top-notch.
The greatest strength of the novel is FBI Special Investigator Pendergast, a drawling, pale southerner from the swamps of Louisiana. His erudite manner, extensive knowledge and cool-ass panache make this crime fighter a delight to spend time with. Seriously, his is one of the better and more interesting central characters in crime fiction I've come across in a long while.
I'd like to see him and Alex Delaware get together on a case or two...
As you can see, I really liked this book. Highly recommended...


Nihilism and Perversity

Their names have almost become a mantra: Kyron, Caylee, Haleigh, Somer, Maddie...It's a long and sobering list for any parent and for any community.

These are but a few of the children that have been abused, mistreated, taken and, in the worst cases, extinguished. While I don't think our current era is any more dangerous than life in America twenty or thirty years ago, the simple truth inherent in the list of names above is that life can be cruel and brutal. The fear and anguish suffered by these children--it's the kind of thing that puts those little triangles at the corner of your eyes.

I spend a small portion of my free time writing about monsters. And, while I think of myself as a writer of horror tales, most of my work is fantasy. These are weird tales that I'm writing, not stories of the evil that men visit upon each other.

And yet I can't help but shake my head at the horrifying and often random nature of it all. As a father, I can do only so much to protect my daughter. I can nurture her intelligence and teach her to be self-reliant. I can work with her to value herself and be careful to recognize dangerous situations.

But then you see some stories that shatter any idea of perceptual control, and those are the outliers that could impact any one of us. Take, for example, the senseless loss of life that was visited upon Makia Coney. She was killed so her murderers could feel the thrill of execution. I won't indulge in the fallacy that enrolling kids in private schools offers some elevated level of security; rather, I'll just lament the fact that Coney, a bright and personable young woman, merely made the mistake of getting into a car with a pair of human rattlesnakes.

Nihilism is a bruise on the soul and, if ever a tangible example could be tied to such a dark term, it's Coney's tragic death and the utter destruction of the lives of those who cared for her. One of Makia's University Christian classmates attended a composition course I taught here at the college. This dual-enrollment student wrote a little about Makia, and how her death was a stark reminder of how tenuous our very existence is. She, like the rest of us, couldn't answer that simple question: why?

Consider little Mona's story. Sent on an errand to the corner store, Mona was abducted, raped and strangled. Her killer was never captured. The prime suspect perished prior to the connection being made between his perverse appetites and Mona's death. It's a heart-wrenching story; when Detective Delehant provided the dress Mona was killed in to her mother, some forty-eight years after her death, the sense of overwhelming futility in all of it is palpable. For forty-eight years, Joyce Lane punished herself. And for forty-eight years, that punishment was not warranted.

People are not disposable, and yet some in our culture believe they are. Some of the people who believe this live next door to us.

It's the horror that we see in life--horror much more jarring than the lurching zombii or the cobbled-together Frankenthings our psyches conjure when we talk about scary stories.

So why even write this down? Why even contemplate such things? How does one prepare for the ultimate wild card, for the perverse and thoughtless monsters that walk among us on a daily basis?

I write because I want to, on some small level, make a tiny bit of sense of it all. And the simple truth that I arrive at--the one thing that provides even the smallest glimpse of rational thought in all of this--is that none of it makes sense.


In the Stacks

Further evidence of the evolutionary nature of literary criticism can be found at the innovative site In the Stacks. It's a great idea: well-read booklife professionals get the chance to dish on bestsellers and obscure titles in sixty-second snippets.

Now, don't get me wrong--these folks aren't necessarily polished on-screen quantities. I think that amateur approach, though, adds to the experience. It's an endearing site, and one I expect to pop by on occasion.

They provide purchasing links for the books and, while I had already planned on checking out The Passage anyway, this short discussion of the book only further whetted my appetite...

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...