Saturday, December 31, 2016

Favorite books read in 2016

Here's the top ten:

1. Omega Men
This is a graphic novel from Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda that's an allegorical look at how the Iraq War happened.  It's the smartest comic book storytelling I've ever seen and to my mind an instant classic.

2. Go Set a Watchman
This "controversial" resurrected precursor to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is to my mind unmistakably the greater literary achievement.  No matter how it ended up finally being published, I'm absolutely glad it was.

3. The Third Reich
A chilling examination on the lingering effects of an actual Nazi's grip on a nation's pysche, by the masterful Roberto Bolaño.

4. At Twilight They Return
Greek literature from Zyranna Zateli that offers a glimpse of what life was like for an extended family a century ago.

5. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Between this and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them script, this was an extremely good year to begin seeing what the future of J.K. Rowling's great creation might turn out to look like.

6. The Girl in the Spider's Web
David Lagercrantz's follow-up to the superb Millennium Trilogy is worth it.

7. The Tin Woodman of Oz
Having read all of L. Frank Baum's Oz novels this year, this late look back at one of the most iconic characters in the series is probably my favorite.

8. Primary Colors
Joe Klein's satire of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was a true revelation to finally read twenty years later.

9. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
This Joёl Dicker mystery is probably the most conventional thing I read this year, at least that I really liked.

10. The Blood of Olympus
The last in the "Heroes of Olympus" series of Percy Jackson novels from Rick Riordan to my mind is probably the most satisfying of them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

IWSG December 2016

The Insecure Writers Support Group consists of people who post things about their writing lives on the first Wednesday of every month, and also about conga lines on a Wednesday of the month if it happens to fall on February 29th of a leap year (2020 is a leap year, but the 29th, alas, will be on a Saturday, which is when the Insecure Whittlers Support Group meets; in 2024 it falls on a Thursday, which is when the Insecure Winners Support Group meets; in 2028 it falls on a Tuesday, which is when the Insecure Worriers Support Group meets and generally discusses their concerns about life, the universe and everything; in 2032 it falls on a Sunday, which is when the Insecure Winkers Support Group meets; in 2036 it falls on a Friday, which is when the Insecure Wallabies Support Group meets; but good news, 2040, it falls on a Wednesday! so in exactly twenty-four years we'll all be talking about conga lines!). 

So, now that I've driven you mad with gibberish, let's state the question of the month:

In terms of your writing career, where do you see yourself five years from now, and what's your plan to get there?

I would very, very much like to have finally established myself as a paid writer of fiction.  It would've been a long time coming, ever since I foolishly waited until I was just about graduating from college in 2003 and asking my poetry professor if he had any idea how that sort of thing worked.  Thirteen years after that I can sort of see how stupid that was.  Stephen King used to submit material all the time when he was still in high school.  Clearly I was already well behind the curve when I started out.

But I've been trying to correct my errors ever since.  Still not vigorously, but I keep trying.  Currently I'm waiting to hear about the results of a couple contests.  You never know where those will take you.  I'm also waiting to hear back from a comic book publisher who could potentially hire me as an editor.  I can think of a few well-known comic book writers who started out as editors.  The funny thing is, I would actually be happy just to be an editor.  It's a vastly underrated and highly important function in the publishing process.  A bad editor will make things worse.  A good editor will make things better.  A bad editor will make your life miserable.  A good editor will make your life a sheer delight (probably; that and not having to read gibberish like what I wrote at the start of this).

Also, an aspiring comic book artist just asked me permission to draw a script I posted online.  So maybe the future has weirder ways forward than I can conceive at any given moment. 

So more of this sort of thing, and maybe hoping that the self-publishing route will eventually turn a corner.  Who knows, really?  But that's the idea, that whatever I'm doing now will at least contribute to where I'll be in five years, in a positive sense.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer Weighs In: Noah

This is a new feature I'll be playing with as it seems relevant, which will allow me to write about writing, but from the perspective of the stuff I like to watch and read.  This time the focus is on comics, thanks to Jason Aaron's new comic The Goddamned.

Now, with a provocative title like that, hopefully there's some justification for it, and as it turns out there is.  Jason Aaron is an unusual writer, in any medium.  He made his name with the Vertigo comic Scalped, which was about modern life in a Native American reservation, which means if you were looking for ways to bone up on that sort of thing in response to the Standing Rock doings (another would be to read a book by Sherman Alexie), that would be a great place to start.  Lately he's been writing superheroes over at Marvel (Jason's the one responsible for Jane Foster assuming the responsibilities of Thor), but has been making attempts to get back into the kind of storytelling he first made his name with, which is unabashedly violent but socially conscious work. 

Which brings us to The Goddamned.  The series launched a year ago, but publishing delays meant the fifth issue wasn't released until recently.  At any rate, it was that issue that reminded me the series existed.  What attracted me to the idea, initially, besides Jason himself, was that it would deal with the Noah's Ark story from the Bible.  I don't care if you're religious, or if you can tell me that this narrative popped up in a number of Mesopotamian societies (it features in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance), the idea of it has always fascinated me.  In college I read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted On the Voyage, which was not a particularly reverent take on it, including a version of God who's not so much omnipotent or even immortal so much as extremely long-lived (and showing his age in the story).  Later I read David Maine's The Preservationist, which was the reason I became interested in that author to begin with but didn't read until I'd read several other of his extremely humanist takes on biblical lore (Fallen features the story of Adam & Eve, while The Book of Samson kind of explains itself).  In 2014 Darren Aronofsky released his fascinating vision, called Noah simply enough.

The Goddamned isn't really like any of them.  If you've managed to watch Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, his ultra-violent look at Mayan culture (not to mention his directorial follow-up to The Passion of the Chris), you might have an idea how Jason Aaron approaches his Noah.  The Bible suggests God decided to wipe out (most of) humanity because it had descended into truly unconscionable wickedness.  I'm not sure anyone until Jason had really depicted what that might look like.  He's got humans acting so savage and inhumane, everyone's got scars, including a boy who shows up early on with a hand that was previously hacked off.  Anyway, it's just not pretty.

But it's fascinating.  I've long wanted to tackle this subject myself.  The closest I've come to this point is Metatron, which deals with Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel, and humanity's formative steps into civilization.  Adam and Cain separately venture into the new world and discover a lot of disturbing things people have been up to, including one village which I thought was the most horrifying vision possible, people literally pushing each other into a giant bonfire as a way of life.  But that seems decidedly humane compared to Jason's vision.  Imagine the maniacs of Mad Max: Fury Road (or its spiritual predecessor, Doomsday), but without cars.

Interestingly, Jason's lead character isn't Noah, whom he depicts as a savage tyrant (if he were in Aronofsky's Noah, he'd be the guy played by Ray Winstone, who is not Noah), but rather Cain.  Jason's Cain has lived for 1600 years wandering the earth, unable to die.  He's basically become Wolverine, regenerating any wound he suffers, but cursed with remembering everything.  He spares little pity for those around him, because he's come to view life as a curse, not just his but everyone's.  He's the reason the series is titled the way it is, because he's taken a decidedly cynical view of the God who's allowed all this to happen. 

During the course of the first arc, "Before the Flood," Cain's demeanor shows a number of cracks.  He hesitates with the boy I mentioned earlier, and then again with the mother of another boy, who ironically ends up in the same vicious gang as the first boy.  It's Jason's way of deepening his message of just how degenerate humanity has become.  He doesn't depict Adam and Eve much better, by the way.  In short, he seems to be saying that we were never that innocent, but it's less our nature and more the choices we make that lead to all the suffering we endure. 

I have a somewhat eclectic approach to faith.  I believe that God knew all along what would happen, because really there's no way he couldn't.  He knew Eve would eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which is to my mind symbolic of intellectual awakening, once man had been around long enough to start questioning things, because that's really what separates us from other animals, the ability to question the world around us, not so much what we can do but why.  God is omnipresent: he sees the past, present, and future all at the same time.  He knew how it was going to end even before it began.  The idea of Jesus is that God makes peace with humanity, eventually, with the notion of our limited existence, all of our limitations.  The story of Noah is about a time when he tried to let humanity do this for itself, and no matter how the story is told, the end result is the same: we don't learn.  It seems right after the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah had sunk to the same state as the antediluvian world.  That's why Abraham was officially enlisted to begin the Judeo-Christian tradition, so that there would be some tangible thing to remind people that there was a good way to live.

It's ironic to me that there are so many people who are convinced religion only ever leads to bad results, when it has consistently in many different forms sought above and beyond any given government to set rules to live by, some kind of moral and ethical standard that's constantly being challenged.  The Bible suggests that every time this standard is challenged, it ends in disaster.  I would not call this a coincidence, but I'm not out to debate anyone on it.  Jason Aaron's The Goddamned might seem like a profane work, but it's actually a profoundly insightful one, by illustrating in explicit form what it looks like when civilization falls apart.  There will always be those who claim the world only ever gets worse, but I happen to believe it only ever gets better.  It's a slow process.  We're worlds apart from the kind of barbarity depicted in The Goddamned, and I think once you see something attempt to spell it out, it's not so hard to see.  But the challenges remain the same.  Everyday you see people challenging what it means to lead a decent life, to treat each other decently, and I'm not talking about the big things but the small ways, like failing to even respect someone else, whether seen or unseen.  It's not really that hard to see how given a violent shove (The Walking Dead depicts such an event, with the recent Negan head-bashing perhaps the most famous example, or the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones) might loosen all restraints we currently have.

I can't write like that.  I can barely tolerate watching stuff like that, which is why I'm just not a fan of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, or even antihero shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.  I think condoning stuff like that is the next step to approving it.  The Goddamned isn't on that level because it has a moral center, a conflicted man who blames himself more than he blames God (maybe), whom everyone can point to as the source of all the misery but who is himself somehow above the fray.  It's an interesting thing to watch unfold.  Me, the Cain character is someone I could write.  (I mean, I already did, right?)  I don't know if I could stomach Jason's depiction of Noah, though, although in some ways it's a logical extension of the greater narrative, that a would-be savior turns out to be less than ideal, which makes him continually worth revisiting, because he's the more interesting character, the one whose role is so demanding, unlike the ambiguous Cain, that creators have continually been drawn to his story, in one form or another, since storytelling was a thing.  I only know recent examples, although we live in an age where those examples are more likely to happen than perhaps ever before.  I mean, we had Paradise Lost, which depicted Satan's point of view, but can you think of other classical examples? 

So as I work my way ever closer to my Noah, The Goddamned is another example to keep in mind, one of many interesting, thought-provoking, great ones. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

IWSG November 2016

The Insecure Writers Support Group meets the first Wednesday of every month.  This month's prompt is:

What's your favorite aspect of being a writer?

It may sound counterintuitive, but mine is that it's that rare opportunity in life to be totally in control of one's own destiny.  I'll begin to justify this insane claim by noting that I'm writing this month from Hub Citi, rather than my self-titled blog, where I'd previously posted all my other IWSG thoughts, and in fact all my other writing thoughts, since 2012, when I self-published my first book.  This is because I'm continuing to try and escape the clutches of a maniac who has progressively become a stalking troll in my Internet life.  I started blogging in 2002, and at that time and for almost the next decade I stuck to one blog, which is what you'd normally expect from a blogger.  When I participated in my first A-to-Z Challenge in 2012, and gained some actual readers, people began to find out I had multiple blogs operating.  I launched this one in 2011.  I originally set it up as my reading blog, as well as a record of what was at that time in my library (many things changed about that a few years ago).  It's been one of my least-utilized blogs in recent years.  If the stalker troll doesn't end up suddenly caring it exists, it may become my new central hub (as it were).

So aside from all that, I have another confession to make: the last month has been pretty rough in my life as a writer.  I nearly gave up the pursuit out of utter frustration at the total lack of connection with readers I seem to invariably garner.  It's one thing to have sympathetic comments from bloggers, and I appreciate the IWSG despite what I just said, but a writer really dreams of having their material embraced for what it is.  I think it's great there are plenty of eager readers out there, some of them equally eager to lavish praise on what they read, but I also think it's a completely different matter to truly connect with the material.  I'm talking the kind of rabid devotion that led fans of all ages to gobble up the adventures of Harry Potter, which incredibly finished up nearly a decade ago.  I don't mean to say rabid devotion of that kind is what every writer needs or craves, but to write something that truly means something to someone, it's far more difficult than anyone tends to admit.  It doesn't help that this is exactly the level of writing that I've been aspiring toward since I finally made the commitment to be a writer, as the way I most keenly identify myself. 

But the best thing about being a writer?  Writers write because it's important to them.  I don't tend to trust writers who admit they have other goals in mind, or otherwise are easy to identify with that goal.  It's one thing to feel compelled to write, but it's quite another when what you write is a direct extension of your perspective on the world, however you choose to interpret it.  That's something that can't be taken away.  Any other challenges or setbacks a writer experiences, removed from the pressures of finding an audience, writing is its own reward. 

That's what's so important to keep in mind.  To my mind, it's the distinction that separates people who write for the sake of writing from those for whom this is everything that's important to and about them.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Cephalopod Coffeehouse July 2016: Daniel Boone

I'm rejoining the Cephalopod Coffeehouse bloggers book club this month to briefly talk about Daniel Boone.  Boone was a famous frontiersman, and as such was fairly landlocked, so unlike myself he probably would never have encountered squids.  A pity.

book: Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer
author: John Mack Faragher

In recent years, while living in Maine, I was able to watch MeTV, a channel dedicated to broadcasting old TV shows, on a fairly regular basis (it was something of a family mandate), and as such became acquainted with the 1964-1970 Daniel Boone series, which featured Fess Parker somewhat famously reprising his earlier role of...Davy Crockett.  It was about as reliable a source of real history as you could expect, but really, it was also about as accurate to the pop culture impression of Boone as has existed since Boone's own time.

When I came across Faragher's book, it was one of those moments of destiny.  I knew more about Crockett than Boone, and although I'm pretty sure I never made the mistake of failing to tell them apart, I wasn't as familiar with Boone as I could have been, so I was eager to read the book for that reason alone.

Usually, or at least lately, it takes me an average of two weeks or less to read a book, but this one took longer.  Faragher's work is concise but it's also fairly intense, which is to say somewhat dense.  It's a wonderfully full portrait of the man behind the myth, as well as how the myth itself began.  In fact, Faragher covers just about every aspect of Boone's legacy, down to the ugly struggles over his remains, and where they ought to be buried (Kentucky won out, eventually, despite the fact that Boone died leaving explicit instructions, and a glowering discontent over how the state he helped found ended up treating him).

As an amateur historian, books like this are like kitty litter to me.  And so I can say, Fess Parker's Boone was definitely not the real Boone.  But the show still had a heck of a catchy theme song.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Achievement Unlocked: The Compete Baum Oz

Recently I accomplished something I've long wanted to do, which is to obtain ownership of the complete L. Frank Baum series of Oz books.  For most people, this is something to do with the Judy Garland movie, but only faintly related to a book, much less a series of them.  Marvel (along with the terrific duo of Eric Shanower and Skottie Young) created adaptations for a good number of them, which were my first experiences with any of the material outside of the first book.  I was immediately struck, and eventually remembered reading that first one, with how humorous and witty Baum's vision really was.  So I vowed that I would eventually read all of it.

Barnes & Noble had three hardcover collections that looked like the best possible way to achieve it.  So, finally, I got them.  And in the coming year I will get to read all of Baum's Oz novels (plus the collection of short stories also included). 

It's amazing to me that stuff this good became almost completely forgotten, and that our one collective memory doesn't really do Oz justice.  The later film Return to Oz approaches the material much more directly.  I'm not usually one to demand strict adherence to the source material, but what's happened to Oz since "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is something of a literary crime.  As far as I can tell, Baum's Oz belongs in the same category as Alice in Wonderland.  It's even a potent allegory, because as far as I can tell, Baum was writing about the shrinking world, and the decreased possibilities of finding the fantastic, let alone innocence, as everyone became more familiar with foreign cultures.  Which actually puts it in the same category as Gulliver's Travels, come to think of it.  Baum wasn't just writing for kids after all.

A hundred years later, and maybe Oz will someday earn its rightful place in literary history...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...