Monday, September 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 160: Stephen Crane, When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers (#20)

Stephen Crane, "When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers" (1894) from Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry:

When you almost write a dissertation on the figure of the crowd in American literature--as one usually does--you end up reading and rereading Crane's street scene-sketch, "When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers." And rereading. You notice the way the crowd is described in figurative language as a large body of water or water-related event--"streams of people," "sea of men"; you notice the way the crowd and the man are similarly described in psychologically/physiological issues--the man has a fit, the crowd has a spasm, the man is insensible, the crowd is mesmerized. You notice the different ways that power works--the German member of the crowd who exhibits psychological control vs. the police officer who is distinct from the crowd and relies on verbal and physical exertions to control the crowd.

This, by the way, is only a five-page piece with very little story and not much in the way of character. A man falls--we know he's Italian and he was walking with an Italian child. There are signs on the street advertising cheap dinner and a ferry stop at the end of the street, none of which actually matters to the story's plot, but helps set the tone of ordinariness here. A crowd gathers instantly; and when the man is taken away in an ambulance, some of the crowd is relieved as if they were suffering with the man, and the other half feels cheated as if they wanted to see how it all ended up. Curiously, when this ran in the newspaper as an authentic bit of street reportage, the title and subtitle promised that this was a story of the city's heartlessness--but that's clearly only a bit of the story.

Because for all that the last line is given over to the people who just want to be entertained by someone else's pain, we see lots of little moments of sympathy and care, of people trying to help, both in the crowd (people shouting advice, the German trying to give the man room) and in the city (the doctor, the cop, the ambulance driver). While this is a story of a personal trauma (what is going on with that man), it's also a story of civic care--if not cohesion. At the end, we see that what looked like an instant crowd was really just a collection of people with different feelings.

See also the "touching the third rail scene" from Henry Roth's Call It Sleep.

Movie Analysis: Jumper

When I first saw this film, I knew that it was given pretty bad reviews--currently 16% on Rotten Tomatoes and 35% on Metacritic. And with my expectations set that low, I remember kinda liking this movie: sure, the protagonist was unlikeable (as some critics notes)--but that gives him some room to grow as a person; sure, the teleportation power these "Jumpers" have opens up the movie to some action scenes that are hard to follow--but some of the visuals are really interesting; and sure, the villainous group is this pretty incoherent group of religiously-motivated Paladins--but...

That's probably the biggest structural problem with the movie. (As opposed to other sorts of problems, like casting. Hayden Christiansen does good work as the selfish guy who doesn't care about the world, the guy who creeps around the girl he likes after years of not seeing her. But when he starts to act nice, it doesn't really ring true.) Actually, let's expand the issue: I'm fine with the hero's journey from entitled little shit running away from family trauma (mother abandoned, father is cold) to guy willing to put himself out to save others (even if the only time he really does that is to save the girl he likes; and to hold back from killing the antagonist that he never tried to kill before); but the minor/secondary characters need polishing.

First, the antagonists: If you have a character who is self-centered and wants to run away from his past, it makes some thematic sense to make the antagonists interested in tying him down to the world. Unfortunately, the Paladins' religious motivation for this is so hokey that it never really seems like anything but a plot convenience. How about this: you have a character who is both running away from his past and locked into an adolescent, screw-the-world mentality, a guy who won't lift a finger to help people caught in natural disasters. So make his opponents people who know about his past and want to make the world better--by any means necessary: a covert military/intelligence unit. So now we have a self-centered teleporter facing an opponent who seems to have a good idea: use your powers to help people. Of course the leader of the unit will turn out to be power-mad because we don't want too much ambiguity. But now we're left with a hero who has seen what his power can do to help people, and not just see how his power can help him get laid.

Which brings us to similar problems with the other secondary characters: the love interest who mostly just gets pushed around or used as a lure; the vengeance-mad jumper who should really be in more conflict between his jumper and his normal lives; the silly mystery of why his mom left, etc.

But, to end on a good note, there's at least one thing that this screenplay does nicely. When the jumper protagonist returns home and runs into the old bully from high school, he teleports him away as a way to punish the bully. Only that strange event calls up the attention of the bad guys. In that way, the protagonist is punished for his short-sighted and self-centered interest in revenge.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 159: Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado (#122)

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales:

Oh, just a month too early for Halloween, we have one of my favorite creepy Poe stories. Actually, all Poe stories are my favorite, whether they depict obsession ("The Oblong Box"), cleverness ("The Gold-Bug"), feverish mistakes ("The Sphinx"), comedic misapprehension ("The Spectacles"), metaphysical fantasy ("The Island of the Fay"), or something else entirely ("The Philosophy of Furniture"). Here we have a story that seems pretty simple: a revenge fantasy about a guy who wants to come up with the perfect crime. (Not to be confused with "The Imp of the Perverse," "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," or his many other revenge-filled stories.)

The LoA page gives some possible background: it's about Poe feuding with his ex-friend Thomas Dunn English. That may be true, but Poe would make an excellent victim in an Agatha Christie novel precisely because his feuds were so large, numerous, and sometimes (to him) inexplicable. I wouldn't want to pathologize him as manic-depressive; much better to simply say that he was one weird dude, capable of publishing an essay deeply cutting some writer and then sending out a letter to that writer looking for a piece to publish in his magazine. (Some of this was due to the anonymous nature of some of these publications: Poe might publish a critique and then claim not to be the critiquer. But everyone knew how cutting he could be: one of his nicknames was "The Tomahawk Man." More likely he had that sort common sociopathy where he often thought people were being unfair to him when they critiqued him, but thought he was simply "telling it like it is.")

So I wouldn't jump to say that this piece is about his feud with T. D. English, though it's about getting revenge on someone, getting away with it, and making sure they know it was you who did it. Also, if we think about this as an attack on English, we might miss the usual Poe trope of doubling killer and victim. (Most clear use of that trope: "William Wilson.") Here, the to-be-killed Fortunato is a real whiz when it comes to wines--just like his to-be-killer, Montressor. There's also all the doubling where Montressor repeats Fortunato's lines, as in the famous "For the love of God."

We also see why Poe is considered one of the well-springs for the detective story, which here is given a noir edge: Montressor tricks Fortunato by making Fortunato think the idea to go to the vaults is his; while Montressor also shows how he can say one thing (telling his servants to stay) to mean another (making sure his servants will leave). We also see this irony when Montressor eventually agrees with Fortunato that he will not die from his cold.

But for all the buried, ironic, morbid humor of this piece, that ending is still a moment of great horror: Montressor hasn't been telling us this story while Fortunato has been dying, but many years after--when he's long dead.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 158: Washington Irving, The Devil and Tom Walker (#30)

Washington Irving, "The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824) from Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra:

I enjoy reading famous author's lesser-known works for a few reasons, such as the ability to brag about it at cocktail parties; and also, more seriously, because we can see what overlaps there are--what tropes, motifs, or themes seem stable--and also make some guesses about why these pieces are less famous. So, "The Devil and Tom Walker" involves a man who disrupts the community and who gets caught up in a supernatural power, until he is chased/carried off by a man on a horse. Which sure sounds like Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman--only here, it's about the miser Tom Walker and the Devil.

This story builds up slowly at first, as pieces fall into place: here's a paragraph on Kidd and his lost treasure, which includes the note that the Devil oversees all treasure burying; here's a paragraph on Tom Walker and his wife, who are both misers, even miserly towards each other, so that "fierce were the conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common property"; then, when Tom Walker wanders into the forest, we get a short history of the Indian fort there; and only then do we finally introduce Tom Walker to the Devil.

Now, if you told this story straight out, you might start with Tom meeting the Devil, trading his soul for gold, and then setting up as a usurer in Boston. (Usurers, we learn, are second only to slavers as the Devil's favorite people; which is a pretty strong critique of slavers in 1824 and reason #1 why this story isn't more famous: how many Southern magazines would reprint this story with that critique of slavery?) So all the stuff about his wife and the buried treasure seems incidental to the main story of a Faustian bargain.

But the history of the treasure is part of Irving's interest in early Americana and history; and it connects up with the questions of how other people get their money: there's buccaneering, usury, and the sort of speculation that causes and crashes bubbles. (And theft if we add in the fact that Walker's wife walks off with the family silver to try to bargain with the Devil.) The only person who really trades fairly is--the Devil. He makes a deal and sticks to it; even his terms for Tom Walker's usury business aren't as strict as the terms that Tom sets for himself:
"You shall open a broker's shop in Boston next month," said the black man.
"I'll do it to-morrow, if you wish," said Tom Walker.
"You shall lend money at two per cent. a month."
"Egad, I'll charge four!" replied Tom Walker.
"You shall extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy—"
"I'll drive him to the d——l," cried Tom Walker, eagerly.
Which is reason #2 why this story probably isn't more famous, while Hawthorne's "man meets devil" story "Young Goodman Brown" is on many high school syllabi: Irving's tone here is pretty comic, giving us a plain-dealing Devil and people who aren't so nice. So, when Walker's wife walks out on him with the family silver and never returns, we hear, "Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife...".

And Irving never really lets up on the critique here, noting that Tom builds himself a big house to show off how rich he is, but can't bring himself to spend the money to furnish it. And he shows how Walker's spiritual conversion is really just the translation of spiritual matters into economic matters, where Walker thinks about his soul's double-entry bookkeeping--sins vs. prayers. That the economic and the spiritual don't mix might be reason #3 why more people don't read this story.

Lastly, Irving make one great move in the meeting scene between Tom and the Devil. We might expect that meeting to be rather upsetting to Tom, but Irving hangs a lampshade on it: sure, we'd expect Tom to be scared by this, but he's not. Partly because he's "hard-minded" and partly because his wife has given him plenty of practice in fighting.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 157: John M. Duncan, A Virginia Barbecue (#26)

John M. Duncan, "A Virginia Barbecue" (1823) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

When did it become trendy (or trope-y) to throw in a recipe or two among some other literature? I've seen it in mysteries and romance and now here's a whole LoA anthology on food writing--with recipes. (And I mean "recipes" that you could follow. For all the description of the feasts in a George R. R. Martin book, they don't quite rise to the level of recipe.)

Today's selection doesn't include any recipe, possibly because of the tendentious nature of such a recipe. As the LoA notes rightly observe, barbecue is a many splendored thing--which is one way of saying that no two regions or people do it alike. What barbecue recipe should get the LoA stamp of approval?

But this piece from 1823 records a traveller's interest in this (to him) strange new event, a sort of "rural fête," without getting into the nitty-gritty of what's being eaten. Is the sauce tomato- or vinegar-based? How messy is it? No, to Duncan, what's really remarkable is that there's a lot of alcohol--but no one got drunk; and that the whole thing was nicely prepared by "a whole colony of black servants" (which must be a Scottish dialect term for "slaves"); and that he foolishly sat down with the first group, which included women, which meant he didn't get enough to eat because the men had to serve the women and then get up to dance with them when they were ready.

All of which makes this "Virginia Barbecue" very much an example of its time and place, very much unlike the barbecues that we know today; in that way, it's a very interesting historical moment of sociality.

And they probably used a vinegar-y sauce.

Movie Analysis: The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Before Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Guillermo del Toro made another gothic horror story about the Spanish Civil War. That's not the only connection/parallel we could make between The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth: both feature kids caught up in the fight; both feature semi-isolated, fortress-like homes; both internalize the historical fight as a domestic, romantic drama. But that's pretty vague, so let's get into particulars.

One thing that this film does brilliantly is put so many quickly-sketched characters into play, so it can play with lots of different conflicts. The new rich kid at the "orphanage" comes into conflict with the orphanage tough; but the friendly orphan, by being friends with the new kid, is put into a position of conflict with many of the other orphans. Meanwhile, the orphans are afraid of the young caretaker, who wants to keep his past as an orphan secret and find the Republican gold so he can run away with the young woman. But this caretaker is also having sex with the orphanage administrator, who is loved by the old (and impotent) orphanage doctor. And further meanwhile, there's the war that threatens to overwhelm this orphanage.

And there's the ghost--or ghosts.

Now, most of those characters are not all that rich or deep. The bully is secretly haunted by his moment of weakness; the caretaker who seems to be a bully... turns out to be a pretty awful bully when pushed by circumstances. But even without a set of complex, rich characters, it seems to work because there are so many and each is well crafted in his or her specific role.

It also works so well because each scene remains sharp and surprising. Take, for instance, a scene where the orphan bully comes to threaten the new kid by the underground cistern. It starts with that normal bullying scene, but when the new kid knocks the bully into the cistern, suddenly he has to rescue the bully. Then the caretaker comes to threaten the kids in his own way. So this scene quickly shifts and escalates the conflict, which keeps our attention and interest. And after that scene, we might expect the bully to relent--but he's still not interested in being friends yet. Which nicely subverts the expected cliche.

Almost the weakest element of the story is the ghost/ghosts, who change quickly from threatening unknowns to helpful spirits. By the end of the story, we're not worrying about the kids anymore, but just waiting to see how the antagonists will get it, now that the kids AND the ghosts are hostile.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 156: Dashiell Hammett, Crooked Souls (#180)

Dashiell Hammett, "Crooked Souls" (1923) from Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings:

The Continental Op gets hired by a blowhard businessman with a trigger temper and a legacy of shoddy merchandise sold to the US for World War I. Seems that someone has kidnapped his headstrong daughter, his only living relative, and demanded money to make amends for all the soldiers he let die in France...

Now, if you've read or seen at least two other stories involving kidnapping, you'll know how this story ends: the Op tracks down the kidnapper, who turns out to be the headstrong daughter who just wants to start life over away from dear old dad. It really doesn't matter what kidnapping stories you read; just about any story will give you the detective genre chops to identify the kidnapper.

I'm not entirely sure what this story would look like to the 1920s reading audience, for whom Hammett was an unfamiliar name. (This was his first story published under his own name.) Maybe it was a shock?

Still, even if the mystery (what happened?) isn't very mysterious, there's several pleasures here, such as they mystery of how: how will the Continental Op solve the crime? There's a lot of attention paid to the Continental Op's shoe-leather detection--shadowing the ransom-payer, asking around at various stores, recognizing the minor con-man helping the daughter's scheme.

There's also the pleasure of the Op's ironic detachment as he observes all this. So his first view of the businessman's world:
Harvey Gatewood had issued orders that I was to be admitted as soon as I arrived, so it only took me a little less than fifteen minutes to thread my way past the doorkeepers, office boys, and secretaries who filled up most of the space between the Gatewood Lumber Corporation’s front door and the president’s private office.
This looks like just a cute note about a man whose corporate life has taken over his personal life, but it turns out to be a clue that the Op uses to identify the kidnapper. We could also see this as one of Hammett's signature moves, filling up the world with lots of spear carriers and incidentals, any of whom might turn out to be important to the mystery. There's a lesson there for budding crime writers: you can bury clues in snark.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 155: Red Smith, The Strongest Lady in the World (#194)

Red Smith, "The Strongest Lady in the World" (1950) from American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith:

This Red Smith piece gives us a quick view of a bodybuilder woman and her booster(/boyfriend). Dorcas Lehman is presented as something of a freak and as something of an "ordinary" woman. Although she belongs to a Pennsylvania Dutch group known for somber dress, she wears red (and make-up!) just like a mainstream woman; although she is freakishly strong and uses her strength to intimidate men who make trouble in her bar, she also just likes to buy shoes--just like an "ordinary" woman. She'll tell you her age (how freakish!), but she'll look down at her hands in her lap when she's bring talked about (how normal!).

The other strong personality in this piece is Bob Hoffman, proprietor of the York Barbell Company and big talker. Hoffman seems to be put into the position of carnival barker to Lehman's freakshow, listing all of her great capabilities. The LoA page expands on Hoffman as a big supporter of weightlifting and bodybuilding; and also as a man far ahead of his time in terms of prejudice. Not only did he support Lehman's bodybuilding, but he trained and managed a whole stable of weightlifters of any nationality, ethnicity, and religion.

But still, most of this piece seems to be Red Smith trying to make sense of Dorcas Lehman's odd position: so feminine, but strong.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 154: Eudora Welty, Petrified Man (#185)

Eudora Welty, "Petrified Man" (1939) from Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir:

The LoA page--and some of Welty's contemporaries--make a connection between this story and Ring Lardner's "Haircut": they both take place in hair salons/barber shops that are also implicitly social places, they both involve strife, they're both told in a vernacular... sort of. What the LoA page doesn't note is that "Haircut" was told by the barber, with no exterior POV. (Which is why Wayne Booth uses it for his example of irony and the implied author.) But "Petrified Man," though it includes several long narrated sections from the hair stylist,  is actually told from a 3rd-person POV, and so can get away with saying things like, "Leota's eleven o'clock customer pushed open the swing door upon Leota paddling him heartily with the brush..." Which is a sentence that doesn't tell us about how any one feels, only what things look like from the outside.

And that's one of the central concerns of this piece: Mrs. Fletcher is newly pregnant, a state which is evident to the mysterious Mrs. Pike, a lodger with the stylist Leota. Leota has lots of nice things to say about Mrs. Pike at first--she's very beautiful for one thing--but at the end, has quite a different take on her friend. And then there's the central issue of the Petrified Man, who is a member of a freak show who is supposed to be suffering from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva--i.e., turning to stone; but who turns out to be a rapist from California who Mrs. Pike knows as a gentle neighbor from New Orleans who now has a $500 reward on his head. And so you could probably write a paper about how the story's mode emphasizes the themes of seeming vs. being, etc.

But this story also has a strong resemblance to a movie from 1939, The Women, which had the brilliant tag line, "It's all about men." Because while The Women had almost entirely an all-woman cast, the women were talking and fighting over possession of a few mostly off-screen men. So here, the issue isn't who is going to end up with whom--there's no hint that Mrs. Pike is interested in anyone but Mr. Pike; it's more like "How much control do women have over themselves when men are involved? And how much control do they have over their men?" So Mrs. Fletcher brags about her control over her husband--while her somewhat unwanted pregnancy may remind us that she doesn't really have control. Similarly, Mrs. Pike may have some control over the fugitive rapist--she can turn him in to the police and collect the reward--but that doesn't necessarily undo the rapes. As Leota sourly notes, each of those raped women isn't being avenged by Mrs. Pike: they're being turned into $125 each for Mrs. Pike.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 153: Susan Orlean, Shiftless Little Loafers (#94)

Susan Orlean, "Shiftless Little Loafers" (1996) from The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion:

This short New Yorker piece is included in the Andy Borowitz-edited LoA book on humor, which feels somewhat... narrow? Limiting? If I take this out to the streets of San Angelo and tell everyone the joke here--wouldn't it be hilarious if we treated babies like loafers who ought to get jobs?--I'm not sure I'd get the same reaction I'm sure this got in the New Yorker office. Or even worse: it might get the exact same reaction--a polite smile, a nod, a "look at the time."

Because the idea is cute, and in Thurber-esque fashion, that central idea lets Orlean hang a bunch of funny moments on it--why do babies love to push their own strollers?, this baby gave me the same cold shoulder that I practice on the bus to make people leave me alone, babies in sunglasses look as pompous as Italian film producers, etc. But at the end of the day, what do we really take away from this? It's like Swift without the bite. This is safe comedy, like emailing someone a picture of a pie instead of hitting them in the face with a real pie. What really gets me about this style of comedy is simply that it causes a chuckle rather than a laugh. Yeah, from an objective POV, babies sure are little loafers-cum-shitheads. Just let Louis C. K. tell you all about it.

Movie Analysis: Fallen

Fallen (1998) is a supernatural cop thriller, where Denzel Washington plays a cop who eventually realizes that his serial killer nemesis is actually a body-hopping fallen angel. Which means a few things: even when he thinks the game is over, there's still more to go; and anyone can be his enemy.

This gives Fallen a very 90s feel, by which I mean that it has a real sense of paranoia and urban uncertainty. What was with the 90s? Fallen also has a curious genre position, with hints of horror (the monster is going to get you!), procedural thriller (let me research these police records for the answer!), and even what we'd call urban fantasy today (since there's this whole cosmology of good and evil that the cop stumbles into).

As a script, the movie has some nice structure/arc in the hero's journey from a false position of happiness--the hero cop watching the execution of his major enemy; all the way to his real low point, when his brother has been murdered and all the cops who used to respect him now hunting him.

However, there's something a little cheap in using this fallen angel as the antagonist, since you don't need to worry about the antagonist's motives. Why does the fallen angel kill? Because he's a fallen angel. Why is he targeting the hero? Because he's a fallen angel. Why does he give clues that help the hero find out what he is? Because he's a fallen hero.

Now, there is a thin thematic note here, in the idea that the fallen angels want to destroy civilization; and the idea that the cops are the chosen people who protect civilization. But, eh, that never really says why the fallen angel targets this particular cop, or why the fallen angel's method of destroying civilization is... serial murder. Why not join the banking industry and help destroy civilization that way? But that would transform this 90s supernatural thriller into an 00 supernatural thriller.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 152: Sherwood Anderson, Certain Things Last (#167)

Sherwood Anderson, "Certain Things Last" (1992) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

Posthumously published pieces have an uphill battle with me; works loved by Ben Marcus, ditto, since I found his book The Flame Alphabet so poorly done. This piece feels to me like something that Sherwood Anderson wrote as a throat-cleaning exercise, the sort of "I'm not sure what to do now, I'll just play with this piece about the difficulty of writing." This might be of interest to people studying Sherwood Anderson, but I don't find it illuminating as a reader.

"Certain Things Last"--titled after one of several good lines in the piece--is just seven pages of the narrator noting that it's hard to write a book because it's hard. Here's an idea or a feeling--the look of desperation in the eyes of a shepherd who has abandoned his flock to come into town but doesn't seem to know why--but how can the writer ever put that feeling into a story? Other writers pretend to know things they write about, like the idea who wrote a story about Paris but went to New Orleans for research. But his narrator is like a racehorse who is too excited and so can't really race.

The most interesting section to me is the end, where the narrator records this time when he was waiting for a woman and observing the Italian-American neighborhood of the city and thinking about life in Italy. There's something almost Calvino-ish in this one moment of fantasy and the difficulties of that fantasy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 151: Kate Cumming, “The Nameless Dead” (#193)

Kate Cumming, “The Nameless Dead” (1866) from The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Today's piece is from Kate Cumming's diary, kept to record her unofficial and (later) official duties as nurse for the Confederate Army. Cumming's story does point out some new issues about the Civil War; for instance, the different responses to Florence Nightingale's work on nursing in the Crimean War: The North started the war with women nurses, while the South either kept them out of the hospitals or allowed them in on an unofficial basis (depending on the responses of the doctors). And, of course, in the way we've seen before, there's the ways in which Cumming shows some of her historical position, as when she gratefully accepts some wine to give the wounded--and, oh yes, also a black servant to help her tend to them.

But what's particularly striking to me in this piece is how Cumming comes off: as almost an obsessive altruist--an ambulance chaser who wants to get into the thick of things to make a difference. She's too upset to eat, can only think of helping people; and when she's rolling bandages, she's bothered that she's not down among the wounded men, helping them more directly. And after all that commentary on how things are going, Cumming ends her piece with a poetic and sentimental note about how nature is also crying for all the wounded and dead men, oh! Which is such a tonal shift that it feels like a late addition--like something added when she was turning her diary into a manuscript to be published.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 150: Berton Roueché, The Fog (#121)

Berton Roueché, "The Fog" (1950) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

I know Berton Roo Rouch Roueché from his medical writing, the popular nonfiction medical mystery stories that he wrote for the New Yorker and elsewhere. So it's not surprising to find that this entry in the American Earth anthology is something of a cross-over: a story (written for the New Yorker, natch) about an environmental anomaly that lead to a widespread medical issue.

The story is: in 1948, in Donora, PA, the usual air pollution from the factories didn't dissipate, largely thanks to an air inversion (according to the studies made soon after). And the air got so bad that 20 people died in three days, while many died or suffered from complications arising from that toxic fog.

Though Roueché ends with the somewhat unsatisfying reports on the event; and though the framing of the story tells us up front what this story is about--it's about a killer fog, right?; Roueché still manages to keep interest by giving us the POV of various people who are on the ground there--and who keep trying to light cigarettes or cigars! From our vantage point, that seems crazy, but from the POV of people who are facing something that they don't know about, well, of course they need something to relax. So that's what I'm taking away here from technique: the multi-POV way that Roueché keeps us embedded in these people's stories while also giving us a broader view.

Random thought: The opening, which pays attention to the Donoran landscape, really reminds me of the war reporting from the Civil Was (and others).

Movie analysis: You're Next

Do you remember when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire in 2004 and destroyed the show by pointing out all of its flaws? In a way, that's how I feel about Cabin in the Woods--except without any illusion that the great deconstruction of horror tropes would actually end horror movies. Maybe some writers and directors will re-think some of the silly tropes they've used--the group deciding to split up, the heroine dropping a weapon; but the core of horror is too primal to be let go so easily. Maybe we'll stop picking on teenagers for being transgressive (i.e., being teenagers), but we'll still love the fear of the unknown.

Which brings us to You're Next, which is, in many ways, a throwback. For instance, it opens with a spectacular bit of violence, with some old man and his young sex buddy getting killed by some creeps in animal masks. In classic horror movie form, You're Next gives us some violence against people that we don't particularly care about as our first taste of the danger.

In fact, instead of the cast of genial, smart, funny, and interesting characters in Cabin, You're Next really enjoys making these characters generally hateful, in an almost cartoonish way. It's hard to really take the shallow older brother Drake seriously when he starts talking about how he likes commercials better than TV; and when the young daughter starts crying about how no one ever gives her any credit--when the family is under attack with arrows!--there's really no identification possible with her.

So this movie plays with the audience-as-voyeur, letting us enjoy the comeuppance these characters experience as they make really terrible decisions, often with lots of anticipation and lead-up. For instance, when that daughter gets everyone to agree to let her run for the cars, we get some really dumb ideas--"They'll never expect you to be running all out"--and a slo-mo shot of her running. We know it's going to end poorly; we're even looking forward to it ending poorly; we only don't know what form that poor ending will take.

This even goes for the heroine of the movie, a surprisingly effective survivalist, who is a pretty sympathetic character, insofar as terrible things are happening to her and she has no visible sin to atone for. But her violence is so over-the-top that not even she can justify it: when she kills one person, she answers his "why?" with something like "why not?"

Which subtly changes the tone of the movie, except the word "subtly" has no place in a discussion of this movie. While it looks like a standard horror movie about killers targeting isolated people, You're Next turns out to be more like a campy Grand Guignol laugh-and-blood fest, like a cross between Straw Dogs and Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. What's amazing is that, by giving us so little in the characters to care about, the ridiculous deaths can be played for laughs--and it works.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 149: Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning (#73)

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning" (1923) from American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom:

Where did poetry go wrong? I know that's, for all intents, a trollish thing to say, both in the old sense--monstrous, savage, uncouth, troglodytic--and in the new--contrary, bellicose. But the LoA page notes that this is one of Wallace Stevens's best; and not only does it leave me cold, it leaves me stretching my imagination to picture a time when poetry was a public endeavor; when metrics and scansion ruled stage performances; when more than an elite of highly educated and otherwise employed people were interested in poetry. Sure, we can take one route--the one more traveled--and blame the masses with their taste for sensation and blah blah blah. But reading Stevens's take on a Sunday morning meditation on holiness, I find nothing to excite, interest, or enamor me. No beautiful language, no playful moments. Just sentences rolling on from a bloodless thought on a bloodless Crucifixion to the ambiguous movements of nature. Echo, echo, echo.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 148: Jack London, South of the Slot (#191)

Jack London, "South of the Slot" (1909) from Jack London: Novels & Stories:

The LoA page on this Jack London story connects it to Stephen Crane's "Experiment in Misery," where a guy goes into the seedy underbelly of his city to see what it's like. But that really doesn't get at what London is doing here: yes, there's a guy who goes to the working-class ghetto--an area south of the Slot in San Francisco--but the story is less a portrait of the poorer areas and the people you find there (as in Crane) than it is about the guy who goes there and how he gets pulled in two directions.

Freddie Drummond is a very conservative professor of sociology: a repressed, orthodox thinker, who tends to think of the poor in terms of laziness and other character flaws. Yet, over time, he comes to see in his alter ego--"Big" Bill Totts--a sort of life that he can really enjoy: a life of labor with and for one's fellows, a life where he can give in to his animalistic urges instead of repressing them.

Now, reading this over a hundred years later, there's lots of issues we could pick at. For instance, London plays with the idea that the poor are some sort of noble savages, that their poverty gives them an authenticity that is denied the rich professional/professoriate classes. That's some deeply troubling moves right there. On the flip side, there's also--if you choose to read it this way--a sort of anti-intellectualism at work here, with the sociology professor being a standard egg-head.

Yet London balances most of these issues against each other: sure, Drummond is a cold-fish and egghead--but that's what all his colleagues think too, because not all professors are as cold as he is. And as for the poor being better off in their simple lives, London punctures that with the applied intellectual activities of the strike organizers.

The one real problem I have with this Jekyll-and-Hyde class story is that the ending seems a little arbitrary: Drummond and his high-class and inhibited fiancee get caught in the middle of a workers' strike--after several months of Drummond abandoning the Totts persona and not being lured back by any strikes. And in the middle of this stress, the Totts persona comes out and he runs off, never to be Drummond again. Which is a fine ending and one that I consider pretty happy. (It's clear that Tott helps people a lot more than Drummond would.) But what's the motivation for it to happen now? It seems like London sort of wrote himself into a corner, with Tott being repressed; and then, pretty arbitrarily, let him spring out. In a story that's very interested in people and their environments, this change could use a more environmental explanation.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 147: Frank Norris, Hunting Human Game (#165)

Frank Norris, "Hunting Human Game" (1897) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

If you look up Norris in the encyclopedia of "What Most People Think," you'll find him in the constellation of naturalist, realists, Darwinists: Dreiser, Zola, London, Crane. These were the guys (no coincidence they were all guys) writing about how terrible the world was and how people were base animals; if they were around in the 1990s instead of the 1890s, they would be writing "gritty" comics; and if they were alive now, they would either be writing Scandinavian crime thrillers or "grimdark" fantasy.

So it's no surprise that Frank Norris's early journalistic work took in the highlights of human nature, from the Boer War to today's piece about Australia's first serial killer, Frank Butler. Butler lured men out to the mountains to mine, then killed and robbed them. Curiously, this piece of Norris's takes place in the middle of the hunt: the Australian and San Franciscan cops know Butler is coming on a ship and they are waiting for him to show up.

It opens very much like we'd expect a Norris piece to open: without much in the way of adverbs or even adjectives. So we hear that
[In the mountains] Butler shot him in the back of the head and buried the body in such a way that a stream of trickling water would help in its decomposition.
And when Norris is hanging out with the cops, we hear in plain language of the condition of this stake-out:
The room is a little room, whose front windows give out upon the bay and the Golden Gate.
But then the piece takes a slightly weird turn, which isn't that unexpected if you've read Norris's other stuff. Take The Octopus: sure, it's a hard-headed, realist take on the battles between railroads and farmers. But there's also a character there who has strange prophetic powers and whose murdered love seems to return in the form of that murdered love's child.

So here we get notes about the impending arrest of Frank Butler, whose boat hasn't even come in yet, which is just now "rolling and lifting on the swell of the Pacific, drawing nearer to these men with every puff of the snoring trades." Notice above that the "trickling stream" didn't end the sentence--the fact of human decomposition did. But here we have "snoring trades" as the last words, and suddenly we're in a poetic world.

Which is particularly funny because Norris had earlier noted that this stakeout wasn't at all like what you'd read about in books. The men weren't somber, but jovial; the room wasn't protected from onlookers, but wide open to visits from journalists; etc. And then at the end, when Norris imagines how this story will end, he falls back into the explicitly textual:
The scene cannot be otherwise than dramatic—melodramatic even. I want to hear that exclamation “Here she is” that some one is bound to utter.
Which is, I think, where any thoughts about "realism" usually lead us--back into the tropes and themes of fiction.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 146: Kate Chopin, Désireé’s Baby (#38)

Kate Chopin, "Désireé’s Baby" (1893) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories:

Currently, Chopin is second only to Twain--and tied with Hawthorne--for most Stories of the Week at five, making this the last of her stories I had left to read. (And right after I read another story of hers. Isn't randomness fun?) And in many ways, this last story is the one that fits in best with our idea of Chopin as a Louisiana regionalist writer interested in domestic issues.

Here's the story: Désireé is a child of mysterious parentage, adopted by the Valmondé family and married by Armand Aubigny, who has the Aubigny habit of falling in love "as if struck by a pistol shot." They marry and have a child--who turns out to be dark-skinned. With this evidence that Désireé isn't totally white, Armand rejects her, and Désireé takes her baby to walk to the Valmondé estate and disappears. In the final moment, we learn from a letter from Armand's mother that she isn't totally white--which means that he isn't totally white either. (So, Armand, just like his dad, fell in love quickly, without really considering race.)

You'll notice I keep saying "isn't totally white" rather than black because Louisiana society historically had a more nuanced view of race than we get later with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); and that's one historical fact that this story keeps going in the background: it's not just black and white, but black, quadroon, octoroon, yellow, fair, white. So both Désireé and Armand can pass for white without necessarily knowing for certain that they aren't. (And even the ending doesn't really tell us about Désireé, who may still have African heritage.)

If you read for any length of time in the 19th century--and even some in the 20th--this plot will come up: someone's racial makeup exposed by their child. Chopin plays with this convention by noting that, if you will, it takes two to tango; and occasionally rubbing our noses in some markers that may or may not tell us what's going on. For instance, trying to prove that she's white enough, Désireé notes how she's paler than Armand. Normally that would show us the idiocy of thinking that appearance tells us all we need to know about someone; but here, maybe it points to Armand's mixed race background--as well as the idiocy of judging race by sight.

Chopin also nicely leads us through this story by expanding on or summarizing different parts: We hear in detail how Armand is made happy by his marriage, but we only get in summary the story of how he turns unhappy when he "realizes" the truth of Désireé. So we can focus on what Désireé loses more than on the vehicle of that loss.

The ending also opens up a big question: Did Armand know about his past when he married? Did he drive Désireé out as a way to hide his race? Or does he only find out after Désireé has disappeared into the swamp? Or does he still not know? (We can imagine a quasi-Bluebeard ending here, where Armand goes on to marry and reject a series of women because of his own unknown racial background.)

My social-digital fast

For Yom Kippur 2013 (ha--I mean, 5774), I decided to go off-line for 24 hours--from 8pm Friday (which is pretty much sunset here) to 8pm Saturday. Here were my ad-hoc rules: I could use my computer and my phone and my iPad--it wasn't an electronic fast; but I couldn't use FaceBook, Twitter, email, blog, forums, RSS feed, etc. Basically, I had to stay away from everything digitally social; everything where part of the protocol is interacting with people / waiting for people to interact with. 

My logic: Is there anything both more addictive and less satisfying than refreshing to see if someone has responded to an email or favorited your tweet?

Now, as an indicator of how deeply ingrained this sort of stuff is in my mind, I had a dream on Friday night about getting really interesting email. Let's do the math on that: I stopped checking my email at 8; and sometime after I went to bed at 11, I had a dream about email. Then, that Saturday morning--after making brown sugar-bacon waffles--I was making jokes with my girlfriend about how it would be fine for her to check my email.

Then, while I was doing other things during the day, I noticed how often my hands would just habitually go to click over to my browser. On normal days, I will check my email in between sentences that I'm writing, which doesn't help the writing much and doesn't make interesting email appear. (To be clear, I prevented myself from doing that today by closing my browser and turning off most wi-fi capabilities. No accidental digital eating for me today.)

And it was also hard, at first, to think about the news or jokes or opportunities to tell jokes I was missing; though later, I semi-successfully adopted the attitude that there will always be more news and more jokes-portunities later.

Overall, I would recommend a social-digital fast and might try to institute smaller fasts throughout my days. (Though that's rather like calling the time in between breakfast and lunch a fast.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 145: Kate Chopin, After the Winter (#119)

Kate Chopin, "After the Winter" (1896) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

Here's the fourth Chopin story I've read in my Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along project. (You are reading along, aren't you?) And this one sits pretty perfectly between 1896's "Athénaïse" and 1897's "A Morning Walk": Like "Athénaïse," there's a story of marital abandonment and of someone becoming reconciled to domesticity (in a way); like "A Morning Walk," there's a healing, becoming-social that revolves around an Easter-day service.

In plainer terms, here's the story, in three parts:

(1) Trézinie is a young girl who wants to supply some flowers to the church for Easter. But she's the blacksmith's daughter and her land is blasted by heat and infertile. She's inspired by a sight of the now-hermit M’sieur Michel, a man with a bloody history who lives out in the wilds. These kids do not know the real story of Michel's wildness: when he was away in the Civil War, his child(ren) died and his wife abandoned him for another man or something. (We know that his wife is one of the "women whose pulses are stirred by strange voices and eyes that woo"; but what that actually means is unclear. Did she run away with a man? Sleep around in town?)

(2) So Trézinie and her friends go to the wilds around Michel's cabin to pluck wild-flowers. When Michel returns to his savage cabin and finds all the flowers gone, he's upset by the idea that people have been so close to his lands. He heads off to the church to "voice his hate." But when he gets to the church, the Easter-time hymns stir in him some old remembrance. Not that this automatically makes him happy. Instead the language reminds us that any change can be painful: "But the refrain pursued him— “Pax! pax! pax!”—fretting him like a lash." If you want to make the connection between the Civil War that ruined him and the peace--Pax--that Michel hasn't yet found post-war, there might be a paragraph or two in that.

(3) Stirred with a strange desire for human contact, Michel walks down to his old house, which he expects to find in weedy ruins. Instead, his rich neighbor has taken care of it for him, using the land only to graze his cattle. Which means the soil is still rich and fertile--a perfect substitute for a happy wife, I guess. And so he decides to stay after a 25-year absence and take up farming again.

That's all in nine pages, which Chopin can do with her quick omniscient sketches of how people feel or what they know. But still, it's amazing how much she leaves out; and I'm not entirely surprised that the Youth's Companion never published it: the holes in the story seem too easy to fill with immoral imputations. There's that whole issue with Michel's wife and the weird issue between Michel and his rich neighbor, who really seems to be trying to make up for some past fault. And then there's the thematic use of greenness/fertility: Trézinie's place is all blasted, so she goes to pluck flowers from Michel's place, which leads him to the greenness of his old place--where, we can imagine, young Trézinie may soon come as his new bride.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 144: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Cut-Glass Bowl (#4)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Cut-Glass Bowl" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

Fitzgerald plays a delicate game in this story of presenting the hopes and fears of the main character, Evylyn Piper; while at the same time reserving the right to comment and critique those hopes and fears. No, that's not quite correct: the story starts out at some remove from Evylyn's emotion--here is the opening line, with its tongue so far in its cheek that it's threatening to break out the other side:
There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age.
In fact, that first section tells us the story of Evylyn Piper's imprudent friendship with a young man and how her husband Harold finds them together; but it largely tells us that story from the POV of Evylyn's friend/frenemy. It's clear to us that when the imprudent friend praises their empathic capacities--
“Yes,” he said, “yes, my trouble’s like yours. I can see other people’s points of view too plainly.”
--we're supposed to look down to make sure that he hasn't just pulled our leg completely off. Evylyn Piper is beautiful but somewhat shallow, the kind of woman who can tell of her jilted sweet giving her a giant cut-glass bowl because it's "as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through"--and never really worry about that description.

But as the story goes on, jumping from "the cut-glass bowl makes a noise which alerts Harold to the other man in his house" to "Evylyn tries to deal with her wounded daughter and her drunk husband at a business dinner," we get a lot less snark directed at Evylyn and a lot more of her emotions. Considering that we jump almost a decade, the narrator comes right out and tells us about the cooling of her wedding and the importance of her children. So when the business dinner ends poorly--thanks to that cut-glass bowl again--and her daughter gets blood poisoning and has to lose a hand--thanks to that cut-glass bowl again again--we get much more of Evylyn's hopes and fears. And her depth, too. So, whereas I chuckled through much of the opening, I am not really amused by lines such as,
It was astonishing to think that life had once been the sum of her current love-affairs. It was now the sum of her current problems.
Which sets us up for the final section, in which the cut-glass bowl again seems to attack her, this time by holding a letter from the war department about her son. Which leads to the climax, which has a hallucinatory quality, where she finds herself trapped in the cut-glass bowl and attempting to break it. We've slowly been set up for this climax through the increasingly Evylyn-centered POV, which leaves us without much room to critique her. (It helps, meanwhile, that her actions in the second and third section have been well-intentioned if not successful; and the tragedies that befall her family are somewhat out of her hands.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 143: Willa Cather, The Sentimentality of William Tavener (#6)

Willa Cather, "The Sentimentality of William Tavener" (1900) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings:

If you were to make one of those refrigerator magnetic poetry sets for Willa Cather, chances are you'd include the words "strong woman," "frontier life," and "aesthetic yearning." That was kind of the story of "A Wagner Matinée." And that's kind of the story here: Hester is a strong frontier woman, who is introduced to us through description of her serious business sense. Which is sort of funny since her primary attribute throughout the piece is her love for her children, which comes out in her buying "foolish, unnecessary little things" for them; and in taking their position. She's only hard and spirited when it comes to arguing points with her husband, William Tavener.

William Tavener, we're told, is the real hard customer here when it comes to his sons. And with six pages to tell her story, Cather makes no bones about it: William "was a hard man... even towards his sons." But by the end of the story, William has agreed to give money so that his sons can see the circus (which takes the place of the Wagner for this story's "aesthetic yearning"). How come?

Here's where this Cather story shines for me, because we hear how this triangle relationship gets reordered: William is hard to boys, but not his wife, who he treats somewhat distantly--their relationship has focused so much on their economic state that they've become more like "landlord and tenant"; Hester is hard to William, but not to his boys. But because William and Hester reconnect with their childhood--they were both at the same circus when they were young--the final line of the story gives a powerfully mixed effect. The boys do get to go to the circus, but they "felt that they had lost a powerful ally."

Perhaps, then, what I really like about this story is that the focus isn't on frontier life and aesthetic yearning, but the difficulties of growing old together. It's a very delicate and subtle look at a marriage, without the modern-day message of "you really should make a date night to keep your marriage healthy."

Movie analysis: The Frighteners

Have you seen The Frighteners (1996), Peter Jackson's first big-budget Hollywood film after leaving New Zealand? I was super excited for it when it first came out before I ever see it, which just goes to show what a proto-hipster I was back then. I was much less excited after I saw it and just recently watched it again, which just goes to show you: people will watch anything Netflix offers when at the gym.

I'm also interested in ghost stories right now. Because I think my dog is haunted? No, of course it's because I'm interested in writing one. And The Frighteners offers a very classic form, with a vengeful ghost killing the living. It also presents what is a fairly classic urban fantasy scenario, with one person who has a special power: after a car crash that killed his wife, Frank Bannister has gone over the edge, and can now see ghosts. (Also, he was an architect, so that "Bannister" name is doing triple-duty.) Now Frank realizes that all the mysterious deaths in the town are due to a Grim Reaper--and he has his sights on the woman that Frank likes.

Now, in someone else's hands, this would be an action-adventure version of Ghost--and maybe it should've been. Jackson's sense of humor can be everything from off-beat to sophomoric, but it is rarely enlightening or integral, I find: there's no joke in a Jackson movie that makes you think or that couldn't be removed. Here's an example Jackson joke: the Old West sheriff ghost starts to have sex with the mummy in a sarcophagus, saying "I like when they lie still like that." Er, well--okay?

There's also a lot of cartoonish violence where real-world material bashes through (but doesn't really hurt) the ghosts. And an over-the-top Jeffrey Combs playing an occult-minded and bizarre FBI agent named, ahem, Dammers. Whether you like the moment when he pulls off his shirt and reveals a metal breastplate--or the moment where he pulls off his shirt and reveals that his body is "a map of pain"--that will depend more on your particular bent than any structure that Jackson has built in.

But for all that so much of The Frighteners is silly in that way--and devolves to that old "my past trauma was actually due to my current enemy"--there's something fun about many of the character structures, with our protagonist Frank shadowed by an antagonist lawman; an antagonist criminal; and an antagonist ghost. He's got a believer figure in the doctor widow and a skeptic in the figure of the unmarried newspaper editor--someone who brings the unhealthy back to life and someone who (like Frank Bannister) uses the deaths of others for her own gain. Meanwhile, Frank is helped by a trio of ghosts, an over-the-hill super-ego (the sheriff), an angry id (black), and a nervous ego (preppy).

There's almost too many characters, but we can see how they tried to work these characters into the main character's story.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 142: Raymond Chandler, I’ll Be Waiting (#49)

Raymond Chandler, "I’ll Be Waiting" (1939) from Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels:

Here's Chandler's critique of this story, written in a letter to George Harmon Coxe:
“I didn’t think much of the story when I wrote it—I felt it was artificial, untrue and emotionally dishonest like all slick fiction.”
That "slick fiction" is an explicit put down on the magazine where this was published, the Saturday Evening Post, which gives a pretty interesting frame through which to view this story. In a lot of ways, this story seems standard hard-boiled: there's a secretly sentimental hotel detective; the vulnerable love object waiting for the man; the underworld figures hunting the man. But instead of taking place all over the city with the detective tracking people down, this takes place all in or around the hotel. You could easily make a play of this, which does give it a sort of cosy feeling.

That said, while all the elements of noir are here in a tidy package, I can understand why Chandler might not love this story: occasionally, the prose overreaches into the sort of self-parody that Chandler only occasionally let by:
In the corners were memories like cobwebs.
 Since Vienna died, all waltzes are shadowed.
And yet, there's still some of the great hard-boiled writing that we expect from Chandler, particularly from the brassy dame with the self-destructive streak--a love for damaged, damaging men. She gets some of the best lines"
"I was married to him once. I might be married to him again. You can make a lot of mistakes in just one lifetime."
"Redheads don't jump, Tony. They hang on--and wither."
Similarly, there's that patented technique of giving us the externals and avoiding the internals. And when I say "patented," I mean "by Defoe" or someone else of that era. One of my favorite examples of this is from The Big Sleep, where Marlowe gets into a fight with a woman and notes:
The blonde was strong with the madness of love or fear, or a mixture of both, or maybe she was just strong.
So there's the detective (as proxy for the author) just shrugging off the whole issue of reason: all he can know is that she's strong, not the why of it. So here, we get a lot of externals:
Tony went on past the closed and darkened newsstands and the side entrance to the drugstore, out to the brassbound plate-glass doors. He stopped just inside them and took a deep, hard breath. He squared his shoulders, pushed the doors open and stepped out into the cold, damp, night air.
Oh my god, that's a lot of description of the interior of the hotel, with absolutely no explicit description of the interior of the detective. He takes a breath, he square his shoulders--but why? That's beyond this story's narrative voice. And yeah, the amount of external description here does verge on the self-parodic. (Or like a mix between Chandler and someone like Wharton, whose stories are often told in the shifting interiorities of characters' houses.)

And so we get sections like this--
"Nobody's all bad," he said out loud.
The girl looked at him lazily. "I've met two or three I was wrong on, then."
He nodded. "Yeah," he admitted judiciously. "I guess there's some that are."
--where a great deal of thoughts must be going on, but without letting us see it.

Also, someone saying something "out loud" is bad writing in most cases; here it's still bad writing, though it does remind us of the distance between "out loud" and "inside."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 141: Edith Wharton, Xingu (#56)

Edith Wharton, "Xingu" (1911) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

Much like Charles Chesnutt's "Baxter's Procrustes," Edith Wharton's "Xingu" is a pretty hilarious demolishment of self-important book clubs that aren't as booky as they think they are. This club is a much less formal affair than Chesnutt's, taking place in the houses of the women who belong; which seems natural considering how interested Wharton usually is in domestic scenes and the movement of things through domestic or domestic-style spaces.

(She's so interested in that general topic that she describes people's thought processes by modeling them on interior/domestic situations:
Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental “pieces” that were not meant to be disarranged...
Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board.
I don't mean that Wharton is unintentional about this, as if she just falls into domestic and interior scenes. She's very deliberate about her interest in women's domestic and liminal spaces. Well, I'm off to read House of Mirth again. (OK, for the first time.))

Each of the women in the book club has her own issue, from the people-pleasing Mrs. Leverett to the nonfiction-minded Mrs. ... actually, I don't remember which woman that was. Plinth? It doesn't surprise me that I can't remember their names, since they all basically boil down to some caricature of a particular failure of reading, without much depth. Even the "heroine," Mrs. Roby, isn't very skilled as a reader, but at least she's not a hypocrite about it:
Mrs. Roby took this rebuke good-humouredly. She had meant, she owned, to glance through the book; but she had been so absorbed in a novel of Trollope’s that—
“No one reads Trollope now,” Mrs. Ballinger interrupted.
Mrs. Roby looked pained. “I’m only just beginning,” she confessed.
“And does he interest you?” Mrs. Plinth enquired.
“He amuses me.”
“Amusement,” said Mrs. Plinth, “is hardly what I look for in my choice of books.”

“Do they get married in the end?” Mrs. Roby interposed.
“They—who?” the Lunch Club collectively exclaimed.
“Why, the girl and man. It’s a novel, isn’t it? I always think that’s the one thing that matters. If they’re parted it spoils my dinner.” 
You may play a sad trombone now: our objects of ridicule, like Plinth, are women who read books as fashion accessories, with certainty that what/how they read is the right way; while our object-of-less-ridicule is the kind of person who only reads for entertainment and always wants a pat happily-ever-after ending.

When famous author Osric Dane comes to luncheon and the talk is strained, Roby's prank on the rest of the group is that she starts talking about something called Xingu, which everyone (including Dane) pretends to have read about. Is it a philosophy, a religion, a book, a culture? No, it turns out (after Roby and Dane leave) to be a river in Brazil; and the joke is that everything that Roby said about it could sound like either a river or something else. (It has many branches, it's deep in places, it's hard to get at the origin, you have to wade through it.)

Which, like Baxter's prank on his reading club, is a fun way to show up the shallowness of these readers and a clever switcheroo. But I can't help feel that this is the sort of story that appeals to people who think they are good readers, not at all like those other people who read improperly. That is: it's a story that satirizes people who think they know how to read and flatters readers who also think they know how to read. It's got that mean, flattering streak of an inside joke.

It is, however, incredibly funny:
Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone.
Mrs. Leveret felt like a passenger on an ocean steamer who is told that there is no immediate danger, but that she had better put on her lifebelt.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 140: John Muir, A Wind-Storm in the Forests (#4)

John Muir, "A Wind-Storm in the Forests" (1911) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

Before I read this piece, I used to think of John Muir and imagine grand forests and stately parks. Now I'm imagining those same grand forests being attacked by wind that teeters on the edge of being a Cthulhu-ish horror. Of course, that very last part is all me: even in a wind-storm, John Muir wants to remind us that nature is all-encompassing, sublime, and beautiful--which is only two-thirds a good description of Cthulhu.

Here, in all seriousness, is the thumbnail description of this piece: John Muir enjoys the woods even during a wind-storm. To get a better view of that wind-storm, he even climbs a tree so that he can see the wind rippling through the treetops. If you ever doubted, here's your wake-up call: John Muir is hardcore.

On a craft level, so many of the sentences here are long, multi-clausal, semi-colon-littered, Whitmanesque catalogs of nature. Which makes sense, since, as Muir noted in his My First Summer in the Sierra (1911),
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
This is perhaps doubly true of the wind, which is both universal and barely visible by itself. And so if the wind can go anywhere, well, then, by golly, so can Muir's sentences:
But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean; the winds blessing the forests, the forests the winds, with ineffable beauty and harmony as the sure result.
Note also that the wind here, which can destroy things pretty thoroughly, gets described almost as a helping hand or an attentive nurse: the wind forgets nothing, it caresses and stimulates, it pulls off pieces of trees when that is what is required, and at the end of the day, it leaves "ineffable beauty and harmony." Man, Muir makes the wind sound like a pretty good parent.

(Which is awfully funny to me since the LoA page makes note of how harsh Muir's real parents were. The Freudian reading here may not be far off the mark: traumatized at home, Muir plays the game of imagining his true parents as more powerful and sheltering. A guy who rushes out into a storm because a house is not real protection either needs to think about what a house symbolizes to him or needs a better contractor to build a better house.)

Muir keeps up with this idea that nature is not just powerful but morally good.
We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here; no recognition of danger by any tree; no deprecation; but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as from fear.
Today, we might go on about the Zen feeling of harmony, the idea of a contentment that isn't manic happiness or depressive mania. You can see that, even though he mixes in some ecological observation, Muir's idea of nature is heavily colored by certain spiritual ideas: the book of nature can be read (see all the times he mentions the careful observation of the wind's signs, since the wind itself cannot be seen), and though it may not lead us to God, it can lead us to something like redemption.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 139: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Wives of the Dead (#18)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Wives of the Dead" (1832) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

As one of the enshrined gods of the American canon, Hawthorne probably doesn't get all his due. You know the line: classics are books that everyone praises and no one reads. So it's great to read this early story of Hawthorne's, a story written (probably) when he was around 25. Now, we could look into the story and say, "well, there's themes of waking and dreaming--romance and realism--that Hawthorne will later deal with more fully in his novels." Or we could note that this short sketch isn't really like much of Hawthorne's stuff. There's a historical setting, but not a deeply used one (a la Scarlet Letter); and there are characters with deep emotions (though nothing as deep as "Goodman Brown").

Instead, Hawthorne is playing a structural game here, very much like an O. Henry story: two young wives are married to brothers who die in different dangerous scenarios (at sea, in the French and Indian War); and then each gets a message that her husband is really alive, which makes her happy--until she remembers how sad her sister-in-law is. Wah-wah.

Of course, Hawthorne doesn't play this for laughs the way O. Henry would. Without getting too much into these two women's lives, Hawthorne really just wants us to imagine that sentimental whiplash: sad at death, happy at life, sad for another's sadness. Which is not usually how we think of Hawthorne, but another reminder of how embedded he was with the sentimental literary culture of the time.

WorldCon Post-Mortem #6: Next time around (Next time?)

For all that Louis Prima's song "There'll Be No Next Time" is going through my head, the idea of another WorldCon is very appealing to me. Heck, I'd just want another chance to do this last WorldCon over again. (Though let's be honest: I feel the same way about some improv scenes I did years ago.) I heard stories about people up at 4 am, drinking and talking, and that sounds kinda appealing to try out. Maybe I'm still young enough to do so?

Well, even if I'm too old now--and certainly I'm not getting any younger--that's part of my plan for cons in the future. So much of the best times was chatting with people at the parties and elsewhere, that it has to be part of my plan for future cons. Similarly, if there are kaffeeklatsches at the con, I want to go to more of those; even if I've never heard of the person or only slightly know them, talking with them can be very fun and entertaining.

Since I'm also interested in, you know, being published, I'd especially like to attend more kaffeeklatsches with editors. Not to tell them my excellent story idea about a Jewish dwarf in a traveling circus who solves crimes. More to hear about what they want in general, what they're getting too much of, what they look for (or try to avoid) in their submissions. I'm particularly interested in editors of magazines, since the short story market may be more volatile and responsive to change.

And since my goal is to chat more, go to more parties, and generally hang out, I'd want to seriously consider getting a room at the hotel. Sure, I saved some money by staying a friend's house (and I discovered this incredible asthma reaction to cat fur); but when you're already taking several days off and spending money for the con itself, you might just consider going whole hog.

Now, with all that chatting and party-going, I'd still be interested in going to some panels, but my advice to future me on panels: if the panel feels weird or not helpful, feel free to skip out. (Also: even if you like the panel but have to go to the bathroom, consider heading out during the middle of the panel, when the bathrooms will be largely empty. That way you avoid the awkward moment of holding the door open for George R. R. Martin as he walks out and you walk in.)

Lastly, always carry your phone charger and powercord with you and make sure you take time to charge it. Twitter was an integral part of keeping connected with what was happening at the con. So, for instance, when Mur Lafferty tweeted out that people should come say hello at her lightly attended signing, I hopped right over and had a nice little chat. Or when Mary Robinette Kowal tweeted that she had trouble finding her kaffeeklatsch, I got that tweet and we sent out a rescue party for her. If I didn't have my phone charged then--she might be wandering the halls of the convention center even now!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 138: Jane Rice, The Refugee (#64)

Jane Rice, "The Refugee" (1943) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now:

Here's a great way to tell us about a character: tell us what that character values:
The trouble with the war, Milli Cushman thought as she stared sulkily through streaming French windows into her rain drenched garden, was that it was so frightfully boring. There weren’t any men, any more. Interesting ones, that is. Or parties. Or little pink cocktails. Or café royale. Or long-stemmed roses wrapped in crackly green wax paper. There wasn’t even a decent hairdresser left.
So when men are going off to die, Milli's main objection is that it negatively affects her social life--and her alimentary life.
Milli used “fare” in its strictest interpretation. Often, of late, she found herself dwelling, with an aching nostalgia, on her father’s butcher shop in Pittsburgh. That had been before he’d invented a new deboner, or meat cleaver, or something, and had amassed an unbelievable amount of money before he strangled to death on a loose gold filling at Tim O’Toole’s clambake.
Poor Milli can't eat as well as she used to--never mind that men die around her in terrible ways (or that she barely knows what it was that her father invented and where her money comes from).

You might object that Jane Rice is laying it on a bit think here about Milli Cushman--gosh, that last name is a lot like "crush men," innit? Well, sure, but it gets the point across pretty well, as well as setting up the connection between men and food--and even choking on a piece of metal. Because this story starts with a lonely spoiled woman finding a werewolf in her garden, a man who seems even less well off than she is:
Milli gave an infinitesimal gasp. A man was in her garden! A man who, judging from the visible portion of his excellent anatomy, had—literally—lost his shirt.
Henry James would've put it differently, but how many of his books revolve around the discovery of a man in someone's rain-drenched but ruined garden? Yes, millionaire Milli is fighting a war against time and hunger and losing at both. And this man in her garden quickly takes possession of the whole place: sleeping where he wants and saying menacing--or stimulating--things about how he'll have her. I have to say, the first time I read this, I was suckered, thinking the shallow woman would be food for the werewolf. After all, she's got mixes feelings like this:
Confusedly, Milli thought that it was lucky the windows were locked and, in the same mental breath, what a pity that they were.
Hardly the type to really survive a werewolf attack/rape. But when it comes down to it, though the story has set up Milli as this shallow, self-centered person, she's the one who does the killing and eating. The story has already set up the idea that "food" is a broad concept in war-time France: "Cooked, a cat bore a striking resemblance to a rabbit."

And the story has set up how Milli will kill Lupus, dropping one of her often-mentioned silver charms into his mouth for him to strangle on, like her father, the deboner inventor. So Milli gets to have Lupus in the most important way of all:
And with [her maid] Maria gone she could have Lupus all to herself.
Down to the last, delicious morsel.
Because sex and companionship may be fine, but food is the quickest way to someone's heart. There's something almost Tiptree-esque in the combination of sex, death, and survival.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 137: Djuna Barnes, “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud” (#128)

Djuna Barnes, “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud” (1914) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

In college, I dated a poet; and she told me that, in potry-writing classes, when people had no idea what to say to critique a bad poem, they just said something like, "I think you're playing with sound a lot in this piece."

Djuna Barnes, I think you're playing with sound a lot in this piece.

This piece is a semi-journalistic account of the tony life that includes drinking and dancing at rooftop watering holes in New York; the sort of life that includes mention of dangerous (i.e. fast, sexy, desperately hungry) women and New York's elite Four Hundred. But like some early example of New Journalism, Barnes's account is much more impressionistic than factual. Her POV is sort of free-roving, popping into a few conversations, taking a god's eye view of the rooftop party experience. The result is compelling in a way, largely since sentences go on and on, dragging the reader to the finish line. But that compulsion is tempered by the fact that her sentences don't move directly ahead and her word use reminds me occasionally of an ESL student I once taught. There's something interesting in that sort of first-time grappling with a subject or word; and it takes a lot of talent to pull it off (or a sincere misunderstanding of language). But this isn't a piece that makes me want to pick up more of Barnes's work.

WorldCon Post-Mortem #5: The Hugo Awards

This year, if we restrict the field to the Hugo Award categories I actually had opinions about, I correctly guessed quite a few of them. Let's say around 4/5. I mean, who was really surprised that Writing Excuses won for Best Related over The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. The average people who vote on this award probably listen to Writing Excuses a lot more than they read The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. (That includes me.) But just because I guessed them doesn't mean I'm totally thrilled with the awards.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Although, traditionally, after the awards are given out, the critics and opiners start argle-barging about what it means and/or why the one they wanted to win did or didn't win. No, let's skip that and go directly to the award breakdown.

Isn't that kind of amazing? As soon as the awards are announced, this breakdown of the voting becomes available. So here's what I am most struck by: Although there were 3412 members of WorldCon this year, there were only 1848 ballots cast.

I'll say that again: one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction was decided by 1848 people.

It gets even more squirrely when we get into the data:

  • for Best Novel--1649 ballots counted
  • Novella--1463
  • Best Related Work--1091--and of that, 54 voted for No Award(!)
  • and so on
And if you scroll down to the nominating ballots, you'll see that it only takes 38 nominations to get on the Best Novelette short-list; and 34 to get on the Campbell Award short-list.

Now, there's several different interpretations one can draw from these facts. We could say, "well, the core readership/leadership of sf is rather small (or if you prefer, tight-knit." We could say, "considering how close most of these races are, we should really push the short-list as a bunch of recommended works, rather than just hold up the Hugo winner as exceptional." We could say, "we need to boost attendance and voting." Or we could say, "is a Hugo Award measuring popularity in some way, and if so, does it differ at all from a best-seller list?"

I'm not sure what it says, but now that I'm paying attention to how the sausage of the Hugo Awards gets made, I'm not sure I'm all that hungry for it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 136: Dashiell Hammett, Slippery Fingers (#169)

Dashiell Hammett, "Slippery Fingers" (1923) from Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings:

Hammett's Continental Op only has a few descriptors: he’s fat, nameless, determined. And in this story, we can see that he occasionally loses his temper. While the character and setting are American noir, the story is again a semi-throwback to English problem stories: here’s a dead man who mysteriously withdrew some money from the bank and though there are fingerprints all over the crime scene, the police can’t find the matching set.

That is, they can’t find the matching set until the killer walks in the door and demands to be fingerprinted. See, the killer was a blackmailer who saw the rich man kill a guy among the gold fields of the North; and he demands to be fingerprinted because he has a false set of fingerprints on; and the Continental Op only discovers this because he gets angry and tries to get the man’s fingerprints instead of letting the fingerprinting expert do it. (Why'd the finger-printing expert miss it in the first place?)

Which leaves us a mystery story where the protagonist has discovered the killer--but only through the bad luck of the killer and his own good (dumb) luck. This may be fitting since this is a story about horse-racing and mining, two pretty luck-dependent fields. And there’s enough Hammettian humor and overstatement to keep the story moving briskly: the forensic accountant can spot a bad set of books farther than the Continental Op can see the books; and the final scene is the fingerprint sharper and the fingerprint expert discussing the ins and outs of their specialized trade, even though the fingerprint sharper has just been busted and is probably going to jail for a while.

But for all that, the story is a relatively simple quest to find the murderer--where the murderer basically turns himself in. And for all the promise of violence and the underworld, so much of this is squeaky clean and bloodless. I will say this: since the Continental Op is supposed to be so good at his job, we pretty much always trust him when he sizes up people, especially since his sizing is a mix of good and bad.

WorldCon Post-Mortem #4: Craft

Here's some quick notes on some interesting craft-related comments.

First, here's a collection of stories that were recommended as great learning tools:
  • Asimov, "Night Fall"
  • Vylar Kaftan, "I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno"
  • Connie Willis, "At the Rialto"
  • James Patrick Kelly, "Think Like a Dinosaur"
  • Michael Swanwick, "Edge of the World"
  • Swanwick, "The Very Pulse of the Machine"
  • Gene Wolfe, "The Eyeflash Miracles"

Second, a few notes on writing:
  • Your teaser/elevator pitch should include the main character, their problem, and the tone
  • Consider opening the story with people interacting and doing something
  • Long chunks of exposition and description can be skipped; dialogue not so much
  • Raise dramatic question in the opening scene
  • End of scene needs some rise; not only ever a rise in tension (as in cliffhangers) but rise in emotion, stakes, diction

Third, some notes about thinking about the future, often by looking at our own past and present historical moment:
  • In our world, X exists still, but our passion/relation to X changes; so we still have crossword puzzles but there's no crossword puzzle craze anymore
  • Future may be mixed, just like the present--we can have advanced computer technology and still hold to the crackpot 18th century economic thinkers
  • Singularity as single pop is very tidy, not like messy uneven development, which is more realistic
I'm sure there was more, but those are the things that are sticking out as craft-related.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 26

I did say I would take a break from audio short fiction, but on my drive to San Antonio for WorldCon, I had some time. I didn't have a lot of attention, so let's see what broke through.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Justin Howe, "Of Shifting Skins and Certainty": Something about shapechanging people and a king with a permanently fixed and terrible face.

Yoon Ha Lee, "The Pirate Captain's Daughter": Something about ships that are directed by poetry and the daughter who, inevitably, becomes a poet.

Sara M. Harvey, "Six Seeds": No memory.

Rachel Swirsky, "Great, Golden WIngs": No memory.

Sarah L. Edwards, "The Woman and the Mountain": No memory.

Dru Pagliassoti, "The Manufactory": No memory.

Aliette de Bodard, "In the Age of Iron and Ashes": No memory.

Paul Daly, "Shatterach Gates": No memory, beyond the rather boring title.

Rodello Santos, "To Slay with a Thousand Kisses": Some bad men use a woman with magical power, maybe?

Catherine Mintz, "A Skirt of Many Colors": A coming of age story involving a girl turning her pants in and getting her skirt.

Alys Sterling, "In Memoriam": Some sort of demon gets trapped in a haunted house and has to give up his precious memories to escape, I think.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Wendy Wagner., "Secret of Calling Rabbits": One of the last little people helps a little girl and dies in the process, showing that he wasn't so bitter after all.

Claire Humphrey, "Nightfall in the Scent Garden": Beautifully told in parts, but I'm not sure I remember anything about it. The narrator loves another (but straight or at least more traditional) girl and there's some evil fairy queen, I think?

C.L. Moore, "The Tree of Life": Northwest Smith faces an evil god in a forgotten place. Standard Northwest Smith story, which I always like because of the weird genre mix.

Scott H. Andrews, "Excision": Magical healers try to figure out way to save people; naturally, one of them is obsessed with saving her own near-dead family.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Purity Test": Dad has a sorcerer on retainer to test women's sexual purity before marriage, but the daughter learns about dad's and her husband-to-be's craziness.

Marly Youmans, "Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Childe Phoenix": No memory.

Robert Reed, "Eight Episodes": A boringly told meta-story about a mysterious tv series that might have been made by aliens.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 135: John Dos Passos, Paul Bunyan (#84)

John Dos Passos, "Paul Bunyan" (1932) from John Dos Passos: U.S.A.:

One of the excellent group blogs I read has an excellent labor historian from the Pacific Northwest; which is the only reason I know about the Centralia, WA fight between the IWW and the anti-union forces that arrested, possibly castrated, hanged, and convicted several Wobblies for trying to protect their union hall from a second round of violence. But let's try to pretend that we haven't read about labor history; let's pretend that we're all just ordinary Americans who feel a little ambivalent about unions (aren't those just reds and Bolsheviks? shouldn't Americans have the liberty to starve?); let's pretend that we don't have the internet to look things up.

From that standpoint, this section from Dos Passos's 1919 might be traumatizingly eye-opening. This is one of those biographical interstitial pieces that Dos Passos interleaves his other stories with. (A technique that John Brunner will run with in his excellent Stand on Zanzibar.) And since we only get this story, we may miss out some of the impact or interconnections this piece has. (Yes, I'm just trying to include more words starting with "inter-.") But by itself, the "Paul Bunyan" piece is really an amazing micro-cosm of the work.

For one thing, the piece includes its own little interstitial pieces, like some number-laden report on the logging industry of Washington; for another, besides simply calling this piece "Paul Bunyan," Dos Passos makes the connection explicit between that mythic figure and the soon-to-be martyred Wesley Everest (Wobbly, WWI veteran, sharpshooter); and this battle between the unions and the forces of unfettered capitalism is global and historical--it's the fight between democracy and slavery. And while Dos Passos uses abstract issues like myth and history, he also uses some concrete rhetorical moves, like repetition and dialect--"Not a thing in this world Paul Bunyan's ascared of."

And though the piece focuses on Wesley Everest as a living-dead Paul Bunyan, the end isn't just his murder, but the reminder that the forces of decent living for average joes goes on--and is still attacked--with the reminder that, after Everest was killed, a bunch of Wobblies went to jail in a premature burial, "buried in the Walla Walla Penitentiary," while Everest's killers went free.

WorldCon Post-Mortem #3: Highlights for Lowlifes

For all the many mistakes I made at my first con, I also had a pretty great time through much of it. Now, I'd love to replicate these highlights at my next con, but so many of the highlights were serendipitous: you go to a panel for one speaker but find yourself really digging what another says and so on. Which might be the first rule of a good convention: enjoy the serendipity. (Maybe that goes along with yesterday's command to Be where you are.) 

That general principle out of the way, here's my con highlights.

First, panels may be interesting, but go to the kaffeeklatsches and literary beers for individual insight in a small group. Almost all of the kaffeeklatsches and literary beers I went to were fun, entertaining, and educational.

For instance, I got to ask Chuck Wendig about supporting characters and their thematic relation to the protagonist. (I also got a free copy of Blackbirds signed by Chuck Wendig when he had three books to give away and decided to have a portmanteau curse contest. After everyone patterned theirs off of Wendig's "cockweasel"--"dick-muffin," "cunt-snickers"--I decided I would have a better chance reversing the formula and came up with "glam-dick." Which, you can tell, I'm very proud of.)

The only less-positive experiences--not even negative, just neutral experiences--is that if you go to a kaffee or beer with someone who you know, you might hear some of the same stories over again. So when I went to Mary Robinette Kowal's kaffee, someone asked her about how puppetry informs her fiction, which is a topic she's covered at Writing Excuses and in our online class.

So, while I highly advise going to kaffees and beers, some of my favorite times were when I was talking to a writer who I maybe didn't know so well. At the Fantastic London panel, American author David Liss commented about how he'd left grad school to write books, so I immediately signed up for his kaffeeklatsch to get the full story. And we had a very nice discussion. Even better for me (though a little sad for him probably), while he's a published author with several books, he's not a hot new author like Chuck Wendig or an old established lion (dragon?) like George R. R. Martin; so the Liss kaffeeklatsch was very sparse and cosy.

Second, some of the best time at cons will be when you skip the scheduled programming for chatting with people. Not to bury the lede here, I had a fabulous, nearly hour-long chat with Kim Stanley Robinson, whose fiction is incredible and who is also just a really nice and interesting guy. We talked about his fiction, my aborted graduate career, semiotic squares--it was really a wide and deep conversation.

Similarly, I had a great time when I was catching up with old friends, including three people from my online writing class with Mary Robinette Kowal. It was great to see them and chat in this different setting. That last day, I was late leaving San Antonio because I was having lunch and really getting into some interesting and deep family stories.

Third, meet new people! I really can't stress this enough (and I guess my chat with Kim Stanley Robinson and my kaffeeklatsch with David Liss could fall under this heading too). At the Jo Walton kaffeeklatsch on Friday, I met someone who used to work for the Onion's AV Club; and then later, at the Tor party, I ran into her again and had a real long talk about fan-dom and roleplaying games and just about everything nerd related.

Now, it's not always easy to meet new people, especially at a nerd-con, where many of the people are on some scale of introversion (or social anxiety). Even the authors may get a little worried look in their eye when someone approaches them (though there it's not just social anxiety but particular worry that you might be a nut). Still, I pushed myself a little and had very nice chats with Mur Lafferty, James Patrick Kelly, and Adam Christopher. And while I was (or hope I was) careful to give them some out in the conversation, I think in each case they were happy to chat.

Fourth, some of the scheduled panels were good and interesting--usually the panels where we just have one person giving a lesson. So Mary Robinette Kowal's lesson on Schmoozing 101 (i.e., don't be a creep or a jerk) should be scheduled before just about any social event; and Lou Anders's very structural approach to storytelling was very interesting. Let me put this in the form of a command that will be impossible to follow: Go to the panels that are worth it. (Or I guess the rule might be: follow the person, not the panel topic. I've heard Kowal and Anders discuss these topics before and knew they would give great information on them.)

Fifth, although I'm not super-thrilled with some of the Hugo Awards, the ceremony itself was a great deal of fun, with Toastmaster Paul Cornell making hilarious jokes, along with some touching calls for tolerance and equality within fandom. It was also just kind of heart-warming to see and hear some of the speeches. I don't know that the Hugos are a highlight, but Paul Cornell really was.