Monday, March 2, 2015

#NaNoReMo - National Novel Reading Month

It's March, which means it's National Novel Reading Month. This is an annual tradition encouraging people to read the classic novels they've been putting off, because everybody has a few. As it is, I have a dozen on my shelf that I've owned for an embarrassingly long time. War and Peace is a personal shame of mine.

Readers define classics for themselves. A Tale of Two Cities and Peter Pan are part of the English canon, but Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are classics of Spy fiction. Ursula K. Leguin's A Wizard of Earthsea is a Speculative Fiction classic. If you perceive a book as a classic that you haven't gotten to yet, that's all that matters.

I've picked two books this year. The first is Alice Walker's The Color Purple, something I've heard about since high school but never sat down with. Walker has a reputation for confronting thorny issues of social hierarchy, and in The Color Purple, targets the life of a young woman in the South in the 1930's. Even the sample chapters ache with insight and historic weight.

It's a shame I overlooked this in school since History class gave me such a scant idea of African American experiences; for all I knew, they sprang into being around the Civil War, then disappeared until the Civil Rights movement. Over the years I picked up the general liberal sensitivity to issues without contextual understanding, and so avoided the enormous gaps in my knowledge. In that way, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns and watching 12 Years a Slave were necessary kicks in the ass.

If I finish with reasonable time and keep up with other reading, then my second book will be Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. There's a certain hopscotch of cultures involved: I'm an American in 2015 preparing to read a German in 1922 writing his idea of an Indian's spiritual journey around 500 BCE. The filters are part of the appeal.

I bought my copy in 2007, and it's one of the four books I've owned the longest without reading. At my grandfather's funeral, my cousin Palmer said the book changed his life. Even if he's much younger and thus easier to change the life of, he's a smart guy, and I felt deeper shame for not giving the book a shot yet.

If you're going through a classic this month, please comment so I can add your blog, tumblr or Twitter to the master list!

Danielle La Paglia is reading J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan
Sonia Lal will be joining me for Alice Walker's The Color Purple
Ally Atherton
will also be joining me for The Color Purple
Chuck Allen will be joining me for Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha
Helen Howell is reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
David G Shrock is also reading Frankenstein
Katherine Hajer is reading Jane Austen's Persuasion
Charles Ross Dillon is reading Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame 
Cindy Vaskova is reading Algernon Blackwood's The Willows
Dorothy Lang is reading Art Spiegelmann's Maus

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bathroom Monologues Movie Awards 2014

It's almost March 2015, so of course we're all talking about the best movies of 2014. Naturally I disagree with some of the Oscar winners. More naturally, I don't understand what some of the categories mean. But nothing shall dissuade me from telling a sizable democratic body of people who devote swaths of their lives to film that their mass conclusions were wrong. So here we go.

The Too Little/Too Late Award
Going to the movie I missed by several years,
but have now seen and wish I'd been on the bandwagon for at the time 
Memories (title short film in the 1995 collection, Memories)

The Raddest Scene Award
Going to the raddest scene in a motion picture
The end of Whiplash
honorable mentions: Happy New Year in Snowpiercer,
Xavier-on-Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Something Physical Books Can't Do

Debate can be such a wonderful waste of passion.
A couple months ago I discovered something physical books can't do. Yangsze Choo tweeted out that her debut novel, The Ghost Bride, was on sale for two bucks on the Kindle. Immediately I mentally scrolled through every conversation I'd had about the book, and through every person who'd seemed interested in its premise of a posthumous marriage being realized in Fantasy. Then, I started gifting copies to people. Two bucks per copy of a great novel, delivered instantly over thousands of miles, to people I held dear. It was something physical books have never offered.
Books Vs. eBooks is a wretched argument that won't actually sway consumer practices. People who grew up with physical books and enjoy the feel of pages and smell of paper won't find a substitute in e-readers. Meanwhile, kids growing up with tablets won't have the same attachment. Tablets and phones take less space, are more convenient for traveling, and have more functions than my doorstop copy of the Riverside Chaucer. Both forms have appeals, and the appeals differ between readers. Fighting between loyalists of the two forms is worse than futile, a miserable distraction from the love of reading, and of each other.
The afternoon of instantly gifting Ghost Bride was revelatory. I even signed up for a Barnes & Noble account just to gift a price-matched copy to a friend with a Nook. This was a beautiful new function I'd previously only experienced with digital videogames. Why? Because if a copy of State of Decay was 50% off on Steam, yes I'd want it, but I wouldn't buy it for myself. Meanwhile if a friend was going through a bad break-up and loved zombies? Yes, I'd be very likely to gift the game to him. That's the kind of impulse buyer I am. I don't grab the candy bar through the checkout line for myself, and I'm not alone.
It cemented itself into my heart when one friend IM'd me that she'd torn through the book. She was struggling with clinical depression and hadn't read any book to completion in a year. It was a loss for humanity, because until her problems, she was the absolute best kind of reader, enthusiastic to consume, discuss and share, with broad tastes and minimal cynicism. Health took that from her, and she was thousands of miles away, so I could never be there for her the way you'd want to be for a good friend.
And then, after finishing my two-dollar gift, she was sifting through the digital storefront for more things to read. Screw it, pun intended: her love of reading was reKindled.
I'll still browse bookstores. Yet eBooks appeal partially because my friends are global, and the neighborhood we chat in is the internet. Now I could tweet about my Ghost Bride buying kick, only to have Choo herself give me a personal message to relay my friend whose work she'd loved.
This is more exciting than Amazon's Paper White, or new screen tech that will mimic the texture of low grain paper as you swipe. This is a sharable future that appeals to me as not just a customer, nor as a reader, but as a friend. Cynically, it's a great way to get more money out of people like me. And I'll thank you for the privilege.

Monday, February 9, 2015

You Will Never Be My Friend (Request)

I get a lot of random Friend Requests on Goodreads. I'm a Librarian, and I have a few lightning rod reviews, so people find me. Generally I'll accept because I love reading reviews from new perspectives, or of niches of prose that I'm not exposed to. I've got friends who gobble classics, manga, memoir, and Epic Fantasy, helping point me to what I might have missed, or challenge my own prejudices.

Sometimes, though, I cross someone like the guy who friended me last week. His name is withheld because he's got enough anger in his life.
Right around when I accepted, he posted a tirade review against Stephen King's The Stand. I love The Stand; it's a landmark achievement in Epic Urban Fantasy. "M-O-O-N" is a reference I keep going back to, and the uncut edition's epilogue is intensely unnerving. This fellow hated the pacing, the unbelievable plot elements, and mostly, the act of being alive while reading it. It was unfortunate in its bile and lacking the perspective-challenging insight that I need out of a negative review. Still, not a sin.
Then he posted a review ripping apart Andy Weir's The Martian. I'd just read that, too, and was curious for his dissent, but more than half his review was quoting people who'd liked it and questioning how they could have read the same book. His argument that "funny isn't a personality" deeply bothered me, as I found the narrator's humor incredibly refreshing (I've slightly misquoted so he can't be google-stalked).
Yesterday he posted a 1-star review of Hamlet
Now look: Hamlet is the only Shakespeare I unequivocally enjoy. I dislike plenty of popular and important works. You can't be a writer without having taste clash.

But to have hated The Stand, The Martian, and Hamlet all in such a short period of time was alarming. That's a wide range of promising fiction to hate.
When I checked his profile, I found he hadn't given any books more than two stars so far this year. My knee-jerk response was to worry he had some psychological problems.

Then I saw he'd self-published two books of his own. He was an author on Goodreads there, at least in part, to promote his own work.
Sometimes, unfriending is the kindest recourse.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Submissions Are Open for Viable Paradise, OR, Why Leigh Wallace is My Gosh-Darned Hero

They teach you about symbolism, too.
While I was in the hospital, submissions opened for the Viable Paradise workshop. It's run by the incomparable James Macdonald and Debra Doyle, and attracts superstar staff-authors like Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear. If you're a beginning or emerging writer, you want to go to VP. It's held every October in Martha's Vineyard, a week in a cozy hotel space with a couple dozen other aspiring authors, and a host of professionals who critique your work and educate on the underpinnings of storytelling and the publishing industry. I learned more in one week at VP than any year of college. If you take your craft seriously, you could not ask for a better week.

But that's not why you want to go to Viable Paradise. There's something more.

Through shared interest and mutual support, some classmates came to feel like family. The workshop improved our game through insights and streamlining. In the year after my class, I sold my first pro-rate short story. Many classmates sold their first pro shorts, too, or pro flashes. One friend giddily explained to me that she was paid more for one anthology acceptance than everything she'd ever made in writing before.

That's not why you want to go to Viable Paradise, either.

If you fast-forwarded a year after VP17, you'd find that my body turned on me. Close friends, including some VP alums, were rightly scared for me. My health has always been poor, but over the course of nine months my body rejected the meds I'd always relied on, and then four new experimental courses of medication. The pain became so disorienting that my ability to multitask disappeared. I spent two hours writing symptoms on a piece of paper so I could read them at the doctor, because I was incapable of having a casual discussion about them. My ability to write, and finish stories, dwindled.

And if you care about writing, then this is why you want to go to Viable Paradise.

Because a month ago I was lost in the wilderness of illness, completely unable to edit my work anymore, despite having what I'm sure was the best short story I've ever written. It was a promising first draft, and became a phenomenal third draft, and in December I could tell it just needed its science rigorously checked. The story is about a sympathetic, even funny, protagonist with albinism, one attempt to counter the Evil Albino trope. And while I'd done a lot of legwork to depict albinism accurately, I could not check my own science further. Paragraphs felt insurmountable. The pain, and the brain-fog that chronic pain brings on, were winning. Having your best work just outside your grasp is purgatorial.

Leigh Wallace, one of my classmates from Viable Paradise, e-mailed me an offer. She'd check the science of the story for me. She'd read up on albinism and ocular disorders, and flag whatever I'd gotten wrong or left confusing. She'd point out my problems and then all I'd have to do was fix them.

She turned the story back over to me in days. The way she marked it up? It was so accessible that I corrected the entire story in a weekend. And it was a hard weekend on the health front, my friends. Leigh was my gosh-darned hero.

Now the story is out to markets, and I am on a sixth course of medication. At least for today, I'm thinking clearer and making the most of that clarity. I'm beta reading a classmate's novel.

That's why you want to go Viable Paradise. The greatest gift a workshop can give is supportive relationships with other smart writers who can have your back when your back gives out.

Submissions are open here. If you get in, congratulations! My advice is to spend half your time working hard at your craft, and the other half helping your classmates with theirs. That's the gift.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

This Beautiful 2015 of Ours

Because I'm numerically attracted to things that end in 0's and 5's, I've been waiting a solid four years for 2015. A couple weeks in, and it looks outrageously promising. Come with me.
In 2015, one of the greatest short story writers I've ever had the privilege to read is releasing a new collection. Kelly Link's Get in Trouble is due out in February. It's the first book I've pre-ordered in years.

This month, Selma sees a wide release. Today, it was nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards. The social media response? The people who've seen it were angry it didn't get nominated for more things.
This summer, Mamoru Hosoda will release his new movie, The Boy and the Beast. It's not a romance, but instead looks like Hosoda's first film set in an urban environment, a crossover between the demon world and ours that leads to fuzzy bonding. Hosoda's previously created three incredible films: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and The Wolf Children. With just those three movies, Hosoda became my favorite living director. No one has the combination of his eye and imagination.

Later this year, Playdead Studios will release INSIDE, their second game as a group. Their first is one of the few perfect videogames in existence: LIMBO. Playdead needed private funding to make LIMBO, and then managed to profit enough off of it to buy their independence from their corporate parent. And this year, they're giving us this:

This is also the year that Nero will release its second album. Their first, Welcome Reality, is the only real reason that I say I like Dubstep. Turn up your noses at Dubstep's alleged lack of art, but at the end of that album, after all the tech beats and heavy drops, Nero rearranged all the themes of all the major tracks into a 17-minute symphony.
It's telling of my psychology that I present optimism for a year through art. Art is what swirls up inside me where the more moral or political mammals are fueled by events. This does not dismiss the importance of events and progress, though 2015 is scheduled to be a good year. 
Around the world, more people will access the internet than ever. By the sheer amount of possible connections, more people will talk to more people than ever before. Somebody who thinks they are alone in this world will find somebody who understands them.
On Monday, I have an appointment to see what we can do about my body rejecting medication so frequently in 2014. It would be quite the year for me if we find a remedy, but 2015 will be a good year even if I don't make it all the way through.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Best Reads of 2014

2014 was a rough year. Twice, I found myself so sick for prolonged stretches of time that I wasn't cognitively capable of reading at all. That's why it was a surprise to look over my Goodreads list and remember that I've actually read a plethora of incredible prose this year. While I may have gotten down on film and videogames, books have remained something special. This might even be my favorite line-up since we started the #bestreads tradition.

So here are my twelve darlings. I couldn't cut it any further.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Dinner Prayer 2014

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
bless us for our good intentions,
which always outstrip our good works.

Today: please be kind to those who couldn’t be here,
and those who shouldn’t be here,
and those we just decided not to invite.

Bring bread to those who have not,
and softer hearts to those of us who don’t share their bread as much as they could.

We ask not for a richer world,
but for you to make us better citizens of it,
to love and appreciate each other as much as we can,
and for lenience, when we disappoint.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Catching Up

This is the first year my sister has hosted Thanksgiving dinner, and God has decided to celebrate by sending a blizzard for my drive. While there's much I should blog about, I'd like to catch up on five dear topics:

1. The World Fantasy Convention was wonderful.
When I got home, several things I don’t care to write about fell on me at the same time and I never got to write up what a lovely time I had at the WFC. I got to spend an hour digging into what makes Max Gladstone’s fantastic world work, and to gush at Ted Chiang and Guy Gavriel Kay. My God, the number of fascinating people I met. Seeing VP classmates was a blessing each time, even when I couldn’t hear anyone over the noise of the bar. It’s one of the finest publishing conventions I’ve ever attended, and I will do my damnedest to attend the one in Saratoga Springs next-year. Join me?

2. io9 Likes Me?

So in the middle of everything, I was quoted for a full paragraph in an io9 article called “7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction and Fantasy Needs to Stop Using.” James Whitbook appreciated my old essay on the vast potential of Fantasy to stretch beyond visions of Fake Feudal Europe. It was a lovely thing to wake up to that morning. I stand by the essay, too.

3 “Wet” is now available for free.
Earlier this month my short story “Wet” was published in the first issue Urban Fantasy Magazine. With the magazine now out there, they have posted “Wet” for free on their website. While the magazine is Pay-What-You-Want and very slickly designed for e-readers, anyone who prefers browser reading can click right through. I’m very proud of this little story, which is about a ghost, and the patience only an immortal can have for her. I’d love your feedback on it.

4. What do you think happened in this airport bathroom?

5. Start Thinking About Best Reads 2014.As December approaches, I'm reflecting on the splendid books I've this year. I'll be hosting the annual Best Reads blog hop again this year, probably starting right after Christmas, giving anyone who wants in enough time to check their shelves. Any books, published at any time in human history, that you read for the first time this year, and that struck you the strongest.

So, that's four. I've got to get the family lasagna together. What have you all been up to?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Wet" is in the first issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

This week the first-ever issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine was published. Its first two stories are "A Chance of Cats and Dogs," by the award-winning Ken Scholes and "Wet," by myself. I'm honored to be in their first issue, and in this company. The magazine is currently available in EPUB and MOBI formats for Pay What You Want. One penny, ten bucks, it's up to you.

"Wet" is the story of a friendship between an immortal and a ghost, between someone who can't die and somehow who is traumatized by dying far too young.

It's a ghost that speaks exclusively in the voice of GWAR.

It's an immortal that volunteers as the fire department as a first responder, because what's the worst that can happen if the building collapses? You dig me out in a week.

The things these two can mean for each other... well, you'll see.

I'm so proud of this story, and not just because it's one of my more unbridled imagination pieces. Something I strive for is to mix to the absurdly humorous and the cathartic, which are the two things we owe ghosts. If you've ever enjoyed the imagination or humor of The Bathroom Monologues, then you're going to like getting "Wet."

A great thanks to everyone at UBF for giving me this chance. For other writers, they're open for submissions and pay SFWA pro-rates. They already have some amazing stuff in store, including work by Carrie Vaughn and Tim Powers.

If you read "Wet," I'd love to know your responses. Comment here, on UBF's site, or at my e-mail, bathroomDOTmonologuesATgmailDOTcom.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jaws is Not a Halloween Movie

"We need a Halloween movie."


"No, Jaws is a winter movie."

"You mean summer?"

"No, watch it when it can't ruin swimming for you."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Are Zombie Stories Always Disasters?

Yesterday I finished John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, and I wanted to call it the most creative zombie story since Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Except Handling the Undead was published the year before Brooks’s novel, and I simply took a while finding it. They’re opposed books, because World War Z is the best at what zombies always are, those rotting hordes of the apocalypse. Handling the Undead makes you question why they’re always that.

At this point, Zombie might as well be a genre. It’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, usually gory, stories of survival and moral ambiguity. Humans turn out to be the ultimate evil more regularly than in The Twilight Zone. Every year people proclaim zombies must be done, but The Walking Dead only gets bigger ratings, and more videogames and indie authors produce the rotting hordes. I haven’t fatigued of the zombie, which is the unusual promise that the world we live in will be transformed into a fantasy playground. But I do wonder about it becoming so conventional.

Early on, Handling the Undead de-fangs the zombie apocalypse by showing the police and military immediately rolling in against dangerous ones, while are others are so weak (they’ve been decomposing, for God’s sake) that their families can overtake and even keep them. It’s so matter-of-fact, both from the accounts of survivors and the newspaper-like chapters that fill us in on the world’s reactions, that it wholly disarms the fantasy of the undead toppling everything.

What they topple is the catharsis of death. A mother grieving over a dead son now has something even more inexplicable in her house. She doesn’t know if he’ll recover, if he remembers her, if she can feed or help him. She yearns to, and we read with hands over our mouths, hoping he won’t bite her the next time she leans in.

It’s not a story of headshots and desperate amputations. It made me wonder about Warm Bodies, which I couldn’t stand, but also didn’t give a chance to. YA Romance is so far from my wheelhouse that I didn’t consider it as a property changing the zombie and the story of zombieism. Handling the Undead got more leeway, both because its author wrote Let the Right One In, and because it was about the pathos of the sting of death being removed, which was more novel. Even Shaun of the Dead is really the same old zombie story, but with very funny handling. Part of its appeal is it talked about zombies the way our generation had been doing for years. It wasn’t this disruptive.

Eventually the zombie apocalypse gets so familiar that this happens.
Handling the Undead breaks some explicit and some unspoken rules about zombies. That’s what we all do now, right? You want them to run, you want the bite to be an instant change, etc. For Lindqvist, the undead don’t immediately go after flesh, and he plays on your expectation of this brilliantly, as you’re fearing for mourners who get too close. They seemingly respond to the emotional states of those around them (this is going to start the flesh-eating, isn’t it?).

More pregnant are the unspoken rules it breaks, for instance: zombies no longer spawn like hordes of videogame enemies whenever convenient. I love The Walking Dead comic, but both the comic and show get silly with the number of zombies that show up miles from any source of food or civilization, like they’re smelling the plot. You need that unspoken rule if you’re going to tell an action story. Handling the Undead, though, is about the emotional effects on loved ones of the recently returned.

It’s when you tamper with those “rules” that are actually contrived conventions that audiences can wonder why all those other stories act alike. There’s drama in a mass of zombies banging on the hero’s door when he’s only got two bullets left, but there’s a rarer drama in a devastated grandfather researching what medical equipment might keep his returned grandson alive, and the knowledge that if he can sustain the boy, he’ll have to flee the city to keep him safe from the government.

The disruption underlies what excites me most in all Speculative Fiction. We’ve seen so many cynical zombie stories that we know where most of it will go, that the old world will die and any non-protagonists will probably form negative groups, like cults and corrupt military pockets. But when you take a creature that is typically the engine of global disaster, and instead apply it to the internal life of specific people who don’t even get the reprieve of oppressive social orders disappearing, it can become something else. The humanity of it is unyielding, ironically, because it can’t die anymore.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Couple of Horrors - #fridayflash

It’s not my fault we live in the middle of the woods. It’s not hers, either, but I can use this. We finish Nightmare on Elm Street around 2:30 AM and hustle to get the Netflix disc back to the mailbox before the morning mail. That is a quarter mile trek under an overcast of clouds and oak boughs, so I bring the flashlight. An actual fog rolls between the trees, making Lita shiver despite her coat and long skirt.

“I don’t know why they remake classics,” I say, depositing the Netflix envelope. I close the lid and flip up the flag. “You know, why not just remake crappy movies? Ones that will benefit from new effects or re-writing?”

She inhales through her nose, loud and elegant, and we both know that no matter how many flaws I can find in this remake, she’ll be afraid to go to sleep tonight. It’s not my fault. Not hers, either, but I can use this. I eye the distance to the edge of the road. About three steps. When we get far enough from the mailbox, I shut off my beam.

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