Saturday, January 24, 2015

Willa



Photo: Bus depot in, I assume, Clifton, Arizona, considering this article where I filched the image.

I've been trying different things to get back in the writing groove again, and nothing's been working.  I slipped off the rails when I got sick about ten days ago, and though I'm much improved--I can breathe, and I can somewhat function--I'm still not up to par.  This at a bad time in the job, too, when I especially need energy and focus.  So I laid off the allergy pills for a few days--they dry me out, like they're supposed to, but I have a serious sinus infection, probably from being too dried out for too long.  Anyway, I've been very foggy-headed, and the pillow has been too comfy and too cool.  I'm sleeping like I haven't in years, but it's not a good sleep.  Long and dream-filled, which is good--but too long, too heavy, too dreamy, and all of it caused by allergies and exhaustion.  I'm yawning all the time, feeling exhausted and drained, blowing my nose, which I don't normally do because I'm so congested all the time, and everything's clear because I need an antihistamine--but to get one, I'll get congested, and around we go.  I've also been on strike against the antibiotics I got four days ago, but I'm taking them now...

Anyway, all this to say that I'm in a fairly confused place, with my novel's unwritten Chapter 41 staring me in the face, so I reverted finally to a tactic that spurred some writing a few years ago: read a short story, then write a chapter, then read another short story, then write something besides my main book--maybe another book's chapter, or a short story, or one of my very many nonfiction things...or even a blog entry.  Lots of writing to do for a guy who hasn't done any in awhile.

So I remembered a little snippet in this week's Entertainment Weekly (a friend of mine lets me read hers) that said that a show, or a movie, or something, was being made of Stephen King's short story, "The Things They Left Behind."  And I remember thinking, What the hell was that?  King has written literally hundreds of short stories, so nobody--including King himself, I'll bet--can remember them all.  But even if I've forgotten about something, I usually remember that I used to remember it, if you know what I mean.  My memory is good enough so that some kind of bell rings.  But not this time.

(What did I do--buy the book and never read it?  You know, two things go when you get older: the first thing's your memory, and I can't remember what the second thing is.)

I picked up the book collection--Just After Sunset--and read the story, which is in the middle of the book.  (It'll be reviewed in another post.  Suffice it to say it's a quick little story about the nightmare and guilt of 9/11.)  Then I remembered that reading short stories used to jumpstart my writing, so I read the first story, and--yeah, it worked again, thank God.  Chapter 41 is done, for those who care, and I like it.  (I don't always.  No writer likes his work all the time.)

Now I'll do this every day until it doesn't work anymore and I've been derailed again.  And while I'm at it, I figured I'd write a post about any of the short stories it jives me to do so.  And so...

Speaking of being derailed--

"Willa" is the first story in the book, and it's very good.  It involves a group of people who are dead (this is Stephen King, remember) from a train derailment.  Most of them know it, though just one allows herself to fully let it sink in.  Her fiancée lets it sink into him, too, finally.

But this story is more than just that.  In this genre, there are thousands of stories where the characters are dead--so much so that editors openly say they don't want any more stories where the characters find out in the end that they're dead.  (See that list of Please No More of These Plots in this entry.)  Stephen King can do what he wants, of course, and he'll get published, but he gives us more because he knows his readers have seen that before.  And maybe because he has, too.

This story is more about being different.  About walking your own road.  The Amtrak train derails and they all die, but everyone stands around in an old train depot while Willa walks away and enters a honkytonk dive in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming.  She wants people, and music.  She wants to live.  David, her fiancée, wants to find her, but everyone tells him not to go.  He'll get lost.  He'll get eaten by wolves.  He'll miss the recovery train...One even says his fiancée doesn't give a damn about him--if she did, she wouldn't have just walked off, right?

But Willa sees what's in front of her face, even if everyone hates her for it.  He finds her, accepts that he's dead, and they both go back to tell everyone else.  (Various things happen in the story to prove they're dead.)  But nobody believes them, and after many insults they start walking back to the bar.

The story ends with a lot of nice, wistful images.  Everyone's standing in that bus depot, that now we know really isn't in operation (it's about 30 years after their train accident, but time's elastic in death) and they're all wasting their time, not doing anything, not moving on, not living--even in death.  Get it?  All stories of all genres have themes and points.  This one: You can't move on if you can't accept harsh truths.  The story ends with the knowledge that the depot will be demolished soon...and what will happen to those unknowing ghosts then?  Will they just wisp away in the desert wind?

Very good story.  Makes me think of a few to write myself.

Check it out if you haven't already.  Or, even if you have.

P.S.--I often wonder how authors come up with their characters' names.  I try to come up with a name (I have one tried and true--and...different...method) and I see if it matches the character's traits in any way.  If it's too obvious--well, that might be okay.  So I'll guess Willa's origin:

1.  The story takes place in the desert prairie of Wyoming.  Willa Cather (or, how many other Willas are there?) wrote novels and stories that took place on the open prairie, though usually in Nebraska.  (Though she lived mostly in NYC and, before that, in Pittsburgh.  And she was born in Virginia.  But, whatever.)  Stephen King--a former English teacher and a very literate (if not literary) writer--would know this.

2.  Willa Cather's stories were often about headstrong women, a century ahead of their time.  Willa Cather herself was a headstrong woman well ahead of her time, for many reasons.  The Willa in King's story is a very headstrong woman, different from everyone else derailed in the train.

3.  They both had a very strong will.  I mean, c'mon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin



Photo: The book's hardcover edition, from its Wikipedia page.

A gripping continuation of the saga, and--if possible--a bit more  gritty and ghoulish than its predecessors.  (The title refers to the incredible number of mutilated and rotting bodies laying and hanging and floating all over the land.)  But it still envelops you in its web of world-building.
 
Martin continues to embed us in this world, and does so here by focusing more on some of the more minor characters of the other books, as well as a couple of new ones, while also furthering the paths of Cersei, Jaime, Sam, Sansa and Arya.  Brienne of Tarth gets a larger stage than ever before, as does Sandor Clegane, who she killed in the show, but not yet (if at all) in the books.  He reappears with a woman (maybe) under a grey cloak, who may, or may not, be a character somehow brought back from the dead.  You'll have to decide, but I have my doubts--though, in truth, I don't really know what I'm doubting.

Sansa and Arya hide under assumed names--names that they take to heart a bit too much for me at first, to the extent that the chapters are entitled with their adopted names, to the amazement and confusion of all.  The girls even call themselves these fake names in their thoughts, which got to be a little creepy.  You get used to it, but they became just a smidge too Sybil for me.  And it was a little jarring, and a tiny bit confusing, what with all the names already for the reader to deal with.  But I stayed the course.

Gone from the narrative are Tyrien, Jon Snow, and Stannis.  They're around, just not in the book.  The same cannot be said for the Onion Knight, Stannis's Hand (or, for that matter, for Jaime's hand; sorry), who apparently gets killed off-, off-, off-stage.  Just a quick quip from one of the characters--easy to miss in these 900+ pages.  But characters have the tendency to not die, and not just like Beric Dondarrion, who has died, and not, six times now.  But characters also tend to just re-appear, not dead, though other characters, and sometimes the reader, thought they were.  So, again, I have my doubts.

Speaking of Beric Dondarrion, I had to look up his last name to finish one of the sentences above.  I don't mind telling you, there's a large city of names being thrown at you by now in this series, so if you find yourself pausing for a moment after reading about a character, and thinking, "Wait.  Who the hell is this again?", don't feel bad.  What can you expect with literally dozens of names, and two newly fake names, and a handful of new characters, all being thrown at you at the same time?  Don't stop reading because you forgot, for example, Beric's last name.  Keep with it.

The reader will be rewarded at the end, if the reader, like me, was wondering how one of the characters could get away with so much for so long.  Maybe the tide has turned on that.  Speaking of the tides, there's a new group of people to deal with who pray to the god of the sea, a religion founded on the baptismal drowning of its believers.  Sort of.  Anyway, they need a new king, and they get one, kind of.  This takes a long time to happen, and is a bit interesting, and a bit not, at the same time.  This is perhaps my only complaint here.

But the 900+ pages whisked by--no small feat, that.  The book is good enough to throw all this at you, which would be annoying from most books and book series, but is not here.  It has now become addicting, to the extent that I find myself occasionally thinking and speaking like its characters.  I don't look forward to seeing something now, for example.  Now I yearn to set my eyes upon it.  It's become such an addiction that I was dismayed to find that I do not have the fifth in the series, A Dance with Dragons.  I'll have to pick it up soon, once the temps warm up enough outside so that I don't have to worry about my breathe immediately freezing and falling like dead weight upon my foot.  (It's one degree out right now, with a -20 wind chill.  It's so cold I'm losing a fortune in heating, but I'm so glad to be comfy and warm that I don't care.)

Perfect weather for this book, as it's often cold and wet and miserable for all its characters, internally and externally.  Makes me want to drink some warm or hot wine, or maybe some dreamwine, and build a fire until the wind and cold subside.  See?  You get engrossed in that world.  Or, maybe I've read too much and not slept enough.

Friday, January 16, 2015

History's Lost Treasures by Eric Chaline


Photo: The book's cover, from its Amazon page.

The second-to-last book I read in 2014 was this extremely interesting and informative book probably best read on The Throne, especially since each chapter is two pages long, max.  But the articles can teach the reader quite a bit about history, which the author, who I've never heard of, clearly knows thoroughly.  He writes about people, events and things very casually, as if he's so familiar with them that he forgets others may not be.
 
This could've led to pedantic and professorial prose, but it never does.  In fact, Chaline clearly took great pains to make this as conversational as possible, sometimes to a fault.  At points it becomes too author-intrusion opinionated.  At others, it becomes a bit pedestrian, like the authors' bios at the back of YA books that try too hard to connect to the YA reader.  The kids are much more sophisticated than that, I assure you; similarly, the author here at times forgets that his audience might be a little more sophisticated than he thinks.
 
I bought this in the remainder bin (for less than seven bucks), and I had to list this title manually on Goodreads (where you'll find my reviews for dozens of books), so take those for what they're worth.
 
All that notwithstanding, this is, as I mentioned, a very interesting and informative book that reads like it was written by scholarly-type on a scholarly-type website, and it probably is somewhere.  I'll guess you can find it on Amazon for a few pennies. (Not that I'm in favor of the public doing that, as the author generally loses out.)
 
Lost treasures (some found, some not) include:

Wondrous burial goods: Tutankhamun's death mask • A real crock of gold: The treasure of Villena • Sunken plunder: The Nuestra Señora de Atocha • Religious rarities: The unique Jain bronzes of Chausa • Stolen artworks: The missing van Gogh paintings • Dazzling gems: The La Peregrina Pearl

No matter how you get a copy, you should do so, even if you read it in small doses, in the room I mentioned above.  There's no sin in that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Game of Thrones -- A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin



Photo: U.S. hardcover, from the book's Wikipedia page

Unbelievably entertaining and engrossing read, which--as I pointed out in my review of its predecessor--is really saying something, since I knew every major thing that was going to happen.  That in no way took away from the read, and may even have enhanced it.

As is necessary for high fantasy, and perhaps fantasy in general, the writing is so totally enveloping that it is like you're in that world.  World-building has to be perfect in books like this, but I'll bet that it's rarely this much so.  The Lord of the Rings books were less world-built than are these; I don't mean that as a negative towards Tolkien, as he paved the road and showed the way.  But Martin doesn't focus on over-description of grasses and trees.  Instead his writing is completely focused on completeness in every way: how everything looks, smells, etc., just as you're taught in writing classes, though not to this extent.  He doesn't just description from all of the senses: he focuses more on the sight and the sound, and less on the others.  And he does not describe to the detriment of the action, as Tolkien did.

Some scenes are better in the show, but to describe how and why would be to partly ruin the experience of reading the book, or watching the show.  So just a quick mention of what things are different, without mentioning how they're different:

--though the end of this book brings you up-to-date with this past season's end, the book ends with something not yet seen on the show.

--Brienne of Tarth does not do in the Hound.  I prefer the book's way.  It struck me as unrealistic that Brienne would run across Arya and the Hound, way out in the middle of nowhere, on an outcropping.

--Ygritte does not get killed by a little boy shooting an arrow.  I prefer the show's way, though I admit the book's way is much more realistic.  Martin does not go for the melodrama.

--Something major happens to Jon Snow on the Wall in the book and not in the show.  At least not yet.

--Littlefinger's dialogue before his push is much better in the show.  Essentially the same in both, but the show just nails it so much better.

--(Martin is better than the show's writers with the overall dialogue, and the everyday expressions, etc.  But at a climactic moment, the show's writers really nail it.  And this isn't because I saw it before I read it.  Trust me.)

--The book emphasizes how many guys Cersei sleeps with.  It's clearly a weapon for her.  The show does not...well, show this.

--The book makes it very clear who killed Joffrey.  Good to know I got it right from the show.  We know from the show that Littlefinger was behind the whole thing (which I wouldn't have figured out), but who exactly put the poison in the cup?  Oops...You did know it was the wine and not the cake, right?

--The book breaks the battle of the Wall into two or three distinct parts, over a few days.  The show gives it to us all at once, all in one episode.  I like the show's take better.

--The book does not show the giant's attack in the tunnel like the show does.  It was a good call of the show's to do so.

And there's more, but you get the idea.  I realized while reading that the show made some excellent decisions about what to emphasize (the scene between Tywin and Tyrien was better in the show, too, as is Tyrien's dialogue at that climactic moment) and what not to.  It is a rare thing that a show is better than its material, but it's a close call here.

But that's not why you should read the book.  The writing does something that the show, no matter how hard (or successfully) it tries, cannot duplicate: it envelops you into its world-building so completely that even a visual medium cannot match.

P.S.--This was the last book I read in 2014.  It was my 25th, for a total of 10,283 pages.  About 27% of those pages were just the three Game of Thrones books I read.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Hobbit--The Battle of the Five Armies


 Photo: Smaug, interviewed by Stephen Colbert, from the movie's Wikipedia page.

There's been some major backlash in my neck of the woods about these Hobbit films.  Not excessive negativity, exactly.  Nobody's saying they hate these films, including this last one.  The consensus is that they're not as good as the Lord of the Rings films.

They're not, of course.  The LOTR films had more relevance, more spirituality (and, strangely, I mean that), more clarity of vision, and more of an iconography going for it than do these films.  I'm on vacation right now, so I watched the three LOTR films and the two previous Hobbit films, and there's certainly no comparison.  The LOTR films are better.

But that doesn't make the Hobbit films bad.  In fact, when I watched the other two, the third one seemed even better to me than it had just on its own.  There is a saga here, a more subtle, less pronounced relevance and spirituality than the LOTR movies.  (And these don't have talking trees, which can't be a bad thing.)  To appreciate this one more, maybe we need to remember the beginning of the first Hobbit movie.

Erebor had been the greatest kingdom ever built.  It was ruled by a king, his son and his grandson.  This grandson, Thorin Oakenshield, is the main character of the Hobbit movies (and maybe of the books, but I have to admit I haven't read them) in much the same way that Aragon was the main character of the LOTR movies.  Both stories were "written" and narrated by hobbits, but they passed themselves off as spectators in their own writings, a la Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  They were much more than that, of course, and may have been the main characters themselves, but they didn't "write" them that way.  Thematically, much of the relevance is carried by Thorin and Aragon.

This may be one of the major differences, now that I think of it.  Frodo Baggins is the main character of the LOTR movies because he is the Ringbearer.  He's the one on The Quest, as opposed to Aragon and the others, who are on the same such quest as Frodo is, though Aragon is also on his own internal journey: He is the king in the Return of the King, after all.  But his major importance is helping Frodo.  In The Hobbit, it may be the opposite.  Bilbo Baggins is the major character, overall, because he finds the ring, and because he becomes the Ringbearer, though he does not realize it at the time.  If he doesn't steal the ring, Sauron will get when Sauroman gets Gollum; instead, Bilbo the Thief essentially steals it from Gollum and brings it, for awhile, to safety in the Shire.  But for most of the movies, Bilbo is helping Thorin on his quest, not the other way around.  And, as someone mentioned recently, fewer people will care about Thorin.  They wanted to get to the Ring.

But the Hobbit films are really not about the Ring.  They are necessary, however, in the same way that this last film shows: Cause and effect.  The dragon drives Thorin and his people from their home as a symbolic representation of the greed of his people.  If you're going to care that much for the gold, then someone else will, too.  Like a dragon.  So the dragon takes over and the gold--and, more importantly, the mountain and the land--are safe because nobody wants to mess with the dragon.  But when the dragon dies, the gold and the mountain are open for all takers.  Turns out, there are five.

Here's where I think most people lose track of the relevance here, or maybe this is where Tolkien and / or Peter Jackson failed to highlight it enough.  As someone said in this last movie, it's not the gold that's more important, it's the mountain and the land.  The mountain sits in the middle of an important trade route.  Control the mountain, you control the trade.  And the "people" who count on that trade.

For those who know their history--as Tolkien did; he was a respected linguist and expert in old societies and languages long before he was a famous author of high fantasy.  His translation of Beowulf was the standard before Fitzgerald and Heaney came along--this should all sound familiar.  It is the purpose of Thorin's life to recapture his land from its usurpers.  This is the main point.  Bilbo gets it when he tells them why he didn't run away when he had the chances: Because he has a home to go back to.  These people have been kicked out of theirs, and that's not right.  And so he will help them to get it back.

In Tolkien's lifetime, such was exactly the case with the Middle East.  (I'm no historian, so forgive whatever butchery of history may now occur.)  The Middle East is a land mass unlike any other in the world.  Without traveling it, if you want to get to Africa, you'd have to take a ship or plane.  Those who control the Middle East control all trade (today, much or most of the trade) coming and going from all of Africa.  Control that, and you will have riches and power, then and now.  Combine that with the extreme religious significance of those lands (three of the world's major religions spring from it) and combine that with the concentration of oil there, and you've got land that everyone wants.

And they'll all fight for it.  As they all have been, for the last three+ thousand years.  With no end in sight.  If I remember my Old Testament right, the Jews had control of that land--though even in those pages, there were many wars and many different nationalities ruling that land.  Finally, by the time of the writings in the New Testament, the Jews were driven out by the Romans in...60 to 70 BCE (this is all off the top of my head here) and for almost two thousand years had not been officially recognized as the leaders of that area, especially Israel.  But in 1948, the Jewish State (more of a political term than a geographical one, I think) was firmly established and recognized.  And there's been war there ever since, of course.

Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, but the war over the Middle East and the Jewish insistence on inhabiting that land reached a pitch throughout the thirties, and, as a historian, he was very much aware of it.  Tolkien insisted that the Lord of the Rings books had nothing to do with the Nazis, Jews and World War II, and I'll bet he said that the Hobbit books had nothing to do with what I've just been writing about.  But Robert Frost also said that his poem "The Road Not Taken" was a pastiche of overly-sentimental poetry with Deep Meaning, popular at the time.  But sometimes the artist is the worst judge of his own art, or of the creation of it.  If Tolkien's writing had nothing to do with any of this, I'll eat my next paycheck.  (Instead of the banks and utility companies, who eat them now.)

In fact, it is said in the Hobbit movies that the battle fought for the mountain would be the battles to end all battles.  The final battle would be fought there.  This sounds like the Middle East and the Apocalypse again.  In fact, isn't that the reason for this ultimate battle, in the movie and of the proposed future Armageddon?  Not for the people or of the riches or of the religious significance of the area--but for the fight against those trying to claim them.  It'd be the mother of all battles, involving many armies (The Hobbit has five), because they were not fighting for something, but against it.

At any rate, it's all tied together.  Everything's connected, these books and movies say (though probably more the books than the movies; Tolkien would write more about the history and Jackson would make a movie more about the dragon and gold, as a moviemaker should), and indeed it is.  No Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings.  (I wonder if Tolkien paused while writing--minutely--about the Ring in the Hobbit, which was really more of a children's book.  Did he know he was going to springboard from that when he wrote it, or afterward?)  No Thorin, no Aragon.  Both try not to just reclaim their kingdoms and kingships, but their honor and place in history, as well.  In the fight against the world's worst evils, who wouldn't want to be remembered?

This is more of what the Hobbit movies are about.  It's not as explicit as in the LOTR movies, but it's there.  And that's sort of the point.  History is rarely obvious.  It's a slow and gradual buildup of cause and effect, of things both great and small.  It's knowing there was a Cole before there was a 9/11.

Or, it's just a good CGI / special effects movie with more intelligence and relevance than usual for the genre.  Sometimes I think too much.