Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ear Poetry

It's a bit of a cliched image, the young lad standing ramrod straight and dressed in his best Victorian finery, at the front of the parlour before enduring guests and adoring family, reciting classic poetry of the highest moral rectitude, poems "with plain, easy rhythms, uncomplicated heroics and unabashed pathos." Modern society may look back upon such activity with a mix of amusement and mockery, but I think we may be missing something of value, for poetry has a way of making us face aspects of our culture we would rather ignore. And poetry is at its strongest when delivered in a clear, strong voice bereft of moral uncertainty.

Unfortunately, not only has the high tide of poetry passed, revealing jagged shoals, but very little modern poetry is intended to be read aloud. Indeed, try to recite most current poems and your tongue will either fall off or you'll Gibbs-slap yourself with it. The poems most successful in verbal performance today are still those gems chosen for recitation by that well-schooled lad in the family parlour.  For me, poetry is primarily a verbal tradition; I don't write as many poems as I used to, but when I do write a poem the first thing I do is read it aloud to hear how it sounds. Admittedly, reading a poem is not like reading a short story and takes a different set of skills, but it's well worth the effort.

As our children were growing, we encouraged them to read poems and to recite their favorites to us. I can't say we were entirely successful, but we were as successful as one can be contending against video games, films, television and the myriad other distractions of this digital age. The Kid recited poems about the survivor of the Titanic, the heroics and folly of battle, and the power of Vachel Lindsay's Jungle; above all, the Kidette regaled us with the tale of Poe's "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore" (over and over and over), but she also brought to life Paul Revere's midnight ride, Blake's Tyger burning brightly in the night, and Sandburg's feline "Fog." And they both took a little stroll with the Carpenter and the Walrus, and cavorted with Eliot's Cats. Now, of course, both children are grown and no longer read poetry, but I do hope those forced performances abide with them. They do with me.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

England's Glory

"I started with a matchbox label that read Bryant & May -- England's Glory. That gave me their names, their nationality, and something vague and appealing, the sense of an institution with roots in London's sooty past. I decided that London would be the third character, not the tourist city of guidebooks but the city of invisible societies, hidden parks and drunken theatricals, the people and places I show my friends when the visit. By making my detectives old, I could simultaneously show them as experienced adults and immature children."
-- Christopher Fowler
I am tremendously attracted to any novel set in London, but especially mysteries, but what first caught my eye when I saw Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler a few years ago was the contradiction of the title. Because both my children were high school thespians (one was leaving school as the other entered, so I had eight years of it) and the Kidette is still associated with theater as a playwright, I know lots of theater terms (including "stage slap," but that is another story). I know that full house is every producer's goal, with SRO, and that dark house means there's no performance and the theater's empty. So, a full dark performance to SRO?

Because I so often come across great mystery series after they have been around awhile (and then have to play hunt-and-seek) I was gratified to start with the first book in the series shortly after it was published in 2003. Here we are introduced to the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an agency started during WW2 to deal with crimes that might cause civil unrest or panic among the population. Leading it then, and now, are Arthur Bryant, London's most senior detective, and John May, who is not much less senior. Bryant and May are a study in contrasts, May being dapper and highly organized, and Bryant being anything but; May embraces technology while Bryant makes a Luddite look like a techno-geek; May employs the latest criminology and police techniques, while Bryant trusts intuition and has been known to call in a dowser or a white witch as a consultant from time to time. For some reason (can't figure out why) I'm more partial to Bryant, who has been known to say such things as "No, I don't have to be rude, but it does help to pass the time," and "I'm going to stuff my brain with information till the day I die, and take it with me." And die is what he does in this first book. Sort of.

In The Water Room (2004) we have an elderly lady found drowned in her home, her lungs full of river water, very much in the realm of the classic locked room mystery. Whereas the first book gave us hints and flashes of London's secret and hidden history, here it hits us full in he face, as we learn of layers of London history, ancient evils and rivers that flow through caverns measureless to man. Reading Fowler's book, you get the feeling that he imparting actual history to you, but the trouble is deciding what is fact and what is fiction. In his blog, Christopher Fowler has written that it's actually the more obscure and extraordinary aspects of his stories that are either real or only lightly fictionalized. When I read a book from the series, I find it quite handy to keep a copy of William Kent's An Encyclopaedia of London within consulting distance, and it doesn't hurt to have also read John O'London's London Stories.

The River Fleet--a "lost" river

Initially, the PCU does its business from offices above the Mornington Crescent tube station, a real place, then is forced to relocate to a disreputable warehouse on The Caledonian Road, another very real place. By making use of London's actual psychogeography, he achieves his stated goal or making London the third character of the triptych. Quite often, the two detectives find themselves standing on Waterloo Bridge, discussing cases as they look over the city to which they have devoted most of their lives.

The View from Waterloo

If you have not already discovered the pleasure of the Bryant & May series, you should give it a try before the list gets too long and before any go out of print. They series consists of...
  • Full Dark House (2003)
  • The Water Room (2004)
  • Seventy-Seven Clocks (2005)
  • Ten Second Staircase (2006)
  • White Corridor (2007)
  • The Victoria Vanishes (2008)
  • Bryant & May on the Loose (2009)
  • Off the Rails (2010)
  • The Memory of Blood (2011)
  • Bryant & May and the Invisible Code (2012)
In addition, there is a short story, Bryant & May's Mystery Tour (2011), which is part of the Storycuts program and available to US readers in a Kindle edition. Currently, Fowler is working on The Bleeding Heart, which should be out in 2013, and which I will certainly be looking for.

A bit of an addendum to this post and a bonus for Bryant & May fans. Christopher Fowler wrote a very short Christmas story featuring the two elderly detectives of the PCU. Please enjoy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

November...The Month of Novels

Since we have a day, week or month for everything, seemingly, these days, it come as no surprise that a literary achievement has its own place in the sun as well. November is designated National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and unlike other observations it is not celebrated with parades, speeches or feasts, but with the actual writing of a novel at least 50,000 words long, beginning at Midnight on 1 November,  finishing no later than 11:59:59 PM on 30 November.

The event started in July of 1999 in that most literary of American cities, San Francisco, with a grand total of 21 participants. The creators did it because, as one of the first writers put it, "we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists." By the time the second year rolled around, they had a website, a better title that "just a bunch of people noveling," and 140 participants. They also had a new month -- since July is such a great time to be outdoors (even in SF), they changed it to November when staying out of the weather takes no great incentive.

With each passing year, the participation has increased. In 2011, the number of participants who thought they had a novel in them struggling to get out was 256,618; the number who actually crossed the 50K-word finish line was 36,843.

Panera Bread
Chula Vista Shopping Center
(My Writing Home-Away-From Home)
I first heard of the NaNoWriMo competition several years ago from a girl I used to work with at the Library. Actually, she was quite surprised I had never before heard of it, but I'm not surprised since, except for local news stories (usually involving students, geeks with proud mothers, or cultural exhibitionists), actual coverage of the event by the media is lacking. To be fair to journalists, however, it's not really an event you can cover in the traditional way -- despite the website, the organization, the "write-ins" and web forums, novel writing is, at its core, a quiet struggle between a writer and a blank sheet of paper (or its electronic equivalent); it's a race against time, but there is no physical course to run; it's an act of creation, but even if you print it out, it's still just a stack of paper until someone reads it.

In years past, I've considered jumping in, but I always managed to talk myself out of it, citing one reason or another; one year, a kidney stone made the decision for me. This year, I ran out of excuses, and so I leaped into the fray, registering with the website and staying up late on Halloween night so I could begin typing at the stoke of midnight. 

Now, as you may know if you are a regular reader of Book Scribbles, I've written novels before, but never had I written one in a month. A month is usually the time I allot to a short story, not just because I am slow, but because I usually have several projects going at the same time, not to mention diversions and distractions. For me, novels were massive things written over the course of many months, sometimes edging into years. A novel in a month? Okay, I thought, but I must be crazy.

Here's the way it works: as you write your novel, you regularly update your word count on the National Novel Writing Month website. Of course, you can do this whenever you want, but, as they mention on their suggestions page, daily is good because there is a certain thrill and sense of accomplishment in seeing the cumulative word count increase, and your place on the progress graph; equally exciting, however is seeing the "Words Remaining" total decrease day after day. To finish the novel in thirty days, you need to type, on the average 1,667 words/day; each day you can do a little bit more lowers that average and advances your completion date. I started off with a solid 3,000 the first day, so managed to keep ahead of the curve, which was good since there were a few days when I failed to even meet the minimum.

So, what was my novel about (besides 50K words)? I wrote the story of my three dogs -- Sunny, Yoda & Levi -- as detectives in a pitched battle with a local gang of outlaw cats called the Feral Gang. It was a story I had had in mind for some time, even before Levi passed away a few years ago. When you register the title of the novel on the website, you also choose the genre. Because I had talking dogs and cats (not to mention some other critters) I listed it as children's fiction, but I later changed that to Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.

The cover you see at the left is not the cover of an actual book, but one I created on the computer for illustration purposes on the NaNoWriMo website. But the dogs on the cover are the actual characters in the novel, and they are probably more responsible for the writing of the novel than am I. An old writing maxim is "Characters make the story," and that more than anything else is what helped me finish the project -- I knew the characters from observing them over a period of twenty years, so all I had to do was present them with situations and conflicts and write down what they said and did. Since they were my pets, I never lost sight of the fact that they were animals and not human surrogates.

At the beginning, I did not think I could do it, especially as the midnight hour approached, but I did. I began work on Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery at 12:01 AM on 1 November 2012; by 2:40 PM on 23 November 2012, I finished typing the last word, "dawning," word number 51,408. The point of all of this, however, is not that I can do it but that you can do it. If you have ever thought, I would like to write a novel, but I don't think I can go it alone, then the structure and encouragement (with its numerous pep talks) of NaNoWriMo may be way you need. Go to the website and plan for 2013. You can do it. I did.

ADDENDUM, 28 NOV 2012: It's difficult to write something like Paws & Claws and not yearn for publication. However, the publishing industry seems to be at a nadir, and then there's the matter of genres. If a story cannot be pigeon holed how to market it. Talking animals? Kidlit? No, not really. Detective? Only if dogs can be detectives to an adult. Fantasy? No, no dragons or chicks in chainmail. It does have religion and redemption, but inspirational niches would be an ill fit indeed. So, what does a optimistic cynic do? Go digital and self publish. I may live to regret it. Or not....regret it, that is. I'll let you know.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bram Stoker & His Count...Both Going Strong

Irish writer Abraham "Bram" Stoker (8 Nov 1847 - 20 Apr 1912) turns 165 today, but his popularity has not waned with the passing of the years. Although his fame might not equal that of his literary creation, he has achieved the sort of immortality for which many writers strive but few achieve. It's a particularly remarkable feat when you consider that his fame rests upon a single novel, Dracula. Although he wrote a dozen novels during his career, eight of them were flighty romances of the sort popular in the Victorian Era, and, of the remaining four, three were supernatural or horror tales with a strong streak of romance running through them; there is only one Dracula.

His book The Mystery of the Sea is quite interesting for its maritime mood and dark atmosphere. And his novels The Lair of the White Worm and The Jewell of the Seven Stars (both made into films of dubious quality) are notable for their treatments of ancient legends, one Egyptian, the other British. The Jewell of the Seven Stars, in particular, was quite controversial for its gruesome ending, which his publisher demanded be changed before a reprinting could be considered. But, as well written and well intended as the books are, none of them are Dracula, a book which Stoker researched seven years before sending young solicitor Jonathan Harker in the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains in search of Count Dracula's crumbling castle.

Unfortunately, for modern readers, Dracula suffers much the same fate as young Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in that most people know it by its cinematic avatars and not by the book itself. Even those fans who bought one of the many editions available sometimes must admit to never having actually read it, which is a shame, because it is not only a well-written novel but is told using a format that allows for multiple points of view and layers unusual for a book of its period. It's a novel whose plot is revealed though letters and diary entries written by characters who have varying viewpoints and levels of understanding about the other characters and the events which are touching their lives. Interspersed among these accounts are newspaper clippings written by others who are not involved in the story, adding not only an aspect of objectivity but also of ignorance, which makes the reader feel even more privy to the events. The book is given a patina of realism and verisimilitude by removing Bram Stoker from the position of author within the context of the story and relegating him to the role of editor, the man who gathers together all these disparate writings and tries to make sense of them. Even though sales of the book were not as brisk as hoped when it was first published in  1897, they remained steady and increasing, and the book has not been out of print since.

But, as mentioned, most people know Dracula from his many appearance on stage, screen and television. If Dracula was Bram Stoker's gift to the world, it is the gift that keeps on giving. We have seen Dracula reborn time after time, despite being staked, beheaded and incinerated. He has fought  the Wolfman, Billy the Kid, Sherlock Holmes, and even Batman; Buffy the Vampire Slayer had her shot at him, as did the Flintstones and The Munsters. In the series Sliders, when the gang "slid" into an alternate Earth where vampirism had been illegal since 1865, they encountered a rock band appropriately called Stoker. Like Dracula himself, just when you think you have heard the last of him (and vampires) yet another avatar comes rushing into the public consciousness. Who will die first, Bram Stoker or Dracula? Sorry, we're not taking any bets.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Of Dogs, Robots, Pantropy and Cities...

Clifford Simak, older & wiser
Clifford Simak, young writer

Grown men and women, sixty years old, twenty‑five years old, sit around and talk about the "golden age of science fiction," remembering when every story in every magazine was a masterwork of daring, original thought. Some say the golden age was circa 1928; some say 1939; some favor 1953, or 1970, or 1984. The arguments rage till the small of morning, and nothing is ever resolved. Because the real golden age of science fiction is twelve ....
—Peter Graham
Twelve may be the golden age for science fiction but it started a bit earlier with me, and lasted a little longer, till at least my late forties, when I finally realized that whenever the golden age of science fiction was, it was certainly in the past, and the past is that which is forever lost. It was then that I looked at the state of modern science fiction and saw how little of it actually appealed to me -- comic book spin-offs, feminist fantasy, endless bland sequels of original novels that were bland to begin with, ideological and political treatises disguised as fiction, and tomes of jaded snarkiness written by clueless university graduates ensnared by cultural memes and tropes. I still read some science fiction these days, but, like me, it tends to be older, and just recently I re-read what may be the best science fiction novel ever written, though, technically, it's not a novel at all, but a collection of eight, sometimes nine, short stories.

I first encountered City by Clifford Simak (1904 - 1988) in the very early 60s, in one of the many charity shops I frequented as a wayward youth looking for old books and magazines, squandering an allowance that can only be described as impecunious. It was the Ace paperback edition (D-283), published in 1958, featuring what was to my mind (then and now) the coolest robot ever (even better that those in Gold Key's Magus, Robot Fighter), painted by our pal Ed Valigursky, the uber-talented artist we've considered elsewhere in these pages. Very much an image of the 50s, with its knobs and dials, it's such a potent depiction that it was reused in later editions, or reworked to form similar covers for foreign printings. Of the 79 paintings Ed Valigursky did for Ace Books, this tops all of them. It sticks in the mind, and can even invade dreams. As good as this painting is, though, the story it illustrates is much better.

As mentioned earlier, it's not a novel proper, but a collection of stories (appearing in magazines from 1944 to 1951), which are tied together not just through theme and character, but via a preface and story notes written by the "editor," who is a dog. The beginning of the book is unforgettable:
"These are the stories that the Dogs tell when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north. Then each family circle gathers at the hearthstone and the pups sit silently and listen and when the story's done they ask many questions:
'What is Man?' they'll ask.
Or perhaps: 'What is a city?'
Or: 'What is a war?'"
In the publishing world, it's a fix-up novel, a book cobbled from shorter pieces published previously, something very common in the science fiction genre where the market for short stories was huge while the novel market was smaller than small, which is how such classic works as Asimov's Foundation series, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and many of A.E. Van Vogt's novels came about. The first story ("City") was published in the May 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and tells of the decentralization of society and the abandonment of man's cities. Man's return to a pastoral life (this time because of the freedom brought by the use of unlimited energy generators) is a common theme in Simak's works, probably due to his rural Wisconsin upbringing, which would also account for his boundless love dogs; in City, they eventually become the dominant species, along with robots, but in most of Simak's novels there's usually a dog to be found tagging along somewhere. Dogs, robots and cities (or lack thereof) figure prominently in the covers of this well-loved book:

Personally, I think the French went a bit far with the dog angle when they retitled the book Demain les chiens, which translates as Tomorrow the Dog, but the French are French and there's just nothing to be done about it. If you want to find a copy of this book online, it's pretty easy, or if you live near a used book store (an endangered species if there ever was one); but you can also get a hardcover edition through the Science Fiction Book Club, which should include a ninth story written by Simak in 1973, which tells what eventually happens to the faithful robot Jenkins and the final fate of the ant-dominated Earth fled by man, dog and robot alike. For the purist (you're always out there somewhere, aren't you?), the original 1952 Gnome Press edition is usually available somewhere on AbeBooks or EBay.

All told, Clifford Simak wrote about thirty novels, along with numerous short story collections, but City is where I would advise the new reader to start. In it we see humanity and technology through Simak's pastoral eyes, and find robots and dogs who are better than the humans they serve. We also encounter such common Simak themes as souls, alternate timestreams, and pantropy. And we see why both editors and readers often termed Simak's human protagonists as "losers," men who usually muddled their way to success, and if they fell in love along the way it was as much accidental as incidental. "I like losers," Clifford Simak wrote, and he never abandoned his use of the lovable losers with whom we could all identify, no more than he did his beloved robots and dogs.
If you enjoyed this blog-post please feel free to share it with your friends using one of the social network buttons below. Thanks for investing your time, and for sharing.