Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Reading Encounter

I was hanging out at Pizza Boli's takeout Friday night, waiting for my order while reading a few pages of A Good and Happy Child. I was pretty absorbed in the book, so when I heard someone say, "You brought a book to read in here?", I was a little surprised.

I didn't know the guy, had never seen him before. He wore a faded cap, a paint-spattered shirt and cutoffs. He seemed friendly enough. "Yeah," I said, "it's really good." I gave him the premise of the book and he began to frown a little. Then he leaned closer.

"Ya know what?" he said. "I'm fifty years old and just a few months ago, I'd never read a book in my entire life."

I didn't know if he'd just learned how to read or if he just didn't enjoy it or what. So I asked him "What was the book?"

"The Da Vinci Code," he said.

"What did you think?" I said.

"I liked it," he said. "It was sorta tough with all those Italian names and all, but I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. It was a whole lot better than the movie."

We kept talking. I could tell the guy was really excited about finishing the book and I told him he should be. He told me his 14-year-old daughter reads all the time. I could tell that at one time it must have hurt him that he couldn't share in her enjoyment of reading. But he read the book and you could see something in his face, a sparkle in his eyes like he'd found something he hadn't known he'd ever missed. I silently thanked God for Dan Brown, at least in this case.

I certainly wanted him to keep his reading going, so I said. "So what do you want to read next?"

He looked a little uncomfortable, shrugging his shoulders. "Don't know. Something not too hard."

"Well," I said, "what kind of movies do you like?" I figured if he likes action movies, that would open up several authors that I might suggest, if he likes horror, another set of authors, etc.

"I watch just about anything," he said. So then I described a few types of books he could read: action, horror, mystery, etc., and named a few authors.

"I'll never remember all that," he said.

I asked him if he was familiar with the library and he said he knew where it was. "Great," I said, "just go to the Information Desk and tell them you read The Da Vinci Code and really liked it. Ask them what else you might like."

But I could tell he'd be too embarrassed or intimidated for that. "Look, don't worry about that," I told him. "They do stuff like that all the time. They'll be glad to help you."

The guy smiled. "I guess I just want to walk in there and go right to the book I want to read. It doesn't work that way, does it?"

"Well, not at first, but they can point you in the right direction. Really, they'd be glad to help you." (If the library had been open, I'd have gone with him myself.)

My pizza was ready, but I wasn't through with this guy. "So do you think you'll go?" I asked.

He seemed very reluctant to talk about it further, even changing the subject before getting his own order. I shook the guy's hand and told him again, "Really, the people at the library would be glad to help you. Give it a shot. Don't stop now."

I left, wishing that I'd had some books in the back of my car, which I usually do (books to donate to the Goodwill and Salvation Army). Who knows if I'll run into the guy again, but I'm going to look for some books that I think he might like and could read pretty easily. Stranger things have happened.

Something about the encounter has stuck with me ever since it happened. It's sort of like a little voice said to me, "What just happened with that guy....That's important. Don't ignore it."

I don't know what it means. Maybe it's a little nudge that I should be teaching adults how to read, or maybe I should do something to put more books in the hands of people, or maybe I should do something to promote literacy. A career change, maybe?

Again, I don't know. But it's something I want to find out.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Sure, Why Not?

Several people have listed artists by whom they have five or more albums. My list is really pretty slim. (Of course if you count classical composers, the list would be quite a bit larger.)

Chet Baker
Carter Family
Johnny Cash
John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Bob Dylan
Ella Fitzgerald
Emmylou Harris
Phil Keaggy
Led Zeppelin
Pat Metheny
Rolling Stones

Artists I'm working on:

Iris DeMent
Duke Ellington
Julie Miller
Nickel Creek
Gillian Welch
White Stripes


Just finished listening to Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It's a rather long listen (18 CDs/21.5 hours) or read (704 pages), but quite engrossing, never boring.

Since I'm a science idiot, I'll leave it to my good friend Dr. Phil to judge the scientific merits/accuracy of the book. I was fascinated, however, by the discussions of science that I could understand, and those I didn't I was able to roll with a fairly small amount of confusion.

The aspect of the book I enjoyed the most was Einstein's thoughts about the universe and God. According to Isaacson, Einstein believed in God, but not in a personal God. He was sort of on the same page as Jefferson, a deist who believed in a God who created the universe, then stepped back and watched it run. What convinced Einstein that there is a God was not miracles, but the lack of them. He believed that the universe was simply too structured to have been created by a random cosmic event and that the consistencies and (mostly) normal operation of the universe meant that something held it all together. Of course people debated that then and continue to do so today. I still find it fascinating.

The man was simply fascinating. I had no idea Einstein didn't win the Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity. (Anybody who hasn't read the book know what he won it for? You can't play, Dr. Phil.) He both abhorred and embraced his worldwide popularity. He both loved and practically ignored those closest to him. And by all accounts, he played a pretty mean violin. And who wouldn't be fascinated by the story of the activity of Einstein's brain after his death?

Very enjoyable. Highly recommended. Good enough to buy - but wait for the paperback edition that will (1) take up less space and (2) weigh less. Important considerations...ya know, the whole E = mc2 thing and all...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Just Because.

Via Trent:

Your Score: Longcat

51% Affectionate, 28% Excitable, 40% Hungry

Protector of truth.

Slayer of darkness.


Longcat may seem like just a regular lengthy cat, but he is, in fact, looong.

It is prophesized that Longcat and his archnemesis Tacgnol will battle for supremacy on Caturday. The outcome will change the face of the world, and indeed the very fabric of lolcatdom, forever.

Be grateful that the test has chosen you, and only you, to have this title.

To see all possible results, checka dis.

Link: The Which Lolcat Are You? Test written by GumOtaku on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Here's How He Did It

After a very enthusiastic recommendation from my good friend Kelly, I put my name on the library waiting list for A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. The book is incredible, even more so considering this is a first novel.

When George Davies can't bring himself to pick up and hold his newborn son, George's wife demands he see a therapist, who seeks answers from George's childhood. George remembers some strange letters from his father, just before his death, as well as images of a mysterious friend that appeared to George as a boy.

This is one of those novels you can't stop reading, and when you absolutely have to stop, you're thinking about it all day long. I'll have more to say about it when I'm finished, but for now I'm completely absorbed.

Justin Evans has a website for the book which is quite interesting. I wish other writers would discuss research on their website. Also interesting is the timeline for how Evans wrote the book.

All of this caused me to wonder why more writers don't share more publicly about research and the process. Do they think that their fans won't be interested?

Monday, July 23, 2007

And So It Begins...

I started the third (and hopefully final) draft of my YA novel this morning. I hadn't looked at it since I'd turned it in to the contest several months ago, so I was a little surprised that the first chapter was actually not bad. Of course, looking back, I spent a loooooooooong time getting that first chapter just right.

There's one bit of information that I need to include in the chapter to make subsequent events in later chapters more believable, but I don't see that as a huge problem. Otherwise all of the elements that need to be there are in place. It's a pretty short opening chapter (a chapter, not a prologue), only 1700 words (eight pages). I'll spend a few days examining Chapter One, making sure it's a solid foundation. I think the cracks begin to appear in Chapter Two...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Nice Surprise

I got my judges' critiques back today from the novel contest and also a nice little surprise: a check for $50 for placing second!

From the comments I received, the judges generally liked the writing style, mechanics, technique, and plot. One judge called the plot a cross between Conan and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which I'd never really thought of, but I like the comparison.

The first chapter is strong and intense, but it appears there are too many "long discussions of philosophy in subsequent chapters" and that my protagonist thinks too much for a 16-year-old. The judges may be right about that, but my main character, because of his surroundings and circumstances, has had to "grow up" fairly quickly in a world where he's had plenty of time to think about his future. Philosophy, however, does play a large part in the novel. Many of my main character's problems stem from two different philosophies/worldviews that have been pulling at him for his entire life. One of the main conflicts in the book is which philosophy will he choose? But I think I can make those philosophical instances more subtle without lessening their importance.

All in all, I'm pleased with the comments. I'll start my third draft this week, taking as long as it takes to get it polished.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

VERY Dangerous News - Proceed with Caution

Look out. This could be dangerous. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Night Shade Books is having a 50% off sale of all in-stock and forthcoming titles. The sale ends at midnight Sunday, July 29. A four-book minimum is required for the discount, but take a look at the titles being offered. Finding four of 'em shouldn't be hard.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Waiting for Zodiac/The Slipstream List

Several cool things from my good friend Kelly's blog, but here are just two of them:

First the bad news, at least for Kelly and me. The DVD release of this year's superb David Fincher film Zodiac will be released next week, but the director's cut won't be out until sometime in 2008. Sorry, Paramount, I'm passing on the single disc version. I can be patient.

Second, a panel at the recent Readercon compiled a "canon of slipstream literature." Like Kelly, I'm not crazy about the slipstream label, but there's some great stuff on the list. Sure, people are already stirred up over the inclusion of some very recent books (One hasn't even been published yet!), but it's still a great list.

Although I'm somewhat embarrassed to find that of the 115 books in the primary list, I only own 31 of them and of those I've only read fourteen. Well, this list should keep me busy for awhile.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Not a Good Feeling

Fellow Clarion-dude Trent Hergenrader laments:

Don’t you hate it when you’re 70K words into your novel and just then figure out what the book is really about?

Yes I do. But I know Mr. Hergenrader well enough to know he'll figure out where the novel wants to go and follow it. I'm confident he'll do it.

It's frustrating when it happens in a short story as well (although nowhere near as frustrating as it is after 70K words). I'm currently 2,200 words into what I think could be one of my best stories...but I'm stalled.

For me, at least in this situation (and this is probably not the case for Trent), I either do not yet know the main character well enough or am trying to manipulate the story or both. What I've got to do is find out what's at stake for my character, what she wants and what it will cost. Those are all things I thought I knew at the beginning of the story, but I'm not so sure anymore.

I can probably do a free-write on my character, completely unrelated to the story, and just let her talk about what's important to her, what she wants. Often that helps. Or sometimes just letting that character talk on paper to someone else that's not in the story at all. Anything that focuses on the character rather than the situation. Situations can be manipulated. Characters can too, but I think if I just let her speak, she'll probably show me where the story needs to go.

Who said it was easy? Did I hear somebody say it was easy? Where is that guy?

Friday, July 13, 2007

I Hereby Proclaim Holly Phillips Queen of the Universe

I don't know why Holly Phillips hasn't been proclaimed Queen of the Universe. Okay, maybe I'm getting a little carried away, but her short stories are just so spellbinding, so gorgeously written, that I have to talk about them just a little.

I have purchased four copies of Holly's 2005 collection In the Palace of Repose and have given three of them away to friends. "Here," I tell them, "You can thank me later. Remember me in your will."

How did I wind up with four copies? I bought one at last year's World Fantasy Convention, after hearing Phillips read one of her unpublished stories that left me delightfully stunned for the next hour or so. Since then, our library system has steadily withdrawn copies of the book and I've been buying and giving them out each time they do. I figure I might as well put them in the hands of my friends who appreciate good writing.

Right now I'm studying the story "Pen & Ink," which I'll have much more to say about in a later post. But for now, just what is it that makes Holly Phillips all that?

Phillips writes with a haunting elegance that makes you want to wrap yourself in each story. She's obviously read a lot of poetry, but unlike some writers, the story is elevated (and not hindered) by the language.

Here's a brief example. In "Pen & Ink," Cezanne, a young girl at art school, has been stealing paintings for a man she calls "the curator." Here, Cezanne is sitting outside the restrictive girls' school she has sneaked away from for three days, only to be returned to it against her will.

The lawns were groomed even during the winter, but the band of trees that bordered the wall was half wild, a circle of woodland where leaves were allowed to lie where they fell. Waiting, Cezanne sat on a punky stump and sketched the skeletons of maple leaves while a chill breeze toyed with the edges of the paper and flipped the hem of her uniform skirt above her knees. A shadow fell across the page. She looked up, pen in hand.

Even before Phillips tells the reader, we know this is an appearance of the curator. The chill breeze also hints that each time Cezanne steals for the curator, he's actually violating her in a cruel, heartless way. The paragraph also illustrates how appearances are kept up at the school and where the limitations lie.

These are wonderful stories, some of them heartbreakingly wonderful. Be on the lookout for Phillips. After all, she could be our next queen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Weird Out

Two good things happened today; actually three:

1 - I got my 500 words in. (Always a good thing.)

2 - The first issue of my subscription to Weird Tales arrived today, featuring the story "Working Out Our Salvation" by Man-About-Town Trent Hergenrader.

3 - And I finally used that Borders gift card I'd been hoarding since December, using it for The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Good stuff.

Most Unusual Book Find This Week:

Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (1997) by Phyllis Siefker

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


For the past several months, I've been reading bits and pieces of Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers. Bruce says that lots of writers are good at goal-setting, but not so good at goal-tracking.

Just writing down wishes and ideas is good, but you need more, a sense of direction. Says Rogers:

The next stage is to translate these wishes into concrete accomplishments with the question: What things can I do within the next six months that will the direction of these wishes? Here, the outcomes we can't control are viewed from the perspective of what we can control. I can't require the contest judges to hand me a prize, but I can write a story that will be eligible for the contest and send it in by the entry deadline.

Setting goals with a partner can help you move from Point A to Point B. Start with long-term wishes and move to six-month goals. Eventually you break long-term goals down to weekly goals. (This is a very simplified version of what Rogers suggests.) Your partner is in effect your accountability partner, which is a good idea. It doesn't have to be another writer. It can be your spouse, a friend, anybody (maybe even somebody that reads your blog!) that helps you keep track of your goals.

Although today I was accountable to myself for writing 500 words, which I did. I hope to do so again tomorrow. Hold me to it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Facebook Weekend and The Writing Thing

A good weekend all in all, with Cindy and I seeing Michael Moore's Sicko, hanging out with my good friend John and his wife Lera, and spending a lot of time on Facebook.

If you haven't been to Facebook, check it out. From what I've heard, it was originally designed as a network for the college crowd. Then Facebook decided to let in high school kids, and now the floodgates are opened wide enough to let in old coots like me.

Anyway, I've connected with several former students, other writers, friends from long ago and far away. You can do all sorts of things on Facebook, even poke people. (They might even poke you back.)


Writing was pretty frustrating for awhile, but it's getting better. I think one of the reasons is that I've been studying stories more. After I've studied a good story, I get the feeling that, "Okay, I'm not that good yet, but now I understand why the writer did this or that here or there." Small steps. Small patient steps.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

"Three Popes Walk into a Bar" - Amy Hempel (a few spoilers)

The unnamed female narrator meets her friend Wesley, a stand-up comic, in a park before one of his performances. Wesley is in a relationship with a self-centered former topless dancer named Eve, and to put it mildly, Wesley and Eve are not on the same page. He's not sure whether he should continue to perform or just leave it all (which is Eve's hope), buy a boat and live it up.

Wesley tells the narrator that a man once gave him an opening line and bet him he couldn't build a joke around it and come up with a punchline. Wesley took the bet and the man said, "Three popes walk into a bar." Wesley lost the bet.

The whole story (and many of the Helpel stories I've read so far) deals with relationships, lies, doubt, deception and self-deception, powerlessness, and how we attempt to heal the parts of our lives that are obviously wrong or even altogether fake. The story begins and ends in a park that's so artificial it doesn't even have benches. The owner of the nightclub introduces Wesley by saying, "Every night I come out here and tell you what a great show we have and you know, it's the God's honest truth. But tonight I really mean it."

In my favorite scene in the story, Wesley shows the narrator an old video of himself doing a television commercial for a product that seals concrete, or to put it another way, a product that heals brokenness. It's ironic that in Wesley's strained relationship with Eve, this is her favorite commercial. Even more ironic is the fact that Wesley's former partner (who also appears in the commercial) splits their relationship in order to run for mayor, using the platform "Anything You Want."

At some point, Wesley has to make a decision: Do what he wants and stick with stand-up comedy or do what Eve wants and leave it in order to meets her needs and whims. When he tells the narrator his decision, she pretty much agrees with him, but even this is a deception. For her, it's like trying to find a punchline for the man's opening line "Three popes walk into a bar." She doesn't have an answer.

There's so much to like about Hempel's writing. It's deceptively easy to read, yet full of treasure. Hempel leaves a lot of ambiguity in many of her stories, which probably makes readers who love nice clean, neat, wrapped-up stories climb the walls, but I love it. The stories are lean; every word counts. And I can't speak for other readers, but after I've read one of her stories, I can't stop thinking about it.

I could probably zip through The Collected Stories in a couple of weeks, but why would I want to? There's just too much here to savor. This is a book I'll definitely want to own, but in the meantime, the library's going to have a tough time getting their copy back.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Reading Amy Hempel

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me to look for a copy of a book called At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hempel. At the time, a hardcover first edition was selling on Amazon for about $50. It's still hanging around at that price. I kept my eyes peeled while on my book rounds, but no kingdom of animals turned up, other than a wild book or two by Marlin Perkins. (If you get that joke, you must be over 40.)

Anyway, I saw The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel at the library and checked it out. I'm really enjoying it. Hempel has been labeled a "minimalist" but I don't know how accurate that (or any) label really is. I just know I'm enjoying her stories and plan to blog about one of them in detail tomorrow.

I started looking for non-Internet info. on Hempel and was surprised that she appeared neither in my 1998 copy of The Reading List: Contemporary Fiction: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works of 110 Authors* or in The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (2000), although she had three collections in print before these books came out. What's up with that?

Ah, but she does appear in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story (2001), so at least Amy's getting some lovin' somewhere.

Anyway, more about one of her stories tomorrow. In the meantime, check her out. The new collection covers her previous four short story collections, which I believe is her entire output thus far. If the book isn't in your local library or if you don't want to shell out the $$ for a hardcover, the paperback edition will be released on September 18.

* Which has now been expanded to 125 authors, but still doesn't include Hempel.


500 words on a new story. (One of mine, not one of Amy's.) Always a good way to start the weekend.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

June Books Read

Here we go....

Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road (NF 2000/2005) – Donald Miller
Not as enjoyable or as thought-provoking as some of Miller's other books, but still a good read.

The Book of Three (YA 1964) – Lloyd Alexander
I read this book several years ago and (as mentioned yesterday) since Alexander's recent death, I decided to read the whole series. The book has held up for 40+ years for a reason.

The Black Echo (1992) – Michael Connelly
Connelly's first Harry Bosch novel and first novel period. Nobody is better at procedure than Connelly. Excellent for a first novel.

Countdown: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad (NF 2004) – Steve Olson
You don't have to be a math whiz (I'm certainly not.) to enjoy this look at several contestants from the International Mathematical Olympiad. It's much more than "Hoosiers with Calculus." Olson examines how we learn, the question of talent vs. hard work, and much more. A fun read.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) – Ernest Hemingway
It's Hemingway. What else do you need?

Over Sea, Under Stone (YA 1965) – Susan Cooper
Like the Alexander books, the first in a five-part series collectively called The Dark is Rising sequence. When you've run out of Harry Potter, read Alexander and Cooper.

Softspoken (2007) – Lucius Shepard
About halfway into this one, I was mildly disappointed, but by the time I got to the end and spent some time thinking about it, the more I realized that Shepard's hit it out of the park once again. Chilling in a very unexpected way.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (NF 2007) - Robert I. Sutton
I saw this on audio at the library and couldn't resist. The subtitle, "Building a Civilized Workplace" wasn't on the audiobook cover, so I was a bit disappointed that Sutton focused only on the workplace. Still, that's the fault of Recorded Books and not Sutton. It seemed like most of the book was geared more to employers and management than employees, but still a good read/listen.

That's it for this month. Go read.

Monday, July 02, 2007

June Books Bought

Just the books bought today; the read ones tomorrow. Deal?

Okay, I bought quite a few in June, most of which I found at a sale I stumbled upon completely by accident. (I love those kinds of accidents.) All were purchased on the cheap. (I think the most I paid for any book was $2.)


Six Easy Pieces : Essentials of Physics, Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher (NF 1996) - Richard P. Feynman
Hey, Dr. Phil will be proud! I heard about this book several years ago (maybe even from you, Dr. Phil), that it was a good book for the layman.

And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight (NF 1989) - Paula Mitchell Marks
C'mon, who can resist a book about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Not me.

The Facts on File Visual Dictionary (NF 1986) - Jean-Claude Corbeil
Looks like a good writer's reference to me.

The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) - Robert B. Parker
The first Spencer novel, which I read years ago but wanted to read again. A few months ago I listened to a more current Spencer novel, School Days, and thought I'd (eventually) journey through all the Spencer novels.

The Black Cauldron (YA 1965) - Lloyd Alexander
Beloved children's writer Alexander recently passed away and I wanted to read the entire Prydain Chronicles. This was the only book I didn't have.

Pop. 1280 (1964) - Jim Thompson
Okay, this was a blockhead purchase, since I've still got Thompson's The Killer Inside Me unread and don't even know if I'll like it. But, I rarely run across Thompson's books, which are highly praised, so I bought it. (Hey, it was only 50 cents...)

Light (2004) - M. John Harrison
I've been told by many that this one's a winner, so I picked it up on the cheap. The only other Harrison I've read is an early novel The Centauri Device (which I couldn't finish) and a short story called "Tourists" which I really enjoyed.

With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (NF 1982) - S. Morris Engel
I heard a few discussions on this topic several years ago, which sparked my renewed interest in learning some of the basics of logic. We'll see if my illogical mind can grasp some of the concepts.

The Concrete Blonde (1994) - Michael Connelly
I'm in the process of collecting all of Connelly's Harry Bosch novels in hardcover first editions, which this one is.

NEXT TIME: Books Read