Apr 13 2012

Thoughts On the Silmarillion

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Finally reading The Silmarillion through for the first time. I’ve tried to read it a few times but always gotten bogged down before, but somehow I’m finally ready for it. The Tolkien Professor has helped quite a bit, if nothing else just by helping me keep the threads in my mind.

So far, I have two observations:

1) Fëanor is a prick.

2) Man, Maedhros never gets a break, does he?

That’s all for now! More insightful commentary later as my readings of this deep and stirring work continue.

-The Gneech

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Jun 14 2011

New Short Story Geeks Podcast

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Episode five is up! We respond to listener e-mail, take on the subjects of authorial focus and what it actually means to “kill your darlings,” and check out some stories ranging from the faintly-silly to poetically sublime.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with the sound; I was trying out a new headset, and the results were not all I’d hoped for. I tried to even it out as much as I could, but even with Levelator the gain was just all over the place. Back to my old headset next time!

The good news is, the show is much shorter this week. ;)

-The Gneech

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Mar 24 2011

Adrian Monk Meets Boo Radley: Something Missing, by Matthew Dicks [Review]

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Martin, the peculiar hero of Something Missing, is a burglar by profession, but not just that. Martin is a master burglar, who robs the same house again and again over the course of years or decades and never gets caught because, and here is the brilliance of his scheme: he only steals things people won’t miss anyway. Six bars of soap in the linen closet? Make that five. An unopened bottle of drain cleaner under the kitchen sink for months? Just the thing. A single dishtowel gone missing? That was probably Martin’s work.

Martin’s is an orderly and meticulous mind: he carefully researches his “clients” to find just the right fit (dog-owners are out!), and plans his thefts over the course of many, many illicit trips into the house. By taking digital photos of the refrigerator, the pantry, the china cabinet, the silver drawer, the jewelry box, he works out over time what gets used and what doesn’t, what will be missed, and what won’t. The book opens with him stealing the second earring of a matched pair: he stole the first one (but only the one) six months previously so the owner would assume she’d lost it somewhere. After all, what thief would only steal a single earring, right? Once the second is allowed to languish without its twin in the bottom of the jewelry box and thus be forgotten, Martin can safely snag it and finally sell off the pair on eBay using his cover identity of a middle-aged shopaholic housewife who’s forever selling off “last year’s treasures.”

All of this long-term, intimate research of the people he refers to as his clientele has, over time, instilled in the lonely and repressed Martin a certain proprietary feeling towards them. When he stops burgling a household, say because they have a child (couples with children are unsuitable for various reasons, not the least of which is that it adds unpredictability into their lives), Martin feels like he’s losing a long-term friend. And what’s more, as time goes on, he finds himself becoming a sort of guardian angel; he starts by befriending a talkative parrot, but progresses into an anonymous and unknown sort-of-askew Mary Poppins who patches up domestic unhappiness and makes sure surprise parties go unspoiled. With few friends and even fewer family members of his own, he has become an unrequited adopter of the people he makes his living mooching from.

However, much to his dismay, the more he gets involved, the more his life goes off the rails. His chessmaster-like planning goes out the window as he starts reacting to crises and he finds himself hiding in closets, chased by (shudder!) dogs, and falling in love. And when he finds that one of his best clients is being stalked by someone with all of Martin’s skill but much more sinister intentions, everything in Martin’s life is turned upside down.

The Good

Something Missing is a breezy, enjoyable book, and Martin is both a very likeable and surprisingly relatable protagonist. Intelligent and introverted, Martin may be a shade anti-social but he’s not a sociopath. If anything, it’s his extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others that’s led him to his peculiar line of work. Not being versed on the ways of burglary myself, I don’t know how much of the equipment and techniques Martin employs are real, but they’re certainly convincing and well thought-out. And of course there’s a lot of suspense: once Martin starts varying from his pre-planned strategies and controlled situations, he keeps finding himself deeper and deeper in unfamiliar and dangerous territory which escalates every time. A chatty parrot who keeps calling him rude names seems like the least of Martin’s worries by the time he faces off against his malevolent counterpart. Themes of redemption and grace quietly underpin the story without making a fuss about themselves, making Martin’s very moving transformation over the course of the book both inevitable and desired.

The Bad

I can’t think of any real criticisms to this book. It does take a little time to get into the meat of the story: the first major “plot point” doesn’t really occur until roughly the 50% mark, but there is enough happening with setting the groundwork of Martin’s character, establishing and illustrating his techniques and patterns, and foreshadowing the events of later in the book that you never really feel like there’s nothing going on. Something Missing isn’t a Life-Changing Masterwork, perhaps, but it has not ambitions to be. It’s a fun, enjoyable read about an interesting protagonist, and considers that to be enough.

The Ugly

As I’ve been doing with so many books recently, I read this via the Kindle app on my iPad: and like everything I’ve read this way, there are the rare few spurious line breaks or superfluous hyphens. But there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself. Readers may find the conspicuous appearance of brand names for everything to be jarring: Stop And Shop, Liquid Plumbr, Rice-A-Roni. It’s a deliberate device the author uses to illustrate Martin’s character: Martin is very specific about every little detail, including the particular brand of any item he may come in contact with. But after a while it reads like product placements, particularly as most modern readers have been trained to hear about generic items rather than specific ones. It isn’t a real problem, but it does stick out and once you notice it you can’t stop seeing it every time it happens.

The Final Verdict

Something Missing is a fun book and I recommend it to anyone who is intelligent, introverted, or has inclinations towards benevolent larceny. It’s a fast read, but one that rewards paying attention to the details. If nothing else, it will make you a bit more aware of your home security…

-The Gneech

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Mar 23 2011

Short Fiction, the Long Tail, and Existential Angst

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There’s a lot to cover today! Starting at the top, I am looking with interest at the idea of doing a podcast on various fiction-related topics. Right now I’m trying to secure a pod-partner or two and work out the details, with an eye towards launching sometime this summer or fall. If there’s anything you’d be particularly interested in, or if you’d like to participate, let me know in the comments or via e-mail.

Next item: supernatural erotica, I freely admit, is not my cup of tea. However! If it is your cuppa, please check out The Arcane, by Mur Rathbun, an old pal of mine. I expect it’s quite lurid. ;)

Speaking of checking out fiction, thanks to Jim van Pelt I have recently found out about Every Day Fiction, a website that provides a daily short story via e-mail or RSS feed. Very cool!

And if you want something longer than the average short story, check out The Economics of Niche Programming on the Overthinking It blog. Ostensibly about why good TV shows die young, it also has some interesting points about “the long tail” and how companies that thrive on it (Amazon, Netflix) operate.

So why did BSG succeed when Firefly failed? Why is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia entering its seventh season when Arrested Development struggled for three? What’s the element that those successful shows had in common?

When blogging for OTI, I try to avoid talking about the economic factors that go into the production of art. Economics can seem simplistic — like a “just-so story” — or reductionist. Why does The Walking Dead spend so much time at the campsite? Because they had a limited budget and could only shoot on a few sets. Done! Hit “Publish” and kick back until next week. When all you have is a bachelor’s degree in economics, everything looks like a widget factory.

But when talking about the overall logic of why one show succeeds and another largely identical show fails, economics can’t be avoided. You have to talk about what the market looks like, who the biggest producers and consumers are, and how the incentives line up.

And finally, because it suits the day somehow, let’s have a bit of brilliance from XKCD:
Socrates could've saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd just brought a flashlight, tranquilizer gun, and a bunch of rescue harnesses.

Catcha later!

-The Gneech

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Mar 15 2011

It’s Been … Unexpected: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde [Review]

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Is it police procedural? Is it alternate history? Is it zany surrealist fantasy? Is it literary fanwank? Is it some variety of steampunk? Is it time-travel weirdness? Is it tongue-in-cheek tall-tale? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these.

It is The Eyre Affair, the first novel of the “Thursday Next” series, by Jasper Fforde, and it is … well … hard to pin down. And like the book, this review will also be hard to pin down. Was it an entertaining romp? Was it an impressive literary achievement? Did it have fundamental problems? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these, either.

Where to begin? The year is 1985 (as opposed to 1984, presumably) and the place is an alternate-England which is still the most powerful nation in the world, has never known Winston Churchill, is in a cold war with the Republic of Wales, and in a hot war with the Empire of Russia over the Crimean peninsula. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a literary detective, tasked with keeping original manuscripts safe from fanatic academics or would-be kidnappers and generally protecting the extremely-book-minded people of Britain from the scourge of literary crimes. Next is born of a remarkable family that includes her time-stopping rogue temporal cop father, and her uncle Mycroft who invented a pencil with a spell-checker and is working on a sarcasm early-warning device. When one of Mycroft’s inventions, a portal that enables you to literally step into or out of a book, is stolen by Acheron Hades (the third wickedest man in the world), Next must stop the kidnapping or assassination of literature’s most beloved characters, including Jane Eyre herself.

And this, mind you, is the bare-bones description of the plot. We won’t even go into the vampire hunt gone wrong, the black hole that opens up over the freeway and tears a hole in spacetime, or the running subplot about who actually authored Shakespeare’s plays.

The Good

Lest I be too ambiguous for my own good, let me state clearly: I very much enjoyed The Eyre Affair and if the description above sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, I recommend it without hesitation. The characters are well-drawn and plot clips along at a good pace, and around every turn of the page there’s a new nifty bit to discover. This is a book that’s packed full of interesting ideas thrown at you in rapid succession, so you’ll never be bored. Thursday Next is a likable and believable protagonist, which is a key feature considering how many other things the book asks you to believe as well. The book is very thoroughly, almost achingly, postmodern … if there was such a thing as post-postmodern, this book would be it. Some might consider this a bug, but I consider it a feature, at least in this particular case. I don’t always want books going all Ferris Bueller on me, but if a book is going to, then I want it to do it as well as The Eyre Affair does.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the further away you get from Next, the less believable the characters come to be. Almost everyone in this book has a clever shtick, whether in the form of a joke name (recurring annoyance/semi-antagonist Jack Schitt, earnest but put-upon fellow cop Victor Analogy, and of course the villain himself Acheron Hades) or in the mere oddness of their existence (such as Felix7 and his replacement Felix8, who are simply the latest in a series of Hades’ henchmen to have the same face grafted on in memory of the original Felix). After a while it can become hard to keep thinking of these characters as actual characters, because they’re more like a series of funny ideas that have been given dialog.

This also makes motivations start to come off wobbly. Characters find themselves in love a lot here, except with all the usual steps (meeting, learning each others’ name, actually talking to each other for more than a sentence) all being handwaved into the backstory or just left offstage entirely; not just one but two romantic triangles are introduced and then dropped again like hot potatoes. The villains of the piece are just as sketchy: Hades is just born bad and likes it; Jack Schitt aims for the moral gray-zone but doesn’t ever really sound like he means it.

Finally, the sheer weirdness of the setting also undermines the book’s core premise: in a world as over-the-top as the book’s is, how could an essentially realistic work such as Jane Eyre even exist, without also being a reflection of the weird world it inhabits? In a setting where demonic arch-criminals walk through the walls and you occasionally find yourself jumping back in time six months by accident, why aren’t there jetpacks and dinosaurs running around in the works of Charlotte Bronë?

Still, none of these things kill the book by any means, they’re just things that struck me while I was reading. Keep in mind that I have a very analytical mind, and so I pick apart everything as I go. If you’re more inclined to just jump in to a book and ride it like a rollercoaster, these things probably won’t bug you at all.

The Ugly

Very little to say here; as befits a book about bibliophiles, the language is clear and crisp and even when things go all pear-shaped you can generally follow the thread. I read the Kindle edition and there were a few odd typos in the form of hyphens that didn’t need to be there or paragraph breaks erroneously shoved into a sentence, but nothing truly egregious. I will warn the reader that there are a few spots where the text gets even more meta than it already is, and so if you suddenly think you’re reading the most badly-proofread book ever, you aren’t. It’s working as intended.

Final Verdict

On the whole, I found The Eyre Affair to be a very readable, enjoyable tale of quirky adventure, and I plan to pick up the rest of the series forthwith. (In fact it was my scooping up the newest book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, on a whim last week that led me to grabbing The Eyre Affair.) I’m eager to have a new series to follow, and this is certainly a promising start. I already handed my copy off to a friend who is a notorious Terry Pratchett fan, with confidence that he’ll get a kick out of it.

-The Gneech

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Oct 18 2010

Tainted Love

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Arts & Letters Daily pointed me to this…

Open Letters Monthly: Against the Wind, by Rohan Maitzen

Conroy’s shift into the present tense here neatly illustrates why the “ancient history” defense cannot stand: I am reading Gone with the Wind not in 1936 but in 2010. While I read it, in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world. It does so even in the way it imagines “me,” its reader: to read Gone with the Wind sympathetically, at a minimum you have to be white. The resulting segregation is not a historical phenomenon but something I consent to in the present if I keep reading.

Maitzen here is talking about a phenomenon I’m intimately familiar with … Gone With the Wind was a beloved fixture of her youth, and her go-to book for comfort and solace growing up; but reading it for the first time as a critical adult, she has trouble getting past the reprehensible bits.

Like Maitzen, many of my otherwise-favorite authors have some really loathsome qualities. I’m particularly thinking of Robert E. Howard, who seems to have largely viewed history as a “battle between the races” for supremacy (because obviously living together peacefully and treating each other as fellow human beings was not a viable idea), and of course H.P. Lovecraft, who particularly in his younger days viewed anyone other than educated (i.e., aristocratic) northwestern-European males with fear and loathing. And these ideas often inform their work, occasionally to the point of poisoning it. (A story like “The Street” makes me want to invent a time machine just so I could slap HPL upside the head. Ditto REH with “Black Canaan” or “Vale of Lost Women”.)

And, like Maitzen, at the end of the day I have to decide just how much of such shenanigans I’m willing to hold my nose and tolerate in order to salvage the good bits. As she says:

Although, again, a simpler answer would be more comfortable, I think the only possible answer is ‘it depends’—on the depth and quality of our relationship overall, on all the contexts and complications of history and personality. Don’t we all have an elderly relative who holds fast to some absurd belief, some intractable prejudice? While hating their sins against our own cherished principles, we still manage, most of the time, to love the sinner, ideological warts and all. Of course, while we don’t choose our families, we do choose our books. Still, I think the situation is analogous. Rather than shunning, or censoring, we can be aware and critical, allowing for the good while not excusing the bad. We are capable, after all, of complexity, and often both life and reading demand it. There’s no doubt that intimacy and trust are undermined by such moral compromises, but other factors may compensate, or at least make the relationship worth preserving in its diminished form.

It’s entirely possible that if HPL and REH were around today (and hadn’t gone completely senile due to old age) that they might have very different views about such things, and view their past statements with regret. And even if they didn’t, that doesn’t make something like Tower of the Elephant or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward any less riveting a story. Or for a more contemporary example, I can still see the brilliance of Ender’s Game, even if I wish Orson Scott Card would shut his stupid piehole. It is true that I’ll probably never quite enjoy it the same way I once did, but that’s no fault of the work.

-The Gneech

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