Tabs and Follow Me

June 22, 2017

Modern Monsters, Episode 12: Family

The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 1: Modern Monsters

Episode 12: Family

Season Finale!

June 20, 2017

Into The Dim Review

This week's novel is Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor.  I flew to Austin on Thursday and flew back on Friday, and I read this whole book while waiting at the gate and sitting on the plane.  It was a good airplane book.

Hope has an eidetic memory, which she finds overwhelming to the point that it has given her a handful of phobias, which keep her isolated, fragile, and sheltered.  When her mother dies, her father sends her to spend the summer with her aunt in Scotland, where Hope discovers that her mother was a time traveler and she's not dead but trapped in the 12th century.  Hope and two other teenagers must travel back in time, where they have 72 hours to find and save her mother.

I really liked how Taylor portrays Hope's feelings of being overwhelmed--her panic attacks, her claustrophobia.  It's visceral prose and taps into the panic attacks I've had.  It made me sympathize with Hope.

She lost some of that sympathy by being so far behind me on picking up on what was going on.  She finds a hidden machine with a bunch of dates scrolling by, a bunch of period accurate and painstakingly labeled costumes, and a bunch of freakishly well preserved artifacts, one of which is a clear 900 year-old depiction of her mother.  And she's like "What's going on?!?"  It's time travel.  Come on.  Keep up.  And this happens through the whole story, which is made predictable since all the Chekhov's guns are very clearly marked so there aren't many surprises.  It's frustrating.

There were a handful of frustrating tropes that popped up.  There was Hope's "I'm better than other girls because I'm smart and not a slut."  There were the adults purposefully not answering Hope's questions until "later" when Hope's knowing would better fit the narrative.  There's the rampant violence against women because how else are you going to show that characters are bad guys.  There were the adults sending a team of children on a dangerous mission through time--a mission the adults attempted previously and failed--because they were "the only ones" who could do it.  If you're going to send someone back in time, why tell a kid about time travel to send her back instead of bringing in a competent adult and telling them about time travel and sending them?

And then I didn't care about the time period.  I know some people love it, but it smells like fertilizer, there's a risk of catching small pox, there's the previously mentioned rampant violence against women, and some pretty absurd racism (which isn't all that more absurd than other time periods, I guess).  It wouldn't be my first pick.

But it's a short read with some really lovely moments of prose (That first chapter!  Be still my heart!)

Next week: The Girl with All the Gifts, children and zombies by M. R. Carey.

June 18, 2017

Write What You Know and Thoughts on being Honest

There are three essays in a row at the beginning of The Writer's Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House that deal with truth in fiction and writing what you know.  It's a theme that keeps rearing its head, and I can't tell if these essays were put together for this very reason or if the topic is just on my mind and I'm seeing it everywhere.

"Don't Write What You Know" by Bret Anthony Johnston talks about how if you restrict yourself to writing what you know, to events that actually happened, you're limiting the potential of your story and depriving it of some of its magic.  I can got behind this completely.  I find that life as it happens hardly ever fits into narrative structures enough for me to tell a good story. 

Take for example my lackluster trip to the DMV on Wednesday.  The line was short and I was in and out in twenty minutes, not including the 45 minute bus ride there and back.  They had technical problems so they could only accept cash or check, but--for reasons too boring for me to repeat--I just so happened to have enough cash on me.  One of the tellers had a DMV pun for every line of his standard driver's license renewal speech, and I bounced on my heels hoping the other teller would call me over, which he did.  It was anti-climactic to the point where I had to stop myself a half dozen times while writing this paragraph to not add in some excitement. 

That's usually what I do.  You could chalk it up to a long lineage of story tellers or you could say I'm a pathological liar, but I'm so disappointed that I spent two hours of my life getting a temporary driver's license and the universe didn't even bother to dish out some drama.  I think it's only fair that if I ever tell this story again, it will end with a screaming match between the guy in line who had to run to the ATM and the teller with the horrible jokes.  The blog is called Twenty Percent True for a reason. 

So Johnston's advice to not tie yourself to the truth didn't apply to me, but did provide a nice way to talk about it. 
But in "Good Form," one of the short-short stories in the collection, the narrator says, "Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." choosing fiction here...he tacitly acknowledges that something is gained by setting imagination loose on history, something profound and revolutionary and vital: empathy...O'Brian writes:

Here is the happening-truth, I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look...

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.
I have goose bumps.

I do take issue with his assertion here, talking about how his students shy away from writing what they don't know about "race or gender, sexuality or class" and how they revert back to what they don't know:
I argue that if the subject or character is intimidating, then that's exactly what the writer should be exploring in fiction.  My students worry about being invasive or predatory, and few things frighten them more than charges of appropriation and literary trespassing.  But I see an altogether more menacing threat: the devaluing not only of imagination but also of compassion. 
Ehhhhh.  Okay.  I agree that compassion is paramount when writing about a culture of which you're not a part, and compassion can take you a long way because people who are different from you still feel pain and joy and love and fear.  Thinking they don't is monstrous.  However, thinking that all people are just like you and writing about them without getting to know how they might be different, without understanding how the world is different for them is self-centered and reeks of colorblindness.  You should do research about other cultures before you write about them.  You should fear appropriation (you shouldn't fear charges of appropriation, you should fear appropriation) and you should fear literary trespassing.  Those hurt people.  I agree that you should include diverse characters in your fiction, and that you should also feel intimidated as you do so.  But "Go for it!  You have empathy!" is simplistic and feels like it's coming from a place of privilege.

So I like that the next essay is Steve Almond's "Funny is the New Deep: An Exploration of the Comic Impulse."  Here, Almond asserts that it's funny when you talk about the horrible, embarrassing truths that you experience. 

Take for example, the horrible cold that I currently have and will have forever.  The gunk is lodged too low in my sinuses to come out my nose, but too high for coughing to move it.  I can feel it fester.  I keep making insulting, wet, hacking noises that don't do anything but make me look and sound revolting.  That doesn't stop me.  Because maybe a BIGGER cough will do the trick.  Or maybe a bunch of little snorting sucks all in a row like a piglet.  I want to reach up through the roof of my mouth to the back of my throat and massage that gunk into movement, loosen it up.  I keep thinking maybe I could reach it from the back; if my two fingers could only phase through matter, I could reach in through the base of my skull and coax it all out.  But of course I can't do that, so I'm just poking myself repeatedly in the back of the neck, and that doesn't get the snot moving.

I hope my sharing this is kind of funny.  I hope it's funny because you've experienced it (and I hope you've experienced it because everyone should know in intimate detail how uncomfortable I am), and I hope you're going, "Yes!  That's what that's like!  Haha!"  I hope you relate to this and you're looking back on your own experience and--with some distance--seeing the humor in it.  I hope it's a relief that I've put this situation into words and that I'm acknowledging that it happens and maybe you laugh because a weight has been lifted that it's out in the open or maybe you laugh out of nervousness because I've just written an essay about snot and you don't know how to react to that.  I hope you're laughing at my misfortune, because I'm giving you permission to laugh at me by presenting this with all the honesty I can muster (which we all know is hard for me).

My critique group went over some of my work earlier this week and there's a line in there about one of the characters over-exerting himself to the point where he couldn't control his accent and it took a sharp turn towards hillbilly.  This has never happened to me.  I have complete control at all times over all hard vowel sounds.  One of my critique partners told me she "laughed and laughed" at that line.  After a moment of disorientation, because that's not funny, it's tragic, I took the compliment and stayed quiet.

So there's a lot to be said for truth and honesty.

Finally, there's Andrea Barrett's "Research in Fiction," which brings up arguments I've had about how research can be a way to procrastinate from actually writing and how sometimes research gets lumped into a story so that it's less about the characters and more about "look how much research I did!"  But the neat thing here is that she talks about using research for what Johnston would call the happening-truth, and then launching the story-truth from there.  She talks about how research informs what the characters have experienced and what they know.  And in the end she gets at Johnston's empathy point in a way that gives me fewer heebie-jeebies. 

The old adage "write what you know" is true in one way, but not in the most limited way: it doesn't mean we can only write about what we know directly from our own experiences.  A more generous, more useful interpretation of the phrase is that we should write about what we know, however we come to know it, whether by vision or sensual experience or reading or conversation or passionate imagining.  That, in the end, is what research is for.

June 15, 2017

Modern Monsters, Episode 11: The Harpies of 57th Street Beach

The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 1: Modern Monsters

Episode 11: The Harpies of 57th Street Beach

June 13, 2017

Mermaids in Paradise Review

This week's novel is Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet.

Deb, our caustic and opinionated narrator, and her new husband Chip, who is friendly like a golden retriever, go on honeymoon to an island in the British Virgin Islands.  There Chip makes friends with a parrot fish expert, who discovers mermaids near the reef by their resort.  This begins a power struggle between the resort and Chip's group of do-gooders over the fate of the mermaids.

The mermaids don't show up until page 80, and the whole first section (60 pages or so) is Deb's commentary on the people in her life and how bizarre it is to plan a wedding.  I loved it.  Deb is a pretty terrible person, rolling her eyes at Chip's outgoingness, his interest in extreme physical challenges, and his interest in video games, to the point where you wonder why they're getting married.  She introduces people into the narrative with epithets ("The Freudian" "The Heartlanders" and "The Old Salt") and it makes complete sense until they're still around twenty pages later and she admits they have names, and you realize "oh.  She hadn't to learn those."  But it works so well, because it seems like they're just going to pass in and out of her life, and when they don't and need a name it's outright jarring.  And that's how it works: somehow, even though she's awful, I ended up completely on board, not agreeing with her but still finding her thoughts entertaining. 

Once they get to the resort, the prose lost some of its magic for me, which is weird because that's when mythical creatures show up.  I think this happens because not only does Chip's team not have any ideas as to how to protect the mermaids, but Deb doesn't know what she's doing either and ends up the least useful person on the team, essentially running their mermaid-protection twitter account while everyone else sneaks aboard the resort's ships and makes internationally televised TV spots.  While Deb was in control in the first part (even if she was controlling how little she cared about things her friends did), she struggles with being powerless once they get to the resort.  And that's on top of the mermaid-protection group never having a firm goal in mind.

And then there's the ending, which did not work for me.  I'm not talking about the climax, which I liked.  I'm talking about the last page of the book where there's a twist, but I wouldn't even call it a twist, because that implies that it took what was already present in the narrative and turned it in an unexpected way.  This just added a completely random thing on the last page.  It did not work to shed new light on what I'd already read or make me want to read it again with that knowledge to see all the little hints.  While it did make some things make slightly more sense (why Deb and Chip get married, except by the end I got them as a couple; or why The Freudian seemed to give up his practice and marry one of his clients and why the client is so terrified all the time; or why the mermaid-protesters use a very specific phrase to describe the mermaids) it still doesn't seem like enough, and those didn't feel like mysteries I really cared about.  Furthermore, it undercut some of the themes that crop up at the end of the novel--preserving the reef, protecting the mermaids.  And then it drags up the question of, "okay.  So then why do I care about ANY of this?  Why did any of these people put this much energy into protecting or exploiting or protesting the mermaids?  Don't they have better things to do?"  Deb explains on the last page, that she's just ignoring this twist and moving along with her life like it's not there.  And it makes sense that Deb would compartmentalize like this.  But it doesn't make sense that everyone is doing that, and since there's no mention of it earlier (and you'd think it would have come up) that seems to be what's happening. 

It was a frustrating last page.

Next week: Into the Dim, YA time travel by Janet Taylor

June 8, 2017

Moder Monsters, Episode 10: Tears

The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 1: Modern Monsters

Episode 10: Tears

June 6, 2017

Swamplandia! Review

This week's novel is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  My critique group was working their way through this one until we got a bit off topic, and I went ahead and finished it on my own.
Ava's family owns Swamplandia! an alligator wrestling theme park in the Everglades.  When Ava's mom (and star of the show) dies and The World of Darkness theme park opens on the mainland, they lose all their tourists and the family falls apart.  Ava's brother, Kiwi, defects to work at The World of Darkness.  Her dad, the Chief, leaves to find investors on the mainland.  And her sister, Osceola, has started "dating ghosts" and decides to elope with one of them, vanishing into the swamp and leaving twelve-year-old Ava alone with the alligators.
The descriptions are thick.  They're dense and chlosterphobic, doubling down on the swamp's oppressive atmosphere.  It's definitely purposeful, as Russell's descriptions on The World of Darkness are much thinner, which works for The World of Darkness, giving it a soulless, empty feel just through contrast.
Speaking of which, the World of Darkness is amazing.  It is so weird, but so easy to visualize since to leaps off of what you know of typical amusement parks.  You know at amusement parks that trash accumulated at the corners, in the crannies, and here those crannies are between the molars of the Leviathan, that visitors enter and then ride through it's digestive system on a huge waterslide that ends in a wave pool dyed red, which is an inconvenience for the lifeguards.  But the World of Darkness isn't all that concerned with safety.  Russell takes bizarre ideas, but grounds them in reality so well that they seem almost reasonable.
I loved Ava.  Her love for the swamp and the alligators and her family came through in the details she used to describe them, the little things she remembered.  She was spunky with child logic that worked so well she almost made me believe as she did that the underworld was a real place in the swamp and she could go there to save her sister.  Almost.  Her nievite worked for me.  I knew she was making bad choices, but I could see exactly why she was making them and her poor choices seemed to stem mostly from her being a child.  On the other hand, Kiwi (whose adventures are covered in alternating chapters with Ava's) makes bad decisions that are more "be embarrassingly socially awkward" than "travel into the swamp with a stranger dressed like a bird." With Kiwi, it came out more clearly that he was not properly socialized, which could be Ava's problem, but he's old enough that it feels like he should know better.  And he doesn't.  It led me to some painful secondhand embarrassment and was not nearly as enjoyable as Ava's pluckiness.  Maybe it was that his challenges had lower stakes and I forgave him less because he had it easier.  Maybe it was that his missteps were relatable in a completely different way, one that reminds me of being socially awkward, which is not something I need to be reminded of.
Next week: Mermaids in Paradise, the Pulitzer prize finalist about mermaids by Lydia Millet.