Books and Baby Food

I’m sitting here with my usual companion,

who is refusing to look at the camera after being kicked off my lap/keyboard about half a dozen times. She’s probably reconsidering whether I’m still her favorite human, but I keep the food dish full, so I feel secure in my position.

Anyhoo…, I’m trying to think of something to write about besides baby food (sweet potato=major fail; zucchini=gobble, gobble, gobble. Go figure).

Hmmm, something will come to me…

Toys? No…

Spit-up? No…isn’t that supposed to dial back with the introduction of solid food? Cause so far—

Wait! Stop. Not writing about spit-up…

Diapers? Definitely not (worried you there for a second, didn’t I?).

Books? Yes, books. Totally acceptable topic. I should write about something I’ve read recently…hmmm…how about something I’ve purchased recently:

Periodically, I wholeheartedly volunteer to go get groceries in the evening while Hubby is on baby duty. And, well, Chapters just happens to be right next to the grocery store (crazy coincidence).  Since Kiddo’s arrival five short months ago,  I have added the following to my bookshelf—already packed with unread volumes:

Trouble in Mind: A collection of short stories by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read one story so far; it didn’t blow me away. Maybe more on that in a later post. If I remember, which is unlikely. Never mind.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Also a short-story collection, this one by Stephen King. I’m on page 22, still near the beginning of the first story (the first seven pages were the author intro).

I picked short-story collections thinking I might have a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing a complete story in a reasonable amount of time, maybe even one sitting. Turns out both Jeff and Steve consider 15000+ words to be ‘short’. I personally think this is getting into novella territory (or novellette?). According to Writer’s Digest anything under 30k can be called a short story (really?). Maybe it’s just that the length of my ‘one sitting’ has changed dramatically in recent months, but I think that’s ridiculous.

In the Unlikely Event: One of Judy Blume’s for-adults novels. I haven’t read any of her adult stuff, but I’ve been told it’s great by number of people. Including the Chapters employee who was at the checkout when I bought this one. You know how they say, ‘Whatever you do, do it well’? I swear every time I’ve been checked out by this guy he has something relevant to say about the book or the author. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a book in Chapters he hasn’t read. 

I chose this one in particular (and broke my don’t-by-hardcover-unless-it’s-on-sale rule, but it’s ok I had a gift card) partly because the description mentions air disasters of the 50s—three crashes hitting one town. I wondered if one of them was a Comet, early jets of the same time frame that exploded in midair because of square windows. I haven’t cracked this book yet, but I googled the event that apparently inspired it. Turns out the referenced plane crashes predate the Comet crashes by a couple of years. Boy, the 50s were a crappy decade for air travel.

The Dressmaker: Historical fiction by Kate Alcott, a new author for me. I didn’t actually buy this one. My mom recommend and lent it. I’ve made it to page 10, so I’m not really into the story yet but I think it has potential. (Did you notice the upside-down title in my picture? I did, but I’m not taking another one. Baby’s napping, seconds count)

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation: By Bill Nye, chosen because I like Bill Nye. I usually prefer my science-ish books a little more in depth, but I don’t have a lot of spare brain power these days. The Science Guy’s layman-level writing is just about right for my current non-fiction needs. I’ve read a whopping eighty-eight pages of this one so far.

The Children of Men: This one is by P.D. James and I bought it because for someone who writes sci fi, it’s been a while since I’ve read any. Also I haven’t read any of her books, but I’ve heard good things and was looking for something new. I haven’t started this one yet either, but according to the back cover society’s collapse is about six years away.

So there you have it, my unfulfilled reading expectations. Oh, in the background there is also The Lamb Book from IKEA’s extra-soft, baby-gums-friendly collection. I’ve ‘read’ that one quite a few times and highly recommend it to the 0-12 month crowd.

45 minutes

The baby is napping. I have approximately forty-five minutes of uninterrupted time ahead (probably). If I am ever going to complete a piece of writing ever again, I must learn to take advantage of these little windows.

But…

…someone else wants my attention…

Poor kitties are often neglected these days. How can I resist???

In other news, I got a Chapters gift card for Christmas. Can’t wait to buy more books for my to-be-read-when-my-child-is-seven pile. OK, it’s not that bad. Sometimes I manage to read a whole two pages of a book before I pass out at night.

The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

However,

Though there is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind, in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure, and a talented writer, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in most of these stories. Despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s timeframe. As I referenced while reviewing The Highway, it shows. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

Take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Because men are people and women are…women (a premise not explained, but assumed to be understood), rather than consider how to approach their wives to resolves the conflicts, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive these inconvenient appendages.

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy?

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even considered.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a good story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive.

I also don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical if it persists long enough. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

I consider this example proof such miscalculations don’t have to ruin a great story. Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

As for my own writing, if anyone is reading it far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, I’ll be thrilled. And I don’t need to know what gave me away.

Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

Bring on the Lovecraftian Tales

Mad Scientist Journal, which I’ve posted about before (like here, and here…and here) and which is home to one of my quirkier stories Mabel’s Mission, has a cool project on the go that might be of interest to all you speculative readers and writers out there. Check out That Ain’t Right – A Lovecraft Themed Anthology on KickStarter.

I’ll let the project video and summary give you the finer details, but as always with MSJ this looks like it’s shaping up to be all manner of fun and weird. You may notice the counter says they’ve reached their basic goal. With 11 days to go, they are hoping to reach a stretch goal that will bring greater reward options to pledgers (I am one) and better pay for contributing authors (no I’m not one, but maybe you can be) and illustrators.

Take a look and pledge away.

Thoughts on: The Problem of Susan – Neil Gaiman

Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.

Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit. Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury, a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author, and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But, confession: I’d never actually read any of his work. Not even the so-well-known Farenheit 451.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong). Continue reading