Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Images

Christmas Eve:  Here is dawn coming up over Eliott Bay, outside my apartment window, with the Christmas tree reflected in the glass.  If I didn't wake up so effing early, I wouldn't see dawn.
 Cosette, hoping for sugar plums, or the doggie equivalent:
Ted Kosmatka at our Christmas party, playing charades while Vonda McIntyre wonders what on Earth he could be trying to act out.  Although this was not as funny as the other Ted, Chiang, trying to anatomically convey "Philip K. Dick."  Best guess: "Testicles?"
Jack is pleased with his Christmas present, a fancy new phone, which he received early because we needed to spend time--a lot of time--trying to choose plans at the T-Mobile store:
 Jane  Austen also gets to celebrate Christmas:

Happy Holidays to all of you out there. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thrilled at the Movies

Some movies succeed, at least partially, because of their script; some because of their casting; some from their overall look; some for no reason that I can discern.  But it's rare to find a movie that succeeds on all levels.  LINCOLN is that.
Much has already been writing about Daniel-Day Lewis's preparation for the role of Lincoln.  He had nothing to give him Lincoln's voice, but old letters and news articles mentioned its light timbre, as well as Lincoln's habitual gestures, gait, and mannerisms. Day-Lewis uses all such information to create a Lincoln less deep-voiced than the movies have given us in the past: more tentative, sadness present even during his wry and funny stories.  The actor seems to disappear entirely--especially if you've seen him in much different roles in MY LEFT FOOT or THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS-- and to become the sixteenth president.  

Nor is this Lincoln the always-virtuous "Honest Abe" of sentiment.  Here he has a job to do, and it's not winning the war--by the time the movie opens, in January of 1865, the war is pretty much won.  The movie focuses on four months, January to April, during which Lincoln schemes to get passed the thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery.  To this end, he schemes, delays, intimidates, bribes, and outright lies.  Lincoln as wheeler-dealer could rival Lyndon Johnson.  He is ably aided by Tommy Lee Jones as a wonderful Thaddeus Stevens, who is such a strong character that the movie could equally well be called STEVENS.  

The two face a terrible choice: Ending the war as soon as possible will save lives but will also bring Southern states back as voting members of Congress, in which case the amendment will never be passed.  Refusing the South's offer of peace buys time to garner Congressional votes but prolongs the bloodshed.  That this horrific dilemma is made visceral and tense--even though of course the audience already knows the outcome-- is a tribute to Tony Kushner's script.

If you see only one movie this holiday season, it should be this one.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Summer of '26

In 1926 the future silent-screen actress Louise Brooks, then fifteen and living with her family in Wichita, won a summer scholarship to the prestigious Denishawn Dance Company in New York.  A fifteen-year-old girl could not live in New York alone.  Her mother had younger children and could not accompany her.  A chaperone was arranged, a middle-aged woman of social standing and propriety named Cora Carlisle.  Such is the premise of Laura Moriarty's new novel THE CHAPERONE.  

The book unfolds two stories: Louise's and Cora's.  Louise's sticks closely to fact, but is mainly used as background for Laura's.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The chaperone is a woman hiding many secrets: a sordid childhood, a gay husband, and eventually a working-class lover.  This sounds like soap opera, but Moriarty is interested not in sensationalism but in the capacity of characters to change.  Laura, who begins with hopeless resignation to her situation, grows into a woman not only able to bring about happiness for herself but also able to accept it in forms she once despised, including her husband's long-term relationship with his lover.  To do this, everybody involved ends up living public lies but private truths, and this dichotomy gives the book its tension.

Some reviewers faulted the book for covering such a long span of time--Laura's whole life--that decades sometimes flash by.  I can't agree.  It takes an entire lifetime to come to the emotional place that Laura eventually reaches.  I found it refreshing to read a modern novel with the social sweep of the Victorians'.  

As for Louise--well, her story is already known.  Beautiful, intelligent, narcissistic, and self-destructive, she ended poor and alcoholic.  And yet she, too, is a fascinating character.  I recommend this novel.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cranky At the Movies

ANNA KARENINA is one of my favorite novels. The first time I read it, decades ago, I was amazed at how completely Tolstoy captured a woman's feelings about passion, motherhood, the desire to both belong and rebel.  I still marvel at the skill and authenticity and scope of the novel.  Unfortunately, the new movie made from this masterpiece is an unholy mess.
The story is intact, more or less.  But everything that makes the novel great is missing.  Without Anna's interior complexity, without Levin's spiritual searching, without Tolstoy's ambivalent feelings for his own heroine (he wanted at first to make her completely unsympathetic and shallow, a Russian Emma Bovary, but was "led" as he wrote into greater understanding of his own creation), what's left is a pretentious soap opera.

I hated the staging, although I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this.  The interior scenes are all shot on a stage, in the wings of a theater, on the catwalks, in the dressing rooms.  The outdoor scenes are shot in a realistic way, outdoors on the steppes or in train stations (lots of train stations).  This is supposed to convey the artificial posing of Czarist society versus the honest openness of the country life.  Instead, it seems forced and tedious.

The second, and larger, problem is the casting.  Keira Knightley was fine as Elizabeth Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, capturing Elizabeth's playfulness.  She has the same mannerisms here, but Anna is not playful.  Knightley swings from one mood to the next but cannot show us the connective tissue that make Anna complicated but believable.  Even worse is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky.  He looks about fifteen, and comes across as a spoiled, whiny Mama's boy, not a man willing to throw away the world for love.  There is no chemistry between them.  In fact, Vronsky is so flat and unappealing that my movie companion whispered to me, "She should have the affair with her brother--he's about ten times as interesting!"

Matthew Macfadyen is indeed good as Stepan Oblonsky, but the real star here is Jude Law as Karenin.  Not a particularly sympathetic figure in the novel, here Anna's cuckolded husband projects real anguish and complex doubt.  Two people I talked to later, who had never read the novel, thought that he was supposed to be the hero.

The other stand-out is the dresses.  The costumer should win an Oscar for Anna's gorgeous outfits.  If you go to the movies for dresses, then see this.  Otherwise, just read (or re-read) the book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Teaching on a Cruise Ship

 I enjoy teaching writing--well, most of the time, anyway.  But no teaching gig has ever been as much fun as teaching aboard the Norwegian Sky as it cruised through the Caribbean.  True, the cruise had its down moments: Here I am collapsed on a beach after an hour and a half of vomiting over the side of a small boat from which I was supposed to be snorkeling:

In general, however, this was a lovely time.  Here we are getting underway from Miami:

 Jack on a pristine white-sand beach, the water impossibly blue:
 Jack again, at a Nassau cafe from which we watched the funeral procession of the first Bahamian runner to win Olympic gold.  There were two bands, several dozen soldiers as an honor guard, and the prime minister walking behind the coffin.
 Sailing along the shoreline of expensive homes in Freeport:
 This odd-looking creation, made of towels, is one of many that turned up in our cabin every time the maids made up the bed:

Oh, and yes--we taught.  The students were interesting people, and some of the best times were just talking to them over the ship's large and frequent meals.  Now--until next year, when the entire teaching cruise happens again!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cruising Along....

On Sunday I leave for Miami to join Sail For Success.  This is an "SF teaching cruise" sponsored by the coming-up-fast small press Arc Manor.  The cruise ship is the Norwegian Sky, and the faculty also includes Mike Resnick, Kevin J. Anderson, Jack Skillingstead, Paul Cook, Rebecca Moesta, agent Eleanor Wood, and Baen publisher Toni Weisskopf.  There will be classes, panels, shore excursions, and shipboard conferences.  

I have never taken a cruise before.  I'm not sure what to expect from this one, but I'm looking forward to it a lot.  I've spent the last several days reading, line editing, and critiquing student manuscripts.  I just hope everybody isn't too distracted by the tropical amenities and excursions to come to class.  Things I intend to do: shop in Nassau, have drinks that come in coconut shells with little umbrellas in them, visit a white-sand beach.  Things I do not intend to do: write, diet, use the ship's wi-fi, which costs seventy-five cents a minute.  Well, maybe a little.  But no blogging about the trip until I get home.

Also cruising along is the publicity for FLASH POINT, my YA novel that debuted November 8.  Here is a piece about it on Mary Robinette Kowal's blog feature MY FAVORITE BIT, in which writers unbutton and talk about personal aspects of their writing.  And yes--I DID clear this piece first with my sister!

Monday, November 19, 2012

9/10 Happy At the Movies

FLIGHT, the new movie from Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is a good movie that could have been a great one.
 Within the first fifteen minutes comes the most terrifying plane crash I've ever seen on film.  The pilot, "Whip" Whitaker (Washington), lands the plane, barely, through a combination of bravura flying and nerves of titanium.  Of the 102 passengers aboard, only six die, and the general consensus is that no one else could have brought the plane, crippled by a malfunction in the tail, down at all without a fireball. 

The titanium nerves are especially notable because Whitaker is flying after consuming both vodka and cocaine.  This fact comes out in toxicology reports, and worshipful accolades turn into criminal charges.  From this point on, the film is not really a movie about airplanes, it's a movie about alcoholism.  As such, it covers the usual ground of denial, good resolutions, bad slips, and exasperated attempts by others to help a man who doesn't really want help, or anything else except the next drink.  All this is familiar, but Zemeckis gives it to mostly seen from the outside, through the eyes of all the other characters, than from Whitaker's point of view.  As such, his "flight" from the reality that everyone else recognizes has a stronger context than in other "alcoholic" movies like Jeff Bridges's "Crazy Heart."  Whitaker, as an airline pilot, is not just destroying his own life: he is entrusted with the lives of hundreds of others and the fate of an airline.

All this really interested me.  Where, in my opinion, the movie failed is the last one-tenth.  Instead of the unflinching ending that such a movie demands, we get a sentimental change of heart, a too-quick redemption, and reconciliations with estranged girlfriend and estranged son that apparently heal all scars.  I just didn't believe it.  I wish that Zemeckis had let Whitaker crash and burn, or at least end up having a harder time crawling out of the wreckage.  Instead, the film takes a "flight" from its first 9/10, and all the clouds at the end are rosy pink.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A French Science Fiction Convention

I am just back (and still badly jet-lagged) from the Utopiales Science Fiction Convention in Nantes, France.  It was a fascinating experience.  American SF cons tend to be light-hearted, party-oriented, even irreverent, with panels on things like "The Furry Culture in Fandom" and "Ten Worst SF Movies of All Time" sprinkled in with more substantial topics.  Utopiales, in contrast, was all serious, with most panels a mixture of writers and scientists.  Participants and audience wore headphones giving simultaneous translation, as in the UN.  Audiences were respectfully attentive.  Other English-speaking writer guests included Robert Charles Wilson, Neil Gaiman, Norman Spinrad, and Michael Moorcock.

The convention did have a lighter side.  Here are the NOA robots, amazingly flexible robots about three feet high with bright, humanoid faces.  They can walk, talk, and -- as below -- dance.  (Actually, they dance better than I do, although that's not hard.)  Everyone I talked to wanted to take one home.

Jack and I also made some side excursions to see Nantes.  We toured the castle that was once the home of the Dukes of Brittany.  We also visited Machines de l'Ile, a museum of mechanical creatures.  The largest of them, which roams outside the museum, is this incredible steampunk elephant, three stories high and actually powered by steam.  It flaps its ears, blows steam out of its trunk, and (an odd cross-species trait) wags its tail.  Fifty people can ride on it at once; we were among them, in the company of Ellen Herzfeld and her husband Dominique Martel.

A wonderful trip.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pub Date

Today is the pub date (which always sounds to me like a romantic tryst in a British bar) for my new novel, FLASH POINT.
FLASH POINT is YA science fiction about a near-future TV reality show in a United States on the verge of revolution.  Amy, at sixteen considered an adult, takes a job to support her sick grandmother and wild younger sister.  She becomes a contestant on the reality show -- but has no idea what she's getting into, how desperate the producers are, or what the consequences will be.  She acquires friends, allies, and enemies, all as the political situation becomes more volatile and her sister harder to control. 

Publisher's Weekly said of the book:  "It’s Fear Factor meets The Running Man by way of the 99% in this tense drama...Sadly, the concept of this exploitative reality show is entirely believable, as is the financially ruinous setting. Strong characterization rounds out this unsettling thriller."  

From the review in Kirkus"Most striking, though, is the complex characterization, with its emphatic insistence that no one—hero or villain—is anything less than a complicated mixture of good and bad, strength and weakness, compassion and selfishness.While the adrenaline rush will draw readers in, it’s the unsettling question posed by the program title that will linger." 

I am currently in France for an international science fiction convention (and suffering strongly from jet lag), so I will miss my own pub date.  On the other hand, there are great bars here, too. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reincarnated at the Movies

Last night I saw CLOUD ATLAS, the new SF movie from Lana and Andy Wachowski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer, from the much acclaimed novel by David Mitchell.  This one had a lot of advance attention, plus a budget of 102 million dollars.  The results are absorbing but mixed.
The film interweaves six different narratives, set in the mid-1800's high seas, 1936 Cambridge, 1973 San Francisco, 2012 England, 22nd century Neo-Seoul, and an unidentified future location "106 years after the Fall," when Earth has reverted to barbarism.  The same people, reincarnated (but unaware of this) turn up in different story lines, which are also connected by artifacts, minor characters, and theme.  Jumps in space and time are frequent, unheralded, and occasionally disorienting.

The pluses:  First, and probably most important, I was never bored.  I wanted to find out what happened to everybody.  This is a long movie, but unlike during some shorter ones, I was not fidgety, distracted, or aware of how long I had been sitting in an uncomfortable theater seat.

Second, it is great fun to identify the actors in their various incarnations, including those heavily disguised by the artistry of Hollywood make-up men.  Who would have ever expected to see Hugh Grant, of all people, as a cannibalistic barbarian in war paint?

Third, the movie is visually gorgeous.  Each setting is detailed and individually colored (the totalitarian Neo-Seoul is mostly deep blues, reds, and purples).  The matching-action cuts -- a door closing in one narrative followed by a different door flung open in a different narrative -- form interesting connective devices.

Also connective is the overall theme: the fight for freedom against oppression.  Each narrative does this, whether the oppressor is the state, an established artistic colleague with power, a warring tribe, a corrupt corporation, the institution of slavery, or (in the only humorous scenario) a despotic nursing home.  

The negatives: The theme becomes preachy by the end.  Especially at the end, where at least three characters give "freedom" speeches worthy of Willam Shatner as James T. Kirk.  Enough, enough--we got it, already. 

There are also some annoying plot devices, such as the fact (so common in Hollywood) that the bad guys cannot shoot straight.  Even when the odds are twenty to one, they miss hitting the hero.  Any of the heroes.

Third, and most damning for me, is that these six narratives are so packed in that they don't allow for anything like character development.  I asked myself: If each of these six plots were to be used in separate movies, would they be original or interesting?  Probably not.  Certainly not original: much if not all of the Neo-Seoul narrative looks like a combination of BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984.  On the other hand, they're not in separate movies, and character development is not the point here, so you will have to decide for yourself if that matters.

Bottom line: a good movie, but not a great one.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Not For The Squeamish

Last month I heard David Quammen speak at the Seattle Town Hall, and I nearly resolved to never eat, drink, or breathe again.  Quammen is an acclaimed science writer who does his research first-hand, in this case on zoonotic diseases that cross from other species to humans.  His book, SPILLOVER: ANIMAL INFECTIONS AND THE NEXT HUMAN PANDEMIC, is not for the squeamish.

It is, however, fascinating.  Quammen has tramped through the jungle looking for gorillas infected with Ebola; bagged bats in search of the host reservoir for SARS; traced the path of Hendra in Australia as the disease made its way through horses, bats, and the occasional person; examined mice's ears for the ticks that cause Lyme disease.  He does all this alongside working parasitologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists concerned about cross-over diseases.

This concern forms the theme of Quammen's book.  As humans encroach more and more on the wilds where the host animals for these diseases live, there is greater and greater chance for the parasites (viruses, protists, bacteria, worms, and fungi) to move into us.  Sometimes the original host animals are habituated to their parasites, and we are not.  Sometimes there is more than one host involved.  Sometimes we still haven't found the reservoir host (Ebola, for instance).  Some time this could lead to the next world-wide pandemic.  We've mostly dodged the bullet so far; Quammen argues that we cannot do so indefinitely.

Perhaps you have to be an alarmist or a science groupie to love this book.  I am the latter, and I did.  Quammen writes with grace, force, and clarity.  Highly recommended -- just not right before dinner.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Really Cranky at the Movies

The NEW YORKER rarely likes movies, and it didn't like the new remake of WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Even rarer is that I, usually easier to satisfy than Anthony Lane or David Denby, downright hated this film.  Really.  A lot.

Emily Bronte's classic novel is chatty.  Nellie Dean, the moral center of the book, talks constantly, trying to get everyone else to behave.  They don't, of course, but in her scolding and their replies lie the means of understanding the depths of Bronte's characters.  Here, Nellie Dean has been reduced to a silent and much younger serving girl who has perhaps a half dozen, one-sentence speeches.  In fact, nobody has much dialogue.  England seems to consist of semi-mutes.  As a result, characters that in the novel are multi-layered, here become merely one-dimensional: Heathcliff is sullen, Hindley is bigoted, Cathy is shallow, Edgar is a wimp, Isabella is a twit.  Period.

In films without words, the images are important.  Here they are (1) shot in such low light that sometimes it's difficult to see who is even present, (2) shot in such close-up that a character is reduced to an arm or one side of a face, and rooms to a flagstone floor or the corner of a rough table -- in fact, I never did get any coherent view of any room at all in the farmhouse, (3) shot with such jerky motions of a hand-held camera that it looked THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, (4) shot through incessant rain, fog, or mist that blurred everything.  There can be more than one correct answer.

 Even when the weather cleared, there are only so many long, slow pans of the moors than a film can stand.  By the time the millionth one appeared, I was hoping for grass fires.  Or anything with some life.

Also, one hanging of a small dog may be justified--it's in the book, and we are getting a clear view of Heathcliff's rage.  The second hanging of a small dog is not in the book and represents gratuitous nastiness.

Finally, the movie--and this is NEVER announced--consists of only the first half of the novel.  It stops with Heathcliff's marriage to Isabella.  This means that nothing is resolved, none of the relationships are finished, we never get to see the more-or-less happy ending that Bronte wrote.  The film just stops.  When it ended with such unfinished abruptness, a person behind me said unbelievingly, "It's over?"

Her companion said, "Thank God!"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nail-Biting at the Movies

You'd think it would be impossible to make a thriller where everyone knows the end well in advance and still have the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.  ARGO, amazingly, accomplishes this.

The story is true: In 1979, when 50 people had been taken hostage after the storming of the American embassy in Tehran, six more embassy staffers escaped out the back door and hid in the house of the Canadian ambassador.  It fell to the CIA to get them out of Iran.  Terry Mendez, an "exfiltrator," came up with the insane idea to pose as a Canadian film company making an SF movie in Tehran, and smuggle out the six as members of the film crew.  This means they needed a plausible movie company in Hollywood, a script, buzz in the press, posters, storyboards -- everything to convince the Iranians this was a legitimate enterprise.  So with the help of Hollywood, they created them.  

All this was declassified in 1997.  At the time, after the plan actually worked, the Canadians got the credit.  Mendez has since said that the extraction went smoothly, which means that Ben Affleck, as director, took liberties with the escape sequence in the airport.  It doesn't matter.  The basic facts are there, and I was so tense with the escape that I could barely sit still.  As the plane finally leaves Iranian airspace, the audience in the theater broke into applause.

The actors are all good: Affleck as an impossibly sexy Mendez, Alan Arkin as a cynical producer, John Goodman as the make-up man who has done work for the CIA before.  I had a few quibbles with the six hostages, who are so terrified they don't play along with the ruse very well and so look suspicious already.  But overall, this is the sort of taut, exciting, emotional movie that LOOPER should have been, with innocents in mortal danger and heroes out to rescue them.  Maybe the next big SF movie should be a project for Ben Affleck.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cranky at the Movies

Everybody likes LOOPER.  Except me.

io9, which reviews all things SF-nal, called it "smart."  I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around this.  My problem is that the plot doesn't make sense, which would seem to be a basic requirement of smartness.  To be specific:  [Alert: Many spoilers ahead!]

In 2044, time travel has been invented.  However, the only people who have a time machine are a very influential criminal organization headed by a mysterious man called the Rainmaker.  The only people.  No scientists, governments, etc.  Just thugs.

Technology has advanced enough to create time travel, but not enough to dispose of bodies, so the criminal organization sends its enemies, bound and hooded and alive, back to our time to be shot by confederates called Loopers. They don't send the bodies back dead, even though the problem is body disposal.  The Loopers have guns with ONE bullet, thereby enabling the odd sent-back thug to escape into our time.

The time machine looks like a rusty iron lung from the 1950's.  In fact, nothing in the future looks very futuristic except Shanghai, which already looks futuristic.

Bruce Willis, a retired Looper, is transformed from a stupid Bad Guy by the power of love.  Or so we're told.  However, he still can, and does, shoot children (one of whom will grow up to be the Rainmaker) in order to change the future so he can get his wife back.  Of course, if he succeeds in changing the future, what's to say that she will still be present in a drastically changed 2044?  Nobody considers this.

The child (played by a truly wonderful kid actor) has telekinesis, which he demonstrates when he kills a different assassin.  But when confronted with the exact same situation later in the movie, he doesn't use TK even though he could.  Why not?  Because if he did, the movie would be over.

Again, nobody else seems to mind any of this.  As long as enough bodies drop, enough things blow up, and Bruce glares enough, everybody thinks that's adequate to make an SF movie.   And if Hollywood wants to make a movie about time travel, why not Greg Benford's TIMESCAPE or Michael Swanwick's BONES OF THE EARTH or Connie Willis's "Firewatch"?  Those all make 
self-consistent sense.
So -- is it just me?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling's awaited first novel for adults, THE CASUAL VACANCY, is a surprise.  Several surprises, not all good.  But not all bad, either.
The first surprise is how grim the book is.  Pagford is a picturesque English country village, something Jane Austen might have used as a setting.  Beside it, however, is an extension of the city of Yarvil, a depressed area called "the Fields" that mostly consists of slums, out-of-work inhabitants, and a methadone clinic.  The Pagford Parish Council is divided on whether or not they should redraw boundaries to hand the Fields back to Yarvil and close the clinic (which is renting a building owned by Pagford), or instead try to help--with money and scholarships-- the disadvantaged inhabitants of the Fields.  In Chapter 1, a key member of the council dies, and the vacancy leads to an election that ends up exposing everyone's deepest secrets and personal bad behavior.

And it IS bad.  I didn't expect Harry Potter-type buoyancy and heroism, but nearly every character in THE CASUAL VACANCY is unpleasant, taking most of their pleasure from others' weaknesses, failures, frustrations, and pain.  Nearly every one!  These are not merely flawed characters; they are petty and actively vindictive.  And some are worse than that, including a man who beats his wife and kids, a crack addict who neglects her children, cyberbullies, and three--not one but three--teenagers who cruelly and publicly humiliate their parents. And one character, Krystal, is so wrenching that the only possible response to her is a painful pity. 

 By the end of the book, some of these characters have repented and reformed, but this is unfortunately the book's greatest weakness: I didn't believe some of these character changes.  They did not seem to me adequately prepared for.

The second surprise, however, was that despite all of the above, I could not put the book down.  The writing is good.  More, the story kept me enthralled to see what would happen next and how the various plot lines would turn out.  I neglected a lot of other things I was supposed to be doing in order to finish this novel. 

Rowling has moved a long way from what Jane Austen would have done with an English village.  Masterly Jane knew that every setting has at least a few moments of joy, at least a few relationships that are tender, at least some people who strive for higher standards of behavior.  Rowling has said that some of her book came from her own life and the lives she observed before she became famous.  If so, her upbringing must have been a doozie.

Still--I read, I read compulsively, and I believed her characters.  I just wish they hadn't been the only inhabitants we meet in Pagford.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making Your Brain Happy

The 2011 book by David DiSalvo, WHAT MAKES YOUR BRAIN HAPPY AND WHY YOU SHOULD DO THE OPPOSITE, was recommended to me by a friend.  I read it, and am glad I did.  For me, this book explained a lot.

DiSalvo's basic premise is this: The human brain evolved to conserve its resources in everyday life, so as to save them for the life-threatening situations where they are really needed.  Thus, your brain will usually take the "easy way out" because any other way creates mental discomfort.  This discomfort can be detected with functional MRI, where during some kinds of decision-making, the parts of the brain light up that cause anxiety (such as the amygdalae), and the parts that produce reward-feeling rev down (ventral striatum).  

What kind of decisions?  Those that go against the norms of one's peer group, or seem likely to cause friction with people one cares about, or will entail risk to something you value: security, belonging, comfort, reputation.  The result is that we try to minimize this discomfort by looking only at evidence that confirms what we already believe and discounting evidence that doesn't.  Your brain wants consistency and certainty. It even wants to "coast" if it can: Some studies show that for between 30 to 50 percent of our waking time, most of us are mentally "elsewhere,"  operating on automatic pilot.  This is why, for instance, you find yourself driving to your job when it's Saturday and you meant to go to the dry cleaner's.

Alas, in order to be just, or creative, or even fully aware of the world, consistency and certainty often must be sacrificed.  This may be why artists are so often prone to depression.  The world looks more chaotic to their driven, not-at-ease brains.

There is a lot more about neural activity in this fascinating book.  Highly recommended. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mirrored at the Movies

A few days ago I saw THE WORDS, the new movie that is the writing and directorial debut of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.  I really enjoyed it -- but possibly for the wrong reasons.  For authors, THE WORDS is part memory, part wish-fulfillment, part nightmare, all of which overwhelmed any sense of  objective artistic judgment that I might have brought to it.
The film is about a struggling fiction writer (played by Bradley Cooper).  For the first third of the script, Rory Jansen wrestles with blank pages, blank computer screens, blank results.  He cannot get the words to flow as he wishes, and this part of the movie feels so true that I was wincing in memory.  Especially since "memory" included writing sessions as recent as, oh, yesterday.

As the internal and external pressures mount (Rory is running out of money, and his family out of patience), he finds a manuscript: old, yellowed, anonymous, and brilliant.  This may not be enormously plausible, but then again, Hadley Hemingway lost a satchel of her husband's manuscripts on a train.  Rory first reads the novel and then retypes it just to get the feel of successful prose.  This is not far-fetched; I know many writers who have done this with famous stories as they teach themselves to compose.  But then, under still more pressure, Rory claims the novel is his own.

The movie is actually more complicated than that, since it is three stories set inside each other, all connected to this particular set of words.  THE WORDS is about the desire to write, the perks and costs of fame, and the choices we all make.  Unfortunately, the last part of the film turns both preachy and muddy (I thought the last line really confused things), but overall I enjoyed this movie.

I'm just not sure why.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Three Technologies

Three technologies have recently come to my attention: one small, one medium-sized, one large (I feel like Goldilocks).  The first is my new foldable, portable treadmill.  Since Seattle is known for rain, I bought this so that I can walk indoors.  I also had thought it would be nice if the dog walked on it with me.  I had visions of the two of us puffing companionably along as we watched the NBC Nightly News.  However, this is not going to work.  Here is the dog refusing to set foot on the thing, despite the presence of her favorite treat:
 Moving up in sophistication, e-readers came up during a discussion I had yesterday with a class at the University of Washington.  Their professor, Dr. Howard Chizeck, brought me in to give a talk on SF, science, and society.  When I asked how many students used e-readers, I was surprised to find that there were only two.  "I like the feel of real books," they all said.  And then, devastatingly to someone who loves her Kindle, "My grandparents use e-readers.  Not us."  Is this true?  Are e-readers already obsolete with the young generation of engineers?
Most sophisticated, here is a link to a video of DARPA's astonishing Legged Squad Support System (LS3), a robotic "mule."  This thing can move easily over rugged terrain (the DARPA press release says "gracefully," but that's stretching it a bit) and can pick itself up if it falls down.  We are one step closer to Imperial Walkers.  And a long way from my manual treadmill.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Happy At The Movies

Editors, it is rumored, don't much like stories about writers.  Writers do (mild narcissism, undoubtedly).  Probably the same applies to movies.  Still, I didn't expect much from the beginning of RUBY SPARKS, and I left loving it.

The premise is as old as Galatea (in another medium): a writer creates the perfect woman on paper, and she becomes real.  Worse, his "perfect woman" is one of those kookie, free-spirit types that I usually find annoying.  After Calvin, the writer, overcomes his shock and disbelief, there is an idealized series of loving-couple scenes, youthful division, that in their own way are also cliches: a video arcade, a beach walk, etc.  I wasn't exactly bored because Paul Dano as the nerdy, relationship-challenged Calvin has one of the most mobile and expressive faces ever, but I wasn't enchanted, either.

Then, in the second part of the film, things changed.  They begin to find fault with each other, at first the usual tiny rifts that successful couples negotiate.  But Calvin does not know how to negotiate.  All he knows how to do is write.  So he hauls out the manuscript in which he created Ruby and tries to rewrite her.  Again.  And again.  And he can't make her perfect.  All this becomes a writing technique in itself, "literalizing the metaphor," in which Ruby stands for not only love but also for writing fiction.  She is being twisted and forced in an attempt to make her a perfect echo of the writer.  Calvin cannot go past who he is, and fiction demands that writers become other characters in order to solidly create them.

By the end of the movie, his pain and horror are frozen on that mobile face, and I had chills of recognition.  For both meanings of the metaphor.

Zoe Kazan is good as Ruby, but this movie belongs to Paul Dano.  Every writer should see it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Your Own Personal Microbes

The new issue of THE ECONOMIST includes an article that just blew me away.  It's about the latest research on all the microbes that live in your gut.  
Your body harbors 100 trillion bacteria, ten times the number of cells you grew from your DNA, containing 3 million genes.  And they are yours: Humans differ vastly, it turns out, in the composition of this microbiome.  Some people have more of one kinds of microbes, other people have more of other kinds.  This has vast implications for health, most of which are just beginning to be explored.  Some findings so far:

Overweight people have more Firmicutes and fewer Bacteroidetes than thin people.  The later suppress the making of a hormone that facilitates fat storage, which is part of why Sally can eat a pint of Haagen-Dasz and not gain an ounce and Molly puts on three pounds looking at a picture of one M&M.  

Twin studies carried out by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis show that even on the exact same diet, one twin can develop malnutrition and the other not, depending on their individual gut bacteria.

Formic acid produced by gut bacteria can contribute to heart disease, because formic acid signals to the kidneys how much salt to absorb back into the body or to excrete with urine.  Too much salt can damage arteries.

Scientists are also investigating possible links between gut bacteria and diabetes type 2, MS, and even autism.

Most amazing to me is the case of C. difficile, a bug that causes severe diarrhea, killing about 14,000 Americans each year.  Many strains have evolved resistance to even last-ditch antibiotics like vancomycin and metronidazole.    Worse, when these are tried, they kill off most of the patient's gut microbiome.  But at the Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, doctors have come up with a successful--if gross--way to combat resistant C. difficile.  They give patients enemas with feces from healthy adults.  The new bacteria take over the gut and kill off the infection.

I have written stories about the evolution of disease microbes (including "Evolution," in my mini-collection THE BODY HUMAN, from Phoenix Pick).  The bacteria have an advantage in the medical arms race: They can evolve a new generation every twenty minutes, swapping plasmids to beef up each other's resistance to our drugs.  But we have brains on our side.  Despite the recent terrible onslaught of hospital-bred infections at NIH, there is lots of room for hope.  This excellent article illustrates why.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cranky at the Theater

Last week I saw a production of the Tony-winning musical RENT, at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater.  It was a good production, slightly made-over from the 1980's version, with terrific actors.  Some of the music is appealing, especially "Seasons of Love."  

However, the rock opera left me unsatisfied.  My three companions didn't share my reasons, so maybe it's just me.  I suspect, however, that since individual experience strongly affects one's reaction to art, and I am just too old for RENT.

Based on the nineteenth-century opera LA BOHEME, RENT concerns a bunch of would-be artists living in the East Village.  In LA BOHEME some of them were dying of consumption; in RENT, it's AIDS.  There is an on-stage death scene which is moving, as one character loses his drag-queen lover.  My problem was not with any of that, but with the underlying assumptions about the Bohemian life: it's much better than any stodgy bourgeois existence; it produces "real" artists because earning money corrupts people; the young artists are all superior to their frantic parents, who phone them from concern that the kids are all right; artists have the right to occupy their lofts without paying the landlords any rent because, well, they're artists.

None of this seems true to me.  Worse, it seems affected, exploitative, and even pathetic.  Many artists have produced wonderful work while living bourgeois lives.  Some even went on producing after they'd made money.  Landlords have taxes to pay on their buildings and children to feed.  Not everyone who works in, or even is, a corporation is despicable.  And parents deserve a break in their anxiety for their kids, in the form of a few phone calls now and then.

So I left the theater cranky.  And definitely too old for this show.  I wanted to say to everyone on stage: Just pay your damn rent!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Three Girls

In the last few weeks, due to much time on an airplane and even more time not feeling well (I always seem to get sick after flying), I read three novels.  All three have spent time on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list, although not the same amount of time and not in the same year.  All three center on a young woman in a problematic relationship.

THE NEWLYWOODS chronicles the Internet courtship, marriage, and emigration to America of Amina, an educated but poor Bangladesh woman who wants a better life.  She doesn't love George, her new American husband, but she likes him well enough, and she needs him to bring her parents out of danger in her native country.  Amina's relationships--with George, with the old love she left behind, with her parents and extended family, with her new American relatives, and with the United States itself--grow increasingly complex as the novel progresses.  Her choices grow harder.  Whether or not you agree with Amina's final decision, she is believable, interesting, and very human.

A little more formulaic but still very good is Philippa Gregory's historical novel, THE VIRGIN'S LOVER.   Amy Dudley is the young wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who has the good fortune to be having a love affair with the young Queen Elizabeth I.  Not such good fortune for Amy.  History has offered several opinions on how Amy Dudley ended up dead at the bottom of a staircase four centuries ago, but Philippa Gregory offers a fresh, absorbing take on this, along with her usual vivid picture of Tudor England.  Amy Dudley here is not as complex or solid as Amina Stillman, but the novel is still very good

 The third book I read was E. L. James's FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, about Anastasia Steele and everybody-already-knows-what.  The less said about this novel, the better -- except for one question.  Why is the book about a believable young woman struggling with genuine, and genuinely complex, moral and family issues the least commercially successful of the three; the second-best book much more successful; and the trashy one dominating everything from bookstores to social commentary?  What does that say about us, the book-buying public?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Adult Fiction

Over a year ago I attended a panel on YA fiction, and something I heard has picked at my mind ever since.  This particular panel consisted of librarians, both school and public, talking about what young people read.  They had discussed the usual suspects and the panel was open to questions.  I asked about a recent award-winning YA book, science fiction, that had garnered amazing reviews.  The librarian smiled sadly.  "We recommend it, but most kids start and then abandon it.  They say it's too slow and not exciting enough."

I have heard this before about other award-winners, including recipients of the prestigious Newberry Medal.  I have just finished reading THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE, a book by Karen Cushman, who previously had won a Newberry for CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY.  

Both books are set in the Middle Ages, and although the world they depict has its share of brutality, the books' two heroines, one a young lady and one a homeless village girl, don't engage in much derring-do.  There is no magic.  No sword fights, no quests, no battles, no deaths except from natural causes.  "We recommend Karen Cushman," the librarians said, "but mostly those books are read aloud to classes by teachers."

All this has raised a question in my mind: Do kids consistently choose different books for themselves than adults would choose for them?  Is that why Harry Potter and Katniss Everdene, but not Catherine called Birdy, became best-selling icons?  And if what constitutes a really, really good book is not the same as judged by adults and by kids, then which should a writer be considering in shaping his or her story?

I have a YA novel coming out in November: FLASH POINT, from Viking.  I wasn't much aware of this question while I was writing it.  And now I don't know the answer--or how much appeal the novel might have to either audience--although it seems to me that I was trying for both.  Now I'm wondering if that may have been a mistake, in that it may not be possible.  The things they want in fiction seem very different.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Round-up of Miscellaneous Stuff

Oz Drummond, who runs the Writing Workshop at Worldcon, has asked me to say that there are still slots open at the workshop.  If you are going to Worldcon, have your ms. critiqued by a pro!  Gerry Nordley and I will be leading one session.

On August 9, I'm reading at the University Bookstore in Seattle at 7:00 p.m.  Not sure as yet just what I'm reading.  Novel in progress?  Maybe.

As I type this, the Blue Angels are practicing outside my on-a-hill-and-sixth-floor window, over Elliot Bay.  They perform this weekend for SeaFare, in Seattle.  They are impressive, and VERY loud.

My toy poodle, Cosette, after her last grooming.  This photo would seem cuter to me if I didn't know that she bit the groomer.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Gillian Flynn's new novel is a summer sensation.  People carry it to the beach.  It is #5 on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list.  Women's magazines (which I read at the hairdresser and dentist) are raving about it.  So I bought and read it.
The writing is good, the characters interesting, the plot twists interesting and (by me, at least) unforeseen.  Nick Dunne's wife Amy has gone missing.  The marriage had deep problems, but just how deep they went only becomes evident as the plot twists and turns.  I was thoroughly engrossed for the first three-quarters of the novel.  Then something happens--not to the characters (although, that, too) but to the story.  I don't want to give anything away, but for me the ending just did not work.

Really, really did not work.  As in, the author betrayed her protagonist as she'd drawn him until then.

Wanting to know if I was alone in this disappointment, I began reading reviews of GONE GIRL on both and the Web.  I am not alone.  Some people loved the book, some disliked the ending.  Virtually nobody disliked the first three-quarters.  But then I began to notice another thread among the negative reviews, one that has come up over and over again in the writing workshops I teach.  Readers -- some readers -- disliked the book because "by the end, none of the characters were likable."  

In my view, protagonists do not have to be likable, only interesting.  But there is a large, LARGE group of readers of commercial fiction who think otherwise.  For them, a book does not work unless they have someone to root for.  So if you are writing a book that you hope will have commercial (as opposed to literary) potential -- make nice.  Or else.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thrilled at the Movies

Recently I saw the indie film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which won major prizes at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals.  I was blown away by the movie.  This one is a genuine original.
The protagonist is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living with her father on a Mississippi Delta island pretty much forgotten by the world.  Hushpuppy is played by a completely untrained little actress, Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who is astonishing.  This child makes no distinction between what is "real" and what exists in her powerful imagination.  (When her father disappears for a few days, she says, "Daddy might have turned into a bug or a tree.  There was no way to tell.")  Her teacher has told her about aurochs, prehistoric creatures that are just as solid to Hushpuppy as the fish she and her father catch in their ramshackle, improvised boat.  What is wonderful is that the movie makes no distinction, either.  When Hushpuppy imagines something, it appears, and we don't know if it's "really" there are not.

This makes for a rich, sometimes baffling, and always absorbing trip through two alien worlds: the island culture, and Hushpuppy's mind.  Her mother is dead, her father is dying, a huge storm hits and mostly destroys the island, aurochs appear, polar ice caps melt and crash into Louisiana, her mother comes back, maybe -- it's a visual feast with its own individual logic, in which longing and imagination trump linear thinking.  Don't miss this one.  SF has nothing as alien or complex as this little girl's brain and the film that creates it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant

One is not supposed to argue publicly with one's fellow writers.  Or at least not when it's their show, and they are also your publisher.  Nonetheless, last night at Seattle's University Bookstore I got into it, in a friendly way, with Kelly Link, one of SF's brightest young stars, whose husband Gavin Grant runs Small Beer Press.  Small Beer published my recent collection of short stories, FOUNTAIN OF AGE AND OTHER STORIES.

First, both Gavin and Kelly read:
Then, during the Q&A, Kelly asked the audience a question: How many people in the audience read a novel out of order?  Many did.  Kelly said she does, too, sometimes: reading the end, peeking at the middle.  "But..but...." I sputtered, "you can't do that!"

Obviously she can.  Kelly said it lessens the tension over wondering what will happen, and that when she knows the outcome, she can relax and better appreciate the build-up.  I said that as a novelist, I don't WANT the tension lessened -- I work hard to arrange things in a sequence that will increase it!  The audience laughed.  Kelly, who is a very sweet-natured person, explained further in the soothing tone when uses to calm down disturbed dogs.  I was not convinced.

And I'm still not.  

But the reading was good.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Happy at the Movies

Last night I saw the new Woody Allen film, TO ROME WITH LOVE.  I admit to bias here: I like Woody Allen (despite strenuous arguments with Connie Willis, who hates him and last week explained to me why, at length), and I went to Rome in April with Jack and had such a wonderful time that the visit probably colored my reactions to the movie.  On the other hand, I disliked LA DOLCE VITA, which featured the same romantic views of Trevi Fountain.
This is a movie about environment, in three senses.  First, it's a valentine to the city, which is photographed in loving detail in golden light.  Second, it's about the need for certain environments to accomplish certain things: an opera singer can only sing well in the shower.  A girl on her honeymoon becomes a wilder and more abandoned person only in situations far removed from her daily life.  

Mostly, however, this is a movie about the environment of fame.  In the funniest of four interwoven stories, Leopold, a middle-class clerk, wakes up one morning to find himself famous for no reason whatsoever ("You're famous for being famous!")  Paparazzi pursue him.  Television audiences are fascinated by whether he wears boxers or briefs.  He is thronged for autographs.  His multiple reactions to this celebrity underscore the other characters' reactions to their fifteen minutes of fame -- the opera singer, the retired impresario, the actress finally offered a part, the girl lunching with a famous movie star.  

This is not a perfect movie -- in places Allen is straining too much.  But I found it both fun and, weirdly, thought-provoking.  I asked the two people I was with if they would choose to be really famous, if they could be.  One said yes, one said no.  As for me (who just attended multiple events with and for George RR Martin, who must now be shielded from his fans) -- yes.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

George RR Martin and Connie Willis

Last night at a fund-raiser for Clarion West, after a wine-and-buffet reception, Connie Willis interviewed George R.R. Martin.  It was an entertaining and interesting interview, which opened with Connie saying, "I haven't seen you for a few years, George -- have you been writing anything?"  The author of THE GAME OF THRONES series answered at length, saying, "Connie told me at dinner to make my answers long.  She doesn't want to work too hard."

Interesting tidbits from George:

As a kid he made up monster stories and sold them to neighborhood children for a penny each.  Eventually, the price went up to a nickel.  There are no extant copies of these stories: "I hadn't mastered carbon paper."

He was enormously influenced by the movie ALIEN, in which the character who first appeared to be the hero gets killed, and someone else (Ripley) becomes the hero.  "That's how it often is in real life -- you don't know who will turn out to do what."  This, he says, is the reason so many of fans" favorite characters, such as Ned Stark, end up dead. 

When he began to write the series, he didn't realize how long it would be, or how long it would take him to write each book.  "That's partly because I've said yes to too many speaking engagements."  At one point, his editor was coaxing him to finish a book with a unique ploy: George wanted to see the cover, and she would only mail it to him in little strips after he sent her more pages.  

He uses charts, maps, and genealogy trees to keep all those characters straight.  ("Don't you have 736 viewpoint characters now?" Connie asked, with wicked innocence.) 

No, he does NOT know when the next book will be finished!

His secret vice is chocolate doughnuts. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Charmed at the Movies

MOONRISE KINGDOM is a very strange movie -- but, then, it was created by Wes Anderson, whom one either loves or hates (I once saw a shouting match erupt at a dinner party in D.C. over THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS).  KINGDOM is also, in its own wonky way, utterly charming.

In 1965, two twelve-year-olds run away together, one from Scout camp and one from home.  These kids are both loners, Sam disliked by everybody in his Scout troop and Suzy the object of a brochure her parents have acquired, HELP FOR THE VERY TROUBLED CHILD.  Suzy, played by Kara Hayward, has the spookiest intensity I've ever seen in a young girl, enhanced by great quantities of eye makeup.  She and Sam are in love.

This could have been a set-up for an icky script, sentimental or too knowing or even tragic, but it's not.  The movie plays the kids' escape dead-pan, and it is both hilarious and moving.  These kids know they're both outcasts and they glom onto each other as if clutching life rafts, although with a childish consideration for the other person that none of the adults in the film are able to muster.  Suzy's mother is having a juiceless affair with the local sheriff.  Suzy's dad is teetering on the edge of despair.  The scoutmaster takes refuge in doing everything by the book, which means his charges are completely out of his control.  The Nurse Ratched-like woman from Social Services (which is the only name she is addressed by, as in "Social Services, we found them") is frozen inside.

The movie mixes the concrete with the improbable, all narrated by a gnome-like figure in a knit hat who earnestly explains, with the aid of many maps, the geography of the island where the kids are hiding, as if narrating an important historical battle.  Suzy and Sam are resourceful, committed, and touching.  If you met these kids in person, you probably wouldn't like them, but seen from a safe distance, they're admirable.  See this movie -- but only if you have a taste for the whimsically weird. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Taos Toolbox -- Days 11 and 12

This was the last day of Taos Toolbox.  Still no bear, and the chipmunk that David McAmis has domesticated is no substitute, even though it's cute:
Attendees had been assigned the "Chastity exercise," developed by Ursula LeGuin, in which you must write a page of evocative description without using any adjectives or adverbs.  Everybody did well at this.  The winner of the Oz Drummond Scholarship, given to a promising writer, was Sara Mueller.  Tonight we will all go out for a final gala dinner.

Memorable quotes from the last two days' of critiques:

"This has a nice light touch for a story about genocide."

"It's set in Genericville."

"Your solution to the plot problem has to be to skate faster."

"I love the shit out of this story."

"Let them miss the point.  It's literary."

"This future Iowa is why I'm retiring to Florida."