The Human Quest. Mirrored

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The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

In one sense Go’s book is magnificent. In another, it’s a bit flawed. Let me explain. Perhaps a writer who reads this will see the mirrored characters, how their similar lives are different, and enjoy Go’s gift for suspense, his powers of observation translated to the page. But whether experienced by writer or stouthearted reader, Go leaves you unsatisfied.

Early in the 20th Century, Ashley Walsingham meets Imogen Soames-Andersson purely by chance. Ashley is about to enter World War I, and so his seemingly perfect romance with Imogen is interrupted all too soon, with Imogen pregnant. The remainder of their mutual experience is in their attempts, despite the war and despite each one’s sense of personal destiny, to forge a long-lasting love. Then, in early 21st Century, A young Californian, Tristan Campbell, learns that he may be the heir of Ashley’s fabulous wealth, but he must first prove that he’s the rightful descendant of Ashley and Imogen – all in some three months. And so, with this mystery in our hip pocket, we follow Tristan across Europe as he picks up clue after unsatisfying clue to his assumed forbears. But it’s in Paris that Tristan meets footloose artist, Mireille, and they, too, fall in love, although not as impulsively as do Ashley and Imogen. It’s here in the story that the dynamics of their relationship diverge dramatically from those of Ashley and Imogen, who seem lost in the fog of war, the overloud trumpeting of their era’s wars and gender relationships.

And yet, Tristan and Mireille are the inheritors of Ashley and Imogen’s lives. But many historical waters have passed in the intervening century, and these two are bound by the steady running of Go’s hour not to make the same mistakes made by Ashley and Imogen.

The book is casually edited, annoying in its typos and mis-wordings, but these flaws pale in the presence of Go’s vision and otherwise stellar prose. Go seems reluctant to allow Tristan, his protagonist, to air his innermost thoughts during his trek through Europe. To Go, the story must bear the burden of both character and plot – an adventure Go almost pulls off, despite its minor structural flaws.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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The Hollowness of Deep Space

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Interstellar – The Movie

A friend, who had seen the movie previously, asked me to accompany her to see the flick for her second viewing. We saw it from stadium seating on the really, really big screen, the theater on Tuesday night almost empty so we could ooh and ahh to our heart’s delight.

Did I like it? Sure, it was great entertainment, with spectactular cinematography by a crew listing as long as your arm and a super soundtrack by Hollywood’s ace, Hans Zimmer. With movies or TV shows in futuristic settings or out there in deep space, we’ve come to expect almost tongue in cheek, humorous fun or something philosophically disturbing. Now I’m no math pro or astrophysicist or quantum explorer, but I thought the movie’s stab at all this is in effect throwing a bucketful of cutting edge scientific terms at us, making it seem a lot of hooey to thoughtful or science-based viewers. Sure, it makes a case for love and the interconnectedness of us humans as a solution to alienation, but such things are better done by demonstrating them in a very humanistic storyline instead of simply saying it and equating love with gravity. In other words, too much telling, not enough showing. And via too much scientific hooey.

What the movie does do in symbolic form is to tell us viewers that all our activities, from the momentous to the trivial, seem to be recursive, i.e., they do little more than reflect us to ourselves. This, of course, is a major tenet of the American version of postmodernism. In the end, the movie tried to do too much in its near-three hour run. Still, it was great fun to see Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, and others strut their cinematic stuff.

My Rating: 14 of 20 stars

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Undermining All That’s Good In The Human Soul

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I saw my first theater movie today in over a year, having spent the intervening time caring for, driving to doctors, etc., my cancer poisoned wife. She died a little over a month ago, and I thought to expunge my blue mood with a movie, Fury – you know, watch things being blown up. Catharsis and all that. Parenthetically, it worked, in the finest Greek drama tradition.

I know most who went or will yet go to this movie wished to see U.S. ingenuity, grit, and firepower overcome the wicked, wicked Nazis. In another era it could just as well have been a similar wished-for scrap with the evil, evil ISIS forces. But I digress.

Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, a tank commander, hardened by tank combat from North Africa to France, Belgium, and finally Germany itself. He’s caught between compassion and a willingness to kill anything German, between tenderness and brutality, between crudeness and a sometimes refined sensibility. Not so his tank crew, who have, each in his own way, become the inevitable result of war, brutishness personified. The exception is accidental assistant tank driver, Norman, a kid just arrived and not given a scintilla of the mindset of killing.

I imagine many an eyebrow arrowed down over the noses of viewers as Wardaddy pummels, preaches, and persuades Norman into a warlike frame of mind. Viewers who surely expected to see a proto-propaganda movie extolling all that’s supposed to be good in the combat arena. But Wardaddy’s efforts on behalf of Norman is an unvarnished picture of the state of war lost amid the hero-making, the Congressional Medals of Honor, i.e., the lowering of civilized humanity into the subhuman state in which all but a few wisps of civility are chucked, replaced by the lowest of common denominators in human interaction.

Our intrepid tank crew find themselves on a mission to hold a piece of German earth by themselves, their tank crippled. The rest of the movie is reminiscent of the first few scenes of Saving Private Ryan, bullets and tank shells whistling through the quadrophonic sound system, the ground trembling with the force of explosions.

The movie reviews have hinged on banners of bravery, the strutting of American exceptionalism. But underneath all this is the sad, sad reality of war’s undermining of all that’s good in the human soul. For that reason alone it’s worthy of the movie’s excellent acting, the razor-sharp cinematography and sound, and Eric Hachikian’s stellar music.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

The Lives of the Least Amid The Greatest of Human Dramas

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All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Reading today’s fiction writers, you might notice, as I have, that an eloquent voice and style may not keep you in thrall. Just as a writer’s story can keep you rushing to the next page despite a rather plebeian voice and ability to command language, so eloquence can shout down any vestige of story present. This is hardly the case with Anthony Doerr’s latest, All The Light We Cannot See. His is the rarest of literary gifts, the ability to tell an über-compelling story while doing so via a distinctive voice and true eloquence. It’s very possible that this tandem doesn’t occur, despite a writer’s abilities, unless underlain by a marked passion for the subject matter.

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The story here is a tandem one, set during World War II, the tale of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and Werner Pfennig, a slip of a German boy with a talent for the new science of electronics. As the story begins, Marie Laure is eight or nine, Werner some four years older. Marie Laure’s great-uncle Etienne has been deeply affected by the First World War and stays locked up in his home, but when the girl’s father brings her to the westernmost town of Saint-Malo, her innocence and inquiring mind bring Etienne out of his war-induced shell. Meanwhile, Werner is being seduced via Nazi propaganda into joining the Wehrmacht. There he shows remarkable aptitude for understanding and building electronic gadgets, and is soon trucked off to the Eastern Front to use his gizmos. Marie-Laure stays locked in Etienne’s home, withstanding bombings, Nazi brutality, near-starvation, and the possibility of death at the hands of a greedy German officer.

This book has been highly touted, and that’s as it should be. I can think of few books in recent years that are so well composed and which have affected me deeply as both reader and writer. The lives Doerr has given us in this book are peripheral to one of the world’s greatest dramas, but lives that are affected to the deepest degree by this horrid war. If there’s a project common to the best writers of the twenty-first century, it’s just that: detailing the lives of the least amid the greatest of human dramas.

My Rating: 19 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Moving From Apprentice to Artist

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You watch semi-talented singers being coached on American Idol and the Voice, right? They’re supposedly getting advice on how to make the best use of their talents, right? But if you’re a writer watching these shows, do irritable thoughts enter you asking, in effect, “Where’s this sort of help for writers?” Sure, there are workshops and summer residencies, but you’re just one more face in the crowd at those gatherings, so where’s the help? Writer magazines such as Poets&Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer expend a lot of ink on how to get published, and they do offer some measure of advice on how to improve your craft, but what to do once you’ve assimilated those baby steps? And asking an established writer to mentor you, while being potentially helpful, is a long shot.

One other resource comes in the form of The Writer’s Chronicle, a magazine published by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and can help once you’ve passed your apprentice phase and enter the journeyman level. Virtually all of this mag’s articles are by established writers or creative writing instructors.

Uh oh, you say, here we go with the MFA malarkey. Well, not really. Many of these article writers do teach in MFA programs, but I suspect they write for TWC because they have a lot to say that MFA students find hard to assimilate. Which is why I mention the December 2014 issue of TWC. Now, I’ve been known to bemoan many of TWC‘s issues, because of  the heavy emphasis on poetry.

This issue begins with a conversation between David Shields and Davis Schneiderman as they try to talk their way through their writing lives. Their gab-fest comes loaded with arcane terms, but if you sweat your way through these, you just may find ways to understand yourself as a writer.

If you’ve ever been tempted into dabbling in historical fiction, you might wonder: How do I know the historical “facts” aren’t slanted to support a historical bias? In fact, can I really trust my own memory in writing about a significant era I’ve lived through? And doubly to the point, is historical fiction relevant? Here’s one thing to consider in this respect: Historians will write the chronology of events and eras, but their writing stops short of delving into the thoughts, the inner conflicts of historical figures, whether they be the famed or faces in the crowd. This, writes Hillary Moses Mohaupt, is where fiction enters the picture, as she quotes John Gardner:

“The first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel…we must be drawn into the character’s world as if we were born to it.”

Robert Powers writes in this issue on the difficulties of creating literary narrative in our current era of constant change; i.e., how do we adapt our writing skills to reflect through narrative this constant state of flux? He does offer specifics, but this is the gist:

“Literature that doesn’t (only) entertain defamiliarizes the familiar; it calls into question deeply held convictions and changes the way we look at the world and our daily lives.”

It’s good to read, however randomly such occurs, advice that will move a conscientious writer from the journeyman level to that of the artist. Such is this issue of The Writer’s Chronicle.

Biscuits and Concrete

I sometimes feel the need to air my inner curmudgeon, and this is one of those times.

I’m currently reading a book that keeps referring to concrete as cement. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this erroneous usage in print, but I do admit that some writers get it right. Still, let me say it loudly – CONCRETE IS NOT CEMENT. Heck I might just as well call biscuits flour.

I’m belaboring the point now, but I feel I must give you writers out there the following to mull over:

Biscuit: a small, typically round cake of bread Unknown

Its components:

  • flour
  • baking powder
  • baking soda
  • salt
  • shortening
  • water or milk

Concrete: a heavy, rough building material that can be spread or poured into molds and that forms a stonelike mass on hardeningimages

It’s components:

  • cement
  • sand
  • aggregate (stone)
  • water

Okay, so now you know. But a warning, writer: if I see this erroneous usage in one of your books I’m liable to steal a copy (or buy, if I must), mark up the offending usage(s), and send it back to you.

 

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.