This Time, It’s All In The Technique

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I’ve had the experience of watching a movie in a local theater, the person in the row in front of me busy whispering aloud, explaining what transpires on the screen to his or her companion. Yes, such prattle may add to your own understanding of this cinematic event, but it’s damned annoying. And so we’ll talk soon here of the narrator of Amor Towles’ latest, A Gentleman in Moscow.

To be fair at the outset, Towles takes a lot of risks in this novel, in subject matter, in its telling, and in the story’s structure. And as with most risks, some of his work and some don’t. His protagonist, Count (now Comrade) Alexander Rostov, is now a waiter in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, an edifice to which he’s been confined by a Bolshevik tribunal for seeming not to have his politics right. The story thus reduces Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russia and its grand scape to a mere hotel, a device not unlike the trope of shipboard drama, from Moby Dick to Master and Commander.

Rostov, despite his demotion to waiter, seems affable in managing to live the life of one of Russia’s former uppercrust with few hints of typical Russian angst, within and without him. Until, that is, the child, Sofia, he’s been given responsibility to raise, grows to be a beautiful late teen and a talented pianist. Rostov’s concern here is Russia’s past and the way its previous artistic culture seems to be stunted by communism. He thus seeks to spring Sofia loose from such sociopolitical chains and seeks to place himself back in the good old days of a Russian aristocracy served by scores of quiescent serfs.

And to the writing: Towles’ strength here lies in his narrative passages, many of which display a literary elegance that’s to be admired. It’s at the periphery of these passages, however, where Towles segues into scene, that my earlier paragraph comes into play. He seems to feel uneasy about his dialogue (more on that in a moment) and seems compelled to have his narrator play the moviehouse busybody, explaining things that are likely obvious to the reader. Beyond annoying, it serves to diminish the effects of scenic activity and talk, and this is unsettling to say the least. His dialogue displays little in the way of advancing story or deepening his characters. Such storyline talk seems to this reader to be rather inane, uninformed, and not the witty bits of writing it was probably meant to be. Factor in his bratty narrator, and you get a plodding story with superficial characters.

In the end, I’m sad to say, it seems to this reader that Towles is more interested in creating an artsy piece of writing than in developing his story idea into something grand, something that could push this era’s haggard literary efforts into more memorable territory.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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A Modern Desultory Philippic

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There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.

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All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.

 

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The Rear View Mirror

Any blogger worth their salt knows to evaluate what (s)he writes about and knows to give potential readers something that interests them. The trick, of course, is to, well, trick them into digging deeper that they’ve gone before, making them think in new ways about their interests. I call that looking in the rear view mirror.

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We’ve reviewed fewer books this year than in previous years, a trend that might continue. I won’t review pap, even though such work is high on everyone’s list. I will review books ranging from the occult to the historical, but only those that represent thinking in new ways. I don’t mind if the subject matter is all wet, as long as it presumes to have readers THINK.

If you’re a writer, I’ll do what I can to steer you away from bad technique, wandering astray, boring the reader in you. I’m not a fan of MFA program grads, but as long as these writers have something to say, I’m all in. While I don’t go about my writing and reading habits in a way that lies counter to the conventional, I’m always on the lookout for innovation, but innovation that informs and doesn’t annoy.

So if you’ve been a bit irked at the subtle changes in this blog, please hang in there. Life these days is all about change – just look back at the books reviewed here. You’ll see that change in what’s being written. I plan to change with the times, and I’ll do my best not to steer you wrong.

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Oh, and by the way, I have a poetry book (cover above) coming out in February. I read some poetry and review even less, but that may change as well. Poets are the true visionaries – listen to them, read them. Stay ahead of the game.

 

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Anything You Want to Believe

before…,by Bob Fickes

 

51bgBXfbF1L._AC_US218_I have no biases when it comes to reading. anything from acclaimed history to channelled things from way on the far end of the bell curve. This book claims to be material channelled by author Fickes via the famed magician of Camelot, Merlin, and purports to be “the missing records of creation, the war in Orion, Lemur and Atlantis. One of the most cumbersome titles around, but that’s neither here nor there.

A lot of the text is repetitious and somewhat ho-hum when it comes to providing intriguing information and outright entertainment and a lot of it parallels the Biblical story of creation most of us are familiar with. If you read enough of this sort of subject matter, as I’ve done, you get the eerie feeling that there might be something to it. There are, in fact, a number of fairly well-respected archaeologists who are working the edges of conventionality, and if they’re to be believed, they’re disputing modern archaeological assumptions with fairly good data. So who knows.

At any rate this Merlin fellow shared the story, so why not read it? Right?

 

My rating: 14 of 20 stars

 

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Getting That Writerly Feedback

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While on the subject of editing, here are a few of my rationales for how I go about that process and a few bullets regarding reviews and edits. Your process will certainly be different, but maybe there are a few takeaways here for you.

I don’t choreograph my novels, except when I expect a lot of characters and/or subplots. And what this means to my writing process is a lot of harm scrum writing, a plot line that is disjointed and distorted (although I’m getting better at initially assembling a coherent plot with a proper palate of characters). The quality and consistency of my prose gets worked out fairly well during incremental editing of sentence structure, imaginative word selection, and voice. A savvy reader will appreciate this, but said reader and those who simply read for plot pleasure usually don’t take the time to savor our writing style. This doesn’t mean you should be sloppy in that regard; it simply means be aware of the different motivations and expectations of readers and do what you can to accommodate them.

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It’s important to get reader feedback, too. And recognize there are four basic kinds of such legitimate feedback:

  1. critique groups. These can tend toward the nit-picky, but such encounters may be your writing’s first valid exposure to how readers see your writing.
  2. comments by independent editors you engage, or once you’ve signed a publishing contract, the publisher will almost always require an editor to look the work over. Here, publishers often look for certain structures in the writing they seek to publish, and your editor’s comments may be to accommodate this.
  3. reviews on websites and the like, such as Goodreads, Amazon, and  Barnes & Noble. These will be the first place readers will test-drive your completed and published works. Solicit these even before the book is officially published.
  4. Magazine and newspaper reviews. Here, your validation of such reviews can be complicated. These reviewers often evaluate the writer through the work, meaning the critic may like your writing, but for various reasons not like you. Or vice versa.

 

Don’t feel put off during any of these review stages. However, don’t always take them in toto. This is your work, your reputation on the line, so only take from these what you believe will improve a particular work or your writing in general.

 

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Sharpening The Pencil

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I’m not tired of fiction writing, by any means. But I do tend toward predictability if not occasional outright laziness in my writing, and that’s why I’m spending time editing a 20+ year-old piece of poetry. Now, I don’t pretend to be a poet, nor do I fully understand contemporary  poetry. And that’s why this perhaps overlong piece looks and sounds like 1930s verse. But its use to me is to sharpen the macro view of what I’m trying to say here – and to make every word count.

I recently submitted a rather old novel manuscript to an indie editor for advice on how to sharpen the story – if indeed it needed such. According to AB, my editor, it needed a complete redo. And here’s where I both encourage and and caution writers in following in my footsteps. I learned years ago that editors won’t spend the time with a manuscript that you the writer will; consequently, they likely will not see the story as you do. But such editorial looks will allow you to see how your story seems to interested readers.

In my case, the editor was frustrated with the supposed genre and what exactly the story is about. The manuscript was intended to be about two old friends reencountering one another after some thirty years’ absence. And as often happens, the old friendship still has heft, but it also has difficulties in the extreme. And I wanted to use a geophysical phenomenon as a metaphor for the friendship, which makes the story more literary than commercial genre. And so, after a cordial Skype meet-up with AB, I decided to rewrite to make the story center more on the two main characters than on my supposed plot. Take about killing off some of your best stuff!

But back to the poem.

When writing short or long fiction you can sometimes get away with the occasional bad writing and a de-emphasis on cohesive story. Poetry, however, will tolerate neither. Poetry does have its freedoms, to be sure, but the more you exercise those freedoms the sharper the piece’s language has to be, the more crystal clear the overall effect of the poem demands to be.

So I’m struggling through this in order to sharpen my prosaic pencil. But i’m not being so mercenary as to consider this poem to be the literary equivalent of slave labor. After all, I do like to write poetry, too. Just to give you an idea of what I’ve been doing, here’s a sample of the poem’s beginning, intended to be modern and metaphysical. DIVISIONS is the first section of three parts, and this is how that section begins.

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Divisions

Morning sun, warm on my back,

your breath smells of salt.

Is it your smile

that thrills me so,

or the raucous tune I hear

bouncing over the ocean?

Please! Let your lyric wash

Over me like a new reality.

 

But a question darkens the thought –
What need do I have of a new reality?

Perhaps there’s need enough

in this early morning chill

to root me in this world forever.

I dare not rise above the water’s

surface, shivering, blind with hunger,

And beg for what’s already mine.

 

 

Have you seen beyond

The clouded window? Cold rain

Begins to slant over distant waters.

Can you recall The One?

 

Mighty sea, mother eternity,

I once rose above you, and

dark forces spirited me away

to a shining city, streets

paved with the salt

of imperious science.

It was there I lost myself

in idleness and poverty.

 

Do you abide such lassitude?

Only under the spell of

asymmetrical moments.

Infinite sea, your limits

taste the world at every turn.

For the sake of my illumination,

why does my awe of you

seem so much like fear?

 

 

Walking barefoot through

this place of dual worlds

is difficult        better still

to touch the face of The One.

 

 

I’ve abandoned friends for this,

my surrender to your waves.

I baptize myself then dive

to calmer water where

something of the past

endures, then I bolt upward,

tumbling and rolling with salt

on my tongue and sand in my suit.

 

Is it really possible to be born

anew in each moment

in these self-same bodies,

wave after wave,

resisting the undertow

water dripping from my nose?

I fear I’m a silly knave destined

To learn the same lessons over and over.

 

 

 

What do you know of the sun,

the solar orb of Helios?

does his solitude

encompass The One?

 

 

Noon, and I walk the crystal

sands and watch the crabs dance,

living their measure of life.

Here at the edge,

the moveable frontier,

neither sea nor sand exist.

Here, new elemental forces

are bent on being born.

 

Dare I speak of what is real

in such a place?   Perhaps not.

Hang reality, I ask for silence.

But a fertile mind knows

no silence. It’s an ocean

of thought, torrents of it,

spreading its fantasies across

a universe of time and space.

 

 

The day quickens.

Do you hear the echoing gulls?

A cloud of hearts

Beating within The One.

 

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Wars of the Annunaki, by Chris Hardy – Part 2

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My last post on this book, written halfway though the reading posed a lot of questions, some prescient, some unwarranted, some remaining unanswered. First let me set the stage for Professor Hardy’s project here:

  • She has examined texts of both Sumerian language and the later Akadian tongue favored in ancient Babylonia against multiple translations of the book of Genesis, most likely first written in an antiquated version of Hebrew.
  • The story goes beyond Adam and Eve’s alleged fall from grace to include the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot and the destruction of five major cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • She leans rather heavily on the instructions of semantics, particularly in discriminating informational passages from moral ones (here meaning how moral phrases either confirm or distort the actual historical events as written and passed down  for centuries.)

And so how do translations of Sumerian and Akadian tablets diverge from the much later versions of these events as written in Hebrew? Without reproducing Hardy’s tale altogether, Eve and Adam grew beyond simple vassal status to the so-called gods (the Annunaki) to gain self-reflection and -determination, which threatened the status of the gods. This instead of being tempted by Satan to commit evil – a much later distortion of the Sumerian/Akadian writings on this subject.

And the story of Lot in the later texts, when examined through the lenses of semantics and logic, bears little representation of a real life situation. First, in the oldest texts, the primary “god” Enlil, sought to destroy all of humanity because he considered humanity a failed experiment (with some weight given to the idea that human self-determination threatened his status and enraged him personally.) Depictions of the Annunaki in these texts awarded them no cause for concern over the moral questions later Hebrew texts used as a rationale for destroying this embryonic civilization. A war of the kings ensued, fully documented on some thousands of translated tablets. Enlil, victorious, now had the elbow room to destroy humanity from Palestine to western India. Geologic and archaeological investigations throughout this area found radioactive skeleton fragments and vitrified rock, indicating the possibility of weaponry from the gods with the potency of our modern nuclear bombs, rockets, etc. A simple example of later versions of Lot’s story’s questionable events: If God told Lot’s family not to look back, because if they did, they’d be turned to salt, then who looked back to note the nature of Sarah’s demise? How was this possible, anyway? Was this person also turned to salt? Or was this simply an assumption of her death because she fell behind and disappeared? The Sumerian texts claim she fell far behind and was vaporized in the weaponry explosions.

The story here is one of this poor, huddled mass of humans, including Adam and Eve, as pawns in an epic conflict between Enlil and another of the Annunaki, Enki, who had in fact done the DNA tinkering that gave humanity the possibility of accelerated evolution. Enki, perceiving humanity’s possibilities as a race, sought to preserve them, while Enlil sought to destroy what he considered a failed experiment.

Seen in this light, if there be a thread of truth through the Sumerian and Akadian texts and their subsequent translations, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Enki archetype, whomever might personify the archetype, for preserving a fragile, new race of creatures. This despite the paradox of war and destruction no doubt built into human DNA along with its preservation and protection.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

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