Kid Lit, My Friend, Kid Lit

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How do you read?

What?

What I mean is – and I mean this indirectly – what do you intend to get out of what you read?

That’s a pretty general question, Bob.

All right, I’m still not being clear enough. Do you read to get the gist of the story? Do you read to understand the characters and their conflicts? Do you read contextually, i.e., do you read to understand the story and characters in light of their historical and social settings?

Yeah, all that.

Okay, that makes you an exceptional reader. So let me ask you this: How quickly do you read?

You mean do I buy a book, run home and start reading?

You know I don’t mean that. How long do you dwell on each page?

I don’t know…Jeez, Bob, you going to put a stopwatch on me, or what?

No. What I’m getting at is: Do you enjoy the act of reading? Do you savor the writer’s word choices? Do you ponder his/her choice of metaphors? Can you slip into the writer’s written voice like a new bathrobe? Do you look for and celebrate the irony there? The subtlest humor and satiric bits and pieces?

Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes the book bores the shit out of me, and so I scan it. Can’t wait to get through with it, you know?

I do indeed. I try to allude to all these things when I write a review; I try to lead the ones who read my reviews into reading the book, and I try to tell them what they can expect from reading it.

I get where you’re coming from, Bob. You’re going to try something new in your reviews, aren’t you? And you depend on your formula to get you through the weeds.

(Notice how, suddenly, the questioner becomes the questioned?)

I get that, Bob. You’re as regular as an alarm clock when it comes to putting that formula into practice. So what’s up?

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Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit.

Books for tykes, you mean.

Yes.

So why is that a challenge?

Vocabulary, for one thing. An eight-year old’s vocabulary is roughly half an adult’s. And then there’s the degree of complexity a child’s mind can handle.

So, Bob, you think a kid’s mind isn’t as well developed as an adult’s?

Well, it’s been proven. That’s why they go to school. To improve their ability to think and communicate what they think.

It’s not to learn a trade? To get a good paying job?

Now you’re getting into politics, and we both know where that ends up. Certain people scratch around in the dust long enough and greedily enough, and they end up with money. Piles of it. They become addicted to money. Can’t get enough of it. So they tweak society into training mindless automatons to do their bidding. Give them just enough mental training to have them function as human machines.

Like that old song? “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong?”

Exactly. You become dangerous if your mind becomes over-educated.

Is that what you want, Bob, over-educated people who cause trouble?

In a way. But what I’d say is I want people who can think for themselves – and for society as a whole. To move us all forward.

Really, Bob? Really? And how do you propose to do that?

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Get them reading. Challenge their minds that way.

And how do you get your so-called automatons to read?

Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit. Get the kids reading, and they’ll never stop.

 

End of scene. See you next week.

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Magic as Metaphor

 

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Some story collections are simply that – stories you’ve saved that may have been published in literary journals and the like, stories that hopefully have some thread connecting them, no matter how tenuous that thread might be. This is the case with Collateral Damage and Stories. AM Ink saw fit to publish this collection too, although only two of the stories had been published previously.

To me, the big draw would be the very long story (you can call it a novella), Collateral Damage, and from the comments I’ve heard to date, readers are drawn to this story. In fact, thanks to promo work by MindBuck Media, I had a rather glowing review of this collection from the Asheville Citizen-Times, and this novella sat center stage in the review. I hesitate to call this collection magical realism (it’s not), but elements of each of the stories strain the limits of credulity.

In writing this sort of story, these “magical” bits are really metaphorical elements that allow the author to hammer at certain points to be made without seeming preachy or didactic. For instance, in one story, a “magical” baseball allows the writer to speak of the obsession with sports while allowing the baseball to assume a rather charming role in the story.

There wasn’t much to speak of in the way of angst in getting the collection published. Since I have a relationship with Mike Aloisi of AM Ink, I asked if he’d like to see the collection (he did), he offered to publish it, and to date it’s doing quite well. This, then, is how it happens on one side of the established hybrid publishing tandem. Tomorrow,  the other side of hybrid.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information and a book trailer for COLLATERAL DAMAGE and STORIES. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

 

Revolutionary and Reading Blind

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The better writers across the world realize that they, through their writing, can be agents of change. Portuguese writer Jose Saramago was precisely this. But better not to overtly rail against the established order; better to cast parables, simple but profoundly incisive metaphors, as a way of allowing readers to see the world anew. It’s not the writer’s task to say “Do it this way,” you see, but they can manipulate the manner in which the reader sees the world. Thus the reader – not the writer – gains a vision of what might be and is able to act, to make that vision real.

Saramago, in Blindness, accomplishes such a goal by slowly making the people of his world go blind. How do they cope? In many perhaps trivial ways. But the effect of limiting the human condition in this way allows both his characters and his readers to see the dross of the world, to allow it to be swept away, and for the true essence of life to emerge phoenix-like.

The skillful writer can, as Saramago does here, also limit his writing style to its essence to underscore the text’s impact. Saramago’s writing is almost exclusively in narrative, even drastically limited in punctuation. To write in this way takes paramount skill and understanding of the use of words, and Saramago’s gifts in this regard will surely reach far beyond his years on earth.

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The Infield Fly and An End To Glory Days

Baseball has always seemed something of a metaphor for the broad spectrum of life, but then that’s me. I’m always seeing the game, its foibles and phantasms, as instructive of real life.

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image via washingtonpost.com

That’s why as I watched my former hometown team, the Atlanta Braves, take on the St. Louis Cardinals last night I began getting goose bumps on my arms – something significant was about to happen. Of course, there was the obvious – the Braves’ Chipper Jones was playing out his final season, certain to end up in the Basebal Hall of Fame. He’d hit over 400 home runs as a switch hitter, and carried a batting average of .302 through nineteen seasons. He’d ended the regular season in perfect symmetry with his first big league at-bat – a strong line drive single. Now, every game played could be his last. 

The Braves played poorly through seven innings, trailing 6-3, Jones part of the problem, muffing a ground ball at third that should have resulted in a double play. But the Braves had played stubbornly this season, and, well, anything could yet happen.

Then it did.

With two on in the eighth, Braves newbie, Anderlton Simmons hit a pop-up that carried well into left field, Cards shortstop Pete Kozma finally giving up on the ball. Cards’ hitting hero Matt Holliday stopped, dumbfounded, as the ball dropped between them. As it hit the ground, umpire Sam Holbrook raised an arm, calling into effect the infield fly rule, which resulted in Simmons being out.

Braves manager Fredi Ganzalez, enraged, charged the field, and Braves fans inundated the outfield with litter. Gonzalez protested the call – and the game, as it turned out.

A few moments later, Chipper came to bat. He smiled grimly, doffed his cap, and nodded politely to the fan’s cheers. A couple of pitches passed, and then he swung. His bat broke, the ball bounding toward second base. He beat the throw to first…could this presage a miraculous comeback? Could Chipper end his career by saving the game – and baseball’s reputation – over possibly the worst application of the infield fly rule in history?

No. The Braves did load the bases, but Cards reliever Jason Motte struck out Michael Bourn on a 3-2 call to end the game. 

Life is like that, I now realize. We flounder, but we stubbornly persist, ever hopeful that somehow, miraculously, we’ll find the moment’s Northwest Passage, its essential quantum, that we’ll transform error and misfortune into a magnificent, shining moment. But life’s truth is more like Chipper Jones’ last moments as a major league baseball player – a glorious baseball life that ends with a few good moments and a few bad, but with a measure of quiet dignity at having done all he could with diminishing skills and a failing body.

Visit Bob’s Web Site here, and his FB Fan Page here.

The Metaphors of Mikulik

Let me introduce you to Joe Mikulik, manager of the South Atlantic (baseball) League's Asheville Tourists, the minor league Billy Martin (may he rest in peace).

It's June, 2006, and Roger Clemens' kid, Koby, of the Lexington Legends, has just been proclaimed safe at second on an oh, so tight call. Mikulik's eyes bug as if on cartoon-esque pipestems. He charges from the mound and begans explaining to the uber-taciturn ump that his call was as bit overprotective of the pedigreed Clemens kid. The ump then performs baseball's age-old heave-ho gesture, with plenty of body english. 

That's all Mikulik needs to take his own act up several notches. I won't describe it here; instead you can watch:

 

 

Flash ahead six years and a month to July 2012. Up-and-coming Cito Culver of the Charleston River Dogs, is signaled safe at third following a run-down attempt. Color Mikulik livid. Again the attempt to explain to taciturn ump that his bifocals were fogged. Again the heave-ho. Again the Mikulik act:

 

 

The press has, even prior to 2006, portrayed Miulik as a loaded gun, cocked, and ready to fire. I'm going to ignore all the supporting evidence (much of it compelling) and declare my own opinion: Mikulik is baseball's premier metaphorist.

Notice in the film clips that he doesn't merely try to explain to the umps that they need seeing-eye dogs, he re-enacts the play at second, then at third (where Culver must have run outside the base path if he really evaded the tag), as if he's been studying them for a while on stop-action replay film.

His core metaphor? The bases, of course. He detaches them, shows them to the umps, so he can be sure they know one when they see one. He kicks dirt over home plate, then spritzes it clean. It's all about the bases – the defense protects 'em, the offense has to reach 'em safely, and the ump has to be on top of 'em like the CIA with a spy satellite. Everything else in baseball centers on 'em. The bases. I mean, what's the point of hitting and fielding without the bases?

You ain't doing your job, Mikulik seems to be saying in 2006, so what the bleep, we might as well not have bases at all – he tosses second base into short right field. And just to prove this is all theater, in 2012 he hands third base to a Lexington fan – one who has been riding Joe for years, as it turns out. Joe even knows the loose-lipped guy's name. And finally, just to assure us that this is more than managerial petulance, Joe doffs his cap and takes a bow before retiring to the clubhouse. 

There are other metaphorical nuances here, and you can pore over the films yourself to find them.

But one thing Joe knows for sure about today's baseball – fans want action, not strategy. Emotion, not cagey coolness between the foul lines. So he picks his moments, and (think here of kerfuffles in the faux-professional sports of wrestling and hockey) he launches himself like a grenade onto the field.

The result?

For one brief and shining moment, all eyes are on baseball – not the ridiculous, furry mascots, or singing Y-M-C-A, or slingshotting t-shirts, or a last glance about for the peanut and beer vendor. It's all about the haphazardly coreographed drama that is minor league baseball. 

Chaos and Order Among Horses

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Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon

 

This is one of those award-winning books (2010 National Book Award winner) that garners attention from the academic ranks and is no doubt the product of the MFA writing mill. For the most part, it works; in fact, it’s an exhilarating read, given its erudite tricks.

 

The story concerns a young man, Tommy Hansel, who, along with his girlfriend, Maggie Koderer, are hustlers in the underbelly world of horse racing. Tommy takes four failing but still capable horses to a racetrack near Wheeling, West Virginia, in hopes of making some quick money and getting the hell out of Dodge before anyone can claim his horses. Of course, he encounters a host of all-too-human complications, including his own mental state in his pyrrhic quest.

Maggie, it turns out, is the focus of the book: how she deals with her tainted relationship with Tommy, her love of horses, her abandonment of a more sedate and secure life, and how she deals with the quirky, sometimes-dangerous host of characters at this corrupt and downtrodden racetrack.

 

Author Jaimy Gordon’s approach to the story is to view Tommy and Maggie through the eyes of several of the racetrack hangers-on. Each has a slightly different take on the couple, filtered through each one’s concerns and fears.  This is mainstream modernist literary fiction, clearly inspired by works such as Faulkner’s. Gordon has a fine ear for the rural Southeastern dialect and the personalities this quaint dialect evokes in her cast of racetrack characters.

Obviously she’s learned the techniques of fiction writing, and has the gift of character and story. With only a couple of exceptions in the book, she continually pulls the reader into her gathering story and into the lives of her characters. And she knows how to paint her primary characters so that they come to the fore without overwhelming the secondary characters.

 

My only concerns here aren’t with her characterizations or her story, but with two bits of her technique. In one place she allows the racetrack hangers-on to chatter away to no real end – her purpose here to depict these characters and their interactions. But depicting these seedy types in this way, without having their chatter advance the story, has the effect of bogging down the storyline a bit.

Too, the voices of her stumblebum characters, as they narrate the story, aren’t particularly insightful. The author then has to throw in certain of the narrator's insights, sometimes in all-too-articulate language.

 

An aside that may help readers has to do with the title: The Lord of Misrule is a horse that enters the racetrack fray late in the game, and in a minor way. I suspect the title connected to such a minor character is her version of a metaphor for the freewheeling, often dangerous manner of racing life at this level, and the chaos it sustains.

 

All in all , a good read, well executed, but I continue to be surprised at the manner in which such talented writers flout certain strictures of creative writing – to the (admittedly minor) detriment of their work.

 

My rating: 4-1/4 of 5 stars

 

 

Singing Along The High Road

The missus and I are snowed in tonight (cabin fever awaits) and after a reprise of Christmas dinner (with power and lights this time), we flipped on the one-eyed monster to see what fare would be taking up air time. 

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So we started watching The Sound Of Music, a movie I hadn't seen in …well…a lot of years. It was made in 1965, something like twenty after the movie was to have taken place, as Nazi Germany's Anschluss was about to roll over Austria. It's remarkable that a movie like this was being made and received so popularly in 1965 – as the Vietnam War was cranking up in earnest, a year following the most sweeping civil right legislation to be enacted in the U.S. since the Civil War's end. And don't forget campus unrest (worldwide), the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) from nuclear weapons, and colonies revolting against colonizers as never before in the modern era. 

What in the world was going on to make such a movie popular? 

The movie's essence was a family happily singing its way through life, counterpointed by the threat of impending world war and ensuing atrocities. So perhaps it became a metaphor, particularly in these United States, of our desire to take humanity's high road through life, even as we were trying to shrug off a lot of societal baggage stanching our urge toward freedom from fear, freedom to dream of equality, freedom to be whom we wanted to be. 

It's true that change often seems terrifying as it steps out of the shadows, seemingly blocking the road before us. Maybe it's our ability to sing and dance our way through such awkward times that gives us the endurance to confront fear, to pursue our rights as human beings, and to look ourselves foursquare in the mirror as we do so.