It is time once again for what will be the final update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. Those of you keeping score at home will recall I initially promised to read another two books this year. While I will be getting to those next year, I’ll also have more on the major lessons learned from this experiment in a post re-launching this experiment in January.
After taking on Faulkner’s legendary Sound and the Fury I took a decidedly different pivot in my next selection: Exodus by Leon Uris. Published in 1958, it is an epic novel about the creation of the state of Israel after World War II. Uris traveled thousands of miles throughout the Middle East interviewing people and researching places for the book, and this imbues it with a historical sense that engaged me through nearly 600 pages. There are many characters and the book spans half a century, but I will admit the writing is actually quite dry and does just enough to keep the narrative flowing. Here are two lessons I drew as a writer from this monumental work:
While I’m glad Uris was able to keep my interest in the tale, I would be hard-pressed to recommend this book to a contemporary audience. As I’ve already stated, the writing just isn’t that great, and Uris presents the story of the Jewish people in an extremely one-sided way. As just one glaring example, the Arab people making up the states surrounding Palestine are almost uniformly presented in a harsh light, being described as backward and even “dirty” people who only reached salvation through the Jewish farming methods being used in the deserts. While things like this absolutely did happen, anyone who studies history as I have ought to know that things are never as simple as people would like them to be. Especially given the context of recent events transpiring between the US and Israel, it is important to note that this is just one (fictional) version of events, and while the historical narrative is quite engaging, anyone who wishes to truly understand the history of this part of the world would do better starting with some non-fiction sources.
So that’s it for my first experimental year of fiction! I’ll be back next year with a post running down everything I have gained from this experience. But for now I’ll say this year was incredibly revelatory for me. I gained some new favorite books and learned a ton from the masters of the written word that have gone before me. I hope I was able to distill some of this into useable knowledge for other writers out there. I would also highly recommend this type of experiment for anyone who wishes to hone their craft.
Thanks to everyone who read my posts in this experiment throughout the year, and I’ll see you on the other side of 2017.
I want to write today about an important facet of the writer’s life: being alone with your thoughts enough to compose something on the page. While some of you out there may be lucky enough to write by yourself or in a separate room, odds are most people have to deal with this situation simply by dint of having a relationship with another human being.
My wife and I lived in a very cramped apartment for the first five years of our marriage. This led to numerous issues regarding space, and while a lot of it got rectified when we moved a bigger place last year, we still could not avoid the fact that we are occupying much of the same area together, almost all of the time. How can we as writers learn to deal with such a situation? How can we with partners in our lives learn to be alone, together?
First I’d like to address the simple matter of how to write even when there is somebody in the same area doing something completely different like watching television. Headphones can be invaluable to cut off the noise, and to place you in the right mindset for writing. For me that’s a heavy dose of classical and/or ambient music. But more to the point, we as writers need to find the proper mindset for working on our craft even in a fairly cramped environment. My wife has her own concept of “alone time,” which she needs just as much as me. Even in a one-bedroom apartment we find our ways of separating, whether that’s moving to the bedroom to read or putting on my headphones and jamming out on a story. While we do have to occupy the same space, we manage to live in our own worlds at certain times. I think this is an important concept for anyone who lives in close quarters with another human being: make sure they too have the space they need from you, when they need it. This can be tough to understand and acknowledge, but believe me, if you can find an arrangement that works out for the both of you, it will do wonders for the entire relationship.
But I want to go deeper than that. What does it truly mean to be alone, together? We as writers are basically unable to do our jobs unless we can be solitary and cultivate our thoughts. How is this possible in our world full of distraction and people? Those who work with me have probably come to know me by turns inherently taciturn and, as I’ve been described by too many people to count, “quiet.” This was especially apparent in my previous job, in which personal connections broke down and I became utterly consumed with keeping to myself. While this led to some humorous anecdotes in my current manuscript concerning neurotic behaviour in the white-collar workplace, it did not lead to me connecting very well with my co-workers. I find myself currently employed in a bookstore, surrounded by some of my favorite works but also by people who do a lot more thinking before they speak (not a huge concern of the office-dweller, in general terms). And yet even here I find myself not speaking much more, often because I have a lot of ponderous thoughts about my books going on in my brain. While part of me keeps trying to make myself interact more with my fellow booksellers, many of whom are very deep people with interesting stories to tell, I must remind myself that the work is residing up there in my cranium, and to make sure I allow myself the time needed to grapple with it. Those of us who deign to use the written word to tell a story need not be so afraid of living a withdrawn life. I cannot stress enough how important it is to retain the singular lifestyle required of the writer in various circumstances. I am lucky enough to have a job in which that isn’t too difficult, but I would highly recommend this to any aspiring writer: find ways to keep within yourself and your thoughts as much as you can.
That’s not to say you should be inwardly focused all the time, but you will never reach your full potential as a writer unless you can be alone with your thoughts. Whether that’s being home alone, together with your significant other or alone among others in your workplace, it’s imperative to cultivate that mindset as often as you can stand it. On this I can only offer my considerations as I ponder the direction of my writing career. While the first draft of my third novel resides on my hard drive, I have for the past few years been chewing over the direction of my fourth one, and how it can reflect reality. This began as the seed of an idea as I was waiting for the bus some afternoons after the office job, and continued into a bigger notion the more I was able to contemplate it, either when others were present or own my own. The important thing to note here is that I would not have been able to get this far without being able to honestly and deeply appraise my own thoughts. Make sure you are giving yourself the same amount of space.
This ties in with what I hope will be my final essay on the writing process this year, which is a doozy: What exactly is a writer for? That is, what are we as purveyors of the written word attempting to do with our careers? I’ll be the first to admit I have expressed utter cluelessness on this score for a long time, but as this year has progressed I have come as close to an answer to that question as I’ve gotten yet. I hope to get that essay out of my brain before this horrendous year has passed.
And of course, stay tuned to this space for the final few updates in my year-long experiment in reading fiction, the incredible results of which have guaranteed its continuation into the next year (more on that next month).
Thanks for reading, and as always feel free to add your own reactions to these ideas in the comments. Happy holidays, everyone!
If you haven’t been hiding in a cave (either out of ignorance or for your own sanity) you are probably aware by now that we are in the final throes of one of the biggest farces of human interaction perpetrated in centuries. And by that I mean the 2016 US Presidential Election.
Long-time readers know I have been grousing about this stuff for years now, and I have witnessed time and again the very little change brought about by both major party candidates. Now in this possible nadir of American democracy (#demopocolypse), I want to examine the arguments being pursued in favor of one candidate over the other. This is known as the “lesser of two evils” argument, and had been bandied about in political circles since the entire process became much more corporatized a back in the 80’s. Essentially it boils down to this: yes, both candidates are corrupt, venal creatures forced to accept basic bribery to keep their campaigns afloat, but only one of them is “pure” evil. Since that is the case, vote for the other person.
Generally this argument can be laughed out of hand, because it pre-supposes that we as American citizens have absolutely no other ways to affect our democracy. But during this Presidential election, the idea has more allure than ever. This probably has something to do with the orange, misogynistic monster that somehow has captured the GOP nomination. But it also contributes to a softening of the picture on Hilary, overlooking her casual relationship with corruption and deceit throughout a (mostly) decent run as a public servant since being elected to the Senate from New York in 2000. In any other “normal” campaign, the leaks coming out regarding Clinton and her supposed two-faced motives would be potentially threatening. But that campaign left the station right around the time the orange behemoth began spouting white-nationalistic rhetoric like “Mexicans are rapists.”
In the effort of giving this argument the full hearing it deserves, I wanted to take a look at what we are acknowledging when we make the “lesser of two evils” argument.
First, TheDonald. What else remains to be said about this cretin? Misogynist, racist, neo-facist, xenophobe, the list could be endless. But I’ll be honest, what really freaks me out about this guy is what he represents: the conservative worldview as it remains in this decade. Remember when a bunch of old, white people filled up those town hall meetings to protest the Affordable Care Act? They weren’t protesting the legions of problems with that legislation (no public option, allowing the corporate health behemoths to continue to raise prices), but were angry that their hard-earned tax dollars were going to be used to pay for health care for people without their lovely skin complexion. This is just one example of the alternative universe that right-wingers live in these days. I should say have been allowed to live in, as the propaganda factory building to this was initially established in the 1970’s. But the important thing to remember is this: when Trump spouts garbage about building the wall, how our inner cities are like “hell” and regurgitates nonsense like the Clinton machine assassinating Vince Foster, he is saying these things because he believes them to be true. Just like millions of people who get “information” from places like Fox “News” and conservative radio think they are true. For you see, an entire disinformation campaign has been built up on the right for decades. Trump is as pure a form of that type of thinking as I’ve ever seen, and it terrifies me. Growing up in rural Iowa, I listened to a fair amount of Rush Limbaugh as my father and uncles drove around the farm fields. That didn’t prevent me from gaining a great work ethic, but it did contribute to my inability to be a free-thinking individual. Despite rejecting all of that fear-mongering over a decade ago, I still reflect with horror over how much I drank the Kool-Aid, because it was what I was taught to believe. Of course when I got to college and learned the value of free thought I abandoned it, but a lot of people never get to that point and simply become more and more angry throughout their lives. Kinda like the brutish Oompa-Loompa we saw on that stage last night. The people that support Trump might have a hard time dealing with his horrendous treatment of women, but they have no problem with ninety minutes of sustained assault on Clinton. In their minds, everything Trump is saying is true, but the supposed “liberal” media (anything that proves these conspiracy theories are false is “liberal”) won’t tell us the truth about it. This is literally the mindset of a ton of people, and it’s not like they are going away after this election. Many political commentators I read have speculated that it will only take a serious politician with brains another four years to radicalize these poor saps enough so that they might actually take over the country. Because if you believe the world is out to get you, all you really want is somebody telling you that you are right. Trump in certain moments got that correct, but was such a clownish buffoon the “liberal” media needed only to replay the stuff he said in public to show how unfit for the office he is. Just remember, millions of people liked everything they heard over the last year. They are not going away, and they are not going to be exiting their alternate universe any time soon. With real, actual problems like climate change (another part of reality they deny) occurring with scary regularity, now is not the time to have a huge percentage of your population living in a fantasy world.
Which brings me to Clinton. Again, there are over thirty years to pick through, but I want to focus chiefly on her tenure as Secretary of State. This is mostly because when she became First Lady I was a scant ten years old, and then only a few years away from my indoctrination into the conservative universe. I think of Clinton more as the spineless pretender of the 2008 race, in which her campaign surrogates didn’t think twice of revolving around pictures of Obama in supposed “Muslim” garb (remember that?). This woman almost completely defines “political corruption” in the modern world, and anyone who has considered voting for her ought to be well aware of this. This doesn’t mean she isn’t qualified for the job of president, but so what? Just being qualified does not excuse a litany of horrendous, appalling judgement that has led to the suffering of thousands. In case anyone forgot, Clinton was all over the bandwagon of support for the disastrous, illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Oh sure, she later called it a “mistake” but I don’t ever recall her apologizing for the over 100,000 Iraqis who were killed in the conflict, nor for pathetic ineptitude of her party, upon re-taking the Congress in 2007, to end the illegal devastation. But more contemporarily, her tenure as SOS has been littered with disaster (although that word might be a Trump trademark by now). I guess I’ll start with Libya, since Clinton herself seemingly still will not concede what a monumental error in judgement it was to remove Gaddafi from power there. After fear-mongering all summer 2011 (during the height of the Arab Spring), she essentially pushed Obama into bombing the crap out of Gaddafi’s forces, even going so far as to claim credit for the destruction like a good imperialist (“we came, we saw, he died”). Of course, one of the few factual claims Trump has made over the course of this farce of a campaign is that since then, the country has devolved into tyranny and terrorism, which is what happened but will never be acknowledged by Madam Secretary. Another thing that really bugged me during her tenure was that she bragged about how many countries she’d visited and how little sleep she maintained, as if that was an excellent recipe for conducting diplomacy around the world. How many meetings do you suppose she traipsed through due to lack of sleep? And I suppose I should mention the private email server - while yes, this was incredibly stupid and possibly could have allowed classified foreign policy information to be purloined, what really freaking irritates me about this incident is the complete lack of awareness of why this was a bad idea. Remember, this was the same woman who cried endlessly about Chelsea Manning leaking those secrets to Wikileaks six years ago, doing something potentially even worse (Manning was trying to wake up the American populace to the slaughters perpetrated by their armed forces; she specifically did not leak any intelligence secrets to Russia, and of course neither did Snowden) with her own email servers. Stupid, stupid, stupid, and a huge reason why she should not be trusted when she starts spouting garbage about Wikileaks’ supposed menacing connections with Putin. This woman clearly does not understand either how the Internet works or how it is going to be used to keep her in check now that it has become the dominant communication system of the world. Any Millennial with a Snapchat account ought to be aware of how disturbing this is.
So what is the point of this diatribe? Everyone who makes this argument needs to, at the very least, acknowledge what you’re asking people to admit. On the one hand, you have an orange monster, on the other, a corrupt politician who thinks little of the pain and suffering brought by our nation upon the rest of the world. Of course these aren’t even the totality of candidates, but you wouldn’t know that from the obscenely corporate-controlled “debate” process/farce that we saw play out over the past month. The fact that Jill Stein and Gary Johnson have viable viewpoints on the future of our nation means little to the corporate elite controlling the “debate” process, most of whom would prefer if Clinton glided into the White House. Recall that by proffering this argument you are saying it’s just fine that our democracy is bought and paid for, and that you have to accept either of these power-mad people in the highest office in the land. You are also stating that we have to accept that this is the way things have to be, instead of the thousands of meaningful ways activists have tried changing the conversation over the past decade. In the “debates” there was not a SINGLE mention of climate change (this happened almost to the letter in 2012, too) - but that didn’t stop activists from shutting down numerous pipelines during the same time period. From the questions asked at the debate, you’d think the Second Amendment had been nearly torn out of the Constitution, instead of the very reality of dozens of black men being shot on the street by their supposed “protectors.” By saying that these two are the most viable and best candidates for the job of POTUS, you are conceding the terms of the debate.
And while I can’t tell anybody how to vote this November, at the very least if you’re going to make an argument about the lesser of two evils, it should be your sworn duty to bring up the many, many things that argument does not acknowledge. For only if we see this nightmare of democracy for what it is, and what it could be, then we can begin to change it into something that works for everyone. It is my hope that this crazy campaign and what it has revealed about America might begin that process, but who knows? It’s gone on this long, perhaps it will continue until we all melt in the wake of Co2 emissions. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen.
It’s time once again for another update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fictionally. The previous book covered in this series was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I decided to pivot in another direction with my next selection: the great William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Most of you are probably aware of this incredibly difficult novel’s literary significance in the American landscape; as another author I had embarrassingly managed not to read until now I felt it was my duty to take on what is considered his greatest achievement.
And what an achievement! While this book was staggeringly obtuse to puzzle through at times (especially the first two sections) it was without a doubt one of the greatest books I have ever read and clearly established Faulkner’s legacy alongside other great American writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’m not going to spend much time on the plot of the novel, parts of which if I’m being honest flew way over my head and will require a second, more in-depth read at some later part of my life. It centers around a traditional southern family during the first decades of the 20th century and how each member copes with their siblings’ perceived faults and the tarnished reputation the (once respectable) Compson name. What I really want to do is draw out some of the massive literary lessons that can be interpreted from this work. More so than any other book I’ve included on this list, however, is the fact that each reader can perceive their own conclusions about the characters and life itself from these pages, and so I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who is looking to delve into a complete work of art. Here are some of my takeaways:
To be honest, these three lessons are just barely scratching the surface of what this book can teach readers. The only way to truly understand and grapple with it is to sit down and read it, and see how it connects to your own life. I will add the caveat that Faulkner, like Twain before him, did not shy away from using the language of his day to provide realism, which sadly does include a huge amount of racial animosity. Some readers may be downright turned off by how the black characters’ dialog is written in an extremely phonetic style, especially given our own present age of racial distrust. Even so, I still would recommend this book as it is an unflinching gaze into a disturbing period in our country’s history. And I cannot state enough what an incredibly rewarding experience reading this book can be for any reader.
Next up I am heading in an altogether different direction, tackling a book that was first recommended to me by my father-in-law: Exodus by Leon Uris. Stay tuned for the next update in my year of fiction!
I want to spend some time discussing another media-centric thing my wife and I have enjoyed over the last few years. Having cut the cord of the malefactors of the cable industry years ago, we have come to rely on the increasingly amazing source of entertainment to be found among the streaming networks. Netflix and Hulu have defined television for our modern era, and are now producing quality, serial shows the likes of which have never really been seen outside of HBO and some of the other premium cable channels. While it remains to be seen if Netflix’s growth can be sustained over the long haul, there can be no doubt that in a few short years the company has unleashed some of the best stories we’ve seen in the medium for a long time. For now I want to focus on an animated show from the streaming service that is a roaring success in various and deep ways.
And that show is BoJack Horseman.
What is this show, exactly? I could describe it simply as a pastiche of anthropomorphized animals and humans co-existing in a world of “Hollywoo” - but that’s not all that detailed or interesting. I could be boring and say read the Wiki. A better description would be this: a show that seems OK with the idea of being a screw-up, in life or in career or anything. And that is something our world desperately needs. Voiced by one of my all-time favorite television actors (Will Arnett), BoJack is the washed-up former star of “Horsin’ Around,” the type of banal sitcom that was populous in the alternate 1990’s of this (and our) world. After a glorious eight seasons, while he has become famous BoJack leads a desperate life of partying and drift. We first see him in season one working with a ghost writer (Alison Brie), who he first is fearful of getting his autobiography wrong and who he then becomes romantically attached - and that’s just getting started. But I can hardly do justice to the writing of this show - it is that freaking good. Arnett is surrounded by an amazing cast, including Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F Tompkins.
In my lifetime, we have witnessed a fair amount of variation of animated television shows for adults. The Simpsons premiered just as I was turning 6 and my parents didn’t really let me watch it anyways; I was more lucky to be around during my formative and uh, substance-using years to enjoy a hefty dose of the reality-bending comedy coming out of the folks at Williams Street, adult swim (then known as the Cartoon Network’s evil, late-night twin). The intervening decades also brought new and highly original ideas like South Park, Futurama, and Archer. The chain of events leading to BoJack has led to something that is like a homage to all that has come before, and yet is very unique on its own. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksburg, who got a nice profile in the New York Times Magazine this July, stated that he pitched the show to his partner Lisa Hanawalt as being about a “Depressed Talking Horse.” That gets a lot closer to the center of it for me, and especially my wife Mary. Living with a mental illness is not easy, and being the partner of someone with that affliction can be tough. But I don’t know how hard she has it, most of the time. Late in the first season, Arnett gives a stunning voice performance, pleading with ghostwriter Diane to (in his words) “tell me I’m a good person.” It’s a poignant moment for many reasons, but it also speaks to a fundamental emptiness many of us have felt at one time or another in our lives.
I can speak to this as well. Moving to Minnesota in the summer of 2007, I had essentially zero reason for going other than my current life in Iowa was falling into a malaise of drugs and a general feeling of no direction. Not having much of an ability to change myself at this point in my life, this lifestyle unsurprisingly followed me up here. The results of which, while being helpful to mine for my in-progress third novel, led to a desperation that was only resolved by meeting the woman I was supposed to fall in love with and marry. But in the intervening years I indeed could be described as a “f*ck up,” having the desire to write a book but no motivation to see it through. This is the world BoJack inhabits all the time, and so it’s difficult viewing because of the raw nature of the portrayal of what very much is one of life itself. We’re not necessarily used to that from a show of this type, are we?
At the end of the first season, BoJack finds out that the autobiography he maligned has gotten him the role of a lifetime: playing the great racing horse Secretariat. Season two finds him acting in the movie and slowly, finally finding a way to gain happiness, only to find that it causes him to lose out in being in the film (to find out what I mean by that, you gotta watch!). This leads into the phenomenal season three, released this year, in which the creators found even more bizarre and experimental ways to toy with the medium and nature of the show itself, including what I thought was one of the best yet: a (mostly) silent, underwater episode that takes place under the ocean. Having some sort of pseudo-nostalgia about silent films dredged out of me after viewing The Artist years ago, this one particularly moved me. The entire three-season run covers a rapidly growing amount of ground, including celebrity culture in general and the shallowness of those people we put on pedestals in Hollywood. Season three even has a disturbing Cosby-esque allusion revolving around a supposedly “beloved” talk-show host and his treatment of women.
At its core, this show is about disappointment, and realizing that life is going to give you plenty of it. But for some people, this is about as good as it might get for them. Depression is a real disease, and it affects a lot of people. Just the fact that a streaming service was willing to take a chance on a show that caters to this very fact of our modern existence is a pretty big step forward, and is a start toward addressing larger issues about why so many people in today’s America feel this way. Sure, everyone feels like a screw-up once in awhile, but a lot of people can never escape that feeling. Those of us who can gain pleasure from a dive into a depressed talking horse’s alternate universe and still come away in one piece need to be there for those who may not find the return trip so easy.
Without diving too further into the dark territory, I have to conclude by saying that if you have the means and the time to watch this powerful show, I would highly recommend it. I will also say this - in our current era of “peak TV” (or whatever blithe description you want to throw on this First-World Problem) there seems to be an encouragement to binge-watch these kinds of shows. In this case, I would actually advise against it. While each episode is telling a part of the overall story they are each worth digesting on their own; even breaking it up to one or two episodes a week is worth it. But if you don’t give a hoot what I think, binge away! The important thing is to get more people viewing this incredible, moving show.
It’s time once again for another update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. Kicking off the second-half of my year was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and next I took on Chuck Palahniuk’s (now) famous first novel Fight Club. Much has been written about this book and its film adaptation so I’ll skip much discussion about its plot or the crazy twist at the end. First I want to hit on the two major lessons on writing I have garnered from reading this amazing book.
Overall, I found this book to be a stunning triumph, and has definitely gotten me interested in more of Palahniuk’s work. Having seen David Fincher’s decent film version in my college years (a viewing that challenged my very perceptions of storytelling back in those days), I still wish I had read the book first. I decided to break my general rule of NOT watching the movie of any of the books I read this year and sit through the Brad Pitt/Edward Norton picture again before writing this, and while Fincher does stuff on-screen that makes the novel come alive in unique ways (splicing images of Pitt’s Durden into the middle of scenes), it still pales in comparison to the raw urgency and devastating prose of the work itself.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, but am not sure I would recommend it to everyone. Just as not everyone would like to romp through a visceral, intense 700-page Stephen King novel (as I would), not everyone might enjoy reading a book about grown-up Gen X-ers creating underground clubs which then turn into a domestic terrorist organization. That being said, any writer worth their salt should be open to books not among their “wheelhouse,” so to speak, so I don’t think I am steering you wrong when I say anyone can get something out of this novel - it is that unique.
Ok, looking ahead I have a few more books to tackle in the first year of this experiment, starting with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I will also be doing a some more media and process posts in the next few months, as well as more updates on my pursuit of an agent. Thanks for reading!
I want to talk about something near and dear to this nerd’s heart: comic book movies. This also lines up with a theme I have been trying to establish more around this blog: what I am taking in outside of those fiction books I’ve been reading this year. One of the greatest dorky pleasures of my life are comic books, especially those related to Batman.
We have seen a few movies from Warner Brothers this year that directly tie into this character’s larger world within the DC universe. 2013 saw the establishment of what has come to be known as the DC film universe with the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. This year we saw two of what most people will tell you were the biggest box-office bombs of the year: Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. Since I refuse to see the crappy, pared down theatrical version of David Ayers’ villain extravaganza, preferring to wait until it gets a proper director’s cut release (similar to what happened with BvS - more on that later), this essay will focus on the first two. And be warned: those who would rather read my writing advice-type stuff and don’t care to take a deep dive into such a fantasy environment, feel free to exit at any time. Exits can be found at the front and rear of the blog.
But for those who care about these characters like I do, I feel that it’s time to set the record straight a little bit. First we need to begin with Man of Steel. But really this all starts with Zack Snyder. The guy epitomizes the idea of the hit-or-miss blockbuster filmmaker. A scorching remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead put him on the map, the jaw-dropping visual rendition of Frank Miller’s 300 made him a huge name in the comic book world. Since then you’d be hard-pressed to say his work has been stellar. The less said about his emphatically flawed take on Alan Moore’s legendary Watchmen, the better. And I won’t say anything about Sucker Punch because I haven’t seen it. Despite this rather interesting record, Warner and DC both decided he had done a good enough job to give him the reigns of their biggest franchise. And so the first installment was a sort of re-booting of the Superman universe. Man of Steel saw a brand-new version of Krypton and drastically altered a lot of the characters we thought we knew. The plot centers around Superman as he reaches the Christ-like age of 33, having never revealed himself or his powers to the world. That all changes when he comes across the wreck of a Kryptonian shuttle, which in turn sets off a beacon that brings the remaining Kryptonians to Earth for what they see as a last chance at the survival of their species. The movie was criticized for a lot, not least of which was the climactic final battle sequences that levelled the fictional (remember that - fictional) town of Smallville before moving to an epic showdown with General Zod and his cronies over Metropolis as they try to re-make Earth in their home planet’s image. And yes, a lot of people probably would have gotten killed in an epic battle of this nature. In a fictional city. In a fictional universe.
This is getting me to the first of a seemingly limitless amount of points people bring up about these films without understanding the first bit of what makes a comic book story so gripping. There is a reason why DC sets its universe in cities with made-up names. There is a reason why Superman doesn’t destroy buildings in New York City, like, say that other company’s group of superheroes. There is a reason why Gotham City has remained a cesspool of corruption and crime that Batman still has not wiped out 75 years into his existence. These are not real places, but because of that they can tell us more about our own real universe. Besides, if two all-powerful superbeings started a huge fight in the middle of an urban core, would they care all that much about who got in their way? We’re talking about beings that are on the level of what we puny humans would call gods.
Which brings me to my next point. Snyder got epically criticized for portraying Superman as a Christ-like figure throughout this film - the aforementioned turning 33 (same year Christ was supposedly crucified), holding his hands out as he floats through space like he’s about to be placed on a cross, not to mention (*spoilers* for the people who let word-of-mouth spoil an awesome movie for themselves) sacrificing himself for the good of the planet at the end of BvS. Again, depending on your view of religion you could see this in different lights. But there is no denying the fact that if an alien creature like Superman actually came to Earth, Snyder’s vision of how humanity might react isn’t too far off the mark.
There is plenty to go after in this movie, for comic book fans and movie fans alike. But less discussed are the things Snyder got right. For a long time DC has made sure that the most important questions their superheroes raise are front and center - chiefly being the morality of a group of super-powered beings (or if you’re incredibly nerdy like me, “metahumans”) running around with zero constraints and taking on threats the entire collection of world governments could not take on themselves. Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve lived in the these here United States for the past century. Questions of moral turpitude, questions of the use of power and why, questions about the “oldest lie in politics,” as Lex Luthor says, “that power can be innocent.” I simply cannot see why these deep issues could not resonate so much with the populace at large.
Despite all of this, the movie works for the most part. People were mad that Superman destroyed a lot of two cities in this fight. Considering how he was revealing himself to the world for the first time, and had next to no idea of the powers his Kryptonian foes would have on this planet, all things considered I thought he did a decent job in taking on a threat to the very existence of all humanity. Zod essentially brought a machine to Earth that would terraform it into a new Krypton, exterminating all life in the process. As Michael Shannon puts it in his over-the-top performance as Zod, “a foundation has to be built on something.” If that isn’t a threat that is even worth causing major damage to a city like that, I don’t know what would be worse.
But of course people couldn’t let this go, and so the largest criticisms of the first film caused the next to ave to deal with them. Which brings me to what quite possibly might be the greatest comic book movie ever put to film (that’s right haters - LOL), Batman V Superman.
But no, you cry! Someone who is supposed to be a good writer and knows plot and structure of narration and all of that crap couldn’t possibly like this dog turd of a movie! It was so dark! Batman shoots people with guns! Superman is one-dimensional and has no motivation. Jesse Eisenberg just plain sucked! And on and on and on it went all through the spring, with no end in sight. Having decided to just wait and watch the actual, R-rated version (opposed to the edited whatever that got released into theaters and was ripped to shreds) of this film I can say with almost complete confidence that if you are somebody who doesn’t like this movie, you simply do not understand DC, or perhaps even comics in general.
How can I say this? I guess the major issue I had with this film is that most of the stuff about it that people hated, I didn’t. That’s not much of a defense, but hear me out. I want to go through some of the major criticism of this movie and offer my own take.
First - it’s “too dark.” I imagine people who said this were amazed at the 1978 Superman film and haven’t paid much attention to the comic book world since then. Which means they would have missed DC’s profound turn toward more dark story lines, especially by the late 1980’s. It was this decade that produced some of the most genre-defying works of Detective Comics, including landmark titles such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (a huge influence on BvS, as should be obvious), Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing, among many others. This was hardly the first foray of comics into darker territory, but it made a lasting impression upon the industry. The major questions of Watchmen, which in itself was a major philosophical quandary ruminating on the nature of American power in the world, were the ideas of “who watches the watchmen,” i.e. who is out there to check our own nation’s ability to rule the world because we have the most powerful entity in the universe on our side. These questions sink directly into the plots of many of DC’s flagship titles, and formed a big core of its much-ballyhooed re-launch of “The New 52” in 2011. When Grant Morrison got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot Superman in the pages of Action Comics he chose to make him an outsider much like Henry Cavill’s portrayals. At first, the city of Metropolis enlists Lex Luthor to try and stop this invulnerable being, but in the end realizes that they are better off not trying to kill him but acknowledge him as the savior of their city he will become.
This is the pedigree Zack Snyder’s film walked into, and I think he accomplished it in spades. Yes, the critics forced him to acknowledge the “collateral damage” Superman caused in his fight against Zod (funny, I wonder how many people know that’s what the US called it when our bombs killed scores of Iraqi civilians over the course of that failed enterprise) by integrating it into this story, but this is a story that has been told many times. The very nature of the Justice League and its members is one of angst over the very people they are supposed to be serving and protecting. This quality of power and who should use it informs every aspect of this movie - from Lex Luthor’s unquenchable rage at suddenly being less than a god now that Superman is around to the literal representation of the United States government trying to hold the Kryptonian responsible for deaths caused by a set-up in the African desert, the notion that power can never be incorruptible is at the heart of this. Lest we forget, toward the end of the movie it’s the US government itself that nukes the crap out of Doomsday, making it the invulnerable leviathan that our heroes can barely contain afterward. Can anyone possibly deny that these are exactly the type of questions each citizen of this nation and planet should be asking as we watch the spectacle of a corporate-fueled election cycle that promises to place one of two incredibly corrupt people in the most powerful position on earth? Perhaps it’s because Snyder’s movie raises these questions, albeit in his heavy-handed way, that people felt the need to bash it. Just a theory.
This one goes in tandem with the next critique of this movie: the characters were not people “we” recognized as an audience. This one irritates me almost to no end, in that it seems to be made primarily by people who have never read or understood a comic book in their entire lives. The reviews I read boiled over with acrimony over this version of Batman, who dares to use a gun and isn’t terrified of killing gangsters who threaten Superman’s mother. For one thing, a cursory reading of the general source material for this movie (Dark Knight Returns) would show any reader that Snyder was actually following this version of the character almost completely. Frank Miller’s Batman is a world-weary character later in his life who, yes, drinks and doesn’t totally mind when things happen like the Joker’s broken ribs puncture his heart, ending their feud once and for all. Critics also hewed and cried over the “bat-brand” scenes, apparently never noticing in the screenplay that it’s Luther’s cronies who actually cause the guy to be murdered in prison, making it seem to investigative reporter Clark Kent like it was Batman’s fault. But I could spend another entire essay about people not understanding the story of this movie (bizarrely convoluted as it was at times), so we’ll leave Batman here. But suffice it to say from a huge, obsessive, long-time Batman fan: I was fully expecting Snyder to not get this character at all - the casting of Affleck proved that years ago, right? Wrong! In fact, the combination of how badass Batman is in this movie, combined with Affleck's stellar performance caused me to cease any further doubts I had in any regard to the upcoming films.
When it comes to Superman, the jury is still way out, and I would have a difficult time arguing against people who say that Snyder never understood the Kryptonian alien or his motivations. Cavill’s performance isn’t terrific in either films, and while he ably performs his duties I understand why people thought he wasn’t quite up to the challenges of the role. However, this does lead to another bit of criticism of these movies regarding the alien - his depiction as a sort of “god” among us puny Earthlings and what that means. I thought this was one of the things Synder got exactly right in Man of Steel, which was to show how humanity doesn’t know how to react to a being of this magnitude, and continued this theme very well with BvS. While humanity seems to owe Supes a debt for “saving” Metropolis by destroying most of it in the previous film, in the next one the tide has turned and more people seem afraid of him than anything, especially after Luthor’s trap makes it seem like he is only in it to save those he cares about, chiefly Lois Lane. This notion of humanity struggling to come to terms with what appears to be a real-life deity is something the comic versions of the characters have really been hitting lately, and I thought it was an excellent choice to pursue these ideas through both films. Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White says it best in Man of Steel: “Can you imagine what people would do if they found out someone like this exists?”
Since this review is getting lengthy, I figure it’s time to center on another critique that just blew me away when BvS came out: the movie was too long. As a writer, I have come to understand this as quite possibly the laziest form of criticism that exists. What you’re basically saying is that “my attention span was not long enough to fully come to terms with this piece of film that I paid my hard earned dollars to view, and that sucks.” This goes for anything that has what you would consider too long of a length - books, other films, musical pieces, anything. Saying something is “too long” is a pointless form of criticism. So stop it. And get off my lawn while you’re at it.
Now I want to get to something about both these movies I really enjoyed: Hans Zimmer’s sweeping, powerful scores. This was another thing that people didn’t seem to get: the overbearing nature of his Superman and (in collaboration with Junkie XL) Batman themes. While yes, if you don’t like repetitive drumming, sweeping vocals and powerful horns, then they’re probably not for you. But then again, why would you then want to view a movie about colossal superheroes fighting one another? These movies are purposely, forcefully, boldly epic, and they deserved nothing less in the musical department. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the flack the movies took for being so serious, so dark, so monumental. Once again, a cursory reading of any DC comic over the past decades would cause you to understand that in fact Snyder’s movies are the closest we have ever seen to a DC comic book come to life. As amazing as Nolan’s Batman trilogy was, at the end of the day he was attempting to show the Dark Knight existing within what appeared to be the “real world.” Snyder’s Metropolis and Gotham are clearly not of the “real world” from these movies, and therefore deserve to be spaced out accordingly. And come on, I dare you to listen to Zimmer’s stunning, beautiful theme for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and not be blown away.
So is there a point lurking in all my discussions here? Yes, and here it is. The biggest, largest, hugest mistake DC/Warner could make with these films is try to make them like the Marvel cinematic universe. While I am hardly a Marvel fan, I can certainly see why their movies attract large audiences and critics seem to love them. I don’t totally understand why, for in my opinion most of those movies are a cluttered mess, but I’m also not a fan and so who gives a crap what I think? I am a DC fan first and foremost, and it pains me to think that they might try to copy the perceived success of their biggest rival. First of all, DC, your movies are not for kids. Yes, there are a lot of kids who read comics, but I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more on the adult side who have read your stuff for years and continue to do so. Creating movies that don’t take this fan base into account is moronically stupid. There is a reason why the omnipresent Disney corporation owns Marvel, and while I won’t say the main reason is to attract kids, you’ve gotta believe that was in the calculation somewhere. Whereas the R-rated version of BvS I have viewed is definitely not for children. Unless they’re of the sadistic type like me that loves seeing Batman toss Superman’s Kryptonite-weakened ass into a bunch of concrete pillars and almost murders him. Because to this uber-nerd, seeing definitive on-screen proof that Batman could indeed best Superman is freaking awesome.
But I feel I must repeat this: DC, your movies are not for kids. Your superheroes are violent, they take violent actions to protect Earth, and don’t always have the ability to see right from wrong. For God’s sake, the entire point of Watchmen was to consider the morality of these characters that supposedly existed in an alternate timeline of the “real world!”
Second, whoever is making these decisions to release “sanitized” PG-13 versions of these movies that are clearly irritating the directors and actors of these movies, please stop. All you are succeeding in doing is bringing more critical rage upon your movie house and from the fans who are expecting one thing but getting a watered down corporate version instead. Thinking this can be rectified by a BluRay release of each of these movies in an “ultimate edition” is flawed logic. Just release the actual version into theaters, and trust that your true, actual fans will come see them.
In conclusion: for a die-hard Batman fan such as myself, after viewing the first two movies in this series, I am fully on board with wherever DC is taking it. BvS proved to be without a shadow of a doubt that DC is committed to telling the stories of these characters in ways that stay defiantly true to their source material, but are different enough to be contained within an original Justice League origin story. Those of us out there who love DC and want to see more of their work, please consider these things. And for those of you out there who had a lot of fun bashing these movies, BvS in particular, well I have something to say to you too.
Basically, I don’t really care that much. At the end of things, we’re discussing movies based on comic books. And while I happen to think that comics are just now finally getting the recognition as the art forms they truly are, who am I to tell anyone else that their particular characters or stories or companies are any worse than what I like? All I am attempting to do here is to show why DC fans should be celebrating these amazing movies, instead of lamenting how crappy they are compared to the Marvel movies.
I also want to say this - there is quite a bit more about these movies that is worth both heavily criticizing (see here for one example) and celebrating (here for another). Bottom line, comics fans: go see these movies, and don’t let things like aggregate critical reviews slow you down. DC needs to know we appreciate where they are taking these films, and I for one am totally excited to see where they are headed next.
Long live comic books, and long live the era in which we got so many freakin’ amazing comic book movies.
Short stories - what are they? I’ll admit that’s a question I still do not fully know the answer to, but I hope to have a much better perspective after this year. As I’m taking a bit of a break from working on my third novel I have decided to work on a batch of stories, some of which I hope will find publication in literary journals. As it stands right now, I should have about ten in good enough shape to send out in the next few months. But I thought a really interesting way of showing this process would be to workshop at least one of the stories through the blog on my website.
And as promised, here is part 2 of “Allison.”
Allison moved in next door to me a decade ago. Her parents had the largest moving van I had ever seen in my young life. Her father poured sweat down his lanky back as he attempted to haul her great armoire up to her second-floor room. It was the same piece of furniture I would snoop through years later, looking futilely for her diary and any mention of me it might contain. My childhood had reached a dismal point by the time I watched the ancient house beside ours become populated once more. My after-school experiences involved playing football by myself in our backyard every day or remaining inside to watch Full House. This all changed after the Chalmers moved next door. The days of playing video games by myself in the basement wearing torn up old sweat pants were replaced by those of Allison rushing into the living room with a basketball, bouncing it off my stomach and screaming to come out to this great new court she had found at the back of the Danielson Woods. We did a lot of that kind of stuff together the first year, and I am eternally grateful. If not for this girl I would never have known that a bullfrog will piss in your hand if you hold it too long, if not for her I would never have gotten my stupid groove on at any high school dance I ever attended.
“You looked so goofy playing a team sport back there by yourself,” Allison said, leaning on her palms and looking about ten percent guilty for what she just said. Our conversation had relapsed into reminiscence.
“There weren’t many other kids in our neighborhood,” I parried. “And most of them played tackle football, which was ‘strictly prohibited.’ Remember?” I wagged my finger up and down in the air, recalling my mother’s set of rules.
Allison burst out laughing again, and for a brief moment we did connect. But, it was probably more me watching her.
“I have to get back,” she said, jumping up and almost pushing me off the dock playfully in the process. Perhaps something had crossed her plane of thought that she didn’t want to deal with right then. The next time I saw her she would be in the loving embrace of Jeremy.
They were inseparable, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Jeremy Shepherds was a basketball stud who won the final game last year with a three-pointer at the buzzer. I didn’t like him. Walking the halls of Winterset High I would shake my head in disbelief, meandering to the other side when his clique and their letter jackets wandered through, talking about how bitchin’ last night’s party was our how fuckin’ fast they sped down that gravel road. On night out on the lake during our junior year, Allison told me she thought his whole group would be lucky to even graduate with the rest of our class. Each time I thought about that night and then saw them together, it hurt so much more.
I hated the fact that I couldn’t talk to her anymore. We still hung out a few times that summer, but it was overshadowed by the “other” man lingering in the background. The ominous six-foot presence that had to call her whenever just the two of us wanted to hang out. He wasn’t right for her. I believed this to be true, and by the time August rolled around I decided to finally tell her how I felt. It’s funny how things work sometimes. Each day I found torment thinking of how she might react. On the last week before we both were to leave for college, I took her out to the lake on the hottest day of the summer.
Her reaction was one of laughter: the kind she used to bark at those stupid jokes I told. Before Jeremy took her away.
“Josh,” she said, pulling a strand of auburn hair from her shutting eye. “You’re kidding, right?” I felt like a sharpened spike had been pre-selected for me and shoved right through my heart.
I didn’t know what to say. There she was, sitting there, the smile that once took up that gorgeous face leaving as the realization that I wasn’t kidding slowly dawned.
“Josh...I...you and I...we can’t…” she was stammering now, just like she did when it cost her a speech medal six years ago in the regional final.
She turned, her lengthy hair shining amid her stunning eyes. The shock of my admission had left its mark on her face. Suddenly I felt guilty for putting such a burden on my best friend.
Now it was my turn to falter through the words. “I...I’m sorry, Allison. I just thought it would be better to tell you now than to regret it for the rest of my life. We’re going to be away from each other for four years, at least. I didn’t have a choice.” It was the wrong thing to say, but it sure as hell was true.
I could see the sadness in her eyes. “Who says you didn’t have a choice? I could have gone our entire friendship without you saying that, you know. Jeremy and I...we’re together. You know that. And I really like him, Josh. You should respect that.”
She took my hand in hers. Her beautiful face was downcast, as if she couldn’t face up to what she had to say to her best friend.
“Besides, you’re better at being my friend,” she whispered through choked tears. I saw a vision of my room, Allison running and tackling me, shouting to get moving and play some dang football. The first pinpricks of tears clouded behind my brown eyes.
For an awkward moment we sat there and watched the sunset, as we always had. Then I managed to say my final words to Allison Chalmers: “I understand. I’ll see ya…”
I have been to college for almost a year, but I still cannot get that fucking conversation out of my head. It plagues me all the time, but mostly in my dreams. I know she was right, but part of me can’t deny the feelings I had for her. The hell was I didn’t want those feelings to go away.
I did meet someone: a tiny bombshell with goldenrod hair named Jamie. We met at a frat party a few months ago and hit it off. Maybe it was her thin glasses frames or my stupid jokes made more moronic with alcohol, but we got along pretty well. I kissed her two weeks after that, alone in my dorm room, and the only thing I could think about as her chapstick covered lips graced mine was how much I wished I had kissed Allison on that dock. After that it was all over. I still woke up to the fleeting images of the girl I was in love with, but I didn’t want to look in the mirror each day and realize I was someone who couldn’t get over a simple rejection. So I decided to call her.
My fingers developed a nervous twitch as I pulled up her contact information on my cell phone that night. I held my breath, leaning against the cheap wooden dresser our benevolent college decided was good enough for all incoming freshmen. Jeremy Shepherds answered Allison’s phone. I let out all the air I had collected in my lungs like a steam engine.
“Ward! What the hell is up, man?” I had forgotten the high school tradition of jocks addressing everyone by their last names. I managed some type of weak reply that must have sounded ridiculous, because Jeremy was laughing on the other end.
“Ward, she’s not here right now. She’s getting ready for our big date, considering how far I had to drive up here to see her. Want to leave a message, or something?”
I declined, saying that maybe I would get in touch with her some other time, and hung up the phone. Our big date. I slowly wafted my body down into the leather chair my roommate must have traveled back in time to pick up from 1977. I stared at the wall, thinking about Jeremey Shepherds and that stupid red Chevrolet he used to drive.
I haven’t thought much about Allison since that evening. My life has begun to rescind into the kind of childhood days I had before I met her. I play a lot of video games and smoke a lot of reefer, and have more or less forgotten about class. I guess I never got over the fact that she saw less in me than I saw in her. In my dreams I still see things like the old swing set her folks bought when she was ten, how she would dare me to jump off when I reached a high enough altitude, and how I always chickened out at the last second.
There is one dream I have a lot more often now. I’m sitting on the dock. Except this time Allison is not there. This time it’s only me staring across the briny deep. I can only sit there in desperation, waiting for someone to arrive whose only aspiration is a simple conversation. Then I realize she will never be there with me. I will always be alone, watching the waves.
Short stories - what are they? I’ll admit that’s a question I still do not fully know the answer to, but I hope to have a much better perspective after this year. As I’m taking a bit of a break from working on my third novel I have decided to work on a batch of stories, some of which I hope will find publication in literary journals. As it stands right now, I should have about ten in good enough shape to send out in the next few months. But I thought a really interesting way of showing this process would be to workshop at least one of the stories through the blog on my website.
The story I chose for this workshop is one I crafted way back in my college days. Back when I was an aimless youth I took a class specifically on Creative Writing (those really into my work will recognize this as one of the classroom settings in Last Man on Campus). While to this day I feel I never put enough into the class, I did wind up with one story that I think could eventually stand on its own for publication. I now present part of that story to my audience, with some slight editing from its previous incarnation, in the hopes of kick-starting an interactive workshop. Without further ado, here is the first part of the short story “Allison:”
I told Allison Chalmers I loved her the summer after our senior year. I told her I had loved her since the third grade, when our entire class was forced to distribute little pink paper valentines to everyone but I had saved one for her that stated: “Will you be mine?” I told her I loved her when I saw her scorching down the Winterset High asphalt track, piercing April rays of sunshine floating over her back and her competition from the surrounding schools left in the dust. I told her I had loved her since we held each other at our last prom, blue streamers hanging askew around us in the gymnasium. I told her I loved her even after Jeremy Shepherd had entered the fray.
I told Allison these things the afternoon of a desperate, hot August day one week before I was to leave for the state university. My voice sounded freshman-year shaky and my body trembled as if some hidden brute within wanted to leave my presence to avoid this conversation forever. I told Allison I had loved her the entire ten years we had known each other, and that even though she had found another, I knew she belonged to me. And how did she react to this confession? This statement of trust that I conveyed to her on that scorching day at the end of summer? It wasn’t what I expected.
* * *
The real reason these feelings began to make their way into my heart, levelling any thoughts of friendship I ever kindled for my best friend, came the summer before we both went to college. Allison and I had a special place in Winterset that was just for us: Lake Clarmont. This summer was different because it contained the final few months we would get to spend laying out on the dock watching the boats sail over the foamy waves, birds scattering everywhere and fish fighting for their lives within the briny deep. Allison always called it the “briny deep” like she was floating on a pirate ship in the middle of the Atlantic, not sitting on the rough rocky shores of a reservoir.
One night stands out in my mind, playing on repeat like a film projector gone mad. It was a week after the big graduation jamboree, and I was very glad to have the final futile exercise of high school finished. The two of us were sitting on the cement dock where the amateur fishermen of Winterset attempted to catch the big one and make the others jealous.
This was how we released the pressure of having to attend school for twelve years. What amazed me that summer was how Allison and I kept each other so close even while our thoughts of college in the fall loomed overhead like a booming thunderclap. Most nights I was sure Allison would be tearing down the main drag of town instead, seeking a real man unlike my skinny-ass self, but she never did. This was why she was my best friend in that entire God forsaken town: she never wanted more of a friend than me.
This was the last real night both of us had stayed out there for such a long period of time. It wasn’t long after this that Allison hooked up with Jeremy at our senior keg in the Danielson Woods. He swept her off her feet, offering more for her brilliant life than I could ever hope to give.
I’ve never had a girlfriend for my entire 18 years on this planet, and no matter what anyone else tells me, it still sucks. If the subject is broached in conversation I’ll shrug my shoulders, crack my knuckles and say something nonchalant. But the truth is that I can’t get over it. Like a specter that I can only see in the mirror at night, it haunts my soul, voicing my inferiorities and how I could never hope to attain her. The same spirit was creeping around my brain’s storage area the night Allison and I sat there on the concrete, the small waves lapping up against the flat gray wall.
“Why do they make little bubble caps like that?” Allison asked, the sun’s reflection in her glasses impeding any sense of what her eyes were trying to say.
“Because they get so mad at each other they begin to foam up. Like rabid water.” For some reason my lame jokes always got her to laugh, and she couldn’t stop. The sound was symphonic to my ears that evening as the sun began losing its battle with the stars for the horizon.
Allison was stunning there before the setting sun, now a dark red blot on the far side of the lake. Her glasses reflected light in the most peculiar ways, and were now emanating the moody spasms of lake water. At this moment some kind of starter’s gun went off in my head and I decided I had to tell her before summer’s end. It was either that or risk the ghost coming in the night and chopping off my head, ending it for all eternity.
So that’s it - part 1 of the short story “Allison.” I will be posting the second half in the coming days. Until then, feel free to take a stand in the comments (or email me) regarding what you liked or did not like about the first half of this short story. I will take all comments into consideration as I revise this story and try to make it presentable for publication. Thanks for reading!
It’s time once again for another update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fictionally. To kick off the second-half of this experiment I began with Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, a rich narrative of life on the Iowa plains that takes place around the time I was born. This book hit me personally in a few ways that I will discuss later, but first I wanted to draw out the two major writing lessons I gained from this amazing novel.
I would highly recommend this novel for anyone who is looking for examples of how to write intricate descriptions and tell an amazing tale at the same time. But what really hit home for me with this book was the story. Essentially a modernization of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Smiley tells the story of a father with three daughters who decides to leave his farm to two of them, and the consequences of that weighty decision over the course of a farming season. Needless to say this does not go down easily, and causes the daughters to each remember and respond to their awful histories in various ways. This reminds me of what I also face in the future: the passing down of a stake in my own family’s farm in Iowa. Many were the months I spent working hard in the hog fields or in tractors during the harvest, and yet I must admit feeling ambivalent about the prospect of taking on that land when my parents’ generation passes.
Another character named Jess returns to his family after spending years away in Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam. When he gets back, he irritates the farmers that have been there for generation by speaking about organic farming and how much the chemicals used to kill weeds probably affected his friends’ abilities to have children. This character really resonated with me as I have struggled with these same issues. Things I took for granted as part of the family business (using Monsanto’s GMO seeds, spraying copious amounts of chemicals, etc) I now see as a principle reason for many of the food-related problems in the world. Coming to terms with this was no easier for Jess, who (*spoiler*) also does not stay to run his family’s farm.
All of this being said, this book was a great start to the second-half of my fiction year. Next up I will be reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. And stay tuned to this space for more updates on my third novel and for some discussions on short stories and other topics. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.