Posted in Female Author, Nonfiction

Review ~ Never Say You Can’t Survive

This book was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories by Charlie Jane Anders

I was a few years out of college and working on my first novel when 9/11 happened. I wondered whether my silly ghost story mattered in such a world. Most artists feel like this at some point because the world is always on fire. That’s not to say that the last 18 months haven’t been…special.

Charlie Jane Anders argues in Never Say You Can’t Survive that writing (or making any art) isn’t just essential because it adds value to the world, but can be the thing that keeps a writer sane. Artists, and writers especially, are in the position to create their own worlds around them, not only as a form of escapism, but to present better worlds. It’s a form of hope and activism, even if those things are translated onto a worlds of space ships, dragons, or zombies.

I was surprised at how much of this book was nuts and bolts writing advice. As with any advice, your mileage will very. I had quite a few moments of “oh, I guess that’s a way to do it” which is never a bad thing. Many of the chapters started as blog post at tor.com and much of the language is contemporary and colloquial. Anders obviously loves writing and that comes through in these essays. If anything, reading what someone has to say about something they love is always a pleasure for me.

Posted in Male Author, Nonfiction

Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4

I added this book to my TBR list a couple months back when Deb @ Readerbuzz was reading it. I’ve been looking for books on writing nonfiction, but most of what I’ve found have been about writing memoirs, which isn’t quite what I’m after. I didn’t realize at the time that I’m slightly familiar with John McPhee. I’d read his A Sense of Where You Are years ago.

I looked up Draft No. 4 at the local online libraries and found that the Phoenix library had it — except they didn’t have it. I put in a hold, but then realized I was on a wait list for 0 copies. I suspect this happens when an online library had the license for a book, but it expired and the book wasn’t an automatic rebuy (if such a thing exists) due to lack of interest. I’ve also had it happen with a little known book about a 1910s serial killer. So I went to Amazon. The ebook was $10; the paperback was $12.75. I tossed the paperback into my cart and waited until we needed to round out an order. I still have a hangup about buying ebooks for a near premium price. In the meantime I checked out McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

A word about the paperback. It’s white. And it has this texture to it. Arizona is quite dusty. My white book has gotten dusty and resists cleaning because of the texture. I do no recommend reading it while eating Doritos.

Draft No. 4 is a fairly slim book. It’s earned a spot on my desk with my other writing books to be sure, though (like most of my favorite writing books) the practical advice is buried amid career anecdotes.

The first two chapters cover, roughly, the things that were of most interest to me: what’s a worthwhile idea to write long-form nonfiction about and what do you do with it once you have it. Turns out in McPhee’s experience, a good idea for a piece of nonfiction is a thing that the writer can commit time and effort to. What form will it take? Where will it end up? These are variable things. McPhee’s advice seems to be: keep an open mind and go with the flow. To me, that’s fairly comforting.

Of course, there is McPhee’s progression of drafts which is the second thing of particular non-entertainment-only interest to me. The first draft is simply getting things down, the philosophy of you can’t fix what doesn’t exist. In McPhee’s second draft, he tinkers with shape. The third draft is smoothing out the rough spots after giving it a verbal read-through. And the fourth draft? In the fourth draft, he calls into question weak wording and cuts about 10%. This cutting comes from writing for a magazine like Time where space is a premium. Ideas need to be cut, trimmed, distilled in order for there to be the proper number of lines for the piece when published in a print magazine. Even when not under those constraints, McPhee has found that this practice tightens up writing. (I have found this to be the case myself in the past.)

John McPhee is an entertaining writer and an entertaining teacher too. Draft No. 4 has a lot of stories from McPhee’s long career and some writing advice as well. Suitable even for those who aren’t crazy enough to write a book on a topic no one cares about. Yet.

Posted in Female Author, Nonfiction

Review ~ Life Moves Pretty Fast

Life Moves Pretty Fast Cover via Goodreads

Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman

For Hadley Freeman, movies of the 1980s have simply got it all. Comedy in Three Men and a Baby, Hannah and Her Sisters, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future; all a teenager needs to know in Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, and Mystic Pizza; the ultimate in action from Top Gun, Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; love and sex in 9 1/2 Weeks, Splash, About Last Night, The Big Chill, and Bull Durham; and family fun in The Little Mermaid, ET, Big, Parenthood, and Lean On Me.

In Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade’s key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society’s changing expectations of women, young people, and art—and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

From how John Hughes discovered Molly Ringwald, to how the friendship between Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi influenced the evolution of comedy, and how Eddie Murphy made America believe that race can be transcended, this is a “highly personal, witty love letter to eighties movies, but also an intellectually vigorous, well-researched take on the changing times of the film industry” (The Guardian). (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This was an addition to my TBR during Nonfiction November 2017. Books Are My Favorite and Best recommended it paired with Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction. I really enjoy reading about movies and this book sounded like it might be fun.

What Worked
A couple years ago I realized that I didn’t find many recent comedy movies very funny. Or to be more specific, I didn’t really care for American comedies post-2000. I even caught myself thinking, “I don’t really like comedies as a genre,” which is a lie. One of my favorite movies, Ghostbuster, is a comedy. Many of my frequently re-watched movies are comedies. What I didn’t like about 2000s comedies was the raunchy, sort of dumb humor that many of them relied on. But was I seeing this clearly? Had the comedies really changed? Life Moves Pretty Fast presents a theory as to why there are more comedies like The Hangover these days and fewer comedies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Lower” humor is easier to translate and there is a lot of money to be made by American films in foreign markets.

Overseas markets and studio consolidation are two topics that Freeman returns to over and over in the book. Studios are less likely to take risks on films that have only a niche market. It could be argued that something as quirky as Back to the Future wouldn’t get made today by Disney or Universal (are there any other movie studios left?). Rom-coms and weepies (genres that often feature more female-centric casts) have also fallen by the wayside in an era when every movie needs to be a blockbuster with foreign appeal. Freeman makes very convincing arguments.

What Didn’t Work
Freeman is the first to admit that this is a book of personal favorites. She doesn’t cover the Star Wars franchise for example, because she’s never cared for the movies. By necessity, really, a lot of cherry picking occurred. Not all 80s movies are great, and many great movies have been made since 1990.  (One of my other favorite comedies is A Knight’s Tale, released in 2001.) Also, in an ironic nod to the title, though originally published in 2015, Life Moves Pretty Fast is maybe already a little out-dated. While the big movie studios might not make “80s” movies anymore, streaming services like Netflix might be moving into that space. Netflix as a content producer is a relatively recent thing. In the area of teen comedies, I think “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of John Hughes’ movies.

But What Also Worked
Life Moves Pretty Fast also includes interviews with actors and directors, and lots of crunch film history bits. Did you know that Taylor Sheridan was asked to rewrite the main character of Sicario (a really great not-80s film) as male, but he refused? Did you know that many of Eddie Murphy’s early roles were originally planned for white actors? Honestly, it was the stories about films in Life Moves Pretty Fast that I enjoyed most.

Publishing info: Simon & Schuster, 2016
My Copy: trade paperback, Tempe Public Library
Genre: essays

Posted in Female Author, Male Author, Nonfiction

#DealMeIn2019, Week 3 ~ “With the Best of Intentions”

“With the Best of Intentions” by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy

Card Picked: Ace♥️
From: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July-August 2017

People like to think in terms of cause and effect. We want things to be simple: You do X and you get Y.

But then it comes to natural systems, it’s just not that simple. You do X and you get a cascading alphabet of effects. And some of those double back to become new causes.

I ended up switching out the story I originally had planned for the Ace of Hearts; I realized I had already read it. When setting up my Deal Me In list, I slotted in the short stories from my remaining unread issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but I’d forgotten that I’d already read a few from the July/August 2017 issue. So, instead, I decided to read the science essay from that issue.

“With the Best of Intentions” is about bees. Honeybees and bumblebees mostly. We tend to value the honeybee because, well, honey, but over look the contributions to pollination by the fuzzy, buzzy bumblebee. If we project a future with less pollinator bees, we could have less fruits like apples, but also less birds who eat fruits like apples, and less small predators who eat birds, etc.

I don’t mean to be a denier of these possible outcomes, but I am also an inherent optimist. While our authors acknowledge that we have problems predicting outcomes, they stick to dire consequences. I take a more Ian Malcolm approach:

Jurassic Park Life Finds A Way GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Posted in Female Author, KidLit, Male Author, Nonfiction, Novella

Mini Reviews, Vol. 11

alt text Baker Street By-Ways by James Edward Holroyd

I found this slim paperback at Book Vault, out in Mesa. I didn’t realize that Otto Penzler, whom I know as an editor of mystery anthologies, had put together a collection of Sherlockania in the mid-90s. I’d be interested in other volumes even though this one was a little uneven.

Originally published in 1959, the tone is very “boys-club.” Holroyd grumbles repeatedly about how fed-up his and his friends’ wives are with their Sherlock hobby.  He also doesn’t bother to attribute a quote to an “American woman writer.” Perhaps I should know who he means, but not even Goggle could come up with the mother of the quote.

There are a few good crunchy bits, mostly concerning London geography. The book could have used a few more maps though.

 

alt text The Box Jumper by Lisa Mannetti

My interest in this novelette featuring Houdini was stoked when it was nominated in 2015 for a Shirley Jackson Award. Houdini and “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic“? Yes, please!

Alas, it mostly didn’t work for me. The story is told through eyes  of Leona, an assistant to Houdini. She’s not the most reliable narrator and that always bugs me. Still, several of the scenes were quite unsettling.

alt text Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara Rockliff (Author), Iacopo Bruno (Illustrations)

One of my favorite books of last year was Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, edited by  Margaret B. Steele. This book was directly inspired by that biography. It is a beautiful over-sized picture book for young readers. I’m not super keen on every book needing to be a mirror for the reader, but I would have loved a book about a red-haired female magician. The excitement and empowerment is amped up for a younger audience, but it certainly captures the spirit of Adelaide Herrmann.

 

Posted in Male Author, Nonfiction

Deal Me In, Week 18 ~ “The Real Work”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Real Work” by Adam Gopnik

Card picked: 2♣ – A Wild Card!
From: The New Yorker, March 17, 2008

The Essay
For today’s wild card pick, I went to my Pocket queue to browse. Alas, I’m still a little hungover from last weekend’s readathon, and none of the short stories I’d bookmarked caught my attention. Instead, I landed on an essay I had come across in the past, but not had the time to read. It was, not surprisingly, an essay about magic and magicians. Adam Gopnik catches a slice of the magic scene in 2008—about a decade after David Blaine came to prominence as a sort of anti-magic magician—but also explores the eternal question of what is the “real work” in regards to magic as an art.

Gopnik’s main subject is close-up magician and historian Jamy Ian Swiss. Swiss is obviously an advocate for the more traditional aspects of magic, but with a deep understanding that magic isn’t just technique. After all, with magic, technique should be completely invisible. Instead, it’s the magician’s job to engage the audience in agreed upon deception.

Gopnik summarizes Swiss’s philosophy:

Magic is imagination working together with dexterity to persuade experience how limited its experience really is, the heart working with the fingers to remind the head how little it knows.

In contrast, David Blaine dosen’t want magic that looks real. Instead, he states:

“What I want are real things that feel like magic.”

Obviously, these two approaches to magic are quite different, but  share much of the same space in the eyes of an audience. Both have a historical pedigree, with Dai Vernon being the patron of Swiss’s effortless sleight of hand, and Houdini the progenitor of Blaine’s death-defying derring-do. The focus though is firmly on Swiss  though with perhaps the question of whether the older philosophies of magic might be on the way out, or at least in danger of being destructively appropriated.

♣ ♣ ♣

Way back when I was first starting to get interested in magic, I had the opportunity to see Jamy Ian Swiss perform and lecture about deception at ASU. And it’s online!

Posted in Male Author, Short Story

Deal Me In, Week 12 ~ Maelzel’s Chess Player

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Maelzel’s Chess Player” by Edgar Allan Poe

Card picked: Jack of Diamonds

From: Originally published in Southern Literary Messenger in April 1836. I read it online.

Review: Actually not a short story but one of Poe’s essays, published early in his prose career while a staff writer at the Southern Literary Messenger. Better known as the Turk, the mechanical chess player had been an attraction for over 60 years when Johann Maelzel brought it to the US.

Poe begins with an introduction to some other fantastic automatons and computers of the age including the duck of Vaucanson*, and Babbage’s difference engine. The Turk is different from these, he argues, because both are obviously machines and, though Poe doesn’t use these words, obviously programmed to perform specific functions.

He then gives a very short history of the Turk and an account of its current exhibition in Richmond. Proposing “solutions” to the chess player was a bit of a rage at the time.  I think that, in light of the phantasmagoria of Poe’s later works and his rather ignominious end, we forget that he was a fairly smart guy. Based on his research and personal observations, he comes to his own conclusions about the Turk. On some counts, he’s even correct and chides previous explanations for being overly complicated when a simpler answer suffices.

Most of Poe’s conclusions I had already read about in Tom Standage’s excellent book about the Turk. Still there were a couple of things that interested me about his essay.

One of Poe’s presumptions was that a pure machine would always win at chess:

A little consideration will convince any one that the difficulty of making a machine beat all games, is not in the least degree greater, as regards the principle of the operations necessary, than that of making it beat a single game.

As is often the case with AI, the intelligence isn’t necessarily smarter than its programmers. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that man created a machine that could outplay the best chess players.

I was also intrigued by Poe’s notion of false machinery — that many aspects of The Turk were meant to be more machine-like than they needed to be to prove that it was a machine. Considering that Poe often played with the notions of false life and false death, this sort of rounds out the paradigm.

* Duck of Vaucanson may be one of my favorite things of all time. Mostly, because I have a theory that ducks are inherently funny. The concept of an 18th century robotic duck is utterly ridiculous in that “of course, this is what humans do when they can” kind of way. There is also some mention of the magician Joseffy creating an improved faux duck that presumably could function on it own without a base.

Is This Your Card?
I had a card trick for the Jack of Diamonds, but then I figured that a video about the Turk would be better. This Turk was rebuilt by magic engineer John Gaughan.