Reading, more than writing

For a few months, this blog was identified as a writing site – except I almost never said anything on it about my writing. I don’t like writing about writing, any more than I like plays about the theater or poems about poetry. So I’ve renamed it a reading site, because I do enjoy writing about reading.

Right now? My first dip into Marcel Proust. My first impression? I will never read all of “À la recherche du temps perdu” – though the title makes a good rhythmic chant, like the nagging chorus of a song of which you know no other words.

Isabel Allende on Hollywood’s demands

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been writing, not posting, and I’m well into a new book.

But this caught my attention online a few weeks ago, excerpted from an interview with Isabel Allende on NPR, when she was asked about adapting her latest novel, “Ripper,” for the movie screen:

Let’s not talk about Hollywood. … They want the rights to do the movie and everything else they can think of, forever. There’s no limit to the contract — ‘In this universe and universes to be discovered’ — I’m not making this up: This is in the contract. And they also want the copyright of the characters, so I lose my characters, and if I want to repeat them in another book I have to pay them a royalty. Give me a break.

1. Why is every author asked when her book is going to be made into a movie? A film adaptation is not some seal of approval. At best it’s some additional income, though apparently won at a terrible price, if Allende is to be believed.

2. Who would think an author would want to sell the copyright to her characters? And then demand the author pay them a royalty to write about her characters in the future? And in this case the author isn’t even some struggling newbie anxious for fame and fortune. This is one of the more popular novelists in the business. Let’s hope that after her outrage, she just laughed at them.

3. Most importantly, I like books that are just books. I don’t write to make movies, though my creative writing teacher told me years ago I was a fool not to. I write a book to be a book, and when I’m reading some other writer’s work that starts sounding like they’re angling for a Hollywood contract, I’m disappointed. Let Hollywood make a movie if it must (right now I’ve got a film version of “As I Lay Dying” in my Netflix queue), but first give me a writer who has a story he needs to tell in words – without pictures, sound or a box of Raisinets.

The Unknown Dr. Daedalus Dark

Dr. Daedalus Dark and Mortimer Spine, circa 1999.

Dr. Daedalus Dark and Mortimer Spine, circa 1999.

“Who are you supposed to be?” the woman at the next table asked.

I was at a Halloween party in a local bar, wearing my standard gear: A wool top hat I bought 20 years ago in Chicago, a massive, floor-length black coat from back when Hot Topic was gothy, a many-buttoned ecru vest from International Male, along with various accessories of a Victorian bent. When I’m wearing it, I’m a character I call Dr. Daedalus Dark, toting around my quarter-scale skeleton pal, Mortimer Spine.

But when I introduced my character, the woman registered only blank disinterest. Because what she was really wondering was, “Are you a pop cultural icon I should know?”

Almost everyone else in the bar was a recognizable reference: The Doctor and his companion, Arwen and an Uruk-hai (together at last), a professional wrestler. Although my costume is rich and convincing, and I sometimes am complimented on it, I never enter costume contests anymore because it is not instantly appreciated as anything but vaguely sinister – which doesn’t win votes.

That’s OK. I’ve avoided competition for most of my life, and I have grown to think of my Halloween appearances as a kind of background mood setter, reminding people that “Oh yeah, it’s a holiday.” And, wearing the same classic get-up, I’ve been able to do that since the late 1990s.

Let’s see the guy wearing a hat like Walter White from “Breaking Bad” try explaining who he’s supposed to be 15 years from now.

Self-promotion 2: A favorite line

Recently I was perusing another writer’s list of favorite novels, where the writer quoted a significant line or paragraph from each book. So I opened up my own “A Feast in Babylon” and found this:

“Fear,” his father had said, “must be faced and swallowed.” His father said things that impressed him as a young boy but that had become meaningless now that Calash knew that fear was something he had already swallowed but couldn’t keep down.

The quote appeals to me in part because I like taking bromides like “you have to swallow your fear” and knocking them apart. Bumper sticker advice rarely stands up to the uncertainties of real life.

A goofy little note

The campfire debate of how Pluto and Goofy can both exist in the same cartoon universe provides a favorite moment in the movie “Stand By Me,” and has been going on ever since. I think I may be able to contribute a point in the discussion.

Goofy.svgBoth Pluto and Goofy are dogs, but the former is a fetch-and-pant pet to Mickey Mouse and the latter is a walking talking pants-wearing hound – that is, a dog transformed.

We know Walt Disney liked Southern folklore. He was a Missouri boy, exposed to these tales from childhood and obviously familiar with the Uncle Remus stories, since he later used them as the basis for his movie “Song of the South.”

Another popular set of stories from the Uncle Remus era were the late-19th century Conjure tales of Charles W. Chesnutt, where a frequent verb is “goopher.” A “conjure woman” or witch goophers something when she puts a spell on it. The modifier “goophered” or “goofy,” meaning odd or silly, became popular in the United States as African-American culture rose in influence in the first decades of the 20th century; the word’s first recorded instance is from that era.

The Disney studio, which already had created Pluto as a pet-style dog in 1930, came up with the Goofy character in 1932. Originally known as Dippy Dog, by the end of the decade he had become Goofy Goof. Like Pluto he is a dog, but he’s a “goophered” dog, transformed by some unknown spell (in reality the needs of the animation studio) to become a more fit companion for Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

I don’t know if Disney himself considered the dog “goophered,” but knowing the origins of the term goofy at least helps the rest of us get a handle on the difference between a Pluto Pup and a Goofy Goof. Now if we could only travel back in movie time and explain it to those kids around the campfire.


Self promotion 1: Taking a stab

The woman on the flight next to me was a reader, had just finished a book called “The Dovekeepers” about the Roman siege of the Jews at Masada.

“Very much a book club book,” she said, dismissively.

When I asked her what she meant, she said that the writer was ambitious, but lost track of her characters, then relied on coincidence to bring them all together and tie things up in the end. I think she also meant that the writer was too eager to satisfy, to not let the messy uncertainties of life into her book.

Of course I immediately wondered if I was the same kind of writer, and was afraid to say anything. But desperation led me to admit that I was an author too. That, in fact, I also had written a book that concerned ancient Israel, though in a less direct way than “The Dovekeepers.”

She was engaged as I told her the story of the Sirrush, about its description in the Apocrypha as a dragon, about others’ speculation that it may have been the last of the dinosaurs.

“So you write science fiction or fantasy.” Also dismissive?

I hemmed. “It’s more mythic,” I said, and segued into a description of “Wodin’s Day” and its connection to Nordic tales and Wagnerian opera. She liked opera, though maybe not Wagner so much. She said she could never take it seriously after seeing so many parodies.

After a silence, I scribbled my name and “A Feast in Babylon” on a note. She tucked it into her carryon bag and we talked about other things.

But it does not look like she ever bought a copy. Amazon monitors sales obsessively and I try to resist obsessively monitoring Amazon. But after a week there has been no budge in purchases, and I am left to speculate: She tossed my note as soon as she got home; she read an excerpt online and didn’t like it; she’s put my name on some pages-long reading list and someday might maybe possibly…

I live on those last three words.

“The Caine Mutiny” and overplaying the author’s hand

“The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk is one of the few books where I enjoyed the first three fifths and the last fifth, but not the fourth. Which is to say that I thought it was a pretty good book except for one significant part. And, once again, it is the part where the author decides he wants to make a statement.

The Caine MutinyA quick synopsis: Ensign Willie Keith is assigned to a piece of junk in the South Pacific of WWII. Soon it is captained by Queeg, an incompetent coward, so abusive and insecure that his junior officers eventually mutiny. (I’m not giving anything away here folks – it’s in the title.) The mutiny is followed by a court martial, a verdict and a lecture (this is the section I don’t like), then by more war experiences that lead the mutineers to question their actions.

I understand that Wouk wants to make the point that the mutiny may not have been justifiable – that in fact it is a dangerous act because, as David Frum puts it so well in his own review, modern wars are won by systems, not individuals: The mutineers have endangered the system. But Wouk is so desperate to make the point that he turns it into a big speech by a battle-scarred hot shot veteran who is worried about the outcome of the war and the fate of his Jewish grandmother.

The scars and the religious elements give the speaker moral heft (how can we question him, he has suffered so?), but it’s overplayed. And the fact that the big scene is crucial to both the play and the movie made from the book underlines its inappropriateness in the novel: It’s good showmanship, but it’s not good storytelling. Heck, in the movie the scene is such a big deal that, apparently, they didn’t even bother filming the remainder of the book.

But storytelling is showing and, in novels, getting inside of characters’ heads, and Wouk is able to make his point in the final fifth of the novel, after the trial. Ensign Keith – through his own experiences – begins to doubt the wisdom of his actions and to see the value of the system that he upended.

The scene that defines the book, in fact, is the day he receives both an official reprimand for the mutiny and the bronze star for his later heroism. There’s the system in play, unaware of its own irony, but doing its job, and Ensign Keith carefully stores the two documents together, so his grandchildren – and we the readers – can puzzle it all out on our own.

Credit is due

MusicPhilosophy2-16I saw this image in Redbook magazine and it touched on a pet peeve of mine.

Notice the credit: Judy Garland Over the Rainbow. As if she wrote these words.

Sorry, but Garland is famous for singing them, not creating them, and as a piece of print media, this poster is by nature a celebration of the words and sentiment by lyricist E.Y. Harburg. You want a celebration of the performance? See a movie clip. (And, by the way, the proper line should be “the dreams THAT you dare to dream…” which is not only how it’s written but how Garland sings it. Pay attention, folks.)

I’ve seen this kind of problem most often in movie quotes, where the credit is given not to the screenwriter, not to the person who actually created them, but to the character (Scarface, Alex DeLarge, etc.)  At best such mis-attributions can be a compliment to the writer, that he or she has come up with characters so memorable that they seem to be the creators of their words. But in even weirder instances, I’ve seen movie lines credit not even the characters, but the actors who speak them, as in the above image “quoting” Garland.

As I understand movie making (not very well, I admit) actors do sometimes create lines, so I can see how this can get a little complicated. But when the source is clear, lets give the writer the credit he or she observes.

The claws that catch

Rufhous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

Rufous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

I like found moments in photography nearly as much as I like finding things in my writing that I didn’t plan – when images or words come together and you think, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

Here’s a picture of a female Rufous Hummingbird in my garden. Over her head hovers a skeletal hand – nearly bird-like, nearly human – also seeming to reach for the flowers.