Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Trip To California

I have been in Monterey, California since Thursday afternoon. I will return (and quite gladly, too) to my happy home of Seattle tomorrow morning. What I've been doing here is all very dull and work-related and so I ignore it all, but I do have some photos! Yes, they're crappy photos taken with my camera phone because I left my proper camera at home, but still, proof of life as they say. I was not able, alas, to get a picture of any of the many western scrub jays I've seen, nor of any of the large and threatening turkey vultures, nor of either of the hawks. I didn't bother photographing any starlings, because they're common as dirt and--let's just admit it--they are a pox upon the New World. But I have photos nonetheless:

Here you see the beach facing north, with one wing of the hotel in the shot.

Here you see the beach facing south, with Monterey's famous Cannery Row, very tiny and distant in the background. Just squint; it's there.

Some of my time was spent in Carmel. Here's a nice bit of downtown Carmel for you. Look at that blue, cloudless sky.

This is the place where I spent many a dull hour. The less said about that, the better.

Coffee is a necessity wherever I go. These people were my pushers in Carmel.

Here is one of the beautiful cut-glass champagne flutes I didn't buy. The set of six was $375 and you know, I'm not made of money and I didn't love the glasses that much. But still, pretty.

Where I did part with some cash was the Carmel Lush shop. Lush! I'm going to take a bubble bath tonight after the awards banquet. Yeah, that's right, punk. A bubble bath.

I also went to one of the smallest bookshops I've ever seen, where I picked up a copy of Jaimy Gordon's National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule, which turns out to be about the seedy world of low-purse horse racing. It's also pretty good so far (I'm 80 pages in).

Since I'm staying in a hotel, I have had access to movies on cable. District 9 made me very tense. But it's much better than the trailers made it out to be, despite the nearly constant violence and high ick factor.

Lastly, why is the Pogues' "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" the soundtrack to a car commercial? Does no one see the irony there?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reading "The Fates Will Find Their Way," Pt 2

Last night I read a bit more of Hannah Pittard's debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way. I'm really only about a third of the way into it as I have lacked time this week, but I expect to finish the whole thing tomorrow because I'll be either on aeroplanes or waiting around for a shuttle at the aerodrome or on the shuttle for 90 minutes and that ought to be enough cumulative bits of time to read 2/3 of a short novel. One hopes I'll lose this faux-British aero- mannerism during all that time.

Anyway, so far so good, Ms. Pittard. I realized that you are playing fast-and-loose with your first-person plural POV, because we are told things by the "we" narrator that this narrator cannot in any way know, but your book is written so well that it doesn't matter. I'm not a stickler for rule-bound narratives and no good author is, either. So while I think that, technically speaking, a first-person omniscient plural narrator is a bit of a stretch, I refuse to cry foul at your having decided to use one. It's brave and it works, so keep it up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revising "Cocke & Bull"

I've spent a good deal of time this month revising a novel called Cocke & Bull. I have gone through all but about the last 25 ms pages, which I'll get through in the next couple of days, and that will complete the first run through of the revisions process. The story and the characters seem pretty solid to me and I don't think I'm looking at any massive rewrites when I make the next pass at the story in February. What's left to do all has to do with the language, the prose. There are passages that I know aren't quite right yet--the language is workmanlike and gets the job done, sure--that I'll have to take another look at and reshape somehow. Maybe I'll have several looks at those passages before I'm satisfied.

I'm a proponent of constant revisions, of John Gardner's idea that you should go over the work again and again and again, because you will see different things each time; you will have different distractions running through your brain each time and these distractions will allow you to make new connections between the story on the page and your own subconscious and you'll find new images and elements to bring to the story; you will read your own prose in a different way each time you read it. All of this is good for you as a writer, and good for the story.

What's become clear to me over the years is that my first take at anything is usually not my best effort. The underlying idea--writ down in the white-hot heat of the fictional dream--might be brilliant enough (or near-brilliant, Mr. Nevets), but the prose itself is usually not quite there. I have a sort of shorthand I use when drafting, especially in action scenes, that makes few connections with proper English grammar. When I'm writing it for the first time it seems as if I'm scribbling down actual English, but upon review I see that it only approximates my mother tongue and I have to insert parts of speech and untangle all the prepositions and rearrange my subordinate clauses. I am alarmed at just how much red ink gets spilled onto my pages, but at least I am aware of how much red ink is needed and at least I buckle down and do the work.

I worry that the voice--which becomes more complex and Old Testament as the story goes along--is too heavy at the end. I worry that the scene where the God of Israel Himself enters the story is too over the top. I worry, in short, that I will here or there lose my readers. I try to put all of these worries out of my mind when I'm going over the ms, because losing my readers is the least of my concerns. Have I written the book I intended to write? That's the thing. That's the only thing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading "The Fates Will Find Their Way"

I'm currently reading Hannah Pittard's debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way. So far, it's been a pretty good ride. The novel is a sort of meditation on the changes wrought in the lives of a group of teenagers when one of them (a girl called Nora) goes missing on Halloween. Everyone knew Nora, or knew who she was, or thought they knew who she was, and everyone becomes obsessed with what could have happened to her, and this obsession follows the teenagers into adulthood and beyond.

It's written in first-person plural, the "we" being the neighborhood boys. I worry that this point of view choice will become emotionally distancing--merely a mannerism or a prose experiment taken on too long a ride--but Pittard is handling it well at this point (I'm only about 1/4th of the way into the novel). She's structuring the narrative such that the tale at times seems to be told from a third-person limited omniscient POV, and the changes between these sections are pretty seamless. It will be interesting to see how long this can be sustained. One of my favorite tropes so far--only possible with this first-person plural POV--has been how one character will talk about the missing girl (telling of meeting her by chance at an airport or bus station, or of having slept with her once), and the narrative "we" will express doubts as to the truth of this testimony. "We didn't believe him, but we tried to imagine that it was the truth." Sort of the lurid desires of the audience.

Anyway, I'm enjoying it so far and it's nice to find something new (it doesn't actually come out until February) that doesn't annoy me right off. I'm a twitchy, difficult audience, I am. But this seems to be a smart, grown-up book and I hope Ms. Pittard doesn't fuck it up. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin

This evening Mighty Reader and I are going to hear the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin. Imagine my surprise when I received the email just now from Mighty Reader asking what time and where we were to meet beforehand. Honestly, I thought the concert was tomorrow. That's the danger of picking up tickets at the will-call window: sometimes you just forget that you have a date. Just last Friday my friend Theodore and I were talking about how easy it is to let these dates slip past. Thankfully Mighty Reader scribbled something on her calendar at work.

Anyway, the quartet comes highly recommended:

“Warmth, clarity and a sense of drama on a human scale… the playing was brilliant.”
--The Oregonian

Says the Arts website of the group:

Founded in 1984 by the principal concertmaster and the string section leaders of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, this ensemble has toured extensively in Europe, Asia, and throughout South and North America. The Quartett’s musical range is considerable; their discography includes recordings of works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Reger.

Program (subject to change):

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor, Op. 138
Beethoven: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2
Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

I'm familiar with the Beethoven and the Debussy; I have not had the pleasure of this particular Shostakovich quartet, so I'm all a-quiver with anticipation.

In other news:

I did no writing at all over the three-day MLK weekend. I've been closing in on the end of first-round revisions to Cocke & Bull but could not face the work and instead read a lot: Michelle Davidson Argyle's novella Thirds (got through in but two sittings), a handful of stories from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a couple of chapters from Eels, a few Chinese folk tales, a couple of chapters from The Novel: A History and there was some other non-fiction reading as well but I forget which.

I intend to finish revisions to the novel by the end of the week, however, and hopefully I'll get my changes typed up into the Word(tm) document next weekend. I hate that step in the process, really I do. I've got about 80 pages left to read through this go-round. I expect to start in again at the beginning of February by reading through the novel and making more revisions. Constant revisions are the way to success, kids.

My violin has been giving me forlorn "Why did you spend thousands of dollars on me and make all those promises if you're only going to keep me in my case?" looks so I gave it some attention yesterday. Scales, arpeggios, some etudes (I should dig out my Sevcik books because Sevcik is like chemotherapy in that it's certainly toxic but a short program of it will cure you of horrible ills) and then Bach, Mozart, Bach, Monti and more Bach. Also some Bartok. I am attempting to increase the size of my repertoire. Someone must explain to me why the B section of every interesting piece of music is much more technically difficult than the A section.

Also, one of my coworkers greeted me thusly this morning: "Mr. Bailey, I am ready for the weekend." Me, too.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Yield, Rustic Mountaineer!

Last night Mighty Reader and I saw Chamber Cymbeline as performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's last plays, a sprawling romp of a fairy tale set in pre-Christian England with scenes in Italy. It's a bit of a mess, like most of Shakespeare's comedies, but the Seattle Shakespeare folks did a fine job pulling it into something a bit tighter.

Why "Chamber" Cymbeline? I'm thinking that it's a reference to chamber music, which is performed by smaller ensembles. Cymbeline has about 25 characters as written by Shakespeare and even with doubling of roles that's still a lot of cast members and an awful lot of characters for the audience to keep straight. The eight players last night only had to account for about a dozen characters: two "long lost" brothers were combined into one character; two ghosts, a soothsayer and an exiled warrior were combined into one character, and likely other combinations were made as well (this is not one of the plays with which we were overly familiar, so Mighty Reader and I had a look at the text when we got back home because that's just the sort of folks we are). Anyway, the combinations of characters worked, and the doubling of the hero/villain parts by the same actor was brilliantly done. Cloten is one one of Shakespeare's most entertaining rogues.

Since this is a comedy, there's the usual transvestism subplot where someone puts on a pair of pants and a hat and suddenly people she's known her whole life can't recognize her beyond the "you know, you look familiar" level. Oh, William, you were such a card.

Cymbeline is a mashup of three stories: the life of Cymbeline, a 1st-century English king; the love story of Imogen and Posthumus which is an Italian story from at least the 12th century; and of course Snow White, which was a well-known fairy tale in Shakespeare's England. So you've got pagan gods, war with the Roman Empire, an evil stepmother, rustics taking in a girl to cook and clean for them, and poison(!) alongside deception of good Englishmen by those wily and deceitful foreigners (damn you, Italian swine!). Typical Shakespearean riffing, in other words.

None of Shakespeare's comedies are equal to his tragedies and Cymbeline is not a work of any real depth. It's violent comic melodrama with broad sexual humor, asides to the audience, clear-cut white hats and black hats and a denouement that, really, goes on a bit too long but still: if you come for the clever wordplay (because it's still Shakespeare, after all) you will not be disappointed. The plot is absurd but even so, it's a rollicking good time and the actors are all quite fine.

This is not one of those productions of Shakespeare that really tries to "do something new" or "update" the play; it's an abridgement that focuses on plot and humor and the director was right to push the contrasts between the comic and tragic moments, letting the actors make the most of each. And even one of Shakespeare's lesser works is going to be better than any Hollywood film you could opt to see instead, so bring your ducats to the Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of Chamber Cymbeline and don't forget to come early enough to have one of their specialty cocktails in the commemorative martini glasses.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What I Think About When I Think About Running

While I do not have the lean, ropy build of one, I am a runner. A couple of years ago my average run was 10 miles and I made that run three times a week. Mighty Reader was distressed at how much I had shrunk away (I looked “breakable,” she said), but I felt more healthy than I ever had before, even with my pack-a-day Camel Filter™ habit. Nowadays I run half that distance, having seemingly passed some evil threshold of age and I am Surely No Longer A Young Man Now and my knees won’t let me forget it, and also because I took a couple of years off from running and in that time quit smoking and ate a lot (oh, sweetspastriescandiesbreadandbutterallthingsfried how I adore thee best, most best). Which combination of happy factors led to my gaining some weight. Note how I skirt around just how much, but it was too much and so for now running is harder on my joints not only because I’m getting on in years but because I’m also carrying around more pounds than my joints are happy about. But, as I say, even though I don’t look like it, I am a runner.

I love running, even when it’s a bad run. Sometimes I start out too fast and by the time I hit the one-mile mark I’m getting cramps. Sometimes it’s rainy and dark and I stumble on gravel while avoiding a dog and I fall down in an ungraceful, cursing tumble. Sometimes there’s a headwind (I fucking hate you, headwind). But no matter what sort of misery befalls me on the first half of the run, by the time I reach the three-mile mark I am always glad to be running and by the time I come sprinting down my street toward the happiest of homes I find myself wishing that I could run another couple of miles. On my last several runs I have, in fact, gone past my house and run another third of a mile or so. I’ll have to figure out a way to add that distance to the middle of the run because I like the last half mile of my course as it is and it’s Bad Luck to fuck with that.

What I like most about running--aside from the happy discovery this morning that my pants are slightly more comfortable and, I suppose, there are all those alleged and dull health benefits—is the purity of it. You don’t need anything except a decent pair of shoes, some comfortable clothes you can ruin with sweat, and reasonably undamaged sidewalks (though on some blocks I run in the street, mostly for safety’s sake). I’m all alone out there after work except for the occasional dog walker or rare other runner, listening to my iPod and trying as hard as I can to think about nothing at all.

Of course it’s impossible for me to think about nothing at all, because I’m not really trying to meditate; I’m trying to clear my head and lose some weight and (I admit it) enjoy that smugness of being a guy who’s exercising no matter what the weather is. But all that aside, running is a good headcleaner. When I run I am able to solve a lot of the problems that arise with my narratives. It’s almost magical, the way I can (for example) sit at my desk at home, look at a couple of pages of backstory and know it’s all deadly stuff that must be rewritten though I have no idea how to rewrite it, but when I put on my running shoes and find my stride after about a mile and a half, the solution to the narrative problems (“you need something shiny; you need some concrete details having to do with light and metal and water and you need to cut some of the repetitious stuff while you’re at it”) come so very easily to me. I’ve also had some of my coolest ideas while running (“Hey, you could have God enter the story at the end of Act 2!” or “an elephant! Of course!”), and Mighty Reader has several times been amused when I have stumbled into the house, drenched in sweat and mumbling hello as I pick up whatever pen and paper is closest to hand so that I can scribble down the Idea that came to me at mile two point seven-five.

When I began writing this, I had the idea of running as a metaphor for persistence, because the big secret to a successful run is that you just keep taking steps forward; you just keep running until you’ve put in your miles and there’s nothing so complicated about that. But writing—if that’s your game, sir—isn’t really analogous to going for a run. You don’t have to figure out how to run when you go running. You don’t have to lay the concrete for each block as you go along, you don’t have to build the city around you so that you have a place to run, you don’t have to conjure up and then create the place where your run ends. The analogy doesn’t hold, not at all. But I still love running.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Books By Mail Et cetera

Tara Maya's Conmergence finally showed up in the mail today. I began to think it would never come. I will be reading Ms. Maya's speculative fiction tales as soon as I finish My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, which is a rollicking good time and I don't know why the rest of you aren't reading it.

&cet: Revisions to Cocke & Bull continue apace. I am through eleven or twelve chapters (I forget), which is to say I'm about 40% through the MS. So that's not bad progress, actually. My hope is to finish this first revision by the end of January and then have another look at the thing. I know that there are two major scenes coming up that I'll want to do a lot of work with, and there is a journal whose entries I may wish to rewrite entirely, but I still think that I can hit my goals, timeline-wise. The book is very dark, but it's also my best work yet (not that I'd say such a thing myself, but my friends have told me it's so).