Sunday, February 24, 2019

What? I have a blog??

Nothing exciting to say this week.  Nor unexciting neither, I suppose.  Tune in next week.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Snailing on the Railing

About 5 years ago now, I took a picture of snail climbing one of the handrails at my then-office.  One does not expect to find such a thing on the way in to work, so I remarked on it, took the picture, and thought to myself: “snailing on the railing ... heheh.”

A few weeks later I took this lame piece of doggerel and turned it into a whole lame poem.  Now, understand: I believe that I’m a pretty good writer.  But that doesn’t make me a good poet ... in point of fact, I’m a mediocre poet, and even then my college poetry professor might call that bragging.  But every once in a great while I’m struck by ... something ... and I write a smaller piece, nearly always something with a definite rhyme scheme but playing fast and loose with the meter.  None of them have ever been any good, really, although I’m quite fond of the very first one of these I wrote, although my poetry professor called it “trite,” or “overblown,” or possibly both of those, or something else equally soul-crushing—my poetry professor was a bit of a dick, really, and made more than one person in the class cry, but he taught me quite a lot about what poetry really ought to be, and what it has to say, and what it needs to convey to people other than its author (i.e. to its audience).  He would often say something along the lines of “if you’re pouring out your emotions on the page, and it makes you feel better, that’s lovely, but that’s a diary, not a poem.”  He told us right at the beginning not to bring that stuff in, but people often don’t listen, so, you know: tears.  But he pushed us, and some of us actually were good poets, and I learned a hell of a lot in that class, and one of the main things I learned is that I am not a particularly good poet.

But I’m okay with that.  I don’t write poetry very often anyway.  I don’t read poetry very often either (probably those two things are connected).  The poems I like are typically not free verse: they have boundaries, even if they push them.  I like “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll, and I like “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe.  Perhaps most relevantly to the effort below, I like “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E. E. Cummings.  But perhaps before we start deconstructing my piece, we should take a look at what it looks like when it’s all constructed.  Below is the picture, and the poem.

there’s a snailing on the railing and I cannot help but think it’s a failing of the trailing having once been on the brink what one decides as he resides here—it makes me wonder more what he’s tailing unassailing what he even came here for was he unhappy? home life crappy? thought he’d see the great wide world? was he ailing? and now prevailing with his destiny unfurled? does he regret it find it fetid the universe beyond his sill p’raps he’s wailing even flailing wishes to be back there still then again heightened completely unfrightened maybe all along his goal this peak he’s scaling grit unfailing to match the soaring of his soul I wish to draw it full even if implausible to slake my yearning fancy to add more detailing than only mere surveilling or traipsing off feeling antsy because otherwise (if I may summarize) this image is just too plain and it’s merely a snailing here on the railing and that would seem a shame

This is not much changed from what I originally wrote, those 5 years ago.  I fixed a few clumsy word choices and cleaned up the meter slightly ... which is not to say that many of the word choices are not still clumsy, or that the meter is now untortured.  But it’s better than my initial off-the-cuff effort (just take my word for it).

Looking back on it somewhat critically, it seems to have some things in common with Cummings.  The lack of capitalization is the most obvious—Cummings somewhat famously played fast-and-loose with case (and punctuation), to the point where there’s still a good deal of controversy over whether his name should be rendered as “e e cummings” or not (Wikipedia says not).  There are of course varying opinions on why he did this, but I personally have always felt he wanted to challenge our preconceived notions of grammar; to make us think about why we use this or that convention, and what they really add (or don’t add) to our conversation.  I wish I could claim to be as thought-provoking, but the truth is that I find poetry really difficult to punctuate.  I nearly always know exactly what to do in prose, but the very compactness of poetry is part of why I suck at it so much.  When given a lot of words to play with, I find it easy to write, and easy to revise: the freedom to replace 5 words with 2—or with 10—gives me a lot of options, and I can play with those options and figure out the best choice.  But the nature of poetry (especially poetry with meter and/or rhyme) means that many options are automatically lost, because they just won’t fit, and you need to agonize over every word.  In fact, my poetry professor used to say exactly that: in prose, some words can ride along for free.  In poetry, every word, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has to pull its weight.  And the same goes for punctuation, but it becomes worse: not only does every punctuation mark have to have a definitive purpose, but it messes with the flow.  In prose, punctuation directs the flow.  As a prose writer, I use punctuation to tell the reader when to breathe, when to anticipate, when to pause in thought.  But poetry has line breaks, and that is its own flow.  Punctuation, it seems to me, is often fighting with the line breaks to direct the flow, and it usually loses.  Sometimes, like the work above, I just throw up my hands and toss the majority of it out altogether.  So, while I wish I were being provocative like Cummings, the truth is more like I’m just being lazy.

Well, mostly.  I’m sort of telling you to let yourself be guided by the line breaks: the lack of punctuation and capitalization is just a way to say, hang on to the flow of the individual lines, because there’s nothing else to hang on to.

The message of the piece is pretty obvious, because my poetry is not good enough to be subtle.  It’s just a brief musing on the human desire to assign meaning to things, even when they probably don’t mean much of anything.  But, more than anything, I’m just having some fun with language.  This is way more inventive with rhyme than I’m prone to; rhyming (or perhaps I should say attempting to rhyme) “implausible” with “draw it full” is way more ballsy than I normally am with poetry.  But, hey: you gotta take chances in life in order to find out what works and what doesn’t.  In this case, it probably doesn’t, but I’m glad I made the attempt in any case.

So I’m being a bit self-deprecative, obviously, but I guess I must be a little bit proud of it, or I wouldn’t have resurrected it after 5 years, and subjected it to public scrutiny here on the blog.  Or maybe I just ran out of time and didn’t have anything else to give you this week.  Either way, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Netflix Matryoshka

Another short week this week, so I don’t have much for you.  If you want a quick TV recommendation, though, how about Russian Doll, which is new on Netflix?  It’s 8 episodes, but they’re a half-hour or less, so it’s pretty quick to blast through the whole story.  I’ve seen it described as Groundhog Day meets Happy Death Day, which is a bit weird, because Happy Death Day is already Groundhog Day meets Happy Death Day.  But it’s a fairly appropos description anyway.  Another review I read of it said that it managed to be fairly original while still acknowledging all its influences (or something along those lines), and that’s not entirely inaccurate either.  Bottom line, Natasha Lyonne is awesome, her characters are always an amazing blend of completely familiar and completely insane, and this show does not fail to deliver on any of that.  It’s got excellent music, an excellent, twisty plot, it’s both funny and touching (often simultaneously), and you should totally watch it.

At least that’s my take.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Joe Hill: A Worthy Legacy

Well, I’ve talked about television for 2 of the past 3 weeks.  Let’s talk about literature for a bit.

For a while now, all the books I’ve consumed have been audiobooks.  I have a long drive to work, and it helps me keep up with all the reading I want to do.  So pretty much any newer author that I’ve been interested in checking out have been via audiobook.  One such author is Joe Hill.

Hill is actually Joseph Hillstrom King, middle child of the pinnacle of my pentagram of literary idols, Stephen King.  Although he is not the only one of the three to write novels, he is the only one to really carry forward his father’s style and traditions, and he writes large, sprawling, character-driven pieces with supernatural cores that seem to all take place in a shared universe.  While I’ll admit that I initially checked out Hill’s novels simply on the basis of his parentage, I was soon hooked on his talent.  He’s similar enough to his father that, if you’re a fan (as I am), you’ll almost certainly enjoy his writing, but not so similar that you feel like the work is a retread.  I just finished Strange Weather, which means I’ve read most of his work thus far, and I thought I’d share a bit of my perspective on them, both as novels and as audiobooks.

I’ve mostly listened to them in order of publication, which means I started with Heart-Shaped Box, which is where I first realized that here was a talent to rival my 5 literary idols.1  HSB is about the washed-up ex-singer of a heavy metal band, and it was where I started to appreciate the depth of Hill’s worlds, as so many things that at first seemed casually tossed out just for background all came together at the end, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place at the last minute.  The audiobook is read by Stephen Lang, the gravelly-voiced actor who you may think of as the “bad guy” from Avatar, but I will probably always see him as the wheelchair-bound Waldo from Into the Badlands, or maybe as the terrifying blind man who is the “victim” in Don’t Breathe.  It’s a perfect voice for this whiskey-soaked tale.

Next up was Horns, which was read by Fred Berman (a voice actor mainly known for a bunch of videogames I’ve never played).  It was also later turned into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, which I also highly recommend.  It lacks some of the depth of the novel, of course, but it’s not a bad adaption, and Radcliffe does a pretty damn good job playing Iggy Perrish, a character who spoke to me even more than those in Heart-Shaped Box.  Even better, Horns has one of those insane plots that sounds like it’s going to be completely ridiculous when you first hear it, but then becomes amazing as you start to delve into it.  I could easily see how Hill got his start in comics, because this is a comic book story if there ever was one, although still with the layers and layers of character development that you expect from a novel of this nature.  Plus it has some interesting things to say about human nature and the nature of secrets.

And then we come to NOS4A2.  See, Heart-Shaped Box was very good, and Horns was super-fun, but this book, beautifully rendered by Kate Mulgrew,2 is finally the classic you knew had to be coming.  It’s sprawling, and bounces around in time and folds back in on itself, and deals with childhood and memory and the nature of evil.  The characters are amazing and so real you swear you’ve met them before.  The action is gripping and sucks you in completely—describing it as “edge of your seat” or a “thrillride” would be cliché ... but not entirely inaccurate.  It’s too rich and detailed to make a good movie out of, but perhaps the upcoming AMC series—starring a nearly-unrecognizable Zachary Quintowill do it justice.

As I mentioned above, I just finished Strange Weather, which I suppose is Hill’s version of Different Seasons.3  As with his father’s work, this one is a set of 4 novellas loosely tied together thematically via weather, especially clouds.4  In the audibook version, each is read by a separate narrator, and they really have very little to do with each other, so let’s treat them as 4 separate books.

Snapshot is very good, and quite interesting; it’s read by Wil Wheaton, who I’ve gushed over before in the context of audiobook reader.  This was an excellent choice, and the novella is well worth it.

Loaded, on the other hand, is one of those dreary affairs where you know perfectly well what the author was going for, and why things had to happen as they did, but that doesn’t make you enjoy it any more.  The reader is once again Stephen Lang, and once again it’s an inspired choice, but it doesn’t really save the story in my opinion.  This is also the only one of Hill’s works, at least of the ones I’m familiar with, that has zero supernatural elements at all in it,5 so perhaps I’m biased.

Aloft is a bit of a weird one for me: while the characters felt very real to me, and the backstory was detailed and extensive, the plot itself felt a little light ... not much “there” there, if you catch my drift.  This alone of the novellas felt like it really should have been part of a larger work.  The reader is Dennis Boutsikaris, who you probably know from many things: ER, or *batteries not included, or, more recently, a recurring role on Better Call Saul.  He was fine, although I didn’t find him as perfect a choice as nearly all the other readers.

Finally, Rain is the clear winner.  Audiobook-wise, there’s another amazing performance from Kate Mulgrew, the characters are all insane and yet familiar, such as you might expect to find on a show like Twin Peaks or Northern Exposure, and the story is interesting, somehow inevitable and yet surprising at the same time, and the relevance to our current political situation is spot-on.  Highly recommended.

In fact, they’re all recommended, to one degree or another.  I also have The Fireman, the only other novel, already in my audiobook collection and ready to go.6  Which only leaves us with Locke & Key, his series of graphic novels,7 and 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories, and I think that’s almost his entire output thus far.  But I have to say, I’m mightily impressed with Joe Hill at this point in his career, and I’m sure that’s only going to improve over time.  I’m not quite sure I’m ready to expand my pentagram of literary idols to a hexagram, but, who knows?  Maybe someday I will.  Maybe even someday soon.


1 If you don’t recall, they are: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman (in order of my discovery of them).
2 Whom you may think of as either Captain Janeway from Voyager or Red from Orange Is the New Black: your choice.
3 Or perhaps Four Past Midnight, although I think stylistically/thematically Different Seasons is a closer analogue.
4 Although it’s closer to clouds of smoke in Loaded.
5 If we take “supernatural” to mean “beyond what we currently accept as reality.”  If you think science fiction is entirely separate from “supernatural,” then there’s a few that fall into that bucket.
6 Another Kate Mulgrew reading.  Apparently Hill really digs her.  Which I totally understand.
7 Also soon to be a series, this one on Netflix.