Friday, January 15, 2021

Fiction Friday, Jan. 15, 2021:"Help for the Haunted"

As promised, here's more about what makes a story, short or long, novella or full-length novel, "good," at least for this reader.

I found "Help for the Haunted" at Thrift Books and it sat on my "To Read" shelf for months before I finally got around to reading it. The title is great, isn't it. The cover is also great. And the blurbs on the front and back covers are great. Gillian Flynn, author of "Gone Girl," claims that it is "Dazzling...a novel both frightening and beautiful." 

But I didn't like it. It wasn't beautiful, and it didn't dazzle me. Maybe if I'd ever read "Gone Girl" or any of Gilliam Flynn's other books I would have liked this one. Maybe it's just a matter of taste.

But it seems to me that this book, while really well structured and well written, with all those descriptive elements and occasional moments of "truth," which I've mentioned in other contexts, doesn't pass the test. 

If any of my Dear Readers have read this, and liked it, please, please, please, let me know. Please correct me. Please show me the way. Because maybe I just didn't like it because of my own situation and the situations of people I know who are in some ways like the heroine/narrator of this book, so it kinda scares me and makes me back away from the story.

Because it's about a girl whose parents run a paranormal-"help-for-the-haunted" business, and the girl's sister, and some other girls who have been "helped" by these parents, and the parents of all these girls, and the religious beliefs and practices of these parents.

Like the Joanna Russ story "Souls," this one is narrated by a child, a "naif," someone who doesn't really know everything that's going on. Who are the Vikings here? And who is the Abbess? I don't know. Maybe that's why I don't like this book.

But, also, Dear Readers who have not yet read this book, I want you to know that it's good enough, it's satisfying enough, it's mysterious enough, that even though I couldn't make myself read the whole thing, I did read more than I wanted to. I just don't think this is what makes a book "good" in my strict judgment of literature. If you'd like to read it, I'll send it to you, and then I'd love to hear what you think of it. Maybe you can tell me, "You should have read the whole thing!" Or, "You're right, you would have liked it if it hadn't struck so close to home." Or, "Wow, Aunt Louise, it's probably just because your tastes have changed over the years, b/c I remember when you used to love books like that." Or, "Have you become a snob?" Or something like that. 

Let me know, okay? 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

And Still More about "Souls" and "October":

Trying to figure out why these stories so affected me. It has to do with what makes a story "good," obviously, but I'm still trying to figure that out. I've read plenty of stories that are NOT "good," and haven't quite put my finger on what the difference. So.

Here's all I can say about "Souls"---to try to explain what I mean --- just put in here some excerpts from this wonderful story. And, oh, BTW, I went ahead and ordered my own copy of the book (from Thrift Books) so I can read it again and again. Because here's another thing I read about recently: the idea of learning to write by imitating the style, down to every detail, of some piece of writing by some writer you admire. So, here are the excerpts, and then I'm going to read some more of Joanna Russ's stories.

"'Luck is luck,' said Thorvald, clenching his fists. 'It comes to some folk and not to others.'

"'As you came to  us,' said the Abbess mildly. 'Yes, yes, I see, Thorvald Einarsson; one may say that luck is Thor's doing or Odin's doing, but you must know that our bad luck is your own doing and not some god's. You are our bad luck, Thorvald Einarsson. It's true that you're not as wicked as your friends, but they kill for pleasure and you do it without feeling, as a business, he way one hews down grain. Perhaps you have seen today some of the grain you have cut. If you had a man's soul, you would not have gone viking, luck or no luck, and if  your soul were bigger still, you would have tried to stop your shipmates, just as I talk to you honestly now, despite your anger, and just as Christ Himself told the truth and was nailed on the cross. If you were a beast, you could not break God's law and if you were a man you would not, but you are neither and that makes you a kind of monster that spoils everything it touches and never knows the reason, and that is why I will never forgive you until  you become a man, a true man with a true soul. As for your friends---'"

A clue here: This story is about truth and not trivialities. 

So is the story by Neil Gaiman, "October in the Chair," which I've mentioned earlier. I've also provided a link to a graphic (illustrated in comic-book style) version of the story, which is the only way I could find it online, hoping that my readers would enjoy it. But don't bother with that version, okay? The pictures do not do it justice. 

So, why does this Gaiman story, so different from the Russ story, resonate? It's also about truth, and not trivialities. Here's an excerpt from the story that October tells, when he has his turn in the chair. See what you think:

"The Runt could not have told you when he first decided to run away, nor when his daydreams crossed the border and became plans. By the time he admitted to himself that he was leaving he had a large Tupperware container hidden beneath a plastic sheet behind the garage containing three Mars bars, two Milky Was, a bag of nuts, a small bag of licorice, a flashlight, several comics, an unopened packet of beef jerky, and thirty-seven dollars, most of it in quarters. He did not like the taste of beef jerky, but he had read that explorers had survived for weeks on nothing else, and it was when he put the packet of beef jerky into the Tupperware box and pressed the lid down with a pop that he knew he was going to have to run away."

I've chosen this excerpt because it's so full of truth, human truth, and the description of the Runt's run-away preparations is so spot-on. Yet other writers also do that thing with precise and interesting descriptions, without making me want to read on to find out what happened. And tomorrow I'm going to mention a book I read recently that is full of that kind of description and understanding of the human condition, but which did not make me want to read more....

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Jaime Herrera Beutler Gets It Right


More About "Souls," the Short Story I Mentioned Earlier

I mentioned this story in a post last week, about two stories in the book "The Locus Awards." I mention it again now because I didn't do it justice in that post, and I wrote in my list of goals for my first week in that writing group I mentioned on Monday the following: Read more of Joanna Russ. 

This story, "Souls," is one of those stories that stays with you and makes you think about it, dream about it, and read it again. The story begins, "This is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde and what happened when the Norsemen came." The narrator is a young boy when the Norsemen come a-viking to the Abbey, so he saw for himself their brutal treatment of the people, and the Abbess's saintly behavior toward the Vikings and the people of the village they raided that time.

Now, I'm re-reading the story to try to pull out some bits to let you know what is so great about this story. All I can think of is to tell you the whole story, which I can't do here. (Besides, it's way too long; more like a novella than a short story.) 

Which makes me think about what makes a story a good story. The other story that struck me in this collection, which I also mentioned in that post, is "October in the Chair," by Neil Gaiman, one of my other favorite writers of all time.

This one, I found online in a kind of graphic format which makes it seem less than it really is. I'm linking to it, here, though, because I can't find it in a PDF or document that you can download w/o being a student in some English class somewhere. "October in the Chair," a graphic version, is here. 

I loved reading the quote by Neil Gaimain on this page, though: 

It took me a little while to figure out how the story worked, and when it was done I dedicated it to Ray Bradbury, who would have written it much better than I did. -- Neil Gaiman

So, back to that question of what makes a good story a good story. I don't know. Joanna Russ knows, though, as does Neil Gaiman, as does Ray Bradbury. So I'm going to re-read her story, "Souls," and then, as I pledged to do when I set goals for this week, I'm going to read some more of her writing, and see if I can figure it out.

And I'm going to cut myself some slack, reading that Neil Gaiman had to figure out how his own story worked before he could finish it.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Weird Words for This Week: From Shakespeare

Oh my goodness. I've got to tell you about the greatest book on Shakespeare I've ever found. It was at the famous Barnes & Noble bookstore in Vancouver, Washington, on the Three-Dollar shelf. It cost five dollars, but that's okay: I realize books get taken off shelves and then put back randomly all the time, and how could I complain that this book cost five dollars instead of three. No way.

So then, when I got it home and really looked at it, I loved it for more than the price. "The Shakespeare Companion" has a foreword written by Dame Judi Dench. See what I mean? Yeah. That's what I'm talkin' about. 

Anyway, enough weak attempts at humor. Here's what I really liked about the book (because, you know, I read Dame Judi Dench's foreword, and it was just fine, but not worth the extra two dollars): It gives all the information about Shakespeare's plays (and sonnets and other poems) that you were too bored and immature to care about when your high school English teacher was trying to get you excited about the guy. 

Also, your college "Shakespeare's Plays" professor. Oh, he tried, and he tried, and he tried. But all I remember about Macbeth, for instance, is the whole "Scottish play" thing, and the witches, and Lady Macbeth, who reminded me of a lady I used to babysit for when I was in high school. Okay, so that was three things. But you get my drift, right?

Anyway, here I'm starting to get to my point. Some weird words from Shakespeare, which I also didn't pay attention to, in high school or college. I mean, why would I? Pretty much all the words in Shakespeare seemed weird to me. But here's what I'm talkin' about:

Quince, the carpenter, gets his name from "quines," or blocks of wood.

Snug, the joiner, gets his name from how "close-fitting" or snug he has to make the joints.

Flute, the bellows-mender, of course, has to do with the wind, or the blowing. of flutes and bellows.

Bottom, the weaver, gets his name from the "bottom" or core of the skein upon which the weaver's yarn was wound.

So, there you have them. And, now, for a bonus, for reading through this, the trailer for the National Theatre's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which I watched over and over and over again when it was streaming live on TV, and if they ever, ever, ever put it out on DVD, I will buy it and watch it over and over and over again, again:

And here's a clip from the performance, with Bottom leading the Mechanicals, getting some audience participation, and a selfie that the owner of that cell phone will treasure, I'm sure: 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Atmospheric River to Drench Pacific Northwest

And now, this: An "atmospheric river" is coming to drench us. And I've already been seeing posts by some of my FB friends showing the ferocious high tides along with the rain. So, a good week NOT to drive over to the coast. Check out the map, and the explanation below.

Atmospheric rivers are sorted on a 1 through 5 scale, with 5 being the most significant. The coming atmospheric river is anticipated to peak at level 4 or “extreme” status. Events this intense are considered “mostly hazardous” due to their flood potential, “but also beneficial” due to their contributions to the water supply, according to the Center for Western Water and Weather Extremes, which devised the scale...

The National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center, which specializes in precipitation forecasts, has already drawn a level 3 out of 4 “moderate risk” of flooding into the forecast for the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday. That bull’s eye includes Highway 101 between the Siuslaw National Forest and Cannon Beach. That is where the core of the “strong to extreme” atmospheric river will be pointed, resulting in the highest rainfall rates. 

Precipitation in “the Northwest Oregon Coastal Range has been running about 150 to 300 percent of normal,” writes the Weather Prediction Center, stating that very high runoff rates are likely. That will “result in rapid-rises along streams and flooding along large main-stem rivers. Additionally, mud/rock slides are possible.”

Memoir Monday, Jan. 11, 2021: How to Write a Poem

First, I must establish that I do not know how to write a poem. Every once in awhile, I've written a poem, but it wasn't by following some technique that someone taught me. Also, I have taken some poetry-writing classes and have even earned a certificate of mastery in the poetry section of a writing school in Portland, Oregon. 

And I did learn some things there. But how to write a poem? No clue.

So, then, you may ask, why the pompous and misleading title of this post, "How to Write a Poem"?

Oh, I don't know. I had to come up with something for a post, and a title, and I've been thinking about this a lot, because I've signed up for yet another writing group where I listed as one of my goals for this week "Write a poem a day." Because, I always say, if you're going to set a goal, make it good and hard and higher than you think you can reach, else why even try?

So far, I've been doing okay. Okay, if you think that writing a list of rhyming or metrically even words is a "poem." Okay, if you tell yourself the goal wasn't to write a complete and perfect and publishable poem every single day of the week. So, okay. 

Good thing about an almost impossible goal is that it makes you think about whatever the goal is, which in this case, is...poetry. Because this goal has got me to thinking (again) about what I could possibly write a poem about. 

Look around, I tell myself. What? A pepper shaker? An ode to a bathroom scale? Nah, that's already been done. Not necessarily the bathroom scale, but one's socks, (Pablo Neruda: Ode to My Socks), for example. Or any of the odes he wrote, which range from brilliant to cute to...dare I say it?...poetic. But no way am I going to imitate him. 

Go outside and see some beautiful thing. Already done, too. See every single bloomin' American poet except the Beats, which reminds me: 

Go anywhere and write about some un-beautiful thing. 

Or: roam around in your own pathetic little head and moan about how miserable you are. Already done, too. 

Obviously you can still write something new in any of these fields, as long as it's poetic, whatever that means. So here's one thing I heard in one of my poetry classes, and it made me sick and cynical and disillusioned: Think of something you want to write about, and then think of all the weird synonyms and bizarre connections you can, and put those in. That's poetry? I wanted to shout to this guy. I didn't; instead, I read some of his poems, and I realized that that was HIS "How to Write a Poem," and I was wasting my time in his class. 

How to Write a Poem? Still working on it.