Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mocking the Devil

"Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell – though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express – no square inch of internal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end...The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end...

"In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede. I am accordingly dictating the rest to my secretary."

What makes C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters relevant, despite its World War II background, is that it addresses temptations that are still very present in our society. Told in a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, Lewis depicts humanity's faults, and conversely, humanity's best qualities. In each letter, Screwtape points out our weaknesses, and elaborates how Wormwood can exploit those weaknesses to capture our souls.

What is timeless about this piece is that these same weaknesses exist in us today. Lewis comments in the forward that he simply looked at his own temptations and shortfalls for inspiration.

What prevents this book from being preachy is that it criticizes all poor human behavior, especially those of overly pious Christians. Included in my book was "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," a speech given to a graduating class of demons that concludes with Screwtape raising a glass of Pharisee. This wine is composed of self-righteous humans who practiced a religion of hate rather than what Christ really taught.

What really makes this book stand out is Lewis' perspective on demons. Rather than black batlike creatures, they are like businessmen sitting in bureaucratic offices, calmly and coldly coming up with ways to capture us. They aren't part of some diabolical pursuit of evil like a cartoon villain, but they want our souls as a sort of food. Their demon bodies are constantly hungry, greedy for more to devour. And while there is a lot of humor in this book, it's a dark sort of humor. After you laugh, you pause to think about the truth of what Lewis has written, and shudder a little.

But it is important to laugh. Nothing loses power faster than after it has become a joke. Two quotes Lewis provides at the beginning sum this up better than I ever could. The first is from Luther: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to text of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." The second, from Thomas More, is slightly more succinct: "The devil...that prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked."

A closing note: Walden Media is supposedly adapting the book for the screen. I'm not sure how this would work without adding a whole other storyline around the human Wormwood is tempting, but it could be interesting to see.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Repetitively Redundant

"'...the shooting will happen so fast and be over so quick that you'll wonder what all the planning and palaver was for, when in the end it always comes down to the same five minutes' worth of blood, pain, and stupidity.' He paused, then said: 'I always feel sick afterward.'"

I would say that quote sums up Stephen King's fifth Dark Tower book Wolves of the Calla, but that would be too harsh. I never feel sick after reading his books.

However, I do wonder what all the planning and palaver (important conversation) was for. In my Wizard and Glass review I mentioned that much of the book was flashbacks, and that King is attempting to tie all his works together. Wolves of the Calla is the same way, but I'm afraid that all the flaws of Wizard are more pronounced in Wolves.

Without giving away too much, King brings back Father Callahan, the priest who mysteriously vanishes at the end of 'Salem's Lot. A lot of Wolves is Callahan recounting what happened to him after he left 'Salem's Lot, all the while Roland twirling his fingers in a "hurry up and get to the point" fashion. I found myself twirling my fingers in much the same way.

See, Wolves is set against a town where most of the children are twins, and where monsters known as Wolves show up every so many years and take one child out of every pair of twins. The children are returned later, mentally and physically ruined and doomed to a short life. Roland and his ka-tet are meant to fight the Wolves in a Knights of the Roundtable meets Western sort of way, but this makes up very little of the actual story, and it shows. This part of the tale is filled with undeveloped characters and painfully obvious and simple plots.

But man oh man did I love finding out what happened to Callahan! The only annoying part (besides it having relatively little to do with the book) was Roland's constant finger twirling. Stephen King repeated it so many times. He repeated it so many times. He repeated it so many times.

Added to that, the number 19 or 99 or 1999 gets used to death as well.

A final criticism: tying everything together. King is starting to tie together not only his own works, but Harry Potter, Marvel Comics, and Star Wars. I've often said that King could write about a killer stapler that could talk and it would convince me, but there are moments in Wolves that are stretching it, even for King's great talents. I can cut him a little slack, though, because this idea fit into my own philosophy about writing. In On Writing, King compared writing to digging for fossils. A large part of me has always believed that what is written, by King, or myself, or other writers, is true is some strange sense. An alternate world? I don't know. But there are stories that are always there, waiting for us to find them.

Despite this book's flaw, I want to read the rest of the series. I want to know what happens to Roland and his ka-tet, and I want to see the connections that King will make. He's managed to write a book with a thin plot and a LOT of exposition that kept me interested the whole time.

I don't know how he does it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My prejudice towards Jane Austen

You can't judge a book by its cover, or by the first few hundred pages in the case of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

I had this book sitting out at the studio I work for, and one of our actors stopped by, picked it up, and asked aloud, "All right, which one of you is being forced to read this for school?" I admitted that I was reading the book. Not only that, but I graduated two years ago and decided to read Pride and Prejudice for the fun of it.

Why? he asked. Because, I replied, I wanted to give Jane Austen a chance. I wanted to see what the big deal was, why women love her books so much. So here's the question, did I get lured into her romantic tales of middle class England?

Nope. Reading the first hundred or more pages of Pride and Prejudice left me wondering why women found this romantic? Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth barely play a role in the first two parts of the novel. Instead, we're subjected to a plot revolving around Elizabeth's older sister Jane and a failed marriage proposal. We get glimpses of Darcy and Elizabeth, and they are totally uninteresting as characters. Minor characters like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine are funnier and more interesting. They stand out as characters with personalities, often comical in nature.

And man, I can't believe how boring most of Pride and Prejudice is. Oh, I know, I'm a guy, of course I think love stories are boring. But nothing happens for chapters at a time! I kid you not, I read a whole chapter that involved the characters taking a nap and reading. While I understand this is a representation of life back then, the story could use a little more trimming to get to the point.

Add to that the fact that Jane Austen doesn't write dialog. She'll write the first two lines of dialog exchanged between characters, and then follows it with a summary of what those characters talk about. I don't want to read a summary; I want to read the actual conversation. As Alice says in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?"

All this was true until I came to Part III of the book, and this is where it suddenly picks up with unbelievable speed. Elizabeth's little sister Lydia (another interesting, but minor character) runs off with a hooligan and the father trying to hunt her down and the family is on the brink of embarrassment. Mr. Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth come out, and both of them start having real emotions and turmoil and drama. Added to that, there is a real conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that is dramatic and well written. It's the only real conversation in the whole book.

In otherwords, Part III almost makes up for the slow and dry Parts I and II. Reading Pride and Prejudice is sort of like Elizabeth meeting Mr. Darcy. At first, you get one impression that isn't terribly flattering: it is uninteresting, incomplete, and more often than not, irritating. Then in the final third you get a revelation that makes you fall in love. Well, I'm exaggerating, but my point is that it took me weeks to read Parts I and II and a day or so to read Part III because I couldn't put it down.

If only Jane Austen had chopped down the first two thirds of the book, or at least given them the same flair as the final chapters.

Maybe the movie is better. I'll have to check it out.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Retelling Mythology

"Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade."

I first became aware of C.S. Lewis in fourth grade in Mrs. Hendershot's class when we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After that, Narnia became a big part of my life. That class was when I first began to identify myself as a writer.

I read Till We Have Faces a few years ago, and out of all of the works of Lewis' I've read (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy), this is one of my favorites and, I think, his best work.

Till We Have Faces tells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's older sister Orual. Orual presents her case against the gods who have, in her eyes, taken away the only person she has ever loved. The story is split into two parts, the first Orual's case against the gods, and the second their response.

When I read this book the first time, I couldn't put it down. Orual's voice sucks you into the story, and the changes C.S. Lewis makes to the myth are brilliant. Everything was great until I got to the second half of the book, and Orual faces the gods.

See, I had read reviews of the book online, which praised Lewis for the way the title of the novel surfaces in the story, and the revelation the book makes. When I got to that part, I thought it was clever, but I wasn't impacted by it. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when I was in a Bible study, and explained the meaning of the title, that it finally hit me. As I spoke, I realized exactly what the second half of the book was saying, and was blown away. I had to explain it in order to understand it.

I reread this book because I am working on my Eros script, and it's definitely given me ideas for the script. Rereading it I caught a lot of tiny hints and nuances I missed the first time, and it made the conclusion a lot stronger. Till We Have Faces is filled with wisdom, witty metaphors and language, and love.

Orual says that when writing this story, she was with story as with child. I feel that C.S. Lewis is probably speaking about himself in that statement. This book feels like a child, beautiful and newborn and lovable.

Till We Have Faces was dedicated to C.S. Lewis' wife Joy Davidman.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Doing the research

Research fascinates me, but I'm usually too lazy to do it when it comes to my writing. In attempt to retool my script Eros, I've decided to study the source material of the Eros and Psyche story, rather than just trust summaries written online. Mythology is often presented in summaries, and this takes away the artistic side of these wonderful stories. Mythology is meant to inspire paintings and poetry.

So I read the poem Psyche; or, The Legend of Love by Mary Tighe. This poem was written in 1805. It's pretty difficult to get a print copy, and I found a few out of print copies for a significant chunk of change on Amazon.

Thankfully, I discovered Project Gutenberg, an online database of over 30,000 books. The idea behind Project Gutenberg is to preserve literature in a digital format so that it can be available to future generations. I was able to easily access Tighe's poem. Without Gutenberg, this would have been near impossible.

Tighe's poem starts off following the tradition Eros and Psyche story as laid out in The Golden Ass, but after Psyche is separated from Eros, Tighe goes in her own direction. Psyche embarks on an adventure, guarded by a knight in shinning armor who rides a lion. There are quite a few genuinely beautiful lines by Tighe, and the poem is very romantic. Of course the ending is just what we're hoping with (SLIGHT SPOILER HERE) the identity of the knight (SPOILER ENDS).

As far as research goes, this piece was helpful because Tighe uses Aphrodite as the antagonist, which is what my script does. Very pretty poem, though the rhyme structure breaks down in a couple of spots. With more time I'd like to examine those spots and see if there's any significance to those moments. Usually when a poet writes in such a strict structure, any so-called mistakes are on purpose and have an underlying meaning.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

We're off to see the Wizard...

Not only does every story Stephen King has written seem to tie into the Dark Tower series, but even L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz seems to be a part of the tale.

There's no use explaining it here in a blog, you'll just have to read the books to get what I'm talking about. King pulls it off, but of course that's what makes King so good: the fact that he can pull it off. He is one of those writers who could put a passage in a book where a grown man and a pencil engage in a frightening conversation where the pencil threatens to kill the man's wife, and it would be completely believable. That's talent.

Wizard and Glass, the fourth novel of King's Dark Tower series, is really two books. The beginning continues the adventures of Roland and his ka-tet (group joined by destiny), but soon the novel goes into a lengthy flashback about Roland's true love and what happened to her oh so many years ago. This flashback comprises most of the novel's 700 pages. Due to it's length, this book took me a little while to read, and there were times where I had forgotten the first 30 or so pages about what happened with the ka-tet and Blaine the Mono. In fact, I got confused and started thinking that was a part of the third book.

Either way, the book is mostly good. Part of me was hoping for a big western shoot-out in the flashback between Roland and his old ka-tet and a group of wannabe gunslingers who call themselves the Big Coffin Hunters. What we get isn't bad, but since these books are fantasy and western, I really wanted that shootout in the streets.

I'm also not sure I was as moved by Roland and Susan's tragedy as I was supposed to be, but I got the idea. Either way, this book kept me entertained the whole time, and I long to see the other ways the series connects to King's other writings, and possibly to the writings of other authors.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On King's On Writing

"When a simile or a metaphor doesn't work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. Recently I read this sentence in a forthcoming novel I prefer not to name: 'He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.' If there is a clarifying connection here, I wasn't able to make it. I consequently closed the book without reading further. If a writer knows what he or she is doing, I'll go along for the ride. If he or she doesn't...well, I'm in my fifties now, and there are a lot of books out there. I don't have time to waste with the poorly written ones."

Stephen King's On Writing is just as the cover states: "A memoir of the craft." I became a fan of King's writing in college, when I read a paperback copy of Carrie, which to this day is still my favorite of his books. On Writing is a tip book for emerging writers. King gives insight into the writing world by giving insight into his writing world. But, how else could anyone talk about writing?

King talks of writing as an art and as a job, a 9-5er complete with a toolbox full of all the necessary style instruments. He begins the book with a 98 page bio, where he shows us how writing has woven itself into his life so completely that without it he could not be whole. The final section of the book, detailing his accident in 1999 when he was struck by a careless driver and nearly killed, reiterates this idea of life and writing tied together.

King describes writing as telepathy, magic, but most memorably to me as digging for a fossil. There's something already there, and we have to use the right tools to uncover it. A fossil indicates a suggestion of another world, a suggestion of story. I agree with King that writing is an act of discovering something already there, though I would argue on the detail of whether one is discovering a fossil or something more whole as in a woolly mammoth frozen in an ice block.

On Writing is touching, very funny, and very informative. If you're super stuffy, and refuse to acknowledge that King is truly a great writer, then you might see it as trash. But the truth of the matter is that no matter his subject matter, King is a writer. To quote Roger Ebert: "A lot of people were outraged that he (King) was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery." Author Cynthia Ozick said of King: "It dawned on me as I listened to him that, never mind all the best sellers and all the stereotypes - this man is a genuine, true-born writer, and that was a revelation." Who can argue with a man when his advice to writers is to read a lot and write a lot?

On that same note, I recommend this book to anyone who loves to write, or to anyone who loves to read. Finally, to give you an idea of the tone of On Writing, I leave you with this clip of Stephen King giving advice to beginning writers at Yale.

Monday, June 15, 2009

More Than an Adventure Story

The King returns to his home, only to find it is a wasteland, devoured by pretenders who drain his wealth and torment his family. With the aid of the gods, he fights and defeats them, and brings peace and unity to his kingdom.

This theme is so common I could be talking about countless stories, including such classic tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, or JRR Tolkien's The Return of the King. But long before those books, there was The Odyssey.

I came to this book looking for adventure, and it did not disappoint. However, what I thought I knew about The Odyssey, from a version I'd seen in school to the adaptation NBC and Hallmark did to the Coen brothers's fantastic film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was slightly off. The tale of Odysseus' struggle to reach home has a lot more to do with a lost life, the pain of mother and son as they grieve for their absent husband and father, and the struggle to take back what is rightfully yours. Very little of the story has to do with adventure on the high seas, and Homer places this right in the middle of the tale as a short but sweet intermission of sorts.

The Greeks would have been familiar with this aspect; they might not have been so in tune with the story of Penelope, who stayed virtuous until the end, or Telemachus who took a journey of his own in the quest to find his father. This is what Homer gives us in The Odyssey. The story is driven by the inner drama of Odysseus and his family, and there is a noticeable similarity in storytelling to The Iliad, also a story more about inner conflict than about war.

There is a great passage towards the end of the book, on the eve before Odysseus whoops some butt (so to speak). For twenty years, suitors have been harassing Penelope to pick a new husband, all the while eating all of Odysseus' food and drinking all of his wine. They are guests who have overstayed their welcome. As they prepare for another night of feasting at someone else's expense, stuffing their face with butchered pigs, they are completely unaware that they'll be dead by the following evening. Theocymenos, able to see the future, tries to warn them. Perhaps the gods wanted to give them one last chance:

"Their plates were messed with blood, tears streamed from their eyes, their minds foreboded mourning: Theoclymenos the seer cried aloud:

"Ah, miserable creatures, what is happening to you? Night is wrapt about your heads and your faces and your bodies down to the knees, there is a blaze of lamentation, tears roll down your cheeks, walls and panelings are bedabbled with blood; the porch is full of phantoms, the courtyard is full of phantoms, hurrying down to Erebos and the dark; the sun has perished out of the sky, and a thick fog spreads over all."

When I read this section, it sent chills down my spine. I saw these men in bloodstained clothes, laughing, making crude jokes, food and grease everywhere, blood and wine running from the corners of their mouths. They're warned of what's about to happen but they are having too much fun to believe the warning. They are animals, and they are savages, yet they are pitiable for how savage they have become.

As I said, I came to The Odyssey with expectations of a a fantasy adventure, but Homer delivers a lot more. He serves up a tale of a man never without a plan, a son who learns to be brave, and a wife who is the most loving and devoted woman any man could hope to marry.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Your body of knowledge seems slightly anemic...

My friend lent me a book she had just finished, called Body of Knowledge by Bryce W. Anderson. She wasn't sure how to take the book, and she wanted my opinion. I started it on Sunday, and finished it on Wednesday. It was a fast read! But sometimes that isn't a good thing...

Anderson tells us a fictional tale of a man (named, oddly enough, Bryce W. Anderson) who forms a friendship with his neighbor who has just moved in across the street. This neighbor, JP is his name, reveals to the narrator that he is an important historical figure who never died. I won't tell you any further details about the plot. I will say that the book gives us this fascinating premise, but not much more.

Slightly over 200 pages long, the book is composed of 46 chapters, meaning that each chapter is little over four pages long. For me, this was a big problem because each chapter is basically an encounter between Anderson and JP, and the encounters seem short and trivial.

Speaking of trivia, the book is full of it. JP bestows many fascinating facts on Anderson, and he grows as a human as a result. Or at least we're told he does. See, the problem is that we're told much more than we're shown. We don't really experience Anderson's growth, we just have to take his word for it. And the fascinating facts aren't nearly as fascinating as they purport to be.

Body of Knowledge is along the lines of the film Tuesdays with Morrie (and I'm assuming the book, though I haven't read it) or Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell in the television series The Power of Myth and subsequent book, but it doesn't have the power of either of those works. JP's character traits aren't strong enough to make him lovable like Jack Lemmon's portrayal of Morrie. Added to that, JP's so-called wisdom isn't as profound as it aims to be.

The book is composed of mini-conversations, which Anderson likens to threads. These tiny segments of knowledge could have made up for the lack of characters and descriptions, but they weren't strong enough. When Bill Moyers interviewed expert in mythology Joseph Campbell a few decades ago, Campbell talked about everything from human desire to life to death to heroism. That series is so fascinating because Campbell had so much wisdom and knowledge to share. JP, who has had 2000 years to accumulate knowledge, seems to have nothing but menial trivia, the same sort of trivia I've picked up in high school and college.

So at the end of the book I wasn't moved over the loss of JP the way I was when Morrie dies at the end of the film, or by the fact that Campbell passed away after his interviews, because JP's character wasn't particularly original and somewhat two-dimensional, and his wisdom wasn't very deep. Even if Bryce had experienced some sort of conflict in his life, and JP helped him (or failed to help him) that would have added something to the book. But nothing happens, and so the book is not very extraordinary.

I recommend watching The Power of Myth, or even buying the book, which is essentially a transcript of the conversations. The information contained in that work is amazing, and Campbell was a brilliant man.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The People Versus Strunk and White

"Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised."
- "An Approach to Style" in The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style
by Strunk and White has been on the list of suggested reading in many of my previous college classes. I avoided purchasing the book for as long as I could because I felt that I was a strong enough writer. My understanding of grammar and the English language is good enough to get an A on an essay without trying too hard.

In my final English class at GVSU, the teacher not only required that we read Strunk and White, but she tested us on sections of the book. A couple of years later, I decided to sit down and read the book all the way through, covering about a chapter a night. I'm not sure if anyone has ever read Elements of Style straight through, since I think it's meant to be a reference book.

Let me say that the book exists on a strange, somewhat useless plane. The rules presented are aimed for the more grammatically inept, but the explanations and the demands are really aimed towards stronger writers. Who is this book supposed to appeal to? By the way, according to Strunk and White, it has become more acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, and often rearranging a sentence will just make it sound awkward: "To whom is this book supposed to appeal?"

This book has been criticized by those in the academic world as being out of touch and too stiff-necked, but I disagree. Strunk, or White, who knows, makes a few amusing jokes by breaking his own rules. While memorizing and living by a book like this would probably be fatal to any creative writing, I think knowing the rules is a key step to breaking them. Too many writers break rules willy nilly in an attempt to be unique or clever, and invariably they come off sounding like idiots. Learning the rules of proper grammar will help a great writer learn when it is okay, and even needed, to break them. Probably one of the greatest rules in the book is Rule 17: Omit Needless Words.

For me, the highlight of this book was the last chapter "An Approach to Style." Here Strunk (or was it White?) demonstrates that he can write, and shows us, to the best of his ability, what writing style is. He concedes that style can't really be taught, but he makes up for this by exposing us to his own style. The book is worth buying just for this chapter. I leave you with another excerpt, taken from Suggestion 9 in this wonderful chapter:

"The volume of writing is enormous these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of genereal interest and that unihibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Odyssey through Literature

Could you imagine being a part of a journey so astounding, so memorable, that your name would forever be associated with adventure? The story of Odysseus as told to us by Homer is a hero story that has it all: monsters, wars, murder, treachery, miracles, love, sex, and a hero that is "never without a loss." This work is so important, its impact so profound, that it has become acceptable to call any great journey an Odyssey.

OK, so I like this book. I'm not particularly fond of the translation I have by W.H.D. Rouse (not the translation pictured here). I first read this book back in Middle School, but we read a version called Ulysses which was the basic story simplified with a focus on the adventure part and less on the Telemachus and revenge parts. When I sat down to read the Odyssey, I discovered that the adventure section with the Cyclops and Sirens, Calypso and Circe, was barely a third of the book. I'll admit that I read that third, placed at the center of the story, the fastest, and am still cruising through the last 100 pages or so of the book. But the story is still great. Homer makes Odysseus a likable character, and despite his liaisons with a few immortal women, we can tell that Odysseus truly misses his wife and longs to see her again.

Before this book, I read The Wastelands by Stephen King, which is part of his Dark Tower series. I've been interspersing the Dark Tower with more classic works, to make myself feel better King. Although, I think King doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for being a decent writer, not just a decent horror writer. No matter what his critics may say about his subject material, he has literary skill.

I read the Iliad before that, and that was a difficult book for me to get through. Again, I think that might have had a lot to do with the translation. Whereas my version of the Odyssey is written in way too simple language, the version of the Iliad I read was too stuffy. I get the significance of the story, the fact that Hector is really the character we feel sorry for, and Achilles is pretty self-centered until the end. I also appreciate the way Homer examines the gods in the Iliad, showing them as petty and irresponsible. Homer shows us what makes a man a hero. I think a different translation would have sat with me better.