Friday, June 28, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Hollywood by Gore Vidal

Okay, so I'm throwing my hat in the ring for the Cephalopod Coffeehouse Book Club with my review of Gore Vidal's historical novel Hollywood. And boy, did I pick a doozy!

You see, I have this thing for historical novels, a real love for the way an author can weave history into a fascinating tale, using names and places from so long ago. Unfortunately for any poor soul wishing to read this "novel" way too many names of people you probably haven't even heard of get thrown into the mix. In the end, this "novel" reads like nothing more than a history book that I would've been forced to read in high school.

Oh, where to start! I guess I'll start with how many names get dropped throughout the novel, most of them occurring within the first hundred pages. Sure, there are names that are easily recognizable, like Woodrow Wilson, W.G. Harding, the Roosevelts, and so on. But then there are many many other obscure names muddying the storytelling. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure who to follow, who held the most importance in this wordy storyline. I'm going to say three people pop out because they are followed the closest when it comes to POV: Jess, Caroline, and Burden.

Next up is the fact that the book is called Hollywood, but it takes over a hundred pages to even get to Hollywood. Vidal spends more time mucking through the halls of Congress and the White House than he ever spends on the vivid transformation taking place on the West Coast. More than anything, I found this to be completely frustrating. I picked out the book because the main focus described would be Hollywood and those early golden years when everything in the film business was beginning to take shape. Instead of a larger view of what was taking place out in California, Vidal focuses on Caroline's character, how she gets roped into making "photo-plays", and then we're right back in Washington D.C. listening to the banal history concerning Wilson and WWI. If you have no interest in Wilson's WWI policies or all the names getting dropped for the 1920 presidential election, then I suggest you find your historical novel fix elsewhere.

Vidal's writing just gets tedious. I'd always wanted to read one of his novels, but now I feel like I'm kicking myself over having chosen this book. History is important, but when a storyteller can't create a story beyond historical facts then he's only going to lose his audience. In the end, this is how I felt every time I picked up to read  Hollywood:

Yep, it was that boring!
Make sure to check out other reviewers takes on their chosen books this week!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

“An All-Out Assault Against Imagination”

According to one reviewer, we writers and readers should be pretty worried about science. Science, "freed at last from the limits imposed by religion, ... has extended its ambitions beyond the debunking of Christian dogma," says Curtis White, in his new book "The Science Delusion." Science "has now turned its attention to another old competitor, the secular world of the humanities and the arts.” As science explains more and more, White suggests, the arts will have less and less to offer.

The arts? That's us! Oh noes! According to White, science is actively fighting with literature and other forms of high culture over the territory of human understanding. And science is winning: it is reducing humans to mere machines. When that happens, when science finally wins and convinces everyone they are merely a bunch of atoms, there will be no place for art.

So why am I not feeling threatened? Maybe because I was raised in a highly-scientific community by a scientist, and eventually I married a scientist. I've been bathed in science since I was born, and I've never felt science has subtracted from my imagination. If anything, it's aided it. Science raises far more questions than it answers, and continuously shows us how much bigger the universe is than we ever imagined. Not just the macro-universe, either, but the micro-universe: if you turn the scopes inward, you can delve down deeper and deeper. Organs, neurons, molecules, atoms. None of this has to be reductive, either: if we get bored with the cosmos or quantum fields, we can turn our attention to emergence: the way complex systems spontaneously arise from "mere parts." For the mystery-minded, emergence offers plenty: how does an ant colony work? How do all those neurons in the brain form a mind? I feel no lack of wonder and curiosity even when I restrict myself to pure science, but of course I don't restrict myself that way. I indulge in the arts as much as the sciences, and don't feel I'm betraying either when I do.

Another reviewer, Mark O'Connell, sympathetic to White's position, says this: "The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it." Perhaps the issue here is that a few spokespeople have said a few things that are taken as The Word of Science, rather than the opinions of a few men. But it may also be that these opinions are being misunderstood: I've read Dawkins and Dennett, and I'm not seeing the attack on art or imagination. I do see an attempt to replace superstition with reason and evidence — to me, this is not the same as killing human wonder. How can it be, when a dozen inquiries open up for each question answered?

Clearly, though, some people do feel threatened by science. And it's not just theists, it's increasingly people like White: liberal, secular, and Romantic. That's "Romantic" as opposed to "Enlightenment," not as in flowers and candlelit dinners. Maybe White's book is just a continuation of that old debate. Romantic thinkers, like Rousseau and Whitman, tended to focus on the emotions, especially those of terror and awe; they deified raw nature; they embraced mysticism. If you like Edgar Allen Poe, Kerouac's On The Road, and and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you may have Romantic sensibilities. Romantics also tend to be nostalgic, looking back to the past for how things should be. Enlightenment thinkers, like the founding fathers of the US, are forward-looking: science and reason should replace superstition. They are humanists, valuing the products and potential of humans; Romantics tend to be suspicious of humanity, feeling somehow that humans aren't really natural and fit less into the world the more they "progress."

O'Connoll, like White, thinks we need "a return to the spirit of Romanticism, to an intellectual culture that looks to poets and philosophers and artists, rather than scientists, for insight into what used to be called 'the human condition.'" What I don't understand is the dichotomy: it's not either-or. All those things White feels are on the verge of being lost — mystery, wonder, curiosity, imagination — are still there, ready to be plumbed by scientists, philosophers, and artists alike. We can all work together, it's not a zero-sum game.

So: artists & writers out there: do you feel scientific progress is threatening your livelihood? Or is this a war happening in White's admittedly vivid imagination?

Cat's Eye Nebula

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Real Scarlett

It’s always inspiring to learn about the lives of famous writers and how their books came to be. When I heard the name Margaret Mitchell, I always pictured the author of Gone with the Wind sitting by her typewriter—proper and collected—while she threw a confident smile at the camera. But this was the textbook version of her.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit her Atlanta home, where she penned her famous novel. Was I in for a big surprise! It turns out Peggy was closer to Scarlett, her famous creation, than the refined black & white portrait that circulates around the web.

Margaret in her dancing days
Did you know that…?

1. Peggy was a flapper. Growing up in the 1920’s, she often visited speakeasies until the late hours of the night. In fact, her second husband John Marsh (more about him later) first spotted her dancing on a table.

2. Peggy was a proficient dancer and horrified the Atlanta society—including her own grandmother—when she kissed a dance partner during a performance.

3. Her first love was a young army lieutenant who died during World War I,  much like Charles Hamilton, Scarlett’s first husband. Whereas Margaret was devastated by her loss and allegedly never fully recovered from it, her heroine Scarlett couldn’t find a more convenient way to get close to her beloved Ashley than widowhood.

4. Peggy married the wrong man. Much like the famous Scarlett, Peggy knew she was making a mistake when she said “I do” to fiancé  Berrien “Red” Upshaw and her true love (John) was standing by Red’s side—as his best man.

5. Against all traditions, she carried a bouquet of red roses to the altar (back when brides were expected to only carry white flowers) in honor of her husband-to-be (“Red”).

6. Like Rhett Butler in GWTW, Peggy’s first husband “Red” was a bootlegger.

7. Like Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, Peggy’s second husband John was an intellectual.

8. Peggy continued to horrify Atlanta society by divorcing Red after a year and a half of marriage and later on, getting a job as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine.

An early photo of Margaret Mitchell during her reporter days surrounded by
a group of Georgia Tech students. Who does this remind you of?

9. After marrying John Marsh, she suffered an ankle injury and spent her days at home reading books from the library. Tired of stopping by the library every day, John brought her a typewriter and suggested that she wrote her own novel.

10. Accustomed to writing as a reporter, Peggy started her famous novel by penning the last chapter first and then building up the story in disorder.

11. It took her nine years to finish Gone with the Wind (originally titled Tomorrow is Another Day) and according to the tour guide at the Peachtree Street house, she wrote the first chapter 60 times!

12. In the original version, Scarlett’s name was Pansy O’Hara.

13. When Peggy met an editor from Macmillan, who went to Atlanta to scout Southern writers, she denied she’d written a novel. She eventually changed her mind and brought him the manuscript.

When Margaret had visitors, she covered her manuscript with a towel.

14. Living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment suited her fine since she didn’t like overnight guests.

15. She never wrote another novel as she said that being the author of Gone with the Wind was a full time job. However, in 1994 an early manuscript she’d written for a teenage boyfriend was discovered and published.

16. She was hit by a drunk driver a few blocks from her house and died at age 48. Here is her obituary.

In examining her life, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the writing life then and now. Imagine what it would be like to type a 400,000-word manuscript (and subsequent revisions) without the help of a computer and its handy friends Copy, Paste and Delete? Or to have the opportunity to go see an editor in person and hand him your manuscript? In some ways things might have been easier then (less competition to publish) but would you take that over the convenience of a word processor/internet? How much of yourself do you put in your characters?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Reading Rainbow Was Right!

LeVar Burton workin' the cheese factor!

Butterfly in the sky
I can go twice as high
Take a look
It's in a book
A Reading Rainbow

I can go anywhere
Friends to know
And ways to grow
A Reading Rainbow

I can be anything
Take a look
It's in a book
A Reading Rainbow
A Reading Rainbow

I'm going to admit something that may shock and bewilder some of you:  I loved Reading Rainbow when I was a kid!

Oh, yes! I hung out with the Captain!
I know this might bewilder some of you because, when looking back on it now, there really was quite the cheese factor going on with those shows and LeVar Burton's overly bright smile. And some of you might be too young to even know what the hell I'm even talking about when it comes to Reading Rainbow. I grew up in a time and place where not one kid I went to school with had cable or could afford one of those giant satellite dishes in the 80s. To add insult to injury, our t.v. couldn't even get FOX on the tuner either, so we were stuck with the three local channels and PBS. I grew to love PBS. I also grew to love shows like 3-2-1 Contact, Captain Kangaroo (cue laughter), and Reading Rainbow. Oh, and I watched a lot of After School Specials, you know the after school movies where kids were dealing with particularly difficult subjects like cheating and smoking in the girls' room.

But there was something so fascinating about Reading Rainbow that drew me in, and I think it had to do with the fact that every week the lovely LeVar took kids on a brand new journey into brand new books. The show helped open doors to books for me, even after my family was banned from the local library because I had a few rogue siblings who failed to return books. (One turned up eight years later...Not the sibling, but the book. Although...)

For those of you out there who don't know a thing about Reading Rainbow, well, allow me to enlighten you. It was a show where each episode centered on a new book or theme from children's literature. Sometimes the audience would be taken on a fantasy adventure with dragons, princesses and knights in shining armor. Other times we'd go on an underwater adventure, encountering terrifying sharks and learning the names of tropical fish. There were mysteries, mountains to climb, songs to sing along with, and children taking their own journeys right in the pages of a book. It was a place I grew to know and love, an adventure I always looked forward to, because I was never sure what would happen or where it would end. It planted the seed of joyful reading within me and never has that seed been snatched by the wind, scorched by the sun, or eaten by a bug. That seed has grown, and I love reading just as much today as I did then.

But do you know exactly why I love reading?

Because I learned through Reading Rainbow that there isn't only one door we walk through to find something exciting. There are many doors. Behind those doors are the different genres we begin to learn and understand as adults. We find the stories that excite us the most, the ones that make our hearts pound faster, the ones that bring us to tears. They come in a rainbow of story lines and characters. But, unfortunately, too many adults soon become stagnant when it comes to literature.

What exactly do I mean by this?

As writers, we find our niche, our place that makes us happy when it comes to writing, and that's just fine. But then something else happens. We end up staying put in that one place. For instance, the fantasy writer tends to get stuck in fantasy, always writing in the genre, always reading in the genre, always looking for a place to belong with other fantasy writers. Or the romance writer looking for others who live and breath the romance world. This is true for any genre.

We forget about the rainbow.

We forget that there are other doors, that there is another world beyond our chosen genre. We get stuck, and thus, we begin to lose connections. We begin to gravitate to our own little circles, scorning those who dare compare what we write or love to read to other works outside our chosen genre. The circle we've created becomes our comfort zone, and why would one want to leave such comfort? Because we all need to grow when it comes to our writing skills. When we, as writers, are told to read extensively in a variety of genres, that's not just a suggestion. That's a rule to follow.

I've seen far too many blogs that circle around one thing and one thing only. That's understandable to a point, because we all want to share what we love. But we have to remain relevant in the eyes of some other writer trying to make connections and trying to understand this writing gig. The writing world soon becomes a clicky place for those trying to break in and make friends. We have to remember not to shun. We have to remember that reading and the enjoyment of writing can be accessed through many doors, not just one.

We need to remember the rainbow.