book review: dialogue

At some point I’m pretty sure I read Robert McKee’s Story. I imagine it was at a time when I still thought writing would be the thing I’d do (as opposed to whatever it is I do now). Last week while I was on our main floor desk I was faced with McKee’s 2016 book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen on our “Interesting Nonfiction” display and I took it home.

It’s fine. I enjoyed the breakdowns of dialogue in screenplays, scripts and prose. There was good stuff about the way scenes build through speech, and the construction that goes into building a satisfying scene. I was also reminded of Adaptation and how these forms can make crap as easily as they can make art.

book review: sir cumference and the viking’s map

I have a couple of friends who are getting their education degrees right now and one of them asked if I’d read any of these Sir Cumference books. I hadn’t, but now I have.

Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map is a story that goes over the basics of the Cartesian plane. There are two kids who get a map that’s supposed to lead to treasure and they have to figure out how the coordinate system works, while being chased by enemies.

I like the concept but thought there weren’t enough plausible mistakes in it. They just read the clues and knew what the negative numbers meant and that you’re supposed to read the X axis first. There are probably sound pedagogical reasons for that, but it made it feel overly simplistic as a story. It felt too obviously like a lesson and not like a story you could happen to learn something from – for my taste at least.

Now I’m looking for more math/story books to see if I can find some I really like and will let you know if I find any.

book review: reality hunger

David Shields’ Reality Hunger was a treatise on the slippery nature of facts and how that makes nonfiction a way more interesting genre of writing than fiction. Each of the paragraphs is numbered, and he liberally quotes people without indicating his sources.

There are bits I recognize like the famous Dubya aide dismissing the “reality based community” but there was also stuff about Ichiro being present in the moment when he catches a fly ball. There’s a lot about James Frey and how he was pilloried for making things up. He talks about hip hop and Girl Talk and the Grey Album. He talks about collage novels, and about how a discursive text in which nothing at all happens or a collage novel has so much more art to it than something with a narrative.

I tend to be conservative when politicians fuck with facts, and this book didn’t change that, but the malleability of facts outside of politics makes the fiction/nonfiction gap much more interesting to me. Also, the difference between autobiography and memoir had never been clear to me, but now it is.

One of the things I loved the most was the notion that most novels are structured to build up a story around the handful of things they want to say. That there are 7 or 12 bits in a novel that are the point of it, and the rest of the story is like the early stages of a rocket, that fall away as the space pod heads to the moon. But. What if you constructed a piece of writing where everything was one of those little space pods of idea? What if you constructed it from other people’s words? What if you eschewed story, which has so little to do with the way we live (unless we make our memories fit in with the received language of how a story is supposed to go, which is all we do anyway) for really clear thinking about ambiguity?

I loved the fuck out of thinking about this stuff, and this book was the most inspiring, brain-tickling thing I’ve read in a long time. Maybe I should read more nonfiction.

book review: the book thief

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief might now be my favourite book about World War 2. Yes that means it beats Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow (though really, Gravity’s Rainbow was never really a favourite). This story is just as disjointed in time as those, but it feels more connected to the characters.

The story is about Liesel, a German girl who is living with a foster family outside of Munich. The mother is rude and terrifying, always yelling about everything, and the father is a house painter who can’t really find much work in their town. They also hide a Jew in their basement.

The thing that makes this book amazing is how it’s put together. You see, Death narrates the story, and does the narration with this detached wit that’s also surprisingly empathetic. Death keeps on spoiling the story for you, but it doesn’t matter because it’s told so beautifully. The main text gets interrupted by these bold, centred pronouncements and lists about characters or events, but the story circles back and back and around.

Liesel has a friend who painted himself black to be like Jesse Owens. She steals books and learns to read and rereads the only books they have because they’re poor and the book is about the hope that comes from story even if you know how it’s all going to turn out.

It’s an amazing piece of work and one of those things that gets marked as children’s literature just because the protagonist is young. Which is fine, I want young people to read this, but I also want adults to read it.

book review: whatever happened to the caped crusader?

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is Neil Gaiman’s story about the funeral of Batman. It came out at a time when Batman had been “killed,” but this story, because it is a Neil Gaiman story, is full of stories.

Everyone talks about how Batman died, his allies, his enemies, and they’re all different. Batman himself narrates the tale from a confused ghost-like vantage point. “How can all the stories be true?” he asks. And really, this is one of the big meta-questions of superhero comics. So much happens to these characters it seems insane that they could survive them all without going insane.

The other parts included in this volume are some old Neil Gaiman Batman stories, which, well, whatever. I did like Batman and Joker hanging out in the green room before their pages, but they did feel like filler, extraneous to the idea I wanted to think harder on. But you need to feel you got your money’s worth I suppose.

immersed in abstraction

I’ve tried before and I’ll probably try again, but I can’t get immersed in Second Life. It’s the lack of story there. You make yourself look how you want (or find you’re unable to) and then you stand around listening to music or whatever. A few years ago on my second attempt to get into it I signed up to go to a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Snow Crash is a novel about the kind of immersive second world SL is trying to be, but it all feels so clunky, so much more about just being in SL than about what’s going on.

I guess it comes down to my gripes about content in the social mediasphere. I find myself agreeing with the lack of Big Ideas in social media (though one of my classmates noted that some of the thinkers quoted in that article are also on Twitter).

Scott McCloud in his talking about comics has a bit about how characters are drawn and how that affects us as readers. A very detailed drawing gives us information about that specific person, whereas a more abstract drawing lets the reader put more of herself into it, to fill in more of the gaps. Immersive environments like Second Life are mixing those up. The more detailed your avatar can be the more the gaps between what’s happening to it and to you become visible.

I remember back in the ’90s my first time playing a MUSH. It was based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I went in expecting to have slots to fill in and skills to work on so I could become whatever kind of character it was possible for me to be in that world. The fact that I could be a Thief-Taker, just by saying I was and acting like I was, was so astounding to me I was immediately intimidated by the freedom. I still feel that way now when I’m staring at a blank page to fill with text. Anything at all can go there. You don’t have to fit into CPU cycles when you’re dealing with text. Your immersion is based on skills with language that humans have been working on for thousands of years.

That’s why I can get immersed in the flow of information on Twitter. It’s text. I’m a text person. Doing photos and screencasts using avatars and all of that doesn’t excite me. I don’t feel I’m part of a world I’m not helping to create in my mind. I love the old text-based computer games, even though the limits were very apparent. You had to learn the rules so you knew that “Take Boat” wasn’t the kind of language it wanted. Working within limitations becomes immersive once you’ve really taken it up.

Now this isn’t to say I don’t get immersed in videogames. Once it gets out of the way and I’m taking part in telling a story, I’m there. I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not for the random gratuitous violence (yes, you’d go off on a five-star wanted rampage every once in a while but that wasn’t the point), but because it was a classic gangster story. That’s what I want out of any environment, really. Hell, I love the stories embedded in the numbers in baseball boxscores. That’s what I need for immersion, characters instead of customizable avatars.

This is, of course, good to know. Because if I’m like me, there might be more. And that’s why if I’m bringing a library into a space it’s to tell a story, and to help our users tell a story and imagine one. Not just about the library but about the community it’s a part of (be that physical or digital).