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: kafka’s hat

Kafka’s Hat is Patrice Martin’s story of a man who embarks on a quest to pick up the hat that once belonged to a famous writer for his boss. It’s much lighter than anything actually by Kafka, and also owes a great deal to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. In the end it becomes a story about all those writers, but with a very light touch. It feels less substantial than those great writers’ works but a good complement.

I have a couple of quibbles with the characterization of P. one of the main characters. I don’t know if, even in the post-hoc rationalizing way that makes sense when you’re writing Kafka pastiche, a couple of the decisions P. made were actually earned by the character. At several moments P. felt less like a person caught in greater machinations than a playing piece being pushed by a writer. This is, obviously, a fairly fine distinction, as all characters are caught in the machinations of their writers, but I feel like if you’re drawing Kafka comparisons you’d better bring your A game.

But the problems I had were minor quibbles. The book is slight, yet solid. I would argue with the promotional copy about it being “delightfully absurd” (Jasper Fforde’s work seems more dlightful than this) but I definitely enjoyed my time reading it.

a reading recap for a month that kind of got away from me

I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.

I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.

Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation were two books of short stories I read. The George Saunders one is amazing.

The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.

What else? Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and Will Bingley’s Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson both made me want to be a writer.

I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.

There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.

So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.

book review: the man within my head

The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene. I think it would have had more of an impact on me if I had read more than a couple of Graham Greene books in my life. But Iyer writes about travel and globalism in a way that speaks very well to me, and a big part of this book was about how certain writers get in your head. I guess I’m saying I understood what he was talking about even though I don’t feel the same way about Greene.

The book was filled with stories about growing up in English boarding schools and how they were trained to spread Empire, but also about Iyer’s travel, and about California wildfires taking his homes, and looking for a father, and the way Greene wrote about the goodness in fallen priests. I liked it, but it wasn’t the same kind of thrill as something like Sun After Dark.

tv review: star trek deep space 9 (season 4)

The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is the one I remember being my favourite. The characters had settled into their interesting roles. They had their ship. Sisko was captain. Worf joined the crew. Nog goes to Starfleet Academy. The communicators changed shape. After this (in my memory) we start getting bogged down in endless war. While as a teenager I hated the first couple of seasons for being too political and boring, I disliked the latter seasons for being too much about military/mystical battles. Season 4 is the one at the tipping point of awesomeness.

The season’s highlight comes early with The Visitor. The Visitor is my favourite episode of any Star Trek ever, though most of it could be a Twilight Zone episode. Captain Sisko and his son Jake are in the Defiant’s engine room for a freak accident which kills the captain. The story is about how Jake deals with the loss, told from Jake’s perspective as an old man decades later. The key is that Jake’s father isn’t actually dead – he’s trapped in mumbojumboland where time doesn’t pass, and he keeps on reappearing inexplicably for Jake to feel the pain of the loss all over again.

The Star Trekkiness of this episode is basically pure technobabble. There’s an accident that does this weird thing. Jake spends a lifetime trying to figure out how to rescue his father and in the end he does, at the cost of his own life. There are Klingons and Bajorans and starships but the only reason we really need all of those is because they’re the accoutrements of Jake and Ben Sisko’s relationship. We’ve watched three seasons of them being father and son so we know what kind of relationship they have. In the episode itself, Jake says he and his father were close and it doesn’t have to spend scenes depicting that closeness outside the realm of this specific story.

And goddamnit it does a number on the writery part of me. Jake abandons his art and his life to save his father, when the Captain just wanted to see him grow up. It’s sad and hopeful and uses its Star Trekness in exactly the right way.

So yes, The Visitor was great. But this season also has Dax abandoned by another lover she would throw away her traditional life and career for. Worf is on trial for killing a shipload of civilians. Bashir gets to try solving impossible medical puzzles (in both breaking the Jem’Hadar addiction to ketracel white, and saving the people of a planet from a bioweapon plague). That Bashir fails in both of these (though he does get a vaccine up and going for the next generation) shows how the writers are taking things a bit more seriously. Not everything can be wrapped up in a nice little bow in one weekly episode.

But there are the light episodes too. The Ferengi going to Roswell in Little Green Men is fun. The holodeck adventure with Bashir as a Bondian spy is fun (though the reason for it working is ludicrous). Rom forming a union, and Quark standing up to the Ferengi Commerce Association and having everything he owns reposessed are also good episodes.

But the shadows of war episodes are the ones (after The Visitor) I remember most. Homefront and Paradise Lost take us back to Earth and we see the wrongness of security theatre (five years before the TSA turned airports into Orwellian zones). This is the season where Eddington defects to the Maquis and it hurts more than the second season episode where Sisko’s friend defects, because we’d had time to get to know Eddington. Oh, and Dukat becomes a pirate with a Klingon bird of prey. I love that episode.

Watching it all again, I remain convinced that DS9 got better and better to this point. Now we’ll see if my memories of a decline are also accurate.

book review: redshirts

So the joke in John Scalzi’s Redshirts is that in a Star Trek-like future a bunch of expendable crewmembers on a starship figure out that something is hinky about their incredible death rate. Anyone who goes on a mission with one of the bridge crew has a terribly low survival rate. The book is about some of these lower decks members figuring out what is going on and how to change the universe to improve their odds. Be warned: it gets kind of meta. (Normally I like that, but this didn’t set my brain/heart on fire.)

It was a decent enough book, but that may be because I’m enough of a Star Trek nerd to enjoy looking at the bizarre universe they live in and figuring out ways to rationalize it. It had some decent things to say about lazy storytelling and figuring out a better way to write. And it didn’t take very long to read. It wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped but I didn’t hate myself for taking a few hours out of my life with it.

book review: are you my mother?

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is Alison Bechdel’s memoir about her relationship with her mother and her therapists and about writing Fun Home. Because it’s about writing the previous book and how much her mother didn’t like that she’d written it, but also about psychoanalysis, it feels more like a meta-book.

She writes and draws a lot about feeling self-conscious, and transcribes so many bits about writing memoir that it feels more like an essay than a story. Which isn’t a bad thing. It makes me want to read her sources.

One of the things I really like about both of Bechdel’s books is how she draws the pages from the things she’s reading. She draws the typewriter font and highlights the interesting text, but leaves the surrounding bits in there for context. She also has people’s letters and her drawings of photographs. This whole layer of drawing and selecting as construction fascinates the hell out of me.

I don’t think I found this one as compelling as Fun Home because the relationship between Bechdel and her mother is ongoing. It’s harder to make it all fit into a book. In any nonfiction you’re making arbitrary endpoints but it’s always easier when you’ve got something natural like a death to crystallize around. In Are You My Mother? there isn’t that one thing, which seems to make it a harder book to create. So in some ways the book becomes about how hard it is to make itself. Which some people might not enjoy, but I did.