Archive for January, 2010

Body Art – story review

January 30, 2010

The second story in A.S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is Body Art. Body Art follows the evolution of  a relationship between an emotionally distant doctor and a young woman literally and figuratively scarred by a previous abortion. She is a young artist who the doctor discovers sleeping in a homemade cave in a storage room. He gives her a place to stay, for reasons unexplained she crawls into bed with him every night for the week that she stays with him, and winds up pregnant. He wants the kid, she doesn’t, he convinces her (forces her?) to keep it. She has the kid, ends up loving it for reasons she can not articulate and we are left with an image of them as a possible inexplicable family.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story. Part of me wants to find some sort of religious correlation. Daisy, while not virginal, certainly seems to play the role of wounded innocent carrying a child she didn’t ask for. Meanwhile, the doctor, is named Damian and is less than likable throughout much of the story. He assumes a clearly domineering role towards Daisy, essentially demands she bear the child, and then sees through the birthing process himself. The other central character is a woman named Marth who Damian works with to attempt to catalogue a collection of art and medical curiosities the hospitol’s founder has left behind. Until knocking Daisy up, Damian had wanted to pursue Martha but the unexpected pregnancy forced the three of them into a bizarre “family” dynamic with Damian and Martha assuming the stereotypical parent roles to Daisy – which also touches upon a disturbing incestual dynamic. In the middle of the story, between Damian having knocking Daisy up and them discovering that she was knocked up, there was an art show where Daisy had “borrowed” (or stole, depending on point of view) materials from the medical curiosities to construct a massive collage/statue of Kali.

There’s also  a clear man/woman thing going on. Daisy is continually hurt by men. Her father ditches her. her boyfriend knocks her up and ditches her. The baby, iirc, was a boy when it was aborted and the abortion almost killed her partially because of complications and partially (insinuated) from a possibly inept male physician. Damian, aside from being named after the devil, knocks her up, throws her out of her “cave,” tears down her statue of Kali made from appropriated materials from the hospitol while threatening police action, and forces her to bear the child they conceived.

Meanwhile, Daisy continually communicates along the lines of feelings. If anything she is too connected to the world around her, allowing it to emotionally injure her too readily while continually trying to foster some sort of positive reactions all around her through use of her art. Martha becomes an almost stereotypical mother figure, with all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Through the first two stories there seems to be a thread being formed of women carrying the injuries of their youth throughout their lives – that whatever horrors afflicted them then in some way transforms them into the adults they become, dictating the path of their lives, the choices they make, the methods with which they come to deal with the world. Now this isn’t something that should be revolutionary. It is something that can be equally applied to fairly much everyone that their pasts dictate their futures, no necessarily in an economic sense (though, often, I think it does) but in an intangible “who you are” sense. but maybe something can be said in how all of the women are crippled in some form and that none of them appear to have had childhoods that didn’t involve some sort of trauma that radically affected their lives. Then it should be noted that the most well adjusted woman, so far, has been Martha from Body Art and that she easily assumes a “motherly” role while Daisy and Damian seem entirely unsure and uncomfortable of their roles. Is Byatt saying something about motherhood being a natural mask for women to wear? Or is she saying something more akin to a “healthy” woman somehow requires a motherly aspect not only in their youth but an ability to assume such a role in adulthood?

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Apple and Literature: books will be shorter!

January 29, 2010

Alright, there are some things that just astound me. Daniel Akst’s apparent backing of less literacy carried on the back of eliterature is one of them. In an article talking about the future of publishing and how Apple’s Ipad could affect it he has the following quote:

Shorter is always better on screen, and so expect shorter books. Many nonfiction works are too long anyway — think of all those cinder-block-sized biographies — in part because right now there’s no mechanism for bringing to market anything between a magazine article (perhaps 5,000 words) and a short book (perhaps 70,000). Tablets will allow the length of works to be tailored more closely to the need.

More important, an Apple tablet will offer not just text but also sound, images and video — which will all be commonplace in books someday, in a balance we can’t yet foresee. This may undermine the primacy of text, but the text in most books today is far from sacred, and a little multimedia can do a world of good in most genres — in how-to books, for example. Think back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages; even when text was sacred, people liked a little multimedia on the side.

Now, it’s entirely fair to point out that Akst is pointedly mentioning nonfiction work but his statement that less text could be viewed as better on a screen is a solid point and could easily be something that bleeds into fiction. But while I disagree that shorter is necessarily better in regards to his “cinder-block-sized biographies” such a move could be a positive thing for what has become a bit of a lost art: the short story.

Anyone who has been in an MFA program for creative writing, or hangs around people in an MFA:Creative Writing program, has likely heard that short stories are not a path to publishing in book form. Collections don’t sell, novels do, despite the fact that many of our most beloved American authors excelled in the form of the short story.

The cliff’s edge that will need to be avoided, however, is where brevity falls into a lack of depth. Hemingway had an economy with words but his works still carried tremendous depth. Toni Morrison often sits in the 250-300 page range and she’s a nobel winner. Nabokov excelled in the form.

This also isn’t to say that a work should have to be shortened to meet an imagined requirement of a form. While many biographies are long, that doesn’t mean their length is not necessary. Personally, I hope that when I die that it most certainly takes more than 500 pages to recount my life and whatever achievements I attain. And for any moderately influential (though not necessarily famous) person, brevity could become an insult to thoroughness. We aren’t talking about the life and times of Nicole Richie but the life and times of presidents, senators, inventors, etc. A recounting  of Nikola Tesla’s life should probably resemble a cinder block.

As for the multimedia aspect, it’s something I’ve pushed myself. but only now am I wondering what the multimedia might entail for the various romance genres.

Ipad – unImpressed

January 28, 2010

I probably shouldn’t have had my expectations set quite as high as they were. Right off, I admit, that I am partly to blame for how let down I am over the recent unveiling of Apple’s Ipad. If you have an Ipod touch, you essentially have the Ipad in miniature. But listing the shortcomings of the Ipad is probably something best left for another site (like this one). Instead, I’ll just mention how it falls short from a writing/reading perspective.

First, it’s funny to see Simon&Schuster ignoring earlier comments about where they see prices for ebooks as Apple pushed for a much lower ($13-15) price point:

Publishers acknowledge that digital content should be priced lower than the print content. “We listened to what consumers have said,” said Carolyn Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster.

Anyone who wants to go back and look at a previous blog entry, I have a quote from a Simon and Schuster representative saying that they envisioned ebooks costing about the same as a hardcover ($35) because they would chuck some extras onto it, like the bonus features on a DVD.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a big difference between this and a Kindle beyond the Apple having color and, at least, a $300 higher price tag. Considering it’s questionable that the Mac will debut with nearly the size of library Amazon already offers, while also pushing a higher price point, it’s not a great short term outlook. When you add in that the Ipad doesn’t support flash (you know, that technology that makes youtube possible) and its utility as a blog/news reader becomes hindered as nearly any embedded video becomes unwatchable.

On the writing front, it’s primary input seems to be an on-screen keyboard. I’m not a huge fan of laptop keyboards because I find their compact size uncomfortable for long stretches of typing. The onscreen keyboard looks even more crammed together and not built for any sort of writing session. There is a keyboard accessory that comes attached to a re-charging dock. Looking at the pictures and reading specks on Apple’s website, however, and it appears that the keyboard is literally attached to the dock like your head is connected to a neck. I have to assume that it’s on a wire to allow you to sit back in your chair a bit and type but I could just as easily be wrong.

On top of that, it appears the Ipad also doesn’t support the use of a stylus. One of the most substantial positives, for me, when I look at buying a tablet is the ability to flip it around, grab a stylus, and literally jot notes down on it. For attending class, it seems ideal. I can do away with a notebook that tears and wears, that often has several classes intermixed through out it or the need to have several competing notebooks. Instead, I can just open separate document files and keep ALL of my notes in one little place that I can tote with me anywhere. If it has a mic, I can even simply record the lectures/class and maybe convert the audio into text. Not including the ability to use a stylus obviously removes this ability entirely. So instead of being a useful tool for a writer/student, it loses a lot of functionality.

Also, there’s the inability to multitask. Like to listen to music while you write? Well, you better go buy an ipod then. Want to do some research on the web while you work on short story? Better save because you can’t open both.  Want to work on a story you’ve already started on another computer? You’re going to have to buy an adapter because the Ipad doesn’t even have a USB port.

Maybe I was expecting too much simply because it was being made by Apple. While I’m not a huge fan of their OS, I love their basic style and the functionality of their equipment. Having been looking at “convertible” tablets for awhile, as well as conventional tablets, I was hoping Mac would find a way to improve on the basic concept and at a price point that would make it a realistic option for myself. Unfortunately, Apple appears to have made a device with no real purpose. It can be good for viewing movies you download (as long as they aren’t flash) or just reading something (though not both at the same time) but nothing much beyond that. If you’re looking for a device to just read e-literature with, though, I think you’re better off just buying a kindle or one of the similar devices. They are cheaper and the screens are easier on the eyes. If you’re looking for something to write on, and are investing at least $500, I have to suggest going with a more full featured laptop (of whatever configuration you like).  The convertible tablets are bit heavier than the Ipad, but they have far more functionality. And if you’re set on a tablet, you should be able to find one that at least offers the use of a stylus.

edit: just found this article about a third party company offering a stylus compatible with the Ipad. at least someone out there is realizing that a stylus is actually a pretty useful device when all you have to interact with your computer is a touch screen.

The Thing in the Forest – Review

January 27, 2010

just started reading Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt. It’s a collection of short stories so I thought I would do something different and review each individual story rather than waiting and reviewing the entire book. Ideally, a collection of short stories will come together over some larger theme that is carried out in some way throughout the work but, at the same time, I don’t think a lack of a larger theme (or just a tenuous connection rather than a clear one) should damage the review of the collection if the individual stories are good.

Before I begin, there are spoilers here. A lot of them. So if that bothers you, don’t read on. You have been warned.

the first story in Little Black Book of Stories (LBBS) is called The Thing in the Forest. It begins in the 1940s in Britain when Germany has begun its attempt to either force Britain into surrender or into the stone age with its constant barrage of bombs and missiles. It focuses on two little girls being evacuated from the city who find themselves at a large mansion in the country. Their youth gets the better of them and they decide to venture into the woods a bit with a younger girl tagging along after them. It is in the woods that they encounter what can only be described as a living horror dragging itself through the greenery, leaving a path of destruction and decay in its wake.The girls hide and wait for the monster to pass and you’re left to wonder of the small younger girl who we assume had followed them.

The story then jumps ahead a life time to when the two girls have become older women and have taken different paths in life but still have startling similarities such as the path of their families (fathers die, mothers live, no children/family of their own) and their lives. they just happen to find themselves back at the mansion they had spent the night at years before when they had seen the creature and each confirms the other’s belief that they really had seen something in the woods and that it, in fact, probably did “eat” (we assume it ate her) the girl or at least kill her with its sheer bulk. They don’t talk much and each avoids a dinner meating the next day, instead venturing into the woods alone where neither see the creature again but where one discovers bones in a clearing from their first encounter that may in fact be the little girl’s. The story ends with the one woman at a mall at one of her jobs of watching small children while their parents shop and she begins telling them the story of her encounter with the  beast while the other woman vows to venture back to the woods to see it again.

It seems as if the true horror of the experience was not the experience itself but the effect it seems to have had on the lives of the two girls. Something that was “more real than other things,” as one of the girls describes it, seems to have had the effect of dulling everything else in their lives. Neither seem overly happy or connected in their day to day lives. This isn’t to say they are hermetic recluses tucked away in their cluttered apartments, fearful of the outside, but that the ability to make personal connections has been stripped from them by this beast that lumbered through their lives at a moment when the connection between eachother was the only tie that either had been able to develop. Whatever innocence is required from people to say hello and to open themselves up to the possibility of friendship is the victim of the encounter.

This could be supported by the death of the younger girl who wanted to tag along with them. The younger girl, Alys, is described in various ways that amount to cute, precocious and personable. Where the beast didn’t notice the two older girls, who tried to shun the child, the younger, nice innocent appears to have fallen into its path and was destroyed. It was a physical death to match the psychological death of the two surviving girls.

The timing of their initial encounter with the beast and the publishing of the collection may not be something ignore, either. Set at the onset of WWII, perhaps Byatt is saying something about what the atmosphere of imminent war does to the young who are forced to live through it. In this reading the beast is as much metaphor as reality and the pains the girls suffer, both at the moment of their encounter and throughout their lives, is symbolic for the horrors inflicted on and endured by everyone their age. Which brings us to the time the collection was published, 2003. After 9-11 when a policy of engagement by Bush (and Blair) was taking clear shape, this could be Byatt’s warning shot that the effects of the political/social environment could have far longer lasting repercussions than could be imagined. Outside of the sphere of blame or responsibility of such conflict, it is a warning that people will come away damaged.

Publishers ask: how to deal with e-books? follow the music industry!

January 25, 2010

Well, apparently the publishing industry isn’t completely behind the curve of adapting to e-commerce like the music industry was. Unfortunately, their goal isn’t to find new revenue streams and ways to make their product more attractive to an online audience, but to just preserve their price structure.

So while Apples and other e-music retailers have effectively led the way in altering the music industry’s way of doing business (like by selling .99 songs and allowing you to buy an album for less than $20), the publishing industry, or at least Harper Collins, is hoping to broker deals that allow them to maintain current prices.

But there’s a problem with that. The problem is that the price would be artificially high to cover costs that no longer exists. Gone would be the costs to physically print the book. All of the people needed to run the printers, binders, etc., the costs of the materials, the costs of the storage and shipping, etc. There’s no justification behind charging $30 for something when the cost of making it has fell the comparative floor because, suddenly, all you have to cover are the costs of the editor and the writer. If need be, I’m sure that Apple or whoever could even provide a conversion application for changing over a .doc file to whatever file type they dream up to include some sort of encryption code.

This artificial price point will bloom into a larger problem, a problem the music and movie industries have already encountered and were left reeling from. At least some of the appeal of a digital reading device IS the price point. After shelling out a couple of hundred bucks for a reader, the books better damn well be a few bucks cheaper – and they are. But what happens when the price point explodes and the costs go through the roof – especially when they’re coupled with a move to a more expensive (though likely more versatile) machine like an Apple tablet PC?

Just a guess but I’m betting the same thing happens that happened with the music industry charging $20 a CD and the movie industry trying to pull $10 a ticket at the theater – people will pirate the stuff. While the industry’s worry about WalMart’s momentary flirtation with $10 hardcovers setting a new price point was somewhat ridiculous, considering how entrenched hardcover prices were and how other forces help dictate the costs so much, the price for an e-book has become equally entrenched.

Not only that, but anyone buying an ebook sees the cost savings involved as they can just as easily forward a massive text document to anyone in their address book for nothing. They don’t have to buy ink, buy paper, pay s/h, etc. They just attach and hit send. So seeing the price for their reading material jump from $10 to $30 is not going to go over well.

And, despite whatever encryption is thrown into any file document or how secure any device is made, once it is put out to the public, someone will be working to get around it and spill all of its secrets out across the web or a youtube video. So the biggest obstacle to people pirating books – a simple lack of availability unless some individual types or scans the book themselves, vanishes. So while the publishing industry simultaneously attempts to adapt to the digital world and use it to maintain a cost point that no longer makes any sort of sense, they will also be providing the files that will be ripped, converted to something like RTF or PDF and torrented.

And what makes it stupid is that it could all be avoided now, when the whole e-book thing is still in its infancy. From the CNN article linked above:

The news comes as e-readers and e-books rapidly rise in popularity. Led by the Kindle, 1.7% of all books sold in the third quarter of 2009 were e-books, according to a Book Industry Study Group survey released this week. That’s up 42% since the beginning of 2009. The survey also found that 20% of e-book readers stopped buying print books altogether. Shatzkin expects that figure to double by next year.

Okay, so while ebooks have been a new buzz word and can flash impressive numbers like 42%, they still only make up 1.7% of book buying. Even if they jump by another 42%, they’ll only be around 2.4% of all book buying. Then, even if we take Shatzkin’s guess that 40% of ebook buyers will stop buying print books entirely, that’s still only 1.4% of the book buying public.

Maybe Harper Collins looks at these numbers and sees ebooks as something they can maybe stomp out of existence with a ridiculously high price point. Maybe that’s their goal. But if that is their goal, then they are destined for failure. Even if you’re not a fan of reading your bestseller off an LCD screen, it is fairly clear that it is becoming an eventual reality. This isn’t to say that regular print books will cease to exist, just that digital forms of entertainment are here to stay and will only grow. trying to counter this is only going to result in a violent negative reaction (piracy).

Harper Collins hits at part of the solution with its assertion that

enhanced e-books with video and other functions could be released simultaneously with hardcovers in the future “at a price more in line with the print edition

I don’t believe readers necessarily want to pay for video to go along with their books – unless it is in some way a vital part of the text – and they will still desire a simpler, cheaper “bare bones” version. My guess, though, is that the “video and other functions” will be like the massive amounts of shovelware dished out for the wii. Things that make the product look good on a shelf but are cumbersome and unenjoyable in practice. If they wish to offer “enhanced” texts for additional costs, fine, but I am betting the majority of readers would rather a plain text at a cheaper cost. And if this is not offered, they will find alternative ways of procuring them.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Review

January 20, 2010

Uber-geek with a heavy dose of Dominican pride and cultural baggage. The bulk of the story centers around a planet of a human being, Oscar Wao, who us made out to be the only Dominican male to follow the Trekkie path to geeky, overweight loneliness.

the loneliness is important. Other than reading (and writing) copious amounts of scifi/fantasy, the only other thing that seems to occupy Wao’s time is his desperate wanting of female affection and his inability to attain it. As Yunior, a character who weaves in and out of the novel and has a section narrated from his point of view mentions, Oscar is the most woman crazy person he knows – which apparently is quite an impressive feat considering he’s dominican and all Yunior does is women.  Oscar has the fixation but just lacks the ability.

Which plays into Oscar’s downfall, believing he is in love, and doing something wholly irresponsible because of it. It’s an age old tale. Troy fell because of two guys loving one woman and each willing to be stupid for it. And to Junot Diaz’s credit, he spins it creatively and believably.

Still, I couldn’t help but be let down by the ending. The novel feels as if it is building towards something significant, but Oscar’s end is sort of what you expect to be, and the character who does go through a transformation is left somewhat hollow by our not knowing overly much about him, or feeling much sympathy about him.

Where the novel works best is where it effortlessly blends Oscar’s geeky obsessions with the curse that has supposedly plagued his family and Dominican Republic’s recent history of being controlled by vicious a vicious dictator who didn’t hesitate to rape, pillage and murder everyone around him. Junot Diaz shows a solid hand at being able to take control of the pacing of the story, to feed us a lot of information – whether by the actual text of the story or through the handful of footnotes he dots the bottom of some pages with – while allowing it to be enjoyable and to never be bogged down with fact.

What might be most impressive is Diaz’s ability to weave spanish throughout the text in a way that makes it seem not only natural but understandable. For background, I was a horrible Spanish student. I hadn’t taken a foreign language course since middle school and they are something that simply do not come easily to me now. While I enjoy them, they are miserable for me. I am destined to fail them. But I could pick up the meaning of what Diaz is saying in nearly every instance he drops some spanish into the text.

I don’t know if Diaz intended it but this is also a book about the destructive force of love. While the Fuku plaguing Oscar’s family for the past handful of generations is continually attributed to its run-in with Trujillo causing their fall from grace, the idea that the fuku is Love (with that capital L) is quite possible. Even before their run-in with Trujillo, Oscar’s grandmother was shunned by her family after having been wooed and won by Oscar’s wealthy grandfather, who also threatened to lose ties with his family and social circles because of who he loved and pursued. It was his grandfather’s love for his daughters (and fears that Trujillo would decide he wanted to rape one of them should he see them – something the book maintains was common of Trujillo’s rule of DR) that eventually leads to his grandfather’s imprisonment, his wife’s death, the death of 2/3 of his children and the third child being “adopted” by relatives of his wife and then being sold by them. It is love that leads to this surviving third child to suffer a horrible beating and to flee to the united states where she has her daughter, Lola, and Oscar. And it is love that kills Oscar.

Meanwhile, redemption is only found through responsibility. The sister of Oscar’s grandfather rescues the third child from the hell she was sold into out of feeling an obligation to her brother who always helped her. Yunior eventually finds his way in life in large part because of the responsibility he feels towards looking after Oscar. And Lola seems to be the least scarred of the family while feeling the most responsibility to look after and be involved in everything. And Oscar’s aunt is almost a saint in the book, as she takes the responsibility of raising Oscar’s mother and then looking after Oscar as best she could when he goes to the DR.

At the same time, it is Oscar’s inability to find love that damages him the most. His geekiness combined with his planetoid size make him a sexual pariah. And his inability to garner the affections of any woman seems to compound his troubles, making him more desperate for affection. The impression is that the book is praising the art of balance and restraint, but it doesn’t show the negative side of too much responsibility, of being too restrained. The argument could be broached that Oscar is the lesson in this but his restraint isn’t a choice but is something forced on him by massive consumption (as Diaz occasionally notes in Oscar’s “trying” not to eat for four and such comments, Oscar has a problem with defining portions) and the consumption itself is a horrible lack of restraint. And Oscar’s consumption of food is symbolic for his lack of consumption of love. WIthout one, he over-indulges in another. So his subsequent over indulgence when he does begin to garner some affection is a natural conclusion.

What is a short story?

January 19, 2010

I recently started work on something temporarily titled “The 40,000th Day Event.” It’s going to be a short story centering around a visit and old man gets in his nursing home. The idea is just one of those cute little things I occasionally have and decide to run with. Unfortunately, I’m running into a problem that I think I have ran into in the past, and that’s  the boundary between a “short story” and a “prose” piece. This is something that came up in the last writing work shop that I had, where a little piece about an interaction between a man and a woman in a bedroom after sex was well liked by everyone but the professor asked the question: is it a short story or is it a prose?

And I didn’t know. I didn’t really care. And, in all honesty, I’m not sure I care much now beyond the fact that I’d like to submit this stuff and get it published. And I wonder if other readers will have a similar problem with it. Is it a short story or is it prose?

Does it matter?

True Crime: Gotti Style

January 17, 2010

He says he changed his ways back in 1999. He says he quit the Business, went straight and became a model citizen. All of which might be true. But hearing that John Gotti, Jr. has decided to write true-crime story after moving south.

The most often repeated advice to any young writer is invariably to write what you know. And if anyone knows crime, it’s probably a member of the Gotti crime family.  But this isn’t meant to disparage the idea or his attempt at writing a true-crime story. I wish him all of the luck and I’m actually curious what it’ll say. Maybe we’ll find out where Hoffa was chipped up and buried after all.

low res MFA programs

January 15, 2010

Alright, this is the place I’ve started my search for a low res MFA program. It’s an excellent blog with a listing of Low Res MFA Creative Writing programs in the US, their requirements, their financial aid packages, links to their site, etc.  I don’t know how exhaustive the list is but it seems like a great place to start any hunt for your low res program. As you go through the list, you’re bound to notice something that I noticed during my earlier jaunts through the low res universe – aid packages suck.

The most pirated e-books…

January 13, 2010

Here‘s a list of the most pirated e-books for the past year. Half had to do with sex while the other half were some variation of home/computer repair. This is what the publishing industry is quaking in its boots over: people downloading the kamasutra.