Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Report: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

This is the story of Sam Vimes, known from previous books, who becomes lost in his own past and takes up the role of mentor to his younger self. It's a great story about duty and courage and loss. Like all of Pratchett's Discworld books, it is both silly and profound.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Procrastination, Part 1

Book Report: Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick

I've always wanted to read something by the man who gave us Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall). I found this in a box of books in my basement.

First, it's dated. The late sixties and early seventies are stamped all over this book, most obviously in the clothing Dick describes for his characters. It's a crazy mix of styles that put me in mind of Huggy Bear (from the Starsky and Hutch television show of my childhood). Second, it's set in 1992, and presents a "future" extrapolated from scientific and pseudo-scientific views of the time. Fortunately, my 1992 didn't look anything like this.

I don't know if this is common in all of Dick's work, but Ubik is all about playing fast and loose with the definition of what is "real." The reader is forced to accept different interpretations of reality at several points in the book. We start by accepting what we believe to be Joe Chip and Glen Runciter's objective reality, but are immediately introduced to Pat Conley, who has the ability to change the past thus rendering that reality suspect. Then during a trip to the moon, there is an explosion which kills either Runciter or Chip, Conley and a group of anti-psychics. The reader spends much of the rest of the book wondering who's dead, and what's real. Even after this is resolved, Dick throws in an ending which makes the reader suspect the version of reality the resolution made them accept as accurate.


Characters are necessarily sketchy. The plot is convoluted. The themes are worthy of doctoral dissertations. This isn't a beach read. Thought is required.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

These are the times...

Current Reading: Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick

Inspirational Quote: "Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has many - not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some" -- Charles Dickens

I had fettucini alfredo and garlic bread for supper tonight. My mouth tastes like dead rat.

So, Barak Obama became president yesterday. Maybe you noticed. Everyone was moved and inspired, and they don't seem to have realized that the world hasn't changed yet. There's a lot of work to be done. George Bush didn't make this mess all by himself. Greed, corruption and incompetence will always be with us, and must be opposed vigorously regardless of who sits in office.

In other news, I enjoyed a car sandwich for lunch on December 31. There were no injuries, and the person who caused the accident suffered the most vehicular damage. My Saturn was the meat in the sandwich, so I got off with a cracked bumper (it's true. Saturns don't dent. Unfortunately, in cold weather, they break) and a lap full of Wendy's fries and coca-cola. Inconvenient, but not bad.

The same day, I received word that my uncle, who had been fighting cancer, lost. There are no rematches.

On the day of his funeral, which I was out of town attending, a good friend of mine dropped dead of a heart-attack at 49. I'll miss you, Paul Green. You were a better man than I, and you did it in such a way that I didn't mind your superiority at all.

And, to bring us up to current events, the company for which I work has filed for bankruptcy protection here in Canada. I was paid last week, but next pay period, the results are anyone's guess. I've also been told that I could, and probably will, be let go sometime soon without warning or severance.

So far? 2009? Not shaping up to be my favorite year.

I hope your 2009 has been less... eventful.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Ramble

Current Reading: Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick

Inspirational Quote: "Writing is easier than not writing." -- Me (although I admit someone may have beaten me to it).

Over on Nathan Bransford's blog, he posed the question: what is the most difficult thing about being a writer?
My answer was overlong and gramatically offensive, and I post it here because I thought it was funny.

Good Lord, is there anything about writing that is NOT difficult?

First, there's the actual production of words. Not only do you have to fight your inner editor ("Wrong word! It's not working! You're incoherent!") just to put something down on the page, but you've got to fight the "real" world for time. You've got to work at something else because writing barely covers paper and toner costs, and that demands time energy and concentration. Then there's your wife and children and friends who demand time and attention or they'll divorce you, taking you for every cent you're worth, or maybe they'll borrow your car and see how long it takes you to notice, or maybe they'll just turn up the television so loud there's no way you can think and you've just written that same sentence four times in a row.

Or you've just come home from work, and shuttling a van full of rowdy kids to and from a soccer game where you had to stand in the rain shouting encouragement to your kid, who's increasingly embarrassed by your existence, and trying to dodge that fellow-parent with fourteen-cigarette breath who seems to think that having your kids share a field entitles him to share a few confidences that, to be honest, you'd really rather cut off your ears than be forced to hear, and stopping for soft drinks half-way home even though you know you're going to spend the next three days trying to get coca-cola out of the seat covers, and you get home to discover that your daughter and son have broken your mother-in-law's favorite lamp while fighting over which song to play on the ipod docking station, and really when you finally get things calmed down to the point where you can think straight, you just can't bring yourself to stare at the computer for all of the final fifteen minutes you have left in your evening before you drag your silly carcass to bed. And when you do it anyway, the only words you can type are ones that would make an angry sailor crawl to church and give up whiskey because he might as well join the priesthood because he'll never be able to swear as well as you even if he were to stub his toe every minute of every day for the remainder of his life.

No. Because you've also got to face all those people who hear that you've been known to write and either their ears perk up in a "Ooh, I've always wanted to write," way or they frown as though they've heard that you've been known to molest small animals, and the first group is terrible because you've got to hear about how great it is that you've got time to write and they know they've got a book in them but they're just too busy or they have a great idea and maybe you can write it and you'll both get rich and split the profits fifty-fifty, or how you must be rich and do you know Stephen King because he's a writer too and he wrote this one book and I can't remember the name of it but it was green, and the other group is terrible because apparently you should give up childish dreams like being a writer and start doing something productive with your life like maybe insurance sales because I know a guy who could use some help from a real self-starter, or maybe printing is dead and they can't understand why you bother to try traditional publishing when iUniverse is out there and they've just published their own book which came out two weeks ago and it's about goat raising on the Prairies, and would you like to buy a copy because there's a box in their trunk and worst of all are the other writers or would-be writers who have a twelve-hundred page manuscript at home that they're still working on but they're almost done and you should have a look because either they'd value your input or maybe you could learn a thing or two from them because their characters are even better than J.K. Rowling's, who they saw once at a reading from a distance of a quarter-mile because the crowd of kids dressed up in wizard robes was so thick.

Then there are all those articles and pundits and joes-in-the-street like Steve Jobs who insist that reading is dead, that traditional publishing is dead, that God is dead and took author advances with him, and really what's the point of writing when nobody's going to read it, and if they do, they won't pay for it and the only way you'll ever see your name in print is to go with iUniverse again and they've got a box of books in their trunk... Anyway, then you've got to convince an agent by means of a 1-page query to take a look at a few pages and pray to God, Fate or Random Chance that something in those pages sets the agent on fire so much that they have to read the whole thing, which stands a miniscule chance of being so completely wonderful and captivating that they don't mind taking you on for no money either way because they think they might be able to convince Editor Joe, or Frank or maybe even Ted, if Ted's still got a job, to take a look at some samples, and maybe Ted (if Ted's company hasn't been absorbed by a voracious imprint) will be so in love with what you've done that he'll take it to the editorial board, charging in with manuscript held high like some kind of modern day Crusader (only without the armor or weaponry) ready to champion your work until someone points out that the previous seven books about lesbian vampire stewardesses in high-school didn't earn out their 1-figure advances, at which point he shreds the manuscript and does his best to phrase the word "no," in a manner that won't send you into a suicidal depression.

But your book gets published eventually and five thousand copies are printed and four thousand are shipped and three thousand are remaindered and five hundred are packed off to discount stores but the other five hundred find their way into the hands of readers who flip through the pages while suffering insomnia, or lying on a beach or during commercial breaks in American Idol but they get read anyway and the check arrives and you stare at it because you can't believe its real and now you're a real published author and it turns out that the check just barely covers your celebratory dinner and if you break it down, you start to cry because you realize you've been pouring your heart and soul into an enterprise that has consumed your life and ended up repaying you with a grand total of one dollar and eighteen cents per hour but you're a writer and that's what matters because people loved your book but not critics who either ignored it or mentioned that volume six in your eight book series was "a good first effort" and what do they know anyway and it doesn't matter you're just hiding in your closet crying because sometimes you do that and would someone please shut the door so you can be miserable in peace but you're invited to a signing or a conference or to maybe a convention where you're sure to meet your rabid fans who turn out to be one step away from psychotic stalkers half the time and the other half, have come up to berate you for their choosing to buy this piece of claptrap with your name on it or maybe they've come to tell you that you've got everything all wrong and there's no way that your protagonist would wear that purple shirt on Wednesday in Hoboken because that's the color of Hoboken's greatest rival's football team and she'd be run out of town and how could you not know that what kind of writer are you and incidentally, I have a box of books from iUniverse that are much better than yours out in my car and would you care to see how good books are really written?

And so you go home and back to your life of work and soccer games and exhaustion and that's it because there's no way you're ever going to put yourself through that again but wait a minute you've got an idea about this character who finds themselves wearing a purple sweater in Hoboken on a Wednesday just before a football game and you're staring into space while your wife threatens to call the divorce lawyer who's on speed dial by now and you hardly notice when your best friend takes your car and your kids turn the volume up on the television to cover the sound of another lamp breaking because you're going downstairs to the computer and the words, which are all wrong are already coming to you and looking back on it you realize that maybe writing isn't that bad after all and maybe it's worth it in some non-monetary way because here you go again and you can't tell yourself it's because you don't know what you're getting into.

And if things don't work out, there's always iUniverse.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Report: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

I have what I believe to be a complete collection of Diskworld novels. I love them. In addition to being hilarious, there is a genuine warmth and affection for the human species that comes through in his works. Every once in a while, I'll pick up a volume. Sometimes I just browse my favorite passages, sometimes (like this time) I reread it all the way through.

If you haven't read Pratchett, then you should.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again... obviously.

Book Report: The Sculptress, by Minette Walters

This one's a mystery. I don't read much mystery (or much fiction outside the speculative genres), but Penelope enjoys that sort of thing and has lately been on a Walters kick. Since I don't read much mystery, and certainly no contemporary ones, I don't know how representative Walters's work is.

Having said all that, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I'm used to mysteries in which plot is all and characters are just active props. In this one, however, it's all about characters and yet strong plot is not sacrificed. The protagonist is convinced to write a book about a notoriously psychotic murderer, and the things that happen around her result directly from her actions even though she (and the reader) may not be aware of the connection until later in the book. The conclusion is satisfying, with an extra little twist at the end that casts some doubt on all that has occurred.

I have not become a mystery convert, but this... this was great.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why I Don't Write Star Wars

Current Reading: Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick

Inspirational Quote: "I shrivel up every time someone mentions Star Wars to me." -- Sir Alec Guinness

I love Star Wars. Not the Expanded Universe. Not the Prequel Trilogy, or the Clone Wars. Not Return of the Jedi (Ewoks... shudder), not even Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars. Not "A New Hope," but "Star Wars," the title it carried in 1977 when Han shot first and the stiff rubber/plastic aliens in the cantina were the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. Something about it set my 11-year-old imagination on fire. Maybe it was just because I was part of the zeitgeist of the time. Maybe because its blatant rip off of Joseph Campbell's monomyth connected with something in my unconscious mind. Maybe because it's story of a boy stuck in a nowhere place who escapes to become something extraordinary appealed to a pre-pubescent boy needing to believe there was a way out of his own nowhere place.

Regardless. I love it. I have a copy of the first VHS release of the original trilogy, before Lucas got it into his head to "improve" it. Now Cassandra, all of four, has begun playing Lego Star Wars Saga on our new Wii and she's utterly in love with R2D2. She's still too young for exposure to the films, but I look forward to sitting and watching them with her someday soon.

Her recent fascination is why I bring it up. And while I consider it, I realize how far away it is from good story. How far? Five points:

1. Dialogue: It's not horrendous. It doesn't sink to the depths of the recent prequel trilogy ("Hold me like you did on Naboo"), but it is very, very bad. Some examples:
  • "When I left you, I was but a learner. Now I am the master." "Only a master of evil, Darth."
  • "If money is all that you want, then that's what you will receive."

People just do not talk to each other that way. There are a few moments and exchanges which are believable (I suspect they were ad-libbed), and these seem to invariably be comedic bits: , "Boring conversation anyway," etc. The rest of it... well, I can imagine Sir Alec's face during the table reads, and when you compare Shakespeare to this drivel, his quote above is completely understandable.

2. Plot: It requires a fair bit of Plot Induced Stupidity. The Imperial Forces must have the collective intelligence of a slug (not Jabba, some other slug) to be unable to capture one ship when they've got a fleet of Star Destroyers (where were the TIE fighters over Tattooine? Four of them nearly took out the Falcon without even trying), and I won't go into the silliness of any military organization that can't stop four people, an alien and two robots from running loose on a battleship with hundreds of troops on board.

3. Characterization: The magical hermit, the restless orphan, captive princess, pirate captain, a pair of clowns for comic relief and an evil warlord. Cliches don't get any more trite than that. Sure there's a lot of room to manoeuvre within those conventions, but Star Wars doesn't bother.

4. Timing: Darth Vader and Obi-Wan were Jedi Knights, who were the guardians of peace in the Old Republic, which we're given to understand was still around when Luke's father was alive. If so, then how come Luke's never heard of them? And an admiral on the Death Star refers to Vader's "sad devotion to that ancient religion." Even Han calls it a "hokey religion." It sounds like a enough time has passed that everyone's forgotten about the Jedi and the Force, and it'd take more than twenty years for that. I still remember moon walks, and they're more than thirty years gone.

5. Logic: A small torpedo in a tiny exhaust port takes out a station the size of a moon. Who designed this thing? A demolition team? I think it's the same guys who gave us the Ford Pinto.

I love Star Wars. It's what first gave me inspiration to write. However, I hope Mr. Lucas understands that I have no desire to emulate his film. I'm trying to write well.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Year-End Round Up

Current Reading: The Sculptress, by Minette Walters

Inspirational Quote: "Fast away the old year passes, falala lala lala..." -- Deck the Halls, a Christmas Carol.

As I mentioned in my comments on Kelly Osbourne's memoire, I don't really see the point in looking back on anything until you've reached the end. So today is as good a reason to look back as any.


Best Movie I've Seen: Wall-E. Reminded me a lot of the old Laurel and Hardy shorts, only more developed and with robots.
Worst: The Love Guru. No disrespect to Mike Myers and company, but the story in this was just an excuse to frame jokes I stopped laughing at when I was in high-school. Every time he looked, smiled or winked for the camera, I wanted to slap him.

Best Book I've Read: A toss up between Nation and The Last Lecture. Both ask you to think about who you are and what you need, the latter also gives you an excuse to tear up and wonder why you're not a better person.
Worst: Digging Leviathan.

Best Song I've Heard: Coldplay's Viva La Vida. They have a unique sound that comes through in Clocks, Speed of Sound and Viva La Vida. Mindless pop? Yes, but a neat tune to hear on the drive to work or back.
Worst: Any rap song my kids forced me to listen to that mentioned murder, gangsters or more four-letter words than you're likely to hear from a teamster who's just stubbed his toe.

Best Television Show I've Seen: Cities of the Underworld. This one's on the History Channel here in Canada. It's an archaeology show exploring the buried remains of ancient cities. Caveat: I don't watch much television. I catch the occasional episode of this, a few cartoons, and every episode of Heroes. That's about it. If you're looking for an informed television critic, try this guy.
Worst: The Brave and the Bold, a Batman cartoon that insults any fan of the 90's animated series.


Best News I've Heard: Barak Obama. The citizens of the United States somehow elected a president smarter than a tree.
Worst: The economy hasn't hit bottom yet.

Personal Stuff:

Best Thing that Happened: A day at Canada's Wonderland with my family. The boys are finally big enough for the "ride anything" wrist band, and we could have spent another two days there doing just that. Cassandra (my four-year old daughter) spent the day in the Children's Village and everyone enjoyed the splash park.
Worst: Yesterday, I got into a 3-car accident and received news that my cancer-stricken uncle died. Not a good day.

Most Fun Thing I've Done: Watched my children grow up. Telemachus is now fourteen and beginning to think thoughts I almost understand. Aeneas (my younger son) is smart and funny and doesn't want us to know. Cassandra takes joy in almost everything. I wish I hadn't waited until I was almost forty to become a Dad.
Least: Taken Aeneas to the hospital for a football-related wrist injury. Wait times are slight longer than a geologic epoch.

New Year's Resolution: To finally finish the Magnus Somnium and start something new.

Happy 2009, everyone. May all your worsts be behind you, and all your bests ahead.