Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rearview Exits

I'm piling them up, shuffling the stacks as I come to realize that a good portion of these will only have the first few pages read and some of them barely that. Like decisions that I could have made differently years ago, these are books whose reading time I've bypassed.

Especially when I'm at Half Price and the books are thinner and the artwork on the covers familiar, I'm tempted to believe that they will read easily. Some do and some begin with the willful wistfulness that dissipates as the story moves into its track. Usually it's the story of a girl or of a warrior. Gossip flows around the character and I start to become restless.

By this time, I'm already at home and the book falls into a stack of things I "need to read, sometime." Stacks teeter and sometimes leap out at dogs that aren't careful enough of them. After they jump back, I look at covers that I haven't seen in months and grind my back teeth. Each unread book is an accusation that I moved on without proper care or consideration, that I have a rather slutty approach to reading that does me no good.

Several years ago, I was buying books while participating in a writer's group, hung up on the notion that we paid for our "free" space in the bookstore by book purchases and Frappucinos. I didn't finish anything nor did I sell anything, but I paid dues in stacks of unread novels, natural histories, and how-to-write books.

When I'm tempted to write now, I think of those books. I think of people with more willpower just walking past the shelves and ignoring the effort that pleads like a lost kitten for a warm bookshelf and perhaps a cozy reading. I imagine abandoning my ideas to mewl on the shelves and decide to neither read nor write, but to put a CD in the stereo and wash the dishes.

Perhaps I will shuffle some of the books to the shelves in the back, where I don't look for reading material because it's either already been read or rejected. My husband will eventually give in to the piles and reorganize the books. He's thinking about getting a library program that will track them, similar to the one he has for his comics. I will be able to search for author and title and tote up the randomness of a reading list that stretches like the highway--places I've been, those I missed, and those I hope to get to eventually.

Seeing the exits in the rearview as they stack against the shelves, time becomes heartbeat underfoot, tires spinning beneath me.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Have you ever wondered what kind of bauble machine would appear in the kind of grocery store that caters to people who jog or bike over from their bayou-side condos? One of them would be the art-o-mat, a re-jiggered cigarette dispenser that now provides boxes the size of a deck of cards filled with the flotsam of creative people.

It's genius. And a good excuse to stash the Pumpkin King in the car and drive down into the the city and remember what it was like to not be afraid of the freeways, to deal with the constant construction, and to see the new face of Houston as it swells out along I-10. For me, this counts as a vacation (meeting the following criteria: I haven't been to this particular store and I hadn't driven this particular freeway in at least a year and it was at least an hour away from the house).

We had a fun time playing grocery store tourist and I had a blast deciding on the piece that we would bring home. My brother the art snob thought it was hilarious, but I think it's easy to miss the point when you're fenced in by criteria (or possibly just have to look at a lot of "draft" art). This happens to me when I'm writing, when I forget that I'm telling a story to someone.

The piece that I have is by Klop and it consists of a copper wire that holds two strands of found beads within its web. The artist included a brief note regarding where the materials come from, how they found themselves tangled in this egg-shapped armature that looks like art nouveau sieve that accumulated wooden beads that have lived through washing and fumbling fingers and one clear blue plastic bead that functions as the soul of the piece--it is the one thing that will not change or wear as even the metal will over time.

I can look around my desk and open drawers and see the kind of flotsam that I acquire. I am the Sargasso Sea, a still spot that spins around the things that come to it until there is an imagined ecosystem that gathers rather than wanders. But...that's just the structure of how I chose to interpret the things around me, including this new piece that seams to be a metaphore for the whole. The truth is that everything that I hold close is proof that I've slipped out at times. Even if the escape was no further than to a suburban dream of an urban grocery store.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Library Day

The odd thing was that I thought reading Saberhagen would be painful, then picked up a short story collection of his anyway. I thought the stories might be garishly grotesque or grimly technical, mechnical devices that ground the reader through an interstellar mill until you were a fit flour to be baked back into human form by the intensity of your reaction.

What I found in the book is far better than I deserved. These are entertaining stories and they give you at times that snap at the wrist of great fiction, the kind that reawakens you to the memory that you used to read for pleasure, rather than just to get through that tremendous stack by the bedside.

It is clear to me that being a writer is something that I couldn't have learned from all the lectures that my former writing group gave or from all the books on creating interesting first lines, etc. Not that those things weren't helpful. Rather, they encouraged in a vague way the things that are crystal clear in a good story. Catch the reader's attention and keep it long enough to tell the story. Remember that you're writing for humans and we know the difference between artificial and real decisions.

This last is the most persuasive and sticky thing from the book so far. In a story about an alien world that bent my brain a bit trying to imagine it, there was a man who did something...stupid? rude?...and then repeated that action, separating himself from his actions with potent lies conjured out of nostalgia.

Reading that chain events I felt the slight sickness that comes when I recognize the dark gravity of my personality tugging at me. This is something that I have done.

Characters human enough to induce guilt are well-tuned. You might not have the same reaction to that character's actions, but I think he was written well enough that you would at least recognize the reality of his impulses.

Library day is rarely this successful and I'm looking forward to seeing whether the entire collection and the rest of the books are this good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Presence or Testimony

I am embarrassed to admit that I had a rather one-note, reductive reading of Piers Moore Ede's Honey and Dust. That reading might be summed up as "What about the women?" In his celebration of honey and, by extension, traditional culture, the lack we may feel as city dwellers is part of the destruction we wreak upon traditional culture without appreciation for its natural values and balance.

That his experience of these cultures was often mediated by a male guide similar to Moore Ede in age and often seemingly in inclination and included only the male (and relatively high status men) voice while women peeked around corners and made the food while the author droned on about natural ways of life at times made me want to shriek.

This boiling irritation is mostly personal. I have an unsatisfied taste to see things that I haven't and plenty of empty space in my currently jobless life to go and see them. I have a serious jones to see New York City from the a sidewalk park or a street corner in Manhattan, to see Chicago from an art museum window...heck, to see Austin from a taco truck somewhere in the city. The idea that it's easier for a guy to drop everything and take off is something of sore spot for me.

When the author speaks of clay being kneaded like a woman's breast in the hands of a potter, I wonder if he sees all those nameless women as a pack of Galateas waiting for the sculptor to carve away modernity and set them all back in their proper forms. He spends so much of the narrative pressed so deeply inside of himself, though, that this metaphor reading extends as much to him as it would to the nameless women he brushes past in telling his story.

Each guide and each forgotten way of keeping bees and searching for honey seems to offer the potential for a healthy mirror in which to look at who he (and we) could be. The scenes are beautiful and arresting. The book is a chronicle of the choice that witness can make a sort of presence out of the absence of the traveler. Even so, I can't help but feel discomfited by the absences that seemed inherent in the witness itself.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer Returns

My grandmother, once upon a time, was a nurse in Pennsylvania. After the death of her first husband, she supported herself and my mother there until she met and married my grandfather. She came south to Texas when my mother was a teenager with her second husband, a captain of a tankers out of Port Arthur, and lived in a small house in Port Arthur until, at my grandfather's retirement, they moved into a house down the street from my family.

Her story tumbles through me when our a/c blows a faint scent of vinegar heat beneath the coolness. Her Lake Jackson living room develops from this tang, the ironing board stiff before the great cabinet television while the iron clicks and slides in the dimness. My grandparents had purchased a house with few windows in the living room to counter the dark paneling and dark carpet. It was a flat cave for the TV. The rest of the house felt exposed by comparison.

In the living room, you could read in the one chair by the glass door (the only light in the room, save the TV, during the day) or dump the old plastic toys out across the white marble of the coffee table and arrange endless iterations of cooking and cleaning for the molded families while grandmother performed endless examples of the same. Iron or wash or fold or cook or just sit and watch the over-shampooed soap stars glitter through whatever brittle venality kept you moving and shaking your head.

Those toys were generations removed from my experience. The men wore hats and smoked pipes. The women wore kerchiefs and kept baskets of eggs. One family was pressed into the same clothes as the Leave it to Beaver clan. Their material was soft, almost like rubber, and they were monochromatic: the farm family yellow, the suburban family and eerie pink flesh color, as if their skin included sweathers, bobby socks, and shoes.

Perhaps the heat in the garage and in the attic is pressing that smell through the vents. The summer is encouraging me to remember today my former places of refuge. Until now, I had only had intimations of threat.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Something That I Have Mislaid

I am racing through the stack of books beside the bed. Today I put down The Mays of Ventadorn and scooped up Stirring the Mud, pausing for a bit of coffee in between. Both books are discursive memoirs, both by writers, and both explore the idea of land reflecting through a writer's mind and becoming grammar and verse.

The traces of thought in Stirring have a more personal feel, with the writer deriving her ideas and building an alien imagination out of the ground of her present habitation. It is a vacation from my own imagination, tangled as it has become. As I read, I rub the cover of the book with each shift and slide the paper cover in to mark my place as I pause to let my eyes rest.

Distracted from the bones of a short story, the text before me wavers and fades. I am still reading, but softly. There is another image growing in the verge of my own imagination, a comfortable closet of a Half-Price Books, the one down near the city where we used to shop before we moved out here in the suburbs that have soaked all the way out the highways to beyond the airport. Did this book come from that bookstore?

We shopped there because it was cheap but also because it was homey, wooden shelves, alcoves, and sections that spilled out into smaller shelves along the walls. It was a place that had toys and blankets along the top of the shelves. Once, it also had a book on weaving dog fur. I should have bought it; I carried it a bit, then left it behind.

Because of that one book, Wynn is also here, snoozing at the edge of my thoughts. He was a American Eskimo, standard size at 40 lbs. and a master at producing free-roaming fur clumps. I could have a scarf of his softness against my neck, had I the wit to realize that a random find is a treasure only once lost.

It was easy to say to myself that I neither spin nor knit and wouldn't have learned just becuase of a fuzzy dog. That first small denial, the refusal to be curious, was enough to bar the way. Soon enough we had moved from that area, north as I had once fervently hoped. We live within an easy drive of two Half-Price Books, neither of which feel like welcoming hideouts for interesting books and my curiousity is blunt anyway, having been dashed again and again after the same shallow interests and short travels.

Wynn isn't curled around my neck and the words, into which I had relaxed, have scattered into silence like the frogs in Stirring the Mud. I will finish it soon and slip the paper covers back into their proper places. I will not think about the casual ease of the words to turn the mould of my own stagnant imagination. There are other books on the shelves.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Conan Rant, Day 2

Driving to lunch this afternoon, we passed through the haze of the wildfires to our north. This morning, the news was carrying a story about asking random people to evacuate their house in 5 minutes and finding out if they could. A few days our governor was cheered by a bloodthirsty crowd for his vicious idea of justice. These are things that I cannot handle today.

Instead, I am posting a second day of Conan ranting. Let me start by saying again that I think the writers and the director and producers of the movie that we saw fundamentally didn't understand what they were making. In their hands, they were making a simple, bloody story in the form of so many other stories recently come through the multiplex. They were making a dress in a particular shade cut to the same specifications as 15,000 other dresses in slightly different shades--instead of one of yellow spandex or one with glowing green lines or one with a nifty cowl, this one is fur and leather, accessorized with a missing sword that must be eeeeeaaaaarrrrnnned. Work it, hero.

Grrrr. Each twist of the story was a simple wooden mallet on a single xylophone note. Tough childhood--ding! Advanced skills from an early age--ding! Immature understanding of heroism--ding! Geas of dead parent--ding! Some willful child is banging on the notes, but the resonance is missing.

What if Conan had emerged, not the toughest child in what appeared to be a rather fearful bunch, but the best among an already tough (not bigger, but brave, skillful, and deadly) group? What if we'd seen none of this as fact, but received it as rumor throughout a movie that involved a quest that was motivated by a warrior with his own purpose? Would it have mattered if none of the childhood stuff were true if the character himself had been strong and interesting from the start?

It seemed to me that most of what we saw in city settings in the movie were cages of people (or taverns, but that's not to the point) being held. If I thought that this was some kind of metaphor for the way people are hemmed in by civilization rather than growing up free and muscular in the wild, it might be interesting. As set dressing, it was boring. The cities themselves were rarely interesting or evocative. Most of the action seemed to take place in dark, undistinguished caves. Again, unevocative. This is world riddled with sorcery and myth and one matte painting of a skull cave should not be the extent of the wonder and/or horror portrayed.

The flat tone extended to the female monk. What kind of monks sit around having the equivalent of slumber party visions? What is the purpose of becoming a monk? Why didn't this character have any spark at all? Random sidekick/love interest--ding! The dialogue between them often sounded as if they were in different movies.

When a familiar character misses his or her chance at the movies, the books remain. Movies can reopen the wonder of the characters, though, and they are one thing that I can share with my husband, whose tastes and mine diverge rapidly despite beginning in similar genres. I hate having to suffer through crap and then hear him say, yeah, I enjoyed it because I wasn't expecting anything. We should expect something. I expect to be entertained.

Perhaps tomorrow will be pleasant (I'll swear off the news for the weekend) and we can all move on from Conan The Deafening.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Legend of Our Legend Precedes Us

The AMC theater in Deerbrook has, like the mall itself, little shine left for adult eyes. Their sound system is painfully overpowered and last night blasted our viewing of Conan into shards of boredom and pain.

Perhaps my reaction to the movie was influenced by the theater. It was a standard beginning--special child acting special--and had for me no emotional heft (save for the birth scene). Is this a flesh and blood character or a mythic hero? The voiceover hints at myth but the scenes are so plainly shot that no aura of myth adheres.

Why not make of this opening sequence a series of tales told about the birth of this "Conan" who is harrying the slavers and minor despots around Cimmeria (or Land X, whatever). Are these stories real? We as the audience
don't need to know. Instead of bloody "realism," we could have jumped in to the "quest that made his name known across the world" or some such thing.

In this way, the thrust of the story wouldn't be on avenging his father--that's a single story that's fine, but doesn't put you on the path to future glory (and sequels)--it would be on giving energy to a mythic character that would carry us forward into his story and leave us wanting to see more.

This is the problem/challenge for so many recent superhero movies. Becoming a hero doesn't necessarily make for an interesting story and 50 stories of "special kids becoming special" is just dull. Did we have to see how Indiana Jones got through his thesis while battling for treasure before we understood his character? Heck no! Did the first Batman films slavishly insist on showing us the story of Batman's transformation from the beginning? Again, no. The Hulk (the second movie) didn't waste too much time on this either.

When you make me wait to see Conan as an adult and you give him only one purpose in life (looking for his father's killer) and then solve that arc, you kill the story. I don't need to know how he became a barbarian and neither does anyone else who paid to see the movie. The poster sums it up: Conan is a barbarian. There will be sword fighting in this movie. What else do you need? Oh, yeah. Why we should care.

There were a few flashes in the movie of wonder and myth, but they didn't come until well after the halfway point. These are the elements that could expand the story from a character's quest to something larger. At the end, I didn't wonder where he was going next (maybe why he was leaving--what's left for him to do at this point?). The story ended.

The truncated story is a shame because epic fantasy can make for a fun movie and the actor who played Conan was fun to watch. It's too bad that his director/scriptwriter/etc. didn't give him a whole movie.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Heroes in Exile

For some time now, I've been trying to plow through a stack of unread books, lamenting both my changing tastes and my inability to resist stacking up paperbacks at Half Price. I tried to stack things I really wanted to read beneath things I "should" read and ended up just cherry-picking the stacks.

This has brought me both stomach-churning treats and a desire to mention the Hero's Journey. As in, I am too old to be taking the standard hero's journey and I'm not really interested in reading 8 million books about young people who are discovering their own special edges and coming home to be the incredibly brilliant cog in a now-familiar wheel. I just can't get all that worked up about the girl from the far village who goes to the magic university/great palace/sparkly vampire ball.

Let me stop to say that it's mostly fantasy that seems to be deserting me. Mystery novels are still fun. Modern gothic chick lit is still creepy and heartwarming (Reese's Peanut Butter Cup reading!!) Fantasy,'s either gruesome or YA or as familiar as my favorite trails in the Arboretum. Which is the problem--my tastes are provincial.

The best stuff isn't familiar until you're finished. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, for example. I wanted, oh how I wanted an explanation for what was going on throughout the novel. For the author to let her protagonist off the hook. To be able to understand on what kind of freaky moral judgments her universe was based. Her protagonist was alive, the side characters were alive, and after I finished I was alive to the judgment calls and assumptions around me. I wanted the woman at the heart of the novel to be okay.

After I finished Zoo City, I picked up an anthology of short stories and my reader's high was smacked right off. Here was something that was "the best" of some previous year and it was recycling some familiar images and handing out a tidy moral--you adults, get the heck out of fantasy! It's a kid's game! Find a random kid, pass it on!

What the heck? Was I supposed to turn this anthology in to the nearest daycare center? Apologize for wanting to stick with a genre I've enjoyed? At moments like these, I remember the cover of my dad's Tolkien books. Bilbo riding a barrel toward Laketown, drifting with his head up and waiting for the next turn of the water. Even though that first book was more of a children's story, Frodo's story was not. He didn't bring fire back to his village, marry the most bodacious Took, and populate Bag End with Frodolings. Instead, his journey is one of exile.

Perhaps that is the hero journey that most appeals right now. For whatever reason, I have come to a place where the idea of setting out and not coming back or not coming back to the same place makes sense, to where the idea of hero is confused with the idea of excised pathogen.

This gives me hope. For if I am to be exiled from fantasy itself, there is perhaps a more miraculous story that is waiting to be discovered.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Montalban Moment

He was eating breakfast in a booth when I arrived, straw cowboy hat, sunglasses, and string tie hanging centered in the V of his open shirt. He got up to toss some trash, stood and laughed with another table, shirt open in the approved Wrath of Khan-era Montalban manner. I'm staring at his chest, which is rude. I'm thinking about temptation and the white-suit-era Montalban. Thinking about the devil in Texas.

These images all tumble together because watching Fantasy Island was pretty much forbidden back in the day, except at Grandma's. As a kid, I would conk out on her giant bed as each week's assortment of wishes were fulfilled. Much of it flew over my head, but not the image of a sardonic Latin angel walking his latest guest through the realization that you don't really want what you want.

An odd lesson to absorb, yet one perfectly consonant with the idea of not being successful, just being...suburban. I'm reminded of the lawyer wife from The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul--the one who just wanted everything "nice." She died for that. And maybe for blackmailing the gods to get it.

So I'm having a nice breakfast and I'm enjoying this laptop and I'm thinking about whether I should just noodle around some more or get down to business and whether it's a good idea to lead with an image of this guy's chest and why I have this instant need to link a cheerful tanned gentleman with the darkness when it's just the heat outside and the brass sky at 10 am and the slow broil against the window.

I'm still wondering what I wished for. Whether it really was "nice."

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Perhaps the best anecdotes begin with a dog...or with barbecue...or with just the slight tug of your attention away from the hum of the everyday. This one begins with a giant bag of barbecue takeout that we brought home in the dark in June. Must have been pretty late for it to have been full dark in June, so let's say sometime after 9 pm.

As we were walking in the door, something flashed through the yard, a square-jawed, dark face that looked bigger than in was coming in fast from the slight rise by the neighbor's fence. With the food secured via deft footwork, we found a thin short-haired border collie zipping around, looking for food.

She was friendly but unclaimed. One of the boys down the street said her picture was taped to a lightpost near a convenience store and, after determining she was friendly (and hungry) and not in the least afraid of the car, we drove around the neighborhood to find her family.

There are lots of pages advertising lost and found dogs around us, spaniels and labs and little fluffy Yorkies, etc. We visited the convenience store for the first time and poked around the shreds of a dozen fliers looking for hers. We asked neighbors and the man in the convenience store. We found no matches.

The next day we toured the vets around the neighborhood. She had no chip and none of the vets or patrons recognized her. By now, her method of huddling her back against your legs or your side and flopping back against you, her backwards canine hug, was already nestling her into the family.

When she received a clean bill of health and was accepted by a rescue agency for adoption, we brought her temporary pen out into the den with Merlin & Varda and started our own small pack. We named her Angel, giving her the kind of pet name that we never seem to give our own dogs.

She stayed with us for three months and recalibrated our interaction with our two fuzzy ones. Reminded of our first dog, the nimble American Eskimo we'd lost two years ago, I finally started to give up some of the sorrow that had frozen my interaction with Merlin & Varda. The three of us zoned on the couch in the hot afternoons. Angel is a tennis ball fiend, so we played catch when we could.

Then the dominance games started and the formerly housebroken troika started having to be walked separately. It was frustrating and I lost it. Instead of coming up with good ideas (like shifting their feeding schedule to the cooler morning or evening), I wanted the situation "fixed." To my husband's credit, he let me weather a bout of bad advice relating to the dogs by visiting my parents.

At this point, Angel found her adoptive family. We scheduled a time for them to pick her up and then we waited. The day they picked her up, we tried to have her out and give her all the hugs we possibly could. My husband was sad--he had considered her part of the family and I was worried about Merlin and Varda. You can't explain things to them.

So far, the dogs seem fine. Angel is friendly and was happy to be heading out with her new family. Merlin and Varda are curious and sniffy and have spent a good part of the day curled up with me.

I find myself sad at odd moments--feeding the dogs and only getting food for two of them--and at others trying to make this into a narrative that teaches me something, anything to keep Angel as close to my heart as possible.

Having three dogs was difficult. They needed more attention than I could give them during the day and the drought made trying to get them exercised separately its own special hell. I didn't want to admit that I was overwhelmed and I didn't search for ways to manage the issue, I just wanted it resolved--I wanted Angel to find her own family.

She was a gift and a lesson and a reminder, a bit of forgiveness in the grief of losing Wynn at a time when I didn't realize I needed it. She was not a stray dog. She was on the road
that goes ever on, down from the door where it began.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Steps

It begins this morning on FM1960. There are many, many empty storefronts, small shopping plazas with different fronts and colors. This one has a poured concrete overhang, the bulbous front pressed with dozens of stone chips and the walls around the dark windows light columns of grey or beige brick. The 80’s are drowsing here, the great dark windows like aviator shades blank to your perusal and the overhang heavy above. If a fuschia sylph pushed out of one of the doors, insect bright, insect fragile--black lace gloves grasping at her own conversation, you might have heard Tina Turner following after.

Instead, the entire place passes in seconds and the street shows another empty face. There are few people out in the brutal heat of late morning. Mad Max is laughing at us, whispering taunts in a digital stream that breaks across the internet ocean; a dry, dry day at our fingertips.

If we slip from the morning to the early evening, we find the blank shapes of thundershowers in the distance and the bloom of the heat lingering in the car, despite the all-the-way up a/c. After a brief stop, we bring food to the parking lot of quiet four-story building and eat in a parking space under a tree, the sun diffused over the dash. A few breaths might center us here, but we don’t really want to be here, so we turn up the radio and listen to the bad news of the day.

Money and drought share an image of a closed and broken spigot. They keep talking and the fries and chicken fingers lose their savor. We have been warned not to come late to the door, to risk only a quarter of an hour past six and so we hurry in at 6:05 pm.
Most of the offices are quiet but few are dark at this hour. At the end of the hallway, right beside a glass exit, is the door to the stairwell. Stepping in, you see another glass door immediately to your left. You can exit either from the public or the private side, but one is tempted to think that you would come out in entirely different landscapes.

The stairs themselves begin under a low ceiling and the straight rise to the second floor brings you past this drop ceiling to stairwell straight to the fan at the ceiling. It is dark in here. The bulbs are on as required, but the light is not bright.

By the time we reach the second floor, the public building and the outside are hidden from our sight.

Still, we are climbing to the fourth floor. We do, only to find the stairs continue. At first, the fan, open to the day, distracts us. Then we see a missing ceiling tile and a dark space revealed. Sunlight comes from some opening and blinds us to the coils and giant transistors we seem to see.

It’s the opening to a box of dreams, to a box of steampunk magic, to a box that only an engineer would hold.

Here we are in the stairwell. There is a door and a place to be. There is no maintenance person standing in the dim of the stairwell, the top of his building open to our eyes. We can’t see the leaves that are falling in the mid-August haze. There is no sound of children outside, beyond the rusty fan that has not yet begun to turn.
It has not been stopped for us.

And yet . . . it is stopped. The ceiling has exposed the brilliance of the sun’s evening fingers lying against the mechanism and the deep blue of the sky above the fan. There are more steps.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Impossible Shot

Lately I've tried to be more of a "consider the reader" writer and less of a crazy fantasy snob. It probably has something to do with the awful, awful book I recently finished that flew across the room at least twice before landing, ruffled and much maligned, in the stack of read books on the top of the bookshelf.

Masquerading as a mystery story, this stupid mishmash of a cozy instead came across as the author's lame sermon on tolerance and supporting your friends and not denying your own uniqueness in favor of your own overblown sense of propriety. The main character was a doormat who was apparently cute when angry ('cause the men like 'em spunky and yet in their place) and possessed of a mysterious "empathy" that allowed her to sense...emotions? Ghosts? Who cares?

Despite being a MYSTERY, the main character didn't solve anything. Instead, the murderer murderously attacked her and spilled the impossible-to-solve plot (because all clues had been erased or completely ignored by those prejudiced but hot cops) just so the book could end.

This poor book was horrible. It made me angry. I've read drafts better than this tripe.

After finishing it and to clear the palate, I decide to take a break from plots and books and the like and clean the front room. (Anger has its uses.) To keep my blood pressure in line, I put in an old kd lang cd and was soothed by songs shuffling calmly from the dusty speakers.

Then came the song about growing up in Ontario. For some reason, the images bled across the living room like the watercolor illustrations in the books I used to read at my grandparents' house--the little Indian children growing up in the desert, the biographies of the pioneers, the fantastic Water Babies--and flashed into the fields outside of Port Arthur that passed by the windows of their great tan Buick as we traveled to visit cousins or other relatives. Wherever those memories live in my body, they were sieved up and served to me by the song about a place that I've never been.

The songwriter, the singer didn't aim at opening up my memories of summer trips; yet the song did just that. It made an impossible shot, threading the present roadblocks straight into the heart of the past.

While the tone deaf battering of the mystery story doesn't relate to my experience of the song at all, I find myself at once jealous of the song and fearful that I am instead the tone deaf author caterwauling against the silence.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Drowning Eyes Draft

Even if the water level is low, the water isn’t clear enough to reveal the creature that casts the dark shadows by the bank. It might be fish turning beneath the water; instead these sleek dark bodies are Jenny Willow’s hands and her hair, tangling beneath the water like a mare’s nest from a nightmare, sharp and quick and hungry.

I swerve around the sandbank, pulling myself through a warm trill of water, digging my fingers into the gummy sand and keeping an eye on Jenny Willow. If she doesn’t leave, I will pull myself back to my own pool. Pegmell might be lying, I might have been made foolish by living further away from the Borders.

Here where Cypress Creek bends past the Pale Queen’s lands there are hungry Jennies along her borders, sometimes visible out of the corner of your eyes as you walk through the park. Jenny Willow’s [twisting] shadows thrust up in to the small tree leaning over the water. She pulls herself up and then dangles from her hands, flinging herself toward a sharp cut in the bank. Her thin form stretches like a splash and then she’s gone.

I slip along the sand, the green water blank around me. Despite a pool close to the river, I am hungry enough to eat a frog. Pegmell brought a brief respite from the hunger in the granite gnaw-rocks with which she lured us past the border. Mine fell beside me like a fat frog and I had caught it and tossed it away from water before my fingers registered the solid texture. Frogs bring out the vicious in the Jenny; they are the family we are forced to keep.

I pulled myself from the water, lifting the veil from my eyes and letting them gleam over the bank. Our flesh is more than our skin, of course. The water itself is part of our flesh, an inside-out pulse. I am both naked and flayed in the heat.

The smell of her and her rock had already disturbed my pool, however. She might as well have tossed in a basket of frogs. My stomach rumbled. We never eat our leaping brethren; it’s like chewing on a bit of your own skin. They remind me of our true prey, though. People are rare in this water, rarer at night and early morning, when my eyes are clear and bright enough to lure them close to the water.


Pegmell came up the dying branches of Cypress Creek for those of us who might be suffering from the lack of water. I can follow her scent on this rock. The idea of something that is too secret to be spoken through the dragonfly whispers and yet is urgent enough to risk throwing rocks at your cohorts intrigues me.

Her meeting is well inside the Pale Queen’s borders, in a shallow milky cataract of a pool edged with iris and mined with turtles. I can feel the eyes of the snakes and others following me from the leaf litter and the branches. Open space is best for her business.

I keep my calves in the water so that I am less naked than I feel. It is not my pond and the pulse of the dyed water faint. It tastes like the pipes from which it came. The other Jennies are pulled up around Pegmell, leaning against the iris swords.

Until Peg speaks, her azure eyes dominate the tan and green mottle of her skin. The deep brown of her lips merely underline those eyes. Drowning eyes.

“Did you know that these are what Arthur took, what he was offered by the first Jenny, the Queen of the pond. A sword green and sharp. No one comes for our swords or our help anymore,” Pegmell begins.

Pegmell is still smiling at us. Her mouth tugs her eyes just beyond the edge of her face and I wonder if she has learned to taste us dry, as she has learned to breath and speak abovewater. My own tongue twists and I bite down, leaning over the water.

“I imagine that she lived in the robes of a princess, that she was perhaps the sister of the man on the bank. She gave power to her brother and he lost the way, the way every way has been lost to us. We are more frog than man, and more viper than frog.” Her lips curl above her teeth.

I blink and find myself pushing down into the water. The others move closer to her. She glances my way and I am careful to keep my mouth above water. I want a name and I think that I could be less solitary. Sharp teeth pin my mouth closed. The iris swords bend to my fingers and the tips point for a minute toward Peg. Am I less alone here?

Jenny Bog shake a dragonfly from her shoulder. There will be no tales today. Jenny Cypress catches it with her tongue and swallows whatever tales it had. I lick the stone that Peg gave me--each of us is holding a bit of the limestone.

None of us are blooming and Peg’s skin is dry. Her arms curl around her knees and her toes grasp the concrete edge. Every thin flap of skin has been abraded away. Each digit is separate. I find myself sliding closer, like the turtles that bump against me and crawl over the small of my back toward the sun. My skin aches at the sight of hers.

Pegmell’s voice throbs softly over us. “The dwarves remember the same things, the way that their work was taken. Always for compensation...but it became hordes and rumors and handiwork became...unheimlich. When I found one of them standing at the edge of an old cenote, I almost pulled him into the water.”

“Tell us what becomes of our places when we leave?” Jenny Cypress asks.
“You won’t care. These are places that you wait, like a chrysalis for tadpoles. You will have other places with others of us. There are no bad stories of the homes which you will find.” Pegmell stopped.

“With dwarves?” Jenny Silver Maple asks?

“There are other creatures that you will meet. There are homes that come with the gnawing stones and others that come with a few bones. You can abandon the prejudices of kept creatures.” Pegmell spoke to those who lived in the park, not to those of us who were further away.

“Not all of us are protected by the Lady,” I murmured.

“There is no protection here. Are you protected by staying the same? By believing that you are capable only of drowning and eating the world from which you’ve come? You had mothers who were not part of the park, not behind the border that your fathers hid behind. There is no court here that will give you more than a sentence of eternal hunger.”

“We can find our mothers?” Jenny Bog stood, revealing the tangles of skin still clinging to her waist. She was still shedding into her form.

“I’m offering a chance to make a home for yourself. I’ve seen the King’s Riders pause when he saw us at the side of the dwarf Robert. They saw that we were the same kind of honor, the same fealty was offered to Robert as the King expects. We are no longer Jennies or kelpies or dark promises. We are capable of it. What we want from our heritage we will take.” Pegmell kept us deep in her gaze.

A braver creature might have chosen to take what she implied was there, but my character had coldness and treachery as well. Limestone sparked against my tongue but I was thinking of clouds of blood drifting through the water, tasting the human dissolved in the water, the way it should be. Child of lies, if not violence, I was the daughter of a frog prince and a human woman. I was the pearl who survived.


Smoke doesn’t frighten me the way it does the others. My pool is ringed by cigarettes and the smoke above the waves soothes me. Here in the horns of the Pale Woman in the wind that is for a moment her hair and then air again, the crazy sparks of lightning bugs struck from her bone, from her fingers, light the page longer than their mother, the lightning bolt.

After cracking the spine of the notebook, I’m ready to put down the confession, to ask for a pool in the Woman’s protection, to betray Pegmell’s silence.

I have little hope for this. Pegmell asked no permission to break the bonds of the court, gave no gifts to our people for taking us from our pools.

She was released by the dwarf so many years ago, she’s seen the hidden and the mud and the places were even the humans dive naked back into the water without giving in to her hunger. How could she remember the reflexes of custom and propitiation? Remembering them, would she count it wise to act on them?

My stomach rolls with the idea of people jumping freely into the water. I am licking my own fingers, Pegmell’s rock has been gnawed into a dry powder and a worry stone that rolls between my fingers like a lost thought.

A scream leaps up behind me. The Woman turns, her white skin shining in the rain. A slim dragon slides backwards down the slick limbs, catching at thin vines and a shallow canopy.

It sprawls before us, eyes whirling. “Mushrooms rise!” it growls and then laughs. Smoke curls from its nose and a gathering of wet frogs and spiraling caterpillars and draggled moths converge on the curling breaths.

She, the Queen who has imprisoned me in her own horns to ride out the this thunderstorm, she takes a deep breath and presses her roots deeper into the sweet soil. We sway with the breaking of the deadly drought.

The princes, the frogs, leap and glisten. I lean over and cast the notebook into the maw of the dragon. Horns catch the delicate skin fronds as I slip down, jumping toward the smoke and darkness.

I land on the startled snout and run, letting the harsh forest pull the water from me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Trail to What?

The Pumpkin King & I were discussing book trailers this evening before dinner and I was wondering what I would do if most of the bookstores around us (at least the ones offering new books) closed. There are other, more important issues that surround this; however, we ended up talking about how we pick our books. In my case, this is a genre issue.

Specifically, we were discussing how fantasy book covers and book trailers either attracted or repelled us. I'm a big believer in the "uncanny valley" and I tend to reject out of hand any animation or cover that looks like it was pulled artlessly from a figure drawing program. If the art design is absent, I'll assume editing and revision are also absent.

When it comes to book trailers, I'm ambivalent. First of all, I hate the notion that a book is just a wordy proposal for a movie. Book trailers seem to play into this, thereby reducing the imaginative content of the book itself to a few familiar scenes (fraught glances, mood-lit woods, etc.) rather than with the voice of the book itself. On the other hand, I've seen interesting ones--although they do prime me for the idea that the book itself is incomplete without the attendent video production.

To me, the attraction of good cover design (and, presumably, book trailers) is that it underscores the ideas that are present in the book. The opportunity to develop and play with the fantastic is missed when tropes and advertising merge to become cheap stand-ins for a developed story or image of the book.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hashbrowns & Waffles

Several weeks ago, our car ended up in the shop for one of those "I can't replicate your issue" problems and the Pumpkin King & I ended up walking to the Waffle House for breakfast while it sat in the shop for several hours.

It takes significantly longer to walk to the Waffle House on foot than it does to flash by on FM1960 going 50 mph. Our last a/c break had been in the PetsMart maybe 20 minutes ago and we were no longer charmed by the sidewalks upon which no one walked or the alternation between wildernesses of grasslands and empty concrete temples. We were radiating sunlight our skin could no longer contain.

The Waffle House had a/c & iced tea and waffles and hashbrowns and, as verified by a trip in the car this morning, they were great. Wonderful crunchy flatop hashbrowns and thin sweet waffles. At the time of the Great Carless Hike, we were given a spot at the counter. Already numb from the walk, we watched the waitresses like bees at every cup and plate and countertop. The walk back was not unpleasant because the break was good and the sun at our backs.

And now, between the deli yesterday and waffles today, I'm thinking about formica countertops and Angel food cake, about the way my Aunt Lois and my grandmother and my Aunt Ruby and my mom all had those moments of cooking for an extended family and how much I miss that, how much I mourn for the kids to whom I won't be passing those physical connections.

Without somewhere for these memories to go, without any more links, I'm holding the end of a broken chain. I can wrap it around this blog like a broken necklace around my wrist, but I can't fix it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Still Gassing On

You knew it would last about a day, right? At least, the part about having anything to say, not the part about being glad to miss the drama that was the Writer's Bitchfest. I'm taking the villainous inspiration and running from that particular haunt.

I was caught by a post regarding the humanities on the From Austin to A&M blog. The idea that one "settles" for an English degree is somewhat odd to me--I was a passionate reader when I decided to major in English and I remain one to this day. Having the chance to study stories and the way they fit into a culture was a great boon to someone who doesn't travel much (claustrophobia is not a travel-friendly condition. I regret not continuing along in my degree path, but I don't regret studying something in which I was interested, nor do I feel that I was "forced" to study it because I was female.Instead, I remember the way my dad spent the night before my wedding talking to all my friends who were pre-med. I will remember the clear impression that left--that I just wasn't all that interesting if I wasn't a science major and still less if I married before advancing beyond my bachelor's degree.

As a writer on the bleeding edge of my 40s, I feel that if I stayed in my degree program, I would have the professional contacts that might have made the business end of writing less opaque, if not easier. Not that it matters, because if I'd had had my choice, I would have been a librarian. In my case, it was the school and not the specific degree program that turned out to be a challenge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not Looking for Group

For several years, I've been trying to find a writer's group that will allow both critiquing and socializing such that you come out with the feeling that you've been vigorously shaken and put to rights at the end of the meeting.

There have been periods in which the various groups I've had the privilege to belong to have been that elusive beast--when the balance between work and chatter was spot on and we trusted each other well enough to give and receive thorough comments.

My challenge is that I progress slowly and don't trust myself so I remain an active participant after the groups have suffered what seems to be the inevitable decline into gossipy circles of writers who move at my same lackadaisical pace.

I'm not looking for another group. If the hoped-for sale hasn't happened by now, it's because I'm not going to dredge up enough internal motivation for it to happen.

I don't, as it turns out, really have anything to say.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Lack Thereof

I am not a scientist and medical descriptions are, for me, narrow switchback trails straight to nausea. Today, however, I was caught up in a story on NPR about regrowing a trachea for a man whose own trachea was blocked by a malignant tumor.

The story itself was like 70's scifi and involved laser-cut plastic molds of the man's own laser-scanned trachea and stem cells from his hip growing like expanding bubbles blown by various hormones, etc. until a new, presumably functional, trachea was ready for implantation.

It was insanely wondrous in a prosaic, I've-seen-this-movie-before fashion.

That reaction worries me. Am I too jaded with images and too uneducated, too uncurious, to field a sense of wonder for this?

I've felt, smelled, and hear many, many machines working in labs doing things that I can't imagine. Part of me suddenly feels that if I'd been more attuned to the physical sciences, I would be a better writer, with a greater capacity for imagination and wonder because I would have a greater understanding of what happens in the heart of the opaque functionality.

The Hordes

Three dogs, especially when one of them is capable of levitation (tiggers & Border Collies are made of springs!), are a horde of dogs. I have a horde of dogs living in the house right now.

Fortunately, all of them are house-trained & friendly and we will soon be lighting our torches and rampaging in unison. Except perhaps the Peskie. After spending the afternoon in the middle of them on the couch, my patience is pillaged and yet I don't really have anything to say on the blog.

This is compounded by the distraction provided by the catepillars eating my moonflower vine. They are a separate horde entirely. Have you ever seen a catepillar eat? At first, it's like watching a nature film and you wonder who sped up the file. Then you realize that it actually did just eat that entire leaf, stem, and partial stem in just a few seconds. I only put up with this in the hope it will form a chrysalis on the now nude vine and I'll get to see a giant moth in my very own backyard!!

That should be worth a short story or two, right? After the dogs and I conduct a bacon raid. Bacon!!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

These Are My People?

Last weekend I attended a local sci-fi convention. We were able to catch a few interesting panels and hear a few of our favorite Texas authors give some depressing but clear insights into the genre & current publishing trends. The dark news and general emptiness of the convention dissolved most of my enthusiasm into a bare remembrance of being in college.

Repeatedly, panelists would remind attendees that we "among our people" and should be enjoying the chance to relax among others who would understand our quirks and carrying out the complex conversations missing from everyday interactions.

In fact, this particular convention is one of the least friendly and conversational places I attend. This year, the hotel didn't bother to put out chairs for conversation areas in the main halls and the attendance was already sparse (presumably another economic victim). I don't think one person said anything to me that wasn't trying to entice cash from me or was employed by the hotel.

These are my people? I am barely educated compared to the majority of the attendees and writers (who tend toward scientist/professor/grad student types) and found that I was becoming increasingly put off by the end of the weekend.

It was at this point that I realized that these were NOT my people. These were his people. I was finally over the daydream of being a writer, of being interested in fantasy or science fiction, or wanting to spend one more second taking notes on subjects that are no longer required.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Squeaking Drives Me Crazy

I’m rubbing the ashes from my fingers, or perhaps the dust of the shelf in front of me. Someone has designed a careless cover for this book but I bend the soft covers and think it might give me time.

Once upon a time, a singer in a white suit—Eddie Rabbit? Michael Jackson? Elvis?—sang a ballad that gave a fading prom its magic gateway; gave a wedding its dissolved proprieties; gave a story its backbone.

It was a sturdier backbone than elf bones. These are the soft fungus of the forest, bleached and eternal, creeping beneath the bones of men to live again, dissolving in sugar lumps on the lips of small children. Elf bones crept through the story like nerves, but the song held the story upright, a supple ballad of emotions that carried the essence of time and the force of life in the bend of a glissando.

When it was sung by the man in white, the vital incarnation gleamed around him, a blue nimbus of stage lights burning in the bright spotlight. The blue clung to the notes, the low ones soaking in the lighter fluid that floated his voice.

The story that used such a spine burned as well. The book hid a thousand snapshots of the people who read it, just beneath the text. Fairy tales crept through the memories, devouring life but linking a narrative and notion.

Critics roasted their opprobrium in the flames, watching the simple skeleton smile and dance beneath the words. Empty, they said. Wrong headed, they said.

But the story smiled. Whatever we have against showing our bones, against watching our veins jump, the story had no such self-consciousness and it burned them with the flame of a particular eternal now.

Eventually, someone was humming the song and thought of the story. It belonged to a parent and showed an odd reflection of the parent, a distortion—a person not yet a parent, neither aspect completely understandable apart from the other. Blue ballpoint in the margins. The flames cast strange images on the cave of the family. It burned the edges of the child’s imagination until the sugary elf bones melted into hard bright lollipops. The child feasted on them in quiet moments on the edge of crowds, always a child on those anonymous shores.

The story died down to embers. It was studied, and then acclaimed. People took possession of it. The singer died, and then the writer. A flame caught from a tribute special and branded the culture with symbolism that was taken into the academy and further studied.

The song was recorded again by a woman in a white suit, the distaff and the universal, and a book trailer was made. This I watched years later on the faceless recommendation of the web and felt something flicker in my memory. A foxfire remnant of bygone nows chased me into the mire of myself. Skeleton days shivered around me. Are the bones of the plot grinning, even now?

The song is the spine of the book. The text is the flesh of the story. It smiles at me, reaches one finger toward the tinder of my imagination.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Scary Smart

Writing? Ha! My backyard is a dust bowl, we've been hosting a temporary dog we've named Angel, and Varda is stress shedding dust puppies.

Angel is a scary smart border collie who is both friendly and probably smarter than the rest of us in the house. We've decided that Merlin would make an excellent Pinky to her Brain, so we're keeping everyone as separate as possible. Merlin already has perfected the art of leading Varda astray (and narcing her out when she takes the bait). If the three of them get together, it won't be a pack, it will be a gang. Possibly with the kind of skills that get made into shows on the USA network (the one with the "characters welcome" tagline).

They were three dogs in an average suburban house, but they had the skills to be so much more. Angel planned the operations, Merlin had both charm and sneakiness, and Varda was the muscle. No pet store, shelter, or counter was secure enough, until they were recruited by The Government for Various Patriotic Purposes. Coming this fall.

Hopefully, Angel's family will find us soon. Before, you know, The Government.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Zombie Post #3

Urrrr. Paaaaages. More Paaaaaages.

Just finished Martinez's Chasing the Moon, which read like the best kind of literary mix tape to date. It left me thinking of tempera paint & jello, as monsters popped from puppetry, bookcover graffiti, and darker places and the entire edifice sank through layers of reference and memory like the apartment tower in which the main character lives. So...thick lines and primary hopes & fears coupled with squirmy humor? Just loved it. :)

Meanwhile, I'm fighting a battle between my urge to be rude, my desire to give in to despair, and my addiction to drowning both in cascades of Frappucinos. So far, the caffeine is winning, by a sip. More group nonsense. Hopefully, that will be all be resolved after Thursday, especially if rudeness wins (I'm kinda pulling for it).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Kurban Said's Ali and Nino sat on the shelf for a while. Other books came in, were devoured, and stacked for adding to our miniscule library. It was, I confess, added to the shelf because of its smoochy/swoony reviews and the fact that I was reading a biography of the author, never having heard of the book itself until I had begun the biography.

Since I am past the "smoochy/swoony" stage of my own life, I was cautious but hopeful. The story began in Baku prior to WWI and followed Ali, a young Muslim of high estate as he fell in love in with Nino, a Georgian princess who attended the nearby girl's school. The love story is both about the relationship between the two and about Ali's love for Baku and the careful balance that both made it possible and that bit into his own identity.

Was it a beautiful love story? I don't know. That part of the story and the alien culture to which both Ali and Nino belonged made it difficult for me to find my way into the story. Ali tells the story, sometimes obliquely, in terms of generalizations of temperment and culture with which it was challenging for me to empathize. Nino feels like a culture unto herself at times rather than a person.

Despite these places were I slipped over the surface without sinking into the heart of the story, Ali's elegy for a place that used to be reasonable, safe, and welcoming proved to be the love story that I found most compelling. Without Baku, there could be no successful relationship with Nino and therefore, no place for Ali.

By the end, it was a heartbreaking indictment of the constant struggle for these places in which we can exist, coexist, and flourish.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


This blog is dead, really, officially dead--therefore, you are reading a zombie blog. It's not yet six in the morning, but the sky is shifting and the windows are blank spaces anymore and the dogs are squeaking about their first morning trip to the backyard.

I've come back to the zombie blog because I've been mindlessly consuming pages. First, yesterday afternoon, then yesterday evening, then at 2 pm when I woke up from a bad dream and realized I had to finished the book and from then until now. It's almost six am and the windows are sapphire and the book is lying beside me on the desk, the front flap quivering in the a/c.

At first, I thought I might contrast the way this book didn't have the same lingering chill of another one only I didn't know what it had instead. Now I do. Urgency. It was four, then five, and now almost six and my eyes hurt and they are watering but the book is done; it is just as exhausted as I am and we are both tense with the tear through the words.

I am frequently guilty of reading as if I were at McDonald's, shoving word after word behind my eyes and into my brain. I like stories that weave images like delicate and intricate line drawings, but I am not always patient enough to appreciate them. There are books everywhere. So I have come back to my undead blog to accuse myself of literary gluttony (and physical as well--there were the chips and pie that fueled several hours of reading) and to say that despite that, I am struck still by the unexpected book that is vibrating from my chest like an arrow.

I'm glad that I picked up The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, glad that I will have it embedded in my brain as I waver between sleep and waking today, glad that it was there when I woke from a nightmare and laid a hand on the nightstand. As it is now after six, I'm going to the dogs and then we are all going to the backyard.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nothing and Nobody

Today is the end of Moon Pools and Mermaids. A writer should be honest and I am a liar--easily frosting the sharp words with baroque description and swallowing them whole. I smother stories.

If I had been courageous, there was a time when I could have either corrected this habit or weaned myself from the idea of writing. Throwing myself into the ring with other writers in college or fighting submission battles on my own would have been the wise choice and the strong one.

Instead, the idea floated on a stream of dithering until the first writer's group. Since then, it's been easy to work for the group, to make their submission deadline, to take their criticism and praise. I've read the suggested books, listened to the lectures, and attended meetings. Writing "for real"--for publication--slid to the side like scenery through a train window; the idea of moving into a published state was a great daydream while I moved through another draft or another short story.

Two years ago, I lost my job and then my dogs, and then--because it wasn't yet a great country song deep in the heart of Texas--I left the first writer's group. Ever since, I've felt something scraping my insides thinner and thinner. You could almost see it pressing against the flesh, preparing the hide for a different purpose.

What will I do now that I'm not a writer?

Swallow the dizzy meringue descriptions until the lies burn them light and I float over the afternoon, the thin skin finally finding a purpose.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In the Backyard

The zinnias, most of them, have their second leaves and their stems are straight enough in the mounded dirt to grow without flopping. One of the dogs has beheaded a sprouted sunflower, and the stem and first and second set of leaves have deflated against the dark soil, like a label on the ground for the remaining sunflower. Ants are gathering like an infection beneath the pots and in the garden since the rain remains an icon for tomorrow or the day after that or, perhaps, the weekend.

Faster than anything, the heat is growing. Our fans jutter the air above the dogs and the dim interior feels like something shaded but not quite covered, despite the a/c.

Even the stories wilt.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wrong, We Have Wrongness

This is why I still read: Mr. Keen's The Cult of the Amateur fleshed out the job loss and economic wreckage caused by "free" media. That bad feeling in the back of my mind when I had to admit to Mom that I get most of my news from the internet is both real and sensible guilt.

On the other and television were "free" media long before file downloading. Have we as a society just moved to the next information pipeline and prefer it to resemble radio/tv more than we prefer it to resemble books/newspapers?

I struggle with the ideas that Mr. Keen presented, primarily in that I see the problem but not how I can effectively act toward a solution. The pipeline referenced earlier carries a tremendous flow of potential disaster over me, including environmental collapse and continued war along the same fault lines.

At the same time, I find myself horrified by the idea that you can improve literature by breaking it down and remixing it. How is a fortune-cookie Shakespearean misquote improved by being translated by a someone who didn't understand the original in the first place and illustrated by stolen clip art?

Monkey #54329, Reporting for Duty

Not that he would care, for I am in no wise a credentialed expert licensed to form such a judgment, but I do agree with Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. I would rather read well-edited books than unedited ones and receive information from a vetted source if I'm basing my vote or my finances or my health on it.

I also enjoy reading a gossipy, fun blog or one that shares opinion that, living in the conservative heart of Texas, I'm not likely to encounter that often in real life. I turning to non-experts for information in these cases or indulging in the internet equivalent of a coffee klatsch? I would argue that these are substitute social encounters rather than information-gathering forays.

I have a real dictionary in my desk that I use when I write (although I use an online one for writing e-mails to go with SpellCheck); however, unlike my parents, I don't own a multi-volume encyclopedia. After reading The Cult of the Amateur, I will probably eschew Wikipedia in the future. I understand and agree with the need to financially support and intellectually support the continued production of researched, well-written information--whether that be electronically or physical books, disks, etc.

I find myself irritated by the book, nonetheless. I can find the same kind of nonsense on my local radio stations, venues such as The History Channel, in the bookstore, and in my own family. Is bad information any less dangerous in those venues? Any less pervasive?

Are blogs, Facebook, etc., about expertise or conversation?

Monday, April 4, 2011


I recently finished Erin Kellison's Shadow Bound which tempted me to take it home because of the fact that the publisher considered it a "guaranteed read" and was willing to refund the purchase price (according to their arcane and limited set of conditions) if the reader didn't like the story. The deadline for refund had passed, but I was more interested in the idea of the guarantee than the guarantee itself.

I am a willing victim of marketing.

Was the story good? Well, yeah. I stayed up late to finish it, slamming the last few chapters into my brain as my eyes fought to take "just a brief break" as midnight came and went. There was tension, an overwhelming sense that the ending would be bleak, jumping jacks of hope that it wouldn't, viscious kicks to hope's groin, and so forth as the pages resolutely keep flipping down toward the resolution.

In the end, however, I felt that author's idea for the story might be more interesting than the formula that shaped the published narrative. The go-go-go plot, flipping sometimes through high-energy bedroom routines, just didn't give me much time to get a purchase on the characters or the structure of the world. It was as if someone had helpfully cut out all that distracting and tantalizing scent just so the blooms would be more showy. I wanted more time with the mythology, more time to run my hands over the joinery that connected the magic to the mundane. In particular, I wanted more time with a main character who developed both through her own strength and the press of circumstance. Perhaps a main character who more fully owned the story.

I'm undecided on whether to get the second book in the series. It looks like that book might delve a little deeper into interesting areas; however, I feel the template has already been set by this first taste. The guarantee was solid, I did enjoy the book. I would have liked more story, though.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Still Stinging

I finished the Elegies last night and opened my e-mail this morning to find that my goals are too complex and that I need to lighten up. Apparently, immersing myself in the question of what I'm doing and how I'm doing it only leads to confusing blog posts and grim e-mails.

Fair enough. I kept reading lines out loud to see if they sounded as overwrought as they felt while reading. It was easy to lose perspective because the essays tended toward a depressing vision of a future in which we are plugged into the hive and unable to separate ourselves from the group, when the impulses propagate through entire societies like a craving for sugar runs through my own limbs right about this time of day. Where will the organization come from in the hive? Where will the thoughts and impulse control come from?

As I send this out, into the spreading void of the hive, it seems more or less as if I'm talking to myself; I'm thinking via keyboard, mediating my own thoughts into grammatical structures and then into typeface and then into the blankness of the untraveled interwebs. Have I lost a sense of interiority then? Have I divided my thinking into public and private just as I've accustomed myself to the idea that cameras are everywhere and the public sphere begins just outside the front door and even in the house, depending on the images released in various social networks.

It seems odd to me that stories would vanish as the constructed self vanishes--who are these people who used to expect that they would be able to escape, what was the panopticon like when it was an invisible diety rather than a humming machine?

How much longer can they last, these stories?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Today I've divided my reading between Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies and Lee Smith's The Last Girls. The latter is getting me through sessions on the exercise bike and is proving increasingly difficult to leave on the bike stand at the end of the ride. I'm not sure where the characters are heading, but the slow excavation of who they are and what they've become is the perfect accompaniment to an activity that used to be my own way of running around with friends and family (on a bike that wasn't stuck in place, of course).

The Last Girls is the kind of book that inspires me to hunt down how-to-write authors and beat them thoroughly about the wrists. It's not deathless prose, but then, neither am I. It's a good read and follows its own path to being that. I may not be sunk as deeply in it as I would be if I could read outside without chasing dogs away from the verbena, but I'm still in it far enough to look forward to getting back on the bike the next day.

The Elegies takes me straight into sadness. Reading the essays in this book makes me feel like I'm drowning in an ever-expanding puddle as soon as I boot up the computer and click on one of my favorite blogs. Mr. Birkerts caused me to realize today that after graduating with a degree in English, what I'd gotten out of the books I'd read is more of a thank-goodness-I-live-in-age-with-plumbing-and-women's-rights and not an iota of empathy for the human condition. What the heck happened?

I'm foundering. I used to love to read and I've read widely (if not classically); I've read enough to want to give some of those words back, to write myself into the narrative. Was it reading for number or reading for depth? If I haven't been reading well, then I've been...what? Skimming like a stone over a lake that is soon to swallow me?

Since I've never finished it, I've decided to try reading Ivanhoe aloud over the next several days--mostly to slow myself down and consider every word. Years ago, I promised myself that I'd read Dante's Paradisio if I ever made it to graduate school. I didn't. Instead of paradise, then, a verbal tour of a faux medieval forest at a walking pace.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Steam Vents and Vitriol

I have a blog, and I'm not afraid to use it. At least, I'm not afraid to use it to vent.

Here is where I lose my nerve. Exactly as I do when I'm writing, I suddenly start to consider how something will sound to a critic who speaks like my mother. Will it be nice? Is it really the smartest thing I could have said? And then, like magic, the story or the rant disappears into the ether. The tension remains. Not today.

I decided several years ago to give my writing a serious place in my life and I joined a writer's group. It went well for several years and then was hydra'd (split into two), hijacked, and is now defunct. I was fortunate to find another group that focussed on critiquing and continued to work and submit (we'll skip over the success ratio).

Then, the second group ran into a shoal of non-participation. That's neither suprising nor threatening, until the participating membership dwindles down far enough that one or two people missing a meeting derails the meeting. This is where we seem to be, with some members arguing for a fee schedule, some for a change of venue, and some for a combination of other solutions. I'm adamantly opposed to some of these options and may be stuck unable to "compromise"--that is, to preserve a dysfunctional system because some people don't want change.

Have I given myself enough time to verify that writing is no longer for me? Have I tried and therefore can stop without regret? Is the group worth fighting for if the membership has changed?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Just Another Excuse

I seem to be looking for reasons to not write. As I became caught up in giving comments for a group member who turned out to be more focused on the message, the act of writing itself started to make me angry. Today I discovered a book on how our entertainment culture is a flashing neon Joe's-Bread-and-Circus sign of the crumbling of America. I bought the book.

Instead of contributing to viable socio-politcal discourse, I can let my novel shrivel rather than become part of the distracting of America. There must be barricades around here somewhere...singing The anger won't dissipate in sarcasm, of course. There is something uncomfortable about having someone else's ideas colonize your head, thinking about someone else's project with the same impotent irritation with which you view the political games being played. When there is a similar pretense of input, irony gilds the needle.

I dislike didactic fiction. Stories about certain topics will remain, at best, unread and unloved, if not actively anathematized. Careless gender classification (e.g., women's fiction) is the same as stereotyping. When do I lose my gender because of what I read (or think)?

Most often, it's not my job to bring these topics up; however, as part of a writer's group, they do come up. It is rarer still to encounter a political discussion that leaves me hanging over the side of the desk, vomitting ambition and story ideas and any hope for the future. Perhaps I'm allergic to fervor.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stuck with Frito in Trotter's Field

I gave that first draft permission to suck, provided it was finished. I let the conflict off on the theory that I could backfill that in later. Then I gave myself permission to have a bit of time off from the draft, then a little more.

Suddenly, I'm staring at a draft with vanishing characters, double-named characters, misplaced conflicts, language that rises to self-parodying heights, yet more avoidance of conflict, and, finally, an ending that consists of a full stop without a resolution. Draft itself seems a rather formal designation for this shaggy mess of a fantasy that stole its setting from someone's sci-fi bedroom, all flashing lights and fake planets printed on cheap sheets.

A tiny voice is emanating from the draft. "Fix me...fix me," it squeaks. I could put it back in the drawer. No one has to know. There isn't anyone looking for this draft. No price is set for its redemption.

If it was fixed, if it was released...what would it say? Is it a forgiveable, much less a worthy, action to put something into the pool of ideas that has not much to say to the good of humankind? What if by some mischance it contains a bad idea that I don't recognize and that propagates forward?

I'm in a plywood headspace, a not-yet-finished place. Work is lurking around my ankles.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recovering, Part II

Yet again, I'm back at the keyboard after a bout with something that pretends to be a cold but which I'm sure is working on moving up to flu or bronchitis. It could have been getting out in the cold (unusually so for Texas) or for going on a dusting binge in between getting out in the icy weather; however, it resulted in a relapse that I think I'm finally shaking off.

I've finished Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth (TRtMe) and am working through another book on fantasy literature and trying to coddle my brain back into writing mode. TRtMe was fascinating in the specific linguistic discoveries and speculations that according to the author form the basis of the development of The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien works. I came to this book through the Tolkien Professor podcast and am alternately grateful and jealous that students have the opportunity to take classes on these subjects.

In the filing that I finished recently there were entirely too many papers left over from my own university days and I was embarrassed to see in them the marks of the bored and uninterested student that I was at the time. Doubtless, I would not have benefitted from interesting classes when my brain was caught between the parental "study to get a paying job" and the personal "study so that you can get paid to work at something that interests you." As it turns out, neither came to pass.

Which doesn't bring us neatly up to date, but at least brings the maundering to an end. It's the cold, I'm sorry. More accurately, it's the lingering cold that won't move out of my lungs for love or money. At least it has brought my fussing with drafts to a end for now. I don't have any opinions at this point, just a childish craving for McDonald's. At some point, I'll have to wean myself from my need for fries. Perhaps after opinion starts to reassert itself and I manage to get a few more pages done.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Yogurt Lies Bleeding

The tiles are covered with yogurt gore, the remains of strawberry preserves and a few white smears where the spoon bounced to a stop. I caught the plate before it could fall to the ground and shatter, which is enough excitement for my recovering lungs. This past week I've been sleepwalking from the couch to the futon as I tried to sleep my way through a chest cold while watching endless hours of Hercule Poirot.

Today I am both vertical (yea!!!) and ready to speculate on whether I'm becoming too intemperate in my desire to rip first drafts to shreds or whether it's simply rude to ask for a critique of a first draft in the first place. In such a debate, of course, I would be condemning myself as much as anyone else, for I am certainly guilty of submitting ill-advised drafts for comment.

In these cases, I have found myself at a deadline point with something that I could have withheld and submitted later but found myself unable to resist trolling for comments and giving myself permission to further delay working on my draft while "waiting for comments." Instead of thinking of the time that my group would be wasting on doing for my draft what I should have done myself and of the violence that might be done to my story by letting a committee have a crack at revising it, I opted for the easy way to revision. Let someone else do the thinking.

My writing suffers every time I let this happen. For one thing, it gives me a wealth of similar comments that amount to the fact that I undertell a story in the beginning. I leave too much of it in my head and don't transfer enough of the logic to the page. This is good to know, but it is something that I might have discovered on my own as I worked through the drafts on my own. I also could have become more familiar with my own voice as I worked through the draft stages, rather than becoming familiar with other peoples' preferences for my work.

Early draft submittals are a shortcut to feedback that breaks down the author's own thoughts on how a story should go and may do violence to character development and story development. If a first draft is presented and the feedback is appropriate to the draft stage, the author may be tempted to stop working on an idea or redirect a story in ways that he or she may not have intended or wanted and may thus lose something of the drive and random creative energy that makes first drafts so exciting for the writer. If the writer doesn't maintain enthusiasm through the first draft, how will he or she maintain it throughout the difficult process of revision?

Revisions and multiple drafts can be a challenge. Understanding that drafts are necessary and that change may happen to the story as a result is a learning process that many writers have to go through. It has been difficult for me to get here and I've had some excellent example of hardworking writers from whom I could learn by observing their drafts. Early drafts and first drafts are the writer's imagination covered in muck cheerfully making castles in the sand. Later drafts are perhaps tree houses more suitable to welcoming other people to see the sturdiness of the writer's creation.

And if you wrote up your last D&D campaign...stick it your memory book and wait 20 years.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I Stab at the Heart of Your Draft, But Only Injure My Thigh

Lately, I've been priviledged to be able to watch a few novel drafts take shape in my writer's group. This is a fascinating prospect. Narratives shift and carve new tracks and characters separate from their creators and voices find their proper key and something that was a draft yesterday becomes a novel and I become a reader first and a commenter second. Amazing and then very, very cool.

However, to quote Practical Magic, "with the sweets, come the sours." I have a firm set of assumptions, beliefs, and graveyards that I whistle past as a person. When I am looking at pacing and characterization and the few grammar/style things I know, I sometimes run across something that shoves me from my comfort zone. I am uncomfortable and it feels "wrong." Although this is not a value judgment (i.e., it would be better if this moved quicker), my reaction is similiar enough that I find myself marking sentences and making suggestions to "fix" the discomfort.

It becomes more challenging when I'm faced with a novel that tends toward a conclusion that runs counter to my beliefs. How do I modify my responses so that I am looking only at the shape of the story and not at its content? There is about this a chill of academic remove that I have not yet had to develop. More than remove, however, there is the understanding of uncomfortable plots and themes such that they lose their discomfort.

The separation between the passion of one writer and reader and that of a different writer and reader is as difficult for me as that of separating myself as an intimate participant in my story from myself as a objective editor of that same story.

This is a skill that I could have mastered had I stayed in college. I should have stayed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

To the Book Cave!

There are plenty of January tasks to ignore, so I've been curled by the window plowing through the Christmas drifts of books. Yea!

First from the pile was Kelly Gay's The Darkest Edge of Dawn. This I had actually picked up to while away the evenings waiting to pick up my husband. That worked not at all, since I started it in the car, continued while eating dinner, watching tv, and "sleeping." Books, the previous incarnation of iRudeness. I was surprised by the forcefulness of the plot, since I had felt that the first book had suffered from the author's willingness to run her character through the wringer to the extent that I started to have Dresden flashbacks. This story is leaner and caught my attention like a snare, pulling me through the plot in a single arc and leaving me dangling and waiting for the next book.

The next book was one that I'd been saving, since I assumed that it would have the same glue-me-to-the-reading-window effect and, of course, it did. This was Seanan McGuire's latest October Daye novel, An Artificial Night. Ms. McGuire tells the best adult campfire stories, by which I mean stories that are not "quest for maturity" fairy tales, rather they are about heroism that doesn't drop away when the single monster of adolescence is slain. Mixed metaphor salad, fresh for y'all. :) An Artificial Night was excellent. The way that fairy and human and horror and wonder combined to make a nightmare quest for October captivated me, as did the way that my expectations are confounded--one has to pay attention, because this isn't a rote rhyme one can recite just because one has read the first stanza.

The last book (in the recently finished stack) was Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. There should be a flashing sign inserted here with flashing smiley faces and exclamation points. This was a funny book and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There was grimness and horror, but I was so much in love with the main characters that I just held my breath and read through it. Hamza and Ye (the Coyote Kings) told a vivid tale (as did all the other POV characters, of which there were several) and I found myself rather unsubtly pushing this book on my husband pretty much from the beginning. Psst, buddy....*snicker, snicker*...wanna read a line? This is a quest tale as a sci-fi road movie complete with quotable lines and awesome characters that you will think about in odd moments in the future.

So far, the post-holiday book stack has been a tasty pyramid of goodies. There are a few books on Tolkien that promise to be more pedantic reads and one by Michael Moorcock on epic fantasy (clash of the titans ON MY NIGHTSTAND! Bwa ha ha ha!) that promises to make me feel yet more illiterate and poorly read. At some point, I will finish The Worm Ouroboros. Really. I will. On my list. There, in tiny print, bottom of page 10. Tolkien will guilt me into it.

Hope y'all have a cozy January!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fred's Guide to Fine Dining, Lake Jackson Style

This afternoon my mom was mentioning her bemusement at finding that her novel (featuring sidekick Fred, the ever-lunching) was proving more popular than she'd expected just as I was skimming an article from Book View Cafe's Brewing Fine Fiction. The happy accident of Mom's finding enthusiastic readers for a small self-published novel (especially one titled I Hate Art) just makes me grin and it took away some of the inertia that sets in when I read "how to" books--even good ones.

Fighting the overwhelming feeling that the ship has left the harbor, at least in terms of my writing career, has become a full-time endeavor. I think about writing and then I decide to read or skim Facebook or file stuff. Except for Facebook, the other two give me a slight sense of accomplishment that I'm not getting from writing. Brewing Fine Fiction is a fine and funny book, but many of the articles presuppose a level of craft to which I have not yet come.

Mom's news broke up my fusty mood with the sharp insight that she earned a victory from finishing. She has a book and she has readers who enjoy it. She did it without workshopping her ideas to death and with a steely eye toward grammatical revisions. She took it seriously without taking herself seriously. Her book is funny. My mom is awesome.

I'm not my mom. But...I am going to finish my novel Triskelion this spring. I'm working on some of the maps and artwork now (because nothing says mighty fantastic adventure like stick people leaping wavy lines). I'm going to keep my favorite character from I Hate Art--Fred the Ever-Lunching--in mind. If the writing gets tough, I'll be hunting up German food or a good delicatessen chicken salad and watching the world go by while I write it down.