Friday, February 27, 2009

The Curse of the Carrots

Travis Erwin is right in what he says about vegetables. They are the devil's food. I decided to cut back on fattening snacks and replace them with carrots. Dutifully, I bought some baby carrots at the store recently and over the course of a couple of days I "treated" myself to a few when I felt the urge to snack. This was not a wise decision on my part.

My body knows how to handle fatty treats. It responds appropriately. But apparently my body had no idea at all on what to do with carrots. My internal structures from the stomach on down are in wild revolt. Believe me, my brain has gotten the message. I imagine the exchange went something like:

"Hey there, Waste Elimination System, the brain wishes to inform you that the white flag is up. Surrener is imminent. What are your demands?"

*Waste Elimination System makes some untranslatable remark here. But the brain apparently understands and translates it as: "Send in the cupcakes and no one gets hurt."*

"Cupcakes on the way. Please release the intestines from the cramp restraints."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How Much Violence is Too Much?

In the early 1990s I found some 25 books in the “Edge” series of westerns at a used book sale. They cost a little over a buck all together so I bought them. All but the first had a subtitle of “The Most Violent Westerns in Print” on the cover. Well now, I was already writing horror fiction in those days so I felt like I knew something about violence. These sounded right up my alley. They weren’t. I read the first one, The Loner, and it was definitely violent. But to use an overworked term, the violence seemed gratuitous. I didn’t read anymore, but I kept the rest of the books anyway.

Flash forward to 2009. Someone mentions the Edge books on a blog and I pull out my old collection and give book #2, Ten Grand, a go. I seemed to remember from the first book that the violence seldom had a point, and this book reinforced that in spades. Edge is a brutal psychopath. He is a true anti-hero, amoral, vicious, and bent only on using others for his own ends. He beats and mistreats women whose only fault is to mistakenly link their lives to his. The only saving grace is that he usually doesn’t go ‘out of his way’ to mistreat folks. He prefers to be alone, but woe to anyone who ends up associating with him.

I was hoping for Edge to get gut shot within the first twenty pages of Ten Grand, but since I knew the series ran on for something like fifty books that wasn’t going to happen. After finishing book #2, and knowing I wanted to do a blog post about violence in books, I started book #3, Apache Death to see if it was any different. It was equally violent, but at least this time Edge didn’t beat up or kill any women so I found it a bit more tolerable.

I must also admit that there are some redeeming features about the series. They are fast paced, easy reads, all coming in at around 140 to 160 pages. The prose style is readable and even has a bit of poetry here and there, although the grammar is sometimes atrocious. They also have quite a bit of black humor about them, which softens the brutality a bit. You can see, I believe, a spaghetti western influence. Still, they are not my type of books and I simply don’t like the character of Edge. And the endings seem mostly of the type I’d call “convenience.” Edge is about to find a treasure but something happens and he loses it. Then it’s on to the next volume.

I prefer to be careful slapping the gratuitous violence label on anything. Cold in the Light was accused by one agent of being gratuitously violent. I believe she misinterpreted the book. The Warkind in that book are a warrior caste of a non-human species. Violence in defense and attack is essentially the reason why the Warkind exist. So, although they are violent, the violence is part of their very biology and not gratuitous. Or so I argued to myself.

On the other hand, I’m going to label the Edge books as indeed gratuitously violent. Over and over again we see violence that is not directly necessary to the scene. In Apache Death, for example, we see several women killed during an Indian attack on a fort because, for reasons unknown, they run from their hiding places into the open. It looks like they ran out from hiding just so they could die hideously. We also see in books #2 and #3 various women who have their breasts hacked off. I wonder if the breast hacking theme continues through other books in the series.

Like with sex, it’s always an open question as to how much violence is too much. The issue is complicated for me because most of the books I read certainly contain violence, while relatively few contain graphic sex. I’m inclined to think much the same way about the two issues, though. Violence, or sex, becomes too much when they are no longer integral to the plot of the story, when they appear to be there just for their own sake and not because the story demands them.

What do you think? How much violence is too much? And are there any violent books where you think the violence is absolutely gratuitous? I wanna know.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

So How Much Sex Do You Need?

How much sex do you need?

In your reading?

I just finished reading book 279 in The Trailsman series, which is an example of an “Adult Western.” There are, or have been, several such series, including an even longer running one called “Longarm.” These types of books appeared as a subgenre in the 1970s, and though they’re pretty standard western stories in most ways, they always contain a few scenes of explicit sex. They generally have a somewhat higher level of violence than the westerns of earlier days, as well. The sex, in particular, is actually required by the series guidelines. If you don’t put it in, you don’t write for the series. The sex is also much more of a male oriented sexual fantasy than the female oriented one you find in romance and urban fantasy.

I’ve only read one Longarm, years ago, and a couple of the Trailsmen books more recently, the latter because they were written by friends of mine. Depending on the skill level of the writer, and both my friends are very fine writers, these books can be excellent examples of the western genre. I almost said a “rousing” adventure, but that skates the pun line a bit too close.

Now, I like westerns and have read a lot of them in my day, but I started wondering why I’ve read so few of the Adult Westerns, despite the fact that many are available. I realized that the explicit sex actually detracts from the story for me. (I found the same thing when I tried to read one of the later books in Laurell K. Hamilton’s series, although at least there has been something ‘more’ than sex in the Adult Westerns I’ve read.)

What happens is that I get involved in the adventure and the suspense of a “story,” then the characters go hopping into bed. I’ve got to page through to get back to the story line. And it’s not because I’m a prude. I don’t flinch at the explicitness of the sex; I don’t screw my lips up in a faint moue of disgust. I just don’t really want to experience “Story Interruptus.”

There is certainly a place for sex, even explicit sex, in fiction. I had a fairly explicit sex scene in Cold in the Light. I’ve also enjoyed some sexually explicit books where the story itself revolved around sex. But when I read fiction I’m reading for the story first. Usually, for me, sex is a garnish where fiction is concerned. And I hardly ever eat the garnish when I order a meal at a fine restaurant.

So, how much sex do you need…in your reading?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Forgotten Book Friday: Kalak of the Ice

Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard (pronounced Kyell’-gard). I’ve already reviewed his Desert Dog here, which is my favorite of his works. Some other very good books by him were Snow Dog, which reminded me of Call of the Wild, and Big Red and Irish Red.

Although Kjelgaard wrote mostly about dogs, he did write a cat book, Swamp Cat, and he wrote one about a polar bear. The latter was called Kalak of the Ice and is my topic for today. I read “Kalak” way back yonder and have always remembered it very fondly, but it is one of the hardest of Kjelgaard’s books to find. I finally got a copy off a used book site and just reread it this week.

Did it hold up? Not quite… I found the ending a little weaker than I remembered. But I also found myself once more compelled to turn page after page of Kalak’s story. And I’d probably still have to rate it my second favorite among Kjelgaard’s books.

Kalak, whose name is, I believe, from an Inuit word meaning something like “Bear of the Mist,” is a female polar bear. Through bad luck and human agency, she has lost her last few sets of cubs, and much of the book relates her attempts to protect and teach her new set of three cubs. There is substantial anthropomorphizing of the bears throughout, of course, or we wouldn’t have a book. But Kalak and her cubs are in no way just humans with fur. There really is a sense of bearness about them. At least to me.

Kalak of the Ice also features an Inuit tribe, and I enjoyed getting to know some things about the Inuit as a people. Kjelgaard is able to show the conflict that happens between the bears and the Inuit without making either side out to be the villain.

All in all, this is a great Y/A book. I wish I’d had a copy when Josh was little so I could have gotten him to read it. Well, maybe it’s not too late.

Forgotten Books Friday is the Encephalo kinder of Patricia Abbott.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For Want of a Better Post

Many of you know that I’m a big fan of Robert E. Howard, who is best known for creating the character of Conan the Cimmerian. Seeing as how work is still kicking my butt much like Conan kicks butt, I thought I’d post a few Conan haiku today. (Using the term haiku very, very loosely.) Eventually, I’ll return to a semblance of normalcy.

Conan walks into a bar. Bar collapses on impact.

Conan is approached by Senator Craig in public restroom. Problem solved.

Conan goes to Hell. They give him Hell.

Conan named Vice President. Stimulus bill passes.

Conan goes to Wall Street. Street name changed to Wasteland.

Conan is thrown from horse. Horse apologizes, then commits hari-kari.

Conan gets drunk. Ale makers have a very good year.

Conan believes the guts of his enemies will sharpen his sword. Conan is right.

Conan is bitten by a poisonous snake. After hours of intense agony, snake dies.

Conan falls onto a bed of nails. Nails now useless.

Conan is downsized. Bad move.

Conan meets Captain Kirk. Kirk must have phaser surgically removed from ass.

Conan meets Captain Picard. Finds that Picard’s bald head adds great shine to boots.

Conan meets Spock. Spock neither prospers, nor lives long.

Conan meets Oprah. No steak available. Conan eats Oprah.

Conan meets Dr. Phil. Dr. Phil tells Conan he has anger issues. Dr. Phil cancelled.

Drunk again, Conan stumbles onto field at Super Bowl. Conan wins.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

All Work and No Play

Work has been kicking my butt this week, and that'll probably continue through next week. Then we'll have a little break for Mardi Gras. I don't really plan to do any parading. Been there, done that. I'll be home relaxing and reading. About all I've been able to get read is a couple of items I'll briefly review below. I also haven't been able to visit blogs as regularly but will try to get caught up today. My blog list is so big by now, though, that it's become pretty tough to make it through every post. I'm typically seeing about 80 posts a day.

Books Read:

I So Don't Do Mysteries by our own Barrie Summy. I am very much not the audience for this book. I think its target audience is 9 to 12 year old girls. There was still a lot of humor in it that I caught, and the writing was perfect for both the characters and the audience. I believe a lot of young girls will enjoy it very much. There were certainly many twists and turns, and most chapters ended with neat cliffhangers.

The Nightmare Collection by Bruce Boston. I very much am the audience for this book, which is a collection of Boston's speculative poetry. It's chock full of poems as well, weighing in at 95 pages, which is a tome compared to the typical poetry chapbook of 25 pages or so. And everything here is very good. Boston is quite possible the best speculative poet working today. His works have received numerous awards, but the proof is in the reading. Consider, "A small woman wearing a sheathe of dark feathers," or "I build engines from ivory and scrimshaw and the jaw-bones of apes."

Let me end with a quote from one of Boston's prose poems.

"When capital severed the tongues of science, when
politiicans sat in boardrooms, when the great religions of
the world would not stem the rising tide of mouths and
hands and the Earth began to wobble under the weight of
our species, you may remember that our family would often
gather for a sumptuous Christmas feast."

Nuff said!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Writers Who Haven't Influenced Me

I love when writers talk about their influences. I find it endlessly fascinating and have done it myself. Some of my major influences would be Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John D. MacDonald, and Louis L’Amour.

But it occurred to me, twisted soul that I am, that authors almost never talk about writers who had no influence on them, despite the fact that they'd read one or more of that writer’s works. So, let me give you a list of my top non-influences.

1. William Faulkner – I’ve read a couple of Faulkner’s books and some of his short stories. I like the stories better, and believe Faulkner was a pretty good writer. But his style of telling stories, and his characters, just aren’t for me. And they are so different from my style and characters that I just can’t see how I could ever be influenced by him. Perhaps that’s to my detriment. But I just can’t see a Faulkner Effect anywhere in my writing.

2. Raymond Carver – I’ve read one collection of Carver’s stories and didn’t like any of them. People tell me he’s a good writer. OK. But I want characters who act, for good or ill, and Carver’s characters don’t act. They talk. I also find his characters unbelievable. I've never met any real life people like them, for example. Perhaps to my detriment again, I would strive very hard to not write like Carver.

3. Franz Kafka - I read The Metamorphosis and found it profoundly silly. I believe the basic themes have been done much better by other, and in a much more believable fashion. I can see nothing of Kafka in my work.

4. Hunter S. Thompson – Now here's a writer whose work I actually like. I’ve read several of his books and various of his essays. I’ve enjoyed them, but that style of “gonzo” journalism is as far beyond me as differential equations. Nothing from Thompson has spilled onto me. Except maybe some booze.

5. Tom Clancy – here’s another writer I like fairly well, but his subject matter and way of expressing himself on the page are very different from mine and I don’t see any sign of Clancy graftings in my own work.

6. There are other writers who I’ve enjoyed who I think have had little if any influence on my own work. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, John Grisham, Richard Laymon are among them. All are fine writers, and I’ve very much enjoyed Asimov and Clarke, but it’s their stories that resonate with me, not their style and approach to writing.

How about you? Who weren’t you influenced by? And it doesn't have to be writers. Heff could tell us who didn't influence his drinking. Or Lana could tell us who didn't influence her art. The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday Roast, and Writing Quiz

David McMahon did his Sunday Roast interview with me this week. I appreciate David taking the time to run it. I enjoyed answering his questions. You can check it out on his blog if you've a mind to.

I haven't mentioned much here about the writing class I'm teaching this semester but so far it is going well and I seem to have a pretty good crew of students. Below is the first quiz I gave them. I'll bet you all get them correct. Or else you'll want to argue with me about the correct answer. ;)

Writing Quiz. Each blank = 1 point.

1. In trying to communicate specific information, the main
advantage of writing over talking is: _______________________

2. The main disadvantage of writing is: _________________________

3. (1 Pt). Which of the following is NOT one of the "good"
habits that I suggested you develop to improve your writing?
a. Schedule a time for writing and stick to it.
b. Use a dictionary to look up words that you are unsure about.
c. Write only until you get tired, then stop for the day.
d. Read a wide variety of other people's writings, from textbooks
to novels.
e. All of these are "good" habits.

4. Since your audience is not present when you are writing a
paper, you must think more carefully about what you are going
to say than when you are having a spoken conversation. Name
two things that you can do which could help you figure out the
kinds of questions readers might ask.

a. _________________________

b. _________________________

True/False (1 point each). (Please circle your answer).

5. T. F. The only reason for writing is to communicate ideas.
6. T. F. Writing skills depend upon inborn verbal abilities and
cannot be learned.
7. T. F. Once you have found a formula for writing a successful
term paper, you should stick with it so that you
will always be guaranteed to get good grades.
8. T. F. I suggested that you should just assume that the first
draft of your paper is not good enough to hand in.
9. T. F. Writing is easy.
10. T. F. There is only one way to write a good paper.

11. Name the most recent book that you have read (or are
currently reading): ____________________


Answers: (AS I See Them)
1. You have time to consider your full argument without having anyone waiting impatiently to see what you're going to say.

2. You don't get immediate feedback about your success, or lack of it, at conveying your message to readers.

3. I think "C" is a bad habit. I urge my students not to write to exhaustion but to push themselves.

4. A. Develop your own critical reading habit.
B. Ask peers to read your work and tell you where they got confused.

For the True/False, 8 is true and all the others are false.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Forgotten Books Friday: Cap Kennedy

First, I forgot to mention this earlier in the week. One of my Halloween Horror flash stories has been published in slightly altered form over at Micro 100. It’s in Issue 2, February 09. It’s only 130 words so pop over if you’re a mind to. There are also some other good flash stories in the issue as well.

Cap Kennedy: Steely eyed. Steely jawed. Secret Agent of the Spaceways.

I never heard of the Cap Kennedy space opera series until about three years ago when I picked up three volumes from the now missing and highly missed used SF bookstore in the New Orleans French Quarter. The series began in 1973 with Galaxy of the Lost, and, as near as I can tell, ended with #17, Galactiad. The majority of the books were published one right after another from 1973 to 1975. That’s 16 books in two years. The last book wasn’t published until 1983, a eight year gap, and so far I haven’t been able to find out why.

The photo shows a variety selection of the books. (I borrowed this photo from Bonanzle, btw, and since I included their link I hope they won’t mind.) I kind of like some of these covers, although they have a certain heavy handedness to them. Still, the colors and bold strokes are vibrant and draw the eye.

The author listed on the covers for the series is Gregory Kern, who I’ve found out is really E. C. Tubb. I believe Tubb wrote all of them, though I’m not absolutely sure. Eight books a year is a pretty hefty output for one writer, although the books are very short, no longer than 125-126 pages. The publisher is DAW, and it looks as if they were striving for a Perry Rhodan type series. I’ve now read three volumes and liked them well enough to order more, and the series does a good job of producing readable space opera. It’s not as fantastic as the Perry Rhodan series, but the books are consistently fast paced and readable. Tubb was a pretty good writer. I’ve also liked his Dumarest of Terra series, under his own name.

The plots of the Cap Kennedy books are not exactly new, although they were fresher in the 1970s than they would be today. In Cap Kennedy #1, ships are disappearing in a Bermuda Triangle of the space lanes. Cap and his crew of operatives must investigate, and Cap himself gets caught up by the mystery when the ship he is on disappears as well.

I really enjoyed this first book in the series. I was completely caught up in the story and I liked the characters, though they are drawn with broad strokes. I did find the ending somewhat disappointing. It came too abruptly and didn’t adequately explore the mystery that had been set up. Tubb may have been laboring under some serious time and length constraints from the publisher, however.

I just finished book 3 of the series, Monster of Metelaze, and it was also pretty decent. If you need a fast paced space opera fix, Cap Kennedy might be for you. I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read, although I wouldn’t want to go on a binge. Judiciously mixing them with other types of books seems to be the ticket.

NOTE 1: Forgotten Books Friday is the brainchild of Patricia Abbott. Sadly, Patti lost her mother on Wednesday. Please wish her well.

Note 2: Two other of our blog colleagues have suffered grave losses in the past few days as well. Scott Hall lost his grandmother, and Bernita Harris lost her husband. Laughingwolf lost his father a year ago this week.

It's been a rather tough week. Let's all send our good thoughts in their direction.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I haven't eaten in three days.

A month or so back, as I was going into Borders one Monday evening, a woman approached me with: “Sir. I wonder if you could help me? I haven’t eaten in three days.” I gave her a few bucks and she thanked me and said: “I’m going right over to get something to eat.”

Last night as I was going into Borders, the same woman approached with the exact same spiel. I remember clearly the “I haven’t eaten in three days” and the “going right over to get something.” I gave her a few bucks, even though I realized I had been played a bit. I suppose “haven’t eaten in three days” can be effective, and I felt bad for the fact that she had to stoop to such in the search for money. She was certainly no spring chicken. She looked around 60, but I suspect she is younger. Her clothes were not remarkably bad, and though she was thin she didn’t look to be in bad health. She was certainly not attractive, though.

In the past, I have taken people into food places when they’ve asked for money, but the closest place to Borders is the Mall across the street, and I also had a meeting of my Borders writing group in a few minutes. So, I gave her a few bucks and let her go her way. I wonder if she really bought food, or if I actually supported her drug habit. I hope the former.

Such encounters leave me sad. What circumstances led that woman to me twice? I believe some homeless individuals are on the street because they’re lazy or they have drug habits that they’ve allowed to get out of hand. I believe those folks are in the minority, though. Maybe some homeless people made bad choices somewhere along the way. But who hasn't? It's a shame that so many can end up lost in what is still an affluent society.

And as for getting help, research on altruistic behavior does not endear my fellow humans to me. Many, many people do help, of course. But most of that is in a form that doesn't much inconvenience us. And it bothers me to know that people are less likely to help another person if:

1. The person needing help is physically unattractive

2. The person has any unpleasant physical characteristics, even including an ugly birthmark.

3. The person appears to be intoxicated with any substance.

4. the surroundings in which the person asks for help are unpleasant. (Very noisy, for example.)

5. The person in the position to offer help is under any time pressure.

6. The person in the position to help is in a bad mood.

Years ago, I was in Boston with a colleague of mine for a neuroscience conference. We were riding the city busses one night when a woman got on mumbling incoherently to herself. She had also clearly wet herself all down the front of her jeans.

After a couple of stops, the woman got up to leave and fell down the steps, ending up half in and half out of the bus. Besides the bus driver, there were about 15 people on the bus. No one moved. After a moment, my colleague and I both got up to help her. We got her to a bench at the bus stop and made sure she was sitting OK, and gave her back her large shopping bag full of what appeared to be trash. Then we returned to our bus and resumed our lives. I’ve wondered many times over the years what happened to her. I can’t imagine she’s still alive.

I wonder, too, how long the woman who hadn’t “eaten in three days” will last? Will I see her again in a month? Or sooner? If I don’t see her, will it mean she’s doing better? Or that’s she’s dead?

Twice now, we’ve met. She’s become one of my memories. Like it or not, she’s a part of me now. It’s harder to be blind when you can put a face on suffering.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

High Noon: Contest Winners

High Noon. Or thereabouts. The stage arrives from Abita Springs, the horses lathered from a hard run. Josh Gramlich is driving; Arkansas Slim rides shotgun. They pull to a halt in front of the Lana Branch Saloon and Slim grabs the iron strongbox and leaps down to the street, his boots kicking up puffs of dust. A crowd begins to gather.

Hitching his gun belt higher, Slim carries the strongbox into the saloon and plunks it down on the bar with a loud jingle. Everyone follows, and a murmur builds among the people as the handsome and slender Slim first wets his whistle from a cold, foaming glass of beer.

“All right, pawdners,” Slim intones, then belches before continuing. “The winners of the Strange Worlds Contest are right chere in this box. But I’m afraid I don’t have the key. Only one lady carries the key to this here padlock. And to my heart."

“And who would that be, Handsome Slim?” a bell-sweet voice calls out from the stairs.

Slim breaks into his patented killer smile and doffs his hat to execute a bow before the Lovely Lana, the proprietress of the Lana Branch and the most beauteous woman in the territories.

“Why you, Lovely Lana,” Slim says. “Bring yoreself on down here and open up this box.”

The Lovely Lana sashays down the stairs in her scarlet saloon gal dress and drifts up to Slim where he stands by the bar. She reaches into the glory of her hair and draws out a key, which just happens to fit the lock of the strongbox. She opens it, pushes up the lid, then steps back a bit as Slim reaches in and pulls out: some gold coins, which he tosses aside like so much trash, some black diamonds, which he tosses aside, some bundles of greenbacks, which he tosses aside.

“Tarnation,” he says. “I know they’se here somewhere.”

He pulls out some rubies, then a few emeralds, and throws ‘em aside. But finally, nestled beneath a pile of silver ingots, he finds the two slips of paper he is looking for. These he draws slowly out as if they are worth a whole bunch more than their weight in platinum.

He looks at the gathered throng, all 43 of them. “Thanks to everyone who entered the Strange Worlds Contest,” he says. “It’s time to announce the winners. I appreciate everyone’s patience, so without further ado, the winners are:
Donnetta Lee.
Avery DeBow.

If Donnetta and Avery will send me their addresses at kainja at hotmail dot com, I’ll get yore books ready for the Pony Express to deliver right away.

Yippe ki yay.”