I Am Legend

After finishing the excellent Station Eleven a few months ago, I was inspired to read other works of apocalyptic fiction. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” may not have been the first “killer virus” novel, but it’s influence on the genre cannot be disputed, and seemed a good place to start.

Like many classic science-fiction novels of its time, “I Am Legned” attempts to provide a scientific explanation for a supernatural phenomenon. The vampires who ravish the United States are infected by a bacteria, and it’s the task of the protagonist, Richard Neville, to find a cure. The epidemiology of the plague is interesting, although how it turns its victims into full-blown Gothic bloodsuckers seems a bit of a stretch.

But it’s not the science that makes this novel appealing. Neville, who believes he might be the only human immune to the bacteria, mostly succeeds in his nightly battles against the vampires, but fares far worse against his crushing isolation.  Read as a character study of a man losing a war against loneliness, “I Am Legend” continues its appeal well over fifty years after its publication.

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A Word Every Sixth of a Second

Joynell Schultz is in the midst of a project I would never advise any writer — cranking out a novel of forty thousand words (some figures just need to be expressed in letters rather than numbers) in four days. She reached her first day’s goal after five hours of writing, and is eager to continue her effort tomorrow.

Ten thousand words in five hours. A couple grand each hour. That’s over 33 words a minute.

While in graduate school a few decades ago, I earned some decent wages (for a starving student, that is) working for temporary staffing agencies. My strongest proficiency was in typing — I could bang out 80 words a minute, with good accuracy. But that was typing, my friends; I was just reading hand-written copy and making my fingers follow the lead of my eyes. Joynell isn’t typing, she’s writing, composing instead of transcribing, creating rather than copying.

When I’m in the midst of a NaNoWriMo challenge, I produce 300 words an hour on average, maybe five or six hundred if everything’s going right. Two thousand an hour… for five consecutive hours? Not a chance. My creative energy simply cannot sustain that pace.

Joynell, however, has accomplished that task today, so who am I to doubt her ability. I wish her continued success on her journey, as well as a long bath and a bottle of wine when she’s finished.

Looking Ahead to 2018

Today marks the end of a long vacation, far from the frigid eastern half of the United States to which I will be shortly returning. I’m not one for resolutions on New Years Day, but I do work better when I operate under some form of plan. And now seems like a good time to reflect on the past year, and look ahead to the next.

Back in February, I decided it was time to stop blogging on a daily basis, as I realized my streak of daily posting was impressing nobody except myself. Unfortunately, in the months after that decision, I’ve struggled to come up with a consistent blogging practice in its place. Too many times, I’ve gone weeks without posting. Not what I had intended, at all.

My current thought is that I need to commit to writing three or four posts a week, each on a different recurring topic. Book reviews, which I’ve enjoyed writing over the past week, is one such topic; maybe not a book, but a movie, or online magazine. Other topics I’ve thought of have been flash fiction contests, and reblogs from bloggers I admire.

So there you have it. For each of the coming weeks in 2018, I want to write a post on each of the following topics:

  • Reviewing
  • Flash fiction
  • Reblogging

Mixed in with these posts will be the occasional multi-post short story, political commentary, and of course some awful poetry.

That should keep my busy for the coming year.

I Will Find You

If I have to go to prison, I will miss you. And when I get out, I will find you.

Those are the final words spoken to Joanna Connors by the man who had just brutally raped her. Twenty years after the attack, Connors realized she had never fully recovered from the assault, and began writing “I Will Find You” (2016) in order to understand what forces led to the violent collision between her and her attacker.

The description of the rape in the second chapter is probably the most courageous writing I’ve ever read. Connors recounts the attack in almost clinical terms, neither sanitizing nor over-dramatizing what happens to her. She even spices her narrative with dark humor in a manner that seems bizarrely appropriate. It is a tough read; I can’t imagine anyone surviving such an attack without losing their mind. But in order to understand her struggles in the coming decades, we need to see this attack in all its brutality.

As she describes the research she conducted years later on her attacker’s background, Connors touches on a number of hot-button social issues — the wording and application of rape laws, the racial divide between black and white Americans, the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. The author’s handling of any of these issues would be worthy of analysis, but what I want to focus on for this review are her comments on the practice of journalism. When she begins to interview her assailant’s family, Connors provides a half-true statement of her intention. Her explanation is reasonable — who would want to speak to someone who says “Can I ask you some questions about your brother, who raped me?” — and one can see why lying about herself was the quickest way to get to the truth. To her credit, Connors sees why tactics such as hers, while perhaps necessary in her profession, are what lead to the negative impression most Americans have of the news media.

“I Will Find You” is a thoughtful, meticulous, and well-crafted narrative. It is a difficult subject to read about, but at a time when the leader of our country brags about sexual assault, we need to pay attention to the voices of the victims.

Climate of Hope

“Climate of Hope” was published immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Its appearance could not have been more timely.

Authored by two men on opposite ends of the American political spectrum, this book argues for climate change policies in a way that’s neither conservative nor liberal. Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City and founder of a major Wall Street corporation, makes a compelling (if at times overwhelmingly dense) case that benefiting the environment is a sound financial decision. Carl Pope, an executive with the Sierra Club for several decades, provides more of the science behind climate change theory, and describes the successes and failures he’s witnessed as an advocate for Earth’s environment.

Both authors recognize the environmental threat posed by the Trump administration, yet argue that effective climate change policies are best implemented by cities and states, rather than Washington bureaucrats. They also claim that the best way to address climate skeptics (you know, the people who refuse to believe the data that show the rise in planetary temperatures) is not to warn of potential hazards, but rather to relate success stories. The improvement of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, for example, demonstrates how environmental policies, such as the reduction and eventual banning of chlorofluorocarbons, can have an immediate impact on the planetary climate.

If you don’t believe climate change is real and has at least partial human causes, don’t bother reading this book — you’ve already demonstrated the impermeability of your so-called intellect. But if you believe the data that’s been presented, and are looking for inspiration in this politically dispiriting time, you will find a lot to like here.

Division Two

“Division Two,” a 2015 self-published novel from Philo Feaubique, presents a tiered system of the afterlife. Division One is analagous to the Christian vision of Heaven, Division Three is a void, and Divison Two is… complicated.

People who  have intentionally harmed others in their life, don’t believe in an afterlife, or don’t believe they belong in Division One, are sent to Division Two. Once there, they are either assigned a private room where their deaths are replayed continually until they ask for help, or they are assigned a task by one of several Gatekeepers, whose mission is to help other Division Two members escape from the hells in their private rooms. This sounds much like Purgatory, but with a goal of achieving an Eastern-style personal serenity rather than atonment.

Movement between divisions is possible, and in a highly comic and completely believable scene, one soul that has gone to Division One becomes immediately indignant when he sees the others than have been allowed entry (I can see many evangelicals having this reaction), and requests to be sent down to Division Two.

The thought-provoking view of the afterlife makes the novel very engaging, although the pacing is too often slow and repititive. The novel also uses too many characters, many of whom are indistinguishable from the others and display little or no growth over the course of the narrative.

Like many self-published novels, “Division Two” would benefit from a good editor, which might actually be in the works — the author has temporarily pulled the book from the market to work on a revision. I hope Philo follows through with his revision and employs an editor, because the novel does have promise.

A Summer in Harlem

“A Summer in Harlem” is a self-published novel from 2013 by Brendan Whitt, available on Amazon. Set in the summer of 1948, the novel tells the journey of Thad Thomas, a bright Alabama teen who visits his aunt and cousins in Harlem. Thad is captivated by the stories of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, but the neighborhood he encounters is far different than what he had expected.

Thad’s cousin Willie represents the urban decay that has engulfed Harlem, and the enduring friendship between these two very different characters — one naive and enthusiastic, the other street-mart and jaded — suggests that while Harlem may not be able to regain its former glory, it can still serve as a beacon of inspiration.

Whitt maintains a consistently fast pace in his narrative, and all of his characters are memorable. Like many self-published authors, he could use a good editor, but his story-telling ability is strong enough to overcome his deficiencies.

The Atomic Weight of Love

Meridian Wallace, the first-person narrator of Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel “The Atomic Weight of Love,” marries a man twenty years older than her, and later has an affair with a man twenty years her junior. These relationships are fitting for a woman who never feels comfortable in her age.

As a University of Chicago student in 1941, Meridian becomes infatuated with a professor who is soon hired to work on the Manhattan Project. Attracted to his powerful intellect, Meridian marries and moves with him to Los Alamos. Her decisions end Meridian’s academic career as an ornithologist, although she continues to conduct research on crows while in New Mexico. Her husband, a brilliant physicist with the emotional intelligence of Mr. Coffee, keeps Meridian safe within their home while failing to recognize her personal frustration.

Despite the cultural restriction imposed in her era, Meridian maintains her curiosity and independence, and the portrayal of her character is the novel’s strongest feature. The secondary characters are less compelling characters — her husband is entirely one-dimensional, and her affair is with a man straight out of a Harlequin Romance, complete with flowing hair. Her female friends also serve to elicit reactions from Meridian, and are entirely forgettable. But Meridian is a character strong enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings, and makes “The Atomic Weight of Love” a worthy read.

On a personal note, I also admire that Church wrote this novel at the age of sixty, after three decades of legal work. I hope my own first novel can be as finely crafted as this.

Castle

Like most martial arts, fencing is a mano a mano contest — the sport does have team events, but they are composed of a series of individual bouts. Group competitions are rare, but every few months at the club, we have a good game of Castle.

It’s kind of like dodge ball, with weapons. Two teams gather at opposite ends of the floor, each behind a line designating their castle boundary. Fencers can stay inside the safety of their castle, or go outside to battle their foe, but can’t cross the other team’s boundary. Foil target area is in effect, with a catch — if your arm or leg is struck, that off-target blow renders that limb useless. If your weapon arm’s hit, you fence with the other arm; if a leg is hit, you can’t move it. An on-target hit, or losing both arms or both legs, knocks you out. It’s a game of timing, awareness, and teamwork; too much aggression can leave you open to a blindside attack, while an overly cautious approach can imperil your teammates and leave you the sole survivor against three opponents.

The holidays, when schools are on break and workplaces have all but shut down, are a good time to break from the routine of drills and practice at the fencing club. This past Monday we played a half-dozen or so games of Castle, and I felt like a kid in recess. Highlight of the evening for me came when I was left with one teammate, with two remaining on the other side. My teammate traded parries with one of our foes, as I eased into position on her flank. As the other opponent closed in, I reacted instinctively, striking the first and then pivoting to parry the attack of the second, and landing the riposte to end the battle. Bada-bing, baby!

A lot of men my age take up golf to challenge themselves. I choose to get my kicks by stabbing people. I’d be worried, if I weren’t having such a good time.