Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

I would gladly sacrifice certain non-essential parts of my anatomy in order to write as well as Sarah Vowell. “Gladly” is perhaps an overstatement, but if blood sacrifice did indeed have the power of conferring literary talent, I’d seriously consider which areas of my flesh I could do without.

Vowell’s 2011 book on Hawaiian history combines extensive research with Vowell’s characteristic snark. While some find her wit self-indulgent, I find her voice authentic and engaging. When writing about renowned Hawaiians such as historian and poet David Malo and the ill-fated Queen Liliuokalani, her tone is properly reverent; her sarcasm kicks in when addressing the outlandish beliefs and behavior of the New England missionaries who came the “save” the islands in the early 19th century. I especially enjoyed the analogy she used to describe the conflict between the missionaries and shore-leaving whalers who came in their wake: “Image if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Values Voter Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously — for forty years.”

Much like James Michener did in his epic novel, Vowell shows too much admiration for the pluck and erudition of the missionaries. (She shows an identical soft-spot for the Massachusetts Bay colonists in an earlier book of hers.) She is less forgiving in retelling the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, engineered largely by missionary descendants. In Vowell’s estimation, the 1896 annexation of Hawaii by America was criminally outrageous; only the most naive proponents of American imperialism could disagree.

At 230 paperback pages, “Unfamiliar Fishes” is hardly an exhaustive history, but for a book that’s more entertaining than educational it still provides valuable insight into this land, its people, and the haoles who stole it from them. It probably shouldn’t be the last book you read about Hawaii, but it definitely serves well as a first.

Review: Stranger Things

I don’t watch a lot of television. Most days the set (is it still OK to call a television a set?) is on, usually tuned to a live sporting event or accepting feed from my Blu-Ray player for one of my stupid superhero movies. But I find most television series, with the rare exception, too painfully dull to watch on a regular basis.

Subscription services are beginning to change my viewing habits. They provide more consistent quality, from clever adaptions of dystopian classics to an amazing character study which I really have to review on its own one day. And the ability to download multiple episodes to my iPad has been enormously beneficial on long airplane flights; start with the season premier on takeoff, and as the flight attendant asks me to lift my tray table for landing I’m watching the credits roll for the seventh or eighth episode, the hours haven disappeared.

For my most recent trip last month, I downloaded a Netflix series which my sister all but demanded I watch, as she said the show’s characters reminded her of… me. It’s about kids who play Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s! And yes, when I saw those four boys gathered in the basement, rolling dice and cowering with mock terror as Mike the Dungeon Master dropped a cast-metal figurine of a powerful demon onto the table, I couldn’t help but laugh. For over a decade, fantasy role-playing games were my principal form of entertainment (I didn’t have much use for television back then either), and having that life portrayed in an authentic and appreciative fashion (the actors must have played the game extensively) was certainly a treat.

Yet the appeal of Stranger Things (and it’s equally strong second season) goes well beyond nostalgia for unrepentant geeks such as myself. The series works through a consistent focus on its characters, who represent both the good and bad of geek culture. It’s easy to care about these characters, and the relationships among them are both genuine and touching.

The series premise is, quite frankly, preposterous, some nonsense about secret government experiments and energy fields and monstrous dogs without faces who get loose and start eating people. The only people preventing our world from turning into a plate lunch are a handful of teenagers and a few confused adults — in other words, the plot of a Scooby Doo cartoon.

If you can get beyond the silly premise (and I understand those who can’t, or are turned off by the horror genre in general), you discover a set of kids in their early teens who are easy to root for. Highly intelligent and curious, fiercely loyal to each other, you can almost believe the courage and resourcefulness they show in their battle against the monsters from another dimension. But they are also naive and insular, refusing to seek the help they so clearly need until it’s nearly too late. When they’re at their best, they are admirable, and their flaws are understandable and endearing.

Season 3 is scheduled for release this July. Despite my eagerness to find out what new trouble these kids get themselves into, I’m probably going to wait to download the episodes in December, just before my next long plane flight.

A New Opportunity

Over the holidays, a colleague from a couple jobs ago asked me about about writing for their company blog. Marketing, basically — not the most engaging subject matter, but the pay is decent and there’s no threat of compromising my self-importance. Just submitted my first article; the research required made it out to be a pretty fun experience, actually. Assuing they like what I wrote, they’ll help keep me busy in the coming months. Might just be the type of opportunity I need to move forward in my new career.

Review: The Devil’s Sword

Several years ago, my former fencing coach gave me his copy of this Douglas E. Richard’s 2009 novel; I could tell by his relieved expression that I was doing him a favor by accepting it. On returning home from practice, I promptly buried the book on my bookshelf, until I finally decided that if I was going to write a novel about fencing, I should probably be familiar with the fencing fiction that’s already out there.

Having completed the novel, I understand why my coach felt it was worthy enough to share, but not keep. The Devil’s Sword is a fast-paced novel, aimed at young readers (not young adult, by any means; the tone is closer to the early Harry Potter novels than The Hate U Give). While the novel is engaging and has some wonderful descriptions of youth fencing, there are several streeeeeeetcher moments, passages which seem too unrealistic even given its genre.

The principal character, Kevin, begins fencing at the age of 12 and finds a sport that provides him with both enjoyment and success. After two years of local competition in San Diego, Kevin travels with his father and two fencing friends to a regional tournament at a military base near Las Vegas. In my years in the sport, I’ve met a lot of young people like Kevin, and their enthusiasm is one of the reasons I find fencing so fascinating. Richards’ novel does an excellent job of describing the rules, training, and tournament structure of the sport, which is why I recommend it for any pre-teen interested in fencing.

Upon arrival at the tournament, Kevin and his companions become involved in a scheme to steal a powerful weapon from the United States government. This parallel plot was added to provide dramatic tension, and given the fantastical nature of youth fiction, a bit of the unbelievable should be tolerated. Yet the would-be thieves, international arms smugglers supposedly too clever and resourceful to be captured by any of the world’s governments, devise a weapon-stealing plan that can best be described as cockamamie, and their execution of that plan is so utterly inept it’s a wonder they haven’t already been caught by Barney Fife or Paul Blart.

A particularly bizarre scene occurs when the thieves, all of whom have military training, first encounter Kevin and his friends by charging into their room with their guns drawn. Kevin responds by thrusting his foil at the lead gunman, who is not only surprised but also disarmed, the foil injuring and nearly breaking his hand. A trained killer being caught off guard by a kid is hard to believe, but can still be accepted given the nature of this genre; using a lightweight weapon with no sharp edge and a flat point not much larger than a nail’s head — a weapon designed exclusively for sport, not combat — to stop a man wielding a gun is such a preposterous notion that its inclusion in this novel seems almost irresponsible. Public Service Announcement: Do not come to a gun fight with a fencing foil.

Fortunately, scenes such as these are eclipsed by the narrative of Kevin’s joyful discovery of the sport of fencing. I’m not sure keeping about keeping this novel on my bookshelf much longer, but I do know plenty of pre-teens at my fencing club who might enjoy giving it a read.

Fictive Selves

I completely identify with Sophia Whittemore’s post today — sometimes its necessary to insert a bit of yourself into your fiction.

My best characters, the ones who have elicited the strongest reactions from my readers, have been those who display a distinct part of my personality. It’s not always the same quality; I’ve created characters who act the way I do when I’m at my best, and others who’ve displayed qualities I would rather not talk about.

And no, I’m not talking about some kind of personality disorder on my part. All of us behave differently in various circumstances; I was a different person as a son to my parents than I am as husband to my wife, or father to my own sons. Of necessity, I act differently at work than I do while at my fencing club. This isn’t weird — it’s life.

Yet I also strive to give each of my characters their own distinctive personality. When I review my writing and notice a character acting or talking in a way that’s almost autobiographical, I always revise.

My goal is to make my characters seem real to my readers, and the best way to accomplish that task is to weave a little bit of myself into their personalities.

Milestone Checkin

A few months ago, I announced my intention to update the eighth chapter of my fencing novel, Gray Metal Faces, during NaNoWriMo 2018. It’s now past time to report on how that worked out.

Awesome.

Yes, well enough to deserve a one-word paragraph. Italicized, even.

I completed the updates to the eighth chapter weighs on November 30, and after added my work to the draft of the previous seven chapters, I used the consolidated document to validate my results. This means I “won” the NaNoWriMo challenge of fifty thousand words — yeah, it’s supposed to be all original work, and my updated chapter weighed in at “only” 24K words. They say you’re not a cheater if you’re never caught; I say it’s impossible to cheat if nobody ever checks up on you.

At the beginning of December, I took inventory of the novel. Finishing the update to chapter 8 left me with one more chapter still in rough draft format; revising chapter nine would give me a second draft of the entire novel. My annual holiday vacation was coming at the end of the month. Did I really want to devote a good chunk of time during those two and a half weeks to working on that update?

Oh yeah, baby.

It wasn’t easy, and I doubt I’ll ever work on another major writing project during that time — but on January 8, a few hours before my flight back home, I posted the final entry to the chapter 9 revision.

The second draft of Gray Metal Faces is now complete. At over two hundred a five thousand words (a number so large that it must be spelled out in letters), it is far too large to be published as one novel. A number of options are available (cut out a third? separate the nine chapters into three trilogies? market the work as nine novellas?), but I’m not in a rush to deliberate among them.

What I want to do at the moment, is appreciate having reached this milestone. When I began working on this novel almost eight years ago, I had no idea how I could even complete a first draft. Completing this revision was an enormous accomplishment, and for the moment, I am content.

Review: The Children’s Blizzard

This image shows the front cover, which actually does have that cool ragged edge on the right

A book review seems like a great way to resume blogging regularly. At least it does now, so I’m going to write this before I change my mind.

The short prologue to David Laskin’s 2004 book sets the scene — on a January afternoon in 1888, a devastating and swift blizzard swept down the Dakota Territory and reached into the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Hundreds of people were killed, many of them children walking home from school, the latter toll giving name to this natural disaster.

These opening pages are followed by a lengthy account of the settlers who populated the upper Midwest in the wake of the post-Civil War Homestead Acts. The meteorological conditions that produced the blizzard are then described with the detail and rhetoric of a scientific report; similar attention is given to the weather forecasting system of the era, which was run largely by the federal government, prone to bureaucratic in-fighting and inefficiency, and failed to give timely warning of the January 1888 storm. The blizzard does not strike until nearly half-way through the book, and while these opening chapters are rich with information (learning about the Fenian Raids of the 1860s was fascinating, even though they had nothing to do with the book’s topic), the pace at times can be ponderous.

But Laskin’s prose picks up momentum when the blizzard sweeps down from the Canadian Rockies, and people literally start running for their lives. The tales of miraculous survival are riveting, and the largely imagined depictions of fatal last steps are given the appropriate amount of pathos. Among the memorable stories is that of eight-year-old Walter Allen, who was picked up along with his school mates by a rescue team at the blizzard’s outset; remembering a cherished bottle he had left behind, Walter ran back into the schoolhouse — and faced an impassible wall of cold wind and snow when he ran back outside. (Spoiler alert: hours later, Walter’s older brother joins a rescue team which somehow finds him.) Laskin’s attention to detail does not falter in this section, as he digresses (for brief moments only, fortunately) on topics such as rewarming shock, a condition that can kill survivors of hypothermia.

Laskin’s writing style is professional and direct, yet he has some memorable passages. He describes the cold air mass accompanying the blizzard as “a glacier of sluggish gas.” An extended explanation of extreme cold’s effect on the body is also noteworthy:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily… After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens… A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.

Quality writing such as this, combined with Laskin’s meticulous research, makes “The Children’s Blizzard” a solid work of non-fiction.