Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Apocalypse snippets #2 - Gabriel Jackson, age 6

Disclaimer: This is part of a project I'm undertaking this semester to explore the way the apocalypse goes down in a novel I've had half-formed in my head for a couple of years. The following may be random, shitty first draft-type writing, unsuitable for human consumption, and may not make up a complete story by the end of the semester. Do not read while operating heavy machinery, not intended for ingestion, etc.

Momma says Jesus is coming for us. I'm on the big couch with Freckles, and Pastor Clark is on the TV waving his arms and screaming. Momma and me been watching him since he got on TV yesterday, but she put the mute on a couple hours ago, after she got the phone call. All she's done since the phone call is walk around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards and getting food out and then putting it back in.

Pastor Clark is pointing a finger at somebody in the seats. He's red in the face. I'd rather be watching my cartoons, but Momma says we gotta stay on Pastor Clark until it happens. I tried to ask her if there'd be cartoons to watch with Jesus, and she didn't know. There's been sirens outside for awhile now.


She almost slams a cupboard door, catches herself, then leans on the counter like she just ran all the way down the block. "Yeah, Gabe?"

"When's Dad getting home?"

She leans harder, and I wonder what's so exhausting about walking around the kitchen playing with cupboard doors. "Please don't ask me that, baby."

You'd think she'd be happier than this, what with Jesus coming back and all. Momma loves Jesus more than anything. She's been excited to meet him all her life. Maybe if I remind her, she'll cheer up. "D'you know when Jesus is coming?" I ask, and pause, petting Freckles's neck. "D'you think he takes dogs, too?"

Momma stares with her mouth open. Then her eyes droop and she covers her face, crying. On the TV, Pastor Clark is red in the face, clenching the pulpit and not screaming anymore. Momma sits down at the kitchen table and hides her face in her arms, and her crying is the only sound in the house.

I guess Jesus doesn't take dogs.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wax seals and map tattoos

Every month, I get a letter in the mail that's sealed with a wax stamp. If a roommate fetches the mail on the day it comes, I usually also get a "What's that?" and a nose over my shoulder. I tear open the envelop, pop the seal, and skim the words on the page before folding it again. Then it goes into the pile of assignments and projects in progress on the floor by my bed. It may stay there for a few weeks, or sometimes more than a month, when my life is especially hectic. Then I pick it up - two at a time, occasionally - and spend half an hour soaking in a story.

The letters come from author Catherynne M. Valente's Omikuji Project, a monthly mailing which includes a short story from her that's not published anywhere else. It's a bit like getting treasure in the mail, and it's one of a small handful of things that I do purely for my own enjoyment. It won't further any of my writing or knitting or god-knows-what-else projects, help me finish my schoolwork, or help me unpack stress like TV zombieing does. It serves no purpose in my life whatsoever, except to make me slightly happier.

And that it does damn well. Even when I don't have the time to spend half an hour on something completely non-goal-oriented, I have a wax-sealed letter next to my bed reminding me that a new story is waiting for me. The prose is always gorgeous, and the subjects roam frequently into mythology and fairy tales, which I love. This month's offering did a new take on Snow White, which is one of my favorite stories to see revisited (see also: unconditional love of The 10th Kingdom miniseries), and it felt like an unintentional birthday gift. A dangerous gift, though, since Valente's descriptions always make me want to do elaborate Arthur Rackham-style watercolors and woodburnings.

Maybe later.

At any rate, I gave in to Amazon today and bought Valente's latest novel, which was just released: Palimpsest, a story about a city that's passed from person to person via sex, imprinting part of its map on their skin and leading them into its streets in their dreams. The concept is really cool, and I have it on good authority that the book itself is fantastic. When I first started reading Valente's blog, this little book was a manuscript quickly approaching a deadline. It's always a treat to read a book whose inner processes I've glimpsed ahead of time - sort of a literary "Ha, I've seen you naked." Which, for this book...well, how appropriate.

This one's not going into the usual pile of unread books on my trunk. When it comes in the mail, it will be placed amidst the clutter on the floor by my bed to wait for me. I have a week off class coming up next month, and around that time I plan to pick up Palimpsest and read it purely for my own enjoyment. (I also fully intend to carry it around in my bag and blush while reading it in public.)

Now, if only Amazon had a "Seal with a wax stamp" gift-wrap option.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to read a terrible but mandatory book

This week for class I've got to read one of the Left Behind books (specifically book #4, Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides), and I've been dragging my feet for days, avoiding cracking the damn thing open. When I did start it this afternoon, my worst expectations came true. It's terrible - contrived, melodramatic, badly paced, and full of cardboard characters who want me to find the love of Jesus Christ. Normally I set bad, preachy books down in the corner and they stay there until they've learned their lesson (or found a new home in the recycling bin), but this one I have to present on for class.

The trick to reading something terrible, I find, is to bribe myself with lots of brain parsley. You know - little bits of TV or other books that clear the nasty flavor of whatever you just read out of your brain and replace it with something innocuous. Twilight is turning out to be good brain parsley for me, but this week I've got 500+ pages to read for class, so I didn't want to bribe myself with more text to read.

This is where the Tivo is helpful. Our Tivo, Dwight K. Schrute, is notorious for recording shows that no one in my household would ever watch. It gets yelled at frequently for this. "Bring it On 2, Dwight? What the hell?" and "Dwight, you ignorant slut, stop recording ER!" and on one occasion, "The Girls Next Door? I...what? DWIGHT!" But sometimes the Tivo's bad recording habits can be a good thing.

Like when I've just read 150 pages of badly written apocalyptic Christian propoganda and all I want is to get it out of my brain, and Dwight has erroneously recorded Sex and the City. Ten minutes into the episode, my brain felt nice and hollow. Then by the time the credits rolled, I sort of wanted the world to end, so it made a decent motivator to get more reading done!

My favorite line in the book so far is "What a cauldron of death!" I read this aloud in a dramatic voice, and from the next room, Kiah responded, "Your face is a cauldron of death!" I don't think the book can top that, no matter how melodramatic it gets.

Monday, February 16, 2009


The hand-knit gifts shop is closed for the season. My knitting queue for other people is full up, and it is all hats.

We have:
  • One Koolhaus cap for my coworker Asif, who bought the yarn and pattern
  • A Link-ized Floopy Hat for my brother (who will wear it everywhere, no doubt)
  • A Morgan driver's cap for my dad (who will likely wear it once, proudly, then store it on a shelf after remembering he doesn't wear hats)
  • Another Verity beret, this one for my aunt - I have the yarn for another for myself sitting in my stash
  • One hat of indeterminate floppy-brimmed pattern for my mom, possibly a bucket hat
I don't know how I acquired this list of hats. My history of knitting inadvertently tiny and troublesome hats should mean that I don't make many hats for other people, but no. Five gift knits for early 2009. All hats.

Frakking hats.

Edit: the lucky coworker's hat-in-progress:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Much as I love Jared Padalecki, I wouldn't knit him a sweater. Dude's like 6'4".

I find few traditions worth keeping. One of them is this: on Valentine's Day, roommate Kiah and I have a double date with the Winchester boys from Supernatural. She gets Dean (Jensen Ackles, of course - her longtime crush) and I get Sam (Jared Padalecki, who is in the "talking tree" height category but, y'know, somehow I don't care).

Last year, we stayed in and watched Supernatural. This year, we went out to see the Friday the 13th remake, starring Jared, then back home for a season three Supernatural marathon beginning where we left off last year. Friday the 13th wasn't nearly as gory as My Bloody Valentine 3D, but the deaths were quite creative and it actually managed to make me care about the characters, which was unexpected. It would probably make my DVD collection look more respectable, considering all the terrible movies on my shelf.

Because we started watching Supernatural at the episode "Mystery Spot," a Groundhog's Day send-off of Dean deaths, Kiah's date died like ten times. He also made obnoxious gargling noises and peed himself. My date, on the other hand, fought off Jason Voorhees. Who picked the right Winchester? I think the answer is clear.

During our Supernatural marathon, I finished my Snow White sweater. It's like wearing a pretty, pretty cloud. Easily my favorite sweater I've knit so far.

And speaking of sweaters, guess what finally showed up? THE SWEATER YARN I ORDERED IN NOVEMBER!

Dream in Color Classy in the "Nightwatch" colorway, six skeins including the one I already had. I've been waiting on this for months, plotting a complex cabled sweater based on a design from the novel I'm working on. More on that eventually. For now, look at the blue:

This stuff is so blue it practically glows in direct sunlight. I'm hoarding it dragon-style until I've got the sweater on the needles.

This weekend I also got my Clarion application finished. Fingers crossed. I have a lot of potential Big Things I'm crossing my fingers for lately, and I'm running out of fingers.

In completely unrelated news, the muppet-dog is looking especially muppety today.

We discovered that when you go "Mahna mahna" at him, he answers with a bark. I'm going to encourage this behavior.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Apocalypse snippets #1 - Thomas Lyon, age 36

I've had an apocalyptic novel in my head for a while now. In this story, the veil between the living and dead worlds fails, and the once-dead things infect the living world, turning most of humanity into vessels for spirits, demons, long-dead gods, and other creepers. There are a handful of survivors worldwide who aren't infected, and their main plot will center not on trying to save the world but on figuring out their place in the post-apocalyptic landscape. This semester I'll be poking about in that fictional world through assignments from my Apocalypses class, figuring out the nuts and bolts of my version of the apocalypse, playing with tone and voice, and basically exploring.

Standard disclaimer: The following may be random, shitty first draft-type writing and may not make up a complete story by the end of the semester. Do not read while operating heavy machinery, not intended for ingestion, etc.

Charlie was a colossal git, anyway. Not that I don't feel for him - I do, I'm not the total prick his friends pegged me for - but holy Jesus, will you look at him? Eye pencil curly-cued down his cheeks, dyed black hair over pale Irish eyebrows, and more lipstick than my sisters used to wear when they snuck off on dates. Wardrobe like a funeral procession. Even now, with that dead thing wearing him for a suit, I still want to smack him upside the head.

I do feel for him, though. He's an idiot, sure. First thing he does when the news reports start coming on - mass hysteria in Europe, claims of spiritual possession run rampant, ghosts all over the bloody place - first thing Charlie the git does is get together with his equally funereal friends and a jug of tequila at the cemetery. The world is crashing to an end, and they're holding a seance. Fucking Ouija board and everything.

And now Charlie's a suit for some--I'm not sure what. All I know is he's not giving me the usual morning pleasantries when I pass him on the stoop of our place this morning. Two years living downstairs from the kid, and never once has he skipped a chance to make nice with me. Probably because he saw my knife collection the one time. Cowardly little Charlie the git, tail perpetually glued between his legs. Except now it's not Charlie, but something else staring out from inside him, making his eyes glassy. Just like on the news feeds - and in the streets downtown I drove through at sunup, and just about everywhere else I've been these last twelve hours.

I slump into the porch swing, fingering the butterfly knife in my pocket just in case. The rest of the neighborhood is so quiet I can hear the screams breaking three streets over, where there's smoke rising up. Hope the fire doesn't spread - though, if we're all fucked anyway, I suppose it doesn't matter whether my flat burns up. "Charlie," I say, nodding to the thing on the doorstep.

It's standing with Charlie's nose nearly against his front door, staring forward. Not surprisingly, no answer.

"Oy, thing that is wearing my neighbor," I call, making sure to ennunciate.

It answers to that. Turning its head slowly, Charlie's neck bones crackling, it looks at me. I've seen frozen fish with livelier eyes.

"You got a name?" I say.

It tests Charlie's vocal cords with a wheezy sound, then says in his smallest voice something that sounds like "Sarah."

Charlie's got a girl inside him. This is probably the closest he's come to contact from a real human woman. I'd laugh if I wasn't so sure she'd killed him to get in. "Where're you from, Sarah?" I shake my head. "When'd be a good question, too, I suppose."

She turns Charlie's head back toward the door and says to it, "New York. 1911." And for a second, I smell singed hair.

"Long trip," I say, because what else can you say to that?

"There are holes in the world," she says into the door.

I flip open my butterfly knife, but she doesn't even react. If Charlie had any control over that body, it'd be leaping in his window about now, and probably yelping. "The kid who was in that body," I say, closing the knife. "He's not in there with you, by any chance?"

"No," Sarah says. "He's gone."

"Gone where?" That she doesn't answer. I take a deep breath and stab my knife into the arm of the porch swing - I'm sure the landlady won't care, as she's probably got a ghost in her already. "Well, you need anything, Sarah?"

"Key," she says into the door.

"In his back pocket."

She digs one of Charlie's bony hands into the back pocket of his tight black jeans and pulls out his rabbit's foot keychain. It takes her a few tries to get the key into the lock properly. Then it clicks, and she presses the door in with a little sound that might be a "Thank you."

"Rent's due on the fifth," I tell her back as she walks inside. "No smoking inside, no pets, keep your music down."

The door slides shut behind her and closes most of the way, leaving just a sliver of the frame showing. I get up and pull the handle shut the rest of the way, so no one thinks of walking in and stealing Charlie's things. He was a git, but he didn't deserve that.

Was. The word's tough to wrap my head around. Charlie was. The neighborhood was. Humanity was - or it will be a "was" in a few days, I expect. At the rate those things are taking people over.

I step into my flat and lock the door behind me. Folding my knife back into my pocket, I can't help but wonder what sort of dead thing is gonna take to wearing me like Sarah's wearing Charlie. And when. The news feeds from the cities went to static a couple of hours ago, so presumably soon.

Whoever it is that takes me over, they'd better not touch my goddamn truck.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Loosening knots

I carry my tension in knots down my shoulders and back. When I have constant stresses in my life for weeks on end, it's hard to stretch out. When something major is looming over me, I get sharp aches across my mid back that make it hard to breathe. I can feel those kinds of knots beginning between my shoulder blades right now. Massages don't help - my dad was a professional massage therapist for years, and even he can't get these particular knots to loosen up for more than a few hours.

What does help is writing. Even thinking about opening the Scrivener file for my current novel eases my shoulders out of their protective hunch by an inch or two. Typing new words in it sends a slow wave of calm down my back. By the time I've finished another thousand words, I can't even feel the knots.

My dad says I'll need to start seeing a chiropractor by the time I'm thirty, the way my back holds onto knots. I think writing full-time would do the trick just as well.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In which I am germy, big things are about to (hopefully) go down, and my brother is my hero.

I have contracted some sort of froggy-throated death cold. Usually I only get desperately sick about twice a year, and the rest of the time I get colds, they're short-lived annoyances that have me bringing a small stash of pills to work. Well, guess what? All those little annoying colds I've had this last year completely used up my reserves of cold/flu/plague pills, and by the time I realized I had no meds on hand with which to fight the germs, I was too sick to slog out of the house and buy more.

Yesterday I begged cold meds off a generous roommate. Today I tried not to be such a mooch, but after missing work and spending most of my day whimpering quietly between coughing fits, I called my little brother, and he fetched me something with "Severe Cold" on the box. While in the middle of a busy day. While he already had his own cold to deal with.

You see why that boy gets so many hand-knit gifts from me?

So, I haven't gotten a lot of writing or knitting done. Or much else, for that matter. Mainly, this is because of the sick, but I've also got some other big things occupying my mental energy at the moment. Here's what I've had on my plate this past week:
  • Finishing "Or Your Money Back" and "No and the Walking House" for my Clarion application (hopefully I'll find time to do the app sometime this week)
  • Taxes, and the faulty e-file systems that accompany them
  • Apocalypses - the class I just started last Thursday - and the reading that goes along with it
  • Snow White sweater, still waiting at about 90% done
  • Two for his Heels socks - a pattern I'm test-knitting for my friend Bex
  • House hunting (aaaaaaa), because I'm looking at co-buying a place (AAAAAA) with a friend in the next couple of months (AAAAAAAAA)
  • Reading Twilight, because everyone I know who's read the books has either loved or hated them, and this bizarre no-gray-area phenomenon has me intrigued
Can you guess which of these things has been keeping my obsessive little brain preoccupied with thoughtsplosions? (Hint: it's not Twilight.)

Anyway. That's what I've been up to. Here's a picture of the sock in progress:

Man, I am pale. Maybe I'm a vampire! That would be pretty cool, because then people would use words like "dazzle" and "smolder" to describe me, instead of "snorky" and "high on cold meds."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Nearly-done sweaters make me do Edna accent.

I know, dahling, I know. It is fahbulous.
But I cannot allow it in public like this. Stringy and unfinished - feh!

How to be fooled

Fiction's coolest trick is convincing readers it's real. It's a temporary illusion - while a really fantastic book is open in your hands, it can draw you in, make you believe it. A killer is after the protagonist? You worry for her. The hero's about to get the girl? You're smiling, you big softy. A character you like is dying? Godamnit, you're crying. You didn't mean to be, but you can't help it, and now people on the bus are looking at you funny. Stupid book.

Not every novel has the ability to make fools of us like that. Many are just stories - flat things on the page that you can leave behind you as soon as you close the cover. Personally, I prefer the ones that trick me. I love getting entrenched in characters' lives like they're real people, and I aim to produce that same worrying, smiling, blubbering-on-the-bus reaction with my own writing. Fiction is at its best when it feels like an experience. The book I just finished reading is among the best I've read at that: The Bone People by Keri Hulme. This book tricked me over and over, and when I finally finished it, I was sad to leave it. I think I've read the ending three times now, just casually revisiting it.

Kerewin is living as a reclusive artist in a tower-shaped house on the New Zealand coast when a mute boy named Simon trespasses into her land. She reluctantly becomes a part of Simon's life, and his father, Joe's, and the three of them begin to form an unusual family bond. Secrets come out, violence erupts, and conflicts must be managed, but the book isn't about plot - it's driven entirely by these three characters and their attachments.

And when I say "entirely," hoo boy, I mean that. This is the single most character-driven book I've ever read. Even the form of the book comes from its characters. And herein lies the most remarkable trick I've had a book pull on me in years: The Bone People's format depends solely on its characters. Conventional formatting be damned, if Kerewin is brooding, the paragraphs are going to bunch up and turn into stream of consciousness, punctuation-free chunks of her mental state. If Simon is the focus, the tense shifts from past to present as he considers his current situation. If Joe's experience is especially important just now, the POV switches to first-person from his perspective. Lines of dialogue bunch together in a paragraph if characters are snipping each others' sentences and spread out when there are awkward pauses. Formatting gives in to character.

Unfortunately, I suspect this remarkable trick is also the element that scares off many readers in the first few pages. The person who recommended The Bone People to me said every time she'd lent out a copy, it had come back unread. Which is a damn shame. Every review on the dust jacket claims this experimental form, though grating at first, grows on you until you come to love it.

Now, you there, shaking your head and thinking, I hate experimental fiction. No way I'm picking up that book. Forget the dust jacket and listen up. I can't stand experimental fiction. I've been known to pitch books across the room and take a hit to my grade rather than read something with dialogue formatting that isn't the norm. I have in fact described lit like this with words like "pretentious," "obnoxious," and "too much fucking work." But.

I loved the form of this book. It begins to feel completely natural after a chapter, it fits the characters perfectly, and the story is absolutely better for having been written this way. For this story, conventional form would not have felt right - because it's a story that focuses on people far and above all else. People interrupt themselves. Their speech stutters and shirks off punctuation. Their thoughts cluster and drift and come in half-sentences. They don't move or act in ordered ways - especially when they become attached to others. People are messy. Fiction is ordered - or at least, usually tries to be. Hulmes's writing is messy in a way that mirrors her characters, and through it, you begin to understand them, relate to them, and become attached yourself.

So, here's my dare for you, reader: open a copy of The Bone People and start reading. The first five pages will make you doubt your choice picking it up, but keep going, and the form will begin to draw you in. By the end of the first chapter, you'll be settling into Kerewin's and Simon's and Joe's heads and feeling at home. Finish the book, and I promise it will make a fool of you.
Which is the best part of reading, if you ask me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

While reading The Bone People

(A repost from elsewhere - I wrote this a couple weeks back, midway through the book.)

As much as I love TV and movies, they don't hold quite the same power for me as a good novel. When I watch a movie, even something engrossing that I've never seen before, I'm still firmly planted in the real world. While my eyes are on the screen, the rest of me is aware of the lumps in the couch, the heat or cold of the room, the volume of the TV, and whether I should maybe get up and get a drink of water because damn that scene with the river made me thirsty. Stories on a screen are easy for me to separate from reality - I look away from the screen and they fall apart into scenes and act breaks and actors I can look up on IMDB.

Novels, on the other hand, have the ability to suck me in so wholly that when I have to put the book down in the middle of a scene, it's almost disorienting. I'm in a tower on the New Zealand coast watching Kerewin Holmes get this child who's adopted her dressed for bed, worried about the lacerations she's just found on his back and suddenly I'm at the computer lab helping a woman who looks like a meth addict look up Everlast videos on YouTube and what the hell is going on here. Oh, right. I'm at work.

A really good novel doesn't fall into it's individual parts when I put it down - it stays fresh in my mind, like the characters are people I know and the setting is someplace I just stepped out of. At one point this morning, someone in the computer lab was singing mournfully to himself, and for a minute I thought it was coming from the book, because I was reading a scene that took place in a bar where that sort of thing might be background noise.

There's a much thinner barrier between me and the story when I'm reading it off a page versus watching it on a screen. Which is bizarre to me, because that means my brain interprets splotches of ink in a carefully arranged symbolic language as closer to reality than images of real people on a screen. Reading: it is illogical and possibly magic.

To be fair, this doesn't happen with every book. Some books - especially those I read for in-between-assignment fluff - fall apart as easily as The Office when I set them down. (Oh ho, look at that clever scene break! I should write a scene that does that!) It's only the occasional engrossing, character-driven novel that gets my reality and fiction flip-flopped for a second.

The Bone People is doing that to me big time, and I've started to figure out why. It's a novel that's written in an unusual style of prose - something I'd call poetic, except that it isn't trying to be. Everything shifts - tenses, points of view, alignment of paragraphs, punctuation. Normally experimental lit like this drives the proofreader in me up a wall, but Keri Hulme's writing is The style or perspective doesn't shift to denote some Grand Significant Theme, it shifts based on how the characters are feeling or acting. Conversations that are awkward or full of pauses have dialogue and dialogue tags stacked on top of each other; conversations where people are responding quickly have the lines of dialogue mushed together, two characters' lines sharing a paragraph. There are moments of stream of consciousness writing that come straight out of the characters' heads. It's a quiet book, with not much physically happening in the first 150 pages besides the characters getting to know each other, but the organic, character-driven prose makes it feel like much more must have happened, because they've grown so much in depth already. It's unlike anything I've ever read before.

I should note, that while I do get that moment of "What? I'm not in [insert story setting here] anymore?" when pulled out of a great book, it's pretty rare that I actually worry for the characters as people. Thinking, "How ever will he survive this?" while I worry about how the plot will twist to save him is a totally common occurrence. Setting down a book and wondering if I should check up on a character to see if he's okay, like he's someone I actually know? That's weird, even for me. And this book has me wanting to call Child Protective Services for one of its characters.

Then debating it because I'm sure he'd never see the main character again, and she's good for him.

Then realizing he's in New Zealand, so CPS wouldn't even have jurisdiction there.

Then realizing he's fictional.

This all happens in the course of a couple seconds, but still. Book totally conned me - I'm impressed. Fiction's greatest strength is its ability to trick us into believing it's real - most books only manage that while you're reading them. It takes something special to continue to trick a reader when she's put the book down and established via a quick scan of her surroundings that she is not, in fact, in New Zealand.

I'll be posting more about this book when I finish it, which ought to be soon. The computer lab is nigh dead over the holiday break*, so I'm getting plenty of reading time. It's fantastic - except for that moment of confusion when the phone rings.

*Except for the neighborhood oddballs who come down in droves when the rest of the school closes down, which explains the mournful singing and whatnot and no, lady, I don't know if the library has a book called "Apricot," as we are not the reference desk, and you wouldn't be able to check it out anyway because you're not a student and yes it costs money to go to school here stop wheezing questions at me I am trying to read