Monday, May 22, 2017

Semi-coherent Thoughts on Reading and Time

For the better part of the last four days, I've been thinking about time, and books, and reading. Last Thursday over at Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey posted the first page New York Times bestseller The Handmaid's Tale in his "Flog A Pro" column. If you're not familiar with it, in "Flog A Pro," Rhamey posts the first page of a current bestseller (minus title/author) and asks his readers, "Would you turn the page and keep reading?" There's a little doodad for voting and viewing the vote tallies, and Rhamey continues by identifying the book/author, and analyzing the opening, explaining his own answer. It's an interesting exercise, well worth the time, in my opinion.

Though it has been several years since I read The Handmaid's Tale, I knew by the second line that that's what I was reading. Apparently, Margaret Atwood's opening stuck with me over the years, and I voted 'Yes' to the question, "Would you turn the page?" and I commented as well my belief that the opening page was outstanding. At the time I voted, the overwhelming majority (though in an admittedly small sample size) was also voting the same way. Both commenters before me were similarly impressed.

Later in the day, I went back to see what others were saying, and found the tide had turned: the no's outvoted the pro's (at last look, it was 78-70 in favor of nay). And while those who bothered to comment still mostly extolled the virtue of Atwood's first page, several of them noted the book might have a hard time getting published or gaining traction today (The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1986 in the US), while a couple stated plainly that they did not like it.

And I'm fine with that, really. The fact is, not everything is going to please everyone, and Atwood's style is much more literary than the novels Rhamey usually features. But there was one comment that especially stuck with me (and it wasn't the one that dismissed the opening as "pretentious twaddle". Okay, maybe that one stuck with me, too). The one that has really stuck with me said, "Books 30 years ago could take their time and if I was on vacation maybe I would have continued but today? No time."

No time.

At this point, I can see a friend of mine raising his eyebrow, looking at me over the top of his glasses, and saying something like, "Last time I looked, we all have the same time. Twenty-four hours, right?" And it's true. We all have the same amount of time in a day, the same amount of time in a week. The only difference amongst us, ultimately, is how much time we have on this earth. That's the big unknown.

But what I find myself wondering, more and more, is what's so much more precious about our time now than thirty years ago? A lot of people read The Handmaid's Tale back when it first came out--enough to make it a bestseller, enough to get it printed in many countries, enough to help Atwood win or get nominated for a number of prizes, enough for it to get turned into a major movie in 1990. (For an intersting perspective on what the success of this book did/meant to Atwood, see this article). So, why did so many people have so much time in 1986, and why do we have so little of it to this day? As far as I know, we still have twenty-four hours in the day, right?

According to the website Reading Length (readinglength.com, and just know before you go my antivirus flagged it as 'suspicious,' though it seems perfectly fine), The Handmaid's Tale is 311 pages long, 96,000 words, and will take 6 hours, 25 minutes to read from end to end. Wow. In comparison, Cross the Line, the latest in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, is a whopping 400 pages, 124,000 words, and will take 8 hours, 16 minutes to read. In other words, the latest Patterson potboiler will keep you from reading more books than Atwood's. Which one don't you have time for?

Of course, the "no time" comment doesn't mean the person literally doesn't have time to read Atwood--we've all got the same amount of time in a day, right?--it could mean (probably means, in fact) this person just doesn't enjoy this style of book (and, despite my use of statistics, it probably does take longer to read a 300 page Atwood than a 400 page Patterson) And that's okay. Again, not all things appeal to all people, and quite honestly, I suspect most of the readership of Writer Unboxed leans away from literary fiction. But using time as an excuse rings a little hollow. We're already making a commitment of time by picking up a book. What difference does it really make if this book takes eight hours versus that one's six? If a person is an avid reader (and someone who is reading Writer Unboxed probably is), they're just going to open up another book once they close this one for the last time. Reading doesn't come down to not having time: it comes down to how you choose to spend the time.

Does it matter to you how long it takes to read a book? Do you feel an urge to burn through books fast, or are you okay with taking your time?








Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend Update: Old Friend Edition

Waking up once again exhausted and unprepared for Monday. It's been that kind of a spring, and the weather hasn't helped much, with a lot of rain and colder temperatures than normal. Our little corner of upstate is normally a couple of weeks behind the weather I was used to growing up on Long Island, so the "lion" typically makes it's entrance around the second week of the month (which, this year, was when the big lake in our county finally froze all the way over for the first time, followed by three feet of snow); likewise, the April showers and May flowers are similarly late. This year, however, the April showers seem to have been saved for this past weekend.

The weekend started for me on Friday afternoon/evening, where we were, fortunately,  blessed with good weather, for the dedication of a boat wash station. What's a boat wash station, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. It allows boaters to use a high pressure, hot water spray to clean off their boats before launching into a water body, and to clean off their boats before leaving one lake for another. The purpose is to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. My organization worked with another non-profit and a local government to get funding for the construction of this boat wash, so I got to make remarks on behalf of my organization. We had about forty people on hand, which was not surprising. The man the boat wash was named after was just one of those people, the kind who left people smiling, the one who devoted himself to making his community a better place. My comments focused on the fact that, though I didn't know this man well, he always treated me like an old friend. It was a nice event, and a very fitting tribute to a good man.

On Saturday I wore a different hat at another event. This time, I was wearing my 'member of the Audubon Society' hat (and, perhaps more important, my 'spouse of an Audubon Society co-president' hat) at a bird festival event at a state park. This was the first bird festival for this park, and the weather was not at all cooperative, with rain throughout the day no doubt holding down attendance. The good thing is the parks people had put up several tents a few days in advance of the event, so it was relatively dry beneath (though the ground was quite wet; chairs would sink an inch or two into the soft ground when you sat on them). Not a whole lot of people came out, but the people who did were enthusiastic and very nice. And, I got to see an old friend:

Yes, that's Morty the turkey vulture. For those of you who don't know, my wife and I ran an environmental education business for a number of years; 'Morty' was (is) a permanently-injured bird we had in our care and used for programs. When we ceased operation, we transferred him and several other birds to a group in the region. I'm happy to say that Morty is this man's star attraction, and he very kindly let me hold him for a few minutes. Did Morty remember me? Hard to say. He didn't bite me, and he didn't puke on me, even though my bird handling skills aren't what they used to be. It was a nice visit, and good to see Morty doing so well and in good hands.

On Sunday, we watched Prometheus, which was a sort of prequel to Alien. I was not impressed. I think they tried to pack a lot of meaning into the story, but characters were poorly developed and behaved in ways that didn't make a lot of sense, the dialogue was terrible, and everything felt kind of rushed. Ah, well.

That's it for me for this week. How was your weekend?




Monday, May 8, 2017

Stanley Cup Favorites--Or Not



The National Hockey League playoffs are rolling along, more than halfway through round two. As I write this, eight teams have already been eliminated in the first round, one has been taken out of the second round, and another could be knocked out by ten thirty this evening. As always, the playoffs has provided drama, thrills and controversy in equal measure, heroes and goats, and further proof that no one really seems to know what goaltender interference is. 

My own Bruins went down in the first round, losing to Ottawa in six games, which means I can actually enjoy watching the games for a change (playoff hockey is probably the most excruciatingly exhilarating thing in the sports world. It's only when you don't have a dog in the fight that you can truly appreciate the game as a game.). Still, it's always more interesting when you're rooting for someone; I just need to figure out who. With that in mind, I'll list out the remaining teams, and some pros and cons of rooting for them. Maybe by the time I'm done, I'll know who to root for.

Anaheim Ducks

Pros: Well, uh, there's…hmm. Can I come back to this?

Cons: Ryan Kesler. Ryan Getzlaf. Corey Perry. The fact that the team, originally owned by Disney, was actually named after a movie franchise. Coach Randy Carlyle reminds me an awful lot of Dean Wormer. Maybe that's a pro?


Pros, part deux: Honestly, I still got nothing. As far as I can tell, the Ducks have no redeeming qualities at all. That was easy!

Edmonton Oilers

Pros: A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1993. They practically invented the game, for God's sakes. Let 'em have one.

Cons: They switched to those awful orange jerseys. That's unforgivable. Sportscasters on Hockey Night in Canada insist on calling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 'RNH.'

Nashville Predators

Pros: A Cup victory for P.K. Subban will give the management of the Montreal Canadiens an ulcer the size of Tycho. As a Bruins fan, anything that does that is fine by me (and I like Subban, now that he's not on Montreal anymore).

Cons: With 46 games played for the Predators, it's possible that Mike Ribeiro gets his name on the Cup.

New York Rangers

Throw it into Mount Doom, Master Mats!
Pros: A win means they can finally stop talking about Mark Messier and 1994. They were my Dad's favorite team, and I have a lot of friends and family who would be really happy if they won. Mats Zuccarello would be the first hobbit to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. 

Cons: New Yorkers are insufferable when their teams win championships. A deep playoff run means having to look at an ever-increasing number of bandwagon celebrities in the Madison Square Garden crowd.

Ottawa Senators

Pros: See Oilers, Edmonton. Also, the original Ottawa Senators won 11 Stanley Cups in the NHL's early days before moving to St. Louis and folding in 1935. As such, the Senators, who rejoined the NHL in 1992, would be the first "Zombie Team" to win the Cup. That'd be kind of cool. And we'd get two more rounds of Coach Guy Boucher doing stuff like this:


Cons: The Senators have a bunch of sneaky-dirty guys who are jerks. And not just because they eliminated the Bruins. Since the NHL is a league of copycats, a Senators Cup win might set the NHL back about 20 years, as everyone decides to employ a boring system with a bunch of marginally-talented players. We'd have two more rounds of Guy Boucher, and frankly, Guy Boucher scares the bejeebus out of me:


Pittsburgh Penguins

Pros: There hasn't been a back-to-back Cup champion since Detroit in 97 and 98; it's time we had one. A second consecutive Cup for Phil Kessel would be a giant "FU" to the Boston media who savaged him when he left the Bruins and might earn him some of the respect he deserves.

Cons: A third championship for Sidney Crosby would make listening to NBC coverage of the Penguins even more insufferable than it is now--and it's pretty insufferable.

Washington Capitals

Pros: A win for the Caps might just shut up some of the unfair criticism directed at Alex Ovechkin, who has only scored more goals by a long shot than anyone else since he entered the league. It would also mean Justin Williams is still perfect in his career in game 7s. They have a guy named Beagle--who doesn't like a beagle?

Cons: I still hate Braden Holtby for almost single-handedly knocking out the Bruins in 2012. Tom Wilson is a dangerous player who needs to stop leaping into hits. I'm not real happy with anything from Washington these days.

The verdict
 
Well, that was very helpful. As expected, writing all this out has helped me figure this out. So, who do I want to win the Stanley Cup now that the Bruins are out? Well, um...err...Bruins in 2018!

Can you root for anyone when your favorite team is out of the playoffs? How do you decide?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Monday Noneday

Today finds me struggling to wake up for work after a grueling weekend (my organization put on an Earth Day event on Saturday that takes up a LOT of energy). Next weekend, my organization is running a garage sale on Saturday and Sunday, which requires a lot of heavy lifting and hauling and moving of things around. The older I get, the more I find it's not so much the day after events like this that get me, but the day AFTER the day after.

WHICH is a long way of saying don't expect much from me here next week, either!

I don't have much else left in the tank this morning, so I'll leave you with this nifty, slinky little bit referred to, for reasons unknown, as "Orange Tango Jam." Usually, pieces like this are best listened to in full context, but that would take about a half an hour. See you on your blogs, and maybe here next week!



Monday, April 17, 2017

Story Cubes

Back at Christmas, I found a package under the tree for me from the Catbird that was the approximate size and shape of a deck of cards. When I picked it up, however, it was clear that it wasn't a deck of cards. This felt a little heavier. Denser. And when I picked it up, things moved inside. Shifted. When shaken, the box sounded a little like a box of Good & Plenty or Tic Tacs.

It wasn't candy, though. It was Story Cubes. Have you heard of them? I'm sure that, somewhere out there in this writing world I've immersed myself in, someone must have been talking about them on a blog, or Absolute Write, or somewhere, yet I can't quite remember hearing about them before. Even though I couldn't remember having heard about them before, I knew exactly what Story Cubes were, and how they worked, without really having to open the package (and I love the package, by the way; it's a clever little box that looks to be quite sturdy).

The idea behind Story Cubes is pretty simple. The box contains nine six-sided dice in the box, but instead of little pips for numbers, there are symbols, pictures. Throw the dice, look at the symbols that come up, and use those words in a story. That's pretty much it right there. The Catbird suggested that I could use the cubes when and if I got stuck.

Now, anyone who's been reading this space for a while may know that I'm not really big on the concept of writer's block. My approach has been, when stuck, to keep banging my head against the wall. This is the best approach, most of the time (for me--your mileage may vary), though I do know there are also times when it's best to get up and redirect the brain by taking a walk or a shower, doing the dishes, or vegging out in front of the television.

I confess, the Story Cubes sat unused for a long time. It's not something I would use in the course of a normal writing session, where I already have a starting point from the last writing session, and my desk is too messy to use them, anyway. I'd either lose them in the mess or have them fall off all over the floor. Recently, however, I took them to my writing group. Normally, we start our writing group off with someone reading a short prompt, followed by free writing that's supposed to be inspired by the prompt. I thought maybe we could use the Story Cubes as the prompt. Sounds like a perfect job for it, right?

The first time I brought them, no one else showed up. I knew this was a possibility and wasn't overly upset--I had to go to town for some shopping anyway. This just meant I got done that much earlier and we had dinner at a normal time. When it was clear no one else was going to show, I gave the cubes a shake up, tossed them on the table. Here are the symbols that came up: question mark, flowers, airplane, beetle, eye, fire, cane, house, bridge. Five minutes later, I had this 'story' (cube words underlined; note, this is completely unedited, and, as I look at it now, really kind of silly):

"I questioned the pilot's ability to fly this airplane. He lingered up the aisle, supported by a white cane, a heavyset, beetle-browed man with a lazy eye and a flower-child's hair. But he said in a voice full of fire, 'This is my house and I'll brook no disagreement; follow my every order and this flight will be no more trouble than walking across a bridge.' And he was right."

Does it make much sense? No, not at all. Is it a story? Not exactly, but it could be the beginning of something. And at this point, I need to say something about Story Cubes: the makers offer no explanation for the symbols, for what they mean, and that's a good thing. I used the question mark not as an object or a word, but as a concept (the narrator questions the pilot's ability). Meanwhile, the six-legged creature on one of the cubes was anatomically accurate enough for my naturalist's brain to call it a beetle; others might see it as 'insect,' 'bug,' 'cootie' or something more conceptual.

I did take the cubes back with me last week, and we used them again. I had a lot more trouble this time, scratching out another three paragraphs over forty minutes or so, nothing I'd care to share here (though I did manage a nice turn of phrase that maybe I'll use for something else). The others enjoyed it and had better writing success than I.

All in all, the cubes are a lot of fun. I may not use them as a regular part of my writing routine, but I'll keep them handy all the same, and I'll keep bringing them to my writers' group. Hey, you never know when they'll help unlock something big.

Have you ever used Story Cubes or something like it? What did you think?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musing: Delayed Reaction Edition

Hidey-ho, folks, hope you're all well. After enduring a week of cold, rain, and snow, the sun came out on Saturday afternoon, and it was positively balmy yesterday, mid-sixties and sunny. Daffodils are sprouting (though not quite flowering--yet), spring peepers are getting louder in the wetlands, swallows and kestrels are turning up on the telephone wires--it is spring at last! It's interesting that, though we've been living in upstate New York for fourteen years now, in some ways I'm still calibrated toLong Island time. Spring arrives down there much closer to the actual vernal equinox. The weather delay seems to have been compounded the last few years as well, with more snow falling after March 1 than it did when we first moved up here. Weather blip, or climate change? Who can say for sure?

Speaking of delayed reactions, two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Vestal Review. I've been receiving a lot of notifications from publications about contests and deadlines and such lately, and I figured it was just that, but then I noticed the subject line was "Sunday Drive," the title of a short story I had sent around, so I opened it:

Though your manuscript does not suit our current needs, we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Sorry for holding it so long.

His desk is neater than mine
I wasn't even really disappointed, to be honest. In fact, I think as I read the e-mail, I had my head cocked like a dog trying to figure out if what you're saying is really interesting or can be ignored: I couldn't even remember submitting "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review. After miraculously remembering my Submittable password, I found it had been two years, ten months since I submitted "Sunday Drive" to Vestal Review.

Two years, ten months.

As writers, we're told to be patient. We know, if we've done any bit of research at all when getting into this game, that things move slowly. Yes, we all want to get in The Atlantic or Glimmer Train or Ploughshares on that first submission; we want to land the agent and the publishing deal with that first manuscript; we want National Geographic to hire us to do that rain forest story that's been in the back of our heads forever. We also know--or should know--that it's not going to happen. I've resigned myself to this fact, and when I send a completed project to Agent Carrie, or when Agent Carrie starts prospecting my manuscript to editors, I try to immerse myself in something else and forget about it. Sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised by the speed of a reaction, but mostly, it's just like it used to be when ordering things before the age of the internet: "Please allow four to six weeks for delivery."

Still: Two years. Ten months.

I get that magazines and literary journals are shoestring operations run by dedicated individuals who are understaffed, underfunded, and overworked, but this is a bit much. I'm sure some of you who submit short stories on a more regular basis than I do have horror stories and longer waits. Feel free to share them below. I can't help but feel there has to be some better way.

EDIT (4/11/17): I should point out this is not meant to slag on Vestal Review in particular, or to say they are worse than other publications, or deliberately evil, etc., etc. I suspect the editors have to wade through a great deal of flotsam that comes in over the transom. Maybe, as Nick suggests below, it made a short list (though the form response may or may not negate that), maybe it just caught them at a bad time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part I)

Hey, ho, it's the first post of April, and that means it's time for the Quarterly Reading Report!

I feel like I had a really slow reading period this year so far. That can be attributed to watching too much hockey, playing too much Grand Theft Auto, and actually doing some writing. The Bruins' season may or may not be coming to an end soon (an unlikely, white-knuckle victory over Chicago has put them in pretty good shape to make the post season; a victory over Tampa Bay tomorrow night will almost seal the deal, though they could also drop all three of their last regular season games and miss the playoffs again--isn't this fun stuff what sport is all about?), and I actually haven't played GTA in about a week, so maybe this reading thing will take off again. Anyway, here's the list:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Matthew Desmond. Anyone who rolls their eyes at so-called "Welfare Queens" should give this book a read.

Redemption Road (2016), John Hart. Honestly? I don't even remember this book anymore.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010), Karl Marlantes. Critics really liked it, I was not so enthused, feeling it tried to do too much. And the POV felt much more "head hoppy" than omni.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), J.D. Vance. Speaking of people who should read Evicted. Good book, but shows surprisingly little sympathy for others living in the same kind of situation Vance grew up in.

Men's Lives (1986), Peter Mathiessen. A chronicle of the men who (barely) made their living fishing the waters of eastern Long Island.

Cold Blooded (2015), Lisa Regan. I beta read this for Lisa a couple years back, and really enjoyed it. Finally got to see it all grown up. Great job, Lisa!

The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III (1991), Stephen King. After being reminded that there's a movie version of some kind of this series coming out, I wanted to do some re-reading. Books I and II are missing from my collection, so I grabbed this one. Always good to slip into Mid-World and travel the path of the Beam with the gunslinger and friends.

That's it. Only seven books since the beginning of the year, and the last one was technically finished after the quarter ended, but I'll count it anyway. Interestingly, three works of non-fiction, which is a lot in one quarter for me; I usually spread them out much more.

So, what's been on your reading list?