Our prompt for this week:
Below is one of several pictures that will be appearing over the next few weeks; they were found and purchased from a shady antique store under a bridge in Seattle. What is the story behind this photo? According to the ornate handwriting on the back, this is Hazel. Hazel, meet your biographers…
I had no idea, but Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) wrote a murder mystery. Kind of. It’s titled A Double Barrelled Detective Story and it is a novella in which there are two unique revenge stories and he makes great fun of Sherlock Holmes. It’s structured around letters written by a young man to his mother as he tries to track down his father who was quite the scoundrel.
It was a unique little tale and did not take much time at all to read, but I was particularly struck by the beauty of the original printing. The red cloth cover with the fancy gold embossing is a pleasure to hold. And that quote is something else–“We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.” It epitomizes a lot of the story in a one sense, but it subverts it in another. The murder (which doesn’t even take place until about 2/3 of the way into the story) is covered up explicitly by disguising the setup for the murder with regular actions in front of Sherlock Holmes. And it would have worked, too, if it wasn’t for the meddling kid and his super-human tracking abilities. Sherlock Holmes had gone on the completely wrong path…
But the beauty of the book doesn’t stop at the cover. Take a look at these gorgeous end pages. They make sense as the majority of the story takes place in mountainous gold mining camps. I was wondering if I could take a page out of this book and create end pages for my novel that are cascades of falling letters…or stamps…
And the pages themselves are gorgeous. They all have a red frame with an accent in the corner. It was a two color job, which must have gotten expensive in 1902 because that meant they had to run each page through the press twice. But just look at how pretty it is! And I love the little annotations in the margin there. They run throughout the book and there are up to three on a page. Sometimes they were simply a note on the text and at other times the way they were phrased was a snarky bit of commentary.
And there were several stunning plates throughout the book. The detail and clarity of each of them was just astounding. If you can’t read the caption, this one is, “He proceeded to lash her to a tree.”
Anyway, an amusing little story, but a gorgeous presentation. This is a true gem of Twain’s that I didn’t even know existed until last month. It’s worth it to read a copy (it’s available in modern paperback and for the Kindle) but if you can get your hands on one of the 1902 printings, that’s even better.
With a title like Aftermath, one might expect Scott Nadelson’s new short fiction collection to be full of tales of devastation and chaos. To some extent, this is true; each of the stories deals with hard emotional and physical realities, but the aftermath of the character’s decisions is not wholly dispiriting. Hope abounds in these tales–unlike Nadelson’s previous collections–and you are left with the impression that, regardless of the current story’s unhappinesses, things will get better. They have a chance for a happy and fulfilling life or love and it leaves you as the reader with a pleasant satisfaction.
I have been a fan of Nadelson’s since I picked up his first two short collections when I registered for a course of his in undergrad. I make it a habit to read an author’s work before working or speaking with them, which I think is only polite and it is advice that not enough people heed. I found myself pulled into the simple and evocative prose in a way that I hadn’t found before in realistic literary fiction. I was particularly interested in his work as his stories do a wonderful job of working within the Jewish American culture while remaining open and inviting to gentiles such as myself. I feel welcomed into the families and cultures of his stories and they are enriched by the depth and intimacy with which they are woven.
Nadelson’s first two works (The Cantor’s Daughter and Saving Stanley) were stunning in their own right, but Aftermath is definitely surpassing them as my favorite collection. Partly due to the more hopeful nature of the stories, but moreso for two particular stories that appear here: “If You Needed Me” and “Backfill.”
“If You Needed Me” is a Rashomon style telling of a grandfather that looses control of his car and accidentally sends it crashing through the wall of his daughter’s house while the grandchildren are watching Saturday morning cartoons. The varied viewpoints are handled with finesse; they each reveal just enough information and the change to the next viewpoint is seamlessly carried out. Not an easy task in a short work, but beautifully crafted here.
In “Backfill,” a rocky marriage and a bad construction assignment are playing havoc with Robert’s life and sanity. The junk filled old quarry that is the site he’s supposed to be preparing for overpriced McMansions is a wonderful scene to juxtapose against the failing relationship. The most powerful part, however, are the beautiful lines that close the story, and no, I’m not going to give them to you. Go read it!
While these two stories stood out in particular to me, all of the stories are expertly crafted and evoke a wide range of emotion. Definitely my favorite of Nadelson’s work thus far, though I’m now eagerly awaiting Nadelson’s collection of autobiographical essays due out in March of 2013 from Hawthorne Books!
If you decided to write on yesterday’s writing prompt, feel free to post your work below! Here’s a short flash piece I wrote on the topic of the darker side of the green movement…
I checked my watch again, trying not to be obvious. The whole point was to blend until just the right moment. It was a thrill, not knowing who in the crowd was with us, who against us. Fingering the Guy Fawkes mask in my pocket reminded me that I was about to make a decision I couldn’t reverse. Once my data went out over the net, I was going to be labeled for life–but we had all agreed, this was a necessary demonstration.
The watch beeped and I pulled out the mask and put it on. It was useless against the medical scanners that littered the city, informing the populace of impending waves of rhinovirus or elevated sodium levels. They interacted with the biochips in your hand and sent you email updates on your blood pressure. The same biochips tracked your carbon footprint across the city and you were taxed for every kilowatt of energy you consumed. But it made us feel a little better, faceless youth to represent all of us.
I shrugged off the long jacket I wore to expose a dress made entirely of trash I had pulled out of the dump, the last things we hadn’t found a way to recycle or re-purpose. It’s mostly styrofoam packing peanuts sewn carefully on to trash bags. I thought it was rather stylish and set off the white and black mask well.
Our generation never had a choice. Our grandparents fucked up the world and our parents tried to fix it the best they knew how. No, that’s a lie. Our parents tried to fix it the best way that made money. Thus the biochips, and the medical scanners, and the children named after brands, the taxes and the industrial Roomba style ‘bots that are both street sweeper and air scrubber.
Out entire lives were monitored, measured, decided before we even cried our first breath. If you used too much electricity at work and overclocked your processor, you were likely unable to turn on your lights at home because you had exceeded your energy quota for the day. If you ate too many calories at breakfast, you would have to skip lunch. If you were backed up from all the regenerated soy protein you were fed in the cafeterias and hadn’t taken a shit in a day, you received an email informing you a prescription for laxatives had been placed for you at the local pharm’.
Around me, all of the youth my age in the square had ditched their coats and pulled out the masks. They were dressed in rags and take out food containers and duct tape. Someone set up a retro boombox and the song “Alice’s Restaurant” blared from the speakers. I had practiced the routine so often that I slipped into it effortlessly, all thirty of us moving in sync, working our way to the fountain (pouring out recycled rain and grey water) at the center of the square. We knew that all over the country, other kids were doing the same thing. When we reached the fountain, we started climbing until we were hanging off of it’s five tiers, the chlorinated water soaking our trash.
An alarm started beeping at the center of the fountain and its maintenance ‘bot came out to collect whatever rubbish had drifted into the basin. No one threw coins anymore…we didn’t use coins anymore. I sat at the top of the fountain, grinning beneath my mask and trying to remove some of the excess water from my hair. The adults stopped what they were doing, in their re-purposed fiber suits, some filming us with their phones, most standing idle for the show.
The song came to a stuttering end and segued into an electronic dubstep beat. I stood up and let out a yell, starting a cascade of noise and movement down the fountain. When the music hit a break, we froze until it hit the double time and went nuts, ripping at each other’s costumes–shreds of plastic and styrofoam and the odd bit of cloth dropping soddenly into the water or being flung at the observers, most of whom were now leaving as fast as they could. It was one thing to climb into a fountain. Another thing entirely to…they wouldn’t even be able to bring themselves to say it. Litter. We were littering, litterers, letting things fall were they may, unconcerned with the consequences of our actions, for once. Free.
They were bound up and restricted; their entire lives were dictated by their allotments of carbon and electricity and calories. They rationed everything so carefully. The few who were left standing around were on their phones now, calling the tip line about the youth committing horrific acts in the water in hopes that they might get a little extra in their rations next month for being conscientiousness citizens.
We were mostly bare now, stripes reddening our skin from the fingernails of people we had never met, the water getting cold around our ankles. When the music finally stopped, we scattered, some pausing to grab their coverings, others reveling in the freedom of the wind drying their skin.
I slipped off my mask and left it in the fountain and saw the one maintenance ‘bot choking on a particularly large piece of plastic. I pulled it out and dropped it on the ground and the ‘bot sped to the next piece of rubbish, trying to force it down into it’s overflowing trash receptacle. The whisper sounds of more ‘bots was getting louder and I watched five of the larger street sweepers come into the now empty square. Within minutes, all of the trash was gone and I was left sitting on the edge of the fountain, my recycled pop-bottle fiber coat wrapped around me to stop my shivering.
So, in an effort to spur my own creativity and to give all of you a reason to sit down and write now that NaNoWriMo is done, I’ve decided to give all of you a weekly writing prompt on Sunday morning. Nothing huge, nothing strenuous, just something fun to get your juices flowing and spur some new material. I, of course, will be joining you on this adventure, and I hope we can share some of it with each other.
So, for this first ever Sunday Writing Prompt (if you can come with something more witty, I’m all ears) try this on for size:
Green technology. It sounds like a great idea, it’s helping the environment and sustainability. But what dark sides could be lurking behind it? What future dystopias could emerge from its eventual dominance?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was quite a fantastical adventure. I don’t want to classify it as fantasy because it feels too real. Too approachable. It felt as though one was truly wandering through a traditional circus, watching the sideshows, and asking yourself if it is really possible for a person to bend themselves in that direction.
Quick plot summary: two magicians (for lack of a better term) who have been competing through the ages are once again pitting their students against each other in an exhibition style competition. This time, the competition arena is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (Circus of Dreams), where Celia and Marco must create new attractions and tents, constantly trying to outdo the other. At the same time, we get glimpses into the lives of the magicians, a set of twins born into the circus during it’s premier, the founders and supporters of the circus, and a young boy named Bailey who is a Rêveur or a dreamer who loves and follows the circus.
What the magicians could not have known is that they picked two ideal competitors; they complement and challenge each other so perfectly that they fall in love. The tents that they create in the black and white circus are gifts for each other and they dream about escaping the game and spending the rest of their lives together, but only one can win the competition…
The Night Circus was a beautiful and engaging love story; love of a man and woman, love for the circus, for dreams, for life. Love of imagination and story.
And not once did it get trite or cliche. Since I spend a lot of time looking not only at a story, but at the writing, I must admit I was a trifle worried at times. But I was always pleasantly surprised at the treatment given to aspects that could easily become melodramatic. For instance, there were (I thought) three options to end the game. Either one of them loses or they somehow find a way to break the bonds tying them to the game. When the time came for the game to end, however, my reaction was, “Wait…Oh! Oh that’s good.”
I myself am definitely a Rêveur now; I fell in love with the circus and the people who create and live in it. If you are looking for a wonderfully satisfying fantastical love story, then this is the next book to put on your list.
I thought I’d take a short break from writing to share a recent sewing project of mine and my mother’s. Together, we were working a Girl Scout event here in the city that involved nearly 200 girls wandering around with GPS’s attempting to find the history geocaches where volunteers like us were waiting with a bit of history and team building exercises.
Well, those of you who know us, know we don’t do things half measure. So when mom got the assignment at the Paul Revere monument on the Prada in the North End, we decided we wanted to do something special. Thankfully, the weather cooperated enough that these outfits were actually pleasant most of the time.
We started with this pattern and, of course, mixed and matched the actual bits to our satisfaction. And yes we’ve got petticoats, and no, we don’t have corsets. We do each have mop caps and kerchiefs, and I made two aprons but Mom decided not to wear hers for the occasion.
When the girls arrived, they were given a nutshell version of the actual events of that evening, trying to dispel some of the more common myths. No, Revere wasn’t the only rider, nor were there just three. There were a lot of people out riding about awakening people once Revere and Co. got them started. Also, they would never have shouted the British were coming as they were all British. Instead, they declared “The Regulars are on the march!” or “Town-born turn-out!” Much more accurate.
Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all this is, of course, the justify the use of this next picture, which is us with stick ponies.
The girls’ task after their history lesson was to organize a relay around the Prada to alert the towns. It was quite hilarious and fun.
All told, I think there was about 16 hours worth of work between the two of us to sew two dresses, aprons, caps, kerchiefs, and petticoats as well as one green velvet cape (I already had my black one). Not too shabby, though it would have been way worse had we stuck to period and done it by hand.
And the parting shot: Paul Revere Fan Girl
Cause who doesn’t swoon over a man who helped ignite the revolution?
Tamora Pierce‘s Beka Cooper series came to a rousing conclusion this year with Mastiff. I have long been a fan of the YA fantasy author and was excited for this year’s fix. Beka Cooper, a City Dog (basically a police officer of the realm), finds herself a mature agent of the law and assigned to the hunt of her life that takes her across the realm with her partner, Tunstall, a new mage, her scent hound Achoo and, of course, the cat née constellation Pounce.
I don’t want to ruin too much of the plot for Mastiff, but I have to make a few veiled comments for my own satisfaction. When they finally unmask the traitor, I cried; the award she wins was incredible; her choice in lovers was at first surprising, but in retrospect makes a lot more sense than any others. There, I’m done being cryptic, but I just had to get that out.
As always, Pierce approaches the adventure with a wit and urgency that draws her readership in, regardless of their age. I remember picking up Wild Magic when I was a prepubescent bookworm and immediately falling in love with her worlds and characters; I have spent every year since gleefully awaiting the next book. And my favorite thing about her work is that it has matured along with her audience. The material has gotten more complex and deals with more significant cultural issues while still maintaining the approachability that has made her a favorite among the YA audiences. As always, Ms. Pierce, a job phenomenally well done.
The novel Clown Girl by Monica Drake caught my eye, with its rubber chicken cover and promises of dark comedy. The story itself is about a young woman in Baloneytown who is attempting to make a living as a clown, a true artist, with silent mime-ish interpretations of Kafka while struggling not to give in to the easy corporate-clown money.
On the surface, it seems fairly straight forward, and–as expected in a novel about clowns–at times absolutely hilarious. But it is so much more than a novel about a clown named Sniffles. It’s a story about a woman named Nita dealing with a miscarriage, the absent elitist clown boyfriend, horrific housemates, missing dogs and chickens, and forbidden feelings. Every time Drake allowed you the release of laughter, two lines later you felt like crying. It was an incredible, beautiful, roller coaster of a novel, from start to finish.
The writing itself is simply pristine. It has been a long time since I have read prose that was as refined and purposeful while evoking a dark hilarity in simple turns of phrases. Drake has a true talent for understatement, which is necessary in a novel with such absurd extremes. It facilitates and eases the reader through each low and high spot, leaving them feeling satiated and content by the end.
Suffice it to say, I recommend Clown Girl for anyone who enjoys a dark literary comedy, or even those who don’t, as you will fall in love with Sniffles as you root for her through street fairs, police stations, and corporate parties.
For those of you who enjoy reading fantasy, particularly fantasy featuring dragons, I am sure that you have read Anne McCaffrey. She was a goddess of the fantasy novel; her world constructions were beyond believable, and she truly lived her work. Her books were some of my firsts–first dragon warfare, first time I wished I would be chosen by a dragon, first sex scene. She is also probably the reason I ended up owning a bearded dragon in high school (I really wanted a dragon small enough to perch on my shoulder).
Alas, Ms. McCaffrey passed this week, and the geek community celebrates her work and life and all of the hours of pleasure she gave to us while we mourn the fact that there will be no new Dragon Riders of Pern. (Well, maybe, there are vague rumors floating about that she had been working on a new one.)
Here’s to hoping she was reborn as a golden dragon, matched with a fearless woman, and is even now soaring through the skies of Pern.