Sunday, February 28, 2010

Me v. Moby: Part Six

8:51 p.m. “Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”

Oh, I get it. Moby Dick is like his city editor.

9:20 p.m. Ahab hates Moby Dick because he chewed off his leg. Ishmael hates him because he’s white. And we call Ahab crazy?

9:31 p.m. “What trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”

No commentary. Just like the quote.

9:39 p.m. An important shift occurred about 60 pages ago, and I didn’t notice. Melville focused on themes of faith and prejudice for the first quarter of Moby Dick; and the story featured the odd couple of Ishmael and Quee.

Now, Quee has almost disappeared from the plot. Ishmael only appeared to explain why he dislikes the color white. The focal character is Captain Ahab and the primary theme is obsession.

Honestly, I preferred the story when it focused on Ishmael and Quee. Ahab’s story isn’t worse than Ishmael’s. Melville saves his best writing for Ahab’s tirades; but the concepts of faith and friendship interest me more than obsession.

Once again, I’m not implying that Melville should have written the Ishmael and Queequeg Show. It’s just a matter of preference.

I need sleep. I’ll see you in the morning. Thank you for reading.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , ,

Me v. Moby: Part Five

5:01 p.m. My primary vocation is as a crime reporter. Occasionally, I will over-research a story and have more information than I can use. However, that wealth of information allows me to write more evocatively than I could otherwise.

Sometimes, I’m so excited by my material I shoehorn in additional information that doesn’t help the story, but I can’t bear to leave it out.

If chapters like Cetology and The Specksynder are the price to pay for Melville’s enthusiasm and understanding, then they are a necessary evil.

5:16 p.m. “(The steward) Dough-Boy’s whole life was one continual lip-quiver.”

I love it.

5:33 p.m. I want the US hockey team to lose the gold medal for selfish reasons. If they win, people will treat it like a sequel to the Miracle on Ice. Everyone’s going to ask, “Where were you when you watched the game?”

And I’ll have to answer, “I was busy blogging as I read Moby Dick.”

5:39 p.m. If it’s been awhile since I summarized the plot, it’s because there has not been much to summarize for the last 50 pages. We are introduced to Ahab. He is a volatile person, equally capable of doling out verbal abuse and silence. He commands respect without needing to demand it.

Also, the reader is brought up to speed regarding the taxonomy of marine mammals, the niceties of seaborne society and the everyday responsibilities of working on a whaling ship.

5:45 p.m. “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look you, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”

Ah, yes, the plot. I knew I left you somewhere.

5:49 p.m. “It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now … and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.”

Yes, plot, I missed you too. Let’s never let anything come between us again.

5:53 p.m. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

These quotes all come from Captain Ahab’s monologue in Chapter 36. I didn’t know this until now, but I’ve been waiting for this monologue all day.

6:21 p.m. Now that the plot has returned, a summation is necessary: Captain Ahab encourages the sailors to kill the titular whale that took his leg. He offers gold and alcohol as incentives. The first mate, Starbuck, doesn’t like the idea of turning a mission of profit into one of revenge.

Ahab’s monologue is punctuated with an unusual narrative device. Instead of sticking with Ishmael, as Melville has done for the last 173 pages, he shifts from Ahab to Starbuck to Stubb and finally to the crew. It’s jarring and a bit of a cheat, but the writing remains strong and it pushes along the story. Any complaints I might have would be academic, not artistic; so, consequently, I have no complaints.

I’m going for a run. I hope to have one more post up tonight.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. I hate Sidney Crosby.

Labels: , ,

Me v. Moby: Part Four

3:41 p.m. I have returned and am ready for Ahab’s first on-page appearance.

3:52 p.m. The first words out of Captain Ahab’s mouth: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.”

Tell Dan Brown that this is how you foreshadow.

3:56 p.m. Melville mostly lets other characters describe Ahab, instead of allowing Ahab to reveal himself. Normally, I don’t care for that tactic. It errors on the tell side of “show, don’t tell.” But who cares when Melville does it this well?

Stubbs’ (the second mate’s) description of Ahab: “I guess he’s got what some folks ashore call a conscience.”

That’s a good line in any context.

4:05 p.m. I reached the chapter, Cetology, which Garrett Morrison warned me about. Consider me braced.

4:13 p.m. Beautiful phrase: “To grope down in to the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.”

4:29 p.m. I’m relieved that Melville occasionally interrupts his scientific dissertation on whales with actual writing.

Melville’s assessment of the name Killer Whale: “Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.”

4:35 p.m. I can complain about Melville’s need to describe every room in every inn and man on the Pequod, but I must acknowledge that he understands pacing. Yes, he devoted a chapter to chowder; but it was only three pages. He slows his momentum with his obsessive descriptions but never for too long.

But Cetology—the chapter, not the study of whales—is egregious. In a book that limits most chapters to three or four pages, Melville dedicates 12 pages to list the myriad of whale species. Meanwhile, the story grinds to a halt.

There is no mention of Ahab, Stubb, or Quee and Ishmael only exists as the narrator. For 12 pages, the story ceases to exist and you are reading an article of National Geographic. Melville’s categorization is interesting and occasionally funny. But it isn’t the story that I’ve already spent more than six hours reading today.

The narrative voice also changes. Ishmael disappears, and he is replaced by an unacknowledged Melville. This wouldn’t be a problem at the beginning or the end of the story, but it’s a distraction when thrust into the middle.

OK, enough complaining. Sadly, I write more when the story bores or upsets me. When it’s good, I’m too busy reading to complain. I’m ready to get back to the story. I hope Melville is too.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , ,

Me v. Moby: Part Three

12: 08 p.m. Stupid driveway. Stupid snow.

12:11 p.m. “All deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea … In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than to be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”

In this one passage, Melville links his three most common themes up until this point: the sea, religion and death. First, he equates deep thought to the sea. Then, he says the sea is as indefinite as God. Finally, he says it is better to die in the indefinite sea (or God or deep thought, as all three are analogous) than to cling to the safety (and shallow thought) of the land.

Perhaps this is a stretch, but Melville (or, at least, Ishmael) seems to be making an argument for religion-less faith here. The characters in Moby Dick each have their own faith. Ishmael is Presbyterian, Quee prays to a Yogo (who, to the best of my knowledge, is an invention of Melville), Bildad is a Quaker and Peleg is a “good man of the swearing sort.”

However, all of the primary characters seem to entertain or accept each others’ faiths with the exception of Bildad. Bildad is genuinely concerned for Quee’s soul when he learns he is not Christian.

Ishmael specifically advocates for a universal faith when defending Peleg’s beliefs to the captains.

“I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets noways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.”

Ishmael’s equivocations make me think that while he is also connecting the sea with God, he is also connecting the land to safety, shallowness and clinging to an organized religion to the exclusion of others.

No? Too much?

12:27 p.m. And now Melville’s on a tangent about the respectability of whaling.

12:43 p.m. “Long usage had converted the jaws of death into an easy chair.” I like that metaphor.

12:51 p.m. Melville torpedoed his momentum by dedicating four chapters to defending whaling and describing the first, second and third mates. I’ve read about 30 pages waiting for something to happen.

My in-laws just arrived for a late lunch/early dinner. I’ll be back after that.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , ,

Me v. Moby: Part Two

8:50 a.m. We’re back. The tenth chapter is entitled “A Bosom Friend.” I’m hoping for Peter-Scolari-and-Tom-Hanks-styled hijinks (No, I didn’t remember Peter Scolari’s name. I had to Google it.)

9:00 a.m. Melville writes Quee fantastically. It would be easy to turn Quee into a series of clichés (either the benign outsider like Balki in Perfect Strangers or the hyper-aggressive savage.) Instead, Melville strikes his pitch in the middle, “neither caterpillar, nor butterfly.”

More importantly, Quee is interesting. Some authors spend so much time making their characters politically correct that they forget to make them engaging.

Quee would be an impressive accomplishment if a white American man wrote him now; but Melville did it back in 1851, when blacks counted as three-fifths of people and “savage” was a sociological term.

And how did he do it? By writing Quee as honestly as he could.

9:28 a.m. I just read Melville’s love letters to Nantucket and the sea, and you can tell his affection for the subject is genuine. Forget writing what you know. Write what you love.

9:34 a.m. And Melville just dedicated an entire chapter to soup.

9:38 a.m. Melville’s description of the Pequod: “She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything.” Apparently, the phrase “old school” is older than I realize.

9:50 a.m. Melville seems to be making a subtle point about religion. First, he criticizes the capriciousness of Christian kindness, then he good-naturedly encourages Quee’s faith in Yogo, and, finally, he offers this chestnut during his description of Captain Bildad:

“He had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.”

10:03 a.m. Captain Peleg’s assessment of Captain Ahab: “Not a pious good man… but a swearing good man.” That’s as good an epitaph as any.

10:05 a.m. Melville has a knack for characterization. Captains Bildad and Peleg are fully formed in a single scene.

I have finished the 16th chapter and this seems an appropriate time to summarize: Ishmael and Quee agree to sail together. They go to Nantucket to find a whaling boat. They eat chowder. Yogo, Quee’s god, decides Ishmael should pick the vessel. Ishmael picks the Pequod because it’s old school. He meets the ship’s idiosyncratic owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad. They hire him.

Also, Peleg has this to say about the Pequod’s captain, Ahab: “Stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!”

That statement has great rhythm. (Read it aloud.) But is that what you want to hear about your new boss? I suppose it’s better than not having your humanity, but still…

10:20 a.m. “We good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects … Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

So Melville comes from the Curtis Mayfield school of religion. If there’s a hell below, we’re all going to go.

10:25 a.m. “Betty, go get Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—‘No suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor’—might as well kill both birds at once.”

All hotels should have that sign.

11:10 a.m. Ishmael and Quee have set out into the Atlantic.

Let’s summarize: Bildad and Peleg meet Quee and hire him. An old sailor named Elijah, who is referred to as the prophet, drops ominous hints that not all is right with Ahab and the ship. (In case you missed all the other sepulchral hints, Elijah makes it clear that the Pequod is fated for doom.) With that in mind, Ishmael and Quee begin their voyage.

People often describe Moby Dick as a story of obsession. But, to this point, the primary themes have been religion and prejudice. I’m sure obsession will come up once Ahab gets some pagetime, but it hasn’t yet.

Not that it’s a problem. Authors don’t worry about themes. They introduce and abandon themes as they serve the story. Authors worry about character, setting and plot. It’s shut-in bloggers and literary critics who worry about theme.

With that, I’ll be taking another break. My wife has asked me to shovel the driveway.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , ,

Me v. Moby: Part One

6:18 a.m. The next book I promise to live blog will have less than 30 pages. I’m considering The Lorax.

6:19 a.m. “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most recognizable first sentences in literature, but I’m not sure why. It’s not as thoughtful as “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” or as clever as “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” It is not as catchy as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Yes, I realize the opening to A Tale of Two Cities runs on for another four lines but nobody quotes anything after the worst of times, anyhow.)

Meanwhile, “Call me Ishmael” only seems to have two strengths. It’s concise and it introduces Ishmael without using passive tense.

If nothing else, it qualifies Moby Dick as the rare novel written in second person.

6:22 a.m. Heh, Ishmael owns a purse.

6:34 a.m. Moby Dick, a study in conciseness: “…I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a boiled fowl than I will.

I can say that in seven words. “I don’t cook but I like chicken.”

6:39 a.m. OK, I was just complaining about conciseness, so I have to admire when Melville writes, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”

7:07 a.m. I lost some time trying to figure out what the innkeeper meant when he said he’d give Ishmael “a glim in a jiffy.” Turns out a glim is a light source (a glimmer), and a jiffy is a brief unit of time. So he’s saying that he’ll give Ishmael a light quickly.

That would not have been my first guess.

7:19 a.m. I am one hour and three chapters into this experiment. Let me summarize the plot until this point:

Ishmael wants to fish. He goes to Nantucket and stays at a dive bar. He eats dumplings. His roommate is a cannibal named Queequeg (who I will call Quee, for short.) After some initial misgivings, Ishmael and Quee agree to share a bed.

Yes, that took an hour.

7:25 a.m. “A pretty pickle, truly, though I: abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk!”

I’ve been there, brother. I’ve been there.
7:35 a.m. I want a T-shirt that says, “To do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.”

7:43 a.m. I usually bristle at Hawthorne-esque, inflated prose. But, every now and then, it gives you something beautiful, something that makes me think, “They don’t write it like that anymore.”

For example: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being.”

7:46 a.m. That having been said, I’m entrenched in a 4-chapter tangent about Ishmael taking a walk.

7:55 a.m. I’m stuck in the ninth chapter, which is a long-winded sermon about Jonah. I’m sure Herman Melville will revisit these themes of spirituality and death, but this is what Elmore Leonard meant when he wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

(Yeah, I just used Elmore Leonard to critique Melville. What of it?)

8:04 a.m. You think church-going whalers get tired of hearing about Jonah? Yes, yes, we get it. Jonah got swallowed by a whale. We hunt whales. We understand the association. There are other minor prophets. Can we talk about one of them?

8:11 a.m. To summarize the last six chapters: Ishmael woke up, found Quee’s arm around him and recalled a long-repressed, childhood memory. They got dressed and ate breakfast. Ishmael went for a walk, pondered the musk of Salem women, visited a church and listened to a sermon about Jonah. (Y’know, there are other appropriate sermons for fishermen. A third of the apostles were fishermen. Talk about them.)

I just read about 20 pages of atmosphere. It was well written and none of it was laborious except for the sermon, but it feels like fat that could have been shed. Eh, Melville wrote during a different era and it’s unfair to judge him by modern standards.

I’m getting breakfast, but I’ll be back.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 26, 2010

Me v. Moby: The Prologue

I like curling. It makes me feel like I could be an Olympian.

It’s Friday. Welcome to the melange.

The Guardian has given a name for a syndrome from which many suffer — obsessive conclusive syndrome. OCS is the need to complete a book or series regardless of its quality. You may have OCS if you read The Silmarillion or continued watching X-Files after Mulder left the show.

I suffered from OCS for years; but after I finished four Dune books (and enjoyed one,) I made my peace with abandoning a book. In fact, I’ve quit some books more than once. (Yes, I’m talking about Moby Dick.)

The Twitter novel is gaining momentum in Japan. I didn’t mind following Rick Moody’s experiment on Twitter, but I can’t imagine reading 70 pages worth of material via Twitter. Then again, if it works for these authors, more power to them.

Next, six global publishers have sued Rapidshare for disseminating their copyrighted material. Even if they win this lawsuit, they don’t win the war. There will always be a Rapidshare or Napster available. The name may change, but the bootlegging won’t. These publishers have every right to sue, but the most effective way to combat piracy is to make sure there are legal options available.

Finally, I have a big announcement. I alluded to my inability to finish Moby Dick before. Starting Sunday, I will be liveblogging my battle with the white whale. It may take two or three days, but I will finish Moby Dick!

Me! Moby! Captain Ahab! That one guy with the tattoos!

This is happening!

And it starts Sunday!

-Jason Lea,

P.S. More exclamation points!!!!!!

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 25, 2010

It was a dark and stormy blog

I don’t seriously intend to spend a year expounding upon the Guardian’s rules of fiction.

However, I do think some of them are worth revisiting. So, once in awhile, I will interrupt my reposting of Dr. Syntax and Bookslut anecdotes to discuss them.

Let’s start with rule number one from the first writer.

Elmore Leonard advises us, “Never open a book with weather.”

This rule is so obvious that we never mention it; and, because we never mention it, some people forget.

What’s the worst opening of all time?

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

There are several reasons this opening bites sidewalk. First, it’s redundant. Of course, the night was dark. It’s night.

Second, it begins with the most generic noun and verb in the English language.

Finally, the phrasing is predictable. You could jumble this sentence in almost any other order and it would be more interesting than, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

For example:
“The night was dark and stormy.”
“Dark and stormy was the night.”
“A dark night it was, and stormy.”

None of these openings will win you a Pulitzer, but they are all better than the original. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Madeleine L’engle won the Newbery Award with A Wrinkle in Time. Its first sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night.”)

But the worst thing about the weather is it doesn’t matter that much. You should never open with weather unless the setting is the most important part of your story. (Furthermore, your setting should never be the most important part of your story.)

It’s good to establish atmosphere, but it isn’t your first priority. No, your first priority is to build momentum, and you can’t do that with weather.

O. Henry doesn’t begin Springtime a la Carte with weather, but he opens with something just as bad. The only reason he gets away with it is because he apologizes. An excerpt:

It was a day in March.

Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable. For the following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.

Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.

Most of us don’t have O. Henry’s flair for authorial admission, so we should save ourselves the trouble and avoid unimaginative, flat, dry and vacuous beginnings.

Leonard offers an exception to his rule. Barry Lopez, writer of Arctic Dreams, can write about all the ice he likes. I’ve never read Lopez, but here are the first few pages of Arctic Dreams.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Best writing clinic ever

There is a lifetime’s worth of material here.

The Guardian asked several authors what their rules for writing are. Sure, we’ve heard a lot of this advice before (adverbs and exclamation points, bad; thesaurus, good.) But it’s thrilling to hear some of these suggestions.

I mean, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can explain his skyhook to you 70 times. He can demonstrate it, but you’ll never be able to imitate it. But that doesn’t make the explanations or demonstration any less thrilling.

Some of my favorite tips, though the entire article deserves to be read:

Elmore Leonard — Never open a book with weather. (Leonard’s advice is especially helpful because he notes authors that are exempt from his rules.

Margaret Atwood: Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. (I suspect she’s not being sarcastic.)

Helen Dunmore: Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

Geoff Dyer: ­Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

Esther Freud: Cut out the metaphors and similes.

Here’s on for Tricia, from PD James: Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Anne Enright gets the best line of all: The first 12 years are the worst.

This may be the best article on writing I’ve read since Tricia and I began this blog. If you are a writer or wish you were a writer or like reading or have 25 minutes to kill at work until your lunch hour, read this.

Laura Miller, a writer for Salon, added five rules of her own. I have nothing to add, though I might reiterate for the 400th time that writers write. If you only think about stories you want to tell, then you are not a writer. You are a thinker.

Finally, MobyLives has a pair of updates on the Google Books settlement.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The kids are all right

I know I’m a hack.

I work with a fistful of writers who are better than me, know several more personally and seem to be reading them all the time.

But it’s humbling to find a slew of middle schoolers more creative than me.

I covered the Power of the Pen competition Saturday in Painesville. Some of these seventh and eighth graders are fantastic writers. I don’t mean “fantastic for their age.” I mean they are better than me now.

Yes, some of them spend of the bulk of their time writing about “princesses and butterflies,” as one competitor put it. But they also tackle some issues I wouldn’t have considered until I was about a decade older.

They wrote about loss, regret and suicide — not in a maudlin or tactless way either. And they weren’t just creative in what stories they told, they found unusual ways to tell them. When prompted with the theme of “summer camp,” one teen narrated her story from the perspective of a filthy mattress lying on the ground.

I loved talking to the kids too. In general, writers are fun to interview because they tend to have unique perspectives and a way with language. Moreover, kids are the best interview subjects, because they haven’t learned how to speak in cliches yet.

For example, take this chestnut from eighth grader Megan Cerbin. She said this when I asked her what her favorite thing about writing was.

“I like that I can be myself. I can’t always be myself with people in real life. There are a lot of things in life that get in the way, a lot of everyday things. With writing — I can be real. I can be myself. I can write about whatever I want, and I don’t have to worry about what other people are going to think of me. I can just write.”

For someone who said she has trouble being herself, that’s raw honesty.
I think a lot of writers feel like Megan. We’re always restraining the crazy or the funny or the sad, because we think someone might not get it. But when we write, we can let our freak flag fly.

Thank you, Megan. Thank you to all of the kids who wrote Saturday. Thank you for being yourself. Thank you falettinmebemiceelfagin. Thank you for keeping me humble.

-Jason Lea,


Friday, February 19, 2010

The difference between irony and terrorism

We talk about language on this blog a lot. “For the love of language” is the second most common tag here. It’s only trumped by “book review.”

Language lovers such as Tricia and I enjoy the nitpicky stuff. I like complaining about how people misuse the words “ironic” and “random.”

(It’s ironic if there is a Borders bookstore at the border of Mentor and Painesville. It is not ironic if you have 10,000 forks and all you need is a knife. It is unfortunate, it’s bizarre place setting, but it is not ironic.)

But even I realize the misuse of irony is a small potatoes. Quite frankly, language is malleable. New inventions create new words. Slang bends standard definitions. For example, look at the way I used potatoes at the beginning of this paragraph. In this context, potatoes meant “issue” or “concern.” Generally, that is not the definition of a potato; but you all understood what I meant.

At its basest level, a word (or any other symbol) means what everyone agrees it means.

So it might not be ironic in the traditional sense if it rains on someone’s wedding day, but we know what Alanis Morrisette meant.

However, there are some times when precise language is not just a matter of quibbling.

Consider the word terrorist.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon notes how the definition of terrorist has been warped. He uses Joseph Stack as an example, noting that cable news networks are hesitant to label him a terrorist:

Fox News’ Megan Kelley asked Catherine Herridge about these denials: “I take it that they mean terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to?,” to which Herridge replied: “they mean terrorism in that capital T way.”

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.

Let’s try to keep politics out of this. This is not a political forum. It’s a book blog. But this is still a linguistic issue, like the misuse of irony. Granted, it’s one with more serious ramifications.

When someone misuses random, I bristle. When someone refuses to label Joseph Stack a “Terrorist with a capital T” because he is not Muslim, we have a deeper problem.

Words have been used denigrate specific populations before. (I don’t need to write a list of slurs to remind you.) Sometimes, those words are reclaimed or repurposed. They become more or less offensive as time passes. But we may be watching the creation of a new slur.

Language evolves as species do. Most of these language changes are responses to a changing environment. (We created an Internet, so we needed a new word to identify it.)

Sometimes, these language changes are made of stupid — guesstimate, for example. It expresses nothing new or clever, but it is still essentially a harmless change.

Occasionally, a language change is malignant.

So consider this my pledge. I will no longer complain when people say “utilize” instead of “use.” Let people apply the words “random” and “ironic” as they see fit, as long as I can understand them.

From here on in, I only pitch my language battles where it matters.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Airen responds and another writing contest

Four things, and for a change of pace, I’ll try to be concise.

Airen — the blogger and author who Helene Hegemann remixed — has replied to Hegemann’s assertions that she did not plagiarize him.

There was really no need for her to copy me. But she borrowed entire passages of dialogue. I feel like my copyright has been infringed.

Hegemann’s publisher could probably throw money at Airen to make this issue go away. Even if it does, I hope this worthwhile question is not forgotten. When does influence become plagiarism?

As a sidenote, in Airen’s interview, he said he quit writing when he gave up the drug-club-sex scene because he ran out of material. This begs another question. How much of good writing is dependent on its subject matter? We talk about language here a lot, but we don’t talk about the value of topic.

Thing two: New short story contest from NPR. The only rules are it must be shorter than three minutes when read aloud, and the story must be based on this photograph of an open newspaper on a cafe table. The winner gets to read their story on NPR and receives an autographed Alan Cheuse book.

Thing three: Google looks like it is willing to compromise with its eBook store. If Google settles, then the publishers seem to have won the e-book war. Here’s hoping they can make a profit.

Final thing: Maud Newton writes about how some authors are so good, they paralyze her.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 15, 2010

Author's 'sampling' gets her in trouble

Helene Hegemann, a 17-year-old German prodigy, is accused of plagiarizing portions of a lesser known novel for her latest book.

Her defense?

It’s not stealing. It’s sampling.

Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill is the story of a teenager who dives into the drug-and-club scene after her mother dies. Last week, the blogger Deef Pirmasens (I’d link, but it’s all in German anyhow) noted that portions of Axolotl had been copied from Strobo, a novel written by someone with the nom de plume Airen.

As much as an entire page was cribbed with minimal changes, according to news reports.

Hegemann has since admitted to taking from Strobo, but said she used the material in an original manner.

“I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me,” she said in an interview.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Hegemann didn’t acknowledge the Airen influence until after a blogger caught her. But it’s her first claim that merits closer examination. Is it still plagiarism if she uses borrowed material in an original manner?

Short answer: Maybe. Long answer: She cites “mixing” (or sampling, as it is often called in the music industry) as her intent. But artists have to credit the source material they sample or they risk law suits. (Ask Biz Markie or De La Soul. Hegemann might have more luck if she takes the 2-Live-Crew route and claims her work is parody.)

Obviously, German copyright law differs from the United States, so I won’t assume that I know how this will play out. With that having been said, everybody is the accumulation of their influences. Some of us wear our influences more obviously than others. But, no matter what, we need to acknowledge these influences, especially if we are copying portions of them verbatim.

Hegemann got it right when she said, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” (The quote comes from a statement issued by her publisher.) But part of authenticity is honesty; and, in the name of honesty, she should have credited Airen before a blogger caught her.

Quick note: The report of Kirkus’s death was exaggerated. Herbert Simon, mall mogul and owner of the Indiana Pacers, has purchased the publication. He doesn’t seem to plan a lot of changes except he intends to increase their digital offerings.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Cheryl, nice to see you on the blog. Never mention A Walk to Remember again, and we can remain friends.

Labels: , , ,

Dear Nicholas Sparks: I don't like you

This blog entry likely contains spoilers.

I really don't like Nicholas Sparks. The best reason I can figure for always picking up his novels are that I want to read something that won't take too long, or I need to have a good cry. Yes, I don't like Nicholas Sparks' books but cry at them anyway.

This weekend I saw "Dear John", so I figured I would spell out my feelings about the book and the movie and the way I think the story should have been told. (More on my thoughts on the movie on Tuned in to Pop Culture.)

"Dear John" is about a Special Forces soldier named John, who on leave meets beautiful Savannah. The two fall in love quickly. He returns to Army life, re-enlists after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and she breaks his heart by writing him a "Dear John" letter to tell him she is engaged. Bet you couldn't have figured out any of that just from the title of the book, right?

What the summary on Nicholas Sparks' Web site leaves out is really the best story in the novel: John has a strained relationship with his father, which Savannah is able to explain to him. Her words are hard for him to hear, but they help him understand why things are the way they are and give him the opportunity to improve on them.

Here is the problem with Nicholas Sparks. He has a great opportunity to tell an incredibly emotional story about a troubled father-son relationship, but he instead emphasizes the silly self-centered girl who gets angry that John wants to re-commit to the Army after the country was attacked by terrorists. Really?

I didn't want to like this book because I don't want to like Nicholas Sparks. I fell in love with the story he told about John and his dad. I am angry that Nicholas Sparks can't tell a story that doesn't involve some sort of endless, impossible, we-should-be-together-but-we-can't-be love story. Maybe that's because his stories are catered to the casual reader, and I suppose I can't fault someone for getting people to read when there several distractions exist. But I'm just never happy with the entirety of his books. Either the falling in love part takes too long, or the ending isn't what I wanted, or the plot twist makes me mad.

I talked with my boyfriend today about my favorite Nicholas Sparks' books and movies. My favorite book by far is "A Walk to Remember", which I read in one night during my junior year of high school. He pointed out that maybe the reason it was my favorite was because it was the first Nicholas Sparks book I had read. Maybe one was enough and I should never have picked up another. But I'm sure I'll do it again. (My favorite movie is "The Notebook", and that may only be because of the final scene with the old people. I just can't handle old people crying.)

-- Cheryl Sadler

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Valen-times Melange

Here’s a drinking game for a slow weekday morning. Watch Sportscenter and take a shot every time the anchors misappropriate urban slang.

Valen-time is two days away. The melange hopes you bought it roses.

Yen Press is printing 350,000 copies of the Twilight graphic novel. That’s an enormous number for an initial run. Most graphic novels only sell between 20,000 and 25,000. Of course, this is Twilight we’re talking about. Stephenie Meyer has sold about 45 million books from her angsty-vampires-in-love series. I’m pretty sure Yen will recoup.

I previously established that I have no love for Twilight, but I do like Meyer’s willingess to break into graphic novels (with help from artist Young Kim.) The graphic novel is a medium which has been treated as a genre, focusing on science fiction, fantasy and superheroics.

I’m interested to see what kind of stories people will tell with graphic novels when the emphasis is off the spandex.

Also, graphic novels and their lil’ cousin, the comic book, have been boys’ towns. With some worthwhile exceptions, sequential art has mostly ignored or objectified women. Its creators are also predominantly male. (It often feels like Gail Simone and Devin Grayson are the only women writing comics.)

Meyer has a fanatical female following. Perhaps, she and other female voices like Janet Evanovich (who has a Motormouth graphic novel coming) can generate parity for women.

Next on the itinerary: a Brazilian author talks about how difficult it is to be on the cutting edge of science fiction, when the cutting edge hasn’t been translated to your primary language yet.

Fabio Fernandes, author of Os Dias de Peste, said: Having no access to what’s new from the world outside, Brazilian SF writers either write stories using old, stale tropes (for example, writing space opera novels with cardboard characters and tremendously clichéd situations that reminds us, at the very best, of RPG campaigns) or reinvent the wheel.

This is a legitimate gripe. It’s almost impossible to push forward any school of thought when you’re using the eighth-grade model. If it’s any consolation, U.S. writers don’t read enough translations for some people either.

Finally, Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN, played the Smith Magazine game by writing 6-word biographies for a few athletes. (Scroll to his tenth point.)

Have a happy Valentine’s Day. Read Byron, lots of Byron.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, February 8, 2010

Talking about the saltometer

It’s Monday, and I could talk about the Amazon-Macmillan melee for the third or fourth time. (The buy buttons are back, by the way.)

I could talk about the Justice Department’s critique of the proposed Google Orphanarium for Abandoned Books. (The revised agreement is better, they said, but still “suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement.” In other words, it’s still a monopoly on orphaned books.)

I could discuss Dani Shapiro’s essay on how the mentality in writing has changed. Instead of expecting suffering and rejection, young writers anticipate blockbusters and insta-success. But what could I add? Shapiro already explains the dangers of the blockbuster mentality for both young and established authors.

Her best line addresses students in writing school: If they were enrolled in medical school, in all likelihood they would wind up doctors. If in law school, better than even odds, they’d become lawyers. But writing school guarantees them little other than debt.

Apparently, braille is dying. Only 10 percent of blind children in the United States learn it. Instead, they rely on audiobooks. That’s something I could write about, right?

I mean, listening and reading are two different things. They are two different ways of learning... and, that’s pretty much all covered in the link.

How about I talk about the saltometer, instead? The saltometer is how one bookstore owner measures where readers do most of their browsing. After a snowy day, customers track snow and salt into the bookstore, and the owner follow the prints to see where people spend most of their time.

It’s anecdotal and imprecise, but it measures something different than, say, sales.

For example, I often browse in the philosophy/religion or language sections; but I rarely buy. I’ve probably paged through a half-dozen books about Edgar Cayce but didn’t purchase any of them. I can almost talk myself into buying a Tagalog/English dictionary, but common sense sets in somewhere between the language section and the cash register. These are browse/no-buy books.

Contrarily, I don’t spend a lot of time browsing for certain authors. If I see a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neil Gaiman or Mark Twain that I don’t own, I buy it — even if I have no intention of reading it in the immediate future. I don’t read the back cover or sample a few pages. I classify them as buy/no-browse. (Yes, that approach has burned me a few times, but I’m a volume consumer.)

So, Tricia, I know you’re a browser. Where would your saltometer lead?

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bill Watterson speaks

I don’t care if it’s Wednesday. It’s time to get random.

Welcome to the mid-week melange.

First, Amazon said they would “ultimately” make Macmillan books available again. Apparently, there is no rush. As of Tuesday evening, Macmillan books were still unavailable from Amazon’s bookstore except through third-party vendors.

Second, the headline says it all. (Apparently, The Onion writers concoct their headlines first. Then, they worry about the story. That explains why the headlines are the best thing about The Onion.)

Speaking of J.D. Salinger — the link above references Salinger, in case you were wondering when we spoke of him — Cleveland has its own genius/hermit. Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, has not done any interviews since 1989; but he broke his silence with a short but sweet interview with The Plain Dealer.

The best part — besides actually hearing from Watterson — is that he still has the wit that made Calvin and Hobbes so much fun.

Q: How do you want people to remember that 6-year-old and his tiger?

A: I vote for “Calvin and Hobbes, Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Finally, this has nothing to do with books but it will fascinate you.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Amazon E-Book Wars: Bringing a Nuke to a Knifefight

I should have written about the Amazon-Macmillan melee Monday. Everyone else did.

Long story short. Macmillan wanted to change the way it did its e-book pricing. Amazon wanted to leave their e-books at $9.99. Amazon pouted and pulled all Macmillan titles from their Kindle store and The publishing world rallied behind Macmillan. (Most of them are sick of Amazon’s pricing tactics, which generate a lot of sales but little money.) Amazon backed down. The publishing world celebrated as if Goliath had been felled.

For a more thorough explanation: click on any of these links.

Also, here are Amazon and Macmillan’s sides of the story.

Three thoughts: one, it amuses me that Amazon complained about Macmillan having a “monopoly over their own titles.” That’s not a monopoly. That’s ownership. No, a monopoly is when one company controls an entire service — y’know, like Amazon and e-book readers, until recently, which brings me to my second point.

Two, Amazon hears the footsteps of the iPad. It know its e-reader hegemony is ending, and it is trying to position itself as the affordable option (as opposed to the iPad, which will offer more features.) Amazon’s price cuts, its attempt to bully Macmillan — all of these are gasps from a giant who is about to be shrunk to average size.

Three, publishers should not treat this as a bigger victory than it is. They are still in a field that hemorrhages money with outdated profit models. (I should know. I work for a newspaper.) Amazon’s pricing model would have hurt the publishing industry in the long term; but Macmillan’s proposed model won’t necessarily save them.

Finally, read this. Laugh. Then, feel bad for the poor women who ripped a Picasso.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: ,