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Book Notes: Calico Joe

16 Jun

Calico Joe has got to be the most recently published book I’ve written about on this site. Which is fantastic! Considering I’m trying to pen fiction in this modern literary climate, it might be considered advisable to sample things from the last few years or so. It may be the best way to notice trends in the fiction world. The alternative to studying modern fiction is just to take USA Today at its word and start selling erotica considering the “50 shades” of porn  series are at the top of their selling list.

Calico Joe is a first person narrative with two separate time-lines: one during the protagonist’s past and one set in his present reality. Of course, something that complicated can only be handled so brilliantly by famous wordsmith John Grisham.  In a surprising move, the story isn’t filled with the legal jargon that usually defines his works (and that  I, as a government and world affairs major, find interesting) but with something notably outside the bounds of the courtroom: baseball statistics. However, I never felt inundated with averages and numbers; the presence of these tidbits actually added to the overall credibility of the novel. That being said, while nothing happened in a traditional legal format, this story definitely contains characters tried and hung in the court of public opinion.

The plot follows the incredible rise of fictional rookie Joe “Calico Joe” Castle and his tragic fall due to a near-lethal bean-ball while also analyzing the execrable actions of rival pitcher Warren Tracey. The story is narrated from Tracey’s son, Paul, as he struggled to come to grips with the hellish reality that his abusive father  has imposed upon his family. This incredibly believable nightmare includes abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, and intentionally hurling the career-ending pitch at Calico Joe’s skull. Warren Tracey is ostracized by the nation for his inexcusable actions. Paul Tracey goes through life afraid of revealing his last name. Paul decides, as he grew older,  that someone has to rectify the wrong. He goes to his now cancer-stricken father and blackmails him into apologizing to the now handicapped Joe Castle.

What makes this an interesting story to me is that it wasn’t incredibly serious. There wasn’t some earth-shattering revelation, nor was there any fighting for a greater societal cause. Everything about this book was entirely personal. The diction was simple and conversational- like a child. Not an uneducated one, mind you, but  a child who has seen and known more about the world than any other should. This wasn’t the world’s story, this was Paul Tracey’s. Through the spitting of statistics and the reiteration of his childhood memories he became an incredibly believable entity.

Books like this are necessary for aspiring fiction writers to study, especially those who are going to try their hands at first-person narratives. It teaches us about more than just what constitutes good writing, but what constitutes excellent character development. The biggest mistake that most novels in this format make is assuming that the character is fully actualized. You’re writing from the first person, after all. As such, you’re either writing it as a journal/ diary entry or with the benefit of hindsight. Why wouldn’t you know everything that’s going to happen? Plus you, the author, usually knows where the story will end up before you ever put pen to paper. The character is already full developed to you and you subsequently write as such.

I’m just as guilty. My first novel The Lupine Institute (an unpublished work that will never see the light of day) was inherently flawed due to the same mistake. I wrote as the character and he was fully matured from the get. We have avoid spoiling our readers with the full picture in the beginning if we’re penning a traditional, linear narrative. If we don’t we’re doing them a disservice. Character development is just as crucial in creating a lasting story as plot and word choice. While this practice of prolonged development will always be a challenge for authors, Calico Joe is a great model for us as we strive for believability and literary merit.

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Book Notes: Devil at My Heels- Part 2

1 Jun

The more I continued to read Devil at My Heels, the more it seemed to have a magnetic attraction to my hands. I simply couldn’t put the book down. The language was so honest, his experiences were so exceptional, I found myself balanced between total acceptance and disbelief. To say I was entranced is an understatement. I’ve never used this blog to directly endorse a particular book, but this deserves it. I insist that you somehow get your hands on a copy and start reading. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Anyways, to the actual dissection. First and foremost, again I was incredibly impressed with the honesty of the book. He openly admitted to remembering certain things while reporting on others which are frankly less than illustrious.  On the other hand, he wasn’t afraid to just admit that his memory failed him. This double whammy of human fallacy (this mixing of past mistakes and current admittance) makes his story seem to come right from his lips instead of the page.

Other than his honesty, his survival skills are nothing less than extraordinary. Zamperini survived days on a raft while watching a comrade slip slowly into death and staving off sharks. Afterwards, he got to experience the hostility of being a prisoner of war. He was gone for such an extended period of time, he became one of the few men in history to look at his own death notice and take pictures of it. His journey shows the nearly unshakable human resolve to live.

His journey and exploits do more than just give me a great read. As with any other book I’ve read, it gives me certain invaluable lessons in pursuing my own literary merits. Normally, books will simply reinforce certain givens: diction is imperative, tone is invaluable, and story  quality is the most important fact of all. This book actually managed to teach me new lessons entirely!

As I have hinted at in earlier posts, I have a new novel I’ll be starting soon. The subject is still going to be kept very hush-hush for now. I can say, though, that it will be written in first-person perspective. Although it seems like it should be the simplest way to write a novel, I would contend that it’s actually the most difficult. When writing in the third-person, one is allowed to choose their omnipotence. Most of the time, the narrator knows all (or almost all) so the writer really doesn’t have to restrain their thoughts or words to fit a particular paradigm. When writing in the first, they have to force themselves to know everything but write as if they know next to nothing. They need to admit the faults of their characters, speak, think and act like believable entities. All while simultaneously creating characters and environments which reflect their thoughts and act as a vehicle of believability. This story with its unparalleled truthfulness is going to help keep me honest.

Or at least honest to the truth I’ll be presenting in my fiction piece.

Reading Notes: Devil At My Heels- Part 1

24 May

I knew immediately when I started reading the book that I was going to like it an awful lot. My reasons are pathetically simplistic though; I always love books with distance runners as protagonists. Maybe it’s a skewed perspective (it’s hard to truly judge one’s own reflection), but any character who runs distances exceeding a mile wins my adoration. I see them as hard-working, dedicated, and honorable. Maybe it’s because I know from first hand experience the sort of physical and psychological demands such pursuits place upon a man. Maybe it’s because I see their success and hope that I can reach it myself. Maybe it’s because through the sport we are linked as distant kin and I always like to see family (even if we are existentialy related) in a positive light. Maybe, maybe, maybe- I could ruminate all night.

But what continued to entice me through the first few chapters is that the author, Louis Zamperini, didn’t even see himself in such a positive light. The autobiographical account is, in fact, so brutally honest that the readers are shocked into reading more. It’s not hard to understand why. We as readers love to have human characters, people we can relate to in benefice and folly alike. Most of the time, we just choose to ignore the folly. Zamperini is both blessed and cursed with the absence of invention. His life reads like the most incredulous of novels. But it’s not solely because of the exciting people he met, or his coincidental placement in major historical events (if it was, I’d might as well read Forrest Gump). It’s because of his hypnotic honesty, his unadulterated truth, that this reads so brilliantly. The prose has been incredibly conversational through the first sixty pages and I honestly hope it continues this way. I feel as if he is singling me out of a crowd of thousands while simultaneously addressing every other sole just as prominently. It’s a remarkably flattering style that’s all too rare in autobiographical accounts these days.

The first two decades of his life would be enough for him to write books and tour off of. He grew from rugged, delinquent behavior into an olympian. If that isn’t a rags-to-riches story then, hell, I don’t know what is. But it’s how he delivered his story, how he never shied away from his past, that continues to mesmerize me. He placed eighth at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Anyone somewhat familiar with history could tell you that this particular Olympiad was memorable by immaculate streets, incredible competition, and Nazi banners peppering the skyline. Zamperini tells of his views of Hitler as a child, how he and fellow Olympians would salute the Führer, and how he stole a Nazi flag (which was recovered and later gifted to him anyways) just so he could remember his good times in Nazi Germany. For God’s sake, this is a man who admitted to meeting Hitler and brushing it off (then and now) as unremarkable. Gutsy sentiments considering the understandable atmosphere we live in today. He states off the bat that he’s not a supporter, but he never excuses the opinions and ideas he had as a child. He never shies away from his past.

His honesty isn’t just reserved for remembrances of dictators. He vividly discusses what it feels like to be “lucky in the wrong way.” How he desperately wanted to fit in yet violently punished those who initially disliked him. He recounts being both tormentor and victim never eliciting sympathy or disdain. Instead, he accomplishes a remarkable intimacy. We grow to know him as a human being instead of as distant words on a page. We are taken by the hand and see reality through his eyes- and we are shocked by its candor. Louis Zamperini gives us a highly reflective window with his prose. One which sees him and his world while simultaneously showing us ourselves. His words act as a link to our mutual humanity. His honesty almost makes it tangible.

I really can’t wait to read more and see what other incredible, veritable, adventures lie in store for this remarkable man.

Book Notes: Flatland

18 May

There have been few books which have been as innately challenging, yet as incredibly fascinating as Edwin Abbott’s classic novel Flatland. Part satire, part treatise on multi-dimensional perception, this book both entertains and illuminates readers to multiple complexities commonly glossed over in rudimentary geometry classes.

The premise of the book at first appears to be for jest and humor using simple mathematics as its premise. Divided into two distinct parts, the first matter-of-factly describes the physics, laws, and idiosyncracies of a two-dimensional reality. The tale is directed by a sentient square who inhabits a position of moderate power and merit within his society. Here the speaker discusses what is seen and perceived within the metaphysical bounds of his world. To be frank, it’s a real head scratcher. For starters, since they exist within a two-dimensional plane, they are forced to see everything as a single line. As Abbott skillfully describes, imagine taking a penny and looking at it directly from above. Your vision will perceive it to be a single line. Thus is how all of Flatland is seen by its inhabitants.

Not all who exist here live as perfect squares. Indeed, Abbott used a system of generational ascension to describe the multitudinous shapes which also picks fun at the rigid social movement found within the reader’s world. In Flatland, “humans” begin as simple triangles. Servants, slaves, and career soldiers occupy this class of polygon with individual types of triangles being reserved for specific sects. However, like in reality, upwards mobilization in this society is damn near impossible. In Flatland, merit does not improve one’s shape, although execrated action can degrade it. The shape can only be improved by subsequent generations. I.e., a square and his wife (we’ll get to the women in a moment) will foster a pentagon. A pentagon’s offspring will be a hexagon. Eventually, after roughly “300-400” generations, the near-innumerable angles within the figure will be close enough to resemble a circle. But escaping the burden of triangular limitations is insanely difficult. Each generation of triangle will only increase their angular proportions not their angular counts. And this increase is minimal at best; the immediate posterity of a triangle with a 30 degree angle will be a triangle with an angle of 30 degrees and 30 minutes (or 30.5 degrees). The ultimate goal being the perfect 60 degree rating of an equilateral triangle, which upon being reached finally opens the door to actual improvement.

Women are also satirized in conjunction to social mobility. In the novel, women are single lines (which are thus perceived as points). This “of course” leaves no room for any organs deemed non-vital for proper women. Amongst these includes, ironically enough, a brain. That’s right. Flatland includes women without an actual brain. Thus women are highly emotional, irrational, and stupid. Education is given to them as a means of convention and it frankly goes in one “ear” and out the other. But because of their violent nature and pointed nature, they are extremely dangerous to cross. Apparently Hell hath no fury transcends all dimensions of space. Being assaulted by a woman in Flatland is comparable to being shot by a bullet here in reality. Except that the bullet doesn’t constantly scream, rage, and murder your children. It’s almost impossible not to laugh at this scathingly bitter satire which barely tries to hide its condemnation at the discriminatory practices of society here in reality.

However, the book makes a ready transition from social commentary to a thought-provoking essay on multi-dimensional perception. Keep in mind, this book not only came out before string theory, but before relativity! Yet, some of the concepts postulated would strike anyone reading the book as well-developed and exceptionally modern.

I wish I had read this book when I was writing The Dimensional Constant; many of the concepts of appearances at differing dimensions are strikingly similar. It’s one of those moments where you realize with pride that an idea that originated between your own ears is featured prominently within a verifiably brilliant cult classic. It’s also one of those moments where you sit back and think “son of a bitch, I thought I came up with this idea!”

Ultimately, our square speaker tires to pass off the wisdom of his two-dimensional universe to a universe limited to lines and points. (Points, again, being women. It seems like no matter in which dimension you live in, if it’s before the 1920’s, ladies don’t seem like they’re able to catch a break.) The book shows the difficulty in discussing things which supersede certain realities. When a three-dimensional creature then comes to discuss the higher dimension with the square, his mind is sufficiently blown. Or, whatever passes for a mind within the rigid parameters of four points.

Ultimately, Flatland is a scathingly funny social commentary with profound intellectual content hidden in plain sight… I had to seriously defeat the urge to use say plane sight. You’re welcome.

This novel will come of great use when I’m presented with the need to avoid conventional ways to describe the contours and nuances of the physical world. Furthermore, I’m always happy to snag a book dealing primarily with perception (especially since my next novel will deal with that. But shhh. Sorry. No spoilers yet).

I would strongly insist that anyone read this book, especially someone with a strong background in geometry read the book. Or anyone who knows the difference between a square and hexagon. The language is seriously that inclusive. You may have to Wikipedia a couple of unfamiliar concepts or a bit of outdated vernacular. But ultimately, the book provides a read that was so far ahead of its time, it feels right at home within our own.

Book Notes: Dear Theo pt.2

10 May

So now I’m getting into some of the heavy stuff.

Not necessarily the dark depressive side just yet. He’s surprisingly very… well human. It’s hard to say that since clearly he was (he wrote the letters after all), but it’s just incredible to take this mortal man we thrust atop a pedestal and allow him to return to the earth with us normal folk once more. I really commend the editor, Irving Stone. Quite marvelous. The text shows him as a man of normal, all-too-human character. He loves in a romantic sense, in a fraternal sense, and in a sense that we often loose in modern vernacular and attitude. Similarly, he disdains, dislikes, and vehemently spits at a few characters with remarkably…angsty words. Put into a modern dialect, they could almost sound like several other starving artists with unrecognized talent.

This talent, though, is now becoming evident in Van Gogh’s writings. First and foremost, I stumbled upon my first true lesson in color. Van Gogh discusses an important characteristic of color- they’re dependence upon white and black. He insists that no true white and no true black exists, but that every color is intrinsically dependent upon both of them. An obvious statement, yes (perhaps to one who dabbles a bit more heavily in visual arts and sciences than the average-joe), but it packs a significant wallop in literary thought. White and black are heavy with symbolic weight. Black is traditionally oppressive and, in fear of being redundant, dark. White is clear, liberating, and free. Of course, as shown by works like Richard Wrights Native Son convention does not equal dogma. However, this knowledge that in every color there are elements of darkness and light which can be articulated and exploited to create more vivid imagery in my reader. And even impress stronger subtle messaging into their minds. Plus, if the true colors do not exist in reality, then perhaps the extremes can be accentuated to mean even more; as long as they’re presented properly.

Furthermore, there are more subdued wisdom. For example, he mentions passively that he creates quickly, almost without thought. However, he has also mentioned how he plans the theme of the work? How can this exist?

Simple: he plans and then allows the picture to gain a unique life of its own. He gives it a form and inspires personality, but ultimately he lets his subconscious instill the various idiosyncracies of the piece which allows it to assume such a personable and poignant role. In this way, he can paint “quick as lightning,” yet create life in inanimate objects and pigments.

Progress is slow it took over 150 pages to get to these gems. But every word is rich in human drama and intrigue allowing me to keep going- even at this plodding pace. Hopefully, I’ll find more things of interest soon. Things are seeming to heat up.