Tag Archives: reading

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.


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.