Archive for December, 2010

A Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

And once again we come to that time of year when bloggers pass around year-end memes, talk about resolutions, and in general add to the flood of reminders that yes, another arbitrary mark on the calendar has passed us by!  Honestly, I love it, and so does the traditional news media, because the content just writes itself.  Case in point — my lovely friend Linda of Each Little World passed me a year-end book recap that she borrowed from Stuck in a Book.  She didn’t mention if it was from this year’s or a previous one, but I liked it too much not to share it.  And since I know a good chunk of my readers have blogs of their own to fill…steal away merrily!  It’s an entertaining little exercise in memory, at least for people who don’t just list everything on Goodreads.  My own Goodreads only start around June of this year, and were sporadic for a while after that, so it’s taken some digging to get these (admittedly shaky) conclusions for you all…

Books of 2010 – Geoffrey Cubbage

How Many Books Read in 2010: Somewhere in the 30-35 neighborhood.  A fraction of what it ought to be, partly because of a serious periodicals habit — this was my first year with Wall Street Journal and New Yorker subscriptions, and they’ve put a bigger dent in the book time than I’d expected.

Fiction/Non-Fiction Ratio: Only one non-fiction book, which I had to return to the library before I was done.  But there’s all those periodicals in there, although the op-ed page of the WSJ probably counts as fiction.

Male/Female Authors: Almost a perfect split.  Fifteen of each that I can pinpoint for sure, with maybe a few extra males floating around.  Call it 4:3 at the outside.

Favorite Book Read: Ada or Ardor:  A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov.  And my reading list includes plenty of pulp fantasy and sci-fi that I loved dearly, so please don’t think I’m being an elitist prick by choosing the Nabokov — I just really, really, really love that book.  Wolf Hall was the close second, and on some days would probably be the first pick.

Least Favorite: The Women by T. C. Boyle.  There, see?  I hated a “literary” work, too.

Oldest Book Read: Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie (1911).  An interesting contrast to last year, which was heavy on eighteenth and nineteenth century women.

Newest Book Read: CryoBurn by Lois McMaster Bujold (October 2010).  Other new releases included Innocent by Scott Turow, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and Christianity:  The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Longest Book Title: I had to count character by character, but Christianity:  The First Three Thousand Years narrowly beats out Ada or Ardor:  A Family Chronicle. If we disallow colons, I believe The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes the win over The Master and Margarita.

Shortest Book Title: Three-way tie between The Truth by Terry Pratchett, Innocent by Scott Turow, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell.

How Many Re-Reads: Seven.  Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede and its various sequels remain mandatory reading anytime I’m bedridden, and there were a few other old favorites in there as well.

Most Books by One Author This Year: On that subject, four by Patricia C. Wrede, two of which were new.

Books in Translation: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (trans. Alison Anderson) and The Master and Margarita (trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor).

And How Many Books Were From the Library: Nearly all of them.  I’d say 20-25 of the 30ish this year came from Wisconsin’s South Central Library System, which drops books off three blocks from my door on about two days’ notice.  Couldn’t live without ‘em!

So there you have it.  For more details you can always find me on Goodreads.  Got favorites from this year you want to share here?  Let me know in the comments — or tell me to come check out the year-end book wrap-up on your own blog!

Badass Superheroes and Their Shameful Origins

Every once in a while (it usually works out to around once a month) I pander shamelessly to the popular culture just relax and have a bit of fun with the blog.  Today is one of those days.  If you’re here for advice that will change your writing career, come back Friday, because today is

BADASS SUPERHEROES AND THEIR SHAMEFUL ORIGINS

The modern superhero tradition started with the Phantom, who set the bar pretty goddamn high.  He was a Dread Pirate Roberts sort of guy with a long line of predecessors who passed on the mantle of the Phantom, which mostly consisted of wearing tights and punching people very hard.  Times haven’t actually changed much for superheroes since.

Yeah, there's gonna be a couple jokes about men wearing tights in this article.

Since the Phantom, superheroes have come from every source imaginable:  outer space, cybernetic enhancement, naturally-occurring mutations, and of course Nature’s little helper, radiation, which is apparently not as bad for you as we all thought.  But for some reason, the true badasses of the comics world — the butt-kickin’ household names of vaguely-justified violence — invariably get the absolute worst origins.  One can only assume they look awkward and change the subject when someone asks them how they became Captain BadAssMotherFucker, or, in these cases…

BLADE


Badass Cred: Blade is a half-vampire slayer of whole-vampires.  His big foe as far as I can tell is the goddamn Count Dracula, along with a legion of lesser vampires that presumably abandoned Sunnydale, CA looking for better neighbors.  Instead they got Blade, who’s so intense he wears sunglasses at night.

Humiliating Origin: Apparently Blade’s mother, a prostitute, was killed by a vampire while she was delivering l’il Blade, leaving him only partially vampirified.  We’re not sure why baby-Blade wasn’t sucked up via the umbilical cord to bounce off the vamp’s nose or something, but that’s just how it went.

Like this, but with more placenta.

But “yo momma” jokes aside, the real agony doesn’t start for Blade until nine years later, when he is initiated as a vampire hunter…by a jazz trumpeter.

No, seriously.

The embarrassment of learning his craft from a man whose idea of a good time was noodling out “Stardust” was apparently so painful that Blade later felt compelled to kill him, on the flimsy pretext that the old guy had become a vampire.  But we know what it was really about.

THE SILVER SURFER

Badass Cred: He is completely indestructible, basically omnipotent, and so soulless a killing machine that overt sociopathy was used as a sign of positive character development in the early comics.  It was like “look, he’s learning to hate things; he’s come such a long way!”

Seriously, he's the good guy in this story.

Humiliating Origin: The Silver Surfer was born on a planet that had advanced to a utopian society, meaning there wasn’t a lot left to do.  When a world-destroying entity shows up to eat the entire planet, the Surfer (in his pre-silver form) is so bored he signs up to find other planets for munchies, just so he has something to do.  He eventually rebels…but he gets his start volunteering for whatever the next level of “heinous” up from genocide is because he’s bored.

POISON IVY

Badass Cred: Leotard-clad femme fatale. Alternating enemy/ally of Batman.  Killed off a dozen times, apparently to no effect.  Movie version played by Uma “UmaUmaUma” Thurman.

Humiliating Origin: Once you start bitching about laboratory accidents creating superheroes you ain’t never going to stop, but Poison Ivy pushes it to fresh levels of absurdity.  Pamela Isley, depending on which version you take as canon, is various degrees of poisoned by various bosses who, despite their Ph.D.s in botany and biochemistry, mixed up the “Kill People” poison with the “Turn People Into Indestructible Plant Life” serum while planning the murder of their colleague. Why was that shit even in the same building?

Oh, right. That's why.

So while no one can deny her badass career of crime, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Poison Ivy exists because people with advanced degrees are basically retarded.

DAREDEVIL

Badass Cred: Daredevil is “The Man Without Fear,” which gives you a pretty good clue of how intense this guy is.  He’s barely even super-powered, since his heightened senses mostly just compensate for being freakin’ blind while he punches out every criminal in North America.

Humiliating Origin: To be clear, I don’t have anything against radioactivity as a super-origin.  Had Chernobyl melted down anywhere but “the middle of a godforsaken tundra,” teenagers would have been sneaking into the disaster area every night to get bitten by whatever animals they could find.  And that’s perfectly fine.

Because the world really needs the Uncanny Elk-Man.

But Matt Murdock doesn’t become Daredevil when an experiment goes wrong, or his wartime heroism puts him in the way of a radioactive blast, or whatever.  He gets blinded, and simultaneously acquires his powers, when some radioactive waste falls off a truck.  Not like a super-truck — just a truck, going from Point A to Point B by way of Point Some Guy Crossing The Street.  And thus a superhero was born…

GHOST RIDER

Badass Cred: His head is a flaming skull and he rides a flaming motorcycle.  If you missed the important part here, his head is a flaming skull and he rides a flaming motorcycle.

Humiliating Origin: Ghost Rider has been through several incarnations, and it should tell you something that the Nicholas Cage version wasn’t the most embarrassing. The Spirit of Vengeance apparently possesses people and turns them into the undeniably badass Ghost Rider; in the 1990 reboot of the franchise it possesses a teenager who finds a magical motorcycle in a dump.  Presumably it fell of a truck there?  My understanding is that the teenager in question was running away from some kind of gangster-ninjas at the time, making his serendipity even more embarrassingly wussy than Daredevil’s.

WOLVERINE

Badass Cred: You’re kidding, right?

Humiliating Origin: Wolverine is the product of Weapon X, a Cold War research project gone rogue.  He was built from the ground up to be the government’s private killing machine.  And that’s just about as badass as it gets.

Or...wait.

So yeah, he’s a Canadian super-solider.  The single most iconic comic book badass of the 20th century is pretty much Dudley Do-Right with claws.  And he would have vanished from the Marvel universe entirely (replaced by a more heavily-developed Nightcrawler) if artist John Byrne, native of guess which unpleasantly cold country, hadn’t stuck up for the character.  Ouch.

So okay, overcoming the disadvantages of your past is part of becoming a hero.  But what did these poor guys ever do, that their creators couldn’t have settled for just gunning their parents down in front of their eyes?  I will say in closing, it’s a male-heavy list because most badass female superheroes tend to have genuinely awesome origin stories.  They’re goddesses or ninjas or whatever, rather than street-crossing lawyers whose powers fell off the back of a truck.  Someone had to be macho, with all those men running around in tights…

Told you there'd be a tights joke in here somewhere.

Come back Friday and maybe things will be back on topic…until then, your superhero-origin-story-related questions and comments!

George and Martha, Abusive Hippos

Traveling home from the holidays today, so a short one — got up this morning and, my family’s conversation basically being an English test, chatted over breakfast about their upcoming tickets to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  For whatever reason, this made me realize for the first time that the loveable hippos of my childhood memory shared their names with the mutually abusive spouses of Virginia Woolf.

Remember them?

I don’t remember the books all that well, but I think their relationship was one of those “playful” ones where one party antagonizes the other until tempers are lost, and then everyone makes up and is friends again.  Whacking with umbrellas featured at some point, I’m almost positive.  So was James Marshall just a big Edward Albee fan?  Or is it just a traumatic coincidence waiting to ambush unsuspecting adolescents on their first trip through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  History may never know.

I’ll leave the rest to the comments section today.  Has anyone else discovered traumatic secrets about their beloved childhood stories?  No points for Dumbledore coming out, though, that was just a publicity stunt…

“Iolanthe,” Writing, and the Public Taste

This should be a familiar story for us all: following a costly war in Afghanistan, the conservative majority launched another war in the Middle East before the last one was really even wrapped up. Voters turned overwhelmingly to a progressive liberal candidate and his party, sweeping them into both houses of government. Legislation then stalled for two years straight, with the conservative party aggressively obstructing every bill that entered the upper house, while the nation stayed at war abroad.

The year, of course, was 1882.

Prime Minister Willam E. Gladstone. Whose government did you think we were talking about?

This was the backdrop to opening night for Gilbert and Sullivan‘s Iolanthe, which most of you have probably never heard of (and if you have, I’m very impressed. We should be friends!). Iolanthe was the comic duo’s most savage parody of the aristocracy, featuring a whole male chorus of buffoons representing the House of Peers. They sing strident anthems about “Good King George’s glorious days” (which students of history will recall as being marked chiefly by a king who lost the American colonies and spent a great deal of time muttering and drooling on himself), and are watched over by a grenadier guardsman who notes that “they’ve got to leave their brains outside/and vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to.”

There’s also a bit in there about fairies, but don’t pay too much attention to that. The point is that this was like the Daily Show of the 1880s. It plays just as well in America as in England, and in fact enjoyed great success here (the 1880s being a difficult time for American lawmaking as well). And no one ever does it.

I mention this because it can happen to all of us. Iolanthe suffers no critical flaws that make it unsuitable for modern performance — there aren’t any wince-inducing racial issues, the humor is straightforward and accessible, and outside of a few old-fashioned turns of phrase you could probably pass it off to someone who didn’t know better as a modern work. It was written by successful composers who remain well-known today, and is really an all-around enjoyable work. But somewhere in the mists of American history we decided that we liked H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance better, and thus Iolanthe gathers dust even at a time that seems almost tailor-made for its revival.

Although the original costume design might need updating.

But there’s no helping these coincidences of taste and time. If you write multiple works, some will do better than others. It will rarely be for the reasons you expect. Take from Iolanthe the lesson that pleasing the public tastes or seeming very up on current trends is for comedians, not authors who want to be remembered. You can never guess what will stick around and what won’t, so write what you want to — and don’t get too downhearted if it doesn’t do as well as you’d hoped. There’s always next season.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write a quick letter to the local Gilbert and Sullivan troupe.

You Can Get Paid To Write About Anything

One of the themes of this blog is that you can get paid to write anything if you really work at it, and another is that I am probably an alcoholic.  The two came together for me recently when the Wall Street Journal Wine Club sent me an offer I couldn’t refuse — along with a three-ring binder and glossy fact sheets for all the wines in my life.

Remember Wildlife Explorer? Just like that, but for alcoholics.

I am not making any of this up; if you sign up to be a member of the WSJ Wine Club (which is not actually a bad value if you can afford it, which I can’t) they send you a crate of wine, a three-ring binder, and a set of double-sided Facts-on-Fileesque sheets covering all the wines included.  And someone had to write those things.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Obviously they got a wine person to write these.  It’s the Wall Street Journal, for crying out loud; they can probably hire a sommelier out of the Petty Cash bowl (sommelier:  from the French for “some liar,” a person who makes up crap like “crisp notes of shale and passionfruit” when it just tastes like fer-Chrissake-wine).  But trust me on this one, if there’s one thing massive news conglomerates know, it’s that people can be trained to write about anything.  It’s cheaper to train experts than it is to train writers (so feel good about yourselves).

The upshot of this for the writer-at-large is that you shouldn’t be spending all that much time researching things you’d like to get paid to write about.  “Follow your dreams” advice notwithstanding, you don’t get to be a wine writer by learning about wine (although you’ll get away with staggering feats of alcoholism in the name of “research”).  You get jobs like that by keeping an obsessive eye out for openings and having a good writing portfolio in general when you apply — knowing the subject matter is a distant third concern, and one that’s entirely irrelevant until people are offering you interviews.

I fully expect to hear some disagreement on this point.  There are lots and lots of people out there giving advice on how to get jobs, and most of them will tell you that the most important thing is to know your field of choice backwards and forwards.  But if you’re applying for writing jobs — even if all you want to write about is wine — your field is writing.  Impress people with that, and learn the interest-specific lingo when you’ve got some interviews lined up.  People who’ve never published before will definitely want a blog or other personal website, regularly updated, and they should keep an eye out for other opportunities as well — I’ve done the text for some friends’ webpages and online stores, mostly just so that I can point prospective employers toward them as further examples of my work (also ’cause I love my friends, don’t worry, guys).

But most importantly, you should all keep in mind that someone gets paid to drink bottles and bottles of wine and then make up pretty words about them. Don’t say there’s nothing inspirational on this blog!  Now if you’ll excuse me, this “deep, dark Cabernet from the edge of the earth” isn’t going to drink itself.

Redundant Speech, and Why It Belongs in Dialogue

Here’s a conversation I have a lot in my working life:

PHONE:  Ring ring ri-fuckin’-ring.

ME:  This is Geoffrey; how may I help you?

SOME FUCKER:  I have a question for you. (Waits expectantly.)

ME:  …

If you didn’t get it, the problem here is that they’re telling me something I already know.  I’m at work; I didn’t figure they were calling because they missed me.  I know they have a question.  It will simplify all our lives if they get around to asking it without prompting, especially because there are no polite options to prompt with.  “Yes?” sounds brusque, “Go ahead” sounds impatient; “What is your question?” sounds like English is your second language and you only have the stock phrases that they taught you at Call Center Training.  There are no winners here.

I bring this up because it matters to writers.  These glaring, awful redundancies of speech are everywhere.  Cashiers smile and ask you “Is this everything?” when you go to check out at the store.  (Of course it’s everything — you’d still be shopping if it weren’t.)  Your friends call you drunk at three in the morning and say “Are you awake?”  (If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there on the phone, cussing them out.)  And you would be amazed how many people write what they think are realistic, literary works without a single piece of dialogue that resembles this ubiquitous verbal filler.

Part of the lack is doubtless due to generations of savage editorial advice.  We are told over and over again to revise heartlessly — to read every sentence and consider whether it advances the story for the reader or not, and to cut everything that fails the test.  “I have a question for you” clearly does not meet the standard.  But people say it every day.  If your characters don’t, at least every now and then, they’re not talking like real people.  And in some genres that’s absolutely fine — Thragok the Marauder doesn’t need to talk like someone who calls to ask about non-stick cookware because Thragok doesn’t buy non-stick cookware (presumably he marauds it instead).  There’s no reason to slow the body-count down with needless phrases.

But for you writers of “real people,” go back and make sure you’ve got some really frustratingly irrelevant shit in the dialogue.  Don’t highlight it, don’t tag it with a “…so and so said needlessly” or anything like that; just stick it in there and go on with the scene.  If you can’t think of any good examples go spend a day bumming around in public places.  Run some errands, go to the library; eat out.  Listen to the people around you.  You’ll have a half a dozen by the time you go home for the evening.

What idiotically redundant things do people say to you? Or are you someone who asks those sorts of pointless question deliberately?  Is it secretly polite and I’m just a dick?  Drop a comment and let me know!

PSA: I Don’t Even Like Yoga

Off-day post!  Regular content on Monday as usual.

As many of you know, I keep an entertained eye on things like categories, tags, and especially search terms that bring people to my blog.  This is a good practice, because it helps teach me what topics are best for shameless pandering, and alerts me whenever a public service announcement is needed:

I DO NOT DO YOGA.  I DON’T EVEN LIKE THE WORD YOGA, IT SOUNDS LIKE “YOGURT,” UGH.  JUST GO FOR A DAMN WALK.

Because apparently if you put the words “yoga pants” on your blog, even if you only did it so you could slip a little gratuitous T&A into a post, word gets out fast in yoga-loving circles.

Sorry guys.  Nothing to see here.  Except that T&A.

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