Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas to All

The Wiltz family
Christmas tree, 2012
Is everyone's Christmas shopping finally finished up?

As of last night, mine is. I took the one-stop-shop approach this year, and if you know me, you can probably guess where that one stop was made.  Let's say there's gonna be a lot of glass clinking in the car on the way to Gram's house tomorrow.

I have to say, I'm looking forward to some pickled herring tomorrow night. My dad's side of the family is Swedish, so we celebrate on Christmas Eve.  Dinner usually consists of Swedish sausage and mashed potatoes.  Last year, we had some pickled herring out as an appetizer, and it was pretty tasty.  I'm really hoping to see that jar on the counter again.

Yes, that is a stuffed
Napoleon Bonaparte I use
as a tree topper.
On Christmas day, we celebrate with my mom's side of the family.  It usually consists of a couple of games of Aggravation, which is pretty much our family game.  If you've never played this game, it's a great excuse to metaphorically kick the crap out of your friends and relatives.  We wail on each other, knocking marbles off the board with reckless abandon.  It's a little known fact that I sold my soul to be able to roll a 6-6-1 at will.  I'm working on a post that will map out some metaphors that use Aggravation as a way to get better at writing, all part of the lineup I'm getting ready for 2013.

But that's work talk, and this is a time to relax.  Writers need a few days off, too!  So enjoy Christmas, enjoy the great food and company, and eat as many servings of dessert as you possibly can before you throw up.  There will be plenty of time for discipline and exercise in the new year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Glowing Album Review: Ellie Goulding, Halcyon

Cover photo from
Ellie Goulding's album, Halcyon
In case you haven't noticed, the past few posts I've made have been of the Scrooge variety:  stuff sucks.  So I wanted to be sure and post something that's not negative just to show you guys that I don't hate everything.

I am absolutely LOVING Ellie Goulding's new album Halcyon.

It is awesome writing music, driving music, singing music, everything music.  I put it on when I'm alone, I put it on when the hubby and I are typing away, I put it on anytime I want to hear music, actually.  I'm addicted.  I have tried to listen to other things, but always end up switching back to Halcyon.  It's crack, apparently.

Prior to being blown up on the radio and played every two seconds, I kind of liked "Lights."  I kind of liked her first album.  It was all right, decent background music, but didn't have any standout tracks that I would put on a mix tape, for example.

Halcyon is different.  I read that it's a breakup album--and it shows.  This is a good thing.  The lyrics are deeper, and some of them are the kind that reach inside you to stab you in the heart and steal your breath.  The melodies are haunting and catchy at the same time.  The mood is melancholy but somehow triumphant.

It's a weird place to be...acknowledging despair and sadness, but also the fact that things will get better.  That's what makes this album so much fun to listen to.  The rhythms and melodies lift you up, but then when you listen to the lyrics, you realize, holy crap, this girl is in despair.    

Track 2, "My Blood," is a standout.  It has a thumping, rhythmic background with chanting that sounds almost Native American.  The chorus takes flight out of the low, bass rhythms of the chorus.  This is where her silvery, elfin voice creates a beautiful contrast with the beating drums.  Her lyrics bring it all together:  "The waves will break every chain on me / my bones will bleach / my flesh will flee / So help my lifeless frame to breathe."  The metaphor of the song is that the breakup of a relationship results in blood lost.  She sings about "all the blood I lost with you," and seeing the color of her blood on walls and rocks.  If you've ever been through a bad breakup, you know that's exactly what it feels like...a slow murder.

I'm also a sucker for a depressing ballad, and there are two killer ballads back-to-back toward the end of he album.  Track 9, "Explosions," and Track 10, "I Know You Care," made me stop what I was doing and remember to breathe.

"I Know You Care" is probably going to be one of my desert island songs.  It's just Goulding and a piano as she sings about the turning point in a relationship where you know it's going wrong.  She sings, "You were like home to me / I don't recognize this street" to explain the way her lover has changed toward her.  Then, she follows up with, "Outside the cars speed by / I'd never heard them until now."  It's one of those writerly details that amaze me on this album.  She's pinpointed that moment, that very moment when the world around you changes and suddenly you see and hear things you didn't before...and it's not a good thing.

Late in the song, as she describes the nuclear fallout of this relationship gone wrong, she sings, "I know it wasn't always wrong / but I've never known a winter so cold / now I don't warm my hands in your coat / but I still hope..."  Her voice tilts up on "hope," and you know there's a whole world contained in the phrasing of that one word.  It's so beautiful and it breaks your heart.  Four lines later, she ends the verse with, "Why can't I dream? / Why can't I dream?"  It's the bleakness of a soul-shattering breakup without the strained, treacly, sickly sweet voicing that ruins many pop and R&B ballads.

The Brits are really kicking ass in terms of albums I'm loving right now.  The last album I had in heavy rotation was Emeli Sande's Our Version of Events.  These smart women are writing songs that feel true, without the dance-pop bluster that American radio hits seem to rely on.

If you haven't heard it, try to find a quiet place to listen via YouTube.  I can't recommend it enough.  Plus, I read in an interview that she loves to run (me too!) and her writing idol is Haruki Murakami.  This may be a full-on girl crush.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Movie Review: Anna Karenina

I've been waiting patiently for a couple of weeks now to see the new Anna Karenina adaptation.  The early signs were good:  Keira Knightly as Anna, a merchandise tie-in with Banana Republic, and a storyline created by, oh, only one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.  All signs were go.

So yesterday, with a bribed husband in tow and a whiskey flask in my purse (source of his bribe), I plunked down my $20 and sat down in a dark, smelly theater to see what Joe Wright had managed to put together.

I now wish I had spent that $20 on more whiskey.

This movie was sort of like the Russian version of Sofia Coppola's failed Marie Antoinette movie from a few years ago.  Pretty, but without a soul and largely miscast.

Here's the basic plot (no spoilers here):  A married woman, Anna Karenina, begins a flirtation with an attractive young cavalry officer named Vronsky.  The two engage in an affair, and complications ensue with Anna's niece Kitty (who wanted Vronsky for herself), Anna's husband Karenin, Anna's young son Seriozha, and society in general, who frowns on Anna's behavior.

Now, this pains me to say, because I love Keira Knightley and no one's smoky-eye makeup ever looks better on the red carpet.  However, something was off about her in this role from minute one.  Something was off about the entire movie, too.  Let me see if I can explain this a bit better.

Weird Thing about this Movie #1: The Staging
The movie has a strange staging effect.  It takes place on a strange rotating stage, as if the director wanted us to have the feel of a stage play.  Curtains rise and fall, painted set pieces drop into the background, and people walk out one door only to walk in another door right beside the first, in order to indicate a change of scene, place, and time.  It feels contrived rather than interesting.  It does not add to the intimacy of the story, nor does it advance any of the characters.  It's basically a wasted gesture that just ends up being confusing.  Plus, not all of the movie is done this way.  The scenes with Levin, a character who lives in the country, are actually shot in the country, not on the revolving stage.  So what's the point?  Why do this for part of the movie, if you're not going to do it for the whole thing?

Weird Thing about this Movie #2: The Dramatic Pauses
If you can get past that, there are a few more artsy-for-the-sake-of-being-artsy touches that also have that contrived feel.  Characters pause like statues at particular points so we can see Anna and/or Vronsky moving around in the scene.  Like the ornate theater-style sets, though, it's unnecessary.  This plot and these characters happened in a society thick with togetherness.  Separation like this only destroys the intimate, everyone-knows-everyone-else's-business effect that the plot needs for the ending to be believable.  Wright captures this feel once, when he flashes onto the faces of disapproving Russian society matrons as they grimace and smirk at the misbehaving Anna.  I kept thinking, "I know there's a movie that did all this better.  Oh, that's right--Dangerous Liaisons."  Pretty much everything Anna Karenina wants to be was already done...and done Dangerous Liaisons.

Weird Thing about this Movie #3: No Development/Reason for Love Story
The whole point of this story is to create sympathy for Anna, a woman who does something wrong.  She has an affair, but we're meant to sympathize with her impetuousness, her willingness to risk everything for love, her ability to go after what she wants and flout society's stuffiness to do it.  None of that actually happens here because the director didn't take the time to make the love story believable.

Anna and Vronsky basically fall in love during one strange ballroom dance scene.  They've exchanged a few words and glances prior to this, but it's not anything beyond a mild flirtation.  But somehow, once dance, and we're supposed to believe mad passion has been inspired.  The actors can't quite pull this scene off (director's fault?  not really sure here), and the screenwriter really needed to have another scene or two where we see Anna struggling with this.  As it is, she seems to smile at Vronsky, dance with him, breathe heavily for a minute, and declare herself in love.  There's very little struggle, and very little reason why Anna would fall for Vronsky.  His hairdo is horrific, and he's kind of stuck on himself.

The problem here is that if we don't believe these two are madly in love, we won't believe what comes afterward--Anna's mad struggle to free herself from her husband and set up shop with Vronsky, despite Petersburg's social ostracism.  It seems weird that she would do this for this man.  In the book, all of this is given time to simmer and develop (the benefits of a nearly thousand-page book, I guess).  But in the movie, we have to buy life-altering mind-numbing passion in one scene.  It's not enough, at least not the way it's written, staged, and directed here.

Weird Thing about this Movie #4: Keira Knightley Seems Off as Anna
I thought this would be a slam dunk.  I mean, Keira Knightley is born to play tormented historical heroines, right?  Of course.  So why is this different?  I think it has to do with this being a Russian book.  There is something deep and dark and churning in the Russian soul that I think this movie missed entirely.  Keira Knightley played Anna as happy and playful before her affair with Vronsky.  I could have been okay with this, if that playfulness were shown as part of some deep emotional tide running within her.  Instead, it seemed like she was an overgrown child, having more fun at the kids' table than with adults.

Once she hooked up with Vronsky, she became a total stage-5 clinger, to make a nifty Wedding Crashers reference.  She was shrill and shrewish, instead of fatalistic and soul-consumed.  I now want to see Vivien Leigh in the role, because I'm thinking she might have been better at the whole soul-consumed thing (what with her depression and bipolar issues and all).

Basically, this Anna seemed like a silly girl instead of woman who let her sense of fatalism control her destiny.  It made the character silly and the movie silly.  I'm trying to think of who else might have been able to play this role

Weird Thing about this Movie #5: Vronsky's Hair
Oh my God, Vronsky's hair.  I don't care if Russian dudes in the 1880s actually looked like this.  Now, it just looks silly, like the Masterpiece Theater version of Gene Wilder's hair.  Give the guy some regular hair, please.

Overall, I feel like this was a wasted opportunity.  It was pretty, for the most part, but wrong.  Just wrong.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Book Review: The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade

Grand Duchess Anastasia,
or, as Meade calls her,
"Princess Anastasia."
By Bain News Service,
public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.

We all love a good thriller, right?  We love it even more when it combines history, mystery, and exotic settings.  That's what The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade promises on the jacket copy.  Does it deliver?  Let's find out.

Full disclosure mode: I’ve also written a Romanov-based thriller, so I’m slightly biased, not to mention hyper-sensitive to the treatment of the subject.  So instead of addressing the plot, I’m going to focus on the elements themselves: the characters, the writing, the pacing, etc.      

Let’s start with the good:

1.  I was turning the pages pretty quickly in the first quarter to third of the book, thanks to the interesting characters Meade gives us, particularly two men named Andrev and Yakov.  They're from opposite sides of the tracks, one a Tsarist soldier and the other a die-hard Red.  Their paths cross as children and then again as adults.  Another interesting character, named Sorg, is an American spy in Russia who interacts with the Tsar's family in good times and bad.  Each of these men are intriguing and given enough personal background and motivation so that you start to feel for them.  A murdered younger brother, a murdered father, an unrequited childhood love carried into adulthood…there’s some good stuff here.  Their emotions feel real, and I got sucked in.     

Now let’s address the bad:

1.  This book is too damn long.  It’s almost all set up and very little payoff.  The extremely long, drawn-out scenes work well in the beginning of the book since you’re just getting to know the characters.  But once you look at the page number and realize you’re on page 300 and the rescue of the Romanovs has barely begun, it gets frustrating.  This is where an editor comes in handy.  Maybe Howard Books can’t afford one, or they can and that person was busy with other things while this book was in production.  All I know is there is no reason for this book to be 515 pages.  It could have been 300, easy.

2.  The frame is lame and nowhere near as present as the jacket copy makes it out to be.  If you read the jacket copy, you’ll think most of the book is about Dr. Laura Pavlov, a forensic anthropologist working in Russia who stumbles on clues as to what really happened to Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Romanov family, supposedly murdered in 1918.  The story starts and ends with Dr. Pavlov, but she’s present about as much as the main title and end credits are present in a movie.  This book takes place in 1918 for 98% of the page total. I still would have read it knowing this, but it would have been nice to have an honest representation on the jacket copy. 

The epigraph also promises that the book is going to connect Anna Anderson to this conspiracy/rescue attempt.  That was really all that kept me reading once the plot bogged down in the 200-400 page range.  Unfortunately, the only mention of Anna Anderson in relation to the titular conspiracy comes at the very end of the book, tossed away in less than a page, with a vague mention of a secret brotherhood being behind her seemingly uncanny knowledge of royal life at the Russian court.  

Really?  No one called B.S. on this?  

SPOILER ALERT.  Also, the book purports that Anastasia escaped the slaughter of Ekaterinburg, that Anna Anderson was a decoy sent into the world and trained by a secret brotherhood that tried and mostly failed to rescue the Romanovs.  Who these secret brotherhood members are is unclear.  But the book also never explains who it was that was found in the earth near the rest of the Romanov family.  It’s one thing to claim the body isn’t Anastasia because of unreliable DNA testing.  It’s another to say it wasn’t her because the real Anastasia survived, without offering a plausible explanation as to how a person who shared DNA with the rest of the family ended up in the exact same spot as Alexei yet we’re not supposed to believe it’s Anastasia.  That’s quite a coinky-dink, isn’t it?

And we’ll finish with the just-plain-ugly:

1.  The writing.  It’s bad.  Like, bad.  It’s clumsy and badly in need of editing.  There are lots of adjectives.  Lots of brand names, as if that suffices for a description of a thing.  The verbs are trying a little too hard in places like this:  “….I snapped open the leather briefcase on my lap and plucked out a file”.   "Snapped" and "plucked" in the same sentence just feel overwraught.

In other places, the storytelling is heavy and ponderous, like Andre the Giant trying to tiptoe:  
  • “I still recall the peaty wood smell when as a child I would leaf through the family album, filled with the faded images from another world.”
  • “Some events in our lives are so huge in their impact upon us that they are almost impossible to take in.” 
  • “It felt intensely cold.”  
I read sentences like this in my freshman year of college, in the intro to creative writing.  To be fair, I wrote some of them, but I also learned to realize I was wrong. 

A lot of the dialogue is unnatural and stilted, like the following line spoken by an old woman remembering the past:  “Of all the royal family, Anastasia was the  most rebellious, the most sparkling.”  Does anyone…would anyone…ever speak this sentence out loud?  Who says “the most sparkling”?

2.  George V refers to Nicholas II as Nikki.  It’s not the nickname I disagree with, but the spelling.  Why use “Nikki” as a nickname and not spell Nicholas with a “k”:  Nikolas?  It makes no sense.  There is no consistency, and it drives me bonkers.  

The same thing happens with Russian royal titles.  Meade calls Nicholas “tsar,” which is the Russian equivalent of “emperor.”  Yet instead of using the Russian title of “Grand Duchess,” Anastasia is referred to as a “princess.”  No one even halfway interested in Russian or Romanov studies would ever refer to her as Princess Anastasia.  Even the kiddie cartoon Anastasia gets it right and calls her Grand Duchess.       

Overall, I really wonder how the author’s previous novels earned “rave reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post.”  The craft just isn’t there, and I would have expected that to be recognized by the Times, if not the Post.  

Maybe that’s the real conspiracy.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Brief Note on the Semicolon: Why the Freak Can't People Get This Right?

What the heck
is so confusing
about this?
I've noticed something about the semicolon:  No one knows how to use it anymore.

I don't understand the reason for this.  The rules have not changed.  It's not like the whole analog-to-digital TV thing, where everyone in the country was told there was going to be a massive change and notified during every commercial break for months in a row.

How is this singular piece of knowledge being lost?  How is it that a dot and a curved line mystify so many writers, editors, and proofreaders?

Let's consult a few sources:

  • According to the APA and the Chicago Manual of Style, you should use a semicolon to: (1) separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction, and (2) separate elements in a series that already contain commas.
  • In an article for the New Yorker's website, Mary Norris relays an apt descriptor from a style book put out by an English firm:  "A semicolon links two balanced statements; a colon explains or unpacks the statement or information before it."
  • According to Merriam-Webster, a semicolon is a punctuation mark "used chiefly in coordinating function between major sentence elements (as independent clauses of a compound sentence)."
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it's a start.  Now, let's focus on the ways people use it to link their thoughts incorrectly.  Here are a few examples I dug up at work:

Wrong:  Despite the fact that kids are well fed, exercised, and socialized there is still a problem that persists; oral health.
Corrected:  Despite the fact that kids are well fed, exercised, and socialized, there is still a problem that persists: oral health.  
Why the first one is wrong:  A semicolon connects two complete but closely related thoughts.  "Oral health" is NOT a complete thought.

Wrong:  You can tailor much of the desktop environment; for example, the background window.
Corrected:  You can tailor much of the desktop environment--for example, the background window.  
Why the first one is wrong:  The portion of the sentence after the semicolon is not an independent clause.  If you spoke it aloud, no one would have any clue what your context is.  Plus, there's no verb.  So there you go.

Wrong:  My favorite things to do in Hawaii are surf; hiking; and sailing.
Corrected:  My favorite things to do in Hawaii are surf, hike, and sail.  
Why the first one is wrong:  You mean aside from the non-parallel verbs?  SEMICOLONS ARE NOT COMMAS.

I beg of you...please pay attention when you use semicolons.  If you're in doubt, don't use one.  Much like nuclear missile launch codes, semicolons should never be deployed without complete and utter confidence in one's decision-making abilities.  If you're certain you want to use them, a few minutes of online research will give you great examples of what to do or not do.  Then read this, just because it's funny.  

In closing, I have to post a quote I found, written by some dude named Henry Marie Joseph Frederic Expedite Millon de Montherlant who wrote, "One immediately recognizes a man of judgment by the use he makes of the semicolon."  Too true, bro, too true.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Movie Review: Skyfall

In the pantheon of James Bond movies, this will not go down as the best, or the second best, or the third best.  It is, however, a considerable improvement on Quantom of Solace.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, beware--SPOILERS AHEAD.  Let's break it down.

The beginning is promising.  James Bond and an unnamed female partner (she'll be more important later) are chasing some dude through the streets and over the rooftops of Istanbul.  He has a hard drive around his neck with a very important list that M is on fire to get back.  Dirtbikes, trains, and bulldozers all make an appearance in the opening sequence.  It has a retro feel because of the train--when was the last time you saw a good on-top-of-a-train chase sequence?  It's not quite as breathtaking as the parcour sequence that opened Casino Royale, but Casino Royale is in a class of its own in more ways that one.  

After the opening sequence, this movie gets a little muddy...and stays muddy for about 40 minutes.  Bond "dies," comes back, and has to get re-cleared for duty so he can help M recover the list he almost had his hands on in the train sequence.  The list contains names of all the British agents embedded in terrorist cells around the world, so it's pretty darn important to get it back.  Whoever took it taunts M with some Rick-rolled-style computer screen graphics that tell her to "think on her sins" and let her know that her tormentor is a skilled hacker with the design skill of a 13-year-old.

This where some of the movie's problems start to appear.  The movie becomes more about M, her questioning by higher authorities, and the already-addressed-in-the-Bond-franchise theme of spies being obsolete in the computer age.  I'm pretty sure they beat this horse to death in Die Another Day.  Of course, Bond is invested in the job because British pride is at stake, but it feels cold.  It's not the same as his emotional stake in the previous two movies.

There's a new guy in command above M (named Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes), and a new Q, who looks vaguely like a British guy I used to date.  They spend way too much time on the Q character.  Two minutes would have sufficed, but he gets closer to 10 or 15.  The movie gets bogged down in bureaucracy here, and the watcher's attention lags.

Things perk up a bit when Bond gets sent to Shanghai to catch the guy who has the list of British agents.  Sam Mendes makes Shanghai look futuristic and cool, and whoever did the cinematography here deserves an award of some sort.  This part of the movie looks gorgeous.  In Shanghai, Bond fails to recover the list and kills the guy who had it before getting any useful information out of him, but we learn one thing:  the fight scenes in this movie are way too short, and yes, there is actually going to be a Bond girl in this movie.  (This movie is a little short on the sexual innudendo and/or tension that make Bond movies famous.)

Now we jump to Macao for no real reason other than to present a new set-piece, complete with man-eating lizard things that look like overgrown Komodo dragons.  Some dude who looks like my cousin's husband gets chomped up in a ridiculously cheesy fight scene.  The bright spot of the Macao bit is when Bond meets Severine (pronounced "Sevrine"), played by Berenice Marlohe. She has nails I would kill for, but they applied her makeup with a trowel in the casino scene.  I think the makeup weighs more than she does.  In any case, she does a fantastic job of playing the I-can't-leave-the-bad-guy-because-he'll-kill-me bit.  I started to think the movie would get more interesting here, and it did...for a whopping 10 minutes.

Severine takes Bond to her master, the arch villain played by Javier Bardem.  Of course, when you think Javier Bardem, you think of the bowl-cut creepy guy he played in No Country for Old Men. They're basically trying to recapture that creepiness here, except it doesn't work.  It feels like a copy.  The blond hair is ridiculous, and all I could think about was how superior the character in No Country was.  So, basically, they moviemakers wasted Javier Bardem's genius.

There's an interesting William Tell bit on Bardem's island, but it also means (SPOILER ALERT) Severine makes an absurdly quick exit.  This disappointed me.  She was eye candy, and provided a counterpoint to the M storyline, which is pretty dry.  I was hoping they'd do more with her character, but it was pretty much just a transition point to Javier Bardem's character.

And this is where the next hour of the movie just falls apart. It becomes a mess of letting Bardem show off his faux creepiness, trying to make the biggest mess in the London Underground they can, and not having any of it really enthrall the audience.  It's a mess.  Just trust me on this.

Suffice to say, there's a total confusion about what this movie is really about.  Is it about old vs. new?  Is it about M?  Is it about the cost of leadership when your toy soldiers are real soldiers?  Is it about what happens to the soldiers we leave behind?  Who knows.  The writers and director think it's about all these things.  It's confusing, it sprawls all over the place, and none of the messages really hit home because they're so half-assed.

Fortunately, there's good news--the last half hour or so veers back into classic Bond territory.  Yes, the Aston Martin reappears, complete with grill guns.  We find out what "Skyfall" means (no, it's not a nuclear program or brainwashing program or any spy program at all).  We see where James Bond grew up, and find out his parents' names.  We find out a hell of a lot more about him than nearly any of the previous movies have given us, except maybe On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where he begins the movie as a married man.    

There is a big fight at the end, lots of stuff blows up, and one of the major characters dies.  James Bond cries.  But there's an oddly anti-climactic feeling to it, almost as if you expected more from Bardem's character, who seems content to let his army of goons do everything for him.  The hands-on villains are so much more fun to watch.  Anyone can send a dozen gun-toting soldiers into a house and tell them to blow everything up.  That's boring.

When the movie ends, it's basically right back at the beginning:  thanks to a restructuring of MI6 personnel, you now have things set up the way they were for Sean Connery or Roger Moore.  You have M, you have Moneypenney, and you have good old James Bond, ready to risk life and limb for England.  It feels like a re-boot.

Overall, there are some plot holes you could drive a truck through, and the story's characterization leaves a lot to be desired.  Bardem's character is pretty much a wasted opportunity.  They want you to believe he's as good a secret agent as James Bond (and approximately his age and experience level, meaning old school type who the higher-ups believe is a dinosaur).  They also want you to believe Bardem is the world's best hacker/programmer.  I find it hard to believe that these two coincide.  Either you spend all your time becoming the world's best spy or you spend all your time hacking and joining Anonymous.  I don't buy both. Plus, the stupid "think on you sins" message that popped up over and over in the first half of the movie never reappeared.  Bardem never said those words to M, which seems like something a psychopath might want to do.  Bond also didn't have much of a connection with Bardem's character, which seemed like another missed opportunity.  They obviously knew each other, but not well and not with the kind of brotherhood-gone-wrong ethos that made Sean Bean's character in Goldeneye more interesting and more moving.

I was also disappointed at the small role the girls had to play in this one.  As weird as it sounds, M was almost the main Bond girl in this movie.  I love Judi Dench, but the character of M just isn't interesting enough to hold up this movie.  Give me Severine any day, or bring Eva Green back from the dead.

As for Sam Mendes as a director, I think he did a decent job with what he was given.  The scenes are shot well, the locations are beautiful.  The fight scenes are all way too short, though, which might have been a script flaw rather than a directing flaw.  I'm not sure who to blame for that one.  The whole thing just doesn't hang together, but short of a rewrite, I'm not sure it's anything a director could have fixed.  I'm pretty sure the screenwriters alone are to blame for the mishmash of themes and lack of a clear through-line.         

Bond is Bond.  I love him, I love Daniel Craig as Bond, and I just wish Casino Royale hadn't been so damn good because it's now next to impossible to live up to that standard.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Revision: Let's Get Down and Dirty

Okay, so periodically, I make posts that show you guys how I'm revising. I talk about this a lot because it's one of the most important parts of writing, and one that's often criminally neglected. Revision is where the real writing, the real work, gets done. I've felt this way for a long time, and the more I write (and revise), I'm only more convinced that it's true.

Here's one example of revision from my latest project:

She thought again about the Mexican kids in the courtyard at lunch.  What did they do when they got home from school?  Not this, she was sure.  Did they watch TV, or play soccer, or call up their friends and go cruise downtown?  She’d been on the college-prep track as long as she could remember, which meant that she and regular kids were developing into two different species.  Just like Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.  Separate them for too long, and they’d lose the ability to communicate, to mate, to produce viable offspring. (about 93 words)

She thought about the Mexican kids in the courtyard at lunch.  What did they do after school?  Watch TV?  Play soccer?  Three years on the college-prep track meant that she and regular kids were developing into two different species, just like Darwin's finches.  Separate them for too much longer and they’d lose the ability to communicate, to mate, to produce viable offspring. (about 62 words)

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong about the first version. It's just that it isn't the tightest, best, and sharpest it could be.  Here are a few specific changes I made in order to get to my second draft version:

Sentence 1:  Delete "again" from the first sentence.  The reader has already read the section where the character thinks about the Mexican kids for the first time.  Therefore, she knows this is the second time.  The word "again" is unnecessary.

Sentence 2: Change "when they got home from school" to "after school."  The meaning is the same, but it's accomplished with fewer words. This is always going to be better.

Sentence 3: Delete the whole damn thing. Because the character is griping about the fact that she's stuck inside doing homework while other kids are having fun, the comparison is obvious. The fact that she's thinking about the other kids doing other things means she knows they aren't doing homework. Why waste words, even 5 of them, to express this?

Sentence 4: Remove "did they" and "go cruise downtown." Shorter sentences can be much more effective, especially if you're listing things. The rapid-fire short sentences have more immediate feel, as if you're right there with Emma (the character) as she's thinking these things. Also, I don't really gain anything by including a list of three items, as opposed to two. The reader gets the picture after two, so I cut the third list item entirely.

Sentence 5: Delete "she'd been on" and "as long as she could remember."  These are fluff.  The revision offers a more concise version of this thought, and a concrete detail.  "Three years" is much more specific than "as long as she could remember."

Sentence 6: Delete "in the Galapagos" and attach this sentence to the previous sentence. The reference to
Darwin is probably enough to bring back vague memories of Darwin, turtles, the Galapagos, the HMS Beagle, and something about the birth of the theory of evolution. There's no need to mention Darwin and the Galapagos when the mention of Darwin alone will serve my purpose.

Sentence 7: You'll notice here's where I added to the second version. Instead of "too long," I went with "too much longer."  I wanted to raise the stakes and show how Emma, my character, is at a tipping point in terms of social development. "Too long" is a generic statement.  "Too much longer" means that Emma knows she's on the boundary of something in a way that isn't generic at all.

Phew.  If you're still with me, you see how much I agonize over each word in each sentence in each paragraph.  I know not everyone is going to do this, or even think it's necessary. I just hope I can inspire you to start looking for little things to cut (extra words, unnecessary cues) that bog down your own writing.

Happy revisions!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

Okay, so I don't normally read much that's classified as "literary," let alone books that win major prizes such as a Pulitzer.  But I snagged a copy of this book at a library book sale and decided to give it a try.

Good thing.

You guys, this book is fantastic.  I read a lot of the reviews on Goodreads *after* I'd finished, to see if my reaction compared to others.  I found a mixed bag there, with people either loving it or not seeing what all the fuss was about.  I'm in the loving it category, with two caveats that I'll list below. 

The book is more than a collection of related short stories, yet not quite a traditional novel.  This throws a lot of people who want a linear narrative with one main narrator or perspective.  You don't get that here.  But if you can let your mind unwind, go with the flow, and let the different settings and years and characters wash over you, you'll get the same effect.  These are people you come to know in stages, as they age and do things that reshape their lives for better or for worse.  Just like a linear narrative, you learn the characters' histories, their presents, their pasts, their quirks, and why their relationships succeeded or failed.  But it's not gonna happen in the way a linear mind wants it to happen.  If you can't get past this, you probably won't enjoy the book.

There was a lot of chatter on Goodreads about the chapter that's presented as a PowerPoint presentation.  Some people loved it.  A lot more of them didn't.  I'm going to say that I loved it because it worked.  The chapter is written from the perspective of a young girl, a daughter of one of the main characters.  In a tech-savvy sound-bite kind of world, it makes total sense that a young girl would keep a diary that's in the style of a presentation--shapes, dialogue boxes, diagrams.  These convey thoughts as well or better than Twitter posts or Tumblr reposts, with the added bonus of giving you something interesting to look at on the page.  As a writer, this is also a fabulous exercise in finding out how little you need to convey thought and emotion.  Do you really need 250 words on a page?  Or do you need five shape shapes, captions, and a slide title?  Can you make this medium tell a story about a family?  Can you make a little girl's confusion at seeing her parents' sometimes strong-sometimes weak marriage played out as a drama in front of her?  Guess what.  You can.   

If you can adapt to the slightly postmodern construction of the book, there's a lot you'll be rewarded with.  Here are a few of those things:

1.  Good writing.  This sounds obvious for a book that's won a Pulitzer, but two years in grad school taught me that books in the canon (deemed worthy of being taught) can really suck.  Good writing is not a prerequisite.  However, what you get here is writing that rings true.  That's the best way I can think of to describe it.  It's simple, too, without the overwrought ten-line descriptions of things that really should be boiled down to one.  Here's an example:
In high school you'd get in fights when you felt like this, but no one will fight with you now--the fact that you hacked open your wrists with a box cutter three months ago and nearly bled to death seems to be a deterrent.  It functions like a force field, paralyzing everyone in range with an encouraging smile on their lips.  You want to hold up a mirror and ask:  How exactly are those smiles supposed to help me? (p 187-88) 
2.  Interesting characters.  Will you like them all?  No.  Will you understand them all?  No.  Do you want to know what happens to them?  Yes.  I don't like Sasha (a kleptomaniac), one of the main characters.  She's kind of a bitch.  I don't like Bennie (an aging music producer), another of the main characters.  He's also a bitch.  But that doesn't stop me from wanting to read about them, oddly enough.  I'm interested in the way these people interact with each other and the world around them.  I like the way the other characters see their flaws and weaknesses.  I'm not sure if Egan designed it this way, but when other characters see their flaws, you feel justified in having felt the same.

3.  Moments that make you want to shake the characters and scream at them to do or not do something.  If you can get through the chapter titled "Selling the General" without a gasp or a twinge of fear, you're a cold-hearted individual.  This chapter is one of the best examples of literary suspense I've come across.  The thing is, I don't think Egan intended it for it be literary suspense.  It just works out that way because you really really want to see Dolly, Kitty, and Lulu get out of this craziness alive.  Dolly is a washed-up blacklisted former PR agent.  She is hired to do PR for an African dictator with a really bad human rights reputation.  Kitty is a fading starlet, already past her prime but still in her 20s.  Lulu is Dolly's young daughter.  The three of them go to Africa to try and rehabilitate the general's reputation, with hilarious and disastrous consequences. I dare you to not finish this chapter in one sitting.

4.  A sense of time as something that's carrying us further from who and where we want to be--not closer to these things.  There's a heavy-handed quote in the book that explains the title, calling time a "goon squad."  Hence the title of the book.  I don't think this particular quote works, but the message behind it does.  All of the characters in this book had dreams and aspirations that don't quite work out.  People die, go away, move, get left behind....and the people still standing look at each other and wonder why it wasn't them who got left behind.  There's a beautiful ache here inside the characters who know where they are, but still don't really know how or why they're there.  

This being said, there are also a couple of major flaws in the book that take away from its power, message, and charm.  If you're aware of them, you can get over them.  They are:

1.  The first chapter.  The character you meet first, Sasha, works as the assistant to Bennie Salazar, an aging but talented music producer.  She's also a klepto.  The chapter opens with her recapping what her shrink says about her problem and the supposed progress she's made.  Then we go with her on a date.  She steals something (two things actually), and tries to explain them away and cover her tracks.  The chapter feels gimmicky, as if the klepto part is meant to be a larger metaphor.  But I feel like I've read things like this too many times--jaded young woman with a psychological problem that covers up a deeper scar on her psyche.  I don't care.  I need something more interesting than a jaded, wounded young woman who isn't very sympathetic--especially as an opening chapter.  For me, it started the book on a bad note because I didn't like Sasha and wondered if all the characters I'd meet would be as lackluster as she appeared in this chapter.  That wasn't the case, of course, but I only figured this out by going *against* my gut and turning the next page and the next page and the next page.

2.  The last chapter.  It's terrible.  I don't know how it got past an editor.  It has such a gimmicky feel.  It only exists to punctuate the book, to bring back names and places, and to hammer home the theme of technology alienating us from our own future as well as our past.  It's clumsy and obvious and made me angry that the book can't finish strongly.  

This chapter recalls events that happened in the first chapter in a forced, unnatural way.  It brings back the guy Sasha went on a date with, Alex, for no real purpose other than creating a sense of unity about the book.  It creates a future with stupidly named scandals ("Bloggescandals") and weird "handsets" that are some combination of cell phone and computer that you can operate with your mind.  I don't get it.  People use these devices to communicate with each other in annoying text-speak ("U hav sum nAms 4 me?") that intelligent people would simply not adopt, if only for its ludicrous mixture of upper and lower case letters ("only Ets chInEs"; "pls wAt 4 me, my bUtiful wyf"). 

The book's culminating event is a concert for a washed-up performer, engineered to be a success through artificial viral marketing.  But somehow, the crowd gathered decides to like the performer for real.  We're told that generations of surveillance and war have made us jaded and we all just want something to believe in.  But the book hasn't been about surveillance and war, and we don't feel the way the characters supposedly do because Egan hasn't written about the future until now.  It's supposed to be a moment of hope, but it's a moment that feels false.  Unfortunately, the acidic taste of chemical sweetener (rather than real sugar) is what you end with.  Those chemicals sting and linger in your throat.  They are the last thing you remember about the book, which is a shame.          

Overall, though, I highly recommend the book.  Be aware of the gimmicks, but don't let them overpower what's good about this book.  It's beautiful, ambitious, powerful, and yes, flawed...but aren't we all? 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Woo-hoo! I'm in an Indigo Mosaic Anthology!

Amazing news!

My short story "Blood of Lilies, Blood of Lambs" has been accepted for an anthology titled The Darkness Within, to be published by Indigo Mosaic.  The anthology, as you can tell by the title, is all about ways to represent our dark sides.  This is right up my alley!

Of course, I had to send a short story I've written that features Natalie, the heroine of my third eBook (The Romanov Legacy).  Nat, of course, is schizophrenic.  In this story, Natalie is in France, sneaking into a chapel where an infamous event in the French Revolution took place.  I won't say any more, but if you read the story, you get some backstory on Natalie's auditory hallucination (the angel Belial).  He has a past, you know.  He wasn't always someone's hallucination.

I'm deeply grateful to small and indie presses who are willing to read and accept work from writers who haven't made it big yet.  There are a lot of us out there who work hard, love writing, and put our hearts and souls (and darknesses) onto the page.  Someday we'll have the NYT bestseller under our belt, or a Pushcart, or a nod in a Best American anthology.  Until then, it's wonderful to know that small publishers like Indigo Mosaic will keep publishing kick-ass stories in kick-ass anthologies.  Rock on!!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Book Writing Strategy: First Draft, Haul Ass

The first draft of the new book is done.  I finished it Friday night, while on vacation in Oregon.  I still feel stunned, which is pretty much what happens every time I finish writing a book.  It's like being immersed in this whole world, for 9 full weeks, and then being thrown out of it.
How I feel after writing
409 pages in 9 weeks.

Of course, I'm not really thrown out of it.  The book isn't done done.  It's just first draft done.  With this book, there will be a lot of clean-up required.  I tried a new strategy with this one, which was: ignore everything that slows you down.  Just go.  Everything can be fixed later.  I'm calling this strategy "First Draft, Haul Ass," as opposed to the other books I've written, which involved painstaking research and plotting and outlines and progress that was much slower.  Let's see how this method differs:

The method:  First Draft, Haul Ass

The result:  409 pages in 9 weeks

The benefit:  It takes the pressure off getting everything right the first time, which is what used to kill my momentum (and probably some of my creativity) before.  You know it's going to be a shitty first draft, a la Anne Lamott, but once it's on the page, you have the book's skeleton.  It isn't perfect, but it's there.  You prove to yourself that you can do it before you go back and start doubting yourself during the editing phase.

A better metaphor for the benefit:  Think of your draft as the frame of a stained-glass window.  You know what the window's gonna look like.  You know what story the window has to tell.  You know it has a point at the top, arched side supports, and a flat base.  You've sketched out the background, the figure in the window, and dabbed in some of the colors.  But when you revise, you brighten the color, you shift some of the lines that didn't come out quite right in the draft form, and you paint with surer strokes because you've had time to really think about what you want where.  In other words, when it's time to paint the face of Mary or John or Joseph or whoever's in the stained-glass window, you know exactly which direction their eyes are looking.    

Top time-saving tip for using this method: If you get to a place where you need to stop and look something up (a historical fact, a state bird, a chemical element, whatever), just don't.  Write your sentence and when you get the point where you don't know what the thing is, use a couple of XXXs in a row, like this:

Emma looked at her math book.  Graph the function of XXX.  I can't do it, she thought.
In this book, my main character is a high-school junior.  I remember taking the classes she took, but I don't remember the nitty gritty details of pre-calculus or Honors chem.  So I put in a bunch of XXXs in the first draft, and now it's my job to go back through my old high-school notes (or a chemistry book found in Google books) and fill in the XXXs with something a student might struggle with.

Easy enough, right?

I didn't slow my momentum by wasting an hour looking for the answer somewhere.  I didn't get sidetracked by starting to research pre-calculus terms and then get diverted to or Pinterest.  I kept going.  I moved the story forward.  And now I get to go back and re-learn a bunch of stuff from high school so I can try to be as smart as my character.

Sounds good to me.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Do You Suffer from...Character Attachment Disorder?

Okay, so I'm nearing the home stretch.  The new book has about 60 pages to go before the first draft is finished.  But in those 60 pages, I have to completely destroy the character's life.  And the lives of her family members, through the choices she makes.

I've noticed my page count dropping slightly per day, ever since I began to approach this final stretch.  And then it hit me...I'm attached to my character.  I don't want to ruin her life.  I don't want to hurt her.  But I have to, because of the bad decisions she's made.

All along, I intended for this story to end a certain way--the end was what I envisioned first.  So I know it has to happen this way.  Everything in the plot leads up to this ending.  I've created the sort of inevitable train wreck you know is coming but can't turn away from.

Yet...I still kind of want to turn away.

Does this happen you guys, too?  Have you ever created a character you enjoyed so much you didn't want to end the story, particularly in a way that harms the character?

This is a tragic story.  Everything is in place for the tragic ending...the foreshadowing, the tone, the language.  Now I'm dreading writing the tragedy because all the character had to do to avoid it was be smart.  But I don't think she's smart in that particular way, so it wouldn't be true to the character to have her save the day instead of ruin it.

*sigh*  On with the final few chapters...let's see what happens when my fingers hit the keys.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blurring the Lines: Fiction vs. Memoir

Have you guys ever written a story that borrows details or experiences from your real life?  I've done this a few times, but mostly for settings.  I wrote a short story that takes place in Africa, and since I'd been to Africa, I used details about the place I stayed to re-create the setting for my character.

No big deal, right?  Right.

But in my new book, I'm going deeper.  I'm using more than a setting--I'm using a lot of detail about my life, my family, the town I was born and raised in.  Of course, this leads to a dilemma.  What's better for fiction....the verisimilitude of details I know to be true, or the flair of details I'm making up as I go?

Let's look at the problem from both angles.

In the red corner, arguing against using personal experiences:
*Real life isn't art.  Fiction is art.  Devote yourself to art to take full advantage of the medium itself.
*You could get sued if you don't differentiate your characters enough from the real people who inspired them.
*At least in my life, the characters I make up are probably more interesting.  (My family is very white-picket-fence.)
*What's the challenge in writing about stuff that actually happened?  Isn't that journalism or memoir?

In the blue corner, arguing for using personal experiences:
*Using real-life details can't help but give the story a true-to-life feel.  The details will feel real because they are real.
*Writing about people who are, essentially, my family members makes it easier to focus on plot and language.  The characterizations are done for me.
*Remember in Little Women, when Jo wrote trashy Ivanhoe-style stories about things she knew nothing about and they only got rejected, and then she wrote her own story, the story about herself and her sisters, and it was amazing?

So what do you think?  What do you do when it's time to write?  Do you use your memories and experiences as a source, or do you push them away and dive into the unknown?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Open Letter to NBC: More Things Happen at the Olympics Than Swimming

Dear NBC,

I love the Olympics.  I watch as much of them as I can, sometimes to the detriment of personal relationships (read: a husband who gets ignored for two weeks).  I look forward to the global pageantry, the spectacle, the amazing effort of all the athletes, and to seeing a number of sports that don’t normally get the same glory (or TV coverage) as the NFL or the NBA.     

But your coverage so far has done next to nothing to show America—and the world—what’s really happening in London.  According to one of your representatives, there are 302 medals to be given out in 32 sports.  Yet I can count the number you’ve shown in your prime-time broadcasts on one hand.  Beach volleyball, synchronized diving, swimming, and gymnastics.  That’s four.  Out of 32.  Four. 

Swimming and gymnastics are popular sports, to be sure—but is that all there is to it?  Based on the commercials shown during your broadcast, swimmers generate a great deal of ad revenue, which is likely a goal of your coverage.  Fencers, velodrome cyclists, archers, shooters, weightlifters, boxers, rowers, and equestrians do not generate ad revenue.  Is this why you haven’t shown these competitions in primetime at all?  Are the athletes who bring in ad revenue more worthy than those who struggle out of the limelight?  Your answer appears to be "yes."  

Perhaps you think that everyone has cable, and access to multiple sports channels where other Olympic sports can be viewed.  I do not.  Perhaps you think that everyone has unlimited bandwidth and data usage available for them to stream other Olympic sports.  I do not.  Rather stupidly, I depend on your primetime and late-night coverage to provide a well-rounded view of the games. 

I feel terrible for the members of Team USA who do not participate in swimming or gymnastics.  Their families won’t get to see them on TV.  The people they went to high school with won’t be surprised to see how far their old school mates have come.  No one will even know they’re there—not as long as you insist on showing endless heats for the endless number of swimming races instead of showing finals—people actually winning medals—in other sports. 

After Monday night’s disappointing primetime coverage, I stayed up late, thinking that the late-night edition would show something different.  What was the first sport covered?  Yet more swimming.  Really?  More than half of the primetime coverage was not sufficient?  There was nothing else happening anywhere in any of the other Olympic venues deemed worthy of being shown at 1 am? 

When the late-night program switched to covering whitewater canoeing, I sat up with interest.  Then I sat back down when valuable minutes were wasted interviewing John McEnroe and Shaun White—two people who are not even competing here.  Why not interview athletes who are living their dreams right now?  Why not interview some American medal winners who would never otherwise get to be on national TV?  Is this the way you treat the Americans who have trained and bled and cried and worked their hardest in order to get here?  In their one moment to shine, you chose to interview a famous spectator who has nothing to do with any of the sports in the summer games. 

Thanks, NBC. 

Thanks for doing absolutely nothing to showcase the wide range of talents and sports on display.  America’s athletes deserve better than what you have provided so far.  

Jenni Wiltz

Thursday, July 26, 2012

I'm Going to Be in Gargoyle!

It's not the best gargoyle photo in the world,
but it's the only one I had handy.
Westminster Abbey rocks, by the way.  
Woo-hoo! My short story, "Integers and Atoms," was accepted for publication in Gargoyle #60 (Summer 2013).

If you've never seen it, Gargoyle is an awesome literary journal that's been around for 35 years.  The editors, Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, have published truly amazing writers, including Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan, T.C. Boyle, and Allen GinsbergNow I'm going to be a part of that list, too!  This is mind-blowing and probably calls for some champagne.

On their website, they provide a list of the awards the writers they published have won.  Here's a sampling:

6 National Book Award-winning authors, 3 PEN/Faulkner winners, 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, 2 MacArthur Fellows, 6 Iowa Short Fiction Award winners, 5 Flannery O'Connor Award winners, 5 Orange Prize Long List writers, 2 Orange Prize Short List writers, 2 National Book Critics Circle Award winners, 6 Lambda Literary Award winners, and 3 Firecracker Alternative Book Award winners. 

This is big time.  
This is awesome.
This is motivation to keep kicking ass.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I love me some Gillian Flynn.  Her first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are phenomenal.  I know I write a lot of negative reviews here, but these two books are fan-freaking-tastic and I have no hesitation in saying this.

I am, however, hesitant to say the same about Gone Girl.  Here’s why:   On the back of the book, the publisher has printed raving blurbs from Tana French, Laura Lippman, Arthur Phillips, KateChristensen, and Karin Slaughter (among others...scroll down beneath the jacket copy).  If you read them, you’re expecting the awesomest book ever—filled with psychological insight, biting wit, razor-sharp humor, and electrifying writing.  I don’t think that’s what you get here.  I might be the one who missed the boat, but reading these blurbs before I read the book set my expectations at a level the book could not meet.     

Here’s what the book is about.  Nick and Amy are a married couple celebrating their five-year anniversary.  But on that day, Amy disappears.  From the get-go, it looks like Nick might be to blame.  He protests and claims innocence, but everything from forensic evidence to Amy’s diary implicates him.  With only his twin sister to believe in him, Nick is sucked into a roller-coaster of a summer as he faces family and friends who all think he killed Amy.  Of course, this being Gillian Flynn, little is as it seems and we’re given hints at how things may unfold and what really happened on Nick and Amy’s fifth anniversary. 

Let’s start with what’s good.

The suspense.  Flynn kicks ass at generating suspense.  As the search for Amy widens and the cops find evidence that implicates Nick, you can’t help but be swept up in the gritty realism of it all.  You feel Nick’s shock when each new piece of evidence seems to damn him further.  You know someone here isn’t telling the whole truth (Nick?  Amy?  The cops?), but you can’t wait to see what happens.  The middle of the book is close to perfection, as chapters intersperse Amy’s diary with Nick’s present-day narration.  I read 200 pages in one night, racing to see what happened next.  Hardly anyone creates page-turning suspense as well as Flynn.    
Marriage, for Nick and Amy, is like this: an endless
struggle to be top dog.

The creepy feeling of watching a marriage go sour.  Being a married person myself, this was hard to take.  As you read the first half of the book, you get Nick’s perspective and Amy’s perspective.  You hear about how they met and fell in love, and how they both got laid off and moved to Missouri so Nick could help take care of his dying mother.  There are so many miscommunications and spoiled moments where pride, despair, or stubbornness kept Nick and Amy from connecting.  They grew apart.  But there were still flashes where you could see the old Nick or the old Amy.  You can sympathize with each of them, but you can’t help thinking the people they were did not have to turn into the people they are.  It’s chilling and sad and haunting. 

(SPOILER ALERT:  You will eventually find out that some, of not all of this backstory, is faked.  These are not truthful characters, to say the least.  Still, the first time you read it, before you know it’s fake, you still feel your heart breaking for the relationship gone bad.)     

Now, let’s talk about what might not be so good.

Some of the writing itself.  I know Gillian Flynn can write, and extraordinarily well at that.  But there were parts of this book that felt sluggish, sloppy, and overwrought.  That might be because she was allowing the characters to use their voices to tell the story.  Both Nick and Amy are would-be writers who haven’t done much writing at all; Nick is a laid-off magazine writer while Amy wrote personality quizzes for women’s magazines.  They think they can write, so it makes sense that their narration would be capable yet flawed with things like too many sentence fragments and comma splices.  The more flaws I started seeing in the writing, the more I kept hoping Flynn was allowing Amy or Nick’s flaws to show through.  But is this the case?  I can’t be sure, which makes me wonder how much editing the book received. 

Nick’s writing style also seems to change throughout the book.  On the very first page, he’s obvious and writerly about describing something as simple as getting up in the morning:  “My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M.  This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness.  The awakening was mechanical.  A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids:  The world is black and then, showtime!  6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw.  6-0-0.  It felt different.  I rarely woke at such a rounded time.  I was a man of jagged risings:  8:43, 11:51, 9:26.  My life was alarmless.”  

This is a LOT of heavy-handed stylistic detailing just to say, “I woke up.”  This feels like a writer clearing her throat, trying to find the style her character will speak it.  It feels like something that should have been streamlined in the editing process but wasn’t. 

Compare this waking up to one that happens on page 354:  “I woke up on my sister’s couch with a raging hangover and an urge to kill my wife.”   Far simpler, far more effective, far less contrived. 

The first 60 or 70 pages of the book read like the first quotation.  It’s alarming, especially after reading Flynn’s two previous books, which are simple in the best way.  No extraneous words or sentences.  She’s sharp, so sharp it hurts.  Then you get to the first 70 pages here, and it’s like when you see someone wearing stripes, paisley, floral print, and polka dots all at once.  You just want to tell them to take something off and chill out.  Yes, it might be part of painting a portrait of a psychopath.  But until you reveal the character is a psychopath, your reader just thinks you’ve forgotten how to revise. 

The italics.  These characters use italics.  A lot.  It gets really annoying.  On page 20, Nick says, “Amy, I don’t get why I need to prove my love to you by remembering the exact same things you do, the exact same way you do…”  A paragraph later, Nick’s sister says, “I’m guessing—five years—she’s going to get really pissed…”  Are any of these italics actually necessary?  Do they change the meaning of the sentence in any way?  Or is it just a lame way of making the way characters enunciate their sentences a form of characterization? 

The dirty tricks.  Any time you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, as both Nick and Amy turn out to be, you have to be very careful.  You don’t want to deliberately withhold information from the reader unless the character has a good reason.  Yet Flynn does this.  

In the first half of the book, after Amy’s disappearance, we’re told several times that Nick carries a disposable cell phone in addition to his regular cell phone.  We’re told he makes and receives several calls on this phone.  But we’re never told to whom or from whom.  (This doesn’t come out until later.)  This is bad.  If the character is hiding crucial information from us (he is), why even mention the disposable phone before that secret is ready to come out?  Why include that stupidly tormenting detail in the first place and then hope the reader sort of forgets about it until later?  It would have been far more effective  to have Nick tell the reader:  "I know you’re upset that I’m not telling you who called.  You’ll find out later, I promise."  Use the “meta” moment for all it’s worth, as long as you’re going there.  Otherwise, it’s kind of annoying as well as unnecessary.       

The extraneous supblots.  This book is long.  Or, maybe it’s just that it starts to feel long toward the end.  There is a lot of set up.  A lot of time spent on subplots like the Blue Book Boys.  A lot of time spent with Nick’s sister, Go (a character who, ironically, goes nowhere).  A lot of scenes with Nick’s father, a woman-hater with Alzheimer’s.  This character is necessary, but the time spent on him and with him is probably not.  Overall, it feels like this book could have been tightened considerably.  Another couple of months, another 60-70 pages edited out could have made this an even better book.    

The ending.  The last hundred pages are weird.  Just flat-out weird.  Once I finished the book, I sat back and tried to imagine a different way to end the book.  But I had trouble with that, too.  I’m not sure where you go with a story like this.  The characters are so flawed and so troubled, that any ending seems wrong for them.  The ending they get feels too easy.  Everyone essentially gets off the hook.  Of course, getting off the hook is its own purgatory for these characters, but still.  I’m left with the feeling that the past 400 pages just got washed away, and this ending could have been arrived at with oh, say, 70 pages.  A novella. 

In the end, I think this book is a beautiful, blissful experiment in unreliable narrators who manipulate the reader and each other.  I’m just not convinced that the experiment worked.  I hate saying this, because I love, love, love Flynn’s first two books.  And I will be first in line to get her next book.  I just can't recommend this book as wholeheartedly as I did her first two.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Movie Review: Savages

Gators are pretty savage.
But so is Benicio Del Toro.
I don’t usually review movies here, but since I read the book the movie is based on, I’m gonna go for it.  

Oliver Stone’s movie is based on Don Winslow’s book.  The book is about Ben and Chon, two twenty-something friends who grow the best pot in the world and run their empire from a SoCal beach house.  They share a girlfriend, named Ophelia (“O” for short), who is a stoned beach bunny/trust fund girl.  When a Mexican drug cartel wants in on Ben and Chon’s operation, Ben and Chon refuse.  To help them reconsider, the cartel kidnaps O.  Instead of knuckling under, Ben and Chon decide to take action and get her back.  The book follows the dangerous and disastrous consequences of that decision. 

Winslow’s style is fast-paced, humorous, and gritty.  The book has the best first chapter in the history of literature.  (I’m not kidding.  Pick it up and read just the first page.  It’s a fast read, I promise.)  The storytelling is accomplished through straight narration as well as script dialogue, complete with stage directions.  The breezy style keeps things moving, and as the reader, I turned pages quickly to find out what happened next.  This isn’t to say the book didn’t have serious problems.  It does.  And those same problems nearly sink the movie. 

First, a bit about the movie.  It follows the book pretty closely, for the most part, which is likely due to Winslow having a screenwriting credit.  Ben is played by Aaron Johnson (I have no idea who this person is), Chon is played by Taylor Kitsch (I have no idea who this person is, either), and O is played by Blake Lively (I am an avid Gossip Girl fan, so at least I know who she is).  The head of the Mexican cartel is Elena “La Reina,” played by Salma Hayek.  Elena’s right hand hit man, Lado, is played by Benicio Del ToroJohn Travolta lends a hand as a corrupt government agent who plays both sides.  With a cast like this, you should immediately notice two things:  the main characters do not have one-tenth of the acting chops of the supporting cast.  I am not sure if this was done on purpose or it just happened that way.  It mirrors a serious problem in the book, however.

Problem the First:  None of the three main characters are interesting, unique, or likable. 

In the book, Ben is a wimp.  He’s smart enough to grow the world’s best pot using his UC Berkeley education, but he’s not smart enough to hand over his operation to the cartel, cash out, and enjoy a work-free life for the next sixty years.  The cartel beheads people with axes and knives and chainsaws and whatever other garden tools they can find.  A sheltered California beach bum isn’t smart enough to cut and run at the sight of this?  Are you kidding me?  There better be some pretty good motivation behind his decision.  And guess what?  There isn’t.  This guy makes no sense.  He shows no spine and no development.   

Chon is also a pretty flat, undeveloped character.  He is an emotionally scarred war veteran after several tours in the Middle East.  This, at least, is a reason for his strong, silent characterization.  He likes beating people up, doing it with Ophelia, getting high, and not much else.  This will never change.  He never changes throughout the course of the book or the movie.  At least he has a good reason. 

Ophelia is one of the lamest, most annoying female characters I’ve read in years.  She does absolutely nothing and adds absolutely nothing.  She is vacant and empty.  There is no personality there.  I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for her because she is somewhat the product of a shitty childhood—rich mother, several stepfathers, no one to care about her having sex too young or smoking pot since the 8th grade.  Boo hoo.  Even so, she has no goals or ambition.  She goes shopping.  That’s it.  I have no idea why either Ben or Chon actually likes having her around, other than the fact that she lets both of them do it with her at the same time.  (There’s a gross three-way scene in the book that is begun but mercifully cut short in the movie.)         

All of these flaws are replicated in the movie.  Ben is flat, lame, and uninteresting.  Chon is flat, but moderately interesting since he knows how to blow shit up.  Ophelia is a black hole, a swirling vortex of nothing that still seems to suck in everything around her, including Oliver Stone.  Stone chose to make Ophelia the narrator of the movie, and seems obsessed with Blake Lively.  There are tons of close-ups of her eyes, her skin, her teeth, her fake butterfly tattoos.  She’s beautiful, yes.  She fits the role incredibly well, which may or may not be a compliment.  Is telling someone they’re a perfect zombie a compliment?  The voice-over narration is dull and dead-eyed and the movie would have been better without it.  Still, Lively wasn’t given anything to work with, so I can’t really say she did a bad job.  She did a great job, but zero times zero is still zero.

Problem the Second:  The supporting cast steals the show.

Maybe this isn’t actually a problem, since the moviegoer is sitting in her seat thinking, Thank goodness someone here is doing their job.

The guy who plays Ben is flat.  Stone substitutes close-ups of his pale, pretty eyes for acting.  When things 
get intense, he goes blank.  The guy who plays Chon is marginally better, thanks to an outburst where he stabs John Travolta in the hand.  He’s going for “still waters run deep,” and he might actually pull it off.  Blake Lively is…well…Blake Lively.  She’s a one-trick pony, and that’s all that’s required here.  I doubt anyone could save this character, so might as well let Lively have it. 

But all anyone really wants to see is Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro.  These two really fuck some shit up, in the best possible way.  Salma Hayek’s Elena is bitchy, controlling, yet vulnerable.  She wears a jet-black blunt-banged wig throughout the movie, symbolizing her need for utter control.  Every hair is always in place, except for the scene when she learns that her beloved daughter has been put in danger.  Then, in a powerful moment, she rips off the wig as she sinks to the floor, sobbing.  Everything you need to know about this character is contained in that moment, in the best possible way. 

Benico Del Toro is creep-master supreme.  I’m not sure if he’s just a creepy guy in real life, but he plays a stone-cold killer like he IS a stone-cold killer.  There’s no hesitation, no regret, no guilt.  He goes for it. Shooting punk-ass lawyers in the kneecaps?  Check.  Shooting henchmen who hesitate to murder helpless women?  Check.  Bullwhipping a traitor’s face until his eyeball comes out?  Check.  Yeah, he’s that kind of hit man.  Now here’s a lesson in acting for the guy who plays Ben.  Benicio del Toro doesn’t need all kinds of facial contortions to express emotion.  His character undergoes fear and anger and happiness, and you’re completely aware of what he’s feeling though a few very small facial gestures and body positioning.  He gets it exactly right, every time, without resorting to Jack Nicholson grins or Tarantino-style theatrics.          


Problem the Third:  The super-sappy Hollywood ending the un-does the real ending. 

In the book, everyone dies.  It’s kind of disappointing since you’ve just spent 200 pages trying to muster up the enthusiasm to like them, and then they’re killed.  But it’s also fitting since these aimless losers drifted through life…let them drift into death, too, with the same kind of bored, unthinking abandon.        

In the movie, everyone dies, too.  Oh, wait, but then they don’t.  Ophelia’s drugged-out voiceover tells us that it might not have actually happened that way.  I’m instantly reminded of Clue, where they show you two “maybe” endings and then a real one where everyone committed one of the murders.  The movie backs up a few minutes, to before the death-carnage goes down, and it’s all re-done with the cavalry coming in to save the day, all the bad guys getting punished, and all the good guys living happily ever after.  Are you freaking kidding me?  This gang of losers takes down the Mexican cartel?  And they’re rewarded for their lame aimlessness with a tax-free life in Africa or Indonesia somewhere? 

I don’t know if Universal executives forced Stone to produce a happy ending for their big summer blockbuster, or if someone couldn’t bear to see Blake Lively bite the big one, or if Stone just wanted to give a big middle finger to the audience.  Whatever the reason, it was a stupid move and pretty much destroys any integrity the storyline might have had.  At least when the characters die, we’re presented with a lesson:  Try to get something for nothing, and you will die.  If you don’t care enough about yourself to even try to survive, you will die.  The California consumer lifestyle creates people of such unutterable aimlessness and vapidity that they can only die without producing anything of real value in life. See, death works as the outcome of all these ideas.  What does not work is letting them off scot-free, not a scratch, to live happily ever after.

Oh, well.  You win some, you lose some.  Savages is beautiful to watch, electrifying when the minor characters are on screen, but it has no soul.