Welcome to whatever is on my mind!

Some people use the term "nonsense" but I prefer to use the phrase "uncommonly sensed" because it's more reflective of creative types.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: The Pier Falls

If I were to compare the craft of writing to the field of architecture, I’d say that Mark Haddon is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of the literary world. His writing is modern and graceful with some experimental elements, but it’s always structurally sound and high quality. Haddon is most well known for his 2003 book The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, but he’s been publishing his work for over two decades and has a number of titles for both adults and children. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The Pier Falls and Other Stories.

The issue with many short story collections is the lack of relationship the stories have to one another. Sometimes I feel like a shopper at a bargain bin when I read these types of books, wondering if the contents of the bin even came from the same source. However, this collection holds together through several underlying themes, as well as the consistency of the writing. Haddon takes the reader to an equilibrium on the edge between mythology and modernity, showing the transcendence of the human experience through his characters. There’s a rational-spiritual dichotomy peeking through the prose at numerous points, but the text always feels real.

Because these are short stories, a number of different themes are explored in different settings. For example, in the title piece The Pier Falls the author explores tragedy by showing us both the horrible and the absurd manifested side by side as a pier collapses into the ocean. Individuals grasp for life or succumb to death as a Strauss recording continues to play over loudspeakers during the event, reminding victims that life will waltz on with or without them.

In the story The Island, we’re given a re-telling of Ariadne’s final days on the island of Dias. Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, this version is in first person and we get to hear Ariadne process the events leading up to her death as she struggles for survival.

The theme of Loneliness also comes up in several of the pieces, with each story examining a different facet of it. We see the complexity of human relationships as circumstances and situations molds these bonds. A particular experience may have a lasting impact which can bring people together or tear them apart from one another or themselves.

In The Woodpecker and The Wolf a woman goes to space to escape relationships, but then becomes pregnant. The space mission encounters troubles and the woman watches the other astronauts perish, including the baby’s father. The struggle for survival and the new life for which she now feels responsible causes her to reassess her relationships and what she valued in them.

Diazepam makes an appearance in several of the pieces, acknowledging our modern tendency to self-medicate. This theme of self-medicating is explored more fully in the story titled Bunny, in which a morbidly obese man feels that his hunger and disappointment are more painful than the consequences of his overeating, and so he eats. Lots.

Haddon is a modern writer that I strongly recommend to many would-be writers. His style is modern, functional, and graceful without being ostentatious. His work definitely falls under the label of "literary" and shows remarkable facility to move back and forth between verb tenses keeps the reader centered on the story without feeling the jerk between past and present. His characters are complex but not over-explained or overtly obvious. The plots are cultivated in such a manner as to appear natural and yet perfectly manicured at the same time. Writing should always reflect life, but literary writing uses language and plot structure to explore it more fully. Haddon accomplishes that in these stories.

Several of the pieces in The Pier Falls have been previously published in literary journals, so if you’re reluctant to plunge into the whole book you can find a few of these stories online. Whether you read a sample of these stories online or purchase the entire book is up to you. Regardless, I encourage individuals looking for some great modern fiction to read them. The writing feels effortless, as good writing should, but afterwards it also causes me to marvel at how well it’s put together. It’s the sort of book that easily gets me on the train without me first asking where it will go or when it will arrive. I know that I’ll enjoy the ride, and the scenery will be worth my time.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library

Genevieve Cogman is the author of The Invisible Library fantasy book series for young adults. A few months ago I received an advance review copy of the first book from the publisher and I enjoyed the story very much. The second book in this series have now been released and I’m looking forward to reading it. What I enjoyed most about the first book was the concept of a hidden library hat contains versions of books from alternate universes. The thought that there could be hundreds or thousands of versions of our favorite stories is appealing to a reader such as myself.  Aside from the incredible library, what caught my attention in her writing were the strong characters and action sequences - something we don’t typically associate with a book about books. This is truly an adventure novel that keeps moving. I had an opportunity to interview Genevieve and here are her responses to some of my questions.

Q: You’ve written some strong female characters in this book. Can you describe what inspired each of these (Irene, Coppelia, and Bradamant) characters?
A: I’m not sure any of them have a single point of inspiration. Irene is the standard protagonist who just wants to get on with the job, and finds herself with too many things to juggle at once. She’s also a thorough bookworm and daydreamer (which is why she picked the name “Irene”, after all) and a competent operative, a little bit Modesty Blaise though also a lot of Moneypenny.
Coppelia’s the mentor who knows more than she’s prepared to admit, a Librarian with a lot of history (such as why she’s got a mechanical arm) and her own personal tastes in literature. (For the record, she likes science fiction, particularly books about artificial intelligence.)
And Bradamant’s the rival who has a past history with the protagonist, and whose methods and morality are different enough that they come into conflict about how to achieve their goals, though they end up working together. She’s a person whose first argument is always “the ends justify the means”, and who sees herself as a misunderstood hard worker who makes the hard choices which nobody else will commit to.
I think that ultimately any of them could have been male or female. First and foremost, they’re people.

Q: What sort of research did you do in preparation for (or during) the writing of these books?

A: I did quite a lot of investigation on the internet into things like the geography of London, famous missing or never-written books, the British Museum and the British Library, and how to spell Liechtenstein. I  also read and reread my collected Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to try and get the vocal patterns and habits correct. And for the action scenes, I watched quite a lot of Hong Kong action movies (a long-term addiction of mine).

Q: What scenes were the easiest to write (and why)? Were any scenes difficult?

A: I think the hardest scene to write may have been the one where Irene is explaining about the Library to Vale, because I was trying to convey quite a lot of information, but I didn’t want the scene to get boring or slow down too much. I’m not sure that I can say any scene or scenes was the “easiest”. They all took work.

Q: What authors do you enjoy reading (and what do you like about their work)?

A: I don’t want to give you a list of several dozen authors (which would barely be scratching the surface), so I’ll try to think of a few favourites. Lois McMaster Bujold, Kage Baker, Naomi Novik, Terry Pratchett, Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane, Steven Brust, Charles Stross, Barbara Hambly, Pat Mills, GK Chesterton,  JRR Tolkien, Mary Renault, John Dickson Carr, JK Rowling, John M Ford, Barry Hughart... I find a wide spectrum of things in their writing, including interesting characters, well-handled narrative, good description, brilliant dialogue, imaginative concepts, and stories which sweep you along once you get into them and make it hard to stop reading. I want to read different things at different times. Sometimes I really want a book that makes me think (like John M Ford or Mary Renault), and sometimes I just want something which I can settle into and enjoy.

Q: If you’ve ever read a book more than once, please give the name of the book and explain why you chose to re-read it.
A: If I’ve read a book once and enjoyed it, then I’m almost certainly going to read it again at some point. (There’s a reason why my flat is overfull of books...) I’m afraid the answer to this question is “far too many to count”, and “because I enjoyed reading it the first time”. I’m a very fast reader.

Q: What are the top 3 items on your bucket list?

A: At the moment:
See a live performance of the musical Elisabeth.
See a production by the Takarazuka Revue while in Japan (this includes going to Japan!)
Visit Hong Kong.

Q: Tell me about your favorite things: favorite travel location, favorite food, favorite drink, favorite activity, favorite museum, favorite library(ies), favorite book, favorite movie, and favorite band or song.

A: Bearing in mind that all these are my current favourites, and may change in the future if I come across something new which I like better:
Favorite travel location - Venice
Favorite food – Chicken liver risotto (my father’s recipe)
Favorite drink - Coffee
Favorite activity - Reading
Favorite museum – I used to love going to the Geological Museum in London, though I haven’t been there for ages.
Favorite library(ies) – No particular favourite, they’re all valued.
Favorite book – Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en
Favorite movie – Brotherhood of the Wolf
Favorite band or song – Pardonne-moi, by Mylene Farmer

Q: What are you working on now?
A:  I’m currently working on book 4 of the Invisible Library series. No rest for the wicked...

 Find out more about Genevieve Cogman:
Author Website
Author on Goodreads
Enter The Invisible Library sweepstakes
The Invisible Library on Amazon
The Masked City on Amazon

Monday, July 11, 2016

Nashville's Hot Chicken Festival

Every year on July 4th for the past 10 years Nashville has held a Hot Chicken Festival. Bill Purcell, Nashville’s mayor at the time, started the festival in 2007 in order to pay homage to one of his favorite local dishes. He created the event as a way to help market this unique food and to help establish Nashville as the place of origin.

For those of you outside of Music City, the legend of Nashville Hot Chicken started with Prince’s. The story begins with an unfaithful man and a woman’s quest for revenge when the cheating rascal returned. Instead of cooking his favorite fried chicken, she doused the bird in some very serious quantities of cayenne pepper and waited for the fireworks of her retribution to take hold. The problem was that Thornton Prince loved this new chicken recipe and after sharing it with a few friends he decided to open a restaurant. You can read a more detailed description about the history of hot chicken here.  There's also a Time article on Nashville hot chicken as well as a piece on the Nashville Public Radio's website.

While Prince’s was the first hot chicken shack to appear, there are now hot chicken restaurants all over Nashville. The dish has grown in popularity since the inception of the hot chicken festival and even upscale restaurants now have hot chicken appetizers or dishes on the menu. I've even had hot chicken tacos (click this link and scroll down the menu).

If you attend the Hot Chicken festival, be aware that the lines are often long, so it’s not as easy as one would think to sample all the different restaurants side-by-side (a dream of mine that has yet to become a reality). However, it’s not unusual for the lines inside the actual restaurants to be long, also. So don't let the wait dissuade you. It's worth it.

Advice for attending Nashville's Hot Chicken festival:

1. Take a cab, Lyft, or Uber. Traffic and parking are both congested near East Park during the festival.
2. Bring at least some cash - not all vendors accept cards (note: if you visit Prince's actual restaurant, they don't accept cards there, either.)
3. The weather and the chicken are both too hot for pets. Leave them at home in the AC with the TV tuned to their favorite station or send them to a spa.
4. Hot chicken comes in various degrees of hotness, but one vendors "XX Hot" may be another vendor's "Medium." Assume that even medium will have some heat and that the most extreme level of heat is "native Thai" or beyond.
5. Related to the above, I like to sample different levels of heat from the same vendor because the flavor of the chicken changes with the heat.
6. Get a dipping sauce - it not only adds flavor, but it can assist in cooling your taste buds, if needed.
7. There is no wrong way to eat hot chicken. You can alternate with bites of bread and pickle, you can make a sandwich, or you can just eat the chicken. Experiment and find what you like.
8. Check out the Hot Chicken Festival website for more information.

 Below are a few pictures of my pet gargoyle attending the festival. Yes, he loves hot chicken, too. After all, he is "Nashville’s Finest Gargoyle" - why wouldn’t he love Nashville’s finest food?