Grave Hunting

Wife and I are members of Find A Grave, an organization whose mission is to find, record and present final disposition information from around the world as a virtual cemetery experience. It’s a great opportunity to help others with ancestry research and an excuse to wander around some old graveyards. Today we went in search of four names. Only found one, but it is an old cemetery (early 1800’s) with many unreadable and missing stones, so it was to be expected.

Willnot by James Sallis

Browsing the new release section of my local library during the summer vacation months usually finds me grabbing the literary equivalent of popcorn movies. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Rollins or Clive Cussler are my typical fare. Give me fast-paced action or terror and I’m a happy reader. It is a key component of my summer vacation from the classroom.

But this past week I was really drawn to a book that didn’t fit this mold, in fact, it turned out to be the antithesis to a potboiler, summer blockbuster. At just 177 pages Willnot, by James Sallis,  is a quick read, but its length doesn’t belie the ideas that are put forth in this excellent read. Ostensibly, it is a crime novel and it has the genres characteristics in spades.

A mysterious pit full of dead bodies found in the woods

A doctor with apparent empathic abilities

A mysterious and largely unseen battle between assassins

A beautiful FBI agent

But in a book full of what could be page turning plot devices, it is the characters that will haunt me long after I have put the book down.  The people who populate the small town of Willnot are what the book is about, so much so that the more titillating parts of the plot almost seem an intrusion on the novel’s true purpose. It is an exploration on the texture of solitude, the beauty and tragedy of the everyday and the idea that we are often left powerless to affect it one way or another.

That is a lot to deliver in a slim volume, but Sallis does, and I for one am glad I picked up a book outside my comfort zone this summer.

Perceptions

I finally got around to reading the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I’d been meaning to ever since I heard that the movie Arrival was based off of it. I’ve written before how much I liked Arrival and the story that inspired it was just as interesting.

At 45 pages it pushes the boundary between short story and novella, but the pace is quick and the writing crisp. I was able to easily read it in a single sitting, which to me is the definition of a short story. If I have to break it into pieces it ceases to be the same kind of narrative experience, so I was glad of the length.

Plot-wise the film version stayed very true to the book, so I won’t give any spoilers except to say that the concept of language and perception of time play a large role. This really got me thinking. How much of what we think of as reality is based on how we express our experience of it?

If by some quirk of fate the Earth had two suns and therefore no night, how much would our inner worlds change? The idea of light and dark is central to how we think, how we mythologize and even how we act. If that was taken from us, who would we be? Or what if our intelligence evolved more along the line of bees with a hive mind- intelligent, but only within the group. How much different would the stories we tell ourselves be?

Yet, in both of the hypotheticals the reality we would experience, write about and think about, would be no less true than the one in which we currently reside. Sort of makes you question the objective nature of things a bit. How much of what is “us” and our “reality” is simply a matter of perception filters?

And if we accept that how we view and interact with our natural environment is largely responsible for how we view existence, should our behavior change? Do we now question objective truth? Or does it simply narrow the scope of where objective truth can lie? This narrowing seems to me to be a good thing as any simplification of reality makes that reality more graspable.

This is why I love science fiction when it is done well. It is philosophy buried in narrative so that our brains can ease onto roads of inquiry that we may otherwise avoid as too perilous or frightening.

Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child

I’ve always enjoyed Lincoln Child’s collaborations with Douglas Preston, but this is the first solo work of his I have read.

The Adirondacks, and “enigmologist” and werewolves!

Quick fun read. No heavy lifting required.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

This book was tailor-made for me. It is like the author found every element that I found fascinating and rolled them into one short novel. My only small complaint is the ending. Wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste, but I am quibbling. This was an excellent book.

Genre: Horror, but tastefully done for the most part. There are a couple grisly scenes but they are necessary. More than anything McMahon has mastered the art of creepy. Much of the story was the reader catching glimpses of something terrifying, mere shadows in the dark. Yet all the classic pieces are here, a lonely farmhouse, supernatural legends about the woods out back, mysterious deaths and vanishings; they all play their parts.

Setting: Vermont. Winter. 1908 and present time. She does an interesting thing with the timeline of the novel. We are actually given two stories, one happening now and one that happened over 100 years ago. They fit together well with each influencing how you read the other.

Characters: There are quite a few. It is basically about two families living in the same house at different times. And while this definitely isn’t a middle grade novel, the children do play major roles in both family’s story. The point of view shifts each chapter between the different characters with the reader always knowing more than the character. I didn’t really notice it as I was reading, but now that I think about it, it is a very female centered book. There is only one male character of any note.

Plot: For over 200 years the town of West Hall has been one of mystery. In 1908, Sarah Shea was found dead behind her house just months after the tragic death of her young daughter, Gertie. In present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in the same farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her six-year-old sister, Fawn. They live completely off the grid, existing more like a family in the Alaskan wilderness, than rural Vermont. Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. As she searches for reasons for her mother’s disappearance she finds a copy of Sara Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As she dives deeper into the mystery of Sara’s death, she begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding her town, home and family.

I recently finished another book, Andrew Pyper’s The Only Child, which attempted to rewrite the classic Gothic novel for the 21st century. In a lot of ways McMahon is doing something similar for the traditional ghost story. If you enjoy being creeped out, but not grossed out by your horror than The Winter People is definitely worth your time. At only about 300 pages, and a quickly moving plot, it is the perfect vacation time read.

Warren Ellis on Writer’s Block

Love his answer to this. I tell my students this all the time, albeit in much gentler terms!

I find myself having an extremely difficult time getting anything out when I sit down to write. Do you have any tips or suggestions for someone looking to take their first steps into the world of creativity?

Warren Ellis Here’s the thing. Don’t insist on the first draft being good. That will paralyse you forever. In fact, insist on the first draft being as rough as a bear’s arse. Insist on it being an incoherent fucking mess. It’s not supposed to be good. It’s supposed to be *outside of you.* The first victory is hard but simple: get it outside of your head and down on a page. Right now, you’re constipated by expectation. Okay, you probably don’t want me to continue with that metaphor. But just get the ideas out of you and on a page where you can see them, in broken sentences and stick figures if you like. Fix it later, once it’s outside of your head where you can see it.

The Only Child: A Neo-Gothic Tale

What do you get when you mix 1 part Jame Rollins thriller, 2 parts Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and then stir vigorously with a Dean Koontz swizzle-stick? You get Andrew Pyper’s latest, The Only Child, a modern spin on the Gothic novel.

Gothic fiction has been with us since the early 1800’s. Most people think of such classics as Dracula, The Scarlet Letter or Frankenstein’s Monster when they think of the golden age of the genre. Pyper both tries to explain the genre as well as fit into it but in a modern context.

Pyper hooked me as an author a couple years ago when I found his book, The Demonologist. That book literally kept me up at night. And while this latest release doesn’t quite reach the same terrifying levels of that previous novel, there is plenty here to love.

As a young child, Lily Dominick, our main heroine, witnessed her mother’s murder, a suposed bear attack, in a wilderness cabin, but Lily herself was saved by a passing truck driver. However, this is just the official story. Lily has another, more fantastical memory. When she dreams she remembers her mother being mutilated by some kind of actual monster, and that she was saved from by a mysterious Pegasus-type creature. Weird, right?

Now grown up, Lily Dominick is a criminal phychiatrist and she meets a unique, nameless, patient who is in the custody of the state after committing a pretty horrific crime. However, just as he reveals he only did the crime to meet her, he escapes from the psych ward leaving a bloody trail behind him. He then leads her on a journey of horror and self discovery across old world Europe.

Without giving too much away, the patient is much more than he at first seems and through him Pyper attempts to explain the initial inspiration for the birth of gothic fiction. Three classic authors, Stoker, Shelley and Stevenson actually get cameos in the story. Even though the atmospheric romps through eastern Europe are almost a cliche of the genre at this point, I still enjoy the ride.

In fact, ride is a good way to describe this novel. I’ve seen some criticism that points out that this book is a fast read, not the slowly developing, atmospheric, ballad that many traditional gothic novels are. And the critics are right, but I think they are missing the point. Pyper did not set out to write a 19th century gothic tale, he was trying to reinvent the genre for modern audiences, and in that I think he succedded quite well. Sometimes people critique the book they wanted the author to write, not the one in their hands.

There is one flaw though, the length. It is just too short. I would have enjoyed a slower role out of some of the subplots and a little more time getting to know the protagonist before throwing her into peril. But I am nitpicking, any novel that can force me to finish it in three days is a great story as far as I’m concerned.

Self Improvement

“Is it possible to curb your arrogance, to overcome pleasure and pain, to rise above your ambition, and to not be angry with stupid and ungrateful please– yes, even to care for them” ~ Marcus Aurelius

I’ve been reading a lot about self-improvement lately. Not the kind peddled in repetitive self-help books that crowd the shelves of popular book stores only to be forgotten soon after they have been read. But in books that have stood the test of time by thinkers like Marcus Aurelius , Epictetus and Seneca, and these ancient Stoics have a lot to say that I think is useful in the here and now.

Working on your character is no different from working on your body, or getting an education. Take the bodybuilder for instance. I’ll use Dwayne Johnson as my example as he is seeming everywhere in popular culture right now, much the way Arnold Schwarzenegger was a generation ago. Johnson’s nickname, The Rock, is appropriate because he looks like one- solid, strong and well-built. If you follow him on social media you know that he gets up at 4AM most morning to maintain his physique and eats copious amounts of clean food as well. In other words he works- hard.

This kind of work is easy to admire since we can very easily see the result. There is a clear cause and effect. Lift heavy weights, regularly, over time and you can build a great body.

The same principle can be seen at work in the realm of education. As a regular reader of Farnam Street, I am very aware of William Buffet and Charlie Munger, two investor-prophets who are very much the inspiration for the site. Farnam Street is all about reading the best books to create solid mental models with which to accurately analyse and synthesize the information around you. Munger is said to read all day everyday and that over a life time this has given him not only a high education, but also the ability to see things that others often don’t.

Again, that cause and effect principle is at work. It took The Rock 30 years to become who he is now, and it took Buffet and Munger even longer. But hard work applied over time created demonstrable results. In both cases it is easy to see.

However, when it comes to an even more important aspect of our humanity- our character, very few of us seem willing to put the same kind of work in. Why? Is it because the work is less tangible? Is it because the results may not be visible to others? Should we not care more about how we act and treat others than we do about intelligence or physical prowess? I’m not calling anyone in particular out here- in deed, I feel as guilty of this neglect as anyone.

So how to fix that? How can I create a program of self-improvement that focuses on building character?

‘Let fate find us prepared and active.” ~ Seneca.

While I can not remake the world on my own, I can remake myself, and that small step can lead to other, which in fact can change the world. But I need to work on it just as I would any other self-improvement program. The only think that comes to mind to give this program structure is Franklin’s virtue journal, but I’m not sure that is really what I am looking for. I need something more weighty, more martial. After all, according to Epictetus,”Life is like a military campaign.” So I need to develop my battle plan.

However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses! – Gandalf

You must build up your life action, by action…accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given. – Marcus Aurelius

Follow the process, ignore the game and take one play at a time.