"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, October 29, 2012

Wherein I discuss Nonfiction for a tick

I got no excuses. Except for the plenty of reasons I have to continue to neglect my blog. But it's still October. Two posts for the month ain't bad.

To the point, I've been reading a bunch of nonfiction lately. Partly for work. Partly for fun. And I don't say that lightly. I'm not in the habit of reading nonfiction for fun. If I'm looking for fun and can't get to the mini-golf course, I go in for the fiction reading. Which goes to show these must be some extra-superb books, right?

Let's begin with a book I haven't even finished yet, but can't wait to explain to people. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer purports that soccer effects everything from small communities to society at large, from ganglords in war-torn Bosnia to political divisiveness in America. At least those are the two chapters I've read so far.

I picked it up and read the last chapter first because it was about the United States and how when soccer became a popular children's recreation in the seventies, it was basically a hippie construction, an extension of the sixties, a contrast to the militarism of Pee-Wee football and the competitiveness of Little League baseball and was viewed as anti-American. Thus, red states and blue states can be identified by how many people let their kids play soccer. Fun, right?

Fascinated, I returned to the first chapter which explains how throughout the nineties a man gained Serbian national acclaim due to his leading an army of soccer hooligans in defense of Slobadon Milosovic. Apparently, it's common practice for a soccer club in Europe to recruit and hire groups of fans to be the team's official hooligans. And apparently, in what started as Yugoslavia, these hooligans did more than just taunt fans of the other team. One psycho criminal was given charge of the Red Star fans and led them to commit atrocities against Muslims and Croatians during their war. After reading this, I stifled my innocent giggle at being labeled "Unamerican" because I play soccer. I'm a little embarrassed for my sport. But certainly fascinated by this book.

Over the summer, I read the book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs. This book chronicles his attempt to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in about a year. Jacobs published the book in 2005, and I figure he must have started his quest just as Wikipedia was gaining traction online. He discusses reading CD-ROM versions of the Encyclopedia, but unfortunately doesn't discuss what impact online fonts of information have done to the necessity of the Britannica.

What was most interesting to me was something I realized early on in my reading. Jacobs formats his book alphabetically, giving his own versions of a chosen few encyclopedia entries while incorporating a memoir of his experience. He cleverly uses a current encyclopedia entry to be able to tell a story about what is going on in his life at the time he read it. For instance, he uses the entry on "vital fluid" to tell his story about going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and crapping out at 1,000 dollars. So, basically, Jacobs spent his days reading, then writing about what he read as he made progress. Then it became a bestselling book. And I just kept thinking. I read. I write. Where's my bestselling book?

These next two books are crazy cool. But I think you have to be a total nerd to think so. Or an English teacher. (Go ahead. Make the joke. I'll wait.) Thomas C. Foster has written two books about reading called How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The second is really just a continuation of the first, but he only uses novels as examples instead of including poetry or drama like he does in the first book.

Anyone who loves reading should read these books. Foster shows you what you should be looking for to help you construct a deeper meaning from a text. He explains why an author might make certain decisions and use certain language. He explains the necessity of understanding allusions and symbols and choices of point of view and story structure.

I've studied and taught literature for most of my adult life, and this is the best, most succinct, most clear and easy to comprehend text I've read on the subject. I find it so enlightening, I've decided this is the new summer reading for my IB Literature class. The kids will love it.

The books show you how to be a better reader, but I've tried to incorporate some of the ideas into my own writing. A character totem here, another symbol there. Foster will have to use author Brent Wescott as a brilliant example in his next book, right?

Now, because I was stuck in my latest work in progress, I picked up a book called Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. A successful novelist I met at a conference in September recommended it to me. It's a book about screenwriting, but she said it was the best help to her for plotting stories that she's ever read. And it's certainly helpful. If you're a screenwriter and you don't do what he says about structuring your story, you're likely screwed. Snyder outlines the three acts of a film and shows you how to outline your story beat by beat. But my concern is as a novelist, not a screenwriter. I can see the benefit of following the structure for story, but I can think of too many novels that don't. Too many great novels I've read that don't follow traditional structure. I'm likely to use Snyder's suggestions to get out of my WIP rut, but the rebel inside of me will likely make it difficult. Tradition, conformity, structure. Bah. I can do it however I want, right? If only the publishing industry thought the same.

Lastly, I will just mention that in tandem with Save the Cat, I have begun reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which uses Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces as its guide through story, myths, and archetypes. Just one more way to add some depth to my stories and make me a genius. Right?



Monday, October 15, 2012

Absent too long, I return with The Nineties Blogfest

Where have I been? Who cares. 

What's up today? Nostalgia for the go-go Nineties. Brought to you by Dave at Dave Wrote This

Because the calendar in my head only works in terms of what I listen to at certain points in time, naturally I've chosen to count down the best of the decade in music. For my personal life, it was college, marriage, babies, Seattle. But for my musical tastes, prepare your ears for some politically correct trip hop madchester shoegaze neo soul grunge. As well as some jargon and description that makes little sense to the uninitiated.

I was out of the country in 1990. Sadly, I didn't hear much music that wasn't church hymns or Brazillian samba, both of which can get a bit repetitive. Thus, this year I will skip.

1991: The Dream Academy, A Different Kind of Weather

No contest here. This was the first album I bought upon my return from my mission to Brazil. The Dream Academy was a brilliant band unfortunately pigeonholed as a one-hit-wonder for the popular 80's tune "Life in a Northern Town." However, every song on their three albums is a near-perfect confection of ear candy. A Different Kind of Weather is their swan song, sending the band out on a poppy high. Listen to "Waterloo." Close your eyes and just listen to it.

1992: Kitchens of Distinction, The Death of Cool

I almost put Catherine Wheel's debut album, Ferment, here. But Kitchens of Distinction's third album brings all the distorted jangle and adds more sing-along friendly politically correct choruses that rival those from the pioneering Bronski Beat. This album came at the tail end of the shoegaze fuzzy rock movement, but it's one of the best.

1993: Cocteau Twins, Four-Calendar Cafe

Not their greatest album, but Four-Calendar Cafe nearly put the Cocteau Twins in the mainstream. Elizabeth Frazier's signature vocals were sometimes intelligible, and Robin Guthrie's otherworldly control over the musical ether created some of the most radio-friendly song structures he would ever write. And for a dream pop song, "Summerhead" kind of rocks out loud.

1994: Everything But the Girl, Amplified Heart

Everything But the Girl is one of the best songwriting duos the world has known. With early material that relies on strong jazz and latter stuff verging on techno, Amplified Heart showcases Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn at their happy medium best. You might remember "Missing" from the souped-up dance remix, but the original is still one of their best songs, featuring concise, memorable lyrics coupled with a taut melody and a driving, hipster beat.

1995: The Boo Radleys, Wake Up!

When Billy Corgan announced in 1995 that Oasis were the best songwriters since the Beatles, he apparently hadn't heard The Boo Radleys. Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? is a swell record, but it doesn't hold a candle to Wake Up! Early on, The Boo Radleys had developed a signature stop-start, loud-soft-loud kind of shoegaze noise, but with this album, they turned it into a glitsy Britpop gem. Hear "Wake Up Boo!" and just try to not feel better about yourself.

1996: Cibo Matto, Viva! La Woman

Belle and Sebastian released two watershed albums this year, but to be honest, I wasn't up on the indie twee movement yet. I was all about the trip hop. And Cibo Matto brought the beats. Spare, twitchy, with howly japanese-accented vocals mostly about food, they owned the sound. Plus, "Sugar Water," which was later played on stage at the Bronze while Buffy did a sexy dance with Xander. Oh joy.

1997: Swing Out Sister, Shapes and Patterns

Tough year. Portishead, Bjork, even the Sneaker Pimps deserve some respect in 1997. But I'm going with Swing Out Sister's apex of old-school jazz-soul-pop. This album could have been released twenty-five years earlier and it would have sounded right at home. Plus, Corrine Drewery? Hot.

1998: Massive Attack, Mezzanine

This could be the best album ever. A distinct possibility since "Angel" is probably the best song ever, with its provocative, menacing build to a freak-out climax. I don't kid about this stuff, man. And maybe I love this album just because of the guest vocals, but the rest of the album is of equal quality. Since you've heard "Angel" in about a dozen movies and "Teardrop" thanks to the credits of House, here's the seductive "Black Milk" featuring vocalist Liz Frasier at her most dreamy.

1999: The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin

I can't even categorize this album. Both melodious and cacophonous, both beautiful and harsh. The Lips's first albums are full of grungy guitars, but with The Soft Bulletin, they pulled their underlying harmonies to the forefront and delivered their frothy, poppy opus. Plus, it's just good fun. Wayne Coyne certainly doesn't have an American Idol voice, but you can tell he sure enjoys himself, and I'd rather listen to his personality than an auto-tuned one any day. Here's "The Spiderbite Song," which Coyne wrote about a bandmate who almost lost life and limb due to a spider bite on his hand. Sweet.

And with the advent of of this indie mentality, grunge is over, trip hop is on it's last breath, as is overtly politically correct lyrics, and in a year or two, irony. Thanks, Mr. Coyne.

And how's that for my bloggy comeback?