Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of Chanel Bonfire

Chanel BonfireChanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Memoirs, when done correctly, are always a joy to read. Wendy Lawless, at a distance, could be described as just another privileged girl of the 1970s who got to do some really cool stuff. But Lawless, narrating this audio version of the book herself, shows us differently. It's almost impossible to believe the outright insanity this poor girl was subjected to at the hands of her emotionally unstable mother. Hearing so many of her tales, my blood would just boil. The writing itself is well done, but not fantastic. It was Lawless's calm narration that actually brought it so vividly to life. She sounds ever bit like the duck-and-cover enabling daughter she describes herself to be. Listening to a story like hers reinforces that it is love, not money, that brings us happiness. And though our childhoods may bring us misery, we can still build a life, with or without finishing college. I imagine that I would have been more like Wendy's sister than Wendy herself, if placed in that situation, but we never really know, do we? It's a quick read and I found myself sitting in the car for longer than I had to just to finish out a chapter.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Review of The Husband's Secret

The Husband's SecretThe Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's always a crap shoot when you step outside your normal reading genres and so often it only serves as a reminder of why you always stick to the same types of books. But every once in a while, something like this comes along and inspires you to take a few more chances in your literary life. The blurb for the Husband's Secret only mentions one of the four interwoven tales in this book. Cecilia finds a letter addressed "To my Darling wife, to be read only in the event of my death." One could be forgiven for thinking that the letter contains the eponymous secret. But there are many secrets in this books, spread over nearly every character in the book, and they all unfold with an easy grace that masks the skill of Liane Moriarty. Her omniscient narrator is so superbly done as to be seamless and she is one of the few adult authors who has bothered to give the children in the book individual personalities. So often children just serve as props who ejaculate pithy quips every now and again. But here, they all seem real, with all the cuteness and irritation that implies. The women in the book also seem real and every one of them (though quite different from me in most ways) spoke to me and my life experiences. Each of them invites the reader to examine herself and what she would do if, say, she found the letter addressed to Cecilia, or if she were confronted with her husband and cousin's affair, as Tess was. What would the reader do if her teenage daughter was murdered and the only suspect grew up to work in the same office, as happened to Rachel? Though the title inspired me to roll my eyes and mutter something derisive about "chick lit" under my breath, I genuinely enjoyed this and plan to seek out other work by this author.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Write from Reality, Not From the Script

"For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child's boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A commercial. You know the awful singsong of blase: Seeeen it. I've literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality really can't anymore. I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script."
-Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Performing good research is the backbone of any writing project, no matter the genre. But for those of us who write fiction, particularly those of us in the Spec Fic realm, our research is usually indirect. We read articles, we watch documentaries or other works of fiction about our chosen subject. We do our legwork, we write our scene, then we present our draft to our writing group, hoping to be lauded not only for our prose, but also for how real it seems. But what exactly is real?
I remember two different times I received very strong (almost aggressive) pushback on the realness of my writing. The first involved Isabella, the protagonist of my current writing project. In one of her early scenes, she is punched in the face—the eye specifically—by a man.

After reading the scene, one of my reviewers asked, “Why do you say she has blood coming out of her nose? He didn’t hit her in the nose.”

“Oh, that happens sometimes,” I assured her. “If you’re hit in the face, sometimes the fragile blood vessels in your nose can burst, even if you weren’t hit in the nose.” She looked at me with an expression between disdain and disbelief, so I proceeded with what I thought would be the deal-closer. “I know because it happened to me. The EMT who treated me called it sympathy bleeding.”

Despite my assurance of the medical reality of a bloodied yet unstruck nose, she was unpersuaded.“Yeah, but it still seems like bullshit. I recommend changing it.”

The other incident got far uglier. In a piece of flash fiction, my first-person narrator mechanically recounts the activities of her day. Reading between the lines, we understand that the previous night she had been raped by her coworker. To be honest, it wasn’t my best work. As loquacious as I am, Flash fiction isn’t my strong suit. But the way my narrator behaved was lifted straight from a friend of mine from my military days. She was attacked on a Sunday evening. And Monday morning she was at work, her uniform starched and pressed, quietly and casually ignoring the coworker who had raped her. It was real. I just wrote it down.

But a classmate in my fiction class bristled at my piece. “This isn’t real. Victims don’t act like this. I know what PTSD looks like, and this isn’t it.”

I explained that this girl doesn’t see herself as a victim. I even pointed out the parts of the text that signal her state of mind to the reader. My instructor seemed to agree that my intent was clear. But the classmate persisted.

“Women do not just get over it when they are violated. I think that’s just something rape apologists like to tell themselves.”

It’s possible that her conviction and vitriol came from her own personal experience, but more likely it came from the commonly accepted tropes of what a victim is and how a victim behaves. Deviations from those tropes tend to invite suspicion. We know how innocent people behave and how guilty people behave. Not because we’re cops or lawyers or even keen observers of the human condition. We know because we’ve seen it on Law and Order… over and over and over again. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn used this predilection perfectly with her character Nick. To avoid giving spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the reasons he had such a hard time with the cops was that he just didn’t “act innocent.” He acted the way the television audience associates with guilt. As he stated above, we’re all working from the same dog-eared script.

So the question becomes: do you write what is "real?" Or do you write what is real? And how do you do that kind of research without sinking into the aforementioned depression that so plagues the writer population? How do you tell the truth in your writing? And whose truth are you telling?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nerds are like prison gangs... sort of

There may be no two groups of people in this world who are more different than self-identified nerds and members of prison gangs. But I found myself writing a scene today between a nerdy white female character and her older, Hispanic captor who had spent the majority of his career working as a prison guard. My character used the term "LARP" only to have her captor stare at her blankly. I came up with a brilliant way to compare the different types of nerds (and the perception of hierarchy therein) to prison gangs. But then I remembered that these characters exist in an alternate future where California is still a part of Mexico. Well, dang it. So while I can't include this wonderful bit of analogy in my book, I can share it here. Bear in mind that there is a great deal of cross-pollination in nerd land. The Babylon 5 enthusiast may also be a writer of Anime fan fiction. The Physicist may also get super excited about Star Wars. With prison gangs, there is no cross-pollination, so these are generalizations based on the overarching and popular perceptions of these groups.

Math/Science nerds are like the Aryan Nation
Cuz we're better than you! And we know it!
Sheldon Cooper does not respect your filthy humanities degree
 No, not in their ideology, of course, but rather in terms of their respective per capita populations. The Aryan Nation was formed by imprisoned whites who found themselves to be a minority in the California prison system. Despite being a minority, these rednec— Caucasians are quite certain they are superior to all of their numerous fellow prisoners. Likewise, those nerds among us who have the skills and the years of education to back up their Math/Science nerd status (Astronomers, Physicists,  Statisticians, Accountants, etc.), are few and far between in the great swaths of nerd humanity, but they are generally sure they are the best among us. With the success of the Big Bang Theory, more of us common folk are being exposed (through humorous fiction) to that special subsection of nerds that presumes to lead us. Science and math people had perhaps the hardest time in school, and nerd culture is tied up in the mistreatment we awkward folk received in our formative years. People like me can hide our comic books and our Battlestar Galactica schematics. Math nerds, try as they might, could never really camouflage their nerdiness in school and perhaps carry a chip on their sloped and slender shoulders. Smug though they may be, the Mathy/Sciency types are a great help to people like me who like to write about time travel, but do not like to study string theory. And if looking for the upside of the Aryan brotherhood.... I hear they have the best crank in town, so there's that.

Do I look like I mess around?
LARPers are like the Black Guerilla Family
The BGF made headlines most recently for its imprisoned leader, Tayvon White (the unimpressed looking gentleman to the left), being indicted for racketeering operations within the prison walls. That same gang leader impregnated not one, but four different female guards while he was there. The Black Guerilla Family are comprised of, you guessed it, black men, at least one of which has an uncommon prowess with the ladies, which you would think makes them an unlikely comparison to LARPers, or really any other subset of nerds. But like the BGF, LARPers are hard core, and even other nerd respect their gangsta. For the uninitiated, LARP stands for Live-Action Role Play. These are the people who dress up in costumes and assume a role within a pre-established world. This could be Dungeons and Dragons or it could be those Middle-Ages Societies. These people are serious. LARPing is not to be confused with Cosplay. Throwing on a Sailor Moon costume when Comicon rolls around is something anyone can do. But LARPing is not a one-day thing for these people. It's their life, or at least a big part of it. It's not uncommon for LARPers to get ink or other permenant body alterations if it's in line with their characters. It's not exactly like gang tats, but it's still quite a commitment.
Blood in, blood out, Bitch.
People in the mainstream often make LARPers an object of scorn (see the awesome movie Role Models for examples of this). But nerds in the know recognize how much dedication, intelligence, and yes, charisma, it takes to pull this crazy shit off. I won't say they are the nerdiest of us all, but there is a compelling argument to be made in their favor.

Anime Fans are like MS-13
Truly terrifying human beings
Also terrifying human beings
The thing about MS-13 is that they are scary. Really, really scary. Mara Salvatrucha (commonly abbreviated as MS, Mara, and MS-13) is a Salvadoran gang that is super excited about killing people for minor offenses. They distinguish themselves by tattoos covering the body and also often the face, as well as the use of their own sign language. Another group of people seemingly set apart from the rest of society with their own language is Anime fans. Like MS-13, they are not one small, cohesive band of misfits. They are a large and wide-spread collection of cliques and sets: Shoujo, Shonen, Seinen, and yaoi being a few. While they are like all other nerds (having a passion for something the mainstream world may not understand), they do have something of an image problem. Though hastens to emphasize that Anime fans are not to be associated with Hentai fans (Japanese-style animated hardcore porn. Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about), there is an undeniably sexual undertone in the public perception of Anime. Just like MS-13 will forever be known by those times when they thought using a machete was the best way to get their point across, Anime fans have to consistently strive to show they are not in it for the animated pre-pubescent girls in mini-skirts. It's so much of a problem that Anime fans have come together to publish guidelines to discourage their fellow fans from being excessively creepy. You have to figure it takes quite a bit of nerve for a LARPer to sneer at an Anime fan, "Oh, you're one of those people?" But trust me, it happens.

Comic Book fans are like La Eme, AKA the Mexican Mafia

This was my adolescence. And my 20s.
 We are everywhere, though you may not see us. We are your neighbors, your co-workers, and we can get you no matter where you go. Much like the Mexican Mafia, only much less nefarious (usually). La Eme is something of the Umbrella Corporation of Hispanic street gangs. No matter what neighborhood your local Mexican gang is from, whether they be from SoCal (Sorrenos) or NorCal (Nortenos), chances are pretty high they take orders from and pay dues to the Mexican Mafia. You may have thought your pot dealer, Jorge, had that hand tattoo on his shoulder celebrating his son's fifth birthday,

La Eme—Like the Walt Disney Company... only horrible.
We are the nerd world's La Eme, only paler. Much paler. We don't get out much. It's right there in the name of our most treasured gathering spot—ComicCon. Yes, I know ComicCon officially jumped the shark when they let the Twilight people in, but Comics are pretty much the backbone of any good nerd enterprise. We have our own divisions (Marvel people don't have much use for DC people and Mad Cow and Darkhorse people just think they're better than everyone). And we are definitely into ink. I have a faded and distorted X-men insignia on my pale, doughy outer thigh. Why that location? Because 18-year-olds are stupid. So even if you're more of a Star Trek person or really you just enjoy the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, at least do some Googling about comic books before you engage in the nerd community, as there is nothing more shameful than being mocked by a group of adults with X-men tattoos.

Gamers are like Nazi Lowriders
D and D Guys. They take this shit seriously.
When speaking of gamers, let's get something out of the way. Just because you enjoy playing Call of Duty, does not make you a nerd. The word Gamer has unfortunately been distorted (intentionally to my mind) by asshole jocks and assorted socially well-adjusted folks looking to cash in on the new geek-chic trend. True Geeks really dislike this. So let me tell you, popular handsome man who plays Assassin's Creed, this section is not for you. This section is for those poor bastards who got wedgies for playing Dungeons and Dragons. Just like the Nazi Lowriders, for some weird reason, felt rejected by the Aryan Nation and had to start their own little club. There are other similarities of course. The conspicuous lack of people of color, for one. The other is that, just like the Nazi Lowriders are ratcheting up their group cohesion and discipline to effectively challenge the Aryan Brotherhood's dominance of the toilet wine industry (or whatever those prison people traffic in, I don't judge), Gamers (many of whom are also LARPers) are at this very moment plotting to take down the Physics nerds. Seriously. I know a guy. He told me.

In all seriousness, role-play gamers have a level of dedication that is to be admired. They kept on playing even when the news media was stirring up that whole "Role-playing games are like Satan worship and Satanists are everywhere" trend. It got so bad that three goth kids who played D and D got thrown in jail for 20 years for murder with pretty much no evidence, other than the fact they played D and D. There are other games of course, all equally dubbed as nerdy, but more recent so they missed out on the Satanist allegations. Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft, and a litany of others. These are the Gamers we are talking about. These are our nerd brethren. And they are very prominent in our community, trend setters if you will, and have a great deal of legitimacy. They are coming for you Physics nerds. Run while you can. 

This happens several times a year, every year, all over the world.
Star Trek/Star Wars/Sci-fi television and movie fans—You don't get to be a gang

That's right, Trekkies and LOTR fans. You are too numerous and ubiquitous to be a prison gang. Rather you (or should I say we) are relegated to the "disruptive groups" category, which includes Bloods/Crips/all those other asshole street groups that are too large and fractured to effectively rule San Quentin. Like the scattered red- or blue-clad heavily armed teenagers running amok through Compton, we strike fear into the hearts of the every day occupants of a city's professional district when we swarm for one of our conventions. We are a rowdy mish-mash of other groups. We wear costumes, but only on special occasions, and the only times are we are "in-character" is to torment the aging yuppies who look at us sideways while in line at Starbucks. We have no leader, unless you count George Takei. He is our Neutral Zone. But mostly we have varying alliances, motivations, walks of life, only coming together to celebrate our mutual oddity. I, for one, have a deep and abiding love for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine above all other permutations. My husband (who is a closet trekkie) is ardently pro-TNG. And he gets genuinely annoyed that I own the complete director's cut of all the LOTR movies. But purchasing all of those wretched awful Star Wars prequels (that's right I said it)... oh yes, that's a good investment, says he. That's just one marriage. With only two people in it. So we can never really be considered one cohesive group. We're just a mass of individuals bound under one banner. A really awesome banner.

I have every confidence I got something wrong or left someone out, and if there's anything that's fun to read, it's a comment section full of nerds. So go ahead, you pack of geeks. Let me have it.