Review: Fiend by Peter Stenson


Fiend
by Peter Stenson is an amazingly creative novel. In it, he manages not only to add energy to the popular zombie narrative with chilling details (like the eerie laughter they emit while hunting) but shows us a really engaging portrait of addiction. The entire work is an allegorical portrayal of the author’s inner life, but in my opinion it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Instead, it feels like an honest portrayal of the verdict when an addict asked himself “What would happen if I was alone with my meth?”

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Titles 101: Choosing Engaging Names for Creative Work

1Recently, I finished a chapbook of poetry, and while titling each individual poem was something I had been doing for years, drawing together a collection with a cohesive and interesting name was new for me. I ended up copying the title of one of the poems in the collection, “Losing Teeth,” but it got me thinking about how and why we give the names we do to our creative works. I have written poems, plays, articles, and stories, and I’d like to share some ideas for those who may not know where to start.

Summarize your work.

This worked for Kerouac with On The Road, and J.K. Rowling with each installment of the Harry Potter series. It has the advantage of immediately telling readers what they are in for, but titles chosen in this way aren’t necessarily going to be creative or gripping.

Guide readers towards themes and motifs.

The central conflict in Rent is whether or not the main characters will be forced to pay their rent. However, the stories that the musical tells serve to remind the audience that “you can’t take it with you” and to not take life or relationships for granted. The simple title gives weight to the line “Everything is rent,” and invites us to read it as the main idea of the show.

Pick an interesting and unique phrase from your work.

This is particularly easy to do with poetry, because the use of language in the work is creative by definition. However, it would have worked for Kerouac too, who could have just as easily written Burn, Burn, Burn, which is a phrase from one of my favorite passages in the book:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

—Jack Kerouac

Draw connections to another work.

This was one of my favorites to use in college, because it really impresses professors. Think of some similar works, especially literary, that might give your work deeper meaning through a connection with it. To again use Kerouac as an example, he could have gone with American Odyssey or, more subtly, My Name is Nobody.

Of course, titles are an important piece of any creative work, and they require careful consideration. You have to consider everything from the age group of your audience, to conventions of the genre, to the overall effect you want your work to have; for example, Kerouac may have picked his title not only because it is an accurate summary of the book, but because he wanted readers to make connections between his semi-autobiographical character’s adventures and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or maybe he wanted the focus to be on the geography and milieu of America more than individual characters. The ideas listed above are good ways to get your juices flowing, but don’t forget to make sure your title is the perfect one.

Happy titling! If you have any questions or there was something I didn’t address, feel free to comment!

Book Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out is a fantastic read for anyone who is sick of predictable narratives. It was introduced to me as a mystery novel, which always follow relatively unsurprising patterns: there is a murder, an amateur sleuth gets involved, they solve the mystery, and the crook gets their comeuppance. Devotees of the genre are in it for the twists, but the timing of them, and often the twists themselves, are all too often predictable as well. However, in Out, we are know all about the murder and its perpetrator almost from the very beginning. In fact, we see it happen, and we know the identity of everyone involved. To me, that made the book even more mysterious than most of the genre, because I couldn’t even imagine how everything was going to come together in the end. Not only did I care about the fate of Masako and the other characters, but I kept reading because I desperately wanted to know how Kirino would solve this puzzle she had laid out for herself.

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, but the protagonist turns out to be Masako, a serious and savvy middle aged woman. Many of the characters are housewives or widows who work together at a factory making boxed lunches; others, which show up later in the novel, are involved with the Yakuza and other similarly seedy occupations. Masako, as a middle-aged, lower class woman, is given a sympathetic treatment in a way that’s rare for characters like her. She is practical, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness, and yet readers can’t help but empathize with her. Her son hates her, her husband is distant, but readers see something in Masako that her family doesn’t: an astonishing inner strength. Natsuo Kirino’s interest in psychology is evident in her portrayal of each of the very different characters, from Masako to the sexually sadistic Yakuza to the homicidal housewife who sets the story rolling. Between the structure and the characters, Out feels extremely realistic. Like in real life, there isn’t a clear sense of the narrative as a discrete, clean package. Instead, the story goes until it is over, and due to the high stakes and the way we’re made to care about the characters, it is riveting all the way through.

It was published in 1997 in Japan, so English readers will have to read the translation that came out in 2004. However, nothing about the translation, or the portrayal of Japanese culture, feels clunky. For example, since Western readers may not be familiar with bento and its cultural significance, the translator just refers to them as “boxed lunches” and fills us in a little about the type of people who eat them when a character purchases one herself. Snyder has no need for the type of exposition blocks that I have seen in other, less skillful translations, and for that I was very thankful.

This novel is suited for all relatively mature readers who would be able to appreciate its complexity. Even those who aren’t fans of mystery (like myself) should give it a try because it is gripping but doesn’t lack the humanity and subtlety that we look for in more literary fiction. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are many grotesque scenes, made even more grotesque by the intimacy of the author’s portrayal. If you would be disturbed by an empathetic depiction of a combination rape/murder or a dismemberment, spare yourself the nausea, because much of the book contains very detailed, very bloody acts.

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Review: Please by Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown’s 2008 collection Please is a free-verse auditory adventure from the place where blackness and homosexuality intertwine. This is Brown’s first book, but not his first foray into poetry, having completed an MFA and being published in numerous highly acclaimed magazines. He has also worked as a professor and speechwriter in New Orleans.

Divided into sections titled like the buttons on a CD player, Brown often uses music and musicians as a backdrop for his experiences. The collection focuses on themes of shame, but since the tone is neutral and the imagery is varied, it does not feel overwhelming, nor like a pity party.

Here’s the statement from the book jacket, presumably written by the author:

Please explores the points in our lives at which love and violence intersect. Drunk on its own rhythms and full of imaginative and often frightening imagery, Please is the album playing in the background of the history and culture that surround African American/male identity and sexuality. Just as radio favorites like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Pink Floyd characterize loss, loneliness, addiction, and denial with their voices, these poems’ chorus of speakers transform moments of intimacy and humor into spontaneous music.

My only criticism of the work is that his use of spacing is not necessarily successful. One poem in particular is divided into three columns, and totally baffled me until I realized it was supposed to be read horizontally and not vertically. Other spacing choices just don’t feel intentional.

I recommend this book for people who like cleanly-written, confessional-style poetry, and those who are looking for something a little meatier than a chapbook.

Teen Book Festival: Rochester, NY

In these first few weeks of blogging, I have been rushing to get some content up, and hoped to stick to a once-weekly blogging schedule. However, I wanted to give this update in time for people to act on the information!

The Teen Book Festival, in my hometown of Rochester, NY, feels like my baby. Or at least my nephew. I was around for its inception (though as a student volunteer and unofficial advisor) and I’m so proud that it’s still going strong today!

It takes place this Saturday, May 17th, at Nazareth College, and it’s completely free! Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, will be in attendance, and I urge you to go if only to see her. She’s super nice, and her presentations are constantly A+ quality. Other notables are Simone Elkeles, Terry Trueman, and Ellen Hopkins. If you are anywhere near the area, it’s an opportunity you really can’t miss!

Chosen Different [Book Review]

Chosen Different by Nat Kozinn is an alternate-universe science fiction novel, the first in an in-progress series. (I only mention this for readers like me, who prefer to power through multiple books instead of waiting impatiently!) In my opinion, it would be best for a teen audience. It was a good read, and not lacking in any substantial way, but more experienced readers might appreciate more complexity and narrative beauty.

The real strength of this book is the world the author has created. Gavin, the protagonist, is a Different: a mutant with powers, reminiscent of the X-Men. In a world devastated by a terrorist during Reagan’s presidency, the Differents are slaves, robbed of Constitutional rights and forced to work thankless jobs, or risk being sent to a special prison. The ongoing mystery of Nita, the head Librarian of think.Net, the world’s internet equivalent, is reason enough to read this book and eagerly wait for the next installment.

I was really impressed with the research and imagination that went into Gavin’s character, as well. His ability is “Anthropomorphic Control,” meaning that he has total control over his body, at the cost of being forced to consciously keep it working. When his power first began to mature, he was totally incapacitated by it, but a patient teacher helped him figure out how to function well enough to become a food-tester for this universe’s McDonald’s. Kozinn never lets us forget how fundamentally different Gavin is from us, but at the same time doesn’t let it overwhelm the storyline.

In terms of plot, by a few chapters in I thought I had it all figured out– but I was wrong. Gavin seemed to be developing into a dystopian Clark Kent, until a fascinating antagonist and some very real flaws turn him into someone I could actually root for, and transformed the storyline into something really worth reading.

The narrative is a little clunky, which at first bothered me, but as I kept reading I decided that it was for a legitimate rhetorical purpose. After all, Gavin has to consciously keep his heart beating– I would feel a little terse too.

I think that the novel’s biggest weakness is a sense of “Why should I care?” throughout the first few chapters. I think he focuses on giving us a view of his fantastic world before giving us a real reason to care about his food-testing, deliberately-digesting main character. Gavin remains a little flat throughout the narrative, having only one simple motivation, but lovers of sci-fi should forgive this and give Kozinn’s absolutely fantastic worldbuilding a chance.

I am a big supporter of self-publishing, so if this sounds interesting to you, please consider getting a copy on Amazon!

The Amulet of Samarkand

Fantasy has been my favorite genre since my grandmother gave me her copies of the Harry Potter series, and Young Adult is such a vivacious genre that I feel that I will never get too old for it. However, I also demand complexity and maturity from my escapism, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy offers it all.

Jonathan Stroud, born in 1970, has written two very successful book series, one of them being the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, follows the irreverent (and often unreliable) demon Bartimaeus and the human boy who summons him. Nathaniel, a prematurely solemn twelve-year old boy, calls Bartimaeus up in his bedroom in an alternate-universe London to steal a priceless artifact from a powerful magician, and that is how their relationship begins.

The world that Stroud creates is simultaneously magnificent and grungy, evoking images of Industrial-era London brought forward a century. Within it, the voice of Bartimaeus is a beacon of modern sass, made totally unique by the author’s choice to interject with footnotes, as if his mind is working too quickly for our linear flesh brains to handle.

My only complaint about this work is that it begins a series, and I understand that many people don’t have the time or money to complete an undertaking like this. However, I recommend giving it an attempt, because these books are well worth their price.

1811 ‘Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’

If you don’t know about Project Gutenberg, you are in for a treat. It’s a collection of free e-books, in a variety of formats, readable on e-readers and the computer. Most are non-fiction but, luckily for fantasy readers, that includes fairy tales and folklore!

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue would be a great resource for linguists, word enthusiasts, and writers setting something in that era. It’s also uniquely readable; you can scan it in a way that you can’t with a modern, serious dictionary. However, I have to note: I don’t think even the writer could really ascertain any authenticity here. Maybe since communication was slower in that century linguistic fashion was more stagnant, but I imagine many of the entries would have sounded to contemporary ears like our grandparents trying to be “hip.”

My favorite contribution is a synonym for “topsy-turvy”– ARSEY YARSY. It will definitely be entering my vocabulary.

15 Choice ‘Depraved and Insulting’ Words

Depraved and Insulting English. Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea, 2001.

This is one of those books that I wish I could pour directly into my brain, but due to its slightly cumbersome dictionary-style format, it seems almost impossible to shove so many useful words into one’s vocabulary without group study sessions. If you have the desire to arrange one, however, please invite me!

A warning: if you are sensitive to uncritical sexism, ableism, homophobia, or transphobia, you may want to steer clear of this book: it certainly keeps its promise to “offend.” The words I have compiled here don’t, as far as I can tell, fall into any of these categories, so this post should be safe!

aerocolpos: (n) vaginal flatulence; air or gas trapped in the vagina

barkled: (adj) encrusted with dirt; used especially to describe a person’s skin

catarolysis: (n) the practice of cursing to let off steam

dysania: (n) difficulty getting out of bed in the morning

eisegetical: (adj) marked by a distorted explanation of text– especially Biblical text– to fit the meaning to preconceived notions

epicaricacy: (n) pleasure from the misfortunes of others

gound: (n) the crusty yellow substance that collects in the corners of one’s eyes while one sleeps

misologist: (n) one with a hatred of mental activity

potvaliant: (adj) bold or brave when drunk; more inclined to fight when inebriated

seeksorrow: (n) one who seeks to give himself vexation

sialoquent: (adj) apt to spray saliva when speaking

snurt: (v) to eject mucus from the nose when sneezing

spuddle: (v) to attend to trifling matters as though they were of the greatest importance

swedge: (v) to leave without paying one’s bill

verbigerator: (n) one who senselessly repeats cliches

I am so happy to have found the word “gound,” since my linguist friend and I were recently talking about geographical preferences for the name of that substance, and had no idea what it was actually called!