Thursday, May 21, 2015

Update on Public Reading

II mentioned a couple months ago that I will be reading some of my work at the Woburn Public Library and I now have a few more details to share.

First off, the reading will not just be myself but will also feature the literary talents of Nick Mancuso, who is an incredibly talented writer.

Second, the event will last 7:00 to 8:30pm and refreshments will be available.

I hope to see you there!

Lastly, within the next couple of months I'll have another development to share. It's hard to keep quiet about this but for the moment I'll have to be vague. 

I'm including the posting from the Library's website in case your interested:

Local Author Reading featuring Morgan Crooks and Nicholas Mancuso
Thursday June 25, 20157:00 AM until 8:30 AM


Join us on Thursday, June 25, at 7PM to celebrate the work of two local authors: Morgan Crooks and Nick Mancuso. 
Morgan has had his stories published in the Daily Science Fiction website as well as in anthologies released by Burnt Offerings, Dark Hall Press, and Mystery and Horror LLC. By day, he teaches ancient history. Essays and reviews are also available on his blog ancientlogic.blogspot.com.
Nick Mancuso earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University and he teaches writing workshops at the Woburn Public Library. His work has appeared in Spry Literary JournalFoliate Oak Literary Magazine and the Garbanzo Literary Journal, among others. You can visit his website at www.nickmancuso.net or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Nick_Mancuso
Light refreshments will be served, and handicapped access can be arranged by calling (781) 933-0148.






 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

There have already been plenty of interesting articles about this movie, an early pick for my favorite of the year (at least until until I have a chance to check out Star Wars). Some have noted the implicit feminism of this movie, the way the story revolves around women and their allies finding a new way forward through the wasteland of the real even while pursued by bellowing and decayed mockeries of the old patriarchies. Others have commented on the quality of the action film-making here, the style of drama sweeping the viewer into a tense and kinetic plot with unbelievable stunts and practical effects.


Two things grabbed my imagination about this excellent movie: its refreshing narrative clarity and coherence and the incredibly detailed and economical world-building.

After watching this movie I had a pretty good sense where everything happened. I understood the path Imperator Furiosa (great names in this film, BTW) took on her flight from the forces of the predatory Immortan Joe and his fanatical War Boys, could even sketch a map of their trek. Beyond that, I had a sense of the intererior space of the war-rig, the heavily-modded tractor trailer Fuiriosa drove, how one might get from the front of the vehicle to the back and where each character was in that space in any given moment of the film.That is a sadly unappreciated detail in modern cinema. I enjoyed Age of Ultron, but thinking about it, I’d have to say Whedon employs the chaos cinema style of post-2000 movies. The impression of battle and action and frenetic motion was more important than any specific understanding of which Avenger was where during the final fight. I am no fundamentalist when it comes to action. I’ve enjoyed what might be called classic cinema and I’ve enjoyed the whirling, bewildering sensorium of “heightened continuity.” That said, I do lean towards the former.

For a movie as simple and keyed-into detail as Fury Road, understanding a sequence of action reassures and engages. Director George Miller clearly wants viewers to participate in this movie as active spectators, not lulled into a fitful slumber by haphazard explosions and showers of punch/kicks. Comprehension of danger here fuels tension, builds suspense.

The details matter.

They matter in the way the chase unfolds and they matter in the participants of this specific, hyper-contextualized drama. Every car, every scarred body, every scene communicates an entire world to the viewer. Very little needs exposition, but every two-headed gecko, tattoo, and car-mod weaves together a bleak and corroded vision of the post-apocalypse. Miller doesn’t both holding our hands, walking through each cute gimmick, its origin or purpose. But neither does he simply dangle it in the background as amusing distractions. This is a world where something as simple as a gearshift conceals a dagger, and a complicated pattern is needed to avoid a truck’s kill-switch. These are important points in the plot, lethal subtleties.

In addition, Miller understands that life is constantly in motion, constantly changing. Even as he presents this world to us, the particulars of it are decaying, flying apart, vanishing.

I’m also going to reserve a sentence or two for the acting - in particular Charise Theron’s Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Mad Max. In a movie with little dialogue it becomes crucial that every look and gesture sells the leads’ humanity and complexity. Both actors are models of strength and vulnerability, tension and release.

See this movie. Watch it twice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Prose Forensics

Although not as obvious as poetry, prosody has an important role in making prose enjoyable to read. Chances are a piece of writing you like involves a deliberate and conscious application of rhythm and sound to achieve a certain effect. Sometimes these effects are obvious (Livia Llewellyn comes to mind) and sometimes the effects are vestigial (almost non-existant), such as a writer like Andrew Weir.

Personally I like either type of writing. There are times what I want is simple: writing that gets the job done. Other times I want to wallow in words, savor them, reveling in the heady brew of challenging diction and intricate rhythms.

A handful of works I’ve read recently use prosody to achieve a specific effect within writing that’s not typically thought of requiring close reading. As luck would have it, three of these examples even revolve around a common theme - forensic science. Relatively unadorned style is doubly effective because it goes by unnoticed by readers. Authors able to employ such tricks have a powerful hold on the reader, conjuring reactions and emotions from unknown places. Even when unable to describe why, a reader might single out a passage that affected them, seized their imaginations.

John Scalzi, whose “Lock In” novel I reviewed earlier this year, writes in a subtle but effective register. The craft Scalzi employs is clear from the very beginning. He chooses clean and active verbs to shuttle between scenes of dialogue, never burdening his plot with gobs of exposition. Yet, if you unfold his prose, a surprising amount of poetry appears. The following excerpt appears in an early chapter of Lock In, when the cybernetic protagonist Chris Shane first arrives at the scene of a murder.


There was a dead body in the room, on the floor, facedown in the carpet, throat cut. The carpet was soaked in blood. There were sprays of blood on the walls, on the bed, and on the remaining seat in the room. A breeze turned in the room, provided by the gaping hole in the wall-length window that the love seat had gone through.


There are four sentences here and three of them employ a state-of-being verb, one of those hobgoblins of creative writing courses. And yet, this passage doesn’t stick on the ‘was’s and ‘were’s, each jagged sentence fitting together in a smooth, clinical voice. That first sentence in particular could have been written many different ways, but its staccato, strobe-like pulse, each participle drawing closer to the source of the murder, works. The body is in the room, then he’s on the floor, then pressed against a carpet and finally dead of a slashed throat. One can almost hear David Caruso saying, enhance, enhance, ENHANCE! 

Notice too how the passage gains momentum towards the end. A dead body is as still as still can be, but Scalzi introduces a spreading pool of blood, then sprays of blood, walls streaked with blood and finally the turbulence in the room’s air created by hole in the wall. The final sentence uses the only active verb, again creating a sense of forward momentum, a sense of violence only moments old.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast two works to see how different writers do their thing. I finished the first Dresden File book recently, after considerable urging from friends. And I have to say, for the most part, I enjoyed Jim Butcher's “Storm Front." It reads quickly, introduces its world with a minimum of exposition before getting into the plot. However, for all of the hard-boiled noir affectations of Jim Butcher’s writing, the man can pile on the modifiers.


I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. The carpet squelched as I did. The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn’t get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl.
I’m leaving out the section before and after this paragraph that go into more detail on a pair of lovers murdered in their bed by some unknown assailant. For our purposes this paragraph will suffice. First of all, both of these books are first person narratives, and yet only in the second paragraph do we get that claustrophobic pulse of the character’s interior monologue. Lock-in treats us to a very spare, almost inhuman description of the crime scene. Butcher, in contrast, wants us to feel Dresden’s discomfort with the situation. For some one having under gone ‘strict training,’ he seems pretty freaked out. The relatively uncomplicated sentences reinforce the idea of Dresden as being somewhat out of his depth here. The paragraph does use more active verbs than Scalzi but padded by dids and didn’ts, continueds and going tos.

Finally, let’s take a look at passage early in Michael Swanwick's wonderful short story from last year, “Passage of Earth.” A science fiction story, a forensic investigator is presented with a unique challenge, to dissect the body of a alien killed in a crash landing. Most of the story is in effect a description of that autopsy, the details recorded by the investigator later flipped around at the ending. But first, there is a short passage where Hank confronts the body of the alien.


It was a Worm. 
Hank found himself leaning low over the heavy, swollen body, breathing deep of its heady alien smell, suggestive of wet earth and truffles with sharp hints of ammonia. He thought of the ships in orbit, blind locomotives ten miles long. The photographs of these creatures didn’t do them justice. His hands itched to open this one up.


This passage is somewhat more opulent in description, but still tightly coiled, spare. The proportion of active to static verbs is almost exactly opposite from Lock In, and the tone is more fraught. The narrator paws the ground to get started, already surprised by how eager he is to open up the alien corpse and discover what it had concealed. The rhythm is insistent, a series of trochee adjectives (HEAV-y, SWOL-len)  sagging into messier meters. This creates an interesting cross-current within this paragraph: the first long sentence loping forward on a simple, nursery rhyme beat, while the brief final sentence embraces an anapestic stutter.

A reader might not consciously pick up on any of this, but some portion of his brain will. A truly talented writer like Swanwick bends the infinitely flexible segments of the English language into intricate shapes that can only be read in one fashion. It's the hidden patterns that seize, ensure, and ultimately, create meaning.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Avenger 2: Age of Ultron

The first time I watched the second Avengers movie I couldn't believe how long it was. The second time I watched it I found myself nodding along, swept up by emotions of this sprawling, disorganized, and curiously powerful summer spectacle. 

I would not recommend that you see Avengers 2 if you haven’t seen any of the other MCU movies. As a matter of fact I can't recommend it unless you have watched all of the other movies and are current with Agents of SHIELD, and have at least a passing knowledge of the Marvel comic universe. 

That feels like a very strange sort of recommendation for any movie particularly a summer tentpole. Shouldn’t a blockbuster be sort of independent, force-of-nature spectacle capable of entertaining massive numbers of people regardless of their interest in the movie? Avengers 2 exists to say no.

Age of Ultron is not an entry point story. Joss Whedon deserves a lot of credit for what he did in the first movie, creating a compelling story with six widely divergent types of characters all while launching a new level of spectacle in MCU movies. You really could watch Avengers without having seen any of the other movies and probably understood 90% of what was going on.

I don’t have to imagine what watching this movie without the benefit of the other MCU tie-ins would be like. I only have to read other reviews of the movie or talk to my wife. For the record, she hated it. And you know what? I don't blame her.

She enjoyed the first Iron Man and sat through the sequels but Age of Ultron doesn't have a lot to offer to people like her. It is not a self-contained movie. It is like an enormous train station, the terminal through which pass the fully loaded freight of a half dozen concurrent plots. In no particular order, this movie continues Tony Stark’s struggle to contain his own ego, Bruce Banner’s fight to distance himself from his inner rage monster, and Captain America’s continued difficulties finding a home in a future that doesn’t always seem to need or understand him. Into this mix are two very angry young would-be terrorists, a vengeful robot, an arms dealer with connections to an upcoming movie project, and many, many more.

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that there’s never quite been anything like the MCU franchise in terms of cinema. What was created for sheer entertainment now requires a concordance to appreciate. This is like some sort of anti-pop culture statement.

Even so, I do think there is quite a bit to enjoy here for fans. First of all, all of the main characters receive a more or less equal treatment, and have their moment to shine. While I think there’s a bit too much going on to really appreciate any of this on the first watch, with the second it becomes clear how much artistry went into the simple idea that this sequel is meant to be an EVENT. 

Joss Whedon is a sort of a take him or leave him director. I count myself as a fan and his quirks as a storyteller - self-referential witticisms and casual brutality, are well-served here. Whedon is steeped in the cliches and rhythms of pop-culture, enough that he can carefully construct an elaborate head-fake about a main character that hits harder than the surprise death in the first movie. 

The special effects are of course extremely well done and achieve something I think previous MCU movies have approached but never quite achieved - the sheer mayhem of the Marvel splash page. There’s a scene in the final climatic battle that pretty much nails the feeling of amazing action happening simultaneously, a gorgeous slow-motion cascade of punches, blasts, kicks and heroic poses.

I’m not going to pretend any of this is necessary cinema. Considering you basically have to devote a part-time job's worth of time to keeping current cuts down on Whedon’s achievement here. From his interviews and various rumors circulating about the Marvel franchise it’s pretty clear where the weak spot of Marvel’s approach is going to be. The synergy of each Marvel project, the fact that movies, televisions series and Netflix features all inhabit the same universe, means that each story gets exponentially more complicated with each succeeding project. Ultimately, while the stories get better and the special effects more polished, the fun quotient reaches a place of diminishing returns. Long before the movies reach the end of the Infinity Wars the average reader will have reached the asymptote of exhaustion. But for the moment, I say keep it coming. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

What I read in April

April found me reading a lot of horror and weird fiction. There wasn’t as much that grabbed me as last month’s offerings but I didn’t have any problem putting together this list of recommendations.




- Ghoulbird by Claude Seignolle (Weird Fiction Review) Translated by Gio Clairval. A visitor to a country manor learns of the horror of the ghoulbird, ultimately succumbing to its enslaving cry. The atmosphere here is what sells the story. By the final chapters I felt myself bracing for the echo of that awful, soul-rending cry.


- Postcards from Monster Island by Emily Devenport (Clarkesworld) Adorable kaiju story of NYC becoming a nature preserve for giant lizard lemurs. Another example of what Clarkesworld does so well, introducing and fully developing ideas that might take another author books to achieve.


- Spring Thaw by Charles Payseur ( Nightmare). Creepy multilevel story about a man who makes a dreadful discovery in the melting wastes of Antartica. While this story contains echoes of Lovecraft it strikes out in its own direction. Life is a trek across ice you suspect already rotten, containing appalling wonders.


- Faith by Chris Tissell. (Daily Science Fiction) the mark of a great story is that it develops an entire world in a very few words and then brings you to a conclusion that surprises you even as you knew how it was going to end all along. A very hopeful look at a topic very grim - prediction.


- The Other End of the Lake by Dara Marquardt (Acidic Fiction) Ghosts should be more than simply a device for jump-scares. A ghost stands for something that remains: the reminder of mortality but also the persistence of evil acts. The hallucinatory narrative of a ghost haunting a sociopathic child reminded me of Ramsay Campbell.


Finally I’d like to direct your attention to a great and terrifying story over at Pseudopod, an online collection of podcasts devoted to horror and weird fiction. Last month Jon Padgett read his work, “Twenty Steps to Ventriloquism,” a Thomas Ligotti inspired instructional pamphlet on how to become an “ultimate” ventriloquist. Without giving too much away, Padgett cleverly turns us away from the “mere trifle” of the ventriloquist dummy to the troubling implications of being a puppet master in a universe devoid of free will. This work appeared first  in the “Grimscribe’s Puppets" anthology edited by Joseph Pulver, but Padgett’s voice combined with subtle audio effects brings a new level of agitation and horror.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Netflix's Daredevil

Daredevil, the new Netflix series developed in partnership with Netflix is a wonderful, if somewhat frustrating, origin story for one of Marvel’s oldest and most interesting super-heroes. A lot of this story works exactly as designed. Reflecting the gritty source material, the brutal fights have repercussions, and the needs of the characters drive the story. The cinematography is top-notch, creating a world of neon glittering in the damp murk of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.


Still from Netflix's "Daredevil" Trailer

The entire series functions as one long origin story for Daredevil, introducing quixotic defense attorney Matt Murdock (played by Charlie Cox) as he attempts to fight injustice on the mean streets of Manhattan. The show offers sketches of Murdock's beleaguered father (John Patrick Hayden), his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and the semi-love interest of Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) with an economical and wrenching style. One of the advantages of a 13 episode run is that the entire show steamrolls through plot-lines that fans of Agents of SHIELD get tired of in the  second episode they appear in. The disadvantage of this approach is there isn’t a lot of time to simply ‘be’ with these characters. Henson has a good chemistry with the other two leads and it would be nice to see them have more than a moment or two of down time to flesh out the relationships.

This series doesn’t have down time, though. As much as the show spends time with Murdock, it spends an almost equal amount of time with his primary adversary, a corrupt businessman by the name of Wilson Fisk. Fisk, who I believe we are meant to assume with develop into the iconic Daredevil baddie the Kingpin, has a backstory nearly as convoluted and emotionally traumatic as Murdock. Except where Murdock gains his hard-edged perspective from overcoming adversity -the loss of his sight and his father - Fisk endures a childhood in the shadow of brutality and failure.  His father humiliates him and his mother to the point that Fisk finally beats him to death. This violent, shameful past provides motivation for him, a wounded man attempting to hide his insecurities in lethal outbursts. Vincent’s D’Onfrio’s portrayal, especially in the first episodes, is fascinating. There is something of the pathos of Tony Soprano mixed with the tragic blindness of Walter White. In another series, Fisk might even be the protagonist, an anti-hero like Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” or a sympathetic monster like Dexter Morgan.

Mild Spoilers for end of series ahead.

Unfortunately, a comic book needs a super villain and one gets a sense in the later episodes that D’Onfrio is cramming his nuanced portrayal of Fisk into something more serviceable as a traditional bad guy. Even as Fisk bellows louder and louder, his motivation thins. In the final scenes of the show Murdock catches up with his White Whale and they do battle. It’s an awesome, well-staged but largely empty spectacle. What were the stakes of that final confrontation? Daredevil had defanged Fisk by exposing his corruption so how does thrashing him serve any purpose other than catharsis for Murdock?In Dark Knight, Batman is not only confronting his demons in capturing the Joker also preventing further tragedy.

Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. Although Daredevil is a Marvel version of Batman, what makes the show special is the many ways this hero becomes its own distinct being. The world of this series is very detailed and filled with intriguing hints to what might come in future Netflix series such as Jessica Jones and Iron Fist.

Ultimately, much like Agents of SHIELD, the most compelling reason to watch Daredevil might be that promise of future greatness. I don’t think this series has found its full voice yet, but with recent news that the show will be back for a second season, there’s time for Marvel and Netflix to get this right.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Late-night Visitor

The noise came from outside. I couldn’t tell you much about it except for it sounded like two cinder blocks scraping together, really loud and unpleasant. I looked behind me because it almost sounded like car wheels on gravel, something that happened when people got hung up on the embankment on the other side of our dead end street. 

No headlights though so I’m searching around the room when I hear the scraping, growling noise again and then this sharp, loud bang against the glass doors to the porch. Now Finn is up, tail wagging, looking out on the porch. I pull aside the curtains and find this tiny black cat on the porch, looking at my dog with burning yellow eyes of pure, undiluted fury. It's looking at him like the force of its glare alone would cause my dog to spontaneously burst into flames.

Finn goes up to the glass all enthusiastic because he thinks he’s just found a new friend. Meanwhile the cat arches higher up on its claws, hissing at the dog, basically taunting my dog WWF style.


“Hey! Jabroni! Why don’t you come out here and see what I got for you! Hey!” Its paw vipers out and bangs the glass. "Are you listening, jabroni?"


I rapped against the glass, and the cat gave one more menacing glance over its shoulder before vanishing into the night.


We’ve been warned.