Monday, December 24, 2012

Reflections on the Season

This article previously appeared on the PaperBackSwap Blog on 19 December, 2011

The last few months of each calendar year are positively riddled with holidays. It’s a time in which we find ourselves touching upon our own unique patterns of behaviors through which we hope to weather the darker, colder months of the year, as we also say goodbye to it and turn to welcome the coming of another.  These various traditions, both institutional and familial, all seem to possess, at their cores, a theme consistent with one another.  The universal aspects of the many holidays in which we participate spring forth from, and speak to, the very heart of our shared humanity.  It is in light of this perceived interconnectedness, this pervasive and perennial celebration not only of the passage of time, but of our truest inner spirits, that I approach the end of each passing year.

The holidays celebrated as autumn sets in are rooted in remembrance, of times past, as well as people who have passed.  The traditions we perform offer us some semblance of permanence in a world that is anything but.  Whether it’s the baking of a treasured family recipe handed down over several generations, or the passage of such traditions from one living generation to the next, the many feasts we enjoy are fraught with remembrance.  Whether or how we decorate for each passing holiday is often done in honor of the ways of the past.  Those of us who move on to forge new traditions have no less of an eye for reflection, investing now in similar nostalgia yet to be experienced.

We begin to take stock of the year as it enters its penultimate month, pondering how this year’s experiences compare to the summation of years that have preceded it.  In areas in which it may appear worse, we wax nostalgic, recalling with warmth and fondness days which we deem to have been better; in areas which have improved, we look proudly upon the distance traveled, the hardships successfully traversed and, with hearts abundant in hope, look excitedly to a future all but certain to begin once our ritualistic goodbyes to the past have been said to yet another year.

As the pace of time itself seems to quicken, these days of significance rush to meet us with fierce rapidity, we find ourselves clinging ever more desperately to our days, even as they nevertheless slip through our fingers as always.  In those moments, however, those all too brief, shimmering instances of clarity, we look at our lives, and hopefully each other, and see the innate value in even the least we behold.  Despite the winnowing of time, we experience small bursts of timelessness, of the Here, the Now, and the wonders that make life so worth living.

We approach the winter solstice with no small amount of eagerness.  On the day of that celestial event, as the Earth finally crosses the threshold of our shortest day, even without realizing it, we breath a collective sigh of relief.  Huddled together, in spirit if not in person, we await the moment at which the hours of daylight begin to grow again.  We forge ahead, across the whole of the northern hemisphere, thankful for having once more survived the darkest of months.  And, while the coldest months still lie before us, with that darkest day of the solstice behind us we raise collective cries of gratitude and joyousness, affecting our happiest and most generous personas for the festivities with which we bid farewell to the year.

As we reach what is to the West the bridge between the fading year and that yet to be realized, we continue our appreciation for the good things, and beloved peoples, in our lives.  And yet, at the doorway, we say our last goodbyes to all that has passed, and thusly unencumbered, turn hopefully and anxiously to face the impending year.  So it is that so many of us, peering into January from the precipice of December, sing out tearfully “Should old acquaintance be forgot…”  Ultimately, the year’s gloaming heralds the culmination and inevitable conclusion of another chapter in each of our lives.  Having spent months preparing for the darkness and cold, girding ourselves with warm thoughts and hearts, the focused and combined energies of our remembrances and regrets, our traditions and nostalgia, our hopes, dreams, triumphs, failures, gains, and losses, merge into a single feeling, one cathartic singularity, from which erupts the momentum that carries us through to the birth of another year, another chapter, and another trip around the sun on this curious blue island we all call home.

As the last few weeks of the year wind down, I am humbled and honored by the relationships I’ve had with those whom I have known, and look forward to those I will come to know in the future; I am grateful for the passage of time and all with which it has presented me over the years, and for everything it may yet hold in store for me; Smiling wide, I shake my fist at the cold, from the warmth of my heart; with eyes fixed on the future, I salute the year that has passed, and everyone who shares this purview. Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays, and the brightest of new years!

Monday, November 5, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012 - Yeah, About That...

By all appearances, this year's National Novel Writing Month is going horribly for me. I've got about 333 words, jotted down hastily in a small notebook, which is well off the pace of 1,667 words per day. For my first WriMo last year, I had signed up as early as possible, and had a solid outline with which to work. This time around I didn't sign up until October 31st, and up until this past weekend I didn't even know which story I wanted to write. Unlike last year, I'll be participating in NaNoWriMo while also continuing my work as a reviewer. Despite all of this, I'm more confident in my chances of success. The Reason? 333 words is actually ahead of my personal pace; last year, November 5th was the day I scrapped over 6,000 words and started from scratch.

Starting over isn't something I'd recommend. There's no shortage of arguments against it (my favorite can be found here, courtesy of author Jamie Todd Rubin). For me, however, it proved to be the best decision I made all month. I had begun the WriMo in earnest, with a full head of steam, and was surprised by how quickly the word count increased for me. But by the fourth day, I developed serious misgivings about the direction in which I had taken things. The tone was off, the characters flat, and nothing about what I had written seemed capable of shouldering the burden of the concepts I'd hoped to explore. True, NaNoWriMo is, strictly speaking, just an exercise at writing consistently toward the goal of 50,000 words. My heart wasn't in it, though, not with the story I'd begun shaping. I didn't see how I could possibly have continued. So I didn't.

Instead, against all advice to the contrary, I started fresh. The first sentence I wrote convinced me I had done the right thing. The first attempt had the feel of a YA novel; the second was darker, mature. Two dimensional characters were renamed and reworked into entities that seemed to think and act for themselves. The plywood, high school theatre backdrop became a fully functioning, dystopian metropolis. I will admit, catching up with the pace and reaching the goal required a concerted effort which culminated in a burst of nearly 16,000 over the last three days of the month. But they were exhilarating days, at the end of an indescribably exciting month, a month I'm all but certain wouldn't have happened without the decision to reboot my story.

This year, owing to an inordinately difficult run up to November, I wasn't sure until the last moment whether or not I'd participate. I'd seen many discussing it on Facebook and Twitter, and Mr. Rubin's posts on the subject made the prospect more and more tempting. While discussing my hesitancy to sign on for another harried month of writing, a colleague raised an interesting point: How could I not? And somehow, that was all the argument I needed. So I registered this year's novel, and then set about the task of getting all my literary ducks in a row. Rebooting worked wonders last year, but it's not something I want to do again. I may only have 333 words at the moment, but it's more than I had at this time last year, and this time I'm sure they're words I can live with.

Click here to view my NaNoWriMo profile page

Friday, November 2, 2012

Post Script - Falling Under

Reading and reviewing Falling Under, Canadian playwright, stage actress, and novelist Danielle Younge-Ullman's debut novel, was a far more personal experience than any other review thus far. As someone who has struggled with agoraphobia in the past, I found myself all too easily identifying with Mara. Given her interpersonal struggles in dealing with friends, partners, and parents alike, the empathic comparisons didn't end there.

One aspect of the story which hit particularly close to home was Mara's role as an artist. Though her efforts to develop her talents in the backstory portions of the novel were fascinating, it was her work in the present that really stuck. Mara's story is a playing out of the age-old dilemma between creating works that sell versus creating works that satisfy one's artistic passions. I believe this is something with which creatives of any milieu can relate. 

In facing and overcoming both these artistic challenges, as well as the emotional obstacles which bar her path to happiness, Mara becomes a truly inspirational example to any young adults striving to find themselves, and their way, in an increasingly troubling world. 

The experience of having read Falling Under, and watching Mara's fears and heartache wreak havoc on every ounce of her being, will no doubt stay with me for years to come, as I imagine it will for anyone who ventures to read it. It was a privilege to be given the opportunity to review the novel, and an honor to have had the chance to interview its author.

My review of Falling Under 

My interview with author Danielle Younge-Ullman

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Post Script - The Rapture of the Nerds

The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, was a frustratingly difficult novel to review. The pacing and plot are so frenetic, and the subject of the Singularity so esoteric, that the first dozen drafts were either excessively detailed and lengthy, or uselessly vague. At least half of my attempts turned into essays on the Singularity which left me with little opportunity to segue into a summary of the novel. 

The reading experience that came before the review process was excellent, however. I can't think of any other story so crazed and yet so seamless. There's a point where there is quite literally danger at every turn, and the protagonist's hands-in-the-air, "now what?"/"are you kidding me?!?" responses throughout are hilariously truer to life than most works of fiction dare portray. There's an element of self-satire for which this book particularly stands out in my mind. 

The pop culture references, though not necessarily a rare occurrence in modern fiction, were all personal favorites, e.g. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who, The Matrix. There were even some references to David Brin's Uplift series, which completed a sort of circle given Brin's reference to The Rapture of the Nerds in the chapter epigraphs of his recently released novel Existence

Ultimately, I believe I managed a decent job of breaking things down for potential readers. The review garnered several retweets, including one from each author. For me, exploring the limitless possibilities of the posthuman era made for an exciting and amusing ride. The Rapture of the Nerds is definitely a book I recommend to fans of science fiction and absurdist literature.

My original review of The Rapture of the Nerds

My review of David Brin's Existence @ Literally Jen