Happy Friday folks! T and I are flying up to Long Island today for my cousin's wedding this weekend. I'm super excited for her and her amazing fiance. My cousin's father and mother are celebrated in the fine dining industry up there, so I think there's going to be some pretty amazing food that I'm looking forward to consuming.
How about you, any fun end of summer plans? I can't believe the season is almost over. Summer is my favorite, so I'm a little bummed.
While I'm avoiding the end-of-summer blues with wedding fun and champagne, here are some links to help you do the same. See you on Monday!
After decades of censoring the genre for being too subversive, the Chinese communist party now favors science fiction. Why the change of heart? (Vox quoting the full interview between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, via @worldofscifi)
Which is kind of ironic considering the FBI suspected Ray Bradbury and his fiction of being pro-communist. (Open Culture)
"The year without summer." How a volcano eruption in 1815 caused local devastation, changed world weather patterns, and had a profound effect on artists and writers. (NY Times)
Why the "Bechdel test" should be called the"Bechdel-Wallace" test...according to Bechdel herself. (The Atlantic)
Also, here's the "Bechdel test" comic if you haven't heard of it. Does your fiction pass the test? (Dykes to Watch Out For)
Sooo, this happened at the Hugo awards. (wired.com)
A helpful chart for punctuation rules. (Electric Lit, via @MargaretAtwood)
A short list of hackers in science fiction over the last 40 years. I've unfavorably reviewed two of these seven books here on the blog, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read them. These stories are part of the larger conversation and community in science fiction. You won't understand the full impact or references in subsequent books if you don't have a decent background or knowledge of these (sometimes disputed) classics. And I think your fiction will suffer too, out of ignorance if nothing else of what's already been done and what remains to be done. (And It wouldn't be a proper link roundup if I didn't include an @SFSignal link to Kirkus Reviews)
It's a dream job of mine to teach a survey course on science fiction, but there's just so much to read! I'd probably be unprepared and some kid in the back of the room would own me on Tolkien or something.
Ok, it’s a sci-fi showdown and I’m going to submit an unpopular opinion:
I think Speaker for the Dead is better than Ender’s Game.
Which isn’t to say that Ender’s Game isn’t a brilliant work of genius, because it is. But there’s something special about Speaker, quieter, more subtle, yet also more complex. It’s the one I reread more often. The broken spine lines on the back of my copy are proof of that. Maybe it’s the scope of it. Maybe it’s because we see what kind of man Ender grows up to be. Or maybe, because to me, Speaker for the Dead is a much sadder story than Ender’s Game.
If you’re unfamiliar with these titles, then I’m going to have ask that you stop what you’re doing and at the very least go pick up Ender’s Game. Get it from the library. Borrow it from a friend. Purchase an inexpensive paperback or kindle copy here. However you must, just read it. You can’t really understand modern science fiction without reading this classic by Orson Scott Card.
Until then, here’s the quick summary: A kid named Ender is recruited to a battle-school to train him as a solider in the war against the “buggers,” an insectoid alien race that humanity once fought decades before in outer space. The buggers were defeated in a major battle, but the world had since been preparing for their eventual return to the solar system. Ender is the product of this history; a family’s “third” child in a population controlled earth, he’s essentially forced to become a child soldier.
He fights virtual and real battles against his peers, who are also (for the most part) other small, disenfranchised boys. Ender knows he’s being used, but he’s ambivalent about that, feeling a sense of duty to protect the one person he loves, his sister. This plot summary may sound trite, but it’s the less tangible things that drive story: the moral and ethical battle that Ender fights with himself; the isolation of a genius amongst friends; the breakup of his family and exile from his home; and the conversation between the adults that control him. This is about a Machiavellian willingness to exploit child soldiers for their plastic minds and excellence at the video-game-like controls of modern warfare; unapologetically sacrificing them for the greater good.
And then there’s Speaker for the Dead, the book that seems to throw everyone off because it’s so unlike its predecessor in the series. I read Ender’s Game in eighth grade and had no idea it was actually the first book in a four-part series (not including all the spin-off stories that came later). A friend mentioned to me that the story of Ender’s Game actually continued on, and he valiantly attempted to summarize Speaker for me, but I didn’t understand how the two books were related and so never followed up to find this second book.
Years later, another friend and I were talking sci-fi and when he heard I hadn’t read the rest of the Ender’s Game series, he brought them to school the very next day and said, “Here, you need to read these.” (What a good guy. Wish I knew what happened to him. He has no Internet presence that I can find, even though he was very computer savvy. I suspect he haunts the deeper parts of the internet where I wouldn’t even know where to look.)
I inhaled those books during a family vacation, but it was Speaker that stood out to me out of all of them.
Speaker follows up on Ender’s Game, except Ender is now a grown man in a future thousands of years beyond his original time. By traveling at near light-speed, hopping from interstellar colony to colony, he and his sister have managed to stay relatively young through the magic of time compression. He is called to a planet to speak for the dead, the religion he has secretly founded and participated in over the last millennia. This planet where he is summoned coincidentally features the only known intelligent life besides humans and the buggers: the piggies. A few human colonists have been studying the piggies and trying to understand this organism’s strange relationship with the planet’s ecology.
I think I enjoyed the mystery of the piggies and the planet more than anything else about this book. Unlike Ender’s Game, which is set in a claustrophobic space-station for most of the book, Speaker takes place on the wide terrain of strange planet, featuring a unique, alien biology. Few books really get me excited by strange ideas, usually because they’re not as special as they’d like to believe or complex enough to hold my attention for very long, but Speaker bucks that trend completely.
We’re also introduced to a whole new set of people; two suffering families, interwoven and broken, whom I came to care about more than even Ender himself. Normally, I think like many people, I hate when authors introduce new characters into a series. I typically only want to hear about the original hero, no new ones! But if you push past the first thirtyish pages of Speaker, you get past that hesitancy to accept new lives into the storyline and subsequently find yourself so firmly in their camp, it’s almost hard to accept Ender butting into what really becomes their narrative.
So no, Speaker doesn’t show Ender playing more video games. It goes beyond that. He grows up and grows out of that life. We get to benefit from that change and are shown something so much richer than what could otherwise been done with Ender as the focus of the story alone.
The next book in the series is also pretty good, Xenocide. I especially liked the storyline that takes place on the planet, Path, but it still doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of Speaker and Ender’s Game. The whole series is good but by the end I admittedly found myself reading just to learn the answer to the final mystery – only to be disappointed by its lackluster conclusion (sort of the same way that I finished the Harry Potter books: in a panicky rush, but somehow uncaring by the end of each one).
So there you go. A couple reasons why I think Speaker for the Dead is excellent and maybe a richer story than the also excellent Ender’s Game. Read them both – all the way through.
And if you have read both, what do you think? Does Speaker measure up to Ender’s Game? Is it better? Worse? I sometimes wonder if there’s anyone out there who likes Speaker as much I do. Am I crazy? I don’t really care if people agree with more or not, but I think Speaker deserves a little more love and attention. So here it is, one blog-post on the Internet on the side of Speaker for the Dead.
Do you listen to music while you write? Back when I had internet, I used Pandora’s algorithm to help me find new music, which I would then add to my “Writing” playlist on Spotify. I found some pretty epic music that way.
These days I have to be content with a more limited collection of what I already own or enjoy enough to buy. It’s funny though; these are songs that I would never listen to in any other situation besides writing. They’re too weird to exercise to or play in the house, but I find that these sorts of meandering instrumental sounds, and especially movie soundtracks, are good for letting your mind relax and make narratives. Foremost, there can’t be too much singing. I can’t listen to words and write at the same time. It’s too distracting.
Here are a few albums I’d recommend (in no particular order), especially if you are writing science fiction or fantasy. These make great backing tracks to the far off places in your head.
Some of these images are links to the original album, some are to the artist. In terms of good movie soundtracks, I will generally recommend anything by Vangelis, Howard Shore, John Williams, Joe Hisaishi, Nobuo Uematsu (video game soundtracks), and Hans Zimmer.
At some point I may share my actual writing playlist, but I think my original one on Spotify is out-of-date with what I'm currently listening to. Here's my best abbreviated approximation:
Do you listen to music while you write? What are your favorite tracks?
I've talked before about making time for writing; either through the habit of writing every day, or by cutting out certain time consuming activities - like going to the gym.
But there's still so much that eats into my limited time to write and cooking dinner is one of the worst culprits. Now granted, I don't have kids. Feeding my animals is as simple as pouring some food pellets into a bowl. So I'm not going to say that this midweek meal is going to work for everyone. In fact, my recipe is single-serving, but it can be made in less than fifteen minutes with basic Asian food-pantry items that can be purchased at your grocery store, Asian grocery (like Hmart), or even Amazon.
This is my quickie version of ramen noodle soup, made a little healthier for weeknight meals. I suppose it could be doubled for two people if you'd like, but it really works best as a one-pot, single-serving meal.
Here's what you will need:
-First, boil the broth in a small pot. Add your soy sauce little by little and check for taste. Then add the mirin and a shake of cayenne pepper. Let it come to a boil. Taste and adjust these components as necessary.
-Add your dried noodles to the boiling broth. My soba noodles take six minutes. If you are using tofu, add the tofu in with the noodles.
-Subtract 1 min 45 seconds from your noodle boiling time. So for my soba noodles, that's 4 minutes 15 seconds.
-At 4 minutes 15 seconds after I added the noodles, I crack in the eggs into the boiling pot. Don't stir them. You want to poach them directly in the broth. If you prefer a more cooked egg, just add them a little earlier. The goal is to get the egg and the noodles to finish cooking at the same time.
-When the noodles/eggs finish, add the spinach very quickly, maybe even 15 seconds before everything is finished. Poke it into the broth (be careful not to break your eggs). The spinach will cook down right away.
-Remove from heat and pour into a bowl. Careful, it will be hot! So consider putting the bowl on a plate for easier transport.
Then enjoy! Simple, quick noodle soup that has a nice balance of carb (noodles), protein (eggs and tofu), and vegetables (spinach). Yes, there's too much salt, but eh, nobody's perfect :)
If you get the timing of the egg just right, you'll get a nice soft-boiled egg yolk. It's not quite as good as a real soy-sauce marinated egg, but it's a fast approximation.
This instant dashi stock mix would probably upset a purist (and frankly, what part of this recipe wouldn't), but I find it's a nice pantry staple for making an even more delicately flavored broth if you don't feel like using chicken or beef stock (or are out, as I usually am).
So there you go, a tasty, one-pot, Asian inspired noodle-soup that can be made in fifteen minutes or less. Enjoy!
P.S. Also makes a great hangover cure. I made this particular bowl on Sunday after waking up with a headache following a night with friends that involved just two Pabst Blue-Ribbon beers and half a glass of homemade cider - this is thirty I guess!
I mentioned recently that I was struggling to finish Ubik and really wanted to move on to my next book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Maybe this sounded like a strange reading transition to you?
Several factors went into this admittedly oddball reading choice. First, I know two professional plant breeders: an old family friend and my landlord, so it's not a totally foreign idea to me. Even back when I was at Maryland, our neighboring USDA scientists would bring us the literal fruits of their labors; leaving trucks in our parking garage filled with GMO green peppers or corn-on-the-cob. Word of mouth would spread the good news and us poor grad students run to the lot with shopping bags ready to be filled with free produce.
Then when we were vacationing in Italy, the proprietor of the Hotel Villa Rita recommended a wine to us made from what he described as an ancient breed of grape that’s rarely used today (it was a fantastic wine, by the way). I'd never really thought about it until then, but there are plant breeds that we've just stopped using and if someone doesn't maintain those seed lines - maybe we'll lose them forever, like a dead language.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about how the Honeycrisp apple was bred, way back when the vile Red Delicious was the king of the supermarket. It was a great story.
All of these influences, combined with my gardening this summer, made me think, “Hey…maybe I could breed plants too?”
I love to garden. I’m still learning a lot, but I generally know how to keep a garden alive and producing. I figured, why not learn a little more about different plant varieties and how they came about. So I bought Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties a few weeks ago, having read that it’s one of the standard resources for amateur plant breeding. I dove in as soon as I finished Ubik.
And it is incredible. I’m not finished with the book yet, I’ll take my time with this one, but I’m learning so much about how horticulturalists select plants for certain traits; how they cross them by hand-pollination; how they keep records and monitor the next generation of plants for interesting new traits. It’s just fascinating and a cool way to mix the application of the scientific method with something fun like gardening.
I went into the book with the vague idea that I wanted to grow better tomatoes.* I usually grow “Better Boys,” a hybrid variety with a sweet-tangy flavor and meaty texture that makes one of the best sandwiches ever (quick recipe: pick the tomato but don’t put it in the fridge. It should still be warm from the garden. Toast some bread, mayo on both sides, cut your tomato slices about a quarter of an inch thick, layer them on the bread. Add some salt, pepper, and maybe swiss cheese. Boom, world’s best tomato sandwich).
But, as you can see in the image below, the Better Boy suffers quite a bit from “wilt,” a fungal infection that travels up the root system, killing the plants from the ground up.
I got a lot of tomatoes from this plant during July, but now the wilt seems to be weakening the plant’s immune system so it’s also more susceptible to other pests like the hornworm, which are decimating my tomato yield. I haven’t had a tomato sandwich in weeks! (note: I'm now treating the tomatoes with BT, a natural bacterial method to counteract some pests).
It’s incredibly frustrating to watch your plants die while you dutifully weed and water them. The soil itself is infested with the fungi, so short of planting somewhere different, there’s almost nothing that can be done. That’s just part of gardening. You can’t fix every problem.
But some tomato breeds are more resistant to wilt, though they may not have as good a flavor as the Better Boy. Amateur plant breeders (i.e. farmers) have addressed problems like these since the beginning of agriculture. One plant variety has one trait that you like, but is lacking in other ways. So through careful crosses, selective breeding for the traits you want to pass on to the next generation, and then allowing self-pollination to occur in order to stabilize the traits, you can in just a few years develop a new plant variety that has more of the attributes you desire.
Deppe’s writing is thoughtful, clear, and easy to understand. She has a degree in plant genetics, but she’s also a natural storyteller. I mean, she can make the history of a watermelon breed exciting to read.
I’ll have the whole fall and winter to research seed catalogs and exchanges in order to start my own plant-breeding program next spring. Instead of tomatoes, I may actually start with a plant that’s a little different and underutilized. Part me wants to make a new variety of root or bean that has an artichoke heart-like flavor. Wouldn't that be delicious? It should be pest resistant and fast-growing. That's the dream anyway.
Do you like to garden? Ever had any interest in starting? You really only need a sunny spot of land and a few simple tools. I usually only use a hoe, sometimes a hand-hoe, a trowel when I'm planting, and always my knee-pads. If you want to play the piano, you have to practice; and if you want to garden, you have to weed (at least once a week, sometimes twice if it’s rainy and lush). Those knee-pads make a huge difference as you work in the garden.You can move around much more comfortably as you weed on your hands and knees. Or you can get one of the stools, it doesn’t really matter. You just need to find a way to make weeding less of a painful chore. I don’t even mind it now; it's almost meditative to me. Maybe all those years of my parents forcing me to weed their garden turned out to be worth something after all; a sort of childhood immunization plan (much like my religious upbringing).
Anyway, can’t wait to learn more about different plant breeds. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing more pictures of seed catalogues coming from me in the future. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
Do you have a hobby that's bordering on the esoteric? Why is it worth it to you?
*When people say they don’t like tomatoes, I often assume it’s because they’ve never had a real tomato out of the garden. Maybe they've only eaten one of these store bought monstrosities that have been bred for size, color, and durability for harvest and transport. What you get under those selection rules are tough, tasteless, mealy tomatoes, which are disgusting! Restaurants aren't immune to this either since they almost always buy their tomatoes from similar suppliers. So don’t write off tomatoes. Go to the farmers markets and ask if you can taste different varieties. There are some heirloom breeds that will blow your socks off.
We made it folks. Another week in the books. Another glorious weekend ahead full of possibilities. T and I may check out a rock climbing gym in Raleigh. Maybe we'll swing by the shops at Pittsboro while we're over there.
In the meantime, here's some suggested links for your weekend reading (or to get you through to the end of Friday, whichever):
I didn't know The Martian was originally published as a free serial story on the author's website. Very cool, I've often wondered how that would work. Gotta say though, if that picture of Matt Damon is going to be the next book cover, I better hurry up and buy a copy before they start replacing the 1st edition. Sorry Matt, I just don't want to look at your face each night. (Kirkus via @sfsignal)
Good writing and publishing tips from this year's Marie Claire Debut Novel Award Winner, Claire Douglas. I like numbers 1,2, and 7 the most (Marie Claire)
Famous nerds share their favorite books (Mental Floss via @goodreads)
I really want to see this movie, Grandma, with Lily Tomlin. Here's the trailer. (NY Times)
How to be powerful, or seem that way, anyway. (NY Times)
Grad school debt forgiveness? As someone who has made major life choices in large part to avoid massive student loans, I have strong feelings about this issue. I would have loved to get an M.F.A., but I didn't think I could afford the debt. Even now, law school sounds interesting to me, but again, I just can't justify the cost to myself (also must fight the urge to be a perpetual student). It sucks that these programs are so ridiculously unaffordable, but if you decide it's worth it to you...shouldn't you be responsible for that financial burden too? Like I said, touchy topic for me, so I'm sorry if that sounds harsh. I'm sure living with $100,000+ student debt is the definition of stress, but when people fully admit that they never had any intention of paying for it in the first place? Well, I don't think we should tolerate or encourage that type of behavior with debt-forgiveness programs. (Wall Street Journal)
I struggle so hard with this.
Sometimes, most times, it feels like I’m digging holes in the sand. I get up every morning, I write for an hour, and then I go to work, like a good aspiring writer should. But the longer I do this, the clearer it is that I cannot realistically finish a novel in single-hour intervals. I question whether I can even finish a few chapters to cobble together a book proposal using this schedule.
The lack of sustained progress chops up the ideas, the flow, and it’s really obvious that I’m having this problem when I reread what I’ve written. I forget plot points that I meant to include. Objects that characters were carrying get set down and forgotten. Discontinuities abound, is what I’m saying.
Plus, the progress is just too darn slow! It’s like when you’re losing weight, but only 0.2 lbs a week. Yeah, it’s progress, you should be proud of yourself, but at that rate…are you really getting anywhere?
I need three extra hours a day but no matter how I try to stretch and hack my time, it doesn’t happen. It can’t happen with a full time job, a commute, a family. Yes, I need to suck it up and make more time for myself on the weekends, but anyone will tell you that’s hard when you have a family. I have a dog, two cats, a husband, and the time they need and deserve is a lot! Time I want to spend with them. People with kids, I salute you. I don’t know how you do it.
I’ve also been in academia for a while now and sometimes I wonder whether my next job should be something less mentally exhausting. I spend all day living in this hyper-cerebral world, thinking about the vagaries of atoms and gases, and by the time I get home I just don’t want to think anymore. If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, (and you should) you might recall that he discusses having this same problem in the years before he broke out with Carrie. Looking back, King thinks he was a more productive writer when he was working at an industrial laundry, which while more physically exhausting was also less of a mental burden to subtract from his creativity than when he was later teaching English to middle school students (high school maybe? I can’t remember).
But then I think about how I hard I worked to get my degree and what a waste it would be to stop working in my field. I get scared too. What if I devote myself full-time to writing and find it was all a bust. Then surely I’ll regret jumping ship from my safer field in science?
I like science, absolutely. It’s rigorous, challenging; I’m rarely bored at work. But those same qualities also get in the way of my personal projects; things like writing, which are incredibly important to me.
I still have another year of funding at my job to figure this problem out. I’ve thought about going into freelance science editing, which I’ve had some success at on the side, but I worry I can’t realistically make enough money doing it. Sometimes, I kind of just want to be a gardener somewhere (I like gardening). Or work at a hotel (another secret fantasy). Yet, I know I’m romanticizing other jobs, largely because I’ve never had a real non-academic job (and man, it embarrasses me so much to admit that here in a public forum).
Maybe I should take a sabbatical? Find a less mentally exhausting job for a year, put way more time into my writing, and if it doesn’t work out – look for another post-doc in science? It could work, I think. And I think it would help my writing in other ways to do something new. I mean, my god, I’ve never waitressed or worked in retail before. I feel like I’ll never really understand what it means to work until I’ve done that for a little while.
What do you think? Do you struggle to write with a full-time job? Did you specifically choose your job to give yourself more time to write? I am so interested to hear your stories.
I've been trying to finish Ubik for several weeks now and finally pushed through it in one massive reading this past Sunday. Do you ever do that? Just pencil in an entire afternoon to finish a book? I find I often have to do exactly that in order to stick to my one book at a time rule. It helped that Sunday afternoon here in the Research Triangle was hot but not exactly humid, so I could sit outside with a few pieces of watermelon and push through what I found to be a challenging read until the last fifty pages or so.
Ubik sits in the upper-pantheon of Philip K. Dick novels and if you check Goodreads you'll find that readers generally love it. One of my all time favorite books is Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the literary inspiration for the movie, Blade Runner, but to be honest, I'd never read much of his other work.
This summer, I decided to change that. I picked up a collection of Philip K. Dick short stories from the Pittsboro library and then I found Ubik on the staff recommendation shelves at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, when I was visiting there for work a few weeks ago. I finished the short story, Minority Report, in one sitting - and didn't care for it. It's speculative science fiction, which I tend to find boring because of its lack of emphasis on characters.
Ubik very nearly lost me too for that same reason. It's less of a story and more of an idea. My brother and husband love this kind of sci-fi, so I get that it has appeal, it just doesn't work for me. At least in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep we get the chickenhead, John R. Isodore, to provide some emotional and character-driven grip to the story. I mean, my god, when Isodore freaks out as the androids snip off the legs of a spider, how can you not feel for him and the poor animal? Androids also sets itself apart with its envisaged religion of empathy, something that's barely touched on in Blade Runner, but elevates the book to genius, in my opinion. (Post for another day: why it's worth both reading Androids and watching Blade Runner, as they're excellent complements to each other.)
Ubik might even be better classified as speculative sci-fi mystery. There's almost no characterization, almost every person sounds and acts the same, and virtually no one is given a back story. Mr. Chip is bad with money. That's about as complex as it gets.
It takes almost eighty pages for the story to even start, in the meantime we're treated to some pretty dry exposition on the status of this world: it's 1992, doors and coffeemakers have been commodified into coin-operated devices, some people have psychic powers, others have what amounts to anti-psychic powers, and those two groups essentially nullify each other.
In the beginning of the novel, we're introduced to the character Glen Runciter who runs an anti-psychic agency in partnership with his dead wife, whom he communicates with using cryogenic technology that extends the "half-life" of the deceased. Runciter is eventually killed as well, sending his anti-psychic employees into a tailspin that is accompanied by a strange time reversal along with perplexing messages from the ostensibly dead Runciter, manifesting as television commercials and bathroom graffiti.
Ubik spends almost a hundred pages just describing this time decay with details that are frankly dull: money goes out of date; elevators turn into the old-fashioned cage type; milk goes sour. It reminded me a lot of that TV movie, The Langoliers, based on the Stephen King novella of the same name. I just don't find it that interesting to watch flat characters ineffectually trying to understand why their world is progressing backwards. It's just a hypothetical question, like, "Hey man, what if time started going...backwards?" Yeah, that'd be something. But I'm story obsessed, not idea obsessed, and if you're the same way, you'll probably struggle with Ubik too (and Asimov for sure).
But I'll say this, Ubik's time reversal mystery turns out to be a major misdirection and the last fifty pages of the novel pick up a lot of speed. I have to give it to Dick for making me believe the story was one thing almost the entire time, and then it shifts it into a second idea, something that was plainly introduced at the beginning, but I didn't suspect until later. It at least made me feel something at last as it brought up some frightening ideas about life after death in the future. I've always read this, but it's true, Dick excels as a spiritual/metaphysical science fiction writer.
I guess it's hard to come up with these sorts of mind-blowers and develop characters at the same time, but I wish it were more common in science fiction. Like I said, I think Androids achieves that, but Ubik most certainly does not. Luckily, the twist at the end was just good enough to keep me from panning the book all-together. It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey twist good, but it's entertaining.
Is it worth pushing through? Eh, honestly, looking back now, it probably wasn't. Not for me. But if the idea of speculative mystery and metaphysical science fiction sounds good to you, if you like having your assumptions thrown back in your face when you read, then yes, Ubik is probably for you.
What was the significance of the Ubik, though? I feel like I was so annoyed by the flat storytelling I didn't give the product, Ubik, much thought. I guess there was a thread of commidification throughout the book, maybe it made sense to also have a banal commodity as a major plot element? But it just seemed sort of thrown out there. I don't know, maybe a commentary on some of the sillier deus ex machina elements in sci-fi contemporary with Dick?
What do you think? What was the meaning of the eponymous spray can featured on so many of the novel's covers?
Way back in 2007, Pixar released the movie, Ratatouille; a story about a rat that wanted to be a chef. Although Ratatouille will never be considered one of Pixar's greats, it was still pretty good and NPR reviewed it favorably. However, one quote from that review has always stuck with me.
"The idea of making a rat the hero of a major motion picture is a lot nervier than using penguins or other cuddly folk." -Kenneth Turan (NPR)
I remember thinking, and still do, how totally wrong that statement was. Nervy to use a rat as a likable character? But fiction is absolutely riddled with hero rats! This isn't a new idea, in fact, I can name at least three more rat heroes without even thinking very hard about it. Here they are and why I think rats make great characters:
Templeton, the great anti-hero of Charlotte's Web! I always liked Templeton. Sure he's selfish and mostly fixated on stealing scraps of food, but he does find writing materials that help Charlotte save Wilbur from a bacony-end. Templeton is a similar archetype to Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z. Neither one is a "good guy," but they hang out with other good guys and almost by accident end up doing good things. Their motives are mysterious because their personalities and actions don't exactly match-up. I find that much more interesting than a good character who does good things. There's an admittedly dark side to rats: they're dirty, disease spreaders, scavengers, etc. but that characterization also gives them the moral space for redemption in fiction.
Side note, whenever we collect kitchen scraps to compost, I always imagine we're just feeding Templeton. I'm cool with that.
Montague Mad-Rat is the main character in one of my all time favorite children's books, A Rat's Tale by Tor Seidler. The rats in New York City spend their time scavenging for loose change in order to buy themselves goods and luxuries (ribbons and tinned ham bath tubs, for example). They also need the money to pay the "rat rent" on the wharves where they live. Montague is different. He comes from a family of creative rats. His mother makes "rat hats" out of pigeon feathers, and his father builds mud castles in their home under the streets of New York. Montague is an artist and paints incredibly detailed pictures on the backs of seashells, a skill that is unappreciated by his peers at first, but winds up helping the wharf rat community. It's a fun story because it plays with our idea of rats as hoarders (and consumerists by extension). The illustrations in this book by Fred Marcellino are really strong too.
Ok, so Mrs. Frisby is a mouse, but the Rats of NIMH from the book of the same name, are extraordinarily likable and heroic. Mrs. Frisby is a widow and she must move her family out of their winter home in a farmer's field before the farmer plows up the ground for spring. But one of Mrs. Frisby's sons can't be moved after he has been bitten by a spider and fallen terribly ill. She needs help and eventually appeals to the mysterious rats that live under the rose bush beside the farmer's house. I don't really want to spoil this book, so I can't say why the Rats of NIMH are so special, but it's a great story and there's no question of the rats' decency. I loved this book growing up, and was also pretty obsessed with the movie, which takes some creative liberties, but the animation is still a pleasure to watch (from the great Don Bluth, who also did The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven)
I didn't realize it until I actually compiled this list, but all of these rat characters are from children's stories. I suppose there's an Aesop's Fables element here.
Maybe after coexisting with rodents for millions of years, it's easy for us to agree that rats are dark, sneaky, dirty little thieves. But then those assumptions give authors a foundation to which they can add contrasting elements (kindness, loyalty, intelligence, creativity, etc.) for richer characterization.
So for this reason, I think NPR is wrong. Penguins don't make very good characters, because what do we know about penguins? They like the cold. They like fish. They might be cuddly (debatable), but is a penguin devious? Smart? Nervous? I don't know. They're blank and unfamiliar to me. But I do know what I think of when I think of a rat and that's a symbol ready for reinterpretation.
What other animals or things can you think of that serve a similar narrative role as the rat? You might argue the spider, à la Charlotte from Charlotte's Web. What else?
Also, are there any famous rats I've forgotten?
If you took the Internet at face value, you might think that the only places worth living in the United States were New York City and San Francisco, particularly if you had artistic or entrepreneurial goals. This has never made sense to me. At the start of your career, when you are making the least amount of money of your life (or perhaps none at all), why would you choose to live in a place with one of the highest costs of living in the world?
New Yorkers will submit the city’s excellent food and culture as evidence in its favor, which is of course true, but I don’t believe these things are essential, and may even be detrimental to good writing. Getting distracted and broke just seems like a bad way to finish that novel.
But New Yorkers are right on one count for sure: humans like to be entertained. Why else would we continue to live in expensive cities that we can’t afford and read novels, which arguably have little tangible benefit to society. What was it that T.S. Elliot said? “Mankind can only take so much reality?” (edited: yeah, the quote is actually, "human kind, cannot bear very much reality," from his Four Quartets, but you get my drift, there's value in entertainment)
There may be a better compromise for the competing professional and personal needs of the writer that goes beyond the usual metropolitan suspects. Across the U.S., a small city revival has been taking place. Towns like Buffalo, New York, which had been more or less abandoned as American ghost towns, have started to experience a popular regrowth. Maybe this is a reflection of millenials’ taste for city-life or the fact that the economic cycles of cheap real-estate eventually lowers the risk for entrepreneurs to start new businesses, but for whatever reason, it’s happening. Small cities are filling up again with people hungry for good food, entertainment and community, but at a fraction of the cost of New York or San Francisco, and maybe with a little weirder, local character.
This same revival has been taking place in Durham, North Carolina and has been noticeable even in the last two years since we moved here. My husband actually used to live in Durham as child, right next to Duke University on Monmouth Ave., some twenty-odd years ago. Back then, he says you didn't go into the downtown area, even though it was only a 10 minute walk away, because there just wasn’t anything to visit. Businesses had shuttered around the same time as the collapse of the tobacco industry, which had thrived there during most of the early and mid-part of the 20th century.
What remained were some art deco-buildings, red brick warehouses, and smoke stacks, the remaining artifacts of the tobacco industry like Liggett-Meyers and Lucky-Strike. But there was so much amazing architecture that I think developers and business owners saw an opportunity for a second life in the city. They were smart enough to retain that visual character, which has helped set Durham apart in some ways.
Durham went from depopulated and dead to having independent breweries, music venues, bookstores, and excellent restaurants. A new baseball stadium was built for the local minor league team, the Durham Bulls (made famous in the Kevin Costner movie, Bull Durham), and thankfully, the old wooden one has been left standing and is used by high school teams and clubs, maintaining a lot the 20th century character and charm in the neighborhood All of this is within minutes of Duke University, and under a 45 minute commute to either Chapel Hill or Raleigh, both of which are experiencing their own versions of this municipal rebirth.
We used to live in downtown Durham and would walk to get a beer at Fullsteam or Motorco, or pop down the street for an independent movie at The Carolina Theatre. I'd buy my books at Letters Bookshop, The Regulator, or Nice Price Books, all within walking distance of our place. We lived in one of the tobacco warehouses and had a large loft apartment that cost us all of $1300 for two bedrooms, two baths, in the very thick of the downtown scene. We could have gone cheaper, but we liked the building too much.
This past weekend we visited one of the recently renovated, classic mid-century buildings, The Durham Hotel, and got a drink on the rooftop bar, which had amazing views of the city. This was exactly what Durham was missing.
We also tried out the new ramen restaurant, Dashi. I am a huge ramen noodles fan (the real soup, not the instant kind). When we first moved to Durham, it didn’t have much in the way of Japanese food, but now it has a legitimate, serious ramen shop with a bar upstairs for small plates. I had the shoyu style, T had the tonkatsu. I dug right in and totally ruined the bowl’s presentation before even thinking I’d might want to take a picture to share with you guys, but here it is. Doesn’t that soy sauce egg look incredible? Perfectly soft-boiled, jelly yolk. And the noodles, crinkly and chewy, just the way I like them.
So there you go, you can get delicious ramen some place other than San Francisco. You can walk to the movie theater without going broke for the privilege. And you can use that saved cash to pursue professionals goals and take risks that maybe aren’t the most financially practical. For this reason, Durham is a great place for writers, or painter, or brewers, or farmers, or whatever it is that you want to do or be.
So check out Durham or some other small city if you’re thinking about a change. New York would be fun, but at what cost really, both financially and personally? Maybe it would be fun for a little while, but is it really sustainable or productive for a struggling artist to live there? Smaller cities might be a real alternative for living your own life, not the one the Internet thinks you should have.
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