Posts Tagged ‘Jaws’

Doorway Characters

June 13, 2009

We’ve talked about enchanted doorways that take us into fictional realms of wonder. But the simple truth is, the single most powerful thing that pulls us into a story is the characters. Right? If we meet on page one a character we identify with — someone who feels what we’ve felt, someone who may seem “just like us” on some level — that’s a character we want to go along with.

For the term “doorway characters,” I give full credit to our friend Marquee Movies [not his real name] — you know, the guy who feels a responsibility to always leave Bilbo in a relatively safe place? He came up with this excellent term during an impassioned discussion we were having about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was talking about how Willow and Xander were such doorway characters, providing a perfect portal through which we tumble headlong into the story.

At the last Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, fiction workshop leader and author Jim Bennett said, “Character is always the most important thing, because there are only a few plots, but characters are infinite.” It’s true. Can we not name quite a few stories that are often anthologized for college students to focus upon, stories hailed as treasures of our culture, in which very little happens? But their characters are fascinating people, people we feel right along with.

All in all, for me as a writer, characters are my Achilles heel. I’ve never paid enough attention to people, just as Saruman never paid enough attention to animals. I think it partly comes from being an only child. “Others? Who needs others?! Oh, you mean the audience?” So this posting is 1.) fraudulent, since I’m no one to be talking about characters, and 2.) sneaky, because I’m hoping to learn something from you all that will help me write better.

I don’t know if I’ve ever created a “doorway character” with any main character of a story or book, but I would like to introduce you to one minor character that I’m particularly proud of. She’s from the Agondria story “Seawall,” and she’s a lemnach, not a human.

The lemnachs are little women — about half human height — with blue skin and wings like a bat. They are uncivilized, monstrous, and serve a sorcerous old king named Agetychus. (It’s unclear whether he created them or bound an existing race to his service somehow.)

This particular lemnach is named Gehennabel the Reliable. She’s fierce and steady and eats all manner of disgusting things, and the king knows he can depend on her to get the job done. She has a catastrophe of wiry black hair. Her name comes from “Gehenna,” another name for 1.) Hell, or, according to Webster’s, 2.) “a place or state of misery” — and “-bel,” a feminine sort of ending. Here’s an excerpt:

The lemnach had flown farther than ever she’d flown before in her relatively short, toil-laden life. Following the woman-tiger, she’d gone all the way to where the world ended in a Wall across the sea. Somehow she’d avoided all those flying arrows in the humans’ battle, many of which had been aimed at the lemnach, for both armies knew she was no friend of theirs. Gehennabel had watched from the shadows all that had taken place, and then she’d made the long return journey alone.

She’d learned many things in her travels: that hot sand burned the feet; that too much sun burned the skin, even if one’s skin were dark and blue; that most melons in Shandria were sour; that there was very little to eat on Alcyaea, except the gull-droppings which were savory if a bit salty; that the birds of Vorcyra had interesting tales to tell once they got to know you; that the Sunken Land could be dangerous at night; and that lemnachs were entirely unwelcome in Cheleboth. After all, home was best. But one wouldn’t know if one hadn’t gone.

Now her long mission was accomplished. Well, almost accomplished — there remained only to deliver her report. She had good news and bad news, bad news and good. Fluttering in through the window, she hopped and stumbled, borne by her momentum, and rolled heels-over-head along the stone floor. Ah, home! Gehennabel kissed the dank stone and patted it with her palms.

Which news to tell first, the good or the bad? The bad or the good? Which? She clasped her hands and considered deeply as she hurried along. Other lemnachs saw her and raced off in a flurry of wings to tell the king she’d returned. A few paused to scoop up rocks and hurl them at her to show they’d missed her; Hebbenebah the Still Worse swooped onto her back and gave her shoulder an affectionate bite.

She’d tell the bad news first and get it out of the way. Yes, that was how big, wingless people preferred to do things. Fluffing up the fright of her hair, the lemnach composed her wings and peeked around the doorframe into the thronehall.

King Agetychus hunched on his throne, dwarfed by the seat’s high back. The six lemnachs who had arrived first crowded around him, three on the throne’s arms, two on the back, one between the king’s black boots on the floor, rubbing her face against his knees. All the six looked enviously at Gehennabel. The king stretched out a pale hand and anxiously waggled his claws to beckon her forward. “Come, come!” His voice was a hoarse whisper. As the lemnach slinked into the firelit hall, Agetychus coughed violently into a bunched cloth.

He looked bad, even for a Chalybe; his health had clearly gotten much worse while Gehennabel was away. Even before she’d left, he’d taken to sitting here, usually alone, with only the fire for light; he could no longer abide the activity and noise of his grand upper thronehall, the place of many forges. Sad, for the ringing of hammers had once been the sweetest music to his ears.

“Well?” said the king, leaning forward, his dark-rimmed, reddish eyes wide and staring. He reminded the lemnach of a spider she’d eaten not long ago, an old spider shriveled at the edge of her tattered web, her legs curled up upon themselves and no longer able to move. By eating her, Gehennabel had done her a mercy.

“Dear King,” said the lemnach with heartfelt compassion, “I would eat you if I could.”

How’s that? Do you get a feel for lemnachs? I think it would be fun to write a book from the point of view of a lemnach. Gehennabel needs her own book: Confessions of a Lemnach . . . or something.

Anyway, I can think of no better example of doorway characters than those we see in the movie Jaws. Remember that phenomenon that swept our culture back in 1975, the “Summer of the Shark”? I would argue that Jaws is an extremely rare case in which the movie is better than the book that preceded it (the only other example I can think of offhand is Field of Dreams) — and I’d contend that the difference mostly has to do with the characters — well, that, and the focus of the writing. Peter Benchley has said he wrote the book based on the premise, “What if there were a killer shark that wouldn’t go away? What if it staked out a territory right off the coast of one town and just stayed there?” The movie has that premise, too, but into the mix it adds the screenplay, the directing, the incomparable musical score, the heroic efforts of hundreds of people trapped on Martha’s Vineyard for much longer than they wanted to be or were budgeted for — and of course the immortal, inimitable performances of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.

Doorway characters: Scheider as Brody is Everyman. He’s us. Two examples, from very early in the film. He’s just woken up, he’s getting ready for a routine day of work, and the phone rings. The Brody household has two phones on the wall, presumably because he’s the chief of police: one phone is the family’s phone, and one is a “police hotline” (that’s what I’m guessing — I don’t know). He picks up the phone that he thinks is ringing (they’re installed one right above the other); he hears only a dial tone, and he pulls the receiver away from his ear and gives it a “What the heck?” look before hanging it up and picking up the other phone, which is the one that’s ringing. Right there, I think, “I know this guy.” I’ve experienced morning chaos, too.

Later, when Brody realizes there’s been a shark attack and he’s doing his job by closing the beaches immediately, he goes into a store to buy paints, brushes, and signboards to make “Beach Closed” signs. He grabs at a brush or two in a canful of brushes on the shelf, and the can topples over, clattering and spilling brushes. Brody winces and tries to catch it. Again, I know him. He’s me. I’ve been there.

Then Dreyfuss as Hooper: who can forget the scene in which he comes uninvited to the Brody household the evening that Brody is depressed because he knows Alex Kintner is dead because Brody gave in to political pressure and didn’t close the beaches? Hooper comes into the kitchen, sits down at the table facing Brody, who hasn’t touched his supper, and Hooper asks, “How was your day?” (He was there earlier when Brody was slapped in the face by Mrs. Kintner, Alex’s mother.) Both men laugh at the irony of the question, and Brody says, “Swell.” Hooper, a scientist who’s come to town alone because of the shark problem and is staying at the hotel, sees the plate of uneaten food and asks, “Is anyone eating this?” Without really waiting for an answer, he pulls it toward himself and begins devouring it as Mrs. Brody dazedly answers, “No.” Awkwardness, comradery, and a stomach that clamors regardless of the crisis at hand — doorway character. That’s a real person, just like us.

And then Quint, the shark fisherman (Robert Shaw): though we glimpse him earlier, his first close-up entrance in the film is during a town council meeting, when the crowded room is in pandemonium, people all talking and arguing at once. To command attention, Quint slowly, agonizingly rakes his fingernails down a chalkboard, on which he’s drawn a shark eating a human victim. It’s a sound that universally sets human nerves on edge. When he has the full attention of everyone in the room, Quint casually eats something (a cracker? — celery? — the debates have been many and furious) as he delivers his offer of his services to catch and kill the shark. This is a character we simply can’t get enough of.

I don’t know of any other film that brings three such different and equally balanced, developed, delightful characters together and then isolates them in an environment (alone together on a boat with only the open ocean and the shark) in which they can interact. They have become archetypes of the “monster panic” genre: the Knowledge Guy (Hooper), the Experience Guy (Quint), and the vulnerable Everyman (Brody), who kills the monster against all odds and lives to tell the tale.

So we come to the question: Who are the greatest doorway characters you’ve met, in film or in written fiction? Who are they, and what did they do that made you tumble through them, deep into the world of the story? (“What did they do?” is the more important part of the question!)

[News: It’s been a fantastic writing week, by God’s grace — great progress on the new book: 2,300 words Thursday, 2,684 Friday, 1,612 today! Oh, and one more thing, in case anyone missed it: it’s worth going back for a look at the comments on the previous post — I responded to them just before writing this, and I had a pretty good story to tell in response to Chris’s!]


Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an “Ego Trip” (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used “Logic,” you had to pay up. (A “Logic” violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was “Off the Subject.” That one’s self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined — most notably, food. Any mention of when we’d be taking a food break or what we’d be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I’ve personally met him — he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he’s a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it. . . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

Neo, Ness, and Places in the Reader’s Heart

December 13, 2008

By grace, this was an excellent writing day — 2,849 new words — good ones! Writing muscles do improve over time, with training and use. Back when I tried NaNoWriMo in 2005, it was all I could do to turn out 1,600 words, working hard at it all day.  Now a good writing day is 2,000 words, and a great writing day is 3,000.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Anyway, here’s a shameless product endorsement: I recently bought an AlphaSmart Neo. It’s a light-weight, durable little machine that runs on three AA batteries for many hundreds of hours. It has a full-sized keyboard and a screen on which up to six lines of text are visible. I

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

bought this one new to replace an AlphaSmart Dana that I bought used, on its last legs, and still got a good year of use out of. The Dana finally gave up the ghost, which was actually for the best — it’s a more advanced model of the AlphaSmart which is built to do more things than I need done, and consequently consumes more battery life.

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

But the Neo essentially eats power much as a pocket calculator does — and how often do you have to change your calculator battery? The Neo allows me to write in places away from my desk: outdoors (in warmer seasons), in transit situations (trains, planes, and airports), in coffee shops (I confess I haven’t tried that yet), and at other people’s houses. I don’t know about you, but I generally do my best work when I’m in a situation of controlled chaos — the hubbub of some public place, or at a kitchen table at non-meal times, with family life revolving in the background. I think it has to do with low pressure. When I’m not in my Sacred Writing Space, I’m not under pressure to create the most brilliant literature in human history. At a kitchen table, I can just tell a story, because tables aren’t for writing anyway, are they?

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

At the end of the writing day, I connect the Neo to my computer with a USB cable and dump the day’s writing into a Word file. (There is also a wireless way to make the transfer, if you’re interested in that method.)

I love the fact that the Neo allows me to write anywhere I can write with a pencil and paper. And we’re talking inexpensive: including a $20 carrying case and shipping to Japan, my brand-new Neo came in at under $300. Product details can be found at

A Ness's-eye view

A Ness's-eye view

Changing the subject with a monkey wrench — grroooinnkk! — what you’re seeing here are some pictures taken at Union Station, Chicago, which I passed through last summer. Fans of   The Untouchables will recognize this as the location used in the famous “baby carriage scene,” in which Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his men intercept Al Capone’s bookkeeper on the station stairs as Capone’s men are attempting to whisk him out of town.

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

And grrroooiinnkk once more — it’s high time we played another alphabet game. Any takers? The theme this time is your favorite places in stories — places that you wanted to live in when you read about them or saw them on the big screen.

I’ll start us off again with A: Amity Island, the fictional setting of Jaws. Back in 1975-6, I dreamed of living in Amity, famed for its white sand beaches, and being haunted by a 20-foot great white shark. Fourth-graders don’t ask for much to make them truly happy.