Linkspam, 11/22/13 Edition

Betta, by Visarute Angatavanich

Betta, by Visarute Angatavanich

Short Fiction Online: What’s Free, What’s Good

If you want to find some of the really exciting short fiction being written right now, the best place to look for it is right here on the internet.  I follow a few of my favorite writers on Facebook, and they often announce online publication of short fiction there—free reading, it’s a good thing.

Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, etc.) recently published a very short piece in The Guardian, “Down to a Sunless Sea” that is a study in creating atmosphere at just under 1200 words:

The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.

The unnamed narrator of the piece encounters a woman on a sodden London day walking the docks, as she does every day.  No one knows how long she’s done this because “nobody cares”.  They take refuge together under an awning, and she says “My son wanted to be a sailor’, then tells her story, and his, to her unwilling listener.

It’s a story of dreams, and horror, conveyed in lyrical, brutal prose.  The juxtaposition is captivating—it lures the reader in, lulls you into this sense that yeah, you’re going to hear a sad story, then smacks you over the head with the grotesque conclusion to the sailor son’s story.  In fewer than 1200 words, you meet three people: the narrator, the mother, and the son, and you know them as if Gaiman had been writing chapters about them.

Or do you?  Why should we believe this narrator, after all?  And the mother: did her story really happen, or has she invented it in the face of a tragedy?

“Like Ghost Cat and a Dragon’s Dog”, by Dave Freer, is part of Baen Books’ free short story collection from 2012.  There are 11 other pieces at that site (I do wish Baen’s webpage were easier to navigate, but that link does all the hard work for you), including two by Wen Spencer (one set in her Elfhome universe).  The Freer story is set in his Dragon’s Ring universe, and features Fionn and Dileas on a brief adventure, where Dileas, who’s narrating here, gives good reasons why dogs chase cats, only to have the tables turned on him.

Like most of Freer’s work, this is gently humorous, high fantasy adventure. It’s a short, easy read, perfect for a bedtime snack.  No need to even be familiar with the Dragon Ring universe, even.  Dileas gives you all the details you need.

If you’re up for something classic, though, Flavorwire offers links to ten stories by fiction masters, including Flannery O’Connor’s chilling “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.  There are also links to stories by Kafka, Bradbury, Nabokov, LeGuin, and Munro.  All of them are worth checking out.

There’s plenty of good quality short fiction available for free online if you’re will to search for it.  We  hope to do a few of these online fiction reviews a year–I want to read more short stories myself.  I’ve neglected the form for far too long, myself, and I’m trying to change that.  Refreshing my memory of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka was a good start.

Defining a Text in the 21st Century

a stack of books

a stack of books

Here at my house, we are rather eagerly awaiting our daughter’s college graduation, just as many parents across the country are.  Because she’s a member of her school’s Honors College, our conversations with her the last few months in particular have been very academically focused: graduate school applications, her Honors Thesis, and germane to this particular post, a particular component of her Honors degree: her Reading List.

In addition to defending her thesis in front of a five member committee, part of the requirement for her achieving an Honors degree is the submission and defense of what is known there as The Reading List.  This list must include between 12 and 15 texts that demonstrate cross-curricular knowledge and in total define who the student has become as they’ve grown over the years they’ve spent in college.

I think it’s a really interesting idea.  Because Honors strives to produce well-rounded students who have been taught to consider texts far outside their field of study and, in many cases, outside their own personal philosophies, the lists cannot include more than one or two texts read prior to college and should not contain more than a few texts read specifically for Honors.

That’s the background to what is the central point of this post, which is what, actually, constitutes a text?  My daughter’s reading list contains items on it that we would not traditionally define as books—there is one music CD on there, and one movie as well.  Past students have also included graphic novels and multi-player video games.  We don’t normally think of things like video games and CDs as texts, and I actually asked her if it was acceptable to include such things on her list.  She assured me it was, stating that the Honors College has a very flexible definition of “text”.

photo via Wikipedia

photo via Wikipedia

And when you think about it, it makes sense that music CDs, for example, can be included.  Many records are episodic in nature with an actual narrative structure that, if it succeeds, tells an actual story over the course of the album.  In my day this was called a “concept” album, and from my time, the most famous one is probably The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but there are lots of others—Green Day’s American Idiot has a definite narrative, even a thesis.  And how many classics have been made into musicals, movies, and plays?  Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, even Jesus Christ Superstar all started out in written form. They still have a narrative structure.  There is still a story being told.  It’s just not being told in book form.

Same with video games—a lot of the multi-level games work from story boards and as the player progresses through the various levels (or chapters) they’re really working toward a dénouement: bad guy captured, prize achieved, the day is saved.  It’s just that this time, the story is told not through music and lyrics, but visually, and the “reader” (the game player) helps to create how the story plays out through the actions taken.

Persepolis

Persepolis

Things have changed since I was a college student. To date myself: most of us still used vinyl records, since CDs had not been invented yet; books were always bound paper, not digital; video games consisted of Pong and Space Invaders and Q-Bert—if you wanted to play a multi-level questing game, it was either pencil and paper like Dungeons and Dragons or a text-based adventure like Zork if your college had a computer lab and you could actually get time on one of the two or three computers to play it (because everyone else was on there playing Zork.  Seriously.  We never used those to write papers.  We had typewriters for that).  My English professors would not have accepted such a loose definition of a text, although one of them did, for a literary criticism assignment, allow me to apply certain theories to John Lennon’s poetry, which was considered quite daring.  Graphic novels were comic books and were generally considered low-brow, not something to be studied in a lit class or an Honors Class.  You can find entire classes devoted to graphic novels now, and my daughter read Persepolis as part of her Honors curriculum.

But times change, and furthermore, how we read has changed.  The proliferation of digital technology has, I think, encouraged how we stretch the definition of a text, as more people are downloading music and movies to portable devices to carry with them, and where online sites like Audible.com make listening to texts easier and more portable.  “Books on tape” have been around for ages, but “books on my iPhone” changes the reading experience in whole new ways—you can listen to a novel not only while driving or traveling, but while working out or even working for a living.  Computer graphics are almost life-like now; instead of the old text-based Zork, where I had to imagine myself and my surroundings and find my way through them, I can now make an avatar of myself and watch me make the story happen.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, either.  Far from it, in fact.  Stories are an integral part of who we are as a people, and they always have been. Every culture has its traditions, its classics, its music, its myths. The oral tradition of storytelling goes back for as long as we do, and cave paintings are the forefathers of today’s graphic novels.  Music has always told a story, either with lyrics or without them: folk songs, jazz and the blues, classical pieces, and rock and roll.  Nothing has really changed in that regard—it’s only the delivery system that’s progressed.  And with that, I think, it’s time to allow the definition of a text to progress as well.  We’re always going to have stories in these various forms.  And you know, 40 years from now someone will write something somewhere about all of our quaint Kindles and iPhones and how people used to interact with texts back in the good old days…

Looking Forward: 2013

Watching the Dark, the 20th Alan Banks novel

Watching the Dark, the 20th Alan Banks novel

If you’re anything like me where books are concerned, then the start of a new year brings all sorts of excitement because it means potential new offerings from my favorite authors. Always a squee-worthy thought for me.

So here’s a (very) brief list of what I’m looking forward to in 2013:

Proof of Guilt, the 15th Ian Rutledge novel

Proof of Guilt, the 15th Ian Rutledge novel

• January 8th brings the latest Peter Robinson entry in his long-running Alan Banks series, Watching the Dark.
• January 29th will find me devouring Proof of Guilt, the latest installment in Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series.

Those two things alone would make Donna a happy girl. But also on January 29th, I will be reading that Charles Todd whilst anticipating Out of Circulation, the next installment in Miranda James’ charming Cat in the Stacks series, which also has the 29th as a release date. And I will get to follow that up with more catly goodness in the form of Sofie Kelly’s latest, Cat Trick, which comes out the very next week (And in the Yay! Department, Kelly has another title coming out in early October).

Dearie

Dearie

And that’s just for the first month. I really can’t wait to see what the rest of 2013 brings. Anything in particular that you’re looking forward to? Hoping for? Me, I am hearing that that Pioneer Girl annotation will be out sometime this summer, and I am hoping that James Kaplan is going to get around to the second volume in his Sinatra biography. And I have to get caught up on a few other things. I have yet to read Elfhome, Wen Spencer’s latest entry in her Tinker series (a personal favorite, especially since it’s set in my old hometown of Pittsburgh), or Tina Connolly’s Ironskin, which has been on my to-read list for a bit now. And I so want to read Dearie, which I have heard good things about. As Julia Child is one of my idols, that’s definitely been on my must-read list for a while. I am soooo far behind.

Wishing you a 2013 filled with peace and happiness and, of course, mountains of excellent books!

 

Books and Holidays

Books and Christmas just seem to go together around our house.

It seems that nearly every year, my husband gives me a book, and I naturally give him one in return.  Now it’s true that some years we’ve browsed and browsed and haven’t found anything the other would like, in which case gift cards were clearly the answer, but there’s nearly always a book under the tree for each of us each year.

Railsea

Railsea

My gift to him this year was China Mieville’s Railsea—he’s one of my husband’s favorite writers, and he’s been good enough the past two years to have a newish title out for the holidays—something released within 6 months.  This year, like last year, I got a biography: The Fry Chronicles, which is Stephen Fry’s tale of his years at Cambridge, where he met Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.  I dove right in that morning—a complete report will be forthcoming.

The Fry Chronicles

The Fry Chronicles

Oddly enough, though, we never give our adult daughter books anymore.  Part of that is that, as a very busy college student, she doesn’t really have much time to read and currently has a pile of stuff she wants to get through.  The other part of it is that she’s just coming into her own tastes as a reader and it’s a bit difficult to know what to get her these days.

Not so when she was little—it was so much easier to choose books for a little girl.  Harry Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables—all the usual suspects.  Right now my big book choice issue is selecting reading material for my nephew, who will be 7 in a week or so.  Because he lives so far away, I have no idea what he has in his library.  And I also don’t know what the average 7 year old boy is reading these days—or what they ever did read.  I was never a 7 year old boy.  In the past I’ve given him Shel Silverstein and some Elephant and Piggie books and a few other things.  But I’m a bit stumped now. His parents are a bit conservative, so things like Captain Underpants are not approved of.

Which means a trip to the bookstore.  What a shame…