Friday, July 26, 2013

#597. The Cephalopod Coffeehouse July 2013

Here's my monthly book recap:
  • Circuits of the Wind, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz
  • Circuits of the Wind, Volume 2 by Michael Stutz
  • The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell
  • JSA, Volume 4: Fair Play by Geoff Johns and various
  • Circuits of the Wind, Volume 3 by Michael Stutz
  • The New Teen Titans Archives Volume 1 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
  • Astronauts in Trouble by Larry Young, Matt Smith, and Charlie Adlard
  • The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • Why I Became a Muslim by Ian Nisbet
  • Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations - Watching the Clock by Christopher Bennett
And for the record, I'm currently reading Star Trek Online - The Needs of the Many (so yes, I reached the Star Trek block, though there are three more to follow).

Before going much further, let me give thanks to our Cephalopod founder, the Armchair Squid.  The preceding sentence is not to be construed as suggesting the Squid himself is a cephalopod (or some sort of worship; I don't even particularly like sea food).  He is clearly a lemur.

That's about as jolly as this one's going to get, folks.  This month has not exactly been one for the record books, and that's even before I reached Why I Became a Muslim.  I've referenced before how I formed a Reading List from among the books I've acquired over the years, the priority order as it were.  Sometimes even this List and my selections aren't good enough to keep me reading the best of my own material.  There are several books in the above bullets that weren't even in the List, and although this is always bound to happen, part of the reason why is the Good Reads Curse.

The Good Reads Curse is derived from the giveways the site always has available.  What you get from these giveways is a combination of what you've signed up as a matter of chance for winning, and sometimes, as I've learned, otherwise.  I've ranted before that a lot of books should never have been written, and a lot of writers should seriously reconsider the idea that this is their calling.  This is not a popular sentiment in a blog community filled with writers, not in the sense that bloggers are writers, because they have to be (then again, some of them cede vast tracks of Internet to images), but bloggers who either are already or hope to be published authors of some extraction.

Anyway, what I mean to say is, a lot of what I read this month was writing that should probably have never existed.  Starting with the Circuits of the Wind cycle and certainly including Why I Became a Muslim and also Watching the Clock, this stuff was just not very good reading material.  I quit reading Star Trek books a long time ago expressly because of that, but thought I'd given space and discerning selection enough to have gotten around that.  (Hopefully I can still be proven wrong.)

Circuits is an especially painful effort to lump in this travesty of words, because it was obviously a passion project.  But the writing simply was not good enough to support the passion.  The ambition was not met by skill.  And even one of these three volumes could have been more than enough.  Much the same can be said for Mockingjay, by the way.  I've explained elsewhere why I've read the Hunger Games books at all, but I just don't want to do so again.

The main subject of my wrath should already be obvious.  Why I Became a Muslim is downright insulting.  It's a parody, it really is, of all the prejudices anyone could have against Islam as a whole, written from the perspective of a sincere convert.  One who does such a bad job of expressing himself that he has more or less made it even easier for anyone who doesn't understand the religion in the first place to think it all the more vile.

That's what bad writing can do.  Good writing can accomplish so much, but I don't think that people realize how bad writing can do just as much.  A bad movie, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, can simply be reduced to an object of derision.  Good movies can find the same fate, but there are certainly plenty of movies where it can be universally acknowledged that they are bad.  Bad writing, though, in a book, can have so much more damage.

That's what I mean when I say that books have to be acknowledged as different from other expressive forms of entertainment.  Bennett wrote Watching the Clock, as I've often noticed in the past with bad writing, almost as if he wasn't even writing from the perspective of writing a book so much as trying to copy some other source material (which I assumed was children's cartoons and bad porn, a combination to frighten any good parent).  A writer has a great obligation to do more than just string along sentences and thoughts.  They need to know how to put them together. 

Because if they don't, it shows, and that's what's most striking about Why I Became a Muslim.  This is a explanation of his beliefs more than how he reached them.  Even describing his early years Nisbet can't explain how he reached the conclusion, only to state that he did and then propound the version of what he learned.  It's enough to make anyone scoff at Islam rather than embrace it.

This was far from his intention.  Ostensibly, he began writing it to explain to a son he believed he'd never see again why that was.  He instead presents no discernible consideration for any of the developments that led to that predicament.  It was enough for me to temporarily believe that all Muslims are exactly like that, and that's all anyone needs to know.

Bad writing...!  I came into this post fully believing that I was going to go on a screed against a large segment of the world's population, one that by Nisbet's reckoning has taken its entire stance against everyone by the conviction that it's simply got everything figured out and has for a long time, ever since Islam's founder set down the original record.  And yet even a casual scholar will know that Mohammed struggled for years to establish the beginnings of his new faith (there would be no acknowledgement in Islam's own culture about these early problems otherwise).  It didn't happen overnight.  Yet to hear Nisbet tell it, that's exactly what happened, and because that was the case, Islam is, was, and always will be right about everything. 

If only that were the end of it.  But Why I Became a Muslim is filled with that kind of writing.  I will give Nisbet the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's merely the writing.  There are many Muslims who believe in their faith in exactly that way.  Sadly, they all seem to be suicide terrorists.  And alarmingly, before his conversion Nisbet was in fact learning all sorts of things that might turn out to be useful for just such a cause.  Clearly he doesn't seem to have considered that.  And yet I have.  That's the world we live in today, unfortunately.

I'm not condemning all of Islam.  There's just no point in that.  But I am condemning bad writing.  I hope some day I never have to read it again, or those who perpetuate it will be more willing to see where they've gone wrong.  Because in most cases, bad writers never want to hear that. 

And that's the worst of it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

#596. TNA making an impact

One of the things I've regularly talked about here at Scouring Monk that has never particularly interested my readers is professional wrestling...and really, I'm okay with that.  So here we go again.

Chris Sabin just became the new TNA world champion.  You may not know who Chris Sabin is, or much less what TNA stands for, but this is pretty big for both, trust me.

First off, TNA stands for Total Nonstop Action.  And yes, probably in the beginning it was meant to be a double entendre.  The name of its weekly TV show is Impact Wrestling, and there's been speculation in the past that the promotion could very well adopt that as its name in general.  TNA is the second largest wrestling promotion in North America, behind WWE (and yes, there are others, including ROH - Ring of Honor - which has existed for as long as TNA has, twelve years).  It's like the bastard child of WCW and ECW, but it's become its own beast over the years, despite a steady stream of naysayers who have attempted to point out that it was always doomed to failure.  They said the same thing about the WNBA, and that's still running.

The wrestling market is not anywhere near as strong as it was in the late 90s, or the glory days of the 1980s, when Hulkamania was running wild and Ric Flair styled and profiled.  It's not popular to be a fan of this stuff, partly because it's hard to justify an interest in a sport that was long ago exposed as mostly make-believe, so that all those sweaty giants (and just as many smaller guys, like Chris Sabin) grappling in the ring look like buffoons instead of the athletes and artists they are.  To the outsider, it seems like it can never be any other way.

I mean, by god, TNA is called "TNA."  How much more crass do you have to be?  Of course, sometimes pop culture seems like it's nothing but crass.  And maybe wrestling is really only popular when it's the best crass in town.  Pointedly, WWE went the family-friendly route a few years ago.  And TNA has been leaning all the more heavily toward the best wrestling in town for the last several years now.

That's what Chris Sabin represents.  He's the latest of the new champions, new directions, under the Hulk Hogan regime that began in January 2010.  At the time, TNA had finally anointed A.J. Styles, its very own Shawn Michaels, as a champion it could get behind.  He had the first of the lengthy and unusual championship runs of this new era.  He was replaced by Rob Van Dam, who a decade earlier was the fan and critic's choice as best in the ring, although he had to wait a few more years until WWE decided to give him a run as top dog.  RVD was succeeded by Jeff Hardy, another contender for second coming of the Heart Break Kid.

If there was a hiccup, it was when Hardy succumbed to his demons, demons that haunted him thanks to the daredevil tactics that first got him noticed.  The things he used to do are probably some of the worst moves you can perform for a lengthy career, much less one that doesn't involve a lot of pain.  You don't have to be a wrestler to perform with pain, and you don't have to be in the ring for playing like that to catch up with you.  Here I'm thinking of the brilliant career of ballplayer Albert Pujols, who has lately seemed like a shell of himself.

Hardy collapsed in the spring of 2011, but incredibly had turned his life around by the fall.  He's still doing well, by the way, and was even given another run as TNA champion.  After him was a transition period of more traditional champions, including the veteran icon Sting and Kurt Angle, who is widely considered to be the best wrestler of his generation.  This was also the period where a personal favorite, Ken Anderson, finally had a chance to be champion.  Mr. Anderson is the white version of The Rock.  That would have been a dream match if Anderson's career had developed differently.

Anyway, TNA went back to the approach it'd been using previously when it tapped first Bobby Roode and then Austin Aries as champion, with a little James Storm tossed in for good measure.  These were all talents that had never been considered world champion material before, and would probably have never been thought that way in WWE.  Roode's career has been all over the place, although he's been a TNA staple since the beginning, mostly in tag teams.  Aries is a miniature version of Chris Jericho.  Storm is like a Duck Dynasty version of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

The point is, TNA began embracing its own legacy.  It's very much comparable to the ROH of its middle years, when Daniel Bryan (then competing as Brian Danielson), CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Nigel McGuinness ruled the landscape.  These were the titans of ROH.  They were the best and brightest, and somehow most wrestling observers didn't really notice that this was the best the promotion was ever going to get (probably).

What I mean to say is, people take notice.  This is a great time to notice TNA.  Chris Sabin as champion is exactly what TNA should be doing.  He just defeated Bully Ray (who used to be half of the Dudley Boys tag team) for the honor.  In fact, he's just completed a miraculous comeback in general.  He's been sidelined for years.  When that misfortune began, he'd just won his greatest success, with Alex Shelley, in a tag team that finally forced everyone to see just how good he really is.  He's long been a signature element of TNA's X-division (a renamed version of the familiar WCW cruiserweight concept), and like other such competitors (Aries, Styles), he's now graduated to the main stage.

This is why that's such great news:

No matter how long Sabin is champion, he's the latest affirmation that TNA has made a real commitment to integrate its entire wrestling scene.  Styles, as I've mentioned, is the heart and soul of the company, but he's never really been a breakout popular star where wrestling fans in general will know him like they're familiar with the names Hogan, Austin, or The Rock.

For the past year the company has been making a concerted effort to transform Styles from just the best wrestler they've got to an actual personality.  Much of the early focus was on his long-standing rivalry with Christopher Daniels, who like Roode and Aries has lately been a highlight of the tag team division.  The whole company is currently gearing up for its October super-card, Bound for Glory, basically TNA's WrestleMania.  It's been long assumed that Styles will be in the spotlight on that card.

Having Sabin as champion going into this rather than Bully Ray shifts the focus to exactly where it needs to be.  Bully serves as the focal point of one of those big nasty heel factions that traditionally spotlight the traditional main event players. Think the New World Order (or the Four Horsemen).  In fact, for a while it looked like TNA was having Styles repeat the Sting angle from the nWo days.  But recently it shifted him back into an active role, far sooner than Sting did.  And while it's true that Hogan lost the title once before Sting had a chance to take it from him (sort of) in the culmination of that feud, this feels different.

Like I said, it feels like the setup to what TNA has been trying to do for years now: operate under its own terms, and use its best strengths to their fullest potential.  Any number of arguments could be made to the contrary, but that's how I see it.  All these wrestlers, Styles and Roode and Aries and now Sabin, have all been shifted more directly into the spotlight.

All it takes is for Daniels to defeat Sabin and the main event of Bound for Glory has been determined, Styles versus Daniels.  Maybe that's not what WWE would do, but TNA is not WWE, in the same way it isn't WCW or ECW or ROH.

It's just, now we're getting to see that more clearly.  This has been breeding ground for some of the best wrestling you're likely to find, the best wrestlers from every angle to you care to envision.  They've been looking for a catalyst, a way to make it impossible to overlook their strengths.  Regardless of whether or not the pieces fall exactly into the place I now see, I think they've reached that goal.

Chris Sabin can be champion for a week or a month or a year, but he's just proven that the company around him has not let all the lessons of the past go to waste.  And that, as "Diamond" Dallas Page would have said, is a good thing.

Friday, July 05, 2013

#595. Well...

One of the things I've always dreaded as a writer is finding a blank audience, or alienating it.  And I think I continue to do both here at Scouring Monk.  That's part of what led to the dramatic pullback of a little more than a month ago of all my previous blogging activity.

I always expect big things from what I do.  I can't help it.  But the big things don't seem to materialize.  At some point I have to acknowledge that this is my own doing.  As I said at the start, I think I'm best at alienating myself.  Sometimes I'm self-deprecating about that.  A few posts ago I referenced a Green Lantern character, who was famously introduced in an Alan Moore story, the whole point of which was to explain the phrase, "Mogo doesn't socialize."

Thing is, Mogo is an entire planet.  That's why he doesn't socialize.  Throughout my life I've come across stumbling block after stumbling block in my efforts to be social.  I think that plays a big part in my rate of success (such as it is).

But I think I also ask far too much from people.  I keep writing huge chunks of words on this blog.  In fact, the whole A-to-Z fiasco as I grew to interpret it stemmed not as much from the Challenge itself but from the Liebster post.  I've read enough Liebster posts from other bloggers to know that they don't typically drone on for nearly as long as I did.

My wordy diarrhea is an acknowledged need for acceptance, to impress, to seek approval.

And that's why this note will be as brief as I can make it, because at some point we all realize where we make our biggest mistakes.  We all do, we really do.  Most of the time we simply don't see when those around us have experienced it.

I keep approaching this blogging thing the same way.  When I started out in 2002, I was short and pithy.  Not that I was a massive success, mind you (more like mired in obscurity).  But maybe that's what I should do again.  I know that when I come across a blog that has an incredibly long entry, I'm less likely to make the commitment to read it.

Anyway, this is just to say the milk's run out and I've gone to the store to replace it.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

#594. I'm No Superman

In conjunction with the title of this post (borrowed from the Scrubs theme), here are links to my Man of Steel thoughts posted at Examiner (y'know, in case you were burning to know):
I thought the movie was pretty brilliant.  The reason I wrote two pieces on it was because of the big giant controversy surrounding Superman's execution of General Zod at the end.  As far as the reviews I've read go, whether or not you're overly bothered by this affects your whole opinion of the movie.  And since I don't have near the problem (explained in different ways if you read both pieces) most people seem to have had with it, I guess I had that much easier a time enjoying (and still enjoying, because comic book writer Mark Waid has confessed that while watching he kept thinking "Awesome!" right up to that moment, at which point he actually vocally expressed his displeasure in the theater) the whole product.

I have some confessions to make.  I generally like DC products (comics and movies and TV shows) while find those linked to Marvel flawed (there are always exceptions).  This didn't change last summer, when The Avengers became a massive hit that made history all over the place.  I liked that movie, but I certainly wasn't impressed.  I will also briefly note that it wasn't Christopher Nolan alone whose presence swayed my interest in Man of Steel.  In fact, I've debated for years how much I enjoyed Batman Begins dating back to its 2005 release.  I was already a big fan of Nolan thanks to Memento, big enough to add his first film, Following, into my treasured movie experiences.  I loved most of Begins, but the ending left me cold in the same way Steel's has for 2013 audiences (though not really a confusion, I will nonetheless clarify that I have not just referenced the 1997 Shaq movie, though I enjoyed that, too).  The big action finale just felt out of place with the rest of it.  To that point I was enamored of Nolan's skills on a more intimate scale.  The Dark Knight more than ably demonstrated his mastery over other techniques.

Anyway, I didn't originally set out to write about Man of Steel.  My last post was the book club entry, and I enjoyed the lively exchange that went on in the comments that followed, including Cephalopod Coffeehouse founder Armchair Squid.  Owing to my new computer limitations, I wasn't able to respond to his last note, which reads like this:

"But does all of the material serve the story meaningfully? If so, great. If not, I think there's potential for problems."
I say yes.  I say this as someone who made it through Melville's Moby-Dick with great enthusiasm.  Melville famously wrote about things not specifically relating to the plot in the book, including facts about whales and whaling.  I just completed Fanon, the Wideman literary study that didn't focus on the subject so much as the observer's thoughts, which often didn't feature so much as reflect on the subject.  Fanon is no Moby-Dick, but these are two books that easily contradict what Squid is suggesting, that there is some necessary guideline to fiction.

Last Monday I attended a writing group meeting in downtown Colorado Springs.  At some point conversation boiled down to a version of the classic guideposts of storytelling, what every writer must consider as they prepare to put their words into form.  I just don't abide such nonsense.  If you're writing a story at all, anyone can without much effort extrapolate the beats you will have heard in class or workshop.  The question isn't really if they exist so much as how the author used them and if they were successful.  Wideman, for instance, was not as successful as Melville, as I've said, while Dr. Seuss did a much more interesting version of the classic reading primer in The Cat in the Hat (with only 50 words!), but that's exactly what he did, as simple a story as can be.

For the generations that grew up in the wake of the 20th century movie boom, I think a lot of our thoughts and ambitions have been warped.  For instance, I don't believe a story should be written if it can be done better as a film, but if a story is later made into a film, the unique benefits of both mediums can be appreciated better (and with greater critical nuance) than we normally admit.  I despise with the appropriate passive aggression stories and writers who view their task as so much empty air.  If you have a story to tell you'd better well have the voice to tell it, and for the majority of writers that's simply not the case.  Storytelling is an art.  It's not just stringing words along to fit a mold.  A thousand monkeys writing a thousand words every day can easily come up with the right combination to create Shakespeare.  Except that's never happened except in the case of Shakespeare himself.  Know what I mean?

The art of writing a story is to write what inspires you, both in the material you want to read and the material that you've experienced.  Only naive individuals believe that there are new stories to tell.  Civilization has been here for a long time folks.  There are only new ways to tell them.  I'm not talking about experimentation.  In the case of Wideman that can easily turn into a crapshoot, and it's not about limited appeal.  The only appeal any fiction should have is that it has words and that it uses them extraordinarily.  I cannot abide the idea of reading for the sake of reading.  If you can tell me the benefit of that, please amuse me.  If the story does not expand your mind, if it only confirms what you have always believed, if it does not make you think, then it's worthless.

I see every story as the potential to change the world.  Maybe that's where I'm naive.  A thousand strips of Dilbert never caused corporate culture to blink.  A thousand episodes of Law & Order never caused crime to go away.  If storytelling is alone a thought exercise, then even that's okay with me.  A population that thinks is better than one that doesn't.  But we must never forget that it's our responsibility whether civilization succeeds or not.  You think it's just about words.  But words are, after all, mightier than the sword.

If a story leads you to dead ends, if it leads nowhere at all, then the author has led you astray.  If it leads you on labyrinthine journeys of discovery, then surely it will have already proven its worth?  Profit is not in the realm of money.  That's a fool's game.  You benefit by improving your mind.  We're all better off when we identity our limitations, and seek to overcome them.

Getting back to Scrubs, and that theme, it plays over the opening credits.  My sister's an x-ray tech, and the only thing she's ever told me about any of that is that the x-ray Dr. Dorian holds is all wrong.  She says the medical community is never impressed with these medical shows.  Accuracy is fantastic.  I'm all for accuracy.  But my primary concern is the authenticity of the human experience on display.  Scrubs always had that, even though it was one of the goofiest TV series ever.  It always played like an updated M*A*S*H to me, with everyone transformed into the cantankerous "Hawkeye" Pierce.  Maybe no one, even Perry Cox, was perfect in that show, but I never stopped believing that they were making every effort to try.  Yes, even The Todd.

That's a little of what I'd love to see.  Complaints are fine.  You can disagree.  You can call Man of Steel an abomination, or think Moby-Dick was as much a failure as I consider Fanon to be (no matter how fascinating).  We can talk about that.  But me, as much fun as talking is, I've always had better luck with thinking.  That's the form my writing takes.  That's what I think writing is all about.  You can't make a digression in thought, because that's the only way it works.  In stories, you're always headed in the same direction no matter what route you take.


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