Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Novella: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Come


In The New Yorker on October 29, 2012, the Booker Prize winning author Ian McEwan wrote, “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.”

Even if that’s an overstatement, McEwan’s article makes a great case that the novella is an important and beneficial form of literature. So why are works of fiction with a length somewhere between short stories and novels almost never published, unless they’re by a famous author?

The main reason is that prior to modern publishing innovations like eBooks and on-demand production, thousands of copies of every book had to be printed, and novellas were too short and inexpensive for publishers to turn a profit on them (unless they were by a famous author and therefore guaranteed to sell enough copies). But those new publishing capabilities have made the printing cost a relatively moot issue, so the novella is now primed to become as prevalent and appreciated as its counterparts.




We may be at the dawn of a revolution in fiction publishing—the “Day of the Novella”—and Cruciform Press is hoping to be a pioneer in this new age like it has been with short, practical non-fiction books during the last decade. On July 25 we’ll be releasing the first three novellas in our new fiction line.

Perhaps you’ve thought of some other reasons why there aren’t many novellas in print. For example, an avid reader I know once complained that a short novel is a mere “snack” to her, because she likes to read long epics. But what’s wrong with a good snack? Krispy Kreme donuts are a snack, and so are ice cream and Doritos (or whatever kind of chips you prefer)—even Starbucks. So that shouldn’t be a criticism or reason to abstain from novellas, and they’re not even bad for your health!




We might assume that novellas are somehow inferior to novels because they’re shorter, but McEwan addresses that issue very well in the larger section surrounding the quote above:

Composers, including those of the highest rank, have never had such problems of scale. Who doubts the greatness of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and string quartets or of Schubert’s songs? Some, like me, prefer them to the symphonies of either man. Who could harden his heart against the intimate drama of Mozart’s G minor trio, or not lose himself in the Goldberg variations or not stand in awe of the D minor Chaconne played on a lonesome violin?

Strangely, the short story never arouses suspicion of short-changing, probably because the form is so fundamentally different from the novel.

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by “L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focused on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections.


Novellas not only promote economy and unity in writing, but they are a perfect medium for a generation of readers who have short attention spans and love movies (a screenplay is around the same length as a novella).
I wonder why Ian McEwan omitted A Christmas Carol from his list of examples (perhaps because it’s too “Christian” for him?). That short book by Charles Dickens, in my opinion, is the greatest example of a classic work of art that has changed the world for good in many ways. For one of Cruciform’s first three titles coming out next month, I had the privilege of abridging and annotating Dickens’ novella Haunted Man, a forgotten classic that I hope will also be used by the Lord to bring his grace and truth into many lives.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Some good books (including one for fans of the Black Panther movie)

Here are a few examples of good books I've read recently. I'd like to have a site just devoted to book reviews from a Christian perspective, because there is a real scarcity of such sites out there. (Are there any at all, in fact? Let me know if you are aware of any.) But I'm too busy to start a new site, and "Voracious" and "VoraciousReader" are both taken as site names (bummer!). So I'll just put some recommendations on this blog from time to time, for movies and music as well as books, and hope somebody benefits from them.

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Hardware: The Man in the Machine, by McDuffie and Cowan

This is a really cool graphic novel, by African-American creators, collecting a comics series from years ago that only lasted about 10 issues. But it's got great art by Denys Cowan and beautiful coloring (a rather unique look), and the extra bonus that makes this book special is the theme of revenge vs. justice. The hero, who is more of an anti-hero at first, actually progresses in character development as the story goes, with the arc coming to a satisfying conclusion, especially for those who care about the truth. If you like the Black Panther movie and want to check out some more popular art by African Americans, or if you just like a good story with cool art, you can get Hardware here or here.

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Moby Dick Graphic Novel, by Chaboute

I asked for this book as a Christmas present, because the art looked cool and I've had difficulty getting through the whole original text of Moby Dick, so I thought a graphic novel version would be more doable for me. It was, and I found both my imagination and my soul stirred by this classic tale. It struck me that it's essentially an Old Testament story, complete with portentous prophecies, God's judgment on idolatry (in various forms), and, of course, a whale (but it's not the Book of Jonah). Melville's religious syncretism bleeds through at times, but so does the biblical truth he was steeped in, and there's much more of the latter in the story. French creator Chaboute doesn't bring out even close to all of the Christian elements of the original book, but he can't be faulted for that because of the abridgment. Some of it is there, though, and that along with the beautiful art--effective in black and white--makes this a worthwhile read. You can get it here.

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Monstrum, by Donald James

This is a "normal" book (not a graphic novel) that I bought at a thrift store because I thought the cover looked good and it sounded like an interesting premise...a future Moscow ravaged by civil war and a serial killer who may be more than he (or she) seems. The author is a historian who is an expert on Russia, so all that happens in the novel is probably possible. If you can stand the constant profanity (Russian style) from some of the characters and the anti-hero's often anti-heroic actions, an illustration of God's grace emerges eventually as He uses an unlikely and undeserving tool to save the country. Along the way, twists and turns keep you turning the pages. You can get it (for really cheap) here.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Mystery of Mystery Novels

The mystery of mystery novels is how to find a good one! I love Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe stories from the 1940s (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, etc.), but I can only re-read them every couple years when I've forgotten the plots, and so in between I've been searching far and wide for other good ones (mostly in libraries and used book stores). As in most categories of art and entertainment, I've only found about one in a hundred that I like. I usually stop reading them shortly after I start, because they just don't draw me in enough, they're not my kind of thing, or they have too much offensive material. But once in a while I find a "keeper," so I thought I could save you some time searching yourself by telling you about a few that I liked...


Gone Tomorrow by Lee Childs is one of his many Jack Reacher novels.  I've read several others in the series, and they have pulled me in, but I was not pleased with the total product, partially because of uneven quality but also because Jack Reacher is so often amoral and immoral. Gone Tomorrow is consistently good and mostly unoffensive, except for the one brief but totally unnecessary episode of fornication toward the end. Fortunately it is not described graphically...but why do authors have to throw sex into every story?! Do they think that a relationship can't be good or complete without it? Anyway, the story is very interesting, the hero has some good qualities, and the cover is soooo cool-looking! (Yes, the way a book looks is important to me, and yes, I know I'm weird that way.)  [The next Reacher book, 61 Hours, is also very good, if you can stand the fact that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.]


The Good Guy by Dean Koontz was a good read. I've tried several other books by Koontz and have only finished one (The Husband, which was underwhelming, especially at the end). But I thought The Good Guy kicked some derriere...probably largely because of my Christian sensibilities... the main character is actually a good guy, for goodness sake, and that was refreshing in this age of the anti-hero. I have to admit the end was a bit anticlimactic, but at least it was satisfying, and the ride to there was great. Check this one out.


Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane kept me turning page after page to find out what in the world was going on...it was certainly successful by that standard. But it also raised some interesting issues about mental health, psychiatry, and even psychopharmocology that I enjoy mulling over. I tried a couple of his older private eye novels (A Drink Before the War, Prayers for Rain) but can't recommend them because the protagonists are so depraved and the ultimate "lessons" are so nihilistic or hedonistic. But though Shutter Island definitely shared some of the nihilism, it is more well directed at the depravity of man and his hopeless attempts to cure "mental problems" without God.

The Good Fight, Henry V Style! (Plus...What if Hamlet had been Reformed?)

Shakespeare's work, as much as any other, embodies what I mean when I say "Truth is no stranger to fiction."  His plays are are filled with illustrations of biblical principles, two of which stood out for me recently as I revisited a few of my favorites.

First, Henry V provides a wealth of insight into how we can "fight the good fight," as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:18, and how we can motivate others to do so.  When I think about the spiritual warfare we face, Shakespeare's words in Henry V often come to mind... "Once more unto the breach!"  Here's that part of the play, with King Henry leading his troops at the battle of Harfleur:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger!

Then later, at the battle of Agincourt, in the famous "St. Crispian's Day" speech, notice especially the different ways that Henry motivates his troops, and imagine that God is using these ideas to engage you in the real ongoing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil...

WESTMORELAND.
O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING.
What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin.
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires;
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

As you read that, did you notice all the different ways that Henry motivated his men? (If not, go back and see if you can identify them...it's fun!). He did so by the promise of reward, the shame of cowardice, personal satisfaction for the present and the future, leaving a legacy to the next generation, friendship and community with others, redemption from past sins, and a sense of great accomplishment. I love all those aspects of the speech because they all reflect biblical motivations that the Scriptures provide for us as well! That's why you should "fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience," as Paul told Timothy.

Secondly, revisiting Hamlet reminded me of a pet theory of mine, which is about how Shakespeare and the Reformation are more related to one another than a cursory observer might think. I would love to write a paper/article on this issue sometime, if I ever become disabled or otherwise end up with the time I would need to write everything I want to! But I'll give you a little taste here...

The Bard lived in a post-Reformation England, of course, and although he dabbled in Roman Catholicism (a "rebel heart" manifesting itself?), he no doubt was influenced by the brighter lights of the Protestant movement (and perhaps inspired to some of his biting satire by the darker parts). One of the most interesting examples of this, that almost no one is aware of, is in the beginning scenes of Hamlet, where he makes the point at least twice (it might be three times, I can't remember right now) that the young prince of Denmark was headed to school in Wittenburg--yes, the same German city where Luther had taught--before his evil uncle talked him into staying at the castle. The implication, to me at least, is that if Hamlet would have gone to Wittenburg, he would have learned about the grace of the cross and all the tragedies in this tragedy would have been avoided! In case you think that's too much of a stretch, I would add that Horatio, who represents the moral compass of the play (notice he's the only character who remains pure), was already enrolled in the Reformed school at Wittenburg and had spent the previous year there. It's all in the play...check it out some time if you don't believe me!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Best Dickens You've Never Seen


I've been thrilled lately to find that my three youngest daughters actually enjoy watching Dickens with me, so I'm taking advantage of it whenever possible.  Over the last month or so we've done David Copperfield (BBC version with Daniel Radcliffe), Great Expectations (BBC version with Gillian Anderson), Oliver Twist (BBC version with Tom Hardy), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a BBC version where they finished it).  You might notice the "BBC" theme in that list...I find that I almost always enjoy their versions better than bigger budget Hollywood versions, and that includes non-Dickens material, like the long Pride and Prejudice version with Colin Firth that we also watched recently, happily choosing it over the shorter theatrical one.  I'd like to write some things about that great classic sometime, but the Dickens' story we watched this past weekend is the most fresh in my mind right now...

Some observations about the 2009 BBC version of The Old Curiosity Shop, in no particular order:

  • There are only 31 reviews of the movie on Amazon.com, so apparently it is relatively unknown among the Dickens film corpus.  Which is a shame, because I think it's great!  But that's one of the purposes of this blog--to introduce others to some "lost treasures" I've had the privilege of finding.
  • Toby Jones chews some major scenery (and a hard-boiled egg, shell and all) as the villainous Mr. Quilp, whose evil comes back on his over-sized head, of course (this is Dickens, after all).
  • Terrific casting for the lesser characters (like a pre-Hobbit Martin Freeman as an opportunistic puppeteer) and nice little touches like Sally Brass's slightly visible mustache.
  • Speaking of casting, one of the reasons I like the TV versions better is that Hollywood would have cast actors for Little Nell and Jacob that are as attractive as supermodels, but the ones here--though not unattractive--actually look like real people.  It's less distracting and more involving.
  • The scenery and set design are so beautiful... I love the rich warm colors in most of these British period pieces, and in almost every scene of many of them.  The Old Curiosity Shop was particularly beautiful to look at, from the bustling city and town streets to the English countryside, with the darkly symbolic but gorgeous snow in the later scenes.
  • The 90-minute run time of this adaptation was welcome, because it's nice to have a Dickens experience that don't last over six hours like Bleak House and Little Dorrit (great as they are), and this particular novel is one that actually benefits from some streamlining.

I personally liked the changes the writers made in the story (mostly for streamlining purposes, and to reach an emotional payoff in a shorter time), but I'm glad they didn't remove the themes of the gravity of sin and the glory of redemption, which were central to Dickens.  Nor did they shy away (as Bleak House and Little Dorrit unfortunately did) from the overt references to those gospel truths and their Divine Source.  In the novel, the guilty grandfather says after his repentance, "Aye! Thank God! I have prayed to Him, many, and many, and many a livelong night, when she has been asleep.  He knows."  And when he follows Little Nell into the next life, his body is laid "in the church where they had often prayed."  In the movie, there is less time to develop Dickens' powerful illustrations of human redemption, but they are still captured well by the writers in climactic moments that combine together disparate events in the longer novel.

When the Grandfather finally comes to his senses and sees the destructiveness of his addiction, he cries out "Forgive me!" to an unconscious Nell and then adds under his breath, "God forgive me."  Then later when she is awake but dying, she graciously volunteers "I forgive you" before he even begins to seek it from her, providing for us a picture of initiatory sovereign grace, even as her death itself echoes the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ by serving as the efficient cause of the personal redemption of her Grandfather, and others as well.  Even the gradual conversion of the careless Dick Swiveller occurs according to biblical principles--he is won over by the character of a good humble woman and a call to a cause greater than himself.

Speaking of biblical themes, I was fascinated in perusing the novel after watching the movie to find a section in which Dickens comments briefly on an idea that he explored later in much more depth in his novella The Haunted Man, which is that even the greatest evils in this world (like the death of an innocent) ultimately have good purposes in God's plan.  (Perhaps this was also a lovingly ironic stab at his readers, many of whom had complained bitterly at his decision to let the dear girl die.)  So I'll leave you with this favorite paragraph from the book, in which Dickens philosophizes after he recounts Little Nell's funeral and says that the mourners had "with tranquil and submissive hearts turned away, and left the child with God...."

"Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven."

Sunday, December 8, 2013

If Kaleidocide Was A Movie (Main Characters)

Kaleidocide, the second Peacer novel and a sequel to Silhouette, was released on December 10, 2013.  I wanted to share what some of the characters and places look like in my imagination (or close to it, anyway), and what those things might look like if Macmillan Films is able to develop one for production.

Luke Evans would be a great casting choice for Michael Ares.  He's British, is the right age, and looks cool in sunglasses.  The fourth picture below fits what Michael would have looked like hanging out at the cottage in the vineyards, while talking to someone in his net glasses.




 
Naomi Watts would make a great Lynn, and here she is pregnant, like Lynn is during the events of Kaleidocide...
 


I based the character of Terrey Thorn on a younger Russell Crowe, as he portrayed a character with a similar name and role in the movie Proof of Life.  He's too old to play the part now, however, so Simon Baker might have to fill in...
 


Terrey's team of Japanese cyborg triplets, or the "Super Sheilas" as the Aussie protection man calls them,  might look something like this...
 

The Chinese general Zhang Sun could be played by action movie legend Chow Yun Fat...
 

And finally, Angelee is a beautiful young lady of Korean-Japanese descent, like the one in these pictures (and she's even wearing the same swimsuit and shawl as in the novel)...
 

 
 
 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

If Kaleidocide Was A Movie (Weapons and Locations)

Kaleidocide, the second Peacer novel and a sequel to Silhouette, will be released on December 10, 2013.  In anticipation of it, I wanted to share what some of the characters and places look like in my imagination (or close to it, anyway), and what those things might look like if Macmillan Films is able to develop one for production.

Here are some of the weapons in the book.  The handguns are the double-barreled "boas" that Michael wears, which can be switched between "killer" and "stopper" rounds as need arises.  Below that is the Alliant "Trinity" that he used in his assault on a power plant in Taiwan, which he relives as a holographic memory in a couple chapters of the book.  The Trinity is called that because it has three barrels, for killer rounds, explosive rounds, and a razor-sharp monofilament grappling line that can carry Michael through the air and also carve up anything in its path.



 

 
Here is what Michael and Lynn's home on the highest point of Stags Leap in Napa Valley might look like, with some of the views from the house.  (There is a secret base in the mountain under the house, complete with a hangar bay for the aeros, hidden by a hologram at its entrance.)








 
And finally, this is the actual interior of the Marin County Jail, built into the hillside at the Marin Center, where a climactic action scene begins.  At the bottom is an exterior view of the hexagonal top of the jail, with the skylights in the center.  Imagine the cyborg Min standing on the floor of the jail as the enemy assault team arrives, and then blasting open the skylight windows high above and leaping out of them to engage the helicopters in a ferocious battle!