Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland

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By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids

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“Static”: Synthesizing Bad Reviews

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By Shawn StJean

Another one star review on Amazon, bringing the reviews of Clotho’s Loom there in, as the novel approaches a year since publication, exactly split down the middle (ignoring the five-star reviews that were taken down). Seven positive, and seven negative. I doubt you’ll find a more even spread, anywhere. And enough of a sample to signal a love-hate trend that may always continue.

So based on this uncanny balance, I’m awarding myself an official Most Controversial Novel of 2012 title. No, there is not a lot of sex. There is, rather, a lightning rod that brings together diverging assumptions over what good writing is in our culture, and is not.

Rather than present both sides–lest this be seen as a promotional piece–I’d like to re-consider here only the negative comments. As always, I’d prefer anyone contemplating buying the book to read the sample first. Positive reviews can be as equally misleading as negative ones. Though bad reviews tend to be shorter, and not particularly informative–often due to the fact that the reviewer has neither bothered to finish the book, nor bothered to say so. However, there are a few recognizable trends, and a gap between what I expected and what I’ve gotten (SPOILER-FREE):

I expected folks to have a bit of sympathy for a veteran who learned to hate war, yet got sucked in to fighting another one and endured a brutal moral crisis over it. I had in mind the entire generation of Vietnam vets that history has tried to forget ever since they returned home, not in a wave or to a mass welcome, but individually and isolated, and to mistrust and apathy.

By contrast, several readers have found Will Wyrd cowardly–though they haven’t said that directly. “Spineless” and “without a backbone” seem to be the preferred expressions for a sniper who eventually discovers he can’t follow orders, and (unlike most Hollywood heroes,) is not vindicated by unqualified success.

I expected readers would enjoy reading about a strong woman (co)protagonist who is neither a vampire succubus, werewolf, or derivative, but rather, a career woman facing more lifelike challenges at home and work–though I have rendered them in as dramatic a fashion as realism allows.

Instead, she’s barely been mentioned in the bad reviews. Perhaps I should have expected this, given the gender biases of our culture, and shortened her skirts/augmented her breasts. But this overlooking her to focus nearly every remark on the male really is shocking to me, given that 90% of the book-buying public are women.

I expected people to have trouble accepting the ending, knowing that Americans prefer closure, and hearts-and-flowers affirmation.

What I didn’t expect was pretty clear evidence that half the readers aren’t making it to the ending at all, but many that do are resentful when they fail to understand it. Comments like “What was the point?,” “doom,” and “no resolution” leave little room for doubt there.

I expected quality of prose to matter; another mistaken assumption–perhaps my biggest.

But even for the “baddest” reviewers, one can sense the spectacularity of Clotho’s Loom’s failure for them: “Reads like complex history and literature,” “sensory overload,” and “it wanted to be mythology.” These are indeed some of the very qualities that other readers enjoy.

Oh, one final note: if your novel is long, that will only amplify people’s love or hate of it.

So based on my own, admittedly limited experience as a writer and educator for about 20 years, I’m concluding that we truly have reached the point at which some authors–me–will need to choose between what they expect from readers, and what the buying public expect of a novel. If you are, like me, one for whom those two sets of expectations stand on either side of a very wide chasm, you’ll need to either adjust your sights in toward conservative, commercial viability, or stick to your guns as currently zeroed.

Will my next book be different? Possibly. But as for my first novel, for better or worse, I wrote the book I always wanted to read. I wouldn’t change a word.
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Croatian Life Letters by Jodie Toohey: YA Book Review by Shawn StJean

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When I was a boy–30 and more years ago–many bookstores and libraries did not host a collection designated specifically for teens.  Aside from books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson (both of whom require a high level of literacy to enjoy, are plot-driven, and definitely meant for boys) the vast majority of what I read was composed for adults.

Clearly, my past does not make me an expert on YA Fiction.  But I feel fortunate to have been randomly assigned to evaluate this short, 130-page work by the IndiePENdents organization, as part of its application of books for its approval seal.

I expect, just as most readers of Seventeen Magazine appear to be ages 12-14, a novel that follows the epistolary exchange of two girls (Ami and Nada,) ages 15 and 14, would probably be of more interest to the pre-teen set than those actually attending high school.   Ami has never been kissed by a boy before, and her innocent “get a boyfriend” scheme may have better amused this 45-year-old man than it would most of the U.S. sophomores out there.

This book has several features to offer teens that raise it above the norm.  First, it is set in 1991, the year Croatia declared itself independent of the Republic of Yugoslavia.  Not only, then, does it offer some instructive European history from the half-decade before most of its target audience was born, but it also unfolds in a world where true pen-pals (paper, ink, and postage stamps) were still viable: no internet or cellular telephones.  When people in your life left, they were, at least for a time and sometimes forever, gone.

The heart of the narrative lies in its juxtaposition of the trials of the girls from two different cultures.  Ami’s parents are recently divorced and she must adjust to the custody schedule, her favorite baby cousin has died, and she’s entertaining thoughts of suicide.  Meanwhile, Orthodox Catholic Nada resides in Rijeka, insulated a bit from the war-torn district of Dubrovnik, but not immune to racial and religious hate crimes.  She lies awake at night thinking of the mailed and telephoned death-threats her parents hide from her, her father has fled to Italy to avoid induction, and her basement is occupied by a pregnant couple desperate to keep their new family together.  As Ami writes to her friend, “I’m grateful my hell is only in my head. . . .You have no control over your hell” (71).

Poignant stuff, when compared to the series-vampire and werewolf fare that monopolizes the shelves–some of it admittedly well-written–but not particularly designed to edify kids preparing to enter a harsh, actual world in the 21st Century.  I was particularly pleased at Toohey’s corrective to the American view that Serbs were the sole aggressors in the Croatian war (and this done in a palatable, non-didactic manner.)  Be the truth of this interpretation as it may, one rejoices to see the spirit of inquiry raised for young people–if they wish to know more, a little outside research can only add to the enjoyment here.

Recommended ****

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Weapons For Writers

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To compare the act of writing to doing battle might seem hyperbolic, but I do think the difference is one of degree, not kind.  It’s amazing, the widely varying and sometimes adverse conditions folks write under–mothers fit it in during nap-time, others dictate in the car, longhanders still do exist, and I even know one fellow who can’t do without the clackety-clack of an ancient, manual typewriter.  My own novel was composed in at least a dozen separate locations.

Yet we authors can be our own worst enemies.  A little planning is worth a lot of execution.  There are a few items–physical gear, and otherwise–I would deem essential for every writer (besides some raw talent, or as the author of Beowulf put it, a well-stocked “word-hoard,”) that will aid in deflecting the incoming flak.  It’s instructive to reflect on how similar the support needs of writers and soldiers often are.

A warm, soft pair of socks–no holes.  There’s a reason someone once equated nervousness with “cold feet.”  Currently, my personal favorites are a pair of thick wool Carhartts–but then again, I live in upstate New York.

Chair.  Not too comfy, but with good back support.  Arms help, but a recliner will put you to sleep (the writer’s curse is to sleep always at the wrong time).

Cold water is best, but a continuous source of hot drinks works.  Choices?  As Giles on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer once stated a request for coffee, “No, tea is soothing. I wish to be tense.” (and if you notice a motif of “heat,” in this list, it probably has to do with poor circulation from all that sitting.  Remember, the blood must be kept flowing to the HEAD.)

A selection of light reading–NOT your own, or even similar–by the bedside, to help battle insomnia, and get rested.

As Virginia Woolf said, a room of one’s own is essential.  But sometimes they beat on the door.  Two or three alternate places to write–hopefully at least one outdoors–and a laptop computer or stack of yellow legal pads, for portability.  As with your body, keep your temperament flexible.

Small notebook or e-device for jotting down inspirational ideas that strike you while stuck on the march.

Not everyone gets writer’s block (symptoms can include tiredness, cabin fever, headache, anxiety) and there’s certainly no cure-all.  For me, a good walking trail or other means of stimulating, physical exercise does wonders, even if you can only manage twice weekly.

Dictionary–online, paperbound, whatever–if you think you don’t need one, you’ve outsmarted yourself.  Or you’re a writer who doesn’t do much writing.

A work ethic–even 1/2 hour per day, every day, will get the job done eventually, and planned days off are a good practice.  Otherwise, hit those keys on a strict, regular schedule you can really keep.

Procrastination and distraction are greater enemies than lack of time in the first place.  So, as damned hard as it might be, at first, notice the “off” switch on your wi-fi, cell phone, TV.  USE THEM.

A sense of humor, patience, and perspective.  Somehow, you already came to the decision to write, to nurture your own soul, rather than swell someone’s purse (your own or someone else’s)–and if you’ve actually begun writing, you’ve overcome the two most fearsome obstacles.  That poem, story, article, or novel may never see wide circulation, or even publication—but cherish the experience, the doing—because you really are enjoying a privilege.  Here I shift the metaphor I began with, because writers don’t destroy, after all; they maintain our culture, and they create it.  And as Robert Pirsig so insightfully phrased it, “The motorcycle you’re working on is yourself.”

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2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–2,000 of 10k New Books Advance to 2nd Round

Image10,000 books have been entered by their authors and publishers, in five categories.  Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, published under the Glas Daggre Imprint, is among 400 in the General Fiction category selected for the second round, and will attempt to move on to the quarter-finals of the ABNA (100 will be selected from each category, announced @ March 12, 2013.)

List of 2nd-rounders:  http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011  Congrats everyone!

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ITunes Picks Up Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean

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Which means, of course, IPod, IPad, and IPhone goodness for the novel, and a major alternative to the .epub-based online stores.

LINKIE: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/clothos-loom/id598790348?mt=11

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Stuffs Indie Writers Do, or Ten Eccentric Behaviors of Self-Published Authors

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Feel free to add your own in the comments section!

 

Surpass, in creativity, even your best passages by the means of procrastinating the writing of them.

Check e-mail, with a feeling of hope, 7X in the morning, review venues 3X, sales figures 1X, social media in reverse-proportion to how much drafting/editing you’re actually getting done.

 Keep a tab of dictionary.reference.com constantly open to make sure you just used that word from deep in your vocabulary correctly.

Revere hot beverages as the nectar of the gods, in a vain attempt not to gain weight from so much perching over a desk.

Know by experience which works better on you: aspirin, ibuprofin, acetominofen, or whiskey.  As a famous author once told me, “You don’t have to be an alcoholic to be a good writer–but it certainly seems to help!”

Even though you’re a throwback, you become conversant with software you never thought you’d touch with a ten-foot finger.

Own a keyboard that has survived the crumbs of your entire dietary menu, as well as a few spills, and which therefore openly disgusts everyone but you.

Perseverate over whether that word you “kinda” coined will make it past the editor, even if it’s you.

“Give away” books at a net cost to yourself of minus $xxx, yet still claim “Books sales are getting better.”

 

Meet people and make friends you never would have, in all parts of the world, otherwise.

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