Julius Caesar: A Lean and Hungry Look

ImageIt took nine seasons for the Woodward Shakespeare Festival (Fresno, CA) to finally mount a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of my favorite plays.  I have taught it many times to high school students and I know the text the way I know my own address.  To say that I had high expectations for this production would be an understatement, much like saying that I might not be amused if the sun did not rise in the east tomorrow morning.  As I watched the production, the poetic language mesmerized me and the acting choices pleasantly surprised me.  I was caught up in the intrigue, and though the play lasted more than two hours, it seemed to end much too soon.

The ones to watch as the story unfolds are Brutus (Jay Parks), Cassius (Gabriela Lawson), and Mark Antony (Mohammad Shehata).  Brutus, the tragic figure of the play, both loves and fears Caesar (Rick Adamson).  Parks beautifully plays the conflict within Brutus, who probably cares about Rome and its citizens more than anybody.  Cassius takes full advantage of that conflict, and stokes the fire behind Brutus’s fear.  Lawson plays Cassius as passionate, yet calculating.  Caesar correctly recognizes the danger that Cassius poses when he says she has “a lean and hungry look.”  Cassius needs Brutus on her side in order for the assassination to seem legitimate in the eyes of the people, and Caesar fails to believe that his good friend Brutus could ever stab him in the back.

The plot thickens.  The conspiracy forms, and though the audience knows what is coming, the murder is shocking.  Director Erica Riggs wisely stages the murder on the upper deck, which allows Shehata to make a poignant entrance as Antony below, out of sight of the assassins, but in full view of the audience.  We see how disturbed he is, as he has already heard what has happened above.  When Antony approaches the assassins, he masks his emotions in order to set the stage for his revenge.  Antony asks to be allowed to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and Brutus agrees, stipulating that Antony not speak against the conspirators.  After the assassins exit and Antony is alone with the murdered Caesar, he unleashes his rage.  So many of us are familiar with Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” line, but Antony’s shout of “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war” gave me chills.

In the second half, the tide turns against Brutus and Cassius.  A crowd gathers, and Caesar’s body is rolled out.  Brutus speaks first to justify the killing.  His argument is sound, as we all know that liberty must be paid in blood.  Brutus claims, “As he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.”  Antony follows, and delivers a powerful speech that holds to his agreement not to speak against Brutus, but clearly gets the point across.  Antony’s refrain of “But Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honorable man” makes Brutus seem increasingly like a monster as Antony chips away at Brutus’s claim of Caesar’s ambition.  Soon the crowd is demanding to know more, and the conspirators flee Rome.

Adamson’s Caesar reinforces both sides of the argument.  In Caesar’s first appearance, he is pompous, but later he is sensitive to Calpurnia’s concerns.  The truth about Caesar’s ambition dies with Caesar.  Whether Brutus is a hero or a villain will never be known because Caesar never had a chance to wear the crown.  Shakespeare gives us both sides more or less equally, leaving us to decide for ourselves.  Shakespeare never reveals his own views on Caesar’s assassination, a wise move given that in his day Elizabeth I, a target of many unsuccessful attempts on her life, was sensitive to propaganda that might feed civil unrest.  Elizabeth’s Privy Council, for example, banned one scene from Shakespeare’s Richard II, the scene in which Richard was forced to hand over his crown.

My only complaint about this production is that the use of the 1960s period could have been stronger.  The obvious reminders of the era were the music (which was great, by the way) and one of the costumes, Calpurnia’s dress, which looked like something Jackie Kennedy might have worn.  The men’s suits looked more contemporary to my eyes, as did the military garb worn during the battle scenes in the second half.  I also wondered about seeing women in combat, as that tends to be more of a recent phenomenon.  It might have made more sense to set the play in today’s world.

The sound by Julie Ann Keller was awesome, especially in the battle scenes.  Other standouts include Michael Peterson as Casca and Bridget Martin as Portia.  The rest of the ensemble was strong in supporting roles: Aaron McGee, Brooke Aiello, Ben Baxter, Jessica Reedy, Patrick Nalty, Joshua Taber, Broderic Beard, Nick Wogan, Farrah Johnson, and Neil Cusick.  Newcomer James Pius looked ominous in a suit that made me think of movie gangsters.  The entire cast deserves a hearty applause.

Blood was in abundance.  The death scenes of Cassius and Brutus were touching.  Shakespeare’s antagonists are so fleshed out that it’s hard to cheer at their deaths.  After all, Cassius and Brutus had a point, and even Antony takes a moment to say of Brutus, “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”  Whenever students ask me, “What’s so great about Shakespeare,” I always say that his characters are complex and intense, and he explores issues from all sides.  Julius Caesar is a play that holds up to multiple viewings, and I plan to see it again.

The Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar runs for three more weekends: Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm. in Woodward Park.  Admission is free.  The final performance will be on September 14.  You owe it to yourself to see this one.

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The Postmodern Prometheus

(Warning: This post contains SPOILERS regarding the film Prometheus)

Prometheus

Prometheus, a Titan from Greek mythology, is a fascinating and important figure who appears frequently in literature as one who overreaches in a quest for scientific knowledge.  Mary Shelley famously adapted the Prometheus story for her novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.  Victor Frankenstein stood alone in his quest to create life.  His intent was to improve human existence, but the story turned tragic when the creature caused great harm.  Prometheus the Titan, who created humankind from clay, rebelled against Zeus to bring fire to humans.  Zeus punished Prometheus by having him bound to a rock and sending an eagle to eat his liver.  Prometheus, being immortal, grows a new liver, which the eagle returns to devour each day.

Noomi Rapace as Dr. Shaw

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) launches the mythical story of the Titan into the postmodern world.  Scott presents several different pairs of creators and creatures.  One set is the extraterrestrial “engineers” who created human life on Earth.  Another is Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), founder and CEO of Weyland Corp., who created David (Michael Fassbender), an android on board the star ship Prometheus.  A third is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who literally gave birth to a squid-like creature who appears to be an ancestor to the deadly aliens from Ridley Scott’s earlier film, Alien (1979).  Scott juxtaposes each pair against the others in a masterful exploration of the religious, scientific, and sexual implications of creating new life.

The Extraterrestrial Creates Life

The film opens with an extraterrestrial humanoid newly landed on a barren planet that could be Earth in the distant past.  The humanoid drinks a mysterious substance, and breaks apart, releasing DNA into a waterfall.  Creation comes with sacrifice.  Then, we see archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering a series of cave paintings and ancient relics from around the world depicting giant beings pointing to a configuration of objects in space.  Scientists match the objects to a planetary system, where a moon (LV-223) of a gas giant has the potential to support life.  The star ship Prometheus arrives at the moon and the crew begins to search for the extraterrestrials, or engineers, who created human life on Earth.

Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Janek (Idris Elba)

Elizabeth Shaw, the central character, is the only true believer among the crew.  She lost her father to an epidemic many years before, and she wears a cross around her neck.  She has been searching for answers for much of her life into the meaning of human existence.  Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) voices her skepticism about finding any intelligent life, and represents corporate interests.  It’s unclear exactly what her relationship is to Peter Weyland, but she makes it clear that she is in charge of the mission.  The aged Weyland later reveals that he is searching for immortality.  Vickers expresses her disapproval by telling Weyland, “A king has his reign, and then he dies.  It’s inevitable.”  David, the android, serves Weyland and follows his orders, though seems to see himself as superior to his human counterparts.  David represents the outsider’s point of view, a soul-less, impartial view.  In one scene, David asks Dr. Holloway why humans created androids, to which Holloway replies, “Because we could.”  David retorts with, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”

Star Ship Prometheus

Though Shaw and the rest of the crew never hear any answers from their creators, as most are dead, they discover that their plans were to destroy the human race.  Ironically, though, their own biological weapon destroyed them.  All but one, whom David finds in stasis.  The biological weapon turns out to be the same life-giving liquid that started life on Earth, though this time it creates serpent-like creatures, echoing Genesis and the Garden of Eden.  The religious connotations continue when Shaw discovers that the extraterrestrials who created us decided to destroy us about two thousand years ago, around the time of Jesus on Earth.  Perhaps Jesus was one of them, trying to set humans on a better path, and the humans responded by crucifying him.  The one creator who survived, when David revives him, decapitates David and kills Wayland.

David (Michael Fassbender)

Science created David, who, in following human orders, causes much of the trouble for the crew of Prometheus.  David secretly steals one of the urns inside the chamber, discovers the brown fluid inside, and uses it to infect Holloway, who in turn impregnates the sterile Dr. Shaw.  Later, Holloway becomes severely ill and allows Vickers to burn him alive.  David discovers that Shaw is pregnant with a rapidly growing fetus.  Her pregnancy is something of a miracle, perhaps echoing the virgin birth in the New Testament.  The offspring, born through an improvised cesarean procedure, is a squid-like creature that saves Shaw’s life later on when the extraterrestrial creator tries to kill her.  Shaw’s offspring rapes the extraterrestrial through the mouth, and a deadly alien bursts through the body.  New life that is a threat to human existence is born.

Space Jockey scene from Alien

Prometheus is an ambitious film, searching for life’s big questions by trying to balance science and religion.  It succeeds to a point, but at times it becomes confusing, particularly as it attempts to link up with Scott’s earlier film Alien.  The film tries to do too much.  Scott was attempting to build a back-story for the “space jockey” revealed near the beginning of Alien, the gigantic, deceased pilot of a derelict spaceship whose distress signal lures the crew of the Nostromo to the deadly aliens.  Prometheus comes close to making that link, but there seems to be something missing, some plot points held back for a sequel or two.  In addition, the story stretches credibility at times, such as when Shaw, who had just had the cesarean, runs through the ship covered in blood, stitches holding her wound together.  For one, it would be difficult to run right after major surgery, and second, nobody on the ship seems concerned, or even curious, as to why she looks the way she does.

The brightest spot in the film is Michael Fassbender’s performance as David.  He brilliantly portrays a soulless character with a vacant stare, a kind of Hal 9000, dysfunctional machine who causes things to go wrong.  I also admired Noomi Rapace’s performance as Dr. Shaw, a tough female character sort of in the tradition of Ripley from the Alien films.  While Prometheus was not perfect, it was an entertaining sci-fi film, and I am looking forward to Shaw and David continuing their journey in a sequel to find more answers.

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Television Drama of Interest

Maria Bello in Prime Suspect

Every fall, television networks release many promising new shows for public viewing.  Few, however, survive longer than a single season.  Last fall, I was looking forward to Prime Suspect, an American version of the British series, one of my all-time favorites, starring Helen Mirren.  The American version starred Maria Bello as the tough, female police detective competing in a man’s profession.  The promos, showing Bello wearing a fedora and acting brazen around blood and corpses outlined in chalk, hooked me, and I stuck around for most of its thirteen episodes, though it didn’t last much past Christmas.  The show had promise, but somehow it never quite gelled.  Another show that got my interest early on was A Gifted Man, about a snobbish neurosurgeon (Patrick Wilson) who gets unwanted advice from his dead ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle), the former head of a free clinic.  The early episodes centered on the supernatural, but then the show quickly became a standard medical drama.  The ghost of the ex-wife showed up less and less, and it lost sight of its original premise, which is what hooked me in the first place.  That, and the ghost had way too many costume changes.  I had never seen a fictional ghost with such a big wardrobe before.  She must have found a way to take her clothes with her to the afterlife.

Reese (Jim Caviezel) and Finch (Michael Emerson) in Person of Interest

A third show, though, not only hooked me, but also kept my interest throughout the season, and has me already dying for its second season.  Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of The Dark Knight), had the highest ratings for a pilot episode in fifteen years.  It soon won broad appeal, and was renewed for a second season in March.  The premise involves a sort of odd couple who decide to prevent crimes before they happen.  Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), creator of a God-like entity known only as “the machine” that can spy on the public through surveillance cameras, cell phones, internet, and other devices, recruits John Reese (Jim Caviezel), an ex-CIA operative believed to be dead, to be the muscle in preventing violent crimes that the machine predicts.  Unfortunately, the machine only provides a “person of interest,” an individual who may be the victim, or who may be the perpetrator.   Reese must track the person of interest with the help of the brilliant computer hacker Finch, who communicates with Reese through his earpiece.  To up the stakes, Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) tracks Reese throughout much of the series as a possible suspect in a variety of crimes, and as a counter measure, Reese coerces Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), who had at one time tried to kill Reese, into spying on Det. Carter.

Reese (right) tailing Caroline Turing (Amy Acker), the last Person of Interest of the season

Each episode provides a complex mystery, plenty of fights, car chases, explosions, and suspense.  And if that isn’t enough, the relationships between Finch, Reese, Carter and Fusco mature and change over time, with Carter finally getting let in on Reese’s secret missions, only to find that she disapproves of Reese’s methods, and with Fusco slowly leaving his dirty cop past to become a more responsible detective.  Finch and Reese both have their secret pasts, which the viewer gets brief glimpses of in many episodes, and their relationship becomes strained at times, each sometimes questioning how much they can trust the other.  There is also a growing cast of recurring minor characters and villains: Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni), the illegitimate son of an elderly Mafia don who makes a series of bold moves across several episodes toward taking over the crime families; Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco), a “fixer” introduced early in the season as a person of interest who later consults on a couple of other cases in later episodes; an organization known as HR, made up of a group of corrupt police officers that Fusco was once part of; Agent Snow (Michael Kelly) of the CIA, who is looking for Reese; Kara Stanton (Annie Parisse), Reese’s former partner who, like Reese, was believed to be deceased; Special Agent Donnelly (Brennan Brown) of the FBI, who is also looking for Reese; and a slippery character known as “Root,” a gifted computer hacker who considers Finch to be a worthy adversary.  At the heart of it all is the machine, shrouded in darkness, which may be a power for good or for evil, depending on who might gain control over it.

Det. Carter (Taraji P. Henson)

Michael Emerson, known for his roles in Lost and The Practice, plays Harold Finch as an aloof, scholarly man dressed in a suit and vest, always with a stolid expression on his face.  Finch is an intellectual who seeks to help others, but is a little afraid of social interactions.  Emerson is the anchor for the entire show, the eccentric genius who may have created a monster.  Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, portrays Reese as a tough man of action, and performs most of the stunts and seemingly reckless methods in taking out bad guys.  Reese, who failed to save his former girlfriend in the past, is compelled to save others.  He has a strong moral compass, having rejected the cold world of the CIA for a better way to save the world.  Taraji P. Henson, nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, plays Carter as a tough, independent woman, who may be one of the few remaining honest officers left, struggling to survive with her integrity intact.  Carter is honest to a fault, proceeding by the book in all situations, and suspicious of everyone.

Det. Fusco (Kevin Chapman)

Kevin Chapman, known for his role in Mystic River, plays Fusco, a dirty cop trying to redeem himself.  Fusco risks his life by infiltrating the corrupt world of HR, and by being Reese’s eyes on Carter.  Chapman has a gift for playing a bad guy with a conscience, who struggles to find a way to escape from his past.

Person of Interest is a show for a post-9/11 world, where our government spies on its citizens to look for possible terrorists.  Nobody is above suspicion.  The Machine, like Big Brother, is watching you.

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Three Men in a Time Machine, To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis

I am fascinated with time travel stories.  Many, such as Back to the Future, deal with paradoxes like accidentally preventing your parents from meeting.  Others, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or TV’s Quantum Leap, with an attempt to change the past for the better.  Connie Willis, however, goes a different route.  Her Oxford Time Travel series includes a novelette, Fire Watch (1982), and four novels: The Doomsday Book (1992), To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997), Blackout (2010), and All Clear (2010).  In Willis’s stories, historians at Oxford University use time travel to study the past and gain insight into history.  They do not wish to change the past, and in fact, take great pains to avoid changing anything in the past.  I recently read To Say Nothing of the Dog, my first Connie Willis novel, and plan to read more.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

First, a primer on the Connie Willis method of time travel.  A “drop” is when someone travels to the past.  A “rendezvous” is a return trip from the past to the present.  The “net” is the actual method of time travel, kind of a time portal.  A technician in a laboratory at Oxford controls the drops, and many rendezvous points can be set up at specific places throughout history,.  The traveler leaves from the lab and appears at one of the rendezvous points in the past.  The technician keeps track of each traveler, who sometimes experiences “slippage,” being dropped in the wrong place or time.  The amount of slippage depends on whether the time continuum has been disrupted by too many drops in a short amount of time, or if someone changed something that wasn’t supposed to be changed.  A traveler can also experience “time lag,” sort of like jet lag, if he or she drops too frequently.  Symptoms of time lag include fatigue, disorientation, becoming overly sentimental, and speaking poetically.

The time continuum protects the past from being changed, especially significant events.  For example, if anyone tries to travel to the Battle of Waterloo, he or she will automatically experience a great amount of slippage.  Anyone who attempts to transport anything from the past to the present, even an oyster fork, will find that either the net will not open, or the item to be transported will somehow be left in the past.  All that can be brought back is the air in the traveler’s lungs, or perhaps a few microbes.

Coventry Cathedral, post-Blitz

To Say Nothing of the Dog takes place in the years 2057, 1940, and 1888.  A few other years also make brief appearances.  The story begins in 1940, with Ned Henry, along with a few other historians, searching through the rubble for an item known as the Bishop’s bird stump at Coventry Cathedral the day after it was bombed in the Blitz.  Ned starts waxing poetic, and is immediately yanked back through the net to 2057, to the infirmary where a nurse diagnoses him with advanced time lag and orders him to have two weeks of uninterrupted bed rest.  Ned argues that Lady Shrapnel will not allow any of the historians to rest, as she is intent on rebuilding Coventry Cathedral as it was in 1940 just before it was bombed.  Lady Shrapnel wants to reproduce the entire Cathedral, down to even the Bishop’s bird stump, which Ned was assigned to locate.

You may be asking, “What is a Bishop’s bird stump?”  I was asking that question myself for much of the novel.  Revealing that bit of information here would spoil the fun of discovery.  Seriously.  Now back to the story…

Desperate to escape the wrath of Lady Shrapnel, Ned escapes from the infirmary and makes his way to the lab.  Professor James Dunworthy (who, by the way, appears in every Oxford Time Travel story) decides to send Ned to 1888 to fix an anomaly in the time continuum that Verity Kindle, another historian, created when she accidentally brought a cat back with her from 1888.  Finch, Dunworthy’s assistant, thinks sending time-lagged Ned to 1888 is a bad idea, but Dunworthy argues that all other historians are unavailable due to Lady Shrapnel’s Cathedral project, and that 1888 is a good place to hide from Lady Shrapnel for his needed rest.  After all, 1888 was a more relaxing, genteel time, and Ned would fit in well there due to his poetic speech.  On the down side, though, Ned is not an expert on the Victorian era and there is no time to prep him.  In addition, Ned is extremely time-lagged and does not remember Dunworthy’s instructions about the cat.

“Wait a minute,” you might say, “I thought you said that nobody could bring anything back from the past!”  Yes, I did, but Verity Kindle did bring back a cat, and it was alive and well when it arrived in 2057.  The time continuum allowed it, and the reason is a mystery.

Ned, meanwhile, arrives in 1888 with a bunch of Victorian luggage and no memory of where he was supposed to go or what he was supposed to do.  He bumps into Terrence St. Trewes, who was supposed to pick up Professor Peddick’s relatives at the railroad station, but Ned inadvertently prevented this by showing up, causing an additional anomaly.  Ned ends up paying the rental of a rowboat to take Terrence down The River Thames to Muchings End where Terrence hopes to woo Tocelyn “Tossie” Mering (the great great great grandmother of Lady Shrapnel), who, by the way, recently lost her cat, Princess Arjumand.

Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog

On the way, the two men hear a splash, and must rescue Professor Peddick, who had been pushed off a bridge by Professor Overforce during an argument about historical theory.  The three men in a boat, along with Terrence’s dog Cyril, mirror the events of a Victorian novel that Ned knows, Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Jerome K. Jerome.  Ned remarks on the similarities in their adventures until he actually sees a rowboat with three men and a dog; one of the men was Jerome K. Jerome, causing Ned to realize that the book wasn’t written until the following year.  Connie Willis dedicated her novel to Robert A. Heinlein, who had, in his novel Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, introduced Willis to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Jerome K. Jerome with dog

And that is how Willis’s novel begins.  The book makes full use of Comedy of Manners, in which Ned’s ignorance of Victorian society is the source of much of the humor.  The story is also a cozy mystery, as Verity Kindle refers often to Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, the detective team from the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.  Willis makes effective use of a McGuffin (the Bishop’s bird stump), an object that drives much of the action, but isn’t very important in and of itself.

Time travel stories are a challenge to write.  I have attempted them myself, and there are many pitfalls.  Willis makes it look easy, and provides much laughter along the way. She is a master at making the time travel seem realistic, and the book reflects detailed research on more than one time period.  To Say Nothing of the Dog is as much a historical novel as it is a sci-fi novel, mystery novel, and literary novel in the Jane Austen tradition.  My favorite scene involves a séance attended by two different fake mediums, both of whom have their own agenda and attempt to outdo each other.

I am looking forward to reading The Doomsday Book, set in the Middle Ages, and Blackout and All Clear (two parts of the same story), both set during World War II.  Connie Willis is one of the true masters of the time travel novel.

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11/22/63: Stephen King Sends His Readers Back in Time

Stephen King

Stephen King

Stephen King takes us down an unfamiliar path, this time through a time portal, in his latest novel 11/22/63.  Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher, becomes an unlikely hero when he is moved to tears as he reads an essay written by a janitor trying to earn his GED.  The essay reveals that the janitor’s father murdered his entire family with a hammer.  A local diner run by Al Templeton serves its signature item, the Fat Burger, at prices so low that locals call it the Cat Burger.  One day, a sickly Al reveals a time portal in the restaurant’s pantry to Jake.  Al seems to have developed advanced lung cancer overnight, and recruits Jake to stop the JFK assassination.

11/22/63

11/22/63 Book Cover

King makes his rules for time travel simple.  This is not hard sci-fi, but more of a character-driven story.  All anyone needs to do is descend a set of invisible stairs inside the pantry, which lead to two minutes before noon on September 9, 1958.  One may stay as long as one desires, but on the return up the stairs, it will only be two minutes later in 2011.  On every return trip to 1958, it is always the same time and day, and the past resets as if nothing happened.  Except for the Yellow Card Man, but more on him later.  Al explains that he had been able to sell his Fat Burgers at such cheap prices because he always bought the meat in 1958.  Since on every new trip the past resets, Al had been buying the exact same meat repeatedly.  Al then tried to stay in the past long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but developed lung cancer before he could make it to 11/22/63.

Why must one wait?  Why not just kill Oswald in 1958?  Al, speaking for King, has an explanation for that.  Nobody is sure that Oswald acted alone, and one must be sure when changing the past.  Plus, the past is obdurate, especially when it involves a major, watershed event like the JFK assassination.  Jake uses Harry Dunning, the janitor, whose essay so moved Jake, as a test case.  Try and save the janitor’s family, and see how hard the past resists.  And, see what consequences occur because of the change.  If all goes well, then proceed to the more difficult task of stopping the assassination.  King seems to side with those who say that Oswald acted alone, so do not expect any elaborate conspiracy theories.

JFK Escapes Assassination

JFK Escapes Assassination alternate history headline

One of King’s strengths is his reconstruction of the 1950s, a simpler time, but King never gets overly sentimental.  Jake finds that everything tastes better in 1958, especially root beer from a soda fountain, but everything smells worse, because it seems like everybody is smoking cigarettes.  The good old days were not perfect.  Jake also discovers that the internet and cell phones did not exist in 1958, so it is much more difficult to find helpful information.  King obviously conducted extensive research, especially in his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald, who comes to life in the novel.  Though he appears in a fictional world, Oswald rings true through his personality and actions.  Much of the suspense comes with the knowledge that Jake must eventually come face to face with Oswald the assassin, but Jake also discovers Oswald the boy with an overbearing mother, and Oswald the spouse-abuser.

My favorite character in 11/22/63 is Sadie Dunhill, the attractive new librarian at a high school in Jodie, Texas where Jake spends time as a teacher.  Sadie provides romantic tension as she and Jake develop a relationship, but Jake is not able to be completely honest with her because he is not supposed to be living in her time.  I found myself becoming just as interested in their story as I was with Oswald’s story.  The scenes between Sadie and Jake are some of the best scenes in the novel, as their relationship takes many twists and turns.

The story takes on mythic overtones as well.  When Jake first appears on the 1958 end of the portal, he must face a gatekeeper known as the Yellow Card Man, who seems to be the only person in 1958 who knows that Jake does not belong there.  Jake must give him a fifty cent piece to pass by him, much like the newly dead who must give a coin to Charon, the ferryman who takes dead souls across the river Styx to the land of the dead.  Al Templeton acts as a mentor figure to Jake, recruiting him for the special mission that Jake at first refuses.  Al acts as Obi-wan to Jake’s Luke, providing the call to adventure and providing him with the means to complete the mission.  A series of tests that become progressively more difficult await Jake in the past, filled with figures that Jake must battle in order to proceed on his quest.  Jake must save certain characters in order to hone the skills needed for the climactic battle with the evil one, Oswald.  Sadie becomes the temptress as Jake moves closer to his goal, tempting him to abandon his mission.

11/22/63 is not typical of King’s work, especially his early work.  King reported that he first conceived of this story back in 1971, just eight years after JFK’s death, but abandoned the idea because of all the research it would require and because he felt that he did not have the literary skills necessary to write such a book.  Today, King has proven himself as a mature, seasoned writer capable of writing anything he sets his mind to.  11/22/63 is a brilliant, complex novel about chasing what might have been, and hoping the future can take care of itself.

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My Interview in Forsaken Stars!

Rob Lopez of Forsaken Stars, and member of the Fresno Sci-fi & Fantasy Writers group, interviewed me!

Check it out HERE.

Posted in Books, Film, Literary, Mystery, Nonfiction, Sci-fi & Fantasy, Theater, Writing | Leave a comment

How Not to Write a Novel

Howard Mittelmark

Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a unique guide to writing fiction that differs from most other writing books.  Mittelmark and Newman’s How Not to Write a Novel focuses on observations of what not to do, which they say is more effective than giving so-called rules for writing that can sometimes be restrictive to an author’s creativity.  If you avoid what definitely doesn’t work, you give yourself a better chance at publication.  The book is full of laugh-out-loud passages that illustrate the countless mistakes unpublished writers often make.

Mittelmark and Newman classify their 200 classic mistakes into categories such as plot, character, style, dialogue, setting, and even cover letters to publishers.  Mistakes include things like plots that take too long to get started, details that unintentionally mislead the reader, vague descriptions, descriptions that sound like they came right out of a catalogue, conflicts about unimportant things, dialogue in which characters say things they already know just to inform the reader, mundane dialogue exchanges, and so on.

For excerpts from their book, go to their website: http://www.hownottowriteanovel.com/

Sandra Newman

Now, I will attempt to write my own passage of fiction that will not be in any danger of publication, and will surely end up in the nearest landfill.  I will attempt to murder any intrigue, thwart any reader interest in any action or character, and mire the story in a quicksand of horrid verbiage.  I will earnestly write a horrible scene for a novel using the techniques the authors recommend.  At the same time, I hope this passage will be so bad it’s funny, in the tradition of Mittelmark and Newman.  Here goes:

Gwendolyn sat on the mahogany chair precisely the way a corpse would not, especially since her heart raced like a ten-speed bicycle that was stuck in the highest speed it could go, probably the tenth speed.  Finally, a young man with freckles that dotted his face like a connect-the-dots puzzle, who wore pleated trousers made of the finest wool blend and cut in a relaxed fit, and a button-down shirt with ornamental hand-stitching along the collar stitched by malnourished children who worked in an overseas sweatshop, sat opposite her. 

“Ted, my darling husband,” Gwendolyn commented.  “You are late on this occasion of our third wedding anniversary.  You are as sensitive as road kill left to rot on the side of a dirt road in summer.” 

“Gwendolyn, my lovely wife,” Ted responded, “I have some very, very bad news to convey to you on this joyous occasion.  It is so wonderful that you are sitting down.” 

“What is it?” she enquired spiritually.  “Are you finally leaving me for that blonde nurse who works at that hospital where you also work as a nurse?” 

“No,” Ted interjected intriguingly.  “It is far, far worse than that.” 

At that moment, a buxom waitress strolled to their table with a perky look on her face.  “Good evening.  My name is Stephanie and I will be your waitress this evening.  Can I start you two off with something from the bar?” 

“I would like a Scotch and soda on the rocks,” Ted announced.  “My wife will have a glass of ice water with a twist of lemon.  Hold the ice.  She is my designated driver for the evening because we both deeply believe in drinking responsibly.” 

“He is so right,” Gwendolyn remarked cheerfully.  “Drinking and driving leads to so many bad things.” 

“I will bring your drinks in a jiffy,” the waitress sang gleefully.  She bounced off, leaving Ted and Gwendolyn alone. 

“What is this very, very bad news, Ted?” Gwendolyn requested mournfully. 

“It’s Jeremy,” Ted intoned listlessly.  “I had to rush him to the doctor.  That’s why I was tardy this evening.” 

“Oh no!” she exclaimed.  “Will he be alright?” 

The waitress suddenly returned.  She plopped down a Scotch and soda in front of Ted, and an ice water with a twist but without the ice in front of Gwendolyn.  “Are you ready to order?” she solicited.

“I am undecided,” Gwendolyn chortled. 

“Would you like to hear our specials?”

“Please,” Ted interrupted. 

The waitress smiled widely, showing off her perfect rows of glistening white teeth, like polished tombstones in a cemetery.  “We have a lovely poached salmon served over a bed of steaming rice pilaf, with a choice of broccoli or cauliflower.  We also have breaded veal served over a generous helping of spaghetti.  Finally, we have country-fried steak served with country gravy, mashed potatoes, apple sauce and green beans.  All our specials are only $8.99 plus tax.” 

“Mmmm,” Gwendolyn mused.  “They all sound so good.  I can’t make up my mind.” 

“I’ll have the veal,” Ted offered. 

“Oooh, good choice.  I’ll have the same.” 

The waitress scribbled the orders on her waitress pad.  “I’ll get your order in right away,” she reported, and skipped off in the direction of the kitchen.

“What about Jeremy?” Gwendolyn questioned sorrowfully. 

“He was coughing so hard, wheezing and struggling to breathe.”

“My poor baby!” Gwendolyn shouted.  “Could the doctor do anything for him?”

“The doctor finally came out with Jeremy in his arms,” Ted related.  “The doctor told me that Jeremy finally coughed up a massive fur ball.  He was purring, curled up in the doctor’s arms.” 

“Thank God,” Gwendolyn related exhaustedly. 

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