Jennifer Astle

March 27, 2009

Why Lost is the Best Television Ever

lost2When the first episode of Lost aired, and we met John Locke, I phoned my mother and told her that I was already on to something.  The name, John Locke, was significant because in the year before, I had taken a course on political philosophy and had read John Locke.  And, for the next couple of seasons I was left wondering if that was a coincidence or not (I highly suspected not).  Then we meet Jeremy Bentham, and my suspicions were confirmed; John Locke’s character is based on early policitical philosophers who discussed such issues as the social contract and utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number and so forth…).  It made perfect sense.

This little revelation is only the beginning.  Literature is regularly mentioned throughout the show; from Stephen Hawking to Stephen King, from Of Mice and Men to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I can’t help but wonder if the Lost book club could provide us with additional insight into the story line (which for those of you who think it’s a bunch of 20-somethings smoking pot, has been established since the beginning). Add to this, the revelation that J.J. Abrams has bought the film rights to King’s The Dark Tower (for nineteen dollars, no less), and the obvious influence those books have had on the show itself (see time travel, paradox, reluctant leaders).

I don’t watch much T.V.  In fact, I purposefully avoid it, selecting my viewing pleasures carefully and patronizing the Internet for access, but Lost had me from hello.  Some may complain that the story line itself is lost, but I would argue that this is one of the most intelligent shows in our history, and draws heavily on classic literature, theory, and science to bring us 44 minutes of entertainment.  If you can’t follow it, perhaps you need to hit the books.


March 22, 2009

Weekend Reading: Writer’s Block and My Overflowing Bookshelf

procrastination-main_fullWriter’s Block.  That terrible, ever-lurking antithesis to “the flow” of which writers speak is a very real thing.  To someone who does not write extensively, it may seem easy to cast the notion off as silly, and inextricably linked to ego, but in reality, it can interupt a writer’s work and frustrate the bejesus out of them.  Flow, on the other hand, is that glorious pace a writer can find where the words seem to come from the fingers (or pen) first and the mind later.  It’s a constant race to keep up with yourself before the next moment flutters out of your mind like a butterfly and is lost forever.  This can last four hours before the writer is broken from the trance and brought back to the reality of dinner that must be made, day jobs that must be worked, and bills that must be paid.

I don’t know what other writer’s do when they experience Writer’s Block.  I’ve found sites for writing prompts and ideas, but ultimately a prompt that says “write about a red ball” is unlikely to shake me out of reality, and back into that dream world that writers create for themselves.  Someone once told me to keep my head above the clouds.  My immediate reaction was that it was mis-phrased; it should have read keep your head out of the clouds.  I didn’t understand properly then what was meant by that, but I do now.  Above the clouds is where creativity flows, and sometimes it is impossible not to come down, into the clouds,  and subsequently back into reality where there is traffic, phones ringing, appointments, and all of the mundane practices that make up this thing we call life.

When I have Writer’s Block, I read.  I’m always reading something, and in fact, I can hardly remember a period of time where I wasn’t completely absorbed in one book or another.  For the year I wrote literally nothing, I was completely wrapped up in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, a seven book monolith that makes The Stand look like a Sunday paper.

This may explain the current state of my bookshelf.  I’ve rationalized my Writer’s Block down to a few things, including the fact that I have my first short story making its rounds in literary magazines and contests, and somewhere deep inside me I am waiting for judgement/affirmation.  The second cause is related to research.  My book-in-progress is deeply rooted in religion, mythology,  psychology, and to some extent, sociology.  At 20,000 words I simply hit a point where the idea was no longer enough, I needed background knowledge to keep the train chugging along.

So, for a little change, I am offering my weekend reading list.

1984 by George Orwell

Until now, I hadn’t read this book.  Not only did I know that I must read it because it is a classic, but the subject matter interests me greatly.  I can hardly put it down and it has been dominating my reading for the last week. I plan to finish the last 30 or so pages today.  While reading it I have to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1949, and renew my admiration for Orwell’s construction of a future society.  As a sociologist at heart, this book is fascinating.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I found Sebold during a seminar course on Ethnography in my undergraduate degree.  Our professor assigned Lucky, a biographical account of her rape while attending college.  The Lovely Bones was her next book, which also took me in.  I expect The Almost Moon to live up to my expectations of Sebold’s ability to capture me.

2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market

Otherwise known as the bible.  I am going through this volume painstakingly, absorbing all of the information about the publishing industry I can cram into my 26 year old brain.  What are agents, publishers, and editors telling me?  How can I use it in the future?  I know that I can break down countless boundaries if I am prepared, and I intend to be.

The Lilith Monographs Vol. I: Immaculata by Joshua Seraphim

This is directly related to my book, in which the main character is Lilith, or rather my version of her.

Lilith: The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz

See above.

Glimmer Train Spring 2009 Issue 70

Glimmer Train is the first literary magazine I have subscribed to.  The first issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday and since then it has been waiting patiently underneath 1984, waiting to be picked up next.  I’m reading it partly to learn what other writer’s are selling, to compare as objectively as I can, the quality of the work therein versus my own, and to absorb great literature from the future authors of classics that will come about in my life time.  As my writing income grows, so too will my collection of literary magazines.  For those who do not subscribe, I highly recommend it.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This is a slow read for me.  I can only keep my attention focused on congressional history and legislative process for so long.  I also feel this is a necessary read.  Obama is an eloquent and moving writer, and knowing full well that he will become known as one of the great thinkers of our time, I am compelled to read through the political jargon to hear the message behind it.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis

This was recommended to me by a friend who works in the legal system in the United Kingdom.  It focuses on a public defender in Chicago, named Marijane Placek, a “snakeskin boot-wearing, Shakespeare quoting nonconformist.”  Needless to say, she knows my taste.

What’s on yours?

March 5, 2009

Writers Love Films About Writers

mouth-of-madnessSome may argue that writing is an indulgent enterprise at the least, and a narcissistic one at the most, so it should come as no surprise that writers (myself included) love films about writers.  No, it’s not that writer’s block is all that interesting to watch on the silver screen (unless you are Hunter S. Thompson), rather, it’s like looking into a mirror that is facing another mirror.  Films about writers offer a double shot of creativity; that which is offered by the writer them self, and that which is offered by the (presumably) fictional writer.  Some have gone further still, at least in literature.  Stephen King, of whom I am so fond, wrote himself into his epic Dark Tower series, as a character interacting with the story’s leading man, Roland, and his cohorts.  You have to have a brass set, and the credentials to back them up to go that far.

So, that being said, here are my top ten favorite films about writers.

10 ) In the Mouth of Madness (1994).  When famous horror writer, Sutter Cane goes missing, it is up to insurance investigator, John Trent, to locate him on behalf of his publisher.  Trent soon discovers that Cane’s writing is more powerful than he could have imagined, and is caught up in a plot that goes from marketing strategy to supernatural rather quickly.  Writer has boogey man issues, writer tackles issues through writing, writer makes boogey man come alive with writing.

9 ) Misery (1990).  Stephen King has a knack for writing books that translate easily to the screen.  Of course, King fans like myself are waiting with bated breath to see the results of The Dark Tower series on which King has collaborated with J.J. Abrams of Lost and Cloverfield (2008).  Anyway, Misery is the story of a writer, Paul, who is struggling to complete his latest book.  On his way to a winter hideaway, he has a little accident and is rescued by Annie, his “number one fan”.  Of course, no good can come of a neurotic fan who lives in seclusion and is especially apt with an axe, now can there?

8 ) Almost Famous (2000). Guilty pleasure alert! What writer wouldn’t want to waste an hour or two watching the adventures of a teenage boy, William, who is hired as a freelance journalist for Rolling Stone?  Add famous 1970’s rock band, (in)famous female groupies of the blonde variety, and narcotics, and you’ve got yourself a rockin’ movie.

7 ) Barfly (1987).  I have to admit, I only came by this one recently.  You’ll have to excuse the delay, considering I was five when this movie was released.  But, I am climbing on the Mickey Rourke Comeback Train just like everybody else.  Henry doesn’t realize he’s a “writer” per se.  In fact, he doesn’t realize much, what with his raging alcoholism.  He gets drunk, and the delicate genius is revealed.  The best part was this; I know an artist or two who might very well have studied this film and then actually emulated Henry.  I am down with the whole troubled artist thing, but…yeah.

6  ) Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).  Oh, Hunter, what would we do without you?  Gonzo journalism and Hunter S. Thompson at their finest.  Football games, hustlers, militia and politics, all done in his signature style, as portrayed by Bill Murray.  Of course, Johnny Depp has also played the infamous Hunter S. Thompson, but everybody and their dog has heard of Fear and Loathing, so I play the underdog.

5 ) Capote (2005).  Another epic film about a “real-life” writer.  Truman Capote is arguably the father of the true crime genre, with the chilling book In Cold Blood being his child. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Capote with all of the nuances and neurosis I would have expected, and conveys Capote’s interesting tale well.  Two thumbs up and an Oscar to boot.

4 ) Secret Window (2004).  This Stephen King page-to-screen adaptation is focused on newly-divorced writer, Mort Rainey, as he encounters a strange man who accuses him of plagiarism.  Of course, story stealing is only the beginning of the bad behavior Mort has been up to.

3 ) The Hours (2002).  A chick flick for ladies with brains if there ever was one.  This riveting movie follows three female lead characters as they engage with Virigina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, including Woolf herself as she writes it.  You’ll either be bored, or enthralled, but either way you’ll be in tears.

2 ) Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Harold Crick is your average, boring, middle-aged tax man, until he starts hearing a voice narrating his life.  Of course, in another striking example of writer writes, writer makes exist, the narrator is in fact a struggling novelist suffering from a case of writer’s block that can only be cured by killing off the story’s character, Harold. With this film, Will Ferrell proved that he can actually act, instead of just act funny. Plus, I am an absolute sucker for a dark comedy.

1 ) The Basketball Diaries (1995).  I have watched this film so many times, I can recite the script.  Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jim Carroll, a kid growing up in New York, and scribbling in a composition book in between shooting hoops and shooting up.  Before James Frey there was Jim Carroll.

February 26, 2009

Book Review: Duma Key by Stephen King

200px-duma_keyI must admit up front that it is tremendously difficult for me to NOT like Stephen King’s writing. From the time I read Gerald’s Game at the age of thirteen (I highly doubt that 13 year olds were the target market for that particular book…), I was hooked.  Since then I could be considered what Mr. King refers to often as Constant Reader.

Duma Key is the story of Edgar Freemantle, a millionaire who loses his arm in a construction accident, and eventually moves to the Florida coast while he tries to rebuild his life.  During the course of his new self discovery, Edgar learns that he can paint.  However, those of you who know King know that there must be something supernatural behind his new found talent.

This is a good place to note that I read Duma Key directly off the heels of The Stand.  I’d always had The Stand on my bookshelf, but hadn’t gotten around to reading the 1000+ page behemoth.  Those of you familiar with the book know that a, if not the central protagonist is Abigail Freemantle, or Mother Abigail as she is more frequently referred to.  Coincidence?  The Dark Tower fans might not think so.

Back to Duma Key.  The first half of the book draws you in, as you witness Edgar advance from his hospital bed to a small art gallery where he is quickly becoming a local celebrity.  King describes the painting richly, and could convince the reader that he is a painter himself.

Edgar’s experience painting while living in “Big Pink”, an old beach house owned by Elizabeth Eastlake, the local eccentric and rich lady, inevitably evolves into something more sinister.  Without offering any spoilers, I say that when King discovered this aspect of the story, he could have gone in a completely different direction than the one Duma Key taken in the second half of the book .

That being said, the direction he does take is true Stephen King form; a mixture of personal and supernatural failures and triumphs, rooted as firmly in the human condition as it is in tales of ghosts and other menacing creatures.   There is, however, a moment in the book where you will find yourself scratching your head and saying “Where the hell is he going with this?”  If you can get through that part, you will be satisfied with the result, especially if you are fond of rainbow colored frogs with “teef”.

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