Litlets

March 7, 2011

Book Review: A Salute to Spanish Poetry, by John Howard Reid

Filed under: books,Poetry,Reviews — crcb @ 9:06 pm
Tags: , , ,
A Salute to Spanish Poetry: 100 Masterpieces from Spain & Latin America, rendered into English verse by John Howard Reid. Lulu, 2010.

Reid includes a large and diverse group of poets here — 57, if I count correctly. I got that figure by paging through the biographical section, which is called an “index,” but isn’t. There is no table of contents. The usual suspects appear — Jimenez, Lorca, Anonymous — but there are also some surprises, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I don’t read Spanish, and in any case the Spanish originals aren’t included in this book, so I can’t address the linguistic accuracy of Reid’s translations, or compare the form of the translation with that of the original. The translations flow well enough, except when they’re interrupted by explanatory notes that should be moved to the foot of the page, as in Julio Herrera y Reissig’s “Home from the Fields.” Mostly, any one translation by itself seems fine, if a bit stereotypically “Spanish poetry.” Some are formally adventurous. But take them together, and they all sound as if they were written by the same person — probably beside a fountain at twilight, the air fragrant with blossoms and filled with the sounds of cicadas and plaintive guitars. Is there really that little difference, in the original, between the voices of Machado and Mistral?

The book includes black-and-white photos of cliched Spanish scenery which add little.

Note: I received this book free for review purposes, but received no other compensation for this review. Surprised?

January 21, 2011

Software for Writers Review: FocusWriter

The rising interest among writers in “distraction-free workspaces” is a bit of a fad and a delusion. Focus comes from the writer, not the software. However, I’ve long been looking for a stable, free text editor that provides a running word count and timed writing. FocusWriter fits the bill nicely.

FocusWriter is a free, open source word processing application, with versions available for Windows, Mac and Linux. I composed this review using the PortableApps version of FocusWriter for Windows. I have not reviewed the non-portable version, or the Mac or Linux versions. It’s possible the PortableApps version has more limitations than the others.

Pros:

  • Can save documents as text or Rich Text Format (RTF). While this isn’t a wide variety, these two formats are very portable.
  • Customizable menu bar, so you can include only the items you most often use.
  • Easy to create new themes (color and font schemes) for the interface.
  • Live document statistics avoid the necessity of running a word count anytime you want to know where you are.
  • Session management for working with groups of related documents.
  • Daily goals can be set for word count or writing time.
  • Spell checking included, and can be live or not.
  • Free and open source.

Cons:

  • Can open only text or RTF file types. Ability to import more file types would be handy.
  • I’d rather the menu bar and status bar not hide themselves. (Really, how much of a distraction is the menu bar? Do writers typically put off writing by playing with the “Save As” command?) I’d like to check my word count at a glance, without moving the mouse. I don’t see any way to change this in Preferences.
  • Project management would be a useful addition. Unless I’m missing something, a document must be open to be part of a session.
  • Theme creation is slightly unintuitive, in that “background” and “foreground” do not refer to the page and the text, but to the frame and the page. The terminology could be clearer.

Summary

FocusWriter is a simple but flexible tool, capable of being used either as a text editor or simple word processor. By design, it lacks the advanced capabilities of more sophisticated applications, but based on my initial experience with it, FocusWriter bids fair to become my tool of choice for slamming out a first draft — especially during NaNoWriMo.

November 7, 2010

Book Review: Brewing Fine Fiction

Filed under: books,e-books,Fiction,reading,Reviews,What I'm Reading — crcb @ 10:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Brewing Fine Fiction: Advice for Writers from the Authors at Book View Cafe (http://bookviewcafe.com/)
edited by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and Pati Nagle

Brewing Fine Fiction is a collection of fiction-writing articles by many authors. I read the ebook version, but it is also available as a printed book. (Disclaimer: I received this book for free through LibraryThing. Reviewing the book, whether positively or negatively, makes it more likely that I will receive other books in the future. I am receiving no other compensation for this review.)

The articles in BFF are primarily about genre fiction, mostly of the fantastic variety (fantasy and science fiction), but most would be just as relevant to mainstream fiction. Authors ranges from the famous (Ursula K. Le Guin) to the less well known, at least to me (Chris Dolley). The book is arranged into five categories: The Basics, Craft, Research, Marketing Your Work and The Writer’s Life.

I find little to take issue with in this collection. The distinction between The Basics and Craft escapes me; I can see any article in either section being put in the other. A couple of pieces made me wonder whether the editors were padding the book out to a contractually determined page count. For instance, “How to Escape from the Slushpile,” by Madeleine E. Robins, has the virtue of brevity (about 500 words), but makes only two points: follow standard submission and formatting procedures, and write a good book. Any writer who finds this helpful isn’t ready for most of the other articles gathered in BFF.

But the bulk of the articles are far better than this, and any fiction writer would find much in here to like and use. Standouts for me include Sherwood Smith’s “Sweating the Little Stuff” and Judith Tarr’s “The Alien in the Pasture: A Brief Disquisition on Horses for Writers.” The latter should be required reading for any writer of swords-and-sorcery fantasy, or westerns. (I’ve been guilty of treating horses as grass-fueled motorcycles in some of my attempts at fiction.)

One of the nice little features of this book is the use of literary quotations between articles, for reinforcement or counterpoint.

Overall, Brewing Fine Fiction is a worthwhile addition to any fiction writer’s reference collection. I know there are some articles I’ll be going back to multiple times.

May 27, 2009

Book Review: What Day Is It?

Filed under: books,Reviews — crcb @ 5:55 am
Tags: , , , ,

What Day Is It? A Family’s Journey Through Traumatic Brain Injury
by Rebekah E. Vandergriff, LMSW
Bear’s Nest Press, 2008
ISBN: 0982052200

Full disclosure: the author is a close friend of mine, and I make a few cameo appearances in this book.

In 1989, Becky Dyer–model, cocktail waitress and party girl–was in a car accident that left her comatose. This book, part memoir and part advocacy, is the tale of her slow, painful rebirth as Rebekah Vandergriff–college graduate, wife, mother and social worker.

Let’s get the book’s shortcomings out of the way first; they are few. A handful of typos and grammatical errors made it through the proofreading process. A couple of brief passages aren’t entirely clear. Vandergriff sometimes switches from the personal to the clinical too abruptly. These are minor flaws in an important work.

Someone has said that what we want from a book, any book, is to know the author. Vandergriff has been my friend for years, but after reading this memoir, I know her better and appreciate her more. What Day Is It? displays her courage, not only in the way she meets her challenges, but in her fearless honesty. Vandergriff is a serious person, but not a somber one, and this also is reflected in her writing. Her journey is excruciating, but she is helped along the way–and so are her readers–by a sense of humor, even if it sometimes verges on the cynical. (“The general public does not have the patience–if money is not being exchanged–to wait for a stranger moving in slow motion…”)

Vandergriff’s story is inspiring, but if it were only that, it would be one uplifting tale of many. She has intelligence, courage and drive, and she should be proud of her accomplishments. She also had advantages not available to everyone who suffers Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). She had insurance. She had a supportive network of family and friends. She had a mother who was wise, strong, and determined to help her daughter become independent. What matters in this book is not so much her victories (though they are important), but her insights. She’s experienced TBI from the inside, and she articulates for us the pains, the challenges, and, yes, the joys, in a way clinical descriptions can never do. She also discusses rehabilitation and coping in practical terms, including topics that are often neglected, such as TBI and sexuality. (No, a brain injury does not usually make one asexual, however much caregivers might want to believe otherwise.)

Anyone close to somebody with TBI, or who works with TBI patients, should read this book. It will give them not only hope, but understanding and practical wisdom.

What Day Is It? A Family’s Journey Through Traumatic Brain Injury

by Rebekah E. Vandergriff, LMSW

Bear’s Nest Press, 2008
ISBN: 0982052200

February 16, 2009

Software for Writers Review: Q10 – Updated

Update:

  • The QuickText function is now working for me. I don’t know what I was doing wrong before.
  • Only timed writing has an audio cue. Wordcount-targeted writing has only visual cues.
  • I haven’t tried the spellchecker again. That’s a feature I’m too cocky to use very often, anyway.

~~~~~~

Introduction

Q10, a free, full-screen text editor, is similar in concept to TextRoom, which I previously reviewed. TextRoom, I found, has its share of problems. Q10 has a few shortcomings, but it easily wins any comparison with TextRoom.

Q10 is available at http://www.baara.com/q10/. I installed the PortableApp version on a thumb drive, and that’s the version I’m using to write this review.

Pros

  • The status bar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • Q10 includes modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit.
  • Q10 saves files in a plain text format, so they can be opened by any text editor.
  • The background color, foreground color and fonts for both the work area and the status bar are configureable. (I’ve set mine to a blue background with white text, for nostalgia’s sake.)
  • You can set the character encoding to UTF-8 or ANSI, and you can set the line-endings to match your platform: Windows, UNIX or Mac.
  • Paragraphs beginning with two dots (..) are considered notes, and do not figure in the word count.
  • Q10 includes a QuickText feature for commonly-used words and phrases (but see below).
  • Q10 includes a spellchecker (but see below).
  • Autocorrection is included and customizable.
  • Q10 has a small footprint.
  • It’s free!

Cons

  • Although it’s free, it’s not Open Source.
  • Q10 is available only for Windows.
  • The documentation consists of one pop-up window listing keyboard shortcuts.
  • If you want audio cues when you reach your writing target, you have to put up with a typewriter sound effect. It would be nice if that sound effect could be disabled separately.
  • I haven’t been able to get the QuickText feature to work.
  • Running the spellchecker crashed the application (but only when I asked it to “change all”).

Summary

Q10 has pretty much everything I was hoping for in this type of text editor. Its defects, for me, are in the nature of annoyances. If it lacks many features of such applications as NoteTab or Notepad++, that’s by design. What it’s meant to do, it does well, a bit of bugginess aside. I expect to use Q10 quite a lot.

February 15, 2009

Some Thoughts on The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison; introductory material by Paul Edmund Thomas

Coleridge, and others after him, have written of the “willing suspension of disbelief” involved in reading imaginative literature, but I’ve seen nothing on the “willing suspension of disapproval.” Just as we must accept the physical world of the story – whether it includes dragons, shadow governments, or people who talk in aphorisms – we also must accept the moral world of the story.

For The Worm Ouroboros, this means accepting the glorification of war, which is implicit throughout. The virtues the characters admire are warrior virtues. It has this in common with the Icelandic sagas and Homeric epics that, according to Paul Edmund Thomas’s introduction, were major influences on Eddison.

I don’t read Icelandic or Greek, so I can’t say how much of Eddison’s prose style was based on his sources. Ouroboros is written in a pseudo-archaic dialect of Eddison’s own invention. This is part of the world the reader must accept. However, after a few chapters, I found the style mostly unobtrusive, sometimes delightful, and only rarely painful. As Tolkien and others have noted, the names of the characters don’t seem to belong to any unified cultural context, but I don’t think that’s a flaw. There are obviously a number of nations in Eddison’s world, with much contact and commerce among them. In the mundane world, my own circle of acquaintances provides names from at least five continents, and from too many languages to estimate.

Thomas, despite my snarky comments in an earlier post, is understandably defensive about Eddison’s powers of characterization. The heroes are mostly indistinguishable from one another. The one who stands out in my memory is Brandoch Daha, who is both a dandy and a berserker – and having told you that, I’ve told you all I remember of him. Eddison sometimes does a better job with the villains. King Gorice XII combines courage, cunning, charisma, and a number of other alliterative traits. The aptly-named Corsus, who panders his own daughter for a command position, is also memorable. But the most intriguing and nuanced character in the novel is the counselor Lord Gro, a bit player whose fidelity to his own principles (and they are not selfish ones) leads him to be a traitor to multiple sides.

As you might expect from a tale weak on character, events are plot-driven. Despite (or maybe because of) the careful construction of the symmetrical narrative, which circles around to bite its own tail, the novel feels episodic. Most acts and decisions seem to arise from force of plot rather than force of character. The “and so” is provided by a scheme outside the world of the story; within, all is “and then.”

According to Thomas, many readers have a problem with the beginning of the novel, which introduces a quickly-dropped framing narrative. I have more trouble with the conclusion, where the exaltation of war becomes explicit. If you can buy into that ethos, the ending gives the body of the tale more meaning. If your morals, like mine, are a little old and stiff and just won’t bend that far, the ending makes the main part of the book meaningless.

But I shouldn’t let that be the last word. I enjoyed the novel enough to go on to Eddison’s Zimiamvia trilogy, as soon as I find the volume I’m missing.

January 18, 2009

Software for Writers Review: StorYBook

StorYBook is free, open-source software for novelists. (Other writers too, supposedly, but I think that’s a stretch.)

There are novelists who outline their plots, write biographies of all their major characters, and create many maps, diagrams and charts before typing, “Chapter 1. Scubby Malone rubbed his unshaven chin…” StorYBook is for them. It is not for me.

If you want to write fiction in a more structured way than I do, this might be just what you’re looking for. It looks like it would be very good at organizing chronology, characters, settings and subplots (“strands”). I’m a geek, and I’ve created spreadsheets and templated documents to do that for me. Even so, it sometimes takes me a few minutes to find out how old the main character would be in 1977, for instance, or whether his mother was in rehab when he got beaten up after school. (Is it obvious I write comedies?)

StorYBook constrains narrative thought into a modular format, which could be good or bad, depending on the novel and the novelist. From my limited tinkering, it seems rigid. For instance, when creating a new scene, you have to specify a date. Even the requirement to specify a character’s gender might be an annoyance if you’re writing speculative fiction. Male/Female could be too many choices for the Aeeoia (who are sapient ameboids), too few for the Khekhlee (who need seven), and too fixed for the Aglogline (who switch genders every few years).

The pros and cons below are based on about forty-five minutes of testing, and when I say there’s no way to do X or Y in StorYBook, it could mean only that I didn’t find the way.

Pro:

  • Open Source and free (GPL license)
  • Cross-platform: works on Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Interface is relatively uncluttered
  • Organizes chronology, characters, locations and plot strands
  • Provides a variety of reports and views
  • Reports can be exported to various formats
  • Scenes can be imported from text files
  • Drag-and-drop to move scenes, add a character to a scene, etc.

Con:

  • Many parts of the interface are not immediately clear: the button icons are often enigmatic, and it’s not obvious up front how Projects, Parts, Strands, Chapters and Scenes all fit together
  • No local help: must be connected to the internet
  • No way to export a manuscript (only reports)
  • No way to import larger components than scenes
  • Too rigidly structured for some writing styles

December 6, 2008

Software for Writers Review: TextRoom

TextRoom 0.2.5 is, judging by the numbering, a beta version, and many of its shortcomings undoubtedly stem from that. According to the software’s wiki (http://code.google.com/p/textroom/), TextRoom is “simple open-source full-screen rich text editor for writers.” Basic formatting is enabled: font, font size, italic, underline and bold. TextRoom is available for Windows and Linux at http://code.google.com/p/textroom/downloads/list.

Cons:

  • The interface is unintuitive.
  • The help documentation consists of one pop-up window keyboard listing shortcuts. I cannot find any further documentation, either in the program itself or online.
  • There is no visual indication of selected text.
  • There seems to be no way to change the default document font; it must be changed for each document. Default foreground/background colors can be changed (I have mine set to a nostalgic blue background/white foreground scheme), and the default font for the status bar can be changed.
  • Formatting is glitchy. For example, I often have to press the prescribed keyboard shortcut twice to turn on bold, italic or underline.
  • Documents are saved in HTML 4 (strict) format, though the default extension is TXR. No other options are provided.
  • For the timed writing mode, it is not clear what units of time are being used. I tried setting it for “2” and starting the timed mode, but after three minutes I could not tell that anything had happened.
  • Saving documents has a bug that made me lose one version of this review because it was saved as an empty document.

Pros:

  • The statusbar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • There are modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit, and a deadline feature.
  • One nice feature of the wiki is a list of alternatives to TextRoom.
  • The interface and feature set are deliberately kept simple so that writers, who are TextRoom’s target users, can focus on one thing: writing.

Overall impression:
I find two features of TextRoom useful: the running word count (something I would like to see standard in word processing software), and the targeted modes for writing exercises. However, the bug in saving documents is impossible for me to overlook, and I will not be using the current version of TextRoom. I will keep an eye on future releases, though.

January 6, 2008

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

Filed under: Movies,Musicals,Reviews — crcb @ 5:47 pm
Tags: , , ,
Mood: tonsorial
 
I’ve been familiar with this musical for a long time. I’ve seen it on stage, I’ve heard the Broadway cast recording, and I’ve seen the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn version on video. I approached this movie with equal parts hope and fear; the hopes were mostly fulfilled, and the fears mostly groundless.
 
Director Tim Burton understands well the differences between stage and screen, and he adapted Stephen Sondheim’s musical wonderfully to a more intimate medium. Sondheim has expressed a preference for actors who can sing over singers who can act, and that’s what we get here. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing well enough (at least, if you already know the lyrics and can fill in the occasional inaudible word), but the acting is outstanding. The interpretations of the characters are both darker and more vulnerable than others I’ve seen: Sweeney is more obsessed, Mrs. Lovett scarier and more pathetic, Judge Turpin less conflicted and more self-aware. One small part is changed in a big way: Toby is no half-wit, but a streetwise, gin-loving urchin who hasn’t — until the end — lost his innocence.
 
I do have minor quibbles. The relationship between Todd and Mrs. Lovett is too distant for all of the lyrics to make sense, for instance, and Antony is a little too sweet and sensitive. But on the whole the movie works as (take your pick) a revenge fantasy, a dark comedy, or a modern Victorian melodrama.
 
It might be too early to call, but I nominate Sweeney Todd for the best movie of the 21st century.

December 11, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

Filed under: Movies,Poetry,Reviews — crcb @ 1:56 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Mood: vulpine

I was probably twelve when I first read Beowulf. I most recently read it when Seamus Heaney’s translation came out. There was no way I was going to miss this movie.

Of course, I saw it in 3D. Every movie should be in 3D. It’s really the only way to view a movie. If the technology becomes widespread, however, let’s hope moviemakers get tired of the let’s-make-them-duck gimmicks.

The movie version turns the epic poem into a comic book. I don’t mean that pejoratively. There are some good comic book movies out there, and I don’t care what their original inspiration was. This one, however, is only decent.

First of all, I’m not a fan of the technology used. It’s an uneasy blend of live action and animation. I suppose the studio didn’t want to spend the special effects budget needed for live action, but in trying to make it photorealistic, they shut off many artistic options. (With live action, we could have had real naked shots of Angelina Jolie–but then, we would have seen the spot between Anthony Hopkins’s groin and thigh, too.)

Second, the gimmicks. I’ve mentioned one above, the “It’s coming at you!” trick. Even more annoying was the coy hide-and-seek with Beowulf’s genitals (he fought Grendel naked), which went on far too long.

Third, the story. I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen it. Let me just say, the book will not ruin the story for you. You can safely read it. Grendel’s mother’s motivations are inscrutable, even for a demon. But then, no one in the movie acts with any kind of psychological consistency. The characters are 3D in appearance only. The battle scenes could have been more enjoyable if the laws of physics had been given at least a bit part.

If you like science fiction/fantasy movies, you won’t waste your time or money with Beowulf. If you miss it, though, you should feel little regret.

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