Wednesday, February 25, 2009


For those of you not familiar with Catholic hijinks, Lent is a season stretching from Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) to Easter (roughly forty days). Usually we give something up or do something above and beyond what we would do in our normal daily life. As I kid, I didn't really like Lent. My parents would usually MAKE me do something like giving up Nintendo (harsh!) or was there one year we actually attempted giving up TV as a family??? If we did, I blocked that Lent out due to trauma. 

In recent years though, I have actually gotten some valuable life changes out of it. The first big Lent I had was my sophomore year in college. It was a big year for me. I was teaching religious ed. classes at the private Catholic school in Iowa City (Regina), I sponsored a good friend going through the RCIA program (to join the Church), and I was a leader and participant in several retreats at the Newman Catholic Center. I wanted that year's Lent to be a BIG one. One Lent tradition for Catholics is to not eat meat on fridays. I decided to give up meat altogether. I wasn't really thinking of becoming a vegetarian permanently, but that is what ended up happening. And I have been all the happier for it ever since.

My Junior year of college, I was in Rome for the spring semester. Obviously, the Easter season is a big deal there. The city turns into a mecca for the six weeks of Lent. It is insane. I saw the Pope, went to Good Friday Mass at the Vatican, and walked through Saint Peter's Square on a near daily basis.

Last spring, when I had already graduated, I took up my running habit from my cross country days in high school. I hadn't run consistently since I had gone to college and thought the semester off would be a good time to work a running routine back into my DNA. Lent was the perfect excuse to force myself to do it, and a year later, I completed my first half marathon. 

What does this have to do with writing? Well, now you see where I am going: Lent. It's a great way to force yourself to do things. And I seem to take it fairly seriously. Maybe it is self manipulation to do something that I know I should be doing anyway, but if it works, it works. I think I can write one short story per week. When Lent is over, I will have six (albeit probably rough) short stories. I wrote a 12 page short story in more or less one day last week, and feel like I have caught a writing bug that I need to take advantage of before it goes away for another string of months! Is this crazy or even doable? Talk to me on Easter. Also, now that I have declared my intentions (or shall we say Lententions???), I have to adhere to them. Shucks. Happy Lenting. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review of CORALINE

As I sat down wearing my theatre-issue 3D glasses for Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novella, I was excited! Coraline the film follows Coraline the blue-haired, chuck-wearing, Michigan-girl protagonist (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her move to the woods of Oregon with her family to an old mansion shrouded in mystery. Coraline's parents are both writers, trying desperately to reach a deadline with no time for a lonely and frustrated daughter. While exploring her new house, Coraline begins to discover several peculiarities including an odd neighbor boy who isn't allowed to talk about the house, two nineteen-twenties era actresses living with a collection of taxidermy dogs in the basement, a russian circus performer (with some very interesting body hair) who lives in the attic, and, of course, a door that leads to a parallel dreamworld! 

At the outset, everything in this netherworld seems custom made for Coraline and her complaints about the real world. In this other world, her parents are attentive to her every need, the annoying neighbor boy doesn't talk (just smiles creepily), and Coraline gets to attend theatre performances and a circus of mice. The catch comes, however, when Coraline's new mother wants Coraline to trade in her eyes for a pair of buttons and join this world and its other button-eyed inhabitants forever. The more Coraline resists, the more this dreamworld turns into a nightmare, and Coraline must save herself, her real parents, and even some trapped souls from the sinister reality of this other world. Sounds awesome, right? And it is, for the most part.

Let's be clear. The stop-animation in the film is beautiful. The 3D glasses component also adds to the illusion and lets the viewer really see the layers of Coraline's macabre, surreal, attractive, textured universe. Coraline strikes a remarkably consistent tone of being in a dark lucid dream, even in the parts of the film that take place in "the real world." The dialogue is interesting and unexpected. The score by Bruno Coulais is darkly etherial and fills the dusty spaces of Coraline's gothic house with a cathedral-esque atmosphere. Coraline is a delight to the senses, especially to those with darker tastes. One is almost content to linger in Coraline's world indefinitely, continuing to explore its rich and haunting layers for hours.

Indeed, I feel that the first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the film does just what I described above. It lingers and explores and reveals itself to us over the course of an hour. Some might actually describe the first half of the movie as slow, and I don't completely disagree, but I don't mind it either. The film knows it is showing us something visionary, and it gives the viewer plenty of time to take everything in. While I was sitting in the theatre, I heard multiple "oooh's" and "aaahs" as this door would open or as that flower would bloom. 

But the film has to come to an end, and at some point, the plot must take over in order to wrap things up. While the first half or two-thirds of the movie had this languid dream-like pace, the climatic action of the third act felt rushed. I have not read Neil Gaiman's book, but I found the game sequence a little unfulfilling. For all this world's mystery, vividness, and terror, Coraline manages to unravel the whole thing pretty easily in about ten minutes, and with a rock. There are also some plot points that could be tighter or better integrated into the film. Again, the rock. Where does it come from? Why do the two old actresses have it? How do they seem to know that Coraline needs it? Also, the cat. The cat is really the only concrete connection between the real world and the other world that remains unchanged. We are told that he can move in and out of the world as he wishes, more or less without fear. Why? Again, I haven't read the book, but I think these are loose ends that could be better explained without that much effort (certainly by people as creative as Gaiman and Selick), and having them better integrated into the logic of Coraline's world would only serve the overall illusion. 

I realize the film has largely marketed itself as a kids' movie, but I think most viewers will sense that it is reaching for something greater: timelessness. Will it become the cult hit for alternative-dressing highschool and college kids like The Nightmare Before Christmas has? (something it is obviously striving for--there are a lot of midwestern hipster girls who will be attracted to Dakota Fanning's credible attempt at a Michigan accent, Coraline's chuck sneakers, blue hair, colorful leggings, and hand-knit sweaters) Or will it achieve something less permanent like James and the Giant Peach or The Corpse Bride (other films hailing from the Selick and/or Tim Burton school of stop animation)? I think Coraline gets closer than (and surpasses at least visually) all the rest, but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Scott Blackwood's WE AGREED TO MEET JUST HERE and the 2009 AWP Conference

So, some pretty exciting stuff is going on in my school at the moment. It's a thrilling time to be a student in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Roosevelt University. First of all, my fiction teacher and director of our program Scott Blackwood has a brand new novel out today called We Agreed to Meet Just Here. I've had it pre-ordered for a few weeks now and can't wait to dig in. We Agreed to Meet Just Here was the recipient for the AWP Award Series in the Novel in 2007. I haven't gotten to read it yet, but here are some reviews I pulled off New Issue Press' website:

We Agreed to Meet Just Here is a lyrical mystery about disappearance, told in precise and luminous prose. A young lifeguard in an Austin suburb vanishes one night while returning from a screening of The Third Man. A doctor, ill with cancer, goes missing from his home, and is later seen, bearded and ragged, wandering the aisles of a grocery store. A car is stolen, the unseen consequences tragic. One child is given up to adoption, another is lost up a tree. The absences are so keenly felt, in the drifting lucidity of the author’s sentences, that every reappearance reads like a small miracle.”

       —Robert Eversz, Judge AWP Award Series in the Novel

"This little gem of a book puts on lush display Scott Blackwood's talent for measuring and connecting the previously un-connectable in lived experience, and making of it an entirely new whole which we immediately accept as true, natural, exhilarating, even inevitable. He is a lovely sentence writer, and this first novel sparkles with invention."

       —Richard Ford

“Extravagantly beautiful and yet offhand, We Agreed to Meet Just Here sweeps us along with its lush, hypnotic prose. Each of its characters is drawn to the illusion of forbidden perfection, the belief that the darkness, absence, and silence from which babies arrive and into which the dead enter is numinous proof our every wish will be fulfilled. As readers, we see what Scott Blackwood’s characters can’t see: a world so perfectly wrought every small gesture or urge matters.”

       —Debra Monroe, author of Shambles

"A sense of imminent and unskirtable dread hangs like woodsmoke over Texas native Scott Blackwood's finely wrought first novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here. . . . a triumph of language and atmospherics and — as we're drawn deeper into the characters' private worlds, hallucinations, and dreams — a travelogue of unfamiliar emotional terrain."

       —Mike Shea, Texas Monthly, January 2009

Congratulations Scott! Speaking of AWP, the 2009 AWP Conference is coming to Chicago February 11th through 14th! And Roosevelt University will be hosting the keynote address, as a major sponsor of the conference, by Art Spiegelman in our beautiful Auditorium Theatre. I will be attending countless events over the entire weekend, including a reading and release party for Scott Blackwood's book. I will also be working a booth at the conference that promotes both Roosevelt's Creative Writing Program and this year's issue of Oyez Review. Keep Checking in for exciting updates as I get a front row seat to the largest gathering of the preeminent writers in the country. It doesn't get ANY bigger than this in the world of literature!