Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.

 

Advertisements

Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

Featured

The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.

The Pinball Plot

Let’s play a game! A what-if guessing game. What if all your dreams came true in the New Year? What if, instead, your worst nightmares actually happened? What is something you’d never imagine befalling you and what if that very thing occurred?

meditation

“Meditation” by Kah Wai Sin.

I know. I know. The zen-ists find it terribly unfashionable to play such games. Disconnects you from the lush and fertile present moment — that exhilarating continuum of now-right-now. Fine. I exempt the zen-ists, but not the writers, from playing.

Writers must often play at these guessing games in order to construct the authentic arc of a character’s life through story. They must molecularlize the tissues that bridge plot to person, event to emotion. They must knit time with insight, experience with catharsis.

The methods a writer might enlist to accomplish this feat are as limitless as they are unique to the user. Some writers employ complex character maps which catalog the myriad details and events of a character’s life before or “outside” the story. Favorite colors, worst fears, most memorables, etc. From these webs, the writers hope to spider out the juiciest themes which will feed the growing story events. Other writers immerse themselves in a character’s hobbies, jobs, and distractions. Ideally, the various sounds, textures, and flavors of these activities will season the metaphors that, in turn, build the broth of story. After all, as George Eliot notes, “we all of us […] get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act […] on the strength of them.”*

tadpoles

“Tadpoles” by Mark Robinson.

And still other writers play at simple what-if guessing games. What if this or that happens? What if the character chooses this, but not that? Engage with the what-ifs and the possibilities begin to tadpole in the pond of your imagination. A potentially overwhelming situation for the writer eager to nail down a sturdy plot, but an invigorating fertilizer for the imagination hoping to find the unexpected yet inevitable mysteries!

If we were to back into the past and ask me to guess what if my life unfolded exactly as I envisioned it just then, I would have said (with rambunctious certainty) that I would wind up the wife and devoted partner of my most treasured and beloved best friend. I could see nothing else. I could not imagine any other outcomes. Or maybe, I was too afraid to play with what-ifs.

What if that was not the outcome? What if, instead, tragedy pounced on me and spent the next year and half gnashing the bones of my broken heart between its sharp teeth? What if the most unthinkable thing I could not imagine actually happened?

extraball

“Extra Ball” by Shawn Clover.

Only in looking back can I trace the ricochet rebound boomerang skip wiggle weave jounce journey of my life. Not just recently, but going all the way back. Only while looking back can I see the restrictions fear placed on my imagination.

Conjuring pinball scenarios lends much to a person’s resilience, if not to a writer’s ability to plot surprising and fulfilling stories. Remember that your characters’ lives are not javelins. Dare to be erratic in your outlining. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.

In the midst of my bounce and bang off the rubber band bumpers — reams of unpublished writing, unanswered queries, blanket rejections, and that unexpected heartache as deep as the Grand Canyon — the most unimaginable thing gradually happened: I got published…in my chosen field of children’s writing, no less! And then, I got published again. Aaaand again. By the close of 2016, I will have produced a children’s magazine article, a short story, two science picture books, two middle grade civics/history books, and three mixed discipline books for young readers!

So, you tell me, 2017: what if? What if.

cobblestone_article

“Striking a Balance,” in Cobblestone. Ed. Meg Chorlian. May/June 2016.

muse-magazine-february-2016

“Body of Knowledge” in Muse. Ed. Johanna Arnone. February 2016.

Freedom of Speech. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

Freedom to Petition. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

 The Space Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

The Nuclear Arms Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

Crazy Road Races. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

 

 

*p 85. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

landscapearchpano