McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

Why did I begin this blog a year ago? I’ve been asking myself this question for the past three weeks and I’ve identified two main reasons that encapsulate the answer to it: loneliness and the desire to write. Anyone that writes or tries to write is familiar by default with the second, and I want to advance that you’ll find no insights here on how to deal with them; everything that needs to be said about the two has been subject to analysis by better people and all I’d add would be a banality or a boring cliché. However, I want to take a look at two works that focus on these two reasons and looks at them both individually and as a whole, analytically and emotionally and that are oddly linked: the movie Adaptation directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman and the book Story written by Robert McKee.

The first time I read about Adaptation (The Orchid Thief) was in Roger Ebert’s Best films of the decade -it did not make the Top 10 but appeared as an honorable mention-, but it was my love for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michele Gondry) that really made me curious to see more films written by Charlie Kaufman. Thus, I bought Adaptation in a double pack DVD along with Being John Malkovich.

If I had to summarize Adaptation I’d say it is a movie about a writer trying to finish a script about a book dealing with orchids that ends up writing a story about himself adapting the book about orchids, however that would be awfully reductive. This movie’s script is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a magic trick unfolding on my TV screen and requires multiple re-watches to fully understand  what Kaufman managed to pull off. It twists, bends, re-shapes and laughs at the clichés of writing to create a unique movie, and the funny thing is that the actual story behind this script is not that far from the final product. Charlie Kaufman was really hired to adapt the novel “The Orchid Thief” written by Susan Orlean, but being unable to adapt it he wrote a script about him failing to write a script.

In Adaptation you’ll see a pretty funny and insightful look at both loneliness and the difficulties to write. This is well illustrated  in all the interactions that the main character has with his own brother – both of them played superbly by Nicolas Cage –. The main character (Charles) is the talented and lonely writer that puts effort into his writing and his brother (Donald) is the talentless writer that is extremely optimistic and social. At one point in the movie (minor spoilers) Donald suggests Charles going to a seminar on scriptwriting that is being given by Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) to see if it helps with his struggle to finish the script. When he goes, the following happens:

This is one of the many  brilliant moments in this movie and I think that, behind all the exaggerations in it, Charlie Kaufman wrote a really personal script that touches profoundly on both loneliness and the desire to write. After watching the cathartic feedback given by the fictional Robert McKee to the fictional Charlie Kaufmann, I knew that somewhere down the line I’d have to read McKee’s book and once again my friend Mrs. A happened to give me this book for my birthday.

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If you want to write you MUST read Story by Robert McKee. It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about writing a novel, a screenplay or a short story, this book is filled with so much good and insightful advice that it would be helpful for any writer. From the very minute details necessary to develop a scene to the holistic godlike knowledge that a writer must have over the world he is creating in the page McKee shows how to tackle every single element necessary for good story telling.

Back on topic of loneliness and writings this is what he has to say (this is taken from Chapter 1: The Writer and the Art of Story):

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You must be born with the creative power to put things together in way no one has ever dreamed. Then you must bring to the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society, coupled with in-depth knowledge of your characters and your world. All that… and, as Hallie and Whit Burnett reveal in their excellent little book, a lot of love.

Then there is one big paragraph explaining the love of the story, and then there is one sentence that really hit me hard.

You must love to write and bear the loneliness.

I’ve been in a position where I’ve wanted to write but was unable to do so of loneliness, and to a degree this blog has helped me to turn that loneliness into something positive, but if by any chance you struggle with the desire to write and/or loneliness, either emotionally or rationally, I’d strongly recommend both this movie and this book to help you identify why and give you that little push necessary to sit down and write.

I finished reading Story by Robert McKee the 20th of August.

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Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

It is summer. It is warm and I’m on vacation. This means: swimming pool, gardening, nature, relax, DVDs, masturbating, and reading. In the last concept there are two subsections conditioned to location, hammock reading and deck chair reading, that I’m particularly fond of and that, in time, have joined the ranks of my favorite places to grab a book and get lost in the pages. I assume that the notion in itself is alluring enough for anyone reading this – I dare anyone to refuse a hammock – but as always the idea behind this post (and again you are justifying yourself for the eight billionth time to nobody) is to find out why this is a special place for me.

In my previous post of this anthology I found it helped to write about the place and time that I’m describing when I’m in it rather than from the top of my head, so I figured I’d try the same approach again to see if lighting strikes twice. (Editorial note: No. I did not write my first posts in the toilet)

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The hammock hangs between two evergreen trees (quercus ilex). To its left there are hydrangeas that also surround one of the two trees and to its right there is a nice view of the swimming pool, but what particularly endears me to it is the view above. The sky is clear and blue in the few open patches between the boughs and the sun lights the top of the trees with an orange dusky glow (I tend to lay there only in the late afternoon, usually after taking a swim). My eyes swing back and forth between the book and the different birds playing in the branches.

This hammock has been in my house since I was a little kid, but it was only in the summer of 2012 when I was reading Walden or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau when I truly fell in love with it, and it owes its position in this anthology to this book. When I combined these two elements I realized how much nature enhances the reading experience. How? First some context.

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A drawing of the cabin where HDT lived done by his sister Sophia.

Around 1850, Henry David Thoreau decided to leave the city and live in the forest close to Walden pond where he aimed to experience life in its simplest and truest form. This book is a recollection of his experiences and thoughts throughout the two years that he spent living in a little cabin in that forest. A fantastic stylist (one of my favorites along with Edgar Allan Poe) and a deep thinker; Thoreau finds an infinite source of inspiration from the broader aspect of nature and the changing of the seasons to the smallest events, insignificant to the unobservant, like the savage war raging at his feet between two different colonies of ants.

I found joy in the simplicity of laying outside with a book, under two big trees with the birds chipping on the branches. It was the perfect combination of book and place: Walden became one of my favourite books (and is one of the main reasons why I started planting tomatoes) and that hammock became one of my favorite reading spots. (Random Trivia: I first read about this book in Roger Ebert’s review of Into the Wild. Better write that down so that you don’t forget future-me)

*

I love my shitty deck chair. I love it so much because it is so shitty. It is old, dusty, bulky and barely comfortable enough to sit in. Every summer I take it out of a room at the end of the garage, dust it off and place it in the spot with the best view in the whole house, and every time I sit there with a book I am quite simply happy. Life does not get better.

I usually lay there in the morning or late in the afternoon when my legs are a bit numb from the hammock. The morning view is characterized by the miles of pine forest sprawling from the skirts of the mountain to its very top and the cool morning breeze and is usually when I get most of my reading done. However, I think I like it best when the sun sets and the seat is still warm from all the evening heat and Venus shines meekly in the horizon. The time window to read is shorter in the afternoon (one of the cons of fading light) but it is a magical place to end a fine day of reading; in my very own window to the stars.

Much like the hammock there are quite a few books that will be forever linked to that chair. I’ll always remember how inspiring and wonderful it was reading Contact by Carl Sagan , or how I  was glued to Stephen King’s On Writing to avoid thinking about a horrible breakup, or how I read the first four robot novels by Isaac Asimov and started thinking about writing my own science-fiction novel. I’m not sure how long this deck chair will last. It is really beaten down and worn and I know that I’m overtly sentimental for something awfully silly, but the memories attached to it are really special to me.

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Behold the glorious shittiness!

A few months ago I bought Robots and Empire (the fifth novel in Asimov’s robot saga) with the clear idea that I’d only read it in summer. I may be a creature of habits, but when this post is published I’ll be sitting in that shitty deck chair reading it and I’ll be as happy as you can get. I guarantee it!

Bonus round: Walden, or Life in the Woods in PDF. Happy summer reading!

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

When I was little I was fascinated by these three pictures:

The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water (Left)

Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest- (Center)

Barad-dúr (Right)

These pictures graced the front cover of the Spanish editions published by Minotauro of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King that were in my school’s library. Every time I went there (more often than most normal eight year olds should) I’d grab one of the books and look at the front pictures mesmerized. This was a time when Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not exist and the only film adaptation was Ralph Baschi’s underrated classic, back when The Lord of the Rings was known primarily to book readers.

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was fueled by the fascination with this other world that my brother was obsessed with and my natural curiosity about this “Middle-earth” and all the creatures and adventures in it. (Random Trivia: I remember that I kept an apple nearby when I first read it because I had seen Bastian do the same in The Neverending Story. I was so cute) However in my head, there was also something about these three pictures that imbued these books with a mystic lore – there is also the Middle-earth map which is just enthralling –.

I only found years later that those pictures had been created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and thus followed the purchase of J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Random Trivia: purchased in abebooks in very good condition. The copy I bought apparently belonged to the Elsmere Public Library but had never been taken out. Alas! Worry not! Even if you are quote “No longer the property of New Castle County Libraries” your journey across the Atlantic has led you to a nice comfy home).

There are two aspects that I found particularly interesting when I read this book and that I want to keep in mind when I write this review. First is that Tolkien himself doubted the quality of his artwork and second is that I got the impression that Tolkien was at heart both a writer and a painter.  With this in mind, let’s look at the highlights of each chapter.Lostwethion_TolkienWhitby.jpg

Early Work: the most biographical section of the entire book – necessarily so to understand Tolkien’s first steps in drawing – the artwork presented is usually a backdrop to the period of Tolkien’s life. This chapter has some of the first drawings he made as a child, but is mainly dominated by his paintings of the English country side. My favorite is Ruins at West End of Whitby Abbey. I think it manages to capture the sensation of decay and of the forgotten place eaten away by time. (Random Trivia: I just had a geek-gasm. Those same ruins are also in -my current reading- Dracula!)

Visions, Myths and Legends: I liked that this book wanted to cover all of Tolkien’s work and not just The Lord of The Rings because I wanted to see the full picture (pun intended). This section presents an embryonic Middle-earth. Ideas are forming and Tolkien’s world is expanding but is not yet fully developed.

One of the highlights of this chapter is the -full page- painting chosen for the front cover of this book which depicts a landscape of the Silmarillion and is titled The Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie. I also learned that Taur-na-Fúin originally depicted a moment of The Silmarillion and that it was later redrawn in ink for The Hobbit and retitled Mirkwood (image below), and that the original also had its name changed to Fangorn Forest.

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Art for Children: this is the one section in the entire book where I paid far more attention to the words rather than the pictures.

J.R.R Tolkien has to be one of the coolest dad’s that have ever lived. He began telling stories to his children about Father Christmas and his adventures in the North Pole, and later on Father Christmas began sending drawings and letters (written and drawn by Tolkien) to his children with illustrations of the events he narrated. The children also received pictures from North Polar Bear a friend of Father Christmas with his very own lettering style. How cool is that?

This particular chapter was heartwarming and sweet and the book is worth it just for it.

The Hobbit: I found this chapter very interesting because it shows the steady hand of Tolkien the writer clashing with the dubious hand of Tolkien the painter. Tolkien prepared a lot of illustrations for The Hobbit with the intention of including them in the book, but he doubted their quality and was uncertain if they were up to standards of the text. These doubts grew after it was released and the book’s pictures received criticism from reviewers.

I do not understand the criticism.J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Rivendell.jpg

The composition, style, look and relation with the story is very smart and crafty. In a painting like Rivendell there is a gateway into the picture. We follow the river and with it the eye observes the rest of the picture. The Gate to the Elven Kingdom shows the road our heroes are walking and manages to put us there with them. The Trolls I liked even more because we are a partner in crime, we are also spying on the three trolls like the dwarf at the bottom is doing.

Tolkien’s drawing fit perfectly with the story and I’m saddened that they received bad criticism.

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien did not consider that he was up to the task of creating the illustrations for The Lord of The Rings (outside of material like The Gate of Moria or the Runes in Balin’s tomb). Whether it was the criticism received on The Hobbit, the weight of writing or simply his own doubts about his skills, I think that this ultimately benefited the final product.

I like the drawings in The Hobbit because they fit tonally with a children’s book – and make no mistake, no matter what Peter Jackson aimed at, The Hobbit is a children’s book –, but The Lord of the Rings works best with the epic style of Alan Lee. This chapter was surprisingly short in content and I did not find it that interesting outside of the covers Tolkien designed for each book.

Patterns and Devices: I liked the sample images of the mail envelope or the newspaper where Tolkien doodled and drew some of his first attempts at patterns, but unfortunately this chapter suffered a bit of The Silmarillion syndrome. There are lots of names being mentioned left and right in regards to devices and small amulets. This chapter did not make for a very interesting reading (perhaps the more hardcore Tolkien reader disagrees with me).Tolkien Artist.jpg

This book is fantastic and definitely worth buying. I haven’t covered nearly 10% of the drawings included in it, and it is amazing seeing how productive Tolkien was both as a writer and as a painter. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the text  would refer to a picture either on the next page or on the previous page and it is rather tedious flipping constantly between pages to observe all the details being explained (this is a minor criticism).

I’m trying to figure out if, through this book and this post, I’ve managed to identify why I was so drawn (pun intended) to those three pictures.  The book helped me notice that in The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water there is a small bridge at the bottom of the picture that seems to invite you to follow this long road to a faraway place, and -to a degree-  the following pictures managed to perpetuate that fascination: What is hidden in that forest? Where is that tower? What is in it? What surrounds it?

Unfortunately, this does not provide a satisfying reason to explain my childhood fascination.

Note for future-me: your original ending to this post was much more “Well! I guess I’ll never know” but after sitting on it for a bit the following realization happened.Der_Berggeist.jpg

This drawing by Josef Madlener is called “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”)  and it is not featured in the book. What the books says is that Tolkien wrote on the back of a postcard that had this picture “The origin of Gandalf”.

This left me wondering.

How did Tolkien’s mind work so that this little picture on a postcard later became the iconic character?  Did he just see the picture and said “Oh, I know! Gandalf!”? What inspired him? Was it the cloak? Was it the mountains beyond where this old man lives? Was it the water in that brook?

The truth is nobody will ever know how Tolkien came up with Gandalf other than Tolkien, but if this is indeed his origin, there is something comforting in knowing that the same person who painted those three drawings -that I began the post with-, once looked at a picture in a postcard and that, somehow, triggered his imagination. After all, if Tolkien came up with Gandalf by looking at a postcard I think my eight year old version is allowed to imagine magical worlds looking at book covers.

I finished reading this book on the 24th of July 2017.

Random Trivia: I also learned that Tolkien liked Van Eyck and, having had the privilege of seeing the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this was just one of those little bits of information that just managed to put a smile on my face.

Editorial Bonus (Original ending): Unfortunately, my childhood curiosity remains a mystery (although a smaller one). I will have to simply accept the fact that Tolkien managed to put a spell on me through these pictures.

 

Meanwhile: (Re)Discovering Lynch

Meanwhile: (Re)Discovering  Lynch

SIDE A – Entering the town…

*Tape begins*

Diane. Age 4: Childhood memory. I hear the first notes of the music intro of a TV show. It is a calm and soothing melody. I see there is a bird on-screen. I remember that it is on channel five (back when there was only five channels). I was not allowed to watch it. My parents told me that it was time for bed. I did go to bed, but that melody was haunting.

*Fast forward*

At age twenty-two I was discovering the joys of reading and literature, Diane. It was a time of disconnection with my studies, my friends and to a degree my family – with the exception of my brother –. I was contemplating the idea of going to some sort of film school, following the footsteps of writer-director Kevin Smith. I looked up to him for  his charisma, his ability to express his thoughts, the message in his movies – particularly Chasing Amy –, and his lectures at different colleges throughout the USA filmed for the “Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD. I watched all his movies religiously with all the extras. I favoured the Clerks X Making Of a bit more than the others. It was, and is, inspiring to see how a kid from Jersey made his dream come true and whenever I doubted about going to film school I used that for fuel. Of course, we both know that eventually that wasn’t enough to fill the tank. In this Making Of, Smith mentions that his first idea for Clerks was very much in the vein of Twin Peaks with the store receiving visits from strange characters.

Taking everything the man said as holy writ and my childhood memory, I downloaded and  watched Twin Peaks. That was my first taste of David Lynch, Diane.

That same year I also joined a film history class in college which required a year-end project analysis about a movie. In the list of films available there was “Blue Velvet” also by David Lynch. I remember I did the project with a girl I used to have a crush on and a new friend of hers that, I felt, had substituted me. He did not want to include in the analysis of the film the iconic scene featuring Dean Stockwell’s character, Ben,  singing “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. What a douche, Diane.

That was my second taste of David Lynch. (Random Trivia: watch until the end for a line that made its way to Clerks)

That year I also wrote my first short story. Remind me to send it over to you once I get back Diane. I think it is fairly decent material for a first stab. It was for a college competition titled “Tell us a remarkable experience at college”. I am of course paraphrasing but that was the main idea behind what the text should be. I’ve told you many times that I hated everything about college, but still, I felt I could somewhat connect the competition with the story about a girl I had recently broken up with, and it seemed like a good excuse to write about it – as a purge of sorts –. In that short story I stole borrowed Agent Cooper’s joke from episode one of Twin Peaks about the JFK murder, and yes, you heard me right, I did throw in a Kennedy assassination joke on a story about meeting this girl. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking Diane.

Years later I watched The Elephant Man, Mullholand Drive and I tried to watch Inland Empire, but it was too weird for my taste. My interest on David Lynch waned until a few months ago Diane.

*Fast Forward*

When I was twenty-nine Blink 182 released California. The newest album in five years and also the first one featuring Matt Skiba, taking the role of guitarist and vocalist, after the departure of founding member Tom DeLonge who had decided to focus his side project “Angels & Airwaves” and a career in ufology.

I learned that Matt Skiba played in a group called Alkaline Trio and that one of his favourite books was “Catching The Big Fish” by David Lynch, and allow me to quote directly Diane as I hate getting my facts wrong:  “That’s the book that got me into transcendental meditation. Before, I always thought meditation was some hippy-cult thing, but David Lynch is one of me heroes and he’s been meditating for over 30 years“. This is the first time that this book appeared on my radar.

The 9th of March 2017 is my brother’s girlfriend birthday. I gave her as a present the Joss Whedon film  “Much Ado About Nothing” and, for some odd reason unknown to me still to this day, she also decided to give me “Catching the Big Fish”. They should put a picture of her next to the definition of “cool” on the dictionary.

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If you want to spend some time watching Lynch paint and tell anecdotes. Look no further

14th of June. I’m  six episodes into the new Twin Peaks season. Lynch once again shows that nobody does television like him. I’m fifty pages into Dracula and I’m just not getting into it. I’ve tried  and failed to read one page a day for the past few months of “Catching the Big Fish” with the hope that each thought and observation would sink in better. The night it is really hot. There is a heat wave and I can’t sleep. I finished the book and write to the my brother’s girlfriend whom I’d address from now onwards as the “Log Lady”. I tell the Log Lady that I loved the book and I arrange for my brother (from now on “Bob”) to give The Log Lady the Blu-Ray of the documentary David Lynch – The Art Life as a surprise. That’ll teach her a lesson to go around giving me presents without any reason whatsoever.

*End of tape*

SIDE B – Things to Come

David Lynch is a writer, a director, a painter, an actor, a musician – perhaps a mad sound engineer would be a better term –, but I think the best way to defines him is as an artist, or more specifically a very talented artist. Whether you like or dislike his output it is unquestionable that his work creates a reaction that can range from complete and total what-the-fuckness (I believe that is technical term) to awe and admiration. I tend to swing between these two as I consider myself a fan of his, but I’d be lying if I said that all his work appealed to me – I still can’t figure out Inland Empire or Mullholand Drive – .

Watching the new season of Twin Peaks I was reminded of just how exciting, refreshing, different and personal his work is. When Twin Peaks aired in the nineties there was nothing like it on TV and twenty-five years later these men (let’s not forget Mark Frost, the often unsung hero) have done it again. There is nothing like the new season of Twin Peaks on TV.

I’ve seen people go out of their way to analyze the writing, the visuals, the symbology and meaning of each scene of this new season– to be fair this dissection has been inflicted on all of Lynch’s work –, but I feel that this exercise of rationalization is ultimately futile and will only lead to a simplification of the work or to flat-out speculation – with the proverbial mix of frustration too –. As a viewer my recommendation is that you (Yes. I’m talking to you Internet) try to experience his art and forget about conventional narrative structures and intellectual reasons behind images and instead focus on the sensations, ideas and feelings they generate.

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I’ve got the 10th anniversary edition including interviews with Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr.

Having read “Catching the Big Fish” I’ve understood that David Lynch’s work does not always come from rationality, but rather inspiration – one day he put his hands on a warm car and suddenly he came up with the idea of the red room–,meditation or even dreams. In those instances plot is going to take a back seat to explore those ideas, and based on my own dreams I know the difficulty in finding any form of logic in them. This does not mean that the end product should not be subject to interpretation or criticism, I just think that it is important to take the right approach. A large part of the negative comments that David Lynch receives is that he doesn’t make sense and that his plots are all over the place, but that is like looking at a painting and saying that it needs more words or that the book needs more special effects. That is not the focus.

The book also deals with meditation. Unfortunately I’m in no place to talk about this subject for sheer lack of knowledge outside of what I just read, but I’d recommend this book to those also unfamiliar as it provides a nice introduction to the concept and ideas behind meditation. I also can’t verify whether Lynch found this through meditation or if it was just life experience, but I want to share a quote from the last page of the book: True happiness is not “out there”. True happiness lies within. I consider myself a man of many words and I hate reducing things to simple sentences but I think this statement nails it on the head (and there are a few of these in the book).

To end, I’d like to dedicate this post to the person that gave me this book (apparently she was none-too-thrilled with my previous dedication. I can’t really understand why). Not only is she responsible for the awesome main picture, but she is also one of the few people that encourages me to write… plus she is like this weird hybrid of a really cute bunny and a human. This post is for you, you adorable cuteness freak!

I had this book on my bedside table for a few months but I read it in one sitting on the 14th of June, because I just didn’t feel like reading Dracula –I’ll get there in a few posts–. I’ve been really busy with work hence the lack of posts but I’m having some time off soon. I can’t wait to sit down and read and/or write.

Random Trivia: this post’s structure was inspired by “The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper”. If you are a fan of Twin Peaks and you haven’t heard these, give yourself a treat! They are priceless.

By the fire (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

By the fire (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

Thought it would be a one-off, didn’t you? You’d just write that silly post about the toilet and then forget all about it. Face it. These type of posts are way more difficult than your usual book reviews, aren’t they? These posts are somewhat personal. Well! I’m giving it another shot! Here is part deux of my anthology aptly titled “Places where I enjoy reading”. To kickoff this entry let’s begin with the following description:

It is winter and there is a house by the mountain side. The house is empty and the summer days when it was filled with people are long gone. Now it is only visited during the weekends if rain or cold allow it. In that house there is a fireplace. It is surrounded by a rocking chair, a two-seat couch, an armchair and a table with four radios, two of which do not work. On the ground there is a woven basket filled with old logs of pine and evergreen trees at the bottom and thinner branches on top that are used to feed the fire once the kindling takes a spark.

The fire starts. Smoke  appears. Wood begins crackling. The room is still unbearably cold when one moves away from the hearth. A blanket and a cup of tea help to ward off the cold. 

(Editorial note: you actually stopped and made a cup of earl grey tea after you wrote this. I sincerely hope that you are not as much a procrastinator as I am future-me)

One of the four radios is on. It is an old SANYO, 2 Band receiver RP 6160 A, and it is currently set to FM. The National Classical Music Station is somewhere around the 100 Mhz mark as indicated by an orange bar that is operated by a small wheel on the side of the radio.

My grandmother used to listened to it every night. 

The thinner branches are already in the fireplace and I’ve placed a big log on top that I hope lasts the rest of the night. I sit back. The announcer on the radio let’s me know that the piece of music that I’ve been listening to for the past few minutes is Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

My eyes begin to close. Will there be embers in the morning hidden in the ash?

*

Outside of an exercise in describing one of my favorite places to sit down and read, I hope I’ve achieved an additional thing that explains why I love reading by the fireplace: it’s all about the mood.

Unlike the worryingly specific criteria that I have for a toilet book, the following are just a small -but excellent- selection of books to help me illustrate this “mood” theory and that go extremely well with a dark cold room, a small reading light and a roaring fire.

H.P. Lovecraft – Necronomicon & Eldritch Tales

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These are the only two books that I’ve read exclusively by the fireplace. They are both compilations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and, whilst they do not contain all of his work, the beautiful illustrations and the care that has gone into this editions is still palpable (Unfortunately, I still found some typos).

Lovecraft’s gothic prose is far more effective if you are sitting next to a fire on a cold winter night. The horror and nightmarish landscapes of his stories soon became a bit more ominous and outside, where the sky is dark and the wind is howling, those terrors appear to be growing and lurking. If you are new to Lovecraft and you want to test if what I say is true, I suggest you get your hands on (or click on) any of the following: The Colour From Out of Space, The Music of Erich Zann, Dagon or The Tomb; and if you are thinking about purchasing one of these two books I suggest you go for the Necronomicon first (both are great, but his best stories are in there),  either way stay close to the fire. I assure you that it is the only thing that will keep you sane.

Random Trivia: and if you really want to OD on mood put on some Electric Wizard inspired by Lovecraft. WARNING: the following song is B-A-D-A-S-S.

The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe

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I own this beautiful Wordsworth Edition.

How could I not include Poe in this list? You can’t talk about horror in books without mentioning Edgar Allan Poe! He was the first one to shape the genre. Without him there is nothing: no Stephen King, no Lovecraft, no Neil Gaiman, no Alan Moore. Nothing.

Additionally, Edgar Allan Poe deserves special mention because he is a fantastic wordsmith -one of the bests in my humble opinion-. Almost everything he has written reads beautifully and, even if you don’t enjoy horror but love words, you might appreciate how he weaves each sentence with seamless perfection.

His stories are capable of creating a very real, palpable and confusing horror (The Pit and the Pendulum), a schizophrenic madness (The Tell-Tale Heart) or a doomed melancholic atmosphere (The Fall of the House of Usher), and if none of that is for you I still invite you to check out the brilliant adaptation that The Simpsons did of his most famous poem, The Raven.  It is narrated by James Earl Jones and has a huge fireplace! How can you possibly resist?

J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

9780261103252It is one of the few books that I’ve gone back to on several occasions and to be fair I do not need to have a fire to enjoy it, but the last time I read it I noticed that I was only feeling like delving into Middle-earth during the coldest months of the year, and the moment that there was no fire my desire to resume the quest to destroy the one ring vanished. It took me all the weekends of two winters and two autumns to finish it back in 2010 and 2011.(Editorial note: I’ve got to check the date when I finished reading it. I bet now that it must have been winter. Second editorial note:  It was the 29th of December of 2011. Well done me!)

I remember that during those two years I avoided the Peter Jackson movies because I wanted to detach the film’s visuals from the words of Tolkien and see if I could imagine Middle-earth just like I did when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that I was succesful in my attempt and that it was all thanks to the fireplace, the tea, the blanket and the book itself. All these elements managed to create the feeling that I was in my little hobbit hole where I could ponder and dream about these far away adventures.

So what is it about these four books and why are their stories enhanced by the companionship of a good fireplace? Well, as I mentioned throughout the post there is a question of mood and atmosphere, but the truth is that the particular fireplace that I’m talking about is located in a place that also helps me shut out the world and let my imagination soar. In this place the hearth becomes a vortex to another world where magic, fantasy, horrors and all that is unreal becomes a little bit more tangible; acting as a bridge between my imagination and my reality. The authors of these books are capable of conjuring entire worlds and their stories can transport you to amazing places, so it makes perfect sense that all the magic locked in those tales reacts well to the fire because, like Calvin said at the beginning, there is something magical about having a fire.

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A memento for you future-me. Those were really happy days, make sure you get more of them!

Last editorial note (I swear): the first drafts of this post were  a real bitch very complicated and frustrating to write. It took me quite a shitload few attempts to go from completely abstract thoughts on a preference that only made sense to me and that did not necessarily seem logical to a somewhat coherent post. I’m quite proud of it.

P.S: Beginning-of-the-post-me is so depressing. He needs to relax!

P.S.S: A P.S does not count as another editorial note. So suck it!

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

I don’t get Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve tried to get him, but I just don’t. This does not mean that I dislike his books, it is just that his mind frame severely differs from mine and because of that I can’t find any common aspects that make his books relatable. To be honest most of the times, what I get from Heinlein is total and complete what-the-fuckness  (can I swear in my own blog? I hope so) . I guess you could say that I don’t grok him. 😉

So why bother reading him? Well, there are a few good reasons. One: he has a huge reputation and is considered one of the greatest science-fiction writers in history. He is up there with Asimov and Clarke in a sci-fi Holy Trinity (which I don’t think he deserves but this is just my opinion). Two: just because I don’t get where he comes from it doesn’t mean that I don’t find it interesting. Three: he is a good writer. Four (and last): whether good or bad he is, along with Philip K. Dick, one of the few science-fiction writers that I’ve read whose personality completely imbues and even transcends his writing. Heinlein writes science-fiction novels, but he is also putting a piece of his mind in there, and like him or not that is something that is bound to create some interesting output.

Starship Troopers is the third book of his that I’ve read. The other two are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land which, according to my understanding, means that with this last one I’ve tackled his greatest hits. Out of the three I think that this is his most accessible book and, whilst this post is about it, I do feel a bit of context about the other two novels I’ve mentioned is necessary to explain my feelings on the book and the author.

I really enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The dynamic between the Earth ruling over the Moon like a colony, the “moon-speak” and “moon-writing” (difficult at times but granting the text a uniquely characteristic style), the family dynamics with male-female ratio disproportion, the idea of farming tunnels and the sentient supercomputerthe-moon-is-a-harsh-mistress-book-cover are the top things that I’d highlight from the novel. Overall a really good science-fiction story with some very interesting elements and ideas.

On the other hand, we have Stranger in a Strange Land which was the first Heinlein novel I ever read. I got the 1991 uncut version that has the original manuscript, as opposed to the version published in 1961 that edited out nearly a quarter of the book. I chose SIASL first because it was his most popular novel (apparently the open sexuality in the book struck a chord with the hippie movement back in the sixties) and is considered by many one of the great science-fiction novels. I also wanted to know if that popularity was deserved and if the book was any good. Random Trivia:  Do yourself a favour and listen to the fantastic Iron Maiden song titled after the book – and read the lyrics damn it -.

I don’t know about the 1961 edited version, but the 1991 unabridged version has some serious pacing issues and was a chore to finish. A very engaging first chapter lead to a slug of characters going over tedious conversations and themes of identity and society again and again (which is fine when you don’t write about it more than fifty times). I don’t think I could cover all the themes of that novel in a single post, and mind you I’m always cautious about quoting single phrases without context, BUT to explain why I don’t get Heinlein I want to quote a phrase from this novel: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault”. Now this phrase was told by a character that enjoys stripping –stranger_in_a_strange_land_cover if memory serves me well – in front of people so that may imply a certain twisted view in regards to sexuality and political correctness, and I also understand that some books are products of their times and maybe the world back then was more sexist and this novel is just the result of that (unless Mad Men is lying to us). However the book is plagued by these type of comments and this particular phrase was so blunt that I just made me think about what the author (not the novel) was trying to communicate to me as a reader.

Coincidentally, I experienced a similar issue with Starship Troopers. Like SIASL, it starts with a great first chapter and then it is just turns out to be the story of a young man enlisting in the military, his career – with some aliens way in the background posing as a threat – and plenty of text explaining the importance,virtues and challenges of said military life. Now, I want to be very clear: I actually respect a lot the decision to join the military and I have zero problems with that ( I am specially grateful on those occasions where their actions are in line to protect me). I do however have a problem with military propaganda, and I don’t know if I’m the only one that got that feeling reading the book but I could not shake it off. Much like SIAS, Heinlein does not have a problem to hammer his point again and again. In this case being: Military life will make a man out of you and it is the greatest thing since porn (I may be simplifying but you get the idea). It is exactly how Heinlein insists on this message again and again what brings me to the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers.

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My book cover is so meh  that I’d rather show the movie poster – and it is not great either -. 

This movie fits my definition of a guilty pleasure: the acting is really bad and over the top and the cheesiness factors are dialed-up to eleven. But what can I say? I can clearly see the flaws but I still love it. I first saw this as a kid and it just blew my mind. The special effects still hold up, and it is yet another great film by a director that knows how to use gore effectively and is also a great science-fiction adapter mister Paul Verhoven. Starship Troopers is his second adaptation of a science-fiction writer after Total Recall, which is based on the short story by Philip K. Dick “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, and his third science fiction movie (his first was Robocop and his fourth and last was Hollow Man).

Having read the book many years later, I have to say that it has helped to increase my respect for the movie. In the movie, all the military worship of the book is turned upside down and delivered with a spot on parody of a militarized society. The movie is smart enough to laugh at absurdly obvious military propaganda. It is actually kind of brilliant seeing what Vernhoven did (I recall reading that he discarded the book entirely after growing tired with the first few pages) and the direction he decided to take with the film. It is like a bizarre version of Heinlein’s novel in all the right ways, and I can only imagine that if he’d ever watch it he’d despise it. Doing a bit of digging I found this video of Michel Ironside talking about the film,its message, Vernhoven, the book and the direction they took. I’d highly recommend it as it echoes some of the impressions I’ve described here.

So taking into account all of the above you might imagine that I disliked the book, but surprisingly enough I did not. I didn’t love it either and it took me a while to read it, but I’m glad I got to it precisely because of what I said at the beginning. Heinlein’s ideas differ a lot from mine and as crazy (military propaganda) or wrong (the rape quote) as those ideas may seem, I actually enjoy the fact that I’m exposed to them if only for the sheer fact that I can think about why I don’t share them and the reasons behind that line of thinking. I don’t always want to read things that please me or that I agree with. It is actually a great thing reading things that you disagree with, specially if reading them helps you to discover, reaffirm or question your convictions, because ultimately it is up to you to decide how those ideas affect you and to make up your own mind about it.

I finished reading this book the 16th of March 2017, but it took me a while to write all this down a mix of laziness, work and also because I felt there was something important for me to think about after reading it. Last, a message from my sponsor:

The Toilet (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

The Toilet (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

This post is my first on a topic that is mostly irrelevant but nonetheless entertaining (I need to emphasize that it is entertaining to me) to think about: the places where I like to read. The weeks that follow (or months based on my productivity) I shall explain why those places are ideal to grab a book –again, ideal to me –and, because I’m feeling generous, I will also let you know my reading recommendations for those particular places.

Without further ado, place number one: The Toilet

(Warning to the tasteful reader: This entry will be filled with lots toilet humour, both literally and figuratively.)

I wanted to start with the one place where all potential readers have been at least once in their life, and if you are not in that demographic please accept my sincere apology and feel free to let me know how you have access to a computer/phone and not a toilet – I’m seriously fascinated by that scenario and open to unusual friendships –. I am not sure what is it about the toilet that makes me want to read. The first reason that popped in my head was because it is relaxing, and yes when I read I relax but mostly mentally and very marginally physically. The second reason was because it is distracting. It is a nasty business taking place down there might as well shift your focus somewhere else. A third reason could be a question of killing time, but this last one does not apply to me. Why? Two words: Like clockwork (I’ve got to admit I chuckled loudly at a joke that was far more explicit and that I ultimately editorialized).

Out of the three reasons mentioned, the second (distraction) is the one that seemed the most logical to me if forced to choose one, but thinking a bit more on the subject (I really need to find a hobby) I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I reached this conclusion based on the kind of things that I like to read when I’m taking care of my business. To explain why I’d like to  bring up the two contenders that are perfect toilet book:

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This book is the shit!

– Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life: I want to start with the strongest contender for the perfect toilet read. I’ve had this book since the sweet age of ten and has been a loyal companion in my trips to the loo (no need to be unsophisticated when talking about these matters). You can flip to any page and find entertaining things to read about and creative images from a time long ago when The Simpsons ruled the earth (until season 8). I’d highly recommend it for those of you that fall under the “drop&go” category (didn’t take long to go back unsophisticated). It works equally well if you want to take your time but I’d imagine that it’d loose it’s freshness if it the only book that you have for the toilet.

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My number two!

Woody Allen’s Complete Prose: So you are thinking “I’m smart and funny”, why am I reading this post? I have no clue why you are reading this, but I think this will be right up your alley. This omnibus contains Mr. Allen’s first three books Getting Even, Without Feathers (my favourite) and Side Effects and it is filled with his brand of humour and style. A few excerpts:

  • Idea for a story: A man awakens to find his parrot has been made Secretary of Agriculture
  • What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
  • What if nothing exists and we’re all in somebody’s dream? Or what’s worse, what if only that fat guy in the third row exists?
  • Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of a moose singing “Embraceable You” in spats.

When I thought about these two book I discovered that they cover all three factors and they are very entertaining. I can go back to them over and over again and that’s why I enjoy reading them in the toilet and not any other books.

Now four things I want to make very clear before I finish this post:

– Even I’m not really sure what is the point of this post.

Not all books are good toilet books…… especially if they are heavy and you need to take a load off! (XD). Ok, I’m calm now. Back on topic. Not all books are good toilet books: Yes, you can take any book to a toilet but there may be missing key elements (for me the above mentioned, for you the reader, something completely different).

–  Just because I consider them ideal reading for the toilet it does not mean that they are bad books. If anything the re-read value is higher than the average. So don’t be a dick and say no to toilet book hate #nototoiletbookhate.

Last and most important: order of actions when taking a book to the toilet: grab book, drop pants, sit down, get business done, place book safely away from you, wipe, pull up pants, wash your hands, grab the book again and leave it in the bookshelf. Otherwise the degree of poop particles in your adored book may qualify it as a health hazard.

Remember: #nototoiletbookhate.

P.S: I’m fully aware that this may be the dumbest post in the history of the Internet.

P.S.S: I really struggled not to make this post my place number two for obvious comedic reasons.

P.S.S.S: Happy Birthday Miss A!