Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Running Down a Dream

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You don't stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running.

After hearing my running friends rave about this book for years, I finally got around to reading it. And now I owe them an apology, because I had gotten so sick of being preached at about chia seeds and running barefoot and vegetarianism and ultramarathons that I have been quietly rolling my eyes whenever anyone mentioned this friggin book.

But once I got into the story, all of my eye rolls stopped. Sure, there were a few groans about McDougall's punchy, magazine-writing style that doesn't always translate well to book form, but overall, this was an engrossing read. It covers a motley cast of outdoorsy characters from America and Mexico, including the elite runners of the elusive Tarahumara Indian tribe, several incredible foot races, research on running and training methods, and there is even a captivating digression into how the Bushmen of the Kalahari go hunting.

At its heart, the story is about human endurance, compassion for others, and the theory that our bodies were "born to run." There is a thoughtful chapter on the evolution of homo sapiens from other mammals, and the ways in which the human form is designed to be able to cover an incredible amount of distance.

"Know why people run marathons? Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles, Starry Night, intravascular surgery; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human -- which means it's a superpower all humans possess."

As mentioned, there are also sections on the nutritional power of chia seeds, vegetarianism, and a training theory that runners should spend more time barefoot to build up their strength. I won't lecture you about any of that as I had found it exhausting when others preached to me (there is a line between enthusiasm and evangelism), but I did find the information interesting and will take it under advisement.

Along the way, McDougall shares his own stories of running injuries and how he found different trainers to teach him ways to run more efficiently and with more joy. Yes, joy.

"How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors' backyards ... That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain ... Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else."

The narrative builds to an amazing foot race in the blazing hot Copper Canyons of Mexico, with some top American athletes competing against a group of Tarahumara runners. Friends, I would be lying if I said I made it through that incredible story without getting choked up by the beauty of what happened that day. I could share quotes, but I think you need to read it in context and experience the grit and grace and humanity for yourself.

This book was so inspiring that I vowed to make an effort to go running more often. And I shall run with joy and compassion in my heart.

Lost in the Forrest: An Interview with Forrest Aguirre

Today's guest is Forrest Aguirre, author of Heraclix and Pomp.

The first time I remember seeing your name was for the Leviathan 3 anthology.   How did that come about?
Jeff VanderMeer was then actively running Ministry of Whimsy Press. I had contacted Jeff at one point to let him know just how impressed I was by Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, which I found at my local Borders. As a result of that contact, I joined the Storyville writers’ email group, a group of 15 or so authors and editors, mostly from the UK and the US. Jeff was a part of that group. Through our discussions there, we realized that we had a shared taste in aesthetics. He had already edited Leviathan 1 and 2 with co-editors, and asked if I’d be interested in being a co-editor on Leviathan 3. I had read the first two Leviathans, along with The Troika So I was very excited for the offer and accepted immediately. I really owe it all to Jeff. He mentored me on how to edit and helped me to avoid some of the pitfalls that sometimes plague new editors (who are also writers), giving advice such as “never put your own story in an anthology you’re editing.” I learned a lot from Jeff in that editorial process.

 Some time after that, your short stories started popping up.   Was the transition from editor to short story writer a difficult one?
I had begun writing short stories before editing Leviathan 3, but I was not very good at it. Editing Leviathan 3 helped me a great deal in understanding good story construction and, probably most importantly, the concept of “voice”. When you first start writing you can trip in one of two ways: 1) your writing is so generic that you have no “voice” or 2) the other extreme, where your “voice” gets in the way of a reader’s understanding. Now I had read a lot of fiction before that time and done my share of literary analysis in college, but I hadn’t seriously written fiction until my last year of graduate school. Since I was coming from an academic background, my writerly voice was awfully stilted and overly intellectual. I recall asking Jeff to have a look at a story I had written wherein I had used the word “myriad” a . . . well, a myriad of times. After red-penning that word several times, he simply wrote in the margins “You have to stop using that word!” And he was right. So doing the editing on Leviathan 3 gave me a more keen eye for my own errors, repetitive words, and bad constructions. It wasn’t a difficult transition to move from seeing the errors in other people’s work to honing my stories from the raw mess of a first draft to something more polished.

For those unfortunate souls who are unaware, give us the elevator pitch for Heraclix and Pomp.
Heraclix is a flesh golem, an artificial magical construct made up of the pieces of several dead men. Pomp is a fairy. They are thrust together by their mutual victimization by the Faustian sorcerer, Mowler. Pomp, who is immortal, is nearly killed by Mowler and must face the prospect that she can die. An accident kills Mowler, and Heraclix and Pomp are freed. Now Heraclix is mystified by himself. If he is composed of all these parts, who is he, really. Or, more properly, who was he before dying and being reborn? Underlying all these existential questions is the premise that Mowler might not be so dead, after all and, in fact, he might be striking a deal to seal his own immortality, at the cost of both the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires.

How did you hook up with Resurrection House for Heraclix and Pomp?
Mark Teppo knows my agent, Kris O’higgins. Mark was starting this new endeavor, Resurrection House, and Heraclix & Pomp had caught his eye. He offered, we accepted.

What would you say the big inspirations behind H&P are?
H&P started as a conversation in an apartment building hallway with one of the guys in my old Dungeons and Dragons group. We were talking about how you could run a cool 2-person adventure. I came up with the idea of a flesh golem and a pixie, simply because their respective strengths and weaknesses would complement each other well in the context of the game. That led to a short story, which is now embodied in Chapter 1 of Heraclix & Pomp. I submitted that story to John Joseph Adams, who sent a very nice rejection letter saying that it was on his short list for the anthology he was doing, but that he felt it would be best served with more “breathing room” as a novel. So I considered the end of the chapter and thought “well, what happens next?” This led to the novel. I was heavily influenced by certain music to provide a mood for each character, and that is reflected in the acknowledgements. As far as literary influence goes, there were several, including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Schacter’s Searching for Memory, Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, and Guy Davis’ graphic novel The Marquis: Inferno. I have a complete list of “Heraclix & Pomp’s Top 20” at my blog, which spills all the beans. Thematically, I wanted to explore what would happen when an immortal, timeless, and carefree being was suddenly faced with the real possibility of death. And, since I’m reaching middle age, I thought a lot about the role that memory plays in who I am today and how I see myself. But what if I didn’t know my past? How would that affect the way I think, my desires, my actions? And what if I wasn’t who I thought I might be? I’ve changed a lot since my teenage years – my high school classmates would hardly recognize me, not because of physical changes, but because of mental, emotional, and spiritual changes. So these questions were in the back of my mind the whole time I was writing the book.

If there was going to be an animated Heraclix and Pomp movie, whose voices would you use?
Heraclix would have to be Ron Perlman, either animated or live-action. Pomp would be Kate Bush in all her eccentricity that weird, squeaky voice she sang with in the 80s would be perfect for Pomp. Mowler would be voiced by Ian McDiarmad after he had gargled some hot gravel. Porchenskivik, Christopher Lee, the kinder, gentler version. Von Graeb would have to be Benedict Cumberpatch. I'd want the sexiest male voice I could think of, and that's it. For Von Helmutter, Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heros). Remember him? But he’s dead and probably not for hire. Second choice, Richard Griffiths. I'd want Neve Mcintosh as Lady Adelaide, simply because I loved her as Fuchsia in the BBC production of Gormenghast. Mark Hamill could do all the other voices by himself, probably.

Are you into historical fiction?   H&P seems more akin to historical fiction than fantasy at times.
That has more to do with my academic training than anything. I have a Master's in African History from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Truth be told, I haven't read much historical fiction, but I have read a lot of history!

When Forrest Gump was in the theaters, how long did it take you to want to strangle all the people making Forrest Gump jokes at your expense?
What people? Oh, are you talking about the corpses buried in my back yard? In all seriousness, That still happens. My snarky rejoinder is “Oh, ha ha ha ha! I've never heard that one before!” followed by the look of death. Seriously, people, can you come up with something more original?

Who is your favorite author?
Italo Calvino. I wish I could write like Italo Calvino. There's a dainty elegance undercut by a faint hint of cynical irony that I love in his writing. I have several others that I love to read, including Brian Evenson, Thomas Ligotti, Rikki Ducornet, Gene Wolfe, Alistair Reynolds, along with the classics, like Poe and Lovecraft. But Calvino takes my most-favored author slot.

What is your favorite book?
The one I'm writing at the time. It's impossible to pick one book that is my favorite. I have favorites in several sub-genres. For example, Hamlet's Mill is my favorite book on whatever it's on (good luck finding a thesis), while The Roots of Civilization is my favorite work on paleontology and Schacter's Searching for Memory is my favored book on neuroscience. But I'm hard pressed to think of a single non-fiction book that is my absolute favorite. As far as speculative fiction goes, I suppose Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun is my favorite science fiction series. I don't read a ton of fantasy, to be honest, but that Erickson guy has a good thing going so far. My favorite type of books are surreal, with a touch of magic, dark, and philosophical.

What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Hofstadter's Gdel, Escher, Bach, which was grueling and rewarding. Right now I'm reading Mieville's Perdido Street Station. I've read his other stuff, but had missed this one. I had a conversation with him once at a convention where we talked politics for about an hour. Thankfully he didn't ask if I had read it. By the way, China is a gentleman of the best kind. A scholar and a gentleman.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Yes! Stepan Chapman's The Troika. When I first read it, I was blown away. “People can actually write this cool stuff and get it published?” I said to myself. Apparently, they can.

What's next for Forrest Aguirre?
I am currently working on a science fiction novel tentatively entitled Solistalgia. I'm about 80% done with the first draft. It will need some draconian edits, but I'm pretty happy with the story and the characters, thus far. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll see the occasional short story popping up here and there. I'm also working on a role-playing game supplement that will take a while to get done. I have no illusions about actually making money from it, though, and will probably have to self-publish it as a labor of love. Of course, there's always kickstarter . . .

Any advice for aspiring writers?
Stop surfing the net and start writing. At the very least, take some quiet time to observe the world around you and write the perfect sentence about something or someone that catches your attention. Then build from there.

Heraclix and Pomp

Heraclix & PompHeraclix & Pomp by Forrest Aguirre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When his creator is killed, a golem named Heraclix leaves Vienna with a fairy named Pomp in tow in search of answers. Heraclix seeks the former life (or lives) of his constituent body parts and Pomp wants only to understand the human way of life. They travel to the Near East and back again with a short detour to hell. Will they ever find the answers they seek and will they like the answers they get?

Forrest Aguirre has proven himself to be a hoopy frood in recent years so when he asked if I'd read an ARC of his first novel, I could hardly say no.

Heraclix and Pomp brings a lot of different elements to the table. It's part historical fiction, part fantasy, with some political intrigue thrown in. Forrest Aguirre's prose feels like a mix of Peter S. Beagle and Gene Wolfe to me, dense but with a certain poetic beauty to it.

Heraclix, the dour golem, and Pomp, the curious fairy, go from one European locale to the next in their search for answers, encountering ghosts, demons, Turks, Romani, necromancers, as Heraclix slowly pieces together who his body parts used to belong to. Intrigued yet?

Forrest's depiction of Hell was one of my favorite parts of the book. The Lord of the Flies and his minions were pretty grotesque. I wasn't a fan of the political intrigue at first but I was sucked in eventually.

If you're looking for some beautifully-written fantasy that doesn't trod along all the familiar paths, you'll enjoy Heraclix and Pomp. Four out of five stars.

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Countdown City

Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2)Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When retired policeman Henry Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to track down her missing husband, he's on the case. But with only seventy-seven days until an asteroid crashes into Earth, will he be able to track the missing man down amidst rioting, looters, and the rapidly disintegrating infrastructure?

The second Henry Palace book is even better than the first. It sees Palace riding his ten-speed bicycle all over New Hampshire, looking for a former state trooper that doesn't want to be found in a world with no internet and no phones.

As with the previous volume, the case takes a backseat and the book is really a character study of Henry Palace and the rest of the inhabitants of the world. What would you do with only seventy-seven days to live?

Palace has grown on me quite a bit. His single-mindedness has begun to remind me of another favorite character of mine, Roland the Gunslinger, only Palace's Dark Tower is a missing man named Brett Cavatone. Neither of them like what's at the end of the quest, either. Even Palace isn't sure why he does what he does. Hank Palace has gone from being an overgrown hall monitor to a non-alcoholic version of Matthew Scudder fairly quickly.

The supporting cast is pretty interesting, all good examples of what life in a pre-apocalytpic world must be like. Nico, Palace's sister, was both infuriating and endearing. The college campus/anarchist encampment was both ridiculous and all too likely. I imagine a lot of people would offer services similar to Cortez's if the manure was about to hit the windmill.

Once again, the case was a tough nut to crack. I had no idea what was going on and I really have no idea what's going to happen in the third book. Will the asteroid be deflected after all?

Like The Last Policeman, Countdown City is very self-contained. There's no cliffhanger and you probably wouldn't even need to read the first volume to enjoy it. 4.5 out of five stars.

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