Dec 13

CSI: A Gentleman in Moscow

(Context – Subtext – Intertextuality)

The author, Amor Towles, name drops in A Gentleman in Moscow. He weaves the names of literary greats, facts from the writers’ lives and passages from classics. A special surprise is the frequent mentioning of Chekhov and Tolstoy. I search for a term to describe this writing technique. No, it’s not plagiarism because the quotes are attributed to each author. By accident, between context for Bulgakov and subtext for Chekhov, I stumble on this little word – intertextuality.

Of course, it is not a little word, and the concept is huge in application. Intertextuality includes lifting and incorporating lines and thoughts from previously published works. It also expands to building upon previously published themes, characters and plots. Here is a reason for writers to be avid readers. To reference a previous work, the writer must have knowledgeable of the text within the writers’ work. Without a sufficient  literary background, the modern writer misses the opportunity for deeper meaning. I struggle with merely achieving sufficient knowledge to find the hidden treasures of intertextuality in my reading.

 Intertextuality

To find examples of intertextuality in A Gentleman in Moscow, I utilize technology to locate the passages. A simple “search” or “find” in the digital copy delivers numerous references for Chekhov, Tolstoy and even Bulgakov. Famous titles, such as War and Peace, enter the dialogue when one character is challenged to transcribe a favorite passage. And Anna Karenina is wedged under a furniture leg to steady  a wobbly bureau.

One of my favorite references is in a footnote. Towles writes about what I encountered in reading Tolstoy and Chekhov. He writes that “among readers of European fiction the character names in Russian novels are notorious for their difficulty. Not content to rely on given and family names, we Russians like to make use of honorifics, patronymics, and an array of diminutives – such that a single character in one of our novels may be referred to in four different ways in as many pages. To make matters worse, it seems that our greatest authors, due to some deep-rooted sense of tradition or a complete lack of imagination constrained themselves to the use of thirty given names. You cannot pick up a work of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Turgenev without bumping into an Anna, an Andrey, or an Alexander.”

Count the Many Ways 

Speaking of Alexanders and multiple names, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov– called Count, Alexander and  Sasha — is the protagonist in A Gentleman in Moscow . In this fictional book, the Count is under house arrest and confined to the Metropol Hotel in 1922 for publishing a poem unacceptable to the newly empowered Communist party. The abdication of Nicholas II, the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war in Russia and War World I were only a few years in the past. The Count, a descendent of Russian aristocracy with ties to the former Tsar, has lost seemingly everything. The following passage by Towles describes the downfall of aristocrats, writers and politicians.

” . . . the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”

Literally Literary

The character, Mikhail Mindich, a boyhood friend of the Count, mentions Chekhov  and is in the process of editing a compilation of Chekhov’s letters. In one scene, Mishka (nickname) shares his frustration at being forced to delete part of a letter by Anton Chekhov to his sister. Although Chekhov’s letter was written in 1904, the 1930s in Russia and the Great Purges (1936-1938) eliminated anything counter-revolutionary or negative about Russia. Towles includes the letter sent from Chekhov in Berlin on June 6, 1904 to his sister, Masha.  Only a month before his death, Chekhov comments on the good German bread, his improving health and the quality of his hotel.

As you might guess, Mishka is eventually imprisoned as an Enemy of the People. Following his imprisonment, Mishka writes a book titled Bread and Salt. Towles includes passages about bread from Genesis, Matthew and Luke and by authors Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. The passages inspire me to find these stories and novels to read next and better understand the effect of intertextuality in this example. Curious about the reference to bread and salt, I discover this is a welcoming custom in Russian for guests or on special occasions. Perhaps the Count’s reading Mishka’s book is the special occasion or a reference to a shared greeting in their more pleasant past as young men.

This novel accomplishes the job of putting history in context with literature. Towles, a reader of Russian literature, confirms the importance of Tolstoy and Chekhov in the history of world literature. I also learn through the events portrayed in the novel the cultural and political sentiment for Mikhail Bulgakov during the time when he wrote The Master and Margarita.

Now, I know enough about Russian literature to be dangerous.

Dec 05

Video Games – Vintage vs. Modern

On October 29, 2017, I went to a special theatrical showing of a movie — 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors — I hadn’t seen on the big screen since I was a child.  I thought seeing the film in this format would be a nice trip down memory lane.  I wasn’t disappointed, even though it was a version of Little Shop of Horrors with an alternate ending in which the plant lives.  There was something magical about seeing the actors’ performances and stellar musical numbers, such as “Skid Row” and “Suddenly Seymour,” in the theater again after thirty years.

What I wasn’t expecting was to find inspiration for a video game blog.  But seeing a preview documentary prior to the movie about the film-making process of Little Shop of Horrors got my creative juices flowing.  The film-maker’s talk about all the practical effects, as opposed to the digital effects of today, that went into the film raised an interesting question for me.

Have films — or video games for that matter — lost some of their magic because it takes less work to generate the effects for them?

I know it takes time to put together computer-generated imagery for today’s films or video games.  But I feel there is less room for imagination on the movie\game designer’s part.  Technology — specifically digital technology — has gotten so advanced that there seems to be no limit to what can be created for movie-going audiences or gaming enthusiasts.  There have been times as of late where I’ve felt like some video games — not to mention films — have gotten too overblown and flashy because of the “sky’s the limit” mentality adopted by the production crews or studio execs.

In my opinion, what made the video games of the 1990s and early 2000s so much better was that there was a greater emphasis on story-telling and practical effects.  I know of many game production companies from that time period that hired and filmed live actors for inclusion in a particular title, such as Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun.  I feel there was more creativity when it came to designing environments, creatures, and vehicles until digital technology became more prevalent.  I’ve seen too many game designers nowadays re-use or modernize concepts of what came before rather than take time to come up with something new and innovative.  The Dead Space trilogy would be a good example — all three of the main games in the series might as well be the same since there’s not much variation in the story, gameplay, or creature design.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing modern games.  But it would be nice to see a resurgence of the production practices of yesteryear.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this particular topic.  Please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Dec 04

Begin Anew

“I don’t think anything is unrealistic if you believe you can do it.” – Richard L. Evans

“If at first you don’t succeed, call it version 1.0.” – Author Unknown

Check your 2017 to-do list. Were you able to clean out your over crowded closet? Did you drop the weight you wanted to lose? Did you complete the first draft of the story you promised to complete this year? Have you accomplished any or all of your goals?

Congratulations to those of you who have. For the rest, don’t despair. You still have a few weeks left if you’re in the “trying-to-finish” stage. Of course, there’s always next year to make a new list of goals or re-address the ones you couldn’t finish in 2017. But why wait until January first? Will the New Year’s Resolutions gods swoop down with an unspeakable punishment because you don’t reveal your list on the first day of 2018?

A new beginning can start at any time you choose. Why not do it now? Make a new list of goals. This time make them realistic for your personality, interests, and lifestyle. Make sure your goals are specific, measurable, and relevant to your long-term goals.

My goals for now are:

  1. Read one book per month in 2018. Two non-fiction books will be about writing, the rest will be fiction.
  2. Enter the Writers Weekly short story contest in January 2018.
  3. Write a minimum of 5,000 words per week for three months for a total of 60,000 words. This will bring my manuscript to a total of 75,000 words.

Check your 2017 to-do list. What are your new goals? Are they specific? Are they measurable? Are they realistic? Please share your new goals.

Dec 01

Slippery When Wet

Corrine tucked her keys in her purse and, with precise steps on her discounted designer stiletto heels, marched into Holiday market on a mission. To wipe her crappy day away, she needed her girls tonight. Her best friends, Ginger and Melody, already said they were ready to commiserate with the tidal wave of emotions she was feeling.

Corrine planned to pull together some cheese, crackers, and wine. Lots of wine.

She sighed and was hit with a whoosh of hot air as the sliding doors closed out the cold air behind her. December had arrived with a miserable portion of wet and wintery with a portion of slushy on the side. She swiped at her hair, an array of tangledly wet strands that probably matched her mascara tear-streaked face. She hadn’t dared look into a mirror.

Embarrassed because of her wrecked face, and the random time’s tears decided to make their presence known, Corrine wiped her cheeks. She wouldn’t let anything stop her from getting her multiple bottles of wine. And food. She couldn’t forget the food. “Hell, who cares about food.”

As she grabbed a cart Corrine knew people were staring. She didn’t care. It wasn’t any worse than finding out your sister was sleeping with your fiancé. “Ha!”

Corrine’s meeting in Birmingham had been canceled so she’d decided to surprise him with a floor picnic. His office was in the same building, so she’d gone to the small grocery store on the corner and picked up a few of his favorite things and a bottle of wine. She knew he’d be in because he was pushing through a major project and he always forgot to eat.

She sniffled and reached for some raspberries as her thoughts of what she’d seen tumbled through her mind. “Yuck, yuck, yuck!” A woman also reaching for some raspberries, looked at her, and pulled her hand back slowly like any sudden movement would have her turning rabid and biting it off.

“Sorry,” Corrine mumbled as she moved on.

On to the deli, she started throwing cheese of all kinds in her cart. Eyeing the summer sausage, she took a few of those for a well-balanced meal. Next was bread. She needed something to sop up all the wine she was going to drink. “Right.”

Her twin sister, Cory, had always been the bur in her designer shoe causing her to limp through life. She should have known something like what she walked in on would have happened. And every time the bur dug deeper into Corrine’s skin she would forgive Cory for what she’d done. They were hitting twenty-seven this year. How many more times could she forgive her sister, she asked herself. This might be the first time she thought about finally walking away. So much pain was intertwined with the love she felt for her twin.

Corrine grabbed a tissue from her pocket, wiped her nose again and then turned down toward the seafood.

“Two pounds of shrimp, please.”

The Seafood person stared open-mouthed at her. She must look pretty scary to cause the man’s reaction to freeze on his face. Corrine glared at him. He closed his mouth and got the food she asked for.

“Thank you,” she said forced politeness. He nodded and handed her paper wrapped package.

Turning down the canned food aisle she picked up pickles and some small white beans. A nice vinaigrette would add some tang to the beans, mixed along with a sweet onion, to balance it out. It would pair well with the baguette she had grabbed. She loved the bean recipe. It was fresh and flavorful with the salt and pepper and onion. And who cared about bad breath? Maybe she would add more onion just in case David decided to stop by and try to apologize.

Her phone signaled. She ignored it. It was probably David the Douche. “Who slept with my fucking sister.”

A gasp came from her left.

“Sorry,” Corrine raced away again. The woman was someone from her church. No doubt the woman would go gabbing to her mother and father. “Crap.”

Arriving at row after row of wine bottles, Corrine grabbed her favorites since saving money wasn’t on her mind. Getting drunk to forget was.

She gazed into her cart at the obscene amount of red, white and pink colors staring back at her and shrugged. Oh, well, she thought. Her friends would help her drink through them all.

“Whatever. Ice cream.”

The multiple freezer doors called to her. She steamrolled around a man crouching in front of an open door toward the ice cream she favored but the little cream puffs covered in chocolate ganache caught her attention across the aisle. Spinning her cart around with careless speed she focused on those cream puffs.

She grabbed a couple boxes and spun back around aiming for her Stroh’s ice cream. Before she could reach out for the handle her heel slipped out from under her. Her feet flew up as her ass went down and what followed was her head knocking on the floor inviting China to open up the door to the other side of the world.

Corrine saw stars of black skate across her view. She blinked, her eyelids the only thing moving. The edges fading, as the stars increased in number causing her site to be enveloped by complete darkness. Almost.

More blinking.

Was someone talking to her?

Blink.

Lips moving. What was he saying?

“Are you okay, miss?”

His hands felt nice. She looked at her feet.

“Should I call an ambulance,” a woman somewhere asked.

I didn’t hear an answer.

“Miss?” the voice said as her hand was squeezed.

That’s when Corrine came back to herself and looked up.

All she could think of was the quote that went something like, you can see into the soul of someone through their eyes. Whoever said it knew what they were talking about. Staring into her own was an exquisite pair offset by strong cheekbones and the darkest of darkest hair. Those eyes were caught behind a million black lashes. The color of his eyes was that final second before the light went out in her world, and night captured the day. That line of black that held the blink of the darkest purple like the color of red wine but even darker.

She licked her lower lip as her breaths raced along with her heartbeat.

“Let’s sit you up.”

Corrine noticed he wore fatigues with a helicopter insignia on one shoulder.

“Ohh!” The room spun as the man helped her sit up. One of his hands shifted to her neck as the other still gripped her hand. When his fingers raked through her hair to move the wet hair off her forehead, she shivered. And not from the cold. But they moved further up, and she groaned again.

“You’ve got a nasty bump here.”

“Yeah, kind of guessed that, with the pain and all.”

Corrine looked up at her comment and stopped breathing. He smiled. He had dimples. Two. On both sides of his face. She held in the moan that went along with all the dirty thoughts that unexpectedly popped up in her mind.

Things went fuzzy again.

“Hey, hey. Breath, miss.”

“Corrine,” she wheezed out.

“Huh?” he said and leaned in.

He smelled nice. “My name. It’s Corrine. Corrine Dennesey.”

She scooted her legs under her and suddenly they were both moving, his one arm wrapping around her as she wobbled to standing on her stilettos.

“Thanks.”

Corrine took him in, her eyes wandering. He was taller than her maybe a few inches above her five-nine. As he held her for one more instant before, unfortunately, setting her away, she swallowed the hum that almost would have reached his ears. He was a solid wall of muscle. She still held his biceps gripping harder than necessary until she gave one more squeeze and took a step back.

“Thank you. Ah?”

Corrine said again after she cleared her throat.

“Oh,” he laughed. “Ace.” He smiled down at her. She smiled back. “I mean, Aiden. But everyone calls me Ace.”

She reached out her hand. “Nice to meet you,” She paused, “Aiden.”

His eyes flared as she let his name slide off her tongue. What was wrong with her, she thought. Was she hitting on someone in a grocery store? She shook her head.

But then the intense heated moment was broken when he said, “You sure you’re alright?”

“Yes. I’m fine.”

Aiden hadn’t let go of Corrine’s hand.

“And everything else?”

“What?” She was confused.

“Ah…” Aiden motioned to her face. “You’ve been crying.”

Corrine’s eyes widened. “Oh, God.” She was mortified. Her eyes were probably swollen and red, her cheeks tear and mascara-stained. She probably looked like that girl that’s being chased in a serial killer movie.

She fumbled through her purse grabbing another tissue to sop up some of her make-up smeared face. She was also trying to distract herself, so she wouldn’t verbally vomit all her problems onto his combat covered feet. But of course, his mild and soft demeanor, his caring and deeply seductive eyes had her doing it anyway.

“My sister decided to screw my fiancé and I just so happened to take lunch to my now ex-fiancé’s office. He was tucking in his shirt along with his cock,” she pronounced the last consonant with a harsh tongue. She laughed with a leaching edge of hysterics. “And it gets worse. My sister walked toward me while tying off my…my,” she pounded her chest, “favorite wrap around dress. And it was also David’s favorite. Her mouth was smeared with lipstick. Can you believe that?” Her voice hitched. “David’s mouth shared the same shade as her lips.” By the time Corrine’s words ended her anger and sadness were coming out through pants.  Her forehead hit Aiden’s chest as almost all her weight fell on him causing his fingers to grip her arms, so she wouldn’t topple over.

“Sorry,” Corrine said to their feet. When she dared to look up with her embarrassment now beyond even the fourth-grade mishap when her sister “accidentally” pushed her out of the girl’s locker room in only her underwear. Her lips pinched together as she took in the anger on his face, a contradiction in emotions, to the way his fingers caressed her arms. “I’m,” she hiccoughed, “I’m a mess.”

His thumbs kept circling in a hypnotic rhythm and she almost forgot they were in the middle of the freezer aisle, his eyes never leaving hers. And then he cleared his throat and the stepped away.

She felt the loss and wanted it back. This man, this stranger made her feel inappropriate things. Corrine should be thinking about David and Cory and their betrayal, not wondering why this man, Aiden, seemed to make her want to burrow in his warmth. She sighed. He was a nice distraction from her life. But she didn’t need to be thinking about another guy. It just wasn’t right.

“Well, if you’re okay I’ve got to get going.”

Corrine nodded and tried to hide her wince. Aiden’s eyes narrowed at her.

“I’m fine,” she said.

He nodded once but didn’t move to leave. What was he waiting for?

Aiden cleared his throat, looked down to his combat boots and then back up to her and surprised her by asking, “Can I call you later?”

Corrine’s mouth opened, and her breath caught. Did he want to call her? She nodded but was still frozen. He wanted to call her. She was a mess and he still wanted to call her. He must be a saint, she thought.

“To see if you’re, all right?”

She kept nodding.

“Your phone number?”

“Oh, right, right,” she giggled.

Aiden pulled out his phone bringing up his contacts. Corrine input her digits and he texted her back–her phone rang–a smiley emoji popped up.

She bit her lip. He didn’t have to give her his number. Did he want to call her for something other than checking in with her? Her belly flipped over with desire she shouldn’t be feeling. She just caught David screwing her sister.

“Well, thank you for rescuing me, Aiden.”

“You’re very welcome, Corrine,” he said, giving her one last look from head to toe causing her to hold her breath. He turned and walked away and the view from behind was just as sexy as the front view.

She grabbed her cart and the ice cream she never got to and dialed Melody. “Did you get the Rocky Road,” her friend asked. But Corrine ignored the question speaking right over her, “You will never guess what happened!”

Nov 18

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Thoughts from overheard conversations

Boonton Coffee

Boonton, NJ

September 2017

People speak loudly in coffee shops, so it’s their fault I think what I’m thinking.

“She’s tall.  Very nice.  Comfortable.”

— Guy on high school desk chair.

I sip my coffee and wonder if he’s referring to an actual woman or if he’s assigning a gender on an inanimate object.  Maybe it’s because of the eclectic seating in here, but his emphasis on “comfortable” makes me think of furniture, a refrigerator or a sturdy wooden armoire.  The espresso steamer drowns out whatever he says next.

“A Murkrow.”

— Guy standing in line to order coffee.

The Pokémon GO twinkling percussion theme song follows that comment.  I’d recognize that anywhere because my husband doesn’t turn off the music when he plays that game.  I love that game, too, but there is a level in hell where that theme song plays nonstop.  I hear the swoosh toss sound effect of the Pokeball, the boink bounce on the Pokemon’s head and the catch snap, capture click.  He won this round and I hear that trumpet blast of triumph.  Really loud.  His phone volume must be maxed out.

I pause and look down at my phone.  I have the app open as I often do and think, Did I miss something?  A Murkrow doesn’t interest me, but is it time for me to spin?  This is the reason I’m sitting on this mildly uncomfortable bench with my phone tethered to the outlet at my feet. Pokemon GO sucks the battery life from my phone like a kid slurps spaghetti.  I see the Murkrow on the screen.  It still doesn’t interest me, but the conversation does.

The guy at the counter is part of a group of four young adults who look like, well, I imagine they play Dungeons & Dragons.  One of them appears extra-nerdy and could be the reason I hear the theme song over the steaming espresso machine.

Should I get up with the excuse to refill my coffee and casually comment on the game when I’m up at the counter?  I want to go up there and ask them if there’s a Legendary raid nearby.  I know there isn’t, but I want to be a part of their world their all.

I squirm on my bench and watch them shuffle and waddle out the door.  Did I miss an opportunity?

“We need something unique.  Like Starbucks.  Put a slice through our logo….”

— A male Boonton Coffee barista.

Unique?  Is he talking about this coffee shop not being unique?  This long wood table, worn but slightly shimmery as if recently varnished, has a picnic table vibe from it.  But it’s much more commanding than that.

There’s a fluffy leather or vinyl couch on my left with black and white striped throw pillows.

There are two white wood barstools at a white drafting table in the back.  Someone sits there, typing on a laptop.  There’s another table with a world globe as table decor.

Four wall-size chalkboards list the drinks.  Above them, “Boonton Coffee” is spelled out from sliced up old New Jersey license plates.  Next, to that metal montage, a framed The Toxic Avengers movie marquee poster hangs on the wall.  They have a drink named that.  Which came first?

The hip and the groovy vibe is further conveyed with the rough burlap coffee bags everywhere.  Serious coffee establishments display them as art deco, and I’ve not seen them used as full-size wall hangings, here looking shabby chic, bohemian, chill against raw red brick walls.  There’s a stump across the room that looks like a wrapped wood barrel that I can’t tell is a practical seating element or museum-esque décor.  Pleasantly, there’s not a single pillow crafted from that material; that’s so overdone.  The crafted burlap cup coasters are unique.

Like the Starbucks chain could charm this haunt.

“We lost our dog.  Then my dad got news that my grandmother was going downhill…. My mom has two cats she’s really attached to and one ran away…. But other than that, nothing’s new.”

— Guy on the couch to my left.

He ends that with a lighthearted laugh, not a serious laugh but the shrug-your-shoulder kind of laugh.  I glance to my left, expecting to see a pimply skinny teenager.  Instead, here’s a blonde hair, scruffy-stubble-bearded Andrew McCarthy from the Pretty in Pink era.  He’s across from two girls with everyone using the steam trunk treasure chest as their table.  By their body language, they’re all friends, just friends, and he’s the ringleader.  He’s the only one on the couch, leaning forward on the throne and the only one of three with a to-go cup.  The two girls sitting on green-handled chairs have for-here mugs.  Either this guy is super-casual, you know, nothing bothers him, or he has no sense of loss in real life tragedy.  He comments that he’s dated his girlfriend since high school.  I’m glad I’m not her and take another sip of my room temperature coffee.

“Crap!  It’s Jordan’s birthday.  I forgot to call her.  (Girl laughs) She’s my best friend. (Giggles) (Picks up phone, beep boop dial) I can’t get through.  What’s her number?”

— Girl #1 sitting on one green-handled chair.

She talks about “on my 18th birthday” like it was forever ago, so I figure she is the ripe old age of a college sophomore or junior.  I go with sophomore because that makes me feel younger and them more insensitive.

Sad thing is, I see myself thinking her initial comment.  With my move to New Jersey, I’m now physically closer to my college friends.  This is a great opportunity to reconnect.  I called those friends exactly zero times.  Two of them called and visited me, but I haven’t done the same.  I suddenly want to call everyone, but I’m in a coffee shop.  I’m not one of “those people” who hold a conversation so loud you can hear it over the espresso machine.  That’s my excuse, and I sip my coffee to feel trendy and distracted.

“I’ve tried to find every reason not to like her, but I can’t.”

— Girl #2 sitting on the other green-handled chair.

The 80s phrase “Oh my gawd!” comes to mind.  The tone of the girl’s voice is light-hearted but what a mean person, someone who envied the popular crowd in high school.  Or was she the popular crowd?  She wears jeans with rips down both legs, new ones that are sold pre-destroyed.  Like, she’s so hip.

“Thanks.  It’s been nice sitting next to you.  My name’s Greg.” 

— Big guy next to me at the table.

He reaches out to shake my hand.  Is this awkward or creepy?  Regardless, I’m polite in coffee shops.

“Hello, Greg,” I say as we shake hands.  “I’m Diana.”

He speaks quietly, the way an awkward teenage high school boy does.  His handshake is mildly firm and a bit clammy but without the sweat.  We’re at an awkward angle, so it’s more like a half-handshake.

“Have a blessed day,” Greg says.  He walks away.

There was nothing special about our interaction.  I never saw him before and we mostly ignored each other.  I asked him if I could put my phone on the chair between us because my charging cable is too short to reach the table.  He asked me to plug in his laptop cord because the outlet is beside me, too far from him to reach.  There was no missed opportunity.  It was common stuff.  Or not.