Monday, October 17, 2011

On Being A Rat - a review

People deal differently with both the good and bad in life. Loss, pain, and doubt are often dealt with in prayer or in alcohol, in conversation or bad poetry.  Chila Woychik creates art. 

"On Being A Rat" is a tapestry of poetry and lyrical prose, masquerading as a collection of autobiographical essays.  The collection is expressive and raw: not as an open wound, but instead like the flesh of an arm which has been scrubbed too clean.  The result is fresh skin, peeled back and red, both stinging and refreshing in its exposure to the elements.

As I read, I couldn't help but be reminded by Douglas Coupland's "Life After God" (in quality and tone, if not in style), with hints of Galway Kinell's "Book of Nightmares."

The author peels back the curtain of normal human restraint and, in response to the innocently (if disingenuously) asked, "how's it going" rips out her own wounded heart, places it grumpily in your hand, and says, "THAT. Is how I'm doing."

That's part 1: The Observations. In this section, Chila looks at her own struggles with trauma, with loss and doubt, and with friendship where it is needed most. The book would be worthwhile even if that was all there was to it.  But then there are parts 2 and 3.

In the section section of "On Being A Rat," Chila explores writing, in the same vein as she explored her own psyche in part 1. She offers sage words of advice, sprinkled liberally throughout -- but mostly, it's an in-depth look at her own struggles and methods.  From practical information like looking for people to do book notices for you, to less material narratives on taming her personal muse, this section isn't a how-to, but a glimpse into the journey of one writer's life in words.

Part 3, Nature Notes, is somehow misleading in its title. From the first essay in the section, we see that Chila is not writing purely about nature, but about what those elements of nature do to a person, spiritually and physiologically. In part, the essays are about remembrances, and in part odes to the wonder of the Earth.  Each of the three pieces in part 3 are beautifully written, and in their own way a part of the whole that is "On Being a Rat."

Pick up the book -- and don't forget to keep turning those pages, past the acknowledgments, for her "Letters to Friends, on Writing." These are also instructive, in their own way.

In "On Being A Rat," Chila Woychik makes some assumptions, and takes some risks. She assumes, with this book, that, since you went to the trouble of picking it up, you are asking, "Hey, how's it going?"  More brazen still, she is giving you the benefit of the doubt: she is assuming you actually meant it.  Whether talking about doubt and trauma, or the writing spirit, or even nature, Chila takes the risk of baring her soul to any complete stranger who cares to look.

In short, any good author will inspire the creativity in others. As a writer, when I read a Stephen King, I am inspired to be more prolific.

When I read Chila Woychik, I want to be a better writer.

Buy this book at Amazon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Walking Dead: Bicyle Girl's Story

Yes, I'm more than a little excited about The Walking Dead premiering tonight -- even though I probably won't actually watch the episode for another day or two. In anticipation, I've been rereading Hardcovers one and two of the original comic series, watching Season One on the Blu Ray, and checking out the webisodes on AMC.

First, allow me to say, I love the webisode idea, particularly for a show like The Walking Dead. The beauty of AMC's series -- and the comic which inspired it -- is that, ultimately, it is a human story, even more than it is a horror story.  I've said it before, I know, but this really can't be reiterated enough: the driving force behind the best horror and suspense is not the scares, thrills, and guts -- but the lives of the characters involved.  Kirkman really seems to get this, as does everyone involved in creating the show.

With the Walking Dead webisodes, AMC and the show's producers are managing to do something that even Romero does only moderately well: They are reminding us that the show's titular monsters (I'm gonna get yelled at for that -- yes, I KNOW that the title refers to the survivors just as much as the zombies) were once human beings. That every ravenous creature is a tale of tragedy and loss.  And with their first collection of webisodes, AMC and The Walking Dead do just that.

Fans of the show know Bicycle Girl as one of the first zombies Rick encounters: a pathetic figure, tragic as it crawls along the ground, stretching and reaching to no avail. Even Rick, as shocked and as horrified as he is, remembers the creature, pities it, and ultimately, ends its "life" as an act of mercy. But as the webisodes remind us, Bicycle Girl, like each of the zombies, had a name. Hers was "Hannah."

Effects guru Greg Nicotero directed this piece, starting with episode 1, "A New Day," in which we experience the zombie nightmare early on, from the eyes of the pre-deceased, iconic Hannah. Like Rick, she wakes up to the apocalypse -- in a crashed car instead of a hospital -- and immediately begins the search for her family.

Interesting and heart-wrenching, Nicotero presents us with a vignette of another group of people affected by the apocalypse.  The webisodes are relentlessly paced, and I'm thankful they were posted at the same time, because the 2-minute pieces by themselves would have been frustrating instead of entertaining -- but as they were, it was far easier to take Hannah's story as a whole, and it was better for it.

If you haven't watched them, give it a shot. Be aware that, like the show, it contains adult language and graphic -- very graphic -- violence. In a few short minutes, we get to know Hannah, to understand her, and to care about her.  Enough so that, even though you know she's going to come to an end -- a gruesome end, if the resulting look of Bicycle Girl is any indication -- there is still more than a little shock and sadness when you see it happen.