The Great Pottery Throw Down

I’ve fallen in love with the Great Pottery Throw Down.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pottery version of the Great British Baking Show. It’s got all the elements you’d expect: ribald puns, diverse UK accents, creations both whimsical and twee.

But that’s not why I love it.

I love it because it celebrates amateurs.

I know that word has negative connotations to American audiences. We say something is amateurish as a way of calling it rough or unpolished. We use amateur as an insult, implying a lack of experience or motivation.

But that’s not the way I’m using it. And it’s not what the contestants on the pottery throw down are. I mean, there are folks that first picked up clay eighteen months before going on the show, sure. But there’s also people on there who have been throwing all their lives, with decades of experience. And they’re really good! They just never made a living at it.

That’s the real line that separates amateur from professional. It’s not the quality of the work. It’s not the dedication to the craft. It’s simply whether you earn money doing it.

There’s a lot of reasons a contestant might not have “gone pro” with their pottery. For some of them, it’s confidence, a lack of faith in their work that would allow them to put it (and themselves) out there (seeing some of the contestants cry when the judges praise their work, like it’s the first time anyone’s said something good about it, makes me choke up, too). For some, it’s a lack of time: they’re too busy taking care of ailing family members (or children) to be able to launch a career in pottery. For many, it’s a matter of money, because it takes a good deal of it to be able to quit your job and shift into something else.

It reminds me of writers, and how many of us (myself included) often don’t feel like “real” writers if we’re not doing it full time. Or if we’re not writing novels. Or if we’re not selling every story we write.

And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We can be just as dedicated to our work, and just as exacting, just as precise with our editing polishes, if we’re producing it early in the morning before the day job starts, as any full-time author. It might take us longer, sure, but it’s the same craft, using the same tools. We can be, we should be, just as proud of the results.

So if you’re not writing for a living, embrace it! Embrace the freedom that comes with being an amateur, with being able to write what you want and then stick it in a drawer or try to sell it or just send it out to friends and family for their enjoyment.

Take the craft seriously, not the career. Maybe the career will come, maybe it won’t. But it’s the same act of writing that runs through it all, and it’s that act we can always work to improve, no matter our status.

Dune: Part One

There’s a moment in Jodorowsky’s Dune where the titular director, discussing how Hollywood canceled his version forty years ago, pulls a fist of euros out of his pocket and shakes them at the camera. “This system makes us slaves,” he cries, “With this devil in our pocket. This paper…It has nothing inside. Nothing!”

In the moment, the gesture feels melodramatic. A bitter cry from a man who was denied his chance to ascend to greatness. But after watching first Lynch’s Dune, and now Dune: Part One, it seems prophetic.

Where Jodorowsky’s version of Dune sought to change the consciousness of its viewers, and Lynch’s Dune tried to convey the weirdness of a future as far from ours as we are from the inhabitants of ancient Sumer, Dune: Part One is seeking to…tell us the story of Dune.

Yet even with this lowered ambition, the film is a failure. Dune the book fascinates in part because of its many colorful factions, all vying for power. But Dune: Part One doesn’t have enough ambition to be a Game of Thrones in space. Mentats here are just bland, faithful servants, denied even their name to let the audience know how special — and central — they are. There’s no mention of the Space Navigators’ Guild, leaving Spice’s centrality to space travel just an abstract thing, a line a character says while standing in the right spot wearing the right clothes, and nothing else. The Spice itself is barely present, looking more like someone turned a glitter filter on than a thing worth killing over.

The result is a film with no depth and no stakes, the world of Dune flattened to something completely mundane. It is a clockwork universe, made with stunning special effects and actors moving in expensive costumes.

In his past films, Villeneuve’s lack of interest in the human was an asset. Both Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 benefit from a style that is distant and alien, the former because it seeks to convey an alien perspective, the latter because it centers on an unfeeling android. But Dune doesn’t work unless the galactic stakes are connected to the personal, the planetary drama interlocked with the familial. Dune: Part One leaves the galactic stakes mostly untethered, and the family drama unexplored. We get an adaption that is faithful in every sense but those that matter.

If only there was something human at the heart of it all, some emotion, some sense of life and purpose. But Dune: Part One is content to just let events play out, with no rhyme or reason behind them, just toys — beautiful toys — going through the motions, propelled by money, and rewarded with the same.

Short Book Reviews: October 2021

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? checks calendar winces Way too long.

Part of that was the grind of the Book That Wouldn’t End. Not the novel I’m writing, mind you, but the book way down at the end of this list, the one that took me all of August and most of September to finish. And it was good! But very dry and dense in an academic way, and so reading it was like shoving day-old oatmeal into my brain. Healthy, for sure! But not fun.

And part of it has been simply time. I’ve neglected this blog, I feel, mostly because somewhere between July and now everything seemed to speed up, all at once, and I suddenly had no time for anything. It definitely contributed to the writer’s block I’m just now climbing out of. And it meant certain things — like these posts — just got dropped.

But! I’m on the mend, mental-health-wise (I think. I hope), reading again, and writing, so it’s time to pick things back up here.

As always, reviews are posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent book I finished first.

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Finally got around to this one. And I can easily see how it could become a TV series; not only is the book very visual and quick-moving (in terms of style), but each section forms its own little “episode” where a different character takes the spotlight and has a supernatural encounter (of various kinds). It all builds to a climax that’s so perfect — and perfectly justified — I’m looking forward to re-reading it just to see all the threads coming together again.

The Likeness, by Tana French

Jesus, this one sucked me in. The Irish lilt to the dialog, the immersive descriptions of the country house where most of the book takes place, the personal history of the characters…Can you want to live inside a murder mystery? Because damned if I didn’t want to spend more time with this one. Expertly done, from start to finish.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

Ok, this one had me with the title alone. I was worried that it couldn’t deliver on that promise, but I needn’t have been. It’s a cross of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, mixed with some classic Agatha Christie, topped with a powerful message about forgiveness. I don’t want to say anything more, for fear of spoiling it, but if that sounds like your bag, pick it up; you won’t be disappointed.

Luminferous, by J Dianne Dotson

The finale is here! A series literally decades in the making (the author wrote the first draft of what became the second book in her teens) finally gets the send-off it deserves. I won’t spoil anything here, just to say that this fourth book continues the trend of each one being better than the last.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, there’s plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked. If you haven’t read any of them yet but enjoy old-school sci-fi (think classic Star Trek or Anne McCaffrey) you should check them out!

The Field and the Forge, by John Landers

The book that almost killed me.

It’s a survey — just a survey! — of the kinds of physical restraints an organic economy imposes on technology, culture, and warfare. It’s incredibly eye-opening, and completely ruins any sense of “realism” you might have felt lingered in shows like Game of Thrones.

Also, nothing makes me appreciate modern life more than thinking about how just to transport food (say, grain, or fruit) to a market in pre-industrial times, you were usually transporting by animal, but just to get there you had to bring food along for yourself and for the pack animal, which meant traveling more than a few hours (let alone more than a day) was simply not viable (because at some point the animal is carrying just food that’s going to be consumed along the way, making the trip worthless economically).

There’s some theory packed in there, which Landers is gracious enough to admit is completely bogus but serves to illuminate different aspects of these complex phenomena. The interaction between population, production efficiency, and military size is especially instructive. Ditto the possibility for certain inheritance schemes to lead to a surplus of “second sons” that have nothing and thus no stake in society, causing all kinds of trouble.

Anyway, I’m glad I read it, I might refer to it from time to time, but ye gods I will never be re-reading it.