Day 6 – Tel Aviv

After we woke up on the sixth day and made our way out of our rooms, we compared notes and discovered that most rooms in the hotel were falling apart. Luckily I did not have to deal with the broken sinks or dirty rooms that most others did. To mitigate our discontentment we stepped outside, where we were treated to an unbroken vista of the Mediterranean, sparkling right outside of our hotel. Sadly I slept late, and could only rush through breakfast before packing up my belongings and boarding the bus; there was no time to enjoy the view.

Tel Aviv - 2

On the bus we sat through about an hour of stop and go traffic, evidently everywhere near Tel Aviv is like this, before reaching the city proper. We stopped along the side of one street and filed off the bus, only holding up traffic for a few minutes. We had arrived near Rabin Square, at the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. At the monument Shimi spoke to us about the assassination, and the life of Rabin.

Tel Aviv - 8

Afterwards we went over to the square and did an activity that had us speak to Israelis that we ran into. I ventured out with a few other people, and we ended up talking to a group of soldiers about their hopes for Israel. After reconvening and sharing our findings we got back on the bus for a quick drive over to Independence Hall. At Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, we attended an excellent lecture on the events surrounding the signing, and listened to the radio broadcasts from that day. The building had been transformed into a museum commemorating both the signing and the history of the city of Tel Aviv. Following the lecture we watched a short film about the founding of the city, and it was engaging enough that only a handful of people napped.

Tel Aviv - 12

Now, to the great disappointment of all, we had to say goodbye to the soldiers who had been traveling with us for the past five days. We gathered in a circle and as each soldier said goodbye we shared how we had connected, and how they had helped show us a more personal side of the country. Of course once this was done we all left to get lunch, with the soldiers in tow, so it wasn’t a true goodbye, yet. We walked through the garment district, past shopfront after shopfront filled with hundreds of bolts of unique fabrics spanning every color under the sun. What shops that weren’t filled with fabrics held clothes, and wedding dresses in every style imaginable seemed to fill most of these windows.

Tel Aviv - 15

At this point we split up to eat lunch and do some shopping, with instructions to meet back up in two hours. I ended up getting a burger, I was slightly worried about the lack of cheese going in, but found that guacamole with fried peppers makes an excellent substitute. I also got some wings, which were some of the best I’ve ever had, no matter what country I was in. Afterwards I walked around the garment district and through the open air market; it was just a smaller version of the market in Jerusalem. As our time wound down, and the sky started to open up, I grabbed a coffee and waited for the bus under a tree. Here we finally said goodbye to the soldiers, and started our long trip down to Arad.

Tel Aviv - 18

Again, we sat through traffic as we left Tel Aviv, and then again as we passed by Jerusalem. Throughout the trip we did a lot of backtracking; evidently efficiency wasn’t a priority for our planners. The only thing to note on this trip was the strip mall where we stopped to stretch our legs a half hour out from the hotel. The strip mall itself wasn’t remarkable, but next to it was a playground. While walking around two of us stumbled on it, and to our delight it was nothing like playgrounds back home. The playground itself was huge, probably the size of a softball field, and dominating it was a huge jungle gym, reaching three stories into the sky and sporting three slides. One of these, a long corkscrew, started at the top of a three story tower, which I was able to summit by climbing up a rope ladder and a spiral staircase. Then, with not a little trepidation about its weight limit, I launched myself into the corkscrew slide. I bounced off the sides, and let my feet drag one too many times, but emerged from the bottom dizzy, and ready to run back to do it all over again.

We spent the entirety of the half hour we had at the playground, rode all the slides, climbed every tower, and swung every swing. By the end there were ten of us there, acting like kids again and loving every minute. Thinking back, it’s depressing that no kid in the US will ever get to play on a playground like that, it was possible to fall, and on slides that big someone could get hurt. But does eliminating every chance of injury really help anyone grow? I’ve never known anyone who’s been irreversibly scarred by breaking an arm as a kid.

Far too soon our time at the playground, and brief relapse into childhood, was at an end. We climbed back on the bus and dozed through the last hour of our trip to the hotel. Here we got settled in our rooms, ate, and and gathered for an activity called “Where the Wind Blows.” The activity was similar to “Never Have I Ever,” though adapted for a larger group. Quickly this became as perverted as every other game of “Never Have I Ever” I’ve played. After everyone had been thoroughly embarrassed, and some rather personal questions asked, we split up for the night. While the other groups in the hotel were getting up at four to do the sunrise hike of Masada, Shimi decided we would wait until a more reasonable hour. The next morning was supposed to be overcast anyway.


With a few more hours of sleep to waste, a bunch of us gathered at the bar to play cards. We past an hour like this, but unfortunately met a young kid on another trip dealing with a serious bout of homesickness. I say unfortunate because it was quickly apparent he was having some serious mental issues and we were left to shepherd him through them. This eventually led to the front desk waking up Shimi, thinking that this kid was in our group, and then his group leader. Eventually we were all able to get some to fitful sleep, though several hours later than we had originally planned.

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Brand Names in Writing

There are some authors, James Patterson for one, who love to load their text down with as much detail as possible. In includes specific popular culture or brand references. I’ve never liked this technique. However, there are advantages. The more a reader relates to your story the more they will enjoy it, generally speaking. If they feel like they are in familiar territory, say because the main character wears the same brand of shoes as they do, it helps them become more immersed. I think this is even stronger when the author is talking about locations that the reader knows. This makes the reader feel special; they’re part of a club that knows what’s going on.

With all of these benefits, why is it that I dislike the technique? There are a couple reasons. First, the details are usually things that don’t matter. When a detective is driving across town to integrate a subject it makes no difference if he’s driving a Porsche or a Buick. It may tell me more about the character, does he care about status symbols, but we could find that out rather easily through other methods. Second, adding too many specifics narrows down the choices that my imagination can make. What if my version of a suave spy drives a BMW, when I’m told that he’s driving a Porsche I have to adjust my conception to match. I think that it’s very important to let a reader flesh out characters as much as possible; it helps them see characters they can relate to. Another shortcoming of including a lot of specific details is that those details can change over time. Obviously, you’ll have issues like this all of the time, how many movie and book plots no longer make sense in the days of cell phones, but the author should do as much as possible to limit the damage that can be wrought by time. Going back to the car example, what happens if in fifty years Porshe only makes economy cars (as much as I hope not), while a Buick is the definition luxury. Then, simply be identifying the make of the car, the author has forced an incorrect impression on his reader.

So, in summary, I think that generally – and there are times to ignore every rule – writers should ignore the use of brand names and the like in their texts; it forces too many details onto the reader. The reader should be free to let his imagination fill the details of the scene.

 

Disagreeing with Characters

As I’ve started to analyze the stories I read, or for that matter watch, I’ve noticed that in some of the stories I like the most I end up getting angry with the characters for the choices they make. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a good thing for the reader, or viewer, to disagree with a character sometimes, and want to go into why I feel this way.

I first started to think about this while listening to the Dresden Files; the audio books are very well done and make my commute, or any chores, fly by. There are many times throughout the books that I just want to scream at Harry Dresden, the main character. He’s quick to anger, jumps to conclusions, and isn’t always trusting enough of his friends. In many instances it gets him into trouble. However, he’s always like this. It’s his basic personality, and one that’s been built up over thousands of pages (or in my case hundreds of hours). As his backstory is revealed, one small piece at a time, I started to understand why he’s so quick to anger and slow to trust. I think this is the key element.

I think that the average reader doesn’t want a character to do exactly the same as they would. I certainly don’t. I also don’t think a reader always wants a character to always make the right decision. Not only is it boring, but it doesn’t allow for much internal conflict. There’s something to be said about a character making a decision he logically knows is wrong, but goes through with it anyway. It humanizes them. We’ve all made choices based on our emotions, even knowing at the time that we’re being stupid.

Another aspect of this is having a character make a decision that we, as readers, hate instinctively. I’ll use a scene from Game of Thrones as an example. In the first few chapters (and the first episode of the show) Jamie Lannister pushes Brandon Stark, a nine year old boy, out of the window of a high tower, trying to kill him. Of course, every reader immediately condemns Jamie. His action is reprehensible. Only after you start thinking about it, and you do think about it, do you realize that he had reasons. Brandon had caught Jamie having sex with his sister, who just happened to be the Queen. Had Brandon told anyone Jamie and the Queen would be immediately killed, along with their three children, who were thought to be the product of the King and Queen. Taken in that light, we can see that Jamie is protecting his family. His family might be severely dysfunctional, and we might not agree with the actions that he takes to protect them, but we can see where he’s coming from.

We won’t always like what our favorite characters are doing, however this is what makes them so interesting. This is what adds a dynamic, and sparks a conversation between the author and the reader. It drives the reader to ask why is this character doing that? Does it actually make sense? And it puts responsibility on the author to maker sure that the reader can find continuity in the character’s actions. They might not make sense until details are revealed later in the story, but they should always make sense at some point.

 

Ilium – Dan Simmons

What do a stoic observing the Trojan War of the Iliad in the flesh, a cyborg obsessed with the sonnets of William Shakespeare, and a society of people who’ve forgotten that reading is possible have in common? This is the first question that Ilium, by Dan Simmons, poses. In the introduction of each story there’s no way for the reader to figure out how they will relate. I must admit that I’ve spent many hours while not reading trying to figure out the puzzle. With each new turn of events more pieces come into view, sometimes confounding, other times confirming, my earlier suspicions. At every point of the story Simmons kept me engaged, even while I wasn’t reading. To me, this is the mark of a great story. I was listening to the audio book, and found myself doing extra chores or sitting in my car once I had reached my destination just to hear the next turn of events.

On thing that I think helped this is the pacing of the three stories. (Note, Simmons has only one viewpoint for each storyline, which I think is a very clean way of setting up the story.) Each chapter is finished at just the right point so that I was left left wanting more, but the story has advanced. However, cliffhangers weren’t used often until the end of the book, when the climax is approaching. Everytime we revisit another plot thread we’ve been away from it long enough that we are wondering what’s going on. This kept me anxious to move through the book, reaching for the next piece of action, even when the individual stories weren’t moving with great speed. I also think that having three stories that are completely different, in terms of characters and feel, is helpful. I never felt like I was spending too much time on any one type of story because all three were different. Just as the litany of Greek names starts to become overwhelming Simmons switches focus to the robots, who speak and think in a completely different fashion.

I think the important lesson that we can all learn from Simmons and Ilium, beyond those of proper pacing and leaving the proper amount of mystery, is the importance of balance. Each storyline in the Ilium balances the others, and Simmons doles them out in just the right amounts. He walks the thin line, like he did with the Hyperion Cantos, between boring the reader with info-dumps and leaving them confused because they know nothing about the world they’re exploring. Considering that I felt that Hyperion’s sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, was an improvement, Amazon can not get Olympos, the sequel to Ilium, to me fast enough.

 

Hyperion – Dan Simmons

I just finished Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I know, I know, it’s near the top of nearly every best sci-fi or fantasy list i’ve seen. After reading it I understand why and really regret not reading it sooner. The way that Simmons turns a phrase – I really think that Hyperion could also be classified as literary fiction. And not only is the prose outstanding but the worldbuilding is equally familiar and alien, all while fitting together seamlessly. I’m not going to go into a review in detail, I figure there are plenty of Hyperion reviews out there and there’s no need to invent the wheel. The moral of the story is simply read it; you won’t have any regrets.

 

One aspect of Hyperion that I do want to talk about is a literary device that Simmons uses. Here’s the quote from the book, and don’t worry, there are no spoilers:

“On Pecam we have – as best we could from ancient photos and holos – rebuilt the basilica of St. Peter’s exactly as it stood in the ancient Vatican. Almost seven hundred feet long and four hundred and fifty feet wide, the church can hold fifty thousand worshipers when His Holiness says Mass. We have never had more than five thousand faithful there even when the Council of Bishops of All the worlds is in assembly every forty-three years. In the central apse near our copy of Bernini’s Throne of St. Peter, the great dome rises more than a hundred and thirty meters above the floor of the altar. It is an impressive space.

This space was larger.”

 

Simmons describes something that the reader knows, or at least could know in detail. I find this method to be particularly effective because the reader is already impressed by the description of St. Peter’s basilica, and then the description simply becomes a comparison. I think it is something that should be used sparingly, but the sudden change can be effective in jarring the reader. All too often we, as readers, can foresee what is coming, I think this is an interesting method of giving the reader a shock. It probably should only be used to describe something the author deems crucial to the story in some way, it will stick with the reader for a long time.