Category Archives: reading

Show Your Shelf!

Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des dames (‘De Lof der Vrouwen’), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

 

Nowadays, even the Pope takes selfies. If you’re a committed writer and/or reader, though, you can get a better likeness than that. Share your shelfies, picture of your books. Give yourself a little leeway, and you can include your desk, your writing space and your reading corner. Why post a picture of your ugly mug? Show us your frontal cortex!

Here’s the most public of my shelfies, the bookcase beside my fireplace.  It displays the books most worth looking at as objects. Almost all of those on the top two shelves were my mother’s or my grandmother’s. They’re bound in leather, tooled in gold. (The books, not my progenitors, though they were pretty hidebound, too.)  The stretch of identical bindings is a set of officially worthy books, some of which are indispensable, like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, though I’d already read those in paperback before it occurred to me to look through the family holdings. On the other hand, Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln will probably be up there, unmoved and undusted, when I die.

The tall books on the bottom shelves are mostly art and coffee table books. I have no memory at all of their provenance. I think people break in at night and drop them off to free up their own shelf space.

Below, in extreme contrast, is The Holy of Holies. Books have to be canonized to get here, and for this purpose, I am the Pope. Most are fiction; a few belong on the history or science shelves. Atwood and Byatt are there, as are Pogo, the best of Diana Wynne Jones, and Perfection Salad, a study on the sociology of home cooking around 1900 that transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. The woman in the picture is my best friend. A librarian, naturally.

Next, my Purgatory. These, combined, constitute the To Be Read pile. I’ll spare you images of the Lowest Circle (books that have been sitting around so long I can’t remember what they’re about, let alone why I bought them) and the Middle Circle (books I still firmly intend to get to, only not just now, because the purchasing impulse did not convert quickly enough into the buckling down impulse. There’s a lot of nonfiction here.)

Finally, the TBR Upper Circle. These are probably going to make it into my brain within a year or so. I hardly had to rearrange the piles at all to display all my major interests (widdershins from top left): writing, the Israel/Palestine conflict, mysteries and Buddhism. The mix stays the same all the way down. There are also a few specialized books picked up for research, for instance, a detailed description of a classic Yankee-clipper-era mansion and an endless account of everything known about the Abenaki people of New England. But I guess those come in under “writing.”

How about you, readers? What do your bookshelves look like? Are your shelfies a better likeness of the real you than what you see in the mirror?

Later addendum: Actually, it’s not your frontal cortex (which should have been “frontal lobe” anyway.) You read with your posterior parietal lobe. But somehow, “show us your posterior!” even with “parietal lobe” added, seems to change the tone.

 

 

 

 

 

Blame it on Tana French

I read to fall asleep. If you also indulge in that pastime, you may be familiar with the situation  when you just can’t put down the book so you read late into the night when you should be sleeping and then when you stop reading you cannot go to sleep. Insomnia is not the outcome I want when I read in bed.

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A week ago Friday I started reading The Likeness by Tana French.  As with any of her books, right from the first enticing chapter her characters looped their arms through mine and transported me into their world. Realizing I had reached my bedtime reading limit the next night when I almost dropped my iPhone several times after I dozed off, I closed the Kindle app ready for a good sleep. The reading potion had worked it’s intended magic.

Or so I thought. I tossed. Covers off. I turned. Covers back on. The last time I looked at the clock, it was 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning. I blamed my  inability to sleep on the nine boys who were having a sleepover at my daughter’s house next door, celebrating my grandson’s thirteenth birthday. There wasn’t much sleeping accomplished that night by anyone in the house as the nine boys roamed outside in the yard and in the park across the street then retired to the room about three feet from our casita. By the sounds of it, a good time was had by all!

Sunday night we were all in bed early. I was close enough to the end of The Likeness that if I could stay awake long enough I’d be able to finish it. My favorite part of reading a mystery is when I hit my “sweet” spot–about 75% of the way through the book-which means all my questions will be answered by the time I fall asleep.

By midnight I had reached the end of the book. Exhausted from Saturday night’s abbreviated sleep, I should have easily snored my way into dreamland at that point.

The last time I looked at the clock was at  2:30 a.m.

I blame it all on Tana French (not on teenage boys or plain old insomnia). Her psychological twists and thriller turns must have made me too worked-up, or anxious, or over-stimulated, to fall asleep. With that in mind, on Monday evening I found an innocuous historical mystery with which to read my way to sleep. Worked like a charm. Guess I don’t need Tylenol PM just yet.

 

 

Genre smorgasbord

How do I even dare to refer to myself as a writer when I am still figuring out what genre is calling my name? Six years ago I started in my writing group assuming that I’d write contemporary fiction, or chick lit as the worst case scenario, and when I got really good I’d advance to literary fiction. I needed a writing project so I took the easiest route and continued where I had started over twenty years earlier with my novel, “Anne” (genre to be determined). I was able to produce about 140 pages of a draft so rough you could rip the skin off your fingers just turning the pages.

After reading and critiquing the murder mysteries/cozies created by fellow group members, I decided to write murder mysteries, of which I have accumulated a number of first drafts, partial drafts, and rough outlines. I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t just fallen under the influence of those members who love to write murder mysteries/cozies and are pretty darn good at it. They get excited over how much of a drug it will take to kill a character and whether his weight and how much he just ate should be manipulated to make it work within the allotted time frame.

Am I that same writer? It’s not looking that way.

What my characters are thinking about is more to my liking. My approach in real life (there is such a thing and it’s always getting in the way of my writing time) is to analyze why people around me do what they do. Or don’t do. Psychological thrillers, maybe?

This week at the first writing group meeting I attended in weeks I floated the idea of writing historical fiction. It’s the genre I currently gravitate to for reading pleasure, particularly World War II and the Revolutionary War novels. (I did mention in an earlier post that I was Betsy Ross in a previous life, right?) I already  have a setting for my first attempt at this genre!

Historical fiction requires research and getting the details correct while you’re making up some of the characters, dialogue, and events. Epiphany: that’s control. And I like being in control. Duh. That’s what writing fiction is all about: creating and manipulating characters and action any way your heart desires. And any fiction genre lets you do that. Except with historical fiction you take control of events that have actually taken place. That’s power.

Meanwhile, I’ve committed to submitting an outline of the murder mystery I’ve started recently, “Patsy’s Posse”. Why? To prove I can complete an outline. To give a murder mystery one more try before I move on. (To what?) Also, I’m attending the New England Crime Bake 2016 in November so I might as well hang in there with murder mysteries until then. I signed up for the Agent & Editor roundtable and I need to produce a decent first page of a manuscript. Let’s hope I can get that far in three months.

Reading and writing as a hospital visitor

My mother has been in the ICU for eleven days now following heart surgery. I’ve visited her every day; sitting in a hospital room watching a muted television stuck on the HGTV channel has not inspired me to write fiction. Reading–I have done a fair amount of that. Of squiggly lines and numbers, not words, a constant stream of changing numbers that I struggle to interpret.

The writing I’ve produced has been non-fiction, texts updating my family on my mother’s condition and progress, answering questions, explaining things that I don’t understand in a reassuring way that won’t set off any alarms. I try to wring the emotion out of my electronic updates using simple words and, often, emoji. (A picture is worth a thousand words, and I love my emoji.)

I don’t report when my mother moans, talks in her sleep, or the look on her face when she is awake and uncomfortable, tired, depressed, discouraged. A moan from my mother is more revealing than when she verbalizes that she is uncomfortable. A moan is just one sound yet I know immediately that there’s a problem. I don’t include that in my family updates, other than to report the extent of her pain, but as a fiction writer the opposite is true. I must convey pain through “showing not telling”.

I would like to work on that in my fiction writing: increase showing and decrease telling. Instead of saying “I’m tired of the drive to the hospital,” I could say “I feel like putting my head down on the steering wheel and going to sleep.” (If my daughters read that, I imagine I will generate a flurry of texts among them concerned about my well-being.) My intent is to convey weariness not tiredness. As a writer, my job is to insure that my writing is interpreted correctly—whether by my daughters or my readers.

I aim for clarity and brevity in my writing. Yet fiction writing is improved through the use of metaphors, similes, analogies, and emotion. In the above example, I would use “weary” in my family text, if at all, but in my fiction writing I would incorporate the steering wheel.

Writers glean writing material from every experience, whether through an overheard conversation between two nurses in the ICU or observing a frustrated woman help her elderly mother navigate the security line at an airport. Most of us can’t resist recording these tidbits so we can refer to them when needed. Some writers carry tiny notebooks. I prefer to record them in my phone. It’s always with me and less conspicuous. Who knows? I could be typing a text response to my daughters: “No, I am not suicidal.”

 

Why don’t I write?

Today’s post on the Maine Crime Writers blog by Bruce Robert Coffin about why he writes resonated with me, as do many of their posts. Beyond the writing connection, it may be because I spent my “formative” years (ages 4 to 14) living in Bangor.

Funny how my reasons for not writing when I should be writing mirror Coffin’s reasons for writing…

He writes to quiet those voices he hears in the middle of the night. When I can’t sleep, I think about my characters and what they are up to and–just as when I was hypnotized on a stage in front of hundreds of people–before I know it I’m sound asleep. No need to keep pen and paper on my nightstand. (I do but, as you may recall, I can’t read what I’ve written so I use it for grocery lists.)

Coffin apparently has some demanding, strong-willed characters in his stories who have no qualms about disagreeing with his plans for them. My characters, on the other hand, hang around as they lean against the walls, hands in their pockets, and wait for direction from me. Don’t they realize how much work they make for me with their lack of gumption and rebelliousness? Give me a protagonist who has a mind of her own and flaunts (my) authority and I’ll step back and let her take charge.

I don’t know where he gets some of his characters, either. Apparently his Sergeant Byron takes Coffin for rides in his car on his way to catch the bad guy. Instead of the other way around. As none of my characters have drivers’ licenses they expect me to drive them wherever they need to go. I just don’t have time for that. Maybe carpooling is the answer?

One thing we do have in common is that he doesn’t appear to prepare in-depth outlines. (And why should he? His characters run the show.) I’m a proud pantser and I surmise that Coffin is as well, based upon his comment that the enjoyment he derives from writing is not knowing what is going to happen in his stories.

Unfortunately for me, a newbie cozy/murder mystery writer, demands are being made of me that I may not be able to meet. After submitting my rough plot summary and character description for a new cozy to my writing group last night I’ve been asked to write the murder scene. Before I write anything else. The audacity! That I should know “who done it” before, well, before I know anything else. Apparently the writer, unlike the reader, should know this prior to investing time and energy into writing the actual book. Sigh. Big sigh. How do I reconcile this with my badge of honor as a pantser? I suppose it could be to ensure that the reader will want to invest time and energy into reading my book…

Giveaway Books. Or Not.

Awaiting you at the Five College Book Sale

Awaiting you at the Five Colleges Book Sale

 

The annual Five Colleges Book Sale is a big deal here in the Upper Valley. Organized to fund scholarships for New Hampshire and Vermont students at Mt. Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges, it is the largest second-hand book sale in northern New England. For this book addict, it is a blessed way to reduce my library, at least for the two weeks between when I drop off my contributions and when I attend the sale.

Today, I went down to the basement to pack up the pile of books that I have winnowed over the last year. Here are a few of the items you’ll be able to buy at a really good price, while benefitting worthy young scholars:

The German Cookbook, by Mimi Sheraton. I bought this book hoping to please my Germanophile husband with the dishes of his ancestors.

After rolling the strudel dough http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Apple-Strudel

After rolling the strudel dough
http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Apple-Strudel

I should have checked the apple strudel recipe before I forked over the cash. It involves rolling out dough, which you have already slapped down on the pastry board 115 times, over a whole kitchen table until it is as thin as tissue paper. Guess I’ll have to think of some other way to please my husband.

Two biographies of Samuel Johnson. I tried hard to like Johnson. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and was sure he had to be right about his idol. So I read these books. Doubtless they are great works of scholarship. But what kind of idiot tries to write a life of Johnson after Boswell?

Six paperback murder mysteries, published between 1993 and 2014. I read them all within the last two or three years. I cannot remember the plot of a single one. This confirms me in my dreary notion that my own mystery manuscript will have to be re-re-re-revised till Judgment Day.

AngelsAndDemonsAngels and Demons, by Dan Brown. Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a page turner, I admit. No matter that it read like its own outline. Like everyone else, I couldn’t put it down. So I went and paid the hardback price for his earlier book. It was like The Da Vinci Code if The Da Vinci Code had never been outlined at all. It had angels and demons. I guess. Further, deponent remembereth not.

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. His Life and Works, by Angus Wilson. I haven’t read this one. It belonged to my late husband. I’d like to read it…but there just isn’t TIME. I flipped through it… it looks fascinating…with photos, yet…a Spy cartoon…but something’s got to go. I can’t keep retrieving things from the pile.

Which brings me to the more interesting part of this list. Below are several books from the pile that the Five-Colleges sale will not be seeing. How long have they languished in this limbo? And more important, what was I thinking when I put them there?

Something of Myself, by Rudyard Kipling. I compromised. I’ll give up the biography and keep the autobiography. I flipped through this, too. I cannot discard a book that includes the sentence, “For the great J.M. [Cook] himself – the man with the iron mouth and domed brow – had been one of my father’s guests at Lahore when he was trying to induce the Indian Government to let him take over the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a business proposition.”

The Letters of Madame, Vol. II. Princess Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, known as “Madame,” married Louis XIV’s brother in 1671. She was a woman

Madame, in her later years

Madame, in her later years

who did not pussyfoot. She slapped her son’s face before the whole court when she learned that he had agreed to marry one of his royal uncle’s bastards. She never had the slightest desire to participate in court intrigue, love affairs, government or fashion. She liked hunting all day, she liked her meals large and regular, and she loved to write letters. The accounts she sent to her German family and friends about the court at Versailles were so frank that the government used them to blackmail her in later life. Their demand? That she shut up about her opinion of Mme. de Maintenon, the king’s mistress. I found this second volume, without its first, in a second-hand bookstore, and I have been looking for Volume I ever since.

Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History, by Richard H. Rovere. William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel were New York lawyers in the second half of the nineteenth century. They got murderers off scot free. They got Lilian Russell divorced – frequently. They bought off witnesses. Hummel eventually went to jail himself. If you liked the movie Chicago, you’d love Howe & Hummel.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. Good grief! This is a first edition, bought by my mother when it came out in 1964. Just last year, I bought the new edition that includes the parts that Hemingway’s publishers cut, and I hunted for this book to compare it with. And there it was, down in the giveaway pile. I must have been mad.

These notes are based on the contents of the first two grocery bags of books that made up the pile. There are two more. I don’t dare look into them.

W? Or Not?

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Would-be writers can always be lured into taking just one more how-to-write course, buying just one more book, attending just one more conference. Flailing and weeping in the chaos of our own material, we’re sure that someone out there has a system. No, has The System that, with one hard shake, will order our characters, themes and events into a page-turning plot.

I lost a lot of time trying to cram my plot into the shape recommended by imgresMary Carroll Moore’s Your Book Starts Here. Her system is to shape your plot like the letter W. Your protagonist encounters loss or danger, plunges to the depths, pulls herself together and addresses her problem with some success – we’re now at the peak of the first upstroke of the W – then gets really whacked by some failure or complication, descends to the uttermost depths, and finally wrestles her way back to whatever fate you have in store for her.

The W method is good for making a start, and also for combatting saggy-middle syndrome. In the end, though, you have to compound your own prescription. So today, I offer a few alternative plot shapes, as discussed by Kurt Vonnegut on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” In a hilarious (truly!) video Vonnegut explains how simple it all is, really.

Plot 1 is “Man in Hole.” The hero starts in a reasonably comfortable condition, encounters a problem, solves it and ends up better off. Vonnegut graphs this vonnegut-man-in-a-holefrom beginning to end as a nice even sine wave on a happy-unhappy vertical axis. Events head down into negative territory, reverse course at the bottom, and end up even higher on the happy scale than they started. Wonkblog’s example: Arsenic and Old Lace. Note that Mary Carroll Moore’s W could be titled “Man in Two Holes.”

Plot 2 is “Boy Meets Girl,” in which the initial events head upward on the graph, i.e., boy falls in love. From there on, Plot 2 replicates Plot 1, as the lovers are separated, then reunited. Traditionally, “Boy Meets Girl” ends higher on the vertical scale than “Man in Hole,”since (as we all know) they lived happily ever after.

Now we get into the kind of plot I like best: Cinderella. No, not for the happy ending. By me, that prince is a Ken doll. According to Vonnegut (and strangely

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, "toyswill.com"

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, “toyswill.com”

mis-graphed in the Post article), “Cinderella” is distinguished by its beginning – among the cinders, way, way below the middle of the happy-unhappy axis. Then (and this is what I love), progress toward the Prince’s ball takes place not in a smooth curve, but in a series of stair-steps. The gown. The glass slippers. The pumpkin coach. The mouse-horses. These lovely items are provided by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, but in more interesting stories, each has its own provenance, sometimes but not always obtained by the heroine’s own efforts.

Broccoli's fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

Broccoli’s fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

It’s the detail that grabs me. The plot takes on the shape of a Fibonacci sequence. Every step can replicate into a handful of details or issues, which in turn can replicate. This is why I like Proust. (Trouble is, I haven’t yet been able to work out what the heck his stair-steps are leading to.)

The stair-steps also occur in the folkloric creation story, in which a deity or deities generate successive gifts which, combined, produce the world. My favorite literary example is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but of course Genesis I is better known. According to Vonnegut, the Old Testament is simply the creation story with an unhappy ending tacked on: God makes the world, we live in it, we die. With the addition of the New Testament, we are back to Cinderella.

Vonnegut does not ignore modern literature. There’s “From Bad to Worse,” in which some poor schlemiel simply gets hammered, and that’s it. Wonkblog’s example: The Metamorphosis. And then there’s “Which Way is Up?”, exemplified by that most modern of stories, “Hamlet.”

You can noodle around with these curves forever, and come up with a story to match anything you can draw . At present, I have no idea what shape my own story (fictional, that is) will take. I got troubles, I got worries, I got stair steps, nobody gets a girl … who could ask for anything more?

More than one

Taunted by the books

Taunted by the books

The royal blue three-ring binder taunts me from its secure spot on the bookshelf. Eighty-one completed pages of “Anne” with additional pages of notes, outlines, and prose tucked here and there. Hidden underneath are two manila folders. One holds “It Takes A Village Store,” 50,065 words of my 2014 NaNoWriMo submission. “Full Circle,” my 2015 submission, 50,212 words total, is ensconced in the other. The main characters of each novel are strong women from the same family, a mother, daughter, and niece/cousin. The setting is the same town for all three novels.

Originally I intended to have the novels comprise a trilogy but now I am reconsidering that. I feel that it makes more sense to combine them into one novel. How did I reach that conclusion? Good question. One issue is that none of the three are long enough in their current state to be a complete novel. Another problem is that they are extensions of each other, their plots and characters interwoven as only a family can be. I could solve the problems by expanding each of them, differentiating the plots so that they stand alone yet remain connected. Or I could stick with my decision to produce a single novel. Flip a coin?

BooksI have looked for novels with more than one main character, and diverse points of view (obviously), for inspiration. I am surprised that the last three random books I’ve read meet those criteria. (“The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan; “the speed of light” by Elizabeth Rosner; “Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle.) Each one has taken a different approach, probably none of which will work for me.

A long time ago I heard that first-time authors should stick to a straightforward, one main character, one point of view, story. I can see the wisdom in that advice. Yet I’m in a situation where that won’t work. Unless I write three separate novels. Can you hear my teeth gnashing?

No wonder the binder and the two folders that took up valuable space in my suitcase—at least two pairs of shorts worth–have sat untouched on the bookshelf for two months. (Of course, they also are on my laptop but a hard copy is easier to edit. You’ve got to pick it up to do that.)

My only writing goal for this winter in Arizona was to work on this project. Instead, I have devoted my writing time to my short story, “He’s All She Has” (originally titled “The Intruder”). The last revision of this story garnered the suggestion from John, our facilitator, that I put it aside and move onto something else. And I thought it was one revision away from being completed…I’ll try to put a positive spin on it–guess I’ll have time to work on my novel(s)!

 

Bad Reads

“Leave me alone. I’m reading.” We’ve all said it, and we haven’t said it half as often as we wanted to. Give us a good book, and the world can stay on hold forever.

But how about, “Somebody get me out of this book! Where are the telemarketers when you need them?”

Why do we keep slogging through books we don’t want to read? We of all people, wordsmiths, people of literary judgment! (And in my case, old people. I don’t have decades to waste.)

Lately, I’ve been buzz-bombed by these loser books. The worst of them was called The Matter of the Gods, by Clifford Ando. It purports to be a history of religion in ancient Rome. In a former incarnation, I was a classicist, and mythology was my specialty. So I bought the d***** book. Imagine the ghastliest academese prose, wrenched and decorated to sound arch, while avoiding the dreadful faux pas of actually suggesting any conclusions. That’s MotG.

Why did I finish it? Because every couple of pages, he’d quote an ancient writer I’d never read or drop in a factoid on Roman ritual that was new to me. Drop a trail of M&Ms and I’ll follow you anywhere. It’s the kind of reinforcement that creates drug addicts.

Running in tandem with MotG was Antidote to Venom, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was one of the most popular mystery writers of the Golden Age, God knows why. I bought it because I’m working on a book that involves snake venom. Crofts’ golden rule seems to be that every thought, speech and action must be reported at least twice. Plans must be explained at length, and then carried out at equal length, in the same sequence. Plod. Plod. Plod. And to top it off, one of his villains has an alibi so unbreakable that Crofts has to give him a religious conversion at the end, to elicit a confession!

Why did I finish it? Sheer bloody-mindedness. Not to be able to finish a book in my own genre and of the period I most admire was too shaming. Also, it had just been reissued. So publishers thought it would sell, right? I should see why, right? I still don’t know.

Then there are the bestsellers everyone else has read. A few years ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It was 944 pages of I-still-don’t-know-what. It had something to do with domestic violence; I figured that much out. It had an alternate universe in it, only it wasn’t all that alternate.

Why did I finish it? This one was almost justified. Murakami’s prose floated me along in a mental state just like that of his confused characters. This stuff was just happening. You couldn’t do anything about it, so you just did the next thing. Which was to read the next sentence. Still, 315 pages would have been enough.

Don’t even ask me about books written by friends.

So, what to do, assuming that you find you can’t just toss the book? Here are my strategies:

  • Demote to bathroom. This worked, eventually, for The Matter of the Gods and Antidote to Venom. The time isn’t wasted, and page by page you get to the end. Please do not tear out completed pages and re-purpose them. That is cruel.
  • Learn to skim. This used to be called speed reading. It doesn’t really work, but you can pretend it does, and if your eyes have traveled over every page, you are only half lying when you say you’ve read it.
  • Arrange an unfortunate accident. This requires a degree of double-think, but what writer lacks that? Reading paperbacks in the bathtub is the easiest method. (Buy an oilier bubble bath.) Leave hardbacks on or near the recycle container. Forget them in waiting areas or on public transportation.

I’m about to start Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind. It’s about a hit man who only hits other hit men. I gobbled down three of his earlier books. I’ll have to find something else to read in the bathroom.

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