Category Archives: reading
A few blogs ago, I was whining and complaining about the decline of all things literate: cursive script gone from the schools, editing that goes no further than spellcheck, and above all, letter writing that has dwindled to email.
But why mope? We’re all writers here; hence, we’re all readers; hence, we have access to the written treasures of the centuries. I went to my bookshelves and within minutes pulled down an armload of books likely to contain the kind of letters no one writes any more. Here is a sample to brighten your day.
In the parlance of his own day (the reign of Charles II of England) John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was a rakehell. Not the man you would expect to write this letter to his new bride:
I know not well who has the worst on’t, you, who love but a little, or I, who doat to an extravagance; sure, to be half kind is as bad as to be half witted; and madness, both in love and reason, bears a better character than a moderate state of either.
Full disclosure #1: Rochester was an earl, but an impoverished one. His bride, with whom he eloped, was very, very rich.
Full disclosure #2: After a lifetime of drinking, whoring and brawling, Rochester repented on his deathbed and died in the odor of sanctity. On the other hand, we have only his friends’ word for this.
In Sense and Sensibility, Lady Middleton is wary of the Dashwood sisters, fearing that they may be “satirical” of mind. Wonder who Jane Austen was thinking of? Jane to her sister Cassandra:
Another stupid party last night…. I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress & exposed bosom. Adm: Stanhope is a gentlemanlike Man, but then his legs are too short, & his tail too long.
E.B. White and his wife hobnobbed with the literati of The New Yorker. It didn’t go to their heads. White to his brother:
The summer reached a sort of peak the day we went to the Blue Hill Fair and K [White’s wife] tried to take a leak in the bushes just as the trap-shoot started. She came out with only a minor flesh wound, but she might as well have been through Anzio. We all thought it was very comical, and one shooter (I heard later) got 25 pigeons out of a possible 25.
Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, in New York, to her supplier of out-of-print classics, Marks & Co. of 84, Charing Cross Rd., London:
De Tocqueville’s compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country….
Did I tell you I finally found the perfect page cutter? It’s a pearl-handled fruit knife. My mother left me a dozen of them…. Maybe I go with the wrong kind of people but I’m just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit.
While we’re on politics, you needn’t depend on cable news for furious denunciations of partisanship. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, explaining why the excellent law codes of antiquity have been lost:
Why are those Laws lost? I say the Spirit of Party has destroyed them, civil, political and ecclesiastical Bigotry. Despotical, monarchical Aristocratical and democratical Fury, have all been employed in this Work of destruction of every Thing that could give us true light and a clear insight of Antiquity. For every One of these Parties, when possessed of Power, or when they have been Undermost and Struggling to get Uppermost, has been equally prone to every Species of fraud and Violence, and Usurpation.
And while we’re on the Adamses, a final love letter from one of the great love stories of history. Abigail Adams, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to John Adams, in France representing the newly independent United States, 1778:
How insupportable the Idea that 3000 leagues, and the vast ocean now divide us – but divide only our persons for the Heart of my Friend is in the Bosom of his partner. More than half a score years has so riveted it there, that the Fabrick which contains it must crumble into Dust, e’er the particles can be separated.
Now please sit down, think of your brightest, funniest, most verbal friend, and write him or her a letter. On paper, with a pen, in script. Just to keep Tinkerbelle alive.
I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with Onestory.com. This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.
I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”
But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.
The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.
To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?
There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.
That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”
I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:
Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.
Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process.
But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:
I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.
Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.
Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.
I was thinking the other day about the dying institution of marriage. The mystery I’m writing involves an inheritance which, in turn, hangs on the outdated concept of legitimacy.
Mind you, I’m all for dropping any stigma (if any remains) on being born “out of wedlock.” But honestly, older people, if you had been asked in your youth what major changes might occur in your lifetime, would you have predicted indifference to the presence or absence of marriage vows? Of substituting “if it works out” for “till death do us part”?
Anyway, I sat down and tried to come up with other dying institutions that I had thought would live forever. Lo and behold, nearly every one that occurred to me involved reading and writing — one of the core complexes of life for likely readers of this blog.
I had occasion to write something down for one of my grandsons not long ago. He frowned at the note – I thought my handwriting was the problem. I got no farther than, “Oh, sorry, that word’s….,” when he rushed to reassure me. “Oh, it’s okay, Grandma. I can read cursive script.” He can’t write it, though. The schools now teach printing, not writing, because who writes anything longer than a grocery list anymore?
Letters (in the sense of correspondence) no longer exist. Their factual content is now transmitted through email. Their creative, imaginative, playful and literary qualities are just gone. (Worse: their playful qualities are have shrunk and hardened into emoticons created by some wretch chained in an office cubicle.) Email is to letter-writing as tweeting is to thinking.
Now that apps have homogenized all forms of information transfer, “writing down” is no longer a distinct activity with defined functions in society. Do our grandchildren get the point of “The Typewriter,” the famous piece of music that duplicates the rhythm of typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of the carriage and the slam of the carriage return? This tune, without comment, once conveyed “composition” or “news reporting.” (Click the link to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play it, with percussionist Martin Breinschmid on the typewriter.)
Editors are as the dodo. I am still unpublished, but I hear by the grapevine that publishers no longer employ such people. Or if they do, the evidence has vanished from much of what is published. My blogging colleague Eleanor Ingbretson recently read a mystery involving that nasty marine animal, the leech. It was spelled “leach” throughout. WTH. You know what I meant. (That link will take you to the blog of the same name, where you will find fellow mourners of the craft of words.)
(Subcategory of the above: use of the subjunctive. And don’t get me started on “may” and “might.”)
Paper is gone, too, or at least unnecessary. I think text is made of electrons now, but I really haven’t the faintest idea. Vandals burned the monastery libraries of Europe; hackers may yet wipe out War and Peace.
We have lived in the age of the Antonines, and Commodus is upon us. (Don’t bother me with questions when I’m being crotchety. Google it.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.
Angels 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
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.