Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Novel After Suffering a Near-Death Experience

You know, sometimes the simplest things manage to escape me (which may be why I have, at times, been accused of making things more complicated than they have to be). Ever since I went back to work, I have discovered that my novel-writing has suffered in a way that I should have expected but didn't. I mean, when I wasn't working, I was writing at least three and, sometimes, six hours a day. There is no way one can work full time and keep up that pace, especially if one wants to have time to, oh, read, say, or watch an occasional DVD. Stupid me, though, had just figured I'd do what I've read so many other authors do. I'd get up at 5:00 a.m. and write for 3 hours every morning before "going to work."

Talk about a plan that hasn't worked. I seem to suffer from early-onset Alzheimers when coming up with such grand plans. I'd managed to forget that working 8 hours a day, even when you enjoy what you do, and even when you have no commute, can be exhausting. I'd forgotten that there are other things I like to do besides writing, like cooking, and that I can be a bit (okay, very) compulsive about those things. For instance, I might find myself browsing through a Cooking Light magazine at 6:00 p.m. and finding a recipe that sounds delicious. The next thing I know, I am in the car, on the way to the store to pick up ingredients for it. That can mean not eating until 9:00 p.m., the hour at which I should be going to bed if I am going to get up at 5:00 the next morning, not the hour at which I should be sitting down to (lowfat) homemade, pesto-filled ravioli. Oh, and speaking of going to bed, I also seem to have forgotten that I am an insomniac. If I have been awake from 2:00 - 4:30 a.m., there is no way in hell I'm dragging myself out of bed at 5:00 unless I have to, which I don't if all I'm planning on doing is writing.

Nonetheless, I diligently stuck to my schedule -- up before dawn, writing something (not always The Novel, but something) before work -- for a month. Soon enough, I had to admit it was a schedule that was killing me. I do write best just after I get up (I firmly believe in the theory that we are at our most creative when we are closest to the sleeping and dreaming state), but I am not a morning person by nature. If I lived in a society that allowed it, I would happily stay up until 1:00 a.m. and sleep until 9:00 every morning and be much happier (not to mention, probably no longer suffer from insomnia). Since I don't live in such a society, I would somehow manage to get out of bed, stagger downstairs to make some coffee.

I'd sit down to write. Nothing would come, except ideas for blog posts. Those always seem to hang out in abundance. I didn't want to write blog posts, though. I'd gotten to a point in my novel, a particular scene that I wanted (but also knew had) to be hilarious. And I just. could. not. write. it. Every insecurity I've ever had about my ability to write would come knocking at my door (my fifteen-year-old self would have begun burning pages). I'd put it all aside and pick up books to read instead, but I couldn't even concentrate on those. Finally, I'd "go to work" early, because there I could be comfortable. There, I was accomplishing things: my initial ideas receiving thumbs up, my first proposal approved, my first contract signed.

This happened for about six weeks or so, and then the new year was upon me. Time to make some resolutions. The Novel was languishing in its bed, turning blue, and begging me to resuscitate it. The first draft should have been done by now. The second draft should have been begun. I was tempted to do what I always do: force myself to continue with the plan that wasn't working. This year, I would get up at 5:00 every morning and make myself write. Then it hit me: what sort of novel would I then have? It couldn't possibly be any good if I'm not giving it the chance to flow -- if I'm just writing to finish it. How many novels have I read like that? They're so good, and then I get to the final pages and feel that all the author was trying to do was end it.

I decided I didn't want to write a novel like that. I wanted to get back to enjoying the process, to letting the novel go where it wanted to go. The Novel began to get a little color back in its cheeks. Then I decided that my New Year's resolution was going to be not to have any resolutions about The Novel. I was just going to work on it a little bit at a time. Maybe some days it would only get twenty minutes. Others, it might get three hours. I wouldn't pressure it to come to a conclusion. The Novel's cheeks were now rosy. It leaped out of bed and asked if we could go snow shoeing (we can't. We live in Lancaster County where, just the other day, it was sixty degrees and, rather than snowing, pouring buckets).

Guess what, it's full of energy now, running miles every day. I can barely keep up with it, as it writes itself. I provide it with a pen and some paper and just sit and watch it. And you know that hilarious scene I was having such a hard time composing? Do you want to know why it was so hard? It's because it wasn't time for that scene yet. I was forcing it where it didn't belong. The Novel finished that scene three days ago, and I laughed my way through it. It is funny (at least I think it is. I hope my readers will, too).

Now, here is where the simple thing I managed to miss comes into play. I sent an email to (my wise- friend/mentor, not my also-wise-husband) Bob about how I'd been struggling so much with The Novel. His very reassuring response was that all writers suffer from writer's block, and then he pointed out something so practical, so beautiful in its simplicity, I'm almost embarrassed to admit I hadn't figured it out myself. He said, "You only have to write one page a day to have a novel in a year." He's absolutely right, but I'd been too busy setting up all my impossible hurdles and goals. No wonder The Novel was on its death bed. One page a day (or at least an average of one page a day)? Now that's a goal that doesn't frighten me or intimidate me in the least.

Not that I have any goals. Don't ask me when The Novel will be done. That's up to it, and I'm a mere observer in the process. Right now, I'm just happy to see it up and about, running around, and seeing how it unfolds. I'll let you know when it decides it's come to an end.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Ten Random Books Meme

I got this one from Dorr, and it's been a while since I did a meme, so instead of writing her the letter I should be writing her, I'm pulling books from shelves and writing this blog post. Oh well. ..

These are the rules:
1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

I cheated. We have so many books in this house that belong to Bob and that have no stories for me to tell about them that sometimes I had to go to the book next to the one where my fingers had randomly landed (or above or below on the shelf). However, I did close my eyes, and I did choose one book from ten different bookcases in the house. Here they are.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce
When I first embarked on this meme, I thought, "What a great idea! And I'll read or reread whatever I pull from the shelf sometime this year, since we're still in January, and I've got plenty of time to do that." Then I pulled this one from the shelf, a book that has intimidated me all my adult life. I changed my mind about reading all these books. However, I love the copy of this book we have, because this is what the inscription says,

"To a Wonderful Person -- Who Is Also My Husband. Ditto! -- Christmas 1952"

The handwriting is Bob's mother's. They were newlyweds, basically, in 1952, only having been married for a little over a year. It tells you quite a lot about them that she chose to give this to him as a gift, doesn't it? The inscription is sweet and also baffling. Perhaps that "Ditto!" is some reference to something in the book, which I wouldn't know, having never read it. If it isn't, though, what does it mean? It has to have been some private joke between the two of them.

2. Time and Again by Jack Finney
I must have been channeling Bob's mother (whom I never met. She died two years before I met Bob) while doing this, because this was one of her favorite books. I'd never heard of it until I met Bob, but when he told me that, I went out and bought it, just so I could try to get to know her a little. I didn't get around to reading it, though, until someone in the book discussion group I belonged to at the time chose it for us to read because it was one of her favorite books. It's now one of my favorite books. How could a book that involves time travel, a mystery, and New York City not be? I force it on everyone, especially those who are visiting NYC for the first time. It provides a great history of the city -- with photos and everything, and it's a wonderfully romantic tale. I passed that original copy I had on to my brother. This one is a first edition that Bob and I must have picked up at some used book store. (I so hope it was The Strand, because that would be so fitting, but I have a feeling it was at Powells when we went to Portland, OR a number of years ago).

3. The Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James
I'd never read M. R. James when I happened to mention to a friend of mine at work one day that I loved ghost and horror stories. The next morning, I came into work to find a small stack of different collections from different ghost-story writers sitting on my chair (he used to work for Dover, so he has quite a nice collection of such things). One of them was M.R. James. To say I loved it would not be doing it justice. I had to have my own collection and sought this one out online.

4. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield
Ms. Musings introduced me to this one (the Persephone edition, which is published under her married name Dorothy Canfield Fisher). I love, love, love this book (if you haven't read it, really, you must) that is a fascinating and heartbreaking early 20th-century take on societally-inflicted-and-enforced male and female roles. Yet another book lent to me by a friend that I then decided I needed to own, so I again went in search of it online and found this edition published in 1996 by Academy Chicago Publishers. Ms. Musings and I got to know each other mostly through our mutual love of and obsession with reading. It turns out we also have lots of other things in common, but she is one of the few people I know in real life who I think truly has the same sort of relationship with books as I have.

5. The Barborous Coast by Ross Macdonald
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know all about my love affair with Ross Macdonald. Funny that my husband is one of the ones who introduced me to this object of my desires, isn't it? (The other was a former colleague.) This is one of those books Bob owned before I knew him that I happily inherited when we moved in together. I still haven't read all of Macdonald's books, but I've read and loved this one. That goes without saying, because I haven't read any Lew Archer mystery that I didn't love.

6. The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
Bob used to teach this one when he was a boarding school teacher. When I was dating him, he used to quote stuff from it. I had read it a couple of years before that, pulling it from the shelves of the library where I worked (one of those rare books that I actually read after seeing the movie, which I loved). Because of the attention brought on it by the movie, it was one of those books that people wanted banned from libraries. I am a firm believer in reading banned books. It was a very powerful book for me. One of my atheist colleagues at the legal newspaper where I had worked before I worked at the library had informed me that of everything he'd ever read, this was the only thing that had ever made him question his status as a lapsed Catholic and an atheist. I've always been a "Lord I believe, help my unbelief" sort. I read this book and had to agree with my former colleague: if anything was going to "help my unbelief," it was books like this one. I still remember one of my library school professors (who was well-known for being one of the few conservatives in a very liberal program) talking about banning books and saying he saw no reason public libraries ought to have books like this one on their shelves. I raised my hand and said, "That book helped deepen my faith more than anything else I've ever read. I got it from my library. Would you have had me denied that experience?" He was left pretty much speechless.

7. The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll
This is the only version of Alice in Wonderland I've ever read, because it was the version my family had when I was a child (this one is not that, though. That was a hardcover with a blue dust jacket. This one is paperback and is, of course, another one inherited when I married Bob). I still remember flipping through it just to enjoy the pictures. We had oversized coloring books with these original drawings that we colored, and my mother laminated them and hung them in our bedrooms and in the kitchen. When I was old enough to read the book, I did. And did again. And did again. (But I didn't read all those annotations. I think I did that when I was about fourteen or so). I haven't read it as an adult. Funny I should pull this one from the shelf, because I recently downloaded a non-annotated eBook version of it. If I read that one, will I feel I'm missing out on something? I'll let you know when I do.

8. The Book of the Thousand and One Nights (Vol. III)
There are so many connections popping up in this list it's scary. This 4-volume set was bequeathed to me by the same friend who lent me the M.R. James collection. He bought a new version last year and passed this, published by Routledge and Keegan Paul, which he explained he read (for a very surreal experience) during the first Gulf War, onto me. I do want to read this, but a 4-volume set is awfully intimidating.

9. The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
I had a professor in college who told us he rarely stayed up all night reading books for work, but he had done so with this one, and the way he described it made it sound fascinating. I had no time in those days to read anything that wasn't assigned, but I made a mental note of this one, and once I'd graduated, got a copy. To tell you the truth, although I know I found it extremely interesting, I don't remember a thing about it.

10. If On a Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino
The inscription in this one says,

"Xmas '88. This book is especially for people who like stories and the adventure of reading. So I think my sweet friend Emily will love it as much as I have. -- C"

Christmas '88 was when my live-in boyfriend had decided to have an affair, and we were breaking up. I had just moved into a townhouse with three other women I didn't really know very well. I took this book on the plane with me as I flew down from Connecticut to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my family. I was mesmerized. I loved it! I've read it twice since then and have loved it even more both times. The funny thing is, my friend C. who bestowed it upon me, and who is still one of my dearest friends, was only just getting to know me at that time. It wasn't until 1989 that we really began to hang out with each other, and yet, he knew me well enough to choose such a perfect book. I guess that's what good friendships are all about, huh?

What a wonderful meme this is, like going to a party with nothing but great friends you haven't seen in years. I highly recommend doing it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Library of America, 1995.
(The book was originally published in 1940. This was the choice this month for the CT detective book club, a fitting one for the month that Robert B. Parker, one of Chandler's greatest admirers and legacies, died.)

My sister Forsyth once had a cat named Marlowe. That should tell you how we Michies feel about Raymond Chandler's well-known detective. Philip Marlowe is everything we admire in a man: observant, wry, sarcastic, creative, and funny (oh yeah, and sensitive underneath it all). He's the sort of person who would never find himself thinking, "Damn! I wish I'd said that instead of standing there like an idiot, unable to get my mouth to work." He's not the sort of man with whom a woman would want to find herself in love. He'd break her heart with his assumption that he was always right and knew better than she, especially about herself, and if that didn't do her in, his wandering eye and inability to commit himself probably would. However, if she just wanted someone with whom to enjoy some great nights out on the town (maybe even a little hint of danger, just to add some excitment, because one could never truly give into fear with a man like that on her arm), a "friend with benefits," he'd be the one.

Of course, if you're going to be that kind of a man, it helps to be put in the hands of another man, one who can write like Raymond Chandler could, with confidence and assurance and an unquestioned belief in the world his imagination had created. He was The Master of simile and metaphor. I know. I've said that Ross Macdonald gave him a run for his money, but on rereading this masterpiece, I have to say that Chandler really was The Master. That's not to say that I necessarily think Chandler was a better writer. They ultimately each created something very different within the detective novel genre, which makes it difficult for me to make the comparisons that everyone has always made between the two and to come to the conclusion that either was better than the other. What I do know is that when I read Chandler, I find myself questioning why there has been this trend to move away from adjectives and adverbs, and by extension simile and metaphor, if one is to be a "good writer." Almost nothing speaks "good writing" to me more than a clever, creative simile or metaphor. I mean, take a look at this,

"A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder..." (p. 768)

How else is one to convey how large that hand was without an adjective of some sort? Moving it away from mere adjective (which would have been my ineffective choice as a writer) and into this realm, though, gives the reader a complete picture. You can see it now, can't you? You know it's not a friendly hand, and you know how it felt and what it did even before he tells you ,

"...and squashed it to a pulp." (p. 768)

You also know you are in for an adventure, because this little event happened on the second page of the novel. Marlowe meets this giant of a man on the first page and is very soon the witness to a murder, the assigned "body guard" to a man who seems to be involved in some sort of blackmailing scheme, and the victim of a beating that leaves the man he is with dead on the side of the road. Naturally, some cute, bright chick, ripe to fall for Marlowe, appears on the scene after that little event, one with "...a face you get to like. Pretty, but not so pretty you would have to wear brass knuckles everytime you took it out" (p. 830) to take care of him and to be hurt when he spawns her awkward attentions. (Poor Marlowe. You have to forgive him for not knowing that in 2010 he'd never get away with all that he does in 1940.)

You think that somehow all this is related to Mr. Hand (my name, not Marlowe's. He would have come up with something far more clever for the guy if he hadn't learned his name before he had a chance to do so, because that's a fun trademark of his, choosing nicknames for people when he doesn't yet know their real names. My favorite is the cop he nicknames "Hemingway." I probably liked it so much, because it so confused the guy, who obviously had no sense of humor. You can tell Marlowe's level of disdain or admiration for a person depending on how he chooses his nicknames and how long he chooses to keep using them). Marlowe thinks it's all related to Mr. Hand, too, but it takes him a while (and a couple more near-death experiences on his part; enough booze to leave any other man incapable of solving 1 + 1, let alone a murder case; an obligatory scene with a highly seductive woman -- of course; as well as another murder) to figure out whether or not he's right.

Along the way, he has to put up with others who don't exactly have the "Holmsian" skills he possesses. They jump to conclusions without considering the evidence and facts, as happens in the following passage. I love this one, because it points out to you what a brilliant thinker Marlowe is, what kind of sense of humor he has, and exactly how he feels about having to deal with moronic police detectives,

"...We got him cornered. A prowl car was talking to a conductor the end of
the Seventh Street line. The conductor mentioned a guy that size, looking like
that. He got off Third and Alexandria. What he'll do is break into some big
house where the folks are away. Lots of 'em there, old-fashioned places, too far
downtown now and hard to rent. He'll break in one and we got him bottled. What
you been doing?"

"Was he wearing a fancy hat and white golf balls on his jacket?"

Nulty frowned and twisted his hands on his kneecaps. "No, a blue suit.
Maybe brown."

"Sure it wasn't a sarong?"

"Huh? Oh yeah, funny. Remind me to laugh on my day off."

I said: "That wasn't the Moose. He wouldn't ride a street car. He had
money. Look at the clothes he was wearing. He couldn't wear stock sizes. They
must have been made to order." (p. 792)

Sometimes, his patience just plain wears thin,

"'It's a swell theory,' I said. '[Name not revealed in case you haven't read the book] socked me, took the money, then he got sorry and beat his brains out, after first burying the money under a bush.'" (p. 825)

Hilarious, isn't it? In this case, he was wrong to lose patience so quickly, though. The detective is actually on to something. Marlowe, of course, is gentlemanly enough to admit,"I looked at him with admiration..." (p. 825)

This book is a page-turner, not just because you want to know what's happening, how it's going to end, but also because you can't wait to see that next clever quip, read that next brilliant description. Way-too-soon, no matter how hard you try to make it last (even when you play around with reading some of it in eBook form, which takes time for those of us who are just learning about eBooks, even when you begin to wonder, based on descriptions of traffic lights "bong-bonging" if traffic lights used to have bells and take the time to look that up on Wikipedia -- unsatisfactorily. The most you can gather is that they probably did, since early ones were based on train signals, although you do find out, interestingly enough, that the very first ones were gas-powered and run by policemen and that those stopped being used when one blew up, killing the policeman operating it), you will get to the end.

I mentioned in my last post for the mystery book discussion that I like an ending that leaves me hanging a little. It's gotta be hanging like a one-size-fits-all dress that's almost dry. You're looking at it, imagining whose it might be, and soon someone's going to come along, take it down, put it on, and it's going to look fantastic on her. Then, she'll lend it to her friend, and it will look fantastic on her friend as well. Chandler delivers just that sort of ending. You think you know what happened, but you're not quite sure. However, it doesn't matter. It works, no matter who's wearing it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Great Concepts that Often Don't Work I

Self Checkout at the Grocery Store
Ahh, this looks nice and convenient. There's no one in line, and you've only got five items. You're running late due to that meeting at work, and you've got to make these nachos you promised for the book group tonight. You'll be in and out of here in a jiffy and don't need to worry about getting stuck with some yacking cashier who wants to tell you all about her grandchildren, as she manages to bag four items at the same rate you could bag 400.

You step up and put your jalapeno peppers on the scale. You touch the button on the screen to look up produce. A bunch of nice pictures pop up of commonly bought items. Obviously, not many people buy jalapenos in this store. You find the alphabetical directory and push the tab for the letter "J." Nothing comes up under "J." You look under "P." There you find "peppers, sweet" and "peppers, hot." There is nothing for jalapeno peppers. Of course, they are hot peppers, but you saw other hot peppers in the produce section. What if the jalapeno peppers were cheaper than the habaneros? You don't want to be charged for habaneros, if that's what the computer thinks you mean when you press "peppers, hot." You look around. Is there anyone to ask? Of course not. Oh well, screw it. You don't have time. You press the button for hot peppers, and the price doesn't look too bad. You move onto the cheese.

Where is the barcode on the cheese? Oh, there it is, of course, on that folded under bit of wrapper. You straighten it out and run it over the scanner. Nothing happens. No nice little beep. No voice telling you "...Cheese...$3.59. Move. the. belt." You run it by the scanner again. Still nothing. You wave it back and forth. Nothing. Is the scanner not working? You try the sour cream. The beep sounds, and you move your sour cream as instructed. Same with the salsa. Same with the tortilla chips. You come back to the cheese. It still won't register. You contemplate just throwing the cheese in the bag and leaving. But no, you are an honorable person. You tap the button on the screen to call for help.

A flip-flop-clad teenager, popping gum and laughing at something one of the boy cashiers just said, shuffles slowly over to your register and asks if you need help (because, you know, you always press that button when you don't need help). You explain to her that the cheese won't register. She proceeds to re-enact your exact movements with the cheese and has no more luck than you had. She goes around to the other side of the register and calls a manager. At least five minutes later, the manager, who turns out to be the yacky woman with all the grandchildren shows up. She has a key and fixes the problem in no time and then proceeds to tell you all about how these machines just don't seem to like those packages of cheese. You're the fifth customer today who had trouble with that...

Yes, it seemed so nice and convenient, 25 minutes ago when you first walked up to that register.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You've GOT to Read This IV: The King of Elfland's Daughter

Dunsany, Lord. The King of Elfland's Daugher. Del Rey. 1999 (The book was originally published in 1924.)

How lucky I am to have chosen this as my second read for my TBR Challenge. If I'd chosen another one that was as difficult to get through as that first one was, I might have had to re-think my whole list. But -- ahhhhh! -- that didn't happen. Instead of yawning, I'm writing my first "You've GOT to Read This" post of 2010.

Some of you may know this much about me: give me a book that presents me with a young man on a quest to Elfland to meet and marry the King's daughter (who is, of course, beautiful) and who stops by a witch's house to receive a sword made of lightning bolts and runes to aid him on his quest, and well, I'll be in so deep, I'll almost forget to come up for air. Oh, and don't forget the poetic prose doing what poetic prose always does: defying my bold claims that "I'm not real big on poetry." Some of you may remember my gushing over The Faerie Queene, Book One, which just completely proved what a liar I am about poetry. However, it also proved that quests and witches and Elflands spin magical webs around me that perhaps just help me forget how much I struggled through poems that made no sense to me in high school and college (many of which break my heart today, now that I've had a little more life experience).

Anyway, I am not a big fan of superlatives when it comes to talking about books (sort of the same way I'm "not real big on poetry"). I'm always afraid I'm going to announce, "That was the funniest book I've ever read," and some extremely literal person is going to be standing beside me saying, "Oh, come on. Have you never read _____?" You fill in the blank. Whatever it is, I will immediately think, "Uh-oh, he's right. ______ was funnier," and then I'll have to add all kinds of tiresome qualifications. Or else, I'll be thinking, "Well, no, I haven't read ______. Could it possibly be funnier? Does she know something I don't know?" sometimes setting myself up for a huge disappointment (or worse yet, wondering if there is something wrong with me) if I decide to read _______ and don't even crack a smile while doing so.

But my wariness of superlatives be damned: this -- ohhhh, this book that had me sighing from its very outset -- is the most beautiful book I've ever read. No tiresome qualifications. It just is. Disagree with me, please. If you can suggest something more beautiful, I want to read it.

Here we have great beauty. I've already told you about the quest and the witch and the magic sword. What else do we have? Why, unicorns, of course. And trolls. We have imagination and wisdom and thought-provoking passages all stirred together to create one of those masterpieces I like to call "perfection disguised as a book" (and did so when emailing the friend who recommended it to me).

It's funny. There were shades of Hope Mirrlees in this one (as there is with all good fantasy, I suppose, because good fantasy taps into the universal) when Dunsany wrestled with the whole issue of real v. magic, or rational v. irrational, or head v. heart, or whatever you want to call it. Passages such as this one seem to point to the futility of separating the rational from the romantic, despite the fact it's in our nature to do so, because we end up with ignorance:

Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till Earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. (p. 7)

It was a theme that ran throughout the book, and I loved it, but what I loved most was the way Dunsany weaved the whole concept of time into this theme.

Elfland is a place, you see, where time more or less stands still. It's a difficult concept for those of us who've never been there, and I had a hard time with it (I don't advise your trying to explain it to your spouse who hasn't read the book). Ultimately, you have to slap the "rational" side of your brain around a bit (if you can't get hold of some of Mirrlees's "fairy fruit," which I can't seem to find at any of Lancaster County's many farmers markets) and banish it to the corner. Those of us who dwell on Earth and not in Elfland, are basically slaves to time, which is why we are so often drawn to worshiping the rational, not wasting time on the magical.

You would think that would make this book like so much contemporary fantasy, that we would be made to look upon the Earth dwellers with pity, but Dunsany makes it more complicated than that. You see, just as we humans (some more than others) are drawn to the magical and long for a place where time stands still, those magical creatures who live in Elfland are drawn to explore Earth, even if it means aging and dying in a way they don't in Elfland.

That means we have unicorns who cross the border on occasion to eat our grasses (which is why humans sometimes spot and kill them). We have a troll who comes here and sits in a field just to watch time go by, something he can't do in Elfland, because time doesn't move quickly like it does on Earth. We have the King's daughter, completely torn between the two places, not happy in whichever one she finds herself.

In other words, we have "the grass is always greener" on a huge scale. I like this twist on the romantic that doesn't make it superior to the rational. In so much fantasy, those with magic who live in magic places, don't often long to be like humans or to live where the humans do, although humans often visit magical realms and long to return to them.

But I've barely managed to touch on all the wonders of this book. There's so much more in it than what I have inadequately described here (I just don't have the runes to turn the visions in my head into black and white words on a screen). Perhaps you can understand a little more from this passage, a perfect example of the sorts of imaginative, meaningful fun Dunsany provides with almost every turn of the page,

...he saw at evening a woman in the hat and cloak of a witch sweeping the heath [yes, that is "heath", not "hearth". Don't let your eyes play tricks on you or assume a typo here].
...He asked her what she was doing there, on the heath with her broom in the evening.
'Sweeping the world,' she said.
And Alveric wondered what rejected things she was sweeping away from the world, with grey dust mournfully turning over and over as it drifted across our fields, going slowly into the darkness that was gathering beyond our coasts.
"Why are you sweeping the world, Mother Witch?" he said.
"There's things in the world that ought not to be here," said she. (pp. 182-183)

See what a way he had with words? See what fun he was having? See how inspired he was?

Guess who agrees. Neil Gaiman. Here's what he had to say in his Introduction to this edition:

Today, fantasy is, for better or for worse, just another genre, a place in a bookshop to find books that, too often, remind one of far too many other books (and many writers today would have less to say had Dunsany not said it first); it is an irony, and not entirely a pleasant one, that what should be, by definition, the most imaginative of all types of literature has become so staid, and too often, downright unimaginative. The King of Elfland's Daughter, on the other hand, is a tale of pure imagination (and "bricks without straw" as Dunsany himself pointed out, "are more easily made than imagination without memories"). Perhaps this book should come with a warning: it is not a reassuring, by-the-numbers fantasy novel, like most of the books with elves, princes, trolls, and unicorns "between their covers." This is the real thing. It's a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola. So trust the book. Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly. (p. xiii)

There you have it: come join Neil Gaiman and me on this side of The King of Elfland's Daughter. After all, you couldn't ask for better company (well, unless we were all sitting atop a unicorn).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Spelling Bea

Tell me something: what possesses parents to screw up the way their children's names are spelled? I've noticed lately that it seems to be more and more common for people I know to spell their names in the oddest ways. I'm not talking here about names that have always had variations in the ways they're spelled, like Katharine/Katherine/Catherine or Sara/Sarah or Ann/Anne (why does it seem that more female names than male names have variant spellings? I've never seen a Robbert or a Timothie). No, I mean taking a perfectly straightforward name like Karen, one everyone knows how to spell, and deciding that one "r" isn't good enough, turning it into Karren, or, perhaps that Catherines shouldn't be the only ones having to say "Catherine with a 'C'" and deciding Caren is a much better way to spell the name. And then there is Carron, a spelling that is fine, I suppose, if you want your daughter to be one mere "i" away from being a crow or the flesh upon which that crow feeds.

Does anyone else live in fear of having to send out congratulatory cards/gifts for new babies when you have not received a formal birth announcement? Friends will call and say, "The baby is here! Her name is Jennifer." In the old days, I would have happily scrawled "Jennifer" across the middle of the pastel-colored (not pink, if I can help it, even though I love pink) envelope. Now I have to worry, "Is it 'Jennifer' or is it 'Jenyfer' or maybe 'Genefer'?" Who wants to get it wrong, to be the one whose gift card doesn't make it into the baby book because she obviously couldn't be bothered to get the baby's name right?

Maybe I'm just annoyed because I'm finding myself having to spell my first name all the time now, which is something I never had to do until I was in high school. Isn't "Emily" the standard spelling? One would think it would be the spelling that comes to mind most often. But no, after knowing me as "Emily" since I began attending the school, someone suddenly decided in the middle of my junior year of high school that I was "Emilie. I got my first introduction to Kafka, having no idea who he was, because I didn't seem to be able to convince anyone that yes, I knew how to spell my own name, that they had it wrong. It took me a year (and multiple crossings-outs and writing it properly in thick, black ink) to become "Emily" again (thank God. I would have hated to have a diploma that read "Emilie." Check out my junior year yearbook, though. There it is: Emilie).

Granted, Emilie isn't that odd a spelling. My mother laughed when I informed her with teenage indignation that no one could spell my name, telling me that someone must have decided I was French. That wasn't really such a far-fetched thought. Many thought that my last name Michie was French, pronouncing it "Mee shee". And really, how could someone whose family spelled "Mickey" "Michie" really complain about the way people chose to spell names?

But still. It's annoying. Recently, I have come across people who have spelled my name Emmalee or Emmily. All right, that first one is phonetically correct and maybe someone was named after her Grandma Emma and Grandpa Lee, or some such thing, but "Emmily" makes me think "Em-Miley," which makes me think of "Smiley," bringing to mind that old Sesame Street character Guy Smiley -- that's almost as bad as being a crow your whole life.

I just don't understand it. If you want your child to be so unique, then choose a name that doesn't happen to have been one of the top-ten most popular names for girls for the past twenty years. Don't take a name that has a perfectly fine, acceptable spelling and screw it up so that your poor child is forced to have to spell it everywhere she goes. I promise you: life is going to be rough enough for your child as it is. You can make it a little easier by allowing her to be like the others, by letting her be a "Karen" or a "Jennifer" or, yes, even an "Emily."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Does This Ever Happen to You?

2:40 p.m. You arrive at the library to meet a friend who works there. You and she have plans to go out for tea at the nearby tea shop when she gets off work.

2:42 p.m. You have volunteered to write book reviews for the library, so you decide to browse the "new books shelf" (you love your little library, because their "new books" shelf is really a "new-to-us" shelf. Thus, it has more than bestsellers and recently-published stuff on it). The library closes at 3:00 p.m. You probably won't have much time to find anything good.

2:45 p.m. Oh, there's that new E.L. Doctorow that has piqued your curiosity. You'd better grab it now, because next time you come in, it won't be here.

2:47 p.m. What's this? A book called The Mother by Pearl S. Buck? You've never heard of it. It looks like a nice, pretty, new, reprint edition, though. You'd better add it to the pile. After all, you love The Good Earth.

2:50 p.m. An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? What could that possibly be? You pull it from the shelf. You like the umbrella on the cover. You flip through the pages. What an interesting idea. It shouldn't take too long to read it. You might as well get it.

2:55 p.m. Hmmm...that looks like a new mystery in a series. You pull the book from the shelf. Yep, it definitely is, and it looks like fun. But you like to read mysteries in chronological order when you can. You go off to the regular stacks to find Rhys Bowen. Oh look: Jacqueline Winspear has endorsed the book you find. You love Jacqueline Winspear. It appears to be the second book in the series, not as good as finding the first, but it will do.

2:59 p.m. Check out all 4 books and begin reading Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life while waiting for your friend to close down the library.

3:15 p.m. You wish you weren't going out to tea with your friend, even though you love going out to tea with her, even though you were the one who suggested you go out for tea today, even though fifteen minutes ago, you couldn't wait for her to close down so you could get over to the tea shop.

5:10 p.m. (or thereabouts) You get home, after deciding to skip that trip to the grocery store to buy a few things you forgot earlier in the week, like cream for your coffee. You can drink your coffee with whole milk tomorrow instead.

5:12 p.m. You make a half-hearted attempt to do some tidying in your extremely messy, dust-infested, badly-needs-vacuuming, so-bad-that-even-you-the-one-of-high-tolerance-for-dust-bunnies-fame-can't-stand-it home. Once you have put in at least an hour, you will reward yourself with some solid time spent curled up with Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.

5:22 p.m. Who are you kidding? You sit down with the book, ignoring dust bunnies engaging in the Dust Bunny Olympics all around you.

6:30 p.m. You drag yourself away from Amy Krouse Rosenthal's ordinary life, the life that happens to make extraordinarily quirky, funny, and compelling reading. You do so in order to work out (and wouldn't do so if it didn't happen to be the first month of a new year in which you have promised yourself you will work out more).

7:00 - 8:24 You race through all the dinner-time rituals (you know, such tiresome things as having to eat delicious food) in order to get back to the book, barely acknowledging your husband's existence, except as your lovely dishwasher.

8:25 p.m. You sit back down to read.

10:00 p.m. You decide just to read a few more pages and then go to bed.

10:45 p.m. You decide just to read a few more pages and then go to bed. (No, that is not a typo.)

11:30 p.m. You are on page 111. You really must get to bed. Page 115 (you're geeky and like numbers that end in zeroes and fives) would be a good place to stop.

11:40 p.m. You are on page 117. Page 125 would be a good place to stop.

12:00 p.m. You've got to get up for church tomorrow, and it is best that, no matter how accepting members of this church may be, people not think the minister is married to a zombie. Go. To. Bed.

5:00 a.m. You wake up. Something good is going on today. What is it? Oh yeah, you have that fun book to read.

5:30 a.m. You don't have to get up until 6:30, but your husband is up, and you can't sleep, so you get up.

5:30 - 7:20 a.m You do all the things you have to do to get yourself ready for church. You also do all the things you have to do to help your husband get ready for church (like attaching clerical collars. How on earth do Catholic priests and bachelor ministers manage those

7:3o a.m. You decide to go to late (10:30 instead of 8:00) service at church, and you pour yourself a cup of coffee to drink while reading. You discover the only whole milk in the house is goat's milk. You use it anyway, because you hate skim milk in coffee.

7:31 a.m. Sit down with book. (Note: goat's milk in coffee is hideous, even worse than skim milk, a fact that can't be ignored even when you are distracted by a good book.)

8:30 a.m. You decide to skip Sunday school, even though you love the book you've been discussing in class.

10:00 a.m. If you weren't married to the minister, you would skip church today. You head upstairs to put on your church clothes. You discover your hair has dried funny, making you look like one of those troll dolls. You don a nice hat.

10:25 a.m. You walk across the parking lot to church, where you receive quite a few compliments on your hat.

2:44 p.m. After church, after socializing, after lunch, you finally finish the book. It is almost exactly 24 hours after you first discovered it.

So, does this ever happen to you? Because it never happens to me. Seriously. I'm the person who can make even a good graphic novel last for two weeks. It's true: there is a first time for everything.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ten Interesting Things I Learned from Books in 2009

And this will be my last post on 2009 books. I thought it would be fun to share ten interesting things I never knew and that I learned while reading in 2009, things that have stuck out in my mind. Here you go:

1. Some people are born with their hearts on the right sides of their bodies instead of the left. I actually encountered this fact in two different books I read in 2009: Stitches by David Small and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

2. There isn't much evidence for the long-held notion that Bram Stoker based his Dracula on Vlad the Impaler. However, "Dracula" in the Wallachian language means "Devil," and this nickname was given by Wallachians to anyone thought to be courageous, cruel, or cunning, including Vlad the Impaler. Legends in Blood: The Vampire in History and Myth by Wayne Bartlett and Flavia Idriceanu

3. There are some pretty cool things that my corpse could be used for to benefit science. However, there are also some pretty horrific things. And corpses don't get to choose. Therefore, I think I will stick to my plans of having my ashes sunk in a coral-friendly container, so I can guarantee new life will come from my death. Stiff by Mary Roach

4. The Hutchinson River (and thus, The Hutchinson River Parkway) was named after Anne Hutchinson, who (probably a bit off her rocker, but still), dared to challenge Puritan theology, providing some pretty clever reasoning, that made her foes look quite foolish, when brought to court on charges of heresy. Nonetheless, she didn't win her case and was banished from Massachusetts, eventually (via Rhode Island) ending up in what is now New York, where her river runs freely. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

5. Postmasters in 19th-century Russia were almost universally loathed (precursers to contemporary Americans' convictions that all postal workers are crazy?). The Tales of Bielkin by Alexander Pushkin

6. Suburban Connecticut has not changed much at all over the past 50+ years. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

7. The idea of state-dependent memory is not a 20th-century one. I actually must have first learned this in some psychology course in the 1980s, and then again when I read the book in the 1990s, but (being unable to recreate the states I was in), I'd forgotten it. Perhaps I will remember it going forward. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

8. Food critics not only get to eat at great restaurants for free and get to write about it, but they also sometimes get to play detective, and the really lucky ones get to interview famous authors about their food habits, likes, and dislikes. Eating My Words by Mimi Sheraton

9. There is this very cool-sounding device for crossing a river that is located out in the wilds of Alsaka. I envision it, based on the book's description, as almost like a boxed-in ski lift across the river. I'd love to ride it one day, but I'd love even more just to get to Alaska (preferably, not the way that Chris McCandless did). Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

10. Children from other countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, who had the right features (e.g. blond hair and blue eyes) and whose parents had been imprisoned or killed during WWII, were taken by the Nazis and passed off as German children for adoption by German parents. The Search by Maureen Morant

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Yeas and Nays of July through December 2009

(First, to let you know, I've pulled the names from the hat, and my two new pen pals for 2010 are Smithereens and Jodie. Could you two please email me with your full names and addresses? Sorry to the rest of you, but maybe I will add some more later in the year, depending on how it's going.)

Man, two posts in a row that contain the words "favorite" and "books." If I'm not careful, I'm going to start having a panic attack. Oh well, at least I also get to include the words "least favorites" as well. As always, there are twelve total, meant to represent one yea and one nay for each month from July through December (but I'm giving you one "yea" to grow on, because I really should have included it somewhere in my last post). Here you go (in no particular order, because I am living dangerously this year):

The 6 Yeas (or Favorites)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
So much so that I went out and bought a nice, pretty new copy of The Woman in White from OneWorld Classics to read in 2010 (so expect more raving).

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
One of the best portrayals of both the raw brutality and raw tenderness of children that I've ever read. Oh, and it's disguised as "high adventure at sea."

In the Woods by Tana French
Thriller/mystery at its very best. Could. Not. Put. It. Down. And woe to anyone who interrupted me while reading! If you don't trust me, listen to Bob, "One of the best books I've read in years." (Of course, that was before he decided to start a debate with me about whether or not the ending was a bit disappointing.)

The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions
Okay. This isn't a book. It's a short story. However, it's probably long enough to qualify as a novella (especially if someone chose a small trim size and included some illustrations). It must be included, though, because it is the epitome not only of an excellent ghost story (maybe the most if others would quit rattling chains in my brain and sadly whispering, "What about me?"), but also of an excellent short story. (Bob agreed with me on this one, too.)

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift
"What?" I hear those of you who know me say, "a book about a garden on Emily-the-Black-Thumb's list?" But there you have it. You see, like all good books, this one isn't really about a garden at all. Well, yes it is, but it's about so much more than a garden. It reminded me of reading Rose Macaulay's The Pleasure of Ruins: so much interesting trivia written so delightfully, but this one -- although not written quite as delightfully as Macaulay -- has a little more soul, since Swift interweaves some very personal memoir into it.

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
19th-century, supernatural, moralistic fiction at its best (what else would you expect from an author who was a minister?).


Cross Channels: Stories by Julian Barnes
I didn't need verification, having read several of his novels, that Barnes is one of the "best of the best" of contemporary authors. However, I got it in spades with this amazing, beautiful little collection of loosely inter-connected stories. If all short-story writing were like this, instead of being a reluctant reader of them, I'd be an addict.

The 6 Nays (or Least Favorites)

The House of Mystery: Room and Boredom by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham, and Luca Russi
A hideous troll encountered along the road on my quest to understand the graphic novel. Why didn't I stop reading when the woman (very graphically) gave birth to the maggots that left her a half-empty shell? Luckily, Joe Hill came along to put the troll under Locke and Key, which helped erase this thought, "Most graphic novels ought to be subtitled, 'An Extraordinarily Confusing, Nonlinear Tale.'"

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
A fine example of why a darling of the literati should not try his hand at genre fiction. Perhaps he shouldn't even be a darling of the literati (but I really shouldn't judge before reading one of his other books).

Piercing the Darkness by Katherine Ramsland
I am a masochist, you know, because I was disappointed by this one when I tried to read it a couple of years ago. I picked it up again, because I thought it would help inform me for a character I am trying to create. It didn't. It just reminded me that there are a lot of sick people in this world, and Ramsland didn't do nearly as good a job of writing about them as she did with her book about ghosts.

The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart
I am still convinced that this book had a one-page-forward-two-pages-back spell cast upon it. By far, the most boring book I read all year.

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich
The black hole of unbelievability.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
A pea in the pod with Benjamin Black, as far as too many over-the-top "surprises" that made no sense. Oh, what a disappointment! How could the woman who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife, who made me so believe that time travel was possible, write such an unbelievable book? How could a book that so beautifully has a man muse, "She was going to break my heart, and I was going to let her" be one that I ultimately found to be a complete waste of time? Just so many wonderfully imaginative ideas, so poorly executed and taken in all the wrong directions. Audrey, was your publishing house rushing you or something? I know you can do better than that.

Friday, January 08, 2010

What I Done Read in 2009

I'm back. Happy New Year, everyone! As promised, my next few posts will be about reliving 2009 through books. But first, I have to let those of you who expressed an interest in being my pen pal know that I will be putting your names in a hat this weekend and drawing two. I really do wish I could just write to all of you, but one thing 2010 is going to be all about for me is realizing my limits (and as my current pen pals who sometimes have to wait ages and ages to get a letter from me can tell you, my limits are not very long and wide). So, two it will be.

And now, on to my 2009 reading stats. Continuing the tradition I began last year at someone's request, I am including my favorite for each category. I'm sorry, but I can't remember who requested that I do that, but you should stand up and take a bow, because it is about the only time you will ever see me daring to call something a "favorite." I explained last year why that is so hard for me to do.

And without further ado...

Total number of books read: 78 (That number is creeping up every year. I used to say I read a book a week. That was before book blogs came into my life.)
Favorite: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Total number of pages read: 16,548 (Yes, the numbers geek in me keeps track of that. But no favorites in this category. Even I am not that obsessive-compulsive! Nevertheless, I would hazard a guess that the favorite page would be found somewhere in Hope Mirrlees.)

Female authors: 34 (Gasp! That number went down from last year.)
Favorite: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Male authors: 43 (Oh well, I blame it on the mystery book discussion group, because we seem to have a male-to-female ratio of something like 5:1.)
Favorite: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

American Authors: 41
Favorite: Firmin by Sam Savage (The little reading rat who stole my heart.)

NonAmerican Authors: 36 (Don't get excited that I am becoming more international. They are still almost all British.)
Favorite: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf (However, this one wasn't British.)

Fiction: 52
Favorite: In the Woods by Tana French (If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?)

Nonfiction: 16 (Quite obviously, I still gravitate more towards fiction than not.)
Favorite: The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

Both fiction and nonfiction: 1
Favorite: The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker (Well, that's a "favorite" you can trust, isn't it? But, I'm pretty sure it would have been even if I'd read others.)

Collection of International Male and Female Authors: 1
Favorite: The Poet's Corner edited by John Lithgow (Another one you can trust.)

Poetry collections: 4 (I do wish that number were a little higher. Perhaps in 2010. We'll see...)
Favorite: Americana by John Updike

Short story collections: 3 (And despite saying I'm trying to read more short story collections, I actually went down from last year. Sigh!)
Favorite: Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates by Richard Yates

Drama: 2 (Did I not say I was going to read more drama in 2010? Liar. But, I suppose since I read none last year, I really did read more.)
Favorite: Lysistrata by Aristophanes (This will show up in another category, because I so don't like King Lear that there is no way I can even pretend it was a favorite just to keep from having overlap in some categories.)

Y.A./Children's: 6 (Quite a lot for someone who doesn't have children, but fewer than I thought.)
Favorite: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Audio: 2 (These have dropped off dramatically since I no longer need to drive much.)
Favorite: Uglies by Scott Westerfield (But I cheated. I was too eager to finish it, and the audio version was too slow, so I got the print version to hurry to the end.)

Graphic: 5 (Well, that number went up, despite the fact I'm still not sure what I think of the genre.)
Favorite: Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (What an imagination Neil Gaiman has!)

21st century: 35 (I blame this high number on the nonfiction, since I don't tend to read much nonfiction written in earlier centuries. Maybe I should.)
Favorite: In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent (I say that, but then I go and pick a fiction title as a favorite.)

1950 - 1999: 22
Favorite: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

1900 - 1949: 9
Favorite: The Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett

19th century: 9
Favorite: Tales of Bielkin by Alexander Pushkin

18th century: 0 (Can you believe it? Neither can I. Especially since I had planned at least to re-read Gulliver's Travels this year, if nothing else.)

16th and 17th centuries: 2
Favorite: The First Book of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Pre-16th century: 1
Favorite: Lysistrata by Aristophanes