March 30, 2015
As I mentioned in my review of the movie, I somehow avoided ever reading this great American novel. I don’t know how, it just happened. Because we read Madame Bovary or something stupid like that instead. I hear from lots of people that they hated The Great Gatsby in high school, but I rather suspect this is a book that teenagers aren’t really going to get — post-war existential angst, etc. So, I was curious. What’s it like reading this book for the first time at the age of 40+?
This book is amazing. Amazing writing. Just. . . See, most “classics” I read are classics for a reason — they’re really good. To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick — I’ve read them all later, out of high school, and I love them all. Here, just look at this:
“I had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”
What I wouldn’t give to write a sentence like that. One sentence, Fitzgerald nails that character to the wall. The whole book is like that. It’s a character study more than anything, of this group of people chosen to represent a specific time and place that the author suspects might be kind of terrible.
It’s actually kind of wonderful in a horrifying way how every single character in this book is just an awful, awful person. And you know what? Nick Carraway is the worst of the bunch. What a spineless git. (Question for the academics: Has there been any commentary about the possibility that Nick is suffering from shellshock? His drifting, his seeming inability to make any decisions, his shifting attitudes and perceptions… Or is he just the ultimate post-war nihilist?)
But the most horrifying realization of all is the one that slowly creeps upon you as you are reading this book, almost a century after its publication, that a big chunk of 20th century American fiction has been all about people trying to write a book just like The Great Gatsby and failing miserably.
March 16, 2015
What I’ve been watching:
After being really appalled by the couple of episodes I saw of History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries, which would have you believe that the American Revolution was run by a bunch of Gen Y hotties vamping and fistfighting their way across New England, and that none of them had wives and families and Abigail Adams was a walk-on part, I’ve started on the HBO series from a few years ago, John Adams.
I love it so far. Very well acted and it seems awfully more accurate: the founding fathers were for the most part established, middle-aged men with families who had a heck of a lot to lose by fomenting revolution. Abigail Adams is really damned important.
We get to the reading of the Declaration of Independence — because every show ever having to do with the American Revolution has a reading of the Declaration of Independence — and in John Adams, part of that reading is done by Abigail and their daughter. Hearing this read in women’s voices — it seems like such a little thing, but it struck me powerfully. It’s seems really, vitally important to hear it read in a woman’s voice. And I’m trying to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it read by a woman. This is a deep and striking thing that I’m still thinking about.
What I’ve been reading:
I’m reading a bunch of stuff from this year’s Nebula ballot so I can be an informed voter.
I just finished up a fantastic book about the Silk Road: Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a great temporary exhibit right now about the Silk Road — I recommend it. This is where I picked up the book. Whitfield’s book isn’t comprehensive — it deals with mainly central Asia and western China from about the 7th to 10th centuries. But the way she approaches it is through the lives of the kinds of individuals you’d have met in these places during this time. There’s a ton of information about religion, culture, art, trading, warfare, but it’s all in the context of what these people’s lives looked like. It’s an interesting and fascinating way to present history I think.
The reason I’m researching the Silk Road: for my fantasy novel that I want to write some day, I want it sent in a diverse and tolerant culture. This means not medieval Europe. Are there medieval examples of religiously diverse and tolerant cultures? Why yes, along the Silk Road — because it turns out people can be diverse and tolerant when there’s an economic benefit in doing so. Who knew?
March 13, 2015
I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of mourning lately.
I was having a crappy week anyway — various sucker-punchy things happened last week, and I’m still trying to get over them. And then the news about Sir Terry Pratchett came. I was already low, and the defenses caved. I haven’t been able to stop crying.
The odd thing is I haven’t ready very many of his books. (I need to read more — I know about Angua but I haven’t read any of her books yet and I really really should.) You see, I’m less a fan of his writing than I am a fan of him as a human being. I remember one Worldcon seeing him on a panel about traditional fantasy, and he used the phrase “consensus medieval fantasy” — that particular brand of pseudo-historical medievalism that so many fantasy novels seem rooted in. Isn’t that just brilliant? And then a few years ago at Capclave, he stopped by to do a sudden unscheduled talk, and I ditched the panel I was supposed to be on to go hear him, which I don’t regret at all. And toward the end he went on this glorious rant about the word “awesome.” About how us Americans completely misuse the word. Awesome ought to be reserved for gods and demons appearing out of the ether with lightning bolts — that’s awesome! But instead we use it for everything!
It feels like we’ve lost someone really important. I know he’s been ill for a long time and we knew it was coming. But it’s still really hard.
The sky where I’m at is very gray and gloomy today. I hope it rains. I could use a good rain.
February 13, 2015
So yes, I have discovered Georgette Heyer and I’m working my way through the historicals. If I’m going to be writing historical romance, I want them to look like this. So far, I think every book of hers I’ve read has had a scene that I have to pull out and hang on the wall. This is one from The Grand Sophy:
He said stiffly: “Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be much obliged to you, cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!”
“But Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton! She cannot help it, and that, I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters.”
“I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!”
“Yes, indeed, but you have quite misunderstood the matter! I meant a particularly well-bred horse!”
“You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!”
“No, no! I am very fond of horses!” Sophy said earnestly.
Oh my goodness. Isn’t it gorgeous?
January 30, 2015
I’ve been reading Stephen Sondheim writing about art, creating, and writing, and picked out these choice bits. From Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981).
p. xvii. “Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.”
(This is one of those places where I went, “Duh, of course, why did I never think of it that way before? And then I think, well, what do we do about some Renaissance poetry that was originally meant to be sung, but these days we mostly look at it without the music — and maybe we ought to go back to listening to it instead of reading it…and so on.)
p. xviii. “Mis-stressing is a cardinal sin, and as an occasional sinner myself, it drives me crazy.”
(I recently taught a sonnet-writing class, and my example of the great crime of mis-stressing was from the Fleetwood Mac song “Dreams:” “When the rain wash-ES you clean you know…” Jolts me every damn time I hear it.)
p. xxvi. “There is something about the conscious use of form in any art that says to the customer, “This is worth saying.” …. The more random and imprecise, the more writing becomes blather….”
(This, a million times this…)
December 3, 2014
Looking at the list of things I’ve read this year (I started keeping track a few years ago and really liked doing it), I discovered I’ve not read as much as I’d like. So I’m making an effort to read a bunch off stuff off my “to read” pile before the end of the year. And there’s some really good stuff out there. Not necessarily new books, alas — but isn’t that the great thing about books? They’ll always be there, and the better they are the longer they last.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This got a lot of buzz when it came out a couple of years ago as being really intense and brutal. It’s about World War II, so it went on my list, and if I had realized that one of the main characters is a woman ferry pilot in Britain, I would have read this sooner. Women pilots in WWII being one of my Things and all.
So, this is a massively great WWII spy thriller. Intense and brutal as I mentioned. But I also learned something about technique. **SPOILERS!** One of the narrators is unreliable — she’s writing a confession after torture, so of course she is. But you, the reader, come to believe her anyway in spite of yourself. It’s not until much later in the book that you learn that what she wrote really was mostly lies — because, you’re reminded, you the reader were not the intended audience of her narrative. The reader is merely a bystander, and the intended audience is the Nazi interrogator. The true extent of Julie’s espionage skill is revealed, and it’s astonishing. I’ll say it again: the reader is not the intended audience of her narrative. I mean it is, of course, because it’s part of the book. But the key to sussing out what’s going on there is remembering that Julie isn’t talking to you. This kind of blew my mind. So: unreliable narrator. Remember who the narrator is talking to, the one who the narrator is intending to deceive.
Yeah, this is a great book, but be warned, I sobbed through the entire last third of it.
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
This book has been on my radar since it came out, almost 20 years ago, back when I worked in the bookstore, because its author was one of my smartest, most excellent professors in college. Professor Barber very kindly let me take her Ancient Civilizations class as a freshman, when I really had no business taking it, not knowing a thing about college level coursework. But this was exactly the kind of class I’d come to college for, and I couldn’t bear taking all survey classes my first year. I wanted to delve. I was finally going to really learn new and amazing things.
And I did. It’s because I took that class I’m able to write stories like “The Book of Daniel,” which takes place in the heart of ancient Babylon. It’s why I insisted on figuring out what “For the Fairest” would look like in Linear B for Discord’s Apple. Really, in another life I should have been a historian or an archeologist. But I like telling stories. I walk into a museum and I don’t see the objects, I see the stories around them.
And that’s what Professor Barber’s book, which I have finally now read, is about. It’s about textiles — weaving, spinning, and all the technologies involved in those activities — but it’s also about history, culture, and what each of these things tells us about the other. It’s about how to take the artifacts and suss out the stories around them, and what the lives of the women who used them must have been like.
So why did I read this book now, and not at any other point since it came out? (And it’s wonderful to think that she was writing this when I was her student — I remember her talking about the oldest preserved shirt and the painted ceilings that match weaving patterns.) It’s because of the Neolithic stories I’ve been writing/want to write. I need to know where the technology was at and what the women of the time were doing — and we don’t know. There’s no written record, only the artifacts. But we can look at the artifacts and make inferences. And this book is a really great lesson on how to do that. It’s excellent.
And what all are you reading right now?
November 28, 2014
I hope you (that is, those of you who celebrate it) are having a lovely Thanksgiving holiday. I am hoping to spend much of this weekend reading.
This I believe: there should be more funny historical fiction. Historical fiction ought to be allowed to be funny, and not always dry and upright and serious. We’re not going to school, after all.
Right now I’m reading Georgette Heyer, and it’s hilarious. This is from The Black Moth, which takes place in the mid 18th century (think Dangerous Liaisons). This scene made me laugh. And look, it’s available on Project Gutenberg!
She glanced again at his averted head with a wistful little smile.
“Oh!” she murmured. “Oh!“—and—”It is very dreadful to be a highwayman!” she sighed.
“But surely you could cease to be one?” coaxingly.
He did not trust himself to answer.
“I know you could. Please do!”
“That is not all,” he forced himself to say. “There is worse.”
“Is there?” she asked wide-eyed. “What else have you done, Mr. Carr?”
“I—once—” heavens, how hard it was to say! “I once … cheated … at cards.” It was out. Now she would turn from him in disgust. He shut his eyes in anticipation of her scorn, his head turned away.
“Only once?” came the soft voice, filled with awed admiration.
His eyes flew open.
She drooped her head mournfully.
“I’m afraid I always cheat,” she confessed. “I had no idea ’twas so wicked, although Auntie gets very cross and vows she will not play with me.”
Oh my gosh it’s just adorable.