reading, Uncategorized

The one-two-three-dollar library sales, heaven on earth!

images.jpgEvery year my husband and I have the same discussion. Do we really need more books? The house is full of books. Books that, mostly, haven’t been read. That we mean to read. Or, rather, to get to. We’re reading all the time.

We bought them because they looked interesting. We sure didn’t buy them to decorate our space. (Some idiot, years ago, suggested to a friend of mine that this is a big reason for buying books!) They’re, mostly, tattered, covers long gone, spines often unreadable.

Books are a drug. Is the urge to acquire a disease or a character flaw? Why, no bookshelf footage left, books piled on tables, under tables, in corners, why do we return to the well? Here’s why: I might find something extraordinary. Period color. A bit of history that I’ve seen nowhere else. A stunning style.

The sales are exciting. It’s a treasure hunt. We pay the five-dollar first-day fee. I head left, to the fiction. I gravitate to ‘literature’, the amount of which, sadly, is less every year. The holders of troves of long out of print, odd and obscure are passing. Here’s my tip: do not ignore the books with crumbling, illegible spines. They are often little known authors telling out-of-style tales in prose that will turn you green with envy. Those moldie-oldies could write.

Another plus of the dollar buys: I highlight to my heart’s content, with no qualms about ruining something. I draw stars and arrows, even circle passages. I can flip through that book on Oliver Goldsmith and find what I need fairly easily. I don’t have to laboriously transcribe into a word doc. I mark useful info up but good, facts, dates, quotes, description. For data, I look to biographies. For artful description, to vintage fiction. Charles Reade is a favorite. Never heard of him? I’m not surprised.

From Wikipedia: Reade fell out of fashion by the turn of the century—”it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him,” wrote George Orwell—but during the 19th century Reade was one of England’s most popular novelists. He was not highly regarded by critics. The following assessment is typical:

“Mr. Reade is unsurpassed in the second class of English novelists, but he does not belong to the front rank. His success has been great in its way, but it is for an age and not for time.”

Orwell summed up Reade’s attraction as “the charm of useless knowledge.” Reade possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into his novels. Can anyone who has read my work come away wondering why I am so enamored of him?

At those sales you find nearly anything you want except for the very latest best-sellers. Wait a year, you’ll find them by the dozens. Therefore, I see no compelling reason to buy anything but e-books. The exception for me is period research, when I’ve been sufficiently beguiled by a mention of a particular work. I have purchased a pricy work on Early Modern French Theater for a specific tidbit of information that I couldn’t find on the web. But, you never know what else you’ll stumble on. Also, I have that huge, eighteenth century work on Astrology. Dense, and then some. I’ll pull what I can out of it, then mangle the hell out of it. For Sly, of course.

I tell my stories again and again, have you heard this one? If so, I apologize for being tiresome. In a circa-fifties interview in Evergreen Review, Dorothy Parker said, “I am the only person you’ll meet who has read all of Charles Reade.” She had to have loved him for his style. His plots are atrocious Victorian treacle. I salivate over his way with words, and his impulse to cross every t and dot every i. The man is fun, damn it!

I share a curious literary enthusiasm with . . . whoa! Dorothy Parker! I call that a feather in my cap.

What will I be looking for tomorrow? Like I said, it’s a treasure hunt. All I know for sure is, anything by Charles Reade.

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Book sale wrap-up:

I bought a dozen works of fiction, by Anthony Trollope, Rudyard Kipling, Samuel Johnson, George Meredith, and lesser lights. I found no Charles Reade, not even his most famous work, the one I’ve owned for twenty years, the only one I’ve ever seen for sale: The Cloister and The Hearth.

More importantly, I snagged a dozen compilations of essays and letters, explaining and commenting on life, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whatever I found of delightful pontificating, I grabbed for you-know-who. The cashier made a bit of a to-do over an unpriced three-book set of essays. She couldn’t let them go for the two dollars a pop that most of the others cost. These might be valuable, said she, I have to check with a higher-up. I told my husband as we awaited her return: Yeah, like anybody but me wants a set of ‘Select British Essayists’ (copyright 1878). They ought to give it to me just to be rid of it.

At these events I browse, looking for a flavor to the prose that puts a smile on my face, a personality that promises to mesh with, and enrich, my own entrenched (but elastic, I can work in almost anything) style, and for pronouncements that will stuff comfortably into the mouth of a know-it-all cat. Here’s a sample of what caught my eye today:

Homilies and Recreations (copyright 1906)

Representative Men by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Characters of Theophrastus (newly translated and edited, 1927)

Wanderings and Excursions by J. Ramsey MacDonald, 1925

C’mon, where ya gonna find this kind of stuff nowadays, but for the library sales? Something in this vein of recent origin, well, the voice of today is not the sensibility of yesteryear. I revel in a nice bit of vintage pomposity, generally, more preachy than what goes now, and I try to echo it in my screwball epic starring a full-of-himself, scholarly-inclined feline.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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reading, world-building, writing technique

Problems, Problems.

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Hmmm. None of the available images look too hot. I guess they do that on purpose.

This still is from the movie Camelot, in case you haven’t guessed.

 

On top of the push and shove of every day, we here have taken it on ourselves to try to write. To try to write something that matters. Something that goes somewhere. Something that will be read. Well, you can see what kind of mood I’m in. Sounds like a few of you are in the dumps also.

I’m struggling on many fronts. I’m pushing my way through chapters six and seven of Sly. (Used to be chapters five and six. Another chapter has magically appeared.) This story is a game of whack-a-mole. That’s problem number one.

My house is a mess, per usual. Work is slow, I’m short bunches of hours and it’s eating into my vacation time. It’s not yet May and my garden is already out of control. What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, my husband had a stroke. (A little stroke humor there, he’s doing very well.)

I should be counting my blessings. I need an attitude adjustment big-time.

This is the first year, after five years of trying, that my damn orange phlox has taken hold and looks like it might survive. My fifty dollars worth of an unusual yellow allium, planted last fall, seems to be coming up. I’ve been holding my breath all winter. You never know. Why did I sink fifty dollars into a plant I’ve never tried? That’s a big no-no in my book. I lusted after them, and the mail-order nursery wouldn’t let me place an order for less than fifty bucks. OK, this isn’t really what I wanted to talk about. I’m working up to it. I want to talk about Ursula Le Guin. She’s a problem for me also. Because I really expected she would be right up my alley.

I’m reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion, three short(ish) stories in one book. The blurb in the front says, “Le Guin is the ideal science fiction writer for readers who ordinarily dislike science fiction.” That’s me, all right. I like character-based stories, and that’s not sci-fi, in my experience.

So I’m reading Ursula and, guess what? I don’t like this much either.

Oh, I like her style. Literary. Poetic. Too poetic. Flowery as hell. A little of this for flavor, fine. But it’s on every page, and it’s wearing me down:

“. . . Yahan stood up with a lyre of bronze with silver strings, and sang. He sang of Durholde of Hallan who set free the prisioners of Korhalat, in the days of the Red Lord, by the marshes of Born; and when he had sung the lineage of every warrior in that battle and every stroke he struck, he sang straight on the freeing of the Tolenfolk and the burning of the Plenot Tower, of the Wanderer’s torch blazing through a rain of arrows, of the great stroke struck by Mogien Hall’s heir, the lance cast across the wind finding its mark like the unerring lance of Hendin in the days of old.”

“. . . in the pallid fog that surrounded them in a dome of blindness.”

“. . . the cold, ruinous, resplendent fortress of their race.”

The dialogue is too . . . I don’t know, too epic. Nobody talks like that. The charm wears off real fast. Try this on for size:

“I am Olhor, the Wanderer. I come from the north and from the sea, from the land behind the sun . . . I go south. Let no man stop me.” Okay, he’s speaking to hostile strangers in an unfamiliar language. But a little of this goes a long, long way.

I’m having trouble keeping my species straight. Some peoples are at the bronze-age level, some zip across the galaxy in induced comas, and return home barely older than when they left, though their loved ones are on the brink of death from decrepitude. Some read minds, communicate that way, some hunker around campfires in filthy rags and grunt at each other. These are not branches on a family tree. Where did these tribes come from?

And, this overload of information is not the information I would love to hear. Where are the stray thoughts that we all have, that I scatter through my own thing like the weeds poking up in my garden? (Those weeds are out there, doing their cake-walk through my beds, singing their heads off: It’s May! It’s May! The lusty month of May!)

Le Guin’s often medieval-sounding description is kind of like my tons of fake history, that has enough real embedded in it for one back on Book Country to tell me, “I can’t take any more of this. I didn’t know I was going to be plunged into a history class.”

Is this typical of her? I thought at first that I could learn from her, how to overdo on the detail (’cause it’s so much damn fun) but keep it from getting mind-numbing. Nope! I’m thrown back on my own devices. Which means, generally, lots of playful intrusion, to jolt you awake, in case you’ve zoned out. That’s my answer.

I’m stealing some neat words here. So that’s good. Byre, what’s a byre? Has something to do with cattle. Ah! A cow barn/cow shed. I can use that for Sly, for flavor. I’m all for flavor, but I don’t want to drown in it.

Now you all can explain to me how/why I’ve just made an idiot of myself. Le Guin is, after all, in the writer pantheon. She’s the one with the awards, and the legions of fans, not me. But this sort of heroic/epic quest/event-driven storytelling is simply not my style.

The tone feels Arthurian to me. Mystical. There are run-down castles and, instead of elves, various tribes of little people. We have a touch of magic in the mind-reading, and in legend-based premonitions. The framework is that this fairly primitive planet is brutally invaded. A hidden base has been established from which to launch a counter attack against distant forces. But that’s the least part of the story, coming in very near the end. The hero doesn’t reach the base until page one-hundred of a one-hundred-twelve page story. Most of the tale chronicles the lengthy trek across challenging terrain and, for me, it gets tedious, beautiful imagery notwithstanding. Maybe I’ll come to appreciate Le Guin more as I read on.

Her powers of imagination are incredible. I am mesmerized, if not necessarily delighted, by her dense description. I write little physical detail myself and am very conscious of that lack. I’ve been trying to rejigger my way of thinking in that direction for a while now, so far with very modest success. I have to see if I can incorporate some of this approach into my own style.

______________________________________________

My husband has just read Rocannon’s World and says it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction he’s ever read. I had to explain to him who Ursula Le Guin is, he’s never heard of her. (He has not read sci-fi for decades. He’s into history, politics, science, nonfiction generally.) He is very impressed with her world building, and thinks the plot being almost incidental is no big deal.

I will read her next story with that outlook. Maybe when you read her you have to park your expectations.

God knows I can relate to that.

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Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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About Writers, book reviews, reading, writing technique

The Wonderful World of Susanna Clarke

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I had read a portion of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell very quickly, to get a feel for the work, to see if I was ready to devote myself to eight-hundred pages. I am! I am rereading more carefully, and I have watched a few episodes of the Netflix series, to see how it translates to the screen.

I have to say that the thing that I most enjoy about the story is not the plot itself. I am hooked on the execution. It is fleshed out with wonderfully dense historical tidbits, faux references to this storied magician or that one, notations of their books, publishers, and publishers’ addresses, background on various factions of magic, a ballad even, all set forth in scholarly-looking footnotes. All of this delights me no end.

I enjoy the atmosphere of the piece, the intricate description, stately phrasing of a gravitas wholly in keeping with the theme of Magic Restored To Its Proper Place In England. For me, the true magic of the book is the narrative style. There is a great deal of very impressive telling:

“Excellent reasons which had seemed so substantial a moment ago were turning to mist and nothingness in his mouth, his tongue and teeth could not catch hold of even one of them to frame it into a rational English sentence.” Such a stylish encapsulation cannot be conveyed on film, and what a pity.

“… and as our narrative progresses, I will allow the reader to judge the justice of this portrait.” Clarke intrudes fairly often, another lovely period touch. The enormous footnotes may not range as far afield as mine do in Sly, but they are entertaining and I will eventually read them all.

The Netflix movie is absolutely gorgeous, but it does not capture the spirit of the book. It is the artistry of the narrative that has made it a classic. A world has been created on these pages, that drags us to a time and place in a way that the film does not. Who has read Jonathan Strange? Do you agree? Or does the lyrical phrasing and overload of tangential information (that I eat up) put you off?

The Netflix series lacks distance from the here and now, that all the walking through mirrors doesn’t remedy. It lacks the flavor of the print piece. This (gently) mannered prose is a mesmerizing step back from reality, and it plays a large part in the enormous pleasure I get from the story.

The film is beautifully done. The sets are stunning. The casting is wonderful. The story is faithfully told as far as the bones of it go. But the filmed version lacks the magic of the book. The book is a breathtaking example of total-immersion world-building. I am enthralled. I am taking notes right and left on matters small and large.

You may expect a new bit on Sly practicing (working with his tabby markings) to affect a disdainful raised eyebrow, in my updated chapter one. Thanks for the seed idea, Susanna Clarke. Many phrases have sparked spin-off business of my own. For me, this book is a treasure trove of possibilities, particularly in relation to Sly’s bookishness, which is always fun to contemplate.

What rare world-building can you recommend? I’m into it!

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reading

Apothegms of Wince: The Masses Speak of Things Bookish & Grammatical

For over three decades now I’ve been recording in a series of journals the most astonishing utterances one could ever hope to hear as one goes about the daily business of surviving on planet Mayhem. Some of these were said directly to my face, most were overheard as I eavesdropped on the conversation of others. I have winnowed down thousands of quotes from young and old, educated and miseducated, the intelligent and, err . . . somewhat less intelligent in order to focus on 100 jaw-droppers primarily concerned with writing, reading and literature. If you think most people hold these subjects in high regard, well . . . all I can say is that you haven’t been listening very closely to your fellow man or woman.

Although not notated as such please understand that every brain stem utterance, non-sequitur, reality-wrenching misstatement, microburst of ignorance and/or illogic reproduced here is to be understood as being end-capped thusly: [sic]

And if some of these ring familiar (see especially those utterances coming from the mouths of novice writers), all I can say is that the complexity and uniqueness of human experience apparently only goes so far: certain patterns repeat, so it would seem—everywhere.

In no particular order, then:

………………………………

  1. “Reading?! I’ve no time to read; I’m in college.”
  2. “I decided to be impressive and use a semi-colon.”
  3. “I hate any book that has more than 300 pages in it; it’s so unnecessary.”
  4. “If you really want to call attention to a word or phrase tilt it.”
  5. “Unless your name is Virgil or Julius Caesar you shouldn’t be writing in Roman.”
  6. “Reading is so gay.”
  7. “The problem with most contemptible bourgeois literature is that it shamelessly propagandizes for autocratic hetero-normative values.”
  8. “I never read books written before I was born; people were so stupid then.”
  9. “I’m suspicious of science fiction; it keeps coming true.”
  10. “You know the symbol I mean: the ‘a’ with its tail wrapped around itself, like a dead possum?”
  11. “I like gun violence in the books I read; shrapnel is so random.”
  12. “The Canterbury tales weren’t written in modern English; they were written in Old English–which is French.”
  13. “I can’t read books by women; their names on the cover stop me.”
  14. “Of course women now comprise 70% of the book-buying public. Why is this so surprising? Video games do a much better job of scratching the male itch once catered to by Conan comics and Mickey Spillane paperbacks.”
  15. “The greatest writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  16. “The worst writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  17. “I can’t read fantasy; it’s so unreal.”
  18. “The thing about a good western is that all the right people die in it.”
  19. “All characters ever do in Shakespeare is talk, talk, talk.”
  20. “Greek mythology is perverted; no wonder they died out to the Mongols.”
  21. “Reading ruins your eyes and everything else.”
  22. “I only read books I can’t understand. I believe in improving myself.”
  23. “You think you’re a writer just because you use words?”
  24. “You can’t call it a mystery if you’ve finished the book.”
  25. “Libraries are arrogance centers.”
  26. “The Bible is the only book anyone needs. The correct version, of course; the _____ version.”
  27. “The only punctuation I use is the period, comma and question mark. Oh and those two little talking slashes.”
  28. “I don’t like to be shouted at by exclamation marks.”
  29. “My boss was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him: I typed in all capital letters. I told him I knew his eyes were bad.”
  30. “I couldn’t finish the book; my mother stole it.”
  31. “I caught my boyfriend reading my romance novel. He said he was jealous and wanted to know what I was up to.”
  32. “Did you read those Anne Rice s&m novels? There was so much bisexuality in them! I didn’t.”
  33. “Boldface is helpful if you want to move beyond subtlety.”
  34. “They call it literature because teachers like it. If kids like it they call the principal.”
  35. “Books are a blunt instrument; there are much faster ways of inducing clinical depression.”
  36. “I thought I would like Poe but then he Frenched me.”
  37. Moby Dick is boring! Boring, stupid and boring! I wish I was dead.”
  38. “My dad says I’ll appreciate books like that once I’ve lived long enough to understand what the author is trying to say. I said why doesn’t he just fucking say it?”
  39. “I don’t like authors who use flowery words. Like containment.”
  40. “I don’t understand a thing about poetry. Or why it’s called poetry.”
  41. “Norman Mailer’s not so tough. He’s dead, isn’t he?”
  42. “Your story needs a rape scene.”
  43. “The book exploded my brain.”
  44. “I’m going to write a bestseller next summer when I start writing. Like Tom Clancy.”
  45. “I guarantee you this story idea will make you rich; all you have to do is write it–then give me half the money you make. I’ll need you to sign a contract, of course.”
  46. “Say something in writing.”
  47. “You’re a very good writer. I didn’t read your story.”
  48. “I don’t have time to worry about lining up every dot and letter; that’s what editors are for.”
  49. “She criticized me by helping.”
  50. “What’s the fastest way to get an agent if you don’t need one?”
  51. “Will you read this and tell me what you think? It’s great! My first story. And it’s all true!”
  52. “Is the book fiction or nonfiction? Hmm . . . Neither sounds right. I think it’s that other category; they’re reading it in school. History?”
  53. “She marked my paper up to belittle-ize me.”
  54. “It’s a word that sounds like another word: a hama-nuh-nah-muh-moon.”
  55. “I couldn’t stop reading the book so I put it in the freezer.”
  56. “My dog hates that book.”
  57. “The teacher was very clear on this—if you have a parenthetical thought, forget it.”
  58. “I never read footnotes; they’re Aunt Celery to the text.”
  59. “Dictionaries are full of something, alright.”
  60. “Smug people buy thesauruses.”
  61. “This book shouldn’t be on your shelves; it’s offensive. Call the manager.”
  62. “The thing I’ll never get about writers is why they keep writing. Don’t they understand they’re irritating people?”
  63. “It’s a very good book; you’ll like it. The words are so normal you don’t even notice you’re reading!”
  64. “The whole thing ends with sharks eating the goddamn fish and I was so disgusted I started sobbing.”
  65. “The elves in Tolkien are meant to symbolize the Irish.”
  66. “A good Lovecraft tale ends in a dead professor and a muttering elder god.”
  67. “I think Andre Norton is a woman. I’m serious.”
  68. “Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is the greatest book I ever read. It was so short; I really appreciated that.”
  69. “A novella is a book that ran out of steam.”
  70. “Sure you can read a book and not be a dork—it’s called sports or mechanical.”
  71. “He insulted me with words I’m going to look up.”
  72. “I started reading and woke up on the floor. You see what happens?”
  73. “And the ironic thing about Dante’s Inferno is that you get to the center of hell and you’re just glad it’s over.”
  74. “Yeah, but if Huckleberry Finn had kept going into Mexico, Mark Twain would have more Hispanic readers, that’s all I’m saying.”
  75. “You know what they say: use a bookmark, not a small rock.”
  76. “I never read the author bio before I start reading the text; I’ll lose respect for the book.”
  77. “Novelists think they’re so clever.”
  78. “The title The Red Badge of Courage should be re-appropriated for a YA feminist novel of menstruation.”
  79. “Every time I see the words The Naked and the Dead I think about zombie orgies.”
  80. “I don’t waste my time on short stories; the author didn’t.”
  81. “She’s like, _________ and I’m all _________. I know, right?!” [Repeat this sentence structure five times in a row.]
  82. “John Gardner was a brilliant writer who crashed into a tree.”
  83. “When someone writes a screenplay it’s called a movie. When they turn a movie into a book it’s called desperate.”
  84. “It’s amazing! They’re just letters on the page, but when the letters turn into words and the words attack you . . .”
  85. “I never remember what I read. So why read? Waste of time.”
  86. “I abhor sexist language like his, her, policeman, cock.”
  87. “How did a crucified Jewish messiah wind up with a Greek name and a Roman Empire? God’s will.”
  88. “Emily Dickinson hid in an attic because she didn’t know what her poetry was talking about.”
  89. “It’s an oxymoron, like Burger World.”
  90. “What’s that word for a sentence that reads the same backward or forward? Hippodrome? Emperor Palpatine?”
  91. “I turned all the books in his library around so that the titles faced the back of the shelf.”
  92. “You never read anything by Rudyard Kipling? You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?”
  93. “The essay is a form better left unwritten.”
  94. “I don’t call it cheating; I consider it rapid studying under pressure.”
  95. “I don’t need to read the book to know what I think about it; I’m educated.”
  96. “The book is called—what’s that title with three words in it?”
  97. “The problem with Shakespeare is that he wrote in Elizabeth Town dialect.”
  98. “It’s supposed to be a dirty book but it’s all cultural. I sweated buying it for nothing.”
  99. “She insisted I read the book. We’re not talking now.”
  100. “They said the book would change your life. So I read it. Same ‘ole life.”
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About Writers, reading, writing technique

The bestseller recipe

chef

If you want to write a bestseller, what will you choose as your main ingredient? Sex? Murder? Action? Suspense? They probably won’t do your chances any harm, but according to Jodie Archer, a former publisher, and Matthew Lockers of Stanford University, you’d be better off choosing ‘human closeness’. They stress that ‘this doesn’t mean romance – it could be talking with someone you are intimate with or shopping with a parent.’ In other words (as I see it) the depth and believability of relationships: antagonism mixing it with affection, tension alternating with tranquillity.

How do they know? They scanned 20,000 books, built an algorithm, and were able to predict with 80% accuracy those that made the bestseller lists. Of course, there’s a precondition, which their algorithm took for granted: the book first has to be published and noticed. But once that little obstacle is cleared, you’re all set.

Don’t overdo it, though. Human closeness for 30% of the book is enough. Then 30% on a different topic (technology, climate change, whatever) and the rest a sprinkling of miscellaneous details. There you go. Easy, eh?

That’s my simplified summary of an article in the Guardian, The secret DNA behind bestsellers. Hardly secret, I thought when I read it. Human closeness arouses our emotions. Aristotle wrote about that a while ago. But still, it’s worth thinking about when we create our characters. And getting it right, as always, is easier said than done.

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