Tag Archives: Books

Shelf Control: War and Peace

Yesterday was one of those horrible/ wonderful days in the life of a working writer. For the last week I had been struggling with organizing Part One of my project and plotting out Part Two, and after six days I felt like a mountaineer who had spent all that time climbing to the top of a ridge, only to look down and realize that I was actually on the top of Crapbucket Mountain, and the view was more crap, and I was really only a foot or so off the ground, and not a mile or more. But, for various reasons (most of which are unfit to print in a blog written for the sane and well-adjusted) I kept on going, and a series of revelations Monday and Tuesday helped put me back on track. Monday evening, I realized that I didn’t know the answer to the question “What happens if they fail?” Every author should be able to answer that, I think, and I think I’ve been guilty of not answering that in the past. Today looks to be a good day of inserting a few pages in Part One that answer that question, and moving on with Part Two. If you come back here Friday and my post is written backwards in crayon, that means I failed.

The other thing, perhaps the main thing I’m going to talk about today, is my reading. Bookshelf Fantasies hosts a weekly discussion called Shelf Control, and as someone who really only has shelf control because he travels with his family for the better part of the year, I highly recommend it. I’m kind of cheating, though. Instead of writing about a book I own, haven’t read, and want to read, I’m going to write about a book that I own, started reading, stopped reading, and now want to pick back up and finally finish. That book is War and Peace.

warandpeacemaudeThis is my second-and-a-half time attempting to read this. I’ve read much longer books before (Remembrance of Things Past, Joseph and His Brothers) and I’ve read nearly everything by Dostoevsky, so I’m determined to make it through this one. And it’s not a question of the writing being difficult of boring… I can’t speak for the Russian original or other translations but this is remarkably clear and concise writing. But, a few weeks after I started this, we moved to our winter digs in Florida, and I started writing a novel, and I got distracted by another book I’m reading, and I set this down somewhere in the middle of Part Five, in the ‘Peace’ section. (There are a couple. The book should probably be titled “War and Peace and War and then More Peace, but WAIT! There’s WAR!!!” but I can imagine that Tolstoy’s editor wouldn’t have liked it. Today, and every day til the end of the year, I’m picking it back up, finding out how everyone deals with the uneasy peace of failure and impending war and invasion, and getting this off my list.

If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend the book. Some parts are a little simplistic, some parts are predictable (and not just because we know who wins) but the characters are very accessible and it’s still fun, for some reason, to watch them do the worst possible thing they can do, and then deal with the repercussions they KNEW were probably going to happen anyway. Tolstoy also does a very good job of describing PTSD and battle shock, and if you’ve ever served in the military, or know someone who has, you’ll relate to what he says. It may be a famous classic work of literature, but it’s also famous and classic for a good reason.

That’s my post for today. It’s time to dive back in the trench and fire away at this thing until I either have good copy or I pass out from a tea overdose. I’ll be back Friday with a book review and more news from the front. Stay safe.

What I’m Reading: The Tortured Wraiths of Ganymede

Found on Imgur. If you know who created this, PLEASE LET ME KNOW, IT'S AMAZING!It’s been a long two weeks, but in addition to packing, working (including one road show in Alabama), and having Mr BiPolar show up unannounced a few days ago and raid my internal medicine cabinet for all of my Serotonin, I managed to plod ahead on my Midwest Gothic writing project. I also finished a book, abandoned one (probably for good, though I’m willing to listen to advice from people who’ve read it),  and started two more. I’ve been a busy little sushi roll.  But, today is Book Date Day, so here is my weekly list of what’s on my reading table. 

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First off, I finished one of the books I last blogged about and immediately charged into Book Two of The Expanse, Caliban’s War. Even with work this past weekend, I now find myself some 350 pages into it, and will probably be done soon. Current verdict:  Well, at first, I thought it was less “Vol. 2” and more “Ver. 2.0” but it’s since differentiated itself a little more. Plus, the characters I already knew are becoming a little deeper and the new characters fit in very nicely. I’ll have a full review soon. For now, based on the first book-and-a-half of this series, I’ll just say that if you haven’t read this yet, that’s a problem, and you should fix that.

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I’ve been doing a lot of writing and especially writing about my writing lately, as this book has completely taken over my Muse, and she will constantly chatter about nothing else. When I’m writing something, I’m always looking for parallels in my life or in other things I’ve read, and one of them jumped up and bit me while I was hanging out in a flea market this Saturday. Fortunately, I wasn’t actually dealing with a customer when it did; crazy vendors jumping up and down swatting at their thigh because an idea bit them in the bottom is a good way to lose sales.

I’ve already settled on an unreliable narrator, and I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to decide what “N” covers up or omits or implies or downright lies about. But there’s another level to the concept of the Unreliable Narrator, and that’s the one who doesn’t know he or she is unreliable. A lot of stories written from a child’s point of view (such as the creepy “Dress of White Silk,” found in this anthology by Richard Matheson, among other places) use this technique, and if it’s used well, it can have a profound effect on a reader, especially during a reread. And after I thought of that, my mind jumped over to Severian the Torturer, perhaps the king of unreliable narrators. He lives in The Book of the New Sun, a creepy, dramatic, surreal work of fantasy/ dying world science fiction, and between the stuff he omits, the stuff he lies about, and the stuff that he simply isn’t prepared to understand, a good careful reader can spend months or even years teasing apart the layers and treasures hidden within. I finally finished all four books last summer (it’s not a tetrology so much as it’s a book published in four short novel chunks) and nothing seems more enjoyable right now than reading it again, and seeing if I can add a little more color to my Midwest Gothic story. And if I can’t, well, it’s a great book anyway.

Mistwraith

So that brings me to The Curse of the Mistwraith. This book is one of the many proofs of my hypothesis that I should always try a book twice, a story I talked about two weeks ago. It’s been three days since I binge-read the last 300 pages, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. The first half (well, everything up to the chapter entitled “CONQUEST”) still felt overwritten, and even though I’d read a little more than 200 pages my first time through, it still felt like a slog in parts. Then I got to the  second half, and I realized that everything Ms Wurts was setting up in the first part needed to be there. In fact, it would have been really nice if there had been even more there. She has a great command of drama and tension, and uses the occasional “spoiler” as a way of making the reader even more concerned about whether what will happen at the end is what an unnamed narrator or untrustworthy character stated will happen. And that battle scene… well, not since Malazan have I had a flashback that intense. The Wikipedia page for the book says that she was inspired to write the book, or at least that battle, by the Battle of Culloden, and a desire to show pre-modern warfare without any of the heroic romantic trappings, and by the great Beard of Odin does she succeed.

Rating: Four Stars. I loved this book, but I’m also more than curious about where the series goes from here. There is a lot to process in the beginning, and a lot to put together in the end. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, you will be rewarded. Bonus: It’s nearly a stand-alone book, so if you don’t want to go on to the others, you don’t have to. I’m most definitely going to, though.

Next up:  I’m not sure. I’ll be reading The Book of the New Sun for a month, since my rereading habits have me just reading it at three chapters a day and taking notes. On my shelf I have Buddenbrooks, which will be my third Thomas Mann book (sixth if you count the four novels in Joseph and his Brothers) and an Enlightenment-era mystery that the free library had, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Plus, I have the next books in The Expanse and the Mistwraith series (properly, The Wars of Light and Shadow). And I have an audiobook of War and Peace, plus a lot of knitting to do while listening to the only major Tolstoy work I’ve not yet read. And, I’ve been craving novellas again, so I’ll have to work one or three in. Recommendations and/ or advice is more than more than welcome.

EDITED TO ADD:  I’m abandoning Of Human Bondage, unless someone can give me a damn good reason to proceed past the first half of the book. I consider Mr Maugham to be one of the masters of the English Short Story, and I think I would rather read the rest of the stories I haven’t gotten to. The first two hundred pages was gorgeous and reminded me a lot of my own childhood as a ‘too-clever boy’ who found himself surpassed by the boys who weren’t as smart but actually worked for what they learned, but from the hero’s trip to Heidelburg and thereafter, it descended into a fit of blahs. The writing itself is wonderful but the story is tedious.

“But That’s Not How it Was in the Movie!”

There are a billion and seven articles and posts on the InterWebs about the myriad ways that movies get the book wrong. And while I may be on record with my attestation that they never filmed a version of The Neverending Story, rather, they pissed all over the ending of the film and then turned, faced the screen, and said “This is Hollywood, kids,” I’m not going to add to the circle-jerk and back-slapping of readers complementing themselves on reading and laughing at the poor benighted losers who weren’t blessed with the story in its original form. Not right now, at least.Plus, while there are readers who can defend their argument, many people haven’t been able to tell me why they liked the movie better, without just saying “Well, the director imagined something differently; I totally pictured John Smith in a blue coat and in the movie, he’s wearing green.” Or they have little knowledge of the requirements of drama, and refuse to acknowledge that movies sometimes have to change things in order to be an effective dramatization of the story.

Which brings us to my brand-new mostly-regular feature where I talk about those instances where the movie either was better than the book, or at least got a few things very right. I welcome suggestions, of course, and even arguments. I’m more of a reader and writer than I am a movie junkie, but I have studied film on my own ever since the days when I’d watch Sneak Previews with my Dad in the late 70s, and even more so once I had the ability to stream movies.

Case in point today:  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone vs Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (Yes, that’s the English title and not the American one; that’s what JK Rowling named the book, and that’s what I’m going to call it.) I’m a huge fan of the books, as entertainment and as literature, and I think I’m not alone in saying that the series really took off when the third book was released. (I also might be biased because that was when I started reading the series.) Really, though… the first two are fun romps in a magical world, but the third is when the dark themes that dominate the last few books first start to show up. So, when Alfonso Cuarón’s film of Azkaban came out, I was a little nervous, mostly because of what they’d done to the first one.

On the surface, the first movie is a perfect adaptation. Perhaps Hermione and Snape look a little different than how they’re described, but I’m a firm believer that a good actor can create any role, and both actors acted perfect for the parts they played.  But otherwise, the movie felt a little off to me. It wasn’t until I watched it a second time that I realized what it was. They’d included nearly everything that was in the book (well, everything except one of the puzzles at the end and a few bits of dialogue here and there), and as a result, the film felt rushed and overloaded. The book had a good story but it was also a fun school-year exploring a strange and different world. The movie felt like an hour-long tour of a college campus, with some person giving you twenty minutes of information in less than five and then pushing you along to the next stop.

Azkaban, though, was actually adapted to film, rather than just translated, and as a result, it works so much better. There is a long list of the things they left out or changed for the movie, but none of them (with one minor exception) goes against the spirit of the story. So he’s restricted to The Leaky Cauldron, or the class lessons are a little different. Everything that is changed still works with the story, and acts as shorthand for a lot of things they had to leave out. And even the minor bit of Harry practicing magic at the Dursley’s House makes sense, as it shows him longing so badly to go back to his magical world that he’s willing to actually study, something he’s not known for doing back at Hogwarts. (True, that should have brought a warning from the Ministry of Magic, but, well, I don’t know. Maybe they were busy looking for Sirius Black or something.)

Next week, I’ll bring up some horror films that are more frightening on the screen than they were on the page,  sometimes even for someone who had read the book.

* Though, if The Neverending Story ever comes up in conversation, I just might. Or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I can deal with movies changing things from the book for the sake of drama, and adapting to a different media. Neither of those movies were changed for those reasons.

Slack-Off Saturday: Book and Soup Weather

To be fair, it’s always book weather. But even though I’m in Georgia, the temperature took a dive to 10°C and the wind picked up, and my dutch oven and stew pots are both calling to me from the kitchen. Even the cat decided she didn’t want to hang outside, though perhaps she’s just interested in what I’m going to cook. At any rate, it’s time to make sure my bookshelves and my freezer are both stocked with things to get me through the next few months.

Finished:  Jim Harrison, The River Swimmer

I rated this 4/5 because there wasn’t a 3.5/5 button and I liked his past work enough to round up. Jim Harrison is one of my favourite authors, and one of my influences… he seems to take the stripped down-storytelling style of Hemmingway and infuse his language with more meaning and unpretentious symbolism than most other modern American authors. I’ve only read four of his books so far (though I’ve read Legends of the Fall twice) and I always feel a peculiar rush of adrenaline when I pick up another of his books. Up until now, I’ve never felt disappointed by anything he’s written.

The first novella, “The Land of Unlikeness,” is perhaps one of the best stories I’ve ever read about coming to a turning point in one’s life… a ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment, where you know without a doubt that you can’t go back to what you want, and you can either keep spinning your gears in neutral and survive, or you can find another pathway ahead. The plot is fairly gentle, the characters are sharp and realistic, and the voice allows Mr Harrison to say quite a few things about art and nature and memory without being overly intrusive. I’ve already read this novella one-and-a-half times, and I will most likely take it out of the library again in a few months, or buy my own copy of it. If I ever move back to my Michigan homeland, it will be in part because of his writing.

The reason I read this a half-time again was because the titular novella was just not worth being in the same book. I am a fan of magical realism (it’s one of my two favourite fantasy genres), yet, I don’t know if he just doesn’t have much practice in it, or was going for a surreal dreamlike effect, or something that completely sailed over my head. Because of the strength of his poetry and his writing, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, in this story (which is thankfully the shorter of the two) his characters generate no sympathy, the plot is barely even present enough for it to be called a picaresque tale, and the imagery clunks and clatters on the page like a fake petoskey stone. I only rated the story 2/5 because I finished it, and I really only finished it because I liked the first one so much, and because I wanted to mark the book off as ‘read’ in my challenge to read 60 books this year. If anyone reading this review liked “The River Swimmer,” please, please comment and tell me what I missed.

Recommendation: Read “The Land of Unlikeness.” Then read it again and tell yourself you finished the book. Then go pick up Legends of the Fall (the other two novellas in that book are equally good) or one of his poetry collections.

Cross-posted in “The Saturday Review of Books” at Semicolon.

In Progress: 

I’ll have more to say about Return of the Crimson Guard (Ian Cameron Esslemont) by the end of next week. At this point in my journey through the world of the Malazan Empire (six of ten books in the main cycle, two of six in second series) I always feel a strong sense of homecoming and nostalgia when I wade back in. This (at least The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the ten-book series by Steven Erikson) is shaping up to be my favourite fantasy series, and reading another author’s take on the same world, especially an author who helped create the world, is just as amazing. It would be like if Emily and Charlotte Brontë wrote novellas set in each other’s books. (And that would mean the existence of something set in the moors of Wuthering Heights that isn’t a pile of poorly-written dogcrap, but that’s another story.) I’m halfway through this new book and I’ve gotten used to the new writing style and am definitely enjoying seeing familiar characters from a different angle. More next week.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools is a book I’ve heard of for years and years, probably since high school, when our class read the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” We’ve all read books where, after we finish them, we just want to go up to people, tie them down to a chair (preferably a comfortable one with good lighting) and force them to read it. I’m just past the first section and everyone’s on the ship and I feel like I already know all of these characters. I can’t rightly recommend it to other readers until I’m finished, but I’m already feeling that urge to make sure everyone has the chance to experience this.

What’s everyone else reading today? Send me your recommendations.

 

 

 

Be a Book Friend

Today’s post isn’t about writing, or what I’m reading (Return of the Crimson Guard, Alif the Invisible, and I just started Ship of Fools). I have another flash piece coming out in the morning, too. But my life isn’t all books and reading and writing about books and reading. Tuesday, I went to the inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Ponce de Leon (Atlanta) Branch Library.

I’ve never actually been part of a Friends of the Library organization. though I’ve run the libraries on two of my ships, and worked with a couple of literacy programs. The idea, though, fascinates me, and I highly recommend everyone reading this to go check out your own library’s programs.

I’ve tagged this post “Banned Books Week” because I really wish I’d posted this last back then. It’s one thing to talk about saving a book that people are trying to ban, restrict, or otherwise make unavailable. But what about the vast majority of books that aren’t banned? Millions of them, literally, are pulped every year, and not just because they’re falling apart, or because they’re unneeded copies of books that no longer have the demand they once did; library branches close, or they can’t afford new space, or many other reasons. On top of that, while worldwide literacy (let alone US literacy) is at its highest level ever, that  does not mean everyone is book-literate, or computer-literate. Every library I’ve been to, especially city libraries, has programs to address just these issues, but people who care about books and about reading have to do something about it.

After all, the best way to get rid of something is to simply not care about it.

 

Sunday Thoughts: Three Questions

What do cats think about when they wake up in the morning? More importantly, what do they think we think about? I have a story coming out in a few days that will offer my answer, but I really want to know what the rest of you think.

What’s the best long book you’ve read? What’s your favourite? Remembrance of Things Past is always toward the top of any list I make, though The Lord of the Rings and Ulysses are up there as well.

What’s the best short book you’ve read? Something that is too long to be a story, but short enough to be read in a day or two? I’m a fan of Passing by Nella Larsen, Call Me Joe (most likely the uncredited inspiration for Avatar) by Poul Anderson, and The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet by Stephen King. Oh, and The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a damn creepy story in its own right, but if you’re a long distance hiker like I am, it has a few special bad places set aside just for you.

Have an awesome weekend, everyone. If you’ve done anything bookish this weekend, from reading something amazing to talking to other writers to just getting purposely lost in a library, leave a comment. I would love to hear it.

Slack-Off Saturday: Banned Books Month

I’m spending this morning working on two stories, an old one that needs revision and a new ending, and a new one that I think might have started out as an homage to 1950s-era creature features before making a left turn somewhere in the Inland Empire and downhill to Innsmouth, perhaps. Both stories are frustrating me, but I feel pushed to finish them as well. Rarely has my Muse been so insistent that I finish something. Usually she figures that her job is to just tell me the stories; it’s up to me and the squad of Editorial Elves that live in the basement of my head to turn it into something people might want to read. This time, however, she is bound and determined to make sure I type “THE END” on these things, and in a good location, too… I’m not allowed to get away with just slapping an ending on after the main plot thread is resolved. In fact, that’s the problem she had with the story I’m revising, and I believe she is holding all of the rest of my ideas hostage until I finish it.

However, this isn’t fiction, so I can get away with typing it. This is yet another rant about Banned Books Week here in the US, which starts tomorrow. Or, as I’d like to call it, Spoiled Readers Equating Mild Inconvenience With Censorship and Fascism.

First of all, let me be clear that I think nearly any kind of censorship by any government is bad. Yes, I’m sure the contrarians among us can find edge cases where censorship is justified; works that specifically and purposesly incite violence against a person or group are one such case, stolen nude pictures of celebrities would be another. But by and large, governments have better things to do than block private consenting individuals from reading what they want to read. Parents and private companies censoring things? I don’t like it, but I also don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to intrude, either. And regardless of who or what is doing the censorship, it would seem that unless your control is complete and absolute (and in the USA, and thanks to Internet disemination, TOR browsers, WayBack machines, and vast caches of deleted material, it rarely is) the only thing an act of censorship will do is drive up demand for whatever is considered naughty. I think I’ve read two or three Playboy magazines since turning 18, and yes, I mean I really did read them, unlike the way I, err, perused them when I was 12 or 13. And the first time I tracked down a supposedly dirty book, I was bored with the blandness of it. (Then again, I started reading Stephen King when I was almost 12, so by the time I was in my late teens, I’d pretty much read it all, from canine-induced castration to sewer orgies.)

I do like how Banned Books Week calls attention to books that school districts have seen fit to remove either from their libraries or their reading lists, since it provides a window into what kids are reading, what adults are writing for them, and what scares their parents and teachers. And, well, those of us who remember their childhood… actually remember it and haven’t just painted a pleasant mural and plastered over the bad things… when we were in Junior High and High School, we all knew at least something about how people looked, how things worked, what drugs were, what abuse was, and how sexual and personal politics and bullying worked. We also all knew that it was hard to talk about it. Finding out that the adults allegedly in charge not only didn’t want us talking about it, they didn’t want other adults talking to us about it, lest we get ‘ideas’ or some such waffling and weak excuse, just made it that much harder to acknowledge or escape a bad situation. Indeed, at least one person I know had no idea she was being abused until she had a grade-school sex education class, and I’d be very surprised if her story is unique.

However, I still draw the line at calling what we do in this country ‘banning books.’ The books are still available. No one is getting jailed or killed because he has a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or Deenie. Police aren’t entering homes looking for copies of Ulysses. For that matter, when the people behind the publication of Ulysses wanted to force a court case in order to challenge its ban, they had to point out the book to the customs officer and insist he confiscate it. Even in the early 1980s in my tiny one-square-mile-town of Vernon, Michigan, we were able to find books if we really wanted them. And now, with more libraries than McDonalds in the US, and with many diverse sources of Internet distribution, it’s silly to say that a book is ever ‘banned’ in the US. It’s akin to a five-year old scraping his knee in the driveway and then screaming that his leg was chopped off. And one further note to school administrators:  kids and teens know about the Internet. If there’s a library in their town, or if they have a friend with Internet access (or if they have it) they are most likely going to find whatever you ban. Sorry to have to break it to you this way. It’s hard to plug a hole in a chain link fence.

Do your part to fight the removal of books from school and public libraries. If you have children, talk to them about what they read. That’s what my parents did. They only once told me that I wasn’t ready to read something yet but they also took their time to explain why, and I took their word for it. (Yes, this was before the hormonal shitstorm that was my combined experience of incipient bipolar disorder and puberty hit; I was able to talk rationally once in a while.) With other books and shows, they would explain what they didn’t like about it, or what they did like. That’s the absolute least you can do for your children, really. The same directive goes for librarians and teachers and administrators. Don’t ban the books. If you think it’s a piece of sensationalist sexist racist trash, explain why you think that and let people decide for themselves. And please, please, PLEASE stop calling the mild inconvenience of people living in the age of greatest literacy, intelligence, and information distribution ‘banning,’ or ‘fascism.’ You do nothing but show your unawareness of what the rest of the world is up to when you do that.

For my part, I’ve decided how I’m going to spend the rest of Banned Books Week. Every day I’m going to highlight (and in at least two of the cases, review) a book that was really and truly banned… meaning, people went to jail or died for publishing, diseminating, or reading this book. This is my effort to show that we really and truly are spoiled here in the US when so many cheap or free books are to be had virtually anywhere. Also, I hope to point out, as citizens of the world, that there is still work for us to do when it comes to setting information free. Comments are of course more than welcome.

Have a great week!

 

The Art of Quotation: Edith Hamilton

This awesome woman, and the D’Aulaires, are what really inculcated my love of mythology. (Though, I did have to relearn a lot of things that I learned in the D’Aulaires book… I remember being shocked when I found out that Greek Civilization expanded up into the Balkans, the Black Sea, and a good part of Asia Minor, and we won’t even talk about the mental rewiring I went through when I learned about Magna Grecia. But that’s another story, perhaps for my own books.)

“Great art is the expression of a solution of the conflict between the demands of the world without and that within.” – Edith Hamilton, author

 

N.V. Binder: The Public Library as University

I keep trying to log off and get some more reading done tonight, and then I keep running into interesting articles like this. Read this. Live it. The only thing I’ll add is that I made a resolution over two years ago to check my library for any book I want to read first, and then look for a personal copy of it. There are exceptions, of course… at least one of my current series saw me check out the first book, return it, and then buy the rest because I knew I was going to want to read them all, multiple times. Still, I might be spoiled by the excellent library system in Fulton County, it’s rare that I have to go outside the library to find something, especially a reference.

The Public Library as University