Bibliodyssey: August

So, considerably sooner than my updates for June and July, here is my update for August.

August also included mad commuting and travelling, but with the added excitement of coming down with the flu, so my reading output fluctuated between ‘read a million pages, I’m bored’, ‘too busy to breathe’ and ‘so tired I can’t even focus on the pages’.

Read: Fleabag and the Ring Fire, The Eye of the World*, The Great Hunt*, The Dragon Reborn*, three volumes of the manga/manhwa One Thousand and One Nights and I began part one of the three-volume full version of the Tales from the Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights.

August

Fleabag and the Ring Fire, by Beth Webb, is a book that I have begun reading many times, but as I don’t own it, I’ve never quite got to the end. While working on a writing course with Beth in early August, I found a copy in a box of her books and devoured it during my lunch breaks. It was wonderful – a fantasy quest that contains plenty of common sense (something that I find lacking from far too much modern fantasy). Fleabag himself – a sharp-tempered, three-legged black cat – has become one of my favourite characters of all time. I can’t wait for my reading list to diminish so that I can get on to the sequels.

On a whim in Cathays Library one day I flicked through the three volumes of a manwha (the Korean equivalent of manga) adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights, because I was waiting for my copy of the originals to be delivered from Amazon (more on that story later). It was a version where a young man dressed himself up as a virgin girl in order to take his sister’s place in the sultan’s harem, and ended up telling stories to save his own life. There was considerably more focus on the plot of the sultan/Sehara than the stories, though, and on the relationships between the characters, loyalties and romances breaking out all over the place. It was very much in the genre of manwha, which I thought was a shame, because it lost some of the power of the originals, but it wasn’t a bad read.

I also re-read the first three books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. I took The Eye of the World with me on my bus journeys to and from Edinburgh, reasoning that I wouldn’t need to pay as much attention to a book I already know and so it would help pass the time faster. (It did.) What struck me was that even though Jordan’s style of writing becomes more sophisticated over the course of the story, his intimate knowledge of his fictional ontology showed through even in the opening pages of the book. He clearly knew the world in which he was working, and it is a huge strength of his writing that his world is so convincing. That kind of logic is something I really enjoy when I find it, especially in fantasy writing (see my rant on David Eddings below for many other things I dislike in modern fantasy). After reading The Eye of the World I worked my way through The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn, both of which I enjoyed immensely, not least because I could see where the series was going to go.

I have to confess, though, that I ended up skipping a lot of the chapters with Rand, because he’s not so exciting once you know what’s happening to him. Perrin, though, Perrin, he remains my favourite favourite character – again, common sense! And logic! And he’s so lovely! I love a thoughtful fantasy hero.

My final book for August, which I haven’t finished, and probably won’t for some time, is the first volume of a three-part full translation of all 1001 tales of The Arabian Nights. I prefer calling them The Thousand and One Nights, actually, because The Arabian Nights sounds terribly post-colonial inside my head. Maybe that’s just me. I’m up to about Night 28, dipping in and out of them, and they are magnificent. I have a children’s version of the most famous tales of Scheherezade, and I always loved her, from when I was very young, because she was clever and a girl and she told amazing stories and out-witted the sultan. Then I realised earlier this year that I must only have a vague impression of the text, because 1001 nights is 1001 stories, and decided that I wanted to know them better. There’s far too much for me to comment on for me to do any justice to them here, but they are interesting, absorbing, poetic tales that reveal a great deal about medieval Islamic culture. I’m doing a lot of thinking while reading them, which is good for the brains, and I’m enjoying them very much.

Right. That brings me about up to date with the bibliodyssey. Now I need to get over this flu, get some more reading done and have something to talk about for September.

Bibliodyssey: Belated Update for July

July and August were the months when my summer was most chaotic, because I was temping in Stratford most weeks, in Cardiff for the not-quite-weekends and then one week I was working down in Somerset and another I was off up to Edinburgh. Regardless, reading was done, but I haven’t kept a very good record of what I read when, so I’m going to arbitrarily divide my list into halves so that my post isn’t ridiculously long, and promise to take better notes in future.

Read: American Gods*, The Magic in the Pool of Making, The Silver Wolf*, Thud*, Lords and Ladies*, The Hobbit*. I also started The Fellowship of the Ring, but then I left it behind when I came back to Cardiff, because I didn’t have room to bring all three books and dividing up the volumes would be asking for trouble.

I’m sure I read more, but I can’t for the life of me think what it was, so I’ll start with what I’ve got. And I think I’m going to start marking re-reads with stars, just for the sake of keeping record.

July

While I was temping, I worked in a call centre, and luckily for me I worked the weekends when we were allowed to read at our desks. I worked out pretty early on, though, that it was best to read material that you could drop into and out of, which explains the majority of the re-reads on this list.

Terry Pratchett’s Thud and Lords and Ladies helped me to survive many hours of paid boredom on the phones – both beautifully constructed, witty, knowing and hysterically funny. If you haven’t read Pratchett yet, stop being lazy and/or a snob and get on with it. And if you tell me that you don’t want to ‘because they’re fantasy’, I don’t even need to go to the effort of criticising you, because you’ve damned yourself with your pure ignorance out of your own mouth and all I need to do is relax in the knowledge that I have delicious satirical Pratchett books and you do not.

I’m feisty today. Deal with it. You should see my power hair, it’s incredible.

Another re-read that you should get on to reading if you haven’t read it already is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It is everything that I have ever wanted from a book, and more, because it is so long yet unwinds like the most perfect of clockworks. It is a tour de force of thought, social commentary and mythology, and its rhetoric is something that amazes me every time and is probably going to wangle its way into my MA dissertation, because some of the things Gaiman does are so subtle and so unusual. It’s also a cracking good story. And every time I re-read it the image of Charles Dance as Wednesday gets stronger.

The Hobbit I re-read after realising that the last time I read it I was considerably shorter and less sophisticated than I am now (that is to say, a child, I don’t mean when I didn’t have my heels on last week) and after a long conversation on the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (I’m a compulsive caster. I love casting people inside my head. And sometimes in actual productions, too. You know, when I can). And I loved every word of it, again, probably even more than I did when I was a kid. I was also privileged to record a few chapters as part of a personal audiobook project for a friend of mine, and it was so much fun to read out loud. It translates beautifully to speech.

The last re-read on my list is The Silver Wolf, by Alice Borchardt – a book with something of a history among my friends, simply because we either had three copies or one that was passed around, and somehow all of them/it mysteriously disappeared, and none of us are in the habit of misplacing books. I located another copy years later, lent it to a friend, promptly did not see it for a few years until its triumphant return this summer. I had a lot of thoughts while reading The Silver Wolf, the main one of which is ‘But it had so much potential!’. It does have a lot of potential, and some really lovely ideas, but I felt like the book I was holding in my hands was still a second draft. I found myself wishing I’d got my hands on it to do an edit job before it had gone to print, because some poor delivery, a few obvious tropes and a little clunky writing brought down a story that has fantastic concepts, memorable characters and a great attitude. (There will probably be more of this on my Edits blog at a future time. If/when it comes up, I will link it here.)

An impulse-but-more-compulse buy that I am delighted to have on this list is The Magic in the Pool of Making, by Beth Webb. You may or may not know that Beth, author of many books for children and young adults, has been my mentor and great friend since I was but a little brat, and I have worked with her on writing courses for some time now. (Another book of hers, Wave Hunter, has just come out and is sitting looking at me demanding to be read. It is on the September List.)

Anyway, I saw The Magic in the Pool of Making in a charity shop around the corner from my house and realised that I hadn’t actually read it, so I promptly purchased and perused, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a compelling story that contains a complex and unpatronising meditation on value, race, society and ethics, and I read it three times in two days, I enjoyed it so much.

Anyway. That is my summary for July. It’s time to boil the kettle and dig up the notes for August.

Bibliodyssey: Belated Update for June

So I have had a slightly busy and chaotic summer, temping in Warwickshire, teaching in Somerset and spending my weekends in Cardiff. So though I did get some reading done, it wasn’t as much as I would have liked, and I certainly didn’t get the chance to update. I’m going to get my updates out of the way now, though, before the new year and new degree. And I’m going to try keeping on top of things, because I know I’ve forgotten to write down some of the books I read, and it is bugging me like hell that I can’t remember what they are.

Because I was so busy, I also relaxed my stance on re-reads. I was intending to avoid the comfort of re-reads, but in the end, what with travelling around and tiredness, I ended up picking them up anyway. I did, however, manage to start a project I’ve been meaning to work through for some time, but more on that later.

June

Read: the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Medea, The Demon’s Surrender, E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Good Omens and The Duchess of Malfi

June was a good month. I did start as I meant to go on: I re-read Anna Akhmatova‘s work and was once again spellbound by their power and their simplicity. Their quiet, cutting force is just breathtaking. ‘And the miraculous comes so close / to the ruined, dirty houses – / something not known to anyone at all, / but wild in our breast for centuries.’ Her words are inspirational.

James Morwood’s translation of Euripides’ Medea was very interesting, because it helped to crystallise some thoughts I had been having on the fallacy of pointing out universalisations in gender roles, and how interesting it is that something can be simultaneously so tied to the Athenian world-model and so powerful and resonant today. There were jarring aspects of his translation, however, a few peculiar phrases and surprising modern colloquialisms that threw the feelings of a couple of scenes off-kilter, but overall I enjoyed it very much.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Surrender was a subtle, satisfying, heartbreaking and heartwarming conclusion to a trilogy in which I have been invested for a number of years. I’ve followed her blog since she was a parodist of renown in fandom, and it feels like a very personal kind of triumph to see her complete her first trilogy with such satisfaction. I loved and completely approved of her change of perspective – it was so satisfying to see an author so comfortable with having her characters misunderstand things and to get them wrong. It was also fantastic to see some of the central relationships viewed from the point of view of an outsider, to be torturing yourself going “Oh but I’m sure she misunderstood that! Could that mean this? Does it mean this?” I enjoyed it thoroughly.

E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel was a book that I half-read in my first year of university, because though I thought it was absolutely brilliant, I only got halfway through before I promptly had to read a million other books. So I decided that at the end of my degree – bearing in mind the half of the book that I read hugely influenced my thinking – was high time to finish it. I read it twice on holiday in Portugal, and I absolutely loved it, and berated myself for not finishing it sooner. It was brilliant – incisive, decisive, critical and fascinating. A must for anybody who even thinks that they like books, whether writing, reading or criticising them.

I re-read Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, too, and it is and always will be a hot contender for my favourite book. It’s just so full of things that I love: irreverence, mythology, satire, warmth, wit and ideological conflict. A magnificent book.

And I also re-read, several times, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, because I want to cut it and direct my own version, and also because it is the play that is performed in the screenplay I’m currently working on. It is one of my favourite plays, and its power and politics and subtleties are just wonderful. I have always loved Renaissance drama, and this is one of the best. Rich, complex, unstable and compelling, the characters have sat in my head since I first read it. It’s an incredible text, and I can’t wait to cut it and do my own version.

I think that’s my summary for June. I’m going to try doing this a book at a time, so that I can do them justice. I have notes for my August reading but not July, so I may lump them in together and take care of that one next – hopefully later today or tomorrow.

Travelling Tales: Sunshine and Sushi (Ann Arbor, Day 2)

This morning, Anne and I got up early and visited a farmers’ market on her way to work! We ambled around admiring the local produce (and munched on locally-grown apples) but I did not succeed in my quest for maple syrup – the only syrup we could find was in glass bottles and they were too heavy to carry in my baggage (plus if they broke I’d get maple syrup all over my clothes). I guess I’ll just have to buy it in a shop. Or should I say a store?

Anyway, Anne had to go in to her office for a few hours to do Science, so I spent a happy while flicking through books in borders, purchasing a couple and then grabbing some lunch to eat in the sunshine in front of some Uni Michigan buildings. I wandered around town a lot, too, because it was a glorious afternoon and nice to be exploring. I took shots of the two fairy doors I passed, too:

This is to put it in perspective, and also because there’s a tiny little window on the wall inside the shop, which I thought was extremely cute:

And this one is outside The Ark, which is a music venue! It’s a perfect copy of the bigger doors. Note the tiny ticket window over there under the shop window!

After my wandering adventures, I met Anne for coffee before she had to go off to a talk, and I came back to hers to chill out for an hour or so before we headed out for dinner!

Dinner involved some EXCELLENT sushi – one of the types we ordered was smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado, which was amazing, as was the chicken teriyaki.

And then Anne and I went to rummage and frolick in the vintage shop next door, which involved a lot of hilarity, and the trying on of clothes that absolutely didn’t fit.

We wandered home via photo opportunities on the steps of a big new U of M building and outside a very nice fountain, and Anne introduced me to ‘band of brothers’, a TV show about which I have heard much and it has been on my to-watch list for a very long time, so it was good to finally see it! We only had time for the pilot episode, but it was still amazing, and beautifully filmed. Anne tells me that they located actual WWII planes for some of the filming. The direction and the attention to detail is absolutely beautiful, but I know I’ll probably appreciate it more when I know all the characters (and can recognise them even when their faces are covered in mud!), so I guess I’ll just have to re-watch it! It was great to watch with someone who knows it so well, though, to explain things I didn’t quite get the first time! Plus, Damian Lewis. AMAZING.

So tomorrow I’m heading back to the my family to spend the weekend with them, so I guess I’d better get some sleep! I’ve had a super day, it’s been lovely to hang out with Anne and enjoy some fabulous Michigan weather. I think it’s meant to rain a little tomorrow, and then clear up over the weekend, so I hope the weatherman’s got it right. That’s it for today, then! Time I got ready for bed!

Losing the Plot: A Discovery of Drafting

So I’m trying to write a book. I’ve been, in one way or another, ‘trying to write a book’ since I was about five years old, except for the one I wrote when I was six (which was a Thomas the Tank Engine story) and the one I wrote when I was twelve (which was pretty much a patchwork of the kind of predictable fantasy stories that I liked when I was twelve, but still, I suppose 62 000 words, even if they are largely very silly and predictable words, isn’t bad for a Year 7) and have since disowned and hidden in a drawer, as I have done with pretty much all of my writing before the age of 15 because it was around 15 that I stopped being earnest and started being analytical and also angry.

Anyway. I find the process of writing both very hard and very easy, which is also how I tend to describe playing the violin – it’s something I started to do at a young age pretty much by accident, but it took me a long time to work out my method. I realised recently that playing the violin is, for me, simple and difficult: you put your fingers down in the right place to make the right sound. Easy. What took work was practising how to do it until I was playing music, not just squawking. And then it’s a case of getting better, and learning all of the things that make music lovely, and not just functional.

I’m wondering now why it took me so long to realise that writing is exactly the same. There’s a trick to it, and the trick is that you have to practise.

Also, having the talent doesn’t mean you’re going to be good straight away. You have to learn how to work at it. I took a long time working out how to work at something (if I’m completely honest, I’m still working out how to properly work at writing: I’ll let you know when I work it out). It can be a very slow process.

What’s slowest for me is my plots. They tend to start off with an idea – often a character springs up, or a situation. And then I try formulating it into a story, and it germinates for a little while, and then kaboom! Six billion little wiggly threads that all might go somewhere, or nowhere, but they won’t be going anywhere unless I think about them, and that’s a lot to think about. And it can take such a frustratingly long time to work through it.

If I’m completely honest, I think my plot problems are my biggest barrier in writing: because I don’t know what the story is going to be, I lose all confidence in writing, because I don’t want to write something and for it to feel written if I’m then going to have to go back and change it.

Today, though, I had a realisation. It was this: working on the plot is all very well, but if I’m not writing it, the story’s not going anywhere. It’s still just sitting there in my head, dry ingredients of ideas. When I actually mix them up and put them on the page, they might solve themselves. And they might not. If they do, that’s great – if not, then I will have to do some serious background work.

I’ve been doing a lot of background work for Passion recently – working out a little local history, some family relationships and political ties. And while I was doing it, I realised that what I was doing was essentially building scaffolding around a wall that wasn’t built yet. Now, I personally dislike stories that don’t seem to understand the world they operate in, or that clearly make up or alter the world in order to submit to the tyranny of the plot (see ‘Eddings and editing established reality’ below); I’m not a big fan of making things up as I go along. I like my stories to be coherent, I like worlds that are plausible and interesting. But all of that can have very little to do with the initial writing. As E. M. Forster had it in Aspects of the Novel, ‘a story can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next’. The story doesn’t care about background or what happened to the government of that world twenty years before the plot of the novel unless it’s directly relevant to that plot – and at the initial writing, the rough carving of the sculpture, it’s not necessary to know.

My epiphany, you see, was, very simply, about the power and the point of the first draft. I realised that it was ridiculous to be reluctant to write because my first draft wasn’t going to be good enough. I don’t know where or why I picked up the expectation that a story was going to slip, perfect and pearl-like, from my imagination onto paper, but it’s one that I am seriously having to combat now. I need to learn to lower my expectations and to know that, yes, while coherent details and world-building will probably make the novel very good in the end, they aren’t really what I need to be worrying about right now.

This post didn’t go exactly where I intended it to go, to be honest. It was going to be a consideration of plot problems and how to resolve them. I’m wondering if the answer to plot problems is to write everything down, stick it in a vague order and then go about filling all the holes, rather than spending ages planning it out first and then writing it up. Instead it turned into a rather personal analysis of my writing style, but still, it’s been useful. It seems that I started doing background work in an attempt to make the story better and therefore forgot the point of writing the first draft at all, whereas now I think I need a lot more writing and a little judicious planning on the side. I’ll let you know how the new method works out: now I just need to muster the courage to put it into practise.

Writing Matters: Eddings and editing established reality

So I’ve started re-reading a David Eddings book for winding-down-of-the-brain purposes, and my (possibly over-trained) English Literature brain has been Noting Things. Therefore it seemed perfectly logical to record them here, for Future Reference.

I read David Eddings because it is, for me, the mental equivalent of coming home after a long day and eating beans on toast for dinner (not that I’m knocking beans on toast. I am, in fact, a big fan – particularly when there’s marmite on the toast and cheese on the beans. Perfection). Eddings is safe, predictable medievalist fantasy set in a pseudo-Europe that, and this is perhaps the most interesting point for me, doesn’t allow the reader to quibble. At all. When reading, you are Told What Happens: a lot of information is Just True. Now, forgive me some of my references, because I’ve been enjoying TVTropes‘ company a lot lately (it is one of my favourite sites: funny, interesting and thought-provoking). They have a term, ‘Word of God’, for ‘what the author says about the world that must be true because s/he knows what s/he’s talking about as the author of the world’. I find, reading, that a lot of The Tamuli (that’s the series I picked up) comes across as extremely thinly-veiled Word of God. Eddings is telling what happens – even when it seems utterly out of character, illogical or just plain silly. Interestingly, Eddings is predictable in two ways: in the good old-fashioned way of it being predictable from the tropes he uses, but also because if you’ve read one Eddings, you’ve read them all, because he repeats his own tropes in extremely unsurprising ways.

As a reader, you willingly suspend your disbelief in order to let the story pass through your mind. But willingly suspending disbelief doesn’t mean we also suspend all rational and logical faculties along with it. I want my stories to be plausible, not suddenly have unexplained deus ex machina endings or a plot so clanging it’s ringing its own death knell.

Anyway. To illustrate Eddings’ patchwork reality, I refer to one character with whom I think the reader is supposed to be sympathetic explaining a sudden, unexpected political awareness as ‘I’m not manipulating royalty… I’m manipulating a woman, and I’m an expert at that’. Now, out of context that looks pretty dubious, right? But this is Eddings. Kalten is written a nice guy, so therefore his comments cannot mean anything cruelly underhand: Eddings’ narrative rhetoric has no truck with a questioning reader. So the reader is delivered the story sealed, as fact, with no space to question it. It’s a pretty standard tactic of quest-based or medievalistic fantasy: this happened, reader, deal with it. There’s no jiggling points-of-view, no unreliable narrator, no indication that the world is a mystery to be explored: it’s mapped and known, and, in its most reduced form, it’s a travel guide to a fantasy land (hello, Diana Wynne Jones).

Now, this can be very frustrating, particularly when it seems that established characters, situations, politics and back-stories are simply warped to the author’s will: forced into a different shape in order to facilitate the telling of the story. (This is a big part of my problem with J. K. Rowling, too, but that’s a story for another day. I’ve outlined a few notes below*.) I am going to use the phrase ‘fictional ontology’ to describe all these concepts, an ‘ontology’ being a term to describe the study of what there is: a formal system of knowledge that concerns itself with what exists. Eddings’ rhetorical style delivers a narrative that is, as noted above, ‘sealed’: it’s whole and incontestable by the reader, and therefore constructs what seems a similarly incontestable ontology. The world simply is the way it is: he’s given us the details, we as readers accept them in order to move on with the story. However, he then changes certain things, such as fluxes in the behaviour of established characters, when his plot requires it: someone suddenly swings between intuitive cleverness and comedic stupidity, for example. It drives me bonkers when writers do this, and particularly when Eddings does it, because it comes across as so lazy. He is basically editing his own reality in order to make the story work, but in editing that reality he ends up undermining it. Why can he not come up with something more plausible for the world he has created – the world that includes established characters? Why can he not write the story expanding on the ontology he’s already given us, rather than sticking a temporary patch over part of it until that part’s usefulness is complete? It is frustrating, because in a system where the writer is handing over incontestable pieces of reality, some parts of that reality are terribly inconsistent. You’d think he could pay attention to the details, right? (In fact, that his style seems inconsistent shows that the rest of his narrative does seem solid; the rest of his fictional ontology is not something we argue with (but he’s allowed to).)

This consistent handing over of facts then allows him to do some things that are quite genre savvy. It means that actually he can sneak a few nice twists up on the plot and the reader because the reader is so used to accepting everything the narrative says as a sealed fact. It’s a nice trick: it makes me think that sometimes he’s aware of the reader, and not just the story. In fact, my main criticism of a lot of writers, and particularly fantasy writers, is that they seem to get so focused on the story, on managing their ideas onto the page with words, that they forget that the reader’s there, and will have probably have questions and comments along the way. A reader wants to be fooled sometimes, wants to be teased with drips of information, wants to wonder various possibilities and motives, not just held in place while an infodump of a story is poured in her metaphorical ear.

Anyway. These are some of the thoughts that were flitting through my mind as I was skimming through Domes of Fire last night and this morning. In short, I want to read stories that have plausible ontologies, no ‘Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere‘ (TVTropes again) that appear in the plot and the author instructs me that this makes sense because it’s his story and he says so. I’m willingly suspending disbelief, and I enjoy willingly suspending disbelief, but I don’t like reading stories that don’t let the reader ask why. I don’t think a writer should be allowed to edit an established reality if they’re going to do it clumsily, and I don’t think writer or reader should be the slave of a story to the extent where nothing that the characters say or do seems to make sense with everything that’s gone before.

*J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t have a consistent fictional ontology in Harry Potter, which is part of why I find it so unsatisfying (and also a part of why she often looks very silly in question-and-answer sessions). She makes things up as she goes along in the worst possible way. Obviously, to a certain extent, all writers make things up as they go along, but J. K. doesn’t seem to direct an analytical eye at her work at all, and so all of her plot solutions just appear out of nowhere. The initial Horcruzes are pretty much the only satisfying Chekhov’s gun in the whole thing, and that’s only when you’re re-reading it: everything else just appears ‘like magic’. Things shouldn’t appear like magic: they should appear like something magical that makes sense for the world that’s been created.