Writerly Musings

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39_steps 39_steps1

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'”

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I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

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This book is available for free in the public domain.

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

reading list banner

This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

reading list clip

Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.

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Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.

 

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

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Is there a person among us who does not love Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? We all tumble down with Alice as she falls through the rabbit hole. With logic games and nonsense rhymes, frightening threats of beheadings, lost wanderings in dark places, Wonderland is just one of those books that is imprinted on us all, no matter how old we get or how turned around and upside down we feel during our rambles through Wonderland.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

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Things I Liked This Month: February

This post comes from the feelings I had included in an earlier post titled, “Bookishly Me.” One of the points was about how I was feeling a bit underwhelmed by book trends, reviews, and blogging. So, instead of wallowing in some sort of Medieval pit of despair that only the internet can provide, I’ve decided on a sort of “wrap-up.” Here is a collection of Things I Liked This Month: February Edition.

Besides the above illustration, this digest (in no particular order) includes posts from bloggers that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in February, my favorite things from Acid Free Pulp, and other bric-a-brac that I’ve collected from this month.

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I recently re-watched French short film, Entr’act, from 1922 that I wrote a dreadful paper on when I was a college student. I always really liked it and have watched it many, many times. You should, too. It can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube.

The Public Domain Review shared “A Relation of an Extraordinary Sleepy Person (ca.1698),” which is a “Royal Society paper delivered by Dr William Oliver describing a bizarre case he encountered of a man who fell into a ‘profound sleep’ from which no-one could wake him for a full month.”

It was loads of fun writing a most recent post titled, “Storytelling: True Detective and The King in Yellow.” If you haven’t seen the show or read the book, now is the time. Amazon lists the book as #1 Bestseller in Classic Literature & Fiction.

Nina at Multo(Ghost) wrote a post about “The Spectre Girl,” a 19th Century short story utilizing the woman in white lore. I always love all of her posts, but I am a fan of folklore, campfire stories, and white ladies, so this one especially stood out to me. It also is personally poignant as I have just watched my first episode of Supernatural and a ghostly white lady was the central plot.

The streets of Kiev are filled with violence and protest, but in an unexpected change of pace, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published photos of Ukrainian artists taking to the streets to create art. Check the rest out here.

If you need a mental health break today, take a look at the comments section for the post, “‘Beyond the Door’ by Philip K. Dick.” Watch some Twilight Zone and goof off. There are a couple of good recs left in the comments.

“What Did It Mean to be a Female Detective in the Nineteenth Century?” is bookwormchatterbox’s most recent post and she delves into the genre and highlights specific examples. Read it. It’s well-thought out and easily accessible for anyone interested in the origins of the modern sleuth and how female literary detectives were often overshadowed by others like Sherlock Holmes.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week: The End of Mr. Y

You now have one choice. You…I’m hanging out of the window of my office, sneaking a cigarette and trying to read Margins in the dull winter light, when there’s a noise I haven’t heard before. All right, the noise–crash, bang, etc.–I probably have heard it before , but it’s coming from underneath me, which isn’t right.

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I read The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas while on a train in Germany at the end of the summer of 2012. I was totally gripped by the novel and I still wish that I could have given it a better quality review. What I have up is short but to the point. Because my internet situation was wonky and my free time minimal, I only blurted out my love for it in a few brief paragraphs. Scarlett Thomas has written other books as well and I hope to get to them sometime in the near future.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Storytelling: True Detective and The King in Yellow

If you are not already watching my new television obsession True Detective, what are you doing here? Go watch and then we’ll talk. True Detective is an anthology series written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto.¹ It is an eerie and unsettling look at two detectives who are tracking a potential serial killer in 1995 and are recounting the events separately during a mysterious police inquiry in 2012.

True Detective. Episode 5. Photo from HBO.

Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) looks a little fleshier with a little less hair in the more recent year, but an even more interesting draw is Det. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who went from a brooding, introvert who takes a sketch pad to crime scenes so he can visually document what he sees to a gaunt, long-haired alcoholic in the “manic street preacher” genre.² There are elements of the uncanny that give me an uneasy feeling when watching. The show was shot in southern Louisiana, portraying that haunted beauty that only the American South can capture (they’ve won my hearts over with Spanish moss and the 24-hour chirping of hidden insects).

But less about television and more about books. Like previously mentioned the show was created and written by a novelist. Nic Pizzolatto recently revealed that he includes inspiration from the 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. The King in Yellow itself is full of the eerie and unsettling. The stories are painted with broad strokes of the macabre, which horror fans are sure to appreciate. Because of all of the hoopla on the internet about the book and episode five’s Sunday airing (Amazon reports that the 119 year old book’s sales shot up 71% over night), I figured I would write a little about it and my favorite story from the collection.

The stories’ locations oscillate between New York City and Paris, with some of the stories mentioning an unholy play called The King in Yellow that will drive a reader insane. Snippets of the play are scattered throughout the collection and characters often make mention of it or the Yellow King, a character from the play.

artwork by ZlayerOne

Not only is “The Repairer of Reputations” my favorite, it is also the first, giving the collection a strong opening. The story takes place in the close-future from the book’s publication–1920–and is told from the POV of Hildred Castaigne. We learn that Hildred fell from his horse four years earlier and was sent to an insane asylum for treatment. From the start, the story leads us into a skewed version of 1920 New York City: there has been a “repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide…when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.”

As the story progresses, the reader gets the impression that Hildred is no longer the out-going youth he once was, but now has become obsessed with this dastardly censored text called The King in Yellow, which drives men insane, and often visits with one Mr. Wilde, who is a “repairer of reputations” (blackmail and scandal!). Hildred’s narration becomes more delusional as he becomes further engrossed with the play. He often thinks of the characters and their plights, attributing them to his own life,

I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed–dared not…

As Hildred’s first-person narration becomes more outlandish and his behavior can easily be categorized as most bizarre, his reliability is of course doubted. Once his unreliability comes into question, the reader will doubt the details Hildred earlier revealed. Like Hildred in “The Repairer of Reputations,” Dets. Cohle and Hart are not as they first appear and their reliability can certainly be questioned. How the viewer/reader sees events and details are extremely important to both Chambers and Pizzolatto.

Robert W. Chambers

The fictional play within the book and the loosely fitted connection it has throughout a chunk of the stories has inspired authors including HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and many others. Also, it is clear that Chambers himself was inspired by great horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, even taking the latter’s name for Carcosa, a fictional city, and utilizing it heavily throughout The King in Yellow. Chambers’ two motifs, the Yellow King and the Yellow Sign, are clearly interpreted in True Detective (don’t worry–no spoilers from me) and Pizzolatto loves including images and lines from the fictional play within the book,

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

*The King in Yellow is available for free in the public domain through Zola BooksProject Gutenberg and Feedbooks.

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Further information…
  1. And with music coordinated by T Bone Burnett!
  2. Love New York magazine’s approval matrix noting that True Detective should win the Best Toupee Emmy.
  3. Try doing a Google image search for the book; lots of fan art that looks like it should be on a Led Zeppelin album cover.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure

This week’s photo challenge topic is “treasures.” The questions asked are: What do you treasure? What’s most important to you? What I noticed from other participants is that they are taking a less literal approach than the original challenge creator.

The above photo is of the castle in Karlštejn (located in Central Bohemia), which was originally built “as a place for safekeeping of the royal treasures, especially Charles’s collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman Empire.”¹ It towers over the small village of Karlštejn and you can’t help but notice its presence when you disembark from the train platform.

I find myself scrolling though my snapshots now and again, thinking back to my day trip a couple of years back. The castle was recommended to me as a sight to see and then I also found out that it was the castle–Das Schloß. [insert: oh good grief...here she goes again...]. This is the basis of Kafka’s castle–the strongbox that land surveyor K. just can’t penetrate. He’s spends the novel trying to gain access to the castle so he can speak with the mysterious government official known as Klamm.

Like K., I never made it inside the actual castle, but walking around it and the open air interior was still perfect. Unlike K., my inability to gain access to the rooms was due to my lack of entry payment.² The really exceptional moment is when you are standing at the top and can see the whole village below. These photos and memories are what I treasure. Below is a view walking from the train station.³

  1. History of the castle from the official website (English).
  2. Ok, so the admission is 270 koruna (~$13), but I preferred gazing at the steep stairways and looming turrets, and looking at the view from up top. Stuffy treasure rooms were not calling to me that day.
  3. On our train ride, there were 2 young Scottish brothers arguing over who would be the train conductor if the situation arose. Of course, the elder brother won by ending the conversation declaring he would be the train conductor because they’re can only be one.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, A Clockwork Orange

a clockwork orange

What’s it going to be then, eh? There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

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There was a point in my life where I could recite the entire opening paragraph of Anthony Burgess’ stellar novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962). Although I might not be able to remember it verbatim in its entirety anymore, I still find myself repeating this line as a sort of a mantra when I try to focus with my own writing.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Master Class: The Fantastic

The fantastic as a category–or genre–of books has always been one that fascinates me. The first short stories that I wrote fell somewhere in the realm of either magical realism or the fantastic. When I wrote a review of an out-of-the-ordinary Philip K. Dick story, the comments section had me thinking back to my favorite genre and other works I think fall in this category.

In the aforementioned story, Dick deals with the possible breakdown of a marriage set in a familiar 1950s suburban melodrama, but what he does differently is add a possible sentient cuckoo bird who resides in the wife’s clock. This is a perfectly natural part of the story and allows Dick to investigate a scene of domestic life that we are so familiar with and then flip it. The story is fantastic and does not fall within his normal sci-fi oeuvre.

But before I continue, perhaps, it would be best if I try to define the fantastic, which is a concept formally originated by Tsvetan Todorov in his work, The Fantastic: The Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.¹ He writes,

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world…The concept of the fantastic is therefore to be defined in relation to those of the real and the imaginary.

Citing just two sentences is a hyper-simplification of Todorov’s premise and he goes on to assign works as marvelous, uncanny, fairy tales, and because of certain reasons, excludes some texts from the genre of the fantastic. Todorov attempts “to create a theoretical methodology that would apply to genre study generally.”² The rules he sets tend not to allow for works to overlap; here my theory of the fantastic evolves from his proposal. Although, I do agree that a strange story that might first appear as fantastic, but ultimately can be explained by a very human force (think “madness” or mental disorders) does not fall into the fantastic genre. What comes to mind are “Diaries of a Madman” and Atmospheric Disturbances, which can be explained in outdated terms such as the result of an abnormal and deteriorating mind.

Here I proffer my definition of the fantastic based on Todorov’s original premise, influences from my university study, and own reader experience. It is designed to help a writer pen a story in this genre and for a reader to understand why they are accepting the unordinary.

  • A story, which at first appearance, resides in our known human world.
  • It becomes quickly apparent that something is unreal about the situation.
  • The reader is able to believe the fantastic before them, because the author has skillfully presented the “rules of operation,” allowing them to accept notions of irrationality that, if appeared in reality, would make them hesitate.

Has this helped at all? Maybe, a little? Works of the fantastic that have succeeded are written by authors who have begun with something ordinary and then masterfully crafted the rules around it right from the beginning. The reader needs to have a sense of what is allowed in a fantastic story.

Below are examples of short stories and novels that I believe fall into the genre of the fantasticTodorov’s methodology might not work for all of these and he would nix them if he was writing this, but based on my three-point criteria above, they are worthy choices. Like Todorov, I equate the fantastic with works of fiction and exclude poetry from my selections. This list is in no way close to being comprehensive, only those that come to mind right away and which I enjoy with the exception of one.³ Clicking on an image will call up further information.

Reading List

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¹ If you don’t have a copy of the book, free samples can be viewed through Google Books.

² From The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 20, No.2 (Summer 1976) accessed through the digital library JSTOR. This is a great resource. You might be able to access it for free through an affiliation with your university, library, alma mater, or other institution. Otherwise, you might have to pay a fee to view complete articles.

³ Okay, I really disliked Remainder. I think Tom McCarthy is super smart and an imaginative human being, but I wanted to hurl this book out of the window. However, it is an excellent example for this post and fans of existential investigations will be interested.

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Finally, do you have any suggestions for the reading list? If so, please leave a comment.

Bookishly Me

persōna f (genitive persōnae); first declension

  1. mask
  2. character
  3. person, personality

self-portrait of the writer on the streets of Prague.

When I originally began this little corner of mine, the idea was to keep myself anonymous to give myself a distance from my published work and this personal work, which still remains the case. Also, to have something separate from my peers and colleagues; only a few of my friends know about this site. The few images I’ve had here have always not included my face; for a while, some people assumed I was male because I gave no identification (Female, here). For now, that’s pretty much all you’ll get from me.

I sometimes wonder why certain blogs are super-successes and some live in quieter niches. Blogs with a specific personality win over hearts and rack up the followers. I don’t know where I fit in with that, but I was surprised to see Acid Free Pulp included on a Southern literary agents list of personality-driven review sites. This is what got me thinking about the whole thing…

I suppose I add myself into my musings and reviews here in a way that is different from my published work. In that way, I can see why I was added to the personality-driven section. However, my identity is missing and in its place, I rely solely on my words to showcase my personality and sense of humor, along with what fascinates and captivates me.

In comparison, the very popular book blogs that have clear author personalities with people’s names have tons of comments in the discussion section, where mine, for example, does not. Of course, I am generalizing here because I read a gaggle of well-written blogs with all sorts of owners, but I’ve noticed many of them offer a clear representation of who they are (“Jane X, Midwestern housewife who loves YA books and travelling…”). Could connecting with the blog author be easier for discussion? I sometimes wish that there was more discussion here, but it means LOADS to me when people leave comments thanking me for a great review and telling me to keep up the good work, or pointing them in the direction of something that is new to them. That’s the point of all of this, right?

Words are what I work with. They’re everywhere in my life. When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I read when I’m rinsing my mouthwash, swishing it through my teeth, while I stand at my bathroom sink. I’m envious of my friends who are fantastic playwrights, poets, memoirists, because these are disciplines I haven’t mastered. I’m more comfortable in fiction and criticism. I get audibly annoyed at Jeopardy contestants who avoid the literature categories. Most of my jobs have been in the arts in some way (with the exception of my bit time working as a rep for a holistic dog food company. Weird.).

I think this post comes from a few places. The first, of course, being the aforementioned list and my rumination on “personality.” The second comes from a book fatigue of sorts. I have a whole stack of this past year’s award winners and books that have been reviewed in the New York Times. I just feel that they must be read, if nothing more than to be a part of the larger discussion (which I still think is important). But, I’m a bit weary of it all. I want something astounding and not written by the same writers all of the time. I want books that can also be beautiful pieces of art (this usually comes from smaller presses).

My weariness also comes from the boom of young adult novels. My point is not to knock them (if you have a well-written piece about The Phantom Tollbooth, I’m all over that), but their current incarnations are lacking and are usually turned out factory style (think Andy Warhol for novels). An interview last year with an outgoing Munich editor said that we are reading more books than before, but we are consuming so many of low quality (take what you will from that paraphrase). The blog world is full of book bloggers talking about these books, where, in my opinion, other reviews are getting ignored. To remedy this, I did a book order this week. I am dreadfully poor, but still had a gift card lying around from a few months ago and scooped up some reads that might ease my ailing book lover heart.

Like this little writerly musing, I am grateful that you put up with my ramblings, complaints, and meanderings; I get a kick out of other bloggers’ reactions to the occasional Distraction; I love getting new insight and recs like on yesterday’s PKD post; even though I might be a masked book blogger, many thanks goes out for reading my reviews and recommendations. My main mission is to write about books that I find interesting and share them in the hopes that others will find something new that they normally might have missed. I also particularly like the interaction with other bloggers and reading their recommendations, etc.

What is the point of this post? I don’t know and I hesitate to press ‘publish’ after all of this, but I think I’ll do it anyway…

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  1. The definition above is taken from Wikipedia. Accessed 6 February 2014.
  2. Something personal on this rare occasion inspired by the self-portrait on this post: I love Prague. It is what inspired me to start writing this blog.
  3. For those who’ve stuck with me for this long, I present you with the music video for The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” because it has been stuck in my head all day.