Writerly Musings

Brain on Books

So busy. So very, very busy. Barely able to read a lick of text. I do hate when everything gets chucked to the side. I don’t feel very much like myself when I’m not reading or writing, and there has been way too much of that lately. However, I’ve been getting back into a routine and I’m writing writing writing (excitement!). Sadly, though, I’ve become one of those people that doesn’t read. How is that possible?! (wait, let me backtrack, I have been able to listen to a few books via audiobooks).

How does one unplug their brain? The galleys are stacking up and the publicists are chomping at the bit. While I try to figure out how to unplug my brain from the Matrix, I leave you with this photo of a skull on a pile of books. Odd, yet somehow fitting.

skull on books

Celebrating Irish Women Writers

If you haven’t been following The Irish Times’ celebration of Irish women writers, what are you doing here?! Head on over. They have a whole slew of articles in praise of various authors, along with other literary interests.

Their most recent one–as of this typing–is about designing a new “Irish Writers” poster (does anyone else recall these from libraries or other places of scholarly gathering? I do.). If you notice on the original one, it was terribly outdated and not a single female scribe.* For your delight and enjoyment, the old poster has been updated to feature a handful of talented authors, which can be downloaded gratis; just click the image below.

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*Also, for fellow Jeopardy! fans, there was only one clue last night about women writers in all of the British Authors category. For shame.

5 Things Alice in Wonderland Reveals About the Brain

I’ve been mildly obsessed with the BBC – Future & Earth sites since a friend posted an excellent (and entertaining) article about octopus mating–seriously, you must read it. Somehow, this led me to a recent article about “Lewis Carroll’s popular tales contain some hidden truths about the human brain that are still inspiring neuroscientists to this day.”

Down the Rabbit Hole

Today’s article features different moments and imaginative peculiarities from Carroll’s books that have inspired neuroscientists:

Memory, language, and consciousness: long before we had the technology to map the brain’s Wonderland, Carroll was already charting its contours with his playful thought experiments. “It explores so many ideas about whether there’s a continuous self, how we remember things from the past and think about the future – there’s lots of richness there about what we know about cognition and cognitive science,” says Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley.

Telescoping or “Alice in Wonderland syndrome,” dream shape shifting, and impossible thought, just to name a few. Enjoy!

Nabokov’s Real Lolita

Perhaps, it was a strange choice to read this long essay over breakfast (cold cereal and tea, for those who are concerned with such matters), but I’ve been in a reading, writing, blogging, everything rut. I have a bunch of deadlines for reviews coming up over the next two weeks, then I must begin writing an essay for which I’ve been commissioned, but good news arrived this morning, that a bit of flash fiction I wrote last year will be published in the autumn. I’m very happy for that, because it is a piece I am particularly fond of.

But anywho, this morning’s breakfast was accompanied by a long form essay (bully for a now oft-deprived discipline). It is an essay I’ve been saving for well over a month, but I thought this gloomy morning was a time to forsake the news and just read one thing: “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman (11/20/2014, Penguin Random House Canada/Hazlitt Magazine).

Has anyone else read this essay? Even if you haven’t read Lolita, I’m sure the story itself is particularly interesting. The subtitle is certainly astute in what it proclaims: The story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction changed the course of 20th-century literature. She just never got to tell it herself.

Enjoy!

lolita

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

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“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.

Shop Indie Bookstores Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

 

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.