Writerly Musings

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Bell Jar

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This is a bit of cheat, as it is an entire first paragraph and then some. I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in many years, but I was required to read the first chapter this week for an unrelated project. It was so striking and I forgot how Plath immediately sets up so many aspects of the novel, including Esther’s life in New York City along with foreshadowing what is to come. The writing of the first chapter grabs you immediately and Esther is so well-defined.

There were many marvelous lines in the first chapter alone, but I loved the simpleness of this line when Esther is out with her friend: “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.”

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

On Being Annoyed at Donna Leon

I am annoyed at a writer I have never read and have only heard of in the past days as I randomly listened to past episodes of The Guardian Books Podcast (“Writing crime with Donna Leon, Duncan Campbell and Barry Forshaw” from May 2016.)

Overall, the episode, including Donna Leon’s segment, was highly interesting. My annoyance didn’t come until later when she was asked why her novels weren’t translated into Italian. But before I continue, let me first add, the long-running series of detective novels by Donna Leon are set in Italy and feature an Italian police commissioner (and I assume, many other Italian characters). Leon writes in English but has lived in Italy for many years, and the novels have been translated into other languages as well–just not Italian.

It’s not as if the Italians are not interested in them, but it comes down to the strange vanity of the author herself. She insists that they not be translated and the absurd reasoning is quoted all over the internet.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested — the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day[.]

From a 2003 interview

I find this whole notion to be ridiculous. Unless you are Stephen King or JK Rowling, no one is spotting you 3 or 4 times a day.

Unlike some other European countries, English is not widespread in Italy and I deduce that her avoidance to have them translated into Italian alleviates the possibility that she would be critiqued by Italians. That she might be called out for aspects of her series that she wish to be hidden in the cloak of unreadability for an Italian audience.

Granted, yes, this is all speculation on my part as someone who hasn’t read a Donna Leon book. But still I became incredibly annoyed as she kept on insisting. As an avid reader, I often get bummed when an international book I’m interested in is not available in English or if an author has one book translated but not anymore from their oeuvre.

Some light Googling led me to a quote in The Independent,

“There’s the risk of falling into stereotypes, and Leon, despite the bonhomie of her Commissario Brunetti, is not exempt. It’s not for nothing that she doesn’t want her books translated into Italian,” wrote prominent Italian reviewer Ranieri Polese. 

I made the mistake of reading further into the aforementioned 2003 interview, and her answers to various questions carried on in the annoying vein. Perhaps, I am concentrating on minutiae, but really Donna Leon was very annoying.

 

A Year of Mediocre Books

A photo by Lacie Slezak. unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

True, the year is still not up, but I have concluded long ago, that the publishing schedule for major houses was a dud. Yes, there were a few good reads, but when I look back at my reading list, I find that many were did not finish. I have been told in the past, however, that I can be hard to please when it comes to reading, but I mostly believe that, my reading preferences aside, this year marked a year of mediocre books.

I haven’t written much on the blog these months, sadly, and I owe this mostly to 1) I am working on a wonderful project with a co-editor: a literary magazine that we are so very proud of and 2) the books that I have read have been uninspired.

To remedy this, I’ve received a couple of imaginative galleys, chucked everything dull to the side and took out a huge stack from the library, and also, ordered a couple of books from the UK that are not available or won’t be available stateside for a while.

I am very excited for these reads! How has your year of reading been? Hopefully, better than mine. I find that my brain is more stimulated, I feel less anxious, and my writing improves when I am reading a great book.

Here are some that I have on deck:

FROM THE UK

His Bloody Project
“A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?”

FOXLOWE
“Foxlowe is a crumbling old house in the moors—a wild, secluded, and magical place. For Green, it is not just home, but everything she knows… At Foxlowe, the Family shares everything. Outside, the Bad is everywhere. At Foxlowe, everyone in the Family is safe…”

 

FROM THE LIBRARY

ARTHUR & GEORGE
“As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected.”

THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES
“An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.”

THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN
“It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans.”

THE SELLOUT
“A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality―the black Chinese restaurant.”

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.