Books, Non-Fiction, writing

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a fantastic writer. I thoroughly enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea (it was the University’s common read a few years ago. I really should read more of the series!) and have always wanted to read more of her work. So, last year, I picked up a couple of her books on writing, including this one and Conversations On Writing. I haven’t read the latter, yet, but I’m looking forward to it after having finished Steering the Craft.

The title is of course a metaphor for writing. Le Guin approaches the writing process with a wonderful sense of humor and beautifully helpful analogies to life and other messes, er, situations. What I find most helpful about the book is its design. First, each chapter is a distinct topic, important to the writer (the writer of fiction, primarily.) Unlike some fiction writing guides, however, Le Guin does not focus on the big-ticket items, like character. Instead, she moves in on things like grammar, voice, and point of view. Then, within each chapter on a single topic, she breaks things down into a few components: A) thoroughly enjoyable narratives on what she means by the topic, including definitions and her own explanations plus relationships/experiences with the topic; B) helpful examples from excellent sample pieces, like Jane Eyre, that help her illustrate what she means and gives the reader-writer a better idea of how someone does “this thing” well; and C) one or more practice exercises so that the reader-writer can test out their new knowledge in a practical way, and get to doing the work of writing, which is why she should be reading the book in the first place.

So, the book is not just a guide to a writing, but it is also a prompt for writing, too.

Another helpful element is the appendix, where Le Guin gives all sorts of useful advice about how to form and run and participate in a writing group, be it in person or online. She outlines some of the most helpful guidelines and articulates some of the problems and pitfalls, too. This might not be necessary for everyone (many reading are probably solitary writers, although, as Le Guin makes clear, that’s a habit worth breaking), but even if the reader-writer is already experienced in writing groups and/or has no current interest in them, they might find helpful information for themselves, here.

Finally, Le Guin is just fun. She’s brilliant and entertaining. She treats the reader-writer like a peer, not a customer or some “noob” to the scene. Reading the section on “the sound of your writing” and realizing that Le Guin has her audience in mind, just as she encourages the reader-writer to have his audience in mind, is a great way to begin, as it demonstrates her ethos in the most effective way. She tells, shows, does, and then asks the reader-writer to do the same. This is a teaching method I’ve been practicing myself for years, and it was seriously comforting to see a master writer doing the same. I’m eager to get back to her fiction, but also, especially, her Conversations On Writing.

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Contemporary, Fiction, Literature, Madeline Miller, Mythology

Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”

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Contemporary, Dean Koontz, Fiction, Horror, Thriller

The Funhouse by Dean Koontz

I can’t help comparing Dean Koontz to Stephen King. This is unfortunate for Koontz, because he simply cannot compete. I suppose that’s harsh and maybe even unfair criticism, but there we have it.

The Funhouse begins with a somewhat interesting premise that is muzzled by completely uninteresting characters. There’s a man, a sexy, charming bad boy who works for a carnival, and a young woman living under the suffocating influence of her mother, a religious zealot (of course this young woman will eventually become her mother, but no matter?) They run off together, he turns out to be not just a jerk but a monster (for real) and they have a baby. This baby… is it human? Is it a demon? Mom and Dad each see that baby a little differently, one is terrified of it and determined to kill it. The other adores it and would do anything to protect or avenge it.

So, I guess that sounds like a wild ride, and it is. It also all unfolds in the first section of the book. The rest of the novel deals with a younger generation who must deal with the repercussions of their parents’ fall-out and that first “abomination” of a baby, which may or may not be alive. Or evil. But then again, it might be a different evil baby that is now a man, even though its pseudo-step-siblings are still children. Who knows? Does it matter?

I suppose this simply was not the book for me. The elements I tend to enjoy about thrillers and horror novels are the epic battles between good and evil. The struggle for internal strength over weakness, to find the light in the darkness and somehow overcome, survive. Even when elements of the supernatural are introduced, I find myself willing to go along for the ride, provided the other elements are treated well and fairly, and without much cliché (to be fair, King also does sometimes fall into the clichéd.) That said, the good versus evil in this particular story doesn’t work for me the way it does in King’s novels, for example, because the evil seems to be too supernatural and too pure (“I need a bad guy. What’s the grossest, most evil, inhuman, irredeemable bad guy imaginable? I’ll use that!”).

Even the good, the flawed characters, are indeed flawed human beings, which is normally a positive trait in my opinion. Heroes who are too pure are just as boring as villains that are completely evil. Each of these lacks internal conflict and any real motivation. So, one might want to root for these kids, especially, but one gets distracted with moral lessons about sexual purity and religion and family. One also gets distracted by the unfortunately histrionic and melodramatic writing.

Ultimately, much like the young woman at the start of the story who suffocates beneath her mother’s Christian mania, I found myself choking on forced themes, mediocre prose, and uninteresting conflict. Where King’s evil tends to be rooted in humanity, even when it is supernatural, Koontz’s is just monstrous. There’s no reason to fear it, because it’s too unreal to care about. It was too fantastic, I suppose, to mean anything. But for some, that might be fun.

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2019 TBR Pile Challenge, Books

March Checkpoint! #TBR2019RBR

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Welcome to our third checkpoint for this year’s TBR Pile Challenge! We already have more than 110 reviews/checkpoints linked up on our Mr. Linky, which is insane! Well done to all of you! I hope you continue to read and share and discuss all your favorites (or least favorites) from this challenge.

As for me, I’ve made the tiniest bit of progress since last month, which is that I actually managed to write my thoughts for Book #2, and those thoughts go live on March 17th. I’ve read another 5 books (and written reviews for most of them, too!) but, unfortunately, none of the selections were on my TBR Challenge list. Whoops. 

Progress: 2 of 12 Completed / 2 of 12 Reviewed

So far, I’ve read 2 of my 12 required books. I do plan to start Book 3 very soon, and I plan (really, I do!) to read all 14 of the books on my list this year, the main 12 plus my 2 alternates, so getting a jump-start on this list before spring semester began was important. I think I’ll read something non-fiction, next, since I’ve read two novels already. Perhaps Light the Dark, to help re-ignite my writing as well. Then again, I’ve really been eyeing Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet the last few days, and I also have found myself in a bit of a reading rut, comparatively speaking, so I’m thinking Vonnegut might be a good choice (he’s always a knockout for me.) What to do!? 

Books read:

How are you doing?

index

Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

MINI-CHALLENGE #2 is coming next month! 

LINK UP YOUR REVIEWS! 

 

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100 Days Journal, Journaling, Personal, writing

The First 10 Days #100DaysJournal

ScribeDelivery

Sometime in early February, I signed-up for a monthly subscription service called ScribeDelivery (only my second such service, but gosh, I might be getting addicted!) This particular subscription delivers journals and pens to my door once per month (and, I’m told, sometimes other items as well). As I was planning to begin my journaling project and to dive more fully back into writing, I thought this kind of monthly “treat” would be an awesome motivation and reward. My first package arrived yesterday, at last, and I’m pretty thrilled!

This one is, I believe, a bit larger than normal. The accompanying note explains that it’s a “first delivery” kind of package, so I think there are a few more items than usual. That said, it’s a great way to begin. As the image reflects, I received one regular size, Italian journal that has a bookmark and pocket; I set of “4 seasons” small journals, one with a cover design and color to match each season; two small “write it down” journals, and 4 pens (which are described as “Japanese pens” in the welcome letter, but some of them seem pretty typical to me. The fountain pen is a cool addition!)

Overall, it was a long-awaited and super fun package to open. I should mention that I already have a couple of concerns. The first is that the package took a long time to arrive and the reason for this wasn’t clearly articulated in the first order email. I tried messaging the company via Instagram, because that’s where I first connected with them and because the website didn’t have a clear contact area, but I got no response. I tried again with no luck a few days after, and then tried email and Facebook. It took about a week, I think, to get a response. The first reply came after my second question to them on Instagram, and it simply told me to check back on Facebook because someone would reply there. Uh, okay. So I messaged again on Facebook, and then got a canned response there and the same response to my email, on the same day. Awesome?

The second concern is that all of the items came in a simple bubble bag mailer. It’s possible the company is still new and working things out, but I was honestly expecting better packaging, not just a bunch of items slipped into a bag, free to slosh around (and, you know, there are pens — how easily could these poke through and fall out?) After checking the reviews, I noticed that comments about the packaging have been left in the past, with that very concern expressed (missing items), and that some have raised concern that their packages are pretty basic for the price. So, I’ll keep an eye on this, but I’m ready to give them another shot, partly because the first package was so cool and partly because I still love the idea of getting a monthly writer’s box!

100 Days Journal Update 1

About a week and a half ago, I mentioned that I was starting a new writing project that I’m calling “100 Days Journal.” It is just what it sounds like: 100 days of journaling. The hope is that it will accomplish a few things: 1) help me establish an effective routine; 2) help me practice and enhance my writing skills; 3) help me reveal to myself some of the things I should be writing about more in-depth.

Every 10 days, I plan to post  a little update right here on the blog, for posterity and for whoever might be interested in what I’m doing or who might want to try it for themselves (I know a few people on Twitter already are doing it.) My first 10 days went “swimmingly,” as they say. It’s the first time in a long time that I managed to write for myself every single day. I honestly can’t remember the last time I did this. I’ve always been the kind to have a good stretch of about 3 or 4 days, and then oops! I think it helps that I had already been getting up earlier than necessary for a few weeks to do other “pre-day” tasks, like reading for myself and taking a walk before work.

Although I’ve been using prompt cards and the topics have been fairly different, I’ve found some similar themes in my first 10 days: motivation, family, fears, and challenges. A lot of my writing has been reflective in the sense that, I notice what has been holding me back in various ways. I commented in yesterday’s journal that I begin to worry if this will be a place where I’m constantly putting myself down. At the moment, that comment seems a bit melodramatic, considering the kinds of criticisms I was giving myself were both true and constructive, and that in the 25 pages I wrote over these last 10 days, there is a lot of hopeful, positive, rewarding reflection, too. But I suppose many of us do often see and cling to the negative more easily than the positive, which is what makes any change or growth harder, and scarier too.

The truth is, I’m proud of myself for coming this far, and I’m only 10% of the way into this journey. Imagine how I will feel in 10 days, when I’m 20% of the way in! And imagine what else I might reveal to myself about myself, or what inspirations I might find, craft, or takeaway from these daily exercises?

The Prompts/Topics:

  1. Getting Started / Open
  2. What conversation do you need to have today?
  3. What are three major emotions that you’re carrying right now?
  4. Describe your ideal weekend.
  5. What’s the one thing you’d never do and why?
  6. What 3 people in your life do you envy professionally? Why and do you notice any patterns?
  7. How do you define success, and how will you know when you have it?
  8. If someone has hurt you in the past, write a forgiving letter to them.
  9. What aspect of your life is holding you back right now?
  10. If all jobs paid the same, what would you choose to do?

So, the first 10 days went well, and the prompts led me to interesting places. I answered each of them, but not as directly as I might have imagined. Typically, the answer revealed itself in something else I already needed to write about and which was somewhat related. It’s been a rewarding and healthy process so far. I’m excited to keep going!

 

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Annie Dillard, Non-Fiction

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

As I sit here eating a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese, while staring out the window to gaze at this overcast day, the grey skies and near-rain, I feel a great sense of coziness. I begin to think about the authors I’ve “discovered” who, upon reading one of their works, I realize I’ve been missing out on something dear and true, and so rush out to buy everything else I can find and plan extensive projects to explore their works and lives in as much detail as possible. This happened to me with Kurt Vonnegut, and again with Joan Didion. It happened with Virginia Woolf, and again with John Steinbeck (all of that completely out-of-order.) And it’s happening again, now, with Annie Dillard.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life was not what I expected, but it was exactly what I needed. It was, much like this bagel and today’s atmosphere, cozy, quixotic, and just the tiniest bit mercurial, as if to say, “yes, take comfort in this thing that you’re doing, but remember these full clouds, and the wind, and the traffic that sometimes rushes by and threatens to swallow you up in it, or mow you down.”

I assumed The Writing Life would be something like Ursula k. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a book that covers various topics about writing well in narrative form and then supplements that narrative with some kind of exercise, or tips. Instead, rather than a “how to guide to writing,” Dillard simply writes about her life as a writer, and everything that means in the various moments when the two intersect inextricably, sometimes brilliantly but sometimes painfully. Within these explorations and reflections are remarkable gems of wisdom and instruction about writing and about life, too.

She begins her study with one of the most brilliant metaphors I’ve ever read, where she compares the writing process to the life of an inchworm who, upon making it to the tip of a blade of a grass and imagines itself at the end of the world, finds that world bending forward terrifyingly until it touches another blade of grass, and the inchworm begins all over again. (“O Me! O Life! of the questions of these recurring.”) I remember being stunned by this opening, laughing out loud. And as I return to my copy, I see the simple annotation, written in barely legible blue ink along the margin, that sums up my entire experience with the book: “Ha! Brilliant.”

This is a short little book divided into seven short little chapters. Yet, it packs a punch that has left its mark on me, for how long now? A month? Two? I’ve been unable to write anything about it, because I simply want to read it again and again. To combat what would be perhaps a futile practice in indulgence and avoidance, I instead went to Barnes & Noble yesterday to buy Teaching a Stone to Talk, which I will commence reading shortly. And I wrote these little thoughts down. But okay, I’ll probably read this one again soon anyway.

Notable Quotes: 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

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The Folio Society

Folio Friday: Of Mice and Men

This week, I’m excited to share with you all a new selection from the Winter catalog of The Folio Society. As many of you know, I’m a devoted fan of The Folio Society editions of classic literature, and the three I received so generously from the publisher last month have done nothing but encourage my adoration. Today’s featured edition is John Steinbeck’s classic, OF MICE AND MEN.

I’m always drawn in by the incredible cover art and interior illustrations that The Folio Society are known for, and one  thing I truly appreciate about their editions is the thought and design they put into their sturdy slipcovers.

I think this edition’s smooth tan coloring and darker silhouettes, coupled with the western font, truly delivers on the sense of loneliness and resignation that permeates the novel, as well as its slow, almost still persistence. The slipcover, too, is simply beautiful in its paradoxically bright and colorful design.

Of Mice and Men

  • Illustrated by James Albon

Migrant laborers George and Lennie are dropped miles from their new workplace by a bus driver who deems them unworthy of an unscheduled stop. The symbolism is clear from the outset – itinerant farm workers have little social status in the land they sow and harvest for others’ financial gain. George is slight and savvy, Lennie a hulking simpleton, and the pair have formed an unlikely friendship. They wander state to state, working on ranches and sleeping rough between jobs, until Lennie’s childlike naivety inevitably lands him in trouble and they must once again move on.

Steinbeck’s sparse narrative is suggestive of a stage play and his gift for relating complex human sentiments with the briefest authorial direction is unsurpassed. The characters are drawn with confident self-restraint that borders on detachment; Steinbeck sets the scene then pulls back to allow them space to tell their story. The effect is overpowering and ensures this thought-provoking novella will endlessly gnaw at your conscience.

If there was any hope of realizing the American dream, it is ruthlessly shattered by Steinbeck as the story progresses, leaving us wrangling with the reality of life at the fringes of society in a country battling financial meltdown. It is an extraordinary book that endures and rattles like the horses’ halter chains in the barn – a repeated refrain that is full of foreboding.

About the Author: John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902. In 1919 he enrolled at Stanford only to drop out six years later without obtaining a degree. Steinbeck then moved to New York City to find work as a freelance writer, though he quickly returned to California where he worked as a caretaker in Lake Tahoe. There he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). His first major successes were with Tortilla Flat (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937). His 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and at the height of its success sold ten thousand copies a week. Despite his pro-American writing during the Second World War, the FBI maintained a file on him as a suspected Communist due to the calls for economic reform found in his works. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. He died in New York City in 1968.

About the Publisher: For 70 years, The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. It believes that the literary content of a book should be matched by its physical form. With specially researched images or newly commissioned illustrations, many of its editions are further enhanced with introductions written by leading figures in their fields: novelists, journalists, academics, scientists and artists. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship, and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions last for generations.

Book copy and all images are courtesy of The Folio Society. Feel free to visit their NEWS AND BLOGS page for more information. In case you missed them, take a look at my Folio Friday features for Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R. and other Folio Society books.

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