Friday, November 21, 2014

Meta: Reading and Writing about Reading and Writing

I love to read books about reading. I’m not a writer, but I also love to read books about writing, especially if they inform my enjoyment as a reader. Here are a few of my favorites (plus a new one still “on my TBR list”): two about reading and writing fiction, two about reading and writing creative nonfiction, and two about writing in general.

James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and staff writer for the New Yorker, saw a need for the literary equivalent of John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. He may have filled it with his deceptively slight How Fiction Works (2008).  In concise numbered paragraphs, Wood discusses those elements of modern realist fiction he considers most important, especially narrative style, and most especially the narrative style called “free indirect.” Using examples from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace, he demonstrates its power to let the reader “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.” New Yorker readers will recognize Wood’s often professorial tone (“But to repeat, what is a character?”) and his sometimes contrary and always certain opinions (“I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong.”), but the depth of his understanding of and his passion for the modern novel are irresistible.

Francine Prose (what a great name for a writer!) is the author of seventeen novels (including one of this year’s RPL favorites, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932). In her Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006), she, too, looks at how fiction works. But Prose is more concerned with the lessons great fiction can offer an aspiring writer. She advocates a return to “close reading”: a word by word, sentence by sentence examination of a writer’s choices and the meaning those choices convey. Appropriately, her book is organized into building-block chapters, beginning with “Words,” “Sentences,” and “Paragraphs.” Chock full of lengthy textual analyses of passages from the greatest authors in English literature, she draws our attention to the craftsmanship that underlies their work.  Although I would not want all my reading to be this close, Prose’s observations have helped me identify what it is about a book that makes it good, or not.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, further subtitled Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing, is a collaborative effort by an author, Tracy Kidder, and his editor, Richard Todd, who have worked together since 1973. They discuss three main nonfiction forms -- narrative, memoir, and essay -- and suggest strategies and techniques for each. They also address the ethical issues confronted by nonfiction writers, the challenges of making a living as a writer, and the rapidly changing realm of publishing in an internet age. Although the authors write mostly in a single voice, each also offers his individual perspective and experiences in italicized passages that introduce each section.Good P rose is on its surface a thoughtful how-to for writers of nonfiction, but the evolving relationship of its authors and their appreciation for one another are at its heart.

Chief among the caveats Kidder and Todd offer is, to paraphrase, “Don’t make stuff up.”  They cite the example of essayist John D’Agata, who at the end of his book, About a Mountain, admits that “for dramatic effect” he has changed the chronology of events and conflated characters. This dismays Kidder and Todd, who “can rely on the accuracy of almost nothing we have just read.”

The debate about whether or not a creative nonfiction writer may, or should, alter facts to serve a literary goal is a lively one. Whichever side you favor, The Lifespan of a Fact (2012) is a must-read. Like Good Prose, it is a collaboration, but of a different sort: it is a seven-year email correspondence between the essayist whose reliability is questioned by Kidder and Todd, John D’Agata, and the intern, Jim Fingal, who fact-checked an article of his for the literary magazine Believer.  When Fingal introduces himself and questions a number cited in the piece, D’Agata responds that he doesn’t even think his article, which is about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas, needs a fact-checker: “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine.”  The book reconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, the original article, sandwiched between the correspondence they agreed to continue in order to debate whether D’Agata owes fealty to the truth while pursuing his art. Between Fingal’s meticulous and sometimes sanctimonious insistence on “fact” and D’Agata’s arrogant conviction that he may disregard it to convey a greater “truth,” it’s hard to like either one of them. Nevertheless, Lifespan of a Fact is a fascinating read, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the role and responsibilities of creative nonfiction.

I suspect all writers have read or or at some time referred to The Elements of Style, written in 1918 by English professor William Strunk, published in 1935 and updated by E. B. White in subsequent editions in 1959 and 1972. Almost a century old, it was for most of those years the definitive reference for the writer seeking the correct form of a personal pronoun (covered in “Elementary Rules of Usage”) or deciding whether to use “less“ rather than “fewer” (under “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”). The advice in its “Elementary Principles of Composition” is still sound: “Use the active voice.” “Omit needless words.”  In the last section, “An Approach to Style,” Strunk muses that although being “correct” requires adherence to certain rules, “style” in its broader sense is a more elusive target. Instead of rules, he includes a gentler “List of Reminders”:  “Do not inject opinion.” “Avoid fancy words.” A lot of Strunk and White seems dated, but it is still amusing and helpful. Browse the illustrated version of its fourth edition (2005). Maira Kalman, known for her New Yorker covers and New York Times blogs, adds wit and whimsy with her 57 colorful drawings.

Strunk notes, “Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion,” an observation which brings me to the recently released The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works). I had hoped to read it before I wrote this post, but other readers got in line ahead of me for the two copies at RPL. Its title suggests, correctly, that it is intended to be kind of an anti-Strunk. Pinker, whose specialties are visual cognition and the psychology of language, believes that language is instinctual: a biological adaptation for communication in a social group.  As such, it is still evolving, however “disturbingly” to purists. Although he acknowledges that some rules are necessary, he shrugs at nitpicks such as (ahem) the use of “like” for “such as.”  An occasional dangling modifier doesn’t alarm him, as long as it does not confuse. He wants us to use science -- modern grammatical theories and research on cognitive psychology -- to understand how rules developed, and recognize when they may be broken. He warns against “The Curse of Knowledge” -- the failure of writers to recognize that their readers may not know all they know.  In some respects he approaches writing like (“as”?) Prose does: word by word. “Good writers acquire their craft not from memorizing rules but from reading a lot, savoring and reverse-engineering good prose, and assimilating vast numbers of words, idioms, tropes, and stylistic habits and tricks.” I can’t wait to get my hands on this book, as soon as I finish rereading Woods and Prose.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Going the distance: tips for a reading marathon (or half), Polar Vortex edition

So cold...
I will be running all 13.1 miles of a half marathon this weekend and I am debating the wisdom of running to an audio book. I want to find out if a good book might be an effective distraction from the mile by mile mental anguish of the countdown: "I still have 12 more miles of this...I still have 11 more miles of this...I can't believe I still have 10 more miles of this...I STILL HAVE 3 MILES TO THE HALFWAY POINT..." and so on, while still keeping my eyes on the road. I am what you might call a reluctant  runner.* Besides the obvious misery of dragging oneself out of bed early in the morning and in all weather, in funny looking neon clothing, running is also time spent not reading. I don't drive 30 minutes without first downloading an audio book to my phone for the journey, yet I have spent hours and hours running this year and haven't enjoyed a single sentence while I sweated. I so envy those joggers I see effortlessly flying along with ear buds nestled in their ears. I can never seem to keep them in; they always fall out at the most inopportune moments such as while crossing streets in traffic and pivotal scenes. The kind of headphones that hook over the top of your ears? Forget it. They pinch horribly and any additional discomfort on a long run is unacceptable. Speaking of discomfort, this weekend's forecast for the marathon promises a POLAR VORTEX swirling over Richmond, which is terrible for any number of reasons, but a 28 degree starting temp (the horror!)  means I must wear some kind of protective ear covering, which, besides keeping my ears from falling off, may have the added benefit of securing my ear buds in place. Ear muffs just might be the answer to the dreaded popping and flopping ear buds.**

So, what kind of book would motivate one to cross the finish line in a respectable amount of time?***

(*And slow.)
(**I am also decidedly accident-prone so this might be the worst idea I've ever had. Can any runner/readers advise me on whether or not listening to a book while running is at all sane?)
(***I am very flexible on the definition of "respectable".)

Perhaps a struggle or terrible ordeal of some kind would give me the inspiration and perspective I need to keep going?

As of this morning I am aware that something known as "insensible water loss" exists. This kind of dehydration is common on cold, dry days when the usual warning signs of dehydration are less apparent. I guess the sweat just kind of evaporates before you really notice it. Anyway, people mounting Everest have suffered far worse in terms of cold weather and calamity. On top of my to-read/to-run-to reading list is Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. From the preface: "Norton pushed on, shaking with cold, shivering so drastically he thought he had succumbed to malaria. Earlier that morning, climbing on black rock, he had foolishly removed his goggles. By the time he reached the couloir, he was seeing double, and it was all he could do to remain standing. Forced to turn back at 28,126 feet, less than 900 feet below the summit, he was saved by Somervell, who led him across the ice-covered slabs. On the retreat to the North Col, Somervell himself suddenly collapsed, unable to breathe. He pounded his own chest, dislodged the obstruction, and coughed up the entire lining of his throat."

That ought to put things in perspective!

You know who else was really cold? People on the Titanic. They would probably all tell me to "toughen up", "it's only a measly 13.1 miles", "it's running, not swimming", and "it's 28 whole degrees. Practically tropical!" The good news is that A Night to Remember by Walter Lord is available on audio. From the description: "From the initial distress flares to the struggles of those left adrift for hours in freezing waters, this audio presentation will bring that moonlit night in 1912 to life for a new generation of readers." The prospect of being cold and wet makes me very happy that Saturday's polar vortex does not include rain.
There is also nothing in Saturday's forecast about dust storms, but they are calling for it to be a bit windy. Perhaps National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan will keep me moving. "The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out."

I am also not going to prison...

but Piper Kerman's acclaimed account of her year in a women's prison (now a popular Netflix series) might motivate me to run just a little bit faster.
...or Mars...

but I could listen to Mary Roach's (author of Stiff) entertaining exploration of the hardships I would face attempting to just exist on such a journey, much less to run there.

Even if a long run isn't in your future, many of us are undertaking long drives around this time of year and as somebody who has driven from Richmond to Cincinnati and back again several times, I can tell you that a couple of audio books make the trip go by much faster. You can put down a 300 page book on an 8 hour drive and feel like nary a mile has passed (wellll...).

Recently we featured reviews of some exciting audio books on this blog (check them out here). When reviewing an audio book we not only review the original text, but also the quality of the performance of the text. Recording an audio book is a kind of acting and some are much better at it than others. (I personally hated the recording of Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and it is a testament to the quality of the writing that I stuck it out to the end. The reader's phony Russian accents set my teeth on edge just thinking about it now. The same goes for Emma Donoghue's Room. It was read by an adult putting on a squeaky child's voice. I lasted all of 3 minutes on that one. Long Man  was read in an over the top, Depression-era Tennessee Valley accent. I had to speed it up to 1.5 to get through it, yelling at my iPhone for the reader to hurry it up already but I am often accused of talking too fast so maybe it's just me. (It's probably just me.) Recently I've been LOVING Jess Walter's books on audio: We Live in Water and The Financial Lives of the Poets. He is one of many authors who read their own work and do so splendidly. Another to consider is George Sauders' Tenth of December. Saunders does an outstanding job of reading as well as writing. While not read by the authors these are also performed very well, funny in the right places, with appropriate accents and timing: A Visit From the Goon Squad, Last Man in Tower, To Kill a Mockingbird, read superbly by Sissy Spacek, and Snapper. Snapper was fantastic, a little dark, very funny, and perfect for a longish drive--especially one through Indiana.

Pro-tip: Download an extra audio book or two in the event of very long drives. Traffic delays and terrible accents are a fact of life. Prepare for the worst!

And hey, if you're not busy being warm inside, curled up with a good book and some kind of bourbon-infused hot beverage this Saturday, consider coming outside in the freezing cold to cheer on this running librarian. Just be sure to cheer loudly so I can hear you over my book. Also, be safe and watch out for major traffic snarls. Visit these sites for updates, routes, and stuff:

Friday, November 07, 2014

Dear Reader: epistolary novels to write home about

From "Letters of Note", a most worthwhile time waster of a site (and also now a book, too)
As I embark upon what must be the fourth or fifth epistolary novel I’ve read this year it occurred to me to devote a little blog ink to the genre. Not gonna lie to you guys, I LOVE the form in all of its many, er, forms. I am completely enchanted by a narrative unfolding through (fictional) documentary evidence. I just picked up The Supernatural Enhancements by Spanish novelist Edgar Cantero. Though it may sound like the literary equivalent of those low budget "found footage" horror films so common these days, this haunted house story set in Virginia, told through journal entries, hand-written notes, transcribed security footage and audio recordings, letters, complicated ciphers, and advertisements, promises to be far less sick-making than that erratic, handheld film style. 

So just what is an epistolary novel? It’s a story told using documents such as diary entries, letters, emails, text messages, newspaper articles, web pages, scribbled notes, marginalia, pretty much any other kind of evidence you might imagine that could be strung into a narrative. One might suppose that with kids these days and the death of handwriting so goes the epistolary as well. Not so! There are a TON of these out there, some better than others, many capitalizing on zeitgeist to propel the narrative. Take for instance the Lauren Myracle series of YA books so popular a few years ago, ttyl, which was written in the form of online instant messenger conversations. And who was it that mused that the great American novel would be written on a cellphone? I personally would LOVE to see a novel written entirely in the form of incendiary YouTube comments or in a drama unfolding on Facebook. How about a novel about minor celebrity and major egos told entirely through Wikipedia article edits and the ensuing flame war on the talk pages?! Could somebody please hurry up and write that? Maybe I should...hmm.

Well, moving on:
Gorgeous, powerful, moving, best book of the year, The Blazing World has a permanent home on the "Staff Picks" shelf at Ginter Park (unless it's checked out of course). Assembled from diary entries, articles, interviews, and correspondence, the book appears to be the research project of an art historian investigating the life and career of artist Harriet Burden. It's poignant, humane, deeply insightful, and absolutely wonderful.

Dear Committee Members is a petite novel composed entirely of academic letters of reference from a brutally honest professor of creative writing who is overburdened with having to write so many letters. This slyly sensitive book is almost unbearably funny. I nearly choked to death reading this on my lunch break. If you are an academic, or love an academic, or are someone frustrated with the realities of today's academic landscape, job market, or some combination of all of the above, this will hit especially close to home. 

Told through transcribed interviews conducted by the author, Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun is a journalist's investigation into the "Narito Disappearances", a baffling crime with an equally baffling confessor at its center. While at times the epistolary device bordered on gimmicky, the story was so compelling one can easily forgive a little awkward construction.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is less recent (2012 was SO two years ago) but I couldn't write this post without including it. Maria Semple's epistolary charmed my socks off. Bee's mother disappears on a family trip to Antarctica. To find her, Bee compiles email, letters and other documents supporting her belief that her mother is out there, somewhere, needing to be rescued.

Some well-known epistolary novels to consider:

Carrie by Stephen King

  • letters, excerpts, clippings, articles 
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous*
  • diary 
Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock
  • beautifully illustrated correspondence 
Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • correspondence 
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • letters to an anonymous stranger 
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  • duh, diary 

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • laboratory progress reports written by the declining subject (Oh! The tears!) 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • letters to God 

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  • diary entries and email 
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  • letters 

ttyl, ttfn, and l8r, g8r, by Lauren Myracle
  • chat room style dialogue 
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • correspondence 
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
  • One long letter 

Got a favorite? Add it in the comments!

Yours truly,


Go Ask Alice is perhaps the one that hooked me. It is the over-the-top melodramatic "found" diary of a teenage girl spiraling out of control in a miasma of sex and drugs. It's a pretty wild trip and I totally bought that it was a real diary. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

BLOGtober Fest: Halloween Reading Tips from Edward Gorey

In 1959, Edward Gorey, surrealist, aesthete, and master of the unexplained and unexplainable, collected twelve of his favorite ghost stories for a volume called The Haunted Looking Glass. He had just left his job as art director for Anchor’s line of classic paperbacks, teaming with two others to republish a series of children’s works. In this short series, the Looking Glass Library, Gorey designed the covers for books like The Wizard of Oz and The War of the Worlds.

Though The Haunted Looking Glass does not contain a word written by Gorey, the entire book is nevertheless soaked through with Goreyness. The Edwardian rooms, the sudden visitations, the endings that don’t really end anything--one can recognize all these elements in classic Gorey works like The Doubtful Guest and The West Wing. Each story features a full-page illustration by Gorey in the style of his Anchor paperbacks. But perhaps most of all the reader benefits here from Gorey’s immense literary erudition. This was a man whose floors had begun to bow under the weight of his collected books. He is exactly the person you would want to ask, on a chill, October evening, on Halloween itself, “Do you know a good ghost story?”

The stories Gorey chose come mainly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in what critics have called the golden age of the ghost story. They are almost more English than scary, their effect having more to do with atmosphere than out-and-out terror and their atmosphere having a lot to do with damp streets and too-quaint villages. Anglophiles will smile at sentences like, “The rain kept up a steady patter on the glass roof of the coffee room.” Anyone looking for a new and seasonal reading experience should follow Gorey’s advice and look up Algernon Blackwood, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, E. Nesbit, Bram Stoker, Tom Hood, W.W. Jacobs, and Wilkie Collins. Here are little descriptions of four of the stories to give you a fuller picture:

“August Heat” by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937)
This is the shortest piece in the book and a great place to start. An artist spends the morning tapping his pencil, searching for a subject, before drawing, inexplicably, the figure of a fat man in court, accused of a terrible crime. After his work, and again inexplicably, the artist goes for a walk, where he finds a man “sitting with his back towards me, busy at work on a slab of curiously veined marble.” Who is this man? What has he carved into the marble? The story is so short I can’t say anything more without spoiling it.

“The Visitor from Down Under” by L.P. Hartley (1895-1972)
A man rearrives in London after time in Australia and retires to his favorite hotel, where, alone in the dining room, he chats with the waiter, Clutsam. They talk about the law, about how society might punish a criminal, and about how the dead might do the work society can’t. Later that night, the waiters are roused by a man in a cloak requesting a bed. Most chilling sentence: “The pillow with its fivefold perforation was the first object on which Clutsam noticed bloodstains.”

“The Thirteenth Tree” by R.H. Malden (1879-1951)
“The Thirteenth Tree” is as a story about houses, which ones look nice, which ones don’t, which ones have bizarre and intricate histories. It’s a story about the rooms inside houses: “completely lined with well-filled bookcases whose contents looked as if they would repay examination.” And a story about the gardens outside houses, which become like stages for the past to play itself out again before the present.

“Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1862-1936)
Malden dedicated his book of ghost stories to M.R. James, still considered to be the master of this branch of horror writing. “Casting the Runes” takes place in academic circles, amidst backstabbing and jealousy. For historians, good ones or bad, the past never truly dies. Image most likely to linger in your brain: “And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BLOGtober Fest: Thrills and Chills!

I've been waiting for this all year. The leaves are turning, the days are shorter, decorative gourds are EVERYWHERE. It's time for round-the-clock scary books and movies at my house. Halloween is in, like, 2 days! TWO. DAYS. Can you believe it? I'm knee-deep in falling foliage and pumpkin spice EVERYTHING, fiendishly devising ways to strike terror in the hearts of little trick-or-treaters. If you are still craving something terrifying to read under the covers, alone with nothing but a flashlight in a creepy, creaky old house, then bolt the doors and check out a few of these RPL bloggers' favorite thrills and chills!

Natasha: "I recommend Ransom Riggs!!! Both books, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City." The reason why I am obsessed over these two YA reads is because of the eerie mysteries that coexist with the involvement of the characters in these stories. The photography is wonderful as well and brings an alluring element to the books. I am really looking forward to Tim Burton's film adaptation to the first book.

Ellen: "Here's one I bet none of you has read: "The Night Country" by . . . wait for it . . .Stewart O'Nan! (He can do ANYthing.) On the Halloween a year after three teenagers are killed in a horrific wreck, they come back to finish the job. Move over Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson: something wicked and deliciously scary, and literary to boo(t)" - (sorry, couldn't resist.)"

Tonya: "I recommend anything by Ransom Riggs and Dan Wells (the "I am a Serial Killer" trilogy.) Also Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist series is brilliant."

Natalie: Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky gives me chills! This Russian sci-fi novel originally published in the Soviet Union in 1971 has been newly re-translated and restored to its uncensored glory. An advanced alien race temporarily set up shop somewhere in Canada and has since evacuated, leaving behind dangerous and mysterious alien stuff. Terror ensues as people known as "stalkers" try to collect and study the extraterrestrial refuse. It inspired the Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) film Stalker, and apparently a video game of the same name.

It by Stephen King is insanely scary. The novel about a terrifying clown terrorizing children usually needs little introduction. Just say "They all float down here" and watch people shudder. Egad I'm still creeped out and I read it 20 years ago. (Fun fact: I enjoyed a brief correspondence with The King when I was a wee 12 year old library patron. I wrote to Mr. King to ask him for a list of all the books he had written because I was going to read them all and wanted to do so in chronological order. He replied promptly with a complete list. I followed up to suggest he write more stuff like The Langoliers because it was my favorite and it wasn't too long. He wrote back to thank me for the suggestion. Emboldened by two replies I wrote again, this time to extend a formal invitation to a Halloween party at which, of course, he would be the guest of honor, but he had to wear a costume. He declined. In a fit of pique, or perhaps simply embarrassed by my own earnestness, I destroyed the letters.)